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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.

A View Through the Window on Animal Health: Gator and Snapper

February 14, 2017

By Sarah Banducci, Museum volunteer

A cart with two large blue plastic tubs wheeled into the exam room signals that today’s patients have arrived. Chief Veterinarian Dr. Dan Dombrowski explains to the growing crowd that both patients have outgrown their jobs as Teaching Collection animals here at the Museum. They will be transferred to another facility with a need for larger animals and the ability to accommodate them as they continue to grow. But before they can be moved to their new homes, Dr. D. has to do a wellness checkup to make sure both are healthy, so that is the agenda for the day.

Joining the team today is Adrian Yirka, head of the Live Animal Teaching Collection at the Museum. The animals in this collection live at the Museum but are only used for educational programs, not public exhibits. Adrian started out as a Museum volunteer in 1995 and has been on staff at the Museum since 2000, making him a pro at wrangling some of the larger, more powerful animals, including the two in for a checkup today.

Patient #1: American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis)

American alligator in the Window on Animal Health.

The Wildlife Commission brought this feisty American alligator to the Museum in 2013.

This alligator only weighed about 2 pounds when she was brought in but has since quadrupled her weight. Because she was caught in the wild, the staff does not have complete information about her medical history, but she has been healthy during her three years at the Museum.

Dr. D. starts his exam with a Doppler ultrasound to listen to her heartbeat (check out this link for Doppler audio from a snake) and a blood draw. The large size of the alligator makes these routine tasks a bit more challenging. Dr. D. also injects the alligator with a microchip — a tiny device whose unique code can be read by a universal scanner. These chips help keep track of the Museum’s animals and will assure that even after they leave and go to their new home, they will always be individually identifiable. After a head-to-toe exam, the gator is declared healthy and returned to her plastic tub.

Patient #2: Alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii)

Alligator snapping turtle

As Adrian pulls out the nearly 25-pound turtle, Dr. D. reviews his medical history. Regardless of species, turtles that live indoors struggle to maintain a healthy shell. Even under the careful supervision of the Museum’s staff, this turtle is no exception. Several years ago he was treated for some minor shell wounds, or “shell gunk,” as the veterinary staff refers to it with visitors. However, Dr. D. reports that his shell looks great today and in reviewing his medical record, can confirm that he has not had any major health issues in the 20 years he has been at the Museum.

Despite this turtle’s lengthy stay at the Museum, he still has not grown accustomed to being handled by the veterinary staff. As Adrian carries him into the exam room, he opens his mouth wide — seeming to indicate that he prefers to be left alone today. Once the turtle is settled on the exam table, Dr. D. covers his eyes with a small towel, a technique commonly used to calm agitated animals.

Although the common snapping turtle is indigenous to North Carolina, the alligator snapping turtle is not. Dr. D. differentiates between the two types by showing off one of the alligator snapping turtle’s most distinctive features: a built-in lure used to help it catch fish. You can see the bright pink “lure” in the turtle’s mouth. The lure looks like a tasty little worm to small fish, which go after it thinking they are going to get a meal. Much to the surprise of the fish, the alligator snapper is sitting just under the water with its mouth open waiting for its next meal to swim in.

Like the alligator, the turtle receives a complete head-to-toe physical exam, including blood work, and Dr. D. has no concerns about his health. The turtle is injected with a microchip of his own and sent back to await transfer from the Museum to his new home.

It’s another busy day at the Window with a crowd of kids and adults alike pressing their foreheads against the glass for a better look at the alligator’s sharp teeth and the turtle’s lure. Although we have to say farewell to these two creatures, the Live Animal Teaching Collection now has openings to welcome newcomers to the Museum’s living collections.

Spotlight on the Science Olympiad Showcase

February 3, 2017

On Saturday, January 14, 2017 the Museum hosted 30 North Carolina middle and high school Science Olympiad teams and offered them the opportunity to participate in practice events designed to help them get ready for competition. Teen Newsroom Producer Chloe Allen has the scoop on what it takes to be a Science Olympian and how the Museum of Natural Sciences helps teams prepare to go for the gold!

Science Olympiad Regional Competition will take place on Saturday, February 4, 2017 at Southeast Raleigh High School. Good luck teams! Click on the link to find out more about the North Carolina Science Olympiad.

This video was produced by Chloe Allen of the Teen Newsroom program at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

Lab Life: The Micro World Investigate Laboratory

January 25, 2017

Have you ever wondered what microbes are? Where they can be found, what they do, and how they are important to us? Well, there’s a place where you can get up-close and personal with the microscopic world. Join Deb Bailey from the Micro World Investigate Lab to hear what she has to say about microbes, the lab, and how you can get involved:

For a fascinating view through the microscope of the microbes around and in us, visit The Secret World Inside You, on exhibit at the Museum until March 12, 2017.

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

Creature Feature: North Carolina’s Candid Critters

January 25, 2017
A white-tailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus, gets candid with a camera in Jones County, North Carolina. Image captured by NC Candid Critters camera trap volunteer HofmannFor_4.

A white-tailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus, gets candid with a camera in Jones County, North Carolina. Image captured by NC Candid Critters camera trap volunteer HofmannFor_4.

By Alex McCloskey, Teen Newsroom producer.

Imagine having to collect thousands of camera traps filled with photographs from a multitude of locations. Now imagine having to sift through and organize all of that information. When the very first camera trap was deployed in the 1920s the photos were much harder to store without the technology we are gifted with today. Scientists can benefit greatly from digital archives because of their ability to be accessed easily. The ability to share digital information simply and quickly is why the North Carolina Candid Critters program is important. Roland Kays, head of the Biodiversity lab at the Museum of Natural Sciences, is the director of the program. Using digital archiving can allow Kays’ class at NC State University to quickly and easily compare, contrast, and visualize data from 2013 and 2016 to see what has changed over time.

The major goal of camera traps has always been to learn how to measure changes in animal populations. There were originally around 500 volunteers and 2,000 cameras across 6 states who sent in roughly 4 million photos. The goal in the next three years is to expand not only across all 100 counties of North Carolina, but to do so with thousands of volunteers and tens of thousands of locations.

Preparation for the use of these mass digital archives consists of getting cameras organized and volunteers trained. Citizen scientists who participate and set up the camera traps can learn about and connect more with the animals. All pictures citizen scientists capture are wanted by the NC Candid Critters program. The adventure-minded people who capture the photos identify which animal it is and experts verify the identification. Digital archiving acts like a voucher that the animal was in a specific spot during a specific time. This way the experts studying these species don’t have to rely on eyewitness accounts to document the animals’ whereabouts.

Creature Feature is your closer look at the interesting animals around us in North Carolina. Get the facts on these cool critters and more at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences!