Priority Areas


Even though they're the most abundant and diverse group of animals on the planet, there's still a whole lot we don't know about arthropods. Previous research has shown that arthropods are critical to the stability of terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems because they 1) pollinate almost two-thirds of all flowering plants, 2) decompose leaf litter and wood debris to form humus by, and 3) underpin complex food webs in almost every region they inhabit, linking plants with the larger consumers. Yet, we know little about how land management can influence these arthropod-mediated ecosystem services, especially in eastern grasslands.

For example, does grassland management influence the nutritional quality of arthropods for songbirds? Answering this and other questions can yield useful insights into how to manage land optimally for maintaining ecosystem function, or even inform captive management programs for threatened or endangered birds, like the Loggerhead Shrike.

To address these gaps in our understanding, VWL initiated a new research project in Spring 2018 in collaboration with NZP/SCBI Department of Nutrition Sciences, Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation, and outside partners. This research will take place on local farms and will quantify how land management influences arthropod diversity and nutritional quality. 

Project Goals:

  • Collect data on arthropod abundance and diversity in native and non-native eastern grasslands
  • Quantify the nutritional quality of arthropods from these habitats for application in ex-situ nutritional management
  • Develop outreach materials highlighting the immense diversity of arthropods in Virginia’s grasslands and their importance in maintaining ecosystem function
  • Expand collaborations between the NZP, SCBI, VWL, SMSC and the local community

By pursuing these research and outreach goals, we aim to better understand how land management influences arthropod diversity, highlight the importance of arthropod communities for supporting ecosystem function, contribute knowledge to inform nutritional management of Smithsonian’s ex-situ bird collection and further engage the local community on Virginia’s native biodiversity.

Partners and Primary Investigators:
Amy Johnson - Virginia Working Landscapes
Mike Maslanka - NZP/SCBI Dept of Nutritional Science
Jim McNeil & Stephanie Lessard-Pilon - Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation
Alex Newhart - Shenandoah Chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalists
2018 Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ) Conservation Grant
Project Timeline & Status:
2018 Field season - completed
2019 Field season - in planning

Related Resources:
Russel, K., Schoenemann, K., Power, M., Himschoot, E., McNeil, J., Davis, J., Newhart, A., Johnson, A. (2018) Influence of Grassland Type on Arthropod Biomass and Diversity. Poster presented at VWL Annual Meeting, March 2018.



Every year, VWL staff and teams of SCBI scientists, graduate students, interns, and citizen scientists conduct biodiversity surveys on more than 150 properties in our 16-county study region (see: Where We Work). These surveys help us better understand the factors that affect the region’s biodiversity and also to develop best land management practices for people and wildlife.

Grasslands were selected as the initial focus because they were the least well-known among the working landscape types (e.g. forests, wetlands, streams and riparian zones) and had a known suite of declining species in need of further research. Moreover, although Virginia was mostly forested in precolonial times, it also included grasslands established and maintained by disturbance (i.e. storms, fires, and disease) and grazing. These grasslands were home to a suite of native plants -including warm season grasses, and the pollinators, birds, and other species that depended on them. 

In the past 200 years, our agricultural tradition has changed the landscape from nearly continuous forest to a mosaic of forests, grasslands, pasture, and croplands. Although these practices likely benefited some grassland species by opening up the landscape, much of these native grasslands have since been lost through historic conversion to Eurasian cool season grasses, intensive land management, and more recently, invasion by non-native plant species. Accordingly, many of the native plants, pollinators, and birds that depend on native warm season grasses have declined over the last half century due to the loss of natural habitats.

Farmlands and associated grasslands in Virginia have been disappearing over the last 50 years - lost to forest succession and development. Today, about half of the Commonwealth is forested; about 30-40% is grassland, pasture, and croplands, with the remainder being exurban or urban development. As the quality and quantity of grasslands decline, much of the biodiversity that supports and regulates our agricultural economy is lost. Yet, this biological wealth and the benefits that come from it, are essential for our individual and shared economic welfare. To that end, conservation biologists have become increasingly interested in sustaining biodiversity across a landscape that is composed of both public and private lands.

