Surveying Endangered, Invasive Species

At the same time that Dr. Phil Willink is mapping the distribution of Illinois’ endangered and threatened fishes, Shedd’s senior research biologist is also keeping an eye on the whereabouts of weatherfish, a non-native species that has invaded Chicago-area waters. The detailed data he collects will be applied to management plans that give declining natives the best chance to thrive and inhibit the spread of the invasives.

River-to-river census: Are they still here?
Phil is working closely with the Endangered Species Protection Board of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to update the state’s list of endangered and threatened fish species.

Aquatic animals are especially susceptible to habitat loss, pollution, competition from invasive species and climate change, and they account for 79 percent of the state's native animal species that have disappeared since the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Act was enacted in 1972. Currently 31 fish species are listed as endangered or threatened in the state.

Two years into the four-year project, Phil has conducted surveys throughout the Chicago area, including in the Chicago River and at sites along the Lake Michigan shoreline, to determine if listed endangered fishes are still present in places where they have lived in the past and to search for new locations where they may be living today. Among the many other rivers Phil is wading into are the Calumet, Des Plaines, DuPage, Fox, Illinois, Kankakee, Rock, Vermillion and even the Mississippi.

At 63rd Street Beach, where Shedd is restoring habitat, he was working with Great Lakes Action Day volunteers when they found a tiny silver fish that he identified as a banded killifish, a state endangered species. By the end of the 2013 field season, Phil had found nearly 400 individuals representing five threatened and endangered species. But he also noted that other species that had previously occurred in these areas were absent.

The data Phil is collecting will be incorporated into a statewide distribution map as well as be used to update the state’s natural history database. The results of his surveys are also used by federal and nongovernmental agencies to manage aquatic habitats and enforce endangered species regulations.

Weatherfish report
Phil is supervising field studies of the non-native weatherfish, a popular — and hardy — pet-trade species from Southeast Asia that has spread throughout Chicago’s waterways.

The two-pronged project, conducted by graduate students from Western Illinois University and Loyola University, investigates the prey choices of weatherfish to determine their potential to compete with native fishes and analyzes their genetics to piece together where they came from and how they became so widespread.

More than 180 invasive species have become established in the Great Lakes basin. Weatherfish first appeared, either as escapees or releases, in the North Shore Channel of the Chicago River in the late 1980s. The small, eel-like bottom-dwellers stayed under the radar as they spread throughout the Chicago River, the Sanitary and Ship Canal, the lower Des Plaines River and even wetlands. Obviously adaptable, they are also voracious predators and prolific breeders.

Shedd’s studies of what weatherfish eat, where they live, how they spawn and how they move into new areas will help evaluate the risk they pose to our local waters and inform recommendations for a management plan to control populations and prevent their further spread.


The Great Lakes

About the team

Learn more about Dr. Willink and the conservation research team!


See Dr. Willink's recent work on the Huffington Post's blog.

You can help!

Pitch in to help our native wildlife by taking part in a Great Lakes Action Day. During one of these all-day outdoor excursions, you’ll help restore Illinois lakeshore habitats by cleaning a beach, removing invasive plants, or planting native grasses and wildflowers. You’ll also meet some of your neighbors—fishes and other aquatic animals that call the Great Lakes basin home.

About Dr. Phil Willink
Phil Willink, Ph.D., joined Shedd in 2012 as senior research biologist for the aquarium’s Daniel P. Haerther Center for Conservation and Research. His current work draws on more than 20 years of experience conducting expeditions around the world to study fish biodiversity as well as endangered and invasive species. In the line of duty, he has had a sea lamprey attach to his hand; the circle of tooth marks was not permanent.