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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

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!

Part-time Paleontologists Make Big-time Contributions

March 16, 2017

 By Emily Matthews, Teen Newsroom producer.

Ruffin Tucker

Ruffin Tucker has discovered more fossils from North Carolina’s Ediacaran period than any other amateur paleontologist. Photo by Trish Weaver.

Over 500 million years ago, during the Ediacaran period, an experiment began — one that would lay the foundations for humanity and all of the creatures we know today. Before predation, before teeth and bone, soft creatures filled the ocean. Some swayed back and forth like plant fronds. Others resembled tubes or worms.  But all of this fauna shared significance; it marked the beginning of one of the most important shifts in evolution — the development of multicellular life.

“This is the leap, the transition, the beginning of multicellular life,” explained Trish Weaver, the Paleontology and Geology Collections Manager at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences.

For over two billion years, life came in one form: eukaryotes; they had reined over the planet alone long before the emergence of more complex creatures. The Ediacaran Period changed this. While unicellular life still dominated the planet, soft marine biota began to evolve. These creatures, experimental and imperfect, were the first step towards widespread complex life. But, like the fauna of today, they still depended on unicellular life; mats of microbes covering the seafloor provided them with both homes and food.

As the Ediacaran fauna died off, these mats preserved their history. Due to the lack of hard, easily preservable parts, mostly trace fossils and impressions of once-living biota in the microbial mat remain. Despite the age of these fossils, they are found in abundance in a few locations, such as Australia’s Ediacara Hills, which gave this period its name. In scarce amounts, North Carolina also harbors Ediacaran fossils. One might imagine finding these rare fossils in North Carolina would take years of searching by professional paleontologists, but some of the most significant finds have been made not by experts but by everyday people.

In 1973, John Brattain found the first Ediacaran fossil in North Carolina. A high school student at the time, he discovered a specimen of Pteridinium, a ribbed animal that lived lying down on microbial mats like much of its fellow fauna. At the time, paleontologists misidentified this creature as a trilobite, for the idea of such ancient multicellular life was unheard of.

Though Brattain was the first, he wasn’t the last amateur to find Ediacaran fossils in North Carolina; in Stanly County, Steve Teeter found another Pteridinium fossil in one of the stones of an old chimney on his family property. Similarly, while searching a rock bank, Tony C. Furr found Swartpuntia, a fronded creature visually resembling modern plants more than animals, in a relative’s yard.

But no other amateur paleontologist has found more of these fossils in North Carolina than Ruffin Tucker. His first discovery came as unexpected as the aforementioned ones — perhaps even more so. While attending a wedding at a church in Oakboro, NC, Tucker made a remarkable find in the form of a roughly 200-pound slab of fossils. Wearing his light-blue tuxedo, Tucker crammed this block, and others containing Pteridinium, into his trunk. His discovery came just in time; today, the slab’s old resting place has long since been paved over.

While these discoveries may seem unlikely, many eager amateurs add up to someone being in the right place and time.

“We couldn’t do what we do without [amateur paleontologists],” explains Weaver. “They’re our eyes on the ground.” No paleontologists could have found Teeter’s Pteridinium or Furr’s Swartpuntia; private property guarded both. And had Tucker not uncovered the church’s Ediacaran slab, cement would have buried it before any expert could have detected it.

With a bit of practice and perseverance, anyone could add to these discoveries.  Rarely does one stumble across fossils without any prior experience or knowledge, but this is easily remedied. Fossil clubs, where people meet to share their hobby in fossil collecting, provide excellent gateways into amateur paleontology, and with the proper permissions, one can soon begin uncovering these remnants of ancient life.

Scroll through the photos below to see some fossils from the Ediacaran period.

Pteridinium carolinensis. Ediacaran fossils are some of the oldest definitive evidence of animal life on the planet, around 550 million years old, even older than the famous

Pteridinium carolinensis. Ediacaran fossils are some of the oldest definitive evidence of animal life on the planet, around 550 million years old, even older than the famous “Cambrian Explosion.” Photo by NC Museum of Natural Sciences Invertebrate Paleontology Research Lab.

Pteridinium carolinensis. Ediacaran fossils are some of the oldest definitive evidence of animal life on the planet, around 550 million years old, even older than the famous

Pteridinium carolinensis. Ediacaran fossils are some of the oldest definitive evidence of animal life on the planet, around 550 million years old, even older than the famous “Cambrian Explosion.” Photo by NC Museum of Natural Sciences Invertebrate Paleontology Research Lab.

Pteridinium carolinensis. A soft-bodied animal from the Ediacaran that live in a shallow sea over what is now North Carolina. This fossil was created when the animal's soft body rotted away, and then the impression left in soft mud fossilized. Photo by North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences Invertebrate Paleontology Research Lab.

Pteridinium carolinensis. A soft-bodied animal from the Ediacaran that lived in a shallow sea over what is now North Carolina. This fossil was created when the animal’s soft body rotted away, and the impression left in soft mud fossilized. Photo by NC Museum of Natural Sciences Invertebrate Paleontology Research Lab.

Pteridinium carolinensis. A soft-bodied animal from the Ediacaran that lived in a shallow sea over what is now North Carolina. This fossil was created when the animal's soft body rotted away, and then the impression left in soft mud fossilized. Photo by North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences Invertebrate Paleontology Research Lab.

