Some ESA 2016 afterthoughts on the Era of the Anthropocene, Population Ecology, and Archbold by Rob Salguero-Gómez

The annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America took place a bit over a week ago (Aug 7-12th 2016) in Fort Lauderdale. ESA + Florida + August + no hurricanes in Florida the last 10 years = get ready to get blown away either by an overdue hurricane or by the great science that is typically presented at the ESA. Thanks to the fact that a hurricane last week decided last minute to divert its trajectory away from Ft Lauderdale, we were only blown away by the science… ok, and by a lot of humidity too.

The theme of this year’s conference was “Novel Ecosystems in the Anthropocene”, continuing the legacy that was set at the centennial meeting last year in Baltimore. Ecology has the challenging responsibility of understanding and producing predictions regarding how ecological systems will respond to various interacting drivers, both biotic and abiotic. The emphasis in the last decades has turned to treating humans as a third axes of effects. Along that line of thought, the 2016 meeting was full of keynote talks and symposia that nicely summarized our current understanding of human effects on ecosystems and set goals and directions for our futures research steps. I have followed the work by Jeannine Cavender-Bares for a while now (who hasn’t right?), and I thoroughly enjoyed her New Phytologist lecture “Evolutionary legacies on ecosystems: implications for managing planet Earth in the Anthropocene”.

ESA was full of excellent talks on population ecology – too many to choose!*. Population ecology constitutes one (of many, not just the one) discipline to address effects of abiotic/biotic factors and human influences on ecological systems due to the quality of the demographic data that are being collected by researchers around the globe, as well as the robust methodologies that have been developed to analyse such data. One year again, I was very happy to see this discipline going very strong. My favourite talk by an early career ecologist was the one given by Britta Teller “Do small and large plants respond differently to climate variation?”. In it, Britta used splines to model the asymmetric effects of lag effects of climate and neighbouring onto various shrub species in the US Midwest. An important contribution of this modelling approach is that it allows one to decompose past weather effects onto the vital rates of survival, growth and reproduction in a way that they do not cancel each other out (if say 2012 was 2.5 cm precipitation below average, but 2012 was exactly 2.5 cm above average)… as I **might** have done in the past myself. Her approach, using Integral Projection Models, allowed her to examine how abiotic/biotic variables differed in their effects to the same plant species as a function of individual size. I’m very excited to see this methodology been applied to more species, as I reckon that size redistributions are rather common in populations of modular organisms, yet not a well understood phenomenon in plants, particularly in aridlands. My favourite talk by a perhaps-not-so-early career ecologist was the one given by Robert Holt “On the interplay of demographic stochasticity, fitness, and the niche concept”. In it, Holt formalized the link between the Hutchinsonian niche and two key demographic properties: the intrinsic rate of growth of a population (r), and the number of offspring produced in an individual’s lifetime (Ro). Holt showed that in stochastic environments, r and Ro can be optimized differently, producing selection gradients that would push populations towards different local maxima. I particularly enjoy the simplicity with which he presented abstract concepts, and how the talk explicitly linked theory with ecological applications like habitat degradation, or range margin vs. center dynamics.

*And as it usually happens at the ecological monster that it is ESA, it was impossible for me to go to all talks that I would have liked. Here’s a list of the things that looked very promising on the ESA program: 

  • Matthew Tye et al. Demographic responses to climate change in boreal orchids: Effects of local habitat heterogeneity and life history variation.
  • John Gatto et al. – Using Virtual Population Analysis (VPA) to estimate under-sampled recruits to improve population dynamics models.
  • Andrew Tredennick et al. – Disentangling the drivers of species synchrony in natural plant communities: Environmental forcing, demographic stochasticity, and interspecific interactions.
  • Robert Shriver – Bridging the gap between physiology and demography to understand climate change responses of a desert annual plant community.

There was also a lot of demography being discussed at the organized oral session “Landscape Demography: Heterogeneity Across Space and Scale”. I particularly enjoyed the talk by Pedro Quintana-Ascencio, Stephanie Koontz, Stacy Smith, Vivienne Sclater & Eric Menges entitled “Predicting landscape-level distributions: Integrating demography, fire, and dryness with patch and annual variation”. These guys have been collecting high-resolution demographic data on a series of endemic plant species of the Florida Scrub at Archbold Biological Station. Pedro reviewed some of the complications in the analyses of these data, and how interactions of various biotic and abiotic factors, especially time since fire, shape the responses of multiple sites within multiple populations of the target Hypericum cumulicola using Bayesian IPMs. On that note, we recently also published in Journal of Ecology a demographic menage-a-trois on one of this demographic jewels of plant population ecological studies (Liatris ohlingerae) that may be of interest (Tye et al. 2016). We’ve been working on this species for a few years now, but only this week, did I get to meet it in person!


