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

Category: Animals Page 1 of 15

How To Hold a Bee and Not Get Stung

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Pictured from left to right are Lindsey Weyant, Andrew McCallum, and Will Marcus.

On Saturday, September 25, the Wild Ones club hosted an insect-themed outing with Fred Nijhout, an entomology professor at Duke. We visited a pond behind the Biological Sciences Building bordered by vegetation. Apparently, the long grasses and flowers are prime habitat for insects, which are often attracted to sunny areas and edge habitat. Along with several other students, I practiced “sweeping” for insects by swishing long nets through vegetation, a delightfully satisfying activity, especially on such a gorgeous fall day.

A species of skipper feeding on a flower. According to Fred Nijhout, the best way to distinguish butterflies (including skippers) from moths is by looking for knobbed antennae, characteristic of butterflies but not moths.

Professor Nijhout says much of his research focuses on butterflies and moths, but the insect biology class he teaches has a much broader focus. So does this outing. In just a couple hours, our group finds a wide array of species.

A milkweed bug (left) and a soldier beetle, two of the species we saw on Sunday.

Many of the insects we see belong to the order Hemiptera, a group sometimes referred to as “true bugs” that includes more than 80,000 species. We find leafhoppers that jump out of our nets while we’re trying to look at them, a stilt-legged bug that moves much more gracefully on its long legs than I ever could on stilts, spittlebugs that encase themselves in foam as larvae and then metamorphose into jumping adults sometimes called froghoppers, and yet another Hemipteran with a wonderfully whimsical name (just kidding): the plant bug.

Professor Nijhout shows us a milkweed leaf teeming with aphids (also in the order Hemiptera) and ants. He explains that this is a common pairing. Aphids feed on the sap in leaf veins, which is nutrient-poor, so “they have special pumps in their guts that get rid of the water and the sugars” and concentrate the proteins. In the process, aphids secrete a sugary substance called honeydew, which attracts ants.

The honeydew excreted as a waste product by the aphids provides the ants with a valuable food source, but the relationship is mutualistic. The presence of the ants affords protection to the aphids. Symbiosis, however, isn’t the only means of avoiding predation. Some animals mimic toxic look-alikes to avoid being eaten. Our group finds brightly colored hoverflies, which resemble bees but are actually harmless flies, sipping nectar from flowers. Professor Nijhout also points out a brightly colored milkweed bug, which looks toxic because it is.

Sixteen species of hoverfly, all of which are harmless. Note that hoverflies, like all flies, have only one pair of wings, whereas bees have two.
Image from Wikipedia user Alvesgaspar (GNU Free Documentation License, Creative Commons license).

Humans, too, can be fooled by things that look dangerous but aren’t. As it turns out, even some of our most basic ideas about risk avoidance—like not playing with bees or eating strange berries—are sometimes red herrings. When we pass clusters of vibrant purple berries on a beautyberry bush, Professor Nijhout tells us they’re edible. “They’re sweet,” he says encouragingly. (I wish I could agree. They’re irresistibly beautiful, but every time I’ve tasted them, I’ve found them too tart.) And on several occasions, to the endless fascination of the Wild Ones, he catches bees with his bare hands and offers them to nearby students. Male carpenter bees (which can be identified by the patch of yellow on their faces) have no stinger, and according to Professor Nijhout, their mandibles are too weak to penetrate human skin. It’s hard not to flinch at the thought of holding an angry bee, but there’s a certain thrill to it as well. When I cup my hands around one of them, I find the sensation thoroughly pleasant, rather like a fuzzy massage. The hard part is keeping them from escaping; it doesn’t take long for the bee to slip between my hands and fly away.

Professor Nijhout in his element, about to capture a male carpenter bee (below) by hand.

The next day, I noticed several bees feeding on a flowering bush on campus. Eager to test my newfound knowledge, I leaned closer. Even when I saw the telltale yellow faces of the males, I was initially hesitant. But as I kept watching, I felt more wonder than fear. For perhaps the first time, I noticed the way their buzzy, vibrating bodies go momentarily still while they poke their heads into blossoms in search of the sweet nectar inside. Their delicate wings, blurred by motion when they fly, almost shimmer in the sunlight while they feed.

Gently, I reached out and cupped a male bee in my hands, noticing the way his tiny legs skittered across my fingers and the soft caress of his gossamer wings against my skin. When I released him, his small body lifted into the air like a fuzzy UFO.

I realize this new stick-my-face-close-to-buzzing-bees pastime could backfire, so I don’t necessarily recommend it, especially if you have a bee allergy, but if you’re going to get face-to-face with a carpenter bee, you might at least want to check the color of its face.

Damla Ozdemir, a member of the Wild Ones, with a giant cockroach in Professor Nijhout’s classroom.

If you could hold all the world’s insects in one hand and all the humans in the other, the insects would outweigh us. More than 900,000 species of insects have been discovered, and there may be millions more still unknown to science. Given their abundance and diversity, even the experts often encounter surprises.“Every year I see things I’ve never seen before,” Professor Nijhout told us. Next time you step outside, take a closer look at your six-legged company. You might be surprised by what you see.

By Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Carrying On a Legacy of “Whimsical” Gardening

A contorted hardy orange tree (Poncirus trifoliata) in the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden. The brightly colored structures in the background are pollinator houses.

On Wednesday, September 15, the Sarah P. Duke Gardens hosted a drop-in event in the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden, an area near the main entrance with a focus on organic and sustainable gardening. This part of Duke Gardens is almost ten years old, but Wednesday’s event, led by curator Jason Holmes and horticulturist Nick Schwab, showcased what makes it unique.

