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Winterberry (What Time is it in Nature)

December 19, 2014

Today’s What Time is it in Nature is brought to you by Terra Meares, citizen science volunteer and former intern at Prairie Ridge! Terra is a student at North Carolina State University majoring in Plant and Soil Science with a concentration in Crop Biotechnology and is minoring in Environmental Toxicology.

The leaves have nearly all fallen here at Prairie Ridge and although winter is soon upon us, there is still much to see! Amongst the frosty backdrop of the prairie nothing stands out more than the festive scarlet red fruit of the Winterberry (Ilex verticillata).

Winterberry shrub and closeup of berries

Winterberry (also known as Black Alder, False Alder, Canada Holly, and Fever Bush) is a slow-growing holly that can reach 15 feet in height. The plant exhibits shiny, dark green, football-shaped leaves about 2-4 inches in length with serrated edges. After the leaves have emerged in the spring, very small greenish to creamy-white flowers will bloom between April and July. The leaves turn yellow in the fall, though this unique form of holly is deciduous and will lose it’s leaves by mid-October. When this occurs, the showy red berries stand out prominently among the bare branches. The small, round berries are about 1/4 inch in diameter, usually occur in pairs, and contain 3-5 small seeds. They start off green and mature to an orange or vibrant red in late August to early September, but will remain on the plant well into the winter. Like most hollies, Winterberry is dioecious, which means that there are separate male and female plants. In order to have successful pollination and bear fruit you must have at least one male plant for every three to five female plants. Male and female plants must be carefully paired up or there may be little to no fruit production.

Winterberry is native to eastern North America and parts of Canada. The plant does best in moist, acidic soils in full sun and can tolerate poor drainage. Ideal locations occur near swamps, streams, river banks, lakes, or ponds, though this plant can handle partial shade and dry, non-alkaline soils as well. The Winterberry has relatively few pests and only minor issues with leaf spots and powdery mildew. In their natural environment, the plants reproduce by seeds or suckers, but most cultivars are propagated by rooted stem cuttings and can be found in your local nursery. Just be sure to get both male and female plants if you want them to produce fruit!

Native Americans historically used Winterberry as a medicine (hence the common name Fever Bush) and the bark has been used to heal cuts and bruises, though Winterberry fruits are poisonous to humans. The berries are, however, as an essential winter food source for small mammals and nearly 50 documented species of birds, including Eastern Bluebirds, Wild Turkeys, and quail. Winterberry also provides nesting sites, cover for wildlife, nectar for insects, and acts as a larval host plant for the Henry’s Elfin Butterfly.

Even during the brisk days of winter, there is still plenty to see here at Prairie Ridge. During your next visit, bring a mug of hot chocolate or warm apple cider to enjoy while meandering through the arboretum.  You won’t want to miss the spectacular crimson fruit of the Winterberries and the plethora of birds they attract!

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)

Part II- Ten New Diamonds from NC

December 15, 2014

Originally posted on Research & Collections:

This octahedral diamond cyrstal looks like it has been faceted. These are all growth textures on the triangular crystal faces. Also, this is my favorite picture.

This octahedral diamond cyrstal looks like it has been faceted. These are all growth textures on the triangular crystal faces. Also, this is my favorite picture.

One of the comments on the earlier blog post came from Richard Jacquot: commented …In an article published with Ed Speer in Volume 1, Issue 2 of American Rockhound magazine in June, 2014, we discussed 15 diamonds that were found in Reedy Creek in Mecklenburg County. These diamonds were found by a gold prospector and sold to a reputable local mineral dealer. They were then sold to various collectors. This was around 1999. The diamonds averaged .5 carat and 1-2mm. The diamonds have been tested and there is no reason not to believe that the prospector found these, in fact, the story is very similar to this one. So what is the criteria for getting them authenticated?

To bring everyone else up…

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Seeds (What Time is it in Nature)

December 13, 2014

Most of the leaves have fallen from the Prairie Ridge trees at this point and have entered their comparatively dull, leafless stage for the winter. While you might not get to see many leaves on the trees for a while, there are still interesting things going on with a lot of the plants! Many trees produce their seeds in the summer and release them in the fall, so there are seeds everywhere. Looking for seeds can be a great way to see a lot of the interesting shapes and textures that allow our trees to reproduce. Today, let’s take a look at some of the many types of seeds you can find on the grounds!

