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Counting Butterflies for Science

August 25, 2016
Butterfly Counters. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Butterfly Counters. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Last week was the annual butterfly count in Raleigh and Prairie Ridge was once again one of the sites taking part in the event. Two Museum staffers and a few volunteers conducted this year’s count at Prairie Ridge and documented some great finds!

The most abundant butterfly for the 2016 count was the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail:

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. Photo by Chris Goforth.

These very large butterflies have been particularly abundant at Prairie Ridge and across most of the Triangle this year. They feed on a wide variety of plants in our Nature Neighborhood Garden and come in two different colors.  Males and about half of the females are as pictured above, yellow with black markings of the typical color pattern most people associate with this species.  About half of the females are entirely black, however.  These are the “dark morph” of the species.  If the light hits their wings just right, you will be able to see that they still have the stripes of the yellow version, though the stripes are so close in color to the rest of the scales on the wings that you won’t normally see them.

One of the most exciting finds this year was a large number of Gulf Fritillaries:

Gulf Fritillary. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Gulf Fritillary. Photo by Chris Goforth.

This is a tropical species that moves northward into the US in the summer. Some years they make it as far north as North Carolina and other years they do not.  This year was a marvelous year for Gulf Fritillaries!  We were able to confirm at least a dozen individuals in the garden at one time, but there were likely even more in other locations on the grounds.  Like their relative the Variegated Fritillary, the Gulf Fritillary lays its eggs on the Purple Passionflower vines throughout the Prairie Ridge grounds and the caterpillars will feed on the leaves once they hatch.

Another great find this year was a large number of Sleepy Oranges:

Gulf Fritillary. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Gulf Fritillary. Photo by Chris Goforth.

This is not a rare butterfly at Prairie Ridge, but some years are better than others for this species. This is apparently a good year!  We saw many in the garden during the count, feeding on Ironweed, Coral Honeysuckle, and other flowering plants.  Sleepy Oranges belong to the butterfly family Pieridae, which is known for its rapid flight and brief stops at flowers.  They get their name from their relatively slow flight compared to most of the other species in the family.  You’ll often see them dart from plant to plant close to the ground, their bright orange upper wings visible until they land and clap their wings together over their backs, exposing the pale yellow lower surface as they sip nectar.

Overall, we documented over 150 butterflies of 21 species at Prairie Ridge throughout the day. The data we gathered will be combined with that from other sites around Raleigh, then the entire dataset will be submitted to the North American Butterfly Association’s annual Butterfly Count Program.  These counts help NABA publish data on the current distributions of butterfly species across North America.  The data can also be compared to counts from previous years to monitor population changes and how weather and land use impact butterfly species.

Thanks to everyone who helped count butterflies at Prairie Ridge this year! We’re already looking forward to participating again in 2017 to play our part in butterfly research, conservation, and appreciation.

Late Season Laying (What Time is it in Nature)

August 24, 2016

This has been a wonderful year for butterflies at Prairie Ridge!  Their season appears to have peaked and we are now headed on a downward slope into the fall, but there is still a lot of activity happening across the grounds.  There has also been a rush for many of our butterflies to lay a few final eggs before the end of the summer.  However, because there are so many butterflies out and about, the competition for suitable egg laying locations has become intense and females have to look hard for places to lay.  Let’s take a look at a great example we came across yesterday, a Pipevine Swallowtail!

Pipevine Swallowtails are large butterflies in the swallowtail family.  They are a deep black with orange and yellow spots on the lower surface of their hindwings and a gorgeous iridescent blue on the upper surface:

pipevine swallowtail adult

Their caterpillars only feed on pipevine species, so the females lay their eggs on pipevines of a variety of species.  At Prairie Ridge, we have a large Woolly Pipevine plant growing on the fence to the right of the main entrance to the garden:


It’s a big plant and can support many caterpillars, but there’s a little gap between when the eggs are laid and when the caterpillars hatch.  Caterpillars can’t feed on the older, tougher leaves until they grow up a bit, so the adult females look for new growth to lay their eggs on.  That way, the newborn caterpillars will emerge right onto the softest leaves of the plant and can start feeding immediately.  As they feed and molt, they’ll become more powerful chewers and will eventually be able to eat any leaf on the plant.

At this time of year, there is a lot of new growth on our Woolly Pipevine, but there are also a lot of eggs and caterpillars already present on those parts of the plant.  If there are too many eggs laid on the soft new growth, the caterpillars might eat all of their food before they are able to chew the tougher leaves and starve.  Adult females thus look for new growth that doesn’t already have eggs or caterpillars on it.  Our Woolly Pipevine is absolutely crawling with caterpillars currently, so the females now need to look a little harder for suitable places to deposit their eggs.

That brings us to yesterday!  An adult female Pipevine Swallowtail appeared and started flying around the Wooly Pipevine on the fence.  She landed on many different parts of the plant, turning little circles on the leaves or stems where she landed and probing the plant parts with the tip of her abdomen.  (Butterflies can “taste” things with chemical sensors in their feet, so presumably she was looking for something that tasted like pipevine!)  She apparently didn’t find a good place while she was on the primary plant, so she started searching a little further out.  Eventually, she started flying around this spot on the ground near the pond in the garden:

Pipevine sprout hidden in mulch

See the plant?  If not, it’s highlighted here:

Pipevine sprout highlighted in mulch

Really, there’s a plant there!  Let’s zoom in a little further:

Pipevine sprout up close

That big piece of mulch above and to the left of the plant in the center is about 2 inches long for scale.  A very small Woolly Pipevine sprout!  However, this was apparently a good sprout, as the female “tasted” the plant extensively before settling down to lay some eggs on it:

Pipevine Swallowtail laying

She held her abdomen to the under surface of the leaves for about half a minute, then fluttered off looking for more plants.  These are her eggs:

Pipevine sprout

All that work for two little red eggs on a tiny sprout.  Hopefully they will hatch soon and we’ll be able to see some tiny caterpillars munching on slightly larger Woolly Pipevine leaves!

The butterflies will likely be very abundant at Prairie Ridge for a few more weeks.  Consider coming out soon to see how many different types you can see!   We’ve also highlighted several butterflies recently on our Prairie Ridge Facebook page, so you can find more information and photos about Prairie Ridge butterflies and other species there.

What Time is it in Nature is a periodic 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

Two Months In, CitSciScribe is Still Going Strong

August 20, 2016

CitSciScribe logo

We’re just over two months into the CitSciScribe project and we’ve already made some amazing progress! Here’s what our citizen science curators have helped us accomplish so far:

  • 5183 transcriptions
  • Over 135 hours of work
  • Two entire projects!

We reached our first major milestone, the first completed project, just two weeks after launching CitSciScribe! The Duke Marine Labs Project had the smallest number of transcriptions, but we were thrilled to see the work done so quickly. Our citizen scientists completed the second project, the Charleston Amphibians and Reptiles Project, a couple of weeks ago. Two out of the three original projects are already finished, and we are well on our way toward completing the Charleston fish project too.

To keep up with the amazing speed of our citizen science curators, we recently added a new project, the Core Amphibians and Reptile Project. While the other three projects have had participants working toward digitizing the data for newly acquired collections given to us by other museums, the Core project features specimens that have been a part of the NCMNS reptile and amphibian collection for decades. The project will help museum herpetologists make the data from our own collections more widely available to everyone – and vastly more quickly than we would be able to accomplish without the help of our citizen scientists!

crocodile skullAs our citizen science curators work through the transcriptions via our project website, Museum staff are hard at work tackling behind-the-scenes tasks related to this project. We’re working to prepare materials to launch new projects in the future and expect to have another project available soon. We are also working to review the transcriptions done so far. As transcriptions are reviewed, we can move them into the official Museum collections databases. At that point, the information contained in our paper records will become available to the public online for the first time. That means that everyone, everywhere will be able to look through the specimen data and make use of it without ever having to step foot in the Museum.

Thanks to everyone who has participated in CitSciScribe so far! Your hard work has been inspiring and you’ve been more productive than we’d even hoped. And if you haven’t gotten involved yet, we’d love to have you join us! Visit the CitSciScribe website to make a free account and get started.

Celebrating Moths During National Moth Week

July 30, 2016

This year marks the fifth annual National Moth Week and the Museum celebrated once again with its annual Moths At Night program at Prairie Ridge. Each year, we invite the public to take advantage of a series of attractive lights, baits, and educational talks to learn more about moths, make some observations, and share those observations with citizen science projects.

visitors checking out moths at one of the blacklights

We typically have bad luck with this program and have had a big storm just before or during the event each year, but this year we had no rain and a warm night with no moon. As a result, we had some particularly excellent moths!

About 55 participants ranging in age from about 5 to retired adults attended Moths at Night this year and were treated to a variety of exceptional moths. We saw many of our usual moths, such as the Rosy Maple Moth:

Rosy maple moth

… the Tan Wave:

Tan wave

…. and the Elegant Grass Veneer:

elegant grass veneer

Rosy Maple Moth caterpillars feed on maples (as their name suggests!), Tan Waves feed on goldenrods and oaks, and Elegant Grass Veneers are found feeding on grass in lawns. Given how many of the host plants we have at Prairie Ridge, it’s no wonder that there are so many of each of these species represented in our National Moth Week observations.

