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Contents tagged with Chicago Academy of Sciences

  • Tracking a Museum Collection


    Tags: inventory, Chicago Academy of Sciences, collections, data, cataloguing, specimens

    Created: 3/16/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    One, two, three, four...

    Chipmunk specimens

    Keeping track of items in a museum collection requires organization. A LOT of organization. Collections staff track where specimens and artifacts are stored and record any time they move, such as when they go on loan or on exhibit. We track the condition of a specimen and any procedures that we undertake to resolve preservation issues. We make notations about how much deterioration a specimen is subjected to when it is on display in an exhibit. We document information about the specimen, such as who collected it, when, and where. But to be able to do all of this, we first need to know what we have!

    Malacology specimens in vials

    How do you go about inventorying a museum collection?  In a word: methodically.  A small army of staff, interns, and volunteers went through the Academy's collection for our inventory.  It took us five years, but cabinet by cabinet, each and every item was handled, counted, and described -- bird and mammal study skins, pinned insects, fossils, pressed plants, snail shells -- over 280,000 items!  We created a new digital record in a database for each item we documented so that the inforamtion is in one place.

    Bat specimen

    What, exactly, does this mean?  It means that our Collections staff can now look up information about our collection in a database, rather than sifting through old musty ledger books and multiple, out-of-date card catalogue systems.  These searches are faster and more comprehensive.  We can provide this library of specimens and corresponding data to researchers and help answer questions about the environment.  More of the collection can be incorporated into our exhibitions and educational programs to help illustrate issues relevant to the Midwest and allow our visitors to see these treasures first hand.

    • Ascession book
    • Card system

    It means we have a much clearer picture of not only what is in our collection, but the history of it all as well.  And knowing what we have makes tracking it, and building a reservoir of information about it, much easier.  Many thanks go to the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation for their generous support of our collections inventory project.

    Dawn Roberts
    Collections Manager

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  • Reptile Rampage


    Tags: reptiles, turtles, alligators, snakes, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Chicago Academy of Sciences

    Created: 3/11/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    On Sunday March 10th we were invited to represent the institution at the Reptile Rampage in Lake Forest. This is a great event organized by Rob Carmichael from the Wildlife Discovery Center that opens up the often greatly misunderstood world of reptiles to a large public audience.

    We made a horribly early start (did I happen to mention how much I hate daylight savings time?) and got our vehicle loaded up to the gunnels with everything that a bunch of endangered turtle species could possibly need for a day out.

    You think taking children on the road is complicated? Rubbermaid containers, check. Coco husk substrate, check. Buckets, check.  Heat lamps, check. Hand sanitizer, check. Basking stones, check. Aquatic vegetation, check. Water bowls, check. The list goes on and on.

    Setting tubs up for Reptile Rampage

    We transported our precious cargo successfully and everyone arrived safe and sound and the right way up! (Bob our Blanding’s Turtle has a habit of flipping himself over when traveling!) We then got everyone set up for their day. And although I say it myself, our little display looked pretty good. I decided to focus on endangered turtle species as we have some great specimens in our living collections. It also ties in very well with our upcoming Tea with the Turtles event.

    Nature Museum table set up at Reptile Rampage

    We were surrounded by every ectotherm you could ever want to meet, not least of course was the delightful Bubba. Bubba is a remarkably mellow alligator who is well known at all the big reptile shows and is very accepting of his celebrity status and the endless stream of people who line up to be thrilled and photographed, standing next to him.

    Bubba the alligator

    There were so many beautiful animals on display and a lot of great information on offer from what to consider if you decide to get a reptile as a pet to how you can help to protect threatened species.

    • Large Boa Constrictor
    • Large Iguana
    • Swimming turtle

    We spoke to many of the thousands of visitors who streamed through the door throughout the day, many of whom were surprised to learn that we had endangered turtle species right here in Illinois. Of course our chelonian representatives were the true stars. Many thanks to Opal, Onyx, Bob, August and October, we couldn’t have done it without you.

    • Onyx the ornate box turtle
    • Bob the Blanding's turtle

    For more information about our Tea with the Turtles event, check out our Children & Family program page.

    Celeste Troon, Director of Living Collections

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  • Where Do Butterflies Go in the Winter?


    Tags: winter, butterflies, conservation, Mourning cloak, baltimore checkerspot, painted lady, monarch, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Chicago Academy of Sciences

    Created: 2/22/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Even though it's been a pretty mild winter, we have had some snow and cold weather. It's been months since I've seen a butterfly outside - yet I'm quite confident that as the weather warms next spring, there will again be butterflies here in northeastern Illinois. So where are the butterflies now?  Did they migrate off someplace else? Are they hibernating? As it turns out, the answer varies from species to species.

    Some butterflies do spend the winter elsewhere. The most familiar example is the Monarch, which spends the winters in the highlands of Michoacán in Mexico. It's the only local species that makes an annual round-trip migration.

    Monarch butterflies in Mexico
    Monarch butterflies in Mexico

    About a dozen other species spend the winter in the desert southwest or along the Gulf Coast in the Deep South. These include species such as the Buckeye, Painted Lady, and Little Yellow. They don't seem to have much of an organized southward migration; they simply die off in more northern locales as the weather cools in the fall. Each spring they begin dispersing northward as the weather warms, though it may take several generations to arrive here.

    Painted Lady butterfly
    Painted Lady

    Although it may be hard to believe, especially on a really cold day in the middle of winter, some species of butterflies hibernate and spend the entire winter here. Each species has one particular life stage that hibernates. There are examples of all four species being used. Species such as the Purplish Copper overwinter as eggs. These are laid on twigs or leaves, where they remain for the entire winter.  Many species, including Baltimore Checkerspots, hibernate as caterpillars. The caterpillars burrow into the leaf litter at the base of their host plants as fall approaches. Many swallowtail butterflies spend the winter as chrysalises. About a half dozen Illinois species, such as Mourning Cloaks, even overwinter as adults.  They spend the winter tucked into crevices in logs, or underneath loose bark on trees. These are the species that can be seen flying on the very first warm days of spring, and occasionally even during warm spells in January or February.

    Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillars
    Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillars

    How do the hibernating butterflies survive? As cold-blooded animals, their body temperatures drop to that of their surroundings. The secret turns out to be in their chemistry. As the days shorten during the autumn, they begin secreting natural antifreezes into their body fluids. The natural antifreezes are necessary no matter which life stage overwinters. If ice crystals form they rupture cells, which is fatal to eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises and adult butterflies alike. The natural antifreezes are small molecules such as glycerol. Glycerol shares many chemical properties with the antifreeze that is used in car engines.  Although the body temperature of a hibernating butterfly may drop to well below zero, the glycerol in its body fluids prevents the formation of ice crystals. The butterfly can therefore survive the very low temperatures, become active again when the weather warms in the spring and complete the life cycle.  Next time you are taking a walk in midwinter, consider that there are thousands of butterflies tucked away in warm spots, waiting to fly next summer.

    Mourning Cloak butterfly
    Mourning Cloak

    Doug Taron, Curator of Biology

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  • Groundhog, Woodchuck, or Whistlepig?


    Tags: Groundhog day, whistlepig, ground squirrel, ground squirrells, woodchuck, woodchucks, holiday, Steve Sullivan, Chicago Academy of Sciences, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

    Created: 2/1/2013      Updated: 5/28/2015

    Squirrels are a very diverse group of rodents. This little Bornean tree squirrel is among the smallest while the American groundhog is among the largest. The groundhog (Marmota monax)can be found through most of the country and consequently have many names like woodchuck and whistlepig. Here is a groundhog skin from the Academy’s collection next to North America’s smallest squirrel, the Red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus)—not to be confused with the Fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), which is pretty big compared to a red squirrel.

    Bornean Squirrel skin from the Chicago Academy of Sciences Collection. Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum Groundhog skin and Red Squirrel skin from Chicago Academy of Sciences. Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
    Borneo Tree Squirrel
                           Groundhog and Red Squirrel

    Fox squirrel. Chicago Academy of Sciences. Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
    Fox Squirrel

    Although all of these animals are squirrels, the bushy-tailed tree squirrels remain active year round, relying on cached food to help them make it through the winter.  However, ground squirrels, like Groundhogs have a different strategy. They eat as much tender grass and other easily-digested plant material as they can during the growing season, and may double their spring weight with fat. Then, once cool weather sets in, they go deep in their burrows for a long winter’s sleep, dropping their heart rate from around 140 beats per minute to less than 20 and cooling their body down as well. Groundhogs will periodically rouse from torpor and re-warm their body before settling down again. Legend has it that during one of these warming bouts, they can predict the end of winter. While this is a fun tradition, there’s no evidence that squirrels actually have predictive powers. In fact, the legend apparently began in Germany where the most common charismatic hibernator is the hedgehog. Lacking hedgehogs in America, German immigrants transferred the idea to the local woodchucks and a fun holiday was born.

    Steve Sullivan View Comments

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