Created: 2/27/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
If you visit the museum during the growing season, you’re likely to find me out on the grounds somewhere looking quite dapper in dirt-stained pants and a wide brim hat, a stalk of foxtail grass dangling from my lip. Or you might catch me pausing, rake or shovel in hand, to pluck and nibble on hackberries, purslane, or wood sorrel. City folk (I’m allowed to say that because I spent my first thirty years of life in West Virginia) often give me strange looks. Some even feel compelled to remark upon my behavior: “You shouldn’t be eating that.” “Don’t put that in your mouth, you don’t know where it’s been.” “What if a dog peed on that?” Or the always attention-getting, “OH MY GOD THAT’S POISONOUS YOU’RE GOING TO DIE!!”
At this point, I politely explain that I’m a horticulturist, so knowing which plants are nummy and which might leave one “in repose” is right in my wheelhouse. In other words: Trust me – I’m a professional.
Interestingly, people who aren’t in the know often assume plants to be more dangerous than they actually are.* While a decent percentage of the 250,000 described plant species will send one running to the nearest restroom if consumed in quantity, only a few dozen are known to be toxic enough to truly be considered deadly.
In our area, plants of the genus Cicuta (commonly known as water hemlock or cowbane) are among this group. Ingesting even small amounts of the roots can result in a long list of nervous and cardiac difficulties, including that most incurable of symptoms, death. In some sort of sick, cosmic joke, water hemlock fairly closely resembles the edible (though disappointingly tough and fibrous) wild carrot. Now would be a good time to reread that first asterisk at the bottom.
Other nasties that grow wild in our area include Doll’s Eyes (Actaea pachypoda), Canada Moonseed (Menispermum canadense), and Black Nightshade (Solanum nigrum). But if you really want a “who’s who” of plants that can kill you, look no further than your local botanical garden. There, you’re almost certain to find Monk’s Hood, Foxglove, Oleander, Delphinium, Autumn Crocus, Laburnum, Yews, Privets, and Azaeleas.
In fact, your local botanical institution is quite possibly, at this moment, in posession of two of the deadliest substances known to exist. The Castor Bean (Ricinus communis) and the Rosary Pea (Abrus precatorius) are both widely grown – the former as an ornamental and for the production of castor oil, the latter for its decorative seeds. The seeds of these plants contain small amounts of two astoundingly toxic protiens – ricin and abrin, respectively. According to the European Food Safety Agency, a mere 3 milligrams of ricin is enough to kill an adult human. Pretty impressive. But only until you find out that abrin can kill at doses 150 times lower**.
Believe it or not, my point is not to frighten you into never touching a plant again. Deaths from plant poisoning are exceedingly rare in the US. (One study I found counted 30 deaths in 18 years, some of these cases involving attempted recreational use of plants such as Jimsonweed.) Compare that to the average 50 or so lightning deaths per year and you start to get the idea: Experimenting with wild edibles is a pretty safe pastime. A good way to start is to learn the bad guys by heart. Because fortunately, scary though they are, they are the exceptions. And next time you see me outside the museum, ask me what I’m eating.View Comments
*A message from the nice man with the briefcase and the power tie looking over my shoulder: Don’t eat any plant you do not know to be edible or cannot positively identify.
** Dickers et al, Toxicological Reviews, 2003 - Volume 22 - Issue 3
Created: 2/22/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
Even though it's been a pretty mild winter, we have had some snow and cold weather. It's been months since I've seen a butterfly outside - yet I'm quite confident that as the weather warms next spring, there will again be butterflies here in northeastern Illinois. So where are the butterflies now? Did they migrate off someplace else? Are they hibernating? As it turns out, the answer varies from species to species.
Some butterflies do spend the winter elsewhere. The most familiar example is the Monarch, which spends the winters in the highlands of Michoacán in Mexico. It's the only local species that makes an annual round-trip migration.
Monarch butterflies in Mexico
About a dozen other species spend the winter in the desert southwest or along the Gulf Coast in the Deep South. These include species such as the Buckeye, Painted Lady, and Little Yellow. They don't seem to have much of an organized southward migration; they simply die off in more northern locales as the weather cools in the fall. Each spring they begin dispersing northward as the weather warms, though it may take several generations to arrive here.
