Tufty’s Plight, or Saving the U.K.’s Red Squirrel

“There is the great blank area where no red squirrels have returned, and this is where the grey ones first spread and are now permanent inhabitants. Outside it there are plenty of red squirrel populations still, though they have fluctuated, often severely.” — Charles Elton, The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants, 1958

Sciurus vulgaris, or the Eurasian red squirrel, is widespread throughout northern Europe and east into Siberia. It is a small squirrel with a chestnut top and a creamy underside that spends much of its time in the tops of trees. Its tail is large and fluffy, and its ears are adorned with prominent tufts of hair. It enjoys a broad range of foods from seeds, fruits, and leaves to fungi, insects, and birds’ eggs. It is beloved in the United Kingdom, where its survival is being threatened by a North American cousin. This cousin, now established in the U.K. for well over a century, looks to increase its range across Europe, with a growing population in Italy and the potential to spread to neighboring countries.

Eurasian red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Eurasian red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Sciurus carolinensis, or Eastern gray squirrel, is native to eastern North America but has been introduced to parts of western North America as well as other parts of the world, including the United Kingdom, Italy, South Africa, and Australia. Its fur is typically dark to pale gray with red tones. It prefers mature forests where food and shelter are abundant; however, it is a highly adaptable species and is common in urban areas and disturbed sites. It shares habitat requirements with the red squirrel, but has the advantages of being larger, stronger, and able to digest acorns.

Gray squirrels were first introduced to the U.K. in 1876. Wealthy collectors were enchanted by them and began releasing them on their estates. The first pair made it to Ireland in 1911. Around this time biologists were becoming concerned by how quickly they were spreading as well as the damage they were doing to young trees and the effect they seemed to be having on red squirrel populations. The U.K. Parliament responded in 1937 by banning the possession and introduction of gray squirrels. In an article published in Science in June 2016, Erik Stokstad writes about this “troubling phenomenon: where gray squirrels established colonies, red squirrels sooner or later vanished.” The current population of red squirrels in the U.K. is estimated at around 140,000, while gray squirrels are thought to number more than 2.5 million.

Why red squirrels vanish when grey squirrels are present is not entirely understood. Competition for food is one factor. Grey squirrels seem to have an advantage over red squirrels in mixed deciduous forests, and according to Schuchert, et al. (Biological Invasions, 2014), after colonization by gray squirrels, red squirrels can become restricted to coniferous forests, which are “less favored by grey squirrels.”

But direct competition alone doesn’t explain the plummeting numbers of reds in the presence of grays. Another explanation was identified in 1981 – grey squirrels were spreading a disease. Several years of experimentation confirmed that red squirrels were dying of squirrelpox – a parapoxvirus that gray squirrels carry but show little or no sign of infection. The virus can spread quickly through a population of red squirrels, leaving them lethargic, malnourished, and an easy target for predators. Stokstad writes, “red squirrels are defenseless…as [they] succumb, gray squirrels quickly take over the habitat.

But not all grey squirrels carry the virus, and there are some regions where the virus isn’t a major problem. Habitat loss and fragmentation due to human development also plays a role in the red squirrel’s decline. Add to that, grey squirrels may be more inclined to live among humans, giving them an advantage over the more reclusive reds.

Efforts have been underway for decades now to reduce, and even eliminate, gray squirrels in the U.K. Tens of thousands of grey squirrels have already been trapped and killed, yet they continue to dominate. Schuchert et al. write, “while culling may decrease grey squirrel population size in the short term, their high dispersal abilities makes re-colonization likely.” Funding for culling programs isn’t always available, and protests from animal rights groups like Animal Aide U.K. and Animal Ethics also have an impact. One area that culling has proved successful is Anglesey, an island off the coast of Wales, where the red squirrel population had once been reduced to just 40 individuals. Schuchert et al. analyzed culling data over a 13 year period and determined that trapping and killing efforts “resulted in the sustained and significant reduction of an established grey squirrel population at a regional landscape scale.”

Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Red squirrels may also be experiencing some relief thanks to another threatened mammal. Martes martes, or the European pine marten, is a member of the weasel family and, as Stokstad writes, “a cat-sized predator [that] was nearly exterminated in the 20th century.” Hunting, both for fur and pest control, and habitat loss reduced pine marten numbers dramatically until it received legal protection in 1988. Since then it has started to rebound, particularly in Scotland and Ireland. Anecdotes suggested that pine marten recovery in these areas was resulting in fewer gray squirrels. A study published in Biodiversity and Conservation in March 2014 confirmed that gray squirrel populations in Ireland were at “unusually low density,” and that the increasing numbers of pine martens played a role in that. Gray squirrels move slower and spend more time on the ground compared to red squirrels, making them easier prey for pine martens.

Efforts are now underway to introduce pine martens to other parts of the U.K. where gray squirrel populations are problematic. However, according to Stokstad, “red squirrel advocates worry that the pine marten could be a false hope, promising a free and uncontroversial solution that could threaten funds for culling.”

Let’s remember that the gray squirrel was deliberately introduced to the United Kingdom by humans, and that human activity is one of the main reasons for the grey squirrel’s explosion and the red squirrel’s retreat. Culling is not likely to ever eliminate gray squirrels completely, yet no one wants to see red squirrels go extinct. Altered landscapes can favor certain species over others, so ensuring that there is plenty of favorable habitat available for the red squirrel is one way to aid its survival. The grays may be there to stay, but let’s hope a compromise can be found so generations to come can benefit from sharing space with the red squirrel (and perhaps the gray squirrel,too).

Tufty Fluffytail, a character developed to help teach kids road safety in the U.K., saves Willy Weasel from getting run over (again).

Red Squirrel Conservation Groups:

What Is a Plant, and Why Should I Care? part four

What Is a Plant?

Part one and two of this series have hopefully answered that.

Why should you care?

Part three offered a pretty convincing answer: “if it wasn’t for [plants], there wouldn’t be much life on this planet to speak of.”

Plants are at the bottom of the food chain and are a principle component of most habitats. They play major roles in nutrient cycling, soil formation, the water cycle, air and water quality, and climate and weather patterns. The examples used in part three of this series to explain the diverse ways that plants provide habitat and food for other organisms apply to humans as well. However, humans have found numerous other uses for plants that are mostly unique to our species – some of which will be discussed here.

But first, some additional thoughts on photosynthesis. Plants photosynthesize thanks to the work accomplished by very early photoautotrophic bacteria that were confined to aquatic environments. These bacteria developed the metabolic processes and cellular components that were later co-opted (via symbiogensis) by early plants. Plants later colonized land, bringing with them the phenomena of photosynthesis and transforming life on earth as we know it. Single-celled organisms started this whole thing, and they continue to rule. That’s just something to keep in mind, since our focus tends to be on large, multi-cellular beings, overlooking all the tiny, less visible beings at work all around us making life possible.

Current representation of the tree of life. Microorganisms clearly dominate. (image credit: nature microbiology)

Current representation of the tree of life. Microorganisms clearly dominate. (image credit: nature microbiology)

Food is likely the first thing that comes to mind when considering what use plants are to humans. The domestication of plants and the development of agriculture are easily among the most important events in human history. Agricultural innovations continue today and are necessary in order to both feed a growing population and reduce our environmental impact. This is why efforts to discover and conserve crop wild relatives are so essential.

Plants don’t just feed us though. They house us, clothe us, medicate us, transport us, supply us, teach us, inspire us, and entertain us. Enumerating the untold ways that plants factor in to our daily lives is a monumental task. Rather than tackling that task here, I’ll suggest a few starting points: this Wikipedia page, this BGCI article, this Encylopedia of Life article, and this book by Anna Lewington. Learning about the countless uses humans have found for plants over millennia should inspire admiration for these green organisms. If that admiration leads to conservation, all the better. After all, if the plants go, so do we.

Humans have a long tradition of using plants as medicine. Despite all that we have discovered regarding the medicinal properties of plants, there remains much to be discovered. This one of the many reasons why plant conservation is so important. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Humans have a long tradition of using plants as medicine. Despite all that we have discovered regarding the medicinal properties of plants, there remains much to be discovered. This is one of the many reasons why plant conservation is imperative. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Gaining an appreciation for the things that plants do for us is increasingly important as our species becomes more urban. Our dense populations tend to push plants and other organisms out, yet we still rely on their “services” for survival. Many of the functions that plants serve out in the wild can be beneficial when incorporated into urban environments. Plants improve air quality, reduce noise pollution, mitigate urban heat islands, help manage storm water runoff, create habitat for urban wildlife, act as a windbreak, reduce soil erosion, and help save energy spent on cooling and heating. Taking advantage of these “ecosystem services” can help our cities become more liveable and sustainable. As the environmental, social, and economic benefits of “urban greening” are better understood, groups like San Francisco’s Friends of the Urban Forest are convening to help cities across the world go green.

The importance of plants as food, medicine, fuel, fiber, housing, habitat, and other resources is clear. Less obvious is the importance of plants in our psychological well being. Numerous studies have demonstrated that simply having plants nearby can offer benefits to one’s mental and physical health. Yet, urbanization and advancements in technology have resulted in humans spending more and more time indoors and living largely sedentary lives. Because of this shift, author Richard Louv and others warn about nature deficit disorder, a term not recognized as an actual condition by the medical community but meant to describe our disconnect with the natural world. A recent article in BBC News adds “nature knowledge deficit” to these warnings – collectively our knowledge about nature is slipping away because we don’t spend enough time in it.

The mounting evidence for the benefits of having nature nearby should be enough for us to want to protect it. However, recognizing that we are a part of that nature rather than apart from it should also be emphasized. The process that plants went through over hundreds of millions of years to move from water to land and then to become what they are today is parallel with the process that we went through. At no point in time did we become separate from this process. We are as natural as the plants. We may need them a bit more than they need us, but we are all part of a bigger picture. Perhaps coming to grips with this reality can help us develop greater compassion for ourselves as well as for the living world around us.

Urban Botanical Art

We live on a green planet, so it is no surprise that plants frequently find their way into our artwork. They make excellent subjects after all; and arguably, botanical art can be a close second (if not a tie) to seeing the real thing.

No place is plant-themed art needed more than in urban areas. Despite trying to cram plants in wherever we can find room, our cities remain dominated by concrete, asphalt, and steel. Plants help soften the hard edges we create, and they reintroduce nature to something that otherwise seems unnatural. But there isn’t always space for plants. Botanical art is the next best thing.

When I’m not looking out for plants, I’m looking out for plant art. What follows are a few of my discoveries this past year in my hometown of Boise, Idaho and beyond. In future travels, I hope to find more botanical art in other urban areas. Meanwhile, please feel free to share with me the botanical art in your neighborhood, either through twitter, tumblr, or some other means.

Parking garage in downtown Boise, Idaho

Parking garage in downtown Boise, Idaho

My dad's mural in downtown Mountain Home, Idaho

Mural by Stephen Murphy (my dad!) in downtown Mountain Home, Idaho

Mural in Freak Alley in downtown Boise, Idaho

Freak Alley Gallery in downtown Boise, Idaho

Mural in Freak Alley in downtown Boise, Idaho

Freak Alley Gallery in downtown Boise, Idaho

Agoseris sculpture at Foothills Learning Center in Boise, Idaho

Aero Agoseris sculpture (Agoseris glauca) at Foothills Learning Center in Boise, Idaho

Stop sign in Sunset Neighborhood in Boise, Idaho

Stop sign in Boise’s Sunset Neighborhood

Stop sign in Sunset Neighborhood in Boise, Idaho

Stop sign in Boise’s Sunset Neighborhood

Utility boxes in downtown Boise, Idaho

Utility boxes in downtown Boise, Idaho

Utility box in Boise, Idaho

Utility box in downtown Boise, Idaho

Our Urban Planet

As the human population balloons and cities sprawl, ecological studies in urban areas are following suit. Nature has always been a component of cities – we can’t escape it after all, as hard as we may try – but urban nature (and the enhancement of it) has become increasingly important as the human species continues to urbanize. More and more we are seeing the importance of melding the built environment with the natural one. Our motivations are diverse – albeit largely anthropocentric. But that’s fine. As we make improvements to the live-ability of cities for human’s sake, other living beings benefit. We are finding ways to get along with our neighbors, and we are learning to appreciate and value them as well.

