Home / Blog (Page 3)


Sea Otter Awareness Week

By Liz Clift

Sea Otter Awareness Week is September 24-30, 2017

This summer, I had the opportunity to watch an otter hunt in the surf off the coast of Olympic National Park, in Washington state. The otter rode the waves in, close to the shoreline, and then swam back out, repeating this routine a couple of times before settling on a rock to watch us humans.

Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) are the heaviest members of the weasel family (male otters weigh up to 100 pounds), and unlike other marine mammals, lack a layer of blubber to help keep them warm. Instead, they have the densest fur in the animal kingdom (as many as a million hairs per square inch). This means that though they may look wet, the water isn’t actually penetrating all the way to their skin.

Mother sea otter with rare twin baby pups, presumed to have been born just one or two days earlier on June 23-24, 2013. Photo taken 24 June 2013, Morro Bay, CA.

In fact, sea otter pups have such dense fur, they can’t dive under water until they get their adult fur. This is likely a survival adaptation: this dense fur will help keep them warm and also allows the mother to safely leave their pups floating on the surface of the water while they hunt for food.

Like other members of the weasel family, sea otters are carnivores. They eat urchins, shellfish (including mussels and clams), a variety of snails, squid, and a few dozen other marine species. Sea otters may store food they’ve gathered—or a favorite rock—in the large sections of extra skin near their armpits. This extra skin acts as a pocket (and who doesn’t want more pockets??).

A male might eat approximately 20 to 25 pounds of food a day! Much of this eating occurs on the surface of the water, and an observer might see an otter floating on its back and smashing a shellfish against a rock the otter has balanced on its chest in order to get at the meat.

Of course, if you’re lucky enough to see sea otters regularly, you’ll notice that they float on their back for more than just eating. They’ll also casually float in groups, called rafts (and these rafts may include hundreds of individuals!) to rest. When they’re resting, they often wrap themselves in kelp to keep themselves tethered to a single area, and mothers will also do this to their pups.

Otters play a valuable role in kelp forest ecosystems by helping control the sea creatures (including sea urchins) that would otherwise eat (and devastate) these kelp forests. Unfortunately, due to fur trading, their historic numbers have plummeted, which means these ecosystems have changed. To give you an idea of the scale of devastation around the sea otter fur trade here are some numbers:

  • Historic population: estimated between several hundred thousand to more than a million
  • By early 1900s: worldwide numbers of 1,000 to 2,000 individuals
  • As of today: approximately 106,000

Although they have made a fairly remarkable recovery, sea otters aren’t in the clear yet. They remain on the IUCN Red List (endangered) and now face threats of infectious disease. As recently as 2015, hundreds of sea otters showed up sick or dead along Alaska’s southern coast as the result of toxins from harmful algal blooms and bacteria. There’s also the possibility that orcas (aka, killer whales, Orcinus orca) have started to eat otters as their other food resources have disappeared, although even if this is true, it does not account for the large otter die-offs.

As sea otter populations to continue to fluctuate, we should consider how this impacts our coastal ecosystems in the areas where they live—and how this, in turn, impacts our local economies since the  kelp forests that rely, at least partially, on otters (at least on the west coast) also provide shoreline protection against waves, and foster greater biodiversity of fish, crustaceans, bivalves, and other animals.

California Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris) resting in a colony of a dozen sea otters and wrapped in kelp (Photo from Mike Baird, 2010, Flickr)

Leave a comment

Bullfrog as Invasive? Depends on Where You Live

By Liz Clift (with thanks to Joseph Ehrenberger!)

If you grew up in one part of the US (many of the eastern states extending into the Great Plains), the calling of the American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus) was probably a staple of your childhood evenings. If you grew up in other places, perhaps not so much.

However, this might be changing. The American bullfrog can show up as an aggressive—and invasive—species in parts of the US where it isn’t native, and is able to outcompete native frog species. It doesn’t just impact frogs though. The American bullfrog will eat anything it thinks it can get in its mouth, including small rodents, birds, and other frogs—which means it can have a detrimental impact on some threatened and endangered species or state-listed species of concern.


Of course, in the eastern US, bullfrogs will still prey upon native frogs and anything else they can fit in their mouth. But, there is a greater amount of water and more diverse aquatic habitats. This means that bullfrogs and other frog species are better able to co-exist. In general, bullfrogs are especially fond of slow-moving open bodies of water, while other frogs can happily exist where there are more aquatic plants or within damp forests.

