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  • January Happenings at the Chicago Herpetological Society and CJHS


    Tags: chicago herpetological society, junior herp society, herpetology, snakes, reptiles, turtles, amphibians

    Created: 12/29/2014      Updated: 8/24/2015

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    The first full weekend of every month, the Nature Museum becomes a herpetologist haven! That's when the Chicago Herpetological Society sets up tables in the Nature Walk for some reptile fun with the public and the Junior Herp Society holds their monthly meetings! The Notebaert is an awesome and beautiful place to go and reconnect with nature during these colder months

    Join us for some fun with the animals!

    The Chicago Junior Herpetological Society is about sharing the love of amphibians and reptiles with the younger generation, and fostering an appreciation of wildlife and nature through educational speakers and hands-on interaction.

    The regular monthly meetings of the Chicago Junior Herpetological Society take place at The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, on the Sunday of the first full weekend every month, from noon till about 1:30. Meetings are free to members of the CHS and visitors to the museum. The next meeting will be on Sunday, January 4th. Frank Sladek will be speaking about enrichment items and training techniques that benefit the health of your reptiles and promote natural behaviors. He will have a few short videos of reptiles being "trained" and possibly a related craft idea

    You can learn more about the CJHS here.

    The Chicago Herpetological Society is a non-profit all volunteer organization dedicated to the conservation of all wildlife, especially reptiles and amphibians, the cooperation of amateur and professional herpetologists toward a more complete understanding of herpetofauna, and the education of the general public about these often misunderstood but fascinating animals.​

    When considering getting a new pet for the family, a great option to consider is adoption. There are many awesome animals out there in need of a loving home. The CHS has an adoption program available to members. There are currently some ball pythons, turtles and other great critters being fostered and ready for a new forever home. Contact Colleen Schwarz or Linda Malawy of the CHS adoption program.

    You can learn more about CHS adoptions here.

    General meetings of the Chicago Herpetological Society are held on the last Wednesday every month at 7:30pm at the Notebaert, with the exception of New Year's Eve this year. That meeting has been changed to Tuesday, Dec. 30th. Meetings are free to attend. Our December meeting will feature CHS news and announcements and will be our holiday get together. We will have food there and encourage people to bring something to share if you can. Our meeting on January 28th will feature the epic Erica Mede, speaking about her work with ARAV, The Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians. We are also gearing up for next year’s ReptileFest, the nation’s largest educational herpetological event. ReptileFest 2015 will be on April 11 and 12, from 10am to 5pm in the University of Illinois Phys Ed building. Mark your calendars, this will be the 22nd year of this wonderful show.

    You can learn more about the Chicago Herpetological Society here and Reptilefest here.

    Hope to see you there!

    Rich Lamszus
    Chicago Junior Herp Society
    Newly elected Vice President of
    The Chicago Herpetological Society

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  • The Chicago Conservation Corps Club Summit


    Tags: chicago conservation club, C3, conservation, c3 summit

    Created: 12/15/2014      Updated: 8/8/2016

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    Last month, the Nature Museum hosted 24 Conservation Clubs from all over Chicago for the C3 Club Summit. The Chicago Conservation Corps (C3) clubs are organized by teachers who have gone through C3 Club training here at the museum and are now organizing afterschool programs on environmental conservation issues in their schools with support from C3! 

    At the Club Summit, the clubs got to meet, share, explore, and get pumped up about their club’s Green Vision for the year!

    C3 Student Club Projects

    During the Summit, Clubs shared their Green Vision for the school year:

    Students brainstormed action items for the environmental issue they wanted to undertake this year in their classroom, school, or community. They made posters and recorded a short video that detailed their goal, audience, and steps to complete achieve their Green Vision!

    Students presenting their Green Vision
    Bronzeville students share their Green Vision through posters and a video component.
    Hendricks students brainstorming
    Students from Hendricks brainstorm and plan together.

    Clubs also made PLARN (plastic yarn)-for local initiative “New Life for Old Bags”:

    Students repurposed plastic grocery bags by cutting them into strips and looping them together to create PLARN. The PLARN is later crocheted into sleeping mats for the homeless—an initiative started by “New Life for Old Bags”.

    Plarn sleeping mat
    A completed sleeping mat made from Plarn!
    Students helping to make plarn sleeping mats
    Students cutting and tying plastic yarn.

    Clubs attended a "Maker Party":

    A number of partner organizations engaged Clubs in production-centered activities focused on sustainability, environmental conservation and youth voice, providing Clubs with inspiration and tools for their own sustainability projects, events, and awareness-raising campaigns in their schools and broader community. The Anti-Cruelty Society’s “PUPcycle & rePURRpose” station had students make upcycled pet toys out of reclaimed cardboard, old t-shirts, and corks. The National Veterans Art Museum showed students how to make animated GIFs. Free Spirit Media & Mikva Challenge provided a model for an awareness-raising social media campaign with their #IDreamAnEarth station.  Other partners who facilitated stations at the Maker Party included The Art Institute of Chicago, Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, Friends of the Forest Preserves, The Sweet Water Foundation, Scientists For Tomorrow, and CodeCreate.

    Students meeting with the National Veterans Art Museum
    National Veterans Art Museum
    Students meeting with The Anti-Cruelty Society
    The Anti-Cruelty Society

    Clubs made connections with critters:

    Students interacted with the museum’s living collection which includes several Eastern Box Turtles and Corn Snakes!

    Students ask about Illinois native turtle habitats.
    Students ask about Illinois native turtle habitats.

    Clubs discovered Citizen Science programs:

    Students honed their squirrel identification skills by observing real specimens of fox and gray squirrels. They were very excited to download the Project Squirrel app to contribute their data! 

    Students observe the variation between the Grey and Fox squirrels.
    Students observe the variation between the Grey and Fox squirrels.

    In all, 375 Conservation Club Members got to take part in these events, and enjoy exclusive access to the Nature Museum's exhibits.

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  • Native vs Non-Native: Cataloging Plant Species on the Nature Museum Grounds


    Tags: plants, plant names, native plants

    Created: 12/10/2014      Updated: 8/8/2016

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    During the growing season, I was charged with the fun and interesting task of compiling a list of all plant species growing in the Museum’s “habitat vignettes”. For those unfamiliar with this term, we sometimes use it to refer to areas of the museum grounds where we’ve worked to recreate plant communities that were typical of our area before European settlement. Frequent visitors know these areas well: the Black Oak Savanna, Burr Oak Savanna, Elizabeth Plotnick Tallgrass Prairie, the rooftop garden, (the section visible from the Bird Walk) and our portion of the North Pond edge.

    In creating the plant list, I counted species intentionally planted by us as part of our restoration efforts as well as those that showed up here on their own. The total number of species was 350! Being in list-making mode, I divided these into categories that had more meaning in relation to what we are trying to accomplish with the habitat vignettes. To wit:

    Native Species: 229

                   Planted by us: 159

                   Spontaneous:  56

                   Unknown: 14

    Non-Native: 123

    It’s worth noting that these categories are not cut and dried distinctions. There are differing opinions on whether some species grew here before Columbus. Also, several have strains both from North America and from other continents (which can behave differently ecologically). In these cases, I tended towards the majority opinion of authors who have studied our local flora, weighted by my own opinion. Then there was the matter of how local to get while defining “native.” In this case, I considered a species native if it was known from a county at least bordering Cook.

    A final distinction I wanted to make was whether a species was invasive or not. This entered even blurrier territory as, aside from a few of the worst offenders, there is far from a standard consensus on which species are invasive locally. I used a pragmatic approach, counting any species as “invasive” if we have actively attempted to control or eradicate it. The resulting list included 63 species – 12 of them native, 51 non-native. (Yes, native species can be invasive, too. But that’s a subject for another blog post.)

    Willow Herb

    Willow Herb, Courtesy of Frank Mayfield via Wikimedia Commons/cc-by-sa-2.0


    In creating any such list, there are bound to be surprises.  For example, I found two native species of Willow Herb in the Black Oak Savanna that are more typically found in wetland habitats. I suspect that seeds or seedlings of these plants arrived in the soil of native plant plugs. (We happened to see Willow Herb growing in abundance at a local nursery). I was also surprised that one of the species we’ve attempted to reintroduce over the years – Marram Grass – seems to have died out completely.  It almost certainly grew here centuries ago when lakefront dunes made up portions of the museum grounds, but now its failure here is a good example of the challenges posed by “restoring” nature in heavily modified environment.  

    Marram Grass

    Marram Grass, Courtesy of UIC

    Historical Perspective

    It is impossible to know the exact species list that would have emerged if I had compiled it a few centuries ago. Historically, this land was sand dune, marsh, oak savanna and probably some prairie. The lakefront was originally much closer to the museum. The topography, hydrology, and soil here have been drastically altered over the last couple centuries, making it difficult to recreate the conditions required by some of the presumed original species. Despite this, both the museum and the North Pond Nature Sanctuary have successfully reintroduced a good number of plants that once would likely have grown here. Have any of these original species survived on the property on their own throughout all of these changes? The answer, sadly, is probably not. However, some native plants were likely in the general area the whole time and would have been able to easily re-colonize the museum grounds. These correlate to the 56-70 species that I’ve listed as spontaneous. Why did some species need to be replanted, while others came back uninvited?    


    You may know that some plant species are extremely sensitive to specific conditions (like Leadplant), while others will grow almost anywhere (Hairy Aster). There is a general spectrum between these two extremes. The species we intentionally replanted tend towards the more conservative, “specialist” side, while those that found their own way here are on the other, “weedier” side. Another way to describe this equation ecologically is that climax species are on one end, and pioneer species are on the other. Pioneer species do well in disturbed areas where bare soil is exposed. This situation always existed in nature but is far more common today, as a result of human land use patterns. As a result, the seeds of these species are practically everywhere. But unlike these weedier species, when more conservative, climax species have been absent for a long while, their seeds are no longer in the soil (or in nearby areas), and thus they generally will not return on their own. 


    This list might be considered a “snapshot” of what was here in 2014. While I was positively surprised by the ratio of native to non-native species growing here, it should be noted that the species list doesn’t reflect how many individual plants of each species are present, which is what we hope to alter most as the years go by. The quantity of individual, reintroduced native plants will hopefully increase with time. The number of weedy native and non-natives will probably also change, as we extirpate some, and new ones arrive. Now that we have a list, we will be able to compare it to lists of future years, hopefully showing progress as we strive towards recreating lost native habitats.

    Want to check out the list for yourself? You can view and download a PDF of it by clicking here.

    Nate Fremont
    Assistant Horticulturist

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  • Looking Back on the "Background for Tomorrow"


    Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, history, film

    Created: 12/4/2014      Updated: 8/8/2016

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    Chicago has been a part of the film industry since it began. At the turn of the century, a few of the largest, most popular film studios called Chicago home. Unfortunately, after the West Coast was established as the center of the industry and the studio system was established in the early 1920s, many of these Windy City-based organizations moved west or went out of business. One company that didn’t, however, was the Atlas Educational Film Company. Based out of Oak Park, the company was formed in 1913 with the focus of making educational and industrial films. Many of their films were done in association with the Farm Bureau Federation, but one in particular featured many of Chicago’s museums, including The Chicago Academy of Sciences.

    Atlas Educational Film Company headquarters

    Atlas Educational Film Company headquarters circa 1920

    Sponsored by the Chicago Association of Commerce, the film was called “Background for Tomorrow” and it was produced in 1942. Written by John Gould Curtis and directed by Bertram Bates, the film was sold as a feature-length talkie that focused on telling the story of the exhibits, as well as the behind the scenes activities of several notable Chicago museums. The Chicago Academy of Sciences, The Field Museum, The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, the Chicago Historical Society, and The Museum of Science and Industry were the featured institutions, with schools, churches, parent teacher associations and similar organizations as the target audience.     

    Atlas crew shooting in CAS main exhibit hall

    Atlas crew shooting in CAS main exhibit hall

    Filming began at the Academy on May 1, 1942. As detailed in the Chicago Naturalist Volume 5, Number 1, the Atlas team shot exteriors of the building, a visit to the Director’s office, and several scenes in the main exhibit hall. The behind the scenes footage included a look into how habitat groups were constructed, in addition to the process of preparing celluloid leaves and installing them in an exhibit.

    By the end of the year, the Atlas team had completed filming and production, and the film was released. The Educational Screen reviewed it for its January 1943 issue, and praised it for its ability to present museums as “live educational centers teeming with activity and wielding a powerful influence on the minds and thoughts of millions that come within visual range of their intellectual treasures.” It also highlighted the film’s efforts to “show how events and developments from the remotest past to the present day furnish the experiential basis for still richer future for the human race. Those who still incline to think of museums as merely mortuaries for dead facts of the past should see this picture. It is a revelation of what museums really are and what they can mean to children and adults alike.”

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  • Salmon in the Trees: Life in Alaska’s Tongass Rain Forest


    Tags: exhibits, rainforest, wildlife, alaska

    Created: 12/1/2014      Updated: 8/8/2016

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    This week's blog post was contributed by photographer and author Amy Gulick. Her exhibit "Salmon in the Trees" is currently on display at the Nature Museum, just outside the "Rainforest Adventure" exhibit. You can learn more about her and her work by visiting her website.

    As a nature photographer and writer, I am always on the lookout for interesting stories. One day, I read an article that talked about a remarkable connection between the salmon and forests of Southeast Alaska. It was such a bizarre concept that I knew I had to go to our nation’s largest state and tell this story. That was seven years ago, and I’m still telling this incredible story – through my book “Salmon in the Trees,” a traveling exhibit, two permanent exhibits in Alaska, a website, a YouTube video, and a Facebook page.

    Man in Alaskan forest Dead salmon

    People think the title of my book is a metaphor, but when I explain that there really are salmon in the trees I get a lot of quizzical looks. It goes something like this: salmon are born in freshwater streams and rivers, head out to the oceans to mature, and then return to their birth streams as adults to spawn the next generation. In Alaska’s Tongass National Forest there are close to 5,000 spawning streams, and every summer and fall millions of wild salmon provide a bounty of food for some of the world’s highest densities of both brown (grizzly) and black bears. The bears carry a lot of salmon away from the streams and into the forest. Over time, the nutrients from the bodies of the salmon decompose and the trees absorb them through their roots. Scientists have actually been able to trace a marine nitrogen – Nitrogen 15 – in trees near salmon streams that links directly back to the fish. It’s an unexpected and yet perfectly natural connection.

    Once you understand this remarkable connection, you quickly see how everything is connected in the Tongass – the salmon, trees, bears, eagles, sea lions, killer whales, and people. It’s a glorious cycle of life that is still intact, and I want people to know how special it is. 

    Amy Gulick

    Amy Gulick
    Photographer and Author

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