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Glowing Waterdogs and Farting Rivers: A Duke Forest Research Tour

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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?

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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

Meet Some of the Teams at the Bass Connections Showcase

If you weren’t outside enjoying the sun on Wednesday, April 19, you were probably milling around Penn Pavilion, a can of LaCroix in hand, taking in the buzz and excited chatter of students presenting at the 2023 Fortin Foundation Bass Connections Showcase.

Open floor presentations at the 2023 Bass Connections Showcase

This annual celebration of Bass Connections research projects featured more than 40 interdisciplinary teams made up of Duke faculty, graduate students, undergraduate students, and even partners from other research institutions.

Research teams presented posters and lightning talks on their findings. You might have heard from students aiming to increase representation of women in philosophy; or perhaps you chatted with teams researching physiotherapy in Uganda or building earthquake warning systems in Nepal. Below, meet three such teams representing a wide variety of academic disciplines at Duke.

Building sustainable university-community partnerships

As Bass Connections team member Joey Rauch described, “this is a poster about all of these other posters.” Rauch, who was presenting on behalf of his team, Equitable University-Community Research Partnerships, is a senior double-majoring in Public Policy and Dance. His interest in non-profit work led him to get involved in the team’s research, which aims to offer a framework for ethical and effective university-community research collaboration – exactly what teams do in Bass Connections. The group looked at complicated factors that can make equitable relationships difficult, such as university incentive structures, power dynamics along racial, socioeconomic, and ethnic lines, and rigid research processes.

Senior Joey Rauch with his team’s 2nd-place poster!

Along the lines of rigid research, when asked about what his favorite part of Bass Connections has been, Rauch remarked that “research is oddly formal, so having a guiding hand through it” was helpful. Bass Connections offers an instructive, inclusive way for people to get involved in research, whether for the first or fourth time. He also said that working with so many people from a variety of departments of Duke gave him “such a wealth of experience” as he looks to his future beyond Duke.

For more information about the team, including a full list of all team members, click here.

Ensuring post-radiation wellness for women

From left to right: seniors Danica Schwartz, Shernice Martin, Kayle Park, and Michelle Huang

Seniors Michelle Huang, Shernice Martin, Kayle Park, and Danica Schwartz (all pictured) were gathered around the poster for their team, Promoting Sexual Function and Pelvic Health in Women’s Healthcare.

The project has been around for three years and this year’s study, which looked at improving female sexual wellness after pelvic radiation procedures, was in fact a sister study to a study done two years prior on reducing anxiety surrounding pelvic exams.

As Huang described, graduate students and faculty conducted in-depth interviews with patients to better understand their lived experiences. This will help the team develop interventions to help women after life events that affect their pelvic and sexual health, such as childbirth or cancer treatment. These interventions are grounded in the biopsychosocial model of pain, which highlights the links between emotional distress, cognition, and pain processing.

For more information about the team, including a full list of all team members, click here.

From dolphins to humans

Sophomores Noelle Fuchs and Jack Nowacek were manning an interactive research display for their team, Learning from Whales: Oxygen, Ecosystems and Human Health. At the center of their research question is the condition of hypoxia, which occurs when tissues are deprived of an adequate oxygen supply.

Sophomores Noelle Fuchs and Jack Nowacek

Hypoxia is implicated in a host of human diseases, such as heart attack, stroke, COVID-19, and cancer. But it is also one of the default settings for deep-diving whales, who have developed a tolerance for hypoxia as they dive into the ocean for hours while foraging.

The project, which has been around for four years, has two sub-teams. Fuchs, an Environmental Science and Policy major, was on the side of the team genetically mapping deep-diving pilot whales, beaked whales, and offshore bottlenose dolphins off the coast of Cape Hatteras  to identify causal genetic variants for hypoxia tolerance within specific genes. Nowacek, a Biology and Statistics double-major, was on the other side of the research, analyzing tissue biopsies of these three cetaceans to conduct experiences on hypoxia pathways.  

The team has compiled a closer, more interactive look into their research on their website.

And when asked about her experience being on this team and doing this research, Fuchs remarked that Bass Connections has been a  “great way to dip my toe into research and figure out what I do and don’t want to do,” moving forward at Duke and beyond.

For more information about the team, including a full list of all team members, click here.

Post by Meghna Datta, Class of 2023

A Naturalist’s View of “Extraordinary” North Carolina

Naturalist Tom Earnhardt on Black River in North Carolina. The forests around Black River are home to the oldest trees in eastern North America, 2,700-year-old bald cypresses.
All photos courtesy of Tom Earnhardt.

There are many ways to think of North Carolina. It was the 12th U.S. state to enter the Union. It is bordered by Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina. North Carolina’s capital city is Raleigh, and it has an estimated population of 10,698,973. These are all facts, but they tell only part of the story: the human side of it.

Naturalist Tom Earnhardt offers other ways to view North Carolina: the state contains the oldest forest in the eastern United States, with trees up to 2,700 years old. It has 17 river basins, and some of its rivers show evidence of fishing weirs used by indigenous tribes hundreds of years ago. And from the Atlantic coast in the east to the Appalachian mountains in the west, North Carolina is home to thousands of native plants, animals, and fungi. There are 3,000 species of moths alone in North Carolina, and “Every one is essential; not one is optional.”

“North Carolina,” Earnhardt says, “is still one of the most biodiverse and extraordinary places on the planet.”

A prothonotary warbler. Prothonotary warblers inhabit swamps and coastal rivers in North Carolina. They are one of only two warblers in America that nest in cavities.

Earnhardt is a naturalist, photographer, writer, and attorney. He wrote and produced the show “Exploring North Carolina,” a series of dozens of episodes about North Carolina’s biodiversity, geography, and history. Earnhardt recently visited Duke to speak at the Nasher Museum of Art.

One inspiration for his talk was the ongoing Nasher exhibit “Spirit in the Land,” an exploration of ecology, culture, and connection to the natural world. “Art in its many forms,” Earnhardt says, “tells a story of love, loss, and renewal.”

Black River in North Carolina.

Earnhardt has spent much of his career balancing caution and hope. We are facing environmental crises, including climate change and biodiversity loss. Earnhardt believes it’s important for people to know that, but he has put a lot of thought into how to get that message across. Earnhardt has learned that it can help to “tell it as though it was your best friend or brother who needed to hear an important story.” Science alone isn’t always enough. “To hear bad news of any kind is not easy,” Earnhardt says, “and people want to hear it from people they know, people they trust or can relate to.”

The stories he tells aren’t always easy to hear, but they are important. We need to know — whether on a local, state, national, or international scale — what exactly we stand to lose if we continue on a path of environmental destruction. Many species are becoming more scarce, Earnhardt says, “but we still have them.” They can’t be protected once they’re gone, but many of them are still here and can still be preserved. The goal for all of us should be to keep it that way.

North Carolina, Earnhardt says, is at “the epicenter of the temperate world.” The state has a range of climates and habitats. It marks the northernmost native range of the American alligator, while coniferous forests in the North Carolina mountains resemble boreal forests of the northern U.S. and Canada. North Carolina, according to Earnhardt, contains “whole ecosystems that other states only dream about.”

Eastern North Carolina is characterized by beaches, salt marshes, and other coastal ecosystems. Here you can find “wildflowers that grow in salty sand” and painted buntings, multicolored songbirds unlike any other in North America. On four occasions, he’s even seen manatees in North Carolina.

A male painted bunting, a summer resident on North Carolina’s barrier islands. Female painted buntings are bright green.

“Travelers from around the world vacation here and raise their families in the summer,” Earnhardt says—and he’s not talking about humans. Many shorebirds and sea turtles lay their eggs on North Carolina’s beaches. Human disturbance, including artificial lighting and crowded beaches, can put their babies in danger. Minimizing light pollution near beaches, especially during turtle nesting season, and staying away from nesting shorebirds can help.

A longleaf pine savanna in southeastern North Carolina.

Moving farther west, we can find savannas of grasses and pine trees. “You drive past this, and people go, ‘ho hum, a pine barren.’” To that Earnhardt says, “Look a little closer.”

White-fringed orchids, one of North Carolina’s 80 native orchid species. Earnhardt took this photo in the Green Swamp, a longleaf pine savanna nature preserve.

These pine barrens are home to some of North Carolina’s 80 species of orchid, like the white-fringed and yellow-fringed orchids. “Look at them from all angles,” Earnhardt urges, “because from up above it becomes a sunburst… for those who watch.”

A yellow-fringed orchid, viewed from the side.

Be one of those who watches.

A yellow-fringed orchid, viewed from above.

North Carolina rivers, forests, and swamps are also home to many wildlife species. Forests around Black River contain “huge buttresses of tupelo that hold the world together” and bald cypresses that have been alive for 2,700 years. The early years of these now-ancient cypress trees coincided with the fall of the Assyrian Empire and the establishment of the first emperor of Japan. Many centuries later, they are the oldest trees in eastern North America.

Cypress trees on Black River. Both tupelos and cypresses have buttresses at their bases to provide stability in the water.

They are also in danger. “If seas rise three feet,” Earnhardt says, “there will be enough pressure to flood these [trees]…. We could lose them.” But “they are worth saving.”

Still farther west are the Appalachian mountains, another biodiversity hotspot. North Carolina is home to 60 species of salamanders, many of which live in the mountains. The southern Appalachians and western North Carolina contain more salamander diversity than anywhere else on the planet. One species that lives here is the American hellbender, a two-foot-long denizen of mountainous streams.

Despite increasing human development, North Carolina is still rich in flora and fauna. “We have wild places,” Earnhardt says. North Carolina has more than 450 bird species, over 30 native pitcher plants, 20 freshwater turtles, and 38 snakes—“and they’re all good neighbors,” Earnhardt adds.

Venus flytraps in a longleaf pine savanna.

North Carolina has pink and yellow lady slippers and ten-foot-tall Turk’s Cap lilies; crayfish and thousands of mushrooms; native azaleas and insects that depend on them. It has Earnhardt’s “new favorite bird,” the swallow-tailed kite, and vultures, “the clean-up crew: not optional.” That’s a refrain throughout Earnhardt’s talk. “Nothing I’ve shown you tonight is optional,” he says.

“Both in banking and nature,” Earnhardt says, “when we make too many withdrawals and not enough deposits… there’s a deficit.” There are too many creatures we have already lost. The eastern cougar. The Carolina parakeet. The passenger pigeon. Too many more. There are still others that are threatened or endangered but not yet gone. “We humans tend to forget the failures and close calls,” Earnhardt says. While talking about biodiversity loss, he references a quote by biologist E.O. Wilson: “This is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us.”

A swallow-tailed kite. Earnhardt says that these kites, which spend their winters in South America, now nest along several rivers in southeastern North Carolina.

So what can be done? To preserve biodiversity, we have to consider entire ecosystems, not just one endangered animal at a time. “We are part of the natural world, part of links and chains and pyramids,” Earnhardt says, and humans too often forget that. Everything is connected.

He recalls visiting entomologist Bill Reynolds’s lab and noticing crickets hopping across the floor. “Don’t step on the transmission fluid!” Reynolds warned. He was referring to the crickets and to insects more broadly. Like transmission fluid in cars, insects are essential to making sure the systems they are part of run smoothly. Insects serve crucial roles in food webs, pollination, and decomposition. Studies show that they are declining at alarming rates.

“We are at a crossroads,” Earnhardt says. “Our transmission fluid is low, and we have made too many withdrawals from the bank of biodiversity.” Still, he emphasizes the importance of not giving up on wildlife conservation. Given a chance, nature can and will regenerate.

Tupelo tree buttresses on Tar River near Greenville, North Carolina.

Despite all our past and current failures, conservation also has remarkable success stories. The brown pelican is one North Carolina resident that almost went extinct but has since “come back in incredible numbers.” The bald eagle is another. Its population plummeted in the 20th century, largely due to the insecticide DDT as well as habitat loss and hunting. By 2007, though, after intensive conservation efforts, it had rebounded enough to be removed from the endangered species list. Until about 1980, Earnhardt had never seen a bald eagle in North Carolina. Today, Earnhardt says, “I see them in every county.”