In the western US, where for the most part, water is scarcer and where modifications (like dams) have altered natural watercourses, bullfrogs have a prime opportunity to outcompete other frogs. And, like other invasive species, once bullfrogs have invaded a place, they can be difficult to remove. This is due in part to the large number of eggs that they lay (females may lay a clutch of 20,000 eggs!) and the fact that removing adults can actually improve the survival of tadpoles, since the adult bullfrogs are cannibalistic.

In addition, they have lived for decades in many of the places where they are invasive, which means well-established populations must be dealt with (this is all the more reason to take steps to remove bullfrogs as soon as you notice them, if you live a place where they are not native). Bullfrogs can also travel nearly a mile in search of a new place to colonize, if something happens to their initial home—which could include draining a pond or other water resource, which is one of the methods of dealing with a bullfrog invasion.

Traditionally, practices for managing bullfrogs have included hunting/eating them, temporarily—and repeatedly—draining the ponds or other areas they have taken up residence, and potentially introducing (if necessary) predatory insects or other animals like largemouth bass into ponds where tadpoles are found. (Unfortunately, bullfrogs and their tadpoles don’t taste that great to many fish—so the fish may suck in a tadpole only to spit it back out.)

Northern Leopard Frog

However, these practices can only do so much on their own. Additional, and more creative, management options should be considered. If bullfrog populations are managed, then native frogs tend to move back in fairly readily (or will re-establish once re-introduced). This is promising in terms of increasing biodiversity in areas impacted by bullfrogs.

Great Ecology is working with Adaptation Environmental Services to develop and implement some innovative approaches to bullfrog management in Colorado—and citizen-science may be one of the ways to monitor populations of bullfrogs compared to native frogs, such as the northern leopard frog (a species of special concern in Colorado) before and after such measures are taken. Citizen-science can also help detect a problem early on, if frog monitoring is incorporated into a management plan.

Not sure you can tell the difference between a bullfrog and other frogs? One way is to listen to their calls. Here is your moment of bullfrog-sound zen (so that you’ll know when you’re listening to a bullfrog and when you’re listening to some other frog, say a northern leopard frog).


Leave a comment

Does Visual Note-Taking Have a Place in the Business of Ecological Restoration?

By Liz Clift

Visual note-taking, sometimes also called sketchnoting or graphic recording, allows you to represent ideas non-linguistically. And considering that the written word is a relatively modern invention (in particular, it wasn’t until very recently in the history of human beings that the written word was something most of us in the Western world, at least, have access to), it shouldn’t come as a surprise that an estimated two-thirds of people are visual learners.

Visual note-taking of a biological processes

As a perpetual doodler, who has always been drawn to less traditional forms of note-taking, learning about visual note-taking was eye-opening for me.

At last, I had a name for the thing I used to do—and the thing that “being a professional” had nearly stolen from me.

“Content-driven doodling” on the other hand, has the potential to spark creativity and improve comprehension, and to help people (like me) who learn better visually and kinesthetically, rather than aurally, retain information in a meeting or presentation—or a site visit or reading.

Visual note-taking can be as linear or as creative as you need (or as the presentation dictates), but visual note-taking usually utilizes some combination of the following:

  • Text – meaningful quotes, key points. Use flourishes or other typographic treatments to emphasize key points or add interest to large blocks.
  • Containers – Enclosing words in shapes (thought clouds, boxes, circles, or quote bubbles)
  • Connectors – Connect ideas or pieces of a story with arrows and lines
  • Frameworks – how you understand the underlying structure or model of a presentation, which might look like a 2×2, Venn diagram, or continuum
  • Icons – allow you to distill reality into a simple drawing (i.e. – a stick figure, a basic tree or flower, a suggestion of a building)
  • Shading – allows you to add dimension and contrast to notes
  • Bullets – that are interesting and distinctive, or help you remember if your team is responsible for that action item or someone from another team is responsible.
  • Color – May depend on the content of the presentation and your ability to maintain your note-taking workflow, but color can allow you to differentiate or distinguish info and then come back. You may want to limit yourself to 2-3 colors.

What, you might be wondering, does this have to do with ecology or restoration or actual design of places?

