EcoTAS 2017: Plant Ecology in AUS and NZ

This week has been EcoTAS 2017, the joint conference of the Ecological Society of Australia and the New Zealand Ecological Society.

CaptureThis year it was held in Hunter Valley in New South Wales, Australia, with a theme of ‘putting ecology to work’ in an effort to explore how ecological science can contribute to the economy, society, culture and public policy, as well as to the health of the environment and quality of life.

Journal of Ecology regularly receives excellent contributions from authors based in Australia and New Zealand. In addition to this, our editorial board currently boasts 7 Associate Editors from the two countries, and we have benefited from the expertise of many others over the years.

In celebration of EcoTAS17, we thought we would ask some of our current and also former AEs a few questions to find out more about plant ecology in Australia and New Zealand.

Why is plant ecology important for Australia/New Zealand?

Plants are overwhelmingly important to ecosystem processes, central to the carbon and hydrological cycles (at least at the land surface), provide the basis of most of our food supplies, provide resources and modify conditions determining faunal habitat…. where do I stop? I teach a couple of third year subjects and we get quite a few animal-focussed students who are swayed by the point that without understanding where an organism lives, you’ll know but a small fraction about the organism. And many field animal ecologists see their study organisms infrequently, so the need to understand the habitat is important. Peter Vesk, The University of Melbourne, Australia

Understanding how our natural and agro-ecosystems function is critical to a sustainable world, and especially in this region, where the potential impacts of things like invasive species and global change are significant. Mathew Turnbull, University of Canterbury, New Zealand

The vegetation cover of any country is critical to nearly all aspects of its environmental well-being, from greenhouse gas exchange through to preservation of the myriad organisms that the plants support, including us. Ecology is the only research area that treats it as a whole. However, while plant ecology is important, that doesn’t mean anything we choose to do in this domain is important by default. I do worry that fundamental field-based long-term ecological research is losing out to newer sorts of research, including molecular based and data-mining research. Fascinating and well cited though this latter research is, in many cases it is difficult to see how the world is any better off for it. On the other hand, the long payback time and expense of field work and experimental plot research that underpins practical ecological management often leads to relatively low publication productivity and is often necessarily location-specific and thus “of local interest only”. Inevitably citation-gathering potential falls and grants dry up. So my view is, yes, we need the theoretical generality and excitement but we also must have the local specifics, the carefully researched solutions and attention to economic and social constraints. Without that, and the integrative vision that ecology brings, piecemeal, unsatisfying solutions to environmental problems, or outright neglect, are all we will get. Matt McGlone, Landcare Research, New Zealand 

Do you have any advice for people looking to start a career in plant ecology?

Start with what you love doing and make a difference doing it. Mathew Turnbull, University of Canterbury, New Zealand

Work on interesting problems with people who inspire and motivate you; science is hard work and reward and acknowledgement is slow and diffuse so you’ve got to be interested. Develop your quantitative skills. Spend time outside, it’s good for inspiration and your well-being. Do not be wedded to one path, particularly an academic career. Lift your eyes to opportunities outside of ‘traditional academic paths”. In my PhD I researched risk analysis, management and insurance as part of understanding how plants deal with disturbance. Now the insurance industry is leading governments in dealing with climate change adaptation. There are roles for people with good critical thinking, analytic skills, systems-thinking and capacity to handle large, challenging projects and communicate about them. If that isn’t a set of skills that my PhD students have developed then I’ve failed my job.  So be open to diverse opportunities. Peter Vesk, The University of Melbourne, Australia

My advice would be, for the most part, to look beyond narrowly academic research careers. I simply do not believe the current academic setup is sustainable in the long-term. The sheer arithmetic of supply and demand is totally out of whack, meaning only the exceptionally talented or unusually lucky are making it through the successive filters of degree, postgraduate degree and postdoc or temporary teaching positions. But there is a demand for well educated, alert graduates with a range of synthetic skills to work in all sorts of ecological roles within both companies and local and central government. Admittedly, these jobs will not often include specialities such as palaeoecology – although you never know – but this still leaves a large variety of highly engrossing research, practical applications and policy development. Matt McGlone, Landcare Research, New Zealand


Here are some of the finest articles from authors based in Australia and New Zealand published in the last 2 volumes of Journal of Ecology:

Native soilborne pathogens equalize differences in competitive ability between plants of contrasting nutrient-acquisition strategies

Host species and environmental variation can influence rhizobial community composition

Enhanced decomposition and nitrogen mineralization sustain rapid growth of Eucalyptus regnans after wildfire

Local demographic and epidemiological patterns in the Linum marginale–Melampsora lini association: a multi-year study

Interactions between rainfall, fire and herbivory drive resprouter vital rates in a semi-arid ecosystem

Leaf colour polymorphisms: a balance between plant defence and photosynthesis

Root traits are multidimensional: specific root length is independent from root tissue density and the plant economic spectrum

Browsing by an invasive herbivore promotes development of plant and soil communities during primary succession

Plant mutualisms with rhizosphere microbiota in introduced versus native ranges

Precipitation alters the strength of evolutionary priority effects in forest community assembly of pteridophytes and angiosperms


Visit the EcoTas2017 website for more information about the conference. 

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One thought on “EcoTAS 2017: Plant Ecology in AUS and NZ

  1. Pingback: EcoTAS 2017: Insights from Stephen Bonser | Journal of Ecology Blog

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