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Chicago Botanic Garden and Service interns use genetic clues to guide imperiled orchid restoration efforts
Midwest Region, August 13, 2015
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Rachel Wells (Chicago Botanic Garden Intern) and Claire Ellwanger (FWS Intern)locate a blooming eastern prairie fringed orchid at a privately owned site in Wisconsin.  The landowner graciously allowed Claire and Rachel to collect leaf samples for this research project.
Rachel Wells (Chicago Botanic Garden Intern) and Claire Ellwanger (FWS Intern)locate a blooming eastern prairie fringed orchid at a privately owned site in Wisconsin. The landowner graciously allowed Claire and Rachel to collect leaf samples for this research project. - Photo Credit: John Van Alteena
A close up of the infloresence of the eastern prairie fringed orchid.  The number of flowers on an infloresence can vary from three to forty flowers.
A close up of the infloresence of the eastern prairie fringed orchid. The number of flowers on an infloresence can vary from three to forty flowers. - Photo Credit: Laurie Ryan
Claire Ellwanger (FWS Intern)and Dionna Bidny (Chicago Botanic Garden Intern) at an orchid site in Illinois collecting leaf samples from the many blooming orchid plants (foreground).
Claire Ellwanger (FWS Intern)and Dionna Bidny (Chicago Botanic Garden Intern) at an orchid site in Illinois collecting leaf samples from the many blooming orchid plants (foreground). - Photo Credit: Cathy Pollack
Jordan Duncan (Chicago Botanic Garden Intern), Rachel Wells, and Dionna Bidny hard at work in the Chicago Botanic Garden labs extracting DNA from orchid leaf samples.
Jordan Duncan (Chicago Botanic Garden Intern), Rachel Wells, and Dionna Bidny hard at work in the Chicago Botanic Garden labs extracting DNA from orchid leaf samples. - Photo Credit: Claire Ellwanger
Underside of an actual eastern prairie fringed orchid leaf.  Only a small portion of one leaf from a plant is needed for this analysis which is not detrimental to the plant.
Underside of an actual eastern prairie fringed orchid leaf. Only a small portion of one leaf from a plant is needed for this analysis which is not detrimental to the plant. - Photo Credit: Cathy Pollack

This summer a team of interns from the Chicago Botanic Garden are working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to recover a federally threatened orchid, eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea). Claire Ellwanger, a graduate student in the Plant Biology and Conservation Program at Northwestern and the Chicago Botanic Garden and a Service intern through the Student Conservation Association, is conducting thesis research to assess how FWS management practices have been achieving the goal of reducing inbreeding in orchid populations. Elevated levels of inbreeding can result in reduced health of populations and lead to their extinction. With this in mind, volunteers and the FWS have been working for over 20 years to minimize mating between closely related plants and to increase seed set in small populations. Employed restoration practices include hand pollination within the same populations and seed dispersal to nearby orchid populations. Using genetic analysis of preserved DNA from 1998 and samples collected this summer (2015), this work will be the first direct assessment of the genetic impact of recovery actions on prairie orchid populations.  Assisting Claire are Jordan Duncan, Rachel Wells, and Dionna Bidny. Rachel attends Hendrix College in Arkansas, and is part of the Chicago Botanic Garden Research Experience for Undergraduates program which selects from a national pool of applicants who gain research experience working on plant conservation projects at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Dionna is in high school and attending Oakton Community College, where she receives funding for her summer internship. Jordan is part of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s college first program, where Chicago public school students have access to conservation science research experience, career mentorship, as well as college preparation and assistance.

Besides helping with field work, Jordan, Rachel and Dionna spend time in the Botanic Garden labs extracting DNA from orchid leaf samples collected from Illinois prairies and analyzing the quality of the DNA they extract. Extracting DNA is the first step to assess genetic change in Illinois orchid populations that have undergone different restoration practices.

The Service's Chicago Field Office is also collaborating with other field offices and volunteers range-wide to collect leaf samples from orchid populations. This range-wide analysis will help identify areas that may harbor high levels of genetic diversity for conservation priority. This summer the interns have been able to gain lab experience and also collect samples in the field. It has been a great opportunity to learn native prairie plants as well, because the orchids persist in some of the highest quality wet prairies left in Illinois.


Contact Info: Cathy Pollack, 847/ 608-3101, cathy_pollack@fws.gov
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