The Selfish Prairie

I was going to start this post with the phrase, “If I’m a broken record on any topic, it’s the topic of prairie complexity.”  Then I wondered – do most people still know what a broken record is or why that phrase is used when someone repeats themselves over and over?  Do you suppose there are people who think it means someone has said something more than ever before (thus ‘breaking a record’ for saying it)? 

Maybe, I thought, I should pick a different opening – one that is more accessible to everyone.  “Fiddlesticks!” I responded to myself (because I’m apparently 150 years old), I’m going to write the way I want to write.  While I’m at it, I’m going to continue overusing and misusing that hyphen that’s not really called a hyphen – it’s a great way to add an additional thought to an existing sentence.  Speaking of thoughts, where was I?  Oh, right…

If I’m a broken record on any topic, it’s the topic of prairie complexity.  I’ll continue to bang my drum on this topic because the complex interacting networks of species in prairies make them resilient.  Numerous disturbances like fire, grazing, disease outbreaks, insect outbreaks, invasive species, and droughts frequently occur in prairies.  A strong diversity of species means that no matter what happens, there are always species that will thrive as others are struggling.  If one plant species fails to bloom, there will be others that flower prolifically, ensuring that pollinators still have available food.  If some insect species have a down year, others will be in a boom cycle to make up for it.  As a result, birds and other insectivores don’t have to rely upon a single kind of insect for their diet – they can eat whatever species happens to be the most abundant and easy to catch at the time.  (Is it called an em dash?  Sorry – keep reading.)

A broad diversity of insects means prairie birds can always find abundant food, regardless of how any particular insect species is doing at the time.

All that diversity and redundancy makes prairies extremely adaptable.  They can maintain productivity and function through stressful times.  That’s a good thing because prairies are nearly always reacting to stress.  If it’s not a drought or flood, it’s fire and/or grazing, and sometimes all of those happen in the same year.  In addition, a species of leaf beetle might be having a big year – deflowering (in a literal sense) an entire species of wildflowers.  And those dang trees are always trying to push in from the edges…  Throughout it all, prairies adapt and keep chugging along.

Blah blah blah.  You’ve heard all this before.  However, while I talk a lot about prairie complexity, here’s what I don’t talk about enough: 

Prairie communities are not collaborative teams working together for the common good of all.  Or at least they’re not doing so on purpose.  Each organism of every species is worried about itself.  Those individuals’ primary motivation is to reproduce and replace themselves before they die.  If the actions taken to accomplish that goal happen to benefit others, that’s fine, but that’s not the same thing as collaboration.

It’s easy to romanticize nature and the way in which the various components of an ecosystem work together.  And to be fair, there are some examples of species apparently helping each other (plants sending out warnings to others as they are attacked by an insect, trees sharing nutrients with each other, etc.).  But those exceptions, if they are exceptions, don’t disprove the rule. 

Pollinators are in a constant fight to get the pollen and/or nectar they each need to survive and reproduce.

Bees don’t purposefully leave behind pollen or nectar on a flower so the next insect to visit can have some.  If they leave resources behind it’s because they can get more by going to a different flower or because it’s not safe to stay in one place for too long.  For that matter, plants don’t create nectar and pollen to feed bees.  They invest in product manufacturing to lure bees into providing pollination services.  The plants are looking out for themselves.  

Violets produce little appendages on their seeds called an elaiosome.  Those elaiosomes make great meals for baby ants, so adult ants carry the seeds into their nests and feed those little nutrient packets to their young.  They then discard the remaining (still intact) seeds in their ‘compost pile’ where they have terrific conditions for germination.  The ants are not helping the violets, they’re just feeding their kids the nutritious elaiosomes and dumping the useless-to-them seeds where they put their dead bodies and the rest of their trash. Similarly, the violets don’t care about the ants – they’ve just evolved a great way to trick ants into helping disperse their seeds. 

The white appendages on these prairie violet seeds (Viola pedatifida) are called elaiosomes and are extremely attractive to ants, who feed them to their young. Ants don’t want the seeds themselves, though, so they toss them in their rubbish heaps, which happen to be great places for seed germination and growth.

Predators aren’t thinking about population control – they’re just hungry.  Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi on plant roots don’t capture and transfer nutrients to their host plants out of altruism – they’re farming the plants for their sugar.  Plants don’t create fruit to make sure animals have something to eat – they just want the animals’ help with seed dispersal and/or stratification (digestive juices can help break the seed coat to start germination).

