Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke

Students exploring the Innovation Co-Lab

Category: Animals Page 1 of 18

Wiring the Brain

Sticky post
From tiny flies, Duke researchers are finding new clues to how the brain sets up its circuitry.

In her time at Duke, Khanh Vien figures she’s dissected close to 10,000 fly brains. For her PhD she spent up to eight hours each day peering at baby flies under the microscope, teasing out tiny brains a fraction the size of a poppy seed.

“I find it very meditative,” she said.

Vien acknowledges that, to most people, fruit flies are little more than a kitchen nuisance; something to swat away. But to researchers like her, they hold clues to how animal brains — including our own — are built.

While the human brain has some 86 billion neurons, a baby fruit fly’s brain has a mere 3016 — making it millions of times simpler. Those neurons talk to each other via long wire-like extensions, called axons, that relay electrical and chemical signals from one cell to the next.

Vien and other researchers in Professor Pelin Volkan’s lab at Duke are interested in how that wiring gets established during the fly’s development.

By analyzing a subset of neurons responsible for the fly’s sense of smell, the researchers have identified a protein that helps ensure that new neurons extend their axons to the correct spots in the olfactory area of the young fly’s brain and not elsewhere.

Because the same protein is found across the animal kingdom, including humans, the researchers say the work could ultimately shed light on what goes awry within the brains of people living with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.

Their findings are published in the journal iScience.

Khanh Vien earned her PhD in developmental and stem cell biology in Professor Pelin Volkan’s lab at Duke.
Robin Smith
By Robin Smith

We Are Killing Birds. Solutions Exist. Research Can Help.

Sticky post

Look at the nearest window. What did you see first—the glass itself or what was on the other side? For birds, that distinction is a matter of life and death.

A dead red-eyed vireo above the entrance to the Brodhead Center at Duke. Every year, millions of birds die after colliding with windows. Buildings with lots of glass are particularly dangerous.

Every year, up to one billion birds die from hitting windows. Windows kill more birds than almost any other cause of human-related bird mortality, second only to feral and domestic cats. Both the transparency and reflectiveness of glass can confuse flying birds. They either don’t see the glass at all and try to fly through it, or they’re fooled by reflections of safe habitat or open sky. And at night, birds may be disoriented by lit-up buildings and end up hitting windows by mistake. In all cases, the result is usually the same. The majority of window collision victims die on impact. Even the survivors may die soon after from internal bleeding, concussions, broken bones, or other injuries.

Madison Chudzik,  a biology Ph.D. student in the Lipshutz Lab at Duke, studies bird-window collisions and migrating birds. “Purely the fact that we’ve built buildings is killing those birds,” she says.

Every spring and fall, billions of birds in the United States alone migrate to breeding and wintering grounds. Many travel hundreds or thousands of miles. During peak migration, tens of thousands of birds may fly across Durham County in a single night. Not all of them make it.

Chudzik’s research focuses on nocturnal flight calls, which migrating birds use to communicate while they fly. Many window collision victims are nocturnal migrants lured to their deaths by windows and lights. Chudzik wants to know “how we can use nocturnal flight calls as an indicator to examine collision risks in species.”

Chudzik (back) setting up one of her recording devices on the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. The devices record flight calls from birds migrating at night.
Image courtesy of Chudzik.

Previous research, Chudzik says, has identified a strong correlation between the number of flight calls recorded on a given night and the overall migration intensity that night. “If sparrows have a high number of detections, there is likely a high number migrating through the area,” Chudzik explains. But some species call more than others, and there is “taxonomic bias in collision risk,” with some species that call more colliding less and vice versa. Chudzik is exploring this relationship in her research.

Unlike bird songs, nocturnal flight calls are very short. The different calls are described with technical terms like “zeep” and “seep.” Chudzik is part of a small but passionate community of people with the impressive ability to identify species by the minute differences between their flight calls. “It’s a whole other world of… language, basically,” Chudzik says.

Chudzik can identify a species not only by hearing its flight call but also by seeing its spectrogram, a visual representation of sound. This spectrogram, from a recording on Adler Planetarium, has flight calls from four species. The x-axis represents time, while the y-axis shows frequency. The brightness or intensity indicates amplitude.
Image from Chudzik.

She began studying nocturnal flight calls for research she did as an undergraduate, but her current project no longer needs to rely on talented humans to identify every individual call. A deep learning model called Nighthawk, trained on a wealth of meticulous flight call data, can identify calls from their spectrograms with 95% accuracy. It is free and accessible to anyone, and much of the data it’s been trained on comes from non-scientists, such as submissions from a Facebook community devoted to nocturnal flight calls. Chudzik estimates that perhaps a quarter of the people on that Facebook page are researchers. “The rest,” she says, “are people who somehow stumbled upon it and… fell in love with nocturnal flight calling.”

In addition to studying nocturnal flight calls, Chudzik’s research will investigate how topography, like Lake Michigan by Chicago, affects migration routes and behavior and how weather affects flight calls. Birds seem to communicate more during inclement weather, and bad weather sometimes triggers major collision events. Last fall in Chicago, collisions with a single building killed hundreds of migratory birds in one night.

Chudzik had a recorder on that building. It had turned off before the peak of the collision event, but the flight call recordings from that night are still staggering. In one 40-second clip, there were 300 flight calls identified. Normally, Chudzik says, she might expect a maximum of about seven in that time period.

Nights like these, with enormous numbers of migrants navigating the skies, can be especially deadly. Fortunately, solutions exist. The problem often lies in convincing people to use them. There are misconceptions that extreme changes are required to protect birds from window collisions, but simple solutions can make a huge difference. “We’re not telling you to tear down that building,” Chudzik says. “There are so many tools to stop this from happening that… the argument of ‘well, it’s too expensive, I don’t want to do it…’ is just thrown out the window.”

A yellow-bellied sapsucker collision casualty in front of the French Family Science Center last year.

What can individuals and institutions do to prevent bird-window collisions?

Turn off lights at night.

For reasons not completely understood, birds flying at night are attracted to lit-up urban areas, and lights left on at night can become a death trap. Though window collisions are a year-round problem, migration nights can lead to high numbers of victims, and turning off non-essential lights can help significantly. One study on the same Chicago building where last year’s mass collision event occurred found that halving lighted windows during migration could reduce bird-window collisions by more than 50%.

Chudzik is struck by “the fact that this is such a big conservation issue, but it literally just takes a flip of a switch.” BirdCast and Audubon suggest taking actions like minimizing indoor and outdoor lights at night during spring and fall migration, keeping essential outdoor lights pointed down and adding motion sensors to reduce their use, and drawing blinds to help keep light from leaking out.

Use window decals and other bird-friendly glass treatments.

There are many products and DIY solutions intended to make windows safer for birds, like window decals, external screens, patterns of dots or lines, and strings hanging in front of a window at regular intervals. For window treatments to be most effective, they should be applied to the exterior of the glass, and any patterning should be no more than two inches apart vertically and horizontally. This helps protect even the smallest birds, like kinglets and hummingbirds.

It can be hard to see from a distance, but these windows on Duke’s Fitzpatrick Center have been retrofitted with tiny white dots, an effective strategy to reduce bird-window collisions.

A 2016 window collision study at Duke conducted by several scientists, including Duke Professor Nicolette Cagle, Ph.D., identified the Fitzpatrick Center as a window collision hotspot. As a result, Duke retrofitted some of the building’s most dangerous windows with bird-friendly dot patterning. Ongoing collision monitoring has revealed about a 70% reduction in collisions for that building since the dots were added.

One obstacle to widespread use of bird-friendly design practices and window treatments is concerns about aesthetics. But bird-friendly windows can be aesthetically pleasing, too, and “Dead birds hurt your aesthetic anyway.”

If nothing else, don’t clean your windows.

Bird-window collisions don’t just happen in cities and on university campuses. In fact, most fatal collisions involve houses and other buildings less than four stories tall. Window treatments like the dots on the Fitzpatrick building can be costly for homeowners, but anything you can put on the outside of a window will help.

“Don’t clean your windows,” Chudzik suggests—smudges may also help birds recognize the glass as a barrier.

Window collisions at Duke

The best thing Duke could do, Chudzik says, is to be open to treating more windows. Every spring, students in Cagle’s Wildlife Surveys class, which I am taking now, collect data on window collision victims found around several buildings on campus. Meanwhile, a citizen science iNaturalist project collects records of dead birds seen by anyone at campus. If you find a dead bird near a window at Duke, you can help by submitting it to the Bird-window collisions project on iNaturalist. Part of the goal is to identify window collision hotspots in order to advocate for more window treatments like the dots on the Fitzpatrick Center.

