Ecology & Science in Ireland: the inaugural meeting of the Irish Ecological Association


In the years to come, 140 ecologists working in Ireland will look back with fond memories of being part of the inaugural meeting of the Irish Ecological Association (24th-26th November). We will remember hard-hitting plenaries, compelling oral presentations, data-rich posters, influential workshops and the formation of the IEA’s first committee. The lively social events might be harder for some of us to remember…

There could not have been a more fitting way to open the conference than the plenary seminar from Professor Ian Montgomery (QUB) on Thursday night. Within the hour, he managed to given an incredibly detailed summary of the natural history of Ireland, showing how Ireland had been an island for 16,000 years and presenting evidence that human occupation dated back 13,000 years. Ian stepped us through successive mammal invasions, classifying them as true ‘natives’ and more recent ‘invasives’. His seminar was open to the public and the audience included local farmers with strong concerns about the impacts of invasive mammals on their stock.

We were welcomed the following morning with an energetic plenary from Professor Jane Memmott (U Bristol), covering her strikingly diverse career. She took us on a journey from life as a medical entomologist, to tropical ecologist living in a Costa Rican jungle tent, to invasion biologist in the land of invasives – New Zealand, to her more recent work on biodiversity in urban and farmland systems. Quantitative food webs were the central theme. Using both simple and complex food webs, based on enormous data sets, Jane clearly showed that we only see the full story about ecosystem dynamics by examining links between trophic levels.

Later that day, Dr Dara Stanley (NUIG) presented some remarkable findings about the effects of sublethal neonicotinoid exposure on bee behaviour. Her experimental results showed how the pesticide affects bees by changing their behaviour in ways that would not be immediately obvious. Bees exposed to neonicotinoid had a longer foraging distance, stayed out foraging for longer, had a reduced ability to navigate, and, when they were taught something, they were quick to forget it.

Friday morning began with a plenary from Dr Tom Doyle (NUIG) who explained that zero sightings of leatherback turtles in three years was not enough on which to base a PhD! This led him to studying the distribution of leatherback turtle food – jellyfish. Tom explained how jellyfish distributions can be patchy and non-random; more like terrestrial animal distributions that we might first think. We saw video footage of his team finally finding a leatherback and a very concerned-looking Tom jumping into the water to attach a tracking device to the enormous animal! Tom also explained why jellyfish venom hurts so much: it evolved to work on predators with nucleated red blood cells and our non-nucleated cells are overwhelmed by this potent venom.

The conference highlighted the huge diversity of ecological research in Ireland, including themes on farmland biodiversity, food webs and community ecology, population dynamics of threatened and invasive species, parasite ecology, evolution and macroecology, population genetics, phylogenetics and taxonomy, genetic monitoring, landscape ecology and disturbance ecology.

There was a strong emphasis throughout the conference on High Nature Value farmland, including mapping its distribution, classifying types of HNV land, quantifying the effectiveness of managing HNV farmland and integrating ecosystem services into HNV land management. Ensuring farmers are paid according to the quality of their land was clearly important as was maintaining good water quality.

We heard sobering news from Seán Kelly (BirdWatch Ireland) about the imminent collapse of breeding Curlew populations and more positive news about the relatively slow spread of invasive zebra mussels from Ben Strachan (Ulster U).

For me, the outstanding character of the conference was the Kerry Slug. As much as I love animals, slugs are one of my least favourite creatures. But how could one not love this speckled beast which is unique in Ireland? Well, almost unique – Inga Reich (NUIG) showed us that it shares genotypes with its Iberian ancestors, but I see no problem as claiming it as Irish! Erin Johnston (NUIG) showed us that good slug habitat = good forestry land. So let’s hope her results are well recognised so that forestry operations can be modified to ensure the conservation of the Kerry Slug.

Workshops at the conference covered Ethics in Research (Prof. Ian Montgomery, QUB), Getting Published (Prof. John Quinn, UCC), Science Communication (Dr John Finn, Teagasc) and Academic and Alternative Careers (Karine Devine, Camilla Morrisson-Bell, BES). The poster session was a great way to learn more about Irish science and nature while also mixing with a huge diversity of people in academia, government, consultancies and non-government organisations. The conference dinner at the Glasshouse Hotel was a highlight, with a delicious three-course meal and more opportunities for networking over a beverage or five. Hats off to those who kicked on after the dinner and still managed to make the 9am start on Saturday!

In Prof. Yvonne Buckley’s words, the IEA has now ‘transitioned to democracy’, with the full committee being formed at the AGM during the conference. We also discussed a number of issues during the AGM such as the frequency of meetings, the relationship of IEA to other professional bodies such as BES and CERIS and the role of IEA in advocacy and fundraising.

Many thanks to IT Sligo, BES, CERIS, EPA Research, The Marine Institute and Journal of Ecology for supporting the conference. Special thanks to Caroline Sullivan for organising the conference and ensuring it ran smoothly.

Feedback from IEA members highlighted the great science, the high quality of the presentations and the relaxed, friendly atmosphere. We look forward to the next meeting!

For more information:

Check out the Irish Ecological Association website and the virtual issue of Ecology and Evolution in Ireland. For tweets from the conference see #EcoEvoIrl


Author: Dr Annabel Smith, IEA Meetings Officer (find out more about Annabel’s research here)

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