strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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We Spend $60 billion on Pets. How About a Little for Wildlife?

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 19, 2014

A wildflower at The Nature  Conservancy's Boardman Grasslands in north central Oregon.

A wildflower at The Nature Conservancy’s Boardman Grasslands in north central Oregon.

You’ve probably already noticed this while flipping through the contents of your overstuffed mailbox or scrolling past the endless stream of email solicitations, but this is the time of the year when nonprofit organizations ramp up their pleas for your donations. And with good reason: About a third of all charitable giving in the United States takes place in December. This is, of course, due to holiday cheer and a spirit of giving—not anything so cynical as tax write-offs.

But don’t be so quick to hit delete. Charitable giving makes us happier, and it has the potential to make wildlife happier too, or at least to keep monarch butterflies, wolves, elephants, songbirds, and other creatures a part of this world. Government funding for wildlife is declining everywhere, even as the pressure on wildlife from poaching, climate change, and expanding human populations dramatically worsens. “Conservation is often an early casualty of any government funding squeeze,” the authors of a recent Nature article noted. In the United States, for instance, the National Park Service has seen a 13 percent drop in funding over the past five years, and it’s much worse in many other countries. That means many wildlife and conservation organizations, and the animals they protect, increasingly depend on charitable contributions.

So how do you handle the tricky task of choosing just which organizations to support? Charity Navigator rates nonprofits on their financial efficiency and transparency (but not on the effectiveness of their services and programs). It lists 271 organizations under the Environmental Protection and Conservation heading, and that’s just organizations it has evaluated. Behavioral economists have shown that too having many choices leads to inaction, and the check never makes it into the mail. So let’s cut down the choices.

When I asked conservation-minded contacts on Twitter and Facebook and via email for their ideas on donating to help wildlife, responses generally fell

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Posted in Biodiversity, Environmental Issues | Leave a Comment »

Wolves and Bears Make Comeback in Crowded, Urban Europe

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 18, 2014

Street traffic in Kuhmo Finland (Photo: Staffan Widstrand / Wild Wonders of Europe)

Street traffic in Kuhmo Finland (Photo: Staffan Widstrand / Wild Wonders of Europe)

What if European travelers suddenly stopped going to Yellowstone National Park to see grizzly bears and wolves, and found that they could see even more of the same species in their own backyards—say, within an hour or two of Rome? What if the “call of the wild”—the sound of wolves howling in the night—became more a European than a North American experience? This improbable scenario may be closer to reality than we imagine.

A study published Thursday in the journal Science reports that Europe, one of the most industrialized landscapes on Earth, with many roads and hardly any large wilderness areas, is nonetheless “succeeding in maintaining, and to some extent restoring, viable large carnivore populations on a continental scale.”

A team of more than 50 leading carnivore biologists across Europe, from Norway to Bulgaria, details in the research a broad recovery of four large carnivore species: wolves, brown bears, the Eurasian lynx, and the wolverine.

“There is a deeply rooted hostility to these species in human history and culture,” the study notes. And yet roughly a third of Europe Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

For Endangered Species, a Call for Genetic Rescue

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 12, 2014

Before God told Noah to take “two of all living creatures, male and female” into the ark with him, He probably should have consulted with a wildlife biologist. Then He’d have known that extensive inbreeding after the flood would cause the rapid extinction of many of the species Noah had built his ark to save.

We are in roughly the same boat today. Instead of divine floodwaters, the relentlessly rising tide of human civilization is spreading into every corner of the landscape, leaving populations of threatened or endangered species isolated in a few remaining islands of habitat.  These survivors—tigers in India, red wolves in North Carolina, the kakapo parrot in New Zealand, African wild dogs in South Africa, and countless other species—almost inevitably experience inbreeding and reduced fitness, a recipe for extinction.

But a new paper published in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution argues that “genetic rescue” could provide a fix for inbreeding problems.  It’s not about genetic engineering—no Franken-Kakapo—but rather about the seemingly simple business of crossbreeding with individuals introduced from outside populations.