Since 2008, the world’s urban population has outnumbered its rural population, and it is predicted that by 2050, more than two-thirds of humans will be urbanites. Immense resources are required to support such large, concentrated populations, and most of these resources are produced outside of urban areas. This results in an ecological footprint that is significantly larger than the city itself. Additionally, waste and pollution produced within cities negatively effects surrounding areas and beyond in abundant ways.

st louis

In May of this year, Science put out a special issue entitled, “Urban Planet,” which features a series of articles that address some of the latest research in urban ecology and discuss current developments and future research needs – a sort of state of the union address for urban ecology in 2016. A series of 13 articles covered diverse topics including city-integrated renewable energy, innovative solutions to water challenges, transportation and air pollution, and food security in an urban world. Rodent-borne diseases in urban slums, creating sustainable cities in China, and Vancouver’s push to become the “greenest city” were also features of this special issue.

The issue serves to highlight the importance of this field of study and the urgency there is in finding solutions to major environmental challenges. But it also offers hope. Bright minds are working towards solutions to this century’s biggest problems as we look towards a more sustainable future. The introduction emphasizes that “the rise of cities is not…all doom and gloom.” Urbanization has upsides: “consolidating human populations helps shrink our individual environmental footprints, and cities are serving as living laboratories for further improvements.”

Urban ecology is a relatively recent subfield of ecology. In The Ecological Future of Cities, Mark McDonnell and Ian MacGregor-Fors describe how it “arose in the 1990’s out of a need to increase our…understanding of the ecological and human dimensions of urban ecosystems.” Initially the field was mainly concerned with biodiversity and the ecosystem processes and services found within cities. Findings from these studies are now influencing urban planning, design, and management. Such decisions are also informed by more recent studies in the field of urban ecology, which has grown to include “issues of sustainability, environmental quality, and human well-being in urban ecosystems.”

The authors note that our ecological understanding of cities was waylaid because “nature within cites was long considered unworthy of study, except when it involved solving environmental problems that threatened human well-being.” Cities were perceived as unnatural because humans had “disrupt[ed] the natural ecological conditions and processes that scientists [were] attempting to understand.” Today, ecologists recognize that studies in the field of urban ecology help us better understand basic ecological principles, while also providing “valuable information for creating liveable, healthy, and resilient urban environments.”

Studies in urban ecology have also increased our understanding of the mechanisms involved in evolution and adaptation. To illustrate this, the authors offer examples of birds that modified their songs “to communicate at noisy locations” and plants that shifted their seed dispersal strategies to survive in “highly fragmented urban habitats.” The authors also highlight the importance of maintaining or restoring natural vegetation in urban areas in order to help preserve struggling species of plants and animals, citing a study that found that “fewer local plant extinctions occurred in cities that maintained at least 30% native vegetation cover.” Additionally, the authors note that “the scope of urban ecology research extends well beyond city limits,” since urbanization is partly to blame for numerous environmental issues including habitat loss and fragmentation, biodiversity loss, climate change, and invasive species.

In Living in Cities, Naturally, Terry Hartig and Peter Kahn, Jr. address the topic of mental health and urban living. While there is still much to learn about the relationship between the two, it is generally believed that viewing or spending time in nature can help improve one’s mental well-being. As the authors put it, “parks and green spaces” can be viewed as “health resources for urban populations,” and including natural areas and natural processes in the design and creation of cities is necessary “for psychological as well as ecological purposes.”

Green roofs

Green roofs are one way to add green space to urban areas. They help replace vegetation that was removed when buildings were constructed, and they offer numerous environmental benefits.