The entrance to the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden is marked by a lovely arbor draped with vines. Inside, the winding paths are lined with flowers, fruiting trees, and beds of herbs and vegetables. Bees and butterflies flit here and there, bright against the rainy sky.

Holmes finds me admiring a display of carnivorous plants. He introduces himself and shows me around.

Flirting with danger: a fly perches on a Venus flytrap. The Venus flytrap is a carnivorous plant native only to parts of the Carolinas.

One of the first things I notice is the array of pollinator houses scattered amongst flowers and attached to wooden structures. Many plants rely on pollinators to reproduce, and the pollinator houses can help attract native species like mason bees and leaf-cutter wasps, but Holmes says they have another purpose as well: bringing awareness to the importance of pollinators.

Along with the pollinator houses, which are designed to attract native bees, the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden has beehives for honey bees. Though honey bees are not originally native to the New World, they are important pollinators, and their populations are declining. Like many native bees, honey bees are threatened in part by habitat loss and pesticide use, but gardeners and landowners can help.

The Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden is only about an acre in size, but exploring it feels like walking through a museum, a new exhibit around every corner. Over here, raised beds of hot peppers, organized by level of spiciness. (“I don’t do spicy,” says Holmes, but even Schwab, who has sampled the garden’s hottest peppers, tells me he often finds the less spicy ones to be more enjoyable.) Over there, clusters of pumpkins. Despite the steamy day, the pumpkins are a reminder that fall is coming. I’ve been noticing subtle hints of fall for weeks—brisk mornings, breezes that send dry leaves skittering across pavement—but despite these tantalizing harbingers of autumn, some days still seem distinctly summery. As it turns out, this garden is experiencing a similar transition.

A recipe for “Peri-Peri Sauce” within a display of hot peppers. Peppers are common in many cuisines, but they are originally native to tropical America.

Holmes and Schwab, along with other dedicated gardeners, are in the process of phasing out summer vegetables like okra, melons, cucumbers, zucchini, and eggplant and planting crops like cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower in anticipation of cooler weather.

Change is something of a constant in the garden. Holmes likes to tell everyone who works with him that “every day’s going to be different.” When I ask if he has a favorite season in the garden, Holmes mentions two: “I love the cool-down of fall, and I love the rebirth of spring.” As for winter, Holmes describes it as a period of much-needed rest—for both the garden and the gardeners.

Potted succulents and clusters of bright orange pumpkins add to the garden’s whimsical feel.

The Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden is a fully functioning garden, donating most of its produce to the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, but it is also a space for discovery. Since its inception in 2012, the garden has sought to foster curiosity about gardening and the natural world.

The garden also houses a chicken coop, which Holmes says is constructed out of recycled materials from local factories. Holmes picks up a white silkie chicken, holding her gently before prompting her to join the others in the enclosure outside. He tells me she’s acting “broody,” exhibiting a tendency to behave as though she is incubating eggs.

Jason Holmes with one of the chickens. Holmes also cares for chickens at his home, but not because he wants to eat their eggs. He considers them “companions” instead.

When I ask Holmes about Charlotte Brody, he describes a woman who lived in Kinston, North Carolina, and invited kids to her home to learn about organic gardening and discover its joys for themselves. Holmes says Brody had a “whimsical, free approach” to gardening.

“Whimsical” describes this garden well. Tiny, orange spheres dangling from bushes. A tree frog peering out from a pollinator house. Hand-written signs nestled amongst peppers, offering recipes for “Peri-Peri Sauce” and “Hot Honey.” Everything from cacti to chickens to oranges coexisting peacefully in the same garden.

Before I leave, I linger under the arbor. The sun streams through the dome above me. The frog is still hiding in the same pollinator house as before. Looking around, I see more than a small garden. I see the legacy of a woman who devoted her time to gardening joyfully and sustainably and teaching others to do the same.

The arbor at the entrance to the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden. Despite the rain earlier in the afternoon, the sun had come out again by the time I left.

Jason Holmes, Nick Schwab, and the many workers and volunteers who have put their time and effort into this garden are continuing that legacy. Holmes hopes that visitors will find inspiration here, whatever that means to them. I know I did, and next time I come back, I’ll wander the paths and notice the changing seasons, ready to be inspired again.

By Sophia Cox, Class of 2025

New Blogger Nhu Bui: Discovering Science Communication

My name is Nhu Bui, pronounced “New Buoy.” I’m a sophomore from Cypress, Texas hoping to major in Environmental Science & Policy and English (that’s only two, I promise), and I’m thrilled to join the Duke Research Blog team.

Thanh-Nhu Bui, Nhu for short

I’ve loved science ever since I could waddle into my backyard to catch ladybugs and earthworms. For the longest time, I was convinced I was going to be a zookeeper, or maybe a veterinarian – anything that would allow me to work with animals. (I also toyed with the idea of becoming a physician, treating the most ferocious of creatures.) But I also knew that reading and writing were my fortes and that I was always happier in a library than in a laboratory. 

In high school, I joined the speech and debate team. My primary (and favorite) event was informative speaking: 10 minutes of educational entertainment on a topic of choice. I always chose to speak on environmental issues – from bees to coral reefs – and I loved it. The event was my perfect storm of science and communications… so imagine my excitement upon entering college and discovering that science communication is a whole thing.

