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Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Better Understanding of Biodiversity

What do we know about the Berry Prairie? We know it is unique, we know that it is beautiful and we know that there are over 60 native plant species that now call it home. But it is not so much what we know about the Berry Prairie that makes it the unique and beautiful landscape that it is, however, what we do not know. 

For example: We do not know how the substrate we planted in will evolve. We do not know how the plants (all 60+ species) will survive or which species will recede or begin to dominate the landscape. We do not know what kind of animals (vertebrate and invertebrates) will inhabit this new, native-urban environment…. We don’t know…. But we will!

As grad student in Botany/Berry Center, I have spent the last couple of weeks accumulating the base line data that will spring board us toward our understanding of just how unique and just how successful this project will be.  On hands and knees, through rain and shine, through wind and cold I have gracefully (and not so gracefully) crawled my way through the Prairie getting to ‘know’ it up close and personal. 

Through stratified random sampling, a common approach to vegetation ecology, I have surveyed over 1400 individual plants and over 30% of the total area of the Prairie to assess above ground biomass and percent cover in order to establish a foundation of data that will be used in correlation with substrate samples, weather and precipitation data and assessment of animal diversity to help define what we will come know about the Berry Prairie.

Although it is getting late in the year I am excited to report that during sampling I saw a number of amazing flowering plants Campanula, Clematis, Erigeron spp. A vast array of grasses gone to seed Poa, Bouteloua and Sporobolus spp. and a number of invertebrates from true bugs (Hemiptera) and Lady Bugs (Coccinellidae) to bees (Hymenoptera) and bee flies (Bombyliidae) and a number of arachnids. Already, in these short months since planting, we are seeing success in survivability and biodiversity on our Berry Prairie and I as well as we look forward to what the Spring brings to our unique prairie landscape.

Written by Kyle Bolenbaugh, Botany/Berry Center graduate student

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Lookin' for Lichens

Penstemon and lichens in front of the Berry Center.
This is one of our favorite pictures of the Berry Center, because of the Penstemon blooming so prettily in front of the building. But, to the careful observer, the Penstemon is only a minor character in the picture—most of the biodiversity is comprised of lichens. Elegant in their colorful bodies and reproductive structures, and admirable for their tenacity in harsh conditions, lichens are truly unique among living organisms because they are formed through the union of two, very unrelated kinds of organisms. 

What's a Lichen?
Most of what we see in a lichen is the fungus body, which is capable of forming a strong attachment to the substrate and absorbing moisture from rain, fog, or melting snow. Lichen fungi are capable of producing a remarkable array of chemicals, some of which can break down rock (with important ecological implications), give muted or vibrant colors to the lichen, or protect the lichens from herbivory (more on that in a bit). 

But one thing that fungi cannot do, is produce their own food. Like all heterotrophs, fungi must digest organic molecules to get energy and building materials for growth, but they are especially clever at it. Instead of ingesting large particles, then digesting internally, fungi secrete digestive enzymes, then absorb small molecules through their cell membranes. 

Xanthoparmelia chlorochroa nestled among grasses and
forbs in the Laramie Basin.
Which leads to the obvious question: What are they digesting on a rock? These clever fungi are actually keeping their food source inside their bodies—in pockets or layers within the lichen, there are green algae happily (we suppose) photosynthesizing away, and making food for themselves and the fungus. What does the alga get out of the arrangement? A cozy home, attached to the substrate, protected from UV radiation, and more humid that the external environment. 

This arrangement between fungi and algae has been very successful—at least for the fungi. There are approximately 30,000 species of fungi that form lichens, and none of them can be found as free-living fungi. In contrast, only a few hundred kinds of algae (and a few species of cyanobacteria) participate in lichen alliances, and all of them can live on their own, though generally in much more moderate and moist habitats.

Berry Prairie lichen rock.  This rock has eight species
of lichens growing on it
All of this has been a long digression (on a favorite subject of mine), but now it’s time to bring in the Berry Prairie. Are there lichens on the Berry Prairie? Not many, to be sure. In fact, only on a couple of the imported rocks. But lichens are an important component of the native prairie, so we will be watching for them. How will they get here? The commonest of the prairie species is not attached to a substrate at all, so it could blow into the Berry Prairie.

The Black Sheep of the Lichen Family
Xanthoparmelia chlorochroa (aka tumbleweed shield lichen) is called a vagrant, because of it unsettled lifestyle. It can be found all over the Laramie basin, as well as most of the interior west, and is most easy to see where grass cover is low. It’s especially easy to find after a rain, when the body is swollen with moisture. Pronghorn eat lots of X. chlorochroa, especially in the early spring and during drought. Soaking and cooking the lichen in water yields a red dye that is prized among Navajo weavers and other fiber artists. 

Work in progress using yarn dyed with tumbleweed shield lichen.

