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Shake Your Winter Blues Away with Citizen Science!

December 30, 2017

Special thanks to Julie Hall for contributing this post!  Julie is a citizen science educator based at Prairie Ridge Ecostation and coordinates the Dragonfly Detectives citizen science education program.  Thanks Julie!

birder with spotting scopeDo you ever feel a little blue in winter due to diminishing sunlight and your favorite plants and animals lying dormant or hibernating for the season? I do, but there is hope! Spending time in nature is scientifically proven to help with the blues, and many citizen science projects will get you outside. As a bonus, you’ll be collecting data for scientific research that will help shape the Earth’s future. Read on to learn about citizen science projects you can participate in at Prairie Ridge or your own backyard TODAY, no science degree required!

eBird has volunteers record the presence or absence of bird species and bird abundance by submitting a checklist of birds observed over a period of time. You can stay in one spot or hike a few miles to do this, the choice is yours. My favorite bird watching spots at Prairie Ridge are the balcony of the Outdoor Classroom and the bird blind at the pond. You just never know what you might see!*

iNaturalist participantiNaturalist enables you to help document the biodiversity of life by recording any living thing you see by taking a photograph and submitting it. The photo can be accompanied by an identification, or you can get help from other iNaturalist users to identify what is in your photo. This project is a great way to learn new species!*  Contribute to the Museum’s biodiversity project by sharing your observations with the Natural North Carolina project within iNaturalist and help us document all the plants, animals, and fungi in our state!

Natures Notebook participantsNature’s Notebook takes volunteers outside to regularly record observations of plants and animals to generate long-term data sets used for scientific discovery and decision-making. At Prairie Ridge, volunteers to make weekly observations of the changing patterns of individual trees on the property along the “Prairie Ridge Tree Trail.”

Information gathered from these projects builds the foundation for a better understanding of plant and animal distribution across our planet Earth. As citizen scientists, we are generating long-term data sets used for scientific discovery and decision-making. We are helping to “Save the Earth” and, by getting outside to do it, our own health benefits!

If these projects don’t appeal to you, don’t worry! Over 2,000 citizen science projects currently exist – simply pick one, read the protocols, and get started. To find out about more citizen science projects specific to location and/or topic, check out SciStarter online. Get out there and be a hero, become a citizen scientist today!

Interested in becoming a citizen scientist at Prairie Ridge? Join us on Saturdays from 10:30-11:30am for Citizen Science Saturday!  You’ll learn how to do a citizen science project while taking a leisurely walk during this drop-in weekly program.  Meet us by the entrance kiosk on any upcoming Saturday if you’d like to attend!


Monitoring Environmental Change with Picture Posts

December 5, 2017

The Museum first opened Prairie Ridge Ecostation on the west side of Raleigh in 2004. The grounds used to be a part of an NCSU cattle pasture, so the site was nothing like what you see today when the Museum took it over!  Over several years, the prairie was planted, the Outdoor Classroom was installed, the Nature Neighborhood Garden was planted, the pond was created, and a variety of other features were added to make the grounds what they are today.  Prairie Ridge is now a haven for wildlife in Raleigh and attracts things that might not make much use of the area otherwise, such as Bobcats, Painted Buntings, and River Otters.

It’s fun to look back on the development of Prairie Ridge over time and see how much the facility has changed. Happily, we’ve been involved in a citizen science project since 2007 that allows us to do just that!  Picture Posts is a project that monitors environmental change in an area.  The project asks people to place posts topped with a octagonal guide on their grounds, then use the guide to photograph the site in a standardized way.  A Picture Post submission consists of 9 photos, one taken on each side of the octagon (in landscape format, zoomed all the way out), starting on the side facing north, and one photograph taken by laying the camera on top of the post and photographing upwards.  These 9 photos give you a good idea of the area over 365 degrees as well as the canopy cover at the site of each post.  By taking photos of the same area in the same way over and over, you can get a really great idea of what a site looks like and how it changes over time.

Prairie Ridge has four Picture Posts, one on the Forest Trail, one on the deck of the Outdoor Classroom (currently out of commission due to recent repairs), one in the Jesse Perry Arboretum, and one in the prairie. By including four very different habitats in our Picture Post submissions, we’re able to track the changes that have occurred as new features are built, attendance patterns change, and management is applied.  Volunteers collect the data about once a week (with some gaps here and there as staff and volunteer changes have occurred), so we have a really excellent series of photos illustrating Prairie Ridge as it’s grown since the posts were installed.

