The Wildflower Detective
Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie is trying to solve a nature mystery: How have land use and climate change altered the plant landscape of New England? Having earned a degree in environmental science and public policy at Harvard and a masters in the Field Naturalist Program at the University of Vermont, Caitlin came to Maine’s Mount Desert Island last summer to begin her research. Because scientific studies need a sharp focus, she decided to concentrate on wildflowers. She holed up in the Acadia National Park archives, studying historical records and century-old plant specimens from the island. She began a quest that will eventually lead to her Ph.D. from Boston University—and might require help from you.
Caitlin is another of those delightful and interesting people who cross our path here at The Naturalist’s Notebook on an almost daily basis. She is again spending the summer here on Mount Desert Island doing research, and she dropped by the Notebook for a visit the other day. As we talked about her work, she mentioned that she is hunting for any records or observations of plants on MDI over the last century—jottings in your great grandmother’s diary noting when certain flowers bloomed, a rare 1945 book on Maine wildflowers, your own garden journal from the 1990s, whatever. But I will now step aside and let Caitlin explain what she’s doing and how you might be able to assist her:
“My research explores how climate change and land use change affect plant communities in New England,” she writes. “When I look at a landscape, or a flower, I am often wondering to myself, What did this place look like a century ago? Did this plant always grow here? Was it once much more abundant?
“Luckily, in a place like Mount Desert Island, those questions can be answered reasonably well. Botanists and nature lovers have come here for two centuries. Between the rusticators, the Harvard boys on summer trips in the 1880s, the naturalists who worked for the park, the professors and students at the College of the Atlantic, and the local community of gardeners, the plants here have been well-studied and well-loved for generations. Many of these people left behind books like the 1894 Flora of Mount Desert Island, as well as letters, notebooks, photographs and pressed flowers in herbariums. From these clues, I can piece together a history of the plants on this island. My research last summer uncovered trends in the flora. Many native plants are disappearing from the landscape, or declining in abundance; nonnative species are becoming more numerous and often more abundant too.
“As a graduate student in biology, I am hyper-aware of climate change and its largely unknown ecological effects. A study on any landscape now must consider: How does climate change fit into the processes and patterns that I am seeing here? Are warmer temperatures changing things? How? And how much? On Mount Desert Island we have local weather records that date back to the 1890s. These are currently being digitized and analyzed to give us an important and useful measurement of how the climate has changed right here.
“Studies from across the world and, more locally, in southern New England have found that warmer temperatures are correlated with earlier flowering times. Spring is coming sooner than it used to, and the plants are responding with blooms and blossoms weeks before they once opened. The timing of flowering provides a quick metric for biologists. Recording flowering is like taking a pulse on the landscape. It is a vital sign that lets us know how a plant is responding to its climate. When ecologists study the timing of things like flowering, or leafing out, or when migrating birds arrive, they call it phenology.
“Observing phenology was once a popular pastime for naturalists—Thoreau’s journals are filled with charts of the first flowers, first leaves and first birds that he saw on Walden Pond in Concord, Mass. Like neon T-shirts and ironic fedoras, phenology has now returned to fashion. We know that the timing of flowering is closely tied to temperature, so tracing the shifting flowering phenology of our plants allows us to track the effects of climate change on the flora. When we add in studies of phenologies of other organisms—insects, birds, herbivores, and pollinators—we can catch shifts that don’t match up. Flowers may be blooming and then dying before a hummingbird arrives to drink their nectar. Relationships and food chains may be disrupted, unable to adjust to the quickly changing climate.
“So, back to my research. Here on MDI we have the old flora records, we have the weather records, and we have these historic snapshots of flowers in bloom—either actual snapshots or herbarium specimens that were collected at the moment of their most brilliant flowering and now sit in a cabinet at the herbarium of College of the Atlantic. I am beginning to record flowering for many common plant species here. But my records are just a start, and though Ph.D.s are notoriously unending, I will have only a couple years of data before I write my dissertation. What I need are more years. I wish I had a time machine with the ability to go back to the early ’90s and begin recording flowering times then, so that today, when I sit down at my desk at Acadia National Park headquarters, I could open up a notebook of twenty years of carefully collected data. Now that would be a memorable Ph.D. research project!
“But, without a time machine, I can still graduate. I hope to use the records of others—local gardeners, amateur naturalists, flower-lovers—to create a robust data set of when things bloomed here in the recent past. The Wild Gardens of Acadia post weekly “What’s in Bloom” lists. Ruth Grierson’s newspaper columns often recount the first flowering of local plants. To me, these simple observations are diamond mines of data. And I am looking for more! If you have a notebook or a calendar with notes jotted down— ‘May 30th, first lilacs, seems early’—please let me know! And if you have older field books in your attic, your great-grandmother’s records from the garden, your father-in-law’s journal from his days bagging peaks and painting flowers in water color, I would love to see these as well. Any and all local records of flowers on Mount Desert Island are welcome additions to my research! Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any leads. Thank you!”
I mentioned above that bunchberry is sometimes called the world’s fastest plant. That’s because when its petals unfold, they release spring-like filaments that fire pollen into the air at 800 times the acceleration of the Space Shuttle liftoff. Below is a video of this happening, filmed at 10,000 frames per second.
Welcome to the Neighborhood
I should have figured it out from the mauled thistle feeder outside our house, but only when I saw the gigantic scat on our dirt road this week did I realize: We have a black bear. Have any of you had interesting bear experiences?
Notebook Snapshot of the Day
Hi Again to a Gifted Young Naturalist and Artist
Last year we introduced you to Luke Seitz, a remarkable birder and artist, who was then 17. If you haven’t read it, go back and read my Q-and-A with him from last July: http://naturalistsnote.wordpress.com/2011/07/11/an-extraordinary-and-inspiring-young-birder-and-artist/
Luke came up here from the Portland area last weekend to work as a guide at the Acadia Birding Festival. He stopped by the Notebook for a two-hour visit and dropped off more of his watercolor paintings of birds, which we will be selling this summer. Luke will be entering Cornell to study ornithology this fall, and in the meantime will be serving as a naturalist on board a whale-watching boat and doing a number of bird paintings commissioned by people who saw his work this spring while he was serving as a birding guide at the noted avian-migration hotspot of High Island, Texas.
Answer to the Last Puzzler
Here’s a slide from the Acadia Birding Festival bird-identification workshop. Is the bird in the photo a:
a) Tennessee warbler
b) Magnolia warbler
c) Northern parula