Making Species Identification Accessible to the Masses

I was out in a prairie this morning (on crutches) and managed to get a little photography done.  Very frequently, I think about how fortunate I am that most of my photography happens out of sight of the general public, and today was a particularly good example of that.  I was army crawling along the ground with my splinted right foot in a plastic bag to protect it from the dewy grass, dragging a camera and tripod along with me.  Then I had to crawl back to my crutches, sling my camera bag over my shoulder and crutch along to another spot.  I managed to get a few decent photos, but missed a lot of potential insect shots because it takes me too dang long to get my body into place, and even the most patient insects can’t afford to wait for that slow and painful process.

Later, while going through my photos back at home, I grabbed a plant key (“Flora of Nebraska”) to make sure I was correctly identifying the New Jersey Tea I’d photographed.  There are two species in Nebraska, and I can never remember which is which.  As I was reading through the descriptions of the two species, I laughed out loud at the technical terms I had to wade through.  I understand the value of using precise language to describe plant (or animal) characteristics in a dichotomous key (a kind of flow chart used to step through characteristics of various species until you finally figure out which species you’re looking at).  At the same time, the avalanche of technical language that falls upon readers of identification keys also makes identification of species much less accessible to the average enthusiast.

I think I’ve correctly identified the New Jersey tea plant I photographed this morning as Ceanothus herbaceus, but it took a lot of glossary-searching to make my way through the descriptions.

We conservationists are always complaining about how people don’t learn basic natural history anymore.  One of the most important components of that learning process, of course, is identification of species.  Imagine someone who finds a plant they think might be New Jersey Tea, is excited to identify it so they can learn more about it, opens up the Flora of Nebraska, and reads this actual sentence:

“Capsules dehiscing loculicidally into 3 1-seeded lobes, the saucer-like hypanthium fused to it but persisting after the fruits have fallen; seeds reddish brown, plano-convex, the flat side with a low keel.”

Gee, I wonder why people are so bad at identifying species?

There has to be a better way.  Again, I completely understand the need for technical guides for species identification that use agreed-upon and well-defined terms.  But can we either add accompanying language in common English or create translated versions of those identification books that can be read by non-experts?  If we can translate books of literature, can we also translate books of technical jargon?

New Jersey tea in a southeast Nebraska prairie (Richardson County).

I played around with this idea briefly, and it’s a lot harder than you might think.  First, there’s the challenge of deciphering the individual words.  The glossary at the back of The Flora of Nebraska is over 30 pages long, and reading it brings back memories of trying to read dictionary definitions back in elementary school – most definitions require looking up more terms just to understand the initial definition.

Second, the advantage of technical terms is that they have very specific meaning, and that helps reduce the number of words needed to describe a concept.  The Flora of Nebraska describes New Jersey tea flowers as being umbellate, which basically means the blossoms are located on the end of stems arranged like an upside-down umbrella.  Umbellate is a pretty efficient way to say that.  Instead of being able to describe how a species differs from others with a paragraph or two of text, accessible language might require a page or more to say the same thing.  That causes its own problems.

For example, in the above description of New Jersey tea, the seed capsules are described in seven words (“Capsules dehiscing loculicidally into 3 1-seeded lobes”).  Very efficient.  While the words are awfully cryptic to most of us, at least there aren’t very many of them!  Translating those seven words requires a lot more words.  Saying the seed capsules split into three parts, with a seed in each, isn’t too bad.  The bigger challenge is the word “loculicidally” which describes where the split occurs on the capsule, a characteristic that helps separate New Jersey tea from other plants.  The glossary describes loculicidal dehiscence as “dehiscence on the locules rather than along the septations”.  Now we have to define both locules and septations.  See what I mean?  Good grief, this is difficult.

Can you see how these seed capsules are dehiscing on the locules rather than along the septations?  Yeah, I bet you can.

