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Introducing Our Newest Project: Armpit and Earwax Microbes!

July 8, 2017

Wet and dry earwax samplesWe’ve added a new project to our lineup of ways that you can help Museum scientists with their research! We’ve looked at belly buttons and we’ve explored your armpits. Now we’re examining earwax with the Armpit and Earwax Microbes project!
Armpit and Earwax Microbes is a collaboration between Dr. Julie Horvath, researcher in the Genomics Research Lab in the NRC and professor at NC Central University, and Dr. Reade Roberts at NCSU. This new project looks at a specific gene, ABCC11, and how it influences the microbes that live on your body, particularly those found in your armpits and in your earwax.

This study is part of an ongoing series of investigations by Dr. Horvath and her colleagues that examine the role of microbes in our daily lives and how they help explain human and primate evolution. ABCC11, the specific gene targeted by the Armpit and Earwax Microbes project, is interesting because it influences the type of earwax you have, wet or dry. Wet earwax is the greasy yellow type of earwax common to people of European and African ancestry. In contrast, native North Americans and Asians tend to have dry, flaky earwax. The type of earwax you have is determined by which variant of ABCC11 you have. The type of earwax you have also correlates with how much you sweat. People with wet earwax sweat a lot more than people with dry earwax. More sweat tends to lead to greater body odor, which is ultimately caused by the bacteria living on your skin. It therefore stands to reason that people with wet earwax will have different skin bacteria types than people with dry earwax. This is what the Armpit and Earwax Microbes project is hoping to find out!

Why armpits and earwax? Both bodily secretions are produced by apocrine glands, a special type of gland that is only found in specific regions of the body in humans and other primates. The apocrine glands of your armpits are responsible for sweat while the apocrine glands of your ear canal contribute to earwax production. Since apocrine gland secretions depend on the variant of the ABCC11 gene a person has, there is a high likelihood that the type of earwax you have will predict which types of bacteria like to live in your armpits and the sort of body odors you might produce.

You may wonder why we should care about the bacteria living in your armpits or your ear canal! Apart from the thrill of learning something new about the human body and the many, many other species that use our bodies to survive, there are medical implications for this research. The ABCC11 gene also influences how your body responds to certain drug treatments. If you ever need treatment for cancer, for example, your body may respond more or less effectively to certain types of treatments based on what type of ABCC11 variant you have. Thus, you earwax type might also help determine which life saving drugs will be most effective should you ever need them.

We are currently looking for volunteers to contribute samples for this exciting new project! If you’d like to get involved, there are several sampling opportunities to choose from this summer. At a sampling session, your armpits, ears, ankle, and the side of your nose will be swabbed for bacteria and you’ll be asked to fill out a survey. The samplings take about 30 minutes including the survey, are free, and are open to adults ages 18+. As a participant, you will receive an image of your bacterial plate(s) and your ABCC11 genotype.  Please note, however, that you cannot wear deodorant/antiperspirant or clean your ears for two full days before your samples are collected. These actions strongly influence your microbiome, so you’ll need to be willing to go product free for a few days to participate!  

Ready to volunteer? You can sign up at for one of the sampling sessions at the Museum. The next date is coming up next week on 7/15, but we have another sampling planned for 8/2. There are other sampling sessions offered at NCSU and NC Central as well. We hope you’ll join us as we take another dive into the exciting world of the human microbiome!

Bird Banding at Prairie Ridge Ecostation

June 29, 2017

This post is brought to you by Hanna Rogers, summer intern for the Citizen Science Unit of the Research and Collections section of the Museum.  Hanna will start her junior year at NCSU this fall and is majoring in zoology.  You may see her this summer at Prairie Ridge, collecting data for a variety of citizens science projects or helping lead educational programs.  Thanks Hanna!

