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Sweetgum (What Time is it in Nature)

Museum Blogs - January 31, 2015 - 3:54pm

This week’s What Time is it in Nature is brought to you by Jacqueline Hogg, intern for the Museum’s Naturalist Center.  Jacqueline is a student at Salem College and is double majoring in Environmental Studies Conservation Ecology and Music Vocal Performance.  She thinks the Museum’s vast array of knowledge, research, and opportunities are a perfect fit for her interests and is interning at the Museum to expand those interests.  Thanks Jacqueline!

Sweetgum is a beautiful deciduous tree that is a member of the Hamamelidaceae, or Witch-Hazel family. Look out for them in the Southeastern Coastal Plain and Piedmont areas, east-central and south-central parts of the US, and if you’re adventurous in your travels, they can be found in southern Mexico and Central America. These hardwoods are extremely tolerant and can flourish in a variety of conditions. They grow best in areas with moist, nutrient soils, such as tidal swamps, stream banks, and low swampy bottomland areas where their root system is not limited. These magnificent trees can grow over 100 feet and reach 3-5 feet in diameter!

Sweetgum in winter

You may be wondering how to distinguish this species from other trees you may see. They have rough, deeply furrowed grayish-brown bark in maturity:

Sweetgum bark

… and a rusty-red bark in adolescence.  The star-shaped leaves may look similar to maple leaves:

Sweetgum leaf

… but they’re arranged alternately instead of opposite: each leaf arises at a different point on the stem instead of directly across from each other. The leaves have five to seven lobes and saw-toothed margins. If you look closely at a tree in the summer, you may see greenish flowers and later you will see dangling fruit that appears as a green spiny ball containing 40-60 seeds that turns dark brown as it ages:

sweetgum ball

Multiple bird species eat the seeds, including Purple Finches, Goldfinches, Mallards, Bobwhite Quails, Carolina Chickadees, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Towhees, White-throated Sparrows, and Carolina Wrens, as well as squirrels and chipmunks. These trees display glossy-green leaves in the summer months, but in the fall they add to the bright colors with bright yellow and red displays from the tree-tops.

These trees aren’t just magnificent on the outside. Liquidambar styraciflua is more commonly known as the Sweetgum tree. Where does it get this delicious name? Under its bark flows a sweet balsamic sap that has a long history of special uses by humans. The Cherokee, Choctaw, Koasati, Rappahannock, and other Native American tribes had several uses for it. When the sap of the tree is exposed, it hardens into a fragrant gum that served as chewing gum and the fruit and bark were used for tea. Sweetgum also had several medicinal uses. The hardened sap was used to treat canine distemper and a salve was made by mixing the plant with animal tallow. The plant was used to dress cuts and bruises, skin sores were treated by boiling the roots, and a “drawing plaster” was made from the gum. The sap was used to reduce fevers, and both the sap and inner bark were used to treat diarrhea and dysentery. The bark was even used as a sedative.

Sweetgum is a hardy species that is valued in several modern markets as well. Their aromatic sap is used as an ingredient in both medicine and perfume. Its timber also provides pulpwood, veneer, lumber, plywood, slack cooperage, railroad ties, and fuel.

There are many fine examples of Sweetgums on the Prairie Ridge grounds! On your next visit, take a trip down the Forest Trail. Look for large groups of spiky brown “gumballs” on the ground and look up. You’ll still see many gumballs hanging from the high limbs of the Sweetgums, which makes them easy to tell apart from many of the other trees on the Forest Trail in winter. These trees will start to grow leaf buds in preparation for spring soon. Keep watching them on your visits to Prairie Ridge and you’ll be able to watch them transition from winter to spring!

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!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)


Fire Time! (What Time is it in Nature)

Museum Blogs - January 22, 2015 - 6:31pm

Today was the day for the annual prairie burn at Prairie Ridge.  I’ve written about the burn in the past so I’m not going to go into a whole lot of detail here, but the prairie is currently broken up into three sections.  Each year one is burned, another is mowed, and the third is left alone.  Burning and mowing mimic processes that occur in naturally occurring prairies, burns set by lightning and people and grazing by large mammals, and are essential processes for maintaining prairie health.  In a nutshell, prairie grasses are well adapted to fire and grazing, but other plants that encroach into prairielands are not.  When a fire rips through a prairie, the prairie grasses will regrow easily from their deep roots and seeds stored underground while most of the other plants will die.  Our burn helps us keep out invasive plants, control the spread of trees into the prairie, control blackberry growth, and replenish soil nutrients.

