12 months in ecology

Ahead of her plenary lecture at the BES Annual Meeting next week, Helen Roy, Ecologist at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and People and Nature Associate Editor writes for Relational Thinking and us on her celebration of a year in ecology.

If you’re at #BES2019 Helen’s plenary lecture will be at 09.00 am on Friday 13th December. Don’t miss it!

Every year I excitedly anticipate attending the British Ecological Society Annual Meeting. Every year the ’12 months in Ecology’ plenary lecture is one of my (many) highlights, so I was delighted to receive an invitation to be the speaker for 2019. Throughout the year I have been compiling articles and stories which I began by posting on my office door rapidly spilling over to the walls, sometimes scattered on my floor and often strewn across my desk. Organising these has not been easy. The outcome is simply a scrapbook, dominated in parts by stark headlines of biodiversity declines but with sufficient glimmers of hope to give some cause for optimism. This is my celebration of a year in ecology.

The role of human-associated drivers of biodiversity and ecosystem change is unquestionable but perhaps the greatest hope comes from people. Over the last year the Climate Protests have been in the news week after week (and dominated Twitter trends). There have been calls for change from all around the world; many people clearly recognise the importance of their connection to our natural world. The new BES journal People and Nature is extremely timely and has provided me with much inspiration throughout the year. Engaging people with ecology is incredibly important to me. Sharing the excitement and wonder of our natural world is not only an immense joy but critical for making evidence-based decisions in conservation. The interdisciplinary topics covered in the first issues of People and Nature have extended my thinking and taken me on journeys way beyond my imagination. Species Distribution Models are commonplace within my research but placing them within a socio-ecological framework provides a novel dimension. In Effects of climatically shifting species distributions on biocultural relationships Species Distribution Models are used to predict the threats to both biological and cultural systems ultimately assessing the ways in which access by Indigenous Peoples of New Zealand to two culturally important plant species, namely Kūmarahou and Kuta, will be altered with predicted climate warming.

Shifting and declining species has been a strong theme throughout the year. Hardly a week goes by without another report of ‘insect Armageddon’, ‘insect apocalypse’ or the more general demise of biodiversity. Like so many people these reports trouble me. Not only because of concerns for the drastic and rapid changes that these studies document but because of the ways in which the functioning of ecosystems are likely to be shifting in ways we do not yet understand.  The importance of the small, the hidden, the less-loved species is widely accepted (at least in entomology!) but grappling with long-term trends in even the most charismatic of insects is difficult. However, it would be impossible if it weren’t for the amazing contributions of volunteers who document and record our wildlife year on year. The rich legacy of biological recording in Britain has provided us with incredible datasets spanning centuries. I have the pleasure of being part of the volunteer recording community and also working alongside innovative ecological modellers. The partnership results in many lively discussions but ultimately underpins assessments such as The State of Nature and the IPBES Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services; the latter providing the headline figure that one million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction. A depressing conclusion. However, I find such synthesis reports inspiring achievements and the people involved even more so.

Inspiring people; inspiring places.

Ecological interactions captivate me. It is critical that we consider the ways in which changes to species distribution and abundance alter ecological networks and ultimately ecosystem function and resilience. But considering entire networks of species is not straightforward. One approach to begin this tricky task is through mathematical modelling. I am particularly fascinated by the ways in which non-native species alter community assemblages. How to Invade an Ecological Network provides a mathematical framework to explore network ecology in the context of biological invasions; a multiplayer game, not only involving native and non-native species but also importantly capturing human influence too. A study on mutualistic networks in the Galápagos revealed non-native and native insects that visit flowers differ in their interaction strength and fidelity; concluding that non-native and native flower visitors are not simply interchangeable.

Hermit Crab market on the beach in the British Indian Ocean Territory.

This is only a snapshot of the many, many amazing studies I have read throughout the year. A mere couple of pages from my 2019 ecological scrapbook. I have been heartened by the innovative ways in which ecologists are drawing together evidence to provide solutions to address global environmental challenges and design sustainable social-ecological systems. I have delved deep into the competitive world of hermit crab home improvements and shell markets. I have marvelled at the inventories of invertebrates on far flung islands. But most of all I have continued to be inspired by the remarkable contributions of people around the world tirelessly working together to unravel ecological patterns and processes on unprecedented scales – particularly volunteers – thank you all for being the greatest hope for our planet.

(Huge thanks to @TomAugust85 who established a monthly trawl of trends in Twitter and the news which will contribute enormously to my talk).

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