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  • Restart Your Engines!


    Tags: emissions, epa, driving, cars

    Created: 6/17/2015      Updated: 8/1/2016

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    A Great crested grebe near the Helsinki Museum of Natural History at about 11 pm

    A Great crested grebe near the Helsinki Museum of Natural History at about 11 pm

    I recently returned from presenting some of our Project Squirrel data to the International Colloquium on Arboreal Squirrels. This time, the meeting was held in Finland. Although the meetings filled the day, I spent a lot of time outside too because, this time of year at least, the sun doesn’t set for long in the northern latitudes. On my first night there, between 10pm and midnight, I was able to find nearly 20 species including wagtail, oystercatcher, and even a goshawk being mobbed by dozens of fieldfares and hooded crows. Along with the birds, I noticed something that seemed odd to me—there was no noise coming from stopped cars at red lights. 

    A Barnacle goose

    Barnacle geese are relatives of Canada geese

    At first I thought locals must really be into hybrid cars but upon closer inspection I couldn’t find a single vehicle identified as a hybrid (and because of the danger they can be to rescue workers after a crash, hybrids are usually required to be labeled as such). In fact, amongst the mix of the usual commuter autos, I saw lots of patently non-hybrid and non-quiet vehicles like big American pickups, bigger Audi busses, and even a giant Avtospetsoborudovanie Silant rescue machine (I’m not sure what Silant means in Russian but it can’t be a synonym for “quiet”). Yet these were quiet at intersections too.

    So what gives? It turns out that everyone was simply turning off their vehicles when they stopped at a light to prevent idling. Now I know that idling is bad but where’s the sane line between pausing in your forward motion and idling? I felt a little silly that I didn’t know the answer but as I asked around to various eco-conscious friends, none of them knew the answer either (hence this blog post because I assume lots of people don’t know the answer.)

    Remember back in the 80s and 90s when schools would leave their lights on 24/7 “because it takes more energy to turn on the lights than it does to keep the running overnight”? Cars were like that too.  Carburetors and chokes used a ton of gas to get the car started then required a good 15 minutes or more to warm up to operating temperatures. On the other hand, modern fuel injected, computer controlled engines are ready to drive as soon as you start them (even in cold weather, as long as you don’t stomp on the gas pedal but stomping on the gas pedal is bad for different reasons under all conditions) and the amount of gas you burn when starting is about equal to the amount you burn during 10 seconds of idling. That said, restarting your car causes wear on the battery, starter, and other parts. Most of the references I found suggested the cost of gas begins to exceed the increased maintenance costs after a mere 30 to 60 seconds of idling.

    My conclusion from all this is: turn the car off as often as possible. Now I don’t think that turning your car off every time you come to a stop is a safe thing to do, at least in American traffic. In fact, it’s usually illegal here and, at least as far as I can determine in the English language translations, Finnish law doesn’t require it either. Some countries apparently do require turning off the car at intersections under certain circumstances and many countries have laws that prohibit more than 1 minute of idling per hour. However, I am convinced that idling the car as I wait for the kids to get in or for the cabin to warm is costing me money that I don’t need to spend, not to mention creating tons of excess CO2. I have also begun paying more attention to what I do at the beginning and end of every trip; I’m careful to turn the car on only after I’m done fiddling with my phone, jacket, glasses or whatever, and turn it off as soon as I park. 

    This really was something I should have known since study on the topic was active in the late 80s. I didn’t find a lot of news reporting on it until the early 2000s which is reasonable since it took until then for the knowledge to be applicable to most drivers. In researching this topic, I found a lot of reporting online but links from the articles to official sources and governmental reviews were broken more than usual. There are, of course, a lot of academic papers on this but most are behind paywalls, though you can still get a lot out of the abstracts. This one about motorcycles highlights some of the consumer issues.

    That said, this Canadian site gives a great summary and the EPA has lot of detailed tables that could let you do some interesting calculations for your own vehicle.

    Though it seems most of the EPA site is devoted to understanding what you can buy and how to shop, if you read between the lines, they also say, idling less makes a measurable difference.

    Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology

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  • Feasting on S.C.R.A.PS.


    Tags: plants, horticulture

    Created: 6/8/2015      Updated: 8/1/2016

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    Apparently it’s been three days north of forever since I wrote a blog post. I realized this recently when our social media guru began dropping subtle hints about it.


    Angry woman yelling into a phone

    (Picture is unrelated.)

    What can I say?  I’ve been busy with, you know, spring. But I get it; all y’alls been waitin’ for me to drop some botanical flava on this blog, and I just can’t keep letting you down. So hey, how about a new feature? What if I were to present, in no particular order and with no discernible practical application, an ongoing listicle of botanical wonderment? You down? Good. I think it should look a little something like this:

    Stuff that’s Cool and Rad About PlantS

    Still with me, despite the puerile, half-baked title?  Then let’s do this.

    1.  Graft Chimeras

    When it comes to stuff that’s cool and rad and rad and cool, it’s hard to beat a graft chimera.  Few are known to exist, and even these are rarely seen.  But before you can understand the extent of their coolradness, you’ll need a basic understanding of grafting.

    Grafting is the age-old process of cutting off a piece of one plant, sticking it onto another, and hoping they get along.  It’s extremely common in certain areas of horticulture, particularly fruit production.  For example, basically every single apple you’ve ever eaten was grown on a grafted plant.  A typical apple variety starts as a branch that just happens to be different from its neighbors on the tree.  An orchardist might notice that this branch produces fruit that is redder, larger, or holds later into the fall.  Perhaps it has a wicked backhand, and the orchardist is in need of a mixed-doubles partner.  Whatever the reason, he or she cuts off a part of this branch, clones it, and then grafts the clones onto the bottom halves of young apple trees that have been selected for their superior roots.  The resulting grafted plants will now produce reams of tennis-playing fruit on healthy-rooted trees.

    Typically, the “root” portion of a grafted plant (called the rootstock) and the “shoot” portion (the scion) remain distinct from each other. But sometimes the union between the two gets…fuzzy.  The result is a graft chimera, a plant that mixes two different sets of genes – and thus two different types of growth – into one.  Here are a couple of famous examples.  Below is a +Laburnocytisus ‘Adamii’, and man, do I want one!  Check it out:

    +Laburnocytisus ‘Adamii’, a tree that has two different types of flowers -- one is pink the other is yellow.

    Yep, that’s one tree with two entirely different types of flowers.  Here’s another example, aptly named a Bizzaria:

    A graft chimera citrus plant, containing a fruit that is half bitter orange and half citron.

    This harvest-time nightmare is a genetic tutti-frutti of Citrus medica and Citrus aurantium.  It was discovered in Florence in 1640, and is perhaps the best known graft chimera, with none other than Chuck Darwin taking a stab at describing it.

    Unfortunately, graft chimeras are notoriously unstable, so individual plants may lose one of their conjoined halves, returning to a non-chimeric state. But that just makes them cooler, right? And rad-er.

    2.  The Mountain Buffalo

    By now you’ve no doubt glanced ahead at the picture, BUT, before you go getting all excited, I must add a disclaimer to this entry. Most of the information I’ve found about this plant comes from not-so-sciencey sources, so please take it with a grain or two of salt. That being said, just look at this thing:

     A toddler sitting on top of a giant potato

    No small potatoes.

    That is a tuber which will not be denied. According to this website, it is from a species of Thladiantha that grows in the Yunnan province of China, and if this picture is to be believed, it is one of the largest tubers in the world. Also, someone is trying to pickpocket a baby. (Good luck – babies are notoriously cash-strapped.) As the website helpfully explains, “The tubers are resembling resting buffalos when seen from the distance in dense forest, hence their name.” I’ve done some digging to try and find out more about this beast of a plant, and I can say without doubt that the genus Thladiantha is a real thing and that several species within this genus produce large tubers. But is this photo legit? I want to believe.

