Crossing boundaries in conservation physiology. 

Tomlinson, S. Rummer, J.L., Hultine, K.R. and Cooke, S. (2018) Crossing boundaries in conservation physiology. Conservation Physiology. Journal of Experimental Biology. 

Ecophysiology investigates the mechanisms underpinning the interactions between an organism and its environment (Block and Vannier, 1994). The audience of, and contributors to, ‘Conservation Physiology’ are well aware as to how intriguingly complex these interactions can be; yet, we tend to take this one step further. We do not aim just to understand these complexities in some abstract sense. We want our research to be ‘useful and relevant’ to society. A critical aspect of ecophysiology has always been that it can be researched in anthropogenic or managed environments (Feder and Block, 1991; Block and Vannier, 1994), and there is a long heritage that enmeshes physiological measurements with conservation interests (Wikelski and Cooke, 2006; Cooke et al., 2013). Indeed, it has been recognized for well over two decades that the full potential of conservation science depends on the integration of diverse expertise (Cooke et al., 2013), and between research and practice (Cooke and O’Connor, 2010). Yet is conservation physiology really a useful science, and have we truly begun to establish the levels of cross-disciplinary collaboration required to make it so? Furthermore, do these broad collaborations involving complex research themes fit within the practical urgency of a conservation crisis?

By the time something draws the attention of conservation practitioners it’s already in a state of crisis management, usually requiring immediate action (du Toit, 2010). Very rarely can we observe conservation challenges emerging at a slow enough pace such that we can track the threats over time and effectively develop evidence-based conservation responses. In some ways, this has always been touted as the prime strength of conservation physiology (Block and Vannier, 1994; Cooke and O’Connor, 2010; Cooke et al., 2013), because the discipline focuses on cause-and-effect relationships and the mechanisms that underpin ecological patterns. In practice, conservation physiology can rapidly draw empirical evidence to support conservation activities through targeted research programs that produce quantitative expectations of biological responses to environmental change. Generalizing these hypotheses is challenging, however, because it often involves taking measurements that are made in artificial, controlled environments and interpreting as if they were occurring in the complicated and often unpredictable real world (Tomlinson et al., 2014) or taking useful and insightful measurements of very complex processes in the field (Tomlinson et al., 2014). Complex questions require complex investigations and a broad and complex skill set (Dick et al., 2016). Typically, this is accomplished by conducting cross-disciplinary research in collaborative teams. Here, we discuss three ways in which conservation physiology is meeting the challenge of integrating diverse expertise to maximize its practical value: by crossing taxonomic boundaries, incorporating statistical approaches from other fields, and ultimately developing cutting-edge technologies to make suitable measurements of organisms in the field.