Backyard biology

Professor studies native plants in home state
By Taylor Provine

Jesse NippertJesse Nippert is studying grassland ecology at one of the most well-documented research stations in the world — and it’s practically in his backyard.

Nippert, Kansas State University distinguished professor of biology in the College of Arts and Sciences, performs his research at the Konza Prairie Biological Station, about 10 miles south of Manhattan, Kansas. The 8,600-acre native tallgrass prairie, in the Flint Hills, is jointly owned by K-State and The Nature Conservancy. Nippert also is the principal investigator for the Konza Prairie Long-Term Ecological Research Program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Nippert’s lab studies how grassland systems function, how they have changed over time and how they are going to change in the future.

“We do a lot of work that focuses on understanding native plant species’ anatomy and physiology — how the plant is built and operates influences its potential growth in the ecosystem,” Nippert said. “For example, we try to understand why some species succumb to drought and other species don’t.”

One of the single biggest threats to the rangeland is the encroachment of woody plants in grasslands, Nippert said. His lab is also studying how the woody shrubs modify the soil, which could potentially change subsurface weathering patterns, infiltration of rainfall, stream flow and the entire water budget for the eastern Kansas rangelands.

“I’m hoping that in the next five years or so we’re not just documenting the consequences of woody encroachment, but we’re also providing meaningful solutions to try and fix the problem because it is serious,” Nippert said.

In addition to his work at the Konza Prairie, Nippert has projects in South Africa studying everything from understanding how savannas form to successful mitigation strategies for their woody encroachment problem.

Nippert began working at K-State in 2007 as an assistant professor in the Division of Biology and director of the Stable Isotope Mass Spectrometry Laboratory. He was appointed as a university distinguished professor in April 2023. Nippert graduated from K-State with his bachelor’s degree in park resource management and environmental sciences. He received his master’s degree in forest resources from the University of Idaho. He received a doctorate in ecology from Colorado State University.

A native Kansan, Nippert is thankful for the opportunity to use the Konza Prairie for research. According to the National Park Service, less than 4% of the tallgrass prairie remains intact, mostly in the Kansas Flint Hills.

“Grasslands are without a doubt the most impacted and, in some ways, the most threatened ecosystem in the world,” Nippert said. “There’s a certain responsibility we have to learn what we can so that we can conserve them.”

Seek more

Learn more about the Konza Prairie Biological Station.