Illinois Natural History Survey News

Illinois Natural History Survey News

  • 4/26/2017
  • 4/26/2017
  • 4/24/2017Lisa Sheppard writer Lisa Sheppard by Lisa Sheppard published by Lisa Sheppard

    CHAMPAIGN, Ill., 4/13/17: A University of Illinois researcher has created a new method to study potential climate change in protected areas.

    Scientists use a species distribution model and data on where flora and fauna occur to manage conservation areas. However, these methods can be incomplete because it may be difficult to determine where species live or what type of habitats they prefer, according to Jason Robinson, aquatic entomologist at the Prairie Research Institute’s Illinois Natural History Survey.

    “We don’t always know where all species in a given habitat are located, but we do know where the national parks are,” Robinson said. “Scientists can consider a park environment as an entire protected habitat rather than using individual species to filter predictions of the future composition of ecological communities.”

    Robinson studied 163 noncoastal national parks in 48 states, hypothesizing that each park has at least one plant or animal that is unique to that park, a realistic assumption for at least some of the parks. This method eliminates uncertainty about exact locations of the species and offers a useful way to look at the unique climatic regions of the landscape in each park.

    Robinson also investigated areas surrounding national parks, studying particular climate features that predict future changes. He found that potential shifts in climate may vary among parks. Some were predicted to have very different temperature and precipitation levels in the future, while others were expected to have few or smaller changes, a function of the parks’ geographic positions.

    Overall, the different climates currently occurring within the entire park network may become more similar in the future and potentially affect species that live in those protected areas. Some plants and animals may be highly adapted to certain climate patterns, for example, the timing of seasonal precipitation events or the severity of cold or hot spells. A patchwork of variability across a network of protected areas could offer opportunities for small populations to persist or provide refuges from superior competitors.

    An altered climate creates both challenges and opportunities to improve management of protected areas with available resources.

    “Park managers can’t protect everything,” Robinson said. “We hope that these methods will be a useful tool for guiding management in the face of an uncertain and changing climate.”

    This study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.



    Media contacts: Jason Robinson, 217-300-3556,

    Tricia Barker, Associate Director for Strategic Communications, 217-300-2327,

  • 4/18/2017U of I News Bureau writer U of I News Bureau by U of I News Bureau published by U of I News Bureau

    INHS Conservation Biologist Mark Davis describes his journey along Snake Road in the Shawnee National Forest in search of snakes, frogs, salamanders, and other creatures in the wild.

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  • 4/18/2017Lisa Sheppard writer Lisa Sheppard by Lisa Sheppard published by Lisa Sheppard

    CHAMPAIGN, Ill., 4/18/17: Fewer migratory Swainson’s Warblers return to breed after high flood waters alter the quality of their wetland forest habitat, according to new University of Illinois research published in the journal PLOS ONE.

    Bryan Reiley, a graduate research assistant at the Illinois Natural History Survey, studied the body condition and number of male warblers returning to two sites in southeast Arkansas during four breeding seasons. He investigated the warblers before the 2008 catastrophic flooding of the Mississippi River and three years after the flood.

    Swainson’s Warblers (Limnothlypis swainsonii) are rare, occurring in the Caribbean basin during the winter months and primarily in the southeastern United States from April through August. They also reach southern Illinois and the Appalachian Mountains. This species typically lives in canebrakes adjacent to rivers in floodplain forests.

    From 2005 to 2010, Reiley studied 278 males. He anticipated that their body condition would decrease in the years after the 2008 flood because warblers forage for insects under fallen leaves and debris. He also assumed that fewer birds would return to the previously flooded site in subsequent years.

    He found that the condition of males was actually better in the years after the flood, perhaps because the La Niña climate pattern created favorable conditions at the birds’ wintering grounds.

    Flooding did affect the number of males returning to the study site, however. Before the flood, 20 to 31 males returned to breed each spring, whereas in 2008, 18 males returned. The following year, Reiley counted only 7 birds, and in a follow-up observation in 2014, only 2 warblers were observed at the site.

    For birds that attempted to breed in these habitats in the years following the flood, reduced leaf litter and shrub cover might have resulted in reduced habitat quality and decreased nesting success, leading to a significant drop in the number of birds occupying the area in the second and third years post-flood.

    “Habitats are never static,” Reiley said. “Swainson’s Warblers may reside in upland habitats following a significant flood. I’ve seen them feeding in the trees when they would normally forage on the ground. They can be flexible when their habitat is continually changing.”