“Genetic rescue has the potential,” conservation biologist David A. Tallmon and his co-authors write, “to be one of the most powerful means to

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Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Cool Tools | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Ranchers Kill Wolves & It Just Makes Their Livestock Losses Worse

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 9, 2014

unnamed wolfWell, we always knew there was an irrational, even sociopathological element in the war against wolves. Now a careful study of 25 years of data from Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho reveals that it disrupts the hierarchy of wolf packs and actually increases the rate of attacks on wildlife.

Here’s the press release:

Washington State University researchers have found that it is counter-productive to kill wolves to keep them from preying on livestock. Shooting and trapping lead to more dead sheep and cattle the following year, not fewer.

Writing in the journal PLOS ONE, wildlife biologist Rob Wielgus and data analyst Kaylie Peebles say that, for each wolf killed, the odds of more livestock depredations increase significantly. The trend continues until 25 percent of the wolves in an area are killed. Ranchers and wildlife managers then see a “standing wave of livestock depredations,” said Wielgus.

That rate of wolf mortality is also “unsustainable and cannot be carried out indefinitely if federal relisting of wolves is to be avoided,” they note.

The gray wolf was federally listed as endangered in 1974. During much of its recovery in the

Wildlife biologist Rob Wielgus  (Photo: Kay Morris)

Wildlife biologist Rob Wielgus (Photo: Kay Morris)

northern Rocky Mountains, government predator control efforts have been used to keep wolves from attacking sheep and livestock. With wolves delisted in 2012, sport hunting has also been used. But until now, the effectiveness of lethal control has been what Wielgus and Peebles call a “widely accepted, but untested, hypothesis.”

Their study is the largest of its kind, analyzing 25 years of lethal control data from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Interagency Annual Wolf Reports in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. The researchers found that killing one wolf increases the odds of depredations 4 percent for sheep and 5 to 6 percent for cattle. If 20 wolves are killed, livestock deaths double.Work reported in PLOS ONE last year by Peebles, Wielgus and other WSU colleagues found that lethal controls of cougars also backfire, disrupting their populations so much that younger, less disciplined cougars attack more livestock.

Still, Wielgus did not expect to see the same result with wolves.

“I had no idea what the results were going to be, positive or negative,” he said. “I said, ‘Let’s take a look at it and see what happened.’ I was surprised that there was a big effect.”

Wielgus said wolf killings likely disrupt

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Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , | 5 Comments »

How An Attorney General Sold Out to Corporate Paymasters

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 7, 2014

Scott Pruitt, Attorney General and Corporate Shill (Not in that Order)

Scott Pruitt, Attorney General and Corporate Shill (Not in that Order)

Everybody in the United States should be reading and talking about Eric Lipton’s terrific story in today’s New York Times. It’s about how American democracy is being sold out by government officials who are supposed to be protecting the interests of the people but instead sell their services to the highest corporate bidder.  It’s a deeply serious story, but, honestly I also really love the part where the lobbyist tells the Attorney General of the State of Oklahoma, one Scott Pruitt, to bark.  And, of course, Mr. Pruitt barks.

Woof, woof.  I am laughing as we slide rapidly down to government of the corporation, by the corporation, and for the corporation. Here’s an excerpt:

[Oil industry lobbyist Andrew P.] Miller made it his job to promote Mr. Pruitt nationally, both as a spokesman for the Rule of Law campaign and as the president of the Republican Attorneys General Association.

“I regard the general as the A.G. best suited to take this lead on this question of federalism,” Mr. Miller wrote to Mr. Pruitt’s chief of staff in April 2012. “The touchstone of this initiative would be to organize the states to resist federal ‘overreach’ whenever it occurs.”

To Mr. Miller, having Mr. Pruitt as an advocate fit a broader strategy. He wanted state attorneys general to band together the way they did when they challenged the health care law in 2010. In that effort, they hired a major national corporate law firm, Baker Hostetler, to argue the case, with much of the bill being paid through donations from executives at corporations that oppose the law.

In his initial appeal to Mr. Pruitt, Mr. Miller insisted that his approach was not “client driven.” But he soon began to name individual clients — TransCanada and Pebble Mine in Alaska — that he wanted to include in the effort. The E.P.A. has held up the Pebble Mine project, which could potentially yield 80 billion pounds of copper, after concluding it would “threaten one of the world’s most productive salmon fisheries.”

“This strike force ought to take the form of a national state litigation team to challenge the E.P.A.’s overreach,” Mr. Miller said in an email to Mr. Pruitt’s office. “Like the Dalmatian at the proverbial firehouse,

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Climate Change Now: “Ticks Cover their Bodies Like Shingles on a Roof”

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 5, 2014

IP 2013 side viewThey call them “ghost moose.” These pale beasts have lately come to haunt forests across the northern United States. But they aren’t at all like the revered Kermode bears of Canada, which owe their cream coloring to genetics or, as some First Nations believe, to supernatural powers.  Ghost moose are white because of winter ticks. More precisely, they are white because climate change makes them vulnerable to winter ticks. That may sound crazy at first. For most of us, climate change can seem like an abstraction, with consequences that we may not have to face till some vague time decades or centuries in the future. But the spectacle of a moose with thousands upon thousands of engorged winter ticks clinging to its body has a way of making it seem painfully here and now.

“The ticks cover their bodies like shingles on a roof,” said Kristine Rines, a wildlife biologist and leader of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department’s Moose Project.  “Fat, ugly shingles with little creepy wavy legs.”

What’s climate change got to do with it? In the past, winter ticks (Dermacentor albipictus) were mostly found on white-tailed deer, which live in slightly warmer climes farther south. These ticks typically lay their eggs in the spring, and the young develop during the summer.  By fall, clusters of tick larvae are waiting in the undergrowth, and when a deer brushes against them, the young ticks latch on. But the deer are used to it.  They groom the ticks off themselves while they’re still young and easy to dislodge.

Not so for moose.  They have no history with this horrific nuisance and don’t seem to make any attempt to groom the off the immature ticks from October until February.  By then, it’s too late: the adult ticks are too appallingly Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Proud of Your Ancestry? Namibia’s Khoisan Have You Beat

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 5, 2014

141204074144-largeOne of the great experiences of my life was to travel with Khoisan hunters as they tracked wildlife in northwestern Namibia. They didn’t dress all that differently from other Namibians. (That traditional half-naked look in the photograph is something they seem to do now mainly at the behest of photographers.) But, lord, they were different: For me, it was like being illiterate among scholars who had devoted their lives (and hearts and souls) to studying the subtle nuances of the footprint.

I remember one night when an African wild cat had come into the camp and stolen the precious organ meat from a kill, which the Khoisan had hung up a tree for safekeeping.  When they discovered their loss in the morning, the two hunters simply followed the trail back to the cat’s lair, and re-claimed their meat. But, sorry, let me get to the point.

A new genetic study has revealed just how different, and ancient, the Khosan lineage really is.  And yet they were the majority of the human species just 20,000 years ago, meaning their evolution was our evolution. Here’s an excerpt from the press release:

Through advanced computation analysis, a team from Nanyang Technological University (NTU Singapore) and Penn State University found that these Southern African Khoisan tribespeople are genetically distinct not only from Europeans and Asians, but also from all other Africans.

The team also found that there are individuals of the Khoisan population whose ancestors did not interbreed with any of the other ethnic groups for the last 150,000 years and that Khoisan was the majority group of living humans for most of that time until about 20,000 years ago.

