Archives For environment

I’m a conservation scientist here at the Chicago Botanic Garden. I have an incredible job that allows me to work with many wonderful graduate students and a team of researchers to study ways to restore natural areas in the Colorado Plateau.

If you’ve ever visited national parks like the Grand Canyon or Arches, you’ve experienced at least some of what the Colorado Plateau (also known as the Four Corners region) has to offer. It includes more than 80 million acres across Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona—and the largest concentration of national parks in the country.

PHOTO: Andrea Kramer in the Colorado plateau.

Our research team heads out across a recently-burned area in search of data.

Although beautiful, the Colorado Plateau’s natural areas are facing many threats, including wildfires, a changing climate, and destructive invasive species such as cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) and Russian knapweed (Acroptilon repens). Working with many partners, including the Bureau of Land Management, we are studying which native plants may be best able to handle these growing threats (we refer to them as “native winners”). The ultimate goal is to help make restoration of these plants and habitats as effective as possible in order to maintain healthy natural areas that support wildlife and pollinators, and help keep our air and water clean.

PHOTO: Andrea Kramer at Rio Mesa.

Another beautiful day at Rio Mesa

This is no small task. The invasive species that the native plants are up against are very impressive. For example, Russian knapweed is allelopathic (prevents other plants from growing nearby), and it has roots that can grow more than 20 feet deep, seeking the water table. Fortunately, some native species are also able to grow in these conditions, and some even appear to be evolving and adapting to be better competitors.

Three Northwestern University graduate students are working with me. Master’s student Nora Talkington is testing how different populations of a native grass are able to compete with Russian knapweed, while doctoral student Alicia Foxx is researching how different root structures of native plants help them compete with invasive species. Master’s student Maggie Eshleman is studying six native wildflower species including the smallflower globe mallow (Sphaeralcea parvifolia), which has tiny, fiery orange flowers. These wildflowers are likely “native winners” and are strong candidates for increased use when restoring habitat in the Colorado Plateau.

A rainbow of wildflowers for restoration:

  • Tansy aster (Machaeranthera canescens): This purple-flowered plant is good for pollinators, one of the few plants that flowers late in the season, and on top of that, is really good at growing in sites that need to be restored.
  • Woolly plantain (Plantago patagonica): This cute little annual plant is often the only thing we find flowering and producing seeds during extreme drought years. It is very impressive!
  • Bee plant (Cleome lutea): This annual plant has gorgeous yellow flowers. It’s good at growing in disturbed areas and, as its name indicates, is a great forage plant for bees.
PHOTO: Cleome lutea.

Bee plant (Cleome lutea) by Andrea Kramer

PHOTO: Sphaeralcea parvifolia.

Smallflower globe mallow (Sphaeralcea parvifolia) by Andrea Kramer

PHOTO: Machaeranthera canescens.

Tansy aster (Machaeranthera canescens or Dieteria canascens) by Maggie Eshleman

PHOTO: Plantago patagonica.

Woolly plantain (Plantago patagonica) by Andrea Kramer

This summer was a busy one. My students and I spent many weeks in the Colorado Plateau working with collaborators to collect seeds (as part of Seeds of Success collectors—a national native seed collection program). These seeds are now being used for studies in the Garden’s research greenhouses and growth chambers, and at study plots in Utah, Arizona, and Colorado. In the Garden’s Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center, we are also using incubators to create spring- and summer-like conditions that will help us understand when and why seeds of certain species are able to germinate and grow. This is an important aspect of ultimately being able to restore species in a degraded habitat.

PHOTO: La Sal mountains in the background; the plains abloom in May.

La Sal mountains in the background; the plains abloom in May

How cool is it to be able to take research that’s been done on a small scale and actually apply it to the real world? I feel so lucky to be able to do this work, and being here at the Chicago Botanic Garden has allowed me to build long-term partnerships that investigate the application of research, rather than just focusing on publishing it. Stay tuned for updates on how these native winners perform.


This post was adapted from an article by Nina Koziol that appeared in the winter 2014 edition of Keep Growing, the member magazine of the Chicago Botanic Garden.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

On March 3, we inaugurate World Wildlife Day, designated by the United Nations to raise awareness of wild animals and plants—from ivory to ebony—worldwide. This day gives us an opportunity to reflect on the intrinsic value of all living things and remember that the well-being of humans is inextricably tied to the well-being of nature.

PHOTO: Two baby elephants playing on the savannah.

Elephants in the wild. Photo by Jonathan D. Sherman.

