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Plant Community Ecology and Conservation Biology

Plant community ecology
To answer basic questions about plant community ecology and conservation biology, The Morton Arboretum’s researchers investigate species native to the Chicago region: how they are related, the nature of the communities and ecosystems in which they live, how they are distributed, how their distribution is affected by natural events such as fire and by human disturbance, and what it takes to restore populations of species that are rare and endangered.

The Morton Arboretum’s history of research in this area goes back decades and includes the Schulenberg Prairie, a pioneering prairie restoration, and the landmark publication of Floyd Swink and Gerould Wilhelm’s Plants of the Chicago Region (first edition 1969).

Today, Arboretum researchers and their collaborators continue to investigate the plant communities native to the region’s forests, prairies, and dunes and how best to conserve and restore them. The researchers work with the Arboretum’s  land managers on questions in restoration ecology and natural resource management. Arboretum research on plant community ecology and conservation biology focuses on three areas:

Natural Vegetation
Our work with naturally occurring vegetation focuses on three basic questions:

  1. How are plant species distributed across the Chicago region?
  2. How do they assemble into different plant communities that can be identified and maintained in their natural state?
  3. How is this vegetation changing over time?

These questions have very practical ramifications for understanding and managing native vegetation. Woodland, prairie and wetland vegetation in this region are organized across a soil moisture gradient, and were originally patterned by landscape-scale fire. We are learning how these communities have changed over both historic and recent time scales by comparing historic data with more recently collected data, and we are examining the effects of prescribed burning management on their composition and structure.

Rare Plant Conservation
Our work with rare plants focuses on some basic questions in ecological restoration, including:

  • What are practical ways to restore different plant species populations?
  • What ecological and genetic factors affect restoration potential? and
  • Do restored populations have long-term viability?

We are investigating how ecological factors, such as rainfall or fire management, affect restoration and maintenance of populations, and we are assessing plant breeding system requirements for successful restoration. We are using long-term monitoring to understand the viability and persistence of restored populations. Much of our work has been with three federal listed species: Mead's milkweed, Pitcher's thistle, and the eastern prairie fringed orchid.

Historic (Pre-European Settlement) Vegetation
This work reconstructs and analyzes the distribution and pattern of Chicago region vegetation in the early 19th century, as well as the composition of forests, woodlands and savannas. Our sources of information are the data and maps provided by the U. S. Public Land Survey, which was conducted in the early 1800s. Principal questions are:

  • Does the spatial pattern and structure of this vegetation fit a landscape fire model, with forest vegetation dependent upon landscape firebreaks?
  • Does woody species composition also reflect a fire model, with fire-sensitive tree species restricted to landscape fire breaks.

These data also provide a baseline for analysis of long-term changed in wooded vegetation, as well as for setting restoration goals. The work has been compiled into an interactive map of presettlement vegetation distribution http://www.plantconservation.us/plsmap.phtml that can be viewed at several scales. 

Marlin Bowles and Arboretum research associates conduct research on rare and endangered plants. 

Learn more about the Plant Conservation Lab