Prairie on fire

This year, we burned the section of prairie opposite the lawn from the Outdoor Classroom.  People can view the fire in this section from the safety of the classroom, so we invited the public and ended up with about 60 people who came to watch our burn boss, Brian Hahn, and other controlled burn experts from the NC Forest Service set the prairie ablaze.  Using drip torches, they carefully and methodically burned small patches of grass as our visitors cheered them on from the classroom.  We also had interpretive materials and staff on hand to answer questions while the fire was going this year, so it ended up being a great educational event!

Setting the fireMost of the visitors left shortly after the first section of prairie was burned, but we had a second burn this year as well.  If you’ve been out to Prairie Ridge recently, you may have noticed the huge mowed area beyond the pond.  That area is being prepared for planting and will be seeded with prairie grasses this year.  The area was mowed and herbicides were applied to kill the roots so the plants couldn’t grow back.  Today that entire section was burned to kill anything that’s left and prepare the soil for planting, essentially giving us a blank slate to work with.  We’ll plant prairie grasses and wildflowers in the burned area, so look for a whole new section of prairie stretching from the area between the pond and Edwards Mill Road all the way down to the new entrance off the Reedy Creek Greenway this summer!

BitternFor all you American Bittern watchers and lovers who were worried about the impact of the burn on everyone’s favorite resident bird: the Bittern WAS on the grounds during the burn.  However, we saw him (or her) fly from the larger pond to the smaller pond as the fire approached and he appears none the worse for wear overall.  Only time will tell, but I’d bet he’ll stick around the rest of the winter and will be largely undeterred by the burn.

You’ll notice huge areas of charred grasses on the Prairie Ridge grounds over the next few weeks, but they’ll green up again sooner than you might expect.  Even though the prairie might not look very exciting for a couple of months, now is actually a great time to visit!  The huge open areas created by the burn are popular with ground foraging birds, so you can often see large flocks of American Robins, Red-winged Blackbirds, and non-native European Starlings feeding in the burned patches.  Small mammals are easy to spot as they dash across the bare fields, and are much easier to see than normal.  This also attracts birds of prey, so look for Red-tailed Hawks and other raptors flying over the burned areas for the next few weeks.  If you’re really lucky, you might see a Black Rat Snake hunting among the ashes!  It might be winter and things might be rather dead at this time of year, but the burn draws animals out temporarily.  That makes now one of the best times to visit all winter, so come on out and see what you can find in our newly burned fields!

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!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)


Witch Hazel (What Time is it in Nature)

Museum Blogs - January 17, 2015 - 5:12pm

Today’s What Time is it in Nature is brought to you by Terra Meares, citizen science volunteer and former 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.

Although most of the plants are currently in their winter dormant stage at Prairie Ridge, one of the latest bloomers is the American Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana).  While most plants typically bloom in the spring, Witch Hazel blooms in the late fall once all of the leaves have dropped.  In fact, some individual shrubs and species have blooms that linger well into the early winter.

Witch Hazel

The American Witch Hazel is a perennial shrub or small tree typically reaching 12 to 15 feet in height.  The woody plant has smooth gray bark with zigzagged branches that tend to form an upright shape.  The deciduous leaves of the Witch Hazel are broad and oval-shaped with large wavy teeth on the margins and range from 2.5 to 6 inches in length.  The leaves have a dark green appearance and turn a radiant shade of gold in the fall.

Witch Hazel has unique flowers.  Blooming occurs from September through November after the leaves have fallen.  The small pale to bright yellow blooms each contain four long and slender petals that resemble streamers.  Flowering occurs simultaneously with the maturing fruit from the previous year, hence the name Hamamelis meaning “together with fruit”.  The flowers produce small, tan to gray hard capsules with two compartments, each containing a seed.  The capsules go dormant throughout the winter and develop over the next growing season.  In the autumn, about 8 months after flowering, the capsules fully mature and burst open to launch the two shiny black seeds up to 20 feet from the tree.  The seeds then take an additional year to germinate.

The American Witch Hazel is native to North America and grows from southeastern Canada to Minnesota in the north and reaches south from Florida to eastern Texas.  Witch Hazel is abundant in the Appalachian Mountains where it can grow to even taller heights.  The slow-growing shrub fares best in rich, moist, and slightly acidic soils of shaded sites in forests and at the forest edge.  Witch Hazel can tolerate wet or poor soils and pollution, and has relatively few pests.  Keep in mind that flowering does not start until the plants are at least six years old.

