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Mima Meadow in Winter

Chris: Welcome to one of the most gorgeous university campuses in California – U.C. Santa Cruz.

Erica: In addition to the variety of classes this university offers, UCSC also has an amazing diversity of natural landscapes and hundreds of species that live within the campus boundary. This makes UCSC a unique treasure. So when you’re not in class go take a walk in the woods –

Chris: Or a meadow –

Erica: Or a even a cave –

Chris: And experience the natural diversity of our campus for yourself. This podcast is part of the UCSC Natural History Podcast series , courtesy of the Museum of Natural History Collections in the Environmental Studies department here at UCSC. I’m Chris, the curator of the museum.

Erica: And I’m Erica, a senior environmental studies student here at UCSC. These podcasts are designed for you to download along with a map and listen to as you take a guided tour through a part of this amazing campus. They’re also tailored to different seasons. For example, we have a ‘Fall in Cave Gulch’ podcast that describes what you might see there during October or November. However, don’t feel limited – some of the things we talk about are visible any time of year!

Chris: In addition, the scripts for these podcasts are online. Along with the text we’ve linked a bunch of photographs of the plants, animals and fungi covered in each podcast. So be sure to check that out before or after your walk.

Erica: And now, let’s go exploring!

Chris: Did you know that part of our campus is on the other side of Empire Grade? If not, then get ready for some new territory, because today we’re exploring Mima Meadow!

Erica: To find Mima Meadow, take a campus loop bus and get off at the Arboretum stop on Empire Grade. Or follow the dirt road that goes from the Farm, behind the Arboretum and to Empire Grade. From here, walk uphill until you see a gate on your left leading to a grassy area on the ocean side of the road. Hop over the gate and take a moment to enjoy the view of the land rolling down into Monterey Bay. This is Mima Meadow.

Chris: The most characteristic quality of the meadow is its mounds. The entire area is dotted with mounds that are around 30 to 60 ft in diameter, 1 to 4 ft high, and more or less evenly spaced. They are separated by hogwallows where vernal pools form in winter. The mounds are very distinctly visible above – when you get home check out Google Earth – but how they formed is not so clear. Mounds like these occur elsewhere in the world, however there is not an established explanation for them. The most widely accepted theories today are, first, that gopher tunneling has somehow led to mound creation, or, second, that they were formed by a combination of vegetation anchoring the soil on top of the mounds while water eroded the intermound areas.

Erica: In other words, feel free to make your own hypotheses at this point!

Chris: Hmm, I see a great opportunity for some undergrad research here…

Erica: Aside from the mounds, Mima Meadow is interesting geologically because it sits on one of Santa Cruz’s series of marine terraces. Each terrace is the remnant of an ancient sea floor that was uplifted, and the steep sections between the terraces are the ancient sea cliffs. You cannot see Highway 1 from here because it is tucked in along the bottom of one of these cliffs. The bedrock underneath the meadow is composed mostly of quaternary deposits, which were formed 1.8 million to 10,000 years ago, when this terrace was still underwater.

Chris: Mima Meadow is what we call a coastal prairie plant community. Before exotic species such as wild oat and brome fescue colonized grasslands in this area, they were coastal prairies. In Mima Meadow there is enough of a native plant presence that it is still considered a coastal prairie, unlike the Great or East Meadows. On campus, both Marshall Fields and Crown Meadow are other examples of coastal prairies.

Erica: The coastal prairie habitat occurs along the California coast, where there is a moderate climate and summer fog. It is one of the most diverse types of grassland found in North America, as well as a very productive ecosystem. Because they are so productive, coastal prairies have attracted grazers throughout time. Tens of thousands of years ago, this land was grazed by mammoth and bison, followed by herds of elk, pronghorn and deer during the Native American time. Once the Spaniards arrived the prairie was used as rangeland for their cattle, as it still is today.

Chris: So long as the grazing isn’t too intense, it is actually beneficial to the native plants. According to graduate research on the effects of grazing at the UCSC campus, moderate grazing has a positive effect on native annual wildflowers, a neutral effect on native grasses and negative effects on native perennial wildflowers. In the 1990s cows were removed from the Great and East Meadows for a few years after a group of students declared that the grazing was detrimental to the grassland habitats. However, without the cows, annual native wildflower populations declined and the university decided to reinstate grazing on the East Meadow. Mima Meadow, too, is used as a seasonal rangeland for cattle. When spring comes in a few months, Mima Meadow will be covered with many more flowers than either the Great or East meadows. Come back and look for poppies, yellow violets, star lilies, and much, much more.

Erica: In the winter you won’t see too many wildflowers, however, you can see aquatic plants that thrive in the hogwallows of Mima Meadow. Hogwallows are the depressions between mounds that retain rainfall and create seasonal wetlands. Walk to the edge of the meadow nearest the ocean, and check out the vernal pools in the hogwallows along the fence line. You’re likely to see a tiny aquatic plant called duckweed (Lemna minor) growing here. It has leaves that float on the surface of the pool, and very, very tiny flowers. In fact, members of the duckweed family are the smallest flowering plants.

Chris: As the pool dries up, rushes and sedges will dominate and the aquatic plants will wither away. Rushes, sedges and grasses often look superficially similar and are confused with one another, but they are actually in three different families, all of which are represented by species found in Mima Meadow. Here’s the trick to telling these families apart: “Rushes are round, sedges have edges, and grassesare rolled into joints.” What this means is the stem on a rush is completely round. Whereas the stem on a sedge has a sharp edge, and grass stems, although round, have joints where the leaves meet. Now see if you can find an example of each of these here in the meadow.

