Listen on Google Play Music
Big Biology

Photo credit: John Lynch

Photo credit: John Lynch


How does a tiny insect migrate thousands of miles from Canada to Mexico each year? What does the decline of monarch butterflies tell us about the ecological health of our continent? How are scientists using gene editing to understand how insects have evolved to tolerate poisonous plants?

Anurag Agrawal is a biologist at Cornell University who studies plant-insect interactions, including monarch butterflies. He is the author of a new book called "Monarchs and Milkweed: A Migrating Butterfly, a Poisonous Plant, and Their Remarkable Story of Coevolution." On this episode, Art and Marty talk with Anurag about the incredible migration of the monarch butterfly, the recent decline in population and a fascinating study where scientists edited the genomes of fruit flies to make them resistant to a poisonous plant that monarchs eat.

If you want to get involved with monarch butterfly citizen science check out some of these projects: North American Butterfly Association
Monarch larva monitoring project
Monarch Watch
Journey North

To episode list

Cover photo by Ellen Woods


What does neuroscience have to say about morality, politics, and cross-cultural communication? How are neurobiology and philosophy connected?

Pat Churchland is a neurobiologist and philosopher at UC San Diego, where she has spent years studying connections between mind and brain. Tune into this episode to hear Marty and Art discuss these questions as well as Pat's new book "Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition."

Follow Pat on Twitter: @PatChurchland

To episode list

Cover photo: MRI image of Pat’s brain. Learn more about the image and see others like it here!


Why hasn’t natural selection eliminated human diseases? Are bad feelings like anxiety and depression adaptive? Can we use evolutionary biology to improve medicine?

Randy Nesse is a doctor and a scientist at Arizona State University who uses evolutionary biology to inform the practice of medicine. In his latest book, “Good Reasons for Bad Feelings,” he discusses how natural and sexual selection may have shaped our psychological and emotional lives. On this episode Art and Marty talk to Randy about evolutionary psychiatry.

Want more info on evolutionary medicine? Go to the International Society for Evolution, Medicine &Public Health’s website:

Follow Randy on Twitter: @RandyNesse

To episode list


Why are animals loud and conspicuous when that increases their risk from predators? How does noise pollution affect mating behaviors? How can robots help biologists study complex topics such as sexual selection and mate choice?

Gail Patricelli is a behavioral ecologist at UC Davis, where she studies how individual variation in animal signaling and communication affects mate choice and reproductive success. Gail uses robots to investigate the process of sexual selection in sage-grouse and other species with elaborate mating displays. Tune into this episode to hear Marty and Art talk to Gail about these topics and more!

Follow Gail on Twitter: @GailPatricelli

To episode list

Cover photo: Female cy-bird and male sage-grouse by Gail Patricelli

Dolphin sponge tool.JPG

Janet Mann kayaking with dolphins in the Potomac River Photo credit Ann-Marie Jacoby, NMFS permit 19403, Potomac-Chespakeake Dolphin Project.


Is intelligence similar in humans and dolphins? Do dolphins and whales have their own culture and language? How do they perceive the world around them?

Janet Mann is a biologist at Georgetown University, where she studies how dolphins form social groups, use tools, and communicate with one another. Tune into this episode to hear Marty and Art talk to Janet about these topics and Janet’s book, Deep Thinkers: Inside the Minds of Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises.

Find out how you can help support Janet’s work on the Shark Bay Dolphins here!

To episode list

Cover photo: Dolphin with sponge tool. Ewa Krzyszczyk, Dolphins of Shark Bay Research Project.

pic ants.jpg

Why do some rove beetles look like ants? Why do living things evolve similar solutions to common problems? Is there predictability within the evolutionary process?

On this episode, Art and Marty talk with Joe Parker, an entomologist at Caltech. Joe has been collecting beetles since the age of 16, when he first became amazed by their incredible diversity. He now focuses on rove beetles and studies their evolutionary relationship with ants to understand how different species converge upon similar traits.

Follow Joe on Twitter: @Pselaphinae

To episode list


In this episode, we've taken a break from our regular format to answer some of your questions such as what's the chance of human-like intelligence on another planet and if we had the technology, what organism would we want to bring back, Jurassic Park style?

Tune in to this episode to hear Marty and Art answer questions like these and what goes into making our podcast!

Have a question you want answered? Reach out to us on Facebook or Twitter!

To episode list

Photo credit: Amanda Ward

Photo credit: Amanda Ward


How does our indoor, modern lifestyle affect our microbiome? How does this novel microbiome affect our health?

On this episode, Marty and Art talk with Rob Dunn, an applied ecologist at North Carolina State University. Rob studies the organisms that we come into contact with every day, from the microbes in our bodies to the insects in our homes. Tune into this episode to hear Marty and Art talk to Rob about the crazy diversity of microbes on our skin and its importance in our health and our food. Many of the ideas we discuss are from Rob’s most recent book, Never Home Alone.

Follow Rob on Twitter: @RRobDunn

To episode list


How can cicadas eat nothing but tree sap for 17 years? How do endosymbiotic relationships evolve? What do bacteria-insect symbioses teach us about the evolution of mitochondria and chloroplasts?

On this episode, Art and Marty talk with John McCutcheon, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Montana. John studies symbioses between bacteria and cicadas—exploring what each partner provides for the other, how cicadas transmit bacteria to their offspring, and what the consequences are for the evolution of bacterial genomes (hint: they are extreme!). This research raises basic questions about what an individual even is.

Follow John on Twitter: @mcsymbiont

We interviewed John in front of a live audience at the Missoula Insectarium. If you’d like to host a Big Biology event, please email us at!

Cover image courtesy of Piotr Łukasik and James T. Van Leuven.

To episode list

Credit: Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin

Credit: Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin


How did sex evolve? Why are there sexes at all? what are the evolutionary costs and benefits of sex?

On this episode, Art and Marty talk with Hanna Kokko, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Zurich. Hanna studies the evolution of sex and the vast panoply of strategies that organisms use to reproduce. Check out this nice graphical illustration of her work on her website!

Follow Hanna on Twitter: @kokkonutter

To episode list

Credit: NSF

Credit: NSF

Credit: University of Michigan

Credit: University of Michigan


What role does one part of the federal government, the National Science Foundation, play in biological research in the US? How will their new funding initiative help us discover Rules of Life?

On this episode, Art and Marty talk with two NSF directors, Joanne Tornow . the head of the Biological Sciences directorate, and Arthur “Skip” Lupia , the head of the Social, Behavioral and Economic Science directorate.

They talked with them about one of NSF’s Big Ideas. One Idea, called Rules of Life, challenges scientists to study some of the same ‘big’ questions that we’ve addressed on this podcast, including how genotypes become phenotypes. They also asked how an agency dedicated to advancing science operates within an executive branch that has publicly criticized some major scientific conclusions.

Skip’s Twitter account is @ArthurLupia and his directorate is: @NSF_SBE

Joanne does not have a Twitter account, but you can follow her directorate here: @NSF_BIO

To episode list


How is climate change affecting the distribution of animals? How will these changes in species distribution affect us?

Tune in to hear Marty and Art talk with physiological ecologist Jenn Sunday about how climate change is affecting the distribution of life on Earth. Jenn is a professor at McGill University who attempts to answer these questions at a global scale.

Follow Jenn on Twitter: @jennsunday

To episode list

Music in this episode is brought to you by Builder of the House.

Cover Video: NASA/GSFC/SVS, NASA/GISS, for more information, click here.


Does plasticity always help organisms adapt? What happens if it doesn't? Could it speed up evolution?

Tune in to hear Art and Marty talk with evolutionary ecologist Cameron Ghalambor about the role of non-adaptive plasticity in evolution. Cam is a professor at Colorado State University who tackles these questions by studying guppies.

We interviewed Cam at a bar in Tampa, FL during a conference for the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology.

To episode list

Cover photo credit to Pierson Hill


Do single genes cause variation in traits or are gene effects more complex than that? How do genes interact with one another, and how do those interactions alter the pace and direction of evolution? Do those interactions constrain or facilitate evolution?

Tune in to hear Art and Marty talk with Mihaela Pavlicev about these questions and more! Mihaela is a geneticist at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, where she studies big new ideas about links between genes and traits.

If you are interested in this topic, click here for some additional reading!

To episode list

*Image credit to Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center


Will cancer ever become just another chronic but manageable disease? What can a squirrel biologist teach us about treating cancer?

In this episode, Marty and Art talk with Joel Brown about how to contain cancer using basic ideas from ecology and evolution. To Joel, cells in tumors are like organisms in ecosystems, and fighting cancer means using what we know about species in nature to tilt the playing field against the worst kinds of cancer cells. He and his team at the Moffit Cancer Research Center in Tampa, Florida, are starting to have some remarkable success treating different kinds of cancer.

We interviewed Joel in front of a live audience at Circa 1949 in Tampa, FL—our first live event! We had a great time interacting with the audience and plan to do more events like this in the next few months. If you’d like to host a Big Biology event, please email us at!

To episode list


Why do some animals have weird genitalia? Why is there conflict between males and females when it comes to producing offspring?

Tune into this podcast to hear Art and Marty talk with Patty Brennan about how sex in the animal kingdom is not always about love and cooperation; often it's also about conflict. And, this conflict can lead to some pretty crazy genitalia. Patty is an evolutionary biologist at Mount Holyoke College. Her research shows that the birds and the bees aren't so simple for the birds (or, as it turns out, for most other animals).

Follow Patty on Twitter: @sexinnature 

To episode list


EDIT: Music on this episode is from Podington Bear and Blue Dot Sessions.

How has the Tree of Life changed since Darwin? How do genes jump from one species to another? Why do we have viral genes in our DNA?

Tune into this podcast to hear Art and Marty talk with David Quammen about his new book “The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life.” In this podcast, they discuss how recent advances in genetics has changed our way of thinking about evolution and the relatedness of plants, animals, and microbes. They also discuss David's methods to his madness as he chooses the topics for each of his books.

David is an award winning science writer and journalist. He has published over 15 books and written numerous articles for National Geographic, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times Book Review.

Follow David on twitter: @DavidQuammen

To episode list


What is life? How did life arise from non-life? What did life look like at its origin?

Tune into this podcast to hear Art and Marty talk with Sara Walker, an expert in astrobiology and theoretical physics at Arizona State University. They discuss how life might have arisen on Earth and why biologists and physicists should work together to find a theory of life.

Her ideas could help decide what to do about artificial intelligence (SPOILER: The robots will take over, but it’s going to be OK). They might also help us find life on other planets.


To episode list


Is there a constant battle between our immune system and pathogens? Does the fighting ever end? Does the immune system do more than just provide defense against pathogens?

Tune into this podcast to hear Art and Marty talk to Fred Tauber, a professor emeritus of medicine and philosophy at Boston University, about how the immune system does more than just protect our bodies from pathogens. 

Fred has published a number of books on immunity and philosophy. Including his most recent book, "Immunity: the Evolution of an Idea," where he explores the ideas he discusses here in greater detail. 


To episode list



What is the connection between an organism's genes and its environment? Can the environment alter an organism's characteristics without altering its genetics? Can an organism alter its environment and change the course of its own evolution?

Tune into this podcast to hear Marty and Art talk to Massimo Pigliucci, a professor of philosophy at CUNY-City College in New York, about how the environment can alter an organism's physical characteristics without altering its genetics, and how our ability to alter our physical environment may have altered the course of human evolution. 

Massimo began his career as an evolutionary biologist, and has published numerous scientific and philosophical journal articles and over 10 different books.  



To episode list


How do mantis shrimp punch as fast as a bullet… underwater? How do they break open one of the toughest materials on earth?

Tune into this podcast to hear Art and Marty talk to Sheila Patek about how mantis shrimp pack such a powerful punch and why we should care. For example, mantis shrimp hammers can be used hundreds of thousands of times to break open the tough shells of snails and clams, and this research may help inspire lightweight, heavy duty military armor.

Sheila studies the mechanics of ultrafast movements at Duke University. You may have seen her work featured recently by Science News (and numerous others) about the rules of animal fight clubs. But we can't talk about those.

To episode list



How do diseases spread from animals to humans? Is it possible to forecast where disease outbreaks will occur and when they will blow up into major health crises?

Tune into this podcast to hear Marty and Art talk to Barbara Han about how we track infectious diseases and whether we'll ever be able to predict outbreaks. Han studies the conditions leading to disease outbreaks in humans at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York. Who knows, her research on forecasting disease outbreaks may even help predict and stop a zombie pandemic (think World War Z type scenario) from ever starting.

Follow Barbara on Twitter: @bahanbug

To episode list

shrimp treadmill.JPG

Is there a role for basic research in our society? Do scientists studying animals waste tax-payer money? How does learning about evolutionary biology benefit humans?

Tune in to this episode to hear Art and Marty talk to Carl Zimmer about the importance of basic research and the future of biology. Zimmer is an award-winning journalist for the New York Times, where he writes the weekly column, “Matter.” He has been a big proponent for furthering the public’s understanding of basic research, especially the importance of evolutionary biology. He is such a big deal that he even has a lovely species of tapeworm named after him (Acanthobothrium zimmeri)!

Follow Carl on twitter: @carlzimmer

To episode list


Is there a limit to animal size? Could Godzilla actually exist?

Tune into this episode to hear Art and Marty talk to Jon Harrison and Jim Brown

Jon Harrison (Arizona State University) studies the physical limits to insect body size and furthered our understanding of the giant insects that once roamed our planet. Luckily for us, his research indicates that Mothra may never exist.  

Jim Brown (University of New Mexico) famously put forth the universal quarter-power scaling law, which predicts how many ecological and evolutionary variables (including metabolism, life span, reproduction) of plants and animals change with body size. For example, his theory was able to explain the fact that all mammals average the same number of heartbeats (~ 1 billion) over their life time, regardless of how large they are (mice to elephants) or how long they live (3 years or 70 years)! Elephants hearts just beat really slow.  


To episode list





What is the role of random, stochastic events in biology? How does our body react to such events? Does the presence of random events in our brains give us the illusion of freewill? 

Tune into this episode to hear Marty and Art talk to Denis Noble, an Emertis Professor at Oxford. Noble has written over 500 scientific articles and 11 books but may be most well known for developing the first mathematical model of heart cells in 1960. Recently, Noble published the book: “Dance to the Tune of Life,” where he notably discusses the necessity and importance of random events that occur within and between our genes, cells, tissues, and organs.    

To episode list





Why do we drink alcohol? Are we just primates looking for a fix?

Tune in to this episode to hear Art and Marty talk to Robert Dudley (not to be confused with the First Earl of Leicester of the same name). He is a renown expert in animal flight at UC Berkeley, but has recently begun studying drunken monkeys to understand our attraction to alcohol.  


To episode list