Prairie Research Institute

Illinois Natural History Survey

Government and private conservation groups devote a substantial amount of time and money toward efforts to protect Illinois’ threatened and endangered species and to restore and preserve the habitats they depend on. Success in these efforts depends on the implementation of conservation and management practices based on sound science. To that end, INHS scientists conduct basic and applied research on imperiled species to provide practitioners with the data they need to make informed decisions.

INHS scientists are involved in all aspects of endangered species protection in Illinois—locating populations, studying their life history, assessing their conservation status, creating and implementing Species Survival Plans, and monitoring the success of conservation and management actions.

For example, INHS Biological Survey and Assessment Program and Urban Biotic Assessment Program scientists conduct surveys within Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) and Illinois State Toll Highway System (Tollway) roadway corridors to confirm the presence or absence of threatened and endangered species. These data are used to minimize the impact of IDOT and Tollway road building and maintenance on imperiled plants and animals, inform conservation and recovery measures by partnering agencies, and provide support for species listing/delisting decisions.

Amphibians and reptiles

In Illinois, 25 reptile and 15 amphibian species are listed as Species in Greatest Conservation Need. Unfortunately, this means that more than 25 percent of our herpetofauna require conservation action. INHS herpetologists survey at-risk species of amphibians and reptiles as part of long-term projects with the Illinois Tollway in the Chicagoland area and the Illinois Department of Transportation to ensure that transportation infrastructure initiatives will have minimal adverse effects on these species. In addition, INHS herpetologists work closely with numerous non-profit and governmental land management and conservation agencies to recover imperiled species.

Long-term demography

The Population and Community Ecology Lab’s major research focus is the demography and life history of amphibians and reptiles to aid conservation action. Most work has focused on the eastern massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus) and several turtle species. Work on the eastern massasauga began in 1999, and the demographic data collected have been used for recovery planning and for the federal listing process. Other long-term studies focus on the Blanding’s turtle (Emydoidea blandingii), eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina), ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata), and spotted turtle (Clemmys gutatta) at various sentinel sites across Illinois.

INHS scientists have joined with the Forest Preserve District of Will County to study Illinois’ remaining spotted turtle populations to create a 30-year data set. Similar collaboration has been done with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to augment a 30-year monitoring data set for the ornate box turtle. Because turtles tend to be long-lived, we must understand how long-term processes affect their populations to recover them.

Environmental DNA surveys

INHS herpetologists and Collaborative Ecological Genetics Lab scientists are applying environmental DNA (eDNA) analysis to detect cryptic, hard-to-survey reptile species.

Alligator snapping turtles

Populations of the Illinois state-endangered alligator snapping turtle are declining rangewide, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently proposed that the species be listed as federally threatened. To make a listing decision, the agency needs up-to-date information on the alligator snapping turtle’s range. Unfortunately this secretive species’ current range is poorly understood, presumably due to the amount of labor and time required to survey it via traditional methods. Recently, INHS scientists explored whether the turtle could be detected from its eDNA in water samples—a novel approach that would allow scientists to survey for the species relatively rapidly across a wide geographic area. Ultimately the team was able to detect radio-telemetered alligator snapping turtles up to two-thirds of a mile downstream using eDNA, demonstrating that eDNA could be a valuable tool for detecting these turtles. INHS scientists have since teamed up with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to conduct eDNA surveys for the alligator snapping turtle throughout southern Indiana to update our understanding of its distribution in the northern extent of its range.

Louisiana pinesnakes

The cryptic, federally threatened Louisiana pinesnake spends most of its time underground, making it very difficult to sample using traditional methods. Consequently, data on where the species occurs, the genetic diversity and size of its populations, and when it mates and lays eggs are scarce to nonexistent. INHS scientist Mark Davis and his colleagues tested the efficacy of using eDNA methods to track down Louisiana pinesnake populations. Specifically, they searched for pinesnake eDNA in soil near the burrows of its prey, the pocket gopher, and successfully detected it. Discovering where this imperiled snake lives is the first step toward collecting more detailed information on the species to inform conservation measures.