An unknown soft-bodied animal from the Ediacaran that lived in a shallow sea over what is now North Carolina. This fossil was created when the animal’s soft body rotted away, and the impression left in soft mud fossilized. Photo by NC Museum of Natural Sciences Invertebrate Paleontology Research Lab.

A roughly 200-pound slab of fossils discovered by Tucker at a wedding in Oakboro, North Carolina. Photo by Chris Tacker.

A roughly 200-pound slab of fossils discovered by Tucker at a wedding in Oakboro, North Carolina. Photo by Chris Tacker.

Swartpuntia, a fronded creature visually resembling modern plants, discovered by Tony C. Furr in a relative’s yard. Photo by Charles Brown, www.charlesbrownphoto.com.

Swartpuntia, a fronded creature visually resembling modern plants, discovered by Tony C. Furr in a relative’s yard. Photo by Charles Brown, http://www.charlesbrownphoto.com.

Announcing the City Nature Challenge!

February 28, 2017

citizen-science-day-logo-white-backgroundIn the fall of 2015, the federal government announced National Citizen Science Day.  Citizen science leaders, participants, and supporters offered a huge variety of experiences and activities on the first Citizen Science Day, everything from symposia to bioblitzes.  At the Museum, we celebrated with our Citizen Science Fest at Prairie Ridge.  We offered citizen science focused walks, had project leaders from across the Triangle show off their projects, and encouraged everyone to participate in a statewide bioblitz-off through iNaturalist.  We competed against several other sites in the bioblitz-off, including the NC Arboretum in Asheville, the Kathleen Clay Edwards Library in Greensboro, and the Cape Fear Botanical Gardens in Fayetteville.  The Kathleen Clay Edwards Library took the top spot the first year and we documented several hundred species across the state during the event.

This year we’re doing a bioblitz-off again, but we’re competing in two different ways.  We’ll compete against several sites in the state like we did last year, but we’re also taking part in the City Nature Challenge.  The CNC pits several major metropolitan areas against one another to see who can document the greatest biodiversity on iNaturalist over a five-day period in April.  We’re up against some stiff competition, including several cities that are much larger than Raleigh, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, and Miami. We have our work cut out for us!  However, given our amazing local biodiversity and the diversity of habitats we have throughout the Triangle, we have a great shot at taking the top spot in the competition and showing the rest of the country just how amazing our citizen scientists are.

Pine warbler

Pine Warbler. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Want to get involved in the CNC? It’s easy!  First, you’ll need an iNaturalist account.  Visit inaturalist.org or download and open the iNaturalist smartphone app for Android or Apple to make your account.  Then grab whatever camera you have and start snapping photos of anything living you come across in the Triangle Area between Friday, April 14 and Tuesday April 18. Don’t forget to look for mosses, lichens, insects, and the other small and often overlooked species!  Upload your photos with the location where you took them to iNaturalist.  Our project is set up so any observation made April 14-18 within the greater Triangle Area will automatically contribute to the competition, but if you’d like to help us out in our statewide project, consider joining and contributing to our Natural North Carolina project too!

We’re scheduling several activities and programs to help you get involved in the CNC.  On April 14, we’ll have biodiversity-themed talks downtown in the SECU Daily Planet Theater, hands on training on how to use iNaturalist, and guided walks outdoors to collect data downtown.  On April 15, join us at Prairie Ridge in western Raleigh for hands on iNaturalist training, guided walks that focus on a variety of plant and animal groups, and learn more about the City Nature Challenge from local experts.

Mountain Mint flowers

Mountain Mint. Photo by Chris Goforth

We’re competing against other large cities, but you can compete against other locals as well.  We’ll have giveaways for participants at Prairie Ridge on April 15 and have prizes available for the top contributors during the event.  Prizes include insulated water bottles, copies of our Museum’s very own Caren Cooper’s new book, Citizen Science: How Ordinary People Are Changing the Face of Discovery, cell phone lens attachments, NC Science Festival t-shirts, and other fun items that will help in your future citizen science adventures.

We hope you’ll join us as we attempt to take down cities ten times our size and put the national spotlight North Carolina’s biodiversity!  We think we have some of the best citizen scientists in the world.  With your help, we can show everyone else just what we’re capable of!

For more information about the scheduled City Nature Challenge events, please visit the Museum event listing at http://naturalsciences.org/calendar/event/city-nature-challenge-triangle-area/.

The Science of Scent: It’s the Pits!

February 17, 2017

Wash your hair, brush your teeth, and roll on the deodorant! Every morning, millions of people perform their daily grooming rituals to try and make themselves a little less smelly. But did you know that you don’t stink, your microbes do?

Bacteria on our skin, especially in the armpits, thrive from nutrients in our sweat and in turn produce your body’s own signature smell. Animal “fragrance” is significant in primate behavior and has implications in mate selection and other evolutionary adaptations. At the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Dr. Julie Horvath, in collaboration with Julie Urban, Sarah Council, Holly Menninger, Dan Fergus, Amy Savage, Meg Ehlers, and Rob Dunn’s group at NC State University, conducted an armpit biodiversity project to identify the microbes that live in our armpits and how products like antiperspirant and deodorant affect an individual’s microbiome. New projects investigating the microbes on human and non-human primate skin are ongoing in the lab with numerous additional collaborators. Take a tour inside the Genomics and Microbiology Research Lab with Dr. Horvath and Dr. Marianne Barrier to learn all about the exciting science of scent!

Learn more about the past project here.

This video was produced by Chloe Allen, Charlotte Tate, Kiera Tai, and Hannah Bonet of the Teen Newsroom program at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.