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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In South Africa, Coffee with Friends

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 25, 2014

And a very vervet monkey morning to you.

And a very vervet monkey morning to you.

I’m in the Durban area at the moment, working on a story about leopards.  These artful dodgers strolled into my room this morning to steal the sugar packets.

Posted in Funny Business | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Why We Need to Save Wildlife to Save Ourselves

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 24, 2014

Cone snail shells: Not just something pretty to look at.

Cone snail shells: Not just something pretty to look at.

Midway through the new special issue of Science, about the global loss of wildlife, my heart caught on this idea: We now live with a steady, imperceptible loss “in people’s expectations of what the natural world around them should look like,” and “each generation grows up within a slightly more impoverished natural biodiversity.” It’s not just about elephants, rhinos, and other iconic species disappearing. It’s about the decline of everything.

When children go outdoors today—to the extent that they go outdoors at all—they see 35 percent fewer individual butterflies and moths than their parents would have seen 40 years ago, and 28 percent fewer individual vertebrates—meaning birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and fish.  It’s not quite a silent spring, just one that is becoming quieter with each passing year, insidiously, so we hardly notice. The Science authors dub this phenomenon “defaunation.” I prefer to think of it as “the great vanishing,” but either way it’s bad news.

Why don’t we do something about it? Wildlife conservation suffers under a misguided notion that it is a boutique issue. “Animals do matter to people,” according to one article in the Science special issue, “but on balance, they matter less than food, jobs, energy, money, and development. As long as we continue to view animals in ecosystems as irrelevant to these basic demands, animals will lose.”

That need not be as hopeless as it sounds, because the authors go on to remind us in alarming detail just how utterly

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Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

The Man Who Saved The Dinosaurs

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 12, 2014

John Ostrom, in the field

John Ostrom, in the field

In the summer of 1970, early in the research that would radically transform how we think about birds, dinosaurs, and the origins of animal flight, Yale paleontologist John H. Ostrom was traveling through Europe studying pterosaur fossils. His itinerary took him, in early September, to the Teylers Museum in Haarlem, the Netherlands. Ostrom, then 42, was an unprepossessing figure and the world’s leading authority on dinosaurs, and the museum curator was pleased to leave him alone with the twin halves of the limestone slab catalogued TM6928 and 29.

This fossil was a dinner plate–size muddle of limb fragments, vertebrae, and ribs preserved in limestone from the Solnhofen beds. It had been discovered near Riedenburg, Germany, in 1855 and named by the great nineteenth-century paleontologist Hermann von Meyer. Von Meyer later became famous for the first scientific description, in 1861, of Archaeopteryx. Coming just after the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, the unveiling of that 150-million-year-old urvogel, or archetypal primitive bird, made an international sensation. With Archaeopteryx, it seemed as if the proof of evolutionary theory had arrived, like the Ten Commandments, engraved in stone. But in 1857, the confusing fossil von Meyer was describing—the future TM6928 and 29—seemed like something far more ordinary: another pterosaur, a type of flying reptile. He dubbed it Pterodactylus crassipes.

That didn’t make sense to Ostrom as he puzzled over the ankles, toes, and arm bones of the fossil that day in 1970. He could envision the ways they might fit together just by examining the proportions of the bones and the shape of their articulations. But it wasn’t like any pterosaur he had ever seen. Ostrom had recently finished describing a remarkable dinosaur he had discovered a few years earlier in Montana. His monograph on Deinonychus included exquisitely detailed descriptions showing how the bone endings and attachments helped make these dinosaurs such fast, agile little killers. To Ostrom, the bones of the Teylers specimen looked an awful lot like those of Deinonychus. And there was something more.

Half of the Teylers specimen

Half of the Teylers specimen

Ostrom picked up one of the slabs, carried it over to the window, and held it up at an angle in the light. First one way, then the other. The late afternoon sun caught on some faint ridges. Ostrom was seeing, unmistakably, the clear impression of feathers. This fossil wasn’t Pterodactylus after all. It was another Archaeopteryx. In fact, it would have been the scientific world’s first Archaeopteryx, if von Meyer had gotten his taxonomy right.

In 1970, only three other specimens of Archaeopteryx were known to exist. But this was by no means the only thing that excited Ostrom at that moment. His mind was already ticking over about the resemblance to Deinonychus—and the unsettling idea that the wrist and shoulder bones of a primitive bird should be identical to those of a small meat-eating dinosaur.

To write a proper technical description, Ostrom needed to take the specimen home to the Peabody Museum at Yale for closer study. A crisis of conscience ensued: should he mislead the Teylers curator, telling him it was merely a pterosaur, only to make the great discovery back home? Or should he come out with the truth and risk that the museum would lock up these suddenly precious slabs of rock? Being a “squeaking honest” man, in the words of a former student, Ostrom confessed his belief that it was Archaeopteryx.

The curator immediately took back TM6928 and 29 and hurried out of the room. Ostrom slumped in his seat, despairing. A few minutes later, the curator returned Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Evolution | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Spider Web Heaven

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 10, 2014

I'm on vacation now, but this struck me as one of the prettiest spider webs I've ever seen.  In Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo: Richard Conniff)

I’m on vacation now, but this struck me as one of the prettiest spider webs I’ve ever seen. In Madison, Wisconsin. You can see the owner in the funnel just to left of middle fence post. (Photo: Richard Conniff)

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Fine Perfumes of the Animal World

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 6, 2014

(Illustration: Christelle Enault)

(Illustration: Christelle Enault)

My latest for The New York Times, where I am now a contributing opinion writer:

One of the odder things about perfumes is how much they have depended over the centuries on the scent of other animals — for instance, ambergris, a fatty excretion of the sperm whale, or the musk from the anal sacs of a civet. In concentration, some of these scents are unpleasant, even noxious. One component of civet is skatole, literally the smell of animal feces. Why not just make up a cologne called “Hyraceum — the Ultimate Code of Seduction,” advertised in a suitably libidinous whisper? The fine print would reveal that Hyraceum comes from the petrified excrement of the Cape hyrax. (Oh, but it turns out Hyraceum actually exists, at a very reasonable $60 an ounce.)

We are by no means the only species trying to smell like something (anything) other than ourselves. The caterpillar of South Africa’s Zulu Blue butterfly, for instance, mimics the chemical scent that ants use to recognize their own brood. So the gullible ants carry the caterpillar into their nest, and don’t seem to notice when it proceeds to Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Sex & Reproduction | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Slime Busters: Grazing Caribbean Coral Reefs Back to Health

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 4, 2014

(Photo: Wild Horizon/Getty)

(Photo: Wild Horizon/Getty)


My latest for Takepart.

When people talk about “keystone” species, they’re generally thinking about predators that shape the behavior of every other creature in their habitat, or about prey that serve as dinner for the entire neighborhood. But a new report on the collapse of coral reefs across the Caribbean is a reminder that entire ecosystems can depend on species that do little more than graze.

The report, Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012, published by a consortium of global conservation groups, focuses on the 50 percent decline in Caribbean coral reefs over the past four decades. It concludes that protecting and restoring populations of two competing grazers—parrotfish and sea urchins—could be the key to saving what’s left of one of the most beloved and economically important seascapes on the planet.

Other studies have generally assumed that climate change and coral bleaching were the major causes of coral reef decline—and they are clearly a part of the problem. But “this study brings some very encouraging news,” says Carl Gustaf Lundin of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “The fate of Caribbean corals is Read the rest of this entry »

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

Dollars for Duck Penises: Why Taxpayer-Funded Basic Science Matters

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 2, 2014

(Photo: Michal Cizek/Getty Images)

(Photo: Michal Cizek/Getty Images)

In 2009, a presidential wannabe named Bobby Jindal stood before the cameras to denounce the federal government for frivolous spending, and he got off what passes among politicians for a clever sound bite, targeting a $140 million science program to monitor volcanoes: “Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C.”

Jindal was apparently too young to remember the Mount Saint Helens eruption in 1980, which flattened a blast zone 19 miles out from the volcano, killed 57 people, and caused $2.7 billion in damage. (Oh, it happened in some place called Washington. Never mind.) Though he is governor of Louisiana, Jindal also seemed to be unaware that studying potential natural disasters is a good way to save lives and minimize destruction.

This is how it always seems to go with lamebrain politicians and the scientists struggling to understand the natural world. But nobody gets it worse than scientists who study animal behavior, probably because the subject matter is both so familiar and so easy to make sound completely absurd. Or as University of Massachusetts biologist Patricia Brennan puts it, “Most people know about ducks; most people know about penises. You put the two together, and Read the rest of this entry »

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

How Tiny Brains Accomplish Amazing Stuff

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 1, 2014

Serial thinkers  (Photo: Ali Jarekji/Reuters)

Serial thinkers (Photo: Ali Jarekji/Reuters)

Here’s a conundrum: Insects have microscopically tiny brains and yet manage some astonishingly intelligent behaviors. Human brains, on the other hand, are massive enough to make our heads fall forward onto our desks, and yet we seem to use them mainly to find new ways to be stupid.  (I am going on personal experience here.)

Honeybees, for instance, have only a million neurons in their brains, versus an estimated 85 billion neurons in a human brain. And yet the bees in a colony have to forage over an area of several square kilometers, according to the authors of a 2009 study in Current Biology, memorizing the location of flowers, sorting out which ones are more rewarding at particular times of day, then linking them in a flight pattern that’s stable and repeatable. It requires “learning landmark sequences and linking vector instructions to landmarks,” as well as “cognitive abilities previously attributed exclusively to ‘higher’ vertebrates, including, for example, simple forms of rule learning and categorization.” Meanwhile, on a typical morning the average human is still struggling to lift that massive brain off the pillow.

A honeybee must manage its daily foraging even when it isn’t driven by hunger, because Read the rest of this entry »

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

When Do Animals Feel the Beat?

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 25, 2014

Frogs Playing Musical Instruments

When researchers reported early this year that they had managed to get captive bonobo apes to pick up a beat and play along briefly on a drum, it was merely the latest entry in what has begun to look like a multi-species musical extravaganza. Just in the past year or so, scientists have given us a California sea lion bobbing its head to Earth Wind and Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland” and a chimpanzee in Japan spontaneously playing a piano keyboard in time with a simple beat. Before that, a study reported that romantically-inclined mosquitoes harmonize the whining of their wingbeats. Think: The Animals, Part II.

The study of animal musicality, and ours, goes back at least to Charles Darwin. He noted that rhythm is everywhere in the biological world, from the beating of hearts to the synchronized flashing of fireflies, leading naturally, he thought, to the rise of music. Scientific interest in music began to increase with the discovery of whale songs in the 1960s, and has grown dramatically in this century, thanks partly to new imaging technologies for viewing how the brains of various species respond to music.

Some scientists believe we would see musicality in the animal world more often if we looked more carefully. For instance, Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Cool Tools | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Bring Back Wolves … Everywhere

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 20, 2014

(Photo: Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

(Photo: Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

My latest for Takepart:

People have been suppressing predators since our terrified ancestors first banded together around campfires. Oddly, though, we only began to notice the catastrophic aftereffects in the 1960s. That’s when biologists first demonstrated that taking out a top predator has a knock-on effect for almost every plant and animal below it on the trophic ladder, or food web.

It’s called a “trophic cascade,” and when settlers eradicated wolves from the Lower 48, they set off a cascade on “a continental scale,” according to a new study published in the Journal of Animal Ecology. Where the wolf’s howl once could be heard from the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico and from Cape Cod to the Olympic Peninsula, the night went silent. And coyotes, once confined to the Great Plains, were suddenly free to increase their populations almost astronomically, extending their range from coast to coast and north into Alaska.

Wolves out, coyotes in. Almost a wash, right?

On the contrary, coyotes are “mesopredators,” meaning midsize, and they favor smaller prey than do wolves. So the proliferation of coyotes caused a

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Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , | 4 Comments »


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