Talk to Larissa Mottl about her work at the Center for Prairie Studies (CPS) and the Conard Environmental Research Area (CERA) and you’ll quickly see why the Iowa Native Plant Society chose her to honor with its first Conservation Award in recognition of outstanding education and community outreach.
Mottl’s passion for Iowa’s natural heritage and the plants and animals that live here is evident in her work. A Minnesota native, in 2000 Mottl began working at Grinnell College, where she manages CERA for the biology department and coordinates outreach for CPS. Her position gives her opportunities to integrate research, land restoration, and outreach and to share her knowledge with students, casual visitors, artists, and scientists.
At CERA — a diverse 365-acre area with tallgrass prairie, savanna, forest, and aquatic habitats — some of Mottl’s work includes organizing prescribed burns for research and restoration, collaborating with faculty and students to investigate the use of goats for woodland restoration, and directing CERA staff, student assistants, and campus and community volunteers in hands-on ecological restoration, invasive plant removal, and biological monitoring projects.
“We are still learning about the diversity of life that CERA supports,” Mottl explains. “In a place as human-altered as Iowa, CERA is just over half a square mile of land, and yet there are still so many amazing things to discover.”
“For example, students and volunteers from across the state have been helping us sort through samples containing thousands of insects collected in savanna and forest habitats at CERA,” she says. “It’s exciting to know that we will encounter species yet to be described or named by science.” Indeed, Ken Christiansen, professor emeritus of biology, named and described two species of springtails that were collected at CERA in just the first couple of years after the College acquired the land. One species was named Frisea cera.
“I enjoy providing opportunities for students and others to learn more about our native landscape,” Mottl continues, “even the snakes that live here. We’ve placed 2-by-4-foot plywood boards out in different habitats to create refuges for snakes to hide under. Students check the boards periodically during the summer to record the snake species using each habitat. The snakes are identified, measured, and released. Each board lift is like opening a present.”
As CPS outreach coordinator, she arranges learning opportunities such as field trips, tours, and wildflower walks. She has also helped plan and put on workshops at CERA, sponsored by the center, on topics such as botanical illustration, insect identification and ecology, plant identification, and photography; festivals that celebrate the land through poetry, music, and dance; and programs about the history and ecology of the region. With CERA’s lab and classroom facilities surrounded by tallgrass prairie and in such close proximity to a variety of habitats, events at CERA “always have a field component. That’s extremely important,” Mottl says. She also helps classes in biology, art, anthropology, and various First-Year Tutorials use CERA for their field labs and classes.
So what’s most important to her about the work she does? “For me,” Mottl explains, “it really boils down to sharing my enthusiasm and appreciation for biodiversity. I think it can be difficult to appreciate what we can’t see and experience firsthand. Prairie, for example, can harbor subtle beauty and complexity. Providing opportunities for people to experience Iowa’s natural heritage at CERA, or learn about a few native plants through a campus prairie garden, or go on a field trip to a tiny roadside prairie will hopefully lead to greater appreciation and motivation to protect and preserve the diversity of life these places support.”