Although it may be hard to believe, especially on a really cold day in the middle of winter, some species of butterflies hibernate and spend the entire winter here. Each species has one particular life stage that hibernates. There are examples of all four species being used. Species such as the Purplish Copper overwinter as eggs. These are laid on twigs or leaves, where they remain for the entire winter. Many species, including Baltimore Checkerspots, hibernate as caterpillars. The caterpillars burrow into the leaf litter at the base of their host plants as fall approaches. Many swallowtail butterflies spend the winter as chrysalises. About a half dozen Illinois species, such as Mourning Cloaks, even overwinter as adults. They spend the winter tucked into crevices in logs, or underneath loose bark on trees. These are the species that can be seen flying on the very first warm days of spring, and occasionally even during warm spells in January or February.
Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillars
How do the hibernating butterflies survive? As cold-blooded animals, their body temperatures drop to that of their surroundings. The secret turns out to be in their chemistry. As the days shorten during the autumn, they begin secreting natural antifreezes into their body fluids. The natural antifreezes are necessary no matter which life stage overwinters. If ice crystals form they rupture cells, which is fatal to eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises and adult butterflies alike. The natural antifreezes are small molecules such as glycerol. Glycerol shares many chemical properties with the antifreeze that is used in car engines. Although the body temperature of a hibernating butterfly may drop to well below zero, the glycerol in its body fluids prevents the formation of ice crystals. The butterfly can therefore survive the very low temperatures, become active again when the weather warms in the spring and complete the life cycle. Next time you are taking a walk in midwinter, consider that there are thousands of butterflies tucked away in warm spots, waiting to fly next summer.
Created: 2/20/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
Internationally known artist Jennifer Angus was at the Nature Museum in November to install her exquisite artwork in the south gallery of our second floor. It took three days and several pairs of hands to cover the gallery with insects from Malaysia, Thailand, French Guiana, and Papua New Guinea. I was able to help along with Jennifer’s assistant, a few other staff and a dedicated volunteer. It was neat to see the project unfold before my eyes. My favorite part was hearing the “oohs” and “ahs” as the elevator doors opened and visitors caught their first glimpse of the space.
Prior to her arrival, Jennifer had sent us the specifications for her design. The walls were painted a cool aqua color with yellow polka dots. In order to create the vertical lines in the pattern, she started by setting up a thread grid along the walls.
Using a hammer and special insect pins, we delicately placed each insect along the grid in an alternating pattern. Some insects needed an extra bracing pin to stay in position.
Jennifer’s artwork resulted in a whimsical design of flower-like shapes that draw the eye up and down.
You can learn more about the artist and her intent by visiting the gallery. We are delighted to have this unique installation at the Nature Museum, and we hope you get a chance to see it soon!
Created: 2/13/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
The Nature Museum continually evaluates visitor usage of our permanent and temporary exhibits. Why do we do it?
According to Exhibit Evaluator Hannah Im, “It is important for us to know how visitors experience different exhibits. It allows us to understand how they are currently used, and what improvements we can make in the development of upcoming exhibits.”
At the Nature Museum, we use two methods to collect data on exhibit usage- observation and interviews.
Observation: You may have seen our volunteer evaluators in the galleries with clipboards and stopwatches. They are observing visitors and collecting data about time spent in the different areas of an exhibit.
Interviews: As you leave an exhibit, you may be approached by another volunteer with a clipboard. These volunteers are collecting information about what visitors learn during their time in an exhibit.
Using these methods, our Exhibits team is able to build a clear picture of how visitors use exhibits, what they learn, and suggestions for improvement. Please do your part to improve our exhibits by completing the short questionnaires when requested. You may even get a sticker!
Volunteers are essential to the Nature Museum’s exhibit evaluation project. Volunteer Allan Zemsky has been working with us on the project for almost a year. Alan says, "I enjoy Visitor Studies at the Nature Museum because you get to observe our guests in action at the various exhibits. I can in turn give feedback to the administration so they can better assist our guests in the future."
