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Bringing Research to Light

February 18, 2011

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!

Sparta, NC, 5.1M, 3.1km depth

August 9, 2020
Epicenter map courtesy United States Geological Survey.

Anyone out of bed on this Sunday morning at 8:00 a.m. probably felt an earthquake. It was located in the mountains, near Sparta, NC. It was fairly shallow, about 2.3 miles down.

You can help out the United States Geological Survey with their Did You Feel It? Program. This citizen science program helps with models of seismic wave propagation through the upper crust, and prediction of the effects of future earthquakes. It will have input from people from all over three states.

Geologic maps of northwestern North Carolina, with the epicenter of the Sparta earthquake as a yellow star. On the left is the region from the 1985 Geologic Map of North Carolina, courtesy of the North Carolina Geological Survey. On the right is the same region, simplified to show the bounding faults. Southeast of the Gossan-Lead Fault to the Brevard Fault is the thrust sheet under discussion.

The epicenter was in part of the mountains we call the Eastern Blue Ridge in the most generic models. The geology of this part of the mountains is complicated, so we need some boundaries. You can see in the figure above that it can be simplified.

To the southeast is the Brevard Zone Fault, which is a major geologic feature, running from north of Atlanta, through Brevard (duh, geologists aren’t real creative with names). It crosses I-40 at Old Fort, right at the base of the big grade up the mountain to Black Mountain and Swannanoa. It runs through Marion and up to North Wilkesboro, where it splinters into several faults. When you travel 421 from Winston-Salem to Boone, you crest a hill east of Wilkesboro and have a splendid view of these faults in the Yadkin River valley.

To the southwest and northwest, the Eastern Blue Ridge is bounded by the Gossan-Lead Fault, as it’s known in Virginia. It has a few other names as it winds to the southwest. The Gossan-Lead Fault dives beneath this package of rock and forms the lower, bottom, border.

An unfortunate example of thrust faulting, with the fault marked, the motion indicated, and flags on the upper plate. Please contact me for proper attribution.

It’s a thrust sheet- the upper layer of a package of crust that was pushed from east to west over the edge of North America.  It ramped up onto the continent like a tractor-trailer rig hitting a small car. Several different collisions created the Appalachians, and thrust faults are the result.

This is a very simplified version of thrust faulting. It would take a lot more work to identify the actual fault, but in that region, it’s an old thrust fault.

Don’t panic.

This isn’t evidence of active faulting. Faults are the scars of plate tectonics, lacing the geologic maps of eastern North America from Alabama to Canada. I’ve described North Carolina’s faults as a creaky old house. Sometimes there’s a little motion on one to relieve residual stress. Creak. Crack. Earthquake. It’s fair to say that the stress is transferred to us.

Edit added on 10 August 2020: The good people at the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) have provided a Teachable Moments PowerPoint presentation about the Sparta, NC earthquake. It combines excellent science with good graphics. You can also find other goodies if you explore their site.

Rubies? Walks like a duck…..

April 6, 2020









Here’s a puzzle to keep you occupied.


  • It looks like a duck.
  • It quacks like duck.
  • It walks like a duck.

But when you do an X-Ray, it has the skeleton of a snake.

ruby maybe

Ruby (?) under plane light

UV ruby

Synthetic ruby (?) fluorescing under UV light

We received a magnificent donation of more than 400 gemstones (more on that later), all faceted. As part of the curation process, these need to be identified, or verified. This specimen was marked as a ruby. It’s red (looks like a duck) and it fluoresces in ultraviolet light (quacks like a duck). But the skeleton…….

The National Science Foundation funded an excellent infrared spectrometer for my lab, and one of the most useful attachments is Attenuated Total Refectance (ATR). The sample is held against a diamond, and the infrared beam bounces off. Anything you can put against that diamond- powder, lab alcohol, gemstones, anything except sulfuric acid- you can get a spectrum on. There’s a device to hold the sample down, and it’s even a torque wrench so you can’t tighten it too much. It’s robust enough that I use it to teach middle schoolers about spectroscopy.

ATR is great for mineral identification. It gives information about the basic crystalline framework for each different mineral. A ruby is the mineral corundum, aluminum oxide, of Al2O3. Here’s a corundum reference from RRUFF, which is a public database for mineral data.

Created with GIMP

Here’s how you read one of these. The graph shows areas where infrared radiation is absorbed. If there’s nothing there, 100% gets through. The “peaks” in this case hang down like stalagtites from the top of the graph. Units on the X-axis are reciprocal centimeters (cm-1), the number of waves per centimeter. If you want to think about it as frequency, low frequency is to the right and higher frequency is to the left. Error in the x is ±4 cm-1.

Corundum unks

But now let’s compare our unknowns with reference material. The RRUFF sample has a major absorbance at 553 cm-1, with a small shoulder peak at 634 cm-1. The reference from the Museum Collection, NCSM 4840, probably needs to be revisited. It has only an absorbance at 628 cm-1. Perhaps it is a synthetic mineral of some sort. The Ruby (?) unknown is our strange duck, and it, too, lacks the 553 cm-1 absorbance. So do the other two unknowns from this collection, a yellow sapphire and an “alexandrite” sapphire.

Next look at the RRUFF reference mineral. The peaks are nice and sharp. This comes from a lot of aluminum-oxygen bonds lined in exact crystalline marching order. The %transmittance on the y-axis is also about 40%. This is a very strong absorber. In all of our unknowns, the peaks are much weaker, and broader. This means that they are not as crystalline as the RRUFF reference, and it’s possible that we are looking at the coloring agent, scattered throughout the gemstone. The gemstones are less crystalline, which is common in synthetic minerals.

So, our red duck of a gemstone is not a corundum. It is also not:

  • Spinel
  • Garnet
  • Cuprite
  • Glass
  • Tourmaline (rubellite)
  • Red beryl

If you have ideas, or just want to fool around with the data, you can find reference materials for ATR at RRUFF to test your hypotheses. Download the spectrum, but when it come time to save it, use .csv instead of .txt. Then open it in Excel or another spreadsheet program and make a graph of the data. You may need to change to format on the number.

Good luck!



Then something changed without warning…

December 17, 2019

Stephen King had an interview on NPR where he shared his thoughts on horror. I can only find that interview in a format I can’t play, but the essential part was that there was horror in the everyday things that go very wrong: the family St. Bernard gets rabies, or a car is possessed and haunted, or a bullied schoolgirl becomes telekinetic. The interview would have been about 1999 or 2000, sometime after the death of our son, so I understood immediately. The horror that bends your mind and breaks your heart doesn’t come from the supernatural. It comes from the everyday.

I’ve tried for a week now to write a blog about the volcanic disaster on Whakaari/White Island, New Zealand. It just keeps turning into horror: a holiday excursion interrupted by a volcanic eruption. There were 47 people touring the island when it erupted without warning. At present, sixteen have died, and two are missing. You can get a scientific look at the Smithsonian Global Volcanism Project, a week-by-week and day-by-day view from GeoNet, which monitors the volcano, or a more human view from the New Zealand Herald’s coverage.

My mineralogical research is on the apatite mineral group, which contains fluorine, chlorine, OH (two-thirds of a water molecule), sulfate and carbonate. Listed in order, we can relate these to magmatic HF, HCl, H2O, H2SO4, and CO2, all the liquids and acids involved in catastrophic volcanic eruptions. I’ve been interested in pyroclastic eruptions for a long time now.

I can answer one of the questions many people want to know, so I’ll do that.

Why was there no warning?

Whakaakri/White Island is an andesite volcano, part of an island arc over a subduction zone. These volcanoes explode instead of flowing like Hawaiian basalt. They are inherently unpredictable, but volcanologists have made huge advances in monitoring over the last thirty years. Ground tilt, seismic activity, seismic signals for eruptions, infrasound, gas cloud monitoring….Active volcanoes like Soufrierre Hills in Montserrat and White Island in New Zealand are heavily monitored. Chlorine and sulfur come from the magma? Then monitor the gas cloud for increases in chlorine and sulfate. Harmonic tremors mean magma is on the move? Then wire this island with seismometers in a network. Does rising magma change the surface? Then install tilt meters to keep track. Some observatories listen in with infrasound, very low frequency sound, to detect the growl of an eruption, and lightening sensors to watch for the lightening in the erupting ash cloud.

Here is the disconnect between geologists and the public: If asked to draw a volcano, people will usually draw a stratovolcano flying a little plume of steam. Geologists will draw what is underground. Prediction involves what’s underground. Once it’s above ground, it’s too fast and too late.

There’s the magma chamber underground that we can only sample after an eruption, when the contents are spread out over the countryside. Underground, water in the magmatic liquid builds up as magma cools and crystallizes. Water bubbles eventually form, and it is exactly, I mean exactly like a two-liter soda dropped on the floor. The pressure drops, the bubbles expand exponentially, and the volume of the liquid plus bubbles skyrockets, breaking the container. The difference is about 600°C and a lot of rock instead of cola. Also imagine gas from two two-liter bottles with only one exit. A magma sometimes has input of gas or fluids from another magma lower in the system, triggering an eruption.

White Island

This is Bingham Canyon , a fossil hydrothermal system. The different colors are different parts of the system. It was mined for copper and some gold. Picture courtesy of Google Maps. The scale bar is one mile.

Underground is the hydrothermal system surrounding the magma. Hydrothermal is exactly what it sounds like- hot water. These systems are extensively studied because they supply geothermal energy and form ore deposits. They wax and wane, like at Yellowstone, and can supply surface clues to the temperature underground. In addition, Whakaari/White Island is an entire mountain under the sea, which is trying to get into the volcanic system all the time.