Some highlights of my informative visual aids

With the blog, I hope to be able to discover new interests and explore my intrigues across the wide world of research at Duke University. But most importantly, I hope to be able to hone my craft. Effective science communication is more crucial than ever; issues like climate change and vaccination impact every aspect of life, but the public’s view of science is mired in perceptions of bias and manipulation. While science and politics are inextricable, trust and awareness are critical for a functioning society.

Of course, constantly questioning the world is also critical – it’s the foundation of scientific discovery – but as with everything, it’s all about balance. Who knows where that balance is? I’m still looking for it myself, but I’m hoping that joining the Duke Research Blog will help me on the way. 

Keeping a respectful distance while admiring monkeys.

Outside of my love for science and writing, here are the most important things to know about me: my favorite movies are Paddington 1 and 2 (can’t choose), my top genre on Spotify is show tunes (I’ve never done theater), and I once walked through a Whataburger drive-thru (it’s a Texas thing). 

Thanks for getting to know me, and I hope to see you back on the blog soon!

Post by Nhu Bui, Class of 2024

New Blogger Sophie Cox: Keep Asking Questions

Typing with one hand, especially my left hand, is not easy, but my right hand is currently occupied by freeze-dried mealworms and, momentarily, by a chittering wild bird.

My eagle-eyed supervisor is a Carolina wren, South Carolina’s official state bird.

“You have babies, don’t you?” I mutter as a small, brown bird with a white eyestripe wraps her long toes around my fingers.

She doesn’t answer–she never does–but she flutters repeatedly to my socked feet and from there to my hand, where she selects a mealworm and then flies to a flower box on my neighbor’s mailbox.

This bird and her mate are the pair of Carolina wrens who have spent the past year training me to hand-feed them. Life hack: if you’re being cornered by wild birds every time you step outside, I suggest keeping a bag of dried mealworms in your pocket.

I want to investigate the flower box, but I don’t want to betray the trust I’ve worked so hard to build. Instead, I wait until my little friend finishes her ritual before approaching the mailbox.

Among the fake hydrangea blossoms, I see a scruffy head poking out. Judging by its size, the youngster looks about ready to leave the nest. With a smile, I turn and walk away.

Along with observing wildlife, I enjoy reading, writing, playing board games, and spending time outside.

My name is Sophie, and I’m a freshman at Duke. At home in upstate South Carolina, I can often be found smearing fruity, fermenting moth bait onto tree trunks at dusk or curled up in a hammock swing with a good book while the Carolina wrens do their best to distract me.

They each have their own personalities (which is partly how I tell them apart), but both birds strike me as curious and even intelligent.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if Carolina wrens belong on the growing list of animals believed to possess theory of mind, the ability to understand mental states and to recognize that others’ thoughts and beliefs can differ from one’s own.

I have always associated the natural world with a sense of wonder that borders on enchantment.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I plan to major in biology. My lifelong aspiration to study science hasn’t faded, but science should be accessible to everyone, scientists or not. That is partly why I want to work for Duke’s research blog.

If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the importance of having access to accurate information we can trust. Too often, data is manipulated and obscured, twisting facts and turning science into a political minefield. That should never be acceptable. My favorite news
sources are those that effectively bridge the gap between academia and the general public, providing information that is digestible and engaging without sacrificing scientific integrity.

Judging by the articles I have read, Duke’s research blog has a similar mission, and it’s a mission I firmly believe in.

Science is full of unanswered questions. At its simplest, my goal for the future is the same as it was ten years ago: to answer some of those questions.

This summer, I worked as a counselor and nature instructor at a residential summer camp. Campers often approached me throughout the day to enthusiastically describe their encounters with click beetles, squirrels, and frogs. I saw in their eyes the same exhilaration I feel when the Carolina wrens’ amber eyes meet mine or when a shimmery, pale golden moth flutters across my pajamas and then disappears soundlessly into the night, as beautiful and ephemeral as a
moonbeam.

One young boy, a seven-year-old who reminded me of myself at his age, was fascinated by my field guide to insects and spiders of North America. Again and again, he’d point to an insect or spider or worm, then hand the field guide to me and wait for me to find the right page. At one point, he even retrieved the book from my backpack. I don’t know if he could read, but he knew what the book was for, and he cared. He could neither hear nor speak, but maybe, in the end, it didn’t matter. You don’t need words to flip over stones and marvel at the life hidden beneath.

People want scientific knowledge. Studying science — and not just as scientists — brings us so tantalizingly close to the mysterious, the undiscovered, the unknown. Science is more than petri dishes, graphs, and Latin jargon. It is a world full of questions waiting to be asked. In my own scientific writing, mostly in the form of nature journals, I strive to be methodical but not impersonal. My goal as a blogger is similar: to be accurate and objective without sacrificing the mystery and excitement that makes science so engaging to begin with.

After college, I hope to pursue ecological field research. In the meantime, I’ll keep exploring. I’ll keep flipping over stones. I’ll keep talking to the wrens, even if they never talk back, and wondering what they’re thinking when their gaze meets mine. In short, I’ll keep asking questions. I think you should, too.

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Two Ways to Weird: How Whale Noses Moved to the Top of Their Head

A blue whale skeleton suspended in London’s Natural History Museum

Odd skulls are nothing new to V. Louise Roth, a professor in the Department of Biology. Much of her research centers on how animals’ shapes and sizes evolve and develop, so weirdly shaped bones are at the core of her work. But when Ph.D. student Rachel Roston drew her attention to the peculiarities of whale skulls, even Roth was astounded.

