Abbott Ecology Laboratory

Finding the Key to Species’ Survival within Native Habitats

The Chicago Botanic Garden is actively maintaining, restoring, and recreating four natural areas at the Garden: woodlands at McDonald Woods and the Brown Nature Reserve, the Dixon Prairie, the Skokie River Corridor, and the 60-acre Garden Lakes. These activities teach restoration ecologists a great deal about habitat management, which can be applied in other regions. The Abbott Ecology Laboratory enables these scientists to conduct detailed research pertaining to community ecology, water quality, and other ecological issues.

PHOTO: Prairie PlantsHow Plant Ecology Benefits You—and the World

Why work to preserve healthy natural communities? Simply put, we depend on the services they provide for our survival. Humans have destroyed large areas of habitat, driven species to the brink of extinction, imported invasive species, and created the uncertainties of climate change. Disrupted ecological communities can’t survive on their own. But the process of restoration can help them recover.

During your visit to the Garden, you can enjoy the quiet beauty of woodland, prairie, lakeshore, and river communities. These diverse natural areas are also “laboratories” where Garden scientists study how to restore habitats effectively. When it’s time to transfer the research inside, the Abbott Ecology Laboratory provides essential space and equipment, such as dissecting microscopes, stereomicroscopes, and an automated analyzer for water and soil nutrient analyses.

Case Studies

Bob Kirschner, the Garden’s director of restoration ecology, has overseen the rejuvenation of more than three miles of the Garden’s lake shoreline. His treatment strategies combine soil-stabilizing characteristics of emergent and submergent plants with structural and fluvial engineering principles to create stable, ecologically diverse, attractive shoreline habitats.

PHOTO: Dan Larkin in woodsDaniel Larkin, Ph.D., and his students conduct research on restoration ecology and invasive plant species, primarily in the Chicago region and elsewhere in the Upper Midwest. Current projects include studying the community and ecosystem-level impacts of the invasive wetland plant species hybrid cattail (Typha x glauca) and common reed (Phragmites australis), investigating the effects of common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) invasion and woodland restoration on carbon sequestration, assessing how restoration influences nitrogen-cycling ecosystem services performed by wetlands, and testing the extent to which restoration benefits wild-bee communities in prairies and secretive-marshbird populations in wetlands.

Joan O’Shaughnessy, river and prairie ecologist at the Garden, strives within the one-mile-long urban Skokie River Corridor to develop diverse and sustainable communities of native plants and animals, recognizing that what happens upstream and in the watershed affect this effort.

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Jim Steffen, a specialist in oak woodland flora and fauna at the Garden, has been working to restore McDonald Woods and other Garden woodlands using a number of methods. Through the removal of invasive species, the collection and sowing of seeds from appropriate local native species, the maintenance of nursery populations for seed production, the monitoring of floral and faunal populations, and the use of controlled burning, he has helped increase species diversity and develop a healthier functioning ecosystem.

The Ecology Laboratory is a gift of the Abbott Fund.

take action:
What can you do?

PHOTO: milkweed

Change your actions:
Our region still contains remnants of many unique native communities. Show your support by visiting them often.

Change your community:
Become a volunteer steward in the restoration of local natural areas. To help sustain them, encourage public policies that protect and enhance these native habitats. And don’t forget to lend your support to groups such as Chicago Wilderness and its more than 240 member organizations that work to restore native communities.

In the Laboratory

From measuring plants to assessing their environment to growing them under different environmental conditions, scientists in the Abbott Ecology Laboratory pursue many avenues of research. They are aided in their quest to understand native habitats by the lab’s new specialized microscopes and an automated analyzer. The combined space for the Ecology Laboratory and Population Biology Laboratory is 2,400 square feet.

Staff Scientists

Robert Kirschner, B.S.
Director, Restoration Ecology
Curator, Aquatic Plant and Urban Lake Studies

Daniel Larkin, Ph.D.
Conservation Scientist, Community Ecology

Joan O'Shaughnessy, M.A.
Ecologist, River and Prairie

James Steffen, M.S.
Ecologist, Woodlands