From Slithering Reptiles to Buzzing Bees, Duke Staff and Faculty Explore Nature's Marvels
Staff and faculty work closely with bees, snakes, fruit flies and other small creatures in their roles at Duke
Cagle spent many childhood days wandering through the woods of northern Illinois looking for snakes with her dad.
Sometimes, she and her dad would turn over quite a few empty cover boards — large sheets of wood or metal that serve as a habitat for snakes and other reptiles — before finally catching a glimpse of the slithery creature.
“It felt like a surprise, like a discovery,” said Cagle, senior lecturer in the Nicholas School of the Environment.
Years later, snakes continue to be an important part of Cagle’s life and work. In 2022, she published, “Saving Snakes: Snakes and the Evolution of a Field Naturalist,” which uncovers the impact of declining snake populations as a result of climate change and urbanization on the natural world.
As the science advisor for the Duke Forest’s Herpetofauna Community Science Project, Cagle’s work studying snakes peaks in Durham between May and September when they’re most active. She and a team of volunteers monitor 15 cover boards across the 7,100-acre forest to track how populations of herpetofauna like snakes, salamanders, frogs and more, are moving and changing in Duke Forest.
Data collected shows how populations of reptiles may be growing or declining in one area, an indication of the effects of climate change and habitat fragmentation on wildlife. The local project falls in line with the Duke Climate Commitment, a university-wide impact-oriented initiative to address the climate crisis through education, research external engagement and campus operations.
Cagle hopes by continuing to study the crucial role of snakes in controlling rodent populations, for example, she can help people reconsider their opinions of the reptile.
“We have a lot of cultural messaging, particularly in American culture, that snakes are dangerous and that they’re evil,” Cagle said. “But the truth is, they’re really critical to ecosystem functions.”
Caring for Bees
Every two weeks, Nick Schwab straps on an off-white beekeeping suit and makes his way to a remote corner of the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden.
Wielding a metal bee smoker that burns dried pine straw, he takes the top off a wooden box to uncover a hive of about 30,000 stirring honeybees that call Sarah P. Duke Gardens home. Even after eight years at Duke, Schwab said moments surrounded by the buzzing bugs have never gotten old.
“It’s just mesmerizing to watch them move around the frame and do what they do,” said Schwab, a horticulturist who first started beekeeping while in college at North Carolina State University. “They don’t just fly out and attack you like some people would think they do.”
At Duke, bees play a vital role in pollinating the flowers and plants in the Duke Gardens. But the hive Schwab works with serves as an educational resource, teaching visitors about honeybees and their important role in agriculture. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, honeybees pollinate $15 billion worth of crops in the U.S. each year, including about 130 types of fruit, nuts and vegetables.
Schwab performs regular checks of the hive in the Discovery Garden to monitor the health of the hive and to ensure it still has a queen, the largest bee who leads the colony. Each July, when it’s time to harvest the honey, it’s jarred and given to donors and volunteers as gifts.
But if passers-by are lucky to be there when Schwab is at the hive, they get a taste of honey right from the comb — a sweet reminder of the role bees play in human life.
“We want to keep it on people’s minds when they come visit the garden,” Schwab said. “There’s a chance when they come through, I’m here taking care of them. It always draws people to ask questions.”
Dr. Daniel Rittschof was born in the landlocked arid desert climate of Arizona. It wasn’t until he was in college in the 1970s at the University of Michigan that he saw and experienced the ocean for the first time while on a springboard diving trip in Fort Lauderdale over winter break.
“When I ran into the ocean, it just fascinated me,” said Rittschof, the Norman L. Christensen Distinguished Professor of Environmental Sciences.
At night, Rittschof conducted his first experiments from his hotel room on ghost crabs, who burrow into sand on a beach. On that trip exploring the marine landscape, he found the subjects and environment he’d spend his career working in, including a 40-plus year career at the Duke University Marine Lab.
Today, Rittschof’s research focuses on ecology with an emphasis on larval biology, chemical, behavioral, spatial ecology and environmental toxicology. While also researching barnacles, mud snails, oysters and other marine critters, he studies the reproduction of blue crabs, which can be found right off the dock at the campus on Pivers Island in Beaufort.
“All the critters are being used as models for how molecules make animals behave,” Rittschof said.
Studying Fruit Flies
Dr. Don Fox has a unique room nestled into the confines of his lab on the third floor of the Levine Science Research Center.
Called the fly room, the space is filled with shelves and shelves of fruit flies stored in vials used in research projects about close fly relatives of human genes. In the room, various living fruit fly strains are studied under a microscope to ultimately better understand the human genome through examining the insect’s organs and cells.
Fruit flies and humans share upwards of 60 percent of gene similarity and 75 percent similarity with genes associated with diseases found in humans, including cancer. Flies have about half a million cells, compared to 30 to 40 trillion cells in humans, making the flies useful as “tiny models” of humans, Fox said.
“That means the study of fruit flies is incredibly relevant to human health and medical research,” said Fox, associate professor of Pharmacology & Cancer Biology.
Fox’s lab is one of about 4,000 labs across the country that work with fruit flies to better understand the human body. At Duke, Fox and his team of researchers focus on researching supersized cells in Drosophila, a genus of fruit fly with implications on supersize cells found in the placenta, liver and heart in humans, which arise through a process called genome duplication.
More generally, the lab is working to understand how genome duplication changes the structure of organs over time. In part, starting with a look at fruit flies, Fox and his team are hoping to understand how to eliminate the large number of cancer cells that can be created by accidental genome duplication. The flies are essential in that work.
“Really, the limit is your mind and imagination,” Fox said of the applications of research on fruit flies. “If you can think of an experiment to do on the fly, you can do it and you can know the answer within a few weeks.”