Their findings mean it is now possible to use genetic sequencing to reveal the ancestral lineage of any ethnic group even up to 200,000 years ago, if non-admixed individuals are found, like in the case of the Khoisan. This will show when in history there have been important genetic changes to an ancestral lineage due to

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Posted in Evolution | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Travel Hell? Whales Stuck in Middle East for 70,000 Years

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 3, 2014

A whale named Spitfire (Photot: © Tobias Friedrich)

A whale named Spitfire (Photot: © Tobias Friedrich)

As I read this, these humpbacks extended their range into the Arabian Sea 70,000 years ago, and then got bottled up there by some temporary glacial barrier, or long-term thermal barrier.  Even if they could travel elsewhere now, they don’t and their numbers are down to just 100 individuals.  It may be that they stick to the Arabian Sea because, as a result of their lengthy isolation, their reproductive cycle got out of whack with the rest of the humpback world.

Or maybe–could it be–they just like it there?

Here’s the press release:

Scientists from WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society), the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), the Environment Society of Oman, and other organizations have made a fascinating discovery in the northern Indian Ocean: humpback whales inhabiting the Arabian Sea are the most genetically distinct humpback whales in the world and may be the most isolated whale population on earth. The results suggest they have remained separate from other humpback whale populations for perhaps 70,000 years, extremely unusual in a species famed for long distance migrations.

(Photo credit: Darryl MacDonald)

(Photo credit: Darryl MacDonald)

Known for its haunting songs and acrobatics, the humpback whale holds the record for the world’s longest mammal migration; individuals have been tracked over a distance of more than 9,000 kilometers between polar feeding areas and tropical breeding areas.

“The epic seasonal migrations of humpbacks elsewhere are well known, so this small, non-migratory population presents a wonderful and intriguing enigma,” said WCS researcher and study co-author Tim Collins. “They also beg many questions: how and why did the population originate, how does it persist, and how do their behaviors differ from other humpback whales?”

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Posted in Biodiversity, Evolution | 1 Comment »

Manhattan Is Actually Run by Ants (Also Maggots)

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 3, 2014

You heartless and cynical New Yorkers probably thought rats and pigeons did all the garbage removal from your streets. But it turns out you also owe a great big “thank you”–plus a smiley face and an exclamation point–to ants.

Also other insect forms.

I am just so disappointed that the authors of this study, who came from North Carolina to find the maggots in the Big Apple, did not include any photos with this press release (UPDATE: One of the co-authors, Matt Shipman, just sent photos, posted below):

Elsa-Ant-HEADER-848x477In the city that never sleeps, it’s easy to overlook the insects underfoot. But that doesn’t mean they’re not working hard. A new study from North Carolina State University shows that insects and other arthropods play a significant role in disposing of garbage on the streets of Manhattan.

“We calculate that the arthropods on medians down the Broadway/West St. corridor alone could consume more than 2,100 pounds of discarded junk food, the equivalent of 60,000 hot dogs, every year — assuming they take a break in the winter,” says Dr. Elsa Youngsteadt, a research associate at NC State and lead author of a paper on the work.

“This isn’t just a silly fact,”

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Posted in Biodiversity | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Birds May Carry New Diseases to a Warming North

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 3, 2014

Glaucous gulls and polar bears on the carcass of a dead whale may be sharing more than a meal (Photo: USGS)

Glaucous gulls and polar bears on the carcass of a dead whale may be sharing more than a meal (Photo: USGS)

We’ve all heard about insects moving northward and bringing dengue fever, chikungunya virus, and other diseases with them.  But the threat from birds, particularly to other wildlife species, hadn’t occurred to me before.  Here’s a press release about a disconcerting new study in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment:

When wild birds are a big part of your diet, opening a freshly shot bird to find worms squirming around under the skin is a disconcerting sight. That was exactly what Victoria Kotongan saw in October, 2012, when she set to cleaning two of four spruce grouse (Falcipennis canadensis) she had taken near her home in Unalakleet, on the northwest coast of Alaska. The next day, she shot four grouse and all four harbored the long, white worms. In two birds, the worms appeared to be emerging from the meat.

Kotongan, worried about the health of the grouse and the potential risk to her community, reported the parasites to the Local Environmental Observer Network, which arranged to have the frozen bird carcasses sent to a lab for testing. Lab results identified the worms as

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Posted in Environmental Issues, Food & Drink | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »


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