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For the Love of Bugs

May 6, 2015

by Courtney Johnson

If you have visited the Naturalist Center in the Museum, you’ve likely seen a large collection of insects…or maybe you avoided that part of the room? Most people find insects to be less than appealing. For me, there aren’t many things in this world I would rather study. My love of bugs began when I was a little girl, but it wasn’t until I took Forest Entomology at NCSU that I was seized with an intense interest to learn more about them.

Courtney holding recently  emerged Red-Spotted purple butterfly. Photo by Nick Mclamb.

Courtney holding recently emerged Red-Spotted Purple Butterfly (Limenitis arthemis astyanax).
Photo by Nick Mclamb.

Insects are in the class Insecta. This class is a taxonomic rank below the phylum Arthropoda, which includes everything from crabs, shrimp and lobsters to millipedes, centipedes and spiders. Insects make up the largest class of Arthropods, and potentially account for 90% of the diversity of life on Earth. That is approximately 900,000 different species of insect, and there are more being discovered and classified all the time. Scientists estimate as many as 30 million (30,000,000) species could actually exist!

There are countless benefits insects provide to humans and the environment every day. Many plants have evolved along with insects and rely on them for pollination, including many of the fruits and vegetables we eat. Insects also serve as an important part of the food web, as many animals prey on them, but insects and arthropods are decomposers and detritivores too, which return nutrients into the soil from dead and decaying materials. And where would your honey be without honey bees?

Some people collect insects for science, education or just for a personal hobby. In the Naturalist Center, we have a diverse collection of both insects and other arthropods on display for YOU to come and learn about these wonderful creatures that cover the earth. During my time at the museum, I had the opportunity to help identify and pin beetles that were obtained from the Arthropod Zoo (another great exhibit on the 4th floor of the Nature Exploration Center).

Courtney pinning beetles in the Naturalist Center. Photo by Cindy Lincoln.

Courtney pinning beetles in the Naturalist Center.
Photo by Cindy Lincoln.

Pinning is the primary method for preserving insects. Smaller or more delicate insects or those prone to rotting are better kept in vials or jars of alcohol. When pinning insects, you have to take care not to damage the specimen, especially while trying to get a pin through the hard elytra (hardened forewing) of a beetle. My favorite insects to pin are butterflies and moths. The wings of these insects must be carefully pinned in position to dry, but the results are always worth the extra work.  Want to learn how to pin insects?  We have an Insect Pinning for Beginners class on May 21st.

Polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus)  during the pinning process.  Photo by Courtney Johnson.

Polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus) during the pinning process.
Photo by Courtney Johnson.

Collecting insects is a rewarding practice. It is easier to appreciate the diversity and beauty of each individual insect when they are not on the move. Having them in the Naturalist Center allows the public to see them the way I see them; not dead, but awe-inspiring. Appreciation for these small creatures goes a long way when you no longer see insects as pests, but as an abundant and wonderful part of nature.


Courtney Johnson recently completed her internship in The Naturalist Center. She is a graduate from the Forest Management program at North Carolina State University. She is an amateur insect collector, and is looking for a career related to entomology, conservation or public education and outreach.

The Taming of the Shrew

May 4, 2015

The next few blog posts from the Naturalist Center will be from our great group of spring interns!

by Kelsey Strout

“Tripod” (dubbed so because the skeleton only has three legs) is a Southern Short-tailed Shrew who found his way all the way from Iron Station, North Carolina to Raleigh, where he now resides in the Naturalist Center. Tripod had quite a journey getting to the Museum!

“Tripod”, the 3-legged Southern Short-Tailed Shrew skeleton (on display in Naturalist Center).
Photo by Kelsey Strout

Originally thought to be a mouse, Tripod was discovered in the window of my house. Built in the 1890s, the house was getting some exterior work done when the skeleton was found in November of 2014. Tripod was given to me by my parents as a joke gift when I was home for Thanksgiving break and he sat on my bedside table until about a month into my internship.

The skeleton of

The skeleton of “Tripod” before articulation.
Photo by Kelsey Strout

When Cindy Lincoln, Coordinator of the Naturalist Center, asked me to come up with an internship project, I struggled for a few weeks before remembering the “mouse” my parents had found. They shipped it to me, and I brought the skeleton to the museum two days later. My first thought was to articulate the skeleton like the room’s cat or rat skeleton, and so Cindy put me in touch with Ben Hess, the Museum’s Collections Manager of Mammals. I went into the underbelly of the museum, where I met Ben, and he took one look at a picture of the skeleton and told me that it was not a mouse, and was in fact, a southern short-tailed shrew. Needless to say, I was pretty shocked!  Here I had, what I thought was a mouse skeleton, that had traveled all the way from Iron Station via USPS, and it turns out, it wasn’t even a mouse. Then came what seemed like more bad news; Tripod was too small to go into the dermestid beetle tank like other animals being cleaned in preparation for the research collection.  However, Ben came to the rescue. We soaked the shrew skeleton for four hours in water, picked off the remaining hair and flesh, and started the long process of articulating the skeleton. First, the skeleton had to dry in the position it was to be displayed in. During this process, the axis bone, the first vertebrae of the spine, fell off, and then it was discovered that the skeleton was missing a whole lower front limb. A wire was inserted down the spine to strengthen the skeleton, and the skull was inserted onto the wire and glued to the spine. Parts of the skeleton were strengthened with glue and the lower left limb was attached, along with the right scapula and humerus.  Now, Tripod is safely preserved and on display in the Naturalist Center.

