Field observations

Discovering Ancient Viruses

In 2000, scientists drilled a hole into the Siberian permafrost to collect old soil and look for ancient predators. In fact, these soil samples were estimated to be around 30,000 years old. These viral predators may be even older. Ten years later, the researchers added portions of these samples to amoebae colonies to see if any of the viruses from the soil would infect the amoebae. They were basically “fishing” by using amoebae as bait. The scientists found a virus new to science and named it Pithovirus sibericum. It was giant, measuring about 1.5 micrometers long. After 30,000 years, P. sibericum had been thawed and brought back to life.

Viruses are a large part of the planet’s biomass. Bacteriophages, or phages, are specific viruses that infect bacteria. Phages are the most abundant organism on Earth, with an estimated number of ten million trillion trillion (10^31). If phages were the size of an average beetle, they would completely cover the entire surface of the Earth several miles deep. They are abundant, but we know so little. Groups of student researchers are exploring this unknown realm.

This past semester, scientists at Mitchell Community College collected soil samples from Iredell County, then extracted, purified, and amplified new phages. The research was done in partnership with Howard Hughes Medical Center’s SEA-PHAGES program. SEA-PHAGES is seeking to find, characterize, and sequence phages that infect bacteria from the Actinobacterial family. The goal is to better understand the diversity within and between these phages. Instead of amoebae, Mitchell researchers used a bacteria, Microbacterium foliorum, as bait to catch the viruses.

Mitchell scientists discovered seven new viruses (seen here), and chose two phages for DNA sequencing. Next semester, the students will learn more about these phages by exploring their genome. The diversity of phages that inhabit Iredell County soil will become a little less blurry.

Mitchell CC Phages 2018


Campus Ant Diversity 2018

Post by research students (Fall 2018)

During the fall 2017 semester, we conducted ant surveys on both our Statesville and Mooresville campuses. Once again we surveyed ants across six grass plots and six pavement plots. However, this time we only sampled from the Statesville campus. The figures below show these comparisons.

You will notice different compositions from 2017 to 2018. Why is this? Could it be because of temperature differences? On 8/21/17, the average temperature in Statesville was 78ºF (high- 89ºF, low- 68ºF) while on 8/27/18 the average temperature was 69ºF (high-73ºF, low-66ºF). Temperature is probably not the only factor involved. Hopefully, a deeper dive into data will allow us to figure this out.

Gray Fox

Gray foxes, Urocyon cinereoargenteus, are omnivorous members of the canine family. Their diet ranges from mammals and birds to invertebrates, fruits, and nuts depending on the season and what is available.

As you can see from the figure above, we didn’t catch any on camera from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. There could be many factors that explain this. Gray foxes are really good tree climbers, and we didn’t have any cameras in trees. Also, this species of fox is primarily nocturnal. We have written about their tree-climbing ability as well as their avoidance behaviors here.

Above you can see that they didn’t overlap much with coyotes in space. It almost looks as though the coyotes have pushed the gray foxes closer to developed area. Gray foxes also tend to avoid coyotes in time, only overlapping 55% of the time. This strategy is used to avoid interactions with the much larger carnivore, the coyote.

We also found that gray foxes were:

  • Present at 6 trap stations
  • Found in 96 photos (30 independent observation)
  • Nocturnal 96.67% of the time

Gray fox climbing in Statesville


The most numerous animal we “caught” on our cameras was the white-tailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus. This species is sometimes referred to as a keystone herbivore, which means that they fulfill such an important role in an ecosystem that if they were to disappear, other populations would be altered tremendously. White-tailed deer alter the abundance of vegetation and the structure of communities.

We have previously discussed deer population research as well as data on deer vigilance around city trails. The figure below shows how our deer in Statesville deal with coyotes. It doesn’t look like the deer are avoiding coyotes in space or time. Deer were captured at every location where coyotes were captured. Also, these two species overlap in time 87% of the time. There is research that shows that eastern coyotes do sometimes kill fawns, but this figure is a pretty good indication that our deer don’t fear coyotes.

Finally, our year-long project showed that deer were:

  • Present at 32 trap stations
  • Found in 5534 photos (548 individual observations)
  • Nocturnal 58.58% of the time


One of the most common critters caught on our camera traps were raccoons. The graph above shows when they were most active in Statesville.

The northern, or common raccoon, Procyon lotor, is an opportunistic omnivore. This simply means that they will eat just about anything. This is one of the adaptations that allows them to be successful. They can descend trees (like in the picture below) because the joints in their hind feet have the ability to rotate 180°. They use their forelimbs to “see” in the dark. In fact, these front hands have four times as many touch receptors than the hind feet.

Raccoons are the most common primary reservoir for the rabies virus. They are also commonly infected with a roundworm which passes eggs through the raccoon feces. This roundworm is a major cause of death in certain rodents.

From our data, raccoons were:

  • Present at 22 trap stations
  • Found in 852 total photos (185 individual observations)
  • Nocturnal 95.14% of the time

You can see below that raccoons do not seem to avoid coyotes in space or in time. One reason could be that raccoons can climb trees. Another reason could be that raccoons are mean, and coyotes know it.