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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:

A View Through the Window on Animal Health: Snake Exams

November 3, 2016

By Sarah Banducci, Museum volunteer

Unlike the young girl next to me with her face pressed against the glass of the Window on Animal Health in excitement, I nearly recoiled in fright when I saw today’s patients: four snakes. Just like humans, Museum animals require annual wellness checkups, in this case with Chief Veterinarian Dr. Dan Dombrowski. The four non-venomous snakes examined today represent only a few of the Museum’s approximately 100 resident exhibit and educational programming snakes, several of which can be observed by visitors in the Museum’s “Snakes of North Carolina” live native snake exhibit on the third floor of the Nature Exploration Center.

Patient #1: Rat Snake (Pantherophis alleghaniensi / Elaphe obsoleta)

Greenish rat snake being held by gloved hands. Photo: Shane Christian.

Yellow rat snake. Photo: Shane Christian/NCMNS.

The common rat snake (or eastern rat snake)  can be found throughout most of North Carolina. To the north and west in the state, rat snakes are predominately black with a white chin and called black rat snakes. To the east and southeast, they are often “yellowish” with 2 lateral longitudinal black or dark stripes and called yellow rat snakes. This “greenish” variant occurs in a relatively narrow band across the state where the two described above meet. This particular snake was caught in the wild and brought to the Museum in 2005. During his yearly checkup last week, the doctors noticed a scab associated with an area of inflammation near the snake’s vent that required a follow-up exam. The “vent” is simply a multipurpose opening to the cloaca in the snake that allows for passage of materials from inside the snake to the outside including musk, feces, urates, and babies or eggs in female snakes. After a thorough exam of the vent, Dr. Dombrowski was content that the irritated area was healing nicely and had been treated early enough to prevent it from becoming more serious.

Patient #2: Eastern Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula getula)

This eastern kingsnake is at least 20 years old and has been at the Museum since 2006. Eastern kingsnakes are found throughout North Carolina, often in wooded areas near water. Dr. Dombrowski started off his exam by using a Doppler ultrasound to estimate heart rate via blood flow through the snake’s heart as it was beating and pumping blood. Listen to a sample here:

Like the first patient of the day, this snake also was seen last week for his yearly checkup. Some swelling near the vent required a follow-up visit to the clinic. In this case, the musk or scent gland, located just caudally (or towards the tail) to the vent, was believed to be the culprit. During the exam last week, the doctor used a syringe with a needle to extract some material from the swollen area and examine it under a microscope to determine if the swelling was from musk, a tumor, or an infection. Based on those findings, it was suspected to be an impacted musk gland. Today, Dr. Dombrowski used a dull probe while examining the area and pushed out more material from the enlarged glands. This snake will be soaked in a warm water bath once a day for the next few weeks, a treatment that helps to loosen any material that may be plugging the gland opening. In a few weeks the snake will be returned for another follow-up to track the swelling and make sure it does not progress into something worse.

Patients #3 and #4: Rough Green Snakes (Opheodrys aestivus)

Rough green snakes can be found throughout North Carolina but prefer areas of dense vegetation near water. The first rough green snake examined today has been in the Museum since 2010. He was in the Window for a full annual checkup and reported to be in good health. The second rough green snake has been at the Museum since 2009 and was referred to the Window for weight loss. While the first of these two snakes was lively and moving about quickly, the second was much less energetic. These two small snakes live together in an exhibit, which creates a few challenges. First, it can be hard to identify the snakes correctly. But more importantly in this case, it is nearly impossible to track the individual eating habits of the snakes. Dr. Dombrowski will be following up with this underweight snake to make sure she gains some weight.

My initial fear toward today’s patients faded away after watching them undergo these check-ups and I discovered a newfound respect for our slithery friends.

Destroying Worlds: Space Exploration’s Potentially Devastating Path

November 2, 2016


Astronaut Sunita L. Williams, Expedition 14 flight engineer, works with the Lab-on-a-Chip Application Development-Portable Test System (LOCAD-PTS), a handheld device for rapid detection of biological and chemical substances on board the station. By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

By Emily Matthews, Teen Newsroom producer, and currently a senior at homeschool.

