Recovery of Ecologically Important Beetle Communities in Restored Prairies

nick barberNicholas A. Barber
Assistant Professor
Department of Biological Sciences




Project Description: Although more than 99% of Illinois’s original tallgrass prairie has been lost, numerous restoration projects have slowly increased the area of this uniquely Midwestern habitat.  One important and diverse, although often overlooked, component of this community is ground beetles (family Carbidae).  As predators, these insects occupy high trophic positions, and as a result are frequently more susceptible to habitat changes and local extinction than other insects.  Thus a diverse ground beetle community signals a robust and complex food web, meaning they are potential indicators of successful ecological restoration. A major concern in restoration ecology is the length of time a restored habitat takes to regain a functioning native community.  Evaluating successful restoration is difficult because full restoration occurs on a years-to-decades scale.  An alternative is to study a chronosequence consisting of multiple similar sites that differ in age.  The Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands, just west of NIU, provides an ideal opportunity for this approach.  Individual restored plots at Nachusa vary in age from 1 to 25+ years old and also include pre-restoration agricultural sites.  Further, the prairies here are considered among the highest-quality restored grasslands on Earth. 

REU students will examine the recovery of ground beetle communities in a chronosequence of restored sites at Nachusa, where I have been working for over a year.  This project would allow students to carry out all the stages of a full field research project, including selecting a site, designing and carrying out a sampling protocol, statistically analyzing samples, and reporting the results.  Ground beetles are sampled using simple, inexpensive pitfall traps, and the project can be carried out easily within the 8-week program. I mentored three REU projects during my postdoctoral fellowship (one of which produced a manuscript which is currently in review with the student as lead author) and a project in a similar program for high school students when I was a graduate student (which produced a publication in American Biology Teacher that expanded the experiment into a laboratory exercise and lesson).  The results of the research project proposed here will provide potential opportunities for students to gain professional experience by presenting the results at a regional conference (e.g., the Midwest Ecology & Evolution Conference) or writing a manuscript intended for publication.  Finally, the data produced through this work will also be used as pilot data for a planned NSF proposal studying food web recovery in restored prairies with other NIU faculty.