What do fish and flowers have in common?

 Dec 18, 2017    by Rebecca Dalton

I have answered this question more times than I can count since September. My colleagues, friends, and family members have been curious as to why someone who studies plants, can suddenly switch to studying fish for a semester.

Since starting graduate school, I have been studying how climate change affects the time when plants begin flowering, and how the timing of flowering affects plant-pollinator and plant-plant interactions. Specifically, warming temperatures are causing some flowering species to emerge and reproduce earlier in the season, while others respond to warming temperature by emerging later. If different species in the same place respond unequally to the same environmental cues, populations might experience higher levels of competition for shared resources than in the past. To answer these questions, I have field experiments set up to study early-flowering species in Colorado (Figures 1A and 1C).

Ok, so a scientist who grew up in the land-locked wilds of Pittsburgh and now studies plants in Colorado, both quite far from the ocean, has taken an interest in fish. How did this happen?

Around this time, just about a year ago, I began browsing through the list of projects posted on the web portal for National Science Foundation Graduate Research Internship Program (NSF GRIP)1. The NSF GRIP enables graduate students to work in federally funded research labs including the United States Geological Survey, United States Department of Agriculture, and more. I have always worked in academic research labs, and I wanted to know how federal research labs conduct ecological research. When I searched the key word “phenology,” which means, timing of life cycle events, I found an opportunity to work with Dr. Michelle Staudinger at the Department of the Interior’s Northeast Climate Science Center. Since the NSF GRIP is specifically aimed at increasing professional skills and preparing students for future careers, I decided this might be a good opportunity to expand my understanding of how climate affects timing of life cycle events in a different species… fish. Dr. Staudinger and I prepared a proposal last year, and I am very excited to be here working with her lab group during the fall 2017 semester.

We spent the semester trying to answer the question, “What about the environment best predicts the timing of alewife migration?” Alewives (Alosa pseudoharengus) are one of two river herring species in North America, which migrate to coastal freshwater systems from the ocean to begin reproducing (Figures 1B and 1D). In Massachusetts, there is anecdotal information that some of these migrations are happening earlier in the season as a result of warming temperatures, while others show no discernable trend. To best understand what drives migration, we are working with a range of stakeholders and partners from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and colleagues at University of Massachusetts Amherst. Three months later, we are just about to find out the answer!

But back to my first question, “What do fish and flowers have in common?”, well, they are both organisms which are affected by climate change. They rely on temperature, which is increasing regionally and globally, to begin certain parts of their life cycle (flowering and migrating), but the story is more complex than just temperature alone. For example, the timing of snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains is critical for emergence of spring plants. Similarly, spring stream flow could be another cue alewives use to begin migration. Finally, they are both systems that I have learned to think critically about in terms of how anthropogenic changes affect natural processes, and how complex species interactions may be changing across diverse types of ecosystems.  

In addition to studying these two ecological systems, I have learned about the differences between basic and stakeholder-driven research. The main difference between basic and applied research is that the questions pursued in basic research are not necessarily coming from a conservation or management angle, which is the foundation of stakeholder-driven research. The process of finding an interesting question to work on for my PhD required a lot of time alone, reading the literature and finding gaps in our knowledge. The applied research that I have been exposed to this semester is more collaborative and requires relationships with stakeholders, such as state agencies, conservation groups, and/or land managers to determine the highest priority question(s). Not only the relationships with stakeholders vital to forming questions, we also discuss how to produce results that can best inform decision-making. I really enjoyed the chance to engage with our stakeholder for our project, and I hope to take all that I have learned back to my home PhD program at Duke University and apply to my career path after graduation and beyond.


1The National Science Foundation was created in 1950 to promote research in fundamental science and engineering. As an independent federal agency, they support nearly 25% of all federal funded basic academic research. They are a large supporter of graduate student research, with programs such as the Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP), which provides three years of funding for graduate students, and the Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant, which enables graduate students to pursue independent research. The National Science Foundation offers additional grant opportunities, called Graduate Research Internship Program (GRIP)


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A) A photo of my field site in Gothic, CO, where flowers begin blooming early each spring. B) Fish ladder in Parker River, MA where fish are counted each spring. C) A photo of Claytonia lanceoloata (spring beauty), which is one of my study species for my dissertation. D) A photo of Alosa pseudoharengus (alewife), which is the fish species I have been studying at the NE CSC as part of my NSF GRIP program. Photo credit: 1A and 1C by Rebecca Dalton, 1B and 1D by Matthew Devine.