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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!


February 4, 2021

One thought leads to another.

Buddhists call it “monkey mind.” Some of us have bigger monkeys than others, and more of them, too. Putting vegan cheese on my sandwich led me to wonder about vegan milk, and how much milk one could get from a vegan, which prompted the revelation that it probably depended on how long one had a vegan hooked up to the milking machine, but that notion conflicted with vegan ideals about cruelty to living things. Luckily the conflict derailed the train of thought and I could eat my sandwich in peace.

The worst thing about monkey mind is that the bigger monkeys can’t be chased away for long. I’ve been returning to the thought of what it means to be American. Recent scientific studies changed the answer and the question to a much larger context, a polite way to say that the monkeys got loose.  

For the longest time, I thought that it was travelling, moving. Everybody here came from somewhere else. Even the Native Americans and First Nations who greeted European arrivals came across the Bering Land bridge, or hugged the shoreline in boats. They were all going somewhere new, driven by…what? Curiosity? Boredom? Hunger? A vague feeling that someplace else has got to be better than this place? All of the above? Whatever reasons, they took the whole family, had no maps and didn’t stop to ask directions.

Movement is a fundamental part of the American psyche. Movement and speed. A surefire conversation starter in the US is, “So, what are you driving these days?” or , “What was your favorite car?” The travelling thread runs all through American popular music. You don’t have to look far- Springsteen springs to my out-of-date mind immediately, and the monkeys start singing Born to Run.

Active leisure pursuits support the fundamental nature of movement. Hiking, hunting, kayaking, fishing, running, bicycling, shopping. Yeah, even shopping. You could argue that it’s not so much about consumerism as it is about getting out and being stimulated by new sounds and sights. Hunting and slaying a big chocolate chip cookie is just a bonus.

We’re American. We go to new places. We go. But then the pack of monkeys took off in a different direction when reading gave me a different perspective.. 

There’s good agreement that Homo erectus arose about 1.9 million years ago in Africa. Now there’s good data showing that H. erectus lasted until 108,000 to 117,000 years ago, in Java . That is a heck of a long walk. Was Homo erectus just following the nose for food, or was there a fundamental primate curiosity leading them? Many species migrate back and forth, or spread to new territory. H. erectus walked.

Modern Homo sapiens is traced back to 300,000 years before the present. In 2019, a paper pushed bipedal locomotion in primates back to 11.6 million years. Get up and go isn’t just American, it’s a primate birthright with roots even older than Homo erectus.

Then a new article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) suggests that a genetic group of humans was isolated in northeastern Siberia. Gray wolves were likewise isolated by the vagaries of climate. The outcome was domestication of wolves at about 23,000 years ago. The two groups later walked out of the area, one split of canines and humans headed to the east and one to south.   

It’s no coincidence that most dogs know the words “walk” and “ride” and get excited. Every day, my moose-sized dogs alerted me to activity on the street outside the house. My neighbors are re-enacting an ancient ritual of partnership, walking with the dog.

That is the fundamental thing that makes modern humans different. Not bipedalism, or agriculture, or war, or binocular vision. It’s the fact that dogs are part of our tribe, and we are part of their pack. We move, we travel, we go new places, and the dog goes along for the journey.

The ancient partnership between man and dog also explains how I feel with the loss of my dog, Colby, after 12 years. We recovered from surgeries at the same time, we comforted teenage girls through growing up, we walked the neighborhood countless times, and we grew gray in the face together. I was his human. Seizures and loss of his back legs meant a final trip to the NCSU Vet School. The dog bed is empty, as is the patch of morning sunshine, as am I.

Earth Science Week 2020: Geologic Maps

October 18, 2020

Of course, my computer had to misbehave during Earth Science Week. I got behind with my posting, so I’ll try to catch up now.

The 1842 Geologic Map of North Carolina, by Elisha Mitchell. North Carolina was on the cutting edge of science, even then. UNC Geological Sciences is still housed in Mitchell Hall.

Geologic Maps Day is all about the importance of basic geological mapping. What kind of rocks are under your feet? How old are they? Trace elements may be present that are not good for your health? Where are the faults? Are the faults active? What other geological hazards are present?

Geologic Information Systems (GIS) revolutionized the science of Geography. As a senior at UNC in the 1980’s, I thought that Geography was dying. The advent of small computers and GIS software brought it back, healthier than ever. GIS also made Geologic maps more accessible than ever. One place to start is the interactive geologic map. It’s based on the 1985 geologic map of North Carolina, so it’s a bit out of date, but generally correct.

The geologic map you need, for curiosity, for real estate purchases, for development, for research, can likey be found online. There are Google Earth files for each state in .kml format, but these are not necessarily detailed enough for me. The better first place to look is the North Carolina Geological Survey. The first thing you might need to know is the Quadrangle you want. The United State Geological Survey divided the USA into squares of various sizes. You can find the one you want at the NCGS, too: here. Once you have that information, you can find the map you need.

