This year’s ESA has included a lot more sessions and symposia on the work being done by ecologists to preserve ecosystem services and work within the communities that benefit by these services. Ana Elisa Pérez-Quintero’s talk, “Healthy ecosystems, healthy people: Popularizing ecology from the local to the global, the example of GAIA in Puerto Rico”, was a great example of this kind of presentation. In Puerto Rico as elsewhere, urban sprawl threatens to overrun important ecological sites, and in response to this threat local scientists and activists have formed GAIA (a spanish acronym that translates as “Interdisciplinary Environmental Groups Allied”). The group has engaged citizens (in particular children) directly through “participatory action research” to consider the effects of current and proposed policy on the Northeastern Ecology Corridor (NEC), a pristine strip of oceanside habitat that is under threat. Piggy-backing on to this talk was a second about Puerto Rico’s NEC, “Linking art, ecology, and public engagement in the conservation of land: the case of the Northeastern Ecological Corridor in the island of Puerto Rico”, given by Sara B. Ocasio. She spoke more directly about the activist components of GAIA, in particular efforts to thwart a pair of proposed mega-resorts within the NEC. Residents of nearby towns are interested in preserving their water supply as well as access to the rainforest and beach, benefits that would all be threatened by development. Through community actions such as a “leatherback festival” (featuring lots of kids in turtle costumes), GAIA hopes to win support for their proposals for sustainable economic development.
I pretty much attend any talk that involves a consideration of how cooperation evolves, so I was excited to attend Sam Brown’s talk “Evolutionary ecology of microbial sociality: Cooperation, virulence and control”. Bacteria are fascinating because they produce a myriad of potential “public goods” that break down materials in the environment (“exoenzymes”), provide shelter, aid in the formation of biofilms, defend against competitors or consumers, and provide information (“quorum-sensing molecules”). The work Brown presented was designed to expand on ideas originated by jeff smith suggesting that the plasmids exchanged by bacteria can act as a means of creating “infectious cooperation”. Brown created an island model to look at the effect of spatial structuring on these systems. What’s probably most interesting about these bacterial systems is that they provide the most direct analogy with human culture (Brown even used the phrase “re-education” to describe the transfer of a plasmid for cooperative traits). Like plasmids transferred between bacteria, human cultural complexes can be rapidly spread and have the potential to either encourage or discourage cooperation. Research into how plasmid transfer influences the balance between cooperation and cheating has the potential not only to enrich our understanding of microbial communities, but also of our own culture.
The very last talk that I saw at the 2010 meeting was given by Laura J. Martin. Her talk, “Ecology: Not in our backyards”, had generated a fair amount of buzz amount the members of the Urban Ecosystem Ecology section, so I made it a priority to check it out. Performing an exhaustive survey of all the articles published in ten top ecology journals during the period between 2004 and 2009, Martin was able to get a sense of the local and global geography of ecological research. What she and her colleagues found is sobering: most of the published research is performed in protected areas near population centers in North American, Central America, and Europe. We have long known that ecological research was biased towards the places where most ecologists are employed, but what this new study suggests is that there is also a bias against studying human-mediated ecosystems. Because Martin’s study only covers the “top ten” ecology journals, it is difficult to determine whether this bias is maintained throughout the field, but at the very least her findings tell us something about what constitutes “marquee science” in the field of ecology. Martin’s work has attracted attention before it has even seem publication, earning recognition in a Nature News article entitled “Ecologists shun the urban jungle”. If interpreted and reacted to correctly, her work should encourage the elite ecological journals to support publication of work relevant to most of our world, where ecosystems and humans interface.
I was able to attend this meeting thanks in part to funding from the Pratt Institute Faculty Development Fund. Conferences, Ecological Society of America, Ecology