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A Full Day Indeed

July 23, 2014

Originally posted on Tropical Ecology Institute:

July 22, 2014

group in Burrell Boom

Ten p.m. It’s dark, and the night sounds of crickets are competing with the repetitive whirr of the oscillating fan,s which are helping keep our rooms quite pleasant. We are exhausted, which is reasonable considering our travel began at 5 a.m., and with the time change in Belize, it is really midnight to our bodies. Yet our minds are racing with excitement over the marvels we have seen so far in Belize.

We’ve learned a little about the history of Belize. We stopped in the village of Burrell Boom and saw the “boom,” or chain, which held back the mahogany logs when they were being harvested and transported by river downstream before being loaded onto boats.

At the Community Baboon Sanctuary we had an introduction to many medicinal plants, including the plant which is supposed to help cure warts. Chris volunteered to be an experimental subject.



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Did you say proboscis?

July 23, 2014

Originally posted on NC Museum of Natural Sciences Education Blog:

By Kate Davison, Living Conservatory Specialist. The Living Conservatory is an immersive exhibit similar to a Central American dry tropical forest. The permanent exhibit features live turtles, snakes, butterflies and even a two-toed sloth.


Moths, and butterflies, are both part of the Order Lepidoptera, being scaled, flying insects. Moths comprise roughly 90% of the known species of Lepidoptera, with multiple clades, superfamilies, and families of moths, while butterflies are only about 10% and all are contained within a single Superfamily the Papilionoidea. With some 160,000 moth species it’s no surprise that some moths are more closely related to butterflies than they are to other moths.

Vintage Field Guide of Lepidoptera

Vintage Field Guide of Lepidoptera.

There are several commonly “known” ways to differentiate between moths and butterflies, however there are exceptions to every single method. Many butterflies are brown, such as owl butterflies, and many moths fly during the day, for example urania…

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What Time is it in Nature: Woolly Pipevine

July 19, 2014

North Carolina has a variety of native flowering vine species that grow up trees in forested areas. One species, the Woolly Pipevine (Aristolochia tomentosa), is both interesting to look at and is an important food source for a popular insect.

Woolly Pipevine Plant

Woolly Pipevine is a tall, climbing, woody vine native to most of the eastern US. Though it needs support to gain much height, the vines can easily reach 30 feet tall if well supported by a tree (or a trellis in a landscaped environment) as it grows up the trunk. It has big, heart-shaped leaves that can reach 10 inches long and are deep green on top and paler green underneath. Both the common name, Woolly Pipevine, and the species name, tomentosa, refer to the surface of the leaves, stems, and flowers as they are covered in dense, short hairs.

The “pipevine” in the common name Woolly Pipevine comes from the interesting flower:

Woolly Pipevine Flower

The flowers resemble the pipes smoked by the Dutch and northern Germans in the past, with a sort of widened bowl sitting at the tip of a longer curved tube. The flowers bloom from May into June and reach lengths of just under two inches long, though you might not see the flowers in spite of their size as they tend to grow back behind the leaves and are subtly colored. They have an interesting form of pollination. When a fly or bee follows the sweet smell to the flower and crawls inside to gather nectar, they rub against the stamens that line the inner flower and are dusted with pollen. The tube of the flower is also lined with hairs. These hairs allow the pollinator to crawl into the flower, but then traps it inside. As the pollinator struggles to get out, it is covered in pollen. Eventually, the hairs wither and the insect can crawl back out of the flower, but it may spend a few days inside the flower before being released.

Woolly Pipevine and other Aristolochia species contain a toxin called aristolochic acid, a highly carcinogenic substance as well as a potent kidney toxin. In spite of its considerable toxicity, medicines made from pipevine plants have been used in many different cultures. The name Aristolochia in fact refers to an ancient use in childbirth (aristos = best and locheia = childbirth) and some pipevines are still used in Chinese medicine for arthritis and edema. There is little scientific evidence that these “medicines” do more good than harm, however, and several recent studies have linked ingestion of pipevine to a variety of cancers and kidney failure. It is definitely best to avoid consuming pipevine!

While Woolly Pipevine might be toxic to people and has very few pest species associated with it due to its toxicity, it is a very important food source for Pipevine Swallowtail Butterflies. These butterflies lay their eggs on the leaves and the larvae feed on the leaves as they grow. The caterpillars store the toxins internally to protect themselves against predators, using the aristolochic acid as a weapon against other animals that might want to eat them. You’ll often see small clusters of bright red eggs and reddish or deep purple caterpillars on the leaves and adult Pipevine Swallowtails fluttering around the vines.

We have a healthy Woolly Pipevine plant growing in the Prairie Ridge Nature Neighborhood Garden! On your next visit, head into the main garden entrance under the roof garden and turn right to see the big, fuzzy green leaves covering the fence. Take a close look. You just might see a group of Pipevine Swallowtail eggs or caterpillars lurking underneath a leaf of this fascinating plant!

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

Fungus Among Us

July 7, 2014

Originally posted on NC Museum of Natural Sciences Education Blog:

A small apartment in the heart of Berkeley was completely filled with a very savory aroma. As guests filed in and left their coats in a pile near the door, they exchanged warm greetings and complimented the chef, Sydney Glassman,(Twitter @fungifoode) on her masterful preparation of a mushroom feast. Glassman, a mycology graduate student at the University of California Berkeley and avid chef, had purchased these mushrooms from an online vendor, but regularly spends her afternoons foraging in the nearby woodlands for wild mushrooms. The mushrooms were ‘Hen of the Woods’ whose scientific name is Maitake frondosa. Glassman marinated them in soy sauce, garlic, honey, and white wine. She then barbequed the mushrooms and served them on top of Mee Goreng, a Malaysian-style stir-fry with vegetables and noodles. You can find her recipe and commentary on the preparation at her blog here. In other posts she details…

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iLabs: A Face Mite, Two Researchers and NPR’s Frank Stasio Walk into an iLab…..

July 7, 2014

Originally posted on NC Museum of Natural Sciences Education Blog:

I promised information on just how “face mite, Micro World iLab, and Frank Stasio (from NPR’s The State of Things)” are all used in the same sentence.  The best thing I can do to give you the whole COOL story, is to let you see the interview taped at the Museum with the researchers and a teacher involved in the multi-million dollor NSF grant project.

Start watching at 13:56 minutes into the program and it runs until about 33:05.  The microscopic footage of Frank’s mites was taped in our Micro World iLab on our microscope/TV setup.

Our lab’s role in this project is to simply do what we do best — showcase the latest the researchers are up to, incorporating the educational component so the public can understand what it all means, and why it matters!  So in the course of that, Dr. Julie Urban and Dr. Dan Fergus did their…

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What Time is it in Nature: Insects on Rattlesnake Master

July 5, 2014

The Rattlesnake Master in the Nature Neighborhood Garden at Prairie Ridge is currently in bloom, and this spectacular plant’s odd structure and biology were the subject of last week’s What Time is it in Nature. The blooms are interesting in and of themselves, but they are also highly attractive to a wide variety of insects. You may see two dozen species of insects visiting a single plant at a time during the bloom, so the diversity is quite impressive. Let’s explore some of the Rattlesnake Master’s recent visitors! The most common things you’ll see visiting the flowers are members of the insect order Hymenoptera, the ants, bees, and wasps:

Great golden digger wasp with sand wasp in background

The larger, black and red wasp in the photo is a Great Golden Digger Wasp, a large parasitic species in the thread-waisted wasp group.  The females of this species build underground burrows in which they will lay their eggs.  However, their larvae are carnivores, so they also need to pack their nests with paralyzed prey for their young to feed on after they hatch.  They’ll grow as they feed on the food left by their moths, developing into pupae once they have grown sufficiently large, then emerging as adults above ground.  You can usually find several of these wasps visiting the Rattlesnake Master, and you can’t miss them!  Just look out for the inch long, red and black wasps crawling over the flowers.

