Harper Prize 2014: Pierre Mariotte interviews Michiel Veldhuis

The Harper Prize 2014 for the best paper published in Journal of Ecology by a young author has been officially awarded to Dr. Michiel Veldhuis during the last BES annual meeting in Edinburgh (Fig.1). His paper, “A novel mechanism for grazing lawn formation: large herbivore-induced modification of the plant–soil water balance”, provides new insights into herbivores’ effects on plant community composition by proposing an alternative water-based pathways to the existing nutrient-based pathways. Michiel did his work in savannas in South Africa (Fig. 2) and highlighted the drying effects of large herbivores, through decreased vegetation cover and soil compaction, especially during the dry season, which shape plant community composition of grazing lawns.

We conducted an interview with Michiel (below) to discuss and share with you the results of his research.

Pierre Mariotte

Associate Editor, Journal of Ecology


Michiel Veldhuis

Fig 1.

Fig 2.

Fig 2.

Final instalment of #BES2015

I’ve been to quite a few BES meetings and, for me, this was by far the best! Three days of exciting talks and posters where everyone could discover the latest news in their own field but also mind-broadening and engaging stories elsewhere that are relevant to all of us.

My favourite of the first day was the session on ecological and evolutionary risks to agriculture and food production. We heard great examples of how seemingly basic ecological research and evolutionary theory can help answer pressing questions in environmentally sustainable agriculture and inform policy and practice. Even better, Lynn Dicks came on stage with good news: scientists, industry and government generally agree what the priority areas are, so it seems that scientists are being heard as never before. Will we make the most of this opportunity? Jonathan Leake concluded the session with powerful images of our dependence on finite soil resources in a talk that should certainly help to mobilise the crowds. As a counterbalance to the good news, Paul Johnson’s talk reminded us how ill-equipped our research is to give a good advice: due to low (but sometimes also excessive) statistical power, much research probably produces misleading results. But it seems that we are reluctant to do anything about it. My New Year’s resolution will be to learn more about power analysis! The day ended with a fun talk by Bob O’Hara on what exactly we mean by biotic interactions. His presentation can be found online (http://www.slideshare.net/oharar/what-exactly-is-a-biotic-interactions), so have a look.

The highlight of the second day for me was definitely the thematic topic session Digging Deeper-Advancing Our Understanding of How Soil Biota Drive & Respond to Plant Invasions, which has already been mentioned in previous blog posts. I’m really looking forward to seeing this session presented as a special feature in Journal of Ecology!

For those who had to leave the meeting early, the third day was full of exciting talks. I tried to run between different sessions in the morning to get a taste of what was going on in different rooms. In the Global Change Ecology session, Camille Parmesan gave an excellent talk and you could feel the weight of responsibility when faced with difficult decisions – as climate change is steadily wiping out suitable habitats for different species and subspecies, are we ready to decide whether to let species go extinct, to assist their movement to remaining suitable habitats and/or let them hybridize with other species? I popped into the Hidden Herbivory thematic topic session and heard the exciting story of how Mario Schumann and colleagues searched for a novel biocontrol to manage wireworms on potatoes; it turns out that behavioural ecology came in handy. Last but not least, exciting results and novel approaches in the field of plant-soil feedback were presented across different sessions. I particularly enjoyed the talk by Reagan Early who took a novel approach of looking at climate data, species ranges and fungal pathogens in native and naturalised ranges and found that climate may not directly affect species range shifts as much as it does via biotic interactions.

Three massively enjoyable days in Edinburgh, and I’m already looking forward to Liverpool 2016!

Marina Semchenko
Associate Editor, Journal of Ecology

Ecological Society of Australia Annual Meeting 2015

Recently I attended the Ecological Society of Australia’s annual meeting in Adelaide (Nov 29 – Dec 3, 2015), which is always one of my favourite conferences. There were ~650 delegates which is large enough for interest and diversity and small enough that you can catch up with all the friends and colleagues you want to and not be totally overwhelmed with choice of talks. The conference delegates were largely from the Australian ecological community with a scattering from New Zealand, Malaysia, UK, Papua New Guinea, South Africa, China, Canada, Finland and the Middle East. The mix of people were probably pretty typical for an ecological conference – many from universities and Australia’s national scientific research institution CSIRO, others from national and state government natural resource management agencies and a few from ecological consulting companies and other private companies.