Kent Johnson, Architect uses visual note-taking to understand place

I may be biased (I am a writer), but so much of the work we do as environmental professionals is about telling a story—and then helping it come to fruition, perhaps as a restoration project, a management or strategic plan, or an educational tool (like interpretive signage). For instance, depending on the project, you might be helping to tell:

  • The story of a place. Past, current, future. Maybe one of these, maybe all of them. Most of us think visually about these histories. Visual note-taking can help us figure out how we want to tell that story to a client, the public, a regulator, or another stakeholder (in a way they will appreciate).
  • The story of a species. The passenger pigeon used to migrate in flocks so large they would fly past a particular location for hours. The wolves have returned to Yellowstone, and in their return have influenced ungulate behavior, which allows aspen and willow trees to once again thrive alongside rivers.
  • The story of a disaster. The way that water breached a levee. The way a reactor’s radiation spread. The way that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) responded, and what the will be the next steps.
  • The story of recovery. What does the site look like in Year 1? Year 3? Year 5? Year 20?

Visual notes might spark exactly what you need to help you write a memo, report, interpretative signage, or your next presentation. Why? Because you’re already thinking outside the box. Something might be the beginning of a conceptual design or a presentation to the community or a sketch that eventually gets transformed into a publicly consumable good on a brochure.

Or, less immediately relevant but just as important, visual notes really can help you remember what you and others at a meeting or training discussed. Doodling does help people retain information (29% more than non-doodling counterparts) and improves overall problem-solving.

Plus, in many ways, visual note-taking is an extension of the type of field notes that our predecessors have used extensively—ranging from more detailed botanical drawings to a quick sketch of what the site looks like—and that we may even use ourselves.

Visual note-taking as a way to better understand an organism

Will you get it right the first time? Probably not. I’m certainly still practicing. But “not being able to draw” isn’t an excuse (google: “Star People: How to Storyboard”). Is it for you? Maybe. Maybe not. You’ll have to try it to figure that out.

But if it means that you retain more information, it’s more visually appealing, and it might help you make more creative connections that could improve your problem-solving ability, maybe it’s worth a shot.

Author’s attempt at visual note-taking based on Twitter on #NPS’ birthday

Leave a comment

Any Boat in a Storm…Unless It’s a Raft of Fire Ants

by Liz Clift

Have you seen the photos—and worse, the video!—of the giant mats of floating fire ants (Solenopsis invicta)  in the wake of the flooding in southeast Texas? Yeah, us too, and we’ll admit they’re a bit horrifying.

But, they’re also fascinating.

Fire ants are invasive to the US and they love floods. Or, at least, they evolved to survive floods on river banks in South America, which means they happily use flood waters to relocate, which perfectly explains why my grandparents who lived in southeast Texas never actually removed them from their yards by spraying them with the water hose. When the waters rise, fire ants form “rafts” of thousands or millions of fire ants using their mandibles and their sticky feet and can do this in under two minutes. From there, they switch out the submerged ants with those that are drier, which helps keep the colony afloat.

In this configuration, they’re able to drift around on the flood waters until they reach a tree, land, or other suitable dry area (aka, literally anything solid) that they can scramble up.

Sure, you might be thinking, but they can probably be disturbed the swirling a stick through them, right?

Guess again.

If their configuration is disturbed, they will reconfigure to fill the hole (and I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want any of those little biters to come at me via a stick I was just using to torment them, especially because during flood times they are apparently more aggressive and more venomous. (More on that fun fact in a bit).

So what works?

Apparently dish soap, which will cause the configurations to break up and the ants to drown because they aren’t able to trap air near their bodies.


These fire ant rafts, fortunately, can’t last forever.

Post-Katrina, fire ant populations in New Orleans and other impacted areas decreased because it took weeks to pump all of the flood waters out. Those populations have never rebounded.

Which, many SE Texans might see as a good thing, especially if they’ve stepped in a fire ant pile before. Unlike regular ants, which will bite and then spray an acid (isn’t nature fun?) fire ants like to bite, hold on, and inject a poison into you that has 46 different proteins. Some people (somewhere slightly above 1:100 people) are pretty susceptible to this and can experience an allergic reaction or hallucinations. The rest of us just get welts (after Katrina, people were apparently entering field hospitals with welts upon welts from fire ants, after wading through the waters). But remember how I mentioned that right now they are more venomous? It averages 87% more venom per bite per ant. Yeah, that’s just making everything about this more of a nightmare.