    To keep Swainson’s Warblers in a forest environment after a flood, increased forest management may be necessary, Reiley said. Flooding is not a unique condition, but the increased frequency and duration of flooding that may result from a changing climate can be stressful for birds.

    “If the habitat changes too much, Swainson’s Warblers will not use it, and they may never return to that area,” Reiley said.

    The study was funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Reiley is a PhD candidate in the Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Sciences, and his advisor is Thomas Benson, a wildlife ecologist in the Prairie Research Institute’s Illinois Natural History Survey. The article can be found at


    Media contacts: Bryan Reiley,

    Tricia Barker, Associate Director for Strategic Communications, 217-300-2327,

  • 4/14/2017
    Illinois Natural History Survey scientist Kevin P. Johnson and former INHS post-doc Bret Boyd participated in a study that sought to better understand the evolutionary history of bacteria residing within lice.
  • 4/12/2017U of I News Bureau writer U of I News Bureau by U of I News Bureau published by U of I News Bureau

    Researchers in the Illinois Natural History Survey are investigating every aspect of snake fungal disease, hoping to find a treatment.

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  • 4/3/2017Lisa Sheppard writer Lisa Sheppard by Lisa Sheppard published by Lisa Sheppard

    A staff member at the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) recently learned of her family connection to a renowned amateur entomologist whose butterfly and beetle collection makes up a significant part of the 7.3 million specimen insect collection at INHS.

  • 3/29/2017College of ACES writer College of ACES by College of ACES published by College of ACES

    In recognition of James Karr's contributions to aquatic biology and environmental management, a new James R. Karr Lecture in Aquatic Biology will kick off on Friday, April 14 with an inaugural address from its namesake.

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  • 3/22/2017Andrew Casper writer Andrew Casper by Andrew Casper published by Andrew Casper

    INHS scientists examined five long-term fish monitoring programs in large rivers in the U.S. They outline best practices in Fisheries Magazine.

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  • 3/20/2017Lisa Sheppard writer Lisa Sheppard by Lisa Sheppard published by Lisa Sheppard

    Populations of the common carp, introduced from Eurasia and historically the most abundant fish species in parts of the Illinois River, declined from the 1970s to the 1990s and have never made a comeback. A recent University of Illinois study showed that natural factors, including disease, can more effectively curb invasive species populations than human management efforts.

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  • 3/15/2017Diana Yates, University of Illinois News Bureau writer Diana Yates, University of Illinois News Bureau by Diana Yates, University of Illinois News Bureau published by Diana Yates, University of Illinois News Bureau

    Steep declines in the number of monarch butterflies reaching their wintering grounds in Mexico are not fully explained by fewer milkweeds in the northern part of their range, researchers report in a new study.

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  • 3/6/2017Diana Yates, News Bureau writer Diana Yates, News Bureau by Diana Yates, News Bureau published by Diana Yates, News Bureau

    Researchers at the Illinois Natural History Survey report that the greater prairie chicken cannot persist in Illinois without help.

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  • 3/3/2017Southern Illinois University Edwardsville writer Southern Illinois University Edwardsville by Southern Illinois University Edwardsville published by Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

    The Illinois Natural History Survey will partner with Southern Illinois University Edwardsville on a three-year grant providing immersive research experiences to undergraduates in the areas of archaeology and ecology. Research opportunities will begin this summer.

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  • 3/3/2017Brad Zercher writer Brad Zercher by Brad Zercher published by Brad Zercher

    Each year an incredible 10 percent of birds, or 1 billion birds, die in North America from flying into building windows. Windows that mirror the image of the surrounding landscape entice birds to continue on their flight path until they strike the glass, according to Brad Zercher, wetland field biologist at the Prairie Research Institute’s Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS).

    Research has shown that most birds that hit a window will die from their injuries. Some will die almost instantly, while others seem to recover from the strike only to expire later.

    After years of collecting dead birds at the Forbes Building located in Research Park, some of the INHS staff decided to find a solution to modify the large windows that were causing so many avian deaths. Several options were available that disrupt, hide, and reduce external window reflections, including patterned glass, screens, shades, window films, and coated glass (Ornilux glass uses a UV coating visible to birds). 

    After consulting with the University of Illinois’ Architectural Review Committee (ARC), staff chose an Acopian Bird Saver for the south windows and a lined window film for the north windows where most of the bird casualties occurred. The Acopian Bird Saver is a simple window treatment constructed from strips of parachute cord. Both options provide a visible image so that birds can adjust their flight path away from the windows.

    With the help of ARC and the Facilities and Services Department, both window treatments were recently installed just in time for the spring migration.

    “We are excited and anxious to see the results,” Zercher said. “Hopefully we won’t find any dead birds this year and our efforts will feel validated.

    Now that staff have addressed their own building, they plan to create more awareness of bird strikes across campus.

    Many college campuses have already incorporated modified glass in some of their newer buildings. Cornell, University of California-Santa Barbara, Vassar, Smith, and Augustana College, to name a few, have all incorporated sustainable architecture to minimize bird strikes.  As for existing buildings, window treatments can still be installed to deflect birds. 

    Zercher encourages others who are concerned about bird strikes on campus to contact him at

  • 3/2/2017College of Veterinary Medicine writer College of Veterinary Medicine by College of Veterinary Medicine published by College of Veterinary Medicine

    INHS Scientists Nohra Mateus-Pinilla and Richard Lampman will partner with the College of Veterinary Medicine to conduct research for the new Upper Midwestern Center for Excellence in Vector Borne Diseases, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The center is headquartered at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

    The Illinois team will develop forecasting models and statistical spatial risk maps of regionally important mosquitoes and ticks and the diseases that they cause. Using optimization algorithms, historical data on field trapping of mosquitoes and ticks, and other ecological methods, the Illinois team will also help determine the level of surveillance data required to make effective control decisions.

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  • 3/1/2017Lisa Sheppard writer Lisa Sheppard by Lisa Sheppard published by Lisa Sheppard

    CHAMPAIGN, Ill. –Songbird species that carry the ticks responsible for Lyme disease and other diseases forage close to the ground in large wooded areas, according to a recently published study by Christine Parker, a graduate research assistant at the University of Illinois’ Prairie Research Institute, Illinois Natural History Survey.

    Researchers studied songbirds and their foraging habitats to determine which environmental factors affect bird-tick encounters and the dispersal of ticks in Illinois. Birds are known to move ticks long distances and play a role in spreading the black-legged tick (Ixodes scapularis), a primary vector of Lyme disease.

    Along with her colleagues, Parker (who conducted this study for her master’s research in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois) set up mist nets in 22 forested areas in Champaign, McLean, Piatt, Putnam, and Vermilion Counties. They trapped birds twice in fall and again in spring over three years.

    Researchers examined the birds’ heads and necks where ticks are most likely to be found because birds are unable to effectively groom these areas. During the study, the scientists captured and released 1,077 birds of 83 species.

    Of the species studied, 42 percent were infested with at least one tick. Nearly 370 ticks were found on 136 (13 percent) of the birds captured.

    “These numbers are fairly typical of what we would expect to see on birds in forested areas in central Illinois,” Parker said. “None of the birds had a large infestation.”

    Birds with the largest number of ticks included the white-throated sparrow, Northern cardinal, and gray catbird. About 20 percent of ticks found were the black-legged tick.

    The most important factor influencing bird infestation by ticks was the height above the forest floor at which birds forage, Parker said. Birds that forage closest to the ground were most likely to have ticks, since ticks live on the ground and in low vegetation, surviving on moisture from the underbrush.

    The researchers expected higher infestation rates in patches where invasive shrub cover was relatively high. Invasive species such as honeysuckle and multiflora rose form a dense understory with abundant fruit and cover for wildlife, and also suitable conditions for the black-legged and other tick species. Instead, the researchers found that as the vegetation cover increased, tick infestation among captured birds declined. Parker suggested that the fruit grows across the crown of these shrubs, which may reduce tick-bird interactions if ticks are searching for hosts at lower levels below shrub crowns.

    Tick infestations were also more prevalent among birds captured in large forest plots compared with smaller plots, likely because tick populations tend to flourish where there are abundant deer and other large animals available for blood meals.

    “It is important for people to be aware that migratory birds move ticks, and thereby pathogens, into areas where ticks were previously not established,” Parker said. “Just because Lyme disease isn’t a problem in one area doesn’t mean that disease-carrying ticks won’t inhabit that area in the future.”

    The study was published in the Journal of Medical Entomology.

    Media contact: Christine Parker,;

    Tricia Barker, Associate Director for Strategic Communications, 217-300-2327,

  • 2/23/2017Lisa Sheppard writer Lisa Sheppard by Lisa Sheppard published by Lisa Sheppard

    CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – When waterfowl return to Illinois in early spring on their way north, will they find enough food for a two-week layover? A limited food supply during spring migration and subsequent declines in duck populations can affect Illinois’ multi-million-dollar waterfowl hunting industry, say researchers from the University of Illinois’ Prairie Research Institute (PRI).

