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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!

Winter Walk to Prairie Ridge

January 11, 2017

This blog post is brought to you by Julie Hall, citizen science educator at Prairie Ridge.  Thanks, Julie!

Prairie Ridge has been closed for a few days, but as always nature has been open for business! Yesterday I tried to drive to the Ecostation, but my car could not get up the hill on our street.  This was quite a stroke of luck in a way because it forced me to walk to work! Luckily, I live less than 3 miles away and can travel through forest and greenway the entire way.  I started my hike through Schenck Forest, a NCSU teaching and research forest.  From Schenck I hopped on the Capital greenway on Reedy Creek Road, onto the underpass to avoid crossing Edwards Mill Road, and into the back entrance off the greenway of Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Here are some highlights along the trails:


Turned up earth makes me think Wild Turkeys, but I don’t see their tracks.  Perhaps it was deer or squirrels munching acorns since there are plenty of tracks nearby:

Squirrel tracks

Eastern Gray Squirrel tracks abound. Aren’t they the cutest?

Noticing many dark drippings and dust at the base of this oak…

sapsucker evidence

… I looked up and sure enough, fresh holes from a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker! I saw and heard one about a mile down the trail, I wonder if it was the same one.

Crunch, crunch, crunch! A winter hike can be quite noisy.  But when I stopped to listen, the quiet stillness was so peaceful.  There was a lot of ice on the ground.


Human tracks were interesting too. It looks like someone in the Triangle owns a pair of snowshoes!

snowshoe track

The tracks on the right look like an ice-traction shoe device was clipped on.

Yak tracks

That would have been handy.  I almost fell several times!

Walking through the greenway tunnel under Edwards Mill Road with Prairie Ridge in sight!

tunnel under road

Exiting the tunnel I heard the loudest bird song I had heard all hike long, and saw plenty of bird tracks in the snow!

bird tracks

Prairie Ridge attracts such a diverse bird population, it is a very popular birding spot.  It’s also a great location for the Museum’s ornithologists to research birds with bird banding.

So many tracks!

several tracks

Could it be? Is there still a bobcat here?

cat track

The pond was beautiful in its frozen state.

frozen pond

Can you spot the frozen feather?

frozen pond

The pond was surprisingly noisy! Ice cracking and melting in the sun and rising temperatures.

frozen pond

Further down the path, between the pond and arboretum, I crossed paths with a wildlife highway! So much activity, this place has been bustling.

lots of tracks

No photo montage is complete without a little scat! Where are you bunnies?

rabbit scat

The songbirds were waiting for the feeders to be filled ~ can you spot all five cardinals?

cardinals at the feeders

Next time it snows be sure to find your way to the closest forest and take a hike! You never know what surprises await.

Forest trail sign

Introducing FossilPhiles!

December 16, 2016

This post is brought to you by Dr. Lindsay Zanno, head of Paleontology for the Museum.  Thanks, Lindsay!

What do armadillo tails, 230 million year old crocodylomorph skeletons, and crayfish in a jar have in common?  They’re all part of the North Carolina Museum’s incredible collection of specimens, and they’re all tucked safely away in the museum’s underbelly for future generations of scientists and enthusiasts. Unfortunately, few of them ever make it onto exhibition for the public to view.

Enter FossilPhiles, the NC Museum of Natural Sciences’ new effort to bring our most amazing fossil specimens out of the basement and into the realm of public exploration!  We’ve enlisted young scientists in 8th-11th grade to create 3D models of our paleontological collections and upload them into an interactive, open-access database.  The students learn critical skills in digital technology, get one-on-one mentoring with our paleontologists, and contribute authentic data that scientists will use to study ancient life. In turn, the database will give you, the public, a behind-the-scenes pass to connect with the heart of the museum, our collections, and brings the core of our mission to life.

The database itself is already filling up with one-of-a-kind fossil relics including ancient crabs, new species of dinosaurs, and bizarre soft-bodied life that lived on Earth half a billion years ago.  In just a few more weeks we expect to launch the database portal.  In the meantime, we invite you to get ready for a new kind of adventure!

dromicosuchus skull

Meet Dromicosuchus, an ancient crocodile ancestor from the museum’s paleontological collections.


You can follow along with the progress of the FossilPhiles project online at

From Death to Drawer: A Snipe’s Tale

December 15, 2016

By Emily Matthews, Teen Newsroom producer.

Collections Manager of Ornithology Brian O'Shea holds the body of an unfortunate snipe. Photo: Brian O'Shea/NCMNS.

Collections Manager of Ornithology Brian O’Shea holds the body of an unfortunate snipe. Photo: Brian O’Shea/NCMNS.

Tucked away in the catacombs of the Museum lies a tray of snipes. This isn’t a conspiracy theory. These snipes aren’t the fictitious creatures you send your little brother on a wild goose chase for; they’re birds — common ones. And recently, another member of this species has found its way to the Museum post-mortem.