Witch hazel is commonly known for its medicinal uses, however historically it had a much more unusual purpose!  Native Americans once used the forked limbs of the Witch Hazel branches as dowsing or divining rods to detect water sources.  The dowsing end of the forked branch would bend underground in the earth when water was detected.  This process was later used by early European settlers and eventually became an established component of well-digging.  Currently the bark of the Witch Hazel is commercially used to make an astringent or alcohol extract, which also goes by the name Witch Hazel .  The astringent is used both medicinally and in healthcare products for sores, bruises, swelling, hemorrhoids, aftershave applications, to remedy psoriasis, eczema, and even to treat insect bites, poison ivy, and varicose veins.  Witch Hazel is recommended for women to reduce swelling and to soothe wounds from childbirth.  The plant is also a food source for the larvae of some lepidopteran species (butterflies and moths) and in return the adults are important pollinators for the plant.  The fruits of the plant are and important food source for some birds as well.

If you would like to see the American Witch Hazel , come out to Prairie Ridge where we have fine examples located in the Nature Neighborhood Garden and the Jesse P. Perry Arboretum.  The trees just finished their bloom for the year, but you can still see the flower petals attached to the branches and the start of next year’s seed crop.

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)


Fall Cankerworm (What Time is it in Nature)

Museum Blogs - January 10, 2015 - 3:04pm

Recently, we’ve spotted several moths on the side of the Prairie Ridge office trailer and other areas of the grounds.  They’re fairly nondescript gray moths with subtle markings and have been active in spite of some very cool nights over the last few weeks.  Upon investigating them further, we discovered what these little gray moths were: Fall Cankerworms.  Today, let’s explore the fascinating biology of these cool weather insects!

Fall Cankerworms are sexually dimorphic, which means that the males and females have very different appearances.  Male moths are drab gray with wingspans reaching just over an inch:

Fall cankerworm male

The wings have indistinct pale brown and white markings, but they are subtle.  Female Fall Cankerworms, on the other hand, have a completely different appearance:

Fall cankerworm female

Female Cankerworms are wingless and rely on their legs to get them from place to place.  They’re up to a half-inch long and are most likely to be spotted on tree branches, sometimes in very large numbers.

Fall Cankerworms are native to the US and are found throughout the east as well as extensive areas of the west.  Though they are native, they are also considered pests.  After mating, female Fall Cankerworms lay neat rows of eggs on the high branches of a variety of trees (maples, ashes, and elms are favorites) in the late fall, typically after the first hard freeze.  The eggs overwinter and hatch in the early spring.  The inchworm caterpillars that emerge then feed on the leaves of the trees they were deposited on.  Periodically, Fall Cankerworms will experience a boom and cause extensive defoliation of trees in an area, eating most to all of the leaves on a variety of tree types.  If these outbreaks occur early enough in the year, the trees can sometimes recover some of their leaves.  Other times, the trees will have to wait until the following spring to replace their leaves.  Either way, Fall Cankerworms rarely kill the trees they feed on.  Once they have eaten enough leaves to grow to full size, they will lower themselves from the trees to the ground via a silk thread and pupate in the ground throughout the summer, then emerge as adults in the fall.

Fall Cankerworms are interesting insects.  Most insect populations peak in the spring and summer, times when the evenings are warm and the days warm to hot.  Because they are exothermic (i.e., rely on the temperature of their environment rather than warming themselves), most insects enter a dormant stage during the cooler months of the year.  Fall Cankerworms, on the other hand, are only active in those cooler months!  The adults generally emerge shortly after the first hard freeze in the fall and can remain active until early February.  The eggs go through a brief dormant period in the late winter and then the caterpillars emerge in mid-spring when it is still chilly.  The pupae are hidden safely away underground through the hot parts of the year until a freeze signals the moths that it is time to emerge as adults.

In our state, the Charlotte area seems to be particularly hard hit by Fall Cankerworm outbreaks and the city has implemented a state-approved control program that involves spraying the trees with a Bt pesticide spray.  Bt is derived from a biological source, the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, and rather specifically targets caterpillars of butterflies and moths.  By using Bt during the early spring when pretty much only the caterpillars of the Fall Cankerworm are active, cities or forest managers can target the cankerworm caterpillars without harming most of the other insect species (many of which are beneficial or harmless) in the area. Other control methods include tacking wide strips of sticky paper onto the bark of trees to trap the females as they climb up to the tops to lay their eggs.

Fall Cankerworms blend in with their environment quite well, so it can be hard to find them even when they are abundant.  Next time you’re at Prairie Ridge, look for females on the upper branches and trunks of trees and males on the walls of the office trailer and outdoor classroom.  The males might be a little boring to look at, but their interesting biology more than makes up for any lack of showiness!

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!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)


Winter Textures (What Time is it in Nature)

Museum Blogs - January 3, 2015 - 3:53pm

There might not be quite so much green at this time of year compared to the summer, but there are always interesting things to look at at Prairie Ridge!  Have you ever gone on a hunt for textures?  During the winter, there are endless textures to explore and touch (though we do ask that you please leave things where you find them so other people can enjoy them too), so now is a great time to go on a texture hunt.  This week, let’s explore some of the texturally interesting things you might find at this time of year!

A lot of people think deciduous trees are fairly boring in the winter because they don’t have leaves, but they have a lot of great textures on them!  This tree got a wound at some point and has a scar that breaks up the pattern of the bark:

Bark

Feel the bark of trees while you’re here (though do watch out for hairy poison ivy vines growing up the trunks!).  You might want to carry a few pieces of paper and a soft pencil or crayon to make a rubbing of some of the different types of bark you come across.  There’s a lot of variation in the textures and pattern of the bark on different types of trees, so look around and see if you can find any that are particularly interesting.  You may also find lichens growing on trees:

Lichen

Lichens are fascinating organisms!  They aren’t quite plants and aren’t quite fungi and don’t really fit into any of the major kingdoms of life.  Lichens consist of algae (a plant) and a fungus living together and helping each other survive.  The algae take the energy from the sun and convert it into food.  Part of the food they produce helps the fungus survive.  In exchange for the food, the fungus provides a shelter for the algae and protects them.  Neither species can survive without the other.  Amazing!

Some trees start producing flower or leaf buds as soon as the leaves start falling from the trees.  There are several trees on the Prairie Ridge grounds that are currently sporting buds:

Buds

Some are furry, some smooth, some glossy, and some dull.  There are endless varieties of bud colors, shapes, sizes, and textures.   Walk around the grounds and you’re sure to see at least a few interesting types.

A lot of plants that aren’t trees or shrubs die off during the winter, but will leave behind dried stalks, seeds, or seed heads that persist through the winter months.  We had an amazing crop of Goldenrod this year, so you will see their seeds all over the grounds:

Goldenrod seeds

The Nature Neighborhood Garden is another wonderful place to search for interesting textures!  There are dozens of wildflowers inside, the remnants of which you can see throughout the winter:

Seed head

And you can see mosses on the grounds all year, adding a little splash of bright green color to an otherwise drab landscape:

Moss

This one was growing along the paved area just beyond the Nature Neighborhood Garden entrance, but you can find other mosses in wet patches in the arboretum, growing on trees, and many other places at Prairie Ridge.  How many different moss species can you find?  There are many different types, all with their own shapes, textures, colors, and favorite locations to grow.

Not all of the interesting winter textures come from plants!  You may find these dry, papery structures on the branches of trees and shrubs:

Mantid egg case

Inside are the eggs for hundreds of mantids, tucked safely away for the winter.  In the spring, the baby mantids will burrow out of the egg case and begin to hunt other insects.  Mantids make great pest control species and eat a lot of the insects you might not want hanging around.  We love finding mantid egg cases in the Nature Neighborhood Garden because we know that we’ll eventually have predators lurking about, feasting on things that might want to eat the garden plants – or us (our blood)!

If you’re lucky, you might come across a few animals while you search for textures.  You might see millipedes or slugs under logs.  Caterpillar cocoons dangle from some of our trees and shrubs.  You might even see some live insects that do well in the cold, one of which will be the focus of next week’s What Time is it in Nature.

It might look dull and brown out there, but there are so many cool things to see at Prairie Ridge in the winter!  I encourage you to carry a notebook with you on your next visit.  Make rubbings of interesting tree barks.  Sketch buds and seeds that you find.  Describe the different types of lichens and mosses you come across.  Once you start paying attention to some of the details, you’ll find that a whole new world of fascinating things opens up!

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!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)

 


Update from the NCMNS Genomics & Microbiology Lab: Meet Our New Little Friend, The MiSeq

Museum Blogs - December 31, 2014 - 2:47pm

This post is brought to you by Dr. Julie Urban, Assistant Director of the Museum’s Genomics and Microbiology Research Lab.

