Field of Science

Biological collections as a data source for paleoclimatology

Comparing the notes of plant-specimens preserved in collections a new study has analyzed the potential of plants to interfere and reconstruct climatic changes in the historic past.

The variation of climatic parameters, like temperature and precipitation, can influence the growth and life cycle of plants. Modern research based on the resulting phenological data of plants, especially the period when species develop sprout, bud and bloom, showed that in Europe these periods for some species begin today earlier then 30 years ago (MENZEL et al. 2006).

Such observations about the development of plants were collected systematically only since 1950, for longer time periods information’s are scarce or missing.

However the information’s associated to biological collections in herbaria and museums, for example description of site and time of collection, can be a potential source of long-term data for such studies.
The new research by ROBBIRT et al. 2010 examined these information’s for herbarium specimens of Ophrys sphegodes, an orchid species, collected between 1848 and 1958, and compared the time of collection with the recorded peak flowering time of recent populations of O. sphegodes between 1975 and 2006.
In this case the proportions of peak flowering time based on the herbarium data corresponded closely with observed peak flowering times in the field, indicating that flowering response to temperature had not altered between the two separate periods over which the herbarium and field data were collected.
These results nevertheless provide the first direct validation of the potential use of specimens of plants or animals preserved in historic collections for paleoclimatic reconstructions.


ROBBIRT, K.M.; DAVY, A.J.; HUTCHINGS, M.J. & ROBERTS, D.L. (2010): 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.

MENZEL, A. et al. (2006):European phenological response to climate change matches the warming pattern. Global Change Biology. Vol.12(10): 1969-1976

Online resources:

The figure of Ophrys insectifera is taken from:

THOME, O.W. (1885-1905): Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz in Wort und Bild für Schule und Haus. Gera.

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