Warming temperatures are advancing the timing of seasonal vegetation development in the extratropics, altering plant–animal interactions and increasing the risk of trophic asynchrony. Forest understories are critical yet under-observed ecosystems in which phenological patterns are both altered and obscured by overstory trees. We address the challenge of observing phenological dynamics in the understory by exploiting the physiological relationship between plant phenology and temperature accumulation, a horticultural principle we show to be preserved across spatial scales through a combination of field and growth-chamber observations. These observations provide the foundation for a spaceborne thermal-observation framework, which can trace the discrete phenophases of forest understory plants in near-real time. The thermal basis of this framework also enables the prediction of understory phenology for future climates, which we demonstrate here using Shepherdia canadensis, a widespread fruiting shrub of western North America that has important trophic connections to frugivores. Our approach enables researchers to assess the regional-scale impacts of climate change on bottom-up forest ecosystems and to monitor emerging trophic mismatches.

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Data availability

Daily MODIS LST imagery products are available from the NASA Land Processes Distributed Active Archive Center (LP DAAC, http://lpdaac.usgs.gov). The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Code availability

The computer code and algorithms generated during this study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Additional information

Journal peer review information: Nature Climate Change thanks Eric Post and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.


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The authors thank Alberta Innovates Biosolutions, the many partners of the Foothills Research Institute Grizzly Bear programme and programme lead G. Stenhouse for their generous funding and logistical support. Further thanks go to J. Woosaree, J. Newman and the staff at InnoTech Alberta for facilitating the growth-chamber experiments; R. Snyder for input on deriving base temperatures; and the NASA LP DAAC for access to the MODIS LST products. Additional funding support was provided by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) through a Discovery Grant to G.J.M., Alberta Innovates, the University of Calgary and the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships Programme.

Author information


  1. Department of Geography, University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

    • David N. Laskin
    • , Gregory J. McDermid
    • , Shawn J. Marshall
    • , David R. Roberts
    •  & Alessandro Montaghi
  2. Department of Renewable Resources, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

    • Scott E. Nielsen


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D.N.L., G.J.M., S.E.N. and S.J.M. conceived the study design. G.J.M., S.E.N. and S.J.M. supervised the analysis. D.N.L performed the data collection and experiments. S.E.N. and D.N.L developed the statistical analysis. D.R.R. produced the SDMs and downscaled the RCP4.5 anomaly surface. A.M. wrote the code for automating the MODIS LST image processing and analysis and D.N.L. wrote the manuscript. All authors contributed to manuscript editing.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Correspondence to David N. Laskin.

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