Turtle Tagging

Last week, a volunteer group from Burlington Christian Academy worked with our horticulture team to clean up the bioremediation cell adjacent to our parking lot. (BTW, bioremediation cell is a scientific way of describing a landscaped area containing plants that remove heavy metals from parking lot runoff so these toxic chemicals don’t enter our water supply.) During this work, they stumbled upon – almost literally – a partially-hidden box turtle!

The GSC participates in the Box Turtle Connection, a long-term study of eastern box turtles to understand more about their status, trends, and threats, as well as to develop strategies for long-term conservation of the species. Any box turtles found on or around GSC grounds are added to the database.

We collected morphometric (which is a science-y way of saying size and shape)  measurements such as weight, length, and width, and we record sex and age.

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Using a turtle ID code matrix, we made small indentations on the turtle’s marginal and peripheral carapace scutes. In other words, we filed small triangles into the outer-most part of the turtle’s shell in a particular pattern that is specific to that individual. This acts as an identifier should we find this turtle again someday.

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Finally, a small radio transmitter was affixed to this turtle’s shell so we can track its movements. The tag was adhered to the shell in a location that won’t impact the turtle’s mobility or ability to move through vegetation. Once the adhesive dried, the turtle was returned the same location it was found.

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Box turtles hibernate over winter, so we will not attempt to radio-track the turtle until the weather warms next year. Using radio telemetry, we’ll be able to track the movements of the turtle. By knowing the GPS coordinates of the turtle’s movements we can better understand the territory this turtle has and how far it travels in the warmer months. All of this information adds to our collective knowledge of the eastern box turtle!

Why is this research important?

While eastern box turtles can be found across North Carolina, populations are declining from habitat fragmentation and road-related mortality – as well as from being collected as a pet. They are a long-lived animal (more than 25 years), so they take years to reach sexual maturity. Therefore, it takes a long time for them to recover from population declines. Collecting and interpreting data about these animals now can help us protect them in the future!

What should you do if you find a box turtle?

If you find a box turtle attempting to cross a road, never take it home! Instead, merely help it cross because it will continue to try and return to its birthplace. Box turtles have a homing instinct, similar to birds, so they return to the same location year over year to build nests.

This time of year box turtles are looking for hibernation spaces. In late fall or over winter – although it is uncommon – you may see one bed down in brush or plant debris. If you find a box turtle in cold weather, be sure to leave it be. Animals that hibernate drastically reduce their metabolism to survive the winter when food sources cannot easily be found. Arousing them from hibernation is dangerous because they won’t be able to replenish the energy it takes to come out of hibernation!

Greensboro Science Center Announces 2019 – 2020 Conservation & Research Grant Recipients

The Greensboro Science Center’s (GSC) Research Committee is pleased to announce the recipients of its annual Conservation & Research Grant. Each year, GSC employees are given the opportunity to apply for funds to pursue a conservation or research project. The 2019 – 2020 grantees are as follows:

Michael Motsch, Zookeeper

Project: Red Panda Network’s Zoo Eco Trip

The Zoo Eco trip allows keepers to track red pandas with the professionals who study and monitor wild populations. Michael, the lead red panda keeper at the GSC, will travel to Nepal in December to participate in this program. The experience will unite Michael’s passion for red pandas and his interest in their conservation via hands-on field work.

Sara Payne, Exhibits & Design Manager

Project: Human-Chimpanzee Conflict Awareness Project

The Pan-African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA) works with primate conservation organizations across Africa. Sara will develop educational materials, including banners and posters, for Chimpanzee Trust, a PASA member, that will be distributed throughout the region to inform locals about human – animal conflict and emphasize the importance of primates.

Katie Ruffolo, Educator

Project: North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission (NCWRC) Website Content- Species Profile Updates

The NCWRC is updating the herpetofauna species profiles on their website. Katie is combining her love of herptiles with her love for writing to assist the commission in creating profiles. She will travel across the state to meet with species specialists, gather information for their profiles, and write content that will appear on the NCWRC’s website.

Lindsey Zarecky, the GSC’s VP of Conservation & Research, says, “We are excited to have such diverse projects submitted for this year’s grant cycle. The Research Committee is happy to support these unique and individualized projects.”

 

 

Studying Bats for Species Conservation

The Greensboro Science Center’s Conservation and Research department is actively involved in saving the seven bat species found right here in the Piedmont. Bats in North Carolina are insectivores, meaning they consume insects. Every night from late spring until early fall, you may see bats swooping through the skies, foraging for insects. They are a great, natural pesticide – which is just one of the endearing qualities that makes us want to protect them!

In 2011, researchers began to see signs of White Nose Syndrome (WNS) on hibernating bats in the mountains. WNS is a fungus that adheres to the bats’ skin, particularly their muzzles and wings. The fungus is an irritant that causes the bats to wake from torpor, or hibernation. The process of waking burns a lot of calories, so the bats are hungry, but in winter, there are no insects to eat to sustain them. Large numbers of bats have perished from WNS by burning up their fat reserves before their spring emergence. Some species of bats are more prone to WNS than others, so some species have seen a much more dramatic decline than others.

Researchers across the country, particularly in states impacted by WNS, want to know the abundance and diversity of bats. Researchers collect this information to help construct a long-term understanding of populations before, during and after WNS. It allows scientists to make more informed decisions to combat the disease.

In order to understand what species live here, we sample the population. Since bats use echolocation, we use ultra-sonic recording devices to record calls. We can then interpret the call to identify the species and discover whether they are foraging or navigating their environment. We also use mist-nets to catch bats and obtain diversity and abundance information. This allows us to not only know what species is present, but also the sex ratio, age, and overall health of our bat populations.

Mist-netting is a technique where you string a mist-net between tall poles mounted in the ground like flag poles. Mist nets range in size from 3 meters to 12meters and can be combined to reach up to 30 meters high. Nets are placed at sundown and remain until 1:00am, with researchers checking them every eight minutes. Bats typically go through two rounds of foraging, one at sundown and one just before the sun rises. Mist nets look and feel like hair nets and they are designed such that bats fly into them and safely fall into a net pouch. Researchers carefully remove the bat from the net and place them into a mesh bag.

Once we have a “bat in hand”, we can collect information, including weight (1), species (2), arm length (3), age (4), gender (5), and wing rating (6). Then, we place an ID band on its wing (7) and release it so it can continue foraging. All data collected from these outings are tracked by the state.

The combination of acoustic recordings and mist-netting gives us an understanding of our bat populations. This data allows us to look at trends over time and see how species diversity and abundance change in response to situations like WNS. From this information we can make informed decisions on maintaining bat roosts, including caves, bridges and forests. Wildlife is wild and we are here to guide decisions that allow wildlife to thrive! Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, so we need as much data as we can gather before we make any decision that could alter the natural behaviors or species composition in a habitat.

It is thanks to years of data collection that we have seen a plateau in the decline of WNS-impacted species. It is encouraging to think the large scale declines are coming to an end. We have also seen juveniles of those impacted species, which gives us hope that species are trying to rebound. Bat work will continue to help researchers understand this unique mammal and to help protect their habitats.

Conservation Creation – iNaturalist + Monkey Madness

If you’ve been to the Greensboro Science Center or any other zoo or aquarium, you’ve probably seen many animals with a “Conservation Status” listed on their exhibit signage. These statuses range from ‘Extinct’ to ‘Least Concern.’ ‘Extinct’ means that there are either no more instances of that animal left in the wild, or that the ones remaining have no chance of reproducing. ‘Least Concern’ means that this animal is abundant in the wild and that there are currently no concerns revolving around its population numbers. Scientists have many ways of determining how many animals of a species exist in the wild – methods ranging from recording calls in the forest or tagging animals in the ocean to be tracked with innovative technology.

While these methods can give us an idea of what animal populations look like, there are many situations in which a population doesn’t fit into a specific category. For example, you may see an animal that is listed as ‘Data Deficient.’ This means there isn’t enough information to determine what their population realistically looks like. This applies to many ocean animals, since they can be difficult to track due to the ocean’s vastness. There are other instances where an animal can be listed as ‘Least Concern’ overall, but still be vulnerable in certain areas. This is why it’s important to be mindful of wildlife when you encounter it, regardless of an animal’s conservation status.

Now, for an activity! This month, instead of a craft, we’ll be sending you on an adventure! All you will need is a smartphone or tablet and the spirit of a biologist. Start by downloading the app, iNaturalist. This is a free app for Apple and Android that will allow you to track local wildlife and help scientists learn about the animal populations near you! Learn more about the app by visiting inaturalist.org.

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Once you have downloaded the app, you can begin your adventure! You’ll be taking photos of the plants and animals you find. If you already know what you’re looking at, you can identify it yourself on the app. If you don’t know what you’ve found, however, other users of the app can help you figure out what it is.

By participating, you’ll be helping scientists to learn about the plants and animals near you, giving them insight on what needs to be done to help and protect these beings. You can use iNaturalist anywhere you go – including your home, a vacation spot or one of Greensboro’s beautiful parks. Now… break out your safari hat and begin your journey as a Citizen Scientist!