As we delve deeper and deeper into the abyss of space, we learn ever more about the universe that surrounds us. Many of us hope to find proof of life, some signal that we aren’t alone, but this quest may not be morally sound. While our conquests of planets may seem harmless, by visiting other worlds, we leave something potentially apocalyptic behind: microbes.

“If you knew [visiting] would wipe out [all life on] a planet, would you still go?” poses Dr. Rachel Smith, Head of the Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Lab at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences.

If we ever find extraterrestrial life, there’s a chance it will meet its end at the hands of humanity.  Our presence will introduce Earthly microbes that may be capable of wreaking havoc on a foreign ecosystem. No matter how hard we try, it’s impossible to completely sterilize everything; our microbes are quite adaptable, able to survive dormant in extremely inhospitable conditions. Inevitably, some will survive both decontamination and the journey through space.

In fact, they already have.

According to NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer Catharine Conley, approximately 30,000 bacterial endospores stole away on the Curiosity rover during its trip to Mars. At the time, this level wasn’t a problem for the Committee on Space Research, the international regulator of space exploration, as Mars was thought to be a barren, dry wasteland. But, as we learned more about the planet, we began to discover that this wasn’t the case. Since the discovery of water, fear of contamination has increased to the point where debate has sparked over the ethics of allowing the rover anywhere near the liquid.

But anytime we enter space, we risk injecting Earthly life into the universe. Only one way exists to completely erase the possibility of contaminating another planet: the termination of space exploration.

This option is obviously less than ideal. Yet, do we owe it to the universe to leave other planets be, to let them flourish and grow without the interference of humanity?

It’s an ethical quandary, and as Dr. Smith admits, “There’s no right answer.” Some believe it’s our right to explore and that any havoc we wreak is justified, but it’s not that simple. The life we find most likely won’t be a sentient creature; instead, microbes may be all we encounter. While they may be minuscule and seemingly insignificant, their potential isn’t. Dr. Smith points out that these microbes have the possibility to evolve into a future species that we do deem worthy of our concern.

But whether or not we believe in an ethical obligation to protect alien life from ourselves, eventually, those morals will not be enough. “We’re naturally curious. We’re explorers,” explains Dr. Smith. According to her, we will still eventually explore and contaminate space no matter the cost.

Creature Feature: Creepiest Critter of the Collection

October 28, 2016

By Alex McCloskey, a Teen Newsroom producer, and currently a junior at Millbrook High School. Photographer Caroline Wang is a Teen Newsroom producer, and currently a junior at Enloe High School.

Rows of Jars at the Research Lab

Photo by Caroline Wang.

Walking into the Museum’s Research Lab adjacent to Prairie Ridge Ecostation gives off an immediate feeling of secrecy and concealment. A labyrinth of jars containing the bodies of once living creatures line rows and rows of shelves deep inside the facility. The dead range from scorpions to all different kinds of crabs and shrimp. Every jar sent a shiver down my spine. One of the shrimps that stands out among the rest as the most eerie is known as the mantis shrimp, known for its bright colors, insane strength, and unbelievable speed. Alcohol inside the jar preserves the flesh, but drains away the animal’s coloring, leaving only a pale yellow carcass floating in ghostly liquid.

There are over 400 different species of mantis shrimp, but there are only two different groups: smashers and spearers. Smashers are smaller than spearers. Both like to reside in coral reefs. The smashers use a very hard appendage shaped like a club to unleash a powerful blow onto their prey. The spearers use spear-like appendages to stab their prey.

The shells of most species are decorated with different hues of blue, green, red, and orange. They vary in size ranging from 10 centimeters all the way up to 46 centimeters in length. They are dangerous and their tenacity can make them unstoppable creatures.

Mantis Shrimp close-up

By Nazir Amin (Mantis Shrimp). CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Mantis shrimp are extremely well trained fighters. They can punch with a velocity of over 10 meters per second and have the power of a .22 caliber bullet. Mantis shrimp prefer to stay within their burrows and do not like to venture far from them unless forced to. They will often ambush prey that comes near their burrows instead of going out and hunting to avoid leaving. Tending to be very aggressive, mantis shrimp do not play nice unless it is with a mate. Some mantis shrimp species mate for life. They will find a mate, share the same burrow, protect their eggs, and help each other with hunting for their entire lives. On average, mantis shrimp can live up to 20 years. These years are spent terrorizing other animals in the deep.


