SwatTalk: "What Wildflowers and Bees in a Rocky Mountain Valley Can Teach Us About Climate Change"
with Brian Inouye '91
Recorded on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023
Daniela Kucz ’14 Welcome, everyone. A few administrative matters before we dive in. Please note that this talk is being recorded and will be posted online on the SwatTalks page in two to three weeks. During the presentation, if you have any questions for our speaker, please use the Q&A feature to submit them, not the chat feature and share your name and class here as well. So very excited that you all are here. My name is Daniela Kucz. I'm class of 2014 and I'm a member of the Swarthmore Alumni Council, which organizes the SwatTalks initiative. The SwatTalks initiative exists to spotlight alumni excelling in their fields. Tonight I'm super excited to welcome Brian Inouye, Swarthmore class of ’91, who is joining us for a SWAT talk to discuss what wildflowers and bees in a rocky mountain valley can teach us about climate change. Brian has deep Swarthmore roots. He's a third generation Swarthmore alum, graduating with a degree in biology with four generations of Swarthmore college ties. He's a product of the Quaker Matchbox. Both his parents and his grandparents met while students at Swarthmore. After graduating from Swarthmore, Brian received an MS in statistics and a PhD in ecology from Duke University. He completed postdoctoral fellowships at the UC Davis Center for Population Biology and Institute for Theoretical Dynamics, as well as the National Science Foundation. Today, Brian is a tenured professor of biological science at Florida State University, where he has taught since 2002. He holds two National Science Foundation grants that back his work at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, and has published approximately 100 papers with over 11,000 citations. In 2022, Brian was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It's no wonder then that Brian is a subject of a recent National Geographic article highlighting the work that he and his father David Inouye, class of ’71 have done for the last 50 plus years. Please join me in welcoming Brian as he shares with us the important research that Brian, his father, and Brian's wife, Nora Underwood, a fellow liberal arts college alum, have dedicated their lives to. With that, I will now turn it over to Brian.
Brian Inouye ’91 Alright, thank you Daniela, and thanks to the Alumni Council. It's been fun to prepare for this talk and I hope that you enjoy it. And although it's just my name on the title slide, this really is a huge collaborative project. My wife, Dr. Nora Underwood, and of course, was started by amongst others, my father David, in class of ’71. So with this title, well, what can bees and flowers teach us about climate change, really what I'm mostly gonna talk about today is phenology. So phenology is the timing of biological events during a year or during a growing season. So for this cartoon tree, flowers at one time of year and then leaves at another time of year. In the fall, the leaves might turn color and fall off, and then there's the winter. So phenology is this timing, it's been described as nature's calendar. Things like when cherry trees bloom, when a robin builds its nest when leaves from color in the fall, that's from the USA National Phenology Network, but it's actually of interest to people in a bunch of areas. There's agriculture and fishing. There's corals that spawn according to a calendar. So phenology, these events that happen at some time of year, important events during an organism's lifecycle is something that you can study in many, many different kinds of ecosystems in many species. Phenology has also been something that humans have been interested in for a really long time. These are pictures from caves in Europe. Cave paintings are more than 30,000 years old, and there's a recent paper that has suggested that when early humans were making these drawings on cave walls, partly they were actually documenting phenology. Many of these paintings of fish, of reindeer, of extinct aurochs, ancient cows and other animals contain docks next to them or other markings. And archeologists have suggested that these are actually to indicate on a lunar calendar during which months are fish spawning or are animals migrating or giving birth. It's quite possible that the earliest written records that we have as humans, we're keeping track of the phenology of when did things happen? If you're living off the land and need to know when do animals pass through or when did the fish arrive, it's really important to know something about the timing of these events during the year. So it's easy to be interested in phenology. It's something people have been tracking for a very long time. I'm gonna talk about the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab Phenology Project. This is going to be partly a history of this phenology project and a little bit about what we have learned during the 50 years of this phenology project. Because this is a general audience, I think I have a couple figures, but I'm not gonna dwell on the details, but I encourage people to contact me or I can put up a link to websites where you can find the papers that describe these results. And you can dig into the technical details there or in the question and answer feature, you can drop me questions if you have specific things that you want to know about these phenology results. So this phenology project has been asking two main questions recently, "To what extent are changes in phenology driven by changes in climate," and, "Do these changes in phenology actually matter for evolutionary fitness, for population size, for community composition, for ecosystem processes," because we can document phenological changes, but then the next step has to be if we know phenology is changing, things are changing their timing as the climate is changing, does it matter? What are the consequences of those phenological shifts? Another theme to this talk is that this is a story about the value of basic science and natural history, and it's also a story about the way questions change as science progresses, as we learn more about how the