Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Morton Arboretum: Meeting an old friend

Posted by Richard B. Primack

“Nothing makes the earth so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes.” 
-Thoreau, May 22, 1843 in his correspondence

In August, I visited the Morton Arboretum in Chicago. For the past seven years, we have collaborated with Robert Fahey and other Morton researchers to monitor leafing out times, leaf senescence times, and fruiting times as part of an international network of botanical gardens. The Morton, founded in 1922 by the owner of the Morton Salt Company, is a scientific institution with taxonomic collections similar to the Arnold Arboretum and with a special focus on urban street trees. The Morton also has strong outreach to the public, as indicated by flower displays, a visitor center, and appealing exhibits such as the origami sculptures scattered around the grounds. 

Origami horses in the conifer collection

My host Chuck Cannon, Director of the Center for Tree Science, has many interesting parallels to my own career, having studied at the same universities, worked in Malaysia and China, and shifted from tropical ecology to climate change biology.

Chuck Cannon and me next to an origami sculpture in front of the visitor center

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Libby Ellwood's Sept 12th @TerriersAtWork twitter takeover!

Posted by Amanda Gallinat

Libby Ellwood, Primack Lab alumna and researcher extraordinaire, will be taking over the @TerriersAtWork twitter account next Tuesday, September 12th! She will walk us through a day at her fascinating job at the La Brea Tar Pits and answer questions along the way. 



I asked Libby a few questions in preparation for her big @TerriersAtWork takeover:

Amanda: Hi Libby! What are the La Brea Tar Pits, and why are they special?
Libby: The La Brea Pits are located in urban Los Angeles, California. Technically, the tar pits are asphalt seeps. Asphalt deposits from deep underground have found their way to the surface due to tectonic activity along the San Andreas Fault. The asphalt forms viscous pools which become covered in leaves, dirt, and water. Unsuspecting animals get trapped in the asphalt, then predators attack the trapped animals and become trapped themselves. The asphalt has preserved the dead organisms, leaving us with an incredible record of plants and animals from the late Pleistocene epoch, 40,000-11,000 years ago. There are very few places in the world where this combination of geologic history has occurred to produce asphalt seeps. Also, fun fact: La Brea is Spanish for "the tar", so The La Brea Tar Pits can be translated to the the tar tar pits!

Mammoth sculptures in the La Brea Tar Pits

A: So, what is your job at The The Tar Tar Pits?

L: I'm a Research Fellow working on a National Science Foundation-funded project to reconstruct ancient food webs. For a long time, scientists were mainly interested in the saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, mastodons, and other macrofauna -- and who can blame them, those are really cool animals! In order to get a more complete picture of ice age ecosystems though, we need to take a closer look at the smaller organisms. In this project, we are piecing together smaller elements of the food web, like plants and small mammals, to better understand why species go extinct and how species cope with climate change.

My part of the project is to develop citizen science activities that engage students in sorting microfossils as they learn about food webs. With a little bit of training, non-scientists can sort through fossil materials, pull out plant and mammal bits, and therefore directly contribute to piecing together ancient food webs!

Microfossils awaiting sorting under a microscope

A: If you had to choose, what would you say is the best part of your job?
L: La Brea is an active excavation site. Every day, scientists are chipping away at blocks of asphalt and are uncovering all kinds of fossils, everything from rabbit teeth to ground sloth ribs. A short walk to the excavation area makes for a thrilling lunch break! And after excavation, I get to share the thrill with citizen scientists and volunteers, who play an important role in evaluating the massive amounts of excavated material and readying it for direct application in research.

A volunteer excavating fossils!

A: What skills from your time at BU and in the Primack Lab do you use most now?
L: My time at BU, and specifically in the Primack Lab, prepared me well for the highly collaborative and cross-disciplinary research that I am currently undertaking. I regularly work with paleontologists, ecologists, educators, geologists, and citizen scientists, to name a few. My experiences at BU provided me with a solid foundation from which I feel comfortable learning about new areas of research, working with people from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines, and collaboratively working towards a common goal.

A: We are very excited for your Terriers@Work twitter takeover! What will your main message be?

