Saturday, December 27, 2014

Primack Lab featured on French TV!

Posted by Richard Primack and Amanda Gallinat

This autumn, a crew from the Film Concept Associes of France came to Massachusetts to shoot an episode of the program Nature's Keepers for French TV. The program's director, Cecile Favier, interviewed us on the connection of our research to conservation issues in Massachusetts. She was particularly interested in how we have used the historical observations of Henry David Thoreau to measure the effects of climate change on plant and animal communities in Concord, MA.

We had a great experience sharing our work with the French crew, and we will post a link to the program when it is available in 2015! 

At Great Meadow National Wildlife Refuge in Concord, Richard explains (with great emotion!) how Thoreau's phenology records can be used to demonstrate the impact of climate change on the flowering times and abundance of wildflower species.

At Manomet Center for Conservation Science, Amanda describes her investigation into fruiting times, and how migratory bird species may be altering their diets in response to climate change and species invasions. 

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Leaf out times using herbarium specimens

Posted by Richard B. Primack

Scientists are interested in knowing how a warming climate will affect the leafing out times of trees, and if leafing out times are earlier now than in the past due to a warming climate. If trees are leafing out earlier now, that could extend the growing season, and forests could be absorbing more carbon dioxide and producing more wood. However, until recently there was no good way to determine when tree species leafed out in the past.

Figure 1.Two specimens of Populus grandidentata accessed online from the G.S. Torrey Herbarium at the University of Connecticut (EEB, 2004). Young leaves and flowers are visible on the left specimen (collected 10 May 1936), but only mature leaves on the right specimen (collected 8 June 1932).

We have found that herbarium specimens of most New England tree species can be used to determine past leaf out times. These herbarium specimens are flattened dried twigs, often collected when the plants are in full flower. These specimens each have labels that show the date and location of collection. About 15% of the specimens also have young, unfolding leaves on them, and so can be used to determine past leaf out dates.

Figure 2. Leaf-out dates are significantly correlated with annual variation in April temperatures, with early leaf-out in warmer years (slope = -2.70; P < 0.01). (Figure 4 in Am. J. Bot article)

Using over 1500 New England herbarium specimens with young leaves, we were able to determine that trees in New England leaf out earlier in warm years than cold years, that trees are leafing out earlier now than in the past, and that trees leaf out earlier in warmer more southern locations in New England than in more northern and colder locations. This method promises to be useful to climate change biologists and ecosystem ecologists when applied to other areas and over larger regions.

Figure 3. Mean leaf-out dates for each town. (A) Towns with at least two data points. Major geographical features are labeled. Towns with only one or no data points are shown in white. (B) Towns with at least five data points; towns that are notably early or late are labeled by name. Towns with four or fewer data points are shown in white. (Figure 5 in Am. J. Bot. article)

To see the full article, published in American Journal of Botany, click here.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Conservation education and nature protection in northern Serbia

Posted by Richard B. Primack

During my visit to Germany, I headed southeast to Serbia for 5 days. Most of my time was spent in Novi Sad, a beautiful city in northern Serbia on the Danube River. My hosts were my co-authors for the Serbian edition of the Primer of Conservation Biology, which will be published in 2014.

Here, four of my co-authors and I stand on the banks of the Danube with the old fortress on the hills above:

One day, we visited Fuska gora National Park, a forested ridge that runs above the Danube River. While much of the forest is still managed for timber production, sections of beech forest are being left in a natural condition.

An unusual feature of the park is numerous Serbian monasteries, many of which are hundreds of years old.

On the grounds of the monasteries are some rare wildflowers, such as this autumn-blooming crocus:

On another day, we visited the protected lands on the Danube floodplain that are being managed for migratory bird populations, for flood control, and increasingly for environmental education.