    More than 1 million ducks stop each spring in the backwater lakes and shallow wetlands of the Illinois River, dining on annual grass seeds, underwater vegetation, and waste grain in crop fields.

    Spring is important for duck populations because it precedes the breeding season. Healthy ducks in good condition typically have more ducklings with higher survival rates. Thus, more food in the spring can help ensure more abundant duck populations in the fall.

    In 2010 and 2011, researchers studied ducks’ eating habits by identifying the amount of seed left over in artificial foraging patches and using computer models to consider various factors, such as predator risks, seed depth in sediment, and seed size.

    “We want to know how many acres of wetlands to protect and restore for waterfowl populations for spring and fall flights,” said Heath Hagy, director of the Forbes Biological Station at the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS), a division of PRI. “To do this, we use energetic carrying capacity models. One aspect of this model is the giving-up density, or the point at which ducks stop foraging and move on to another patch.”

    Hagy likened this term to a serving pan of cold, soggy macaroni and cheese that is left at the buffet after diners have filled their plates and their stomachs. If this unpalatable food is not discounted, there is a tendency to overestimate the amount of food that is available.

    Hagy and colleagues buried 34 round dog food bowls filled with rice and millet seeds underwater in locations throughout the central Illinois River Valley, and they later sorted seeds to figure out how much food the ducks left behind. They also tested effects of habitat characteristics on food use. For example, they erected a barrier to block the ducks’ surrounding view of the area, increasing the ducks’ perceived risk from predators.

    “There was a small effect of predation risk on movement away from the feeding patch when food was plentiful, but it is perhaps more interesting that there was no effect of predation risk when food was limited.” Hagy said.

    During the year with abundant rain, food was plentiful, and ducks could be picky about the food they chose. During the drier year, however, more food was consumed per plot because ducks had fewer dining choices.

    Studies of this kind help land managers predict how many acres of wetlands are needed to sustain duck populations. A healthy population is important for the recreational waterfowl hunting industry, which provides $453 to the Illinois economy for each bird harvested, according to an INHS survey.

    This study has been published in the Journal of Avian Biology, and was funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

    Media contacts: Heath Hagy, 217-300-5620,

    Tricia Barker, Associate Director for Strategic Communications, 217-300-2327,

  • 2/21/2017Scientific American : Hannah Nordhaus writer Scientific American : Hannah Nordhaus by Scientific American : Hannah Nordhaus published by Scientific American : Hannah Nordhaus

    There is, despite the name, nothing urban about Piper City, Ill. It is a farm town with a skyline of grain elevators, a tidy grid of pitch-roofed houses and, a few blocks beyond, endless fields: corn, soybean, corn, soybean, corn, corn, corn, perfectly level, perfectly square, no trees, no cows, no hedgerows, no bare land. In late August of 2013, a man named Joseph Spencer followed a corn-flanked county road northwest from Piper City until his GPS advised him to leave the road altogether and turn onto a gravel track. Spencer, an entomologist who studies farm insects, was looking for a farmer named Scott Wyllie...

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  • 2/10/2017Lisa Sheppard writer Lisa Sheppard by Lisa Sheppard published by Lisa Sheppard

    Applications will be accepted for the 2017 William H. Luckmann Award for Student Research in Applied Entomology until 5 p.m. on Friday, March 31.

    The 2017 award will provide $1,000 for travel, lodging, and related expenses for presenting research results at the Entomological Society of America (ESA) Annual Meeting, or a meeting of another appropriate professional society within the 12 calendar months following the award.

    Current graduate and undergraduate students at the University of Illinois are eligible to compete for this award. Research may be carried out in any University department and may be basic and/or applied, but should have some focus on aspects of applied entomology, such as arthropod pest management, use of insects in biological control programs, pollinators, or health of natural areas. The research may be carried out for agricultural, horticultural, urban, or medical or natural areas systems.

    Previous award winners are not eligible to apply. The award announcement will be made by Friday, April 14, 2017.

    To apply, complete a brief written summary of your research goals, methods, and results. Download application here. Supply the completed application as one document submitted electronically to
    Dr. William H. Luckmann served as a researcher and administrator for applied entomological programs at the Illinois Natural History Survey from 1949 through 1984. His work contributed greatly to advances in integrated pest management in field and vegetable crops. Upon his retirement, an endowment was established to foster and reward research in applied entomology.

