Sunday, January 6, 2019

Investigating ecological mismatches with citizen science

Posted by Abraham J. Miller-Rushing, Amanda S. Gallinat, and Richard B. Primack 

“I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” 
-Henry David Thoreau, Walden 

It’s tough to study how climate change disrupts interactions among species. Many interactions, like those between predators and prey, are typically hidden from view. However, creative use of citizen science can provide insight into these hidden interactions. In a recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers used online and virtual reality games played by volunteers and analyses of long-term citizen science field observations to explore changes in relationships between stinging bees and wasps, stingless hoverflies that mimic bees and wasps, and bird predators that like to eat hoverflies but avoid bees and wasps.

Fig. 1. In one online game, Hassall et al. used citizen scientists to identify the visual similarity between hymenopteran model (right) and syrphid mimic (left) pairs.

These scientists found that a warming climate is changing the relationships among the stinging bees and wasps, mimic hoverflies, and bird predators, likely to the benefit of bees, wasps, and birds.

Follow the links below for the paper by Hassall et al. and our associated commentary.

Hassall et al. 2018. Climate-induced phenological shifts in a Batesian mimicry complex. PNAS

Miller-Rushing et al. 2018. Creative citizen science illuminates complex ecological responses to climate change. PNAS

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Opening our eyes to the world

Posted by Richard B. Primack


“The true harvest of my life is intangible - a little star dust caught,
a portion of the rainbow I have clutched.” 
Henry David Thoreau

Wonderous things are all around us if we only keep our eyes open. 

On October 24, as the Red Sox were about to play the Dodgers in Game 2 of the World Series, an incredible full rainbow stretched across the eastern sky, illuminated by the setting sun, linking together Boston University buildings. And the Red Sox won the game!



During a late autumn walk through the Hammond Woods in Newton, I observed an amazing hanging rock. This puddingstone rock is 2 ½ to 3 feet on a side, and probably weighs around 3,000 pounds. The rock has been suspended between these two rock faces for at least 12,000 years, but this was the first time I had noticed it in many decades of walks through the woods. 



The lives of Boston residents were enriched this year by Fog X Flo installations throughout the Emerald Necklace.  At set times, spray nozzles generated large fog banks, creating unique visual and atmospheric effects as they drifted across the landscape.  




Let’s resolve to be more awake to the world around us in 2019!  

Monday, December 17, 2018

Botanical Gardens are Ripe for Research

Posted by Tara K. Miller

“Flowers were made to be seen not overlooked.”
-Henry David Thoreau in his Journal, June 15, 1852


In late November, Richard Primack and I attended a meeting of botanical gardens at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research in Leipzig to discuss establishing an international network to monitor wildflower phenology.

Meeting participants came together from Austria, Canada, China, Germany, Norway, Scotland, and the United States.

Phenology is the timing of biological events, like flowering and fruiting.  These events are important for the survival and reproduction of wildflowers, as well as for other species that interact with wildflowers, including insects and birds. This field has taken on added significance due to the effects of climate change.

 Insects visit a Campanula species

Participants shared their experiences with phenological research and citizen science.  As a network, we plan to monitor a shared list of species that we can then compare across botanical gardens in different countries and climates.

Curator Martin Freiberg leads a tour of the Leipzig Botanical Garden

Monday, December 10, 2018

Fleshy fruit phenology at botanical gardens around the world

Posted by Amanda Gallinat

“I find a fine tupelo near Sam Barrett's now all turned scarlet. I find that it has borne much fruit -small oval bluish berries, those I see - and a very little not ripe is still left.” 
-Thoreau in his Journal, Sept 30, 1854 

Over the past several years, we have worked with an international group of researchers to record and analyze fleshy fruit ripening times at five botanical gardens located in the United States, Germany, and China. Our findings were recently published in the American Journal of Botany, in an article entitled Patterns and predictors of fleshy fruit phenology at five international botanical gardens.

