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Zombie Fish Invades Naturalist Center

July 28, 2014

Meet “George”, the Bowfin.  Bowfins are bony, freshwater fish found throughout most of the eastern United States.  Often called a prehistoric or primitive fish, Bowfins are the only living species of the Family Amiidae.  This ancient group of fishes lived millions of years ago and are represented in fossils found both in Europe and the United States.

This particular Bowfin has had an interesting afterlife.  George was well-preserved and stored in a glass jar in the Museum’s collection for a long time–just waiting for his chance to be noticed.  We were going through some old specimens with Gabriela Hogue, Collections Manager of Fishes when she saw George and suggested we show off this fish’s great skeletal system.  Instead of scales, the entire head of a Bowfin is covered with bony, plate-like armor.  Underneath the lower jaw is a unique, large bony plate called the gular plate.  And, don’t forget those rows of gnarly, sharp teeth!

George, the Bowfin, in the beetle tank.

George the Bowfin in the beetle tank. Photo by Cindy Lincoln.

Our collections staff is often faced with the grisly process of removing flesh from bones.  Luckily, there’s an insect perfectly designed for this task: the Dermestid Beetle.   You can learn more about these bone-cleaning beetles from a display in the Biodiversity lab on the second floor of the Nature Research Center.  The display features a tank where you can watch live beetles as they pick carcasses clean.  Our Bowfin, George, was placed in this tank and, in a little over a week, his skeleton was revealed.

Dermestid Beetle Tank in the Biodiversity Lab

Dermestid Beetle tank in the Biodiversity Lab. Photo by Cindy Lincoln.

Our summer intern, Missy Chernick, has taken on George as her project and we will soon have this Bowfin skeleton on display in the Naturalist Center.   You will be able to learn more about Bowfin biology and see photos of the entire process used to clean and preserve his skeleton.

George getting picked clean by beetles.

George getting picked clean by beetles. Photo by Cindy Lincoln.

Thanks to the following staff for help with this project: Steve Turner, Curator of the Naturalist Center; Gabriela Hogue, Collections Manager of Fishes; Ben Hess, Collections Manager of Mammals; Sara Webb and Mitchell Feldman, Interns in Mammal Collections.  Missy Chernick is finishing up her internship before returning to NC State University as an undergraduate in Wildlife Biology.


iLabs: Popcorn, Marathons, and the…Periodic Table of Elements?

July 28, 2014

It’s a rainy Saturday, you aren’t sure what to do with a day off, and they’re not doing an NCIS marathon on TV…Well, check this out instead!!

We’re going to be doing some chemistry classes this year in the Micro World iLab, and the Natural World iLab with Bob Alderink, and the Periodic Table will be popping up now and then.

Now DON’T start yawning.  The Periodic Table of Elements can be cool.  Yes, you heard me, COOL!

In case you doubt me, here’s a link to a YouTube series called The Periodic Table of Videos, done with staff at the University of Nottingham, that might just change your mind. And a thank you to Matthew Faerber of the Visual World Investigate Lab for tipping us off to these.

The mastermind behind these YouTube videos is Brady Haran, a BBC-trained videojournalist.  One of the main presenters is Professor Martyn Poliakoff, who looks like a slightly wild Einstein.

Here’s their 500th video:


We’ll be getting into a lot of things “chemistry” this year and proving to you that chemistry CAN be fun. (After all, we’re even going to do a Thursday night class this year on “The Chemistry of Twinkies!”)  Hence it might be fun to tap into the these as a way to get started.

So get some popcorn, bring this series up on your TV, sit back, and enjoy!





Bird Bill of Fare

July 25, 2014

by Julia Jacobs

Have you ever tried to eat soup with a fork or salad with a spoon? People have learned to use the utensil that works best for different foods they are eating: soup—spoon, salad—fork, and even fries—fingers. Birds do the same thing, only instead of using utensils they use their beaks.  Birds have very different types of bills depending on what food they primarily eat.  There are beaks for snatching bugs, spearing fish, probing flowers, cracking seeds and tearing meat.  All of these beaks have evolved to fit the birds’ diets perfectly.

