Tuesday, August 11, 2015

#ESA100 Declining mysticism: predicting restoration outcomes.

Habitat restoration literature is full of cases where the outcomes of restoration activities are unpredictable, or where multiple sites diverge from one another despite identical initial restoration activities. This apparent unpredictability in restoration outcomes is often attributed to undetected variation in site conditions or history, and thus have a mystical quality where the true factors affecting restoration are just beyond our intellect. These types of idiosyncrasies have led some to question whether restoration ecology can be a predictable science.

Photo credit: S. Yasui

The oral session “Toward prediction in the restoration of biodiversity”, organized by Lars Brudvig, showed how restoration ecologists are changing our understanding of restoration, and shedding light on the mystical qualities of success. What is clear from the assembly of great researchers and fascinating talks in this session is that recent ecological theories and conceptual developments are making their way into restoration. Each of the 8 of 10 talks I saw (I had to miss the last two) added a novel take on how we predict and measure success, and the factors that influence it. From the incorporation of phylogenetic diversity to assess success (Becky Barak) to measuring dispersal and establishment limitation (Nash Turley), and from priority effects (Katie Stuble) to plant-soil feedbacks (Jonathan Bauer), it is clear that predicting success is a multifaceted problem. Further, from Jeffry Matthews talk on trajectories, even idiosyncratic restoration trajectories can be grouped into types of trajectories (e.g., increasing diversity vs plateauing) and then relevant factors can be determined.

What was most impressive about this session was the inclusion of coexistence theory and basic demography into understanding how species perform in restoration. Two talks in particular, one from Loralee Larios on coexistence theory and the other from Dan Laughlin on predicting fitness from traits by environment interactions, shed new light on predicting restoration. Both of these talks showed how species traits and local environmental conditions influence species’ demographic responses and the outcome of competition. These two talks revealed how basic ecological theory can be applied to restoration, but more importantly, and perhaps under-appreciated, these talks show how our basic assumptions about traits and interactions with other species and the environment require ground-truthing to be applicable to important applied problems.

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