Plant Ecology Laboratory Archive

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Site 2026: Adel, Sheboygan County, June 10, 1952
Site 2026: Adel, Sheboygan County, June 10, 1952

The University of Wisconsin Plant Ecology Laboratory has its origins in Dr. John T. Curtis’s studies of the vegetation of Wisconsin, which began in the 1940s. From the start, the Laboratory integrated a dual rationale: a physical place to store original data and publications, and a body of accumulated theory and understanding about how species relate to the natural environments in the region. More on history of the Laboratory can be found here.

Dr. Curtis and his students and colleagues in the 1940s and 50s produced a rich legacy of qualitative and quantitative field data gathered from almost 2,000 study sites throughout Wisconsin. These data constitute detailed descriptions of most natural habitats found in the state and provide the basis for his seminal book, The Vegetation of Wisconsin. These data were carefully archived in the Ecology Records Room in Birge Hall until 2013. Field data sheets from each site include a description of the site (usually with a map) and a list of the woody and herbaceous species observed. Data from prairies and other open communities typically include information on percent cover by species. Data from forested sites include estimates of canopy conditions (the frequency and size of approximately 80 trees at each site) and the frequency at which understory species occurred across 20 – 40 quadrats, each one square meter in size. Some sites include soil data or surveys of the fungi present.

These legacy data provide a detailed baseline for assessing how these communities have changed across Wisconsin. Members of a broad team of Plant Ecology Lab researchers have been systematically resampling the Curtis sites to describe and assess ecological change. The large number of sites and species, plus the half-century that has elapsed since the original fieldwork, allow us to assess ecological change with regard to both species (e.g., which have increased or decreased in range or abundance?) and sites (e.g., which have lost or gained native and invasive species?). We are tracking species invasions, local extinctions, changes in community diversity, changes in composition (e.g., homogenization), and shifts in species’ local and regional abundances. We then seek to relate these changes to potential drivers of ecological change including succession, changes in local site conditions, habitat fragmentation, species invasions, climate change, shifts in disturbance regimes, and herbivory by white-tailed deer. This research is also spawning additional projects, including several under the auspices of a recent National Science Foundation “Dimensions of Biodiversity” Project.

In 2012 the Department of Botany and the Digital Collections Center at UW-Madison began a collaboration to make Curtis’s field data more widely accessible by digitally scanning all the field data forms. This digital collection provides an indexed set of these images arranged by site. The original field data forms and associated legacy documents that were stored in the Plant Ecology Records Room in Birge Hall have been moved to the Wisconsin State Records Center. This remains a work in progress but we anticipate all the field data will be digitized and available by 2016.

For additional information, please visit the Plant Ecology Laboratory web pages, or contact Drs. Don Waller ( or Bil Alverson ( in the Department of Botany at UW – Madison.