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K-State biologist collaborating with researchers in Africa on grassland sustainability, biodiversity

With a campus situated in the Kansas Flint Hills and access to the Konza Prairie Biological Station, Kansas State University researchers certainly know grasslands. They're using that expertise to collaborate with researchers in Botswana and South Africa on studies of African grasslands.

"There are a lot of parallels between Konza and other grass-dominated ecosystems around the world," said K-State's David Hartnett, a university distinguished professor of biology.

The research is examining the sustainability of the grasslands and conserving the biodiversity within them. Hartnett and collaborators in Botswana are assessing and documenting changes taking place because of climate change and land use changes.

Working with Moffat Setshogo and Mbaki Muzilla at the University of Botswana, the K-State group is studying how fire, grazing and important beneficial soil fungi affect the ecology and productivity of key grass species. Information about the research will appear at the African Issues Symposium: Food Security, Environmental Sustainability and Human Health, March 30 to April 1, at K-State. More information about the symposium is at

Hartnett and Tony Joern, professor of biology, lead the K-State Institute for Grassland Studies, which was formed in 2008.

"K-State has a strong program in grassland studies and many people working on grassland ecosystems," Hartnett said. "We wanted to broaden it to international research and education."

The southern African grasslands and savannas have a lot in common with the grasslands of the central United States, Hartnett said. At the same time, he said the African grasslands are more interconnected to the people's way of life.

"Like in Africa, we acquire most of our food from grasslands, but the dependence is more critical in Africa," Hartnett said. "Not only do the grasslands produce grain and meat, but they also produce building materials, medicines and other essential goods and services. That's what makes the grasslands such an important region to focus on."

Hartnett said the research collaboration with African researchers -- primarily those from the University of Botswana -- has meant that K-State students have done research overseas while African students have come to K-State to pursue graduate degrees.

This summer, Hartnett will take nine K-State students on a study abroad program in Botswana. Hartnett said K-State also is working with the Peace Parks Foundation, which connects natural parks across southern Africa's international borders. He said much of the collaborative grassland research is being done in these conservation areas.

David Hartnett | EurekAlert!
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