Updating the Species Scape

This post was written by Clint Penick & Magdalena Sorger

As the world’s entomologists gather in Orlando this week for the International Conference of Entomology (ICE), we thought it a good time to revisit the famous Species Scape—the illustration showing that insects make up the largest portion of life on Earth. We scoured textbooks, scientific papers, and online databases to find the most current numbers for all species that have been described. There are new winners and new losers, but insects still make up nearly half of all species.

The history of the Species Scape began when biologist Quentin […]

By | September 25th, 2016|Arthropods, Education, Explainer, Science Art|0 Comments

The Value of Art to Science—A story of rotting bodies, belly buttons and the music of symbiosis

In The Man Who Touched His Own Heart I tell the story of the artist Leonardo da Vinci’s discoveries inside bodies. Among the most astonishing of his efforts came late one afternoon in 1508 when…

“[D]a Vinci was at the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital in Florence, a church hospital. He was not a doctor, but he already knew more about the human body than almost anyone else who had ever lived. He was talking with a very old man, a centenarian. The man, who is known to history simply as il vecchio, the old one, was kind and garrulous. He had lived […]

By | June 4th, 2015|Belly Button Biodiversity, Books, Hearts, Science Art, Video|4 Comments

The Arthropods of San Francisco (and beyond)

What’s that crawling under your bed… sitting in your light fixture… lurking in your cabinets? Perhaps it’s a new insect species! The Arthropods of Our Homes project has expanded beyond Raleigh — to San Francisco, and from there all seven continents will be sampled for the common arthropods in homes. Watch the video to see more about the arthropods found in San Francisco homes as well as some familiar faces (Matt Bertone and Michelle Trautwein).

“Other than a few pest species, we know very little. There’s still a lot to discover… You don’t have to be an […]

Invasion of the House Finch

Once upon a time, House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) only lived west of the Rocky Mountains. Then, in 1940, a group of captive birds flew to freedom from their New York cages. Their numbers slowly grew until there was a population explosion. Today, House Finches reside throughout the U.S. and Mexico.

There’s a downside to dense populations though – disease. In the 1990s, a bacterium (Mycoplasma gallisepticum) started swirling among groups of House Finches. The infection causes conjunctivitis (like “pinkeye”) in the birds. If you’re a bird with swollen eyelids and crusty build up, you’re not going to be very good at […]

By | April 22nd, 2015|Nature in Your Backyard, Science Art|0 Comments

Gnarly Trees

Branches of the live oak (Quercus virginiana) loop and twist their way toward openings in the forest canopy. Many branches sag down to the ground before stretching back up again.

These low branches help the oak survive in the hurricane-prone regions of the southeastern US. Short, wide trees resist strong winds better than tall, thin ones.

Those curvy branches helped the USS Constitution stay afloat during the War of 1812. Live oak limbs were frequently used in ship building due to their natural bends, strength and density.

By | March 30th, 2015|Nature in Your Backyard, Science Art|0 Comments

Cold Feet, Warm Heart

Raleigh has had a fit of cold, snowy (and icy) weather this week. So while I watched this snow-covered Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) swim around an icy lake near my house, I couldn’t help but think “Brrrrr.”

The core temperature of a goose, wrapped in its fluffy down coat, is ~104° Fahrenheit. But what about those feet? They must be freezing!

In a way, they are. The feet of this goose are only ~35°. As warm blood from the body travels to the toes, it transfers heat to the blood making the return trip. By the time the blood reaches the […]

By | February 27th, 2015|Nature in Your Backyard, Science Art|0 Comments

Look but don’t touch

Watching Out for Nesting Birds

Look but don’t touch. This was a lesson I learned early on as a young boy, staring intently along with my grandmother at a bird nest. Inside a shrub-like tree, a bowl of straw lay almost hidden. Within it, several nestlings, their mouths wide open, were awaiting their next meal.

After a quick look, we hurried away, soon noticing that the mother robin returned with sustenance for her young. Folklore, of course, advises people to not harm bird nests, for doing so was commonly thought to bring bad luck (1). However, for many […]

By | February 23rd, 2015|Education, Nature in Your Backyard, Science Art|1 Comment

The Fashionable and Practical Turkey Vulture

Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) remind me of 16th century European royalty (you know those “ruffs” they wore around their necks?). That regal appearance results from a bald head, which keeps the birds a little cleaner as they dig around in decomposing roadkill.