So just how HAS Prairie Ridge changed since 2007? Let’s take a look at some photos!

The Nature Neighborhood Garden was quite new in 2007, and Prairie Ridge had no solar panels or wind turbine yet, and the area around the garden was treeless. Today, we generate our own power and the garden is a thriving demonstration of how you can plant native plants and have a gorgeous garden that also attracts wildlife:View from the classroom picture post

The forest has matured! In 2008, when the photo on the left was taken, the trees were a lot closer to the post than they are now:

Forest picture post, looking upward

It’s amazing the trees have grown so quickly near the post! Other areas of the Forest Trail were more mature when this post was installed, but this area is clearly one of rapid growth.

The Arboretum was newly installed in 2008, and many trees have been added to the area since. It’s a site of very obvious change between then and now:

Arboretum picture post view

The trees that were present initially have grown significantly, many more trees have been added to the Arboretum, and the whole area is a lot greener than it used to be.

The prairie also shows a lot of maturation between 2008, when the photo on the left was taken, and 2016, when the photo on the right was taken:

prairie picture post view

The prairie started off slowly and needed a lot of help in the first several years to get it going. Now, it’s a thriving community of grasses and wildflowers that supports a wide variety of wildlife!  Prairie Ridge has a growing list of species that make use of the grounds as the prairie, the Arboretum, and the forest continue to mature and change.

Though we haven’t used our Picture Post data ourselves to answer any research questions yet, these data are useful to a variety of researchers who are studying landscape changes, management, phenology, greenness indices, and other topics. We hope to correlate our data with the increase in bird species spotted on the grounds and how the management of the prairie (mowing and burning) influence our mammal populations.  In the meantime, we’ll keep collecting and uploading our Picture Post data and look forward to the interesting questions these data will help us answer soon!

Recently in Citizen Science

October 4, 2017
There has been a lot of citizen science happening at the Museum lately!  Some recent highlights include…
cheeseCheese Alive! has officially launched!  This project looks at the bacteria that make up your favorite cheeses and assesses people’s cheese preferences to see whether their ancestry drives their tastes.  You can participate in Cheese Alive! three ways.  First, consider taking the project survey to tell us about which cheeses you particularly love so we can see if tastes correlates with ancestry.  Second, we need cheese samples!  Have an interesting cheese you love that you’d like to see added to our bacterial analysis?  You can drop cheese off at the Museum and we’ll add your donation to our study.  Or, three, if you have a favorite cheese, but don’t want to drop it off, a donation to the Genomics and Microbiology Research Lab with a comment about which cheese you’d like to see added will help us feature your favorite(s) in the study.  Learn more or participate in the project online here.
CitSciScribe logoCitSciScribe just launched 5 new herpetology themed projects for your transcription pleasure!  CitSciScribe will also be a featured project in the WeDigBio international citizen science data transcription event again this year, so look out for news about when and where you can connect with our scientists in person during this event.  You can participate from any computer anywhere, however!  Simply log in to your CitSciScribe account and complete some transcriptions October 19-22 and you’ll earn a special WeDigBio badge.
DD at bugfestThe Dragonfly Detectives participants (4th-8th graders) had a marvelous time showing off their research and their dragonfly knowledge at September’s BugFest!  Their study organisms fit the dragonfly theme perfectly and our kids got to talk to thousands of visitors during the event.  We love to see young people showing off their research, an important part of science that we’re thrilled they’re able to take part in!
Take a Child Outside week was a success again this year, and visitors got their kids involved in citizen science during Citizen Science Saturday at Prairie Ridge.  Our TACO attendees enjoyed a bird walk with a birding expert and were able to see several species of birds on their walk.
IMG_3334And finally, our citizen science programs have been featured at several recent and upcoming conferences and events!  Dragonfly Detectives was featured in a talk at BugFest and attendees learned about Natural North Carolina at the recent Environmental Educators of NC meeting.  Natural North Carolina was also featured at the Natural Learning Initiative’s Annual Design Institute.  At the upcoming Association of Science and Technology centers, we’re highlighting CitSciScribe, eMammal/Candid Critters, and Dragonfly Detectives during a pre-conference workshop and a conference session.  It’s always great to talk about the amazing work of our citizen scientists so the rest of the world can learn from what YOU have helped us achieve!
We’re always working to bring you more projects and more ways to get involved in scientific research at the Museum!  Thanks for all of your hard work and help so far and we look forward to inviting you to participate in many future projects.

