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Friday, September 28, 2012

Prairie Dogs and Biodiversity

Today a group of 6th grade students from Wheatland Middle School (Wheatland is in southeastern Wyoming) came to the Berry Center to learn about prairie dogs.  Not just prairie dogs, but the way that prairie dogs benefit and alter their environments, what they eat and what eats them, how prairies rely on such disturbances, and the changes in prairie and prairie dog ranges over time.

Phew!  There are a lot of topics there.  But the students were broken into five groups and shuffled through five 30 minute sessions that focused on:

1. UW Museum of Vertebrates, showing students preserved prairie animals (not limited to prairie dogs) and the importance of preserving historical specimens.

2. Stable Isotope Facility, showing students how scientists can extract stories and information from tissues in animals.  For example, did you know that you can determine which species of prairie dog you have depending on the level of Nitrogen in the body?  Turns out, the white-tailed prairie dog hibernates and can't expel nitrogen-rich urine during the winter so stores it up in its body, where as the black-tailed prairie dog is active all year round?

3. Wyoming Natural Diversity Database, where students learned about keystone species, prairie dog ranges (historical and current), how prairie dogs change their environments, and more.

4. Rocky Mountain Herbarium, showing students prairie plants that were collected from the Wheatland area and preserved for research.  Some of the specimens are over 100 years old!

5. The Berry Prairie, where students learned about the prairie biodiversity (plants, herbivores, carnivores), rain shadows and why we have short-, mixed- and tall-grass prairies, above versus below ground biomass (75% of a prairie plant is underground!), and how to use a dichotomous key to identify grass species.

Jennifer Richards, a Master's student in UW Ecosystem Science and Management, explains a dichotomous key.

It was a LOT of fun, the kids were really engaged in the lessons, and I think they left with the prairie ecosystem a little closer to their hearts.  As they should.  Because prairies are fabulous.

Students imprinted grasses that they identified on photo-reactive paper, mounted an herbarium label, and took a
shadow of the prairie home with them.

Written by Brenna Wanous Marsicek

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Fall 2012: Burgundy Galore!

The Berry Prairie has been back in business for about three weeks now.  It's incredible how hardy these plants are!  In fact, now that fall is here and leaves are turning, the grasses are finishing flowering, everything is going into senescence, you can't even tell it underwent a major overhaul just a month ago!

Wide view of the prairie 2012

Little Bluestem has the best fall color for grasses, check out that beautiful burgundy!

Close up view of the grasses

This same week in 2011 the prairie was much greener!  Take a look at the differences:

Wide view of the prairie 2011

There's more to explore if you stop by.  Check it out!

Written by Brenna Wanous Marsicek

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Prairie Spotlight: Liatris

As summer turns to fall, only one hardy plant remains in flower on the Berry Prairie. We’ve had several good frosts already, and every morning is crisp. But Liatris, also known by the colorful names blazing star and gayfeather, hasn’t yet entirely succumbed. 

You might not guess from looking, that Liatris is member of the sunflower family (see Prairie Spotlight:The Asters). But at close range, each puffy, purple “flower” can be seen to be made up of several small flowers, each with five little petals and two long stigma branches. 

Our blazing stars are blazing out, but this one has made seeds. We’re hoping for lots of seedlings come spring!

Seeds of Liatris are called achenes (like all sunflower family seeds). The hairs are called the pappus, and assist in dispersal—just like the pappus on a dandelion seed.

There are several species of Liatris that are found across North America (two just in the Laramie Basin!)—the most common one in Wyoming is L. punctata, aka dotted blazing star (see below). This and several other species are used as ornamentals because of their good looks, their appeal to butterflies, and their tough constitution.  Their long taproots make them very drought tolerant—a trait that was especially adaptive this summer! 

L. punctata in a Missouri prairie

Written by Dorothy Tuthill, Berry Center


Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Return to Normalcy

After three full months of chaos surrounding the green roof defects (holes in the roof caused by human error, pulling up the green roof, drying out and replacing the roof layers, flood testing the layers and putting the soil back on), the plants are going back in!

The process started yesterday (Tuesday) morning.  The plants were hauled from the Jacoby Golf Course in northeastern Laramie to the Berry Center, where they were grouped by section (section indicated by the different colored tags in the plants and by tape on the railings) and identified by species (the number listed on each tag).

Then, following the original map created by the architectural firm that designed the Berry Center and the green roof, Malone Belton Abel, we arranged the plants as closely as we could to the original schematic.  This is important not only from a design standpoint, but also for Kyle's research

We spent all of yesterday and half of today just arranging plants.  Thousands and thousands of plants. 

And at 1:00 this afternoon, the crew started the last phase: plant installation!

More soon, as these plants readjust to life on a green roof before fall arrives.

Written by Brenna Wanous Marsicek