Interested in volunteering with the exhibit evaluation team? It’s a great behind-the-scenes way to contribute with flexible hours to fit your schedule. Just email firstname.lastname@example.org to get started.
Heather GranceView Comments
Manager of Public Programs
Created: 2/11/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
When asked to write a blog posting about ‘the romancing habits’ of some of the animals in our living collections for Valentines Day I was a little flummoxed. After all the concept of Love and Romance is a very human idea. In the rest of the animal kingdom the drive is purely to successfully pass on your genes, by whatever means are necessary!
Will Harrison our Eastern Box Turtle be buying chocolates and roses for his four lady friends? Absolutely not.
Box Turtles are a solitary species with a small home range. Courtship, which takes place in spring, occurs usually between turtles with overlapping home ranges. Males find females primarily by sight but scent also plays a role. ‘Courtship’ consists of circling, biting and shoving. Not exactly the stuff of a steamy romance novel! So let us dispense with the term romance and call it what it is – mating. The desire to reproduce. (No blushing now, it is what sustains all species!) Now as a biologist, I feel on slightly more secure ground.
Take for example, our Hermit Crabs.
These fascinating crustaceans scuttle down to the edge of the ocean in large numbers to mate, they slide partially out of their shells and position themselves belly to belly. When her eggs are fertilized, the female will release up to 50,000 of them along the shoreline. When the eggs hatch the initial life stage is a sea dwelling planktonic larvae called a zoeae. This stage lasts about a month before developing into a tiny aquatic hermit crab. The tiny crabs will eventually move onto land, go through a series of molts, each time selecting an empty shell to inhabit for protection before reaching maturity at around two years.
Of course I would be remiss when talking about our collections if I didn’t mention that most terrifying of lovers – the Praying mantis. The perfect antithesis to all those hearts and flowers!
Mantises hunt by movement and there isn’t much discrimination when it comes to prey. Could this be described as the ultimate dinner date? The female will often eat the male during the mating process and the male is even capable of continuing to mate after he has been decapitated! I did mention that the drive to pass on genes was the be all and end all, even if this means giving up your life! And mantids aren’t the only ones who recognize that a well-fed female is more likely to successfully produce viable eggs, some katydid species will actually provide the female with ‘gifts’ of protein before attempting to mate.
But not all invertebrates have such dramatic courtship.
The Scorpion will attract a mate through vibrations and pheromones (no eharmony for these guys!) Then dancing! The dance takes the form of facing each other and grabbing their partners pedipalps. The dance even has a name – the ‘promenade a deux’. (French is after all, the language of love!) The male circles around with the female until he has positioned her over a reproductive package, which he previously deposited on the ground. This process can take from 1 to 25 hours! Once the package has been collected the male beats a hasty retreat to avoid a similar fate to the mantis!
The female gives birth to live young, which she carries on her back until their first shed.
Suddenly sending a Valentines card and box of chocolates seems like a really easy option!
Created: 2/6/2013 Updated: 5/27/2015
Remember back in November when we blogged about all the ways your life will improve when you start volunteering? Well we have great news for you. We are hosting the first-ever Chicago Volunteer Expo right here at the Nature Museum on February 10th. This is your chance!
This Sunday, you can meet folks from over 60 nonprofit organizations in need of smart, talented volunteers to do such a wide variety of projects that we can only mention a fraction of them in this blog post.
Working Bikes Cooperative needs handy mechanics to repair bicycles. The Chicago Bird Collision Monitors want volunteers to traverse the city rescuing injured birds. FreeGeek Chicago is looking for people to help recycle old computer parts and teach community members how to use them. Sarah’s Circle needs volunteers to lead workshops in nutrition, job searching, and self defense for women who are homeless in Uptown.
There are so many ways to help out and so many needs to be met. But here’s the big secret. This Expo is not really for the organizations. It’s for YOU.For anyone who made a new year’s resolution to give back to their community. For anyone who wants to fight for the cause they truly care about. For anyone who wants to add a little meaning to their workaday lives. You are the people these nonprofits are searching for. Come meet them at the Chicago Volunteer Expo and start the conversation.