The theme of the conference was interconnectedness, which seems entirely appropriate for an ecological conference. Ecology of course is about connections between species and between species and their environment, but the conference also covered connectedness on a larger scale – between ecologists, other scientists, indigenous people, the general public and the media. Much of the conference was organised into themed symposium sessions, including the big issues for ecology in Australia – fire management, climate change, off-reserve and private reserve conservation and urban ecology. Although there were a few marine and freshwater presentations, by far the majority were terrestrial. I’ve been going to these conferences for over 20 years now and one of the major changes I’ve seen is the shift towards applied ecology – many of the talks and posters focused on conservation and management, from environmental decision-making to management of productive landscapes for conservation, climate change impacts and species-level management. The only small disappointment that I confess to is the paucity of evolutionary research presented.

The conference had the usual mix of plenaries and concurrent sessions. Plenaries included conservation decision-making, the use of drones for ecological research, species interactions and human dependence on natural systems, with one of the most closely followed (in twitter space anyway) being ‘Gender equity in ecology’ by Emma Johnston and Mark Burgman. This excited a deal of attention over the typical scissor-graphs of proportion females and males against seniority (typically lecturer to professor positions). More surprising to me was the data showing the proportion of female and male authors in relation to journal prestige, with larger proportions of female authors publishing in the more local and regional journals and greater proportions of male authors publishing in higher-impact journals such as Trends in Ecology & Evolution. Come on women scientists – be brave and submit your best work to the best journals!

There were interesting discussions on data accessibility including a session on the different aspects of data accessibility that ecologists are now grappling with – open access, databases, open code, etc and the increasing importance of managing widespread collaborations and data sharing. I personally found fascinating several talks that covered the relationships between Australian vegetation, the arrival of humans, loss of the megafauna and changes in fire regimes. These have been vexed issues among Australian researchers for many decades but it appears as if new methods are bringing some consensus that the arrival of Aboriginal people on the Australian continent 40-50000 years ago resulted directly in the extinction of the megafauna which resulted in shifts in vegetation and fire regimes, with variability in these shifts across the continent. Why there were different vegetation and fire responses to absence of the megafauna raises a whole series of new questions!

I often find the talks on areas outside my own research area (plant ecology) the most fascinating. I was enthralled by a talk by Sonia Kleindorfer (Flinders University) on calling behaviour of parent Superb Fairy-wrens to their chicks while still in the egg – the chick embryos learn their parents’ call and are able to mimic the call once hatched, which I find amazing. This may be a way for parent birds to assess offspring quality and also identify which chicks in the nest are the cuckoo usurpers.

The conference hashtag was #ESA15 and there were almost 10000 tweets from 1100 contributors throughout the week of the conference. There were also great Storify posts covering some of the talks, including on insect biodiversity of a pop-up grassland in Melbourne, tracking foxes and wildlife restoration. There was even cartoon coverage of some of the talks #ESA15comic, which were hilarious.

It’s always great to see student and early career researcher talks and I often find that these are the most interesting. About one third of the delegates were students but it certainly felt like a greater proportion than this were student talks and posters. The standard was high, with many vying for the range of prizes on offer this year. The ESA should be congratulated for its consistent support of students through travel grants and conference awards. All in all, another great gathering of ecologists in Australia and looking forward to Fremantle next year!

Michelle Leishman
Associate Editor, Journal of Ecology

More on #BES2015

The BES annual meeting is officially over, and what an amazing meeting it was! See the summary from Journal of Ecology’s Executive Editor David Gibson for his insight into #BES2015. Take note of the Special Features on two of the thematic topics that we hope to publish in the Journal over the next 12 months (“Digging Deeper – Advancing our Understanding of how Soil Biota Drive and Respond to Plant Invasions,” and “Dispersal Processes Driving Plant Movement: Challenges for Range Shifts in a Changing World”). It was great to attend these sessions and meet with the organisers.