The Serbian experience was enhanced by many leisurely meals in the open air, and relaxed glasses of wine while gazing at the Danube. One evening we sat at a cafe on the edge of the fortress, gazing at the new bridge across the Danube, built to replace a bridge destroyed by NATO bombing in the 1998 war.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Climate Change Research in Munich

Posted by Richard B. Primack

I spent much of September and October living and working on the grounds of the Munich Botanical Garden during my trip to Germany as a Humboldt Research Awardee. The Munich Botanical Garden is distinguished by having thousands of plant species packed into a relatively small area, all taken care of by a staff of over 100 gardeners. The garden and adjacent research building were built 100 years ago.

I also visited the Technical University of Munich where climate change researchers are investigating the effects of future drought on the forests and tree species of southern Germany. In one experiment, a canopy has been built over a section of forest to exclude rain.

In a second experiment, tree seedlings have been planted in sandy soil, with some sections also heated by tubing filled with circulating hot water to simulate global warming. And to complete the experiment, half of the garden is automatically covered by a motorized swimming pool cover to keep out the rain.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Posted by Richard Primack
“Thoreau would be pleased to read this volume.”Science
For the past 14 years, our research group has been investigating the effects of climate change on the plants, birds, and insects of Concord. We have published our results as scientific articles, and journalists have written about our work for the public. However, I wanted to reach a wider audience with the story of our work and how Thoreau’s insights can be used to address the growing crisis of climate change. Earlier this year, my popular book on this topic was published as Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods. 
In his new book, Primack discusses the effects of climate change on birds migrating through Massachusetts, like the Veery pictured above.

Since that time, there have been many favorable reviews of the book. Here are some excerpts:

“This book is more than a clarion testament to the real and present effects of climate change. It is an exhortation to become more engaged in the natural world whether through citizen science or observation, and, in so doing, recognize and limit our own impacts on the earth. A constant presence throughout this book, Thoreau would be pleased to read this volume, which weaves together science, nature, ethics, and human action as part of a single whole.”—Science (Read the full review here)
In Walden Warming, Primack details the challenges and joys of working with Henry David Thoreau's field notes.

Walden Warming shows compellingly how a place and its ecosystems can alter dramatically in the face of climate change.”—Times Higher Education (Read the full review here)

“The book tells the story of Primack’s struggle to replicate Thoreau and find changes in flowering times, but soon broadens into a hymn to citizen science. Primack finds many others who are not conventional scientists but keep careful records of myriad things, from the times that migratory birds arrive to the date butterflies emerge and ice melts on ponds. It is these extraordinary people who make the book a rich, rewarding read. And there is also the inspiring message that anyone with a keen eye for nature can make a difference, with an afterword on how to become a citizen scientist.”—New Scientist (Read the full review here)

Buy the book from the University of Chicago Press HERE.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Leaf out across four countries

Posted by Libby Ellwood

While it’s no secret that plants leaf out earlier when it’s warmer, there’s still a lot to learn about how leaf out differs among species and location. Leaf out signifies the beginning of the growing season, and is influenced by climate change, so it is important that we take a broad view in studying it. 

Acer japonicum, Japanese maple, leafs out early each spring.
Photo credit R. Primack

In a recent paper, researchers from eight botanical gardens examined leaf out in 1600 woody plant species. Over 2011 and 2012 we found spring leaf out differed by three months. We saw that angiosperms leafed out before gymnosperms, deciduous species before evergreen species, and shrubs before trees. Certain physiological differences among species, such as vessel size and arrangement, also affect leaf out.

Rhodendron fargesii leafs out later in the spring.
Photo credit R. Primack
Even though the botanical gardens were in four different countries, US, Canada, Germany and China, species leafed out in the same order. This demonstrates that species that are early to leaf out in North America are also leafing out early in Europe and Asia. As species ranges shift and forest composition is altered due to climate change, our understanding of leaf out phenology will grow increasingly important. Read more about it in the full article:

Panchen, Z. A., Primack, R. B., Nordt, B., Ellwood, E. R., Stevens, A.-D., Renner, S. S., Willis, C. G., Fahey, R., Whittemore, A., Du, Y. and Davis, C. C. (2014), Leaf out times of temperate woody plants are related to phylogeny, deciduousness, growth habit and wood anatomy. New Phytologist, 203: 1208–1219. doi: 10.1111/nph.12892

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!