Kerissa Battle: Citizen science across two centuries

Throughout April, we are featuring the articles shortlisted for the 2022 Harper Prize. The Harper Prize is an annual award for the best early career research paper published in Journal of Ecology. Kerissa Fuccillo Battle et al.’s article ‘Citizen science across two centuries reveals phenological change among plant species and functional groups in the Northeastern US‘ is one of those shortlisted for the award.

👋 About me

Growing up on the streets of Queens in New York City, I knew almost nothing about the natural world. In my teens, a chance walk in the forest stunned me and changed the course of my life. My primary schooling became the forests and parks nearby. Their dazzling diversity compelled me to study; my studies inspired me to devote my life to ecology and environmental education, to creating opportunities for people in both urban and rural environments to connect with nature.

I headed west to Prescott College first to pursue a wilderness and field-based education, to learn and apply the skills of ecological work in both plant and animal systems.  From there it was on to Oregon to complete my Master’s degree and join researchers from UC Davis to study how climate change was shifting plant communities in the Siskiyou Mountains and train local teachers in field-based education. I remained determined to understand how to help people bridge the natural world with urban environments and so completed an unconventional working PhD at Portland State University creating phenology-based citizen science projects in Portland and then New York, launching a non-profit called Community Greenways Collaborative (“CGC”) to focus on how ecological research and education could build social-ecological connectivity between communities.

CGC became the platform for launching the New York Phenology Project, a networked community science initiative. I collaborated with the Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program to digitize and analyze a two-hundred-year-old phenology dataset which had been all but forgotten after the US Civil War. We raised the funding to undertake this monumental research endeavor through community education programs, small local grants and community sponsors who understood that creative research agendas could impact communities and the ecosystems they depend upon.

Citizen scientists write down observations (Credit: Kerissa Fucillo Battle)

🔎 The shortlisted research

In the shortlisted study in the Journal of Ecology, we compare this neglected historical data set of phenology and temperature observations collected across the state of New York (1826–1872) to contemporary volunteer-contributed observations (2009–2017), to evaluate changes in plant phenology between time periods. These multi-site, multi-taxa phenology data matched with temperature data uniquely extend historical observations back in time prior to the major atmospheric effects of the Industrial Revolution in North America.

Results from this study show large phenological differences from the beginning to almost two centuries after industrialization, including strong effects of urbanization and greater advancement in flowering for early-season species, and for trees and shrubs, particularly those that are insect-pollinated. This shift is associated with a warming trend in mean January-to-April temperatures, with flowering and leafing advancing on average 3 days/°C earlier. Moreover, the historical observations were collected by a trained citizen science network similar in structure and observation protocols to the contemporary USA-NPN, vividly illustrating the utility of public participation in science research to build data sets rich with potential for discovery. Our results also highlight the potential for mismatches and other community-level changes in interactions—such as shifts in plant-pollinator, plant-herbivore, or plant-plant relationships—to occur locally and along urban–rural and other climate gradients. Our analyses suggest several ways phenological variation can create demographic and population impacts across time scales. We identified species and groups of species (e.g., insect-pollinated trees) that might be used as indicators of changes in phenology and those that might be further impacted by future warming.

Collectively, these data deepen our understanding of climate change impacts, creating rich opportunities for further experimental work and modeling. By bringing the efforts of a historical network into a contemporary context we explicitly illustrate how long-term monitoring and citizen and community science efforts are invaluable for ecological forecasting and discovery.

Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), found in both data sets used in the study (Credit: Kerissa Fucillo Battle)

🌸 What’s next?

While I continue to expand my primary ecological research on phenological change and best practices for restoring pollinator habitat, I find that the need for translational ecologists, that is, ecologists who can make their work compelling and relevant to other disciplines and communities (economic, cultural, political, or social) are increasingly in demand. I actively advise and support networked ecological initiatives such as building connected greenspaces and citizen and community science programs to ensure accessibility to all ages and backgrounds, in both urban and rural environments.

This work has created another research stream on how best to strengthen the vital and necessary link between social-ecological systems through organizational development. Manuscripts in this research area, as well as creative nonfiction works on human-nature connection are in progress.

Find Kerissa on Twitter.

Read the full list of articles shortlisted for the 2022 Harper Prize here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s