Live from BugFest – Back to the Track: The Roachingham 500

September 16, 2017

By Chloe Allen and Evie Davis, Teen Newsroom producers.

A snapshot of the roaches in their pens taken moments before the races begin.

A snapshot of the roaches in their pens taken moments before the races begin. Photo by Chloe Allen.

It’s a warm September morning at BugFest 2017 and the crowds are gathered to witness a riveting race between six exceptional roaches.  Four Junior Curators are standing at attention holding the Madagascar hissing cockroaches, ready to educate the public on these fascinating creatures.  Alaina, Junior Curator and cockroach handler, finds these roaches interesting. “I really find these roaches fascinating. Even though they have small brains, they contribute a lot to the environment,” she says. Madagascar hissing cockroaches have some really cool adaptations, such as being able to breathe and hiss from holes in their shell, called spiracles. Because of this, they can survive for a few days without their heads until they die from thirst!

Another handler, Robert, the cockroach enthusiast, shares with us the differences between the male and female cockroaches.  He points out that male cockroaches have horns, unlike the females. The reason for the horns being that the males fight each other if they like the same female cockroach.

A male and female cockroach. The male cockroach has horns to help defend himself.

A male and female cockroach. The male cockroach has horns to help defend himself. Photo by Chloe Allen.

While we were interviewing Robert, the male cockroach let out a low, soft hiss! Robert says this cockroach may have been nervous because of all of the people around, which may have hindered his performance in the race. Laura, another handler, enjoys the cockroaches’ personality. She says they’re calm, and they’re even good pets!

A close-up of a Madagascar hissing cockroach.

A close-up of a Madagascar hissing cockroach. Photo by Chloe Allen.

And now it’s time for the momentous race: the Roachingham 500.  The racers are in their places as the announcer draws a crowd of enthusiastic fans.  The volunteers encourage the onlookers to grab a popsicle stick with the color of the roach they believe will be victorious.

A Junior Curator handing out Popsicle sticks before the race. Photo by Chloe Allen.

A Junior Curator handing out Popsicle sticks before the race. Photo by Chloe Allen.

Once everyone has made their selections, the pens open to release the cockroaches. The race is off to a slow start, most likely due to the heat. However, within 30 seconds, Greg Roachle, the silver roach, named after NASCAR driver Greg Biffle, is off to a strong start. While the other five roaches lag behind, Roachle furiously sprints to the finish line. The crowds cheer as Greg Roachle emerges as the victor! Those who picked the silver popsicle sticks come forward to pick a prize. The Junior Curators retrieve their respective roaches to prepare them for the next race. The roaches will race every 25 minutes until five o’clock this evening.

If you want to witness this exciting event for yourself, come to BugFest 2017! The Roachingham 500 is located on Bicentennial Mall between the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences & the North Carolina Museum of History.

Live from BugFest – Crawling Caterpillars

September 16, 2017

By Kiera Tai and Arthur Vu, Teen Newsroom producers.

The Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar uses mimicry to look like a ferocious baby snake. It’s very effective at deterring predators.

The Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar uses mimicry to look like a ferocious baby snake. It’s very effective at deterring predators. Photo by Kiera Tai.

Fuzzy, spiky, and most importantly, cute. These are some of the many characteristics of caterpillars. At BugFest, we were able to glimpse just a part of the immense biodiversity of caterpillars in our local area.

Countless species of caterpillars resting on various plants span several tables along Edenton Street in downtown Raleigh. Visitors are eager to view the gigantic Hickory Horned Devil, the largest caterpillar in North America, which can grow to the size of a hot dog; the adorable Spicebush Swallowtail (quite the Caterpie look-alike, for you Pokémon fans), with its cartoonish fake eyespots; the fuzzy Puss caterpillar, capable of sending humans to the hospital with its venomous sting, and many more. These miniature creatures are surprisingly un-elusive, if you know how to look. In fact, all of the caterpillars on display at BugFest today were caught in the past week. Black frass (or insect droppings), chewed-up leaves, and leafless branches are tell-tale signs that caterpillars have recently ravaged an area. The true challenge arises after the caterpillars have been caught, as they require frequent leaf changes for food, and constant attention in case they wander off. Thus, all the caterpillars will be released back into the wild after BugFest, but they sure provide a viewing treat before then!

Hickory Horned Devil caterpillar

The Hickory Horned Devil caterpillar has the potential of being as large as a hot dog, but this one is only the size of a Vienna sausage. Photo by Kiera Tai.