How the floods from Harvey will affect fire ant populations in SE Texas remains to be seen, and will be largely determined by how long it takes the flood waters to recede (or, you know, a bunch of folks going out with bottles of Dawn to combat the terror mats the ants have formed).

A reduced population could be a good thing for more than just humans though. Ground nesting birds (like quail and meadowlarks) as well as some reptiles are also impacted by fire ants (whatever you’re imagining, that’s probably right) as well as native ant species, which are usually out-competed in areas cohabited with fire ants.

Who else wouldn’t be sad to see fewer fire ants? Ticks. Fire ants love to eat ticks.

So, if you’re searching for a bright side, wherever these fire ants wind up will likely be very free of ticks for the foreseeable future.

Leave a comment

Denver’s High Line Canal: A History of Irrigation & Recreation

By Liz Clift

One of the easiest ways to get water from one place to the next is to let gravity do the work. While on the extreme end, this creates waterfalls, if the change in elevation is more gradual, it can create a meandering waterway. This is also the principle behind high line canals. The canals are constructed on the high line of elevation, and often meander to simultaneously follow the higher points of elevation while incurring only a small change in elevation over the course of a mile.

Construction on Denver’s High Line Canal (HLC) was originally completed in 1883, a mere 24 years after the gold rush that sparked white settlement in the Cherry Creek and South Platte River area. The original canal covered 71 miles, in what is now Douglas, Arapahoe, Denver, and Adams counties, and irrigated 20,000 acres. The canal loses about two feet of elevation for every mile it covers. Denver Water took over the canal in 1924, and maintains management of the canal.

Now, the canal covers 66 miles. Alongside most of the canal is a popular recreation trail. Although some areas of the canal are currently inaccessible to the public, the High Line Canal Conservancy is working with Denver Water and others to improve connectivity along the entire trail while preserving the natural character of the trail. Part of the vision planning, according to the High Line Canal Conservancy website, includes development work that is aimed toward increasing the amount of water the canal can hold and convey. The canal was designed to convey 750,000 million gallons of water a day, but currently only moves about 71 million gallons. There are multiple factors weighing into this lower-than-planned conveyance, loss to seepage and evaporation.

High Line Canal Trail, Photo by Chris Loftus

In fact, the canal is often dry. This is because Denver Water operates the canal only intermittently, to deliver water to the last remaining HLC customer, and to nourish trees that thrive on more water than is typical for this arid region.

There are plans to further develop and manage the HLC, including developing continuous trail connectivity* and temporarily detaining higher flows a bit longer through segmenting berms, which will provide some water quality improvements. This change may also alter the ecology of the canal slightly by shifting which soils are wet longer, although these higher flows are not expected to be a regular event. Vegetation that could be supported includes cottonwood (Populus deltoides), which provide broad and dappled shade to the canal, the adjacent recreational trail, and human and non-human (such as deer and foxes, as well as aquatic animals like crayfish!) users of the trail and the canal, as well as native shrubs like snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) and willow (Salix spp.) which provide shelter and forage for many species of bird.

High Line Canal, Photo by Chris Loftus

The canal also provides a nesting spot for turtles. A friend of mine was recently walking along the HLC, and came across a young painted turtle (Chrysemys picta). This is where I fully disclose that I love turtles, and seeing her picture on Facebook of the baby painted turtle made me want to immediately hop on my bike and start cruising along the trail in hopes of finding one also.

Painted turtles thrive in habitats with slow moving waters and soft bottoms with ample basking spots (such as partially submerged branches), which pretty much describes the HLC, when it has water, perfectly. They consume aquatic vegetation, small fish, insects, and crustaceans.  As a child, I caught baby painted turtles with a net. They would often be basking on top of pockets of algae, their hind legs stuck straight out behind them, as though they were flying. I loved noticing the differences in their plastrons which range from pale yellow to red with dark markings in the middle. I loved that if the baby turtle was especially young and its shell hadn’t begun to harden, that I could feel its heart beating on my palm.

Juvenile painted turtle, photo by Liz Clift

The increased connectivity proposed for HLC could provide more access for those who live along, or near, HLC—or have access to it from other Denver-area trails that intersect it—the chance to experience more of the biodiversity along the canal. Although in this post, I only talk about a couple of plant species, and turtles, the canal is an important migration corridor for a variety of animals, and also hosts many different plant species.