Evolving with bacteria goes beyond losing some feathers though. After all, if you ate rotten meat, you’d get sick. Vultures, however, have extremely acidic digestive tracks and host special gut bacteria that help them digest those rotten meals.

Oh, and don’t bother vultures while they’re feeding. They’re known to vomit as a defense mechanism.

p.s. Robert Krulwich of […]

By | January 22nd, 2015|Nature in Your Backyard, Science Art|0 Comments

Who’s in My House?

Tiny rustling noises arise from our kitchen garbage can. I tip-toe up to it and out pops a little fuzzy face with a twitching nose. Then it’s gone… and I head to the closet for a couple live traps.

Many mice and voles have made my house their own over the years (before I gently suggest they live elsewhere).

Is my new tenant a MOUSE or a VOLE?

Need a hint?
MICE have long tails, long snouts, long ears and protruding eyes.
VOLES have short tails and teddy bear faces with small, rounded ears, button eyes and a smooshed snout.

Curious about what’s the […]

By | January 13th, 2015|Nature in Your Backyard, Science Art, Urban Ecology|0 Comments

Navel-gazing Newsflash

A few quick updates on Belly Button Biodiversity and related projects:

  • You can now download and take a gander at the second and final batch of data from Belly Button Biodiversity. The available file contains both taxonomic information (OTU tables) and meta-data self-reported from our last batch of participants. These are the same data we used to generate the interactive pie chart.
By | November 17th, 2014|Belly Button Biodiversity, News, Science Art|0 Comments

A Study in Scarlet

No doubt you’ve been wowed this autumn by the crimson colors of the red maple (Acer rubrum)!

This tree, native to eastern North America, has grown even more numerous in the past 100 years. When the Chestnut Blight and Dutch Elm Disease swept through eastern deciduous forests, it opened up space for the hardy red maple to move in.

Add in the tree’s popularity in landscaping (and its tolerance to a wide range of environmental conditions: sunny or shady, high or low nutrients, dry or moist soil) and you have one of the most common trees in America!

By | November 10th, 2014|Nature in Your Backyard, Science Art|0 Comments

Spooky Spider

I love Halloween. It’s the time of year when I can leave all the spider webs up around the front stoop and call them decorations.

This harmless garden spider, the Black and Yellow Argiope (Argiope aurantia) is not long for the world. She’ll die soon as the nights grow colder. But I’ll keep an eye on her wee ones in the egg sac she left by the railing. In the spring the baby spiders will hatch out, spin a little silk parachute to catch the breeze and sail away to a new home!

Learn more about the garden spider by revisiting

A Tale of Two Hemlocks

I have never poisoned anyone. I recently learned that if I were to try, I would be very bad at it. The hemlock I thought was poisonous turns out to just have an unfortunate common name. And rather than brewing up a batch of tainted tonic, I would apparently make my intended victim an aromatic cup of tea loaded in Vitamin C.

While hiking around the Appalachians this past weekend, I spied tons of hemlock trees. “What a great post for October and Halloween… Hemlock!” I thought and pulled out my sketchbook.

Sketch done, I hopped online to find out just

By | October 21st, 2014|Nature in Your Backyard, Science Art|0 Comments

Belly Button Portraits – An Opportunity to Create Art through Science!

We’d like to think that over the course of the last few years, our Belly Button Biodiversity project has inspired quite a few things.

By | October 20th, 2014|Belly Button Biodiversity, Participate, Science Art|0 Comments

Warts & All!

Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire, burn; and cauldron, bubble.

Shakespeare’s witches open Macbeth by tossing a toad into their cauldron, along with parts of snakes, newts, bats and other dejected, unfortunate creatures. Why such a bad rap? After all, people LOVE frogs – they turn into princes and are considered quite lucky by some cultures. But toads? Feared, reviled. What’s the big difference?

Toads (like the American toad, Bufo americanus, pictured above) tend to live in drier environments than frogs. In the frog’s aquatic environment, escape is just a hop away. For toads, though, warts are the key to survival. The […]

By | October 8th, 2014|Nature in Your Backyard, Science Art|1 Comment