Research

The Challenge: Basic research is still a major need within Southern grasslands. Unfortunately, funding for suchbaseline studies is nearly non-existent. 

Basic Discovery: It’s hard to believe but there are whole systems of Southeastern grasslands that have never been surveyed. One of the biggest botanical discoveries in the U.S. in the 20th century was made when surveys of barrens along the Little Cahaba River near Birmingham, AL, resulted in the finding of a “botanical lost world,” since featured by Uhaul on the sides of its vans. These sites yielded undescribed communities and 10 undescribed plant species, one of which became extinct shortly after its discovery. Many other grasslands need systematic survey work before they and the species that depend on them disappear altogether.

What have we lost? In addition to studying what is left, we also need to better understand what we’ve lost. Ecologists are just now understanding that there are forgotten grasslands of the South that we never knew existed. Studies of 200-year-old land surveys, old maps and journals, and tree-rings are offering new perspectives but so much more work is needed.

 

 For many grassland systems in the South we still don't have basic information about floristic composition, community ecology, or importance as food or habitat to various animal species. Here, SGI grassland ecologist Devin Rodgers works with a student from Austin Peay State University to set up a vegetation plot.

For many grassland systems in the South we still don't have basic information about floristic composition, community ecology, or importance as food or habitat to various animal species. Here, SGI grassland ecologist Devin Rodgers works with a student from Austin Peay State University to set up a vegetation plot.

 The exploration of the South's grasslands continues to yield new discoveries. Researchers at the Mississippi Entomological Museum discovered this new moth at a single small prairie remnant in Starkville, Mississippi. 

The exploration of the South's grasslands continues to yield new discoveries. Researchers at the Mississippi Entomological Museum discovered this new moth at a single small prairie remnant in Starkville, Mississippi. 

 Plant specimens, like those at left, yield important ecological information. We can assign a grassland fidelity index score to all plant species. A species with a 0 requires forests. A species with a 10 requires nearly pristine grasslands. Species, like the one at left, would receive a score of 7 or higher, meaning it is a grassland conservative species. The specimen label can be databased and georeferenced. We can then map these specimens to see exactly where remnant grasslands are located or were located historically. This is one area of research that can help us understand where our grasslands are or were in the recent past.

Plant specimens, like those at left, yield important ecological information. We can assign a grassland fidelity index score to all plant species. A species with a 0 requires forests. A species with a 10 requires nearly pristine grasslands. Species, like the one at left, would receive a score of 7 or higher, meaning it is a grassland conservative species. The specimen label can be databased and georeferenced. We can then map these specimens to see exactly where remnant grasslands are located or were located historically. This is one area of research that can help us understand where our grasslands are or were in the recent past.

 Studies of tree rings help reveal fire histories and improve our understanding of the role of fire in maintaining natural areas (photo: Michael Stambaugh). This section of post oak is from Arnold Air Force Base, Coffee Co., Tennessee. Studies of cores from this area by researchers from the University of Missouri revealed that fires burned on average every 3-5 years since the early 1600s, providing enough fire to maintain oak savanna.

Studies of tree rings help reveal fire histories and improve our understanding of the role of fire in maintaining natural areas (photo: Michael Stambaugh). This section of post oak is from Arnold Air Force Base, Coffee Co., Tennessee. Studies of cores from this area by researchers from the University of Missouri revealed that fires burned on average every 3-5 years since the early 1600s, providing enough fire to maintain oak savanna.