The Significance (?) of Obscure Species

I’m curious to know whether any of you can identify this plant species.

I know what it is, but don’t know much about it.  I doubt anyone really does.  In the United States, it is found as far east as Massachusetts and as far west as Arizona.  More broadly, it’s found throughout much of the western hemisphere, from Canada to Argentina.  However, I’m not sure it’s really common anywhere – it certainly isn’t often seen in Nebraska.  Just an obscure little species living an insignificant little life.

This plant can grow as tall as ?? feet, but I'll bet there aren't many people who live within its range who have ever noticed it.

This plant can grow up to 3 feet tall or more, but I’ll bet there aren’t many people who live within its range who have ever noticed it.  Thanks to Bill Whitney of Prairie Plains Resource Institute for introducing it to me back in the mid 1990’s.

I was talking about endangered species with some high school students the other day.  That led to a discussion about the value of species in general.  Why does it really matter if any particular species goes extinct?  We talked about interconnections between species and the impact the loss of one species could have on others and their environment.  We talked about the famous analogy of removing rivets from a plane.  And, of course, we talked about the potential value of species to science and human lives (curing cancer and the like).

I wanted the students to experience the surprising difficulty of defending the value of most individual species, especially when your audience is not well versed in ecology.  We can promote the idea of complex ecological webs and the potential damage the loss of a species might mean, but the truth is, the absence of most species would be fairly readily compensated for by the rest of the ecosystem.  Sure, there are notable exceptions, but they are only notable because they are unusual.  Eventually, of course, the loss of too many species, or particularly significant ones, can lead to sudden and cascading impacts in an ecological system.  It’s why the rivet analogy is so good.  But arguing for the importance of any particular individual rivet is challenging.

To me, the “cure for cancer” argument is particularly dangerous.  If we start using it, we’re forced into a corner and have to come up with equally viable justifications for all species.  Ok, so Species A will cure cancer – we’ll save that one.  But what does Species B or C do for us?  It’s a slippery slope.

Recently it was discovered that pandas have peptides in their blood that might help humans fight bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.  Not that pandas needed rationale for their conservation - they're cute, after all.  Surprisingly, not everyone thinks short-horned lizards are cute.  Does that mean we have to find a human health issue they can help us with in order to justify their conservation?

Recently it was discovered that giant pandas have peptides in their blood that could help humans fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Not that pandas needed extra rationale for their conservation – they’re cute. This is not a photo of a giant panda.  Surprisingly, not everyone thinks short-horned lizards are cute. Does that mean we have to find a human health issue they can help us with in order to justify their existence?

Of course, the preservation of species is also a moral issue.  For various reasons, most of us feel a responsibility for other life forms on earth.  Unfortunately, morals are often nice in theory, but surprisingly easy to rationalize away in specific instances.  Agreeing that a little brown slug species should be preserved is great until it stands in the way of a landowner’s ability to make the money he or she had counted on to send their kids to college.  Then one’s moral certainty depends upon whether one is the landowner or not!

I told the high schoolers that I usually try to shift a discussion away from trying to place value on one species or another, and instead talk about how the loss of a species can be an indication of much larger problems in an ecosystem.  Since ecosystems are more complex than we can grasp, the disappearance of species should trigger a vigorous effort to figure out what’s wrong before we start losing more.  It doesn’t often happen that way, but it should.  If we’re at the point where the choices made by a couple landowners could spell the extinction of a little brown slug, we’ve already screwed up pretty badly, and we’ve got bigger issues than just saving the last of those slugs.

…and that brings us back to the plant in the first photo.  If it disappeared tomorrow, most of us wouldn’t even know it was gone, let alone notice any ecological impacts.  There might be some microorganisms or herbivorous insects that specialize on it.  Maybe it’s even got its own specialist pollinator.   But the ripples caused by the loss of those species would go largely unnoticed by the larger ecosystem.  Does that make the plant insignificant?

Good question.


So – can you identify the plant?  I’ll even give you three clues.

1. It’s an annual.

2. It’s a legume.

3. The South Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station released a registered variety of this species in 1995.  Apparently, the species is significant to someone…

Good luck!  I’ll put the answer in the comments section below.

(If you don’t see a comments selection below, click on the title of this blog post and then look again.  Those of you who read this via email will have to do that for sure.)

