Archives For conservation research

Rooting for Native Plants

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  October 25, 2016 — Leave a comment

Competition is heating up in the western United States. Invasive and native plants are racing to claim available land and resources. Alicia Foxx, who studies the interplay of roots of native and invasive plants, is glued to the action. The results of this contest, says the plant biology and conservation doctoral student at the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University, could be difficult to reverse.  

Cheatgrass, which is an aggressive, invasive plant with a dense root system, is in the lead and spreading quickly across the west. Native plants are falling in its wake—especially when it comes to their delicate seedlings that lead to new generations.

Foxx is one of the scientists working to give native plants a leg (or root) up. She hypothesizes that a carefully assembled team of native plant seedlings with just the right root traits may be able to work together to outpace their competition.

PHOTO: Alicia Foxx (left) participates in seed collection in Southeastern Utah.

Alicia Foxx (left) participates in seed collection in southeastern Utah.

“We often evaluate plants for the way they look above ground, but I think we have to look below ground as well,” she said. Foxx’s master thesis focused on a native grass known as squirreltail, and her hypothesis addressed the idea that the more robust the root system was in a native grass, the better it was at competing with cheatgrass. Now, “I’m looking more at how native plants behave in a community, as opposed to evaluating them one by one… How they interact with one another and how that might influence their performance or establishment in the Colorado plateau.”

In the desert climate, human-related disturbances such as mining, gas exploration, livestock trampling, or unnaturally frequent fires have killed off native plants and left barren patches of land behind that are susceptible to the arrival of cheatgrass.

PHOTO: Seedlings in the growth chamber.

Seedlings in the growth chamber

“Some of our activities are exacerbating the conditions [that are favorable for invasive plants]. We need to make sure that we have forage for the wildlife and the plants themselves, because they are important to us for different reasons, including the prevention of mudslides,” she said. “We are definitely confronted with a changing climate and it would be really difficult for us to reverse any damage we have caused, so we’re trying to shift the plant community so it can be here in 50 years.”

Garden conservation scientist Andrea Kramer, Ph.D. advises Foxx, and her mentorship has allowed Foxx to see how science theories created in a laboratory become real-life solutions in the field. “I think I’m very fortunate to work with Andrea, who works very closely with the Bureau of Land Management…it’s really nice to see that this gets replicated out in the world,” said Foxx. Seeds from their joint collecting trip in 2012 have been added to the Garden’s Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank.

Alicia Foxx loves to walk through the English Walled Garden when she steps away from her work.

In a way, Foxx is also learning from the invasive plants themselves. To develop her hypothesis, she considered the qualities of the invasive plants; those that succeeded had roots that are highly competitive for resources. After securing seeds from multiple sources, she is now working in the Garden’s greenhouse and the Population Biology Laboratory to grow native plants that may be up to the challenge. She is growing the seedlings in three different categories: a single plant, a group of the same species together, and a group of species that look different (such as a grass and a wildflower). In total, there will be 600 tubes holding plants. She will then evaluate their ability to establish themselves in a location and to survive over time.

PHOTO: Seedlings: on the right is a sunflower (Helianthus annuus) next to a native grass (Pascopyrum smithii).

On the right: a sunflower seedling (Helianthus annuus) next to a native grass (Pascopyrum smithii)

There has been very little research on plant roots, but Foxx said the traits of roots, such as how fibrous they are, their length, or the number of hair-like branches they form, tell us a lot about how they function.

“I’m hoping that looking at some of these root traits and looking at how these plants interact with one another will reveal something new or solidify some of the theories,” said Foxx.

She aims to have what she learns about the ecology of roots benefit restorations in the western United States. It is possible that her findings will shape thoughts in other regions as well, such as the prairies of the Midwest. Future research using the seeds Foxx collected could contribute to the National Seed Strategy for Rehabilitation and Restoration, of which the Garden is a key resource for research and seeds for future restoration needs.

The Chicago native has come a long way since she first discovered her love of botany during high school. After completing her research and her Ph.D., she hopes to nurture future scientists and citizen scientists through her ongoing work, and help them make the connections that can lead to a love of plants.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The National Parks provide dream vacations for us nature lovers, but did you know they also serve as vital locations for forward-thinking conservation research by Chicago Botanic Garden scientists?

From sand to sea, the parks are a celebration of America’s diversity of plants, animals, and fungi, according to the Garden’s Chief Scientist Greg Mueller, Ph.D., who has worked in several parks throughout his career.