I don’t have a good solution to this.  One answer, of course, is field guides, and those can be great for animals like birds or large mammals.  But field guides don’t work well for all organisms, especially plants, fungi, and many invertebrate groups because there are way too many species to fit them into a field guide, and distinguishing species from one another often requires magnification and characteristics that aren’t easily depicted in a single photo or drawing of the organism.  Field guides can get us so far, but if we want people to learn how to identify more than just the common prairie plants, it would be great to have more extensive guides.

I still think we could do a better job of making comprehensive species identification guides more accessible, but the task is gargantuan.  It’s hard enough to put out a good resource like Flora of Nebraska, with precise and efficient terminology describing each species.  If we ask authors of that kind of publication to additionally provide accessible translations of each description for lay people, we risk never get anything published at all.  At the same time, I hear there are lots of youngish biologists with advanced degrees who are having a hard time finding gainful employment.  Maybe we can put some of them to work as translators.  Anyone want to fund a big endowment to pay for it?  Yeah, me neither.

Regardless, I really do think this is an important issue that deserves some thought.  Not everyone can cheat the way I do, which is to shamelessly send photos and/or specimens to experts who can identify them for me, saving me hours of trying to look up and decipher words like “loculicidally”.

P.S.  I want to be clear that I am not criticizing The Flora of Nebraska or its authors in any way.  That book is a fantastic and invaluable resource, and I use it frequently.  The issue at hand is much broader than any individual publication.  Robert, Dave, and Steve – you guys are heroes for getting that book done.  Thank you.

More Than One Milkweed

I recently wrote an article for NEBRASKAland magazine about milkweed and the surprising number of milkweed species that can be found in Nebraska.  (See the most recent online issue here).  In total, there are seventeen species known to the state, and only a handful look anything like most people’s mental vision of milkweed – tall, with broad oval leaves and big pink flowers.  Milkweed can be found in habitats ranging from wetlands to woodlands to dry sandy prairies, and can have flower colors of green, white, and orange (and, of course, various shades of pink and red).

Growing concern over monarch butterflies has raised awareness of milkweeds and their importance, but milkweeds are far more than just monarch caterpillar food.  They have an incredible (in the sense that it doesn’t seem possible) pollination strategy, host an array of insect species that have evolved to handle the toxic latex produced by milkweed plants, and are among the most important nectar plants to many butterflies and other pollinators.  We’re still learning about the relative value of each milkweed species as monarch caterpillar food, but there is no question about their overall beauty and diversity.

This is a great time of year to find many different milkweed species in bloom.  See how many different milkweed species you can find in your favorite natural areas.

Here is a series of milkweed photos I’ve taken over just the last couple of weeks.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)- the species most people envision when they think of milkweed.
Sullivant’s milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii) looks much like common, but the leaves are waxy smooth and completely without fuzz.  It is a much less common species in Nebraska.
Sand milkweed (Asclepias arenaria) is common on dry sandy hilltops in the Nebraska Sandhills.
Green milkweed
Green milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora) is common in the mixed-grass portion of Nebraska, but also many other places.  It’s creamy whitish-green flowers hang downward from the stems.
Narrow-leaf milkweed (Asclepias stenophylla) has very long slender leaves.  
Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) is small, with tiny skinny leaves that whorl around the stem.

Prairie Blizzard Survival

Last week’s blizzard dumped about a foot of snow here in town, and about 18 inches out at our Platte River Prairies.  Combined with wind gusts of 40-50 miles per hour, it was quite a weather event.  Our school was closed for three days while everyone dug themselves out and road crews cleared off streets and country roads.

Knee-deep snow and even deeper drifts buried these sunflowers and many other tall prairie plants. The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
Knee-deep snow and even deeper drifts buried these sunflowers and many other tall prairie plants. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Blizzards are a part of life out on the prairie.  School closings and sore shoveling muscles are pretty minor inconveniences compared to what grassland creatures without central heat and insulated windows have to deal with.  On the other hand, prairie species have been doing this for thousands of years, so they’ve got it pretty well figured out.  Prairie plants are mostly dormant this time of year, so snow and wind don’t really affect them at all.  Many prairie animals are pretty dormant as well – lots of them spend the winter either below ground (or water) or nestled into deep thatch.  Quite a few mammals, amphibians, insects, and others can slow their metabolisms enough that they can survive the winter without having to search for food or shelter once they’re settled in.