Eastern massasauga

The eastern massasauga is a federally threatened rattlesnake species that is challenging to find due to its small size and cryptic nature. INHS scientists are testing the viability of detecting eastern massasauga via its eDNA in water samples collected from crayfish burrows—places where the snake often hibernates. If effective, surveying for the eastern massasauga using eDNA could also facilitate more robust sampling efforts for the causative agent of snake fungal disease, Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola, which can cause morbidity and mortality in the eastern massasauga and many other snake species.

Recovery action

Much of the amphibian and reptile research conducted at the INHS is geared toward recovery and conservation applications. Such work includes assessments of head-starting efforts, population projections, and guiding management-related activities.

Alligator snapping turtle

In collaboration with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, INHS scientists have been releasing head-started alligator snapping turtles in southern Illinois since 2014 for recovery. The work has shown recovery in Illinois may be impossible due to high mortality levels from predators, illegal fishing with traps, and habitat degradation.

Spotted turtle

INHS monitoring of spotted turtle populations revealed the two existing Illinois populations are likely to decline in the future, with numbers bottoming out in 10 to 15 years for the more vulnerable one. The predicted declines resulted in recommended conservation strategies, such as predator control and habitat restoration.

Ornate box turtles

Although prescribed burns are necessary to maintain habitat, they could have an adverse effect on ornate box turtles if timed inappropriately. INHS herpetologists gathered data about dates of turtle emergence from brumation to better inform decisions about the timing of prescribed burns in the turtles’ range.

Vernal and semi-permanent wetlands

Semi-permanent and seasonal wetlands provide essential habitat for amphibians. In Illinois, however, about 90 percent of these historical wetlands have been lost, causing concern about local amphibian species extirpation and widespread decreases in populations. INHS scientists sample wetlands in Illinois to assess the abundance of adults during the breeding season and determine how climate and environmental factors affect amphibians’ pond use and productivity. Additionally, they examine source-sink dynamics and recruitment from both natural and created wetlands. Researchers also study plant diversity and water chemistry in wetlands to understand the conditions that may affect amphibian recruitment.

INHS scientists study various bottomland forests and swamp habitats in southern Illinois to provide land managers with information on the quality of habitats and the distribution and abundance of amphibians and reptiles living there.


Bird species across the country are threatened by habitat degradation, fragmentation, and loss; human disturbance; and competition with invasive species. In Illinois, 29 bird species are on the state threatened and endangered species list and many others are considered species of concern.

INHS ornithologists have helped collect the information needed to effectively protect and manage birds in Illinois for over a century. They continue to monitor bird populations using traditional methods like point counts and are assessing the efficacy of detecting hard-to-monitor bird species via their environmental DNA (eDNA). The scientists are also conducting ecological studies examining how factors like prescribed fire impact conservation-priority birds.

Large-scale surveys

INHS scientists conduct an assortment of large-scale bird surveys to help identify long-term population trends and understand potential drivers of these changes, such as habitat loss, invasive species, and environmental stressors.

  • Critical Trends Assessment Program: This program, supported by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, monitors the biological condition of Illinois’ forests, wetlands, and grasslands. Data from CTAP surveys can be used to assess the occurrence or abundance of individual bird species as well as the number of species found at a particular site.
  • Monitoring Owls and Nightjars: The volunteer-powered Monitoring of Owls and Nightjars (MOON) program conducts annual monitoring to determine population trends and distribution of these nocturnal bird species in Illinois. It also investigates potential causes for the species’ decline, such as decreased habitat availability and food sources, and provides the data needed to implement best management practices to conserve them. This volunteer-based effort is coordinated by ornithologist Tara Beveroth.
  • Spring Bird Count: Each spring, citizen scientists fan out across Illinois to conduct the Spring Bird Count (SBC). These volunteers record all birds that they see and hear on a designated Saturday in May. This annual census began in 1959, and the resulting data can be used to estimate changes in populations of bird species throughout the state.
  • Transportation infrastructure: Ornithological surveys conducted by the INHS Biological Surveys and Assessment Program and Urban Biotic Assessment Program enable the Illinois Department of Transportation and Illinois State Toll Highway System to comply with federal regulations regarding endangered species. Data from these surveys also support conservation and management efforts.

Read more about INHS environmental assessment work.

