The Rhodes Lab Visits Alice Springs for ESA2014 – Part 1

Last month, the Ecological Society of Australia held its annual ecology conference in Alice Springs, Northern Territory. A few of us were lucky enough to attend, so we thought we’d offer you our diverse perspectives of the event. We are: a post-doc recently arrived from Canada (Matthew Mitchell), an Australian PhD student (Rebecca Runting), and a PhD student from India (Payal Bal). We’ll be posting each post on consecutive days, so make sure to check back as each post goes live!

A First Taste of Australian Ecology (by Matthew Mitchell)

Attending the Ecological Society of Australia (ESA) conference (confusingly with the same acronym as the Ecological Society of America), this year in Alice Springs in the Northern Territory of Australia offered me numerous new experiences. First, it was a chance to visit the ‘Red Centre’ and encounter the outback landscape Australia is famous for. Second, it was an occasion to learn about ecological research taking place in ‘Oz’ and see how it differs from North America. Finally, it was an opportunity to go to a much smaller scientific meeting (~500 people) compared to the last three conferences I’ve attended. For all of these reasons I was really looking forward to the meeting.

The palm trees of Palm Valley
The palm trees of Palm Valley

While I was lucky enough to have time for an amazing family trip to Uluru-Kata Tjuta (Ayers Rock) and Kings Canyon before the conference, the highlight of the actual meeting was the field trip to Palm Valley. This took place in the middle of the meeting, a schedule I really endorse as it allows attendees to recharge after two full days of talks and means that more people attend the trips (i.e., more chance for networking). Palm Valley is a unique ecosystem about 150 km from Alice Springs, but only accessible via four-wheel drive. Its main claim to fame is the fact that it’s home to about 3,000 Red Cabbage Palm (Livistona mariae) trees, while the closest other palm trees are more than 850 km away! It’s thought that Palm Valley is a remnant ecosystem from when the region was wetter and more tropical. The valley shelters the palms from fires and provides ample groundwater, allowing the trees to survive. The valley is gorgeous and we had some great talks about the area’s botany, ecology, hydrogeology, and cultural significance.

Our transportation for the day - a 4WD bus!
Our transportation for the day – a 4WD bus!
Ghost gum and spinifex above Palm Valley
Ghost gum and spinifex above Palm Valley

At the actual meeting, there was definitely a focus on some of the unique aspects of Australian ecology. This meant lots of talks on fire, arid, and invasive species ecology. This probably isn’t surprising given the meeting’s location and the conservation challenges that Australia faces. However, I was also lucky to see some great talks on ecosystem services, landscape ecology, and an entire day of urban ecology. In general, I thought the talk quality was excellent. There were even two talks given in rhyming verse (‘bush poetry’) that were each given twice because of their popularity, a definite highlight.

The smaller size of the conference also provided numerous benefits. It allowed me to run into people I knew much more easily and network with them. I was even able to sit down and chat with one of the plenary speakers (Rachel Standish from UWA) during a lunch break. The smaller size and fewer concurrent sessions also pushed me out of my comfort zone for talks. I was forced to go to talks I normally wouldn’t have chosen – but this was a good thing! It meant I was exposed to some great talks on really interesting topics. I see this as a key benefit of conferences – learning about new research and ideas. In large conferences it’s often easy to go to just those really relevant talks and ignore others. I think learning about other research areas makes me a better ecologist and scientist, and this year’s meeting in Alice Springs definitely helped with this.

So, if you get the chance to attend a small(er) scientific meeting, jump at it! Especially if it’s taking place in a new location where you can get out and explore new biodiversity and ecology and meet new people.


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