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Scouting Exploration through Citizen Science

March 13, 2018

Research & Collections

The newest merit badge, Exploration, encourages Boy Scouts to discover new things about their world through hands-on research, be it fieldwork or lab work. This mission is shared by the citizen science movement, where scientists partner with citizens to collect data and run research projects. If scouts start teaming up with citizen science projects we could not only check-off a lot of merit badge requirements, but also make important contributions to a range of scientific questions.

The key requirement of the Exploration merit badge is to plan and carry out an expedition. While the term “expedition” brings to mind dog sled teams marching towards the North Pole, there are plenty of options close to home, and the citizen science community is a great way to find the right project.

As a scientist and Assistant Scout Master, I saw the Exploration merit badge as a perfect opportunity to bridge the gap between…

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City Nature Challenge 2018 is coming soon!

March 1, 2018

CNC18_SecLogo-FULL smallIf you’ve been following along with the citizen science program at the NCMNS, you likely heard a lot about the City Nature Challenge last year.  In 2017, the event was a national event with 16 US cities competing against each other to see who could document the most species on iNaturalist over a 5 day period in April.  While the Triangle Area unfortunately didn’t win, we did take 6th place overall and took home the gold for the eastern US.  We finished with 200 participants, close to 8000 observations, 1335 species, and three local prize winners.  Not bad for a metro area with 1/10th of the population of the top 5 cities!

We’re taking part in this fun citizen science event again this year, and the stakes are even higher!  The competition is going international, so we’re up against over 60 cities this time, some located in the hyperdiverse tropics.  This means we need all hands on deck for this event – we likely need over 20,000 observations to win!

Eastern worm snake

Eastern Worm Snake, photo by iNaturalist user @caroline322

How can YOU help?  It’s easy!  Take photos of any living creature you see (avoid pets and people please!) in the Triangle Area from April 27-30, and submit them to iNaturalist via their smartphone app or their website.  That’s it!  Any photo taken with the Triangle Area during the event will automatically contribute toward our totals, so no need to specify the project for this one.  Note also that the “Triangle Area” for this event is quite large and includes Henderson in the North, Fayetteville in the South, Rocky Mount in the east, and ends just shy or Burlington in the west.  Not in the Triangle Area?  Cabarrus County is also participating in the City Nature Challenge and has a lot of fun activities in the works!  They’re competing against us, yes, but don’t we all win if one of the North Carolina teams wins?

Ruffle lichen

Ruffle lichen, photo by iNaturalist user @coatlicue

You can participate in the City Nature Challenge in the Triangle Area solo by visiting any outdoor area during the event, but we’re also planning group walks and other activities to help get you involved.  We’re working on scheduling biodiversity talks and a few downtown nature walks at the NCMNS on Friday, April 27.  Visit our City Nature Challenge table at the SciTech Expo on Saturday, April 28 or take a walk with a naturalist at Prairie Ridge Ecostation.  Sunday, April 29, we’ll have outdoor activities at Prairie Ridge where you can get to know the local wildlife a little better as you participate.  Other non-Museum outdoor sites are planning CNC activities in the Triangle Area as well.  We’ll list them all as they’re finalized on the Museum’s event listing and on the City Nature Challenge Triangle Area project on iNaturalist.

So, get those camera lenses cleaned and your batteries charged.  The City Nature Challenge 2018 Triangle Area will be here before you know it!

Citizen Science in 2017: A Year in Review

January 31, 2018

2017 was a great year for citizen science at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences! Check out some of the accomplishments we made over the past year.

Armpit and Earwax Microbes

We have already processed samples from more than 76 people. Thank you to those who have participated so far! We plan to hold more sampling events in 2018 and we are particularly looking for participants with dry (white, flaky) earwax. These people have two copies of the dry variant of the ABCC11 gene, and we’re excited to see how having this genotype changes the kinds of organisms that live on your skin.

fox camera trap imageCandid Critters

With the help of our amazing volunteers collecting and uploading data, we have been able to survey close to 1,500 locations around the state, resulting in over 600,000 photos from 84 counties! White-tailed Deer and Eastern Grey Squirrels are still the two most commonly detected species, adding up to 58% of all animal detections.


Cheese Alive!

We have processed more than 20 different kinds of cheese and we are currently collecting many more to process in early 2018. This project is looking at the microbes that give cheeses their distinctive flavors and how your ancestry may play a role in which cheeses you particularly love.


CitSciScribe participants completed 4 projects, or about 20,000 transcriptions, in 2017. Wow! Thanks so much to our returning users, and to our 100 new users in 2017 as well. We also participated in WeDigBio, an international data transcription event, again in 2017 by taking CitSciScribe on the road. We look forward to participating in WeDigBio again in 2018 and to all the new users we’ll recruit this year!

