Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Scientists join forces across the world to unveil COVID-19 Lessons for the Environment and Conservation


By Richard B. Primack

“From the right point of view, every storm and every drop in it is a rainbow.”  
-Henry David Thoreau in his Journal.

In the past months, the few human visitors to city parks and streets were sometimes surprised by unexpected animal visitors, such as penguins and mountain lions. These animals were changing their behavior in response to lower levels human activity and noise.

The concurrent confinement of 4.6 billion people under the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown can be viewed as a once-in-a-lifetime chance, a “Global Human Confinement Experiment”,  to explore the impact of people on animals and the environment. People are also calling this period “the Anthropause” when people became less active.

Changes to human activity and mobility will have diverse direct and indirect impacts on biodiversity. 
From Bates et al. 2020.

To investigate the conservation and ecological impacts of the lockdown and its gradual relaxation, two marine biologists Amanda E. Bates from Memorial University (Canada) and Carlos M. Duarte from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia, and I decided to form a new international research network called PAN-Environment. Already over one hundred institutions and global monitoring programs and hundreds of scientists have already joined PAN-Environment.  

The logo of PAN-Environment

The results of PAN-Environment will provide a glimpse into a future where air pollution, noise, and other human disturbances are dramatically reduced and show what can be gained from the type of large-scale change in human society that will be needed to address the looming problem of global climate change.

In two recent articles, one led by our colleague Christian Rutz and one led by Amanda, we present a road map to deliver environmental insights emerging from the pandemic lockdown and its gradual relaxation.




Monday, June 22, 2020

Tropical forests can handle the heat, up to a point


By Richard B. Primack

“What though the woods be cut down, this emergency was long ago foreseen and provided for by Nature.”  
-Henry David Thoreau in his Journal.

Tropical forests face an uncertain future under climate change, but new research published in Science suggests they can continue to store large amounts of carbon in a warmer world, if countries limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Our research group contributed data from long-term forest plots in Malaysian Borneo to this international research project that evaluated over half a million trees in 813 forests across 24 tropical countries. In these plots, trees were measured every few years for their diameters and heights to determine growth rates.  This allowed our team to assess how much carbon is stored by forests growing under different climatic conditions today.

Location of plots used in this study.

We showed that tropical forests continue to store high levels of carbon under elevated temperatures, demonstrating that in the long run these forests can handle heat up to an estimated threshold of 32 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit) in daytime temperature; above this temperature, growth slows, trees die, and carbon storage declines. This carbon storage is an important ecosystem service in the fight against global climate change.

Increasing temperature results in a decline of tree growth rates.

Yet this positive finding is only possible if these species-rich forests have time to adapt, they remain intact, and if global heating is strictly limited to avoid pushing global temperatures above the 32 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit) threshold. The key actions needed are limiting the emission of greenhouse gases and protecting forests against uncontrolled logging and conversion of forests to agriculture and plantations. 

Measuring a tree for its diameter in a long-term plot at Bako National Park in Malaysia.

The paper Long-term thermal sensitivity of Earth’s tropical forests is published in Science 22 May 2020 (Embargo 21 May 19:00 BST/ 14:00 ET) (DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw7578).

Monday, June 15, 2020

Skype a Scientist


By Tara K. Miller

“Things do not change; we change.”  
-Henry David Thoreau in Walden

During the COVID-19 pandemic, teaching has moved online suddenly.  This unexpected and abrupt change gave teachers no time to plan and adjust their curricula to the remote format.  Many are now searching for online resources to find ways to engage their students.  To help out, I signed up with Skype a Scientist, a program that connects scientists with teachers and classrooms.

I virtually visited several classrooms and homes to chat with students about my research and answer their many questions.  Kids have such inquisitive minds, and they wanted to know everything from which animals face extinction due to climate change to whether plants can survive in space.

One class had been learning about plant adaptations to different environments, so I put together a picture quiz where students picked the plant best adapted to the described circumstances.

Examples from a plant adaptations quiz for students
Answers: Clockwise from top left (1, 2, 2, 2)


One 6-year-old boy taught me about ice worms!  These fascinating creatures live in glaciers and snowfields.  They have adapted to survive in cold conditions, and they eat pollen and algae in the ice. 


Ice worms next to a Canadian 10-cent coin for scale (www.arctic.uoguelph.ca)

Remote learning isn’t where most of us want to be, but we’re making the best of it for now.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Spring 2020: Early and then late

By Richard B. Primack


“All change is a miracle to contemplate; but it is a miracle which is taking place every instant.”
-Thoreau in Walden   

This the 18th field season of our monitoring flowering and leaf out times in Concord, MA, repeating Henry David Thoreau’s observations from the 1850s. It started as an early spring, with a warm March and no snow cover. Marsh marigold and yellow wood sorrel flowered early. 