As a child, did you ever feel the overwhelming excitement portrayed by Ralphie, the character in the MGM movie A Christmas Story, obsessed with hopes of finding “an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle” under his tree? Many of us only experienced that kind of “I-can’t-sit-still” level of exhilaration as a kid, but not us scientists in the Genomics & Micro (G&M) Lab! We felt this level of gut-busting thrill just recently: Santa brought our lab a MiSeq:

The MiSeq DNA sequencing machine

Except it wasn’t Santa, it was National Science Foundation (NSF). And it wasn’t for Christmas, we got it back in October. But the same gut-busting thrill, nonetheless. What is this MiSeq? Why has it gotten us so excited? What does this mean for our research, specifically our citizen science research? And (as Ralphie had been repeatedly warned) should we be worried that we will shoot our eye out? Each of these, in turn.

The MiSeq, manufactured by Illumina, is a machine that sequences massive amounts of DNA. Several of us NCMNS scientists, led by G&M Director, Julie Horvath, submitted a grant proposal to NSF’s Major Research Instrumentation division requesting this instrument. After multiple submissions, our proposal was accepted this fall and, with the support of NCMNS and DENR administration, our lab was able to purchase the MiSeq.

Dr. Urban with the MiSeqThe MiSeq is a so-called “next-next generation” DNA sequencer. How this technology works is a cool story in itself (and will likely be the topic of a future blog post), the critical point is that this instrument allows us to generate millions of DNA sequences in one run, which means that we not only get more data cheaper and faster than before, but because of the way this machine works, it fundamentally changes (and vastly expands) the nature of the research questions we can use it to ask and to answer.

To put the cost savings into context, we also have a more traditional “first-generation” or Sanger sequencer in our lab. Sanger sequencing was the technology used to first sequence the human genome. Generating a DNA sequence using Sanger technology costs approximately $5 a sequence in our lab (we can generate up to 16 DNA sequences at a time; larger instruments can generate 96 sequences at a time for about the same price). For small projects (e.g., those requiring fewer than 200 DNA sequences) like those performed by many museum researchers and graduate students with minimal funding, Sanger sequencing remains the most cost-effective approach and this technology has not yet been replaced.

For projects that require sequencing of more DNA, two levels of technological advancement have driven the price down considerably. The first wave of advanced DNA sequencing, aka “next-generation” or pyrosequencing, is able to sequence ~500,000 sequences in one run, at the cost of <$0.01 per sequence. Because you still need to purchase a complete run, this ends up costing around $4000/run.

Loading samples into the MiSeqThe MiSeq uses second or “next-next-generation” sequencing, and generates 25,000,000 sequences in one run, at the cost of <$0.0001 per sequence. Therefore compared to the previous generation of sequencing, we can generate 50 times the number of DNA sequence data for one-half to one-third of the cost!! This is truly an amazing leap in technology, and it has all occurred within about the last 7 years. Larger next-next-generation machines using the similar technology as our MiSeq are able to deliver a sequenced human genome for ~$1,000.

Why would we need to generate so much data? Many research projects, including several in our lab, sequence DNA from microbes (primarily bacteria and fungi) to identify the number and identity of the immense variety of microbes living in various places. This is only now possible with this new technology. One of our lab projects used next-generation sequencing to determine what bacteria live in the armpits of citizen scientists, and to determine how underarm product use alters these communities. Another citizen science project, lead by postdoctoral scientist Dr. Julia Stevens, is part of the Students Discover collaboration with middle school teacher-scientists. It uses the MiSeq to identify the bacterial and fungal symbionts of the common dandelion using soils sampled by students throughout the state. In the first 44 samples she sequenced from the first cohort of Students Discover Kenan Fellows, she found over 1.1 million species of bacteria alone! Another Students Discover postdoc, Dr. Dan Fergus, used our MiSeq to sequence and identify the genes that are actively being used or “turned-on” in the genome (called the “transcriptome”) of the human face mite. This transcriptome will be used in several projects, including perhaps how the set of active genes may differ among healthy versus rosacea-suffering individuals. We have many, many more projects underway, including some of my own work on planthopper-associated bacteria and fungi and additional citizen science projects we hope you will participate in with us!

Dr. Fergus loads the MiSeqFinally, have we shot our eye out yet? It certainly felt like it in preparing my first planthopper run on the MiSeq, as this required multiple 11+ hour days at the lab bench, fueled mostly by coffee and atomic fireball candies. But given the completely novel insights that these data hold, using our MiSeq gives me that “I-can’t-sit-still” anticipation of discovery that to me, is what being a scientist is all about.


