For Immediate Release
September 23, 2009 Contacts: David Ottalini, 301 405 4076 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Climate Change Unfolds in Blossoms of Rocky Mountain Wildflowers
Recovery Funding Continues UM Scientist's Decades-Long Research
By Monette Austin Bailey
Prof. David Inouye
For nearly four decades, a University of Maryland professor has traveled to Colorado each spring to study in fields of purple dwarf larkspurs and vibrant red columbines. He's watched through the summers as these pretty little wildflowers grew and blossomed. And what he's learned about their changing growing seasons is telling us something important about the Earth's climate.
David Inouye's research on patterns in flowers' growing seasons around the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Crested Butte, Colo., has taken on new significance as researchers try to understand and slow global warming.
The National Science Foundation awarded the professor of biology in the College of Chemical and Life Sciences a $448,995 grant this summer.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds will let him study how environmental changes alter the relationship between flowering plants and pollinators such as bumblebees, hummingbirds and butterflies. Global warming and other shifts threaten those relationships. Understanding how the climate affects pollination cycles can help researchers counteract the effects.
"The timing of the snow melt sets the clock," says Inouye. An early melt means that plants get an earlier start in the growing cycle. But blooms that sprout too early can be killed by spring's lingering frost.
"If they don't make flowers, then there are no seeds and they're not replacing themselves," he explains. This means even fewer food sources for pollinators, which can in turn mean fewer plants. Frosts can also damage insect species populations-for instance, for one type of butterfly, the amount of nectar it gathers limits the number of eggs it lays.
Inouye was a graduate student in 1971 when he started spending springs and summers at the lab, located 9,500 feet above sea level. Every year, he's gone back to check on plots planted in Gothic, a former ghost town that is now home of the field station. His two sons grew up spending summers there, too. One son even met his wife at the lab, and now has his own graduate students working there.
The professor's years of work in the area-named by the state legislature as Colorado's wildflower capital - have produced rich data sets from which he and others can pull.
"He stuck with censuses of flowering for decades, while most other ecologists jumped from one trendy project to another," says Rocky Mountain colleague James D. Thomson, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Toronto. "David's dogged persistence is finally getting due recognition."
Inouye, who is also director of the university's sustainable development and conservation biology graduate program, says that when he started his research, "nobody had ever heard of climate change."
He says America is relatively new to the field of phenology, or the study of the impact of climate variations on animal and plant life cycles. In Japan, for example, the blooming of cherry trees has been monitored for 1,000 years.
Inouye is on the board of directors of the 2-year-old USA National Phenology Network, which brings together government agencies, private sector organizations, citizens and scientists to monitor and share information on "the timing of seasonal events in their back yards." One network project is Project Budburst, a NASA-funded project to encourage children to report flowering in their schoolyards.
Inouye's new NSF grant will keep him immersed in his work at the Colorado lab for at least five more years. "It's a great place to work, professionally and personally. There are people from all over the world," he says. "Intellectually it's a very active place."