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  • Behind the Scenes: Motion Film Project

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    Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, motion film, environment, Chicago Film Archives, Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust

    Created: 7/27/2013      Updated: 9/1/2015

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    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:

    Old film containers

    Many of the films were stored in metal canisters.

    Original metal reels

    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.

    stack of 100' rolls in yellow boxes

    Stacks of small cardboard boxes with original 100’ rolls of film. Materials like this cause damage to films through acid migration.

    35mm films with boxes

    agfa 35mm films

    leather bound film container used for storage and mailing

    Leather bound film container used for storage and mailing.

    film showing signs of vinegar syndrome

    Some of the films suffer from vinegar syndrome, deterioration caused by humidity. The film exhibits warping and gives off a “vinegary” smell.

    recanning process

    Each film is wound onto an archival core, outfitted with a new leader, and then given an archival canister.

    archived film in cannisters

    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 Roberts
    Collections Manager

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  • Bird Collections -- Looking Up Close

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    Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, ornithology, bird, specimen, exhibit

    Created: 7/27/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    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.

    Eastern bluebird study skin

    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.

    Northern Shoveller nest and egg specimens

    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 mounted specimen

    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 Roberts
    Collections Manager

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  • Snapshots of Nature: Tappan Gregory Nature Photography

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    Tags: photography, mammals, Archive, Tappan Gregory, nature photography

    Created: 7/26/2013      Updated: 9/2/2015

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    Portrait of Tappan Gregory

    Tappan Gregory

    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

    Juvenile Porcupine walking along ridge of boat, ca. 1907, Huron Mountain Club, Marquette, MI

    Diagram of photo trap

    Diagram of camera set-up for wildlife “self-portrait” photographs.

    Skunk with bait

    Skunk responding to bait.  October 18, 1928, Huron Mountain Club, Marquette, MI

    Black and White photo of a Franklin's ground squirrel

    Franklin’s Ground Squirrel, Waucaunda, Ill July 27, 1941

    Two fox kits

    Two Red Fox kits or pups caught on film.  May 13, 1941, Huron Mountain Club, Marquette, MI

    Amber King
    Assistant Collections Manager

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  • From the Archives: The Scrapbook of Amanda Parelius or the "Bird Doctor"

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    Tags: birds, Academy, Archive, scrapbook

    Created: 7/26/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    Parelius Dressmaker Shop

    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. 

    Parelius Bird Hospital

    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. 

    Newspaper Article about rescued canary    Newspaper article about rescued parrot

    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 King
    Assistant Collections Manager

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  • It's Time to get your Bug on!

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    Tags: bugapalooza, insects, public programs, Biology, apiary, bees, Ants, butterflies, entomology

    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?

    Wasp on flower

    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.

    Moth

    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!!

    Scorpion

    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.

    Katydid

    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.

    Celeste Troon, Director of Living Collections

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  • Horticultural Bottom Ten – Chicago Edition (1st Installment)

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    Tags: horticulture, plants, Gardening, bottom ten, norway maple, rose of sharon, siberian elm

    Created: 7/15/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    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 tree

    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

    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

    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.

      



    Seth Harper, Horticulturist

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  • The Nature of Feeding

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    Tags: food, living collections, Biology, rats, snakes, feedings, public programs

    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!

    Water Snake

    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.

    Smudge and Sooty the rats

    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 Gonzalez
    Public Programs Coordinator

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  • Nature's Fireworks

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    Tags: fireworks, july 4th, bioluminescence, fireflies, lightning bugs, glow worms, foxfire, forest, night vision

    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.  

    Brightly colored Cephalopod
    Cephalopod

    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
    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.

    Foxfire fungus 
    Foxfire fungus

    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.

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