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Small mammals focus of Kaufmans' research

By Jeff Caldwell




For most people, this may just be an expression, but for Don Kaufman, professor of biology at Kansas State University, this term describes part of his research for nearly 20 years.

"I realize that many people don't think of managing mice and other small mammals in the same way that they might agree with managing deer or species like that," Kaufman said. "Even though the small mammals might not seem very important in one way, their presence, in some natural sense, suggests that we're trying to maintain the integrity of our world, too."

Kaufman, along with his wife, Glennis, also a professor of biology at K-State, and with the help of graduate students, conducts research on small mammal populations at the Konza Prairie Biological Station. Fall 2000 marked the 20th year of a large-scale longitudinal study that examines different effects on the habitats of different species of small mammals.

"My personal interests are to try to understand how those populations change and what may be causing that, with regard to the weather, fire and grazing," Kaufman said.

Kaufman said that the group of wild mammals most people think of as field mice is actually much more varied. "These are really small mammals, because they are what laypeople call mice, some rats, ground squirrels and shrews," he said. "It's much more than just mice."

Throughout the research, the yearly burning of the grass of Konza and the surrounding areas has had a major impact on the population of these small mammals. Fire affects the small mammals by eliminating the mulch or "litter" layer of short vegetation under the taller grasses.

"Even though they may dig their nests in the ground, several species use that mulch layer that's right on the surface," he said. "You burn it, and you literally burn up part of the structure of the environment that they use, so that within two or three days they leave."

Despite this forced migration, Kaufman said one species, the deer mouse, has been shown to respond more positively to the burning. "Behaviorally, they appear not to require the litter layer," he said. "If it builds up, that layer has a really negative effect on the deer mouse."

The reason for this, according to Kaufman, is primarily because the thickness of the litter layer hinders the deer mouse's ability to forage for food. By periodically eliminating that layer, this process becomes much easier, causing the population of deer mice to thrive.

The grazing of tallgrass prairies is another factor that can greatly affect small mammal populations. Much like the seasonal burning of the grasses, heavy grazing by bison or cattle can lead to a decrease in the foliage upon which the small mammal populations depend for survival. In addition, the region's climate, particularly drought conditions, in any given year can affect the growth of the grasses, and as a result, change the habitat of the small mammals.

Kaufman said the majority of information that has been gained from research on the 14 sites at Konza has been directly linked to burning patterns. This, he said, makes the research done by K-State faculty unique.

"If you go around the United States and Canada, there's no place where fire is such a part of the culture," he said. "People have tended to accept it."

In addition to serving to keep the tallgrass species intact, Kaufman said burning also helps to maintain the prairie itself. "One of our interests in the fire is ultimately management related to keeping the woody growth out," he said.

This burning process is not without a strong historical origin, Kaufman said. "In the 1850s, the goal of the spring burning was to eliminate old growth so that new growth was nutritious for the cattle that were brought up from Texas," he said.

"The aftermath of regular burning was that people kept the woody vegetation out."

Kaufman's research is vital to the future of our country's natural lands. "As people try to restore prairie or establish parks or preserves in other states, some notion of how you might manage those natural lands becomes important," he said.

June 2002