by Karina Moy | Zoom Out Mycology
To quote Charles Dickens, “nature gives to every time and season some beauties of its own; and from morning to night, as from the cradle to the grave, it is but a succession of changes so gentle and easy that we can scarcely mark their progress” (1). Life itself is change, and although the passing of time sometimes obscures our ability to notice these subtleties, without failure the seasons shift, birds migrate, and flowers bloom. People too, adapt to the changing weather. We start wearing thicker clothes to keep warm. We wake up later, because if the sun isn’t up at 6:00AM, why should we be? We finally make the switch from cold showers and iced coffee to hot showers and hot coffee. The world seems to follow a set of guidelines, which rely on three main non-biological variables: 1) sunlight, 2) temperature, and 3) precipitation (2).
Plants and animals have intuitive behaviors in accordance to these environmental cues engrained in their DNA over years and years of learning how to adapt to their native climates (3). Phenologists study the timing of these seasonal patterns. These “phenophases,” as they’re called, maximize an organism’s reproductive success and fitness (4).
Studying seasonal biological patterns, or phenology, is essential to the advancement of many industries including agriculture, sustainable energy, and natural resource management. Understanding how plants and animals respond to seasonal shifts can help us predict population changes, which according to the USA National Phenology Network makes phenology a leading indicator of the impacts of climate change (5).
As phenologies change, mutual relationships between different organisms are affected. Results may be catastrophic for ecological food webs, and humans are not immune. For example, farmers rely on the predictability of a crop’s leafing, flowering, and fruiting in order to schedule their growing and harvest seasons. According to a study done by Visser and Both, “if the phenology of a species is shifting at a different rate from that of the species that make-up its ecological conditions, this will lead to mistiming of its seasonal activities” (6).
Because phenological studies can be extremely expensive and time-consuming, many organizations are now relying on citizen science initiatives for data collection. The USA Phenology Network’s generalized phenology project seeks citizens who have consistent access to natural areas to help collect a range of phenological data, from pollination to flowering and fruiting, migratory patterns, and more (7). Their Nature’s Notebook program encourages participants to keep a naturalist notebook, and their site and mobile phone app makes reporting observations quick and easy to follow their observation standards.
Other phenology initiatives like Project FeederWatch and Project Budburst are more specific reporting projects. Project FeederWatch, run through the Cornell Lab, collects data on the number of birds that visit feeders from November through early April (8). The project aims to “help scientists track broadscale movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance.” Project Budburst, created by the Chicago Botanic Garden, studies the leafing, flowering, and fruiting of plant species throughout the year (9). The haiku version of their mission statement sums it up pretty well:
People watching plants
Contributing to research
Join Project BudBurst
Joining in these initiatives is easy, fun, and a great opportunity to learn about your local ecology. So, I challenge you to jump into action and join one of these initiatives, or to start your own personal naturalist notebook for all your observations! Autumn is the perfect time to start noticing phenophases. What colors are the leaves turning? Have tree nuts begun to fall? Do you find yourself waking to the honking of a formation of geese flying south for the winter? Answering questions like these is the first step towards regaining a sense of awareness about the world around us. In doing so we are allowing nature to show us how climate change is affecting life itself, rather than being forced to side with politically-driven statements.
About the author:
Karina Moy is an environmental educator, freelance illustrator, avid hiker, and climber in the New Jersey area. She graduated from Rutgers Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources department at the end of 2016. She is extremely interested in forest ecology, foraging, and sustainable agriculture and products.
(1)Dickens, Charles. Chapter 22. The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.
(2)Haggerty, Brian P, et al. “The Phenology Handbook.” University of California, Santa Barbara. https://www.usanpn.org/files/shared/files/Haggerty&Mazer_ThePhenologyHandbook_v3Aug2009.pdf
(3)Stenseth, N. C., & Mysterud, A. (2002). Climate, changing phenology, and other life history traits: Nonlinearity and match–mismatch to the environment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 99(21), 13379–13381. http://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.212519399
(4)Cotton, Peter A. "Avian migration phenology and global climate change." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100.21 (2003): 12219-12222. http://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1930548100
(5)“Why Phenology?” USA National Phenology Network, www.usanpn.org/about/why-phenology.
(6)Visser, M. E., & Both, C. (2005). Shifts in phenology due to global climate change: the need for a yardstick. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 272(1581), 2561–2569. http://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2005.3356
(7)“Learn How to Observe.” Nature's Notebook , USA National Phenology Network, http://www.usanpn.org/nn/guidelines.
(8)“What Is FeederWatch?” Project FeederWatch, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, http://feederwatch.org/about/project-overview/. “About Project BudBurst.” Project BudBurst, Chicago Botanic Garden, http://budburst.org/aboutus.
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