Archives For plant conservation

How Love and Science May Defend a Wild Orchid

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  February 18, 2016 — Leave a comment

Life on the prairie hasn’t been a breeze for the beautiful eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea).

Once common across the Midwest and Canada, the enchanting wildflower caught the attention of collectors and was overharvested throughout the 1900s. At the same time, large portions of its wet prairie, sedge meadow, and wetland habitat were converted to agriculture. By 1989, just 20 percent of the original population of Platanthera leucophaea remained, and the orchid was added to the federally threatened species list.

PHOTO: Claire Ellwanger takes a leaf sample in the field.

Claire Ellwanger takes a leaf sample in the field.

The struggles of the captivating orchid did not go unnoticed. Its lacey white flowers and unique biological attributes sparked a passion in scientists and volunteers across the Midwest who began gathering leaf samples for genetic analysis and recording measurements on the health of certain populations. Some volunteers dedicated decades to this work, and many continue to monitor their assigned location today.

As long ago as the mid 1800s, an earlier generation of the wildflower’s enthusiasts had preserved samples of actual plants, pressing them onto archival paper with their field notes and placing them in long-term storage facilities called herbaria, for future reference. As it turns out, some of the plant materials they saved are from populations that no longer exist.

Now, all of that data is coming together for the first time in a research study by graduate student Claire Ellwanger.

The master’s degree candidate—in a Plant Biology and Conservation graduate program run by the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University—is using modern analysis tools to uncover the genetic history of the species. What she finds will give scientists a better picture of the present-day status of genetic diversity of the species, and insight into the best ways to manage it for the future.

PHOTO: Clarie Ellwanger measures orchid seed pods in the field.

Claire Ellwanger measures orchid seed pods in the field.

“This orchid is a pretty interesting species because there has been this massive volunteer effort for over 20 years to restore it in Illinois,” noted Ellwanger, who said that Illinois currently houses more populations, or locations, of the species than any other state.

She is focused on collecting and analyzing genetic information on the remaining plants, working with field collectors in the Midwest from Iowa to Ohio, and also from Maine. She is examining the genes, or DNA, of each of the sampled populations, along with genetic information she collected at eight sites right here in Illinois.

Ellwanger is also extracting DNA from the older herbarium samples to better understand how much genetic diversity was a part of the species in the past. “The herbarium samples will allow us to get a sense of historic genetic variation to compare to levels today,” she explained.

Along with her thesis advisor, Garden molecular ecologist Jeremie Fant, Ph.D., she is especially interested in finding ways to maintain genetic diversity. “We know that if you are able to preserve the most genetic diversity in a species, it is more likely to persist for longer,” she explained.

PHOTO: Extracted DNA is ready for analysis in the laboratory.

Extracted DNA is ready for analysis in the laboratory.

In the lab today with her research assistant, Laura Steger, she uses a genetic fingerprinting technique on all groups in her study subjects. By watching the same sequence of genes over time and locations, she can see clear patterns and any changes. The bonus to it all is that “understanding more about these plants and their genetic variation will be pretty applicable to other species that have undergone the same processes,” she noted.

As scientists and volunteers worked in the field over the last several decades, they did more than collect genetic information. They also took steps to boost new seed production by hand pollinating plants or conducting a form of seed dispersal. Through her study, Ellwanger is also tracking the success of each technique. “I’ll be able to complete a genetic comparison over time to see if these recovery goals are achieving what they set out to do,” she said, by comparing the genetic composition of a given population from the recent past to today.

PHOTO: A compound light microscope reveals some plump, fertile embryos inside seeds

A compound light microscope reveals some plump, fertile embryos inside seeds.

At sites Ellwanger visited personally, she collected seeds as well, and brought them back to the lab for examination. There, looking under a compound light microscope, she checked to see what percentage of seed embryos from the sites were plump and therefore viable. Her findings offer an additional perspective on what her genetic analysis will show. After examination, the seeds were returned to their field location.

In early analysis results, “it looks like reproductive fitness does differ between sites so it will be really interesting to see if those sites that have lower reproductive fitness also have higher levels of inbreeding,” noted Ellwanger. Inbreeding, the mating of closely related individuals, can result in reduced biological fitness in the population of plants. In such cases, it could be helpful to bring in pollen or seed from other populations to minimize mating with close relatives and strengthen populations for future generations.

