EcoTas2017 – Reflections of a Plant Nerd

What could be better than hanging out with a bunch of cool people also obsessed with how our natural world works? I went away to EcoTas 2017, the joint conference of the Ecological Society of Australia and New Zealand Ecological Society. I came back with a tan, a brain buzzing with new knowledge and (I like to think) some new friends. 45 Sessions, 337 speakers, 81 posters and I feel my brain has at least doubled in size. You will see a definite bias in the presentations represented here. Turns out I really like plants and smaller scale conservation and management issues.


Local Knowledge

9am Monday many of us walked from the onsite accommodation, others drove in from surrounding AirBnBs and hotels to start the conference off with a Welcome to Country. Lorrie Perry from the Wonnarua National Aboriginal Corporation got the ball rolling by introducing us to James Wilson-Miller, a curator from the Powerhouse Museum, for an engaging and moving welcome to country. He was followed by Jamie Ataria, a clearly multi-talented man who has a finger in many pies, from ecotoxicology to Maori business development. He responded thoughtfully and thanked all those ancestors and elders who suffered and paved the way for us.

Leah Talbot was the first keynote speaker. She spoke about her recently completed PhD which was a comparative study of how indigenous knowledge is supported and feeds into conservation management. Being a Kuku Yalanji Traditional Owner, she focused on her people in the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area and compared their experiences to that of the Sami people in the Laponia World Heritage Area, Sweden. I think the most striking thing about her research was that she developed a new framework she called the Empowering Indigenous Lens and specifically developed a methodology called “walking together” which use indigenous worldviews as a framework for research such as this.  The idea is that the indigenous people are part of the analysis and their views are continually fed back into the research process.

Jamie Ataria was the 2nd Keynote speaker, who noted that a conference on a golf course is an ecotoxicologists dream. His presentation emphasised that the people have to come before the research, otherwise we risk being a “one day mushroom”; come in, get data and disappear again. Doing otherwise is bad for the people researchers are working with and the research itself.

Sunrise at Cypress Lakes, EcoTas 2017 venue (C.Simpson-Young)

Sunrise at Cypress Lakes, EcoTas 2017 venue (C.Simpson-Young)

When, Where and Why do Trees Die?

I started the conference on an uplifting note by attending the Tree Mortality Symposium. Dan Falster began with 5 recommended techniques for modelling tree mortality. I did note these 5 techniques but I don’t think I could do them justice here. So check out his website for more of his work.

On a smaller scale (one I can wrap my head around) Georgia Watson from the University of Wollongong. She studied tree recruitment, growth and mortality in response to burning and logging in Yamballa State Forest. Ultimately she found that there is greater tree mortality in logged sites if exposed to fire, but on the flip side, there is also greater recruitment.

Ecology and Agriculture

I popped over to the Agro-Ecology session and saw Rohan Riley’s talk on his functional traits approach to assessing pant resource economics using automated imaging.

Then Manu Saunders about how ecosystem services are the link between research and policy/management, and studies into this area usually overlook the ecological complexity and have an economics focus. She presented a new ecosystem service typology that works for multifunctional landscapes and includes links between terrestrial and aquatic environments, spatial and temporal factors and social and ecological factors.

Later I went to Katrinka Ruthrof’s talk on work she has done as part of the Mine to Plant Enterprises Project (Mintope) which is a partnership between Murdoch University, Christmas Island Phosphates and the Commonwealth Government. They are trying to establish agriculture on closed mining sites which have low fertility, high heavy metal levels, and don’t have a good soil microbial community. They found through studies with legumes that Potassium was the limiting factor, and with increased potassium in the soil, the heavy metal levels in the plants become safer.

I then did something uncharacteristic and went over to the Insect Ecology Research Chapter session, and saw Jamie Stavert who gave a really interesting talk on the role of exotic flies in pollinating native plants. He planted flowers usually pollinated by flies and bees in areas with varying connectedness with native vegetation. He found that as we move away from native vegetation and into more purely agricultural areas exotic pollinators do more of the heavy lifting.

EcoTas2017 (C.Simpson-Young)

EcoTas2017 (C.Simpson-Young)

Ecology and People

The afternoon sessions started and I rushed between the Urban Ecology and Conservation Biology sessions. Abbey Camaclang gave a great talk on using density impact models to help prioritise conservation actions on upland peat swamps. Thomas Newsome presented on using body size and range in predicting the extinction of invertebrates and found that smaller species are just as likely to become extinct in some groups of mammals which is important because large vertebrates are usually the focus of conservation efforts.

Katrinka Ruthrof gave Ben Miller’s talk on fire and weed management at King’s Park. I really enjoyed this one as my PhD is looking at urban bushland, and plus I have huge respect for anyone who manages to do burns in urban areas! So I’ll write a bunch more about this in an upcoming post.