Other animals, however, stay much more active during the winter months, and a blizzard can cause them more problems than it does their more dormant peers.  It’s really hard to gauge how this blizzard might have affected those animals, but during a couple short outings, I’ve tried to see what I can.  It’s not hard to find tracks of deer, coyotes, and various kinds of birds, but that doesn’t say much about what percentage of those animals did or didn’t make it through the storm.  My guess is that most of them did just fine, and the warmer temperatures this week are melting the snow pretty quickly, reducing stress on animals that have a hard time moving through or finding food in deep snow.

Songbird tracks around an indiangrass seed head at Lincoln Creek Prairie in Aurora, Nebraska.
Songbird tracks around an indiangrass seed head at Lincoln Creek Prairie in Aurora, Nebraska.

I walked through some of our Platte River Prairies on Saturday morning, and can empathize with the deer and coyotes whose tracks I saw around me.  I probably only walked a half mile, but even that distance was exhausting.  Warm temperatures on Friday had begun to melt the snow and then that soft top froze overnight.  Every step I took on Saturday morning sounded like, “Crinch, Foomp!” as my boot would very briefly rest on the frozen crust and then pop through as I put more weight on it.  Repeating that process in knee-deep snow for a half a mile was more than enough for me.  It looked like most of the deer I saw were having the same issues.

Based on their track patterns, I bet it would have been funny to watch the coyotes walk through the snow.  I would see a few sets of tracks up on top of the snow, followed by deeper tracks where they’d fallen through the thin crust.  I imagined a poor coyote walking as gingerly as possible on the crust, only to fall to its chest on the next step and have to flounder back up again.  And for what?  There weren’t many tracks of prey species, apart from birds, which probably just laughed at the coyotes as they flew away from them.

Ring-necked pheasant tracks.
Ring-necked pheasant tracks in our Platte River Prairies.
Tracks from a covey of quail (Northern bobwhite) running around on the snow in our Platte River Prairies.
Tracks from a covey of quail (Northern bobwhite) running around on the snow in our Platte River Prairies.

Speaking of birds, I saw some songbird-sized tracks where tree sparrows (I assume) and others were feeding on seeds from prairie plants.  I also saw numerous tracks of pheasants and northern bobwhites (quail).  The quail seemed to have no trouble staying up on the snow’s crust, but the pheasants’ feet were punching through more often, so they probably had much less fun running around.  Regardless, both species must have found abundant shelter on our properties – probably hunkering down within or behind thick clumps of vegetation to escape the driving snow and wind.  Canada geese were noisily flying over the river Saturday morning, so they apparently weathered the storm.  There were a few sandhill cranes in the river valley (early migrants) before the blizzard, but I don’t know if they stuck around or headed back south to escape the weather.

This Eurasian collared-dove
This Eurasian collared-dove died shortly after the blizzard.  Based on the tracks leading to its final resting place, it wasn’t a peaceful passing.
Collard-doves, of course, are not native prairie species, but it's hard to say whether that had anything to do with this one's death. I've seen quite a few others knocking around town over the last few days, so it looks like most of them survived.
Collared-doves, of course, are not native prairie species, but it’s hard to say whether that had anything to do with this one’s death. I’ve seen quite a few others knocking around town over the last few days, so it looks like most of them survived.

It’s rare to find evidence of the animals that didn’t make it through storms like this.  Animals that die in a blizzard either get buried by snow or eaten by others – or both.  I did find one collared-dove here in town that died soon after the storm, but that was the only obvious death.  Because life on the prairie has always been difficult, prairie species have developed strategies to survive just about any event, including droughts, floods, fires, and blizzards (including blizzards much worse than ours last week).  We humans living in prairie country might think we’re pretty tough, but we have it pretty cushy compared to those creatures who actually live in the prairie itself.

