Created: 12/16/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
The Brenton Blue, or How I Unexpectedly Encountered Butterfly Conservation Halfway Around the World
I'm just back from a vacation in South Africa. It's a lovely, amazing country that I am completely smitten with. And while I was hoping to see and photograph some of the country's gorgeous butterflies, my expectation was that I would encounter mostly very common species.
One of the places where I stayed was at an eco-lodge just outside of the beautiful seaside town of Knysna, on the Indian Ocean. While perusing a binder of information about the region's ecology, I happened upon a photo of a blue butterfly. The Brenton Blue is a critically endangered species that clings to existence on a tiny 6-acre parcel of land about a half hour away from the lodge. I asked the lodge's owner if she knew anything about the butterfly. She said, "let me make a quick phone call," then returned to tell me that the biologist who looks after the site said that the butterfly was flying and that he would be at the site working in about an hour. Would I like to meet him?
An hour later, I arrived at the Brenton Blue Butterfly Reserve, where I had the opportunity to meet Dr. David Edge, one of South Africa's premiere conservation biologists working with butterflies. We spent about an hour together discussing our conservation work, and I was delighted to make contact with a colleague in a distant part of the world. He has done some amazing work elucidating the complex life cycle and conservation needs of this remarkable species.
Dr. David Edge (l) and Dr. Doug Taron (r)
The Brenton Blue is a small butterfly that lives exclusively in Knysna coastal fynbos- a very rare type of shrub-land ecosystem. The females lay eggs on a type of a legume that grows in this community. Only the youngest larvae feed on the legume's leaves. As they grow, they are found by members of one species of carpenter ant and spirited off to their nests. At this point their diet changes and they feed on the developing ant brood. The ants don't get much in return- the caterpillars exude drops of sugary honeydew liquid, which the ants consume. One of the reasons that the species is so rare is that it needs such a precise combination of disparate ingredients to maintain a population: the plant community, the host plant, and the carpenter ants.
Brenton Blue larvae host plant: Indigofera erecta
Unfortunately I was only able to take one very poor photograph of the butterfly, however I hope to return some day to see how the population is faring.
Brenton Blue, Photo copyright D. Britton,
Created: 12/16/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
Winter is in the air and I couldn’t be happier! I have lived in Chicago my whole life and have learned to embrace this chilly season a long time ago. What’s there not to like? Buildings are lit up for the holidays. Sledding hills and ice skating rinks are open. Everyone looks cozy- bundled up in coats, boots and hats. We drink delicious hot chocolate. What is a prettier sight than a bright red cardinal perched on a snow covered tree? The list is endless.
It is also a season of bustling activity. If you are like me, you spend extra time with your family and friends.I’m always looking for new winter experiences. Here at the Nature Museum we have a great line-up of seasonal activities for all ages.
You can complete your gift list at Green Gifting December 21st and 22nd with make and take projects like jar terrariums, natural lip balms and handmade snow globes. Live animal shows like Flying Fox on December 21st and Natures Creatures on December 26th are a great way to escape the cold. We even can help you decide on a New Year’s resolution at our Habitat Conservation Fair where you can meet representatives from area conservation organizations and discover opportunities to become involved.
I hope that the museum can become part of your seasonal traditions. Enjoy this beautiful city with all the wonder and excitement that winter brings. I have to go now- there’s an ice rink somewhere calling my name!View Comments
Public programs educator
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Created: 12/11/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
“Mistletoe is still a controversial plant. Growing between heaven and earth, never touching the ground, and not accepting the seasons.” ~ Arndt Büssing
Here in America, we commemorate the December holidays – particularly Christmas – with remarkable fervor. Numerous traditions have sprung up around the celebration of Christmas; each with their own associated imagery and accoutrements. As a horticulturist, I’m struck by the degree to which plants have become part of these customs. Sure, we might send a dozen roses at Valentine’s Day or pin a shamrock to our lapel on St. Patrick’s, but no holiday so intimately integrates plant life as Christmas. From holly to wreaths, from poinsettias to the tree in the living room, plants are very much a part of the special things we do this time of year.
Mistletoe is without doubt the most unique plant that we cherish at Christmastime, and it has arguably the most interesting and long-standing history of human use. Though the term ‘mistletoe’ is used broadly to refer to hundreds of different species of parasitic plants in the Sandalwood group, the traditional Christmas mistletoe is derived exclusively from two plants – Viscum album, native of Europe, and Phoradendron serotinum, from eastern North America. Scientists describe these plants as obligate hemi-parasites. Though they have green leaves and can thus produce their own food, they require a woody host plant to attach to, from which they extract water and nutrients via specialized root structures called haustoria.
Mistletoes, all of which are evergreen, spend their entire lives above ground. The familiar white berries of the Christmas mistletoes contain seeds surrounded by a pulp so sticky that it has historically been used to make traps for birds and small animals. Birds that eat these berries often find the pulp clinging to their beaks. To remove it, they scrape their beaks on tree branches, inadvertently leaving the embedded seeds behind. These seeds then sprout and force their haustoria into the tree to partake of its sap.
The impact of haustoria on host plants can be clearly seen in what are commonly called “wood roses.” Sometimes carved into figurines, these flower-like woody formations are actually the scars left behind by tropical mistletoe species on their tree hosts. In North America, oaks infested with mistletoe may form disorganized masses of woody tissue called galls. Other trees may develop “witches broom” deformities as a result of mistletoe attacks. In the West, these formations are preferred nesting sites for birds such as the Spotted Owl.
Though toxic to humans, many medicinal properties have been attributed to mistletoe. Herbalists have recommended it for problems ranging from poor circulation to barrenness. American Indians used it as a remedy for toothaches and to treat wounds. Ironically, some cultures used mistletoe as an antidote against poison. Recent claims of anti-cancer properties have not been substantiated by clinical research.
The singular lifestyle of the mistletoe plant must have seemed magical to many early cultures. As far back as ancient Greece, mistletoe featured prominently in Western folklore, and throughout pre-Christian Europe, it was seen as a symbol of masculinity, vitality, and fertility. The Golden Bough that Aeneas used to gain admission to the Underworld is said to have been mistletoe. The Celtic Druids believed mistletoe to be sacred, especially when growing on an oak tree. Around the winter solstice, they hung sprigs of it over their doorways to protect from lightning, fire, and other evil forces in the coming year.
Druid priests harvesting mistletoe
According to Norse legend, the goddess Frigg so loved her son Baldr that she made all things that originate from the elements promise not to harm him. But the devious Loki tricked Baldr’s brother, Hoder, into shooting him with an arrow of mistletoe. Because the tree-dwelling mistletoe did not spring from the elemental earth, Baldr fell dead, and Frigg’s tears became the plant’s white berries.
In tropical regions, where most species of mistletoe grow, legends abound. Australian Aboriginals tell poignant tales of “spirit babies,” sent to the earth to find a mother. They hide in trees waiting for a young woman to walk by, but if none will be their mother, they wail and cry until they are changed into mistletoes.
Of course, most of us know mistletoe as a seasonal license to steal a kiss. Though the origins of this practice are murky, some interesting variations exist. Some say that with each kiss, a berry must be removed from the sprig, and when the berries are gone, so are the kisses. Others say a kiss under the mistletoe indicates marriage for the couple in the coming year. In certain traditions, the mistletoe is not allowed to touch the ground, and is the last of the Christmas decorations to come down.
Holiday traditions aside, mistletoes are unique and remarkable plants. In the entire plant kingdom, their particular form of parasitism has only developed in perhaps three plant families. If you find yourself in the southern third of the state this winter, or anywhere else in the South or Mid-Atlantic, scan the bare trees for incongruous sprays of smooth green leaves. It's easy to imagine how mysterious and alluring they must have appeared to ancient peoples.
Created: 12/11/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
After reading yesterday's Gizmodo article titled "The Fascinating Story of why U.S. Parks are Full of Squirrels" by Adam Clark Estes, we had our Curator of Urban Ecology and resident squirrel expert (he runs projectsquirrel.org, a citizen science project) Steve Sullivan, write a response. The result is a historic and eye-opening look into the population of squirrels (and other game animals) from a biologists point of vew.
This is a fun article as far as it goes. It neglects two important points though, one having to do with extirpation and the other with invasion.
Eastern grey squirrel
Sure, we encouraged squirrels to live in parks. Wildlife of all kinds has potential to bring joy as we watch and interact with it. In fact, there is a claim (I’m still looking for the primary source) that Oak Park reintroduced fox squirrels by trapping some in Oklahoma. So why did we have to add squirrels to our parks and why did Oak Park have to import them from so far away? Over hunting and habitat destruction.
As settlers spread they relied on wild game to supply much of their food. Since we need to eat all year, people were hunting and trapping all year. Bison, deer, and turkey are the ones we often think of in this context but in fact beaver, bear, bobolink, lark, curlew, duck, prairie chicken, and even squirrel were also on the menu. In fact, small animals like squirrel and many birds were likely on the menu more often than the larger species. Remember, prior to the present era, people ate far less meat than we do today and two or three bobolink were more than enough meat for a meal; a squirrel could feed four people. Nevertheless, relentless hunting reduced populations of these species significantly. Many that were once common disappeared from many states, some became extinct. Only a few decades ago, it was uncommon to see a deer and unheard of to see a turkey. Bison are found almost exclusively in preserves and elk are rare outside of them. Bobolink, duck and lark populations are tiny compared to pre-settlement times. Eskimo curlew are extinct (we ate them all) as are passenger pigeons, a species that was once one in four birds on our continent. During this time, squirrels diminished greatly, too.
Bull Elk, photo by Flickr user Amada44
Thankfully, uncontrolled hunting (in the US) has been largely solved. Hunting seasons, animal censuses, and hunter success reports ensure that our favorite game animals are almost all doing very well. So well, in fact, that many species have become pests in places where hunting is limited.
While we may have a good handle on over hunting, habitat loss is another issue altogether. One game species that is not doing so well is the bobwhite quail. This once seemingly ubiquitous species is seldom seen in many places where it once was about the only thing worth hunting. It is declining for a number of factors, most notably habitat loss. As farms are consolidated, fencerows are eliminated. These fencerows once provided shelter from the wind and rain for a wide variety of species. Without them, the landscape becomes little more than a biological desert of corn and soy fields. Almost nothing lives in these places, especially not game animals.
Bobwhite, photo by Steve Maslowski/USFWS
Thankfully for squirrels, the parks we create are often hospitable environments. When we make parks, we typically eliminate most of the natural biodiversity. Notably, we eradicate predators to the best of our ability, and we plant as many trees as we can. Both of these cases greatly benefit squirrels. As the article correctly points out, it is sometimes necessary to install nestboxes because we also remove large hollow trees just as they become naturally good homes for squirrels. Not all species respond well to such simple manipulations though. Think how hard it is to get a bat box populated.
And so, these days, after killing off most of the squirrels near us and destroying their habitats, we have created parks where they can live and, in many cases (but certainly not all), we have intentionally reintroduced them as a mobile part of the natural beauty we maintain in our cities.
Invasion is another story. The grey and fox squirrels that many of us are so familiar with are native to the eastern half of our continent. There are other tree squirrel species that evolved in the more diverse western ecosystems. However, as we settled the west, we brought our squirrels with us. The native species were sometimes shy, occurred in low numbers, or were too greasy; they were hard to hunt and not much good for food. So, we introduced the greys and foxes into these new ecosystems and, much as they took to the artificial habitats of parks, they also prospered in western habitats.
Eastern grey squirrel
Today, Eastern grey squirrels (Sciururs carolinensis) are invading the habitat of Western greys (S. griseus) and eliminating them. Project Squirrel participants may also be documenting a new invasion of fox squirrels in Colorado where they compete with Abert’s squirrel. Fox squirrels are also well-established in the Los Angeles region and are a major pest in some nut farms. Both grey and fox squirrels can also cause major damage to natural forests as they eat and scatter nuts and remove bark from trees. Over time, we expect them to change the look and feel (and thus the resident animal populations too) of some western forests. These same problems are being experienced in England and Italy where our grey squirrel has been introduced.
So, while it is enjoyable to watch squirrels in eastern parks, those that you see in western parks are often an indication of significant ecological problems brought about by people moving squirrels around.View Comments
Created: 12/10/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
Lily Emerson has been singing, dancing, and leading programs at the Nature Museum since 2009. You can meet Lily this month during the Nature Museum's Trash to Treasure: Sounds of the Season, Thursday, December 26- Saturday, December 28, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
We decided to ask Lily a few questions so that you can get to know the person behind the program!
How long have you been working with the Nature Museum? What kinds of programs have you done?
I've been working at the Nature Museum as a music and movement artist in residence since 2009. It was supposed to be just for the summer of that year, but I loved it so much I asked the education department to keep me on for the next year. And the next. And so on. Now, I create music and movement classes for the summer camp sessions, teach Brilliant Butterflies workshops for schools that come to the museum on field trips, and make puppets and other fun things with folks who come in during each year's Trash to Treasure event. It's a pretty wonderful gig as a freelance teaching artist: I get to combine my love of arts education with my love of nature and environmental education, which quite possibly makes me one of the happiest art-and-nature nerds in the city.
We hear that you’re a very busy person! Tell us about the different projects you’re currently working on.
In addition to my work at the Nature Museum, I'm also a teaching artist with Lookingglass Education and one of the many creatives who work at The Hideout, one of Chicago's most interesting venues, but I spend most of my time working on Adventure Sandwich, a live-action cartoon about imagination, collaboration, creative problem-solving... and cardboard. It's a kids' TV show made without any CGI or green screen. Instead, we build all of our sets, props, and "special effects" out of cardboard and other everyday materials. I could go on and on about Adventure Sandwich, because it's the project I love most of anything I've ever created, but I'll spare you my ramblings and point you instead to the videos and so on at adventuresandwich.org.
What do you have planned for this year’s Trash to Treasure?
This year, we'll be making puppets, shakers, thank you cards, and more out of gift bags, wrapping paper, wrapping paper tubes, and other odds and ends. Whenever possible, we'll also be creating original stories and acting them out with the puppets we'll be making, which will be a hoot. I have one of my favorite collaborators and fellow music and movement artists, Tara Smith, working with me this year, and I can't wait!
Tell us about your favorite animal at the Nature Museum.
I love the button quails who live in the butterfly haven. They're the most adorable flightless birds I've ever had the pleasure to meet. You don't notice them right away, and can miss them entirely if you're not looking down between the bushes, but if you can pull your gaze away from the butterflies for a moment, you're likely to be charmed by those cute little waddlers, too.
Heather GranceView Comments
Manager of Public Programs
Created: 11/21/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
THIS JUST IN: Volunteers live longer.
I swear it’s true. They’re also happier. As manager of volunteers here at the Nature Museum, I’ve been saying this for years – but now there’s empirical evidence to back me up.
Dr. Suzanne Richards and her team at the University of Exeter Medical School recently published results of a systematic review and meta-analysis of the health and survival of people who volunteer. The researchers looked at 40 studies on this topic and found that volunteering is consistently associated with increased life satisfaction and wellbeing and decreased rates of depression and mortality. (Source: http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2458/13/773#)
In a nutshell: People who volunteer are happier and healthier than people who don’t.
Anyone who’s ever taken a course in research methodology knows that we can’t infer causation from correlation. Just because two factors are associated with one another doesn’t mean one factor caused the other. So we can’t say for sure whether volunteering actually causes people to live a longer, happier life or whether there are other variables at work.
But the fact remains that people who give their time and energy to help others end up better off themselves.
Why might this be so? I think there are a couple of reasons. First of all, volunteering gets you out of the house. It makes you more active and gets all those great energy juices flowing. Second, volunteering creates social connections. It expands and deepens your circle of friends, which sets off numerous chemical reactions in your brain that make you feel happy.
If all this happiness and longevity sounds appealing to you and you’re into nature and science, join our volunteer team here at the museum. Apply here to get started: http://naturemuseum.org/get-involved/volunteer.
Not sure if this is the place for you? Stop by in February for the chance to speak with over 50 different nonprofit organizations about their volunteer opportunities. The Nature Museum is hosting the second annual Chicago Volunteer Expo on Sunday, February 16, 10 am to 4 pm. I hope to see you there!
Manager of Volunteers and Interns
PS: If you’re a nonprofit organization looking to recruit volunteers at the 2014 Chicago Volunteer Expo, the application is now live!View Comments
Created: 11/21/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
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Sometimes it can be difficult to entertain the grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, and the weird neighbor kid that you wish would just stay with their own family and your in-laws all at once during the holidays. Where can all of you go so that the children can have fun, burn off some energy and adults can also be entertained and avoid the post Thanksgiving shopping madness that overtakes downtown Chicago? Is it worth risking a trip to the mall and possibly having a breakdown or losing a child or grandparent in the midst of stampeding crowds of crazed shoppers?
Probably not. What is worth your time is a trip to the Nature Museum! On Friday, November 29 the Public Programs department is pulling out all the stops for your sanity and your family. Join us for Trash to Table, our annual chef demo that shows you creative ways to turn those leftovers into delicious meals no one can resist.
Then head on over to our Flying Fox animal show- a great program for your children to see bats and interact with all kinds of creatures!
You want more? Come back Saturday, November 30th for our 4th annual Green Metropolis Holiday Fair. Stroll our exhibits and shop from many local vendors. This annual favorite is a great way for every member in your family to find an original holiday gift.
We love the holiday season here at the Nature Museum. Make sure to check out our program calendar and come back during our winter solstice celebration on December 21 and our annual Trash to Treasure holiday favorite December 26-28!View Comments
Public Programs Coordinator
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Created: 10/24/2013 Updated: 10/24/2013
Hi! My name is David Bild and I am one of 14 Educators at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. I work on a wide variety of programming which serves middle and high school-aged students, middle school teachers, and undergraduates.
I’m also involved with Hive Chicago, which is a network of 57 youth-serving organizations dedicated to transforming the learning landscape in Chicago by enacting connected learning experiences. Through Hive, which is funded by MacArthur’s Digital Media and Learning (DML) initiative, I have been heavily involved in digital badging initiatives including the Chicago Summer of Learning and the recently formed Hive funded C-STEMM Digital Badges Working Group with Chicago Botanic Garden, Adler Planetarium, Chicago Architecture Foundation, Project Exploration, Forall Badges, and After School Matters. It is truly an exciting time for Hive Chicago and Connected Learning.
