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Soil Sidekicks – American Woodcock (Timberdoodle)

Museum Blogs - July 21, 2015 - 8:59am
Can you spot this Soil Sidekick? This bird is particularly good at hiding. So good, in fact, that it can be almost impossible to spot one huddling in the grasses of a field at the forest’s edge.

National Moth Week – Coming Soon!

Museum Blogs - July 16, 2015 - 12:05am

The fourth annual National Moth Week takes place July 18-26, and we’re ready to help you celebrate! Our National Moth Week event, Moths at Night, will take place at Prairie Ridge Ecostation this Saturday, July 18 from 8pm-midnight. The Museum has participated in National Moth Week since the very beginning, and we’re excited to bring this fun and engaging citizen science-focused event back again this year.

For those of you who are thinking, “Why do moths deserve a whole week?” let’s cover some moth basics. Moths are an incredibly diverse group of organisms, with tens of thousands of described species. Some estimates suggest that there may be as many as half a million species total on our planet. Moth enthusiasts worldwide do comprehensive surveys of the moths visiting their backyards and it is not uncommon for a single yard to host hundreds of species. One moth researcher in western North Carolina, for example, has discovered over a thousand species of moths – just in his backyard! Moths have an amazing diversity that is well worth exploring.

The sheer number of species alone makes moths worthy of celebration, but those many, many moth species also fulfill essential roles in our environment. Some moths are pollinators of night-blooming flowers, while other moths pollinate flowers during the day. A lot of our day-flying moths are colorful and showy like butterflies, such as this Ailanthus Webworm Moth:

Ailanthus webworm moth

Ailanthus Webworm Moth. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Moths are also great indicators of ecosystem health, a sort of canary in a coal mine if you will. Many species are tightly linked to a specific ecosystem. If the moths disappear, it tells scientists that there’s something wrong in that habitat worthy of further study. If a problem is found, changes in land management may help alleviate the environmental problem.

Perhaps most importantly, moths are a very valuable food source for a wide variety of animals. Like birds? Then you should like moths! Many species of birds depend on moths as food, though many rodents, reptiles and amphibians, and even fish are known to feed on moths as well.

Moths can be found in an astonishing variety of habitat types. Some moths are highly specialized, such as the classic ecological example of the yucca moth and yucca. Certain species of yuccas depend entirely on a single species of moth for pollination such that the two are always found together and elimination of either the moth or the yucca from the environment results in the loss of both species. Some moths are known to live inside the upper regions of carnivorous pitcher plants (a risky place to live if you’re an insect!) and others are aquatic for most of their lives and live on land only as adults. Moths live almost everywhere on our planet but the ocean!

Moths are generally harmless to humans, but some moths contain toxins that make them unpalatable to a variety of would-be predators and there are some blood-sucking moth species known from southern Europe and Siberia. However, moths can harm us indirectly. Some moth caterpillars are pests and compete with us for food (such as corn) and fiber (such as cotton). Other moth species, such as the Fall Cankerworm, are known as forest pests that can damage timber yields and still other moths destroy our clothing. While many moths perform important services that we benefit from, some species are capable of inflicting massive damage on natural products we use

Apart from all of these reason why moths are important and worthy of study, they are also quite beautiful. During last year’s Moths and Night celebration, we documented several beautiful moths, including these:

Skiff moth

Skiff Moth. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Beautiful wood nymph moth

Beautiful Wood Nymph Moth. This moth is a bird dropping mimic! Photo by Chris Goforth.

Banded tiger moth

Banded tiger moth. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Black bordered lemon moth

Black bordered lemon moth. Photo by Chris Goforth.

This amazing moth is what Woolly Bears turn into!:

Isabella tiger moth

Isabella tiger moth. Photo by Chris Goforth.

The showiest visitor the last two years has been the Tuliptree Silkmoth:

Tulip tree silk moth

Tulip tree silk moth. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Other gorgeous moths include the Rosy Maple Moth (I like to call it the “rainbow sherbet moth”), the Tuliptree Beauty moth, and the tiny but spectacular Sparganothis Fruitworm Moth. Sure, not all moths are showy, but many of them will surprise you.

