Created: 7/15/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
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 – 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 – 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 - 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.View Comments
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!
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.
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 GonzalezView Comments
Public Programs Coordinator
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.
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 / 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.
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.View Comments
Created: 6/27/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
After the very challenging drought year of 2012, the Butterfly Conservation Lab is up and running. Recently I traveled to far southern Indiana to continue our ongoing work with the Swamp Metalmark.
Swamp metalmark habitat in southern Indiana.
The swamp metalmark is an endangered species in Illinois. In fact, many people consider it to be extirpated (locally extinct) from the entire state. The reason the butterfly is so rare is that it inhabits an extremely rare type of wetland called a fen. Its caterpillars can only feed on the leaves of swamp thistle and tall thistle. Both grow in fens. We are attempting to re-establish swamp metalmarks to their last known home in Illinois, Bluff Spring Fen near Elgin.
In Indiana I found dozens of metalmarks from a wooded fen near the Ohio River. We brought four females into the laboratory, and set them up in special cages to lay eggs. Over the course of about a week and a half, the butterflies laid over 200 eggs. We are currently waiting for them to hatch. When they do, we will place them on leaves of swamp thistle and rear them to adulthood. We hope to have adults in August when we can release them at their new home. With a bit of luck, they will establish a new population.
Egg laying cages with female metalmarks in them.
Created: 6/26/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
People often think of carnivorous plants as being tropical monstrosities, but many species make their homes in cold climates, and some can even be found in the Chicago region. The Museum's Biology Department took a trip several years ago to the Indiana Dunes' Pinhook Bog (open only to guided tours due to the fragility of the ecosystem) where we saw sundews, pitcher plants, and bladderworts--all species that make up for the low-nutrient peat moss they grow in by digesting insects. Combined with the rare orchids, blueberry-lined walkways, and the fact that the ground moves when you walk on it, it was one of my favorite daytrips. Volo Bog, north of Chicago, is home to such strange plants as well.
While the Venus Flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) is the most iconic carnivorous plant outside of Super Mario Brothers and Little Shop of Horrors, our local meat-eating flora have plenty to offer. Pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea) have leaves that form a tube that collects rainwater. The attractive red coloration draws curious creatures to the rim of the "pitcher." Occasionally an insect will fall down the slippery slopes into the pool of rainwater and be trapped, and shortly thereafter digested. But since plants lack teeth, the plant has to hire someone else to chew its food. It is said that "If you build it, they will come," and a host of invertebrates make their home in the water of the pitcher plant, forming a mini-ecosystem inside the leaves of one plant. The top predator is usually the larva of the Pitcher Plant Mosquito (Wyeomyia smithii), one of several animals which lives only inside pitcher plant puddles, and nowhere else. Please don't think we should fog the bogs, though; the pitcher plant mosquito doesn't go for people. Eventually bits of the prey are chewed, shredded, digested, and excreted by enough little bugs, bacteria, and other critters that nutrients from the victim's body become usable by the plant.
Drosera rotundifolia, the Downy Sundew, takes a different tactic. Its leaves are covered with red, tentacle-like protrusions, and coated in a sticky, sugary substance. When prey come investigating they get stuck. The tentacles then curl up around the insect, and the plant begins to exude enzymes to extract precious, nitrogen-containing compounds that are otherwise hard to come by in the sundew’s habitat. This is because in bogs, the high acidity of the peat moss and water inhibit the breakdown of organic matter, so nutrients remain locked away instead of cycling through the ecosystem as they might in more garden-variety soils. Many Drosera species have become so adapted to their conditions that they completely lack the enzyme that enables other plants to absorb nitrogen from their roots.
While our collection is small, the Museum does maintain several living examples of carnivorous plants in our Mysteries of the Marsh exhibit. As these are wetland plants, they are members of some of the most imperiled ecosystems in our region, and throughout the world. While we are tempted to think of plants as basically immobile, passive denizens of our world, carnivorous plants are some of the most obvious examples of the incredibly active role plants take in nature. Stop by and see ours, but more importantly make sure to get out into the wild, visit our protected wetlands, and spot these fantastic plants in their native environments. You won't regret it.View Comments
Created: 6/26/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
It's a question I get asked all the time, ‘where do you get your animals from?’ There is no short answer, some are donated, some are left at our door, some are purchased, some are bred in house and some we go out and collect. For this last group we can’t just go out randomly picking up any animal we like the look of, as a scientific institution we have to have all the appropriate paperwork and permits to allow us to collect our specimens. Also we are collecting creatures for live display so we have to be very mindful of our collection methods.
