Conserving and Restoring Natural Areas

Restoring native habitats such as tallgrass prairie, deciduous woodlands, and wetlands is a core element in our research and action efforts. Central to the success of restoration, is solid science that guides the identification of restoration best practices. Thus, our focus is on the science of conservation and restoration.

Factors Impacting Restoration Success in Wetlands

Ecological restoration is increasingly used as a tool to limit the ongoing loss of wetlands and protect their diversity and functions, but projects sometimes fail to meet targets. Studying complete restorations can identify landscape factors modulating their success to improve future planning and design. This project uses archives of satellite images to examine the response of wetlands to restoration interventions and identify the local and regional factors that impact wetland recovery throughout the Great Lakes.

The Consequences of Prescribed Fires in Tallgrass Prairie for Pollination and Plant Reproduction

Fire shapes the physical structure and species diversity of ecosystems worldwide. For the past several thousand years in North American, tallgrass prairie, frequent fires maintained grassland habitat and contributed to the diversity of birds, mammals, insects, and plants that are found in prairies today. Yet, widespread habitat loss and the elimination of fire are causing native plant populations to decline in the few prairie patches that remain. Prescribed burns promote native plants.

Seed and Germination Traits and Restoration

Functional traits are important predictors of how plant communities will assemble and function, influencing the ecosystem services these communities provide. The vast majority of studies linking functional traits to community assembly use vegetative plant traits of mature life stages, like plant height and specific leaf area, to predict community outcomes. Regenerative traits, like seed and germination traits are vital to understanding assembly and persistence of plant communities; however, they are surprisingly understudied relative to traits of mature plants.

Seed Mix Design for Restoration

Restoration seed mixes are raw materials for restoration. They represent a source of potential biodiversity for restored plant communities. They are carefully designed by restoration practitioners, but after they are planted, species biology, site management, and many other factors influence which species germinate, establish, and persist to form the restored plant community. Our work integrates questions in social science and ecological science to understand how restoration managers make decisions and how these decisions influence restoration outcomes.

Using Low-input Seeding of “Native Winners” to Increase Ecosystem Services of Degraded Grasslands

The Chicago Botanic Garden and Forest Preserves of Cook County are deploying “native winner” plant species—workhorse perennials with potential to compete in highly invaded landscapes—to develop an effective, economically sustainable, low-input adaptive management strategy for improving floral resources and ecosystem services. If successful, this approach could be used in many sites (roadsides, preserves awaiting full-scale restoration) to improve habitat in a low-cost, minimal effort way. (Zelden, Havens)

Native Plants as Lawn Alternatives

Grass lawns are the number one irrigated crop in the United States. Given cultural maintenance norms associated with lawns, such as mowing, watering, fertilization, and herbicide applications, these broad swaths of public and private greenspace actively contribute to climate change. While some spaces, like soccer fields, must be mown grass lawn, many spaces that are currently maintained as lawn, likely don’t need to be.

Biogeochemistry of Green Roof Systems

Green roof ecosystems are increasingly used to compensate for the loss of green space and biodiversity in many cities. Their ecosystem services and the performance of the aboveground biota have been extensively studied, e.g. pollinators and plant community composition (see page by Kzasiak). However, the functioning in the largest and most indispensable component of green roofs, namely the soil substrate, has long been overlooked.

Incorporating Soil Health into Plant Community Restoration

The success of prairie and woodland restorations is typically assessed using measures of diversity and productivity of the aboveground plant community. However, this approach misses an important component to plant growth: the belowground system and its capacity to support productive ecosystems. The concept of soil quality includes assessment of soil properties (e.g. nutrients, texture) and processes (e.g. microbial activity) as they relate to ability of soil to function effectively as a component of a healthy ecosystem.

Soil Carbon Sequestration: New Insights into a Key Issue

Global estimates show that soils store more carbon than the atmosphere and plants combined. Despite the obvious importance of soils in global carbon cycling, there remain critical gaps in our knowledge of the sequestration of long-lived carbon stores. Fungi constitute a major portion of belowground biomass and thus the decomposition of their dead tissues (or necromass) should be an important contributor to soil carbon sequestration.

Using Plant Community Phylogenetics to Inform Restoration of Tallgrass Prairies

We are using emerging analytical tools to incorporate understanding of plant evolutionary history into studies of prairie community change, management, and restoration. We have found that phylogenetic diversity of remnant prairies—how broadly from across the "Tree of Life" their constituent species are drawn—is an effective indicator of environmental conditions, community change, and management history in remnant prairies. Restored prairies that we have analyzed to date have significantly lower phylogenetic diversity than these remnant prairies, whih serve as targets for restoration.