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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!

Moving Right Along: Invertebrate Paleontology Collections Move Part 1

February 17, 2017
Photo showing thousands of bivalve shells.
Photo showing thousands of bivalve shells.

Bivalves! You want ’em, we got ’em! One box of the many thousands of Invertebrate Paleontology specimens we are moving into new cabinetry.

The NCSM Invertebrate Paleontology Collections contains approximately 58,000 specimens, all of which are moving thanks to a National Science Foundation Collections in Support of Biological Research Grant to the NCSM Paleontology Unit to replace deteriorating cabinetry with archival cabinets.

To do this, we have to move specimens out of old cabinetry, place them into holding cabinets, remove the old cabinets, install new cabinets, then move the specimens into them. Seems simple enough…kind of.

Photo of a woman in the foreground with her hand on a box containing invertebrate specimens, while the man in the background places specimens into a drawer.

Madison and Jacob transfer specimens of Anomia from a cart into holding cabinets.

Nothing is ever that simple. When we removed the row of old cabinetry that was lined up against the wall, we discovered the backs of the old cabinets had been rusting. Time for a bit of elbow grease…and an overnight delay to give the wall time to dry.

Photo of a man crouched on a step ladder with his gloved hands reaching into a bucket (foreground), while in the background another man with a ponytail is washing a wall.

Jacob and Jens washing the wall.

Cabinetry install time! Using palette jacks and with the help of NCSM Facilities folks, we got the first row of invertebrate cabinets installed in about a day.

A split photo. On the left, a man uses a palette jack to move a large white cabinet. Onthe right, a man in a forklift places an upper cabinet with the help of a standing man (left) and a woman (right).

On the left, Jacob uses a palette jack to place lower cabinets. On the right, Jacob, and Lilly help Jeremy place an upper cabinet.

Then it was time to move the specimens again! Bivalves lots of bivalves. This made all of us hungry for clam chowder.

Photo of three carts full of fossil clam specimens (foreground) and a chair and cabinetry (background)

Three carts full of Mercenaria. The genus Mercenaria is still around today. These clams are also known a quahogs, and make a nice chowder or baked stuffed clams.

In under a week we managed to remove an entire row of old cabinets, wash and dry a wall, install new cabinets and fill them with invertebrates. The Invertebrate Paleontology Collection is generally arranged taxonomically, but we do have some cabinets set for site specific collections. In this part of the move we’ve rehoused Protista, Porifera, Bryozoa, Brachiopoda, Cnidaria, and the bivalve part of Mollusca, as well as several site specific collections.

Photo of boxes containing bryozoans.

Boxes of beautiful bryozoans.

Though this is somewhat back breaking and mind numbing work, it has been nice to see specimens I haven’t seen in years. Please stay tuned for future installments.

Photo of a snail encrusted with oysters and worm snails. There is a specimen label in the foreground.

Three specimens for the price of one! From one of our site collections” cabinets. here we see Siphocypraea, encrusted by Serpulorbis (a worm snail) and an oyster. This is one of the many specimens whose taxonomy will be updated in our database. As Sirpulorbis is now considered to be Thylacodes.

 

New Cabinetry Has Arrived

February 6, 2017
Photo of new cabinets (white) inside the back of a semi-trailer which is parked on the loading dock.

New cabinetry arrives at the loading dock.

The new cabinetry for the Paleontology Collection has arrived! Shipment one of four arrived on February 1 and with help from Facilities Management staff we were able to move all of the cabinets down to the collections range on B-Level in one day.

Photo of Jacob (man in black) using a redpallette jack to move a large white cabinet into the collections.

Jacob uses a palette jack to move one of the new cabinets into the collections.

Photo of a man using a forklift to place a cabinet onto other cabinets. In the foreground a man in black and grey admires the other man's forklift prowess.

Using a forklift, Michael Burch carefully places the top cabinet into the Paleobotany row. Jacob stands back and admires Michael’s forklift prowess.

We are also happy to report that as of Friday February 3 the Paleobotany collection has been completely transferred into the new cabinets.

Photo of a man in gray pants standing on a ladder bolting cabinets together.