In addition, increased connectivity of the trail could increase beneficial health outcomes for those who access the trail. Daily physical activity, including biking, walking, and horseback riding (all of which are activities people engage in on portions of the trail) is linked to physical health benefits, as is general contact with green space, which more studies are indicating benefit our overall well-being. In The Nature Principle, Richard Louv writes, “In wilderness, and in natural cases or even natural urban parks, we find our senses….” He puts forward the idea that being in nature, and being present in nature (rather than still engaging in technology) helps nourish our deeper senses, and the very essence of our human intelligence.

Updates on the progress of the HLC can be found through the City & County of Denver and the High Line Canal Conservancy websites.

*The City & County of Denver has made conceptual designs of some of this increased connectivity available through public meetings and its website.


Leave a comment

Something Fishy This Way Comes

By Liz Clift

One of the definitions of ecology is the study of how organisms relate to one another and their environment. Think back to your childhood classrooms when you considered food chains. For the most part, they were structurally pretty simple.

Simple food chain, created by: Great Ecology

Slightly more complex are food webs, which showed interrelated dietary preferences. Animals with diversified sources of food are generally seen as better able to tolerate disruptions to the food web. For instance, a grizzly bear (Ursus arctos ssp.) eats salmon (Oncorhynchus sp.) in the food chain above. But as this is expanded into a food web, we also see that grizzlies eat berries, roots and tubers, small rodents, and even carrion or human food when it’s available.

Simple food web, created by: Great Ecology

If diet alone determines a grizzly bear’s survival, and say, chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), are eliminated from the food web due to changes in how a river flows (perhaps because of a dam), the grizzly would, theoretically, simply rely more on other sources of food. Case closed, right?

An ecologist—by training or by curiosity about the world—knows it isn’t this simple.

If that same river is dammed, the grizzly might be able to find other sources of food, and do well enough, but the health of the river is impacted, as is the health of other apex predators, like orcas (Orcinus orca). Some orcas have diversified diets and will also prey on seals and other marine mammals or fish and so would feel less impact from the extinction of salmon species.

However, according to an article from American Rivers, published in June of this year, a distinct population of fish-eating orcas, called the Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) waits for a salmon feast at the mouth of the Columbia River each spring. Although SRKW mostly eats chinook (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha, which make up 80% of their diet), they will also eat other salmon—and each whale eats 18-25 of these 30+ pound salmon every day. For that population to remain at its current level, they need at least a half million salmon a year—and if we want them to reach their recovery level (140 individuals), they would need a million salmon a year. It should be noted that since this group of orcas was first counted in 1974, the population has not been higher than 98 individuals (1995). This population lives in the Salish Sea, and Granny (J2), the oldest living whale until her presumed death in 2016, used to be part of their population.

L79 of the SRKW, in Puget Sound. Image from: Wikimedia Commons

SRKWs rely on salmon populations, and although they will travel through the Salish Sea, and down through the Haro Strait and Strait of Juan de Fuca, and are often spotted near the San Juan Islands, salmon populations in these areas are decreasing—and have been for a long time.

Unfortunately, structures we use for hydroelectric power or river control (like dams) can impede fish passage, and by extension, fish reproduction. Overfishing, algal blooms, non-point source pollution, and the disconnection of floodplains can all also impact river health, and by extension the ability to reproduce and the health of fish who use these rivers. (See our blog on healthy and connected floodplains!)

To give you an understanding of how these things have impacted salmon populations, more than 800,000 salmon used to return to the Yakima River every year to spawn. However, increases in agriculture and large reservoirs that were built without fish passage systems have impeded this population. In 1990, only 3,000 to 4,000 salmon returned to this river system each year. A variety of groups, including government agencies, tribal entities, recreation groups, non-governmental organizations, and others have been working to restore salmon populations. This includes reconnecting floodplains, and restoring instream habitat, as well the establishment of local hatcheries where supplemental stock is raised.

These are important steps to restoring salmon populations, as are dam removal projects, like the Elwha River Restoration Project. This is the largest dam removal in US history, and now the river is thriving—tons of sediment have been pushed out, salmon and steelhead are running the river, small squid are making their homes within the estuaries, and other animals including elk and shorebirds, appear to be thriving in the regenerating ecosystems (including young forests) that are moving into former reservoir areas.

