Growing Solar Family: scientists are honing in on newly discovered planets in our solar system.

Posted on July 18th, 2016

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By: MiaSci

By Dr. Jorge Perez-Gallego, Curator of Astronomy and Exhibition Developer

An artist rendition of Planet Nine with the Sun in the background. Scientists suspect that like Uranus and Neptune, Planet Nine is gaseous. CREDIT CALTECH:R. HURT (IPAC)

An artist rendition of Planet Nine with the Sun in the background. Scientists suspect that like Uranus and Neptune, Planet Nine is gaseous. CREDIT CALTECH:R. HURT (IPAC)

Earlier this year, Caltech professors Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown published a paper presenting evidence for a ninth planet in the solar system, Planet Nine. While Planet Nine has not been detected, they concluded its existence by looking at the behavior of some of the most distant objects known in the solar system.

Though the best way to discover new celestial objects in the solar system is to use a telescope to directly capture images, this is not always easy, since these objects are often faint and compact. Luckily, there are other methods. We can detect objects by looking for their gravitational influence on objects that we do see. The study of Uranus’ behavior, for example, allowed astronomers in the 19th century to first predict, and then confirm, the presence of a new planet, Neptune.

The Kuiper Belt is a region of the solar system beyond the orbit of Neptune, somewhat similar to the Asteroid Belt, and believed to contain many comets, asteroids, and other small bodies. By studying the behavior of the most distant objects ever found in the Kuiper Belt, Brown and Batygin predicted the presence of Planet Nine. The evidence they found is strong and exciting, but only time will tell whether Planet Nine—or some other phenomena—is responsible for the peculiar behavior of those objects.

Just recently, an international team of astronomers discovered a new dwarf planet, named 2015 RR245, orbiting in the disk of small icy worlds beyond Neptune. Interestingly, its elliptical orbit is very eccentric, and its distance to the Sun ranges from about 30 to 120 AU (astronomical unit = the distance of the Earth to the Sun). Finding these objects is a challenging task; after all, they are compact and distant. The Outer Solar System Origins Survey, responsible for the discovery, is committed to cataloguing many of the brightest, largest Kuiper belt objects. Such a catalog will not only help us piece together the history of the solar system, but also shed light on the possibility of Planet Nine.

We at Frost Science are excited about this because the data astronomers use is often available to planetariums on a timely basis. The orbit files of 2015 RR245, for example, were readily available, enabling planetaria to update their audiences right at the time the news broke. On a similar note, just a couple of months after Planet Nine was predicted, the Adler Planetarium in Chicago released a show that explored the largest of Pluto’s neighbors in the Kuiper Belt, and invited visitors to join the search for a new ninth planet. This kind of information sharing is essential for planetariums to grow as sources of scientific excellence and as inspiring astronomy resources for their communities.

Baby Steps: How our team at the Batchelor Wildlife Center saved the lives of two orphaned Eastern screech owls.

Posted on July 13th, 2016

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By: MiaSci

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Eastern screech owl

About a month ago our Falcon Batchelor Bird of Prey Center, which performs raptor rehabilitation, received two down-covered baby Eastern screech owls, one from a good Samaritan who found an owlet lost and wandering on a sidewalk near their home, the other from an FWC officer who had rescued a baby owl in the course of his duty. Luckily for the owlets, the facility has a highly trained staff, advanced medical equipment, and enough space to allow physical therapy and rehabilitation for the birds. Below, our Bird of Prey Center team explains how they raised the owlets from nestling to young adults, trained them to survive on their own, and reintroduced them to the wild with a method called “soft release.”

What condition were the chicks in when you received them?

They both came in with downy feathers, meaning they were about two to three weeks old. One was younger than the other and still had its eyes closed. The older of the two had eye infection that we treated with special avian antibiotics.

What’s the process when you receive wild birds?

First we conduct an initial examination and treat any medical issues. Treatment can range from something as simple as antibiotics to something as complex as surgery. We then create a species-specific diet for the birds and hand-feed or assist-feed them if necessary. Since both of the owlets were nestlings, they needed a little extra help. Luckily, we have Lucille, a resident Eastern screech owl who does a fantastic job as a foster mom! When owlets arrive in the nestling stage we place them with her as soon as we can. This allows them to imprint onto her instead of becoming comfortable with us. She teaches them necessary skills like how to feed themselves, defend themselves, recognize other owls, and become independent. Throughout these foster weeks, we monitor and weigh the owlets regularly to ensure they gain weight and develop properly. Once their flight feathers grow out, we place them in an enclosure outside where they start to reach a more wild and independent state.

