Finding biodiversity in the backyard

  • Biologists survey salt marsh plants at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland. Contributed photo/USFWS, Steve Droter

  • Can you tell the grasses from the forbs? Contributed photo/USFWS—

  • A piping plover and its chicks. Contributed photo/USFWS—

For the Recorder
Published: 4/23/2020 10:04:18 AM

Plants make great subjects for learning about biodiversity — the variety of living things. Biologists use biodiversity to measure the health of ecosystems, biological communities and habitats.

Ecosystems with more biodiversity are healthier and stronger. A big reason for this is resistance to disease. In a less diverse habitat, a species-specific disease could wipe out a large portion of life, while in a more diverse habitat, many other species would survive. Biodiversity also makes ecosystems stronger in the face of fires, floods and climate change.

Tropical rainforests have the greatest biodiversity of any ecosystem on earth, while Arctic landscapes have relatively little. The temperate forests of the northeastern United States fall somewhere in the middle. A manicured lawn or wheat field has almost no biodiversity and would be called a monoculture. These communities are fragile biologically.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service safeguards the world’s biodiversity by helping species that are dwindling in number. We work with partners to keep species from becoming threatened or endangered, and when they do, we work with partners to bring them back.

In the Northeast, there are more than 105 plants and animals on the endangered and threatened species list, including iconic species such as the piping plover, the red knot, Canada lynx, Atlantic salmon — and some of the tiniest species, such as the puritan tiger beetle and the bog turtle.

Survey your world

You can learn about biodiversity in your own backyard or a nearby open space. To keep it simple, let’s look at two of the major types of plants: grasses and forbs. You’re probably familiar with grasses, with their long, thin, blades. Forb is another word for a broad-leaved plant. Wildflowers are forbs.

Cut a piece of string, rope, or yarn that’s a little over four feet long. Fold the piece in half and tie the ends together in an over-hand knot. Grab five sharp pencils and a notebook, and head outdoors.

Find an open spot of land to survey. Using the pencils as stakes, push them into the ground to form the corners of a one-foot by one-foot square, and loop the string, rope, or yarn around the outside. This is your survey plot.

Can you tell the grasses from the forbs?

Look closely at the individual plants inside your square. Can you tell the difference between the grasses and forbs? How many different types of grasses do you see? How many different types of forbs? Look at the plot as a whole and estimate the percentage covered in grasses and the percentage in forbs. Record these numbers in your notebook (remember that left-over pencil?).

Find another spot, perhaps on a different side of your home or in the shade of a tree. Using the string and pencils, set up another plot and record the data as before.

Compare your two plots. Add up the total different types of plants (number of different grasses + number of different forbs) for each. Does one have more diversity — more total different types of plants — than the other? Does one have more diversity of grasses or forbs than the other? Looking at your estimated percentages for the two plots, is one more covered in grasses than the other?

If one of the plots has more overall diversity than the other, can you think of some reasons why? What do most plants need to grow and be healthy? Remember what we learned about biodiversity in rainforests and the Arctic.

Staying home doesn’t have to mean being stuck within four walls. Head outside and get close to nature, while keeping your distance from people. When the COVID-19 crisis has passed, you’ll have lots of new knowledge to share with your friends.

The National Fish and Wildlife Federation has more information about biodiversity. The activity in this post was inspired by the “Schoolyard Biodiversity Investigation Educator Guide,” a project of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

Lauri Munroe-Hultman, of Williamsburg, works at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.


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