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Elusive venomous mammal joins the genome club

Published March 16, 2018
Solenodon. Credit: Eladio Fernandez, Caribbean Nature Photography

URBANA, Ill. – Published today, in the journal GigaScience, is an article that presents a draft genome of a small shrew-like animal, the venomous Hispaniolan solenodon (Solenodon paradoxus). The endangered species is unusual not only because it is one of the very few venomous mammals, it is also one of only two species remaining from a branch of mammals that split from other insectivores during the “Age of Dinosaurs.”

The genome sequencing and analysis of this endangered animal was carried out by an international team lead by Taras K. Oleksyk from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez and including Alfred Roca from the University of Illinois. While the mammalian tree of life has been heavily researched, the genome of the solenodon adds a distantly related branch to the “genome club,” allowing researchers to answer several evolutionary questions.

Solenodons’ venomous saliva flows from modified salivary glands through grooves on their sharp incisors (“solenodon” derives from the Greek for “grooved tooth”). They also have several other primitive and very unusual characteristics for a mammal: very large claws, a flexible snout with a ball-and-socket joint, and oddly positioned mammary glands.

Solenodons are not just genetically but also geographically isolated. At risk of extinction, they survive only in a few remote corners of the Caribbean islands, with one species in Cuba and the other in Hispaniola. Its nocturnal lifestyle makes it even more elusive and therefore less studied. Thus, it was crucial for the researchers to work with local experts at the Instituto Tecnológico de Santo Domingo and Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo and with local guides who helped them track and temporarily capture passing solenodons at night.

“Local resources are absolutely necessary for this kind of work since only they truly know their animals’ behavior,” said Juan Carlos Martinez-Cruzado, one of the lead authors from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. He added, “This project may open doors to many others to come, and we always assumed this to be one of many projects that will help research, education and conservation efforts in the Dominican Republic.”

For this project, there was more than just the challenge of obtaining the organisms for blood samples; the solenodon genome proved particularly difficult to sequence. Carrying out genomics research in remote parts of the Caribbean was not easy, particularly in terms of transporting high-quality DNA to the lab. This poor-quality DNA and a limited research budget led to spotty genetic information for each individual.

Having already ventured into the wilderness, the researchers embraced this new challenge by coming up with novel approaches to assemble the genome. First, the researchers reasoned that because the species has lived for millions of years in isolation it was somewhat inbred and would have low genetic diversity. This led to a potential work-around, because genomic datasets from each of five solenodons could be pooled to increase the coverage.

 Despite initial doubts, this worked better than expected, especially when the researchers combined this with a new approach that provided a low-budget alternative for genome assembly for endangered species with low diversity.  

The first author of the paper, Kirill Grigorev elaborated that, for him, the most interesting part of the research was the challenge of putting together the genome sequences in a manner “that was suitable for comparative genomics, using an amount of sequencing data much smaller than in other similar projects.”

After carrying out their assembly, the researchers had data of sufficient quality for answering many scientific questions on solenodon evolution. With regard to conservation plans, the data supports that there was a subspecies split within the Hispaniolan solenodon at least 300,000 years ago, meaning the northern and southern subspecies should be treated as two separate conservation units and may therefore require independent conservation strategies.

These data also shed light on the initial speciation event for this branch, and showed that solenodons likely diverged from other living mammals 73.6 million years ago, a remarkably ancient split that occurred while dinosaurs still roamed the earth. Oleksyk indicated that these results are relevant to “the ongoing debate on whether the solenodons have indeed survived the demise of dinosaurs after the asteroid impact in the Caribbean.

“It is difficult to determine whether the ancestors of solenodons were already in the proto-Antilles when the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs impacted nearby, or whether their ancestors survived on the North American mainland and later dispersed onto the island,” said Alfred Roca of the University of Illinois, a co-author on the study. “Perhaps their Freddy Krueger-like claws allowed them to burrow their way to safety.”

The article, "Innovative assembly strategy contributes to understanding the evolution and conservation genetics of the endangered Solenodon paradoxus from the island of Hispaniola," is published in GigaScience. The research was supported, in part, by a grant from the National Science Foundation (award #1432092).