There’s a complex interplay between the magma and the hydrothermal system. The magma supplies heat to the system, and sometimes magmatic fluids. The hydrothermal system sometimes gets into the magma or heated rocks and things explode, what is called a phreatic eruption. (Here’s a link to a good interview from a New Zealand geologist. ) The hot circulating groundwater of the hydrothermal system also changes the rocks into something softer and less competent, a process called hydrothermal alteration. Hydrothermal alteration puts the “yellow” in Yellowstone. The hydrothermal system may also deposit minerals as it cools, making an impermeable barrier.

Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. The yellowish color is hydrothermally altered rock. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

The deep magmatic processes and the hydrothermal system can’t be monitored directly. You can stick a thermometer in a fumerole up top. You can monitor the gases leaking out the top. You can look for large-scale seismic signals. The large-scale catastrophes involving eruptions usually give clues for warning. Small scale phreatic eruptions give no warning, but are equally deadly. What is going on at depth is generally quiet until something changes without warning.

Whakaari/White Island experienced a phreatic eruption with no warning last Monday, killing eight people immediately. The numbers of the injured who are dying is creeping upwards. At Mount Unzen and Galeras, teams of professional volcanologists were killed. At Unzen, the lava dome collapsed without warning, uncorking a pyroclastic flow. At Galeras, scientists were caught in the crater by a (probable) phreatic eruption with no warning. At Mount Ontake, a phreatic eruption killed sixty-three tourists without warning. All of these cases are similar. Based on the current conditions and state of knowledge, it was safe to do what they were doing. Then something changed. Without warning.

Communications between geologists and the public fall into the gap between geological time and human schedules. Volcanologists have all studied, seen, and experienced enough that they can tell you with a fair amount of certainty what’s going to happen. They can even tell you where the uncertainties are. The drawback is that volcanoes that explode are very unpredictable and have their own clocks and calendars. People tend to ignore the warnings because the warning seems vague, indefinite. It’s not a time and date for the calendar.

Then something changes underground, without warning. Human history shows us that this always happens sooner than anyone really expected, and that management by panic attack never works.

Historian Will Durant said it best: Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without warning.

100 Years of the Mineralogical Society of America

August 30, 2019

MSA_Centennial_Ambassadors_logo_B&WWhat I Did on my Summer Vacation……

This year marks the Centenary of the Mineralogical Society of America (MSA). MSA is a non-profit professional association.  I’m proud of all the things that MSA does. The foremost is the journal American Mineralogist . Issues from 1916 to 1999 are freely available to everyone. MSA has long been dedicated to education, and the Reviews in Mineralogy series, now Reviews in Mineralogy and Geochemistry, provides affordable and in-depth looks at specific topics for geology students and professionals. The website has resources for mineral collectors and teachers, too.

I was fortunate to spend two days in the soggy, muggy heat of Washington, DC this summer at the MSA Centenary Symposium. The Symposium was two days of talks to examine the current state of the science, and look at where we are going.

The talks were fascinating. If you need a bit of science this Labor Day Weekend, in the air conditioning of your home, I highly recommend the videos of these talks. Standouts are about mineralogy and environmental sciences, the talks about diamonds, and the inclusions in diamonds from the deep mantle. Personal favorites are about the apatite group minerals. The two final talks about gemstones, and determining their sources, are extremely illuminating- it’s getting harder and harder to tell synthetic diamonds from the real thing. This link takes you to the whole list of videos. Don’t miss the talks on the mineralogy of Mars- at the end you’ll hear a room full of scientists agree that it’s time for a return mission to Mars.

Between AmMin and the videos, we have you covered for science this weekend.

And don’t get me started on the reception that was held in the Smithsonian’s Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals. It’s not every day or night you get to hang out by the Hope Diamond for as long as you want, with every mineralogist you know.

Hope Diamond

The “Stranger Things” about Megalodon

October 16, 2018

Written by Lindsay Roupe Abrams, Paleontology Collections Technician

When the monster enters our dimension, it’s like a shark breaching the water. Very much like a shark, it drags its prey back into its home, where it feeds.” – The Duffer Brothers on their inspiration for the Demogorgon

It’s that time of year when the temperature has dropped, Halloween is around the corner, and “Stranger Things” usually returns to our TV screens. Unfortunately, the season 3 premiere date has been delayed until sometime in 2019 so we are stuck daydreaming about what our favorite group of kids and Upside Down-dwelling monsters are up to in Hawkins, Indiana. Speaking of Upside Down-dwelling monsters, did you know that the Demogorgon was inspired by sharks, like those in the movie Jaws? Aaron Sims, the person who came up with the design of the Demogorgon, describes the creature as “this entity that appears from time to time to feed,” he told The Verge, “so I imagined myself as this [creature] that hasn’t evolved much over hundreds of millions of years because it’s so perfect at what it does.” When one thinks about the sharks that inspire the sci-fi genre, including this summer’s blockbuster hit “The Meg,” one in particular comes to mind–Megalodon. Megalodon is the largest shark to EVER exist, maxing out at 60 feet long with 7-inch teeth. The big bad wolf had nothing on these guys.

