Middle Mississippi River Wetland Field Station | Center for Ecology | SIU

Southern Illinois University

Middle Mississippi River Wetland Field Station | Center for Ecology | SIU



Center for Ecology

Field work

Middle Mississippi River Wetland Field Station

The Middle Mississippi River Wetland Field Station (MMRWFS) is a 1,380 acre research area owned by the state of Illinois and managed by Southern Illinois University Carbondale. The station is located on the banks of the Mississippi River in Alexander county, Illinois. Directions and specific information on using MMRWFS can be found here. The purpose of the MMRWFS is to serve as a research, education, and demonstration area on large river floodplain ecology, management, and restoration. Research on many different aspects of large river floodplain wetlands is being conducted on the site. The MMRWFS is also public land, and is therefore open to non-motorized recreational and sporting activities, including hunting, fishing and hiking. There is an abundance of wildlife in the area, including white-tailed deer, wild turkey, river otter, and many species of waterfowl.

Additionally, the MMRWFS has recently begun adding several areas throughout Southern Illinois to the field station’s management umbrella. These sites are detailed at the bottom of the page.

The MMRWFS is the culmination of the hard work of many people at SIUC and others from federal and state agencies, as well as non-profit and community organizations. The American Land Conservancy (ALC), The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), and Dr. Bob Sheehan of SIUC, Fisheries and Illinois Aquaculture Center, were particularly important in making the MMRWFS a reality. Please browse the links below to find out more about the MMRWFS and large river floodplains in general. There is also information for those interested in visiting the site for research or educational activities, or just for recreation. Thank you for your interest in the Middle Mississippi River Wetland Field Station!

MMRWFS's History


Historically, Mississippi River floodplain habitats in Southern Illinois were expansive tracts of flood-tolerant hardwood forest interspersed with wet meadows, emergent swales, and some mesic prairie. Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis), pecan (Carya illinoensis), and elm (Ulmus spp.) are some of the species that historically dominated the forests that originally covered the Cape Bends SFWA and surrounding floodplain habitats before European settlement. Although these trees still populate the area, massive timber harvesting and clearing for agriculture have left only fragments of forest that resemble historical conditions in the region. Currently, silver maple (Acer saccharinum), cottonwood (Populus deltoides), and various willows (Salix spp.) are often the most common species on intermittently flooded land along the Middle Mississippi River.

Topography and Hydrology

The historical topography of the Mississippi River floodplain was similar to other large river floodplain systems. The ridge and swale topography formed by the alluvial deposits over centuries of flooding supported semi-flood tolerant trees on the tops of ridges, and emergent vegetation and more flood tolerant trees in the lower swales. Some of this topography is still visible on the MMRWFS today, but construction of levee systems and agricultural development resulted in a more homogeneous landscape.

Prior to construction of levee systems, floodplains along the Mississippi were periodically inundated and connected to the main channel of the river during spring floods. Connections between main channel and floodplain habitats were important for exchanges of energy and nutrients between the two systems, creation of spawning habitats for fishes and amphibians, and maintenance of the fertility of floodplain soils. Inundated floodplain habitats were also important to a variety of wildlife species, including waterfowl, wading birds, and aquatic invertebrates. Currently, connections between the Middle Mississippi and its floodplain habitats are limited.

The Great Mississippi River Flood of 1993

Thebes, IL

In 1993, the Mississippi River experienced the most severe and devastating flood the United States has seen in modern times. At the Army Corps of Engineers gauging station in Thebes, IL (just South of the MMRWFS,) the river was above flood stage for 133 days between late June and early October. Record water levels overtopped the levees as the river peaked at more than 12 feet above flood stage. Much of the cropland in the area was inundated for months, resulting in over 7 million dollars of agricultural losses. To learn more about the 1993 flood, visit the United States Geologic Survey's 1993 flood website.

Although the flood of 1993 was devastating, it served as a catalyst for significant changes in land use in the region. The land that would become Cape Bend and the MMRWFS is relatively low and prone to flooding. Following a smaller flood in 1996, the American Land Conservancy (ALC), a national non-profit organization, acquired four connecting flood-prone properties that would collectively constitute Cape Bend. After purchasing the property, the ALC facilitated a Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) conservation easement on most of the property and implemented a massive wetlands restoration on the site in cooperation with the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service. The restoration process included ditch plugging and construction of nine wetland cells on the property. Stop-log type water control structures were installed to facilitate drawdown of these wetland units when necessary. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources purchased the land from the ALC in 2002, with the wetland easement in tact, and negotiated a Memorandum of Understanding with Southern Illinois University Carbondale to develop and manage the property as a station for research, demonstration, and education on large river floodplain ecology, restoration, and management.

The Role of SIUC and Partners in Development of the MMRWFS

Dr. Robert Sheehan, of the SIUC Fisheries and Illinois Aquaculture Center and Department of Zoology, worked closely with IDNR (Dan Woolard) and ALC (Jenny Frazier, John Killion) personnel to make the MMRWFS a reality in 2003. Following Dr. Sheehan’s untimely death, Drs. Chris Kohler (Fisheries and Illinois Aquaculture Center and Department of Zoology), Sara Baer (SIUC Plant Biology and Center for Ecology), and Matt Whiles (Department of Zoology and Center for Ecology), with support from Dr. John Koropchak (Vice Chancellor for Research at SIUC) moved the project forward and the station opened it’s doors to researchers in 2006. Dave Maginel, owner of Conservation Technologies, was also instrumental in development of the MMRWFS because of his comprehensive knowledge of the history of the property, local landowners, and restoration and management practices in the region. David Myers, of SIUC Zoology was the first graduate student dedicated to research and development of the site, a project funded by the SIUC Office of Research and Development.

Currently, the main operating funds for the station come from a barge fleeting lease agreement with the Saint Louis Marine Terminal LLC. The MMRWFS is a member of the Organization of Biological Field Stations.

MMRWFS's Present and Future

Research and Education

Our vision for the MMRWFS is that it will serve as an important resource for researchers, resource managers, and educators that are interested in any aspect of large river floodplain ecology, management, and restoration. This unique facility provides opportunities for research on how floodplain wetlands function, factors such as hydrology that structure floodplain wetland ecosystems, and the feasibility and efficacy of various restoration practices. The MMRWFS is also being developed as a demonstration site for alternative, sustainable use of floodplains.

If you are interested in using the field station for research or educational activities, please contact Dr. Matt Whiles, Department of Zoology, Center for Ecology, and Fisheries and Illinois Aquaculture Center at SIUC. Researchers using the site will be charged a modest site use fee and use of the overnight facilities is currently $10 per night per person. There are no fees associated with educational use of the site. If you are interested in utilizing one of the other properties, specify which one in the Wetland Unit section of the Research Permit Application.

Research Permit ApplicationEducational Use Application

Maps required to fill out permit applications: MMRWFS North MMRWFS South

Water Level Data

water levels

Water level and temperature data have been collected in all nine wetland cells since 2006. Data sets will be periodically updated on this page. Use of these data for anything other than personal or educational purposes requires the consent of the station director 
(Matt Whiles, SIUC Zoology).

Year: 2006-07, Wetland Cell Number: 123456789
Year: 2007-08, (due to severe flooding at Cape Bend in early spring, it was not possible to access the wetlands during this period. To access Mississippi River level data for this time period, start here (external link).
Year: 2009
Year: 2010
Year: 2011
Year: 2012 

Public Use

The Cape Bend State Fish and Wildlife Area is owned by the state of Illinois and is thus open for public use, with restrictions based on current research activities. Research areas that are sensitive to human disturbance will be marked as such and visitors are asked to not tamper in any way with any equipment, markers, flagging, etc. on the site. Interpretive trails and wildlife observation areas are being developed so that the general public as well as educational groups can enjoy the area and learn more about large river floodplains. Cape Bend will be open to hunting during the normal seasons set by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Individuals will be required to sign in and out when hunting on the property. Questions about hunting on the property should be directed to the IDNR Union County Conservation Area office (618) 833-5175.

Current Research

Since 2006, research has been conducted through SIUC on the property, and has investigated:

  • Floodplain water body connectivity.
  • Waterfowl utilization of actively and passively managed floodplain wetlands.
  • The taxonomic variability of parasitoid wasps in the Middle Mississippi River region.
  • Waterfowl migration
  • Aquatic invertebrate roles in floodplain foodwebs.
  • Amphibian mate recognition

A hydrologic monitoring network was installed on the Cape Bend property during the summer of 2006. The network consists of water depth and water temperature data logging devices placed in monitoring wells at the outlet of each wetland cell. These units continuously collect temperature and depth data year-round, providing important baseline information for research projects in the wetland cells.


Part of the large steel building on the west side of the property was recently developed as housing for researchers. The building will serve as the base of operations for the station. There is an apartment in the building capable of sleeping six, with all of the necessary amenities including kitchen and bath. There is also a large equipment and boat storage area and another large room that is being developed into laboratory space. A trail system was also created to facilitate moving about the property. Trails will be mowed periodically during the growing season and provide access to the wetland cells. The river can be accessed from a levee road and there is a public boat launch at Thebes, less than 5 miles south of the property.

MMRWFS's Other Properties

Lusk Creek Tract

Lusk CreekLusk CreekLusk Creek

The Lusk Creek Tract is a biologically diverse area with both upland and lowland hardwood forests on the property. Located on Lusk Creek and a tributary in the eastern half of the Shawnee National Forest, this is a geographically striking tract with over 140 feet of elevation change on property and elevation changes of over 250 feet just adjacent to the property. The Lusk Creek Tract offers a wide range of research opportunities both terrestrial and aquatic. There is also an old homestead on the property, so those interested in doing research should exercise caution when on site.

Touch of Nature Environmental Center
and Crab Orchard Wilderness Tracts

Touch of NatureTouch of NatureTouch of Nature

Touch of Nature was established in 1949 as an outdoor laboratory for SIU’s students.Now the area includes the Touch of Nature Environmental Center on Little Grassy Lake as well as a large number of experimental ponds. However, a large amount of the land around Touch of Nature is not used, but is open to research.South of Crab Orchard Wilderness area, SIU owns another large tract of land. This is characterized by a very diverse upland hardwood forest in various stages of succession. With such a large area available, the research opportunities (aquatic and terrestrial) are very diverse.