Dragonfly Detectives

Dragonfly Detectives was offered at 17 sites across North Carolina in 2017 and got close to 300 kids involved in dragonfly citizen science. Several participants presented the posters highlighting their results at BugFest 2017. They enjoyed being dragonfly experts during the year of the dragonfly at BugFest!

Dragonfly Swarm Project

The Dragonfly Swarm Project gathered information on close to 500 swarms from 20 countries in 2017. While swarms reported in the US and Canada still dominate the reports coming in (not surprising since the website it in English), it’s always exciting to add new countries to the list. These international reports are further evidence that dragonflies swarm all over the world, not just in places that have annual dragonfly migrations.

Natural North Carolina

Natural North Carolina had a great year! Over 14,000 observations were added to the project, helping us get closer to our goal of documenting all the plants, animals, and fungi in North Carolina. We also gained 126 new participants in 2017! Over 7000 of the observations made last year were made during the City Nature Challenge, a national competition to see which city could document the most species over a 5 day period in April. Raleigh came in 6th place behind the cities in Texas and California. We’re looking forward to participating in the newly international City Nature Challenge in 2018, so look for more information about the event coming soon.

Variation in house sparrow eggsSparrow Swap

Forty bluebird nestbox monitors across 15 states participated in Sparrow Swap in 2017. Together they removed and swapped over 750 House Sparrow eggs to study House Sparrow management strategies and the use of House Sparrow eggs as indicators of environmental contaminants.

Coming Up in 2018

2017 was a great year, but 2018 is looking great so far! Check out some things we have coming up this year:

The Genomics Research Lab, in collaboration with Rob Dunn’s lab at NCSU, will be studying the microbes in fermented foods in 2018. More info coming soon!

CitSciScribe is getting a facelift! We’re adding new document formats this year, including handwritten materials for the first time. Look for a dragonfly project soon. We’re planning to participate in WeDigBio again in October 2018 as well, so be on the lookout for more information about that event in the summer or early fall.

The City Nature Challenge is taking place April 27-30, 2018. Join us as we show the rest of the WORLD how amazing North Carolina’s citizen scientists are! We’re planning to have talks at the Museum, a table at the SciTech Expo, scheduled walks with naturalists, and are partnering with other organizations and sites to bring you even more great things during this event. The schedule hasn’t been finalized yet, but we’ll post details on the Musem’s City Nature Challenge listing on the event calendar so you can follow along as we add new activities.

And finally, we’re launching a new project soon, Sound Around Town! This project will have you recording sounds you encounter in your everyday life. We’ll keep you posted so you’ll know when the project is open to your participation!

Thank you to everyone who participated in NCMNS citizen science projects in 2017. We hope to see you again in 2018 as we share another great year of citizen science!


Shake Your Winter Blues Away with Citizen Science!

December 30, 2017

Special thanks to Julie Hall for contributing this post!  Julie is a citizen science educator based at Prairie Ridge Ecostation and coordinates the Dragonfly Detectives citizen science education program.  Thanks Julie!

birder with spotting scopeDo you ever feel a little blue in winter due to diminishing sunlight and your favorite plants and animals lying dormant or hibernating for the season? I do, but there is hope! Spending time in nature is scientifically proven to help with the blues, and many citizen science projects will get you outside. As a bonus, you’ll be collecting data for scientific research that will help shape the Earth’s future. Read on to learn about citizen science projects you can participate in at Prairie Ridge or your own backyard TODAY, no science degree required!

eBird has volunteers record the presence or absence of bird species and bird abundance by submitting a checklist of birds observed over a period of time. You can stay in one spot or hike a few miles to do this, the choice is yours. My favorite bird watching spots at Prairie Ridge are the balcony of the Outdoor Classroom and the bird blind at the pond. You just never know what you might see!*

iNaturalist participantiNaturalist enables you to help document the biodiversity of life by recording any living thing you see by taking a photograph and submitting it. The photo can be accompanied by an identification, or you can get help from other iNaturalist users to identify what is in your photo. This project is a great way to learn new species!*  Contribute to the Museum’s biodiversity project by sharing your observations with the Natural North Carolina project within iNaturalist and help us document all the plants, animals, and fungi in our state!

Natures Notebook participantsNature’s Notebook takes volunteers outside to regularly record observations of plants and animals to generate long-term data sets used for scientific discovery and decision-making. At Prairie Ridge, volunteers to make weekly observations of the changing patterns of individual trees on the property along the “Prairie Ridge Tree Trail.”

Information gathered from these projects builds the foundation for a better understanding of plant and animal distribution across our planet Earth. As citizen scientists, we are generating long-term data sets used for scientific discovery and decision-making. We are helping to “Save the Earth” and, by getting outside to do it, our own health benefits!

