Last week I was at the annual meeting of the german, austrian and swiss ecologists (GfÖ) which took place in Marburg (DE). The title of the conference referred to the creation of the word Oecologie in 1866 by Ernst Haeckel and the conference aimed at “reflect upon the progress we have made in the past and […] to identify the many unsolved scientific questions that still confront us.” Volkmar Wölters.

How I found the conference:

  • Marburg is a cool town, the “Altstadt” is super-pretty with loads of cosy bars to extend interactions on scientific and non-scientific topics well into the night (and morning for the bravest).
  • As always for a GfÖ conference, the participants were mostly PhDs and PostDocs from Germany, little diversity in terms of disciplines most of the people being hardcore ecologists.
  • Weird repartition of talks within the session, parallel to my talk on the links between plant diversity and herbivory/predation through consumer community shifts was a talk (in another session) on plant diversity increase food quantity and quality with positive effect on social bees. While two talks later in my session we heard about plant richness negative effect on root decomposition …
  • Great social events, the ice breaker was supported by awesome food, the BBQ night revealed the great musical talent of prominent German ecologists (including GfÖ president) and also fantastic dynamism when it comes to dancing on hits from the 80ies.
  • If I got one lesson for the future it is: be a generalist, develop skills and interact with associated disciplines like remote sensing (as Nathalie Pettorelli) or social science to bring new ideas, new concepts and new data into ecology.

 

Overview of the week:

(All these are based on my notes and my vague, selective memories of the talks, it is certainly not an unbiased vision of the conference)

Day 1:

I held my talk on the first day almost right after the keynote speech of Susanne Fritz so my notes on her talk are rather sparse. She argued that ecologists should embrace the historical dimension of their dataset, for example selective extinction (big species going extinct first) might explain some present-day trait distribution. After the keynote speech I held my talk despite technical failures (spent 15min shouting my slides in a too large lecture hall), I received little feedback from it so I guess that what I am doing is OK. Felix Fornoff presented some nice results on trap-nesting bees, he found that tree diversity effect on these insects are explained by changes in canopy area. As the canopy grows the climatic conditions under the trees become more stable (less wind, less temperature extreme) which positively affect abundance and richness of trap-nesting bees. After the coffee break I had the pleasure to hear an inspiring talk by Leana Zoller on the effect of artificial light on night pollination. In her experiment she put some LED street light into areas not affected by light pollution and recorded its effect on Ciriseum oleacerum fitness, she found strong effect of light pollution in this naive flora and fauna, seed mass of C. oleacerum declined by 20% in light polluted compared to control plot.

Day 2:

A nice talk by Per Schleuss caught my attention on the second day just before lunch, he looked at the degradation Kobresia grasslands in Tibet due to desiccation (climate change) and overgrazing in the area. He found that 70% of the soil organic carbon trapped by the system was either being eroded leading to important river pollution or being mineralized a process which release carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Christian Wirth was the next keynote speaker with a provocative title: “After the hype: a reality check for trait-based functional biodiversity research”. The talk nicely outlined the different ways to quantify trait variation (mean, dispersion, range) each having different implications for ecosystem functions. He also showed that ecosystem functions are not determined by one unique “super-trait” but that on average five traits are necessary per ecosystem function. He went on talking about intraspecific trait variation saying that “if there are too many individuals varying in their traits to hope to put together a community piece by peice and to predict ecosystem function, then forget about plant traits”. A sobering statement as more and more data accumulate showing large within-species variation in trait values. At the end of the day Sanne Van Den Berge talked biodiversity of hedgerows and tree line in Belgium, in the area of study such structure represent 0.7% of the land cover but host 45% of the floral diversity. Unfortunately these structure are endangered by human pressures especially the older elements which also have the highest diversity. She also reported that local diversity increased by, on average, 4 species between 1974 and 2015, something to add (maybe) to the current debate on biodiversity trends.

Day 3:

I spent the morning sitting in the movement ecology session hearing some nice talks, in particular one by Wiebke Ullmann on hare movement in agricultural landscape and how energy expenditure was affected by home range size which was affected by farm size. As well as one by Lisa Fisler on hoverflies migration through the Swiss Alps showing impressive videos and data that these marvellous tiny creature actively fly against the winds through mountain passes up to 1900m! After lunch I went to a cool session one curious natural history observation or as one of the speaker putted it: “[he is] completely fed up with hypothesis-driven science”. Mark-Olivier Rödel presented great insights on the adaptation of the red-rubber frog which spend the dry season within ant nests completely unarmed by these ferocious insects who hunt and feed on other frog in the region. Then Manfred Türke delighted us with his observations of slug poops. It appears that many mite species survive the passage through the slug intestine and found on average 3 surviving mites per droppings. He thinks that mites dramatically increase their dispersal ability through the use of the “slug-highsped train”.

Day 4:

The last day started with a keynote speech by Shahid Naeem where he reflected on the evolution of conservation paradigms from nature for itself in the 60ies to nature for people in the 2000s to people and nature in current times. He argued that biodiversity is a multidimensional concept (taxonomic diversity, functional diversity …) and one need to look and preserve all dimensions to support ecosystem functions. Going on he argued that human well-being should be the primary focus of contemporary ecological approaches since if higher human well-being is being targeted then we need high provision of services from the ecosystems coming from good functioning of ecosystems which supported by biodiversity (CQFD), therefore society by protecting biodiversity will protect itself. This makes sense even if I have little love for utilitarian argument when it comes to biodiversity conservation. Later on that day I heard an inspiring talk by Jasper Wubs on how one can steer restoration in different directions by using different soil inoculum. In other words if you inoculate some heathland soils into a bare ground plot you get an heathland plant communities, and if 10 meters away you inoculate grassland soils you get grassland communities. How great is that? Finally I listened with great attention to Florian Hartig talk on model selection and its effect on prediction and inference using a simulation study. He showed that unconditional model averaging and LASSO led to the best performance when it comes to prediction while for inference keeping the full model led to the best results.

 

All in all the GfÖ meeting are always pretty nice, loads of little scientific nuggets here and there and great interactions with cool people. Next meeting will be in Belgium for a very exciting joined meeting with the British Ecological Society, already looking forward to it.

 

 

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