Statistics in Ecology and Environmental Monitoring: A Look Back at the SEEM 2015 Conference

Post provided by Dr Matt Schofield

Matt is an Associate Editor for Methods in Ecology and Evolution. He was the principle organiser of this year’s SEEM conference. His research interests include Bayesian inference and hierarchical modelling, computational methodology, ecological statistics and much more. Matt is based at the University of Otago.

A photo taken during a lunch break at the conference

A photo taken during a lunch break at the conference

The Statistics in Ecology and Environmental Monitoring (SEEM) conference was held in Queenstown, New Zealand on June 22-26, 2015. Queenstown is a resort town in the Southern Alps of New Zealand that looks out on Lake Wakatipu, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. The venue gave a chance to explore some of the natural beauty of New Zealand, with excursions to local ski fields, wineries and various hiking trails.

SEEM conferences have been organized by members of the Statistics group at the University of Otago since 1993. The first SEEM conference was held in Dunedin, New Zealand and conferences were then held regularly (every 3 years) until 2002. The last SEEM conference, in 2007, also served as the EURING (European Union for Bird Ringing) technical meeting. With nearly ten years passing since 2007, we had a smaller conference of around 50 attendees this year. There was an engaging atmosphere during the meeting and productive discussion followed each of the 40 talks. The SEEM 2015 meeting maintained the tradition of previous SEEM conferences with delegates from across a broad spectrum of statistical ecology coming together to discuss research.

Statistical Consulting in the USA

The honorary speaker at the conference was Bryan Manly of Manly-Biostatistics Limited in New Zealand. Bryan has a wealth of experience as a statistical consultant as well as in academia, previously having held the Chair of Statistics at the University of Otago. He discussed his experiences in statistical consulting in the USA over the past 15 years and described several projects that showed many of the difficulties associated with sampling and analysing ecological data. One such project involved sampling designs and analyses for estimating fishing bycatch for the Alaska Marine Mammal Observer program.  Another project Brian spoke about was the design of studies to estimate the survival of fish passing through dams on the Columbia River in Washington.

Plenary Speakers: Multivariate Data and Spatial Information

Invited talks were provided by David Warton, Kerrie Mengerson, Shirley Pledger, Richard Barker and Murray Efford (we were particularly grateful to Kerrie Mengerson who stepped in at the last minute to give a second talk when Andy Royle ended up at home with his travel plans in tatters). These talks helped set the themes for the conference. Two such themes were model-based approaches for multivariate data and incorporating spatial information into analyses.

David Warton (University of New South Wales), an Associate Editor for Methods in Ecology and Evolution, discussed how many traditional multivariate approaches were historically developed for computational efficiency and lack a statistical modelling foundation. He presented several ecological examples from his own research that showed how model-based approaches, fitted using modern computational techniques can outperform traditional methods.  Shirley Pledger (Victoria University of Wellington) and Richard Barker (University of Otago) followed this by considering specific model-based approaches for multivariate data backed by numerous examples. Shirley looked at ordination and clustering using finite mixture modelling fitted using maximum likelihood. Richard discussed recent research that shows how principal component analysis can be considered from within a model-based approach.

Kerrie Mengerson (Queensland University of Technology) presented two talks, one on Bayesian networks, the other on extracting expert information to support Bayesian spatial modelling and analysis. In her latter talk, Kerrie described a pilot study in which the aim was to predict the presence of a threatened Australian animal, the rock wallaby, by augmenting the sparse observational data with spatial information obtained from expert ecologists. Much of this research involves cutting-edge technology and has the potential to be widely used in the future. Murray Efford (University of Otago) also considered spatial information in mark-recapture analyses.  A particular focus was development of approaches that can model how the spatial ranges of animals change as density changes.

A photo taken during the conference excursion from the top of Cadrona ski field looking back toward Queenstown

A photo taken during the conference excursion from the top of Cadrona ski field looking back toward Queenstown

Environmental Monitoring

Ian Westbrooke (Department of Conservation, New Zealand) organised a contributed session exploring national environmental reporting and monitoring in New Zealand. Three of the talks discussed the comprehensive three-tiered system for monitoring biodiversity that has recently been established in New Zealand by the Department of Conservation. Many issues were discussed, including how to summarise the information to the satisfaction of the many stakeholders involved.

 Speed Talks

The conference featured `speed talks’ as well as standard contributed sessions. The speed talks were in place of a poster session, with speakers limited to five minutes and three slides and were well received. The speakers had put considerable effort into condensing their research and presenting it effectively in the time provided. This format was an effective way for presenters to introduce their work and it generated more interest than with a typical poster session. Francis Hui (Australia National University) used his three slides very effectively to discuss model fitting in mixed effects models. Helen Nathan (University of Auckland) and Pablo Garcia Diaz (University of Adelaide) were joint student prize winners.

 Missed SEEM 2015? Join Us Next Time

We don’t want to leave it another decade before the next SEEM conference. Our plan is to host another meeting in December 2017. We will continue the tradition of SEEM conferences past, bringing statisticians, ecologists and those in environmental sciences together in beautiful New Zealand – this time at the start of the southern summer. We hope that you will join us.

For more discussion of the SEEM 2015 Conference, you can watch an interview between David Warton, Matt Schofield and David Fletcher (one of the organisers of the first SEEM conference) on our YouTube channel HERE.

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