EcoTAS 2017: Insights from Stephen Bonser

The joint conference of the Ecological Society of Australia and the New Zealand Ecological Society was held just three weeks ago in Hunter Valley, New South Wales, Australia, as advertised in our previous post (read here). Organized every four years, this joint conference aims at bringing together ecologists from throughout Australasia and beyond. The theme of EcoTAS 2017, ‘Putting ecology to work’, was a call to focus on how ecological science can contribute to the economy, society, culture and public policy, as well as to the health of the environment and quality of life (see more details on the conference website). Associate Editor Stephen Bonser from University of New South Wales (UNSW) attended the meeting and kindly agreed to share his thoughts about the conference below.

ecotas bigThe 2017 EcoTAS meeting was in the wine region of the Hunter Valley, NSW, Australia. While the meeting was perhaps smaller than previous meetings in more urban locations, the seminars and posters were excellent. Concurrent sessions mean that missing some great talks at these meetings is inevitable. Nevertheless, I had a chance to sample some fantastic ecology.

Species conservation and ecological restoration are the focus of many researchers in Australia and New Zealand, and research in these areas was the topic of many of the seminars at EcoTAS. Dr Richard Fuller (recipient of the The Australian Ecology Research Award) gave a remarkable talk on the conservation challenges associated with migratory bird species that require habitat across the globe. His research identified key areas in the Yellow Sea where development projects limit that shoreline habitat needed by many birds to refuel on their vast migratory journeys from Australia to Northern Asia and North America (and back!). Despite tremendous challenges, Dr Fuller gave a message of hope, and a roadmap for the success of conservation efforts.

Much of the leading research and new ideas in ecology are driven by young researchers (PhD students and Post Docs). Suz Everingham, a PhD student from UNSW, presented her research on the novel question: Can native species colonise novel habitats? We often think of new habitats created by human activities (the habitats that are often most impacted by invasive species). She found that many native species can colonise these new habitats. The species that were most successful were generalist species, often characterised by small stature, small seeds, and short life spans. Suz’s research will be a valuable tool for the success of urban restoration projects. 

Dr Alexandra Carthey, a post-doctoral researcher from Macquarie University presented her research in the expression of volatile chemicals in native and invasive species here in Australia.  Volatile chemicals such as turpines are important plant defenses. Alexandra found that Australian native species have significantly higher concentrations of volatile chemicals under current conditions, and this could give them an advantage over invasive species. However, volatile concentration decreased under increased atmospheric CO2, and this loss was greater in native species than in invasive species.  Alexandra speculates that the anti-herbivore advantages native species have over invasive species will diminish with climate change, and this could have important implications on the impact of invasive species.

Emerging ideas in fundamental research is a highlight for me at these meetings. This year, “Tree Mortality: When, Where and Why do Trees Die?” was a notable symposium featuring researchers working on tree mortality from a range of scales from cellular, to plots, to landscape-level observations of tree decline. “Why do trees die?” featured studies on drought, salinity, warming, fire, flood regimes. The answer to this question was often “Well, we don’t know”! Following the symposium, participants discussed if we can predict and prevent future tree mortality. Members of the audience proposed practical measures to limit tree loss, such as reducing environmental stresses, canopy thinning, and seed rescue programs. It was clear through the talks of this symposium that tree mortality is understudied compared to other aspects of tree ecology (such as tree growth), and tree mortality will be a fertile area of future research. 

I am looking forward to the 2018 meeting of the Ecological Society of Australia in Brisbane. 

Stephen Bonser, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia and Associate Editor of Journal of Ecology

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