Speaking of which, it looks kind of cold and windy out today.  I think maybe I’ll just stay indoors and cook myself a warm meal for lunch…

Patches of Fire and Habitat

It’s been a difficult year for conducting prescribed fires so far – the wind seems to be blowing even harder and more consistently than in recent memory.  And that’s saying something, living in the Great Plains.

A couple of weeks ago, we were able to pull off one prairie management burn here in the Platte River Prairies.  The fire went well, and this week I took a quick walk through the burned area to see how the regrowth of vegetation was coming along.  It’s been a cold and dry spring, following a dry fall and winter, so plant growth has been slow, but things are finally starting to kick in.  Within the burned area, many plant species are a little behind their compatriots growing outside the burned area, but others are ahead.  Those that are behind are the species that were already starting to grow when the fire came through – those species had to start again, so are behind schedule.  The species that are further ahead in the burned area are those that are taking advantage of the warmer soil and have either germinated or emerged faster than those in the cooler soil of unburned areas.

Regrowth in sand prairie burned a couple weeks ago.  The wildflower in the foreground is shell-leaf penstemon (Penstemon grandflorus).
Regrowth in sand prairie burned a couple weeks ago. The wildflower in the foreground is shell-leaf penstemon (Penstemon grandflorus).

Regardless, plants are growing well in the burned area.  That’s good, because cattle will arrive within the next week or so, and we want the burned area to be particularly attractive to those grazers.  One of the major objectives of our fire was to concentrate grazing in one portion (the burned patch) of the prairie this season, leaving the remainder of the pasture with much less intensive grazing.  Hopefully, the result will support our efforts to create a variety of habitat patches across our prairies, and to shift the location of those patches from place to place each year.

The patch we burned this spring has had no fire and very little grazing over the last couple of years.  Last year, it had tall vegetation and abundant thatch – conditions that favor a certain set of plants and animals, but not others.  This year, it will have very little thatch and the vegetation will be short in stature because of season-long intensive grazing.  Next year, it will begin a multiple season recovery period from that fire and grazing until it is burned again sometime down the road.  (You can read more about patch-burn grazing here.)

Burning a different patch of prairie each year helps ensure that a mixture of habitat types is always available and most or all wildlife and invertebrate species can find the habitat they need.  Our prairies usually have a patch of very short habitat, several patches in some stage of recovery from intensive grazing, and some areas that are tall and very lightly grazed – or ungrazed.  Some animals will follow those habitat patches across the landscape.  Others will go through boom and bust periods within one portion of a prairie, depending upon what conditions they thrive best under.

Because we’re always changing the location of habitat patches, plant species also experience changing conditions from year to year.  This means that some species flourish one year, but may have to wait a few years before those favored conditions return.  In the meantime, other plant species will find success.  Constantly changing conditions help ensure that no group of species becomes too dominant, but that all species can survive and maintain a place in the plant community.  Our long-term data has shown the our plant communities have stable to increasing plant diversity under this kind of management, and we’re not seeing any plant species disappear.

This burned patch makes up between a third and a fourth of a 110 acre management unit in our Platte River Prairies.  Burning only a portion of each unit each year helps ensure good wildlife habitat and changing growth conditions for plants, but also helps avoid catastrophic impacts on species vulnerable to fire.
This burned patch makes up between a third and a fourth of a 110 acre management unit in our Platte River Prairies. Burning only a portion of each unit each year helps ensure good wildlife habitat and changing growth conditions for plants, but also helps avoid catastrophic impacts on species vulnerable to fire.

Another benefit of burning only a portion of our prairies each year is that it helps us avoid catastrophic impacts on plant and animal species that are negatively impacted by fire.  Invertebrates that overwinter above ground, for example, can be destroyed by an early season fire.  Growing season fires can kill animals (invertebrates and vertebrates) that are unable to escape by leaving the area or retreating underground.  These kinds of impacts are somewhat unavoidable, regardless of the season of fire, but by burning only a portion of our prairies, we can try to restrict impacts to a relatively small proportion of the population of each species, allowing the majority of individuals to survive and recolonize the burned patch over time.  Burning an entire prairie, especially in highly fragmented landscapes in which recolonization is unlikely, can result in completely and permanently obliterating vulnerable species from a site.

