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Scientist Joins Shedd Aquarium Research Team to Study Frogs, Salamanders in Chicagoland Area

Dr. Melissa Youngquist Will Focus on Understanding Impacts of Habitat Restoration in Forest Preserves of Cook County

August 08, 2019

Staff member Melissa Youngquist.

A new research biologist, Dr. Melissa Youngquist, joined Shedd Aquarium’s Daniel P. Haerther Center for Conservation and Research this summer, adding expertise in amphibian conservation to the aquarium’s freshwater research team. As a conservation research biologist, Youngquist will take to the Forest Preserves of Cook County to learn about local frogs and salamanders and how efforts to clean up forests are helping their populations rebound.

“We are excited to have Dr. Youngquist join our team to study animals in our own backyard,” said Dr. Karen Murchie, director of freshwater research at Shedd Aquarium. “Her background in amphibian conservation research will help us understand the threats local amphibians face and document how the work of volunteers and citizen scientists makes a difference for animals.”

Thirteen species of amphibians live in the Chicagoland area. As a class of animals that needs both wet and dry habitat, many amphibians are particularly reliant on temporary ponds for the development of tadpoles because they are free of predatory fish. Unfortunately, these habitats are under threat throughout the Great Lakes region because of invasive species, habitat fragmentation and the lack of natural processes, such as fire. Globally, 40% of today’s 6,000 species are threatened and face imminent danger of extinction due to pressures from advancing environmental impacts.

Common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) is an invasive woody plant species native to Europe and Asia that has taken hold in local forests and choked out native plant species that are important habitats for amphibian species, such as the spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer), American toad (Anaxyrus americanus) and blue-spotted salamander (Ambystoma laterale). To restore native habitats throughout the preserves, the Forest Preserves of Cook County has a restoration program to eradicate invasive plants, including working with Shedd Aquarium on volunteer work days to remove invasive buckthorn trees at important amphibian locations.

While beneficial anecdotally, the true impact of these habitat restoration efforts on amphibians has yet to be formally documented. Dr. Youngquist’s research will focus on documenting how removing the invasive common buckthorn trees from ephemeral ponds in the Forest Preserves of Cook County benefits frogs and salamanders. The results of the study can help wildlife managers and biologists determine best practices for efficient habitat restoration that maximizes positive impact on native species.

“As buckthorn and other invasive species take over in our local forests, it becomes imperative that we investigate how they affect the wetland communities as well as the best strategies to reduce their impacts,” said Dr. Youngquist. “I look forward to being in the field with volunteers and improving habitat for the conservation of wildlife in the Chicago region.”

Youngquist earned her bachelor’s degree in Biology from Pacific Lutheran University and earned her Ph.D. in Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology from Miami University (Ohio) in 2015. She joins Shedd after completing post-doctoral research at the University of Minnesota Department of Forest Resources where studied the effects of an invasive beetle species, the emerald ash borer, on black ash trees and amphibian species loss in wetland communities.

Shedd Aquarium conducts scientific research to preserve biodiversity and ensure a balance between humans and nature. Working in the Great Lakes and Caribbean, Shedd’s portfolio of marine and freshwater field programs aims to advance understanding of wild populations and the threats they face in order to develop proactive mitigation and applied management strategies.

The team consists of nine research biologists studying white suckers, longnose suckers, freshwater mussels, amphibians and urban aquatic ecosystems in the Great Lakes region, as well as Exuma iguanas, Andros iguanas, queen conch, Nassau grouper, spiny lobster, blue crab, snapper, coral, sharks and rays in The Bahamas.

For more information about the growing conservation team at Shedd Aquarium, visit

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