Created: 6/11/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
Earlier this month, I had the privilege of learning the art of taxidermy, or, in layman's terms, skinning an animal and stuffing it with cotton and wire. I have to admit that I thought it would be a much more complicated process involving toxic chemicals and specialized safety equipment. In reality, all you need is a sharp knife (preferably a scalpel) and some borax. So long as you're sure to wash your hands afterwards, you don't even need gloves.
As we waited for our chipmunks to thaw, we spent some time drawing them, taking a few minutes to learn about the contours of their bodies, where their joints are, and how their fur lies. I learned two things during that time. First, I'm not very good at drawing. Second, I learned what a chipmunk really looks like: how its legs move, how the features of its head sit upon its skull, how the color patterns flow across its body. It was all quite intimate.
After bonding with our specimens, it came time to cut into them, from thigh to thigh, right above the genitals, being careful not to cut through the thin layer of muscle separating us from the rodent's stinking bowels. This was a relief, it hadn't dawned on me that by only collecting the skin, we could leave its mess of organs tucked safely in the package nature made for them.
This was the only time we cut through the skin, the rest of the cutting we performed was done in between the skin and the muscle, delicately cutting away at the layers of connective tissue. We worked our way from that initial incision to the back knees until we could peel the skin up and over them to fit our scissors around the joint without cutting skin. Then, a bit of pressure, a quick snap, and the femur was separated from the tibia and fibula. We'd come back for those later, it was time for the really fun part. Taxidermists have a special tool for getting the tail out, it almost looks like a pair of wire cutters, but instead of cutting them, it’s designed to hold onto the bones in the tail as you slip off the bushy tail. I don't think I could describe the feeling to you. It sounds rather morbid, I'm sure, but it's really quite delightful, almost like popping the cork on a bottle of sparkling grape fruit juice as a kid on Thanksgiving. You gently apply pressure, anticipation mingled with a tinge of fear, then POP, off it goes.
Things were pretty straightforward from there to the skull, just like pulling off a sock. It was actually pretty meditative, and there were times when I had to stop and take stock of what I was doing, assuring myself that, "Yes, I really am peeling the skin of a chipmunk, and it really is this interesting." This is around the same time that the museum guests started showing up, many of them school groups. There were two facts which many of the children seemed to have difficulty holding in their heads at the same time: these are real chipmunks, and they are dead. One child, nearly at the point of holding these facts together asked, "Are you're fixing it?" Aside from the confusion, there were some wonderfully refreshing moments when a child grasped what was happening and watched with awe rather than disgust. These are the young scientists our country so desperately needs.
Steadily working our way up toward the head, casually chatting amongst ourselves, and enthusiastically sharing with the public what we ourselves had learned only a short while ago, it was time for the difficult part. Not only is the face the cutest part of the chipmunk, it's also the most tenaciously wrapped around the skull. The ears, eyelids, and lips can all easily be disfigured by a hand too quick to finish the job. With the help of our resident expert and trainer, we all managed to keep the cuteness intact.
At last, the skin was off, and it was on to the next stage. The hollow skin was rubbed with borax to dry it out, and the fluffy side was turned back to face the right side. Next, wires were cut to replace the bones we had removed. One wire reaching from the tip of the nose to the end of the tail, and two reaching from the front to back paw on either side. The central wire was then wrapped in cotton and molded with twine to approximate the shape and size of the body. Because chipmunk tails are rather thin, about a third of the wire was left bare so that what we ended up with looked a bit like a popsicle. This was then gently pushed back through the incision we had made hours ago, all the way up to the adorable little face we had affectionately drawn at the start of our day. The other two wires were then set into place along the sides of the body, pushing it into the superman pose which it will hold for centuries to come.
I thought the final step would be sewing it back up, but I'm glad it wasn't (partly because I found it the most difficult). The final step was "to make the specimen look good." I understand that the real reason for this is scientific, for the sake of our collections, but it allowed me to show my respect for the little critter I had just skinned. Gently combing his fur straight and using pins to get his tail and face aligned was a warm way to end what had been a day of cutting, bone breaking, and stuffing. I found it suiting that the process should begin with careful consideration of the creature in its natural form and end with time spent approximating that form. After all, a quick internet search for "bad taxidermy" might make one shudder to think how embarrassed the ancestors of those creatures would be if they were ever to gain sentience.View Comments
Created: 6/4/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
Alfred M. Bailey, director of the Chicago Academy of Sciences from 1927-1936, was an avid nature photographer in both still and motion picture formats. Bailey was an ornithologist, so the majority of his images are of birds. The Academy has a large number of Bailey's photographs in their Archives taken on his trips all over the United States and Canada with the intention of recording a variety of species of birds in their natural habitat. Here are a few examples from his trips to Louisiana:
Anhinga with young on nest taken in Louisiana ca. 1930.