Often in March, there are masses of the greyish blue arthropod springtails jumping around on the snow, which is why they are often called snow lice. But this year, springtails could be seen on bare ground. 


In early spring, greyish blue patches could be seen on bare ground


Close inspection shows that these are dense groups of jumping springtails  

In April and early May, there was unusually cool weather, resulting in extended displays by  ornamental plants like magnolias, azaleas, and tulips, which were covered a few times by April snowstorms.


A mid-April snowfall covered flowering azaleas

In Concord, delayed flowering times were recorded for late-spring wildflowers. 


This beautiful light-pink lady’s slipper orchid flowered late

Every year is different in New England. 

Monday, May 18, 2020

Coronavirus pandemic impacts ecological research

By Richard B. Primack

“I think we may detect some sort of preparation and faint expectation preceded every discovery we have made.” 
-Thoreau in his Journals   

In a recent article on WBUR radio and in print, With Ships Docked And Labs Closed, Scientists' Field Research Season Fades Away, reporter Barbara Moran interviews BU Professors Pamela Templer and Richard Primack to highlight how the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown are impacting research.  Pam’s main field site at Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest is almost completely shut down and her team is not able to work there. Richard is carrying out fieldwork by himself in Concord where he is repeating the observations of flowering and leafing out carried out by Henry David Thoreau in the 1850s. 

Richard Primack (and Henry David Thoreau) carrying out field work at Walden Pond

For the BU Experts on-line magazine, reporter Katherine Gianni interviews Richard for the article: How Does Coronavirus Affect Biodiversity? Richard describes the problems and opportunities for environmental conservation and research created by the pandemic. Richard also emphasizes that universities and the conservation community need to be supportive of students whose research is being harmed by the pandemic and lockdown and need to give them the chance to make up their training and lost opportunities.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Good news for the lab! Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie and Richard Primack receive Mercer Award for climate change research

By Richard B. Primack


“Any truth is better than make-believe.” 
-Henry David Thoreau in Walden

The Ecological Society of America (ESA) named former lab member Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie, who is now a postdoc at University of Maine, and Richard Primack as recipients of the George Mercer Award, awarded for excellence in a recent research paper lead by a young scientist. Richard and Caitlin shared the award with three co-authors, including lead author Mason Heberling. The study, entitled “Phenological mismatch with trees reduces wildflower carbon budgets,” appeared last year in the scientific journal Ecology Letters


Caitlin at her field site in Acadia National Park

The study demonstrates that trees are responding more rapidly to climate change than wildflowers, and this is having a negative effect on wildflower energy budgets. The BU team combined their own and Thoreau’s observations of trees and wildflowers in the 1850s in Concord, MA with photosynthetic data of wildflowers collected by Mason and his team in a forest near Pittsburgh. 


Richard wearing a face mask while carrying out his 18th field season in Concord -- and not practicing social distancing with Thoreau. 

The combined analysis shows that small differences in the responses of wildflowers versus trees to a warming climate could already be harming wildflower abundance, growth, and reproduction, with greater effects predicted in coming years.


Mason Heberling at his field site. 

Members of the group are continuing to work together to carry out some of the new observations and experiments suggested in their paper. 

Monday, April 13, 2020

Impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on biodiversity conservation


By Richard T. Corlett, Richard B. Primack, and Vincent Devictor

“In society you will not find health, but in nature.” -Thoreau in Excursions   

Conservation biologists are concerned with how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact the world’s biodiversity and our ability to protect it, as well as how it might affect the training and careers of conservation researchers and practitioners. We can already see that field and lab work have largely shut down, while teaching and other communications have moved online, with unknown consequences for training, data collection, and networking. The media report some examples of reduced human pressures on natural ecosystems, cleaner air and water, and wildlife reclaiming contested habitats, but there is also less enforcement in many national parks.  

From January 2020 to February 2020 the air over China became much cleaner.

Missed research means missed opportunities to identify conservation priorities, monitor the health of endangered species and ecosystems, and provide practical solutions for the protection and sustainable use of resources on which human well-being depends.

Laboratory work at virtually all universities has been discontinued, such as this investigation of the impacts of climate change on trees.

The pandemic also provides new possibilities and responsibilities. How will disruptions to field work and altered levels of human impact during the pandemic affect species and ecosystems we have been studying, monitoring and protecting?

Fieldwork in groups, as shown in this photo of sound monitoring at Walden Pond, has stopped, but individuals practicing strict social distancing can sometimes continue with field work.

Beyond the immediate consequences of this particular pandemic, some conservation biologists have started to focus on emerging infectious diseases and their links with biodiversity loss, human activities, and issues of sustainability.

This is a condensed version of an article which appeared in Biological Conservation.