ESA 2018 Recap

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something BLUE

…in which I shoe-horn a summary post of this giant meeting into a cutesy subtitle, but it mostly works.

Hello fellow molecular ecologists. I recently attended the Ecological Society of America’s yearly conference, this year in New Orleans, August 5 – 10. This event spanned six brain-melting days of the freshest of ecological science, including a variety of presentation styles and session organization (workshops to improve skills, professional development, and needed cultural change in the Society and academia; themed and curated talks of varying lengths, including ignite format; and an endless sea of contributed talks and posters). This conference regularly attracts between 3000 – 4000 ecologists of all flavors, including conservation biologists, community ecologists, epidemiologists, managers, educators, and yes, even molecular ecologists. I particularly like this meeting because of (and this will come as surprise to no one) the large and growing contribution of invasion biologists – this year there were eight contributed talk sessions focusing on some aspect of invasion. Heaven.

Because one’s experience of such a meeting will be so idiosyncratic, and honestly, how to summarize such a beast is beyond me, I will instead focus on a just a handful of talks/events. Apologies in advance if my notes and recollections here lead to inaccurate descriptions of the science presented at the meeting (I welcome corrections in the comments!). For a sense of the broad-coverage of ecology sensu lato on offer, check out the social media chatter for this meeting. The twitter hashtag is #ESA2018, including my own typo-riddled contributions. Note: that seems like a popular hashtag for many non-related events, so perhaps focus on posts right around those meeting days. Also, here’s a bouquet of other recap posts of the same meeting.


One of the themes that ran through my experience of the meeting was the increasing use, and calls for the support, of natural history collections (NHCs) in conservation, ecology, and evolutionary biology. For example, Hailee Lembach-Maus (GVSU), used herbarium records to establish the timing of introduction events in a plant invasion and Kayce Bell (NMNH) emphasized the role of NHCs in the discovery, understanding, and conservation of parasites as part of the organized session on Parasite Conservation in the Face of Global Change . Most explicitly, there was an organized session focused on this theme, New Uses for Old Collections: Herbarium Data in an Era of Ecological Change (in which I participated). Collectively, the speakers in this session emphasized the many novel ways that NHCs are now being utilized to address evolutionary and ecological questions; that they are now far from being the sole domain of taxonomists. Importantly, several speakers, particularly Barnabas Daru (Harvard) and Mason Heberling (CarnegieNHM) investigated the biases present in samples and data mined from NHCs with some discussion of how we can control for these biases and mitigate them in future collecting efforts. Despite these biases, I suspect that more and more researchers will turn to these invaluable data sources for new approaches to understanding their biological questions, particularly for questions around the effects of human activities on the natural world.

#ESA2018 @EmilyMeineke coupling @inaturalist contemporary records and herbivore trends through time using #herbarium collections. SO COOL! This is the future of this work— Mason Heberling (@jmheberling) August 7, 2018


There’s always something at ESA that blows my mind. This year it was the use of hyperspectral data. In particular a talk on the work of Beth Fallon, presented by co-author Jeannine Cavender-Barres (UMN), investigated the possibility of using hyperspectral reflectance data to distinguish between oak wilt and drought stress at the individual tree, stand, and landscape level. Oak wilt is a fungal infection that spreads between trees largely through root-to-root connections and will eventually result in the death of the tree. This infection triggers an immune response in the tree that causes the tree to lose access to water. In effect, it triggers an internal drought, and has varying impacts on different oak species. So the fact that Fallon, Cavender-Barres, and colleagues can tell the difference between ‘regular’ drought and the effects of oak wilt infection, from what to my poor understanding, is essentially some very fancy photographs, is, yeah, mind-blowing. Being able to reliably detect diseased trees among healthy or drought-stressed trees would be a powerful early warning to help prevent the spread of this disease, or highlight resistant genotypes.

2D projection of a hyperspectral cube, aka, a fancy photo. (Wikimedia Commons: Dr. Nicholas M. Short, Sr. – NASA)


Of course there’s no way I could even see all the mind blowing talks, so here I will borrow from the live-tweeting of Elisabeth Bergman (UBC). Joshua Kohn (UCSD) investigated how feral European honey bees use native plants in San Diego County. In this California community, these feral bees represent the most common floral visitor for native flowering plants. How do honey bees and native pollinators partition flowers and food resources? What effect might these dynamics have on native plant reproduction? Kohn finds that feral honey bees increase their activity over time in response to the phenology of the native plant species, while native pollinator visitation remains constant – more flowers means more honey bees. At higher flower abundances, honey bees are far more likely to be the dominant pollinator. Honey bee domination may actually result in lower reproduction for the native plants, if the cost of food mutualism becomes too high. Honey bees also tend to visit more flowers on the same plant individual than native pollinators, increasing the likelihood of self-fertilization among these native plant populations.


And finally, Libby Ellwood (NHM-LA County) presented an incredible resource as part of the New Uses for Old Collections session, the NSF-funded Biodiversity Literacy for Undergraduate Education Reserach Coordination Network (BLUE). Utilizing natural history collections as an open data source, the BLUE initiative builds and shares teaching modules that engage students in analyzing real data to understand biological patterns. Many things about this approach get me excited; students handle real data (not made up, not busy work) to do relevant analyses, develop literacy in many types of approaches (environmental science, evolution, ecology, phylogenetics), all of it demonstrating the value of open data and the resources maintained by our precious natural history collections. Do you ever find yourself teaching a biology class? You should check out BLUE’s resources, or consider collaborating or contributing yourself.


About Kathryn Turner

I'm an Eberly Postdoctoral Fellow in the College of Science at Penn State in the labs of Dr. Jesse R. Lasky (Biology) and Dr. George H. Perry (Anthropology). I'm interested in what happens when humans mess with plants, by spreading them around all willy nilly. Invasive species are my Moriarty. In my free time, I grow things, pickle them, brew beer with them, compost what's left.
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