“There are some pretty weird mammal skulls out there,” Roth said. “I have studied morphological development in elephants, which are also kind of a crazy choice, but in terms of which bone goes where I think cetaceans are the weirdest ones.”

Cetaceans are the group that includes baleen whales – such as humpback whales – and toothed whales – such as dolphins and killer whales. Unlike almost all other vertebrate animals, cetaceans don’t breathe out of their mouths or from a nose placed in front of their face, but from a blowhole located on top of their head.

How did it get up there?

Rachel Roston, a graduate student in the Duke Biology department, recently published a paper with Professor Louise Roth, about some of the ways dolphin, whale and porpoise skulls break the rules of anatomy.

A new study published in the Journal of Anatomy by Roth and Roston, now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington, reveals how whale and dolphin skulls undergo a complete transformation through their embryonic and fetal development, resulting in a re-orientation of their nasal passages.

What’s more, there’s not just one way to do it: baleen whales and toothed whales move their nostrils to the tops of their heads in two very different ways.

“It’s not just that they are developing the same thing in different ways,” said Roston, who led this work as part of her Ph.D. in Biology at Duke. “Looking from the outside of the body all you see is that both of them have their nose on the top of their head, but when you look inside their skulls, they are actually totally different blowholes.”

A toothed whale clears its blowhole. Photo by Friedrich Frühling

To figure out which bone went where and in which way, Roston looked at CT scans of baleen and toothed whales’ embryos in different stages of development and drew a dotted timeline of anatomical changes through the animals’ development.

Early-stage embryos look very much alike in most vertebrate animals: small, with a disproportionally large head, big eyes and oral and nasal cavities in the front of their face. As the embryos develop, they take different paths and become more and more similar to their own species.

Most of them keep their noses and their mouths in front of their face, but dolphins and whales transform their whole heads to change the direction of their nasal passage while keeping the snout facing forward.

“We think of the nostrils as something you find at the tip of the snout,” Roth said. “But whales go through some key changes in bone orientation that decouple one from the other.”

“It’s like looking at a cubist Picasso painting,” Roston said. “The eyes, nose and mouth are all there, but their relationships to each other are completely distorted.”

Whale embryos at different developmental stages. The white arrow shows how the nasal cavity shifts position through embryonic development.

This internal shuffling requires that the parts forming the roof of the embryo’s mouth move away from those that form its nasal passage. Initially parallel in small young embryos, they end up at an angle of about 45 degrees in baleen whales. In toothed whales this final angle is even wider, closer to 90 degrees.

In baleen whales, a key rotation happens at the back of the skull, where it meets the spine. Rather than being perpendicular to the ground, as in the head of a dog, the back of the skull is tilted forward towards the snout.

In toothed whales, the point of inflexion for this rotation is in the middle of the head. A bone in the center of the skull changes shape, curving upwards as the nasal passage ends facing up.

Roston and Roth both say that museum collections and non-destructive scanning techniques, such as CT scans, were key for this project because whale embryo specimens are difficult to come by. When a gravid female dies, small embryos often go unnoticed in their mother’s massive carcass. But older fetuses are larger than your typical sedan, making them difficult to preserve intact and store in museums. The few specimens found in museums must therefore be studied with the proverbial velvet gloves, or, in this case, CT scans.

“In science you always question ‘how come no one’s done this before?’” Roston said. “Here, it was because specimens are precious, so you don’t want to cut them up and destroy them.”

“Sometimes we’re looking at museum specimens that are 100 years old. This was an opportunity to describe them in a way that I hope will still be useful 100 years from now.”

Read more about weird whale skulls.

The research was funded by Duke University. Roston has also been supported by the National Institutes of Health.

CITATION: “Different Transformations Underlie Blowhole and Nasal Passage Development in a Toothed Whale (Odontoceti: Stenella attenuata) and a Baleen Whale (Mysticeti: Balaenoptera physalus),” Rachel A. RostonV. Louise Roth, Journal of Anatomy. DOI: 10.1111/joa.13492

Post by Marie Claire Chelini PhD, Duke Biology

In Drawers of Old Bones, New Clues to the Genomes of Lost Giants

DNA extracted from a 1,475-year-old jawbone reveals genetic blueprint for one of the largest lemurs ever.

By teasing trace amounts of DNA from this partially fossilized jawbone, nearly 1,500 years after the creature’s death, scientists have managed to reconstruct the first giant lemur genome. Credit: University of Antananarivo and George Perry, Penn State

If you’ve been to the Duke Lemur Center, perhaps you’ve seen these cute mouse- to cat-sized primates leaping through the trees. Now imagine a lemur as big as a gorilla, lumbering its way through the forest as it munches on leaves.

It may sound like a scene from a science fiction thriller, but from skeletal remains we know that at least 17 supersized lemurs once roamed the African island of Madagascar. All of them were two to 20 times heftier than the average lemur living today, some weighing up to 350 pounds.

Then, sometime after humans arrived on the island, these creatures started disappearing.

The reasons for their extinction remain a mystery, but by 500 years ago all of them had vanished.

Coaxing molecular clues to their lives from the bones and teeth they left behind has proved a struggle, because after all this time their DNA is so degraded.

But now, thanks to advances in our ability to read ancient DNA, a giant lemur that may have fallen into a cave or sinkhole near the island’s southern coast nearly 1,500 years ago has had much of its DNA pieced together again. Researchers believe it was a slow-moving 200-pound vegetarian with a pig-like snout, long arms, and powerful grasping feet for hanging upside down from branches.