PHOTO: Eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea).

Eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea)

The eastern prairie fringed orchid will soon be better understood than ever before. The findings of the study may also provide insight into other problems that may be happening in the prairies where they live. “Orchids will be some of the first organisms to disappear once a habitat starts to be degraded. If we can better understand what’s going on with this plant it, could help out similar species,” said Ellwanger.

The researcher is looking forward to the impact this work could have on the future of the plant and the habitat that sustains it. “What motivates me about research is definitely the conservation implications,” said Ellwanger, who developed her love of conservation while growing up on the East Coast and learning about the complex systems that play a role in the health of the environment.

Read more about orchid research at the Garden, and don’t forget to visit the Orchid Show, open through March 13, 2016.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

A Search for Rare Oak Species Yields Results

Plant Collecting Collaborative visits Southeastern United States

Andrew Bunting —  January 21, 2016 — 2 Comments

On October 25 last year, I met Matt Lobdell, curator at the Morton Arboretum, in Orange Beach, Alabama, to begin a ten-day plant expedition trip to Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. 

Matt Lobdell had received a grant from the American Public Gardens Association and the U.S. Forest Service in the spring to collect seed of Quercus oglethorpensis from as many genetic populations as possible, so that the breadth of this species could be preserved in ex-situ collections in botanic gardens and arboreta. This expedition was an opportunity to collect this species and other important oak species, as well as other species of trees, shrubs, and perennials that could be added to our collections.

We were targeting the collection of four oaks with conservation status: Oglethorpe oak (Quercus oglethorpensis), Georgia oak (Quercus georgiana), Boynton sand post oak (Quercus boyntonii), and Arkansas oak (Quercus arkansana). All four of these oaks are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, which identifies plants that have important conservation status. (Quercus georgiana and Q. oglethorpensis are listed as endangered.)

PHOTO: Matt Lobdell at the Morton Arboretum and Greg Paige at Bartlett Tree Research Laboratory and Arboretum make an herbarium voucher of Quercus boyntonii.

Matt Lobdell at the Morton Arboretum and Greg Paige at Bartlett Tree Research Laboratory and Arboretum make an herbarium voucher of Quercus boyntonii.

Any successful plant expedition is the result of a very collaborative effort. Because we are often looking for hard-to-find species, we rely on local experts. For different parts of the trip we had guidance from Mike Gibson of Huntsville Botanical Garden; John Jensen and Tom Patrick at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources; Brian Keener at the University of Western Alabama, assisted by Wayne K. Webb at Superior Trees; Fred Spicer, CEO of Birmingham Botanical Gardens; and Patrick Thompson of Davis Arboretum at Auburn University.

We were also joined by other institutions that helped with both the collection of seed and the associated data, but also helped with the collecting of two herbarium vouchers for each collection (pressed specimens), which are now housed in the herbaria at the Morton Arboretum and Chicago Botanic Garden respectively. Assistance was provided by Tim Boland of Polly Hill Arboretum; Amy Highland and Cat Meholic of Mt. Cuba Center; Ethan Kauffman of Moore Farms Botanical Garden; and Greg Paige from Bartlett Tree Research Laboratory and Arboretum.

Our expedition begins

On October 26, we collected at Gulf State Park in pelting rain and very high winds that resulted from the remnants of Hurricane Patricia, which had made landfall near Puerto Vallarta days earlier. Nevertheless, we found several small, windswept oaks in this sandy habitat, including Q. myrtifolia, Q. minima, Q. geminata, and Q. chapmanii.

PHOTO: Talladega National Forest

Talladega National Forest

The next day, we moved north to the Talladega National Forest in central Alabama. In addition to collecting more oaks, we made collections of the beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), Euonymus americanus, and the buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis). We also saw fantastic specimens of the big-leaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla), but we were too late to find any viable seed.

PHOTO: Quercus boyntonii

Quercus boyntonii

Fred Spicer, CEO of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, joined us the next day, October 28, to take us to several populations of Q. boyntonii, where we were able to make collections for six different populations. He also took us to Moss Rock Preserve in Jefferson County, where we made collections of the Georgia oak (Quercus georgiana). We also made a collection of the Carolina silverbell (Halesia tetraptera).

On October 30, we spent the day in Sumter County, Alabama, with Brian Keener, where we encountered Quercus arkansana, Dalea purpurea, Viburnum rufidulum, and Liatris aspera.

