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Public Participation in Scientific Research

April 27, 2015

Observing, collecting, recording and interpreting of data — in fields as varied as archeology, astronomy, botany, geology, meteorology, mineralogy, ornithology, paleontology and zoology — by those without formal scientific training has led to many research advances.

In England, where countryside pursuits have long been a tradition, colorful stories of such activities abound. For example, in Lyme Regis on the English Channel coast, tourists learn about Mary Anning (1799-1847) who first collected ammonites, ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs as a teenager from local cliff outcrops of Jurassic strata. American Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002), a renowned evolutionary biologist and popularizer of science, noted: “Mary Anning is probably the most important unsung (or inadequately sung) collecting force in the history of paleontology.”

In the US, for example, an annual Christmas Bird Count began in 1900 and, today, Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology reports that its eBird database enables birders to track any of the Earth’s 10,005 bird species. Almost worldwide observations on 8,650 bird species have helped to document the declines of some species, range expansions of others, and spread of avian diseases.

In her book “Planet under Stress,” physicist Ursula Franklin advocated: “The task of the future is to build knowledge and understanding among and between citizens and scientists, so that the distinction between the two groups vanishes — so that both become citizen scientists, potentially able to solve our problems together.” A quarter century later, her vision is busily unfolding. Rising public interest and anxiety are conjoined with the invitation of scientists in rapidly growing numbers to assist with research in the natural sciences. Surges in environmental awareness, community volunteerism and social media, plus the ubiquity of Internet access and cameras, have exponentially advanced what is possible in this exciting and needed arena. The frontier of citizen science work also now includes biochemistry, entomology, microbiology, cancer research and climate change. In today’s world, it is often concerned members of the public who spur the interest of researchers, not the other way around, especially in ecological or environmental matters.

A new Citizen Science Association (http://citizenscienceassociation.org/) has recently been formed to encourage and promote public participation in scientific research. Its inaugural conference was held in San Jose, CA, and free memberships are currently available. I am delighted to inform you that the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, in partnership with the Office of Public Science in the College of Sciences at North Carolina State University and the Greater Raleigh Visitors and Convention Bureau, will be hosting the Citizen Science Association’s second conference in February 2017.

Given the phenomenal history of public participation in scientific research, it is ironical that citizen science — a term introduced by the scientific community — is not yet widely known by the public! As supporters of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, please help to get the word out. I welcome your publicity ideas. To learn more about the citizen science movement and to discover opportunities for doing research together, visit the Citizen Science Center on the first floor of the Museum’s Nature Research Center, or explore online resources such as CitSci.org, SciStarter.com and naturalsciences.org/research-collections/citizen-science (for a list of current Museum-run projects).

Welcome to the engaging world of citizen science!

Emlyn Koster, PhD
Museum Director

Nesting Birds (What Time is it in Nature)

April 25, 2015

At Prairie Ridge, we participate in over 40 citizen science projects. One of the most popular with our visitors is Nest Watch, one of the projects that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology makes available to the public. To participate, citizen scientists either find a bird nest or put a nest box in their yard and then monitor the progress of any eggs and chicks that result.

At Prairie Ridge, we have a couple dozen nest boxes, platforms, and cups that we monitor regularly each year with the help of visitors attending programs, our volunteers, and our interns. Recently, we’ve had a lot of activity! The Purple Martins started returning to the grounds just over a month ago, but they have already laid several eggs that will soon become naked chicks:

Purple martin chicks

Purple Martins, like many of the birds that use the artificial nest structures we provide, are cavity nesting birds. Because people tend to cut down soft or dead trees in urban areas for aesthetic reasons, there are limited nesting sites available for Purple Martins. They have come to rely heavily on nests provided by people, like the Purple Martin condo and gourds they have colonized at Prairie Ridge.

Eastern Bluebird are bright blue birds, but so are their eggs!

