UW News

Department of Biology


October 17, 2022

Isotope data strengthens suspicions of ivory stockpile theft

A study led by Thure Cerling, a professor at the University of Utah, and co-authored by Sam Wasser, a University of Washington professor of biology, used carbon isotope science to show that tusks from a guarded government stockpile in Burundi have somehow made their way into the hands of illegal ivory traders.


October 12, 2022

Endangered fruit-eating animals play an outsized role in a tropical forest — losing them could have dire consequences

A new study by researchers at the University of Washington shows that losing a particular group of endangered animals — those that eat fruit and help disperse the seeds of trees and other plants — could severely disrupt seed-dispersal networks in the Atlantic Forest, a shrinking stretch of tropical forest and critical biodiversity hotspot on the coast of Brazil.


September 26, 2022

UW joins industry-academia alliance to accelerate research in neuroscience

An image of neurons under a microscope

The University of Washington has joined the Alliance for Therapies in Neuroscience (ATN), a long-term research partnership between academia and industry geared to transform the fight against brain diseases and disorders of the central nervous system. Launched in 2021 by the University of California, San Francisco, UC Berkeley, Genentech — a member of the Roche group — and Roche Holding AG, the ATN seeks to accelerate the development of new therapies for a broad range of brain and central nervous system conditions.


September 7, 2022

These female hummingbirds evolved to look like males — apparently to evade aggression

1 in 5 adult female white-necked jacobin hummingbirds look like males. New research from the University of Washington shows that this is a rare case of “deceptive mimicry” within a species: Females with male-like plumage are trying to pass themselves off as males, and as a result receive a benefit in the form of reduced aggression from males.


July 25, 2022

New study challenges old views on what’s ‘primitive’ in mammalian reproduction

Which group of mammals has the more “primitive” reproductive strategy — marsupials, with their short gestation periods, or humans and other placental mammals, which have long gestation periods? For decades, biologists viewed marsupial reproduction as “more primitive.” But University of Washington scientists have discovered that a third group of mammals, the long-extinct multituberculates, had a long gestation period like placental mammals. Since multituberculates split off from the rest of the mammalian lineage before placentals and marsupials had even evolved, these findings question the view that marsupials were “less advanced” than their placental cousins.


June 27, 2022

Top predators could ‘trap’ themselves trying to adapt to climate change, study shows

A study led by University of Washington researchers shows that over a 30-year period, African wild dogs shifted their average birthing dates later by 22 days, an adaptation that allowed them to match the birth of new litters with the coolest temperatures in early winter. But as a result of this significant shift, fewer pups survived their most vulnerable period because temperatures during their critical post-birth “denning period” increased over the same time period, threatening the population of this already endangered species. It is the first study to show that large mammalian carnivores are making major changes to their life history in response to a changing climate.


May 12, 2022

Changes in cholesterol production lead to tragic octopus death spiral

After a mother octopus lays a clutch of eggs, she quits eating and wastes away; by the time the eggs hatch, she is dead. Some females in captivity even seem to speed up this process intentionally, mutilating themselves and twisting their arms into a tangled mess. The source of this bizarre maternal behavior seems to be the optic gland, an organ similar to the pituitary gland in mammals. For years, just how this gland triggered the gruesome death spiral was unclear. But in a new study published May 12 in Current Biology, researchers from the University of Washington, the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois Chicago show that the optic gland in maternal octopuses undergoes a massive shift in cholesterol metabolism, resulting in dramatic changes in the steroid hormones produced. Alterations in cholesterol metabolism in other animals, including humans, can have serious consequences on longevity and behavior, and the team believes this reveals important similarities in the functions of these steroids across the animal kingdom — in soft-bodied cephalopods and vertebrates alike.


May 6, 2022

Four UW researchers elected to the National Academy of Sciences for 2022

Four faculty members at the University of Washington have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences for 2022: Elizabeth Buffalo, professor and chair of physiology and biophysics; Joseph Mougous, professor of microbiology; Dr. Jay Shendure, professor of genome sciences; and James Truman, professor emeritus of biology.


March 16, 2022

Tiny battery-free devices float in the wind like dandelion seeds

Inspired by how dandelions use the wind to distribute their seeds, a University of Washington team has developed a tiny sensor-carrying device that can be blown by the wind as it tumbles toward the ground.