How do you know the owls are ready for release?

The owls tell us when they are ready! In the flight cage, they go through the process of flight conditioning and live prey testing. Flight conditioning consists of staff members encouraging owls to fly for 5 to 10 minutes twice a day so as to build up their flight muscles and increase their endurance, all of which leads to a more successful release. Live prey testing is the last part of the process. We install night vision cameras and provide the owls with live prey. When we confirm a successful hunt, we know they’re ready to go.

You performed a soft release for these owls. Why, and what’s the difference between a hard and soft release?

The soft release option was the best choice for the owls because they came into our facility as owlets with no real understanding of the outside world beyond what we provided them.

A soft release involves placing the release-ready owls in a man-made nest box in an ideal habitat. We hang these nest boxes 10 to 30 feet high in a woodland area, and space them at least 100 feet apart, so the owls to have their own territories. After placing the owls in their boxes with appropriate food, we check the boxes daily. If the food is gone, the owl isn’t hunting successfully yet, so we keep providing meals. When they leave the food alone, we know they’re catching prey on their own.

A hard release is ideal for raptors we received as adults—they’ve already survived in the wild on their own. Once they go through rehabilitation we simply release them in an appropriate area, often in their old home territory.

How did you choose the nest sites for these owls? 

We looked for an open woodland area that had no immediate threats present. These threats may be neighborhood cats, dogs, or raccoons. Ideally, we find a strong tree in which we can place the nest high up, so as to avoid any possible danger.

Why did you choose Vizcaya Museum & Gardens, and not Frost Science grounds? 

While we generally aim to release birds in the area in which they were found, these Eastern screech owls came in as nestlings so they didn’t have their own territory established yet. While we have done releases on our own grounds in the past, we are striving to use different locations in order to establish populations elsewhere. Vizcaya Museum & Gardens is a great location due to the abundance of trees and open space. We can also walk there to monitor the birds and provide the nests with food.

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Frost Science Aviculturist, Larissa Perez, placing one of the two rehabilitated Eastern screech owls in the nest box at Vizcaya Gardens.

What should people do if they find an injured or orphaned Eastern screech owl or other bird of prey?

We encourage anyone who finds a baby or adult bird to contact the Falcon Batchelor Bird of Prey Center at 305-434-9575. The summer months are considered baby season, so many people are finding young birds on the ground. If the bird is obviously injured, you can bring them to us and we’ll assess the situation. If you find a baby bird that is featherless or slightly feathered, you can place them back to their nest. If the parents are hanging around but no nest is present, you can hang a makeshift nest like a basket or container lined with natural debris with the baby inside. The parents will continue to care for the baby. A lot of people find baby birds with feathers hopping around on the ground. This is a normal stage in their growing process called fledging in which they are too big for the nest but are still unable to fly. Think of it as the awkward teenager days! The parents stay close by and continue to feed the baby outside of the nest. If people find a bird in this life stage, we encourage them not to interfere and just keep a close eye out for any possible threats until the fledgling can fly away

Local Crocodiles Hatch Amid Mangroves, Highlighting Relevance of our Frost Science Mangrove Habitat.

Posted on July 12th, 2016

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By: MiaSci

 

Last week, the Miami Herald reported that American crocodile nests at Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge, a protected area near Key Largo, had hatched earlier than expected. At first researchers thought the nests might have been raided by raccoons or other predators, but then the spotted the newly hatched babies. It’s a fascinating story of a species’ ongoing recovery through sound policy and environmental conservation. Though once endangered, with a population of around 200 in the US, the species now numbers around 2,000 animals, all in South Florida.

An American crocodile examining her nest at the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Key Largo. Credit US Fish & Wildlife Service.

An American crocodile examining her nest at the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Key Largo. Photo Credit: US Fish & Wildlife Service

We’re lucky in Miami to have such fascinating wildlife close at hand. Not only are there American crocodiles in Keys, they’re now thriving in the salt water mangrove fringe of Everglades National Park, and have begun to reestablish themselves in the Miami area as well, with sightings around Virginia Key, Key Biscayne, and the Vizcaya area west of Brickell.

