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Soil Sidekicks – Eastern Hognose Snakes

July 2, 2015
Photo courtesy of Jeff Beane.

If you see a snake slithering around on the ground, take a look and see if it might be one of our Soil Sidekicks, the Eastern hognose snake (Heterodon platirhinos).

These land-loving reptiles spend their lives on the ground, and can also be found burrowing into the soil. The Latin name Heterodon means “different tooth,” so-called for the enlarged rear teeth this snake uses for eating (and even popping!) toads, and platirhinos indicates the Eastern hognose snake’s broad, flat snout.

The Eastern hognose snake is a stocky reptile with an upturned nose used for burrowing. Adult snakes range from 2 to 3 feet in length, with females typically growing larger than males. These interesting creatures have some of the greatest color variety in North Carolina, as they can be brown, reddish-orange, gray, black, or any shade in between. Their scale patterns range between blotches and solid colors.

Eastern hognose snake. Photo courtesy of Jeff Beane.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Beane.

This species of snake can be found all over North Carolina (with the exception of high-elevation mountains), sharing territory with their amphibious prey. Eastern hognose snakes certainly have a taste for toads, particularly seeking out these amphibians as a meal. Many frogs and toads burrow underground during the day in order to escape the heat, emerging at night to hunt. The Eastern hognose snake is active and hunts during the daytime, using its broad, flat snout to burrow into the soil in order to reach buried prey.

As a defense mechanism against predators like the Eastern hognose snake, toads will sometimes puff up like balloons, hoping to become difficult to swallow. True to its scientific name, the Eastern hognose snake can use its rear-positioned teeth to ‘pop’ and deflate the toad so that it can be swallowed.

This Soil Sidekick uses the ground beneath our feet in other ways, too. In some habitats such as sandy or loamy soils, a female Eastern hognose may dig an underground nest in order to deposit her clutch of eggs. In harder clay soils, which are more difficult to tunnel into, the Eastern hognose snake might instead nest in a rotten log, mulch or sawdust pile, mammal burrow, or stump hole.

Eastern hognose snake puffing up its neck. Photo courtesy of Jeff Beane.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Beane.

The Eastern hognose has also been nicknamed “puff adder,” and for good reason. These snakes make use of protean behavior: acting really strangely to confuse a predator. When the Eastern hognose snake feels threatened, its first line of defense is to flatten its neck, raise its head, and puff out to be as large and intimidating as possible. During this show, the snake hisses loudly, which can be quite startling to a predator.

If this first approach doesn’t work, the snake will “play dead” by rolling onto its back and writhing around on the ground. After a few moments, it will appear to be dead, sometimes emitting an awful smell and even opening its mouth so its tongue will hang out in an effort to be convincing. Many predators only eat living things and fresh prey, so if it looks and smells dead, this behavior can convince a predator such as a bobcat to leave the snake alone. If you find an Eastern hognose snake in the wild, it is always best to avoid touching or provoking it. After all, it’s exhausting to put on such a show.

Eastern hognose snake playing dead. Photo courtesy of Jeff Beane.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Beane.

Like other snakes, the Eastern hognose periodically sheds its skin in order to grow and develop. These reptiles can live 8 to 10 years, depending on the individual. Like other wild animals, these Sidekicks may seem cool, but they should not be taken out of their natural homes to be kept as pets. Leave the digging to the experts and let the Sidekick stay where it belongs — in the soil.

Soil Sidekicks is an inside scoop starring animals that live in and around the soil. Did you know that there are more living creatures in a shovelful of rich soil than there are people on the planet? Get the dirt on where the Sidekicks live and discover more about the soil that sustains us at Dig It! The Secrets of Soil.

Claire Carrington is a Museum Public Relations intern, and currently a senior at Campbell University.

Photos courtesy of Collections Manager of Herpetology Jeff Beane.

Soil Sidekicks – Eastern Spadefoots

June 22, 2015
Eastern spadefoot

What sounds like a sheep, digs like a champion, and uses its own foot as a shovel?

If you’re looking carefully at the ground on a rainy evening, you may be lucky enough to spot an eastern spadefoot (Scaphiopus holbrookii) digging its way back up to the surface. These fossorial (burrowing) frogs spend much of their lives underground, hiding in shallow burrows just beneath our feet.