world works. So the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab is out in Colorado. As a reminder, there's Colorado out in the Western US and within Colorado here is the location up in the mountains at about 9,500 feet on the western side of the Continental Divide, so on the west slope. So it's a field station, it's in Montana, it's actually at a valley floor, even though it's 9,500 feet. And it's a relatively green wet area because it's high up and because it's on the west slope of the Continental Divide. So here's a view looking down at this Rocky Mountain Biological Lab, which is the site of a former silver mining boom town. So back in the 1880s, 1890s, there was a community of miners living in this area. When the market crashed, they all left and the abandoned town site and all of its contents were bought by a biology professor to turn into a field station. So he paid a few hundred dollars in back taxes to own this entire abandoned mining town, and then invited biologists from around the country to come spend their summers there doing work in a high elevation environment, in a fairly pristine and protected environment. This former silver mining town site is surrounded by a landscape that is largely US Forest Service and mostly protected. So it's a nice place to do research. Currently the lab houses about 200 researchers during the summers, and then the population drops to about three or four in the winters. But it's a site for research by people from all over the United States and as well as international scientists. In preparing some slides for today, I realized that there's actually been a long history of strong connections between Swarthmore and the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab. So this is Dr. Robert Enders, who was an early biology faculty at Swarthmore who was there from 1932 to 1970. He was chair of the Biology Department for many of those years, and he was also director of the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab for over a decade. So I have memories of him after he'd retired as director, but was still spending summers out at RMBL, and just like you see in this photo, I remember this amazing shock of silver hair, and he was charging up and down the mountains and still full of energy. So perhaps because he was director of our RMBL, Dr. Enders established connections between Swarthmore and the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab. So there's at least these other Swarthmore Biology Faculty who spent some of their career doing research at RMBL, Ken Rawson in the 1960s, Greg Florant in the 1980s, Sarah Helbert Burch worked at RMBL as a grad student, and I believe there are other Swarthmore Biology Faculty that also at some point during their career, spent summers at the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab and worked there. And of course, many Swarthmore alumni, not just my father and myself, but lots of Swarthmore alumni and students have also worked there. But it was Dr. Enders who was responsible for both of my parents going to RMBL. So this phenology project began in June of 1973. My father was a graduate student at the time, he was studying pollination biology and there was a late snowfall. Now it's not that unusual for snow to fall in June, but there was a snowfall, and because of that, it was an opportunity for graduate students to gather for tea and cookies and discussion in one of the cabins up there. It was hosted by a professor from the University of Arizona who worked on hummingbirds, Dr. Bill Calder. So these people, my father David Inouye, class of ’71, my mother class of ’69, and a few other people who were at the time were interested in pollination biology, decided that they would begin a project setting up plots and counting all of the flowers in those plots. So the question they had in mind at the time was something like, "How do the resources or pollinators vary across the growing season?" So you've got, you know, hummingbirds, and long tongue bumble bees, and short tongue bumble bees. They're all excited about different species of flowers depending on how they feed on the flowers. And they wanted to know what are the resource pulses available as different species of flowers come and out of bloom during the course of the summer. So they were tracking flowering from the point of view of what's available for pollinators. So we still track that phenological cycle of flowers that are available at different times during this growing season, during the short summers up there for things like the bumble bees that are excited about different species. So this is actually a bunch of the flowers that we count arranged in a phenological calendar. We've got the spring beauties, Claytonia and May, progressing through willows and glacier lilies in our early Delphinium species all the way around to some gentian species, which flower into August and September. So actually my father counted the last flowers of 2023 just last week. And it was a few gentian flowers that were going in one of the plots. So we've just finished the 2023 floral calendar. So to answer this question about how resources for pollinators vary across the season, they were counting all the flowers of all the species and these plots every other day through the season. So it's a very detailed record of when do things flower. They could ask "When do delphinium flower and how many flowers are there" because the abundance of the flowers might change from year to year. After doing that for a couple of years, everybody else quit except for David Inouye. So he kept on counting the flowers because the timing and abundance of flowers was changing from year to year. He could see that there was a lot of variability and he wanted to keep track of those changes from year to year in the timing and abundance of all the flowers. So meanwhile, someone else started collecting climate data and that other person was Billy Barr, who prefers to have his name Uncapitalized. That's how I have it there. In 1972, he went out to gothic and had just finished college and decided to stay. So essentially he moved into an abandoned, forest service shack, a one room shack, and just never left. He now lives in an