What I Don’t Know About Prairies – A Partial List

I’m a professional prairie ecologist.  I write a blog and have published a book on prairie ecology and management, along with lots of magazine articles.  Because of that, I’m often called a prairie expert.

Being called a prairie expert makes me somewhat uncomfortable.  I know a little bit about a lot of things, and a lot about a few things.  However, every time I learn something new, I realize how much I DON’T know about prairies.

I have no idea what kind of stink bug this is.

I have no idea what kind of stink bug this is.

Here are a few examples.

I don’t know…

…why goldenrod seems to be aggressive in some places, but not others.

…what factors determine how easily snakes, shrews, and other small animals can move from one prairie to another through road ditches or other habitats.

…how to get a diverse prairie plant community to establish on a former feedlot with very high nutrient levels in the soil.

…how to identify the vast majority of insect species in prairies.

…how sandhill cranes know when the weather is nice enough on Nebraska’s Platte River to start migrating this direction each spring.

…hardly anything about soil invertebrates.

…what kind of vegetation structure grassland birds use during migration.

…whether regal fritillaries lay eggs near violets or just randomly (they don’t, apparently, lay eggs ON violets, even though that’s all their larvae feed on.)

…why some prairies become grass-dominated (and lose wildflower abundance) over time more easily than others.

…much about the relationships between soil fungi/bacteria and plant roots.

…the home range size of snakes, turtles, small mammals, or most other prairie vertebrates.

…the best way to improve the plant diversity of a degraded prairie.

…enough about how the bud banks of prairie plant species and communities respond to drought, grazing, and other disturbances.

…how deer and other wildlife species respond to patch-burn grazing or other similar fire/grazing management.

…nearly enough about parasitoids and their role in prairie ecology.

…how wind turbines affect prairie invertebrates.

…how to identify very many stream fish or freshwater mussel species.

Unfortunately, I could go on and on.  Fortunately (hopefully?) I’m not even halfway through my career, so I’ve still got time to learn.  I’ve got research projects underway to help address a few of my “unknowns”, and trust that others are being answered by researchers and naturalists elsewhere.  The species identification skills I’m lacking can be somewhat improved over time, but I’ll have to decide which species are most important to focus on because my brain won’t handle too many.

Here I am, thinking about all things I don't know about prairies.

Here I am, thinking about all things I don’t know about prairies.  The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

What’s most frustrating is the knowledge that I won’t ever learn everything I want to.  Some of what I don’t know isn’t known by anyone – we need more researchers and observant naturalists to help figure things out.  In other cases, the knowledge is out there, but I don’t have the time to go find it.  I love collecting and synthesizing knowledge, but even if I did nothing else for my whole life, I’d still come up short.

One of my greatest aspirations is to some day become an “old man of the prairie” like most of my favorite mentors.  (“Old man of the prairie”, by the way, is a term of the utmost respect.)  Much of what I’ve learned has come from following OMOTPs around and soaking up whatever information I can squeeze out of them.  Many of you have probably met an OMOTP (or OWOTP, as the case may be).  If you have, you know exactly what I’m talking about, and why I want to become one.

In the meantime, I’ve got a lot to learn…

26 thoughts on “What I Don’t Know About Prairies – A Partial List

  1. Chris, I am repeating your experiment with burning off the fluff on Milkweed seeds. I’ll let you know how my experiment comes out. I enjoy the blog. I’ll be 70 in a couple months, but I don’t think I’ve reached the status of “Old Man of the Prairie” yet. Still a lot to learm. Blessings.

  2. Hey Chris – interested in your comment about establishing a prairie on a feedlot site. Have you written about this? We deal with some go-back land in the Flint Hills, which is land that was once farmed, but then allowed to return to prairie…although often not very successfully. Be interested in what you have learned.

    • Keith, I have thought about it and seen examples of attempts to restore feedlots (I haven’t seen an example of a successful one) but don’t have any suggestions good enough to write about. In terms of restoring old fields, the consensus among those I talk to across the country seems to be that it’s far easier to farm those sites again for a few years and then restore them than to try to seed into them as existing old fields – even if you kill off the current vegetation. It seems the seed bank from a few years of old field weedy vegetation can often overwhelm a new seeding.

      • By “farming for a few years” before seeding to prairie, do you mean cropping or do you also include harvesting hay? I’d guess that haying a number of times without any fertilizer input could do quite a bit to reduce the fertility to a more “normal” level. Haying is cheaper than many passes with plows, discs, and seeders… but if the ultimate goal is a diverse and “stable” prairie perhaps is makes sense to churn the top 6 inches of soil a bunch of times to encourage germination of all the latent seeds. Fascinating question…

        • Edmund – Thanks for asking… I meant putting the land back into row crops for a few years. As a restoration community, we’re much better at establishing diverse prairie vegetation from bare soil than we are from an old field situation. The existing weedy plants in an old field can be very competitive and suppress some of the plant species we try to establish, so it can be sometimes be best just to crop it a few years and start from scratch again. That only applies to a situation in which the land has been farmed recently – not to a native prairie that has been degraded through years of herbicide use and/or overgrazing. Haying is a good option for those degraded native prairies, as is burning, in terms of weakening existing vegetation and providing some bare soil for seeds to land on. We’re just not as good at that kind of overseeding as we are at seeding into cropland. Yet.