My excitement about Melinda Cook’s talk is evident in the fact that I wrote significantly more notes for it than other talks of this length. Mistletoes play an important ecological role as they drop their leaves without reabsorbing the nutrients creating nutrient-rich leaf litter, as well as providing nesting and food resources for animals. Her study is looking at whether they increase animal diversity if re-established in urban areas. They planted 864 seeds on 27 trees, the method of which is fascinating as it is. I think there is a whole blog post in that!

The evening saw a wonderful poster session. It was an opportunity to learn more about people’s research and to make new friends!

EcoTas2017 Poster Session (C.Simpson-Young)

EcoTas2017 Poster Session (C.Simpson-Young)


Bernat Bramon Mora and Matthias Dehling both from the Stouffer Lab spoke about functional traits and diversity in communities with a focus on bird-plant interactions. Matthias’ made me think, and I will definitely be downloading that paper.

Yohay Carmel spoke about ecological ideas that keep returning despite increasing evidence that they don’t hold. He spoke about the intermediate disturbance hypothesis and optimal foraging, but his main focus was the competitive exclusion principle. He concluded by saying that we keep creating and maintaining these paradigms because we try to make simple models in the style of the discipline of physics for the complex natural world.


I did some serious note taking during Nick Shultz’s  presentation as a part of my PhD takes a similar approach as Nick. He is taking a traits-based approach to studying post-mining revegetation. I, of course, both loved and felt very intimidated by the presentation. The striking findings was how C4 plant thrive where C3 didn’t (*scrambles to add photosynthetic pathways to traits list for my study*).

I ran over to the community ecology session. Sadly I missed John Morgan but made it in time for Tanya Mason which was cool because I have seen the experiments in the UNSW glasshouse. They are looking at the impact of underground mining on upland swamps. It’s very clear that as the underground mining disrupts the underground water situation the plant communities suffer.

The afternoon was jam-packed full of other fantastic looking talks, but I needed to tap out and have a break.

EcoTas2017 Delegates (C.Simpson-Young)

EcoTas2017 Delegates (C.Simpson-Young)


Wednesday started with an excellent address by ESA president Don Driscoll. There’ll be more on the address in the following post.


Following Don was a bunch of impressive talks by ESA Award and Scholarship winners. Rowena Hamer winner of the 2016 TNC Applied Conservation Award presented her work on the effectiveness of habitat restoration for native wildlife in the Midlands of Tasmania.

Samantha McCann presented her work so far in ways of managing cane toad populations by manipulating signalling chemicals. There are 3 chemical cues used by cane toads, attraction cues, suppression cues and alarm cues (the last of which she didn’t cover in this presentation). Attractions cues are released and trigger the tadpoles to eat other cane toad eggs when the population density increases too much. We can mimic these cues to reduce the number of eggs in a water body. Adult cane toads can release suppression chemical cues that suppress tadpole growth. Sam tested how mimicking these cues would work in the field, specifically would changing the density in discrete water bodies increase the fitness of the tadpoles that remain. Just trapping and removing tadpoles meant that the ones left behind had the resources to grow larger meaning they are better at escaping predators. However, suppression meant the there was the same density of tadpoles but after a period a proportion die.

Joshua Thia, winner of the 2016 Wiley Fundamental Ecology Award, is studying intertidal systems and patch limited movements in Bathygobius cocosensis. He studied genetic structure of 3 populations over 3 years, finding that there was high dispersal and connectivity as they travel long distances, but there are various post settlement processes that reduce connectivity.

Rylea McGlusky who won the 2017 Applied Forest Ecology Presentation Award did a great presentation on long-term land use changes and structural habitat for gliders in state forests in SE Queensland. She carried out studies on two types of vegetation; one that had been logged in the last 20 years and one logged more than 20 years ago.  She measured DBH, stumps and hollows, and carried out nocturnal surveys. Despite a history of logging “there were some juicy looking hollows”.

 Effectiveness monitoring

Sarah Munks started off the Effectiveness Monitoring Session with an interesting talk based on a trip with her colleagues to see how conservation monitoring was done in the US, I had a lot of notes from this one, so I’ll write some more about it in the next blog post!

Brad Law from Forest Science Unit at NSW focused his talk on monitoring of bats on and off flyways in the Pilliga. The monitoring program (which was run between 2013-2016 by forestry NSW) used remote recording devices like song meters and camera traps.

Later I went to Sacha Jellinek’s talk on restoration planting survival. Again, more on that later.

Mike Bowie presented results from their pilot restoration study implemented on Licoln Universities’ dairy farm. There is less than 0.5% of original vegetation cover left in Canterbury, and the New Zealand farming landscape once had shelterbelts and pine plantations which have been lost to clearing as the price of dairy dropped. They planted 38 native plant species in corner plantings and double fence line plantings in an attempt to bring back invertebrates. Invertebrate species richness increased in the plantings compared to the grass. Hopefully planting like this can improve insect movement into the paddocks and allow bird movements across landscapes.

