The Woodland Trust is developing its relationship with the research community by supporting my PhD with the University of Edinburgh. Last November, I wrote about how citizen science can help answer questions about the future of UK woodlands and wildlife. Since then, I have spent much of the winter familiarising myself with Nature’s Calendar records, an amazing resource submitted by observers across the UK.
How does one start to make sense of this data? Like the start of any research, it involves a lot of thinking about what you can do with what you have available . I thought I’d share how I’m starting up my project and learning to analyse Nature’s Calendar records.
I introduced the concepts of plasticity (the ability of plants and animals to vary their seasonal timing according to the environmental conditions each year) and local adaptation (adaptation to local conditions through natural selection) in my last post. The first part of my research is all about how to assess their contribution to phenology, or seasonal timing, in different plant species.
Step 1: Decide what to focus on
Nature’s Calendar collects a wide variety of information, so the first thing to do is decide which records to use by asking:
– What species and spring events have lots of records?
The more records available the better, as this provides more data on differences in seasonal timing across the UK.
– What kind of plants should be analysed?
Records are available for trees, shrubby species and flowering plants. Choosing a combination of species means the analyses may show differences between them.
Step 2: Check what data are required
To explore seasonal timing, and its relationship with temperature, the following data are needed:
– Records of phenological events (e.g. budburst, first flowering) from Nature’s Calendar. These are the first dates an event is observed in different locations and different years.
– Daily temperature data from Met Office records across the UK. This shows how temperature varies between years and different locations.
Step 3: Decide what methods to use
Once the records have been chosen, they need to be analysed using statistical modelling techniques. There are different approaches that can be taken, and much of my day-to-day work involves trying out different methods, and deciding which to pursue. These models help answer:
– What temperatures cue the seasonal event? For example, is budburst in a species predicted by average temperatures over a particular time period, or does a temperature threshold need to be reached before budburst can occur?
– Whether the phenology of a particular event varies over space, across the UK?
– Whether the phenology of a particular event varies over time, in different years?
The differences between phenology over space and time can show whether plant populations have a plastic response to temperature or if there is evidence that they are locally adapted.
Further analyses of more species and spring events will form an important part of my PhD research, and help steer subsequent work. Of course, trying out any kind of analysis means encountering hiccups along the way. Spending a lot of time on one particular method is no guarantee it’s going to provide the most useful or interesting results, but is part of the process.
An important step is to examine the ecology of each species analysed, and develop possible explanations for patterns in their seasonal timing. I have also been working with a small group of Nature’s Calendar recorders to develop an exciting new project that will build upon existing data. Look out for my next blog post, where I’ll write more about this.
In the meantime and despite the recent flurries of snow, it is starting to feel like spring. I’ve been out and about, looking for events recorded by Nature’s Calendar. It’s exhilarating to see a burst of green appear on a bud, and notice changes each time you walk past a particular location. If you’d like to participate in recording the signs of spring, please get involved with Nature’s Calendar and start submitting your observations.
Every record submitted will continue to improve our knowledge of the seasonal timing of plants and animals, and contribute to the growing body of research based on citizen science.
Christine Tansey, Nature’s Calendar PhD Researcher