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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.

iLabs: Last Friday’s Question of the Day Revisited

July 20, 2014

Last week I posted this picture, and asked, “How did we use all of these things in the Micro World iLab?”

Micro lab classroom sign with motor oil, Twinkies, grass, and spectrophotometer

Micro World iLab Sign Hints at “Strange Connections”

So for today, let’s talk  motor oil.

This past May and June on the first Thursdays of those months,  I taught a class entitled “Pollution, Bioremediation, and Toxicology.” 

I framed the class with the story of the Naugatuck River in Connecticut, where I grew  up.  We looked at its  history of terrible pollution due to the century or so of industrial waste and sewage being dumped in it—as well as its journey back to life, a journey not just sought by but demanded by the local population, and their grassroots efforts to clean it up and make the local municipalities and industries take action.

When I was in elementary school we would walk over the bridge for the Naugatuck and guess what color it would be that day–the local woolen mill up-river would dump its excess dyes into the water. Some days it was purple, some yellow, some red, other days green.

Downstream a number of metal, brass and rubber companies dumped toxic chemicals directely into the water. An often repeated statement was that if you fell into the Naugatuck, you didn’t drown, you “dissolved.”  The river was once so polluted it actually caught fire.

The resurrection of that river is also the story of the birth of the EPA and the Clean Water Act, but even more so,  the story of what is possible when the average citizens demand change and take action.

As part of the class we viewed video footage of the river then and now, and used the river’s story as a springboard to an overview of the toxicity of pollution and how such an environmental problem can affect the human body.

Lastly, we tackled the question, ‘So now that it’s a mess, how do we fix it?’

Bioremediation, which is the use of living organisms to clean up pollution, is a popular topic these days.  In the wake of oil spills, we often hear about clean-up efforts that use living organisms like bacteria to break down the oil. But just because bacteria CAN break down oil, does it solve the problem?  Is this a quick process that can clean up a mess overnight?

In our class we used a science kit that included bacteria that are supposed to eat up/break down the oil. We set up flasks with olive oil, canola oil, and motor oil and added the bacteria, which we’d already started growing so they were robust and ready to attack the oil. 

We let the cultures go for a solid month, expecting to see oil gone or at least diminished.  Instead,  the bacteria had barely made a dent in the oils.

The point we emphasized with the students is that while bacteria might be able to break down some oil, it is not fast, not always that effective, and has its own problems.

Research now is looking at fungi as a possibly better solution to the oil cleanup problem. The use of fungi for environmental cleanup is called “mycoremediation” and it is attracting attention as a possibly quicker way to achieve results. One particular proponent of this approach is Paul Stamets, who has been working to promote this method. 

I’m talking to a researcher in Washington state right now about how to set up an in-lab exhibit that mirrors the use of fungi this way, such as in NYC to clean up a polluted branch of the East River and also some oil-contaminated soil near a fuel depot. We will be working with Bob Alderink in the Natural World iLab as he expands his exhibit on bioremediation (especially using duckweed) to include fungi.

So regarding the picture of Motor Oil, now you know.  Coming up in the next week or so will be the connection between grass and a spectrophotometer, and of course, how Twinkies end up in a lab!

iLabs: PANDEMIC!!!! (The class)

July 18, 2014

This past week we hosted the CSI Epidemic summer camp group in the Micro World Investigate Lab on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, and Walt Gurley hosted them once on Friday in the Visual World Investigate Lab. I taught the general introduction to epidemiology on Tuesday, and Walt ended the week this morning with a class that used GIS technology to trace an epidemic back to its source.

But Wednesday was special.  Wednesday’s class was created and led by one of our summer interns, Megan Polzin.  She offered to write a series of posts about her experience. So without further delay, here is her first installment about her creation of “Day 2′s Lab.”

iLabs: Teaching Middle School Students About Pandemics by Megan Polzin

When I first began my job as an intern at the Micro World Investigate Lab, I knew that I would need to complete a project over the course of the summer. I was very indecisive about my project until Deb Bailey (room co-coordinator), knowing I was most interested in pursuing pathology, gave me the option of creating a class about pandemics aimed at middle school students.