Environmental DNA surveys

INHS scientists with the Urban Biotic Assessment Program and Collaborative Ecological Genetics Lab are using environmental DNA (eDNA)  to gather occurrence data on birds of conservation concern residing within wetland fragments, since many of them are either cryptic or sensitive to human disturbance. Specifically, the scientists have collected about 500 water and soil samples from wetlands across northern Illinois and Michigan, paired with data from more traditional surveys—point count and playback surveys. They have detected multiple cryptic rail species’ DNA (e.g., Soras, King Rails, and Virginia Rails), and identification of bittern and heron species through eDNA sampling appears promising. 

The research team plans to test whether soil or water samples contain more bird eDNA and assess whether rail, heron, and bittern occupancy increases farther from urban centers and with an increased proportion of emergent wetlands.

Ecological studies

INHS scientists study the roles of vegetation structure and composition, food resources, landscape context, natural and human-caused disturbances, abiotic factors, and management and restoration actions on habitat use and demographic performance of conservation-priority birds.

For example, INHS Forbes Biological Station scientists and their colleagues are investigating the impact of prescribed fire in Gulf of Mexico coastal wetlands on three birds of conservation concern—the black rail, yellow rail, and mottled duck. They aim to determine the distribution and abundance of these species in high marsh habitats and identify prescribed fire practices that support the species’ conservation.


INHS scientists monitor fish species and their environments in key areas across Illinois using traditional and environmental DNA (eDNA) survey methods. They also conduct ecological studies on some of Illinois’ 36 state listed threatened and endangered fishes.

Environmental DNA surveys

INHS scientists from the Collaborative Ecological Genetics Lab and Urban Biotic Assessment Program are teaming up to detect imperiled fish via their eDNA.

Glacial lake fishes

Glacial lakes—depressions in an outwash plain formed by retreating glaciers—are only known from the northeastern portion of Illinois and contain a unique fish fauna that includes several state listed species. INHS Urban Biotic Assessment Program scientists are using eDNA to document the presence of six of these imperiled fishes, including the pugnose shiner (Notropis anogenus), blackchin shiner (Notropis heterodon), blacknose shiner (Notropis heterolepis), western banded killifish (Fundulus diaphanus menona), starhead topminnow (Fundulus dispar), and Iowa darter (Etheostoma exile).

American brook lamprey

The American brook lamprey is a state threatened species found in large, clear creeks in northeastern Illinois. Its free-swimming adult stage is short—it spawns and dies shortly thereafter—while its larval stage can last more than five years, during which time the larva burrows in sandy, silty substrate with only its head exposed. The American brook lamprey’s cryptic life history makes it difficult to detect with traditional survey methods. For this reason, INHS focused early eDNA projects on developing a primer to detect this listed species. Now it can be more easily surveyed for by collecting water samples from suitable habitat and analyzing them for shed DNA.

Ecological studies

Eastern sand darter and river red horse

INHS Stream Ecology Lab scientists are evaluating the distribution, abundance, and habitat preferences of two Illinois state threatened fish species—the Eastern sand darter in the Embarras River and the river redhorse in the Kankakee River. The research team aims to develop habitat suitability models for both species, which will support the Illinois Department of Natural Resources in making conservation decisions for these imperiled fishes.

Bigeye chub

INHS scientist Jeremy Tiemann and his colleagues are investigating when and where the state threatened bigeye chub spawns to support its continued recovery in Illinois. Thought extirpated in the 1960s, the species was rediscovered in Illinois in the 1990s and is now found throughout the Vermilion River basin and in several small creeks connected to the Wabash River. However, virtually nothing is known about its reproductive behaviors—information needed to inform future conservation and management actions.


Of Illinois’ eight threatened and endangered mammal species, six are bats.

Bats face a myriad of challenges in Illinois, such as white-nose syndrome and habitat loss. Consequently, some bat populations in the state have declined drastically in the last decade, making conservation and management efforts essential. INHS mammalogists collect the data needed to inform these efforts by conducting statewide bat monitoring. Survey methods include capturing, identifying, and banding individuals and collecting acoustic recordings of high-frequency bat calls.

Large-scale bat surveys

The Illinois Bat Conservation Program, led by INHS, conducts research and statewide monitoring of Illinois’ 13 bat species. Annual surveys establish bat species distribution and long-term population trends.

