America's once-abundant tallgrass prairieswhich have all but disappearedwere home to dozens of species of grasses that could grow to the height of a man, hundreds of species of flowers, and herds of roaming bison.
For the first time, a research team led by the University of Colorado Boulder has gotten a peek at another vitally important but rarely considered community that also once called the tallgrass prairie home: the diverse assortment of microbes that thrived in the dark, rich soils beneath the grass.
"These soils played a huge role in American history because they were so fertile and so incredibly productive," said Noah Fierer, a fellow at CU-Boulder's Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) and lead author of the study published today in the journal Science. "They don't exist anymore except in really small parcels. This is our first glimpse into what might have existed across the whole range."
CIRES is a joint institute of CU-Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The remarkable fertility of soils beneath the tallgrass prairiewhich once covered more than 150 million U.S. acres, from Minnesota south to Texas and from Illinois west to Nebraskawere also the prairie's undoing. Attracted by the richness of the dirt, settlers began to plow up the prairie more than a century and a half ago, replacing the native plants with corn, wheat, soybeans and other crops. Today, only remnants of the tallgrass prairie remain, covering just a few percent of the ecosystem's original range.
For the study, Fierer, an associate professor of microbial ecology, and his colleagues used samples of soil collected from 31 different sites spread out across the prairie's historical range. The sampleswhich were collected by study co-author Rebecca McCulley, a grassland ecologist at the University of Kentuckycame largely from nature preserves and old cemeteries.
"It was very
|Contact: Noah Fierer|
University of Colorado at Boulder