Rob Dunn

About Rob Dunn

Rob Dunn is a biologist and writer in the Department of Biological Sciences at North Carolina State University. Central to all of his work is the sense that big discoveries lurk not only in faraway tropical forests, but also in our backyards and even bedrooms. The unknown is large and wonderful and Dunn and his collaborators, students, and postdocs love to spend their days in it.

The Single Best Predictor of How Many Heartbeats You Will Experience

The single easiest way to increase the number of heartbeats you can expect to experience in your life is to move. Geography is a far better predictor, even within the United States, of your longevity than is any other variable.

Much of modern of medicine is focused on getting those of us in developed countries a few more heartbeats (several magazines have recently run articles about the possibility of living to two hundred). But, the truth is that far more beats can be gained for humanity—more moments of joy, difficulty, or pleasure, moments of anything—by making health care and public health more equitable […]

By | March 30th, 2015|Hearts|0 Comments

Life at the Margins

Some discoveries and innovations come from big labs funded incredibly well by governments in affluent countries. They come from those in the mainstream, freighters plowing ahead, forward, straight, with ever better technologies and ever, larger groups of young minds. I tend to write about the other discoveries, the insights and revelations made by the folks at the edge of this mainstream, those in the oxbows and edge riffles.

Even in the era of “big science,” discovery still depends on folks at the margin, folks far enough on the outside to see what others are missing. Often these individuals do not have […]

By | February 19th, 2015|Books, Feature, Hearts, Stories of Your Wild Life|0 Comments

The Truth About What Makes Us Human (and Writing Books)

New analyses of chimpanzees and humans reveal them to be far more different than suspected, perhaps as much as 95% different.

Sometimes it takes time to see something clearly. This is especially true in writing a book. Book writing, even non-fiction book writing, is voodoo magic. It is a pot of incantations out of which emerges the animal with which one must wrestle in mornings, afternoons, evenings and dreams.

Book writing begins under reasonable control. A proposal emerges. The proposal includes a table of contents; the table of contents is pushed this way and that by, if you are lucky, an […]

By | December 27th, 2014|Books, Explainer|0 Comments

A Whole New Way of Doing Citizen Science, Maybe

Some parts of science are boring. Some are tedious. Some seem as though they will never end. It is these parts of science we tend to try to enlist the public in helping with.

You can, of course, listen for birds as part of the Breeding Bird Survey, count butterflies as part of the 4th of July butterfly counts, or set out cookie crumbs to collect urban ants for our School of Ants project. These endeavors are delightful ways to engage nature. They are also relatively easy ways to participate in science. But in collecting and contributing these […]

By | December 19th, 2014|Homes, Participate, Wild Life of Our Home|1 Comment

The Most Important Map You Will Ever See

and other stories of the biogeography of pathogens

Among the greatest of the unwinnable debates among academics is the place of humans in nature. It is discussed around stumps in the field. It is discussed among philosophers. It is discussed with the knowing thump of a fist. It is discussed among each generation anew. We feel now, so separate, so different from them, the other species, the rest of life.

Of course we depend on the rest of life. Yet are we really still influenced by life’s fates in the way that, say, an oak tree might be? Surely if civilization gets […]

By | November 25th, 2014|Explainer, Reading List|5 Comments

45 Things I’ve Learned about Science Since I was a Student

Editor’s note: At Your Wild Life we like to do public science, science in which we open the process of scientific discovery so that you can be a part of it. Sometimes that means citizen science. Other times it means science as art. And then there is today — today we are sharing with you Rob’s thoughts about some of the things no one tells you about being a faculty member, a scholar at a university. Maybe there are some insights in here about broader life, but certainly this list contains insights about the differences between how we imagine discovery […]

By | November 18th, 2014|Behind the Scenes, Explainer|5 Comments

The Most Common Bacteria in New York City Soils are Unnamed, Can’t be Grown, and Aren’t Being Studied and Probably Won’t be in the Conceivable Future

It is worth remembering, when deadly pathogens are in the news that most microscopic species are either of no consequence to human health and well-being or are beneficial. Also, they are unstudied. Take the case of Manhattan. Manhattan is a borough of a somewhat large city reported to be full of culture, intellectualism, and black clothes. Probably, these things are true. In my lab, we mostly go there to study insects and, more recently, bacteria. In considering the bacteria of Manhattan, we have sampled medians from Broadway to Riverside, dozens of medians, those patches of green between lanes of traffic, […]

By | November 6th, 2014|Invisible Life, Urban Ecology|1 Comment

NC State University Found to be the Most Bio-Diverse College Campus in North America

Several years ago, we started paying more attention in our lab to what was going on biologically near at hand. This transition would eventually lead us into backyards, then houses, then colons, but it stared with North Carolina State University’s campus.