If these projects don’t appeal to you, don’t worry! Over 2,000 citizen science projects currently exist – simply pick one, read the protocols, and get started. To find out about more citizen science projects specific to location and/or topic, check out SciStarter online. Get out there and be a hero, become a citizen scientist today!

Interested in becoming a citizen scientist at Prairie Ridge? Join us on Saturdays from 10:30-11:30am for Citizen Science Saturday!  You’ll learn how to do a citizen science project while taking a leisurely walk during this drop-in weekly program.  Meet us by the entrance kiosk on any upcoming Saturday if you’d like to attend!


Monitoring Environmental Change with Picture Posts

December 5, 2017

The Museum first opened Prairie Ridge Ecostation on the west side of Raleigh in 2004. The grounds used to be a part of an NCSU cattle pasture, so the site was nothing like what you see today when the Museum took it over!  Over several years, the prairie was planted, the Outdoor Classroom was installed, the Nature Neighborhood Garden was planted, the pond was created, and a variety of other features were added to make the grounds what they are today.  Prairie Ridge is now a haven for wildlife in Raleigh and attracts things that might not make much use of the area otherwise, such as Bobcats, Painted Buntings, and River Otters.

It’s fun to look back on the development of Prairie Ridge over time and see how much the facility has changed. Happily, we’ve been involved in a citizen science project since 2007 that allows us to do just that!  Picture Posts is a project that monitors environmental change in an area.  The project asks people to place posts topped with a octagonal guide on their grounds, then use the guide to photograph the site in a standardized way.  A Picture Post submission consists of 9 photos, one taken on each side of the octagon (in landscape format, zoomed all the way out), starting on the side facing north, and one photograph taken by laying the camera on top of the post and photographing upwards.  These 9 photos give you a good idea of the area over 365 degrees as well as the canopy cover at the site of each post.  By taking photos of the same area in the same way over and over, you can get a really great idea of what a site looks like and how it changes over time.

Prairie Ridge has four Picture Posts, one on the Forest Trail, one on the deck of the Outdoor Classroom (currently out of commission due to recent repairs), one in the Jesse Perry Arboretum, and one in the prairie. By including four very different habitats in our Picture Post submissions, we’re able to track the changes that have occurred as new features are built, attendance patterns change, and management is applied.  Volunteers collect the data about once a week (with some gaps here and there as staff and volunteer changes have occurred), so we have a really excellent series of photos illustrating Prairie Ridge as it’s grown since the posts were installed.

So just how HAS Prairie Ridge changed since 2007? Let’s take a look at some photos!

The Nature Neighborhood Garden was quite new in 2007, and Prairie Ridge had no solar panels or wind turbine yet, and the area around the garden was treeless. Today, we generate our own power and the garden is a thriving demonstration of how you can plant native plants and have a gorgeous garden that also attracts wildlife:View from the classroom picture post

The forest has matured! In 2008, when the photo on the left was taken, the trees were a lot closer to the post than they are now:

Forest picture post, looking upward

It’s amazing the trees have grown so quickly near the post! Other areas of the Forest Trail were more mature when this post was installed, but this area is clearly one of rapid growth.

The Arboretum was newly installed in 2008, and many trees have been added to the area since. It’s a site of very obvious change between then and now:

Arboretum picture post view

The trees that were present initially have grown significantly, many more trees have been added to the Arboretum, and the whole area is a lot greener than it used to be.

The prairie also shows a lot of maturation between 2008, when the photo on the left was taken, and 2016, when the photo on the right was taken:

prairie picture post view

The prairie started off slowly and needed a lot of help in the first several years to get it going. Now, it’s a thriving community of grasses and wildflowers that supports a wide variety of wildlife!  Prairie Ridge has a growing list of species that make use of the grounds as the prairie, the Arboretum, and the forest continue to mature and change.

Though we haven’t used our Picture Post data ourselves to answer any research questions yet, these data are useful to a variety of researchers who are studying landscape changes, management, phenology, greenness indices, and other topics. We hope to correlate our data with the increase in bird species spotted on the grounds and how the management of the prairie (mowing and burning) influence our mammal populations.  In the meantime, we’ll keep collecting and uploading our Picture Post data and look forward to the interesting questions these data will help us answer soon!


