2001-Sun Dec 04 03:20:39 MST 2016
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When we think of threatened ecosystems, we think of faraway places like the Amazon rainforest, which is vanishing at a distressing rate. What you may not realize is that this same kind of loss has already happened much closer to home — essentially in our own backyard.
Not so long ago, 170 million acres of North America were covered by tallgrass prairie; today, less than 4 percent remains. The state of Illinois, for example, is home to several types of prairie ecosystem and is even nicknamed the “Prairie State,” but less than 1 percent of its original prairies are left today.
Conservationists are working to restore prairie habitat in some places, but this means more than just digging up foreign invaders and planting native plants. Some animals, like birds, can find their way back to restored habitat on their own. Others need help reestablishing themselves, since they can't make their way across roads and developed areas from other remaining bits of prairie.
And it matters which animals are there, because some are crucial to the delicate balance of a functioning ecosystem. That's where the meadow jumping mouse comes in.
The meadow jumping mouse is important to the health of the prairie for a couple of reasons. One is that it competes with other rodents that feed on the roots of the plants.
"We have species like meadow voles and prairie voles which are grassland specialists that feed on roots," says Allison Sacerdote-Velat, reintroduction biologist at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. "They can make or break prairie restoration projects, because they eat the roots of the native plants preferentially."
So too many voles are bad for the plants, but with the jumping mice for competition, their population is kept in check. The mouse also plays another very important role: It prefers the seeds of native plants, so it spreads those seeds around where they can grow.
"The jumping mice are carrying the seeds of the native plants further and further out," says Sacerdote-Velat, "and through competition they're maintaining a more diverse rodent community and a more diverse plant community."
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