#IBS13 Wrap-up, refelections from Miami

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Figure 1. The International Biogeography Society is worth joining, if you haven’t already. Membership information is here.

The International Biogeography Society held its 2013 meeting at Florida International University in Miami, Florida.  The plenary speaker, Jim Brown, wrapped up the meeting with a talk on the latitudinal gradient of diversity, and our apparent inability to answer the question “Why are there more species in the tropics”. He made a great point during his talk, that I think is applicable to a number of ideas: There are multiple hypotheses about the latitudinal gradient of diversity, they are not generally exclusive, and the fact that the gradient is so ubiquitous across taxa and geographic regions indicates the fact that answering the question “Why?” shouldn’t require an overly complex solution (although it remains unsolved).

This is one of the things I like about big meetings: Really compelling findings are the ones that find elegant solutions to pernicious questions. Whether through experimental design or novel methods, big questions require simple answers. The process of getting to the simple answer is never elegant, we have to do some really difficult work, develop new methods, spend lots of time thinking, writing, revising and collaborating.  The best presenters can pose the big question, put a map up with some colored points and make the audience believe that the answer seems obvious, regardless of how much work has gone into the research.

The other side of the coin is that we are attracted to these simple solutions, and we need to be careful about believing the simple answers to readily. This explains the persistence of many of Dynamic Ecology’s zombie ideas, and some unsavory political opinions.

The Williams Lab was really well represented at IBS, Jessica Blois was one of the plenary speakers in the Conservation Paleoecology session, Jacquelyn Gill had a great talk summarizing her work on no-analogue communities in the late-glacial, Alejandro Ordonez had a poster showing some of his work on leads and lags in species migrations following the last deglaciation, and I had my talk in the Biogeography of the Anthropocene session.  I was pretty happy with how my talk went (it’s up on figshare if you missed it), and was glad to have seen people in the crowd whose work has influenced the way I think about certain topics in ecology and biogeograpy.

This IBS conference was organized in a way I haven’t seen before. Everyone attended two days of plenary talks (with poster sessions in the morning and afternoon) before the concurrent sessions on the third day. It was a great way of stimulating discussion, and provided good opportunities for small talk (on big ideas). Some of the highlights for me:

  • The Biogeography of Stress workshop organized by Leslie RisslerMichael Hickerson, and Michael Angilletta
  • A really interesting talk by Michael Dawson about Advances in Marine Biogeography
  • A cool charcoal/paleofire talk by Carolina Tovar, looking at signals of human use of fire in central Africa over the last 2500 years.
  • Lenore Fahrig had a great talk about whether we need to rethink conservation planning based on patch size and isolation effects
  • Jessica Blois showed her GDM modelling, that seems to indicate that the space-for-time substitution may be less robust than we assume.  This is based on her recent Ecography paper.
  • Naia Morueta-Holme had the talk right before mine, resurveying Humboldt’s famous survey of Chimborazo, with interesting results.
  • Jacquelyn Gill presented her great work on non-analogue vegetation in the late-Pleistocene.

Being a bit isolated at the FIU campus was nice, people stuck around, there was none of the Friday (Saturday in our case) brain drain that is notorious at other conferences since we all had to wait for the shuttle to take us back to the hotel, and we were all waiting for the keynote talk by Jim Brown.  I also had some great bus companions on the trips to and from the hotel:  Jim Clark, David Currie, Ben Blonder and Sunil Kumar.

IBS13 was also my first real experience with live tweeting a talk and I have to admit that I still feel conflicted about it. I agree with Jacquelyn Gill that it’s a good way of summarizing the talk for yourself and it was also a good way of making new connections. Through tweeting I got a lot of new followers and got information from IBS out to people who weren’t able to make it to the conference, as well as people outside the IBS. At the same time, being online during a talk is risky, with a constant temptation to check email for a second, which then turns into a minute, and then you’re lost in the talk.

All in all IBS 2013 was a great conference. Dan Gavin in particular is to be commended for his efforts in putting together great sets of talks (the program is here). Now it’s time to head to the beach. Hope to see many more people at IBS15 in Bayreuth, Bavaria!

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Assistant scientist in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Studying paleoecology and the challenges of large data synthesis.

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