Kelsey assembling

Kelsey assembling the shrew skeleton.
Photo by Kelsey Strout

Kelsey is a double major in Biological Sciences and Animal Science and a double minor in Creative Writing and Italian Studies at NC State University. She plans to go into a dual degree program at NCSU’s Veterinary School earning her DVM and PhD in six years.  

Naturalist Center exceeds 200,000 visitors!

April 1, 2015

Since the Nature Research Center opened in April, 2012, the Naturalist Center has welcomed over 200,000 visitors! Yesterday, a teacher told me that this room is her favorite spot in the entire Museum. She was so inspired by our collection, that she and her students have created their own tiny collection of nature objects and they call it their “museum”.  I love hearing stories like these so please share how visiting the Naturalist Center or the Museum in general has inspired you!

We recently created a smaller version of the Naturalist Center for a new branch of the Museum in Whiteville, NC.  Below are a few photos from the grand opening.

Naturalist Center at new branch in Whiteville, NC

Naturalist Center at new branch in Whiteville, NC. Photo by Cindy Lincoln

Visitors exploring the hands-on specimens in Naturalist Center, Whiteville Branch.

Visitors exploring the hands-on specimens in Naturalist Center, Whiteville Branch. Photo by Cindy Lincoln

Using the Microeye scope in the Naturalist Center, Whiteville Branch.

Using the Microeye scope in the Naturalist Center, Whiteville Branch. Photo by Cindy Lincoln

We couldn’t run the Naturalist Center without many hard-working volunteers and interns–thanks to all of them past and present!

Interns Rachel Wilkinson, Courtney Johnson and volunteer, Allora Burke.

Interns Rachel Wilkinson, Courtney Johnson and volunteer, Allora Burke.
Photo by Cindy Lincoln.

Volunteer Alice Garner helping visitor with Microeye scope, Whiteville Branch.

Volunteer Alice Garner helping visitor with Microeye scope, Whiteville Branch. Photo by Cindy Lincoln

And the Winner is….

March 30, 2015

On Saturday, March 28th, I had the great fun of being a judge at the NC Science and Engineering Fair held at Meredith College in Raleigh.  Every year, the Museum selects one elementary school student to receive the Young Naturalist Award.  This award recognizes outstanding work in using the process of science to study the natural world and enhance people’s appreciation and knowledge of our environment.  This year’s winner is Alex Haiss for his poster “How Does Elevation Affect Micro-Metazoa”.  Alex is a student at Swain West Elementary School in Bryson City, NC.

2015 NC Science and Engineering Fair Elementary Award Winners

2015 NC Science and Engineering Fair Elementary Award Winners

Alex said his inspiration for the project came on a school field trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park where he learned about the micro-organisms living on foliose lichen.  For his poster, Alex asked the question: “would increases in elevation affect the numbers of micro-metazoan such as tardigrades, nematodes and rotifers?”.  The results of his project did show a decrease in micro-metazoan at higher elevations along Wesser Bald Trail near the border between Macon and Swain Counties.  Alex suggests that this decrease may be due to harsher climate and more pronounced effects of acid rain at higher elevations.

Winning poster by Alex Haiss on display in the Naturalist Center.

Winning poster by Alex Haiss on display in the Naturalist Center.

The winning poster will be on display in the Naturalist Center until May.  Alex has never been to the Museum, but hopes to fit it in when he’s in Raleigh for a soccer tournament.

Congratulations to Alex and all the winners at this year’s NC Science and Engineering Festival!

iLabs: Video and Interview of the Micro World iLab!!

February 20, 2015

Sarah Lindenfeld Hall of’s “Go Ask Mom” feature, visited our Micro World Investigate Lab yesterday and interviewed Christy and I about our lab.  If you want to ready the article and catch the video, check out:

Destination: Nature Research Center’s Micro World Investigate Lab's Go Ask Mom visits the Micro World Investigate Lab’s Go Ask Mom visits the Micro World Investigate Lab

iLabs: We DID it!!! 100,000 Visitors in the Micro World iLab!!!!!

February 16, 2015

Who would believe it but on a usually quiet Monday morning we received over 60 visitors in the morning and among them, these two lucky students!  They are our 100000th and 100001st visitors to our lab.  We opened April 12, 2012, and in less than 3 years we hit 100,000!  Here’s to our next 100000!!!!  Deb & Christy

Micro World Investigate Lab's 100000th visitors

Micro World Investigate lab’s 100000th visitors!!!!

iLabs: Micro World iLab & the Idea Germ Explosion – Is it TODAY?

