A summer of conferences

As a new academic year begins, students return and trees get geared up for autumn, it feels like a good time to look back at the various things that have happened over the summer months. Josie kicked off this mini-series with a post on her fieldwork in the Peruvian Andes and James is working on one about his research trip to Bolivia with Frank, so for a bit of variety I thought I’d give an overview of my summer of conferences. It’s less exotic than going to South America, sure, but I still had a good time! And there have been quite a few to report on…

The season’s first conference was Intact Forests in the 21st Century, at Magdalen College Oxford. I have to admit, initially I felt like a bit of an impostor – after all, I work on Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, one of the most fragmented forests in the world – but I was there in connection with a side project we’ve been working on looking at Amazonia. There’s a long, ongoing and quite contentious debate about where the biome sits on a scale from ‘pristine’ to ‘anthropogenic’, so for a few months we’ve been surveying researchers about their definitions of key terms used in these discussions. Do these differ with the respondent’s disciplinary background? Is my perception of a ‘natural’ forest the same as yours? And – relevantly for this conference – what do people mean when they write or read ‘intact’? Our poster had some results from a preliminary analysis of the survey, showing the diversity of opinions among our 30-odd respondents – if you haven’t taken part and would like to, then get in touch!

It was an interesting conference – you can read more detail about it in the summary report here, and listen to the presentations and view the slides here. Frank and Richard both presented in the first morning’s session on historical perspectives on intactness, which was expertly introduced by Sandra Nogué from Southampton University. Her talk on the importance of historical baselines for informing conservation was brilliant, a powerful statement on the role palaeoecology can play in guiding modern ecology – and she even managed to get pollen onto the official (artistic) record of the conference! It’s just to the left of the river, at the bottom of the amazing poster produced by the conference illustrators. The conference was the first I’ve been to with such a broad range of backgrounds among the attendees – we could have lunch with policy people, coffee with a sustainable development planner, then listen to a talk on indigenous people’s perspectives and discuss it with an expert in remote sensing. It was pretty eye-opening!

I was much more at home in the second of my summer’s conferences. The British Ecological Society has recently launched a palaeoecology special interest group (SIG) – Heather and I have been acting as early-career reps in its first few months, and James and I went to its inaugural event at the University of Hull in August. It was great to meet people I’d previously only known from twitter and journal articles, and there were plenty of productive discussions throughout both days – key among them, how can the SIG work to the benefit of the different palaeo and ecological communities? To find out what shape this ends up taking, follow the SIG on twitter (@BES_palaeo) and sign up for the mailing list (instructions are here) – and if this is your kind of thing, come along to the next event! After all, so far 100% of SIG field trips have included dedicated ice cream time…

There was another foray out of my comfort zone the following week, though, this time to the CPEG conference in Leeds. Dedicated to research ‘crossing the palaeontological-ecological gap’ (a mouthful the organisers mercifully shortened!), this was by far the most palaeo of the summer’s conferences – it’s rare that the Last Glacial Maximum (about 21,000 years ago) feels recent, but the millions of years being discussed by others really helped put things in perspective..! In my presentation (which won a commendation in the ‘best student talk’ category) I gave an overview of my PhD project, highlighting how we plan to use ecological modelling techniques to understand Brazil’s Araucaria forests’ past as well as their future, and how our research into their climatic and human histories might help us improve their precarious prospects. The palaeo-eco gap may be narrower in my research than in others’, but I was pleased to be able to show that we’re crossing it thoroughly!

It was also a fun challenge to try and present the research in a way that would be interesting and accessible to (say) an expert in Jurassic pseudoplanktonic megarafts. A number of speakers did this extremely well: Virginia Harvey‘s superb (and prize-winning) talk on molecular identification of ancient fish bones stands out, and Andrew Beckerman did a great job of this in his plenary too – I hadn’t been expecting to care about covariance matrices, after all – but I was on board with Karen Bacon‘s talk from the get go. Starting from the IUCN’s assertion that about one in five plant species are threatened with extinction she worked backwards, searching for parallels in past mass extinction events. Disturbingly, she concluded that there are none, and that “we’re [currently] looking at the most severe plant mass extinction ever recorded” (…probably).

Her talk effectively encapsulated everything that this summer of conferences has highlighted for me – about how the policy and conservation discussions of the Intact Forests conference need long-term historical insights like those at CPEG, and how both sides benefit when palaeoecologists and ecologists work together as the BES palaeoSIG aims to promote. As Dr Bacon concluded in her summary of the conference, everyone stands to gain when we bridge the gap between past and present.



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