On October 31, we botanized in Blount County, Alabama, at Swann Bridge. Below the bridge was a small river, where we saw an array of interesting plants including the yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima); hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana); a small St. Johnswort (Hypericum prolificum); and a native stewartia (Stewartia malacodendron), in which we were able to find a few seeds. From there we continued on to the Bibb County Glades and collected Silphium glutinosum and Hypericum densiflorum.

PHOTO: Bibb County Glades

Bibb County Glades

PHOTO: Moss Rock Preserve at the habitat of Quercus georgiana

Moss Rock Preserve at the habitat of Quercus georgiana

On the following day, we made another collection of Quercus boyntonii in St. Clair Country and then headed to the Little River Canyon in Cherokee County. This was a rich area filled with native vegetation of many popular plants including the maple leaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium), with its wine-red fall color; both the smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens), and the oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia); the winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata), and the Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus). Interestingly, many of these Alabama natives are perfectly hardy in the Chicago area.

Toward the end of the trip, we headed into Jasper County, Georgia, and met up with John Jensen and Tom Patrick of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, who helped us find populations of Quercus oglethorpensis. In Taylor County, we collected several oaks, including Q. margarettae, Q. incana, and Q. laevis.

We finished the expedition in Sumter National Forest in McCormick County, South Carolina. This was the final collecting site for Q. oglethorpensis, which was cohabiting with Baptisia bracteata and Q. durandii.

PHOTO: Little River Canyon

Little River Canyon

PHOTO: Quercus ogelthorpensis seedlings in Jasper Country, Georgia

Quercus oglethorpensis seedlings in Jasper Country, Georgia

An expedition’s rewards

In total, we made 92 collections of seed and herbarium vouchers. The seed is being grown at both the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Morton Arboretum. Most likely, plants will not be ready for distribution until 2017 and most likely would not be planted into the Garden’s collections until 2018 at the earliest.

In spring 2016, Northwestern University graduate student Jordan Wood will retrace some of our steps in search of leaf samples of Q. oglethorpensis so he can study the DNA and fully understand the genetic breadth of this species throughout its native range from Louisiana to South Carolina.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Capturing the Value of Wild Plants

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  October 11, 2015 — 2 Comments

Maps had been followed, clues tracked, and early this summer the fortune was found.

Standing on the far side of a hummock swamp in Delhaas Woods in Bristol, Pennsylvania, Andrew Bunting had located a unique magnolia tree population on the edge of fading away. He had discovered the treasure he set out to find. Often, this is where the story ends. But when the prize is an elusive plant sought by scientists nationwide, this is where the story begins.

PHOTO: Andrew Bunting collecting sweet bay magnolia samples in Delhaas Woods, Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Andrew Bunting collecting sweetbay magnolia samples in Delhaas Woods, Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Bunting, the assistant director and director of plant collections at the Chicago Botanic Garden, was on day three of a nine-day adventure across the East Coast to collect northern populations of Magnolia virginiana var. virginiana L.

Bunting welcomes any opportunity to stroll the Garden campus. “I like all the Gardens, of course, but there are a few favorites,” he admitted. “Part of me likes horticulture and part of me likes the scientific evaluation side of things.” He often stops through the Heritage Garden with a nod to statue of Carolus Linnaeus and the Bernice E. Lavin Plant Evaluation Garden.

After locating a group of trees in Delhaas Woods, he and his team took cuttings from new growth and packed them into their bags. The murky waters that now stood between them and a successful exit from the overgrown site were deep and dangerous, and wading out was not an option. They had no choice but to leap between hummocks—floating islands—of knotted blueberry vines, wild roses, and other invasive plants to reach stable ground.

It’s all in a day’s work for Bunting, who has gone on wild plant-collecting trips around the country and world during his career. Days after returning home, he explained that this adventure was no more tame than those in tropical jungles. However, the importance of this collection made it all worthwhile. The target species, commonly called sweetbay magnolia, is generally underrepresented in living collections and arboreta. That means that if it is lost in the wild due to extreme weather or other threats, there is no backup. It could be gone for good.

PHOTO: A sweetbay magnolia tree stands out in Delhaas Woods, Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

A sweetbay magnolia tree stands out in Delhaas Woods, Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

By taking plant samples from the field, he and his team hope to grow new generations of sweetbay magnolia plants that can be safely maintained in secure locations long term and used to study and potentially boost the wild populations in the future.

