The scent of an oak forest wafts out of the office of Sophie Higgs, a graduate student in the Division of Biology at Kansas State University. Inside her office, the floor is completely covered with black bags stuffed with oak leaves that she had collected over the past week. No, these leaves are not an extreme attempt to freshen the air after she had microwaved fish for lunch that day. The bags of leaf litter are important tools for conducting her research.
Sophie’s current research takes place in tallgrass prairie streams in the area around Manhattan, KS. The majority of tallgrass prairie in the United States has been plowed for agricultural use, which makes it one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world. Humans have also played a role in suppressing natural wildfires that historically occurred every few years in the tallgrass prairie. This has led to a greater abundance of woody shrub and tree species that can outcompete grasses. Over time, this can transform the prairie into a shrubland and potentially even a forest. This can have negative consequences for the animals that rely on prairie grasses for habitat and food.