Molecular ecologists meet in the Catlins

By Hilary Miller 03/12/2009

Last weekend I attended the 12th Annual NZ Molecular Ecology meeting, held in the Catlins, in the deep south of New Zealand.  NZ’s molecular ecologists have a traditional of holding their annual meeting in beautiful, out-of-the-way places, and this year was no exception with the Tautuku Outdoor Education Centre in the heart of the Catlins being our base.  This year’s meeting brought together 50 researchers from Crown Research Institutes, DoC, and universities across New Zealand (plus a few from across the ditch).  

Tautuku Bay and the coastal rainforest surrounding it provided a stunning backdrop to the meeting, and provided plenty of opportunity for wildlife spotting – the highlight (for me anyway) being a leopard seal which made itself at home on the beach on Saturday. 

Leopard seal taking a break at Tautuku Bay

But enough about the scenery, what of the science, I hear you ask? 

Molecular ecologists use genetic methods to answer ecological questions.  In keeping with this broad definition, talks at the meeting covered diverse topics ranging from systematics of invertebrates to population genetics of native birds.  Theoretical aspects of the processes that underpin many molecular ecological analyses (such as evolution of microsatellite and mtDNA markers) were also given an airing.  As you might expect, studies aimed at improving conservation management of NZ native species featured highly, but some exotic international flavour was provided by talks on toxicity and phylogenetics of poison dart frogs from South America, population genetics of the black rhino in South Africa, and (from scibling David Winter) speciation of land snails in Rarotonga.  There were also a number of interesting talks on species of economic and agricultural importance to New Zealand.  Elisabeth Heeg from Victoria University talked about the population structure and likely origins of Lake Taupo rainbow trout, Marina Mahood from Lincoln explored the possibility of non-invasive sampling methods for genetic monitoring of possums, and Leah Tooman from Plant and Food talked about the global population structure of an invasive pest moth, the light brown apple moth.  

The New Zealand Molecular Ecology meeting is always heavily student-focussed, and for some this was their first opportunity to present their research ideas to an audience outside their own lab.  Genetics Otago sponsored 3 student prizes for the best talks.  Runners up were Davon Callender from the University of Canterbury for her talk on quantifying environmental stress responses in NZ mussels, and Peggy Macqueen from the University of Queensland for her presentation on the phylogeography of pademelons in New Guinea.  The winner was Benjamin Myles from University of Otago for his talk on using molecular clock methods to date the divergence of Parmeliaceae lichens (these include lichens that grow on beech trees).  

It was clear from the meeting that genomics is playing an increasingly important role in molecular ecology research.  Although the traditional microsatellite/mitochondrial DNA marker combination still featured heavily in most talks, many NZ researchers are beginning to adopt next-generation sequencing to develop more and better genetic markers for population studies.  With the increasing availability of genome-level data for a wide range of species there are exciting times ahead for molecular ecologists.