  3. I empathize! So much to learn, so little time. Here are a couple of my own:
    –how do various hemi-parasitic plants that I see in my prairie, like false toadflax, downy yellow painted cup, and slender false foxglove, become established and interact with their host plants?

    –I see bumble flower beetles flying in the early spring, but don’t see them during the rest of the year. I have read that they may be males looking for newly emerged females and that the larvae associate with certain ant species. Are they looking for a particular ant species on the prairie to lay eggs? If so, which one?

    Happy learning!

  4. I know exactly what you mean – my OMOTP was Ray Schulenberg. I learned alot from him during the summer I worked on his prairie restoration at the Morton Arboretum. Ray’s insights were well worth all of the white sweet clover I pulled that summer .

  5. I learned early in my 40+ years at planting natives that barn lots were the most challenging areas to establish. It may be the long compaction, high N and/or P that feeds gigantic weed competition, or something else I don’t understand. Eventually it gets better but takes awhile. I’ve not put much effort into circumventing it however, I may be back into it again. I just bought some property with three old horse corrals or pastures and will be trying to restore native grasses and forbs. After the horses came off late last summer and we had a little rain, the only thing that showed up was plantains. I sprayed through these lots just like the rest of the fescue pastures and will drill the native mix in the next few weeks. It will be interesting to see how things develop.

    As for old fields, they do seem to develop a weed cycle the longer they sit after cropping that can be troublesome. It may be best to plant a cover crop so something to break the weed cycle and is probably what I should have done with the horse lots. I just returned from a grassfed workshop that included high-stock density that may have some applications. Anytime you can increase organic matter that helps tie up nitrogen seems to help native reestablishment.

  6. Chris:

    Keep up the great work, and may you become a REALLY, REALLY, REALLY OLD man of the prairie.

    Will be prowling the Platte starting Monday for the rest of the month.

    Hope to see you sometime during our trips.

    All the best,


  7. I want to be an OBOTP, and old bat of the prairie. There is just no end of things to learn about the flora and fauna of a prairie. There is no end to what I can learn by just watching. It amazes me a lot just to watch my bittie patch of native plants, and how they like to be with one another and how they travel and what they like and don’t like. I am not even near any real true native prairie, and I can feel the resiliency of these great prairie plants.

  8. Hi Chris,
    As I was scrolling down the comments, I was thinking along the lines of what Patti said. You do know the questions, and the more you learn, you may think of even more questions. It’s good people like you are doing the work you do.

    I’m thinking about half the plants I have in my yard are native to our area, but they are not necessarily native to my exact area. I most likely have plants together that would not be together in the wild. As much as I’d like to have a mini prairie, I keep reminding myself I need to know my limitations, and be content to enjoy the process of adding more natives as I can.

  9. Chris – You ought to consider contacting Dr Elaine Ingham of the Soilfoodwebinc group to learn about how microbial interactions and communities can help re-establish native grasslands – this woman can grow grass on the beach (above the tide line of course). She is one of the world’s foremost microbiologists and is in the forefront of grassland preservation and health. She has done wonders all over the world, and her guidelines are very inexpensive to maintain, I hear.
    I attended one of her 3-day seminars a few years ago – interesting speaker and extremely informative. It could be an illuminating experience and helpful to future prairies. Love to read your page! Keep up the good work. becky

  10. The galliform game birds of the prairies — the greater prairie chicken, the lesser prairie chicken, Attwater prairie chicken — eat an enormous amount of grasshoppers and other insects during the summer, but during the winter, the prairies are covered with thick snow. How do they get through the thick blanket of snow to find the seeds and plants they need to survive. What are those seeds and plants?

  11. If all the prairie hasn’t been burned or isn’t too short, snow will melt quicker than anywhere else and prairie grouse diets even in winter will have 2-4% insect biomass. However, mostly they depend on rose hips, leadplant, ragweed, and numerous forb seed that protrudes above the snow. They eat cereal grain if it’s available in cropfields or has passed through cattle although they are not dependent on grain. The also eat lots of green browse (forb, grass and sedge leaves), and when all else fails, tree buds such as cottonwood buds. I’ve never known prairie grouse to starve in winter. Inadequate (too short, tall or dense and not enough of it) nesting and brood cover and, sometimes, inadequate summer thermal protection from broods and young adults are the main limiting factors.

    • Tree buds is what sustains willow ptarmigan through the winter — hence the name willow ptarmigan. Of course, cottonwood grows in riparian habitat, but I did not know how common it was for prairie chickens to depend on them as a winter food source. Musk oxen will also graze in areas that are wind exposed, but they can go up for six months without eating. I did not know if grouses had that ability to go without food for that long.

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  13. a big question for me: why people fear wild areas, especially prairies? Maybe once you tackle all your questions above you can move on to this one. If we could fully explain to people what is going on there would that relieve their anxieties or enhance them, knowing how many snakes and other critters are lurking out there? Appreciate your ruminations on these topics.

  14. I breathed a little easier regarding my own work after reading this post. It’s nice to see someone as accomplished as yourself be so humble and able to show weakness. Gave me courage. Thanks

  15. I tried to pitch a prairie/meadow planting in a park in our neighborhood but was rebuffed by others In neighborhood assn because no precedent for prairie here in Baltimore and some feel we should focus on trees. Yet there was prairie here in pre colonial times( in northern Maryland and southern Pa): it was maintained by fire courtesy of native Americans .Also we have three prairie remnants near us in serpertine barrens. But it is difficult to change preconceptions about what a prairie is all about, ESP here in the east!


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