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Anticipate and adapt to changing phenological patterns in the Pamir Mtns through the use of historical and contemporary biodiversity data



Understanding biological responses to unprecedented weather patterns in the Pamir Mountains will require a multi-faceted approach that makes use of traditional and scientific knowledge, regional and global resources, and the efforts of local experts and distant specialists. Specifically, the methods proposed here will tap into the wealth of information contained in body calendars, robust biodiversity specimen datasets, and the development of a contemporary phenological observation network. In combination, these three resources will provide the foundation on which to build predictive models and prepare for an uncertain future.

Body calendars, which mark biological events according to an anatomical timeline, have much in common with biodiversity specimens, which also record a biological event specific to a time and place. Specimens from the Pamir Mountains provide information about what species have been found, where exactly they were found, and what the conditions were like. In many cases, they include life cycle stages that also align with the traditional body calendar. For example, many plants are collected at the time when they are flowering.

All around the world, specimens that have been tucked away in cabinets at museums, universities and field stations are now freely available online via high-resolution images and transcribed data. A search of plant specimens from a crudely outlined section of the Pamir Mountains came up with over 1,000 results (see search results here from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (1)). These results show existing specimens from the Pamir Mountain region that are housed in collections all over the world. Anyone with internet access can view these specimen images and freely download the data contained therein.

Incorporating collections data with the knowledge of traditional body calendars will greatly enhance analyses of changing phenology in the Pamir Mountains. Additional species that are not part of the traditional body calendar can be used and compared to what locals have experienced with agricultural species and species of cultural importance. Further, biodiversity collections provide a robust time series of information to fill in gaps where observations were not made by individuals on the ground as well as provide information from many decades into the past (2,3). Biodiversity specimens can be especially useful when interpreting and trying to predict biological responses to unusual weather events. When droughts, heat waves, flooding, or late-season frosts strike, it is often possible to see how plants and animals responded by looking for clues in specimens. If, for example, relatively warm, dry winters are predicted for the future, we can look at specimens to see when plants flowered, when insects emerged, or when migrating animals returned during similar conditions in the past. 

Not all specimens that have been collected are available online, however, and as such their utility in modern research is hindered. With my colleagues, I have organized highly successful volunteer events to image specimens and digitize collection information (see Imaging and Transcription). Similar efforts with villagers in the Pamir Mountains will allow specimens to be used in climate research and will also serve as an educational tool for students and volunteers.

These methods will be enhanced by the formation of a network of volunteers making phenological observations of the plants and animals in the Pamir Mountains. Making phenological observations is easy, educational, and provides a strong metric of biological response to climate. Observations made in this region can be added to international repositories to add further weight and context to findings made by local communities.

This complex issue of Anticipating Climate Change in the Pamir Mountains will require the full utilization of traditional body calendars, tapping into data contained in biodiversity specimens, and current phenological observations.

Category of the action


Who will take these actions?

Local knowledge and community engagement are essential to this work. Specifically, local participation will include:

  • compiling all available information on body calendars. Project leaders have addressed this task in the past, and additional information will be sought that is specific to plant and animal phenology.
  • working with local biodiversity collections to image and digitize specimen information. I have worked with citizen scientists on these activities with great success (4, 5).
  • contribute to biodiversity collections with new specimen additions. This will extend the timeline of specimen information to the current time, will ensure sustainability and will enlighten future research questions.
  • make observations of plant and animal phenology, using tried and true methods of European and N American phenological agencies.
  • gather historical weather data. Weather data going back to the 1930s is easily accessible from NOAA (6) and includes baseline data from before strong climate signals were apparent.
  • work with project leaders to pool data from the body calendars, specimens, and observations, to make predictive models of biological response.
  • establish strong classroom and adult volunteer programs related to the above to ensure program sustainability. Educational workshops hosted onsite by project leaders can lay the foundation for long term success and ever-deepening awareness of local phenology in a changing climate.

With minimal guidance and training, a community member can easily assist in many of these tasks. Step-by-step instructions and protocols are already in development for this workflow. I am well versed in education, biodiversity collections and analysis of phenological data. I will be able to complete many of the organizational tasks.

What are other key benefits?

The benefits are many. Phenological resources outside of body calendars have not been tapped, yet there is a strong body of literature demonstrating the utility of these data in studies of climate change and climate adaptation. Understanding altered phenology and range shifts, in relation to historic and predicted (7) weather patterns, can assist in climate adaptation through improved conservation strategies, working within confines of biogeographic barriers, establishing refugia for important species, and considering assisted migration techniques to establish populations of species that can survive under future conditions (8).

There is also a strong educational component to this research. Encouraging and promoting local buy-in will be mutually beneficial to the research and to the villagers' well-being. With local participation, research can advance quickly, a strong network of observers can be established, and residents will gain a deeper understanding of their changing landscape.

What are the proposal’s costs?

The essential costs to this proposal are time for data collection, analysis, and reporting. Other costs include travel to the region to:

  • investigate biodiversity specimen collections and arrange specimen digitization activities
  • establish a network of phenological observers
  • educate local villagers about activities so that they may participate and continue with efforts long into the future.


Time line

Gathering and analyzing biodiversity data can happen in a matter of months. On the ground assessments and developing a network of observers to record phenology will take place over the next several years.

Related proposals


1. Global Biodiversity Information Facility;

2. Everill, P. H., R. B. Primack, E. R. Ellwood, and E. K. Melaas. 2014. Determining past leaf-out times of New England’s deciduous forests from herbarium specimens. American Journal of Botany doi: 10.3732/ajb.1400045.

3. Robbirt, K. M., A. J. Davy, M. J. Hutchings, and D. L. Roberts. 2011. Validation of biological collections as a source of phenological data for use in climate change studies: a case study with the orchid Ophrys sphegodes. Journal of Ecology 99:235-241.




7. IPCC, editor. 2013. Climate Change 2013:  The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom New York, NY, USA.

8. Scoble, J. and A. J. Lowe. 2010. A case for incorporating phylogeography and landscape genetics into species distribution modelling approaches to improve climate adaptation and conservation planning. Diversity and Distributions 16:343-353.

Additional related references:

Ellwood ER, Dunckel BA, Flemons P, Guralnick R, Nelson G, Newman G, Newman S, Paul D, Riccardi G, Rios N. 2015. Accelerating the Digitization of Biodiversity Research Specimens through Online Public Participation. BioScience. biv005.

Ellwood ER, Temple SA, Primack RB, Bradley NL, Davis CC. 2013. Record-Breaking Early Flowering in the Eastern United States. PLOS ONE 8: e53788.

Ellwood, E.R, Bart, HL, Doosey, MH, Jue, DK, Mann, JG, Nelson, G, Rios, N, Mast, AR. Mapping Life—Quality Assessment of Novice and Computer Automated vs. Expert Georeferences. In review, Citizen Science: Theory and Practice

Ibáñez I, Primack RB, Miller-Rushing AJ, Ellwood E, Higuchi H, Lee SD, Kobori H, Silander JA. 2010. Forecasting phenology under global warming. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences 365: 3247-3260.

Suarez, A. V. and N. D. Tsutsui. 2004. The Value of Museum Collections for Research and Society. Bioscience 54:66-74.