White Deer (What Time is it in Nature)

Museum Blogs - December 27, 2014 - 4:21pm

We recently reported our first ever Bobcat at Prairie Ridge, but we’ve had another exciting mammal visiting our grounds recently!  Meet the albino White-tailed Deer:

White deer

This pale fellow has been spotted on the grounds several times over the last few weeks, but has been reported in the area for the last month or so.  As you probably know, White-tailed Deer tend to be brown and blend in with their environment, but this young buck is completely white.  Based on the color of his eyes, it is clear that he is an albino.

Albinism tends to occur due to a genetic defect.  Albino individuals have inherited two recessive genes that result in an abnormality in the production of an enzyme called tyrosinase.   Tyrosinase is responsible for generating skin and eye pigments, called melanin, from the amino acid tyrosine.  Anything that reduces or eliminates the production of tyrosinase reduces or eliminates the production of the melanin pigments responsible for coloring hair, eyes, and skin.  As a result, albino individuals tend to be very pale with white hair and very pale blue eyes.  There is so little pigment in the eyes of some albino individuals that the retina shows through the iris, giving the eyes a reddish appearance.

Because they have reduced pigment in their eyes, albino individuals often have vision problems.  The iris of the eye is responsible for adjusting the amount of light that enters the eye, but it does so by blocking the light coming through the eye with melanin pigments.  Many albinos do not have enough pigment in their irises for them to regulate the light entering their eyes properly.  This can cause a severe sensitivity to light, scattering of the light entering the eye that results in reduced sharpness, or even light-induced damage to the retina.  It is quite possible that our pale deer cannot see very clearly, if at all.

Apart from their visual problems and a need for strong sun protection to prevent burns and skin cancers, albino humans tend to live fairly normal lives biologically speaking (though there is rampant discrimination against albino individuals in many cultures).  Other albino animals are less fortunate.  Prey species tend to blend in well with their environments, but albino individuals stand out.  This puts them at much greater risk of predation because they cannot hide well.  Many predators also rely on camouflage to hide them from prey as they approach.  Overall, albino animals in nature tend to have shorter life spans than other members of their species and many of them die young.  The deer visiting Prairie Ridge has antlers, which means he’s been pretty lucky so far.

There’s never any guarantee that you’ll see any particular animal at Prairie Ridge, but keep an eye out for the white White-tailed Deer on your next visit.  He’s been spotted several times, and you can’t miss him if he’s in the area.  If you do see him, he may get pretty close.  Please remember that this is a wild animal and keep your distance!  This will help keep you – and the white deer – safe while on the grounds.

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 Jan Weems)


Winterberry (What Time is it in Nature)

Museum Blogs - December 19, 2014 - 11:59am

Today’s What Time is it in Nature is brought to you by Terra Meares, citizen science volunteer and former 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.

The leaves have nearly all fallen here at Prairie Ridge and although winter is soon upon us, there is still much to see! Amongst the frosty backdrop of the prairie nothing stands out more than the festive scarlet red fruit of the Winterberry (Ilex verticillata).

Winterberry shrub and closeup of berries

Winterberry (also known as Black Alder, False Alder, Canada Holly, and Fever Bush) is a slow-growing holly that can reach 15 feet in height. The plant exhibits shiny, dark green, football-shaped leaves about 2-4 inches in length with serrated edges. After the leaves have emerged in the spring, very small greenish to creamy-white flowers will bloom between April and July. The leaves turn yellow in the fall, though this unique form of holly is deciduous and will lose it’s leaves by mid-October. When this occurs, the showy red berries stand out prominently among the bare branches. The small, round berries are about 1/4 inch in diameter, usually occur in pairs, and contain 3-5 small seeds. They start off green and mature to an orange or vibrant red in late August to early September, but will remain on the plant well into the winter. Like most hollies, Winterberry is dioecious, which means that there are separate male and female plants. In order to have successful pollination and bear fruit you must have at least one male plant for every three to five female plants. Male and female plants must be carefully paired up or there may be little to no fruit production.

Winterberry is native to eastern North America and parts of Canada. The plant does best in moist, acidic soils in full sun and can tolerate poor drainage. Ideal locations occur near swamps, streams, river banks, lakes, or ponds, though this plant can handle partial shade and dry, non-alkaline soils as well. The Winterberry has relatively few pests and only minor issues with leaf spots and powdery mildew. In their natural environment, the plants reproduce by seeds or suckers, but most cultivars are propagated by rooted stem cuttings and can be found in your local nursery. Just be sure to get both male and female plants if you want them to produce fruit!

