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Shedd Aquarium Research Efforts Continue On and Offer a Glimpse at Local Wildlife and Wild Places

May 28, 2020

A crowd of brown-striped suckers swim along the pebbled bottom of a river in the Great Lakes region.

While Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium is temporarily closed as the state’s stay at home order continues, the aquarium remains committed to safeguarding species and conserving aquatic biodiversity. Shedd’s research team—studying aquatic animals in the Great Lakes and Caribbean regions—is continuing their work both in the field and at home processing data or publishing peer-reviewed studies. Working with partners, their work is critical to better understand wild animals and their habitats and inform strategies to protect them. 

Thus far, Shedd’s scientists have spotted nearly 40 species of aquatic animals while conducting local field research, including boreal chorus frogs, rainbow trout, northern pike, white and longnose suckers, crayfish, blackstripe topminnow, wood ducks, a beaver, mink and more.

“The Chicagoland area is teeming with aquatic wildlife, from small ravine creeks to Lake Michigan itself,” said Dr. Karen Murchie, director of freshwater research at Shedd Aquarium. “Our team of scientists at Shedd Aquarium are dedicated to observing animal behaviors in the wild, so we can understand how human activities are affecting the freshwater biodiversity in our backyard. Though we’re unable to welcome guests to the aquarium right now, our work to protect the aquatic animal world persists and our mission lives on.”

Below is a quick list of a few ways Shedd’s scientists continue their work, which provides a glimpse at nature and wildlife in our local waterways.

“Though we’re unable to welcome guests to the aquarium right now, our work to protect the aquatic animal world persists and our mission lives on.”

Dr. Karen Murchie, director of freshwater research at Shedd

Understanding Urban Freshwater Ecosystems

It is officially the start of field season for Dr. Austin Happel, research biologist at Shedd Aquarium, who is working on the Chicago River to document fish spawning through larval fish sampling. Once a week after dusk, he sets out light traps (think, glow sticks!), waits for about an hour as the local larval fish are attracted to the light, and documents what larval fish he finds. Finding larval fish in the Chicago River is a good sign, as that means fishes and other wildlife are using the river for habitat. With the information he collects at the North and South Branch of the Chicago River, Dr. Happel is studying best practices for restoration efforts. In 2019, larval fish from 10 species were documented in the Chicago River. With this year’s research season only recently getting kicked off, Dr. Happel was already able to observe a bluntnose minnow in spawning condition on the eve of May 26, 2020.

Monitoring Amphibian Response to Habitat Restoration

With amphibian research well underway, Shedd Aquarium Research Biologist Dr. Melissa Youngquist continues to identify frogs and salamanders, as well as a few other critters, as she collects footage and audio from the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Most recently, she saw some new arrivals in the form of hatched toad tadpoles, chorus frogs and swimming salamander larva in the pond. There’s also been several other sightings of dragonfly larva, beetle larva, waterfowl, and deer that all call these wetlands and forests home. Dr. Youngquist looks at whether habitat restoration around ephemeral ponds will result in greater diversity and abundance of amphibians and other aquatic animals.

Documenting Migratory Fishes

Every spring, white and longnose suckers migrate from the open waters of the Great Lakes to reproduce in creeks and rivers. With a group of eager citizen scientists located along the western shore of Lake Michigan and southern shore of Lake Superior, Shedd’s Director of Freshwater Research Dr. Karen Murchie can simultaneously monitor spawning runs across multiple states – Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan. This multiyear research project aims to better understand the dynamics of the migrations of these ecologically important fishes, as well as the challenges they face including habitat fragmentation due to barriers such as dams and culverts, as well as climate change. Citizen scientists began monitoring for suckers returning to their spawning sites on March 23, and some of the locations are still reporting suckers in their locations at the end of May. Data loggers deployed in the creeks record water temperature and water depth, to help determine what environmental cues initiate spawning migrations.

Dr. Murchie was also able to set out equipment to scan for adult white suckers that she implanted with small tags (like the ones veterinarians use to microchip pets) back in 2017 and 2018. While she was working from home at her computer, fish returning to the same creek where they were tagged could swim over an antenna and the unique tag ID was recorded. With this information, she can determine how much fidelity an individual sucker has to a spawning location.

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Photo credit: ©Shedd Aquarium