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Phenology vs. Phrenology: Does the “r” Make A Difference?

Participants from a Citizen Science workshop learning to observe phenophases.

The answer is yes! While these two words sound the same, their definitions are far from that. Phrenology (with the “r”) is the detailed study of the shape and size of the skull and its possible relation to mental capacity. So why would a Natural Resources Agent be writing about human biology? Well, I’m not. I am here to tell you about Phenology (minus the “r”) which is the study of seasonal and cyclical natural phenomena, especially in relation to plant and animal life. Put another way, phenology is the study of nature’s calendar, when orange trees bloom, when a cardinal builds its nest, when leaves change colors in the fall, etc. Okay, sounds interesting, but why does it matter to me? Great question! There are many answers to this and phenology is important to different people in different ways. For example, if you are one that is prone to allergies, then you will want to know when certain plants are releasing air-borne pollen. If you are a farmer or gardener, you need to know when to plant to avoid frosts, when to apply pesticides to target insects as they emerge, etc. Phenological events, called phenophases, (flowering, bird migrations, etc.) are sensitive to changes in climate. By studying the timing and occurrence of phenophases, scientists are able to determine patterns and shifts over time. With thousands of species and even more phenophases, it is easy to see how scientist can’t collect all the data on their own; this is where citizen science comes into play. Citizen science refers to collaboration between scientists and citizens (usually volunteers) to expand the opportunities for scientific data collection. It is a win-win because scientists get more data to work with and citizens have the unique opportunity to contribute to science and gain access to the data and results.

Citizen Science class learning how to make observations for Nature’s Notebook

The National Phenology Network developed a citizen science database called Nature’s Notebook where phenological observations can be logged by people like you. By tapping into an already popular hobby of nature viewing, Nature’s Notebook is a place for you to enter the observations you are already making. Understanding the importance and significance of phenology puts our reliance on natural resources into perspective. We all need food to survive and agriculture is one industry that is very dependent on Nature’s calendar. If you wish to find out more about the National Phenology Network, you can visit their website at: https://www.usanpn.org/ or if you are ready to start learning more about how you can be involved with Nature’s Notebook, check out https://www.usanpn.org/natures_notebook. If you have any questions about the phenology or Nature’s Notebook, please feel free to contact me.