In 1872, not long after statehood, the Legislature enacted Minnesota's first natural history survey. Its purpose: to scientifically document the state's geology and native plants and animals. Many surveys were sporadically conducted over the next century.
By the 1980s, a century of population growth and accelerating landscape change had critically diminished and altered many of the state's ecosystems. Conservation scientists recognized this and proposed to build on the foundation of earlier surveys, using a more modern and systematic approach. In 1987, jump-started by state funding recommended by the Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources and matching funds from The Nature Conservancy, the Department of Natural Resources launched the Minnesota Biological Survey to document the condition of native prairies, forests, and wetlands.
Stories from the field
Learn more about the work of Minnesota Biological Survey researchers through essays on their memorable experiences afield.
Since then, several hundred survey biologists and ecologists have surveyed the entire state. The Minnesota Biological Survey has developed a record of the complex, rich natural history of Minnesota's landscapes and native plants and animals over the past 25 years. Information collected by biologists is mapped, deposited in electronic databases and museum collections, and published in reports and books. This information has guided conservation in the state, from forest certification and prairie management to additions to state and county parks and natural area networks.
Along with data and specimens, the biologists who work for the survey collect detailed memories of the land and people they meet. They can describe a hilltop in Big Stone County where many years ago they observed a rare violet, a talus slope in the northeastern Border Lakes region where they once recorded a rock vole, or a resting spot beside a prairie boulder where a flock of white pelicans circled above. They can recommend a favorite café in any part of the state and reminisce about kind landowners who share the history of their farms and woodlots, along with "a little lunch." Their days in the field can be long, tiring, hot, and buggy, but they are almost always memorable. When asked what a typical day in the field is like, one ecologist says simply, "There is no typical field day."
Survey scientists gather information beforehand about the things they study, developing a knowledge base about where, when, and how to best search for a particular plant or animal. Their encounters with what they predict are satisfying. For example, a botanist found Crassula aquatica, a rare plant last recorded in southwestern Minnesota in 1945. Finding it in ephemeral rock pools in southwestern prairie, he said, "I knew that Sioux quartzite outcrops after a recent rain might provide perfect pools for water pygmyweed."
Unexpected discoveries can result in re-evaluation of assumptions, survey timing, or techniques. A colleague's discovery of a new location of hidden-fruit bladderwort (Utricularia geminiscapa) prompted a botanist to search successfully for the rare aquatic plant 100 miles west.
A scientist's understanding of the landscape grows with experience and with awareness of the effect of environmental changes, from variability in climate to invasive species. To evaluate a hardwood forest, one ecologist recently revisited a site well known to him from the past. He noted that the "ancient cycles of life and death seem to continue." But then he added, "until the earthworms shake things up," as these non-native organisms spread, reworking soils and altering forest plant populations.
The following essays offer glimpses into the workdays and lives of the biologists and ecologists who contribute to the Minnesota Biological Survey. Though diverse in personality, the scientists share attributes of careful observation and record keeping, as well as stamina and adaptability. Regardless of age, they are curious and constantly learning. Veteran biologists work alongside younger biologists, who bring fresh energy, enthusiasm, and approaches. New survey scientists return from field ventures with that distinctive gleam in their eye as they recount their discoveries. Their life exploring Minnesota's landscape has just begun.
—Carmen Converse, MBS supervisor