Biological Survey devoted to nature studies in Kansas

A trail shelter opens the way to the Rockefeller Prairie at the KU Field Station on Tuesday, July 17, 2012. The ten-acre prairie is one of various site at the KU Field Station where research is being conducted by the Kansas Biological Survey.

In the early morning hours, after the thrashers, warblers and wrens have sent out a cascade of calls, Kim Scherman ventures out to Kansas University’s Native Medicinal Plant Research Garden. Scherman, a recent KU graduate, spends a chunk of her morning tending the garden and the student farm — watering, weeding, mulching.

Kathy Roccaforte, a doctoral student in ecology and evolutionary biology, sorts through a sampling of grass from a KU Field Station site July 17. Roccaforte and others working at the Field Station were measuring biomass taken from their samples, which is an important step in prairie restoration efforts.

Scherman helped start the KU student farm two years ago. For a capstone project, she planted tomatoes, eggplant and cantaloupe in a small plot. It was the only plot, but by the second year, there were 25 plots, harvested and maintained by students.

Located near the Lawrence Municipal Airport, it’s called the KU student farm but it’s not restricted to just students. For $30, anyone can secure a plot, and, so far, it’s proved a popular pursuit. This year, there were 50 plots.

The student farm and the Kansas Native Medicinal Plant Research Garden are the newest and smallest parts of the KU Field Station, which is only one component of the Kansas Biological Survey.

“The field station is not the Biological Survey, but is just a part of it,”said Kirsten Bosnack, project coordinator for the medicinal plant research program.

The Kansas Biological Survey is a large KU research site dedicated to biological and environmental studies. It is composed of different research centers, each with its own focus.

There is ASTRA — Applied Science and Technology for Reservoir Assessment — which focuses on the long-term management of Kansas reservoirs. The research concentrates on water supply and quality issues. How long will Kansas reservoirs last? What happens when they are no longer functional? These are questions scholars at ASTRA are trying to answer.

There is the Central Plains Center for BioAssessment, which does field work and research on water sources.

The Nelson Environmental Study area is a 618-acre plot that includes habitats reserved for manipulation and research. One study being conducted there now is a $250,000 study of invasive Asian carp, an exotic species that may pose a threat to natural aquatic ecosystems throughout North America.

A parcel of land at Nelson includes mesocosm tanks, designed to replicate and study larger aquatic systems, that are populated with Asian carp.

“If you can detect them (Asian carp) early, you’re going to have a better chance of thwarting them or getting them out of new areas,” said Scott Campbell, assistant director of the field station. “We are looking at different concentrations of environmental DNA … trying to see if they can quantify it based on DNA deposits. How many of them are there? And how long have they been there?”

Many of the studies done through the Biological Survey have an environmental focus.

An example is Michael Houts’ research with geographic information systems. Houts, a GIS specialist, uses mapping applications to determine whether areas would be suited for building and development. After receiving requests from Kansas parks, Houts surveys, assesses and picks places that would be least disturbed by development.

One thing he checks is whether any wildlife would be harmed or displaced. For instance, the lesser prairie chicken, whose population has been slumping since the 1970s, is a candidate to be listed as a threatened species this year.

“Over the last 10 years, biologists and resource managers have had success maintaining and, in some areas increasing, population levels as a result of land management programs that focus on improving habitat,” said Houts.

Two-thirds of prairie chickens live in Kansas, so part of what Houts does is to compile habitat information for developers to ensure that the population remains healthy.

A wide variety of research takes place at the Biological Survey, but the KU Field Station is the survey’s most visible component. And it has a rich history.

In the 1850s, Charles Robinson, the first governor of Kansas, led a group of settlers to land near where the Field Station is now located, trying to establish the territory as a free state. That land was donated to the university in 1911 and originally used for farming, growing turf and extracting limestone for campus use.

“A good portion of the land on which the KU Field Station sits today is owing to that gift of land by the Robinsons,” said Campbell.

The first tract of what was to become the KU Field Station now is known as the Henry Fitch Natural History Reservation. Established in 1948, the 590-acre plot, part of the Robinson tract, was set aside to preserve and study ecology and natural history. The space is named for Henry Fitch, an ecologist and naturalist who lived on the site for 60 years.

“Fitch made it his life’s mission to study this one square mile,” said Campbell. “He published more than 100 scientific papers … and continued to research and publish until a year before he died. It’s safe to say he probably knew every snake on this property personally. He would mark them by snipping their scales, so he could go back to his notebook and tell when, where and how many times he’d caught that animal.”

The land is now a paradise for spiders, snakes, plants and trees.

The field station also includes parcels of prairie populated with 200 native plant species, such as Mead’s milkweed, western prairie fringed orchid, yellow coneflower, blue sage.

On a hot day in June, Campbell trekked past the Rockefeller Native Prairie, and trudged up a sidewalk toward a trail built by KU architecture students at the Kaw Valley Overlook.

“You would literally have to go for miles to see a similar assemblage of native heritage,” said Campbell gesturing to the land behind him. Most Kansas prairie, he said, “has all been developed, converted, paved over, plowed or overgrazed. So having places like this… it’s important to preserve them because they’re a part of natural legacy that cannot be restored or reclaimed.”