This past week we were out collecting fish for our tanks in the Riverworks exhibit. Last year when we did this we had very little water to work in because of the drought, this year we had the opposite problem!
Trying to use a seine net in rushing water is a bit of a challenge to say the least and for the species we were looking for we needed to find some quieter bodies of water. It took us a while but we eventually found some good spots.
The seine net is held in place while a couple of people drive the fish forward into it.
The net is then scooped up at the last moment to secure the fish in the middle of the net. This method ensures the fish are completely unharmed in the process and also allows us a good view of everything in the net.
You never know what you are going to find in the net, which is all part of the fun. This particular scoop had a number of huge Bullfrog tadpoles in it and also a rather startled looking frog in amongst the mud and weed. They all got safely returned to the water.
We were looking for compatible species to the ones we already have on display so this haul of Top Minnows were a great addition.
Some of our cache is photographed and then returned to the river, like this beautiful Heelsplitter mussel.
We also ‘do our bit’ collecting up invasive species. Well actually, one particular invasive species, the Rusty Crayfish. An extremely popular snack for our Blanding’s Turtles!
Inspite of the high water levels we had a very successful trip, bringing home lots of new fish which will undergo a 30 day quarantine period before going on display.View Comments
Created: 6/21/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
In June 1913, the Chicago Academy of Sciences presented an exhibit to its visitors unlike any other. It was a planetarium where, unlike others of the time period, visitors could walk inside to experience the night sky while the apparatus rotated around them.
Atwood Celestial Sphere at the Academy’s Laflin Memorial Building, c1926
The Atwood Celestial Sphere was designed by and named for Wallace W. Atwood, who served on the Academy’s Board and briefly as Acting Director of the museum. Mr. LaVerne W. Noyes, President of the Board of Trustees, had the structure crafted by his company, Aermotor Windmill Company, and donated it to the Academy.
Wallace W. Atwood inside the Atwood Celestial Sphere
Atwood Celestial Sphere, c1913
The sphere, constructed of a thin galvanized sheet metal, was only 15 feet in diameter. Tiny perforations in the exterior of the sphere allowed light to penetrate, appearing as stars to those viewing from the inside. Atwood designed the celestial sphere to portray the stellar sky as seen from Chicago and visitors would watch as the sun, moon, and stars rotated around them in simulation of Earth’s orbit through the solar system. The sphere was utilized heavily for educational programs at the Academy. School groups, clubs, and other visitors would tour the sphere, with programs often led by Atwood himself during his time with the Academy.
Wallace W. Atwood with children inside the Celestial Sphere
The stars were positioned with such mathematical precision that in 1941, the U.S. Navy began incorporating use of the Atwood Sphere in navigational training exercises for the U.S. Naval Reserve Unit stationed on the Chicago Campus of Northwestern University. Modifications were made to the Sphere to accommodate these trainings, including the installation of a meridian (an arc that follows the circumference of the sphere and passed through the zenith) and movable arm with which to measure the zenith angle – the distance between the zenith (the point directly overhead) and any star.
Atwood Celestial Sphere at the Academy’s Laflin Memorial Building, c1920s
In the 1960s, the Academy began extensive redesign of its exhibits and developing life zone dioramas created by William Beecher and Academy staff. The exterior of the Atwood Celestial Sphere was painted to look like the Earth and the ceiling of the Laflin Building painted to look like the night sky to blend more readily with the new exhibits.
Thurston Wright working on the Atwood Celestial Sphere, c1950s
Atwood Celestial Sphere with the exterior painted to look like Earth, c1960s. William Beecher in the foreground and Thurston Wright in the background.
The Atwood Celestial Sphere was transferred to the Adler Planetarium in 1995 when the Academy vacated its Laflin Building, where it currently resides.
