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!