Raquel Fagundo holds up a jar containing the preserved body of a mantis shrimp. Photo by Bronwyn Williams.

When asked what she considered the most interesting feature the mantis shrimp possessed was, Raquel Fagundo, Collections Manager of the Non-Molluscan Invertebrates at the Research Lab said, “Other than their awesome defense mechanism, their vision.” Mantis shrimp have trinocular vision, meaning that they can use three points of vision like a microscope does. Their vision is both spectacular and nightmare-inducing to imagine at the same time. With that kind of eyesight, the mantis shrimp can spot prey from inside its lair. Mantis Shrimp are generally found within the tropical and subtropical bodies of waters in the Indian and Pacific Oceans between eastern Africa and Hawaii. However, some species have been found to live in temperate seas. Although the mantis shrimp may normally live far away, you can see this creepy creature in the Museum’s collection at the Research Lab. The Mantis Shrimp is a truly terrifying creature that lurks in the deep.

For more information on the mantis shrimp’s vision, check out award-winning science writer Ed Yong’s article: The Mantis Shrimp Sees Like a Satellite. On November 17, 2016,  Ed Yong will be giving a special presentation on microbes in conjunction with the opening of the Museum’s newest featured exhibition The Secret World Inside You: Meet Your Microbes.

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!

Get Camera Trapping with North Carolina’s Candid Critters!

October 17, 2016

Today’s blog post is brought to you by Arielle Parsons, eMammal Project Coordinator.  She’s based in the Biodiversity Lab in the Nature Research Center.  Thanks, Arielle!

Candid Critters loto

Do you ever wonder what animals lurk in the most wild parts of the state? Or in your own backyard? Still waiting for photographic proof of a North Carolina mountain lion? Big foot? North Carolina’s Candid Critters is your chance to discover the secrets of wildlife right here in North Carolina!

bearThe NC Museum of Natural Sciences, NC Wildlife Resources Commission, and NC State University are bringing you a new citizen science project that will span the entire state of North Carolina from the mountains to the sea. No matter what county you live in, you can borrow a camera trap from a nearby public library to set on approved public lands. If you own your own camera trap, you can set it on either approved public land or in your own back yard. Then, wait and see what critters you catch! At the same time you are discovering what wildlife live near you, you will be helping the NC Wildlife Resources Commission learn more about deer reproduction and the distribution of all mammal species across the state.

Camera traps are cool technology that allow us to collect pictures of animals without disturbing them. These cameras are digital and can store thousands of photos. They’re easy to use, so you don’t need to be a professional scientist or photographer to help us collect data. Simply complete our 45 minute online training and you’ll qualify as a camera trapper! Cameras will be run in one place for 3 weeks, then volunteers will use our specially developed eMammal software to tag the species in the photographs and upload them for archiving at the Smithsonian. These photos will be stored indefinitely, allowing scientists of the future to look at how mammals change over time in the state. It’s easy, fun, and you can choose your favorite photos to share with us and others online.

camera-trapOne of the main advantages of pictures from camera traps is that they are verifiable, which means that they are “evidence” that an animal was located in a specific time and place. The photos generated turn into data, allowing us to map where animals live and when and where they are most active across the state. We can use these images to study how wildlife interacts with their environment, with humans, and with other species. For example, we’ve used camera trap photos to determine that human recreation like hiking, hunting, and dog walking is largely compatible with most wildlife species in the Southeast and doesn’t cause measurable disturbance.

To answer these types of questions for mammals, we need to collect data on very large scales, like entire states, and we can’t do it alone. This is where you come in! By participating in North Carolina’s Candid Critters, you will help us collect the data necessary to meet our scientific goals over the entire state to fully understand the wildlife of North Carolina. The project will kick off with the first cameras being set in the Eastern third of the state beginning December 2016, then we will move into all 100 counties in March 2017! If you own your own camera, you can start anytime no matter what county you live in! You can follow our progress and see favorite photos and preliminary results on our website.

We hope you will join us in this ambitious project! Sign up now at