When do plants flower across time and space, and how does this change with temperature, precipitation, and species? These are the questions that inspired me to work with biodiversity informatics: using the “big data” of herbarium specimen records to answer pertinent ecological and evolutionary questions. Herbarium specimens are like time capsules, capturing a snapshot of the phenological (i.e., reproductive) status of a plant at a particular point in time and space. From these aggregated data, we can discover patterns that help us explain the natural world.
Herbarium specimens have already helped us discover that many plants flower early in response to warmer temperatures, but some phenological responses are not so predictable (Willis et al. 2017). The U.S. Southeastern Gulf Coastal Plain is a particularly interesting place to further study this phenomenon because of its unique biodiversity and warm, humid climate. The many different species could be responding to different cues, and understanding these cues could help us predict future shifts with climate change.
The WeDigFlowering project provides a unique opportunity for interested volunteers, students, and citizen scientists to contribute to the study of phenological shifts. In it, participants estimate the percentage of buds, flowers, and fruits on an herbarium sheet, and these data help determine the approximate “phenophase” of the specimen. I hope you join us for this exciting, new project, and that you enjoy the flowers as you go!
Katie Pearson, Graduate Student and Curator, R. K. Godfrey Herbarium, Florida State University
Cited study: Willis CW, Ellwood ER, Gallinat A, Mazer S, Nelson G, Pearson K, Primack R, Rossington N, Sparks T, Yost J. Old plants, new tricks: phenological research using herbarium specimens. Trends in Ecology and Evolution. 32(7):531-546.