Transportation infrastructure support

INHS Biological Survey and Assessment Program (BSAP) and Urban Biotic Assessment Program (UBAP) mammalogists help the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) and Illinois State Toll Highway System (Tollway), respectively, comply with the Endangered Species Act by surveying for bats within their infrastructure corridors. These efforts assist with initiatives to monitor and conserve declining bat populations in the region.

For instance, BSAP mammalogists travel the state searching for signs of bats in, under, and around bridges and culverts—structures that bats can use as roosts. These surveys help IDOT staff avoid harming bat populations while repairing, cleaning, or demolishing bridges and culverts.

Likewise, UBAP scientists have surveyed over 50 overpasses for bat activity in Illinois and deployed over 60 acoustic monitoring stations to assess impacts to bat populations within the Tollway network.

Bat genomics and genetic studies

Scientists in the INHS Collaborative Ecological Genetics Lab partner with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct bat population genomics assessments of endangered Indiana bats using tissue samples. If bats residing in a structure are genetically diverse, conservation protection plans for these mammals will be significantly different than for less diverse populations. Conservation genomics is an approach allowing researchers to learn more about bat populations after just a few nights of data collection compared with traditional studies that can require years of observation.


Crayfishes are a critically important link in energy flow in aquatic ecosystems, as they eat algae and other plant matter and convert it into animal tissue. More than half of the United States’ 410+ species and subspecies need conservation attention, however, and very few of these are protected by law.

INHS scientists use traditional survey methods (kick-seining) and newer techniques like environmental DNA (eDNA) to assess the distribution and status of North American crayfishes, including threatened and endangered species. They also use molecular and morphological techniques to explore crayfish systematics and ecology and to discover and describe new crayfish species.

INHS data informs conservation and management strategies for these vital organisms and the specialized habitats they depend on.

Read more about INHS research on crustaceans.


Over 1 million insect species have been described worldwide and many others have yet to be discovered and named. Some of these species are vital to our wellbeing, serving as pollinators, recyclers of nutrients, and sources of food for other animals and even some plants. 

Unfortunately, dramatic declines have been detected for some insect groups, often due to habitat degradation, fragmentation, and loss from agriculture and urbanization; invasive species; and climate change. Further, despite their diversity, importance, and marked decline, insects are under-represented on threatened and endangered species lists and are generally not the main focus of conservation programs. 

To better incorporate insects into conservation and management efforts, federal and state agencies require up-to-date information on insect distributions, conservation status, and life history—information that is currently scarce for many insect groups. INHS scientists travel across Illinois and beyond collecting these needed data on insects. For instance, they survey insect populations and communities; conduct ecological studies; and study species’ habitat needs.

Environmental DNA surveys

INHS scientists use conventional methods to survey and study insect species, but also investigate novel techniques like detecting species via their environmental DNA (eDNA).

Currently, INHS Collaborative Ecological Genetics Lab and Plant Ecology Lab scientists are examining the feasibility of using pollinator eDNA left behind on plants to document entire pollinator communities. To do so, they are collecting samples containing eDNA from plants, extracting the DNA and amplifying it, and using very general primers to categorize broad spectrums of DNA using metabarcodes—DNA/RNA barcoded so that many taxa can be identified simultaneously from a single sample.

Aquatic macroinvertebrates

Aquatic macroinvertebrates are important food sources and mediators of energy flow and nutrient cycling in stream environments, but unfortunately some species are in need of conservation attention.

INHS scientists conduct general, large-scale aquatic macroinvertebrate surveys and also collect detailed information on the distribution, conservation status, and habitat needs of imperiled macroinvertebrate species.

Stoneflies, mayflies, and caddisflies

INHS scientist Ed DeWalt specializes in the study of stoneflies, mayflies, and caddisflies—three orders of aquatic insects that are commonly used as indicators of water quality. DeWalt is using a combination of specimen records and contemporary sampling to reconstruct the pre-European settlement ranges of Midwestern stonefly species, studying the conservation status of state Watchlisted aquatic insects and examining the role that human disturbance and natural factors have played in Illinois’ declining stonefly populations. Recent work by students documented the conservation status of stoneflies in Indiana.

