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Live from BugFest – Tarantulas: Terrible or Terrific?

September 16, 2017

 By Aleena Islam and Olivia Slack, Teen Newsroom producers.

A 2015 molt from the Brazilian black tarantula that resides in the Museum's Living Conservatory.

A 2015 molt from the Brazilian black tarantula that resides in the Museum’s Living Conservatory. Photo by Aleena Islam.

What do you think of when you hear “tarantula?” For most of us, we see an image of a hairy, fanged movie monster rising up from the depths to bite you. But tarantulas may not be quite as terrifying as they seem, says Andy Kauffman, Curator of the Living Conservatory at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. “It’s true that all spiders are mildly venomous, but the tarantulas that live in the Americas only bite as a last resort; even if they did bite, most spider bites are only comparable to a bee sting,” he says. According to Kauffman, tarantulas also have some amazing adaptations that make them totally unique from other spiders. Those creepy hairs that cover tarantulas’ bodies actually serve a great purpose: sensing when prey is nearby. The hairs are so sensitive that they can detect movement on the ground, alerting the spider that a potential meal is coming.

Andy Kauffman holds tarantula molts

Andy Kauffman, Curator of the Living Conservatory, holding a whole bucket of tarantula molts. Photo by Olivia Slack

A bucket of tarantula molts

A bucket of tarantula molts. Photo by Olivia Slack.

So, what should you do if you see a tarantula in the wild? Well, first of all, you probably won’t see a wild tarantula in North Carolina. Although tarantulas are widespread in the tropics, they hardly ever venture this far north, with the top of their range being around the state of Arkansas. If you were to see one, though, then it would most likely be a male tarantula looking for a female mate. While females can live up to 30 years in some species, the males usually only live a couple of years at most, and their sole wish is to find a nice lady tarantula. The females usually stay underground in their burrows, waiting to ambush their prey. That’s one way they differ from other spiders: you won’t see a tarantula web strung between two trees. If you were to find a tarantula, the spider would probably scurry right away, sure that you were going to try to eat it!

Live tarantula

Tarantulas come in all sorts of colors, including orange, black, brown, and blue. Photo by Olivia Slack.

These are only some of the many amazing facts about tarantulas, and there’s much more to see and learn at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences’ BugFest! Come down to the Museum to check out all the creepy critters, ranging from tarantulas to dragonflies.

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Solar Eclipse 2017, Great Cosmic Connection

August 31, 2017

Research & Collections

It seems safe to say that nothing brings a nation together like a total solar eclipse. For the many months leading up to August 21, 2017, people across the United States geared up for what was for many a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness a total solar eclipse. For the first time in 99 years a total solar eclipse would cross the entire Continental US, giving Americans the rare chance to unite under a cosmic event.

We are lucky planetary voyagers on Earth, residents on, as far as we know, the only planet in our Solar System that, due to perfect geometry in the Sun-Earth-Moon, experiences a total eclipse of the Sun, enabling the Sun’s atmosphere — the solar corona — to glow outward from the disk of the Moon.

Like many others around the country, this was my first total solar eclipse, viewed from Sylva, North Carolina, a small mountainous…

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Early Citizen Science Results From the Eclipse

August 22, 2017
partial eclipse as seen in Raleigh

The eclipse approaching maximum (about 94%) in Raleigh

If you are like many North Carolinians, you spent part of yesterday afternoon somewhere in NC, SC, TN, or elsewhere watching the eclipse.  The 2017 eclipse captured the imagination and attention of the public like few recent scientific phenomena have!  This year’s eclipse also provided many opportunities for citizen scientists to collect data on a variety of topics and we wanted to share some of the (very) preliminary results from those projects here.

The Eclipse MegaMovie invited people to submit photos of the eclipse anywhere along the path of totality so the team could create a continuous video of the eclipse as it crossed the country.  While they’re still accepting photos and will not have a complete movie ready for another month or two, they’ve posted a preliminary video of the results and expect to update it several more times.  Some local photographers were involved in the project, contributing images from various areas within and near totality.  You can hear about one NC photographer’s experience with the MegaMovie on a news segment on WRAL.