Megalodon thrived 20-2.6 million years ago in our coastal waters by feeding on large marine mammals and other fish.  In fact, they regularly chomped down on small whales. We know they favored whales because we find whale bones in the fossil record with slash marks caused by megalodon teeth. In fact, their teeth are sometimes even found lodged in the whale bones! Sharks are mostly made of cartilage so their fossil record is limited to teeth and vertebrae. The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences houses a large collection of megalodon teeth that have been collected all across the coastal plain of North Carolina including Wilmington, Aurora, and New Bern. North Carolina is so abundant in these fossils that a festival is held every year in Aurora to celebrate the fossil history of our area ( and the megalodon tooth is the official fossil of the State of North Carolina.

Image is of a drawer of megalodon teeth. The teeth are the triangular-shaped tan to dark gray objects. The background is white boxes which hold the megalodon teeth.

The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences houses over 700 of these teeth!

A large portion of our collections of Megalodon teeth were collected from the Lee Creek Mine near Aurora, Beaufort County, NC. The reason so many megalodon teeth are found here is because the Lee Creek Mine contains the late Miocene-early Pliocene Yorktown Formation, a 10-5 million year old deposit of marine sediments that covers the coastal plains of Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, and overlaps perfectly with the time period when Megalodon thrived along the coast. Also, unlike us lowly humans, sharks replace their teeth every time they lose one. A great white shark can go through over 2,000 teeth over the course of its life span! That’s a lot of teeth to lose and later be found by a wily fossil hunter.

Image is of a map of the eastern United States. The ocean is dark blue. The land is green. The white shows where the ocean was during the Miocene Period. Three North Carolina towns are labeled with orange dots, including Aurora, New Bern, and Wilmington. The upper left hand corner is an image of a megalodon tooth from Aurora, North Carolina. The triangular-shaped tan object is the megalodon tooth. The background is white with a collections label in the bottom right hand corner.

Megalodon tooth (NCSM 9545) found at Lee Creek Mine near Aurora, NC, a marine deposit from when Megalodon thrived. **Geographic map of the Early Miocene from

We know Megalodon was a lean, mean eating machine, much like the demogorgon, that was able to thrive for 15+ million years even with their massive food requirements. According to the blockbuster movie “The Meg”, megalodon could still be lurking in the deep depths of ocean trenches far away from our coasts. Sorry to disappoint, but this is very unlikely. A pair of megalodon teeth were dredged up from the ocean floor by the HMS Challenger in 1875 but were determined to have drifted from their original coastal location. There are multiple theories surrounding the disappearance of Megalodon from our coastal waters but many believe they were outcompeted by smaller-bodied marine mammals and fish that didn’t require quite the amount of food intake, including their living relatives–great white sharks. Great whites took over the role as the modern monsters of our oceans and expanded their range across all ocean basins from tropical to temperate zones.  “The Meg” might not exist anymore but they certainly left their mark on North Carolina, along with inspiring the monsters of the sci-fi thrillers of today!

Image is of a megalodon jaw on display. The megalodon jaw is white with triangular-shaped dark gray and white teeth. In the center of the image is a woman pretending to be eaten by the megalodon.

Megalodon jaw at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences…scary!

Come learn more about the real-life monsters that inspired the Demogorgon while enjoying our Stranger Things-themed activities and games at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ The Upside Down Halloween, October 26th 7-10 pm.

Lindsay Roupe Abrams’ Paleontology Collections Technician position is funded through a National Science Foundation: Collections in Support of Biological Research (NSF: CSBR) Grant to the Paleontology Unit at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.


Where Did My Summer Go?

August 10, 2018

Written by Ty’Shonna Sims

This Summer I had the opportunity to intern at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in the Paleontology Unit. This internship was funded by a National Science Foundation: Collections in support of Biological Research (NSF: CSBR) grant. Throughout the summer I have learned a lot!

Being “behind the scenes” in the museum is so amazing, I’ve learned many things and have dealt with various kinds of specimens. From re-housing invertebrate and vertebrate specimens, to cleaning dinosaur bones to help mitigate pyrites disease, how to take two dimensional pictures of specimens in the Paleobotany collection, and how to make three dimensional models of specimens through photogrammetry. Here are a couple of things I found interesting this summer!

Photo of a large tooth of Carcharodon Megalodon NCSM: 9545. The tooth is the gray-ish triangular-shaped object in the center of the image. It is sitting on a black, rectangular piece of foam, and the background is a grayish-white table surface.

A large tooth of Carcharodon megalodon NCSM: 9545

This picture is cool! Look how big that tooth is and it is super sharp. The tooth belonged to a Megalodon shark. Megalodon sharks were one of the largest predators that ever lived. Their large, serrated teeth would have enabled them to eat large fish and other sharks as well as whales.

Photo of Cretaceous crabs NCSM: 4946, NCSM: 5974 Avitelmessus grapsoideus. The crabs are the the grayish-brown objects in the center of the photo. They are sitting on a black rectangle of foam. The background is grayish.

