Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Ecological Society of America Conference

ESA was in Albuquerque, NM this year. A couple of things stood out.

First, I attended a number of talks about plant traits and performance of species. Very little of the intellectual energy in these talks focused on the relationships among traits or how traits would affect the abundance of species. Instead, most of the energy focused on phylogenetic relationships of species. In some cases, the simplest of traits was overlaid on somewhat complex phylogenies. No one seemed to say species A is more abundant than B because of trait X. Instead, there was more focus on phylogenetic distance of how individual traits changed with evolutionary time. These types of questions are incredibly interesting, but there was almost no balance. The field still seems to be avoiding central questions about traits and abundance.

Second, NSF had put together two days of talks on Coupled Biogeochemical Cycles. The talks were a murderers row of speakers. Members of the National Academy were pushed back to the second day. The talks focused on understanding how coupling different biogeochemical cycles together better helps us understand the functioning of ecosystems in different contexts. For example, coupling the carbon and nitrogen cycles better helps us understand the responses of ecosystems to elevated CO2 than just examining the C cycle. Investigating Ca availability helps us better understand NO3- loss from ecosystems. Not much in any one talk was that novel, but together, the talks provided a great overview for the science. I would have liked to see some questions discussed a bit more. For example, how do researchers choose which elemental cycle to consider when trying to understand a given process? When modeling the global C cycle, should we next incorporate the N cycle? Or P? These are pretty tough questions without roadmaps. Still, the symposia were pretty amazing. It'd be great if NSF could continue to host these multi-day events within ESA.

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