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A bullfrog, its green and brown body almost indistinguishable as it's viewed from above among weeds and dark pond water, sits perfectly still and uses its natural camouflage to hide from predators.

Restoring temporary wetlands before they're permanently gone

Ephemeral wetlands—temporary ponds that form after snowmelt or spring rains—provide frogs and salamanders with important habitat for laying their jellylike eggs. In these fish-free waters, amphibian larvae and tadpoles also have a better chance to develop and survive. Wetlands are important habitat for many insects, like dragonflies, and birds and aquatic plants too. These seasonal habitats are disappearing due to a variety of manmade threats, including overgrowth by invasive plant species like buckthorn. Shedd Aquarium is helping restore wetland ecosystems within the Forest Preserves of Cook County.

A shallow pond is barely visible among trees and leaf litter in Bob Mann woods, where Shedd volunteers help with habitat restoration.

How much restoration is enough?

Shedd researcher Melissa Youngquist is using an experimental design to find out how much area around a pond needs to be restored to increase the abundance and diversity of amphibians and other wetland species. She has selected nine ponds for the experiment: Six will have invasive plants removed at one of two distances from the water’s edge; the remaining three ponds will not be cleared. Youngquist will determine whether the number of species using the ponds, and their abundances, change over time.

“Wetlands are unique ecosystems that connect aquatic and terrestrial habitats. By removing invasive plants, we can improve the quality of aquatic and terrestrial habitats for species, like amphibians, that rely on both for their entire life cycle.”

Melissa Youngquist, Ph.D., research biologist
A grey tree frog rests on a branch at Shedd Aquarium.
A Shedd animal expert holds a salamander, about the size of her thumb, found in the wild in Illinois.

Why amphibians?

Amphibians are the focus of this project because they use both aquatic and terrestrial habitats, are globally threatened and are a vital part of the ecosystem. Amphibians are an important link in the food web and help move nutrients between aquatic and terrestrial habitats: They are voracious predators for lots of smaller animals (mostly insects) and are also important prey for a variety of aquatic and terrestrial predators (aquatic dragonfly larvae, snakes, foxes, herons). Youngquist will also look at how the aquatic insect community responds to restoration and will monitor habitat quality to determine exactly how removing invasive plants affects the wetlands over time.

A group effort

This research is a collaboration among Youngquist, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County and Shedd Aquarium’s Conservation Action Team. Volunteers with Great Lakes Action Days are important partners for this project as they help clear invasive vegetation from the ponds during the winter. Volunteers also help with species monitoring and data collection. Without help from community scientists, this project would not be a success.

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