Restoring a Campus Prairie for Posterity

Header image

Ben Johnson and Anecia Gentles

Harris Gully Natural Area

This semester, the students of the Conservation Biology Lab (EBIO 324) are focusing on preserving local plant diversity here in Rice’s very own pocket prairie. The Harris Gully Natural Area is a little known three-acre plot of prairie habitat located behind Wiess College. The Lynn R. Lowrey Arboretum Committee that oversees the management of this area has called upon the EBIO 324 students to aid them in supporting the restoration of historic prairie species. The students have three goals: first, to assess the biodiversity of the gully, then identify the invasive species, and finally, gain the support of the community in the conservation of Houston’s natural habitat.

The assessment of Harris Gully’s biodiversity will serve as a wellness check for the committee. A healthy level of biodiversity is a key indicator of a healthy ecosystem. Different species of plants, insects, and other organisms have different roles (ecological niches) in their habitats. Thus having many species means there are more roles contributing to the maintenance of the ecosystem.

As is true for any schema, there are exceptions to this rule. Invasive organisms, whether a single species or multiple types, can have severe negative impacts on native ecosystems. Effectively evaluating the biodiversity levels of the Harris Gully entails distinguishing the invasive species from the local species. Although the study is not yet complete, the students have already identified multiple invasive plant species here on campus. Fortunately, there are also many local plant species, representing the prairie ecosystems of the past long before the intrusion of these unwanted species.

To better understand the health of the Harris Gully ecosystem, EBIO 324 students are comparing this site’s biodiversity to that of two nearby prairie sites. Just a 20 minute walk away from Rice are the Whistle Stop Prairie of Hermann Park and the MD Anderson Pocket Prairie. These two sites are more heavily managed than the Harris Gully site and may provide insight into best practices for urban prairie conservation. Looking at the species composition and biodiversity of these sites will indicate whether or not their management practices are effective and, ultimately, whether or not the Arboretum Committee should follow similar management techniques.

Amanda Avila and Jacqueline Olive record the plant diversity in their quadrat

These urban pocket prairies are important conservation sites. With ever increasing urban expansion, natural areas are increasingly important in preserving populations of many species. The Monarch butterfly, for example, rests in this region over a portion of its migration route. Sites like the Harris Gully provide habitat for these butterflies as well as a whole host of other pollinator species. With pollinator decline a major global issue, these sites are increasingly vital.

Natural prairies also provide ecosystem services. A key one is water absorption. Currently, the Harris Gully site serves a utilitarian purpose for the university—as a stormwater retention site. This takes advantage of the natural propensity for prairie grasses and plants to take in water and to thrive in moist environments. Prairie grasses are generally deep-rooted, directing relatively large volumes of water into the water table.

The benefits of a having a well-preserved prairie are numerous and diverse--aesthetics, habitat biophilia, biodiversity, ecosystem services, and many more. The data collected by the EBIO 324 students will be a vital resource to the Arboretum Committee in planning out restoration projects to ensure this prairie ecosystem survives for years to come.

Ben Johnson, Jacqueline Olive, Julian Wilson, Elizabeth Dobbin, Amanda Avila, and Mashal Awais decide a course of action for that day's quadrat surveys.