Have you ever wondered how many bird species have flown over head while strolling through Prairie Ridge? They include the Eastern Bluebirds and House Wrens that love to nest in our NestWatch boxes, the Purple Martins that nest in the bird complex by the Outdoor Classroom, and the American Crows that love to eat the crunchy peanut butter from the feeders on the Classroom’s porch. Have you ever wondered, though, how many birds at Prairie Ridge have flown hundreds of miles from Georgia or West Virginia? Maybe all the way from Oregon? The bird banding program at Prairie Ridge helps answer some of those questions!  On June 9th, I had the pleasure of meeting with the small group of binders to learn the process and the importance of the program.

The banding leader at Prairie Ridge, Keith Jensen, arrives at the site at 5am to set up mist nets throughout the grounds. These are very fine nets that hang loosely from poles about 7 to 8 feet apart. The birds have a hard time seeing them, so they fly into the nets and become trapped.  I learned that the nets have swooping pockets–almost like tiny pouches–to catch the birds that fly into the nets, like this female Indigo Bunting:

Feamle bunting removed from the net

A female Indigo Bunting is removed from the net. Photo by Hanna Rogers.

The nets have to be high enough off the ground so that larger birds that get caught lower don’t injure themselves.

Once all the nets have been set up, are at the right height, and free of animals, we start our rounds! Every 30 to 45 minutes, the group breaks into smaller groups and checks all the nets scattered throughout the park. When a bird is found in a net, it is safely removed by placing them a “binding grasp,” pictured on this Northern Cardinal:

A Northern Cardinal in the typical two finger grip that researchers use to hold birds. This helps keep them safe as they are handled. Photo by Margaret Cotrufo.

This means taking your index and middle fingers and gently closing the two around the bird’s head.  It’s very important avoid grabbing the bird’s feet when removing them because they are extremely fragile! Once a bird is firmly in hand, you have to gently and quickly remove the netting that is clinging to the bird. The birds are then placed in cloth drawstring bags and taken back to the banding area for review and measurements.

There are a few general measurements that need to be taken before the birds can be released. The most important one is to see if they are already banded or not. Bird bands are tiny aluminum rings that are placed on the bird’s leg, seen here on this male Indigo Bunting:

banding the bunting leg

Banding the leg of a male Indigo Bunting. Photo by Hanna Rogers.

Lots of people worry that these bands affect the birds’ flight patterns, but don’t worry! They are light enough that they don’t make that much of a difference. Each one has a unique code that allows for easy identification once captured. These bands help track migrating birds from different states, and even to see what birds call Prairie Ridge home!

After checking for a band and recording the code if there is one, the next step is to take all the measurements.  They help track the birds’ health over time and subsequent catches and include age, gender, wing length, weight, overall feather coverage, and size/maturity of sex organs. Throughout this process, the birds are still held in the banding position: middle and index finger around the head; pinky and ring finger (or in my case, my second hand) grasping the feet lightly.

I learned very quickly that guessing the age of a bird can be extremely tricky and depends heavily on the time of year, their feather patterns, and the determination of the sex organs. The bird banders use what they like to call, “The Bird Banders’ Bible.” It helps catalogue ways to indicate age and gender by season. To determine age, we looked at the bird’s’ flight feathers, body feathers, and the area were sex organs are located.  It’s easier said than done to be sure. There was some serious debate over the age of one female indigo bunting that was captured that day! Sometimes the age and gender were left as unknown on the data sheet because it’s better to leave it blank then put the wrong information down for the next person who finds the bird.

My favorite measurement to take was the weight! To ensure the most accurate measurement, special holding tubes keep the birds still while on the scale. The tubes came in various sizes to ensure that no harm came to the birds, but provided a great laugh for the group that day. Placed upside down, their tail feathers stick up in the air like this female Northern Cardinal:

Weighing a cardinal

Northern Cardinal weighing. Photo by Hanna Rogers.

This position allows for a gentler removal when the weighing is done!

Once all the measurements are taken, a band was placed on the tiny foot of any bird that was not already banded, we checked for signs of a healthy bird, then released them! You do this by placing them in an upright position on the palm of your hand (still using the bander’s grasp). Once you have the all clear, pointing them in an open direction, you release your grasp and they quickly fly away. Later, all the data from that day is placed into a general database that is accessible to other bird binders across the country. This data can help answer questions for researchers, land managers, and conservationists nationwide. It also allows people to observe the species that live or migrate to areas that they live in! Whether it’s the Cardinals you already knew or the Indigo Bunting you saw for the first time, you can always learn something new from an amazing program like this one.