nice, insulated, solar-powered, off-the-grid house, but he's there there still taking observations every day. So Billy Barr was out there year round and he was taking data in these notebooks. He would write down, "How much did it snow today? How cold was it today? How warm did it get?" And he was also taking natural history notes. "What birds did he see? When did he see animals reappearing after they hibernated in the spring?" So in Billy's notebooks, he had a lot of detailed data about climate and some data about phenology, like the timing of when does the first marmite emerge from hibernation? When does the first ground squirrel emerge from hibernation and start running around above the ground? When did he see the first butterfly of different species? Things like that. So about 20 years after my father had started counting flowers in the late ’90s, David and Billy realized that they had these complimentary data sets and that they were relevant to documenting the effects of climate change. So Billy had all these detailed notes in his notebooks. My father had counts of the flowers in these two meter by two meter plots that he'd marked and visited three times a week. And this was early in the days of thinking about climate change. I recall that through the 1980s, the big environmental problems that people were really worried about were, you know, air pollution and damage to the ozone hole, acid rain. Climate change was just barely emerging on to people's radars. And it didn't become a big part of the scientific consciousness until the 1990s and then into the 2000s. And of course now everyone's thinking about climate change, but when this study was started in the ’70s, we were not thinking about climate change. So the question in ’73 was about resources for pollinators, and then the questions turned into how is flowering phenology changing across the years, and especially how does phenology respond to climate? So the project continued since the '90s with new questions. And then in 2009, the project added a new angle where we began collecting bee phenology. So the whole bee part is led by Becky Erwin, who's at North Carolina State University now, and she's been recording for the last 14 years data on bee phenology, and bee abundance, and bee diversity. And we can start to look at things like, are the bee and the plant phenology changing similarly? We got a lot of data on plants and we're building a dataset on bees. And even though this only started in 2009, it's actually one of the longest, most detailed records of bees, native bees anywhere in the world. So it was great to have the foresight to start this when we did, and then, I guess I formally joined this project in 2014, but in 2019 as my father had retired, my wife Nora Underwood and I became lead on this project and we added new questions as we pitched proposals to the National Science Foundation to keep this project going. So now we're also beginning to ask what are the ecological consequences of these shifts in phenology that we've documented for the last 50 years? We're also looking at how individual responses to climate scale up to population level responses. So if you tag act just individual plants and keep track of all the individual plants, how do we scale up from individuals to populations, to species to communities? Alright, so to recap this part, we've got climate data that have been collected by Billy Barr. We have snow pack, snowfall, precipitation, temperature, etcetera. We have 50 years now of flowering data on over 150 plant species. We have 14 years of data on the bees, and it's over 200 species of bees. And these are all native bees. The environment is harsh enough that there are no honey bees up in this habitat. So it's over 200 species of native bees, mostly small solitary bees. And then we have data that link the bees and the flowers. So there's a lot of of interest now in trying to put together the data on bees and the flowers to look at how this whole interacting set of pollinators, this community is changing for potentially changing. As you might imagine, although this started with just a couple people and then continued for the first couple decades with mostly just one person, David Inouye, this has become a massively collaborative undertaking. So there's multiple faculty, postdocs, graduate students, undergraduates, K-12 school teachers to come out and help us and volunteers. There's a lot of people that have helped over the years counting these 5 million plus flowers and collecting data about the bees. So I wanna give a thanks to all the people that have helped over the years, the many, many people that have collected data with us. So here's a picture of the valley where the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab is during the winter, and this might be hard to imagine if you live in someplace that's warm, but it's an environment where there's snow, sometimes deep snow for about six months of the year. We know that the climate is changing globally. We know that weather patterns are shifting and on average the earth is warming. I'm gonna start by showing you a few data slides to look at how the local climate is changing at the RMBL, the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab. And then I'm gonna put that together with some information about the flowering. So it turns out that total winter snow at the RMBL is highly variable. On average, it has not actually been changing, at least not at that elevation, it's not declining yet, and there's a weak signal of earlier snow melt, the snow disappearing a little bit earlier in the year, perhaps through to slightly warmer springs or things like dust storms where dust lands on the snow in the spring, dust blowing up from lower elevations, lands on the snow and causes it to melt out a little sooner. We are seeing signs of warmer summers at the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab and highly variable rainfall, but no change in average rainfall. So we see tons of climate variation and some directional changes with a little bit of warming being the dominant signal there. But because the climate is so variable from year to year that variation in precipitation, and snow melt, and temperature, it gives us great leverage