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Traces of Ancient Ecosystem Revealed on Long Island

LIU Post professors find remnants of tall-grass prairies in Nassau County

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Sarah DeCamp,Associate Director of Public Relations
516-299-4177

Researchers from the Department of Earth and Environmental Science at LIU Post used state-of-the-art mapping technology to unveil remnants of the once-extensive tall-grass prairies of the Hempstead Plains in Nassau County, N.Y. LIU Post Professors Carole Neidich-Ryder and Patrick Kennelly used geographic information systems in order to confirm known locations of the prairies, as well as search for lost remnants, in an effort to identify new locations that can be used in conservation and restoration efforts.

The prairies are one of the few, if not last, of the true prairies remaining east of the Appalachian Mountains. These remnants of the natural beauty of Long Island continue to be the focus of local conservation efforts in an area continually facing the challenges associated with development. Tall-grass prairies once blanketed nearly 50 square miles of the Hempstead Plains, extending as far west as Queens and as far east as the Suffolk County border. Initially these grasslands were used by European settlers to graze livestock, but over time became attractive to developers as the land was extensive, flat-lying and well-drained. Development on this land included the early planned community of Garden City, the airport at Mitchell Field, and more recent urban development.

Today, only a few undisturbed remnants of the plants and soil of the Hempstead Plans remain. Some remnants are in established preserves, such as the Francis T. Purcell Preserve, and a portion of the Nassau Community College campus. Other remnants, such as the rough at the Red Golf Course at Eisenhower Park, were not disturbed during development. In addition, there are small pockets of the prairies existing throughout the county that occur in isolated groundwater recharge basins.

“Each time I visit the Cradle of Aviation Museum, which lies on the Hempstead Plains, with my children, I’m reminded of the rich and varied history of land use this area has undergone. I hope this study helps people picture the extensive sea of tall prairie grass waving in the breeze that Native Americans and early settlers once encountered in this area, and that current residents will do all that they can to help preserve remnants of this at-risk ecosystem for future generations,” said Kennelly.

Using a checkerboard of high-resolution aerial color photographs of the area, Neidich-Ryder and Kennelly set out to identify any remaining patches of the natural grassland. They separated colors in the images into red, green, and blue components, like light passing through a prism. This allowed them to look at the contribution of each color and identify a unique signature for six different categories of features on the ground, such as man-made structures and tree tops. Using aerial photos from early spring, when prairie grasses are dormant but other grasses are growing, they could see a particular mixing of colors in the photos that was indicative of prairie grass. Extensive field verification has indicated that this is a reliable method for identifying prairie grass remnants on the Hempstead Plains.

“It is an honor to be able to contribute a technique that can be utilized to help save and restore this precious part of Long Island’s natural and human heritage,” said Neidich-Ryder. “On Long Island, prairies are a critically endangered habitat. Any parcel of land that can be identified containing native prairie species may be able to provide us with plant materials that can be used in local prairie restoration projects.”

Posted 03/27/2014

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