I have lots of additional personal highlights. I always love going to the annual meeting to meet the people that I communicate with on a daily basis that I rarely get an opportunity to meet with in person. Thanks to all the members of the Journal of Ecology editorial board that made the meeting so great and to the authors and reviewers that I *FINALLY* got a chance to speak to. Congratulations to the 2015, Journal of Ecology, Harper Prize winner Michiel Veldhuis who was awarded his prize at the Gala dinner for his paper “A novel mechanism for grazing lawn formation: large herbivore-induced modification of the plant–soil water balance”. The ceilidh that followed the awards went to another level this year; there was barely room to move on the dance floor!


Journals on the BES stand

The BES publications team organised two workshops. On Monday Chris Grieves (Assistant Editor of Methods in Ecology & Evolution) organised a fantastically engaging workshop on SEO and how to maximise the exposure of your research. Charlie Rapple from Kudos spoke at length about the benefits of SEO, and the slides will be available online soon for those who couldn’t make it. Then on Tuesday Simon Hoggart (Assistant Editor of Journal of Animal Ecology) organised a panel discussion on data archiving chaired by Chuck Fox. The debate that ensued was really insightful. If you couldn’t make this workshop you can still follow some of the discussion on Twitter #BESDataQA.


SEO workshop

On Tuesday evening the BES’ Communications Manager, Richard English, and Iain Stott both organised the first BES annual meeting LGBT+ mixer, which I also went to. Richard, Iain and I are all involved in the BES’ equality & diversity working group, which was launched earlier in 2015. It was great to meet so many people and it is highly likely that this mixer has set the precedent for future meetings. I am always keen to hear people’s thoughts on equality and diversity best practice within the ecological community so that I can feed this information back to the BES’ E&D group. Do not hesitate to get in touch with me with any thoughts.

I hope that all of the delegates enjoyed #BES2015 as much as the Journal of Ecology editorial team did. See you all in Liverpool next year!

Whilst we were at the meeting the new issue (104.1) of Journal of Ecology was published. The inaugural Harper Review, “Does the biogeographic origin of species matter? Ecological effects of native and non-native species and the use of origin to guide management”, authored by Yvonne Buckley and Jane Catford is now online.  We are also really pleased to publish our third commentary paper by Mark Dixon and John Stella. The commentary focuses on “Temporal variability in hydrology modifies the influence of geomorphology on wetland distribution along a desert stream” by Dong et al. Very shortly the whole of issue 104.1 will be free to access so stay tuned for that.

Lauren Sandhu
Assistant Editor, Journal of Ecology

The BES does it again in Edinburgh

Yes, the British Ecological Society has done it again with a fabulous Annual Meeting this time in Edinburgh, Scotland. As I write this, there is a day to go, although I’ve had to leave early to get back to my institution to torture students with end of term exams.

The two days of the meeting that I attended were a brilliant mix of papers, presentations, posters, and general networking. For me, it all kicked off with Luigi Boitani’s fascinating BES lecture on large carnivores in Europe. I was amazed, but pleased to learn just how well large carnivore populations are doing in some parts of Europe. This talk prefaced into a hugely controversial session on rewilding Europe the next day. Imagine that, rewilding Europe! The other ‘big’ talk I attended was the Tansley Lecture on Tuesday given by Josephine Pemberton in which she reviewed the fascinating work on the population dynamics of red deer on the Isle of Rum and Soay Sheep on St. Kilda. Oh, the value of long-term studies!

OK, no plants so far then. But, on Tuesday I attended papers in two Thematic Topics that we hope to turn into Special Features in the Journal of Ecology. First, “Digging Deeper – Advancing our Understanding of how Soil Biota Drive and Respond to Plant Invasions,” then “Dispersal Processes Driving Plant Movement: Challenges for Range Shifts in a Changing World.” Presentations in both of these sessions provided up to the minute reports on work in these two important areas.  In brief, plant invaders modify the soil biota in ways that we just starting to understand, which then affects the native communities promoting invasibility. And, understanding dispersal events needs to accurately account for the ‘long tail’ of long-distance dispersers. There’s obviously much more to these topics than my one sentence summaries, so stay tuned here, and in the journal for more, later, we hope.

