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  • Behind the Scenes of A Meticulous Beauty

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    Tags: A Meticulous Beauty, insects, exhibits, Jennifer Angus, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

    Created: 2/20/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Internationally known artist Jennifer Angus was at the Nature Museum in November to install her exquisite artwork in the south gallery of our second floor. It took three days and several pairs of hands to cover the gallery with insects from Malaysia, Thailand, French Guiana, and Papua New Guinea. I was able to help along with Jennifer’s assistant, a few other staff and a dedicated volunteer. It was neat to see the project unfold before my eyes. My favorite part was hearing the “oohs” and “ahs” as the elevator doors opened and visitors caught their first glimpse of the space.

    Prior to her arrival, Jennifer had sent us the specifications for her design. The walls were painted a cool aqua color with yellow polka dots. In order to create the vertical lines in the pattern, she started by setting up a thread grid along the walls.

    Thread grid along walls of exhibit.


    Using a hammer and special insect pins, we delicately placed each insect along the grid in an alternating pattern. Some insects needed an extra bracing pin to stay in position.

    The exhibits team and Jennifer Angus pin insect specimens to the wall

    The exhibits team and Jennifer Angus pin insect specimens to the wall


    Jennifer’s artwork resulted in a whimsical design of flower-like shapes that draw the eye up and down.

    A Meticulous Beauty, finished.


    You can learn more about the artist and her intent by visiting the gallery. We are delighted to have this unique installation at the Nature Museum, and we hope you get a chance to see it soon!

    Jacqueline Abreo
    Exhibits Team

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  • Exhibit Evaluation at the Nature Museum

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    Tags: public programs, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, exhibits, exhibit evaluation, volunteer

    Created: 2/13/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    The Nature Museum continually evaluates visitor usage of our permanent and temporary exhibits. Why do we do it?

    According to Exhibit Evaluator Hannah Im, “It is important for us to know how visitors experience different exhibits. It allows us to understand how they are currently used, and what improvements we can make in the development of upcoming exhibits.”  

    Hannah Im
    Hannah Im

    At the Nature Museum, we use two methods to collect data on exhibit usage- observation and interviews.

    Observation: You may have seen our volunteer evaluators in the galleries with clipboards and stopwatches. They are observing visitors and collecting data about time spent in the different areas of an exhibit.

    Interviews: As you leave an exhibit, you may be approached by another volunteer with a clipboard. These volunteers are collecting information about what visitors learn during their time in an exhibit.

    Hannah Im with museum visitors

    Using these methods, our Exhibits team is able to build a clear picture of how visitors use exhibits, what they learn, and suggestions for improvement. Please do your part to improve our exhibits by completing the short questionnaires when requested. You may even get a sticker!

    Volunteers are essential to the Nature Museum’s exhibit evaluation project. Volunteer Allan Zemsky has been working with us on the project for almost a year. Alan says, "I enjoy Visitor Studies at the Nature Museum because you get to observe our guests in action at the various exhibits. I can in turn give feedback to the administration so they can better assist our guests in the future."

    Interested in volunteering with the exhibit evaluation team? It’s a great behind-the-scenes way to contribute with flexible hours to fit your schedule. Just email volunteer@naturemuseum.org to get started.

    Heather Grance
    Manager of Public Programs

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  • Love is in the air?

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    Tags: Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Valentin's Day, Pairing, Mating, Mantids, Invertebrates, Crustaceans, Scorpion, Praying Mantis, Box Turtle, Turtle

    Created: 2/11/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    When asked to write a blog posting about ‘the romancing habits’ of some of the animals in our living collections for Valentines Day I was a little flummoxed. After all the concept of Love and Romance is a very human idea. In the rest of the animal kingdom the drive is purely to successfully pass on your genes, by whatever means are necessary!

    Will Harrison our Eastern Box Turtle be buying chocolates and roses for his four lady friends? Absolutely not.

    Harrison the Box Turtle peeking out of his new home.

    Box Turtles are a solitary species with a small home range. Courtship, which takes place in spring, occurs usually between turtles with overlapping home ranges. Males find females primarily by sight but scent also plays a role. ‘Courtship’ consists of circling, biting and shoving. Not exactly the stuff of a steamy romance novel! So let us dispense with the term romance and call it what it is – mating. The desire to reproduce. (No blushing now, it is what sustains all species!) Now as a biologist, I feel on slightly more secure ground.

    Take for example, our Hermit Crabs. 

    Up close of a Hermit Crab.

    These fascinating crustaceans scuttle down to the edge of the ocean in large numbers to mate, they slide partially out of their shells and position themselves belly to belly. When her eggs are fertilized, the female will release up to 50,000 of them along the shoreline. When the eggs hatch the initial life stage is a sea dwelling planktonic larvae called a zoeae. This stage lasts about a month before developing into a tiny aquatic hermit crab. The tiny crabs will eventually move onto land, go through a series of molts, each time selecting an empty shell to inhabit for protection before reaching maturity at around two years.

    Of course I would be remiss when talking about our collections if I didn’t mention that most terrifying of lovers – the Praying mantis. The perfect antithesis to all those hearts and flowers!

    Praying Mantis on a garden shovel outside of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

    Mantises hunt by movement and there isn’t much discrimination when it comes to prey. Could this be described as the ultimate dinner date? The female will often eat the male during the mating process and the male is even capable of continuing to mate after he has been decapitated! I did mention that the drive to pass on genes was the be all and end all, even if this means giving up your life! And mantids aren’t the only ones who recognize that a well-fed female is more likely to successfully produce viable eggs, some katydid species will actually provide the female with ‘gifts’ of protein before attempting to mate.

    But not all invertebrates have such dramatic courtship.

    The Scorpion will attract a mate through vibrations and pheromones (no eharmony for these guys!) Then dancing! The dance takes the form of facing each other and grabbing their partners pedipalps. The dance even has a name – the ‘promenade a deux’. (French is after all, the language of love!) The male circles around with the female until he has positioned her over a reproductive package, which he previously deposited on the ground. This process can take from 1 to 25 hours! Once the package has been collected the male beats a hasty retreat to avoid a similar fate to the mantis!

    The female gives birth to live young, which she carries on her back until their first shed.

    Bark Scorpion with live young on her back.



    Suddenly sending a Valentines card and box of chocolates seems like a really easy option!

    Celeste Troon, Director of Living Collections

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  • Chicago Volunteer Expo

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    Tags: volunteer, Chicago Volunteer Expo, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, community

    Created: 2/6/2013      Updated: 5/27/2015

    Remember back in November when we blogged about all the ways your life will improve when you start volunteering? Well we have great news for you. We are hosting the first-ever Chicago Volunteer Expo right here at the Nature Museum on February 10th. This is your chance!


    This Sunday, you can meet folks from over 60 nonprofit organizations in need of smart, talented volunteers to do such a wide variety of projects that we can only mention a fraction of them in this blog post.

    Working Bikes Cooperative needs handy mechanics to repair bicycles. The Chicago Bird Collision Monitors want volunteers to traverse the city rescuing injured birds. FreeGeek Chicago is looking for people to help recycle old computer parts and teach community members how to use them. Sarah’s Circle needs volunteers to lead workshops in nutrition, job searching, and self defense for women who are homeless in Uptown.

    There are so many ways to help out and so many needs to be met. But here’s the big secret. This Expo is not really for the organizations. It’s for YOU. 

    For anyone who made a new year’s resolution to give back to their community. For anyone who wants to fight for the cause they truly care about. For anyone who wants to add a little meaning to their workaday lives. You are the people these nonprofits are searching for. Come meet them at the Chicago Volunteer Expo and start the conversation. 

    Did we mention it’s free?

    Sunday, February 10
    10 am to 4 pm
    Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
    2430 N Cannon Drive
    Free! All ages welcome!

    Jill Doub, Sarah and Nick Anderson
    Organizing Committee for the Chicago Volunteer Expo

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  • Spring Snake Romance

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    Tags: garter snake, snake, snakes, year of the snake

    Created: 2/6/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    With a blanket of snow on the ground we don’t expect to see local reptiles or amphibians but, as the days get longer, we are more likely to encounter our cold-blooded neighbors. In February, you can find spotted salamanders walking slowly under the ice, looking for mates. Later in the month, the noise of woodfrogs, spring peepers, and chorus frogs advertise territories. Amidst this flurry of amphibian breeding, garter snakes begin to emerge from their hibernacula. Though garter snakes relish a frog or salamander meal during the summer, this time of year they have one goal—mating.

    • Garter Snake Our resident garter snake

    • Garter Snake in the grassCan you find the garter snake?

    • Garter Snake peering out from tankKeeping an eye on visitors

    Male garter snakes emerge first, when the air temperature is still in the 30’s, to prepare for mating. On sunny days you might find one basking on a snowbank. Around March or April, the much larger, stout-bodied females will begin to emerge and will soon be surrounded by skinny males vying for a chance to fertilize the eggs she is carrying internally. Though “breeding balls” of dozens to hundreds of males are famous, in Chicagoland I usually only find 2-6 males per female. Interestingly, some males will behave like females. Apparently this behavior attracts other males who, when they pile on in an attempt to mate, help warm the imposter. At the same time, the ill-fated suitors are more likely to be eaten by predators, providing both a shield and decreasing the number of competitors for actual females.

    Once bred, female garter snakes retain their eggs (known as ovoviviparity) rather than lay them in a rotting log, like a rat snake. In this way it is easy for the female to move the eggs from one warm patch of sun to another, even in places where the ground stays very cold late into the summer. This behavior has allowed garter snakes to spread further north than any other group of snakes and ensures that garter snake babies are born earlier in the year than any other snake. It also explains the biology behind all the stories of kids bringing one big garter snake home, only to later find the house full of pencil-sized baby snakes.

    Chicago is home to a particularly striking form of the Garter Snake. It is found only in southeastern Wisconsin, northeastern Illinois and extreme northwestern Indiana in the vicinity of Chicago. The Chicago Garter Snake has a dark grey head and prominent broad black bars on its sides that break up the lateral stripes. If you can't go out looking for Garter Snakes yourself, you'll find the Nature Museum's resident Chicago Garter Snake in our Istock Look-In Lab.

    Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology
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  • Crafts and Nature Lessons

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    Tags: public programs, crafts, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, family fun, nature

    Created: 2/5/2013      Updated: 5/28/2015

    Part of my job as a Public Programs Educator is developing a monthly activity called “Drop by Family Fun”. The challenge is to come up with a nature based theme to teach through visuals and activities- 12 different topics each year. The themes are introduced to visitors of all ages- from small children to the adults they come with, and every age in between.

    Girl creating crafts at a table

    There are some things to think about when deciding on topics:

    1. Is it relevant to the Museum content?
    2. Can it be taught to different age groups?
    3. Is there a fun way to insure that participants will remember the lesson?

    The answer to the last one is “Make a craft!” Is there a better way to bring a fact home than with a craft? Here are some things that we have done in the past:

    • Make a pinecone bird feeder- to learn about urban birds
    • Make a light switch plate- to remind about energy conservation
    • Make a snake bookmark- to remember what animals are venomous or poisonous

    Participants take home a reminder of the fun lesson they learned at the Nature Museum during their visit. They can come back each month to discover a new subject, and hone their crafting skills once again.

    Crafting has other positive effects. Children can practice fine motor skills. Adults have valuable bonding moments with children when they assist with the project. Everyone gets to exercise natural creativity.

    We hope to see you soon for our monthly “Drop by Family Fun”. It takes place every Thursday, Saturday and Sunday from 11:00 to 1:00. Please see our program calendar on line or in print for the next upcoming nature topic. It’s time for me to get back to the drawing board for new subjects and crafts.

    Laura Saletta
    Public Programs Educator

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  • Educator Book Recommendations

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    Tags: book recommendations, education, nature, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Biology

    Created: 2/5/2013      Updated: 5/27/2015

    Let’s face it, we have had a mild winter so far, but as most Chicagoans know this could change at any time. We could be faced with winter storms, sub-zero temperatures and gale force winds. Those are the days that could force you to stay inside and read a good book. With that in mind, I recently posed a question to the Museum education department – tell me about your favorite book about nature. The responses were varied and interesting we even had a response from outside the education department. I hope you take the time to read some of our recommendations!

    Michelle Rabkin, Student Programs Coordinator:
    This is my favorite coffee table book, which captivates audiences from 2 to 100 years old. We also use it at the Museum as a resource for programs. This book is visually stunning even if you don’t read a word in it!


    Animal, The Definitive Guide to the World's Wildlife

    The natural world is a dynamic place and our understanding of it is forever growing and changing. Since Animal was first published in 2001, the African elephant has been reclassified into two species, a cat-sized rat has been discovered in Papua New Guinea, the only plant-eating spider has been found in Central America, a bird-eating fanged frog has been located in Vietnam, and more than 1,250 new species of amphibians have been identified.



    Kelly Harland, Museum Educator:
    These books are wonderful for elementary aged through adults.

    Andrew Henry's Meadow by Doris Burn

    In this book you meet Andrew Henry who loves to build things. He builds all sorts of inventions to help his family, but he ends up in the way so he runs to a meadow where he builds himself and his friends houses suited to all their interests. It is a wonderful and creative book about unstructured play and building.

    Owl Moon by Jane Yolen

    In this beautifully written story a young girl goes owling with her dad on a quiet snowy evening. The illustrations are beautiful and the readers become caught up in the quiet, stillness of the story.

    Two Bad Ants by Chris Van Allsburg

    This is the story of two ants who get left behind in a sugar bowl to eat their fill instead of returning with their crystal to the ant hill. They get scooped up in an adventure as a human makes his breakfast. It is a fun ant’s eye view of a kitchen. 



    Rafael Rosa, Vice President of Education:

    A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

    The book describes Bill’s effort to walk the Appalachian Trail with a friend. While not specifically about nature, he incorporates quite a bit about the history and natural history of the Appalachian Mountains. His description of the American Chestnut and our loss of the species due to disease has always stuck with me. Humorous and thought-provoking, it is not only one of my favorite books about nature but one of my favorite books in general.


    Josie Elbert, Associate Director of Education Programs:

    Bees, Snails and Peacock Tails by Betsy Franco

    This is a great book to introduce or confirm the terrific patterns and shapes found in nature. I love that the text mirrors the vivid illustrations. I’m inspired when I learn or notice something new from a children’s book! This book did that, and it’s one I’ll add to our family’s collection.


    Karen Wilson, Living Invertebrate Specialist:


    Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D. Seeley

    This book is by a world-renowned animal behaviorist who looks in detail at the amazing process of house hunting and the democratic debate that takes place to make a move.  E.O. Wilson sings his praises. 

    Bugs in the System by May Berenbaum

    This is a great read as it looks at insects and their impact on human history from the Silk trade routes, the Napoleonic wars, and current culture.  Cool stuff.


    Barbara Powell, Associate Director of Education Operations:


    The Earth Moved by Amy Stewart

    This book goes underground to let us all discover the earthworm and all of its glories.  From Charles Darwin’s experiments to a discussion about earthworms as an invasive species, this book is interesting and will tell you all you need to know about our subterranean composters.  This book is best for an adult audience but the facts and information discussed would be fascinating for school aged children.

    I hope you enjoy these books and look for more recommendations to come!

    Barb Powell 
    Associate Director of Education Operations

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  • Groundhog, Woodchuck, or Whistlepig?

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    Tags: Groundhog day, whistlepig, ground squirrel, ground squirrells, woodchuck, woodchucks, holiday, Steve Sullivan, Chicago Academy of Sciences, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

    Created: 2/1/2013      Updated: 5/28/2015

    Squirrels are a very diverse group of rodents. This little Bornean tree squirrel is among the smallest while the American groundhog is among the largest. The groundhog (Marmota monax)can be found through most of the country and consequently have many names like woodchuck and whistlepig. Here is a groundhog skin from the Academy’s collection next to North America’s smallest squirrel, the Red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus)—not to be confused with the Fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), which is pretty big compared to a red squirrel.

    Bornean Squirrel skin from the Chicago Academy of Sciences Collection. Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum Groundhog skin and Red Squirrel skin from Chicago Academy of Sciences. Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
    Borneo Tree Squirrel
                           Groundhog and Red Squirrel

    Fox squirrel. Chicago Academy of Sciences. Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
    Fox Squirrel

    Although all of these animals are squirrels, the bushy-tailed tree squirrels remain active year round, relying on cached food to help them make it through the winter.  However, ground squirrels, like Groundhogs have a different strategy. They eat as much tender grass and other easily-digested plant material as they can during the growing season, and may double their spring weight with fat. Then, once cool weather sets in, they go deep in their burrows for a long winter’s sleep, dropping their heart rate from around 140 beats per minute to less than 20 and cooling their body down as well. Groundhogs will periodically rouse from torpor and re-warm their body before settling down again. Legend has it that during one of these warming bouts, they can predict the end of winter. While this is a fun tradition, there’s no evidence that squirrels actually have predictive powers. In fact, the legend apparently began in Germany where the most common charismatic hibernator is the hedgehog. Lacking hedgehogs in America, German immigrants transferred the idea to the local woodchucks and a fun holiday was born.

    Steve Sullivan View Comments

  • Venomous Snake Training

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    Tags: Biology, venomous snakes, gaboon viper, green mamba, snake handling

    Created: 1/24/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Working with a venomous snake is not for everyone of course but if you are one of the animal care team here at the Museum it is all part of the job. Last week we had the opportunity to take our Horticulturist, Andy and our Invertebrate Specialist, Karen out to Lake Forest to train in the delicate art of working with venomous snakes. Although this is not strictly speaking part of their job it is very useful to have some extra people who are willing to take on this task if needed.

    Rob Carmichael who runs the Wildlife Discovery Centre has extensive experience in working with these feisty reptiles and actually trained me and a couple of other staff members several years ago before we got our first Massasauga Rattlesnake.

    After a PowerPoint presentation showing the correct way to do things and some rather graphic images of what can happen if you don’t do things right it was time for the ‘fun’ part of the day. Rob has a spectacular selection of snakes with which I could fill this entire blog but I will try and restrain myself to some of the most stunning:

    • Gaboon Viper

      Gaboon Viper

    • Green Mamba

      Green Mamba

    • King Cobra

      King Cobra

    We were here so that Karen and Andy could spend some time working with Massasauga Rattlesnakes. First they learned to move the snake with a snake hook. Once that was mastered, Karen and Andy moved onto the more unwieldy, but more secure snake tongs.

    • Using the snake hook

      Using the snake hook

    • Wielding the snake tongs

      Wielding the snake tongs

    • Practicing tubing a snake

      Practicing "tubing" a snake

    Then it was on to learning the art of tubing a snake. This is a skill set that is only rarely needed if the snake needs to have blood drawn, be given an injection or have a stuck lens cap removed and it is not for the faint of heart. Karen and Andy were cool, calm and collected throughout and soon got this new skill mastered.


    Finally they learned how to safely bag a snake. This is the task that is easiest to get wrong and when the most bites occur, after all, snake fangs go through a cloth bag very easily! A snake will usually only need to be bagged if it being transported somewhere.

    With this final skill under their belts Rob declared that Karen and Andy were now ready to begin working with us caring for our beautiful Massasauga here at the Museum.

    Celeste Troon, Director of Living Collections



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  • Squirrel Appreciation Day

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    Tags: Squirrel Appreciation Day, squirrel, project squirrel

    Created: 1/21/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Happy Squirrel Appreciation Day! Of course, here at the Nature Museum, we celebrate squirrels every day but the rest of the world officially joins us on the 21st of January, every year. It’s a great occasion to stop and think about all of the fun (and challenges) that squirrels bring to us. At this time of year all of the ground squirrels are sound asleep. They’re hibernating because during winter (at least normal ones) it’s difficult to obtain enough food to stay warm. The famous Punxsutawney Phil will awake from his hibernation shortly to give his input on the coming weather. However, tree squirrels are active all year, subsisting off nuts that they cached during the fall. 

    Squirrel

    For many people, tree squirrels provide the most intense interaction we have with a wild mammal. In the Chicago region, we often take the seemingly-silly antics of tree squirrels for granted. In fact, squirrels could live anywhere that people do and they are found in towns across the country. However, there are many towns, even in Illinois, that don’t have any tree squirrels at all. In other towns there may only be one species while other towns may have two species or more. Why is this? What does it tell us about the ecology of our neighborhoods? Help us answer these questions and celebrate Squirrel Appreciation day at http://projectsquirrel.org/

    Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology

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