Interacting with nature in an urban setting can help people develop positive feelings about the natural world and may encourage support for environmental protection. The authors worry that if future generations grow up without an intimate connection to the natural world, elevated amounts of environmental degradation will be seen as normal and a feeling of urgency to protect the environment from continued degradation will fade. This is why including plentiful amounts of green space within cities is essential: “Providing opportunities for people to experience more robust, healthy, and even wilder forms of nature in cities offers an important solution to this collective loss of memory and can counter the shifting baseline.”

This special issue of Science highlights some of the current ecological and environmental research regarding urbanization. For a great introductory look at urban ecology and basic ecological principles, check out the book, Nature All Around Us. Also, expect to see many more urban ecology themed posts on Awkward Botany. Tell your friends.

What’s in a Packet of Wildflower Seeds? – An Introduction

Occasionally I receive packets of wildflower seeds from companies that are not in the business of growing plants. They are promotional items – encouraging people to plant flowers while simultaneously marketing their wares. Often the seed packet lacks a list of the seeds included in the mix, and so it remains unclear what “wildflowers” are actually in there. My guess is that most seed packets like this go unplanted, and those that do get planted, may go uncared for. After all, the company that supplied them isn’t all that concerned about what gets done with them anyway.

As it is, generic packets of wildflower seeds like this may not actually contain any wildflower seeds. The term wildflower generally refers to a flowering plant that grows in the wild and was not intentionally planted by humans. It is synonymous with native plant, but it can also refer to non-native plants that have become naturalized. By this definition, a packet of wildflower seeds should only include seeds of native or naturalized plants and should not include horticultural selections, hybrids, or cultivated varieties. Ideally, the seed mix would be specific to a particular region, as each region throughout the world has its own suite of native wildflowers.

With that in my mind, I was immediately curious about an unlabeled packet of wildflower seeds I recently received as a promotional item from a company that has nothing to do with plants. This is a company that ships items nationwide and around the world, which leads me to believe that hundreds of people received similar packets of seeds around the same time I did. The seed packet is not labeled for a particular region, so all of us likely received a similar mix of seeds. “Wildflowers” then, at least in this case, means a random assortment of flowering plants with questionable provenance and no sense of geographic location.

The seed packet in question.

The seed packet in question.

Curiousity is killing me; so I am determined to find out what is in this mysterious packet of seeds. Using a pair of magnifying glasses, I seperated the seeds into 26 groups. Each group, from as best as I can tell, should be a unique species (or at least from the same genus). The next step will be to grow the seeds out and see what they actually are. I have limited space and time, so this is going to take a while. Since “wildflower” is not an exact term, I have decided that in order to be considered a wildflower the plant will have to be native to North America. (I should probably say western North America or Intermountain West, since that is where I am located, but that’s pushing it.)

The amount of seeds that each of the 26 groups consists of varies greatly, from a single seed to 52 seeds. Some of the seeds may not be viable, and some of the seedlings are sure to perish along the way. Despite losses, it should be clear in the end what this packet of seeds mainly consists of and whether or not it is indeed a wildflower seed mix. If I were skilled at identifying species simply by observing their seeds, I might be able to avoid growing them out, but I am not confident enough to do that. However, one group of seeds is almost certainly calendula. Calendula is a genus native to parts of Asia, Europe, and North Africa that has been introduced to North America. So, we’re already off to a bad start.

seed packets_experiment

To be clear, I have no intention of disclosing or calling out the company that sent the seeds. This is all in good fun. No hard feelings. I’m satisfying my own curiosity, and perhaps yours, too. Until the next update (which could be a while), go run through a field of wildflowers. Enjoy yourself.

Drought Tolerant Plants: The Yarrows

Few plants are as ubiquitous and widespread as the common yarrow, Achillea millefolium. A suite of strategies have made this plant highly successful in a wide variety of habitats, and it is a paragon in terms of reproduction. Its unique look, simple beauty, and tolerance of tough spots have made it a staple in many gardens; however, its hardiness, profuseness, and bullish behavior have also earned it the title, “weed.” Excess water encourages this plant to spread, but in a dry garden it tends to stay put (or at least remain manageable), which is why it and several of its cousins are often included in or recommended for water efficient landscapes.