The success of the trip required more than one stop. The team visited multiple locations, collecting from several plant populations across the northern range of the species. Their goal was to collect trees with novel traits, or genes, which would be beneficial for future breeding.

When the team navigated the swamp, their spirits were still high from an especially unique collection they made the day before in the Michaux State Forest, about 125 miles west of Philadelphia. There, they had carefully taken cuttings from a population of state-threatened magnolias that grows far from any other. “I’m hopeful that some of our work may lead to help figure out why that population is where it is,” remarked Bunting, who theorized that the population may have had a broader range millions of years ago and retracted to the coastal plain. He hopes that future DNA tests of the samples will provide answers by clarifying genetic similarities and differences between this and other populations they collected.

Moving into New Jersey, he and his team next gathered additional cuttings. Working closely with project partner Joe Rothleutner, tree and shrub breeder at the Morton Arboretum, and other local experts who joined them along the way, Bunting assembled a detailed logbook to accompany the physical samples.

PHOTO: Magnolia virginiana var. virginiana L. in Michaux State Forest, Pennsylvania.

Magnolia virginiana var. virginiana L. in Michaux State Forest, Pennsylvania.

At every collection location, each team member played a specific role to capture information about the site; from the type of soil to the slope of the land to a description of the local ecosystem, and a list of associated plants. At each site, two 10-inch plant samples, ideally with forming fruits and/or flowers, were pressed between cardboard and labeled for future storage in a herbarium. Other samples were packaged for propagation. The collection project was funded by the U.S. Forest Service and American Public Gardens Association (APGA).

The challenges along the way made every discovery that much sweeter. “What’s nice is you all kind of bring your own expertise and experiences and figure out how to navigate the areas and how to extricate yourself from the areas,” said Bunting. “What’s great about the collecting trips is that you can do a lot of front-end research but there are always surprises,” he added.

On the final leg of the journey, the team members found themselves wearing knee-high boots in the thigh-high waters of a sphagnum swamp in Staten Island. Sinking in deeper with every step, they waded through, only to find no evidence of magnolias. Swatting away mosquitoes and dodging deer ticks, they navigated a thick understory of sharp phragmites reeds and Japanese knotweed to make their escape.

PHOTO: An extended telescopic pole is used to take cuttings of the current season’s plant growth.

An extended telescopic pole is used to take cuttings of the current season’s plant growth.

In all, they returned home with representatives from nine populations and 850 unique cuttings.

Many of the species on display at the Garden today were once such wild treasures, explained Bunting, who, after years working for esteemed institutions across the country, returned to the Garden this spring in part to re-establish a collection program.

Records of wild collected plants’ origins hold a value that extends beyond dollars. Details of when and where each collected plant was gathered are stored in the Garden’s plant records database. Those pieces of information build a story for each specimen. The stories provide guidelines for conservation scientists who may need to propagate the species should a natural habitat be temporarily lost, and for breeders who may wish to develop a new, hardy species to better endure harsher winters, for example.

Many other species of plants are preserved when their seeds are collected and placed in seed banks. However, for some, such as the sweet bay magnolias, timing the seed collection and storing them long term is difficult, so the cuttings are the best approach.

Mapping the Journey

Bunting is building a ten-year collection plan that he expects will take Garden experts to one or two national and one international location(s) each year. “I would like this new plant-collecting program to really think about filling a lot of needs at the Garden, whether it’s evaluation, breeding, plant conservation, adding to our horticulture collection, or maybe interpretation and education,” he said. Collections will take place in similar climates to the Chicago area.

PHOTO: In Delhaas Woods, cuttings are labeled and pressed between pieces of cardboard for transportation to a herbarium for further processing and storage.

In Delhaas Woods, cuttings are labeled and pressed between pieces of cardboard for transportation to a herbarium for further processing and storage.

Plants selected for collection may be representative of a different country, or they may expand the Garden’s representation of a specific species, for example. Working with other Garden scientists, graduate students, and the Morton Arboretum, he is also building in steps to ensure that species are screened in advance so that no potentially invasive species are collected.