The bad news is that sheep, cattle and elk can be poisoned if they eat X. chlorochroa. In 2004, several hundred elk died on the Red Rim of the Red Desert (south central Wyoming) after consuming unusually large amounts of the lichen, presumably because of reduced forage due to drought. Scientific investigations have shown that the culprits are acids produced by the lichen, including usnic, salazinic and norsticitic acids. Interestingly, the affected elk had red urine—the same color as the dye made by weavers.

Since we’re not anticipating that sheep, cattle or elk will be grazing on the Berry Prairie, we’re not concerned about any adverse effects of tumbleweed shield lichen. Rather, we look forward to finding it, as an indicator that our artificial prairie is become more like a natural prairie. If X. chlorochroa can get here, so too can many other organisms, and as far as we’re concerned, the more, the better.  

Written by Dorothy Tuthill, Berry Center Associate Director


Thursday, September 22, 2011

One, Two, Skip a few....

Berry Prairie diversity.
The diversity of plants in the Berry Prairie is substantial.  Even to the untrained eye, there are quite a few species of flowers, shrubs and grasses.  We often get asked how many plant species are in the Berry Prairie – and we know there were 62 plant species installed over the summer.   However, we periodically find intruders, indicating that the true number of plant species is an unknown number greater than 62. Just yesterday, Kyle (a master’s student studying the green roof) pulled out three clumps of grasses containing pretty rubust weed grasses.  And you may recall the Globemallow Fiasco of 2011 from earlier this summer.

A more interesting question would be: How many plant species are present in a spot of the Laramie Basin, in an area the size of the Berry Prairie?  Is 62 species per 3,600 square feet average?

Sadly, the answer is almost certainly: Nobody knows. There are a lot of botanists who work in and out of the Laramie, and they know a lot about the local flora.  But determining the “true” number takes lots of time on hands and knees and in the lab, and then, the number would no doubt change next year.

Grasses and a prickly pear cactus blooming in the Laramie Basin.  Does this look diverse to you?
Photo by Dorothy Tuthill, Berry Center

Counting diversity

When field botanists go collecting, the strategy is to stop the car, get out (or get off the horse, or stop walking and take off the pack), and collect all of the plants that are blooming or have fruit. Hopefully, the botanist can stop at that site more than once during the growing season, but inevitably, some plants are missed, as are plants found only in places between stops. Therefore, the best numbers that can be provided are minimum numbers. 

Some botanists argue that just counting species numbers is not the best method to measure diversity, because some species may be closely related and fill similar niches in the ecosystem. Those ecologists are interested in functional diversity, that is, the number of kinds of processes that the plant community participates in. Since it is impossible to measure or know the function of all species, often taxonomic diversity is used to estimate functional diversity.

Laramie Basin prairies are dominated by many, many species of grasses. 
Photo by Bonnie Heidel, WYNDD

Prairies also include a lot of forbs, or wildflowers - above is a penstemon species blooming in the Laramie Basin.
Photo by Dorothy Tuthill, Berry Center

Taxonomic diversity (has nothing to do with money)
Taxonomic diversity is determined by counting at a higher taxonomic level than the species, for example, at the family or order level. Consider a one square meter plot that contains 10 species of grasses and a couple of wildflowers, and another that has three grass species and seven wildflower species. Which is more diverse—the former with 12 species, or the latter with 10? Or how about a plot with three grasses, a moss, a fern, and a couple of wildflowers? Your answer depends, of course, on what kind of diversity you are interested in, because any one of those plots could be considered “most diverse.”  The best kind of diversity is that which spans beyond just an organism group (like plants) to positively influence other organisms (like insects, microbes, mammals, birds and humans).
Here, finally, are some simple answers to the question posed in the title:

Place                     Minimum number of known species
Berry Prairie               62
Wyoming                    2,800 (vascular plants only)
North America            20,100
World                          288,000
Estimated number of plant species (known and unknown) in the world: 400,000

So, while we may think that the Berry Prairie is pretty diverse, the plant species represent only about 2% of the plant species of Wyoming, and about 0.016% of the plant species of the world. And as for functional diversity? Well, that’s for students and other researchers to discover in the coming years. We’ll keep you informed!

A common scene in southeastern Wyoming.
Photo by Bonnie Heidel, WYNDD

Written by Dorothy Tuthill, Berry Center Associate Director

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Prairie Underdogs

Everyone goes ga-ga for wildflowers and trees.  And for good reason - they're charismatic and grand, they're relatively easy to tell apart (making us feel better about our plant ID skills), and they possess wonderful aesthetics, making them common subjects of photographs and paintings.  

Ooh la la, look at those pretty flowers in the Tetons!

But who roots for the grasses?  (Ha! Get it?)  How many of us look at a flowering meadow and exclaim, "Wow, those grasses are GORGEOUS!"?  How often do we buy seed packets of grasses thinking their flowers and foliage will add dimension and character to our gardens? 