Did we mention it’s free?
Sunday, February 10
10 am to 4 pm
Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
2430 N Cannon Drive
Free! All ages welcome!
Jill Doub, Sarah and Nick AndersonView Comments
Organizing Committee for the Chicago Volunteer Expo
Created: 2/6/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
With a blanket of snow on the ground we don’t expect to see local reptiles or amphibians but, as the days get longer, we are more likely to encounter our cold-blooded neighbors. In February, you can find spotted salamanders walking slowly under the ice, looking for mates. Later in the month, the noise of woodfrogs, spring peepers, and chorus frogs advertise territories. Amidst this flurry of amphibian breeding, garter snakes begin to emerge from their hibernacula. Though garter snakes relish a frog or salamander meal during the summer, this time of year they have one goal—mating.
Our resident garter snake
Can you find the garter snake?
Keeping an eye on visitors
Male garter snakes emerge first, when the air temperature is still in the 30’s, to prepare for mating. On sunny days you might find one basking on a snowbank. Around March or April, the much larger, stout-bodied females will begin to emerge and will soon be surrounded by skinny males vying for a chance to fertilize the eggs she is carrying internally. Though “breeding balls” of dozens to hundreds of males are famous, in Chicagoland I usually only find 2-6 males per female. Interestingly, some males will behave like females. Apparently this behavior attracts other males who, when they pile on in an attempt to mate, help warm the imposter. At the same time, the ill-fated suitors are more likely to be eaten by predators, providing both a shield and decreasing the number of competitors for actual females.
Once bred, female garter snakes retain their eggs (known as ovoviviparity) rather than lay them in a rotting log, like a rat snake. In this way it is easy for the female to move the eggs from one warm patch of sun to another, even in places where the ground stays very cold late into the summer. This behavior has allowed garter snakes to spread further north than any other group of snakes and ensures that garter snake babies are born earlier in the year than any other snake. It also explains the biology behind all the stories of kids bringing one big garter snake home, only to later find the house full of pencil-sized baby snakes.
Chicago is home to a particularly striking form of the Garter Snake. It is found only in southeastern Wisconsin, northeastern Illinois and extreme northwestern Indiana in the vicinity of Chicago. The Chicago Garter Snake has a dark grey head and prominent broad black bars on its sides that break up the lateral stripes. If you can't go out looking for Garter Snakes yourself, you'll find the Nature Museum's resident Chicago Garter Snake in our Istock Look-In Lab.View Comments
Created: 2/5/2013 Updated: 5/28/2015
Part of my job as a Public Programs Educator is developing a monthly activity called “Drop by Family Fun”. The challenge is to come up with a nature based theme to teach through visuals and activities- 12 different topics each year. The themes are introduced to visitors of all ages- from small children to the adults they come with, and every age in between.
There are some things to think about when deciding on topics:
- Is it relevant to the Museum content?
- Can it be taught to different age groups?
- Is there a fun way to insure that participants will remember the lesson?
The answer to the last one is “Make a craft!” Is there a better way to bring a fact home than with a craft? Here are some things that we have done in the past:
- Make a pinecone bird feeder- to learn about urban birds
- Make a light switch plate- to remind about energy conservation
- Make a snake bookmark- to remember what animals are venomous or poisonous
Participants take home a reminder of the fun lesson they learned at the Nature Museum during their visit. They can come back each month to discover a new subject, and hone their crafting skills once again.
Crafting has other positive effects. Children can practice fine motor skills. Adults have valuable bonding moments with children when they assist with the project. Everyone gets to exercise natural creativity.
We hope to see you soon for our monthly “Drop by Family Fun”. It takes place every Thursday, Saturday and Sunday from 11:00 to 1:00. Please see our program calendar on line or in print for the next upcoming nature topic. It’s time for me to get back to the drawing board for new subjects and crafts.