“National Parks were usually selected because they are areas of important biodiversity,” Dr. Mueller explained, “and they’ve been appropriately managed and looked after for up to 100 years. Often times they are the best place to do our work.”

As we celebrate this centennial year, he and his colleagues share recent and favorite work experiences with the parks.

PHOTO: Dr. Greg Mueller in the field.

Dr. Greg Mueller working at Big Thicket National Preserve, Texas, in 2007.

Take a glimpse into the wilderness from their eyes.

This summer, Mueller made a routine visit to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore to examine the impact of pollution and other human-caused disturbances on the sensitive mushroom species and communities associated with trees. “One of the foci of our whole research program (at the Garden) is looking at that juxtaposition of humans and nature and how that can coexist. The Dunes National Lakeshore is just a great place to do that,” he explained, as it is unusually close to roads and industry.

Evelyn Williams, Ph.D., adjunct conservation scientist, relied on her fieldwork in Guadalupe Mountains National Park to study one of only two known populations of Lepidospartum burgessii, a rare gypsophile shrub, during a postdoctoral research appointment at the Garden. “We were able to work with park staff to study the species and make recommendations for management,” she said.

PHOTO: Dr. Evelyn Williams in Guadalupe Mountains National Park during 2014 field work.

Dr. Evelyn Williams in Guadalupe Mountains National Park during 2014 field work. Photo by Adrienne Basey.

As a Conservation Land Management intern, Coleman Minney surveyed for the federally endangered Ptilimnium nodosum at the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park earlier this year. “The continued monitoring of this plant is important because its habitat is very susceptible to invasion from non-native plants,” explained Minney, who found the first natural population of the species on the main stem of the Potomac River in 20 years.

PHOTO: Harperella (Ptilimnium nodosum).

Harperella (Ptilimnium nodosum) grows on scour bars of rivers and streams. Photo by Coleman Minney.

According to conservation scientist Andrea Kramer, Ph.D., “In many cases, National Parks provide the best and most intact examples of native plant communities in the country, and by studying them we can learn more about how to restore damaged or destroyed plant communities to support the people and wildlife that depend upon them.”

The parks have been a critical site for her work throughout her career. Initially, “I relied on the parks as sites for fieldwork on how wildflowers adapt to their local environment.”

Today, she is evaluating the results of restoration at sites in the Colorado Plateau by looking at data provided by collaborators. Her data covers areas that include Grand Canyon National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, and Canyon de Chelly National Monument.

Along with colleague Nora Talkington, a recent master’s degree graduate from the Garden’s program in plant biology and conservation who is now a botanist for the Navajo Nation, Dr. Kramer expects the results will inform future restoration work.

PHOTO: Dr. Andrea Kramer at Arches National Park.

Dr. Kramer collects material from Arches National Park as a part of her dissertation research in 2003.

At Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska, Natalie Balkam, a Conservation Land Management intern, has been hard at work collecting data on vegetation in the park and learning more about the intersection of people, science, and nature. “My time with the National Park Service has exposed me to the vastly interesting and complex mechanics of preserving and protecting a natural space,” she said. “And I get to work in one of the most beautiful places in the world—Alaska!”

PHOTO: The view from survey work in Elodea, part of the Wrangell–St. Elias National Park Preserve in Alaska.

The view from survey work in Elodea, part of the Wrangell–St. Elias National Park Preserve in Alaska. Photo courtesy National Park Service.

The benefits of conducting research with the National Parks extend beyond the ability to gather high-quality information, said Mueller. Parks retain records of research underway by others and facilitate collaborations between scientists. They may also provide previous research records to enhance a specific project. Their connections to research are tight. But nothing is as important as their ability to connect people with nature, said Mueller. “That need for experiencing nature, experiencing wilderness is something that’s critical for humankind.”

For research and recreation, we look forward to the next 100 years.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Long Road Home

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  December 11, 2014 — 1 Comment

Golden paintbrush (Castilleja levisecta) is gaining ground in its native Oregon for the first time in more than 80 years. Recent reintroductions have seen the charismatic species flourish on its historic prairie landscape. To keep the momentum going, scientists are pulling out all the stops to ensure that the new populations are robust enough to endure.

“Genetic variability will be key to the reintroduction success of golden paintbrush,” explained Adrienne Basey, graduate student in the plant biology and conservation program of the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University.

PHOTO: Golden paintbrush (Castilleja levisecta).

Golden paintbrush (Castilleja levisecta) growing in propagation beds in Oregon. Photo by Tom Kaye

Basey, who previously managed a native plant nursery, is now studying the genetic diversity of golden paintbrush plants before, during, and after they are grown in a nursery prior to reintroduction to the wild.

