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

Monday, October 22, 2018

Fall Foliage and Climate Change

Posted by Richard B. Primack

How beautiful, when a whole tree is like one great scarlet fruit full of ripe juices, every leaf, from lowest limb to topmost spire, all aglow, especially if you look toward the sun! What more remarkable object can there be in the landscape?
Henry David Thoreau in Autumnal Tints

It is one of life’s great pleasures to walk through the streets, parks, and forests of New England on a cool, sunny autumn afternoon with crispy leaves crunching underfoot and brilliant trees and shrubs coloring the landscape. 

A sugar maple provide color in the Newton cemetery

Happily, 2018 is an almost perfect year for autumn color, with just the right mix of moisture and gradually cooling temperatures.  As a result, the yellows, oranges of Norway maples and the oranges and reds of sugar maples are particular striking.  Honey locust trees create bands of lemon yellow along streets.

Honey locust trees with yellow leaves.

As I describe in a recent article in the Newton Tab and in an interview on “The World” on Public Radio International, both a warming climate and later first frosts over the past four decades have delayed the timing of peak fall foliage. The peak used to be from late September to the first week or two of October, but now it is typically mid to late-October. However, the variety of plants growing in our woods and gardens gives us a long season of color from late September to early November as plants take turns changing.  So go and find your favorite spot to enjoy the wonderous displays of fall foliage.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Gardens Beautify Suburban Life

Posted by Richard B. Primack

He who would have nothing to do with thorns must never attempt to gather flowers.
Henry David Thoreau.

Gardens bring delights of jubilant flowers, unusual foliage, and sweet scents to Newton, a suburb of Boston known as the Garden City. Front yard and sidewalk gardens reflect the personal tastes of homeowners and beautify streets and neighborhoods.  In a recent article in the Newton Tab, two contrasting front-yard gardens, one sunny and the other shady are highlighted.

Bodgda Pilat enjoys her canna lilies.

In front of their white stucco house in Newton Center, Bogda and Kaz Pilat have created a striking flower garden in their sunny, small front yard. Notable plants include 8-foot-tall purple-leaved canna lilies topped with huge red flowers.

Mary Morganti in front of her shade garden.

In contrast, Mary Morganti has created a cool shady garden in front of her 1912 house in Newtonville. Covering the ground are shade-tolerant foliage plants, with many textures and variations of green, especially many varieties of hosta, but also clumps of hellebore, maidenhair fern, and mayapple.

Volunteers working in the Newton Center Garden

A second article in the Newton Tab discusses public gardens in places like the Newton Center Garden. These public displays present dazzling masses of color: red and purple petunias, spikes of electric purple blazing stars, and tall yellow, orange and red echinaceas (also known as coneflowers). Volunteers make this and other public gardens happen, and more volunteers are always welcome.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Killer bees? The contribution of a paper’s title to its future

Posted by Richard B. Primack

A truly good [article] is something as natural, and as unexpectedly and unaccountably fair and perfect, as a wild-flower discovered on the prairies of the West or in the jungles of the East.  
Henry David Thoreau

Is this post about killer bees?  No! It’s about how a paper’s title affects its subsequent number of citations. In a recent article, we investigated this topic by analyzing 5941 papers published in the journal Biological Conservation from 1968 to 2012.  

“Killer bees” attract attention, photo by Jose Manuel via Wiki Commons

We found that papers with the greatest geographic or taxonomic breadth in their titles were cited more frequently than more narrowly focused papers. Also, titles phrased as questions and with shorter titles had slightly higher numbers of citations. Titles aside, the most highly cited papers are review papers, and those that advance the science and are useful to readers.  

The take home message:  Focus on doing good science and writing review articles.  

Thursday, September 13, 2018

500 Women Scientists Kicks Off in Boston

Posted by Tara Miller

Fifty people joined the September 5th kickoff of 500 Women Scientists in Boston.  The national group was first founded in 2016 to speak up for science and make science open, inclusive, and accessible.  Since then, many local and regional groups have sprung up across the country.  

Dr. Wendy Heiger-Bernays leads a discussion about the direction of 500 Women Scientists

The event started with short talks about climate change from women in fields as different as biology, public health, engineering, and landscape architecture.  The attendees then joined in a discussion about the future role of 500 Women Scientists in Boston.  People expressed interest in engaging in advocacy, education, and supporting women scientists around issues of sexual assault and harassment.

The panel of speakers answers questions from the audience

Monday, September 10, 2018

Variation in swamp rose mallow flowers

Posted by Richard B. Primack

Simplicity is the law of Nature for man as well as for flowers. 
Henry David Thoreau

Rose mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) is a spectacular wildflower, with multi-stemmed plants growing 6 feet tall and covered with dessert-plate sized flowers.  Large populations grow along the banks of the Charles Rivers, with over a thousand plants at one notable location. 

Rose mallow plants growing along the Charles River.

While most plants have pink flowers, other plants produce flowers that are light pink, very light pink, or even white.  In addition, some plants produce flowers with a red center, and other plants produce flowers without the red center.  Plants also vary in the size of the flowers, and whether the petals are bent strongly forward or slightly forward, or flared out at a right angle.

Three plants growing next to each other: on the left a plant with white flowers with a red center; in the middle a plant with light pink flowers with a red center; and on the right a plant with pink flowers and no red center. 

This striking floral variation is almost certainly genetic, as all of the flowers on a plant will share the same characteristics of color, presence or absence of the red center, flower size, and petal orientation.

A plant with white flowers and red center, growing next to a plant with pink flowers and a red center. 

There is also variation in leaf color with some plants producing bronze colored leaves.

White flowers with no red center. 

This species seems tailor made for studies of pollination ecology, genetics, and evolution. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Keep your eyes open

Posted by Richard B. Primack

The question is not what you look at but how you look & whether you see.
Thoreau in his Journal, 1851

Sometimes surprising things appear magically when you go for a walk with your eyes open.  

Orange, grass-killing fungus, or something else?

Walking across a large playing field in Newton Center, I noticed grass splayed out in a circle about a foot across, and outlined by a bright orange ring.  My first impression was that a fungus must be killing the grass plant, causing it to fall over from its central root, with orange fungal spores emerging mid-stem. Closer examination showed that many such orange circles occurred in a regular pattern across the field, and the orange seemed more like paint than fungus.  In fact, I soon realized, the orange color was spray paint indicating below ground irrigation nozzles. 

Close-up of the orange circle. Looks like paint!

Walking in the Hammond woods, I spied what seemed to be a blazing white gem in the shaded forest.  The gem, about a foot across and three feet above the ground, shimmered with brilliant white light, changing by the moment.  As I got closer, I could see that it was an unstructured three-dimensional spider’s web, backlit by a stray sunbeam, with the spider visible at the top of the web. 

Shimmering white gem in a shady forest.  See the spider?

Two amazing novelties during walks along well-worn paths.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

The Culture and Infrastructure of Biking in Italy

Posted by Tara Miller

When considering whether to bike to work or for pleasure, some concerns may make you hesitate.  Is it safe to bike?  Will there be enough space on the road, and will cars know to watch for me?  Is there somewhere to leave my bike when I arrive?

The bike-friendly regions of the Dolomites and South Tyrol in Italy have your answer: yes!  These regions, located in northeastern Italy, have developed a culture and infrastructure to cater to cyclists.

Many of the bike paths in South Tyrol follow rivers, offering a scenic and safe alternative to the roads 

An expansive network of bike paths connects many of the towns and cities in the area.  You can bike for dozens of kilometers without ever encountering a car.  The paths are well-marked, with frequent signs guiding cyclists to their destination.  As a plus, many of the paths roll along with beautiful rivers and streams.

The Italian cities offer bike racks in every shape and form.  Your wheels can rest in slabs of marble, notches in tree trunks, or even slip into slots in the cobblestones.  

When you get tired of biking, the regional trains easily accommodate bikes aboard. (©

The infrastructure, bike shops, and fellow cyclists all contribute to a culture that encourages people to get out and see the country on two wheels.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Merryspring Nature Center

posted by Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie

Two Primack lab alumnae walk into a midcoast Maine Nature Center…

On Tuesday, August 7, Amanda Gallinat accompanied me to Merryspring Nature Center in Camden, Maine, where I gave an outdoor lecture in a beautiful hexagonal gazebo. Back in April, Merryspring invited me to give a talk in their summer lecture series — they were interested in hearing about my postdoc research on alpine habitats in Maine. I brought along a giant pad of paper for an informal chalk talk that covered the methods and motivations behind my paleoecological field work in Acadia National Park and Baxter State Park.

The talk covered my postdoc research: I spoke about the paleoecological history of tundra habitat in Maine and our recent fieldwork to collect new pollen cores from Acadia National Park and Baxter State Park. I also introduced my long-term goal of bringing together all the federal and state agencies and NGOs that work above treeline in Maine for cooperative conservation planning workshops. 

The weather was a stark contrast to my stories of coring through the ice on Chimney Pond last winter, but the breeze through the gazebo kept us (relatively) cool in the August heatwave. The small crowd of retirees and nature center enthusiasts had great questions & kindly complimented my sketches of alpine plants, mountains in Maine, and coring equipment. Thanks to Merryspring Nature Center for the invitation and thank you to Amanda for the photos and great company on the drive up Route 1!