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A Naturalist’s Heaven Squirreled Away on Ravenswood

By Jason Kreke | Thursday, April 4, 2013
Sullivan holds two common squirrels. As part of Project Squirrel, Sullivan is cataloging and analyzing data gathered by citizen scientists all over the U.S. Credit: Jason Kreske

Sullivan holds two common squirrels. As part of Project Squirrel, Sullivan is cataloging and analyzing data gathered by citizen scientists all over the U.S. Credit: Jason Kreske

Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology at the Chicago Academy of Science, pulls out a worn journal from 1978 and asks, “Did you see a Starling today?” He’s standing among long shelves in a dimly lit warehouse space stacked with journals, dioramas and filing cabinets. He moves quickly in the cramped space seemingly overfilled with academic research. “We’ll get back to that later.” It’s the first question of many that go through urban ecology, the area’s natural history and the role the Academy played during the founding of natural science in the U.S.

Steps away from the Irving Park brown line stop, the Chicago Academy of Science is the research and storage center for the more well-known Peggy Notebart Nature Museum. The facility, which has hosted tours during past Ravenswood Art Walks, is largely closed to the public, reserved for visting scientists and researchers.

Housed in an old industrial building (Sullivan says it is rumored to once hold the printing presses for Wrigley gum wrappers), the Academy’s offices are split between two floors. On the first floor, a few volunteers are eating lunch at a large table. Another volunteer is at a computer entering items into a database. Given the train tracks outside and shared offices throughout the building, it’s quiet, like a small-town university library.

Sullivan has been fascinated by animals all his life. He curated “Steve’s Museum” in his childhood bedroom where other kids were invited to see his collection. He’s worked as a biology tutor and has been involved in museums all his life. But he’s also something of a squirrel aficionado and runs Project Squirrel, a nationwide, citizen scientist project that asks participants to record their observations of local squirrels to better understanding the urban environment. “I love squirrels,” Sullivan told me. “I’ve set aside a habitat for squirrels. I eat them.” Even though it might seem incongruous for Sullivan, eating a squirrel that he kills himself is more ecologically sound that shopping at a grocery market.

One thing to know about Sullivan is that he is energetic. During a whirlwind tour of the archives from his first-floor office to the second-floor collection, he is not at a loss for words. He begins to talk about the collection, but then hesitates: “Visual aids help explain the best.”

The skulls, bones and fur of coyotes are stored and preserved for future study. Credit: Jason Kreske

The skulls, bones and fur of coyotes are stored and preserved for future study. Credit: Jason Kreske

The second floor contains what everyone wants to see: perpetually-frozen birds, squirrels, frogs, snakes, fossils, coyotes and nearly anything imaginable-that-moves locked away in steel cabinet coated in a powder-white paint to resist bacteria. The air is pumped with an insect repellent.

The feeling is anapestic, industrial and academic. More than 250,000 specimens are locked away, ready to be studied by scientists around the country. Each specimen is carefully preserved (in a process similar to taxidermy) and stored on a sliding shelf with other similar specimens, carefully tagged to indicate when it was collected. Ten or more grey squirrels lay side by side, each from a different year or location. For Sullivan, each preserved specimen—both individually and collectively—tells a story, one that scientists can use today to understand a long-gone ecosystem or scientists of the future can use to solve unseen problems.

The Chicago Academy of Science was founded in 1857 by Robert Kennicott. Born in New Orleans and raised in what is now Glenview, Kennicott became one of the first naturalists to explore the American west and became a member of the Megatherium Club, a group of Washington D.C.-based scientists that worked at the Smithsonian Institute from 1856 to 1866. In 1857, the Academy was only one of six or eight natural history museums in the U.S. with a scope from Florida to Alaska. “When the Academy got its start, Chicago was nothing more than a frontier town,” Sullivan said. “The people in Chicago were learning about the natural world themselves. “There were pioneering studies being done here.” The mission of the Academy is still the same: to preserve specimens for future study.

According to Sullivan, looking at the species in the collection is like looking at a snapshot in time. “I can hold it like a book,” he said. “We have different levels of literacy, but we can all read it.”

Back in a corner stuck among more cabinets, Joan Bledig and Richard Rock carefully examine several fossils taken from the Mazon Creek in Morris, Illinois, which contains nearly 1,000 species of flora and fauna. They are two of the 25 volunteers and three full-time staff at the Academy. “For four years now, we’ve been going through piles of stuff,” said Bledig. She was first exposed to the Mazon Creek during a field trip in 1959, and when Francis Tully found the first Tully Monster, a 300 million year old invertebrate unique to Illinois, Rock was on hand to witness it. “I held it in my hands,” he said. “It’s fun to collect and study the fossils. For me, it’s like putting a puzzle together.” In 2006, the Earth Science Club of Illinois published a book dedicated to the Mazon Creek.