Mike Bowie EcoTas2017 (C.Simpson-Young)

A visual representation of the impact of farming in the New Zealand Landscape from Mike Bowie’s presentation at EcoTas2017 (C.Simpson-Young)

Speed Talks

After lunch, Richard Fuller gave an excellent presentation as the winner of the Australian Ecology Research Award (more on this in a later post). This year EcoTas introduced speed talks, and they featured some. Laura Fernandez spoke about management of Myrtle Rust. Lindall Kidd explained the need for behaviour change theory and evaluation for strategic communication. Adrienne Nicotra argued that we need to include species adaptive capacity when modelling of species movement in response to climate change. We should also study species on the ecological edges and make use of structured Expert Elicitation. Finally, Ayesha Tulloch demonstrated how we can model likely responses to threat management of all 88 Box Woodland bird species from partial information on only 37 species.

Laura Fernandez, Lindall Kidd, Adrienne Nicotra, Ayesha Tulloch. EcoTas 2017 (C.Simpson-Young)

Laura Fernandez, Lindall Kidd, Adrienne Nicotra, Ayesha Tulloch EcoTas2017 (C.Simpson-Young)

After morning tea I went to the Novel Management Interventions for Threatened Species Symposium. I really enjoyed it so wanted to give it a little more space, so I’ll cover that in the next post. I then flitted around and saw Decky Junaedi who carried out a framework based risk assessment of plant species in Indonesian botanic gardens spreading into the native vegetation. His study showed that 24 had escaped, and when modelled showed that there was a strong correlation between spread and Specific Leaf Area and then time since arrived at the gardens. Dispersal method or height were not strongly correlated. Then I went to Rachel Gallagher’s talk on “what happens to plants when you are very mean to them”, i.e. a species vulnerability and adaptive capacity to determine their safety margin to heat/dryness with climate change.

Rachael Gallagher and Decky Junaedi at EcoTas2017 (C.Simpson-Young)

Rachael Gallagher and Decky Junaedi at EcoTas2017 (C.Simpson-Young)


The Thursday morning keynote speakers gave excellent presentations of New Zealand’s latest large-scale biodiversity study, and successful conservation and restoration programs. More on these talks to come in the next post. I spent the morning ducking between the Forest Ecology and Conservation Biology Sessions.

Mark Ooi presented his comparative study of the threatened Leucopogon exolasius and two more common Leucopogon species and their response to fire. He started this study during his honours in 2000/2011, and it was 16 years later when he started to have “his own new cohort” that he revisited the work. Leucopogon exolasius had a very long juvenile period compared to the other species, which means that too frequent burning could mean that the species doesn’t get a chance to reproduce before the next fire. Mark also found that fire season also impacted the species. Out of season burns increases juvenile period which puts the species at even greater risk.

Tyler Coverdale presented his initial PhD results on the associational refuge that spiny Acacia provide for the plants that live beneath them in the African Savannah. He found that plant living beneath spiny acacias have 3-4 times fewer spines themselves compared to individuals living in the open. To confirm that it was an effect of herbivory they removed branches from one side of an Acacia and measured herbivory on the plants below. Those still under the Acacia branches had less herbivory, while those now exposed had more. This pattern is consistent across different species and supported by clipping experiments which induced a 25% increase in defences within a month.

Yanbin Deng is an ecologist with Waikato Regional Council in New Zealand who has been monitoring and planning the restoration of Kahikatea forests in the Waikato area. Kahikatea forests are at 0.67% of its original extent, and only 1.5 hectares remain over 867 fragments. Many of the remnants are on private land, are exposed to high edge effect, weeds and changes in hydrology. She outlined how a restoration plan will be created and implemented making use of maps, photos, and SERA evaluation-wheel tool.

Sjirk Geerts investigated whether the plant species pollinated by the Malachite Sunbird in South Africa are suffering because of the birds’ dislike of urban areas. A study of a particular plant species which relies solely on the Malachite Sunbird found that although flowers are visited by a species of short-billed sunbirds, this results in lower seed production than when visited by the long-billed Malachite Sunbird. Sjirk used population projection analyses to show that there could be significant population decline in plant species pollinated by the Malachite Sunbird.

Mark Ooi, Tyler Coverdale, Yanbin Deng and Sjirk Geerts. EcoTas2017 (C.Simpson-Young)

Mark Ooi, Tyler Coverdale, Yanbin Deng and Sjirk Geerts. EcoTas2017 (C.Simpson-Young)

We had our last lunch together trying super hard to stay out of the sun. Martin Westgate gave a great presentation which I’ll write more about later, and awards were given to the winners of various prizes, including best ecological fashion. Keep an eye out for the next post on EcoTas2017.

Thursday Lunch at EcoTas 2017 (C.Simpson-Young)

Thursday Lunch at EcoTas 2017 (C.Simpson-Young)

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