The role of salmon in riverine ecosystems isn’t just limited to their benefits to bears and orcas though. They play an important cultural role for many Native peoples, a large economic role for people in the Northwest, and act as “pumps” that move ocean nutrients into lower productivity rivers. In fact, salmon can support the growth of forests as their remains are dispersed by predators, which in turn, provides more shading of the rivers, increased bank stabilization, and improved water quality before it ever hits the river (among other ecosystem services). In fact, salmon populations in Alaska contribute up to 25% of nitrogen in foliage!


Restoring and protecting salmon habitat—and salmon themselves—is critical because so much evidence points to wild pacific salmon as a keystone species for the northern Pacific. So, as you think about those food webs you once worked on, think about all the lines you might need to erase if salmon were to disappear.

Leave a comment

Healthy & Connected Floodplains

By Liz Clift

What does it mean to have a connected and healthy floodplain?

First, let’s start with what floodplain even means. It’s the relatively flat land adjacent to a river or stream that is inundated with water during high flow events, which most of us simply call floods. As a result of this flooding, the land is generally highly fertile and biodiverse, and marks a transition zone between the river and the upland systems.

If a floodplain that has been disconnected is often characterized by steep, high, or concrete banks that cause the water to move through more quickly. This can add pressures to manmade water control systems, such as dams or levees and reduces water quality benefits.

A connected and healthy floodplain, on the other hand provides riverine systems more room as they rise, and improve water quality. As the water overtops the banks of the river, floodplains allow sediment and nutrients to settle out, and provide an opportunity for additional water to seep into underground aquifers, which is a primary water and irrigation source for many communities around the world. In addition, connected and healthy floodplains provide habitat for a variety of plant and animals species.

Parana River (Argentina) floodplains. Image from: Wikimedia Commons

But that’s not all: floodplains also provide fertile grounds for agriculture, due to centuries of nutrient deposits. Depending on the current course of the river system, these nutrient rich areas may or may not be within 100-year or 500-year floodplains, and this is something landowners may want to consider as they consider development options, crops, and systems to alleviate the pressure of periodic flooding.

There are, of course, more benefits to connected and healthy floodplains, which is part of why river restoration often includes examining floodplain connectivity and working to improve or restore floodplain connectivity as part of the restoration plan. Depending on the needs of the community, this restoration work can take many forms, including:

  • Breaching or removing levees to allow floodwaters to reach the floodplains;
  • Installing flood bypasses that allow for controlled flooding (such as weirs or floodgates);
  • Excavating a floodplain terrace, which helps offset the vertical difference between the flow levels and the floodplain;
  • Setback levees, which allows more water to reach floodplains while still providing flood protection to areas behind the cities;
  • Adding sinuosity back into channelized streams and culverts;
  • Countour and keyline ploughing to direct higher flows into floodplains; and
  • Addressing flow regulation to restore minimum floodplain activating flows.

Restoring floodplain connectivity benefits humans as well as plants and animals, and the fact that floodplain restoration has become an integral part of many river restoration projects is a reason for hope about how the impacts of flooding may look different in the future.

Great Ecology has worked on floodplain restoration projects in several states, across dozens of projects.

Leave a comment

Spotlight on Datura: A Poison Plant

By: Liz Clift

This is the time of year when, in the evenings, I can find bees buried into the trumpeted blossoms of Datura sp. These plants are commonly called datura, as well as devil’s trumpets, moonflowers, and jimsonweed (among other names). Datura is part of the nightshade family (Solanaceae) and all species of datura are poisonous, especially the seeds and flowers.

In my neighborhood, there are a few isolated patches of well-established datura spills onto the sidewalks in the summer. It is here I go looking for bees in datura. The bees crowd into the Datura blossoms—sometimes as many as six or seven at a time! —which open as the day cools into night. Fortunately for us, and for the local honeybee keepers, there’s no evidence that honey that may have been partially created from datura flowers has had any ill effects on people.

Datura. Image from: Wikimedia Commons

As a child, in the south, I would sometimes go on early morning walks. Datura, in bloom, and reflecting the light of the moon, appears exceptionally bright and I would marvel at this plant that defied what I considered at the time to be a basic premise of being a flowering plant: flower during the day so you can be pollinated. At the time, I didn’t know there were nighttime pollinators.

