During a recent summer camp session, we talked about Kansas oceans.
What do oceans have to do with Kansas? Early settlers were so impressed with the endless expanse of grasslands that they were inspired to name their covered wagons prairie schooners, but there's a greater tie between the world's great oceans and Kansas than you might think.
If you've done much digging in the region, you may have found a host of clam, oyster and fish fossils. It's not uncommon to come across sharks' teeth and even remains from large, swimming reptiles called mosasaurs and plesiosaurs throughout the state.
All these creatures called the Cretaceous Sea of Kansas home. This ancient seaway divided North America in half from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Circle.
So what happened to create such a dramatic change from ocean waves to waves of grain? It seems our planet has undergone some significant changes over the eons. Oceans rose and receded. Glaciers advanced and retreated.
These events, combined with erosion, created hills and mountains. Climates changed, and thus, the plants and wildlife came and went. Eventually, we find the Kansas we know today: a glacier-flattened terrain heavily scarred by oceans and droughts.
The Rocky Mountains now hinder moist air from moving over the North American plains. This rain shadow effect results in extremely dry grasslands, and the lack of geographic barriers clears the way for strong winds, resulting in harsh winters and summers with great temperature extremes; however, if not for these characteristics, the Great Plains would not be home to wildflowers, pronghorn, antelope, deer, prairie dogs and coyotes. If not for those glacier-depressed areas that now fill with waters, we would not have the many migratory waterfowl, or the bulrushes and cattails upon which they depend for food and shelter.
These scattered wetlands, sometimes known as prairie potholes in the north and playas in the south, are immensely important stopping points for migratory birds along the mid-continental flyway.
Prairie potholes, playas and other forms of wetlands across the Great Plains produce nearly half of America's duck population. Ducks seem to prefer smaller wetlands, as it reduces competition among neighbors. Mated pairs are able to isolate themselves and protect that territory as their own. There they find an abundance of food resources and cover in which to raise their young.
Where these wetlands have been reduced or eliminated by human development, natural disasters or climate change, waterfowl and other migratory birds have paid a heavy price. Any of those negative factors reduce the amount of food available, but more importantly, they reduce the shelter in which to hide vulnerable young. With shorter or less vegetation, predators like foxes and crows are able to see nests and take advantage of the opportunity, resulting in lower duck populations.
Scientists have been warning us about global warming for some time. According to the Department of the Interior, the average annual temperature in the United States has risen one degree in the past 100 years; however, the temperature of the central and northern Great Plains has increased two degrees over the same period. Portions of South Dakota and Montana have risen a staggering 5.5 degrees.
With these changes has come a decrease in annual rainfall by about 10 percent. A rise in temperature by only a few degrees increases the frequency and duration of droughts. This, in turn, impacts the type and growth rate of vegetation within wetlands. It actually even changes the location of these prairie potholes.
With only 40 to 50 percent of the original prairie wetlands still intact, climate change will have a dramatic impact on our ability to sustain them and the plants and animals that depend upon them.
Why does any of this matter? With climate change clearly occurring, it is not only necessary for us to find ways to curb its impact, but it is also necessary for us to preserve the fragile ecosystems being permanently altered by it.
Wetlands of all kinds not only provide habitat and resources for prairie chicken, sandhill crane and the marsh wren, to name a few; they also serve as natural filters, removing pollutants caused by human activity. The playas of the southern region are essential to recharge the Ogallala Aquifer. Our conservation efforts help protect habitats and provide us with cleaner water to drink.
Kansas may only have remnants of the mighty sea it once held, but those waters are no less important or impressive in making this region so unique.
Come by the zoo to see our progress as we improve our duck ponds by installing new water cleansing wetlands for birds and zoo-goers alike to enjoy; and don't forget to visit our Kansas Waters exhibit to laugh at the otters' antics, learn more about the importance of water in Kansas, and appreciate the beauty and benefits wetlands provide.