Several locals took part in other citizen science projects, including Globe Observer’s temperature study.  People nationwide used the Globe Observer app to track the temperature before, during, and after the eclipse.  Temperatures can drop quickly and dramatically during an eclipse, so this study had people document just how much it changed across the county.  You can see the preliminary results of the study online now, though more reports and results will be added over the next few weeks.  Dr. De Anna Beasley, formerly a Students Discover postdoctoral researcher at the Museum, shared her results from Tennessee (at right) as an example of how the total eclipse impacted the temperature where she was.

A local project on cicadas wondered if the cicada populations of the mid-Atlantic states would respond to the abnormal darkening of the sky.  Some cicadas sing during the day and some at night.  Would the day singers stop singing during the eclipse and would the night singers begin?  The cicada team hasn’t processed enough of their data yet to make even a preliminary guess, but at least at the Museum’s field station, Prairie Ridge, there did not appear to be much of a difference in the cicada calling during the eclipse.  However, the eclipse was only 94% locally, so it didn’t ever get completely dark, more like a late afternoon as the sun is just starting to set than true darkness.

Dragonfly before eclipse

A Blue Dasher dragonfly looking over his territory about 15 minutes before the maximum eclipse in Raleigh.

Life Responds encouraged users to report their behavioral observations on iNaturalist before, during, and after the eclipse.  I participated in this project and watched the dragonflies on the pond at Prairie Ridge.  Up to about 10 minutes before and after the eclipse, the normal summer dragonfly activity took place.  For the 20 minutes that spanned the maximum eclipse in Raleigh, all but one species disappeared from the pond.  Common Green Darners continued to fly throughout, but became more sluggish and less inclined to chase one another.  Once the sky brightened back up, the species absent during the eclipse reappeared and resumed their usual behaviors like nothing had happened.  Dragonflies are very light dependent, so I suspect that the species that disappeared mistook the eclipse for the approach of night and went to find roosts away from the water.  When the light came back out, they continued their usual daytime behavior.  There are many other interesting natural history observations on the Life Responds project site, so check it out to see how a variety of species reacted to the eclipse nationwide!

These are just a few very preliminary results of eclipse citizen science projects and many more results will come in over the next few weeks to months.  In the meantime, we’d love to hear what YOU observed during the eclipse! What did you see?  How did the eclipse make you feel?  Did you see any strange animal behaviors?  Did you notice a temperature drop?  Please share your eclipse experiences in the comments below!

Help Scientists Learn During the Eclipse!

August 17, 2017

As you probably know, we have a solar eclipse on the way!  Only a very small part of North Carolina is in the path of totality, but many locals are planning trips to see the full eclipse in Tennessee or South Carolina.  Want to help scientists learn more about the impacts of the eclipse on our planet while you make your observations, wherever you happen to be?  The following citizen science projects are looking for help from people like you!

Globe Observer

How cool is the eclipse?  Help scientists answer this question by recording the temperature during the eclipse, whether you’re in the path of totality or not.  More info: https://observer.globe.gov/science-connections/eclipse2017

HamSci

This one is for Ham radio enthusiasts!  Use your equipment to help to study the ionospheric effects of the total solar eclipse in one of several studies. More info: http://www.hamsci.org/projects/2017-total-solar-eclipse/get-involved

EclipseMob

EclipseMob is a crowdsourced effort to conduct the largest-ever low-frequency radio wave propagation experiment during the 2017 solar eclipse. Build your own radio receiver and participate in the measurement!  More info: http://eng.umb.edu/~eclipsemob/

Life Responds

This project is aimed at biologically minded eclipse watchers!  Report what happens to animal behaviors in your area before, during, and after the eclipse through the iNaturalist app or website.  More info: https://www.calacademy.org/citizen-science/solar-eclipse-2017.

Eclipse Megamovie

The Eclipse Megamovie Project is gathering images of the eclipse from photographers, amateur astronomers, and the general public. They’ll then stitch the images together to create a continuous view of the total eclipse as it crosses the United States that will be available to researchers. More info: https://eclipsemega.movie/  (Note that your camera’s sensor is a sensitive thing – you will need a special filter to photograph the eclipse to be sure you won’t damage your device!)

Information about additional projects can be found on the NASA eclipse citizen science website (https://eclipse2017.nasa.gov/citizen-science) or on SciStarter (https://blog.scistarter.com/2017/08/science-experiments-public-solar-eclipse/#sthash.nt8wcVXF.dpbs).  Check them out if nothing here strikes your fancy!