Botanic gardens, zoos, aquariums, and arboreta protect live plants and animals and play an important role in conserving wildlife and wild places throughout our local communities, nationally, and worldwide. More than 200 million Americans each year visit gardens, zoos, aquariums, and arboreta. This is more than all who attend NFL, NBA, and major league baseball games combined.1 From dolphins to snow leopards, kookaburras to monarchs, oaks to asters to mosses, the living collections visitors enjoy along our paths and through our windows engage and inspire people of all ages and backgrounds. Our institutions provide protection to many thousands of rare and endangered species, some of which now exist only in our care.  Our conservation biologists conduct important research and create practical, effective solutions to preserve wildlife and biodiversity throughout the world.  Our intensive preK through Ph.D. education and training programs for students of all backgrounds and abilities enable the next generation of scientists, teachers, and innovators to continue our work.

PHOTO: Closeup of wetlands flower, "shooting star."

Dodecatheon meadia (shooting star)

Garden, zoo, aquarium, and arboretum leaders also serve as leading international resources for biodiversity conservation policy, leading conservation commissions such as those facilitated by the United Nations, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the U.S. State Department, and Department of Interior. Together, and with other nongovernmental partners as well, we strive to implement the tenets of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, build and deliver comprehensive curriculum and education in science and climate change, and implement robust wildlife conservation programs.

March 3 was chosen as the day to inaugurate World Wildlife Day because it is the anniversary of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). While CITES has not become a household acronym, 179 countries have signed on to this intergovernmental agreement to help ensure that what we buy—whether it be food, leather, musical instruments, timber, medicine, jewelry, or a vacation memento—has not cost a protected or endangered species its life.  More than 35,000 species of plants and animals are protected by CITES, and these species’ continuing survival, along with the habitats where they live, are critical to the web of life on which all life—our life—depends.

PHOTO: Closeup of an orb weaver spider.

An orb weaver spider ties off a corner of its web.

We, as leaders of the living collections organizations in Chicago, urge you to celebrate World Wildlife Day with us and to join our personal and institutional efforts to promote the importance of conserving plants and animals, and the healthy habitats on which all wildlife—and we—depend. By protecting wildlife, we can ensure that the diversity of life on our planet will endure. We also ensure that the pleasures and basic needs we derive from wildlife continue in the future. These include everything from food and shelter to clean air, water, protection from the effects of floods, droughts, and pollution, as well as the joy of the living world around us.

Please visit your local garden, zoo, aquarium, or arboretum to find out more about what we are doing to preserve wildlife and get involved. Show your support for World Wildlife Day by following @WildlifeDay on Twitter and “liking” the Facebook page.

Sophia Shaw Siskel
President and CEO, Chicago Botanic Garden

Ted Beattie, President and CEO, Shedd Aquarium
Kevin Bell, President and CEO, Lincoln Park Zoo
Gerard T. Donnelly, Ph.D, President and CEO, Morton Arboretum
Stuart D. Strahl, Ph.D, President and CEO, Chicago Zoological Society (Brookfield Zoo)


[1] Association of Zoos and Aquariums

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Make a Bird-Nesting Bag

Kathy J. —  March 16, 2013 — 1 Comment

Spring is here and the birds are returning from their winter homes. Some birds fly through the Chicago area to their nesting habitats up north, while others return and stay in the area.

Spring is the season for laying eggs, because it gives the juvenile birds all summer to mature and become strong before they need to migrate in the fall. Also, as spring turns to summer, the growing chicks require more food. The trees grow leaves, insects hatch, fruits ripen, and other food sources become more plentiful. The birds’ habits are perfectly synchronized with the seasons. 

At this time of year, recently returned birds will be looking for material to build a nest and lay eggs. You can provide some bling for a lucky bird family with a few things you have around your home.

You will need items including these:

  • A plastic netting or mesh bag, like the kind oranges and apples are sold in
  • Scraps of yarn or strips of fabric cut 1/4 inch wide and at least 6 inches long (longer is fine)
  • Optional — dryer lint, metallic thread, any other attractive loose materials
PHOTO: supplies to build a nesting bag

Let’s put this empty apple bag and some leftover fabric scraps to good use!

Put all of the scrap materials into the mesh bag. Tease out the ends of the material through the holes in the netting all around the bag so it looks like a bundle of loose stuff. Tie the top of the bag. Hang the bag securely on a tree branch where a bird can perch and pluck pieces of material from the bag.

