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Hey, there are oligarchs in my navel!

Posted by Elizabeth Manus  November 15, 2012 10:40 AM

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It’s just 15 inches south of your chin, and you can touch it while whistling and standing on one leg. But how well do you really know your belly button?

A paper published last week in the research journal PLOS One suggests just how alien an environment it might be. Scientists and citizen explorers working on the Belly Button Diversity Project, one of many projects run by Your Wild Life, an ongoing enterprise “exploring the ecological frontiers that exist right under our noses,” analyzed swabs from 66 people’s navels and found 2368 different bacteria species.

The paper, titled "A Jungle in There: Bacteria in Belly Buttons are Highly Diverse, but Predictable,” found that for all the differences from one navel to another, eight species stood out as the guests that wouldn’t leave. Termed “oligarchs,” they were present in more than 70 percent of individuals.

As biologist Rob Dunn writes in Scientific American’s guest blog, there’s more work to be done:

While it is interesting to be able to predict which species of bacteria are frequent and/or abundant in belly buttons in general, what we cannot seem to account for is which species are present in any particular belly button, say that of Carl Zimmer (who has written about his own hairy nub here). We would love to know what accounts for why I have a belly button dominated by one set of species and Carl Zimmer has a belly button dominated by another. This should be easy to figure out. We can test for whether the differences in belly button bacteria tend to be associated with other differences in peoples lives.

If you’d rather think about smelly armpits, Your Wild Life’s Armpit-pa-looza project is in a pilot stage.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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