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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
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The Giant Wild Life of our Giant Backyards

Today we’re serving up an elephant double-feature. Click on over to Buzz Hoot Roar to get your second helping of pachyderms.

Last week, I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep. After several unsuccessful attempts to rouse every animal and human in my house for company, I stared out the back window into my moonlit yard. There, creeping through the branches of our sycamore tree was a fat, wiry raccoon.

I caught my breath. He was beautiful. His fur silvery in the moonlight, he humped his bandit’s body from limb to trunk to limb, […]

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Fruit Flies Use Alcohol to Self-Medicate, but Feel Bad about it Afterwards

In preparation for the debut of our collaborative wasp yeast beer at the World Beer Festival in Raleigh on April 5, 2014, I revived the Science Miniseries: The Big Story of Alcohol, Civilization and a Little Fungus that I wrote in 2012. We started with “He Is a Wise Man Who Invented Beer,” and then followed up last week with “A Sip for the Ancestors: The True Story of Civilization’s Stumbling Debt to Beer and Fungus.” Today I offer you Chapter 2, a story of self-medicating fruit flies:

Sometimes scientists are asked if they have hobbies. […]

By |March 4th, 2014|Stories of Your Wild Life|0 Comments
  • Larva of a lesser house fly (Fanniidae: Fannia) in compost.

What If God Were a Maggot?

**Today, we’re reposting a story Rob wrote in late 2012, in praise of the decomposers that clean up our world, recycling waste back into life.

 As an added bonus, we’ve asked insect photographer and Your Wild Life contributor, Matt Bertone, to share photos of some of his favorite arthropods that take on the decomposer role in our daily lives, often times inside our homes. Click the photos below to expand.*

What If God Were a Maggot?

Brother of the blowfly… no one gets to heaven without going through you first.” –Yusef Komunyakaa

Sixteen years ago, my wife and I, along with our friend […]

By |February 27th, 2014|Arthropods, Stories of Your Wild Life|2 Comments
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A Sip for the Ancestors: The True Story of Civilization’s Stumbling Debt to Beer and Fungus

In preparation for the debut of our collaborative wasp yeast beer at the World Beer Festival in Raleigh on April 5, 2014, I’ve decided to revive the Science Miniseries: The Big Story of Alcohol, Civilization and a Little Fungus that I wrote  in 2012. A couple weeks ago, I set the stage with “He is a wise man who invented beer.” Below, I continue with Chapter One.

Solomon Katz is an anthropologist. He worked for years to understand humans. It is an endeavor that can inspire a certain distance, a remove from the world. This is the […]

By |February 24th, 2014|Stories of Your Wild Life|1 Comment
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Lewis Thomas and the Ants of New York City

Lewis Thomas was a doctor who wrote articles so beautiful everyone forgot he was anything but a writer. Joyce Carol Oates used Thomas’s writing in her classes as general examples of the craft. Thomas was the kind of writer who left paragraphs that, on their own, might, with any luck, last centuries. They have already lasted decades. Here, for example, is one of which I am fond…

A gallery in New York exhibited a collection of 2 million live army ants, on loan from Central America, in a one-colony show entitled “Patterns and Structures.” They were displayed on sand in […]

By |February 17th, 2014|ants, Reading List, Stories of Your Wild Life|1 Comment
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He is a wise man who invented beer

It has been a fun set of weeks in the lab. Two weeks ago I discovered ants from our lab had made their way to the space station.  Last week, we started to go through insect samples from chimpanzee nests (They are amazing! More on this soon.). Then this week, I tasted our beer.

The beer in question – one that we helped make – is delicious. It is also the result of a kind of symphony of science, a collaboration with Anne Madden (who will join us soon as a new postdoc), Anne’s undergraduate students, John Sheppard […]

By |February 10th, 2014|Reading List, Stories of Your Wild Life|0 Comments
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Coming Soon…

**NOTE 2/17/2014: Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants of New York City is now LIVE — Download your copy of the interactive eBook or pdf today!**

Dr. Eleanor has set her sights on the ants of the Big Apple. Coming soon to Your Wild Life…


Join our mailing list so we can notify you as soon as Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants of New York City goes live and is ready to download.