My final event at the Meeting was the Gala Dinner on Tuesday evening. As usual, the BES killed it, literally, (now) past-president Bill Sutherland killed the haggis while reciting Robert Burns after we were piped into the hall. An amazing meal was served, including a vegetarian haggis for those that didn’t want the venison. Various awards were presented to the worthy, including the Journal of Ecology Harper Prize to Michiel Veldhuis for his paper in the Journal “A novel mechanism for grazing lawn formation: large herbivore-induced modification of the plant–soil water balance.

Address to a Haggis

Address to a Haggis

David Gibson
Executive Editor

New Zealand Ecological Society Conference 2015

Editor’s note

The last few weeks have been a very exciting time for ecology here in the down under. Two major events, the annual meeting of the New Zealand Ecological Society (NZES 2015) and the Ecological Society of Australia (ESA 2015), brought together ecologists from New Zealand, Tasmania, Australia and all over the world to discuss and exchange their new research findings on ecological conservation, community and population ecology, and global change issues. Associate Editors Matt McGlone, Peter Bellingham & Matthew Turnbull participated in the NZES conference held in Christchurch and kindly agreed to share their impressions on the event (below). Also stay tuned for our next blog post, where Associate Editor Michelle Leishman will also give an overview of the ESA conference, which took place in Adelaide this year with over 600 participants.

Pierre Mariotte

Associate Editor, Journal of Ecology

New Zealand Ecological Society conference 2015

The annual meeting of the New Zealand Ecological Society took place few weeks ago (Nov 16-19th 2015) and attracted a diverse but congenial mix of scientists, conservation professionals, consultants, amateurs, and staff of NGOs, government ministries and local government organisations. A set of symposia focused on public participation and policy issues made this a larger (350 participants) than usual show.

New Zealand, settled only in the late 13th century, has made up for lost time by burning, clearing and introducing a range of the world’s worst pests: rats, stoats, cats, ferrets, possums, wasps, ants, pines etc., etc. New Zealanders have now enthusiastically adopted the aspirational goal “Pest-free New Zealand”. No surprise then that c. 70% of the 200-odd papers presented dealt one way or another with applied conservation, and many with pests, and how to fence them out or kill them. The controversial but highly effective pest poison sodium monofluoroacetate (1080), even got its own Symposium.

The symposium Non-government Approaches to Conservation reflected the astounding growth in private and NGO initiatives ranging from local neighbourhood pest eradication and restoration schemes to construction of large, predator-proof fenced sanctuaries and reconnection of native ecosystems across many km of settled country. The technology is developing quickly with new traps, fencing and monitoring devices. However, visionary plans and on-the-ground action are surging ahead of the science. John Innes and Andrea Bryom showed that few studies have taken advantage of decades of pest-control to assess long-term outcomes and value for dollar invested. There are successes: Kevin Parker, researcher and owner of a thriving animal translocation business showed in his stimulating plenary address, endangered native animals (mostly birds) can be safely and efficiently moved to populate sanctuaries. But, as he also warned, it is not a long-term solution and the country must find ways to rewild its extensive but pest-infested natural landscapes.

Citizen Science is also booming, despite New Zealand not having a strong tradition of systematic amateur nature observation. Colin Meurk reported that, in its first 3 years, NatureWatch NZ has made 150 000 observations on 12 000 taxa. However, what will be done with information that often consists of the public uploading shots of native plants and animals is unclear. A warning note was sounded by Myfanwy Emeny, who in an analysis of the Great Kererū (native fruit pigeon) Count, demonstrated that the scientific component had been marginalised in the service of public engagement.

A controversial initiative by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (the main science agency, though hard to discern in its title) has created several large radical initiatives called “National Science Challenges”. The recently launched Biological Heritage Challenge was show-cased at the conference. Government science institutions, universities ministries, and the public have undertaken to coordinate their activities to better address the chronic ecological problems of the lowland landscapes. Challenge protagonists see it as an unprecedented opportunity to set priorities, link existing research programmes, and better engage the public, including Māori. Its detractors have called it “Stalinist”. Regardless, it is on its way, and will be a major player for the foreseeable future.