Grasses are certainly the underdogs of the native plant club.  To most of us, grasses all look the same.  They don't come in flamboyant colors like mauve and perriwinkle.  They're pretty darn hard to photograph, which is why most grass photos are taken on a scale like this:

Courtesy of

 and not like this:

A moss campion (Silene acualis) blooming in the Berry Prairie

But if we take a closer look, we'll find that grasses DO flower, and their flowers are varied in color, shapes and sizes!  We have seedheads that look like eyebrows, some that look like feathers, some that look like pipecleaners, some that look like stars, some that look like Charlie Brown Christmas trees.

A bouquet of grass seedheads from the Berry Prairie make an interesting and beautiful collection!

The Berry Prairie's grasses are the primary group of plants flowering right now.

The Berry Prairie is dominated by grasses, which mimics the native prairie around Laramie.  In fact, approximately three-fourths of the plants on the green roof are one of eight species of grasses (plus one species of sedge)! 

As I mentioned earlier, grasses are very difficult to photograph, so the only way for you to see what they look like in a prairie setting is to find a prairie setting.  Lucky for you Laramites, there's one right here in the middle of town, called the Berry Prairie.

Many of the Berry Prairie grasses are now in bloom, come check them out!

If you're interested in grasses, check out Joy Handley's post about "Grasslands of the High Plains" or her piece on "Clustered Field Sedge."  Also take a look at a photo of the beautiful Little Bluestem.

And for your grass ID pleasure, here is an identification key for species found in the Berry Prairie, put together by a UW Botany master's student, Emma Stewart.

Written by Brenna Wanous, Berry Center

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Educational “enrichment” in the Prairie

As you know, the Berry Prairie is more than just a green roof.  It's also a tool for education, and in many ways.  
  • Exhibit A:  Kyle is a graduate student in botany studying the green roof for his master's project (meet Kyle by clicking here).  
  • Exhibit B:  Children visited the Berry Prairie to learn about how pollinators and plants are so closely connected (read more about that by clicking here). 
  • Exhibit C:  The EPA is interested in learning from our green roof model to examine how green roofs can be sustainable and viable options (read up about that here and here).
  • Exhibit D: Yesterday, a freshman Earth Systems Science class came through the green roof to talk about types of research projects they might do for their class project, and also conduct simple measurements of biodiversity.

Exhibit E: Stable Isotope Ecology
And another, really cool way the Berry Prairie is helping students learn is through Dave Williams' (UW Botany and Renewable Resources departments, also the faculty director of the Stable Isotope Facility) Stable Isotope Ecology class.  If you don't know what a stable isotope is, you're not alone - it's a cutting edge scientific method to look at how biological organisms (plants, animals, humans, etc.) lived.  For example, by looking at the stable isotopes of animal fur, one can determine approximately where the animal lived, what kind of diet it had, if it was mobile or stationary, and more.

The post below is written by Dave, explaining the goals and the methods of his Stable Isotope Ecology class and why they used the Berry Prairie for their sample source.  You can contact Dave at with any questions about stable isotopes or ecology.


Here's Dave Williams, UW Professor of Botany and Renewable Resources, and the Faculty Director of the Stable Isotope Facility in the Berry Center.

Educational “enrichment” in The Berry Prairie – students investigate isotopes and plant transpiration

Plant species in the Berry Prairie respond to environmental changes in quite unique ways. Very often, physiological responses of prairie plants to changes in the environment are recorded in the stable isotope ratios of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen of plant tissues. 

Students from the graduate course “Stable Isotope Ecology” (RNEW 5500) trekked out to the Berry Prairie during the second week of classes this fall semester (2011) to collect soil, stem and leaf samples from different prairie species. The students spent several hours in the Stable Isotope Facility afterward extracting water from the samples to then determine the ratio of heavy to light isotopes of hydrogen and oxygen in the water using state-of-the-art analytical instruments. 

Students sample a sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata wyomingesis) to analyze in the Stable Isotope Facility.

Students take samples of a harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) to study its isotopic story.

The goal was to test ideas about how water in foliage becomes enriched in heavy isotopes (2H and 18O) during transpiration. The degree of isotope enrichment of water in foliage is determined by conditions of temperature and humidity, and this isotope ratio value then gets recorded in sugars and other organic compounds, like the cellulose that makes up tree rings. Leaf water also imprints an isotope ratio fingerprint on CO2 in the atmosphere, which has proven to be a useful marker for determining the terrestrial contribution to changes in the global carbon cycle. 

Craig Cook (center, in blue), the Facility Director of the Stable Isotope Facility, instructs students on the processes of stable isotope analysis.

The Stable Isotope Facility is a state-of-the-art facility built entirely for the purpose of analyzing samples like these.

The students’ initial results have revealed very different patterns of water use by plants in the Berry Prairie that might be related to how the different species balance transpiration losses with CO2 uptake during photosynthesis. 

The data processing is just in the initial phases, so there is more to come from this work!

Written by Brenna Wanous, Berry Center, and Dave Williams, UW Botany, Renewable Resources and Stable Isotope Facility

Resident photographer: Dorothy Tuthill, Berry Center Associate Director