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  • Ant Parenting

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    Created: 11/2/2012      Updated: 8/10/2016

    What do oil, humidity, and Hibiscus plants have in common? Turns out they may be part of the keys to success with one of our latest additions to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. As the Living Invertebrate Specialist it is my job to make sure our adopted leaf cutter ant colony thrives in their new home. While they are currently making their debut in the Backyard Monsters Exhibit running through January 22, 2013, they will become a permanent part of our exhibits after that, so this is a long-term commitment.

    Who knew that caring for a bunch of ants would take me back to caring for my own children? Thankfully the later are grown and successfully on their way so I no longer have to worry about their every need on a daily basis. Instead I’ve been worrying about a colony of highly developed, highly active, highly demanding ants.

    I recently spent a week with the ultimate ant “parenting” support group at the Cincinnati zoo where colonies of countless kinds of ants from around the world have been maintained and displayed for over 25 years.  Randy Morgan and his staff are like a living version of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting”, or “Dr. Spock” for first time ant parents.

    • Leaf cuttings

      Lots of leaf cuttings by one of the largest Cincinnati  Zoo colonies. We hope our girls can make this big of a mess someday.

    • Garden fungus

      This is what a happy fungus garden looks like.  You can see the ants, ready to protect their handiwork.

    • Working with ants

      Winton from the Cincinnati Zoo demonstrates how to get them to start expanding the gardens.  You may notice, he’s bleeding from his finger.  They’re not afraid to use those mouthparts for defense!

    So what do oil, humidity, and Hibiscus plants have to do with all that? Well, a barrier of oil helps to keep them where we need them to stay, humidity is critical to the health of the fungus gardens they depend on, and Hibiscus plants may be one of the best sources of leaves in the winter when we have to provide for them by growing indoor plants. We have had quite a time finding leaves they will happily cut and use so this is no small challenge. 

    I'll share more about the incredible relationship the colony has with the fungus, the leaves, and each other as we progress but in the meantime, I look forward to moving beyond my own toddler stage with our ants and enjoying a more mature relationship. 

    I hope you’ll get a kick out of watching the colony grow and letting them teach you a thing or two as well. 

    Karen Kramer Wilson, Living Invertebrate Specialist

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  • An Icon Returns

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    Tags: living collections, snakes, venomous

    Created: 10/19/2012      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Those of you who visit the Museum on a regular basis will have probably noticed the lack of a key exhibit component in Mysteries of the Marsh over the last few months. At the beginning of this year we very sadly lost our beautiful Massasauga Rattlesnake to cancer and have been trying ever since to find a replacement. Because the Massasauga is such an endangered species they are very hard to come by. Private individuals are not allowed to own listed species but as a scientific and educational organization we have a permit for this snake. Even so, it took us ten months to actually locate one and this past weekend we took delivery of a very healthy three year old female.

    So how do you transport a rattlesnake? Well the company that bred her was attending a large herpetological show in Tinley Park so we would be able to drive out and collect her from there. We brought all the correct equipment with us and soon had her transferred into something safe, secure and comfortable (for both her and us!)

    Bucket and snake tongs

    We secured the whole tub into the back seat of the car with the seat belt and drove our precious cargo back to the Museum. We never work with a venomous snake when the Museum is open to the public so we waited until the evening to transfer her to her new habitat. Transferring ‘hot’ snakes from one spot to another is one of the most dangerous times for handlers and so total concentration and focus is a must. We ensure that our security team keeps everyone away from the area so that we are not disturbed. Firstly, using snake tongs, we lift the bagged snake out of the tub and slide the snake to the very bottom of the bag. We then hold her in the bottom of the bag so that she cannot get anywhere near to the handlers hands because, of course, snake fangs can stick through a canvas bag very easily.

    Untying the snake bag

    When the knot is undone the whole bag is lifted back into the tub, again using snake tongs so that at no time do the handlers hands come anywhere near the snake. The snake is then carefully slid out of the open bag into the tub.

    Snake in tub

    From here the final step is to carefully lift the snake, using the tongs and snake hook and lower her gently into her new habitat. And here she is, comfortably positioned in her new habitat after her long and arduous journey.

    Snake in exhibit

    Once in her habitat, her exhibit was covered for a couple of days so that she could get accustomed to her new surroundings. Pretty soon she was ready for her first public appearance as part of the Mysteries of the Marsh exhibit. Be sure to visit her next time you are at the Museum.

    Celeste Troon
    Director of Living Collections

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  • Your Online Gateway to Nature and Science: Revealed!

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    Tags: website, president

    Created: 10/18/2012      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Mother Nature is virtually smiling today on the Chicago Academy of Sciences and its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

    It is my great pleasure to welcome you to our new and improved website. For more than a year, we’ve spoken with members, educators, naturalists and scientists, to find out how to make our website a valuable resource for everything that we do. We listened and the result is before you today.

    Among the exciting updates include a fresh, clean look and easy and accessible navigation that will allow you to quickly locate what you are looking for. 

