On July 11th, we learned about the ecology of Minnesota’s endangered prairies. One hundred and fifty years ago, Minnesota contained about 18 million acres of prairies, and only a little over 1% of those remain today. Yet prairies are still an important part of our environment and many communities are starting to restore former grasslands to give prairie species such as bison, butterflies, and beetles a fighting chance.
A prairie is a grassland or savannah (a grassland with trees) in a temperate region, defined especially by a thick thatch of grass that covers the earth year-round. We looked at a piece of prairie sod cut out from the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve in Anoka County, MN and thought about how the roots of prairie plants prevent erosion in these grasslands. We also looked at, touched, and smelled some common native and exotic prairie species. These included sweet-smelling prairie sage, showy black-eyed susans, and common milkweed, which is an essential source of food for monarch butterflies. Many visitors were familiar with at least some of these familiar species.
Prairies are naturally subject to frequent fires, which clear away dead brush, rejuvenate the soil, and keep the prairie from becoming a forest. After a fire burns through, new vegetation sprouts from seeds. We examined prairie seeds under a microscope and even made seed art – glass bottles filled with a diversity of seeds.
Finally, some of us tested our knowledge with a quiz about Minnesota’s grasslands, while others took an online quiz to find out what role they would play as an organism in the prairie. For those inclined to create some art, a coloring activity called “The Happy Prairie” helped us to think through how to balance human needs and conservation of natural spaces.