for looking at the effects of climate on phenology. So does the climate affect phenology? Yes, it absolutely does. And this is something that has been shown now for hundreds of species around the world, many different places. And it's also true in the Rocky Mountains. So when snow melts earlier, plants start blooming earlier. This is a slide showing data for spring beauty Claytonia lanceolata, this cute little flower, with the day of the year of bare ground, which can happen anywhere from late April to early June, depending on how much snow there is the previous winter, and then the day of year when we see the first flowers. And you can see there's a fairly tight relationship here, a strong correlation between the two. The spring beauty can pop up just as the snow is melting. So there's a very tight relationship between when the snow disappears and when we first see flowering. In fact, in this view of the valley, as it's beginning to melt out in the spring, there are already spring beauty open and flowering in those bare patches, and there's some early bees visiting those flowers, even though a lot of the valley florist still is covered in snow, so the flowers are absolutely responding quickly to the disappearance of the snow. Here's a couple species that flower slightly later in the summer, so a daisy and a delphinium. These slides are again, showing the change in the flowering date, just in case, not first flowering date, but peak flowering date, depending on the date when the snow melts out and we start to see bare ground. And for both of these, as the snow melts earlier, we see flowering peaking earlier in the season. It's not a one-to-one relationship. You can see that for the daisy it flowers .58 days earlier on average for every day earlier that the snow melts out. So a week of earlier snow melt does not translate to a week earlier in flowering. It's now only maybe four days earlier flowering, something like that. We also know that plants are responding to temperatures. So these are data from this hydrophyllum. And in the spring when it's warmer, after the snow has melted, and the plants are above ground to sense these temperatures, the flowering data's earlier if it's been warmer. So there's clearly relationships between temperature, and snow melt, and other factors. We know that phenology is changing and that phenology is responsive to climate. So we've counted now lots and lots of flowers. We can show that for many of these species, the plants are responding by changing their phenology as climate changes, and I wanna share with you some results from the paper we published earlier this spring. And it's one that is featured in this National Geographic article from back in the spring. But we discovered that a lot of other researchers at the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab had also been collecting phenology data. And so we were able to gather data on, sorry, 74 species, 30 plants, 25 insects, etcetera. This is a project that was led by postdoc Rebecca Prather, who's now got another job. So we're searching for a new postdoc, but we were able to bring together almost 11,000 phenological events all from the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab across 45 years. So these are some of the species for which we were able to gather data ranging from butterflies and burying beetles to hummingbirds, and ground squirrels, and marmots. So we have a lot of data on phenology. It turns out, on average, yes, all these species are advancing their phenology and that things happen earlier in the year than they used to, but not all of them. There are some species that don't seem to be changing the timing at which they do things. So in these figures, the light gray lines here are 30 individual plant species. The solid black line is the average for those 30 plant species. Similarly, here's the all the bird species with their gray lines. The dotted line is the average for all the birds. It turns out birds are not advancing the time at which they first show up at the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab the way, you know, plants are flowering earlier or insects are emerging earlier. And we think this is partly because these birds are all migratory. And so they're migrating. Their timing of migration is actually driven at least in part by where they're coming from the climate, wherever they're spending their winters, and not necessarily what's going on up at the high elevation Rocky Mountain Biological Lab. So I'm gonna show one or two more data slides, and in order to interpret those data slides, I want to introduce this idea that we can measure the sensitivity of a species' response to the climate with a slope. If I, for example, were to relate spring temperatures to the day of year of first flowering and plot different years on this graph, and then fit a linear regression to those, the slope I'm gonna measure with this parameter beta. And in this case, that relationship is a negative slope, meaning that in hotter temperatures, these plants would flower earlier, in cooler temperatures, they would flower later. But if that slope is steep, then the value of beta is large and negative. If there's no slope, the value of beta would be zero, meaning that whatever species I'm plotting here is not responding to temperature at all. So I can summarize for a whole bunch of different species the sensitivity to climate by plotting those betas, those slopes, so in this hypothetical example, temperature having negative values of beta, which see this would mean that the temperature negatively influences phenology in that it makes things happen earlier, negative being earlier in the year. Whereas precipitation would positively influence phenology, making things happen later in the year. So for example, in a wetter summer, things might happen later, in a drier summer, things might happen earlier and that would be a positive slope and therefore positive betas on this figure. So these are are the real data for this phenology synthesis project where we looked at plants, insects, mammals, a salamander and bird species. And it turns out across the board, all of these species were responding to snow melt date, or most of them were in a way that