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.

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.

Living the Mission: GSC Staff Awarded Conservation & Research Grants

This year, the Greensboro Science Center provided staff a brand new opportunity to apply for what is known as the Conservation and Research Grant. This annual grant offers GSC staff the opportunity to pursue a conservation or research project. Eligible proposals can range from pursing a professional development opportunity, facilitating an existing field project (like mussel surveys or bat acoustic work), creating a conservation project (like a stream clean-up or butterfly garden), or taking on a new research question. After undergoing an extensive assessment by our staff Research Committee, this year’s recipients have been announced.

Shannon Anderson, Zoo Keeper: SANCCOB’s Keeper Exchange Program

Penguin DivingShannon will travel to South Africa to work with SANCCOB staff to refine her skills in bird care and chick rearing; Shannon’s knowledge and passion for penguins led her to pursue this program. On this trip, she’ll have the opportunity to work with field biologists, conservationists and sea bird specialists to expand her knowledge and will share her experience with staff at a presentation following her time in South Africa.

Rachel Rogers, Aquarist: Mote Marine Coral Restoration Workshop

coral 02Rachel, the GSC’s coral aquarist, has a passion for propagating and conserving coral species. At the workshop, she’ll learn the micro-fragmenting techniques used to propagate staghorn and elkhorn corals. She will also visit coral nurseries in the Florida Keys to gain knowledge on the best methods for growing and reproducing coral. She, too, will share her experience with staff at a presentation following the workshop.

Sam Beasley, Vet Tech: Sea Turtle Care Center at the South Carolina Aquarium

Sam Beasly | 36 | EditSam works alongside veterinarian Dr. Sam Young to care for the animals in our collection. Sam has a lifelong passion for turtles and rehabilitation of sea turtles. She will work with the vets and technicians at the Sea Turtle Care Center to rehabilitate sea turtles and care for injured turtles. There, she will learn new skills and receive hands-on training that will benefit her vet career. Sam will also be sharing with staff her experience when she returns.

We’re thrilled to have a team of staff who supports our mission of conservation by putting the “hands” in “hands-on.” Return to our blog in the near future for updates on the good works these team members will be doing!

Pond & Stream Research: Now, During Construction and Post Construction

The Greensboro Science Center has partnered with UNC Greensboro for a long-term study to assess the overall water quality of the stream and pond located in the woods behind our current zoo. The study began in the spring of 2018. We’ll be taking monthly water quality measurements continuously until the zoo expansion is complete (projected to happen by 2020) as well as after the expansion opens. We are interested in learning how water quality changes during construction and also post-construction. Our goal is to improve the overall water quality of the pond and stream.

While we are working with UNCG on data collection, this project is not assigned to a particular student. Kristina Morales, a doctoral student at UNCG is currently pursuing her PhD in Dr. Tsz-Ki Tsui’s lab. Dr. Tsui studies the effect of mercury on the environment. Kristina’s work is focused on the mercury cycle at the wetlands installed on UNCG’s campus in 2017. Specifically, she is studying how restored wetlands impact methylmercury production. She has been assisting the GSC with our water quality testing as part of her research.

Today, Lindsey Zarecky, the GSC’s VP of Conservation and Research, and Kristina are sampling water quality, macro-invertebrates and metals like mercury in the GSC’s stream and pond. Samples are collected via a YSI probe, which is placed into the water to provide a reading of the water’s dissolved oxygen, temperature and conductivity, the latter of which is a measure of the water’s ability to carry an electrical current. For our purposes, conductivity informs us of the mineralization in the water. Minerals leach into the water from the erosion of rocks and as result of urban runoff.

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We also measure the dissolved oxygen (DO) or the amount of oxygen (O2) dissolved in the water. DO is necessary for a healthy waterway. For Kristina’s work, she looks at DO because low DO allows microbes to convert mercury into methylmercury, a water toxin. Lastly, we measure temperature because some negative ecosystem organisms do better in higher temperatures. Collectively, these measurements inform us of the water’s overall quality.

DSC_1453We are also interested in learning what lives in our pond, so we use a dip net to collect macroinvertebrates. On this particular day, the air temperature was around 92°F, so the water was quite warm. Because of the temperature, organisms were most likely deep in the cooler sediment, beyond our reach. We did collect one crayfish and two dragonfly larvae.

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As mentioned above, we will continue to take samples each month and track the data to watch for trends. We may see seasonal shifts and annual shifts as we start construction on our zoo expansion. We’re excited to learn more about ways we can improve the quality of the water in our stream and pond as we continue to grow!

The Tale of Two Turtle Dogs

Last week, John Rucker came out to the Greensboro Science Center with his Boykin spaniels (AKA Turtle Dogs). The dogs have been trained to literally sniff out turtles. Before getting down to serious business with The HERP Project summer campers, John gave GSC staff a little taste of what his dogs can do.

John Rucker with Jenny Wren and Mink

John Rucker with Jenny Wren and Mink

After a brief introduction, John said, “Find turtles.” The dogs took off! They ran around the edges of a pond, through thickets, and along a small stream on the hunt for their prize. After just a few minutes, one of the dogs, Jenny Wren, ran up to John with her catch in her mouth… Don’t worry, the dogs have been trained to be soft-mouthed, simply holding the turtle gently until John takes it from them. In a span of about 30 minutes, Jenny Wren and Mink found 2 eastern box turtles.

Jenny Wren with a box turtle

Jenny Wren with a box turtle

What did we do with the turtles?

The Greensboro Science Center is home to a 22-acre study zone for box turtles as part of the Box Turtle Connection. For the third consecutive year, GSC zookeepers have been finding turtles, taking photos and collecting data for the project, then releasing the turtles back where they were found. Data collected includes the turtle’s sex, life stage, length, height, and weight.

Collecting data for the Box Turtle Connection

Collecting data for the Box Turtle Connection

This information is added to a statewide database that will help determine the stability of box turtle populations. So far this season, six turtles have been found at the GSC’s study zone.

Want to get involved?

The Box Turtle Connection website offers a couple of different ways you can get involved, depending on what level of commitment you are able to offer the program. For more information about the project and to learn how you can get involved, visit their website: https://boxturtle.uncg.edu/.