text-only page produced automatically by LIFT Text Transcoder Skip all navigation and go to page contentSkip top navigation and go to directorate navigationSkip top navigation and go to page navigation
National Science Foundation
News
design element
News
News From the Field
For the News Media
Special Reports
Research Overviews
NSF-Wide Investments
Speeches & Lectures
NSF Current Newsletter
Multimedia Gallery
News Archive
News by Research Area
Arctic & Antarctic
Astronomy & Space
Biology
Chemistry & Materials
Computing
Earth & Environment
Education
Engineering
Mathematics
Nanoscience
People & Society
Physics
 

Email this pagePrint this page


Press Release 12-103
Where Have All the Hummingbirds Gone?

Glacier lilies and broad-tailed hummingbirds out of sync

Image of a glacier lily flower.

Glacier lilies flower within days of snowmelt and are an important nectar resource.
Credit and Larger Version

May 30, 2012

The glacier lily as it's called, is a tall, willowy plant that graces mountain meadows throughout western North America. It flowers early in spring, when the first bumblebees and hummingbirds appear.

Or did.

The lily, a plant that grows best on subalpine slopes, is fast becoming a hothouse flower. In Earth's warming temperatures, its first blooms appear some 17 days earlier than they did in the 1970s, scientists David Inouye and Amy McKinney of the University of Maryland and colleagues have found.

The problem, say the biologists, with the earlier timing of these first blooms is that the glacier lily is no longer synchronized with the arrival of broad-tailed hummingbirds, which depend on glacier lilies for nectar.

By the time the hummingbirds fly in, many of the flowers have withered away, their nectar-laden blooms going with them.

Broad-tailed hummingbirds migrate north from Central America every spring to high-mountain breeding sites in the western United States. The birds have only a short mountain summer to raise their young. Male hummingbirds scout for territories before the first flowers bloom.

But the time between the first hummingbird and the first bloom has collapsed by 13 days over the past four decades, say Inouye and McKinney. "In some years," says McKinney, "the lilies have already bloomed by the time the first hummingbird lands."

The biologists calculate that if current trends continue, in two decades the hummingbirds will miss the first flowers entirely.

The results are reported in a paper in the current issue of the journal Ecology. In addition to McKinney and Inouye, co-authors of the paper are Paul CaraDonna of the University of Arizona; Billy Barr of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Crested Butte, Colo.; David Bertelsen of the University of Arizona; and Nickolas Waser, affiliated with all three institutions.

"Northern species, such as the broad-tailed hummingbird, are most at risk of arriving at their breeding sites after their key food resources are no longer available, yet ecologists predict that species will move northward as climate warms," says Saran Twombly, program director in the National Science Foundation's Division of Environmental Biology, which funded the research.

"These conflicting pressures challenge society to ensure that species don't soon find themselves without a suitable place to live."

Broad-tailed hummingbirds that breed farther south have fewer challenges.

"In Arizona, for example," says Inouye, "there's no obvious narrowing of the timing between the first arriving males and the first blooms of, in this case, the nectar-containing Indian paintbrush."

Higher latitudes may be more likely to get out of sync ecologically because global warming is happening fastest there.

As the snow continues to melt earlier in the spring, bringing earlier flowering, says Inouye, the mountains may come alive with glacier lilies long before hummingbirds can complete their journey north.

"Where have all the flowers gone?" then will be "where have all the hummingbirds gone?"

-NSF-

Media Contacts
Cheryl Dybas, NSF, (703) 292-7734, cdybas@nsf.gov

Related Websites
Where Have All the Flowers Gone?: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=119843
Early Spring Drives Butterfly Population Declines: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=123520
Live Chat: Spring Forward--The Ecological Impact of Climate Change on the Seasons: http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2012/03/live-chat-spring-forwardthe-ecol.html

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2014, its budget is $7.2 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 50,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,500 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $593 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

 Get News Updates by Email 

Useful NSF Web Sites:
NSF Home Page: http://www.nsf.gov
NSF News: http://www.nsf.gov/news/
For the News Media: http://www.nsf.gov/news/newsroom.jsp
Science and Engineering Statistics: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/
Awards Searches: http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/

 

Photo of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Colorado.
The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Colorado, where the research took place.
Credit and Larger Version

Photo of glacier lilies in flower.
As climate warms, glacier lilies flower earlier, with a record early-flowering in 2012.
Credit and Larger Version

Photo of a male broad-tailed hummingbird, with yellow pollen on its bill.
Male broad-tailed hummingbird, with the yellow pollen on its bill likely from a glacier lily.
Credit and Larger Version

Photo of a researcher holding a male broad-tailed hummingbird.
Resting briefly in a researcher's hand: a male broad-tailed hummingbird.
Credit and Larger Version

Photo of a female broad-tailed hummingbird visiting purple larkspur flowers.
Female broad-tailed hummingbird visiting a nectar-containing tall larkspur in summer.
Credit and Larger Version



Email this pagePrint this page
Back to Top of page