Biogeography comes of age



This week has been all about biogeography for me. While I wouldn’t call myself a ‘biogeographer’, I certainly do apply a lot of the discipline’s techniques.


This week I’m attending the 2013 Association of Ecology’s (INTECOL) and British Ecological Society’s joint Congress of Ecology in London, and I have purposefully sought out more of the biogeographical talks than pretty much anything else because the speakers were engaging and the topics fascinating. As it happens, even my own presentation had a strong biogeographical flavour this year.


Although the species-area relationship (SAR) is only one small aspect of biogeography, I’ve been slightly amazed that after more than 50 years since MacArthur & Wilson’s famous book, our discipline is still obsessed with SAR.


I’ve blogged about SAR issues before – what makes it so engaging and controversial is that SAR is the principal tool to estimate overall extinction rates, even though it is perhaps one of the bluntest tools in the ecological toolbox. I suppose its popularity stems from its superficial simplicity – as the area of an (classically oceanic) island increases, so too does the total number of species it can hold. The controversies surrounding such as basic relationship centre on describing the rate of that species richness increase with area – in other words, just how nonlinear the SAR itself is.


Even a cursory understanding of maths reveals the importance of estimating this curve correctly. As the area of an ‘island’ (habitat fragment) decreases due to human disturbance, estimating how many species end up going extinct as a result depends entirely on the shape of the SAR. Get the SAR wrong, and you can over- or under-estimate the extinction rate. This was the crux of the palaver over Fangliang He (not attending INTECOL) & Stephen Hubbell’s (attending INTECOL) paper in Nature in 2011.


The first real engagement of SAR happened with John Harte’s maximum entropy talk in the process macroecology session on Tuesday. What was notable to me was his adamant claim that the power-law form of SAR should never be used, despite its commonness in the literature. I took this with a grain of salt because I know all about how messy area-richness data can be, and why one needs to consider alternate models (see an example here). But then yesterday I listened to one of the greats of biogeography – Robert Whittaker – who said pretty much the complete opposite of Harte’s contention. Whittaker showed results from one of his papers last year that the power law was in fact the most commonly supported SAR among many datasets (granted, there was substantial variability in overall model performance). My conclusion remains firm – make sure you use multiple models for each individual dataset and try to infer the SAR from model-averaging.


But that’s only one stimulating aspect of Whittaker’s talk. I was very interested in the addition of (oceanic) island age to the simple bivariate SAR. Here he showed how true island biotas also shift merely as a function of their age since appearance, with often a higher richness in some taxa in the mid-range of ages. I believe there’s a lot of potential to add something analogous to continental (fragment) island SAR endeavours, which is the subtlest of hints that I am co-author of a rather important paper on just such an issue that is nearing the final stages of revision (stay tuned on that one).


One last mention before I end – Tim Blackburn gave a fantastic talk about his work on invasive species SARs (Tim is also a close colleague of our joint lab head, Phill Cassey), with the conclusion that while invasive species generally follow the power-law SAR, they often do with rather different intercepts and sometimes even different slopes. This means that despite the very different mechanisms underlying their invasion processes, area limits their diversity as well. What was more fascinating though was that human population density was a better predictor of invasive species richness than area in the datasets he had managed to collect! Enter his ‘SPHU’ (species-human relationship) – a most Blackburnian acronym. I think there’s a lot more potential here, especially if we take some of Whittaker’s ideas and apply age since introduction into the mix, and perhaps look at the influence of the invasives on the native species SARs. Fascinating stuff!


That’s all from me at INTECOL for now – I’m sure I’ll think of more about which to blog in coming weeks.


CJA Bradshaw


How do you judge the quality of a piece of work? #INT13

One skill all professional academics need to learn is how to judge the quality of a piece of work. Not just how competently it was performed, but also how important the work is – is it asking important questions, or is it giving us some crucial new information. I’ve been realising over the last few years that I’m not very good at this, when it comes to ecology. I think the problem is that I’m too interested in the methods, and sometimes fail to see why showing that a power law works is important, because I’m distracted by the triviality of the use of simple linear regression. Which is unfortunate for my own work, because I’m firmly in the camp that says that if a linear regression is all that’s needed, then don’t do anything more complicated. No wonder I never get anything into Nature.

