Book Review Conference Ecology

Highlights from the Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America

ESA100logoHappy 100th Birthday to the Ecological Society of America! We celebrated your history and the promise of your future during the ESA Annual Meeting in Baltimore, MD from August 9-14. We took over the Baltimore Convention Center and got lots of exercise moving from room to room in our attempts to absorb as much as we could!

The 100th Anniversary prompted discussions and sessions focused on the history of ecology and its role moving forward (video). The conference started with a whirlwind combination of art and science, with an animated film of a classical ecology paper, a quartet performance with a message and an address from President Obama! Pre-eminent panelists inspired us to think about what the human niche is, called us to bring back evidence-based thinking in American society, and reminded us that [NERD HUMOR ALERT] we are behaving like oxygen-creating stromatolites and need to take caution from their tale*!

Ecology has a very broad scope, so ESA did too! I enjoyed talks from the terrestrial and freshwater realms as well as discussions of education, policy, and collaborative research networks (like ZEN!). But in this post, I will focus on marine talks (This is Oceanbites after all!). While the choices were difficult, the following five talks represent my personal favorites because they tested ecological theory, applied ecology to management, or simply because they blew my mind or made me laugh!


Applying Classical Ecological Theories:

David Alonso et al.: Fish community reassembly after a coral mass mortality: Higher trophic groups are subject to increased rates of extinction (Here’s the paper!)

Graphical representation of island biogeographical theory. Source:
Graphical representation of island biogeographical theory. Source:

Alonso and his colleagues applied MacArthur and Wilson’s Island Biogeography Theory (video link!) to community development on a coral reef after a mass bleaching event to answer whether species can be viewed as equivalent: do all species have similar rates of colonization and extinction? What about trophic guilds (or functional groups of fishes—herbivores, predators, sponge-eaters, etc.)?. For example, do banded butterflyfish and foureye butterflyfish differ in their colonization or extinction rates? Within guilds, species can be considered equivalent: those two butterflyfish are similar! However, the guilds were not equivalent in rates of extinction and colonization, with higher trophic levels being more vulnerable to extinction! Such a finding could have consequences for fisheries management.


Applying Ecology to Management:

Joel Fodrie et al.: Landscape context effects the ecosystem-service delivery of temperate biogenic reefs

Oyster Reef Source:
Oyster Reef

Fodrie took a look at whether restored oyster reefs in North Carolina that differ in landscape context (fringed by or isolated from saltmarsh habitat) confer different ecosystem services. He and his colleagues found that, yes, they do, in fact! But one is not necessarily always better than another. Those fringed by salt marsh do not support high densities of oysters but provide more essential fish habitat. These also increase sediment deposition and allow for marsh expansion. However, those isolated from saltmarshes support higher densities of oysters and remove more nitrogen. These isolated oyster reefs are sources of carbon though while fringed ones are sinks. After assessing positives and negatives of reefs fringed by salt marsh versus isolated, he asked the question: with limited resources, which one do you choose to focus on for restoration? It depends on the priorities in your area, but I would make sure to restore some of both!


Assessing the Impact of Invasives:

Cassandra Benkwitt et al.: A coral-reef fish alters recruitment in response to native but not invasive predator

The Lionfish Invasion Photo Source:
The Lionfish Invasion
Photo Source:

Lionfish are a threat to native reef fishes based primarily on their success at eating them. However, no one has looked at whether coral reef fish can alter their recruitment to avoid reefs with these invasive predators. Mahogany snapper avoid reef patches with native predators (the graysby) but not those with the invasive lionfish (Bad news!). And bicolor damselfish make no distinction between which reefs to settle based on native/invasive predator. Therefore, it’s likely that invasive lionfish are affecting coral reef fish densities more than previously understood.



Mind. Blown. Moment.:

Joe Roman et al.: Whale carcasses influence community and ecosystem processes at large spatial and temporal scales

NOAA SPLASH studied humpback whale migration patterns and created this map.  Source:
NOAA SPLASH studied humpback whale migration patterns and created this map.

Great whales undertake massive migrations, which are impressive in and of themselves, but these migrations have some interesting consequences for nutrient transport. Nutrients are moved between high-latitude feeding areas and low-latitude breeding grounds through whale falls (carcasses), placentas, and urination. Carcasses of dead newborns and adults support hundreds of species, about 60 of which seem to be obligates of whale falls (they have never been seen anywhere else!). Whale hunting likely reduced the size, number, and spatial range of these habitats and reduced the transport of nutrients from nutrient rich areas to nutrient poor ones. While he presented many numbers, I didn’t have the presence of mind to write them down. I was just so amazed that people study this! And baffled that I’d never realized how important migrations could be to processes like global nutrient transport**.

Whale Fall Source:
Whale Fall


Great Punchlines:

Kurt M. Samways and Richard A. Cunjak: Atlantic anadromous fishes are important vectors of pulsed marine-nutrient subsidies to freshwater ecosystems

Atlantic salmon spawning. Credit: Paul Nicklen; Source:
Atlantic salmon spawning. Credit: Paul Nicklen; Source:

Anadramous fishes (those born in freshwater that spend adulthood at sea and return to freshwater to spawn) are responsible for transporting marine-derived nutrients to freshwater habitats as they migrate. They examined the incorporation of these marine-derived nutrients to freshwater residents such as biofilms, macroinvertebrates, and parr (juvenile salmon) and found that nitrogen values peaked in these organisms during spawning season. Consumption of these marine subsidies (eggs!) by parr showed up through fatty acid biomarkers that had been incorporated into brain, gonad, and muscle tissue of the fish. Now for that punchline: With these nutritional subsidies, both male and female fish increased muscle tissue, but females also increased their resource allotment to brain tissue, while males increased resource allotment to gonad tissue. (buh dum tssss!)


ESA100LogoGroupedIt would be easy to end on the joke. But after the impressive displays of over 1000 posters and a similarly overwhelming number of talks (with ~50 going on simultaneously), I want to say that I am absolutely convinced that the field of Ecology has a rich past, productive present, and exciting future! Here’s to another hundred years, ESA! Cheers!


When sharing this post, please include #ESA100! Thanks!



*Spoiler Alert: Stromatolites caused their own decline by changing the atmosphere to one containing oxygen, which was toxic to them.

** Apparently whales also pump nitrogen and iron from the surface to the depths… but that could be a topic for another time! Also, Whale falls have been covered in oceanbites before!

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