Want to learn more about the eclipse in general?  NASA’s website has a ton of great information available:  https://eclipse2017.nasa.gov/

Please be careful when observing the eclipse!  Wear approved eye protection or view the sun using indirect means such as pinhole devices.  The ONLY time it is safe to view the eclipse directly is during totality, so 100% coverage of the sun.  If you’re in the Triangle during the eclipse, there will be no point at which it will be safe to view the sun without protection.  Don’t have proper gear for observing the sun? Come see the eclipse at the Museum!  We’ll have a live feed of the eclipse and our astronomers available to watch in the Daily Planet Theater on Monday.  Join us for a safe and educational viewing experience!

Happy (and safe) viewing, everyone!

Introducing Our Newest Project: Armpit and Earwax Microbes!

July 8, 2017

Wet and dry earwax samplesWe’ve added a new project to our lineup of ways that you can help Museum scientists with their research! We’ve looked at belly buttons and we’ve explored your armpits. Now we’re examining earwax with the Armpit and Earwax Microbes project!
Armpit and Earwax Microbes is a collaboration between Dr. Julie Horvath, researcher in the Genomics Research Lab in the NRC and professor at NC Central University, and Dr. Reade Roberts at NCSU. This new project looks at a specific gene, ABCC11, and how it influences the microbes that live on your body, particularly those found in your armpits and in your earwax.

This study is part of an ongoing series of investigations by Dr. Horvath and her colleagues that examine the role of microbes in our daily lives and how they help explain human and primate evolution. ABCC11, the specific gene targeted by the Armpit and Earwax Microbes project, is interesting because it influences the type of earwax you have, wet or dry. Wet earwax is the greasy yellow type of earwax common to people of European and African ancestry. In contrast, native North Americans and Asians tend to have dry, flaky earwax. The type of earwax you have is determined by which variant of ABCC11 you have. The type of earwax you have also correlates with how much you sweat. People with wet earwax sweat a lot more than people with dry earwax. More sweat tends to lead to greater body odor, which is ultimately caused by the bacteria living on your skin. It therefore stands to reason that people with wet earwax will have different skin bacteria types than people with dry earwax. This is what the Armpit and Earwax Microbes project is hoping to find out!

Why armpits and earwax? Both bodily secretions are produced by apocrine glands, a special type of gland that is only found in specific regions of the body in humans and other primates. The apocrine glands of your armpits are responsible for sweat while the apocrine glands of your ear canal contribute to earwax production. Since apocrine gland secretions depend on the variant of the ABCC11 gene a person has, there is a high likelihood that the type of earwax you have will predict which types of bacteria like to live in your armpits and the sort of body odors you might produce.

You may wonder why we should care about the bacteria living in your armpits or your ear canal! Apart from the thrill of learning something new about the human body and the many, many other species that use our bodies to survive, there are medical implications for this research. The ABCC11 gene also influences how your body responds to certain drug treatments. If you ever need treatment for cancer, for example, your body may respond more or less effectively to certain types of treatments based on what type of ABCC11 variant you have. Thus, you earwax type might also help determine which life saving drugs will be most effective should you ever need them.

We are currently looking for volunteers to contribute samples for this exciting new project! If you’d like to get involved, there are several sampling opportunities to choose from this summer. At a sampling session, your armpits, ears, ankle, and the side of your nose will be swabbed for bacteria and you’ll be asked to fill out a survey. The samplings take about 30 minutes including the survey, are free, and are open to adults ages 18+. As a participant, you will receive an image of your bacterial plate(s) and your ABCC11 genotype.  Please note, however, that you cannot wear deodorant/antiperspirant or clean your ears for two full days before your samples are collected. These actions strongly influence your microbiome, so you’ll need to be willing to go product free for a few days to participate!  

Ready to volunteer? You can sign up at http://www.signupgenius.com/go/30e0d4ca5a723a0f85-abcc111 for one of the sampling sessions at the Museum. The next date is coming up next week on 7/15, but we have another sampling planned for 8/2. There are other sampling sessions offered at NCSU and NC Central as well. We hope you’ll join us as we take another dive into the exciting world of the human microbiome!

Bird Banding at Prairie Ridge Ecostation

June 29, 2017

This post is brought to you by Hanna Rogers, summer intern for the Citizen Science Unit of the Research and Collections section of the Museum.  Hanna will start her junior year at NCSU this fall and is majoring in zoology.  You may see her this summer at Prairie Ridge, collecting data for a variety of citizens science projects or helping lead educational programs.  Thanks Hanna!

