Published: January 11, 2019

A Year in Review and a Look to the Future

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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. 

The Hypsiboas frog is one of more than 100 amphibian species in Yaguas National Park.

Jonh Jairo Mueses-Cisneros

The Yaguas River traverses more than 125 miles of unbroken Amazon rainforest in Peru. Field scientists provided scientific support for the creation of Yaguas National Park in 2017, a wilderness of over two million acres.

Álvaro del Campo

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.

Illustration of a bird-like dinosaur perched on a branch. Its body is covered in feathers, mostly black, with bright orange and yellow feathers on the top of the wing, green on the neck, and blue on the head. Its long, feathered tail is raised.

The duck-sized dinosaur, named Caihong juji, lived 161 million years ago. An analysis of its fossilized feathers showed they were colorful like a hummingbird’s.

Velizar Simeonovski

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.

A shrew, dark gray in color, on top of light green and brown moss. The shrew has a pointy nose and ears to the side of its head. There are dried brown leaves behind it.

The Palawan moss shrew, Palawanosorex muscorum, is part of a unique “sky island” ecosystem. Deforestation in such areas has grave repercussions for animals who live there as well as people who live in the lowlands and depend on the mountain’s watershed.

Danilo Balete

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 base of a ceramic container photographed on a black background. There are raised Chinese characters on the base’s recessed surface, which is round. Beyond the round edge, it appears as though the body of the container is octagonal in shape.

The base of a ceramic box with a Chinese inscription that mentions a place, Jianning Fu, which dates from AD 1162 to 1278.

John Weinstein

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.

A light yellow piece of amber, mostly oblong with one straight edge, is positioned next to the tip of a mechanical pencil to show the small scale of a beetle that looks like a tiny brown dot. There are streaks and other occlusions in the amber, including a larger brown insect that looks like a cockroach.

The featherwing beetle, Kekveus jason, is seen next to a mechanical pencil tip for scale (not the much larger, unidentified insect to the right). Amber, fossilized resin, acts as a time capsule.

Shuhei Yamamoto

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.

Illustration of the early “solar disk,” a dark donut-shaped cloud with a beam of pink light through the middle. The background is dark greenish blue, which is illuminated closer to the pink beam. An inset graphic shows a bright blue box that’s similar to a rock in texture.

Illustration of the early Sun with a disk of gas and dust swirling around it. Blue hibonite crystals were the first minerals to form, as the solar disk cooled down.

University of Chicago, NASA, ESA, and E. Feild (STScl)

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.

Illustration of a shell-less turtle with a rounded body, long tail, and finned feet and claws. It’s swimming underwater above the seafloor, which is rocky with some grasses. The turtle’s underside is yellow, while the top of its body is green.

This shell-less early turtle—Eorhynchochelys sinensis—was over six feet long with a Frisbee-shaped body and a long tail.

Adrienne Stroup

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.

An iridescent fish on a solid black background. The front of its body has a large, curved protrusion. It has translucent bluish fins, and its body is striped with black, white, and gold.

This marbled hatchetfish, Carnegiella strigata, has a built-in keel to help it zip across the water and escape prey.

Jorge Enrique García Melo

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.

A close-up view of tiny plants that have waxy bright green leaves around a center of many small stalks. The plants are surrounded by moss, larger brown leaves, and twigs.

Liverworts are named for their rounded leaves that are somewhat liver-shaped. Measuring their microscopic leaves helps identify differences between species.

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.

Three people stand on a sandy path that cuts through dune grass on both sides. All three people are looking off to the left and one of them is pointing. They cast long shadows on the sand in front of them. The dark blue water of Lake Michigan is in the background, with lighter blue sky above it.

Residents of Dune Acres, IN, hike Cowles Bog Trail—one of the many paths comprising over 70 miles of hiking trails in the Indiana Dunes.

Katherine Moore Powell

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.

A woman, boy, and man pose in front of a backdrop with phrases including “Speak up for butterflies” and “Speak up for lichens.” The blue Field Museum logo is in the bottom left corner of the backdrop. The man is lifting up the boy, who holds a postcard in each hand. All three are smiling for a camera, and part of a standalone light is out of focus in the upper left corner.

Zachary James Johnston

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