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Press Release: The Morton Arboretum and Shedd Aquarium named new Centers for Species Survival

The IUCN Species Survival Commission recognizes just eleven Centers on the planet

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CHICAGO (March 9, 2023) — Today, the Species Survival Commission (SSC) of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s largest conservation organization, announces that two iconic Chicago institutions – The Morton Arboretum and Shedd Aquarium – have been named as Centers for Species Survival. These new designations elevate the role of the Chicago region as an international leader in biodiversity conservation. What’s more, the two Centers will give the aquarium and the arboretum the opportunity to collaborate on conservation efforts, advancing projects that highlight the importance of aquatic and terrestrial linkages in Central American biodiversity hotspots.

Shedd Aquarium has been designated as the first dedicated Center for Species Survival: Freshwater and The Morton Arboretum as the first Center for Species Survival: Trees. Only eleven Centers are recognized globally by the IUCN SSC, five of which are in North America.

“Collaboration is critical for the conservation of our planet’s biodiversity,” said Prof. Jon Paul Rodríguez, IUCN SSC Chair. “Shedd’s deep understanding of freshwater conservation and The Morton Arboretum’s demonstrated success leading the conservation of trees will allow our global network to expand our shared impact to new geographic areas and add new species of animals, fungi and plants to assess, plan and act.”

Centers for Species Survival are partnerships between leading conservation organizations and the IUCN SSC – a commission made up of more than 8,300 conservationists worldwide. Centers are hosted by leading zoological and botanical conservation organizations that are already engaged in work with key species or in specific geographical focus areas. These new designations will empower Shedd Aquarium, based in Chicago and The Morton Arboretum, just 25 miles west in Lisle, Ill., to advance their ongoing efforts to assess aquatic species and trees in biodiversity hotspots, plan science-driven conservation strategies and help the public act for nature.

The new Centers for Species Survival are being funded by the Walder Foundation, a private family foundation based in Skokie, Illinois, focused in part on funding work in environmental sustainability.

Center for Species Survival: Trees

“Trees are the scaffolding of forest ecosystems, supporting much of the world’s biodiversity and the livelihoods of millions of people,” said Silvia Alvarez-Clare, Ph.D., director of global tree conservation at The Morton Arboretum. “But they are facing peril from many different threats, and a third of the world’s tree species are facing extinction.”

The State of the World’s Trees Report, the first assessment of Earth’s approximately 60,000 tree species, revealed that more than 17,500 are threatened with extinction. That is more than double the combined number of globally threatened mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.

The top dangers facing trees globally are climate change, land-use change for agriculture, logging, pests and diseases, Alvarez-Clare noted, adding that each of these concerns requires unique but coordinated actions in collaboration with local community members, partners and stakeholders.

“Through this new tree-focused Center, our researchers will be able to expand essential work with partners in critical regions of biodiversity, such as Mesoamerica and Southeast Asia, to implement conservation strategies that protect trees and benefit humans as well,” said Alvarez-Clare.

“With a third of the world’s tree species threatened with extinction, the establishment of the first tree-focused Center for Species Survival at The Morton Arboretum is a huge boost for plant conservation,” said Paul Smith, executive director of Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) and co-chair of the IUCN SSC Plant Conservation Committee. “Building on its already well-established reputation as The Champion of Trees, the Arboretum is providing global leadership in tree species conservation.”

Work at the Arboretum’s Center will elevate the importance of trees and plants while developing strategies and policies aimed at mitigating and reversing the global biodiversity crisis. The Center will also place a special emphasis on educating and inspiring the next generation of tree champions through outreach programs in Chicago and beyond.

“Botanical gardens and arboreta are in a strategic position at the intersection of research, outreach and conservation, and thus play a critical role in safeguarding and advocating for the world’s tree species,” Alvarez-Clare said. “As botanical gardens and arboreta continue to expand their focus on conservation worldwide, the Center will serve as a model for conservation action.”

Center for Species Survival: Freshwater

Despite covering only about 0.8 percent of the Earth’s surface, freshwater habitats support a disproportionately large amount of unique aquatic life – more than 10 percent of all known animals and about 50 percent of all fish species on the planet. More broadly, a recent paper that Shedd contributed to also described nine different services that freshwater ecosystems provide – supporting food production, human health, water purification, climate regulation and more.

These same vital freshwater systems are the most imperiled ecosystems on the planet and face a growing list of challenges like pollution, habitat loss, overexploitation, fragmentation (e.g., dams and culverts) and the climate crisis. Shedd Aquarium’s Center for Species Survival: Freshwater will elevate awareness of threats to freshwater habitats across the globe to help combat the current trend of freshwater biodiversity loss, which will benefit animals, plants and humans alike.

“The Center for Species Survival: Freshwater comes at a perfect time, as we are shifting our focus from assessment, towards planning and implementing conservation actions,” said Topiltzin Contreras, co-chair of the IUCN SSC Freshwater Conservation Committee. “I foresee it as becoming a beacon for global freshwater biodiversity conservation.”

Shedd’s collaborative work will focus on critical watersheds in Central America, where aquatic wildlife populations are at risk of extinction. Leveraging the aquarium’s existing portfolio of freshwater research, one attention area for the Shedd will be on freshwater mussels – animals that face the highest level of threat on the planet. Shedd will replicate and scale its ongoing freshwater mussels research, currently conducted throughout the Midwest, and scale it across key areas of Central America, all while building capacity for freshwater conservation in-country. The work will also be expanded to include complementary surveying of freshwater fishes via a partnership with Chicago’s Field Museum.

“This designation strengthens Shedd Aquarium’s ability to build partnerships, conduct field research and apply our conservation science in ways that make meaningful and sustainable change for freshwater habitats and species globally,” said Chuck Knapp, Ph.D., vice president of conservation research at Shedd Aquarium and co-chair of the IUCN SSC Iguana Specialist Group. “Shedd is thrilled at the opportunity to broaden freshwater conservation beyond the Great Lakes and maximize our global impact.”

Using tools produced by IUCN, Shedd will work alongside local collaborators to assess potential extinction threats, identify key biodiversity areas and train local partners to build capacity for this work so that it can be sustained within the region.

“Now, more than ever, we cannot fall behind the curve on how we look at addressing threats to freshwater, said Ian Harrison, co-chair of the IUCN SSC Freshwater Conservation Committee. “This requires collaboration and resources, focused where we know we can have the best effect. The addition of Shedd Aquarium to IUCN SSC’s global network of partners will be extremely important in addressing these most urgent needs and will help us conserve ecologically and culturally iconic species.”