A single jawbone, stored at Madagascar’s University of Antananarivo, was all the researchers had. But that contained enough traces of DNA for a team led by George Perry and Stephanie Marciniak at Penn State to reconstruct the nuclear genome for one of the largest giant lemurs, Megaladapis edwardsi, a koala lemur from Madagascar.

Ancient DNA can tell stories about species that have long since vanished, such as how they lived and what they were related to. But sequencing DNA from partially fossilized remains is no small feat, because DNA breaks down over time. And because the DNA is no longer intact, researchers have to take these fragments and figure out their correct order, like the pieces of a mystery jigsaw puzzle with no image on the box.

Bones like these are all that’s left of Madagascar’s giant lemurs, the largest of which weighed in at 350 pounds — 20 times heftier than lemurs living today. Credit: Matt Borths, Curator of the Division of Fossil Primates at the Duke Lemur Center

Hard-won history lessons

The first genetic study of M. edwardsi, published in 2005 by Duke’s Anne Yoder, was based on DNA stored not in the nucleus — which houses most of our genes — but in another cellular compartment called the mitochondria that has its own genetic material. Mitochondria are plentiful in animal cells, which makes it easier to find their DNA.

At the time, ancient DNA researchers considered themselves lucky to get just a few hundred letters of an extinct animal’s genetic code. In the latest study they managed to tease out and reconstruct some one million of them.

“I never even dreamed that the day would come that we could produce whole genomes,” said Yoder, who has been studying ancient DNA in extinct lemurs for over 20 years and is a co-author of the current paper.

For the latest study, the researchers tried to extract DNA from hundreds of giant lemur specimens, but only one yielded enough useful material to reconstitute the whole genome.

Once the creature’s genome was sequenced, the team was able to compare it to the genomes of 47 other living vertebrate species, including five modern lemurs, to identify its closest living relatives. Its genetic similarities with other herbivores suggest it was well adapted for grazing on leaves.

Despite their nickname, koala lemurs weren’t even remotely related to koalas. Their DNA confirms that they belonged to the same evolutionary lineage as lemurs living today.

To Yoder it’s another piece of evidence that the ancestors of today’s lemurs colonized Madagascar in a single wave.

Since the first ancient DNA studies were published, in the 1980s, scientists have unveiled complete nuclear genomes for other long-lost species, including the woolly mammoth, the passenger pigeon, and even extinct human relatives such as Neanderthals.

Most of these species lived in cooler, drier climates where ancient DNA is better preserved. But this study extends the possibilities of ancient DNA research for our distant primate relatives that lived in the tropics, where exposure to heat, sunlight and humidity can cause DNA to break down faster.

“Tropical conditions are death to DNA,” Yoder said. “It’s so exciting to get a deeper glimpse into what these animals were doing and have that validated and verified.”

See them for yourself

Assembled in drawers and cabinets cases in the Duke Lemur Center’s Division of Fossil Primates on Broad St. are the remains of at least eight species of giant lemurs that you can no longer find in the wild. If you live in Durham, you may drive by them every day and have no idea. It’s the world’s largest collection.

In one case are partially fossilized bits of jaws, skulls and leg bones from Madagascar’s extinct koala lemurs. Nearby are the remains of the monkey-like Archaeolemur edwardsi, which was once widespread across the island. There’s even a complete skeleton of a sloth lemur that would have weighed in at nearly 80 pounds, Palaeopropithecus kelyus, hanging upside down from a branch.

Most of these specimens were collected over 25 years between 1983 and 2008, when Duke Lemur Center teams went to Madagascar to collect fossils from caves and ancient swamps across the island.

“What is really exciting about getting better and better genetic data from the subfossils, is we may discover more genetically distinct species than only the fossil record can reveal,” said Duke paleontologist Matt Borths, who curates the collection. “That in turn may help us better understand how many species were lost in the recent past.”

They plan to return in 2022. “Hopefully there is more Megaladapis to discover,” Borths said.

A fossil site in Madagascar. Courtesy of Matt Borths, Duke Lemur Center Division of Fossil Primates

CITATION: “Evolutionary and Phylogenetic Insights From a Nuclear Genome Sequence of the Extinct, Giant, ‘Subfossil’ Koala Lemur Megaladapis Edwardsi,” Stephanie Marciniak, Mehreen R. Mughal, Laurie R. Godfrey, Richard J. Bankoff, Heritiana Randrianatoandro, Brooke E. Crowley, Christina M. Bergey, Kathleen M. Muldoon, Jeannot Randrianasy, Brigitte M. Raharivololona, Stephan C. Schuster, Ripan S. Malhi, Anne D. Yoder, Edward E. Louis Jr, Logan Kistler, and George H. Perry. PNAS, June 29, 2021. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2022117118.

Survival of the… Friendliest?

Chances are, you’ve heard about survival of the fittest. But what about survival of the friendliest? While we often think that the strongest, meanest, and most powerful organisms often prevail as the most fit, it seems that friendship bears the real evolutionary winners.

Brian Hare (Ph.D.) and Vanessa Woods (M.SciComm) are the researcher and co-author duo responsible for shaping this idea in their latest book, Survival of the Friendliest. On top of this extensive collaboration, the pair also happen to be married. The two discussed their work at an event series hosted by Duke Alumni Forever Learning Institute Wednesday, April 21st and Thursday, April 22nd.  Hare is a Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology, Psychology, and Neuroscience at Duke and a core member of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. Woods is the Director of the Duke Puppy Kindergarten, as well as a writer and journalist.