As I write this blog post, I’m sitting at the airport getting ready to board an eight hour flight to the Mozilla Festival (MozFest) in London. The Mozilla Foundation runs Hive Networks in Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh and is working to extend Hive globally. I was lucky enough to be selected by Mozilla to serve as one of five Hive Ambassadors representing Hive Chicago at MozFest. Joining me on the trip are four other Hive Ambassadors from Chicago which include representatives from Shedd Aquarium, LevelUP, Yollocalli Arts Reach, and Game Changer Chicago.
I’m not quite sure what to expect, but I’m super excited to learn from and share with people from across the globe to bring back innovative ideas and strategies to help us continue to improve the learning landscape in Chicago through connected learning principles. Keep an eye out for blog and twitter updates from me during #MozFest.View Comments
Created: 10/16/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
How often do you think about the ground under your feet? About what it is composed of or how old the rocks are? Did you know that under your feet, there are not just rocks and soils, but fossils? Most of Illinois’ exposed rock layers, and the fossils found in them, were formed during the Carboniferous, approximately 355 to 290 million years ago. Check out the Paleontology Portal’s website about Illinois’ paleontology and geology, http://www.paleoportal.org/index.php?globalnav=time_space§ionnav=state&name=Illinois.
The Chicago Academy of Sciences and its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum (CAS/PNNM) has over 22,000 fossils in its collection, most of which were collected from sites in the Midwest. To celebrate National Fossil Day, here are some specimens from CAS/PNNM’s paleontology collection.
Macroneuropteris macrophylla, a Neuropteris-like group seed fern from the Braidwood flora of the Mazon Creek area, IL. Carboniferous, Francis Creek Shale.
Spirorbis sp. (on Stigmaria sp.), worms on root structure, from the Essex fauna and flora of the Mazon Creek area, IL. Carboniferous, Francis Creek Shale.
Lobatopteris lamuriana, a true fern from the Braidwood flora of the Mazon Creek area, IL. Carboniferous, Francis Creek Shale.
Hystriciola delicatala, an annelid worm from the Essex fauna of the Mazon Creek area, IL. Carboniferous, Francis Creek Shale.
Annularia sp. specimens collected by Jonathan H. Britts from Henry County, MO.
Pecopteris vestita, a fern leaf collected by Jonathan H. Britts from Henry County, MO.
Pentremites obesus, a blastoid from Anna, IL. Mississippian, Chester Limestone.
Platystrophia acutilirata, brachiopods collected from Cincinnati, OH. Ordovician, Cincinnati Limestone.
Conularia crawfordsvillensis, (animal) collected from Crawfordsville, IN. Mississippian, Keokuk Group.
Phillipsia bufo, a trilobite collected from Crawfordsville, IN. Mississippian, Keokuk Group.
Stop in at the Nature Museum for a visit to see fossils up close. Here are a few of the fossils you can find on display:
Mammut giganteus, mastodon mandible and tooth from Macon County, IL
Receptaculites oweni, fossilized coral collected from Galena, IL
Tremanotus chicagoensis, gastropod (snail) specimen from Bridgeport, IL
Lepidodentron aculeatum, fossilized bark collected in Orange County, IN
Calymene niagarensis, trilobite specimens collected from section 6 of the drainage canal, Chicago, IL
Want to learn more about the fossils under your feet?
Gugilotta, Guy. “The World’s Largest Fossil Wilderness.” Smithsonian Magazine, July 2009. [Smithsonian.com, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Phenomena-Forest-Primeval.html]
“How Do We Know? – Fossils” webpage on MuseumLink Illinois site. Illinois State Museum, 2000. [http://www.museum.state.il.us/muslink/forest/htmls/how_foss.html] Information about how fossil pollen is used to study past environments.
Wittry, Jack. Mazon Creek Fossil Fauna. Illinois: ESCONI and Northeastern Illinois University, 2012. * Includes photographs of specimens from the CAS/PNNM collection!
Dawn RobertsView Comments
Created: 10/11/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
A few years ago we began a special halloween event for children called Supper with the Snakes. It is a wonderful opportunity for families to don their Halloween costumes for an extra evening and immerse themselves in all things snake related. We will be hosting our sixth Supper with the Snakes event on Saturday, October 26th from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. You can register online here.
I sometimes wonder, who finds who more intriguing, the children looking at our beautiful snakes, or the snakes looking at all the children in their Halloween costumes!
As well as having al of our snakes on show we offer a whole range of snake related acitivites, including "create a snake" crafts, using all kinds of recycled materials.
Fabulous Face Painting
and a few other surprises that we like to keep under our hat until the night of the event.
After a delicious pizza dinner we announce the costume prizewinners of the night and present them with their prizes.
This year we have the added bonus of access to our brand new temporary exhibit "Animal Secrets." Then when all the snakes have been petted, all the activities completed, all the exhibits checked out, and all the pizza has been consumed, a snake related goodie is our parting gift as all the participants leave.
SSSSSSSee you on the 26th for Ssssssupper with the Ssssssnakes! Ssssssign up now!
Created: 10/8/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
Donald T. Ries passed away in 1967. For the past four months I have been the Collections-Photography Intern for the Collections Department, cataloguing Ries’ work that is housed in the Archive. When I applied for the position, I thought I was going to be working more with cameras or scanners, and while that may still be in store for Ries' collection my job so far entails cataloguing, researching, and identifying the subjects of his photographs.
In 1969, Ries' sisters donated over 10,000 of his nature photography images, in the form of 35 mm slides and black and white negatives to the Academy. Ries’ collection was accessioned into the collection all those years ago but methods for cataloguing have since become more rigorous. Luckily for me, the museum has not had the resources to allocate towards addressing those changes, so Amber and Dawn brought me in to start attending to those needs. Throughout the process I have gained hands-on experience with contemporary cataloguing techniques and object handling. I have also seen just how time consuming and arduous managing and maintaining a museum collection can be; a great lesson for a museum studies graduate student like me.
Drawers from the storage cabinet received with the Donald T. Ries photography donation
I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Donald T. Ries. From my personal research, I found that Ries was a biology professor at Illinois State University and he belonged to an amateur photography club, from which he won several awards. He spent his summers pursuing and working on his passion for nature photography by researching and recording different natural environments and their inhabitants. Ries then spent the time to label most of his images with the appropriate scientific name or taxonomy.
Image of Chimaphila umbellata, Pipissewa or Prince’s Pine
Part of cataloguing Ries’ images involves using the USDA Plants database to verify and confirm the information on Ries’ labels. The database also maps the natural habitats for the flora I am investigating, highlighting the states where they grow naturally. Those maps and the dates on Ries’ slides allow me to “play detective,” inferring in what regions of the country Ries was when he took certain images. My favorite part of the internship has been mentally mapping Ries' travels. I imagine him preferring a trip to southern Canada in July where the Lady Slipper Orchid might be in bloom over a vacation at a beach resort in some tropical climate.
Image of Cypripedium arietinum, Ram’s Head Lady’s Slipper
Another rewarding aspect entails researching the unidentified slides, trying to find and attribute the correct taxonomy to the species in each image. With little more than a descriptive vocabulary and a growing understanding of the botanical language, I pore over hundreds of images from the Internet trying to discover the species of plant at which I am looking. I cannot describe the satisfaction I receive every time I scour through countless images, and find a flower similar to the slide I am studying; I found the clues necessary to unlock the riddle.
Image of Oxalis montana, Mountain Woodsorrel
This experience provided a glimpse at how a Collections Department operates and increased my desire to work in museums. I also gained a greater appreciation for flowers as well as the work of avid nature photographers, even becoming adept at identifying previously unknown species of flowers in my friends’ backyards. Finally, I got to know this fellow photographer, developing a connection to him that could never have otherwise been made. I plan on continuing with the Donald T. Ries project as a volunteer and I am excited to continue working with and learning from the Collections staff at the Academy.
Leonard M. CiceroView Comments
Collections Department Intern/Volunteer
Created: 9/30/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
In the early 1900s, North America lost nearly every American Chestnut to the chestnut blight. My grandparents have likely never seen a mature one, though they are estimated to have numbered 3 billion. Most people of my generation have rarely if ever seen an American Elm, once an extremely widely-planted shade tree which was almost killed off by Dutch Elm Disease from the 1920s to 1970s (and beyond). Now it seems that my grandchildren may be lucky to see an ash tree on this continent, as the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) threatens to wipe out the entire genus, Fraxinus.
The Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis) was first discovered in North America in 2002, and since then has caused the death of around 40 million ash trees. While it seems to slightly prefer some ashes to others, it will attack any member of the genus. The beetle causes destruction in its larval phase, when it lives just under the outer bark and chews winding trails or “galleries” through the layer of tissue called phloem, which moves sugars from the leaves to the roots. Since the beetle lives under the bark, infestations can go unnoticed until the tree is visibly distressed.
Sprouts from the base are a common symptom
I saw this recently on the museum grounds. In an ash tree, sprouts from the base are a common symptom of EAB infestation. The phloem is so damaged the roots have all but stopped getting nutrition from the leaves, and the tree sends new shoots from below the damaged area. Clearly, these few sprouts won’t suffice, and by the time such sprouts appear it is usually too late to save the tree.
D-shaped hole of emerging beetle
A second sign presented itself with a closer look: the characteristic D-shaped hole where the adult beetle emerged. I saw around ten such holes on this tree. By prying some loose bark back with my knife I was able to catch a glimpse of the galleries left by the larvae.
Gallery or trails of larvae
The adults left to lay eggs on other nearby ash trees, of which there are plenty. 19% of the City of Chicago's trees are ashes, and there are an estimated half-million privately owned in the city.
So far, the only effective treatment has been systemic insecticides. They must be applied before an infestation occurs, must be re-applied every few years, save only the treated tree, and kill all the other insects which feed on ash trees. Because of the expense and complications involved, only certain "high-value" trees are being treated, and most agencies prepare for the EAB’s arrival by replacing ashes with other trees. The EAB has a limited range and moves slowly, so it may be possible to impede its spread by treating and/or removing trees in areas not yet affected, in a strategy similar to a fire-break.
Even if you don’t own or manage ash trees, you can still help. Always use locally-sourced firewood, so if any EAB larvae or adults are in the wood they stay in an already-infested area instead of being driven somewhere that had yet to be affected. It is likely that the original U.S. infestation was a small number of individual insects that arrived in wooden packing crates from Asia, where the insect is a minor pest. The cost of removing or replacing or treating trees could well run into the billions of dollars-- largely taxpayer dollars as governments manage large ash populations and dead trees cause hazards in populated areas-- so it is best for everyone if we leave wood where we find it and do what we can to limit the spread of this invasive species.
Trust me, I wish I could end on a hopeful note, or even just give a spoonful of sugar with this bitter pill, but the destruction caused by invasive species far exceeds the limited resources of time, money, and personnel available to combat them. With luck, the EAB won’t kill all 2 billion ash trees and we’ll still have some for our grandchildren to appreciate, but now would probably be a good time for you to get to know the ashes in your area, whether the EAB is already present, and who to call if you spot damage in unaffected areas.
Andrew WunschelView Comments
Created: 9/30/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
Throughout the ages, butterflies have been symbolically important to many cultures, representing everything from the souls of the dead, to resurrection, to steadfast love. Their true stories of survival in the natural world are no less meaningful, but often go largely unnoticed. So I was grateful and excited when the cast of Steppenwolf Theater’s current production of “The Wheel” wanted to ask about the real butterflies behind the imagery and references in this play.
Here is a sampling of questions I was more than happy to answer:
What is the source of butterflies’ color?
- Mostly light refracting off the scales of their wings.
How long does the entire life cycle take to complete?
- Frequently as long as a year, though some adult stages may only last for two weeks.
How do butterflies make it through the winter in Illinois?
- Depending on the species, they may overwinter as adults, larvae, eggs, or chrysalises. A well-known exception is the Monarch, which flies away to warmer climates.
Do butterfly species have “personalities”?
- They have field behaviors that are unique and help with their identification, such as flight patterns (flap, flap, glide for the monarch), or territorial dog fighting amongst male skippers.
We observed a sample of the stunning tropical species on display in our Haven (such as the Swallowtail Ulysses butterfly or Blue Mountain Butterfly, Papilio ulysses from Australia, one of my favorites) and talked about some of the unique plant/habitat/insect interactions that occur around the world. What became clear as we discussed the physical progression from egg, to caterpillar, to chrysalis, to adult is just how perilous a journey it is – not unlike the journey that occurs in the play itself. Much of the cast was unaware of just how much trouble certain butterfly species are in around the country.
Blue Emperor Swallowtail
We discussed the tiny but elegant Swamp Metalmark Calephelis muticum that used to fly (and as of this summer’s work, may again establish) in Illinois. It is startling in its small size– a stark size contrast to the giant Ulysses but still an incredible beauty. The story of its loss is one of human imposed challenges.
Butterflies have endured the ever-revolving cycles of life and abundance for thousands of years, but are now facing new, manmade challenges. How butterflies and other species might respond to these changes was a topic of discussion and inspiration for the cast members.
It was a great afternoon, and I was left feeling grateful that although we have come far in our understanding of the processes behind it all, our love of the magic of nature still inspires artists and scientists alike. Watching the drama of nature play out is never boring, with plot twists and surprises to keep you at the edge of your seat. And the best thing is, we all have a role to play.View Comments
Created: 9/12/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
Our Blanding’s project deals with several hundred turtles in numerous different locations and if we are not careful, the individual identities of the turtles can quickly get mixed up. So how do we stop that happening? Those of you who are dog owners are probably already familiar with ID chips. We use a very similar thing for our turtles.
These are the tools we use. The ID chip is about the size of a grain of rice, the syringe has a hollow tip to hold the chip and the tweezers hold the skin of the turtle as the chip is inserted. The turtles’ skin is quite loose just in front of the hind leg so this is the location of choice for inserting the chip. As with anything slightly invasive that has to be done to a turtle you get one chance only! One chance to grab the leg before it is pulled firmly into the shell and one chance to get hold of the skin before the turtle clenches up and that loose skin miraculously disappears!
Luckily for us it appears the turtle doesn’t bear a grudge for long so if we miss at the first attempt, we put the turtle back into the water, go on to the next one and then come back to the original turtle to insert the chip. Once the chip is inserted we scan the turtle and read off the ID number. This is a multi digit and letter sequence that will immediately let us know which turtle we are working with.
Some of our turtles go directly from the museum out into the wild but we can’t afford to put radio transmitters on all of them so this is a great way of knowing which turtle is which should we come across them a few years later. This is such a precious species, we want to be able to use as much data as possible when we find an individual so being able to identify them, of course, is vital.View Comments
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Created: 9/5/2013 Updated: 2/16/2017
Wondering how to green-up your clean-up? Join us on Wednesday, September 11th from 6-7pm for Green Cleaning 101! In this one hour workshop, you’ll learn the basics of green cleaning for your home and make a starter kit so that you can get cleaning right away- no excuses!
Green Cleaning 101 has been held at the Nature Museum since 2010. Over the past three years, many people have taken the class, including some of our Nature Museum volunteers. Walt Mellens has been a Nature Museum volunteer for three and a half years, and took the class with his wife. Here’s what Walt has to say about his experience with the class:
“We took the Green Cleaning 101 Class at the Museum and what a difference it made! Previously we were purchasing 'green' cleaning products at a premium price, and unhappy with the efficacy of them. Now we make our own cleaning products for pennies, and we are constantly impressed with the results! We have a clean home, a green home, and no chemicals in the air we breathe! Thank you!”
Green Cleaning 101 ingredients
Ready to get started? The class is only $10/members, $15/non-members and includes all materials, even a bucket to lug everything home! Register online at naturemuseum.org (click the date on the online calendar for the registration link) or call 773-755-5122.
We hope that you can join us!
Heather GranceView Comments
Manager of Public Programs
Created: 8/28/2013 Updated: 2/16/2017
What do each of the following activities have in common?
- A broken toy drive, followed by a workshop where said toys were repaired and prepared for redistribution to youth.
- The GrowShare program which connects local community gardeners so they can barter with their excess produce.
- A cozy brunch where all of the food scraps were vermicomposted and each attendee received their own free worm bin.
- A new Green Team at Truman College, making efforts to reduce the institution’s carbon footprint.
- A training for Avondale residents to learn about stormwater management through rain barrels and native plants.
- A hands-on introduction to Chicago’s new bike share system (Divvy) and the City’s planned active transportation routes.
The answer: Each of the activities listed above were coordinated by one of our Spring 2013 Chicago Conservation Corps (C3) Leaders.
When you think of the Nature Museum, your mind might turn to our collections and exhibits or to our research and restoration efforts. However, the Museum also hosts the Chicago Conservation Corps (C3), a network of more than 500 adult Chicagoans with great passion for sustainability. Each of these “C3 Leaders” has been through at least 20 hours of training with us and led at least one community-based environmental service project like those listed above.
C3 Leaders learn about sustainability and conservation issues in Chicago directly from experts in the field. They also participate in community organizing and project planning training so they can take what they’ve learned and put it into action. C3 supports this action with up to $400 worth of materials per project.
We are constantly impressed by the variety and impact of our Leaders’ projects and look forward to being inspired by the next batch of Leader projects this fall. Our next C3 Environmental Leadership training will take place on Saturdays from September 14 – October 12. If you’d like to join us or learn more, check us out on the website at www.naturemuseum.org/c3View Comments
Created: 8/13/2013 Updated: 5/27/2015
Run for Science without actually running!
Like any dedicated Nature Museum supporter, you probably already know that our annual Run for Science 5K is coming up on September 21st. But if you’re anything like me, you get winded just thinking about running five thousand kilometers.
I have good news for you. You don’t actually have to run in the Run for Science to show your support! While the runners get all the glory, there are lots of folks behind the scenes who make this race possible. They’re volunteers.
Volunteers station themselves along the race route, cheering on runners and handing out much-needed cups of water. They keep runners’ bags safe at the gear check station. They make sure everyone is properly checked in and ready to run. And they do all this because they support the Nature Museum and our science education programs.
These volunteers know that working behind the scenes is equally important as the actual running of the race. Each year volunteers and runners come together to raise funds for the Nature Museum’s science education programs, and they have a blast doing it.
If you’d like to be part of the volunteer team, let me know in the comments section. We’d love to have you!
Jill DoubView Comments
Manager of Volunteers and Interns
Created: 8/13/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
As predicted, Harper’s Horticultural Bottom Ten is well on its way to becoming an important, nay, essential treatise within the vast and tangled gallimaufry of gardening discourse. I am sorry for the delay in bringing you the next installment, gentle reader, but as you may well imagine, I have been wholly occupied accepting international awards, juggling requests for public appearances, and turning down marriage proposals. However, today I shall set aside these distractions, for the task at hand remains vital, and my expertise indispensable to its execution. So welcome, everyone, to the Bottom Ten Part Two: Unspeakable Lovecraftian Nightmare Edition!
