Sixth graders at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Winston-Salem are curious about squirrels, birds, bugs and more. They're asking questions like: "Why do some animals hibernate, when others don’t? Why don’t invasive species have predators? How do animals get their names?"

In the latest installment of Carolina Curious, WFDD’s Amy Diaz sat down with Falyn Owens with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission to find the answers. 

In middle school, Owens decided she wanted to be an ornithologist, which is someone who studies birds. She did that for a while, but now she works with all kinds of animals as a wildlife biologist. 

“I have always been interested in nature and wild animals, and not just wild animals, but plants, and mushrooms, and it all functions together in a really neat, fascinating way," Owens said. 

This made Owens the perfect person to answer five middle schoolers’ questions about nature and wildlife. 

Why do we only have gray squirrels when everyone else has white and red ones too? - Lilly Bilot

“So definitely it is true that the most common type of squirrel that you would see pretty much anywhere in North Carolina is going to be the gray squirrel, specifically the Eastern gray squirrel. They are very common. They thrive around human beings. And that's why we tend to see them in our backyards and in our neighborhoods because they just do really, really well in places where people live.”

But Owens says we actually have a lot of different types of squirrels in North Carolina. 

“We've got a species called the red squirrel. We've got our gray squirrels. We have fox squirrels and we also have two different species of flying squirrels, which are nocturnal," Owens said. "So most people don't get to see them, even if they live around you.”

Now, if you head up North or to the Midwest, Owens says you’ll see fox squirrels too but they’re bigger and red. In North Carolina, fox squirrels are mostly black with white patches on their foreheads. 

“So they look totally different from the fox squirrels up north but it's the same species just kind of a little bit of a different breed, or what we call a different morph," Owens said. 

How do animals in North Carolina get their names? - Kate Baily

“Most species actually have two types of names. So they'll have their common name, which is usually a name that came about because a whole bunch of people started calling that particular species one particular thing and it kind of stuck," Owens said. "But those names can be different in different places, because, you know, maybe one group of people in another state saw the same animal and they started calling it something else. A great example of that would be groundhogs. So some people call them groundhogs, and some people call them woodchucks.”

Owens says animals also have what’s called a scientific name. They’re usually in Latin or Greek and have two parts: a genus name and a species name.

“They will share the genus name with species that they're very, very closely related to, but their species name, the second part is going to be unique just to them," Owens said. "Say for example, a scientist discovers an animal that has a really long nose, and they want to name it something that describes the fact that it has a long nose ... in either Greek or Latin.”

So the species name could be descriptive of the animal, but Owens says it could also just be the name of the person who "discovered" it. 

Why don’t invasive species get predators over time? - Laszlo Konyeha

“Well, the fact of the matter is they do. But it takes a long, long time for for predators to evolve. Evolution to that extent can take a million years. Sometimes it could be shorter if you're talking about one species suddenly being able to eat or predate on a species that it wasn't able to before. So that might take a few thousand years, or maybe even a few hundred years," Owens said. "But the thing that makes a species invasive is that one, it spreads really, really, really rapidly, it can totally take over and replace the native animals. And also it's harmful. Part of the definition of what makes a species invasive is that it spreads far, far faster than, you know, predators could arrive on the scene to help control its population.”

In North Carolina, Owens says we have a lot of invasive species, like zebra mussels, feral pigs and emerald ash borers, which are a type of beetle. But she says there are lots of people working hard to control them.

How come during winter, bugs hibernate but birds don’t? - Terraj Staten

“So not all insects hibernate, but certainly some of them do. And the reason why is because they are ectothermic. And that's Greek for 'heated from the outside.' So what that means is, their body temperature is going to be based on what the temperature of their surroundings is. So if it's cold outside, it's going to be cold inside their bodies," Owens said. "So the outside temperature really determines how much energy they have. And so in the wintertime, they might slow down, sometimes they'll slow down so much that they stop moving. And then they basically just take a really, really long nap until it starts to get warm again.”

But birds, Owens says, are endothermic. That means they’re heated from the inside. Humans are endothermic too. 

“Basically, if it's really, really cold outside, we might feel cold, we might feel a little bit sleepy, but our bodies aren't going to be as cold as the outside temperature. So we can still be active even in the wintertime. And usually the more active we are, the warmer we get," Owens said. "So that's why it's good, If you're really cold, you know, you go for a run or you do some jumping jacks, and you can warm up. Insects can't really do that.”

What is the most popular animal in North Carolina? - Catherine Ivers

Owens said this was the most challenging question because there were so many different ways to answer it. 

“If you're talking about the number of species, that would probably be beetles. Beetles are one of the most diverse groups of animals that really exist in the entire world," Owens said. "But then if you are thinking about how abundant, what's the animal that's most abundant in terms of the sheer number of that animal, and that would probably be ants. They're very, very tiny, but there are many, many, many of them.”

Owens also thought about popularity in the sense of the animals that people like the most. That’s harder to measure, plus she says it depends on where those animals are.

“What animals most people like in their backyard tend to be small, sort of cute or pretty animals," Owens said. "So things like songbirds, like American goldfinches, or Carolina chickadees, that might come to a bird feeder, or butterflies.”

But if you’re talking about an animal you like the idea of, you might say something like deer or bears, even if you don’t want them in your yard. And then she thought about the question from another angle. What animals do people ask biologists like her about the most?

“Really the the types of animals that people ask most questions about, tend to be the ones that they're a little bit afraid of. And that tends to be animals like foxes, or bats, or snakes or bears," Owens said. "So a lot of what I do as a biologist is helping people understand those animals so that they can have less fear.”

And if you do come across a wild animal, Owens says the best thing you can do is appreciate it from a safe distance. 

"Whether that's a rabbit or a fox, or a squirrel, or snake," Owens said. "Most wild animals do better when we don't try to intervene. Just leave it alone, and maybe learn a little bit about it by talking to a wildlife biologist.”

She says that's how we can succeed in coexisting with all of the different, interesting animals that live around us. And from the sounds of it, that’s what these students want to do too. 

When I asked Catherine Ivers what sparked her question, the answer was pretty simple: "I love animals."

Amy Diaz covers education for WFDD in partnership with Report For America. You can follow her on Twitter at @amydiaze.

Sponsored by Roane Law

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