How and where can we best conserve biodiversity through ecological restoration? Virtually all visions for a sustainable global future now include a strong role for ecosystem restoration, and the practice of ecological restoration has been invigorated in recent years by large-scale restoration commitments spanning tens of millions of hectares in dozens of countries. As these ambitions are put into practice, our lab plays a role in identifying the most suitable locations for restoration and matching them to efficient restoration strategies.

Developing a framework and methods to restore Virginia grasslands

Grasslands in the southeastern United States are among the richest plant communities in the country, but grasslands and their associated flora and fauna are declining due to a suite of inter-related causes. In collaboration with the Clifton Institute and the Virginia Working Landscapes program, we are experimentally testing different strategies to restore native grassland in northern Virginia. Restoration strategies include prescribed burning, mowing, spraying, and discing in combination with different native seed mixes. Our lab is monitoring plant community structure and composition and soil structure and chemistry in the experiment. Because there are few remnant grasslands in Virginia for comparison, we are also interested in developing a reference model to use for gauging the success of grassland restoration projects.

Designing tropical tree plantings to facilitate colonization by under-represented plants

Tree planting is a common strategy for restoring tropical forests on former agricultural or mining lands, but the forests that regenerate are typically depauperate in some groups of organisms, such as large-seeded trees and vascular epiphytes. Our lab monitors the ecological communities that recolonize tropical forest restoration sites, identifies under-represented organisms, and designs and tests strategies to facilitate their colonization and establishment. Since 2007, Leighton has been working within an experiment in southern Costa Rica called the Islas Experiment that manipulates the quantity and configuration of trees planted for forest restoration. Since 2014, Leighton and a collaborator, Rakan Zahawi, have also been manipulating tree propagation methods and tree composition in forest restoration plantings. Current research in our lab aims to rapidly establish fruiting trees that are hubs in mutualistic networks in order to attract wildlife and enhance dispersal of large-seeded, animal-dispersed trees.

For more information:

  • Blog post about the Islas Experiment on Natural History of Ecological Restoration
  • Blog post about planting giant fig tree stakes on Natural History of Ecological Restoration

Selected publications:

  • Zahawi, RA & JL Reid. 2018. Tropical secondary forest enrichment with giant stakes of keystone fig species. Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation 16:133-138. Open Access
  • Holl, KD, JL Reid, F Oviedo-Brenes, A Kulikowski & RA Zahawi. 2018. Rules of thumb for predicting tropical forest recovery. Applied Vegetation Science 21:669-677.
  • Reid JL, JM Chaves-Fallas, KD Holl & RA Zahawi. 2016. Tropical forest restoration enriches vascular epiphyte recovery. Applied Vegetation Science 19:508-517. PDF
  • Reid, JL, CD Mendenhall, RA Zahawi, & KD Holl. 2015. Scale-dependent effects of forest restoration on Neotropical fruit bats. Restoration Ecology 23:681-689.
  • Reid, JL, KD Holl & RA Zahawi. 2015. Seed dispersal limitations shift over time in tropical forest restoration. Ecological Applications 25:1072-1082.
  • Reid, JL, CD Mendenhall, JA Rosales, RA Zahawi & KD Holl. 2014. Landscape context mediates avian habitat choice in tropical forest restoration. PLoS One 9:e90573.

Funding: National Science Foundation, IdeaWild

Evaluating the causes and consequences of restored ecosystem persistence

Ecological restoration produces many benefits, such as carbon storage and biodiversity conservation. These and other benefits accrue gradually as ecosystems recover, but frequently ecosystem recovery is cut short when lands are converted to alternative uses. Research in our lab aims to answer three temporal questions about ecological restoration: (1) How long do restored ecosystems persist? (2) How does restored ecosystem persistence vary in space and time? And (3) How can we increase restored ecosystem persistence? These questions are critically important as enormous areas of the world are slated to be restored by 2030, but the benefits of all of this restoration depend almost entirely on what happens to restored lands between 2030 and the end of the century.

For more information:

  • Article about our research in Costa Rica on
  • Video presentation about our research in Costa Rica (15 min)

Selected publications:

  • Reid, JL. 2018. Restoration Ecology’s Silver Jubilee: Big time questions for restoration ecology. Restoration Ecology 26:1029-1031. PDF
  • Reid, JL, ME Fagan, J Lucas, J Slaughter & RA Zahawi. 2018. The ephemerality of regenerating forests in southern Costa Rica. Conservation Letters 12:e12607. Open Access
  • Reid, JL, S Wilson, G Bloomfield, M Cattau, ME Fagan, KD Holl & RA Zahawi. 2017. How long do restored ecosystems persist? Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 102: 258-265. Open Access

Funding: National Science Foundation

Testing strategies for temperate woodland restoration

Temperate woodlands are most often restored using a combination of prescribed burning, tree thinning, and sometimes seeding with native, herbaceous plants. In collaboration with scientists at the Missouri Botanical Garden, I studied long-term patterns of vegetation development in a restored woodland in southeastern Missouri. During 10 years of restoration, the ground-layer plant community filled in and became much more diverse, however species dependent on intact woodland habitat (i.e., conservative species) did not readily colonize on their own. To learn about the barriers to conservative plant colonization, we designed an experiment testing three factors: (1) soil microbial community source; (2) plant competition; and (3) the amount of time that a woodland had undergone restoration via prescribed burning and tree thinning. We anticipate that conservative plants will grow and survive more when inoculated with microbial communities from remnant woodland soil and when other competing vegetation is removed. We further expect that the effect of soil inoculation will be greatest in more recently restored woodlands, whereas the effect of removing competing vegetation will be greatest in older restored woodlands.

For more information:

  • Blog post on Natural History of Ecological Restoration

Funding: Living Earth Collaborative