For those of you who don’t know what awesome is, H. P. Lovecraft was one of the 20th century’s most brilliant horror writers. If you’re unacquainted with his oeuvre, go read “The Thing at the Doorstep.” I’ll wait. Done? Cool. Good luck sleeping tonight. Lovecraft specializes in nurturing a crawling sense that someone or something within a story is…off. Unnatural. Distorted. Perverse. Then, in the final pages, when you’re good and creeped out, you finally encounter it: the Thing That Should Not Be.
I am certainly no Lovecraft. But I can recognize a hideous, forsaken monstrosity when I see it. I can tell when plant breeding has run disturbingly amok. Yes, gentle reader, I know them. I know the Plants That Should Not Be.
Example 1: Here is a normal coneflower…
…here is a ‘Greenline’ coneflower…
Eyeballs on stalks. Watching you. Forever.
…and a ‘Green Wizard’ coneflower
Kill it. With fire.
Why? Just why? What disturbed compulsion forced otherwise well-intentioned plantsmen and women to create these botanical perversities? Are they pretty? Are they an improvement on the standard form? The answer to both questions is a clear and resounding “no”. Yet there they are. Living. Growing.
Example 2: Here is your standard daylily…
…and here is the cultivar ‘Sanford Double Doozy’.
Who did this? Who saw a daylily flower and thought it would look better disguised as a mutated, scum-crawling, deep-sea nudibranch? There is only one explanation. This must be the work of some ancient, cosmic horror lurking beyond the veil, pulling the strings on an unwitting, puppet horticulturist.
Example 3: A typical daffodil…
…and a cultivar called ‘Delnashaugh’.
On quiet mornings, you can just make out the sound of its constant, pitiful weeping.
Clearly, this daffodil is the product of a diseased mind. How else can one explain its nauseating jumble of contorted, flesh-colored protuberances? No one of sound faculties could ever conceive of creating something so unspeakable from a beloved harbinger of spring. Speaking of which…
Example 4: Here is a tulip called ‘Rococo’.
No. No, no, no. That is not a flower. That is an incubus spawned from the unholy union of a cabbage and a stygian cacodemon. Without doubt, its insatiable roots twist downward, downward, ever downward, though the inky, sulfurous miasmas of Tartarus, into the very gates of Gahenna, past the Well of Souls, finally plunging into the black, putrid soil of the Abyss. Any second now, its blood-caked petals will yawn open, revealing a hideous maw of toothy destruction. And it will scream.
My god, it will scream.
Oh no. I think it saw me! I’ve got to get…blog…must finish…must warn…….
Created: 8/6/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
A few years ago, before I was employed in the Public Programs department, I was a volunteer here at the Nature Museum. I remember my orientation day with a group of five other new volunteers. We were introduced to various staff members and given a tour of the Museum. When the group was led to the Butterfly Haven, someone asked, “Will we see the Button Quails?”, and I thought to myself, “What is a button quail?” We went inside and I soon laid eyes on the adorable little birds. They looked and walked like little chickens and they vocalized with a hearty “Woo, hoo, hoo”. I was smitten! I wanted to know everything about them, especially- why are there Button Quails in Butterfly Haven?
Button Quails are small birds- about 5” in size. The males are usually dark grey with a white bib under their chin; females are usually light brown with black ticking. They are ground dwellers that can fly slightly – they take off and fly in a straight line for a very short distance- so they are not a threat to the butterfly population. They do eat small insects, such as aphids, making them quite the help for our plant life. The last two points would answer my original question in short, but over the years, I have found more value to those little creatures than I ever would have thought.
First, let’s think about the fact that the Button Quails are at the eye level of many of our visitors. Running around the plant beds, the little birds are often the first thing that our young visitors spot in Butterfly Haven. Many interpretive opportunities have arisen as a result. Discussions about eggs, social species of animals and life cycle are all regular parts of public programming days when we are around the quails. We have written a few programs centered around our feathered friends such as “Bird Talk”, “Father of the Year”, and “Who’s Hiding in the Haven” to name a few. The Button Quails are a great resource for public programs.
The next time you are visiting Butterfly Haven, keep an eye out for our covey of Button Quails. I hope they delight you, as much as they have me.
Laura SalettaView Comments
Public Programs Educator
Created: 7/27/2013 Updated: 9/1/2015
The Academy’s museum collection and archives includes 1,371 motion films that were created between the early 1920s and the 1970s. These original films document local ecosystems and plants and animals in their natural habitats.
Motion film is highly susceptible to deterioration caused by temperature and humidity. With help from the Chicago Film Archives, these films are being described and catalogued, having simple repairs made, and rehoused with archival storage containers for long-term preservation. Thank you to the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust, and to individual donors for their support of this stage of the project!
After the films are catalogued and stabilized, we will embark on the next phase: to increase the accessibility of the collection. Utilizing the original films would damage or even destroy them. Creating a digital copy of the films will allow the footage to be used and the original film to be protected.
Here are some shots of the transformation of our film collection:
Many of the films were stored in metal canisters.
Original metal reels caused breakage to the films and were susceptible to rust, resulting in chemical deterioration of the films. Some films had adhesive labels stuck to the sides, and the adhesive residue transferred to the films causing them to stick together.
Stacks of small cardboard boxes with original 100’ rolls of film. Materials like this cause damage to films through acid migration.
agfa 35mm films
Leather bound film container used for storage and mailing.
Some of the films suffer from vinegar syndrome, deterioration caused by humidity. The film exhibits warping and gives off a “vinegary” smell.
Each film is wound onto an archival core, outfitted with a new leader, and then given an archival canister.
Here are films that have been completely catalogued and rehoused. The new archival containers provide an inert micro-environment that helps stabilize the films and protect them from further deterioration.
Dawn RobertsSubscribe to our RSS feed and never miss a blog posting! View Comments
Created: 7/27/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
Bird watching is a popular activity and one where there are few barriers to participation. Both young and old can participate and from any geographic location; you can watch birds in your backyard through kitchen windows or venture out to more wild areas. With this ready access to living birds, what role do bird collections play?
One of the greatest advantages is that specimens allow for up close inspection, for as long as desired. This can be particularly helpful when you want to study a species that is difficult to find in its habitat, when you’re just learning how to identify a species, or when you want to compare features from different individuals.
An Eastern bluebird study skin, Sialia sialis, collected from Diamond Lake, Illinois in 1904.
Bird collections are used for all sorts of research. For instance, museum oology collections were used to identify the effects of DDT on bird egg shells, which lead to banning the use of this hazardous substance. Specimens are used to track changes in a species’ range – check out the range maps the next time you open an identification book; data from museum collections are often used in the creation of these maps.
Here is a nest and egg set of a Northern Shoveller, Anas clypeata.
Specimens that are taxidermied in a behavioral posture are utilized frequently for exhibits. These specimens help illustrate behavior and bring them to visitors who may not have the opportunity to see them first hand in the wild. In order to successfully convey the true nature of an animal, taxidermists need an understanding of how musculature works, but also have an understanding of the animal. Extensive observation of living animals aides in the understanding of a particular species’ behavior, how an animal moves and balances as its walks, and how it interacts with other animals.
Gambel’s quail, Callipepla gambelii, mounted specimen.
The next time you visit the Nature Museum, take a little extra time to study the specimens on display. Note their particular features – the shape of their beaks, the differences in the shape of their feet, the coloration of their feathers. What can you impart from these features about their diet or their activities? Through this observation, you may gain a more thorough understanding of the animals living in this urban nature environment and even spot them more easily in their natural habitat.
Dawn RobertsView Comments
Created: 7/26/2013 Updated: 9/2/2015
Although he was a lawyer by training and practice, Tappan Gregory was also a nature photographer and supporter of the Chicago Academy of Sciences. He served as the Honorary Curator of Mammals from 1930 to 1944 and contributed articles to Academy publications as well. We are fortunate to have the negatives of some of his photography, particularly those highlighting his use of wildlife “self-portrait” photography. While to us this kind of imaging seems a normal part of scientific exploration, while Gregory was working this kind of photography was very new and standardized equipment had not been developed yet. Below is a small sampling of the images housed in the Museum’s collection.
Juvenile Porcupine walking along ridge of boat, ca. 1907, Huron Mountain Club, Marquette, MI
Diagram of camera set-up for wildlife “self-portrait” photographs.
Skunk responding to bait. October 18, 1928, Huron Mountain Club, Marquette, MI
Franklin’s Ground Squirrel, Waucaunda, Ill July 27, 1941
Two Red Fox kits or pups caught on film. May 13, 1941, Huron Mountain Club, Marquette, MI
Amber KingView Comments
Assistant Collections Manager
Created: 7/26/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
Amanda Parelius is not a household name, she is not a recognized scientific pioneer, but her scrapbook is a snapshot into the passion that drives the amateur scientist. Amelia was born around 1888 in Chicago and lived most of her life in Elmwood Park, one of Chicago’s northwest suburban communities. When she was only 18 months old, Amelia contracted polio, known then also as “infantile paralysis.” At 16, she underwent surgery intended to help her walk without the use of crutches, but complications afterwards instead led to the amputation of one her legs. Her personal experiences with polio are important to note because it would influence directions she took later in her life.
Although she started her career as a milliner and dress maker, ultimately she opened a pet store, “The Scarlet Pet Store and Bird Hospital”, which was originally located in her home and later at various locations. It was at her bird hospital that she began to experiment with treatments recommended for those experiencing paralysis from polio or other debilitating diseases, on domesticated pet birds. She received attention from papers in the Chicago area for creating artificial legs for canaries and for applying the “Sister Kenny” method used to treat polio patients on birds experiencing paralysis. She applied hot packs, hot baths, and massage to afflicted birds experiencing some success, even curing a parrot that was found suddenly motionless at the bottom of its cage, to the delight of its owner.
All of the procedures she performed were completed with the permission and encouragement of the owners of the birds. In fact, much of her business was obtained through word-of-mouth references that brought birds from as far away as California to her hospital for treatment. Her scrapbook contains letters and newspaper clippings detailing her successes as well as numerous heart-felt thank you letters from bird owners whose pets lives were extended through her care. Her story is just one of many detailing the work of the amateur scientist in the Museum's archive.
Amber KingView Comments
Assistant Collections Manager
Created: 7/22/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
It’s Time to Get Your Bug On!
Summer has finally arrived in Chicago with it the endless array of festivals. Not to be outdone, the Nature Museum will once again be celebrating all things invertebrate with its fifth annual Bugapalooza event. So if boiling your brains out with music in Grant Park with several thousand others is not your idea of a fun time (or even if it is, you can do both) why not head over to the museum on August 2nd and delve into the delights of entomology?
We will have a great selection of bugs on display in our highly popular Bug Zoo with experts on hand to give you all the fascinating facts about these often overlooked creatures. You'll get the chance to learn about bug diets when we do our Bug Feeding Program and we'll also be doing Bug Walks on the museum grounds to show you the vast array of species that call our prairie landscape home.
Along with Bug Crafts, Bug Coloring and Bug Tattoos we will also be throwing down the gauntlet to see how adventurous you are feeling by offering you some tasty dishes to try where the key ingredient is, you guessed it, BUGS!!
Our collections staff will be on hand demonstrating the delicate art of insect pinning and we will have our neighborhood apiarist here to explain the skills of bee keeping whilst our younger visitors can learn how bees dance. You will even get the chance to see our Leaf-cutter Ant Colony up close too.
Of course no celebration of the invertebrate world would be complete without a special ‘after hours’ opportunity to visit our iconic Butterfly Haven and to cap off the evening we will be doing a First Flight Butterfly Release. To register for this great event, simply click on this link.
Created: 7/15/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
Gardening has, for many years, been America’s most popular hobby, so it should come as no surprise that numerous people have attempted to make a buck or two dispensing horticultural information to the masses. Gardeners clamor endlessly for the advice of experts, and so your average bookstore is absolutely lousy with flower books, to say nothing of the countless gardening websites available for the perusal of the plant-addled. Most of these resources focus on what to grow and why. As I considered topics for a blog post today, it occurred to me that I should avoid contributing to this information overload. There is an eminently more useful service I can offer to the horticulturally inclined. And so, calling upon my years of training and experience, I've come up a with a list of plants that should never ever be planted by anyone, ever. Witness the first installment of the soon-to-be-indispensable Harper’s Horticultural Bottom Ten!*
Norway Maple – Acer platanoides.
This plant should need no introduction. Wherever you are in the city of Chicago, statistically speaking, a well-swung dead cat will either hit the side of a Dunkin Donuts or the trunk of a Norway Maple. This tree looks like it was lifted straight from your first grade art project - you know, back when you stupidly drew trees like green lollipops on brown sticks. Puerile geometry is pretty much all Norway Maples have to offer; yet people inexplicably keep planting them. Yes, the fall color is decent, but the brilliant oranges and crimsons of our native Red and Sugar Maples make the Norway’s pale yellow look sickly by comparison. If that’s not enough to dissuade you from planting a Norway, please, for the sake of all that’s good in the world, read on. This tree’s shade is so dense that it’s tough to grow much of anything beneath it, especially since its shallow roots crowd out other plants. Its seeds sprout everywhere, requiring you to pull multitudes of saplings lest you end up with more of these affronts to botanical decency darkening your property. Oh, did I mention it’s an invasive species? And that YOU CAN’T EVEN MAKE MAPLE SYRUP WITH IT!? Sheesh!
Rose of Sharon – Hibiscus syriacus.
Your grandma had one of these. She also had Pat Boone records and a crocheted cover over the Kleenex box. Just sayin.’ The Rose of Sharon looks good on paper – a tough shrub with reliable mid to late summer color. But you see, that’s what makes it so insidious. You want to like this shrub. You think you should. It’s got huge pink or blue flowers after all. What’s not to like? That’s what I’m here for, gentle reader, to tell you what’s not to like. Those flowers you were so excited about have limp, fleshy petals, insipid colors, and discordant, reddish centers. They smell…weird. After they die, they continue to hang around, all floppy and messy (see photo), for several days. And the rest of the plant has nothing at all to recommend it. Its form is sort of like an upside-down Christmas tree, until it gets older and full of heavy flowers and starts looking like an upside-down Christmas tree trodden by elephants. The seed pods are unattractive and their contents sprout readily into hard-to-pull seedlings. Oh, and the curled up flower buds are a favorite home for slugs, as well as every homeowner’s favorite, Japanese Beetles.
Siberian Elm - Ulmus pumila.
Unscrupulous plant peddlers sometimes sell this tree as a Dutch Elm Disease resistant alternative to the majestic American Elm. Unfortunately, it lacks the impeccable vase-like form of its American cousin, leaving it with - let me do the math here - ah yes, precisely zero ornamental characteristics. With weak wood that leaves the lawn littered with broken twigs, and massive horizontal roots to impede your mower, expect to spend more time than ever on yard work after you plant one of these embarrassments of the arboreal world. Here’s how I would describe the form: Take a bunch of parsley in your fist. Smash it into the wall a few times. Tie the stems together to form the “trunk” and poke it in the dirt. Congratulations, you now have a perfect bonsai replica of a Siberian Elm. Let me leave you with a few comments from the renowned plantsman Michael Dirr: “A poor ornamental tree that does not deserve to be planted anywhere!…One of, if not the, world’s worst trees…Native to eastern Siberia, northern China, Manchuria, Korea and, unfortunately, was not left there.” I think there’s a lesson there for us all.
To be continued - watch this blog for the next installment!*Someone out there is about to fire off an indignant comment pointing out that there are examples of some of these plants on the museum grounds. Rest assured, I sure as heck didn’t put ‘em there.View Comments
Created: 7/12/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
Food: The Nature of Eating focuses on how human eating habits impact us and the planet. While this exhibit focuses on the human relationship with food, the Public Programs department teaches visitors about the importance of a balanced diet for animals through our daily animal feedings.
Two of our most popular feedings are the water snake and rats. The water snake feeding takes place every Thursday at 1 p.m. During this time our water snake feasts on a large bucket of live fish! Our attendees are glued to the glass as they observe the water snake slowly slither to the container of unsuspecting fish. Sorry, fish, but your new home is in the belly of a water snake, not in a bowl at the dentist’s office. This container full of fish keeps the water snake satiated for an enitre week!
On Saturdays at 1 p.m. we feed our two beloved rats, Smudge and Sooty. Their meal consists of almost anything. Seriously. They feast on Greek yogurt, local and exotic fruits, veggies, seaweed, dog food, wax worms and, of course, a sweet treat for dessert. We do not intend to gross-out the public when we feed them dog food or worms. We want visitors to realize that rats are scavengers and will eat anything we eat or set out for other animals and more! Rats will thrive anywhere that supplies them with food, water and shelter- that’s why we find them in our neighborhoods.
So, next time you are visiting the Nature Museum, make sure to check the guide to find out which animal will be fed and when. The experience will surely be a treat!
Glenda GonzalezView Comments
Public Programs Coordinator
Created: 7/1/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
Lots of things in the natural world emit light. Bioluminescence is a chemical process through which living organisms produce “cold” light. The mechanism can be different for different species but basically, living things make light the same way a glow stick does.
The oceans especially are full of bioluminescent creatures: cephalopods like the vampire squid, bacteria (including those that live under the eyes of some fish) and crustaceans like ostracods (also known as seed shrimp). One of the most numerous vertebrates on earth, the lantern fish, is (as their name implies) glow-in-the dark.
Here in Chicagoland, we also have bioluminescent organisms. The most popular are the fireflies or lightning bugs in the family Lampyridae. There are more than two dozen species that occur in our region; my kids identified at least two species in our yard last night. Species can be differentiated by size and anatomy as well as by how they flash. That said, when girls flash their message, the boys respond with a different pattern of flashes. In addition, females of some species can flash messages that attract the males of other firefly species. Since they are different species, the female is not trying to attract a mate, rather she’s ordering dinner. By eating the male that she lured in, she not only gets more protein to make strong eggs, she helps ensure that there will be less competition for her babies once they hatch.
Lightning Bug / firefly / glowbug
Maybe I should point out that whether you call them fireflies or lightning bugs, they are not flies (order diptera), nor are they bugs (order hemiptera), they are order coleptera—the beetles. This means they lay eggs that hatch into caterpillars that look a lot like little mealworms. (We have such a limited vocabulary for insect common names; these are, of course, also coleopteran--not worms, which are not even arthropods). You might not know it but you appreciate these little “worms” because they are voracious predators and eat a lot of garden and flower pests. However, because they have to live in your yard for a year before reproducing, a heavy application of pesticide will kill off most of your predatory “good” insects, including lightning bugs, for the rest of the year (or more) but will only kill of the herbivorous “pest” insects for a short time. Pests reproduce more quickly and disperse more widely and will re-colonize your yard long before the predator populations recover.
One of the neat things about fireflies is that in many species both their eggs and their larvae glow. And (given our limited vocabulary for common names) what do we call the glowing larvae of a beetle? Glowworms, of course! I have never been lucky enough to find glowing beetle eggs but I have regularly seen glowworms. Unlike the adult form, glowworms are relatively dim. In fact, lightning bugs may be the brightest bioluminescent organisms in the Midwest. It might seem that glowing at all life stages would just attract predators but, there are actually relatively few things that can tolerate the toxins of a lightning bug--don't feed them to your pets.
Despite their biological brilliance, light pollution can make even adults hard to see well and their terrestrial larvae are even more obscure. So, to find glowworms and most other luminescent life, you must acclimate yourself to the dark.
Seeing in the dark is not a ninja mystery but we are so reliant on bright-as-day electric lights we have forgotten how our ancestors functioned for half their lives. First, unless you’re doing something technical like fixing a car’s fuel line on a deserted road at one in the morning, I don’t think you need a flashlight. General hiking certainly does not require a flashlight, even on a moonless night. That said, when you first step from the light of a campfire (or recall my advice and put your flashlight back in your pocket) you will not be able to see. There are many neurological reasons for this involving rods and cones but they don’t matter practically; all you need to know is: be patient. Get away from artificial light sources, pause, even close your eyes, and count to 30 or more. Don’t squeeze your eyes shut, just rest them for a moment. When you open them, you’ll be able to see. Don’t expect to be able to see in color (read about those rods and cones if you you'd like) and don’t expect to see lots of detail. Do expect to see a new world of shapes, impressions, movement and sound.
Once you have learned to see in the dark, start walking around in the forest. Look to the ground and you’ll likely see glowworms and maybe more.
In the Midwest, especially in forests that are old and moist, you might see foxfire. This is a fungus that grows on decaying wood. To modern eyes it is a very dim blue green glow. Apparently though, it was bright enough to American colonist’s eyes for Ben Franklin to suggest its use to illuminate boats and scientific instruments. Once you can appreciate the brilliance of foxfire you’ll be well on your way to appreciating the fireworks that nature puts on for us every evening through a variety of amazing biological reactions (and maybe you’ll have a second thought about spending money on outdoor lighting around your home.) Keep looking for neat nature near your home and you'll discover a whole new world.View Comments
Created: 6/27/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
After the very challenging drought year of 2012, the Butterfly Conservation Lab is up and running. Recently I traveled to far southern Indiana to continue our ongoing work with the Swamp Metalmark.
Swamp metalmark habitat in southern Indiana.
The swamp metalmark is an endangered species in Illinois. In fact, many people consider it to be extirpated (locally extinct) from the entire state. The reason the butterfly is so rare is that it inhabits an extremely rare type of wetland called a fen. Its caterpillars can only feed on the leaves of swamp thistle and tall thistle. Both grow in fens. We are attempting to re-establish swamp metalmarks to their last known home in Illinois, Bluff Spring Fen near Elgin.
In Indiana I found dozens of metalmarks from a wooded fen near the Ohio River. We brought four females into the laboratory, and set them up in special cages to lay eggs. Over the course of about a week and a half, the butterflies laid over 200 eggs. We are currently waiting for them to hatch. When they do, we will place them on leaves of swamp thistle and rear them to adulthood. We hope to have adults in August when we can release them at their new home. With a bit of luck, they will establish a new population.
Egg laying cages with female metalmarks in them.
Created: 6/26/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
People often think of carnivorous plants as being tropical monstrosities, but many species make their homes in cold climates, and some can even be found in the Chicago region. The Museum's Biology Department took a trip several years ago to the Indiana Dunes' Pinhook Bog (open only to guided tours due to the fragility of the ecosystem) where we saw sundews, pitcher plants, and bladderworts--all species that make up for the low-nutrient peat moss they grow in by digesting insects. Combined with the rare orchids, blueberry-lined walkways, and the fact that the ground moves when you walk on it, it was one of my favorite daytrips. Volo Bog, north of Chicago, is home to such strange plants as well.
While the Venus Flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) is the most iconic carnivorous plant outside of Super Mario Brothers and Little Shop of Horrors, our local meat-eating flora have plenty to offer. Pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea) have leaves that form a tube that collects rainwater. The attractive red coloration draws curious creatures to the rim of the "pitcher." Occasionally an insect will fall down the slippery slopes into the pool of rainwater and be trapped, and shortly thereafter digested. But since plants lack teeth, the plant has to hire someone else to chew its food. It is said that "If you build it, they will come," and a host of invertebrates make their home in the water of the pitcher plant, forming a mini-ecosystem inside the leaves of one plant. The top predator is usually the larva of the Pitcher Plant Mosquito (Wyeomyia smithii), one of several animals which lives only inside pitcher plant puddles, and nowhere else. Please don't think we should fog the bogs, though; the pitcher plant mosquito doesn't go for people. Eventually bits of the prey are chewed, shredded, digested, and excreted by enough little bugs, bacteria, and other critters that nutrients from the victim's body become usable by the plant.
Drosera rotundifolia, the Downy Sundew, takes a different tactic. Its leaves are covered with red, tentacle-like protrusions, and coated in a sticky, sugary substance. When prey come investigating they get stuck. The tentacles then curl up around the insect, and the plant begins to exude enzymes to extract precious, nitrogen-containing compounds that are otherwise hard to come by in the sundew’s habitat. This is because in bogs, the high acidity of the peat moss and water inhibit the breakdown of organic matter, so nutrients remain locked away instead of cycling through the ecosystem as they might in more garden-variety soils. Many Drosera species have become so adapted to their conditions that they completely lack the enzyme that enables other plants to absorb nitrogen from their roots.
While our collection is small, the Museum does maintain several living examples of carnivorous plants in our Mysteries of the Marsh exhibit. As these are wetland plants, they are members of some of the most imperiled ecosystems in our region, and throughout the world. While we are tempted to think of plants as basically immobile, passive denizens of our world, carnivorous plants are some of the most obvious examples of the incredibly active role plants take in nature. Stop by and see ours, but more importantly make sure to get out into the wild, visit our protected wetlands, and spot these fantastic plants in their native environments. You won't regret it.View Comments
Created: 6/26/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
It's a question I get asked all the time, ‘where do you get your animals from?’ There is no short answer, some are donated, some are left at our door, some are purchased, some are bred in house and some we go out and collect. For this last group we can’t just go out randomly picking up any animal we like the look of, as a scientific institution we have to have all the appropriate paperwork and permits to allow us to collect our specimens. Also we are collecting creatures for live display so we have to be very mindful of our collection methods.
This past week we were out collecting fish for our tanks in the Riverworks exhibit. Last year when we did this we had very little water to work in because of the drought, this year we had the opposite problem!
Trying to use a seine net in rushing water is a bit of a challenge to say the least and for the species we were looking for we needed to find some quieter bodies of water. It took us a while but we eventually found some good spots.
The seine net is held in place while a couple of people drive the fish forward into it.
The net is then scooped up at the last moment to secure the fish in the middle of the net. This method ensures the fish are completely unharmed in the process and also allows us a good view of everything in the net.
You never know what you are going to find in the net, which is all part of the fun. This particular scoop had a number of huge Bullfrog tadpoles in it and also a rather startled looking frog in amongst the mud and weed. They all got safely returned to the water.
We were looking for compatible species to the ones we already have on display so this haul of Top Minnows were a great addition.
Some of our cache is photographed and then returned to the river, like this beautiful Heelsplitter mussel.
We also ‘do our bit’ collecting up invasive species. Well actually, one particular invasive species, the Rusty Crayfish. An extremely popular snack for our Blanding’s Turtles!
Inspite of the high water levels we had a very successful trip, bringing home lots of new fish which will undergo a 30 day quarantine period before going on display.View Comments
Created: 6/21/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
In June 1913, the Chicago Academy of Sciences presented an exhibit to its visitors unlike any other. It was a planetarium where, unlike others of the time period, visitors could walk inside to experience the night sky while the apparatus rotated around them.
Atwood Celestial Sphere at the Academy’s Laflin Memorial Building, c1926
The Atwood Celestial Sphere was designed by and named for Wallace W. Atwood, who served on the Academy’s Board and briefly as Acting Director of the museum. Mr. LaVerne W. Noyes, President of the Board of Trustees, had the structure crafted by his company, Aermotor Windmill Company, and donated it to the Academy.
Wallace W. Atwood inside the Atwood Celestial Sphere
Atwood Celestial Sphere, c1913
The sphere, constructed of a thin galvanized sheet metal, was only 15 feet in diameter. Tiny perforations in the exterior of the sphere allowed light to penetrate, appearing as stars to those viewing from the inside. Atwood designed the celestial sphere to portray the stellar sky as seen from Chicago and visitors would watch as the sun, moon, and stars rotated around them in simulation of Earth’s orbit through the solar system. The sphere was utilized heavily for educational programs at the Academy. School groups, clubs, and other visitors would tour the sphere, with programs often led by Atwood himself during his time with the Academy.
Wallace W. Atwood with children inside the Celestial Sphere
The stars were positioned with such mathematical precision that in 1941, the U.S. Navy began incorporating use of the Atwood Sphere in navigational training exercises for the U.S. Naval Reserve Unit stationed on the Chicago Campus of Northwestern University. Modifications were made to the Sphere to accommodate these trainings, including the installation of a meridian (an arc that follows the circumference of the sphere and passed through the zenith) and movable arm with which to measure the zenith angle – the distance between the zenith (the point directly overhead) and any star.
Atwood Celestial Sphere at the Academy’s Laflin Memorial Building, c1920s
In the 1960s, the Academy began extensive redesign of its exhibits and developing life zone dioramas created by William Beecher and Academy staff. The exterior of the Atwood Celestial Sphere was painted to look like the Earth and the ceiling of the Laflin Building painted to look like the night sky to blend more readily with the new exhibits.
Thurston Wright working on the Atwood Celestial Sphere, c1950s
Atwood Celestial Sphere with the exterior painted to look like Earth, c1960s. William Beecher in the foreground and Thurston Wright in the background.
The Atwood Celestial Sphere was transferred to the Adler Planetarium in 1995 when the Academy vacated its Laflin Building, where it currently resides.
Dawn RobertsView Comments
Created: 6/12/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
We are all rather fond of Harriet here at the Nature Museum. She is a very large, female Striped Knee Tarantula who has been with the institution longer than pretty much everyone. She has been here so long that I have never actually been able to find any record of where she came from or when. In spite of her somewhat intimidating appearance she is a very gentle creature and also quite a celebrity. She has featured on a blues album cover.
She has done numerous TV appearances for various local stations and she also appeared on the cover of a medical paper about treating arachnophobia.
But in between all this jet setting she is just a regular arachnid. She spends most of her time in the Istock family Look-in-Lab raising squeals from countless children.
Once in a while we will notice that she starts to slowly spin a thick web mat and then we know exactly what she is up to. She is getting ready to shed.
The first time she did this after I started working here I was alone in the lab one evening, I have to confess I had never seen a tarantula shed before so imagine my horror when I walked past her tank and she was laying upside down with all her legs in the air! Absolutely no prizes for guessing what I thought. I was so upset and spent most of that night imagining having to tell everyone that dear, sweet Harriet was no more. When I came in the next morning there appeared to be TWO tarantulas in Harriets’ cage, and they were both the right way up. By now I had begun to put two and two together, or in this case, one and one and realized what had happened, Harriet had shed. I have been here for several years now and after the trauma of that first time I made a little sign which reads ‘She’s not dead, she’s shedding!’ I have witnessed numerous Harriet sheds and each time I marvel at the process. Here is Harriet the morning after her most recent shed.
She is the one on the right of the picture! And here is her freshly shed skin, called an exuvium.
If you look closely you can see each individual hole where she carefully pulled her legs out of the old skin.
Now even if you are not keen on spiders, you have to admit, that is pretty cool!
Created: 6/12/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
‘Father of the Year’ is an annual public program that highlights the best animal dad around the Nature Museum. Every Spring, as new life is booming inside and outside of the museum, we keep our eyes open to observe traits in male animals that contribute to the healthy upbringing of young. Once an exemplary ‘dad’ has emerged, we learn facts about his species and decide if he has what it takes to bestowed this honor. On Sunday, June 16th at 12:00 we will announce the 2013 Father of the Year. Visitors will learn all about the celebrated recipient and what he does to benefit the next generation during the award presentation.
We started doing this program a few years ago as way of sharing our fondness of the parental instincts of members of our living collection. Visitors are often surprised at how much we might have in common with the rest of the animal world when it comes to ‘bringing up baby’. This program fosters a connection with these notable parents. The 2012 winner of the accolade was the Button Quail- an adorable bird species that resides in the Butterfly Haven. Button Quail males are known to share nesting duties and are be strong protectors of chicks. One day last spring, faint peeping could be heard in the Haven. After a search in between the thick plants, two cute button quail babies were spotted under the wing of one of our males. We knew we had our winner. This year the winner is an equally suitable title holder, but we can’t give it away until the ceremony. Please join us on Father’s Day to learn all about the lauded papa.
Laura SalettaView Comments
Public Programs Educator
Created: 6/11/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
A sure sign of the change of seasons is when we in the Biology Department finally start to get out to do field work. Our Blanding’s Turtle work was severely affected last year by the drought so we had some catching up to do. First order of business, release all last years hatchlings that we had held onto due to a lack of water. We begin by blanking out their individual ID numbers to make them less conspicuous.
Then we select suitable sites with relatively shallow water, plenty of vegetation for cover and a healthy population of aquatic invertebrates for food. It is always a delightful moment when we watch these little turtles get their first taste of freedom.
After all the hatchlings were released we started doing some radio tracking. This can be a slow process as we work to follow the beeps emitted by the transmitter and home in on its location.
This time we had so much water to work in we had a problem reaching the bottom to grab the turtle when we located it. We go from one extreme to the other it seems! Unfortunately our first trail was a bust as we came up with a detached transmitter but we would far rather have this happen than find one that had obviously been removed by a predator.
We can recycle and refit these transmitters so we carefully stowed it and then set of tracking another turtle.
This one led us on a merry dance through all kinds of habitat...
...before we eventually tracked it down. It is always a great way to end a day of fieldwork by finding a large, strong, healthy turtle.
He will have his transmitter replaced and then be rereleased at the exact location he was found. Hopefully he will soon find some female turtles and start work on this year's batch of babies!
Created: 6/11/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
Earlier this month, I had the privilege of learning the art of taxidermy, or, in layman's terms, skinning an animal and stuffing it with cotton and wire. I have to admit that I thought it would be a much more complicated process involving toxic chemicals and specialized safety equipment. In reality, all you need is a sharp knife (preferably a scalpel) and some borax. So long as you're sure to wash your hands afterwards, you don't even need gloves.
As we waited for our chipmunks to thaw, we spent some time drawing them, taking a few minutes to learn about the contours of their bodies, where their joints are, and how their fur lies. I learned two things during that time. First, I'm not very good at drawing. Second, I learned what a chipmunk really looks like: how its legs move, how the features of its head sit upon its skull, how the color patterns flow across its body. It was all quite intimate.
After bonding with our specimens, it came time to cut into them, from thigh to thigh, right above the genitals, being careful not to cut through the thin layer of muscle separating us from the rodent's stinking bowels. This was a relief, it hadn't dawned on me that by only collecting the skin, we could leave its mess of organs tucked safely in the package nature made for them.
This was the only time we cut through the skin, the rest of the cutting we performed was done in between the skin and the muscle, delicately cutting away at the layers of connective tissue. We worked our way from that initial incision to the back knees until we could peel the skin up and over them to fit our scissors around the joint without cutting skin. Then, a bit of pressure, a quick snap, and the femur was separated from the tibia and fibula. We'd come back for those later, it was time for the really fun part. Taxidermists have a special tool for getting the tail out, it almost looks like a pair of wire cutters, but instead of cutting them, it’s designed to hold onto the bones in the tail as you slip off the bushy tail. I don't think I could describe the feeling to you. It sounds rather morbid, I'm sure, but it's really quite delightful, almost like popping the cork on a bottle of sparkling grape fruit juice as a kid on Thanksgiving. You gently apply pressure, anticipation mingled with a tinge of fear, then POP, off it goes.
Things were pretty straightforward from there to the skull, just like pulling off a sock. It was actually pretty meditative, and there were times when I had to stop and take stock of what I was doing, assuring myself that, "Yes, I really am peeling the skin of a chipmunk, and it really is this interesting." This is around the same time that the museum guests started showing up, many of them school groups. There were two facts which many of the children seemed to have difficulty holding in their heads at the same time: these are real chipmunks, and they are dead. One child, nearly at the point of holding these facts together asked, "Are you're fixing it?" Aside from the confusion, there were some wonderfully refreshing moments when a child grasped what was happening and watched with awe rather than disgust. These are the young scientists our country so desperately needs.
Steadily working our way up toward the head, casually chatting amongst ourselves, and enthusiastically sharing with the public what we ourselves had learned only a short while ago, it was time for the difficult part. Not only is the face the cutest part of the chipmunk, it's also the most tenaciously wrapped around the skull. The ears, eyelids, and lips can all easily be disfigured by a hand too quick to finish the job. With the help of our resident expert and trainer, we all managed to keep the cuteness intact.
At last, the skin was off, and it was on to the next stage. The hollow skin was rubbed with borax to dry it out, and the fluffy side was turned back to face the right side. Next, wires were cut to replace the bones we had removed. One wire reaching from the tip of the nose to the end of the tail, and two reaching from the front to back paw on either side. The central wire was then wrapped in cotton and molded with twine to approximate the shape and size of the body. Because chipmunk tails are rather thin, about a third of the wire was left bare so that what we ended up with looked a bit like a popsicle. This was then gently pushed back through the incision we had made hours ago, all the way up to the adorable little face we had affectionately drawn at the start of our day. The other two wires were then set into place along the sides of the body, pushing it into the superman pose which it will hold for centuries to come.