Want more conservation? Get hands-on at the GSC! During July 2019, on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10:30 & 2:30, join our educators at the howler monkey exhibit to learn about these monkeys and how they’re being affected by habitat loss. While there, you can make a seed bomb – made from seeds of local plants – to take home to enrich your local wildlife habitats! 

Conservation Creation: March of the Dinosaurs

How do scientists learn about plants and animals that are no longer here on Earth? Through studying fossils, of course! Fossils are created through a process called fossilization, in which materials like bone are slowly replaced by minerals. Another way fossils are formed involves the decay of an organism, which leaves behind a mold that gets cemented into a cast. Fossils can show bone, teeth, plant and skin textures, eggs, footprints, and imprints left behind. The scientists (called paleontologists) who study fossils have even found fossilized dinosaur poop with animal remains inside of it!

Paleontologists have been able to learn a lot about dinosaurs from studying their fossils. Based on evidence from bone and footprint fossils, we can learn the sizes of different species of dinosaurs, where they lived, how far they traveled, and whether they preferred to live in groups or on their own. Fossils have also given us information about how dinosaurs looked, moved, and even how they may have sounded!

While we’ve uncovered many of the mysteries of animals from the past, paleontologists are constantly finding new fossils and learning new things! For example, in 2016, a cache of hundreds of pterosaur eggs were discovered in China. Before this discovery, only six well-preserved eggs had ever been found! (You can read more about that discovery here.)

Now it’s time to make some discoveries of your own – with some DIY fossils!

What you’ll need: Flour, salt, water, craft sand, measuring cups, a large bowl, and dinosaur toys to make some fossil imprints.

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Step 1: Mix together 2 cups of flour, 1 cup of salt and 1 cup of craft sand.

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Step 2: Add ½ cup of warm water to the bowl containing the sand, flour, and salt.

Note: For more vibrant fossils, add food coloring that matches the sand to the water before mixing.

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Step 3: Use your hands or a wooden spoon to knead all of the ingredients together until they feel like a grainy bread dough. You may need to add small amounts of water or flour to get the consistency where you want it.

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Step 4: Using a small amount of dough, gently press your fossil object into it to leave an imprint.

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Step 5: Allow this to harden overnight. For a faster dry, you can also bake the dough at 250 degrees for 1-2 hours.

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Once your fossils are dry, examine them and discuss what you may be able to learn from them!

To make this project more challenging, use a variety of animal toys or plant textures to study a larger variety of fossils!

Species Sampling: Crayfish

In late January, with temperatures hovering in the low 30s, a team of GSC staffers took to the streams to identify crayfish. Why, you might ask, would you wait for such a cold day for this particular project? We, the marketing department, had the same question as we were unceremoniously dragged from our heated office spaces to document the activity. According to our fearless leaders, Lindsey Zarecky, the GSC’s VP of Conservation and Research, and Brena Jones, of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, digging up crayfish is actually one area of research that lends itself to a winter excursion. The lack of new growth present at this time of year makes it easier to spot crayfish burrows and holes in the streambed.

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We know what you’re thinking… crayfish aren’t all that exciting. We thought so, too, initially. But read on! We’re going to share some truly fascinating factoids about a species present in our own backyards.

The first step to identifying crayfish, we learned, is locating them. Crayfish are burrowers. They are categorized based upon their habitat preference as primary burrowers (meaning they spend most of their time in burrows), secondary burrowers (meaning they are more often found in streams than burrows), or tertiary burrowers (meaning they are only found in burrows during breeding season). In order to find the animals, our team walked slowly through the stream, lifting rocks and looking for movement and searching for raised mounds that could indicate the presence of a burrow.

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Once the crayfish were found, the real fun began. Each animal was first identified by looking for several characteristics that distinguish one species from another. When it comes to pincher claws on a crayfish, size matters – for identification purposes, of course. The fat pinchers of the Cambarus are relatively obvious when compared with the long, narrow pincher claws of the Procambarus. Since crayfish can regenerate their claws, a tip Brena had for our team was to always look at the bigger claw for better accuracy.

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In addition to pincher claw size, the width between the lines on top of the animal’s carapace (or top shell), the presence or absence of spines on the carapace, and the pointiness or bluntness of the rostrum (which is a fancy word for the space between the eyes) can all be used for identification purposes. With that being said, there are a lot of undescribed species of crayfish in North Carolina, which can make identification challenging!

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Once the species was identified, some – ahem – personal information was also collected and recorded, such as the overall size and the sex. Males, Brena showed us, have an extra set of swimmerets, rigid in nature, on the underside of their tail. Each animal was also given a gentle squeeze. Pardon the scientific terminology here: a “squishy” crayfish may have recently molted. A shed exoskeleton means a growing crayfish!

