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Live Talk in the Daily Planet: What is Arduino? (or “How to Build Robots!”)

April 14, 2014

Originally posted on NC Museum of Natural Sciences Education Blog:

What is Arduino? (or "How to build robots!"): Live at the SECU Daily Planet Theater, Nature Research Center, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

What: Free talk with live demonstration and Q&A.
When: April 15, 2014 @ 10:45AM
Where: Inside the SECU Daily Planet Theater.
Who: Matthew FaerberCoordinator of the Visual World Investigate Lab in the NRC.

Ever want to build a robot but didn’t know where to start? Come to the Daily Planet to learn how adults and children alike are using an affordable technology called Arduino to build anything that they can dream of.

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Age of the Appalachians Part 2: Ground Truth

April 7, 2014

Originally posted on Research & Collections:

This geologic map of the Appalachians, from Alabama to New York, gives an idea of the complexity of the mountain geology.

This geologic map of the Appalachians, from Alabama to New York, gives an idea of the complexity of the mountain geology.

One of the most common canards I hear about North Carolina geologic is, “The Appalachians are the oldest mountains in the world.” I hear the same about the Uwharries, which are not even in the contest. The age of the Appalachians is tied to the question of “When were they built?”  The answer is that there was no single time in which they were built or finished. The story of the Appalachians was built through observation of crosscutting relationships, then augmented with isotopic dates: See Part 1 of this blog series.    The map at the top of this article is from Jim Hibbard of NCSU and his co-authors  (2006, Lithotectonic map of Appalachian Orogen from the Geological Survey of Canada) which can be downloaded here

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Age of the Appalachians Part 1: Geology Ground Rules

April 7, 2014

Originally posted on Research & Collections:

One of those things that “everybody knows” is that the Appalachians are the “oldest in the world.”  That conclusion is usually based on the amount that the Appalachians are eroded- young mountains, sharp topography, old mountains, rounded topography. But the age of the Appalachians is a simple question with no simple answer. A good guide can be downloaded from the United States Geological Survey if you click here.

To get at the answer, you need to know something about the way geologists do business. So this is part 1 of a two-part blog.

Geology is often oversimplified as the study of rocks, but if you look closer, it is actually the study of deep time and the sequence of events. You can build a picture of a sequence of events by crosscutting relationships: Younger events cut across older events.

Sediments stack up on top of each other, so…

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Introducing Natural North Carolina

March 31, 2014

At the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, we like to provide a variety of citizen science opportunities to our visitors, both on-site and online. We want you to have a chance to make a difference in science, to be able to contribute something to a research project regardless of your level of scientific experience, so we offer a variety of citizen science projects at the Museum. It is with great excitement that we bring you a brand new project: Natural North Carolina!


Natural North Carolina is a project aimed at documenting every plant, animal, and fungus species in our great state. The Museum staff alone can’t find every species, however, so we need your help! By simply heading outside, snapping a photo of anything interesting you see, and uploading your images to the Natural North Carolina project online, you will make a valuable contribution to our distribution maps and species database.

The Natural North Carolina project was built within the iNaturalist platform, which means that we have instant access to several great tools. You’ll need to make a free iNaturalist account, but then there are a couple of ways to participate. If you have a camera you love, snap some photos of nature and upload them to our project website at When you upload a sighting, you can have the system take the date, time, and location right from your images if you have those features enabled on your camera. Otherwise it’s a matter of a few seconds to type in the data manually and submit the sighting. You can submit any photo of any species taken any time, so long as the photo was taken in North Carolina. Photos from your back catalog are welcome!

If your cell phone camera is your primary (or only) camera, you might try the iNaturalist smartphone app for Apple and Android phones. Simply open the app, snap a photo, and the app will fill in the date, time, and location automatically. Just be sure to add your sightings to the Natural North Carolina project by tapping the Choose Projects button and choosing our project before you submit. You’ll be able to access all of the submissions you’ve made with your phone every time you open the app.

The best part of building our project within iNaturalist is this: whether you submit your sightings online or via the smartphone app, you never need to know which species you’ve sighted before you submit. Click Need ID Help when you submit your photo and other iNaturalist users can help you identify the things you see. Likewise, if you know a lot about a group of organisms, you can suggest identifications to other iNaturalist users who need a little help. This communication between users is one of the best parts of getting involved in Natural North Carolina and helps make the project fun and easy to use.

By submitting your sightings of North Carolina’s wildlife to Natural North Carolina, you will help us do two things. Your sightings will become part of an ever growing database of species from all over the state, information that is freely available to Museum scientists, other researchers, and the general public for use in answering scientific questions. Simultaneously, we will build an amazing searchable field guide to North Carolina life that you can view anywhere you have access to the Internet. You can even use the project as a repository for your own wildlife life list or keep a list of species found in your backyard, your school yard, or other favorite spot in the state. And the more you participate, the greater this resource will become! With your help, we will be able to build an incredible resource useful to a wide range of users, both within North Carolina and beyond.

Give Natural North Carolina a try today! It’s easy to get involved. Upload a few photos to the project online. Download the iNaturalist app and submit a few photos while you’re out on your daily walk with your dog. Browse the field guide and marvel at the amazing diversity of our state. Or attend one of our free iNaturalist training workshops! We’ll walk you through the whole process, from creating an account to recording your sightings to submitting your findings online. Visit the Museum’s events calendar to search for upcoming dates.

We hope you’ll join us on our new citizen science adventure! With your help, we can all learn more about the species that call North Carolina home — together.

What Time is it in Nature: Spring Peeper

March 29, 2014

If you’ve paid attention to the sounds of nature at night recently, you have likely heard one of North Carolina’s most widespread frogs. Choruses of Spring Peeper calls have begun to fill the evening soundscape at Prairie Ridge, a good sign that spring is finally here!

Spring Peeper

Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) are small frogs common throughout North Carolina and most of the eastern US. Topping out at an inch and a half, these little frogs come in a variety of color forms, including tan, grey, yellow, pink, and orange. Spring Peepers generally remain well-hidden, but the X-shaped mark across their backs is distinctive and will let you know when you’ve spotted one. In fact, the species name crucifer refers to this mark and means “cross bearing.”

Spring Peepers are woodland frogs and you’ll typically find adults close to the ground in brushy undergrowth close to temporary or semi-permanent fishless ponds. Like many of their close relatives, they feed primarily on insects and other invertebrates as adults. Unlike some of their relatives, Spring Peepers tend to remain active throughout the winter. They even contain chemicals that act as a sort of antifreeze that allows the frogs to survive and remain active throughout all but the coldest winter days. On particularly cold days, they will retreat into shelters under bark or logs, but Spring Peepers can remain active at surprisingly low temperatures and are one of the only frogs you can expect to hear in the middle of winter.

As their name suggests, Spring Peepers make a peeping sound when they call. For such little frogs, their calls are quite impressive! Individual frogs can be heard a mile away, and large choruses can be heard even further, their overlapping calls creating a sound similar to sleigh bells. The calls are an important part of their biology: males call to attract mates in their winter and early spring breeding season. Once they’ve mated, female Spring Peepers will lay their eggs in ponds and the tadpoles will spend about three months in the water before emerging onto land as adults. Tadpoles feed on aquatic plant matter, and are an important food source for wading birds, snakes, other frogs, and some insects, including giant water bugs and dragonfly nymphs.

We’ve heard Spring Peepers calling at Prairie Ridge on recent warm evenings, but you can hear them all over the Triangle. Spring Peepers remain well hidden and are hard to find, but if you’re lucky you might see one in the brush near the pond, alongside one of the temporary pools, or in a brushy area along the edge of the forest. If you hear a Peeper call during the day, try following the call to the source! But even if you can’t find a frog for a close look, enjoy the sound. The recent warmer nights mean a lot of Spring Peepers are out calling, and that spring is on the way!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation.  Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photo by USGS, used under the Creative Commons License)

What Time is it in Nature: Longleaf Pine

March 21, 2014

The first day of spring has arrived, and with it comes several more signs of spring!  One good sign is visible on a tree with an interesting biology that has played a prominent role in North Carolina’s history, the Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris).

Longleaf pine

Longleaf Pine is a pine species native to the southeastern US.  The trees grow tall and straight, reaching heights of over 100 feet at maturity.  The leaves are dark green and needle-like and grow in bundles of three.  The needles are, as the name suggests, quite long, reaching lengths of over 17 inches.  Longleaf Pine also has thick bark, which is important to its biology.

Longleaf Pine undergoes a fascinating reproduction and growth process.  The trees produce two types of cones, the pollen-bearing male cones and the seed-bearing female cones.  Both types of cones are first produced in summer, then grow slowly over the fall and winter before becoming active the following spring.  The purple male cones will release pollen:


… to fertilize the female cones:

Longleaf female cone

Fertilized female cones then continue to develop over another year and a half before releasing the seeds.  A female cone may eventually reach lengths of nearly 10 inches by the time the seeds are released.

Longleaf Pine seeds need open, sunny patches of ground to germinate.  If they are dropped in the right location, the trees develop slowly over several years in what is called the grass stage, developing an extensive root system while remaining very short and brushy above ground.  Eventually the trees experience an amazing growth spurt and grow up to 10 feet a year for several years before reaching their full height.  Branching begins once the trees reach at least 10 feet tall, and new needles emerge from white buds, often called candles and visible in the image above, in the spring once branching begins.