you'd expect. Earlier snow melt dates led to earlier events, earlier flowering, earlier emergences from hibernation, earlier flight periods, things like that. And in general, temperature had the opposite effect. And that hotter temperatures, again, made things earlier, cooler temperatures made things later. But then there were other climate factors that we were measured like summer temperatures and winter temperatures that had opposite effects on different groups of species that plants might respond one way and birds or insects respond in a different way so that plants and insects have opposite responses to winter temperatures. We also discovered that many species were affected by weather the previous summer, and this was an eyeopener for us, which only made sense after the fact that when we paused to think about it, the weather conditions in the previous summer and fall as species are gathering energy and getting ready for that long winter actually do affect how things behave in the following summer. So a plant that has a nice long warm fall and lots of time to get ready might flower earlier the following year. So it's not just the, you know, a warm spring leads to earlier flowering, it's a combination of this summer's weather and last year's weather that are all affecting phenology somewhat differently for different species. I also wanna point out that different parts of a flowering distribution or times of arrival, things like that can change at different rates. So here are data for this Erigeron speciosus and these three lines in red, blue, and green, what we're seeing is that the time of the first flower opening and the time of the last flower opening and the time of peak flowering, these are all changing at slightly different rates from year to year, depending on its sensitivity to snow melt or other climate factors. So this means that not only my first flowers open sooner, but in a year when there's not much snow and everything starts earlier, the flowering duration also gets shorter. The flowers are only around for a couple weeks instead of for almost a month. So we know that plants are blooming earlier when snow mode is earlier, but when you look across a lot of species, some are more sensitive to climate than others, and that different species can respond to the same climate cue in the same way or to different climate cues in different ways, that it's not like there's one aspect of the climate that changes and everything else changes in lockstep with it. It's a lot of species. Each one behaving somewhat idiosyncratically as the climate does different things from year to year. So we know a lot more about plants than bees. I know bees are in the title. And if you came here to hear a lot about bees, I'm gonna disappoint you 'cause I'm not gonna say a lot about bees, but that's partly just because bee ID is hard. There's a lot of species that look alike. Many bee species are rare. So even though we've collected a lot of bees, I don't have as many results about the bees as I do about the plants. So we know phenology responds to climate. I just showed several examples of that doesn't matter that phenology is responding to climate. If a plant is changing its time of flowering and flowering earlier in a warm spring, does that matter? And the punchline there is, yes, it matters and I'll for a variety of reasons, I'll give you one example that sometimes there are late frosts. So maybe it's not always a good idea to flower early in response to a warm spring if it makes you vulnerable to, or if it makes a plant species vulnerable to then a late frost that would kill a bunch of flower buds. So at this high elevation site, it can get cold well into June. So here's an example from 2001 13 June, we had a late snow and a hard freeze, and it got quite cold the night before this picture was taken. And when that happens, a lot of plant species will have started to make their flower buds and then those buds get frozen and die. So here's a picture of a meadow that at this time of year was full of the Aspen sunflower, Helianthella quinquenervis, and it's a beautiful meadow covered in these sunflowers. And this was a year with no late frost. Here's the same meadow taken at the same time of year, but this was a different year, a year that did have a late frost. And so all the developing buds of that sunflower were killed by that frost. And the same meadow just looks really different. Now, I wanna reassure people that this is a long lived perennial sunflower. So even though we don't see flowers in that meadow in this picture, the plants are still there. They do get the try another year. Now you might not care about, you know, wild flowers as much, but agriculture is also affected by phenology and late freezes. So in years when there's a warm spring and fruit trees start to flower earlier, sometimes those flowers are developing fruits are vulnerable to a late freeze that can damage crops. This is definitely a problem in Colorado where this picture comes from. And a year when there was a late freeze and a large percentage of the peach crop was lost, leading to higher prices for consumers wanting peaches. So these phenological shifts by plants, making them vulnerable to late frosts is important not just in natural plant communities, it's very important in agriculture as well. So we know that phenology should matter, that the fact that so many species are changing the timing of their activity, changing the timing of flowering, things like that, it should matter. There should be consequences. Maybe a species that doesn't flower earlier when snow melt is early that would be able to avoid frost damage or maybe a species that flowers earlier in response to warm temperatures gets more pollinator visits. It might be good to respond to the climate in a really sensitive way, or it might be important for individuals to all respond the way their neighbors do because an individual that flowers extra early, if other individuals in that population don't, might miss out on having potential mates if it's flowering out of sink with other individuals of that same species. So we do think that there ought to be important ecological consequences to changes in phenology. It turns out we know surprisingly