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Will earlier springs throw nature out of step?

Posted on 09/02/2010
spring

Researchers studied how seasonal changes have affected a range of organisms

The recent trend towards earlier UK springs and summers has been accelerating, according to a study published today (9 February 2010) in the scientific journal ‘Global Change Biology’.

The collaborative study – involving Dr Paul Bright from Royal Holloway, University of London and 11 other UK research institutions, universities and conservation organisations – is the most comprehensive and rigorous assessment so far of long-term changes in the seasonal timing (phenology) of biological events across marine, freshwater and terrestrial environments in the UK.

Led by scientists from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH), the research gathers together more than 25,000 long-term phenology trends for 726 species of plants and animals. More than 80% of trends between 1976 and 2005 indicate earlier seasonal events. The study considers a diverse array of organisms including plankton, plants, insects, amphibians, fish, birds and mammals. On average, the seasonal timing of reproduction and population growth has become earlier by more than 11 days over the whole period, but change has accelerated in recent decades.

The research shows that there are large differences between species in the rate at which seasonal events have shifted. Changes have been most rapid for many organisms at the bottom of food chains, such as plants and the animals that feed upon them. Predators have shown slower overall changes in the seasonal timing of their life cycle events. However, the seasonal timing of reproduction is often matched to the time of year when food supply increases, so that offspring receive enough food to survive.

A key question is whether animals higher up the food chain will react to the faster rates of change in the plants and animals they feed upon, or whether they will fail to do so and become less successful at rearing their offspring.

Dr Thackeray, from the CEH said, “This is the first time that data have been analysed with enough consistency to allow a meaningful comparison of patterns of changing seasonal timing in the UK among such a diverse range of plants and animals.”

Jill Nelson, Chief Executive of the People’s Trust for Endangered Species who supplied data to the study said, “PTES were delighted to support this excellent study by contributing data from the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme which has been running for over 20 years. It highlights the need for continuous monitoring programmes such as this to detect change over long time-scales to underpin robust conservation planning.”

The analysis was funded through a Natural Environment Research Council Centre for Ecology & Hydrology Environmental Change Integrating Fund project SPACE (Shifting Phenology: Attributing Change across Ecosystems).


   
 
 
 

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