Achillea millefolium - common yarrow

Achillea millefolium – common yarrow

Common yarrow is in the aster family (Asteraceae) and is one of around 85 species in the genus Achillea. It is distributed throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. European plants have long been introduced to North America, and hybridization has occurred many times among the two genotypes.

Yarrow begins as a small rosette of very finely dissected leaves that are feathery or fern-like in appearance. These characteristic leaves explain its specific epithet, millefolium, and common names like thousand-leaf. Slightly hairy stems with alternately arranged leaves arise from the rosettes and are capped with a wide, flat-topped cluster of tightly-packed flowers. The flower stalks can be less than one foot to more than three feet tall. The flowers are tiny, numerous, and consist of both ray and disc florets. Flowers are usually white but sometimes pink.

The plants produce several hundred to several thousand seeds each. The seeds are enclosed in tiny achene-like fruits which are spread by wind and gravity. Yarrow also spreads and reproduces rhizomatously. Its roots are shallow but fibrous and abundant, and they easily spread horizontally through the soil. If moisture, sun, and space are available, yarrow will quickly expand its territory. Its extensive root system and highly divided leaves, which help reduce transpiration rates, are partly what gives yarrow the ability to tolerate dry conditions.

john eastman

Illustration of Achillea millifolium by Amelia Hansen from The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman, which has an excellent entry about yarrow.

Common yarrow has significant wildlife value. While its pungent leaves are generally avoided by most herbivorous insects, its flowers are rich in nectar and attract bees, butterflies, beetles, flies, and even mosquitoes. Various insects feed on the flowers, and other insects visit yarrow to feed on the insects that are feeding on the plant. Despite its bitterness, the foliage is browsed by a variety of birds, small mammals, and deer. Some birds use the foliage in constructing their nests. Humans have also used yarrow as a medicinal herb for thousands of years to treat a seemingly endless list of ailments.

Yarrow’s popularity as an ornamental plant has resulted in the development of numerous cultivars that have a variety of flower colors including shades of pink, red, purple, yellow, and gold. While Achillea millefolium may be the most widely available species in its genus, there are several other drought-tolerant yarrows that are also commercially available and worth considering for a dry garden.

Achillea filipendulina, fern-leaf yarrow, is native to central and southwest Asia. It forms large, dense clusters of yellow-gold flowers on stalks that reach four feet high. Its leaves are similar in appearance to A. millefolium. Various cultivars are available, most of which have flowers that are varying shades of yellow or gold.

Achillea alpina, Siberian yarrow, only gets about half as tall as A. filipendulina. It occurs in Siberia, parts of Russia, China, Japan, and several other Asian countries. It also occurs in Canada. Unlike most other species in the genus, its leaves have a glossy appearance and are thick and somewhat leathery. Its flowers are white to pale violet. A. alpina is synonymous with A. sibirica, and ‘Love Parade’ is a popular cultivar derived from the subspecies camschatica.

Achillea x lewisii ‘King Edward,’ a hybrid between A. tomentosa (woolly yarrow) and A. clavennae (silvery yarrow), stays below six inches tall and forms a dense mat of soft leaves that have a dull silver-gray-green appearance. Its compact clusters of flowers are pale yellow to cream colored. Cultivars of A. tomentosa are also available.

Achillea ptarmica, a European native with bright white flowers, and A. ageritafolia, a native of Greece and Bulgaria that is low growing with silvery foliage and abundant white flowers can also be found in the horticulture trade along with a handful of others. Whatever your preferences are, there is a yarrow out there for you. Invasiveness and potential for escape into natural areas should always be a concern when selecting plants for your garden, especially when considering a plant as robust and successful as yarrow. That in mind, yarrow should make a great addition to nearly any drought-tolerant, wildlife friendly garden.

