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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!

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.