45 thoughts on “The Significance (?) of Obscure Species

  1. Oh, and I’m betting someone will comment and tell me how abundant and important Dalea leporina is in their neck of the woods. I hope so – I’d be curious to know where it really thrives. However, even if that happens, it doesn’t change the larger point of my post. I think conservation of individual species is really important. It’s just hard to explain to someone who starts out on the other side, or who just doesn’t understand enough of ecology to see the context.

    I also think species conservation is less important than ecosystem conservation. A prairie can survive even if it loses some of its species. No prairie species can survive without a prairie.

    • Chris, 1-29-13

      With this broader thinking of ecosystem conservation, maybe the Federal Endangered Species Act could be amended to read as the Endangered Ecosystem Act and truly protect the whole system, rather than lose one species at a time while our natural resources slowly dismantle.

      • Pete, I think a lot of people would agree with you. I think the reason that hasn’t been tried so far is that there’s a lot of fear that opening up the Act for changes could go in some unpredictable ways… So far, people have been unwilling to open the can of worms.

        • Would it be possible to keep the Endangered Species Act as it is and propose we create an additional protection for endangered ecosystems?

          • Absolutely, Carol. Though there might be some interesting conflicts between the two. That would take some thought. I’m not sure the political climate is such that an endangered ecosystem bill would fare well in congress at the moment… : )

          • Chris, I think your assessment of the current “political climate” is spot on, but…I caught on the radio yesterday that the current public approval rating for congress is 12%. He said “you can’t get much lower than that”. So I’m guessing after the next election go-around it will probably swing the other way.

    • “A prairie can survive even if it loses some of its species. No prairie species can survive without a prairie.” — Well said Chris. Thanks!
      I knew it was a dalea, but also knew that I wasn’t sure if I had ever actually seen it before. This is a good way to play – stump the chump.

  2. Chris, that plant was present just south of my common garden plots along the Platte. I hadn’t seen it before and thought it worthy of identifying.

    I think global change is the reason why species conservation is most important. Rare species today may be the common species of a stable system tomorrow, and we are messing things up so badly in so many interacting ways, that it is difficult to predict precisely what traits (and species possessing them) we’ll need to patch up the holes in communities and ecosystems.

    • Dan, I’m glad to hear you saw it there. We include it in our seed mixtures as often as we can, but there’s really only one site at which it has persisted. Even there, because it’s an annual its abundance fluctuates quite a bit. At least in our prairies, it appears to have a very specific and restricted habitat requirement AND a need for some kind of disturbance and moisture regime to allow it to grow. Fascinating species.

  3. Chris, thank you for this thoughtful and insightful article! I tend to focus on “a species” but you are correct, it is the health of the ecosystem that should be addressed and the loss of a plant or animal is the red alert that something is terrible wrong with the ecosystem and those issues must be addressed. Ideas to think about. Thank you.

  4. Obscure species are also often the ones that captivate us at first. When I discovered obscure prairie species at a young age, not knowing previously that they even existed, it set me on a course of caring deeply first about those species and then about the environments that sustain them. There is simply great value in the human experience of being struck by things in nature, and we we lose complexity-species, communities, or landscapes-we lose some of what makes us human, of what stands behind things like art, love, and simply being.

  5. This post perfectly coincides with a book I just finished reading – Eric Dinerstein’s The Kingdom of Rarities, which is all about the causes and implications of rare species in nature. You might like it! I found that the concept of “ecosystem engineers” is particularly helpful in explaining how grasslands are complex and why human-caused rarity can have lots of impacts beyond a single species.

  6. My work involves wetland and upland restoration as part of the USDA Program called WRP (Wetland Reserve Program). People promoting WRP often emphasize the wildlife benefits, which are great, but not everyone relates to or values wildlife. I believe wetland restoration can be financially justified on just the flood reduction benefits alone. Flooding costs billions annually. The example I use is a wetland I restored on my own land. It is about 12 acres and not very deep but when it is full it holds 7 million gallons of water. That is 7 million gallons less water going down stream to worsen a flood. It makes a difference and is easy for almost anyone to relate too. I also work on restoring uplands around the wetlands to native prairie and strive to achieve a diverse mix of species. But I struggle to find an equally relatable and practical way of pointing out the importance of prairie restoration. Any ideas?

    • Dave, I think about this a lot too. I actually worry just as much about ascribing ecological services values to ecosystems as I do about ascribing “curing cancer” value to species. If we say we need wetlands because they filter water or reduce flooding, we have to then justify why a floristically diverse wetland is better then a bunch of reed canarygrass and cattails for those functions. I don’t think I can make that argument.

      In terms of the value of high-diversity prairie restoration, I like to talk about reconnecting remnant prairies to restore function. It’s not as easy to talk about with a general audience as flood reduction, of course, but restoring ecological function does require our restoration work to include diverse plant and invertebrate communities. Another good argument for diverse prairie restorations are that more diversity increases stability and resilience. Why invest in planting grassland if it’s going to fall apart ecologically because the complexity that holds it together isn’t there? And aesthetics are important too – who wouldn’t want to look at a diverse prairie instead of a field of brome or switchgrass?

      Still – not great answers in terms of something very simple and easily translatable. Unfortunately the easy answers are the ones that lead down rabbit holes (flood reduction, curing cancer).

      You might have read Doug Ladd’s guest essay on the value of prairies. He had some things worth using too…

      • Thanks Chris for the link to Doug Ladd’s essay, I enjoyed reading it and the points he makes.

        I don’t see flood reduction as a rabbit hole but rather a base for being able to justify and promote more wetland restoration. And from there I would continue on to emphasize that not only do we need to do it, but we need to do it well. Which is where, as you put it, “a floristically diverse wetland is better than a bunch of reed canarygrass and cattails” comes in.

  7. Thanks for this article! The “cure for cancer” point was well taken. Some of us that reside on the bridge between environmental concerns and human health need this type of discussion.

  8. Hi Chris,

    This reminds me of a recurring conversation I had with a rancher friend of mine over the years. I got permission for future leadplant harvest from stands I had spotted on his winter grazed pastures when helping him with calving in the spring. He asked me what good leadplant was for, as his cows did not seem to like it and thought he should spray it. I explained that most of the research indicated it was a preferred livestock forage and many called it an ice cream plant because cows liked it so much. It was a native legume that helped to fertilize the other plants, had wildflowers that attracted many insects, was one of the most abundant forbs in prairies near the turn of the century but was much less common now, cost X $’s per pound to buy the seed, etc. etc. We had a number of other pasture walks while doing some other work such as fixing fence or moving cows, and he was interested to learn more of the plants in his pastures. Some were common species and some were obscure species. After going over what the plant was, how to identify it, etc. he would always end with , “whats it good for” I understood it to mean does it have an economic value, will cows gain weight if they eat it, and other things that related to his ability to make a living from it. For some species I could rattle off what the research showed for livestock benefits. Eventually, he just asked “good or bad?”. I was frustrated with having to put my subjective opinion on the value of each species, Knowing he was a very spiritual person and had a strong faith in God, I finally asked him during one of these conversations if he thought God made junk? I could see he made the connection, that was my answer “God does not make junk”. So even though my small mind, and all of the smart brains and researchers out there don’t have all of the answers, far from it, every species has intrinsic “value” in its existence. I don’t know if I changed his mind, but it helped me answer it for myself. We could go off on a tangent on invasives and exotics here, but will leave that for one of your future posts…………….

    Congratulations on your fast approaching 200,000 blog stats.

    Tom Koerner

  9. There IS an economic benefit to having native wild habitats — you and others in the comments have stated this. Why it’s so hard to espouse this and convince those in power to see and make these changes to management policies is beyond me. And I think it always will be beyond me. I look at satellite images of western Oklahoma and see farm pond after pond, dammed areas where runoff occurs. I think about how unnecessary that could be. I’ve been reading about dry farming, something we might have to do more in the Plains. I’m rambling. I’m working on a memoir about Oklahoma, and trying to find rare plant species in a certain county to write about, but finding it nearly impossible. I suppose I could choose any prairie grass or wildflower and call it rare. (And see you Friday in Lincoln!)

    • I heard a politician say “show me the dead bodies”. In other words, if people weren’t dying from a disaster, then it wasn’t top priority. That is part of why it is difficult to get attention for long range issues like conservation and ecosystem integrity, because there is so often some disaster grabbing the headlines.

    • I am wondering why brvogt says it is unnecessary the farm ponds are? I grew up just north of the South Canadian river and remember our area without what we called spreader dams and without terracing farmland. My dad farmed a field before terracing and after a big rain there were ditches washed out two feet wide and almost a foot deep about five apart. This top soil finally reached the river and washed on down stream. The reason the dams and terraces were build as everyone knows is to stop erosion and it did. Before the erosion control and the big rains came the South Canadian river would be half mile wide and so muddy with runoff that swimming it in and going under would be like turning off the light in total darkness.

  10. This is a really fantastic post. As an environmental educator, I’ve run into this question before, of explaining to people (particularly kids) why preserving ecosystems (and by extension species) is important. Yes, we can talk about economic value etc., but intrinsic value needs to be part of the conversation too.

  11. The foxtail prairie clover is essential to prairie ecology. It is a favorite food for green-striped grasshoppers, and the grasshopper is the food for migratory and non-migratory birds. In fact, prairie chickens will eat them in huge numbers.

    • Thanks Tim. Interesting to know that about the grasshopper. If I was feeling ornery, I’d argue that because the green-striped grasshopper eats other plants as well (I assume) the foxtail prairie clover isn’t really “essential” to the grasshopper’s survival. Regardless, I’m glad to learn that tidbit of info. Is foxtail prairie clover really abundant where you’re at?

  12. My grandfather once told me that the most abundant animals on his eastern SD farm when he was a kid was the flickertail or Richardson’s ground squirrel, which formed large colonies in the pastures. He said the farm kids would hunt them constantly without denting the populations. I grew up in the same area a few decades later and failed to see a flickertail until I moved from home at age 18, I often think that if he had not mentioned that little tidbit, I would have never have known that they once existed in that area. It just did not fit my baseline. Who knows, perhaps flickertails were superabundant in his time only because of pastures were grazed short by livestock. Still, if the right conditions for flickertails returned, they would likely not be able to fill the role they once filled, and that can only diminish the stability of the system. Once a species is gone, it’s hard to understand its role in the system.

    • Thanks Jarren. I wonder what animals have slid into the role(s) of the flickertails in the meantime? Do you thirteen-lined groundsquirrels up there (I assume so)? I don’t know Richardson’s well enough to know their habitat preferences and contrast them with the thirteen-liners.

      I agree that once a species is gone, it’s hard to understand its role. On the other hand, we’re not doing very well at understanding the role of most species while they’re around either!

      • Is a Richardson what we called Prairie Dogs? I grew up in western Oklahoma where Prairie Dogs were everywhere in what we called Prairie Dog towns. They have completely disappeared and I have always wondered what effect it had by there disappearance? Eastern Colorado has thousands of them, even though they seem to try to eradicate them. Surely they are good for something rather than eating the grass that cattle graze on.

        • Carl,
          No, Richardson’s ground squirrels are different than prairie dogs. Prairie dogs certainly do have great value. In fact, they’re a species that would include in the “exceptions” I noted in my blog. Their disappearance from a landscape has a noticeable impact on a large number of other species that rely on them as a food source, but even more on their burrows.

          • I don’ see the wichita mountains as being in western Oklahoma. I mean the Woodward, Elk City area.

  13. Hi Chris,
    I know this as rabbit’s-foot clover; noticed a couple of individuals at a tiny prairie at Blue Lake/Lewis and Clark Lake in Iowa last summer.

  14. Chris, your excellent post, and fellow readers, your array of thoughtful responses, exemplify why I keep coming back to read this blog. It’s truly one of my favorites, and sometimes, like right now, my favorite among the favorites.
    Oh yeah, and … Dalea leporina doesn’t grow around here, but we have “sandy soil deficit disorder” in this area, which may explain its absence.

  15. What if anything should be done about disappearing plant species? An arboretum could function like a zoo. Pandas and many other wild animals are being perpetuated not through habitat restoration, but by frequent caretaking within a relatively small confined zoo space. Doing this with prairie plants would not require anywhere near the financial costs. Sawtooth Sunflowers might occupy a 4’X10’ raised bed. Prairie Dock could be displayed on a neighboring 4’X10’ raised bed, etc. that sees hundreds of prairie species on view to the public. Plus, we save these plants for a future that may someday witness those plants reintegrated into our landscape. Consider our inventive progress. Today we have no-till native planters and chemicals; such as, Round-up, Plateau, and Max Select. Our ability to establish native plants has been enhanced by these innovations. In a hundred years the techniques available to establish native plants may be of such low cost and performed with such ease that today’s threatened plants could again been planted in large numbers. The actions we take each day right now, those activities form the future. We need to save each species.

