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.