Bluebird eggs

Even before the eggs are laid, however, you can often tell when a Bluebird has built a nest. They favor nests made of long pieces of grass or pine needles that they wrap around the interior of the nest boxes, forming a nest with a sort of basket-like appearance.  Sometimes they will line the nests with soft materials, but we typically see the eggs sitting right on the needles and grasses.

While many people provide Bluebird nest boxes in the hopes of having Bluebirds nest in them, they are sometimes used by other birds. The Brown-headed Nuthatch is another bird species that relies on cavity nests and finds them in short supply in the pine forests they prefer. They will sometime take advantage of Bluebird boxes if they are not too far from the forest edge and build a nest inside:

Brown headed nuthatch chicks

If they’re lucky, the nest will go unnoticed by Bluebirds in the area until the chicks fledge and leave the nest. However, Bluebirds will occasionally take over a nest box in which a Brown-headed Nuthatch has built a nest, destroying the nest and any eggs or chicks inside.  If you have Brown-headed Nuthatches in an area and want to give them a chance to use a Bluebird box, you can help protect them fairly easily! Bluebirds are quite a bit larger than Nuthatches, so simply affixing a commercially available metal plate to the nest entrance that decreases the size of the opening is sufficient to exclude the Bluebirds (they can’t fit through the smaller hole) while allowing the Nuthatches to nest undisturbed. There are also nest boxes available made specifically with Brown-headed Nuthatches in mind that come with a smaller diameter opening.

Another bird that will sometimes use a Bluebird box is the Carolina Chickadee:

Carolina chickadee chicks

Chickadee nests are easy to tell apart from Bluebird nests! In contrast to the grassy/pine needle nests favored by Bluebirds, Chickadees create soft, plush nests. The nests we encounter at Prairie Ridge are frequently filled with soft mosses and plant materials, then lined with downy feathers. You may also see rabbit hair lining the nests.

House Finches are a relatively recent arrival in the eastern US, having moved across the country from the west over the last few decades. We find them nesting at Prairie Ridge now:

House finch chicks

The freshly hatched chicks are quite fluffy, with the appearance of dandelion fluff! You will often find these birds nesting in the nest cups on the four corners of the bird blind near the pond.

It’s always fun to see the baby birds in the nests at Prairie Ridge! We do ask, however, that you leave the birds alone during your visit. We only open the nest boxes a few times a week to minimize the disturbance to the adult birds and their young and opening them when it is too cold can injure the helpless chicks. If you would like to see the babies, you can do so during our spring Citizen Science Saturday walks! The next nest program is coming up on May 9th, so please join us for a great chance to see some local bird nests, eggs, and chicks!

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!

(Purple Martin photo by Chris Goforth; other photos by Sehdia Mansaray, Prairie Ridge Spring 2015 intern)

Tufted Titmouse (What Time is it in Nature)

April 4, 2015

This week’s What Time is it in Nature is brought to you by Sehdia Mansaray, Prairie Ridge intern for the spring 2015 semester.  Sehdia is a student at North Carolina State University and is double majoring in Environmental Science and Anthropology with a minor in French. She is interested in the relationship of human populations with their natural environment.

You don’t have to listen hard to hear the shrill peter-peter-peter of the Tufted Titmouse echoing through Prairie Ridge’s trees! The Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) is a permanent resident of the Eastern United States, but can also be found in Southern Canada. These small birds are distinguishable from their chickadee cousins by the crest on top of their heads and larger size. They have silvery blue wings with a white underbelly and adults have a black mark on their forehead and russet shading beneath their wings. The plumage color and crest shape of young Tufted Titmice become more defined as they become adults and male and female Titmice have the same features.

Tufted titmouse

Titmice are mainly found in deciduous woodlands and prefer to nest high up in trees. They can, however, be found in public areas like city parks or backyards. They like to nest in hollowed out spaces of living or dead trees and artificially made cavities. The nests inside these cavities are lined with dead leaves, grasses, fur, and hair from animals– even the occasional human hair!

