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Contents tagged with Academy History

  • No Specimen Left Behind: Publishing the Academy’s Biological Collections Data Online

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    Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, academy collections, Academy History, museum specimens

    Created: 4/28/2015      Updated: 8/1/2016

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    There is a secret side to the Nature Museum. Behind the butterflies, behind the dioramas, behind the turtles and frogs and snakes, the museum has an offsite collections facility filled with nearly 300,000 natural history specimens. Wander through these collections and you might come across a Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) collected in 1889 by an astute citizen who purchased the pigeon from his neighborhood meat market. You might see a specimen of the Southern Rock Vole (Microtus chrotorrhinus carolinensis), which was used in 1931 to describe this species for the first time. You also might turn up a sparrow prepared just last month by one of the museum’s dedicated taxidermy volunteers. The Academy’s collections help us explore past biodiversity, as well as gather and preserve evidence for future generations.

    Drawers containing specimens of the extinct Carolina Parakeet and Passenger Pigeon.

    So how do you get to this hidden side of the museum? Well, that’s a problem we’ve been trying to address. The Academy has an ethical duty to preserve and provide access for our specimens, but our collections facility isn’t really designed for drop-in visitors. You could email our friendly Collections staff, Dawn and Erica, but they are only two people and don’t always have time for guests. Instead, we worked with VertNet, a project funded by the National Science Foundation to bring together specimen data from collections across the country, to publish all of our mammalogy and oology (bird eggs and nests) specimen data online. It’s not quite the same as exploring the collections in person, but being able to search through our collections online is a great first step.

    VertNet Screenshot

    Try it for yourself at www.VertNet.org. As of mid-April, we have data from 4,643 mammal specimens and 9,075 bird eggs and nests published on VertNet, as well as on the Global Biodiversity Information Facility and iDigBio (two other projects that bring together natural history specimen data). On the VertNet homepage, you can search for specimens with our collection prefix (CHAS) by going to “Search Options” and entering CHAS in the “InstitutionCode” box. See if you can find the oldest specimen, or the specimen collected farthest away, or your favorite mammal or bird species!

    Type specimen of Southern Rock Vole

    We are currently working hard to make data from our ornithology (bird) and herpetology (reptiles and amphibians) collections available on VertNet also. Eventually, you’ll be able to access all of our specimen data online, including images. After all, these aren’t the Academy’s specimens—they’re yours. We’ve just been taking care of them for the past 150 years, and will continue to do so for the next hundred.

     

    Erica Krimmel
    Assistant Collections Manager

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  • Academy History - The 1941 Conservation Effort for the Ants at Palos Hills

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    Tags: Archives, conservation, Academy History, Ants

    Created: 6/4/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Conservation has long been a part of the Academy’s history. Today we are actively working with area endangered butterfly species and the Blanding’s turtle, but in our past there were many other conservation efforts for which Academy scientists and staff passionately fought, most often in collaboration with representatives from other agencies or institutions. Some involved preserving large parcels of land like the Indiana Dunes and others focused on one small area or species. 

    One such effort in 1941 saved colonies of the mound building ants, Formica ulkei, that made their home in Palos Hills. The ants came under scrutiny when the land on which they made their home was purchased by the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). The YMCA was concerned that the ants would cause harm to the people that would come visit the campground they were going to establish. Accordingly, they contacted a representative at the Illinois State Natural History Survey to ascertain the best way to destroy the colony. This representative quickly alerted those individuals he knew had been monitoring the colony, and Dr. Eliot C. Williams, Assistant to the Director of the Chicago Academy of Sciences spearheaded the effort. 

    Cover of the Chicago Naturalist

    The Academy published an article on the ants by Alton S. Windsor in its publication, The Chicago Naturalist, entitled “Pyramids of Palos” in October 1939. The colony had been located by Windsor and Dr. T.C. Schneirla in 1931 following local reports of the presence of numerous mounds. They found dozens of mounds at that time and confirmed that the species was Formica ulkei. This particular ant species was only found in a few areas in the Chicago region. The mounds ranged in size from about eighteen inches in diameter and ten to twelve inches in height to as large as seven feet in diameter and three feet above the ground. Windsor continued to visit the site and monitor the ants over the years and he and Schneirla returned together to the site in August of 1939. While some of the mounds had been abandoned due to human intervention or natural progression, the ants as a whole were thriving; a census conducted a few years earlier of just a few acres gave a total number of over 400 mounds!

    Photo from Chicago Naturalist article with caption, "Dr. Schneirla calls at the shrine of one of Chicago's most sensational communities of ants."
    Dr. Schneirla at mound in Palos Hills, from "The Chicago Naturalist" article.

    The YMCA was uninformed as to the scientific importance of the colony when they initially inquired into their removal, but upon receiving letters from Dr. Williams, Jr. and other local scientists, began working with him to formulate a way of using the ant colony to further education about the species and its importance, instead of destroying them. The YMCA and the Academy drew up an agreement in which visitors to the Palos Hills Camp would be informed of the scientific importance of the ants, visitors observing the ants could record their findings, the Academy would have permission to relocate ant mounds located on proposed building sites, and a small sign would be erected at each mound site to help protect the ants “against injury and unthoughtful acts”. In addition, the signs would be numbered so that the observations made by visitors could be accurately recorded and a “history” for each mound could be established.

    Mound marker reading, "Save these ants for science! The Chicago Academy of sciences is making a scientific study of these ants and mounds. Please do not touch or otherwise harm any mound -- this is an ant sanctuary!"

    Scan of a mound marker sign from the Academy's Insitutional Archive used to mark and number each ant mound.

    Today this species is no longer present in Palos Hills and not much is known about the effort and why and when it ended or even where the proposed visitor records are now. Williams was drafted in July 1942 and served in the Army until March 1946. Many others from the Academy and the scientific community joined Williams, leaving the Academy and other organizations with a skeletal staff during the war years.  It was perhaps this absence and the increased responsibility of those who remained stateside that led to the decline in the oversight of this site, but we can only speculate. While this effort did not culminate in the continuation of the Formica ulkei at Palos Hills in perpetuity, the open dialogue created on both sides of the issue resulted in fruitful discussion and compromise.

    For further information:

    Greenberg, Joel, ed.  Of Prairie, Woods, and Water: Two Centuries of Chicago Nature Writing. Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2010, pp. 457-468.

    Windsor, A.S. “Pyramids of Palos.” The Chicago Naturalist, Vol. 2, No. 3: October 1939, pp. 67-72, 91.

    Chicago Academy of Sciences Institutional Archives

    Amber King
    Assistant Collections Manager

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