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  • Donald T. Ries Photography Collection: A Museum Intern's Perspective

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    Tags: Archives, photography, 35mm slides, Donald T. Ries, flowers, botany

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

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    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

    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.

    Chimaphila umbellata, Pipissewa or Prince’s Pine

    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.

    Cypripedium arietinum, Ram’s Head Lady’s Slipper

    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.

    Oxalis montana, Mountain Woodsorrel

    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. Cicero
    Collections Department Intern/Volunteer

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  • The Emerald Ash Borer Reaches the Nature Museum

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    Tags: emerald ash borer, invasive species, ash trees, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, horticulture

    Created: 9/30/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    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.

    Tree with sprouts occurring at the base of the trunk

    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 in tree bark

    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.

    Trails of larvae in tree bark

    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 Wunschel
    Assistant Horticulturist

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  • Nature's Theatre

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    Tags: steppenwolf, the wheel, butterfly, butterflies, education, inspiration

    Created: 9/30/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    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 butterfly specimen

    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.

    Swamp metalmark butterfly next to a penny for scale

    Swamp Metalmark

    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.

    Karen Kramer Wilson, Living Invertebrate Specialist

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  • Blanding's Turtle Identification

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

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    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.

    Chip for tracking

    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!

    Placing a chip in a turtle

    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.

    Inserting an ID chip into a turtle

    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.

    Celeste Troon, Director of Living Collections

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  • Green Cleaning 101

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    Tags: public programs, green cleaning, natural ingredients

    Created: 9/5/2013      Updated: 2/16/2017

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    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!

    Conventional cleaners
    Conventional Cleaners

    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 ingredients (lemons, vinegar, baking soda etc.)

    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 Grance
    Manager of Public Programs

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  • Who are these C3 leaders anyway?

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    Tags: C3, chicago conservation corps

    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.

    Box of broken toys

    • 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.
    People learning about Divvy bikes



    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.

    Adults in classroom



    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/c3

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  • Run for Science Volunteers

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    Tags: volunteering, volunteers, run for science

    Created: 8/13/2013      Updated: 5/27/2015

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    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 Doub
    Manager of Volunteers and Interns

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  • Horticultural Bottom Ten - Chicago Edition Part Two

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    Tags: horticulture, genetics, flowers, plants, humor

    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…

    Purple coneflower

    …here is a ‘Greenline’ coneflower…

    Greenline coneflower with distinctive green coloring

    Eyeballs on stalks.  Watching you.  Forever.

    …and a ‘Green Wizard’ coneflower

    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…

    Orange daylily

    Pretty!

    …and here is the cultivar ‘Sanford Double Doozy’.

    Sanford Double Doozy daylily

    (Not pretty.)

    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…

    Daffodil

    …and a cultivar called ‘Delnashaugh’.

    Delnashaugh daffodil

    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’.

    Rococo tulip

    Is it…bleeding?

    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…….

    Seth Harper, Horticulturist

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  • Woo, hoo, hoo: Hooray for Quails!

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    Tags: butterfly haven, button quail, public programs

    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?

    Female Button Quail (light brown plumage)

    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.

    Male Button Quail (Blue and brown plumage)

    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.

    Tiny, striped button quail chick

    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 Saletta
    Public Programs Educator

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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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