Hopefully, the wind will pause a few times during the remainder of the spring, and we’ll create a few more burned patches in our prairies.  If not, we’ll try to create patches of short habitat by haying or by temporarily fencing cattle into an area to knock vegetation height down.  We’ve found that all three methods (burning, haying, temporary enclosures) can create a patch that attracts livestock grazing afterward – and therefore pulls that grazing off of other portions of prairie.  There are lots of ways to create patchy habitats, and none are necessarily best.  As long as there is always a mixture of habitat types across our sites, we feel pretty good about our management.

Hopefully, the species living in our prairies feel pretty good about that management too.


Why I Care About Prairies and You Should Too

Lately, I’ve been trying to figure out why I think prairie conservation is so important.  I’m not questioning my conviction – I feel very strongly that prairies are worth my time and effort to conserve – but if I can figure out exactly what it is that makes me care so much, maybe I can be more effective at convincing others to feel the same way.

I can list off all kinds of logical and aesthetic reasons that prairies are important.  Prairies build soil, capture carbon, trap sediment, grow livestock, and support pollinators.  Depending upon our individual preferences, prairies also provide us with flowers to enjoy, birds and butterflies to watch, and/or wildlife to hunt.

The buckeye is one of the more striking-looking butterflies that can be found in prairies.

Those are all very practical reasons to think prairies are important, but I don’t care deeply about prairies because they make soil and grow pretty flowers.  More importantly, those reasons are not enough to make someone stop and reconsider a decision to plow up a prairie to plant corn or broadcast spray 2,4-D just to reduce ragweed abundance.  If prairie conservation is going to succeed, you and I both need to understand and articulate the deeper reasons that we feel prairies are worth saving.

Which brings me to Dr. Seuss.

As I was mulling over why I cared so much about prairies, the story of “Horton Hears a Who” popped into my head.  In case you’re not familiar with the story, Horton the elephant accidentally discovers an entire community (Whoville) living on a speck of dust.  After he finds and starts talking with the Whos, Horton agrees to help protect them from harm.  The other characters in the book don’t believe Horton when he tries to tell them about the Whos, and actually go out of their way to steal and destroy the speck of dust he’s trying to protect.  Only when the Whos are finally successful at making enough noise to be heard do those other characters recognize the existence of the Whos and agree to help protect them.

Dr. Seuss’s intended moral to the story (repeated many times) is “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”  It’s a fine moral, but isn’t what drew me to the story as a metaphor of prairie conservation.  Instead, I was thinking about WHY the other characters in the story finally changed their minds.   The sour kangaroo and the Wickersham brothers didn’t give up their threats to boil the speck of dust in Beezelnut oil because Horton finally came up with the right logical argument to explain why the Whos were worth saving.  They changed their minds because when they finally heard the Whos making noise they recognized and identified with the Whos as fellow living creatures.

Can you see where I’m going with this?  I think the biggest thing that drives me to devote my career (and a fair amount of my free time) to prairie conservation is that I have developed a personal connection to the species that live in grasslands.  Not only do I know those species exist, I can also identify with them and what they’re doing to survive.  By becoming familiar with them, I became fond of them.

When I was in graduate school, I studied grassland nesting birds.  I got to know those bird species well, including where they lived, how they survived there, and what motivated and threatened them.  I saw prairies through their eyes, and that made me want to help make those prairies as hospitable to birds as I could.  Eventually, I began learning about prairie plants and insects as well.  I was fascinated to find that their stories were equally or more interesting than those of birds.  Each species had their own unique set of life strategies that allowed them to survive and interact with the world around them.  As a photographer, I usually learn about new species by taking a photograph of some interesting plant or insect, and then identifying it and researching its life later.  I’ve yet to come upon a prairie species that doesn’t have an amazing life story, which means the process of discovery continues to be fulfilling for me.