Matt McGlone, Peter Bellingham & Matthew Turnbull

Associate Editors, Journal of Ecology

David Gibson interviews Scott Collins

Editor’s Note

I was pleased this past summer to sit down with former Ecological Society of America President Scott Collins and conduct a wide-ranging interview on many aspects of ecology. You can listen to this interview as a podcast. In addition, Scott has penned the blog article below in which he discusses the new publishing arrangement that the ESA has with Wiley, the same publisher that the British Ecological Society has partnered with for many years. At Journal of Ecology we share Scott’s optimism for this new arrangement and hope to develop the sort of collaborations with the ESA journals that he suggests in the near future.

David Gibson

Executive Editor, Journal of Ecology

ESA recently established a new publishing agreement with Wiley, a for-profit commercial publisher, after many decades working with Allen Press. This agreement brings many benefits and opportunities to ESA and its members. The ESA Governing Board is charged with overseeing the financial health of the society and partnering with Wiley puts ESA on solid financial footing. In addition, Wiley’s marketing strategy will mean a wider distribution of the journals and more eyeballs pointed at papers in the journals. But it is worth acknowledging that some are not happy that ESA partnered with a commercial publisher. The Open Science movement in ecology , a movement that I support in principle, is particularly concerned with this decision because it could lead to higher subscription costs to libraries, bundling, and reduced open access to papers in our journals. I share these concerns. When ESA worked with Allen Press, authors were allowed to post a PDF of the published paper on their website or in some other repository with no embargo period, a form of “green” open access. Our contract with Wiley continues this practice, so although not what some would consider ideal, this does reflect our desire to make ESA publications more accessible even when working with a for-profit publisher. The world of scientific publishing is changing quickly and technological advances will continue to drive the evolution of scientific publishing models. The agreement with Wiley brings ESA journals into the 21st Century, and both ESA and BES can and should constantly evaluate alternative models for scientific publications.

To me, one of the big advantages of publishing with Wiley is that they already publish many of the premier journals in ecology. Some might think that BES and ESA journals are competitors, but I have a hard time understanding that concern. I think there is an abundant resource base of excellent papers, more than can be published in all BES and ESA journals combined. Given that, it seems to me that BES and ESA journals should more collaborative. I think these societies could plan and produce joint special issues on hot topics, or thematic collections of published papers. Overall, these societies should join forces more often not just about publishing papers, but to actively promote ecological research and education, and the application of ecological knowledge to policy and management.

 Scott Collins

New Journal of Ecology Blog Editor: Pierre Mariotte

Journal of Ecology is pleased to welcome Pierre Mariotte as a new Associate Editor with special responsibility for overseeing this blog. Pierre is a Swiss NSF Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Sydney, Australia where he works on community ecology particularly plant-soil interactions and feedbacks. He has published several papers in the Journal including Kardol et al. (2013), Thébault et al. (2014) and Mariotte et al. (2013). The latter was Highly Commended for the BES Young Investigator Award 2013. More about Pierre is available through his personal blog. We look forward to working with Pierre and developing further this blog. By way of introduction, Pierre’s first contribution to the JEcol blog is a contribution to our Ecological Inspiration series.

David Gibson

Executive Editor


Ecological Inspirations: Grime’s classification of dominant, subordinate and transient plant species

Nature has always captivated me, and as an ecologist I became fascinated by the diversity of living organisms and the related diversity of functions within ecosystems. One of the first ecological articles that I read was “Benefits of plant diversity to ecosystems: immediate, filter and founder effects” by JP Grime published in Journal of Ecology in 1998, which truly became my ecological inspiration.

While many studies pointed out the role of plant diversity in ecosystem functioning, the underlying mechanisms to explain these effects were unclear. Building upon years of studies (Whittaker 1965, Grime 1973), Grime shed greater light on the relationship between plant diversity and ecosystem properties by classifying component species into three functional groups (referred as the DST classification): dominants with immediate effects on ecosystem properties, subordinates with filter effects, and transients with founder effects. The DST classification, which offers theoretical basis to link vegetation structure and functions (Gibson, Ely & Collins 1999), is robust and well-adapted to a large range of ecosystems.