“My work is looking at the DNA, or genetics, of the wild, nursery, and reintroduction populations to see if there is any change through that process,” she said. If there is a change, she will develop recommendations for adjusting the selection and growing process to better preserve diversity. “My goal is to give both researchers and practitioners more information to work with,” she noted.

Building for the Future

The research is unique in the relatively young field of restoration science, according to Basey’s co-advisor and molecular ecologist at the Garden, Jeremie Fant, Ph.D. “Adrienne’s study is awesome because of the fact that it has data and the samples to back it up; it is early on in this game of reintroductions and restorations, and potentially could have a lot of impact, not just for that species but what we tell nurseries in the future,” he said.

PHOTO: Adrienne Basey with herbarium specimens.

Basey works with herbarium specimens

Basey is working with data collected over the past decade by research scientists at the Institute for Applied Ecology in Corvallis, Oregon, and University of Washington herbarium specimens from Washington and Oregon dating as far back as the 1890s, and data she has collected from existing plants during field work. “It’s a perfect partnership,” said Dr. Fant, who noted that the Garden is guiding the molecular aspect of the study while colleagues in Washington and Oregon are providing a large portion of the data and samples.

The availability of all of this information on a single species that is undergoing restoration is very rare, explained Fant. “It’s a very unique scenario that she has there, so we can look at how diversity changes as we go from step to step and hopefully identify any potential issues and where they are occurring in the process.”

The study itself will likely serve as a research model for other species in the future. “There isn’t much research out there to help propagators understand when and where genetic diversity may be lost during the production process,” said Basey’s co-advisor and conservation scientist at the Garden, Andrea Kramer, Ph.D.

Last year, Basey, Fant, and Kramer worked together to write a paper outlining ten rules to maximize and maintain genetic diversity in nursery settings. “My goal is to support reintroduction efforts by informing nursery practices and demonstrate to nurseries on a broader scale how their practices can influence genetic diversity through a single case study,” said Basey.

A Green Light Ahead

Her preliminary research is focused on four golden paintbrush populations. Early evaluations show clear distinctions between a few of them, which is good news. Basey will next compare those genetic patterns to those of plants in reintroduction sites.

According to Fant, earlier studies by other researchers have shown that many restoration efforts for threatened species suffer from low levels of genetic diversity prior to reintroduction, due to a number of causes ranging from a small population size at the outset to issues in propagation. It is critical to work around those issues, he explained, as the more genetic diversity maintained in a population, the better equipped it is to survive environmental changes from drought to temperature shifts.

Basey will also compare the current level of diversity of golden paintbrush to that of its historic populations, to get a better sense of what the base level should be for reintroduction success. She plans to wrap up her lab work well before her summer 2015 graduation date.

PHOTO: A golden paintbrush is visited by its primary pollinator, a bumblebee.

A golden paintbrush is visited by its primary pollinator, a bumblebee.

For now, she is pleased with the level of diversity she sees in the current population. “I think the fact that it has a high genetic diversity means that these reintroductions could be successful,” she said. “But if we are creating a bottleneck, we need to know that so we can mitigate it as quickly as possible.” (A bottleneck is an event that eliminates a large portion of genetic variability in a population.)

Fant is enthusiastic about the timing of the study as the field of restoration is taking off. “We can jump in early as programs are being started,” he noted. “If we all learn together, I think it really does ensure that everyone gets what they need in the end.”

For Basey, it’s about building a bridge between the theoretical and the applied aspects of restoration. “My interest isn’t so much in this single species but more in the communication of science to practitioners. I like to bridge the line between research and the people who are using research,” she said.

Basey, like the golden paintbrush, is looking toward a bright future.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Using Genetics to Rescue a Rare Desert Shrub

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  December 5, 2013 — Leave a comment

Huddled on a sand dune, the small community of bristly Lepidospartum burgessii plants would be easy for most of us to overlook. But to scientists from the Chicago Botanic Garden, the rare shrubs shine like a flare in the night sky. This is one of two known locations of the species worldwide—both in New Mexico—and the center of a rather dazzling rescue mission.

Evelyn Williams, Ph.D., a Garden postdoctoral research associate, is pulling out all the stops to save the sensitive species. Commonly called Burgess’ scale broom, it has suffered from a mysterious lack of seed production since the late 1980s.

PHOTO: Burgess' scale broom (Lepidospartum burgessii).

Burgess’ scale broom (Lepidospartum burgessii) are among the tallest plants in their New Mexico location.