There are several different styles of tree seeds in the world, but one of the styles that lots of people are familiar with are the samaras. You may have called these “helicopter seeds” or something similar at some point in your life. Trees in the maple group are the best known samara seed bearing trees, including this Box Elder:

Box elder seed

Samaras flutter down slowly from the trees when they fall off, spinning as they go. Winds can blow them a little way so that the trees can spread, but others fall near the parent tree. Many of these will eventually grow new trees where they fall.

Some seeds are kept safe inside a sort of protective case. You are probably familiar with at least one type of tree with this system, such as this pines:

Pine cone

Pine cones start off as compact, dense cones with the seeds developing safely inside. When the seeds have matured and are ready to germinate, the cones begin to expand and the cone scales spread apart, exposing the seeds in the center to the environment. The seeds either fall out of the cones or are moved around by animals, such as squirrels, that gather the seeds from the cones and bury them in other locations. However, pine trees aren’t the only types of trees that keep their seeds hidden inside a sort of case. You may be familiar with these:

sweetgum ball

Sweetgums develop many large green, spiky fruits in the summer and the seeds develop inside. In the fall, the fruits dry out and small holes appear along the surface that allow the seeds to fall from the pods. While you may have a hard time finding the actual seeds of the Sweetgum, you can certainly find a lot of the seed pods, the “gum balls,” along the Prairie Ridge Forest Trail.

Some seeds grow in very dense clusters that either open or break apart to release the individual seeds they contain. The Tulip Poplar has an interesting structure:

Tulip poplar seeds

The fruits grow high up in the trees in the summer in dense, compact clusters. Each fruit contains many seeds, packed together tightly within the fruit. When the seeds mature and the fruit begins to dry out, the seeds begin to spread apart, forming the sort of flower-shaped clusters you can see in the photo. The long, slender individual seeds (the “petals” in the photo above) eventually dislodged themselves from the base of the fruit and fall to the ground.

Many of the seeds we’ve looked at already fall from the tree and, if all goes well and the seed isn’t eaten by something, will grow where it falls. Other trees and shrubs depend on animals (often birds or mammals) to disperse their seeds so that the seeds don’t all grow in one place. Many of these trees offer the animals they depend on for dispersal a tasty treat, a fruit, in exchange for moving their seeds to another location. One example is this Viburnum species:

Viburnum berries

As the fruit passes through the animal’s digestive system, the edible parts are digested and absorbed by the animal and the inedible parts, including the seeds, are expelled in the animal’s droppings. Typically the seeds are moved some distance from the parent tree so that the tree or shrub is able to spread its offspring to new areas. There are lots of fruits still visible on the Prairie Ridge grounds, including American Beautyberry, American Holly, Poison Ivy, Persimmon, and the subject of next week’s What Time is it in Nature, Winterberry.

The Prairie Ridge Forest Trail is a great place to look for seeds at this time of year! You may see seeds on the black top along the paved portion of the trail, but if you take a moment to look you’ll see seeds littered everywhere under the trees. I encourage you to pick up a samara, toss it in the air, and watch it “helicopter” back down to the grounds or shake a few gum balls to see if there are any seeds still inside. Wander down to the shrubs near the bird feeders and you’ll see dozens of bird species feasting on Viburnum and American Beautyberry berries. You may even see a squirrel gathering seeds and burying them in the ground, saving them for later in the winter when other food sources become scarce. There are many interesting seed textures and shapes, so be sure to look out for some on your next visit!

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)

Giant Leopard Moth (What Time is it in Nature)

December 6, 2014

Fall is a great time to see all manner of fuzzy caterpillars!  Though there are a lot fewer out at Prairie Ridge this year compared to the last few years, there are still plenty out and about on the grounds.  We recently came across one of the largest of the fuzzy caterpillars, the Giant Leopard Moth.

Giant Leopard Moth Caterpillar


Giant Leopard Moths are found throughout most of the eastern US and southeastern Canada. The caterpillars are easy to distinguish from other caterpillars. They start off small with orange and dark brown bands along the length of the body and are covered in stiff black hairs called setae (pronounced SEE-tee). As they grow, the banding along the body disappears. Older caterpillars are huge, close to three inches long, and black with bright red intersegmental areas (the soft, stretchy areas between the hard plates that make up the exoskeleton). The entire body is covered in a dense layer of shiny black, thick, bristly setae.

Adult Giant Leopard Moths are also large (wingspans reach 3.6 inches) and are spectacular.  The thorax is bright white with black rings encircling iridescent blue spots, and the wings are bright white with black spots, either solid or hollow. The abdomen is typically covered by the wings, but is iridescent blue-black with orange markings when exposed. Overall, this is a showy species from start to finish!

The caterpillars of Giant Leopard Moths have a hugely varied diet and feed on a wide variety of herbaceous and woody plants. In North Carolina, they’re likely to feed on sunflowers, magnolias, cherries, willows, maples, dandelions, violets, and American Pokeweed, though they probably feed on many other species as well. They have a curious habit of feeding on one plant for a while and then moving to another plant, often a completely different species. However, they are not considered pests of any plant species, consuming only small amounts of many different plants.

Giant Leopard Moth caterpillars are thought to store the toxins they consume with some of their host plants, such as American Pokeweed, within their bodies as a defense against predators. This may be the reason behind the bright red markings in the larvae and the stark black, white, and orange markings of the adults. Adults are also known to excrete an acrid yellow fluid when disturbed. Unlike many other caterpillars belonging to the tiger moth family, Giant Leopard Moth caterpillars do not have stinging hairs, but they still use their hairs as a sort of defense. When disturbed, the caterpillars will curl up very tightly head to tail, hiding their soft undersides beneath their thick layer of bristles, and exposing the red markings along their bodies. Due to the way the bristles are oriented on their bodies, it is very difficult to grab a rolled up Giant Leopard Moth caterpillar to eat it.  The predator ends up pushing it away instead!

Like several other tiger moth species, the caterpillars of the Giant Leopard Moth overwinter as mature larvae and begin to search for winter shelters in the fall. The caterpillars are usually nocturnal, but they are often spotted in the fall crossing roads in daylight as they wander in search of a place to overwinter. In the spring, they will resume feeding briefly before pupating, metamorphosing into adults before beginning to search for mates. In the south, it is possible for this species to produce two generations a year, though in the northern parts of their range they produce only one.

This is a great time of year to look for Giant Leopard Moth caterpillars at Prairie Ridge! On your next visit, keep an eye out for large black caterpillars along the dirt road to the Outdoor Classroom and on the grass to either side. The caterpillars are out looking for places to overwinter, so visit soon for your best chance to see one!

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)

Interning at the Prairie Ridge Ecostation

December 5, 2014

The following post was written by Terra Meares, citizen science intern at Prairie Ridge for Fall 2014.  Thanks for all your hard work, Terra!

IMG_0087A crucial component of every academic endeavor is the pursuit of the ideal internship; one that piques your interest, develops your skill set, and prepares you for the “real world” after college. When looking into internship opportunities, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences was my first choice, largely due to my own fond childhood memories of field trips, but also because of the academic and research achievements of the Museum. The best part of the internship application process was that the internship coordinator at the Museum asks about the students’ interests and educational goals in order to direct them to the appropriate department.  That is how I first learned about the citizen science internship at Prairie Ridge Ecostation.

Currently I am a senior at North Carolina State University majoring in Plant and Soil Science with a concentration in Crop Biotechnology and a minor in Environmental Toxicology. The features of the Prairie Ridge Ecostation conformed perfectly to the experiences I needed to obtain to prepare me for a career in Environmental Science. Prairie Ridge Ecostation is a part of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences that focuses on wildlife research and educational understanding of the natural environment. Prairie Ridge began in 2004 and encompasses 45 acres of Piedmont prairie, forest, ponds, and a stream. The impressive Outdoor Classroom boasts a variety of Green Features such as water harvesting, dual-flush toilets, and photovoltaic panels. The building itself is made of parallel strand lumber, recycled materials, and an abundance of Green Design features. They also have a really cool wind turbine and Nature Play Space!