Spring migration is happening now. BirdCast’s modeling tools estimate that 260,000 birds crossed Durham County last night. They are all protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. However, Chudzik says, “We haven’t thought to protect them while they’re actually migrating.” The law is intended to protect species that migrate, but “it’s not saying ‘while you are migrating you have more protections,’” Chudzik explains. Some have argued that it should, however, suggesting that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act should mandate safer windows to help protect migrants while they’re actually migrating.

“This whole world comes alive while we’re asleep, and… most people have no idea,” Chudzik says about nocturnal flight calls. She is shown here on Northwestern University, one of the Chicago buildings where she has placed recorders for her research. 
Photo courtesy of Chudzik.

We can’t protect every bird that passes overhead at night, but by making our buildings safer, we can all help more birds get one step closer to where they need to go.

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

To get a fuller picture of a forest, sometimes research requires a team effort

Sticky post
Film by Riccardo Morrelas, Zahava Production

For some people, the word “rainforest” conjures up vague notions of teeming jungles. But Camille DeSisto sees something more specific: a complex interdependent web.

For the past few years, the Duke graduate student has been part of a community-driven study exploring the relationships between people, plants and lemurs in a rainforest in northern Madagascar, where the health of one species depends on the health of others.

Many lemurs, for example, eat the fruits of forest trees and deposit their seeds far and wide in their droppings, thus helping the plants spread. People, in turn, depend on the plants for things like food, shelter and medicines.

But increasingly, deforestation and other disturbances are throwing these interactions out of whack.

DeSisto and her colleagues have been working in a 750,000-acre forest corridor in northeast Madagascar known as the COMATSA that connects two national parks.

The area supports over 200 tree species and nine species of lemurs, and is home to numerous communities of people.

A red-bellied lemur (Eulemur rubriventer) in a rainforest in northeast Madagascar. Photo by Martin Braun.

“People live together with nature in this landscape,” said DeSisto, who is working toward her Ph.D. in ecology at the Nicholas School of the Environment.

But logging, hunting and other stressors such as poverty and food insecurity have taken their toll.

Over the last quarter century, the area has lost 14% of its forests, mostly to make way for vanilla and rice.

This loss of wild habitats risks setting off a series of changes. Fewer trees also means fewer fruit-eating lemurs, which could create a feedback loop in which the trees that remain have fewer opportunities to replace themselves and sprout up elsewhere — a critical ability if trees are going to track climate change.

DeSisto and her colleagues are trying to better understand this web of connections as part of a larger effort to maximize forest resilience into an uncertain future.

To do this work, she relies on a network of a different sort.

The research requires dozens of students and researchers from universities in Madagascar and the U.S., not to mention local botanists and lemur experts, the local forest management association, and consultants and guides from nearby national parks, all working together across time zones, cultures and languages.

Forest field team members at camp (not everyone present). Photo credit: Jane Slentz-Kesler.

Together, they’ve found that scientific approaches such as fecal sampling or transect surveys can only identify so much of nature’s interconnected web.

Many lemurs are small, and only active at night or during certain times of year, which can make them hard to spot — especially for researchers who may only be on the ground for a limited time.

To fill the gaps, they’re also conducting interviews with local community members who have accumulated knowledge from a lifetime of living on the land, such as which lemurs like to munch on certain plants, what parts they prefer, and whether people rely on them for food or other uses.

By integrating different kinds of skills and expertise, the team has been able to map hidden connections between species that more traditional scientific methods miss.

For example, learning from the expertise of local community members helped them understand that forest patches that are regenerating after clear-cutting attract nocturnal lemurs that may — depending on which fruits they like to eat — promote the forest’s regrowth.

Camille DeSisto after a successful morning collecting lemur fecal samples.

Research collaborations aren’t unusual in science. But DeSisto says that building collaborations with colleagues more than 9,000 miles away from where she lives poses unique challenges.

Just getting to her field site involves four flights, several bumpy car rides, climbing steep trails and crossing slippery logs.

“Language barriers are definitely a challenge too,” DeSisto said.

She’s been studying Malagasy for seven years, but the language’s 18 dialects can make it hard to follow every joke her colleagues tell around the campfire.

To keep her language skills sharp she goes to weekly tutoring sessions when she’s back in the U.S., and she even helped start the first formal class on the language for Duke students.

“I like to think of it as language opportunities, not just language barriers,” DeSisto said.”

“Certain topics I can talk about with much more ease than others,” she added. “But I think making efforts to learn the language is really important.”

When they can’t have face-to-face meetings the team checks in remotely, using videoconferencing and instant messaging to agree on each step of the research pipeline, from coming up with goals and questions and collecting data to publishing their findings.

“That’s hard to navigate when we’re so far away,” DeSisto said. But, she adds, the teamwork and knowledge sharing make it worth it. “It’s the best part of research.”

This research was supported by Duke Bass Connections (“Biocultural Sustainability in Madagascar,” co-led by James Herrera), Duke Global, The Explorers Club, Primate Conservation, Inc., Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, and the Garden Club of America.

“Biodiversity Is Essential, and It’s Not a Nice-to-Have”

Sticky post
Filmmaker Ashley Hillard and cinematographer Alan Dunkin in Yellowstone. Photo by Hillard.

“I have been interested in storytelling and the environment since my earliest memories,” says Ashley Hillard, a documentary filmmaker with an interest in wildlife management and conservation practices in the United States.

Hillard has a background in film, largely with production companies, talent agencies, and independent projects on the side, but she later shifted into climate tech recruitment. Now she is pursuing an environmental leadership Masters in Environmental Management degree at Duke while working on documentary projects. She is also a  Communications Assistant Intern in the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic.

She has been working on a film called “Coexistence,” a documentary that spotlights North American species and wildlife management practices. Hillard got the idea for the project when she noticed that U.S.-based researchers often choose to study species in other countries, perhaps “because it’s easier to go over and say ‘Why don’t you try this?’ rather than having to deal with issues in your backyard.”

“We need to pay attention to our own backyards,” Hillard emphasizes. “The hope,” she says, is “more laws and policies and values change along with behaviors as we become more informed and more aware.” She also believes that “local efforts can usually go further.” Part of her goal in creating films about conservation is to help viewers realize that “individuals can be part of change.” Films and other forms of storytelling can inform people about specific species and conservation efforts, but Hillard hopes her work can help shift perspectives more broadly as well. Effective conservation is often “a social attitudes and values issue,” Hillard says. “There needs to be a shift in how we view the environment.”

An American bison that Hillard saw while filming in Yellowstone.
Photo by Hillard.

Shifting baseline syndrome is the idea that people’s expectations of how nature should look reflect their own experiences rather than an accurate picture of the natural state of landscapes, flora, fauna, and wildlife abundance. Our understanding of what nature “normally” looks like changes over generations and is skewed by the societies and time periods we inhabit. The more we damage our environments, the less we collectively remember what they looked like before—and the less motivated we may be to restore them to a condition most of us can’t remember.

When humans and wildlife come into conflict, our perceptions of how nature “should” be can matter tremendously. Gray wolves were recently delisted from the Endangered Species list, then re-listed in most places—both were controversial decisions—but their numbers are far lower than they were historically. Still, some think there are too many wolves. In the Western U.S., gray wolf conservation efforts often clash with the desires of ranchers and and hunters, who may view higher wolf populations as a threat to livestock or game animals like deer and elk. But some of these hunters and ranchers, Hillard says, “are real conservationists doing amazing work,” and she thinks they should get more attention.

While creating the film, Hillard has tried to capture the complexities of wildlife conservation. It’s not as simple as “They’re bad, they’re good, and this is how we solve it,” Hillard says.

There are different ideas about how conservation efforts should be conducted and which animals should be protected in the first place. The dominant approach to wildlife management in the U.S., Hillard says, is rooted in the idea that there are “good” species that people can use and “bad” species that people don’t like to live with, such as wolves and other predators. “This perspective,” she says, “came over with colonists.” She mentions Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf; the stories we tell about animals can reflect societal attitudes toward them. Many indigenous peoples, meanwhile, have traditionally viewed all species as kin. This “cultural aspect” affects people’s willingness to coexist with species like wolves, which in turn affects our conservation practices.