Francis R. Dickinson canoeing to bird blind for taking images of migrating birds at the Paul Rainey Bird Sanctuary in Louisiana, ca. 1932.
Laughing Gull with eggs on nest taken in Louisiana ca. 1930.
Brown Pelican feeding its young taken on shore in Louisiana, ca. 1930.
Close-up of Royal Tern with young in nesting colony taken on shore of Louisiana, ca. 1930.
Amber KingView Comments
Assistant Collections Manager
Created: 6/4/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
Conservation has long been a part of the Academy’s history. Today we are actively working with area endangered butterfly species and the Blanding’s turtle, but in our past there were many other conservation efforts for which Academy scientists and staff passionately fought, most often in collaboration with representatives from other agencies or institutions. Some involved preserving large parcels of land like the Indiana Dunes and others focused on one small area or species.
One such effort in 1941 saved colonies of the mound building ants, Formica ulkei, that made their home in Palos Hills. The ants came under scrutiny when the land on which they made their home was purchased by the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). The YMCA was concerned that the ants would cause harm to the people that would come visit the campground they were going to establish. Accordingly, they contacted a representative at the Illinois State Natural History Survey to ascertain the best way to destroy the colony. This representative quickly alerted those individuals he knew had been monitoring the colony, and Dr. Eliot C. Williams, Assistant to the Director of the Chicago Academy of Sciences spearheaded the effort.
The Academy published an article on the ants by Alton S. Windsor in its publication, The Chicago Naturalist, entitled “Pyramids of Palos” in October 1939. The colony had been located by Windsor and Dr. T.C. Schneirla in 1931 following local reports of the presence of numerous mounds. They found dozens of mounds at that time and confirmed that the species was Formica ulkei. This particular ant species was only found in a few areas in the Chicago region. The mounds ranged in size from about eighteen inches in diameter and ten to twelve inches in height to as large as seven feet in diameter and three feet above the ground. Windsor continued to visit the site and monitor the ants over the years and he and Schneirla returned together to the site in August of 1939. While some of the mounds had been abandoned due to human intervention or natural progression, the ants as a whole were thriving; a census conducted a few years earlier of just a few acres gave a total number of over 400 mounds!
Dr. Schneirla at mound in Palos Hills, from "The Chicago Naturalist" article.
The YMCA was uninformed as to the scientific importance of the colony when they initially inquired into their removal, but upon receiving letters from Dr. Williams, Jr. and other local scientists, began working with him to formulate a way of using the ant colony to further education about the species and its importance, instead of destroying them. The YMCA and the Academy drew up an agreement in which visitors to the Palos Hills Camp would be informed of the scientific importance of the ants, visitors observing the ants could record their findings, the Academy would have permission to relocate ant mounds located on proposed building sites, and a small sign would be erected at each mound site to help protect the ants “against injury and unthoughtful acts”. In addition, the signs would be numbered so that the observations made by visitors could be accurately recorded and a “history” for each mound could be established.
Scan of a mound marker sign from the Academy's Insitutional Archive used to mark and number each ant mound.
Today this species is no longer present in Palos Hills and not much is known about the effort and why and when it ended or even where the proposed visitor records are now. Williams was drafted in July 1942 and served in the Army until March 1946. Many others from the Academy and the scientific community joined Williams, leaving the Academy and other organizations with a skeletal staff during the war years. It was perhaps this absence and the increased responsibility of those who remained stateside that led to the decline in the oversight of this site, but we can only speculate. While this effort did not culminate in the continuation of the Formica ulkei at Palos Hills in perpetuity, the open dialogue created on both sides of the issue resulted in fruitful discussion and compromise.
For further information:
Greenberg, Joel, ed. Of Prairie, Woods, and Water: Two Centuries of Chicago Nature Writing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010, pp. 457-468.
Windsor, A.S. “Pyramids of Palos.” The Chicago Naturalist, Vol. 2, No. 3: October 1939, pp. 67-72, 91.
Chicago Academy of Sciences Institutional Archives
Amber KingView Comments
Assistant Collections Manager
Created: 5/24/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
Fossilization is a rare process. In fact, most of the plants, animals, and insects that existed on earth have not been retained in the fossil record because the conditions required must come together with such precision and timeliness that most just miss the boat. Occasionally, a fossil is produced – a leaf, a tooth, maybe a partial skeleton. From these, paleontologists try to piece together the earth’s history.
Most of the time, it is the hard parts of an animal that are fossilized because bone and teeth don’t succumb to the decay process as quickly as the soft parts of an animal, such as muscle tissue. Think about a banana left out on your kitchen counter too long – it will rot away, decomposed by bacteria. Every once in a while though, the conditions are just right to where the fossilization process includes those soft parts. This is rare, but can provide a more complete picture of an animal or an entire paleo-ecosystem. These are truly a remarkable resource, permitting us to look back in time.