Likely orienting itself during migration, this snipe died by flying straight into the brick wall of the North Carolina Museum of Art. A few hours later, a woman scooped it up, packed it in ice, and dropped it off at the Museum for Brian O’Shea, the Ornithology Collections Manager, to take care of. “Taking care of” the snipe began, as for every bird that finds its way to the collections, by taking attendance. Date, location, weight — all recorded in a large binder, noting every bird admitted. Tissue samples, providing information on DNA and contaminants, may also be extracted to join the dozens of test tubes already sharing a tub in storage.

After data-collection, the snipe was packed into a plastic bag and stowed in the freezer like a marinating steak. Its future can follow many paths, from being stored for study to being used in public educational programs. While this bird’s fat content makes preservation for the research collection difficult, the snipe may still find its final resting place in a drawer of the Museum’s basement collections to brush wings with other, decades-old snipes.

These birds, along with the rest of the species held below, serve a purpose.  Snipes are common, not rare or even vulnerable, but the future of every species is too foggy for any degree of certainty as to its fate.

“We don’t know,” admitted Dr. O’Shea. “What’s common today might not be common tomorrow.” If history has taught us anything, he’s not wrong. He noted that passenger pigeons were a prime example of this phenomenon; while these birds once blocked the sun with their massive flocks, humanity caused their extinction.

“We can’t go back in time,” remarked O’Shea, but these specimens give us a glimpse into the past. Even for living species, each of the over 25,000 birds stored preserves a snapshot of the period and region they lived in, and these samples help illustrate variation over time.

But obtaining specimens isn’t always easy. Upon seeing a dead bird, most people wrinkle their noses and continue by without realizing the corpse’s possible benefit to research. Most specimens come from people affiliated with the Museum, but anyone can provide samples — as long as they’re properly prepared.

O’Shea still remembers being passed “smelly bags” of decaying birds on the loading dock of the Museum. Paper wrappings, he lamented, were common offenders, since they draw water from the body. If you find a dead bird on your property and wish to donate it to the Museum for research, what do you do? After you note the time and location the bird was found, O’Shea recommends you place it in a Ziploc bag surrounded by ice. Then contact Dr. O’Shea and arrange the delivery of the specimen. By providing fresh, properly packaged specimens, everyday citizens can help the Museum collect and preserve data for decades to come.

Making Use of the Most Common Bird With Citizen Science

November 29, 2016

Today’s citizen science blog post is brought you by Mariah Patton, Aubrey Wiggins, and Dr. Caren Cooper.  Mariah is the project manager for Sparrow Swap, Aubrey is a dedicated Sparrow Swap volunteer and citizen scientist, and Dr. Caren Cooper heads the Sparrow Swap project.  Thanks everyone!

House sparrow adultThere are certain species commonly associated with humans, including domesticated species like cats, dogs, and farm animals. One wild species that is found wherever people are found is Passer domesticus, the House Sparrow.

The House Sparrow is one of the most common birds in the world. In some portions of its native Old World range, its decline is of concern, but it is an abundant invasive pest in many areas of the world, including the United States. As we’ve learned with dandelions and kudzu, once an invasive species gets a foothold, it is virtually impossible to get rid of it.

House sparrow range map worldwide

Click to enlarge.

However, it is possible to minimize damage it may cause. House Sparrows are NOT a threat to endangered species, NOT a threat to agriculture, NOT a general threat. But they DO pose harm to bluebirds by taking over their nesting sites and sometimes killing them. Of the thousands of bluebird enthusiasts across the US, many do battle with House Sparrows. To find the most effective strategies to minimize House Sparrow damage to bluebirds, Dr. Caren Cooper’s research team at the Museum’s Biodiversity Research Lab collaborates with bluebirders across the country in a citizen science project called Sparrow Swap.

states participating in Sparrow Swap

Click to enlarge

Sparrow Swap volunteers, those who monitor nestboxes they’ve installed for cavity-dependent bluebirds, view the more generalist House Sparrow and their ability to outcompete for nesting space as problematic. Because House Sparrows are not protected in the US under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, many bluebird nestbox monitors employ a range of actions to keep this sparrow’s population in check while reducing fierce nesting competition for the native, less abundant, and more favorable bluebird. These actions include using passive scare tactics such as a monofilament wire device commonly known as a “Sparrow Spooker,” to more aggressive tactics such as trapping and euthanization. So far, however, little research has been done to shed light on what works and what may have unintended consequences. Through long-term and large-scale data collection, the Sparrow Swap team hopes to get a clearer picture of these issues to share with their citizen scientists and nestbox monitoring communities across the United States.

House sparrow egg replicasSparrow Swap citizen scientists are asked to manage a House Sparrow-dominated nestbox by either removing the eggs and nest from the box or swapping the eggs with hand-painted replicas sent from the Museum. Whichever of these commonly practiced management strategies they choose, it is important for Sparrow Swap citizen scientists to record observations for at least 3 visits and document any additional nesting attempts. This will allow us to determine which management strategy works best at deterring House Sparrows from using bluebird nestboxes.