A bald eagle that Earnhardt saw near the Raleigh-Durham airport. Bald eagles, once on the brink of extinction, can now be seen in every county in North Carolina.

“Everyone’s going to have to fly in the same direction,” to preserve North Carolina — not to mention the rest of the world — at its best and wildest, Earnhardt says. But individual actions can make a difference. He suggests planting native flowers like milkweed and coneflower, both of which are good food sources for pollinators. And if you choose to plant ornamentals like crepe myrtle, “Treat that as a piece of art in the yard and then plant the rest as native.”

Lady Bird Johnson, a former first lady and conservation advocate, once said that “Texas should look like Texas, and Mississippi like Mississippi.” Choosing native plants can be a powerful way to help native wildlife in your own yard. “If you plant it,” Earnhardt says, “they will come.”

One audience member asks, “How do you recommend that we recruit non-believers?” It’s a conundrum that Earnhardt has put a lot of thought into. “It takes time, and it takes patience,” he says. “Some of my best friends are not full believers, but I work on them every day.”

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

The Brain Science of Tiny Birds With Amazing Memories

A black-capped chickadee. Dmitriy Aronov, Ph.D., brought wild black-capped chickadees into the lab to study their memories.
Black-Capped Chickadee” by USFWS Mountain Prairie is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Black-capped chickadees have an incredible ability to remember where they’ve cached food in their environments. They are also small, fast, and able to fly.

So how exactly can a neuroscientist interested in their memories conduct studies on their brains? Dmitriy Aronov, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute at Columbia University, visited Duke recently to talk about chickadee memory and the practicalities of studying wild birds in a lab.

Black-capped chickadees, like many other bird species, often store food in hiding places like tree crevices. This behavior is called caching, and the ability to hide food in dozens of places and then relocate it later represents an impressive feat of memory. “The bird doesn’t get to experience this event happening over and over again,” Aronov says. It must instantly form a memory while caching the food, a process that relies on episodic memory. Episodic memory involves recalling specific experiences from the past, and black-capped chickadees are “champions of episodic memory.”

They have to remember not just the location of cached food but also other features of each hiding place, and they often have only moments to memorize all that information before moving on. According to Aronov, individual birds are known to cache up to 5,000 food items per day! But how do they do it?

Chickadees, like humans, rely on the brain’s hippocampus to form episodic memories, and the hippocampus is considerably bigger in food-caching birds than in birds of similar size that aren’t known to cache food. Aronov and his team wanted to investigate how neural activity represents the formation and retrieval of episodic memories in black-capped chickadees.

Step one: find a creative way to study food-caching in a laboratory setting. Marissa Applegate, a graduate student in Aronov’s lab, helped design a caching arena “optimized for chickadee ergonomics,” Aronov says. The arenas included crevices covered by opaque flaps that the chickadees could open with their toes or beaks and cache food in. The chickadees didn’t need any special training to cache food in the arena, Aronov says. They naturally explore crevices and cache surplus food inside.

Once a flap closed over a piece of cached food (sunflower seeds), the bird could no longer see inside—but the floor of each crevice was transparent, and a camera aimed at the arena from below allowed scientists to see exactly where birds were caching seeds. Meanwhile, a microdrive attached to the birds’ tiny heads and connected to a cable enabled live monitoring of their brain activity, down to the scale of individual neurons.

An artistic rendering of one of the cache sites in an arena. “Arenas in my lab have between 64 and 128 of these sites,” Aronov says.
Drawing by Julia Kuhl.

Through a series of experiments, Aronov and his team discovered that “the act of caching has a profound effect on hippocampal activity,” with some neurons becoming more active during caching and others being suppressed. About 35% percent of neurons that are active during caching are consistently either enhanced or suppressed during caching—regardless of which site a bird is visiting. But the remaining 65% of variance is site-specific: “every cache is represented by a unique pattern of this excess activity in the hippocampus,” a pattern that holds true even when two sites are just five centimeters apart—close enough for a bird to reach from one to another.