News Writer:

ACES Research

Managing crabgrass and other annual grassy weeds in the lawn

Published March 16, 2018

URBANA, Ill. – Besides the dandelion, the next biggest lawn challenge can be those annoying annual grasses, says Richard Hentschel, horticulture educator for University of Illinois Extension.

Crabgrass is not the only grassy weed out there, even though it is the one we see advertised by name, the one we recognize the most. There are two types: smooth and large crabgrass

As an annual grassy weed, crabgrass seeds germinate in the spring once soil warms and there is adequate soil moisture. Other grassy weeds require the same conditions. “Those other grassy weeds include yellow and green foxtails, goosegrass, and barnyard grass,” Hentschel says.

Crabgrass is typically described as a low-growing prostrate grass with a bunch-type root system. Annual foxtails are upright in habit, while barnyard grass and goosegrass are low-growing, just like crabgrass. Crabgrass differs in one big way from the other annual grassy weeds, however. “It will root down along the nodes, making it very difficult to remove by hand if allowed to establish in the lawn,” Hentschel says.

Crabgrass management should start in the spring, yet if conditions are right, annual grasses can germinate over a longer period. Grasses, both weedy and desirable types, are monocots. Monocots prefer warmer temperatures, according to Hentschel, which explains why farmers are not out planting field corn (a type of grass) before the soil warms adequately.

Application timing for annual grass prevention products will vary throughout the state. Using central Illinois as ground zero, applications are normally applied mid- to late April. Since southern Illinois soils warm up earlier, treatments should be applied one to two weeks earlier and for northern Illinois one to two weeks later.

These ranges of applications also depend on the kind of spring we are having, Hentschel says.

“With an early, warm spring, apply the first week; the second week for a cold spring. Crabgrass prevention products put down too early will not last long enough to prevent germination through the late spring and early summer,” Hentschel says, “so timing is everything.”

Crabgrass prevention materials really only need to be applied to those parts of the lawn that have had consistent problems in the past. Annual grasses commonly invade parkways and edges of the sidewalk. Part of the long-term cure is to find out why the annual grasses return each year.

Open bare areas or thinned turf will be prime areas for annual grass invasion. Encourage your lawn grasses to fill in with topdressing and seed. Consider raising the mower deck a notch to allow the lawn grasses to be a little taller. “That will shade the soil, helping to keep those annual grassy weed seeds from germinating,” Hentschel says.

Once you see that first lighter-green crabgrass seedling in the lawn, it is too late for any pre-emergence products, according to Hentschel. If there are just a few seedlings showing, they pull very easily at that stage. Mature crabgrass plants will create an even bigger area of bare ground as they smother the grasses below.

News Writer:

University of Illinois Extension

Thinking ahead: Corn rootworm management for 2018

Published March 13, 2018
Western corn rootworm adult
Western corn rootworm adult

URBANA, Ill. – Illinois corn growers in the northern and central parts of the state have come to expect some rootworm damage, but University of Illinois entomologists say putting management plans in place now could help growers avoid major losses.

“Over the last few years, western corn rootworm populations with resistance to toxins present in common Bt corn hybrids have been documented in Illinois,” says Joseph Spencer, insect behaviorist at the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) at U of I.

“We’re specifically seeing resistance to Cry3Bb1 and mCry3A toxins, but we know that resistance to these toxins also confers resistance to the structurally similar eCry3.1Ab toxin,” he says. “Cross-resistance among these ‘Cry3’ Bt toxins should be expected for Illinois western corn rootworm populations.”

Resistance to pest-control practices in western corn rootworm is nothing new; the insect is notorious for developing resistance to control tactics such as insecticides and crop rotation. Part of the concern with these recent developments is that there are relatively few Bt toxins available to combat corn rootworm.

“All available hybrids with pyramided traits for corn rootworm use either Cry3Bb1 or mCry3A in combination with a second toxin, either Cry34/35Ab1 or eCry3.1Ab,” Spencer says. “This means where resistance is present in the population, there might be at best only one effective toxin at work.”

There are steps producers can take to manage corn rootworm and possibly slow further development of resistance. Nick Seiter, entomologist in the Department of Crop Sciences at U of I, says the best way to delay resistance to any control tactic is to reduce exposure of the target insect to that tactic in the environment. This can be accomplished using the following strategies.