little about what these consequences are and how big these consequences are. There's a lot, a lot of work documenting changes in phenology, not just from this Rocky Mountain Biological Lab Phenology Project, but from around the world and just a little bit of work on what are the consequences of these phenology shifts. But this is our ongoing work. This is what I'm excited about trying to push forward now, is to dig more into these consequences so that we can move beyond documenting ology changes and think more about what are the potential consequences that we need to plan for or somehow adapt to and think about mitigating. But I don't have those answers today, so perhaps invite me back in a few years and I'll be able to tell you more about that part of it. So I'm gonna wrap this up with some conclusions that, yes, we know phenology is changing, but changing in different ways for different species. Not all plants and animals are equally sensitive to climate and shifting their activity patterns to the same rate. But the full consequences of these phenological responses to climate change are yet to be determined. We're we're just beginning to dig into these data and collect new data as part of this project that will let us answer those questions. And I also wanna return to that theme that this is an incredible long-term project, one of the most detailed long-term records of phenology in the world, a premier example, and yet it started for completely different reasons that it was a basic science question about, you know, resources for pollinators and also some beautiful, natural history observations documenting what's going on in the world from year to year and wanting to take careful notes about what's going on in the world, which 50 years later has turned into a project that couldn't be envisioned when people started collecting these data. So I just like that message that so often in basic science, we don't know what will happen a decade or two from now, what it is that we'll wish we had learned. I'm going to close with a quote for my wife, Nora Underwood. This is a quote that made it into that National Geographic article, but she said, "We've forgotten what we used to do, which is watch, just observe things, I hear it at meetings, everybody now wishes they'd started counting things 50 years ago." So I feel really, really lucky that 50 years ago my father started counting things, my father, and my mother, and some colleagues started counting things so that when I got to a point in my career where I was wanting to shift my research program around and I was excited to go back to Colorado, I could build on that amazing foundation of decades of data that he and other people had been collecting. And it was just a real treat for us to step into the situation where you can build upon decades of research by people in this amazing community. So I think I'll stop there and answer questions and we can have a discussion.
Daniela Kucz ’14 Thank you so much, Brian, for sharing with us. That was incredibly fascinating. And we got several comments from people in the Q&A just thanking you, including from Mimi Dick Rosenthal, class of 1963, who spent two summers with Bob Enders studying changes in mammal populations, and then also Mike Forster Rothbart thanking you and your father as well for the research that you've done and for sharing it with us today.
Brian Inouye ’91 I'm so glad to hear from other alumni that had spent time at RMBL and that new Dr. Enders. I think that that's great.
Daniela Kucz ’14 Yeah. Fantastic. So we are getting some questions that I am going to scan, but I guess just very tactically, and I'm gonna build this into a little bit of a broader question, but I'm assuming all of the handwritten data that has been collected over the years is now part of a broader data set and is being analyzed with more modern tools. I guess how has the evolution of technology influenced your work, if at all? It seems still very heavily manual and requires a lot of love and attention, so I'm curious if any technical changes have affected your project, if you foresee that happening in the future or if it's still very much a manual process?
Brian Inouye ’91 Yeah, so it is, and I think we'll remain very much a manual process. So when we visit these plots, we're counting open flowers, but really we are still trying to think like a bee, or a hummingbird, or a butterfly and ask, "Is this a flower that would be worth visiting?" Or from the plant's point of view, "Is it going to be receptive? You know, is it ready to produce pollen or receive pollen," not just "Is there color in the petals, for example." And so a lot of these flowers, especially some that are small or hidden under other layers of vegetation, I think there's no good way to use technology to evaluate is this a good flower that a bee would be interested in without actually looking at it and having a little bit of botanical knowledge. We had a researcher tell us a couple years ago that he thought he could fly drones over these plots and then use machine learning and AI algorithms to count the flowers of some of the species from the drone footage. So you had, you know, millimeter scale resolution drone photos flying over these and was really excited early in the season to be able to count the number of say, you know, glacier lilies, the one in the upper right of this picture as yellow things. And it gave a reasonable count and that it was correlated with what we counted by hand. But as soon as the vegetation diversity started increasing and there were layers of plants and plants, sometimes it's very cryptic, whether or not they're opening and you have to look at them carefully, the drone was hopeless. And so, you know, he's conceded that, yeah, it's gonna have to be a manual process because often you need to be able to, you know, turn the flower over to check to see whether the pollen is fresh before you know whether or not you can count it. So for the time being, it's still a manual process. People go and look at these, look at the flowers, you know, we look at the spikes of grass to see when they're shedding pollen. It's not something you can do with a machine, yet, you just have to have the plant in hand to inspect it.