I thought the final step would be sewing it back up, but I'm glad it wasn't (partly because I found it the most difficult). The final step was "to make the specimen look good." I understand that the real reason for this is scientific, for the sake of our collections, but it allowed me to show my respect for the little critter I had just skinned. Gently combing his fur straight and using pins to get his tail and face aligned was a warm way to end what had been a day of cutting, bone breaking, and stuffing. I found it suiting that the process should begin with careful consideration of the creature in its natural form and end with time spent approximating that form. After all, a quick internet search for "bad taxidermy" might make one shudder to think how embarrassed the ancestors of those creatures would be if they were ever to gain sentience.View Comments
Created: 6/4/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
Alfred M. Bailey, director of the Chicago Academy of Sciences from 1927-1936, was an avid nature photographer in both still and motion picture formats. Bailey was an ornithologist, so the majority of his images are of birds. The Academy has a large number of Bailey's photographs in their Archives taken on his trips all over the United States and Canada with the intention of recording a variety of species of birds in their natural habitat. Here are a few examples from his trips to Louisiana:
Anhinga with young on nest taken in Louisiana ca. 1930.
Francis R. Dickinson canoeing to bird blind for taking images of migrating birds at the Paul Rainey Bird Sanctuary in Louisiana, ca. 1932.
Laughing Gull with eggs on nest taken in Louisiana ca. 1930.
Brown Pelican feeding its young taken on shore in Louisiana, ca. 1930.
Close-up of Royal Tern with young in nesting colony taken on shore of Louisiana, ca. 1930.
Amber KingView Comments
Assistant Collections Manager
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.
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!
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.
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 KingView Comments
Assistant Collections Manager
Created: 5/24/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
Fossilization is a rare process. In fact, most of the plants, animals, and insects that existed on earth have not been retained in the fossil record because the conditions required must come together with such precision and timeliness that most just miss the boat. Occasionally, a fossil is produced – a leaf, a tooth, maybe a partial skeleton. From these, paleontologists try to piece together the earth’s history.
Most of the time, it is the hard parts of an animal that are fossilized because bone and teeth don’t succumb to the decay process as quickly as the soft parts of an animal, such as muscle tissue. Think about a banana left out on your kitchen counter too long – it will rot away, decomposed by bacteria. Every once in a while though, the conditions are just right to where the fossilization process includes those soft parts. This is rare, but can provide a more complete picture of an animal or an entire paleo-ecosystem. These are truly a remarkable resource, permitting us to look back in time.
Fossils from the Mazon Creek area in Illinois are associated with the Francis Creek Shale formation and date to approximately 307 million years ago, during the Pennsylvanian. This site is unique in that the fossil assemblage includes the preservation of soft tissue, even of animals such as worms and jellyfish! This paleontological site is called a “lagerstätten” or “mother lode” due to the diversity of the flora and fauna represented. Such sites are recognized worldwide as having importance for our national heritage and the process of understanding earth’s history.
Here are a few of the fossil specimens from the Mazon Creek area in the Academy’s museum collections:
Mazonomya mazonensis -- a clam
Euphoberia sp. -- a spiny millipede
Tullimonstrum gregarium - the "Tully Monster",
a carnivorous marine soft-bodied animal, and the Illinois state fossil
Lobatopteris sp. -- a fern
Annularia stellata -- a plant similar to a horsetail
Dawn RobertsView Comments
Created: 5/23/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
The first question I ask of any plant is “Can I eat it?". But there are plenty of other fascinating stories waiting to be told. Take for instance the unruly-looking and inedible* Osage-orange (Maclura pomifera). Its closest regional relative is the mulberry (Morus sp.) but most of the Moraceae family is more tropical—figs and jackfruits, for example. Its softball-sized fruits are hard, dense, only vaguely resemble oranges, and aren’t related to them at all. It takes its common name from the Osage Nation, a tribe which used the tree for tools, clubs, and most importantly, bows. There are records of a well-made Osage-orange bow being worth a horse and blanket as an even trade, meaning the people controlling the supply of the trees could make quite a tidy living as, effectively, arms traders. There seem to have been multiple wars fought over the land where the trees grew, and the Osage Nation was known to send parties hundreds of miles to harvest from their favorite stands. Even the Blackfoot tribe in now Montana used bows of this wood, nearly 2000 miles from where it grew.
At the time of European colonization, the range of the Osage-orange was confined to river bottoms in a relatively small area of what became Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Why this is so is a subject of some speculation. Generally when a tree produces such a large fruit it is because some large critter loves to eat that fruit, and the seeds get dispersed when the odd few make it through the digestive tract unharmed and germinate. But nothing really seems to like the Osage-orange fruit. Squirrels will tear them apart to get to the seeds, but they grind the seeds to pulp and destroy them in the process. One theory is that animals now extinct on the continent were the primary distributor of the fruit, perhaps mastodons, early horse-like animals, or some sort of (I’m not kidding) giant sloth. With their decline, possibly due to overhunting, came the diminishing range of the tree, and it is possible it could have gone extinct without Native Americans propagating it for their uses.
Lewis and Clark sent some cuttings to President Jefferson as part of their first shipment of samples. They got them from a guy who said they came from an Osage Indian village, and the common name was a done deal--though they called them Osage-apples at first. European settlers had little to no use for longbows, but high on their wish list was fencing or hedges to ‘civilize’ the prairies. (It had been common practice in much of Europe to mark field boundaries with hedges, which can provide harvestable yields, contain livestock, reduce wind, and provide habitat for wildlife.) Osage-orange was found incredibly suitable to this task, because if densely planted it provided a fence “horse high, bull strong, and pig tight,” in the words of one early promoter. This is why many people from rural backgrounds, myself included, first learn this tree as the “Hedge-apple.” (As an aside, other plants brought from overseas to serve this purpose include buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) and multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), both of which have become destructive invasive species.)
Eventually the hedge fell out of fashion because of a fabulous new invention: barbed wire. Farmers decided they’d rather have dead fences than living ones, since time spent pruning is time not plowing. They were pleased I’m sure to learn that Osage-orange is one of the most fungal- and rot-resistant woods in the world, and immune to termites, giving farmers another incentive to keep the trees around for their value as fencepost material (above right). And after the Dustbowl, millions of the trees were planted in a 100-mile wide strip from North Dakota to Texas as part of FDR’s Great Plains Shelterbelt program, eventually run by the WPA. This program is to date the largest US government program aimed at tackling an environmental problem. Eventually the trees became established or reestablished in all of the lower 48 states.
You can still see remnant Osage-orange windbreaks marking field edges in the Chicagoland region and beyond. Some people recognize the altogether silly fruits, and occasionally remember hearing that people put them around the house to repel spiders back in The Before Time. Some folks still heat their homes with wood, and may know that it provides the highest BTU value of any wood in North America. But few people are aware of the role this one plant species has played in the history of this country, the many nations that came before it, and perhaps the continent before humans ever arrived.
Not a bad story for being inedible.
*There are reports you could go through a lot of effort to get the seeds out and eat them, with no ill effects, but to me “edible” means “worth eating.”View Comments
Created: 5/23/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016View Comments
Project Squirrel will be conducting foraging studies on urban squirrels throughout the summer. Members of our team will put out foraging trays like these on at least four consecutive days twice in a month. Trays are placed in the morning and retrieved each evening. Data are collected by looking at how much corn was consumed and how it was consumed. We would like to increase the number of sites we are studying. If you live in or near Oak Park or River Forest and have a tree 15 cm in diameter at breast height in both the front and back yards and might be interested in letting us use your yard for the study, please email Steve for more details.
Created: 5/13/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
Have you ever had tea with a turtle? If not then you need to head on over to the Nature Museum on Saturday May 18th!
Every year in May there is an international event called World Turtle Day. It was developed to raise public awareness of the threats that numerous turtle and tortoise species around the world are facing. As you know, we are extremely fond of turtles here at the museum so we developed a way to mark this worldwide event; we call it Tea with the Turtles.
This year will be our fourth annual Tea with the Turtles, it will run from 11am until 1pm and it is a great way to learn more about these enigmatic creatures. As well as all the turtles that are resident here at the museum we will be having some ‘special guests’ on display too. Suffice it to say, there will be a multitude of turtle and tortoise species here for you to get up close and personal with.
And the second part of the equation? The tea! Ah yes we provide an array of fruit teas to keep you refreshed, as well as some non-tea alternatives. There will also be snacks and cookies to keep your strength up.
For the young (and young at heart) there will be turtle related games, coloring and crafts and for the less energetic who would rather sit and relax we will have a presentation about the endangered turtle species we have here at the museum and what you can do to help conserve them. We will also have numerous biologists on hand to tell you about our conservation work.
A special item, created for this years event is our wonderful Tea with the Turtles mug – ‘modeled’ here by Claire, one of our beautiful box turtles. These will be on sale at the event with 100% of the profit going towards our turtle conservation work.
If you would like to attend this fabulous event, please register online here.View Comments
Created: 5/4/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. When it comes to describing an object in a museum collection, a picture can provide essential information. An image of a specimen or artifact adds clarification for distinguishing similar items and provides a visual record for tracking preservation issues and treatments. Images of museum objects can be utilized for exhibition development, initial scientific research, or as an educational resource.
With the help of some amazing volunteers, our Collections staff are digitally photographing specimens and artifacts in the Academy’s collections. Our photography workstation is one we devised and consists of a wire shelving unit with adjustable shelves, so the work area can be changed when desired. We selected acid-free grey paper for a backdrop and created many of our reflectors and stands from materials we had on hand. Some of our best reflectors are simply sheets of hard white foam and the reflective interior of a coffee can!
Digital photography of our scientific collection began with the imaging of our type specimens. A “type” specimen is the specimen originally used to describe a species and displays the majority of characteristics used to identify that species. It’s because of type specimens that we are able to distinguish one animal from another. Here is the type specimen for the subspecies of the Southern Appalachian Rock Vole, Microtus chrotorrhinus carolinensis (Komarek). This specimen was collected in 1931 from North Carolina.
We’ve since expanded this project and are now systematically photographing catalogued specimens in the Academy's collections. We’ve photographed bird eggs and nests in the oology collection and mammal study skins and skulls in the mammalogy collection. Images from the oology collection were included in a bird identification DVD series released by Thayer Birding Software (www.ThayerBirding.com) released in 2012. Check them out!
Created: 5/3/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
You may already know that the Nature Museum is a regular meeting place for the Chicago Herpetological Society and the Chicago Ornithological Society. Both of these groups focus on animals (reptiles, amphibians and birds, respectively) but as our Horticulturist Seth Harper might say, what about plants? Don’t worry Seth, there is a new group to add to the list- Chicago Botanical Artists.
Chicago Botanical Artists is open to all botanical artists, beginners through advanced, who want to sketch together, share works in progress and develop a supportive community that exhibits and educates. The group will sketch native plants in and around the Nature Museum’s gardens, working outdoors when weather permits, or indoors with specimens. Since its inaugural meeting in February, Chicago Botanical Artists has enjoyed steady growth and looks forward to welcoming more new members.
Illustration Courtesy of Derek Norman
The group meets on the second Monday of each month, May-June from 1 to 3 p.m., July-August 3 to 5 p.m. There is no charge to participate. For questions or to RSVP, email email@example.com or call 773-755-5128.
Manager of Public ProgramsView Comments
Created: 5/3/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
Stop by North Pond for the next several days to greet our tropical visitors---warblers. There are many species of warblers, small insect eating birds, that live in the tropics during our winter, then fly through our backyards on the way to Canada to spend the summer breeding and eating things like tent caterpillars.
Today the Palm Warbler Setophaga palmarum is common and easy to find. The birds you see today around the pond may have been in Panama or Cuba just a few days ago. Look for the rusty cap and a constantly twitching tail.
Created: 4/23/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
When most people think of insect migration, they quite understandably think of the Monarch butterfly. It comes as a surprise to many that some species of dragonflies also migrate. In this part of the world, many of the larger and more familiar species, like Green Darners and Black Saddlebags, are among the migrants.
Swarm of migrating Green Darner (Anax junius) dragonflies outside of the Nature Museum
Migrating swarms of dragonflies have been observed in places like the shores of Lake Michigan, the Gulf Coast of Texas, and along the east coast of Mexico in places like Veracruz. Migrating swarms are sometimes observed near migrating flocks of raptors, and there is some evidence that they provide a significant nutritional resource for migrating hawks.
A saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea sp.) in Veracruz. This is one of the species that migrates.
In contrast to the Monarch migration, there still isn't much known about the dragonfly migration. Details of the timing and the ultimate destination are still unknown. Are the individuals that head south the same ones that return north?
The Cansaburro Dunes in Veracruz. Researchers are trying to determine how the Gulf Coast of Mexico figures in dragonfly migration.
In an attempt to learn more about dragonfly migration, the US Forest Service's Wings Across the Americas program has assembled a group of dragonfly experts, nongovernmental organizations, academic institutions, and federal agencies and formed the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership (MDP). The partnership includes representatives from Mexico, the United States, and Canada. Members of the partnership, including representatives from the Nature Museum, have traveled to Veracruz to observe migrating dragonflies. The partnership meets annually to discuss how best to learn more about dragonfly migration.
You can find out more about ways to help scientists learn more about dragonfly migration by visiting the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership web site.View Comments
Created: 4/21/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
Sow the radishes and pop in the pansies! It’s spring!
I don’t mind telling you folks; when your job is all plants all the time, spring is a pretty big deal. No more waiting, no more desperately ogling seed catalogs in a darkened office or checking the potted palms for watering again. Time to get moving.
I should say time to stay moving. We’ve already got the beds raked out and the veggie garden sown and the Butterfly Haven replanted and the pansies in and so on and so forth. Next week, plants arrive for the expansion of the Wickham Butterfly Garden, and before you know it we’ll be firing up the lawn tractor. Spring doesn’t slow down; it only accelerates, until the heat of July finally forces it to sit down in the shade with a glass of lemonade. April is the time when a gardener must shake himself free from the grey slumber of winter, grab a rake, and start rebuilding the atrophied muscles and calluses he will need to keep pace.
It might sound to you like I’m complaining, but nothing could be further from the truth. I am so ready to be surrounded by green, growing things, even if half of them are weeds I need to pull. It’s not that I hate winter. Every season has its charms. But there’s something about spring. Something beyond the warmth and beauty. Something about the resilience of life, the renewing power of change, the hopefulness of a world made young...Sorry, I seem to be waxing spiritual. Hard to avoid at this time of year.
I feel fortunate to live in Chicago, where spring is a full season long, unlike father east or south, where it often seems like little more than a two-week argument between Old Man Winter and the May Queen. Back east, everything would be brown one day and green the next, leaving precious little time to savor the yearly miracles of bursting buds and stretching stalks. But here, day after day brings new developments that can be watched, reported on, and discussed with fellow springtime aficionados. Elms are blooming. Tulips are up early this year. Saw my first violet today. To a gardener, this is a rewarding conversation.
My favorite moment every spring comes early on, often in March. It’s the moment when I spot my first crocus flower of the season. Be it yellow or purple, that speck of color is nothing less than shocking to an eye lulled to complacency by winter’s stark palette. For a moment, that shock seems to resonate, excite, and compel like the very spark of life itself. It’s as if that little crocus has a message for me: Change has come. Wake up. Get moving. Be a part of it all.
Thanks little guy. I’m on it.
Created: 4/19/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
About three years ago, I began a project of trying to take a bunch of butterfly photos. I had an old lecture with images in 35 mm slide format that I wanted to convert to a digital presentation. In the process, I discovered how much more I enjoyed taking digital photos of butterflies than using the old film format. My project quickly changed from getting images for a talk to starting a virtual butterfly collection.
Buckeye (Junonia coenia),
Willow Springs, IL July 18, 2010
This was one of the first specimens in my virtual collection.
I've collected butterflies most of my life. Early on my collecting was simply a hobby. As I began collecting for a variety of professional purposes, I stopped collecting for fun. Among other things, I couldn't justify taking the butterflies simply for my own amusement. Digital photography has changed all of that.
Caption: California Sister (Adelpha californica)
Madera Canyon, Arizona. July 31, 2012
I've been surprised at how similar digital photography is to collecting specimens. Both involve similar pleasures of the pursuit in the field and both require knowledge of habitats and host plants. Both result in a sense of elation at the moment of capture. Both involve work with the specimen once you get it home. In the case of the physical specimen this work involves relaxing, pinning mounting and labeling. In the case of the photograph, it involves cropping and correcting exposure. For me, one of the enjoyable parts of virtual collecting has been keeping records of date and location of capture that are just as rigorous as those that I would maintain for a pinned specimen.
Olympia Marble (Euchloe olympia).
Illinois Beach State Park May 11, 2011
Ethical and conservation concerns aside, there are additional advantages to virtual butterfly collecting over traditional specimen collecting. Want to collect an endangered species or collect in a National Park? Not so fast- you need a slew of permits and a really good reason to do so. But with a camera, you can take as many images as you would like. Are you traveling abroad and want to collect butterflies? Many countries now prohibit the export of species, and many more require a permit. In contrast, the images on your camera will go right through customs, no problem.
Karner Blue (Lyciades melissa samuelis)
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, May 30, 2009
A double whammy: This endangered species was virtually collected in a National Park.
One of the things that I always enjoyed with my specimen collection was looking at my specimens much later and remembering where I was, who I was with, and how much I was enjoying myself. I now get a very similar kind of enjoyment from my virtual collection-- and the specimens in it don't fade or break or get eaten by dermestid beetles. I'll continue collecting actual butterflies for the Nature Museum as the specifics of my work require it. But I also expect to be collecting virtually with my camera for my own enjoyment for the rest of my life.
Fatima Peacock (Anartia Fatima)
Vallarta Botanical Gardens, Jalisco, Mexico, February 15, 2012
I had no trouble getting this virtual specimen of a Fatima Peacock through customs when I returned home from Mexico.View Comments
Created: 4/19/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
Several years ago the Chicago Academy of Sciences became involved in the conservation and restoration of the State endangered Blanding’s Turtle. For those of you who visit the museum regularly, you can’t fail to have noticed our beautiful display tank, which houses two sub-adults and some hatchlings.
The hatchlings are headstarted for two years in a controlled environment, which allows us to protect them from predation at their most vulnerable stage. We then release them out into a suitable habitat equipped with a tiny radio transmitter.
After hopefully surviving their first winter hibernating deep down in the mud we begin to track them as soon as the weather begins to warm up in the spring.
Each transmitter has a unique frequency so we know exactly which turtle we are tracking and as we collect data we are able to develop a picture of survival rates and habitat usage. Blanding’s Turtles live to between 60 and 70 years and do not become reproductively viable until their mid teens so, as an organization we have committed to this study for a long time.
Would you like to become involved in this project? Well you can! We have developed a program called ‘Become a Blanding’s Turtle Tracker.’ For $75 per year or $130 for two years you can donate directly to the cost of the radio transmitters and in exchange get regular Enews updates about the research program as well as a brochure and certificate.
