Oxford Long-Term Ecology Lab

Long-Term Ecology, Biodiversity Conservation, and Environmental Stewardship Technologies


Kathy Willis Æresdoktor ceremony

News item contributed by Professor John Birks, University of Bergen

The Ecological and Environmental Change Research Group in the Department of Biology, University of Bergen organised a one-day symposium on Long-term Ecology and Future Planet Earth on 4 May 2017 to celebrate Professor Kathy Willis receiving an Honorary Doctorate (Æresdoktor) from the University of Bergen. Sixteen colleagues, former students, and friends from Oxford, Bergen, St Andrews, Southampton, and Tucson contributed lectures on the general theme of how a long-term perspective provided by palaeoecology or phylogenetics can aid problem-solving and decision-making in conservation, management, and resource stewardship today and in the future. Over 50 colleagues from eight countries attended.

John Birks presented an overview of Kathy’s many activities and achievements, offering six keywords to describe her: Outstanding, Versatile, Innovative, Wide-ranging, cross-disciplinary, Challenging, Surprising. He concluded with the observation that “what is slightly unusual about Kathy’s wide range of achievements is the lack of any pre-existing ‘invisible college’ (sensu Diane Crane) into which she became a member. She has largely created her own new ‘invisible college’ which is now large, very international, and highly successful.”

Steve Jackson (Director, South West Climate Science Center, US Geological Survey, Tucson) discussed using the past to re-invent conservation for the future. Drawing on the perspective of how species and ecosystems have changed over the last 15,000 years, Steve argued that ecosystem ‘novelty’ is the norm rather than the exception. Steve discussed the future emerging ecological novelty in response to future climate change. Is this a cause for despair? No, argued Steve, as the long-term perspective indicates population persistence over 10,000–30,000 years, suggesting much natural resilience, phenotypic adaptation, habitat shifts, migration, and possible evolutionary adjustment. Keith Bennett (St Andrews) reviewed evidence for speciation in the Quaternary. Overall, phylogenetic records suggest most lineages split within the last 1 million years due to geographical separation and colonisation of new islands. Speciation and diversification appear to be dominated by random processes. Lineage splitting is more frequent at low latitudes but splitting may depend on particular rare circumstances. Given present knowledge it is not possible to predict the age of modern species or the rate of character change.

Case-studies of Quaternary ecology relevant to conservation and future planet Earth were presented by Hilary Birks (Bergen) Long-time ecology in the late-glacial – an analogue for the future; Alistair Seddon (Bergen) Towards the development of a pollen-based UV-B proxy; Vivian Felde (Bergen) Did human activity alter pollen diversity in Scandinavia?; Sandra Nogué (Southampton) A short history of Macaronesian ancient forests; and Lizzy Jeffers (Oxford) The long-term value of natural capital: insights from the fossil record. Lizzy discussed how new palaeoecological proxies (e.g. dung fungus spores, δ15N) in conjunction with ecosystem modelling can provide new insights into ecosystem control. She also reviewed how palaeoecology can provide a long-term perspective on ecosystem services and the value of ecological footprint tools such as LEFT (Local Ecological Footprinting Tool) developed in Kathy’s lab. She addressed what factors enable resilience in ecosystems and the need for resilience to provide a sustainable Green Economy.

John-Arvid Grytnes (Bergen) bridged the time scales between Quaternary and modern ecological studies by discussing recent changes in plant species richness on mountain summits in the Alps and Scandinavia. Risk analysis suggests, surprisingly, that low-alpine taxa are more at risk than high-alpine taxa. There has been an accelerated rate of species increase since about 1970.

Turning to conservation, management, and resource stewardship, Gillian Petrokofsky (Oxford) discussed the important role of critical systematic reviews in providing for policy-makers the evidence-base in a form that is helpful and relevant to them. Such reviews are essential in trying to reconcile competing objectives in management and to clarify the often messy world of policy and practice. Marc Macias Fauria (Oxford) discussed the challenges of working on the interface of long-term and modern ecology, conservation, and management and of developing LEFT. Inger Måren (Bergen) reviewed the problems of balancing conservation and management with food production, with reference to agro-ecological systems in Nepal and in western Norway. Peter Emil Kaland (Bergen) outlined the proposed Nordhordaland Biosphere within the Man and Biosphere programme and discussed the sustainable use of natural resources from the deep sea inland to the mountain tops involving adapting social, economic, and cultural conditions to achieve sustainability.

In the final lecture, Kathy Willis (Oxford and Kew) discussed what 100 years of pollen analysis has taught us about where, when, and what to conserve. She provided a brilliant synthesis of her work and that of others on conservation palaeoecology within the paradigms of a Finite Earth and its protections and management (1908–1992); a Variable Earth and its maintenance and restoration (1990s–2002); and a Resource Earth (2005–) with its ecosystem services and benefits, and the ever-increasing need for sharing. She showed how long-term studies can provide unique insights into natural baselines, drivers and rates of change, ecosystem variability and resilience, and changes in natural capital assets in space and time and associated trade-offs. Kathy concluded by emphasising the need to disseminate these valuable insights to managers and policy-makers.

This stimulating symposium was sponsored by the University of Bergen and its Department of Biology, the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, and the VISTA research programme of the Academy and Statoil.

Further details of the symposium can be obtained from Alistair.Seddon@uib.no or John.Birks@uib.no

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