Special Feature: Ecological Restoration in a Changing Biosphere

The following is an introduction by Leighton Reid and James Aronson to a special feature in Annals of Missouri Botanical Garden about ecological restoration in a changing biosphere. The eight papers described are derived from presentations last October at the 65th Annual Plant Symposium. The full issue can be found here.

Restoration efforts will affect large areas of the planet and hundreds of millions of people over the coming decades, but what will these actions look like, and what will they achieve? Debate continues about what constitutes appropriate restoration targets in our human-dominated and ever more rapidly changing world, and the outcome of this debate will impact the actions taken to conserve biodiversity, sequester carbon, and improve human livelihoods at large spatial scales. This special issue brings together eight scientific, historical, and journalistic perspectives to address these two critical questions about ecological restoration in a rapidly changing biosphere.

In the post-COP22 world, when all three of the UN’s “Rio Conventions” call for scaling up and mainstreaming of ecological restoration (UNCBD 2012; UNCCD 2015; UNFCCC 2015), and dozens of governments have made ambitious restoration commitments (IUCN 2016), it is clear that restoration programs will affect hundreds of millions of hectares – and as many people – over the coming decades. At the same time, we find ourselves in an era of unprecedented change where climate, ecological baselines, and future land-use changes are highly uncertain (Steffen et al., 2015). This raises the crucial question: What will large-scale restoration activities look like in the coming years?

Unsurprisingly, there are differences of opinion about the future of restoration and how to scale it up and integrate it with larger programs in an era of major, anthropogenic changes. Hobbs et al. (2011; pg 442) observe that “…the basic principles and tenets of restoration ecology and conservation biology are being debated and reshaped. Escalating global change is resulting in widespread no-analogue environments and novel ecosystems that render traditional goals unachievable. Policymakers and the general public, however, have embraced restoration without an understanding of its limitations, which has led to perverse policy outcomes.” [Emphasis added]

This perspective has received considerable attention (ESA 2016) and also pointed criticism (Murcia et al., 2014). Aronson et al. (2014; pg 647) retort that “…Restoration includes a wide range of practical possibilities for dealing with transformed ecosystems, including rehabilitation, reclamation, and remediation. Some will bring the ecosystem back to its historical trajectory, some will bring back only some attributes, but the intention is that the end product is better than the degraded ecosystem. Importantly, a label such as novel ecosystem implies no need for further intellectual exertion – and ignores the growing science of the young discipline of ecological restoration.” [Emphasis added]

The debate goes on about what we are trying to restore (Hobbs, 2016; Kattan et al., 2016; Miller & Bestelmeyer, 2016), with implications far beyond academia. Billions of dollars are now being spent to rehabilitate and restore degraded ecosystems, sometimes at large scales, and the science of restoration ecology must adapt to be integrated in larger planning and management schemes, wherein conservation, management, and restoration will all take place.

On 8 Oct 2016, we convened a panel of six scientists, one historian, and a journalist, all with long-standing involvement in the field of restoration ecology. The goal was to discuss ecological restoration in a changing biosphere at the 63rd Annual Fall Symposium at Missouri Botanical Garden. Each speaker has contributed a paper to this special issue.

The first set of papers focus on the question: Has global change outpaced and rendered obsolete the so-called “classical” ecological restoration approach? Aronson et al. (2017) say no, far from it; for example, the historically-based reference system ‒ a pillar of ecological restoration to date ‒ is more valid than ever and can indeed be adapted to landscape and higher levels of complexity. They emphasize that while restoration ecology has produced many useful ecological models, a participatory approach and consensus-building among stakeholders are crucial at these higher levels of integration. Falk (2017), in contrast, says yes: global change calls for radical rethinking of ecological restoration. He focuses on ponderosa pine forests in the southwestern US, which are undergoing a major, climate change-induced biome shift from forest to shrub land, and he concludes that a shift towards resilience-based management is necessary to supplement traditional ecological restoration. Meine (2017) takes the middle ground through an historical analysis; he notes that Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) would likely have concluded that a simple “yes” or “no” was inappropriate and that ecological novelty is neither novel nor absolute.