The days at Prairie Ridge were busy and eventful, not just for the engaging employees and volunteers, but for the ample wildlife as well. From nature stories, to active research, camera traps, and Citizen Science Saturdays, there is always fun to be had at Prairie Ridge and you will walk away with a better understanding of the natural world that surrounds us!

Through my internship at Prairie Ridge, I have had the opportunity to become involved in a wide range of exciting projects. My primary assignment at Prairie Ridge was to design a Citizen Science Saturday walk, an educational workshop, and an educational program for K-12 students, and I chose to focus these on pollinators. The development of these programs involved independent research, assisting with citizen science programs, and constructing appropriate materials such as handouts, activity sheets, and field guides. In the spring I will have the chance to help lead the programs I developed and evaluate their effectiveness. I will also be involved in the planning and development of a future pollinator garden at Prairie Ridge.  Participating in Citizen Science allowed me to gain hands-on fieldwork and data collection experience I lacked in my academics.

Some of the other interesting tasks that I performed through my internship were inputting data and assisting with the camera traps. Moving the camera traps was quite enjoyable, but the best part was analyzing the images. It was surprising to see the abundance of wildlife that wanders through the area! Another project that I really loved working on was sorting plant slides by phylogeny. In fact, throughout the fall semester I have enjoyed my internship at Prairie Ridge so much that I intend to continue my work as a volunteer!

The Prairie Ridge Ecostation was a fantastic internship opportunity that provided me with a wide range of skills and experiences that I will be able to apply to any future career in Environmental Science. I highly recommend Prairie Ridge as a place for students to intern, volunteer, or even visit to take advantage of the exciting events held here throughout the year. This is the perfect place to learn, explore, and gain real hands-on experience for students in a wide variety of studies. I am delighted to be able to continue assisting and stay involved in the projects as a volunteer, and I am excited for future endeavors!

Photo by Chris Goforth

Ten New North Carolina Diamonds

December 4, 2014

Originally posted on Research & Collections:

This octahedral diamond cyrstal looks like it has been faceted. These are all growth textures on the triangular crystal faces.

NCSM 5997. This octahedral diamond crystal looks like it has been faceted. These are all natural growth textures on the triangular crystal faces.

There have been 13 diamonds found in the state of North Carolina since 1893, the largest of which was four carats. Most of them were found as a result of panning operations for gold or monazite. One of these is in the Geology Collection of the Museum of Natural Sciences: NCSM 3225. It came from Burke County and was part of the collection of J.A.D. Stephenson, the man who discovered emeralds and chromian spodumene (aka hiddenite) in Alexander County.

NCSM 3225, one of the original thirteeen diamonds found in North Carolina. From the collection of J.A.D Stephenson.

NCSM 3225, one of the original thirteeen diamonds found in North Carolina. From the collection of J.A.D Stephenson.

You can imagine my feelings when 13 more diamonds came into my laboratory, all at one time.

In many ways this story belongs to Jeff Moyer of Mt. Pleasant, North…

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Mars, Rainbow Planet

December 3, 2014

Originally posted on Research & Collections:

In fact, Mars is still our solar system’s beloved “Red Planet”, so-named for the abundance of iron oxide on its surface. And if held in your hand, Mars rocks most Mars rocks will appear rather similar to rocks from our home planet. However, also like rocks from Earth and other planetary bodies, very thin slices, or thin sections, of Martian terrain will look brilliantly colored using polarized light microscopy, a method that depends on how light bends through materials with varying optical properties, and used in identifying crystals and minerals .

We recently started imaging a new set of Martian and other extraterrestrial samples in the Astronomy & Astrophysics Research Lab, beginning with Martian rocks, shown below in brilliant color.

But first, how can we have samples of Mars, since we’ve never had a mission return with any rocks? The answer: meteorites. Out of more than 61,000 meteorites found on Earth…

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