Biologist Philip Willink keeps tabs on Illinois endangered species

Phil Willink
Philip Willink is a fish biologist with the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board. He compiles a list updated every five years of all of the plants and animals that should be considered endangered or threatened within the state. He formerly worked with the Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium. He has done work in South America exploring the rivers and rain forests. (Max Hidalgo)

by Emily Little
Medill Reports

Conservation policy doesn’t just happen overnight. Fish biologist Philip Willink is proof of that. His months of field research, reports and discussions eventually lead to some form of conservation action.

Willink, who formerly worked in the Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium, has found a way to bridge that gap between research and action. Today, Willink is still involved in research but works with policymakers as well. Now with the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board, he compiles a list updated every five years of all of the plants and animals that should be considered endangered or threatened within the state.

A naturalist, Willink grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He always knew that he wanted to do something with science.

“Growing up, I was outdoors a lot, and I just like doing things out there,” Willink said. “One thing led to another and I just ended up going to school for a really long time in biology.”

Willink studied biology at the University of Michigan, where he earned his Ph.D. While he wasn’t always exclusively interested in fish, he found them to be a great study species in aquatic ecosystems. Fish transport key nutrients farther than other aquatic animals and contribute to several food webs.

Willink has been involved in several projects concerning the conservation of these aquatic environments. He went on several trips to South America to study new species in neotropical rivers through the Aquatic Rapid Assessment Program of Conservation International.

“The purpose of that was to go to rivers in South America that scientists had not been to before,” Willink said.

The team of scientists looked at the plants, birds, water chemistry and all aspects of the river system. They collected as much data as possible over the course of a few weeks to a month in order to write conservation reports. These reports would then be given to the government or landowners for management recommendations.

Jan Mol, a professor based in Paramaribo, Suriname, accompanied Willink on these trips. He said that some of the most important aspects of these expeditions come from the value of biodiversity.

“The people, especially local people in Suriname and the Kwinti of the lower Coppename River, start to appreciate and value the biodiversity of the river and the aquatic ecosystem on which both biota and (Kwinti) people depend,” Mol said. “We hoped it would help with the future conservation and sustainable use of the system when we named the new fish after the Kwinti people.”

Aquatic ecologist Jeremy Tiemann collaborated with Willink on several projects through the Illinois Chapter of the American Fisheries Society. The two published some papers together. He said that Willink’s research is extremely beneficial in terms of environmental conservation.

“His work on endangered species, particularly in Northern Illinois, will help lay out the ground work to document changes in habitats as climate change occurs,” Tiemann said.

Willink believes that science and research should be combined with activism and policy changes. It’s not enough to want to reverse the course of climate change; there must be scientific backing of how the problem works to come up with a viable solution.

“I think the basic scientific process, all the raw data, is not appealing to most people, to be honest,” he said. “But in order to come up with some type of effective conservation strategy, you need that.”

Through his work in and out of the field, Willink hopes to continue to educate people on the wonders of their natural environment.

“Once you get people’s imaginations engaged and once they start caring about it, then they’re more likely to act on it, because they have to care about it first,” he said.

Emily Little is a health, environment and science reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @EmilyM_Little.