Western Society of Naturalists Wrap-up

Last week, the bulk of our lab attended the Western Society of Naturalists meeting in Tacoma, WA. If you’ve never been to this meeting before, it’s worth checking out. Historically, this meeting has been focused on marine ecology and typically serves as the west coast equivalent of the Benthic Ecology meetings, normally held somewhere on the east coast (this year Benthics is in Quebec, organized by Ladd Johnson, and promises to be a great meeting). Given the name of this meeting, talks needn’t be marine focused though, and I’ve seen more talks recently that are “ecology” focused, rather than “marine ecology focused” (meaning terrestrial ecology…sshhh…it disturbs the marine folk to hear about life outside of salt water). We’ve made an effort at CSUN to encourage both terrestrial and marine ecologists to attend this meeting, and this year we were represented by more than 30 faculty, post-docs, grad students, and undergrads. Here we wrap-up some of our impressions of the meeting.



One of the things that struck me at this meeting were the number of Australians at the meeting. This was in part due to Dustin Marshall speaking in the Presidential Symposium and having brought his lab with him, but there were also many other ecologists from down under. One of these, Amanda Pettersen, gave one of my favorite talks at the meeting. She used a nice combination of modeling and experiments to test some life history theory that I hadn’t really thought about before. To me, the sign of a good model is that after it’s been explained to you, it seems like a no-brainer. A good model leaves me thinking, “really, that’s never been done before? But the idea is so simple and elegant, why hasn’t anybody thought of this before?”. Amanda’s talk left me with that impression. Life history trade-offs require organisms to “decide” whether to invest energy into more offspring, or higher quality offspring. For the sake of argument, let’s say that bigger offspring are higher quality, so we’re trying to resolve a fecundity vs. size trade-off here. Amanda asked whether metabolic rates alter the terms of that trade-off. Larger organisms tend to have lower metabolic rates. This shouldn’t matter too much because if you produce one large egg that uses 30% of its energy reserves or two eggs half that size that each use 30% of their energy reserves, you should achieve the same reproductive output. However, if the relationship between size and metabolism is different for small eggs than large eggs, or if size scaled allometrically with size, then this changes things. Two half-sized eggs that use 30% of their energy reserves use much  more energy than one large size egg that only uses 20% of it’s energy reserves. So you can use these size-metabolism relationships to predict the optimal investment in offspring number and size. Amanda went on to test this theory in two colonial bryozoans and found that it holds up quite well.
Kudos to her for receiving an honorable mention as one of the best student talks at the meeting.



Bear with me for some quick definitions. Metagenomics is a common approach used by microbiologists that allows for sequencing of DNA directly from the environment. In microbiology, it’s often paired with 16S rRNA gene sequencing to identify microbial taxa present in a sample.

This entire semester, I have been taking a course in microbial ecology and familiarizing myself with metagenomics techniques for my thesis. So naturally, I was intrigued by a pair of back-to-back WSN titles that included the phrase “environmental DNA”. These two talks did not disappoint. The first, by Ryan Kelly of the University of Washington, was a broad but compelling overview of what eDNA can do.

Cool Thing #1: But, Erica, you said microbiologists do this all the time. So what’s the big deal? Ryan Kelly is not studying microbes. In a liter of seawater, he and his colleagues were able to detect DNA from rockfish, sea otters and even dolphins amongst a whole host of other macrofauna.

Cool Thing #2: Kelly’s lab collected a series of one liter samples of seawater at various distances from the coast and within various habitats. The locations where DNA sequences from particular species were collected corresponded with where you would expect to find them. Rockfish in shallow, rocky hard bottoms. Otters in kelp forests. Dolphins in the deep, open ocean.

Cool Thing #3: Kelly then sent divers out to survey marine life in the same areas that each sample was collected from. When those observed species abundances were plotted over the DNA sequences found as a function of distance from the coast, the DNA aligned perfectly with the observational data.

Clearly, the use of eDNA for surveying macrofauna could be tremendously helpful in making these kinds of surveys more efficient. Of course, this doesn’t come without pitfalls, which the second talk by Kelly’s post doc, Jimmy O’Donnell, addressed quite well. For example, honing your primers to select for target organisms while excluding non-target organisms can be a challenge. In spite of this, the potential for this technique is striking and those two talks stuck with me more than any other talks at WSN 2014.



