Thursday, September 18, 2008

Illinois Natural History Survey to celebrate its 150th year as state’s “biological memory”

Illinois Natural History Survey to celebrate its 150th year as state’s “biological memory”

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Next week the Illinois Natural History Survey, which is based at the Research Park in Champaign and now officially part of the University of Illinois, will celebrate its 150th year of existence. It is one of the oldest, largest, and most successful state biological surveys in the country. That said, it may be better known among scientists around the world than it is among the citizens of the state it serves, even those of us who live close to its home.

The Illinois Natural History Survey calls itself “the guardian and recorder of the biological resources of Illinois---the state's biological memory.” Over the years its mission has been “to investigate the diversity, life histories, and ecology of the plants and animals of the state; to publish research results so that those resources can be managed wisely; and to provide information to the public in order to foster an understanding and appreciation of our natural heritage.”

Toward these ends, survey scientists collect and preserve massive numbers of specimens—presently some nine million in all. The oldest of these is a stonefly collected at Rock Island by then state entomologist Benjamin Walsh all the way back in 1860. Other specimens in Survey collections are as large as the full size bison mount you can see on display at Survey headquarters, and as small as microsproridea, single celled parasites stored in vials of liquid nitrogen. In between are all other manner of plants and animals, creatures preserved in jars, drawers crowded with insects, and shelf upon shelf neatly stacked with pressed flowers and leaves.

Survey collections help to document the occurrence and distribution of organisms around the state at specific points in time, so that we can understand how our landscapes are changing, whether for good or bad. Survey collections are also useful for answering more focused scientific questions. For example, scientists are currently assessing how levels of mercury in the environment have changed over time by studying fish specimens collected from the same site on Panther Creek in southeastern Illinois at intervals dating back to 1900.

When state transportation authorities in Illinois want to build new roads or expand old ones, scientists from the Illinois Natural History Survey assess the potential environmental impacts on areas that will be affected. They also help to develop and monitor wetlands that are created to offset wetlands destroyed by highway construction.

As someone who wants to learn everything he can about the ecology of our state, I value immensely the ways the people at the Illinois Natural History Survey make science available to citizens. They maintain a fantastic library, which is open to the public, and staffed by helpful experts. They publish a free quarterly newsletter, which provides accounts of current projects as well as informative features and useful activities for parents and teachers. They publish state specific field guides, nine of which are currently in print, including the newly released “Field Manual of Illinois Mammals.” And they conduct eye-opening educational programs for children and adults around the state.

You can learn more about the Illinois Natural History Survey and help celebrate its 150th birthday at events set to take place this week. On Friday, September 26th a day-long symposium will feature talks on “Conservation in the 21st Century: The View from Illinois.” On Saturday, September 27th, herpetologist and Animal Planet personality Mark O’ Shea will speak, and an afternoon expo at Survey headquarters on South Oak Street in Champaign will feature more than 40 displays and interactive exhibits.

Further details about the Illinois Natural History Survey and this week’s events are available at