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Odd Bug Out: A Leaf Insect Discovery

Museum Blogs - 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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And We’re Off!

Museum Blogs - 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

Museum Blogs - 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

Museum Blogs - 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.



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Did you say proboscis?

Museum Blogs - 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.


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

Museum Blogs - 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

Museum Blogs - 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…..

Museum Blogs - 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

Museum Blogs - 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:


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

Museum Blogs - 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

Museum Blogs - 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

Museum Blogs - 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

Revealing the Sloth

Museum Blogs - June 27, 2014 - 3:46pm

Originally posted on NC Museum of Natural Sciences Education Blog:

by Robert Beaver, Museum intern for the Living Conservatory

Two-toed sloth in the Living Conservatory.

Two-toed sloth in the Living Conservatory.

The two-toed sloth is one of the most remarkable parts of the Living Conservatory exhibit; it can also be one of the most mysterious.  Visitors will often look into his enclosure and wonder where he is.  Some visitors want to know, “What in the world is a sloth?”  They gaze at him in amazement as I tell them that a sloth is just a sloth, and its closest relations are actually anteaters and armadillos, not something that would be found climbing around in trees like primates.  In fact, the two-toed sloth’s evolutionary ancestors were not arboreal, but a variety of massive ground-dwelling mammals that roamed the Americas tens of thousands of years ago.  The story of tree-dwelling sloths represents a peculiar and interesting history of mammalian evolution that occurred relatively close to home in…

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Fisher photographed in the Bronx – First ever NYC record of this squirrel and rat predator

Museum Blogs - June 25, 2014 - 11:49am

Originally posted on Research & Collections:

By Roland Kays

North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences & NC State University

Following the paw prints of their larger carnivore cousins, coyotes, fishers are now returning to New York City.  A new photograph confirms that at least one animal has found its way to the Bronx, after a scattering of records across Westchester County in recent years.  These oversized weasels (females are 4lbs, males weigh up to 13lbs) are adaptable predators recently found to climb trees to hunt the squirrels that typically overrun suburban areas.

Bronx Fisher

NYPD officer Derek Lenart captured this photograph of a fisher walking down a Bronx sidewalk at dawn on 15 April 2014, producing the first ever evidence of the species living in New York City.

Their long skinny build also makes fishers keen tunnel users, which helps them crawl through drainage culverts to cross under roads and avoid becoming road-kill.  Their love of tubes and…

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What Time is it in Nature: Red Milkweed Beetle

Museum Blogs - June 20, 2014 - 5:15pm

There are massive numbers of insects out and about at Prairie Ridge currently!  The Common Milkweed is an especially good place to look for insects as you can find many species using each plant including aphids, Milkweed Bugs, predatory maggots, lacewing larvae, and several beetles.  One of the most easily recognizable beetles is the Red Milkweed Beetle, Tetraopes tetrophthalmus.

Red milkweed beetle on milkweed

Red Milkweed Beetles, often called RMBs for short, are members of the longhorn beetle family Cerambycidae and are common prairie and grassland beetles in the eastern US.  Like their longhorn beetle relative, RMBs have antennae about as long as the length of their bodies which, not including the antennae, is generally 12-15mm long (a little over a half-inch).  RMBs have black antennae and legs, but the rest of their body is a brilliant orange-red with distinct black markings on the thorax and elytra, the hardened upper pair of wings that covers the abdomen.  You will often find these on and around Common Milkweed, though occasionally you may spot them on other milkweed varieties as well.

RMBs spend nearly their whole lives around Common Milkweed.  Males and females find one another wandering among the Milkweed leaves in early summer and will mate.  The female will then lay her eggs at the base of a Milkweed stem, sometimes inserting her eggs into the stem itself, or on a piece of grass close by.  Once the larvae hatch, they will move down to the roots of the Milkweed, either tunneling just underneath the surface of the stem or through the soil.  The larvae feed on the roots as they grow though the early fall.  They will stop feeding in the winter, but may briefly resume feeding in the spring before building a small chamber in the soil near the Milkweed and pupating.  They will then emerge a month later as adults.

Like the larvae, the adult RMBs also feed on Common Milkweed, though they focus on the parts of the plant above ground such as the leaves, flowers, and buds.  Like many other Milkweed feeders, the RMBs will cut a slit into the leaf vein above the site where they are feeding so that the sticky latex sap (the “milk” of the Milkweed) will drain out.  If enough latex is consumed or is left to dry on the mouthparts, the unlucky RMB may find itself with its mouth glued shut.  Cutting the leaf vein reduces their latex exposure and consumption considerably, though you will sometimes see the beetles rubbing their faces on the leaves in an attempt to scrape the latex off before it dries and hardens.  In addition to latex, Milkweeds also contains powerful toxins that repel most birds and mammals.  Like many other insects that feed on Common Milkweed, other milkweeds, or other toxic plants, the red and black coloration of RMBs is thought to advertise the plant toxins they store inside themselves and their unpalatability to any creature that attempts to eat them.

