Monarch Watch, a citizen science outreach program at KU, invites school children, gardeners and interested citizens to observe and record the growth of 16 common plants through Kansas's growing season.
“With all the talk about climate change, one might suppose that such changes would affect the growth of plants and the first appearances of some birds and mammals,” said Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch. “In fact, scientists are just beginning to record seasonal changes in plant and animal life in a systematic manner.”
The study of the seasonal “firsts,” such as first robins, first shoots or first flowers is known as phenology. Monarch Watch is collaborating with a nationwide effort headed by the National Phenology Network to record the phenology for plants that are important to the success of monarch butterfly populations.
Input from the public will help scientists to distinguish changes from unusual weather patterns and long-term climatic changes.
To participate, visit the Monarch Watch blog describing “firsts” that require observation. Next, record the date of the observed “firsts” in a notebook and submit the data at the National Phenology Network Web site.
“There are only a few scientists and they can’t be everywhere to record the many ‘firsts’ each year,” said Taylor. “That’s why we need citizens to help. We need observers everywhere.”
Monarch Watch is particularly interested in plants such as milkweeds, which host monarch larvae, and nectar plants, which adult butterflies visit to fuel reproduction or migration.
“Studies of the year-to-year differences in the first appearances of these plants will help us understand the yearly differences in the size of the monarch population,” said Taylor.
Other groups are tracking plants important to honey bees.
Scientists are interested in earlier plant growth and flowering due to climate change. In 2007, March in Kansas was warmer than in any year since 1910—with the result that in some areas garden plants, crops and native plants were as much as 12 days ahead of normal by April 2. Then came the “big freeze” from April 4 thru 10, with nearly 60 hours of freezing temperatures.
“It was simply too warm too soon,” Taylor said. “The result was devastating for crops and for all plant life in eastern Kansas as well as the wildlife that was dependent on the pollen, nectar, foliage or fruits, nuts and berries that would have been produced.”
This year is cooler than normal—but how much plants are delayed is still unknown.
“If we can get lots of people to record their observations, we can make sense of these year-to-year changes,” Taylor said. “Participation in this study is quite easy.”