Large moths, including hawkmoths, are among other pollinators of datura, although I haven’t observed these pollinating the blossoms of my local plants (I also haven’t gone looking for them). Hawkmoths have been observed nestling their bodies inside the blossoms, and staying for a while, rather than hovering while collecting nectar. This may allow more pollen to accumulate on their wings, and thus increase the rate of pollination for this plant.

Perhaps you’re wondering why anyone would plant this plant, knowing it’s poisonous. Although people have a variety of reasons, I imagine that its large, showy blossoms are one reason.

Datura Blossoms. Image from: Wikimedia Commons

It’s good to be wary of datura, like other poisonous plants, as consumption can lead to death. However, many of these plants that we fear have long traditions of being used by our ancestors. It’s important we understand how these plants have been used historically. As with everything, the dose makes the poison (and in some cases, that is incredibly small). In this case, the specific species of datura, along with the dose can make the poison. The ethnobotany of daturas includes:

  • Painkiller (Aztecs);
  • Ritual zombificiation (Caribbean peoples);
  • Creation mythology (Chumash peoples);
  • Sacred visions (various peoples); and
  • Treatment of bruises and broken bones, as a poultice (various peoples).

Datura, along with other poison plants may also be a key component of our folklore that witches ride on brooms. But I’ll let you google that yourself.

Datura seedpod. Image from: Wikimedia Commons

Although datura is a poison plant, and perhaps you’re feeling some healthy wariness about it, it’s also important to remember that other animals may rely on it, and that it has co-evolved with certain pollinators to provide a food source at a time of day when fewer food sources are available.

If you’re curious if it’s growing near you, take a walk this evening, or tonight, or tomorrow morning and take a look. Its large blossoms are distinctive, and it’s a good way to get an appreciation of what other things flower in your region during these hours. Plus, since it’s National Pollinator Week, you’ll have the opportunity to go seek out the pollinators that live in your community.

Leave a comment

Soil as Iowa’s Heart of Agriculture

By Liz Clift

Iowa became part of the heart of American agriculture, due to the rich—and thick—topsoil it contained as white settlers moved across the plains. Iowa’s nutrient-dense is, in part, due to Iowa’s placement between the Missouri and the Mississippi Rivers, which form the majority of the eastern and western borders of the state. The floodplains from these rivers built up stores of nutrients, as did the history of large grazing herbivores that would have once dominated the plains, including bison, elk, deer, and even mastodons.

Unfortunately, that topsoil is disappearing. In the 1850s, Iowa had 14-16 inches of top soil; as of 2011, it had about half that. In 2014, parts of Iowa lost 15 million tons of topsoil due to erosion caused by storms.  The remaining soil is being stripped of nutrients, due to monocropping, which over time, depletes certain nutrients from the soil. Even when fields are left fallow or with a cover crop for a season or two, the nutrients are not necessarily returned to the soil.

There’s a joke I heard shortly after I moved to Iowa in the mid-aughts:

Person 1: Have you seen the four views of Iowa?

Person 2: The four views of Iowa?

Person 1: Yeah. Corn on the left, [soy] beans on the right. Beans on the left, corn on the right. Beans on the left, beans on the right. Corn on the left, corn on the right.

During the growing season, that’s pretty much true.

And it means that most people don’t understand how much natural beauty Iowa once had—and still has. The prairie plants that historically grew in the area are notable for their long root systems. These root systems not only helped stabilize the soil and retain moisture (or get to moisture during drought years)—the roots also helped prevent soil compaction and drew nutrients further beneath the surface of the soil toward the top, making these nutrients more available for plants with shallower root systems, and younger plants.

Prairie Roots. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

There are only isolated prairies now, many restored, some historic. Some farmers are moving toward more sustainable, or even regenerative, agricultural practices. If you’re driving or biking across Iowa’s rolling hills, you might find yourself admiring a polyculture farm that includes nut trees, fruit-berry bushes, and row crops, with ducks or chickens roaming about. You might find yourself alongside someone’s land that’s been put into the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which has historically paid farmers to remove land from agricultural production and plant species that will improve functionality.

Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, in Iowa. Source: NPS.

Of course, in Iowa (and elsewhere), there is a lot of focus on what agricultural practitioners—which I’ll classify as everyone from conventional farmers through prairie restorationists—are getting wrong (or right). Who is getting what wrong or right, in many cases, appears to be dependent on what, specifically, any individual’s priorities are.

As we think about what’s going right or wrong, we must also remember that we have made major changes to the way the Midwest looks—including the use of agricultural tiles that effectively keep the land from becoming swampy, the removal or extinction of large herbivores, controlling of fires, the decimation of native plant species, and channelizing streams and rivers. Some of these things are more easily remedied than others.

Loess Hills, at Iowa Prairie Conference. Photo Credit: Liz Clift

Great Ecology is working to reconnect an Iowa stream with its floodplain, which will include some native prairie restoration. There are prairie management activities, which may include prairie burns, meant to replicate some of the more natural processes that enable tallgrass prairies to survive. A prairie conference occurs each year in the Loess Hills (this year is focused on restoration, reconstruction, and protection). Certain agricultural practices, including CRP, facilitate the rebuilding of the soil and its nutrients. Some individuals are transitioning bluegrass lawns into native grasses.

And these are just a handful of the activities that could work, or are working, to maintain or improve soil health.


Leave a comment

Hands On Erosion

By Liz Clift

Editor’s Note: This post provides a hands-on experiment you can do with children to help them understand how erosion and floodplains work to re-distribute nutrients, especially in flood events. You may want to couple this with reading news reports about floods (new or old) for older children, or with a visit to a local brook, creek, stream, or river to try and identify high (or low) water indicators, such as damage to trees, bank erosion, detritus or debris from previous floods, or to observe how or if the bank has been stabilized through placement of riprap or vegetation.

Years ago, I lived near a pond. During heavy rains, it overtopped its banks, crept toward the nearby playground, and over a walking trail. It would back up into its inlet, which was lined with riprap and willows. During these rains, it seemed impossible that when the waters receded the fish and other animals that lived in the pond would retreat as the water dropped.

But of course, for the most part, the fish, turtles, crustaceans, and other animals retreated as the water levels returned to normal. The flood waters would leave detritus—dead grass, small animals tangled up in the summer clots of algae that snagged on the blue grass that surrounded most of the pond, decomposing leaves—and nutrient-rich muck. No one ever did anything about the detritus. Sometimes geese or ducks would pick at it, but for the most part, it decomposed along the upper banks of the pond.

This is similar to what happens when other bodies of waters, such as rivers, flood—and part of what has made flood plains historically beneficial places for agriculture. The flood waters deposit nutrient-dense material onto the flood plains, and over time, these materials build up.

Modified fluvial plain, from a Prentice Hall image by an unknown artist

You can replicate this for children in your life several different ways. One way is with andwich cookies and a milk (not chocolate) of your choice. You’ll need at least one sandwich cookie for each person who is participating in the experiment, a small cup of milk for each participant, and a shallow-bottomed bowl or a plate with fairly high edges for each participant.

Start out by placing the sandwich cookie(s) at the bottom of bowl on one side. Replicate erosion by slowly dribbling milk over the sandwich cookie and observing what happens. You might ask the children if they notice the milk turning colors. You might ask if they notice small crumbs from the sandwich cookie being carried away.

Ask the children to observe what happens as the sandwich cookies continue to soften. Does the erosion speed up or slow down? What happens if you add more milk?

They should see the sandwich cookie “eroding.” They should notice that the crumbs follow a particular pattern (the exact results will depend on the bowl or plate you’re using).

Ask the children to pour more milk in to represent a flood. How does this change the distribution of the crumbs? What happens to the sandwich cookie?

You can ask children to use a straw to gently suck up some of the milk (some crumbs will come too, and that’s okay). This will allow them to better see how the crumbs are distributed.

You can repeat the experiment using sandwich cookies that are pre-crumbled and see how that changes things.

You can also do this with other cookies, based on dietary needs or preferences. You might do it with some potting soil and water on a cookie sheet or in the garden. The goal is to help children engage in ecological processes, so that they can better understand not only what they see in the natural world—but so that they might grow to care about it.

You can also incorporate landscape architecture or engineering (does arranging the sandwich cookies or soil in a different way change what happens when you add milk/water? How can you slow erosion through design? Can you alter patterns of deposition?

Give it a try. Get dirty.

Leave a comment

« Newer PostsOlder Posts »