Daniela Kucz ’14 Amazing. Another question sort of related to the heavily manual aspects, and I think also a little bit about the community that has been built around the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab. But a question from Jason Zengerly, "Can you talk a little bit more about your fathers and your relationship with Billy Barr? Is it unusual for university based scientists to collaborate with someone who doesn't necessarily have a university affiliation as part of the community? Is there anything about that collaboration that might inform other research projects?"
Brian Inouye ’91 So if you go back far enough into the, you know, early 20th century, 19th century, there's lots of valuable scientific information that was published by people who are not necessarily academics, but were, you know, amateur naturalists. And then I feel like that fell out of favor some, but has come back now and there's so many opportunities now for people to contribute to science, even if they're not academics through citizen science programs or recording data through things like, you know, iNaturalist. Billy Barr is an unusual case because he has been living at, or immediately next to a biological field station and interacting with professional biologists, academic biologists his whole life, well, since he was a college student and first went out there. So it's true that he doesn't have a graduate degree and he's never had a university position his whole career. He has worked at and for the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab, but, you know, he's a fantastic, you know, natural historian and a keen observer of the world around him. And so that's really all it takes to make these contributions to science, well, I guess not all it takes, the fact that he wrote it down, that it's not just that he's seeing things, but he's documenting what he was seeing and that that was, I think, really unusual for his time. And Thoreau did it. And, you know, lots of people did it in the past and, you know, they'd go for walks and they'd write down what they saw. Billy Barr kept that alive, that tradition. He would write down what he saw every day. And maybe now this is where, you know, the smartphone technology comes in because now you see something and you pull out your phone and you can, you know, iNaturalist it and document, "Oh, I saw this species here today," and that's a valuable observation that you haven't had to write down because by taking the picture and uploading it, all the metadata about that observation has been absorbed into the cloud.
Daniela Kucz ’14 A bit of a bigger picture question, but I think one that's very important from Rachel Solomon, "What can your findings in Colorado tell us about the bigger picture of the impacts of global climate change?"
Brian Inouye ’91 So like at the biggest picture, as I see it, is that this is clear evidence that the climate is going to be affecting all the species around us, not just humans. That, of course, humans dominate the news, media, you know, a lot of the concerns are about, you know, how will climate change affect us, but climate change is going to affect all the species around us, the plants, the bees, the birds, everything is responding to that climate change and the variation from year to year in climate. This kinda project actually in some ways makes me optimistic because at least in this mountain environment where the weather is so variable from year to year, naturally what we see is that a lot of species are extremely resilient and that they can change as the climate is changing, they can shift their timing, they can respond in a bunch of different ways. They have responses to climate that have evolved over millennia and it's given them a tremendous amount of resilience. So the scary thing is that we just don't know how close we're gonna push species to the edge of where they are able to respond as climate is, you know, shifting outside of what we've seen historically. But I do feel like species are going to change what they do and when they do it, and we're gonna start to see novel kinds of interactions because two species that didn't use to overlap in time, now they'll bump into each other and get to interact in ways that we haven't seen before. But my the optimist in me says, "Yeah, these species are resilient and they're going to do cool, new things," but a lot of species will be able to persist in the face of a changing climate.
Daniela Kucz ’14 I'm going to switch tracks a little bit, but of course we can always come back to the specifics of your research. But I think I wanna bring us back to your family history because I think that piece is very important obviously to you, but also I think to the story of Swarthmore, and the story of the lab and your work. It seems that the theme, sort of of interconnectedness that we're seeing in your research is also one that has shaped much of your life, your family history has rich, multi-generational community ties with Swarthmore. And I would love for you to tell us more about your family's history and how they came to establish those connections.
Brian Inouye ’91 Okay, yeah, so I have a great grandmother who was, I think my first Swarthmore connection and she was a dormer mother in parish in the 1940s. So at that time, my grandmother was a boarding student at the George School in the Philly area, a Quaker school. And my great-grandmother was working for Swarthmore. My grandmother then attended Swarthmore, that'd be Eleanor Inouye, a class of ’47, I believe. My grandfather, William Inouye, class of ’44, he and his brother and sister all arrived at Swarthmore in an unusual way. So my grandfather's family is Japanese-American. They were living in California when Pearl Harbor was bombed. And so he and his family were all sent to an internment camp. They were released from the internment camp to attend college at Swarthmore through a program that was started by the AFSC that gained parole for college-aged Japanese-Americans in camp to attend a set of small schools, mostly Quaker schools on the east coast, so. So he and his brother and sister were able to attend Swarthmore while paroled, they had to take a train into Philly to report to their parole officer every week. And the college had to certify that they were staying on campus and, you know, under good behavior. And my grandfather's, sister's roommate became my grandmother. So that's how they met. And then they stayed in the Swarthmore geographic vicinity for a while, ended up settling in Philly and so they lived near campus. My father grew up at least some of his years near campus and then he attended Swarthmore and met my mother who was a couple years ahead of him. She's the first generation Swarthmore in her side of the family. But, yeah, so that my parents were the second Swarthmore matchbox couple in that lineage. So, yeah, there's a number of Swarthmore connections in my family.