Some moth species are not spotted every year, but have appeared more than once at past events. One excellent example is the Beautiful Wood Nymph:

Beautiful Wood Nymph

This moth is thought to mimic bird droppings as a defense against predators as few things are interested in eating bird excrement. Its caterpillars feed on Virginia Creeper and grapes, both of which are available in abundance near the location where we set up the lights. The Black-bordered Lemon is another occasional visitor:

Black bordered lemon

This moth happily feeds on crabgrass as a caterpillar, so you find it in grassy areas. Not surprising that we find them at Prairie Ridge!

The Rosy Maple Moths are often the most gaudily colored moths we see during Moths At Night, and are generally popular with visitors. This year, however, we saw other large and/or colorful moths that were even more exciting! We had several Virginia Creeper Sphinx moths appear throughout the program and ended the evening with half a dozen at the lights:

Virginia creeper sphinx

This is the first time we’ve recorded Virginia Creeper Sphinx moths at Prairie Ridge, but they are relatively common. We also have quite a lot of Virginia Creeper, their caterpillar host plant, near the classroom building. Perhaps the poor weather in past years could explain why we haven’t spotted this moth before now?

The most exciting find of the night was spotted at the very end of the event, a Small-eyed Sphinx:

Small-eyed sphinx

This is another large moth species, and another first for Prairie Ridge. This species feeds on a variety of trees, including Black Cherry and Serviceberry. We have both species on the grounds, so although this was an exciting moth to see, it was definitely in a place where we might expect to see them.

By the end of the night, we’d documented over 40 moth species at Prairie Ridge! The data we collected (photos, date, location, and time) have been uploaded to our Natural North Carolina project so that we can share our moth sightings with scientists and other people who are interested in moths. Several visitors also took photos of moths at Prairie Ridge this year and were planning to share them with Natural North Carolina, so our moths should be well represented in this year’s National Moth Week dataset!

If you’d like to get involved in National Moth Week, there’s still time! The event runs through Sunday, July 31, so flip on your porch light tonight or tomorrow and make some observations of your nocturnal visitors. Simply looking at moths is great, but to make your observations more useful, consider snapping a few photos and sharing them online. We’d love for you to share your photos and observations with our Natural North Carolina project online at We hope to see some fabulous new moth observations there before National Moth Week is over!

Beautiful Belize!

July 20, 2016

Join the Educators of Excellence on the Tropical Ecology Institute!

Tropical Ecology Institute

Jaw-dropping. Inspiring. Beautiful. Exhausting. All in the best way possible. Listen with us as we describe our first day’s journey on the Tropical Ecology Institute as a symphony of sounds.

Early morning alarms, excited chatter, and discussion about what everyone packed started our day from Raleigh through Miami to Belize City!

The sounds of laughter and Belizean accents greeted us after we made our way through customs to hugs from our new friends, tour guide Nathan, driver Bruce, and two amazing Belizean teachers, Ryan and Sherret.

With no time to waste we loaded onto the bus to begin exploring. Our first stop: the Community Baboon Sanctuary (interesting fact: howler monkeys are locally called baboons). The brief sound of silence accompanied the sounds of the forest as we devoured stewed chicken, rice and beans (not to be confused with beans and rice), potato salad, fried plantains and fresh pineapple and watermelon…

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Introducing the NC Science Museums Grant Program

July 6, 2016

The competitive North Carolina Science Museums Grant program is one of the many ways that the State of North Carolina invests in sustaining and advancing one of the most diverse and widespread networks of science museums in the country. These museums are critical resources for schools and communities in providing learning experiences in and out of the classroom that enhance science literacy.

Any North Carolina science center or children’s museum that meets eligibility requirements may apply for an award.  Awards range from $50,000 to $75,000, based on each applicant’s county tier designation. Applications will be accepted on a two-year cycle.

This cycle’s Eligibility forms will be due no later than midnight on July 31, 2016.

Once eligibility is determined, eligible parties will be allowed to submit an Application Form.

For more information, please see the NC Science Museums Grant Program website.

Hello, Jupiter!

July 5, 2016

Research & Collections

This year’s July 4th holiday was a special one for planetary science, as the NASA spacecraft Juno, entered the dense atmosphere of our solar system’s giant, Jupiter. After 5 years and traveling nearly 550 million miles, Juno reached Jupiter at nearly 130,000 miles per hour, poised to orbit the planet 32 times, gathering unprecedented data on Jupiter’s atmosphere, magnetic, and gravitational fields, all lending clues to how it formed about 4.57 billion years ago.

Artistic rendering of Juno entering Jupiter's orbit (Credit: NASA). Artistic rendering of Juno entering Jupiter’s orbit (Credit: NASA).

Scientists think that Jupiter may have been the first planet to form from the swirling disk of gas and dust from which Earth and the other 6 planets formed, as well as the asteroids, comets, and other debris that makes up our current solar system. Juno’s science will help unravel the detailed composition of Jupiter’s atmosphere which hold clues to its formation history, including how and where it…

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