Apply rootworm control, whether in the form of a Bt hybrid or a soil insecticide, only where it is economically justified. This determination should be based on sampling rootworm adults the previous year. According to surveys conducted by Kelly Estes, agricultural pest survey coordinator for Illinois Extension and INHS, densities of rootworm adults have been relatively low in recent years, although they did trend slightly upward in 2017.

“If you monitor using a yellow sticky trap, the economic threshold is two rootworm beetles per trap per day in corn following corn,” Spencer says. “For rotated corn, the economic threshold is 1.5 western corn rootworm beetles per trap per day in soybean.”

Rotating corn with soybean or another non-host crop remains an effective management strategy in the southern portion of the state. While crop rotation is no longer a reliable method to protect first-year corn from western corn rootworm damage in central and northern Illinois, Seiter notes, all larvae that hatch into soybean still die, and every acre planted to soybean is an acre where larvae are not being exposed to Bt toxins or soil insecticides.

Where monitoring indicates that control is justified in corn, rotate the control measures used from year to year. This means rotating Bt hybrids with different trait combinations and non-Bt hybrids treated with a soil insecticide.

“Follow all refuge requirements for any Bt corn hybrids you plant. In many cases, the ‘refuge in a bag’ or ‘RIB’ approach is now used, but check with your seed distributor on specific requirements for your hybrids,” Seiter says.

Finally, an important step is to monitor the performance of control methods. While lodging is often the cue growers look out for to identify rootworm damage, it’s important to remember that corn can take a lot of damage without lodging, and plenty of factors other than rootworm damage can lead plants to lodge.

“The best approach to evaluating rootworm damage is to dig a representative sample of roots in late July and evaluate them for feeding damage: unpleasant work, but necessary if we want to understand the true extent of the damage,” Seiter says.

Consider planting a small area or a portion of a row with a non-Bt/untreated hybrid as a check strip. Having an untreated patch in the field will allow growers to compare the efficacy of the management tactic vs. the background level of damage where no rootworm protection was used.

Finally, if you experience greater damage than expected in Bt corn hybrids in 2018, let Seiter know by emailing “Your reports will help us document the status of resistance in Illinois and provide updated information to producers,” he says.

For more information, read the full report on The Bulletin.

The story of the pawpaw tree

Published March 13, 2018
pawpaw fruit

URBANA, Ill. – Spring is a time of swelling buds and wildflowers in Illinois forests. However, you might miss the flowering display of some plants if you don’t keep a close watch.

University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator Ryan Pankau has a preference for one of our native trees. “One of my favorite early spring flowers to find in the forest is pawpaw,” he says.

Pankau explains that the tiny flowers of pawpaw (Asimina triloba) are often unnoticed by humans since they appear prior to leaf-out. Although quite beautiful, these minute flowers—measuring only one to one and a half inches—are an interesting shade of maroon to purple-brown. Many of our common, native pollinators also overlook these specialized flowers.

“Pawpaws are pollinated by flies and beetles instead of bees, which pollinate many of our common food crops,” Pankau explains.

The faint—or often non-existent—scent of the pawpaw flower mimics the smell of rotting meat. These plants evolved flowers that attract blowflies or carrion beetles who naturally feed on dead and decaying animals. This pollination strategy is more common among tropical plants, but rare among our native temperate species.

Pawpaw exhibits other features of tropical plants, including specialized “drip-tips” on their leaves to help wick away water. The feature is common among tropical plants to eliminate moisture that can promote development of fungal diseases on foliage. The palm-like appearance of almost foot-long pawpaw leaves is also reminiscent of the tropics.

“Pawpaw is the northernmost species of the Annonaceae family, or custard apple family,” Pankau says. “Most of this plant family is concentrated in the tropics.”

The earliest fossil evidence of Asimina triloba originated in the Miocene Epoch (about 23 to 5.3 million years ago). At several points across the geologic time scale since the Miocene, our climate has warmed and tropical areas have expanded, subsequently increasing the range of the Annonaceae family.

In addition, scientists have hypothesized that many large fruits of Central America were dispersed by megafauna that were extinct by the end of the Pleistocene Epoch (2.6 million to 11,700 years ago). These factors, among others, resulted in a plant like pawpaw, which evolved in a more tropical setting, to call our temperate Midwest climate home today.