    Questions can be directed to Dr. Joseph Spencer at

  • 2/10/2017Lisa Sheppard writer Lisa Sheppard by Lisa Sheppard published by Lisa Sheppard

    CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Relocating freshwater mussels from the path of a bridge construction site to a safer zone upstream is proving to be a time- and cost-effective conservation practice. Mussel survival rate after relocation is high, according to new research from the University of Illinois’ Prairie Research Institute (PRI).

    Temporary dams erected for bridge construction alter silt and water levels in the river, and mussels are crushed from large equipment. Both common and endangered mussel species are at risk.

    Historically, about 80 freshwater mussel species inhabited Illinois streams. Only about 55 species remain today. Populations have declined largely because humans have changed river habitats.

    While relocation of mussels over short distances is preferred to minimize damage to mussel communities, its effectiveness in terms of recovery and survival is not well known.

    In a three-year study, aquatic ecologist Jeremy Tiemann and colleagues at the Illinois Natural History Survey, a division of PRI, relocated 100 mussels upriver during a reconstruction project on the Interstate 90 bridge over the Kishwaukee River in northern Illinois.

    The team tagged individuals of two common mussel species, the Mucket and Plain Pocketbook, with microchips, and used an underwater radio receiver to locate the mussels without disturbance. Tagged mussels were monitored monthly in the spring and summer months of 2013–2015.

    The team lost the signals of 17 mussels, which may have moved or been swept out of the study area. Overall, the survival rate was high, with most deaths occurring during the first two months after relocation, Tiemann said.

    “The mortality we recorded in 2013 may have resulted from stress following the recent drought when the river started to return to its normal levels, as well as relocation to an unfamiliar habitat,” he said.    

    The researchers used a statistical model to predict survival rates, which indicated that 93 percent of the relocated Mucket species and 71 percent of the Plain Pocketbooks remained alive three years after relocation.

    “Our data suggest that short-distance relocation is a viable tool for mussel conservation,” Tiemann said.

    Mussels can live more than 50 years and play a vital role in improving river conditions.

    “We call them livers of the rivers because they purify water, removing bacteria, particles, and pollutants,” Tiemann said. “Their filtering capacity can be compared to a water treatment plant, because a single mussel can filter 8 or more gallons of water a day. They do their part to clean up the environment.”

    Considering that mussels occur in aggregations, the amount of water being filtered increases exponentially. Some sites in the Mississippi River support millions of mussels in a small area.

     This study was funded by the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority and was published in the journal Freshwater Mollusk Biology and Conservation.


    Media contact: Jeremy Tiemann;; 217-244-0802

  • 12/13/2016Lisa Sheppard writer Lisa Sheppard by Lisa Sheppard published by Lisa Sheppard

    CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – The aquatic nymphs of stoneflies are indicators of water and habitat quality and quantity. Loss of this habitat is resulting in rapid decline of many species, which are at serious risk of disappearing from agricultural and urban areas of the Midwest, according to Ed DeWalt, aquatic entomologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey, Prairie Research Institute, University of Illinois.

    DeWalt and colleagues are interested in reconstructing the assemblage of stoneflies living in Ohio before they disappear. They recently discovered 102 stonefly species, the most of any state in the Midwest.

    Six of the Ohio species were reported as extirpated from the state because of poor water quality, including untreated waste, coal mining, agricultural chemicals, and DDT (used in the 1950s). Another 35 species were exceedingly rare; however, two new species were added to the list of Ohio stoneflies as a result of the study. A previous study found one stonefly species new to science, which DeWalt and team are now describing.

    Reconstructing a shrinking fauna is difficult. Many streams no longer hold natural populations of stoneflies, so the research team visited 20 research collections at universities and public and private museums to gather specimens, resulting in nearly 8,000 specimen records.

    "The data set spans the years 1880 to 2016 and is the largest data set of its kind," DeWalt said.

    Today, stonefly communities are most abundant and diverse in the lower Scioto River drainage of central and southern Ohio, especially in the Hocking Hills area. Populations of stoneflies once were much more widely distributed across the state.

    A study of Illinois stoneflies found that 22 of 80 species had been extirpated from the state. Ohio's fauna is in much better shape.

    “Often researchers study species in far-flung places,” DeWalt said. “Although it is important to describe new species from other countries, it is also important to protect the species in our own backyard before we lose them forever.”

    The research data were reported in an open access article that was published in the November 16 issue of Biodiversity Data Journal and may be viewed and downloaded at the following URL:

    Funders of the research include the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, National Science Foundation, the Edge of Appalachia Preserve, and Crane Hollow Nature Preserve.