Two Cretaceous crabs NCSM: 4946, NCSM: 5974 Avitelmessus grapsoideus.

This invertebrate must have been delicious. But I’m allergic! Avitellmessus grapsoideus is an extinct species of Cretaceous crab. There are over 4500 species of crabs most of which live in coastal areas. Some crabs like the Japanese spider crab can live to be 100 years old. Some things that are called crabs like “hermit crabs” and “horseshoe crabs” are not actually crabs.

A photo of two crabs showing their undersides. The crab on the left is a male, the crab on the right is a female.

Male (NCSM 5974) and female crab (NCSM:4946) Avitellmessus grapsoideus. These are the same crabs that were in the previous photo.

This summer I was taught how to tell this difference between a male and female crabs. This is a picture of the two Avitellmessus grapsoideus specimens flipped over. If the midsection of the abdomen is narrow, then it is a male. If the midsection of the abdomen is wide, it’s a female. Which makes sense because many female crabs carry their eggs. So, in this case the crab on the left is a male and the crab on the right is a female.

Photo of a large fossil tortoise shell. The turtle shell takes up most of the photo and is the large domed-shaped object sitting on a black rectangle.

Photo of a large fossil tortoise shell.

This tortoise shell is HUGE! It looks like a huge puzzle that someone had to put the pieces together.

Photo of one side of the skull of an Edmontosaurus NCSM: 23119. The skull takes up most of the photo.

One side of the skull of an Edmontosaurus NCSM: 23119.

Edmontosaurus which means “Edmonton Lizard”. This skull is really cool! I like it because someone has cleverly cut out a picture of an eye and placed it on the specimen, so it’s literally looking at you. This was a slow-moving dinosaur but had senses helped it to avoid predators. Edmontosaurus was a herbivore but as big as this is, it looks like if people lived at the same time as dinosaurs (which of course they didn’t), it might have wanted to eat humans too!

Having been an intern here this summer really puts into perspective of how wonderful this world is and how many things I never knew existed. There are still new fossils and species of live organisms yet to be discovered. I truly recommended doing things that are out of your comfort zone because I did and I learned a lot.

Ty’Shonna Sims’ internship was funded by a National Science Foundation Collections in Support of Biological Research (NSF:CSBR) grant awarded to the Paleontology Unit at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.


3-D Modeling of Museum Fossils

July 30, 2018

Written by Neha Patel

This summer, during my National Science Foundation: Collections in Support of Biological Research (NSF: CSBR) internship with the Paleontology Unit at the North Carolina Science Museum I learned many things. But, I think the most interesting thing that I learned was photogrammetry. Photogrammetry is the process of creating a 3-D image of a fossil. The fossil that I focused on for this project was a Gonioclymenia sp. (NCSM 8403).

Photo of the top surface of NCSM 4803 Gonioclymenia sp. The image shows a coiled shell and a scale bar

View of top surface of NCSM 4803 Gonioclymenia sp.

Before delving further into the process of photogrammetry, let me first tell you about the wonderful fossil itself. Gonioclymenia sp. is from the Devonian period which lasted from 416 million years ago to 358 million years ago, during the Paleozoic Era. This fossil is an ammonite. Ammonites are now extinct, but they are part of a group of marine mollusks known as cephalopods.

The biggest reason I became so interested in this fossil is it is a very pretty, shiny specimen. This specimen was originally found in Morocco, and prior to its arrival in the Paleontology Collections had been prepared, trimmed and polished. This type of ammonite is commonly sold in fossil and rock shops and this one came to the museum via a private donation.

Photo of the underside of NCSM 4803 Gonioclymenia sp. Images shows a coiled black and gray ammonite with a rectangular scale bar.

Underside of NCSM 4803 Gonioclymenia sp.

The process of creating a 3-D image is actually quite time consuming. In order to accomplish it correctly, the first thing I had to do was take pictures of the specimen. I did this is using a light box and a professional camera. In this case, I used a Canon Mark II camera, along with a Fotodiox light box. Also, since this was a larger fossil, I used a regular lens as opposed to a macro lens.

Image of both the light box and camera used to create the 3-D model.The lightbox is the black rectangular object on the left of the image. The camera is the black object to the lower right of the image.

Image of both the light box and camera used to create the 3-D model.

In order to correctly create a 3-D model of the fossil, I had to take pictures using a tripod at three different heights; from the top of the light box, from the middle of the light box, and from the bottom of the light box. This is done so that the fossil is visible from all vantage points. I had to do this for both the top and the underside of the fossil.

Image of a woman wearing dark pants, a dark shirt, and a baseball cap taking a picture of the fossil using the tripod and the light box.

Image of me taking a picture of the fossil using the tripod and the light box.

The most tedious part of this entire process is I had to rotate the fossil on a turntable about 10 to 15 after every photo is taken until the fossil has been turned a complete 360º. It’s definitely monotonous and can get boring, but that’s the price we pay in order to have something cool to show off in the end.

