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  • Spooky Science: Dress like the Chicago Academy of Sciences founders this Halloween!


    Tags: founders, kennicott, gloyd, elizabeth emerson atwater, william stimpson, halloween

    Created: 10/22/2015      Updated: 10/24/2017

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    Halloween is just a week away, but if you still don’t have a costume ready to go, don’t worry. We have some scientifically-focused suggestions that date back to the early days of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, many of which you can recreate just by visiting a costume store, thrift store, or your own closet!

    Robert Kennicott

    Robert Kennicott

    If you’re the outdoors type, rugged Academy founder Robert Kennicott is your man. To recreate his look, grab:

    • A heavy, long wool coat
    • A western style or oxford shirt
    • A neck scarf or bandana
    • Dark pants
    • A woven sash and garters
    • Moccasins or other soft shoes
    • Unkempt hair and facial hair

    Finish the look by toting around an animal pelt or, perhaps, a plush owl (bonus points if it is a Western screech owl, one of Kennicott’s scientific namesakes). Learn more about Robert Kennicott's work and legacy here.

    William Stimpson

    William Stimpson

    Feeling a bit more refined? Academy founder and director William Stimpson is your man! Embrace the refined naturalist look by putting together the following ensemble:

    • A frock coat or formal coat
    • A collared shirt
    • A floppy bow tie or cravat
    • A formal vest
    • A pair of old-fashioned spectacles
    • Dark trousers
    • A mustache

    Finish the look by grabbing an aquatic invertebrate friend or two, perhaps a mollusk or crustacean, since Stimpson devoted much of his life to cataloging and researching aquatic invertebrates. Learn more about this work here.

    Elizabeth Emerson Atwater

    Elizabeth Emerson Atwater

    An important woman in the history of the Academy, and the history of botany, Elizabeth Emerson Atwater is the ideal subject for those who love plants and Victorian fashion. To create her look, assemble the following:

    • Long-sleeve, Victorian style dress
    • Shawl
    • Victorian hairstyle – a low, parted bun is probably the easiest to attempt

    Be sure to bring along a scrapbook of some plant clippings or pressings to complete the look! Did you know that Atwater embraced botany because it was one of the scientific activities that a "proper" lady could participate in? Learn more about her legacy here.

    Howard K. Gloyd

    Howard Gloyd

    Love all things reptile and amphibian? Then herpetologist and Academy director Howard K. Gloyd is the perfect costume for you! And the look is not very difficult to put together! Simply grab:

    • A Panama hat
    • A safari or cargo vest
    • A white oxford shirt
    • Tall hiking boots
    • Khakis
    • A bow tie
    • A mustache

    Gloyd spent his life researching herps of all kinds, so having a rubber snake or two in tow will help complete the look! Learn more about the species that are named after Gloyd here.

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  • A Summer of Blanding's Fieldwork


    Tags: blandings turtle, conservation, fieldwork, turtle tuesday

    Created: 9/14/2015      Updated: 7/29/2016

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    You may have noticed some new faces in our Blanding’s Turtle Conservation Lab, that’s because we have taken in a new group of Blanding’s hatchlings to headstart.

    Two Blanding's Turtle hatchlings

    It all began a few months ago, when our Biology team and Dan Thompson of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County went out into the field to track down some gravid Blanding’s turtles that were ready to lay their eggs. Each turtle has a tiny radio transmitter attached to her shell which gives off a unique signal so using a receiver we can track them. After locating them, the turtles were put into secure laying pens so they could lay their eggs in safety before being re-released. The eggs were then collected and put into an incubator to hatch.

    Nature Museum biologist Jamie Forberg holding a Blanding's turtleDan Thompson of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County holding a Blanding's turtle

    After a couple of months, the tiny turtles began to emerge from their eggs.

    Baby Blanding's Hatching

    Looks like #TurtleTuesday decided to turn into #TurtleWednesday! We caught one of our adorable baby Blanding's Turtles hatching on camera!

    Posted by Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum on Wednesday, August 26, 2015

    It was about at this same time that our 2014 hatchlings reached the point where they were ready to be released into the wild. So, a few weeks ago, our Biology staff, along with Dan Thompson, released 60 of our 2014 Blanding’s hatchlings into the wild. We kept 24 of the 2014 hatchlings (some of which you can see in our Blanding’s display tank in Mysteries of the Marsh), and have introduced 106 2015 Blanding’s hatchlings to the Conservation Lab.

    Museum biologist Celeste Troon and Dan Thompson releasing hatchlings

    The majority of turtle predation takes place as eggs or during the first two years of life. By giving the Blanding’s hatchlings a "headstart" at the Museum during this vulnerable time, we are increasing their chances of survival. Although our Animal Care team works hard to provide them with this headstart, we don’t want the turtles to become habituated to humans. In order to reduce the risk of this happening, our biologists keep handling to an absolute minimum and the turtles that are on exhibit at the Museum are behind one-way glass. This is all part of a larger effort, in collaboration with the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, to help restore the population of this endangered, native species and help re-establish ecological balance to the area.

    Museum biologist Lalainya Goldsberry releasing hatchlings

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  • Behind the Scenes: Foundations of a Story


    Tags: collections, collection, specimens, specimen, data, museum collections

    Created: 9/1/2015      Updated: 7/29/2016

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    Museum collections are filled with all types of objects – fish in jars, textiles, oil paintings, mammal skins, fossilized plants, historic photographs. These tangible items, the specimens and artifacts, are very cool and I’m only a little biased. But, the really good stuff is something more intangible. The really cool stuff in museums is the data associated with those objects. 

    Why is data more cool than the real item, you say?

    Detail of the label for a Passenger Pigeon specimen

    With data, we can tell the story of each specimen and artifact. Here is a label from a Passenger pigeon specimen, Ectopistes migratorius, which states:

    “Purchased by Mr. James Richardson, of [the] Am. Museum of N. Hist. [American Museum of Natural History], in the flesh, in the New York Market.” 

    Passenger Pigeons are an extinct species; the last member of their species died in 1914. This specimen was collected along the Canadian River in 1889, two and a half decades before they went extinct. The pigeon was shipped to New York for the purpose of being sold as food, where it was being sold in a local meat market. That a staff member of the museum purchased the bird and then added it as a scientific specimen to the museum’s collection is fascinating to me. It sparks questions in my mind -- Why did they collect this specimen? Did they have knowledge about the species’ decline at this time? Were they in the habit of scouring city markets for different species? Other species have been re-discovered this way, most notably the Coelacanth.

    Without data, the specimen, artifact, or piece of art is only that. We might be able to identify it and give it a name or title, but we won’t know how that particular piece fits into the larger puzzle that lets us understand our world. We won’t know who the artist was or why the piece was created. We won’t know where the animal lived or when or be able to discern how it interacted with its environment. The story is truncated, as is any knowledge that we may have gained.

    In the process of caring for the Academy’s museum collections and archives, it is not just the specimens and artifacts that we are preserving, but the information about those items as well. The relationship between a specimen and its data is protected as these components are not nearly as useful separated from each other.

    Dawn Roberts
    Collections Manager

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  • The Life of a Dead Tree

    Created: 8/20/2015      Updated: 8/1/2016

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    Ichneumon wasp on tree bark

    Dead and dying trees are one of the most exciting parts of any landscape. Like a star in supernova, trees may persist for decades or even centuries before they are consumed in a flurry of activity.  Of course this analogy brings to mind some of the wildfires that happen each year. The destructive power of fire in a dry, fuel-laden forest is both terrifying and exhilarating, the ratio of which probably determined by one’s distance from the fire and the skills and tools available to control the flames. 

    Trees burn so well because they are dense collections of carbon-rich molecules, such as cellulose, that are created, year after year as the tree uses energy from the sun and carbon dioxide from the air to construct its architectural matrix. When terrestrial plants first arose, they could simply cover rocks and gather all the sunlight they needed. But, with the advent of stems and leaves, some plants were able to outcompete others for sunlight and so a cold war of sorts began. The individual with the largest leaves gathered the most sunlight while shading out the other plants. When one kind of plant grew taller, it was more successful. But at some point, gravity and wind would pull it back to the ground-- at best, making the race start again for that plant, at worst, killing it. But with the development of woody tissue plants could get taller and taller while withstanding the effects of gravity and wind as well as climbing vines, perching birds, and our clamoring primate ancestors.    

    Bee and yellowjacket on tree bark 

    This cellulose is tough and not very nutritive. Termites famously being one of the few animals that can, through their symbiosis with gut bacteria, eat it. Some species further protect their wood with a variety of toxins. The volatile oils found in eucalyptus are especially interesting—they contribute to the hot/cold feeling of products like Vicks and they are explosive when burned. Most animals that appear to eat wood actually only consume a thin layer of the plant found just beneath the bark called the phloem. This goes for rabbits, deer, voles, even beaver. Many wood-eating insects are also only found in the phloem, too, most infamously, the Asian long-horned beetle and the emerald ash borer. The wood portion of a tree is useless to most organisms. 

    Of course you can see all sorts of animals in a forest but dead and dying trees are rare, at least in a healthy forest, so there are many species that utilize them more frequently than a given living tree, dead trees called snags are like the corner bodega where it seems everybody stops briefly during the day. Lack of leaves makes snags perfect perches for birds of prey. Even more importantly, as water, ice, fungi, and bacteria invade and soften the wood, that once tough and useless superstructure becomes accessible to many more species. 

    Bee and yellowjacket on bark

    Woodpeckers are the most famous cavity nesting birds. They have a range of special adaptations that allow them to be among the first animals to take him take advantage of softwood:  toes and claws that can grip vertical surfaces, stiff tail feathers that help form a tripod while they’re excavating, chisel shaped beaks, tendon strengthened for necks, and shockproof brains. Less specialized birds like nuthatches also excavate dead wood and there are a lot of species that either modify existing cavities or just move in to whatever is available. As the holes grow in size, they allow more water in which promotes fungal growth. Many species of fungus only grow on the decaying wood of certain species of tree. Soft wood also allows insects like carpenter ants to construct galleries to live in and raise their brood. (They don’t eat wood, they just remove it to create living space.) This soft, punky wood also provides good bedding for animals as diverse as mice and queen hornets.

    Hornet on tree bark

    All this leads me to the elm that I stopped at this morning. The tree is just 100 yards north of the Nature Museum along Cannon drive, south of a park bench. It’s mostly dead but still has a good quantity of sap within it. This sap is slowly oozing out nutritious sugary gobs of elm candy which are being eagerly consumed by many animals. Although these gobs are the elm equivalent of maple syrup at first, natural yeast in the air have also begun fermenting it.  Standing beneath the tree, you can smell warm, beer-like yeasty-ness. This betrays the presence of alcohol, as well as sugar.

    Here’s a list of the animals I’ve seen on the tree just today:

    Birds: starlings, robins, barn swallows, flickers, English house sparrows, a downy woodpecker, and a crow

    Fox squirrel on tree 

    Mammals:  I only saw one grey squirrel in the tree, and he was there simply because a dog was chasing him. I suspect squirrels will avoid the tree for some time due to some of the insects that are so prevalent. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some rats eating the cicadas at the base in the evening though.

    Cicada and cicada exoskeleton on tree

    Arthropods:  Here’s where you hit the jackpot.  2 species of ant, cicada exoskeletons and adult cicadas, moth egg masses, spider sacs, some cocoons (one with a dead pupae inside), flesh flies, picture winged flies, and house flies. The occasional butterfly flits past: red spotted purple, questionmark, red admiral, and painted lady. The coolest part though, are the hymenoptera galore!  Of course the cicada killers are the most obvious, but there are also honeybees, bumblebees, yellowjackets, bald-faced hornets, and even an ichneumon.

    There are lots of things I expect to see at the tree but have not seen there yet. Since the tree is an elm and is just dying this season, it should be able to stand safely for many years. It will be interesting to see all of the diversity that uses this tree over the next few years and seasons. I hope you’ll take the time to visit the elm and tell us what you have seen there, too.

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  • Remembering Dr. William J. Beecher - Part 2


    Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, fossil, Beecher, volunteers

    Created: 7/27/2015      Updated: 8/1/2016

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    Dr. William Beecher died on this day in 2002. In addition to being a Chicago native and ornithologist, Dr. Beecher held the position of Chicago Academy of Sciences director for 24 years! His legacy continues to live on at the Museum. The Beecher Lab, located in the Wilderness Walk, is named after him, and some of the students who studied under him as teenagers have returned to the Museum as volunteers! In this post, Collections volunteer Joan Bledig remembers her time with Dr. Beecher.

    Dr. William Beecher holding binoculars

    Dr. William Beecher

    Dr. William J. Beecher was a dominant force in my life in the late 1950s-early 1960s. In an era when young women interested in science were considered weird, Dr. Beecher was there championing everyone’s right to study science and nature, girl or boy. He was my mentor in things scientific. And, unlike most adults of that era, he treated me and the other members of what he named his Junior Academy as equals, never talking down to us, never disregarding our questions or comments.

    I was interested in anthropology at the time I discovered the Academy, but Dr. Beecher widened my horizons to include an appreciation of many other natural sciences, including Geology. Because of my participation in the fossil hunting trips Dr. Beecher arranged to the Mazon Creek area about 70 miles south of Chicago, I developed a love of this fossil assemblage which I never lost, and resulted in my returning to volunteer once again 45 years later.

    Dr. Beecher had developed a program at the Academy to assist high school students with their science fair projects. I decided to participate, wanting to do something concerning human evolution. Beecher said that was out of field for the museum, since the projects would be incorporated into future exhibits once the science fair competitions were over. He said, “You enjoyed participating in those fossil hunting field trips to Coal City and Braidwood. Why don’t you do something on the Mazon fossils?” He was very convincing, so I agreed to do a science fair project on how the Mazon area had appeared when it was a living forest of tree ferns and giant insects 306 million years ago. And what an experience that became!

    Joan Bledig with her 1961 Science Fair project at the Academy.
    Joan Bledig with her 1961 Science Fair project at the Academy. Photo by Nancy Bledig.

    The entire museum preparation staff, it seemed, helped me create a life-size tree trunk, some examples of ground plants, and the piece de résistance, Meganeura, a dragonfly with a two-foot wingspan. Dr. Beecher made arrangements with a noted expert at the Field Museum, George Langford, Sr., to assist with the research portion. When the science fair was over, parts of the project were eventually incorporated into a life-size, walkthrough coal forest in the back of the lobby of the building at 2001 N. Clark Street.

    Dr. Beecher had a humorous side as well. Once he told us about one of his experiences while stationed on a remote Pacific island when he served in World War II. It was hotter than Hades; the native population didn’t speak English; and it was doubtful that they had much, if any, previous contact with modern civilization. He managed to get it across to one of the natives that he was thirsty. Suddenly, an islander appeared, offering him a bottle of Coca Cola! The islanders may not have had 20th century civilization, but they sure had Coca Cola. The punch line? Beecher said some future archaeologist would be beating his head against a wall wondering what the culture of “Coca Cola” was since its bottles were found everywhere on Earth.

    With great regret I tendered my resignation from the Junior Academy when I finished high school in 1964. My father had recently passed away and I needed to find a full-time job in order to earn money to pay for college. It was a sad day, parting from the Academy and Dr. Beecher. However, I never left behind the marvelous influence he had on me. A great friend of Dr. Beecher, June Hanna, stated he said he chose not to marry because he felt he could be either a great ornithologist or a great father, but never both. Maybe he didn’t think he could be both, but I believe he did a great job being both to all the boys and girls he influenced during his tenure as Director of The Chicago Academy of Sciences.

    Joan Bledig
    Collections Volunteer

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  • Remembering Dr. William J. Beecher - Part 1


    Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, Beecher, volunteers

    Created: 7/27/2015      Updated: 8/1/2016

    Dr. William Beecher died on this day in 2002. In addition to being a Chicago native and ornithologist, Dr. Beecher held the position of Chicago Academy of Sciences director for 24 years! His legacy continues to live on at the Museum. The Beecher Lab, located in the Wilderness Walk, is named after him, and some of the students who studied under him as teenagers have returned to the Museum as volunteers! In this post, Collections volunteer Bob Morton remembers his time with Dr. Beecher.

    Dr. Beecher leads a field trip with four students
    Dr. Beecher leads a field trip

    Dr. Beecher He was a world renowned ornithologist and I remember reading about him in the Tribune quite often. He was usually consulted when there was an article about birds or the environment. My one distinct memory of this time was the mural in the Laflin building lobby. Dr Beecher created this by himself. He was on scaffolding for months in addition to his duties as Director. His apartment was only a block away from the Museum so he practically lived there. 

    He gave me the position of Junior Curator around 1962 when I was 13 years old. The previous summer I had taken an entomology course given by the Academy and had attended a number of workshops and field trips conducted by Dr. Beecher. As a Junior Curator I worked primarily in the library and as a secretary. I prepared correspondence and on a couple of occasions Dr. Beecher received letters with insects inside them. People had found them in their homes and wanted to get rid of them. He had me research and identify the insects and then prepare a letter explaining how they could be exterminated. Dr. Beecher then signed his name to the letters. He also told me that I could prepare an insect exhibit for the Museum using only my imagination. I never took him up on this offer. 

    Dr. Beecher and a reporter examine dead birds on the beach
    Dr. Beecher and a reporter examine dead birds on the beach

    There were 3 of us Junior Curators who assisted with the Entomology course taught each summer. Most of the students were Chicago High School teachers. We assisted with the laboratory work and on the weekly field trips. Others worked on exhibits and I am aware of one other teenager who published a paper on the Monarch butterfly. 

    It was amazing, the responsibility that he gave to young kids and he never once micromanaged, to my knowledge. 

    Bob Morton
    Collections Volunteer

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  • Restart Your Engines!


    Tags: emissions, epa, driving, cars

    Created: 6/17/2015      Updated: 8/1/2016

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    A Great crested grebe near the Helsinki Museum of Natural History at about 11 pm

    A Great crested grebe near the Helsinki Museum of Natural History at about 11 pm

    I recently returned from presenting some of our Project Squirrel data to the International Colloquium on Arboreal Squirrels. This time, the meeting was held in Finland. Although the meetings filled the day, I spent a lot of time outside too because, this time of year at least, the sun doesn’t set for long in the northern latitudes. On my first night there, between 10pm and midnight, I was able to find nearly 20 species including wagtail, oystercatcher, and even a goshawk being mobbed by dozens of fieldfares and hooded crows. Along with the birds, I noticed something that seemed odd to me—there was no noise coming from stopped cars at red lights. 

    A Barnacle goose

    Barnacle geese are relatives of Canada geese

    At first I thought locals must really be into hybrid cars but upon closer inspection I couldn’t find a single vehicle identified as a hybrid (and because of the danger they can be to rescue workers after a crash, hybrids are usually required to be labeled as such). In fact, amongst the mix of the usual commuter autos, I saw lots of patently non-hybrid and non-quiet vehicles like big American pickups, bigger Audi busses, and even a giant Avtospetsoborudovanie Silant rescue machine (I’m not sure what Silant means in Russian but it can’t be a synonym for “quiet”). Yet these were quiet at intersections too.

    So what gives? It turns out that everyone was simply turning off their vehicles when they stopped at a light to prevent idling. Now I know that idling is bad but where’s the sane line between pausing in your forward motion and idling? I felt a little silly that I didn’t know the answer but as I asked around to various eco-conscious friends, none of them knew the answer either (hence this blog post because I assume lots of people don’t know the answer.)

    Remember back in the 80s and 90s when schools would leave their lights on 24/7 “because it takes more energy to turn on the lights than it does to keep the running overnight”? Cars were like that too.  Carburetors and chokes used a ton of gas to get the car started then required a good 15 minutes or more to warm up to operating temperatures. On the other hand, modern fuel injected, computer controlled engines are ready to drive as soon as you start them (even in cold weather, as long as you don’t stomp on the gas pedal but stomping on the gas pedal is bad for different reasons under all conditions) and the amount of gas you burn when starting is about equal to the amount you burn during 10 seconds of idling. That said, restarting your car causes wear on the battery, starter, and other parts. Most of the references I found suggested the cost of gas begins to exceed the increased maintenance costs after a mere 30 to 60 seconds of idling.

    My conclusion from all this is: turn the car off as often as possible. Now I don’t think that turning your car off every time you come to a stop is a safe thing to do, at least in American traffic. In fact, it’s usually illegal here and, at least as far as I can determine in the English language translations, Finnish law doesn’t require it either. Some countries apparently do require turning off the car at intersections under certain circumstances and many countries have laws that prohibit more than 1 minute of idling per hour. However, I am convinced that idling the car as I wait for the kids to get in or for the cabin to warm is costing me money that I don’t need to spend, not to mention creating tons of excess CO2. I have also begun paying more attention to what I do at the beginning and end of every trip; I’m careful to turn the car on only after I’m done fiddling with my phone, jacket, glasses or whatever, and turn it off as soon as I park. 