In Virginia, the overwhelming majority of working lands are held in private hands – more than 90% of Virginia is privately owned. Therefore, private landowners are both the keepers of their own economic well-being and the stewards of the natural resources of Virginia. In order for VWL to be successful we rely on community engagement with the landowners in the region. We recruit additional landowners each spring whose properties serve as new sites for our biodiversity surveys. At the end of each season we provide landowners a summary of species observed on their property. Taken together, data from each of these farms are being analyzed as part of a larger study on the relationship between land-management and native species biodiversity and long-term studies that will utilize these data to predict the future of our region’s landscapes.


VWL's Role:

VWL provides a network of landowners who are interested in land use issues and land management best practices, who allow surveyors access to private property, opening up new areas for monitoring and research

Project Impact:

Click here to read an interactive Story Map based on Dr. Amy Johnson's PhD dissertation, "Conservation and Land Management Practices and Their Impact on Sustaining Breeding and Non-Breeding Grassland Bird Populations in the Southeast." Her research used biodiversity data collected as part of this project to investigate the impact of land management on bird communities.

eMammal is a Smithsonian-led effort to collect and archive photos from camera trap research projects. In these types of projects, scientists place “camera traps” (motion-triggered cameras) across the landscape to collect photos of mammals. These photos help researchers answer questions about mammal distribution and abundance and use this information for conservation. The hope is to expand beyond the mid-Atlantic region to document mammal populations across the entire country. 

Loggerhead Shrike Recovery Program

Often referred to as the “butcher bird,” the Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) is most known for impaling prey on thorns, branches, or barbed wire. However, this Virginia-native songbird is in decline. Potential reasons for their decline include excessive pesticide use, collisions with vehicles, adverse weather conditions, disease, and habitat loss. In collaboration with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), and Wildlife Preservation Canada (WPC), VWL conducts research to better understand the causes of decline, and develop strategies to mitigate them.

VWL assists with inventorying and monitoring wild populations of Shrikes and their habitat in Virginia and West Virginia. Furthermore, we assist with banding of individuals better understand movement patterns and site fidelity, and collecting genetic samples to determine population health and connectivity. Monitoring our banded birds revealed that multiple individuals use the same sites throughout the year. Prior to banding, it was assumed these were the same birds occupying sites year-round. VWL will continue banding and population monitoring in 2018 and beyond.

As a part of the Loggerhead Shrike Working Group, VWL is developing monitoring protocols for citizen scientists working throughout the Loggerhead Shrike’s entire range. Data collected from these efforts will be used to identify critical knowledge gaps in Loggerhead Shrike breeding success and habitat use.

VWL used field data, collected by citizen scientists and submitted to eBird, to create an occupancy model which predicts Loggerhead Shrike occurrences in Virginia and the southeastern US. Our models suggest that they prefer open country habitat and avoid harsh weather/% forest cover. There may be a tradeoff between predation risk and increased cover from winter weather. With the help of our volunteers, we can advance Loggerhead Shrike conservation and recovery programs. If you spot a banded or un-banded Loggerhead Shrike in Virginia, please report your sighting(s) to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.!

In addition to in situ research efforts, WPC and the Center for Species Survival at SCBI are establishing a captive breeding population of Loggerhead Shrikes, and have already successfully released several captive birds in the wild. To learn more about the captive breeding program and the release of captive Shrikes in the wild here, here, and here.

The Animal Care team at SCBI assists with health and fitness assessments of wild and captive Loggerhead Shrikes. SCBI scientists will collect and use data to develop reference ranges for haematology, biochemistry, and acute phase proteins in shrikes. This will provide baseline health information on wild populations and improve veterinary care for captive breeding populations.

VWL will continue to update our findings as we continue our efforts to understand and reverse the decline of Loggerhead Shrikes.

Interested in learning more about this unique species? View our educational pamphlet here.


Partners and Primary Investigators:
Amy Johnson - Virginia Working Landscapes
Warren Lynch - SCBI
Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries
West Virginia Department of Natural Resources
Wildlife Preservation Canada



Situated on over 3,200 acres of forest, grassland, and stream habitat in Front Royal, VA, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) is in unique position to facilitate large-scale experimental research on land management practices.

By partnering with SCBI, Virginia Working Landscapes is enabled to field-test land management and monitoring techniques and conduct active research into grassland biodiversity and sustainable land uses. Furthermore, VWL shares with the public any insights gained through this work, in order to help citizens implement effective land conservation efforts in their local community.

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Virginia Working Landscapes
Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute
1500 Remount Road
Front Royal, Virginia 22630
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