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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Wisconsin Biologist Discovers 'Top Find' Of His Career In State Natural Area

Ryan O’Connor, Wisconsin DNR 1.jpeg
Ryan O'Connor
Wisconsin DNR
DNR biologist Ryan O'Conner snapped this selfie with his green violet find in a natural area in west central Wisconsin.

May 3, 2021 is a day that Ryan O’Conner will never forget.

It was a regular day on the job for the biologist and inventory coordinator with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. O’Conner was surveying one the state’s nearly 700 natural areas when he spotted something that caught his eye.

"We walk the property and take notes of what we see, looking for rare species that have been documented previously." He recalls, "I looked up and saw an odd plant."

Ryan O’Connor, Wisconsin DNR 2.jpeg
O'Conner says the plants is 8 to 10 inches tall, is entirely green and the flower is unique in that it hangs underneath the leaves.

It turned out to be the rare green violet, a species that hasn’t been seen in Wisconsin in over 50 years.

"I would say that species that are thought to be lost but then are rediscovered, it happens maybe once a decade," O'Conner says.

The species Hybanthus concolor was last documented in Wisconsin in 1958 in Grant County. That site was subsequently impacted by grazing and the species was thought to no longer grow in the state.

O'Conner says he found the plant 200 miles north of the Grant County site. "So it really speaks to the importance of getting out and just spending times in the woods, and prairies and wetlands and looking for these rare species that we think are gone, as well as other rare species that we know are maybe not quite so extremely rare in the state, but the more we look, the more we find," he says.

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O'Conner says the green violet find also highlights the important role of a healthy ecosystem.

"It requires a particularly rich mesic woods habitat, so it needs full shade that would do best under really large trees. It's pollinated and then the seeds have these little sugary bodies on them that are collected by ants. And then the ants carry them off to their burrows where they will then later germinate," he explains. "But it also speaks to the fact that you then also need an intact insect community."

O'Conner credits the life-filled natural area as well as his six-year-old daughter for his discovery. "She gave me a note as I was walking out the door and it said, 'Dear Dad, I hope you find lots of rare stuff,'" he says.

Susan Bence
Ryan O'Conner (center) with Wisconsin DNR botanist Kevin Doyle (left) and natural areas coordinator for the Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission natural areas coordinator Zach Kron (right) at a recent wetland survey in Franklin.

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Corrected: July 27, 2021 at 8:33 AM CDT
The audio incorrectly says May 5 was the day of Ryan O'Conner's green violet find, the correct date is actually May 3, 2021.
Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
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