Whereas the first group of papers asks what we should restore, the second group focuses more on how we will restore at larger spatial and temporal scales. Brancalion & van Melis (2017) suggest that to bridge the gap between science and practice, we need to innovate; rather than refining current approaches, restoration ecologists must look outside of their disciplinary silos for fresh solutions to contemporary dilemmas. One source of new insights will be through joint research between scientists and practitioners. To this end, Holl (2017) presents several new directions for tropical forest restoration research (graduate students – take note!). She emphasizes that for research to best inform practice, it should be conducted at large spatial and temporal scales, research projects should be undertaken jointly with stakeholders, and resulting knowledge should be shared across regions. Chazdon (2017) argues that natural regeneration, more than any other method, is the key for scaling up to efficient forest and landscape restoration, and she emphasizes the need to identify priority areas where natural regeneration is maximally feasible and minimally competitive with alternative land uses. Finally, Reid et al. (2017) argue that however we restore ecosystems, we should plan to make them last; the longevity of restored ecosystems, they suggest, is variable, often finite, and determined to some degree by stakeholder preferences, environmental attributes, and the umbrella of governance. These papers emphasize tropical forest restoration, particularly in Latin America, which is appropriate given this biome’s global importance, yet the topics addressed will be of interest to readers with experience in many ecosystems.

The last word (for this special issue, at least) is left to Paddy Woodworth (2017), an international journalist with broad and optimistic perspectives on ecological restoration (Woodworth, 2013). Looking across the contributions, he observes that the words we choose have meaning and cautions against the use of the word “restoration” for anything less than the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed (SER 2004).

We hope that readers from many backgrounds, including researchers, practitioners, and policymakers, will find this special issue worth pondering as they move forward with our collective task to progress towards a more sustainable, just, and desirable future.



Aronson, J., J. Blignaut & T. B. Aronson. 2017. Conceptual frameworks and references for landscape-scale restoration: Reflecting back and looking forward. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 102(2): 188–200.

Aronson, J., C. Murcia, G. H. Kattan, D. Moreno-Mateos, K. Dixon & D. Simberloff. 2014. The road to confusion is paved with novel ecosystem labels: a reply to Hobbs et al. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 29: 646-647.

Brancalion, P. H. S. & J. van Melis. 2017. On the need for innovation in ecological restoration. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden. 102(2): 227–236.

Chazdon, R. L. 2017. Landscape restoration, natural regeneration, and the forests of the future. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden. 102(2): 251–257.

ESA (Ecological Society of America). 2016. Ecological Society of America announces 2016 award recipients. The Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 97: 337-351.

Falk, D. A. 2017. Restoration ecology and the axes of change. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden. 102(2): 201–216.

Hobbs, R. J. 2016. Degraded or just different? Perceptions and value judgements in restoration decisions. Restoration Ecology. doi: 10.1111/rec.12336.

Hobbs, R. J., L. M. Hallett, P. R. Ehrlich & H. A. Mooney. 2011. Intervention ecology: Applying ecological science in the Twenty-first Century. Bioscience 61: 442-450.

Holl, K. D. 2017. Research directions in tropical forest restoration. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden. 102(2): 237–250.

IUCN (International Union for Nature Conservation). 2016. Bonn Challenge commitments. http://www.bonnchallenge.org/commitments. Date accessed: September 22, 2016

Kattan, G. H., J. Aronson & C. Murcia. 2016. Does the novel ecosystem concept provide a framework for practical applications and a path forward? A reply to Miller and Bestelmeyer. Restoration Ecology 24:714-716.

Meine, C. 2017. Restoration and “novel ecosystems”: Priority or paradox? Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden. 102(2): 217–226.

Miller, J. R. & B. T. Bestelmeyer. 2016. What’s wrong with novel ecosystems, really? Restoration Ecology 24: 577-582.

Murcia, C., J. Aronson, G. H. Kattan, D. Moreno-Mateos, K. Dixon & D. Simberloff. 2014. A critique of the ‘novel ecosystem’ concept. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 29: 548-553.

Reid, J. L., S. J. Wilson, G. S. Bloomfield, M. E. Cattau, M. E. Fagan, K. D. Holl & R. A. Zahawi. 2017. How long do restored ecosystems persist? Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden. 102(2): 258–265.

SER (Society for Ecological Restoration). 2004. The SER primer on ecological restoration. http://www.ser.org/content/ecological_restoration_primer.asp. Date accessed: September 28, 2009

Steffen, W., W. Broadgate, L. Deutsch, O. Gaffney & C. Ludwig. 2015. The trajectory of the Anthropocene: the great acceleration. The Anthropocene Review 2: 81-98.