Monarch butterfly chrysalis

Monarch butterflies make a green chrysalis with a distinctive yellow-dotted strip near the top. Photo by Arthur Vu.

pipevine swallowtail caterpillar

The Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillar features two antennae that can detach to fight against other, competing caterpillars. Photo by Kiera Tai.

If you can properly identify a friendly and non-stinging caterpillar, the best way to interact is to coax it to crawl into your hand — touching a caterpillar can be a great experience! However, avoid touching any caterpillar that you don’t recognize as safe, as they may sting or harm you. Your average interaction with caterpillars can also serve as an opportunity for citizen science. The Caterpillars Count project analyzes the impact of caterpillars on the environment, and also assesses the effects of climate change on caterpillars. Everyday citizens volunteer to collect caterpillars in various locations and share their data via surveying methods. Visit caterpillarscount.unc.edufor more information.

The Puss caterpillar is famous for its furry exterior, and infamous for its venomous spines and dermatitis-inducing hairs.

The Puss caterpillar is famous for its furry exterior, and infamous for its venomous spines and dermatitis-inducing hairs. Photo by Kiera Tai.

The Caterpillarology station at BugFest provided a close up view of some of our most diverse neighbors — a fun and informative reminder that there is so much out there, if we are willing to look.

hummingbird clearwing caterpillar

This Hummingbird Clearwing caterpillar is on the search for more leaves on its Viburnum twig. Photo by Arthur Vu.

Live from BugFest – Ants and Art

September 16, 2017

By Hannah Bonet and Kyndal McClain, Teen Newsroom producers.

Artist Gabrielle Duggan

Artist Gabrielle Duggan working on the scultpture (credit:

On the third floor of the Nature Research Center of the Museum of Natural Sciences hang approximately 50,000 dead ants. These 50,000 ants were buried alive as a part of an artistic collaboration between Adrian Smith, the head of Evolutionary Biology and Behavior Research Lab, and Gabrielle Duggan, Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of North Texas. The project’s name is “Ants, Arts, and Science,” and is a ten-foot dental plaster structure of a harvester ant colony from Hoffman, North Carolina. This piece is a connection between art and science because of the creation of new information and the sharing of it from different perspectives.

Full view of the ant colony art piece, about seven feet long.

Full view of the ant colony art piece, about seven feet long. Photo by Hannah Bonet

Gabrielle Duggan attended graduate school at North Carolina State University from 2007-2010, and The News and Observer describes her as a “blend of fine artist and fashion designer.” She says her experience with art and weaving goes back to childhood. “My mom would take me to a fabric store sometimes and I just remember that my senses would just be totally heightened. It’s kind of like how I feel when I go outside and I haven’t been outside in a while. It wasn’t just the colors you know, it was definitely the textures. What I really like is that they can be applied to almost anything and they can change the experience,” she says in the N&O articleDuggan’s experience with animals is also important to her as it connects her to her works.

Adrian Smith is a scientist at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. He takes pride in his work, saying “Our work brings itself to the public. There is an interconnected core overlap between art and science. That’s why I make an effort. It’s a glass science lab, why not put something cool in the window for people to see?” When asked about his interest in ants, Smith responded, “Ants are cool; you have a whole society in a shoe box. They are social, they react to an environment and to each other.”

Adrian Smith, head of Evolutionary Biology and Behavior Research Lab.

Adrian Smith, head of the Evolutionary Biology and Behavior Research Lab. Photo by Hannah Bonet.

This art piece hangs from the ceiling suspended by 3D weaving made by Gabrielle Duggan. Brought together by Rob Dunn, Duggan and Smith created a project that would connect art and science. Smith explained that “there is a lot of overlap between what an artist does and what a scientist does.” Art is an original view on the human experience and the world, while science is about the exploration of that world. Essentially, there is a similar goal of communicating the unseen view on the world. Gaps in the sculpture are representative of how much we don’t know. Artificial pieces of colonies form branches and tunnels, string woven in intricate patterns connects the entire piece, while sand from the site in Hoffman weighs everything to the ground. It took months for Duggan to complete the suspension process while the casting took about a day.

Latex ant tunnels

Pieces of latex tubing represent ant tunnels connecting the sculpture. Photo by Hannah Bonet

To learn more about this project and art piece, visit us at BugFest today. Duggan and Smith will also have a Science Cafe at the Daily Planet Cafe on November 16, 2017.

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.