Category Archives: Miscellaneous

Blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella) at the Fort Worth Nature Center, Fort Worth, Texas

Books about Prairie

Ecology and Management of North American Savannas by Guy R. McPherson.1997. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press. pp. 208.

A Field Guide to the North American Prairie (Peterson Field Guide) by Stephen R. Jones and Ruth Carol Cushman.2004. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. pp.510.

Grassland and Grassland Ecology by David J. Gibson. 2008. Oxford University Press.  pp. 320.

The Last Prairie: A Sandhills Journal by Stephen R. Jones. 2000. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. pp.242.

North American Prairie by J. E. Weaver. 1954. Lincoln, NE: Johnsen Publishing Company. pp. 348.

Prairie Soul: Finding Grace in the Earth Beneath my Feet by Jeffrey A. Lockwood. 2004. Boston: Skinner House Books. pp. 145.

 

cattle at Konza

Konza Prairie Biological Station

On Tuesday, August 13, the 2013 America’s Grasslands Conference had its banquet at the Konza Prairie Biological Station. It was a nice event with good, local barbecue and wonderful views of the prairie. Since the line for dinner was a bit long, I started by walking out into the prairie and was quickly rewarded with quiet and bird song. The views were expansive, the prairie lush, the song melodious. All seemed right with the world for a time.

Thanks, Lloyd Hulbert for your vision and hard work to make this Research Natural Area a reality.

Konza Prairie Biological Station, Kansas, 2013

Konza Prairie Biological Station, Kansas, 2013

Views of the prairie…

Compass plant in the prairie

Compass plant at Konza prairie

Grasses at Konza Prairie

Konza Biological Station, Kansas, 2013

Konza Biological Station, Kansas, 2013

Konza Biological Station, Kansas, 2013

Konza Biological Station, Kansas, 2013

Konza prairie

Grasshopper’s view of the Konza Prairie with goldenrod

Konza Biological Station, Kansas, 2013

Konza Biological Station, Kansas, 2013

Forbs and grasses make a rich prairie texture

Konza Biological Station, Kansas, 2013

Konza Biological Station, Kansas, 2013

Some of the plants…

Sumac

Konza Prairie Biological Station, Kansas, 2013

Konza Prairie Biological Station, Kansas, 2013

Verbena

at Konza Prairie Biological Station, near Manhattan, Kansas

at Konza Prairie Biological Station, near Manhattan, Kansas

Compass plant

Yellow Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum) at Konza Prairie Biological Station, near Manhattan, Kansas.

Yellow Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum) at Konza Prairie Biological Station, near Manhattan, Kansas.

Gone to seed

Konza Prairie Biological Station, Kansas, 2013

Konza Prairie Biological Station, Kansas, 2013

Konza Prairie Biological Station Kansas, 2013

Konza Prairie Biological Station Kansas, 2013

An ant nest in the road…

Konza Prairie Biological Station, Kansas, 2013

Konza Prairie Biological Station, Kansas, 2013

Coming back for the banquet/picnic

Konza Biological Station, Kansas, 2013

Konza Biological Station, Kansas, 2013

and a perfect ending to a terrific day: Sunset on the Konza Prairie

Konza Prairie Biological Station, Kansas, 2013

Konza Prairie Biological Station, Kansas, 2013

Flint Hills Prairie, Kansas

Flint Hills, Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Chase State Fishing Lake, and the Gallery at Pioneer Bluffs Field Trip

On Monday, August 12, 2013, despite the chance of rainy weather (there was a thunder storm early in the morning but all cleared by midday), we had a delightful tour to several prairies and small towns in the Flint Hills area around Manhattan, Kansas. This tour was an all day field trip during the 2013 America’s Grassland Conference.

We began the tour leaving Manhattan and stopping at the above overlook of the Flint Hills. Glaciers came down just shy of here, so no real glaciation but the change in climate would have pushed the plant community south. The soil is based on the limestone and chert (flint) of an inland sea of Permian times and the resulting rock makes nice stone traditionally used in fences and buildings. American Indians of the area made good use of the chert in arrow heads and the like. According to an informational brochure from the Chase County Chamber of Commerce, this area has world class-grazing due to a variety of native grasses — switchgrass, big and little bluestem and others – -and many forbs. The plants support 200 species of bird and untold insects. The combination has produced many kinds of prairie (The North American Prairie, Peterson Field Guide), making an ecological jewel. (The Chamber of Commerce recommends PrairieErth by William Least Heat-Moon to learn  more about the Flint Hills).