Daniela Kucz ’14 I love hearing about your family's history and for anyone that wants to learn more, I think I should have successfully sent an article in the Q&A to everyone, but if not, it's an article in the Swarthmore Bulletin from 2012 called Of Injustice and Opportunity. And I highly recommend you all take a look at that to learn more. I think on the sort of topic of community and Swarthmore, it seems that the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab is very much a tight-knit place. And as you called out requires a lot of volunteers to join to help collect the data. It seems that your father, despite being retired, continues to work there as well. What is being a part of that community like, and how did going to Swarthmore, which I think as a small liberal arts school, really encourages that same kind of community influence your approach to your research or your decision to do research in that kind of environment?
Brian Inouye ’91 Yeah, great question. So, I feel like that there are some commonalities between the Swarthmore community, which I loved and this community at a biology field station, and that you've got a bunch of, you know, smart people really excited about what they're doing, who are happy to bounce ideas around and just now talk about the cool things they see or the cool things they're doing, whatever they're working on. And so whether it's somebody studying butterflies or someone working on, you know, mayflies in the stream or, you know, studying ground squirrels, they're just excited about what they're doing and excited to share what that is they're learning. And that's something I remember from Swarthmore is talking with people in my dorm and friends that were other majors, but they were excited about what they were hearing in classes, excited about what they were learning and wanting to share ideas. And so it feels like a familiar and exciting academic community, that's one of the things I love about being at a field station. But it also means that the science, you know, it's not one person off working by themselves trying to have brilliant ideas. It's the groups of people collecting data together in the field. So, you know, working with graduate students, and undergraduates, and research assistants, but also groups of people working in different systems that get together in the dining hall and just share their love of biology, their love of ideas. So I think there are some commonalities and for all I know the fact that Dr. Enders was director of the Lab and establishing some of the traditions there in the '50, '60s and '70, it might be that his influence actually did shape some of, you know, the culture of that field station and that would lead to commonalities between Swarthmore communities and the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab. I'm speculating there, but it's plausible.
Daniela Kucz ’14 Highly likely. I know we only have three minutes left, so I think I would love to bring it back to your research. Tell us what's next. I know you said it's a little bit TBD at the moment, but I am curious if you have any particular plans for where to take your research.
Brian Inouye ’91 So, you know, something I'd mentioned to you that I'm excited about is Nora and I are planning to go on sabbatical next year to be in Sweden. And we've learned about through some colleagues, in Sweden, a long-term phenology database in Sweden that runs from the 1870s up through the 1950s. And so it was a program that was set up by someone in the Swedish government who printed out little postcards and asked people to fill out these postcards with their observations and then mail them back to him. And they were sitting in a library at the, you know, Royal Scientific Institute in Stockholm for decades. And they've only recently been sort of gathered together. They're digitizing these and trying to extract the information from them. But this is, you know, one of the earliest citizen science projects that I know about and one of the earliest phenology projects I know about, 'cause now to get data from the 1870s is pretty amazing. So we're excited to work with some colleagues in Sweden on a different long-term phenology database looking at plants and records for birds from the, you know, 1870s on. And then think about whether we can forecast from a 100-year-old data things that we're seeing today, or whether modern climate conditions and modern ecological communities are so far outside the realm of what was happening from 1870s through the 1950s that we're just in a new state. Because I think that'll help us think about whether the forecasts that we're making now know, trying to project 50 years into the future are likely to be reasonable or if we need to be even more cautious about how do we project into the future based on what we're seeing these days?
Daniela Kucz ’14 Impeccable timing. Thank you so much, Brian, for this fascinating presentation, and conversation, and taking the time to share your work with us today. Thank you everyone else for attending and I hope you all have a great evening.
Brian Inouye ’91 I'm sorry if my talk went too long and we should have had more time for conversation, but, yeah, if people have additional questions or wanna reach out, it's easy enough to find me through my name and Florida State University. So I'm happy to engage with additional questions later.
Daniela Kucz ’14 Thank you.
Brian Inouye ’91 Thanks.