Skip to content

Mistaken Identities

December 17, 2014

This post contributed by former intern, Julia Olszewski-Jubelirer.

Plants and animals are pretty easy to distinguish, right? Not every time. Here are the four animals (or animal parts) that are commonly mistaken for plants in the Naturalist Center.


In the Naturalist Center, we have several specimens of coral, including this Red Coral:

Red Coral specimen

Red Coral specimen.
Photo by Julia Olszewski.

and this Star Coral:

Star Coral specimen

Star Coral specimen.
Photo by Julia Olszewski.

Many people think that corals are plants, or even rocks, but corals are actually animals, just like you and me. Each piece of coral is made up of many small animals called polyps that live together as a colony. Corals are important for providing structure to reefs, and are in the phylum Cnidaria. This means that they are closely related to other Cnidarians, like the Portuguese Man-of-War, which can also be found in the Naturalist Center.


Many people do not even realize that sponges are alive, but sponges, like the coral, are animals. Sponges belong to the phylum Porifera and pump water through their bodies in order to catch particles of food in the water. This is known as filter feeding. In the Naturalist Center, we have one specimen of sponge:

Sponge specimen

Sponge specimen.
Photo by Julia Olszewski.

Even though sponges might look superficially like plants, they are more closely related to animals than they are to plants. This means that the sponges are evolutionarily closer to our Pufferfish and Sea Biscuit specimens than sponges are to plants.   All of these specimens — Sponges, Pufferfish and Sea Biscuits —are part of the animal kingdom.


Photo by Julia Olszewski.

Sea biscuit

Sea Biscuit.
Photo by Julia Olszewski.

Skate egg cases

Most people who visit the Naturalist Center think skate egg cases (also known as mermaid’s purses or devil’s pocketbooks) are seed pods.

Skate egg cases

Skate egg cases.
Photo by Julia Olszewski.

However, these are actually the egg cases of skates, which are cartilaginous fish similar to stingrays. Check out this video of skates emerging from their egg cases.

In the Naturalist Center, we also have jaws of another cartilaginous fish, the Tiger Shark:

Tiger shark jaw

Tiger Shark jaw.
Photo by Julia Olszewski.

Skates and Tiger Sharks are both in the same class, Chondrichthyes. This means they are both more closely related to each other than either is to bony fish.


The Naturalist Center has a large baleen specimen to look at:

Whale baleen

Whale baleen.
Photo by Julia Olszewski.

Many people think that baleen is a type of bark or even plastic, but baleen is actually part of the mouth of certain types of whales. As baleen whales swim, they open their mouths, letting the water rush through the baleen. The baleen traps particles such as krill, which the whale then eats. This is a form of filter feeding, which is the same method that the sponge described above uses to eat.

These and thousands of other specimens on display daily in the Naturalist Center located on the second floor of the Nature Research Center.

Wonderful World of Worms

October 9, 2014

This blog post comes from Julia Olszewski, a fall intern in the Naturalist Center.  Julia is a Biology graduate student in the lab of William Kier at UNC Chapel Hill.


Sandworms (Nereis virens)
Photo by Julia Olszewski

The Kier lab in the Biology Department at UNC Chapel Hill is interested in a type of muscle found in sandworms, earthworms, leeches, and many other invertebrates. Earlier work on earthworm and leeches suggested that these animals have special arrangements of muscle proteins that allow their muscles to produce forces when very contracted and very stretched out. This is important for these animals because, as you know if you’ve ever played with an earthworm, they are capable of large changes in body length.  I did some preliminary work on the sandworms, trying to figure out if their muscles have the same abilities. By working on this, I started to become more interested in the theoretical models that try to connect the protein arrangements to the muscle’s abilities to produce forces at various lengths. Currently, I am working on my own model.

Sandworms in tank

Live Sandworms in Tank
Photo by Julia Olszewski

Sandworms (Nereis virens) are in the same group of animals as earthworms and leeches, but sandworms live in the ocean, buried under the sand. They have many legs that also have gills on them that allow them to breathe. They are common off the East Coast, especially up north. I bought my sandworms from a fishing bait supplier in Maine.

Earthworm Races and Sandworms on Display at this year's BugFest

Earthworm races and sandworms on display at this year’s BugFest.
Photo by Cindy Lincoln

For her intern project, Julia left the world of worms temporarily and created an activity about the recent discovery of a new mammal–the Olinguito!  Dr. Roland Kays, co-discoverer of the Olinguito is Director of the Biodiversity Lab at the Musuem.

