ESA 2010 Day 2 (August 2nd)

The second day of the ESA Meeting began with a morning plenary. Catherine McCarter, executive director of ESA, provided an introduction. She described the Lawrence Center, pointing out that it is the world’s largest LEED-gold-certified convention center. She also announced the launching of ESA’s newest journal, Ecosphere, which is the first online-only open-access journal published by the society. These journals are the future and it is good to see ESA adjusting to the times.

McCarter introduced current ESA president Mary Power, who first recognized meeting organizers Frank Gilliam and Steve Tonser. She then gave a short talk to transition into the formal meeting, a talk mostly focused on the concept of communities. This discussion included not only the question of what creates resilient ecological communities but also the question of what makes a resilient scientific community. Invoking the idea the diversity and stability go hand in hand, Power suggested that the most powerful scientific work is now done by multidisciplinary communities of scientists. She closed with a four-part strategy for earning the trust of the non-scientific community. Her recommendations were to be present to observe local ecological phenomena, be useful by striving to understand ecological change, be communicative by seeking to explain your work beyond the walls of science, and share data to broaden the potential impact of your work. Power finished her talk by introducing the future presidents of ESA: Terry Chapin, who will serve for 2010-2011, and Steward Pickett, who will serve for 2011-2012.

The ceremony then turned towards presenting ESA’s annual awards, including awards for the best student presentations from last year’s meeting (the Buell and Braun awards) and a series of awards presented to eminent and accomplished ecologists.

The final event of the morning plenary was a talk given by Steve Running, a climate scientist among those who earned the Nobel Peace Prize for work on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Running gave a broad overview of the current state of climate change and our response to this change. He talked about the upcoming release of the 5th IPCC Assessment, which promises to present up-to-date data in a format that is more assessable to politicians, the media, and the general public. He discussed REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) and the importance of maintaining terrestrial carbon sinks and understanding why the ocean is sequestering less and less carbon every year. He discussed the new carbon products now entering into our economic systems, including carbon credits (a form of net ecosystem exchange) and biofuels (a means of redirecting net primary productivity). At both of these products he encouraged ecologists to look skeptically: ecological predictions about the potential for biofuel production paint a far less optimistic picture than economic projections, and carbon credit products fail to deliver value as a carbon sink for up to thirty years.

Running also talked about his own work, which uses satellite imaging to monitor and model changes occurring as the result of global warming. He spoke with optimism about the potential of combining satellite measures with various forms of ground-truthing, including flux towers and large-scale phenological monitoring programs. He described the next big goal of remote sensing as the challenge to provide meaningful estimates of ecosystem services using a mixture of monitoring data.

Perhaps the most interesting part of his talk addressed the interface between economics and environmental science. He spoke about the new IGBP Climate-Change Index, a series of aggregated measures which provide a simple depiction of how rapidly climate change is occurring. Analogous to stock market indices, this climate-change index is meant to provide real-time feedback on the state of climate change that is easily understood by laypeople. He also heralded the publications of a paper on planetary boundaries published in Nature for its framing of global change issues in a way that can be easily understood by the general public. Running laid into the idea that the uncertainties of climate prediction should weaken our resolve to address probable climate disaster, and pointed out that the science of economic prediction is far less accomplished than that of climate change. He closed by suggesting that we need to strive for alternative measures of social success, invoking the Robert F. Kennedy quote that “Gross Domestic Product measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile”. Pointing towards an Boston University report entitled “Beyond GDP: The Need for New Measures of Progress”, Running suggested that as ecologists we already have some understanding of metrics that should contribute to such indices.

I spent the afternoon as the volunteer presider for the first behavior session. Martha Weiss started the session with an interesting talk entitled “Innate color preferences, behavioral plasticity, and constraints on color learning in the monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus (Nymphalidae)”. Her work with monarch butterflies show that while they do have innate preferences for particular flower colors, they are also very proficient color learners who will adjust their preference in response to experience. Weiss’ work suggests that there is both an innate and learned component to how butterflies choose which flower to visit, and demonstrates that even simple organisms are generally quite sophisticated at performing the tasks that determine their chances of surviving and reproducing.

Stephanie Eby’s talk “The impact of burning on lion (Panthera leo) habitat choice in an African savanna” explored the question of whether burn patches of the Serengeti presented particular challenges to lions. While burns are a regular component of the savanna biome in which lions live, Eby wanted to determine whether lions avoided recently-burned areas, a preference which would make sense given that lions are ambush predators who would stand out against burned landscapes. Using a combination of lion sitings, radiocollar data, and burn history, Eby determined that there was not a lot of evidence that lions avoid the burned area. It may be that there is a compensatory process at play in this system, as large prey may be more safe in the burned areas but the aggregation of these prey in burned areas may also attract more lions. Interestingly, there is not enough direct kill data to determine the success rate of lions hunting in burned and unburned areas.

Perhaps the most thorough study of the session, “Stress and Invasion: Factors influencing the escape behavior of native fence lizards in response to introduced fire ants”, was presented by Tracy Langkilde. Her goal was to unravel the connection between the presence of a novel (invasive) enemy, stress levels, and behavioral changes in a species of lizard. These lizards are exposed to fire ants, which are aggressive towards lizards and can sometimes be deadly. Langkilde’s work demonstrated that exposure to fire ants increases the level of lizard stress hormones in the laboratory, that elevated stress levels can also be found in field sites invaded by fire ants, that lizards at the invaded site demonstrate more stress-related behaviors (fleeing) in response to fire ants, and that experimental elevation of stress hormones reproduces this behavior in the lab. Langkilde provided really compelling evidence that the lizards are able to adapt their behavior to the presence of a novel enemy.

In the evening I attended a special session entitled “What Will Ecology Education Look Like in 2020?”. Run by Carlos de la Rosa and Meg Lowman, the session was designed to gather together ecologists interested in participating in an ESA-sponsored Education Summit scheduled to take place in October of this year. A number of the organizers presented an overview of the challenges and promises for transforming ecology education. I was most interested by de la Rosa’s description of the Catalina Habitat Improvement and Restoration Program (CHIRP), which trains youth campers visiting the Catalina Islands to identify and remove invasive plants. The program seemed like a really effective means of making ecology education productive and meaningful.

I was able to attend this meeting thanks in part to funding from the Pratt Institute Faculty Development Fund.

About Chris Jensen

I hold a position as an Assistant Professor at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY, where I conduct research and teach courses in ecology and evolution.
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