Chickadees could hide food in any of the sites for retrieval at a future time. The delay period between the caching phase (when chickadees could store surplus food in the cache sites) and the retrieval phase (when chickadees were placed back in the arena and allowed to retrieve food they had cached earlier) ranged from a few minutes to an hour. When a bird returned to a cache to retrieve food, the same barcode-like pattern of neural activity reappeared in its brain. That pattern “represents a particular experience in a bird’s life” that is then “reactivated” at a later time.

Aronov said that in addition to caching and retrieving food, birds often “check” caching sites, both before and after storing food in them. Of course, as soon as a bird opens one of the flaps, it can see whether or not there’s food inside. Therefore, measuring a bird’s brain activity after it has lifted a flap makes it impossible to tell whether any changes in brain activity when it checks a site are due to memory or just vision. So the researchers looked specifically at neural activity when the bird first touched a flap—before it had time to open it and see what was inside. That brain activity, as it turns out, starts changing hundreds of milliseconds before the bird can actually see the food, a finding that provides strong evidence for memory.

What about when the chickadees checked empty caches? Were they making a memory error, or were they intentionally checking an empty site—even knowing it was empty—for their own mysterious reasons? On a trial-by-trial basis, it’s impossible to know, but “statistically, we have to invoke memory in order to explain their behavior,” he said.

A single moment of caching, Aronov says, is enough to create a new, lasting, and site-specific pattern. The implications of that are amazing. Chickadees can store thousands of moments across thousands of locations and then retrieve those memories at will whenever they need extra food.

It’s still unclear how the retrieval process works. From Aronov’s study, we know that chickadees can reactivate site-specific brain activity patterns when they see one of their caches (even when they haven’t yet seen what’s inside). But let’s say a chickadee has stored a seed in the bark of a particular tree. Does it need to see that tree in order to remember its cache site there? Or can it be going about its business on the other side of the forest, suddenly decide that it’s hungry for a seed, and then visualize the location of its nearest cache without actually being there? Scientists aren’t sure.

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Spongy Moss, Living Jelly, and Other Early Spring Delights

Duke biology professor Paul Manos, Ph.D., looking at peat moss with Wild Ones members Gurnoor and Dhruv.

The Wild Ones club recently visited the Duke Forest with biology professor Paul Manos, Ph.D., and herpetology professor Ron Grunwald, Ph.D., to look for salamander eggs and other early spring delights.

It was warm and sunny, and wildflowers sprouted up alongside the trail, but most of the trees were still bare. “It’s kind of nice to look in a forest without any leaves,” says Manos. “They get in the way a lot.” We examined winged elm and shagbark hickory at the trailhead, then windflower and bluets right beside the path. Many early spring wildflowers take advantage of the higher levels of sunlight that reach the forest floor before trees develop leaves.

A shagbark hickory tree in the Duke Forest. “Shagbark” refers to the peeling strips on the trunk. The word “hickory,” meanwhile, comes from an Algonquin word for both the tree and a food made from pounded hickory nuts.

Manos was delighted to find a patch of sphagnum moss beside the trail. He says sphagnum, also known as peat moss, is usually found in higher latitudes, like the United Kingdom and Canada, where it grows in huge fields known as moorlands or quaking bogs.

When we reached a small pond, Grunwald swept a long-handled net through the water and leaf litter and pulled out a gelatinous glob that promptly became a highlight of my week/month/year: spotted salamander eggs. I don’t know what the rest of you spent your childhoods doing, but I spent a good portion of mine looking for frog eggs (and sometimes finding them) and wanting to find salamander eggs (and never finding them). But here they were, in front of me, tinted green with algae and glinting in the sunlight and close enough to touch.

Bluets are members of the coffee family, which Manos says is “known for having a lot of chemical diversity.” Many of the members of that family grow in the tropics, but some, like this bluet, live in more temperate regions.

This strikes me as an appropriate retort to many unrelated things. Calculus test? Yeah, okay, but I saw salamander eggs. The grosbeaks that Wild Ones went looking for two weeks ago are still thwarting me? Yes, and I still haven’t gotten over it. However: salamander eggs.

Sphagnum moss. It is wonderfully moist and spongy.
Photo by Lydia Cox, one of the student leaders of Wild Ones.