Safety First! Jacob bolts a top cabinet to the bottom cabinet so when we pull out the specimen drawers, the whole thing doesn’t come crashing down on us.

One of the lingering concerns for us was how the spacing of the fossils would work when transferring from old cabinets into new ones. After transferring the entire Paleobotany Collection, drawers in undivided cabinets can hold an equivalent of 2-3 drawers of old cabinets, while drawers in divided cabinets can hold an equivalent of 1-2 drawers of old cabinets. This is fantastic news, as this means the total space for the collection will grow allowing more fossils to be collected for research!

Photo of a man looking happy that there is still room in the cabinetry for more specimens.

Jacob is delighted the Paleobotany move is complete and that there is plenty of space in the cabinets to add more specimens.

Next Up: Transferring the Invertebrate Paleontology Collection. The rest of the available cabinets from this first shipment will be used to rehouse a good portion (almost all) of the Invertebrate Paleontology Collection. Check back for future updates.

Photo of a man in a red shirt getting ready to hand a small specimen to a woman who is standing on a ladder.

Jacob and Madison start the process of moving specimens from the Invertebrate Paleontology Collection into holding cabinets.

This blog was written by Jacob Van Veldhuizen, Paleontology Collections Technician. New Cabinetry is funded by a National Science Foundation Collections in Support of Biological Research Grant.

Paleontology is on the Move

January 31, 2017

Hello! My name is Jacob Van Veldhuizen and I have been hired on to help the Paleontology Unit move the collection into new cabinetry. The Paleontology Collection is currently housed in non-archival, inadequately sealed, metal-sheathed wooden specimen cabinets that are slowly disintegrating and produce harmful acidic off-gasses which can give the cabinet an awful smell. Last year the Paleontology Unit was awarded a National Science Foundation/Collections in Support of Biological Research (NSF/CSBR) grant to transfer the paleontological collection into archival, steel cabinets and to re-curate the collection using current conservation best practices.

Image of tables with specimens that needed to be put away

Tables full of paleontological specimens that needed to be put away before the new cabinetry arrives.

The first set of cabinets are due to arrive in early February. When I was brought on in November, it was clear that a lot of things had to be accomplished before the move could begin. In preparation for this move, work tables had to be cleaned, several pieces of furniture had to be sent to surplus, loose specimens needed to be placed back into cabinets, and the reprint library had to be moved to a more suitable location. Once all that was completed, collections inventories were taken, temporary storage cabinets were established, a portion of the geology collection was moved to make room for the paleobotany collection, and a workflow illustrating how the specimens would be transferred from the old cabinets into the new cabinets was established. Suffice it to say, a lot was completed in first three months.

Image of Jacob Van Veldhuizen (in white T-shirt) handing paleobotany specimens to Madison Dillard (standing on ladder).

Madison Dillard (paleontology volunteer) and Jacob Van Veldhuizen moving the Paleobotany Collections into holding cabinets.

As of today, I am happy to report that the collection is ready to move into new cabinetry. As the move progresses, it will be interesting to see how spacing of the specimens in the new cabinets compares with that of old cabinets. Will specimens take up more, less, or the same amount of space? Check back in a couple of months to see the progress of the move.

This post was written by Jacob Van Veldhuizen, Paleontology Collections Technician.

Remembering Dr. Paul Tucker

September 14, 2016
Polished slab of Crabtree Emerald mine pegmatite. Dr. Paul Tucker's hands for scale. Photo by Brenda Wynne.

When I first took the job of Curator of Geology at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, the Geology Collection and I were housed off-site in Cary, NC, about 20 minutes from the museum proper. One spring day, I had a visitor who dropped in to ask if I wanted to see his collection. There were some specimens in the trunk of his car. Normally I get more requests for this than I can accommodate, but this guy was friendly and insistent. It was springtime and I didn’t feel like working.

The first specimen was a chunk of pegmatite from the Crabtree Emerald Mine, shot through with emeralds. It was the size of a small cantaloupe. The second piece was a large gold nugget from the Reed Gold Mine. Later we were able to trace its provenance to a German museum, probably where John Reed was mailing gold back to family in Germany. That was how I met Dr. Paul Tucker.

