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  • The Brenton Blue

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    Tags: butterfly conservation, south africa, butterfly, benton blue, ecosystem, carpenter ants

    Created: 12/16/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    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)
    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
    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
    Brenton Blue, Photo copyright D. Britton,
    via http://www.brentonblue.org.za/

    Doug Taron, Curator of Biology

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  • Oh What Fun it is

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    Tags: winter, warm-up, winter activities, family activities, family, public programs, chicago winter

    Created: 12/16/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    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.

    Cardinal in snow-covered pine tree

    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.

    Bison sculpture with holiday wreath

    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.

    Chicago skyline

    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!

    Laura Saletta
    Public programs educator

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  • Hi-Ho, the Mistletoe!

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    Tags: Mistletoe, parasite, plant, Christmas

    Created: 12/11/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    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.

    Phoradendron serotinum
    Phoradendron serotinum

    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.

    Mistletoe berries
    Mistletoe berries

    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.

    "Wood roses"
    "Wood roses"

    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
    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.

    Seth Harper, Horticulturist

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  • A Biologist's Point of View

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    Tags: squirrels, parks, hunting, extinction, human nature interaction, fox squirrels, grey squirrels, elk, bobwhite, settlers, Biology

    Created: 12/11/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    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
    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
    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
    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. 

    Fox squirrel
    Fox squirrel

    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
    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.



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  • Person Behind the Program: Lily Emerson!

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    Tags: public programs, holiday, tras to treasure, family programs, family, nature, chicago, lincoln park

    Created: 12/10/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    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.

    Lily Emerson

    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. 

    Thanks, Lily!

    Heather Grance
    Manager of Public Programs

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