A new paper in PNAS disucusses shifts in flowering phenology in 60 species of wildflowers in the Rocky Mountains. This thorough study with a massive data set adds to the overwhelming body of evidence that anthropogenic global warming is affecting where and how many species of plants, animals, insects and bacteria exist and interact within their ecosystems.
Phenology—the timing of biological events—is highly sensitive to climate change. However, our general understanding of how phenology responds to climate change is based almost solely on incomplete assessments of phenology (such as first date of flowering) rather than on entire phenological distributions. Using a uniquely comprehensive 39-y flowering phenology dataset from the Colorado Rocky Mountains that contains more than 2 million flower counts, we reveal a diversity of species-level phenological shifts that bring into question the accuracy of previous estimates of long-term phenological change. For 60 species, we show that first, peak, and last flowering rarely shift uniformly and instead usually shift independently of one another, resulting in a diversity of phenological changes through time. Shifts in the timing of first flowering on average overestimate the magnitude of shifts in the timing of peak flowering, fail to predict shifts in the timing of last flowering, and underrepresent the number of species changing phenology in this plant community. Ultimately, this diversity of species-level phenological shifts contributes to altered coflowering patterns within the community, a redistribution of floral abundance across the season, and an expansion of the flowering season by more than I mo during the course of our study period. These results demonstrate the substantial reshaping of ecological communities that can be attributed to shifts in phenology.
Seasonal timing of biological events, phenology, is one of the strongest bioindicators of climate change. Our general understanding of phenological responses to climate change is based almost solely on the first day on which an event is observed, limiting our understanding of how ecological communities may be responding as a whole. Using a unique long-term record of flowering phenology from Colorado, we find that the number of species changing their flowering times likely has been underestimated and the magnitude of phenological change overestimated. In addition to earlier first flowering, we document a diverse assortment of other changes, such as delayed last flowering, as temperatures warm. This variety of species-level phenological shifts has ultimately reshaped various temporal components of the plant community.
To access the paper, you will need a subscription to PNAS. Go here.