Screenshot of hte USGS Geological Map Datatbase. The “List Pubs in View” button is highlighted on the right.

The United State Geological Survey Geological Map Database is what I use most often. I find the Map View search to be the most useful. (It uses Adobe Flash player, so you may need to give your computer permission to run the plug-in. Also, Flash won’t be supported after December, so who knows what will happen?) You can zoom to the spot you want, hit the button on the right “List Pubs in View,” and you get links to the USGS publication there.

Screenshot of geologic maps of North Carolina, courtesy of the USGS Geologic Maps Database. There’s even maps of the geology under Onlsow Bay, lower right.

The publications and maps can be downloaded in a variety of formats, some of which can be used on your smart phone. When I started in Geology in 1978, I never would have thought that I would be using my cell phone as a combination GPS and GIS device. Google Earth alone would have kept me occupied for days.

Another less obvious way to learn about your geology underfoot: field trip guidebooks. The Carolina Geological Society meets once a year for a fall field trip, and publishes the guidebook and articles on the geology visited. It’s all free to download in pdf format. It’s the single best introduction to your local geology, because you can drive around just like the CGS and visit the sites.

Mountain Press has the Roadside Geology and Geology Underfoot series. These are akin to geologic field trip guidebooks, with mileage logs so you know where you are and what you are looking at. I buy these as gifts for friends heading off on vacation or moving to a new area. Just remember that some states have better outcrops than others.

Finally, Exploring the Geology of the Carolinas: A Field Guide to Favorite Places from Chimney Rock to Charleston, by Kevin G. Stewart and Mary-Russell Roberson. This is a guidebook that mostly sticks to state parks. This is nice for an unexpected reason- in a state park, the outcrops are likely to still be there. I’ve used old field trip guidebooks where the outcrops were bulldozed, or landscaped, or along a railroad track that was no longer there. The science is up to date and the geology and geologic history are well explained, because Kevin Stewart is a professor at UNC Geological Sciences. Go Heels!

So, a few exercises for your curiosity. What are the rocks underneath your home? What fault is closest to you now? If you live on the Coastal Plain, how deep is it to bedrock? Enjoy!

Rocktober: Minerals Day

October 12, 2020

Today, Monday, 12 October 2020, is the inauguration of Minerals Day. Science. Value. Beauty.

It’s a new part of Earth Science Week. Minerals Day is a partnership of the professional scientific organizations, the Mineralogical Society of America, the American Geological Institute. Industry partners are the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association, and the Industrial Minerals Association-North America. Both science and value are represented by the governmental agency, the United States Geological Survey. Value, science, and beauty are the purview of the Gemological Institute of America.

The science? That’s my part- Minerals are information. Remember that. Ever since my first Mineralogy class, I have had a conviction that no geologic process could be understood until you understood the minerals involved. Minerals tell you how hot a rock was when it formed, how deep it was buried, how long ago it formed and was metamorphosed. Minerals tell you how much water was there. Many of these processes can be reproduced in the laboratory.

Value is in the minerals that provide the basic raw materials of a technological society. Materials science gets more and more sophisticated, and as it does, it needs elements from further down the Periodic Table of the Elements, more and more rare. The Rare Earth Elements, the Platinum Group Elements, and tantalum, and niobium. Those hard-to-find elements make up even harder-to-find minerals, but oh, so valuable minerals.

Then there’s value in the rare ones, the clear crystalline ones, rubies, sapphires, the gemstones. There are minerals that form that are the equal of any sculpture produced by men. That leads us to beauty.

So there’s talks available starting today, on minerals. The mineralogy of Mars, quartz, gemology, mining in the solar system (Oye, beltalowda? Anybody else watch the Expanse?), and the best way to fight the use of conflict minerals.

Schedule and links are at Earth Science Week webinars.

Consumers – The Most Potent Army Against Conflict Minerals. Vitor Correia, International Raw Materials Observatory

The Need and Solutions for Robots in Responsible Raw Material Exploration and Mining. Norbert Zajzon, University of Miskolc

Resources Beyond Earth: Enabling Future Exploration and the New Space Economy. Angel Abbud Madrid, Center for Space Resources, Colorado School of Mines

Advances in the Mineralogy of Mars. Elizabeth Rampe, NASA Johnson Space Center

New Insights into Wire Silver and Gold Formation. John Rakovan, Miami University

Gemstones: Timecapsules Connecting Us Through History. Aaron Palke, Gemological Institute of America

Data-Driven Discovery in Mineralogy and the Evolution of Planetary Bodies. Shaunna Morrison, Carnegie Institute of Science

May The Quartz Be With You. Shannon Mahan, U.S. Geological Survey

The Global Supply of Critical Minerals: Assessing and Tracking Critical Mineral Commodities Nedal Nassar, U.S. Geological Survey

When you go through all of those, these are still excellent videos of state of the art mineralogy at the Centennial Symposium for the Mineralogical Society of America.

Rocktober: Earth Science Week 2020

October 11, 2020

Here we are in Rocktober, the second week of which is Earth Science Week around the world. It is sponsored by the American Geoscience Institute (AGI), an association of associations, including the Geological Society of America, the Mineralogical Society of America, and many others.

This year’s theme is Earth Materials in our Lives. As the ESW website states:

Earth Science Week 2020 will explore a host of related questions: As scientists, engineers, inventors and others use raw materials to design innovative technologies and goods to meet human needs, how do we evaluate costs and benefits of using Earth materials? How do we adopt policies and practices that allow us to take advantage of the unique properties of raw materials efficiently, generating value while minimizing negative impacts both locally and globally? How do we address the complex, interrelated issues like resource management, waste management, biodiversity, climate change, circular economies, life cycle analysis, and models of sustainability?

Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Clason’s map of railroads and roads in the US, ca. 1900’s, about a century ago. ( This was state of the art transportation.

Scientific and technological literacy includes understanding where stuff comes from. Geologists are fond of saying that if you can’t grow it, you have to mine it. (And you may have to mine phosphorus before you can grow it.) Professor John Hughes noted in his talk at the Centennial Anniversary for the Mineralogical Society of America in 2019 that he came from Vermont to D.C., a trip of a few days or hours. A century before it would have been a much longer and more difficult trip. Check out this map from the Library of Congress of roads and railroads of 1919.

Professor Hughes noted that the advances in travel and lifestyle are all made possible by the success of resource extraction industries, mining and petroleum. I would like to add that the people who most enjoy the benefits of our technological lifestyle tend to be the most removed from the earth materials at the base of that economy.

For instance, Rare Earth Elements (REE). The REE are used in green technologies, smart phones, computers, semiconductors, magnets, and on and on. An electric guitar pickup with neodymium magnets is 2-6 times stronger than a regular pickup, meaning your heavy metal just got heavier. In 2017, the US produced no REE mining concentrates. Then, and now, the trade is dominated by China and the Bayan Obu deposit in Mongolia, a real oddball of a carbonatite ore body. That, my friends, is a genuine national security issue.

A twinned monazite crystal from the Geology Collection. It’s easy to find in hand sample because it is beer-bottle brown. Composition is roughly (Ca, Th, REE)PO4.

One source of REE is the mineral monazite. Rivers in the Kings Mountain area of North Carolina contain placer deposits of fairly high-grade monazite, examples of which we have in our Geology Collection. Here’s a hypothetical discussion question: How do we mine those placers, if they are needed for national security resources? How do we preserve clean water for the nearby cities? Clean water is one of North Carolina’s greatest natural resources. How do we restore the river valleys? Monazite also contains radioactive elements like thorium and uranium. What do we do with those leftovers? Geologists are involved at every stage: exploration, mining, separation, hydrology and remediation.

Now we’ve come full circle to this year’s Earth Science Week.

Kids eventually learn that milk comes from a very funny-looking part of a cow’s underside, not from a carton or jug. A single cell phone comes from many extractive industries worldwide, not from the store.  A scientifically and technologically literate society needs to understand that their “footprint” involves much more than the geochemical carbon cycle. You can download a flyer on the materials in a mobile device from the USGS.

In pursuit of scientific literacy, the Earth Science Week website provides resources for education, for teachers, and for students, and resources in Spanish. Each year I order the ESW Toolkit, full of resources about each year’s theme. It always has fun stuff in it.

But it isn’t a week devoted to mining. Each day of ESW has a different focus:

Sunday, October 11 is International Earthcache Day. This is a lot like a GPS scavenger hunt.

Monday, October 12- Minerals Day. For me, minerals are information. For other, beauty. This day is about both.

Tuesday, October 13- Earth Observation Day. This is the day for engaging students and teachers in remote sensing. It gives a more global vision to your science.

Tuesday is also No Child Left Inside Day. NCLI Day encourages students to go outside and research Earth science in the field. Get dirty, swing a hammer (safely) or do a field trip.

Wednesday, October 14- National Fossil Day. ‘Nuff said.

Thursday, October 15 Geoscience for Everyone Day. Geology has a diversity problem, and this is one day for addressing that issue.

Friday, October 16- Geologic Map Day. I quote the ESW site: Hosted by the U.S. Geological Survey, Association of American State Geologists, National Park Service, Geological Society of America, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in partnership with AGI, this special event promotes awareness of the study, uses, importance of geologic mapping for education, science, business, and a variety of public policy concerns. You’ll get a blog post from me on finding geologic maps for your needs.

Saturday, October 17- International Archaeology Day. This day is hosted by the Archaeological Institute of America. Check them out, because this is one area where I can’t help you.

Happy Earth Science Week!

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.