Tuesday, May 27, 2014

#G2B2014 officially kicks off!

[ Post courtesy of Krista Oke. I'm just posting.  –K. ]

GENOMES TO/AUX BIOMES is off to a great start! Monday was the first day of scientific presentations, with a huge range of interesting presentations and posters. With parallel sessions on everything from the ecology of mercury to Arctic and alpine genetics, there was something for everyone.  Two CSEE symposia and the CSEE plenary talk were also held Monday, and were well attended. In the evening, a public outreach lecture by Catherine Potvin, “Halting deforestation: One piece of the climate mitigation puzzle” had Twitter abuzz (check out #G2B2014 to follow along). Finally, things wrapped up for the day with a student and post-doc mixer at a notorious Montreal bar, Saint-Sulpice. Conference attendants packed the third floor, and visited tables in a speed dating-like set up to talk about topics including job interviews, work-life balance, jobs outside academia, and parenting as a grad student. Like any conference, it was easy to get overwhelmed with all the interesting new science, but several points stood out for me today, especially the morning CSEE symposium and the CSEE plenary.

Last year, Ben and Kiyoko provided some great conference advice on this blog. One piece of advice was not to run around like a chicken with its head cut off. There are so many interesting presentations and it’s hard to make it to them all, so sometimes it’s best to pick an interesting session and enjoy all the talks. The Centre Mont Royal has conference rooms spread out over multiple floors, with many parallel sessions and a large symposium every day.  Today the auditorium played host to two CSEE symposia: “Biodiversity change across spatial scales in the Anthropocene” and “Effects of community diversity and composition on evolutionary change”. It seemed like a great day to heed Ben and Kiyoko’s advice, and take in the CSEE symposium talks. Although both symposia were excellent, the morning session really got me thinking and excited about topics I don’t usually spend a lot of time pondering. 

The morning’s presentations featured a large range of study systems: butterflies, bumblebees, and phytoplankton, oh my! I heard about plants, corals, marine fishes, and meta-analyses that incorporated them all. But overall, one question really stuck with me throughout the entire session: are we (as scientists) asking the right questions? For many presenters, this question was intertwined with the very important question of how to communicate results about changes in biodiversity and biodiversity’s importance to the public and policy makers. As Brian McGill pointed out, if we continually communicate a message that species are declining, what are people to make of species that are becoming very abundant, such as white tailed deer? Perhaps it is better to speak or winners and losers of anthropogenic impacts. These questions were highlighted for me by several interesting results presented today. Mark Vellend talked about his work looking for biodiversity declines in local-scale plant communities, but the perhaps surprising result was that he observed no net changes. Next, Julia Baum presented results from marine ecosystems. Using coarse scale biodiversity measures, the results seemed similar: biodiversity was not declining, not until she teased apart harvested and non-harvested species and saw declines in the latter. Of course for marine systems, as Julia pointed out, there is also the problem of shifting baselines: how can we measure biodiversity change when we have not even described a large portion of marine biodiversity? This was also a challenge for Mary O’Connor’s work on benthic marine communities. I was struck too by the data Jeremy Kerr presented on bumblebees, indicating that they are losing ground at the southern extent of their range while failing to expand their range northward.  If the question we ask is about biodiversity change, we may see the loss of bumblebees compensated by the gain of new species, but will their role as pollinators be filled? Would we be asking the right question? Graham Bell gave a very interesting talk that shifted the focus just slightly. His work focusing on successive minima in phytoplankton abundance allows him to investigate how the time to minima and the magnitude of minima are indicative of underlying processes driving population dynamics. Finally, Brian McGill’s talk really pulled the session together for me. He pointed out that often measures of local biodiversity may appear constant despite species turnover.  The result may be homogenized communities. What happens to ecosystem functioning when this occurs? What if we lose bumblebees, or harvested fish species, but an invasive species increases in abundance? Overall, the symposium really got me thinking and gave me a different perspective on these issues. 

Perhaps the highlight of the whole day for me was the CSEE Plenary, given by Jeff Hutchings. Jeff gave an excellent talk that raised many important questions about science communication and the role of science, scientific advice, and peer review of scientific advice in policy decisions. In illustrating these points, Jeff talked in detail about two topics that shaped my interest in evolutionary ecology as an undergraduate student: Northern cod and alternative mating strategies in Atlantic salmon. After the morning session, where the question of how to communicate science effectively to policy makers arose repeatedly, it was very interesting for me to consider these familiar topics in terms of these important questions.

Growing up in Newfoundland, there is no escaping the story of cod. If you ask much of my family, the word “fish” is interchangeable with the word “cod”. Cod shaped the history of Newfoundland, but as Jeff explained, their populations have declined by 97%. In some stocks, it’s as high as 99%. In 1992, the government announced a moratorium on cod, and predicted that the stocks should recover to populations similar to those from the 1970’s within two years. As most of us know, and Newfoundlanders know all too well, the stocks did not recover in two years. Data that Jeff presented show that there have been recent population increases, but once again the problem of shifting baselines arises, as these levels are just a very tiny fraction of populations observed in the first years of available data, themselves from the 1960’s after hundreds of years of fishing. However, Jeff pointed out that based on these increases, the cod quota has been increased. This disconnect between science and policy highlights the need for science communication, good scientific advice, and peer review of scientific advice.  Late in 1992 I turned 4. I do not remember a time without a cod moratorium in Newfoundland, and the story of the great fish that was no more was one of those that lead me to study. It was one we often discussed during my undergraduate classes at Memorial, and it was fun for me to think once again about the story in the context of the earlier presentations.
A story that sparked my interest in evolutionary ecology was the story of alternative mating strategies in Atlantic salmon. I audited a class on alternative mating strategies taught by Ian Fleming at Memorial, and I remember being fascinated by the examples we talked about in class. Jeff explained his work looking at parr that mature very young in fresh water, unlike older larger males that migrate to sea. Parr exhibit a rather unorthodox sneak mating strategy during breeding events between larger males and females, but they do contribute genetically to the offspring of these matings and the parr strategy is heritable. Jeff pointed out that the absence of parr from the recovery plan for Atlantic salmon demonstrates another example of a clear link to policy, but where science could be better incorporated into policy. The diversity of phenotypes that so vividly caught my attention in my undergrad are important pieces of the diversity of Atlantic salmon populations, but were not fully considered in policy decisions. 

It was great to hear the sorts of questions I had been thinking about all day applied to concepts I spent a lot of time considering as an undergraduate. For me, it was a great way to wrap up a day of talks. Perhaps you will find a similar opportunity at Genomes to Biomes, a chance to gain new perspectives on familiar topics.

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