Ecology at its Most Hectic: The 2019 BES Write-Up

I am completely exhausted as I write this. I’ve just flown back into Norway after spending the week in Belfast at the British Ecological Society’s annual meeting. And whilst I do love attending conferences, after any mental onslaught of information it’s probably a good idea to take a day or two off to relax and let it soak in.

But before I run off on holidays to do that, let’s have a look at some of the most noteworthy points from BES 2019. I’ll touch on the words of some of the plenary speakers, the general atmosphere and I will try MY ABSOLUTE HARDEST not to talk about British politics.

Rewilders and Invaders

The introduction of foreign(ish) species was a central theme early on in the conference, with Monday night kicked off by a panel that discussed the rewilding of Ireland. Unfortunately I missed this one, but what I ALSO SOMEHOW MISSED was a talk by Emilio Berti which talked about rewilding to introduce not just lost species, but lost trophic interactions. One of the problems with species declines is that before they go totally extinct, many of the interactions that they have with other species a reduced to such an extent that the ecological functionality of an ecosystem drops. This renders them ‘functionally extinct’ (NOT the type of functional extinction that koalas were rumoured to have suffered though). Restoring species which can bring back those interactions can restore balance into food webs, but it’s a tricky business. The upshot is, that there are quite a few scientists out there now who are investigating the possibility of bringing back species like tigers or elephants to European forests. It might be a ways off yet, but let’s not lose hope.

Invasive ecology and rewilding are very close to each other. Wednesday’s plenary speaker Jonathan Chase echoed a sentiment that has been building recently in ecology, which is to take a more holistic view of the effects of non-native species, and not to overstate their negative effects on ecosystems. He conceded that some non-natives may of course cause local extinctions, but noted that if we enlarge our scale to areas beyond those extinctions, we see that non-natives often increase biodiversity (and a few studies have even suggested that they can increase ecosystem resilience).

I spoke to Helen Roy, invasion ecologist and Friday morning’s plenary speaker, later that day about her take on the language and stigmas surrounding invasive species. I look forward to bringing you that interview in the New Year.

Inclusivity

This is something that the larger ecological societies have been making a real effort with lately, as brought up by Caitlin and Marina after their time at the American and Australian Ecological Societies’ annual meetings this year. Badges with people’s correct gender pronouns are now commonplace. Panels are now almost always gender-balanced, mixers for people from a range of minorities are available, and the atmosphere is far more diverse.

After speaking to BES’s Head of External Affairs Karen Devine on the increasing presence of inclusivity at these events (another interview I hope to bring you soon), Karen suggested I attend the Challenging Conversations workshop run by herself and Dr. Cecilia Medupin on the Thursday. Karen and Cecilia work with 16-18 year olds in summer schools, focusing on working with students from ethnic minorities and lower income backgrounds. Their aim at this workshop was to challenge us to explore the values, challenges and limitations that make people from diverse backgrounds feel different in their work environments and communities. They also aimed to influence positive decisions in terms of openness and confidence.

Karen and Cecilia emphasised from the start that we should bring everything to the table, and though in my group conversations were a little awkward at first, people soon became more comfortable discussing tougher issues, not least because Karen and Cecilia placed emphasis on the session being a space where people should feel comfortable being open, and criticism should be voiced in a tolerant and supportive manner.

Lastly, one of the things I enjoyed about this conference was the availability of space for people who are less comfortable socially to zone out and have some time to themselves. To be clear, I am most certainly an extrovert, but when you’re in constant conversations in the midst of a herd of 1200 ecologists, even I can make use of a quiet zone.

Science Communication

Again, this is more and more present at modern ecological conferences. I turned up to Thursday’s plenary talk by Dr Esther Ngumbi expecting some hardcore chemical ecology, and was thrilled to find that she was choosing instead to focus on the value of other forms of scientific writing. Esther has been published in a variety of media, and seems keen to help adjust the mindset that publishing papers is the be all and end all of academic life. I’m obviously very much on board with this message, but even so I learned a lot about the publishing process in other forms of media, which seems to echo that of scientific journals, but with formality and reliability widely varied (just my take though).

Best Talk?

One of the problems with sessions this size is that you only catch a fraction of what’s being spoken about, with up to 8 sessions running at the same time. But my favourite project was MammalWeb, as presented by Sammy Mason, a PhD at Durham University. MammalWeb (amongst other things) distributes camera traps to primary schools, and lets them participate in the collection of observational data. At the same time, it educates young kids on the biodiversity of mammal life in the UK, with really tangible results. I’m a big fan of community science, and seeing it work so well in practice is inspirational.

There were other highlights of course, but I’m running out of space and that holiday is calling. The number of people who made an effort to get to Belfast with minimal use of plans is always growing. I attended a great workshop run by Dani Rabaiotti, Steph Januchowski-Hartley, Ali Birkett and Mike Whitfield on the use of social media (takeaway: if you want to increase followers, interact). And I had some really eye-opening conversations on freshwater ecology, with some obvious pathways for implementing some of their work in my project.

There was of course that Brexit/General Election thing, but you can read about THAT elsewhere.

In short, if you can get to one of these conferences, do it. I’m not saying you need to make BES, ESA or ESAus a regular fixture, but if you can get to one in a lifetime, it’s well worth it.

Right, holiday time. Enjoy Christmas everyone, this will be my last post before New Year’s Eve.

Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter here.

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