Top 10 Science, Nature, and Culture Stories of 2016

Need a break from the holiday madness? Curl up with our 10 most-read blog posts of the year for a brain refresh (plus, some fun science facts to share with your visiting in-laws or your New Year’s Eve party guests).

From Tully monsters to SUE’s missing arm to local birds, plants, and culture, it’s been a wild ride. Thanks for joining us on these adventures and discoveries, and stay curious with us in 2017!

1. Monster Mystery Solved

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Illustration of an animal with a long neck and tiny mouth that's yellow with black spots
© Sean McMahon

Is it a fish? A worm? A snail? Invertebrate or vertebrate? We now have an answer, nearly 60 years after Francis Tully discovered the “monster” that became the state fossil of Illinois. Field Museum scientists and colleagues from other institutions determined that the Tully monster is a jawless fish, similar to today’s lampreys. Our collection of over 2,000 Tully monster (Tullimonstrum gregarium) specimens played a key role in this discovery.

 

2. Bringing Neanderthals to Life: The Sculptures of Elisabeth Daynés

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Photos © E. Daynès. Reconstructions: Elisabeth Daynès Paris

Paleoartist Elisabeth Daynès gave new life to human relatives Homo ergaster and Homo neanderthalensis through sculptures that were added to our Evolving Planet exhibition. Her realistic depictions of these hominid species began with a careful study of preserved bones, to create scientifically accurate reconstructions.

 

3. Four Fossil Sharks That Are Cooler Than Megalodon

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Illustration of a striped shark with many pointy teeth, next to a photo of a man holding an X-ray up to the light
Illustration of Edestid shark © Ray Troll, based on work by Tapanila, Pruitt, Wilga, Pradel, and Ramsay.

Some bizarre and fascinating sharks lived millions of years ago—and even millions of years before dinosaurs. While we can admit megalodon is cool, find out what makes Helicoprion (nature’s buzzsaw) and Bandringa (baby sharks in Illinois) equally fearsome fossil sharks.

4. Of Ivory Gulls and Parasites

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Brown and white bird specimens pinned on a board

When a rare ivory gull was spotted in Minnesota, it turned into a unique opportunity to study some bird parasites, too. Research Assistant Josh Engel takes us behind the scenes as he describes how bird specimens—and their lice, mites, fleas, and ticks—are studied, and what we can learn from them.

5. SUE Lends a Hand

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A man standing under a T. rex skeleton, and a close up of a large arm with two fingers and claws

Field Museum scientists carefully removed SUE’s arm so that it could be micro-CT scanned at Argonne National Laboratory. The goal was to gather more information about how T. rex actually used its tiny arms (if much at all). The micro-CT scanner allowed scientists to take a super close look at the inside of SUE’s bones, gathering images of blood vessels and muscle.

6. Merlin Confirmed Nesting in Illinois for the First Time!

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Brown and white bird perched on a branch in front of a blue sky
Photo © John Picken / www.picken.com

Merlin (Falco columbarius) is a small falcon that typically breeds in forests far north of Illinois. But in 2016, we had the first confirmed Merlin nesting in the state. Like peregrine falcons, merlins have been adapting to urban landscapes in recent years, and we’re hopeful about seeing more here in the coming years.

7. “Hammerhead” Creature Was World’s First Plant-Eating Marine Reptile

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Illustration of a large swimming animal eating plants at the bottom of the ocean
© Y. Chen, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology.  

A 2016 paper published in part by Olivier Rieppel, Rowe Family Curator of Evolutionary Biology at The Field Museum, described the earliest known example of an herbivorous marine reptile. This creature, whose fossil was discovered in China in 2014, had a hammerhead-like jaw with strange teeth that it used to eat marine plants.  

8. Five Native Plants to Grow in Your Home Garden

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Hummingbird hovering near a plant with red flowers
© Flickr user Steven Severinghaus

It’s never too early to start planning your spring and summer gardens. Robb Telfer of the Keller Science Action Center recommends some unique and beautiful plants that are native to Illinois. They’ll spruce up your yard in addition to providing healthy food and habitat for native animals like bees, birds, and butterflies.

9. A New Kind of Nature Trail Emerges Along Chicago’s South Lakefront

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People sitting in a circle around a garden inside a sculptural ring
Photo by John Weinstein, © The Field Museum

This is your guide through five Gathering Spaces along the Burnham Wildlife Corridor. Each of these sites—created by artists and community organizations—represents a unique cultural identity. They’re designed as places for people to come together, and they also tie into the surrounding natural landscape of the trail, prairie, and Lake Michigan.  

10. Why We Don’t Dress up SUE (Or Any Other Real Skeletons)

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Photo of T. rex skeleton inside a museum next to photo of a Brachiosaurus skeleton wearing a sports jersey outside

Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether a fossil on display at a museum is real or not. SUE, our famous T. rex, is indeed composed of real fossils. We take careful measures to protect this 67-million-year old dinosaur (but the plastic and metal Brachiosaurus outside the building can don a Chicago sports jersey every now and then).