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Essay: Unearthing the Hidden Complexities of Wetlands on a Journey into the Field

Step into the shoes of Shedd Aquarium conservation research interns Kit Antonelli and Ian LaPat as they spend a day in Chicago-area wetlands — unique ecosystems that reduce flooding, filter pollutants and sedimentation, and support an enormous amount of animal and plant life — on a quest to find and study amphibians in degraded and restored habitats. Learn why this work is critical to Shedd’s mission and why you should care about supporting wetland conservation near you.

Brown spotted Leopard Frog partially-submerged in water covered in green algae.

It’s 9:30 in the morning on the seventh of June.

I hop out of a white Jeep Wrangler onto the gravel and switch out a beaten-up pair of combat boots for thick, olive-colored hip waders. We’re sampling tadpoles at our first site of the year, a formidable patch of dense, sprawling woods more-than-welcome to my weary East Coast eyes. Arming myself with a big orange bucket and a layman’s knowledge of ecology, I follow my team through a hidden gap in the tangle onto a lightly trodden path.

As I stride forward, I find myself enveloped in a blanket of long, thin wooden stems. Their branches converge over my head and cast an endless cool shadow over my trail; the entrance and civilization recede meekly behind me. I relax my eyes for a moment; time begins to flow in all directions, and I silently allow this wilderness — so untouched and all-consuming — to invite me further. My team leader calls out to me.

“Do you see this tall plant all around us?” Dr. Melissa Youngquist asks. She fiddles with its branches, placing her thumb over a little leaf. “This is European buckthorn, an invasive species. It covers the canopy and chokes out native plants,” she says. “This is not what a healthy ecosystem looks like.”

  • Dr. Youngquist and an intern walk through a thicket of trees.
  • A felled tree rests between two bases of another tree within a lush, green, restored pond area.
  • Close-up of a tadpole over a brown leaf in the water.
  • Dr. Melissa Youngquist holds a net as she gathers samples of tadpoles.
  • A hand holding a green net containing several small tadpoles.

For the past month, we have been surveying temporary wetlands for amphibians to improve our understanding of the conservation needs of these species. We are working under the supervision of Dr. Youngquist in Shedd’s conservation research department who has been investigating how amphibians are responding to pond and wetland restoration interventions in Cook County Forest Preserves.

Invasive species like European buckthorn degrade wetland habitats by outcompeting native vegetation, decreasing sunlight and altering nutrients. In order to remedy this, Shedd’s conservation action team is involved in ongoing invasive buckthorn removal across Cook County on Shedd Aquarium Action Days. In concert with the action team, we research how the amphibian community in restored wetlands compares to unrestored wetlands.

The contrast is stark. Wetlands with invasive buckthorn support mainly colonizing species like American toads – these species are typically the first to move into spaces when restoration has just begun and the last to leave when a site becomes increasingly degraded. On the other hand, sites where buckthorn has been removed are brimming with diversity. Salamanders, eastern newts and leopard frogs reside only in the highest quality habitats.

It’s 10 in the morning on the eighth of June.

The prairie heat is oppressive. No thicket covers my skin, and the prairie grass, which rises past my head, doesn’t dare wrestle with the punishing sunlight. Temporary wetlands are unpredictable habitats: during years with little rain, they dry early in the summer, and larval amphibians must race to metamorphose and leap seamlessly into life on dry land. Desperate to find them before they leap just a bit too far, we too are roped into the relay.

Ten minutes into sampling this big, shimmering pond and we’ve seen the usual: a few toad tadpoles; the occasional chorus frog. After letting out a self-indulgent sigh, I dip my net into the edge of the pond, finally daring to approach the looming yellow-and-green grasses shooting up from the water. I accept that I might have to venture farther — to immerse myself in this itchy growth, to bump into stem after stem ad infinitum — in order to encounter anything at all.

Then, I lift up my net.

Immediately, my eyes nearly shoot out of their sockets. Rushing forward from my throat is the feverish holler of a 10-year-old boy:

“I caught a really, really big one!”

The giant tadpole flails powerfully in the net, its dark spotted back and plump white belly glittering under the benevolent gaze of the sun. Weeks later, a few miles into a prairie much like this one, I will cross paths with an adult of its kind: the northern leopard frog.

A large Leopard Frog Tadpole rests in a hand.

Wetlands are habitats oft overlooked and misunderstood. At the surface, wetlands appear still and murky — uninviting to the casual observer. Venturing closer, however, they are teeming with life and provide invaluable ecosystem services to the creatures who call them home — and to us as well. Wetlands reduce flooding, filter pollutants and sedimentation and support an enormous amount of animal and plant life. Around 90% of wetlands in the midwestern U.S. have been lost due to intentional draining for urbanization and agriculture: restoration and conservation is critical.

Supporting wetland conservation — especially in urban environments where habitats are spliced by lawns, sidewalks and roadways — provides refuge for critters big and small. With continued effort, we can produce a habitat teeming with life infinitely more diverse and abundant than the shady corridors of a forest of invasive buckthorn.

— Kit Antonelli and Ian LaPat, Conservation Research Interns