    This really was something I should have known since study on the topic was active in the late 80s. I didn’t find a lot of news reporting on it until the early 2000s which is reasonable since it took until then for the knowledge to be applicable to most drivers. In researching this topic, I found a lot of reporting online but links from the articles to official sources and governmental reviews were broken more than usual. There are, of course, a lot of academic papers on this but most are behind paywalls, though you can still get a lot out of the abstracts. This one about motorcycles highlights some of the consumer issues.

    That said, this Canadian site gives a great summary and the EPA has lot of detailed tables that could let you do some interesting calculations for your own vehicle.

    Though it seems most of the EPA site is devoted to understanding what you can buy and how to shop, if you read between the lines, they also say, idling less makes a measurable difference.

    Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology

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  • Feasting on S.C.R.A.PS.


    Tags: plants, horticulture

    Created: 6/8/2015      Updated: 8/1/2016

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    Apparently it’s been three days north of forever since I wrote a blog post. I realized this recently when our social media guru began dropping subtle hints about it.


    Angry woman yelling into a phone

    (Picture is unrelated.)

    What can I say?  I’ve been busy with, you know, spring. But I get it; all y’alls been waitin’ for me to drop some botanical flava on this blog, and I just can’t keep letting you down. So hey, how about a new feature? What if I were to present, in no particular order and with no discernible practical application, an ongoing listicle of botanical wonderment? You down? Good. I think it should look a little something like this:

    Stuff that’s Cool and Rad About PlantS

    Still with me, despite the puerile, half-baked title?  Then let’s do this.

    1.  Graft Chimeras

    When it comes to stuff that’s cool and rad and rad and cool, it’s hard to beat a graft chimera.  Few are known to exist, and even these are rarely seen.  But before you can understand the extent of their coolradness, you’ll need a basic understanding of grafting.

    Grafting is the age-old process of cutting off a piece of one plant, sticking it onto another, and hoping they get along.  It’s extremely common in certain areas of horticulture, particularly fruit production.  For example, basically every single apple you’ve ever eaten was grown on a grafted plant.  A typical apple variety starts as a branch that just happens to be different from its neighbors on the tree.  An orchardist might notice that this branch produces fruit that is redder, larger, or holds later into the fall.  Perhaps it has a wicked backhand, and the orchardist is in need of a mixed-doubles partner.  Whatever the reason, he or she cuts off a part of this branch, clones it, and then grafts the clones onto the bottom halves of young apple trees that have been selected for their superior roots.  The resulting grafted plants will now produce reams of tennis-playing fruit on healthy-rooted trees.

    Typically, the “root” portion of a grafted plant (called the rootstock) and the “shoot” portion (the scion) remain distinct from each other. But sometimes the union between the two gets…fuzzy.  The result is a graft chimera, a plant that mixes two different sets of genes – and thus two different types of growth – into one.  Here are a couple of famous examples.  Below is a +Laburnocytisus ‘Adamii’, and man, do I want one!  Check it out:

    +Laburnocytisus ‘Adamii’, a tree that has two different types of flowers -- one is pink the other is yellow.

    Yep, that’s one tree with two entirely different types of flowers.  Here’s another example, aptly named a Bizzaria:

    A graft chimera citrus plant, containing a fruit that is half bitter orange and half citron.

    This harvest-time nightmare is a genetic tutti-frutti of Citrus medica and Citrus aurantium.  It was discovered in Florence in 1640, and is perhaps the best known graft chimera, with none other than Chuck Darwin taking a stab at describing it.

    Unfortunately, graft chimeras are notoriously unstable, so individual plants may lose one of their conjoined halves, returning to a non-chimeric state. But that just makes them cooler, right? And rad-er.

    2.  The Mountain Buffalo

    By now you’ve no doubt glanced ahead at the picture, BUT, before you go getting all excited, I must add a disclaimer to this entry. Most of the information I’ve found about this plant comes from not-so-sciencey sources, so please take it with a grain or two of salt. That being said, just look at this thing:

     A toddler sitting on top of a giant potato

    No small potatoes.

    That is a tuber which will not be denied. According to this website, it is from a species of Thladiantha that grows in the Yunnan province of China, and if this picture is to be believed, it is one of the largest tubers in the world. Also, someone is trying to pickpocket a baby. (Good luck – babies are notoriously cash-strapped.) As the website helpfully explains, “The tubers are resembling resting buffalos when seen from the distance in dense forest, hence their name.” I’ve done some digging to try and find out more about this beast of a plant, and I can say without doubt that the genus Thladiantha is a real thing and that several species within this genus produce large tubers. But is this photo legit? I want to believe.

    3.  Sand Food

    No disclaimer needed here; sand food is definitely legit and definitely weird (and cool and rad.) Found only in the Sonoran Desert, this bizarre member of the forget-me-not family is not-forgettable indeed.  Its name is blandly appropriate, since it grows as a ropy stem buried under shifting sands, and it is an important food source for the area’s indigenous people and jawas. Containing no chlorophyll, sand food lives as a parasite on the roots of various desert shrubs. In the spring, it produces a mushroom like flower head, like so:

    Sand food 

    Photo courtesy of Tatooine Botanical Gardens

    How the 10 or 20 tiny seeds that each flower produces manage to locate a suitable host plant is not well understood. Ants or kangaroo rats may carry the seeds underground. Or perhaps they move through the desert by clinging to the feet of lost droids. We may never know, but I would guess that the Force is strong with them.

    Seth Harper, Nature Museum horticulturist

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  • Fire in the Metropolitan Block


    Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, history

    Created: 6/7/2015      Updated: 8/1/2016

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    Years before the Chicago Academy of Sciences called the Matthew Laflin Memorial Building home, it resided in the Metropolitan Block located in downtown Chicago. Though the Academy was still very young, by 1864 its collection had grown so much that it outgrew the space it occupied on the corner of Clark and Lake. It was at that point that the Academy made the move into the Metropolitan Block at the corner of LaSalle and Randolph, along with a variety of other businesses and corporations. While there was some space for specimens to be displayed, the space wasn’t ideal for creating museum space for the public. Despite this, for two years the Academy called the Metropolitan Block home, until one fateful day in June 1866.

    Map of Washington and LaSalle intersection in downtown Chicago, circa 1893.
    View of Metropolitan Block (building number 13) circa 1893 from Rand, McNally & Co.'s Birds-Eye Views and Guide to Chicago

    On June 7, 1866, a fire broke out on the north end of the Block in rooms adjacent to the Academy’s rooms and moved to the museum hall. At the time of the fire, the Academy’s collection consisted of 40,000 specimens, making it one of the largest scientific collections in the United States at the time. Sadly, of the 40,000 specimens housed there, over 18,000 were destroyed or badly damaged. Acting as Academy Curator following the sudden death of Robert Kennicott in May 1866, Dr. William Stimpson sadly reported, “Half the animals and birds were lost; the extensive collections of bird’s nests and eggs were mainly consumed; nearly all the insects were destroyed; the dried crustaceans and echinoderms were all destroyed. The large herbarium was saved, with the exception of the plants of the Northern Pacific expedition. The library was much damaged by water, but most of it was still in a condition to be used.”

    Stimpson endeavored to repair and preserve the damaged pieces by transporting them to a building on LaSalle and Lake. The focus turned to repairing the Metropolitan Block space for the interim and finding a permanent space to move into. The specimen wall cases were repaired and several new cases for specimen storage were constructed, turning the space into a taxidermy prep room. Because the space was meant to be temporary, little focus was put on exhibitions for the public, with only a few cases being reserved for that purpose.

    A lot on Wabash north of Van Buren was purchased and a new building made of brick and iron was erected at the cost of $46,000. In an effort to protect the Academy’s invaluable collections, this structure was built “as nearly fire-proof as the technology of the time permitted.” The stairways and principal doors were made of iron, the windows featured iron shutters, and the brick walls were two feet thick. A laboratory and storeroom were located in the basement, while the first floor consisted of space for the secretary, an office, library, and meeting hall. The second floor consisted of a larger museum hall with two galleries. In December of 1867, the collection, which had continued to grow, was moved into its new home.


    Chicago, A Strangers and Tourists Guide to the City of Chicago. 1866.

    Chicago and the Great Conflagration. Elias Colbert. 1872.

    The Chicago Academy of Sciences: Its Past History and Present Collections. Vol. 2. Frank Collins Baker. 1908.

    History of Chicago: From 1857 until the fire of 1871. Alfred Theodore Andreas. 1885.

    The Nautilus, Volumes 7-9. 1893-1894.

    Special Publication – Chicago Academy of Sciences, Volumes 1-3. 1902.

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  • Migratory Birds: Connecting Us to the Rest of the World


    Tags: birds, ornithology, migration

    Created: 5/13/2015      Updated: 8/1/2016

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    Red-winged blackbird

    Red-winged Blackbird

    It’s Christmas at the Nature Museum today. Or at least that’s what it seems like with all of the colorful ornaments adorning the trees around the building. These ornaments are actually migratory birds though, arriving to celebrate spring. Blue-winged and yellow warblers, red-winged blackbirds and redstarts, gold finches in their breeding finery, and blue-grey gnatcatchers seem to be flitting from every bough. Veery and wood thrush provide holiday songs, while kingfishers lay down the beat.  Even the catbird, while not as melodious as some, contributes soft mews that spice the soundscape, too.

    Palm warbler

    Palm Warbler

    For many of these species, Chicago is the last layover on a transcontinental flight from winter home to breeding grounds. For others, this is their final stop; they will spend the summer eating bugs and weed seeds in our neighborhoods. Such a migration is one of the amazing phenomena of life. For example, the blackpoll warbler may fly for 1,500 miles in one hop, often over open ocean. Though some will pause at North Pond after they leave Brazil, Blackpolls only finish their seasonal travel when they are near the arctic, where the trees and the bugs are perfect for nesting and feeding protein-hungry young. 

    Though I’ve spent my share of time in airports and flying over the ocean, migration remains an abstract concept to me. My own personal peregrinations rely on fossil fuels and technology, punctuated by stops at greasy spoons and historical monuments. In contrast, birds cross continents using their own metabolic power. They spend a few frenetic weeks foraging on every high calorie insect they can find, sometimes doubling their summer weight. Then, when the weather is right and the moon is full they launch themselves into the void and fly. 

    Male cardinal


    I’ve hiked a lot at night in the desert and sat in the shade all day-- which might be comparable to some of the weakest migrators-- but imagine walking day and night, in weather foul and fair. Such a trek is almost inconceivable for me, yet many birds do it every spring and autumn for their whole lives. More concrete to me than migration is the physical presence of a bird. All winter I enjoy the blue jays, chickadees, and house sparrows that live in my neighborhood. Then, suddenly one morning I see a flash of red that is somehow more intense than a cardinal, faster than a flicker, and more skulking than a nuthatch—a scarlet  tanager! This bird flew from the foothills of the Andes, crossed the Panama canal, probably spent a day or two in the Yucatan then bee-lined across the gulf of Mexico, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri only to pause in a tree outside my window, pluck a bug from the branch, and disappear into the leaves.

    Scarlet tanager

    Scarlet Tanager (CheepShot via CC BY 2.0)

    It’s easy to have a feeling of ownership towards the birds that live near us. When a robin builds its nest above the back door, it’s “your” bird. Did the baby’s hatch? Did they fledge? Maybe you even left some worms on the sidewalk to supplement the meals. Doubtless you would close the door softly or even stop using the door altogether during incubation. And what would you do if a cat began stalking “your” robin?

    In the same way that the robin is “yours,” so is the scarlet tanager. Cats will kill it and pesticides will starve it just as surely as they will the local robin. However, that scarlet tanager lives in many people’s backyards during the year. All it takes is one loose cat in Costa Rica, one field sprayed for bugs in Honduras, one windmill in Texas, or one well lit building in Chicago to kill that tanager before it gets to your back yard. If migratory birds belong to anyone, they belong to all of us. Our stewardship of the environment today matters for both the bird and for our brothers and sisters around the world everyday.

    While it may not actually be Christmas at the Nature Museum today, it is a season of celebration of life and of the parts of life that we all share.

    Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology

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