UNCBD (United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity). 2012. UNEP/CBD/COP/DEC/XI/16. https://www.cbd.int/doc/decisions/cop-11/cop-11-dec-16-en.pdf. Date accessed: 12 December 2016

UNCCD (United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification). 2015. Land matters for climate: reducing the gap and approaching the target. http://www.unccd.int/Lists/SiteDocumentLibrary/Publications/2015Nov_Land_matters_For_Climate_ENG.pdf. Date accessed: 12 December 2016

UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). 2015. Paris agreement. http://unfccc.int/files/essential_background/convention/application/pdf/english_paris_agreement.pdf.  Date accessed: 12 December 2016

Woodworth, P. 2013. Our Once and Future Planet. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Woodworth, P. 2017. Meeting  the twin challenges of global change and scaling up, Restoration needs insights from the humanities as well as analysis from science. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden. 102(2): 266–281.

Does fire affect Eastern Bluebird nest success at Shaw Nature Reserve?

Joseph Smith is a rising senior at Lake Superior State University. This summer, he studied the effect of prescribed fire on Eastern Bluebird nesting success at Shaw Nature Reserve as part of  MBG’s NSF-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program.

Among the rich plant diversity at Shaw Nature Reserve are a wide range of animal species, including the Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis). The Nature Reserve is home to an extensive bluebird trail consisting of 86 nest boxes in the north-central region of the reserve. This summer, I have been working with Dr. Leighton Reid and a citizen scientist, Lynn Buchanan, in an effort to understand the effects that land management practices have on bluebird nest success.

Prescribed fire is one of the most important management practices used at Shaw Nature Reserve. In the 2016-2017 burn season, for instance, nature reserve staff set fire to 306 ha (756 acres) of woodlands, prairies, and glades to restore and maintain open vegetation structure and a high diversity of native plants. However, it was unclear what effect these fires might have bluebirds.


Hypothetical effects of prescribed fire on Eastern Bluebird nest success. +/- symbols denote the short-term effect of fire on snakes and arthropods, and the effect of snakes and arthropods on bluebird nest success. Photo credits: (1) Black rat snake (Pantherophis obsoletus) by John Mizel CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, (2) Bluebird eggs by Bailey & Clark (2014); (3) Red-legged grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum) by Gilles Gonthier; (4) Prescribed fire courtesy of Shaw Nature Reserve.

We hypothesized that fire might affect bluebird nesting success in two ways. First, fire could reduce the food supply for nesting birds. When understory vegetation burns, many arthropods are also killed, and it takes some time for their populations to rebound. During the lag, bluebirds might have less to eat, which could result in poorer nest success.

Second, fires could increase nest success by reducing the risk of snake predation. Bluebird boxes at Shaw Nature Reserve are equipped with baffles to prevent snakes from getting in, but snake predation still occurs sometimes. After a fire, there is less vegetation to hide snakes from their own predators, like raptors, and we surmised that fewer snakes could mean more successful bluebird nests.


The Bluebird Trail at Shaw Nature Reserve. Bluebird nest boxes are shown in yellow.

We tested our hypotheses using a long-term dataset collected by volunteers. Over the past eight years, Lynn Buchanan and her team have monitored the nest boxes on the bluebird trail and kept records of their observations. Each week during the breeding season, they peek into all of the boxes and record the number of eggs and nestlings, how many nestlings fledged, and whether or not the nest was predated.

With statistical help from Washington University researcher Joe LaManna, we found that prescribed fire had little or no effect on bluebird nesting. We compared areas that were burned with areas that were mowed, and we also compared burned areas at different time intervals since the most recent fire (0-3 years). Likewise, we found no effect of prescribed fire on the rate of snake predation.

Species Probability of nest success (%)* Probability of snake predation (%)* Did nest success change from 2009-2016? Did prescribed fire have an effect on nest success?
Eastern Bluebird 90.8 ± 0.5 4.6 ± 0.3 No No
House Wren 92.1 ± 0.1 4.0 ± 0.3 No No
Tree Swallow 92.1 ± 0.1 4.8 ± 0.4 No No

*Standard errors are shown

While the lack of significant results can be slightly disheartening after an entire summer of work, it is reassuring that the bluebird population is thriving at Shaw Nature Reserve. Overall, we calculated that 90.8 ± 0.5% of bluebird nests produced at least one fledgling. In addition, two other species (House Wrens and Tree Swallows) that commonly use bluebird boxes also had high nest success.