Laura SalettaView Comments
Public Programs Educator
Created: 2/5/2013 Updated: 5/27/2015
Let’s face it, we have had a mild winter so far, but as most Chicagoans know this could change at any time. We could be faced with winter storms, sub-zero temperatures and gale force winds. Those are the days that could force you to stay inside and read a good book. With that in mind, I recently posed a question to the Museum education department – tell me about your favorite book about nature. The responses were varied and interesting we even had a response from outside the education department. I hope you take the time to read some of our recommendations!
Michelle Rabkin, Student Programs Coordinator:
This is my favorite coffee table book, which captivates audiences from 2 to 100 years old. We also use it at the Museum as a resource for programs. This book is visually stunning even if you don’t read a word in it!
Animal, The Definitive Guide to the World's Wildlife
The natural world is a dynamic place and our understanding of it is forever growing and changing. Since Animal was first published in 2001, the African elephant has been reclassified into two species, a cat-sized rat has been discovered in Papua New Guinea, the only plant-eating spider has been found in Central America, a bird-eating fanged frog has been located in Vietnam, and more than 1,250 new species of amphibians have been identified.
Kelly Harland, Museum Educator:
These books are wonderful for elementary aged through adults.
Andrew Henry's Meadow by Doris Burn
In this book you meet Andrew Henry who loves to build things. He builds all sorts of inventions to help his family, but he ends up in the way so he runs to a meadow where he builds himself and his friends houses suited to all their interests. It is a wonderful and creative book about unstructured play and building.View Comments
Owl Moon by Jane Yolen
In this beautifully written story a young girl goes owling with her dad on a quiet snowy evening. The illustrations are beautiful and the readers become caught up in the quiet, stillness of the story.
Two Bad Ants by Chris Van Allsburg
This is the story of two ants who get left behind in a sugar bowl to eat their fill instead of returning with their crystal to the ant hill. They get scooped up in an adventure as a human makes his breakfast. It is a fun ant’s eye view of a kitchen.
Rafael Rosa, Vice President of Education:
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
The book describes Bill’s effort to walk the Appalachian Trail with a friend. While not specifically about nature, he incorporates quite a bit about the history and natural history of the Appalachian Mountains. His description of the American Chestnut and our loss of the species due to disease has always stuck with me. Humorous and thought-provoking, it is not only one of my favorite books about nature but one of my favorite books in general.
Josie Elbert, Associate Director of Education Programs:
Bees, Snails and Peacock Tails by Betsy Franco
This is a great book to introduce or confirm the terrific patterns and shapes found in nature. I love that the text mirrors the vivid illustrations. I’m inspired when I learn or notice something new from a children’s book! This book did that, and it’s one I’ll add to our family’s collection.
Karen Wilson, Living Invertebrate Specialist:
Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D. Seeley
This book is by a world-renowned animal behaviorist who looks in detail at the amazing process of house hunting and the democratic debate that takes place to make a move. E.O. Wilson sings his praises.
Bugs in the System by May Berenbaum
This is a great read as it looks at insects and their impact on human history from the Silk trade routes, the Napoleonic wars, and current culture. Cool stuff.
Barbara Powell, Associate Director of Education Operations:
The Earth Moved by Amy Stewart
This book goes underground to let us all discover the earthworm and all of its glories. From Charles Darwin’s experiments to a discussion about earthworms as an invasive species, this book is interesting and will tell you all you need to know about our subterranean composters. This book is best for an adult audience but the facts and information discussed would be fascinating for school aged children.
I hope you enjoy these books and look for more recommendations to come!
Associate Director of Education Operations
Created: 2/1/2013 Updated: 5/28/2015
Squirrels are a very diverse group of rodents. This little Bornean tree squirrel is among the smallest while the American groundhog is among the largest. The groundhog (Marmota monax)can be found through most of the country and consequently have many names like woodchuck and whistlepig. Here is a groundhog skin from the Academy’s collection next to North America’s smallest squirrel, the Red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus)—not to be confused with the Fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), which is pretty big compared to a red squirrel.
Borneo Tree Squirrel Groundhog and Red Squirrel