Most important discoveries are found after digging deep into the earth. One never thinks to look up. But that’s what happened when scientists drove by the Biddle Farm in northern Illinois and saw the large main beam of a set of antlers hanging in a garage. It was too big to be a deer or elk, so they stopped to take a look. What they discovered were antlers of an extinct Stag-Moose, an animal that died over 10,000 years ago. The family found the fossil while digging an irrigation pond years before but didn’t immediately recognize its significance. The family from Elburn donated the find to the Illinois State Museum in 1989.
Today, anyone can share color photos of butterflies and moths by simply uploading them to social media. It wasn't so easy 120 years ago, when technology to capture color photographs and print the pictures on a page was in its infancy.
Even a piece of bone adapted for use as a tool is an opportunity for artistic expression. In this case, an arrow straightener, made from a bison’s rib bone, serves as a tiny canvas. It was found at the Kaskaskia Village site in Randolph County and collected in 1952.
Like other large carnivores, the Black Bear (Ursus americanus) was gone from Illinois by the mid to late 1800s. Queto (Luella) J. Rennier of Champaign found this Black Bear cranium in the Embarras River in Jasper County and donated it to the Illinois State Museum in 2012. One of the bear’s teeth was sampled in order to obtain an age. The bear dates to about A.D. 1760, or 250 years before present, just before the American Revolutionary War and the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Combining science and art, ornithologist Robert Ridgway tried to bring scientific order to the description of the colors of birds. When he published this Color Standards and Nomenclature in 1912, it was actually his second version. The first one, Nomenclature of Colors for Naturalists, published in 1886, included hand-colored plates.
When it comes to Mammoths and Mastodons, the difference is more than a matter of pronunciation. They are very different prehistoric animals with distinct evolutionary and natural histories. While Mammoths are close relatives of modern elephants, Mastodons are only distantly related to the others. Mammoths and Mastodons inhabited separate habitats during the Pleistocene Era (2.6 million to 12,000 years ago). They are often confused, and their scientific names don’t help matters much. The American Mastodon is Mammut americanum, while the Wooly Mammoth is known as Mammuthus primigenius.
The Kirtland’s Water Snake shares some similar habitats and habits as the Massasauga Rattlesnake and is also under scrutiny as its numbers continue to decline. It is not venomous, but it uses crayfish burrows like the Massasauga and spends most of its life underground. Biologists hoping to survey the secretive snake often will use a cover board, a corrugated sheet of aluminum that is placed over a crayfish burrow.
The Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake is a small, venomous snake recently listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It persists in only a few locations in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The Fish and Wildlife Service describes the Massasauga as “a small snake with a thick body, heart-shaped head and vertical pupils.”
The Nine-banded Armadillo is native to Mexico, Central, and South America but has expanded its range north into the southern United States. They first appeared in Texas in the mid 1800s and were also introduced into Florida by about 1900. Now Armadillos are being seen more frequently in Illinois as they slowly push northward.
The Bobcat was nearly eliminated from Illinois by the mid 20th century, landing it on the state list of threatened and endangered species from 1977-1999. Today, Bobcats have been documented in every county but are most numerous in the southern half of the state. They are secretive, mostly nocturnal hunters that prefer forest environments for cover. They can be up to three-and-half feet long (including tail) and weigh up to 40 pounds (but averaging 22 pounds), making adult Bobcats larger than even the biggest house cat.