Image of NCSM 4803 Gonioclymenia sp. on the turntable. The fossil is the gray and black coiled object in the center of the photo. It is sitting on a round turntable that has been covered in newspaper.

Image of NCSM 4803 Gonioclymenia sp. on the turntable

Finally, once all of the pictures had been taken, I transferred them to a program called Agisoft PhotoScan Professional. I then used this program, through various complicated steps that I will not bore you with, to generate the 3-D image of the fossil. Instead, I will include the link to the final product that you may want to take a gander at! Just click on the following link to view this pretty, shiny fossil in all its 3-D glory:

Neha Patel’s Internship is funded through a National Science Foundation Collections in Support of Biological Research (NSF: CSBR) grant to the Paleontology Unit at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.


Scouting Exploration through Citizen Science

March 12, 2018

The newest merit badge, Exploration, encourages Boy Scouts to discover new things about their world through hands-on research, be it fieldwork or lab work. This mission is shared by the citizen science movement, where scientists partner with citizens to collect data and run research projects. If scouts start teaming up with citizen science projects we could not only check-off a lot of merit badge requirements, but also make important contributions to a range of scientific questions.

The key requirement of the Exploration merit badge is to plan and carry out an expedition. While the term “expedition” brings to mind dog sled teams marching towards the North Pole, there are plenty of options close to home, and the citizen science community is a great way to find the right project.

As a scientist and Assistant Scout Master, I saw the Exploration merit badge as a perfect opportunity to bridge the gap between scouts and citizen science. We joined North Carolina Candid Critters, a project where volunteers run camera traps to help study wildlife.   The project provided training, loaned us cameras, and offered GPS points on public land where they needed cameras run.

Our troop signed up to run camera traps at Elk Knob State Park. The protocol involves strapping a camera trap to a tree and leaving it there for three weeks; our expedition involved two backpacking trips to the park, one to set the cameras, and a second to pick them back up. These trips required extensive planning, not only the normal camping and food preparation, but also lugging extra gear, learning how to use the camera traps and GPS, and deciding who would set the various cameras scattered across randomly selected points in the park.

As with any good exploration, the work wasn’t easy, and we had to overcome night-hikes, rainstorms, and freezing temperatures. We learned that hiking to points off-trail is a lot harder than hiking on trails, and that contour maps are your friend.


The best part was finally looking through the memory cards to see what animals we caught on camera. We used a computer program to look through the pictures, identify the animals, and then upload all the data to the Candid Critters project where they double-checked our IDs and saved our pictures and data in the Smithsonian’s eMammal project.


By looking at the pictures we discovered some interesting things about the mammals of Elk Knob State Park. First, they have black bears; curious bears that sometimes munch on camera traps. Second, we found two species only found in the most mountainous parts of North Carolina: red squirrel and Appalachian cottontail. We got lots of other species on our cameras including deer, gray squirrels, turkey, and humans.

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We learned even more once we downloaded our data from the eMammal site and started making graphs and comparisons. We wrapped up the merit badge with a trip to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences where we analyzed data and wrote a report. For example, we found that bears were surprisingly nocturnal, that deer were the most common species, and that Elk Knob State Park had higher diversity of species than two more developed areas close to our home in Raleigh. In addition to our own discoveries, these data will also be used by scientists in the Candid Critters project, and possibly by others who access it through the eMammal database.

This project represented the best aspects of citizen science: it gave non-experts a first-hand look at the scientific process, it allowed them to make their own discoveries, and it also generated high quality data useful for future research.

I hope our project will also serve as an example for other scouts interested in the Exploration Merit badge by showing how citizen science projects can help provide the ideas and opportunities for discovery. It’s not just camera traps, scientists all around the world are launching projects that need help from the public to make their discovery, from cats to rats, birds to bees, stars to Mars – there’s so much more that needs exploring! [by @RolandKays]

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New Paleontology Cabinetry Installation Completed!

September 11, 2017

Written by Jacob VanVeldhuizen, Paleontology Collections Technician

Picture of newly installled white cabinets.

Installed row of new cabinets.

It is with great pleasure that I say we have finally finished installing the new cabinetry in the paleontology collection. It took us six months and eight days to remove approximately 350 old specimen cabinets and install 142 new specimen cabinets in their place. Both the removal and installation process ended up being simpler and took a lot less time than expected.

Picture of a newly installed cabinet without a center divider. Inside the cabinet are boxes containing fossils

Larger cabinet without center divider.

The old specimen cabinets were removed by having someone push a cabinet from a row onto the forks of a forklift. The forklift then lowered the cabinet and set it on the ground where a separate group of people maneuvered the cabinet into a holding area. The old cabinets then remained in this holding area until a museum looking for cabinets came and got them or were taken to State surplus to be sold. Once a row of cabinets was removed, the old wooden base was chopped up and thrown out. The area was then swept and vacuumed.

Picture of a larger cabinet with center divider. Inside the cabinet are boxes containing fossil clams.

Larger cabinet with center divider.

After cleaning the area, a row of new specimen cabinets was installed. First, we had to install the larger cabinets, which were easy to move around with a pallet jack as they came with a metal pallet base. These pallet bases also meant that we didn’t have to install our own separate base for the new cabinetry to sit on.

Photo of three summer interns using an orange pallet jack to install a new large cabinet (left side of image).

Summer interns Elizabeth Altier, Mark Reyes and Chilea Dickson installing one of the larger cabinets.

The trickiest part of installing the larger cabinets was making sure that the row they were creating was straight. This required a lot of measuring, line drawing, eyeballing, and rearranging before the row was finally set. Next, we had to install the smaller cabinets on top of the larger cabinets. This involved using a group of people on the ground to push the cabinet on to the forks of a forklift.

Picture of a woman sitting on a yellow and black forklift giving a "thumbs up." On the front of the forklift is a smaller cabinet. e

Lilly Ridley from Facilities using a forklift to help us install one of the smaller cabinets.

The forklift then lifted the cabinet to the top of the row where a separate group of people caught and maneuvered the cabinet into place. The smaller cabinet was then secured to the larger cabinet using a series of self-tapping screws. Overall, it took about a day and a half to remove and install a row cabinetry.

Photo of the team installing one of the smaller cabinets on top of a larger cabinet. A man in a blue shirt is using a yellow and black forklift to lift a white cabinet onto other white cabinets.

The team installing one of the smaller cabinets on top of a row of larger cabinets.

After a row of new cabinets was installed, the fossils then needed to be transferred to their new homes. This was by far the most time consuming and arduous task of the cabinetry installation process. The transferring of fossils required moving nearly 147,000 specimen’s drawer by drawer. Some of these drawers were packed with numerous small fossils, each in their own individual box, while others had large and extremely heavy ones. Once a row was filled with transferred fossils, we moved on to the next row and repeated the process.

Photo of a man in a green shirt pushing a cart full of Pliocene whale ear bones (foreground), next to woman in overalls leaning against white cabinets.

Summer interns, Elizabeth Altier and Mark Reyes, moving a drawer full of Pliocene whale ear bones to new cabinetry.

Next Up: Rehousing. Now begins the task of rehousing the fossils using archival materials and boxes. This task will also help us look for and treat fossils in the collection that are suffering from Byne’s and pyrite disease, a subject for a future blog post.

Trish and I couldn’t have completed this new cabinetry installation without the help from these fine folks: Elizabeth Altier, Khai Button, Chilea Dickson, Madison Dillard, Mark Reyes, Lilly Ridley, Dick Webb, Michael Burch, Janet Edgerton, Jeremy Jones, Aaron Giterman, Lindsay Zanno, Lisa Herzog, Haviv Avrahami, David Button, Jason Bourke, and Jens Kosch. Thank you for all your help!

Lastly, if you or someone you know would like some old specimen cabinets let us know. We have approximately 98 cabinets left up for grabs. Email myself or Trish if you are interested.

This project, the Paleontology summer interns and the Paleontology Collections Technician are fund by a National Science Foundation: Collections in Support of Biological Research (NSF:CSBR) Grant to the Paleontology Unit at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.


Solar Eclipse 2017, Great Cosmic Connection

August 31, 2017

It seems safe to say that nothing brings a nation together like a total solar eclipse. For the many months leading up to August 21, 2017, people across the United States geared up for what was for many a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness a total solar eclipse. For the first time in 99 years a total solar eclipse would cross the entire Continental US, giving Americans the rare chance to unite under a cosmic event.

We are lucky planetary voyagers on Earth, residents on, as far as we know, the only planet in our Solar System that, due to perfect geometry in the Sun-Earth-Moon, experiences a total eclipse of the Sun, enabling the Sun’s atmosphere — the solar corona — to glow outward from the disk of the Moon.

Like many others around the country, this was my first total solar eclipse, viewed from Sylva, North Carolina, a small mountainous town in Western NC, just within the 70-mile-wide swath of totality crossing from Oregon to South Carolina. Two multimedia staff facilitated our live-streaming of the event from the Southwestern Community College campus, enabling us to bring the experience of totality back to our Daily Planet Theater in Raleigh. (Raleigh experienced ~93% totality.)

Museum livestream set-up on the Southwestern Community College campus (Photo: Matt Zeher)

Museum livestream set-up on the Southwestern Community College campus (Photo: Matt Zeher)

The excitement leading up to the eclipse, the enormous generation of public interest and engagement made possible by social media and online news sites, was likely more than for any other celestial event, and a rare moment when astronomy and the cosmos can connect millions of eager people. Even as a scientist, I too marveled at the Moon’s on-schedule — to the second! — arrival at the edge of the Sun, precisely the time and place predicted by meticulous calculations of  astronomers throughout history.

Our team came equipped with multiple cameras and AV equipment, and a Hydrogen-Alpha solar telescope, through which all but the wavelengths for hydrogen are filtered, rendering the Sun a gleaming orange ball. With a good eye (and some magnification), solar prominences can be seen looking like “fuzz” along the edges of the Sun.