Vanessa Woods, Taz, and Brian Hare

In the history of evolution, friendliness often proceeds unusual evolutionary success, meaning that friendly species prevail over time. Hare and Woods are uncovering critical factors for why this pattern emerges in their research. For the context of their work, Woods defined friendliness as anything that is mutually beneficial between organisms. Their questions and investigation were first centered around dogs.

“Where did dogs come from?” Hare said. This poses a really “fascinating evolutionary problem.” Prior research shows that dogs first originated 15,000-25,000 years ago, delineated from wolves. But why? Dogs have become one of the “top two or three most successful animals,” while wolves have nearly gone extinct.

The answer to their evolution and their success is found in friendliness. “Dogs have remarkable social genius,” Hare said, they are able to understand communicative gestures and in return communicate with humans in a way that not even one of our closet genetic relatives, the Bonobo, can.  This evolutionary selection for friendliness drove the stark contrasts seen between dogs and wolves today, fundamentally changing dogs’ physical shapes and forms along with their psychology. The same pattern of genetic inheritance encoding for inclination to cooperate also changes much of a species morphology in signature ways.

Vanessa and Brian co-authored the 2020 book, Survival of the Friendliest.

Hare and Woods ventured to Siberia to analyze the findings of an experiment pertaining to fox behavior that has been ongoing since it was first set up by a Russian geneticist in 1959. One group of foxes has experienced randomly selected mating, while the other group of foxes has been artificially shaped by manmade selection for the friendliest foxes.

When they compared the long-term results of decades separate population changes, Hare and Woods found the friendlier foxes had shorter faces, different colorations, curlier tails, and smaller canines. These are the same factors used by archaeologists to distinguish dogs from wolves. The morphological and physiological changes for niceness are synonymous across the two species.

A fox from the friendly group, pictured center, has evolved different physical characteristics according to the manmade selection for friendliness in a long-running genetic experiment in Siberia.

They have also found a similar pattern in humans. Our species as not alone on the planet when it first evolved, said Hare: We shared the planet with approximately four other Hominids who also had big brains, cultural artifacts, and linguistic abilities like we do. “There had to be something in addition to those traits that allowed our species to survive while others went extinct.” He proposes survival of the friendliness and the development of different physical characteristics.

In a study comparing modern humans to archaic ones, Hare and Woods found that modern humans have traits like much smaller brow ridges and narrower, shorter faces – what you would expect to see, based on the fox model from their work in Siberia that also helped explain the evolution of dogs. Our white sclera – the white part of your eye – acts as our “curly tail.” The white tissue likely has been selected for with the development of our other friendly features, as we are the only primate whose sclera is light, which makes communication by glance easier.

Reconstructions of archaic hominid groups. The image on the far right is the reconstruction of a Homo sapiens.

If we are the friendliest, Woods asked, then why are we capable of such cruelty and malice? Even though we are extremely friendly to in-group strangers, when our in-group is threatened, we are prepared to defend them against out-group strangers.

“We are all capable of dehumanization when we feel that the group that we love … is threatened,” Woods said. This is a model they are referring to as the mother bear hypothesis: A mother bear is most patient when she is dealing with her cubs, but most angry when another organism threatens her offspring.

The number one predictor of dehumanization is the feeling that your own group or identity is being dehumanized, and in those moments, the same part of the brain that enables cooperative communication shuts down and is dampened.  

The duo cited cross-group friendships, democracy, and our perception of other animals as important factors for offsetting dehumanization in the human species. Cross-group friendships provide a bridge of empathy, democracy contributes to collective group identity and decisions, and our perceptions of other animals limit dehumanization when we have an ecological view of our relation to other species rather than a top-down, human-centric approach.

Darwin was also a fan of friendliness in nature!

“You have to understand what was wrong about the past but not blind yourself to what you do find,” Woods said when asked about the dark history of morphology-based pseudo-sciences that prompted racial persecutions. This is something that the pair reckons with for a whole chapter in their book.

“You can see in our faces the faces of friendliness,” Hare said.

May we all lean into this niceness after encountering Hare and Woods work. It’s gotten us this far, and it seems particularly vital for our collective future.

Post by Cydney Livingston

Pardon the Irruption: Winged Northern Visitors Massed for Tasty NC Mast

One morning in November, during a visit to my parents’ house in Richmond, Virginia, I woke up to a text from my mom. “Evening Grosbeaks at the river. Want to go?” Obviously I wanted to go. I’d heard that they had left their normal range, but I was shocked that they’d made it to Richmond—Evening Grosbeaks hadn’t come this far south in decades.

Evening Grosbeaks on a feeder in Hillsborough. The males are bright (lower right), the females more understated (upper left and right). A Purple Finch (center), another northern visitor, has joined them. (Lane Scher)

This winter has been a special treat for birdwatchers—a huge “irruption” year for many northern bird species, like the Evening Grosbeak. Many irruptive species are in the finch family, which includes siskins, redpolls, crossbills and some grosbeaks. These species usually spend their winters in the northern US and Canada, but every so often they’ll journey farther south. What causes these birds to make massive flights some years and not others? It’s simple—food.

Many birds eat seeds from trees, which scientists call “mast,” in winter. But mast is produced irregularly in cycles—lots of mast one year, and little the next. Birds with irruptive migratory patterns move around to find food in winter. During years of large mast production, irruptive birds can stay in their preferred range farther north. But when food is scarce, they fly south.