Fortunately for me, INTECOL has had a lot of talks about methods rather than ecology. Indeed, I’m skipping a session like that now, to write this post. With such a broad range of things being done in ecology, it is perhaps not a surprise that it’s difficult to see any one thread running through these sessions. There is quite a bit of statistical development, partly as a result of the on-going Bayesian revolution: Drew Purves gave an introduction to Bayesian thought, and several other people discussed how they have used Bayesian methods for their work: Walter Jetz described using hierarchical methods to fill in missing data, and Gavin Thomas described how he used this approach to examine island evolution in birds, and found a tendency for some to re-invade mainland from islands. In another session, both Nick Golding and Joe Chipperfield talked about how they were using Gaussian random fields to do very different things to model species distributions. In the same session, Tamsin Lee used survival models to show that the Tasmanian Tiger is probably extinct, but we’ll have to wait a few years to be sure (I wonder about the Ivory Billed woodpecker, though). 

Between the talks, I have been doing journal stuff – talking to people about possible papers (including telling one person that their idea was, in effect, too good for us),  and also discussing the journal’s three year plan, which includes some ideas generated from what I’ve seen at the meeting. I have also so far avoided being interviewed by Barb Anderson for a podcast, but she has a strategy of pushing a sonic screwdriver in front of people’s noses which seems to have worked for getting material. This will be turned into a podcast in the future (near future, hopefully).

The one really big methodological advance we have seen here is in asking plenary questions through Twitter. This has limited the people who can participate, but getting on Twitter is the answer. And it has made the questions much shorter – we have avoided the questioner giving long lectures before ending with “do you agree?”

Dr Bob O’Hara

Editor, Methods in Ecology and Evolution


Second day London, first day Intecol – #INT13

Attending ecological meetings is always fun. Meeting friends and colleagues from over the world and corroborating networks with a beer, rather than establishing new ones, especially on the first day. I do like small meetings or workshops, and I like huge conferences like this one. Plenty of interesting talks, excellent keynotes, but there is also the danger of overlooking inspiring talks, or even worse, missing talks from your own students. Such things can happen, especially when talks are scheduled in symposia that are not obviously linked to the content of the talk – unless biotic homogenisation is an ecosystem function of course… However, I did notice that at the same time, one of my other students gave a talk in climate change ecology; I attended that presentation and she performed excellently, but I could be using that as an excuse!
Sandra Diaz’s plenary seemed to be intriguing when reading and trying to understand the title. I am happy to know Theophrastus now, and happy to use the insight from large database analyses on plant traits that herbs and small trees rule the world. Not surprising at all but sure, more detailed functional trait analyses will be necessary to recognise and identify vulnerability syndromes. Life seems simple when synthesising large databases, but sure trait syndromes are less robust when studying functional variation at smaller spatial scales, with less species present. 
This blog is the proof that I am making progress in using new media. I have not been Twittering, so could not ask any questions. I admit, I was reluctant when Georgina Mace announced that questions will be forwarded by Twitter only, but it worked. It worked very well, efficient handling, no fights with microphones.
Oikos is a journal of synthesis in Ecology. I adore synthetic talks. David Tilman’s talk was one to enjoy. Is there a single trade-off rule that mediates coexistence at different spatial scales? Based on quite some paleological and ecological data, such a pattern exists, and surprisingly, this rule appears to be related to the finding that historical invasions (large mammals colonising North America during the last ice age, molluscs from the pacific invading palearctic systems) did not lead to species extinctions. The rule appears to be more universal and can be coupled to the BDEF theory. David deserved more time, and a larger room for sure. The relationship between the mean and variance of species densities is an established law. Joel Cohen surely made me look into our artificial metapopulation data to see whether spatial structure generates different slopes of Taylor’s law. Look out for my talk, where I will demonstrate how changes in metapopulation structure impact eco-evolutionary dynamics and gene expression in mites. Actually, mites are becoming a model system in ecology. Tom Cameron’s presentation on evolutionary rescue was great, and I am looking forward for Isabelle Smallegange’s (Oikos subject editor) talk.

So far, so good.

Dries Bonte,


How to get the most out of INTECOL

#INT13 by Rob Salguero-Gómez

I was recently asked by the executive board of Journal of Ecology to highlight presentations and other events that I am looking forward to at the INTECOL conference, taking place in London, August 18-23 (

Well, I will start by admitting that I feel rather bad that I wasn’t able to attend the ESA(merica) this year, after having attended all ESAs since I started grad school. I had to trade-off ESA for INTECOL, as many other Associate Editors of Journal of Ecology and Executive Editor David Gibson ( had to do. However, I am truly excited to attend INTECOL!! This will be my first INTECOL, and it promises to be a true “Darwinian monster” of cutting-edge ecological and evolutionary science. Even a quick look at the programme shows already that it is going to bring the very best from around the world.

However, before telling you what exactly I am thrilled about in regards to INTECOL, I am going to take the liberty to write a bit on what I am not so excited about: it all looks too good, it is hard to choose! I have spent a significant chunk of today making some decisions on what events I will attend… a summary of my highlighted itinerary during that week based on the fantastic app that INTECOL provides (here – tells me that I am overbooked with four-way time conflicts at some times of the day. Oh boy! I suspect that other young ecologists will share this situation at a big conference like INTECOL too. Consequently, I have decided to offer some tips, if I may, that have in the past worked for me when navigating big conferences:

–          It turns out that one really can’t be in more than one place at the same time (yep, no matter how fast you run or how young you are). Consequently, breathe in, and remember that the spoken research can also be communicated informally at the poster session (corner that speaker whose talk you missed!), over beers (a free beer can get you a long way), or even later on via email (Dear Dr XXX, I was not able to attend your talk at INTECOL, but I have read much of your research on YYY and I was wondering if we could skype to discuss ZZZ. Sincerely, a proactive student). Missing a talk is not the end of the world.

–          Choose wisely, but don’t over-think it! Which event would you rather go to if you have some conflicting scheduled ones? Let’s face it, sometimes flashy titles are not all that they promise, and titles that look not so flashy (ok, I’ll say it: boring) at first glance end up delivering amazing insights into ecological and evolutionary research. It is also a good idea to go to some talks that are really far away from your field of expertise/interest. Thinking outside of the box sometimes often requires listening outside of your conference room.

–          Big and small conferences alike are fantastic places for networking, looking for jobs and initiating collaborations. Make sure to schedule “sit down” times with the researchers with whom you’d like to chat. Emailing them with a request for a meeting ahead of the meeting to nail down a day, time and place is a very good idea. If you haven’t done this yet… hurry up!

–          INTECOL is an ecological marathon, not a sprint. The conference lasts for a full week. You will have the opportunity to attend many of the on-going symposia, organized oral sessions, workshops, poster sessions and special events. There is not point in running out of energy on your first day. Make sure you schedule your “me time” to think about what you just learned, or simply to talk to other colleagues. If you can’t summarize concisely what was the coolest finding that you learned at the end of a given day of the conference, you might want to re-consider the way you are navigating the conference. Mental saturation is not healthy!

–          Make time to see London! I was lucky enough to live there during my MSc, and its multi-cultural background and vibrant atmosphere has greatly influenced my desire to collaborate internationally and to visit and learn from new cultures.

–          Plan a vacation after the conference. You deserve it!

Ok, and now that I got that off my chest, here are some of the things that I am looking forward to at INTECOL:

–          First and foremost, meeting up with my international colleagues over beer and curry!

–          The conference will feature quite a few talks on eco-evolutionary dynamics. I am excited about “Eco-evolutionary dynamics in response to selection on life history” (Monday Aug 19, 12:15-12:30), “Eco-evolutionary dynamics of range shifting: dispersal evolution (Mon Aug 19, 12:30-45), “Impact of heritable traits on population growth (Mon Aug 19, 16.30-16:45), or “Advances in the use of integral projection models to link ecological and evolutionary dynamics” (Tue Aug 20, 12:00-12:15). Some of these talks and many more will take place in a symposium organized by Journal of Ecology Associate Editor Rich Shefferson and myself on Tuesday morning titled “Eco-evolutionary dynamics and the contemporary convergence of ecology and evolution” (Capital Suite 12).

–          On the ecophysiological/demographic side of business, I’m very much looking forward to the following presentations: “Life history traits and recent range shifts can predict extinction risk due to climate change (Tue Aug 20, 10:45-11:00), “Variation in plant functional traits across a latitudinal gradient: does intraspecific variation matter” (Wed Aug 21, 10:15-10:30), “Life history trade-offs affect the invasion velocity of spreading plant populations” (Fri Aug 23, 10:15-10:30), “A new perspective to find dispersal traits related to plant colonization across islands (Wed Aug 21, 15:15-15:30), “Allometric scaling of population variance with mean body size predicted from Taylor’s law and density-mass allometry” (Wed Aug 21, 9:00-9:15), “Can trait-based analyses of species distribution change be transferred to new geographic areas?” (Wed Aug 21, 15:45-16:00),  and “Reconstructing shifts in vital rates by directional environmental change: a demographic method based on readily available data” (Fri Aug 23, 10:30-10:45)

–          Although Journal of Ecology publishes mostly on plant, fungi and plant–animal interactions, most studied animals are but furry plants that happen to move around (imho, that is), so I also suggest: “Life histories have a history: effects of past and present conditions on adult somatic growth rates in wild Trinidadian guppies” (Wed Aug 21, 9:15-30). The research performed on this study system is truly pushing forward biodemography, and plant population ecologists may in my opinion benefit from this experimental approach.

