Interview with Abe Miller-Rushing
Dr. Abe Miller-Rushing, Science Coordinator for Acadia National Park and Schoodic Education and Research Center, is a phenologist studying the biological impacts of climate change and the role of citizen science in observing changes over time. 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 volunteers. In the interview below, he discusses his position at Acadia, his research on Henry David Thoreau’s data sets and the value of citizen science projects
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.
Q: Talk about the connections to climate science of phenology studies and data collection. Do you have a sense of how much the data have been used so far by researchers to look at climate change?
A: The data collected by the USA-NPN [USA-National Phenology Network] are probably only just starting to be used by the climate science community, in part because the data set is just now starting to mature and climate scientists are becoming increasingly aware of USA-NPN. But also they’re more aware of phenology data more broadly, for example the remotely sensed data collected by satellites about timing of “green-up” in spring and “brown-down” in fall, which have been linked to climate. So they’re looking at how climate is influencing the timing of those events and how those influence the climate. There’s a two-way interaction between phenology and the climate system.
Q: When you talk about the data “maturing”, what do you mean?
A: In terms of quantity and in terms of methods used. There were early versions of the database and it’s changed quite a bit. For two years now there’ve been pretty consistent methods used that yield the most useful kind of data. The focus now is on increasing the number of people making observations, which will increase the utility to scientists, ecologists, managers, and climate scientists. But it is getting used. NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] is looking at pollen release by junipers, in order to create early warning systems about allergens for medical professionals, pharmacists and individuals about when allergy season will come. Also there are projects looking at the role of phenology in invasiveness of plant species.
Q: Where do you see the value in citizen science phenology projects? There’s a lot more citizen science going on now than there was 15 years ago, and it seems more recognized as being valuable. What are your thoughts on that? How would it be different to have paid staff at agencies collecting the data vs. volunteers in general?
A: From the scientist’s perspective, one of the main benefits of citizen science is that there’s the potential to dramatically increase the amount of data and observations they can use to analyze how things are changing and what’s driving those changes. The more information we have the better our answers to those questions will be.
Phenology works well for citizen science for a number of reasons. In Maine, in late winter/early spring we’re watching very closely for when the snow melts, and when those first plants pop up in our garden, and when leaves start coming out and insects emerge, and in fall, when the leaves start falling. Because people already make those observations, it’s just one more step to ask them to write them down. And there are other reasons that phenology is nice—in the field of climate change, there’s not a lot of good information about impacts of climate change in a given location. Most people couldn’t tell you what’s changed in their back yard as a result of climate change. By making these observations about bird arrival dates and so on, they can give you an example of what’s changing or not changing. Also it helps get people engaged in science, being part of the process.
For scientists it’s also great because phenology has long been understudied in ecology. People have spent a lot of time thinking about spatial relationships, but relatively little time thinking about how things vary over time. Phenology is about the study of how changes in timing might affect interactions between species; the crops we grow, or our vacation plans; our economy or our health, through the timing of mosquitoes or allergy seasons. Phenology works as a citizen science effort because it’s important to science and because it’s a good communications tool. It tells us about our daily lives, things that affect us.
It’s also much cheaper to do it through citizen science, and it gives us the ability to understand what’s happening in a lot more places. We can get a much better picture of what’s going on in all types of landscapes across the country.
Q: Are the protocols that have been set up by the USA-NPN standard? That is, are they the same ones used by LTER sites (the Long-term Ecological Research network is a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded program of sites across the country) that are doing their own phenology research?
A: Yes, USA-NPN is a consortium of a lot of different organizations. The LTER network is using USA-NPN methods, by and large. Some have been using alternate methods, some are using combined methods. The USA-NPN methods were developed to be as meaningful as possible at the same time as using the most commonly used historical methods, such as those Thoreau used, and the historical lilac network throughout the country. It’s compatible with some of the common methods used in Europe and East Asia. So we would be able to compare results collected by different phenology networks in the world.
Q: I was just curious if there was any debate over the methods and protocols or whether they’re acceptable to most scientists.
A: No there isn’t. NEON, the National Ecological Observatory Network, a new NSF-funded program, will also be using USA-NPN methods, and the National Park Service [NPS] and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [USFWS] will be using USA-NPN methods. We worked closely with state and federal agencies to make sure the methods met their needs and were as robust as possible, while at the same time being do-able for kindergarteners! It’s kind of amazing that you can do that, but it can be done.
Q: What about other legacy data sources that are out there? Have you looked at those or is anyone else considering mining those data held in federal and state agencies?
A: I think that there’s so much it’s almost paralyzing. One set that USA-NPN has started working on is from 1880 – 1970 called the North American Bird Phenology Program that was making observations about bird arrival dates across the continent. Those data were collected on index-sized cards and there are six million of them now residing in card catalogs at the [U.S. Geological Survey–USGS] Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. They were in a leaky room for a long time, in danger of being destroyed, and Sam Droege, a USGS employee, recognized their value and led an effort to try to preserve them. Now USA-NPN has taken on that effort. They’re scanning these cards and putting them online so volunteers online can transcribe them. This process is double-checked and then the data go into a database. There are other data sets like that—a whole lot of fisheries observations and game species breeding season data. Agricultural departments would have data sets about agricultural species and pest species, both forest and crop pests. It turns out a lot of hydroelectric dams track fish species. There are lots of these data sets. For people just coming into this field there’s going to be a lot of low-hanging fruit for a long time. The field is still young and growing.
Q: If they can get the funds to mine the data and transfer it into a digital format, though, right? How hard is it to do that?
A: There are some, mostly poorly funded, programs within most of the federal agencies to rescue historical datasets. If you can show some current utility for them you can sometimes get funding for it. People are increasingly recognizing the value of these data sets because our world is changing. There’s acid rain, invasive species, land development and habitat fragmentation, and these historical datasets are invaluable for increasing our understanding of how those changes are impacting plants and animals on the landscape.
Q: Is there anything else that you think our volunteer base would be interested to know or that you’d like them to think about in making their contributions to this effort?
A: One thing is we still don’t know how most species are changing in most places. We don’t know when most species of plants are flowering in a given year and how that’s changing. We don’t know when most species of animals are breeding in any given year and how that’s changing, or how those species are interacting. We know that a lot of those things are changing and that those changes will have big impacts on plants and animals, on ecosystem services, on agriculture, on human and wildlife health, on recreation and the economy, but right now it’s very difficult to predict those things. So the observations volunteers are making for SOS and other similar programs across the country will be contributing important data to our understanding of those changes and what the implications will be to plants, animals and people in the future. That’s one of the really important things. Despite what we don’t know, we know that things are changing and they’ll have big impacts. We need to know more to make the best decisions possible and that’s where a lot of the contributions will be made.
I would also encourage people to identify local problems that we could be solving with these data. Maybe at the town or state level that people could rally around. Volunteers could be thinking about issues that they’re interested in finding solutions for so they’re not just contributing to Acadia National Park’s ideas of what we think the problems are or IFW’s [Maine Inland Fish and Wildlife] ideas, but a schoolteacher and students could be thinking about, “How does phenology affect us? We want to know more about it personally and at the same time be contributing to science more broadly.” That’s something we should seize on. I think people just want to help and this work offers opportunities to do that in many ways and on many levels. People can decide at what level they want to be involved.