Rainforest reasearch — data acquisition under challenging conditions, null models and checkerboards

The period of research in tropical rainforests of Mount Kupe in Cameroon and of Palo Seco in Panama, at that time virtually unexplored areas, spanned five years, preceded and followed by a series of shorter visits to rainforests in Australia, Africa, Asia and Central America. The data acquisition in both study areas had an exploratory, expedition-like component, with the set-up of trail systems and field camps along elevational gradients, and the management of field crews and of a supply team. Data have been acquired according to sampling designs aimed at testing predictions at the community level. Although difficult to implement under field conditions, this approach yielded structured data sets instead of purely descriptive species accounts based on haphazard collections.

When the number of species studied simultaneously or other constraints preclude manipulative experiments, null models are a statistical approach to compare an observed pattern with patterns expected to occur in the absence of a specific process, e.g., interspecific interactions or response to an environmental constraint. I further developed existing null models for environmental gradients to better account for community-level processes and applied the refined tests to the Mount Kupe data set.

With the publication of the gradient distributions in the journal Ecology (80:976-988), I deliberately invited reanalyses. Almost two decades after its publication, the incidence matrix of the Kupe distributions resurrected as a reference data set within the (in)famous controversy about checkerboard distributions, initiated with Diamond’s publication of assembly rules and continuing with the major protagonists still involved (Chapter 9, Species along a Gradient in Sanderson & Pimm, 2015. Patterns in Nature: The Analysis of Species Co-Occurrences, University of Chicago Press). A review of community structures along elevational gradients in tropical montane forests (Willig & Presley, J. Trop. Ecol. 2016) cited my Mount Kupe data set as the only one concerning amphibians and reptiles, highlighting the challenge of acquiring good quality data in this type of environment.

Left: The steep slopes saved Mount Kupe from deforestation – at least until the mid 1990ties, when this picture was taken (Photo: S. Dummermuth)

Species conservation — a service with a scientific background

My industry experience made me look at species conservation as a service rather than just science with an applied component, subject to the same principles of validation, continuous improvement, and customer orientation as services in the private sector. This perspective eventually brought me to write a textbook on evidence-based conservation, promoting an approach claimed in the early years of the 21st century and inspired by achievements of evidence-based medicine. Desgined for the non-Biologist, this book is essentially an overview of current methods used to generate evidence in species conservation, framed by personal thoughts about species conservation as a service, the »research-implementation gap« and knowledge transfer.

Relating to this I was invited by a German journal to review the current evidence of effectiveness of the reptile conservation measures most commonly applied in Europe (see publications, Hofer 2018).

Medical device industry — problem solving within a highly regulated environment

As a scientist in an industry of high public concern I became familiar with an entirely different set key figures, language, and thinking. More than that I learend from the ways of what and how industry managers perceive and tackle problems, from the absolute committment of engineers to problem solving and the art of achieving goals within the constraints of a highly regulated environment.