With this posting, we inaugurate a series of interviews with phenology, climate science, education and other experts. This column is the first in a two-part interview with Dr. Abe Miller-Rushing, Science Coordinator for Acadia National Park and Schoodic Education and Research Center. Abe is the former Assistant Director, and one of the founding scientists, for the USA-National Phenology Network, which houses the data collected by Signs of the Seasons (SOS) volunteers.
In Part I, Abe talks about his current position with Acadia National Park, his path to doing phenology research, and some of the findings he made researching Henry David Thoreau’s extensive phenology dataset.
Q: What is your role at Acadia National Park and SERC [Schoodic Education and Research Center]?
A: I’m the science coordinator for Acadia and for the Schoodic Education and Research Center, which is part of Acadia. That means I coordinate the research that happens throughout the park, here at SERC, and beyond the park boundaries. SERC, as an institution, serves the region of national parks that are part of the Northeast Temperate Network, which is an inventory and monitoring network. SERC’s role is to help increase capacity of those parks to do science and education. Right now SERC mostly focuses on Acadia. I’m still fairly new. I’ve been here for a year. The day-to-day research is still managed by David Manski and my role is to help envision where we go from here. Right now it’s a lot of grant writing and planning.
Q: How did you come to be here? Describe your own science training and the path that ultimately led you here?
A: I got excited about ecology as a kid living in Huntsville, AL. I lived right outside a state park. My brother and I would go exploring, and I got interested in making observations about insects and plants. In college I had a field study experience with the School for Field Studies on Vancouver Island and fell in love with doing environmental science, being outside and helping solve social problems as well, like how to manage a community forest sustainably. So I switched into ecology. After school I helped develop Youth Conservation Corps groups in Maine that were focused on non-point-source pollution and doing revegetation of understory. That made me realize I was interested in doing research because of the questions I had about the techniques we were using, how it intersected with climate change, and whether these were the highest priorities.
Q: Talk about your research with Dr. Primack about phenology and about the long-term data sets you’ve worked with. [Abe has co-authored a number of phenology-related papers with his advisor from Boston University (BU), Dr. Richard Primack.]
A: When I started my research program with Richard Primack at BU, climate change was in the news a lot but there were very few examples of effects on species in the U.S. Most were in polar regions or Europe, and some examples came from the tropics. We wanted to know if we could find long-term data sets that might tell us if climate change was impacting species here. Being in Boston was convenient, given the academic history there and the long-term data sets that are available. We started by going to meetings of the many different natural history clubs in the Boston area—you name it and there’s a club. These are keen amateurs who’ve been doing work for a long time. At first people looked at us like we had 10 heads. But finally we found someone willing to share her data, Kathleen Anderson, who’d been tracking things for 50 years in her farm in Middleboro, MA. We also were using alternative sources, such as herbarium specimens at Arnold Arboretum.
Then we met a [Henry David] Thoreau historian who told us that Thoreau had been keeping track of flowering times for over 500 species in Concord, MA. We tracked down those observations. It turns out that the editors of the published versions of Thoreau’s journals had edited out the phenology parts, so not many people were aware that he’d done a lot of phenology work. We got those data and it took about a year to transcribe them all because of the changes in plant names and because of his messy handwriting.
So we were able to show, from all these stories, that spring time events were largely getting earlier over time. And that was the dominant story about climate change at that point. The same story was coming out of Europe and other places. It became clear that phenology was a very good indicator of climate change. With just temperature change it’s hard to know what “3 degrees” means. It’s kind of abstract. But to be able to say that highbush blueberries are flowering more than three weeks earlier than they were 100 years ago is pretty concrete; and that the lilac festival is three weeks earlier than it was 50 years ago—those things had meaning for people.
