The southern hemisphere is home to some unique ecosystems that have long been understudied. Today, it is clear that some of the most compelling and important ecological studies are being conducted in the southern hemisphere. The Southern Connection Congress, created slightly more than two decades ago, aims to bring together scientists from the south to strengthen this research. Matt McGlone, Associate Editor of Journal of Ecology and member of the scientific committee of the Southern Connection Congress 2016, kindly agreed to share his impressions on this year’s conference (below). To celebrate this event, Wiley-Blackwell also produced a Virtual Issue entitled “Natural Sciences and the Southern Hemisphere” led by Martin Nuñez, Senior Editor of Journal of Applied Ecology. This Virtual Issue compiles 26 articles highlighting new advances and challenges in southern hemisphere research.
Associate Editor, Journal of Ecology
Southern Connection Congress 2016
Punta Arenas is a wind-swept city of about 125 000 inhabitants, perched on the side of the Strait of Magellan at 53°S, close to the southern tip of Chile. This year’s Southern Connection Congress – the 8th – was held there on January 18-23, at the University of Magallanes. Southern Connection is a rather strange organisation. Virtually its sole purpose is to organise a gathering about every three to four years of natural scientists who work in Gondwanan lands, mainly Australia, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand and South Africa. Formed in 1991, it is an extremely informal organisation: at one time had a set of rules, but apparently they have been lost. As far as the old hands understand its mission, it exists to foster latitudinal links across the southern ocean, which are weak in relation to the meridional flow to the great scientific centres of the north. It provides a rare chance then to focus entirely on a southern perspective. One of the special features of Southern Connection is the way the congress takes on the colour of its host nation. Rather than being a typical scientific gathering in which outsiders jet in for a few days, it is always dominated scientifically and socially by locals. And so it was in Punta Arenas: Spanish was just as likely to be heard in the breaks as English. The local organizers certainly rose to the occasion providing a well-run, welcoming event. Not many scientific conferences are held in Punta Arenas so it was a rather big deal. The senator for Magallanes attended the opening ceremony, as did the USA ambassador to Chile.
An exceptionally wide range of sessions focussed on the southern end of the world or on southern ecological problems (see Program). Tree invasion was a broad theme that featured in several symposia, and one of the most interesting concerned pines. The south has no native pines but these fast-growing, stress-resistant trees form the backbone of the southern timber industry. Pine invasions have in recent years become a huge problem. The main new finding across from studies in Chile, Argentina, and New Zealand was that during an invasion irreversible ecosystem change (mycorrhizae, altered soil chemistry) occurs that facilitates rapid reinvasion after control operations. Complicating control is the intriguing finding that pines may undergo extraordinarily rapid evolution and increased invasiveness in their initial spread from plantations (Rafael Zenni, University of Brasilia). Given the location of the congress, it was fascinating to get an update on megafaunal extinctions in Última Esperanza, southwestern Patagonia by Natalia Villavicencio and colleagues. Nearly all of the extinctions took place between 18 and 7 kiloannum mainly after human arrival, but with prolonged co-existence in many cases and coinciding with change from steppe grassland to forest. It seems clear that extinctions would not have occurred without human arrival, but equally clear that the timing depended also on a range of ecological factors.
Did the Congress succeed in its main aim of connecting the south? Certainly to this participant it did. Being small, and in a remote setting with most attendees therefore staying for the duration, it had a village atmosphere with very little of the rather impersonal nature of large international conferences. Making contacts and renewing old ones was therefore simple. And it will continue: an enthusiastic Brazilian, Lucia Lohmann has taken up the challenge of hosting the next congress in three years time in southern Brazil.
Associate Editor, Journal of Ecology