May 2, 2022

Students Study Wildlife Responses to Invasive Honeysuckle and Management

Photos courtesy of Justin J. Shew.

Honeysuckle Project Overview: Virtual lab takes hold during pandemic

Understanding wildlife responses to management and invasive species while engaging undergraduate students in the process is one of main facets of Dr. Justin Shew’s lab at National Great Rivers Research and Education Center (NGRREC), a division of Lewis and Clark Community College based in Godfrey, IL.

“We are specifically trying to better understand habitat management effects on wildlife from treefrogs to wild turkey…” said Shew “…and our partners and the NGRREC Strike Team are targeting management of invasive bush honeysuckle.” Honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.) was brought over from Asia and has taken over many unmanaged eastern and midwestern forest and woodlands by outcompeting numerous species of native plants for resources through its early and extended growing period.

An image of a virtual online meeting with six people.
One of many virtual lab meetings, with this one being held on April 6, 2022. Meeting topics can include research paper discussion, collaborative manuscript preparation, poster/oral presentation feedback, research logistics, research ideas and student opportunities. We also don’t like to take ourselves too seriously.

“Our Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) partners are taking advantage of this trait by spraying growing honeysuckle in the late fall with aerial herbicide sprays from crop dusters and helicopters after native plants have gone dormant,” Shew explained.

Unexpectedly, the pandemic has helped Shew maintain an active virtual lab, that would otherwise not be possible, where he meets weekly with students in a group and individually, virtually. Students “meet” from University of Illinois Springfield (UIS), Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Webster University (St. Louis, MO), Southeast Missouri State University (Cape Girardeau, MO), and Lewis and Clark Community College.

“Mentoring these enthusiastic students is easily the greatest aspect of my job,” said Shew. “Although we have a common honeysuckle project we have several student-driven side projects emerging from our lab meetings and discussions.”

Many of Shew’s summer interns from NGRREC’s 2021 Intern Program and before remain engaged in their summer research to present their findings at organizational annual meetings, such as the Illinois Chapter of the Wildlife Society, and to be submitted to peer-reviewed publications.

Management and Mapping

One UIS graduate student, Nicole Morris, an intern with the IDNR Division of Private Lands, is working on the honeysuckle project. Her internship has granted her the opportunity to assist with habitat management activities to control honeysuckle and then research its effects on wildlife.

“Removing bush honeysuckle promotes growth and diversity of native plant species which in turn can help wildlife,” explained Morris. The techniques often employed to improve habitat and control honeysuckle are herbicide spraying, prescribed burning and cut-stump herbicide treatment. Morris’s graduate capstone research project focuses on gaining a better understanding of how controlling honeysuckle via aerial spraying and prescribed burning has impacted the native wildlife, specifically the gray treefrog complex. Her objectives are focused on seeing how managed and unmanaged sites compare in regard to treefrog abundance and presence.

On the left, a green and gray treefrog rests at the lip of a PVC pipe against a tree trunk. On the right is a photo of the whole PVC pipe secured to the tree trunk with bungee cords. In the background is lush green vegetation.
Left: A gray treefrog rests at the lip of a PVC pipe refuge which has an installed escape rope for small mammals. Right: An artificial pipe refuge attached to an oak tree with bungee cords is used to survey gray treefrogs. Rainwater collects in the bottom cap simulating a damp tree cavity used by treefrogs.

“It’s fascinating to see how contrasting the environment is between managed and unmanaged areas.” said Morris. “Dense honeysuckle stands present in unmanaged areas make it nearly impossible to walk through.”

Besides collecting data in the field, Morris was also tasked with reaching out to IDNR District Natural Heritage Biologists, Illinois Recreational Access Program (IRAP) coordinators and landowners to find and piece together the management histories on these properties over the last 5 to 10 years. Her ultimate goal is to make a map of management across these properties using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for use in her capstone project and assist the lab in determining effects of management on wildlife in these areas.

Preliminary Results: Mammals, birds and methods improvement

Four photos are collaged together. The top left is a family of brown, gray, black raccoons. The top right is a close-up image of a bobcat's face. The bottom left is an albino white-tailed deer fawn with its reddish tan mother foraging in a woodland. The bottom right is a brown, black, and gray wild turkey walking through a woodland.
Jacob Decker, a 2021 NGRREC summer research intern, deployed multiple trail cameras during the summer of 2021. Among his observations were a raccoon family (top left), bobcat (top right), an albino white-tailed deer fawn with mother (bottom left) and wild turkey (bottom right).

