Many people know that plants make the oxygen that most organisms need to breath, but plants are also sugar manufacturers. Through the process of photosynthesis, plants use light energy from the sun and water from their surroundings to convert carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into sugars they can use for growth. Besides producing oxygen and making their own food (sugars), plants provide the basic energy source for virtually all life on earth. Plants can accomplish this amazing chemical feat in nearly all types of environments; even some that may seem unsuitable. One big problem for plants living in the Great Plains is the scarce availability of water, made worse by increasing drought.
You might have heard numbers in climate change news describing the total amount of carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas, that is released across the entire earth within a year. So how do scientists calculate this annual number? Some parts of this calculation are relatively straightforward, like adding up the amount of carbon dioxide released from burning oil or gas around the world. Others are more complex and some even require diving into the soil to look closely at the lives of tiny organisms like bacteria and fungi.
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.
When you hear “environmental disaster,” images from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Chernobyl, the Dust Bowl, or the Exxon Valdez oil spill may come to mind. As you picture oil slicks, chemical burns, and polluted waters, it is difficult to imagine life after these devastating events. Do plants and animals actually survive in these rapidly changing and degrading habitats? If so, how do they do it?