Community members document unique animals, plants in Manhattan area for City Nature Challenge

A Great Plains rat snake (Pantherophis emoryi) found by Ryan Donnelly, event organizer and junior in fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology. (Courtesy photo by Ryan Donnelly)

Manhattan area community members documented various plant, animal and fungal species for the iNaturalist City Nature Challenge from April 30 to May 3, thanks to the Kansas State student chapter of The Wildlife Society, Sunset Zoo and the Kansas Association for Conservation and Environmental Education.

During this year’s challenge, 286 observations were made and 155 species were found, with 46 identifiers and 24 observers.

Ryan Donnelly, event organizer and junior in fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology, said although observations were lower this year than in previous years, the group had a proportionately greater number of unique animals and plants posted.

“This means that people really went out of their way this year to find a wide variety of organisms and not just the same few common species,” Donnelly said.

Donnelly recorded 72 observations with 58 various species during the challenge.

“I personally went to Washington Marlatt Park and Fort Riley for most of my observations,” Donnelly said. “From others, observations this year came from all over the Manhattan region, but most of the observations were centered at Washington Marlatt Park, around the K-State campus or in town, at Fort Riley or at Tuttle Creek.”

Mark Mayfield, biology research assistant professor, said he bounced around to different habitats in the area, including Washington Marlatt Park, Tuttle Creek and even in his yard to find his observations.

James' Sedge (Carex jamesii) found in Mark Mayfield's yard. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Donnelly and Mark Mayfield)
James' Sedge (Carex jamesii) found in Mark Mayfield's yard. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Donnelly and Mark Mayfield)

Donnelly said people found a lot of surprising species during this year’s challenge.

“For example, we had 15 species of reptiles observed, including some elusive species like the western worm snake,” Donnelly said. “There were also some plants that were the first to be documented on iNaturalist in the state of Kansas, such as hardgrass (Sclerochloa dura), reflexed sedge (Carex retroflexa) and Davis’ sedge (Carex davisii).”

“My favorite observation someone made was the One-flowered Cancer-Root, a super uncommon parasitic plant that does not perform photosynthesis and instead steals nutrients from nearby plants to grow,” Donnelly said.

Mayfield said something interesting he found was a native Rorippa sinuata — or spreading yellow-cress — in an area dominated by non-natives at Tuttle Creek Lake.

“All the mustard family plants around here, they tend to be all introduced. Or at least a great number of them are non-native plants,” Mayfield said. “It’s a small thing, but I find it interesting.”

As a botanist, Mayfield said he has life-long experience identifying species.

Mayfield and Donnelly worked alongside another botanist as the main identifiers of the plants found during the challenge. Donnelly said people who specialize in herpetology helped identify the reptiles and amphibians.

“Identifications are made by amateurs and experts from all over the world, usually by people who specialize in certain groups of species, such as beetles or cacti, or by people who know local flora and fauna of specific regions,” Donnelly said. “Most of the identifications this year were made by people who focus on identifying species in our local region, such as Kansas or the Great Plains.”

Mayfield said many amateurs try identifying the species they find just by looking at pictures.

“A lot of times, I’ll tell you, there’s just a lot more to it,” Mayfield said. “If you haven’t studied a whole bunch of specimens, you don’t really appreciate some of that kind of cryptic diversity that is present out there.”

Mayfield said with his job, he can tell pretty quickly what something is.

“I think without having that background, it’s difficult to make some of those decisions … on limited information, so to speak,” Mayfield said.

Donnelly said he hopes for more participation next year because so many interesting plants and animals live around Manhattan that most people don’t realize until they look.

“The City Nature Challenge is great because it gives everyone an excuse to enjoy themselves outside and explore the nature around them,” Donnelly said.