Part of doing science is going to conferences where people present their research and everyone gets updated on the state of the art, as well as the identity of the artists. At an ideal conference a broad cross-section of researchers attends, from grizzled veterans who wrote their PhD theses on typewriters to undergraduate students who address everyone as Dr-so-and-so and generally act like they're attending extended office hours for their advanced biology course. This is what makes conferences so wonderful. Not only do you get to see the latest research, but you also get to meet people you admire from all professional levels at what approaches an even playing field. No polite knocking on office doors, no staying up until 1am to Skype with someone on the other side of the world. Last (Northern Hemisphere) summer I went on a 'round-the-world conference tour. This was made possible because three conferences I wanted to attend were taking place in the Americas in quick succession: the International Behavioural Neuroscience Society conference in Victoria, Canada at the beginning of June, the Evolution conference near Sao Paulo, Brazil at the end of June, and the International Brain Research Organization conference in early July in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Finally, the Behaviour conference was at the beginning of August back in Australia.
Otters are charismatic members of the weasel family, Mustelidae. They're well known for their personable, funny behaviour such as sliding down waterfalls, play-fighting, and generally being pretty cute. When I was a kid my parents would take me to the Buffalo Aquarium, where their river otters were among my favourite exhibits, and I always loved watching them slide down their artificial river. Although otters are probably the most well-liked members of the weasel family, they're not the easiest things to observe in the wild. I'd been lucky enough to see wild otters only three times over the course of my life, despite North American river otters (Lontra canadensis) being native to my native southern Ontario. I'd seen the aforementioned river otters once in the wild, during a spring break trip to the Everglades in Florida. I'd also seen a neotropical river otter (Lontra longicaudis), a closely related species native to Central and South America, once while surveying birds in Panama. Finally, I got a fleeting glance at a family of spot-necked otters (Hydrictis maculicollis) on safari in the Maasi Mara in Kenya. That's three otter sightings in 28 years. I would get just as many sightings of otters in the two months I spent attending conferences across the Americas.
An Otter Surprise
Conference number one was the International Society for Behavioural Neuroscience (ISBN) conference in Victoria, Canada. Victoria is the beautiful capital of British Columbia, the westernmost province of Canada and is located on Vancouver Island. The conference was held at a particularly spectacular waterfront hotel in Victoria (picture below). Each conference has its own flavour, and the Behaviour Neuroscience conference was a strange mix of low-key and formality. The low-key aspect came mostly from the younger attendees, the graduate students and early postdocs. The conference started with a student-mixer, and I was surprised by how easy it was to meet new people and make quick friends amongst the students attending the conference. There weren't too many people and everyone seemed quite approachable and friendly. Smaller conferences and student-only mixers are good for this sort of thing. Meeting people is one of the main benefits to attending conferences, and the way this conference was organised really promoted getting to know people.
The more formal aspect of the conference came from the more senior attendees. I find people working in neuroscience have a higher level of professional dress, in general, and suits, ties, pleated pants and dress shoes were common amongst the attendee's attire (notice all these items, save the shoes, are stereotypically men's formal wear; science is still very much a male-biased profession). The talks also felt more formal, both in their structure and their delivery.
Behavioural neuroscience is a broad field to which I am only tangentially related. I would call what I do more evolutionary neuroscience or, if you want to get more specific, evolutionary neuroanatomy. I do try and relate my work to the behavioural work of others, but it's still not directly what I would consider "behavioural neuroscience". I like attending these conferences because they are significant horizon-broadeners. I come away from them feeling like I know better where I fit into the rest of the neuroscience field, even if nothing presented was directly what I work on.
Victoria is a spectacular place to hold a conference, and my jet-lag resulted in my being awake bright and early, allowing for scenic strolls along the waterfront each morning before the conference started. Along Victoria's waterfront there's a particularly kitschy wharf where tourists can buy raw fish to feed a particularly friendly and obese seal (picture above). I'd heard that they've been having problems recently with sneaky otters stealing the fish meant for the seal. I wasn't so interested in seeing the seal, harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) are common along both of Canada's coasts and seeing one being fed by tourists didn't sound like a particularly wild experience. I was, however, very interested in trying to find the sneaky otters. Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) were, until recently, extinct in British Columbia due to over-harvesting for the fur industry. However, they had recently recolonised the coast of Vancouver Island and I was eager to see this endangered species in the wild. I walked down to the seal-feeding spot around sunrise, expecting to find some wily sea otters because, after all, this was the Pacific Ocean. However, I was surprised to find North American river otters instead! This just goes to show that you shouldn't make assumptions on the biology of animals based on their names. River otters can actually be found in lakes, streams, marshes and even coastal shorelines, as well as rivers.