What better way to get involved in a current conservation project without leaving the comfort of your own back yard? To become a Blanding’s Turtle Tracker simply click on this link and sign up today. The Blanding’s Turtles will really appreciate your help.
Created: 4/16/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
Every day is Earth Day at the Nature Museum, but during Earth Week, Nature Museum staff and volunteers call attention to the little things we can all easily do to be a little greener. For the members of the Sustainable Initiatives Team at the Nature Museum (SIT), it is yearly tradition to schedule daily, sustainably-minded challenges for all the staff and volunteers to focus on, culminating in a photo each day of all who could participate. This year, staff will be focusing on the following earth-friendly actions during Earth Week:
Waste free day! (Bring your own mug)
Monday, April 22, 2013, Earth Day!:
Green Transit Day
- Use a more sustainable means of transit to work! Bike, walk, use public transit, carpool!
Tuesday, April 23, 2013:
Waste Free Day
- Bring your own mug/bottle and a zero waste lunch (reusable containers welcome!)
Wednesday, April 24, 2013:
Green Cleaning Day
- Make your own green cleaners! Staff and volunteers can learn how to make and use effective sustainable cleaners at the office and at home.
Thursday, April 25, 2013:
- Let’s have an old fashioned Swap Meet! Staff can bring unused or unwanted, gently used clothing from home to trade.
Friday, April 26, 2013:
- Take a few minutes and give and back!
Earth Day is a chance to take a moment and think about the impact we have on our world.
You can follow our daily challenges or create your own! We hope you'll join us in these easy ways to be green, both on the designated days for each practice during Earth Week and whenever you can!
Green Transit Day
For more information on the history and formation of Earth Day please visit: http://www.earthday.org/earth-day-history-movement.
Amber KingView Comments
Assistant Collections Manager
Created: 4/15/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
I recently posted this butterfly photo on line:
It's a Ciliate Blue from Malaysia. A friend was prompted to comment, "I like the orange and black "eye" on the edge of the wing. Is it part of a disguise camouflage?"
My friend was very astute in noticing that the spot resembles an eye and surmising that it has something to do with defense against predators. This species is a good example of what is often referred to as the false head hypothesis. The hypothesis notes that the markings on one outer edge of the hind wings resemble heads in some species of butterflies. These markings can be quite elaborate in some cases and may include tails that resemble antennae and a narrow shape that enhances the appearance of a head. Some species carry this even one step further and rub their hind wings together. This draws attention to the tails, which appear like twitching antennae.
Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus)
The false head hypothesis suggests the possibility that these head-like markings confer a survival advantage by deflecting predator attacks towards the hind wing (which butterflies can usually live without) and away from the vulnerable head. Many butterflies, especially species in the Metalmark and Gossamer-Winged Butterfly families show these markings.
Martials's Scrub Hairstreak (Strymon martialis)
In 1980, scientists from the Smithsonian attempted to demonstrate that predators could be fooled into attacking the wrong end of the butterfly. They collected hundreds of butterflies in Panama and Colombia, and divided them into groups based on the number of head-like features were present in their wing patterns. Consistent with the false head hypothesis, the greater the number of head-like features, the more likely wing damage due to predator attacks was to be directed to that part of the wings.
Eastern Tailed Blue (Cupido comyntas)
The false head hypothesis remains a hypothesis. Further support of the hypothesis would require a much more difficult experimental design - one that demonstrates that butterflies with the false head designs survive better than those without them.View Comments
Created: 4/15/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
One Sunday, the PIP volunteers were doing a program called Meet the Bugs. We brought out a praying mantis, darkling beetles, a wolf spider, and a desert millipede to give visitors a close-up look. The inclusion of the spider and millipede meant “Meet the Invertebrates” would be a more accurate description of the program, but Meet the Bugs is catchier and easier to say.
We also brought out superworms, the legged larvae of darkling beetles (superworms is a misnomer), to provide a before-and-after illustration of insect metamorphosis. The superworms would become beetles, we explained, if they were not eaten by one of the Museum’s turtles first.
Several visitors asked how superworms turned into beetles because they look nothing alike. I compared it to caterpillars turning into butterflies. I hope that was helpful to them, but decided I needed to learn more to provide a better-informed answer next time.
So I googled “darkling beetle metamorphosis” when I got home. There were many results illustrating the pupa stage the beetles go through, comparable to the chrysalis stage for butterflies and the cocoon stage for moths. From viewing the scientific drawings, I realized that I had frequently seen mealworm beetle pupa in the oatmeal-filled drawer where the mealworms are kept without recognizing what they were.
I also found several videos on YouTube of the metamorphosis of darkling beetles. The most interesting was an almost 8-minute video that showed in close-up the larva, pupa, and adult stages of the beetle’s life. My favorite part was watching the legs kicking free of the pupa casing as the adult emerged. The video was a 4th grade class project, part of their habitats unit in science. What a great idea. It gave me a much clearer picture of the process that should help me explain it better to others. Check out the video and see for yourself.View Comments
Created: 4/12/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
Spring is finally here and it is a busy time at the Nature Museum! In April we hear the return of red winged blackbirds and robins, and narrowly dodge the attacks of our favorite pair of Canada geese nesting on the rooftop cactus garden. This time of year also means Earth Day is approaching!
This will be the third year in a row that we have celebrated Earth Day with the musical talent of Joe Reilly and activities led by our program partner Urban Habitat Chicago.
Joe Reilly’s Earth Day concert is for families looking to rock out to original nature inspired tunes. Joe’s albums Children of the Earth and Let’s Go Outside are fun, energizing and are a perfect fit for The Nature Museum. Concert attendance grows each yearand we are looking forward to seeing Joe and his groupies again! Registration required.
Urban Habitat Chicago will help visitors plant green bean seeds. Children will learn about plant care and take their seedling home to watch it grow. We hope that this activity will inspire visitors to create edible gardens at home and in their communities.Free with Nature Museum admission.
So join us for our annual Earth Day celebration! Families can visit the museum on Saturday, April 20th to partake in all of our festivities. Please visit www.naturemuseum.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Public Programs Coordinator
Created: 4/8/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
While we do not do it every day, the natural history specimens on display the Museum need regular cleaning, particularly those specimens that are not housed inside of museum display cases. Specimens, like the polar bear, accumulate dust just like other surfaces in the museum.
To clean them we use vacuum cleaners with HEPA filters and variable suction control, fine mesh netting, clean brushes, gloves, ladders, extension cords, and time. The netting is placed over the nozzle of the vacuum cleaner so that large particles cannot be accidentally “sucked” into the vacuum.
The suction control is adjusted so that just enough suction is applied to pull in dirt and dust particles from the air, but not to harm the specimens. The brushes are used to gently pull dirt away from the surface of the specimen with the vacuum nozzle head held just above to collect the now loose particles of dust and dirt. This kind of cleaning is performed on a regular schedule for specimens on permanent display or as needed when additional specimens are installed in new exhibits, like the bison mount in Food: The Nature of Eating.
Amber KingView Comments
Assistant Collections Manager
Created: 4/3/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
We strive to give our Box Turtles a rich and diverse diet, which provides them with good calcium sources to ensure that they develop strong shells. Of course along with strong shells this also means they grow strong nails.
Normally a turtle would be digging and scratching around outside in dirt and rocks and naturally wear their nails down. We do give our turtles lots of time outside in the summer but at this time of the year they are kept indoors and only get to dig in soft substrate. So what to do with those long nails?
That is where the ‘mani, pedi service’ comes in.
We used Claire for these photos, as she is by far the most calm about having her nails trimmed. We use a standard rotating nail file, which is intended for dogs’ nails.
As with most things involving turtles, this is a two-person job. One person to catch and hold the leg and the other person to file the nails.
I did mention that Claire was the most cooperative of our turtles during this process. She accepts what we are doing and just watches reproachfully.
Pretty Girl and Kennicott show what they think of things by peeing as much as possible! Charlie and Opal will try and sneak a quick bite, if a finger should happen to come within reach. And Manny? Well Manny is like a madman! He has to have a board held between his head and our hands, which he attacks viciously. I wonder do the ladies who work in nail salons usually end up bleeding after giving their customers a manicure? At the end of the process, we clean our various scratches and bites and the turtles have nicely manicured nails.
Created: 4/3/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
I often get calls from people who have discovered a hawk frequenting their bird feeders. They are usually rather upset and want to know what they can do to make it go away. This can often lead to quite an interesting and thought-provoking discussion.
Firstly, why is it OK to provide all other birds with food except hawks? As with all predators, hawks constantly walk a very fine line between survival and starvation. The Coopers Hawk, which is considered one of the most common urban hawks has been extensively studied, and results show that barely 20% of their hunting attempts are successful. Imagine if only once in every five times you decided to have a meal, you actually got one. You would soon be really hungry! The amount of energy required to take to the wing and actively hunt means that every failed attempt is extremely costly to the hawk. Also, studies have shown that the three most common prey species for urban Coopers Hawks are European Starlings, Rock Pigeons and Mourning Doves. Of those, the starling is an invasive species that is rapidly out-competing and threatening less aggressive native species, the Rock Pigeon is widely despised and considered a messy pest by the vast majority of people and the Mourning Dove is one of the most abundant and widespread birds in North America, producing several broods each year.
The problem, of course, comes from the fact that a lot of people do not want to see an animal killed and eaten by another animal. I used to work in Africa as a safari guide and by far and away the most frequently asked for animals were lions and leopards. Big cats will spend up to 23 hours per day lying around resting and sleeping and trust me, that does not make for very interesting game viewing! But when we happened to come upon these same large predators hunting, many people simply could not bear to watch.
To develop a true understanding of our natural world it is important to recognize that predators have a vital part in every ecosystem whether it be a sunfish devouring a minnow, a Peregrine Falcon grabbing a pigeon on the wing or a lion pulling down an antelope, they are all an important part of a healthy and balanced environment.
So next time you are fortunate enough to see a hawk in your yard, try not to be tempted to chase it away. Watch it, observe it’s behaviour in relation to its surroundings, how does it use its environment to approach its prey? Is it successful? If not, why not? Don’t think of the hawk as evil or nasty, instead consider how privileged you are to be witnessing nature right in your own back yard.
Created: 3/18/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
If you work with museum objects in a natural history museum, “freezing” is a necessary part of the job. It may sound a bit odd to freeze a museum object of any sort, but it enables us to store specimens until they can be prepared and it is also an effective way of killing insect pests without the use of chemical pesticides. The use of pesticides leaves a residue on specimens each time they are used and this causes a build-up over time. By using the freeze-treatment method instead, we reduce this residual build-up and the related side effects that could possibly harm specimens over time and/or become a health hazard to the collections staff that care for them.
Most of the time we can “freeze-treat” our specimens in house, but for larger mounts, like a bison mount that is 6.5 feet tall by 8.5 feet long, we do not own a large enough freezer. Instead we had to seek out a facility that would not only have room to accommodate its size but was willing to tackle this project. Midwest Freeze-Dry in Skokie was up for the job and already had experience with the process.
To freeze-treat a natural history specimen, it first it needs to be enclosed in a protective barrier. In this case we used plastic sheeting because it came in a large enough size to cover the mount, but for smaller specimens plastic garbage bags or freezer grade zipper-closure bags work well. The purpose is twofold: (1) it creates a “sealed” enclosure so that insects cannot spread to other specimens and (2) it creates a moisture barrier so that any condensation that may form during the freeze-treatment forms on the exterior of the barrier and not on the specimen.
Once the bison mount was wrapped, in what resembled a plastic cocoon upon completion, we arranged a delivery date and then booked appropriate transportation with additional people to assist with the move. After the mount was carefully moved onto the truck and securely strapped in for the 6 mile trip north, the next step was to transfer it from our truck to the freezer truck, which was accomplished with a forklift and the help of many people.
Unlike freezing food items at home, to effectively kill insect pests, the specimen has to be exposed to at least two freeze cycles with a thaw in between. The method is pretty simple, the specimen is placed inside the freezer space and the temperature is dropped rapidly and held steady for a set time and then the temperature is gradually increased. After the space returns to room temperature, the temperature is dropped rapidly again for a second cycle and then gradually brought back up to room temperature again. This cycle ensures that any insect pests that went into a dormant phase during the first freeze cycle are “woken up” during the thaw period and then eradicated by quickly dropping the temperature again. The amount of time needed depends on the temperature of the freezer space, the size of the freezer space, what kind of insect pest you are dealing with, and the size and composition of the specimen.
When the allotted freezer time was completed, utilizing more people, two forklifts (one at each location) and a pallet jack, the Bison mount was transported to the museum for its final installation. You can see the Bison mount as well as other specimens from the collection in the exhibit, Food: The Nature of Eating, at the museum.
Amber K. KingView Comments
Assistant Collections Manager
Created: 3/16/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
One, two, three, four...
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!
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.
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.
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.View Comments
Created: 3/14/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
In the Public Programs Department we are eagerly awaiting the warmer spring weather to make use of our biggest exhibit- the outdoors! After a frosty winter, it's a relief to hear Red Winged Blackbirds and see sunning Painted Turtles. Program ideas start flowing!
While winter presents its own unique programming opportunities, it's hard not to get excited about the signs of spring and summer. Instead of; “The turtles are hibernating”, or “The monarch butterflies are in Mexico,” we can say, “See all of those turtles on that log,” or “How many monarchs can you find in the prairie?” or “Out the door, let’s explore!”.
This spring and summer there will be so much for visitors to discover in our outdoor exhibits. Outdoor nature walks will touch on themes such as "Nature Noises", "Cloud Gazing" and "Ordinary or Extraordinary?". Other programs like Numbers Through Nature, Spanish Through Nature and Polish through Nature will be taking children outside as well. You can even join us this summer for an outdoor film screening of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, to celebrate our new exhibit The Birth of Chocolate, or have a drink outside during our program for adults, Nature on Tap.
So take off that winter parka and join me outside this spring and summer to discover bugs, listen to birds and to smell the flowers. Doesn’t that sound delightful?
Laura SalettaView Comments
Public Programs Educator
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For more information about our Tea with the Turtles event, check out our Children & Family program page.View Comments
Created: 3/8/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
Volunteers play many different roles at the Nature Museum, but have you ever wondered what we do outside of volunteering? Check out this interview with one of our Public Interpretive Programs (PIP) Volunteers, JoAnne!
Name: JoAnne Kempf
Volunteer Position: PIP
How long have you been volunteering here?
10 years this April
Why did you choose the Nature Museum?
I was unemployed and finishing my Master’s Degree but needed something to get me out of the house. I went to VolunteerMatch.org and the Nature Museum came up as a possibility. I had actually never heard of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum but the volunteer job description intrigued me. I visited the museum to check it out and fell in love with it. It reminded me of the local museums and visitor centers we frequented on family vacations with our two sons. And it’s completely different from the office work I get paid to do.
What is your favorite thing about the Nature Museum?
Unlike the Field Museum or Science & Industry, there’s a sense of intimacy about our little museum. You can really get up close and personal with our exhibits. And I like that we focus primarily on nature in our immediate vicinity.
What is your favorite part of your volunteer position?
Wow….there’s so much. I love the teaching aspect; the look on a kid’s face when they have an “aha” moment. I love having conversations with the grown-up visitors about prairies and savannas. And I’m constantly learning something and having new experiences. It never occurred to me to hold a snake, for example, but now I eagerly handle snakes and all kinds of critters that were just not part of my world before. But mostly I look forward to spending time with my fellow volunteers. In 10 years’ time, I’ve seen a lot of volunteers come and go, but they always have something interesting to offer. And of course there are the “old timers” like me; I’ve made some very close friends.
What do you do outside of the museum?
I work! I am the Director of the Office of Governance at the American Library Association. What the heck does that mean? Well, I am basically the right-hand person to the Executive Director and the association president helping them to carry out their programs and initiatives. It’s a very demanding job that leaves me weary much of the time, which is why I volunteer – to give my mind something else to focus on.
In addition to volunteering at the Nature Museum, I have been a member of the Skokie Concert Choir for seven years (I’m a soprano), and currently serve as their board president. During the choir’s summer hiatus, I am an avid gardener committed to growing mostly native plants. In fact, I have a miniature prairie in my backyard that includes Joe Pye, milkweed, cone flowers, black-eyed Susan, zizzia, monarda, and blazing star. I have recently become quite fond of taking walks through the Somme Prairie in Northbrook, IL. This is a restoration project that was begun by the Nature Conservancy in the ‘90s. A fellow Nature Museum volunteer and I discovered this area last summer and enjoy visiting there to observe the changes throughout the seasons.
I am a season ticket-holder to the Lyric Opera. I love to cook. I knit off and on. And my kitty and I are completely hooked on Downton Abbey!
Stop by and say hello to JoAnne the next time you come for a visit!
Ashley LundgrenView Comments
Public Interpretive Programs Volunteer
Created: 3/8/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
Many of you who visit our Museum on a regular basis will have been lucky enough to meet one of our beautiful Box Turtles when they are out doing critter connections. Maybe Claire or Gorgeous or Charlie or Harrison? As a result you may have been tempted to consider a Box Turtle as a family pet, if you have, please think long and hard before taking that step. Many people do not realize just how much these animals require to live a long and healthy life.
The average lifespan for a Box Turtle is 60 years so you have got to commit to a long-term deal if you are going to own one. Sadly, many people don’t realize this and some of our turtles have rather unhappy stories attached to them. Manny was spotted by a family vacationing in New Mexico, picked up and brought home to Chicago and then after a year they didn’t want him any more. Kennicott was found by one of our Blanding’s Turtle researchers out in a wetland, cold, weak and malnourished. Little Barnaby was left in a pink bucket next to a garbage can in a parking lot.
They were the lucky ones. Manny is staying at the Museum until we relocate him to a nature center in New Mexico, Kennicott has become part of the ‘team’ that does programming at the Museum and Barnaby? Well Barnaby lives with me now. When turtles are not provided with the right environment they will slowly start to shut down. They will refuse to eat, get weaker and dehydrate. We are working with Kennicott and Barnaby to try and kickstart their systems and rehabilitate them. The first task is to get them to start eating and the best way to do this is with a course of vitamin B shots. Firstly we weigh the turtle to establish how much medication to give them.
Barnaby getting weighed.
Kennicott on the scales.
Jamie preparing a Vitamin B shot.
