INTECOL 2022 Highlights

By Pierre Mariotte,
Journal of Ecology
Associate Editor

The INTECOL2022 conference (@intecol2022, #INTECOL2022) held earlier this month in Geneva (Switzerland), was a hybrid congress with the option to attend in-person or online (live or through recorded video talk). Many talks were presented online and the number of attendants in Geneva was slightly reduced compared to previous INTECOL conferences. Nevertheless, the presentations were of excellent quality, and it was a great opportunity to attend a conference in-person and meet colleagues from all over the world, after these past COVID years. The conference started on Sunday with a couple of workshops, including ‘Publishing for early-career researchers’, followed by welcome cocktails.

On Monday, Marten Scheffer, Sandra Diaz and Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan gave plenary lectures on using ecological thinking to understand humanity, the ecological and social shaping of functional diversity, and on paleoecological insights from fossil bone microstructure, respectively. There were 11 parallel sessions at the conference on relatively specialized topics, including land use and biodiversity, ecology from space, ecosystem responses to extremes, trait-based ecology, ecology in Africa and plant-enemy interactions in a changing world.

On Tuesday, the conference started with two plenary lectures. First, Steward Pickett showed that our world in the face of climate change and urban transformation is in great need of better engagement between science and society. Second, David Eldridge explained how we can use the activity of soil disturbing animals to restore degraded drylands. I then attended the session ‘Ecosystem responses to extremes’ chaired by Osvaldo Sala. I particularly liked the talk from Katja Irob who showed that the presence of browsers with ruminants and low stocking rate increase drought resilience of the plant community in savannas. After the vegetarian lunch at the Centre International de Congrès Genève (CICG) restaurant, Akiko Satake, an Associate Editor of Journal of Ecology, presented her work on the identification of gene expression responsible for the beginning and end of dormancy, in order to better understand the mechanisms behind plant phenology. In the afternoon, I gave a talk on the impacts of drought timing and cutting frequency on plant functional traits in Swiss permanent grassland (i.e., summer drought and high cutting frequency have a stronger impact on community-weighed mean SLA and LDMC, compared to spring drought and low cutting frequency across three contrasted grassland sites). I went on to attend the session ‘Soil microbial ecology and biogeography’ chaired by Antoine Guisan. Heidi Mod demonstrated that taxonomic and functional dissimilarities of soil bacterial communities are more related to environmental dissimilarity than geographic distance. Then Sebastien Terrat presented a French map of soil bacterial diversity (modelled on various soil structure parameters) established through a very large soil sampling campaign in agricultural soils across the country. The map will serve as reference for optimal soil bacterial diversity at a given location, and can be used to evaluate the impact of agricultural practices (observed diversity) and to improve agricultural management.

Restaurant terrace, next to the green roof with urban beehives on the back

Wednesday was dedicated to workshops, such as ‘Publishing in international journals for ecologists’ organized by Jennifer Meyer and ‘Approaches, standards and methods for automated monitoring of biodiversity from videos and images’ organized by Luca Pegoraro, in addition to excursions around Geneva. Participants had a large choice of excursions, 13 in total, from the green roofs of Geneva to the wooded pastures of the Jura Mountains and the French-Swiss upper-Rhone river.

On Thursday, I took over the Journal of Ecology twitter account to share some of the great science presented at the conference (tweets can be found here). During the first plenary lecture of the day, EJ Milner Gulland explained what becoming “nature positive” means, and how it can realistically be achieved. Then Kirsten Parris (if you attended BES 2016, you probably remember her from her amazing performance of the frog stand up during the Science Slam) showed that sensory fitness is key to biological success in urban environments, because sensory pollutants, such as artificial light at night, chemical pollution and anthropogenic noise disrupt animal perception. In the morning, I then attended ‘plant-enemy interactions in a changing world’ organized by two Journal of Ecology AEs, Eric Allan and Anne Kempel (Photo 2). Madhav Thakur and Malte Jochum highlighted the importance of considering predator polycultures and energy flux to better understand global change impact on trophic cascades, respectively. I particularly liked the talk from Wim Van der Putten, who demonstrated that soils have a memory, through their microbial community composition, which should be taken into account when investigating the effects of drought on ecosystems. Anna-Liisa Laine also gave a great talk showing that habitat fragmentation increases virus infection and plant extinction risk, due to decreased gene flow and diversity.

Left: Associate Editors Anne Kempel and Eric Allan, both organisers of the session ‘Plant-enemy interactions in a changing world.
Right: Wim Van der Putten highlighting the importance of soil memory and stating that what we see is still influenced by what has been there!
Bernhard Schmid, with his beautiful butterfly diversity shirt, showing the strong impact of trophic interactions (here with fungi) on the diversity-productivity relationship.

After lunch, Pablo Marquet gave a plenary lecture on the need to better integrate theories in ecology as a first step towards a more logically consistent ecological theory. In the afternoon, I switched among a few different sessions on mountain ecology and biological invasions. Mia Svensk, a PhD student I co-supervise, gave her first in-person conference talk, highlighting nitrogen translocation by highland cattle from N-rich encroached areas toward N-poor pastures. Helen Roy (People and Nature AE) explained how to predict (i.e., by mapping the invasion potential of each alien species) and then prevent biological invasion, with some alien invasion remaining difficult to predict e.g. soil pathogens, due to the lack of research and knowledge. The last talk I listened to was given by Bernhard Schmid, the Journal of Ecology Eminent Ecologist 2020, on the important role of trophic interactions in mediating diversity-productivity relationships (e.g. removing fungi from the soil suppresses this relationship).

On Friday, the last day of the conference, three plenary lectures were given by Peter Chesson on the challenge of climate change in community ecology, Ole Seehausen on the role of lakes as refugia for freshwater species diversity, and Christian Körner on the common drivers in the global alpine biome. In the morning, I spent some time in the session ‘Sustainable food production’. Philippe Jeanneret presented some alternative biodiversity-friendly practices to reduce pesticide use, all being agroecological practices. Laura Armengot demonstrated the benefits of cacao agroforestry compared to cacao monoculture. While cacao monoculture provides the highest cacao yield, cacao agroforestry yields multiple other food sources, which when combined represent 3.8 times more yield than monocultures, not counting the strong positive impacts on bird biodiversity and carbon storage. The closing ceremony took place after lunch in presence of the former INTECOL president Shona Myers and newly elected president Alice Hughes.

While the number of in-person participants was relatively reduced this year, I’m sure everybody will agree that meeting colleagues in person was one of the highlights of the conference. This was particularly true for the numerous PhD students presenting or participating at the conference. Many of them told me how much more motivating and inspiring it is to meet scientists from all over the world to discuss science in-person!

Pierre Mariotte
Journal of Ecology Associate Editor

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