502 South Spring Springfield, IL
While the American Bald Eagle was getting all the attention for its comeback in the lower 48 states, another bird of prey was quietly making a comeback of its own. The Osprey (Pandion haliaetus), a fish-eating hawk, has also benefitted from some of the same legal protections and conservation measures that have assisted the Bald Eagle. The Osprey has a white head with a dark eye stripe. It hunts by folding its wings and making a steep dive into the water feet first to catch fish.
European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) are ubiquitous across North America, where they compete with native cavity-nesting birds for space. They reportedly were brought to the Americas by a fan of William Shakespeare who set out to introduce every bird mentioned in the Bard’s work to the New World. In 1890, Eugene Schieffelin released 60 starlings in Central Park in New York City, and the rest was “to be.” Immigrants brought many plants and animals from home when they resettled in the New World, and most of them behaved well enough. However, a few became invasive, meaning they cause ecological or economic harm.
The Greater Prairie Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido) once numbered in the millions in Illinois. At first, as the Illinois prairie was converted to farmland, prairie chickens grew in numbers. But as the ratio of farmland to prairie grew more lopsided, prairie chickens declined in number, leaving a small, remnant population on two preserves in southern Illinois.
This specimen of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) (here compared with the common Pileated Woodpecker on the left) is not from Illinois. The only Illinois records we have are observations from naturalists, mostly in the 1800s. John James Audubon, the famous bird artist, encountered calling Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the 1820s on both sides of the Ohio River where it meets the Mississippi River at Cairo. Southern Illinois was the far northern extent of the species at that time.
The unmistakable ridges of the carapace (or shell) tell us right away that this prehistoric-looking creature is the Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macrochelys temminckii). It is our largest freshwater turtle, weighing up to 200 pounds. They lie in wait for prey submerged underwater and try to lure a meal into range by means of a wormlike appendage on the floor of their mouths. When a fish or other aquatic animal moves in to investigate, the turtle snaps its jaws shut.
Ancient shark relatives from the Pennsylvanian Period evolved some puzzling jaw structures that sometimes curved outward, giving the appearance of two saw blades curving away from each other. That’s why scientists describe them as “tooth whorls.”
The first and largest meteorite ever to strike Illinois (at least in recorded history) fell to Earth in three large pieces near the town of Tilden in southwest Illinois 91 years ago. About 1 p.m. on July 13, 1927, witnesses reported a sound like an airplane passing overhead and backfiring. In fact, a large meteorite exploded three times as it streaked through the sky, rattling windows and shaking dishes.
Discovered by an excavation crew in 1926 on the bank of the Ohio River near Golconda in Pope County, this Wooly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) specimen didn’t come quietly. Illinois State Museum Director Aljah R. Crook worked with the crew on scene to recover as much of the Mammoth skeleton as possible.
In what might have been the most successful college field trip of all time, Lincoln College freshman Judd McCullum discovered the tusk of a Wooly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) during a biology lab at the college’s Creekside Field Station in 2005. McCullum discovered the 12-foot-long tusk while conducting a freshwater mussel survey. The mammoth may have been one of the last of its kind in the region. Carbon-14 dating determined the animal died about 11,500 years ago, well after the glaciers had retreated from Illinois.
Most fossil plants and animals from hundreds of millions of years ago were preserved in swampy lowland areas where they had the good fortune to die and be buried quickly by sediments in water. The water preserved the specimens long enough for the living tissues to be replaced by minerals or for the specimen to create an impression in the soft mud that hardened into shale or sandstone under heat and pressure.