Secrets, rumours and facts from two parallel conferences

From secrets through rumours to facts – science in a nutshell!

Team Shrub heading to two big conferences!

Our team recently attended two big conferences – Ecology Across Borders (check out our highlights so far) and ArcticNet (you can read our round-ups of day 1day 2, day 3 and days 4 and 5). Thousands of scientists coming together to share their findings and ponder new directions. Despite the ocean between us, it still feels like we are going through the conferences together – the magic of emails, blog posts and twitter! Sometimes it helps with my fear of missing out, sometimes it makes it worse.

Weather-wise, it’s not that much different thanks to the snow storm in Belgium, though it is colder in Quebec, and I imagine Canada knows how to deal with snow! Conference-wise, it feels like there are many ubiquitous aspects – the big rooms, full up to the brim with scientists, the slight madness of poster sessions, the snacks that get eaten by the time you find out they’ve appeared.

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A word cloud from the abstracts of some of the talks at Ecology Across Borders.
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A word cloud from the talk titles of some of the talks at Arctic Net.

At the Science Comedy Slam, part of the Ecology Across Borders conference in Belgium, Yvonne Buckley told us about her love of seeds, of which she has weighted many (thousands!), and what the process felt like. I loved her description of the scientific process – we go from secrets, the exciting unknown, to the rumours, our findings that we tentative believe in, but things are not quite clear yet, to the facts, the statements we’ve backed up with strong evidence.

Now that both Team EAB and Team ArcticNet have wrapped up their respective conference experience, we’d like to share some of our favourite secrets, rumours and facts.

Team ArcticNet excited for all the secrets, rumours and facts ahead!

Secrets. The major unknowns.

Ecology Across Borders

  • What is the most appropriate model to answer your question? In a time of many R packages and many different ways to design your models, which one is the best for your particular question? Laura Williamson compared generalized additive models (GAM) and hierarchical Bayesian spatial models (HBM) with Integrated Nested Laplace Approximation (INLA) to interpret aerial video survey data. The INLA models revealed finer patters in the distribution of harbour porpoises.
  • How does sub-individual variation compare with between-individual and between-species variation? And what does that mean for the scale at which we collect data and answer our research questions? We pondered that after Carlos Herrera‘s plenary talk about trait variance at the sub-individual level.
  • How have global change drivers re-shaped ecosystems around the world and what will their effects be in the future? How do global change drivers such as land use change and climate change interact? Do different taxa respond differently? Do the same taxa respond differently in different locations? What are the predictors of those responses? So many questions!


  • What happens below ground? When we’re dealing with the tundra, about 90% of biomass can be below ground. The unseen iceberg indeed! We heard many fascinating talks about vegetation change over the course of the conference, and yet for so many of us, the huge subsurface part of the tundra remains a mystery. Paul Grogan‘s talk on the mechanisms behind birch shrub expansion, with that fancy animation that his students made him add, really emphasized the point that it is time for all of us tundra ecologists to get out our shovels and do some below-ground ecology!
  • How do processes scale from individual plants flowering in different parts of tundra landscape up to the seasonal signal of greenness observable by satellites across the northern hemisphere? These were questions pondered across a variety of talks from Zoe Panchen and Cassandra Elphinstone‘s talks on plant phenology to Jakob’s talk about his drone phenology research and Jeff Kerby‘s talk on the High Latitude Drone Ecology Network. Team Shrub has been wondering how drone data can provide that key link to understand how patterns and processes such as plant pheonogy scale across tundra ecosystems. Perhaps we are entering a new age of spatial ecology where we finally have the data collection and analytical tools to ask the scaling questions that have been plaguing ecologists for decades!
  • What would happen if there was no coffee? This is something I wonder at many a conference.

Rumours. The hypotheses, the first results coming in.

