Thursday, June 20, 2019

Utah National Parks

Posted by Richard B. Primack

“Should I see life only on the computer I adore?"
               Quoth the Raven "Nevermore."

I have long pondered the beauty of Utah’s spectacular national parks. I have studied photos, watched many videos, and read about their geology; but all on the computer at home. It was time to travel to these western parks and see them for myself.

My son Dan and I visited Utah in early March. We learned that many parks were still in the embrace of winter snow, with many trails still closed, but we were lucky to avoid the crowds. At Arches National Park, we were the objects of curiosity by resident ravens.

Arches National Park features spectacular red sandstone formations, such as this massive arch.

A raven studied us at length and without emotion. Was it even alive?

At Goblin Valley State Park, we were unprepared for the hilarious mudstone formations.

The park was empty except for Dan, myself, and hundreds of goblins.

Bryce and Zion parks were already busy despite still being late winter.

Bryce was full of snow, with most trails closed and relatively few tourists; Bristlecone pines are abundant on ridges at Bryce, and are among the longest living organisms known.

At all parks, park rangers spoke about the challenge of an ever-lengthening tourist season, greater crowds and traffic in summer, and stable and declining funding for staff and programs. To deal with crowds, Zion has a new public transportation system and a ban on cars to prevent traffic jams.

Zion has massive sandstone ridges on either side of the narrow valley.

Be content with living indoors: Nevermore!

Monday, June 10, 2019

Native plants lost in New England and New York

by Richard B. Primack, Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie, Abe Miller-Rushing, and Glen Mittelhauser

“Not until we are completely lost or turned around do we begin to find ourselves.”  
Henry David Thoreau

Earlier this month the UN released its Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services which describes global losses and declines in native species over the past century. Our new study published in Rhodora provides a local example by showing that locations across the New England and New York have lost 25% of their local plant species, on average, over the last 50 to 150 years. Certain plant families, such as orchids and lilies, suffered even higher rates of loss.

Figure 1.  Sites in the Northeast used in this study, and the percent of native species that have been lost.

Every site showed a loss of native species, including well protected areas like Nantucket Island and state parks, such as Middlesex Fells. Even protecting areas as reservations or state or national parks did not prevent the loss of species, though the proportion varied considerably between sites.  The specific causes of the losses are likely a combination of habitat loss, climate change, damage from deer, invasive plant species, and air and water pollution.

Figure 2. Purple fringed orchids have dramatically in abundance in Concord over the past 150 years.

The Northeast is a great place to study changes in plant biodiversity because of the long history of botanical surveys in the region undertaken by professional and citizen scientists. Their records provide the opportunity for contemporary scientists to resurvey the same sites and compare changes. Understanding the changes taking place is essential for managers working to protect these areas and their floras.

As covered by WBUR:  "New England Is Losing Its Native Plants. Researchers Say It’s Time To Stop And Smell The Wildflowers"

The article:  McDonough MacKenzie, C., Mittelhauser, G., Miller-Rushing, A.J. and Primack, R.B., 2019. Floristic change in New England and New York: regional patterns of plant species loss and decline. Rhodora, 121(985), pp.1-36.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Turkeys Attack Professor and Students!

By Richard B. Primack

“When I consider that the noble animals have been exterminated here - the cougar, panther, lynx, wolverine, wolf, bear, moose, deer, the beaver, the turkey, etc, etc - I cannot but feel as I lived in a tamed, and, as it were, emasculated country.” Henry David Thoreau

In late March, our plant ecology class took a field trip to Hall’s Pond Sanctuary in Brookline near BU. As the seven of us walked along the boardwalk, a large group of turkeys slowly crossed the path about 30 feet in front of us. As we waited patiently, three puffed-up adult males turned and walked straight towards us in a menacing manner. 

Male turkeys confront the plant ecology class. 
Photos by Emily Auker; taken under dramatic circumstances. 

At first it seemed a bit amusing that these birds were confronting a group of adults, but when they got within 8 feet from us, it was clear that they were trying to chase us away. We yelled at them and stamped our feet, and I even threw my gloves at them, but they kept advancing towards us. Only when we starting to wave sticks at them did they back off and retreat. 

Turkeys turning away after confrontation.

If we had not acted so forcefully, I think that they would have chased us and tried to peck us. What an adventure! 

This incident was covered by Lexi Peery of the the BU News Service.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Fire on Cezanne’s Mountain

By Tara Miller

“I have come forth to this hill at sunset to see the forms of the mountains in the horizon - to behold and commune with something grander than man.”
-H. D. Thoreau

Mont Sainte-Victoire is perhaps best known for the paintings depicting it by Paul Cezanne in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Cezanne’s painting Mont Sainte-Victoire above the Tholonet Road, 1896-98

The mountain is located in Provence in southern France. The region is characterized by a Mediterranean climate, which has hot, dry summers that are prone to fire.

In 1989, a massive fire swept through 5,000 hectares of shrubs and oak forest on the southern side of the mountain, drastically changing the appearance of the landscape and leaving the limestone cliffs more exposed.

Firefighters during the 1989 fire, with Mont Sainte-Victoire in the background.

Mont Sainte-Victoire before the 1989 fire (

Mont Sainte-Victoire after the 1989 fire (©2005 Benh Lieu Song)

Hiking is now restricted in the summer months due to fire risk. These fires will only become more common as climate change means higher temperatures and lower rainfall for this region. The area around Mont Sainte-Victoire may eventually become a desert1, leaving a landscape much different from the ones in Cezanne’s paintings.

