Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Australasian Systematic Botany Society Conference 2015, day one

This week our herbarium is hosting the annual Australasian Systematic Botany Society Conference. For me this is the first time to be involved in conference organisation, specifically the scientific program (deciding on conference theme and major sessions, inviting keynote speakers, organising workshops, deciding on abstract acceptance, grouping talks into sessions, etc.).

Yesterday started with a long session on collections science chaired by Sarah Mathews. Keynote speaker Vicki Funk of the Smithsonian stressed the importance of natural history collections in the genomic age and identified three game changers for the near future of collections science: open access to data and images, improved sequencing of degraded DNA from old specimens, and linking collection specimens with phylogenies and climate data. I was also amused by an anecdote she told of discussing phylogenetic systematics with an older, very influential traditional taxonomist who argued that not being allowed to recognise taxa based on plesiomorphies amounted to "throwing half my data away". Vicki then tried to explain that the data are used, only deeper in the tree, where those character states were apomorphies themselves. The amusing aspect is of course that 'evolutionary' taxonomists still haven't grasped that a generation later.

The collection science session continued with a talk by Jill Brown on crowd sourcing of data entry at the herbarium of the University of Melbourne. They are involving volunteers through the ALA DigiVol portal, and the project appears to be quite successful. Liqin Wu then presented an analysis of environmental lead accumulation in historical lichen specimens, an interesting use case of collections. She also identified possible lead sources (soil/rock, leaded petrol, coal burning) based on isotope ratios.

After the morning tea, Robyn Barker gave an overview of problems with typification of Australian taxa, problems that often derive from carelessness exhibited by earlier researchers. This was followed by a small series of talks presenting spatial analyses of geocoded data from herbarium specimen databases. Sarah Mathews talked about global diversity hotpots of conifers, which are situated especially in China, Mexico, New Caledonia and New Guinea. Peter Heenan presented an analysis of ca. 213,000 specimens representing 2,187 species across the entire vascular flora of New Zeeland. The study confirmed quantitatively several hunches people traditionally had about patterns of endemism in the country but also pinpointed under-protected areas of native flora and suggested that a revision of phytoregionalisation might be needed on the south island. The next talk, by Joe Miller, should in hindsight perhaps have gone first in this series because he explained in more detail some of the metrics used by Peter Heenan.

The collections science session ended with Peter Jobson's talk on early collections by missionaries from Hermannsburg near Alice Springs and Elizabeth Bui's contribution on the influence of soil characteristics on diversity of Proteaceae, eucalypts and Acacia.

I am really happy that we were able to put together a whole session just on novel approaches to the generation and interpretation of morphological data, which took place after lunch and was chaired by Juliet Wege. Kelly Shepherd talked about flower shapes in Goodeniaceae. Based on a landmark study they classified flower types into three distinct groups to be used in downstream analyses. Nathalie Nagalingum presented a work pipeline to semi-automatically generate morphological data matrices from species descriptions in the literature. She stressed that it worked quite well but required expert revision of the products of the automated part because the algorithm does get quite a few things wrong.

Peter Weston used a morphology database of Proteaceae to test evolutionary hypotheses on flower evolution in the family. Matt Renner, who I knew from a previous conference as a fun speaker to listen to, studied the rate of morphological evolution in a genus of leafy liverworts. Interestingly, the results were vastly different depending on the analysis method he used, so that he cautioned the audience against using only one of them. Finally, in his second talk of the day Joe Miller demonstrated the use of the PhyloLINK tool of the Atlas of Living Australia. It is a piece of software that allows the user to link a phylogenetic tree to character data, maps and even ALA's climate data, providing numerous options to explore one's data in previously unthinkable ways.

The second afternoon session was on species delimitation, new species, and cryptic diversity, and was chaired by Jeremy Bruhl. Russell Barrett talked about species delimitation in Cleome based on seed morphology and phylogenetic data. Next, Ian Telford presented some work from his Ph.D. project on the Synostemon trachyspermus complex and its conservation implications. Karen Muscat gave an overview over her research on the attractive lily-like genus Dianella including phylogenetics and new species discovery. Conversely, Melodina Fabillo did not find any convincing evidence to recognise several species in polymorphic Australian Tripogon loliiformis.

Chris Cargill presented results on the complex thalloid liverwort genus Riccia. Although having done my Ph.D. in a department of systematic botany where most other colleagues were working on cryptogams I actually know more about liverworts than the average botanist, I learned a lot of new stuff. For example, it is interesting to note that most complex thalloids show considerably lower rates of molecular evolution than other liverwords; wonder why that is. The last talk of the day was contributed by Ryan Phillips who studies sexually deceptive orchids in the genus Drakaea.

The sessions of scientific talks were followed by the annual meeting of the Australasian Systematic Botany Society and a public forum on translating science into decision making. So far I am really happy with how the conference went even as I experienced some personal frustrations on other fronts (especially being late due to a flat bicycle tyre, the second in one week). There is a fantastic diversity of data types, methodologies and plant groups, and presenters are enthusiastic and mostly managed to keep to the time.

Today and Wednesday will be more talks, to be followed by workshops and field trip on Thursday.

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