It was a phenomenal experience that I am happy to have been a part of!  I’m already looking forward to more bird banding sessions this summer.  If you happen to see the bird banding table near the Prairie Ridge pond, stop by.  The bird banders are always happy to answer questions and share what they know about the birds of Prairie Ridge!

Museum Promotes Citizen Science Program at 2017 Citizen Science Association Conference

June 28, 2017

CSA 2017 LogoThe 2017 Citizen Science Association biannual conference took place in St. Paul, MN in mid-May and brought together hundreds of citizen science practitioners from around the world.  The conference program included two excellent keynote addresses, a citizen science project slam, a wealth of informative workshops, a bioblitz, dozens of great talks and symposia, and the first conference-sponsored citizen science festival with the local host organization, the Science Museum of Minnesota.

As with the previous conference, your Museum was well represented!  Some highlights:

Dr. Caren Cooper discusses citizen science with another CSA attendee. Photo by Marilu Lopez Fretts.

Dr. Caren Cooper (assistant head of the Biodiversity Research Lab, professor at NCSU, and Director of Research Partnerships for SciStarter) was busy from beginning to end.  She was a co-leader for a pre-conference workshop on SciStarter 2.0 tools, a project slam presenter, a symposium organizer, and presented her Sparrow Swap and Sound Around Town projects at the public Citizen Science Festival.  She was a part of the Meet the Authors program, a program led by Minnesota Public Radio featuring interviews with three authors of recent books about citizen science.  Caren’s book, Citizen Science: How Ordinary People Are Changing the Face of Discovery, was one of the books featured during the program.  Caren was also one of the three project slam presenters voted on by conference attendees to present at the public event, A Night in the Cloud, which brought people from outside the conference in to learn more about citizen science and how they can get involved.

Goforth and Hogue

Chris Goforth (left) and Gabriela Hogue (right) in front of their poster about CitSciScribe. Photo by Gabriela Hogue.

Chris Goforth (head of citizen science for the Museum) co-presented a poster with Gabriela Hogue (more about that below), presented on the educational benefits of her statewide Dragonfly Detectives afterschool/summer educational program, and shared her Dragonfly Swarm Project with conference attendees and the public during the A Night in the Cloud event.

Gabriela Hogue (collections manager of fishes) co-presented a poster focused on CitSciScribe, the Museum’s data transcription citizen science project.  Gabriela is the principal investigator of the NSF grant that funds CitSciScribe, as well as work being done in the fishes and reptile and amphibian collections, and attended the Citizen Science Association conference for the first time this year.

Kays and Shuttler

Dr. Roland Kays (left) and Dr. Stephanie Schuttler (right) discuss their work with eMammal during the conference. Photo by Marilu Lopez Fretts.

Dr. Roland Kays (head of Biodiversity Research Lab and professor at NCSU) presented two posters based on his eMammal camera trap project.  One examined mammals along the urban-rural gradient to see how they respond to our changing world and the other focused on Candid Critters, the North Carolina focused citizen science camera trap project he heads.  He also presented on the successful library-citizen science partnerships he’s developed through Candid Critters.

Dr. Stephanie Schuttler (postdoc in Biodiversity Research Lab for Students Discover project) presented on whether participation in citizen science can shift attitudes.  This is a question many citizen science practitioners are interested in answering, so Stephanie’s presentation was well received.

Museum partners and collaborators, including the Public Science Cluster at NCSU, former Students Discover postdocs, former Student Discover middle school teachers, and staff from the North Carolina Arboretum, also attended and offered several posters and presentations.

Overall, the Museum, the Triangle Area, and North Carolina as a whole were very well represented at the conference!  Our visible contribution to the conference and attendance can only help for the next Citizen Science Association conference: we’re hosting!  This amazing opportunity for networking and collaboration, chances to learn together, and public interaction with citizen science project leaders worldwide is coming to Raleigh in March 2019.  We’re already starting to plan our parts of the conference and will incorporate the lessons learned from CSA 2017 to make CSA 2019 their best conference yet!