Olinguito Activity

Olinguito Activity in the Naturalist Center
Photo by Julia Olszewski


Sauropods: Feats of Engineering

September 30, 2014

On October 11, 2014 the NC Museum of Natural Sciences will open its special exhibition doors for our new traveling exhibit, The World’s Largest Dinosaurs. The exhibition explores how scientists study fossils and living animals to understand sauropod biology, and what we can learn from these extinct animals about what it means to be big; like, really BIG. For those like me who are not a dinosaur expert by any means, I did some background research on what exactly a sauropod is.  When we hear the term dinosaur it might evoke mental images of voracious beasts like Tyrannosaurus rex or a Velociraptor. However, the sauropods, while viewed as gentle giants, and sometimes even regarded as stupid creatures, have a very complex story that is intriguing and impressive.

Described as ‘feats of engineering,’ the largest sauropod dinosaurs weighed close to 100 tonnes — almost ten times the record weight of a modern elephant. Sauropods therefore include the largest land animals ever to have lived. They were a very successful herbivorous group, arising in the early Jurassic and surviving for around 140 million years. Fossil footprints show that sauropod dinosaurs traveled in herds. Notable sauropods include Diplodocus, Apatosaurus (formerly Brontosaurus) and the record-breaking heavyweight Argentinosaurus, which may have recently lost its title to the newly discovered Dreadnoughtus.


Alamosaurus, author: Bogdanov, 2006.

The World’s Largest Dinosaurs will give visitors a chance to learn more about sauropods and their giant stature, but the real highlight and centerpiece of the exhibit is Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis (Mah-MEN-chi-SAWR-us ho-CHOO-an EN-sis). One hundred and sixty million years ago, Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis lived in what is now China. Mamenchisaurs were not the largest sauropods, and — immense as she is — the specimen in the exhibit is not the largest mamenchisaur. She and her relatives have at least one big distinction, though: they have the longest necks for their body size of any dinosaur known.

By looking at the fossils, paleontologists were able to determine that Mamenchisaurus was a giant sauropod with a very long neck — among the longest of any animal that has ever lived. Measuring up to 11 meters, the neck was almost half the overall length of the animal. Its long neck and its tail were held in position by a series of ligaments anchored at the hip — a bit like a suspension bridge. Mamenchisaurus would have walked with its stiff neck held almost horizontal. All the vertebrae of its neck, body and tail were hollow and light, while its leg bones were quite solid. This kept its center of gravity low, which helped the animal maintain its balance.

"Mamenchisaurus in Japan" by Kabacchi - Mamenchisaurus - 03Uploaded by FunkMonk. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Mamenchisaurus in Japan by Flickr user Kabacchi: Mamenchisaurus – 03. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Like all sauropods, Mamenchisaurus was a plant-eater. Its spoon-shaped teeth were not for chewing, but were used like a rake to strip leaves off plants. These were swallowed into its huge vat-like stomach. Its long neck allowed it to reach food otherwise inaccessible to an animal with such a huge body. Mamenchisaurus, like all herbivores, would have had to eat almost continuously to get enough nutrition to sustain its massive body.

The exhibit is more than just replica dinosaurs posed in dioramas, it explores deeper questions about dinosaur research. The last four decades have witnessed a change in how dinosaurs are studied. Scientists no longer examine just the structure of the skeletons and the relationships among these fascinating animals, but have started inquiring about their biology. How did dinosaurs move? What were their circulatory systems like? How did they feed? How did they breathe? Many of these questions involve soft tissues and organs that are never preserved in fossils, so paleontologists have to draw on other scientific disciplines to interpret the evidence they do have.

And this exhibit does exactly that. Drawing on the latest science that looks in part to existing organisms to understand these extinct giants, The World’s Largest Dinosaurs will answer such intriguing questions as how an extremely large animal breathes, eats, moves, and survives by illuminating how size and scale are related to basic biological functions. It is definitely an exhibit too BIG to miss out on!

 For more information about sauropods:


My Summer As an Intern in the VisLab

September 30, 2014

The following was written by Martha Vorder Bruegge about her time as an intern in the Visual World Investigate Lab. Martha is a sophomore at Agnes Scott College in Georgia majoring in neuroscience. She spent the past summer assisting visitors in the lab, helping with lab projects, and creating a multimedia exhibit focusing on the human brain. Her project is currently on display in lab.

Martha VisLab Robotics

Martha assisting a participant in one of the VisLab’s robotics classes

I thoroughly enjoyed working as an intern for the Visual World Investigate lab this summer. For my first internship, this was a phenomenal, unforgettable, and extremely rewarding experience. My job in the lab intertwined two of my greatest loves – social interaction and learning – by allowing me to introduce visitors to the lab and assist Matt and Walt with their classes and projects. Whenever a visitor curiously wandered in, I demonstrated the electronic gadgets and robots on display and explained the topics and technology used at different computer stations. In addition, I got the opportunity to develop my own informational multimedia display on major brain structures and functions for my internship project.

The process of creating this display provided valuable experience in the research and development of a multimedia project that delivers a clear message to viewers. During my internship I learned how to write code, how to troubleshoot and perform routine maintenance on computers, the names and functions of various electrical components, and most excitingly, how to put together an Arduino robot. The individual computer stations themselves provided me with a wealth of new information. For the interactive solar system stations I learned facts about the planets and sun so I could impress and educate visitors, and by doing this I learned more about astronomy.

I chose the Visual World lab for my internship so that I could challenge myself in an unfamiliar field and get a feel for how internships work. Because I am considered the most technologically savvy member of my family, I recognized this internship as a chance to improve my current knowledge about computers, software, and electronics. With this enhanced and marketable knowledge, I can further advise and assist family, friends, and fellow peers. Additionally, I am familiar with and fond of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences from going on school field trips there throughout my childhood. This personal connection to the museum made working there more comfortable and inspiring. I especially appreciated that since I came into the lab from a non-technical background. Because I lacked experience with circuits, coding, and computer software, the advanced technology and strange gadgets in the lab initially overwhelmed and scared me. Whenever Matt and Walt discussed electrical components or details for a programming project, it seemed like they spoke a foreign language. However, I adapted to the new environment within two weeks by listening to volunteers describe the purpose and mechanics of the stations and gadgets. I basically memorized the script and then shared facts in my own words. Visitors actually commented that I sounded very intelligent and impressive when I blew their minds with “Did you know…” facts.

Walt, Martha, and Matthew

Martha in the electronics workstation with her Arduino robot.

If I had to pick one aspect I enjoyed most, building Arduino robots and interacting with the public would tie for first place. Assembling robots appeared similar to solving a jigsaw puzzle. When every piece is placed in the right location, a functional masterpiece is created. I found it extremely surprising that I could actually understand and confidently operate electronics and robotics. Prior to this internship, robots with complicated networks of wires intimidated me because they seemed difficult to comprehend. However, Matt debunked the complexity of robots with his simple explanations, thereby making robot construction incredibly easy and exciting. Interacting with the public appealed to me because every visitor that entered brought unique questions and perspectives that I couldn’t anticipate. Answering questions and demonstrating the programs made me feel useful and meaningful, while sometimes the individual knew more about a topic than me and enlightened me with intriguing facts and findings.

Much of what I learned and accomplished during this internship can be transferred to my academic pursuits and scientific studies. I developed many valuable skills including research ability, public speaking, memorization, work ethic, professionalism, organization, productivity, and flexibility. As a result of this summer experience, I am more confident and eager to conduct research and educate the public about scientific topics, and I will more efficiently organize my time in college and on projects I get involved in so that I can prepare myself for my ultimate goal of attending medical school. I don’t regret choosing this internship at all, and if I could, I would do it again.


iLabs: Hostess Twinkie Chemistry is Coming to the Micro World This Thursday Night!

September 2, 2014

Yes, the Twinkies are coming!  Beware or be there, depending on how you feel about Twinkies.

We are going to explore their history, why we love them, what’s in them, how long they really last, and just how frenzied everyone got when they almost disappeared.

Along the way we’ll have some analytical food chemistry, some neurogastronomy, and even a touch of liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry. You didn’t know Twinkies could catalyze such a wide-ranging class, did you?

Everyone will leave with a package of Twinkies and the top 4 recipes for making your own Twinkies, from the’s Twinkie challenge.  The recipes include gluten-free, organic and even vegan Twinkies with Soy cream filling!

In addition, three lucky people will leave with either a Twinkies baking pan, or one of two books including the new Twinkie Recipe book (complete with a recipe for Twinkie sushi).

There’s still room to join us.  Here’s the registration info and any questions, contact the scheduling coordinator, Debbie Huston,  or call 919.707.9840.

Now, for those of you old enough to remember this 1960s era commercial (or for those either too young, or those who won’t admit to remembering it), here you go!  Come join the fun this Thursday night!!

And to those who want to know more about how we use Twinkies in our science classes, that post is still in the works!  We don’t just stop at Chemistry though!! :)



iLabs: Catch of the Day — The First Settlers

August 30, 2014

In this latest “Catch Of The Day!” post, Micro World Staff member Nancy Locquet discusses our Lab’s “First Settlers,”  the Pioneer Protists of the iLab’s micro-ecosystem.

Pioneer Protists

When scientists talk about ecosystems, they define it as a community of living organisms (biotic factors) such as plants, animals and microorganisms in a specific area where these living organisms function as a unit and interact with one another and with the physical environment (abiotic factors).