Mast is an important food source not only for these irruptive bird species, but also for local bird species and mammals. In fact, mast cycles impact the entire forest food web. Years of high seed production, sometimes called “bumper crops”, lead to larger rodent populations, which then eat the eggs of songbirds. Mast might also be tied to outbreaks of tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease: rodent populations grow in big mast years, which means there are more hosts for ticks, leading to more disease.

Mast cycles can have such massive impacts on animal populations because the seed production of each tree species is synchronized across large geographic areas. That means that in one year, trees of a particular species in one area will produce many seeds, but in a neighboring region the same species might produce few seeds. These patterns create a food landscape that is dynamic across both space and time.

Ecologists want to understand how mast cycles work—and Duke is home to the founder and headquarters of MASTIF, a global network with exactly this goal. Dr. Jim Clark of the Nicholas School of the Environment wants to understand how climate drives mast cycles, and how these cycles will change under climate change. The MASTIF network is a huge collaboration that now includes over 2.5 million data points, each representing the mast produced by one tree in one year.

The Evening Grosbeak map from
Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds shows that food-seeking irruptions can indeed reach Florida, as they have this year.

As a PhD student in Dr. Clark’s lab, I’m studying the relationship between mast cycles and the bird populations they support. I want to understand how birds respond to an environment that is constantly changing—in this case, how they respond to spatial and temporal changes in food availability. This historic irruption year is a perfect example of exactly this question: a year of low mast in the north has caused bird species to travel far outside their normal range to find food.

Interestingly, the association between these irruptive birds and food availability is so strong that it can be predicted fairly easily. The Winter Finch Forecast is based on a survey of mast crops across northern North America, which is then translated into a prediction of irruption patterns. The 2020 forecast noted that Evening Grosbeak populations would be larger this year due to outbreaks of spruce budworm, an important food source during the breeding season. This increase in the population size, combined with low winter food abundance, has led to a historic flight south.

The Clark Lab’s goal of understanding and predicting mast cycles would further our knowledge of these bird species’ unique migration patterns. With a more thorough understanding of mast patterns, we could better anticipate irruptions and implement informed conservation strategies. In addition to monitoring trees in long-term forest plots, the team uses data collected by citizen scientists through the MASTIF project on iNaturalist. With over 7,000 observations from 81 people across the world, these citizen scientists have contributed a huge amount of data.

I was thrilled to see the Evening Grosbeaks in November, and I assumed it would be my only chance. But since then, they’ve been seen throughout the Carolinas and into northern Florida. Recently, a homeowner in Hillsborough spotted a group of Evening Grosbeaks in his yard. He reported them to eBird, a citizen science project that collects data from birders around the world, and that birders use to locate rare species.

Since he reported them, birders have flocked to his yard in numbers almost as stunning as the birds themselves. Over the last few weeks, he’s counted up to 60 grosbeaks on a good day, and his yard has been visited by over 250 birders. Birders don’t want to miss this—no one knows when the next big irruption will be.

Guest post by Lane Scher, a Ph.D. student in Ecology at the Nicholas School of the Environment.

The evolutionary advantage of being friendly

We’ve all heard the term “survival of the fittest,” which scientist Charles Darwin famously coined to explain how organisms with heritable traits that give them an advantage — such as avoiding predators or beating out others for the chance to mate — are able to survive and pass on these advantageous traits to their offspring.

In his talk with ClubEvMed last Tuesday, Brian Hare of Duke Evolutionary Anthropology explained key points from his new book that he co-authored with his wife and research partner, Vanessa Woods, entitled Survival of the Friendliest: Understanding Our Origins and Rediscovering Our Common Humanity

Image from Penguin Random House

The term “fittest” is often associated with animals who are physically stronger or of more value than others, but being “fit” can also include an organism’s ability to communicate well with others in its group, which can provide an evolutionary advantage. For example, more social animals can form alliances with each other and protect each others’ young, so the whole population stays stronger in terms of number.

Hare cited a comparison between chimpanzees and bonobos, both of which have the potential for infanticide by aggressive males in a group. However, bonobos have zero cases of infanticide because female bonobos are able to communicate well and form alliances to protect each others’ young from aggressive males. Since the high cost of aggression for males outweighs the benefit, the males are friendlier, and the young bonobos survive. While this is a specific case with wild animals, other species have adopted social skills as a method of survival through domestication or self-domestication. 

Image from brianhare.net

Hare referred to dogs as “exhibit A” of survival of the friendliest via domestication, because humans have bred dogs that are more playful, approachable and patient for centuries. Dogs are exceptionally good at understanding, responding to and communicating with humans as a result of domestication. Hare also explained one Russian study in which they began selecting foxes based on their friendliness towards people. They bred the most friendly foxes together and then compared the friendliness of their offspring to the offspring of randomly bred foxes. The results showed that friendlier foxes differed in physiology in addition to behavior, and were better at cooperating and communicating with humans. This is an example of self-domestication, which changes development patterns and has increased fitness via friendliness. Friendliness in this case means skill in cooperating and communication. 

Survival of the Friendliest argues that humans today are the friendliest species of human, which may be why we have lasted so long evolutionarily. However, with the new type of friendliness also comes a new type of aggression. Mother bears are kind and nurturing to their cubs, but also have the most potential for aggression when they feel their cubs are threatened. Similarly in humans, when we feel people who share our identity are threatened, we want to protect those individuals.