Cezanne’s painting Montagne Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine (

1Guiot, J. and W. Cramer. 2016. Climate change: The 2015 Paris Agreement thresholds and Mediterranean basin ecosystems. Science 354: 465-468

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Primack Lab at the Northeastern Natural History Conference

By Lucy Zipf

In mid April the Primack lab attended the Northeastern Natural History Conference in Springfield, MA. This event brings together field biologists, land managers, and naturalists to share their research and ideas. Richard, Tara and I all presented during the two phenology sessions of the conference.

A bustling poster session at the NENHC

I presented during the session “Phenology and Climate Change: Long Term Trends” alongside three researchers who are also lucky enough to work with robust historical datasets. My talk detailed my work assessing the effects of global change on Tree Swallows. 

Richard moderated my session, here he is introducing a speaker

Tara and Richard presented in the “Phenology and Climate Change: New Approaches and Insights” session. Tara shared her work on fruiting phenology in New England, which synthesizes historical field observations, herbarium specimens, and modeling approaches. Richard debuted his talk “Was Thoreau a Good Naturalist?” to a warm reception. 

I had a great time at the conference and am looking forward to returning next year!

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Reaching a wider audience

By Richard B. Primack and Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie

“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”  
Henry David Thoreau in Walden

As scientists, we love our research and want to share our findings far and wide. As ecologists and conservation biologists, we especially hope that our findings affect policy, management, or everyday stewardship. And funding agencies remind us that we must ensure our research has broader impacts that benefit society, beyond just publishing scientific papers. But how do we effectively communicate our research?  Here, we share some tips about how researchers can communicate research to the media, and reach audiences beyond peer-reviewed journal readers. We use examples from a recent paper of ours published with co-authors.

Make your research excitingidentify your hook. In our recent paper, Phenological mismatch with trees reduces wildflower carbon budgets, published in Ecology Letters, we emphasized that we are building on the observations of Henry David Thoreau; Thoreau was the “hook” that we use to attract much of the interest in our research.

Make the message easy to understandtell a story. We wrote a press release that told a story about our research and highlighted key points in non-technical language and without jargon. Even though Boston University generally does not issue press releases about scientific papers, our summary helped reporters quickly understand our work, its significance, and potential angles that could interest readers or listeners. 

Provide informative, high-quality photos. We take many photos to illustrate our research and the key results.  Sometimes these photos are carefully staged to illustrate the research process or results.  Reporters are more likely to write a story if excellent photos are available. 

Reach out to the media and be responsive.  We emailed our press release and eye-catching photos to contacts in the media. One of them liked the story and wrote an article about our work for the Boston Globe. He was writing the article on tight deadline, so we promptly answered his numerous questions. 

One thing can lead to another. The Boston Globe writer pitched the story to National Public Radio, and he will interview us for a radio program in April. 

Dr. Primack being interviewed about climate change in New England for NBC Boston 

Get with social media. Caitlin tweeted about the article, creating buzz in the twittersphere. We wrote a short summary of our paper for our lab blog—essentially a shorter, more conversational version of the press release—with links to a pdf of our article. Our lab blog has been viewed around 100,000 times in 6 years, so we estimate that this will be 500 views of this story, a nice complement to the Twitter buzz. 

Publish on-line. To generate publicity within the Boston University community, we wrote an article for BU Research, using the press release as a starting point. This article further widened the audience who will hear about the research, with relatively little additional effort on our part.

Leverage institutional networks.  The co-authors of our paper reached out to their universities and media contacts, sharing our press release. The paper received coverage in institutional publications and websites of Boston University, University of Maine, and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Send out pdfs.  We emailed a pdf of our paper to 100 colleagues in our field, along with a very short email summarizing the key points of the article, again pulling from the same basic story in the press release and blog and Twitter posts. 

Each paper and project are different, but hopefully this post has given you some ideas of things to try. 

Other resources:


The Op Ed Project

Cahill Jr, J. F., Lyons, D., & Karst, J. (2011). Finding the “pitch” in ecological writing. The Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, 92(2), 196-205.

Merkle, B. G. (2018). Tips for Communicating Your Science with the Press: Approaching Journalists. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, 99(4), 1-4.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Simple techniques can describe how maple trees are responding to climate change

Posted by Libby Ellwood and Richard B. Primack

“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.”
-Henry David Thoreau

In a study recently published in a Special Issue of Applications in Plants Sciences, we found that simple annotations of plant specimens are as effective as more detailed ones for phenological research. With climate change increasingly effecting plants and animals around the world, phenology is an important metric for us to readily monitor the extent to which organisms are responding. Plant specimens are a critical resource for this as they record the phenological state of a plant at a specific place and time. Each specimen therefore provides evidence of such events as flowering, leaf out, and even dormancy.
Red maple specimens are evaluated for their
flowering stage, along with information
on where and when collected.

However, is it necessary to record the fine-scale phenology of a specimen, such as flower buds, early flowers, or peak flowers? Or, is simply noting “flowering” enough to see patterns of change? In researching this question, we found that the simpler approach of noting “flowering” was sufficient to see that the phenology of our study species, the red maple, has been advancing by about 2 days for each one degree F of warming temperature. These are the same results we found with a more detailed approached.
We evaluated specimens from across eastern North America.

Detailed phenological information may be necessary for certain research, though our study demonstrates that in many cases a simpler approach is just as effective. This finding is especially important as scientists work with members of the public, citizen scientists, to monitor phenology and annotate specimens. It is much easier to teach an armchair botanist to recognize flowering or non-flowering as opposed to finer phenological details, and now we know that the results will not be comprised with this approach.