Paul was a professor in the Textiles Department at North Carolina State University, more or less retired when I met him. One of his lifelong avocations was collecting the minerals of North Carolina. In this pursuit, he combined an in-depth knowledge of the state’s mining history with an encyclopedic memory of famous collecting sites. His choices were uniquely dramatic or beautiful, each worthy of museum display. He would laugh that he couldn’t stop working because he was still buying minerals.

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Kyanite from Balsam Gap, discovered by Luther Thomas.

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William Earl Hidden’s business card, Photo by Jeff Scovil.

What a collection! I described parts of it in an article for Rock & Mineral in 2008 (Volume 83, September/October). Micromounts of twinned monazite. Pegmatite minerals from Spruce Pine and Hiddenite. Emeralds from every locality in the state. Corundums, rubies and sapphires from obscure and well-known localitites. Pseudomorphs of all sorts. A gigantic specimen of Luther Thomas’ gem-quality kyanite, in matrix. The crown jewels were the Reed Mine gold nugget, and William Earl Hidden’s business card, with the “first crystal of hiddenite found in place” inserted through the card. I would have given up the entire collection for just those last two items.

I convinced Paul to exhibit his collection at the Museum of Natural Sciences, a 2005 exhibit titled Treasures Unearthed. Reviewing his collection (four times in all) required locating the plastic box containing the specimens, cutting the duct tape holding it closed, pulling out the bubble wrap or plastic wadding protecting the inner box, opening that box by cutting the tape, removing more protective wrapping, and gently removing the treasure within. The process was invariably rewarding, revealing a beautiful specimen each time. It would be measured, photographed, and notes taken on its significance and importance. Then the process was repeated in reverse with much plastic and tape before going on to the next box. Paul and I had a lot of fun with that. He had even more fun with a game called “stump the curator.” The hands-down winner was a golden euhedral muscovite so fine that the sheets were not visible from the side. The hexagonal crystal shape was subdued, so it appeared to be four-sided crystals. He enjoyed fooling me immensely, even more so when one of my textbooks contained a very similar picture of euhedral muscovite.

rutile-presentation

Quartz crystals on rutile, the iconic image chosen for Treasures Unearthed. Photo by Jeff Scovil.

The exhibit itself was a success, with Paul more than anyone. He photographed everything, and visited the exhibit regularly. Afterwards, he decided that his collection should come to us. He could not afford to give it to us outright, but he made us a bargain basement price. SAS Institute purchased the entire collection, including mining memorabilia, and donated it to the Museum of Natural Sciences in 2006. It now forms the nucleus of the exhibits on the second floor of the Nature Exploration Center. Other portions of the exhibits from Treasures Unearthed live on in the Colburn Earth Science Museum in Asheville, and the McKinney Geology Teaching Museum at Appalachian State University in Boone.

We kept in touch after the exhibit. He was one of the few people who had an open invitation to visit any time. I would run into him at the grocery, or mineral shows, or on the exhibit floor, and we would catch up. He always had news from the mineral collecting community. I came to expect voicemail messages on my office phone, usually two or three in a row, left late at night, finishing conversations we had started earlier. An awful thought once crossed his mind, that I might slice up a specimen for research. He had my cell number, so at 11:30 one evening I reassured him that I would never cut up exhibit quality minerals, even in the interests of science.

Paul Tucker had only one requirement for all of the exhibit: that his name be kept out of it. He wanted to be totally anonymous.  I don’t think I have a picture of Paul, just one of his hands holding a polished slab of emerald-rich pegmatite from the Crabtree Mine, shown at the top of this page. I did not learn of his death until some months after it happened. In keeping with his love of privacy, there was no obituary, and no memorial service. He is survived by his wife, Lynn Tucker.

There were many facets to Dr. Paul Tucker. He loved to travel, especially in North Carolina, along well-loved paths to mineral shows, to duck decoy exhibitions, and to the pottery centers of the state. He loved puttering in his yard and growing wild flowers. He was friendly and very slow to anger. The only time I saw him annoyed was in a discussion over rainproof textiles.  His quiet persistence was very well-known to mineral dealers all over the United States. His visits were always an event. Paul was a reliable source of good advice, pushing me into writing for Lithographie Press and for Rocks & Minerals. My life is better because of Paul Tucker, and the world is poorer without him. The Geology Collection of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences owes him a great debt for his lifelong work.

