Prairie Companions

Prairie Companions

Faculty, students study nature at 424-acre site northwest of Omaha

“It’s a regal frit,” exclaims biology professor Ted Burk, PhD, as he spies a flutter of orange blowing like a candy wrapper in a straightline wind.

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.

Since 1998, Burk has made this same circuit through the prairie at Glacier Creek Preserve — a reclaimed tallgrass prairie northwest of Omaha — diligently documenting the butterfly population, once a week for 20 weeks each year.

Butterflies, Burk says, 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 polinators.

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

Emerging generations of Creighton biologists in several courses have found an alfresco classroom on the prairie, tracking over hills and dales, observing insects and plants on this 424-acre site surrounded by suburbs and agricultural land.

“It’s nice to get out of the library every once in awhile, to come out here and take in this great place,” says Adam Grazzini, a junior biology major whose research includes monitoring, collecting and studying the butterflies’ favorite plants. “What a great resource for us to have.”

On a good day, Burk and his stu­dents will encounter about 20 dif­fer­ent species and 200 individual butterflies.

Burk says 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 says. “In that regard, this has been a great student project. 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.”