A gray wolf at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in Yellowstone.
Photo by Alan Dunkin, provided by Hillard.

In this country, very few people are killed by wildlife—about 700 annually, according to one review that counted deaths from bites, wildlife-vehicle collisions, and zoonotic diseases. Car accidents, on the other hand, are more than 60 times more deadly, killing about 43,000 people in the U.S. per year. “We have a certain acceptance of how we die,” Hillard says. “There are a number of things that kill people with much higher percentages [than deaths from wildlife] that we… accept as day-to-day,” but we don’t tend to hear calls to eliminate cars from society, while an animal that harms a human is often given a death sentence. Hillard thinks media in general should be more careful about how they share stories about wildlife, especially negative encounters. If stories focus only on rare but tragic incidents, it can distort perceptions of species and “feed into that doom loop.”

Films, Hillard says, can inspire people “to look at things differently and see things from different perspectives.” Storytelling is also a way of communicating scientific information and encouraging action. Hillard feels that some stories about environmental issues are told in a one-sided, black-and-white way, but the nuances of these problems are important. “Finding those complexities and working through them… and then trying to craft stories around that to share with the public so they can make more informed decisions” is part of the goal of Hillard’s films.

“Coexistence” focuses on well-known, often controversial species like red wolves and mountain lions. “Familiarity and awareness of a species can contribute to interest in protecting them,” Hillard says. Such species are sometimes referred to as charismatic megafauna and can be viewed as ambassadors for conservation or umbrella species whose protection helps other wildlife as well. But Hillard has concerns about the term charismatic megafauna. “It diminishes a species’s value and reduces them to ‘cute’ so you no longer see them as an intrinsic part of an ecosystem,” she says. She believes it’s important to emphasize protection of entire ecosystems, not just specific species within them.

A Mexican gray wolf pup at the California Wolf Center. The Mexican gray wolf is a gray wolf subspecies.
Photo by Hillard.

Hillard hopes that her films inspire more awareness of and interest in environmental issues. “There’s a lot of pressure to get it right,” she says. And storytelling can have its own issues when it comes to presenting accurate information. “Information can be left out or shaped in a way to make it more compelling,” Hillard acknowledges. She feels that many wildlife films focus first on scenery and animals, then discuss conservation issues at the end. But “Coexistence” is “very much focused on the issues.” It is expected to be released by early 2025.

“I strive to tell impactful stories in creative ways that are more upbeat in tone,” Hillard says. She believes it’s important for people to be aware of the challenges facing wildlife, but she also wants to inspire hope and the belief that individual actions can matter. “To feel powerless can make you feel hopeless, and there is a lot to be hopeful for,” she says. “But there needs to be a shift in how we view the environment.”

One major problem she sees is our consumerist, materialistic society. “We’re kind of consuming ourselves off the planet,” Hillard says. “How do you change behaviors within a society that’s so hyper-consumptive?”

Films and other forms of storytelling can make scientific information more accessible. “Communicating is that bridge to getting people to care, to understand it, to learn about it,” Hillard says. “Without communication, science studies and research may be siloed in academia.” When we lack accurate and accessible information, we may rely on “‘I heard someone say something about that thing’” rather than science to inform our understanding of issues.

Along with providing accurate information, Hillard wants to encourage “a view of mutualism with other species” and raise questions like “How can we be better neighbors to nonhuman species?”

Ultimately, she wants viewers to recognize that “biodiversity is essential, and it’s not a nice-to-have.”

Hillard at Lands End Lookout in San Francisco.
Photo credit Alan Dunkin, provided by Hillard.

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Glowing Waterdogs and Farting Rivers: A Duke Forest Research Tour

Jonny Behrens looks for aquatic macroinvertebrates with Duke Forest Research Tour participants.

“Who would be surprised if I told you that rivers fart?”

Nick Marzolf, Ph.D., went on to explain that streams release greenhouse gases from decaying matter and gas-producing bacteria. This revelation was one of several new facts I learned at the annual Duke Forest Research Tour in December.

“First and foremost,” says Duke Forest Senior Program Coordinator Maggie Heraty, “the Duke Forest is a teaching and research laboratory.” The Office of the Duke Forest hosts an annual Research Tour to showcase research activities and connect to the wider community. “Connecting people to science and nature, and demystifying scientific research, is a key part of our goals here,” Heraty says.

Duke Forest, which consists of over 7,000 acres in  Durham, Orange, and Alamance Counties, lies within the Cape Fear and Neuse river basins, two of seventeen river basins in North Carolina. What exactly is a river basin? Heraty quoted a poetic definition from North Carolina Environmental Education:

“A river basin encompasses all the land surface drained by many finger-like streams and creeks flowing downhill into one another and eventually into one river, which forms its artery and backbone. As a bathtub catches all the water that falls within its sides and directs the water out its drain, a river basin sends all the water falling within its surrounding ridges into its system of creeks and streams to gurgle and splash downhill into its river and out to an estuary or the ocean.”

Located within the Cape Fear River Basin, the headwaters of New Hope Creek, which passes through the Korstian Division of Duke Forest, are fed by roughly 33,000 acres of land, over 5,000 of which are in the Duke Forest. Land outside of the Forest is of vital importance, too. Duke Forest is working in partnership with other local conservation organizations through the Triangle Connectivity Collaboration, an initiative to connect natural areas, create wildlife corridors, reduce habitat fragmentation, and protect biodiversity in the Triangle region.

New Hope Creek in the Korstian Division of the Duke Forest.

Dwarf waterdogs

We walked down a short trail by the creek, and the tour split into two groups. Our group walked farther along the stream to meet two herpetologists studying the elusive dwarf waterdog.

Bryan Stuart, Ph.D., Research Curator of Herpetology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, and Ron Grunwald, Ph.D., Duke University Senior Lecturer Emeritus, are involved in a study looking for dwarf waterdog salamanders (Necturus punctatus) in New Hope Creek. Dwarf waterdogs are paedomorphic, Stuart said, meaning they retain larval characteristics like external gills and a flat tail throughout their lives. In fact, the genus name Necturus means “tail swimmer” in reference to the species’s flat tail.

According to Stuart, on October 3, 1954, Duke professor and herpetologist Joe Bailey collected a dwarf waterdog in New Hope Creek. It was the first record of the species in Orange County.

The Duke Forest is in the westernmost part of the species’ Piedmont range, though it extends farther west in parts of the sandhills. “To have a dwarf waterdog record in Orange County—that’s almost as interesting as it gets,” Stuart said.

Ron Grunwald and Bryan Stuart discuss dwarf waterdog research at New Hope Creek.
Photo provided by The Office of the Duke Forest.

In the late 1960s, Michael A. Fedak, Bailey’s graduate student, did a thesis on dwarf waterdogs in the area. His specimens are still stored in the collections of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

No one had studied this population since—until now.

Dwarf waterdogs are very sensitive to pollution and habitat disturbance, Stuart said, on top of the fact that New Hope Creek is already at the edge of the species’s habitat. When Fedak studied them several decades ago, the salamanders were abundant. Are they still?

Stuart, Grunwald, and other researchers want to find out. “The challenge of salamander biology,” Grunwald said, “is that it always happens when it’s freezing.” Surveying salamander populations, he explains, isn’t like watching birds or counting trees. It requires you to go where the salamanders are, and for dwarf waterdog research, that means dark, cold streams on nights when the water temperature is below 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Researchers bait funnel traps with chicken liver or cat food and set them underwater overnight. Sometimes they catch crayfish. Sometimes they catch nothing. And sometimes they catch exactly what they’re hoping to find: the elusive dwarf waterdog. After all this time, these slippery, nocturnal, chicken-liver-loving salamanders are still here.

Two dwarf waterdogs in a funnel trap before being released back into New Hope Creek.

Though the traps have been successful at capturing some individuals, they will never catch them all, so researchers calculate the recapture rate to estimate the total population. Imagine a bag of rice, Grunwald said. You could count each individual grain, but that would be challenging and time-consuming. Alternatively, you could pull out one grain of rice, color it, and put it back in the bag, then estimate the total number by calculating the probability of pulling out the same colored grain of rice again. In a very small bag, you might draw the same rice grain several times. But the more rice you have, the less likely you are to draw the same grain twice.

To figure out if any of the dwarf waterdogs they catch are recaptures, the researchers mark each individual with a visual implant elastomer, which is “just a fancy way of saying rubber that we can see,” Grunwald said. The material is injected under a salamander’s “armpit” with a small syringe, creating a pattern visible under ultraviolet light. With two colors (fluorescent yellow and red) and four possible injection locations (one behind each leg), there are plenty of distinct combinations. Grunwald showed us a waterdog that had already been marked. Under a UV flashlight, a spot just below its right foreleg glowed yellow.

Captured dwarf waterdogs are injected with a special rubber material that glows under a UV light. Each salamander is marked with a distinct pattern so researchers can recognize it if it’s ever recaptured.

Establishing a recapture rate is essential to predicting the total population in the area. The current recapture rate? Zero. The sample size so far is small—about a dozen individuals—and none of them have been caught twice. That’s an obstacle to statistical analysis of the population, but it’s good news for the salamanders. Every new individual is one more dwarf waterdog survivor in New Hope Creek.

Ron Grunwald with Research Tour participants looking at dwarf waterdogs in bags.
Photo provided by The Office of the Duke Forest.

Stream health

Next, at a different spot along the stream, we met Nick Marzolf, Ph.D., a postdoctoral scholar, and Jonny Behrens, a Ph.D. student, to learn more about New Hope Creek itself. Marzolf and Behrens have both been involved with aquaterrestrial biogeochemistry research in the lab of Emily Bernhardt, Ph.D., at Duke University.

Nick Marzolf (right) and Jonny Behrens discuss stream health.
Photo provided by The Office of the Duke Forest.

Protecting New Hope Creek requires understanding individual organisms—like dwarf waterdogs—but also temperature, precipitation, oxygen levels, pesticide runoff, and biodiversity overall. When humans get stressed, Behrens said, different organs have different physiological reactions. Similarly, different organisms in a stream play different roles and respond to stress in different ways.

Jonny Behrens and Research Tour participants look at aquatic macroinvertebrate samples.
Photo provided by The Office of the Duke Forest.

Behrens passed around vials containing aquatic macroinvertebrates—specimens big enough to see with the naked eye—such as the larvae of mayflies, crane flies, stoneflies, and dragonflies. They are known for being good indicators of stream health because there are many species of macroinvertebrates, and they have different tolerances to stressors like pollution or changes in water temperature.

Aquatic macroinvertebrates can indicate the health of a stream through their species diversity and abundance.
Photo provided by The Office of the Duke Forest.

The water downstream of a nearby wastewater treatment plant is much warmer in winter than other waterways in the area, so researchers see more emergent adult midges and caddisflies there than they do here. Aside from temperature, organisms need to adapt to other changing conditions like oxygen levels and storms.

“Rain is really fun to watch in streams,” Behrens said. The water level rises, pulling up organic matter, and sand bars change. You can tell how high the water got in the last storm by looking for accumulated debris on trees along river banks.

Farting rivers and the peanut butter cracker hypothesis

Marzolf studies hydrology, or “how water moves through not only the landscape but also the river itself.”

Nick Marzolf demonstrates a technique to measure gasses in streams using a syringe.

Part of his research involves measuring gases in water. Streams, like cars and cows and people, release greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane. In fact, Marzolf and colleagues hypothesize that New Hope Creek contributes more CO2 to the atmosphere per unit area than anywhere else in the Duke Forest.

Decaying matter produces CO2, but that isn’t the only source of greenhouse gasses in the creek. Microscopic organisms, like methane-producing bacteria, produce gases as well.

The “peanut butter cracker hypothesis,” Marzolf said, compares organic matter such as leaves to a cracker, while the “peanut butter,” which makes the cracker more palatable, is the microbes. Scrumptious.

Disturbing the sediment at the bottom of New Hope Creek causes bubbles to rise to the surface due to the metabolic activities of gas-producing bacteria.

Marzolf turned to Behrens. “Do you want to walk around and see if you can stir up some methane bubbles?” Behrens waded into the stream, freeing bubbles from the pressure of the overlying water keeping them in leaf mats. We watched the bubbles rise to the surface, evidence of the activities of organisms too small to see.

Behrens walks around in New Hope Creek to stir up gas bubbles from aquatic bacteria.

Restoring a stream to protect its pigtoe

Finally, Sara Childs, Executive Director of the Duke Forest, discussed stream restoration projects. Though structures in the Duke Forest like remnants of old mills and dams can alter and damage ecosystems, they can also have historical and cultural significance. Duke Forest prioritizes restoration projects that have meaningful ecological, teaching, and research benefits while honoring the history of the land.

For instance, the Patterson Mill Dam was built in the late 1700s and probably remained in use for about 100 years. The stream has already adapted to the structure’s presence, and there isn’t necessarily ongoing degradation because of it. Duke Forest restoration projects, Childs said, don’t revolve around very old structures like the Patterson Mill Dam. Instead, they are planning to remove two more recent structures that are actively eroding banks, threatening wildlife habitat, and creating impounded, oxygen-poor areas in the stream.

One of the structures they are hoping to remove is a concrete bridge that’s endangering a threatened freshwater mussel species called the Atlantic pigtoe (Fusconaia masoni). Freshwater mussels, according to Childs, require a fish species to host the developing mussel larvae on their gills, and the Atlantic pigtoe favors the creek chub (Semotilus atromaculatus). The concrete bridge forms a barrier between the pigtoe and the chub, but removing it could reunite them.

Before starting construction, they will relocate as many mussels as possible to keep them out of harm’s way.

New Hope Creek, home to waterdogs and pigtoe and farting microbes, is precious to humans as well. Heraty describes it as “a really spectacular and beautiful waterway that we are lucky to have right in our backyards here in Durham.”

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

How Do Animals – Alone or in Groups – Get Where They’re Going?

Note: Each year, we partner with Dr. Amy Sheck’s students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math to profile some unsung heroes of the Duke research community. This is the of fourth eight posts.

In the intricate world of biology, where the mysteries of animal behavior unfold, Dr. Jesse Granger emerges as a passionate and curious scientist with a Ph.D. in biology and a penchant for unraveling the secrets of how animals navigate their surroundings.

Her journey began in high school when she posed a question to her biology teacher about the effect of eye color on night vision. Unable to find an answer, they embarked together on a series of experiments, igniting a passion that would shape Granger’s future in science.

Jesse Granger in her lab at Duke

Granger’s educational journey was marked by an honors thesis at the College of  William & Mary that delved into the potential of diatoms, single-cell algae known for their efficiency in capturing light, to enhance solar panel efficiency. This early exploration of light structures paved the way for a deeper curiosity about electricity and magnetism, leading to her current research on how animals perceive and use the electromagnetic spectrum.

Currently, Granger is involved in projects that explore the dynamics of animal group navigation. She is investigating how animals travel in groups to find food, with collective movement and decision-making.  

Among her countless research endeavors, one project holds a special place in Granger’s heart. Her study involved creating a computational model to explore the dynamics of group travel among animals.  She found that agents, a computational entity mimicking the behavior of an animal, are way better at getting where they are going as part of a group than agents who are traveling alone.

Granger’s daily routine in the Sönke Johnson Lab revolves around computational work. While it may not seem like a riveting adventure to an outsider, to her, the glow of computer screens harbors the key to unlocking the secrets of animal behavior. Coding becomes her toolkit, enabling her to analyze data, develop models, and embark on simulations that mimic the complexities of the natural world.

Granger’s expertise in coding extends to using R for data wrangling and NetLogo, an agent-based modeling program, for simulations. She describes the simulation process as akin to creating a miniature world where coded animals follow specific rules, giving rise to emergent properties and valuable insights into their behavior. This skill set seamlessly intertwined with her favorite project, where the exploration of group dynamics and navigation unfolded within the intricate landscapes of her simulated miniature world.

In the tapestry of scientific exploration, Jesse Granger emerges as a weaver of knowledge, blending biology, physics, and computation to unravel the mysteries of animal navigation. Her journey, marked by curiosity and innovation, not only enriches our understanding of the natural world but also inspires the next generation of  scientists to embark on their unique scientific odysseys.      

Guest Post by Mansi Malhotra, North Carolina School of Science and Math, Class of 2025.

Capital, Canaries, or Catalysts: Insurance Industry’s Role in Climate

Mining foreman R. Thornburg shows a small cage with a canary used for testing carbon monoxide gas in 1928. Credit: George McCaa, U.S. Bureau of Mines

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, canaries were used in coal mines to assess the risk of toxic gasses. If the birds became ill or passed away, their fate served as a warning for miners to vacate the premises. 