PHOTO: The finished nesting bag

Wall art or condo furnishings? Hang your bag outside and watch for birds!

Now you will be ready for International Migratory Bird Day, which is Saturday, May 11, this year. Watch the bag for signs that a bird is using the material. Look around your neighborhood for nests to see if any bird used the materials to build its nest. And have a happy bird day!

PHOTO: our bird nesting bag in situ

Let’s see where our fabric scraps end up this spring…

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

All animals that inhabit this area, including humans, have to cope with the changing of the seasons. There are four basic responses to the cooler temperature and shorter daylight. Which is your favorite strategy for surviving the winter?

Do you eat more food during this time of year, loading up on high calorie goodies? You may be a Snacker. It is a natural instinct. You are like the squirrels, rabbits, and some birds that fatten up and keep going all winter long.  

 

PHOTO: a gray squirrel poses as it feeds on bird seed dropped from a bird feeder.

Squirrels fatten up on seeds and stay active all winter long.

Do you travel to warmer climates during the winter? Wings are not required to be a Flapper. Count yourself in the company of warblers, monarch butterflies, and herons if you leave the area in winter. You may be migrating to escape the cold, but these animals are generally traveling to find more plentiful supplies of food.

Do you become sleepy and hibernate for four or five months every year? Then you are a Sleeper, like a bear, turtle, or frog. These animals undergo physical changes that shut down their respiratory systems and metabolism during the winter. You are probably not a true sleeper, even if it sounds appealing.

PHOTO: This bronze model of a painted turtle on a rock can be seen a Kleinman Family Cove yearround.

This bronze turtle can be seen all year at the Kleinman Family Cove, while the real turtles are hibernating in the mud at the bottom of the lake in winter.

If you are prone to feeling tired and sleeping more in the winter, then it’s more likely that you are a Napper. Animals like skunks and opossum cozy up in burrows or under deep piles of leaves and sleep. Occasionally they emerge, find something to eat, and then go back to bed.

PHOTO: A small skunk is feeding on squirrel corn on a dark winter evening.

A skunk wakes up from its nap and feeds on some seeds during a winter evening.

 

PHOTO: A baby opossum is seen in the snow surrounded by dormant plant stalks.

Like the skunk, this baby opossum emerged from its nap and is looking for something to eat before it returns to its shelter.

Snacker, Flapper, Sleeper, Napper — try to say that three times fast as you prepare for another midwestern winter!


©2012 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Autumn Trailblazing

Kathy J. —  November 12, 2012 — Leave a comment

Did you know that “blazing a trail” is the act of painting white marks, or “blazes,” on trees to guide others through the woods? People who make these paths are called “trailblazers” but the term has also come to mean “pioneer.”

PHOTO: This sign tells visitors which way to drive to get to parking lots, visitor center, or learning campus.Instead of using white paint on trees, the Chicago Botanic Garden uses a system of white arrows on brown signs. In this sign, which is located just past the Gatehouse, the arrow pointing up in this sign tells you to go straight forward to get to the Visitor Center, while arrows pointing left and right direct you to turn in order to reach the parking lot or Learning Campus.

You can be a trailblazer in the original sense of the word. You don’t need brown signs or white paint to be a trailblazer. Autumn is a great time to find natural objects such as sticks, acorn caps, and other things fallen from the trees, to make trail markers on the ground.

PHOTO: Pictured here are four diffent ways to make arrows using stones, sticks, and red berries.The picture here shows you four different ways to direct a person to the right. 1. Line up small stones in the shape of an arrow. 2. Use larger stones to make a traditional trail marker by placing a small stone on top of a larger stone and adding a third stone next the pile in the direction you want to send your hikers. 3. Bright red serviceberries contrast against the green grass and make a colorful marker. 4. Arrange sticks in an arrow to point the way.

 

PHOTO: four sticks are arranged to form a square with eight stones inside the square; three sticks form an arrow over the square to tell what direction the hiker should take.Want to get fancy? Try this: form a square with sticks and tell the hiker how many steps to take by placing that number of stones in the middle. Make an arrow with small sticks to indicate direction. The trail marker in the picture tells us to take eight steps to get to the next marker. (This marker idea comes from an old Girl Scout Handbook.)

 

IM000504Mark the end of your trail with an X or a circle of rocks to let people know they’ve reached the intended destination. You can even place a treasure at the end of the path to reward your trail followers.

So don’t be put off by the cool fall weather—get outside and show your pioneering spirit by blazing a trail for your family and friends to follow around your home.


©2012 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org