February 25, 2022

Antibiotic used on food crops affects bumblebee behavior

Scientists at the University of Washington and Emory University report that an antibiotic sprayed on orchard crops to combat bacterial diseases slows the cognition of bumblebees and reduces their foraging efficiency. The study, published Feb. 9 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, focused on streptomycin, an antibiotic used increasingly in U.S. agriculture during the past decade.


February 17, 2022

UW biologist and computer scientist named Sloan Fellows

head shots

Two faculty members at the University of Washington have been awarded early-career fellowships from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The new Sloan Fellows, announced Feb. 15, are Brianna Abrahms, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology, and Yulia Tsvetkov, an assistant professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.


February 14, 2022

DNA testing exposes tactics of international criminal networks trafficking elephant ivory

A team led by scientists at the University of Washington and special agents with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has used genetic testing of ivory shipments seized by law enforcement to uncover the international criminal networks behind ivory trafficking out of Africa. The genetic connections across shipments that they’ve uncovered exposes an even higher degree of organization among ivory smuggling networks than previously known. The paper, published Feb. 14 in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, incorporates results from DNA testing of more than 4,000 African elephant tusks from 49 different ivory seizures made in 12 African nations over a 17-year period.


February 9, 2022

New Center for Environmental Forensic Science aims to disrupt and dismantle international illegal wildlife trade

seized ivory

Across the globe, endangered species are at risk for illegal poaching. African elephants are sought out for their ivory, rhinoceros for their singular horns, and armadillo-like pangolins for their protective, brittle scales. Add to that list valuable and environmentally sensitive trees illegally harvested throughout the world where entire ecosystems are being deforested and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing that is devastating oceans. These illicit markets, estimated at $1 trillion annually, cause enormous environmental impacts and have the potential to unleash new, deadly pathogens.


February 4, 2022

Mosquitoes are seeing red: Why new findings about their vision could help you hide from these disease vectors

New research led by scientists at the University of Washington indicates that a common mosquito species — after detecting a telltale gas that we exhale — flies toward specific colors, including red, orange, black and cyan. The mosquitoes ignore other colors, such as green, purple, blue and white. The researchers believe these findings help explain how mosquitoes find hosts, since human skin, regardless of overall pigmentation, emits a strong red-orange “signal” to their eyes.


January 26, 2022

Four UW faculty members, incoming Burke Museum leader named 2021 AAAS Fellows

Four current faculty members and the incoming executive director of the UW’s Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture have been named AAAS Fellows, according to a Jan. 26 announcement by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. They are among 564 new fellows from around the world elected in 2021, who are recognized for “their scientifically and socially distinguished achievements” in science and engineering.


January 11, 2022

Researchers find concerns for animals tied to same habitats

Like humans, wild animals often return to the same places to eat, walk on the same paths to travel and use the same places to raise their young. A team led by researchers at the University of Washington and the University of Wyoming has reviewed the scientific literature and found that, while “consistent” behavior may be beneficial when environmental conditions don’t change very fast, those benefits may not be realized in the ever-changing world dominated by humans.


January 4, 2022

Mass die-off of Magellanic penguins seen during 2019 heat wave

In 2019, University of Washington researchers witnessed the consequences of an extreme heat event in Argentina at one of the world’s largest breeding colonies for Magellanic penguins. On Jan. 19, temperatures at the site in Punta Tombo, on Argentina’s southern coast, spiked in the shade to 44 C, or 111.2 F. As the team reports in a paper published Jan. 4 in the journal Ornithological Applications, the extreme heat wave killed at least 354 penguins, based on a search for bodies by UW researchers in the days following the record high temperature. Nearly three-quarters of the penguins that died — 264 — were adults, many of which likely died of dehydration, based on postmortem analyses.


November 4, 2021

Video: Standard time is better for us, UW expert says

On Sunday, Nov. 7 we switch from daylight saving time to standard time. A University of Washington expert in circadian rhythms says that’s a good thing.


October 27, 2021

Fossil dental exams reveal how tusks first evolved

Illustration of an ancient mammal-like creature in a forest setting.

Many animals have tusks, from elephants to walruses to hyraxes. But one thing tusked animals have in common is that they’re all mammals — no known fish, reptiles or birds have them. But that was not always the case. In a study published Oct. 27 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a team of paleontologists at Harvard University, the Field Museum, the University of Washington and Idaho State University traced the first tusks back to dicynodonts — ancient mammal relatives that lived before the dinosaurs.


October 5, 2021

Education should focus on ‘heads and hearts,’ UW researcher says

A college classroom with students seated in a lecture hall.

In a Policy Forum piece published Oct. 1 in Science, a group led by Nesra Yannier at Carnegie Mellon University is advocating for a fresh look at active learning and its potential as classrooms and lecture halls again fill with students. Two co-authors from the University of Washington’s Department of Biology — assistant teaching professor Elli Theobald and lecturer emeritus Scott Freeman — highlight the role that active learning methods have in promoting equity STEM education.


September 21, 2021

UW, Burke researchers discover four dinosaurs in Montana: Fieldwork pieces together life at the end of ‘Dinosaur Era’

a group of people excavating fossils in Montana

A team of paleontologists from the University of Washington and its Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture excavated four dinosaurs in northeastern Montana this summer. The four dinosaur fossils are: the ilium — or hip bones — of an ostrich-sized theropod, the group of meat-eating, two-legged dinosaurs that includes Tyrannosaurus rex and raptors; the hips and legs of a duck-billed dinosaur; a pelvis, toe claw and limbs from another theropod that could be a rare ostrich-mimic Anzu, or possibly a new species; and a Triceratops specimen consisting of its skull and other fossilized bones.


September 8, 2021

ArtSci Roundup: Faculty Seminar: A Conversation with Samuel Wasser of Conservation Canines, Hostile Terrain 94, and More

Through public events and exhibitions, connect with the UW community every week! This week, attend gallery exhibitions, watch recorded events, and more. While you’re enjoying summer break, connect with campus through UW live webcams of Red Square and the quad. Many of these online opportunities are streamed through Zoom. All UW faculty, staff, and students…


August 11, 2021

‘More pepper, please’: New study analyzes role of scent compounds in the coevolution of bats and pepper plants

An image of a short-tailed fruit bat

A study published Aug. 11 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B by researchers at the University of Washington and Stony Brook University reports on how bats and pepper plants in Central America have coevolved to help each other survive.


August 2, 2021

New DNA study provides critical information on conserving rainforest lizards

Close-up image of a male rough-nosed horned lizard.

A study published June 16 in Biotropica by a team of researchers at the University of Washington, the UW Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, WWF Hong Kong and the University of Colombo has provided an important road map to conserving rough-nosed horned lizards in Sri Lanka.


July 29, 2021

Climate change to fuel increase in human-wildlife conflict, UW biologist says

A herd of African elephants

Climate change is further exacerbating human-wildlife conflicts by straining ecosystems and altering behaviors, both of which can deepen the contacts — and potential competition — between people and animals. In an article published July 30 in the journal Science, Briana Abrahms, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Washington and its Center for Ecosystem Sentinels, calls for expanding research into the many ways that climate change will impact the complex interplay between human activities and wildlife populations.


July 20, 2021

New 3D images of shark intestines show they function like Nikola Tesla’s valve

three dogfish sharks

For more than a century, researchers have relied on flat sketches of sharks’ digestive systems to discern how they function — and how what they eat and excrete impacts other species in the ocean. Now, researchers have produced a series of high-resolution, 3D scans of intestines from nearly three dozen shark species that will advance the understanding of how sharks eat and digest their food.


July 16, 2021

20 UW researchers elected to the Washington State Academy of Sciences for 2021

Twenty scientists and engineers at the University of Washington are among the 38 new members elected to the Washington State Academy of Sciences for 2021, according to a July 15 announcement. New members were chosen for “their outstanding record of scientific and technical achievement, and their willingness to work on behalf of the Academy to bring the best available science to bear on issues within the state of Washington.”


May 27, 2021

Seabirds face dire threats from climate change, human activity — especially in Northern Hemisphere

seabird holding a fish

Many seabirds in the Northern Hemisphere are struggling to breed — and in the Southern Hemisphere, they may not be far behind. These are the conclusions of a study, published May 28 in Science, analyzing more than 50 years of breeding records for 67 seabird species worldwide.