With the goal of the class being to introduce epidemiology on global scale in a fun and creative way, the first challenge I faced was utilizing the 2-hour allotted time span while still keeping the students interested. Along with a brief presentation giving some basic information about pandemics, Deb had the idea of playing a game appropriately titled, “Pandemic.”

Pandemic is a collaborative game in which all players have to work together to develop the cures to four pandemics, before time runs out and the diseases win. In essence, the players either lose together or win together.

There are multiple game pieces (pawns, disease cubes, research centers, cure vials, an outbreak marker, and an infection rate marker) as well as many different card decks (infection deck, player deck), and card types (epidemic cards, event cards, reference cards, and role cards). You can imagine how intimidating this game seemed at first glance!

Before deciding against using it in the class, I played the game with Deb one morning in the lab and caught on surprisingly fast! After playing again with my family, I knew I wanted to use it in the class, but would face many challenges transitioning this in-depth yet captivating board game into a classroom setting.

Pandemic Game Board

Pandemic game board.

Pandemic Pieces and Cards

Pandemic game pieces and cards.

Pandemic Vials and Game Markers

Pandemic vials and game markers.


One of these challenges was how was I going to get more than four people to view this board game? Also, since the students would be working in groups, some of the tiny cards (reference cards and role cards in particular) would need to be viewed by multiple people for them to plan their next moves.

Along with the board game, the presentation at the beginning of the class also presented a few challenges, including keeping the students’ attention and ensuring that the presentation was short while still conveying valuable information.

Stay tuned for Part Two, where you will see the ways in which I tackled these challenges!


Mysteries of Nature: Can you Twidentify?

July 16, 2014

You may see the staff and volunteers of the Naturalist Center wearing these silly buttons and wonder…”What are those crazy nature nerds up to now?” Well, we love answering questions from visitors and helping them identify plants, animals, insects, rocks and fossils.  And now there’s a new way to contact us with your questions via Twitter.

Who am I? Twitter button

Who am I? Twitter button

If you have a nature-related question or a photo you would like to share with us, post on Twitter #AskNatCenter.  We will continue to have our “Ask a Naturalist” link on the Museum’s website where you can email us.  Over the past several years,  we’ve gotten some strange and wonderful photos of objects or creatures that need identification.  In addition to the more common spider, snake and bird questions, we occasionally get a real head-scratcher—an object that doesn’t look like anything we’ve ever seen before.  Luckily, our team of expert curators and research scientists can almost always come up with an answer.  Here are three of the strangest photos we’ve received so far.  Can you identify what they are?  We know the answers and will post them on Twitter (@NatSciLearn) in the near future or visit the Naturalist Center and we’ll tell you.  Good Luck and be sure to follow us on Twitter @NatSciLearn!

Ask a Naturalist Mystery Object #1

Ask a Naturalist Mystery Object #1

Ask a Naturalist Mystery Object #2

Ask a Naturalist Mystery Object #2

Ask a Naturalist Mystery Object #3

Ask a Naturalist Mystery Object #3

Creature Feature: The New Caledonian Crested Gecko

July 14, 2014

I was returning some animals from an educational program the other day and saw the Coordinator of the Program Animal Collection, Adrian Yirka,  bent over a terrarium with what looked like baby food. “What are you doing?” I asked. He commented that he was feeding the baby crested gecko. Of course, I screeched because anything that is a baby animal sets me into cute overload. I barely noticed it, because it was so well camouflaged. He explained, that right now they are on a special diet and that he hand feeds them and also disperses the food around the terrarium so that they can seek it out on their own. Honestly, I knew what a crested gecko was and some basic facts, but after seeing the babies…I wanted to know more.

What I found out about the crested gecko is pretty amazing!

Crested geckos are found on the islands of Grand Terre and the Isle of Pines, New CaledoniaWhere exactly is that? Don’t worry, I asked the same exact question. New Caledonia, was named by the British explorer Captain James Cook, for it’s similarities with the Scottish highlands. The territory was annexed by France in 1853, and is now a special collectivity of France located in the southwest Pacific Ocean, near Australia.

There habitat is mostly tropical rainforest. There are three distinct populations of crested geckos: one on the Isle of Pines, and two on Grand Terre. The southeastern rainforests of Grand Terre, the main island of New Caledonia where crested geckos are primarily found, are divided by the highest peak on the island, Mont Paniė (1628 meters above sea level). Crested geckos spend daytime hours resting in thick vegetation near the forest floor, where it is cooler and less sunny. At night they spend much of their time foraging in shrubs and lower portions of the canopy, rarely traveling much higher than 3 meters from the forest floor. Crested geckos are omnivores, feeding primarily on insects, nectar, and fruits, hunting and feeding at night. After seeing pictures of Grand Terre it is definitely on my bucket list of places to visit.

The crested gecko has small crests that almost look like eyelashes which run down from the head all the way to mid back, and can seem almost cartoonish in appearance.  They can attain a length of about 7-10 in (17-25cm) when full grown, males being larger than females and have an enlarged tail base. The colors and patterns vary dramatically between individuals. The markings and coloration are not geographic indicators and young geckos from the same clutch may display differing coloration and markings.

Cool facts about Crested Geckos:

  • They have “sticky” toe pads that allow them to cling to very slick surfaces.
  • They have no eyelids; a transparent scale, or spectacle, keeps its eyes moist and it uses its tongue to clear away debris, this is called a brill.
  • When disturbed during the day, the Crested Gecko raises up on four legs to look bigger, opens its mouth wide . . . and makes loud sounds.
  • Crested Geckos cannot grow their tail back once it has fallen off.
  • The crested gecko has hair-like projections found above the eyes, resembling eyelashes.

In which things get fuzzy…

When I was researching the crested gecko I kept coming across two different scientific names for them; Rhacodactylus ciliatus and Correlophus ciliatus 

So, which one is it?  The scientific genus name of these geckos was, for a long time, Rhacodactylus. Pretty much all of the New Caladonian geckos were lumped together under this classification until a recent study untangled things a bit. Now that a number of different genus have been identified, the specific name of crested geckos for example, has gone from Rhacodactylus ciliatus to Correlophus ciliatus. Historically, they belonged to the genus Rhacodactylus. Rhacodactylus comes from the Greek Rhakos, meaning “spine”, and Dactylus, meaning “finger”. Ciliatus and is Latin, meaning “fringe” or “eyelash” and refers to the crest of skin over the animal’s eyes. Recent phylogenetic analysis indicates that R. ciliatus and R. sarasinorum are not closely related to the other giant geckos, so these two species have been moved back to the genus Correlophus.

Long story short, science keeps getting more advanced, and we discover new things about animals every day!

This is where things got really interesting in my research…

For the past century, the Crested Gecko has played hide-and-seek with humans. The crested gecko was first described in 1866 as Correlophus ciliatus by the French zoologist Alphone Guichenot. In 1883 the crested gecko was re-classified as Rhacodactylus ciliatus by another scientists, George Albert Boulenger , which was undone by another group of scientists in 2012… this is what I refer to as scientific name  “flip-flopping”. Very little was known about these specific geckos at the time and only a few specimens were collected. In 1993 a group of scientists listed  the crested gecko as most likely extinct. The crested gecko was only known from 16 specimens collected from a single locality on Grand Terre, it was presumed crested geckos were extinct as they had not been seen or collected for over a century (Bauer & Sadlier 1993). But then in 1994 the gecko was rediscovered on the Isle of Pines by German herpetologists after a tropical storm. From only a few specimens the crested gecko became very well established in captivity over the past few years, and is now one of the most popular lizards in the pet trade.

What are their threats?

The biggest single threat to the wild population appears to be the introduction of the little fire ant (Wassmania auropunctata) to New Caledonia. The ants prey on the geckos, stinging and attacking in great numbers and also compete with the geckos for food by preying on arthropods. Slash and burn agriculture, deforestation, and mining (nickel, cobalt and chromium), as well as the introduction of non-native species are all believed to be threats to crested geckos and they are classified by The IUCN Red List as “Vulnerable”, with a downward population trend. The primary indigenous conservation organization on New Caledonia, the Association pour la Savvegarde de la Nature NėoCalėdonienne (ASNNC) is currently working with the government to protect more land and habitat and raise awareness about the reptilian fauna of the islands.

The crested gecko is one of the most adaptive animals I have learned about, with a myriad of crazy physical features. I think I can officially add it to my top ten list of favorite critters!

Check out some of the images of the baby geckos!




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