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What Time is it in Nature: Scarlet Hibiscus

August 7, 2014 - 11:50pm

It’s mid-summer, so Prairie Ridge is a happening place!   You’ll see animals darting across the trails as you walk and there are dozens of plant species in bloom.  One plant in bloom now is quite spectacular, the Scarlet Hibiscus (Hibiscus coccineus), and can be found in several locations on the grounds.

Scarlet hibiscus plant

The Scarlet Hibiscus (also known as the Scarlet Rose Mallow, Swamp Hibiscus, or Red Water Hibiscus) is a shrubby flowering perennial plant that is native to the southeastern United States.  It typically tops out at 6-8 feet in height and sports long, narrow stems that die back in the winter and regrow in the spring.  The leaves are palmate, with 3-7 points that radiate out from the point where it attaches to the stem, and can get as big as 8 inches across.  Each leaf lobe is narrow and pointed with a serrated edge.

These plants grow best in full sun and moist soils.  In the wild, Scarlet Hibiscus are most often found growing in swamps, marshes, or ditches in wet or saturated soils.  They are also found along rivers and streams where they are often taller than the other flowering plants, such as Pickerelweed, that grow in similar conditions.

The flowers of Scarlet Hibiscus are quite showy:

Hibiscus flower

As you can see, they are brilliant red with five petals arising from the center of the flower.  The pale green sepals wrap around the base of the petals and the reproductive structures are located along a long stalk that emerges from the center.  Each flower only lasts about a day, but the plants produce many flowers over their bloom period in late summer so that they retain their showy appearance for several weeks.  If a flower is fertilized, a fruit will grow where the flower attached to the stem.  It will mature in the fall.

Scarlet Hibiscus is attractive to a variety of pollinators.  Butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds can be frequent visitors, so the plants make an excellent addition to native pollinator gardens.  You can often find other insects, such as the predatory long-legged flies and scentless plant bugs, lurking among the leaves and feeding on the seed pods.

You can find several examples of this gorgeous plant at Prairie Ridge.  Next time you visit, stop by the garden near the kiosk in the parking area to look for insects on the leaves and flowers.  You can also find fine examples of Scarlet Hibiscus in the Nature Neighborhood Garden and along the shore of the pond.  These spectacular plants will remain in bloom for a few more weeks, so make a trip out to see them before the flowers disappear!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

Photos by Chris Goforth


What Time is it in Nature: Monarch Butterfly

August 2, 2014 - 5:19pm

This year has been an odd year for butterflies at Prairie Ridge.  Several species that are usually very common on the grounds, such as the Pipevine Swallowtail or the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, have been far less abundant this year.  We’ve also had population booms in some species that don’t normally reach large numbers.  One of these oddities is one of the most widely recognized and beloved North American butterfly species, the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus).

Monarch adult

Many people know what Monarchs look like, but let’s cover their appearance for those who aren’t sure.  Monarchs are relatively large butterflies with a vibrant orange coloration.  They are easily recognized by their wide black wing borders, black markings along the wing veins, and white spots along the wing margins, thorax, and upper section of the forewing.  It’s easy to tell males and females apart by sight.  Males have a dark scent gland near the center of each hind wing, giving them a sort of oval bulge along one of the black wing veins.  Females, as pictured above, do not have the scent gland.

Monarchs are milkweed specialists and feed on a variety of milkweed species, including Common Milkweed and Butterflyweed.  After a pair mates, a female will find a milkweed plant and lay her eggs singly on the underside of the leaves.  After hatching, the caterpillars will feed on the milkweed plants.  The caterpillars are distinctive:

Monarch caterpillar

They exhibit warning coloration, advertising to birds and other animals that they contain nasty chemicals that will make whatever eats them sick.  In the case of Monarchs, the chemicals they advertise are toxins that come from the milkweed they eat and then store in their bodies.  These potent toxins are carried into adulthood as well, a fact which the Monarch’s stark orange and black wing pattern boldly advertises.

Monarchs have been popular insects for many years, a sort of iconic American butterfly.  They are also one of the few insects known to migrate annually.  Each fall, the Monarchs in the eastern US and Canada begin to sense changes in the weather and start moving south, following landmarks such as the huge Missouri and Mississippi Rivers or the Atlantic coast.  They move from the area where they’ve spent the summer feeding to their overwintering sites in the mountains of Mexico, as much as 3000 miles.  Nearly the entire population of eastern North American Monarchs flies to just a few mountaintops in Mexico, and they will rest together through the winter before making the journey north once again.  Once the Monarchs reach the southern US, they will lay eggs and die and their children will complete the northward migration and lay their own eggs, spreading across the northeastern US and eastern Canada.  After 3-4 generations of Monarchs are produced in the summer, the temperatures begin to drop and the great-great-grandchildren of the migrating Monarchs from the year before will make the long trip back to Mexico in the fall.

Monarchs have received a lot of press recently because their numbers have declined sharply over the last few decades.  Last year’s overwintering population was one of the smallest on record since the Monarch overwintering grounds were first discovered in the mid-1970’s.  The Monarch overwintering grounds in Mexico are at risk as people in the area cut down the trees the Monarchs depend on.  However, Monarchs do most of their feeding and reproduction in the US and Canada, so what we do here has a massive impact on their population.   Land use changes have eliminated a lot of milkweed habitat across the eastern US, making the food plants the Monarchs depend on scarce.  Recent efforts by scientists and conservationists have stressed the importance of planting milkweeds so that we can conserve this beautiful and charismatic species well into the future.  In fact, planting a patch of milkweed in your yard is probably the best thing you can do to aid in the conservation efforts.

Monarchs are rarely observed at Prairie Ridge during the summer months, but this year they arrived late and have persisted longer into the summer than usual.  Visit the milkweed patches near the Nature Neighborhood Garden and the new Prairie Ridge entrance off of the greenway along Edwards Mill Road on your next visit and you are likely to see many Monarchs feeding, laying eggs, and reproducing.  After last year’s population decline, we are very excited to see so many Monarchs on the grounds, so we invite you to come out and see them before they begin their migration to Mexico next month!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

Photos by Chris Goforth


A New Day/A New DINOSAUR!

August 1, 2014 - 1:47pm

Originally posted on EXPEDITION LIVE!:

Today one of the students taking our Paleontological Field Methods course at NC State University went prospecting for the first time.  As luck would have it, he found a new species of dinosaur… one of the nicest sites I’ve seen in the time I’ve been working the Mussentuchit.  So far we’ve collected the lower jaw, parts of the backbone, and parts of the shoulder and arm just from the surface of the hill. The bones look to belong to a new species of plant-eating dinosaur.  That brings the number of new dinosaurs from the Mussentuchit expeditions to four!

IMG_5905View of the prospecting area from the top of the hill.  We walk the grey slopes in the foreground looking for fossils… and try not to fall off!

IMG_0446Haviv, and undergraduate at Appalachian State University, holds part of the humerus of his new dinosaur.

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Odd Bug Out: A Leaf Insect Discovery

July 31, 2014 - 10:13am

Originally posted on NC Museum of Natural Sciences Education Blog:

Every day amazing things are happening at the Museum, and one such thing happened on Monday. I received an email from Bill Reynolds,  the Coordinator & Curator of the Arthropod Zoo, with the following text:

Subject: Odd bug in our stick insect colony!

WE have a male in one of our colonies!!!!

Thought it may be note worthy for the blog/twitter.

Of course when one receives an email like this one immediately goes in search of the source, and what I learned was pretty amazing.  I knocked on the door and was led into the hustle and bustle of the Arthropod Zoo headquarters. Immediately, I am greeted by Bill, staff and intern. They were ready to reveal the mystery of the “odd bug”.  They gently placed a container with leaf insects down in front of me, I looked closely and had to really focus to find the moving critters. A leaf insect is…

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Dragonflies on the Move

July 31, 2014 - 10:11am

green darner dragonfly

Summer is a time for dragonflies! A summer visit to nearly any pond or shady stream in North Carolina will likely yield dozens, if not hundreds, of dragonflies jockeying for position along the water’s edge. Many people associate dragonflies with water, and for good reason: female dragonflies lay their eggs in the water and their young (called nymphs) are aquatic. Male dragonflies are territorial, protecting choice patches of water from other males. Males that protect the best egg laying habitats attract the most mates, so fights break out when one male attempts to take another male’s territory. Watching dragonflies at a pond gives you a glimpse into the everyday lives and behaviors of dragonflies and can provide some great natural entertainment.

Wandering glider dragonflyWatching dragonflies at a pond can also help scientists! While we know a lot about dragonflies, there are still some major questions that remain unanswered. For example, several species of dragonflies migrate thousands of miles each fall from as far north as Canada all the way to Central or South America. Scientists have known for years that these migrations occur, but because dragonflies move long distances and are hard to track, we still don’t know much about how or why dragonflies migrate.

A few years ago, a team of dragonfly researchers formed the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership (MDP) with the goal of answering some of the many questions surrounding dragonfly migrations in the US. While there are a fair number of dragonfly researchers involved in the project, there still aren’t nearly enough to have enough eyes on the ground in enough locations across the US to get a good handle on when and how dragonfly migrations occur. Instead, they decided to open their data collection up to everyone so that citizen scientists everywhere can help gather information about this fascinating behavior. The MDP launched the Dragonfly Pond Watch in 2012 with the goal of working with citizen scientists across North America to collectively learn more about dragonfly migrations.

variegated meadowhawk dragonflyDragonfly Pond Watch is a fun project to get involved in. Participants are asked to visit a pond in their area at least once a month and look for the project’s five focal species of migratory dragonflies. Identifying dragonflies can be difficult for many beginners, but the Pond Watch website houses a lot of excellent training materials and general information about dragonflies to help you figure it out. During your visit to the pond, you will count the total number of each of the five focal species you see and make a few notes about what they were doing. 10 minutes a month is enough to provide some really useful data while enjoying a lovely day outdoors with the dragonflies! Or, if you happen to be lucky enough to spot a dragonfly migration, which typically involves thousands to millions of dragonflies moving together in a single direction along a coastline or major river system, you can report that sighting to the MDP as well.

The scientists of the MDP are using the data citizen scientists provide to track migratory movements throughout North America. Many ponds have a sort of background level of dragonflies you might expect to see on any visit on a warm, sunny day. When a migration is passing through, the numbers of dragonflies you see at that same pond can increase dramatically! By looking for population spikes in the data from thousands of citizen scientists and mapping them, the MDP members can follow migrations and learn more about the contributing factors, such as the amount of wind in an area or the temperature, that prompt dragonflies to start moving south.

spot winged glider dragonflyThe annual dragonfly migration typically begins in August, so now is a great time to get started with Dragonfly Pond Watch. You may see huge numbers of dragonflies at your local pond, or a river of dragonflies headed south. Take a few notes on what you see and YOU can be a part of dragonfly migration research! The Museum is also offering some upcoming dragonfly programs and Citizen Science Saturday walks that will provide hands-on training for Dragonfly Pond Watch. We hope you’ll join us for a fun morning of dragonfly learning and science!


And We’re Off!

July 28, 2014 - 11:37am

Originally posted on EXPEDITION LIVE!:

We’re ready and running!  You can follow along with this year’s Utah expedition to the Mussentuchit Badlands (July 24th- August 24th) here at Expedition Live! with real time updates, photos, and blogs, and at #UTdinodig14 or @expeditionlive. You can also participate in live Skype sessions with the crew in the Daily Planet Theater at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences beginning Tuesday August 5th.

Wondering what it takes for a dozen people to live in the desert, miles and miles from civilization for 4 weeks?  Watch the NC Museum of Natural Sciences pack our field vehicles for the three day drive to Utah below.

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Bird Bill of Fare

July 28, 2014 - 11:06am

Originally posted on NC Museum of Natural Sciences Education Blog:

by Julia Jacobs

Have you ever tried to eat soup with a fork or salad with a spoon? People have learned to use the utensil that works best for different foods they are eating: soup—spoon, salad—fork, and even fries—fingers. Birds do the same thing, only instead of using utensils they use their beaks.  Birds have very different types of bills depending on what food they primarily eat.  There are beaks for snatching bugs, spearing fish, probing flowers, cracking seeds and tearing meat.  All of these beaks have evolved to fit the birds’ diets perfectly.

Seed eaters and bug eaters have similar beaks. They are strong enough to crack seed shells, and thin enough to capture bugs from tight spaces. The size of the beak varies greatly among these birds, ranging from the small, dainty beak on this Eastern Towhee to enormous toucan beaks used for feasting on fruit and insects.

Eastern Towhee Eastern…

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A Full Day Indeed

July 23, 2014 - 3:08pm

Originally posted on Tropical Ecology Institute:

July 22, 2014

group in Burrell Boom

Ten p.m. It’s dark, and the night sounds of crickets are competing with the repetitive whirr of the oscillating fan,s which are helping keep our rooms quite pleasant. We are exhausted, which is reasonable considering our travel began at 5 a.m., and with the time change in Belize, it is really midnight to our bodies. Yet our minds are racing with excitement over the marvels we have seen so far in Belize.

We’ve learned a little about the history of Belize. We stopped in the village of Burrell Boom and saw the “boom,” or chain, which held back the mahogany logs when they were being harvested and transported by river downstream before being loaded onto boats.

At the Community Baboon Sanctuary we had an introduction to many medicinal plants, including the plant which is supposed to help cure warts. Chris volunteered to be an experimental subject.

wart

Ron…

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Did you say proboscis?

July 23, 2014 - 2:56pm

Originally posted on NC Museum of Natural Sciences Education Blog:

By Kate Davison, Living Conservatory Specialist. The Living Conservatory is an immersive exhibit similar to a Central American dry tropical forest. The permanent exhibit features live turtles, snakes, butterflies and even a two-toed sloth.

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Moths, and butterflies, are both part of the Order Lepidoptera, being scaled, flying insects. Moths comprise roughly 90% of the known species of Lepidoptera, with multiple clades, superfamilies, and families of moths, while butterflies are only about 10% and all are contained within a single Superfamily the Papilionoidea. With some 160,000 moth species it’s no surprise that some moths are more closely related to butterflies than they are to other moths.

Vintage Field Guide of Lepidoptera

Vintage Field Guide of Lepidoptera.

There are several commonly “known” ways to differentiate between moths and butterflies, however there are exceptions to every single method. Many butterflies are brown, such as owl butterflies, and many moths fly during the day, for example urania…

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What Time is it in Nature: Woolly Pipevine

July 19, 2014 - 5:00pm

North Carolina has a variety of native flowering vine species that grow up trees in forested areas. One species, the Woolly Pipevine (Aristolochia tomentosa), is both interesting to look at and is an important food source for a popular insect.

Woolly Pipevine Plant

Woolly Pipevine is a tall, climbing, woody vine native to most of the eastern US. Though it needs support to gain much height, the vines can easily reach 30 feet tall if well supported by a tree (or a trellis in a landscaped environment) as it grows up the trunk. It has big, heart-shaped leaves that can reach 10 inches long and are deep green on top and paler green underneath. Both the common name, Woolly Pipevine, and the species name, tomentosa, refer to the surface of the leaves, stems, and flowers as they are covered in dense, short hairs.

The “pipevine” in the common name Woolly Pipevine comes from the interesting flower:

Woolly Pipevine Flower

The flowers resemble the pipes smoked by the Dutch and northern Germans in the past, with a sort of widened bowl sitting at the tip of a longer curved tube. The flowers bloom from May into June and reach lengths of just under two inches long, though you might not see the flowers in spite of their size as they tend to grow back behind the leaves and are subtly colored. They have an interesting form of pollination. When a fly or bee follows the sweet smell to the flower and crawls inside to gather nectar, they rub against the stamens that line the inner flower and are dusted with pollen. The tube of the flower is also lined with hairs. These hairs allow the pollinator to crawl into the flower, but then traps it inside. As the pollinator struggles to get out, it is covered in pollen. Eventually, the hairs wither and the insect can crawl back out of the flower, but it may spend a few days inside the flower before being released.

Woolly Pipevine and other Aristolochia species contain a toxin called aristolochic acid, a highly carcinogenic substance as well as a potent kidney toxin. In spite of its considerable toxicity, medicines made from pipevine plants have been used in many different cultures. The name Aristolochia in fact refers to an ancient use in childbirth (aristos = best and locheia = childbirth) and some pipevines are still used in Chinese medicine for arthritis and edema. There is little scientific evidence that these “medicines” do more good than harm, however, and several recent studies have linked ingestion of pipevine to a variety of cancers and kidney failure. It is definitely best to avoid consuming pipevine!

While Woolly Pipevine might be toxic to people and has very few pest species associated with it due to its toxicity, it is a very important food source for Pipevine Swallowtail Butterflies. These butterflies lay their eggs on the leaves and the larvae feed on the leaves as they grow. The caterpillars store the toxins internally to protect themselves against predators, using the aristolochic acid as a weapon against other animals that might want to eat them. You’ll often see small clusters of bright red eggs and reddish or deep purple caterpillars on the leaves and adult Pipevine Swallowtails fluttering around the vines.

We have a healthy Woolly Pipevine plant growing in the Prairie Ridge Nature Neighborhood Garden! On your next visit, head into the main garden entrance under the roof garden and turn right to see the big, fuzzy green leaves covering the fence. Take a close look. You just might see a group of Pipevine Swallowtail eggs or caterpillars lurking underneath a leaf of this fascinating plant!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

Photos by Chris Goforth


Fungus Among Us

July 7, 2014 - 12:03pm

Originally posted on NC Museum of Natural Sciences Education Blog:

A small apartment in the heart of Berkeley was completely filled with a very savory aroma. As guests filed in and left their coats in a pile near the door, they exchanged warm greetings and complimented the chef, Sydney Glassman,(Twitter @fungifoode) on her masterful preparation of a mushroom feast. Glassman, a mycology graduate student at the University of California Berkeley and avid chef, had purchased these mushrooms from an online vendor, but regularly spends her afternoons foraging in the nearby woodlands for wild mushrooms. The mushrooms were ‘Hen of the Woods’ whose scientific name is Maitake frondosa. Glassman marinated them in soy sauce, garlic, honey, and white wine. She then barbequed the mushrooms and served them on top of Mee Goreng, a Malaysian-style stir-fry with vegetables and noodles. You can find her recipe and commentary on the preparation at her blog here. In other posts she details…

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iLabs: A Face Mite, Two Researchers and NPR’s Frank Stasio Walk into an iLab…..

July 7, 2014 - 11:53am

Originally posted on NC Museum of Natural Sciences Education Blog:

I promised information on just how “face mite, Micro World iLab, and Frank Stasio (from NPR’s The State of Things)” are all used in the same sentence.  The best thing I can do to give you the whole COOL story, is to let you see the interview taped at the Museum with the researchers and a teacher involved in the multi-million dollor NSF grant project.

Start watching at 13:56 minutes into the program and it runs until about 33:05.  The microscopic footage of Frank’s mites was taped in our Micro World iLab on our microscope/TV setup.

Our lab’s role in this project is to simply do what we do best — showcase the latest the researchers are up to, incorporating the educational component so the public can understand what it all means, and why it matters!  So in the course of that, Dr. Julie Urban and Dr. Dan Fergus did their…

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What Time is it in Nature: Insects on Rattlesnake Master

July 5, 2014 - 3:57pm

The Rattlesnake Master in the Nature Neighborhood Garden at Prairie Ridge is currently in bloom, and this spectacular plant’s odd structure and biology were the subject of last week’s What Time is it in Nature. The blooms are interesting in and of themselves, but they are also highly attractive to a wide variety of insects. You may see two dozen species of insects visiting a single plant at a time during the bloom, so the diversity is quite impressive. Let’s explore some of the Rattlesnake Master’s recent visitors! The most common things you’ll see visiting the flowers are members of the insect order Hymenoptera, the ants, bees, and wasps:

Great golden digger wasp with sand wasp in background

The larger, black and red wasp in the photo is a Great Golden Digger Wasp, a large parasitic species in the thread-waisted wasp group.  The females of this species build underground burrows in which they will lay their eggs.  However, their larvae are carnivores, so they also need to pack their nests with paralyzed prey for their young to feed on after they hatch.  They’ll grow as they feed on the food left by their moths, developing into pupae once they have grown sufficiently large, then emerging as adults above ground.  You can usually find several of these wasps visiting the Rattlesnake Master, and you can’t miss them!  Just look out for the inch long, red and black wasps crawling over the flowers.

Another conspicuous wasp you’ll find on Rattlesnake Master flowers is a member of the scoliid wasp family:

Scoliid wasp

Like the Great Golden Digger Wasp, scoliid wasps are parasites of other insects.  Their system is a little different, however.  Scoliids are typically parasites of the C-shaped grubs of scarab beetles and will dig down to the grubs, sting them, and lay an egg on them.  When the scoliid egg hatches, the larva will feed on the scarab grub, eventually pupating and emerging from the ground as an adult.

Wasps aren’t the only hymenopterans you’ll find at the Rattlesnake Master flowers.  Ants can be spotted taking advantage of the nectar:

Ants

When ants are present on the flowers, you will often see quite a few of them at a time.  If you ever see a Rattlesnake Master flower that looks sort of like it’s moving, take a close look.  You’ll probably find dozens of ants!

Other groups of insects also visit Rattlesnake Master flowers in bloom, including a variety of beetles.  This beetle…

Delta flower scarab beetle

… is a Delta Flower Scarab.  It’s not as big as some of its scarab relative, but it’s a very showy scarab characterized by the yellow triangle (the shape of the letter delta in Greek) on the thorax.  These beetles also tend to hold their hind legs up above their bodies, as in the photo above, and walk about the flowers with only the front and middle pairs of legs.

Soldier beetles are also regular visitors to the Rattlesnake Master flowers:

Soldier Beetles

These Margined Leatherwing beetles were sipping nectar from the flowers when they came across one another, and the female kept right on feeding as they mated!  There is surprisingly little known about these beetles, but like other soldier beetles, Margined Leatherwings have leathery upper wings rather than the hard upper wings (elytra) of most beetles.  These are very common beetles at Prairie Ridge, and you will find them on many different types of flowers throughout the grounds sipping nectar, but they are also thought to capture and consume prey occasionally as well.

There are, of course, butterflies that visit the Rattlesnake Master:

Common buckeye butterfly

Common Buckeyes are, as the name suggests, common at Prairie Ridge. These butterflies sport showy eyespots and white and orange bars on the upper surface of their wings and are common visitors at the Rattlesnake Master flowers. You’ll often find them sitting on the flowers nearest the ground, though they startle easily and will fly away if they see any sudden movements.

The Gray Hairstreaks are smaller, but a lot bolder:

Grey hairstreak butterfly

These butterflies are slower to fly away when you walk by and will continue feeding on nectar so long as you don’t get too close. Gray Hairstreaks get their name from their gray color and the tiny hair-like filaments that extend off their wings. They are the most widespread hairstreak butterfly in North America and commonly spotted in weedy habitats.  On warm, sunny days, you may easily see half a dozen of them spread out across the Rattlesnake Master plants.

The Rattlesnake Master is amazing!  These are just some of the species you’re likely to see at the Rattlesnake Master plants, and there are several other showy, interesting, and/or beautiful insect species that visit the plants when they bloom.  On your next visit to Prairie Ridge, be sure to check out the Nature Neighborhood Garden, and I highly recommend that you spend a few minutes watching the Rattlesnake Master if you do. You’re sure to be astounded by the riot of life on the flowers!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

Photos by Chris Goforth


iLabs: Biogen Idec Foundation’s Gift to Us and Our Students

July 1, 2014 - 2:14pm

Originally posted on NC Museum of Natural Sciences Education Blog:

In the previous two posts I made reference to a $100,000 donation to our Museum that benefited programming Museum-wide and in the Micro World iLab.  And we’ve had such a busy time moving a number of initiatives forward because of their gift that we haven’t had time to write about it.

Having just completed the final end-of-grant-year report for them, we realized just how much the gift helped us and especially our students.  So let me share just what the grant has helped achieve:

First, two quotes from teachers whose students were able to visit our Museum and attend our lab classes, because grant funds paid for the classes and busing:

Our school budget does not allow for the expense of field trips. We use grants as a way to provide for all our students. If we charged the student for a trip, we would be excluding students who could not…

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Celebrating Moths with Citizen Science

June 28, 2014 - 6:12pm

Moth looking over a blacklighting sheetJuly will be here before you know it and with it comes one of my favorite citizen science celebrations: National Moth Week! Now in its third year, National Moth Week encourages people to learn more about moths and appreciate their role in our world by making observations and participating in citizen science during the last full week of July each year, July 19-27 in 2014. Though the organizers of National Moth Week started the celebration in the US and are working toward having National Moth Week adopted as an official holiday, the event has become international with people all over the world observing, learning about, and documenting moths during one glorious week in July.

Luna-mothMoths are amazing creatures! They are also a hugely important group of animals. Moths are mostly herbivorous, feeding on a variety of plants and plant parts. Sometimes their plant-eating habits earn them a rightful reputation as crop, forest, or grain pests, but only a handful of the thousands of species of moths in the world are true pests. Most consume what they need without destroying the plants. Many moths play an important role in pollination, visiting flowers to sip nectar or dine on pollen and spreading pollen from plant to plant as they go. Other moths are important decomposers. You know those annoying little moths that eat holes in your favorite wool sweaters? Those are just moths doing what they are supposed to do: ridding the world of hair shed from an animal by breaking it down into soil. Moths are also a very important source of food for a wide range of animals, including birds, bats and other mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and other insects. Without moths, the world would be a much less interesting place. They’re amply worthy of celebration and their own holiday!

imperial mothAnyone anywhere can participate in National Moth Week in a variety of ways. Perhaps the simplest way to get involved is to turn on your porch light one night during Moth Week and snapping a few photos of the moths that come to the lights. You can then submit your photos to one of a variety of citizen science projects so that scientists can benefit from your observations. Or, turn your moth night into a party! Invite a few friends over, set up some chairs around your porch light, and sit back and relax with some cold beverages and snacks as the moths fly in. Snap a few photos of your moths and your group and share them online, either with a citizen science project (there are several recommended on the National Moth Week website) or with the Moth Week Flickr group. You can also attend a public moth night, such as the one we host at the Museum’s Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Public moth nights are often held by environmental education or nature centers and invite everyone to appreciate and learn about moths in a variety of ways. Regardless of whether you plan a private moth night in your backyard or you want to host a big public event , you should register your National Moth Week events so they show up on the map. By doing so, you’ll join thousands of other people worldwide as official participants in National Moth Week.

Blacklighting-rigThe Museum has participated in National Moth Week from the very beginning. Our main celebration revolves around our Moths at Night program, an evening celebration of moths and moth viewing at Prairie Ridge. Staff from Prairie Ridge and the Arthropod Zoo set up a series of blacklight and mercury vapor light rigs to draw moths in. We also paint trees with moth bait to draw in some of the species that might prefer a tasty treat over the lure of the lights. A big part of our celebration of moths is simply watching the moths that come to our lights and baits, appreciating their amazing diversity and subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) beauty, though we also provide the tools to identify the moths we see, including take-home guides, field guides to use on-site, and access to Bug Guide and other online insect identification tools. We hope everyone will go home knowing how to identify at least 3 or 4 moths and with a new appreciation for how many different species there are, even in our little patch of natural habitat in the heart of the urban Triangle area. We keep a running list of all the moths we see each year and add any new species we haven’t observed already to the Prairie Ridge species list. There are likely over a thousand moth species on the grounds. We’ve documented 54 so far. We can do better, and we invite you to help!

Atlas mothBecause citizen science is a huge part of National Moth Week, we encourage our Moths at Night participants to bring cameras so they can help us document the moth species that visit our lights. In the past two years, we have submitted our photos to Butterflies and Moths of North America and Discover Life respectively. This year, we’ll submit the photos taken by staff and volunteers to our very own Natural North Carolina project and encourage our visitors to do the same. For those of you participating at home, you can help us document the distributions of the amazing moths that call North Carolina home by simply snapping a few photos and sharing them with Natural North Carolina. Get those cameras out and start shooting!

National Moth Week is a great event that showcases a little understood but vitally important group of animals. We welcome everyone at Prairie Ridge on July 19th from 8pm-midnight for our annual Moths at Night celebration, full of learning and activities for moth lovers of all ages. If you can’t make it to Prairie Ridge, check out the National Moth Week event map to locate other public events in your area. Or, have a private moth night at home! There are many ways to participate and many scientists who are interested in knowing which moths are found in YOUR area, so make plans now to get involved. 


What Time is it in Nature: Rattlesnake Master

June 28, 2014 - 3:53pm

The Nature Neighborhood Garden at Prairie Ridge is currently awash in colorful blooms!  Some of the flowers are showy and others are subtle, but few flowers are as interesting as those found on Rattlesnake Master, Eryngium yuccafolium.

Rattlesnake master

Rattlesnake Master is a perennial in the carrot family of plants, Apiaceae, though it’s quite unlike its relatives.  The plants grow 2-5 feet tall and sport a single stout stem emerging from a deep taproot.  The main stem branches only near the top of the plant.  The stiff leaves are found predominantly at the base of the main stem and grow up to 3 feet long.  They are similar in appearance to yucca leaves, so similar that the species name of the plant, yuccafolium, refers to this characteristic.  A few smaller leaves may grow near the top of the plant where the stem branches, but they are much shorter and quite spiky looking.

Rattlesnake Master blooms from mid- to late summer.  Most plants in the carrot family have broad, airy clusters of small flowers called umbels at the tips of the stems.  Rattlesnake Master does things a little differently and lumps its flowers into dense, spiky balls at the tips of the branches off the main stem:

Rattlesnake master flowers

Each thistle-like cluster of flowers is about an inch across and is made up of many greenish-white flowers, each with 5 white petals surrounded by spiny, pointed bracts.  The bracts surrounding the flowers give the flower clusters their stiff, spiky feel and remain attached to the stem long after the petals have fallen from the plant and the foliage withers and turns brown during winter.

Rattlesnake Master is a common wildflower species found in prairies throughout the eastern US.  It grows well in sunny areas in a wide variety of soil types, though it is rarely weedy. These characteristics combined with the deep taproot the plants develop make them excellent candidates for prairie restorations and roadside plantings.  Because they are also naturally resistant to most plant diseases and herbivores, including insects, rabbits, and deer, they have become popular landscaping and garden plants as well.

The name Rattlesnake Master comes from the purported past use of the taproot as an antidote against rattlesnake venom.  There is some argument over whether the plant was ever really used as a rattlesnake antidote, but it was certainly used for other medicinal purposes by Native Americans and early American settlers.  Its stiff leaves were also used as a fiber for making shoes worn by some Midwestern Native American tribes.

Rattlesnake Master is a fantastic prairie plant, and an interesting member of our Nature Neighborhood Garden,  It is currently in bloom, which means it is covered with insects sipping nectar from its flowers.  These insects will be the subject of next week’s What Time is it in Nature, but consider a visit to Prairie Ridge to see the Rattlesnake Master.  The showy, bizarre flowers and abundance of nectar feeders make it well worth the trip!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

Photos by Chris Goforth