I was attending this week my first scientific conference and I will give here some thoughts and impression I kept from it. The conference was located in Hildesheim and gathered scientists from the German (and also Austrian and Swiss) ecological society. For those that do not know how these conference works, it consists in a combination of keynote talks: presentation given by influential scientists lasting an hour and involving research done around the theme of the conference, and also standard talks given by Masters PhDs, Post-Docs, or Professors and lasting 12 min. After each of these talks there is usually some time to ask (pertinent) questions and discuss a bit. Time is THE limiting factors in these conferences with sometimes 8 talks in a row in some sessions (talks on a similar topic), the chairs (the guy/gal presenting the speaker and responsible for the timetable) are forced to limit discussion to only one or two short question/answer. In between the keynote talks and the session are the coffee break, where most of the social interaction take place around coffee. Also we sometimes like to have fun so there was a nice club night where if you were lucky you could see your supervisor dancing, a very rare sight.
Now more to the contents, we got some very engaging keynotes talks, especially Robert Beschta discussing the impacts of re-introducing large carnivores on the ecosystem of national parks in North-America. But also Frans Vera presenting his work on conserving habitats in the Netherlands using herbivores (in large numbers) to reintroduce natural dynamics in the plant and animal communities. These two talks were very nicely linked, both arguing that standard conservation practice in use in Europe and the USA are promoting a very non-natural stable state of the ecosystem, these practices strive in freezing the communities in particular composition of emblematic species without taking into account the added richness that dynamic system due to their heterogeneity can bring. Due to the interest raised by these talks these two guys offered an extra question section where they answered further interrogation. They were pretty convincing in their argument, and were also honest enough to admit that they were not able to predict the outcome of certain management actions taken up today. As this is for me one of the big challenge of biodiversity research in the years to come and one way to tackle the challenge of biodiversity loss. This was again highlighted in another session on IPBES where some interesting talk outlined the role and issues that ecologist should tackle, one is clearly being able to predict future biodiversity state under various land-use and climatic change scenarios. We are still very far from this.
Another great session for me was the citizen-science session where speakers made a great job pointing out that science for itself without public participation and interest is doomed in a world of diminishing funding. One number: the European commission want to get 5 millions of European to participate in such programs in the next 5 years. There are now quite a few case studies of citizen-science program that worked but also projects that did not work. The key point here is to combine what society wants with what society need. In the UK they already got quite a lot of experience on these issues as was presented by Michael J O Pocock, they have their the Biological Record Center with a lot of informations on what they do and some publications on how to develop these projects.
I also gave a talk on my own (little) research, it went alright, I could have been better but I was not too disappointed by myself. I presented some Structural Equation Models testing various hypothesis of links between changes in the plant diversity and variation of the arthropod herbivores and carnivores species richness and biomass. This is based on worked that has already been done in the US but that we want to extend to our system/communities (see this and this paper).
Then on the last day we went to the Harz National Park, a very foggy place but very interesting due to the impacts of human activities on the forest communities found there. Since it was a big mining place from the XVIth century the forests were completely cleared several time to provide enough timber for the mines and fuel for the energy, since the XVIIth century the natural forest types mainly made of Beech trees were replaced by Spruce which are growing faster. Also due to the heavy demand of water from these mining activities they built an impressive network of canals and dikes affecting the water flow. Finally humans also tried to exploit the peat as a fuel source to replace the wood that was still growing, destroying on the way quite a few bogs of the region. Fortunately the wet climatic conditions present in the area prevented the full-scale development of this trade and was abandoned after a few decades. After the reunification of the two Germany they decided to let natural process govern the communities there, therefore they left the dead wood in the forest allowing an explosion of the bark beetle populations, decimating the spruce forest and leaving some place for new tree species to come back (Hazel …). The managers also let the water table gradually increase on some places and when we walk there we see dying stands of spruce that will soon (in the course of the next 50 years) be turned into bogs. The walk was cold and wet but it was again very inspiring to think how human practice and management decision have such a huge impact on natural communities, the issue being that we cannot predict exactly what will happen if we take a particular decision but also that there can be conflicts between how the society see nature conservation (forest everywhere with nice birds) and how natural process are shaping these habitats (ecological succession ..).
Hopefully the next conference for me will be the BES/SFE meeting in my home country, in Lille in December!