Observations this year have led to interesting preliminary results! These data show that 49% (N=35) of removals (eggs and nest) resulted in a renesting attempt by the second visit seven days later. Furthermore, 60% of these removals also resulted in new eggs and/or chicks by the second visit. While about half of removals resulted in new nesting attempts, over three-quarters of nests (N=100) with egg replicas successfully tricked parents into investing wasted energy on replicas, and new eggs and/or chicks appeared only 13% of the time. While more data are needed to confidently tease apart outcomes of swapping eggs vs. removing eggs, these preliminary data suggest further trials are warranted to understand the effectiveness of swapping egg replicas.

Variation in house sparrow eggsIn addition to assessing the effectiveness of management tactics, the Sparrow Swap team is investigating whether House Sparrow eggs are useful for monitoring and mapping environmental pollutants. They are also interested in whether there is any connection between possible pollutants and eggshell characteristics such as porosity, eggshell thickness, and color/pattern variation. The Sparrow Swap team has already curated over 479 eggs and stored contents for future lab analysis once more funding is secured. If pollutants are found in the eggs of this species, a species that is only found in association with people, House Sparrow eggs could act as a bioindicator of pollution exposure in other animals and humans.

Processing a sparrow eggSo, why should bluebird enthusiasts toss out a perfectly good House Sparrow egg from a nestbox when it could be used for science? Not only do these unwanted House Sparrow eggs serve as potential bioindicators, but they will be donated as specimens to the Museum’s collections so they will be available for further research for years and years to come.

You can learn more about Sparrow Swap on SciStarter or follow the project’s progress on their Facebook page.


Creature Feature: Long-Spined Porcupinefish

November 18, 2016

By Caroline Wang, Teen Newsroom producer, and currently a junior at Enloe High School.

Long-Spined Porcupinefish

The Museum’s long-spined porcupinefish”smiles” for the camera! Photo by Kathryn Rende

Droplets splash on the surface of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences’ 10,000-gallon aquarium as a scuba suit-adorned Mary Cols steps into the shallow water. Sharks and bony fishes alike scramble to surround their caretaker as one “smiley” porcupinefish hovers happily in the background, floating leisurely up to Mary’s shoulder to seemingly wave a fin in greeting. Awed visitors stare open-mouthed as the cheerful-looking little fish turns around and “smiles” back at them, almost as if posing for the camera. With a charismatic wave of his fin, he “grins” and turns at the perfect angles for a visitor selfie, as if he is patiently waiting for each visitor to get in his or her pictures.

If you happen to stroll towards the shark tank (officially named “Our Changing Ocean”) in the Nature Research Center of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, you’ll notice that this unusual scene is one of common occurrence. Day after day, excited visitors of all ages and kinds are amazed by the charm of the tank’s popular star, the porcupinefish.  Avid Instagramers crowd the tank to get a perfect picture with the surprisingly extroverted fish as he floats at the edge of the glass and follows excited fingers tracing the tank from the outside. Needless to say, this little fellow has become one of the stars of the exhibit.

Native to the warm waters of Florida and other tropical and subtropical seas, the aptly nicknamed “Balloon Fish” is often set on display in museums, and regularly lands popular movie roles in kid-friendly aquatic movies, creating an overwhelming affection from people all over the world.   In the long-spined porcupinefish’s natural habitat, such acting comes naturally — when shocked or scared, it uses its notoriously famous ability to “blow up” or expand as a defense mechanism. With predators like tiger sharks lurking in the ocean, the long-spined porcupinefish also employs unique camouflage techniques with its brown-spotted scales.

When not starring in your daily dose of “Finding Nemo,” the Museum’s long-spined porcupinefish consumes a variety of foods, including shrimp, herring, and vegetables like cucumbers. Staff members like Mary Cols have found that its hardy nature and ability to adapt to live with different fish species gives it an undeniable charm to not only the visitors, but also the staff.

Yet, while hundreds of eager visitors clamor to find this amiable porcupinefish’s name on the information boards nearby, the Museum staff have chosen to leave it nameless. “We want visitors to remember the species, not identify the fish as a name like “Puffy,” explained Mary Cols, the Museum’s Assistant Curator of Fish and Invertebrates. She illustrates the unique charm that draws so many in with her own personal stories, like the time when “he floated near my shoulder to say hello and accidentally came out of the tank on my shoulder with me,” or the time when “he was thrown into the tank, but was still calm, smiley, and gentle as always.”

Our Florida-born porcupinefish continues to draw in thousands, helping not only to bring out the cuteness in fish, but also educating visitor after visitor about his notable species.

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

Check out the pictures below to get a glimpse of the porcupinefish superstar: