Natural History

Night Shift

Alison Jolly, currently a visiting senior research fellow at England’s University of Sussex, has studied many aspects of primates across a long and distinguished career. But it all started serendipitously, back in 1958. Under her maiden name, Bishop, she was a newly enrolled graduate student at Yale University, moving from class to class looking for […]

July 4th, 2012|Natural History|

Toward the new garden of Eden: a university professor becomes a reluctant revolutionary of hope

Dickson D. Despommier did not mean to become a revolutionary, or to plan the future of a city. He just wanted to be a scientist. Born in New Orleans and raised in California, he caught dragonflies off his mother’s clothesline and put them in big mason jars, where he would watch them trying to will […]

December 23rd, 2011|Natural History|

Follow the drinking gourd: when it comes to milk, Western scientists have a history of myopia

By the 1940s, Western scientists had concluded that milk was good for you, and that a glass of cow’s milk should be set for everyone at the table. But here and there scientists and doctors began to make a troubling observation. Some of their adult patients seemed unable to digest milk. It was as though it passed right through them, causing discomfort along the way. Those individuals seemed to be lacking something, and their condition came to be called lactase deficiency, lactose malabsorption, or, later, lactose intolerance or lactase nonpersistence. Whatever you called their malady, those deficient individuals did not produce the enzyme (lactase) required to break down lactose, or milk sugar, which accounts for roughly half the calories in milk. […]

May 25th, 2011|Natural History|


Colonists of any era—and of any species—meet with failure more often than not. It is almost the rule. Yet failures seldom garner the same attention as successes, particularly in hindsight. Europeans, for instance, tried to establish themselves in North America at least eighteen times before Jamestown eventually flourished. Likewise, another set of colonists probably made many attempts before gaining a foothold on the continent: Argentine ants (Linepithema humile). […]

October 2nd, 2010|Natural History|

Dune Buggies: what is the sound of one katydid stridulating?

David Rentz remembers the day in his childhood when his grandmother got down on her hands and knees and picked up a grasshopper for him to see. She was curious about the living world and wanted him to be, too. He was. And so it was hardly surprising when, as a teenager in the late 1950s, he became a volunteer curator of the crickets, grasshoppers, katydids, and their kin at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. He loved their variety of scrapers, titillators, wing patterns, and most of all, songs. And then one day while looking through a drawer of katydids classified as Neduba carinata, Rentz came across an individual that looked out of place. According to the small tag impaled by the specimen pin, a kind of insect headstone, it had been collected in 1937 in an area known as the Antioch Dunes, just forty miles outside of San Francisco. […]

September 1st, 2009|Natural History|

A Head in the Clouds

Do the microorganisms that circulate in the atmosphere get there by chance or by contrivance?

Circumambulating his home near Oxford University, in the style of Charles Darwin treading his “thinking path,” the evolutionary biologist William D. “Bill” Hamilton often thought about life–all of it. He imagined evolutionary scenarios, extravagant and daring theories. Much as a novelist might imagine characters, he imbued each with personality and possibility and then helped them into the world to meet their fate. […]

July 1st, 2009|Natural History|

The Super Collaboration (book review)

In biology one can spend a lifetime studying an obscure sliver of life—be it fish ovaries, flea legs, or the mites that live in the nostrils of birds. It’s often that obsessive focus that makes broader truths come clear. Edward O. Wilson and Bert Hölldobler exemplify that peculiar truism. They met in 1969 when Wilson was a forty-year-old professor at Harvard University and Hölldobler, thirty-three, had come from Frankfurt, Germany, to stay a year as a visiting scholar. Wilson was already well known for his studies of chemical communication and biogeography. Hölldobler was just beginning his work as a behavioral ecologist. They did not know it, but they were about to forge an enduring collaboration, “built” (in Wilson’s words) “upon a close friendship and a common lifelong commitment to the study of ants.” Together they would write tens of papers and three books, among them a Pulitzer Prize winner: their epic 700-page treatise, The Ants (1990). […]

February 2nd, 2009|Natural History, Reviews|