(So many em dashes!)

For me, thinking about a prairie in this way makes it even more amazing.  I sometimes just sit in a prairie and gaze in fascination at all the individuals and species engaged with each other in an epic battle for survival.  It’s violent, yet beautiful.  A prairie is a productive and resilient system built upon the selfish actions of individuals.  How crazy is that?  Also, does it remind you of anything?  I’m not here to promote or defend capitalism as an economic system but there are sure an awful lot of countries that have built stable societies upon it.

And yet, most ardent supporters of capitalism will admit it isn’t perfect.  It’s sometimes helpful to have guardians making sure no one party (or more) is gaining too much power or that no segment of society is being constantly suppressed.  After all, diversity is strength, remember?  The more voices, perspectives and skills a society includes, the more productive and sustainable it will be.  Persistently alienating or eliminating part of society is a dumb way to do business (and also morally indefensible, but I digress).

Backing quickly away from politics, prairies need guardians too.  There are some natural checks and balances built into prairies and other ecosystems, but those aren’t sufficiently reliable if left alone.  I’ve written before that North American prairies have never been separate from human management and about the consequences of erroneously assuming prairies can manage themselves.  In a system built on selfishness, it’s inevitable that some individuals or groups will find ways to gain a major advantage over others.  Once that happens, the growing disparity can start to degrade the diversity that keeps the overall system strong.

For example, trees and shrubs are constantly invading prairies, held back primarily by prescribed fires and other human-implemented land management strategies.  Prairies are threatened by numerous invasive plant species, many of which can form large monocultures.  Even many native plant species, under the right conditions, can become so dominant that other species are pushed out of the community.  Managing that competitive arena is, and has been, our job.

Humans have been managing prairies with fire and other strategies for thousands of years. Managing the competition between species keeps prairies resilient and vibrant.

Good prairie managers maintain the diversity of prairie communities by allowing all species to thrive and preventing any from gaining too much dominance.  Ecosystems are complex, intricate, and beautiful, but they’re not infallible.  We should absolutely admire prairies and celebrate their diversity and resilience.  We should also be vigorous stewards of that diversity and resilience, remembering that any system built on the selfish interests of individuals can become unbalanced. 

Hopefully, the fact that prairies and other ecosystems are battlegrounds between hordes of individuals fighting for dominance doesn’t make them seem less appealing.  Those struggles foster innovation – natural selection doesn’t happen because everyone is getting along, after all.  I am full of wonder and admiration at the way species compete, adapt, survive, and reproduce – and the way all that strife creates resilient and enduring prairie communities

(I had to end with one last em dash.)

Oh, hey – if you’d like hear more on the topic of prairie management, sign up for a webinar that will feature some of the land management team from The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska (including me) in a panel discussion about stewardship. We’ll address some pre-planned topics and then take questions from the audience. Find out more at this link.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

18 thoughts on “The Selfish Prairie

  1. Trying to make this short – Lots to digest/consider, but I think 1 central idea is critically important. Understanding complexity, interactions, and diversity (in all of their aspects) is critical to all systems (including us). Enhancing any system requires that understanding.

  2. Chris,
    As I read your latest post, I thought to myself, I don’t think I have personally thanked Chris for his hard work producing his posts. I find your posts a guilty pleasure that I usually read within a few hours of receiving them. I normally get 200+ e-mails a day, but I truly enjoy your posts and make time to read it as soon as possible. Thanks for producing something that educates, stimulates thought and allows many of us to get lost in your prairie world, if but for a few minutes. It reminds those of us in the conservation world what we fight for each day.
    A heartfelt thank you – and keep up the hyphens.
    Mark Brohman

  3. Chris,

    Great reflection, thanks. I see a nod to Dawkin’s “The Selfish Gene” in your choice of title (sadly, a book I’ve not read but have heard a book’s worth of commentary on).

    As someone embedded within the Western-scientific cultural context (with Euro-colonialism layered over top), I think I reflexively share your analysis.

    Describing singular organisms, or singular biological species (which are sort of a thing, but in some ways not) as hordes of individuals in battle seems to me to be a cultural/philosophical analysis and less a “fact” as we typically use the word. I too want to avoid naive sentimentalism. But either way we seem to keep leaning back to into cultural metaphors.

    The genetically-driven drive to propagate, out-compete, eat-or-be-eaten is definitely a thing. How and why does that yield other emergent properties of cooperation and flourishing and biodiversity, for a “system built on

    Of course, science itself is a cultural product, so we inevitably get a little circular here. And I’ve reached the limits of my ability to express complex thoughts cogently in a blog comment format!

    Thanks, as always. Sorry for the incoherent rambling.

  4. Chris,
    I am a retired plant ecologist. Your blog is one of only two blogs that I read regularly. So it is out of great respect for you and your writings that I encourage you and others to thoughtfully read “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer. After reading this book I am now reflecting on and considering whether the worldview that I was taught as a plant ecologist and that you describe in this article is limited and that the truth of nature is bigger and more complex than competition for dominance.

  5. Zeroing in on your comment of managing prairies. Especially the one about dominate native plants taking over. One common mistake us humans have is too short a view on time. With that in mind is maybe the condition of one dominate native plant one that takes care of its self over time? Maybe 1/2 dozen years or a decade?. Maybe a couple of decades even?

    I often wonder if I should go after Tall/Canada Goldenrod where its creeping in on a prairie planting? Or do I look for other aggressive plants to hold it in check over time? I have to believe that in a very diverse system one plant can’t come out the winner. Maybe its not just one other plant that holds the winner in check but a combination of other plants. Maybe its a insect that’s population will boom when its food source becomes over abundant. Or maybe a disease that will roll around again when populations become very high. In life I have found out that the easy way is usually not the best way. Maybe spraying herbicide on these aggressive plants is quick and easy but not the best way in the long run. I don’t know, I do know that there is just so much about the natural world that we don’t know it always amazes me.

  6. Pingback: The Selfish Prairie — The Prairie Ecologist – Pershspective

  7. What a great article — essay (note the em dash)! Had me chuckling continuously even while teaching me lots of stuff I might have already known, but not known in so much detail. Thanks!

  8. Not to be picky, but I think you’ve actually been using en dashes. I used an em dash in my first comment. I can’t help myself — I’m a professional editor.

  9. I think it’s great that you and others are dedicated to managing prairies and even restoring some. Nothing could be more important.
    However, I’m not so sure that humans actually have been managing prairies with fire and other strategies for thousands of years.
    One has to remember that before north America was settled by Europeans there was natural unlimited fires, millions of free roaming bison, even more prairie dogs, and other grazers on one continuous and limitless prairie ecosystem. At that time it wouldn’t have been the same need for management as it obviously is for the enclosed and fragmented remaining prairie of today.

    • Geneticists tell us that grasslands have lineages going back millions of years. To date, evidence has only been discovered to prove humans have been in the Americas on the order of tens of thousands of years. This makes it hard to believe “… that North American prairies have never been separate from human management …”

      • James, I didn’t take the time to clarify – as I usually do – that I mean contemporary North American Prairies. Those that exist today. Humans have been actively involved with them since they developed after the last major climate shift. I’m more clear in the example I linked to, but probably should have added another sentence or phrase in this post too. However, in terms of fire, the research I’ve seen points to human-caused fires as being much more significant and larger than lightning fires during the last 10,000 years or so of N.A. Prairies in the central part of the continent.

        • I must wonder how the experiences of the last four or five decades would have been different if center pivot irrigation was not increasing humidity across the tall grass prairie region.

        • At least it will be fair to assume that the peoples living on the prairie needed firewood. So, if the found any trees or shrub I’m sure they cut it down and used it. And over time that would have a significant effect of course.

  10. I really appreciate both the information contained in your posts and your way of conveying it. For non-specialists like me, your writing’s far more accessible than many journal and other articles that I try to read, but eventually abandon.

    I did wonder whether ‘self-interest’ might have been a better choice here than ‘selfishness.’ It feels more neutral. ‘Selfishness’ has acquired a good bit of negative baggage over time that doesn’t quite seem to fit a lizard looking for the next insect to chomp.

    I must say — as an inveterate em dash user, those references made me smile. As for fiddlesticks, they’re still alive and well, as this little performance near Amherst, Massachusetts, proves. Even better, there’s no one in the video even close to 150!


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