What’s THAT? Ask a Naturalist!

For immediate release ‐ June 30, 2020

Contact: Jessica Wackes, 919.707.9850. Images available upon request

What Kind of Worm is This?

A strange worm wiggles on a coconut's husk.

We recently received a video taken along the beach at Fort Macon State Park that led us on an interesting journey into the world of polychaete worms. “What is that brown, prickly worm thing?” the sender asked. After puzzling over an image that to us looked like a fat, coffee bean-colored caterpillar wrapped around a gooseneck barnacle on a coconut, we knew some expert consultation was needed. Our Curator, Dr. Bronwyn Williams, and Collections Manager, Megan McCuller, from the Museum’s Non-molluscan Invertebrate Unit identified it as a polychaete worm. Further confirmation came from Dr. Geoff Read, a marine biologist and polychaete expert based in New Zealand, who offered the identification of Amphinome rostrata or marine bristle worm. This particular bristle worm species preys upon goose barnacles often attached to drift objects (in this case, a coconut, the most common ocean drift fruit) throughout tropical oceans worldwide. Our coconut-riding bristle worm may have gotten a little too much sun exposure resulting in its abnormal color.

A closeup of the worm's under side. Photo credit to Dr. Bronwyn Williams

A closeup of the worm's top side. Photo credit to Dr. Bronwyn Williams

Polychaetes are a large, highly diverse class within phylum Annelida with approximately 10,000 mostly marine species. Along with a head and tail, these worms are characterized by segmented bodies with rows of spiny hairs or bristles along each side (polychaete means “many hairs”). The bristles are attached to tiny leg-like appendages called parapodia. Each body segment contains one pair of parapodia as beautifully illustrated in the photographs of a preserved marine bristle worm from the Museum’s Non-molluscan Invertebrate Collection. The shape of the parapodia vary depending on the species and whether the worm is a crawler, swimmer or burrower. For example, sedentary feather duster worms live in tubes buried in sand or mud; their specialized parapodia are used to move them up the tube to filter feed or down to hide from predators. The types of bristles found on polychaete species also vary and may protect the worm from predators. The most extreme example is the fireworm whose bristles contain a mild neurotoxin that can cause intense pain if one of the bristles penetrates your skin.

Let me introduce you to a few of the most bizarre polychaetes. First up, the sand striker worm. Reaching up to 10 feet in length, these worms are stealth predators, concealing themselves under the ocean floor then shooting out and snatching unsuspecting prey with scissor-like jaws. Next, meet the Pompeii worm, a deep sea polychaete that lives in Pacific Ocean hydrothermal vents and tolerates temperatures in excess of 140 degrees F while bathing in toxic heavy metals and sulfides. Finally, there are the Osedax or zombie worms that feast on the bones of whale carcasses that sink to the ocean bottom; the scientific name of one species, Osedax mucofloris, literally means “bone-eating snot flower”.

Now that you have learned about bristle worms and are ready to celebrate their wonderful weirdness, you are in luck. July 1st is INTERNATIONAL POLYCHAETE DAY! This day was set aside to recognize the late Dr. Kristian Fauchald, a research zoologist who focused on polychaetes, naming almost 300 species during his tenure at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, from 1979 until his death in 2015.

Do you have a question about a plant, animal or natural object? Be sure to Ask a Naturalist!

by Cindy Lincoln, Naturalist Center Coordinator

Black Widow Spiders

A female black widow.
An image submitted through the Ask a Naturalist Form.

In 2011, I moved to the Southeast to begin work as a wildlife biologist. I quickly got in the habit of shaking out my boots to reduce my chances of stepping on any spiders that might be hiding inside. While in Georgia, I had plenty of interactions with alligators, snakes and biting insects, but I never found a spider hanging out in my boots. It wasn’t until I relocated to North Carolina that I found a venomous spider in one of my shoes. Before putting them on, I shook out a pair of rain boots and out fell a beautiful Southern Black Widow Spider. She fell to the ground motionless. I thought she was dead, so I swept her out of the garage and onto the driveway. Only later did I learn that when disturbed a Black Widow may play dead. In this case, I had likely scared her as much as she had startled me and she decided to feign her death.