The latter are the non-living components such as the local atmosphere, type of soil or water, the temperature, air, humidity, salinity… Ecosystems can be big, such as the Atlantic Ocean, or they can be so tiny you need a microscope to see what’s going on in that “micro-ecosystem” such as a drop of pond water.

The interesting fact is, ecosystems change constantly and are dynamic entities susceptible to the impact of human activities—logging, for instance—or natural disasters, such as earthquakes, avalanches, wildfire, floods, landslides, erosion and many other natural and human interventions.

These natural and environmental catastrophic events are perceived as life-changing; devastating even, but, once in a while, they can bring a positive spin to things. Some ecosystems are born out of the ashes of volcanic eruptions or may be “reborn” through the clearing effects of wildfires. Think about North Carolina’s Long- Leaf Pine Savannas for instance. This ecosystem would simply disappear along with the many endangered plants and animals if fire didn’t occur periodically.

You might ask, what does this have to do with the microorganisms in the pond water samples in the Micro World iLab?

Well, we were wondering if micro-ecosystems follow the same natural laws as their macro counterparts. Can a new micro-ecosystem be created and will it be a suitable habitat for protozoans and algae?

To examine this possibility, we introduced a clean unused synthetic sponge to our fish tank. Since we don’t use chemicals to treat the fish tank, it resembles natural pond water. The sponge is about 1×1.5×2.5 inches and was attached to a rock with a clear fishing line. This bright green synthetic sponge became a “hot-spot” for our Pouch snails and our Ramshorn snails that inhabit our fish tank. The color didn’t seemed to bother them and they seemed to like the texture of the sponge.

Pouch snails exploring the surface of a synthetic sponge in a pond water aquarium

Pouch snails exploring the surface of a synthetic sponge in a pond water aquarium

Soon, debris from the fish tank and some droppings from fish and snails were covering the sponge. We left it in the tank for about 3 weeks until we had to remove it to treat the tank for possible parasites. The filter was replaced and the algae were scraped from the sides of the fish tank. This seemed the perfect time to check what was in our synthetic micro-ecosystem.

Would we see the first settlers of the green sponge? Water was squeezed from the sponge with a set of tweezers and collected in a clean petri dish. A wet-mount was made using a plastic disposable pipet to collect a drop of the water…the slide was placed under the microscope and set to 10 x magnification and we all watched eagerly to see what happened… A familiar life form was dashing over the screen, clearly healthy, happy and super-fast…it was a Euplotes.

Euplotes in pond water

Euplotes in pond water.

These were not the only unicellular protists that we encountered. Some of the other pioneer protists were beautiful delicate Vorticella clustered together on some pieces of green algae. They were small and were only visible at the highest magnification (40x).

Vorticella in pond water

Vorticella in pond water.

Some Colpidium were very active as well, dashing like busy bees over the slide.

Colpidium in pond water

Colpidium in pond water.

Last but not least, we saw our most common protists Paramecia and Rotifers.

Paramecium in pond water

Paramecium in pond water.

Rotifers in pond water

Rotifers in pond water.

Since these were the organisms that we discovered on a newly introduced “synthetic” micro-ecosystem, we call these first settlers our Pioneer Protists from the Green Sponge. Since it all began in a new habitat, uninfluenced by any pre-existing communities, we could technically call this a primary succession (whereas it would be called a secondary succession if the pre-existing communities were already disrupted by a disturbance)

We tried to keep the first settlers alive by placing the sponge in a container with pond water, aerating it and placing it inside the dark box where other cultures reside, but a few days later bacteria had started to colonize the container and a foul odor came from its flask. We clearly had to dispose of this culture.

However, we have already placed a new sponge in the fish tank in the hope that we can recreate this event, and possibly keep the First Settlers going.

So now…if you see a sponge in the fish tank…you know why.

#BugSnap: Submit your photos today.

August 26, 2014


Viewing bugs through a different lens.

This year we are embracing social media for BugFest and want to see how you capture photos of bugs, the big and the small. We recently launched our new education Twitter account @NatSciLearn and we want to see how you capture the beauty of bugs in your local park, your backyard, school, or even in the office, whether your photos are taken via Instagram, smartphone or traditional camera.

How To Submit:

1.  Compose tweet to @NatSciLearn with a brief description of the bug and where you found it and the hashtag #BugSnap.

2. Upload your photo and publish your tweet.

3. Please submit original work.

4. We will retweet several a day for all the world to see in the days leading up to BugFest.

5. We ask that no bugs be are harmed in the process.

BugFest is just around the corner so get snapping! 


Here is an example:



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 181 other followers