By |February 6th, 2014|ants, Books, Stories of Your Wild Life|0 Comments
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Why your local fungus farmer might not be your friend

My fiancé Joe and I planted a mushroom garden last year, which is to say, we drilled hundreds of holes in logs, hammered spore plugs in the holes, and waited. I can’t speak for Joe, but I visited the logs every morning, excited for them to sprout. Sometimes I daydreamed about pastas and salads. But after four months, when it should have been producing mushrooms for weeks, our garden was a barren, woody wastelands, and we gave up (queue Charlie Brown theme song).

Lots of people grow mushrooms. All are better at it than I am. But fungus farming is […]

How to turn any dataset into a glowing worm

A few decades ago gene expression, the process by which the code books of genes are turned into proteins, was invisible. It happened in every living thing, but where and when a particular gene was being expressed was a complicated secret nature was reluctant to reveal. Then came Martin Chalfie, who I recently had the great pleasure to meet as part of seminar at North Carolina State University (whereupon he told me this story). Chalfie was studying nematodes, those transparent little worms that dwell in soil, on skin and even in tap water, but are best known for […]

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How Do Animals in the City Beat the Polar Vortex?

Earlier this week, when the polar vortex’s cold eye was taking a deep look south, I wondered how the city-dwelling animals are holding up. Where are those gray squirrels we see shaking Central Park’s trees on warmer days? Do pigeons have Snuggies?  And what about my ants?  How can something so tiny survive in weather that will freeze a drop of water five times its size in less than five seconds?

When I asked my New York City friends to tell me the top five animals that come to mind when they think of who shares the city with […]

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Crazy Aunts, Crazy Ants!

Dr. Eleanor has been busy working on a few new bonus chapters for The Book of Common Ants, focusing on species that are particularly common in New York City and Chicago, two large metropolitan areas where School of Ants participants have been very busy!

We look forward to releasing New York and Chicago editions of The Book of Common Ants in the coming months. While you wait with baited breath, check out this special preview chapter from about Dr. Eleanor’s crazy aunts and the crazy ants (Nylanderia spp.) that have taken up residence in NYC.

Crazy relatives. There’s one […]

By |October 15th, 2013|ants, Stories of Your Wild Life|0 Comments
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The Incredible Journey of My Dog’s Butt Worm

Today, Dr. Eleanor Spicer Rice delights us not with ants (as she does in the Book of Common Ants), but with an up close and personal tale of tapeworms. Warning: You might not want to read this while eating your breakfast. Also, if you’re not following Dr. Eleanor on Twitter, you’re missing out – follow her immediately at @verdanteleanor.

It was shaping up to be a fantastic day. A little before 6 a.m., I was taking a walk with the light of my life, Miss Lucy Bea Rice, an exquisite mutt who looks like the product of […]

By |September 23rd, 2013|Stories of Your Wild Life|0 Comments
  • Barnard Observatory as seen in March 1975. Image credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, MISS,36-OXFO,12-1

The Biggest Microscope in the World

and it is focused on your toilet seat…

My grandmother, Barbara, often talked about growing up in a bedroom that was an observatory. She also, in her telling, sat on Faulkner’s front lawn and listened to him tell stories and swam in a small pond with her siblings while a man with one arm stood guard, shotgun in that one good arm in case he had to shoot a water moccasin. Most of these stories have, amazingly, proven to be true, but the one I could never make sense of was the idea that she grew up sleeping in an observatory, […]

By |September 13th, 2013|Explainer, Stories of Your Wild Life|0 Comments
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Back to School: Undergraduates and Ants move in this week!

It’s move-in week at NC State and undergraduates toting laundry baskets full of lamps and bedding aren’t the only thing moving into campus; the ants are getting pretty comfortable too! Standing and staring at the ground I noticed ants carrying brood (eggs, larvae and pupae) in a long thick line across the mulch next to our building and up a tree – it was incredible to see them in such high numbers busily going about their day. It was as if they were doing their own “move-in” march with all of their precious cargo hoisted above their heads. I alerted