Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Paleontologist at Evolution 2011

This week I was lucky enough to attend Evolution 2011, this year's iteration of an annual convention held jointly between the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE), the Society of Systematic Biologists (SSB) and the American Society of Naturalists (ASN). As one of the few paleontologists who attended, I'd like to spend some time discussing my expectations going in, my reaction to the general tone of the meeting and some talks that I thought were really neat.

Before I came to Evolution, more than a few people told me that the conference would be of little interest to a paleontologist. They said the talks were very focused on molecular tree-building, experimental evolution and genomics, and that paleo stuff was generally swept off to some isolated session that no one attends. I also expected it to be a very large conference, maybe the size of the Geological Society of America national meeting (the regular yearly meet-up for most paleontologists, particularly non-vertebrate workers, but mainly attended by geologists). I just thought there was a lot of evolutionary biologists in the world.

I decided to go anyway, seeing that many of the sessions last year had been titled 'diversification', and I enjoy a good story based on a phylogeny as much anyone else. I also submitted a talk. I work on phylogenetic approaches to macroevolution in an extinct group, so my research falls very nicely into the current interests of evolutionary biologists.

First off, the meeting was surprisingly small, maybe a little bit larger than the paleo portion of GSA but definitely smaller than NAPC or IPC3. I hear this was a small year, but it makes the community of evolutionary biology less intimidating.

Secondly, there were very few paleontologists. (I count no more than 13.) However, the single paleo session at the meeting appeared to be well attended, although I didn't personally see giant crowds at the back like a few sessions had. As a speaker, I sat in the front and I did not glance behind me that often, so maybe I missed this. (After my talk, I got a lot of feedback and some compliments. People even tweeted about me! Yay!)

As far as specific talks of interest to the paleo-inclined, I particularly enjoyed Gene Hunt's talk on punctuated equilibrium. There was also some intriguing work being done on clam shrimp morphometrics to elucidate sex ratios in the fossil record, presented separately by Byron Brown and Timothy Astrop (both from the same research group). Earlier in the conference, Pete Wagner and David Polly gave talks on character evolution in the big symposium room.

There was also a considerable number of talks focusing on comparing and/or integrating the information from molecular phylogenies and the fossil record: Carl Simpson compared diversification histories in corals, Graham Slater discussed putting uncertain fossil ancestors on phylogenies for trait evolution and Rampal Etienne discussed a model of diversity-dependent diversification and fit it to both fossil data and molecular data. There was also a number of mentions in other talks about the increasing realization that fossil data was necessary for testing some macroevolutionary hypotheses. I think an integration of data and methods is a very promising route as we realize the limitations of each type of data. Although they are not integrating this data just yet, there were several people at the meeting from the BITS (Bivalves in Time and Space) working group, which holds considerable promise in exploring what a combined dataset might tell us.

Thirdly, and very importantly, the meeting was full to the brim of macroevolution. All those 'diversification' sessions were full of talks where some people made a tree and THEN went on to test some neat question about diversification rates or trait evolution using some of the more recent 'comparative methods': BISSE, MEDUSA, geiger, ouch, etc. I've talked to some people who have been to more Evolution meetings than I have and they tell me this really is something new, maybe starting last year at the Portland meeting.

All of this has given me some, well, perhaps radical thoughts which I will share in the next blog post.

Indicative of a field that is growing and developing, there was also a number of talks on the analytical power of specific methods (Richard FitzJohn, Cecile Ane, Matt Davis and Carl Boettiger). Boettiger's talk was particularly interesting, presenting a new method to show us the distinction in support for different models of trait evolution more clearly and he has also placed his slides online. Liam Revell also presented new methods for estimating shifts in rates of trait evolution, which he has discussed previously on his blog.

As always, there were a few talks I wish I had not missed: Joe Felsenstein, Josef Uyeda, Chris Martins, Sam Price... Oh well. We cannot see everything at a conference! Oh well... maybe next year!