The name Scaphiopus holbrookii originates from the Greek word skaphis, which means spade or shovel, and pous, meaning foot. The second part of the scientific name, holbrookii, honors renowned American herpetologist John Edwards Holbrook.

Eastern spadefoots are small frogs, usually between 1 and 2.5 inches long, typically shorter than the length of a finger. This North American variety of frog is plump, ranging in color from gray to brown or even almost purple. They have moist, generally smooth skin with speckles of wart-like tubercles, but don’t worry – these bumps are not contagious! Eastern spadefoots often have two mottled yellow stripes running along their backs, forming the shape of an hourglass, and bright yellow or golden eyes with vertical pupils.

Eastern spadefoot

Photo courtesy of Jeff Beane.

The eastern spadefoot gets its name from the single black spur on the bottom of each of its hind feet. This sickle-shaped ‘spade’ enables the frog to burrow underground by wiggling back and forth, digging with its hind legs and disappearing backwards into the loose soil that the frog prefers.

These interesting amphibians live most of their lives underground, returning to the surface on occasional moist or rainy nights to hunt insects such as crickets. They also enjoy meals of spiders, worms, centipedes, snails and other creatures found in or around the soil. Eastern spadefoots are generalist feeders, happily consuming pretty much anything living that can fit into their mouths. These frogs vary in how often they return to the surface to feed, and can go a long time without eating, sometimes spending more than two weeks burrowed underground before emerging.

Eastern spadefoots can be found all over North Carolina except at particularly high elevations, but are most commonly found on the Coastal Plain or in scattered areas of the Piedmont. These frogs prefer to live in dry or semi-arid areas with loose, sandy soil to dig down into, although they can be found in soil containing more clay as well. Like all amphibians, eastern spadefoots’ semi-permeable skin allows them to absorb moisture from the soil around them, so they are good bioindicators to monitor the health of an environment – they will be among the first creatures to indicate problems such as pollutants in the ecosystem.

Eastern spadefoot

Photo courtesy of Jeff Beane.

These burrowing amphibians remain underground for weeks during dry spells, lying dormant underground. They can curl into a tight ball and excrete fluids that harden the soil around them to retain moisture in a “pocket” in order to survive in extended droughts. If you have ever found a frog buried in your garden, especially if you live on the Coastal Plain, it may have been an eastern spadefoot.

When heavy rains begin to fall, eastern spadefoots awaken and return to the surface in an explosive congregation. These hardy amphibians breed in fishless water and temporary pools, often reproducing in water-filled ditches, tire ruts, and roadside puddles. Males drift on the surface of the water, calling for females in their high-pitched drone that resembles a sheep’s “waaaa!” Females may lay hundreds or even thousands of eggs at once, and tadpoles can undergo metamorphosis as soon as two weeks after hatching, reaching maturity in 1-2 years.

Eastern spadefoots face habitat loss in some states, but they are fairly common in North Carolina. If you find one of these creatures buried underground, leave the digging to the experts and return the Sidekick to the soil.

Soil Sidekicks is an inside scoop starring animals that live in and around the soil. Did you know that there are more living creatures in a shovelful of rich soil than there are people on the planet? Get the dirt on where the Sidekicks live and discover more about the soil that sustains us at Dig It! The Secrets of Soil.

Claire Carrington is a Museum Public Relations intern, and currently a senior at Campbell University.

Photos courtesy of Collections Manager of Herpetology, Jeff Beane.

Animals Cooling Down (What Time is it in Nature)

June 20, 2015

It’s been quite warm in the Triangle recently with temperatures approaching 100 degrees several days last week.  While we might see a bit of a decline in the number of visitors at Prairie Ridge on very hot days, the animals that use the grounds don’t have the luxury of choosing to stay indoors.  For this week’s What Time is it in Nature, let’s explore some of the many ways that animals deal with high temperatures!

Let’s start with some of the endothermic animals we have here, also known as “warm blooded” animals.  Check out the long ears on this Eastern Cottontail:

eastern cottontail ears

You can clearly see the blood vessels running along the length of the ears under the very thin skin.  By moving blood through their ears, Cottontails expose their hot blood to cooler air, cooling the blood before it moves to other parts of their bodies.  This helps bring their temperature down.  Cottontails will also seek shady places to rest and tend to sleep during the hottest part of the day.

