We thought the timing was good for a phenology expedition

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It’s tantalizing close to Spring here in North America, and some of you may have noticed hints of it, not just the nicer weather, but maybe moreso the first blooms of redbud, apple and plum and cherry trees, dogwoods, citrus.  These harbingers of Spring have been part of not only the natural season cycle, but also human cultural history, for millennia.

People have been recording phenology for thousands of years.  In Japan, records were kept of cherry blossoms back starting in 812AD.   Yeah, not 1812, but 812.   These have become part of national festivals around the world, with famous festivals in Tokyo and Washington DC.   The date at which plants first flower, or have peak flowering, are often directly linked to climate conditions.  The same is true of first appearance of new leaves, or new fruits.  In Fall, leaf senescence, with first changes in leaf color, is also tied to temperature, as well as day length.

How do we know historical patterns of phenology?  In some cases, we can refer to diaries and other written records, such as the case in historical record-keeping in Japan.  In the last decade, we have a lot more tools at our disposal, including remote sensing – yes, imaging devices on satellites can tell when our planet gets more green!  But for phenology records going back the last century, one powerful resource are natural history collections.  A lot of the specimens collected and stored in museums tell us about phenology.  But in order to use those data effectively for science, we need to actually report phenological stages and traits from those specimens.  And that is where you come in!

Our newest expedition is a different beast than ones we have run in the past.  In this expedition, you’ll help us determine if specimens from oak trees have flowers or fruits.  These specimens already had their labels transcribed as part of an earlier expedition, and now we’ll annotate phenology information as well, and have that information associated with the specimen label data.  These data can be used to look at historical patterns of phenology, and linked to past climate data records, to determine relationships, ultimately across many different species.

We are interested in your feedback on this first try at Notes from Nature with reporting phenology.  In later expeditions, we may ask for more detailed information such as how many flowers are visible on a specimen, or fruits (in the case of oaks, we call the fruits “acorns”).   For now, thanks for the help with enhancing the ability to use specimens for new kinds of science.  We’ll share more about the science we are hoping to enable in later blog posts.

Finally, we are also launching our first mini-course with this expedition.  This mini-course is about phenology, and how and why it is studied.  What is a mini-course?  Every 5 or so transcriptions, you’ll get some more information on phenology.  We have 11 total “slides” in our mini-course, so you can see them all if you do 55 transcriptions.  We haven’t tried a mini-course before, and we hope it proves interesting and not distracting. Let us know!

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