    3.  Sand Food

    No disclaimer needed here; sand food is definitely legit and definitely weird (and cool and rad.) Found only in the Sonoran Desert, this bizarre member of the forget-me-not family is not-forgettable indeed.  Its name is blandly appropriate, since it grows as a ropy stem buried under shifting sands, and it is an important food source for the area’s indigenous people and jawas. Containing no chlorophyll, sand food lives as a parasite on the roots of various desert shrubs. In the spring, it produces a mushroom like flower head, like so:

    Sand food 

    Photo courtesy of Tatooine Botanical Gardens

    How the 10 or 20 tiny seeds that each flower produces manage to locate a suitable host plant is not well understood. Ants or kangaroo rats may carry the seeds underground. Or perhaps they move through the desert by clinging to the feet of lost droids. We may never know, but I would guess that the Force is strong with them.

    Seth Harper, Nature Museum horticulturist

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  • Fire in the Metropolitan Block


    Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, history

    Created: 6/7/2015      Updated: 8/1/2016

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    Years before the Chicago Academy of Sciences called the Matthew Laflin Memorial Building home, it resided in the Metropolitan Block located in downtown Chicago. Though the Academy was still very young, by 1864 its collection had grown so much that it outgrew the space it occupied on the corner of Clark and Lake. It was at that point that the Academy made the move into the Metropolitan Block at the corner of LaSalle and Randolph, along with a variety of other businesses and corporations. While there was some space for specimens to be displayed, the space wasn’t ideal for creating museum space for the public. Despite this, for two years the Academy called the Metropolitan Block home, until one fateful day in June 1866.

    Map of Washington and LaSalle intersection in downtown Chicago, circa 1893.
    View of Metropolitan Block (building number 13) circa 1893 from Rand, McNally & Co.'s Birds-Eye Views and Guide to Chicago

    On June 7, 1866, a fire broke out on the north end of the Block in rooms adjacent to the Academy’s rooms and moved to the museum hall. At the time of the fire, the Academy’s collection consisted of 40,000 specimens, making it one of the largest scientific collections in the United States at the time. Sadly, of the 40,000 specimens housed there, over 18,000 were destroyed or badly damaged. Acting as Academy Curator following the sudden death of Robert Kennicott in May 1866, Dr. William Stimpson sadly reported, “Half the animals and birds were lost; the extensive collections of bird’s nests and eggs were mainly consumed; nearly all the insects were destroyed; the dried crustaceans and echinoderms were all destroyed. The large herbarium was saved, with the exception of the plants of the Northern Pacific expedition. The library was much damaged by water, but most of it was still in a condition to be used.”

    Stimpson endeavored to repair and preserve the damaged pieces by transporting them to a building on LaSalle and Lake. The focus turned to repairing the Metropolitan Block space for the interim and finding a permanent space to move into. The specimen wall cases were repaired and several new cases for specimen storage were constructed, turning the space into a taxidermy prep room. Because the space was meant to be temporary, little focus was put on exhibitions for the public, with only a few cases being reserved for that purpose.

    A lot on Wabash north of Van Buren was purchased and a new building made of brick and iron was erected at the cost of $46,000. In an effort to protect the Academy’s invaluable collections, this structure was built “as nearly fire-proof as the technology of the time permitted.” The stairways and principal doors were made of iron, the windows featured iron shutters, and the brick walls were two feet thick. A laboratory and storeroom were located in the basement, while the first floor consisted of space for the secretary, an office, library, and meeting hall. The second floor consisted of a larger museum hall with two galleries. In December of 1867, the collection, which had continued to grow, was moved into its new home.


    Chicago, A Strangers and Tourists Guide to the City of Chicago. 1866.

    Chicago and the Great Conflagration. Elias Colbert. 1872.

    The Chicago Academy of Sciences: Its Past History and Present Collections. Vol. 2. Frank Collins Baker. 1908.

    History of Chicago: From 1857 until the fire of 1871. Alfred Theodore Andreas. 1885.

    The Nautilus, Volumes 7-9. 1893-1894.

    Special Publication – Chicago Academy of Sciences, Volumes 1-3. 1902.

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