Wondering through the Prairie

Over the weekend, I went for a walk in our family prairie. The weather was a balmy 70 degrees F and it seemed silly to do anything else. Since it was so warm, I figured I might run into some other creatures taking advantage of the temperatures too.

I was right. I found a cricket, several flies, and a water boatman. Later, as I was photographing some seeds of an ironweed plant (Vernonia fasciculata) that was lying prone on the ground, I even spotted a tiny leafhopper among the seeds.

“Huh,” I thought, “I wonder…”

Leafhopper among ironweed seeds.

I wondered if the leafhopper (or another one I saw later) was finding anything to eat on a day like this. If not, it seemed a waste of energy to come out of dormancy and move around. Since leafhoppers feed on the sap of plants by sticking their straw-like mouthpart into them, I couldn’t think of anything it might be eating in February. My best guess was that maybe it was feeding on seeds. I’ve seen false milkweed bugs (Lygaeus turcicus) with their mouthparts stuck into the seeds of false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) and the two insects are somewhat related…

This kind of wondering happens all the time when I’m exploring prairies. In fact, I know a lot less than I wonder about. I write and talk mostly about what I know, and for good reason, but doing so probably makes it seem like I’m more knowledgeable than I am. It also masks a lot of what makes prairies so fun and interesting.

In today’s post, I’m going to share a very small sample of the kinds of prairie-related questions rattling around in my head. I’ve done this before, but not nearly often enough.

Why do meadowlarks sing in the winter?

As I walked our prairie this weekend, I was serenaded by meadowlark song. It’s pretty common to hear western meadowlark songs during the winter, but these seemed almost frantic in their frequency. My understanding is that meadowlarks are fairly short-distance migrants – the ones that breed here travel down to Kansas or so and the ones breeding in the Dakotas make their way here for the winter. Or something like that.

If meadowlarks aren’t in their breeding range, why do they sing during the winter? They’re usually hanging around in flocks this time of year, so they’re not singing to defend territories. It seems like they mostly sing on warm(ish) days, so maybe it’s just an instinct triggered by weather or sunlight? If so, do they sing more on warmer days? Or are they just singing because it feels right? I have no idea, but it’s fun to think about.

Why do jumping spiders make silken shelters at the tops of plants? The inset photo shows the same spider from a different angle.

Last October, I took photos of a jumping spider at the top of a dried out stiff sunflower head. It had constructed a wispy cone of silk around itself. I’ve seen and photographed this phenomenon before. I’ve read that these kinds of shelters are sometimes used when spiders (not just jumping spiders) have eggs or tiny spiderlings to protect, and I’ve seen that in person. But I’ve also seen examples like this, where it just looks like the spider made a thin, partial veil around itself to spend the night behind. Is it protecting them against predators? Maybe that amount of silk is just enough to make a marauding nocturnal predatory insect pause or turn around? I wonder…

What happens to the plant community underneath a manure pile?

When a cow or bison poops, what happens to the plants underneath that pile? It can take a year or two for some of those piles to disappear. In the meantime, not only are those piles smothering plants, they’re also leeching high amounts of nitrogen and other chemicals into the soil. That combination of high nutrient loading and lack of light surely affects plants. But how? And do the plants beneath the pile survive and return once the manure is gone and the nutrient load has been dealt with by all the mysterious creatures who do that?

In this case, we’re actually trying to answer that question. The gross photo above shows one of the manure piles in a research project we started back in 2020. We’re tracking both the soil and plant impacts of manure piles to learn more about their impacts and how they’re absorbed by the prairie. You can be sure I’ll pass on whatever we learn.

What’s going on belowground?

The questions about manure impacts lead me to one of the biggest questions I have about prairies. That question is, “What’s happening underground?”

Seriously, what’s going on down there?

I’m glad to have smart friends and colleagues like Dave Wedin, Hannah Birge, Greg Pec, Sara Baer, John Blair, Seton Bachle, and others who have helped me learn about some of the belowground mysteries in prairies. Still, even with all that help, I’m still pretty mystified.

There’s so much I don’t know, including basic vocabulary words, that it’s easy to get overwhelmed. I really do try to pay attention when people are describing what’s known about mycorrhizae and nematodes and such, but it doesn’t take long for my eyes to glaze over. I can’t even spell mycorrhizae without looking it up. Every. Single. Time.

I’m fascinated by belowground processes and organisms, and I have become somewhat more educated about them, but boy howdy, it’s still a big black hole in my comprehension of prairies.

Why don’t regal fritillaries lay eggs on violets?

I’ll end with a question that has plagued me for years and that I know is the topic of much discussion among butterfly experts. Regal fritillary butterflies are prairie specialists whose caterpillars feed only on various species of violets (Viola sp.). For that reason, it seems pretty weird that female regals don’t lay eggs on violets. Instead, they seem to lay single eggs on lots of random plants across the prairie. As far as scientists can tell, they don’t even seek out places where violets are present, let alone abundant, before laying eggs.

In other words, regal fritillaries seem to lay eggs with no regard for whether the sole food plant needed by their babies is around. How has this species survived so long? Its caterpillars hatch out in the fall and overwinter in the thatch, but then have to find and consume enough violet foliage to grow and pupate into an adult. Wouldn’t it be sensible to give them a little head start on that process instead of making them wander randomly around, hoping to find the food they need?

So much to wonder about! I’m confident I’ll spend the rest of my career trying to learn as much as I can and I’ll still end up understanding a tiny fraction of what’s happening in prairies.

And I’m ok with that.

What are you wondering about?

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

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.

13 thoughts on “Wondering through the Prairie

  1. I love your posts and photographs!

    I let spiders (nonpoisonous ones) roam my house but your post about jumping spiders recently was the cause for me finding out how absolutely adorable they are! Then, this weekend my young daughter brought some sticks in the house and as we sat eating supper, I looked over and saw a tiny fuzzy spider walking next to my plate. I picked it up with some paper and headed to the front door at which point my 8 year old daughter said, “It’s a jumping spider, Mommy!” I stopped, exclaimed that she was right, and deposited it in a more appropriate spot in the house.

    Thank you for all you do for nature!

    Sarah Geurtz, PLA
    Landscape Architect

    • AhHa! Today I found a Pseudoscorpion in our house: A tiny arachnid with 8 legs PLUS two big pincers. Always wondered what they were. Iowa State U says they are harmless and eat mites and their eggs. So I released it behind the washing machine in the dog room. Should be plenty of mites there for it! My husband rolls his eyes at this and tries to ignore my beneficial spider collection in the basement.

  2. Chris, your post made me laugh out loud. It reminded me of something I wrote in a book recently: “If you really want to feel challenged, go for a walk in the woods with a four-year-old. Their incessant chain of questions that start with ‘why’ will keep you on your toes.” Nice piece–thanks for reminding us that curiosity is great medicine.

  3. Everything about Nature makes me wonder and be in awe of all the beautiful creations. Hope we have learned how precious Nature can be.

  4. Why do Regal Fritillary butterflies lay eggs randomly on the prairie? BECAUSE THEY DON’T! I’m amazed that myth continues to be perpetuated. Probably because most people have never watched a female Regal Fritillary lay eggs, but I have. They fly low over prairie, assessing an area and then land and crawl through the vegetation and when they get right up to Prairie Violets they begin laying eggs. And I’ve got photos and video to prove it. I’ll post it on my FB page and tag you in it so you can watch it. I also have video of them mating. My next goal is to get photos and videos of the caterpillars and chrysalis. I’m looking forward to seeing them again this summer, they are one of my favorite prairie species!

    • Please do! I’d love to see contrary evidence to something that doesn’t make any sense to me. I most recently saw this re-stated in a USFWS review of literature and conservation planning document. Also, kudos to you for getting that footage! I’ve tried to follow females during oviposition time, but they always elude me…

  5. Wondering while wandering is what I am often doing when out in nature. There is so much that is unknown to me. I have often wondered about meadowlarks singing during warm winter days. Perhaps they are just practicing. Woodcocks and Snipe displaying during those cold calm late winter mornings also make me wonder.
    It will be most interesting to hear the results of your study on plants under piles of manure. Amazing that it takes so long for them to decay.

  6. My grandfather (a professor of five languages and teacher of them his whole life but an avid naturalist) used to say: The more you know, the more you don’t know.

    I love to read your blogs and fantasize that I am young again now, not when I was young and steered only towards molecular biology (which I did not have the math skills for) and so did not go into science because I wanted to be a generalist. Sigh. But this piece so resonates with me!

    I explore all the many microhabitats of my one acre in Nova Scotia, thinking a lot about our “prairies”…sunny habitats that seem so overburdened by human activity and unrestrained non-native colonizer species. And I am constantly asking myself dozens of questions a day, spawning mini-experiments to try to see, say, if removing all non-native plants in an area of my ex-lawn and removing all the non-native earthworms. slugs, etc. makes a difference? It does…I get mushrooms, and things like orchids which is totally astonishing…were they there all along? Did they sit underground for a long long time until conditions were right?

    What happens over several years of work when one replaces “lawn seed in a bag” with native grass seed hand collected? TWENTY TWO new species of butterflies and (mostly) moths, that is what! Isn’t it exciting?

    For me the whole concept of “complete habitat” gardening emerged. You can’t just put a plastic birdfeeder in a lawn and be doing much good. We have to understand the complete life cycles and meet EVERY need of these creatures if we expect to have them for the future. There is nothing you can buy in the store that will substitute for natural habitat. Thanks again for your inspiring work.


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