Grime’s mass ratio theory, which suggests that immediate controls of ecosystem properties are determined by the traits of dominant species, was the inspiration for many highly cited studies published in Journal of Ecology (Mokany, Ash & Roxburgh 2008; Lavorel et al. 2011). But Grime also defined subordinate species for the first time and mentioned their potential filtering effects. He also asked in his paper for more carefully designed experiments to test subordinates’ effects in plant communities. Various studies subsequently demonstrated the crucial functions of subordinate species, especially under climate change (Richardson et al. 2002), including my own research (Mariotte et al. 2013; Mariotte 2014).

Grime’s DST classification provided a framework to study the benefits of plant diversity on ecosystems, which supported many years of research highlighting the role of dominant species in driving ecosystem functions and the importance of subordinate species in maintaining these functions under perturbations. One finding of Grime’s review is that functional diversity matters more than species richness per se. Indeed, the role of functional diversity (immediate and filter effects) as emphasised by Grime clarifies the observed relationship between species diversity and ecosystem functioning. Grime’s classification also inspired recent advances in plant functional traits (Lavorel et al. 2011) and plant-soil interactions research (Mariotte 2014), yielding valuable knowledge with broad implications for conserving/restoring ecosystems, providing sustainable agricultural practices and mediating climate change impacts.

Grime’s paper is one of the most influential articles published in Journal of Ecology (over 600 citations and counting) and will long continue to inspire research aiming at understanding the effects of functional diversity on ecosystem functioning.

Pierre Mariotte

References and more information:

Virtual Issue: In Honour of J Philip Grime

Gibson, D.J., Ely, J.S. & Collins, S.L. (1999) The core-satellite species hypothesis provides a theoretical basis for Grime’s classification of dominant, subordinate, and transient species. Journal of Ecology 87, 1064-1067.

Grime, J.P. (1973) Competitive exclusion in herbaceous vegetation. Nature, 242, 344-347.

Grime, J.P. (1998) Benefits of plant diversity to ecosystems: immediate, filter and founder effects. Journal of Ecology, 86, 902–906.

Lavorel, S., Grigulis, K., Lamarque, P., Colace, M.-P., Garden, D., Girel, J., Pellet, G. & Douzet, R. (2011) Using plant functional traits to understand the landscape distribution of multiple ecosystem services. Journal of Ecology, 99, 135-147.

Mariotte, P. (2014) Do subordinate species punch above their weight? Evidence from above- and below-ground. New Phytologist, 203, 16-21.

Mariotte, P., Vandenberghe, C., Hagedorn, F., Kardol, P. & Buttler, A. (2013) Subordinate species enhance community insurance to drought in semi-natural grassland ecosystems. Journal of Ecology 101, 763-773.

Mokany, K., Ash, J. & Roxburgh, S. (2008) Functional identity is more important than diversity in influencing ecosystem processes in a temperate native grassland. Journal of Ecology, 96, 884-893.

Richardson, S.J., Press, M.C., Parsons, A.N. & Hartley, S.E. (2002) How do nutrients and warming impact on plant communities and their insect herbivores? A 9-year study from a sub-arctic heath. Journal of Ecology, 90, 544–556.

Whittaker, R.H. (1965) Dominance and diversity in land plant communities. Science, 147, 250-260.

Ecological Inspirations, L’Oréal style by Amy Austin

A recent survey sponsored by the L’Oréal Foundation and led by Nobel Prize winning scientist Elizabeth Blackburn reported that ‘67% of Europeans think that women do not possess the required capabilities in order to access high-level scientific positions’.  That is two-thirds of the general public in Europe.  And that statistic means that many women, as well as men, believe this to be true.

As a 2015 recipient of the Argentine L’Oréal-UNESCO fellowship for Women in Science, I was invited to combine this ecological inspirations blog with a reflection on the role of women in science. The L’Oréal Foundation, in collaboration with many national agencies and research councils, created this program with the objective of increasing the visibility of women working in physical and life sciences. Each year, in addition to the national programs, five international laureates are honored, one from each continent, to recognize outstanding achievements by women scientists from around the world. I feel honored to be a part of this group of women.