There are five species of Widow Spiders (Latrodectus spp.) in the United States. The two that are most commonly found in North Carolina are the Northern Black Widow (Latrodectus variolus) and the Southern Black Widow (Latrodectus mactans). The Brown Widow (Latrodectus geometricus) is believed to be native to Africa but was introduced into the United States. It is currently uncommon in North Carolina.

Many people can easily identify a Black Widow Spider. Adult females (pictured below) are shiny black with a round body. They are notorious for the red hourglass mark on the underside of their abdomen. Identifying immature and male widows can be much more challenging, such as this young spider submitted to us via our Ask a Naturalist form. Young females lack an hourglass but may have orangish-red spots on their abdomen. They change into the recognizable Black Widow Spider with each successive molt of their exoskeleton.

A female black widow.

Males (pictured below) are smaller than females and have longer legs relative to their body. Males may also have red, white or orange markings on their abdomens.A male black widow.

Black Widow Spiders typically live in dark, sheltered spots close to the ground such as under logs, in crevices, in garages and in barns. At times, these spiders can even be found in shoes or clothing, such as in my experience. In these places they create strong webs without a distinguishable pattern and feed on insects and other small invertebrates. Once a prey item is entangled, the spider bites into it and injects digestive enzymes. The prey breaks down and the spider sucks up the liquified food. The web also plays an important part in reproduction. A male Black Widow Spider vibrates the web to make sure he has found a female of the correct species and to make the female more receptive to mating. Contrary to their name, female Black Widows do not always eat their mates. In fact, in some species of widows this behavior has never been seen in the wild. Eggs are laid and covered with silk until they are completely covered in a beige sac. The eggs incubate for about one month until the spiders hatch. Most spiderlings will die from cannibalism. If they make it, females survive for 1.5 years on average and males for around two to five months.

On occasion, Black Widows may bite humans in an act of self-defense. Only adult females can inflict a painful bite to humans. Immature spiders and males are harmless to humans. Most bites occur when the spider is pressed against human skin, such as when putting on gloves or shoes containing a spider. Their venom is neurotoxic and causes a multitude of symptoms collectively known as latrodectism. Symptoms may include localized swelling, muscle pain, abdominal cramping and/or impaired breathing. A Black Widow Spider bite is rarely fatal. The impacts are largely dependent on the age and health of the person who was bitten.

Of course, it’s best to take precautions and avoid spider bites altogether. Get in the habit of shaking out shoes and work gloves, especially those that have been stored in a garage or shed. Pay extra attention when working in areas where Black Widow Spiders may be established. If bitten you should contact your doctor or a poison control center immediately. The Poison Control hotline can be reached anywhere in the United States by calling 1.800.222.1222.

by Greg Skupien, Curator of the Naturalist Center

Do you know what kind of flower this is?

Someone holds the leaf of a vine. A bell-shaped flower is growing from it.
Clematis crispa. Photo submitted to Ask a Naturalist

For gardeners, the name “clematis” evokes images of a vine with large, spectacular pink, purple or white blooms coiling around a mailbox or spiraling up a trellis. The Clematis genus contains around 300 species and thousands of cultivars. A cultivar is a plant variety that is produced through breeding or selection to have distinct characteristics. The origin of these large-flowered clematis cultivars (some with blooms up to 10 inches in diameter!) began through crossing or hybridizing Clematis species from China and Japan; some of the earliest cultivars were introduced in the 1800s. The astonishing thing about Clematis flowers is that they are “apetalus” meaning no petals—their color is provided by the sepals and stamens.

