Created: 11/15/2012 Updated: 8/10/2016
Autumn in New York
Why does it seem so inviting?
Billie Holliday sang the praises of fall in the Big Apple, and if a recent weekend was any indication, it would be hard to disagree (though some might this year, thanks to hurricane Sandy.) There is something agreeably evocative about brownstone stoops strewn with cast off foliage and planetree leaves chattering down the sidewalk on a fresh breeze. On the way to JFK after a weekend with family, I took a detour to Brooklyn Botanic Garden to revel in the sunshine and autumn color, and while the grounds had sadly suffered a number of tree falls from the storm, it was nonetheless a lovely afternoon.
The Garden was quiet and felt particularly dignified, perhaps due to the somber hues of drying leaves and the lack of energetic floral activity. However, one stop on my circuit of the Plant Families Garden sent me into fits of decidedly indecorous laughter. A grand, gnarled old tree – perhaps the largest and oldest on the grounds, and a species I was previously unfamiliar with – was earnestly labeled with its scientific name, Pterocarya fraxinifolia, and its common name, Caucasian Wingnut.
While “Caucasian Wingnut” is a label some might choose to apply broadly, it seems a bit unfair to condemn an entire species to derogatory snickers and finger pointing. But at least the CWs, as I will mercifully abbreviate them, have plenty of company. Many a plant has endured a lifetime of awkward introductions at cocktail parties. Pity the poor Mountain Misery, Midnight Horror Tree, Beggar’s Tick, Corpse Flower, Mal Mujer, Crybaby Tree, Lousewort, Fly Poison, or Pleuro amparoana, also known as the Toilet Bowl Orchid.
Deservedly or not, other species have fared quite well in the name game, such as Balm of Gilead, Fairy Petticoats, Sorrowless Tree, Enchanter’s Nightshade, Venus’ Looking Glass, Kiss Me Over the Garden Gate, and a favorite here on the Museum's grounds, the Rattlesnake Master. Euphorbia leucocephala has it particularly good. Its many common names include Snows of Kilimanjaro, Christ Child, and Little Christmas Flower. Other plants must get a lot of confused stares from doormen and receptionists: Ramping Fumitory, Moses in a Boat, Napoleon’s Hat, Monkey Puzzle, and Rat Stripper to name a few.
There are scientific names – always Latinized – that take the cake in both lyricism and absurdity. Consider the poetic qualities of words such as Dasylirion, Mandragora, Bauhinia, Ipheon, and Vitex agnus castus, which translates to “chaste lamb of life.” Dread the doubtless horrors of Dracula nosferatu and Monstera deliciosa. Or, try some lingual calisthenics with a couple of cactus species, Weberbauerocereus cephalomacrostibas and Austrocephalocereus dolichospermatichus. Quiz tomorrow. Spelling counts.
But back to New York and our dear CW. No matter how ridiculous its name, the tree I visited that afternoon was remarkable – venerable, steadfast, antediluvian. Perhaps we should thank Sandy for sparing it, but then, the tree has surely stood strong in the face of many storms. And perhaps, with maturity, it’s learned to laugh at its awkward moniker and even appreciate the chuckles of passersby. They say laughter is the secret to long life. Maybe this Wingnut is living proof.
Created: 11/15/2012 Updated: 8/10/2016
The education department at the Nature Museum logged in just over 67,500 contact hours last year. Here is a breakdown of some of those hours:
Sharing our knowledge about science at 137 Science on the Go! classrooms.....
Conducting 627 student workshops for visiting school groups right here in the Nature Museum science labs.....
Visiting over 100 schools with in class workshops to 124 classrooms.....
Leading camps both on site and off that included over 375 children in the Chicago area.....
Supporting teachers while conducting 19 teacher professional development workshops that featured activities and strategies for hands on, inquiry based learning.....
And having fun the whole time we are doing it!
We are lucky to have this opportunity and are working very hard to make this year memorable for another 67,500+ students, teachers, parents, and others. Thanks for stopping by and letting us visit you at school!
Barbara PowellView Comments
Associate Director of Education Operations
Created: 11/6/2012 Updated: 8/10/2016
1. You’ll become a nerd. This is a good thing! In this day and age, nerds reign supreme. Volunteering allows you to immerse yourself in a cause and learn everything there is to know about it. Here at the Museum, our volunteers are always delving deeper into their interests. We have all kinds of nerds – types you never knew existed. Butterfly nerds. Vermicompost nerds. Taxidermy nerds, for goodness sake. They’re all here, and our lunchtime discussions are often just an opportunity to see who can out-nerd the others.
2. People will find you intriguing. Those cocktail parties you always dreaded? Now you’ll have cute stories, fun facts, and sage philosophies on life to fill the awkward pauses. It’s endearing when someone gives their time to a cause they believe in without the expectation of a paycheck. Who knows, it may even score you a phone number or two.
3. Mom and Dad will be proud. So you didn’t become a doctor or a lawyer like they always dreamed. Next time they call, tell them you’re volunteering for a Nature Museum. They’ll be dying to get off the phone so they can call their friends to brag.
4. Your network will broaden and deepen. You’ll meet friends with similar interests. You’ll meet experts in the field. You may even meet someone who will hire you one day. They say that most people get jobs through personal connections. Volunteering is a genuine and effective way to cultivate those connections.
5. You’ll start to fill the void. You know the one I’m talking about. After work or school, when you come home, flip on the tv, and just zone out. What if, instead, you spent time talking to kids about nature and science? You could teach them, for example, that a turtle’s shell is made of the same stuff our fingernails are made from. It will blow their little minds and spark a lifetime of scientific curiosity. It’s amazing what you can accomplish in a three-hour volunteer gig. And it’s not just about the kids either. It’s about you, and how you make the most out of the time you have.
6. Food and praise will be lavished upon you. This is not an exaggeration. Volunteers are major contributors to an organization’s bottom line. Here at the Museum, volunteers put in over 10,000 hours each year. In purely financial terms, that time equates to a little over $250,000. That’s huge! It’s the least we can do to keep the snack drawer stocked and the thank-yous flowing. And every April, we gather for a delicious catered dinner and awards ceremony. Seriously - how thrilled would you be to win something called the Tiger Salamander Award?!
7. Social change will start to happen. When you volunteer, you help your community. Not just in the obvious quantifiable ways – like you taught 82 kids how to recycle, or you fed 14 turtles a salad. There’s something immeasurable, but very real, that happens in a community when its members are engaged. Others see the volunteer efforts and feel glad. They start to do a little volunteer work of their own. And pretty soon, things are getting done that we never thought we had the resources to do. Warm fuzzies (and vibrant communities) all over the place!
Feel the urge to volunteer yet?View Comments
Manager of Volunteers and Interns
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.
Lots of leaf cuttings by one of the largest Cincinnati Zoo colonies. We hope our girls can make this big of a mess someday.
This is what a happy fungus garden looks like. You can see the ants, ready to protect their handiwork.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.View Comments
Director of Living Collections
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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 HorticulturistView Comments
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.
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.
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.
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.