Chicago Botanic Garden

Plant Biology

Habitat Fragmentation

The prairie once stretched from Illinois to Kansas and from Canada to Texas, a haven for a plentiful array of plants and animals. But agriculture and development have virtually erased the prairie from the map. Less than one-tenth of one percent of Illinois prairie remains. Chicago Botanic Garden scientists are studying small prairie populations, hoping to determine how long they can survive and what we can do to conserve them. Using new knowledge about habitat fragmentation and fundamental biological processes, we can improve management of natural populations and restoration of degraded ecosystems. Our scientists share their findings with managers of natural areas and stewards of rare plants, and with other scientists and the general public through classes, websites and scientific papers.

PHOTO:  corn
According to the USDA (2002), the largest land usage in the central United States is agriculture.

Chicago Botanic Garden scientists have researched habitat fragmentation in many areas. They discovered that lack of fire threatens reproduction in the narrow-leaved purple coneflower in rural western Minnesota. Scientists found that too much inbreeding reduces plant vigor in Lobelia at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie; that there exist too few pollinators of the endangered Eastern prairie fringed orchid in Lake County; and that loss of genetic diversity causes reproductive failure in small populations of Echinacea angustifolia. Our scientists also discovered that grazing changes are threatening the endangered Lespedeza leptostachya at Nachusa Grasslands; that invasive plants are threatening many species monitored by the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Plants of Concern in the Chicago area; and that when flowering is asynchronous (does not occur at the same time) in small prairie patches, pollination levels decline. Through computer modeling, Echinacea project researchers are learning how genetic and environmental threats interact.