 

 

Hello, Jupiter!

July 5, 2016

This year’s Independence Day holiday was a special one for planetary science, as the NASA spacecraft Juno successfully entered the dense atmosphere of our solar system’s giant, Jupiter, yesterday at 11:53 PM, EDT. After 5 years and traveling nearly 550 million miles, Juno reached Jupiter at nearly 130,000 miles per hour, poised to orbit the planet 32 times, gathering unprecedented data on Jupiter’s atmosphere, magnetic, and gravitational fields, all lending clues to how it formed about 4.57 billion years ago.

Juno enters orbit around Jupiter

Artistic rendering of Juno entering Jupiter’s orbit (Credit: NASA).

Scientists think that Jupiter may have been the first planet to form from the swirling disk of gas and dust from which the rest of the solar system formed. Juno’s science will help unravel the detailed composition of Jupiter’s atmosphere which hold clues to its formation history, including how and where it formed relative to Earth and the Sun.

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Mission scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory celebrate Juno’s successful arrival at Jupiter (Credit: NASA/JPL)..

Unlike Earth and the other terrestrial planets, Venus and Mars, Jupiter is a “gas giant,” composed mostly of Hydrogen and Helium, and may have a rocky core. Juno will closely examine the rollicking storms in Jupiter’s clouds, including its mysterious Great Red Spot that has been shrinking over the several centuries since its discovery.

hotspot_cover_1280

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is one of the mysteries that Juno will explore during its 20-month science phase (Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Telescope Science Institute).

Jupiter’s largest moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, were discovered by Galileo in 1610, and imaged in detail first by the Voyager mission — twin probes launched in 1977 and now heading to interstellar space — followed by the Galileo flyby in 1995.

Juno will study Jupiter’s atmosphere and (possible) core in unprecedented detail, hopefully unraveling many of the mysteries surrounding fundamental processes during solar system formation, including that of planet Earth. As an observational astronomer interested in the  earliest chemical pathways of planet formation, I am particularly eager to learn what Juno uncovers in the depths of Jupiter’s primitive, roiling atmosphere.

Here you can watch Juno approach Jupiter and the Galilean moons in this time-lapse capture by one of Juno’s imagers:

The mission will end in 2018 with Juno taking a nosedive into Jupiter’s atmosphere in a planned maneuver of final demise, similar to previous mission terminations.

In the meantime, we will stay tuned for Juno’s exciting new discoveries! You can watch the NASA’s Juno mission trailer for a brief yet informative and entertaining overview of the exciting science to come!

Birds of Iwokrama Forest

September 1, 2015

This summer, I joined a team of scientists and university students participating in a long-term study of the biodiversity of the Iwokrama Forest, a sustainable-use reserve covering almost one million acres in central Guyana. Iwokrama’s mission is to develop novel strategies to preserve biodiversity while also earning income from the forest, thereby demonstrating that it is possible to preserve functional ecosystems in the course of economic development.

I capture and band birds on study plots that I resample year after year to assess changes in species composition and abundance, and the age structure of populations. I also monitor avian diversity using automated sound recorders to document species at each site. The Iwokrama Forest boasts an impressive bird list – almost 500 species have been observed in the reserve!

Here I highlight some of the most interesting birds we captured this summer.

Rufous-throated Antbird (Gymnopithys rufigula)

Rufous-throated Antbird (Gymnopithys rufigula)

Antbirds are one of the most diverse bird families at Iwokrama, and we catch many in our nets. Students often ask me if they are called antbirds because they eat ants. The truth is much more interesting! Several species of antbirds are obligate army-ant followers. Army ants are common in rainforests of Central and South America, where they form large swarms that move across the forest floor, exploring every nook and crevice for prey.

No animal is safe from the ants – and as they attempt to flee, many are devoured by antbirds such as this Rufous-throated Antbird, one of two species of obligate army-ant followers at Iwokrama. These birds spend their entire day in the company of army ants, and their churring calls are a sure indicator that an ant swarm is nearby.