We wanted to look at what that meant more broadly. There’d been a dramatic loss of species in Concord and we wanted to look at what had been causing that loss of species. We were pretty sure that we were just going to be telling stories about habitat loss but it turned out it was really phenology that was tightly related to the declines of species. Species that were tracking the change of temperatures well in warmer and cooler years did well, and the species that were not tracking the changes were doing poorly. That was one of the first big examples of changes in phenology having important ecological consequences. There were other indications that mismatches might be occurring, for example between birds and their food or plants and their pollinators. Another important result was that for species that are closely related to each other, their phenologies tend to change similarly. Close relatives of species that track temperature well also tend to track well. So, certain families of species have tended to disappear from that flora of Concord. Some of our most charismatic New England wildflowers like orchids, asters and buttercups.
Q: Did Thoreau really collect annual first flowering data for 500 species?
A: Yes, it’s pretty amazing. Not only did he observe the flowering of all of those species, but he also tracked when leaves emerged on trees and shrubs and when birds arrived in the spring. He was creating a “nature calendar,” which was not such an unusual activity at the time, but hardly anyone was making the same scale of effort as Thoreau. He clearly put a huge amount of time into it. I know—it took a lot of time to repeat his work, and I had the advantage of having a car!
Q: You said earlier that you expected to see more effects due to habitat loss but one of the articles you wrote talked about how that wasn’t the case because it turned out the Town of Concord had always put a high value on land preservation.
A: Half the land area in Concord is either protected or has not been developed, which is kind of amazing for a suburban landscape not far from a major city. It turned out that species were disappearing about equally across all the habitat types. In the past, there was a lot of agricultural land and grassland habitats. Now it’s almost all closed canopy forests. But in that time, even though the forests expanded greatly, they lost about the same proportion of species as grasslands, which were contracting. It turns out that one of Dr. Primack’s students [who is doing research at Acadia] has found that same pattern of different habitats losing the same proportion of species here. In Acadia we’ve lost about 20% of our species of wildflowers, which is about the same as Concord and Worcester, MA. And here, like in Concord, it doesn’t appear to be related to changes in the habitat types. Forests have lost species even though forests have expanded in Acadia over the last 120 years.
Q: What about acidification and wildfire management practices now? Could these be contributing, more than phenology, to the change in the forest wildflower species profile that we see in Acadia [i.e. reduced diversity]?
A: Yes, there are many factors that could be contributing to the declines in wildflowers that we are seeing here in Acadia. We don’t know whether phenology is involved. We are actively doing research to try to figure out just what is causing the declines.
Q: How did you come to be involved in the USA-National Phenology Network [USA-NPN] and what was your role there?
A: I was involved with USA-NPN since the early steering committee meetings as a graduate student. I think it was in 2005 they had meetings where a bunch of scientists recognized the need for understanding how phenology was changing in the U.S., knowing that we didn’t have a good network to make these observations like they did in Europe and East Asia. So a group of scientists came together to think about how the phenology network would develop. After my post doc at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory studying flowering times and plant pollinator relationships, I got a position as Assistant Director for USA-NPN, employed by The Wildlife Society. One of my main jobs was to add an animal program. USA-NPN started out focused on plants, tracking flowering and leaf out times and it was recognized that it was important to be able to say how plant phenology changes relative to animals. To understand how temporal relationships were changing, we grew the program and it’s continued to grow. From there I came over to Acadia. One of my roles at USA-NPN was also to ensure the scientific rigor of methods for collecting data so that they’re as useful as they can be to scientists while at the same time being fairly intuitive to do. And we were working with educators and wildlife management agencies to make sure we were collecting data in a way that would be valuable to scientists but also to educators and managers.
Stay tuned for Part II of the interview, in which Abe discusses the maturation of the USA-NPN database, the value of citizen science projects, other big legacy datasets held by public agencies, and his thoughts about how volunteers’ can make an impact in the larger scientific effort to track the effects of climate change.
Abe is one of ten advisors for Signs of the Seasons. Check back for additional installments in this series, including interviews with other SOS advisors and visiting lecturers on topics related to phenology, climate change and education.Posted in News