Now, on to the big questions: why, exactly, are we digging up crayfish? Well, scientists, including the GSC’s own Lindsey Zarecky, are studying the effects of urbanization on wildlife. The recent sampling of species performed in our stream will establish a baseline for comparison as our facility continues to grow and expand. Knowing what the ecosystem looks like before, during and after construction will help scientists understand how to find a balance between continued development and maintaining native wildlife populations. The ultimate goal is to discover how to create a scenario where everyone wins – both humans and wildlife alike.

The GSC’s Bat Project

October 27 and 28 is Bat Weekend here at the GSC, so we thought it a great time to catch up with the GSC’s VP of Conservation & Research, Lindsey Zarecky, to learn more about bats and how the GSC is working to conserve their populations right here in the Triad.

Lindsey shared with us that bats were her model organism for her master’s thesis back in her college days. Needless to say, she’s a huge fan and is very knowledgeable about these creatures. Today, her focus is on understanding and reducing the negative behaviors and activities that impact the bats’ ecosystems.

Before we get into the specifics, you’ll need to know a little more about how bats travel and find food.

The species of bats found in the Piedmont area are insectivorous and use echolocation for both navigation and hunting. They use ultrasonic (above our ability to hear) vocalizations to help them with locating objects; these sounds bounce off the object and send sound waves back to the vocalizing bat. Interestingly, different species of bats vocalize at different frequencies and at different intensities. These differences help scientists to distinguish between the varying species. Contrary to a somewhat popular belief, bats aren’t blind! Echolocation just happens to be much more efficient for them.

Our resident researchers always have something in the works. Often, these things may go totally undetected by both our guests and even other staff members! So, what’s the deal with the GSC’s Bat Project?

Here at the GSC, we use bat detectors to listen to bats’ ultrasonic vocalizations. Each detector consists of a recorder and a microphone; these detect sounds and record them onto an SD card. The sounds are uploaded to a computer using a special software program, then analyzed by our team. This involves slowing down the recordings and playing them back at a level that we, humans, can hear. Call types we hear include those honing in on prey, social vocalizations and clicking sounds to indicate a bat is simply maneuvering through its environment. As mentioned above, the recordings help us to distinguish the presences of particular bat species.

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Lindsey changes the batteries and swaps out the SD card in one of the GSC’s bat detectors.

We have three detectors in operation year-round. Our location is southern enough that bats don’t necessarily have to migrate further south in winter, nor hibernate in caves. Of course, the bats are most active during the hot, humid months of summer. Detectors are placed at varying heights as well as within varying levels of vegetation – one within, one below and one above the tree canopy.

We’re using the detectors to collect information, addressing specifically:

  1. What bat species are present at the GSC?
  2. What is species diversity like throughout the year? Do migratory species tend to stay or leave during winters?
  3. How do different species use the canopy? Do larger bats tend to spend time above or below the canopy while the smaller bats stay within it?

Thankfully, we’re not going it alone when it comes to bat conservation.

Beyond the GSC’s Bat Project, our staff also help with state-wide bat conservation efforts, specifically the North American Bat Monitoring Program (NABat). This program is an acoustic recording program that recurs each summer. With a bat detector attached to the top of their vehicles, staff drive along designated paths to record data along that particular transect during the nighttime. This helps to establish species distribution across our state.

We also assist the NC Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) with their annual surveying. NCWRC has what are called “mist net sites” scattered throughout NC. At sundown, mist nets are set up and opened to receive bats. Bats fly in, and scientists record their information – including species, sex, age (adult or juvenile), and assesses it for presence or absence of white nose syndrome. Then, the bat is arm-banded and released.

White nose syndrome has been present in the United States since 2006 but wasn’t discovered here in NC until 2011. White nose is a fungal disease that thrives in moist, cool environments, where it grows on the muzzles, wings or fingers of hibernating bats. Hibernating bats enter a state of torpor in which metabolic activity dramatically slows, allowing them to survive the cold months without food or water. White nose is an irritant that wakes the bats during their hibernations, costing them critical calories during a time in which insects are scarce. White nose also causes imbalances in blood pH and potassium levels, which can inhibit heart function and lead to fatality (USGS, 2015). White nose is a serious concern, responsible for the deaths of more than one million bats.

Now that you’re armed with lots of information, what can YOU do to help bats?

#BatWeek-Endangered

Want more bats? Visit http://www.batweek.org

Join us for Bat Weekend! During National Bat Week, come out on October 27 and 28 to learn how you can be a bat hero. Many people don’t realize the huge positive impact bats make on our ecosystem and why it’s important we work to conserve them. We’ll show you how to build your own bat box, play games and more – for bats’ sake! Event activities are free with general admission or GSC membership.