Erica: Before we move on from plants, let’s find a soaproot (Chlorogalum pomeridianum). Look for a plant growing close to the ground with curly-edged, linear leaves that are 7 to 27 inches long. When moistened and crushed, the inner bulb of soaproot produces a lather that was used for washing by the Ohlone people, and, later, European settlers. The root is also very fibrous and can be made into twine.

Chris: In the later winter you’re likely to find mushrooms growing out of the cow patties here. These are not the fabled magic mushrooms you may have come to UCSC thinking you’d find – most of our dung mushrooms are not hallucinogenic, and those that are are so weak that they’re more likely to give you cramps than get you high. Instead, you have likely found a bell-shaped panaeolus (Panaeolus campanulatus). If so, the mushroom will have a narrow, bell-shaped cap (3/4 – 1 1/2 inches wide), with brown or tan scales. It will also have a long, thin, brittle stalk with longitudinal ridges, and “tooth-like” veil remnants that hang from the edge of the cap. If the fungus is young the spores will be pale, but as it ages they darken to black. The bell-shaped panaeolus is an example of something we call a secondary saprotroph. If you have listened to our Cave Gulch podcast you heard about the artist’s conk mushrooms, which are primary saprotrophs, meaning they break down woody debris. A secondary saprotroph consumes dead matter at a later state of decay, for example, logs that are already partially decomposed, or, as with the panaeolus, cow manure.

Erica: Another great fungal find in late winter or early spring is the giant puffball (Calvatia gigantea). The puffball resembles a hefty cream-colored ball, ranging in size from golf ball to basketball. The whitish outside layer often breaks up into brown scales, and inside are the spores, which form a dense, tofu-like mass when the fungus is young. At this stage, puffballs are edible, although not particularly tasty; and as with any fungal foraging, you must be completely sure what kind of mushroom it is before you even taste it. As the puffball ages the spore mass dries out, until one day the ball breaks open and spores are dispersed by wind or water.

Chris: Or by foot – one of my favorite things to do when I find a dry puffball is to kick it and watch the spores fly away! Members of this Calvatia genus are some of the most prolific living organisms, producing up to 7 trillion spores on an average size puffball. If all 7 trillion of these spores, each only 1/200th of a millimeter, were lined up they could form a circle around the equator. Obviously, very few spores actually germinate, or else we’d be overrun with giant puffballs.

Erica: Now let’s stand up and take a look in the air for our wildlife. Flocks of Western Meadowlarks winter in the grasslands of UCSC. The Western Meadowlark is a large, stocky songbird with a short tail and a yellow throat, chest and belly. It has a black “V” across the chest, and its back and tail are streaked brown, with the outer tail feathers being white. Look for flocks of them, or listen for their characteristic song – a series of rich, flute-like notes of variable length, usually accelerating towards the end.

Chris: Mima Meadow is also a great place to catch butterflies, and Nymphalids, or Brush-footed butterflies, are a large, common family. The first pair of legs on these insects is reduced and covered with hair; instead of being used for walking, the legs act as chemical receptors to find host plants for feeding and laying eggs. We have over 20 species in the Nyphalid family on campus; a common one that you might see in Mima Meadow during the winter months is the West Coast Lady (Vanessa annabella). This mottled orange and black butterfly has a wingspan of 1 1/2 to 2 inches. Don't confuse it with a monarch - monarchs are larger and don't usually frequent Mima Meadow.

Erica: A much rarer, but arguably more exciting, insect to find in Mima Meadow is the Ohlone Tiger Beetle (Cicindela ohlone). Ohlone Tiger Beetles are federally endangered, and their range is restricted to coastal prairie habitats in Santa Cruz County; the population on campus is estimated to be only in the tens to a few hundred adults. You’d be very lucky to see an Ohlone tiger beetle, but if you do, they are metallic green, only about a half-inch long, and very fast. Tiger beetles are fierce predators, chasing down other invertebrates such as ants or spiders. They are most active in winter when the ground is soft enough to lay eggs into; however, it also needs to be a warm day (over 60° F) for them to come out. Tiger beetles inhabit uncompacted earth, like that on the edges of trails, and they hunt on the bare ground created by hikers, bikers and grazing. Since they are so rare, you should never disturb an Ohlone Tiger Beetle, and you should watch where you step on warm winter days.

Chris: Tiger beetles are intimidating predators if you are an ant, but for brush rabbits a bobcat is what to look out for. If you are at Mima Meadow for sunset (or sunrise), stay still a while and you have a good chance of seeing a bobcat (Lynx rufus). Bobcats are only slightly larger than a housecat, and have a short, black-banded tail. They also have white spots on the back of their black ears, which we think might be a way for bobcat kittens to see and follow their mothers at night, since these carnivores are mostly nocturnal.

Erica: If you want to continue your explorations today, it’s easy to hike back to central campus via Cave Gulch. Walk west along the lower fence until you reach the forest border; here there is a trail that leads down to the Cave Gulch stream. Once you get to the water, you can follow it upstream and across the Empire Grade bridge to Empire Cave, where you can cut up to Porter College, or else continue walking up the gulch to Upper Campus.

Chris: To learn about the natural history you’ll see if you go this way, check out our Cave Gulch podcast. Thanks for exploring with us!

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