But what about native Clematis species that haven’t been tinkered with by humans? Clematis species can be found growing in diverse habitats ranging from alpine meadows to tropical rain forests and occur in both northern and southern hemispheres. North Carolina has a number of native species such as Clematis crispa shown in this photo taken in Bladen County and submitted to Ask a Naturalist. Also known as Swamp Leather Flower, Clematis crispa is a perennial vine that grows in marshes, swamps, floodplains and other wet areas. In contrast to the flamboyant blossoms of the Clematis hybrids, Swamp Leather Flower sparingly produces small, delicate, bell-shaped blooms from April to July. The sepals of these blooms can be blue, pink, violet or white and have “crispate” margins — another botanical term meaning wavy or curly edges. In the fall, flowers turn into crazy, fluffy-looking fruits (seed heads), each seed having a long, wavy, feathery tail. The leaves, flowers and fruits of Swamp Leather Flower provide food for wildlife including insects (such as caterpillars, butterflies and bees) as well as birds (such as hummingbirds) and this plant is listed on Audubon’s 700 Bird-friendly Native Plants for North Carolina.

A pink flower with 8 petals.
Clematis hybrid. Photo by Cindy Lincoln

Before you run out to purchase and plant Swamp Leather Flowers or other Clematis in your yard, there are a few important things to keep in mind. Swamp Leather Flower requires a very specialized habitat to do well and needs consistently moist soil which may be difficult to duplicate in an average landscape. There are some Clematis species like Clematis virginiana (native to eastern North America) and Clematis terniflora (non-native) that produce masses of lovely, fragrant blooms, but are both weedy and highly invasive. Finally, leaves and sap of all Clematis are toxic to dogs, cats and humans. Even so, there are many compelling reasons to use this vine in your garden and thousands of Clematis to choose from! Do you have a question about a plant, animal or natural object? Be sure to Ask a Naturalist!

by Cindy Lincoln, Naturalist Center Coordinator


Hawks at Your Bird Feeder

A red-tailed hawk sits on a fence.

Backyard birding is a wildly popular hobby in the United States. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that more than 45 million Americans watch birds around their home or in other locations. Each February, the Audubon Society takes advantage of these backyard birders and encourages people to take as little as 15 minutes to count and report their bird sightings during the Great Backyard Bird Count. This year, over 250,000 people participated across the globe and documented close to 7,000 species of bird. The most commonly reported species was the Northern Cardinal. Blue Jays, Doves, Finches, Juncos and Woodpeckers followed close behind.

Being a backyard birder myself, it’s always a great joy to watch this familiar cast of characters coming and going at my bird feeders. However, it’s particularly exciting when a large bird of prey makes a visit to the backyard. Recently, I briefly encountered a hawk in the yard as I ate dinner outside. To my wife’s displeasure, I interrupted her mid-sentence to exclaim in excitement as the hawk zoomed past in pursuit of a smaller bird. That hawk was likely a Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii). The Cooper’s Hawk, and the similar-looking Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus), are more commonly seen in backyards than other birds of prey. They are skillful flyers, navigating forest canopies to catch and eat small birds such as the ones that gather at bird feeders.

It’s clear that other people share a fascination for large birds of prey. The Museum frequently receives requests to identify hawks and other birds of prey. A recent “Ask a Naturalist” submission of a large hawk perched on someone’s porch came to us all the way from Kansas. The hawk in question was identified as a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), one of the most common hawks in North America. The Red-tailed Hawk is a large bird with a wingspan up to 52 inches and weight around 3 pounds. The species is found across the United States and Canada south into Mexico and Central America. Although they are widespread, Red-tailed Hawks are uncommonly found in backyards (unless you have a large yard). They are more typically found soaring above open fields in search of food. Red-tailed Hawks primarily eat small rodents such as mice, rabbits and squirrels. They may also consume birds, snakes and carrion. Red-tailed Hawks are also frequently seen perched atop trees or telephone poles.

Like many others, I find backyard birdwatching to be an enjoyable hobby. It wasn’t until recently that I began keeping track of the species that visit my yard. I now submit these observations to websites like iNaturalist and eBird in hopes that they may be of scientific value. If you’re a backyard birdwatcher, consider submitting your observations to one of these sites and be sure to make plans to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count next February. If you need help identifying a backyard bird, please reach out to us at Ask a Naturalist.

by Greg Skupien, Curator of the Naturalist Center


Fossil Shark Teeth!

