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.
Avoiding predators is always challenging, but it’s even harder in human altered landscapes where the escape routes may not be as plentiful as they used to.
Evading large predatory fish in highly disrupted waters is just one of the many challenges faced by the Topeka Shiner, a small, freshwater minnow that lives in prairie streams throughout the Mississippi River basin. This endangered species must also contend with both native and introduced predators, including the largemouth bass, a species favored by anglers.
The Topeka Shiner’s natural habitats have been significantly altered by human activities. Much of the area once covered by Kansas’s historic prairies has been converted to agricultural lands, and many landowners have dammed or dug out areas of stream to create small agricultural ponds. These ponds change and disrupt the habitats of freshwater fish, as do road crossings.
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?
Welcome to the new Science Snapshots blog! Here you will find weekly posts about the exciting scientific research taking place at KSU and beyond. The goal of these posts is to effectively share information about the questions K-State scientists are asking and the techniques being used to answer those questions in a short and to the point format. We also feature a Photo Gallery to provide a glimpse of what conducting scientific research looks like.
We currently plan to focus on research happening in the Division of Biology but hope to expand our posts to more areas of science as our list of contributors grows. Our first research post is up below, and we’re adding new photos to the gallery on a daily basis.
Read our first post, check back regularly for new posts and photos, and use the Contact page to send us any suggestions or comments you might have!