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Updated: 4 hours 26 min ago

Chimney Swift Tower, Now Under Construction!

November 21, 2014 - 6:05pm

Construction of the Prairie Ridge Chimney Swift tower began a few weeks ago and great progress has been made so far!  Though it’s too late for the birds to use it this year, the tower itself has been completed and awaits the arrival of the birds next fall:

Chimney Swift Tower against forest

The brick tower, designed by local architect Frank Harmon and funded by Wake Audubon, provides habitat that the birds seek as they aggregate in the fall prior to migration.  It is hoped that the tower will attract a large aggregation of Chimney Swifts each fall.

While the tower structure has been completed, the technology that will allow researchers to study the birds inside the tower has not yet been installed, nor have the viewing areas for the tower.  Once installed, the viewing areas will allow visitors to relax on benches as they watch the Chimney Swifts return to their roost inside the tower during evenings in the fall.

We eagerly look forward to completion of the rest of the tower complex and hope that Chimney Swifts will colonize their beautiful new structure next fall!

Student’s Discover…..the wisdom of 6th graders!

November 21, 2014 - 12:29pm

Originally posted on EXPEDITION LIVE!:

Here at the paleontology lab at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences and NC State University, we’ve been working on bringing North Carolina kids to the forefront of science.  We’ve been fortunate to partner with an extraordinary group of people and institutions to develop citizen science projects with middle schools as part of the NSF funded Student’s Discover project, the brainchild of Dr. Robert Dunn at NCSU.  By citizen science, I mean partnering with the public to collect real scientific data that is publishable, answers questions about our natural world, and allows the students to participate in the whole of the scientific process.  Our first run at this involves using middle school kids to collect data from fossil shark’s teeth.  The kids at Exploris Middle School in Raleigh presented on their own shark tooth research this morning.  It was extraordinary!  Today we wanted to share this reflection from one of…

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Winter Sunsets Over the Prairie (What Time is it in Nature)

November 15, 2014 - 11:03am

With the arrival of winter comes a real change in the sunlight we experience.  Sure, it gets darker earlier in the evening, as you expect given the abrupt switch from the late, bright evenings of Daylight Savings Time to the much earlier sunsets of Standard Time, but nights also become longer as we move toward the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice in late December.  At the same time, the Earth tilts on its axis so that we see a shift from the intense summer sun pouring down on us from directly overhead to the sharply angled winter light that glances over the surface of our planet.  The low, angled light gives winter a unique look with long shadows and a dullness that results from the sunlight taking a longer, less direct route through our atmosphere.

Even though our days are shorter and the sunlight we see isn’t quite as bright as it is in summer, the low winter sun can create some spectacular light displays that are well worth looking out for.  The “golden hour,” the hour before sunset where the sun sinking low on the horizon casts a yellow hue over everything, can bathe the entire landscape in warm, golden light that is cherished by sunset enthusiasts and nature photographers everywhere:

Golden hour at Prairie Ridge

The low sun also produces some amazing sunsets.  And because it gets dark early in the evening now that we’ve returned to Standard Time, you might be able to see a sunset at Prairie Ridge over the next few months!  Sunsets like this:


Or this:


Or this:


Or even this!:


Winter sunsets can be amazing and, combined with any sort of clouds in the sky, the low winter sun makes for one of the most brilliant spectacles of nature.

Next time you’re out at Prairie Ridge close to closing time, I encourage you to take a look out over the prairie as you head back to the parking lot.  Have a camera ready!  The late afternoon sunlight can produce some gorgeous landscapes that you won’t want to miss!

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)

Revolutionary Image of Planet Formation Around a Young Sun-like Star

November 10, 2014 - 10:10am

Originally posted on Research & Collections:

A few days ago, astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter Array telescope (or, ALMA) released this astonishing image:

 ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ); C. Brogan, B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF).

Protoplanetary disk surrounding the young star HL Tau (Credit: ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ); C. Brogan, B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF).

