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.

  • Categories

  • Wall of the Dead

An Elephant Story That Should Resonate for Modern China

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 19, 2014


Tusks in the factory at the end of my old street in Deep River, CT

Tusks in the factory at the end of my old street in Deep River, CT

Back in 1987, when Audubon Magazine had a more ambitious and expansive view of its role in the world, a great editor there named Les Line gave me an assignment to write about a story that had turned up literally on my doorstep.  At that point, I was traveling all over the world reporting stories on wildlife.  So I was startled, one day at home, to discover that the town where I had bought my first house had once been the center of the ivory trade in the Western Hemisphere.

It turned out to be an especially interesting story for me, as I dug into it, because the nineteenth century founder of the ivory company at the end of my street had also been a leading abolitionist.  But he had somehow never noticed that his business depended entirely on the slave trade in East Africa.

The resulting story of moral complication, “When The Music In Our Parlors Brought Death to Darkest Africa,” still resonates for me personally, and apparently also for others in the context of the modern slaughter of elephants.  NPR’s “Morning Edition” nicely paraphrases that original Audubon piece (with a few minor mistakes) in today’s show.  It’s only seven minutes long and worth a listen.

If you’re interested in hearing more, here’s an interview I did a while back with NPR’s Colin McEnroe, about what China can learn about the ivory trade from small town Connecticut. It runs 10 minutes, starting at 38:00: … …  And here’s a piece I published here on the same topic.

I keep meaning to publish that original Audubon piece as an e-book, and maybe one of these days I will get around to it.  Will keep you posted, if so.


New York (August 19, 2014) – The following statement was issued by John Calvelli, WCS Executive Vice President of Public Affairs and Director of the 96 Elephants Campaign:


“Today’s landmark study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, authored by 96 Elephants partner Save the Elephants and other groups, confirms the widespread slaughter of elephants throughout Africa driven by ivory poaching.  These tragic numbers underscore

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

“We Kill Lions All The Time”: Inside the Anti-Predator Mindset

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 18, 2014


Whether they are trying to stop the killing of wolves in Idaho or lions in Tanzania, conservation biologists often come to a horrible moment when they realize that all their training has missed the mark. “I often think that I have three degrees in wildlife biology, and none of them is relevant to what I do on a daily basis,” says Amy J. Dickman, a senior research fellow at Oxford University. What she needs, more often than not, isn’t ecology. It’s psychology.

That thought occurred especially during two years she spent camped under a tree with two Tanzanian assistants, trying to make contact with a community of pastoral grazers, members of the Barabaig tribe. She was working on strategies to protect predators on the outskirts of Ruaha National Park. It’s Tanzania’s largest national park, as big as the state of New Jersey. It’s home to 10 percent of the world’s population of lions, the third-largest population of African wild dogs, one of East Africa’s largest populations of cheetahs, as well as leopards, spotted hyenas, and other predators. All of them face “intense human-carnivore conflict and frequent carnivore killing,” says Dickman, who works with the Ruaha Carnivore Project.

The Barabaig had the usual livestock herders’ reputation for hating predators.  They were also said to be secretive and hostile to outsiders. From time to time, Dickman’s team would hear celebrations, with singing, dancing, and people imitating lion calls. When they walked closer to find out if there’d been a killing, warriors with spears


Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | 2 Comments »

Cape Cod Not So Welcoming to Latest Wave of Visitors–Seals Part I

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 18, 2014


It’s a sunny morning early in June, and the scene at the Fish Pier in Chatham, Massachusetts, on the elbow of Cape Cod, is a perfect split-screen image of the Cape’s bipolar personality: On the upper deck, 40 or 50 tourists at a time line the rails, cooing and sighing every time a gray seal rises in the green water below and shows its glossy dark eyes. Meanwhile, at ground level, just below, the commercial fishermen unloading their meager catch darkly curse the seals as their worst enemy.

Someone calls down a question from the deck, and an older fisherman with battered teeth and tattooed arms answers. “This water used to be loaded with stripers,“ he begins amiably. “I used to bring my kids here at the end of the day to fish. Now the stripers are all gone. The seals ate ‘em,” he says, revving himself up. “They eat 200 or 300 pounds of fish a day.” And then the closer: “There are hundreds of seals here that we all want to kill.”

The tourists nod politely, aghast. Kill seals? It is illegal, and besides, they are too cute.

But even some tourists have lately begun to wonder just how much cuteness Cape Cod can stand. From a few dozen seals in the early 1990s, the local population of gray seals has boomed to upwards of 15,000. It represents a dramatic recovery for a species that was largely extirpated from the Cape in the nineteenth century, and it’s a triumph for the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. But to some people it also looks like way too much of a good thing.

