Friday, March 16, 2012

Spring has Sprung - Phenology and Plant Hormones

Sign of an early Spring...
Everywhere you look, spring has sprung. Grasses grow, trees are budding, bugs emerge, and peepers peep in swamps and wetlands. Just one problem: it's still March!

Dr. Jake Weltzin, of the US National Phenology Network, appeared on NPR's All Things Considered yesterday discussing this strange, early shift in seasons. (At first, I misheard him say "phrenology," and wondered what bumps on the head had to do with climate change! What a difference an "r" makes).

Weltzin related a quick phenological primer:
"...what we're interested in here is the timing of Spring blooms and migrations and hibernations. So we have to think about the entire season, not just when things wake up in the spring but when things go to sleep in the Fall" 
Weltzin then discussed a few specific concerns: fruit trees yielding early produce, the early flows of Vermont maple sap, and the potential for large swarms of insects to form, given their head start on the season. 

Ecologically and chemically, phenology has a certain logical beauty to it. Seeds germinate, thanks to plant hormones like gibberellic acid, and sprout: ok, auxins! (like IAA, pictured). Juvenile hormones wake worms and caterpillars from their sleep, who hatch and eat the developing plant life. Pituitary glands in animals everywhere turn chicks and tadpoles into birds and frogs, which eat the insect life. Finally, larger animals emerge, whether from hibernation (go, melatonin!) or we humans from our homes and cars. 

Enjoy the beautiful weather, and keep an eye out for the ongoing phenological ballet outside your window.

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