In order to echo the biology of the world around us, and give you a closer look at its complexity and beauty, Frost Science will have an outstanding American crocodile exhibit on the open-air Vista level of the Living Core Aquarium. As we planned our croc space, we thought of a few tricks to make the exhibit more compelling for guests, while keeping it comfortable for the croc. One design feature we’re really excited about is the acrylic window forming one of the walls of the enclosure. It’s eight feet tall, allowing clear viewing of our croc both above and below water, and it arcs outward, to afford cool side views of the croc if it’s in the water. Crocs also love warmth, so we’re installing a heated mud bank to prompt the ancient reptile to bask in an area that gives guests great views of its unique features. And the American alligator enclosure is right next door, so you can compare the two animals and note their differences.

The croc space is part of the Mangrove Habitat, which explains how mangroves are crucial to oceans around the world. They act as both a nursery for thousands and thousands of small fish, many of which then spend their adult lives out in the ocean, and they hold land in place, creating a buffer for storm surge and hurricane damage. Our Mangrove habitat extends into an above ground area with an aviary where birds perch, and where and live red and black mangrove trees create a home for small fish. If you walk downstairs to the Dive level, you’ll see the underside of the mangrove roots, which form a shadowy realm for both juvenile fish, and larger predators, like snook and snapper. It’s all part of the Living Core’s matrix of aquariums depicting the interconnectedness of Florida’s waters, and the importance of those waters to the world.

Science Up Close: Predicting South Florida Flood Risk from Days to Decades

Posted on July 6th, 2016

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By: MiaSci

By Dr. Angela Colbert, Director of Science Communication

Juliet Pinto, Angela Colbert, Gillian Thomas, Ben Kirtman, & Tiffany Troxler

Juliet Pinto, Angela Colbert, Gillian Thomas, Ben Kirtman, & Tiffany Troxler

Get out your rain boots, it’s time to chat about flooding again here in South Florida. Earlier this month, our Science Up Close series, which links the public with experts to discuss current science, did just that. We invited Dr. Ben Kirtman from the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science to share his knowledge and research on climate predictability on various timescales.

Ben Kirtman

Dr. Ben Kirtman

The stormy evening at the Coral Gables Museum provided the perfect setting for the discussion, as Dr. Kirtman highlighted current findings, and why it’s so difficult to address a question on many peoples’ minds: how often will my home and streets flood, and what will South Florida flooding be like in 30 or 40 years?

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The answer, of course, is complicated. South Florida flooding can come from many sources, such as changes in tides (many are familiar with king tides), rainfall amounts, sea level rise, or a combination. Predicting the frequency of these flooding events relates to the entire climate system, and there are lots of variables. Sea level rise, stemming in part from melting ice sheets, is happening globally, but the amount varies from location to location. Rainfall amounts fluctuate naturally, but on longer timescales can be affected by large climate events such as El Nino (warming of the equatorial tropical Pacific). Rainfall can also vary due to the warming global climate as well. Tides are easy to predict, but their volume may change due to some of the factors above.

Gillian Thomas & Ted Caplow

Gillian Thomas & Ted Caplow

So back to your concern about your house. Science is getting there, but still has a way to go. Dr. Kirtman presented a global climate model he helped create which is sensitive enough to see changes in the Gulf Stream—a first for global climate models. Why would this matter? Well, the current strength of the Gulf Stream, or how fast it is moving, can now be shown to impact sea level rise for South Florida. The faster it moves, the less sea level rise we have here. What it will do 100 years from now is still a tough question to answer at the moment, but Dr. Kirtman is excited about the gains in knowledge.

The guests in attendance had plenty of questions for Dr. Kirtman, and the discussion opened up to include other local experts, Dr. Tiffany Troxler from FIU’s Sea Level Solutions Center, and Dr. Juliet Pinto from FIU’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications, who has written documentaries on sea level rise in South Florida.

Gillian Thomas & Pamela Garrison

Gillian Thomas & Pamela Garrison

News from Frost Science

Posted on June 29th, 2016

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By: MiaSci

Today, Gillian Thomas, president & CEO of the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, announced she would be retiring this Friday, July 1 after leading the organization for over 13 years. She will continue with Frost Science as an advisor through the year to ensure a smooth and successful transition. We are indebted to her vision and commitment to bringing a new and unique science museum to Miami-Dade County. Her invaluable dedication will ensure that countless generations of visitors will be inspired by science, technology and innovation.

On behalf of the Frost Science Board of Trustees, we are pleased to welcome Frank Steslow, the chief operating officer of the museum for the past eight years, as president of Frost Science. With over 30 years of experience as a scientist and executive manager in science-based non-profit organizations, Steslow has overseen all operations for Frost Science, currently leading the overall project management of the new museum along with the Batchelor Environmental Center at Florida International University’s Biscayne Bay Campus in North Miami.

