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Sönke Johnsen


Contact Information:

Biology Department
301 Biological Sciences Bldg
Duke University
Durham, NC 27708

Research Interests:

Originally trained in mathematics and art, I have studied camouflage, signaling, and non-human visual modalities for the last 25 years. I am particularly interested in vision and camouflage in the open ocean, but have also worked on coastal and terrestrial species, magnetoreception, nocturnal illumination, and human cataracts. My research combines mathematical analyses with behavioral and morphological studies and in situ measurements and imaging. My field work primarily involves open-ocean research cruises that use SCUBA and deep-sea submersibles. In addition to exploring the evolution and diversity of the optical and visual tricks that animals perform, I am interested in improving communication between theoretical and experimental scientists and between scientists and artists. Outreach is a strong focus and my research has been presented in numerous magazines, newspapers and television shows. In my spare time, I am an avid nature photographer and amatuer farmer (well, I own a tractor at least).




University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Ph.D., Biology, 1996
      Dr. William M. Kier, advisor.

Swarthmore College: B.A. Mathematics, 1988



Sönke Johnsen, Justin Marshall and Mark Hooper bluewater diving in the Bahamas. Credit: Mark Schrope


New: self-interview in Current Biology

All my life, I never wanted to be a biologist. After choosing a college solely on the fact that a family friend's hardware store was in the same town, I began a major in Physics. An Algebra professor who danced and told funny stories about pathological geniuses convinced me to change my major to Mathematics. I added a major in art, mostly abortive because I refused to take art history, and left college disenchanted with education.

I then worked as a daycare provider and kindergarten teacher for Quakers, a freelance carpenter, and a dance teacher for three year olds. It was during this last job that I met Sarah, the daughter of Scott Gilbert, who wrote the developmental biology textbook used by most colleges. After hitch-hiking across the Pacific Northwest, I decided that I needed more education. A friend and I went through the alphabet. Deciding that a career in art was likely to be a raw deal, settled on Biology and met with Scott Gilbert and Rachel Merz. Rachel suggested good places to go to graduate school and Scott got me a job with a friend of his, Stuart Kauffman.

Luckily, the job with Stu required no knowledge of biology and several graduate schools admitted me despite the same lack. I went to UNC, and after a year of reading and drawing pictures of bugs on the lawn, I decided that biology was "okay". With little knowledge but high enthusiasm, I chose a high-risk, low-benefit project that I left behind the moment I handed in my thesis. My advisor, Bill Kier, pointed me to oceanic zooplankton, we both thought about transparency, and I applied to two oceanographic institutions, both of which turned me down. I cleaned fish tanks for a year, applied again, and both then accepted me. I went on my first research cruise to the Gulf of Maine with Edie Widder. It was stormy, the ship smelled, and I was seasick. It was the best time of my life. Nineteen years later, I have yet to look back.


Duke University | Biological Sciences Bldg, Room 301 | (919) 660-7321 | sjohnsen@duke.edu