Fossils from the Mazon Creek area in Illinois are associated with the Francis Creek Shale formation and date to approximately 307 million years ago, during the Pennsylvanian. This site is unique in that the fossil assemblage includes the preservation of soft tissue, even of animals such as worms and jellyfish! This paleontological site is called a “lagerstätten” or “mother lode” due to the diversity of the flora and fauna represented. Such sites are recognized worldwide as having importance for our national heritage and the process of understanding earth’s history.
Here are a few of the fossil specimens from the Mazon Creek area in the Academy’s museum collections:
Mazonomya mazonensis -- a clam
Euphoberia sp. -- a spiny millipede
Tullimonstrum gregarium - the "Tully Monster",
a carnivorous marine soft-bodied animal, and the Illinois state fossil
Lobatopteris sp. -- a fern
Annularia stellata -- a plant similar to a horsetail
Dawn RobertsView Comments
Created: 5/23/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
The first question I ask of any plant is “Can I eat it?". But there are plenty of other fascinating stories waiting to be told. Take for instance the unruly-looking and inedible* Osage-orange (Maclura pomifera). Its closest regional relative is the mulberry (Morus sp.) but most of the Moraceae family is more tropical—figs and jackfruits, for example. Its softball-sized fruits are hard, dense, only vaguely resemble oranges, and aren’t related to them at all. It takes its common name from the Osage Nation, a tribe which used the tree for tools, clubs, and most importantly, bows. There are records of a well-made Osage-orange bow being worth a horse and blanket as an even trade, meaning the people controlling the supply of the trees could make quite a tidy living as, effectively, arms traders. There seem to have been multiple wars fought over the land where the trees grew, and the Osage Nation was known to send parties hundreds of miles to harvest from their favorite stands. Even the Blackfoot tribe in now Montana used bows of this wood, nearly 2000 miles from where it grew.
At the time of European colonization, the range of the Osage-orange was confined to river bottoms in a relatively small area of what became Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Why this is so is a subject of some speculation. Generally when a tree produces such a large fruit it is because some large critter loves to eat that fruit, and the seeds get dispersed when the odd few make it through the digestive tract unharmed and germinate. But nothing really seems to like the Osage-orange fruit. Squirrels will tear them apart to get to the seeds, but they grind the seeds to pulp and destroy them in the process. One theory is that animals now extinct on the continent were the primary distributor of the fruit, perhaps mastodons, early horse-like animals, or some sort of (I’m not kidding) giant sloth. With their decline, possibly due to overhunting, came the diminishing range of the tree, and it is possible it could have gone extinct without Native Americans propagating it for their uses.
Lewis and Clark sent some cuttings to President Jefferson as part of their first shipment of samples. They got them from a guy who said they came from an Osage Indian village, and the common name was a done deal--though they called them Osage-apples at first. European settlers had little to no use for longbows, but high on their wish list was fencing or hedges to ‘civilize’ the prairies. (It had been common practice in much of Europe to mark field boundaries with hedges, which can provide harvestable yields, contain livestock, reduce wind, and provide habitat for wildlife.) Osage-orange was found incredibly suitable to this task, because if densely planted it provided a fence “horse high, bull strong, and pig tight,” in the words of one early promoter. This is why many people from rural backgrounds, myself included, first learn this tree as the “Hedge-apple.” (As an aside, other plants brought from overseas to serve this purpose include buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) and multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), both of which have become destructive invasive species.)
Eventually the hedge fell out of fashion because of a fabulous new invention: barbed wire. Farmers decided they’d rather have dead fences than living ones, since time spent pruning is time not plowing. They were pleased I’m sure to learn that Osage-orange is one of the most fungal- and rot-resistant woods in the world, and immune to termites, giving farmers another incentive to keep the trees around for their value as fencepost material (above right). And after the Dustbowl, millions of the trees were planted in a 100-mile wide strip from North Dakota to Texas as part of FDR’s Great Plains Shelterbelt program, eventually run by the WPA. This program is to date the largest US government program aimed at tackling an environmental problem. Eventually the trees became established or reestablished in all of the lower 48 states.
You can still see remnant Osage-orange windbreaks marking field edges in the Chicagoland region and beyond. Some people recognize the altogether silly fruits, and occasionally remember hearing that people put them around the house to repel spiders back in The Before Time. Some folks still heat their homes with wood, and may know that it provides the highest BTU value of any wood in North America. But few people are aware of the role this one plant species has played in the history of this country, the many nations that came before it, and perhaps the continent before humans ever arrived.
Not a bad story for being inedible.
*There are reports you could go through a lot of effort to get the seeds out and eat them, with no ill effects, but to me “edible” means “worth eating.”View Comments
Created: 5/23/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016View Comments
Project Squirrel will be conducting foraging studies on urban squirrels throughout the summer. Members of our team will put out foraging trays like these on at least four consecutive days twice in a month. Trays are placed in the morning and retrieved each evening. Data are collected by looking at how much corn was consumed and how it was consumed. We would like to increase the number of sites we are studying. If you live in or near Oak Park or River Forest and have a tree 15 cm in diameter at breast height in both the front and back yards and might be interested in letting us use your yard for the study, please email Steve for more details.
Created: 5/13/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
Have you ever had tea with a turtle? If not then you need to head on over to the Nature Museum on Saturday May 18th!
Every year in May there is an international event called World Turtle Day. It was developed to raise public awareness of the threats that numerous turtle and tortoise species around the world are facing. As you know, we are extremely fond of turtles here at the museum so we developed a way to mark this worldwide event; we call it Tea with the Turtles.
This year will be our fourth annual Tea with the Turtles, it will run from 11am until 1pm and it is a great way to learn more about these enigmatic creatures. As well as all the turtles that are resident here at the museum we will be having some ‘special guests’ on display too. Suffice it to say, there will be a multitude of turtle and tortoise species here for you to get up close and personal with.
And the second part of the equation? The tea! Ah yes we provide an array of fruit teas to keep you refreshed, as well as some non-tea alternatives. There will also be snacks and cookies to keep your strength up.
For the young (and young at heart) there will be turtle related games, coloring and crafts and for the less energetic who would rather sit and relax we will have a presentation about the endangered turtle species we have here at the museum and what you can do to help conserve them. We will also have numerous biologists on hand to tell you about our conservation work.
A special item, created for this years event is our wonderful Tea with the Turtles mug – ‘modeled’ here by Claire, one of our beautiful box turtles. These will be on sale at the event with 100% of the profit going towards our turtle conservation work.
If you would like to attend this fabulous event, please register online here.View Comments
Created: 5/4/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. When it comes to describing an object in a museum collection, a picture can provide essential information. An image of a specimen or artifact adds clarification for distinguishing similar items and provides a visual record for tracking preservation issues and treatments. Images of museum objects can be utilized for exhibition development, initial scientific research, or as an educational resource.
With the help of some amazing volunteers, our Collections staff are digitally photographing specimens and artifacts in the Academy’s collections. Our photography workstation is one we devised and consists of a wire shelving unit with adjustable shelves, so the work area can be changed when desired. We selected acid-free grey paper for a backdrop and created many of our reflectors and stands from materials we had on hand. Some of our best reflectors are simply sheets of hard white foam and the reflective interior of a coffee can!
Digital photography of our scientific collection began with the imaging of our type specimens. A “type” specimen is the specimen originally used to describe a species and displays the majority of characteristics used to identify that species. It’s because of type specimens that we are able to distinguish one animal from another. Here is the type specimen for the subspecies of the Southern Appalachian Rock Vole, Microtus chrotorrhinus carolinensis (Komarek). This specimen was collected in 1931 from North Carolina.
We’ve since expanded this project and are now systematically photographing catalogued specimens in the Academy's collections. We’ve photographed bird eggs and nests in the oology collection and mammal study skins and skulls in the mammalogy collection. Images from the oology collection were included in a bird identification DVD series released by Thayer Birding Software (www.ThayerBirding.com) released in 2012. Check them out!
Created: 5/3/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
You may already know that the Nature Museum is a regular meeting place for the Chicago Herpetological Society and the Chicago Ornithological Society. Both of these groups focus on animals (reptiles, amphibians and birds, respectively) but as our Horticulturist Seth Harper might say, what about plants? Don’t worry Seth, there is a new group to add to the list- Chicago Botanical Artists.
Chicago Botanical Artists is open to all botanical artists, beginners through advanced, who want to sketch together, share works in progress and develop a supportive community that exhibits and educates. The group will sketch native plants in and around the Nature Museum’s gardens, working outdoors when weather permits, or indoors with specimens. Since its inaugural meeting in February, Chicago Botanical Artists has enjoyed steady growth and looks forward to welcoming more new members.
Illustration Courtesy of Derek Norman
The group meets on the second Monday of each month, May-June from 1 to 3 p.m., July-August 3 to 5 p.m. There is no charge to participate. For questions or to RSVP, email email@example.com or call 773-755-5128.
Manager of Public ProgramsView Comments
Created: 5/3/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
Stop by North Pond for the next several days to greet our tropical visitors---warblers. There are many species of warblers, small insect eating birds, that live in the tropics during our winter, then fly through our backyards on the way to Canada to spend the summer breeding and eating things like tent caterpillars.
Today the Palm Warbler Setophaga palmarum is common and easy to find. The birds you see today around the pond may have been in Panama or Cuba just a few days ago. Look for the rusty cap and a constantly twitching tail.