How Flowering Responds to Climate

By: Eric Menges,

Since the 1980s, Archbold Biological Station has provided a post-baccalaureate internship program (offered to individuals after they have completed their undergraduate degree). Over the years this has provided hands-on research experience to more than 500 college graduates. “Interns benefit from living at a biological field station, being trained in field research, and completing their independent research project,” explains Dr. Hilary Swain, Executive Director. “It is one of only a few programs nationwide that allows recent graduates to gain research experience before they commit to a graduate program or choose another career path.”

Since 2010, the Vaughn-Jordan Foundation has provided financial support for several Archbold internships. This year’s Vaughn-Jordan Foundation grant internship recipient is Megan Verner-Crist. She graduated from the University of Chicago in 2018 with a Bachelor of Science in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Although she had some experience with research as an undergraduate, she explained, “I was looking for more in-depth research experience before attending graduate school. The Archbold internship fit the bill”. While at Archbold, Verner-Crist assisted with dozens of research projects, leading fieldwork on several during her internship. She also participated in Archbold’s 2018 children’s Ecology Summer Camp.

The core of Verner-Crist’s internship with the Plant Ecology Program at Archbold was designing and executing her independent project. She studied plant phenology. Phenology is the timing of ecological events and is strongly affected by weather. The changing climate has been shown to alter phenology of interacting species in different ways. This can then cause a mismatch between, e.g., for plants and their insect pollinators. Most phenological studies have been conducted in northern latitudes or high elevation areas, where flowering has often shifted earlier in the year due to warmer spring weather.

However, very few phenological projects have taken place in the subtropics. Verner-Crist compared a prior Archbold dataset (weekly plant data from 1992-1999) with her weekly phenological observations in 2019. In particular, she looked at shifts and drivers of ‘first flowering’ and ‘peak flowering’ across 45 species of plants. “The results were both interesting and surprising”, she commented. “Spring flowering species flowered later in 2019 than in the 1990s, but summer flowering species flowered earlier. The spring patterns were related to precipitation, with drier early spring weather delaying flowering. In addition, the variability in minimum spring temperatures was associated with later spring flowering.  Patterns were consistent through the 1990s and in comparing 2019 data with the 1990s.

Dr. Eric Menges, Plant Ecology Program Director, summarized Verner-Crist’s research: “Megan did a great job getting a historical legacy database organized and analyzed, as well as collecting comparable data during her internship. Her results show the unexpected and subtle ways that a changing climate, both temperature and rainfall, may be affecting plant phenology, highlighting the importance of long-term data collection and archival”.

Verner-Crist’s rich intern experience at Archbold was made possible by this year’s generous grant from the Vaughn-Jordan Foundation. Menges states, “We are so thankful that the Vaughn-Jordan Foundation has supported our internship program over the years and helped jump-start the scientific careers of many bright, young scholars.” After Archbold, Verner-Crist is beginning work for the Center for Biological Diversity in Portland, Oregon.

Week138_Photo 2

Pink flags are used with a pin frame to quantify cover of ground lichens in a plant study at Archbold Biological Station.
Photo by Archbold Plant Lab

 

Week138_Photo 1

Intern Megan Verner-Crist measures the size of Scrub Spurge, a spring-flowering plant found mainly in Highlands County, FL.
Photo by Archbold Plant Lab

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