Similarly to how a canary detects unseen risks, the insurance industry is responsible for matching assets to liabilities based upon risks, according to Francis Bouchard, the managing director for climate at the insurance company Marsh McLennan. Bouchard spoke at Duke University on November 10 to discuss the insurance sector’s responsibility to tackle risks as a result of climate change.

During a one-year residency that begins in January, Bouchard will explore ways in which the insurance sector can incentivize and support advances in management of climate risks by helping Duke to build new research partnerships and networks with the insurance and other affected sectors.

Historically, the insurance industry has served as a catalyst to influence safety regulations for the welfare of citizens, as opposed to a canary that withers under risks. Take, for instance, the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. It was the first time in history “anyone would deploy electricity on a large level,” Bouchard said. Therefore, an insurance company sent an engineer to examine the security of the electricity and determine the hazards for attendees. Consequently, the brightest minds of this sector banded together to create the Underwriters Laboratories, which is now the largest testing laboratory in the United States. 

But more recently, the insurance sector has not acted as a catalyst in its role to address climate risk. Several policies and systems “distort the purity of the risk signals insurance companies send.” Firstly, its inability to combat systemic level risks as they are providing individual incentives. The industry is highly effective in “handling individual risk and incentivizing immediate actions to address an immediate risk,” Bouchard said, but this method cannot translate on a systemic level.

Secondly, the insurance sector provides a “temporal mismatch” as they sell 12 months of risk, but the lasting impacts of climate change will not occur within a year. Therefore, their “ability to capture in a 12 month policy, decades worth of climate change risk is impossible.”

Thirdly, the regulations for insurance differ between states. In most states, the insurance commissioner dictates the price of insurance based upon the company’s risk assessment because when “risk goes up, price of risk also goes up.” When citizens cannot afford insurance, commissioners are more likely to side with the experts of the insurance companies as opposed to their disadvantaged constituents.

Finally, their climate model is not advanced enough to estimate how specific cities will change within a few decades due to climate change. Therefore, it cannot entirely predict its risks either. 

You can watch Bouchard’s talk, with slides, on YouTube

The insurance industry has been successful in its asset-liability matching “in committing some of its capital to advancing climate technology or green technology.” However, this sector receives “publicity around insurance companies withdrawing capital from wildfire or climate exposed jurisdiction.”

This system is explained by the TCFD Filing, which was created by the Bank of International Settlements to discover insurance companies exposure to climate transition issues, physical risks from climate change, and their strategy to aid clients. Essentially, most insurance companies are not “concerned about physical risks” as they would simply reprice their 12-month insurance policy if there is a heightened threat to physical risk. According to Bouchard, the “insurance industry has already signaled through its TCFD filings precisely what their strategy is: ‘we’re gonna play this game as long as we can and then we’re going to withdraw.’” Therefore, an insurance company would continue to increase their cost until a person can no longer afford its price or actually endures physical damage to which they would cease providing insurance. “These last resort-type mechanisms are when the government steps in,” Bouchard said. He even estimates that the government will control 30% of this $1 trillion industry ($2 trillion globally) within ten years. This is dangerous as the government is already enduring fiscal dilemmas and will not be equipped to manage the complexity of the sector.

Bouchard, with 30 years of experience in this industry, said he “truly, truly believes in the social role that the industry plays. I’m petrified that we’re not going to be there to help society cope with climate with the technical knowledge we have, the expertise we have, the mechanisms we have, and the money.” If the sector continues upon this path, they will dissolve under the risks, similarly to a canary in a mine. 

Francis Bouchard’s work in combating climate battles with insurance is of the utmost necessity. Continued global warming will force citizens to rely on this industry for aid against climate disasters. The most recent Conference of Parties, created by the United Nations for climate change discussions, recognized the insurance industry as a “key finance player in climate transition alongside private industry and government because the world is recognizing that we have a key part to play.”

By Samera Eusufzai, Class of 2026

An Ode to Refrigerated Insects

Imagine lying on your back, legs flailing, unable to flip yourself over. To make matters worse, there is a rope attached to your head that you can’t remove. Meanwhile, a giant is prodding at you with a long metal stick, and you can’t figure out if she’s trying to hurt you or help you.

Earlier this semester, I was that giant.

A tiny insect on its back under a microscope. Note the strand of lint caught on its beak.

I was in the entomology lab in the basement of the biology building on a Friday night, photographing insects under a microscope. One of them, so tiny that I could barely see it with the naked eye, had ended up on its back with its beak-like mouth caught on a miniscule thread of lint. I was using a pin to try to remove the lint, but my efforts were dragging the insect haphazardly across the leaf it was on, and I gave up out of fear of hurting it. Under the microscope, the insect’s situation was dramatic and hard to watch, but when I walked to the Duke Gardens later that night to release it, it was just a dark speck in my palm.

A candy-striped leafhopper viewed through a microscope.

Photographing insects for the entomology class I am taking this semester gives me perspective on a world that operates on a smaller scale, with obstacles humans don’t have to contend with—like pieces of lint ensnaring our mouths. But in order to photograph insects, I need them to stay reasonably still. Fred Nijhout, Ph.D., who teaches the entomology course, taught us that you can keep live insects in a refrigerator temporarily, which doesn’t kill them but slows their metabolism down significantly, making them easier to photograph. In the past few months, I have spent many hours with refrigerated insects.

As much as I love insects, I was terrified of this class. I thought it would require making a physical insect collection—which, in turn, would require me to kill insects, and I simply didn’t think I’d be able to do that. Fortunately, there was an option to create a photography collection with living insects instead, which is why I’ve spent so much time catching, photographing, and releasing insects over the past several weeks. We need to collect or photograph twelve insect orders and twenty families, which has led to some unusual situations — like sheer delight upon finding a termite or cockroach. (Both represent orders that, until recently, I didn’t have in my collection.)

A fly under a microscope.

The first insect I refrigerated was a tiny lace bug I found wandering across my pants one afternoon. I coaxed it onto my hand and ran to my dorm to get a vial. (I have since learned to keep small containers with me nearly everywhere I go.) I put the lace bug inside the vial and stuck it in the common room refrigerator overnight, wrapped discreetly in a plastic bag. I had serious misgivings. Could such a small creature really survive an entire night in a refrigerator? And what if someone found it and threw it away? The next morning, I retrieved it with much apprehension. The insect wasn’t moving. It seemed somehow lighter, more desiccated, and I was certain it was dead. What had I done?

A lace bug, the first insect I refrigerated. I didn’t notice the intricate structures protruding from its body until I saw it under a microscope.

I brought the lace bug to class and put it back in the refrigerator. Later that day, Nijhout showed me how to photograph it with the microscope camera. It remained motionless while we maneuvered it this way and that. But then, just as we were about to take another picture, one of its tiny antennae wiggled. It was alive. After all those hours in the refrigerator, it was still alive. I won’t soon forget that wiggling antenna. It felt miraculous in the most literal sense of the word.

Watching a refrigerated insect “wake back up” never ceases to amaze me. When a butterfly that was lying on its side suddenly flaps its wings and rights itself, or a curled-up damselfly begins to twitch after several minutes of total stillness, or a lace bug regains the ability to wiggle an antenna, I always feel like I am witnessing something remarkable. But my favorite part of the whole process might be what happens next.

After I’ve finished photographing an insect, I always try to release it, ideally wherever I found it. It is always a relief to put them back where they belong, alive and moving and hopefully unharmed. But it can be hard to let them go. Spending enough time with one creature, any creature, turns it into an individual, and once you’ve become acquainted with an individual, it’s hard not to care what happens to it. After I release an insect, I will never know its fate. But if cooperating with refrigeration and photography is the insects’ part of the deal, then releasing them afterward is mine.

An ailanthus webworm moth eating mango syrup with its straw-like proboscis.

Sometimes, I make more literal deals with the insects. One day, I caught an ailanthus webworm moth, a bright orange insect with black and white markings, and it kept reviving before I could get a good picture. Each time I relegated it back to the refrigerator, I felt worse and worse. So I put the moth back in the fridge one more time, promising that it would be the last, and walked to the dining hall, where I squirted mango syrup onto a napkin. I tried to be subtle so no one would ask me why I was putting it on a napkin instead of in a cup of iced tea. Oh, I’m just feeding the refrigerated moth in the insect lab. Nothing unusual. Have a great day! Back in the lab, I dabbed some syrup onto the back of my notebook and offered it to the moth, partly as a reward for its patience, partly to assuage my own guilt, and partly as a last-ditch attempt to keep the moth still while I photographed it. The moth became completely focused on lapping up the syrup, but I had failed to account for its feeding process, an exuberant dance that was anything but still. Nevertheless, a deal is a deal—that moth wasn’t going back in the fridge. I walked across campus to the spot where I’d found it, and it kept eating the sugary treat the whole time. For once, my photography subject didn’t seem eager to leave.

At Nijhout’s suggestion, I left this beetle at room temperature overnight, in a jar with some water droplets, instead of refrigerating it.

The mango syrup retrieval mission probably isn’t the strangest thing I’ve done in pursuit of insects. One morning, I was standing outside in the pouring rain, already soaked and so no longer remotely concerned about getting wetter, and holding my arms above my head in an awkward position while I tried to remove the slippery cap from an insect container in order to catch a candy-striped leafhopper perched on a leaf above me.

Another time, our class was on a field trip on the Al Buehler Trail when I spotted a dainty insect almost floating through the sun-dappled swamp. Nijhout identified it as a phantom crane fly, and when I failed to catch it in a dignified manner from the boardwalk, I jumped into the mud and swooped my net, successfully capturing the cranefly. Back in the lab the next day, I found that the phantom crane fly revived even faster than the ailanthus webworm moth, seeming to regain full movement within moments of exiting the refrigerator. I snapped pictures using a lens that attaches to my phone, but just as I was about to return it to its container to release it, it drifted into the air, and—like a phantom—it disappeared. I never found it again.

A phantom crane fly, which revived almost instantly despite repeated refrigerations.

Duke does not assign an Ethical Inquiry code to the entomology class, but I feel I have done more ethical inquiry in this class than any other. Is photography a worthy reason to risk an insect’s life? Is accidentally releasing a phantom crane fly in a dark room without food or water any better than killing it outright? Is killing insects an essential part of entomology? If so, when is it justified, and when is it not?

In class, we have learned about a series of groundbreaking experiments that strike me as twisted. In one, Stefan Kopec “ligated” caterpillars by tying a very tight string around them to see if either half would still molt. Spoiler: yes, the front half containing the brain. If you cut the brain out of the head and transplant it to the abdomen, then the back half will molt instead. Conclusion: the brain is essential for molting, but it doesn’t need to be attached to the rest of the nervous system. Another experiment involved scientists cutting cecropia moth cocoons in half with a razor blade and sealing each half with wax, followed by more brain transplantation (in this case, a transplanted brain does not make the back half emerge from the cocoon—unless you also transplant a piece of the thoracic gland). Yet another involved beheading two insects and attaching their necks with a capillary tube to see if injecting a hormone into one will prompt the other to molt as well (yes, it will). I hate even imagining these experiments, and I can’t picture myself ever performing them.

My apparent inability to kill insects even in the name of science might become a real problem if I want to study entomology after college. But when I question the value of certain experiments or feel guilty for refrigerating an insect, I am not acting as a scientist. I am acting as an older version of the fourth grader who watched in distress as her classmate ripped caterpillars’ heads off or the eighth grader staring at a circle of kids surrounding a beautiful cecropia moth, distraught from just imagining that someone might hurt it. (The moth was fine—the teacher got one of the kids to agree to protect it. I was not—she sent me to the bathroom to calm down and then sent my friend to check on me.)

At times, I take this concern for the hypothetical suffering of other beings entirely too far. In a cell biology lab this semester, our TA explained that the E. coli bacteria we were working with had had a very rough day: they’d gone through a process that left holes in their membrane, then been put on ice to prevent those holes from completely destroying them. Clearly feeling bad for bacteria is not a recipe for success, but wanting to minimize insects’ suffering seems more justifiable. There seems to be an important distinction between a child pulling caterpillars’ heads off for fun and a scientist tying strings around a caterpillar to answer specific scientific questions. But is the pursuit of knowledge alone enough of a justification for killing the creatures we study? I would have an easier time justifying an experiment that kills insects to advance human medicine or insect conservation. 

Ultimately, the morality of killing insects may depend on a question we can never answer: “What does it feel like to be an insect?” I would not want to be shut in a refrigerator for several hours, prodded with a pin, or cut in half with a razor blade, so how can I justify doing that to an insect? I torture myself repeatedly with these thought experiments, but there is a glaring problem with my “golden rule” line of reasoning: I am not an insect. How can I imagine how refrigeration feels to a creature that can slow its metabolism to just 1%, as we learned in class? Perhaps my mom is right when she encourages me to think of these insect-chilling sessions as akin to medically induced comas or periods of peaceful rest rather than sustained torture sessions.

A lacewing in the refrigerator. Since it kept trying to fly away when I took it out, I stuck my head in the refrigerator to take pictures, and the lacewing and I seemed to reach a detente. Later that evening, before it got cold like a refrigerator outside, I let it go.

Where is the line between science and torture? On the flip side, where is the line between anthropomorphizing animals (problematic in science) and giving them the benefit of the doubt when it comes to sentience and capacity to feel pain? It’s not just our experience of the world, our umwelt, that is different from that of insects. We also have entirely different survival strategies. Humans are a K-selected species; we have few offspring but invest heavily into the survival of each individual. Insects, meanwhile, are r-selected; they have many babies, often hundreds or thousands, and many of them will die. If one lace bug can lay hundreds of eggs and many butterflies and moths live only a matter of days, then killing or saving a few insects probably has a negligible impact on the species as a whole. There are other initiatives, like reducing pesticide use, planting native flowers, and mowing lawns less frequently, that can benefit insects on a much larger scale. But the time and effort I spend keeping my refrigerated insects alive was never about protecting a species. It has always been about protecting an individual.

A particularly tiny insect, viewed under a microscope next to part of a pin.

At first, my tendency to get attached to insects made it very difficult for me to justify refrigerating them. But seeing tiny creatures under a microscope is a powerful, intoxicating thrill. Maybe refrigeration is a fair compromise, a way to observe insects without killing them and to keep them safe until I let them go.

A previously refrigerated beetle about to be released back at the Duke Pond.

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Highlights from Duke in Australia

Duke in Australia 2023 in front of 1.9-billion-year-old stone in the Northern Territory. Photo by one of our tour guides.

Australia. For years it was more of a nebulous concept to me than a concrete place. It was a colorful patch on maps, home to animals I’d read about but never seen. Now it’s a place where I’ve run my hands over 1.9-billion-year-old stone, watched a platypus emerge from a river at dawn, gotten bitten on the tongue by an ant with a tasty green butt (long story), and spent a thousand other moments with wonderful people in places I hope to never forget.

That’s all thanks to Duke in Australia, a month-long biogeography course led by Alex Glass, Ph.D., and Nancy Lauer, Ph.D., that delves into Australian flora, fauna, geology, history, and culture. When people ask about my experience there this summer, I have a hard time answering. “Wonderful” doesn’t begin to cover it. The experience still doesn’t feel entirely real to me. Even when I was in Australia, watching a platypus or a parrot or standing on a beach with a sunrise on one side and a rainbow on the other, I sometimes couldn’t entirely believe where I was.

Sunrise at Myall Beach on Cape Tribulation, where the Daintree Rainforest meets the Great Barrier Reef.

Disclaimer: When I say “Highlights from Duke in Australia,” I’m referring to my own personal highlights—some of which, let me assure you, were not universally popular with my classmates. Like the enormous crickets we saw on our rainforest night hike, or the time I found the shed skin of a huntsman spider and went around showing it to everyone nearby, or the delightfully squelchy mud coating the trail on one of our last hikes. For more detailed accounts of our day-to-day activities, check out the student blogs on the Duke in Australia 2023 website.

From the moment we landed in Sydney, I was keeping my eyes peeled for bird sightings. (I am slightly into birds. Just slightly.) Unless you count an ambiguous white flash seen through a bus window, my first bird sighting in Australia was a small group of rainbow lorikeets flying over the city. With a blue head and stomach, a green back, an orange-red breast, and flashes of yellow under the wings, the species is very well named.

