Take a stroll through Chicago…before it became the city we know today.
Experience recreated prairie, savanna, and dune ecosystems that once thrived throughout the state of Illinois. See how the original landscapes have changed and how scientists are working to preserve what little remains. Less than 0.7% of Illinois now looks as it did in the 17th century. Get a glimpse of it in Wilderness Walk.
Wilderness Walk focuses on the ecology of the Chicago area and the natural history collections via three dioramas depicting the three major ecosystems of the Chicago region. Each of the dioramas represents actual places in Illinois. The prairie diorama is a site along Shoe Factory Road in Hoffman Estates (northwest of Chicago); the savanna diorama is Vestal Grove, part of Somme Forest Preserve in Glenview (north of Chicago); and the dunes diorama is Illinois Beach State Park (north of Chicago). Fun fact: the backdrops of these exhibits are hand-painted murals based on photographs from these localities!
A Closer Look
Is My Backyard a Mini Prairie?
One of the habitats featured in Wilderness Walk is the prairie. At first glance, it might look like some of the vacant lots or backyards you see around the city. These areas may be as grassy as prairies and as treeless as prairies, but that doesn’t make them prairies! Healthy prairies support hundreds of plant species and thousands of insect and animal species—10 times as many as a typical yard or vacant lot.
The roots of lawn grass are only a few inches deep. On empty lots, plant roots are generally only a foot or so deep. The roots of prairie plants, by contrast, reach down 10 feet or more! Depth varies from species to species, creating a layered structure that lets the prairie absorb water from all levels of the soil. Deep roots also help many prairie plants reach a ripe old age. Compass plants, for example, can live hundreds of years!
Compare the above photos of a backyard, a park, and the Nature Museum’s prairie. What similarities do you see? What differences do you notice? Can you see some of the traits that make a prairie a prairie?
As the seasons change, vibrant green plants dry out and turn brown. But does that mean that they die when the weather turns cold? Or is something else going on? Check out this episode of Curious By Nature, featuring our horticulturist Seth, to learn more!
Composite flowers are a common sight in prairies, including the Nature Museum prairie! Learn more about these very cool plants, with a little help from horticulturist Seth, in the video below.