Monday, May 15, 2017

Congratulations Dr. McDonough MacKenzie !

On May 2 our own Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie successfully defended her PhD thesis!


Caitlin is excited!


Her public talk titled "Climate change, species loss, and spring phenology in an around Acadia National Park, Maine" was well attended and received by members of the BU community, Caitlin's many collaborators both in Boston and Maine, and her loving family and friends.

Caitlin's work utilized historic data in conjunction with her own field observations and experiments to document changes in species abundance and phenology in Acadia and northern Maine, an understudied and iconic region.




Caitlin with one of her common gardens on Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park



She found that the phenology of plants and birds in and around Acadia are advancing with warming temperatures, but are doing so more slowly than in southern New England.

Further, using her field data on plant phenology along Acadia's three largest ridges and her common garden experiments Caitlin found that the temperature of local microclimate within a habitat is a better predictor of plant phenology than elevation, aspect, or plant source.

Caitlin will continue working in Acadia as a postdoc, having received a David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellowship from the Society for Conservation Biology.


Amanda, Caitlin and Lucy on a Primack lab outing this winter.


We are so proud of all Caitlin has achieved at BU and look forward to her continued success!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Reading the Witness Tree

Posted by Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie


Lynda V. Mapes, a Bullard Fellow at the Harvard Forest, published an essay in the Boston Globe magazine last weekend. “What a year with a single tree reveals about climate change” is an intriguing narrative to the Primack lab, where we aim to coax entire communities of trees in Thoreau’s Concord and beyond to reveal the ecological effects of climate change from data spanning over one hundred and fifty years. I read Mapes as I was slogging through the final edits of my PhD defense talk, and I found in her writing a clear and compelling conversation about phenology. Inspired by her science communication, I dove back into my slides.

Mapes' essay on Caitlin's desk. Caitlin included a quote from this piece in the opening slides of her PhD defense talk.


Mapes’ hyper-local focus — a single red oak tree in the Harvard Forest — provides a frame for presenting plant ecology research to the general public. From her tree, Mapes can call out the recent advances and varying methodological approaches in phenology studies. It’s a kind of meta-analysis for a popular audience: data from historic records (shout out to Thoreau), ground level-observations (John O’Keefe’s daily walks), phenocams (Andrew Richardson’s flux tower-mounted cameras), and remote sensing are drawn together and synthesized in this portrait of a red oak. As she climbs into the canopy of her oak, Mapes carries us with her: her writing provides perspective, and she deftly distills piles of scientific data into a vivid sweep of leaves. I've identified many red oaks in the field, but Mapes made me identify with hers.

The Boston Globe essay is adapted from Lynda V. Mapes' new book.


As plant ecologists, it is not often that we get to see elements of our own work in popular culture or glossy magazine spreads. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen the word ‘phenology’ in print outside of a scientific journal. Mapes easily folded this vocabulary into her essay, so that by the end of the article I forgot how startling it was to see ‘phenology’ in print in the Globe. I’m looking forward to repeating this revelation when I read her book WitnessTree: Seasons of Change With a Century-Old Oak.



Saturday, May 6, 2017

Primack featured on WGBH News!

Posted by Amanda Gallinat

This week, Richard Primack was featured on NPR's WGBH News!


In the program, Richard discusses finding Thoreau's field notes from the 1850's, replicating Thoreau's observations of leaf out and flowering in Concord today, and lessons learned about climate change. Rising spring temperatures are causing plants to leaf out and flower earlier today than in the 1850's, for some species by several weeks!

 Richard Primack recording leaf out at Walden Pond
photo credit: Craig Lemoult / WGBH News

The feature also draws connections between changing spring phenology and species loss. Concord has lost a quarter of its plant species since Thoreau's time, and another third are in decline. Richard notes "there are a lot of reasons why species have been lost from Concord, but at least part of the reason is climate change."

Richard Primack looking for spring leaves at Walden Pond 
photo credit: Craig Lemoult / WGBH News

WGBH journalist Craig Lemoult ends the segment with this reflection: "Like Thoreau, and like the rest of us, [Primack] feels joy in discovering a new bloom or leaves on a tree that was bare just days before. But for Primack, there’s also something troubling in the arrival of spring."

Monday, May 1, 2017

Yan Liu applies remote sensing to Acadia National Park

Posted by Richard B. Primack

For the past several years, Yan Liu, a University of Massachusetts Boston doctoral student working with Prof. Crystal Schaaf, has been collaborating with Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie to calibrate new remote sensing data of Acadia National Park to tree and shrub leaf out phenology on the ground.

Yan presented the results of her work at a PhD defense on March 21.



Yan’s work included comparisons of the leaf out times of trees across the entire Mt. Desert Island and among years.


A second aspect involved comparisons of leaf out times along transects with remote sensing images.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Special guests at Carleton College!

Posted by Amanda Gallinat

This spring, I am taking a quick detour from New England phenology to teach a Population Ecology course at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Last week was very exciting around here, because we had several special visitors: Pam Templer, Sam Roberts, and Dan and Erika Tallman!