Lorikeets weren’t the only birds we saw in Sydney. Common mynas, which always looked vaguely sinister to me, watched us while we ate dinner the first night. Pigeons strutted along the sidewalks—the only bird species I saw in Australia that I’d also seen in the US, except a possible peregrine falcon that I caught only a brief glimpse of during a hike. There were also Australian ibises all over the city, colloquially known as bin chickens for their dumpster-diving habits. Personally, I thought the ibises were lovely, regal birds.

There are other birds, however, that can no longer call Sydney home. One of my favorite sites in Sydney was the Forgotten Songs art installation at Angel Place. It is a short alley engraved with the names of fifty bird species that can no longer survive in the city. Empty bird cages hang suspended above the street. Our tour guide told us that the exhibit normally plays recordings of the birds, but that part was under renovation, so it was playing music instead. A few days later, I returned to the exhibit on my own so I’d have time to read every bird name. Those empty cages still haunt me.

An eleven-armed seastar in one of the tide pools at Bondi Beach. (Eleven-armed seastars do not always have eleven arms.) Below it, you can see Neptune’s necklace, a type of algae resembling strings of beads.

On our first full day in Sydney, we went to Bondi Beach to explore the tidepools. There were crabs and octopi, seastars and anemones, necklace-like algae and tiny blue snails called little blue periwinkles. That afternoon, we sat on the beach and learned about microplastics from Lauer. (Not-so-fun fact: we eat a credit card’s worth of microplastics every week on average.) Some of us lingered on the beach afterward and went swimming. The water was frigid, but it was there, with cold water and sand swirling around me in a part of the ocean I’d never seen, much less swum in, that the reality of being on a new continent completely hit me.

Sunshine wattle flowers on our hike at North Head, viewed through a hand lens.

Our first group hike was overwhelming, almost dizzying. Outside of urban Sydney, it was easier for me to recognize just how different Australia was from the US, and it was impossible to absorb everything at once. In every direction were unfamiliar plants and landscapes. Norfolk pine, coastal rosemary, mountain devil, sunshine wattle, Darwinia, flannel flower, gray spider flower…. I was especially entranced by casuarina, which looks shockingly like a pine tree but is actually a flowering plant that has evolved conifer-like traits to preserve water. We were in a heath, characterized by low-growing plants adapted to dry, nutrient-poor conditions. Nothing about it looked like the woods and fields and mountains back home.

Our focus that day was studying plants, but I was having a hard time focusing on any one thing for more than about a second. At one point, we were supposed to be observing a beautiful plant to my right, but half the group had already moved on to another species farther up the trail, and meanwhile, a bird I had certainly never seen in my life was perched remarkably cooperatively on a bush off to the left. There are too many things happening, I remember thinking. I was juggling my field notebook, hand lens, phone camera, and binoculars, and I didn’t even know where to look. I chose to stare at the bird, following the logic that it could fly away at any moment, whereas the plants would stay exactly where they were. That brilliant plan turned out to be faulty. The plants might stay still, but we wouldn’t—so much to see, so little time.

A galah, a species of cockatoo, in Katoomba.

Our next stop was Katoomba, a small mountain town in New South Wales.  It was a quiet, peaceful place, vastly different from Sydney. When I think of Katoomba, I think of the sulfur-crested cockatoo perched on a bakery sign just feet away from me and the flock of strikingly pink cockatoos called galahs in a local park. I think of the superb lyrebird that crossed our path directly in front of us and the rare Wollemi pine growing beside a road.

We took a hike at Wentworth Falls, where Darwin himself once walked. It’s part of the Great Dividing Range, but we learned that the mountains are actually “incised terrain,” formed when valleys were cut into a plateau, leaving “mountains” behind. We also drove to the Jenolan Caves and explored cavernous underground spaces bursting with crystal formations like stalactites, flowstone, and hollow soda straws. These lovely, fragile cave structures, or speleothems, are formed by the gradual deposition of dissolved minerals as water drips through a cave. Before we left, we saw an underground river with water so clear that I didn’t immediately realize I was looking at water at all.

Part of the Jenolan Caves. Gradual geologic processes form decorative structures, or speleothems, in caves.

Another day in Katoomba, our group took a gorgeous hike through a eucalypt forest. Literally everywhere I looked in that forest, there was something extraordinary. Ancient tree ferns. Ruby-red sap seeping out of a tree trunk. The Three Sisters rock formation framed by the aptly named Blue Mountains. Towering eucalypt and turpentine trees. At the end of the hike, we rode the Scenic Railway, the steepest in the world. It was terrifying—awesome, but terrifying.

A view from one of our hikes in the Blue Mountains.

Next, we flew to the Northern Territory, where we checked into our hostel in Darwin. We were now in crocodile country, home to the world’s largest reptile: the saltwater or estuarine crocodile. We were instructed to avoid going in any body of water, saltwater or otherwise, unless it was specifically designated as safe for swimming. (The name “saltwater crocodile” is misleading—the crocodiles can inhabit fresh water as well, and they are extremely aggressive and dangerous.) It was very important to be crocwise.

A rainbow bee-eater at the George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens in Darwin, a city in the Northern Territory.

The first few days in Darwin, we didn’t see any crocodiles, but there were birds seemingly everywhere. Varied triller, which I originally misidentified as the buff-sided robin until a local eBird reviewer emailed me and asked me to correct my eBird report. Rainbow bee-eater, remarkably common for a bird that looks too beautiful to be real. Peaceful dove. Blue-faced honeyeater. Australasian figbird.

We took a hike that went through a beautiful mangrove, where we learned that the term mangrove isn’t specific to any particular type of plant; it’s used to refer to many very different species that have all adapted to the same challenges, including salinity, changing tides, and nutrient-poor soil. There were crabs and snails and birds—so many birds, some of which I still haven’t identified, like the group of black, crested birds with bright red inside their beaks.

Green weaver ants. Note their distinctive green abdomens, which contain ascorbic acid and have an interesting taste.

When we emerged from the mangrove, we came across a nest of green weaver ants. Their bright green abdomens are rich in ascorbic acid, and the ants have traditionally been used for purposes ranging from treating colds to making a sort of “lemonade” to stimulating milk production. Many of us were eager to taste the ants, though Glass warned us that they “bite vigorously.” Some of my classmates carefully held an ant with their fingers while giving the abdomen a quick lick. I, on the other hand, decided to let an ant crawl onto my notebook while I licked it so it couldn’t bite my fingers. Clever, right? Well, it worked—the ant didn’t bite my fingers. It bit my tongue instead. “Vigorously.” Its mouthparts remained latched on even as I was spitting out ant parts onto the ground. I can’t blame it—I’d be upset, too, if a giant tried to lick me.

Before long, it was time for the jumping crocodile tour. We boarded a tour boat and floated down a seemingly peaceful river while our guide dangled hunks of meat from big fishing rods to bait the crocodiles to leap several feet out of the water and snap their jaws around the food. Their bite force, incidentally, is the highest of any living animal, up to 3700 pounds per square inch. Jumping is natural for the crocodiles—they hunt that way to snag animals like birds and wallabies that venture too close to the water. Being that close to enormous predators roused some deep, primeval fear in me. To a crocodile, I would make excellent prey. The jumping crocodile tour, needless to say, was very memorable. Our class later had a long and far-ranging discussion on the many types of ecotourism experiences we’d participated in and their costs, benefits, and ethical implications.

One of the crocodiles on the jumping crocodile tour.

The next day, we left for a three-day camping trip in Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks. It was the dry season, and the weather was hot, dry, and sunny. We went hiking and snorkeling (in croc-free swimming holes), saw the breathtaking magnetic and cathedral termite mounds, and learned about geology and Aboriginal cultures. Some of the places we visited were sacred sites of the people who have inhabited the region for more than 65,000 years. One of the rock art paintings we were able to see was of a Tasmanian tiger, an animal that’s been completely extinct for close to a century and extinct in the Kakadu region for thousands of years. But right there on the wall was the preserved memory of a time when Tasmanian tigers still roamed the area.

Me with a stick insect at our campground in Kakadu National Park in Australia’s Northern Territory. Photo by Letar Jia, another student in the Duke in Australia program this summer.

One of the coolest places we stopped was a rock cut-out along a highway. The stone was striped with zigzagging layers created when it was buried underground at a pressure high enough to fold solid rock. It was formed 1.9 billion years ago, when the earth was “a geologist’s dream,” according to Glass–relatively barren, with no soil, plants, or animals, just microscopic organisms and lots and lots of rock. I was touching 1.9 billion years of history.

