Today proved a typical first day of ESA, with delayed flights, hotel difficulties and luggage to carry around. Then you head to the convention centre and are reminded all over again just how big ESA actually is. The benefit of the crowds is that the sessions take on a specificity and quantity that you can't find anywhere else. The bad news is that you will have to make choices.
Today's choices weren’t too difficult - I moved between the Community Assembly and Neutral I and Community Pattern and Dynamics I sessions to start. Some common themes emerged, especially that people are quite interested in the relationship between diversity and phylogeny, and then phylogeny and traits, and also in patterns of beta and alpha-diversity along environmental gradients.
A few talks stood out: Emma Moran spoke about identifying the processes of deterministic assembly and stochasticity that drive community diversity. In agreement with previous work from Jonathan Chase, her co-author, she spoke about how using null models allows scientists to differentiate between these two processes by observing temporal and spatial patterns of species diversity and comparing them to those patterns expected by chance alone. By looking at both temporal and spatial patterns of diversity, it is possible to differentiate between stochastic arrival of species at a site, followed by deterministic interactions (spatial stochasticity + temporal determinism) and purely stochastic assembly (both temporal and spatial patterns of diversity random), for example. Using both simulations and empirical data, she demonstrated the patterns of diversity that might be expected and tested for under these scenarios. When she used a null model that controlled for random expectations, her conclusions about which processes were important were dramatically different from those arrived at without a null model.
In the Population Dynamics session, Emanuel Fronhofer asked 'Why are metapopulations so rare' and came to the possibly controversial conclusion that they are rare because there aren't many conditions that should result in metapopulations. Metapopulations are a common concept in ecology, based on the idea that population dynamics in different patches are linked via dispersal between those patches. However, it's unclear how common metapopulations really are in nature. Fronhofer used individual based models (IBMs) to explore the range of dispersal values, environmental stochasticity, or reproductive system type, for example, that would result in a metapopulation. In particular, he looked at the most strict definition of a metapopulation: occupancy of patches less than 1 and more than 0, turnover through time, and FST values such that populations are genetically differentiated. What he found agreed with the nay-sayers: only quite narrow values of parameters like dispersal resulted in true metapopulations. Does this mean metapopulation ecology is a highly specialized field? Difficult to say, although it maybe that a particularly stringent definition of a metapopulation (with occupancy between 0 and 1, for example) is not necessary to describe the movement of individuals and alleles between patches in a way that is consistent with metapopulation dynamics.
Finally, Geoff Legault discussed spatial synchrony among populations, in which population cycles in different spatial patches become synchronized. In particular, using a protist predator-prey microcosm, he showed that in agreement with some theory, there is a dispersal threshold after which synchrony is achieved between the two populations. This leads to interesting questions about what determines the level of dispersal required to produce synchrony, and how factors such as population growth rates alter this threshold, something which a microcosm is particularly useful to address.