Ecological Society of Australia Annual Conference 2018

The last week of November saw the annual conference of the Ecological Society of Australia held in Brisbane, the capital of Queensland, Australia. Our Associate Editor Peter Vesk kindly agreed to share with us some insights about the conference and the  interesting new findings presented during the week.

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The annual conference of the Ecological Society of Australia brings together ecologists as well as practitioners and policy workers in land management and conservation. This year the conference attracted about 800 delegates, with student researchers a focus and highlight. Posters are always a highlight, with the traditional refreshment incentive for those who ask good questions of the poster presenters.

The theme was Ecology in the Anthropocene, and accordingly several sessions focussed on plant ecology related to changes occurring and expected under climate change: seed ecology, dormancy and germination; plant thermal tolerance, and drought and fire responses. Applied issues of monitoring change and developing indices for coordinated broadscale monitoring also featured. Plenaries of note included Journal of Ecology‘s own senior editor Amy Austin and her fascinating experimental studies into the role of photodegradation of litter decomposition in drylands. The decomposition aspect was continued through talks by Amy Zanne and Will Cornwell, who both focussed on different studies about the complementary roles of fungi and bacteria, as well as the role of species traits.

Angela Moles presented an overview of her lab’s work on evolutionary changes in plants invading Australia with the perspective that species introductions can be thought of as experiments in speciation. Her work demonstrates considerable changes in morphological attributes in plants in non-native ranges and raises the question of whether they are in some cases, incipient species. Invasion was a focus of many presentations as might fit with an Anthropocene focus.

Sonya Geange won one of the student prizes, presenting early results from the plasticity network on plasticity in traits across the world. Margie Mayfield’s group produced a range of stunning presentations probing coexistence theory and quantifying plant-plant interactions in the spectacular annual herb rich woodlands of Western Australia. The role of buds and clonality was highlighted by Gianluigi Ottovani and John Dwyer who presented on trait-based models of growth in rainforest plots of North Queensland. Malyon Bimler (another prizewinner) and Trace Martyn also both gave great talks. 

A quantitative showcase included a suite of plant-related work including Belinda Medlyn’s work on ecological forecasting, with a focus on drought mortality. Daniel Falster presented an update on his theoretical work on trait influences on growth across plant life cycles, showing how SLA diminishes in importance as woody plants grow and wood density becomes more important owing to the declining influence of the costs of leaf replacement against maintenance of structure increase.

Sean Walsh spoke about revisiting a classical study of self-thinning in the world’s tallest flowering plant and Rafael Schouten espoused the value of software ecosystems for cultivating modelling communities and how the mechanistic modelling network might learn from how the R statistical language developed and spread.

This is a highly biased glimpse of the breadth of work on display so I would recommend ecologists to come to an #ESAus18 conference. We’re a welcoming lot. And the next meeting is in Tasmania, that little island to the south of the mainland, with amazing scenery, terrific bushwalking, wild beaches, great food and wine, and fabulous flora, including legacies of Gondwanan heritage like the Huon Pine (Lagarostrobos franklinii) and Antarctic Beech (Nothofagus moorei). And the tallest flowering plant in the world, the Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus regnans).

Peter Vesk, University of Melbourne, Australia, Journal of Ecology Associate Editor

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