An Otter Disappointment
Because of my failure to find sea otters in Victoria, I joined some friends I had just made at the Behavioural Neuroscience conference on a quick road trip up to Tofino, a small town popular with hippies and surfers on the seaward coast of Vancouver Island. This trip was good for me because I was able to cement some friendships with people I had just met at the conference in Victoria. I came to the conference knowing only one person, and yet I was able to mingle, make friends, and establish new contacts, particularly with people at the same career stage as I am.
I wanted to go to Tofino because it is a good place to see two mammals, both spectacular conservation success stories. In additional to the recently-recolonised sea otters, I was hoping to see Pacific Gray Whales (Eschrichtius robustus). The gray whales, or at least the population that lives along the Pacific coast of North America, is believed to be the first whale population to have completely recovered from whaling. The number of gray whales is what it was before humans started hunting all the great whales to extinction. Conservation success stories are relatively rare - much rarer than species in dire situations in need of conservation - and it's always nice to see a wild animal that represents human's ability not to kill animals, but to save them (as long as we care to). To have the opportunity to see two such species in one place is a rare treat.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. The sea was too rough and we weren't able to get out to the rafts of sea otters, who live quite a ways out from shore. This caution on the part of our captain was definitely a good thing. Just a few months later a boat capsized and six people died doing exactly what I was doing. The gray whales, however, were also sheltering from the rough seas. They were in a (relatively) calm bay and we were able to see five of them up close, including a calf playing around its mother. The whales almost made up for the disappointment of missing the sea otters.
An Otter Success (but Jaguar Disappointment)
The next conference on my tour was the Evolution conference in Guaruja, Brazil. Guaruja is a coastal resort-city get-away for the wealthier residents of Sao Paulo, Brazil's biggest city. It's also, I learned later from some Sao Paulo residents, not the safest place on Earth, or even in Brazil. Rumor had it that on the first day of the conference a few attendees were mugged, and it's the only conference I've ever attended with police and an ambulance stationed out front.
Out of all the conferences I attended last summer, the Evolution conference had the most people I knew. Entire labs from my department (Evolution, Ecology & Genetics) at ANU were attending, and there were additional people from my department and from around Australia whom I was friendly with. It was surprising, therefore, that this was the conference at which I felt the most like an outsider. Many people come back from conferences, particularly conferences at which they are the only members of their lab in attendance, reporting feelings of isolation and loneliness. Although that doesn't necessarily have to be the case (see my experience at the last conference), it was my experience at this conference. When I think of the two conferences, and compare their structure and my experiences, I think a lot of the differences in my experience can be found in the size of the conferences, and in their organization.
The Evolution conference was much larger than the ISBN conference, and had in attendance many more "Big Cheeses". The Evolution community is a relatively small one, however when everyone is at the same conference it can feel huge, and moreover most people are already friends with each other. I'm a relative outsider in the field of evolution, and I found this conference relatively cliquey, with most people sticking to their previously-established social groups and not much room for new interactions.
This brings me to my second point. There weren't many opportunities for socializing set-up by the conference organizers. The ISBN conference's very first function was a meet-and-great for PhD students only, and those sorts of socials can help outsiders find their way in. In their absence, I was overwhelmed and lost.
That's not to say I didn't meet anyone interesting. I made a point of looking people up and talking to them if their work related to mine or was something that I was particularly interested in. On a few occasions I was able to connect people with other people I knew who were interested in the same things, which I hope was useful. However I left the conference feeling like I hadn't been able to integrate or become part of the evolution society.
Following the conference I decided to visit a place that was always very high on my "must-visit" list: the Pantanal in far western Brazil. Circumstances had conspired to force me to miss the Pantanal on both my previous trips to Brazil, and I wasn't going to let that happen again! I rented a car in Cuiaba and spent a week driving up and down the Transpantaneira, the only road that penetrates deep into the Pantanal, looking for animals.
The Pantanal is not the Amazon. It's a giant, flooded grassland very similar to the Everglades. The Amazon is full of animals but they are very difficult to see owing to all the massive trees that are in the way. As a grassland, the Pantanal is a much easier place to see animals, and it is well-known particularly for mammals. I went to the Pantanal seeking four animals in particular: hyacinth macaw, lowland tapir, jaguar and giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis). The Pantanal is definitely the best place to see all four, and the only place to reliably see hyacinth macaw and jaguar.
To find jaguar and giant otter I drove to the small village at the end of the Transpantaneira called Porto Jofre. Porto Jofre is idyllically located on the bank of the Cuiaba River. There's a campground there, and I have to admit that camping on the edge of the river looked pretty spectacular, especially as the sun went down. However, after dark I discovered the dark side of this particular campground. For no discernible reason the campground had massive lights that bathed all the campsites in artificial light all night long. To power these lights they ran a diesel generator, a very noisy machine, for the WHOLE NIGHT. What could have been a spectacular experience listening to the river flow as I fall asleep admiring the stars through the mesh of my tent turned into a horrible experience in which a face mask and earplugs were necessary to get any sleep at all.
One of the benefits of the generator was that I had no trouble getting up in time to watch the sunrise. I also discovered that there was a giant river otter den right next to my tent. I got to watch four of the massive animals play and catch fish as the sun rose and I drank my morning coffee. Giant river otters are not only the longest of the otters, but are the longest of the Mustelids, and can get almost 2 meters long! They are huge.
Unfortunately, I was not nearly as lucky with the jaguars as I was with the otters. I hired a boat to take me looking for jaguars all day on the banks of the Cuiaba River. Porto Jofre is known as the only place in the world to reliably see jaguars in the wild, but even there it's not easy. The jaguars are seen when they come to the banks of the river to sunbathe, drink, hunt and bathe. They often don't hang around very long, so the trick is to be in the right place at the right time to see them. Working to the advantage of hopeful jaguar-spotters is the sheer number of people who want to see them. Many boats patrol the river ever day, looking for jaguars. If one is seen, the driver of the boat that spotted it gets on the radio and lets all the other boats know where it is. All the other boats race over to where the jaguar is to try to get a glimpse of it before it disappears back into the bush. Two jaguars were spotted the day I hired a boat to go looking for them. Unfortunately, I had not thought about horsepower when I hired the boat. My boat had the weakest horsepower motor available (60 hp, I think) and it was depressing watching all the other boats zoom past us on the way to see the first jaguar. My boat was left far behind and by the time we got to where the jaguar had been, it was long gone. By the time the second jaguar appeared, in the late afternoon, we had already run out of petrol and had returned to Porto Jofre. Credit to the driver of the boat, though, he really tried to find that jaguar. He searched for so long that we ran out of petrol in the middle of the river and had to wait for more to be brought from Porto Jofre. Hiring that boat cost R$600, more than I was expecting. I would have hired a (faster) boat again the next day, but I hadn't taken out enough cash before heading down the Transpantaneira. There is no ATM, and no credit card facilities, in Porto Jofre.
An otter that belongs in the sea, but not the one I wanted to see
After a week in the Pantanal I flew to Rio de Janeiro for my second Brazilian conference, the world congress of the International Brain Research Organization (IBRO). On paper, this conference and the last conference I attended, Evolution, were very similar. Both were large international conferences put on by big academic societies in large Brazilian cities. However, they couldn't have felt more different.
I think the major difference between the two stems from their relative importance to their fields. The Evolution conference is probably the biggest, most important conference in the field of evolutionary biology (though there are other conferences that would argue this point, it's definitely one of the biggest). Because of this, I think it attracted a great majority of the players in evolutionary biology from around the world. Had the conference been held in America, Europe or Australia, most of the same people probably would have shown up.
The IBRO conference, by contrast, was noticeably made up of mostly researchers from Brazil and around South America. I think this is because the IBRO conference is definitely not the principle neuroscience conference. That would be the annual Society for Neuroscience (SfN) conference, which takes place every year in one of three American cities and attracts over 30 000 attendees. The IBRO conference was big, but not even close to THAT big.
I also think it has to do with the number of people in the field. Neuroscience is one of the largest academic fields period and so the pool of people that can be drawn on to attend the conference is huge. Evolutionary biology is a much smaller field and even its largest conferences struggle to have an attendance a tenth as big as SfN. So a neuroscience conference could be decently sized and still only host mostly researchers from South America, while an evolution conference of only South American attendees would be noticeably smaller. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing; many people prefer smaller conferences and I know lots of people who refuse to attend SfN due to its overwhelming size.
I really enjoyed the IBRO conference. The only neuroscience conference I regularly attend, SfN, is dominated by North American and European researchers, and it was great to see all the interesting but relatively unsung work that's being done in South America. Rio de Janeiro is also home to one of my favorite research groups, the lab of Prof. Suzanna Herculano-Houzel. This lab is consistently coming out with cool research in the field of evolutionary neuroscience, and is one of the few labs in the world doing so. Dr. Herculano-Houzel herself is an excellent speaker and advocate for Brazilian academia, and has written several books on neuroscience-related topics in Portuguese. I am lucky to be friends with several of the people in her lab and was invited to her lab's celebratory dinner before the conference's closing party. In addition to Dr. Herculano-Houzel's lab I got to visit with a future lab-mate. It's always nice to make friends with lab members before joining a lab, as joining itself can be a jarring and disorienting experience. It's nice to have people that already know you and can help you adjust.
