The Cataract Gorge in Launceston, Tasmania, where the 2019 Ecological Society of Australia Annual Meeting was held (Image Credit: Marina Schmoeller, CC BY 2.0)
I just got back from 10 days in Tasmania, Australia. As a temporary visitor in the country, I extended my trip to attend the Ecological Society of Australia’s annual conference (ESAus) as much as I could, so I could explore the surroundings and get to know a little of the place, its people and its unique biodiversity.
The conference was held in Launceston, the second largest city in Tasmania. With about ninety thousand inhabitants, a rich history with deep roots in its eye-catching landscapes, the Tamar River Valley and the Cataract Gorge, Launceston is a charming place with a lot to offer all visitors. But let’s talk about the conference.
Image Credit: Vinícius Mendonça/Ibama, Image Cropped, CC BY-SA 2.0
If you missed the furore about the fate of the Amazon rainforest earlier this year then you clearly do not have social media or a newspaper subscription. For a few weeks it became the call-to-arms for environmentalists everywhere (unless they were busy doing that whole “what about this other catastrophe” thing). And then the posts dried up, and public attention waned. But whilst the fires aren’t as bad now, they’re still burning, and still threatening both the vast numbers of different species and the indigenous groups that call the Amazon their home. So why has it disappeared from the public consciousness?
The Bonnet Macacque, one of the 89 species in which females have been shown to commit infanticide (Image Credit: Vino Rex, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped)
The evolution of infanticide by females in mammals (2019) Lukas & Huchard, Philsophical Transactions of the Royal Society – Biological Sciences, https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2018.0075
The practice of male mammals killing their rival’s cubs has been well-documented by wildlife biologists. The image of a male lion striding away from a pride with a dead cub in his mouth is quite haunting (spare a though for Scar’s kids when Simba takes over again). But infanticide by female mammals has received less attention.
Whilst males generally only kill young to ensure they have more access to mates, the motivations behind infanticide in females are more complex. It ultimately comes down to resource competition, but the resources themselves are myriad – milk, availability of space, care from more than one ‘parental’ figure (allocare), and social status. These four resources make up the competing hypotheses as to why females commit infanticide. This week’s researchers wanted to know what factors of a species biology increased the likelihood of a mother to kill an infant of the same species.
Image Credit: Emilian Robert Vicol, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped
It is hard to deny that plastics are having a moment – you open Facebook to find videos of turtles floating among plastic bags, Instagram to find every company is proudly getting rid of plastic straws, the news to find out the latest on the Great Pacific garbage patch. Plastics are what colony collapse disorder (aka. where are the bees going?) was a few years ago: the new environmental issue that everyone is talking about.
Now, plastics are certainly an irrefutable problem. We obviously have an unhealthy dependency on plastics that are found in our clothing, food, soaps, and homes. However, there is a question among conservationists and scientists over whether or not it is a good thing that the public conscious seems to become obsessed with a single issue, while others outside the limelight seem to fall away (similar to how in the USA people seem to have forgotten that Flint is STILL without clean water). I want to discuss how the new media landscape propels environmental fads, the good they can do, and the possible problems.
Image Credit: Liliann Eidem, CC BY-SA 2.0, Image Cropped
The concept of interdisciplinarity (essentially, scientists from different backgrounds working together to solve scientific questions) has played a major role in the development of ecology, and science in general, in the last few decades. As odd as it sounds, working across disciplines, even those as closely related as population and behavioural ecology, wasn’t a regular occurrence. Papers with one author were fairly commonplace.
Prue Addison, who spoke at the recent Norwegian Ecological Society Conference, is attempting to bring conservation science to ‘the dark side’ – the world of business (Image Credit: Synchronicity Earth, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped)
With the environmental movement having expanded so quickly over recent decades, it makes sense that many large corporations have started to incorporate sustainability and the environment into their business plans. But what are these business actions actually achieving? And who bridges the gap between the corporate world and the field of ecology?
At the recent Norwegian Ecological Society Conference, Tanja Petersen and I sat down with Doctor Prue Addison from the University of Oxford. Prue works with multinational corporations to aid them in integrating biodiversity considerations into their business operations. We asked her about the difference between business and academia, how she’s managed to transition between the two, and advice for others looking to make the same leap.
CSIRO scientist Éva Plagányi, who has worked with researchers from social and economic backgrounds to better understand human impacts on ecology (Image Credit: CSIRO, CC BY-SA 2.0, Image Cropped)
At the end of the day, the aim of an ecologist is to generate a better understanding of the natural world around us. But that can amount to nothing if that understanding isn’t translated to the people who interact directly with the aspects of the natural world that we research. So whilst understanding an ecosystem should be our main priority, understanding the people who interact with an ecosystem is integral to making a difference.
This is where social sciences like anthropology can help. At the ASFB 2018 Conference, I spoke to plenary speaker CSIRO’s Dr. Éva Plagányi, who works on maintaining the sustainability of marine life. Éva’s work includes interaction with everyone from corporate businessmen to traditional fishers, and integrating social anthropology into her work has yielded great results. I spoke to Éva on the importance of incorporating social science into ecology.