Public Relations  >  News Center  >  News Releases  >  August 2017  >  August 14, 2017  >  Prairie companions: Creighton faculty, students make most of outdoor classroom
Prairie companions: Creighton faculty, students make most of outdoor classroom

Creighton University biology professor Ted Burk, PhD, and junior biology major Adam Grazzini have spent the summer cataloging butterflies and butterflies’ favorite plants out on the Glacier Creek Preserve, a reclaimed tallgrass prairie northwest of Omaha. For Burk, it’s his 20th year collecting data on the number of butterfly species and individual butterflies on the prairie. Once a week for 20 weeks in each of those 20 years, from early June to mid-October, Burk has brought his students to the preserve for the task of documenting butterflies and their habitat, all in the interest of predicting populations and monitoring migrations.It’s a sunny, breezy day out on the Glacier Creek Preserve — a reclaimed tallgrass prairie owned and managed by the University of Nebraska at Omaha — northwest of the city, when Creighton University biology professor Ted Burk, DPhil, spies a flutter of orange blowing like a candy wrapper in a straightline wind.

To the untrained eye, it could be a monarch butterfly, that orange, readily identifiable titan of the order Lepidoptera.

But Burk looks closer. This thing is flying faster than a monarch usually does, tearing across the prairie, seemingly single-minded in its flight. It rushes south, toward where the tallgrass ends at State Street and a housing development begins.

“It’s a regal frit,” he says, shortening the insect’s full name — regal fritillary. “They’re always in search of 100 percent real prairie. If he hits the road, let’s see if he comes back. Ninety percent of them do. They’d much rather be on this side of the road.”

But the butterfly makes State Street without dropping speed, jumps a small copse of evergreens on the other side of the road and is gone.

Burk smiles, flips open a composition notebook he’s carrying and pencils in the species name and a hashmark — one regal fritillary. He closes the book and moves on through the tallgrass.

Since 1998, Burk has made this same circuit through the prairie at Glacier Creek Preserve, diligently documenting the butterfly population, once a week for 20 weeks each year. Early June through mid-October, usually with a half-dozen students in tow, Burk keeps tabs on the insects and the plants they favor as part of an expanding collection of data he will one day publish.

“Just thinking about long-term datasets, it would be a shame to let it all end soon,” Burk says. “That’s a nice thing about Creighton in that, in addition to other research, we can take on these long-term projects without the need to publish in the short term. I definitely will publish what we’ve found here and 20 years is a nice, round number. At the same time, one can always use one more year’s worth of data. I don’t know. I’ll see how I feel about it next June.”

Burk’s research, and that of several other Creighton researchers, is part of an extensive program of research at Glacier Creek Preserve, where preserve director and UNO biology professor Thomas Bragg, PhD, also oversees a host of projects by UNO’s scientists in a happy coexistence and sometimes collaboration between the two institutions.

Butterflies, Burk said, are a good species by which to take the measure of an ecosystem’s health and he’s also been able to make a good study of the insects’ prowess as pollinators.

“Conservation ecology of invertebrates has lagged behind plants and vertebrates, despite insects making up about 50 percent of any ecosystem,” Burk said.

Thus, the work at Glacier Creek Preserve continues. In addition to ongoing research, emerging generations of Creighton biologists in several courses have found an al fresco classroom on the prairie, tracking over the hills and dales in the footsteps of biologists from Creighton and UNO, watching the insects and plants in this small slice of an ecosystem otherwise surrounded by suburbs and agricultural land.

“It’s nice to get out of the library every once in a while, to come out here and take in this great place,” said Adam Grazzini, a junior biology major who has accompanied Burk on nearly every one of this year’s trips to Glacier Creek. “What a great resource for us to have.”

Part of Grazzini’s project in the butterfly counts with Burk — called Pollard transects after a British lepidopterist — is to monitor, collect and study the butterflies’ favorite plants. Grazzini has familiarized himself with the look and feel of such prairie wildflowers as ironweed, rosinweed, false boneset, bush clover, heath aster, partridge pea and milkweed of all stripes.

Walking with Burk, Grazzini has also proved a quick study in the identification of the butterflies themselves, calling out silver-spotted skippers, orange sulphurs and eastern-tailed blues as they swoop and skitter from flower to flower.

“It’s fun and a great experience for us,” Grazzini said. “I spend a lot of time over the microscope with the plants, but to first encounter them here on the prairie and see how the butterflies land on them and interact is very helpful.”

On a good day, Burk and his students will encounter about 20 different species and 200 individual butterflies. On this day, the species count hits 23 and the individual mark is 173, observed in about two and a half hours of a Pollard transect.

In maintaining the Glacier Creek Preserve, sections of the 424-acre prairie are burned on a rotating schedule every three years, so Burk and the Creighton biology students are also monitoring the long-term effects of controlled burns and mowing on the butterfly population.

Of note in the observation of burning is the plight of the regal fritillary, a species of high conservation concern. When Burk first noted the butterfly in his first counts of 1998, the regal frit was common on the Glacier Creek prairie. But after a controlled burn of the preserve’s western tract in 1999, the regal frit population declined sharply in that area, without a measurable comeback.

Tactics, including the clearing of a butterfly corridor that has opened the western tract to the larger grasslands to the east, have not resulted in a resurgence.

“It’s hard to say why that’s so,” Burk said. “But we keep looking at different ways to grow the prairie and maintain it. That’s really the important thing with any re-established ecosystem is to continue to foster it and responsibly grow it. That’s been a great part of the partnership here.”

Perhaps more than the pencil-and-paper observation and counting, the time in the library or the in the laboratory, Burk said he hopes the experience on the prairie is an encouragement to students to immerse themselves in the world beyond their windows, to look upward and outward at the bounty and beauty of nature.

“Life is so much more interesting when you look around,” he said. “In that regard, this has been a great student project. And a large part of it has been knowing enough to know what you don’t know. A lot of our students are city kids who haven’t spent a lot of time in nature and this builds their confidence in being in the field and taking part in a long-term project.”

In the weeks ahead, Burk and his Creighton students will keep a weather eye open as several butterfly species begin to vacate the prairie for their overwintering grounds at points south. The vaunted monarch migration to Mexico, for the butterflies living in the central U.S., will commence later in August.

“It builds up week to week from the late spring, but then the whole population goes down pretty fast as the fall comes on,” Burk said. “And then we’ll wait for spring.”

---
Creighton University is a Jesuit, Catholic university bridging health, law, business and the arts and sciences for a more just world.