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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


  1. This is so great! I did not know that difference in prairie dogs. I just know they make large holes in the ground and we have to make sure our horses go around them. :)Love the last shot with the imprinted grass. Bet they enjoyed that. Thanks for sharing this Brenna.

    1. Hi Leah - yes, prairie dogs are one of those interesting organisms that don't look interesting at first glance! What I find most interesting is that while Wyoming doesn't have the perfect climate to foster lots of biodiversity, we benefit from our many mountain ranges that create lots of different ecosystems and barriers for organisms to specialize in. These two species are a product of a mountain range making a barrier they can't cross over, so they stay separate and drift apart genetically as a result.


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