“There are lots of parameters and variables that will evolve over time and also partnerships,” he said. The collecting trips will be done with a consortium of institutions from across the country. Results will be shared and tracked among them, and stored at the herbarium at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. Many will also remain long term at the Garden or other similar institutions. “We do want to fill in gaps (in the Garden’s collection), but we also want to add diversity,” said Bunting.

Sweet bay magnolia trees in a New Jersey state forest

Sweetbay magnolia trees in a New Jersey state forest

Over the next several months, Rothleutner will work to propagate the recent sweetbay magnolia cuttings. They will then be dispersed among selected gardens, including several that together hold a full representation of magnolia species from the United States and that are coordinated by the APGA. Plants will also be cultivated at the Chicago Botanic Garden.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Do you ever feel like trying to understand plant science research can be as daunting as deciphering a passage written in a foreign language?

As a budding plant scientist in the joint Chicago Botanic Garden/Northwestern University Ph.D. program, I find it exciting to pick through dense scientific text. Uncovering the meaning of a new acronym and learning new vocabulary can be thrilling, especially when decoding something new.

PHOTO: Kelly Ksiazek speaking in Sydney, Australia.

This past fall I spoke to a group of green infrastructure professionals in Sydney about the importance of urban biodiversity.

But the commonly used styles in scientific writing and presentation packed with language used to convey big topics in small spaces can be really off-putting to an audience of non-scientists. Many of us can conjure up a memory of a professor or teacher who seemed to like their subject matter but couldn’t convey the material in an interesting way. All of a sudden, science became boring.

Rather than struggling to learn this “foreign language,” many folks stop paying attention. Lack of scientific literacy, especially as it applies to plants, is a pity. Plants are all around us! They are so valuable to the entire planet. The very applicable field of botany shouldn’t be something that’s only discussed and understood in laboratories or scientific conferences—it should be for everyone.

This idea inspires me to try and bring my current botany research to a wide variety of people.

PHOTO: Ksiazek takes her presentation on the road to Pittsburgh.

I’ve had the chance to speak with many visitors to the Chicago Botanic Garden about my research, and typically bring some of my research supplies, as seen here from a trip to Pittsburgh.

PHOTO: Growing UP in the City: A Book About Green Roofs.

Writing and publishing a children’s book helps bring my research findings to kids all over the world.

For example, I recently realized that there are very few resources available to teach young students about the habitat where I currently collect most of my data: green roofs. While some of the methods I use for data collection and analysis can be quite complex, the motivations behind my work and some of the findings can be broken down into some basic ideas, applicable to students of all ages. So a fellow botanist and I wrote and produced Growing Up in the City: A Book About Green Roofs.

Our children’s activity book teaches youngsters about some of our research findings. The book follows a pair of native bumblebees through a city, where they guide the reader through engaging activities about the structure, environmental benefits, and motivations for building green roofs. At the end, readers even have the opportunity to ask their own research question and carry out a green roof research project of their own.

Interested in your own copy of our book? More information and a free digital download of the book are available at greeningupthecity.com.

PHOTO: Ksiazek presents her work to a girls' middle school.

Talking to 100-plus middle school girls about why it’s cool to be a botanist was a great experience!

The activity book is just one example of ways that plant scientists can engage with a broader audience and make their research findings more accessible. Some of the other activities that my colleagues here at the Chicago Botanic Garden and I have participated in include mentoring undergraduate and high school students, speaking to community organizations, creating lessons for schools and school groups, volunteering for summer programs, and maintaining a presence on the Internet through online mentoring, blogging, websites, and Twitter.

PHOTO: Ksiazek and an undergraduate student identify green roof plants.

Teaching undergraduate students how to identify plants on green roofs is one way of passing on my research knowledge.

PHOTO: Ksiazek discusses her research with a visitor to the PCSC.

My experiments on the green roof at the Plant Science Center are visible to everyone. Come take a look!

Here at the Garden, we scientists also have a unique variety of opportunities to share our science with the thousands of visitors who come to the beautiful Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center. If you’ve never been to the Plant Science Center, you should definitely stop by the next time you’re at the Garden. You can see inside the laboratories where the other scientists and I collect some of our data. There are also a lot of interactive displays that aim to demystify plant science research and decode some of the “foreign language” that science speak can be. For a really interactive experience, come visit us on World Environment Day, Saturday, June 6, and talk to scientists directly. Bring your kids, bring your neighbors, and ask a botanist all those burning plant questions you have! We promise to only speak as much “science” as you want.

