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Contents tagged with Chicago Academy of Sciences

  • Founder's Week: Then and Now - Re-Using Display Mounts


    Tags: diorama, display mount, Chicago Academy of Sciences, taxidermy

    Created: 1/14/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    The display mounts on exhibit at the Nature Museum almost all come from previous exhibits and dioramas that were on display in the Matthew Laflin Memorial Building.  Good taxidermy creates specimens and display mounts that will last for years if care is taken. Mounts that have been displayed before often have evidence of that past use. The most obvious are shadows of things that were a part of another diorama or exhibit, like a fern leaf or a tree branch. The whole point of a diorama is to create a “realistic” situation and if you put a display mount in an area surrounded by greenery and trees, shadows should occur. In most cases, this is achieved using specialty lighting today, but that was not available in the 1890s, the 1910s or even the 1940s, so the Academy’s artists added them.  Here are some comparisons between display mounts in some of the dioramas exhibited in 1938 and how those mounts are displayed today.


    1938: Female cougar, Puma concolor, reclines in a rocky alcove with her two cubs.

    Female cougar mount in 1938
    From the Photography Collection, Chicago Academy of Sciences Archives, photographer: W.J.A. Pemmingsdorf         


    Female cougar, Puma concolor, mounted to be free-standing, on display in “Hunters of the Prairie.”

    Female cougar mount in present day exhibit


    1938: Female coyote, Canis latrans, stands outside her den with her four pups.

    Female coyote and pups mounts in 1938
    From the Photography Collection, Chicago Academy of Sciences Archives, photographer: W.J.A. Pemmingsdorf         


    Female coyote, Canis latrans, stands above her den with three pups. Part of the prairie diorama in the “Wilderness Walk.”

    Coyote and pups in present day exhibit


    1938: Bald eagle perches on rock in a sand dune with freshly caught fish in talons.

    Bald Eagle mount in 1938 exhibit
    From the Photography Collection, Chicago Academy of Sciences Archives, photographer: W.J.A. Pemmingsdorf


    Bald eagle perches on a sand dune with freshly caught fish in talons with a crow with an eye to the catch.  Part of the dunes diorama in the “Wilderness Walk.”

    Bald Eagle mount in present day exhibit 


    1938: Pair of lynx, Lynx canadensis, standing on log with river in background.

    Lynx pair in 1938 exhibit
    From the Photography Collection, Chicago Academy of Sciences Archives, photographer: W.J.A. Pemmingsdorf


    The lynx are now displayed individually, but are located near one another. The mount shown on the left is outside the savannah diorama in the “Wilderness Walk” and the mount shown on the right is in the display cabinets that surround the “Beecher Collections Laboratory”

    Lynx in present day exhibit    Lynx in present day exhibit 

    Amber King
    Assistant Collections Manager

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  • Founder's Week: Chicago Academy of Sciences Timeline Part 1


    Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, timeline, hitsory, collections, founder's week, robert kennicott, william stimpson

    Created: 1/13/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    Group of men interested in natural sciences begins to meet in offices of fellow member, Dr. Edmund Andrews.  Other original members were: Dr. James V.Z. Blaney, Dr. Nathan S. Davis, Sr., James W. Freer, C.A. Helmuth, Dr. Hosmer A. Johnson, Henry Parker, J. Young Scammon, Dr. Franklin Scammon, Richard K. Swift, Joseph D. Webster, Eliphalet W. Blatchford, and Henry W. Zimmerman.

    “Chicago Academy of Natural Sciences” officially founded only eleven years after the Smithsonian Institution and 36 years before the Field Museum of Natural History.

    “A definite organization was completed at a meeting held January 13, 1857…[and] officers elected”.

    Academy incorporated into Illinois state law as “The Chicago Academy of Sciences.”

    “A majority of the members of the Academy, acting in accordance with a vote of the Academy, have incorporated themselves under the title of The Chicago Academy of Sciences….”

    February 22 - Meeting held to discuss creation of natural history museum with Robert Kennicott’s specimens as the “core collection”; resolution adopted by attendees to create a museum and to appoint a committee to act as trustee of any funds raised.