Pitcher sage (Salvia azurea) is one of my favorite flowers to photograph because of it's unique color and shape. It also seems to be a favorite haunt of many insect species, judging by the number that always seem to be crawling around on or near the flowers.

As the number of species I’ve gotten to know has increased, so has my commitment to prairie conservation.  Maintaining the resilience and vigor of prairie communities has grown from something that seemed like a good idea into a personal mission.  Now I’m working to protect things I love, not just species I’d read about or knew about only in the abstract.

Be honest, would you be more likely to send money to help people recovering from a natural disaster in a neighboring town or in a town on another continent?  With rare exceptions, we’d all choose the nearby town.  Why is that?  I think it’s because we can more easily identify with the people who live there.  We can imagine ourselves in their places.  We can see the disaster and their plight through their eyes.  It’s not that we don’t care about people on other continents, but they’re naturally a little less real to us.

By the way, forming sympathetic bonds with species can be dangerous when managing prairies.  The more I know about the species living in my prairies, the more I understand the ways in which those species are affected (positively and negatively) by management activities.  Any management treatment has negative impacts on some species, and impacts from activities such as prescribed fire can be quite dramatic.  Caring about individual species to the point where I’m unwilling to do anything to hurt them would paralyze me.  Management is all about tradeoffs, and while my management objectives are to sustain all the species I can, I have to be willing to knock populations of some species down periodically so that others can flourish.  I think the key is to become attached to the species, but not the individuals.  Tricky…     

Why does all this matter?  It matters because we need to recruit as many people to the cause of prairie conservation as we can.  Excluding a tiny minority of prairie enthusiasts, when the general public thinks about nature and conservation they look right past prairies to the mountains, lakes, and forests beyond – even when prairies are in their own backyard.  After all, what’s to care about in prairies?  It’s just grass.

If we’re going to fix that, we’ll need to do more than describe how prairies can help sequester carbon, filter water run-off, or support pollinator populations.   We’ll need to introduce people to the camouflaged looper inchworm that disguises itself with pieces of the flowers it eats – and to the regal fritillary caterpillar which, after hatching from its egg in the fall, sets out on a hike that will end by either finding a violet to feed on or starving to death.  They’ll need to become acquainted with sensitive briar, the sprawling thorny plant with pink koosh ball flowers whose leaves fold up when you touch them.  And who wouldn’t love to meet the bobolink – a little bird that looks like a blackbird after a lobotomy and flies in circles sounding like R2D2 from Star Wars?

The charming and vociferous bobolink.

Through this blog, as well as through numerous presentations, articles, and tours, I spend much of my time sharing what I’ve learned about prairie species with anyone who will listen – hoping that those stories will spur people to explore prairies on their own and start to form their own individual relationships with the species and communities they find.  My photographs and narratives aren’t themselves sufficient to convert people to the cause, but maybe they can at least get some of them to put on their hiking boots and go for a walk.

What about you?  Have you met the citizens of the prairie?  If not, let me help introduce you.  If you have met them, what stories can you tell?  How will you spread your passion about prairies to others?


Here are some accounts I’ve written about prairie species I find fascinating.  If you find them interesting too, please share these links with others!

Camouflaged Looper – An inchworm that disguises itself with bits of the flowers it eats.

Yucca Moth – A terrific relationship between a plant and the single species of moth that has the capability to pollinate it.

Submarine Sora – Ever wonder why soras and other rails are so hard to find?

Sensitive Briar – A plant with a koosh ball flower, thorny stems, and leaves that fold up.

Pussytoes – One of the first spring-blooming flowers, and a surprisingly important resource for early season pollinators.

Of Mice and Clover – A great example of the complexity of interactions in prairies.

Crab Spiders – One of the great ambush predators of the world.

Flies – An unbelievably diverse group of insects with a wide range of ecological roles.

Grasshoppers – From their cute little faces to their complex communication strategies, it’s hard to beat grasshoppers.