Lisa Zinn

Climate change inspires interest in plant and animal life cycles

These are the kinds of questions Environmental Educator Lisa Zinn asked participants during a recent phenology hike at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center of Goshen College, Wolf Lake, Ind. Phenology is a branch of science that studies plant and animal life cycles and how they are affected by factors such as the weather. 

According to Zinn, leaf dropping is determined by length of daylight while bud-out has more to do with temperature. Details like this have taken on new significance as the climate warms and scientists begin to worry about how changes will affect individual species. Zinn’s hike was part of Merry Lea’s annual Autumn Hope Conference on the theme, Earth as Ally: Facing Climate Change Together.

Bird migration is an area of particular interest, Zinn indicated. What happens if a bird is cued by temperature while its prey responds to length of day? It may arrive in the north only to find that its food source is not available yet. A food web out of synch in this manner can send a vulnerable species into extinction.

Several goldfinches zoomed away from a patch of thistles as the group of hikers approached. “This species is very tied to thistle: they eat the seeds and wait until August to mate so that they can make their nests out of the fluff,” Zinn explained. “They are going to be in trouble if their cues take them out of good thistle range,” she added. 

Dendrochronology is another science that is developing in response to concerns about climate change. Scientists in this field study tree rings in order to gain insights into past climate conditions. As the group skirted a forest, Zinn pulled out a simple T-shaped instrument. She placed one end against a tree and showed a participant how to crank the handle. Soon, the two had a half-inch core showing the tree’s rings and its past history with fair weather and foul. The Noble County tree that Zinn cored was less than fifty years old, but in the Southwest, where trees grow slowly, scientists have studied wood from Anasazi homes over a thousand years old and obtained climate clues reaching back twice that far.

Throughout the hike, Zinn stressed the contributions nature fans can make by joining citizen science projects that track plant sightings or animal behavior. As the group stopped at the edge of a wetland to watch startled frogs plop into the water, Zinn recommended FrogWatch USA, a program of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. (See  HYPERLINK “” Frog calls, which mark these species’ breeding season, are an easy-to-monitor phenomenon that may be affected by climate change. FrogWatch volunteers attend one training session and monitor a site for at least three minutes twice a week. 

Another project called the Goldenrod Challenge (see invites teams to compete to photograph as many insect species associated with goldenrod as possible. While citizen scientists may not know what insect they are looking at, scientists can then work from the photos to determine what insects live in a given area. Zinn invited the group to bring cameras and gave them time to take photographs. Buckeye butterflies were one of the more striking species the group shot. 

Zinn has one more idea for a citizen project that to her knowledge, is not yet begun. “Somebody needs to start a web site where people can input information recorded in family diaries,” she challenged. Many clues from the past are buried in informal sources that nevertheless contain valuable climate data about an area. For example, scientists have mined Thoreau’s “Walden Pond” for its information on plant and animal species growing in the area at the time. 

Other hikes during Merry Lea’s conference on climate change included two by Merry Lea’s director of land management, Bill Minter. Minter led a prairie hike and a forest hike, both focused on how these ecosystems sequester carbon.

Forest hikers used a sampling prism and diameter tape to collect data for an inventory of the carbon stored above ground in trees in a given area. Prairie hikers examined a soil profile and observed the carbon stored in organic matter in the soil and in the extensive root systems of prairie grasses. 

Ryan Sensenig, director of the environmental science program at Goshen College, led a moonlight hike to Merry Lea’s Kesling Prairie where a steer named Big Blue grazed. Big Blue is part of a long-term research project based at Merry Lea that seeks to understand how agricultural grazing and prairie restoration can go hand in hand. This research will be especially significant if Indiana’s summers become hotter and drier as climatologists project, resulting in more prairie and less forest in Indiana.  

Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center of Goshen College is located in central Noble County, mid-way between Goshen and Fort Wayne and just south of Wolf Lake. For more information, go to Events are also posted at

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