    March 23 - Robert Kennicott appointed “Curator of the Museum” by the Board of Trustees.

    Robert Kennicott
    Robert Kennicott

    April 13 - Committee appointed on February 22 turned into the Board of Trustees through an amendment to the Academy’s constitution.

    January 1 - The Academy opened as a museum to the public in rooms in the Metropolitan Block located at 134 North LaSalle Street.

    February 16 - Act of Incorporation passed by the Illinois House and Senate for the Academy.

    William Stimpson became the Curator and Secretary of the Academy replacing Robert Kennicott who was leaving Chicago on an expedition to Alaska. Kennicott met Stimpson while working in Washington, D.C. as both men worked for the Smithsonian Institution.

    William Stimpson
    William Stimpson

    April 7 - Board of Trustees elects Robert Kennicott to the office of “Director of the Academy” while he is in Alaska on his exploration trip.

    May 13 - Robert Kennicott dies in Alaska on the Nulato River.

    June 7 - Fire in the Metropolitan Block where the Academy rented space for exhibits damaged the museum’s holdings, including specimens and library materials. 

    November 12 - William Stimpson elected as Director of the Academy.

    Land is purchased on the corner of Wabash and Van Buren streets for a new museum building.

    Academy opens in new rented spaces on Thirtieth Street between Indiana and Prairie Avenues.

    Chicago Microscopical Club (State Microscopical Society of Illinois) is organized as an independent organization but maintains close affiliation with Chicago Academy of Sciences through 1950s, using Academy spaces for meetings and education programs.  Many of the founders of the Club are also founders of Academy, such as Dr. Hosmer A. Johnson and Dr. Edmund Andrews..

    The Academy’s collection is estimated to be the fourth largest in the country.

    October 8-10 - The Great Chicago Fire destroys much of Chicago; the Academy’s building and holdings are decimated, including materials housed in a special “fire-proof” vault.  Apparently a keystone fell through the top of the vault during the fire, thus creating an opening and allowing the fire into the vault.

    May 26 - Director, Dr. William Stimpson, dies nine months after the Great Fire. It is thought that he died of heartbreak as he lost his life’s work in the fire, stored in the Academy’s “fire-proof” vault.

    Academy moved into the Interstate Exposition Building on the lake front. This was a temporary structure that later was demolished to build the Chicago Art Institute.

    Real estate tycoon, Matthew Laflin, donated $75,000 to construct a new museum. The building was to be named the “Matthew Laflin Memorial.” Total funds available for the new building were $100,000; the Laflin donation represented 75% of the total costs of the building. $25,000 received from the Board of Commissioners of Lincoln Park.

    October 10 - The cornerstone for the Academy’s new building is laid.

    October 30 - The World’s Columbian Exposition closes and many exhibits of plants, fossils, and animals originally displayed at the Exposition remain. Academy Board of Trustee, Edward Ayer, proposes accepting and incorporating these specimens into the Academy’s collection, but other Trustees are wary, citing the need to quickly launch the massive fund drive needed to quickly finish the building as well as transporting and finding housing for the specimens. Ayer resigns from the Board and turns to Marshall Field for the funds to build a new museum with Field’s name, ultimately becoming the Field Museum of Natural History.

    October 31 - The Academy’s new building is dedicated and opens in Lincoln Park. The institution’s name, “Chicago Academy of Sciences,” was engraved on the front arch accompanied by the dedication of the building, “Matthew Laflin Memorial.” This building was referred to internally as the “Laflin Building.” The building was originally intended to be the north wing of a larger museum building with additions to be constructed in the future.

    Chicago Academy of Sciences Matthew Laflin Memorial building circa 1894
    Chicago Academy of Sciences circa 1894

    Amber King
    Assistant Collections Manager

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  • Founder's Week: Academy Publications


    Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, publications, scientific papers, Archives, Illinois

    Created: 1/10/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    Sharing scientific knowledge and initiating discussions about nature and science are important facets of the work we do at the Chicago Academy of Sciences and its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. This happens through our educational activities, exhibits, talks given by our staff, and our citizen science programs, to name a few. Up until the mid 1990s, the Academy also published several of its own periodical series with original research.

    Selection of Chicago Academy of Sciences publications

    The Academy began its endeavor into publishing in the mid 1860s, which helped establish the Academy as a scientific institution. Our first publications were the Proceedings (1866) to and Transactions (1867 to 1870) series, which provided information to members about museum meetings, descriptions of new species, guides to regional species, and scientific papers. There are few actual hard copies of these remaining.

    The series Bulletin of the Natural History Survey (1896 to 1927) contained scientific papers on topics specifically about the Chicago area, including “The Higher Fungi of the Chicago Region” by William Moffatt and “The Paleontology of the Niagraran Limestone in the Chicago Area” by Stuart Weller. “An Annotated Flora of the Chicago Area” by Herman Silas Pepoon, published in 1927, was a major reference for local plants for decades.

    The Bulletin, started in the 1880s, was a venue for scientific papers for any location and included authors such as William Higley (botany), Frank Baker (malacology), Orlando Park (entomology), and Howard Gloyd (herpetology). This is the Academy’s longest running periodical, with its last issue released in 1995.

    The Special Publications series (1902 to 1959) reflected longer research papers and scientific papers. Howard Gloyd, a herpetologist and director of the Academy, authored “The Rattlesnakes, genera Sistrurus and Crotalus: A study in zoogeography and evolution” in 1940. “William Dreuth’s Study of Bird Migration in Lincoln Park, Chicago” was completed by Charles Clark and Margaret Nice in 1950; the Academy’s archives contain Dreuth’s original field notes of his thirty years of bird observations.

    Publications stored at Collections Facility

    The Chicago Naturalist (1938 to 1948) and the Natural History Miscellanea series (1946 to 1982) provided shorter articles on natural history topics such as scientific collecting, wave erosion, ornithology, and naturalist biographies and served as a venue for sharing the Academy’s field activities and museum programs with its membership. Science Notes (1959 to 1966) were short pamphlet-style publications; “How weather affects bird migration” and “Ancient beaches and dunes in Lincoln Park” are just a couple of the titles in this series.

    Through the Academy’s publications, readers learned about nature in Illinois – such as glacial markings found in areas throughout Illinois, amphibians and reptiles of the Chicago region, and how to identify local birds – but they were also exposed to information about ecosystems in Texas, New Jersey, and Florida, giving readers the chance to learn about other regions of the nation.

    In 2008, we began our Publications Scanning Project to preserve these documents and broaden their accessibility. Each of the Academy’s publications are scanned and the digital file cleaned and run through an optical character recognition (OCR) program to create a searchable PDF. For more information about this project or a PDF copy of a publication that has been scanned, please contact the Museum Collections & Archives. Hard copies of some publications are still available as well; contact Collections staff for more information. For a complete listing of Academy publications, click here

    Dawn Roberts
    Collections Manager

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  • Who are the Founders?


    Tags: founding, founder's week, Chicago Academy of Sciences, kennicott, robert kennicott, laflin building, chicago fire

    Created: 1/10/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    In 1856 a group of like-minded men enthusiastic about the natural sciences began to meet in Chicago.  The original group consisted of Dr. James V.Z. Blaney, Dr. Nathan S. Davis, Sr., James W. Freer, C.A. Helmuth, Dr. Hosmer A. Johnson, Dr. Edmund Andrews, Henry Parker, J. Young Scammon, Dr. Franklin Scammon, Richard K. Swift, Joseph D. Webster, Eliphalet W. Blatchford, and Henry W. Zimmerman. The group began adding other names immediately to their list of members and formally became “The Chicago Academy of Natural Sciences” on January 13, 1857, “The Chicago Academy of Sciences” by 1859, and in 1999, “The Chicago Academy of Sciences and its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.” The dedication and labor of many people ensured that the Academy continued to serve the public throughout its 157 year history, and will continue to do so in the future. 

    The men who strived to establish the Academy in the early years faced many obstacles almost from the beginning. The financial “Panic of 1857” turned many of the promised financial subscriptions into useless bits of paper. Two fires impacted the collections, the first on June 7, 1866 in their rented spaces that decimated over half of the collection and then again during the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 that destroyed the Academy’s building and almost all of its holdings. A second financial panic effected the economy from 1873-1879, that hampered efforts to raise funds to pay off debt incurred to rebuild after the fire. When the Academy rebuilt their structure after the Great Chicago Fire, they also paid to erect an additional structure for business purposes designed to generate income for the Academy through the rents to be charged, but business expansion did not return aggressively to the area, so few were interested in the property and the Academy ultimately went into foreclosure. In spite of these early challenges, the Academy’s members and trustees never lost their dedication to establishing a permanent museum of the natural sciences and finally succeeded in 1894 with the completion of the Matthew Laflin Memorial Building which served the Academy until 1994. Here is a brief overview of just a few of the individuals who helped bring about this outcome.

    Photo of Edmund Andrew
    Edmund Andrews

    It was in the offices of the Dr. Edmund Andrews (1824-1904) that the original members began meeting in 1856. Dr. Andrews was a practicing surgeon and also a teacher of anatomy and helped to form the Chicago Medical College. He developed and maintained an avid interest in geology, particularly in glacial history, publishing some of his findings in the Transactions of the Chicago Academy of Sciences. At the formalization of the Academy in 1857, Dr. Andrews was appointed the first Curator of the Academy and held that position until Robert Kennicott took over in 1863. Later he served as President of the Board of Trustees for a number of terms, the longest from 1883-1891.

    Robert Kennicott
    Robert Kennicott

    Robert Kennicott (1835-1866) was encouraged from an early age to learn about nature from first-hand experience. He began his more formal training when his father sent him to study with Dr. Jared Kirtland, a well known and respected naturalist. Through this connection, Kennicott met Spencer Fullerton Baird, assistant secretary of the Smithsonian, and in 1853 moved to Washington, D.C. to assist and collect for that institution. Kennicott’s participation in an exploratory expedition into northwestern Canada that was funded by the Hudson Bay Company, the Smithsonian, and individual Chicago patrons, provided the final spark for the impetus to find and open the museum to the public on January 1, 1865, since the Academy would have access to a sizeable collection almost immediately.

    George Walker
    George Walker

    George C. Walker (1835-1905) was a benefactor and life-time member of the Academy. He served on the Board of Trustees as Secretary and President as well as numerous terms as Treasurer. He owned various companies but the bulk of his wealth was made in local real estate. Walker became friends with Robert Kennicott and adopted the passion for the creation of a museum heralded by the latter. Walker committed the funding necessary to ship the specimens intended for the Academy and collected by Kennicott in his 1859 expedition to the Yukon and Arctic tundra from Washington, D.C. to Chicago. He then became the chairman of a ten man committee formed in February 1864 whose sole purposes was to obtain the money necessary to make cases and obtain the space necessary to display the collection. 

    Jacob Velie
    Jacob Velie

    Dr. Jacob W. Velie (1829-1908) trained as doctor in Hammondsport, New York, worked as a dentist in Rock Hill, IL, and a druggist in Bath, NY. During this time, he was an active naturalist, developing his own collection and participating in expeditions. For example, in 1864 he worked for five months with Dr. C.C. Parry, the noted botanist, in the Rocky Mountains. He became associated with the Academy in 1870 when he became assistant curator under Dr. William Stimpson. After the Great Chicago Fire, Dr. Velie and Dr. Stimpson traveled to Florida, Cuba and the Yucatan on a collecting trip of which many specimens were donated to the Academy, helping to start the rebuilding of the collections. Velie served as curator for the Academy until 1893, constantly adding to the Academy’s collections during that time. 

    Matthew Laflin
    Matthew Laflin

    Matthew Laflin (1803-1897) was a prominent Chicago businessman.  He built the Bull’s Head Tavern (then at Madison and Ogden) which became the city’s first stockyard as it provided pens for the cattle drivers.  It was through his son George Laflin that Matthew Laflin offered $75,000 to the Academy if an agreement could be reached with the Lincoln Park Commissioners to provide the land to build the structure and an additional $25,000 toward its completion.  An agreement was reached and the work began in 1893 with the final completion in 1894.

    Laflin Building
    Laflin Building

    Amber King
    Assistant Collections Manager

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  • Behind the Scenes: Motion Film Project


    Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, motion film, environment, Chicago Film Archives, Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust

    Created: 7/27/2013      Updated: 9/1/2015

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    The Academy’s museum collection and archives includes 1,371 motion films that were created between the early 1920s and the 1970s. These original films document local ecosystems and plants and animals in their natural habitats.

    Motion film is highly susceptible to deterioration caused by temperature and humidity. With help from the Chicago Film Archives, these films are being described and catalogued, having simple repairs made, and rehoused with archival storage containers for long-term preservation. Thank you to the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust, and to individual donors for their support of this stage of the project!

    After the films are catalogued and stabilized, we will embark on the next phase: to increase the accessibility of the collection. Utilizing the original films would damage or even destroy them. Creating a digital copy of the films will allow the footage to be used and the original film to be protected.

    Here are some shots of the transformation of our film collection:

    Old film containers

    Many of the films were stored in metal canisters.

    Original metal reels

    Original metal reels caused breakage to the films and were susceptible to rust, resulting in chemical deterioration of the films. Some films had adhesive labels stuck to the sides, and the adhesive residue transferred to the films causing them to stick together.

    stack of 100' rolls in yellow boxes

    Stacks of small cardboard boxes with original 100’ rolls of film. Materials like this cause damage to films through acid migration.

    35mm films with boxes

    agfa 35mm films

    leather bound film container used for storage and mailing

    Leather bound film container used for storage and mailing.

    film showing signs of vinegar syndrome

    Some of the films suffer from vinegar syndrome, deterioration caused by humidity. The film exhibits warping and gives off a “vinegary” smell.

    recanning process

    Each film is wound onto an archival core, outfitted with a new leader, and then given an archival canister.

    archived film in cannisters

    Here are films that have been completely catalogued and rehoused. The new archival containers provide an inert micro-environment that helps stabilize the films and protect them from further deterioration.

    Dawn Roberts
    Collections Manager

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  • Bird Collections -- Looking Up Close


    Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, ornithology, bird, specimen, exhibit

    Created: 7/27/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    Bird watching is a popular activity and one where there are few barriers to participation. Both young and old can participate and from any geographic location; you can watch birds in your backyard through kitchen windows or venture out to more wild areas. With this ready access to living birds, what role do bird collections play?

    One of the greatest advantages is that specimens allow for up close inspection, for as long as desired. This can be particularly helpful when you want to study a species that is difficult to find in its habitat, when you’re just learning how to identify a species, or when you want to compare features from different individuals.

    Eastern bluebird study skin

    An Eastern bluebird study skin, Sialia sialis, collected from Diamond Lake, Illinois in 1904.

    Bird collections are used for all sorts of research. For instance, museum oology collections were used to identify the effects of DDT on bird egg shells, which lead to banning the use of this hazardous substance.  Specimens are used to track changes in a species’ range – check out the range maps the next time you open an identification book; data from museum collections are often used in the creation of these maps.

    Northern Shoveller nest and egg specimens

    Here is a nest and egg set of a Northern Shoveller, Anas clypeata.

    Specimens that are taxidermied in a behavioral posture are utilized frequently for exhibits. These specimens help illustrate behavior and bring them to visitors who may not have the opportunity to see them first hand in the wild.  In order to successfully convey the true nature of an animal, taxidermists need an understanding of how musculature works, but also have an understanding of the animal. Extensive observation of living animals aides in the understanding of a particular species’ behavior, how an animal moves and balances as its walks, and how it interacts with other animals.

    Gambel’s quail mounted specimen

    Gambel’s quail, Callipepla gambelii, mounted specimen.

    The next time you visit the Nature Museum, take a little extra time to study the specimens on display. Note their particular features – the shape of their beaks, the differences in the shape of their feet, the coloration of their feathers.  What can you impart from these features about their diet or their activities? Through this observation, you may gain a more thorough understanding of the animals living in this urban nature environment and even spot them more easily in their natural habitat.

    Dawn Roberts
    Collections Manager

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  • The Atwood Celestial Sphere -- A Centennial Anniversary


    Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, Atwood Celestial Sphere, Archives, education, astronomy, exhibits, science, history, planetarium

    Created: 6/21/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

    In June 1913, the Chicago Academy of Sciences presented an exhibit to its visitors unlike any other.  It was a planetarium where, unlike others of the time period, visitors could walk inside to experience the night sky while the apparatus rotated around them.

    Atwood Celestial Sphere at the Academy’s Laflin Memorial Building

    Atwood Celestial Sphere at the Academy’s Laflin Memorial Building, c1926

    The Atwood Celestial Sphere was designed by and named for Wallace W. Atwood, who served on the Academy’s Board and briefly as Acting Director of the museum. Mr. LaVerne W. Noyes, President of the Board of Trustees, had the structure crafted by his company, Aermotor Windmill Company, and donated it to the Academy.

    Wallace W. Atwood inside the Atwood Celestial Sphere

    Wallace W. Atwood inside the Atwood Celestial Sphere


    Atwood Celestial Sphere

    Atwood Celestial Sphere, c1913


    The sphere, constructed of a thin galvanized sheet metal, was only 15 feet in diameter.  Tiny perforations in the exterior of the sphere allowed light to penetrate, appearing as stars to those viewing from the inside. Atwood designed the celestial sphere to portray the stellar sky as seen from Chicago and visitors would watch as the sun, moon, and stars rotated around them in simulation of Earth’s orbit through the solar system. The sphere was utilized heavily for educational programs at the Academy. School groups, clubs, and other visitors would tour the sphere, with programs often led by Atwood himself during his time with the Academy. 

    Wallace W. Atwood with children inside the Celestial Sphere

    Wallace W. Atwood with children inside the Celestial Sphere


    The stars were positioned with such mathematical precision that in 1941, the U.S. Navy began incorporating use of the Atwood Sphere in navigational training exercises for the U.S. Naval Reserve Unit stationed on the Chicago Campus of Northwestern University. Modifications were made to the Sphere to accommodate these trainings, including the installation of a meridian (an arc that follows the circumference of the sphere and passed through the zenith) and movable arm with which to measure the zenith angle – the distance between the zenith (the point directly overhead) and any star.

    Atwood Celestial Sphere at the Academy’s Laflin Memorial Building

    Atwood Celestial Sphere at the Academy’s Laflin Memorial Building, c1920s


    In the 1960s, the Academy began extensive redesign of its exhibits and developing life zone dioramas created by William Beecher and Academy staff. The exterior of the Atwood Celestial Sphere was painted to look like the Earth and the ceiling of the Laflin Building painted to look like the night sky to blend more readily with the new exhibits.

    Thurston Wright working on the Atwood Celestial Sphere

    Thurston Wright working on the Atwood Celestial Sphere, c1950s


    Atwood Celestial Sphere with the exterior painted to look like Earth

    Atwood Celestial Sphere with the exterior painted to look like Earth, c1960s. William Beecher in the foreground and Thurston Wright in the background.


    The Atwood Celestial Sphere was transferred to the Adler Planetarium in 1995 when the Academy vacated its Laflin Building, where it currently resides.

    Dawn Roberts
    Collections Manager

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  • The Art of Taxidermy


    Tags: taxidermy, squirrel, Chicago Academy of Sciences, specimens, chipmunk

    Created: 6/11/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Earlier this month, I had the privilege of learning the art of taxidermy, or, in layman's terms, skinning an animal and stuffing it with cotton and wire. I have to admit that I thought it would be a much more complicated process involving toxic chemicals and specialized safety equipment. In reality, all you need is a sharp knife (preferably a scalpel) and some borax. So long as you're sure to wash your hands afterwards, you don't even need gloves.

    As we waited for our chipmunks to thaw, we spent some time drawing them, taking a few minutes to learn about the contours of their bodies, where their joints are, and how their fur lies. I learned two things during that time. First, I'm not very good at drawing. Second, I learned what a chipmunk really looks like: how its legs move, how the features of its head sit upon its skull, how the color patterns flow across its body. It was all quite intimate.

    Chipmunk on styrofoam

    After bonding with our specimens, it came time to cut into them, from thigh to thigh, right above the genitals, being careful not to cut through the thin layer of muscle separating us from the rodent's stinking bowels. This was a relief, it hadn't dawned on me that by only collecting the skin, we could leave its mess of organs tucked safely in the package nature made for them.

    This was the only time we cut through the skin, the rest of the cutting we performed was done in between the skin and the muscle, delicately cutting away at the layers of connective tissue. We worked our way from that initial incision to the back knees until we could peel the skin up and over them to fit our scissors around the joint without cutting skin. Then, a bit of pressure, a quick snap, and the femur was separated from the tibia and fibula. We'd come back for those later, it was time for the really fun part. Taxidermists have a special tool for getting the tail out, it almost looks like a pair of wire cutters, but instead of cutting them, it’s designed to hold onto the bones in the tail as you slip off the bushy tail. I don't think I could describe the feeling to you. It sounds rather morbid, I'm sure, but it's really quite delightful, almost like popping the cork on a bottle of sparkling grape fruit juice as a kid on Thanksgiving. You gently apply pressure, anticipation mingled with a tinge of fear, then POP, off it goes.

    Things were pretty straightforward from there to the skull, just like pulling off a sock. It was actually pretty meditative, and there were times when I had to stop and take stock of what I was doing, assuring myself that, "Yes, I really am peeling the skin of a chipmunk, and it really is this interesting." This is around the same time that the museum guests started showing up, many of them school groups. There were two facts which many of the children seemed to have difficulty holding in their heads at the same time: these are real chipmunks, and they are dead. One child, nearly at the point of holding these facts together asked, "Are you're fixing it?" Aside from the confusion, there were some wonderfully refreshing moments when a child grasped what was happening and watched with awe rather than disgust. These are the young scientists our country so desperately needs.

    Group of children reacting to taxidermy demonstration

    Steadily working our way up toward the head, casually chatting amongst ourselves, and enthusiastically sharing with the public what we ourselves had learned only a short while ago, it was time for the difficult part. Not only is the face the cutest part of the chipmunk, it's also the most tenaciously wrapped around the skull. The ears, eyelids, and lips can all easily be disfigured by a hand too quick to finish the job. With the help of our resident expert and trainer, we all managed to keep the cuteness intact.

    At last, the skin was off, and it was on to the next stage. The hollow skin was rubbed with borax to dry it out,  and the fluffy side was turned back to face the right side. Next, wires were cut to replace the bones we had removed. One wire reaching from the tip of the nose to the end of the tail, and two reaching from the front to back paw on either side. The central wire was then wrapped in cotton and molded with twine to approximate the shape and size of the body. Because chipmunk tails are rather thin, about a third of the wire was left bare so that what we ended up with looked a bit like a popsicle. This was then gently pushed back through the incision we had made hours ago, all the way up to the adorable little face we had affectionately drawn at the start of our day. The other two wires were then set into place along the sides of the body, pushing it into the superman pose which it will hold for centuries to come.

    Close up of stuffed chipmunk face

    I thought the final step would be sewing it back up, but I'm glad it wasn't (partly because I found it the most difficult). The final step was "to make the specimen look good." I understand that the real reason for this is scientific, for the sake of our collections, but it allowed me to show my respect for the little critter I had just skinned. Gently combing his fur straight and using pins to get his tail and face aligned was a warm way to end what had been a day of cutting, bone breaking, and stuffing. I found it suiting that the process should begin with careful consideration of the creature in its natural form and end with time spent approximating that form. After all, a quick internet search for "bad taxidermy" might make one shudder to think how embarrassed the ancestors of those creatures would be if they were ever to gain sentience.

    Dennis Baker

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  • Mazon Creek Area Fossil Specimens


    Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, paleontology, fossil, Mazon Creek, collection, Francis Creek Shale

    Created: 5/24/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Fossilization is a rare process. In fact, most of the plants, animals, and insects that existed on earth have not been retained in the fossil record because the conditions required must come together with such precision and timeliness that most just miss the boat. Occasionally, a fossil is produced – a leaf, a tooth, maybe a partial skeleton. From these, paleontologists try to piece together the earth’s history.

    Most of the time, it is the hard parts of an animal that are fossilized because bone and teeth don’t succumb to the decay process as quickly as the soft parts of an animal, such as muscle tissue. Think about a banana left out on your kitchen counter too long – it will rot away, decomposed by bacteria. Every once in a while though, the conditions are just right to where the fossilization process includes those soft parts. This is rare, but can provide a more complete picture of an animal or an entire paleo-ecosystem.  These are truly a remarkable resource, permitting us to look back in time.

    Fossils from the Mazon Creek area in Illinois are associated with the Francis Creek Shale formation and date to approximately 307 million years ago, during the Pennsylvanian. This site is unique in that the fossil assemblage includes the preservation of soft tissue, even of animals such as worms and jellyfish! This paleontological site is called a “lagerstätten” or “mother lode” due to the diversity of the flora and fauna represented. Such sites are recognized worldwide as having importance for our national heritage and the process of understanding earth’s history.  

    Here are a few of the fossil specimens from the Mazon Creek area in the Academy’s museum collections:

    Fossilized Mazonomya mazonensis

    Mazonomya mazonensis -- a clam


    Fossilized Euphoberia sp.

    Euphoberia sp. -- a spiny millipede

    Fossilized Tully Monster

    Tullimonstrum gregarium
    - the "Tully Monster",
    a carnivorous marine soft-bodied animal, and the Illinois state fossil

    Fossilized Macroneuropteris macrophylla

    Macroneuropteris macrophylla

    Fossilized Lobatopteris sp.

    Lobatopteris sp. -- a fern

    Fossilized Annularia stellata

    Annularia stellata
    -- a plant similar to a horsetail

    Dawn Roberts
    Collections Manager

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  • Photo Shoot in the Museum Collections!


    Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, collections, photography, specimens, oology, mammalogy, image

    Created: 5/4/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    They say a picture is worth a thousand words. When it comes to describing an object in a museum collection, a picture can provide essential information. An image of a specimen or artifact adds clarification for distinguishing similar items and provides a visual record for tracking preservation issues and treatments. Images of museum objects can be utilized for exhibition development, initial scientific research, or as an educational resource.

    With the help of some amazing volunteers, our Collections staff are digitally photographing specimens and artifacts in the Academy’s collections. Our photography workstation is one we devised and consists of a wire shelving unit with adjustable shelves, so the work area can be changed when desired. We selected acid-free grey paper for a backdrop and created many of our reflectors and stands from materials we had on hand. Some of our best reflectors are simply sheets of hard white foam and the reflective interior of a coffee can!

    Photography equipment and lighting  Staff member taking photos of specimens

    Digital photography of our scientific collection began with the imaging of our type specimens. A “type” specimen is the specimen originally used to describe a species and displays the majority of characteristics used to identify that species. It’s because of type specimens that we are able to distinguish one animal from another.  Here is the type specimen for the subspecies of the Southern Appalachian Rock Vole, Microtus chrotorrhinus carolinensis (Komarek). This specimen was collected in 1931 from North Carolina.

    Rock vole type specimen  Rock vole skull

    We’ve since expanded this project and are now systematically photographing catalogued specimens in the Academy's collections. We’ve photographed bird eggs and nests in the oology collection and mammal study skins and skulls in the mammalogy collection. Images from the oology collection were included in a bird identification DVD series released by Thayer Birding Software ( released in 2012. Check them out!

    • Egg specimen
    • Egg and nest specimens
    • Bat specimen

    Dawn Roberts
    Collections Manager

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