Odonates (dragonflies and damselflies)

Odonates are prized as good indicators of water quality and as voracious predators that consume lots of mosquitos and other pests. These useful insects are focal species within the Wetlands Campaign of the Illinois Wildlife Action Plan.

INHS Urban Biotic Assessment Program (UBAP) scientists are surveying and studying the habitat preferences of two listed dragonfly species within the greater Illinois Tollway region.

  • Illinois state-threatened Elfin Skimmer: UBAP scientists are visiting calcareous fens within the Tollway corridor, re-surveying historical locations where the Elfin Skimmer has been documented along with nearby suitable habitat to determine the species’ current distribution. They are also testing the feasibility of environmental DNA (eDNA) to determine the presence of this diminutive, cryptic species due to the difficulty in detecting it using traditional visual surveys.
  • Federally endangered Hine’s Emerald Dragonfly: UBAP researchers are developing a species distribution model for the Hine’s emerald dragonfly using characteristics (e.g., soils, climate, geology) of its known localities to predict new sites or habitats where it could be found. They are also building a detection model summarizing the effort and ideal environmental conditions biologists and land managers require to confidently determine whether or not the Hine’s emerald dragonfly is present at a site.

INHS Odonata specialist Jason Bried also is doing targeted surveys for other odonates of state and regional conservation concern and is helping with odonate status assessments and expanding the statewide volunteer network for monitoring odonates.


Bumble bees are important pollinators, but their numbers are declining due to habitat loss, diseases, pesticides, and other factors. INHS researchers travel to sites around Illinois surveying native bumble bees, with a focus on species in greatest conservation need. By studying the insects’ behavior and habitats, the scientists hope to determine ways to stop population declines and inform management efforts.

Urban Biotic Assessment Program scientists have been surveying for the federally endangered rusty patched bumble bee at sites near and within the Illinois Tollway corridor. Once active in Illinois, this rare bumble bee is now on the brink of extinction. The team’s work helps to ensure that the Tollway can make decisions about the location and timing of construction and maintenance projects to avoid negatively impacting it.

Butterflies & moths

Monarch butterfly

Conservation efforts for monarch butterflies have encouraged the widespread planting of milkweeds—monarch caterpillars’ sole food source—but it’s unclear how the landscape influences the success of such plantings. INHS scientist David Zaya is leading a community science project examining how monarch butterfly egg laying and caterpillar growth respond to different garden and landscape variables through the University of Illinois’ I-Pollinate program. Data from the project will help us better understand and use gardens to contribute to the conservation and resurgence of monarchs and other pollinators.

Zaya is also examining how site management and plant abundance, diversity, and density influence monarch oviposition on milkweeds in Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Reserve Program properties. His work will provide practitioners with information on which sites contribute the most to monarch conservation and which of their management and milkweed planting strategies are the most effective.

Rattlesnake-master stem borer moth

INHS researchers are assessing populations and examining the genetic diversity and structure of the rattlesnake-master stem borer moth, a state endangered species threatened by habitat loss, pesticide use, and habitat fragmentation. This species’ larvae bore exclusively into the stems and roots of the native prairie plant rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccafolium), where they pupate.

Leafhoppers and treehoppers

The Dietrich Leafhopper Lab, led by Illinois State Entomologist Christopher Dietrich, focuses on documenting global diversity of leafhoppers and related insects, reconstructing their evolutionary relationships, providing user-friendly tools for species identification, assessing the conservation status of insects in threatened ecosystems, and documenting associations between leafhoppers and plant pathogens of potential agricultural importance.


Freshwater mussels may be the most endangered group of animals in North America. Of the approximately 300 species of freshwater mussels found in North America, 70 percent are endangered, threatened, or in need of conservation. In Illinois, 21 mussel species are listed as endangered and three as threatened. 

INHS malacologists support efforts to conserve these imperiled species by surveying mussels using traditional and environmental DNA (eDNA) methods, conducting applied research, and assisting with mussel translocation projects.

