Exploring the Wilderness Inside Your Home

In biologist Rob Dunn’s new book Never Home Alone, he introduces readers to the visible and microscopic organisms composing an indoor ecosystem, discussing what we know (and don’t know) about the creatures that share our homes.

Never Home Alone: From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live. Rob Dunn (Nov 2018) Source

If you enjoyed I Contain Multitudes, this book should be next on your reading list. Just like Ed Yong shows readers the fascinating microorganisms all around us, Dunn opens our eyes to the minute creatures that live within the confinement of our own homes. Drawing largely from his own research as a biologist, and backing up his claims with other relevant research, Dunn discusses what lives in the ecosystem of the home. From the bacteria lurking on shower heads, to drain flies, crickets, and spiders, Dunn investigates everything he can find — whether it’s benign, beneficial, or potentially malicious.

While this wilderness in miniature is fascinating, I was most surprised to learn that some of these organisms — many, in fact — are actually waiting to be “discovered”, if someone would take the time to look more closely at them:

“The discovery that almost a billion thumb-sized Japanese camel crickets were living in houses without anyone really knowing they were present left me a bit dumbfounded,” Dunn writes. “If you aren’t a scientist and you see a camel cricket in your house, you assume scientists know what it is. If you are a scientist, but not an entomologist, and you see a camel cricket in your house, you assume that entomologists know what it is. If you are an entomologist and you see a camel cricket in your house you assume the specialists in camel crickets know what that is.”

But this mindset — assuming someone else already knows about a certain organism — can be problematic.

“Meanwhile, just two people on Earth specialize in the study of camel crickets and neither of them happens to live in a house where the Japanese species is present,” Dunn adds, almost humorously. “I started to wonder whether this phenomenon — of assuming someone else knows — is likely to be more common in homes than other habitats, more common because homes are the place we are most likely to assume that someone else knows, most likely to assume that everything is under control.”

If Dunn’s idea is true, and we can indeed find new species right in our own homes and backyards, it could have important ramifications for science.

Dunn continues: “If I was right, it meant that not only was the home a place where it was still possible to make new discoveries but also it might be an ideal place to make discoveries, discoveries that, because they implicitly affect many people, would be important.”

But why is this discovery of new species inside our homes important? What makes the critters that crawl in our basement and on our walls so alluring to Dunn and his team? As it turns out, many of these species hold clues inside them — clues that can teach us how to create new technologies, medicines, and even prevent allergies. But unless we study these organisms purposefully, Dunn argues, we won’t unlock their secrets.

One of the more interesting species that Dunn discusses is a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii, which is notorious for sneaking into the guts of cats by manipulating the behavior of mice. More interesting is the implication of whether these parasites, after infiltrating humans by way of us cleaning the cat litter box, affect human behavior. I was hoping that Dunn may have some insightful theory or perhaps new information about the species explored in Kathleen McAuliffe’s book This Is Your Brain on Parasites, but he had little to offer in way of enlightening information or opinion. It seems the mystery of this parasite is yet to be solved.

Other than that, I have no complains about Dunn’s book. It was well-paced, fascinating, and made for wonderful holiday-break reading. I particularly enjoyed that Dunn shared a lot about his own research as well as his students – it’s always nice when a scientist talks about the important work his student assistants do and their contribution to their studies.

Overall, Dunn’s most recent book is makes for a fascinating and entertaining read. I encourage you to look for a copy at your local bookstore!


Journalist Rachel Nuwer Takes Readers Into the World of Illegal Wildlife Trafficking

I am thrilled to share today’s guest review of Poached (Sept 2018) by Rachel Love Nuwer. Our reviewer Kimberly Riskas brings us a fascinating look into the world of wildlife trafficking through Nuwer’s book. I think you will enjoy reading her thoughts as much as I did.

About the Reviewer:

Kimberly Riskas is a freelance science writer based in Melbourne, Australia. She is passionate about the environment and has spent most of the last decade working on field-based marine conservation projects. Her PhD on illegal fishing took her to Southeast Asia and piqued her interest in wildlife trafficking. She has written for The Conversation, Cosmos Magazine, Sciworthy and others. Follow her on Twitter at @KimberlyRiskas.


