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.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Trails-as-transects is published!

posted by Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie

Trails-as-transects: phenology monitoring across heterogenous microclimates in Acadia National Park, Maine was published last week in the journal Ecosphere.

Lowbush blueberry flowers on an Acadia transect

Caitlin hiked Cadillac, Pemetic, and Sargent Mountains repeatedly each spring to collect local leaf out and flowering phenology data across the environmental gradients in Acadia National Park. While it might seem like her dissertation field work was a walk in the park, she and her field assistants gathered over 20,000 phenology observations and successfully estimated shifts in leaf out and flowering (in days/°C) for nine common  plant species.

Emerging Canada mayflower leaves on an Acadia transect

This work supports Acadia National Park’s efforts to identify species vulnerable to climate change and sets the stage for future citizen science phenology programming on the hiking trails.

Four years of fieldwork selfies — Caitlin's favorite photo from each year on her Acadia transects

Read the paper here. Caitlin also published a long post about the hiking fieldwork, including calculations of how long it really took to hike each mountain transect, at the PLoS Ecology Community blog.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Dioramas as reality

By Richard B. Primack

“When was it that men agreed to respect the appearance and not the reality?”
 Henry David Thoreau 

Museum dioramas can depict dramatic natural scenes that would be difficult or impossible to see in the wild. Dioramas at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, for example, allow visitors to see a range of species and biological communities—all in one place in the middle of winter.

A mother bear and her cubs feeding along a stream. (In the wild, most people would avoid coming this close to bears.)

Zebras, wildebeest, warthogs, and other wildlife on the African plain. (This diversity of large mammals would be hard to find in a single place—and it would be a long way from Pittsburgh.) 

Wildflowers in a mountain meadow. (Visitors get the beauty without having to climb a mountain.)

The four seasons in Pennsylvania. (Spring, summer, fall, and winter in one day—and one scene.)

Dioramas clearly provide an exciting way to experience nature. On the other hand, these striking icicles hanging off of exposed shale along the Trillium Trail Nature reserve outside of Pittsburgh provide an unexpected surprise for those who keep their eyes open for unfiltered reality. 

Museum dioramas provide dramatic scenes and learning opportunities that are tough to get otherwise, but don't forget there are dramatic scenes and learning opportunities just outside, too, even in the cold of winter.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Exploring karst island ecology in Thailand

Posted by Amanda Gallinat

"You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this..."
-Henry David Thoreau in his Journal, April 24, 1859

On a recent visit to Thailand, I got the chance to explore the karst islands of Ao Phang Nga National Park. Karst islands are formed by tectonic activity lifting limestone out of the sea, followed by chemical and physical weathering that creates a highly varied landscape.

The most famous karst in Phang Nga Bay is Ko Tapu, or James Bond Island, which was featured in The Man with the Golden Gun. Photo from TAT.

A single karst island can contain a broad range of microclimates, geological features (such as caves and cliffs), and soil properties. In Phang Nga Bay, many karst islands are located next to native mangrove forests, further expanding the range of local habitat types, and wildlife that visit karsts.

A broad karst island in Phang Nga Bay abutted by mangroves. Photo by Nicko Margolies.

Spotting this Brown-winged Kingfisher in a mangrove in Phang Nga Bay was a highlight! Photo by Sam Roberts.

The varied landscapes of karsts are reflected by a striking amount of biodiversity and endemism. Many karst species are highly specialized, such as plants that grow on thin, alkaline soils, cave- and tree-dwelling bats, and invertebrates that either depend on bat guano for food, or in some cases are completely restricted to life on guano piles!

Steep, rocky surfaces on karst islands can support succulents, while just meters away different soil and water conditions are ideal for lush broad-leaved trees. Photo by Nicko Margolies.

In addition to many plants and insects, our group observed bats, macaques, and even Oriental Pied Hornbills on the karst islands of Thailand.

Large fruit bats that roost in the trees atop a steep karst island in Phang Nga Bay can occasionally be seen leaving the island at dusk in search of food. This individual was filmed at Mu Ko Similan National Park (northwest of Phang Nga Bay), preparing to roost after a night out foraging. Video by Sam Roberts. 

To learn more about the value of karsts as biodiversity hotspots in Southeast Asia, as well as threats to karsts from human activities like resource extraction and development, check out this article by Clements et al. (2006) in Bioscience.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Evergreen gardens spruce up the winter

By Richard B. Primack

“Who leaves the pine-tree, leaves his friend, Unnerves his strength, invites his end.” 
Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Evergreens keep gardens beautiful during the cold of winter. Their needles, leaves, and berries provide color and a striking contrast to the snow. As described in a recent article in the Newton Tab, throughout the year, green walls of evergreen trees reduce noise and offer privacy in Boston’s suburban communities.  

Susan and Steve Kern in front of their Newton home. 

In the Ledges neighborhood of Newton, an abundance of evergreens combines effectively with natural puddingstone outcrops.  Between Newton Center and Crystal Lake, Jan Shifren and John Harrington enjoy a garden designed 27 years ago by Jan’s mother.

Jan Shifren and John Harrington enjoy their evergreens.  

We should also take a moment (or many) to appreciate the color, function, and joy that evergreens bring to our gardens, especially when it is wintery cold outside and other plants have retreated for the season.

Read the full article here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Climate change is shading out forest wildflowers in Thoreau’s Concord

Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie and Richard B. Primack

A man can never say of any landscape that he has exhausted it. 
—Thoreau in his Journal. 1850.

Many spring wildflowers in New England flower and leaf out in April before the trees start leafing out. This period of a few weeks of full sunlight is crucial for the wildflowers — the high light environment provides the energy for growth, flowering, and fruit production. In the past, our lab has shown that spring flowering and leaf out for wildflowers and trees are occurring earlier now than in Thoreau’s time.

Birdfoot violet leafs out and flowers early in the spring

In a recent paper, we’ve compared the rate of change in tree leaf out (days/°C) to the rate of change in wildflower flowering (days/°C). To our surprise, we found that trees are more responsive to a warming climate than wildflowers, with trees leafing out 2 weeks earlier now than in the 1850s when Henry David Thoreau was recording phenology, whereas wildflowers have only shifted by one week earlier.  The result is that wildflowers now have one week less of full sunlight in the spring before the tree produce their leaves.

Black oak trees are leafing out earlier now than in the past

We asked our colleague Mason Heberling how this might affect the energy budget of these spring wildflowers. Mason’s models show that the spring energy budgets for many spring wildflowers, such as Jack-in-the-pulpit and wild ginger, have already declined from Thoreau’s time until now by as much as 26%, with as much as 48% decline in energy budget projected by the end of this century.

Richard monitoring the flowering time of marsh marigolds

This loss of energy reserves means that many wildflower species may not have enough energy to mature their fruits and produce flower buds for next year. Further, many of these species will have a reduced chance of growing and surviving in these habitats in coming decades.

Read the full paper in Ecology Letters.

Heberling, J.M., McDonough MacKenzie, C., Fridley, J.D., Kalisz, S. & Primack, R.B. 2019. Phenological mismatch with trees reduces wildflower carbon budgets. Ecology Letters doi: 10.111/ele.13224 (WEB LINK HERE)

Thursday, January 31, 2019

How does fragmentation affect biodiversity? A controversial question at the core of conservation biology

By Richard B. Primack, Abraham J. Miller-Rushing, Vincent Devictor

“A [tree] which it has taken two centuries to perfect, rising by slow stages into the heavens, has this afternoon ceased to exist… Why does not the village bell sound a knell? … The squirrel has leaped to another tree; the hawk has circled further off, and has now settled upon a new eyrie, but the woodman is preparing [to] lay his axe at the root of that also.”  Thoreau in his Journal. 

Does fragmentation harm biodiversity? For many years, most conservation biologists have understood the answer to be “yes.” It seems obvious—fragmentation divides landscapes into smaller patches that support fewer species. Edge effects further erode the ability of small patches to support many species. The negative effects of fragmentation are taught to students in introductory biology, ecology, and conservation courses, and affect conservation strategies and management. 

Forest Fragment in Costa Rica.

However, as we describe in a recent editorial, Fahrig and co-authors recently argued that the evidence base for these ideas, recommendations, and actions is not as strong as many think, largely due to the confounding effects of scale, habitat amount, and fragmentation. Their analysis even suggests that in many cases fragmentation might enhance biodiversity. Other conservation biologists have strongly disagreed with these findings, arguing that habitat fragmentation does harm biodiversity.

Getting the answer right in this debate is critical because it allows us to (1) understand the consequences of roads, development, and other fragmentation-inducing human actions on biodiversity; and (2) prioritize the protection and management of lands in cases when deciding between protecting large intact landscapes or fragmented landscapes with the same total amount of habitat. 

This debate highlights the need to make sure we continue to investigate questions central to conservation and check the evidence supporting our understanding and decisions. We think this process is healthy for the field, especially if we can keep dialogues productive and respectful. 

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Investigating ecological mismatches with citizen science

Posted by Abraham J. Miller-Rushing, Amanda S. Gallinat, and Richard B. Primack 

“I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” 
-Henry David Thoreau, Walden 

It’s tough to study how climate change disrupts interactions among species. Many interactions, like those between predators and prey, are typically hidden from view. However, creative use of citizen science can provide insight into these hidden interactions. In a recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers used online and virtual reality games played by volunteers and analyses of long-term citizen science field observations to explore changes in relationships between stinging bees and wasps, stingless hoverflies that mimic bees and wasps, and bird predators that like to eat hoverflies but avoid bees and wasps.

Fig. 1. In one online game, Hassall et al. used citizen scientists to identify the visual similarity between hymenopteran model (right) and syrphid mimic (left) pairs.

These scientists found that a warming climate is changing the relationships among the stinging bees and wasps, mimic hoverflies, and bird predators, likely to the benefit of bees, wasps, and birds.

Follow the links below for the paper by Hassall et al. and our associated commentary.

Hassall et al. 2018. Climate-induced phenological shifts in a Batesian mimicry complex. PNAS

Miller-Rushing et al. 2018. Creative citizen science illuminates complex ecological responses to climate change. PNAS