This week I’ve been in Cape Town for an international conference that brought together seabird scientists from across the world. Seabirds are excellent models for a diverse range of questions in ecology, behaviour and conservation; to name just a few of the remarkable range of work that was presented. Here’s a link to the programme.
I presented two studies on my work from Skomer Island, home to probably the world’s largest Manx shearwater colony.
My talk on Thursday morning showed how climatic variation in both the North and South Atlantic affects the survival and reproductive success of shearwaters, which migrate to the Patagonian Shelf. It’s a collaboration including Tim Guilford’s navigation group at Oxford and statistical wizards to make use of the Skomer’s long-term population monitoring data, initiated by Chris Perrins in the early 1970s (I took over in 2014). Several studies at the conference found that El Niño variation affects seabirds, from Europe to Australia to the sub-Antarctic, so we’ll be looking out for the effects of the current El Niño event that brought a heatwave to Cape Town early in the week.
Then it was off to the poster session – in a few weeks I’ll be giving some tips to my dissertation students on how to do a great poster, so the pressure was on! Luckily I had a good hook, to grab the attention of the crowd. My poster was about a strange disease found in shearwater: puffinosis. Found only only in fledglings after they leave their burrows, the disease causes foot blisters and is usually fatal. My work used GIS analysis to try and explain the very predictable spatial distribution of the disease, which is informing the search for a cause. I’m part of another collaboration of ecologists, pathologists and geneticists looking into this, so watch this space! (I know what you’re thinking, and puffinosis isn’t found in puffins even though it sounds like it should be! The name comes from the scientific name for Manx shearwaters, Puffinus puffinus).
It was great to get some really useful feedback. I was quite tentative with some of my conclusions in my talk, and it was very encouraging to hear supportive comments and see that our results from shearwaters chimed with similar work in other species. Now it’s time to get the work published!
But you can do all this conference business online now, right? You don’t need to go all that way when you could just use new technology? Wrong! The most useful part for me was the amazing discussions after the presentations. I’ve made many new contacts with some really smart, helpful, and interesting people doing cool science – this will improve the quality of my science, and hopefully develop some great new work on seabirds. This morning I counted seven new potential collaborations – that would never have happened with a remote conference. A ‘real’ conference seriously helps to focus; your attention is fully devoted to it. The journey helps too, time to get ‘in the zone’ outward, and to reflect on the way home.
And you can’t party online! Every conference has one, and it was unforgettable. The conference was introduced with a video message from Jane Goodall, who then gave us her rendition of a chimpanzee greeting call and challenged us to do the same for our study species. So last night, after a great conference week and a glass of wine or two, the world’s seabirders rose to Jane’s challenge! Here’s an impressive taster: three seabirders combining to mimic Leach’s Storm petrel. The rest will be online soon.
I could write about the success of Twitter around the conference (check out #WSC2), the excellent venue and the scores of truly great talks and posters I saw, the impressive support for early career seabirders and the student protests about a 10% increase in tuition fees (I felt quite at home!), or how useful this trip has been for my teaching… but time and space are against me.
I’m at Cape Town airport now, my plane’s about to board and my thoughts are turning homeward. This is the longest I’ve been away from home since I became a dad five years ago, and in this scintillating week my family have never been far from my mind. I’ll be home to see my wife and two boys very soon, and I’ve got some great stories to tell them.
Sincere thanks to the University of Gloucestershire and JNCC for funding, and all the great people I’ve worked with to make these projects possible.
PS my five year old did his own poster about puffinosis this week. Clearly better than mine! And yes, that’s a bird-eating spider (centre right). He might be onto something…