If you’re familiar with the Nature Museum, you probably know that we have a number of specimens in our natural history collection. Natural history collections are important because they provide us with a physical record of the past. They’re like a snapshot in time. That means that specimens of still living species are just as important as specimens of extinct species. In fact, there are many specimens in our collection that represent species that were once endangered, or on the brink of extinction, but are still around today. Although some have seen an incredible resurgence, others have not. Check out some of the species below. Which ones are you familiar with? Which ones surprised you?
- Gray wolf
The gray wolf was once common in Illinois, but became extirpated (locally extinct) by 1860. Although its status as a federally endangered species was recently lifted, it’s still currently a state endangered species in Illinois. Work is being done to reintroduce them, primarily in the western U.S., but there are currently no self-sustaining populations or packs currently residing in Illinois. There are currently more than 6,000 gray wolves in the wild across the country, but they’ve largely been replaced by coyotes in their niches across Illinois.
- California condor
The California condor is one of the largest flying birds in the world, but human activity over the last 200 years brought them to the brink of extinction. Illegal hunting has had an impact, but so have other factors, like chemical contamination, accidental killing, and nesting site disruption. In 1987, the entire world population of the California condor was just 27 birds in captivity. But thanks to captive breeding and reintroduction, there are now about 500 condors in the world. The California condor is still a federally protected endangered species and a state protected endangered species in California.
- Peregrine falcon
We’re so lucky to be able to see peregrine falcons in the city of Chicago today, but that wasn’t always the case. When DDT came into popular use as a pesticide in the mid-20th century, it entered the falcon’s food chain and caused the population to sharply decrease. So much so, that the peregrine falcon was locally extinct in the eastern ¾ of the United States. In 1969, it was federally listed as an endangered species and thanks to careful regulations, captive breeding, and reintroductions, the peregrine falcon has rebounded and is now a species of least concern with a stable population. Mary Hennen, who was our Collections Manager/Assistant with the Academy in the 1980s, actually worked on the Peregrine Falcon Restoration Project.
- Eastern bluebird
This beautiful migratory bird species is currently a species of “least concern,” but their population numbers have seen drastic declines over the last 50 years. Why? Habitat loss and competition. Like many native species, the eastern bluebird’s habitat has been turned into farmland or even commercial property. They also face lots of competition from introduced, invasive species. One of the ways conservationists have help bolster populations is by creating special bird houses with entrances that are too small for the other, more aggressive species to get in, but are perfect for the bluebirds!
- American beaver
Like many other species, beavers were hunted almost to extinction because of their desirable pelts. A population of 400 million beavers had dwindled to about 100,000 by the early 1900s. In the early 1900s, conservationists began to act and beavers were reintroduced into Illinois in the 1930s. Although their populations have bounced back successfully, they still present a challenge for humans. In order to allow their populations to flourish, humans need to relinquish control over their habitats. But, if left unchecked, the beavers can cause crop loss, tree damage, and flooding.
Check out some of these specimens up close with director of collections Dawn Roberts as your guide!