Illinois was once dominated by prairie. Grasses and tall flowers covered much of the state, harboring wildlife uniquely adapted to this signature Midwest landscape.
Today, though, less than 1 percent of the state’s original prairie remains intact. The habitat has been converted for agriculture and harnessed for development, causing declines in key species that call the prairie home.
It’s not all bad news, though. Lincoln Park Zoo is partnering with local wildlife agencies to restore prairie wildlife. Recently we saw two local species take a welcome step back to the wild.
The first bit of good news involves the hatching of 20 ornate box turtles behind the scenes at the Kovler Lion House. These tiny turtles are the second wave in a recovery program conducted in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The zoo's first batch of ornate box turtle hatchlings have returned to the wild, but 20 new turtles have just hatched behind the scenes at the Kovler Lion House.
How does it work? The hatchlings spend a year growing under the eyes of zoo experts. Then the turtles are released to Lost Mound Sand Prairie in Savanna, Illinois, where the “head start” is expected to help them thrive. The first release group, 18 turtles that hatched at the zoo in August 2012, is being monitored now after a June release to test that theory.
Ornate box turtles aren’t the only species returning to the prairie. On Monday, zoo biologists also released nine meadow jumping mice into the Lake County Forest Preserve District.
Reared in a breeding group at Lincoln Park Zoo, these native mice play an important role in dispersing seeds. But their small size makes it unlikely for them to colonize the Forest Preserve District’s restored habitat on their own. So zoo experts are helping to rear, release and track the species.
A meadow jumping mouse is readied for the first release in July. Photo by Sharon Dewar.
How do you track such tiny animals? You equip them with even tinier transmitters that let zoo scientists follow them through the fields. Reintroduction biologist Allison Sacerdote-Velat reports that one of the males has already moved 400 feet from his release site—a big distance for a little animal.
Data like this will help us improve future releases. Ultimately, with your support, Lincoln Park Zoo can continue to play a leading role in restoring prairie species to their natural home. Which only makes sense…Illinois is the “Prairie State,” after all.