The Woodland Trust has been actively involved in citizen science for many years. Its projects have included the Ancient Tree Hunt, helping to map the UK’s valuable ancient trees and the Nature’s Calendar scheme, collecting thousands of records of natural seasonal events such as tree budburst, leaf fall, emergence of butterflies and the movements of migratory birds. Involving people in nature through recording observations is a well established concept, and there is now increasing awareness of the scientific value of citizen science data.
The Woodland Trust is further developing its relationship with the research community by supporting my PhD project with the University of Edinburgh. My name is Christine Tansey, and for the next 3 years or so I will be getting to grips with the wealth of information that has been collected by Nature’s Calendar volunteers, and helping to communicate the findings from this valuable citizen science project.
Why study seasonal timing?
The study of seasonal events, or phenology, can help identify trends and changes in the seasonal timing of many different species. Schemes like Nature’s Calendar make it possible to analyse such events at large spatial scales, and over considerable periods of time. It is particularly important to understand any trends in the context of a changing climate. As conditions change, these may drive patterns of seasonal timing, and affect not only single species but also the communities in which they occur.
My research project
The first stage of my research will involve analysing Nature’s Calendar records. This analysis will look at the processes affecting seasonal timing in different populations of trees, shrubs and flowering plants across the UK. In particular I will examine the relationship between temperature and the phenology of spring events, like budburst and first flowering.
Plants respond to environmental factors such as temperature in different ways, and this can vary between populations of the same species. Many species are able to vary their seasonal timing according to the environmental conditions each year. For example, you don’t have to be an expert to notice that some plants in your garden flower earlier in ‘warmer’ years. This ability to vary is called plasticity.
Some plant populations may be unable to vary much between years (i.e. they have a limited plastic response), and some may have adapted to local conditions through the process of natural selection. The initial focus of my research will be to identify species that show evidence of such local adaptation, and look at the strength of plastic responses.
Identifying UK species or populations that exhibit a limited plastic response or are locally adapted to existing temperatures is important for the future. Doing so can help suggest populations that may be more at risk from a changing climate. Species which respond very plastically to year by year conditions could be more resilient to the future climate, and this knowledge will help us understand how our wildlife communities and woodlands may change over time.
Over the coming months I will continue to look for evidence of plasticity and local adaptation in UK plant species. The last 14 years of hard work by Nature’s Calendar recorders have provided a huge amount of data, and without this resource my research could not take place. Thank you to everyone who has submitted records so far.
If you would like to be part of this UK wide project, sign up to become a recorder for Nature’s Calendar and help contribute your data. Please follow these posts to hear how my research progresses and be on the lookout for opportunities to get involved in new and exciting ways.
Christine Tansey, Nature’s Calendar PhD Researcher