Another animal that tends to hide during the day is the Eastern Gray Squirrel:

Eastern gray squirrel cooling

Like the rabbits, Gray Squirrels tend to sleep during the day and are most active during the early morning and early evening.  (This is called a crepuscular lifestyle!)  If they do have to be out and about during the main part of the day, you may see them do one of three things to cool down.  They seek shade, staying out of the sun when they can.  When they’re not moving, they will flip their tail up over their backs to shade their bodies.  On really hot days, you may see Gray Squirrels flatten their bodies against the ground in a shady spot.  This brings as much of their belly’s surface into contact with the cool ground as possible and helps cool the blood passing through the area, which in turn helps cool the entire animal.  The squirrel in the photo above was enjoying a cool down on top of a shady post after a quick midday meal.

Mammals aren’t the only endothermic animals, however!  Birds also need to cool down from time to time.  They often seek shade during very hot parts of the day, but they open their beaks and pant to help cool themselves down even more.  The Purple Martins at Prairie Ridge have been panting a lot recently:

purple martin panting

You may see some birds splashing around in the pond to cool off as well.  If you hear a vigorous splashing, sneak quietly up to the sound and you’re likely to find a bird taking a refreshing bath.

Though people tend to think of endothermic animals when they hear the word “animal,” most animals are actually ectothermic, or “cold blooded.”   Ectothermic animals are almost wholly dependent on the environment for their heat and their body temperatures go up and down according to the environmental conditions.  However, that doesn’t mean that an ectothermic animal is automatically the same temperature as the air temperature.  Like endothermic animals, ectothermic animals can change their behaviors to help push their temperature above or below the air temperature.  Take this Eastern Rat Snake:

rat snake basking

It was out on the trail in the sun this morning, stretched out and sitting in place.  You will often find snakes basking in sunny patches during the cooler parts of the day as the sun helps warm them up.  However, all ectothermic animals have an upper temperature threshold; they can die if their body temperature exceeds it.  During the hot part of the day, snakes, lizards, and other reptiles will seek shady places and rest to help keep themselves cool.  Some reptiles may retreat to underground burrows to cool down.  Still others will swim into a pond or stream and wait out the hottest part of the day in the relatively cool water.

Insects are ectothermic animals too, and they exhibit a huge range of behaviors that help regulate their temperatures in hot weather.  Dragonflies will seek shade and rest on the very hottest days to prevent their body temperatures from exceeding their maximum temperature, but you will often see them sitting in strange positions, such as displayed by this Blue Dasher:

blue dasher obelisking

This behavior is called obelisking and it works because the dragonfly orients its body to minimize the amount of surface area exposed to the sun.  By pointing their abdomen straight at the sun, the sun’s rays hit only the very tip of the abdomen  rather than the entire upper surface.  This helps keep the dragonfly cool.  Conversely, on cool days, dragonflies will bask like snakes by flattening their bodies out so the sun hits as much surface area as possible.

Even though many people choose to stay home during hot days like we’ve had this week, you can see some very interesting behaviors if you’re willing to brave the heat.  On your next visit to Prairie Ridge, hop from shady spot to shady spot to stay cool, but look around as you go.  You may see animals doing a variety of bizarre or interesting things to cool themselves down!

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

(Photos by Chris Goforth)

The Sun: Space Weather Machine

June 17, 2015

Originally posted on Research & Collections:

As temperatures creep toward the triple digits this week,  it’s probably not hard to remember that the Sun is our primary source for heat and light.

Perhaps less obvious is that the Sun is also responsible for space weather, defined as the varying conditions surrounding the Earth that are due to solar wind and other energetic outbursts from the Sun’s surface. While there is no conclusive linkage between space weather and Earth’s climate, solar particles penetrating Earth’s magnetic field risk disrupting performance and reliability of space-borne and ground-based technological systems, satellites, and even possibly endangering life.

One of the main objectives of space missions currently studying the Sun is to better understand extreme space weather events, how and when they occur, and how life on Earth may be affected, now and in the future.

607987main_FAQ13_946-710 Graphic of some of key space weather effects on Earth’s satellites and power grid (Credit: NASA).


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The Little Robot That Could

June 14, 2015

Originally posted on Research & Collections:

The little space-bot, Philae, made history last November by being the first-ever robot to land on a comet. While amazing in its technological feats and detailed measurements of comet 67P taken at close range, all was not perfect with this historic landing, leading European Space Agency (ESA) scientists to admit that, shortly after landing they did not in fact know Philae’s location on the comet.

The glitch was a misfire of Philae’s landing harpoons such that the robot bounced off the comet twice, eventually becoming wedged in one of the comet’s cliffs, the precise location of which, the scientists admitted, was unknown.

Panoramic image of Philae's final landing site captured by the Rosetta orbiter's CIVA-P imaging system.  The 360º view shows roughly the point of final touchdown. The lander is sketched on top of the image in its estimated configuration (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA). Panoramic image of Philae’s final landing site captured by the Rosetta orbiter’s CIVA-P imaging system.
The 360º view shows roughly the point of final touchdown. The lander is sketched on top of the image in its estimated configuration (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA).

Due to the non-sticky landing, the final orientation of…

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eMammal International Students Visit Raleigh

May 30, 2015

This post is brought to you by Erin Phillips! Erin is a Development Officer, one of the Museum’s amazing grant writers, and was involved in the citizen science project featured this month. Thanks Erin!

eMammal group

Our international guests along with Museum staff while visiting North Garner Middle School

Imagine seeing, for the first time, an ocelot from Mexico, or a dhole from India, all from the comfort of a middle school classroom. A select group of Wake County Public School students and teachers from Carroll, East Cary, East Wake, and North Garner Middle Schools have enjoyed just such an opportunity recently as they continue to participate in eMammal International. The project seeks to promote cultural understanding among children between the ages of 11 and 14 through the lens of applied scientific research among middle schools in the United States, India, and Mexico. The international project, led by NC State University post-doctoral researcher Dr. Stephanie Schuttler, expands upon the work of Dr. Roland Kays (the Museum’s Biodiversity Lab Director) and his ongoing research project, eMammal, a citizen science project that uses camera traps to document animal population sizes and habitat use.

eMammal ring-tailed ground squirrel

A camera trap image of a ring-tailed ground squirrel, an endemic species to Mexico

The Museum, the Bombay Natural History Society (Mumbai, India), and the Museo de Paleontología (Guadalajara, Mexico) have been working together to collaboratively engage children and their teachers while also generating data for scientists in each of their respective countries. eMammal International is one of nine new projects funded by the Museums ConnectSM program, which is an initiative of the U.S. Department of State that is administered by the American Alliance of Museums. The program links U.S. communities with communities around the world through innovative, museum-based exchanges that foster cultural understanding among community members, especially youth, while exploring topics of mutual interest, such as the environment, social inclusion, and women’s empowerment. In addition to raising cross-cultural awareness, eMammal International teaches students more about the scientific method and introduces them to intriguing careers in STEM fields as they actively contribute to making new discoveries about how wildlife adapts to humans around the world.

eMammal Dhole

A camera trap image of a dhole at Jaisewa Adarsh High School in Maharashtra state, close to Nagpur (Central India)

Throughout this past year, these countries, together with schools in North Carolina, have collected and shared their camera trap images. To celebrate their hard work, a few weeks ago they all united in Raleigh to explore American culture and present eMammal findings. Six teachers and students from each country traveled to the U.S. to participate in this weeklong capstone experience. The Capstone event was held at the Museum to celebrate this innovative project and brought more than 200 participants together to share their experiences and images.

eMammal ocelot

A camera trap image of an ocelot in El Mexicano, Ixtlahuacán del Río

To date, camera trap images collected from this project have found a total of 40 species across the three countries; 18 in Mexico (including humans), 11 in Raleigh (nine of these species were also seen in Mexico), and 24 in India. India had 20 unique species (i.e. other than humans and domestics) and two of the species found, a tiger and dhole, are endangered. One of the species found in Mexico, a ring-tailed ground squirrel, is endemic (found nowhere else) to Mexico.

Early data has already proved intriguing, according to Kays. “The cameras have revealed a surprising diversity of mammals, not only in suburban Raleigh, but also in forests surrounding the Indian and Mexican schools. Raleigh kids (and scientists) were surprised to photograph a coyote on school property at Carrol Middle School, near the North Hills Mall. Outside of Guadalajara, the Mexican students’ cameras recorded some species that were also found in North Carolina — such as white-tailed deer, coyote, and gray fox — but also two tropical cat species — ocelot and jaguarundi. The biggest wildlife came from the Indian cameras, which proved that tigers, leopards, and dholes were using the same forest paths that local communities walked daily.”

eMammal Grey foxes

A camera trap image of gray foxes playing at East Cary Middle School

This project has attracted a lot of national attention and as a result there were several high level officials in attendance, including Stacy White, Cultural Programs Division Chief at the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs; Austen Shearer from the office of Senator Thom Tillis; and Betty Jo Shepheard from the office of Senator Richard Burr. Stacy White spoke at the event: “You should all be very proud of yourselves because you are all citizen diplomats; you are ambassadors of your country. In participating in this project you’re sharing what you know and you’re learning about another place and another culture. This is about an opportunity for all of us to work together to make the planet a better place by understanding each other. We hope that this project has been planting some seeds that will continue to grow.”

eMammal group in field

Collecting images from a camera trap at Raven Rock State Park

The rest of the week was jam-packed with activities to immerse our international guests in American culture and to showcase some of North Carolina’s cultural attractions, from the Museum to the Zoo to Raven Rock State Park. Highlights included sampling invertebrates, collecting camera trap images and partaking in the American tradition of making s’mores at Raven Rock State Park, painting a tiger that replicates a camera trap image taken in India, and receiving a private tour at the Zoo that included meeting Stanley the Rhino. Overall the week was a huge success and we truly made some memorable experiences for our guests from India, Mexico, and North Carolina.

eMammal International runs through June 2015 but plans are underway to continue this international project as well as to branch out to partner with other countries. To learn more about getting involved with eMammal, check out their list of active citizen science projects available on their website at

Cedar Waxwing (What Time is it in Nature)

May 16, 2015

Today’s What Time is it in Nature is brought to you by Terra Meares, citizen science volunteer and former intern at Prairie Ridge.   Thanks, Terra!

It is a wonderful time for bird activity and birdwatching here at Prairie Ridge!  If you listen, closely you can hear the shrill chatter of the many Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) lurking in the trees.

Cedar Waxwing adult

Cedar Waxwings are sleek and shiny birds that range from 6 to 7 inches long and weigh about 30 grams.  They have large crested heads that are pale brown, which fades to soft gray along the body and a short, wide bill.  They also have dark masks outlined in white on their faces that are characteristic of the Cedar Waxwing.  The bellies of these birds are pale yellow, while the wings are soft gray with bright yellow tips on their squared tails.  The secondary wing feathers have unusual red waxy deposits on the tips, but their purpose is not known.  Male and females Cedar Waxwing look alike, though juveniles are mottled gray-brown with black masks and yellow tail-bands like the adults.  As the bird ages, the red waxy wingtips increase in both number and size.

Cedar Waxwings can be found in the northern United States year round and in the southern half of the United States into Mexico in the winter.  During the summer they fly north to Canada for breeding.  They prefer open deciduous, coniferous, or mixed woodlands, especially those along streams or in shrubby areas that produce berries.  They are also present in grasslands, sagebrush, wetlands, and residential areas.  The main food source for these birds are fruits such as serviceberries, strawberries, mulberries, raspberries, Russian olive fruits, honeysuckle, and cedar berries, which their name comes from.  Cedar Waxwings will also feed on insects during the summer for protein, including mayflies, dragonflies, and leaf beetles.  Because their diet is so high in fruit, they are susceptible to alcohol intoxication if they consume too many fermented berries.  Severe intoxication can even lead to death.

Both the males and females choose the site for nesting, but the females build the nests using twigs, grasses, blossoms, hair, and even materials from the nests of other birds.  The nests are about 5 inches across and 3 inches high and are placed in the horizontal forks of trees such as maples, pines, red cedar, white cedar, and hawthorn.  Females lay between 2 to 6 pale blue or blue-gray eggs that are occasionally spotted.  They incubate the eggs for about 12 days and then brood them for another 3 days.  During this time, the male is in charge of bringing food to the nest.  The nestlings will stay with the parents for about 21 to 25 days, upon which they will leave to join a flock of other young birds.  Cedar Waxwings are highly social and will form large flocks that often nest close together.

The Cedar Waxwings enjoy the delicious berries that are currently abundant on the mulberries at Prairie Ridge.  Whether attending a Citizen Science event on Saturday to watch birds and their nests or spending a relaxing afternoon taking a stroll along the trails, make sure to look for the beautiful Cedar Waxwings on your next trip out!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’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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