Turtles are not overly keen on receiving injections (who is?) So this is a two-person job. One person holds the turtle and grabs a leg. They have to hold on tight otherwise the turtle will pull into its shell and we are left with nothing to inject into! Then we clean the area of the injection
Before administering the vitamin B into the hind leg
The saline solution helps to combat dehydration. This has to be administered slowly and carefully, not always easy with an angry struggling turtle!
This is done every 24 hours for five days and at the end of this time we hope to have stimulated their appetite sufficiently that they will begin feeding as voraciously as all our other turtles.
Box Turtles are omnivores so they get fed earthworms, crickets, waxworms, mealworms, fish and occasionally as a treat, a pinkie mouse as well as a daily selection of fresh fruit and vegetables. That is another thing to bear in mind before taking on one of these charismatic creatures, there is a lot more involved than just a bowl of lettuce!View Comments
Created: 3/6/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
Though there is still snow on the ground, spring is in the air. Males of many species are setting up territories so that they can be sure to have resources ready to sow off to the females as they return to their Chicagoland breeding grounds. Birds are particularly obvious because of their loud calls. Listen for the territorial calls of Cardinals in the morning and throughout the day. I think they sound kind of like space phazers when they quickly chirp “cheer-cheer-cheer-cheer-cheer.” Sometimes they will vary this call and say “birdie-birdie-birdie.”
Robins, too, are beginning to sing and they may gather in large numbers to feed on left over fruit still hanging on bushes and trees (I saw 16 in one tree earlier this month.) They are working to build strength for the territorial sing-off that will peak over the next few months. Robins will begin singing before we can even see the light of dawn; in our area, that may be as early as 3am. They are calling to the females who have been flying all night and now need a place to rest, feed, and maybe stay to breed.
Male Mourning Doves aren’t cooing much yet but they are on the lookout for nest sites worth wooing over. Though males and females look about the same, as they begin to pair up, you’ll be able to distinguish the male easily. He’s the one doing all the bowing, cooing, and chest puffing as he tries to show the female that he will be a worthy mate.
Canada geese have already begun pairing up. Although Canada geese are not sexually dimorphic, that is the males and female look the same, it is possible to distinguish both pairs and rivals in the flock. It's very interesting to watch individuals interact with other members of the flock on North Pond this time of year. There is a lot of aggressive beahvior like hissing, head bowing, and mouth open chasing but there is also a lot of pre-breeding activity. You might see a pair of geese taking a walk in the park, away from the flock, or they might just stand around and look at each other near a potential nest site.
As territorial behaviors increase, you may find a birds attacking your car’s mirrors or a window on your house. Birds don’t understand what reflections are so, when they see themselves in your window or mirror, they think it’s an intruder that hasn’t been scared off by their loud singing. So, a battle ensues and the resident bird is unlikely to give up. Just make it so the bird can’t see his reflection--put a piece of paper on the outside of the window, position a lamp so the light overpowers the reflection, put some soap or whitewash over the reflecting area.
Although birds are easy to spot this time of year, if you look carefully, you’ll be able to find salamanders and fish making nests and wooing mates, too. This kind of activity will increase substantially as the weather warms, the days lengthen, and plants begin to actively grow again.
Created: 2/27/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
If you visit the museum during the growing season, you’re likely to find me out on the grounds somewhere looking quite dapper in dirt-stained pants and a wide brim hat, a stalk of foxtail grass dangling from my lip. Or you might catch me pausing, rake or shovel in hand, to pluck and nibble on hackberries, purslane, or wood sorrel. City folk (I’m allowed to say that because I spent my first thirty years of life in West Virginia) often give me strange looks. Some even feel compelled to remark upon my behavior: “You shouldn’t be eating that.” “Don’t put that in your mouth, you don’t know where it’s been.” “What if a dog peed on that?” Or the always attention-getting, “OH MY GOD THAT’S POISONOUS YOU’RE GOING TO DIE!!”
At this point, I politely explain that I’m a horticulturist, so knowing which plants are nummy and which might leave one “in repose” is right in my wheelhouse. In other words: Trust me – I’m a professional.
Interestingly, people who aren’t in the know often assume plants to be more dangerous than they actually are.* While a decent percentage of the 250,000 described plant species will send one running to the nearest restroom if consumed in quantity, only a few dozen are known to be toxic enough to truly be considered deadly.
In our area, plants of the genus Cicuta (commonly known as water hemlock or cowbane) are among this group. Ingesting even small amounts of the roots can result in a long list of nervous and cardiac difficulties, including that most incurable of symptoms, death. In some sort of sick, cosmic joke, water hemlock fairly closely resembles the edible (though disappointingly tough and fibrous) wild carrot. Now would be a good time to reread that first asterisk at the bottom.
Other nasties that grow wild in our area include Doll’s Eyes (Actaea pachypoda), Canada Moonseed (Menispermum canadense), and Black Nightshade (Solanum nigrum). But if you really want a “who’s who” of plants that can kill you, look no further than your local botanical garden. There, you’re almost certain to find Monk’s Hood, Foxglove, Oleander, Delphinium, Autumn Crocus, Laburnum, Yews, Privets, and Azaeleas.
In fact, your local botanical institution is quite possibly, at this moment, in posession of two of the deadliest substances known to exist. The Castor Bean (Ricinus communis) and the Rosary Pea (Abrus precatorius) are both widely grown – the former as an ornamental and for the production of castor oil, the latter for its decorative seeds. The seeds of these plants contain small amounts of two astoundingly toxic protiens – ricin and abrin, respectively. According to the European Food Safety Agency, a mere 3 milligrams of ricin is enough to kill an adult human. Pretty impressive. But only until you find out that abrin can kill at doses 150 times lower**.
Believe it or not, my point is not to frighten you into never touching a plant again. Deaths from plant poisoning are exceedingly rare in the US. (One study I found counted 30 deaths in 18 years, some of these cases involving attempted recreational use of plants such as Jimsonweed.) Compare that to the average 50 or so lightning deaths per year and you start to get the idea: Experimenting with wild edibles is a pretty safe pastime. A good way to start is to learn the bad guys by heart. Because fortunately, scary though they are, they are the exceptions. And next time you see me outside the museum, ask me what I’m eating.View Comments
*A message from the nice man with the briefcase and the power tie looking over my shoulder: Don’t eat any plant you do not know to be edible or cannot positively identify.
** Dickers et al, Toxicological Reviews, 2003 - Volume 22 - Issue 3
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
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.
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
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.
Created: 2/20/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
Internationally known artist Jennifer Angus was at the Nature Museum in November to install her exquisite artwork in the south gallery of our second floor. It took three days and several pairs of hands to cover the gallery with insects from Malaysia, Thailand, French Guiana, and Papua New Guinea. I was able to help along with Jennifer’s assistant, a few other staff and a dedicated volunteer. It was neat to see the project unfold before my eyes. My favorite part was hearing the “oohs” and “ahs” as the elevator doors opened and visitors caught their first glimpse of the space.
Prior to her arrival, Jennifer had sent us the specifications for her design. The walls were painted a cool aqua color with yellow polka dots. In order to create the vertical lines in the pattern, she started by setting up a thread grid along the walls.
Using a hammer and special insect pins, we delicately placed each insect along the grid in an alternating pattern. Some insects needed an extra bracing pin to stay in position.
Jennifer’s artwork resulted in a whimsical design of flower-like shapes that draw the eye up and down.
You can learn more about the artist and her intent by visiting the gallery. We are delighted to have this unique installation at the Nature Museum, and we hope you get a chance to see it soon!
Created: 2/13/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
The Nature Museum continually evaluates visitor usage of our permanent and temporary exhibits. Why do we do it?
According to Exhibit Evaluator Hannah Im, “It is important for us to know how visitors experience different exhibits. It allows us to understand how they are currently used, and what improvements we can make in the development of upcoming exhibits.”
At the Nature Museum, we use two methods to collect data on exhibit usage- observation and interviews.
Observation: You may have seen our volunteer evaluators in the galleries with clipboards and stopwatches. They are observing visitors and collecting data about time spent in the different areas of an exhibit.
Interviews: As you leave an exhibit, you may be approached by another volunteer with a clipboard. These volunteers are collecting information about what visitors learn during their time in an exhibit.
Using these methods, our Exhibits team is able to build a clear picture of how visitors use exhibits, what they learn, and suggestions for improvement. Please do your part to improve our exhibits by completing the short questionnaires when requested. You may even get a sticker!
Volunteers are essential to the Nature Museum’s exhibit evaluation project. Volunteer Allan Zemsky has been working with us on the project for almost a year. Alan says, "I enjoy Visitor Studies at the Nature Museum because you get to observe our guests in action at the various exhibits. I can in turn give feedback to the administration so they can better assist our guests in the future."
Interested in volunteering with the exhibit evaluation team? It’s a great behind-the-scenes way to contribute with flexible hours to fit your schedule. Just email email@example.com to get started.
Heather GranceView Comments
Manager of Public Programs
Created: 2/11/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
When asked to write a blog posting about ‘the romancing habits’ of some of the animals in our living collections for Valentines Day I was a little flummoxed. After all the concept of Love and Romance is a very human idea. In the rest of the animal kingdom the drive is purely to successfully pass on your genes, by whatever means are necessary!
Will Harrison our Eastern Box Turtle be buying chocolates and roses for his four lady friends? Absolutely not.
Box Turtles are a solitary species with a small home range. Courtship, which takes place in spring, occurs usually between turtles with overlapping home ranges. Males find females primarily by sight but scent also plays a role. ‘Courtship’ consists of circling, biting and shoving. Not exactly the stuff of a steamy romance novel! So let us dispense with the term romance and call it what it is – mating. The desire to reproduce. (No blushing now, it is what sustains all species!) Now as a biologist, I feel on slightly more secure ground.
Take for example, our Hermit Crabs.
These fascinating crustaceans scuttle down to the edge of the ocean in large numbers to mate, they slide partially out of their shells and position themselves belly to belly. When her eggs are fertilized, the female will release up to 50,000 of them along the shoreline. When the eggs hatch the initial life stage is a sea dwelling planktonic larvae called a zoeae. This stage lasts about a month before developing into a tiny aquatic hermit crab. The tiny crabs will eventually move onto land, go through a series of molts, each time selecting an empty shell to inhabit for protection before reaching maturity at around two years.
Of course I would be remiss when talking about our collections if I didn’t mention that most terrifying of lovers – the Praying mantis. The perfect antithesis to all those hearts and flowers!
Mantises hunt by movement and there isn’t much discrimination when it comes to prey. Could this be described as the ultimate dinner date? The female will often eat the male during the mating process and the male is even capable of continuing to mate after he has been decapitated! I did mention that the drive to pass on genes was the be all and end all, even if this means giving up your life! And mantids aren’t the only ones who recognize that a well-fed female is more likely to successfully produce viable eggs, some katydid species will actually provide the female with ‘gifts’ of protein before attempting to mate.
But not all invertebrates have such dramatic courtship.
The Scorpion will attract a mate through vibrations and pheromones (no eharmony for these guys!) Then dancing! The dance takes the form of facing each other and grabbing their partners pedipalps. The dance even has a name – the ‘promenade a deux’. (French is after all, the language of love!) The male circles around with the female until he has positioned her over a reproductive package, which he previously deposited on the ground. This process can take from 1 to 25 hours! Once the package has been collected the male beats a hasty retreat to avoid a similar fate to the mantis!
The female gives birth to live young, which she carries on her back until their first shed.
Suddenly sending a Valentines card and box of chocolates seems like a really easy option!
Created: 2/6/2013 Updated: 5/27/2015
Remember back in November when we blogged about all the ways your life will improve when you start volunteering? Well we have great news for you. We are hosting the first-ever Chicago Volunteer Expo right here at the Nature Museum on February 10th. This is your chance!
This Sunday, you can meet folks from over 60 nonprofit organizations in need of smart, talented volunteers to do such a wide variety of projects that we can only mention a fraction of them in this blog post.
Working Bikes Cooperative needs handy mechanics to repair bicycles. The Chicago Bird Collision Monitors want volunteers to traverse the city rescuing injured birds. FreeGeek Chicago is looking for people to help recycle old computer parts and teach community members how to use them. Sarah’s Circle needs volunteers to lead workshops in nutrition, job searching, and self defense for women who are homeless in Uptown.
There are so many ways to help out and so many needs to be met. But here’s the big secret. This Expo is not really for the organizations. It’s for YOU.For anyone who made a new year’s resolution to give back to their community. For anyone who wants to fight for the cause they truly care about. For anyone who wants to add a little meaning to their workaday lives. You are the people these nonprofits are searching for. Come meet them at the Chicago Volunteer Expo and start the conversation.
Did we mention it’s free?
Sunday, February 10
10 am to 4 pm
Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
2430 N Cannon Drive
Free! All ages welcome!
Jill Doub, Sarah and Nick AndersonView Comments
Organizing Committee for the Chicago Volunteer Expo
Created: 2/6/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
With a blanket of snow on the ground we don’t expect to see local reptiles or amphibians but, as the days get longer, we are more likely to encounter our cold-blooded neighbors. In February, you can find spotted salamanders walking slowly under the ice, looking for mates. Later in the month, the noise of woodfrogs, spring peepers, and chorus frogs advertise territories. Amidst this flurry of amphibian breeding, garter snakes begin to emerge from their hibernacula. Though garter snakes relish a frog or salamander meal during the summer, this time of year they have one goal—mating.
Our resident garter snake
Can you find the garter snake?
Keeping an eye on visitors
Male garter snakes emerge first, when the air temperature is still in the 30’s, to prepare for mating. On sunny days you might find one basking on a snowbank. Around March or April, the much larger, stout-bodied females will begin to emerge and will soon be surrounded by skinny males vying for a chance to fertilize the eggs she is carrying internally. Though “breeding balls” of dozens to hundreds of males are famous, in Chicagoland I usually only find 2-6 males per female. Interestingly, some males will behave like females. Apparently this behavior attracts other males who, when they pile on in an attempt to mate, help warm the imposter. At the same time, the ill-fated suitors are more likely to be eaten by predators, providing both a shield and decreasing the number of competitors for actual females.
Once bred, female garter snakes retain their eggs (known as ovoviviparity) rather than lay them in a rotting log, like a rat snake. In this way it is easy for the female to move the eggs from one warm patch of sun to another, even in places where the ground stays very cold late into the summer. This behavior has allowed garter snakes to spread further north than any other group of snakes and ensures that garter snake babies are born earlier in the year than any other snake. It also explains the biology behind all the stories of kids bringing one big garter snake home, only to later find the house full of pencil-sized baby snakes.
Chicago is home to a particularly striking form of the Garter Snake. It is found only in southeastern Wisconsin, northeastern Illinois and extreme northwestern Indiana in the vicinity of Chicago. The Chicago Garter Snake has a dark grey head and prominent broad black bars on its sides that break up the lateral stripes. If you can't go out looking for Garter Snakes yourself, you'll find the Nature Museum's resident Chicago Garter Snake in our Istock Look-In Lab.View Comments
Created: 2/5/2013 Updated: 5/28/2015
Part of my job as a Public Programs Educator is developing a monthly activity called “Drop by Family Fun”. The challenge is to come up with a nature based theme to teach through visuals and activities- 12 different topics each year. The themes are introduced to visitors of all ages- from small children to the adults they come with, and every age in between.
There are some things to think about when deciding on topics:
- Is it relevant to the Museum content?
- Can it be taught to different age groups?
- Is there a fun way to insure that participants will remember the lesson?
The answer to the last one is “Make a craft!” Is there a better way to bring a fact home than with a craft? Here are some things that we have done in the past:
- Make a pinecone bird feeder- to learn about urban birds
- Make a light switch plate- to remind about energy conservation
- Make a snake bookmark- to remember what animals are venomous or poisonous
Participants take home a reminder of the fun lesson they learned at the Nature Museum during their visit. They can come back each month to discover a new subject, and hone their crafting skills once again.
Crafting has other positive effects. Children can practice fine motor skills. Adults have valuable bonding moments with children when they assist with the project. Everyone gets to exercise natural creativity.
We hope to see you soon for our monthly “Drop by Family Fun”. It takes place every Thursday, Saturday and Sunday from 11:00 to 1:00. Please see our program calendar on line or in print for the next upcoming nature topic. It’s time for me to get back to the drawing board for new subjects and crafts.
Laura SalettaView Comments
Public Programs Educator
Created: 2/5/2013 Updated: 5/27/2015
Let’s face it, we have had a mild winter so far, but as most Chicagoans know this could change at any time. We could be faced with winter storms, sub-zero temperatures and gale force winds. Those are the days that could force you to stay inside and read a good book. With that in mind, I recently posed a question to the Museum education department – tell me about your favorite book about nature. The responses were varied and interesting we even had a response from outside the education department. I hope you take the time to read some of our recommendations!
Michelle Rabkin, Student Programs Coordinator:
This is my favorite coffee table book, which captivates audiences from 2 to 100 years old. We also use it at the Museum as a resource for programs. This book is visually stunning even if you don’t read a word in it!
Animal, The Definitive Guide to the World's Wildlife
The natural world is a dynamic place and our understanding of it is forever growing and changing. Since Animal was first published in 2001, the African elephant has been reclassified into two species, a cat-sized rat has been discovered in Papua New Guinea, the only plant-eating spider has been found in Central America, a bird-eating fanged frog has been located in Vietnam, and more than 1,250 new species of amphibians have been identified.
Kelly Harland, Museum Educator:
These books are wonderful for elementary aged through adults.
Andrew Henry's Meadow by Doris Burn
In this book you meet Andrew Henry who loves to build things. He builds all sorts of inventions to help his family, but he ends up in the way so he runs to a meadow where he builds himself and his friends houses suited to all their interests. It is a wonderful and creative book about unstructured play and building.View Comments
Owl Moon by Jane Yolen
In this beautifully written story a young girl goes owling with her dad on a quiet snowy evening. The illustrations are beautiful and the readers become caught up in the quiet, stillness of the story.
Two Bad Ants by Chris Van Allsburg
This is the story of two ants who get left behind in a sugar bowl to eat their fill instead of returning with their crystal to the ant hill. They get scooped up in an adventure as a human makes his breakfast. It is a fun ant’s eye view of a kitchen.
Rafael Rosa, Vice President of Education:
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
The book describes Bill’s effort to walk the Appalachian Trail with a friend. While not specifically about nature, he incorporates quite a bit about the history and natural history of the Appalachian Mountains. His description of the American Chestnut and our loss of the species due to disease has always stuck with me. Humorous and thought-provoking, it is not only one of my favorite books about nature but one of my favorite books in general.