Tufted Titmice are common year round. In the winter, they are known to flock in large groups. Once the weather warms up, Titmice break up into mating pairs who remain together both before and after reproduction.  From March through May they breed and the female lays four to eight spotted eggs that she will protect while the male goes out and searches for food. The eggs are incubated for about two weeks and remain in the nest for about the same period. Afterwards, the young Titmice are able to leave the nest and can breed within a year.

The Tufted Titmouse diet consists mainly of insects, along with seeds and berries during the colder months. They flitter and flutter from perch to perch in search of food. After gathering seeds or insects from one location, Titmice often sneakily fly away to eat or store their food in a more secluded spot. Titmice play an important role in seed dispersal. In their droppings, the seeds that were part of the bird diet return to the earth, so that plants grow in a new area. Their insect diet also plays a role in regulating insect populations.

The Prairie Ridge bird feeders are a good place to spot the Tufted Titmouse!  Or search for a bird hanging upside down or sideways from branches in the trees.  If you catch sight of a Titmouse after he’s flown away with a seed, you might be able to observe him using his feet to hold the seed while using his bill to crack it open. It won’t be too difficult to catch sight of the Tufted Titmouse on your next visit to Prairie Ridge!

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)

Upland Chorus Frog (What Time is it in Nature)

March 28, 2015

After a long and relatively snowy winter, nothing is more welcome than the first signs of spring!  One of the best signs of spring at Prairie Ridge is one you may hear before you see, the Upland Chorus Frog (Psuedacris feriarum).

Upland chorus frog

Upland Chorus Frogs are members of the frog family Hylidae, which makes them relatives of the tree frogs, cricket frogs, and other chorus frogs.  They exhibit considerable variation in their coloration and patterns, ranging from gray tinged with a little green to reddish-brown.  Most have a dark stripe that runs along the side of their bodies and three stripes or rows of blotchy spots down their backs.  They also sport a triangular spot on the top of their head between their eyes and white upper lips.  If you flip one over, you’ll usually see a cream-colored belly with a sort of granular appearance, though some individuals will display dark spots on their chests as well.

These frogs are one of the earliest frogs we see or hear at Prairie Ridge each year and are known to call to each other in the late winter and early spring, their primary breeding season.  Their call is reminiscent of the sound you make by rubbing your fingers along the teeth of a comb, a sort of repetitive “crrrrreek!” sound.  (You can listen to the call here, courtesy of the Davidson College Herpetology Lab’s awesome Amphibians and Reptiles of North Carolina.)  You can hear the distinctive call of the Upland Chorus Frogs from quite some distance away!  If you’re lucky, you can follow a call to the source and see the frog, but they can be hard to spot.  They’re even harder to spot outside of their breeding season when they are rarely encountered by people.

You’ll find Upland Chorus Frogs alongside ditches with a lot of grass in them, flooded areas, and other temporary waters.  Once they find a suitable place, they will call to attract a mate.  After successfully finding a mate, the pair will enter amplexus, a sort of mating position where the male frog holds onto the female frog, but fertilizes the eggs only after they have been released from the female’s body in a soft mass.  The eggs are typically attached to vegetation and tadpoles take 8-12 weeks to develop into frogs.

Unlike many frogs, Upland Chorus Frogs appear to have adapted well to humans within their range.  They will often take advantage of man-made habitats such as roadside ditches during the breeding season.

There have been several Upland Chorus Frogs calling from the small ponds that have formed throughout Prairie Ridge thanks to our very wet winter.  On your next visit, take a moment to stop and listen for their distinctive calls.  Spring is coming, and the frogs are letting you know!

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!

(Photo by Jeff Beane)

American Holly (What Time is it in Nature)

March 21, 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! Terra is a student at North Carolina State University majoring in Plant and Soil Science with a concentration in Crop Biotechnology.

