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This term was new to many of you last year when I tried to recruit Monarch Watchers to observe and report the seasonal development of milkweeds and nectar plants used by monarchs. Phenology seems like a strange word and it is all too similar to the more familiar term – phrenology (the study of the bumps on people’s heads as a supposed indication of character and mental abilities). Phenology, on the other hand, is the study of the seasonal changes in plant and animal life brought about by increasing temperature in the spring. Recording the dates of phenophases, or stages, in the development of plants such as first emergence, first flowers, first fruits, is becoming an important means of assessing the impact of climate change. However, to be usefully applied to this end, the same data has to be recorded each year by many, many observers over broad areas of the continent.
Being interested in this topic, and in climate change, I contacted the USA National Phenology Network (USA-NPN) last year and asked if Monarch Watch could become a partner in this endeavor. Fortunately, they agreed and Monarch Watch became their first partner organization. My hope was that this partnership would encourage many of you, as well as others who are interested in phenology, to record the developmental stages of milkweeds and nectar plants used by monarchs. Unfortunately, due to growing pains and the fact that everything in life and technology takes longer to accomplish than expected, the USA-NPN website wasn’t quite as ready or user friendly as it needed to be last season; however, the site is ready now.
Before logging on, you might want to review the justifications for this project and other articles posted to the Blog last year:
There are four simple steps to submitting your phonological observations for milkweeds and monarchs via the USA-NPN website:
1. Sign up to become an observer – be sure to select “Monarch Watch” as the Partner Organization at the bottom of the form. Shortly after clicking the “Create new account” button at the bottom of the page you will receive an email message with further instruction.
3. Learn the phenophases for your plants and begin making observations. In the “Search Plants to Monitor” form be sure “Monarch Watch” is selected as the “Partner” to narrow the plant list to the fourteen species we are interested in at this time.
As mentioned above, there are fourteen Monarch Watch plants – five milkweeds and nine nectar plants. The plants were selected on the basis of their distributions, seasonal importance to monarchs, and period of bloom. A click on each name in the species search will take you to a page with a picture of the flower, a brief description of each plant, and an explanation of the observations you should make.
Other milkweeds and numerous other nectar plants can be found among the plants of interest listed by NPN.
Rather than recording each observation online as it happens, I keep a file on my computer called Phenology 09 (a notebook works well too) to which I add observations made as they occur. The plan is to submit all of the data toward the end of the spring and once again later after the mid and late season observations have been made.
Keeping your own personal records is useful in that it helps you anticipate seasonal changes but also tells you how the present year compares with previous seasons.
The climate is changing and all predictions are that the rate of change is going to accelerate in the coming decade. These changes are certain to affect monarchs and the milkweeds and nectar plants upon which they depend. My hope is that I can persuade many of you to record the phenology of these plants so that we can better understand the relationship of monarchs to the resources they utilize.
Recent articles on this topic:
Local citizens to help catalog climate change
The Kansas City Star, March 2009
First bloom: Butterfly network enlists citizen scientists to record rites of spring
Kansas Alumni magazine, January 2009 (74K PDF file)