Changing seasons inspire science

The USA National Phenology Network brings together scientists and citizens to collect data on plants and animals.

A. Miller-Rushing

Nature lovers have long tracked the timing of certain events — when plants bloom or when fish swim upstream to spawn — to answer practical questions: When are the best times to hunt and fish? When should crops be planted and harvested? These days, such homespun investigators have come to be known as citizen scientists.

Increasingly, researchers are tapping into the wealth of observations being made by citizen scientists nationwide, a data trove impossible for scientists to gather on their own (or even with a small army of graduate students). One of the largest repositories of such data is maintained by the USA National Phenology Network, founded in 2007.

Last month the organization reached a landmark of more than 1 million observations collected on hundreds of species ranging from alfalfa to Yoshino cherry, the tree whose blossoms beautify the Tidal Basin each spring in Washington, D.C. Shifts in the timing of such events are among the keenest and most widespread indicators of climate change. That makes phenology — the study of the life cycles of plants and animals and the effects of year-to-year and season-to-season climate variations — a hot topic (see Page 16).

Most of the observations cataloged by the phenology network have been made since 2009, says Jake Weltzin, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Tucson, Ariz., and executive director of the network. But in some cases scientists won’t have to wait decades for long-term records to pile up, since the organization has become a home for data collected over many years by local and regional groups. Many of these are devoted to monitoring a particular group such as lilacs, shrubs that live across much of the northern United States and whose budding and flowering have been tracked avidly by citizen scientists since 1956.

Not content to merely oversee the data gathered by others, Weltzin regularly monitors the flowering and fruiting of cacti near his Tucson home, as well as seed production of invasive grass species in a nearby wilderness area. “It gets me out of the house and into nature,” he says.

Get involved
Anyone who is interested can gather data for use by scientists. Here are a few websites where you can learn more:

Did You Feel It? allows the U.S. Geological Survey to track the effects of earthquakes. Log on to describe the strength and duration of shaking at your location, plus give details such as whether you saw building damage or rattling dishes. The data allow scientists to better predict how future quakes may affect your area. See

Wildlife Health Event Reporter lets users report sightings of sick or dead wildlife. The information helps scientists detect and contain disease outbreaks that may pose a health risk to wildlife, domestic animals or people. See

Citizen Science Central is maintained by researchers at Cornell University to help citizen scientists find and participate in projects or design their own, with guidelines for everything from choosing a topic and forming a team to analyzing data and disseminating results. See

Nature’s Notebook is run by the National Phenology Network and lets people share observations of the timing of flowering, animal migrations and color changes in leaves. See

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