Climate Drivers of Phenology

Emily Mohl, St. Olaf College

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Initial Publication Date: December 10, 2020 | Reviewed: March 12, 2023


Many species' life cycles are strongly influenced by temperature, but other cues, like day length and precipitation, can also trigger life cycle changes. Phenology is a way of recording the time when events, like bud break or insect emergence, occur, and these events can be important for everything from predicting the timing of disease or insect outbreaks to predicting the impacts of climate change on particular species. This activity explores the question: which species will be most affected by temperature changes, and how will changes in the phenology of one species affect its interaction with others as the climate warms.

Strengths of Module

This activity was used as a precursor to reading some scientific papers: Bartomeus et al., 2011, PNAS, and Kudo and Cooper, 2019, Proc. R. Soc. B. Students should be able to interpret figures in the papers similar to the ones they've made, to compare the R2 values and think more about data reliability.

What does success look like

Through this module, students should develop data analysis skills that help them to evaluate the relationship between a variety of temperature-related environmental cues and a taxa's phenology. In the context of climate change, they will be able to make an argument using data about whether changing temperatures are likely to impact the phenology of a particular species of interest. They will compare the results using different subsets of a large dataset and make decisions about how to create subsets of data for the analyses they plan to complete. Students will able to compare the strength of the association between temperature/climate-related variables and phenology for different species. To achieve these goals, students will develop abilities to generate, read, and evaluate scatterplots and regressions between sets of variables. They will also develop capabilities to select and download data for their species of choice from the National Phenology Network (NPN) and organize the data for analysis.

Context for Use

I have used this module in two different settings. I have used it twice as described in a 200-level Invertebrate Biology course with about 20 students. I use the module pretty early on in the course to review and develop quantitative skills for the students, and to introduce the importance of phenology. It's helpful for students to make connections about how dramatically temperature and climate can influence invertebrate life cycles. The activity takes place over 2 class periods, including one longer lab period. I typically have students complete the pre-activity materials prior to class the first day, introduce the phenomenon of a phenological mismatch with the PowerPoint, and then give students time to work through the activities in Activities A and B with periodic whole-class check-ins. Then students completed Activity C for homework, and we followed up during the following class session. In a small group like this, I enjoy having students present their findings on the white board.  Then we look for patterns and surprises in the data.  This activity provided an experiential foundation for reading and discussing some research papers on phenology in invertebrates.  Later in the term, students choose an issue that affects invertebrates to research, and in many years I have had a group who chooses to work on phenology.

I also used this module in a mathematical biology seminar, though it was disrupted by complications from the Covid pandemic.

How Instructors Have Used This Module

Using Project EDDIE modules in BIOL 212: Fundamentals of Biology II, The Diversity of Life
Courtney Campany, Shepherd University
Courtney Campany, Shepherd University About this Course BIOL 212: Fundamentals of Biology II, The Diversity of Life Lecture and Lab Introductory Undergraduate Majors 45 students in the course Show Course ...

Using Project EDDIE modules in Invertebrate Biology
Emily Mohl, Saint Olaf College
Phenology is a broadly accessible topic for students with clear relevance for understanding and predicting the effects of climate change; consequently, it provides strong motivation for students to develop data analysis skills. Using data from the National Phenology Network, students are able to make decisions about how to use simple tools like scatterplots and linear regressions to predict which species are likely to be impacted by climate change. They must wrestle with questions about data reliability and confidence in their answers.

Using the Project EDDIE Climate Drivers of Phenology module in Biology I
Anna Grinath, Idaho State University
Anna Grinath, Idaho State University About this Course Biology I Lecture Course Introductory Undergraduate Majors and Non-Majors 75 students in the course Show Course Description Hide From the course catalog: BIOL ...

Description and Teaching Materials

Why this matters?

Phenology enables predictions of disease and insect outbreaks, as well as the impacts of climate change on species interactions, helping identify which species will be most affected by temperature changes. This activity also provides an opportunity for students to work with authentic, messy data.

Quick outline/overview of the activities in this module

  • Pre-module work: Orientation to phenology, the national phenology network, and regression.
  • Activity A: Determine whether there is a detectable trend in bumblebee emergence date in the Spring over time.
  • Activity B: Compare the date of bumblebee emergence with a variety of temperature-related site traits, including: latitude, elevation, and Winter and Spring max/min temperatures using scatterplots and regressions.
  • Activity C: Choose a species of interest to you, select data from the NPN network, and identify which variables are most predictive of emergence date. Compare your results with those from other species to predict which species are likely to be most susceptible to temperature changes and to consider whether interacting species will respond asynchronously or in parallel.

Activity A

In this lesson, students manipulate data to make and interpret scatterplot graphs and regressions about the phenology of bumblebees and other organisms. They will make decisions about which data to use, and evaluate their confidence in their conclusions given the nature of the available data.

Activity B

In activity A, students tested change over time, it is uncertain if changing climate is responsible for the patterns observed. In activity B, students use environmental data recorded for each site to identify how much variation in bumblebee emergence phenology is explained by temperature or other climate-related variables.

Activity C

In activity C, students use a species of interest to them, identify the variables that are predictive of emergence date, then compare with other species to determine which is most susceptible to changing temperatures and if and how species interactions will be influenced.

Teaching Materials:

Teaching Notes and Tips

Typically, students complete the pre-activity materials prior to class. In class, I introduce the phenomenon of a phenological mismatch (pre-module powerpoint). Then students work on Activities A and B with whole-class check-ins.  Students completed Activity C for homework. In the following class session, we review Activity C. To look for patterns and surprises in the data, I like to have students present their findings to the class.

Workflow of this module:

  1. Assign any pre-class readings
  2. Give students their handout when they arrive to class
  3. Instructor gives brief PowerPoint presentation with background material. Discussion of the readings can be integrated into this presentation or done before.
  4. Students can then work through the module activities.

Measures of Student Success

Success is shown if:

  • Students can create, compare, and interpret scatterplots and correlations between pairs of variables.
  • Students can select, download, clean, and analyze data from the NPN network that is relevant for answering their questions.
  • Students can articulate the relationship between temperature, environmental cues, and a taxon's phenology, and use these relationships to predict how the taxon will be affected by climate change.

References and Resources

Pre-lab References: