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  • Priority Species Update: A Museum Full of Smooth Greensnakes

    Created: 8/22/2017      Updated: 8/22/2017

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    Allison Sacerdote-Velat holding an adult Smooth Greensnake

    Curator of Herpetology Allison Sacerdote-Velat has spent much of her summer working with one of our priority species - the Smooth Greensnake. Allison and her team have been surveying for Smooth Greensnakes in sites in several counties in Illinois, but took a break to give us a quick update on teh work they've done so far and the work that's still ahead.

    We have been surveying for Smooth Greensnakes in sites in Lake, DuPage, Cook, DeKalb, and Grundy Counties. Some sites are part of a long-term population monitoring study and some are previous release sites for headstarted snakes.

    Smooth Greensnake hatchlings emerging from eggs

    When we headstart Smooth Greensnakes, we can focus on improving two aspects of their survival; hatching success of eggs and hatchling overwintering survival. In DuPage County, we are improving hatching success by incubating half of the eggs from nests that we find in the field at our Forest Preserve District of DuPage County's partner facility, Willowbrook Wildlife Center. Once the eggs hatch, we measure, mark, and release the hatchlings back to their nest sites. By individually marking hatchlings, we hope to find them again next season to improve estimates of hatchling overwintering survival.

    Tiny Smooth Greensnake hatchling held by Allison Sacerdote-Velat

    Meanwhile, we monitor the fates of the remaining eggs in the field to determine wild hatching rates. In partnership with Lake County Forest Preserve District, we are using the second headstarting strategy, improving both hatching success and hatchling survival by caring for the hatchling Smooth Greensnakes until next summer. We aim to improve their chances of surviving that critical first year, by keeping them safe from predators until they are larger, and increasing their body size so they are better able to survive winter and produce more young once they are released.

    Smooth Greensnake hatchlings in the Nature Museum lab

    This season, we have incubated, hatched, marked, and released snakes from 75 eggs in DuPage County, and we are currently headstarting 81 hatchlings from Lake County at Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.  

    Allison Sacerdote-Velat
    Curator of Herpetology

    Want to learn more about this project? Be sure to follow us on Twitter as we share Allison's updates from the field!

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  • What is the Fastest Turtle?

    Created: 6/21/2017      Updated: 4/8/2020

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    In this series, we'll be addressing some common questions from visitors and readers. Do you have a science question that has you stumped? Ask our museum scientists via our form here and we'll answer it on our blog!

    Today's Question:

    What is the fastest turtle?

    Turtles: they're not renowned for their speed. Sure, the turtle** wins in The Tortoise and the Hare, but just to serve as a humiliating example of arrogance. No one celebrates for the tortoise in that story, you know? It's ok, though. Turtles don't mind! There's no need to be fast when you carry your own armor for defense and your food is stationary.

    But surely there is at least one turtle that's massively mobile. A turtle with wheels. A turbo turtle. Which turtle is it? Can any turtle outrun a human? What is the fastest a turtle can go?

    We begin with the official recordkeepers. The Guinness Book of World Records maintains the record for fastest tortoise: the tortoise ran at an average speed of 0.63 miles per hour.[1] Tortoises are notoriously slow, however, even for turtles. We can do better.

    Some turtles can "sprint" much faster than any tortoise. Compare the Guinness World Record tortoise video[2] against any number of Youtube "fastest turtle" videos to see soft-shelled turtles rushing to safety (gee, what incentive would a soft-shelled turtle have to be able to move quickly?). From one of these "fastest turtle" videos, I estimated the speed of a sprinting turtle based on the distance it ran (about 15 feet), divided by the time it took to move that distance (about 3 seconds). From that quick calculation, soft-shelled turtles can move at a speed of 3 miles per hour. For comparison, that's a comfortable walking pace for an adult human.

    That's not the fastest turtle, though: turtles swim much faster than they can walk, and the blog post's question didn't specify how the fastest turtle was getting around. The leatherback sea turtle is reported as being able to swim up to 22 miles per hour, though I could not find an original source for that claim.[3]

    We're not done yet: turtles have moved at least 1,000 times faster than even the fastest sea turtle.

    Animals have been launched into space many times to test the effects of space on living things.[4] Turtles have had their share of space flights: turtles have been sent into low-earth orbit by Soviet (Soyuz 20) and Iranian (Kavoshgar-3) space missions. All turtles survived both missions. To maintain low-earth orbit, the turtles traveled at 17,000 miles per hour.[5] 

    But the fastest turtles ever, and the ones who have been farthest from earth, are two Russian tortoises that were launched aboard the Zond 5 spacecraft in 1968. This spacecraft traveled to the moon (it didn't land, of course: humans are the only animal that has stepped onto the moon) and returned safely to earth. Details about the speed of this flight are difficult to find.

    Proton-K rocket

    This Proton-K rocket launched the Zond spacecraft. Not pictured: two intrepid tortoises.[6]

    However, NASA used a similar flight plan during the Apollo missions, and those flights reached speeds of 23,000 miles per hour.[7] It is fair to conclude that the Zond 5 spacecraft and those two Russian tortoises reached a similar speed! Leatherback turtles travel over 10,000 miles during their migrations.[8] If a leatherback turtle could swim its maximum speed without stopping, it would complete that trip in 19 days. A rocket-propelled turtle covers that distance in 25 minutes.

    And that, without a doubt, is the fastest a turtle has ever traveled.

    The complete turtle velocity leaderboard:


    Turtle (method of locomotion)

    Maximum Speed (mph)


    Bernie, The fastest tortoise according to Guinness World Records (ambling)



    Soft-shelled turtle (moving/walking quickly)



    Leatherback turtle (swimming)



    Turtle (spacecraft in low earth orbit)



    Russian Tortoise (spacecraft in circumlunar orbit)



    **Remember: all tortoises are turtles. Not all turtles are tortoises. 

    Kyle Schiber
    Nature Museum Volunteer

    [1] Swatman, Rachel. “Record Holder Profile Video: Bertie the fastest tortoise”. (2015, September 9). Retrieved June 8, 2017, from

    [2] Fastest Tortoise – Guinness World Records. Video published by Guinness World Records. (2015, September 9). Retrieved June 8, 2017, from

    [3] Shweky, Rachel. “Speed of a Turtle or Tortoise”. (1999). Retrieved June 9, 2017, from

    [4] Animals in space. (2017, May 26). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved June 11, 2017, from

    [5] Orbital speed. (2017, June 9). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved June 11, 2017, from

    [6] Space Launch Report: Proton Data Sheet. (2017). Retrieved June 10, 2017 from

    [7] Translunar Injection. NASA, archived by (2016, December 4). Retrieved June 9, 2017 from

    [8] Sea Turtle Migration.

    Do you have a science question that has you stumped? Ask our museum scientists via our form here and we'll answer it on our blog!

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  • Statement from Nature Museum President & CEO Deborah Lahey

    Created: 6/13/2017      Updated: 6/16/2017

    Statement by Deborah Lahey, President and CEO of the Chicago Academy of Sciences/Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum regarding the United States announcement to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement.

    There is an undeniable correlation between the health of our planet and the health of all living things. That fact is what makes the United States’ announcement withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement a concern to many people. The action could erode the collective, global efforts needed to provide solutions to climate change as well as other collaborations. Our world needs every leading country working together for the good of all living things.

    The Chicago Academy of Sciences / Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is deeply committed to fact-based, environmental research and education, and we advocate for uniting global and local efforts to protect our planet and nature. Through our collection and ongoing research, we have documented 160 years of history of the environmental changes in our region and continue to contribute to science-based learning.

    On a more personal and individual level, the Nature Museum is building a deeper connection between nature and the public. Every day, we provide a welcoming gateway for people to better understand our urban environment and what it means to them. Through engaging exhibit experiences and programs, including the self-produced exhibit Our House: Rethinking Home in a Changing Climate, people are encouraged to think about how our choices -- from building homes to driving cars – can be in harmony with nature, or not.

    Our region is fortunate that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced in response to the U.S. decision that the City of Chicago will continue forward “to achieve goals set in the Paris deal.”  Many regional business and civic leaders also are publicly stating their support for the country to stay in the agreement. This leadership will help Chicago to continue making progress reducing carbon emissions in line with the international climate accord.

    We believe it is critical for everyone to stay informed and united in efforts to address climate change. To increase our contributions to these efforts, the Nature Museum plans to convene more forums with organizations, policy officials, municipalities, thought leaders, and individuals to dialogue about reducing greenhouse gas emissions and pursuing innovative clean energy sources that are good for the environment and create new jobs.

    Be assured that our teams of scientists and educators are working to build greater public understanding and engagement in climate and environmental issues. We know that unity makes us strong, and collectively we can protect the environment on which all living things, including each of us, depend -- now and in the future.

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  • E2SP at the the National Science Teachers Association Conference

    Created: 6/5/2017      Updated: 6/5/2017

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    In March, two teachers from St. Malachy School got to represent our E2SP program at the National Science Teachers Association Conference. The following blog is a guest post written by them as they reflect on the experience. Want to learn more about our education programs for students and teachers? Click here.

    We are Science Teacher Leaders at St. Malachy School and part of the Early Elementary Science Partnership (E2SP) initiative sponsored by The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, The Field Museum, Northwestern, and Big Shoulders. We were thrilled to be invited to present with the E2SP team at the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) conference in Los Angeles at the end of March. 

    Our first day of the conference, we attended the Elementary Extravaganza. The event is held in a large hall and there are teachers from all over the country and world showcasing science activities.  There were so many exciting things to see: for our personal use and to share with the other teachers in the building. Then we went to the vendor hall where we saw even more great ideas and items to enhance our science program. The workshops we attended further energized us for future plans for our school.

    Our presentation was on using protocols to enhance science professional learning communities (aka-making science meetings helpful). We have had great success getting teachers to participate in our monthly meetings due to our use of the protocols we have learned from E2SP. After a brief introduction to the program and our school, we actually led a protocol with workshop attendees. The feedback from the participants was so positive. We left with almost as many ideas from the lively discussions.

    We are so grateful to Big Shoulders for sponsoring our travel and E2SP for including us in the presentation. We came back with so many great ideas for our school. Patti was so excited, she wrote a proposal to do her own presentation next year in Atlanta: who wants to join her?

    Patti Taylor and Kaylyn Wardrip
    St. Malachy School

    You can learn more about our education programs by clicking here.

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  • How Many Legs Does a Caterpillar Have?

    Created: 5/17/2017      Updated: 4/9/2020

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    Looking at this picture, you might conclude that caterpillars have 8 pairs of legs- three pairs in the front, four in the middle and one at the back (if you're a bit confused, the head of the caterpillar is on the left in this photo). But wait, aren't caterpillars insects? Don't insects have 6 legs, not 16?

    Like all insects, this caterpillar has only 6 legs. Note the different shape of the three pairs of legs near the caterpillar's head. They're the true legs. The remaining structures are not legs at all. They're protrusions from the caterpillar's abdomen called prolegs. Much like true legs, they help the caterpillar grip onto surfaces like twigs, and aid in locomotion.

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  • Why do Birds Fly in Formation?

    Created: 5/16/2017      Updated: 5/17/2017

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    In this series, we'll be addressing some common questions from visitors and readers. Do you have a science question that has you stumped? Ask our museum scientists via our form here and we'll answer it on our blog!

    Today's Question:

    Why do birds fly in formation?

    If you've spent a year in the United States, then you've heard the honks and seen the distinctive v-shaped flying pattern of Canada geese. But geese aren't the only birds to fly in an orderly pattern: pelicans and ibises adopt the same v-shape when flying in flocks.[1] What do these birds have in common, and what benefit do they gain from flying in a "v" shape?

    Geese, pelicans, and ibises are examples of birds that migrate. Migration is the seasonal movement of animals in search of food sources or breeding grounds: geese fly south during the winter to find food and water; sea turtles travel between nesting sites on land and their feeding grounds on the coast; and college students return to their parents' homes in May when the cafeteria closes.

    Those aren't geese: these Eurasian Cranes also adopt a v-formation when migrating.[2]

    Migration over long distances requires a lot of energy, so when migrating it is a great advantage for animals to save energy however possible. Animals will need less food, and the migration will take less time. That's where the v-formation comes in handy: scientific studies have shown that geese flying in formation may spend only half as much energy than if they flew alone or in some other shape.[3] This is also why a squadron of jets will adopt the same v-shape: it takes less fuel for the aircraft to fly. Birds and jets are both able to gain extra lift by flying in the updraft that is created by the flyer in front of it.[1]

    Not all migrating birds fly in a v-shape: varieties of hummingbirds, finches, and sparrows all migrate,[4] but these birds are too small to gain an energy-saving benefit from flying in formation. Not all migrating birds even fly, for that matter: the flightless emu from Australia migrates too, but does so on foot. And no, migrating emus do not run in formation.[5]

    But wait, there's more: There are other flying formations that the classic “v”! When birds flock in large groups in the air, this is also a deliberate formation. It's a defense mechanism that protects against predators: every bird is safer when they're in the flock. It's difficult for a predator to single out an individual from the flock, and a bird that leaves the flock is more likely to be eaten by a predator.[6] The whole flock moves as one in order to protect every member. Starlings are well-known for their flocking behavior, and there is even a specific term -- a murmuration -- to describe a flock of starlings. It is absolutely worth watching this two-minute video from National Geographic to see a murmuration in action: 

    Kyle Schiber
    Nature Museum Volunteer

    [1] Yong, Ed. “Not Exactly Rocket Science, A Blog by Ed Yong”. Birds that Fly in a V Formation Use An Amazing Trick. Retrieved May 5, 2017, from


    By Hamid Hajihusseini ( [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

    [3] Cuttis, C.J. and Speakman, J.R. Energy Savings in Formation Flight of Pink-Footed Geese. Retrieved May 7, 2017 from

    [4] The Nature Conservancy. “Managing Habitats for Migrating Land Birds in the Western Lake Erie Basin” (2008)

    [5] The Animal Corner (2017). Retrieved May 14, 2017 from

    [6] Flight Plan. “How a Flock of Birds Can Fly and Move Together” (April, 2009)

    Do you have a science question that has you stumped? Ask our museum scientists via our form here and we'll answer it on our blog!

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  • Illinois Museums Advocacy Day 2017

    Created: 4/25/2017      Updated: 4/26/2017

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    Today is an important day for museums and cultural institutions across the state of Illinois. Today is Illinois Museums Advocacy Day, and the Museums, Arts and Cultural Enhancement committee chaired by State Representative Camille Lilly – is having a subject matter hearing on the importance of museum funding and community support. We're proud to be a participant in today's hearing, and are honored that Representative Lilly and other committee members are using today to fight for museums and recognize the impact we have on our communities.

    Earlier this year, we were honored to be named a finalist for the National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the nation’s highest honor awarded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. It’s truly an honor to be nominated for an award that recognizes museums and libraries that have made extraordinary contributions to their communities, and we were thrilled to be given the chance to highlight some of that work.

    Our staff consists of a variety of professionals – from scientists and educators to beekeepers and horticulturists – and it has been that way since we were originally founded 160 years ago. The Academy opened in 1857 and our founders dreamed it could be a place for people to discover and connect with the beauty of the land, and to protect the open lands they cherished. We’ve become that and so much more. In fact, for 160 years we’ve been at the forefront of scientific research and environmental studies and maintain a collection filled with Illinois natural history specimens – all of which tell a critical part of our state’s story.

    The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is an essential part of Chicago’s cultural and education community and a fun place to visit. We bring nature and science to an urban population that is often detached from nature and natural areas. We provide an enticing window into an urban nature sanctuary, a place to experience the sights and sounds of authentic nature that can never be replicated on a computer.

    We understand the importance of nature to our quality of life, so we allocate our resources with a priority on education  our biggest department. In the Museum and out in the classrooms throughout underserved schools, we work directly with students and teachers to help make nature and science alive. This is particularly critical since STEM education is a national priority.

    When we take our customized programs into schools, we bring specimens from our one-of-a-kind, nearly 400,000 piece collection, the definitive gathering of our city and region’s natural history. Students also see the collection up close on field trips.