Amanda Gallinat monitoring fruit phenology at the Arnold Arboretum 

We found striking variation in fruiting times among species, with ripe fruits available from May until March of the following year, and fruiting durations ranging from under 1 week to over 150 days! We also found that early stages are more consistent than late stages (likely due to variable fruit removal by wildlife) and early stages are highly consistent with one another.

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) fruits persisted into the winter at several gardens; here they are pictured at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.; photo by Alan Whittemore

We also found a fairly consistent order in which species fruit across years and gardens and that fruiting times are phylogenetically conserved; that is, related species tend to fruit at similar times. This suggests that plants have evolved particular strategies for when they fruit and interact with wildlife.

Ripe silverberry (Eleagnus lanceolata) fruits at the Arnold Arboretum 

Interactions between fruits and wildlife also recently appeared in the Boston Globe! An article entitled Autumn’s Other Colors are for the Birds featured the Primack Lab’s research and commentary on bird-fruit interactions in Massachusetts.

A robin eating crabapple fruits at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, MA; photo by Sam Roberts

Friday, December 7, 2018

Rye, NY gives insight into Boston’s future

Posted by Richard B. Primack

“The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The next best time is now.”  
Chinese proverb.

Last September I visited Rye, NY, a coastal town just north of New York City.  The visit provided insight into the future ecology of eastern Massachusetts, as common species in coastal New York will extend their range northward and become more abundant in Massachusetts as the climate warms.  

Native sweet gum trees (Liquidambar styraciflua) are common in the Rye forests, and seedlings are abundant in nearby open fields; soon this species will disperse to Boston. Should we help sweet gum along by planting their seeds in places where our native Massachusetts trees are dying?


Non-native grasses and the invasive Japanese wineberry bush (Rubus phoenicolasius) grow on the damp forest floor, and in coming years, will spread northward into eastern Massachusetts and northern New England. 


The human dimensions of climate change are seen in the Rye Meeting House; during Hurricane Sandy, the harbor was flooded and seawater was over three feet deep in the building. 


One pleasant treat was dozens of monarch butterflies feeding on the white flowers of the native salt marsh groundsel bush (Baccharis halimifolia), another species likely to spread northward in coming decades.



Monday, November 26, 2018

Honey bee thoughts

Posted by Richard B. Primack


“The keeping of bees is like the direction of sunbeams.”
Henry David Thoreau

Over the summer, Myles Green, a local bee keeper, showed us his hives in Norwood. Here Myles explains bee care to Dan Primack.  The bees know the smell of Myles, so he does not need to wear protective clothing.  But Dan has to be well protected.  


Myles smokes the hive make the bees more passive. 


Opening up the hive, we see a new comb in which the cells have not yet been filled.


Myles inspects a frame to determine the density of filled cells. 

In one hive, there is colony of ants with their eggs on the top level.  These ants cause a slight decrease in honey production, and so are swept off the hive. 


Pesticide strips are placed in the hives to control mites that parasitize the honey bees.  


Thursday, November 1, 2018

How to Identify Hundreds of Species in One Day

Posted by Tara K. Miller

The process of discovery is very simple. An unwearied and systematic application of known laws to nature, causes the unknown to reveal themselves.
Henry David Thoreau in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.


On September 22nd, dozens of experts and citizen scientists teamed up to survey the biodiversity at Minute Man National Historical Park in a fall BioBlitz – a brief event to document as many species as possible.

Peter Alden points out characteristics to identify local plants


Teams spread out around the park, with participants flipping over fungi, inspecting leaves, and listening for the birds.  A young high-school volunteer introduced iNaturalist, an app that can be used to photograph and help identify species.  In many cases, the iNaturalist app was able to correctly identify wildflower species. By the end of the day, over 500 species had been tallied.

 What is the name of this yellow wildflower?

 A naturalist takes a photo with an iPhone using the iNaturalist app.

The goldenrod species is correctly identified by iNaturalist!


A highlight of the event was a short talk presented by the famous biologist Professor E. O. Wilson.  

E.O. Wilson talks at lunch