Investigating the Effects of Climate Change on Pollinator-Plant Dynamics in the Rocky Mountains

2018 Faculty Research Award

Award Period: 2018-2020

Climate change appears to be initiating changes in phenology — the seasonal timing of biological events such as flower blooms — that affect ecosystem function and health. PEI associated faculty Mary Caswell Stoddard, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, will explore the impact of early flowering on the broad-tailed hummingbird (Selasphorus platycercus) to help understand how pollinator-plant interactions may be impacted by climate change. Very little is known about how early flowering affects hummingbird foraging behavior. However, the broad-tailed’s courtship and nesting cycles are becoming unsynchronized with the peak bloom of important sources of nectar as warmer temperatures and earlier snowmelt cause flowers to bloom sooner. Working at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) in Colorado, Stoddard will use time-lapse videos and automated flower monitoring to capture the foraging behavior of individual broad-tailed hummingbirds during the breeding season. The collected data will provide a detailed picture of hummingbird foraging ecology, and they will likely reveal changes in the size and structure of the broad-tailed population due to climate-driven changes.

Flowers pollinated by broad-tailed hummingbirds: (left to right) Ipomopsis aggregata, Lonicera involucrata, Erythronium grandiflorum, and Delphinium nuttallianum. (Photo credit: Flowers A-C by N. Alexandre; D from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Educational Impacts

Princeton undergraduate students will be involved at every stage of this project. In year one, first-year students and sophomores can apply for a special two-year research fellowship composed of independent summer fieldwork at RMBL and learning computational techniques in the Stoddard Lab during the academic year. RMBL is the summer base of more than 150 biologists engaged in workshops, classes and seminars geared toward undergraduate researchers. During the second year, students will be encouraged to develop independent projects that can evolve into publishable senior-thesis research. Finally, students will play a central role in organizing a two-day workshop at RMBL titled, “Hummingbirds and Climate Change,” at which point they will share their research with scientists, local community members and colleagues in conservation organizations. The proposed work also will provide partial support for a postdoctoral researcher to help pioneer the time-lapse video technology and to serve as a mentor to undergraduate fellows.

Undergraduate student Cole Morokhovich, of the Class of 2020, expanded his 2018 PEI summer internship on this project into his senior thesis research on the effect of climate change on flowers that broad-tailded hummingbirds rely on for food — read about his work here.

Participating Department

Collaborating Institutions


Faculty

Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Research Associates


Undergraduate Students