“There is evidence that humans played a role in pawpaw dispersal as well,” Pankau adds.

One of the earliest records of pawpaw is from Hernando de Soto’s expedition to the Americas in 1541. A Portuguese officer wrote in the expedition notes that Mississippi Valley Native Americans were cultivating and eating pawpaw. Given this and other accounts of pawpaw use by Native Americans, some dating back to over 10,000 years ago, it is likely their often nomadic lifestyle and trade with other tribes resulted in greater distribution of pawpaw prior to European settlement.  

Post-settlement, some of our founding fathers also cultivated pawpaw. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson included pawpaw plantings in their agricultural practices. Interestingly, pawpaw is noted to have sustained the Lewis and Clark expedition for a few weeks when rations were lean, although these fruits were certainly harvested from the wild.

Pawpaw fruits ripen in the fall, producing three- to six-inch long fruits that are soft-textured when ripe and have a flavor similar to banana. Some people also compare the taste to papaya, which is likely the tree’s namesake.

Due to the extremely short shelf life of this fruit, large-scale commercial production has been overlooked. However, more productive varieties of this fruit tree have been developed commercially and are for sale to home growers.

“If you are interested in adding a native taste of the tropics to your home garden, consider planting a few pawpaw trees this year,” Pankau recommends.

News Source:

Ryan Pankau, 217-333-7672

News Writer:

University of Illinois Extension

An estimate of March 1 corn stocks

Published March 12, 2018

URBANA, Ill. - On March 29, the USDA releases the Quarterly Grain Stocks report, which delivers an estimate of corn stocks in storage as of March 1, 2018. This estimate provides the ability to calculate the extent of feed and residual use of corn during the second quarter of the marketing year. The report also provides insight into the pace of feed and residual use during the entire marketing year and information on the potential size of corn ending stocks. 

According to University of Illinois agricultural economist Todd Hubbs, the estimates of corn stocks at the beginning of the second quarter totaled 12.516 billion bushels in the December Grain Stocks report. Currently, the Census Bureau estimates for corn imports are available through January.

“An estimate for second quarter corn imports of 9 million bushels appears reasonable and is used in this analysis. A combination of imports with beginning stocks indicates a total available supply for the second quarter of 12.525 billion bushels,” Hubbs says.

Except for feed and residual use, consumption levels for other corn consumption categories are available from a variety of sources. The Grain Crushing and Co-Products Production report released on March 1 estimated corn used for ethanol and co-product production during December and January at 964 million bushels.

Weekly estimates of ethanol production provided by the Energy Information Administration indicates ethanol production increased by one percent in February 2018 from the preceding year.

“By calculating the amount of corn used to produce ethanol from these February numbers, corn used for ethanol production in February was approximately 428 million bushels,” Hubbs explains. “At 1.392 billion bushels, total use for ethanol production during the second quarter outpaces last year’s use by 21 million bushels.”

Corn used to produce other food and industrial products during the current marketing year is projected at 1.47 billion bushels by the USDA. Using historical corn-use data, typically around 49 percent of the final marketing-year food and industrial products use occurs in the first half of the marketing year.

According to Hubbs, if this historical pattern holds and the USDA projection is correct, corn use for the first half of the marketing year totaled 720 million bushels. Corn use during the first quarter equaled 354 million bushels which sets the second-quarter use estimate at 366 million bushels.

An estimate of corn exports during the second quarter can be established from the cumulative weekly export inspections estimate available through February for the marketing year. Cumulative marketing-year export inspections through February totaled 739 million bushels.

During the first four months of the marketing year, total Census Bureau corn exports exceeded cumulative export inspections by 62 million bushels. “Assuming the margin stayed consistent through February, corn exports during the first half of the year equaled 801 million bushels,” Hubbs adds. “Since exports in the first quarter totaled 349 million bushels, the estimate for second-quarter corn exports equals 452 million bushels.”

The current USDA projection for feed and residual use sits at 5.55 billion bushels. Feed and residual use projections have increased by 100 million bushels since last August.

“However, in January, the projection was lowered by 25 million bushels due to the disappearance associated with the Dec. 1 stocks report. The historical pattern of feed and residual use in corn may provide some indication of the second-quarter use.

