Sunday, August 10, 2014

Amazing China

Posted by Richard Primack

In August, I was the Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Northeast Forestry University in Harbin in northeastern China. My goal was to work with the faculty and students to develop new research directions in conservation biology and climate change biology.

Harbin, like every Chinese city, is undergoing rapid expansion and modernization, with new apartment complexes being built everywhere. Large numbers of new urban parks are also being built to improve the quality of life for city residents. Many of the parks have themes, such sports parks, ornamental plant parks, and urban wetlands.  Harbin is developing more than 6 large parks at once.

A huge public health problem is the air pollution. Harbin was in a white smoggy mist for more than a week, with air pollution mostly varying from Unhealthy for Sensitive Individuals to Unhealthy to Hazardous.  People are worried about air pollution, but they don’t know what to do about it.


My Chinese colleagues and I visited Wudalianchi National Park, a place with 14 beautiful dormant volcanoes and 5 lakes. Five years ago, the Chinese government moved 30,000 people out of the park interior and re-settled them outside with new jobs and apartments. What other country could do this?

The new Chinese edition of the Essentials of Conservation Biology was published while I was in Harbin. Shown here are my two co-authors, Ma Keping and Jiang Zhigang, who added in Chinese examples and photos. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

You're the Expert, starring Richard Primack!

Posted by Amanda Gallinat 

A few weeks ago, I had the rare experience of watching three comedians try to guess what my advisor, Dr. Richard Primack, studies for a living. I watched on from the audience of the radio show “You’re the Expert” as the comedians— who didn’t seem to mind being laughed at— asked strange and occasionally insightful questions about climate change.

I highly recommend listening to the whole show, here:  

During the opening game of 20 questions, the comedians determined that Dr. Primack uses a notebook, that the notebook is college-ruled, and then eventually one of them guessed he was an environmentalist-- close enough to end the round! Many games followed, my favorite of which had the comedians guessing whether a comment was written on a website for climate change skeptics or a LOST message board.

As host Chris Duffy pointed out, Dr. Primack demonstrated a real talent for steering the conversation back to useful information, which comes in handy when you are outnumbered by comedians. 

Left to right: Richard Primack crystallizes climate change for host Chris Duffy and comedians Myq Kaplan and Lori Strauss (photo by Liz Shea)

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Lessons learned in Turkey

Posted by Richard B Primack

From June 15 to 25, I visited Turkey to meet with Ali Donmez, a Turkish botanist and leader of the team that translated the Essentials of Conservation Biology into Turkish. We traveled across northern and eastern Turkey, visiting national parks and other areas of interest with a goal to locating examples from Turkey to be included in a future edition of the textbook.

My colleague Ali Donmez and I have a lunch of small fish while traveling along the Black Sea coast
A highlight of the trip was to observe the rich display of wildflowers associated with this sunny, dry climate, including huge mounds of crown vetch flowers in fields, reddish pink clumps of Saponaria flowers growing on roadside embankments, and alpine flowers amidst rock outcrops on mountain peaks at Ilgaz National Park.  Another highlight was the great abundance of water birds at the Bird Paradise National Park and the surrounding colorful but stark landscape near Baypassir. Many national parks were surprising for their emphasis on picnicking, with a notable absence of hiking trails, biological research and inventorying, and conservation education.

There were many beautiful wildflowers as we traveled through the mountains north of Ankara

Enjoying a picnic is the main activity at the national parks that we visited
The conclusion of the trip was a conference of biology professors in the beautiful northern city of Eskesehir, which included a visit to an ancient Phrygian temple and ruins.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Advancing science through digitization of museum specimens

Posted by Libby Ellwood, Florida State University

"To be admitted to Nature's hearth costs nothing. 
None is excluded, but excludes himself. You have only to push aside the curtain."
H. D. Thoreau

Several research projects from the Primack lab have utilized data from herbarium specimens. One example (Primack et al. 2004) used herbarium specimens to track changes in flowering over time (see Climate Change for article links). Herbarium specimens are plants that have been pressed, preserved and attached to paper, then saved in collections. During Thoreau's time, and up through the 1920's, it was a popular pastime to collect plants and save them as specimens. Even Thoreau saved plants that he collected during his walks. Over the years this fad has fallen out of favor, but collections from the past 200 years remain to provide valuable insight for researchers interested in plant taxonomy, systematics, genetics, range changes and of course, climate change.

Specimen of  Panicum virgatum, switchgrass, that Thoreau collected in
Concord, MA. It is now housed at the UCONN herbarium.

Around the world, most specimens exist as only the physical object and there is limited digital information available. If a researcher needs information about the specimen they must visit the herbarium, find the specimen, and examine it in person. In the US, a newly formed organization, iDigBio, has been working to make information about these and other biodiversity specimens available online. iDigBio works with museums to image specimens and digitize information about species, locality, date and collector. Projects like these rely heavily on help from citizen scientists to transcribe information from the labels into a digital format. Once these data are transcribed, researchers can more easily access this information that spans the globe and two centuries worth of collections.