Asked if any specimen is more valuable than the next, Sullivan responds by saying that the most valuable specimen is the one being used today, the second most valuable was the one used yesterday and the third most valuable will be the one used tomorrow. “It was recently discovered that Hela Monsters have something in their venom that could combat Type II diabetes.” Because tomorrow’s discoveries are not yet known makes everything in the collection potentially the most valuable specimen.

A drawer of collected and tagged woodpecker specimens. Credit: Jason Kreske

A drawer of collected and tagged woodpecker specimens. Credit: Jason Kreske

“In 1857, we didn’t know about DNA,” Sullivan said. “We are holding these specimens in the public trust. We preserve knowledge and make it available for the future.” Sullivan walks over to a cabinet and slides out a drawer of Pileated and Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers. He holds two specimens and turns them over in his hands. “One specimen can tell us a lot about the environment.” The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker needed two to four acres of cypress forest for its habitat. “Because we know that fact, we know that where these birds were taken, we know that there was cypress forest.” However, due to a variety of factors including human influence, there is no longer enough cypress forest in Florida to support the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker and it is thought to be extinct.

According to Sullivan, there are three reasons why people will preserve an animal: political, aesthetics and ethics. “I’m going to say something heretical: if all the Monarch Butterflies died, it would not have an impact on ecology. Some birds might have less to eat, but it wouldn’t be a big deal. However, Blue Fin Tuna will probably be extinct in the next few years.” While people wring hands over the butterfly, people can’t seem to get enough tuna to eat. “People eat it and don’t seem to care that it is going to be extinct.”

Another example goes back to the useful, and apparently tasty, carrier pigeon. Sullivan recounts the tale of a carrier pigeon in World War II called G.I. Joe that received a medal for his service. Even though the carrier pigeon was worthy enough of a medal, it didn’t save the species fate from extinction. “We didn’t see fit to conserve it,” Sullivan said. “How do we say you’re pretty or you’re too ugly to save?” It seems the beautiful butterfly gets a pass while the utilitarian and slightly annoying pigeon doesn’t.

Sullivan displays two birds that despite their difference in feather colors are actually the same species. “Everything we know about the world is found in natural sciences because someone collected it, evaluated it, and gave it a scientific name.” Credit: Jason Kreske

Sullivan displays two birds that despite their difference in feather colors are actually the same species. “Everything we know about the world is found in natural sciences because someone collected it, evaluated it, and gave it a scientific name.” Credit: Jason Kreske

Today, the Academy focuses on ecology in Chicago’s own backyard. “Our motto now is that we are an urban gateway to science,” Sullivan said. “People are disconnected to the natural world and it is our mission to get them connected.” For the average Chicagoan, that means squirrels, pigeons, rats and even coyotes. For people that think nature can only exist outside the city, Sullivan quickly squashes that idea. With chemicals such as Teflon found everywhere in the world, Sullivan says there is no place left on earth untouched by humans. “What is real nature?” he asks. “We usually take that to mean an aesthetic of the country, but there is nature here. Urban ecosystems are the new ecologies. For us, rats and pigeons are the new wolves and bears.”

It’s understanding this relationship that led the Peggy Notebart Museum to create its new exhibition: Food: The Nature of Eating. It looks at how technology, energy and travel impact the food chain. It’s through the study of the collection at the Academy that this presentation is possible. “As part of the urban gateway initiative, we look at nature and science,” Sullivan said. “Creating food takes space. We need to figure out how to be more sustainable.”

Given that only 1 percent of the collection makes it to exhibition, Sullivan says they will continue on collecting, cataloging and researching the natural world. The Academy is in the process of digitizing its collection, allowing greater and wider access to its collection. Something that Kennicott couldn’t have foreseen when he was sending specimens to the Smithsonian as a teenager.

Back to the saga of the Starling. One hundred years ago people walking around Chicago, but not the rest of the country would have encountered a European Starling, a small, non-native bird. It was originally brought to New York in the 1800s by Shakespeare fanatics that believed if the bird was mentioned in a Shakespeare play, then it was good enough for America. Now, Sullivan says, they can be found all over the U.S. as an invasive species. It’s another example of how everything from deforestation to Henry IV can greatly impact the environment and heighten the need for its study.

Note: This article was altered to correct Steve Sullivan’s title to “Senior Curator of Urban Ecology”, on April 5. The original version incorrectly noted him as “Director”.

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