    Media contact: Ed DeWalt, (217) 649-7414;

  • 11/17/2016Lisa Sheppard writer Lisa Sheppard by Lisa Sheppard published by Lisa Sheppard

    CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Researchers have detected prescription and over-the-counter medications and personal care products in Illinois groundwater, an indication that humans are contaminating water that is vital to aquatic life.

     In a University of Illinois Prairie Research Institute (PRI) study, researchers collected 58 water samples from eight springs and five cave streams in southwestern Illinois in 2014 and 2015. Hormones were detected in only 23 percent of groundwater samples, but medications and personal care products were detected in 89 percent of samples, according to Walt Kelly, head of the Groundwater Science section at the Illinois State Water Survey, PRI.

    The study location was in karst terrain, which is notable for caves, sinkholes, and smaller openings in the land surface through which contaminants can readily enter underground streams and springs. The hilly landscape outside of the St. Louis metropolitan area contains numerous small farms and has become a draw for rural residential development.

    Karst groundwater is different from other types in that water moves more quickly from the surface and is easily contaminated by leaking sewage systems, fertilizers, livestock manure, road salt runoff, and garbage and trash discards in sinkholes.

    “Water lines for drinking water are linked from towns to rural homes, but often there are no city sewer lines servicing rural homes, so private septic systems are installed for each property,” Kelly said. “State regulations require that septic tanks must be inspected at a minimum of every three years to prevent leakage, but that doesn't always happen because inspections are expensive.”

    Most water samples were significantly contaminated by bacteria, particularly from humans, hogs, and cattle. Sewage systems also leak pharmaceuticals and other products. From analyses performed by Wei Zheng and Laurel Dodgen, environmental chemists at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, PRI, the two most common products found in streams and springs were triclocarbans, used in antibiotic soaps and found in 81 percent of samples, and the cardiovascular drug gemfibrozil, found in 57 percent of samples.

    Contaminant levels were well below human dosages, but even low levels may affect aquatic organisms, according to Steve Taylor, conservation biologist in the Illinois Natural History Survey, PRI. Of concern are endangered species living in caves, such as the Indiana bat and the Illinois Cave amphipod.

    Many questions related to groundwater contaminants are still unanswered, including the interaction among the different substances, the actual effects of the contaminants, and whether the contaminants have been a problem for decades since the technology to detect many of these compounds in low levels in the environment has only been available for about 10 years, Kelly said. 

    “The largest concern is the effect of hormones,” Kelly said. “They don’t persist as long as other compounds found in groundwater, but they can cause a lot of damage to fish and possibly other animals.”

    Previous recommendations for disposing of medications were to flush them down the drain or into the sewage system. New recommendations encourage taking unused drugs to collection facilities in communities. See for proper disposal information and locations of take-back programs.

    This study was funded by PRI and the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center, and is published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

    Media contact: Walt Kelly, (217) 333-3729;

  • 11/14/2016Lisa Sheppard writer Lisa Sheppard by Lisa Sheppard published by Lisa Sheppard

    CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Extinct feather lice, invasive fish from the Great Lakes, and rare plants from Pakistan are a few of the millions of species no longer viewed just in dark academic warehouses and museums. Curators at the Prairie Research Institute (PRI) who have helped to preserve these biological specimens are digitizing them for anyone who is interested in science to view them online.

    As part of a 10-year, $100 million National Science Foundation initiative, PRI scientists at the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) have received numerous grants to digitize portions of their 9.5 million specimens in 11 collections on the University of Illinois campus. These collections hold secrets to the past and serve as an enduring reminder of the rich diversity that nature has to offer.


    With over 150,000 specimens, the INHS Mycological Collection of both common and rare fungi dates back to the 1800s. Its heavy emphasis on Illinois specimens makes it a unique assemblage of mildews, bread molds, rusts, mushrooms, and other fungi. The database brings the collection together in one place for scientists to explore different environmental aspects, such as how climate change affects the distribution of native and invasive fungi.

    “Scientists can use the data for climate change modeling, answering questions such as ‘where were they before? and ‘how have their distributions changed over the past 200 years?” said Andrew Miller, lead principal investigator for the microfungi digitization project. A collection can also indicate gaps in our knowledge of biodiversity and provide a baseline from which to continue studies.

    One feature of the data is georeferencing, which means to assign latitude and longitudinal coordinates, to pinpoint the location of a particular species on a map. Labels identifying the species typically indicate a location at a given time.

    Miller also uncovers samples that may have been missing for over 100 years. New “old” collections are added as they are rediscovered in some forgotten collections or when they change hands when professors retire.

    “Some collections have been stuck back in dirty, old, creepy rooms where there is no sunlight,” Miller said. “With digitization, we’re bringing these collections into the light.”


    Fish species from around the world make up the INHS Fish Collection, totaling 900,000 specimens dating back over 135 years. For his project, the goal is to photograph 23,000 specimens, said Curator Chris Taylor.

    One aspect of the project is the collection of invasive species from Midwestern lakes, informing studies about the role of invasive species in the Great Lakes and the damage that fish have caused to the lake environment.

    “The Great Lakes are a poster child for all the bad things that can happen,” Taylor said. “The lakes have a long history of impacts from invasive species.” The zebra mussel, round goby, and other fish that invade lakes degrade habitats and out-compete native species. Invasive species are now available for viewing online and can assist the public in their identification.

    For digitization, a technician removes a sample fish from archival jars, sets it into a glass container with fluid, and uses a high-resolution camera to photograph the sample for posterity. Fish scales are plainly visible. Scientists can note fish sizes and characteristics that make each species unique.

    With so many specimens in the collection, one benefit to the digitization project is to correct human errors related to location and species identification, Taylor said. A fish captured in 1915, for example, may not have been properly identified or may have been identified in a questionable location. With the acquisitions now widely available, experts can study photographs to correct these errors.

    Digitizing the collection increases its exposure and increases peoples’ perceptions of the collection’s value, Taylor said.


    With a dab of archival glue, plant specimens are attached to paper and stored in climate-controlled conditions to minimize insect and mold damage. Three U. of I. collections total 1.1 million specimens of plants that date back to 1808. Over 90,000 plants have been digitized.

    The herbarium collection manager, Jamie Minnaert-Grote, relies on volunteers to help with databasing. Botanists in the field continue to add several thousand specimens to the collection every year.

    In the past, plant samples were loaned to scientists around the world who would snip a piece of leaf or flower for analysis. The data have been used for molecular studies of plant DNA, biography studies on how species have moved from one location to another, and studies on how various plants are related.

    With the digitization project, Minnaert-Grote noted that loans of samples have dropped, as more scientists access the information—and images—online. The database can be useful for students as well.

    “This information, which is so readily available, can open the doors for students interested in plants,” she said. “A lot of people don’t know what a herbarium is. Getting that vocabulary out there so students know what we do is important. This project can make others more aware of the vast biodiversity of plants in Illinois and beyond.”


    In the vast insect collection of 7.3 million specimens located in seven rooms within the INHS, larger insects are stored in vials or pinned in drawers and smaller specimens have been preserved in Canada Balsam (tree sap) on slides. To grasp the vastness of the acquisitions, 100,000 slides of thrips, also called storm flies or corn flies, are filed in a bookcase. The insect collection dates back to the time of Thomas Edison, when electric light was new.

    In the digitization process, part-time employees photograph individual insects and entire drawers for online viewing. For specific collections, drawers full of insects can be rotated online to view the label underneath.

    As species become endangered or decline, such as the 50 percent reduction in some local bee species, the collection becomes a historic snapshot of the bee population in Illinois, revealing the types of bees in various locations across the state and across time, said Chris Grinter, collection manager.

    “Because some species of bumblebee are so rare now, the collection makes up a lot of what’s known about that entire species,” Grinter said.

    The collection of agricultural pests can be particularly important, even for today’s producers. Having a historic window of a particular species informs developments in agricultural production and pest control. Researchers can study changes in insect populations over time to learn how various species have evolved.

    “Value is added to the collection as time goes by,” Grinter said.


    Tiny remnants of the past encased in amber are a glimpse into the world of over 16 to 20 million years ago. Amber is fossilized tree resin, said Sam Heads, INHS paleontologist.

    “When you look up close, you see the microcosm that exists in that piece of amber,” he said.

    The INHS amber collection is one of the largest and most complete collections of Dominican amber in the world, containing ants, bees, spiders, mosquitoes, and countless other species. Approximately 160 pounds of amber was collected in the Dominican Republic by INHS entomologist Dr. Milton Sanderson in 1959.

    The pieces remained in storage until 2011, when processing began. Now, a sophisticated microscope system is used to take high resolution photos for a clear view through the amber to the insects and other fossils within. The images will soon be available to anyone who wants to view them online as part of the NSF-funded Fossil Insect Collaborative project (

    Researchers will use these images and data to study evolution, paleobiodiversity, ancient climate, and environmental changes, and to discover new species.

    But it’s not all about amber. Many other types of fossils are housed in the PRI paleontological collections which contain over 1 million fossils from all over the world ranging in age from the Cambrian Period some 500+ million years ago, to the end of the last ice age, around 11,700 years ago.


    A digitization project has provided detailed photos of 30,000 freshwater mussels from museums around the world. INHS researchers visited 22 museums in places such as London, Paris, Sydney, Australia, and Brussels, using cameras to photograph specimens and georeferencing images to locations where specimens were found.

    Researchers can use this database to find diversity hot spots, or where particular mussel species are most likely to be found.

    “You can now view thousands of museum lots via the web,” said INHS Curator Kevin Cummings. “Digitization enables examining specimens without having to travel. While it’s fun to visit London or Paris, it’s also fun to access the information without having to leave your desk.”

    The full INHS mollusk collection contains nearly 475,000 specimens, including species that have become extinct. Freshwater mussels are particularly vulnerable to human disruption of habitats, from pollution, dams, changing land uses, invasive species, and other factors. For some species, databases and mollusk collections are the only proof that they existed.

    Open access through technology is bringing backroom collections to the forefront. What’s ahead? 3-D construction of specimens will allow Internet users to spin images around to view all sides, not unlike holding a specimen in your hand and seeing it from every angle.

    Mussels specimens from around the world can be viewed at the Mussel Project Web page


    About the Prairie Research Institute: The Prairie Research Institute (PRI) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign comprises the Illinois Natural History Survey, Illinois State Archaeological Survey, Illinois State Geological Survey, Illinois State Water Survey, and Illinois Sustainable Technology Center. PRI provides objective natural and cultural resource expertise, data, research, service, and solutions for decision making, the stewardship of Illinois’ resources, and the public good. 


    Media contact: Andrew Miller (217) 244-0439,

  • 11/11/2016Lisa Sheppard writer Lisa Sheppard by Lisa Sheppard published by Lisa Sheppard

    CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – The 2017 Illinois First Detector Workshop on invasive plants, diseases, and insects will be offered at eight Illinois sites beginning in January 2017.

    In its fifth year, the workshop is being offered through University of Illinois Extension and coordinated in conjunction with the Illinois Natural History Survey’s Cooperative Agricultural Pest Survey (CAPS), the Illinois Department of Agriculture, and the Morton Arboretum. The one-day course teaches participants how to report potential invasive threats. Topics this year include invasive plants and human health, oak tree diseases, and emerging invasive forest insects.

    The program focuses on current and new invasive pests, but also provides updates on previously covered topics, according to Kelly Estes, CAPS coordinator. The popular hands-on portion of the workshop allows participants to examine invasive species samples in detail and learn identification techniques that will help them to distinguish these invasive pests in the field. Workshop participants take the knowledge they acquire to their own communities.

    “This program increases the eyes and ears in the field,” Estes said. “The threat of invasive species is large, and we can’t get to every corner of the state. Having many people take an interest in learning more about invasive species and how to report them is fantastic.”

    In four years, 900 people have taken the workshop, and an estimated 108,000 additional people have become more aware of invasive species indirectly through the dissemination of information by the workshop participants.

    Illinois locations, dates, and contact information include:

    January 25 – Waterloo; Sarah Ruth (618-939-3434)

    January 26 – Makanda; Maggie Rose (618-687-1727)

    February 9 – Bloomington; Kelly Allsup (309-663-8306)

    February 10 – Sterling; Bruce Black (815-632-3611)

    February 14 – Lisle; Sarah Navrotski (630-955-1123)

    February 15 – Orland Park; Margaret Burns-Westmeyer (708-679-6894)

    February 22 – Pekin; Jason Haupt or Christine Belless (309-547-3711)

    February 23 – Taylorville; Andrew Holsinger (217-532-3941)

    The $40 registration fee includes instruction, an on-site lunch, and training materials. This year, a student rate of $25 is offered. Continuing Education Units (CEUs) are also available. The workshop runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.


    Media contact: Kelly Estes, (217) 333-1005;

    This program and materials are based upon work supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture and coordinated by Kelly Estes, state survey coordinator, IL CAPS Program at the Illinois Natural History Survey, Prairie Research Institute, and Diane Plewa, Plant Clinic diagnostician and outreach coordinator, Department of Crop Sciences. Additional support for this program will be provided by Christopher Evans, extension forester, University of Illinois, Scott Schirmer, plant and pesticide specialist supervisor, Illinois Department of Agriculture, and Tricia Bethke, forest pest outreach coordinator, Morton Arboretum.      

    Photo credit: Tom Coleman, USDA Forest Service,