We’re just starting to see the transition from winter to spring, and although most trees are still bare, there are still plenty of evergreens that stand out among the still drab backdrop of leafless trees.  One in particular can be seen every day near the front entrance here at Prairie Ridge, the American Holly (Ilex opaca).

American holly

The American Holly is a broad-leaved evergreen tree that can reach 15 to 30 feet tall.  The bark of this holly is light gray and smooth with branches that extend horizontally.  The leaves of this plant can grow 2 to 4 inches long, and are stiff with large sharply pointed tips.  They are leathery with a smooth, green, and somewhat-shiny top side and a yellowish-green underside.  The leaves stay on the branches for two to three years, upon which they will fall in the spring as the buds begin to emerge.  Blooming occurs from April to June with small greenish-white flowers.  As with most other hollies, the American Holly is dioecious, meaning there are separate male and female plants, however it can be difficult to determine the gender due to the fact that a newly planted holly can take anywhere from 4 to 7 years to flower.  After flowering, the female plants will produce the characteristic bright red berries, called drupes.  These drupes are about 6 to 12 mm in diameter and contain about 4 seeds each.  The berries will persist well into the winter, acting as an important food source for many birds and White-tailed deer.

American Holly grows well in moist forests of the eastern United States, and can be found as far north as Massachusetts, south to Florida, and west to Texas.  The most suitable sites for this holly are moist with slightly acidic, well-drained soils.  This tree can tolerate the shade, but does best in direct sun.

In addition to the food source that the holly berries provide to wildlife, the American Holly has been a popular symbol and is often used for decorations during the winter holiday season.  The wood of the American Holly is also used for various specialty items such as veneer, cabinet inlays, handles, and even piano keys (when dyed black).  The nectar makes great honey as well.

If you would like to check out an American Holly here at Prairie Ridge, look no further than our front door!  You’ll see an example of this great evergreen just inside the entrance gate behind the kiosk.  It’s one of the only trees that has green leaves right now, so you can’t miss it on your next visit.

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)

Netspinner Caddisflies (What Time is it in Nature)

March 7, 2015

This week’s What Time is it in Nature is brought to you by Sehdia Mansaray, Prairie Ridge intern for the spring 2015 semester.  Sehdia is a student at North Carolina State University and is double majoring in Environmental Science and Anthropology with a minor in French. She is interested in the relationship of human populations with their natural environment.

If you look closely in the Prairie Ridge stream where the water current is just right, you can find netspinner caddisflies in the caddisfly family Hydropsychidae.  Netspinners are closely related to moths and butterflies (you may have seen an adult caddisfly fluttering around your lights at night and mistaken it for a moth), but their anatomy and life cycle are quite different. These aquatic insects spend most of their lives in streams and other fast flowing waters worldwide, but species vary in habitat, diet, and life cycle.

Netspinner caddisflies

True to its aquatic nature, adult female netspinner caddisflies dive underwater to lay eggs on the undersides of submerged stones. Most eggs take a year to develop into larvae, but they can take up to two years in some areas. As a larva, netspinners have a tan or green body with three armor-like plates on the upper surface of the thorax. Gills and small hairs line the underside of the curved abdomen. Netspinners undergo five to eight instars (growth stages) in which they metamorphose and molt as larvae.  Mature larvae, those about to transition into the pupal stage, average from 10mm-30mm in length.

The larval stage gives the netspinners their common name: they spin silk nets to capture food. The water current in their habitat allows food particles to float by such that they may be easily caught in nets. Larvae thus spin silk nets on or between rocks where they can capture insects, algae, diatoms, and any other food particles floating downstream on the water current:

Caddisfly net

The stronger the current, the stronger netspinners make their nets.

After spending most of its life as larvae, netspinners enter the pupal stage.  As pupae, they exhibit antennae and hooked plates on the abdomen. As netspinners transform from larvae to adults, their diet changes from omnivorous-detritivorous (eating and breaking down dead plant and animal materials) to nectarivorous (feeding on nectar). As adults, netspinner caddisflies exhibit 5-segmented, long maxillary palps (mouthparts) that assist them in feeding on nectar, and dotted brown wings for their new terrestrial lives. You’re likely to see a swarm of adults during summer nights when they breed and in some areas the numbers of adults can become so numerous that they become a nuisance. Adult netspinner caddisflies generally don’t live longer than a month.