Large-scale surveys

With the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, INHS scientists have collected baseline mussel community data for each Illinois watershed at long-term monitoring sites. These data are a springboard for additional research, including:

  • updates to the status of freshwater mollusks in Illinois, which guides endangered species listings and additions to the Streams Campaign of the Wildlife Action Plan;
  • modeling the current and historical distribution of mussels in Illinois, which provides context for where species lived before European settlement and how their distributions have changed; and
  • developing restoration criteria for rare mussels in Illinois, which is creating a decision network for optimal management strategies.

INHS Biological Survey and Assessment Program and Urban Biotic Assessment Program scientists help the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) and Illinois State Toll Highway System (Tollway) comply with the Endangered Species Act by surveying rivers in IDOT and Tollway infrastructure corridors for imperiled freshwater mollusks.

Environmental DNA surveys

The state endangered salamander mussel has been recorded sporadically throughout the state, with recent dead shell records collected in Vermilion County; however, it has not been collected alive in Illinois in decades and its distribution in the state remains poorly defined. Unfortunately, the salamander mussel and its host, the common mudpuppy, are difficult to detect during conventional timed-search surveys because of their rarity, small size, and association with large slab or flat rocks.

INHS Urban Biotic Assessment Program scientists are assessing whether the salamander mussel and mudpuppy could be more easily detected via their eDNA. The research team’s preliminary results are promising, as they have detected both species’ DNA within water samples from known salamander mussel sites. The scientists plan to expand on their pilot effort by conducting eDNA surveys for the salamander mussel and mudpuppy in the Vermilion River basin (Wabash River drainage) in Illinois, and—together with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources—the salamander mussel in Minnesota and the Mississippi River.

Recovery action

Since 2005, INHS scientists have translocated thousands of federally-endangered Northern Riffleshell (Epioblasma rangiana) and Clubshell (Pleurobema clava) into their historic ranges in Illinois as part of the federal recovery plan. They are monitoring the mussels’ survival and hope to witness recruitment in the wild. Partners include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state agencies in Pennsylvania and Ohio.


INHS botanists assess the conservation status and vulnerabilities of rare and imperiled plant species in Illinois and across the United States. They also conduct large-scale surveys and species-specific studies, collecting the distribution, demographic, life history, and threat information needed to develop effective conservation and management strategies for rare plants.

Conservation status and vulnerability

More than 300 plant species are listed as threatened and endangered in Illinois and many others are increasingly vulnerable due to habitat degradation, loss, and fragmentation, invasive species, poaching/overexploitation, pollution, and climate change.

An INHS research team recently evaluated the climate change vulnerability for 331 of Illinois’ threatened and endangered plant species. Findings showed that 88 percent of threatened and endangered plants are vulnerable to climate change, and 6 percent are extremely vulnerable. Habitat loss, barriers from land use change, seed dispersal ability, and sensitivity to changing temperatures and precipitation are the leading factors.

Currently, INHS botanists are using NatureServe methodology to update the state conservation statuses (S-Ranks) of Illinois’ threatened and endangered plants and a selected number of non-listed plant species of highest conservation concern. They plan to compile a matrix of threats for these species and generate an ArcGIS map with accompanying geodatabase that shows imperiled plant hotspots to assist in prioritization of land acquisition, protection, and stewardship. These data and tools will assist the Illinois Department of Natural Resources in their efforts to conserve and protect Illinois flora.

Large-scale surveys

INHS botanists work with federal, state, and local agencies to document the whereabouts of imperiled plant species through large-scale surveys.

For instance, INHS Biological Survey and Assessment Program scientists conduct botanical surveys within Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) roadway corridors to confirm the presence or absence of threatened and endangered plant species. These data enable IDOT to avoid and/or mitigate impacts to rare plant populations, and inform rare plant conservation efforts by partnering agencies.

Recently, INHS botanists worked with the Lake County Forest Preserve District to inventory the vegetation in ravines along the Lake Michigan North Shore in Lake County and northern Cook County—delicate ecosystems that help manage water runoff and provide habitat for many rare plant and animal species. The team searched for and documented threatened and endangered plant species and other plants of concern throughout the project area. These baseline vegetation and imperiled plant location data will help scientists, Plants of Concern program researchers and volunteers, and land managers understand how development impacts the ravines’ plant communities, prioritize management in high-quality communities, and inform restoration efforts in degraded areas.