Standing about five feet tall, the silvery-green plants only grow on gypsum dunes. They possess unique characteristics that allow them to help stabilize sand dunes in the desert conditions where they live.

“I’m interested in how we can use genetics broadly to address conservation and ecological restoration questions,” said Dr. Williams. Her curiosity led her to the Garden in 2011 to join a team of genetic experts for this formidable undertaking.

The team suspects that, because the two populations of Lepidospartum burgessii are relatively small, the existing plants have interbred and are now too closely related to pollinate one another—which means they cannot produce seeds and create new plants.

Williams set out to confirm this theory, gathering plant cuttings during summer fieldwork in 2013. She hoped to grow the cuttings into full plants that she could cross-pollinate and study at the Garden. She also took samples from 320 plants back to the Garden. There, using a microsatellite technique, she recorded the genetic pattern of each plant, noting similarities and differences.

“When we have all of these different shrubs from a population, we want to use a fine genetic tool to tease apart genetic variations,” she explained. The microsatellite approach allowed her to identify genetic markers occurring in multiple plants down to the finest level of detail.

The results were encouraging. Williams found enough genetic diversity within the two populations that they should be able to cross pollen, or DNA material, and produce seeds. “Because there is diversity in these populations, we’re really hopeful that if we do a genetic rescue we can get some seeds in these two different populations,” said Williams. A genetic rescue, she explained, is when a species is revived with the addition of new genes, which normally occurs during pollination.

That day didn’t come right away, as the cuttings failed to grow in the Garden greenhouses. Accustomed to the trial and error process of scientific discovery, Williams moved on to her backup plan.

PHOTO: Dr. Williams hand-pollinating a specimen.

Evelyn Williams, Ph.D., delivers pollen to a plant.

She returned to the field in October, where she personally carried pollen-filled flowers from one population of plants to another, brushing the fluffy yellow blooms against other plants that may accept their genetic material. With plants as much as one mile apart, it was a process of patience and precision.

She will soon look for seeds in the resulting buds from that pilot study with an x-ray machine in the Garden’s Harris Family Foundation Plant Genetics Laboratory.

Williams is poised for the challenge of whatever she may, or may not, find. Ultimately, she hopes to convey a successful technique to land managers who carry out the daily work of furthering the species and enriching the biodiversity of the southwestern landscape.

“I really like that as part of the Garden we can help these public agencies and use our knowledge of genetics and conservation to stabilize and increase some of these rare populations. That’s really important to me,” said Williams.

PHOTO: Lepidospartum burgessii, framed by the sunset.

Lepidospartum burgessii, framed by the sunset. Photo: Mike Howard

She has been intent on advancing conservation science since childhood, inspired by her aunt, an ecologist. Her interest grew into expertise as she studied the genetics of ferns while earning her Ph.D. in botany at the University of Wisconsin.

In winter at the Garden, Williams takes every opportunity to walk through the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden. “I like being here in the winter and seeing a side of the Garden that’s unexpected: the snow and the beautiful structures in the Malott Japanese Garden,” she said.

Perhaps it is that perspective, of looking for the unexpected, that will unlock the mystery of Lepidospartum burgessii one day soon.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

I’ve just touched down at home after five days in New Zealand at the 5th Global Botanic Gardens Congress; 329 delegates from botanic gardens and arboreta from 45 countries gathered together in Dunedin, New Zealand, to learn how to strengthen our horticulture displays and plant collections, education and visitor programs, and plant conservation science. Our Chicago Botanic Garden motto is “Save the Plants, Save the Planet,” and what an amazing experience it is to spend time with people—mostly brilliant plant scientists—who share this passion and mission, and who will travel from every corner of the globe to help realize it.

Here are two particularly good slides that show some of the big-picture goals presented by Peter Wyse Jackson, Ph.D., president of the Missouri Botanical Garden and chairman of the Global Partnership for Plant Conservation (GPPC).

Drivers of Biodiversity Loss by Peter Wyse Jackson.

Drivers of biodiversity loss by Dr. Peter Wyse Jackson

Grand challenges for botanic gardens by Peter Wyse Jackson.

Grand challenges for botanic gardens by Dr. Peter Wyse Jackson

I had the honor of representing our garden in Chicago four times throughout the Congress, organized by Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI).  I presented at a symposium with colleagues from England, Austria, and Jordan about botanic gardens’ role in social change; chaired a panel of compelling speakers from Jordan, Mexico, Australia, and the U.S. who shared examples of how to engage communities in conservation; was challenged by the audience at an open forum with Stephen Blackmore, Ph.D. (Edinburgh), Dr. Tim Entwistle, Ph.D. (Melbourne), and Jack Hobbs (Auckland); and delivered a plenary address. If you want to see the range of topics and gardens represented, take a look at the BGCI Congress site; the Twitter comments #BGCI2013 also give highlights.