  16. Quite a wily species, too – the USDA PLANTS database map has a source that says it occurs in Wisconsin, but neither the UW-Madison or UW-Stevens Point herbariums list a record for it! Maybe all of the patient botanists have overlooked this one! It occurs on the Minnesota/Mississippi River in Minnesota and also in northern Illinois, so perhaps it’s lurking on some sandy Mississippi River terrace or along Lake Michigan….

  17. Awesome article Chris. I’ve been struggling with explaining the importance of biodiversity. Your sound focus on what the loss means really struck home with me. Thank you.

  18. Great thoughts and discussion. It is difficult to convey the importance of biodiversity when you can’t see or experience them directly. Cases in point. Five years ago I started clearing cedar on a Loess Hills prairie remnant. Among the wonderful flush of native flowers that have appeared is ground plum…a lovely spring perennial legume. Good for what? Well, this winter, for the first time, I’ve seen extensive damage of these plants by voles. I confess that sometimes I think of voles as no better than locusts, but I realize that the voles that survive the winter on the ground plum will, in turn, be feeding the badgers, coyotes, bobcats and other critters that inhabit the place. As another example, there is a nice population of slender false foxglove that has appeared, which is a hemiparisitic annual plant. Well, two summers ago I saw many of these plants almost infested with caterpillars that I found later to be Ohio buckeyes, a host plant for these lovely butterflies. These stories persuade me there is no “junk” in a native prairie, to use Tom’s terminology. The earth is a watch that moves with hands moved by mechanisms that remain unseen by all but the watchmaker.

  19. I know it’s fabaceae and not paoceae, but this reminds me of teosinte..which turned out to be awfully important. When we cull material, we cull possibility and potential regardless of the usefulness of its current form. And I don’t mean to say that in an anthropocentric way either.

  20. Hi Chris, I was just doing a quick Google search on this species and ran across your post. I get the meaning of the post and that its not about this species or any single species, but I noticed that you had predicted that someone would comment and tell you how abundant and important this species was. Well, I aim to please and will comment on both for you.
    This spring I was working with a landowner in Seward County on a CRP conversion from smooth brome to natives and we decided to experiment with the chemical imazapic (panoramic 2sl). We ended up with about 15 of the 130 acres covered in a thick stand of Dalea leporina (hence the Google search). On a side note; not only did this species like the conversion but a host of remnant plants came up. Anyway, your post triggered some memories of other projects that I had seen it on and of course overlooked. When I thought of the locations it seemed that they were all located on CRP being converted from brome to natives and been in the program since its inception (I am sensing a pattern of USDA policy and agricultural history) all found on the rocky ridges in the Bohemian ridge north of branched oak lake. So it’s at least common enough that its still stored in my memory.
    As to the importance/value, I can’t speak for whether its an insects exclusive host or cures cancer, but when driving home I wondered if the seed was commercially available for its potential use/value on CRP for firebreaks with other opportunistic native annuals or even just another early successional wildflower for brood rearing. Of course the answer is yes, it has that value and far beyond just wildlife management and CRP, but just like everything in our unfortunate society we need to create value and importance if we plan on keeping it around, you never know, maybe it will cure cancer or is the exclusive host to an underappreciated and overlooked insect that cures cancer :)

    P.S. – I heard a college professor once tell a student “what’s the importance and valve of you” when asked why we should care about an endangered species.

      • The only wildflowers we seeded were the ones listed as tolerant on the imazapic label. I considered it may have been planted in the past but no seeding sheet found had it listed. The fact that other remnant species showed up leads me to believe its all from the seed bank. It was supposed to be a typical conversion of former cropland seeded to brome for last 25 years and although its not exactly a high diversity prairie, its like striking gold in terms of dealing with CRP. I just wish that I would have not used the imazapic on part of the site as we probably knocked out some other treasures, but if we could predict the future life would be boring.


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