Have you ever wondered how many bird species have flown over head while strolling through Prairie Ridge? They include the Eastern Bluebirds and House Wrens that love to nest in our NestWatch boxes, the Purple Martins that nest in the bird complex by the Outdoor Classroom, and the American Crows that love to eat the crunchy peanut butter from the feeders on the Classroom’s porch. Have you ever wondered, though, how many birds at Prairie Ridge have flown hundreds of miles from Georgia or West Virginia? Maybe all the way from Oregon? The bird banding program at Prairie Ridge helps answer some of those questions!  On June 9th, I had the pleasure of meeting with the small group of binders to learn the process and the importance of the program.

The banding leader at Prairie Ridge, Keith Jensen, arrives at the site at 5am to set up mist nets throughout the grounds. These are very fine nets that hang loosely from poles about 7 to 8 feet apart. The birds have a hard time seeing them, so they fly into the nets and become trapped.  I learned that the nets have swooping pockets–almost like tiny pouches–to catch the birds that fly into the nets, like this female Indigo Bunting:

Feamle bunting removed from the net

A female Indigo Bunting is removed from the net. Photo by Hanna Rogers.

The nets have to be high enough off the ground so that larger birds that get caught lower don’t injure themselves.

Once all the nets have been set up, are at the right height, and free of animals, we start our rounds! Every 30 to 45 minutes, the group breaks into smaller groups and checks all the nets scattered throughout the park. When a bird is found in a net, it is safely removed by placing them a “binding grasp,” pictured on this Northern Cardinal:

A Northern Cardinal in the typical two finger grip that researchers use to hold birds. This helps keep them safe as they are handled. Photo by Margaret Cotrufo.

This means taking your index and middle fingers and gently closing the two around the bird’s head.  It’s very important avoid grabbing the bird’s feet when removing them because they are extremely fragile! Once a bird is firmly in hand, you have to gently and quickly remove the netting that is clinging to the bird. The birds are then placed in cloth drawstring bags and taken back to the banding area for review and measurements.

There are a few general measurements that need to be taken before the birds can be released. The most important one is to see if they are already banded or not. Bird bands are tiny aluminum rings that are placed on the bird’s leg, seen here on this male Indigo Bunting:

banding the bunting leg

Banding the leg of a male Indigo Bunting. Photo by Hanna Rogers.

Lots of people worry that these bands affect the birds’ flight patterns, but don’t worry! They are light enough that they don’t make that much of a difference. Each one has a unique code that allows for easy identification once captured. These bands help track migrating birds from different states, and even to see what birds call Prairie Ridge home!

After checking for a band and recording the code if there is one, the next step is to take all the measurements.  They help track the birds’ health over time and subsequent catches and include age, gender, wing length, weight, overall feather coverage, and size/maturity of sex organs. Throughout this process, the birds are still held in the banding position: middle and index finger around the head; pinky and ring finger (or in my case, my second hand) grasping the feet lightly.

I learned very quickly that guessing the age of a bird can be extremely tricky and depends heavily on the time of year, their feather patterns, and the determination of the sex organs. The bird banders use what they like to call, “The Bird Banders’ Bible.” It helps catalogue ways to indicate age and gender by season. To determine age, we looked at the bird’s’ flight feathers, body feathers, and the area were sex organs are located.  It’s easier said than done to be sure. There was some serious debate over the age of one female indigo bunting that was captured that day! Sometimes the age and gender were left as unknown on the data sheet because it’s better to leave it blank then put the wrong information down for the next person who finds the bird.

My favorite measurement to take was the weight! To ensure the most accurate measurement, special holding tubes keep the birds still while on the scale. The tubes came in various sizes to ensure that no harm came to the birds, but provided a great laugh for the group that day. Placed upside down, their tail feathers stick up in the air like this female Northern Cardinal:

Weighing a cardinal

Northern Cardinal weighing. Photo by Hanna Rogers.

This position allows for a gentler removal when the weighing is done!