Here is another view from the same stop, showing the rolling hills and concentration of trees in more valley areas. The hilltops don’t have much topsoil and are good for grassland and poor for plowing.

Flint Hills Prairie near Manhattan, Kansas

Flint Hills Prairie near Manhattan, Kansas

We drove through several small towns which I enjoyed and with which I felt at home. Our first real stop was the headquarters of the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve. We had a good introduction by several Park and Nature Conservancy staff and then we got to wander on the property.  We were quickly introduced to the limestone, three story barn, with loading from the second story and the main house.

Limestone Barn at Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Kansas, 2013

Limestone Barn at Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Kansas, 2013

Limestone Barn and environs at the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Kansas, 2013

Limestone Barn and environs at the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Kansas, 2013

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I stopped to get a photo of the main house and wall before starting my first tallgrass prairie wander.

Main House at the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Kansas, 2013

Main House at the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Kansas, 2013

Here is some of my wandering:

My first trek was to go up the hill beyond the barn by path and stop for a quick visit with an old familiar, Dayflower (Commelina sp.), native also to my home state of Virginia and my new state Texas.

Beginning of my first tallgrass prairie wander -- an old familiar which is native to my home state Virginia and my new state Texas as well.

Beginning of my first tallgrass prairie wander — an old familiar which is native to my home state Virginia and my new state Texas as well.

Then, I wandered over a muddy path and got to prairie…

IMG_2127

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Rounding the trail, and leaving these trees behind, the prairie opened up…

A variety of grasses and forbs give the prairie rich texture, at the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Kansas, 2013

A variety of grasses and forbs give the prairie rich texture, at the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Kansas, 2013

at Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Kansas,  2013

at Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Kansas, 2013

And just beyond the preserve, the Little School House on the Prairie

view from the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Kansas, 2013

view from the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Kansas, 2013

I turned from the more expansive views to try my luck with the flowers and despite the wind, managed a few photos.

Arkansas Lazy Daisy (Aphanostephus skirrhobasis) at the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Kansas, 2013.

Arkansas Lazy Daisy (Aphanostephus skirrhobasis) at the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Kansas, 2013.

Kansas Blue Sage (Salvia azurea) at the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Kansas, 2013

Kansas Blue Sage (Salvia azurea) at the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Kansas, 2013

Even capturing some with visitors:

Compass Flower (Silphium lacinaitum) with a Short-horned Grasshopper (family Acrididae) at the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Kansas, 2013

Compass Flower (Silphium lacinaitum) with a Short-horned Grasshopper (family Acrididae) at the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Kansas, 2013

Weevil at the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Kansas, 2013

Weevil at the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Kansas, 2013

Fly on Snow-on-the-Mountain (Euphorbia marginata) at the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Kansas, 2013

Fly on Snow-on-the-Mountain (Euphorbia marginata) at the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Kansas, 2013

Then the return trip to the barn for lunch.

at the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Kansas, 2013

at the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Kansas, 2013

Hillside with compass flower at the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Kansas, 2013

Hillside with compass flower at the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Kansas, 2013

Some views from the barn

Prairie as views from the barn at the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Kansas, 2013

Prairie as views from the barn at the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Kansas, 2013

View from the Barn at the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Kansas, 2013

View from the Barn at the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Kansas, 2013

And a final scene before moving on to Chase State Fishing  Lake.

Barn environs at the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Kansas, 2013

Barn environs at the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Kansas, 2013

 

Prairie view at Chase State Fishing Lake near Council Grove, Kansas

Prairie view at Chase State Fishing Lake near Council Grove, Kansas

We continued with a visit to Chase State Fishing Lake, near Council Grove, Kansas, where the prairie met the sky (photo above). We had a nice view of the lake but let the fishermen have their quiet. We walked up into the prairie on the hillside and identified plants. Here are a few flowers.

Masses of Snow-on-the-Mountain, Euphorbia marginata

Snow-on-the-Mountain_Chase lake

and a sweat bee visitor.

Sweat Bee (Lasioglossum sp.) on Snow-on-the-Mountain (Euphorbia marginata) at Chase State Fishing Lake, near Council Grove, Kansas

Sweat Bee (Lasioglossum sp.) on Snow-on-the-Mountain (Euphorbia marginata) at Chase State Fishing Lake, near Council Grove, Kansas

Here’s another sweat bee (probably an Augochlora sp.) visitor.

Bee at Chase State Fishing Lake near Council Grove, Kansas

Bee at Chase State Fishing Lake near Council Grove, Kansas

I found a little flower that reminded me of bluet,

Chase State Fishing Lake, Kansas, 2013

Chase State Fishing Lake, Kansas, 2013

Prairie Rose gone to fruit,

Chase State Fishing Lake, Kansas, 2013

Chase State Fishing Lake, Kansas, 2013

and Partridge Pea, a legume.

Chamaecrista fasciculata on hillside at Chase State Fishing Lake, Kansas, 2013

Chamaecrista fasciculata on hillside at Chase State Fishing Lake, Kansas, 2013

We went from Chase State Fishing Lake to the Gallery at Pioneer Bluffs. Here we saw a nice home built about 1908 and some art work. Then, we headed back to Manhattan.

 

 

 

 

Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve near Manhattan, Kansas, August 2013

the 2013 America’s Grassland Conference: Synopsis and Notes

Hosted by the National Wildlife Federation and Kansas State University

August 12 – 14, 2013, Manhattan, Kansas

Here’s a PDF of the program. Please excuse my stray markings in the PDF: America’s Grassland Conference Program

This was the second biennial conference on the conservation of America’s Grasslands and the first one I attended. In this post, I’ll be sharing my experience of the conference and the presentations that I attended. I will make separate posts for the field trips to the Flint Hills Prairie and Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Chase State Fishing Lake Prairie, and the Konza Prairie Biological Station.

TAKE HOME MESSAGES

Fall in love with the prairie.

Respect your elders.

Prairie is one of the most threatened and ignored ecosystems: loss rate is greater than that for rainforests.

We are set up for another dust bowl, largely due to land conversion to croplands.

We need a cultural revolution to address these issues. – the current “business” trajectory is irresponsible because it expects the prairie to be a stock market and not a living ecosystem.

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS and THANKS

I want to start by thanking the organizing committee and the plenary presenters. They did an outstanding job.

Organizing Committee included:

John Briggs, Kansas State University

Sam Fuhlendorf, Oklahoma State University

Aviva Glaser, National Wildlife Federation

Eric Lindstrom, Ducks Unlimited

Ben Larson, National Wildlife Federation

Lisa Long, Kansas State University

Rob Manes, The Nature Conservancy

KC Olson, Kansas State University

Susan Rupp, Enviroscapes Ecological Consulting

Troy Schroeder, Kansas Wildlife Federation

Julie Sibbing, National Wildlife Federation

 

Plenary Speakers were:

Michael Forsberg, conservation photographer

Mike Kelly, third generation rancher near Sutherland, NE

Chuck Kowaleski, Farm Bill Coordinator for Texas Parks and Wildlife

Travis Maddock, fourth generation rancher, near Maddock, ND

Julie Sibbing, Director of Agriculture and Forestry Programs at the National Wildlife Federation in Washington, D. C.

Doug Sieck, family rancher near Selby, SD

Bill Sproul, rancher in the Flint Hills near Sedan, KS

Christopher Wright, landscape ecologist and postdoctoral fellow at South Dakota State University

 

INTRODUCTION

I am completing a project on the ant assemblages in the Fort Worth Nature Center in Fort Worth, Texas. Although this prairie habitat (part of the Cross Timber Ecoregion) is not as extensive as the tallgrass prairies of the Great Plains highlighted in this meeting, I wanted to share the importance of ants in grasslands and their potential as indicators of habitats and ecosystem health (following the work of Alan Andersen and colleagues).

I learned a great deal at this meeting, especially about the complexity of issues facing the USA and our grasslands, met many interesting folks, made some good contacts, and enjoyed several marvelous prairies.