A small black tooth-looking item sits on a wooden board.
Photo submitted to Ask a Naturalist.

Normally, with warmer weather and vacationers heading to the North Carolina coast, we see an increase in the number of requests to identify fossil shark teeth. This fossil Megalodon tooth, submitted to Ask a Naturalist, was found along Wrightsville Beach near Wilmington. A larger, more complete Megalodon tooth measuring over 5.5 inches long was discovered last summer at Ocean Isle Beach; both beaches are popular tourist destinations. Many agree that Topsail Island offers the best beaches to find fossil shark teeth, although beach renourishment projects occurring regularly along our coast can affect beachcombing success. Searching at low tide or after storms usually increase your odds of finding interesting fossils.

Identifying the species of shark tooth can be challenging even for a knowledgeable collector. Fossil shark teeth, such as the one in the photo, are frequently broken or worn by constant tumbling in the surf. Within a single species of shark, teeth vary depending on jaw location, whether the tooth came from an adult or baby shark or from a female or male shark. Numerous ancient shark species existed during the Miocene epoch (24–5.3 million years ago) and fossil shark teeth from this geologic time period are commonly found along NC beaches.

This is partially due to the constant action of waves naturally exposing what has been buried deep underground. To understand and visualize how the Atlantic coastline has changed over millions of years, I recommend visiting paleoportal.org. This website, funded by the National Science Foundation, has an interactive map that allows you to view fossil formation across North Carolina (and other states) during geologic time periods spanning many millions of years.

A large black tooth sits in a glass case.
Fossil Megalodon Tooth from Naturalist Center Collection.

We always enlist the help of one of the Museum’s expert paleontologists when answering any fossil question. For a beginner, consider joining a fossil club (NC Fossil club is a great one) or participate in a Citizen Science project like Shark Tooth Forensics. Finding a complete Megalodon tooth is very rare. The color of these fossil teeth, frequently black, depends on the conditions and minerals present when the tooth became fossilized. The massive size of Megalodon teeth has been used to estimate the body length of this now (definitely!) extinct shark at over 50 feet long, making Megalodon one of the largest carnivores to have ever lived! Regardless of size, condition or species, finding and holding a fossil tooth that is many millions of years old can be the thrill of a lifetime!

By Cindy Lincoln, Naturalist Center Coordinator


Copperhead? Guess Again.

A submitted photo of a ratsnake. A submitted photo of a ratsnake.

“What type of snake is this?” and “Is this a Copperhead?” are two of the more common questions we receive through “Ask a Naturalist.” As warmer weather sets in and snakes become more active these questions will only increase in frequency. Understandably, people are concerned that there may be a venomous snake living in or around their property. Fortunately, it is often a case of mistaken identity.

A copperhead lies in the brush. This is a Copperhead.

One of the species most commonly mistaken for a venomous snake is the Eastern Ratsnake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis). The Eastern Ratsnake is a harmless (i.e. nonvenomous) species that does well in and around human dwellings. As such, they are the most commonly encountered large snake in North Carolina. On average, an adult Eastern Ratsnake can reach 3 to 6 feet in total length. They are skilled climbers and can be found scaling trees in search of prey or a place to bask in the sunlight. The Eastern Ratsnake primarily eats small rodents and birds, but may also consume other reptiles and amphibians. They are sometimes referred to as “Chicken Snakes” because they may raid chicken coops to eat the eggs.

In North Carolina, female Eastern Ratsnakes lay 5–28 eggs in the summer and the babies hatch from August to October. Young snakes are patterned with dark brown or black patches on a lighter gray background. It is in this early life stage that the Eastern Ratsnake is most often confused for the venomous Copperhead. In contrast, the Copperhead has dark brown hourglass markings on a light brown background. When viewed from the side the Copperhead’s pattern may resemble a Hershey’s Kiss. A Copperhead’s color may vary and appear more reddish orange, but their distinctive pattern remains.

Eastern Ratsnakes vary more widely in color pattern. As they grow older, Eastern Ratsnakes living in the mountains and Piedmont will often lose their juvenile patterning and become solid black. For this reason, people often refer to this species as the “Black Snake.” In the Coastal Plain, adults are often yellow with dark stripes.

Due to their color variability, Eastern Ratsnakes may be difficult to identify. When in doubt, ask an expert for help. If you find a snake and don’t know what it is, keep a safe distance. Never harass any snake. Don’t try to pick it up or kill it. If you can, safely take a photo and submit it to “Ask a Naturalist.” We’ll be happy to help identify the snake for you.

by Greg Skupien, Curator of the Naturalist Center

Baby Orb-Weaver Spiders!

When a Gaston County school teacher noticed this mass of wriggling, tiny, yellow dots on a dried- up leaf in his backyard, he began to investigate. These moving dots looked a lot like itty-bitty spiders! But what kind of spider? Using the excellent photos and video he submitted to Ask a Naturalist, we consulted with Museum entomologist, Dr. Colin Brammer, who determined that these spiderlings (technical term for immature spiders) are the offspring of an Orb-weaver spider. All spiders mature in three stages: egg, spiderling and adult. Spiderlings look just like the adult spider but are much smaller (roughly the size of a corn kernel) making it very difficult to identify the type of Orb-Weaver spider from photos alone. As each spiderling grows, it will repeat a process of shedding its exoskeleton (molting) several times before reaching adult size.

A cluster of tiny spiders in a web.

All Orb-weaver spiders should be a welcome addition to your garden or landscape because they control many common insect pests that feed on plants. Spiders in this group build the storybook, circular spider webs that are frequently seen around homes and in gardens or natural areas. There are many different species of Orb-Weaver spiders — the most familiar may be the Black and Yellow Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia). This somewhat intimidating, but harmless spider spins a web with a prominent zig-zag band of white silk (called a stabilimentum) at the very center. The stabilimentum may function to attract insects or keep birds from flying into the web.

A closeup of the baby spiders.

Spiders can produce up to seven distinct silk types needed for various tasks such as web-building, wrapping prey, creating areas to hide, covering egg cases and even locomotion. When spiderlings are at the right stage and environmental conditions are favorable, they produce fine silk threads (called gossamer) and become airborne through a mode of aerial dispersal called “ballooning.” Dispersal is critical to avoid being eaten by their hungry spiderling siblings. Some of these ballooning spiderlings may travel long distances, but all will hopefully land where food and shelter are available increasing their odds of survival to adulthood. You may be delighted (or disappointed if your worst nightmare is thousands of flying tiny spiders!) to learn that large numbers of spiderlings can sometimes balloon simultaneously resulting in a lovely carpet of silk covering shrubs or fields.

by Cindy Lincoln, Naturalist Center Coordinator

The History of the Hammerhead Flatworm

Every year we receive several Ask a Naturalist requests to identify a long, slimy worm with a wide head. At first glance these worms are noticeably different from anything in our area. The appropriately named, Hammerhead Flatworm (Bipalium kewense), is an invasive species of land planarian native to Southeast Asia. The Hammerhead Flatworm can be identified by its half-moon shaped head, pale yellow-brown color and dark stripes running along the length of the body. The largest individuals can reach up to one foot in length.

A black worm lays on a table.

The Hammerhead Flatworm first arrived in the USA in the early 1900s through the commercial trade of horticultural plants. Once introduced into a suitable environment the flatworms can spread rapidly. Reproduction occurs primarily through fragmentation. The tip near the tail attaches to the ground and begins to separate from the “parent.” With a little effort, the pieces pull apart and one flatworm becomes two. The tip that separates is immediately active and within 7 to 10 days a head begins to form.

Hammerhead Flatworms are considered invasive because they feed on earthworms, insect larvae, and other invertebrates. They excrete a slimy substance that allows them to trap their prey. Hammerhead Flatworms can be found hunting in dark, moist areas. They are often encountered when folks turn over boards, logs, rocks, or some other type of cover.

If handled, they pose no threat to humans. Although it’s always a good idea to wash your hands after handling anything wild. Given that they are a non-native invasive species some people decide to manage (i.e. kill) them by applying salt, vinegar, or citrus oil individually. There is no form of widespread control.

by Greg Skupien, Curator of the Naturalist Center

Is That a Snake? Guess Again!

A glass lizard slithers on brick steps.

A submission to our Ask a Naturalist specimen identification form resulted in the identification of a glass lizard! Glass lizards are long, slender, legless lizards that resemble snakes. They get their name from their tendency to thrash and break off their tail when restrained by a predator (or curious human). Unlike snakes, glass lizards don’t have flexible jaws. As such, they eat smaller prey items such as insects and other invertebrates. Glass lizards also differ from snakes in that they have external ear openings and moveable eyelids.

Another angle of the lizard.

There are three species of glass lizard native to North Carolina. One such species, the Eastern Glass Lizard (Ophisaurus ventralis), typically lives in sandy habitats in the Coastal Plain of North Carolina. In July 2019, we received an “Ask a Naturalist” question from a family who found an Eastern Glass Lizard on the steps of their home in Wake Forest. At the time, there were only two other records of this species from Wake County: one was found along Crabtree Creek on June 25, 1970 and the other was found in North Raleigh on June 2, 1984. These sightings were thought to be animals that were accidentally introduced from shipments of pine straw from the coast.

Could the 2019 observation in Wake Forest be another accidental introduction? The homeowners’ association uses pine straw for the landscaping around the homes. A naturally occurring population is always a possibility. The next-nearest record of an Eastern Glass Lizard is from Nash County which isn’t too far east. Either way, this encounter remains a noteworthy sighting and has been recorded in the Museum’s files.

by Greg Skupien, Curator of the Naturalist Center

Identifying a Buckeye

A butterfly rests on a branch.

A recent question to our Ask a Naturalist specimen identification form started with this photo! We knew this had to be a buckeye because of the recognizable compound leaves each composed of five leaflets that spread out like a fan. Initially, we thought this was a Yellow Buckeye, Aesculus flava. Yellow Buckeye is a large, deciduous tree found growing in both the Piedmont and mountains of North Carolina. Typically, these trees top out at around 80 feet, but the state champion Yellow Buckeye growing in Jackson County is a whopping 139 feet tall!

But the tree in the photo could also be a Painted Buckeye, Aesculus sylvatica. Painted Buckeyes are much smaller, more shrub-like trees that only reach 10–20 feet in height. Yellow Buckeyes and Painted Buckeyes produce similar showy, upright clusters of tubular flowers that are often in shades of yellow like the blooms in the photo above. Both types of buckeyes flower from April to May in North Carolina.

So, in order to proceed with our identification, we needed more information. We asked: “What type of habitat was the tree in growing in?” “How large was the tree?” and “Can you send more photos?!”

This is the typical process for solving our Ask a Naturalist queries and often requires some serious “sleuthing” in addition to sharing submitted questions and photos with Museum experts as well as scientists and naturalists from across the State.

The follow-up photo (below) along with more details about location told us that this much shorter tree had to be Aesculus sylvatica. Painted Buckeyes prefer to grow in moist, nutrient-rich soils like those found in bottomlands and stream banks —exactly the habitat where this tree was growing.

Buckeyes get their name from the shiny, hard seeds that are released from leathery, outer husks each fall. Each smooth, dark brown seed has a pale scar that some believe looks like the eye of a male deer or “buck.” Some people carry buckeye seeds as good-luck — the origins of this tradition aren’t known but may date back to the early 19th century when chestnuts (closely resembling buckeyes) were thought to possess special, curative powers. But, beware! Buckeye seeds, along with the leaves, are highly toxic to humans!

Do you have a question about a plant, animal or natural object? Be sure to Ask a Naturalist!

by Cindy Lincoln, Naturalist Center Coordinator

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