If you’d like to learn more about moths or National Moth Week, please consider attending our Moths at Night program on Saturday, July 18! We’ll have several moth-attracting light stations set up on the Prairie Ridge grounds where you will be able to see a wide variety of moths and other nocturnal insects. We’ll have experts on hand to help you identify some of our common moths and we’ll send you home with a guide to help you explore the moths living in your backyard. Bill Reynolds, head of the Museum’s Arthropod Zoo will introduce you to the wide world of moths at the beginning of the event.  We also want to document the moths that come to our lights so that scientists can use our data in their studies. If you have a camera and are willing to take some photos, we’ll have a few stations set up where you can upload photos to this year’s featured citizen science project, Natural North Carolina.

Even if you can’t make it to Prairie Ridge, we hope you’ll participate in National Moth Week anyway! Just flip on your porch light one or more evenings between July 18 and July 26, snap a few photos of the moths you see, and submit them to Natural North Carolina. You don’t even have to identify your moths to help. Simply uploading a few photos to Natural North Carolina is enough to help scientists worldwide learn more about these amazing nocturnal insects. We’ll share some of our favorite submissions by NC citizen scientists on our Google+ page throughout the week so everyone can see some of the amazing moths that call North Carolina home – we have some great ones.

Join us and celebrate moths during National Moth Week!

For more information about Moths at Night, please visit the listing on our Programs and Event page.


Mountain Mint Pollinators (What Time is it in Nature)

Museum Blogs - July 11, 2015 - 3:13pm

Last week’s What Time is it in Nature discussed Mountain Mint, a plant that you can find in Prairie Ridge’s Nature Neighborhood Garden.  This week, let’s explore some of the amazing diversity of pollinators that make use of nectar while the plant is in bloom!

When many people think of pollinators, they automatically think of butterflies.  Butterflies make up a part of the pollinators you’ll see on Mountain Mint, including Common Buckeyes, Gray Hairstreaks, and Red-banded Hairstreaks.  This Juniper Hairstreak is a less commonly observed butterfly on our Mountain Mint, but is quite beautiful:

Juniper Hairstreak butterfly

Photo by Chris Goforth

It’s not quite as obvious from this photo as it might be, but the hairstreaks get their name from a thin, fragile tail that protrudes off each of their hind wings.  They tend to have the sort of general body shape of this butterfly as well, though the color patterns vary considerably from species to species.

While many people think first of butterflies when they hear the word “pollinator,” other people will think of bees.  Honey Bees are not native to the US and were imported from Europe soon after Europeans started colonizing North America, but you’ll find them on many of our native plants, including Mountain Mint.  However, these bees are much more commonly spotted on the plant in our garden:

bumble bee

Photo by Chris Goforth

Bumble bees are large bees that form small colonies underground.  You will see them flying from flower to flower, gathering nectar and pollen similarly to Honey Bees, though many species are quite a bit larger than the average Honey Bee.  Bumble bees are important pollinators for many native plants and are the focus of several native pollinator conservation efforts and citizen science projects.

Bees are often seen on flowers, but their wasp relatives can be even more abundant on Mountain Mint.  Take this spider-hunting wasp:

spider hunting wasp

Photo by Chris Goforth

Spider-hunting wasps get their name from a behavior they exhibit during reproduction.  A female wasp will sting a spider to paralyze it, bury it, and lay one or more eggs on the spider.  When the eggs hatch, the wasp larvae have fresh meat to eat as they grow.  This may seem gruesome, but it’s an important part of nature that helps keep spider populations in check.  And, while the larvae may be carnivorous, the adults are not.  They feed primarily on nectar, and you will see many of them sipping nectar from the tiny flowers on the Mountain Mint.

This wasp has similar reproductive requirements:

Scoliid wasp

Photo by Chris Goforth

Scoliid wasps are also considered parasites because they paralyze prey for their larvae to feed on after hatching.  However, scoliid wasp larvae feed on the larvae of scarab beetles rather then spiders.  Adult females will dig into the ground to find a beetle grub before stinging it and laying her eggs.  Like the spider-hunting wasps, the adults feed primarily on nectar and you can see them feeding on nearly any flowering plant at Prairie Ridge in the summer, including Mountain Mint.

Butterflies, bees, and wasps are all commonly spotted pollinators, but let’s not forget some of the other groups of insects!  This gorgeous fly can sometimes be found feeding at the flowers of Mountain Mint:

Tachinid fly

Photo by Chris Goforth

Tachinid flies are parasites like the spider-hunting wasps and scoliid wasps, though their specific host species varies by the fly species.  The adults often feed on nectar and help spread pollen around for a variety of plants.