Native Americans historically used Winterberry as a medicine (hence the common name Fever Bush) and the bark has been used to heal cuts and bruises, though Winterberry fruits are poisonous to humans. The berries are, however, as an essential winter food source for small mammals and nearly 50 documented species of birds, including Eastern Bluebirds, Wild Turkeys, and quail. Winterberry also provides nesting sites, cover for wildlife, nectar for insects, and acts as a larval host plant for the Henry’s Elfin Butterfly.

Even during the brisk days of winter, there is still plenty to see here at Prairie Ridge. During your next visit, bring a mug of hot chocolate or warm apple cider to enjoy while meandering through the arboretum.  You won’t want to miss the spectacular crimson fruit of the Winterberries and the plethora of birds they attract!

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)


Part II- Ten New Diamonds from NC

Museum Blogs - December 15, 2014 - 10:32am

Originally posted on Research & Collections:

This octahedral diamond cyrstal looks like it has been faceted. These are all growth textures on the triangular crystal faces. Also, this is my favorite picture.

This octahedral diamond cyrstal looks like it has been faceted. These are all growth textures on the triangular crystal faces. Also, this is my favorite picture.

One of the comments on the earlier blog post came from Richard Jacquot:

rick@wncrocks.com commented …In an article published with Ed Speer in Volume 1, Issue 2 of American Rockhound magazine in June, 2014, we discussed 15 diamonds that were found in Reedy Creek in Mecklenburg County. These diamonds were found by a gold prospector and sold to a reputable local mineral dealer. They were then sold to various collectors. This was around 1999. The diamonds averaged .5 carat and 1-2mm. The diamonds have been tested and there is no reason not to believe that the prospector found these, in fact, the story is very similar to this one. So what is the criteria for getting them authenticated?

To bring everyone else up…

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Seeds (What Time is it in Nature)

Museum Blogs - December 13, 2014 - 4:09pm

Most of the leaves have fallen from the Prairie Ridge trees at this point and have entered their comparatively dull, leafless stage for the winter. While you might not get to see many leaves on the trees for a while, there are still interesting things going on with a lot of the plants! Many trees produce their seeds in the summer and release them in the fall, so there are seeds everywhere. Looking for seeds can be a great way to see a lot of the interesting shapes and textures that allow our trees to reproduce. Today, let’s take a look at some of the many types of seeds you can find on the grounds!

There are several different styles of tree seeds in the world, but one of the styles that lots of people are familiar with are the samaras. You may have called these “helicopter seeds” or something similar at some point in your life. Trees in the maple group are the best known samara seed bearing trees, including this Box Elder:

Box elder seed

Samaras flutter down slowly from the trees when they fall off, spinning as they go. Winds can blow them a little way so that the trees can spread, but others fall near the parent tree. Many of these will eventually grow new trees where they fall.

Some seeds are kept safe inside a sort of protective case. You are probably familiar with at least one type of tree with this system, such as this pines:

Pine cone

Pine cones start off as compact, dense cones with the seeds developing safely inside. When the seeds have matured and are ready to germinate, the cones begin to expand and the cone scales spread apart, exposing the seeds in the center to the environment. The seeds either fall out of the cones or are moved around by animals, such as squirrels, that gather the seeds from the cones and bury them in other locations. However, pine trees aren’t the only types of trees that keep their seeds hidden inside a sort of case. You may be familiar with these:

sweetgum ball

Sweetgums develop many large green, spiky fruits in the summer and the seeds develop inside. In the fall, the fruits dry out and small holes appear along the surface that allow the seeds to fall from the pods. While you may have a hard time finding the actual seeds of the Sweetgum, you can certainly find a lot of the seed pods, the “gum balls,” along the Prairie Ridge Forest Trail.

Some seeds grow in very dense clusters that either open or break apart to release the individual seeds they contain. The Tulip Poplar has an interesting structure:

Tulip poplar seeds

The fruits grow high up in the trees in the summer in dense, compact clusters. Each fruit contains many seeds, packed together tightly within the fruit. When the seeds mature and the fruit begins to dry out, the seeds begin to spread apart, forming the sort of flower-shaped clusters you can see in the photo. The long, slender individual seeds (the “petals” in the photo above) eventually dislodged themselves from the base of the fruit and fall to the ground.

