Day 1 of the British Ecological Society Macroecology Special Interest Group ended with a drinks reception, kindly bankrolled by the International Biogeography Society, and a stark choice: dinner in a pub with good food and no television on which to watch the Brazil v Germany World Cup semi-final; or dinner in a pub with crappy food but a television.
The split amongst meeting delegates was about 50-50. As I get older I’m being drawn to things in which I previously had only a passing interest, amongst them bird watching and football. So I opted for the latter, and was one of only two Brazil supporters in the whole pub, the other being our guest speaker Cathy Graham, largely because we both have more Brazilian than German friends and colleagues. We were rewarded with one of the most excruciatingly clinical dissections of a major international football team that I’ve ever witnessed. And the food was indeed crappy, but the lager was cold and plentiful.
The next morning, impelled by an uncomfortable mattress on a steel-framed bed in one of the student halls of residence, I woke early enough to do a little bird watching around the University of Nottingham’s Park Campus, which is not unlike the University of Northampton’s Park Campus, except much larger. There was a modest diversity of birds flying and calling, the highlight being a large grey heron patrolling the edge of a circular pond. As there were no fish in the pond it seemed to be mainly eating the slugs crawling on the adjacent lawn. Not a behaviour I’ve ever seen before, though this year’s BBC Springwatch showed footage of parent tawny owls bringing back large slugs for their chick, so perhaps it’s more common than we realise.
Following a mediocre breakfast and disgusting coffee, it was time for the first lecture of the day, the second keynote by Cathy Graham. Once again she focussed on her hummingbird research and presented some fascinating unpublished data on the structure of bird assemblages along an altitudinal gradient in Ecuador. Cathy’s team has been using cheap digital cameras which take one frame a second to amass data on infrequently visited rainforest flowers, an approach that trades off time and space: it’s possible to get a long set of data, but for only a limited number of plant species and individuals.
After coffee there were papers by Katie Leach on her PhD work on competition between co-occurring species of Lagomorpha (rabbits, hares, pikas, etc.) and from Richard Field on altitudinal effects on the endemism of plants which chimed with my experiences in Tenerife. Both of these neatly demonstrated one of the strengths of macroecology: the 21st Century tools it can marshal to use secondary data for understanding ecological patterns and processes at very large spatial scales.
But secondary data can also be a weakness of the field if the quality is poor and it is limited in scope. This was the subject later in the day of a polemical lecture by Shai Meiri entitled “Laziness in macroecology: a crime and no punishment” that railed against researchers who sometimes fail to augment ready-made data sets with even the most rudimentary of additional data. My favourite of Shai’s examples was a study which had used a mammalian ecology data set in which the diet of anteaters was coded as “unknown”! The tee-shirt Shai wore during his often very funny rant read: “If you are not outraged, you were not paying attention” and there was plenty for the audience to feel outraged about, not least his suggestion that we “ban taxonomy” and (even more controversially) get away from our computer screens and into the libraries to source information to fill in the gaps in data sets.
I’d go further and say that some field work would not go amiss as well! In comparison with using ever more sophisticated analyses, developing better software, and building ever more complex models, collecting field data seems to be low on the list of priorities for many macroecologists, particularly some of the PhD students. Not all of them by any means, and hopefully Cathy Graham’s talks will have inspired them to get into the field, but it strikes me as a trend. That’s worrying on many levels, and good data are hard won, but then I’m an old-fashioned, muddy boots kind of ecologist who realises that our knowledge of biodiversity is built up from a very small set of data in comparison to what we don’t know: we’ve scratched the surface of the tip of the iceberg as a colleague used to say.
In the afternoon there was an unscheduled talk by Olivia Norfolk on the biodiversity of plants and pollinators of Bedouin gardens in the mountains of Sinai, which included a lot of field data. This was followed by a second set of seven minute “lightning talks”. I was third on a diverse bill, sandwiched within research on amphibians, Tyrannosaurus rex, North American lizards and microbial communities. Seven minutes passes quickly and I overran slightly, but hopefully managed to convey the gist of our work on the relative frequency of wind versus animal pollination across the globe. No one threw missiles at least and there were a couple of good questions that probed the scope and limitations of the current data, but were nowhere near as challenging as the questions in Copenhagen (though I’d had much more time for that lecture).
Following a hasty set of goodbyes I headed to Nottingham station to catch the 1810 back home, once again via the desolation of Birmingham New Street. Reflecting on the meeting on the way to Northampton I was struck by the fact that of the forty-odd attending, I was the oldest delegate by some margin, which was even more sobering than Brazil’s loss to Germany. I consoled myself with a bit of “train spotting” (identifying as many bird species as possible through the windows of the train), and ended up with a respectable 21 species* during the two hours or so of travel.
Thanks to the organising committee of the BES Macroecology SIG, and especially to Adam Algar and his team in Nottingham, for a great meeting. I look forward to next year’s in Copenhagen.
*Blackbird, buzzard, swift, house martin, tufted duck, mute swan, mallard, jay, goldfinch, collared dove, wood pigeon, feral pigeon, starling, crow, magpie, grey heron, Canada goose, common tern, back-headed gull, common gull, pheasant, (22 if you count chickens in a run).