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 her direction. She was supposed to be studying sponges, which she did not enjoy. Then, rather suddenly, she found herself moving among lemurs. A living collection of those and other prosimians (later shifted to Duke University) had been assembled at the university to be classified and understood. Jolly had found her specialty.

At the time, a great many basic things still needed to be learned about lemurs–as remains the case today, to only a slightly lesser extent. There are no fewer than seventy species and subspecies, each unique in its way and all differing from the monkeys and apes. Jolly began by studying how lemurs and other prosimians move their hands. They hold on to things, though not precisely the way you or I do. That project could be accomplished at Yale, but as Jolly’s interests deepened, so did her need to go to Madagascar, the island home of every lemur species. In 1963, she traveled there to begin what is now nearly half a century of field studies on lemurs: their lives, deaths, and, perhaps most secretive, their births.

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 themselves out of the jar. He gathered snakes. He poked at nature and explored in the way that any child might do, trying to find, if not truth, amusement. Those days of fumbling with life led to a career studying parasites and, in particular, the tiny roundworm Trichinella spiralis, which lurks in undercooked pork or game. Trichinella reproduces in the intestines of those who eat it, which, in and of itself, is not really a problem. The problem is caused by the migration of baby worms out of the gut and into muscle tissue, be it a bicep or a heart (where they wait for their chosen human to be eaten by yet another host). It is these traveling worms that can cause disease and even death. To Despommier, Trichinella was a terrible and worthy adversary. But it was also, in the elaborateness of its sinister ways, fascinating, elegant even. Despommier spent twenty-seven years with this worm, becoming an elder statesman of parasitology even before he was elder. Then in 1999, at the age of fifty-nine, he found himself in a new situation. He could not get funding, not from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, or anyone else.

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.


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).

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.

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.

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).