Amy Austin (center) with former graduate students (L-R) Laura Martínez, Patricia Araujo, Lucía Vivanco & Adelia González-Arzac in the field in Patagonia

Amy Austin (center) with former graduate students (L-R) Laura Martínez, Patricia Araujo, Lucía Vivanco & Adelia González-Arzac in the field in Patagonia

I believe we all have stories to tell. Stories of a roadblock, an obstacle, a hindrance that made it more difficult to continue pursuing the passion of science because of our gender. For some, seemingly innocuous comments along the lines of ‘you are much too pretty to be a scientist, you should dedicate yourself to something that takes advantage of that’.  Or the female graduate student who wasn’t allowed to go to the field because of the all-male bunkhouse. My own tenth grade algebra teacher/wrestling coach who told me that ‘girls aren’t supposed to be good at math’. Comments that undermine.  Actions that impede. Many have suffered much worse, with direct and obvious discrimination, but my guess is that no woman has gone untouched by what the lion’s share of the world still thinks. That women cannot, or should not, excel in science.

I would like to say, then, that my ecological inspiration comes from all the women who have kept calm and carried on doing science in their own style and at their rhythm in spite of these obstacles. My hat goes off to all of you who have stayed in the game, and have managed to change the rules a bit to ensure your happiness and wellbeing.  My inspirations are women who have continued to pursue science as a career in all its facets, and the people who recognized their potential and encouraged them to follow their calling.  Not only the Nobel Prize winners and the MacArthur fellowship recipients, who are certainly to be admired, but also the women who have not listened to the detractors and achieved a balance between life and science that allows them to continue doing what they love. In the context of this post,  I would also like to highlight what I have come to appreciate first-hand in the last few years  — the scientific contribution by the people, the vast majority of whom are women, whose names don´t go on the papers and who don´t end up in the spotlight –the scientists who work tirelessly in one of the most important aspects of our enterprise –that of scientific publishing and making available to others the results of all the hard work and experiments that have been done.

So I have been asked this a lot in the last few weeks — how can we promote women in science?  It is a difficult and complex question to answer, and one for which I feel wholly unqualified to offer a definitive solution.  But here are my personal thoughts on what things could be done. Do encourage excellence and reward enthusiasm to women who show promise, or have already demonstrated their achievement. Don´t pretend to promote women so you can look good on Twitter. Celebrate the success, highlight the positives, but don´t condescend. Don’t put up roadblocks; don’t undermine. Value the contributions from women working in all walks of science and in its all its manifestations (see the Journal of Ecology Special Feature on Plants and Biogeochemistry). And most importantly, believe that women can do good science. There is abundant evidence of this.

I remember in a recent interview for the L’Oréal awards, Julia Etulain, who was awarded the postdoctoral scholarship in the Argentine national program, said, “It would be fantastic if there comes a day when we don’t have to have a special award to highlight women in science.  That awards would just be based on scientific achievement independently of gender (I am paraphrasing from Spanish, of course).” It is a lovely sentiment and one with which I wholeheartedly agree.  But we are not there yet. We do not live in a perfect world and there is still much to do to Change The Numbers. Nevertheless, it is my hope for all those girls out there who like to play with frogs, or who eat dirt (as apparently I was prone to do as a toddler), or who want to know why plants are green and don’t eat meat, the national and international L’Oréal-UNESCO fellows For Women in Science can serve as an inspiration to highlight the possibilities that are out there.  And so these same girls might believe, ‘That could be me.’

Amy Austin

Editor, Journal of Ecology

Editor’s Choice 103:6

The Editor’s Choice paper for issue 103:6 is “Fog as a source of nitrogen for redwood trees: evidence from fluxes and stable isotopes” by Templer et al. 

Journal of Ecology Editor Amy Austin has written a commentary on the paper below, which is part of a new Special Feature on biogeochemical cycling edited by Amy Austin & Amy Zanne.

Emerging from the fog ….nitrogen

The majestic coast redwoods are, quite simply, impressive. Given that Sequoia sempervirens can boast to be the tallest tree in the world, and its cousin the giant sequoia (Sequoia giganteum) wins the prize for most voluminous tree, and with both species having some of the oldest trees alive, there is no denying their mystique as ancient wonders of the natural world.

