Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Scientists Come in All Sizes

Guest post by Jenny Cutraro

I spent part of our recent snow day in New England on the phone talking to Richard Primack when a new story came to light. He told me that about six years ago, his lab started monitoring the spring leaf-out times of trees in suburban Boston, where he and I both live. Among other things, they found that while red and Norway maples begin to leaf out in early to mid-April, oaks don’t even start until early May. There’s generally a two to three week gap in between.


Young leaves on a black oak tree

Well, guess what? My second-grade daughter has some data to add to his records.

Every spring for the past three years, from her bedroom window, my older daughter and I have been making observations of three different trees—a Norway maple, a sycamore maple, and an oak of unknown species—and recording them in a little notebook. And we’ve seen the exact same pattern that Primack has: the maples leaf out first, and the oak follows a few weeks or even a month later.


My daughter checking the trees outside her window for the first signs of spring

I explained to her that I was just talking on the phone with a scientist who had asked the same question about the exact same types of trees, and that that our research matched his—that we observed the same patterns he had. Her eyes grew wide, she smiled, and she looked outside again. Her work had been validated by a real live scientist—and, even better, hers had validated his.

What excites her the most—and excites me, quite honestly—is that there are still so many unknowns right in front of our faces, and right outside our windows. The kinds of questions kids ask, the ones that seem so obvious on the surface, are often the very questions scientists haven’t answered yet—or need to answer again. 


A fallen bud of red maple in the snow

Just today, I noticed buds from one of the nearby maples littering the ice-crusted snow in our yard, casualties of the nasty winter storm that pelted us earlier this week. Most of these buds already have pale yellow flowers dangling from them. The leaves can’t be far behind. Or can they? Guess it’s already time for all three of us to begin our observations.

This is a condensed version of a post originally published on Last Word on Nothing.

Jenny Cutraro is the founder and director of Science Storytellers, a program that connects kids and scientists through conversation and storytelling, and is also a managing editor at SciStarter, where she oversees their citizen science blog network on Discover, PLoS, and other outlets. At WGBH in Boston, she developed an award-winning collection of education resources for the Emmy-nominated PBS KIDS series Plum Landing. She also has produced science education resources for PBS Learning Media, NOVA Science NOW, and The New York Times Learning Network.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Early spring followed by late frosts

Posted by Richard B. Primack

“To us snow and cold seem a mere delaying of spring. How far we are from understanding the value of these things in the economy of Nature.” 
-Thoreau, March 8, 1859, in his Journal

As a result of climate change, unusually warm days in February and March often trigger early spring activity by plants and animals. This year, many introduced wildflowers, such as crocuses, winter aconite, and snowdrops, were already flowering in late February, stimulated by three days of record high temperatures in the high 60 and low 70s. In the woods, skunk cabbages were flowering, woodpeckers were drumming their territorial call, and turkeys were forming courting groups.


Snowdrops were in full flower on February 27 this year:


But this early biological activity in late winter exposes animals and plants to dangers of extreme cold conditions. And this week, winter returned with a vengeance with temperatures below 10 degrees F and an inch of snow. With this kind of variation in winter temperatures, we ask: Will hard frosts on many successive days damage the early flowers and swelling leaf buds? Will there be a penalty to pay for the early plants?

This year, I wondered if these early crocus flowers would be damaged by the freezing temperatures:


And after several nights of hard frost, the crocus flowers are indeed all frozen and wilted. It seems they paid a heavy price for flowering early:


For more details, check out Seth Borenstein's story in Associated Press.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Birding in Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Myanmar

Posted by Amanda Gallinat

One of the best parts of my recent trip to Southeast Asia was the birding! While the birds were at times evasive due to rain in Vietnam and the dense understory of tropical forests in Myanmar, the birds we did see were spectacular.

Southeast Asia is host to a diversity of kingfishers. One of the first birds we spotted at Hong Kong's Gold Coast Marina was a White-throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis), flying between boats and fishing for its breakfast. In Vietnam, we added the Pied Kingfisher (Ceryle rudis) to our list, and saw the Collared Kingfisher (Todiramphus chloris) stealthily searching for fish in a lagoon in Myanmar.



White-throated Kingfisher at the Gold Coast Marina, Hong Kong

In Vietnam, we scheduled a full day of birding around Danang and Hoi An with wildlife biologist Luc Nguyen. This included a visit to Son Tra (Monkey Mountain) to look for birds. Unfortunately, it rained all day. While the birds made themselves scarce on Monkey Mountain, we did see plenty of --you guessed it-- monkeys!


Rhesus Macaque (Macaca mulatta) on Monkey Mountain, Vietnam

Red-shanked Douc Langur (Pygathrix nemaeus) on Monkey Mountain, Vietnam

Populations of the Red-shanked Douc Langur are estimated to have declined between 50-80% over the past 30 years throughout Southeast Asia, and the species is now listed as endangered. The WWF has been managing the population on Monkey Mountain in Danang as part of their conservation plan for the species.


We met up with Luc again on our last morning in Vietnam for a sunnier try at birding! We biked to nearby rice paddies along the Thu Bon river and saw many wading birds, as well as passerines/near-passerines foraging from perches, including shrikes, bee-eaters, and stone chats.

Sam and two great guides: Luc Nguyen and Birds of Southeast Asia, in Hoi An, Vietnam


Chinese Pond Heron (Ardeola bacchus) in a Hoi An rice paddy, Vietnam


Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis) by the Thu Bon river in Hoi An, Vietnam

Finally, we headed to Myanmar where we did most of our birding by kayak, around islands and lagoons. We saw several small groups of hornbills, often from a distance, and enjoyed the chance to identify some birds we'd never seen before, such as the Beach Thick-knee (Esacus magnirostris), Plain-throated Sunbird (Anthreptes malacensis) and the Crested Serpent-Eagle (Spilornis cheela).

Beach Thick-knee on a small island in the south of Myanmar

Plain-throated Sunbird on the forest edge of the same small island, Myanmar

Monday, February 20, 2017

Smith Fellowship


Posted by Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie


“The past  is the canvass on which our ideas are painted, - the dim prospectus of our future field. We are dreaming of what we are to do.”
Thoreau in Reform Papers.  

Exciting news!

I have been awarded a David H. Smith Fellowship from the Society of Conservation Biology for two years of postdoctoral research on the paleoecology of alpine and subalpine vegetation in Maine. 




Caitlin on Katahdin in Baxter State Park, Maine. 

Caitlin will be studying the history of alpine vegetation communities like this from a very long term (10,000 year!) perspective as a Smith Fellow. 


Under the mentorship of Dr. Jacquelyn Gill at University of Maine and Dr. Abe Miller-Rushing at Acadia National Park, I'll be coring ponds at treeline and counting pollen grains to understand how plant communities responded to past climatic changes over the Holocene. I will use the results to predict how Maine’s alpine plants will respond to future climate change, and make recommendations for the conservation of endangered species.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

European friends

Posted by Richard B. Primack

“To obtain to a true relation to one human creature is enough to make a year memorable.” 
-Thoreau in his Journal, 1851

During my trip to Europe, I visited with old friends and made new ones. Here are a few:


In Berlin, Birgit Nordt and I planned future projects monitoring phenology at botanical gardens. Above, Birgit points out extremely early flowers of winter aconite on the grounds of the Berlin Botanical Garden.


Outside of Koblenz, my old friends Sebastian Kelbling and Jurgen Dumont stand near a gate that diverts water from a small river into a spillway that powers an electrical generator. Jurgen’s family has owned the mill and surrounding land for many generations, and now makes money selling electricity and providing nature education programs.



Yordan Uzunov and Boyko Georgiev from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences are working with me to produce a conservation biology book for Bulgaria. During my three day visit, they provided a wonderful introduction to Sophia and the country.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

German Experimental Ecology

Posted by Richard B. Primack
“There is no such thing as pure objective observation. Your observation, to be interesting, i.e. to be significant, must be subjective.” -Thoreau, 1854

The first stop of my three week trip was at the University of Greifswald in northeastern Germany. The University was founded in 1456, and the town has a beautiful market square. My hosts were Jurgen Kreyling and Andrey Malyshev.


Greifswald market square

Just outside of Greifswald is an experiment that reduces snow levels using a roofing system to simulate a future climate scenario. In contrast, Pam Templer’s group reduces snow cover with shovels. Which method is better? It turns out that each method is best for its own location: roofs are better when the snow is shallow (Greifswald), and shovels are best when the snow is deep (New Hampshire).

In a field experiment, roofing is used to simulate a future climate with lower snow cover

Another trip was made to the Friedrich-Schiller University in Jena, where I stayed at the Black Bear Hotel that Martin Luther had also visited 500 years earlier. 

In the lobby of the Black Bear Hotel, my friend Sebastian waves to Martin Luther

There is a famous biodiversity experiment on the outskirts of Jena, which shows that increasing the number of plant species in a plot increases the ecosystem services and productivity of the plot.

Jumping for joy at the Jena biodiversity experiment (click to enlarge photo for a better look at the experiments)

Most researchers visit the experiment in the growing season, but we jumped for joy at the chance to go on a winter field trip. I learned that the site has to be frequently weeded each year to prevent succession to woody vegetation, and to prevent invasion by other herbaceous species that were not planted. So, the long-term results are partially an artifact of the plots being very aggressively managed. Without this management, the results would be totally different.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Hong Kong: Life Finds a Way!

Posted by Amanda Gallinat

In January I traveled to Hong Kong, the city in which I grew up. Every time I return, something new strikes me about the city. For instance, my last visit, five years ago, was my first time returning as a birder, and I was delighted to see even common birds like the Black-collared Starling.


Black-collared Starling, photo by Sam Roberts (2011)

On this visit, I was struck by how much plant life is able to grow in Hong Kong's urban habitat. For instance, one of the regions of Hong Kong with the highest air pollution is the Central/Western district, where we saw banyan trees growing along the roadside.

Banyan trees on the roadside in Central, Hong Kong

Since the 1970's a common landslide prevention technique in Hong Kong has been to cover hillsides with concrete. However, in some areas such as the Tai Tam Reservoir, plants have grown atop or through the concrete. Incidentally, this has resulted in some of the best birding in Hong Kong!


Plants growing on a mountainside that has been covered in concrete and fencing, in Tai Tam Reservoir Park