The state of biogeography

The yearly meetings of the International Biogeographical Society (IBS) provide the perfect opportunity to learn the latest about what is happening in this fascinating field (which focusses on the distribution of species on our planet, in past, present and future). Here, I would like to give you a short impression of what a brief visit to Malaga thought me in that regard, brightened up with some pictures of a short evening walk in the area.

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All pictures taken in Parque del Guadalhorce, Malaga

First of all: biogeography is more alive than ever! This old discipline (dated back to some of histories finest biologists) seems to have been revamped recently, as the accelerating changes on our planet triggered new questions and a frantic search for solutions for our biodiversity before it is too late. The problem of global change needs biogeography to be solved, period. Yet it is not only these new and fascinating questions that triggered this revival, it is also the new tools that are currently at hand to answer these questions. And the meeting of the IBS in Malaga provided some fascinating examples of those, many of whom got me very excited to apply them in our own research.

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There is the data (oh, the data, so much data!), with nowadays a flurry of global databases, and datasets happily being shared between collaborators all over the globe. Our own SoilTemp-database and the MIREN-network are only two examples of those, and I was humbled to see some of the other major efforts that are out there. Data might seem boring to some, yet good and plentiful data is the basis of any conclusive answer to any scientific question.

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With these datasets becoming increasingly more complex, and the answering of ever-more fascinating questions thus within reach, there is a need for good models to process all of that. Luckily, practical statistical packages, freely available, are popping up everywhere, and the community of statistical enthusiasts on the internet happy to help others is bigger than ever. Caution is needed, however, as biogeography is a field where it is easy to get beautiful yet untrustworthy results if one is a bit careless with his statistics. Again, statistics might not seem so attractive to the casual reader of this blog, but I promise you: good statistical models might be saving the world!

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Finally, an observation which is key for any science communication: the visuals are improving rapidly. Maps, graphs, animations, even cartoons; quality of them is clearly on the rise, as scientists are getting more and more aware that a clear and attractive figure is the best way to convince the rest of the world of the importance of their work. And this communication is reaching beyond the simple gatherings of like-minded scientists: many biogeographers realize they have something important to say to the world, and are not too shy to say it.

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So, as usual I am heading home from the IBS-meeting with a suitcase full of great ideas and a pile of positivity, and most of all the feeling that biogeography is answering some of our times most critical questions. The world is changing rapidly – perhaps even faster than scientists can study it – but the whole community is dedicated to improve our understanding of these changes, and come up with solutions.

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