Seed eaters and bug eaters have similar beaks. They are strong enough to crack seed shells, and thin enough to capture bugs from tight spaces. The size of the beak varies greatly among these birds, ranging from the small, dainty beak on this Eastern Towhee to enormous toucan beaks used for feasting on fruit and insects.

Eastern Towhee

Eastern Towhee. Photo by Julia Jacobs.

Fish eaters have two main strategies: some catch fish by spearing or catching them directly, and others scoop fish out of the water. Birds like pelicans dive into the ocean and scoop out the water holding the fish, then let the water drain and swallow the fish. Many ducks have ridges on their beaks that help hold the fish they catch and can prevent them from slipping free before they can swallow them. Birds like kingfishers catch their fish by spearing them.

Brown Pelican Eating Fish

Brown Pelican eating fish. Photo by Julia Jacobs.

There are also birds that have a beak like a straw, which helps them probe for food.  What they eat is different based on the species, but their long slender beaks are a giveaway as to their feeding strategy. Hummingbirds use their beaks to reach deep into flowers to get nectar. Ibis reach into the mud of marshes in search of crayfish and other crustaceans.

Hummingbird with Tongue Sticking Out

Hummingbird with tongue sticking out. Photo by Julia Jacobs.

Birds of prey like this Bald Eagle have another specialized beak. Their sharp, short, curved bill reflects their primary source of food — fish, small birds and mammals. These birds use both their strong beaks and their talons to catch and eat their food.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle. Photo by Julia Jacobs.

Each of these different beaks varies greatly in size, shape, and general function, but they all fit the dietary needs of the bird they belong to.  You can examine a variety of bird beaks up close in the Naturalist Center and even try your skill matching beaks to diet in our “Bird Bills & Diet” activity.

Julia Jacobs recently completed her internship in The Naturalist Center.  She is an undergraduate in the Natural Resources program at North Carolina State University.

iLabs: Fall Family Class “Teaser” for the Micro World

July 25, 2014

It’s that time of year in the Micro World iLab where we’re putting our schedule of upcoming family lab classes together.

To give you a “taste” of what’s coming, I’ve included some class information below, for the programs we’ll be doing in September-November.

There will be more topics coming for sure, such as:

  • Our 4-part Drug Development series.
  • Advanced Microbiology.
  • A new 2-part Immunology class series.
  • Organic Chemistry.
  • Proteomics and Genomics series.

In addition, we will be collaborating with Bob Alderink in the Natural World Investigate Lab, for a brand new Chemistry I series.

And there will be additional  “Science Thursdays”  classes coming, such as the chemistry of perfumes, and the science of Twinkies.

So be watching the Museum website  in late July and early August for postings on the new Programs and Events for this year, as well as the listings for  Science Thursdays .

In the meantime, since you took the time to visit our blog, here’s a “teaser” of what’s to come:

September 16 & 23, 2014, 10:00 – noon. Human Body Systems: What Happens Where? $ 35 per parent/child pair; $17 each additional child. 11 and older

Description: Week one will include using models and hands-on activities to explore five major human body systems (digestive, nervous, circulatory, excretory and respiratory) and learning how each system functions to maintain life. During the second class students will dissect a fetal pig, which has anatomic similarities to the human body, to explore these systems in greater detail.

October 7, 2014, 10:00 – noon. Travels Through Indigestion: The GI Tract. $20 parent/child pair; $10 each additional child. 11 and older

Description: What does a pancreas do? What is a “jejunum”? Where are they even found? Join us for a journey through one of the longest systems in the body, the digestive system, and learn what goes on “once you swallow those french fries.” Through the use of models, hands-on activities and a demo-dissection, you’ll learn how things work and where things happen once your dinner leaves your mouth.

October 4 & 25, 2014, 10:00 – noon. Beneath the Surface: Ecosystem of a Pond. $ 35 per parent/child pair; $17 each additional child. 10 and older

Description: This two-part hands-on class will delve into the functions of an ecosystem in nature, specifically focusing on a freshwater pond ecosystem. Students will set-up a project in the first class, as well as learn what goes on beneath the pond surface and who lives there. The following week, they will learn formal microscopy techniques, such as how to use a compound microscope and make a wet mount, in order to complete the activity and view pond cultures.

November 4, 11, & 18, 2014, 10:00 – noon. Grow It, Stain It, Identify It: Cell Biotech. $ 50 per parent/child pair; $25 each additional child. 12 and older.

Description: This is a 3-week series designed to introduce the student to currently-used techniques in Cell Biology. We will grow insect cell cultures, examine them for development, learn about the many different types of cells in our bodies, and how various staining techniques help to distinguish cell features. In addition the students will get an introduction to the most necessary tool in this field—sterile technique—by learning to work in a biosafety hood. Other lab techniques, such as cell counts, will also be performed.

November 1, 2014, 10:00 – noon. Grandparent/Grandchild Day: Spy Chemistry in the American Revolution. $20 grandparent/grandchild pair; $10 each additional person. 9 and older. (And parents are welcome too!)

Description: During the American Revolution, both sides desperately needed fast and accurate intelligence about what the other army was doing. Even when spies discovered important information, the biggest problem was how to get it to their commanders without being caught. Enter the world of historical espionage and learn from an actual event how Colonial spies used the principles of chemistry to ensure their messages got safely to the intended party.


Internship Opportunities at the VisLab!

July 23, 2014

Learn about the VisLab and its’ internship/volunteer opportunities at!

vislab internship poster

VisLab Internship poster

Did you say proboscis?

July 22, 2014

By Kate Davison, Living Conservatory Specialist. The Living Conservatory is an immersive exhibit similar to a Central American dry tropical forest. The permanent exhibit features live turtles, snakes, butterflies and even a two-toed sloth.


Moths, and butterflies, are both part of the Order Lepidoptera, being scaled, flying insects. Moths comprise roughly 90% of the known species of Lepidoptera, with multiple clades, superfamilies, and families of moths, while butterflies are only about 10% and all are contained within a single Superfamily the Papilionoidea. With some 160,000 moth species it’s no surprise that some moths are more closely related to butterflies than they are to other moths.

Vintage Field Guide of Lepidoptera

Vintage Field Guide of Lepidoptera.

There are several commonly “known” ways to differentiate between moths and butterflies, however there are exceptions to every single method. Many butterflies are brown, such as owl butterflies, and many moths fly during the day, for example urania moths. And the world is rife with examples of moths that typically land with their wings closed, and butterflies who land with their wings open. Really moths and butterflies are much more similar than they are different.

However… we can talk about something nearly everyone likes to do – eat.

Let’s first make it clear that not all Lepidoptera feed as adults. Many Lepidoptera, only feed as larva, the stage also known as the caterpillar. When Lepidoptera do feed as adults they use a mouthpart known as a proboscis. This is a very interesting feeding structure worth learning more about so you can impress all your friends with your intricate knowledge of the lives of, some, Lepidoptera. The adult Lepidoptera who do not feed either have no proboscis or a severely underdeveloped proboscis.

SEM microphoto of the head of a snout moth – note the "snout" (labial palps) extending to the upper left above the proboscis

SEM microphoto of the head of a snout moth – note the “snout” (labial palps) extending to the upper left above the proboscis.

The proboscis is an intricate structure made of two interlocking modified galeae. A galea is a mouthpart in the maxilla of a chewing insect, which typically assists in guiding food into the mouth and cleaning the front of the insect. It was named galea because of the resemblance to a Roman helmet of the same name. In Lepidoptera the galeae have been elongated but the function is still to guide food. The space made between the interlocking galeae is known as the food groove, or food canal. When not in use, the proboscis is coiled close to the head, kept in place by small interlocking parts on the outside of the galeal wall.

Convolvulus Hawk-moth, Agrius convolvuli, with stretched proboscis

Convolvulus Hawk-moth, Agrius convolvuli, with stretched proboscis.

During uncoiling there is an increase in hemolymph pressure through the proboscis, and coiling is accomplished by muscles in outer walls of the galeae; the proboscis in its relaxed state will be coiled. Liquid is harvested from flowers, fruit, and other food sources using a vacuum, drawing the liquid up the proboscis into a reservoir bulb in the head of the Lepidoptera, and then allowing the food to flow into the stomach once the entrance to the proboscis is blocked off and the vacuum released. Not all proboscises are the same either — length, color, and sensilla (sensory organ) number and placement can vary depending on species, and vary to some extent depending on food source.

The proboscis is an intricate, fascinating structure, which members of the Order Lepidoptera use to feed.

Butterfly proboscis in action!

Butterfly proboscis in action!

Want to see a proboscis in action?

Visit the Museum’s Living Conservatory where live butterflies accompany you as you explore. Filled with tropical plants and animals, the Conservatory recreates the sights, sounds and smells of a dry tropical forest.

iLabs: The Museum’s Thursday Night Excitement!

July 22, 2014

Nothing to do on a Thursday night? Not any more!  Come down to the NC Museum of Natural Sciences and have a GREAT time because every Thursday is SCIENCE THURSDAY

And it’s Science Thursday ALL OVER the Nature Research Center. There are classes, there are the Science Cafes, Scavenger Hunts, Robot Races, and Game Nights, just to name a few!!

For example:

Want to have some fun with your kids and your parents at the same time?

Come to our Science of Bread-making Class on Thursday Aug 7. You even get to leave with your ready-to-bake bread dough!

Here’s a video clip of the last one, and it was a multi-generation family moment for some:

Or make candles, find out more about edible mushrooms, or build your own robot and race it around the 3rd floor exhibit area:  

How about Throw-Back-Thursday in a new way?

The 3rd Thursday evening of every month is GAME NIGHT in the Micro World iLab! 

VIDEO GAMES ARE BANNED!!! It’s STRICTLY board games and puzzles.

And it seems you might want to get there right at 6pm when we open (we do this from 6-8:30pm) to claim your table.  The first night we did this we had 43 people: toddlers and college students, families, couples and anyone else who wandered by.

This past Thursday the 17th, we had 86—people told us “the word was out” about Game Nightand many said they’d be back.

You can relive your childhood with your kids playing such classics as:

There are new twists on classics:

For little ones there’s Cootie, Candyland, FrogHoppers, puzzles, and more.

And you don’t want to miss out on some NEW CLASSICS IN-THE-MAKING such as:

(And many of these are available in our Museum Stores, and if they aren’t, ask them to get them.)

Here’s a clip of last week’s game night:

We’ll be doing this again on August 21 and September 18.

And don’t let the beginning of school stop you from coming!  Everyone needs a night off to relax and have some family bonding time!

In addition to all of this there are popular regular events like:

  • “SCAVENGER HUNTS” where you and your family/team scour the Museum to find answers to questions and compete for a prize.
  • And there’s the solid long-time winner: SCIENCE CAFESEvery week there is a new and unusual speaker on everything from cheese-making to linguistics.  Come have dinner and relax while the speaker shares some insights about what they do, then spend the rest of the time in an active Question and Answer session.
  • Trivia Buff? The first Thursday of every  month is SCIENCE TRIVIA! Get your group together and come compete for prizes and bragging rights as to who knows the most science!

So there are no excuses anymore for nothing to do on a  Thursday night!

Come join us and even if you just want to sit back and watch it all, there’s plenty of room!

Check out Science Thursdays at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences!

For more information contact Debbie Huston, scheduling coordinator, at 919.707.9840.

Science Thursday programming is subject to change.


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