Recently in Citizen Science

October 4, 2017
There has been a lot of citizen science happening at the Museum lately!  Some recent highlights include…
cheeseCheese Alive! has officially launched!  This project looks at the bacteria that make up your favorite cheeses and assesses people’s cheese preferences to see whether their ancestry drives their tastes.  You can participate in Cheese Alive! three ways.  First, consider taking the project survey to tell us about which cheeses you particularly love so we can see if tastes correlates with ancestry.  Second, we need cheese samples!  Have an interesting cheese you love that you’d like to see added to our bacterial analysis?  You can drop cheese off at the Museum and we’ll add your donation to our study.  Or, three, if you have a favorite cheese, but don’t want to drop it off, a donation to the Genomics and Microbiology Research Lab with a comment about which cheese you’d like to see added will help us feature your favorite(s) in the study.  Learn more or participate in the project online here.
CitSciScribe logoCitSciScribe just launched 5 new herpetology themed projects for your transcription pleasure!  CitSciScribe will also be a featured project in the WeDigBio international citizen science data transcription event again this year, so look out for news about when and where you can connect with our scientists in person during this event.  You can participate from any computer anywhere, however!  Simply log in to your CitSciScribe account and complete some transcriptions October 19-22 and you’ll earn a special WeDigBio badge.
DD at bugfestThe Dragonfly Detectives participants (4th-8th graders) had a marvelous time showing off their research and their dragonfly knowledge at September’s BugFest!  Their study organisms fit the dragonfly theme perfectly and our kids got to talk to thousands of visitors during the event.  We love to see young people showing off their research, an important part of science that we’re thrilled they’re able to take part in!
Take a Child Outside week was a success again this year, and visitors got their kids involved in citizen science during Citizen Science Saturday at Prairie Ridge.  Our TACO attendees enjoyed a bird walk with a birding expert and were able to see several species of birds on their walk.
IMG_3334And finally, our citizen science programs have been featured at several recent and upcoming conferences and events!  Dragonfly Detectives was featured in a talk at BugFest and attendees learned about Natural North Carolina at the recent Environmental Educators of NC meeting.  Natural North Carolina was also featured at the Natural Learning Initiative’s Annual Design Institute.  At the upcoming Association of Science and Technology centers, we’re highlighting CitSciScribe, eMammal/Candid Critters, and Dragonfly Detectives during a pre-conference workshop and a conference session.  It’s always great to talk about the amazing work of our citizen scientists so the rest of the world can learn from what YOU have helped us achieve!
We’re always working to bring you more projects and more ways to get involved in scientific research at the Museum!  Thanks for all of your hard work and help so far and we look forward to inviting you to participate in many future projects.

Live from BugFest – Back to the Track: The Roachingham 500

September 16, 2017

By Chloe Allen and Evie Davis, Teen Newsroom producers.

A snapshot of the roaches in their pens taken moments before the races begin.

A snapshot of the roaches in their pens taken moments before the races begin. Photo by Chloe Allen.

It’s a warm September morning at BugFest 2017 and the crowds are gathered to witness a riveting race between six exceptional roaches.  Four Junior Curators are standing at attention holding the Madagascar hissing cockroaches, ready to educate the public on these fascinating creatures.  Alaina, Junior Curator and cockroach handler, finds these roaches interesting. “I really find these roaches fascinating. Even though they have small brains, they contribute a lot to the environment,” she says. Madagascar hissing cockroaches have some really cool adaptations, such as being able to breathe and hiss from holes in their shell, called spiracles. Because of this, they can survive for a few days without their heads until they die from thirst!

Another handler, Robert, the cockroach enthusiast, shares with us the differences between the male and female cockroaches.  He points out that male cockroaches have horns, unlike the females. The reason for the horns being that the males fight each other if they like the same female cockroach.

A male and female cockroach. The male cockroach has horns to help defend himself.

A male and female cockroach. The male cockroach has horns to help defend himself. Photo by Chloe Allen.

While we were interviewing Robert, the male cockroach let out a low, soft hiss! Robert says this cockroach may have been nervous because of all of the people around, which may have hindered his performance in the race. Laura, another handler, enjoys the cockroaches’ personality. She says they’re calm, and they’re even good pets!

A close-up of a Madagascar hissing cockroach.

A close-up of a Madagascar hissing cockroach. Photo by Chloe Allen.

And now it’s time for the momentous race: the Roachingham 500.  The racers are in their places as the announcer draws a crowd of enthusiastic fans.  The volunteers encourage the onlookers to grab a popsicle stick with the color of the roach they believe will be victorious.

A Junior Curator handing out Popsicle sticks before the race. Photo by Chloe Allen.

A Junior Curator handing out Popsicle sticks before the race. Photo by Chloe Allen.

Once everyone has made their selections, the pens open to release the cockroaches. The race is off to a slow start, most likely due to the heat. However, within 30 seconds, Greg Roachle, the silver roach, named after NASCAR driver Greg Biffle, is off to a strong start. While the other five roaches lag behind, Roachle furiously sprints to the finish line. The crowds cheer as Greg Roachle emerges as the victor! Those who picked the silver popsicle sticks come forward to pick a prize. The Junior Curators retrieve their respective roaches to prepare them for the next race. The roaches will race every 25 minutes until five o’clock this evening.

If you want to witness this exciting event for yourself, come to BugFest 2017! The Roachingham 500 is located on Bicentennial Mall between the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences & the North Carolina Museum of History.