Isotope science and culture: highlights of the 2018 IsoEcol conference

KAUST Ph.D. student Matt Tietbohl recently attended IsoEcol, the 11th International Conference on the Applications of Stable Isotope Techniques to Ecological Studies, in Chile. Image courtesy of Matt Tietbohl.

​-By Matt Tietbohl, KAUST Ph.D. student

KAUST Ph.D. student Matt Tietbohl discusses his recent trip to Chile to attend IsoEcol, the 11th International Conference on the Applications of Stable Isotope Techniques to Ecological Studies.

IsoEcol took place from July 30 to August 3 this year in Viña del Mar, Chile, with the conference focusing on the use of stable isotope analysis. Over 250 scientists from around the world attended the event, taking part in a fascinating range of talks on the use of isotope science to understand the ecology of animals and humans. The conference was incredibly compelling in the science shared and presented and in the open atmosphere it supported.

Over 250 scientists from 34 different countries attended the 2018 IsoEcol conference in Chile to hear 100 talks, see 127 posters and attend six workshops. Photo by Trevor Krabbenhoft.

Thirty-four different countries were represented at the conference, with the majority coming from South America. Chile was the most represented country in attendance, and it was great to see so many scientists share excellent work done in the conference's host country. Six workshops, 127 posters and 100 talks featured at the event, all sharing the latest and greatest in stable isotope science.

As a student studying marine science, most of the research I follow tends to be very "wet" in nature and focused on coastal and aquatic habitats. IsoEcol was an amazing opportunity to learn about the world of stable isotope analysis outside of the oceans, as well as spend some time speaking with the "movers and shakers" in the field of marine isotope ecology.

Dr. Diane O’Brien from the University of Alaska Fairbanks gave the opening plenary talk at the 2018 IsoEcol conference, demonstrating how stable isotope analysis can help us understand human nutrition. Photo by Guido Pavez.

Dr. Diane O'Brien from the University of Alaska Fairbanks opened the conference with a talk outlining how she used isotopes as bioindicators of diet and health in humans. Modern humans weren't the only focus of some isotope studies, however. Researchers also used isotope analysis to demonstrate that cremated bodies found at Stonehenge—where they were buried around 5,000 years ago—spent the last years of their lives in Wales, which is over 200 kilometers away.

Researchers at the recent IsoEcol conference in Chile discussed the use of isotope analysis to find the origin of bodies buried at Stonehenge. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Other researchers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks discussed their work in creating a "rode-map" of strontium isotope values throughout Alaska using rodent teeth. The isotope map—or isoscapes—helped inform them about how ancient bison and woolly mammoths migrated through their ancient environment. The beauty in the simple isotope map is that it allows researchers to quantify how extinct animals moved through past environments and helps us to understand how and why they became extinct.

The 11th IsoEcol conference in Chile from July 30 to August 3 featured over 250 attendees from 34 different countries. Photo by Guido Pavez.

Some of the more contemporary terrestrial research touched on topics like metabolism and movement. Dr. John Whiteman from the University of New Mexico showed how oxygen isotopes can be used to inform the metabolism of different organisms ranging from mice to elephants and the utility of the technique to get around the difficulties of measuring the metabolic rates of wild animals. Other research delved into soil ecology, using isotopes to unravel the complex food webs that keep the soil healthy and full of nutrients. This also revealed some interesting relationships with plankton food webs in the ocean.

Researchers at the recent 11th IsoEcol conference in Chile discussed their work on using historic isotope data from ancient penguin samples. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Back to the wet world I know best, Dr. Brian Hayden from the Canadian Rivers Institute at the University of New Brunswick showed how warming lake temperatures are restructuring food webs and fish feeding ecology in Arctic lakes with knock-down effects on their community structure. Dr. Kelton McMahon from the University of Rhode Island and several collaborators also presented historic isotope data. In these instances, they've used isotope values of ancient penguin samples to show how historic changes in their feeding ecology can be related to climactic shifts and changes in human fishing pressure in the Antarctic. This information is key for managers to have better perspectives when studying current changes in penguin populations.

The collaborative culture and the cutting-edge and thoughtful research that was presented made for an utterly fantastic conference experience. I greatly look forward to the next conference in the summer of 2020 in Austria where I can catch up with the wonderful group of motivated "iso-wizards."

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