TCD Researchers Link Rising Spring Temperatures to Changes in Plant and Animal Life-Cycles

Posted on: 21 April 2010

Irish trees, birds, and insects have been affected by rising spring temperatures over the past 40 years according to a study by Environment Protection Agency (EPA) funded researchers at Trinity College Dublin.

The research shows that trees such as beech and poplar are leafing earlier in recent years than they were 30 years ago, that birds such as the swallow and cuckoo are arriving in Ireland earlier in spring and that insects such as the brimstone and flame carpet moths are not only appearing earlier but are also exhibiting longer flight periods.  “The research has shown that the earlier occurrence of these events is related to rising spring temperature associated with global warming,” says EPA Researcher, Dr Alison Donnelly at the Centre for the Environment, the School of Natural Sciences, TCD who led the research.

Spring 2010 has been the coldest for decades and consequently many of these life-cycle events (phenology) in plants and animals have been delayed by several weeks.  Due to the sensitivity of phenology to changes in temperature, it acts as a very useful indicator of climate change.  However, until now the only data available for Ireland are restricted to a small number of species and to a narrow geographic area, therefore more data are required to accurately predict the potential impact of further climate change on Irish plant and animal life.

In order to address this data gap, an exciting new website called Nature Watch has been developed in collaboration with the National Biodiversity Data Centre. This website invites members of the general public to participate in a national search for environmental data.  This so-called Citizen Science project requests interested parties to record the date on which they see the first snowdrop, the first swallow, the first butterfly and other phenological events in their surrounding environment throughout the year. The results of this research will give us a national view of when the seasons are occurring, and over the years will enable us to determine if advances in spring events between inter-dependent organisms, such as birds and their insect food resource, are remaining in sync.

Nature Watch is part of a growing number of websites across the world, which relies on nature lovers to contribute to scientific research. Throughout the USA, UK, Sweden and the Netherlands citizen scientists record phenological events throughout the year.  It is intended to extend the website at a later stage to display the data live on interactive maps.