An example of some of the beautiful specimens
being imaged and digitized.

Are you interested in transcribing herbarium labels, expedition notes and other collections information? Notes from Nature is one site where you can take a peek into the past and help liberate specimens from museum cabinets!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Frost Tolerance in Thoreau's Concord

Posted by Amanda Gallinat

Woody plants in Thoreau’s Concord are leafing out earlier with warmer temperatures. All of the species Thoreau observed have advanced their leaf-out dates, and the order of leaf out has not changed since the 1850’s, with plants that leaf out earliest responding the most strongly to temperature changes.

This led the Primack lab to question whether- after leafing out early- the trees, shrubs, and vines of Concord will respond differently to an unexpected frost.  

This spring, we conducted experiments to determine the relative frost tolerance of the young leaves of woody plants in Concord. We collected dormant twigs in the field and brought them into the lab to leaf out, then subjected young leaves of each species to multiple levels of freezing temperatures. We focused our study on 1) the species Thoreau monitored in the 1850’s, 2) selected species at the Arnold Arboretum that leaf out very early and very late, and 3) fifteen birch species at the Arboretum.

We hypothesized:
-Early leafing out species are more frost tolerant than late species
-Species with high leaf water content are less frost tolerant than those with low water content
-Invasive species are more frost tolerant than native species

Stay tuned for the results from these experiments!

 We clipped and labeled each new twig—this took the combined effort of many helpers, including (from left to right) Luca Russo, Meg Boeni, Jasper Primack, and Sam Roberts.

Species from Thoreau’s Concord, like multiflora rose, experienced different amounts of frost damage from different strengths of frost treatment. There were also differences between species within treatments. As shown in this photograph, frost damage can be very apparent during a visual assessment.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Twigs in the Garden

posted by Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie

Greetings from Maine!

From the summit of Cadillac Mountain, the view is a water-colored wash of new greens over a grey and brown landscape. Leaves are just beginning to unfurl from their buds on beech trees, maples, birches, and alders. In the understory, Canada mayflower leaves crowd under tangles of blueberry and huckleberry stems, while last year’s tough, dark green sheep’s laurel and cinquefoil leaves provide a contrast to this spring’s delicate new buds and intricately folded new leaves.

My fieldwork here in Acadia National Park records variations in spring phenology. For example, the lowbush blueberries at the base of Cadillac are leafing out about a week ahead of the lowbush blueberries on the summit. Last fall I worked with volunteers to establish three common gardens on Cadillac — at the base, middle, and summit of the mountain. This study explores the relative effects of environment and genetic differences among populations on the spring phenology of reciprocal transplants. The transplant gardens provide a kind of natural warming experiment: transplants from the summit will experience a milder climate in the mid- and low-elevation gardens, no heated cables or infrared lamps required. This spring, I have begun monitoring the lowbush blueberry, sheep’s laurel, and three-toothed cinquefoil in the gardens as they leaf out and flower. Will the genetics of source population determine leaf out date or will the microclimates at each garden drive spring phenology for these transplants? We’ll see…

Lowbush blueberry and Sheep's laurel twigs on April 28th — the day they were cut!

To compliment these transplants, we added a new version of the Primack lab’s signature twig-cutting experiments to the gardens. It was a hard winter up in Acadia, and we were worried that our new transplants might experience high rates of mortality. A twig-cutting experiment might bolster our chances of getting data from the gardens. So, in late April I cut twigs from low bush blueberry and sheep’s laurel plants growing adjacent (but not in!) to the gardens. Instead of reciprocal transplants, I created a reciprocal twig-exchange from the base, mid-elevation, and summit sites; at each garden, a set of popsicle molds filled with water and tagged twigs from the three elevations was established. These miniature twig-gardens are monitored alongside the transplant garden. As the twigs begin to leaf out, the same question remains: will the genetics of source population determine leaf out date or will the microclimates at each garden drive spring phenology for these twigs? We’ll see…

Lowbush blueberry twigs on May 26th — leafing out at the low elevation garden!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Early Spring: Henry David Thoreau and Climate Change at the Concord Museum

A Special Exhibit Featuring the Primack Lab Goes Online

Posted by Richard Primack

Last spring and summer, the Concord Museum had a special exhibit featuring the links between Concord botanists like Henry David Thoreau, and the climate change research carried out by the Primack lab, including Libby Ellwood, Caroline Polgar, Abe Miller-Rushing, and Richard Primack. The exhibit was highly successful in terms of the number of visitors and the widespread media coverage. 

For those who missed seeing this exhibit in person, there is great news! The exhibit has moved to the museum website, so online visitors can now appreciate the science and beauty of the displays. The website also features video interviews with Primack and Ellwood, links to our research publications, and resource information for citizen science, Concord natural history, and naturalists working in Concord today.

Check out the new online exhibit HERE