Redwood forest 1

Coast redwoods have a very limited distribution, occupying a narrow strip of land approximately 750 km long and 50 km along the Pacific coastline of California and Oregon in North America.  And there is a reason for this. One of the ways in which these trees are able to grow so tall, and withstand an extended summer period without rainfall typical of Mediterranean climates, is that they have a particular capacity to harvest water from fog drip, which can contribute 15-45% of the annual transpiration of a redwood forest stand (Dawson 1998). More fascinating is the fact that the leaves themselves appear to directly absorb some of this fog before it condenses as liquid water and enters the soil (Burgess & Dawson 2004). This clever strategy allows the trees to maintain an adequate water status when soil water is scarce and fog is abundant, as well as preventing dehydration and excessive transpirational loss during times of drought.

The Editor’s Choice paper for this issue of the Journal of Ecology “Fog as a source of nitrogen for redwood trees: evidence from fluxes and stable isotopes” by Templer and colleagues demonstrates even more cleverness on the part of the coast redwoods. This study explores an additional component that comes rolling in with the fog to these nutrient-poor forests –nitrogen. While nitrogen has been measured in fog in these coastal habitats (Ewing et al. 2009), it was not clear whether or not the trees might be taking advantage of this nutrient subsidy accompanying the fog water. Analysing the natural abundance of 15N and 13C stable isotopes in soils and fog demonstrated large differences in the δ 15N signatures of ammonium, which allowed the researchers to identify that the redwood trees nearest the forest edge were indeed ´harvesting´ a fraction of the nitrogen that was coming in with fog. And comparison with soil nitrogen and similar root δ15N values between the forest edge and the interior trees led the authors to conclude that the nitrogen in fog was being principally absorbed directly by the leaves!  The increased nitrogen availability from fog sources through direct absorption and increased soil nitrogen from throughfall, together with more favorable plant water balance, allowed for greater rates of photosynthesis during the drought period, with the forest edge redwoods benefitting doubly from the fog subsidies. This study unravels more of the complex ways in which this species is able to prosper and attain dizzying heights in spite of a highly seasonal water supply and relatively infertile soils.

Redwood Forest 2

However, there is trouble on the horizon. There has been an estimated 33% reduction in fog frequency in the last 100 years along the Pacific Coast of California (Johnstone & Dawson 2010), sounding alarm bells for the potential water stress that this could exert on these trees.  The findings of Templer and colleagues suggest that this reduction in fog frequency could also impact the nitrogen status of the trees by removing an important exogenous source of nitrogen that is directly accessed and utilized by the coast redwoods.  Even more alarmingly, the extended drought in California, which has been linked to anthropogenic climate change (Williams et al. 2015), is now threatening these majestic giants, both inland and on the coast. It has yet to be seen if the combined effects of reducing fog subsidies and intensifying the summer dry period will wreak irrevocable harm on these emblematic forest ecosystems.

Amy Austin

Editor, Journal of Ecology


Burgess, S. S. O. & Dawson, T. E. (2004) The contribution of fog to the water relations of Sequoia sempervirens (D. Don): foliar uptake and prevention of dehydration. Plant, Cell & Environment, 27, 1023-1034.

Dawson, T. E. (1998) Fog in the California redwood forest: ecosystem inputs and use by plants. Oecologia, 117, 476-485.

Ewing, H., Weathers, K., Templer, P., Dawson, T., Firestone, M., Elliott, A. & Boukili, V. S. (2009) Fog Water and Ecosystem Function: Heterogeneity in a California Redwood Forest. Ecosystems, 12, 417-433.

Johnstone, J. A. & Dawson, T. E. (2010) Climatic context and ecological implications of summer fog decline in the coast redwood region. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107, 4533-4538.

Williams, A. P., Seager, R., Abatzoglou, J. T., Cook, B. I., Smerdon, J. E. & Cook, E. R. (2015) Contribution of anthropogenic warming to California drought during 2012–2014. Geophysical Research Letters, 42, 6819-6828.