It was weird, and a shock to the system for me, that two conferences that looked so similar on paper, held in almost the same place and only one week apart, could have produced such opposing experiences for me.
After the IBRO conference it was time to head back to Australia for the final conference on my tour, the Behavior conference in Cairns. The only flights from South American to Australia are from Santiago, Chile to Sydney, Australia. I could have gotten a flight from Rio to Santiago, but they are shockingly expensive and the flight from Santiago to Sydney was already expensive enough. Instead, I got a much cheaper flight from Rio to Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia, and spent the next two weeks traveling overland to Santiago and my flight home to Australia. I think that entire two-week trip cost less than the Rio-Santiago flight, and produced many more memories.
Some of those memories were produced at the Humboldt Penguin National Reserve north of La Serena, Chile. The reserve is not only an excellent place to see Humboldt penguins (of which we saw several) but is also probably the best place north of Santiago to see one of the world's least know otters. The sea otter of North America is the most well-known otter-that-lives-in-the-sea, and it's the only one that has a truly pelagic existence, where it needs little to no contact with the land to survive, but there is another otter species, much less well known, that lives primarily in the sea. The marine otter (Lontra felina) is native to the Pacific coast of South America and lives in the littoral zone (the area close to shore) of the coast. It's very specialized to this area and rarely enters fresh or even brackish water. And yet it looks almost identical to the two American freshwater Lontra otter species. That it's internationally listed as endangered just adds to its air of mystery. Seeing the marine otter in the wild was an excellent way to end my overseas conference tour that started with a failure to see the sea otter.
An Otter Australian
The final conference on my tour was the Behavior conference in Cairns, Australia. Sadly, Australia is otter-free, the closest otters living across Wallace's Line in places like Borneo. However, I went to Cairns the weekend before the conference to try and see some of the cool wildlife that does live there, such as tree-kangaroos, green ringtail possum, and golden bowerbirds. To see these animals I travelled to a town not far from Cairns called Yungaburra and hired Alan Gillanders of Alan's Wildlife Tours to help me find these amazing but hard-to-find critters, which we did successfully. Particularly spectacular was the nighttime spotlighting portion of Alan's tour. Rare possums and gliders were illuminated in bright red light from special spotlights. Red light is used instead of normal white light because the possums and gliders can't see it, and so are not disturbed by our tour.
However, one animal that I didn't need Alan's help to find was Australia's version of an otter, the spectacular platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus). Yungaburra has its very own platypus hide, and at dusk I visited it along with some backpackers and was able to watch as a platypus emerged from its burrow for its nighttime forage. Now, platypus are very easy to see in the wild in Canberra, where I live, but it's shocking to see just how much smaller they are up Australia's north compared to the south. Up in Yungaburra they're like adorable mini-platypuses.
After my wildlife tour it was time for the Behavior conference. Behavioral ecology and evolutionary biology are ostensibly different fields, but the people who do them are generally interested in both to the point that I don't think I could tell the attendees of the Behavior conference from the attendees of the Evolution conference in Guaruja based on research topics.
Interestingly my experience at the Behavior conference was the opposite of mine at the Evolution conference. At Behavior I felt integrated, got to know people, and had great conversations with a wide variety of people about lots of science topics, including with people that I had not known previously. Here, I think the big difference was that I not only had friends in attendance, but also more senior academics who knew me and had an interest in my academic progress. In particular, my co-supervisor Prof. Martin Whiting, chief of the Lizard Lab, was in attendance. Martin made sure that I met people who had interests relevant to mine and opened doors in terms of talking to the right people. And it wasn't only him. Other senior academics in attendance were great in helping me meet people and feel included in the society. This made me realize how important it is to have good supervisors. Especially in the absence of the right social functions at conferences, they are key to meeting the people you need to meet as an early career researcher in order to become part of the academic world.
Epilogue: An Otter Jealousy
After the Behavior conference my tour was over. I had to get back to my office, to the grind of analyzing data, making sense of the results and writing papers. However, at the same time my partner got her first taste of conference travel when her supervisor sent her to a conference in the United States. After the conference she went to visit her aunt who has a house near Monterey Bay, California, and low-and-behold she sent me the picture below. They may just look like little specks in the ocean, but she made sure I knew what they were: real, live sea otters!