Global warming and flowering times in Thoreau's Concord: a community perspective.

Department of Biology, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts 02215, USA.
Ecology (Impact Factor: 5). 03/2008; 89(2):332-41. DOI: 10.1890/07-0068.1
Source: PubMed

ABSTRACT As a result of climate change, many plants are now flowering measurably earlier than they did in the past. However, some species' flowering times have changed much more than others. Data at the community level can clarify the variation in flowering responses to climate change. In order to determine how North American species' flowering times respond to climate, we analyzed a series of previously unstudied records of the dates of first flowering for over 500 plant taxa in Concord, Massachusetts, USA. These records began with six years of observations by the famous naturalist Henry David Thoreau from 1852 to 1858, continued with 16 years of observations by the botanist Alfred Hosmer in 1878 and 1888-1902, and concluded with our own observations in 2004, 2005, and 2006. From 1852 through 2006, Concord warmed by 2.4 degrees C due to global climate change and urbanization. Using a subset of 43 common species, we determined that plants are now flowering seven days earlier on average than they did in Thoreau's times. Plant flowering times were most correlated with mean temperatures in the one or two months just before flowering and were also correlated with January temperatures. Summer-flowering species showed more interannual variation in flowering time than did spring-flowering species, but the flowering times of spring-flowering species correlated more strongly to mean monthly temperatures. In many cases, such as within the genera Betula and Solidago, closely related, co-occurring species responded to climate very differently from one another. The differences in flowering responses to warming could affect relationships in plant communities as warming continues. Common St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) and highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) are particularly responsive to changes in climate, are common across much of the United States, and could serve as indicators of biological responses to climate change. We discuss the need for researchers to be aware, when using data sets involving multiple observers, of how varying methodologies, sample sizes, and sampling intensities affect the results. Finally, we emphasize the importance of using historical observations, like those of Thoreau and Hosmer, as sources of long-term data and to increase public awareness of biological responses to climate change.

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