Longleaf Pines are adapted to experience periodic, low intensity fires and such fires are necessary for Longleaf forest health.  The trees need a lot of light and have thick, fire resistant bark, so fires help keep Longleaf forests open by burning off shade-producing plants and shrubs.  The seeds are also unable to penetrate dense leaf litter to reach the ground, so removal of the ground cover by fire promotes germination while the ash provides valuable soil nutrients.  Though it is counterintuitive, fire suppression is one of the worst things you can do to a Longleaf Pine forest and this practice has contributed to the destruction of the ecosystem.  Over the past few decades, controlled burn programs have become an important management tool for the maintenance and restoration of Longleaf Pine forests in the southeastern US.

Now commonly considered the state tree (though technically the state tree is simply “pine”), the Longleaf Pine has played an important role in North Carolina’s history.  From the early days of colonization, the Longleaf Pine forests of North Carolina have been harvested for timber, but they also supported a strong “naval stores” industry.  Tar, pitch, turpentine, and rosin are all products of pine, and the vast Longleaf Pine forests of North Carolina provided these essentials to merchant and naval ships.  Unfortunately, overproduction of these products and overharvesting of timber have contributed to massive reductions in the size of our Longleaf Pine forests.  Throughout the southeastern US, Longleaf Pine has been reduced to about 3% of its historic acreage.

Prairie Ridge has only a few Longleaf Pines as we are outside of the current natural range of the trees in our state, but they are featured in our native tree arboretum.  The male cones are currently vibrant purple and will soon release their pollen, and you can see growing female cones and brand new needles poking out of the candle-shaped buds.  Be sure to visit the Longleaf Pines the next time you visit Prairie Ridge and take a good look at one of the best symbols of our great state!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation.  Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)

What Time is it in Nature: Boxelder Bug

March 14, 2014

Thanks to the warm weather we’ve had recently, we’ve started to see the first insects emerging at Prairie Ridge!  Several species have been spotted on the grounds over the past week.  One insect species is already forming large groups, the Eastern Boxelder Bug (Boisea trivittata).

Boxelder Bug

Eastern Boxelder Bugs are a part of the insect family Rhopalidae, the scentless plant bugs.  The adults are just under a half-inch long and are slightly flattened on top.  They are dark brown or black with vivid red-orange markings: three lines down the thorax (their species name, trivittata, refers to these lines), a line down either side, and diagonal lines across the wings.  The nymphs, or immature stages, are smaller and mostly red, but they also lack the wings of the adults.  This species is common throughout the eastern two-thirds of the U.S. and reaches north into Canada and as far south as Guatemala.

Boxelder Bugs overwinter as adults and emerge in the spring.  Once they do, they often form large aggregations, groups of bugs that remain in close proximity to one another.  They aggregate in part for protection from predators and gain safety in numbers, but it also makes finding a mate relatively easy.  Spring aggregations, like we’ve started to see at Prairie Ridge, are typically found in warm, sunny spots on south-facing trees, slopes, rocks, or walls near Boxelders or other host plants.  You may see several hundred bugs at a time, warming themselves in the sun.

Boxelder Bugs feed on primarily Boxelder trees (Acer negundo), though they will also feed on other Acer species (maples), soapberries, and the occasional ash.  They prefer feeding on the seeds, but will also eat the leaves when there are no seeds available.  In spite of their feeding habits, Boxelder Bugs rarely become so numerous that they damage trees.  They are not considered forest or agricultural pests, though the best female Boxelder trees (the seed producers) can attract shocking numbers of bugs.

In addition to feeding on Boxelders, Boxelder Bugs also rely on the trees for reproduction.  Adults will gather near Boxelders and other host plants in the spring and mate.  Females will then lay their small yellow eggs in the crevices of the bark when the first vegetation begins to appear.  The eggs hatch in 10-14 days and the nymphs feed on the leaves and seeds of the host plant.  They will molt four times before becoming adults, typically in late spring or summer.  If the weather is particularly good, these bugs may produce a second generation the same year.

In the fall, Boxelder bugs form aggregations in warm, protected places.  Human homes are lovely warm places, so they are known to invade in winter, squeezing in through cracks and other openings.  The bugs cause virtually no damage to the home’s structure, contents, or occupants, so they are considered a nuisance pest rather than a destructive pest, but many people find their presence indoors distasteful.  You can prevent the bugs entering your home by making sure that windows, spaces around pipes, and other possible access points are well sealed.  If they do end up in your home, it’s easy to remove them by sucking them up with a vacuum cleaner, though you must also determine where they are getting in and seal it if you don’t want to find more.

We’ve spotted Boxelder Bugs aggregating along the Forest Trail between the trailer and the Nature PlaySpace.  Next time you visit Prairie Ridge, be sure to look around in the dried leaves to either side of the trail!  If you see large numbers of half-inch brown or black bugs with red markings, you are looking at the adult Boxelder Bugs that made it through the winter and are now eager to reproduce.  You might even see pairs, attached back to back, wandering around the forest floor together – a sure sign of reproduction.  Aggregations like these are a great sign of spring, so hopefully more warm weather is just around the corner!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation.  Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photo by Chris Goforth)


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