Wednesday, August 30, 2017

INTECOL 2017: Building the eco-civilisation

The International Association for Ecology holds their global INTECOL conference every 4 years, and it was recently held in Beijing, China. Given the location of this meeting, the theme was exceptionally appropriate: Ecology and Civilisation in a Changing World. I say that it was appropriate because no place embodies change more than China’s recent history, and I would argue that China is a prime candidate to benefit from ecological science.
One thing that was clear from the outset of the meeting was that China (both the scientists attending the meeting and the policy apparatus writ large) was serious about the notion of producing an ecological civilisation, or eco-civilisation. In 2007, the Communist Party of China adopted the idea of turning China into an eco-civilisation by incorporating ecological well-being into its constitution. In 2013, the Chinese government started implementing reforms that politically prioritised ecology and the environment. Most prominent of these was that local government officials and administrators were directed to no longer ignore the environmental consequences of development.
China is globally unique in its ability to institute change, literally with the stroke of a pen. Well documented is the ability for the major cities in China to implement drastic change in transportation policy by restricting who can drive when, and building public transit infrastructure at a torrid pace (see a commentary about this). The latest examples of cities’ power over transportation include the fact that electric cars are eligible to receive license plates immediate, while owners of conventional cars are required to wait years or spend tens of thousands of dollars to get their plates. The other example is the flooding of the market with public bicycles that can be parked anywhere and that require a phone app to unlock, and they literally cost cents to use.

A market flooded with a public bike-sharing program in China. These are all shared bikes, available everywhere, and they tend to congregate around bus stops (Photo by M. Cadotte).

I found it to be an interesting juxtaposition to see the multitude of bikes everywhere with the polluted sky that was apparent for the first two days of the conference. This was the very appropriate context for our conference. From the get go the theme of using the science of ecology to improve environmental management and policy seemed to underlie most of the talks and organised sessions. For most Chinese scientists, this is the context in which they work. To them, there is no real separation between human activities and nature, and the two have been intimately linked for millennia. The opening address was by HRH Charles Prince of Wales. Prince Charles eloquently commented on the importance of ecology in the coming decades, as humanity is testing the ecological bounds of the planet, and he encouraged attendees to use their research to affect change.

HRH Charles, Prince of Wales giving the opening address (Photo by M. Cadotte).

Representing the hosting organisation, Shirong Liu outlined all the important ecological advances in Chinese ecology, especially the development of extensive ecological experiments and research networks examining issues like climate change and nutrient deposition. Echoing Prince Charles’ call, Prof. Liu commented on the importance of ecology for Chinese policy, and the many recent policy changes in China, including the establishment of national parks, habitat restoration, climate change mitigation, and the greening of cities.
Given that most of China has been modified by humans, Gretchen Daily’s keynote address seemed incredibly poignant, even though the focus was on Costa Rica. She said that we’ve pretty much protected all the places that are likely to be protected as big parks, and that adding more is increasingly infeasible (China is an outlier). Instead, we should be looking to country sides and other human-dominated landscapes as the places to implement ecological principles to better manage these systems to benefit biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. These systems are where our science needs to pay off.

Evidence of ecosystem services in the Beijing Botanical Garden (Photo by M. Cadotte).
The talks throughout the conference echoed the themes of an ecology on and for human systems. I saw numerous talks from Chinese authors on understanding and managing human impacts, in systems from grasslands to lakes to cities. I participated in a panel discussion on how ecology could be used to create an eco-civilisation, and it was clear that there was a lot of optimism that the next decades will see a renaissance of ecology in policy, I was probably the least optimistic. I am doubtful that, having seen the United States pull out of the Paris Climate Change agreement, the political will can always be relied upon and creating an eco-civilisation depends on China’s ability to increase the standard of living without taxing ecological capacity more than it has. That said, there is currently a global leadership vacuum on the environment, created by political instability in Europe and the United States, and this is the time for China to be an environmental leader. 
Regardless, I saw inspiring talks on restoring ecosystems severely modified by human activity and invasive species, from speakers like William Bond, Carla D’Antonio, and Tom Dudley. I also ran an organised session on the importance of biodiversity in human dominated landscapes which covered topics from habitat fragmentation, to the ecology of cities, to the value of sacred groves in India for biodiversity.
After listening to talks at INTECOL 2017, one cannot help but feel that this is ecology’s time. We are entering an ecological era, and if ever there was a time to use our science to affect change, it is now.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Novel habitat, predictable responses: niche breadth evolution in geckos

At a time of immense ecological change (such as the Anthropocene), organisms have a few options. They can move, tolerate, adapt, or, in failing to do so, face extinction. One or most of those options may not be available to most species. For example, the question of whether most species can adapt rapidly enough to maintain populations in degrading habitats, rising temperatures and increasing environmental variability has (at least in part) motivated the study of rapid or contemporary evolution. Studying the probability of successful selection and adaptation over ecological timescales may be very important for understanding the options available to species.

de Amorim et al. (2017, PNAS) describe one such example, where the result of novel environmental change provides a unique opportunity to observe rapid evolution. Beginning in 1996, a reservoir in Central Brazil was created by flooding a huge area, creating nearly 300 islands and massively affecting local wildlife. Gymnodactylus amarali was the most common lizard (a termite-specialized gecko), and the authors sought to determine the impacts of rapid isolation on the species.

Isolation on islands created an new set of biotic conditions – other termite eating lizards went extinct on islands, increasing the available diet breadth, particularly increasing the availability of larger termites. Larger termites require geckos have the physical ability to catch and processes them. One possibility is that to take advantage of this new resource, G. amarali on islands would need larger heads. Because larger heads and bodies come with increased energy requirements, the authors predicted that the island geckos would have larger heads, but no change in overall body size.
Termite size increased on average on islands; for the same body size, head length tended to be larger on islands. 
Indeed, island geckos had higher diet breadths, driven by the availability of larger termites and an increased ability to catch them via larger head lengths. Increased diet breadth was accompanied by increased head size, but not body size.

Notably, this change in diet and associated characters occurred independently across multiple reservoir islands, beginning once they were isolated from the mainland. This is an interesting example of rapid evolution precisely because evolution took the same path in every case, and because it occurred so rapidly (less than 15 years). This is not always the expectation - in many cases, human activities (e.g. fragmentation) will increase decrease population sizes and genetic diversity, thereby increasing drift and decreasing the predictability (and speed) and adaptation. Contrasts between successful and unsuccessful adaptive responses will help us understand better how and when fragmentation threatens populations.

Mariana Eloy de Amorim, Thomas W. Schoener, Guilherme Ramalho Chagas Cataldi Santoro, Anna Carolina Ramalho Lins, Jonah Piovia-Scott, and Reuber Albuquerque Brandão. 2017. Lizards on newly created islands independently and rapidly adapt in morphology and diet. PNAS. 114 (33) 8812-8816.