PHOTO: Group shot standing in front of ocean.

Kayri Havens-Young, Greg Mueller, and Sophia Siskel at Larnachs Castle, Otago, New Zealand

My Chicago Botanic Garden colleagues Greg Mueller, Ph.D., and Kayri Havens-Young, Ph.D., also attended and presented their work (and we had a lot of fun, too).

Being relatively new to the field of plant conservation, I set as one of my Congress goals the memorization of international conservation acronyms. To effectively make our way in any land we need to learn to speak the language!

PHOTO: Powerpoint slide

This is a PowerPoint slide of inside-baseball acronyms from one of the presentations.

So now, after writing down and decoding (i.e., asking the nice person next to me for help or drawing on the seemingly endless patience of my colleague Greg Mueller), the acronyms I heard, I am now semifluent (in that college French kind of way). Below, I offer a plant-conservation-centered sample of what I’ve learned—hopefully this primer will be helpful as you get involved in plant conservation. If you catch a mistake, please let me know!

A superb, professional explanation of UN environmental conventions, and how botanic gardens can support international goals (and more acronyms), may be found in the International Agenda for Botanic Gardens in Conservation, 2nd edition.

CBD Convention on Biological Diversity
COP Conference of the Parties
SPB Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and its 20 Aichi Targets, adopted by the COP to the CBD in Nagoya, Japan, 2010
GSPC Global Strategy for Plant Conservation, adopted by CBD at COP 2002
GPPC Global Partnership for Plant Conservation
CITES Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora
SBSTTA Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice
ABS Access to Genetic Resources and Benefit-Sharing Procedures
GBO Global Biodiversity Outlook
NBSAPS National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans
NFP National Focal Point
UNCED United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Rio, 1992)
UNFCCC United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Rio, 1992, updated and strengthened by Kyoto Protocol, 2005)
MDG Millennium Development Goals (2000)
UNEP United Nations Environmental Programme
FAO Food Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
REDD Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries
REDD+ A Climate Change Mitigation Solution Related to REDD
IPBES Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services
IPCC Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
IUCN International Union for Conservation of Nature
SSC IUCN Species Survival Commission
TEEB The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity
GBIF Global Biodiversity Information Facility
GTI Global Taxonomic Initiative
ISPN International Sentinel Plant Network
IPEN International Plant Exchange Network
EOL Encyclopedia of Life
TDWG Taxonomic Database Working Group (Pronounced “tadwig”— this one is my favorite because even after the group changed its name to Biodiversity Information Standards, it kept TDWG as its acronym! Keeping us on our toes.)
MSBP Millennium Seed Bank Partnership
SOS Seeds of Success and also Save our Species (through IUCN)
CWR Crop Wild Relatives
GCDT Global Crop Diversity Trust
ENSCONET European Seed Conservation Network
NGO Non-Governmental Organization
APGA American Public Gardens Association
AZA Association of Zoos & Aquariums
BGCI Botanic Gardens Conservation International
BSA Botanical Society of America
ERA Ecological Restoration Alliance
GCA Garden Clubs of America
CPC Center for Plant Conservation
NSCA Natural Science Collections Alliance
PCA Plant Conservation Alliance
MIPN Midwest Invasive Plant Network
NIPP Northeastern Illinois Invasive Plant Partnerships
BLM Bureau of Land Management
NSF National Science Foundation
USFWS U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
LCC Landscape Conservation Cooperative
USDA NIFA United States Department of Agriculture National Institute for Food and Agriculture
PHOTO: Peony bush.

Peonies at Larnachs Castle, New Zealand—October!

PHOTO: Wild echium.

Echium along roadside in New Zealand

PHOTO: Rhododendron shrub.

Rhododendrons at Dunedin Botanic Garden, New Zealand

Chicago experienced its first autumn frost while we were away, but spring in the southern hemisphere was in full bloom. Enjoying the remarkable flowers and landscapes of the South Island of New Zealand only intensified our passion for plants and the joy of gardens and nature.

Thank you BGCI, colleagues, the Dunedin Botanic Garden (and Shane the amazing bus #3 driver) for your leadership, friendship, and hospitality. Until Geneva 2017!


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org