Hare and Woods reason that this desire to protect also reduces our ability to cooperate or communicate with those who we feel threaten us or threaten our “group”— whether this be our family, our race or another trait. When our ability to communicate is reduced, we begin to dehumanize those who we feel threaten the people who share our identity. This then becomes a cycle, where people dehumanize those who they believe are dehumanizing them.

In order to stop this cycle, Hare and Woods argue that humans will need to alter their view of who they believe “belongs” to their group to include more people. We need to communicate openly and build a desire to protect other humans, rather than dehumanize them.

By Victoria Priester

Wednesdays, My New Favorite Day

After my freshman fall, I swore I’d never take another 8AM class. Yet, when a microbiology lab was the only opportunity I had for an in-person course in Duke’s disrupted Fall 2020 semester, I jumped at the chance to take it. Wednesdays have become my on-campus days, and though they start at 7AM and are often jam-packed until 7PM, they are my favorite days of the week.  

I’m usually the first to arrive in sub-basement of the Biological Sciences building on Wednesdays. As my six lab-mates join me, we stand in line on top of stickers spaced according to 6-foot social-distancing guidelines and talk about questions from class or the lab we’re going to perform that day. Sometimes it’s difficult to hear one another through our masks. When our TA is ready for us to enter the classroom, we do so one at a time, only after she’s verified our Symptom Monitoring status and taken our temperature.

Our lab stations are spaced so that we are appropriately distanced from one another, but able to work and collaborate as a team as best we can. We have a no-contact drop-zone for placing and picking up shared lab items, though each students’ space is equipped with most everything we need for our lab on most occasions. The stations are close enough so that we can chat, compare results, and ask each other for assistance as we work. Everyone wears a face shield over a face mask. Each lab session we exchange our “home” face mask for a disposable “lab” face mask. Since we work with potentially pathogenic microbes, this step is for our safety to make sure we don’t carry harmful bacteria out of our lab space. Unlike previous years, gloves are worn at all times, but the lab coats we wear have always been a standard part of the microbiology lab attire.  

The infamous “no contact drop zone” for use of shared materials during lab.

What used to be two, two-hour lab sessions twice a week has been condensed into a single four-hour lab-session to minimize exposure to one another. At the beginning of the semester it felt strange and uncomfortable to wear a mask for the whole lab period and for the rest of the day on campus. But like many changes due to Covid-19, I’ve simply gotten used to it. It’s worth it to have face-to-face interactions with fellow students and to have hands-on experience in the lab. In many ways, these experiences feel much more real and meaningful than my fully online classes, in which I interact exclusively virtually with peers and instructors.

This semester we’ve also been doing science at home, having been tasked with an independent research project to be performed outside of lab. The kitchen in my apartment has become a makeshift space for inoculating TSA plates and perplexing my roommate with my experiment.

At home experimental set-up and data collection in my apartment.

After microbiology, I grab a quick lunch at West Union…which I’m still figuring out how to navigate. There’s more online ordering and different routes for lines I haven’t gotten used to. Though it’s significantly less crowded than it used to be – which has its advantages – the energy and fervor that made up Duke is certainly missing. Though I feel it in spurts when I run into the rare upperclassman on the Plaza or in the Bryan Center while trying to find a spot to study, campus is unequivocally not the same.

I leave the central part of campus and return to the basement of BioSci to work in my research lab, the Steve Nowicki Lab. According to our Covid plan, a grad student must be present to supervise me at all times and each of us works on opposite sides of the lab space. It’s really not all that different than it used to be.

In the Nowicki Lab, I test the categorical color perception of Zebra finches. After being trained for the trials, the birds are tested to see if they can detect color differences between a background color and two “odd color out” chips. Colors one and eight are most starkly different, but when comparing colors seven and eight, for example, I sometimes struggle to tell the two colors apart.

Background color 8 versus odd-color-out 7. Can you tell the difference? (Color 7 is in wells 1 and 7)

Following a five-month hiatus from running trials, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself in the rhythm of things with only a few marginal mishaps. Within a half-hour of being back in the lab, I was running experiments at full speed again. For a moment it felt like I’d never left, and like it could have been the Wednesday before spring break, before the pandemic took full effect. Sometimes still when I’m running trials, I imagine I could walk out of BioSci’s basement and find that everything would be just as it had been when I left in March.

I spend three hours with the birds, running a refresher round followed by five experimental trials. And usually, I listen to podcasts while I work. The time passes quickly, sometimes more quickly than I’d hope.

Example of bird during experiments.

Since I’m already on campus, most Wednesdays I stick around and attend my online history seminar from a spot around campus. Though I can’t perch myself on the third floor of Perkins Library these days, I’ve found a new spot I like on the second level of the Bryan Center and I’ve made it work for me.

On Wednesdays, I am reminded of the reasons I fell in love with Duke and of all the things I miss about it in these strange and uncertain times. I wonder if the Duke I knew will ever be the same. Or if something has fundamentally shifted in our institution, and more largely in each of us individually, that only leaves us with a path forward to a new Duke, rather than a return to the old.

I am team Crystal Violet #2 and this is my bag for placing my “home mask” in when gearing up for lab.

As I return to my car in Blue Zone, I take a longing look at the Chapel. Then I make my way to my car, turn on some tunes for the drive home, and patiently wait for my alarm to wake me at 7AM the next Wednesday morning.

Most of the time I’m left thinking about the Duke that used to be, despite the fact that I certainly admire the socially-responsible and safe Duke that is. We’re doing well, all things considered. But still, it’s not the same. The Duke that the first years know is not the Duke I remember.

Post by Cydney Livingston, Trinity 2022

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