Ecological studies

INHS botanists collect detailed data on focal plant species to aid in conservation efforts.

For example, the INHS Plant Ecology Lab led by Brenda Molano-Flores works on a range of rare plant projects, from demographic studies and habitat-suitability modeling, to examining plant reproductive ecology, pollinator communities, and population genetic structure.


Endemic to the Midwest, kittentails (Synthris bullii) is a rare prairie species that is listed as state threatened in Illinois. INHS Plant Ecology Lab scientists have collected extensive data for this imperiled plant at populations across its range. These data include plant abundance and density, reproductive output, pre-dispersal seed predators, and seed germination. They have also examined the species’ pollination biology and the impact of habitat degradation like woody encroachment on kittentails’ reproductive ecology. Recently, lab members assessed the species’ seed viability after prolonged seed storage and found that they were still viable, suggesting that seed harvesting and storage could aid in the recovery of this species.

Sangamon phlox

The Illinois state endangered Sangamon phlox (Phlox pilosa subsp. sangamonensis) is only found in two Illinois counties (Champaign and Piatt) where it is endemic to the Sanagamon River basin. INHS botanist David Zaya and his colleagues are examining how population size impacts the species’ reproduction success and are conducting genetic studies to look for evidence of inbreeding within populations and/or hybridization with a related species, woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata).

Pima pineapple cactus

The federally endangered Pima pineapple cactus (Coryphantha scheeri var. robustispina) grows in the semi-desert grassland and Sonoran desert-scrub of southern Arizona and northern Mexico. To help inform conservation measures for this rare cactus, INHS botanists Brenda Molano-Flores and David Zaya re-surveyed populations at six sites in Altar Valley, Arizona, where long-term monitoring had previously occurred and used population viability analyses (PVA) to estimate extinction probabilities for those populations. They found the cactus persisting at five of six sites, but overall population sizes were decreasing. Further, the PVA predicts that five sites will lose more than half their individuals within 50 years.

Kaibab bladderpod

Endemic to the Kaibab Plateau of Arizona, the Kaibab bladderpod (Physaria kaibabensis) is being evaluated for federal listing due to its limited range; however, information on the species’ ecology is very limited. INHS Plant Ecology Lab scientists have studied six Kaibab bladderpod sites, collecting much-needed data on plant density, habitat characteristics and disturbances, flower visitors, pollination biology, pollen grain morphology, reproductive output, pre-dispersal seed predators, and seed germination. They are also conducting genetic analyses to compare the Kaibab bladderpod’s diversity to closely related species in the same region, and to check for signs of reduced genetic diversity and hybridization. These data will inform conservation and management efforts as well as any future federal listing decisions for this rare plant.

Tobusch fishhook cactus

The federally-threatened Tobusch fishhook cactus (Sclerocactus brevihamatus ssp. tobuschii) is endemic to limestone outcrops of the Edwards Plateau in Texas. INHS botanists David Zaya and Brenda Molano-Flores are analyzing a decades-long demographic data set on this rare species to examine population trends over time and assess how its populations have been impacted by fire and climate change. They will also provide recommendations on how future monitoring could be conducted to support successful conservation and management actions for the species.

White birds-in-a-nest

Restricted to the longleaf pine ecosystem of the Florida panhandle, white birds-in-a-nest (Macbridea alba) is listed as federally threatened and Florida state endangered. INHS botanists with the Plant Ecology Lab conducted habitat suitability and projection modeling for this rare mint. They also documented the species’ habitat associations and used population surveys and germination studies to understand its reproductive ecology.

Butterwort species

INHS Plant Ecology Lab scientists traveled to the Florida Panhandle over multiple years to study the federally threatened and Florida state endangered Panhandle butterwort (P. ionantha) and the Florida state threatened yellow-flowered butterwort (P. lutea) and swamp butterwort (P. planifolia). They aim to inform conservation strategies for these three imperiled predatory plants with data they collected on:

  • population size and genetic diversity/structure;
  • pollinator visitation and community structure; 
  • the effect of habitat structure on plant reproduction and prey capture;
  • breeding system dynamics; and
  • seed germination, seedling survivorship, and seed banks.