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They flow high up in the mountains, low down in the valleys, and even underground, through all kinds of landscapes.

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Time of Year
Year Round
Level 1

Even in the middle of a bustling city like Chicago, rivers are complex ecosystems where diverse plant and animal species connect. Splash your way through RiverWorks and discover the beauty and complexities of natural and manmade flows through this interactive experience.

How are Chicago’s river and lake system connected? Where does our rain go? What could live in a river? How does changing a river’s flow, size, and quality impact the animals that live there? Discover the answers to these questions, and more, in RiverWorks.

Access to this exhibit is included with Museum admission.

A Closer Look

Good Fish

We aren’t talking about whether or not these fish are good or bad. Instead, we’re talking about how these fish tell us whether the water is good or bad. One of the ways that ecologists and biologists can tell if a river or has a healthy ecosystem is if it has a lot of different types of fish and a lot of different types of plants.

Looking into our clean water tank, also known as our “good” tank, you’ll see a lot of different types of fish. We have some dace, minnows, and darters. These are some of the fish you’d find in our local waterways.

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These fish are very picky about where they’ll live. They only live in healthy river ecosystems. That means those ecosystems have low pollution levels, high oxygen levels, and plants, rocks, and other spots for the fish to hide.

To help ensure that all the fish have equal opportunities to eat, they eat different foods and they eat in different ways. This is an indicator of a healthy river ecosystem because it signals that the species that live there aren’t competing and the ecosystem can support a greater diversity of life.

Bad Fish

What about the species that live in “bad” water? These fish aren’t bad, but their habitats often are. Although the water in this tank is not polluted, it represents what a polluted body of water could look like. You’ll notice that there aren’t many natural places for the fish to hide. Instead, they’re using cinder blocks as hiding spots.

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The animals in this shallow stream tank can live just about anywhere. Catfish, carp, goldfish, and gobies are all more tolerant of waterways that are high in pollution, low in oxygen, and busy with human activity. Those species are also much more competitive when it comes to finding food. If you take a closer look at this tank, you’ll see that there aren’t nearly as many different types of fish or plants living in this environment. The lack of diversity is a clue that the river is not as healthy as it should be.

Keep Exploring

Do different fish eat different things? How do they feed in ways that keep them from competing with one another? Check out the video below to learn more about what our fish eat, and how they eat, with Nature Museum facilitator Marjorie as your guide.

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