L: In the twitter takeover, I'll have a few related messages. I'll be tweeting about La Brea and the awesome research that takes place here. I'll also be providing information about our food webs project, the amazing researchers involved, and our plans for the work. And I'll be tweeting about the citizen science aspects of the work at La Brea. More broadly, I'll be encouraging people to take part in citizen science projects near them. Contributing to scientific research is a great way to be active and make a difference in your community. I'll be answering questions along the way, so please ask away!

To hear more from Libby Ellwood, and to ask her your questions, follow @TerriersAtWork on twitter to catch Libby's takeover, all day on September 12th!

Monday, August 28, 2017

National parks in China and the United States: Different paths to protection

Posted by Abe Miller-Rushing and Richard B. Primack

“Every town should have a park . . . where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation.” -Thoreau in his Journal, 1859

You may have missed some big changes happening in conservation in China. While the international media focuses on China’s difficulties with pollution, the government is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in improving and expanding its system of national parks and other protected areas. This is a huge and welcome change for one of the world’s largest and most biodiverse countries.

Chinese authorities are investing in their protected areas in a characteristically Chinese manner—with big infrastructure investments, strong top-down control, and an emphasis on economic development. Will this approach be good for the conservation of biodiversity?

To answer that question, in a recent article in Biological Conservation, we compare the development of protected areas in China to their development in the United States, where the concept of national parks originated. We take a particularly close look at Wudalianchi National Nature Reserve in northeastern China and Acadia National Park in the northeastern United States. 

Wudalianchi National Park in China has a magical landscape of volcanoes and lakes

Despite the huge investments, a suite of obstacles make it difficult for protected areas to truly protect the natural resources within their boundaries in China. The situation is better, although not without problems, in the United States, which has a much longer history of creating and managing protected areas. Of most consequence, financial investments are insufficient to meet the needs for protected area science, management, and education in both China and in the United States. 

The Chinese government has undertaken massive economic development in the area, including tourist facilities and hotels

Both countries are, however, experimenting with techniques that could improve things. For example, in places the Chinese government is working to improve relationships with local communities through formal agreements with displaced people or cooperation among local, provincial, and national governments. The US government is using citizen science and volunteerism to engage new audiences.

Infrastructure includes an elaborate system of boardwalks around the rim of craters and across lava fields, allowing access for large numbers of tourists

In the end, we conclude that each country's approach to protected areas has strengths and weaknesses, but that the Chinese and US protected areas programs have structural deficiencies, particularly related to the allocation of funding, that undermine their ability to achieve their stated missions over the long term. We hope that both countries continue to work to improve their conservation programs and protect their rich natural resources.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Newton’s Lost Wetlands and Buried Brooks

Posted by Richard B. Primack


“As in many countries precious metals belong to the crown, so here natural objects of rare beauty should belong to the public.” -Thoreau in his Journal, 1861

Until about 120 years ago, Newton, MA, was filled with wet meadows, marshes, and swamps, connected by miles of brooks. Where did they go? In an article published June 7 in the Newton Tab, I explain how over the past two centuries, as Newton changed from farming to industry, and then to a Boston suburb, developers and town workers buried brooks in culverts or put them into channels. Wetlands were filled in and became the sites of playgrounds, schools, other public buildings, and residential neighborhoods. The forgotten brooks and wetlands of Newton are periodically remembered when basements, streets, and playgrounds become flooded after heavy rains. 


Modified 1892 drainage map showing the main brooks and associated wetlands, with the current position of some schools and village centers and the Newton Library. Map by Matt Rothendler.

Many New England towns are revisiting past decisions to bury and channelize brooks. Some towns are uncovering buried streams and removing the vertical walls of channels, allowing streams to re-integrate with wetlands. Restoring brooks to something closer to their original condition and adding natural vegetation could help clean the brook’s water, reduce flooding, provide natural water features, and improve the recreational value of playgrounds, parks, and neighborhoods. 


Cheesecake Brook appears wild and well-integrated with the surrounding forest along Fuller Street.

Returning brooks to their natural state is expensive in the short term, but in the long run the economic, environmental, and recreational benefits to the people and businesses of Newton might be worth it. After a long history of channelizing and burying brooks and filling in wetlands for development, Newton’s future could benefit from undoing some of its past. 