It’s an uncomfortable fact: humans are hunting, trading, collecting, and eating Earth’s wildlife out of existence. Trade in animals and their parts is now a global, multi-billion-dollar enterprise, satiating consumer demand for wildlife-derived luxury items, traditional medicine, and pets. But much of this trade is illegal, and demand shows no immediate signs of dying off. With the fate of so many species tied to humankind’s dubious moral compass, what does the future hold? How did things get this bad? And, more importantly, what should we do next?

Conservation ecologist-turned-journalist Rachel Love Nuwer mounts a globe-trotting investigation to answer these questions in her new book, Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking. The result is an absorbing and powerful book that lays bare the forces driving the global wildlife trade. Part travelogue, part meticulous exposé, Poached is an unflinching, first-hand account that is at once confronting, engrossing, and—unexpectedly—full of hope.

To delve into the subject of wildlife trafficking is to open a Pandora’s box of complexity, but Nuwer guides her narrative with a masterful hand. In the book’s first pages, we meet a Vietnamese hunter haunted by nightmares of the animals he has killed. When we learn that he started hunting to finance treatment for his young son’s illness, we begin to see that this dark world may not be so black and white after all.

Later, in Hanoi, we meet a young Vietnamese architect who, defying Nuwer’s expectations of an educated millennial, uses tiger bone paste, bear bile, and rhino horn for medicinal purposes under direction of his trusted family doctor. While there is an understandable (if Western) tendency to villainize poachers and users, Nuwer has a remarkable ability to highlight their humanity. In a South African prison, she finds herself feeling sorry for a homesick Thai man jailed for his involvement with a barely-legal rhino hunting scheme. Though clearly an animal lover, she refrains from making outright value judgments on these people; as we are shown throughout the book, culture and circumstance are powerful motivations, and changing either is a slow process.

Besides, players in the global wildlife trade are as diverse as the animals they exploit. Those actually doing the poaching—like the Vietnamese hunter—are at the bottom of the hierarchy, often trapped in a cycle of poverty that encourages further killing. Further up are the fences, middlemen, dealers, and distributors, who may or may not operate within organised crime syndicates. Add to this list the corrupt police officers, customs agents, airline employees, and politicians turning a blind eye, and the sheer magnitude of the trade stands out with devastating clarity.

There is an international law against wildlife trafficking, but its implementation is not perfect—as Nuwer discovers when she attends a meeting of its signatories. The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (or CITES, for short) is plagued by infighting and last-minute deal brokering. Getting everyone to agree to protect a species can be a slow task. Even when positive decisions are made, Nuwer’s former colleague Daniel Wilcox points out that “it’s then up to countries to actually follow through, which is something entirely different.”

If you’re feeling overwhelmed with despair at this point, you are not alone. Nuwer herself gives voice to this anguish in a tragicomedic aside: “Oh god, I thought. The animals are all gonna die.” But the antidote to this pessimism comes in the form of the people working tirelessly on the ground. We are introduced to a pantheon of passionate men and women dedicating their lives to stopping the slaughter. We are also reminded of the steep cost paid by those trying to protect animals—exemplified the story of Esnart Paundi, a ranger who was hacked to death by machete-wielding elephant poachers in Zambia.

Despite the gravity of the topic, Poached also includes some beautifully poignant moments. At Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Nuwer meets Sudan, the last male northern white rhino on Earth. Unsure of how to react during her photo-op with the doomed beast, she becomes reflective:

“Beneath Sudan’s bark-like skin, I could feel the slow heaves of his breath. 
I turned and smiled awkwardly at Tim, who had volunteered to be my photographer, unsure of whether I should look somber or happy. It was hard not to think of the finality of extinction in the presence of this deceptively placid animal, who stood so very close to the black hole of oblivion.

“‘Bye Sudan,’ I quietly said instead. ‘Thanks.’” 

Whether you are a die-hard conservationist or a complete newcomer to the field, Poached is a compelling read. Nuwer’s narration is fact laden but well-paced, with gory details used carefully to preserve their impact. The autobiographical glimpses she provides paint a picture of an impressive but endearingly relatable human (jet-lagged, she yearns to sneak a car nap in between interviews at a South African rhino farm). If empathy for others is the way to save the world’s remaining wildlife, then Poached should be required reading by anyone with skin in the game—which is to say, all of us.


Guest reviewers bring new perspectives and important voices to Read More Science. I am always looking for reviewers. Please let me know you are interested and which book you might like to review by sending an email to Sarah at sciencebookreviews@gmail.com.