Rebuilding an ecological society in a country with less than 10 million people – report from Danish Oikos 2013

Reblogged from INNGE's blog, originally posted on Sat, 04/13/2013 - 14:51


On the second weekend of March the society for ecology and evolution in Denmark, Oikos Denmark, held its annual meeting. This will probably seem like an insignificant event to many readers, but for the ecologists gathered on the Danish island of Funen it was an important event marking just the second meeting since the society’s revitalization in 2012. Inbetween the launch in the middle of the 20th century and 2012 had passed multiple periods with little or no acticity, the latest lasting from around 1990 to 2011. Prone to the ebb and flood of people willing to take responsibility and the presence of critical mass, the long-term dynamics of Oikos Denmark are probably not that different from ecological societies in other small countries.

In fact, until just a few years ago, Sweden was the only Scandinavian country with an active ecological society. Relaunched in the early 1980’s the Swedish Oikos society has held annual meetings since then. Fast-forward to today the Scandinavian countries serve as a candidate for a positive news story from the brink of ecological society fatigue. In 2011 and 2012 a coordinated decision was taken to try to (re)activate the Icelandic, Norwegian and Danish Oikos societies. Scandinavia could therefore be considered a long-term field experiment of how to build ecological societies in countries with less than 10 million inhabitants.

Back to the nation of famous fairytale author Hans-Christian Andersen. The main goals of Oikos Denmark, though not exactly fairytale like, highlight the important function an ecological society can serve in countries with an area somewhere in-between Lake Michigan and Lake Tanganyika. The society thus aims to “provide a platform for ecologists to meet and discuss their science and to exchange thoughts on research, teaching, and academic politics. Furthermore, the society emphasizes the importance of providing a stimulating forum where young scientists can give their first talk in front of a larger audience and receive relevant feedback.”

The society is currently run by a board of 6 members, including one PhD student. They represent all of the major Danish universities and carry out research within the realms of ecology and evolution. A very small membership fee and reduced meeting fees for students are kept to ensure that younger members aren’t excluded from the society due to financial reasons.

How does an annual meeting then look like?

An annual meeting in a county with a modest population of only 5.7 million is rarely a mega-conference with hundreds, much less thousands of participants. Instead Oikos Denmark’s 2013 meeting had about 50 participants with a little over the majority being PhD-students or post docs. With almost twice the attendance of the first Oikos Denmark meeting in 2012, the second meeting showed significant improvement on the front of gathering critical mass. The goal for future meetings numbers lies in the range of 100 participants.

The organizers applied a number of tweaks to the meeting format compared to other larger meetings. Thus the meeting program was boiled down to fit into two days, increasing meeting attendance, and there was no parallel oral sessions, increasing attendance and diversity at the individual talks. A session of 5-minute flash talks was designed to encourage especially younger participants to present their work and was generally received very well by both speakers and audience.

Highlights from Oikos Denmark 2013 and perspectives for the future

Talks at the meeting essentially spanned the entire breadth of ecology and evolution research, but was dominated by research on non-marine systems. Some of the highlights included a key-note talk from Tom Gilbert of the Natural History Museum of Denmark, University of Copenhagen illustrating a host of applications for next-generation sequencing to ecological and evolutionary questions. Cases ranged from signs of possible ongoing ecological speciation among the world’s Killer Whales to the monitoring of rare mammals by sequencing DNA from the abundant leaches of wet-tropical forests. This use of environmental DNA (eDNA) was further supplemented by Philip Francis-Thomsen from the same institution, showing how it can be used to monitor bothfreshwater and marine biodiversity.

On a very different note Jacob Weiner of the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences also at University of Copenhagen gave his view on how management and sustainability of agricultural systems can be improved by applying principles from evolutionary biology to explain agri-ecological patterns such as constant final yield. The central message from the talk was that “we are unlikely to improve attributes already favored by millions of years of natural selection, whereas there may be unutilized potential in selecting for attributes that increase total crop yield but reduce plants’ individual fitness.” Others topics presented included the delayed arrival to Europe of long-distance migratory birds in 2011 associated with the severe drought in eastern Africa that year; interactions between the invasive Harlequin ladybird and native flower bugs; the role of gut microbes in fungus-growing termites, and new perspectives for ecological modeling using high-resolution terrain data.

Finally among the highlights should (no surprise) be counted the social events including a visit from a Scandinavian sister society. The current chair of the Swedish Oikos society, Jan Bengtsson, visited the meeting to share his thoughts on how to make an ecological society run in a Nordic country. Jan’s advice ranged from alternating locations of the meeting e.g. between the main universities, to having an ecologist music band set the scene for after-hours interactions. In fact the main message was that meetings to be successful need to be fun! In this case Jan’s advice served as a good transition to the evening’s cheese and wine mixer.

Norwegian Oikos Society held its first annual meeting the week after the with an estimated attendance of around 130 ecologists. In 2014 a conference for all the Scandinavian Oikos societies will be a natural opportunity to evaluate progress and exchange ideas on how to sustain the impact and functioning of the small ecological societies to the north.

Anne Eskildsen & Peter Søgaard Jørgensen