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A Year in the Woods of Our Bodies, Bedrooms and Bathrooms

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Lady Gaga Sports Blue Armpit Hair Extensions

OK, it is time for a some year’s end soul searching and that searching leads me to the inescapable conclusion that I am apparently spending too much time thinking about the life in peoples bodies, bedrooms, and bathrooms.

It started off innocently. I finished my book on The Wild Life of Our Bodies this year and so was left with many, many stories I wanted to follow up on but that didn’t fit in the book or hadn’t yet emerged when the book was finished.

I’ve been fascinated with the discoveries being made on in and around our bodies, discoveries relevant to us, no matter who we are, a reality which led me to write about the ecology on Lady Gaga and the wars of microbes that might be going on Jon Stewart’s feet, as well as the story of the first guy to climb under a cow and try to get milk (no one said our history was without dark days), or what bed bugs, houseflies, and the species on your toilet seat, respectively, have to say about who you are.

My favorite piece I wrote this year was a blog post that took six or seven years to write, about a discovery made at a truck stop. This discovery probably has as much to say about the species around us in our daily lives as any of the articles about our more immediate habitats and parts.

The year closes for me, with a mystery, the question of what is living in my basement and your basement and what those species eat. That piece ended up yielding a nascent flickr site with pictures of the species in many peoples basement and then an ongoing survey in which you can participate that has already resulted in enough data for us to map the distribution of camel crickets in peoples’ basements across North America.

In writing about all of these species and stories of our daily lives I have come to the realization people actually want to know not just about what lives with and around them but also what they should do about those species. That should be obvious, but sometimes things obvious to most humans are not obvious to scientists. Such is our clan. So I’ve also written this year about what probiotics are doing to you and whether or not you should be using antimicrobial wipes.

I’ll keep trying to answer practical questions in the New Year. I still haven’t yet gotten around to writing an answer to the practical question I get asked the most often, namely “what should I do about the ants in my kitchen?” I’ll tell you what I say at dinner parties, if you want to know. I say, offer them some sugar and other food and watch them because they are about as interesting a thing as there is in the world and you are lucky that they live alongside you. We are all lucky, in this new year, or any year, to still live in a world full of mystery and wild species, species worth studying and blogging about, species that aren’t yet understood or even, as is the case for the most common urban ant in North America, Tetramorium spE, the pavement ant, even named. OK, that isn’t exactly what I say, but you get the idea. Ants are cool. Follow them. Learn their ways.

In the New Year, I vow to look for more answers about what to do about the species in our daily lives. First though, I want to write about appendixes a little more and the good things they can do. I also need to pack up, since my family and I are headed to Europe on sabbatical.

In Europe, I’ll find new species to write about. I’m sure of it. I just don’t know which ones yet. Who can say what might be discovered in European houses? Or on the bodies of Europeans? I’ll be studying and writing about European daily life. I’ll also be starting a new study with David Kroll and Julie Horvath at the Nature Research Center and Holly Menninger at North Carolina State University of the ecology and evolution armpits. The French armpit may truly be the last great, unexplored frontier. I’ll bring my laptop to write about what we find and, of course, long swabs so I can step back a little when I take the samples.

In the meantime, may your New Year be filled with discoveries. And may your wild life, the species on your feet, in your gut, and all around you, even in that raised glass of wine, be happy, healthy and diverse. Cheers to the wild things everywhere!

Image source.

Rob Dunn About the Author: Rob Dunn is a science writer and biologist in the Department of Biology at North Carolina State University. His first book, Every Living Thing, told the stories of the sometimes obsessive, occasionally mad, and always determined, biologists who have sought to discover the limits of the living world. His new book, The Wild Life of Our Bodies, explores how changes in our interactions with other species, be they the bacteria on our skin, forehead mites or tigers, have affected our health and well being. Rob lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with his wife, two children, and lots of microbes. Follow on Twitter @RobRDunn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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