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One year later: Chicago’s two Centers for Species Survival report conservation progress for Earth Day

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CHICAGO, Ill. (April 17, 2024)—Chicago’s two Centers for Species Survival are reporting progress on Earth Day, one year after being established to conserve trees and freshwater ecosystems and raising awareness of the need to prevent irreversible species extinction.

Since their designations in March 2023, The Morton Arboretum’s Center for Species Survival: Trees and Shedd Aquarium’s Center for Species Survival: Freshwater have further advanced their ongoing conservation efforts in their respective fields and geographic areas, while also developing plans to collaborate on community-based conservation of the Cotón River watershed in Costa Rica. The Species Survival Commission of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the world’s largest conservation organization, has partnered with only 18 such centers globally, with six in North America.

“Having two Centers for Species Survival here has raised Chicago’s international profile as an ecosystem preservation hub,” said Silvia Alvarez-Clare, Ph.D., the Arboretum’s director of global tree conservation. “Earth Day provides the opportunity to highlight our work with local partners to safeguard biodiversity—in some of the most ecologically threatened areas of the world for current and future generations.”

Yasmín Quintana, Ph.D., Shedd’s manager for the Center Species Survival: Freshwater, said, “The impact of the Centers for Species Survival has allowed us to spark curiosity and compassion for the care and preservation of our natural treasures with a diverse public. I am thrilled to continue to elevate conversations around the importance of our planet’s trees and unique life underwater in honor of Earth Day.”

Latin America and Southeast Asia are key study areas for the Arboretum’s Center, while Shedd’s Center focuses largely on Central America, all locations with many threatened species.

The Chicago-based Centers for Species Survival are partly funded by the Walder Foundation, a private family foundation based in Skokie, Illinois, that champions Chicago through its investment in five key areas, including environmental sustainability.

Center for Species Survival: Trees

The work of the Arboretum focuses on promoting the understanding of rare and threatened tree species through scientific research, working with communities to conserve and recover tree populations and ecosystems, and activating key audiences both in Chicago and around the world.

In Mexico, the Center’s work resulted in more than 250 herbarium specimens collected for research, and the documentation of a new population of the endangered oak, Quercus flocculenta. In the state of Baja California Sur, 20 new individuals of the critically endangered tree species Guaiacum unijugum were discovered—doubling the known number of this rare species. Seedlings are being propagated for restoration efforts.

In Costa Rica and Guatemala, the Arboretum’s team is working with local partners to restore the tropical cloud forest’s ecosystem through integrated conservation efforts with communities and protected-area managers.

During the first year, the Center led more than 20 training workshops and outreach activities across six countries, empowering hundreds of people to advance tree conservation efforts. Among them, in Thailand and Vietnam, workshops for local botanists and conservationists helped them learn how to build capacity and assess the extinction risk of tree species. In Mexico, the Arboretum’s team worked with local women to create plant guides for ecotourism activities.

As part of its effort to increase conservation reach and impact, the Arboretum selected eight Chicago-area teachers, grades 6-12, for an education-focused forest immersion trip to Costa Rica in March. The teachers learned from local experts and community members about the importance and challenges of conserving tropical ecosystems and are using the experience to prepare curricula for their students.

“Education is a fundamental component of our work,” said Alvarez-Clare. “By supporting local educators to create innovative and experience-based curricula, we hope to reach hundreds of students to inspire their continued learning about the natural world and become advocates for biodiversity conservation.”

Center for Species Survival: Freshwater

Similarly, the Shedd Center’s fieldwork has taken researchers into muddy, crocodile-filled waters to uncover, understand and identify Central American freshwater mussels—animals that are not only among the most imperiled groups in the world but also have very scarce available data. Freshwater mussels in Central America remain understudied and knowledge gaps hamper managers’ ability to strategize and perform conservation actions. The journeys to Guatemala, Costa Rica and El Salvador have garnered the documentation of new mussel records as well as rich opportunities to collaborate with local partners to elevate awareness and support future protection of biodiversity-rich areas.

Through expeditions throughout Central America, the Center has provided field experiences and training for researchers to conduct freshwater mussel surveys, take tissue samples and preserve specimens. To support the expansion of freshwater mussel knowledge and protection, the Center partnered with eight key stakeholders from Central America’s academic and government sectors to support conservation locally.

This year, the team explored 32 survey sites in Costa Rica and 11 sites in El Salvador. In Costa Rica, they uncovered four different species of freshwater mussels. Three mussels were native to the region, and one was a non-native species from Asia, the Chinese pond mussel. In El Salvador, three native species and one non-native species were found.

“By expanding research efforts and collaboration, we aim to create ripple effects that will ultimately help safeguard precious freshwater ecosystems and species at risk,” said Quintana. “The verification of specimens, the field training and curatorial assistance provided by our freshwater mussel expert Dr. Kentaro Inoue are helping develop a foundation of freshwater scientists through meaningful partnerships in the region.”

The fieldwork encouraged collaboration with scientists from the Field Museum of Natural History and Universidad de Costa Rica to research freshwater fishes in Costa Rica, targeting species classified as data deficient.

The Center’s efforts throughout Central America have helped to expand freshwater key biodiversity areas, establish a strategic network and increase capacity for support. Work has already begun on a gap analysis of threatened species for freshwater fishes and mussels in Central America based on the Global Red List of Threatened Species and National Lists of Endangered Species.

In Latin America, Southeast Asia and beyond, the Centers will continue to partner with local communities to advance biodiversity research and conservation efforts, inspire conservation action worldwide and safeguard species for generations to come.

Visit the Arboretum’s blog to learn more about the work of the Center for Species Survival: Trees.