The egg mass was less firm and less slimy than I expected. It felt remarkably similar to jelly. “This gel,” Manos says, “apparently doesn’t allow oxygen to move through it very well,” but the developing spotted salamander larvae need oxygen. The solution is ingenious: a partnership with green algae. A species of algae grows on the egg masses and penetrates individual eggs, and eggs with more algae grow and develop faster.

The algae are photosynthetic, creating carbon and oxygen products from carbon dioxide gas and sunlight. That process likely provides supplemental oxygen to the salamander embryos, and one study found that the salamanders also absorb carbon produced by the algae’s photosynthesis.

Herpetology professor Ron Grunwald with spotted salamander eggs.

That carbon fixation is the first known example of carbon transfer from algae to a vertebrate host, though similar partnerships have been found in invertebrates, and the authors of the study speculate that similar processes may be occurring in other amphibians as well.

The particular species of algae that grows on spotted salamander eggs is in the Oophila, which according to Manos means “egg lover.” The partnership, however, is temporary. “It’s a very short-lived, ephemeral story,” Manos says.

“This is the best day of my life,” says Michelle, a Wild Ones member, while holding spotted salamander eggs. Comments from other students included “This feels weird,” “That is a sublime experience,” and “Nature’s fidget.”

In addition to the spotted salamander eggs, Grunwald also found a marbled salamander larva. Marbled salamanders and spotted salamanders are in the same genus, but they have different approaches to breeding. Marbled salamanders, Grunwald explains, lay their eggs in the fall “where they think a pond is going to be” instead of waiting for ephemeral pools to develop in spring. How do they decide where to lay eggs if the pond isn’t even there yet? Scientists aren’t sure, but salamanders “live in a chemical world,” Grunwald says, relying on taste and chemical signals.

Spotted salamander eggs and a marbled salamander larva, temporarily held in a plastic bag for viewing purposes.
Photo by Adam Kosinski, Wild Ones co-president.

Since marbled salamanders laid their eggs last fall, their larvae have had time to hatch and start developing, though they aren’t yet adults. Spotted salamanders, meanwhile, don’t breed until spring—when the ponds actually exist—so their eggs haven’t yet hatched. For the larvae of both species, developing in small, temporary ponds helps protect them from large predators like fish.

Both marbled and spotted salamanders are in a genus sometimes called mole salamanders because they live underground when they’re not breeding. “There’s an entire city underground here of burrows and holes and crevices,” Grunwald says, a “whole porous network of spaces.” The mole salamanders can shelter underground, but they can’t travel far without coming back to the surface. “It’s not a highway,” Grunwald says.

I would like to know what it is like to be a mole salamander, navigating by taste and smell and spending much of the year in small spaces underground.

Sam, a Wild Ones member, releasing the eggs back into the pond.

Before we left the forest, we went searching for lycophytes, an ancient lineage of plants that first evolved hundreds of millions of years ago. “In the Carboniferous Period 350 million years ago, these guys ruled,” Manos says. The lycophytes we saw in the Duke Forest were tiny, bright green sprigs in a small stream, but their ancestors were trees. Those ancient lycophyte trees are “responsible for all of the coal that we use,” says Manos. “The transformation of their organic material via millions of years of heat and pressure to metamorphic carbonized rock is the definition of coal.”

Quillwort, a modern-day descendant of ancient trees.

The lycophytes in the stream are members of the Isoetes genus, also known as quillworts. They look and feel much like grasses, but they are only distant relatives of true grasses. Grasses are flowering plants, while quillworts are lycophytes. Flowering plants and lycophytes diverged hundreds of millions of years ago. Lycophytes use spores to reproduce and have a life cycle similar to ferns. Even their leaves are anatomically and evolutionarily different from the leaves of flowering plants; lycophytes use “their own approach to making leaves,” according to Manos.

A representation of the evolutionary history of plants. Lycophytes, including the superficially grass-like quillwort we saw, are in the pteridophyte group, along with ferns. True grasses, on the other hand, are monocots, a branch of flowering plants.
Plant phylogeny.png, from Maulucioni via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
By Sophie Cox

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

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