    From Museum events (search our calendar!) to information about our conservation initiatives (award-winning butterfly restoration program), to volunteer information and fascinating educational resources, this site is your resource for all things Nature Museum.

    As you can see, we’re launching a blog, where our scientists, educators, exhibition curators and public programming coordinators can share the latest behind-the-scenes information direct with those who care most about it – YOU!

    We are the oldest Museum in Chicago, but we’re keeping it fresh – and excited to share it with you. Thanks for reading and exploring the new site. We look forward to continuing the conversation.

    Deb Lahey, President and CEO

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  • Wherefore the fall that makes fall, fall?

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    Tags: trees, autumn, botany, horticulture, grounds

    Created: 10/8/2012      Updated: 8/10/2016

    The last, tremulous notes of the ice cream truck have faded into the distance. Sales of fun-sized candy bars are spiking. And all across this great nation, people are attaching their egos to teams of large, colorfully outfitted men battling over oblong balls. Yes, fall is here, and leaves are raining to the ground like opponents’ home runs onto the bleachers of Wrigley Field.  But why? Why would otherwise perfectly reasonable trees decide to shamelessly expose their naked limbs? (In front of the saplings, no less!)

    Fallen leaves on museum grounds

    Thanks, guys. You know I'm gonna have to rake that, right?

    Well, winter is hard on us all. For plants, the main problem is water, which, like most people, becomes sedentary and expands during cold weather. Sedentary water (by which I mean ice and snow) can’t be absorbed by a plant’s roots. So when the ground is frozen, water lost through its leaves can’t be replaced.  Most plants in our area avoid the problem by stripping bare.

    Tree with fall colors

    As for expansion, water is quite odd in that it becomes less dense when it freezes, so the same amount of water takes up more space when it becomes ice. This is a big deal for plants, since it causes their cells to quite literally explode as the water inside them swells. Try freezing a salad and you’ll know what I mean.

    So instead of risking death by dehydration or cell destruction, a clever tree ditches its leaves for the winter. But, you say, ever the contrarian, what about evergreens? Well, your average pine or spruce has small leaves with thick 'skin' to slow water loss. And it's quite industrious, churning out resins and antifreeze compounds to prevent cell damage. Deciduous (leaf-losing) trees can't be bothered to spend as much energy on such nonsense. What antifreeze they do get around to manufacturing is concentrated in their buds in preparation for spring.

    Tree with fall colors

    All this hard work gives evergreens a competitive advantage in early spring, when temperatures are warm enough for efficient photosynthesis. Deciduous trees can’t get moving until they stop hitting the snooze button and get to work cranking out leaves, while Joe Spruce is already soaking up the vernal sun and adding inches. The tables turn in summer, when the larger leaves of deciduous trees allow them to collect more light and grow faster than our work-a-day friend Mr. Spruce. These differing strategies are one reason evergreens dominate the landscape of northern latitudes. Short summers don’t allow those deciduous layabouts enough time to catch up.  

    Seth Harper - Museum Horticulturist

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  • Chicago Butterflies in 2012- A Wild Year!

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    Tags: butterflies, Endangered Species, Drought, Climate

    Created: 10/5/2012      Updated: 8/10/2016

    It's been a wild year for butterflies in the Chicago area.  Heat and drought seem to be the catchwords of the year.  The season got off to an extraordinarily early start.  It's not all that unusual to see a few butterflies in March, as species like Mourning Cloaks that hibernate as adults sometimes venture out on warm days.  The prolonged hot spell in March brought a lot of species out, many over a month early.  These Spring Azures were photographed at Bluff Spring Fen on St. Patrick's Day.

    Spring Azure



    As the season settled in, the east central part of the US and Canada was overrun by an enormous population explosion of Red Admirals.  In April the wave of Red Admiral migration crossed northern Illinois, with numbers about ten times their normal levels.  As impressive as that was, the huge migration was even bigger in eastern Canada, where it was estimated that hundreds of millions of the butterflies were passing through.

    Red Admiral



    Not surprisingly given the early and very warm season, 2012 saw the influx of several butterfly species that normally fly further to the south.  Pipevine Swallowtails, Dainty Sulphurs (photo below), and Sachem skippers were all conspicuous in the Chicago area for much of the summer.  These species are typically either rare or absent this far north.  It will be interesting to compare data collected by the Illinois and Ohio butterfly monitoring networks to see if similar trends were observed in both of these states.

    Dainty Sulphur



    The news wasn't all good.  The drought seems to have taken a toll on some of the region's rare butterflies- those species that require remnant prairies or wetlands.  The Nature Museum's Butterfly Restoration Project made very little progress this year due to the very low numbers of these species that we encountered.  Species that were present in very low numbers this summer included Silver-bordered Fritillaries, Baltimore Checkerspots (photo below), and Regal Fritillaries.  With luck, conditions will be more favorable in 2013 and their numbers will rebound. 

    Baltimore Checkerspot



    Doug Taron, Curator of Biology

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