–          Journal of Ecology recently published a Special Feature on the evolution of senescence in plants. INTECOL will also offer some very interesting presentations in this regard. Some examples are: “Telomeres and telomerase activity in relation to self-maintenance” (Tue Aug 20, 18:15-19:15), and “Reconsidering the consequences of mortality” (Wed Aug 21, 15:45-16:00) among others.

–          The following presentations seem rather interesting from what I could read of their abstract and, time allowing, I’ll try to attend too: “Does organismal intelligence stabilize the biosphere?” (Mon Aug 19, 11:00-11:15) and “Astroecology: spatial ecology reaches the solar system” (14:15-14:30)

–          INTECOL will also offer a wonderful array of workshops, of which the following ones seem very interesting, particularly in the new ecological era of “big data, big ecology”: “Maximum entropy and ecology: foundations, methods and applications” (Tue Aug 20, 12:15-14:15pm), “What makes good code good?” (Wed Aug 21, 12:45-14:15), “Managing ecological data for effective use and re use” (Thu Aug 22, 12:15-14:15). In addition, the International Network of Next-Generation Ecologist (INNGE; link – is organizing a series of activities and workshops for young ecologists that range from career promotion, to open-science, pecha-kucha talks on influential papers in ecology, visions on ecology by senior researchers, and even a social night! (Check out here for more details:

See you all in London!

Rob S-G

Associate Editor,  Journal of Ecology

PS: otherwise I’ll be tweeting live @drobcito


Andrew Beckerman Introduces INTECOL

Oh INTECOL, give me a good week of science, frivolity and celebration of 100 years of the BES!

Let me be clear, up front, about this blog post. I am petrified. I am writing as the organiser of the science programme for the meeting, something hoisted upon me via the most awesome position you can have for the BES, Meetings Secretary. Just ask anyone else who’s done it, like Prof. Malcolm Press or Dr. Hefin Jones. I mean, you get to work with Richard English and Hazel Norman from the society. And if that wasn’t cool enough, you get to help make meetings happen, where anywhere from 25–2500 people come from around the world to share their science and ideas. Interested in party planning for ecology? Come join us.

But I am also writing as a journal editor – I share the Editor in Chief position for the new Open Access journal Ecology & Evolution with Prof Allen Moore, and I’ll be hanging out on Wednesday 16.15 at the Wiley-Blackwell booth to answer questions about the journal, our OA vision and the many cool ways you can submit to us.

And finally, I will also be there as a scientist, something my friends will surely question and laugh at. Be quiet Dylan Childs. But I have managed to get my name on quite a cool poster, with Dr. Olga Barbosa from Universidad Austral, in Valdivia, Chile. I’ve been on sabbatical there for nearly 8 months, and we’ve worked on using multi-objective programming tools to understand how to simultaneously meet urban development and biodiversity preservation objectives in the amazing city of Valdivia. The data Olga has on the city is just amazing. Go see it!?

But, lets go back to the FEAR. Much of my research centres around fear, mostly under the guise of predation risk. And for the first time, I am afraid of a meeting. INTECOL is big. I’ve organised the BES science programmes for a few years now. But , let me say it again. INTECOL is BIG! And filled with so many cool, interesting talks and posters cutting across the breadth of ecology. Notwithstanding the challenges, irritations and self-inflicted trauma (sorry Amy) of reconciling two databases to organise the programme, I just hope the timetabling of symposia, oral sessions, keynotes and workshops works. At least people seem to like the app.

At this point, I should introduce Amy Everard and Julie Hodgkinson. Julie is the BES staff person in charge of the BES centenary- the Festival of Ecology Manager -and is really the one coordinating all the cool events that have led to the meeting and, frankly, everything but the science at the meeting, though she’s had a hand in that working with the international science committee that advised us early on and helped set the keynote and symposia. Amy was hired as Julie’s assistant to help me with the programming
and Julie with the rest.

Why focus on these two superstars? Well, if the meeting goes well, they are the ones to thank. Any problems are not their fault. Find me instead, if you want to complain. Rob Salguero-Gomez might be the first the queue to talk about the Programme and conflicts! He has some good advice about negotiating the unavoidable situation of too many good things that happens at big meetings.

But then again, if the meeting is falling apart, I’ll have left for Portugal to attend That Other Meeting. Or gone back to hiding in Chile.

Welcome to INTECOL. Come meet the BES. Engage in debate and discussion. Learn cool stuff. Enjoy the biggest gathering of ecology London ahead ever seen. Ecology Rocks, doesn’t it.