For more information about my research and science communication efforts, please visit my research blog, Kelly Ksiazek’s Botany in Action, and follow me on Twitter @GreenCityGal.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Mapping the Future of the Wild West

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  March 6, 2015 — Leave a comment

Silvery-green sagebrush cascades over the canyons of the Great Plains and Great Basin in numbers that would strike envy into the hearts of most rare and endangered plants. The abundant species keeps the wheels turning in a system where struggling plant and animal species rely on it for life-sustaining benefits.

As the climate changes and brings new rainfall levels and other environmental conditions, will this important species transition to new locations? What are the potential consequences for its current neighbors? These questions concern Shannon Still, Ph.D., postdoctoral research associate at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

PHOTO: Dr. Shannon Still looks over the area of his research.

Dr. Still looks over the area of his research.

“Sagebrush is a very big part of the ecosystem in the West, and we need to see what is going to happen,” said Dr. Still. “It’s a workhorse species that is important for pygmy rabbits, sage grouse, and mice that live around it, and it helps to stabilize soils.”

Still made several trips into states including Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Nevada in 2014 to investigate the likelihood of such a transformation and to help prepare land managers for the potential results. “When a climate changes, species often shift their location within it,” he explained. When that species has already become an integral part in the lives of its neighbors, it can mean a ripple of changes across the entire system.

It’s All About That Brush

PHOTO: Wyoming big sagebrush, the focus of the study.

Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata Nutt. ssp. wyomingensis), the focus of the study

Standing in a thicket of Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata Nutt. ssp. wyomingensis), the focus species of his study, Still reaches into a 3-foot tall plant with his Felco 8 pruners to take a sample. (He’ll later send this sample to his collaborator in Utah who will confirm the subspecies identification through a genetic test.)

Still plots the location of the plant with his GPS unit, which he also uses to track his route through the dusty wilderness in the Garden research vehicle. He snaps a few photos for visual reference and makes notes in his computer tablet before moving on to the next site.

There are millions of plants out there now, Still estimates. So, he strategically collects information from 150 key locations during multiple visits. He then returns to the Garden to add the new information to his database, which also holds data from herbaria records he collected earlier.

At his desk in the Garden, he inputs new data. He then uses a software workflow he built himself to compare a map of the plants with a map of how the climate will look in those locations in future years. He runs models that overlay one map on top of the other to see where climate shifts will occur in the current species range. This allows him to predict where Wyoming big sagebrush will continue to prosper, and where it may disappear due to a lack of rain, too much rain, or temperature shifts, for example.

Staking a Claim

Still is excited about the ability of the software to provide climate-related analysis on sagebrush and other species. In fact, it’s the second study he has run with the program in the last two years since it was developed, using specialized algorithms for each.

PHOTO: Chicago Botanic Garden research vehicle parked in the field.

Colorado Rockies in the background; research subjects all around

First, he developed the software workflow to better understand how more than 500 rare species in the same western region might fare in the future if their environmental conditions change as predicted, and to which changes they are most vulnerable. The study results are like a crystal ball for land managers, identifying which species are most urgently in need of their care. The three-year investigation will come to a close in late 2015.

Already, both studies have received attention, with publications in the January issue of Nature Areas Journal authored by Still and his collaborators.

Still’s initial findings reveal that the Wyoming big sagebrush species already appears to be shifting. An anticipated increase in precipitation in the Great Plains and a drier climate in the Great Basin may lead to a contraction of the species into a smaller range, he explained. “By 2050, models show that 39 percent of the current climate for Wyoming big sagebrush will be lost.”

Still hopes that by identifying locations where sagebrush may fail to thrive, land managers can immediately focus on restoring areas that will continue to be suitable for the species long term.

PHOTO: Sagebrush in the canyon.

Sagebrush population in the canyon

“We don’t expect sagebrush to go extinct,” said Still. “But we may lose plants in areas where we don’t want to lose them, or more rapidly than we hoped. That could lead to more erosion or the loss of suitable habitat.”

Always moving forward, Still is continuing to work with the data, now adding details about plant locations such as the slope of the land and the direction they face. With those details, he will run new models in the future.

The wild West once again finds itself at the forefront of exploration and change. If Still has any say in the matter, its mysteries and historic charm will endure.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org