Josie Elbert, Associate Director of Education Programs:
Bees, Snails and Peacock Tails by Betsy Franco
This is a great book to introduce or confirm the terrific patterns and shapes found in nature. I love that the text mirrors the vivid illustrations. I’m inspired when I learn or notice something new from a children’s book! This book did that, and it’s one I’ll add to our family’s collection.
Karen Wilson, Living Invertebrate Specialist:
Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D. Seeley
This book is by a world-renowned animal behaviorist who looks in detail at the amazing process of house hunting and the democratic debate that takes place to make a move. E.O. Wilson sings his praises.
Bugs in the System by May Berenbaum
This is a great read as it looks at insects and their impact on human history from the Silk trade routes, the Napoleonic wars, and current culture. Cool stuff.
Barbara Powell, Associate Director of Education Operations:
The Earth Moved by Amy Stewart
This book goes underground to let us all discover the earthworm and all of its glories. From Charles Darwin’s experiments to a discussion about earthworms as an invasive species, this book is interesting and will tell you all you need to know about our subterranean composters. This book is best for an adult audience but the facts and information discussed would be fascinating for school aged children.
I hope you enjoy these books and look for more recommendations to come!
Associate Director of Education Operations
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.
Borneo Tree Squirrel Groundhog and Red Squirrel
Created: 1/24/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
Working with a venomous snake is not for everyone of course but if you are one of the animal care team here at the Museum it is all part of the job. Last week we had the opportunity to take our Horticulturist, Andy and our Invertebrate Specialist, Karen out to Lake Forest to train in the delicate art of working with venomous snakes. Although this is not strictly speaking part of their job it is very useful to have some extra people who are willing to take on this task if needed.
Rob Carmichael who runs the Wildlife Discovery Centre has extensive experience in working with these feisty reptiles and actually trained me and a couple of other staff members several years ago before we got our first Massasauga Rattlesnake.
After a PowerPoint presentation showing the correct way to do things and some rather graphic images of what can happen if you don’t do things right it was time for the ‘fun’ part of the day. Rob has a spectacular selection of snakes with which I could fill this entire blog but I will try and restrain myself to some of the most stunning:
We were here so that Karen and Andy could spend some time working with Massasauga Rattlesnakes. First they learned to move the snake with a snake hook. Once that was mastered, Karen and Andy moved onto the more unwieldy, but more secure snake tongs.
Using the snake hook
Wielding the snake tongs
Practicing "tubing" a snake
Then it was on to learning the art of tubing a snake. This is a skill set that is only rarely needed if the snake needs to have blood drawn, be given an injection or have a stuck lens cap removed and it is not for the faint of heart. Karen and Andy were cool, calm and collected throughout and soon got this new skill mastered.
Finally they learned how to safely bag a snake. This is the task that is easiest to get wrong and when the most bites occur, after all, snake fangs go through a cloth bag very easily! A snake will usually only need to be bagged if it being transported somewhere.
With this final skill under their belts Rob declared that Karen and Andy were now ready to begin working with us caring for our beautiful Massasauga here at the Museum.
Created: 1/21/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
Happy Squirrel Appreciation Day! Of course, here at the Nature Museum, we celebrate squirrels every day but the rest of the world officially joins us on the 21st of January, every year. It’s a great occasion to stop and think about all of the fun (and challenges) that squirrels bring to us. At this time of year all of the ground squirrels are sound asleep. They’re hibernating because during winter (at least normal ones) it’s difficult to obtain enough food to stay warm. The famous Punxsutawney Phil will awake from his hibernation shortly to give his input on the coming weather. However, tree squirrels are active all year, subsisting off nuts that they cached during the fall.
For many people, tree squirrels provide the most intense interaction we have with a wild mammal. In the Chicago region, we often take the seemingly-silly antics of tree squirrels for granted. In fact, squirrels could live anywhere that people do and they are found in towns across the country. However, there are many towns, even in Illinois, that don’t have any tree squirrels at all. In other towns there may only be one species while other towns may have two species or more. Why is this? What does it tell us about the ecology of our neighborhoods? Help us answer these questions and celebrate Squirrel Appreciation day at http://projectsquirrel.org/View Comments
Created: 1/17/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
I cannot wait for the Green City Market to return to the Nature Museum on Saturday, January 19th! There is something so inviting about seeing all of the vendors at the museum showing all of their produce and other delectable goods. Everything is so fresh and delicious! I love using in-season produce when I’m cooking, but I find that there are few ingredients available during the winter. Luckily one of my favorite vegetables is at its peak in the cold month of January: the leek! This vegetable is a relative of the green onion and works well in soups, stews and pastas. This recipe for Potato-Leek Soup is the perfect thing to warm you up on a cold winter night (and the leftovers are fantastic!)
Potato-Leek Soup with Bacon Recipe
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 25 minutes
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 loaf of french bread, cubed
4 slices bacon, chopped
2 large leeks, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced
1/4 of a large white onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 medium russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 cups frozen peas (do not thaw)
1 1/2 cups frozen corn (do not thaw)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Make the croutons: Melt 2 tablespoon butter, then mix with the paprika in a bowl. Add the bread cubes and toss. Spread on a baking sheet and bake until golden, 8 to 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook the bacon in a large saucepan over medium heat until crisp, about 8 minutes (Chop before cooking). Transfer with a slotted spoon to a paper towel-lined plate. Discard all but about 1 tablespoon fat from the pan. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon butter, then add the leeks, onions and garlic; cover and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the broth the potatoes and 1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper; cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer, partially covered, until the potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes.
Puree half the soup in a blender (remove the filler cap to let steam escape), then return to the pot. Add the cream and bring to a simmer. Add the peas and corn and cook until tender, about 3 minutes. Serve topped with the croutons, and bacon!
Ashley LundgrenView Comments
Public Interpretive Programs Volunteer
Created: 1/15/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
I'll be honest with you, folks. There's just no way I can keep every greenhouse pest out of the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven. And you want to know something else? I don't particularly intend to.
Now I'm not rolling out the red carpet for aphids here. At least not compared to the hero's welcome they get just by us stocking the Haven with all their favorite foods and a perfect breeding climate. If they were easy to keep out, they wouldn’t be called pests. Aphids, whiteflies, mealybugs, and scale insects can lay waste to thousands of dollars' worth of plants in no time, and then all we'd have is hungry butterflies and some sticks covered in bug poo.
I could run around in the off-hours spraying chemicals. I don't because 1. Toddlers (et al) will put anything, including leaves coated in poison, directly into their mouths and 2. Butterflies, being insects, react unfavorably to insecticides. Also, I'd have to get here even earlier in the morning.
But more important than my alarm clock is the fact that we, as an institution, have adopted Integrated Pest Management (IPM) as our strategy for all pests. One part of IPM means using the least harmful means of control first. That would be prevention most of the time. I check plants for infestations before I plant them in the Haven. I monitor the plants already there to catch outbreaks at early levels, and then a little soapy water works miracles. But the true secret, the one that has me smugly unconcerned while hordes of mealybugs roam the streets, is that every now and then I release MORE bugs into the Haven.
We order the workhorses of the Butterfly Haven from Beneficial Insectary in Redding, CA. Ladybugs (Hippodamia convergens) devour most soft-bodied plant pests, and do so as adults and as larvae. This is also true for the similar-looking Cryptolaemus montrouzieri, which goes by the more pronounceable and colorful common name ‘mealybug destroyer.’ I also release three wasps into the Butterfly Haven--all of them completely harmless to humans. In fact, they are all smaller than the stinger of the wasps commonly associated with fear and pain. Being so small I guess they are not worthy of cool common names, but they answer to Aphidius colemani, Aphytis melinus, and Encarsia formosa and they parasitize aphids, scale, and whiteflies respectively. Parasitic wasps lay their eggs inside living hosts, sometimes paralyzing them first, and let their newly-hatched young eat their way out. Some people think that's gruesome, some think it's awesome, some think it's both.
Our workhorse, the Ladybug
Notice how I mention these helpers as adults and as larvae. If I were somehow, magically, able to remove every single 'bad bug' from the Haven, my beneficial buddies would have no food, and therefore couldn't breed and maintain a population. One aphid or scale (both of which can reproduce asexually, which is far creepier to me than the parasitic wasp thing) could turn into millions nearly overnight. Instead we aim to keep the pests at an ‘acceptable’ level, which is another tenet of IPM. Then our beneficial insects have more likelihood of breeding and remaining in the Haven to greet incoming pests with something a little less like paradise.
To them, that is. All this goes on at the smallest limits of human perception. At scales more in line with our everyday experience, the Haven remains the tranquil sanctuary we have come to expect. There might be an aphid or two in there, but don't worry. I'm hardly working on it.
Andrew WunschelView Comments
Created: 1/11/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
Today is the birthday of Aldo Leopold.
If you don’t know who he is, you have at least benefitted from the fruits of his work. Leopold is considered the father of modern wildlife management. Most of the principles conservationists use today to ensure that wildlife and people can share the planet together successfully were promoted, perfected, or even developed by him. He wrote prolifically for both technical audiences and the public, but even his scientific writings are pleasurable to read. One of the few books I encourage everyone to read is “A Sand County Almanac.” In this book Leopold presents complex ideas in simple stories about his time in the outdoors. These experiences were the foundation for Leopold’s “conservation ethic.” This ethic was something he arrived at both intuitively and through meticulous data collection. Many studies have later supported his conclusions and the fact that you can see wild flowers in the spring, baby birds foraging in the summer, and deer rutting in the fall is because conservationists and state wildlife agencies have applied these principles in managing the wildlife near you.
Today it is unseasonably warm so I hope you can celebrate Aldo Leopld’s birthday in style—take a walk in the woods. When it gets a little colder, I hope you’ll curl up with one of his books and take some time to learn about the beautiful interactions of nature in your neighborhood.
Created: 1/10/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
Visit our museum any day of the week and you will hear families speaking Spanish, Polish and other languages. Language helps us develop a sense of belonging and gives us the ability to connect with others. In the same way, the Nature Museum wants every visitor to feel inspired and connected to the natural world. After some time here, the Museum and the bilingual families inspired me to develop a program where bilingual or aspiring bilingual families could acquire familiarity and comfort with nature and learn or build upon a second language.
Two years ago I had the pleasure to meet Carolina Legg from Multilingual Chicago. We realized that with combined efforts, we had the opportunity to reach out to bilingual families in a new capacity. As a result we decided to combine early childhood environmental education and foreign language acquisition into a “Foreign Language Through Nature” program. These programs are presented in Spanish and Polish and are full immersion. During the program, children and caregivers learn new vocabulary while also learning about the natural world. Children are engaged through music, art and animal interactions.
Many children have been enrolled in the programs since we first started. The Nature Museum is now a familiar and comfortable place for them to learn, explore and have fun. Many families have expressed how grateful they are that their children have the opportunity to learn and or practice a second language and become comfortable with the natural environment in unique ways. One of my fondest memories was when a 4-year old enrolled in “Polish Through Nature” counted to ten for the first time in Polish while counting fish that live with our Spiny soft-shelled turtle, Pancake. We were so proud!
In 2013 families will be able to participate a “Mandarin Through Nature” series. We are excited to share our passion for nature with more families in a culturally meaningful way. We look forward to seeing you there!
Glenda GonzalezView Comments
Public Programs Coordinator
Created: 1/8/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
It is said that plumbers get some of their biggest jobs between Thanksgiving and New Years. I don’t know if this is really true but it make sense because this is the time of year when homes are full of people using every sink, tub, and showerhead in the place.
I used water in more than a dozen homes over the holidays and saw some interesting interactions with water delivery systems. In two homes, only one or two people could shower before the hot water was gone. Then, a kid was scalded when washing his hands. Elsewhere, when filling a pitcher with water, a woman ended up soaked when the water from the tap hit the bottom of the pitcher with such force it splashed back out. Another person, scrubbing a frying pan, almost overflowed the sink before the pan was even a little clean.
There were other adventures (including dish soap in the automatic dishwasher) but these problems all have their roots in the same issue: water flow at the spigot head. High water pressure is great and we all want enough water to come out of the faucet to get the job done but sometimes there can be too much of a good thing and, instead of helping us stay clean and hydrated, we end up with messes.
In each of these cases, the problem could have been solved by simply adding an aerator to the faucet. An aerator is essentially just a piece of fine screen that the water passes though. The effect is to add air to the water as it leaves the faucet while and reducing the amount of water used but without reducing felt water pressure. With an aerator, more people will be able to shower on a tank of water and the temperature of the heater can be turned down to a safer level because less hot water is used in each shower. A pitcher will fill with water quickly but it won’t splash back (and, incidentally, chlorine and some other chemicals will leave the water more quickly making it taste better) and you will have plenty of water to scrub with, without overflowing the sink.
Many older homes were built with faucets that did not have aerators. In other cases, when the aerators became clogged or broken they were simply removed. In most cases, adding or replacing an aerator is simple. Depending on the faucet, you can simply unscrew the end of the faucet and install a screen, or you may have to screw in a whole new end that includes the screen. In showers, you can simply replace the shower head. Aerators are widely available and, especially in the shower, can provide an updated look to the faucet and a more comfortable user experience.
Sometimes good stewardship of natural resources requires sacrifice but, when it comes to your faucet, adding an aerator makes the water easier to use and you’ll be saving money and water.
Created: 1/4/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
We try by all means to keep our programming animals fit and healthy at all times but of course occasionally despite our best efforts, they get an ailment that requires treatment. So how do you give a snake medicine? Well, if it is an injection it is relatively easy to insert a needle between the scales but if they actually have to swallow the medication it takes a little more than a teaspoon and the request to ‘open wide!’
These are the tools required. The best item for opening the snakes’ mouth is a guitar pick (yes really!) then a nice long tube to get the medicine down and some water to flush the medicine through the tube.
The guitar pick is slid carefully into the snakes’ mouth. As I said, it is perfectly designed for the job. It has smooth rounded edges so it doesn’t harm the snakes’ mouth and it covers the snakes’ glottis, which is in the bottom of the mouth. This ensures that when the tube is inserted it doesn’t get accidentally pushed into the glottis, which would essentially ‘drown’ the snake.
The tube is then gently inserted and pushed down the snakes’ esophagus. The tube should go approximately one third of the way down into the snakes’ body before the medicine is administered.
Of course, don’t expect any gratitude from the snake for this treatment. You will notice there is a second person involved in this process holding the body of the snake. Although they don’t have to negotiate the teeth they do sometimes get the benefit of the snakes displeasure in a far more odiferous manner when the snake deploys its’ musk glands to full effect. When the medication has been administered and flushed through the tube with a little water, the tube is carefully removed.
And there you have it – job done! And if all goes well, after a little time off, we have a healthy snake ready to resume its work entertaining our visitors.
Created: 1/2/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
The following post was written by Cindy Gray, one of our animal care volunteers at the Museum.
8:15 to 8:25
Arrive at the Museum, greet the cleaning woman who lets me in as she cleans the entry, get the key to the Look-in-Lab from security, check-in at the volunteer lounge, and put on one of the volunteer aprons. Go to the Lab, greet Celeste and Jamie and get ready to start working!
8:25 to 8:40
Change the swimming water for the Leopard frog and the drinking/soaking water for the American toad in Mysteries of the Marsh, and mist the American toad tank with RO water (“RO” water is “reverse osmosis” water, water filtered to remove chlorine and other elements that may bother amphibians, water bugs, fish, and some reptiles). Feed the frog and toad, trying to drop the crickets into their tanks, not on the carpet (I read that toads blink their eyes to help swallow their food, but I had trouble picturing it until I saw the toad capture and swallow one of the crickets I fed her one day).
8:40 to 8:45
Mist the green tree frog tank near the spotted turtles to maintain the high humidity they prefer. Sometimes one of the frogs will start “singing” as I mist -- I like to think it's because they are happy for the fresh "rain".
8:45 to 9:00
Provide fresh water for the Tiger salamander, Gray tree frogs, American toad, Cricket frogs, and Fowler’s toad in the Look-in-Lab and mist their habitats. Provide Harriet the tarantula with fresh water in her bowl and crickets.
9:00 to 9:25
Empty the water bowls for the snakes used for critter connections and provide fresh water. Sometimes right after I change her water, Coco the Fox snake takes a drink and then soaks in the fresh water. Change the paper substrate of their tanks if they have pooped. Mist with water any snakes that are shedding to help with that process. If a snake sheds overnight, take the skin out of the cage. If a snake was fed the night before, look to make sure it ate the defrosted mouse or rat.
9:20 to 10:10
Clean up after the box turtles that are used for critter connections. For the box turtles in the front window, provide fresh water, take out yesterday’s food dishes, throwing away the leftovers and putting the dish in the dishwasher, and redistribute the coconut fiber substrate. For the box turtles in the other enclosures, provide fresh water, take out yesterday’s food dishes, and change the paper if they have made a mess, in other words, everyday. When I take them out of the tanks, I put up the “slow traffic” sign that has a picture of a turtle and give the turtles worms, trying to keep an eye on them as I clean; it is surprising how fast a turtle can wander away and wedge herself into a small hiding space.
10:10 to 10:40
Tend the nursery for the Abedus (ferocious water beetles), providing them with clean water and crickets. The females lay dozens of eggs on the males’ backs, and we remove the males to small containers filled with water to protect the babies when they hatch. The young pass through numerous stages before they are big enough to go into the tank in the window so floating in the water are “exuvia,” the shed exoskeletons they have outgrown (a fun word I only learned after volunteering at the Museum.)
10:40 to 10:50
Provide hermit crabs with fresh fruit, fresh RO water, and clean salt water; clean and mist habitat.
10:50 to 11:25
Chat with the PIP volunteers (Public Interpretive Program volunteers) when they come in to get a snake or turtle for critter connections and to feed the frogs and toads for the public feeding. Make salad bowls for the turtles: greens, veggies, corn (their favorite if we have it), and berries or other fruit, topped with crushed egg shells for calcium, mealworms dusted with vitamin powder, and nightcrawlers.
11:25 to 11:40
Tidy up, give the rats corn on the cob, and say good bye to Celeste and Jamie. Check-out in the volunteer lounge, take off the apron, and return the key to security.
Not every day is the same. One day, I flooded the lab by accidentally opening the valve for the water snake tank and not noticing until I heard water splashing on the floor. Everyone was very nice about it and told me everyone floods the lab at least once! (The snakes were undisturbed.) Usually, the breaks from routine are more interesting: Harriet looking spiffier after her molt, new interns, the tiny leopard frog that was a tadpole the week before, or the hatchling Red-eared sliders and Painted turtles the horticulturists found in the garden last spring.
Cindy GrayView Comments
Animal Care Volunteer