There are more aspects of bluebird nesting to look at. For instance, the time from when an egg hatches until the chick leaves the nest could be longer in recently burned areas if there is less food (i.e., arthropods) available. In the meantime it appears the bluebirds are living well at Shaw Nature Reserve.


Eastern Bluebird (left) and bluebird nest box (right) at Shaw Nature Reserve. Photo credits: (L) Bluebird by Andy Reago & Chrissy Mclarren; (R) bluebird nest box by Rachel Weller.

Monitoring Breeding Birds at Shaw Nature Reserve

The best time to start a long-term dataset is 25 years ago. The second-best time is now!

Summer solstice is the height of the bird breeding season at Shaw Nature Reserve. Dozens of species are singing, from Dickcissels in the open prairies, to Prothonotary Warblers in the damp forests along the Meramec River, to near-ubiquitous Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, seemingly everywhere.


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For six days this month, two students and I are counting birds systematically across Shaw Nature Reserve to learn how they are influenced by ecological restoration. Birds are a common focus for monitoring restoration projects because they can be observed efficiently over large areas, and because they often respond quickly to changes in ecosystem structure. Ovenbirds, for instance, prefer the dark shade of closed-canopy forests, whereas Kentucky Warblers replace them in woodlands that have been burned (fire is a common restoration strategy in many Missouri ecosystems).


Locations of bird counting stations at Shaw Nature Reserve. Each point is at least 100 meters from the edge of a management unit and at least 200 meters from any other station.

A typical bird survey goes like this:

  • 4:20 AM. I pour a travel mug of coffee, pick up a student to help record data, and drive to Shaw Nature Reserve in the dark. There are way too many deer along the side of I-44.
  • ~5:00 AM. We arrive at Shaw Nature Reserve in twilight and hear a cacophony of birds singing over one another. Indigo Buntings scatter from the loop road ahead of our car.
  • ~5:15 AM. We arrive at the first bird counting station and record the temperature, cloud cover, and wind speed. For five minutes, we write down each bird that we hear or see. Sometimes during these early morning counts, nocturnal birds, like Chuck-will’s-widow, are still calling.
  • ~5:30-10:00 AM. After we finish a point, I set my GPS to navigate to the next point on our route and we continue to record birds until mid-morning, by which time it is warm and many birds have stopped singing (although the Red-eyed Vireos are still going strong).

Leighton Reid (left) listens to Wood Thrushes and Northern Parulas while REU student Joseph Smith (Lake Superior State University, right) records data. As indicated by the abundant bush honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii; e.g., by Leighton’s right leg), this particular part of the reserve has yet to be restored.

This is our inaugural bird survey at Shaw Nature Reserve. Unlike many of my projects, this one does not have explicit apriori hypotheses; I’m not trying to “test” anything. Instead, I intend for these data to be used for monitoring and demonstrating progress. Over time, I hope and expect these observations to provide a record of biodiversity change as portions of the reserve are restored and managed.


Counting Common Yellowthroats, Dickcissels, and Red-winged Blackbirds at dawn at the Wetland Mitigation Bank.

For more information on breeding birds at Shaw Nature Reserve, you can explore citizen science observations on eBird, including this printable checklist of birds recorded in June during the past 10 years.

Shaw Nature Reserve’s Dark Diversity

There are almost 3000 species of vascular plants in Missouri. Which ones should we conserve at Shaw Nature Reserve?

One of the most challenging questions in restoration ecology is what species should live in a restored habitat? When we assist ecosystem recovery by removing invasive species or applying prescribed fire, for example, some plant species reappear on their own. They emerge from seeds that were dormant in the soil, or they are transported in from elsewhere by wind, water, or animals. But other species require assistance.

In ecology, the set of species that could live in a given habitat but are currently absent is called “dark diversity”. Quantifying dark diversity can help set restoration targets by highlighting gaps in species composition. A starting point for calculating a site’s dark diversity is to take a regional species list and subtract out the species present at the restoration site.

To take an example from near the top of the alphabet, at Shaw Nature Reserve, we have observed one species of false foxglove (Agalinis tenuifolia; the most common species statewide) out of nine that are known to occur in Missouri. Of the other eight, seven are known from the same county as Shaw Nature Reserve or from adjacent counties, and all occur in habitats like glades, woodland edges, and prairie swales, which we have restored or reconstructed. It may be reasonable to include these seven species in our enumeration of Shaw’s dark diversity and consider them as candidates for (re)introduction.