Left to right: Rob Salguero-Gómez, Eric Menges, Betsy Hermanson Boughton and Pedro Quintana-Ascencio

I would also like to talk about the wonderful job that Archbold Biological Station has been doing for population ecology. One of the limitations of plant and animal comparative demography is the fact that most studies only examine population dynamics of the target species in one site. We know that intra-specific variation across sites/populations exist… but exactly how much, how important is it, and how can it be predicted? Eric Menges, leading the plant ecology lab at Archbold, has now for over 30 years been collecting high-quality demographic information of multiple endemic species across the 3577 hectares of Archbold. Only the involvement of dozens of interns, volunteers, researchers and staff, and the clear leadership of the Station can make such a titanic effort possible. Given their scientific and outreach impact, it is perhaps not by coincidence that this year the ESA decided to donate the carbon print offsets related to our little ecological reunion in Fort Lauderdale to them.


Acknowledgement slide of Pedro Quintana-Ascencio & Eric Menges on the number of people involved in the study of 22 sites and < 18,000 individuals of Hypericum cumulicola in Archbold Biological Station

The Associate Editors of Journal of Ecology present at the conference had a business meeting followed by a dinner (see photographic evidence below of how badly they treat us, poor editors). Turns out the journal is doing very well, with a brand new impact factor of 6.18, and that some of the works that my colleagues have been involved in lately has been rather impactful. For instance, the Special Feature “Demography beyond the Population”, the first one in its nature in that it spanned all journals of the BES, had an impressive number of downloads. Also some of these papers were presented at the ESA, such as Martina Treurnicht et al. “Environmental drivers of demographic variation across the global geographical range of 26 plant species” (Treurnicht et al. 2016), and Jessica Needham, et al.A “A distributional approach to modelling the population dynamics of forest trees” (Needham et al. 2016). Also, side note to say congratulations to special feature contributor Jenni McDonald for her recent ESA Plant Population Ecology Section Postdoctoral Award on her paper (McDonald et al. 2016) – see also Jenni’s blog post here.


Left: a poor Associate Editor (Rob Salguero-Gómez) suffering a post-business meeting of Journal of Ecology. Right: all other poor Editors, from left to right, Rob Salguero-Gómez, David Gibson, Emilie Aimé, Hans Cornelissen, Yvonne Buckley, Nina Wurzburger, Nicole Rafferty, Sunny Power, Catherine Hill & Frank Gilliam.

Next year the ESA takes place in Portland, and I’m already looking forward to it. Some colleagues and I are planning on running workshops on IPMpack as well as on COMPADRE & COMADRE, and to put in a proposal for a symposium at the interface of functional traits and life history traits, so stay tuned!

Rob Salguero-Gómez
Associate Editor, Journal of Ecology

PS: and here are some humble, personal requests to the ESA:

twi1. I think that it is a bit strange that the default option for talks at ESA is for researchers to not be able to tweet about the science being presented… I operate on the assumption that if you  choose to present at a conference it is for the science to be discussed in an open forum. As I suggested last year, I think that the default option should be “Feel free to tweet”, and perhaps create a logo to be added to the top-right corner of each slide where the speaker does not want the audience to tweet about?

2. I look forward to Portland… ESA there in 2012 was great fun (and excellent beers and post ESA hiking!)… but can we come back to Baltimore soon so we overlap with Bronycon again? Wasn’t ESA 2015 a lot more colorful because of our friends the bronies?

Fig 2_Rob S-G

A bit of memory: a brony at last year’s ESA.

3 thoughts on “Some ESA 2016 afterthoughts on the Era of the Anthropocene, Population Ecology, and Archbold by Rob Salguero-Gómez

  1. I really enjoyed the post, Ron! I especially liked your comments on Holt’s work. Albeit a sidebar, I wonder if I am but one of a few scientists that is uncomfortable with the concept of the “anthropocene”… not to mention “novel ecosystems.”

    The hair bristled upon the back of my neck the first time I heard we had proclaimed a new era for the Earth. While I agree that 7+ billion apes are probably about 6.5 billion too many, and that indeed, we have altered the trajectory of life on Earth- I remain uneasy over our proclamation of the anthropocene.

    My sense is that, in the grand scheme of Earth’s history, humanity and its impacts on living and non-living global systems will be nothing more than a blip on the screen. A temporary albeit profound impact… but one that shall be quickly replaced by something else. While we have royally screwed things up in the short-term, the long-term is not yet resolved.

    “Anthropocene” reminds me, perhaps illogically, of the days when we believed the Earth to be at the center of the universe. Right, wrong or otherwise, I do not support the concept of an “anthropocene”- if for nothing else, it seems fool-hardy to proclaim the beginning of a new era. It seems in the past, eras were characterized by events that had already run their course.

  2. I appreciate both Rob’s OP and David’s specific comment above. Not surprisingly (given what I presented at ESA2016), I’d respectfully disagree with David. I can appreciate these perspectives since one can get too carried away and hubris is a constant risk. But given the pace and extent of change wrought by humans, I’d argue that the Anthropocene represents a unique era. It that non-analogue condition that pretty much exists across the planet that makes me sympathetic to the Anthropocene concept . Ditto for novel ecosystems – I think it helps focus on the idea that we have ecosystem dynamics well outside any norm and for my own field of restoration ecology, we should strive for effect size to promote function and structure rather than an historical endpoint.

  3. Pingback: The Journal of Ecology Blog: 2016 Success and 2017 New Challenges | Journal of Ecology blog

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