On Cape Cod, the main “haulout,” where gray seals come ashore to rest and to reproduce, is on Monomoy, the strip of uninhabited barrier islands extending eight miles south from Chatham into Nantucket Sound.   But these days there’s hardly a beach from Falmouth to Provincetown, or on the islands, where seals don’t visit, sometimes hundreds of them at a time. This booming population has brought about a sea change for both beach-going tourists and the traditional working Cape alike.

Most sensationally, great white sharks Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Leave a Comment »

The Biology of Diving–Seals Part 2

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 18, 2014


“That one there is a female,” Keith Lincoln tells the tourists on his 32-foot seal-watching boat Rip Ryder. “See her brindle coat? Come on now, sweetheart. Look at that cute little ice cream-cone face. Wait till you see one of the big males. They get ugly.”   Males can weigh up to 800 pounds, about twice as much as females. Their faces are dog-like, with a dignified Roman nose bump. The species name Halichoerus grypus means “hooked-nosed sea pig.”

Lincoln, a Harwich police patrolman by night, runs Monomoy Island Ferry and Seal Cruises by day, and over the idling of twin 250-horsepower Evinrudes, he delivers a knowledgeable introduction to the strange biology—even the biochemistry—of seals. Right now he’s telling his passengers that a diving seal can stay underwater for up to 20 minutes. “How do they manage it?” he asks. Trick question. A passenger ventures that they must have enlarged lungs.

“When you dive down to 500 feet,’ says Lincoln, “the last thing you want is two big balloons full of air in your chest.” Instead, seals flood the pockets of their lungs with plasma to solidify them against the intense atmospheric pressure. They also drop their heart rate as low as 10 beats per minute. “Gray seal blood has three to five times more hemoglobin than ours,” says Lincoln, “so it can carry more oxygen out to the muscles.” The muscles likewise contain more myoglobin, so they can hold onto oxygen longer.   To prolong their dive time, the seals also turn off liver, kidneys, and all other functions that are at least temporarily unnecessary. “You and me are just big F150 trucks. We motor through it,” Lincoln tells his passengers. But a diving seal is all about efficiency.

That matters, he explains, because it influences what a gray seal eats—not 200 pounds in a day, but more like 20 or 30, and not the sort of fish that would interest a commercial fisherman, but Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Cool Tools | Leave a Comment »

Is There a Market for Seal Meat?–Seals Part 3

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 18, 2014

Eldridge and crew heading seaward

Eldridge and crew heading seaward (Photo: Richard Conniff)

Plenty of fishermen, on the other hand, are prepared to argue just as stubbornly (but not so happily) about what’s been lost. At dawn on a late spring morning, Ernie Eldridge sits back on the engine housing of his 28-foot open boat, hands folded across his stomach, the right hand now and then casually reaching down to tweak his course seaward out of Chatham’s Stage Harbor. He’s 63 years old, with hanks of white hair flying out from under his cap, over sea-bleached blue eyes, weathered cheeks, and a yellowing beard. He started fishing these waters with his father at the age of 10, using a technology that dates back to the Cape’s original Wampanoag inhabitants. He is now the last weir fisherman still working on the Cape, for reasons that quickly become apparent.

Approaching the weir.

Approaching the weir.

A weir is a structure set up in the balmy winds of a New England March, a mile or so offshore, by driving 125 or so hickory poles, each about 40-feet long, 10-feet deep into the sandy bottom.   They form a long straight line, called the leader, and when rigged with nets, they steer fish along their length into a heart-shaped pen, and then through a narrow gate into “the bowl,” which has a net strung across the bottom. Or that is what they would do, says Eldridge, if there were more fish and fewer seals.

As the boat pulls up to the first weir, the seals poke their heads up out of the water on either side of the leader and stare curiously, almost gratefully, as if to welcome their provider. A few years ago, a graduate student did a sonar study at one of Eldridge’s weirs and recorded 290 seal crossings at the gate in a day. Now Eldridge keeps the gate fenced off and has a birdcage of nets rigged high around the perimeter, to keep seals from clambering over the top.

“But they still Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues, Food & Drink | Leave a Comment »

Beyond Butt Dialing: Blubber Dialing–Seals Part 4

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 18, 2014


The capture

The capture

One morning back in Chatham harbor, the fishermen watch out of the corners of their eyes as scientists and federal agencies get ready to head out on a seal research mission. It takes two hours of loading equipment, working out a plan, and explaining it to assembled reporters before the party even gets off the dock. It’s a flotilla of six little boats in a line and—to general snickering among the fishermen–they never even make it out of the harbor.

