Published: January 11, 2019

A Year in Review and a Look to the Future

From the Amazon rainforest to the Indiana Dunes, we were busy last year.

A lot of what we do here at a natural history museum involves examining the past. What were the Sun’s earliest days—its “terrible twos”—like? What can a tiny beetle named Jason reveal about the world 99 million years ago?

These are fascinating pieces of history on their own, but also part of a bigger story of life on Earth. Thanks to nearly 40 million specimens and artifacts in our collections—the oldest dating back to before Earth existed—we can take the very (very) long view.

In 2018, we renewed our mission. Now more than ever, we’re dedicated to using our knowledge of the past to act for the future. This means continuing to explore our planet to document and protect species and their habitats, and to lead change right here at home.

Join us in looking back, and also forward. What we all do together this next year can have a positive impact on the future of life on Earth.

Protecting two million acres of Amazon rainforest

January 2018 saw nearly 20 years of work come to fruition. Field Museum scientists, along with numerous collaborators, helped establish Yaguas National Park in Peru. 

Yaguas is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. There are thousands of species of plants and hundreds of species of birds and mammals.

Corine Vriesendorp, MacArthur Senior Conservation Ecologist

These two million acres—the size of Yosemite National Park in the US—are home to a huge array of life, from jaguars to giant anteaters to freshwater dolphins. Not only is it home to species we don’t even know about yet, but the Amazon rainforest is essential to protecting the planet from climate change. The dense forests in this area affect rainfall and droughts across the globe—as far away as the western United States—and absorb and store carbon from the atmosphere.

Women in Science welcomed Dr. Jane Goodall

Dr. Jane Goodall joined us at the museum on April 3—her eighty-fourth birthday! The event, organized by the Women’s Board of the Field Museum, supported our Women in Science program. Dr. Goodall’s message was one of hope: in young people, in intellect, in the resilience of nature, and in the indomitable human spirit.

We’ve got a window of time, and if we all take action now, we can start turning things around and make the world a better place.

Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE, Founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, and UN Messenger of Peace

Through internships, fellowships, and regular events that are open to the public, our Women in Science efforts continue to advocate and be a resource for emerging young scientists.

New scientific discoveries

While 2018 wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, we did see some bright spots in the world of science. One being the discovery of an actual “rainbow” dinosaur with iridescent feathers.

Another new species we helped identify is one that’s still around today, living in what sounds like a magical place called a “sky island.” This moss shrew in the Philippines lives in an isolated mountaintop habitat about 5,000 feet above sea level.

Also in the last year, our scientists found a very relatable clue from centuries ago: the equivalent of a “Made in China” label on a piece of pottery.

The Java Sea shipwreck happened off the coast of Indonesia several hundred years ago, leaving a trove of ceramics and luxury goods on the ocean floor. Thanks to this label, archaeologists were able to reevaluate when the ship went down and how it fits in with China’s history. The shipwreck is probably 800 years old, a hundred years older than scientists originally thought. See a few artifacts from the shipwreck on display in our Cyrus Tang Hall of China.

Our next discovery is a very, very small beetle—named Jason, for the Greek hero who sailed the world in search of the Golden Fleece. This critter, preserved in amber, lived 99 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period alongside dinosaurs.

From the very tiny to the very epic, we go even farther back in time: 4.6 billion years ago, when the Sun was experiencing its “terrible twos.” By examining tiny blue crystals trapped inside meteorites, scientists are able to tell what the Sun was like before the Earth formed—and apparently, it had a pretty rowdy start.

These blue crystals, called hibonites, are some of the first minerals to form in our Solar System. When scientists analyzed the chemical makeup of these crystals, they found atoms that would only be there if the early Sun was spitting out lots of high-energy particles. Basically, the early Sun went through the terrible twos before calming down into the star we know and love today.

We also gained some insight into the early days of…turtles. Scientists discovered a fossil turtle that lived 228 million years ago and had some unique features (or lack thereof): it had no shell, but it had the earliest toothless beak we’ve seen.

Modern turtles have both shells and beaks, but the path evolution took to get there wasn’t a straight line. This turtle-y fascinating specimen is rewriting the turtle family tree by showing how different traits (like beaks and shells) can evolve independently from each other.

Seeing biodiversity in Colombia

A team of Field Museum scientists completed our 30th rapid inventory in April 2018. On these trips, we document as much wildlife as we can—fish, plants, amphibians, mammals, birds—in remote parts of the Amazon rainforest.

On this year’s rapid inventory alone, we documented 750 species of plants and 686 species of vertebrates! And we estimate there are more than double these numbers in the area.

The more we know about what lives in rich natural areas like the Amazon rainforest, the easier it is for us to work together to protect the landscapes where they live and the people who depend on them. See what it’s like to live and work in the jungle for a month.

Tiny plants reveal climate change

Even when we’re working small, those efforts add up in big ways.

Liverworts are ancient plants that evolved millions of years before the dinosaurs, and they’re tiny—about the size of an eyelash. Being so small, they respond to climate change and global warming more quickly than bigger plants and animals. This makes them very valuable to scientists.

Together with community scientists and volunteers, our botany department has been working to measure these “microplants” online. Ready to dive in and become a community scientist yourself? Start measuring microplants from the comfort of your home.

Conserving Chicago’s backyard

While liverworts thrive from deserts to the Arctic, we’re also looking at what’s right here at home. The Indiana Dunes, less than 50 miles from Chicago, are home to a unique cross-section of landscapes and life: prairie, forest, oak savanna, and wetland.

Human-driven climate change already takes its toll on the Dunes’ 15,000 acres of land—an area just larger than Manhattan—as extreme heat and precipitation cause native species to vacate and die off.

That’s why our team of ecologists is working with local agencies and land managers to put a plan into action. Strategies based on nine years of research will help both protect the Indiana Dunes as well as transition them through change that’s already happening and prepare them for the future.

Speaking up for science

In celebration of Earth Day in April, many of you joined us at Speak up for Science. Collectively, we wrote over a thousand postcards voicing our support for our natural world and its future: clean air and water, the Great Lakes, scientific research, coral reefs, national parks, and so much more.

Thanks for joining us in exploring, celebrating, and protecting our planet over the past year. We can’t wait to see what’s next.