The Research Staff of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences includes experts in a wide variety of scientific disciplines who conduct exciting research investigations, maintain and expand the Museum’s natural science Research Collections, and participate in the Museum’s public education and outreach mission. Check this blog often to learn about all of the great science happening at the Museum!
Summer is here, it’s hot, the kids are out of school, and by now I expect they’re pretty bored. Perhaps it’s time to go outside and see how bored other things are. For instance, if you’re at the beach, you might find a clam shell with a perfectly circular hole in it. That’s a bored clam shell. Or maybe you’re lucky enough to find a rock or coral with some broad holes in it. Or maybe you notice holes in trees or logs. These are all bored, too.
But what causes all these objects to be so bored? In the case of the shell at the beach, the answer is predatory snails. Some snails – particularly moon snails – soften a clam’s shell by using a boring organ that produces hydrochloric acid, enzymes and other substances. Then the snail rasps the softened clam shell with a hard plate called a radula, resulting in a circular hole. If you look closely at it, you’ll see the hole is wider on the outside than on the inside of the shell. Once the snail breaks through the shell, the snail uses its radula to rasp away the clam’s soft tissues, basically eating the clam alive. Now that’s both boring and exciting!
Broad holes that you might find in rocks or coral are made by boring clams. (This means you can be as happy as a clam or as boring as a clam.) Certain clams, such as angel wings, piddocks or pholad clams, use the rough edges of their shells like files to slowly grind against rocks or corals, twisting themselves in. These clams rotate into rock at a rate of 4 or 5 centimeters (about 2 inches) per year, which is slower than your fingernails grow. Most boring clams stop when they’ve bored a hole the length of their bodies, but some drill themselves several body-lengths deep over the course of their lives. These clams eat by extending tubes called siphons (much like a vacuum-cleaner hose), to filter feed on passing plankton. But once they’ve lodged themselves in a coral or rock, they don’t leave. They’ve literally dug their own graves.
Not only are some snails and clams boring, but certain insects are boring too. Got holes in your floor, wood siding or in the dead tree in your yard? These are likely the result of wood-boring beetles, termites, carpenter ants or carpenter bees. Even non-insect arthropods, such as some isopods (think “roly-poly pillbugs”), can bore into wood. Whatever animal is eating into your wood, you can bet it is boring.
So, let’s say I’m a paleontologist (which I am). I may not find remains of the actual animal that made holes in fossil shells or petrified wood. But by studying the shape of the hole, the bored substratum, and by knowing a little bit about different animals’ behaviors, I can deduce what animal might have been boring. Ichnology, the study of traces, can be a lot like forensic detective investigation. To me, that’s not boring, that’s fascinating.
Reprinted from The Charlotte Observer and Raleigh News & Observer
As temperatures creep toward the triple digits this week, it’s probably not hard to remember that the Sun is our primary source for heat and light. Perhaps less obvious is that the Sun is also responsible for space weather, defined as the varying conditions surrounding the Earth that are due to solar wind and other energetic outbursts from the Sun’s surface. While there is no conclusive linkage between space weather and Earth’s climate, solar particles penetrating Earth’s magnetic field risk disrupting performance and reliability of space-borne and ground-based technological systems, satellites, and even possibly endangering life. One of the main objectives of space missions currently studying the Sun is to better understand extreme space weather events, how and when they occur, and how life on Earth may be affected, now and in the future.
STEREO (Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory) has revolutionized the study of the Sun-Earth system. Consisting of two nearly identical observatories, one ahead and one behind Earth in its orbit of the Sun, STEREO traces the flow of energy and matter from the Sun to the Earth, revealing 3-dimensional structures of violent eruptions coming off the Sun’s surface. If directed toward Earth, these eruptions, called coronal mass ejections (or CMEs), can trigger severe magnetic storms when they collide with Earth’s magnetic field, disrupting satellites and power grids. CMEs are also extremely hazardous to astronauts on the International Space Station and performing Extra Vehicular Activities. Studying these violent solar storms in detail helps scientists understand their fundamental nature and origin, and the extent to which they can affect life on Earth.
Computer models of superstorms such as the one of 2012, shown above, have helped scientists better understand and predict the onset of storms that could be directed at Earth. By matching their models to past observations, solar astronomers have found that it is not only the origin of CMEs at the Sun’s surface, but also the interactions between successive CMEs farther out in interplanetary space that contribute to extreme space weather events. The Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) is another satellite mission taking unprecedented images of the Sun, showing its surface features, storms and flares in great detail, enabling the study of solar prominences and energetic outbursts that regularly spew into space. Orbiting the Earth at nearly 7000 miles per hour, SDO has captured the most detailed imagery of the Sun to date, revealing its surface in amazing fiery and dynamic detail. The image below shows a dark region called a coronal hole in the surface of the Sun, an area where high-speed solar wind particles stream into space.
Solar flares are sudden flashes of brightness from the Sun’s surface, linked to great releases of energy, often occurring just prior to CMEs. Such bright regions can be seen in many SDO images, including the one below, which also shows loops of superheated plasma seen extending off the surface; these loops can’t escape the magnetic filed of the Sun but rather follow the field lines back to the surface.
Solar flares strongly influence space weather near Earth, producing streams of energetic particles in the solar wind. When solar wind particles impact the Earth’s magnetic field, they can generate a geomagnetic storm which presents radiation hazards to satellites and humans on Earth and in space. To generate some of the remarkable imagery and videos for scientists and astronomy enthusiasts, SDO’s instruments capture images of the Sun at frequent intervals, showing how the surface changes rapidly. The gorgeous composite below was made from 25 separate images taken at extreme ultraviolet wavelengths, which enable viewing very high temperature solar material.You can see the Sun changing over the course of 3 years in this video. Because the distance between the SDO spacecraft and the Sun varies over time, the apparent size of the Sun subtly increases and decreases over time in the video. What does extreme space weather mean for our future? Aside from immediate power grid and satellite concerns, short-term radiation risks posed by solar flares are being considering in current planning stages for sending humans to Mars, the Moon, and even other planets. Energetic protons passing through the human body can cause serious biochemical damage, harming astronauts not only during interplanetary travel but also once they arrive at their destination. In the very far future, the Sun will become a red giant and engulf the Earth; but not to worry, as this won’t happen for another 5 billion years or so. In the meantime, scientists are studying space weather and extreme solar events that can affect life on our planet in order to be better prepared for living with our star. This information is further useful for understanding how stars affect life on planets beyond our solar system, some of which may ultimately be the future home for our species long after the Sun is gone. For more amazing solar footage, play the video compilation of SDO’s “best video imagery” from the last 5 years, below:
Want to learn more about the Sun, extreme space weather, and solar missions, and view its surface safely through solar telescopes? Join us for International SUNday (and the first day of summer!) this Sunday, June 21, for special presentations and solar viewing (weather permitting). More details on International SUNday can be found here.
The little space-bot, Philae, made history last November by being the first-ever robot to land on a comet. While amazing in its technological feats and detailed measurements of comet 67P taken at close range, all was not perfect with this historic landing, leading European Space Agency (ESA) scientists to admit that, shortly after landing they did not in fact know Philae’s location on the comet.
The glitch was a misfire of Philae’s landing harpoons such that the robot bounced off the comet twice, eventually becoming wedged in one of the comet’s cliffs, the precise location of which, the scientists admitted, was unknown.
Due to the non-sticky landing, the final orientation of Philae’s solar panels were such that it was unable to capture enough sunlight to power its instruments. Yet, not to be undone, mission scientists completed nearly all of the robot’s science goals atop the comet within the 60 hours of the lander’s battery life. Further, through the brief contact window, mission engineers were able to rotate the Philae’s solar panels in such a way that, just possibly, Philae might capture enough sunlight to “reawaken” and continue its groundbreaking science as comet 67P neared the inner solar system, thought to be sometime during the summer of 2015.
Now, Philae has made history again. To great excitement, the little robot has awakened from its long hibernation, with the news revealed via ESA mission Tweet:
Rosetta mission scientists today stated that Philae is doing quite well, communicating with the ground team for 85 seconds. With an operating temperature of -35ºC (-31ºF), it has acquired enough sunlight to power operations so that it may continue exploring the cometary molecules that are the primitive leftovers from solar system formation. Studying these molecules will give scientists clues as to how our solar system, and possibly life, formed and evolved.
Rosetta scientists analyzing the new data think that Philae may actually have been awake even earlier than today. They now await next contact so that the 8000 data packets in the robot’s memory can be analyzed, hopefully revealing clues as to what new information Philae gathered in the past few days of mysterious operations.
Fans of this mission may recall Professor Monica Grady’s sheer joy on landing day, November 12, 2014, a reminder of the true passion scientists have for their work:
If you think that reaction was atypical, Dr. Grady revealed today that, upon hearing Philae’s news while in a taxi, she was so excited she hugged the driver. Congratulations, Philae, your team, and all who root for you!
Jupiter: giant planetary overlord of our solar system. From Earth, Jupiter’s gargantuan presence is hardly evident on a daily basis; to us it is a far-away dot in the night sky (albeit the third-brightest after the Moon and Venus).
But, Jupiter is special and significant. With a mass equal to 2.5 times that of all the other planets combined, it is by far the largest planet in the solar system. Light from Jupiter can be bright enough to cast shadows on Earth, which is impressive given that its average distance from us hovers between ~ 460 million and 510 million miles. And, while it is the great giant of our planets, Jupiter is made up primarily of the lightest of gases: hydrogen (primarily) and helium. While it may have a rocky core, it has no solid surface to speak of, rendering it most difficult to imagine as either a haven for extraterrestrial life, or a destination for futuristic human space travelers.Due to its large mass and consequently strong gravitational pull, Jupiter acts as a “cosmic vacuum cleaner,” protecting Earth from being pelted with many more asteroids and comets than have reached the surface throughout its history. The impact rate on Jupiter has been estimated to be between two- and eight- thousand times greater than Earth, and without Jupiter it is hypothesized that life on Earth may not have made it this far. In fact, scientists think that habitability on any Earth-like planet — in exoplanetary systems in the Galaxy — may in part depend on a nearby Jupiter-like giant that attracts a large percentage of space debris.
As recently as the 1990s, Jupiter has shown it can do the job. In 1992, astronomers witnessed the break up of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, torn apart by Jupiter’s gravitational forces, leading to it being described as a “string of pearls”:In 1994, the comet’s 21 discernible fragments, with diameters up to 2 km (~ 1.2 miles), collided with Jupiter at speeds exceeding 130,000 miles per hour. If even one of those fragments had reached a populated region of Earth, the result would likely have been more than just a cosmic light show.
In addition to their physical grandeur, Jupiter and its four most prominent moons — Io, Europa, Io, Ganymede, and Callisto (see the image montage, above) — figure prominently in the evolution of our understanding of the solar system. Now aptly referred to as the “Galilean Satellites”, these four moons were discovered by Galileo Galilei in 1610, marking one of the most significant contributions to science. Galileo used a homemade telescope to make these observations which helped him prove that, without doubt, the Sun, not the Earth (as thought at the time), was the center of the solar system.
Galileo Galilei is often referred to as “the father of modern observational astronomy” for his work on the Jupiter system, the phases of Venus, and sunspots, and he laid the foundation for today’s modern space probes and telescopes. In the more than 400 years since, we’ve certainly come a long way technologically. Data and images from the Voyager and Galileo missions to Jupiter and the outer planets have revealed incredible details of these foreign worlds. The year 2012 marked the 35th Anniversary of Voyager, now in interstellar space, making it the farthest spacecraft ever launched from Earth.
While our record of state-of-the-art space exploration is, rightfully, marked by missions backed by multinational consortia of space agencies and years of development, it should also be remembered developments in technology now give us hand-held devices that can help put astronomy at your fingertips.
I was recently involved in a public observing night, led by my colleague Professor Daniel Caton, at Appalachian State University’s Dark Sky Observatory in the mountains of Boone. It was a wonderfully clear night, during which we got a wonderful glimpse of the Geminid meteor shower. At one point, Jupiter and its four sparkling moons were put into view through the Observatory’s excellent 32-inch telescope. After the crowd dispersed I took a few minutes to fiddle with aligning my iPhone just so, and captured the image below:
I’ll stay tuned for a device one can whip out to capture 200x magnification of the celestial object of their choice — an “iTelescope”, if you will. For now, I like knowing that it’s not that hard to take a pretty decent image of a far-away system through the eyepiece of a moderately sized telescope, just with an iPhone. And now I have Jupiter in my pocket.
One of the comments on the earlier blog post came from Richard Jacquot:
email@example.com commented …In an article published with Ed Speer in Volume 1, Issue 2 of American Rockhound magazine in June, 2014, we discussed 15 diamonds that were found in Reedy Creek in Mecklenburg County. These diamonds were found by a gold prospector and sold to a reputable local mineral dealer. They were then sold to various collectors. This was around 1999. The diamonds averaged .5 carat and 1-2mm. The diamonds have been tested and there is no reason not to believe that the prospector found these, in fact, the story is very similar to this one. So what is the criteria for getting them authenticated?
To bring everyone else up to speed, Richard is publisher, editor, and in this case, also a writer for American Rockhound magazine. American Rockhound is a new addition to the world of magazines, so the distribution is not yet large, but I wish him and his co-authors much success. Goodness grows in North Carolina, and that includes the minerals.
As with any scientific question, the question finally revolves around who has the data, and what data do we (I) have in hand? I wasn’t able to get hold of a copy of the article, so I can’t speak to any of the particulars of that diamond find and sale. I don’t know any of the people involved, so I can’t really make a meaningful comment on that, either. I don’t have any evidence one way or the other. I do know about this diamond find, so I’ll go with what I know. Here’s how I approach the problem.
“Authenticate” covers a lot of territory. It’s not like these are antiques. I knew with about 95% certainty that these were diamonds from the moment I opened the package. The next step was to collect data to support that identification. Diamonds are isotropic on my petrographic scope- that is, in cross polarized light, they stay dark. Second was to look at the composition: EDS. With the great big carbon peak, there wasn’t much doubt.
The next question was natural vs. synthetic. For that I needed the assistance of a genuine diamond expert, and Diamonds Direct Crabtree came to the rescue. The verdict from the Gemological Institute of America was that the diamonds are natural.
The final step is like any other scientific study: reproduction of results. Could we reproduce Jeff’s findings, and then find the source of the diamonds? We were still working at that when Jeff died.
Rockhounds in the field tend to be very focused on what they want. I’m not a rockhound, I’m a research scientist. Rockhounds and other amateur geologists tend to be surprised at what I want, which is everything. A prospector may find gold in quartz veins, but then he’s surprised that I want the quartz, and the sulfide minerals. These minerals contain oxygen, hydrogen and sulfur isotopes that illuminate the origins of the gold-bearing fluid. Size is not an issue for analysis. The quartz usually contains fluid inclusions, fossil water that can be used to determine the temperature at which the veins formed. I want to know the relationships between the minerals and the gold, who’s first, who’s second, etc. Minerals are information to me.
Anyone discovering diamonds has a choice about what to do with that information. Do they withhold it, so they have monopoly on the sources? Good business sense, but not good scientific sense. Jeff shared data, and we got started on finding the source rocks. The burden of proof that these were North Carolina diamonds was clearly on him, and he was cooperative and helpful in working on the problem. I analyzed the other minerals that were panned with the diamonds, using the petrographic microscope and the SEM/EDS. We made thin sections of possible candidates for the source rock. I was confident enough to make the recent announcement, but prudent enough to keep working on the problem. A quick check of my birth certificate shows that I wasn’t born yesterday.
I don’t think so much about “authentication” as much as I do about “reproducing results.” Science is a good discipline for separating out what you know, what you can surmise, and what you don’t know, and for building multiple working hypotheses to test along the way. I have the diamonds, I have some of the minerals from the streams. I have several working hypotheses about source rocks to target.
I can understand skepticism about the discovery of the diamonds. Even if we had TV cameras on Jeff as he found them, there would still be suspicion about the sediments being salted, or even that the diamonds were purchased somewhere else. If we can reproduce Jeff’s results that would be strong support that these diamonds are from North Carolina. Finding the source would certainly clinch the question.
Astute readers will notice that I have been very vague about location of this discovery. True. I have a responsibility as an employee of the state of North Carolina to preserve a good relationship with land owners. Field guides to collecting minerals or fossils in North Carolina tend to result sites being destroyed or placed off limits to collection. Most collectors in the state are very careful and responsible, but it only takes one bad one to ruin things for everybody.
Early next year, we will be crowdfunding the costs of the research. The work has several lines of inquiry: (1) identification of the inclusions in the diamonds; (2) field work to obtain more samples of heavy minerals from the streams; and (3) microanalysis of mineral separates taken from the streams.
Stay tuned. Next blog up, multiple working hypotheses and geological research.
There have been 13 diamonds found in the state of North Carolina since 1893, the largest of which was four carats. Most of them were found as a result of panning operations for gold or monazite. One of these is in the Geology Collection of the Museum of Natural Sciences: NCSM 3225. It came from Burke County and was part of the collection of J.A.D. Stephenson, the man who discovered emeralds and chromian spodumene (aka hiddenite) in Alexander County.
You can imagine my feelings when 13 more diamonds came into my laboratory, all at one time.
In many ways this story belongs to Jeff Moyer of Mount Pleasant, North Carolina, a gold prospector and amateur exploration geologist. Jeff was the most gifted amateur geologist I ever met. He was a keen student of history, consulting records from the old Charlotte Mint and taking time to learn the oral history of the areas where he worked. He designed and patented his own equipment. Our conversations about North Carolina geology were long and detailed, like I was having a thesis defense all over again. His restless and curious intellect eventually became fascinated with the idea of finding the source of North Carolina’s diamonds. So he modified his equipment to trap diamonds as well as gold. And it worked.
I have met all sorts of miners over the years, and Jeff impressed me as genuine. We purchased 10 of the diamonds, and I went to work. Jeff and I made plans to go into the field to reproduce his findings. It never happened. Jeff was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, and died shortly thereafter.
My instinct was that Jeff was honest, and not trying to put anything over on me and the Museum. But there is always the nagging suspicion that diamonds could be synthetic and not natural. Perhaps someone was salting Jeff’s area as a joke. We needed independent verification of the diamonds. I did everything I could. EDS analysis on the scanning electron microprobe at the Analytical Instrumentation Facility at NC State showed that they were diamonds with traces of iron, silicon and aluminum on the surface, consistent with a natural origin. The diamonds were also a variety of crystal shapes. Synthetic stones tend to be all of one crystal shape.
My own scientific expertise is in mineralogy, particularly thermodynamics and microanalysis. Minerals tell the entire story of the rock, but in this case, I couldn’t read it. The processes of making synthetic diamonds can be shrouded in secrecy, and the engineering moves faster than I can keep track of it. I needed an expert in diamonds, someone conversant in the ways to tell synthetic stones from natural stones. And there the project sat for many years. The Museum did not have the money to send the samples out for independent evaluation.
Fortunately for me, our new Director, Emlyn Koster, took an interest in the project. His commute every day took him past Diamonds Direct Crabtree, a North Carolina based diamond firm. They were diamond experts, why don’t we approach them? <Facepalm> Why didn’t I think of that?
The Vice President of Diamonds Direct Crabtree, Mr. Barak Henis, took a personal interest in the diamonds. Diamonds Direct has an ongoing relationship with the Gemological Institute of America, so they sponsored the Museum by sending five of the diamonds for evaluation. They saved us a great deal of money.
The verdict came back: the stones were natural diamond. The people at Diamonds Direct Crabtree were as excited as we were.
So, dear readers, the Museum of Natural Sciences, Diamonds Direct Crabtree, and I are pleased to announce the discovery of 10 new diamonds from North Carolina. This is exciting news for everyone. These diamonds are small, but it means we are one step closer to finding the source of diamonds in North Carolina. It also means that there is a scientific treasure trove waiting to tell us about the mantle far below North Carolina. I’ll take a look at that in later blog posts.
It also means we are one step closer to fulfilling Jeff Moyer’s legacy. Rest in peace, Jeff. You were right.
Pictures shown below were taken with the new Keyance Digital Microscope, purchased for Research and Collections thanks to a bequest from the estate of Renaldo Kuhler.
Salamanders are popular as pets in many countries. To satisfy this demand, they are harvested from the wild and transported across the planet. But moving animals around the world also moves their parasites and pathogens. Recently, a newly discovered species of chytrid fungus appears to have hitchhiked to Europe on the skin of imported pet Asian salamanders of the family Salamandridae (‘newts’). Researchers have determined that Asian newts have co-existed with this fungus for perhaps 30 million years, and during that time evolved some protection from it. Unfortunately, laboratory experiments have shown that the fungus can be deadly to salamanders that have never been exposed to it, elsewhere in the world (more).
Scientists have rightly recommended that the international trade of live salamanders be more tightly controlled to prevent the spread of this fungal pathogen into European and North American salamander populations. But the plight of the Asian newts, which are threatened by overharvesting for the same pet trade, has received little attention. Controlling the global trade of live salamanders is vital to ensuring the survival of the Asian newts, too.
The tailed amphibians, or salamanders, are beautiful and usually gentle creatures, so it’s not surprising that people enjoy keeping them in terraria and aquaria as pets. However, to supply the pet trade, wild salamanders are collected from around the world, especially the rainforests of Central America and the cool, mountain streams of Asia.
A recent paper reported that a newly discovered amphibian chytrid fungus Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (Bs) likely originated in Asia and hitchhiked to Europe on the skin of wild Asian newts imported to supply the pet trade.
The paper raised alarm that Bs now poses a threat to wild populations of European and North American salamanders. Already wild salamander populations in Europe appear to be declining. While this paper rightly sparked global alarm for the future of European and North American salamanders, the conservation crisis facing Asian newts themselves has not received enough attention.
More than one-third of all species of Southeast and East Asian newts are at risk of extinction, many due to overharvesting for the international pet trade. The Lao Newt (Laotriton laoensis) is an unusual, colorful species that lives only in a small part of northern Laos, and outside of any the country’s protected areas (more).
Shortly after the species was discovered and described to science in 2002, commercial collectors from Germany and Japan visited villages in Laos to obtain these rare newts for sale into the pet trade back at home (more). The government of Laos has since passed legislation banning the commercial trade of the newts in Laos, but unfortunately, illegal trade continues today. Many of the people who live near the Lao Newt are poor and unable to resist the money offered to them by illegal collectors, who then re-sell the newts to pet markets in Europe, Japan and the United States. Sadly, the Lao Newt is now Endangered in the wild, primarily due to illegal harvesting for the international pet trade.
Despite their protection in Laos, little can be done to stop the transportation and sale of Lao Newts once they leave the country, destined for the pet trade abroad. For example, no Asian newt species are currently listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international agreement that is intended to protect certain species from overexploitation.
The discovery of the origin of Bs presents a renewed opportunity to curb the sale of live Asian newts around the world. Lao Newts have not yet been tested for Bs, but the fungus has been in three other, very closely related species of Asian newts, and the Lao Newt probably carries it. Controlling the trade of live Asian newts will prevent European and North American salamanders from being further exposed to this fungal pathogen- and will also keep Asian newts safe in the wild.
Fortunately, some countries, including Australia, do not allow importing salamanders as pets. Other countries should follow suit to protect wild salamanders. In the meantime, many Asian newt species should be listed in the CITES convention. And countries around the world need to control the importation of live Asian newts as seriously as they do live poultry and livestock that also pose disease risks to domestic populations. Western and Asian countries should work together to curb the trade of live Asian newts. Doing so will keep Asian newts in the wild and the Western salamanders fungus-free. Otherwise, a global catastrophe to our world’s salamanders awaits.
Dr Jodi Rowley
Australian Museum Research Institute
Dr Bryan Stuart
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
Stuart, B. L., Rowley, J.J.L., Phimmachak, S., Aowphol, A. & Sivongxay, N. (2014). Salamander protection starts with the newt.Science 346 (6213): 1067-1068.