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Forest Ecology

The Forest Ecology Research Program at The Morton Arboretum seeks to understand how forest ecosystems work and to develop scientifically based management strategies for forests in the Great Lakes region and beyond. We aim to provide the information land management professionals need to effectively restore the structure, composition and function of these ecosystems.

In forest ecology, these terms refer to:

Structure: the layers of the forest, such as canopy, shrub, and ground layers, and other components, such as logs and snags, and where they are located relative to each other.

Composition: the species of trees and plants that live there.

Function: the ecological "services" forests provide, such as wildlife habitat or carbon storage.

Major research goals of the Forest Ecology lab include:

Developing and evaluating baselines for restoration based on historical data. We are assessing the factors that lead to the development of historical forests, in part to help determine whether these historical conditions represent attainable or desirable baseline conditions.

Illustrating and mitigating human impacts on forests. The integrity of forest ecosystems is often negatively influenced by human activities, either directly or indirectly. Indirect mechanisms such as altered natural disturbance regimes (fire suppression), wildlife damage (deer browsing), and invasive species (both competitor plant species and damaging insects and diseases) can all have severe, but poorly understood, effects on forests. Therefore, another major area of interest for the Forest Ecology lab is to better understand the effect of these factors on forest ecosystems and to investigate methods of limiting and alleviating their impact.

Investigating new approaches for restoration of structure and composition to a variety of forest types. For example, a priority of many forest managers is maintaining an oak component in the forest, but many forests in the Chicago region have little or no oak regeneration. We conduct experiments to guide the development of treatments, including different combinations of prescribed fire, canopy thinning, and invasive shrub removal, that could promote oak regeneration. 

The Arboretum's Forest Ecologist is Robert Fahey. Learn more about the Arboretum’s Forest Ecology Lab.