Dawn RobertsView Comments
Created: 6/12/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
We are all rather fond of Harriet here at the Nature Museum. She is a very large, female Striped Knee Tarantula who has been with the institution longer than pretty much everyone. She has been here so long that I have never actually been able to find any record of where she came from or when. In spite of her somewhat intimidating appearance she is a very gentle creature and also quite a celebrity. She has featured on a blues album cover.
She has done numerous TV appearances for various local stations and she also appeared on the cover of a medical paper about treating arachnophobia.
But in between all this jet setting she is just a regular arachnid. She spends most of her time in the Istock family Look-in-Lab raising squeals from countless children.
Once in a while we will notice that she starts to slowly spin a thick web mat and then we know exactly what she is up to. She is getting ready to shed.
The first time she did this after I started working here I was alone in the lab one evening, I have to confess I had never seen a tarantula shed before so imagine my horror when I walked past her tank and she was laying upside down with all her legs in the air! Absolutely no prizes for guessing what I thought. I was so upset and spent most of that night imagining having to tell everyone that dear, sweet Harriet was no more. When I came in the next morning there appeared to be TWO tarantulas in Harriets’ cage, and they were both the right way up. By now I had begun to put two and two together, or in this case, one and one and realized what had happened, Harriet had shed. I have been here for several years now and after the trauma of that first time I made a little sign which reads ‘She’s not dead, she’s shedding!’ I have witnessed numerous Harriet sheds and each time I marvel at the process. Here is Harriet the morning after her most recent shed.
She is the one on the right of the picture! And here is her freshly shed skin, called an exuvium.
If you look closely you can see each individual hole where she carefully pulled her legs out of the old skin.
Now even if you are not keen on spiders, you have to admit, that is pretty cool!
Created: 6/12/2013 Updated: 8/9/2016
‘Father of the Year’ is an annual public program that highlights the best animal dad around the Nature Museum. Every Spring, as new life is booming inside and outside of the museum, we keep our eyes open to observe traits in male animals that contribute to the healthy upbringing of young. Once an exemplary ‘dad’ has emerged, we learn facts about his species and decide if he has what it takes to bestowed this honor. On Sunday, June 16th at 12:00 we will announce the 2013 Father of the Year. Visitors will learn all about the celebrated recipient and what he does to benefit the next generation during the award presentation.
We started doing this program a few years ago as way of sharing our fondness of the parental instincts of members of our living collection. Visitors are often surprised at how much we might have in common with the rest of the animal world when it comes to ‘bringing up baby’. This program fosters a connection with these notable parents. The 2012 winner of the accolade was the Button Quail- an adorable bird species that resides in the Butterfly Haven. Button Quail males are known to share nesting duties and are be strong protectors of chicks. One day last spring, faint peeping could be heard in the Haven. After a search in between the thick plants, two cute button quail babies were spotted under the wing of one of our males. We knew we had our winner. This year the winner is an equally suitable title holder, but we can’t give it away until the ceremony. Please join us on Father’s Day to learn all about the lauded papa.
Laura SalettaView Comments
Public Programs Educator
Created: 6/11/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
A sure sign of the change of seasons is when we in the Biology Department finally start to get out to do field work. Our Blanding’s Turtle work was severely affected last year by the drought so we had some catching up to do. First order of business, release all last years hatchlings that we had held onto due to a lack of water. We begin by blanking out their individual ID numbers to make them less conspicuous.
Then we select suitable sites with relatively shallow water, plenty of vegetation for cover and a healthy population of aquatic invertebrates for food. It is always a delightful moment when we watch these little turtles get their first taste of freedom.
After all the hatchlings were released we started doing some radio tracking. This can be a slow process as we work to follow the beeps emitted by the transmitter and home in on its location.
This time we had so much water to work in we had a problem reaching the bottom to grab the turtle when we located it. We go from one extreme to the other it seems! Unfortunately our first trail was a bust as we came up with a detached transmitter but we would far rather have this happen than find one that had obviously been removed by a predator.
We can recycle and refit these transmitters so we carefully stowed it and then set of tracking another turtle.
This one led us on a merry dance through all kinds of habitat...
...before we eventually tracked it down. It is always a great way to end a day of fieldwork by finding a large, strong, healthy turtle.
He will have his transmitter replaced and then be rereleased at the exact location he was found. Hopefully he will soon find some female turtles and start work on this year's batch of babies!