They don’t need to: There are plenty of seals to work with just 15 minutes from the dock. A little before 9 a.m., the two lead boats drop down a little below an exposed sandbar, where a hundred or so seals have hauled out. Then the boats turn and ease back up, on either side of the sandbar, with a tangle net bellying out in the water between them. As the seals scatter, other members of the team jump onto the sandbar and start hauling in the net. In short order, they have four seals ashore and start the careful business of untangling. “Nails free?” someone yells, and “I’ve got a flipper here!” Three seals quickly get released again, rejoining a vast herd now bottling nearby.

The fourth, a female, gets Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Cool Tools | Leave a Comment »

How it Feels When a Shark Attacks–Seals Part 5

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 18, 2014

Myers father and son, in repair.

Myers father and son, in repair.


So how will all this change Cape Cod? What will the coming of gray seals mean for the fishermen lying awake at night fretting about how to make the mortgage or pay for fuel? What will it mean for the 500,000 or so vacationers who dream of this place all winter and crowd themselves onto this spit of sand every summer to be revived for another year by nature? What will it mean for Chris Myers, who sometimes starts up out of his sleep at his home in Denver thinking about the seals and about that day in July 2012 when the shark attacked?

Myers and his 16-year-old son J.J. were swimming toward the breakers at a submerged sandbar 400 yards off Ballston Beach in Truro. He’d been swimming out to the sandbar all his life, to stand on it and throw himself forward with enough momentum to catch a wave for the long ride in.

This time, though, as they were still approaching the sandbar, something hit him, and he knew instantly that it was a shark. “The impact was incredibly shocking and painful.” It had him hard by the left leg. With his right leg he kicked furiously at its nose and mouth. “Like kicking a refrigerator. No Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Leave a Comment »

“Frankly, Darling, You Look Like Crap, Today”

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 9, 2014

(Photo: John Tiddy)

(Photo: John Tiddy/

Say “Oh, my God, you look like shit!” and this spider is likely to answer, “Why, thank you!”

Add it to your list of species that evade potential predators by disguising themselves as bird poop.

It comes from Australia-based photographer John Tiddy, via American conservation biologist John Karges.  Tiddy found this bird-dropping spider, Celaenia excavata, on a friend’s apple tree.

Tiddy says: “Being mid-winter here, there are not many leaves left on it. The spider hangs motionless during the day, relying on the bird poo look to protect it from predators. At night it descends on its web and emits a pheromone that mimics the pheromone given off by female moths. When the amorous male moth approaches, Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Cool Tools | Leave a Comment »

Doing Dumb Things With Black Mambas

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 8, 2014

(Photo: Getty Images)

(Photo: Getty Images)


Last weekend, I left my rental car parked overnight in a remote location in northern South Africa, where I have been working on a story. When I got back to the car the following afternoon, there was a freshly shed snakeskin on the ground by the rear bumper.  The biologist I was with (OK, he was a mammals guy) examined the head and ventured, “It could be a young black mamba.”

I contemplated that as I drove for the next four hours south to Pretoria. Off and on, I wondered whether the snake had sought shelter, as animals sometimes do, in the engine compartment of the car. In case you’ve somehow never heard of black mambas, they are among the deadliest snakes in the world and can grow to 15 feet in length. They generally use their considerable speed to escape rather than to attack, but they can also bite aggressively and repeatedly. Death may occur within Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Fear & Courage | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

Insects Make the Perfect Food—for Cows

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 3, 2014

RTR3NW95Global consumption of animal protein—milk, eggs, meat, and fish—is likely to rise 60 to 70 percent by mid-century. But producing food animals already eats up three-quarters of all agricultural land, and it threatens to empty the seas for fishmeal. Meanwhile, pig and poultry operations in particular have become notorious for polluting the surrounding countryside with manure.

What’s the answer? Eating less meat can help, especially in meat-gorged nations like the United States, but it isn’t going to make these problems go away. Much of the increased demand will come from population growth and from greater wealth in protein-starved developing nations.

Instead, insects may be the answer. We’re not talking about direct consumption as human food, the perennial delight of horror-stricken journalists. The truth is that most people are never going to want to throw a housefly burger on the grill. But insects could just be the perfect feed for livestock.

A new article in the journal Animal Feed Science and Technology notes that insects breed literally like flies, they are highly efficient (because cold-blooded) at converting their feed into body mass, and, though it may need to be supplemented with calcium and other nutrients, that body mass is rich in the proteins and fats animals need. But the best part–questions of squeamishness aside—is that they can Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Cool Tools, Food & Drink | 2 Comments »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,497 other followers