This is an image of a protoplanetary disk — the ring of gas and dust that astronomers think surrounds most forming stars (or, protostars). The image amazes for a few reasons. It is the first image to show the detailed concentric rings indicative of planet formation in a protoplanetary disk. This visualization of real-time planet formation looks startlingly like artistic renderings of protoplanetary disks often used in interpreting fuzzy astronomical images.

 National Science Foundation, A. Khan).

Artistic rendering of a protoplanetary disk around a young star, much like HL Tau. Planets are shown forming in the gaps in the disk (Credit: National Science Foundation, A. Khan).

Even more interesting, perhaps, is that the protostar, HL Taurus (often referred to as HL Tau)…

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Making History: Rosetta Catches its Comet Next Week!

November 10, 2014 - 10:09am

Originally posted on Research & Collections:

It’s an exciting time for solar system scientists, as next Wednesday, November 12, 2014, the European Space Agency‘s Rosetta mission will become the first spacecraft in human history to land on a comet — one of the primitive, icy bodies that are left overs from our solar system’s formation about 4.6 billion years ago.

Rosetta is scheduled to touchdown on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (“67P/C-G” for short) at 10:35 AM Eastern Time, with a signal confirming the landing reaching Earth at 11:03 AM. A live-stream of the landing available on NASA TV, and a special free public program will be held in our Daily Planet Theater, including the live stream and presentation by Dr. Rachel Smith, Director of the Astronomy & Astrophysics Research Lab at the Museum.


Artistic rendering of Rosetta’s robotic lander, Philae, touching down on Comet 67P’s surface (Credit: NASA).

Rosetta first made history on August 4, 2014, when…

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American Beautyberry (What Time is it in Nature)

November 8, 2014 - 2:31pm

Today’s What Time is it in Nature is brought to you by Terra Meares, citizen science intern at Prairie Ridge!  Terra is a student at North Carolina State University majoring in Plant and Soil Science with a concentration in Crop Biotechnology and is minoring in Environmental Toxicology.  She has spent her semester at Prairie Ridge developing walks for our Citizen Science Saturday series and educational programs and materials for our future pollinator garden.

Fall has arrived at Prairie Ridge and the abundance of oranges, yellows, and reds are in full swing. Amongst the fall backdrop one plant presents its striking purple berries, the American Beautyberry, Callicarpa americana.

American beautyberry

American Beautyberry is a perennial shrub in the verbena family (Verbenaceae) that grows anywhere from 3-10 feet in height. The light green leaves are oval in shape with a blunt tip and serrated margins. They grow in groups of two or three on the branches and turn a stunning shade of yellowy green in the fall. The bark of the plant is smooth and studded with lenticels, raised pores that allow for gas exchange. Younger plants exhibit reddish-brown bark while that of older plants turn light brown in color.

American Beautyberry blooms from late spring to early summer. The small clusters of flowers only appear on new growth between the leaves and can range in color from light blue, to violet, pink, or white. The most impressive characteristic of this plant though is in its fruit. After the leaves have dropped, around August or September, the Beautyberry reveals its showy clusters of small purple to blue berries, called drupes. Each berry is about 4-5 mm in diameter and contains two to four seeds. These berries will last well into the winter and are an important survival food source for wildlife such as birds, foxes, opossum, raccoons, squirrels, and deer. In return, these animals help to disperse the seeds of the plant for future propagation.

The native range of the American Beautyberry spreads as far west as Texas to Maryland in the east and south to Florida. Other native areas for the American Beautyberry include the Bahamas, Bermuda, Cuba, northern Mexico, and the West Indies. The shrub grows best in moist soils, such as woody regions, coastal plains, or swamp edges, and can withstand a wide pH range. It prefers climates with hot and humid summers and mild winters, and grows best in full sun, but can handle some shade. In addition, the plant is tolerant to drought, cold, heat, and even fire. Regular pruning should be maintained in order to encourage new growth for maximum fruit production. In the winter to early spring, prune the plant to about 12” above the base.

There is a long history of using the American Beautyberry for medicinal purposes. Native Americans used the roots, leaves, and branches of the plant to treat malarial fever and rheumatism. They also used the roots to combat dizziness, stomach aches, and dysentery, and made a concoction out of the berries and roots to reduce colic. It has also been found that the leaves of the American Beautyberry contain at least two compounds, callicarpenal and intermedeol, that repel mosquitos. Farmers would crush the leaves of the plant then place them on their horses and mules (as well as themselves) to fend off biting bugs such as mosquitos. Current research is being conducted on this use of the plant. Another great usage for the berries is in making jellies and wine, however due to the astringent properties of the berries it is best not to consume them raw.

American Beautyberry is a wonderful prairie plant, and as the name implies, the berries are a sight to see! If you would like to check out the American Beautyberry in action, come out to Prairie Ridge and observe the plethora of wildlife that these shrubs attract. Two fine examples are located in the field near the Outdoor Classroom and are currently booming with birds, quite a spectacular sight to see!

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)

eMammal Program at Prairie Ridge is Yielding Results

November 5, 2014 - 6:29pm

In October 2013, staff from the Biodiversity Lab and Prairie Ridge set out a series of 8 eMammal camera traps on the Prairie Ridge grounds to answer some basic questions about mammal populations, particularly how the large mammal population changes seasonally, whether the large mammal population is influenced by the small mammal population of the grounds, and whether different habitat types influence which species use those areas.  Our 8 traps have been maintained for over a year so far by a combination of staff and volunteers who move the cameras monthly, swap out the batteries, and replace the memory cards.  Volunteers then process the majority of the data before uploading it to the eMammal project.  So far, over 250 citizen scientists have participated in tagging the images with species data at Prairie Ridge, and hundreds more have taken part through an eMammal console in the Visual World Investigate Lab in the Nature Research Center.

So what have we found so far?  In the first four months of data collection, we captured 4158 pictures of wildlife, 407 of people, and 9 of domestic animals (mostly cats).  Prairie Ridge is being heavily used by wildlife.  White-tailed Deer are, unsurprisingly, the most common species we’ve spotted, followed by Eastern Gray Squirrels, Gray Foxes, and Eastern Cottontails.  Northern Raccoons, Virginia Opossums, and Coyotes were also commonly spotted on the grounds, though not quite as often as the top four.  Southern Flying Squirrels and Eastern Chipmunks, however, were only spotted a few times over the first four months and are not very common at Prairie Ridge.

Species detection rate graph

Some species are more commonly found in specific areas than others. Preliminary analyses suggest that habitat type does influence the biodiversity and activity of mammals on the grounds.  The White-tailed deer roam about the grounds and heavily use both the forested and open areas:

Deer map

Coyotes, Eastern Cottontails, and Gray Foxes show similar patterns, though they did not appear on every camera trap in every location.  Our Eastern Cottontails seem to avoid the woods along the creek, for example, and the Coyotes tend not to visit the forest along the upper part of the Forest Trail.  Other species are clearly restricted in their habitat preferences, such as the Eastern Gray Squirrels:

Squirrel map

The squirrels are frequently spotted in the forested areas, but avoid the other areas almost entirely.  The Virginia Opossums avoided the open bottomland of our arboretum entirely and seem to prefer the perimeter of the grounds to the interior.

Though we have only analyzed the data from the first four months so far, there were some interesting changes in mammal detection rates as fall transitioned into winter last year. White-tailed Deer, Gray Squirrels, Eastern Cottontails, Northern Raccoons, and Virginia Opossums all decreased during the winter compared to their fall levels.  The canines (Coyotes and Gray Foxes), on the other hand, were detected more often in the winter than in the fall.