Why haven’t these seven missing Agalinis species appeared spontaneously? If they were once present at Shaw, were their seed banks depleted by decades of cattle grazing prior to Missouri Botanical Garden’s purchasing the property in 1925? Are they now unable to disperse to Shaw on their own? This seems likely as Shaw is situated in a fragmented landscape, and Agalinis species do not have any obvious mechanisms for long-distance seed dispersal. Another possibly, not mutually exclusive, is that local environmental conditions are unsuitable. Important symbionts in the soil might be absent, or appropriate host plants, since Agalinis species are hemiparasites that latch onto other plants’ roots to steal sugars.

Climate change makes it even more difficult to think about how to restore a site’s dark diversity. For instance, green false foxglove (A. viridis) is currently found far to the south of Shaw Nature Reserve, in southern Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. But even optimistic climate models suggest that by 2070 Franklin County, MO may feel more like present-day Franklin County, AR – a county where A. viridis has been collected.

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Ecological Restoration in a Changing Biosphere

If you were at the MBG Fall Symposium, we want to hear from you! How did the symposium change your perception of restoration? Send us an email at leighton.reid@mobot.org.

On October 8th, Missouri Botanical Garden hosted its 63rd annual Fall Symposium. This year’s theme was Ecological Restoration in a Changing Biosphere. Author and journalist Paddy Woodworth moderated the day, and seven speakers presented contemporary perspectives on a core challenge in modern restoration ecology. Namely: in the post-COP21 world, when all three UN conventions call for scaling up and mainstreaming of restoration, it is clear that restoration will affect hundreds of millions of hectares – and as many people – over the coming decade. At the same time, we find ourselves in an era of unprecedented change where climate, ecological baselines, and future land-use changes are highly uncertain. This raises the question: What should large-scale restoration look like in the remainder of the 21st century?


2016 Fall Symposium speakers. From left to right: Peter Wyse Jackson, Curt Meine, Robin Chazdon, James Aronson, Leighton Reid, Pedro Brancalion, Karen Holl, Don Falk, Paddy Woodworth, and Jim Miller. Photo by Andrea Androuais.

Talks during the morning focused on tropical forests, where much of the international restoration dialogue is focused.

  • Leighton Reid (Missouri Botanical Garden) opened with a presentation on restoration longevity – the idea that some restoration projects create ecosystems that persist for more than a century (e.g., Floresta da Tijuca), while other projects fail quickly. Dr. Reid argued that how long restored ecosystems persist is quantifiable, predictable, and manipulable, opening the possibility for more ambitious restoration planning.
  • Robin Chazdon (University of Connecticut and beyond) then spoke about forest landscape restoration, an approach that aims to regain ecological integrity and enhance human well-being in deforested, human-impacted, or degraded forest landscapes. Drawing on a wealth of large-scale studies, Dr. Chazdon made the case that natural forest regeneration is the most ecologically effective and economically feasible approach to forest restoration globally.
  • Karen Holl (University of California Santa Cruz) presented her take on research priorities for forest restoration in the Neotropics. She highlighted that researchers could make an impact by studying forest restoration at larger spatial scales, at longer temporal scales, and in collaboration with stakeholders. Improving information exchange and standardizing monitoring protocols were also among her top priorities. (Graduate students, take note!)
  • Dr. Pedro Brancalion (University of São Paulo) completed the morning session with a TED talk-style discussion of the linkages between science, technology, policy, and best practice in Brazilian Atlantic Forest restoration. Using Thomas Kuhn’s structure of scientific revolutions, Dr. Brancalion argued that restoration ecology is in a crisis period, in part because disciplinary research has predominantly created solutions at smaller spatial scales than the (growing) problems the discipline seeks to address. Perhaps restoration is ripe for a paradigm shift?

Dr. Pedro Brancalion (right) asks whether restoration ecology is ready for a new paradigm shift, as Paddy Woodworth (left) moderates. Photo by Robin Chazdon.

After lunch, the conversation turned towards a major academic debate in restoration ecology. Has global change outpaced the restoration approach? And is a new approach needed?

