If you have never heard this term before, phenology is the study of recurring plant and animal life cycle stages. These stages are also called phenophases. These phenophases are usually looked at on an annual basis and they are phenomenon that have an onset, duration and end stage. Some examples might include the study of the blooming periods of spring wildflowers, or the timing of foliage color change, or the migration patterns of songbirds and waterfowl.
This science is not by any means a new field or practice. Native Americans used phenology to determine prime hunting and gathering periods based on the emergence of buds, flowers and berries for centuries. For example, tribes on the Canadian east coast would not fish for shad until the "shadbush," or serviceberry as we call it in Ohio, bloomed. They learned to associate the timing of the emergence of the bush's blooms with the time of when these fish were at their peak for eating. In the U.S., the Department of Agriculture was using phenology in as early as the 1920's to help determine growing seasons for crops.
Basically, phenology is about paying attention to the physical cues that plants and animals exhibit to determine changes in the environment. These physical cues can be used to track climate change, including temperature and precipitation changes, and overall environmental changes that occur over time.
Why would we want track these changes? Phenological changes have biological and economical importance.
A biological example is found in Europe with the relationship between the English oak, the Winter moth, and the Dutch Pied flycatcher. Both et. al. Nature 2006. Basically, this study showed that as the English oak begins to leaf out earlier and earlier each year, the caterpillar of the Winter moth begins to emerge earlier as well. However, the Pied flycatcher continues to return at the same time each year from its migration, finding less and less of its favorite food available as the caterpillars have already entered the pupae stage, making them unavailable to the birds. The bird's populations have declined as much as 90% in the last two decades because of this "mistiming" of phenological events.
One simpler and more familiar economic example is the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington D.C. This festival is centered around the blooming of the thousands of cherry trees in the nation's capital that are an annual gift from Japan. The timing of peak blooms vary to some degree each year, as much as a 10 days, depending on local weather conditions. However, you can see that in the last twenty years, the trend as crept earlier and earlier from early April to now mid-March. This impacts when events will be held each year, which impacts the local economy to the tune of over $120 million annually. A mistiming of this event could be critical to local hotels, restaurants, tour guides, and more.
There is a relatively new national organization called the USA National Phenology Network, or NPN. This network is hoping to become the clearinghouse for any and all national, regional and local data related to phenology of plants and animals. It already contains information on 630 plant species and 230 animal species across the country. They work with many partners across the country to develop collection protocols, best practices, and education about phenology, as well as data collection. This is where you come in.
If you're interested in learning more about conducting a phenology study in your area, and how to contribute data, please check out the NPN website at www.usanpn.org They have a ton of valuable information on conducting research, engaging students and adults, submitting data, using archived data for comparison studies, and more. It is a very user-friendly, intuitive website.
My hope is that we, as an agency, can eventually provide training in phenology for schools that have high quality outdoor classrooms as part of our WILD School Sites program. I believe that phenology can be used in not only science, but math, language arts, and social studies as well. And, as the new Ohio Academic Content Standards move towards more project or process-based learning, phenological studies fit very well within these frameworks for learning.
At a minimum, I hope that you all start to pay attention to the natural world around you. Phenology can help you reconnect with the nature that is right in your neighborhood and backyard. Keep a journal for your property or local park. You can submit that data to NPN as well. Get reconnected to nature through the science of phenology.
We took a field trip to the Golden Gate Bridge National Recreation Area to see how to conduct a phenology study. The field trip was hosted by the educators of NatureBridge, a non-profit organization that works in partnership with western national parks and recreation areas to bring students to these areas for environmental educational experiences. Many of their programs include the collection of phenological data. Here are some pictures from the day. Enjoy!
|A bus view of the Bay from the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.|
|Red Rock Island.|
|Group members having a great discussion.|
|Checking out one of the plant species that this site monitors.|
|Nature Bridge monitors three plant species at this particular site. |
This is called Coyote Bush, or Baccharis pilularis
|An upclose view of the leaves and flowers of the Coyote Bush.|
|Another plant that is monitored is the cow parsnip, or Heracleum maximum|
|The third monitored plant is the Sticky Monkey plant, or Mimulus aurantiacus.|
|Just so that you won't think I made up that name. :-)|
|One of the many spectacular views from the Golden Gate Bridge National Recreation Area.|
|A tanker steaming into the Bay. Another great view from the Recreation Area.|
|One of the few shots I was able to get from the bus of the actual Golden Gate Bridge.|