Interns have performed research on a variety of subjects relating to habitat management. Jacob Decker, a former NGRREC intern and Habitat Strike Team member, used trail cameras to discover that there are generally more different mid-sized mammal species in areas sprayed with herbicide to reduce honeysuckle coverage. An earlier study done by Phil Rathz, of Lewis and Clark and a member of the Habitat Strike Team, also tended to find fewer Illinois forest bird Species of Greatest Conservation Need in areas with more honeysuckle.

The lab collectively just finished writing a paper for submission about a method for improving studies done with treefrogs, which commonly deploy PVC pipes as artificial shelters. In the earlier days of the study, the lab sometimes found small mammals getting caught in pipes. To prevent this, the team added escape ropes to the pipes, after which non-target mammal captures no longer occurred.

Intern Sage Chiles commented “it’s great that such a quick and cheap modification can fix this issue, so now we have reduced our impact on other species while trying to better understand how to help treefrogs.”

Frog Photo Identification

Six images comparing various aspects of a treefrog frog that is green with yellow splotches. Two images are the treefrog's back, and the other four images are comparing its hind legs.
A match example of a treefrog was found using the I3S software and pictures of the treefrog’s right leg. Pictures of the frog’s back and left leg were used to verify each match. The top row of pictures are of treefrog #13 from June 2, 2021 and the bottom row of pictures are of treefrog #13 from June 29, 2021.

This past year, Emma DeVeydt worked closely with Dr. Shew and his lab to complete her senior thesis project for her bachelor’s degree in biology through Webster University, while also completing a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduate internship at NGRREC. Throughout the year, she focused on individually identifying gray treefrogs by using photography and a computer software called I3S (Interactive Individual Identification System). She knew non-invasive photographic identification had been done with large marine mammals, such as whales, which relied on unique marks and scars on animals being matched by multiple photographs. She quickly became curious to see if this less-invasive method would work for the treefrogs. DeVeydt joined other interns working with Dr. Shew and took pictures of any gray treefrogs found in the PVC refuges. At her computer she then spent time going through each photo and inserting them into the program to build a photo database. After each round of photo collection, she would use the program to quickly find possible matches that were ranked and scored (i.e. frogs that were recaptured would have closer matches suggested by the program).

“The best part of the process was finding a match,” explained DeVeydt. “It was rewarding since it takes a lot of work to collect the photos, organize them, and prepare them for the software.” The data that she has collected has allowed her to compare gray treefrog recaptures to the amount of honeysuckle that was present at the site and if honeysuckle previously sprayed with herbicide would have an impact on the frogs’ recapture rate.

Nicole Morris is a graduate student at The University of Illinois – Springfield (UIS) working on her M.S. in Environmental Science and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) certification. She received her B.S. in Biology and Environmental Studies from UIS in 2020. She is certified as a prescribed burn manager and works as a Conservation Habitat Technician in the Private Lands Division at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Sage Chiles is a 2022 graduate from Southeast Missouri State University (SEMO) with a B.S. in Conservation and Wildlife Biology, and minors in Environmental Science and in Sustainability. Chiles is now working towards GIS and Master Naturalist certifications. They are the vice president of SEMO’s Diversify STEM club and a member of SEMO’s Stream Team club.

Emma DeVeydt graduated from Webster University in the fall of 2021 with her bachelors degree in biology with an emphasis in biodiversity. She has a passion for wildlife, conservation and sustainability, and is working to incorporate her passions into her career. Even though her focus has been centered on Missouri and Illinois native wildlife, she is aiming to redirect her focus to marine wildlife in Florida.

Justin J. Shew manages the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center’s Conservation Programs including the Land Conservation Specialist Program and Habitat Strike Team and is currently president-elect of the Illinois Chapter of the Wildlife Society. His research focuses on wildlife associations to multi-scale habitat. An example of his work can be found here. If you are an undergraduate student and have interest in joining Shew’s virtual lab you can contact him directly at for more information.

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