Thursday, 16 April 2015

Post 48: Collaboration, Collaboration, Collaboration, and an Amazing Novel Ecosystems Panel Discussion!

Last week I was looking through my emails and saw an invite to a Novel Ecosystems Panel discussion that was organized by one of the PhD students in our department, Nancy Shackleford (who just passed her comprehensive exams, CONGRATS!), on seemingly very short notice. During her discussion with my lab group when she was our guest a number of weeks ago, she'd mentioned collaboration and pulling together different people, and this seemed to be one of those great circumstances!

We have two wonderful guests here right now: Dr. Rachel Standish from the University of Western (UWA) Australia, who is on Nancy's committee, and Dr. Richard Hobbs also from UWA and most recently became a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (which is a big deal!). Richard was also Nancy's master's supervisor. Both are visiting from Australia. And both were on this panel to discuss reflections on the novel ecosystems concept that both have written on with my supervisor, Dr. Eric Higgs, since the novel ecosystems book came out in 2013: Novel Ecosystems: Intervening in the New Ecological World Order. The book was co-edited by Richard, Eric and Carol Hall.

What I really loved afterwards about what turned out to be an awesome panel discussion was the format: 15 minutes per speaker, followed by 10 minutes of general questions, then a short break for filling up with cheese and fresh cut fruit, and then pods of discussions around the small sets of tables that were distributed around the room, with Eric, Rachel, and Richard visiting each of the different tables.

More tulips from the Vancouver Easter long weekend! :) 
It was excellent! And what a diversity of contributions from each of the panelists: Richard started off by discussing some of the history of the concept, starting with F. Stuart Chapin III and Anthony Starfield, and Peter Bridgewater who were writing on synthetic and emerging ecosystems in the 1980s, to explaining how he got involved with the concept, to publishing the novel ecosystems book with Eric in 2013, and some of the criticisms and responses that have taken place since. He is a great storyteller, and definitely kept us laughing as he walked us through this brief history.

Rachel also reflected on her initial motivation to get involved with the concept, which included her usual pragmatism around "Will it be helpful?" Her answer to the question included a qualified yes, as she could think of at least 2 types of ecosystems in which she thought it had direct application: degraded landscapes such as those she has studied in the Australian wheat belt, and urban landscapes. She wrapped up with a few reflections on where work on the concept could go next, including more work to try to define/understand thresholds for ecosystems and ecosystem states, and wondering about novelty in terms of changing phenological shifts for plants, due to climate change, and mismatches in species because of that.

Some of the fantastic flowering red currant, Ribes sanguineum, on campus!  
Eric covered a lot of territory very quickly, but it was very, very good. He spent his first few minutes emphasizing the three components of the novel ecosystems definition that are really key to the concept: difference in ecological function or composition from historical configurations, some threshold having been passed because of the changes, and a demonstrated self-persistence of the ecosystem.

He emphasized the third aspect, the persistence of the novel ecosystem, because without that, you have designed or engineered ecosystems, requiring a lot of constant inputs and efforts to keep it going. This isn't to say that an engineered ecosystems can't later become a novel one, but at least right at the beginning, it won't be a novel ecosystem because it lacks that self-persistence on its own. And it's important to emphasize this so as to curtail arguments that all designed ecosystems (including and especially those that appear post-mining restoration) are novel ecosystems. They are not.

Each of the panelists mentioned some of the controversy that's been going on about the concept. The early  2006 paper that is really one of the most prominent on the concept "Novel ecosystems: theoretical and management aspects of the new ecological world order," co-authored by 15 others, was well received when it came out. And the 2009 paper, "Novel ecosystems: implications for conservation and restoration," written by Richard, Eric, and another colleague James Harris from Cranfield Univesity, was also well-received. So Richard was sort of reflecting on why it was that now some people in restoration and conservation are becoming very alarmed by the concept. Some of those concerns are well grounded, but others seem to be (to me), founded in fear and a lack of inner adaptability for change. Our ecosystems are experiencing rapid ecological changes. Period. The novel ecosystems concept, as Eric and others have pointed out, does not diminish the reality of the changes that conservationists, biologists, and restoration practitioners have been noticing.

More lovely tulips, even when they're close to being spent!
I find that one of the most useful functions of the novel ecosystems concept is that it opens up that questions of "Should we intervene in an ecosystem?" and accompanying that, "What are our options and priorities?" Frequently, restoration and conservation projects take place within very well-defined budgets. If you have 1.3 million dollars to spend on a region in a given year, is it better to spend it on one site/ecosystem that has a LOT of invasive species, associated soil and chemical changes that mean that restoration will be extremely difficult and success is uncertain, or spend that budget on smaller projects that have less degradation or less invasion, and a much higher chance of success? Towards the end of the discussion at our table Eric sort of joked that he thinks we're entering the "Age of Deliberation", where we're doing to be having long arguments and discussions about all of these questions and more.


It's that time of year and three thesis defenses are happening tomorrow!! Congrats to Anita Girvan, our wonderful TAC, who is defending Friday morning, and to two of my colleagues, Nikki Heim and Meg Sullivan! What wonderful news, though I'm frustrated about the overlapping booking for Nikki and Meg's defenses; I'll need to choose which one to attend!

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