Picturing science: Complicated cattails

Post by Stephanie Knoll

As a Kansas native, I wanted to focus my scicomm project on the prairie wetlands and the major issues that threaten this beautiful landscape. Growing up, I always thought of Kansas as the typical “life on the prairie,” but never realized just how many different biomes were nestled within the prairies, such as forests, rivers, and wetlands. In my childhood, I remember joining my grandfather on his fishing trips to the local prairie wetlands around Talmo and Jamestown and while I never joined him on his hunting trips, I would always listen to the stories he told about the game he has hunted. As a zoology major with a botany minor, I thought it would be interesting to see how wetlands are affected by vegetation and how it affects wildlife. As a major hobbyist, I enjoy doing wildlife photography and thought that this would be a great way to capture the biodiversity of wildlife that inhabit wetlands and even utilize emergent vegetation, such as cattails.

Photo of a Great Blue Heron hunting around cattail stands.
The Blue Heron is a large wading bird of the heron family commonly seen in the
wetlands across North America. The heron is hunting for small fish around stands of cattails. Image: Stephanie Knoll

The prairie wetlands are typically teeming with life as this biome plays a major role in habitat structure and function for much of the native wildlife. It’s also a major stop-over site for many migratory birds. However, prairie wetlands face many concerns, including habitat disturbances from human activity to the introduction of over dominating weeds, such as cattails.

Vegetation, for example, cattails can have many different effects on biodiversity within prairie wetlands. Cattails can positively help the ecosystem by filtering contaminants, such as pesticides, out of wastewater runoff, and can help with soil erosion to prevent flooding (Cao et al. 2018). On the other hand, cattails tend to be a very over dominating plant and thick stands can pose real issues for wildlife. For example, if cattail stands are thick they may attract blackbirds, but waterfowl and other migrating birds typically won’t utilize such thick stands (Weller and Cecil 1965).

Photo of a female Red-winged blackbird perching on a seeding cattail.
Thick stands of cattails can provide blackbirds with nesting material. The red-winged
black bird likely has used the fluffy seeds of the cattails to line her nest. Image: Stephanie Knoll

It is important to point out that eradicating weeds like cattails could do much more harm. Thus, to maintain species richness in a wetland ecosystem there must be a perfect mixed ratio of vegetation and water (Sojda 1993).Therefore, using various management methods to control vegetation, such as burning, mowing, cutting, or planting cover crops can be a successful strategy to maintain perfect hemi-marsh conditions and can help increase the amount of biodiversity within Prairie-wetlands.

After doing all this research and talking with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism, I came to the conclusion that these management methods are not cheap, and so I implemented informational posters for locals who utilized wetlands to hunt and fish on. These posters included not only information about cattails, but my photography of wetland wildlife, such as the ones below, and a top non-profit organization like Pheasant Forever Quail Forever to direct those who choose to help to donate. In using these posters, I hope it will make a huge
financial difference for wetlands around Kansas including those close to my community when it comes to habitat restoration and vegetation management.

Photo showing perfect hemi-marsh conditions in the Jamestown (Kansas) Wildlife
Area for waterfowl, such as Mallard ducks and American Coots, and blackbirds to inhabit.
Hemi-marshes consist of a perfect water and vegetation ratio. With these conditions,
avian productivity will increase, both for the blackbirds and for waterfowl. Image: Stephanie Knoll

Stephanie is a student at the University of Wyoming who is majoring in Zoology and minoring in Botany.

references

Cao, Shengbin, et al. “Cyclic filtration behavior of structured cattail fiber assembly for oils removal from wastewater.” Environmental technology 39.14 (2018): 1833-1840. 3 October 2021.

Sojda, Richard S. “Management and Control of Cattails.” US Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service. Vol. 13. (1993). 1 October 2021.

Weller, Milton W., and Cecil S. Spatcher. “Role of habitat in the distribution and abundance of marsh birds.” Special Report. 42. (1965). 2 October 2021.

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