Director’s Letter January 2023

A new way of supporting field science

In addition to supporting the work of individual scientists through ensuring access to field sites and providing logistical support, RMBL is changing field science by encouraging integrative research. Supported as a RMBL Synthesis Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr. Rebecca Prather (see accompanying article) and 14 collaborators recently published work utilizing 10,812 observations involving 30 plant, 25 insect, 1 amphibian, 2 mammal, and 16 bird species across 45 years. They looked at the complicated ways that organisms in the same ecosystem have responded to a summer increase of 0.4 °C per decade and a fall temperature increase of 0.2 °C per decade with snowmelt date trending earlier 2.4 days per decade.

Responses depend upon the organism. Earlier snowmelt advanced the annual start of many of the species such as insects that overwinter as larvae, including Mormon fritillary butterflies, burying beetles, Gillette’s checkerspot butterfly, and flies, as well as plants that flower soon after snowmelt, including spring beauty and dwarf bluebell. However, prior summer rain delayed activity of some insect species, had no impact on most plant species, and advanced activity of some amphibian, mammal, and bird species. The complexity of the responses was highlighted by the fact that some responses to environmental cues happened as quickly as in a day or two (e.g., glacier lilies responding to snow melt) whereas other responses were happening as long as 2 years later.

Understanding the different ways in which organisms respond to change offers insight into the future. Wildflower species that have historically depended upon certain species of bees and butterflies may need new partners. Migratory hummingbirds may no longer arrive while glacier lilies are in bloom.

A small step for the East River Valley, the study represents a major step towards systems-level understanding of the world. Just as your health is best understood from a holistic perspective, integrating your diet, patterns of exercise, and history of disease, understanding the ecosystems that support food production, water quality, and that determine the emergence of new infectious diseases, requires a holistic approach. Because of strong connections between plants, animals, and microbes and the cycling of chemicals such as carbon, improving predictions of Earth’s future will require the development of earth system models that comprehensively integrate our understanding of biology, atmospherics, and hydrology.

Thanks to RMBL supporter Withrow Meeker for making this work possible through her generous funding of a synthesis postdoc as well as the many supporters who make unrestricted donations to RMBL’s annual fund! Together we are changing field science!

And because I’m a fan of science history, I’ll finish by noting that the paper is appropriately published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B (“B” for “Biological Sciences”).  The world’s longest-running scientific society, the Royal Society has been changing how we see the world for 300+ years since they started publishing scientific correspondence. In 1830 they created the Proceedings of the Royal Society to serve as a record of presentations made at their meetings, facilitating a wider distribution of ideas. Dr. Spencer Barrett, a professor at the Univ. of Toronto who visited Gothic last summer as a RMBL Douglass Distinguished Lecturer, currently serves as the Chief Editor.

Ian Billick - Director RMBL

Ian Billick | PhD
Executive Director, RMBL