Seasonal shifts graph

It’s interesting that the predators increased in the winter while the herbivores and omnivores decreased.  Could the predators play a role in the decreased detection rate of prey species?  We’ll need more data to find out!

The camera trapping program at Prairie Ridge is part of a multi-year study of mammal populations, so the data presented here from the first four months of data collection are still very preliminary.  We can’t, for example, really link mammal detection rates to seasonal shifts with only one season represented in the data analyzed so far, so it will be interesting to see if the same patterns hold this year.  The habitat information presented here may also change as we add more seasons to the analysis and collect data over multiple years.  We haven’t started to compare the large mammal population captured on our camera traps to the small mammal population, monitored quarterly by the Museum’s mammal collection curators, so we can’t even speculate on how the small mammal population may influence the large mammal population.  Every bit of data added to the analysis will add a little more to the overall story of our large mammal population at Prairie Ridge and help us understand how our natural wildlife haven in the heart of the Triangle Area is used by a variety of species.  It will be interesting to see whether the initial trends hold true from season to season and year to year.

Would you like to get involved in the Prairie Ridge eMammal project?  We are offering our next camera trapping program at Prairie Ridge on November 15th from 1:00-4:00pm! Details are available in the program listing.

The Fungi of Fall (What Time is it in Nature)

November 1, 2014 - 12:39pm

Fall has finally started in earnest, and now is a great time to look for fungi! A walk through the woods can often yield dozens of species of fungi if you keep an eye out for them. Today let’s explore some of the fungi you might find at Prairie Ridge.

If you arrive early in the day on a wet morning, you may see dozens to hundreds of these little beauties growing in sunny mulched areas:

Trooping crumble cups

Trooping Crumble Cups are small mushrooms that start off white and turn grey. They are very fragile and often break apart if you handle them (hence the “crumble” part of the common name), and they don’t last very long. By midday, most of the Crumble Cups above ground have shriveled up and new mushrooms will appear on the next wet morning, springing up from the underground portion of the fungi. These mushrooms grow on decaying matter, so you’ll often see them along the mulched areas of the grounds. They are common in the summer and persist into the early fall, but their numbers will decrease with the arrival of the cooler weather.

Another mulch loving mushroom is the Bird’s Nest Fungus:

Birds Nest Fungus

Like the Trooping Crumble Cups, you can find many Bird’s Nest Fungi growing together on top of mulch. Unlike the Crumble Cups, these mushrooms are less fragile and are visible much longer. Birds’ Nest Fungi get their name from the shape of the cup that forms the bulk of the mushroom. Inside the cup are the “eggs,” filled with many spores. When raindrops fall into the cups, the “eggs” break open and spores are released into the environment. These are small mushrooms, less than a centimeter across, so prepare to get down on your hands and knees to get a closer look! We often spot them on the north side of the upper paved portion of the Forest Trail.

The stinkhorn mushrooms are a good sign that fall is coming:

Dog phallus stinkhorn

These mushrooms get their name from the pungent odor they emit, an odor that attracts flies. The flies feed off the spores at the tip of the mushroom and spread them to new areas. This particular stinkhorn is commonly called the Dog Stinkhorn and is an unmistakable member of the group. They tend to appear in late summer and persist into the fall. A second, larger, grey and white stinkhorn often makes an appearance a little later in the fall. Both are commonly observed after rains in damp mulch, often in shady spots. These have a very distinctive smell, so take a whiff when you see one! Once you’ve smelled one, you can often find the mushrooms by following their scent.

Some fungi are hearty and remain visible throughout the year:

Turkey Tail fungus

This is likely a Turkey Tail or a close relative, a type of bracket fungus that grows outward from dead woody surfaces. These mushrooms grow in dense colonies of overlapping brackets on dead wood, which they help decompose. You’ll see these on rotting logs in the Nature Playspace and in many other areas of the grounds.

We’ve got dozens of fungi species at Prairie Ridge and many of them are quite active now that the days are getting shorter and cooler. On your next visit, take a stroll through the woods and see how many mushrooms and other fungi you can spot. You might be surprised by the variety of shapes, colors, and textures you’ll see!

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: Early Signs of Fall

October 10, 2014 - 3:13pm

It’s starting to look a lot more like fall at Prairie Ridge and signs of cooler weather are all around.  Today, let’s explore some of the many early signs of fall you might see during an upcoming visit to Prairie Ridge!

Changing leaf color is one of the most obvious signs of fall, and one that most people look for to tell them when fall has begun.  Several of our tree species have been experiencing leaf color changes and falling leaves.  The Red Maple produces bright red leaves:

Red maple leaf

These trees are one of the first to bloom in the spring and one of the first to start changing colors in the fall.  You can easily pick out the Red Maples in the forest by looking for the flaming red, tall trees along the margins as you walk the Forest Trail.  There is also one massive Red Maple that shades the picnic tables outside the Nature Play Space that produces a particularly lovely display.

The Winged Sumac is also starting to change:

Winged sumac turning red

I’ve written about Winged Sumac before, but it is similar to the Red Maple in being one of the first trees to change color in the fall and changing to a deep, vibrant red.  Look for the bright red compound leaves to the left of the wooden walkway to the Outdoor Classroom, but do it soon!  The Winged Sumac is also one of the first trees to lose all of its leaves in the fall, so the red leaves won’t last long.

Some trees start to produce their fruits in the fall.  The Flowering Dogwood develops bright red fruits in late summer and early fall:

Dogwood berries

These fruits provide an important food source for birds and mammals, one that helps them survive through the winter.  You can see a few Flowering Dogwoods along the Forest Trail as well as one with fruits just to the left of the wooden walkway to the Outdoor Classroom that you can see over the railing just before you go through the door.

While springtime is generally thought to be the primary flower season, many native plants bloom in the fall instead.  The Tickseed Sunflowers are just about finished for the year:

tickseed sunflower

You’ll find them along the road into Prairie Ridge and in the prairie.  Look out for Monarch Butterflies on the flowers!  They seem to be a popular flower for the butterflies as they make their way south for the winter.

There are plants blooming in the garden as well, including the Eastern Aromatic Aster:

Eastern aromatic aster

These bright purple flowers add a bold splash of bright color right before winter sets in, making it a popular garden plant in the southern US.  It is also attractive to a variety of butterflies and bees and is an important source of nectar for the insects that linger until winter sets in.

Fall is a time when many grasses flower or produce seeds.  Purple Muhly Grass is one of the most striking fall blooming grasses with its clouds of pinkish-purple flowers:

Purple muhly grass

Purple Muhly Grass looks like a pretty standard, nondescript grass for most of the season, but it really shines in the fall.  Look for it around the base of the wind turbine and in the garden beside the gate to the road as you drive into the Prairie Ridge parking lot.

The start of fall is a great time to look for mushrooms:

Stinkhorn mushroom

We have a variety of stinkhorn mushrooms at Prairie Ridge, including this big grey beauty.  You can often find them by following your nose!  They’re called stinkhorns because they produce a foul stench to attract flies and other carrion loving insects that help spread their spores to new locations.  You’ll often find stinkhorns growing in mulched areas and along the upper part of the Forest Trail between the office trailer and the Natural Playspace.

There are even some insects that are associated with fall!  Woolly Bears are very commonly spotted at this time of year:


Woolly Bear caterpillars start moving around as they look for places to overwinter in early fall, so you’ll see them crawling across the road into Prairie Ridge or along the Forest Trail.  Legend has is that the amount of brown banding on Woolly Bears will tell you how severe the winter will be.  Whether this is actually true or not… Only time will tell!

Another caterpillar makes a big appearance at this time of year, the Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillars:

Pipevine swallowtail caterpillar

These caterpillars feed on the Woolly Pipevine along the fence to the right of the entrance to the Nature Neighborhood Garden, so take a look!  If you flip up enough leaves, you’re bound to see caterpillars munching happily away.  If you *listen* very closely, you can even hear them chewing!  These caterpillars often pupate on the underside of the green roof above the entrance to the garden, so look up and you might see a pretty golden brown pupa attached to the ceiling as well.

Fall is a great time of transition at Prairie Ridge, one in which the plant life undergoes major changes, the summer only birds are swapped out for the winter only birds, and the insects begin to disappear from view.  The weather becomes cooler and the sky becomes a little bluer as the sun sinks lower on the horizon.  Pretty soon it will be getting dark shortly after we close in the evening, at which point I encourage you to take a moment to look out over the prairie about a half hour before sunset.  During that “golden hour,” the sun slants across the landscape and the grasses, trees, and flowers begin to glow:

The prairie during golden hour

Currently, the late afternoon light on the Goldenrod is quite spectacular, but even the dead grass will to look beautiful in the winter sun as the days get shorter.

What other signs of fall will you see on your next visit to Prairie Ridge?  Things will start changing fast, so come on out and explore before it gets cold!

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: Stick Mantid

October 4, 2014 - 4:40pm

Fall is approaching, and with the cooler weather comes a really cool insect: the Stick Mantid (Brunneria borealis)!  They and other mantids become very abundant, and therefore more obvious, in the prairie at this time of year.

Stick Mantid, Brunneria borealis

The Stick Mantid, also known as Brunner’s Mantis or Northern Grass Mantid, is a member of the mantid order of insects and share the long, narrow body common of many of our North American mantid species, typically reaching lengths of 2.5-3.5 inches.  Unlike the other American mantids, however, the forelegs are long and thin and give the Stick Mantids the appearance of walkingsticks.  This characteristic is reflected in their common name.  Stick Mantids also have broad segments at the base of their antennae, fine serrations along their thorax, and very short wings.  Though many mantid species are quite capable of flight, this species is flightless.

All but one species within the genus Brunneria are found in South America in the tropics or subtropics.  Brunneria borealis is the only Brunneria species in the US and is found in many areas of the southeastern US from North Carolina west to Texas.  It also reaches into northern Mexico.  The species name, borealis, refers to the fact that this species has the northernmost range of the Brunneria: borealis is Latin for “northern.”

Like other mantids and in spite of their spindly looking forelegs, Stick Mantids are fierce predators, stalking other insects as food within their habitats.  They prefer meadows with tall grasses, especially those containing the grass Little Bluestem, where they blend in quite well.  Stick Mantids are often found lurking among grass stalks as they hunt.  They are thought to feed primarily on grasshoppers, katydids, and crickets, but surprisingly little is known about these charismatic and unusual insects, including their typical diet.

Stick Mantids have a very interesting form of reproduction: parthenogenesis.  Male Stick Mantids have never been found, so females lay unfertilized eggs that are clones of their parent and all offspring produced are girls.  The eggs are laid inside a foamy secretion that hardens into an ootheca (often called an egg case), like other mantids.  However, the Stick Mantid ootheca has a distinctly pointed end unique to this species.  The egg cases are laid in the fall, and the immatures will hatch out of the egg case through the pointed tip the following summer.  Mantid enthusiasts report that, at least in captivity, Stick Mantid immatures do not hatch all at once like most mantids and instead hatch just a few at a time over a period of 2-4 months.

Stick Mantids are quite abundant in the prairie at this time of year!  They’re hard to see due to their incredible camouflage, but you can find many of them on the grounds if you look hard enough.  Looking out for other large insects, the Stick Mantid prey, can help you find them more easily.  You never know when you’ll see a mantid reach out and grab a grasshopper.  The Stick Mantids are typically only active for about a month from mid-September through mid-October, so be sure to look our for them on your next visit to Prairie Ridge!

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 Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

Photo by Chris Goforth