Once all the measurements are taken, a band was placed on the tiny foot of any bird that was not already banded, we checked for signs of a healthy bird, then released them! You do this by placing them in an upright position on the palm of your hand (still using the bander’s grasp). Once you have the all clear, pointing them in an open direction, you release your grasp and they quickly fly away. Later, all the data from that day is placed into a general database that is accessible to other bird binders across the country. This data can help answer questions for researchers, land managers, and conservationists nationwide. It also allows people to observe the species that live or migrate to areas that they live in! Whether it’s the Cardinals you already knew or the Indigo Bunting you saw for the first time, you can always learn something new from an amazing program like this one.

It was a phenomenal experience that I am happy to have been a part of!  I’m already looking forward to more bird banding sessions this summer.  If you happen to see the bird banding table near the Prairie Ridge pond, stop by.  The bird banders are always happy to answer questions and share what they know about the birds of Prairie Ridge!

Museum Promotes Citizen Science Program at 2017 Citizen Science Association Conference

June 28, 2017

CSA 2017 LogoThe 2017 Citizen Science Association biannual conference took place in St. Paul, MN in mid-May and brought together hundreds of citizen science practitioners from around the world.  The conference program included two excellent keynote addresses, a citizen science project slam, a wealth of informative workshops, a bioblitz, dozens of great talks and symposia, and the first conference-sponsored citizen science festival with the local host organization, the Science Museum of Minnesota.

As with the previous conference, your Museum was well represented!  Some highlights:

Dr. Caren Cooper discusses citizen science with another CSA attendee. Photo by Marilu Lopez Fretts.

Dr. Caren Cooper (assistant head of the Biodiversity Research Lab, professor at NCSU, and Director of Research Partnerships for SciStarter) was busy from beginning to end.  She was a co-leader for a pre-conference workshop on SciStarter 2.0 tools, a project slam presenter, a symposium organizer, and presented her Sparrow Swap and Sound Around Town projects at the public Citizen Science Festival.  She was a part of the Meet the Authors program, a program led by Minnesota Public Radio featuring interviews with three authors of recent books about citizen science.  Caren’s book, Citizen Science: How Ordinary People Are Changing the Face of Discovery, was one of the books featured during the program.  Caren was also one of the three project slam presenters voted on by conference attendees to present at the public event, A Night in the Cloud, which brought people from outside the conference in to learn more about citizen science and how they can get involved.

Goforth and Hogue

Chris Goforth (left) and Gabriela Hogue (right) in front of their poster about CitSciScribe. Photo by Gabriela Hogue.

Chris Goforth (head of citizen science for the Museum) co-presented a poster with Gabriela Hogue (more about that below), presented on the educational benefits of her statewide Dragonfly Detectives afterschool/summer educational program, and shared her Dragonfly Swarm Project with conference attendees and the public during the A Night in the Cloud event.

Gabriela Hogue (collections manager of fishes) co-presented a poster focused on CitSciScribe, the Museum’s data transcription citizen science project.  Gabriela is the principal investigator of the NSF grant that funds CitSciScribe, as well as work being done in the fishes and reptile and amphibian collections, and attended the Citizen Science Association conference for the first time this year.

Kays and Shuttler

Dr. Roland Kays (left) and Dr. Stephanie Schuttler (right) discuss their work with eMammal during the conference. Photo by Marilu Lopez Fretts.

Dr. Roland Kays (head of Biodiversity Research Lab and professor at NCSU) presented two posters based on his eMammal camera trap project.  One examined mammals along the urban-rural gradient to see how they respond to our changing world and the other focused on Candid Critters, the North Carolina focused citizen science camera trap project he heads.  He also presented on the successful library-citizen science partnerships he’s developed through Candid Critters.

Dr. Stephanie Schuttler (postdoc in Biodiversity Research Lab for Students Discover project) presented on whether participation in citizen science can shift attitudes.  This is a question many citizen science practitioners are interested in answering, so Stephanie’s presentation was well received.

Museum partners and collaborators, including the Public Science Cluster at NCSU, former Students Discover postdocs, former Student Discover middle school teachers, and staff from the North Carolina Arboretum, also attended and offered several posters and presentations.

Overall, the Museum, the Triangle Area, and North Carolina as a whole were very well represented at the conference!  Our visible contribution to the conference and attendance can only help for the next Citizen Science Association conference: we’re hosting!  This amazing opportunity for networking and collaboration, chances to learn together, and public interaction with citizen science project leaders worldwide is coming to Raleigh in March 2019.  We’re already starting to plan our parts of the conference and will incorporate the lessons learned from CSA 2017 to make CSA 2019 their best conference yet!