The University of Arizona

UA Leads National Effort to Track Seasonal Cycles of Earth's Species

By Shelley Littin, University Communications | April 16, 2013

The UA is home to a national movement, sponsored by the U.S. Geological Survey, to track the annual cycles and rhythms of plants and animals and the ecological connections between them.

Alyssa Rosemartin (left) and teacher Martha Valencia from Puebla, Mexico, examine buds on a prickly pear on the UA campus. The USA-NPN recently worked with teachers from Mexico participating in the College of Education's Project SEED on a phenology and citizen science experience. (Image: Brian Forbes Powell)
Alyssa Rosemartin (left) and teacher Martha Valencia from Puebla, Mexico, examine buds on a prickly pear on the UA campus. The USA-NPN recently worked with teachers from Mexico participating in the College of Education's Project SEED on a phenology and citizen science experience. (Image: Brian Forbes Powell)
LoriAnne Barnett is the education director for the USA National Phenology Network, housed at the UA's School of Natural Resources and the Environment. (Photo courtesy of LoriAnne Barnett)
LoriAnne Barnett is the education director for the USA National Phenology Network, housed at the UA's School of Natural Resources and the Environment. (Photo courtesy of LoriAnne Barnett)
Alyssa Rosemartin is the assistant director and IT coordinator for the USA-NPN. (Photo courtesy of Alyssa Rosemartin)
Alyssa Rosemartin is the assistant director and IT coordinator for the USA-NPN. (Photo courtesy of Alyssa Rosemartin)

What began in 2007 as a budding idea of University of Arizona faculty and members of the U.S. Geological Survey in Tucson, Ariz., together with others around the country, has blossomed into a national network of scientists, gardeners, naturalists and members of the general public interested in nature's cycles.

The USA National Phenology Network, or USA-NPN, aims to track changes in the life cycles of plants and animals, such as when flowers bloom, when butterflies emerge from cocoons and what time of year birds migrate. To do this, it relies on assistance from students, teachers, researchers and a wide array of interested citizen scientists.

"We realized that there are new opportunities to collect data at the national scale," said LoriAnne Barnett, education coordinator for the USA-NPN, based in the University of Arizona School of Natural Resources and the Environment. "The USA-NPN offers an online program called Nature's Notebook for professional and citizen scientists, where participants can contribute their own phenology observations."

The network will celebrate its first annual Phenology Day on April 20, aiming to educate the public about nature's seasonal cycles and encourage participation in the nationwide citizen science project.

Phenology is nature's calendar: Each year, trees, wildflowers and crops sprout leaves, blossoms and fruits at the time of the year when conditions for those species are right. "Insects emerge. Birds migrate. These life cycle events are called phenophases," said Barnett. "All species rely on others in the ecosystem to survive."

As climate change throws the usual seasonal temperatures and rainfall levels out of whack compared to patterns that have existed for several decades, these sensitive biological organisms change their natural rhythms.

These changes in when natural events occur sometimes can lead to a mismatch in nature's routines. For example, if an oak leafs out early due to an early warming in the spring, caterpillars feeding on oak leaves may then feast early and will thus enter into their pupa stage early. Migrating birds, whose patterns have not changed, and that rely on caterpillars for a food source may not have anything to eat by the time they reach northern latitudes.

Mutualisms and ecological interactions such as those among plants, insects and birds are influenced by a changing climate. The network aims to track seasonal changes in species to enable scientists to better understand the relationships among climate, air and soil chemistry, and plants, animals and humans to better predict the effects of continued environmental change on North American ecosystems.

"The idea is to have phenology observation data from all over the country on plants and animals that define the beginning, end and length of their different life cycle events," said Barnett. "The data can be connected eventually with satellite, temperature and rainfall information."

"Scientists are looking at using different kinds of models," said Alyssa Rosemartin, assistant director and IT coordinator for the network. "For example, a recent paper in Geophysical Research Letters combines our data with complimentary datasets. The researchers predict that by the end of the century, species like red maple will leaf out 17 days earlier in the northeastern U.S."

The network has partnered with the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as other organizations and private citizens, to set up data collection sites and expand the network of people contributing observations. "We have a total of 7,000 sites across the country," Barnett said. "And about 1.8 million records have been entered into the database."

Who can join the USA National Phenology Network and Nature’s Notebook?

Practically anyone, Barnett said. Most people join because of a desire to answer their own questions. She added: "For example, is my creosote blooming later than it did last year, and how does that compare to others in the region? Their observations go into the nationwide database."

"We also have a page on our website housing questions that were answered by scientists using the data." Every few months, participants get feedback about what their observations mean for the natural world. "That's important to me as an educator," Barnett said.

The network has instructions on its website to allow people to set up an observation site in Nature's Notebook. "People can participate in their backyard," said Barnett. "It's your own private data collection site. But we also have areas where people collect data together at public and shared sites, such as in parks or neighborhoods."

The network offers online information about plant and animal identification and how to identify the life stages, or phenophases, of different organisms. "We make online training available to everyone and then we also try to get as many people as we can trained in person," said Barnett.

They also recommend that participants make regular observations year round. That way, "even if nothing is happening on their plant for a while, they can really know when it starts to bud," Barnett said.

"The thing that's nice about those shared sites is that one person can make an observation one week and another can make an observation the next week, so we can have continuous data even though it doesn’t come from one person," said Rosemartin.

The network is uniting with other Tucson organizations to celebrate the first annual Phenology Day on April 20 to promote education about science and nature for children and the general public, and to encourage participation in the network by children, teachers and all those interested in becoming citizen scientists for Nature's Notebook.

"Learning about and studying phenology is an excellent way to introduce people to the natural world and the scientific process," said Barnett. "Participants can come for the whole day or arrive for individual talks."

The free event will take place from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., beginning at both the Pima Corporate Extension Office at 4210 N. Campbell Road and at the Santa Rita Experimental Range in Green Valley. Groups will choose one of three locations to visit: The UA's Biosphere 2 to learn about phenology research conducted at that site, the Tucson Audubon Society's Mason Center to learn about bird phenology, or the UA Campus Arboretum to learn about phenology of desert plant life. 

All groups will gather at the USA-NPN National Coordinating Office headquarters on the UA campus at 1955 E. Sixth St. for lunch and discussions about how the observations collected by network participants are used for scientific research.

At 1:30 p.m., network staff and volunteers will host walks through the local Sam Hughes and Rincon Heights neighborhoods to learn how individuals can participate by making observations about plants and animals in their own yards and neighborhoods.

The USA-NPN is funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Geological Survey. Phenology Day is funded by the UA Community Connection grant supported by the UA Foundation and the Office of the Senior Vice President for Research.