The scientific name of the Red Milkweed Beetle, Tetraopes tetrophthalmus, refers to a cool characteristic of these charismatic beetles.  Like other longhorn beetles, the antennae are located near the eyes of the beetles.  In many longhorn beetles, they are so close that you will see the eyes wrapped around the base of the antennae.  In the RMBs, the antennae completely bisect the eyes, splitting each eye into two parts.  Both Tetraopes and tetrophthalmus refer to the fact that these beetles have four eyes!

You can find Red Milkweed Beetles all over Prairie Ridge this summer!  Simply look for the Common Milkweed plants scattered across the ground on your next visit (there are two big patches just outside the Nature Neighborhood Garden) and look for red and black.  You might also find some Seven-spotted or Asian Multicolored Ladybugs hiding in the leaves, but you are sure to see many four-eyed RMBs if you look!

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!

Photo by Chris Goforth.

What Time is it in Nature: Green Heron

Museum Blogs - June 14, 2014 - 5:55pm

The Prairie Ridge pond is frequented by a variety of waterfowl and herons over the course of the year.  The American Bittern that took up residence over the winter was a great addition to our species list, but a more common relative can be seen at the pond now, the Green Heron or Butorides virescens.

Green Heron

Green Herons are small, stocky members of the heron family of birds, Ardeidae.  Green Heron adults are beautiful birds, sporting deep green feathers over their backs and chestnut feathers on their neck and breast.  They have dark grey wings and a black crown that they can fluff up into a small crest when threatened.  Juveniles are more brown and have streaks along the neck and spots on their wings.  Green Herons are smaller than all herons but the Least Bitterns, reaching lengths of just 18 inches with a wingspan of just under 27 inches, about the size of the very common American Crow.  Their legs are bright orange and much shorter than those of most herons.  The colorful, short legs, dark feathers, and their tendency to hold their heads close to their bodies and hunch make the Green Herons very easy to tell apart from other small herons.

Green Herons are secretive and rather solitary birds.  You’ll most often see them hunched over on a log or tree branch that extends over a wetland, swamp, or pond or sitting in densely leafy trees around the water’s edge.  However, many people won’t notice they’re there at all until a bird is flushed from its hiding place and flies into the open while making a loud squawking call.  Green Herons are excellent hunters, feeding opportunistically on whatever they can catch.  Their diet consists primarily of fish, though they are also known to consume insects, spiders, crayfish, crabs, snails, amphibians, snakes, and the occasional mammal.  They hunt by standing very still in very shallow water or on a perch over the water and watching for something to come into range.  Then they’ll dart toward the prey with their beaks, either grabbing or spearing it before swallowing it.

Although they will occasionally build nests up to a half mile away from water, most Green Herons will construct their nests in a tree branch hanging over a pond, marsh, or wetland.  Males begin the nest construction by selecting a site, ideally in the crook of a tree with overhanging vegetation, and gathering sticks before he finds a mate.  Once successfully courts a female, she will build the majority of the nest by arranging the sticks the male has gathered into a shallow bowl 8-12 inches across and a few inches deep before laying 3-5 pale green or blue eggs.  Both parents care for the chicks by gathering and bringing them food until they fledge.  The young birds occasionally remain with their parents for more than a month after leaving the nest so that they can learn how to hunt before setting off on their own.  Once the breeding season is over, many Green Herons will start to move around, sometimes flying great distances to find new hunting grounds, though many birds will stay within a few miles of home until they migrate south for the winter.

Green Herons are among a tiny handful of bird species that are known to use tools.  When hunting, they have been observed dropping small fruits, leaf bits, feathers, earthworms, and other small objects onto the surface of the water to act as fishing lures.  When a fish comes to investigate, the bird will snatch it up.

These gorgeous birds are a fairly common sight at Prairie Ridge during the summer.  Scan along the willows and fallen logs at the edges of the pond or in the branches of the trees 8-10 feet above the water and you might see a Green Heron lurking there.  You might also see one sitting on the drain near the dam.  The Museum ornithologists suspect that the Green Herons are nesting on the grounds, and we have spotted up to five at a time, so you’re almost sure to see one of these spectacular and entertaining birds on your next trip to Prairie Ridge!

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!

(Photo by Chris Goforth)

A Solar Celebration Comes This June 22

Museum Blogs - June 13, 2014 - 3:36pm

Originally posted on Research & Collections:

Things are  heating up  this month at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. On June 22, we will participate in the first annual International Sun-Day, complete with presentations on current solar research, Sun-focused activities, and solar observing with special telescopes available to visitors throughout the day.

The Sun is our star. It warms our solar system, as we probably most clearly notice in the more tropical summer months when our part of the Earth is tilted toward the Sun. While the Sun is a relatively average-sized star compared to all the stars in the Galaxy, it is critical for our existence, and for life as we know it to thrive on this planet. Nearly 99.9 percent of the mass of the solar system is wrapped up in the Sun, making it one of the most important components of our solar system for astronomers to understand as part of a complete…

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Remarking on a blackened eye

Museum Blogs - June 13, 2014 - 11:00am

Originally posted on EXPEDITION LIVE!:

One of the most infamous fistfights in the history of science went down on May 5, 1888, at Philadelphia’s Philosophical Hall, just as a meeting of the American Philosophical Society was getting underway. The two combatants were dear friends. Hot-headed paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope was scheduled to give a formal presentation on fossil ear bones. Cope’s opponent, geologist Persifor Frazer, was dressed for an evening at the opera with his beloved wife. For Frazer, a matter of honor was at stake. When he confronted Cope in the hallowed hall, fisticuffs, rather than apologies, ensued.

Cope vs. Frazer, drawn by Zander and Kevin Cannon of Big Time Attic.

Cope vs. Frazer, drawn by Zander and Kevin Cannon of Big Time Attic .

The only published account of this unfortunate incident appears in Cope: Master Naturalist, a biography written by Henry Fairfield Osborn, which, regrettably, includes precious few details about the altercation. According to this one-sided account, Osborn chanced upon Cope, who was looking somewhat…

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What Time is it in Nature: Broad-headed Skink

Museum Blogs - June 6, 2014 - 3:00pm

Prairie Ridge is home to several species of lizards.  If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see one of the largest skinks in our region, the Broad-headed Skink (Eumeces laticeps), lurking on the grounds.

broadheaded skinks

Broad-headed Skinks are, as the name suggests, members of the skink group of lizards that have wide jaws and rather triangular heads.  Members of both sexes are robust, thick-bodied lizards with  legs designed for climbing.  They are long lizards, routinely reaching average lengths of 10.5 inches, but exceptionally long individuals have been discovered with lengths of well over a foot.  Males are typically olive-brown and drab, but during the breeding season their heads turn bright reddish-orange, as seen in the photo on the left above.  Female Broad-headed Skinks (right photo) are brown to black and are often striped, but lack the orange heads of the males.  Juveniles are similar in appearance to the females, but they have the bright blue tails typical of their close skink relatives.  In fact, it can be difficult to distinguish a young Broad-headed Skink from a Five-lined Skink without catching one: you need to look at the scales on the lips to be sure!

These lizards are forest dwellers and are considered the most arboreal of the skinks native to North Carolina.  You will often see them climbing trees or resting on limbs, sometimes retreating to tree cavities or under bark to hide.  However, they do most of their foraging on the ground where they search for invertebrate prey such as grasshoppers, butterflies, cockroaches, and beetles as well as earthworms.  They are known to eat other lizards from time to time and are thought to capture and consume the occasional small mammal.  In addition to foraging, Broad-headed Skinks tend to nest on the ground, laying 8-22 eggs in June or July under logs, sawdust piles, or other concealed and protected areas.  If all goes well, the female will wrap her body around the nest and the baby lizards will hatch in September.

Broad-headed Skinks are large enough to represent a significant meal to many forest animals, and they are occasionally eaten by birds and mammals.  Like several other species of lizards, their tails detach easily, allowing the lizard to escape after it has been captured by a predator.  The tail will eventually grow back, but the new tail will never quite replace those that have been lost.  Check out the tail of the female skink pictured above.  She had clearly lost her tail and is in the process of growing a new one.

In some parts of the country, Broad-headed Skinks are called scorpions, likely due to the juvenile skink’s habit of holding its blue tail up above its body and waving it about.  They are sometimes thought to have a venomous sting.  Broad-headed Skinks are completely non-venomous, however, and definitely do not sting.  They can give you a strong bite thanks to their broad, muscular heads, but a few teeth marks and a bit of pain is the worst these lizards, or any other skinks in the southeast, can do to a person.

At Prairie Ridge, look for Broad-headed skinks scurrying up trees along the Forest Trail, curled around eggs under logs, or foraging for food on the forest floor.  They are handsome lizards of impressive size, so be on the lookout for them on your next visit!

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)

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