We spent the third night at a different campsite. Some of us spotted what seemed to be a large spider in the bathroom, but one of the tour guides informed me that it was actually just the shed skin of a huntsman spider, not the spider itself. I walked around camp introducing people to my “little friend,” but oddly enough, they didn’t seem as delighted as I was.

That night, while we were theoretically sleeping, periodic cacophonies of eerie, wailing screams reverberated through the air. My half-asleep brain was convinced they were from wallabies, but the sound actually came from a bird called the bush stone-curlew or bush thick-knee. The next morning, there was a gecko in the bathroom, and I wasn’t sure my day could possibly get any better. But later that day, we visited a fragment of an ancient rainforest, and there were giant fruit bats practically dripping from the canopy and giant golden orb weaver spider webs strung between trees, and I think that was even better than the bathroom gecko.

A female giant golden orb weaver, with my hand for scale. The tiny, orange spider on her back is the male.

After departing Darwin, we headed to Cape Tribulation, where the Great Barrier Reef meets the Daintree Rainforest—believed to be the oldest rainforest on the planet. Some rainforests, Glass explained, exist because they’re near the equator. But the rainforests in Australia are remnants of ancient rainforests that developed when the continents were arranged very differently and Australia was considerably farther south. Australia’s climate has become more arid over time, but pockets of its ancient rainforests remain intact.

While we were on Cape Tribulation, we had the chance to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef. It was overcast and very windy that day, and the small boat that took us out to the reef turned into a rollercoaster as it slid up and down waves. But windy or not, the reef was gorgeous. We saw sea turtles, a sea cucumber, a small shark, and fishes and corals in endless colors.

We also had the incredible opportunity to hike through the rainforest at night. Of all the amazing things we did, that may have been my favorite. There were huge crickets and spiders, thorny vines called wait-a-whiles (because you’ll be waiting a while if you get stuck on one), and flowering plants that looked like mushrooms. And partway along the boardwalk, Glass spotted a creature so unusual and elusive that he had never seen one before. This, he told us, was probably the rarest animal we’d seen on the whole trip. A velvet worm. It looked a bit like a caterpillar or a centipede at first glance, but velvet worms have an entire phylum all their own. (Caterpillars and centipedes share the Arthropoda phylum, along with all insects, spiders, crustaceans, and various others. Velvet worms are in the Onychophora phylum.) The ancestors of velvet worms are thought to represent a link between arthropods and segmented worms. They are ancient, unique, and rarely seen.

The velvet worm.

Just moments later, Glass announced another incredible find: a peppermint stick. I raced ahead to see it. Earlier that day, I’d seen signs about peppermint stick insects, which excrete a peppermint-scented liquid as a defense mechanism, and I’d been keeping my eyes peeled ever since. The creature had developed a sort of mythical status in my mind; I’d been fantasizing about seeing one but hadn’t actually expected to. But there it was, right in front of us, large and stick-like, its color a blue-green so bright that it almost seemed to glow.

A platypus in a river in Yungaburra.

In Yungaburra, our next-to-last stop, we saw enormous fig trees and gorgeous waterfalls. On our last morning, several of us left the motel around dawn and walked to a nearby trail along a river in search of the platypus and the tree kangaroo, an arboreal kangaroo species. We found both. It was a fitting almost-ending to our trip. Both platypuses and kangaroos seem so iconically Australian. The platypuses slipped in and out of the water, their dark bodies visible even in the low light. The tree kangaroo watched us silently from its perch above us and then slowly began to move elsewhere.

A tree kangaroo in Yungaburra.

Before long, it was time to go home. We spent a couple days in Cairns first, where I saw a shiny, emerald green beetle and a tree positively full of squawking lorikeets. Even in the city, there were bright and beautiful animals. In places like the ones we visited, it is easy to find awe and wonder and beauty everywhere you look. But there are endless treasures here, too, fascinating and beautiful sights that we walk past every day, like the way spiderwebs turn silver in the sunlight, or the gray catbird that eats bright red magnolia fruits in the courtyard in front of my dorm window, or the tiny, bluish purple flowers on the Al Buehler Trail, soft and fuzzy and damp when I brushed my face against them. Duke in Australia was an unforgettable adventure. It was also a reminder to step out of the human bubble and immerse myself in the worlds of other living things—whether here or across the globe.

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Helping People and Wildlife Coexist in Ways That Benefit Both, Using Math

Duke team wins top prize in mathematical modeling contest


Safari-goers watch a pride of lions in the Maasai Mara, a famous game reserve in Kenya. Credit: Ray in Manila, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Safari-goers watch a pride of lions in the Maasai Mara, a famous game reserve in Kenya. Credit: Ray in Manila, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Of all the math competitions for college students, the annual Mathematical Contest in Modeling (MCM) is one of the biggest. And this year, Duke’s team took home a coveted top prize.

Undergraduates Erik Novak, ’24, Nicolas Salazar, ’23, and Enzo Moraes Mescall, ’24, represented the Blue Devils at this year’s contest, a grueling 4-day event where teams of undergraduates use their mathematical modeling skills to solve a real-world problem. The results are finally in, and the Duke team was chosen as one of the top 22 outstanding winners out of more than 11,200 teams worldwide.

Their task: to analyze some of the challenges facing a nature reserve in Kenya known as the Maasai Mara. This region is named for the local Maasai people, a tribe of semi-nomadic people who make a living by herding cattle. It’s also teeming with wildlife. Each year, more than a million wildebeests, zebras and gazelles travel in a loop from neighboring Tanzania into Kenya’s Maasai Mara Reserve and back, following the seasonal rains in search of fresh grass to eat.

Some 300,000 safari-goers also flock to the area to witness the massive migration, making it a major player in Kenya’s billion-dollar tourism industry. But protecting and managing the land for the benefit of both wildlife and people is a delicate balancing act.

The reserve relies on tourism revenue to protect the animals that live there. If tourism slumps — due to political unrest in Kenya, or the COVID-19 pandemic — desperate communities living around the park resort to poaching to get by, threatening the very wildlife that tourism depends on.

Poachers aren’t the only problem: wild animals such as lions, leopards and elephants sometimes venture into human settlements in search of food. Conservationists must strike a balance between protecting these animals and managing the dangers they pose by raiding crops or killing valuable domestic livestock.

Tourism is a mixed blessing, too. While safari-goers bring money into the region, they can also disturb the animals and pollute the Mara River, and off-road drivers can erode the soil with their jeeps.

The mission facing the Duke team was to identify ways to mitigate such conflicts between wildlife and people.

From left: Teammates Erik Novak, ’24, Nicolas Salazar, ’23, and Enzo Moraes Mescall ’24 finished in the top 0.1% in the 2023 Mathematical Contest in Modeling.

This year’s contest ran over a single weekend in February. Camped out on the third floor of Perkins library, the team of three worked 12 hours a day, fueled by a steady supply of Red Bull and poke bowls. During that time, they built a model, came up with budget and policy recommendations, and wrote a 25-page report for the Kenyan Tourism and Wildlife Committee, all in less than 96 hours.

They built a mathematical model consisting of a system of six ordinary differential equations. According to the model’s predictions, they said, it should theoretically be possible to increase the reserve’s animal populations by about 25%, reduce environmental degradation by 20%, nearly eliminate retaliatory lion killings, and cut poaching rates in half — all while increasing the average yearly flow of tourists by 7.5%.

Participating in a smaller-but-similar contest last fall, the Triangle Competition in Mathematical Modeling, helped them prepare. “It’s kind of like a practice for the MCM,” Salazar said.

Veronica Ciocanel

“They did not win that contest, but they took everything they learned and look what they did with it. I’m very proud,” said assistant professor of mathematics and biology Veronica Ciocanel, who coached the team and co-organized the Triangle competition.

In addition to finishing in the top 0.1% of competitors, the Duke team got three additional awards for their performance; the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) award, the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) prize, and an International COMAP Scholarship Award of $10,000.

The problems in these contests tend to be much more open-ended than typical coursework. “We didn’t know what the solution was supposed to be or what tools to use,” Novak said.

Modeling, computation and coding skills are certainly important, Ciocanel said. “But really what matters more is practice, teamwork, and communicating their results in a written report. Students who have a solid course background don’t need to do anything else to prepare, they just need to be creative about using what they know from the courses they already took.”

“Use what you have and work well together,” Ciocanel said. “That I think is the most important thing.”

Robin Smith
By Robin Smith

Page 1 of 18

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén