Created: 12/5/2016 Updated: 3/3/2017
In this new series, we'll be addressing some common questions from visitors and readers. Do you have a science question that has you stumped? Ask our museum scientists via our form here and we'll answer it on our blog!
Is corn a grass?
The Short Answer:
A cob of corn may not resemble the green grass growing in your lawn, but if you ask any biologist or botanist, they will tell you that yes, the corn plant is a grass!
Photo courtesy of Meg Stewart (CC BY-SA 2.0)
How can that be? First, biologists study the features of plants and animals. Then, biologists create groups of plants and animals that have the same features. This science of grouping similar plants and animals together is called taxonomy. For example, the science of taxonomy says that "mammals" are animals that have fur, give live birth to babies, and feed their babies with milk. In taxonomy, a "grass" refers to a specific group of plants. Grasses have leaves that grow around the stem, and each leaf has a central “vein” that helps support the leaf. Grasses have flowers at the top of their stem in a shape called a "spikelet," and those flowers do not have petals. Using that definition from taxonomy, both lawn grass and the corn plant are grass! When you compare corn and lawn grass like a botanist, you can see how the two plants are related. In the pictures of grass and corn below, what similarities do you see?
Lawn Grass Corn
What other groups of animals or plants can you think of? What features do they have in common?
If you really want to get confused, ask a botanist about fruits: a botanist will tell you that cucumbers, pumpkins, peanuts, and chili peppers are all fruits! The lesson is, when a botanist offers you a fruit salad, make sure you get a list of ingredients before you accept.
The Long(er) Answer:
The original corn plant does resemble a wild grass plant, but thousands of years of domestication by the native peoples of central Mexico have turned a wild, small-seeded grass known as teosinte into the familiar plant we know today. The kernels of early corn were either ground into a rough flour, or soaked in water, drained, and heated over a fire.
Modern corn is so unlike its genetic predecessor that the origin of corn was a complete mystery to archaeologists until the 1930s when a graduate student named George Beadle experimentally determined the connection between teosinte and the modern corn plant. Even still, corn and teosinte look so different that it took decades longer for the rest of the scientific community to agree with these experimental results!
Maybe the mystery of corn's origin would have been solved sooner had etymologists and botanists been comparing notes: the Aztec word for teosinte, teocentli, means "God's ear of corn," and teosinte is known in some regions of Mexico as madre de maiz or "mother of corn"!
The corn we grow today has been so selectively bred and utterly domesticated that corn cannot even survive without humans to plant it into the ground: if a cob of corn kernels falls to the ground and germinates, the cluster of seeds is so dense that they compete against each other for water and nutrients and few seedlings grow to maturity. In only a few generations without human intervention, modern corn would become extinct.
But other cereal crops like wheat, barley, and oats still grow on plants that still obviously look like grass, and those crops have a history of domestication as far back as corn. Why is corn unique?
It's important to remember that small genetic mutations can create profound changes in an organism It's possible that during domestication, random mutations occurred in early corn plants that did not randomly occur in other cereal crops. It's also possible that through genetic engineering, other cereal crops could be created with much larger grains as well. Scientists in Britain claim to have done just that with wheat, claiming to have created a strain of wheat with 40% greater yield than common wheat.
So, that’s that: corn isn’t a vegetable (botanically), but a wonder grass that feeds the western world. The only question that remains is, corn-fed beef or grass-fed beef: what’s really the difference?
Nature Museum Volunteer
 Eckardt, Nancy A. (2004) What Makes a Grass? DROOPING LEAF Influences Flower and Leaf Development in Rice. Retrieved December 03, 2016, from http://www.plantcell.org/content/16/2/291.full
 Carroll, Sean B. (2010) Tracking the Ancestry of Corn Back 9,000 Years. Retrieved December 03, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/25/science/25creature.html
 Beadle, George W. (1980) The Ancestry of Corn. Retrieved December 03, 2016, from http://users.clas.ufl.edu/dcgrove/mexarchreadings/corn.pdf
 Genetic Science Learning Center. (2013, July 1) Evolution of Corn. Retrieved December 03, 2016, from http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/selection/corn/
 Knapton, Sarah. (2016, November 4) Genetically modified wheat could be grown in Britain from next spring. Retrieved December 04, 2016, from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2016/11/04/genetically-modified-wheat-could-be-grown-in-britain-from-next-s/
 https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/44/Grassy_grass_plant.svg, By Kelvinsong (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
 https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/98/Maize_plant_diagram.svg, By LadyofHats (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons, edited to enlarge text
Do you have a science question that has you stumped? Ask our museum scientists via our form here and we'll answer it on our blog!View Comments
Created: 11/1/2016 Updated: 11/1/2016
For the next week, guests at the Chicago Academy of Sciences / Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum will have the opportunity to see the world’s largest moth. The Atlas Moth recently arrived from Malaysia and will join the charismatic Birdwing Butterfly, Blue Morpho and 1,000 fluttering friends in our signature attraction.
The Judy Istock Butterfly Haven features more than 40 different types of butterflies and a variety of unique birds in a serene and colorful space featuring pools of water, flowers and tropical trees.
The Atlas Moth – whose wingspan extends averages 9 inches—is also larger than any species of butterfly. The Atlas Moth is much easier to see and photograph than the typical butterfly or moth because it spends most of its time perched on vegetation. Its wings feature shades of brown and cream with some red markings and the outer tips resemble the head of a snake.
Some facts about Atlas Moths include:
- Their large cocoons are used as purses in Taiwan because they are made of such sturdy silk.
- Atlas Moths have no functional mouth and don’t eat as adults. They live on their fat reserves and their lifespan (1-2 weeks) is shorter than the average butterfly/moth.
- Once they emerge from their cocoon, they never close their wings.
Created: 7/19/2016 Updated: 7/24/2016
Wallace W. Atwood inside the Atwood Celestial Sphere
On July 24, 1949 the great Wallace W. Atwood died at the age of 76. As a geographer and geologist, Atwood wrote and contributed to textbooks, taught classes, and even contributed to the New Jersey Geological Survey and the Wisconsin Natural History Survey. Although you may not immediately recognize his name, he contributed an important exhibit to the history of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and one of our fellow Chicago museums.
The Atwood Sphere in 1913 (Photo from Popular Science)
The Atwood Celestial Sphere opened at the Academy in June of 1913. What set it apart from other planetariums of the period was its ability to rotate around visitors as they stood inside it. Atwood, who served on the Academy’s Board and briefly as Acting Director of the museum, designed the incredible apparatus and it helped usher in a new age of planetariums.
Illustration of the Atwood Sphere (From Popular Science)
The sphere was constructed of a thin galvanized sheet metal and only measured 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.
The Sphere as it looked in the Laflin Memorial Building in 1987
When the Academy began extensive redesign of its exhibits and developing life zone dioramas in the 1960s, the exterior of the 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. When the Academy moved from the Laflin Building in 1995, the Sphere was transferred to the Adler Planetarium, officially making the move on December 16, 1997. Once it was transferred the staff at the Adler began to restore it to its original 1913 appearance. The geographical features that had been built up on the Sphere’s exterior were flattened, paint was removed and the original star holes were cleaned. Instead of walking into the Sphere, visitors now enter the Sphere in a motorized cart, and the Sphere rotates around the cart, but the experience is very similar to what Academy visitors experience when they walked into the Sphere in 1913.
The Atwood Sphere as it looks today on exhibit at the Adler PlanetariumView Comments
Created: 7/12/2016 Updated: 7/29/2016
If you love pollinators as much as we do, you’re probably aware of the recent population decline of many pollinator species. The fact that 75% of our food is made possible because of pollination from butterflies, bees and other species has made this problem an international priority. Groups like the International Pollinator Initiative are working to highlight the need for public participation and awareness.
It’s become a local priority as well. On Earth Day of this year, we were happy to host ComEd as the company announced its plan to improve Monarch butterfly breeding areas around its transmission lines. Fidel Marquez, Senior Vice President of Governmental and External Affairs for ComEd, joined us to announce ComEd's plan to increase the mixture of milkweed plants used in its prairie restoration program by more than 30%. Meanwhile, at the Nature Museum, we are continually working to protect and reestablish populations of locally imperiled butterflies. Our efforts are to coordinate the restoration of their native habitat, to propagate imperiled butterflies in our Conservation Lab for the purpose of reintroduction, and to monitor butterfly populations throughout the state with the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network citizen science program.
Two native species we continually work within our Butterfly Restoration Project are the Regal Fritillary (Speyeria idalia), and the Swamp Metalmark (Calephelis muticum). The swamp metalmark, endangered in Illinois, is a rare butterfly that can only be found in wetlands. Its populations are small and intensely local in nature. In contrast, the Regal Fritillary was once common in tallgrass prairies across the country but now is rarely seen east of the Mississippi River. In fact, it is now threatened in Illinois. The Regal Fritillary was recently designated a priority species by the Chicago Wilderness Council with the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum as the lead partner to coordinate regional efforts to conserve this species. We are also lead partners on two other species, the Monarch Butterfly and the Rusty Patched Bumblebee, and are currently working with Chicago Wilderness developing strategies to protect these species throughout the region.
We are also doing what we can to help out one of our most effective pollinators, the Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) by hosting a number of beehives on our green roof. You will see our bees' hard at work when you visit our outdoor exhibits Nature Trails and the Woody Wickham Butterfly Garden.
Wondering how you can work to help pollinators? Here are a few easy ways to start:
- Plant more native species and pollinator-friendly plants in your yard and garden. Check out this brochure to help you get started.
- Avoid using pesticides whenever possible. Remove pests by hand and use non-systemic pesticides such as insecticidal soap if necessary.
- Support the upkeep of our own Woody Wickham Butterfly Garden as it continues to serve as a way-station and food source for Monarchs and other species.
- Don’t use insecticides on bee swarms. If you notice a swarm on your property, contact a local honey co-op (like the Chicago Honey Co-Op) and a beekeeper will come and remove it from your property.
Thanks to Rose Pest Solutions for sponsoring this post.View Comments
Created: 7/12/2016 Updated: 7/29/2016
The plants in our prairie and Woody Wickham Butterfly Garden are in full bloom. If you have a garden of your own, you’ve probably noticed it, too. You’ve probably also noticed lots insect buzzing around, including bees. Although the fear of bees is one of the most common fears, you shouldn’t be startled or scared to see bees buzzing around your garden.
Bees are vital pollinators. They are responsible for as much as $5.2 billion of agriculture production in the US alone, and 75% of all the food we eat benefits from pollination. Seeing them in your garden means that they recognize your plants as a food source, and it means that you’re doing your part to help pollinators. That said, there are some other flying insects that are easily mistaken for bees. While most are pollinators, some are more effective than others. Here’s a quick guide to help you identify who has been buzzing around your flowers.
Honey bees (Apis mellifera)
- Honey bees are wonderful pollinators of a wide variety of flowers in the garden.
- They are usually not aggressive. Bees that are out foraging among flowers for nectar and pollen usually sting only if stepped on or swatted. They are more aggressive if you approach their nest as stinging is primarily a defense to protect their brood. If they’re in your garden, you should be okay as they are happy minding their own business. If a swarm gathers, contact the Chicago Honey Co-Op for removal.
- Workers can only sting once, and they are reluctant to do so.
Bumble bees (Bombus spp.)
- Some flowers, such as snapdragons, are much better pollinated by bumble bees because they can do buzz pollination where they forcefully vibrate and shake the pollen off of the anthers.
- They are usually not aggressive. They nest underground, and may sting in defense if directly handled or if nest is threatened.
- They can sting more than once so be mindful of nests. Try to accommodate them as much as possible, if they've chosen your garden or yard as their nesting point.
Paper wasps (HYMENOPTERA: Vespidae)
- While they will visit flowers to drink nectar and can be responsible for some pollination, paper wasps are primarily carnivores. They can help take care of garden pests and do eat other insects, such as caterpillars.
- Paper wasps such as yellow jackets can be aggressive if threatened or if you approach their nest. They can be aggravated by swatting.
- Can sting multiple times and more painful than that of a honey bee.
Sweat bees (HYMENOPTERA: Halictidae)
- There are many native species that fall under the name "sweat bee". All species are important pollen feeders and pollinators of native, wild plants.
- They can be attracted to perspiration, hence their name.
- They are a smaller species and are mostly solitary.
- Likely only sting if disturbed, not very painful feels like a slight prick.
Hover flies (DIPTERA: Syrphidae)
- While not a bee or wasp at all these mimics can be important pollinators of plants that benefit most from fly pollination. The maggots are also voracious predators known as aphid lions and are excellent at controlling garden pests like aphids.
- Can be seen hovering around flowers and sometimes will land on your skin.
- Cannot sting as they do not possess stingers.
Leaf-cutter bees (HYMENOPTERA: Megachilidae)
- Leaf-cutter bees are another important native pollinator. Larger than sweat bees, but smaller than honey bees, these bees collect pollen on their bellies and will cut circular sections from leaves to build their nests from.
- A solitary species.
- Can sting more than once but are not aggressive and unlikely to sting.
Cicada killers (Sphecius speciosus)
- While these incredibly large wasps will visit flowers and feed on nectar they are not very active pollinators. Adult cicada killers will hunt down and paralyze cicadas, then bring them back to their underground nest and feed their young.
- Although they can be intimidating, cicada killers are not aggressive and will very rarely sting only when handled or stepped on.
- Even if stung, it’s been described to feel no worse than a pinprick.
Mud daubers (HYMENOPTERA: Sphecidae or Crabronidae)
- Like paper wasps, are primarily carnivorous but adults also drink nectar and engage in some pollination.
- Create nests out of mud, can often be found on the sides of buildings. Mud daubers will fill their nests with spiders to feed their young.
- Non aggressive and will rarely sting if aggravated.
Although they all contribute to the ecology of a garden, some species of pollinators can occasionally cause a problem when they choose to nest in a poor location. If you spot a nest or hive that you feel may directly impact your safety, please contact a professional pest removal service.
Thanks to Rose Pest Solutions for sponsoring this post.
Interested in learning more about honeybees? Join us on Saturday, July 23 as Dr. Lucy King, Elephants and Bees Project Leader, joins us to talk about the multiple uses of beehive fences as a natural deterrent to reduce damaging crop-raiding by elephants. Click here for more information.View Comments
Created: 7/7/2016 Updated: 7/29/2016
If you’ve wandered through our Nature Trails or the Woody Wickham Butterfly Garden lately, you’ve probably seen a variety of pollinators and other insects. In addition to the bees that call our rooftop beehives home, you’ve probably seen a number of butterflies fluttering around. If you have your own pollinator garden, you’ve probably seen some of them there, too. But what are they? Here are six common species of butterflies you’re likely to find around the Nature Museum and in your neck of the woods.
Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)
Red admiral butterflies are very common and very easy to spot, thanks to their striking black forewings which featured red bars and white spots. Red Admirals are often seen in residential neighborhoods of large cities like Chicago and Milwaukee. They are frequent visitors to parks and gardens, but just as much at home in a prairie preserve. The range of the Red Admiral extends from Guatemala up into Northern Canada. While they fly year-round in Guatemala and Mexico, in the northern areas of their range they hibernate or overwinter as chrysalides. Red Admiral caterpillars eat plants of the Nettle family (Urticacea) such as Pellitory. Red Admirals can be found in most sunny places including moist fields, prairies or marshes. In urban areas, look for them in parks or along tree lined residential streets.
Viceroy (Limenitis archippus)
Viceroy butterflies closely resemble Monarchs, but their behavior is very different. Viceroys prefer wet habitats and are territorial – they will chase away other butterflies that come too close. Viceroys also fly by flapping their wings quickly, while Monarchs usually glide between wing strokes. You can also tell the difference between the two by examining their wings. A black line crosses through the veins in the Viceroy’s postmedian hindwing, but Monarch wings do not have this line. Viceroys range from the mountain states east to the Atlantic and from Texas north into the Canadian plains. They over-winter in the larva stage. Viceroy caterpillars feed on Willows, Aspens and Cottonwoods. Viceroys are usually found in wetlands and prairies with willows. They are also found in human-disturbed wet areas, like suburban lake edges.
Monarch (Danaus plexippus)
One of the most familiar North American butterflies, the Monarch is distinctive for its striking colors and as a study in butterfly biology. The caterpillars accumulate toxins from the steady milkweed diet which makes this animal poisonous to predators especially birds. Birds apparently learn to avoid eating monarchs and other butterflies, like Viceroys, that look like Monarchs. Monarchs range across North America – coast to coast – and up into southern Canada during the summer. Every autumn, millions of Monarchs migrate south and west to central California and central Mexico. Monarchs are also found year-round in Central America. Monarch Caterpillars eat Milkweed it is therefore referred to as the Monarch's Host Plant. Monarchs will inhabit almost any sunny place with flowers, including parks, gardens or prairies.
Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)
Painted Ladies are found year-round in the deserts of the southwest. They migrate into the Midwest and northeastern states each spring and return to the southwest before winter. In some years – 1992 was one example – they may multiply rapidly across the entire continent in a population explosion. They are found on every continent except Antarctica and Australia. In North America, they live year-round in Mexico, but migrate north each year across the continent, all the way to the Arctic Circle. Painted Lady Caterpillars eat Thistle, Mallow, Hollyhock and related plants. These plants are referred to as the Painted Lady’s Host Plants. Painted Ladies are found just about anywhere that thistles grow
Cabbage White (Pieris rapae)
Cabbage Whites are imports from Europe. They first appeared in Canada in 1860 and have since spread as far as south Texas. They can be seen just about anywhere from March to November. Several generations are produced each year. The Cabbage White ranges from central Canada as far as Texas and northwest Mexico. Individuals over-winter in the chrysalis stage. Cabbage White caterpillars eat Cabbage, Radish, Mustard, Peppergrass, and related plants. The caterpillar is often considered an agricultural pest. Cabbage Whites are found in weedy habitats like vacant lots, power line right of ways and roadsides as well as in marches and gardens where its food plants grow.
Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)
In the Chicago area, these large swallowtails are first seen in April and early May. A second generation begins emerging from chrysalides in mid-June and a third generation may emerge in August or September. Black Swallowtails are attracted to butterfly gardens with fennel or dill plants. Their range extends from southern Canada to northern Mexico. They are found in Arizona, New Mexico, and the eastern half of the United States. Black Swallowtails over-winter in the chrysalis stage. Black Swallowtail Caterpillars eat Parsnips, Wild Carrots, Celery, Parsley and Dill. Black Swallowtails like sunny places with weeds and flowers, and can be found in gardens, vacant lots, old fields, pastures and marshes. They thrive in cities and suburbs due to the abundance of Queen Anne's Lace.
Thanks to Rose Pest Solutions for sponsoring this post.View Comments
Created: 6/3/2016 Updated: 7/29/2016
This week's post was contributed by Michèle Noach. She is a London-based printmaker. Since 2004, she has been visiting the Arctic on research expeditions, tracking retreating glaciers. Her work Through The Ice, Darkly can currently be seen at the Nature Museum as part of Weather to Climate: Our Changing World (open through October 23). In this post, Noach describes her inspiration and process. You can learn more about Noach by visiting her website.
My first venture to the High Arctic was on an expedition in 2004 to Svalbard, midway between the northern-most tip of Norway and the North Pole. It is fair to say it was, visually, like being in a washing machine: I emerged with a recalibrated sense of what constituted beauty, the colour palette, the natural world, and the planet. Having mostly worked from a bubble-gum colour wheel before, in my capacity as an artoonist, it was a scouring experience and I returned with a new interest in ice, the sea and the spectrum of white as a storehouse for all colours.
Ice became an increasing obsession over the years with subsequent trips back to the Arctic, and it was impossible to ignore the ravaged glaciers, the great majority of Arctic ones being in monumental retreat. In their wake, they left gaping dark valleys of broken rock and ancient geological debris. They also took with them the unmistakable romance of the colossal inching rivers of bright ice that had descended from interior land to the sea.
I had by this time started collecting Victorian-era postcards of Northern Norway, photographs taken from 1880’s to the 1910’s, often featuring intrepid tourists in their extravagant garments, walking around the imposing fronts of these glaciers, clearly in awe of their might and beauty. Some of these images were exquisite, taken with very good camera lenses. The differing textures and shades of the ice were mesmerising, determined by age and temperature. Libraries of past climate.
It occurred to me that I could go back to these exact places, so clearly marked, named and dated on many of the negatives still visible on these early postcards, and rephotograph the location. So I spent the next few years on this project and revisited numerous sites, standing as near as I could to the original postcard photographer and recording the shocking diminution or absence of every one of the glaciers I had chosen.
Speaking to locals, there were many changes they experienced with the loss of their glaciers, including the now-impossible traditional methods of travel between villages which involved crossing the snow and ice, reduction of fresh water supplies and disappearing hunting practices.
But for all the practical tragedies and changes logged, it was the altered visual experience that was most striking. A magical, myth-laden Arctic Circle dreamscape was transforming slowly into what looked like quarries or disgarded open mines. The reflected light, colour and strangeness (for example, the inexplicable sounds emitted from inside the glaciers) all gone and only dark, cracked-rock gouges left.
I transported some of the wandering characters from the old postcards into the rephotographed glacial valleys, to bear some kind of witness to the change. Their century-old eyes might be searching for the ice, wondering how it can have disappeared so dramatically, and why. Their voices might be ours too.
The series Through The Ice, Darkly currently on show at the Peggy Notebaert Museum as part of the Weather To Climate exhibition is specifically about the subjective change in the landscape, the shift of mood apparent to an artist’s eyes, a lost ice world.
Original postcard of Kjendalsbræ
Cropped area of original postcard
Final cropped image from postcard, turned into a lenticular 3D print
Final lenticular image of current glacier with a character from old postcard, placed in approximately the same spot as 100 years before
Michèle NoachView Comments
Created: 5/20/2016 Updated: 5/23/2016
Have you ever wondered what goes into making a museum-quality taxidermy mount or study skin? Nature Museum volunteer Annamarie Fadorsen gives you a glimpse into the detailed work that goes into it in this video.
Created: 5/18/2016 Updated: 5/18/2016
Ever wish you could get an insider's look at our Collections facility? In honor of International Museum Day, we're giving you that chance! Check out the facility, and a few of the hundreds of thousands of specimens it holds, in this video! Featuring Dawn Roberts, Director of Collections, and Erica Krimmel, Assistant Collections Manager.
Created: 5/12/2016 Updated: 7/29/2016
If you've walked around North Pond recently, you may have noticed this goose. It's suffering from a condition known as Angel Wing Syndrome.
Angel Wing is a condition that affects mostly waterfowl, caused by a nutritional deficiency in vitamins and minerals combined with a high level of carbohydrates and sugars. While a number of factors are involved, human-fed bread is one of the probable causes. It causes the carpal joint (or wrist) on the wing to grow awkwardly, leaving the wing unable to sit flush at the bird’s side. This affects their ability to fly and the growth of their primary flight feathers -- making them look more like sticks than feathers.
Damage in fully mature birds is irreversible and likely fatal, due to the inability to fly to food sources and rejection from their flocks. If the bird is young and the diet changes dramatically, however, the damage could be reversed.
Although there are more nutritional foods that humans can provide (like non-moldy cracked corn, wheat, barley or standard birdseed), geese and ducks are grazers and have no trouble finding food on their own. In fact, feeding them can create an unnatural and unhealthy dependence on us as their food providers, and can lead to other problems, like overcrowding and water pollution.
Help keep our waterfowl happy and healthy by spreading the word about the dangers of feeding them bread and crackers. You can download the image below and share it on your own social media channels to help educate your friends, family and neighbors.