Sunday, August 11, 2013, my flight from Dallas/Fort Worth began delayed but the flight itself was good and I had a window seat. Kansas is not as flat as I (originally from Virginia) have been led to believe. Upon my arrival I did not see the Hotel shuttle bus but was offered a ride by several local folks. Finally, it was decided and a local farmer and his family gave me a ride from the airport to the hotel. Despite all, not a bad beginning and introduction to Kansas.

 

NOTES

Monday, August 12, 2013

Monday was a day for registration and field trips in the Flint Hills Prairie. I went on the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve field trip which had to be modified due to excessive rains this summer. So, we saw a bit of the National Preserve but visited Chase State Fishing Lake and its prairie and the Gallery at Pioneer Bluffs where I picked up some information on the history of the area and saw some very nice art work.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Morning Plenary Session

Welcome and Introductions with Aviva Glaser and John Briggs

Wonderful Photo Essay Presentation by Michael Forsberg

His photos and commentary were exceptional. He has worked hard to capture the beauty and significance of the great plains – and learned a lot in the process. His photos were an excellent way to begin this conference. His photo essay book is called “Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wildness.”

Michael described his work as falling in love with the prairie and gaining a great sense of history, including the destruction of grasslands since white settlers came to the area. This destruction has largely been the result of misusing the land because we did not understand it – not all prairie can sustain plowing for instance. The ecology here is varied and critical. The ecological infrastructure underpins all resource use, etc. that we currently put on the prairie. Ducks live in grass and make nurseries in the water. Michael shared an awesome experience trying to photograph a burrowing owl. He kept attempting this photo over several weeks with some frustration. Then, he got the shot – the owl’s head began to appear and when the owl finally surfaced, Michael said, “the owl stared right into my soul.” – connection.

   “Rapid grassland conversion in the Western Corn Belt” by Chris Wright

Landscape changes are threatening wetlands and prairies. – Land being converted to crops and the proximity of this conversion to wetlands is a great threat to the integrity of the land. Wright asked, “Are we setting ourselves up for another dustbowl?”

  “What’s happening in Washington: Federal Policy and Grasslands” by Julie Sibbing

“Grasslands don’t register in Washington.” The rate of loss of grasslands is greater than that for rainforests and potentially more critical. There is great concern for grassland birds, many of whom are migratory species relying on several different prairie systems. “Protect our Prairies Act.” Wind development fragments grassland habitat. EPA has an interesting, and irresponsible, interpretation of the renewable fuel standards (RFS) which defeats the purpose of the standards. Issue with crop insurance: wetlands would be drained if not tied to crop insurance – decoupled in 1996. Understanding easements.

“The drought in the southern prairies” by Chuck Kowaleski, Texas Parks and Wildlife

There has been drought in the Great Plains for 3 years. This could be the result in a climate shift. There has been a shift from desert grasslands to desert scrub in New Mexico. Drought monitoring shows region effected has expanded but not as severe and yet there are extensive effects of the drought, including the die off of drought resistant species in Texas (species of Junipers), catastrophic fires with other changes. We are set up for another dust bowl. Wind and too much bare ground (2011 dust storm in Lubbock) have serious repercussions for cattle, processing plants, rivers and reservoirs drying up, water release suits etc. Sandy soils recover more easily since sand allows water penetration (Here’s where ants nesting in sandy soils can help!) while clayey soils become compacted as they dry and resist water penetration.

And in case you thought Chuck’s comments might be exaggerated, take a look at this — Texas gone dry.

First Break Out Session: Track One, Landscape planning and management for grassland conservation

   “Preserving Our Prairies” by Randy Renner, Ducks Unlimited

Land conversion is the big issue. Interest in this exceeds the funding available.

  “The Implementation of the MN Prairie Plan” by Marybeth Block, MN Department of Natural Resources

Landscape approach – 20 years of background assessment; importance of cooperation

The Plan: core areas (aim for 40% grassland and 20% wetland); corridors; Ag. Matrix

Permanent protection of quality prairies; restoration of native grasslands; maintenance and improvement; community base/investment needed (perhaps a connection to natural history interest)

“Using focal songbird species to target landscape conservation in the northern Great Plains” by Marisa Lipsey, University of Montana

Choice of songbird species covers the bases: umbrella species, charismatic species, keystone species, indicator species, high-powered trend detectors – with lots of data and abundance

Songbirds are tied to grassland structure. Lipsey used a spatially hierarchical approach – considered spatial scale and used occurrence data: probabilities of occurrence at different scales given environmental variables (also measured at different scales)

Second Break Out Session

    “Conservation of North America’s grassland birds in the Chihuahuan Desert” by Arvind Panjabi, Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory

Bird migrations and importance of non-breeding season – survival of adults in non-breeding season, wintering in desert or migrating through

Same threats are seen here and in Northern Mexico: 5 – 10 % grasslands remain in Chihuahuan Desert. Birds need the right kind of cover – tallgrass (30 cm) not scrub.

  “Shifting population dynamics of the grassland bird community at the Manitoba Tall Grass Prairie Preserve as a result of habitat changes” by Christie Borkowsky

Species in a community. Bird banding project in Manitoba using mist net capture.

Third Break Out Session

“Bison (Bison bison) as a force promoting climate change adaptation in grasslands” by K. Ellison, Wildlife Conservation Society

Grazing effect on habitat structure – producing different microhabitats. Effects on birds (and ants). Bison have behavioral differences from cattle. For instance, creation of wallows produced microclimate effects – what species might benefit?

“Ecotypic variation in drought tolerance and genetic diversity of the ecologically dominant grass big bluestem (Andropogon geraldi) across the Great Plains precipitation gradient” by Loretta Johnson, Kansas State University

There is a sharp precipitation gradient east to west across the Great Plains. Discernment of ecotypes of bluestem in response to this gradient in terms of drought survival. Genetic basis – when grow in different areas phenological differences remain. Implications for restoration and maintenance.

“Responses of a grassland spider community to disturbance from fire and bison grazing” by Jesus Gomez, Kansas State University

Spiders at family levels partition habitat at small scales vertically.

 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Plenary Session: Ranchers and Other Conservationists, Lessons Learned and Challenges Met

Panelist and Comments: Bill Sproul, Mike Kelly, Doug Sieck, and Travis Maddock

Land uses and need for education on prairie – on-going for researchers and others

Ranchers as conservationists

The restoration of a meandering creek – that is, back to its meandering – restored the water table and native grasses.

Connecting globally – grasslands international: Maddock talked about connecting with grassland issues in Kazakhstan, Russia.

Mistake to take some grasslands and use as croplands – need to restore such marginal lands back to grasslands: how? Hilltops don’t have much topsoil. The old form of land use, farm and fallow, adds to erosion and soil blows away.

Importance of knowing the carbon cycle.

Absentee landowners and economics – economic reality (when we let banks dictate it).

Grass and run cattle vs. rent and grow crops – land use chosen on immediate economics and convenience

Need to highlight conservation benefits (long term) and how this produces economic benefits.

Concerns about wind energy – Is it sustainable? Adverse effects on birds and ecology.  The grasslands and deserts are not empty.

Timely income – grass doesn’t bring in income as quickly as crops – for larger benefits, it is hard to run ranching like a business. – business of returning carbon to the soil hard to sell because of lack of immediate payoff

Loss of diversity

Farming is run by others who tell the farmer what and how for a quick profit (by banks) – individual thinking not needed, just do what you’re told

Means that farmers are no longer living on and with the land – no discernment of nature or ecology; lack of knowledge of place

Wind energy and sod busting are threats to grasslands

Some memorable comments from Bill Sproul:

He was a talker and a character. He and his wife had been ranching with conservation in mind for years and had won the 2009 Excellence in Rangeland Management Award from the Society of Range Management and the 2010 Regional Environmental Stewardship Award representing Region VII of the National Cattlemen’s  Beef Association.

Sproul told this story which I paraphrase here with some near quotes:

“They gave me this book – never heard of – by this Aldo Leopold guy. I knew I was doing something right but didn’t know what. I’d like to meet this Leopold guy sometime wherever he is. Doing something because its right and good; not because you pay me. I know how to make money. The commodity driven side makes people dependent versus the community side based conservation. One day on the ranch, I picked up this bud light can. I don’t know how it got there but I picked it up. I can get so much for all the aluminum cans I pick up but that’s not why I picked it up. It’s the right thing to do. I manage for grass, not for cattle, not commodity driven.”

Here’s my take with a lot of inspiration from Sproul (and a hint of Aldo Leopold and Wendell Berry):

Sproul’s sense of an economic community basis raises more questions about our economic culture which is “banking” dominated. Put your savings in the  “bank:” in the ground (in reality) not the financial industry. There’s a reason wealth began as spices, wood, etc. – directly linked to the land and its production. We need to recover a passion for grasslands and not be seduced by the Emerald City. We need our independence and to be thinking, feeling, living with the land, on the land,  part of the land.

Fourth Break Out Session: Track 2, Status, trends, and conservation of grassland-dependent wildlife

“Ants in the Grassland: their importance and potential as indicators of ecosystem health” (my presentation)

Ants are abundant and diverse in terrestrial ecosystems. Their diverse ecological roles and ease of collection make them candidates for indicators. My project assessing 17 sites in the Fort Worth Nature Center weakly supports this use. Sites and species grouped into Aquilla sandy prairies, Aquilla woodland, and other prairies based on soil type and ecological unit (Natural Resources Conservation Service). There were two possible indicators: two species of Camponotus for woodland habitats and Pogonomyrmex comanche for Aquilla sandy prairies. While there are issues using Andersen’s functional groups (Andersen 1997), this characterization did show a structure of the assemblages across the sites. More work needs to be done in this area, especially describing species specific ecology and defining more appropriate functional groups.

   “Ecological roles and conservation challenges of social burrowing, herbivorous mammals in the world’s grasslands” by Ana Davidson

Social, biodiversity, herbivorous roles

similar trophic and engineering effects (compared to ants) — burrowing: escape from heat, protection – easy den, nest building: similar solutions to similar problems

putting effects together: clipping grass, burrows, mounds, etc. — engineering habitat and influencing other organisms – increasing and supporting diversity

habitat loss in conversion: 80% of grasslands lost

concern for plague and other disease spread – due to land use changes

climate change issue

        “Evolving management strategies for shortgrass prairie, Black-tailed prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets: adaptive management in a sea of controversy” by Rob Manes, Nature Conservancy of Kansas, and Charles Lee, Kansas State University Extension Wildlife Service

long term study

issues of control of expansion and removal of problem colonies

A Comanche harvester ant forager

Texas Ants Project Started

iNaturlist is an on-line community for naturalists — “you can record what you see in nature, meet other nature lovers, and learn about the natural world.”

You can upload photos with location and date and get identification help. Identifications are confirmed, so the data is reliable. There are several projects to which these observations may be added.

I recently joined the community and am uploading observations from the last few years — so you can add past observations as well.

More importantly, I started my own project, Texas Ants, for observations of ants in Texas.

While you can access the information without joining the community, please join us if you have nature observations, especially if you have some good photos. This site is being used by naturalists and researchers. It is not only fun but has an important impact on how we study and understand the non-human world. There are possibilities for your observations to impact land, water, and resource management as well. Rob Denkhaus of the Fort Worth Nature Center started a Nature Center project specifically to help with management of the Center.

Half-way through the first round of nestmate discrimination tests

Out of 400 trials for this first experiment with nestmate discrimination, done out of context, there have been 12 aggressive interactions so far — 3%. There are 300 trials left for this experiment.

This low level of aggression may indicate a low level of aggression in this species (also meaning that aggression is not a significant factor structuring the population) or that context matters (either the context of the interaction or the task of the individual ants). Further experiments will address these issues.

I will do a full scoring of the behaviors when this experiment is complete and the videos are coded. Right now I am only recording the level of aggression I observe while making the recordings.

Here is a video of an aggressive encounter between two Comanche harvester ants.

Southern Black Widow spider preys upon the Comanche harvester ant

Predators of the Comanche Harvester Ant

In my field work I have encountered some predators of the Comanche harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex comanche.

A Comanche harvester ant in an ant lion trap (Neuroptera, Myrmeleontidae)

A Comanche harvester ant in an ant lion trap (Neuroptera, Myrmeleontidae)

The Comanche harvester ant nests in very sand soil and some ant lions lay their eggs in sandy soil. The larval ant lions construct conical pits, traps, to trap small prey, often ants. I tested whether the ant lion larvae  were preying on Comanche by introducing a Comanche forager to an ant lion trap. Out of 60 trials, only one harvester ant was killed. However, the harvester ant was able to sting the ant lion as well — so no dinner was had. Most of the ants easily and quickly left the traps without interference from the ant lions.

