The Naturalist Center in the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh currently is closed to the public during construction of a new dinosaur exhibit, but the museum staff has continued to answer nature-related questions or make identifications through the “Ask a Naturalist” program.
Cindy Lincoln, who manages the center, said the program established well over a decade ago provides the opportunity for anyone anywhere to ask a question about something in nature. All they need to do is fill in the online form on the museum website and include a photo, video or audio.
Lincoln has been center manager for the past 10 years and handles daily operations along with training and managing staff, interns and volunteers. Greg Skupien is curator and has been with the museum since 2015. He oversees the maintenance of the collection, which includes over 20,000 specimens showcasing the biodiversity of the Southeast.
The two coordinate the Ask a Naturalist service and process all questions that come through.
Lincoln continued that while the service isn’t unique — there are other methods such as iNaturalist social network for nature enthusiasts for sharing nature observation — Ask a Naturalist provides a way to connect with educators, curators and scientists and tap into the vast amount of knowledge and expertise at the museum.
The most common question posted on Ask a Naturalist is, “Is this a meteorite?” The cutest question, “Do turtles get concussions?” Lincoln said.
She also gets questions from the coast, particularly about beach finds.
“Interesting fossils may turn up on the beach after storms or beach renourishment projects. The Ask a Naturalist form allows beachcombers to submit their finds for identification,” she said. “Most of the coastal fossil specimen identification requests fall under the ‘worn marine mammal bone’ or ‘fragment of shark tooth’ categories. A lot of these questions in the past year were from Holden Beach area.”
Lincoln said that she and Skupien receive and sort the questions and if either can make an identification or answer the question, they do. More often, they share the question and video or photo with the appropriate museum expert, or reach out to nearby universities. Lincoln said the museum doesn’t have a mycologist on staff and fungi are exceptionally difficult to correctly identify, so she forwards all the fungi identification questions to specialists at North Carolina State University.
The key to help staff answer the question or make the identification is a good-quality photo or in-focus video with different angles, closeups with size references like a coin, ruler or other common object. “There are many times when even a high-quality photo isn’t enough to identify an invertebrate, plant or fungi to species, but we can usually get close,” she said.
After receiving an answer back from the expert, staff send the answer and helpful links to the individual. Some of the museum scientists prefer to correspond directly with the person who submitted the question, but that’s not typical and varies depending on the question or identification, Lincoln added.
“If we know the question is coming from a child, we like to connect them with a museum scientist because of the positive impact that may have. Occasionally this will result in a family coming in to meet one of the research staff or get a tour behind the scenes, but this is very rare,” she said.
“If the inquiry includes a specimen of potential research significance such as a fossil, then we’ll invite the person to come into the museum to meet with the expert,” and they regularly invite people to visit the center during normal operating hours if they want to bring in something for staff to look at, Lincoln added.
Occasionally, the Ask a Naturalist questions relate to an object that the individual wants to donate to the museum. While donations are accepted on a case-by-case basis, the Naturalist Center can’t accept many objects or specimens because of limited storage space, Lincoln added.
For human artifacts such as arrowheads, the center directs those questions to staff at the North Carolina Museum of History or Office of State Archaeology. They don’t appraise or estimate the value of anything and do not offer medical advice such as what do to if you’ve been stung by an insect, gotten a snake bite or eaten a mushroom, she said.
During the pandemic, She and Skupien wrote a blog called “What’s that? Ask a Naturalist!”
“We would take especially interesting or challenging Ask a Naturalist questions and write a story about them. This is a good place to find some of my favorites such as the ‘solving the maggot mystery,’ ‘batty for batfish’ and ‘armored mudballs,’” Lincoln said.
Her favorite question from the coast was about a marine polychaete worm riding a coconut found at Fort Macon State Park, which they wrote about for the blog.
The center received a video taken from the beach at Fort Macon State Park, according to the blog, leading Lincoln on “an interesting journey into the world of polychaete worms.”
The sender asked “What is that brown, prickly worm thing?”
“After puzzling over an image that to us looked like a fat, coffee bean-colored caterpillar wrapped around a gooseneck barnacle on a coconut, we knew some expert consultation was needed. Our Curator, Dr. Bronwyn Williams, and Collections Manager, Megan McCuller, from the Museum’s Non-molluscan Invertebrate Unit identified it as a polychaete worm,” the blog states. “Further confirmation came from Dr. Geoff Read, a marine biologist and polychaete expert based in New Zealand, who offered the identification of Amphinome rostrata or marine bristle worm. This particular bristle worm species preys upon goose barnacles often attached to drift objects (in this case, a coconut, the most common ocean drift fruit) throughout tropical oceans worldwide. Our coconut-riding bristle worm may have gotten a little too much sun exposure resulting in its abnormal color.”
Right now, questions may only be submitted through the online form. When the center reopens, they’ll resume onsite identifications, although Lincoln said the Ask a Naturalist form is preferred. “We discourage bringing in live or dead plant, animal or fungal material or personal collections such as rock, shell, or fossil into the museum.”
Before the museum began construction on the dinosaur fossil exhibit called Dueling Dinosaurs, the Naturalist Center was open for visitors to access an extensive collection of specimens for individual research, student exploration or for general interest.
Lincoln said that the hands-on space was originally on the fourth floor of the Nature Exploration Center building that opened in 2000, around the time she thinks the Ask a Naturalist program began, and has been available ever since. The Naturalist Center was relocated to the second floor of the Nature Research Center on Jones Street when it opened in 2012. While the center is temporarily closed, Lincoln said there is a virtual tour of the Naturalist Center online.
Lincoln said her background is in botany while Skupien’s is in herpetology, “but we both love learning about almost anything in the natural world. One of the perks of working in a natural history museum is that you learn something new every day. Ask a Naturalist questions frequently stump us but we are surrounded by experts who enjoy tackling questions from the public,” she said.
“I guess if you define ‘naturalist’ as a ‘student of natural history,’ we both fit that definition,” Lincoln said. “However, there are other staff, past and present, who I consider to be true naturalists because their knowledge spans a very broad range of topics. I think what is almost more important now is understanding how to make good observations, how to research a subject and knowing what sources to trust — that’s what I most enjoy teaching visitors to the Naturalist Center and explaining via Ask a Naturalist.”