On Monday (4/10) Pam Templer visited from Boston University to meet with students, tour the ecosystem ecology experiments in Carleton’s Cowling Arboretum, and to talk about her research as part of the weekly Biology Seminar Series. Pam gave a great seminar on the effects of winter climate change on N and C cycling, tree growth, and insect diversity in Northeast forests! Her talk was very well received, and students and faculty were all particularly interested in implications for the sugar maple industry.


Pam Templer with her Carleton host, Dan Hernandez

On Friday (4/14) Sam Roberts gave a talk to our Population Ecology class on his master’s research, using bird banding and nest searching data to measure demographic information of Saltmarsh and Seaside Sparrows in New Jersey, and using that information to model the population viability of those species over the next 50 years. He included many great photos and videos of his field methods.

A video Sam Roberts took in the salt marsh, showing the difficulty of finding nests!

Sam and the Pop Eco students talked through potential management strategies, like predator management programs, and he showed some examples of how to incorporate management scenarios into population models. This was a great application of the population growth models we've been using in class.

Later that afternoon, the students got to see bird banding in action! Dan and Erika Tallman visited the Cowling Arboretum to demonstrate and discuss the bird banding process.


Dan Tallman bands a chickadee captured behind the Arboretum offices

In an hour and a half, we caught 16 Black-capped Chickadees, 3 Dark-eyed Juncos, 1 Downy Woodpecker, 3 House Finches, and 1 Red-bellied Woodpecker. The students learned about ageing and sexing birds, and even got to release them!

A Carleton student releases a chickadee!

Primack Alums at the Smith Fellowship Spring Retreat

Posted by Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie

Last week I traveled to Oregon’s Mt Hood for my first Smith Fellowship Retreat. Smith Post-Doctoral Fellows come together for three weeks each year from across the country to meet each other and participate in professional development workshops.

Abe Miller-Rushing, from Acadia National Park, and Jacquelyn Gill from University of Maine, who will be my mentors for the next two years, joined me in Oregon. We talked about the logistics of getting equipment into remote subalpine lakes, opportunities for public outreach, and scheduling for the summer.


Abe and Caitlin at Mirror Lake below Mt Hood. 

The retreat was a wonderful opportunity to connect with other fellows and their mentors in other disciplines of conservation, and to recharge by the fire at Timberline Lodge. We also snow-shoed to Mirror Lake, ate delicious cookies, and drank Oregon beers. The schedule was both energizing and relaxing. I’m looking forward to my Smith Fellowship working with Abe and Jacquelyn to study paleo-vegetation dynamics above treeline in Maine!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Cherry flowers in danger of frost and insects

Posted by Richard B. Primack

Cherry trees in flower are one of the most beautiful sights of spring. In Japan, Korea, Washington, D.C., and many other places, the cherry blossom season is a time for festivals and merriment.

A warming climate is causing cherry trees to flower several weeks earlier in the spring, shifting the dates of the festivals as well. However, with an earlier flowering comes an increased risk of flowers being damaged by late season frosts, and a greatly diminished floral display. Also, a mild winter can result in outbreaks of insects that can further damage the flowers and young leaves. As a consequence, climate change has the potential to drastically decrease the abundance of cherry blossoms.

In 2015, there was a spectacular display of cherry blossoms at the Arnold Arboretum, as shown by this Sargent’s cherry tree, and a close-up of a flowering branch:




In 2016, by contrast, there was a warm late winter and early spring, stimulating an early flowering of cherry trees. Unfortunately, a late frost combined with an outbreak of gypsy moth caterpillars severely damaged the flowers, as shown by these photos of the same Sargent’s cherry tree:



An article on this topic, which extensively quotes Richard Primack, appeared in the German on-line magazine Deutsche Welle.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Leaf Emergence and Fall (LEaF): A Pardee Center Initiative

Posted by Richard B. Primack and Amanda Gallinat

“All change is a miracle to contemplate; but it is a miracle which is taking place every instant.” 
-Thoreau in Walden

In the autumn of 2016, the three-year project known as Leaf Emergence and Fall (LEaF) was initiated with funding from Boston University's Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future. The goal of LEaF is to organize workshops for New England scientists who are studying the impacts of climate change on spring and autumn leaf phenology. Understanding how climate change affects the timing of the start and end of the growing season has implications for forestry, the uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the movement of water into streams, the water table and the atmosphere, land use policy, and the ecology of many animals.

Alyssa Rosemartin (USA National Phenology Network) and Lucy Zipf (BU) talking at the recent LEaF meeting on March 17th

LEaF workshops provide opportunities for researchers, especially graduate students and post-doctoral researchers, to exchange ideas and develop new collaborations. The most recent LEaF meeting was held at the Pardee Center on March 17th. A total of 18 people attended, including researchers from Harvard University, the University of Massachusetts at Boston, the National Phenology Network, and Boston University. People were clearly excited to meet each other and exchange ideas, and many people began to develop ideas for new collaborative projects!

Pamela Templer (BU Biology) exchanges ideas with Eli Melaas (BU Earth & Environment)

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.