“For the five previous marketing years, use during the first half of the marketing year ranged from 69.5 to72.9 percent with an average of 71.6 percent. Second-quarter feed and residual use ranged from 25 to 29 percent of the total use over this time span,” Hubbs says.

For this analysis, the 71.6 percent average during the first half of the previous five marketing years is used to calculate expected feed and residual use during the second quarter. Hubbs adds that if the USDA projection is correct, feed and residual use during the first half of the marketing year totaled 3.974 billion bushels. Feed and residual use equaled 2.298 billion bushels in the first quarter. Therefore, the second-quarter estimate totals 1.676 billion bushels.

By adding the estimates for exports and domestic uses, the total use of corn during the second quarter is 3.886 billion bushels. The total use estimate for the second quarter places March 1 corn stocks at 8.639 billion bushels. At this level, March 1 stocks come in 17 million bushels above last year’s corn-stocks estimate.

Hubbs adds that the planting intentions estimates released on the same day in the Prospective Plantings report should attract more attention than the information provided in the Quarterly Grain Stocks report. 

“Despite being overshadowed, the quarterly stocks report establishes a basis for the magnitude of stocks that are considered neutral for corn prices. A corn-stocks estimate that supports the USDA projection of 5.55 billion bushels of feed and residual use is neutral.

“An estimate of March 1 corn stocks that deviates significantly from 8.64 billion bushels provides insight into whether feed and residual use is on track to meet the current marketing-year projection,” Hubbs says.

Discussion and graphs associated with this article available here:

Ag robot speeds data collection, analyses of crops as they grow

Published March 12, 2018
Agricultural and biological engineering professor Girish Chowdhary. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer.

URBANA, Ill. — A new lightweight, low-cost agricultural robot could transform data collection and field scouting for agronomists, seed companies, and farmers.

The TerraSentia crop phenotyping robot, developed by a team of scientists at the University of Illinois, will be featured at the 2018 Energy Innovation Summit Technology Showcase in National Harbor, Maryland, on March 14.

Traveling autonomously between crop rows, the robot measures the traits of individual plants using a variety of sensors, including cameras, transmitting the data in real time to the operator’s phone or laptop computer. A custom app and tablet computer that come with the robot enable the operator to steer the robot using virtual reality and GPS.

TerraSentia is customizable and teachable, according to the researchers, who currently are developing machine-learning algorithms to “teach” the robot to detect and identify common diseases, and to measure a growing variety of traits, such as plant and corn ear height, leaf area index, and biomass.

“These robots will fundamentally change the way people are collecting and utilizing data from their fields,” said U of I agricultural and biological engineering professor Girish Chowdhary. He is leading a team of students, engineers, and postdoctoral researchers in development of the robot.

At 24 pounds, TerraSentia is so lightweight that it can roll over young plants without damaging them. The 13-inch-wide robot is also compact and portable: An agronomist could easily toss it on a truck seat or in a car trunk to transport it to the field, Chowdhary said.

Automating data collection and analytics has the potential to improve the breeding pipeline by unlocking the mysteries of why plant varieties respond in very different ways to environmental conditions, said U of I plant biology professor Carl Bernacchi, one of the scientists collaborating on the project.

Data collected by the crop-scouting robot could help plant breeders identify the genetic lineages likely to produce the best quality and highest yields in specific locations, Bernacchi said.

He and Stephen P. Long, a Stanley O. Ikenberry Endowed Chair and the Gutgsell Endowed University Professor of Crop Sciences and Plant Biology at Illinois, helped determine which plant characteristics were important for the robot to measure.

“It will be transformative for growers to be able to measure every single plant in the field in a short period of time,” Bernacchi said. “Crop breeders may want to grow thousands of different genotypes, all slightly different from one another, and measure each plant quickly. That’s not possible right now unless you have an army of people – and that costs a lot of time and money and is a very subjective process.

“A robot or swarm of robots could go into a field and do the same types of things that people are doing manually right now, but in a much more objective, faster, and less expensive way,” Bernacchi said.

TerraSentia fills “a big gap in the current agricultural equipment market” between massive machinery that cultivates or sprays many acres quickly and human workers who can perform tasks requiring precision but move much more slowly, Chowdhary said.

“There’s a big market for these robots not only in the U.S., where agriculture is a profitable business, but also in developing countries such as Brazil and India, where subsistence farmers struggle with extreme weather conditions such as monsoons and harsh sunlight, along with weeds and pests,” Chowdhary said.

As part of a phased introduction process, several major seed companies, large U.S. universities, and overseas partners are field testing 20 of the TerraSentia robots this spring through an early adopter program. Chowdhary said the robot is expected to become available to farmers in about three years, with some models costing less than $5,000.

“We’re getting this technology into the hands of the users so they can tell us what’s working for them and what we need to improve,” Chowdhary said. “We’re trying to de-risk the technology and create a product that’s immediately beneficial to growers and breeders in the state of Illinois and beyond.”

The robot is being made available to crop scientists and commercial crop breeders for the 2018 breeding season through EarthSense Inc., a startup company that Chowdhary co-founded with Chinmay P. Soman.

A former National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the university, Soman is the chief executive officer of EarthSense, which is based at the U of I Research Park and comprises a growing team of engineers and computer scientists.

The Energy Innovation Summit Technology Showcase, which runs March 13-15, is sponsored by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, a unit within the U.S. Department of Energy.

ARPA-E’s Transportation Energy Resources from Renewable Agriculture program provided $3.1 million in funding for the TERRA-Mobile Energy-crop Phenotyping Platform robot project, which developed TerraSentia.

Citizen scientists observe spring blooms

Published March 9, 2018
cherry blossoms

URBANA, Ill. - Watching for the first blooms of spring has always been one of the most highly anticipated activities for nature and plant lovers. But keeping records of events in nature such as bloom time is actually an important scientific endeavor, says University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator Alicia Kallal.

This record keeping aids the study of the timing of biological events, known as phenology, such as flowering or migration, in relation to seasonal or climate changes.

“While phenology is one of the oldest environmental sciences that humans have studied, recent interest in understanding how plants and animals are responding to changes in our climate and weather patterns has reinvigorated this branch of science,” says Kallal.

One of the most prominent American figures to study phenology was Aldo Leopold (1887-1948). His collection of essays on phenology, conservation, and land ethics, “A Sand County Almanac,” was published after his death in 1949.

His writings beautifully illustrate the importance of keeping records of the events in nature to expand our understanding of the plants, animals, and ecosystems that surround us.

Another even earlier figure in the history of plant phenology was Robert Marsham (1708-1797).

Marsham was a wealthy land owner in England, who in 1736, began meticulously recording seasonal weather changes, tree foliation, bird migration, first sightings of butterflies and swallows, and flowering dates of several plant species.

Each year, until his death in 1797, he tracked the same phenological events.

He reported this work to The Royal Society of London in 1789 as his 27 “Indications of Spring.”

“Marsham can be considered one of the first citizen scientists in history,” Kallal says. “Citizen science projects allow average people to make observations in nature, as Marsham did, and report their observations to a larger network that will make their data available to researchers and the general public.”

One example of a flourishing, modern-day citizen science network is Project BudBurst.

Project BudBurst began its mission in 2007 at the Chicago Botanic Garden. The goal of the project was to get people involved in nature and environmental science by having them observe the seasonal life events of plants.

Now participants across the country are making careful observations of the timing of important plant life stages throughout the year and reporting their data to Project BudBurst.

These life stages, called phenophases, include leafing out, flowering, and fruit set.

Participants can choose to make single observations to report the stage of a plant on a particular date, or observe a specific plant for multiple seasons to report when it goes through each phenophase.

Choosing plants to observe is easy; the site has a list of over 250 plants that can be sorted by the state you live in or by plant category, such as a grass, wildflower, or deciduous tree.

The list includes common species such as maple trees, dandelions, and forsythias, as well as native plants like little bluestem and red columbine.

“Project BudBurst is a very accessible way to get involved in citizen science,” Kallal says. “It is great for individuals or classes of school children. The site has wonderful resources for educators that want to get youth outside and give them the experience of making scientific observations.”

To learn more about Project BudBurst, visit their website:

“If you are concerned about invasive plants, and plant phenology has piqued your interest, you may also consider contributing observations to the Illinois Invasive Plant Phenology Report,” Kallal adds.

The University of Illinois Extension Forestry Program relies on observations from volunteers to produce the monthly invasive plant phenology report. Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer observer should contact Chris Evans, Extension forester at 618-695-3383 or Volunteers are asked to make monthly observations on three to four invasive species in their area.

To explore other citizen science projects in Illinois and across the nation, visit the University of Illinois Library’s citizen science guide

News Source:

Alicia Kallal, 618-687-1727

News Writer:

University of Illinois Extension

Study shows increase in SNAP benefits could move families from food insecure to food secure

Published March 8, 2018
Craig Gundersen

URBANA, Ill. – Since its inception in 1964, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, has been the most important tool to reduce food insecurity in the United States. For many SNAP households, however, benefits are too low to ensure food security, according to a University of Illinois economist.

A recent study published in the Russell Sage Foundation Journal of Social Sciences looks at how much additional income in SNAP benefits would be needed in order for households to become food secure. Craig Gundersen, a professor in the U of I Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics and lead author of the paper, says this specific aspect of SNAP has not been addressed. The study identifies potential scenarios to increase SNAP benefits that could decrease food insecurity, and what it would cost to implement additional benefits.

“There’s so much talk lately about cutting back on SNAP or changing it in some way, but SNAP, I believe, is the most successful government program we have,” Gundersen says. “Instead of cutting back or making changes to the program, let’s talk about how we could really make it better.”

In the study, Gundersen and colleagues focused on eligible SNAP recipients. The group was broken down into all households or households without children. They then measured the resource gap—the difference between the resources a household has and what they would need to be food secure—using data from the 2014 Current Population Survey (CPS).

As part of the CPS, households self-reported on how much additional money they would need to have enough food. According to the study, the average resource gap for all households among SNAP recipients was calculated at $41.62 per week.

The study also considered households that were ineligible for SNAP—those falling between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty line. Researchers reported that the average resource gap for SNAP-ineligible households was $30.91 per week.

Under their most plausible scenario—to increase SNAP benefits, for all households by the same amount—there would be an over 60 percent reduction in food insecurity. This would cost the federal government around $20 billion.

Gundersen believes that expanding benefits can make a big difference for recipients in the SNAP program.

“SNAP sets out to alleviate food insecurity and it does so. Part of the reason it works so well is it gives low-income families the dignity and autonomy to make their own decisions,” Gundersen adds. “There’s really no better way to reduce food insecurity in the United States than through SNAP.

“It’s so direct—we’re giving people money that they can spend on food, which would really have a huge impact,” he adds. “And, increasing their benefit levels would lead to an even larger impact of SNAP.”  

The study, “Reconstructing the supplemental nutrition assistance program to more effectively alleviate food insecurity in the United States,” is published in The Russell Sage Foundation of the Social Sciences. Co-authors include Craig Gundersen, Brent Kreider, and John V. Pepper.

Gundersen is a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois. He is the Soybean Industry Endowed Professor in Agricultural Strategy.

Study says Mekong River dams could disrupt lives, environment

Published March 8, 2018
Small dam on Mekong River
Small dam on Mekong River

URBANA, Ill. – The Mekong River, one of the world’s largest, traverses six Southeast Asian countries and supports the livelihoods of millions of people. New efforts to provide hydroelectric power to a growing and modernizing population include more than eight proposed main-stem dams and 60 or more existing tributary dams in the lower Mekong basin. A new article from University of Illinois and Iowa State University scientists lays out what dam construction could mean for residents and the environment in the region.

“Development projects, such as dam construction on the Mekong River and tributaries to support a booming hydropower industry, are bringing great change to ecological, agricultural, and cultural systems in this region,” says Kenneth Olson, professor emeritus in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at U of I and co-author of the article.

In the article, Olson and co-author Lois Wright Morton provide the context of this unique coupled natural-human river system – its hydrology, geology, ecology, seasonal flood cycle, and human dimensions. They also delve into the politics and the potential effects of the dams, focusing specifically on the Xayaburi Dam in Laos.    

Olson and Morton report that construction on the Xayaburi Dam, the first dam south of the China border to be constructed across the main stem of the Mekong River, has been quietly underway for years and is scheduled for completion in 2018. The dam has incited worldwide opposition, as well as local protests and violence.  