Have kids? Need nature!

June 15, 2017

Mother’s Day got me thinking … about all the things mothers (and other care-givers) do for their children and about the even longer list of all the things we’re told we should be doing. While that list of things we should or shouldn’t do is incredibly long, it’s our job to figure out what matters […]

via Have Kids? Need Nature! — NC Museum of Natural Sciences Education Blog

Recapping the 2017 City Nature Challenge

May 31, 2017

This post is brought to you by Marschall Furman, a first year PhD student in statistics at NCSU.  Marschall is a huge sports fan and proud owner of 3 baby cacti. Thanks, Marschall!

From April 14-18 this year, thousands of citizen scientists across the US took part in the 2017 City Nature Challenge on iNaturalist. Volunteers from 16 different cities contributed by taking pictures of wildlife in their local environments. In total, there were more than 125,000 photos added to this project in only 5 days.

City Nature Challenge results - total observations by city

The competition was strongly dominated by the larger cities in California and Texas, followed by a steep drop off. We can break these totals down at the participant level from each city to compare how much effort they each put in.

City Nature Challenge results - aveage number of participants per city

There were more than 4,000 contributors in total, and the overall median number of photos taken was 5. We also see that many of the more involved cities had larger participation cohorts, and some even had “super-volunteers” that uploaded over 1,000 photos.

One potential use for iNaturalist projects like this one is an improved understanding of species diversity and richness. In order for these photos to be deemed sufficient for scientific research, the species identified in the photo must be agreed upon by at least one other user. In the dataset, each photo has a designated quality grade (e.g. “Research Grade”) that indicates its validity. In the next graph, we take a look at the quality grades for each city that participated in the challenge.

City Nature Challenge results - data validation levels by city

The “Casual” label indicates that the species in the photos are unable to be validated, while “Needs ID” represents photos that are verifiable, but have not yet been examined by other users. A positive takeaway is that most of the cities have small percentages of “Casual” photos (< 20%), so most of them could be useful once properly identified. We also see that some cities with lower participation also have higher proportions of “Needs ID” photos, suggesting that they don’t have as large of a group to help verify findings.

When participants upload a photo to iNaturalist, they are also asked to include identification information about the species they snapped. This information allows us to investigate the dataset as a whole, as well as the diversity of any particular city. In total, 90 different taxonomic classes were spotted. Below are the top classes reported, both overall and in the Triangle area.

City Nature Challenge results - most commonly reported organismal classes

We can see that most of the photos uploaded were taken of Magnoliopsida, flowering plants, and Insecta, insects. There are probably a couple of reasons for this.  First, both groups are abundant and either don’t move or are known to move slowly, which makes them easier to take photos of.  Additionally, they can be quite interesting, attractive, and identifiable species.

We see some distinct differences between the NC data and the larger project, such as the lower prevalence of Aves (birds) – 5.8% in NC vs 10.5% nationally – and the increased presence of other classes like Filicopsida (ferns). Also of note is that roughly 12% of the photos contributed are lacking this identification, and further investigation of these photos may be required.

We can start to understand the species richness of the participating cities by looking at how many species each of them identified. Across all participating cities, there were roughly 8,000 different species identified. Here are the most common occurrences for the whole project.

City Nature Challenge results - most commonly reported species

Interestingly, although the flowering plants were the most commonly identified class, they only had 2 of the top 10 most sighted species. This suggests that there was a wider breadth of plant photos contributed; in fact, there were almost twice as many species of Magnoliopsida found (~3400) as those in Insecta (~1800), the next closest class. Lastly, we can check out the ten most identified species in a few of the most prevalent classes.

City Nature Challenge results - 10 most common species in the top classes

Many of these species are ones we encounter on a regular basis or can be easily identified by from their appearance, so it makes sense that they are the most common sightings of wildlife across the country. Which ones have you spotted in your environment?

Thank you to all of the participants from the Triangle area and around the US.  We hope to see you back next year for City Nature Challenge 2018!

Note that participant data is accurate as of April 23, 2017, taxonomic data is accurate as of May 25, 2017, and the “NC Triangle” label refers to the whole Raleigh-Durham area.

“Citizen Science: Everybody Counts,” a TEDx talk by Caren Cooper

May 23, 2017

Science is not just for professional scientists. From monitoring sea turtle activity to searching for intelligent life outside Earth, ordinary citizens can be involved and contribute to science.

Caren Cooper runs the “Sparrow Swap” citizen science project through the Biodiversity Research Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. She is the author of “Citizen Science: How Ordinary People Are Changing the Face of Discovery.” She holds an Associate Professorship in Forestry & Environmental Resources at NC State, in the Chancellor’s Faculty Excellence Program in Leadership in Public Science.

This talk was given at TEDxGreensboro on May 15, 2017.

City Nature Challenge: The Results Are In!

May 5, 2017

City NAture Challenge Triangle logoThe Triangle Area competed in the City Nature Challenge April 14-18, an event that pitted several cities against each other to see who could document the most species in their area on iNaturalist.  The Museum coordinated the local effort, which included a day of biodiversity walks, talks, and carts at the Museum on April 14, a bioblitz at Prairie Ridge on April 15, and walks at NCSU.  It was a great five days of getting people out into nature to see what sorts of things are living all around us every day!

Unfortunately, we didn’t win. Dallas took the 2017 title with a last minute 1000 observation submission which left them with about 23,000 observations. However, we still did great! We came in 6th place out of the 16 cities, which is fantastic, especially given our much smaller population than any of the 5 cities ahead of us. We also came in first of any of the cities participating east of the Mississippi River, so we’re #1 in the east, beating out D.C., New York City, Boston, and Miami along the east coast.  I think we should feel great about that!

Eastern worm snake

Eastern Worm Snake, photo by iNaturalist user @caroline322

In our area, the people who made the most contributions to the 2017 CNC were @coatlicue, @caroline322, and @gmskupien, with 862, 481, and 340 observations respectively. This year’s biggest species contributions were made by @scadwell, @jtuttle, and @whiteoak with 238, 176, and 150. Many others, including several people who live outside of the local Challenge area, helped with identifying the species shared and helped us boost our species numbers.  Overall, this was a huge team effort, with nearly 200 people submitting observations and dozens other helping with identifications.  Thank you to you all for the amazing work you all did during the Challenge!

Some other interesting stats:

We had 23.3 times the number of observations in 2017 relative to the same 5 days in 2016. That’s awesome!

We also had 7.2 times the number of observers in 2017 relative to the same dates in 2016. We ended up adding 97 new people to iNaturalist overall.

Ruffle lichen

Ruffle lichen, photo by iNaturalist user @coatlicue

We averaged 40 observations per person (we actually came in third in the country for this statistic!), so you all made a LOT of contributions. In short, you’re amazing.

Our final totals, at the time of the official announcement, were 7441 observations, 1310 species reported, and 186 people participating, though these have gone up since then too. Overall, the nationwide totals were 124,092 observations, 8557 species reported, and 4051 people participating. We were clearly part of something wonderful and helped make a real contribution to the overall effort. The City Nature Challenge ended up contributing more observation to iNaturalist than any other days in its history, so we helped break some records while doing some fantastic work as a local team!


Rushes, photo by iNaturalist user @gmskupien

Next year’s City Nature Challenge is going international, so we’ll be up against cities in other countries, not just our own. In the meantime, please consider joining and contributing to the Museum’s Natural North Carolina project on iNaturalist. We’re trying to document all the plants, animals, and fungi in the entire state, so it’s a big job. We could use your help, so I hope some of you will join us.


Thanks to everyone who participated in the 2017 City Nature Challenge! We may not have won, but we showed the rest of the country that we have amazing people, amazing naturalists, and dedicated citizen scientists. I am personally thrilled to have been a part of this and I am so proud of what we accomplished together. Thank you for participating and I hope you’ll join us again next year. I truly believe that, together, we can win this!