Cheesecake Brook is channelized and separated from natural habitat along Albemarle Road. 


Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Leaf Longevity at the Arnold Arboretum

Posted by Linnea Smith and Sarah Pardo

Hi! We are two new members of the Primack lab: Linnea Smith (yes, like Carolus Linnaeus), an undergraduate at Boston University who’s joined the Primack lab for the summer with funding from the BU UROP program; and Sarah Pardo, a rising senior at BU Academy.

Linnea and Professor Primack doing fieldwork at the Arnold Arboretum

We are investigating how many years evergreen plants at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum retain their leaves, and why. Ecological theory suggests that a leaf stays on the branch, photosynthesizing, until it’s made a profit on the energy that went into making it. We want to determine if the amount of time a leaf remains on a plant is more influenced by the original environment in which the plants grow, or their evolutionary history.


Professor Primack and Sarah examining pine needles in the field

When tree branches begin growing in the spring, a scar is formed on each twig where bud growth had halted the previous winter. By counting the number of scars, we can determine the number of years of twig growth and leaf formation on a tree branch. For example, say a twig has leaves on seven scar-separated segments and no leaves on the eighth segment or beyond. This tells us that leaves stay on that twig for seven years. So far we have evaluated 173 species including conifers such as pines, firs, spruces and hemlocks and other evergreens like rhododendrons and hollies.


Showing seven years of growth on tiger tail spruce at Arnold Arboretum

We’ve both really enjoyed our work in the Primack lab so far and appreciate the warm welcome we’ve been given!

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Old Plants, New Tricks: Phenological Research Using Herbarium Specimens

Posted by Amanda Gallinat

Herbarium specimens offer a unique opportunity to measure changes in plant phenology over broad time periods and geographic ranges. Many of the specimens currently housed in herbaria were collected in the 19th and 20th centuries, but in just the last decade there has been a huge increase in herbarium-based phenology research-- particularly addressing modern questions about how plants are responding to climate change.


Panchen et al., 2012 used herbarium specimens, combined with field notes and photographs, to show that 28 plant species in Pennsylvania are advancing their flowering over time.

Earlier this year, Richard Primack and I were co-authors on a review paper led by Charlie Willis entitled "Old Plants, New Tricks: Phenological Research Using Herbarium Specimens." The review, published in Trends in Ecology & Evolution, provides a thorough assessment of how herbarium specimens have already been used in phenology research, with most studies focusing on flowering, in northern, temperate biomes. 


Willis et al. (2017) Figure 1, shows where previously published herbarium-based phenology studies have been located (studies are indicated with blue circles; the larger the circle, the more species sampled). The heat map shows the source of digitized specimens (available via the iDigBio portal), which included 1.8 million specimens as of February 2017! 

We also discuss the future of herbarium specimens, with a special focus on the widespread digitization efforts currently underway. Digitized specimens are already being used by researchers to access more specimens in more locations than they could visit in person, and to use citizen science efforts to identify phenological stages online. Lastly, we review the biases inherent in using herbarium specimens, from those that arise during collection, to digitization, to observation. 


CrowdCurio is a web-based platform for identifying phenological stages on digitized specimens. In this case, citizen scientists could identify buds, flowers, and fruits on a lowbush blueberry specimen.

For our part, we plan to continue using herbarium specimens--including digitized specimens--to improve our understanding of species-specific effects of climate change, in both spring and autumn!

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Primack Lab in the News

Posted by Richard B. Primack

Here are a few recent pieces relating to Thoreau, climate change, and the Primack lab.




On July 12, Richard Primack was interviewed on National Public Radio for the program Morning Edition by Bob Oakes about research in Concord.



On June 28, Primack was interviewed on National Public Radio for the series Climate Change in Massachusetts by Carey Goldberg about the new program at the Cemetery using citizen scientists to monitor tree phenology. 




A picture of Primack taken by Sam Walker was a featured on the New York Times Learning Network. 510 people submitted comments on what Richard Primack was doing in the picture shown above. Most people thought he was mourning his dead wife. In fact he is recording the flowering time of bluets. The picture is staged as Primack always wears a hat in the field, and he never lies down when doing fieldwork, in part due to concerns about ticks.