  • Curt Meine (The Aldo Leopold Foundation) drew on his long experience in the upper Midwest, and, in particular, his studies of author and environmentalist Aldo Leopold (1887-1948). He argued that Leopold avoided the simple polarities through which some contemporary restoration debates are framed. He viewed nature in a relative way, neither entirely wild, nor entirely domesticated in any given landscape. Although he practiced ecological restoration in some contexts, he also advocated soil conservation and sustainable agriculture – activities motivated by his core values, as expressed in The Land Ethic (1949).
  • James Aronson (Missouri Botanical Garden) followed with an elucidation of the reference ecosystem concept. Reference ecosystems, he noted, help determine the social and ecological vision for a restoration project or program – a critical issue for restoring historic continuity in degraded landscapes. Dr. Aronson described a family of restorative actions for achieving progress towards the reference system, drawing on examples from Jordan and South Africa. He argued we need to look deeper into the past and ponder our choices from many angles as we decide how to do more effective restoration at the landscape and larger scales.
  • Donald Falk (University of Arizona) delivered the keynote address. He painted a disturbing portrait: rapid climate change is driving a massive forest-to-non-forest transition in the southwestern United States. In particular, many ponderosa pine forests will not be able to persist in the future where they have been in the recent past and present. Perhaps restoration ecologists should transition too. Rather than “chasing the ambulance”, maybe we could get out ahead of disasters and ease transitions between stable ecosystem states. Anticipating ecosystem transitions could mitigate the loss of ecosystem functioning that accompanies major climate-driven forest fires, but it would require a shift in restoration thinking. Importantly, Dr. Falk noted that ecosystems do not care what words we use – ecosystems respond to actions.

With moderator Paddy Woodworth’s help, we finished the day with a panel discussion, inviting questions from the audience. Among the thoughts and questions that we were left with:

  • Is ecological restoration more difficult in places with greater population density?
  • Should restoration focus on policy, economic, or cultural motivations for engaging people?
  • Are values a better guide for land management than ecological history? Are the two complementary?
  • How can the reference ecosystem concept accommodate rapid biome changes, as we are seeing in the Southwestern USA?
  • What is the way forward to mainstream serious, multisectorial monitoring and evaluation with all these new factors to consider? Who will fund it?
  • To what extent can we move from restoring degraded ecosystems to avoiding degradation in the first place?
  • Can forest landscape restoration and natural forest regeneration bridge the gap between small-scale, past restoration experience and present, large-scale restoration needs?

PhD candidates Ricardo Cesar (University of São Paulo) and Leland Werdan (University of Minnesota) compare notes on seedling functional traits in dry tropical forest restoration. Leland was the recipient of the annual Delzie Demaree award. Photo by Robin Chazdon.


More than 150 people registered for the symposium. They came from three continents, five countries, and seven US states.

Environmental determinants of plant community change during restoration at Shaw Nature Reserve

Olivia Hajek spent 10 weeks this summer studying woodland restoration at Shaw Nature Reserve with CCSD scientist Leighton Reid. She participated in MBG’s NSF-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program.


Wildflowers in the restored Dana Brown Woods: purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurescens; left) and buffalo clover (Trifolium reflexum; right).

During my ten weeks in Missouri, I completed a research project evaluating the role environmental conditions play in restoration at Shaw Nature Reserve.  Specifically, I worked in the Dana Brown Woods management unit, a part of the Missouri Ozark foothills that features diverse plant communities across its heterogeneous landscape.  Sixteen years ago, the Dana Brown Woods was a closed-canopy woodland highly invaded by eastern red cedar.  However, restoration practices including reintroduction of fire and mechanical removal of woody shrubs like eastern red cedar have dramatically changed plant communities since 2000.  I was very fortunate coming into this project because there was extensive data about the plant communities in the Dana Brown Woods from 2001-2012 while restoration was occurring.  A local botanist, Nels Holmberg, monitored understory plants beginning a year before the first fire, creating complete information about the plant community before restoration and as it changed over time.

We wanted to see how different environmental conditions affect how plant communities change over time in response to restoration.  To answer this question, we visited 300 points across the woodland and measured several environmental parameters, including aspect, slope, rockiness, elevation, and juniper stump density (juniper stumps decay slowly, so many of the trees cut in 2006 were still visible).


Fieldwork in Dana Brown Woods. Olivia makes friends with a hog peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata).

Just from field observations, we could see noticeable differences in the environment and plant community composition across the woodland.  Higher slopes were rockier, covered in old juniper stumps, and rich in sunflowers, whereas the lower regions near the Meramec River floodplain had deeper soil and more mesic plant species, like spicebush.

