Grasshoppers give clues to global warming
Boulder Daily Camera
Vail, CO Colorado
BOULDER, Colo. (AP) ” The patch of forest floor that Cesar Nufio has picked out looks barren, the dead gray pine needles and patchy snow evidence that spring has yet to spring at 8,000 feet in the mountains west of Boulder.
But appearances can be deceiving. Nufio squats, slowly passes his hand a few inches above the ground, then makes a lightning-fast grab and examines his catch: an Arphia conspersa grasshopper squirming between his thumb and index finger.
Many of the dozens of grasshoppers Nufio and an assistant will nab this afternoon are out before they’re supposed to be, and they’re providing evidence, Nufio says, that climate change is already having an impact on wildlife.
Nufio knows that because he’s not the first person to spend his afternoons combing foliage for grasshoppers in and around Boulder. Gordon Alexander, a University of Colorado biologist and administrator, did it first 50 years ago, painstakingly documenting his research in the form of notebooks and 14,000 pinned grasshopper specimens.
Alexander died in a plane crash in 1973. His son, Doug Alexander, saved his father’s documents and specimens and kept pushing CU to use them, but the research was relegated to a corner of a campus storage locker and essentially forgotten for three decades.
Two years ago, Nufio found the data and realized what he had on his hands: a perfect natural experiment for measuring the impact of climate change. Nufio, a curator adjoint at the CU Museum, applied for and won a grant from the National Science Foundation to follow up on Gordon Alexander’s work.
As he leafed through notebooks and dozens of wood-and-glass specimen cases, Nufio kept asking the same question: Who was Gordon Alexander?
It turns out Alexander ” or at least his likeness ” had been watching over him for years. Alexander served as chair of the biology department for two decades, starting in the mid-1930s, and after his tenure ended, he’d been memorialized.
“Somebody said, ‘He’s right there,”‘ and pointed to a green bust of Alexander on a shelf in the museum’s entomology office, Nufio recalled. “I thought it was just a random bust that had been thrown in there for some reason. I had just thought, whatever … entomologists can be kind of weird.”
Alexander’s research is invaluable, Nufio said, because it gives scientists a baseline against which they can make comparisons. It’s impossible to tell whether a species is declining in numbers, or if its behavior is changing, if you don’t have a good record of how it traditionally has lived.
“One of the things that’s really problematic with climate change is that people back in the 1970s, the 1950s, the early 1900s ” they didn’t really expect the climate would be changing dramatically, so people didn’t collect that type of information,” Nufio said. “A lot of times, you’ll want to measure the effects (of environmental changes), but nobody collected or described what it used to be like, so we can’t do it.”
Alexander did. As he researched the effect of elevation on grasshopper species, he recorded their numbers, their stages of development, when they hatched and when they matured.
Best of all, Nufio said, was the way Alexander chose his collection sites around Boulder: He favored plots of land directly adjacent to weather stations, creating the perfect experimental conditions to research the effects of climate change.
So far, Nufio said, preliminary results seem to show climate change is having an impact. At weather stations that show a degree or two of warming, grasshoppers, which use temperature as a cue to mature, are becoming adults nearly a month earlier than they were in the late 1950s, when Alexander collected his data.
Grasshoppers that live near higher-altitude weather stations that haven’t recorded warming temperatures are coming out at their expected times, Nufio said.
Nufio’s a scientist, but, until 2005, studying bugs wasn’t his forte. He started his career as a behavioral ecologist. But when he saw the potential in Alexander’s meticulously kept data, Nufio said, “I started learning grasshoppers.”
Using money from a National Science Foundation grant and undergraduate labor,
Nufio has taken all of Alexander’s data and put it into a database connected to the Web.
When he snatches an adult Melanoplus packardii from its hiding place and wants to know whether it’s molted earlier than normal, the answer is at his fingertips the second he returns to the lab.
“Every time I find something like this, I like to run back and go, ‘When did they find the first adult?”‘ he said. “It’s very exciting.”
Doug Alexander, Gordon Alexander’s son, is a professor emeritus at California State University in Chico, Calif. He started prodding CU officials to do something with his father’s volumes of data soon after the plane crash in 1973.
Alexander said he didn’t get much response from university officials and despaired of the data ever being used: “At the time, I wasn’t impressed that the museum understood the scientific importance of what they had.”
But, he said, late is better than never. And museum officials did take good care of the specimens, which wouldn’t have survived for three decades otherwise, Alexander said, because other insects try to eat them.
“You have to constantly figure out ways to keep the collection clean,” he said, and the museum succeeded in doing just that.
Shortly after his father’s death, Alexander tried to get his hands around all that data, to find hidden trends. But the state-of-the-art computer technology at the time ” refrigerator-sized mainframes fed by cumbersome punch-cards ” was just too difficult.
If his father could see the ease with which researchers can slice and dice his data, Alexander said, he’d be amazed.
“It would blow my father’s mind,” Alexander said. “But I’m sure he’d be very happy.”
Gordon Alexander retired as chair of CU’s biology department in the late 1950s but stayed on as a professor so he could devote his time to studying grasshoppers. In 1958, he received a $20,000, three-year grant from the National Science Foundation and started collecting the data Nufio would later inherit.
Alexander retired in 1966 but was still actively continuing his studies when he died in a Delta plane crash in Boston in 1973, Doug Alexander said.
Alexander said his father wasn’t interested in grasshoppers for their own sake. Gordon Alexander would always emphasize this: Grasshoppers were a means to understanding a bigger picture. In Alexander’s case, that meant trying to get a better grasp of the effect of elevation on organisms.
Doug Alexander said that’s one of the reasons he’s so pleased with the research Nufio has started. Like the biologist, Nufio is hoping grasshoppers can help tell a larger story.
“I think it’s just delightful that they’re using these grasshoppers to get at this whole modern problem of climate change, and going back and repeating his studies,” Alexander said.