Ecology Across Borders

  • Model structure and type of inference mattersLaura Williamson showed us how INLA models (spatial models based on Bayesian inference) can pinpoint where harbour porpoises occur in different months of the year, where they feed, and where they just hand out.
  • Areas of high conservation value and areas of high recreation value do not overlap –  Francesca Mancini investigates what are the implications for human and nature? Perhaps positive in terms of conservation areas not suffering degradation costs due to high visitation, but also negative for ecosystem services, as humans become more disengaged and disconnected with nature.
  • Just Google it… and then determine distribution of different species morphs, pick up on discrete variation in species traits and delimit species rangesGabriella Leighton uses Google images to do all of that! Comparisons with traditional field studies show good agreement between the two methods, opening the scope for wider uses of Google images in research.


  • What’s going on with the carbon cycle in the tundra? This could have been a secret, but we know more than enough to be making a few hypotheses here. Over the course of Arctic Change we heard a lot about sinks and sources of carbon in the tundra. It does contain more than twice as much of the stuff as is held in the atmosphere after all. But the fascinating thing for me is that there is still huge uncertainty over exactly what climate change might mean. Thawing permafrost and release of soil carbon, almost certainly. Faster decomposition, probably. What about greater productivity, storage in biomass? What about litter decomposition, will that be faster or slower as communities change? Over the various talks and posters we saw evidence for both sides, and quite a few wonderful, but certainly rumoured feedback loops including some of those feedbacks actually tested with real-world tundra data in Peter Lafleur and Elyn Humphreys’ poster entitled ‘Filling the Gaps in Shrub Tundra-Atmosphere Interactions in a Changing World’.
  • Can we predict precipitation? One thing that stuck with me after this conference was that moisture really matters! Whether it was Jackie Hung’s talk on nitrogen cycling in wetlands, Jennifer Baltzer’s research into what makes a spruce forest spruce, or Carl Barrette’s stark findings on loss of snow in Nunavik, water cropped up again and again. And yet we also heard how difficult it is to predict. So perhaps this is one of the most important rumours to confirm – not what has happened, but what will happen.
  • Did someone say that John England, winner of the 2017 Weston Family Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Northern Research, was drinking beer from a boot?? I never confirmed this rumour, but I have a feeling some of our team saw the evidence for themselves.

Facts. The evidence.

Ecology Across Borders

  • The drivers of the distribution of threatened species vary around the world – energy availability is most important but there is variation across space and taxa. Christine Howard
  • Sub-individual variation influences fitness through effects on fecundity and resource use. Carlos Herrera 
  • A synthesis of the effects of climate change on breeding phenology of seabirds reveals that populations respond differently through time, and location  influences how populations respond. On average, seabird populations worldwide have not adjusted their breeding phenology between 1952 and 2015. Katharine Keogan


  • The Arctic is rapidly changing with decreasing sea ice cover being documented in all different ways.  There were lots of different approaches to understanding the changing sea ice including using new Sentinel-1 SAR imagery to document the cover of different aged sea ice in Stefan Muckenhuber‘s talk, to understanding the melting first-year sea ice as a part of a UK-Canada collaboration lead by Jack Landy, to data collected by local people with their GPS or phones from the plenary by Joel Heath and Lucassie Arragutainaq, winner of the 2017 Inuit Recognition Award, on the Arctic Eider Society‘s Inuit knowledge wiki & social mapping platform called SIKU.
  • Put the people in the picture. Although we attended Arctic Change with our ecologist hats on (no really, very lovely grey Team Shrub hats!), the one thing we cannot ignore is the importance of people, and particularly those that live in Arctic regions. ArcticNet did a fantastic job of getting the voices and concerns of northerners heard, of putting northern interests at the centre of the research agenda, and for calling people out when needed. Good job.
  • Pictures of bears make people pay attention. Nice work Cameron Eckert and Jay Frandsen for your compelling presentations on using camera traps to understand wildlife abundance, travel routes and resource use.
Isla was super stoked to see an awesome poster by her one time undergrad dissertation PhD student supervisor Elyn Humphreys filling in the feedbacks from her 2011 review paper.

But really, the line between rumours and facts in science is often blurry – and facts might not always stay facts, as new evidence continues to come in. That might even bring us back to the secrets, but what ecologist doesn’t love a good secret or rumour.


By Gergana, Haydn and Isla

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