Another conspicuous wasp you’ll find on Rattlesnake Master flowers is a member of the scoliid wasp family:

Scoliid wasp

Like the Great Golden Digger Wasp, scoliid wasps are parasites of other insects.  Their system is a little different, however.  Scoliids are typically parasites of the C-shaped grubs of scarab beetles and will dig down to the grubs, sting them, and lay an egg on them.  When the scoliid egg hatches, the larva will feed on the scarab grub, eventually pupating and emerging from the ground as an adult.

Wasps aren’t the only hymenopterans you’ll find at the Rattlesnake Master flowers.  Ants can be spotted taking advantage of the nectar:


When ants are present on the flowers, you will often see quite a few of them at a time.  If you ever see a Rattlesnake Master flower that looks sort of like it’s moving, take a close look.  You’ll probably find dozens of ants!

Other groups of insects also visit Rattlesnake Master flowers in bloom, including a variety of beetles.  This beetle…

Delta flower scarab beetle

… is a Delta Flower Scarab.  It’s not as big as some of its scarab relative, but it’s a very showy scarab characterized by the yellow triangle (the shape of the letter delta in Greek) on the thorax.  These beetles also tend to hold their hind legs up above their bodies, as in the photo above, and walk about the flowers with only the front and middle pairs of legs.

Soldier beetles are also regular visitors to the Rattlesnake Master flowers:

Soldier Beetles

These Margined Leatherwing beetles were sipping nectar from the flowers when they came across one another, and the female kept right on feeding as they mated!  There is surprisingly little known about these beetles, but like other soldier beetles, Margined Leatherwings have leathery upper wings rather than the hard upper wings (elytra) of most beetles.  These are very common beetles at Prairie Ridge, and you will find them on many different types of flowers throughout the grounds sipping nectar, but they are also thought to capture and consume prey occasionally as well.

There are, of course, butterflies that visit the Rattlesnake Master:

Common buckeye butterfly

Common Buckeyes are, as the name suggests, common at Prairie Ridge. These butterflies sport showy eyespots and white and orange bars on the upper surface of their wings and are common visitors at the Rattlesnake Master flowers. You’ll often find them sitting on the flowers nearest the ground, though they startle easily and will fly away if they see any sudden movements.

The Gray Hairstreaks are smaller, but a lot bolder:

Grey hairstreak butterfly

These butterflies are slower to fly away when you walk by and will continue feeding on nectar so long as you don’t get too close. Gray Hairstreaks get their name from their gray color and the tiny hair-like filaments that extend off their wings. They are the most widespread hairstreak butterfly in North America and commonly spotted in weedy habitats.  On warm, sunny days, you may easily see half a dozen of them spread out across the Rattlesnake Master plants.

The Rattlesnake Master is amazing!  These are just some of the species you’re likely to see at the Rattlesnake Master plants, and there are several other showy, interesting, and/or beautiful insect species that visit the plants when they bloom.  On your next visit to Prairie Ridge, be sure to check out the Nature Neighborhood Garden, and I highly recommend that you spend a few minutes watching the Rattlesnake Master if you do. You’re sure to be astounded by the riot of life on the flowers!

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

iLabs: Biogen Idec Foundation’s Gift to Us and Our Students

July 1, 2014

Originally posted on NC Museum of Natural Sciences Education Blog:

In the previous two posts I made reference to a $100,000 donation to our Museum that benefited programming Museum-wide and in the Micro World iLab.  And we’ve had such a busy time moving a number of initiatives forward because of their gift that we haven’t had time to write about it.

Having just completed the final end-of-grant-year report for them, we realized just how much the gift helped us and especially our students.  So let me share just what the grant has helped achieve:

First, two quotes from teachers whose students were able to visit our Museum and attend our lab classes, because grant funds paid for the classes and busing:

Our school budget does not allow for the expense of field trips. We use grants as a way to provide for all our students. If we charged the student for a trip, we would be excluding students who could not…

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