Propagules, recruitment, and OA, Oh My!
A terrestrial ecologist’s first WSN

Believe it or not, just a few months ago, I learned what CCA is (Crustose Coralline Algae). (Shout out to the Marine Bio members of my Professional Seminar!) The path I chose for the my Biology and Environmental Science majors in undergrad barely exposed me to marine systems, so there has been a steep learning curve for me speaking and listening to my Marine Bio peers. Likewise, I have only been to interdisciplinary conferences like those of the Ecological Society of America. That is, until I attended the recent Western Society of Naturalists conference (which, despite its broad name is widely known for its heavy marine focus). Though I’ll admit I did grumble occasionally about the low number of terrestrial talks at the conference, I certainly learned a lot during numerous marine talks. So how does one get by at a conference outside of their direct field of study? By “get by”, I mean: to understand the talks enough to actually get interested in the concepts, to ask mildly intelligent questions, etc.

1. Learn the jargon. Even though your fields may share some of the same words, do not be deceived! They have many different meanings. If you don’t recognize these differences early, you will be extremely confused during the talks you attend until you figure it out. Trust me. Ie: ‘propagule’ = vegetative structure in a plant that could give rise to another individual. ‘Propagule’ also = broad reference to marine organisms’ gametes.

2. Learn the systems. What’s a gnathiid isopod again? What about a salp?  Particularly because there were a number of talks at WSN based on ecology or life history specific to a low level of taxonomic classification, it is critical to know these things. And the speakers (appropriately) assumed that 90% of their audiences would already know, so they skipped over much of this ‘fluffy’ information.

3. Ask questions. But if you have to ask what ‘sea star wasting’ is, you should probably just leave the conference.


Michael Soulé and Daniel Pauly gave the opening and the closing remarks at WSN this year. In talks that could have been interpreted as having a “you’re-all-doomed” undertone, both Soulé and Pauly offered some supportive suggestions to a young crowd of scientists.

Michael Soulé threw out the quote “science advances one death at a time”, attributed to Nobel Prize winning German physicist Max Planck. The rest of the quote is “truth never triumphs—its opponents just die out”. The idea is not profound in any context: established generations are less likely to change their perspective than younger generations who find established ideas mainstream enough to challenge. In the context of science it raises [at least] one important question: what is dying in order for science to advance- the scientists or the theories? Ideally, and inherent to science, scientists of any age should be willing to let their theories die, even before they do. So, the message from Soulé may be taken as keep on keeping on, do good, critical science, challenge extant paradigms and push past existing boundaries.

Daniel Pauly extended this idea outside of science. So who is dying now? Instead of the scientists or the theories, the opponents of science need to “die” for science to advance1. But this time—for science to advance what? In other words, Pauly is not concerned with advancing science, because he trusts that it will do so as a matter of course. Instead, he is concerned with science allowing for advancement in society. If we want science to have broader impacts, we shouldn’t only keep on keeping on. Rather, Pauly’s message was: sure, do your science… but “go vote in the next election”.  

1. I do not hold the view that the anyone “need” to die.


For me, WSN was the perfect pick-me-up, surrounding me in researchers and fellow graduate students alike all sharing and exchanging ideas. I had attended and thoroughly enjoyed WSN in the past as an undergraduate, but this year’s meeting gave me a whole new kind of refreshment and energized feeling. Working these first few months on narrowing my research focus, I’ve often felt overwhelmed and under knowledgeable, but going to this meeting made me so jazzed about my research!

It sounds gushy, but going to conferences like WSN, hearing fellow graduate students give talks, poster sessions, and just seeing people with differing (and maybe even opposing) interests conversing makes me incredibly proud of the scientific field! This is where collaborations begin and novel ideas are formed.

Fervently writing notes on the talks, I gathered so many cool ideas, methods, and questions, some of which I’ll hopefully be able to incorporate into my own research. One of my favorite talks was that of Amy Freestone, a Professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. She studies latitudinal diversity gradients, examining the effect of latitude on diversity and species interactions. With study sites ranging from the subarctic to the tropics, she is able to examine abiotic and biotic interactions at the community level, giving her research a more holistic view. In addition, Freestone wants to know how competitive interactions between organisms vary at different latitudes, specifically between the tropical and temperate zones, and how invasive species richness varies along biogeographic gradients.

While I was very excited about the research Amy is doing and how similar it is to my interests (though pretty much anything with “invasive” in the title makes my ears perk up), it was really her bright enthusiasm and optimism about her research that struck me. She told us her science with such infectious elation that at the end of her talk, I felt invigorated with positivity about delving into my research.  Yes, presenting research and findings is great and informative, but doing so with enthusiasm and excitement that you’ve made a difference in the scientific realm makes a greater impression on the minds of your audience.

This entry was posted in Blog Posts, Featured and tagged , , .
Bookmark the permalink.
Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.
Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Comment