Konza prairie is (in my opinion) one of the most spectacular natural ecosystems on the planet. In the spring, vistas are dominated by emerald green rolling hills where fire has come through in early spring, removing old growth from the previous year and making room for light and thus brand new growth. In areas without fire, the hills look brown and fuzzy with a hint of green showing through amidst the dead stalks from last year. Oh yeah, and there are bison! One of my favorite moments working out at Konza was having my head down in the grass, not paying attention to things going on around me (typical…) just to look up and realize we were completely surrounded by a herd of bison. During a slow walk devoid of any sudden movements back to the jeep, the sound of heavy nostril breathing intermixed with the clack of bison teeth chomping Big Bluestem was loud and all around us.
For the past five years, I have spent a good part of my summers (both northern and southern hemisphere summers, but we’ll get to the southern summers in another post) sampling permanent plots with and without grazing in a variety of burn frequencies. We sample the plant community by estimating how much area each species covers in a 2 x 2 m area (and we’re pretty darn good at it if I do say so myself) twice each growing season. In the spring, the challenge is identifying all the early season species (there are a lot of them – I think we had over 50 different species in a bunch of plots this year) based on their early foliage… as you might guess, this results in a lot of scratching around on our hands and knees and getting our eyeballs really close to the ground. It’s pretty funny to watch, actually. In late summer we battle hot temperatures (up to 120° F heat index this year) while sampling the heavy hitters – big and little bluestem, indiangrass, goldenrod, and other dominant, late-season species. Even through the back pains, the heat, the chiggers, I love this stuff! Some of our best ideas come when we’re out in the prairie; I think it’s really important to spend time in the system(s) you study – see it, feel it, smell it, think about it.
This project wouldn’t be what it is today without all the help we’ve received from a whole bunch of people. Specifically, I want to send a shout out to Jeff Taylor and Patrick O’Neal – these guys are like modern day Kansas superheroes. If you want something done, whether it be identifying one of the 524+ species on Konza from cotyledons (*cough* Jeff), building a 150 cubic foot drying oven from scratch (*cough* Patrick), wiring >100 sensors into a data logger that feeds live data from the prairie onto the internet, or dealing with a hornet nest in experimental infrastructure, talk to these guys.
Now we’re gearing up for our southern hemisphere sampling in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Expect a post about our adventures there after we get back in January!
Kevin Wilcox – PhD candidate (member of K-K since 2010)