Many of the seeds we’ve looked at already fall from the tree and, if all goes well and the seed isn’t eaten by something, will grow where it falls. Other trees and shrubs depend on animals (often birds or mammals) to disperse their seeds so that the seeds don’t all grow in one place. Many of these trees offer the animals they depend on for dispersal a tasty treat, a fruit, in exchange for moving their seeds to another location. One example is this Viburnum species:

Viburnum berries

As the fruit passes through the animal’s digestive system, the edible parts are digested and absorbed by the animal and the inedible parts, including the seeds, are expelled in the animal’s droppings. Typically the seeds are moved some distance from the parent tree so that the tree or shrub is able to spread its offspring to new areas. There are lots of fruits still visible on the Prairie Ridge grounds, including American Beautyberry, American Holly, Poison Ivy, Persimmon, and the subject of next week’s What Time is it in Nature, Winterberry.

The Prairie Ridge Forest Trail is a great place to look for seeds at this time of year! You may see seeds on the black top along the paved portion of the trail, but if you take a moment to look you’ll see seeds littered everywhere under the trees. I encourage you to pick up a samara, toss it in the air, and watch it “helicopter” back down to the grounds or shake a few gum balls to see if there are any seeds still inside. Wander down to the shrubs near the bird feeders and you’ll see dozens of bird species feasting on Viburnum and American Beautyberry berries. You may even see a squirrel gathering seeds and burying them in the ground, saving them for later in the winter when other food sources become scarce. There are many interesting seed textures and shapes, so be sure to look out for some 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!

(Photo by Chris Goforth)


Giant Leopard Moth (What Time is it in Nature)

Museum Blogs - December 6, 2014 - 11:01pm

Fall is a great time to see all manner of fuzzy caterpillars!  Though there are a lot fewer out at Prairie Ridge this year compared to the last few years, there are still plenty out and about on the grounds.  We recently came across one of the largest of the fuzzy caterpillars, the Giant Leopard Moth.

Giant Leopard Moth Caterpillar

 

Giant Leopard Moths are found throughout most of the eastern US and southeastern Canada. The caterpillars are easy to distinguish from other caterpillars. They start off small with orange and dark brown bands along the length of the body and are covered in stiff black hairs called setae (pronounced SEE-tee). As they grow, the banding along the body disappears. Older caterpillars are huge, close to three inches long, and black with bright red intersegmental areas (the soft, stretchy areas between the hard plates that make up the exoskeleton). The entire body is covered in a dense layer of shiny black, thick, bristly setae.

Adult Giant Leopard Moths are also large (wingspans reach 3.6 inches) and are spectacular.  The thorax is bright white with black rings encircling iridescent blue spots, and the wings are bright white with black spots, either solid or hollow. The abdomen is typically covered by the wings, but is iridescent blue-black with orange markings when exposed. Overall, this is a showy species from start to finish!

The caterpillars of Giant Leopard Moths have a hugely varied diet and feed on a wide variety of herbaceous and woody plants. In North Carolina, they’re likely to feed on sunflowers, magnolias, cherries, willows, maples, dandelions, violets, and American Pokeweed, though they probably feed on many other species as well. They have a curious habit of feeding on one plant for a while and then moving to another plant, often a completely different species. However, they are not considered pests of any plant species, consuming only small amounts of many different plants.

Giant Leopard Moth caterpillars are thought to store the toxins they consume with some of their host plants, such as American Pokeweed, within their bodies as a defense against predators. This may be the reason behind the bright red markings in the larvae and the stark black, white, and orange markings of the adults. Adults are also known to excrete an acrid yellow fluid when disturbed. Unlike many other caterpillars belonging to the tiger moth family, Giant Leopard Moth caterpillars do not have stinging hairs, but they still use their hairs as a sort of defense. When disturbed, the caterpillars will curl up very tightly head to tail, hiding their soft undersides beneath their thick layer of bristles, and exposing the red markings along their bodies. Due to the way the bristles are oriented on their bodies, it is very difficult to grab a rolled up Giant Leopard Moth caterpillar to eat it.  The predator ends up pushing it away instead!

Like several other tiger moth species, the caterpillars of the Giant Leopard Moth overwinter as mature larvae and begin to search for winter shelters in the fall. The caterpillars are usually nocturnal, but they are often spotted in the fall crossing roads in daylight as they wander in search of a place to overwinter. In the spring, they will resume feeding briefly before pupating, metamorphosing into adults before beginning to search for mates. In the south, it is possible for this species to produce two generations a year, though in the northern parts of their range they produce only one.

This is a great time of year to look for Giant Leopard Moth caterpillars at Prairie Ridge! On your next visit, keep an eye out for large black caterpillars along the dirt road to the Outdoor Classroom and on the grass to either side. The caterpillars are out looking for places to overwinter, so visit soon for your best chance to see one!

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)


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