More Drought Tolerant Plants Posts:

Rare and Endangered Plants: Texas Wild Rice

Some plants have native ranges that are so condensed that a single major disturbance has the potential to wipe them out of existence completely. They are significantly more vulnerable to change than neighboring plant species, and for this reason they often find themselves on endangered species lists. Zizania texana is one of those plants. Its range was never large to begin with, and due to increased human activity it now finds itself on the brink of extinction.

Zizania texana is one of three species of wild rice found in North America. The other two, Z. palustris and Z. aquatica, enjoy much broader ranges. Both of these species were once commonly harvested and eaten by humans. Today, Z. palustris is the most commercially available of the two. Commonly known as Texas wild rice, Z. texana, was not recognized as distinct from the other two Zizania species until 1932.

Herbarium voucher of Texas wild rice (Zizania texana) - photo credit: University of Texas Herbarium

Herbarium voucher of Texas wild rice (Zizania texana) – photo credit: University of Texas Herbarium

Texas wild rice is restricted to the headwaters of the San Marcos River in Central Texas. The river originates from a spring that rises from the Edwards Aquifer. It is a mere 75 miles long, but is home to copious amounts of wildlife, including several rare and endangered species. Before the 1960’s, Texas wild rice was an abundant species found along several miles of the San Marcos River. Its population and range has since been greatly reduced, and the native population is now limited to about 1200 square meters within the first two miles of the river.

Texas wild rice is an aquatic grass with long, broad leaves that remains submerged in the clear, flowing, spring-fed water of the river until it is ready to flower. Flower heads rise above the water, and each flower spike consists of either male or female flowers. The flowers are wind pollinated, but research has revealed that the pollen does not travel far and does not remain viable for very long. If a male flower is further than about 30 inches away from a female flower, the pollen generally fails to reach the stigma. The plants also reproduce asexually by tillering, but plants produced this way are genetically identical to the parent plant.

As people settled in the area around San Marcos Springs and began altering the river for their own use, Texas wild rice had to put up with a series of assaults and dramatic changes, including increased sediment and nutrient loads, variations in water depth and speed, trampling, and mechanical and chemical removal of the plant itself. Sexual reproduction became more difficult. In his book, Enduring Seeds, Gary Paul Nabhan describes one scenario: “streamflow had been increased to the extent that the seedheads, which were formerly raised a yard above the water, [were] now constantly being pummeled by the current so that they [remained] submerged, incapable of sexual reproduction.”

San Marcos, Texas – where the headwaters of the San Marcos River is located and where Texas wild rice has long called its home – is the location of Texas State University and is part of the Greater Austin metropolitan area. Thus, Zizania texana now finds itself confined to a highly urbanized location. The San Marcos Springs and River are regularly used for recreation, which leads to increased sediments, pollution, and trampling. Introduced plant species compete with Texas wild rice, and introduced waterfowl and aquatic rodents consume it. In this new reality, sexual reproduction will remain a major challenge, and a return to its original population size seems veritably impossible.

Texas wild rice (Zizania texana) and its urbanized habitat - photo credit: The Edwards Aquifer

Texas wild rice (Zizania texana) and its urbanized habitat – photo credit: The Edwards Aquifer

Attempts have and are being made to maintain the species in cultivation and to reintroduce it to its original locations, but its habitat has been so drastically altered that it will need constant management and attention for such efforts to be successful. As Nabham puts it, it is a species that has “little left of [its] former self in the wild – it is a surviving species in name more than in behavior…The wildness has been squeezed out of Texas rice.”

What if humans had stayed out of it? Would a plant with such a limited range and such difficulty reproducing sexually persist for any great length of time? It’s hard to say. If it disappears completely, what consequences will there be? It is known to provide habitat for the fountain darter, an endangered species of fish, as well as several other organisms; however, the full extent of its ecological role remains unclear. It will be nursed along by humans for the foreseeable future, but it may never regain its full glory. It is a species teetering on the edge of extinction, simultaneously threatened and cared for by humans – a story shared by so many other species around the world.

Additional Resources: