Hello, and welcome to the fifth edition of the popular series, “Prairie Word of the Day.” This is the series that has previously brought you such inspiring words/phrases as Tiller, Habitat Heterogeneity, Disturbance and Shifting Mosaic of Habitat. Thank you for the many cards and letters expressing your gratitude for the explanations of these words, and suggesting future topics.
Today’s featured word is Phenology. In short, phenology is the study of the timing of various events in the lives of plants and animals and the factors that influence that timing. Phenology should not be confused with Phrenology, which is the long discredited study of how the shape and size of the human skull supposedly correlates with character traits and mental capacity. Phrenology has been used to bilk people of their money, support racist and sexist stereotypes, and bolster Nazi eugenics. Let’s not talk about that today.
Phenology, without the “r”, is a complex and important topic in ecology. You might hear someone talk about the phenology of plants related to when they begin emerging from the ground, when they flower, and when they begin to wilt and senesce at the end of the growing season. Additionally, however, phenology includes the timing of the emergence of insects from dormancy or their final molt into adulthood. It also includes the timing of animal migrations and hibernation, as well as many other events in the lives of myriad organisms.
The factors that influence a species’ phenology often include temperature, light, and moisture – in combination with genetic signals. We still have a lot to learn about the phenology of most prairie species, especially in terms of how they might adapt to changing climate. In fact, rapid climate change has brought much recent attention to phenology because changes in the flowering time of plants, for example, have already helped illustrate the occurrence and impacts of climate change. In addition, there is great concern that species may not be able to adapt the timing of their lives quickly enough to match the changing climate, and/or that timing of interdependent species might not remain synchronized. For example, flowers might start blooming before or after their particular pollinators are active, or birds or insects might migrate to breeding areas before food is available at those sites. A couple years ago, monarch butterflies arrived in Nebraska way ahead of schedule, but fortunately they were still able to something to eat and lay eggs on.
Here in Nebraska, we got some interesting insight into the phenology of plants during 2012. The year ended up giving us the most severe single year drought in recorded history and it started out as a year of extraordinarily warm temperatures. In fact, spring and summer temperatures arrived so early that we recorded many plant species blooming weeks or months ahead of their typical schedule. I wrote a short blog post about this back in May of 2012 and a number of people from around North America responded with their own sightings. The observation that stood out most to me was the blooming of asters in May. I had never seen heath aster (Aster ericoides) or New England aster (Aster novae-engliae) bloom before late August or September.
Phenology is also important to land managers trying to sustain biological diversity in prairies. For example, around here, we are constantly fighting cool-season invasive grasses. The growth period for those species starts earlier and ends later than that of most native prairie plants. That gives us some opportunities to use herbicides to kill or suppress smooth brome, Kentucky bluegrass, or other invasive grasses when the chance of harming other plants is very low. In addition, we can use prescribed fire, grazing or mowing to target those grasses when they are most vulnerable. For example, we might try to burn a prairie right as those species are starting to bloom because it wipes out those plants’ entire season of energy investment in growth and flowering. The fire doesn’t kill those grasses, but it can knock them back enough to allow other plants – especially those just starting their growth periods – to flourish while the vigor of the invasive grasses is low.
Timing of burns can also be aimed at suppressing many other kinds of plants. For example, we sometimes try to burn prairies when encroaching trees are just leafing out and highly vulnerable. Alternatively, burns can be timed to limit impacts on animal or plant species. That might include strategically scheduling a fire based on the emergence of rare insect species or before sensitive reptiles become active in the spring. Prescribed grazing can be employed in much the same way – strategically moving livestock in and out of an area to suppress the growth of particular plants or to create desired habitat structure prior to the arrival or emergence of particular animal species. In all these cases, land managers are acutely aware of the phenology of the species they are trying to suppress or assist.
If you’re someone who enjoys keeping track of when things happen each year, you might enjoy joining a citizen science effort to document changes in the phenology of many different phenomenon. You could start at the National Phenology Network and peruse some of the options they provide. Or, if you already have years of field notes that document when you see your first bumblebee, prairie clover flower, or grasshopper sparrow each year, I’d encourage you to contact a local expert on that/those particular species and let them know about your data. You might have information of great value to conservation.