Jewels with legs: The importance of bioarchives in studying the effects of climate change

February 07, 2011

By Sandra Chung

I'm no entomologist, but since I started work as a communications specialist at NEON, I'm starting to understand why it's important to keep insects around.

During my first week at NEON I took an informal tour of the technical facility in Boulder and saw, among other things, boxes and boxes full of preserved insects. NEON scientists had collected them in the field, painstakingly mounted them atop fine pins, and arranged them in neat rows. The sight of hundreds of mosquito wings made me itch involuntarily, but the beetles looked appealing, like little black jewels. Collectors might treasure bugs because they're pretty or odd. But these boxes of little black jewels are treasures to science, too. At a seminar held at NEON in late January, Cesar Nufio told a NEON audience how he stumbled upon a dusty trove of thousands of grasshopper specimens and typed field notebooks that helped him and his colleagues tell a startlingly clear story of the impact of climate change on the wildlife of the Front Range of Colorado. The grasshopper data are unique and valuable for both their age and completeness, particularly because climate change is a long-term phenomenon whose impacts play out over decades and centuries. But scientists have been collecting this particular type of data for only about the past 20 years. Studying any specific related climate impacts before that often means having to reconstruct important bits of data, with sketchy results. Because the grasshoppers were collected over an elevation gradient and near weather stations, Nufio and his colleagues at the University of Colorado, Boulder were able to tease out distinct relationships between climate, grasshopper development, and elevation. They could also compare the results with those of a modern grasshopper survey that they conducted at the exact same sites as the original study, 50 years later. [[nid:4316]] They found a perfect relationship between temperature and grasshopper development in both the old study and the new one. A grasshopper, Nufio says, is like a frozen pizza in that both need a certain amount of heat, or energy, to get to the next stage of "doneness." By comparing temperature records with simultaneous observations of what developmental stage the grasshoppers were in, Nufio and his colleagues were able to figure out how many growing days above a certain temperature the grasshoppers needed to develop. In the context of climate change, warming climate means earlier grasshopper development. The Front Range, like much of the world, is warmer than it was 50 years ago. But the effects of climate change play out differently in different locations and for different species. In the case of Front Range grasshoppers, elevation was a major factor. Down in the foothills, the average temperatures didn't change much, and the grasshoppers' development didn't, either. But at the highest study site, the average temperature was several degrees higher, and the grasshoppers were developing on an accelerated schedule, as much as a month ahead for some species. The significance of Nufio's results were not lost on his NEON audience, which included a variety of employees and scientists from every corner of NEON. In particular, NEON's Fundamental Sentinel Unit (FSU) scientists took note. They will be cataloguing and preserving insect samples from across the country over the next 30 years for the distinct purpose of creating an archive that can be used by future scientists to study the effects of climate change. "Nufio's presentation did a great job of linking the utility of museum collections and historical data with the ability to answer modern problems and questions," said Courtney Meier, NEON’s plant ecologist, of Nufio's seminar. "It illustrates the importance of NEON's mission to create these bioarchives."
I was particularly captivated by the story of Nufio's detective work. Nufio and his colleagues were funded by the National Science Foundation to follow up on the work of Gordon Alexander, the sometime-University of Colorado biologist who was responsible for the long-forgotten specimens and notebooks. But in their efforts to reconstruct the 50-year-old grasshopper studies and conduct a parallel modern study, Nufio’s team found as much history as they did science. The team tracked down Alexander’s descendants, former students and colleagues, who contributed a wealth of photographs and memories about the elder scientist and educator. Much of that information went into a biography for The Gordon Alexander Project. Nufio is now an adjoint curator of the entomology section at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History. But he didn't start out as an insect person; rather, he was a behavioral ecologist, until he found Gordon Alexander's grasshoppers and caught the insect bug, so to speak. It might very well be contagious.

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