Dominated by grasses, inundated with water, and spattered with cardinal flowers, blue lobelia, gentians and orchids: These features are part of one of the rarest ecosystems on Earth. There are five examples of twig-rush wet prairie ecosystems left worldwide, and one is located in the Oak Openings Region.Dr. Todd Crail, UT lecturer of environmental sciences, is teaching an ecology lab this fall that focuses on the conservation of the wet prairie ecosystem in northwest Ohio. The Oak Openings region composes a system of oak savannas and wet prairies on a sand ridge that runs from Detroit to Maumee State Forest in Henry County, Ohio. One of the focal sites for his class is Kitty Todd Nature Preserve, a 1,000-acre stretch of land located at 10420 Old State Line Road in Swanton.
According to Kitty Todd’s Preserve Manager Ryan Gauger, the Oak Openings region is a globally imperiled system. Containing many unique species of plants and animals, the area has a biodiversity that acre for acre compares well to rainforest. However, non-native species, such as buckthorn and planted pine trees, have taken over parts of the preserve and changed habitats, Gauger said.
Crail explained that these invading species need to be managed in order to preserve the historic ecosystems. This is done by cutting and applying herbicide to unwanted plants, followed by more natural means such as controlled fires.
“If you don’t manage wet prairies, you just don’t have wet prairies,” he said.Each week, the response of ecosystems being managed at Kitty Todd and other preserves is measured by the students in the general ecology laboratory (EEES 3060). Gauger said the class’s efforts have been very helpful in assessing what should continue and what can be done differently.
“They find out the stuff that I can’t find out; I don’t have time to push probes into the ground and figure out the soil,” he said. “I’ve got to be actually doing things on the landscape. [The class] provides me with the information, as a manager, to figure out what I’m doing and how I’m affecting this positively or negatively.”
Gauger said he is always looking for new, holistic ways to preserve the ecosystem. He also prides himself in sharing his work with other preserves that have opportunities to apply these conservation methods at their sites.
The class also will be working at Irwin Prairie State Nature Preserve and Southview Savanna throughout the semester.
Crail’s students said they find the class and the work they’re doing rewarding.
“Thankfully, it was required because this is probably the coolest class I’ve ever taken,” said Corinne Whewell, a senior environmental science major with a focus in geology. “I’m literally holding a large lump of soil in my hands. My fingers are dirty, I’m outside, and other people are sitting in a classroom right now.”
The course offers field experience, allowing students to learn professional skills in a real-life setting, which Whewell said makes the class stand out from other ones she’s taken. She also pointed out that in her major, no one likes being stuck inside, making the class all the more enjoyable.
Jesse Baum, a senior science education major, said that he feels the class work he’s doing is necessary to preserve the wet prairie ecosystem.
“This is it,” he said. “We are the only place like this. But we don’t talk about it; no one really knows that. People think of saving the rain forest, but this is our version of the rain forest and it has plenty to offer.”
Gauger said you don’t have to be a student to volunteer at Kitty Todd; anyone can help. To sign up, click here.
Kitty Todd Preserve is open to the public Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the first weekend of the month from May through October. During open weekends, guided hikes are offered on Saturdays at 2 p.m. There also are volunteer workdays on the first and third Saturdays of each month.