The Mountain Mint is positively abuzz recently as the flowers bloom and produce nectar.  Be sure to visit the Nature Neighborhood Garden on your next visit to Prairie Ridge.  One quick look is all it takes to spot a dozen or more species of butterflies, bees, wasps, flies, and beetles – well worth a trip out to see it!

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

(Photos by Chris Goforth)


The hole truth about animals that bore

Museum Blogs - July 10, 2015 - 4:41pm

Originally posted on Research & Collections:

Summer is here, it’s hot, the kids are out of school, and by now I expect they’re pretty bored. Perhaps it’s time to go outside and see how bored other things are. For instance, if you’re at the beach, you might find a clam shell with a perfectly circular hole in it. That’s a bored clam shell. Or maybe you’re lucky enough to find a rock or coral with some broad holes in it. Or maybe you notice holes in trees or logs. These are all bored, too.

But what causes all these objects to be so bored? In the case of the shell at the beach, the answer is predatory snails. Some snails – particularly moon snails – soften a clam’s shell by using a boring organ that produces hydrochloric acid, enzymes and other substances. Then the snail rasps the softened clam shell with a hard plate called a…

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Direct from the Genomics and Microbiology lab: A Scented Citizen Science Project!

Museum Blogs - July 10, 2015 - 4:01pm

This post is brought to you by Dr. Sarah Council, postdoctoral fellow for the Center for Science, Math & Technology Education at NC Central University in Durham, NC and in our own Nature Research Center.  Thank you Dr. Council!

Armpit group

Photo by Matt Zeher, NCMNS

Who hasn’t smelled themselves after a great run or an intense basketball game? You can thank your microbes for your body odor!  We want to learn more about them, so we recently hosted a multi-day sampling event at the Museum to explore the microbes of the human body and enlisted citizen scientists to help.

Microbes (single-celled organisms like bacteria, fungi, and archaea) make up over 90% of the cells on and in your body.  They benefit the human body by producing vitamins, breaking down our food, and even making us smell (1, 2).  Microbes located on your skin are what give us “body odor.”

The human skin microbiome (the microbial community on our outer surface), in particular the armpit microbiome, is composed of 4 to 5 types of bacteria, though the majority is made up of bacteria called Staphylococcus and Corynebacteria (3). Bacteria colonizing our armpits thrive from nutrients in our sweat and in turn produce the characteristic body odor smell (4). Knowing this important fact lead Dr. Julie Horvath’s team in the NRC Genomics and Microbiology lab to question how these bacteria affect our daily habits.

Armpit swabbing

Photo by Matt Zeher, NCMNS

For the Armpits, Microbes, and Odor project, we convinced 23 citizen scientists to let us sample their armpit microbes.  The goal: to better classify the microbes of the human armpit, understand the odor and other compounds the microbes produce, and rate the attractiveness of those odors.

On Day 1, we captured participant armpit microbiomes during a normal day, or the microbiome present as our subjects followed their usual hygiene routines.  From our participants, we sampled:

  • DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid, the molecule responsible for coding cellular instructions for life)
  • Metabolites (molecules used as nutrients by living cells)
  • Volatiles (a type of metabolite that can be an odor)

We then asked participants to go without underarm product (antiperspirant and deodorant) for 3 days.  Antiperspirants act to physically block the excretion of sweat from glands under your arm. Deodorant products kill microbes with the use of alcohol-based solutions and mask the odor with fragrance.  Both products have a significant impact on the human armpit microbiome (5).

Our citizen scientists were allowed to shower normally, though we gave everyone a plethora of fragrance-free products, including shampoo, body wash, sunscreen, body lotion, and face lotion. Eliminating fragrance was important so we could capture a person’s natural smell. In addition, we gave participants cotton t-shirts laundered in fragrance-free detergent to wear as they slept for 3 nights. These t-shirts would soak up that natural smell.

Armpit shirt sniffing

Photo by Matt Zeher, NCMNS

On Day 4, we repeated the first day’s sampling, and participants turned in their T-shirts in a sealed plastic bag. But we didn’t stop there! Our participants and other citizen scientists then had the opportunity to participate in a “Speed Smelling” event in the NRC Daily Planet.  Emceed by our own Brian Malow, participants smelled the shirts worn by project participants as well as two unworn t-shirts washed in fragrance-free detergent. Over the course of an hour, each shirt was rated on overall smell, odor intensity and attractiveness by 20 smellers.  We also asked if the T-shirt had a specific smell and if participants could identify their own T-shirt.

Processing over 250 samples of DNA, metabolite and volatile samples will take some time but we do have preliminary results from our Speed Smelling event.  We learned that the top 3 most attractive t-shirts were worn by females and smelled floral and sweet.  To our surprise only one participant identified their own shirt.  One more interesting note was that a participant classified the unworn T-shirt as smelling like Boston Crème Pie!

Armpit Speed Smelling

Photo by Matt Zeher, NCMNS

We’re hard at work processing the samples from our citizen scientists, so stay tuned for further results connecting microbes, odor and attractiveness!

You can keep up-to-date on Dr. Council’s and Dr. Horvath’s work by following them on Twitter with hashtag #skinscent or by following @SarahCouncil and @NRCJulie.  You can also learn more about the lab and the armpit microbiome project at http://naturalsciences.org/nature-research-center/genomics-microbiology and http://armpits.yourwildlife.org/.

References:

(1) Turnbaugh PJ, Ley RE, Hamady M, Fraser-Liggett CM, Knight R, Gordon JI. The human microbiome project. Nature 2007 Oct 18;449(7164):804-810.

(2) Leyden JJ, McGinley KJ, Hölzle E, Labows JN, Kligman AM. The microbiology of the human axilla and its relationship to axillary odor. J Invest Dermatol 1981;77(5):413-416.

(3) Council S, Savage A, Urban J, Ehlers M, Dunn R, Horvath J. The Diversity and Evolution of the Primate Skin Microbiome: How different are humans from our closest relatives? (in review).

(4) Shelley WB, Hurley HJ, Nichols AC. Axillary odor: experimental study of the role of bacteria, apocrine sweat, and deodorants. AMA Archives of Dermatology and Syphilology 1953;68(4):430-446.

(5) Urban J, Ehlers M, Fergus D, Menninger H, Dunn R, Horvath J. Deodorants and antiperspirants inhibit growth and modulate species composition in human axilla (in review).


Mountain Mint (What Time is it in Nature)

Museum Blogs - July 4, 2015 - 3:26pm

This summer has been an excellent one for insects at Prairie Ridge!  There are thousands of butterflies, grasshoppers, native bees, dragonflies, and other spectacular insects buzzing around the prairie.  Most of those insects need something to eat and many will make use of the nectar available at the flowering plants in our Nature Neighborhood Garden.  One plant species, Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum incanum), seems to be an especially attractive option currently.

Mountain Mint

Photo by Chris Goforth

Mountain Mint, as the name suggests, belongs to the mint family of plants.  It grows 2-4 feet in height under good conditions and can spread to 4 feet wide.  The leaves are a dusky grey-green, football-shaped, and toothed.  Both the leaves and the stems of the plant have a softly hairy appearance, a characteristic which often gives this species the common name Hoary Mountain Mint.  It is found throughout the eastern US and southeastern Canada, though it is rare in some northern areas of its native range.

The insects making use of the plant don’t care so much about the leaves and stems however.  They are after the nectar given off by the flowers!  Mountain Mint typically blooms in June or July and remains in flower into September and attracts dozens of species of pollinators as long as the flowers are available.  Flowers are found in dense clusters at the tips of the stems.  The flowers themselves are tiny and white with small purple spots:

Mountain Mint flowers

Photo by Chris Goforth

Mountain Mint may not be the showiest garden plant available with its dusky green color and tiny flowers, but it is highly valued for its ability to attract a wide range of pollinators. It grows best in well-drained soils in full sun or partial shade and, like other mints, spreads aggressively via rhizomes underground. It can, however, sometimes grow well in suboptimal soil conditions and may grow where few other plants are able to establish themselves.

We have a great Mountain Mint specimen on display in our Nature Neighborhood Garden.  Next time you visit Prairie Ridge, wander down into the garden and head toward the back gate.  The loud buzzing will let you know when you’ve arrived at the Mountain Mint plant.  Look for more information about Mountain Mint’s many pollinators in our next What Time is it in Nature!

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


Soil Sidekicks – Eastern Hognose Snakes

Museum Blogs - July 2, 2015 - 1:04pm

If you see a snake slithering around on the ground, take a look and see if it might be one of our Soil Sidekicks, the Eastern hognose snake (Heterodon platirhinos).

These land-loving reptiles spend their lives on the ground, and can also be found burrowing into the soil. The Latin name Heterodon means “different tooth,” so-called for the enlarged rear teeth this snake uses for eating (and even popping!) toads, and platirhinos indicates the Eastern hognose snake’s broad, flat snout.

The Eastern hognose snake is a stocky reptile with an upturned nose used for burrowing. Adult snakes range from 2 to 3 feet in length, with females typically growing larger than males. These interesting creatures have some of the greatest color variety in North Carolina, as they can be brown, reddish-orange, gray, black, or any shade in between. Their scale patterns range between blotches and solid colors.

Eastern hognose snake. Photo courtesy of Jeff Beane.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Beane.

This species of snake can be found all over North Carolina (with the exception of high-elevation mountains), sharing territory with their amphibious prey. Eastern hognose snakes certainly have a taste for toads, particularly seeking out these amphibians as a meal. Many frogs and toads burrow underground during the day in order to escape the heat, emerging at night to hunt. The Eastern hognose snake is active and hunts during the daytime, using its broad, flat snout to burrow into the soil in order to reach buried prey.

As a defense mechanism against predators like the Eastern hognose snake, toads will sometimes puff up like balloons, hoping to become difficult to swallow. True to its scientific name, the Eastern hognose snake can use its rear-positioned teeth to ‘pop’ and deflate the toad so that it can be swallowed.

This Soil Sidekick uses the ground beneath our feet in other ways, too. In some habitats such as sandy or loamy soils, a female Eastern hognose may dig an underground nest in order to deposit her clutch of eggs. In harder clay soils, which are more difficult to tunnel into, the Eastern hognose snake might instead nest in a rotten log, mulch or sawdust pile, mammal burrow, or stump hole.

Eastern hognose snake puffing up its neck. Photo courtesy of Jeff Beane.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Beane.

The Eastern hognose has also been nicknamed “puff adder,” and for good reason. These snakes make use of protean behavior: acting really strangely to confuse a predator. When the Eastern hognose snake feels threatened, its first line of defense is to flatten its neck, raise its head, and puff out to be as large and intimidating as possible. During this show, the snake hisses loudly, which can be quite startling to a predator.

If this first approach doesn’t work, the snake will “play dead” by rolling onto its back and writhing around on the ground. After a few moments, it will appear to be dead, sometimes emitting an awful smell and even opening its mouth so its tongue will hang out in an effort to be convincing. Many predators only eat living things and fresh prey, so if it looks and smells dead, this behavior can convince a predator such as a bobcat to leave the snake alone. If you find an Eastern hognose snake in the wild, it is always best to avoid touching or provoking it. After all, it’s exhausting to put on such a show.

Eastern hognose snake playing dead. Photo courtesy of Jeff Beane.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Beane.

Like other snakes, the Eastern hognose periodically sheds its skin in order to grow and develop. These reptiles can live 8 to 10 years, depending on the individual. Like other wild animals, these Sidekicks may seem cool, but they should not be taken out of their natural homes to be kept as pets. Leave the digging to the experts and let the Sidekick stay where it belongs — in the soil.

Soil Sidekicks is an inside scoop starring animals that live in and around the soil. Did you know that there are more living creatures in a shovelful of rich soil than there are people on the planet? Get the dirt on where the Sidekicks live and discover more about the soil that sustains us at Dig It! The Secrets of Soil.

Claire Carrington is a Museum Public Relations intern, and currently a senior at Campbell University.

Photos courtesy of Collections Manager of Herpetology Jeff Beane.


Soil Sidekicks – Eastern Spadefoots

Museum Blogs - June 22, 2015 - 1:37pm

What sounds like a sheep, digs like a champion, and uses its own foot as a shovel?

If you’re looking carefully at the ground on a rainy evening, you may be lucky enough to spot an eastern spadefoot (Scaphiopus holbrookii) digging its way back up to the surface. These fossorial (burrowing) frogs spend much of their lives underground, hiding in shallow burrows just beneath our feet.

The name Scaphiopus holbrookii originates from the Greek word skaphis, which means spade or shovel, and pous, meaning foot. The second part of the scientific name, holbrookii, honors renowned American herpetologist John Edwards Holbrook.

Eastern spadefoots are small frogs, usually between 1 and 2.5 inches long, typically shorter than the length of a finger. This North American variety of frog is plump, ranging in color from gray to brown or even almost purple. They have moist, generally smooth skin with speckles of wart-like tubercles, but don’t worry – these bumps are not contagious! Eastern spadefoots often have two mottled yellow stripes running along their backs, forming the shape of an hourglass, and bright yellow or golden eyes with vertical pupils.

Eastern spadefoot

Photo courtesy of Jeff Beane.

The eastern spadefoot gets its name from the single black spur on the bottom of each of its hind feet. This sickle-shaped ‘spade’ enables the frog to burrow underground by wiggling back and forth, digging with its hind legs and disappearing backwards into the loose soil that the frog prefers.

These interesting amphibians live most of their lives underground, returning to the surface on occasional moist or rainy nights to hunt insects such as crickets. They also enjoy meals of spiders, worms, centipedes, snails and other creatures found in or around the soil. Eastern spadefoots are generalist feeders, happily consuming pretty much anything living that can fit into their mouths. These frogs vary in how often they return to the surface to feed, and can go a long time without eating, sometimes spending more than two weeks burrowed underground before emerging.

Eastern spadefoots can be found all over North Carolina except at particularly high elevations, but are most commonly found on the Coastal Plain or in scattered areas of the Piedmont. These frogs prefer to live in dry or semi-arid areas with loose, sandy soil to dig down into, although they can be found in soil containing more clay as well. Like all amphibians, eastern spadefoots’ semi-permeable skin allows them to absorb moisture from the soil around them, so they are good bioindicators to monitor the health of an environment – they will be among the first creatures to indicate problems such as pollutants in the ecosystem.

Eastern spadefoot

Photo courtesy of Jeff Beane.

These burrowing amphibians remain underground for weeks during dry spells, lying dormant underground. They can curl into a tight ball and excrete fluids that harden the soil around them to retain moisture in a “pocket” in order to survive in extended droughts. If you have ever found a frog buried in your garden, especially if you live on the Coastal Plain, it may have been an eastern spadefoot.

When heavy rains begin to fall, eastern spadefoots awaken and return to the surface in an explosive congregation. These hardy amphibians breed in fishless water and temporary pools, often reproducing in water-filled ditches, tire ruts, and roadside puddles. Males drift on the surface of the water, calling for females in their high-pitched drone that resembles a sheep’s “waaaa!” Females may lay hundreds or even thousands of eggs at once, and tadpoles can undergo metamorphosis as soon as two weeks after hatching, reaching maturity in 1-2 years.

Eastern spadefoots face habitat loss in some states, but they are fairly common in North Carolina. If you find one of these creatures buried underground, leave the digging to the experts and return the Sidekick to the soil.

Soil Sidekicks is an inside scoop starring animals that live in and around the soil. Did you know that there are more living creatures in a shovelful of rich soil than there are people on the planet? Get the dirt on where the Sidekicks live and discover more about the soil that sustains us at Dig It! The Secrets of Soil.

Claire Carrington is a Museum Public Relations intern, and currently a senior at Campbell University.

Photos courtesy of Collections Manager of Herpetology, Jeff Beane.


Animals Cooling Down (What Time is it in Nature)

Museum Blogs - June 20, 2015 - 2:54pm

It’s been quite warm in the Triangle recently with temperatures approaching 100 degrees several days last week.  While we might see a bit of a decline in the number of visitors at Prairie Ridge on very hot days, the animals that use the grounds don’t have the luxury of choosing to stay indoors.  For this week’s What Time is it in Nature, let’s explore some of the many ways that animals deal with high temperatures!

Let’s start with some of the endothermic animals we have here, also known as “warm blooded” animals.  Check out the long ears on this Eastern Cottontail:

eastern cottontail ears

You can clearly see the blood vessels running along the length of the ears under the very thin skin.  By moving blood through their ears, Cottontails expose their hot blood to cooler air, cooling the blood before it moves to other parts of their bodies.  This helps bring their temperature down.  Cottontails will also seek shady places to rest and tend to sleep during the hottest part of the day.

Another animal that tends to hide during the day is the Eastern Gray Squirrel:

Eastern gray squirrel cooling

Like the rabbits, Gray Squirrels tend to sleep during the day and are most active during the early morning and early evening.  (This is called a crepuscular lifestyle!)  If they do have to be out and about during the main part of the day, you may see them do one of three things to cool down.  They seek shade, staying out of the sun when they can.  When they’re not moving, they will flip their tail up over their backs to shade their bodies.  On really hot days, you may see Gray Squirrels flatten their bodies against the ground in a shady spot.  This brings as much of their belly’s surface into contact with the cool ground as possible and helps cool the blood passing through the area, which in turn helps cool the entire animal.  The squirrel in the photo above was enjoying a cool down on top of a shady post after a quick midday meal.

Mammals aren’t the only endothermic animals, however!  Birds also need to cool down from time to time.  They often seek shade during very hot parts of the day, but they open their beaks and pant to help cool themselves down even more.  The Purple Martins at Prairie Ridge have been panting a lot recently:

purple martin panting

You may see some birds splashing around in the pond to cool off as well.  If you hear a vigorous splashing, sneak quietly up to the sound and you’re likely to find a bird taking a refreshing bath.

Though people tend to think of endothermic animals when they hear the word “animal,” most animals are actually ectothermic, or “cold blooded.”   Ectothermic animals are almost wholly dependent on the environment for their heat and their body temperatures go up and down according to the environmental conditions.  However, that doesn’t mean that an ectothermic animal is automatically the same temperature as the air temperature.  Like endothermic animals, ectothermic animals can change their behaviors to help push their temperature above or below the air temperature.  Take this Eastern Rat Snake:

rat snake basking

It was out on the trail in the sun this morning, stretched out and sitting in place.  You will often find snakes basking in sunny patches during the cooler parts of the day as the sun helps warm them up.  However, all ectothermic animals have an upper temperature threshold; they can die if their body temperature exceeds it.  During the hot part of the day, snakes, lizards, and other reptiles will seek shady places and rest to help keep themselves cool.  Some reptiles may retreat to underground burrows to cool down.  Still others will swim into a pond or stream and wait out the hottest part of the day in the relatively cool water.

Insects are ectothermic animals too, and they exhibit a huge range of behaviors that help regulate their temperatures in hot weather.  Dragonflies will seek shade and rest on the very hottest days to prevent their body temperatures from exceeding their maximum temperature, but you will often see them sitting in strange positions, such as displayed by this Blue Dasher:

blue dasher obelisking

This behavior is called obelisking and it works because the dragonfly orients its body to minimize the amount of surface area exposed to the sun.  By pointing their abdomen straight at the sun, the sun’s rays hit only the very tip of the abdomen  rather than the entire upper surface.  This helps keep the dragonfly cool.  Conversely, on cool days, dragonflies will bask like snakes by flattening their bodies out so the sun hits as much surface area as possible.

Even though many people choose to stay home during hot days like we’ve had this week, you can see some very interesting behaviors if you’re willing to brave the heat.  On your next visit to Prairie Ridge, hop from shady spot to shady spot to stay cool, but look around as you go.  You may see animals doing a variety of bizarre or interesting things to cool themselves down!

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

(Photos by Chris Goforth)


The Sun: Space Weather Machine

Museum Blogs - June 17, 2015 - 1:39pm

Originally posted on Research & Collections:

As temperatures creep toward the triple digits this week,  it’s probably not hard to remember that the Sun is our primary source for heat and light.

Perhaps less obvious is that the Sun is also responsible for space weather, defined as the varying conditions surrounding the Earth that are due to solar wind and other energetic outbursts from the Sun’s surface. While there is no conclusive linkage between space weather and Earth’s climate, solar particles penetrating Earth’s magnetic field risk disrupting performance and reliability of space-borne and ground-based technological systems, satellites, and even possibly endangering life.

One of the main objectives of space missions currently studying the Sun is to better understand extreme space weather events, how and when they occur, and how life on Earth may be affected, now and in the future.

607987main_FAQ13_946-710 Graphic of some of key space weather effects on Earth’s satellites and power grid (Credit: NASA).

STEREO…

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The Little Robot That Could

Museum Blogs - June 14, 2015 - 10:00pm

Originally posted on Research & Collections:

The little space-bot, Philae, made history last November by being the first-ever robot to land on a comet. While amazing in its technological feats and detailed measurements of comet 67P taken at close range, all was not perfect with this historic landing, leading European Space Agency (ESA) scientists to admit that, shortly after landing they did not in fact know Philae’s location on the comet.

The glitch was a misfire of Philae’s landing harpoons such that the robot bounced off the comet twice, eventually becoming wedged in one of the comet’s cliffs, the precise location of which, the scientists admitted, was unknown.

 ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA). Panoramic image of Philae’s final landing site captured by the Rosetta orbiter’s CIVA-P imaging system.
The 360º view shows roughly the point of final touchdown. The lander is sketched on top of the image in its estimated configuration (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA).

Due to the non-sticky landing, the final orientation of…

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