    We take on challenging topics and help people understand how nature and people affect one another. Our self-curated, fact-based exhibits bring people closer to nature and encourage dialogue on pressing topics such as climate change. For example, our newest exhibit Our House, helps people think about how our choices affect the environment and what actions they can take as a family to live more sustainably. Meanwhile, our scientists’ pioneering conservation efforts are giving rare and endangered species such as the Blanding’s Turtle, the Rusty Patched Bumblebee, and the Smooth Green Snake a new lease on life, adding diversity to our ecosystem.

    These are just a few of the ways we touch the communities around us, experiences that only we can provide. We’re proud that Representative Lilly and Museums, Arts and Cultural Enhancement committee are recognizing and fighting on behalf of museums today, and we hope that you will, too.

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  • We March for Science

    Created: 4/20/2017      Updated: 4/20/2017

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    I often go for a long bike ride on Saturdays, but this weekend I’m trading my cycling gear for marching boots.

    I am proud and honored to lead a team of Chicago Academy of Sciences / Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum staff and volunteers at Saturday’s March for Science. How appropriate is it, on Earth Day, to march in solidarity with scientists and science teachers, including those on our staff! Scientists and science teachers are on the front lines in helping the public understand and appreciate the wonders of nature and science.

    Our largest department at the Museum is education, and for good reason. Now, more than ever, it is critical to provide science-based data, facts and science education programs so that everyone can understand how our actions affect nature and the environment on which we all depend for life.

    And as Chicago’s oldest museum, we’ve been at the forefront of teaching and connecting people to nature and science for 160 years. In fact, our educators provide more hours of hands-on education to students than any museum in Chicago.

    That’s why we developed our newest exhibit, Our House: Rethinking Home in a Changing Climate, which helps people think about how our choices affect the environment.

    In celebration of this Earth Day, I encourage families to simply have a discussion about nature and the environment and how they are both critical to our health and overall wellbeing. Take a moment to step outside and observe all the nature that surrounds us, right here in our urban area. If you and your family look for simple ways to connect more with the outdoors, it is amazing how those decisions will grow and harvest with time.

     “The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history... It seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.” - Rachel Carson

    On that note, we encourage your participation at the March for Science! Please do say hello to our team if you see us proudly carrying Nature Museum signs. And, of course, the Nature Museum is open all day on Earth Day, so feel free to stop by throughout the day or after the march.

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  • Marching for Science this Earth Day


    Tags: march for science

    Created: 4/7/2017      Updated: 4/8/2017

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    Collage of museum staff and visitor

    As Chicago’s oldest museum, the Chicago Academy of Sciences/Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum has been at the forefront of connecting people in our city and region to nature and science since 1857.
    We celebrate nature and science every day at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, but never more so than on April 22. In addition to Earth Day, April 22 is also the international March for Science, and Chicago is one of more than 300 cities that will have its own March. It’s a chance to support scientists and science teachers throughout the world, including our own Museum scientists, science educators and volunteers.
    Many members of our team – staff and volunteers – will participate in the March For Science. Anyone is able to join the March – and we would welcome your participation. Because of the expected size of the March, we are not organizing an official Nature Museum group – but please say hi if you see our staff, volunteers and Trustees among the participants proudly carrying Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum signs.
    For 160 years, the Chicago Academy of Sciences/Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum has been passionate advocates for the importance of science and nature education. From founder Robert Kennicott to former Academy president Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin, one of the first scientists to highlight carbon dioxide’s role in regulating the planet’s temperature, to the work of our scientists in the field and our educators in the classroom—this is who we are and what we do.
    The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum will be open, as usual, on Earth Day -  so feel free to stop by throughout the day, or after the March.
    You can experience the new exhibit Our House: Rethinking Home in a Changing Climate, visit the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven, enjoy some fresh air on our outdoor exhibit Nature Trails and reflect on and nurture your family’s connection and appreciation of nature and science.

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  • Learn About Butterflies Day - The Regal Fritillary

    Created: 3/14/2017      Updated: 3/14/2017

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    Today is #LearnAboutButterfliesDay! The Judy Istock Butterfly Haven is a great place to learn about all types of exotic butterflies and moths (especially on a cold, snowy day like today!), but what about our native butterflies? Check out this video to all about one of our native species, and the work our scientists do with this species!

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