Data analysis confirmed that environmental gradients moderated plant community change over time. Higher, rockier areas experienced greater plant species turnover and greater increases species richness and abundance from 2001-2012, whereas shaded valleys changed relatively little.


Plant composition change from 2001-2012 increased with elevation, particularly during spring surveys. BC = Bray-Curtis dissimilarity, which measures the difference in plant species composition between a plot in 2001 and itself in 2012. Juniper, red oak, and white oak were subjectively determined habitat classifications at the outset of the study.

Our observations were likely driven by differential fire behavior across the woodland. Historically, fires were a frequent disturbance in the Ozark foothills. Four prescribed fires from 2001-2012 probably had larger impacts on the drier upland areas than in the wet lowlands, which would not have burned as well.

Quantifying how ecological restoration practices, like prescribed fire, vary across environmental gradients is important for land management planning, especially in the Ozark foothills where the landscape is so heterogeneous.


Leighton stood by while Olivia presented her research to the public at Sensational Summer Nights.

Seed Banking for Conservation and Restoration

Meg Engelhardt is Missouri Botanical Garden’s Seed Bank Manager. She describes her ex situ conservation program and its applications for ecological restoration.

Seeds have been stored for food since the dawn of agriculture, but in recent decades seed banks have become an increasingly relied upon tool for plant conservation. Ideally we would conserve all plants in their natural habitats, or in situ. After all, when plant populations remain intact so do the relationships with other organisms in their ecosystems. Intact plant populations also maintain gene flow within the species, helping populations continually adapt to their surrounding environments. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to maintain wild plant populations. Even when resources are available, maintaining natural plant populations may be impossible due to habitat fragmentation or destruction, range shifts due to climate change, pollinator loss, or any list of known or unknown factors resulting in population decline. This is where seed banking, or ex situ conservation, may play a supporting role.


Collecting seeds from a dolomite glade in Franklin County, Missouri

Seed banks are long term storage facilities designed to keep seed viable for years and even decades. Those seeds can then be used for research, restoration, reintroduction, or education.

Maybe you have heard of the Svalbard “doomsday” Seed Vault, where seeds of more than 4000 plant species are stored deep below the permafrost near the north pole. Or perhaps the Millennium Seed Bank, which holds 13% of the world’s wild plant species and continues to collect the world’s threatened flora. Here in the United States we have the Native Plant Germplasm System, a network of 20 storage facilities across the country that store over 15,000 species, with a focus on agriculturally important species. On a more local scale, many small seed banks are used to conserve regionally important, threatened species.


Inside a very large freezer at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Ft. Collins, Colorado

The Missouri Botanical Garden has been seed banking for over thirty years. In 1984 the Center for Plant Conservation (CPC) was founded with Missouri Botanical Garden as a founding member. CPC is a network of 40 botanical institutions focused on ex situ conservation of rare plant material while also ensuring material is available for restoration and recovery efforts. Our CPC collection is currently maintained by staff who are actively seed banking, researching, and restoring populations of extremely rare native plants throughout southeastern US (Solidago ouachitensis, for example).

Additionally, seed collecting and short term seed storage has been going on for at least 25 years at Missouri Botanical Garden’s Shaw Nature Reserve. Horticulture staff at the Reserve are focused on local ecotype native plant horticulture and have been collecting seed from regional wild sources for use in small scale greenhouse propagation, use in the Whitmire Wildflower Garden, restoration projects throughout the Reserve, and various other partnerships that encourage native plant horticulture.


The Shaw Nature Reserve “seed closet” currently houses almost 500 different taxa ‒ most of which are local wild source (i.e., seed collected from plants growing in the wild) or second generation seeds (i.e., the first descendants of plants growing in the wild).

In 2013 the Missouri Botanical Garden Seed Bank was created with two main goals. First to advance seed banking at an institutional level by providing support and facilities. A new seed lab space was created at Shaw Nature Reserve which includes lab benches and space for processing collected seed and cleaning for storage as well as a refrigerator and freezer storage space. The second goal is to collect and store samples of Missouri’s entire flora, which includes roughly 2,055 taxa. Continually collecting and storing samples of all local species will ensure long term genetic conservation that can be made available for research, restoration, and recovery should the need arise.


Missouri Evening Primrose, Oenothera macrocarpa