February 14, 2015

The Explosion of an Idea Germ — Is It Today????

It will start quietly enough, with little fanfare in the wintery days of the early New Year. It will start, as it has from the very first day, quietly and unobtrusively.  But then the day will suddenly ramp up, the visitors will arrive and the moment will be there – that moment envisioned years ago in the mind of a visionary leader – when the 100,000th visitor steps into the Micro World Investigate Lab.  And it will be a moment to pause and celebrate: where it started, what it took, and what it has blossomed, or exploded into.

The Micro World Investigate Lab, along with the Visual World and Natural World Investigate Labs, and the entire Nature Research Center, began as the germ of an idea in the mind of Dr. Betsy Bennett years ago. Its germination proceeded as the building went up and staff experimented with various ways to make these rooms a one-of-a-kind, wow-you-from-the-moment-you-walk-in, celebration of hands-on science. Now, less than 3 years after opening, the Micro World Investigate Lab is readying to welcome its 100,000th visitor.

Exactly what is this “explosion” in the room?

The Micro World opened with two table activities – micropipetting, which was always meant to be a temporary activity for opening night, and DNA extraction.  The counters held a fish tank, a terrarium, some protozoan cultures and some fungi experiments.  A brand new research microscope sat off to one side. And the room had just two people to run it – Christy Flint and Deb Bailey.

There were a few classes – Microscopic Life, Cell Cycle, Photosynthesis, Transpiration – and a mind map: a crazy color-coded drawing with criss-crossing lines, high-lighted circles, and scribbled notes, of all the dreams for the room.

Today, we have a full room bursting with over 12 different table activities, covering topics such as ELISA/Immunology, DNA extraction, PCR, DNA code reading, transcription, translation, sequencing, and  protein synthesis, Chytrid fungus, Fish Medicine, Cell counting & water quality.

Counters now also hold an interactive bioluminescent plankton activity, class research projects, cultures of pond invertebrates, plankton and duckweed, and a brand new research level cell bioreactor that will be used in classes and as a working exhibit for the public to use.

Younger scientists can learn about plant moisture needs with “Fred and Ethel,” and there’s puzzles and the “Find the Tardigrade” activity.

The walls are lined with models of blood cells, human and animal organs and body systems. Room shades depict microscopic life, and two 55-inch TVs broadcast microscopic images of a wide range of specimens. In addition, the EVOS research microscope is always available for use by visitors to view live protozoans.

Grants by Biogen Idec Foundation and IMLS have funded extra staff, research equipment, expanded classes, and programs with researchers inside and outside the Museum.  Topics include, various human body systems, homeostasis, DNA electrophoresis, PCR, DNA sequencing and bioinformatics, Proteomics, soil and human microbiology, Drug Development, epidemiology, and a brand new series of chemistry classes.  All classes are available to schools, homeschool students, and the public, and any classes available to the public schools are curriculum-correlated. Grades served are 5th through early college.

The grant has also allowed the lab to bring in almost 1000 students last year from under-served counties, by providing funds for transportation to schools that could not afford to come otherwise.  This year Biogen Idec Foundation grant funds are allowing us to increase our reach by also expanding into the after-school outreach programs with local groups such as the YMCA and the Boys’ Club, among others, and soon, distance-learning programs.

Thursday night programs, such as the Science of Bread-Making, Yogurt-making science and the Chemistry of Twinkies have become popular, and the lab also does a once-a-month board game night for all ages.  There are also 2-hour lab public lab classes on Saturday mornings, such as Spy Chemistry of the American Revolution.

So in view of all of the change, what does all of this mean to us, the people at the door greeting each of those visitors?  We are as EXCITED AS EVER!!  And while maybe the “fanfare of the moment” won’t include fireworks (though with our chemistry classes, we can probably conjure up a lab-safe version of something extraordinary!) or balloons or marching bands, maybe the moment will just be a quiet reflection of joy in each of our hearts, a reflection on where we started and what we’ve come to. It will be the acknowledgement that the idea germ has in fact germinated, sprouted, and is growing daily into an amazing thriving plant. And it will be a reflection that our success is like that of every department here at the Museum : quiet (though in the case of Bugfest, maybe not so quiet)  success in advancing their mission to excite people with their joy of science, something this Museum has been doing for over 100 years.

Every day that visitors walk into the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, whether the NEC, the NRC, the Investigate Labs or the Windows on the World, they are walking into a place ALIVE and EVOLVING as it enthusiastically brings science into their hearts and into their hands.

We hope to see all of you soon, as we look forward to greeting the next 100,000 people.  There will be just as much if not more enthusiasm because each day is a new opportunity to reach out, and a new topic to showcase to you all.


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