The campus is at what was once the western edge of the city of Raleigh, a city whose location was chosen by its originators as a function of its nearness to a bar. And yet despite this idiosyncratic origin, Raleigh has proven to be an auspicious ecological locale for a city and a campus, at least […]

By | September 8th, 2014|ants, Global Change, Urban Ecology|0 Comments

Mapping the ants of the world

Several years ago, Benoit Guénard decided that he was interested in knowing where one kind of ant could be found. Another ant biologist asked. Benoit didn’t know. The other ant biologist didn’t know. Benoit is not the sort of person to let a question go unresolved. Questions boil in his brain sometimes and this was one of those kinds of questions.

And so Benoit set about to understand where ants of the genus Formica could be found. But the problem was he did not seem to be able to find an answer and so he set out to systematically go […]

By | August 13th, 2014|ants, Explainer, Your Wild Life Team|0 Comments

Jeni Corn and the Chimpanzees of Fire

At some point our ancestors tamed fire. With fire they could cook their food and store it. With fire they could light whole landscapes aflame. It has long been speculated that the impetus to tame fire was our shift into the African grasslands (out of the trees and down onto the scary ground). This idea was an untestable but plausible theory; it still is. But recently a chimpanzee, well actually a bonobo, friendlier kin to the chimp, may have given us a glimpse of what that moment might have looked like. Most chimpanzees are terrified of fire. They run from […]

By | August 5th, 2014|Education|2 Comments


Very occasionally, the opportunity arises for a group of people to decide where and how to build a city. In 1792 the legislators of North Carolina confronted such a moment. It had been decided that a new state capital was going to be built and that that state capital should ideally be far from the sea. Without having to worry about the best beachfront property, the legislators found themselves free to prioritize other things. So it was that they decided upon the rule to be used in placing a capital. It should, they concluded after much contemplation, be no […]

By | July 23rd, 2014|Explainer, Global Change, Urban Ecology|3 Comments

The Tip of the Gutberg: The World’s First Map of the Patina of Feces

If one tells the story of the history of the Earth from the perspective of microbes, one of the great leaps forward was the evolution of animals with guts. From the microbial perspective, animals are wondrous contrivances that evolved for carrying their habitat, the gut, from one patch of food to another and keeping it safe.

Guts are predictably full of food and, even when they are not, all one has to do is wait. They are also constant in their pH and other conditions. They are the perfect world inside a world. Many of the most successful microbes on Earth […]

By | July 10th, 2014|Homes, Invisible Life, Wild Life of Our Home|10 Comments

Hot in the ‘Hood

When we build our cities with cement and asphalt, they trap heat. This trapped heat warms our cities, as much, in some cases, as global warming is expected to warm them by 2050. It makes them hot. It even changes the patterns of storms. More lightning. Less rain. The hotter, dryer conditions in turn affect animals and plants. Some pests do better. Those pests kill trees. Dead trees lead to more heat island effect. But it isn’t just trees. Even if you hate trees, you should still think about heat islands, because they also kill people. They smother […]

By | June 26th, 2014|Global Change, Urban Ecology|2 Comments

Breakthrough: The Relationship Between Urbanization, Lifestyle, the Microbiome(s) and Autoimmune and Allergic Problems is Complex

Recently, the news has been awash with stories of the links between the biodiversity outside of peoples’ homes, the diversity of bacteria and other microbes inside peoples’ homes and autoimmune disorders (Crohn’s, IBD, autism, you name it). The general idea is less biodiversity outside = less inside = a dysfunctional immune system. Personally, the existence of such links seems likely. I have written about them lovingly elsewhere. But given the flurry of recent news stories about microbe biodiversity studies, it seems worth calling attention to something that seems to be getting missed. We are ignorant.

I don’t mean this […]

By | June 19th, 2014|Homes, Urban Ecology, Wild Life of Our Home|2 Comments

The True and Deadly Story Behind My National Geographic Article on the Gulf of St. Lawrence

Four years ago I went to the Gulf of St. Lawrence to write the story of a place, a giant body of water in which the history of North America has steeped. It is a place of wild beauty, indigenous heritage and exploitation. I wrote about the Gulf in general, but particularly about the history of its harvest, an exhaustible bounty of cod, seals, whales, lobsters and now, it appears, oil. I wrote about what I already knew, what I read, and what I learned when I traveled to the Gulf. But there was more, something I missed, a […]

By | June 9th, 2014|Feature, Reading List|0 Comments