 

Southern Black Widow Spider preys upon the Comanche harvester ant

Southern Black Widow Spider preys upon the Comanche harvester ant.

Black widow spiders (Lactrodectus mactans) are predators of the Comanche harvester ant. They build their webs above a Comanche mound near the entrance and appear to pick off the ants as the ants move around the mound.

Bee Assassin preys upon the Comanche harvester ant

Bee Assassin preys upon the Comanche harvester ant

Despite their name, Bee Assassins (Apiomerus spissipes) are another predator of the Comanche harvester ant. I have seen these bugs in the morning on or near a Comanche harvester ant mound waiting for the ants to become active.

Horned lizard (Phrynosoma) scat made up entirely of harvester ant heads. Big Bend National Park, Texas.

Horned lizard (Phrynosoma) scat made up entirely of harvester ant heads. Big Bend National Park, Texas.

Although there are now no horned lizards (Phyrnosoma sp.) in my study sites in Fort Worth nor in Arlington, Texas, this lizard specializes on harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex spp.).

Although I have not observed any other predators,other possibilities include birds, small mammals, and lizards.

Comanche harvester ants: workers, male alates (black with wings) and female alate (large red ants with wings)

Are Ants Wingless?

I was recently questioned for writing that ants are wingless on the Home Page for Ant Ecology and Other Adventures because most ant species produce alates or winged female and male reproductive forms (See the photo above of the Comanche harvester ant workers (wingless), black male alates, and red female alates). My comment was not meant as a summary of all of ant biology but as a comparison to other insects which are typically characterized as winged.  There are important differences between ants and the other winged insects that specifically have to do with the lack of wings in most ants. I share with you part of my response.

 

Insects are described as winged based on the majority of adult forms in a species and their biology (their use of the wings). Notice, for instance that fly larvae do not have 3 major body parts nor wings, yet we don’t say flies don’t have wings, etc.  We could say the same things about numbers of legs in larvae as well…insect developmental patterns and special “classes” — like eggs, larvae, and in the ants, the reproductives, are special cases — that is, they serve particular and often short-lived functions.

 

Wasps at the Fort Worth Nature Center, Fort Worth, Texas

Wasps at the Fort Worth Nature Center, Fort Worth, Texas

In the same way, we do not describe ants based on one stage, the alates, which like the larvae are a special group.  Most ants for most of their lives have no wings: hence ants may be appropriately described as wingless. The reason we don’t use the alates as a norm nor their winged state as a norm, is that it is not the norm.  Wings are not an integral part of ant biology like they are for flies, for instance. This winglessness also makes ants rather different in their ecology from other eusocial Hymenopters, many of the bees and wasps.   And this is actually an important point: ant biology and ecology are different from the rest of the insects especially because they do not have wings. Ant life habits like foraging and feeding, their defense mechanisms, and more are very different from the winged insects. So it matters a great deal to understand that ants are wingless. The fact that some ant species produce alates confirms this difference because these ants only have their wings for a very short time — the males soon die and the females remove their wings shortly after mating.  The only purpose for having wings is dispersal for mating and new colony founding. This form of dispersal is not going on all the time but only during select seasons when mating occurs. When an ant colony moves, they’re not flying and this matters.  For the winged insects, dispersal, and flying, is very different.

Further, not all ant species produce alates or reproductive ants with wings.  To make things worse, not all species have workers and in some species workers reproduce.  The diversity in ants is endless. The point of those opening comments was to underscore some of the diversity, not give a mini course in ant biology.

These are all important points for understanding ants but also for some of the research I am sharing on this site — specifically, I am finding female alates — with wings — acting as workers, that is, not doing alate things like mating and dispersing.  This is not unheard of in other species but, to my knowledge, the prevalence of this kind of female alate has not been well studied nor the mechanisms behind it (I suspect genetic and developmental mechanisms). There are some other strange things going on with the alates in the Comanche harvester ant as well. I’m thinking about it.  I’ll let you know how much more confusing alates are when I find out more!