The Sun seen through our H-alpha solar telescope prior to the eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017. Solar prominences can be seen at ~11:00. The photo was taken with a Sony alpha-6000 against the eye piece. (Photo: R. Smith)

The Sun, seen through our H-alpha solar telescope prior to the eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017. Solar prominences can be seen at ~11:00 in the image above. The photo was taken with a Sony alpha-6000 against the eyepiece. (Photo: R. Smith)

As the Moon changed from a thin to an ever-larger black crescent creeping across the Sun’s surface, approaching inevitable totality, excitement was palpable in the gathered crowd.


Beginning of the eclipse at ~1:06 pm ET, as seen through a white-light filter. Sunspots are faintly visible along the midline of the Sun, and some clouds are seen darkening the solar surface. The photo was taken with a Sony alpha-6000 against the telescope eyepiece. (Photo: R. Smith)

In spite of the beautiful views of the encroaching eclipse through telescopes, approaching totality was evident in other, equally spectacular observations. Unusual crescents on the pavement and other surfaces, projected through the leaves of trees (nature’s pinhole cameras) appeared all around us. Some forward-thinking folks brought their own pinholes by way of colanders, cardboard boxes, or other contraptions, expanding the number of miniature eclipses — windows to our solar system — that surrounded our feet.

The partial eclipse projected onto the street through spaces in the leaves. (Photo: R. Smith)

The partial eclipse projected onto the street through spaces in the leaves. (Photo: R. Smith)

One of the most memorable observations was the dimming of the light to an eerie level, not quite like the light during twilight or dawn, but strange and unearthly. As the sky dimmed, the temperature started dropping (as much as 10 degrees or more!), and the shadows remained strangely sharp, unlike what one experiences with clouds or coming dusk. Crickets started chirping, and anecdotes of odd animal behavior were later reported by numerous observers across the country; a nearby friend reported that her little mules took naps during maximum eclipse, and local deer stood quietly in nearby fields. I wondered, what were my animals doing at 93% totality?


I wonder, what did Giovanni, one of my little donkeys waiting back at home, think during the solar eclipse?

Strange dimming of the sky and surroundings just before totality in Sylva, NC. (Photo: R. Smith)

Strange dimming of the sky and surroundings just before totality in Sylva, NC. (Photo: R. Smith)

During those final seconds before totality, all looked skyward with eclipse glasses on, waiting for the view to grow dark, that long awaited moment when we could remove our safety measures and peek with our unaided eyes at the Sun itself. Clouds seemed to hover nearby but didn’t encroach on the view from where we stood, giving way to arguably the most spectacular natural phenomenon I have ever personally witnessed. The sky was a dark blue/black and the Sun hovered like a jewel, its atmosphere — the solar corona — streaming magnificently outward. It was like peeking beyond our own protected planet to something cosmic and awesome, a connection to the universe beyond.

No regrets remain for taking a few seconds from looking up to snap this view of the total eclipse, taken with a Sony alpha-6000. (Photo: R. Smith)

No regrets remain for taking a few seconds from looking up to snap this view of the total eclipse, taken with a Sony alpha-6000. (Photo: R. Smith)

Equally striking was the sense of planetary connectedness that extended beyond just the personal viewing of an amazing cosmic event. The sharing of images and experiences across the nation just after the eclipse, and continuing to now more than a week past the event, seemed particularly unusual in its single shared viewpoint: the total solar eclipse was spectacular, and even those who experienced the partial eclipse could feel part of a larger community of onlookers. There were no discernible alternate sides to the singular sentiment that this was a phenomenon not to be forgotten.

View of the total solar eclipse from Sylva, NC. The solar corona shines outward from the eclipsed disk of the Sun, and the pink of solar prominences from the Sun's chromosphere are visible (Photo: Matt Zeher)

View of the total solar eclipse from Sylva, NC. The solar corona shines outward from the eclipsed disk of the Sun, and the pink of solar prominences from the Sun’s chromosphere are visible (Photo: Matt Zeher)

Like no other natural phenomenon I can recall, this total solar eclipse connected us to our star, our solar system, our environment, our communities, and (this time) to a uniquely American experience. At ~ 2 minutes in length, we are further reminded of the dynamic nature of the planets, how they are not static orbs hanging fixed in space but rather move in specified orbits about the Sun, with moons that in turn orbit their home planets. We are rarely able to witness this directly, simply by looking up, but rather do so by more indirect connections to the cosmos, such as day-to-night regularity, seasons, and the occasional meteor or comet passing by.

During the total eclipse, we see the entirety of the Moon and Sun passing each other, cosmic travelers themselves. As the eclipse passes, dropping a seemingly alien veil on our planet for a moment, we are reminded that the comfortable habitability of Earth is the lucky result of being in the perfect spot in space, and it is fleeting.

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The Museum’s live stream of the total solar eclipse can be seen anytime by visiting our livestream link.