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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Prairies, Plants and Plots

Wheatland, Wyoming is a small town in the southeastern part of the state which is sometimes described as "more like Nebraska than Wyoming."  Where it's not dominated by agriculture, the landscape around that area is mostly mixed-grass prairie, and receives about 13 inches of rain (this is info you can pull from WyoBio using different map layers - check it out at!).

Satellite image of Wheatland, WY from

Each year, all of the 6th graders from Wheatland come to the Berry Center for a biodiversity day.  This introduces the concept of biodiversity by going to five different stations:
  • "Blackbirds and black birds of Wheatland" in the Vertebrate Collection
  • "Atoms and Food Webs" in the Stable Isotope Facility
  • "Prairie Dogs: Pest or best of the west?" in the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database
  • "Getting to know a few Wheatland plants" in the Rocky Mountain Herbarium
  • "Prairie Structure and Diversity" on the Berry Prairie

Berry Prairie Debut

That means the new Berry Prairie's debut was to 75 twelve-year-olds, and it worked GREAT! 

In the Prairie Structure and Diversity station, each group and I discussed why prairies in Wyoming are shorter than prairie is Wisconsin (rain shadow), why prairie plants have such deep roots (access to water and protection from fire), why fire is so important in these ecosystems (cleans out the shrubs and non-natives and facilitates regrowth of native plants), and why prairie dogs are beneficial to prairie health (mostly due to aeration of the soil and nutrient cycling).  We talked about food webs, who eats what, what happens when you take out a species from the system, and why that's important.

After this, the kids broke into small groups and head onto the green roof, where they surveyed a plot for species richness (number of individual plants of a certain type, the kids counted how many individual grasses, shrubs, cacti and forbs) and diversity (how many species of each type).  

Then we discussed how the prairie might look different or change if it received 10 more inches of rain per year.  Or if fire went through every other year.  And how animals help maintain the prairie ecosystem.

This is always of the best days of the year at the Berry Center, filled with enthusiasm, expanding minds and questions.  It was great to use the Berry Prairie to teach these lessons!

Written by Brenna Marsicek, UW Biodiversity Institute

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