The common netspinner is used for both recreational and environmental assessment purposes. Fly fishermen often use common netspinners as bait for trout. Because they filter food from the water and break down plant and animal materials in streams, they have also been extensively studied as biological indicators of aquatic system health.

It’s amazing to see the nets constructed by the netspinners and consider how such a tiny home can have such a big impact. Come see netspinner caddisflies for yourself in the Prairie Ridge stream!

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!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)

Tracks in the Snow (What Time is it in Nature)

February 28, 2015

Like the rest of the Triangle area, Prairie Ridge got a lot of snow last week.  One of the best things about snow, I think, is all the stories it tells about the animals in the area!  The most recent snow preserved a lot of animal prints.  Let’s take a tour of some of the prints and see who was out and about in the snow!

This set of prints was in a little patch of snow between the Outdoor Classroom and the forest, near the bins where we store the bird seed:

squirrel tracks

Those prints are from an Eastern Gray Squirrel that had hopped into this spot, paused a moment, and hopped away.  We often see squirrels nosing around the bird seed bins behind the classroom, so I’d bet that this particular squirrel was headed over to check out the bins when it paused here.

These tracks are from another medium-sized mammal:

eastern cottontail tracks

The tracks of the Eastern Cottontail are distinctive in the snow and generally take the shape in the image above with a lot of space between them.  Apparently we had a lot of rabbits active at Prairie Ridge during the snowy weather because their tracks are all over!  I haven’t spotted a rabbit in months, but the tracks tell us that there are still quite a few of them roaming around.

These tracks are from birds:

bird tracks

As you may be able to tell from the sheer number of tracks present, these were found under one of the bird feeders at our feeding station below the Outdoor Classroom.  There were dozens of sparrows hopping around in the snow under the feeders this morning making even more tracks. Lots of hungry birds have been taking advantage of the seed in the snow!  If you look closely, you can probably see at least two sizes of tracks, smaller tracks made by White-throated Sparrows, Chipping Sparrows, or Dark-eyed Juncos and larger tracks made by Northern Cardinals.

A much larger animal made these heart-shaped tracks:

deer tracks

White-tailed deer are our most commonly spotted and reported large mammals, so it’s not surprising to see their tracks in the snow.  Their hooves make a very distinctive mark, in snow or mud, and you can often follow deer tracks for quite a long ways, sometimes all the way to the animal that made them!  Based on the tracks I saw, most of the deer have wandered around on their own or in small groups of 2-3 over the last few nights.

Some tracks tell a more exciting story.  These muddy tracks were made by a fox, probably a Gray Fox:

fox tracks

It had clearly run across the muddy road and over the top of the snow after it had iced over, so these tracks were probably made the night before I found them.  If you followed the tracks for a ways, you could see why the fox crossed the road: it was hunting!  At one point along the tracks, there was a group of prints circling around a bloody patch in the snow.  You could tell that the fox had caught and killed something in that spot, then dropped the animal on the ice briefly before picking it up, running off, and presumably eating it somewhere else.  There were no feathers or fur present, just a few patches of blood and a dent where something warm had lain for a minute and melted the ice around it slightly, so it’s hard to say what the fox caught.  If you want to make suggestions for what the victim may have been, I’ve posted the slightly graphic image of the scene here.  (Please note that there is blood visible in the image, though no other remains.  It might not be suitable for all readers.)

Prairie Ridge is always an interesting place after a snowstorm!  If the roads are clear and you can drive here safely, it’s well worth a trip out to look for tracks in the snow after a storm.  It’s amazing how much you can learn about what is active and what those animals were up to by simply looking for tracks!

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!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)

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