Prof Turns Soybean Field Into Research Lab

August 25, 2010 - News Release

A University of Guelph professor has created a little research lab on the prairie. Andrew MacDougall has turned a former soybean field into an 18-hectare prairie that is doubling as his research lab.

The integrative biology professor will watch what happens over the next decade as various tallgrass species root themselves in his outdoor research lab located in Cambridge near the meeting place of the Grand and Speed rivers.

Then he'll burn parts of the plot to mimic the natural rhythm of regeneration in the prairie lands that once covered portions of southern Ontario.

The goal is to help restore some of southern Ontario's native prairie long lost to farms and cities.

MacDougall said it surprises many people to learn that at least 100,000 hectares of the province were covered by grasslands as recently as 200 years ago. Only a few sites remain, scattered between Windsor and Belleville.

"Through time, people have forgotten we had prairie,” he said.

The plants and animals normally found in prairies are also uncommon now. About one in five of Ontario's rare plants are prairie species, including Culver's root, tall ironweed and prairie rose.

MacDougall is looking at factors affecting prairie restoration, including how tallgrass species resist invasions from exotic agronomic grasses and how various species distribute themselves within the prairie. He also hopes to see his research site become a self-sustaining prairie, including attracting birds, mammals and insects.

Looking for a space that was large enough and that could accommodate periodic burning typical of prairie vegetation, MacDougall found the Rare Charitable Research Reserve in Cambridge. He's now one of several Guelph botanists and ecologists running research projects at this 370-hectare nature reserve that includes a remnant old-growth forest.

He plans to monitor how his plants take in carbon from the air and store it in their roots and ultimately in soil. Likening a prairie swath to an iceberg, he said: "Ninety per cent of the activity is below ground."

Scientists believe native grassland species are more efficient at sequestering carbon than introduced crop plants and pasture grasses are. MacDougall also points to the ecological benefits of grasslands, including providing habitat for pollinating species and maintaining diversity of plants and animals, many of them endangered. "It's not just about carbon but restoring wildlife."

Prof. Andrew MacDougall
Department of Integrative Biology
519-824-4120, Ext. 56570
519-824-4120, Ext. 53594

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338, or, or Deirdre Healey, Ext. 56982 or

University of Guelph
50 Stone Road East
Guelph, Ontario, N1G 2W1