Leverhulme Travel Bursary recipient, Stephanie Law, reports from the 55th Annual Meeting of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, Sarawak, Malaysia

25 September 2018

Stephanie Law was awarded the Leverhulme Travel Bursary to attend the 55th Annual Meeting of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia. Here, she gives us background on her research and tells us about her experience at the conference and the benefits of attending.

‘The Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) is a scientific professional society founded in 1963. The society holds an annual international conference in a different location each year with the aim to engage a range of academic disciplines, professional sectors and social stake holders. The ATBC 2018 theme was ‘linking natural history and the conservation of tomorrow’s tropical ecosystems’.  It is widely known that humans put unsustainable pressures on the world’s biodiversity and natural systems, this is particularly so in the tropics which harbours most of the world’s biodiversity. This conference strived to highlight the importance of natural history, because effective conservation requires a robust understanding of nature.  The capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, Kuching, was host to the conference. Kuching was a particularly apt location, as along with the rest of Borneo, Sarawak is home to rich and diverse human cultures as well as some of the world’s most biodiverse tropical forests.

‘ATBC 2018 offered an excellent and diverse programme with 90 symposiums, 6 keynote lectures, 2 panel discussions, 6 soft skills workshops, an extensive poster session and a range of social events to encourage networking. I presented my research in the symposium titled ‘the role of invertebrates in undisturbed tropical ecosystems’ alongside 6 other presenters. I presented what will form the first chapter of my PhD, titled ‘vertical stratification of tropical ant assemblages: do ground ants restrict the foraging distribution of arboreal and subterranean ants?

‘Primary tropical rainforest is vertically stratified into the subterranean layer, forest floor, understory and canopy. My research focuses on the species of ant found in these different vertical locations. Species distributions of ants show little overlap between the subterranean, ground and canopy layers, with many species occupying only one strata. Although the vertical stratification of ant species is well documented the reasons behind the existence of vertical stratification are less comprehensive. I study what could be driving this stratification. My presentation focused on one strand of my research which attributes vertical stratification to competitive interactions. We quantified the contribution that ground foraging ants have on vertical stratification by suppressing ground foraging ants in experimental plots and observing the effects this had on the distribution of ant species above and below the ground. By eliminating a whole assemblage of ants and the associated competitive interactions, the degree to which it influences the composition of other ant assemblages can be determined. Ants were surveyed vertically in suppression plots where ground foraging ants had been removed and in control plots where they were present. We found that the suppression of ground ants significantly impacted arboreal and subterranean ant assemblages. We suggest that the competitive dominance of ground ants helps to maintain vertical stratification of ant assemblages. All of my field work was completed in Maliau Basin in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo so presenting my findings at a conference held in Borneo was particularly fitting. I was delighted to see some research assistants who have helped me in the field also attend the conference.

‘The presentation was a very valuable experience and my talk was well received, as attendees were keen to comment and inquire more about my findings. Furthermore, my presentation led to an important and constructive meeting with a more seasoned researcher in the same field who requested to talk to me at length following my presentation. As part of my work is to be published and I am soon to complete my PhD, the comments I received and discussion that followed will undoubtedly help me to improve the manuscripts and could possibly lead to new future collaborations. There were several other talks at the conference by researchers studying ant interactions in tropical rainforests. These provided further insight into the role of ants in tropical rainforest ecosystems and enabled me to make new connections with other researchers working within the same field.

‘There were many highlights of the conference, one being the presidential keynote address by Professor Yadvinder Malhi. He called for a planetary approach to biology and conservation, showing that throughout the year the tropics dominate in global gross primary productivity but emphasizing the increasing and unsustainable demand that humans make on that energy available from Earth. A further highlight was the passionate and animated panel discussion that was held regarding equality and diversity within science. Although there was a 50:50 attendance of males to females at the conference, this discussion gave a platform to show there is still much more to be done in terms of equality but, with positive panel discussions like this one, there is positivity to be had for future change.

‘At the end of the conference I was fortunate to have some time to explore and see the rich diversity that Borneo has to offer, including seeing the emblematic Orangutan in the wild and diving at some of the world’s best dive sites to see coral reefs still teeming with wildlife. Shortly after the conference Kuching was also host to the rainforest world music festival, another brilliant celebration of diversity with music and cultures coming together to enjoy the hot and humid tropics.

‘I would like to express my sincere gratitude to SCI for awarding me the generous Leverhulme travel bursary to attend the ATBC 2018 conference. Without this support I would not have been able to attend this internationally prestigious conference. Participation in this conference has been an amazing and valuable experience. I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to enhance my knowledge, share my research, broaden my network and establish new possible collaborations for the future career prospects.’

Stephanie Law
PhD Student
University of Liverpool

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