It is fascinating to watch these birds dart back and forth over the ants, clinging to vertical saplings with their powerful feet, snapping up insects as they try frantically to escape.


Black-chinned Antbird (Hypocnemoides melanopogon)

Black-chinned Antbird (Hypocnemoides melanopogon)

Although rainforests may look homogeneous, they are very complex places where many species coexist, often by specializing on particular resources.

The Black-chinned Antbird occurs only in a flooded forest, where it forages for insects in dense tangles along rivers and creeks. This specialization allows it to live in close proximity to other, ecologically similar species.

Within a single patch of rainforest, there can be several different vegetation types. One of the most common of these is seasonally flooded forest. During the annual rainy seasons at Iwokrama, the Essequibo River swells into the surrounding floodplain, bringing nutrients into the forest and influencing its structure and plant species composition.


White-crowned Manakin (Dixiphia pipra)

White-crowned Manakin (Dixiphia pipra)

Manakins are one of the most abundant birds in the forest understory at Iwokrama. This dazzling adult male White-crowned Manakin looks very different from his younger counterparts, which are clad in dull gray and green, resembling the females. Manakins are frugivores – their diet is almost entirely fruit – which means that they are constantly moving through the understory from one food source to the next, and this is why we catch so many of them in our nets.

Aside from eating, the most important activity in a male manakin’s day is displaying for females! Since fruit requires little effort to “hunt”, these birds can fill up fast and spend the rest of the day on their display perches, or leks.

Competition is fierce, and the end result is that the manakins include among their ranks some of the most beautiful plumages and complex displays in the bird world. This adult male – whose black body plumage still has a speck of green from his younger days – will glow iridescent blue on his display perch in the middle levels of the forest.


Collared Puffbird (Bucco capensis)

Collared Puffbird (Bucco capensis)

Here is one of the more bizarre birds we catch. The puffbirds are distantly related to kingfishers and resemble them in certain respects – both have large heads, oversized bills, and small feet, and both nest in cavities. But rather than hunting for fish along rivers and creeks, as kingfishers do, puffbirds are solitary predators of the forest, sitting still for long periods of time and darting out for large insects and small vertebrates such as lizards, frogs, and snakes. They spend so much time sitting still that they can easily be overlooked, and seeing one in the hand is a treat.

Puffbirds are named for their soft, lax plumage, and they often fluff themselves and open their bill when handled, as this one is doing.

The function of the curious notch on the tip of the bill is unknown – it could help them hold onto struggling prey, or perhaps it is used as a tool to dig their nest burrows, which are often in arboreal termite nests.


Royal Flycatcher (Onycorhynchus coronatus)

Royal Flycatcher (Onycorhynchus coronatus)

This bird puts on a show like no other – behold the Royal Flycatcher, an outlandish member of the most diverse bird family in the Neotropics, the Tyrannidae or Tyrant-Flycatchers. Although we catch relatively few species of flycatchers in forest understory at Iwokrama, this is the one we always hope to find in our nets! The spectacular crest is usually held flat along the top of the head, its colors subdued.

But when caught in a mist net, the Royal Flycatcher becomes a different beast entirely, as you can see here. The bird contorts itself, constantly turning its head almost completely upside down and from side to side, in a mesmerizing performance that will last for as long as it is handled.

Although the display is thought to be used in territorial encounters, few people have seen it in free-flying birds, since this species normally lives quietly in pairs along creeks and forest edges, where it is rather difficult to see. Royal Flycatcher nests are distinctive hanging structures, sometimes up to one meter long, usually placed over stream beds or narrow roads in the forest.

Many thanks to the staff of the Iwokrama Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development, EPA-Guyana, the village of Surama, and to Operation Wallacea, for their support of my research.

The hole truth about animals that bore

July 9, 2015
Tanea undulata, a Moon snail from East Timor. Photo by Nick Hobgood. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

A clam that bored into a coral. This specimen is from the Museum's invertebrate paleontology collection.

A clam that bored into a coral. This specimen is from the Museum’s invertebrate paleontology collection.

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