Thank you for your continued support of Frost Science as we near opening and remain steadfast in our commitment to bringing a remarkable resource in science and education for all the community and a signature addition to South Florida’s educational, cultural, business and civic landscape.

Photo Credit: Catalina Ayubi of People of Wynwood and Catalina Ayubi Photography

Photo Credit: Catalina Ayubi of People of Wynwood and Catalina Ayubi Photography

A note from Gillian Thomas:

I have spent an exhilarating and outstanding period of time in Miami; more than a decade to get the new museum project off the ground and now, nearing completion. From the beginning, I was excited by the unbeatable site, the opportunity to make an impact in creating a new cultural quarter in the city center and leading a museum with a renowned commitment to the community and education excellence. Miami has always been open to new ideas and creates a wonderful environment to build on the strengths of the museum and re-imagine it for future generations.

Getting the building and exhibitions designed and completed is a big job – but it’s just the start. Now is the moment to begin to focus on the programs for opening and beyond, along with the new projects that will come to fruition later. I am delighted to hand over the museum to Frank at this stage as he has the skills and expertise to lead Frost Science to success. The project already has a great team onboard and I look forward to seeing the results.

I am very grateful to so many people who have contributed to make this happen. Frost Science is an important public-private partnership and a great example of how we can all work together to benefit all the community. I would like to express my particular thanks to our donors and the many people within Miami-Dade County and the City of Miami who have contributed to make this possible. Everyone in Miami-Dade County is supporting Frost Science through the General Obligation Bond: this is everyone’s museum. Our aim is to make South Florida a beacon for science and technology and the science museum is a key component of the educational infrastructure that will inspire so many in the years to come.

A big thank you to everyone, including the museum team and countless supporters, for all that you have done for Frost Science and for welcoming me here so warmly.

A note from Frank Steslow:

Photo Credit: Al Diaz/Miami Herald Staff

Photo Credit: Al Diaz/Miami Herald Staff

I am excited and thankful for the opportunity to lead Frost Science during this crucial phase as we near completion and opening. Under Gillian’s leadership, the museum made important strides and she has laid a strong foundation for ensured success, with a solid team and a dedication to excellence. On a personal note, her announcement is very bittersweet for me. I have been nothing but impressed with her professionalism, compassion and commitment. I hope you will join me in thanking Gillian for all she has done for this community and wishing the very best in this next stage of her life. We will continue to celebrate her many accomplishments as the museum moves forward. This is an exciting time for Frost Science and it’s an honor to be a part of an organization that is serving as a resource for all in our community and making a positive, meaningful impact in Miami-Dade County. I thank you for your continued confidence and look forward to leading Frost Science toward opening and beyond. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me directly at fsteslow@frostscience.org.

A Cultural Ecosystem: our ONSITE video looks at how Frost Science helps complete the county’s vision for downtown

Posted on June 27th, 2016

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By: MiaSci

Our ONSITE video series gives you a peek into the progress and purpose of the new Frost Science location, which is currently under construction. This month, the series features Michael Spring, director of the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs and senior advisor to the Mayor, as he tours the site and explains how Frost Science completes the county’s vision of Miami as one of the world’s preeminent cultural hubs.

Years ago, his department had a goal of centralizing all of Miami’s major cultural institutions downtown. Today, as Frost Science nears completion, it connects a beautiful constellation of cultural attractions that include PAMM, the nearby Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, and the Miami Children’s Museum on the MacArthur Causeway. Miami now has a rich and concentrated cultural ecosystem, and a place where families can learn about science at a time when science defines our lives.

Since shooting the video, we’ve reached some construction milestones: many of the galleries now have drywall up, giving us a sense of what the spaces will actually feel like, and on the Dive Level of the Living Core Aquarium, we’re finishing a cement floor with special tabletops that allow for a series of smaller aquariums to be free-standing in the middle of the space. These smaller vessels tell more detailed stories, and let you see the world within from all four sides, with close-up views of various sea grasses, fish, or other fascinating life forms.

Another area that’s coming together is the 18-foot deep Reef Fish Aquarium. Artisans are putting the final touches on the concrete surface by using molds to create organic textures and inserting 1,200 pieces of artificial coral arranged at depths and light levels that reflect how they would occur in the wild. Next to the Reef Fish Aquarium we’ve created separate aquariums for live coral, where we will display beautiful Atlantic specimens, many of which we collected from the nearby Port of Miami prior to its dredging.

The future begins here. Stay tuned for the next ONSITE!