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60 Floods Mark the Beginnings of Prairie Earth The tallgrass prairie has often been referred to as a sea of grass, an appropriate metaphor when you consider that the geologic history of the Flint and Osage Hills is based upon the ebb and flow of oceans. For millions of years, the region alternated between inundation by shallow marine seas and reemergence above sea level. Today’s thick limestone beds are a result of eons of limey secretions and the skeletons of ancient saltwater flora and fauna that, cemented together, make up the fossil-rich strata that outcrop throughout these rolling hills. Permian layers of limestone exposed in the Flint Hills approach a thickness of two hundred feet, with some estimated to be between 240 and 290 million years old. Even so, the region is considered ecologically young and still a borrower of plants and animals from neighboring systems. Modern prairie, still in the process of developing its own endemics, may manage to do so in a few thousand years if we can manage to protect the small amount of tall grassland left. While trees are generally revered worldwide,grasses get little appreciation . Not many realize that our native grasses are an advanced group of specialized plants with a remarkable ability to adapt to the forces that shaped them. Tallgrass prairie grasses evolved under pressures exerted by some formidable opponents—fire, drought, and the 61 Floods Mark the Beginnings of Prairie Earth appetites of large and small grazers ranging from bison to grasshoppers . The give-and-take between grasses and grazers has been beneficial to both. Over time, grasses added silica content both to shore up their vertical stature and to deter the animals that would eat them. In turn, grass consumers responded by evolving high-crowned, wear-resistant teeth to counter the added grit in the prairie salads they savored. Native grasses battled back against close cropping by consumers like bison by developing rapid spurts of growth both upward and laterally and by producing new shoots that formed along horizontal underground stems. Native grasses also became capable of renewing growth at any point along the stem. Therefore, if a cow crops a grass plant six inches from the ground, that plant will once again start growing from that six-inch point. Cut a tree trunk and what you have left is a stump. Renewed growth may appear in the form of suckers or runners, but the stump remains a stump. Grasses produce new growth from meristems, actively dividing cells located throughout the stem that enable the plant to telescope upward rather than laterally, with new leaf mass being added throughout the process. Obviously,native grasses are tough and resilient.Yet even the toughest can be damaged beyond repair by overgrazing. Grasses continually gnawed to the ground can’t produce enough leaf surface for adequate photosynthesis. Over time, the roots of continually close-cropped grasses lose their vigor, start to decline, and are replaced by annual grasses and forbs of lower palatability and nutritional value. Land managers then attack these “weeds” with expensive herbicides when they could have alleviated the problem by simply allowing their grasses a little extra growth. Prairie grasses can bounce back if grazing is deferred so that the plants can recuperate and rejuvenate leafy surface area. Historically, buffalo herds cropped the grasses closely and then moved on while the prairie repaired itself and regained vitality. Today, ranchers too often disregard grassland’s need for rest and, over time, watch their acreage degenerate into stands of invasive annuals from Europe and Asia, along with woody invaders that barely provide fodder for grasshoppers. We don’t often think of plants as being mindful of their own longterm needs and biological challenges, but studies have shown that tallgrass prairie grasses are exactly that.According to prairie ecologist J. E. 62 Floods Mark the Beginnings of Prairie Earth Weaver, native grasses seem to understand that the energy and nutrients they absorb during a good growing year are a luxury, so when times are good they allocate a little extra to extend a flowering stem skyward and engage in the manufacture of more seed. Yet most of the time, when the growing season is average or less than average, grass plants bypass any allocation of reserve energy to seed production. Reporting on a study conducted at Konza Prairie, O. J. Reichman said that researchers looking at native grass seed generation over a period of ten years found that less than 5 percent...


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