May 21, 2021

Pandemic-era paleontology: A wayward skull, at-home fossil analyses and a first for Antarctic amphibians

An image showing a block of amphibian fossils from Early Triassic Antarctica

Researchers at the University of Washington and its Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture have discovered the first fossil evidence of an ancient amphibian, Micropholis stowi, from Antarctica. Micropholis lived in the Early Triassic, shortly after Earth’s largest mass extinction. It was previously known only from fossils in South Africa, and its presence in Antarctica has implications for how amphibians adapted to high-latitude regions in this dynamic period of Earth’s history.


April 29, 2021

6 UW-affiliated researchers elected to the National Academy of Sciences

The view of Mount Rainier from the UW campus in Seattle

Five faculty members and one affiliate professor at the University of Washington are among 120 new members and 30 international members elected to the National Academy of Sciences: Anna Karlin, professor of computer science and engineering; Rachel Klevit, professor of biochemistry; Randall LeVeque, professor emeritus of applied mathematics; Julie Theriot, professor of biology; Rachel Wong, professor of biological structure; and Julie Overbaugh, professor at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and a UW affiliate professor of microbiology.


April 26, 2021

Four UW faculty named to American Academy of Arts & Sciences

Four University of Washington faculty members have been inducted into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.


April 22, 2021

UW biology professors Jeffrey Riffell, David Perkel awarded research grants from Human Frontier Science Program

UW biology professors Jeffrey Riffell and David Perkel have received grants from the Human Frontier Science Program.


April 21, 2021

Q&A: It’s not just social media — misinformation can spread in scientific communication too

When people think of misinformation, they often focus on popular and social media. But in a paper published April 12 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, University of Washington faculty members Jevin West and Carl Bergstrom write that scientific communication — both scientific papers and news articles written about papers — also has the potential to spread misinformation.


March 31, 2021

Thicker-leaved tropical plants may flourish under climate change, which could be good news for climate

tropical forest

As carbon dioxide continues to rise, multiple changes in the leaves of tropical plants may help these ecosystems perform better under climate change than previous studies had suggested.


February 24, 2021

Scientists describe earliest primate fossils

An artistic rendering of an ancient primate eating fruit in a tree shortly after the extinction of the dinosaurs

A new study published Feb. 24 in the journal Royal Society Open Science documents the earliest-known fossil evidence of primates. These creatures lived less than 150,000 years after the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction event that killed off non-avian dinosaurs and saw the rise of mammals.


January 27, 2021

On nights before a full moon, people go to bed later and sleep less, study shows

picture of the moon

Sleep cycles in people oscillate during the 29.5-day lunar cycle: In the days leading up to a full moon, people go to sleep later in the evening and sleep for shorter periods of time. The team, led by researchers at the University of Washington, observed these variations in both the time of sleep onset and the duration of sleep in urban and rural settings — from Indigenous communities in northern Argentina to college students in Seattle, a city of more than 750,000. They saw the oscillations regardless of an individual’s access to electricity, though the variations are less pronounced in individuals living in urban environments.


December 7, 2020

The Smellicopter is an obstacle-avoiding drone that uses a live moth antenna to seek out smells

A hawkmoth in the lower right hand corner of the photo with an out of focus drone behind it

A team led by the UW has developed Smellicopter: an autonomous drone that uses a live antenna from a moth to navigate toward smells. Smellicopter can also sense and avoid obstacles as it travels through the air.


December 3, 2020

Researchers discover how bean plants fend off famished foes

A photograph of a beet armyworm caterpillar crawling across the surface of a tobacco plant.

A team led by scientists at the University of Washington and the University of California, San Diego has discovered that cowpeas — a type of bean plant — harbor receptors on the surface of their cells that can detect a compound in caterpillar saliva and initiate anti-herbivore defenses.


November 24, 2020

Study shows plant extinction is more common than previously realized

A photograph of a museum specimen of a now-extinct plant species.

A new study reveals that 65 plant species have gone extinct in the continental United States and Canada since European settlement, more extinctions than any previous scientific study has ever documented.


November 2, 2020

No social distancing in the Cretaceous: New study finds earliest evidence for mammal social behavior

An illustration of ancient mammals in an underground burrow.

A new study led by paleontologists at the University of Washington indicates that the earliest evidence of mammal social behavior goes back to the Age of Dinosaurs. A multituberculate that lived 75.5 million years ago, Filikomys primaevus engaged in multi-generational, group-nesting and burrowing behavior, and possibly lived in colonies.



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