“Many are concerned that the Xayaburi Hydropower Dam in Laos, could cause irreversible and long-term ecological damage to a river that feeds millions of people, force the resettlement of 2,100, directly affect 202,000 people who use the Mekong bottomlands to produce food, and may push endangered fish, such as Mekong giant catfish, to extinction,” Olson says.

Morton, professor emeritus in the Department of Sociology at Iowa State, adds, “The Mekong River and adjacent lands are where the poorest people in Southeast Asia live. Average annual income is less than $200. They make their living from floodplain and riverbank agriculture and fishing. Laos is a mountainous country and the fertile soils are in the floodplains, many of which will be permanently flooded with the construction of these large dams.

“Resettling rural people in uplands means the soils are different, often less fertile and not well suited to rice and vegetable crops they are familiar with. They will need to learn new agricultural practices, different fishing strategies [river vs. lake] and make or purchase different fishing equipment. This kind of change takes time and personal resources that people often don’t have,” she says.

Olson points out that the dams also affect the seasonal pulse of the river, change fish diversity and abundance, and impact downstream water flows and availability. “Further, dams trap sediment needed as a nutrient source for fish, block fish migration, and reduce the amount of sediment deposited in the Mekong Delta,” he says. “Lower Mekong River levels have accelerated saltwater intrusion into the delta region, adversely affecting rice production, and have contributed to ground water pollution.”

The Mekong River Commission was established in 1995 by Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam to coordinate competing interests and assure the river is protected for current and future uses. However the commission is often set back by government roadblocks and receives limited support from two adjacent upstream countries, China and Myanmar, who also use the Mekong.

“The MRC is only powerful if the countries that fund it give respect and authority to its rules and regulations, even if they don’t always agree with them. This is a difficult governance challenge which they are working through,” Morton says.

Ultimately, the Mekong River presents a huge opportunity for hydropower to modernize Laos, but Olson and Morton argue human and environmental concerns are at risk. They advocate for governments in Southeast Asia to empower the MRC to carry out its mission to mitigate the negative impacts of dam building while realizing the benefits.

The article, “Water rights and fights: Lao dams on the Mekong River,” is published in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. Financial support for the project was provided by the U of I College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State.

Additional Images:
  • Proposed dam in lower Mekong basin

ACES Twitter chat March 13: Personal Finance for You

Published March 8, 2018

Why should I write financial goals? And, how do I get started?
What are the benefits of saving money?
Is it better to pay down debt or invest my money?
What are the advantages of investing while a young adult instead of waiting until I’m in my 50s?

A financial plan guides and empowers people to reach their goals. Financial planning includes setting goals, managing your money wisely, establishing a solid financial foundation, and investing for the future. Create a financial plan and allow time to be on your side! Join us March 13, from noon to 1 p.m. CT on Twitter for a chat with Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics expert Dr. Craig Lemoine and University of Illinois Extension expert Kathy Sweedler to ask your questions about financial planning and money management using #askACES.

How can you take part in this exciting conversation?

  1. Go to Twitter. Type in #askACES. Click the “Latest” tab. Watch the questions and answers from noon-1 p.m. CT.
  2. Ask your own questions and contribute to this conversation by including #askACES with your question.
  3. If you aren’t on Twitter, watch the live feed at
    If you have a question, but can’t participate in the live chat, send it to
  4. Watch ACES social media (Twitter and Facebook) for a follow-up podcast with Craig Lemoine and Kathy Sweedler.

Don’t miss the discussion on March 13. Your questions are important to us as we tackle this impactful topic.

The College of ACES is excited to host this series of chats - #askACES - on Twitter addressing some of the hot topics in social media today. Recently, we’ve discussed a variety of topics from water quality with Dr. Laura Christianson, Dr. Paul Davidson and Jonathan Coppess to nutrition labeling with Dr. Brenna Ellison, Dr. Anna Arthur, and Dr. Jennifer McCaffrey. Our goal is to distribute sound science on social media and provide the public an opportunity to engage in a conversation and ask their questions about these topics. We would love to have you join us on Twitter for these chats and contribute to the conversation. Or, listen to the follow-up podcasts at

News Source:

ACES Staff