A Prairie Ecologist Holiday Reading List

If you’re like me, this period just before and after the New Year provides a good opportunity to enjoy some quality reading time.  Maybe you’ve already got a stack of books or list or blog posts you’re waiting to read.  If not, maybe I can help.

Here is a selection of some of my favorite blog posts from The Prairie Ecologist dating back to 2010.  If you’ve only recently found this blog, some of the older posts may be brand new to you.  If you’ve been here since the beginning, maybe these will stoke some old ideas or just be fun to read again.

For your convenience, I’ve split these into five categories: Species profiles, conservation science, prairie management, prairie restoration, and humor/photography.  If you have a favorite post that didn’t make the list, you can add it by leaving a comment below with the name or link to the post.

Species Profiles

1. One of the most viewed posts I’ve ever written was about the mutualistic relationship between the yucca plant and the yucca moth.  It is a fascinating story of interdependence in nature.

The relationship between the yucca moth and yucca plant is one of the most fascinating in nature.

The relationship between the yucca moth and yucca plant is one of the most fascinating in nature.

2.  The camouflaged inchworm is my favorite insect.  How could you not love an inchworm that camouflages itself with bits of the flowers it eats?

3. Knowing how many crazy things have to happen to pollinate milkweed flowers makes you wonder how it ever happens at all.

4. The sora is a bird that has quite a reputation for being able to hide in wetlands.  I found out one big reason it might be so good at that.

5. The lower portions of thistle flowers seem to be death traps for many insects, even while the upper portions provide a bonanza of nectar and pollen.

Conservation Science

1. Resilience is a word that gets a lot of play these days – in multiple settings.  Ecologically speaking, though, resilience may be the key to survival for ecosystems such as prairies.  Read about what defines ecological resilience and how it applies to grasslands.

2. Invasive plants are a major challenge for prairie ecologists.  We can’t stop them all, so we have to prioritize.  One big step in that process is coming to terms with the idea that not all exotic plants are invasive.

3. Conservationists are always looking for indicator species that can help us decide how our conservation work is going.  Unfortunately, I think we rely much too heavily on birds as indicators because they are really not that useful in that role – at least in prairies.

4. Prescribed fire is a very important tool for prairie conservation (as well as the conservation of many other ecosystems).  However, with all the smoke created by prairie fires, are we causing more problems than we’re solving – especially related to global warming?  When you look at the facts, the answer seems to be no.

Prescribed fire is an important prairie management tool and shouldn't be blamed for contributing to climate change.

Prescribed fire is an important prairie management tool and shouldn’t be blamed for contributing to climate change.

Prairie Management

1. Keeping prairies healthy and diverse relies on diverse management that maintains habitat and growing conditions for as many species as possible.  Unfortunately, our human nature tends to work against us sometimes, including a tendency to manage for what I call “Calendar Prairies.” 

2. Many management strategies that work well in large prairies just aren’t feasible in smaller ones.  How should we manage those small prairies?

3. Here is some fascinating evidence of the interconnectedness of prairies and impacts from management treatments that link fire, cattle, mice, and prairie clover.

Prairie Restoration

1. Too many people think of prairie restoration as recreating something that used to exist – like restoring an historic building to help preserve the past.  There is certainly value in that, but we also have the opportunity to create prairie in a way that rebuilds the ecological function of grassland landscapes.

2. Prior to writing the above essay, I laid out a more specific set of ideas about how prairie restoration can help us rebuild fragmented landscapes.

Humor/Photography

1. Many of my attempts to photograph wildlife turn out to be relatively humorous adventures.  My attempt to photograph prairie dogs not far from my house, for example, turned out to be kind of a fiasco.  A second attempt at a different location resulted in better photographs, but was also good fodder for some laughs.

2. A porcupine sitting in a short tree in beautiful evening light seems like a prime opportunity for some great photographs.  But only if the porcupine is cooperative

3. In one post, I shared some information about one of my favorite techniques for photographing small creatures in my backyard.  It requires one very important piece of equipment: a wheelbarrow.  It’s a good thing my neighbors can’t see me (I hope!).

4. We have lots of river otter use in our Platte River Prairies.  Guess how many I’ve seen?

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…