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

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