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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The Half-Life of Wildlife

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 30, 2014

I don’t know about you, but I can remember 1970.  I was a freshman in college then, and the idea that half of the Earth’s wildlife has disappeared in my adult lifetime fills me with shame.  It makes me think of Wordsworth*, with a twist:  Getting and spending we lay waste their powers.

Here’s the press release on the new report from the World Worldlife Fund:

Between 1970 and 2010 populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish around the globe dropped 52 percent, says the 2014 Living Planet Report released today by World Wildlife Fund (WWF). This biodiversity loss occurs disproportionately in low-income countries—and correlates with the increasing resource use of high-income countries.

In addition to the precipitous decline in wildlife populations the report’s data point to other warning signs about the overall health of the planet. The amount of carbon in our atmosphere has risen to levels not seen in more than a million years, triggering climate change that is already destabilizing ecosystems. High concentrations of reactive nitrogen are degrading lands, rivers and oceans. Stress on already scarce water supplies is increasing. And more than 60 percent of the essential “services” provided by nature, from our forests to our seas, are in decline.

“We’re gradually destroying our planet’s ability

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Posted in Conservation and Extinction | 1 Comment »

Want to Save Salt Marshes? Send in the Goats

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 30, 2014

(Photo: Derek Davis/Getty Images)

(Photo: Derek Davis/Getty Images)

As I write this, I am sitting on my porch in Connecticut looking out at a coastal salt marsh, a habitat that seems to be increasingly under threat everywhere, in part because of a tall grass called Phragmites australis.  When I first moved here, the marsh was a wall of phragmites, in a dense stand 10-feet high, from one side to the other.  Hardly any wildlife seemed to live there, except redwing blackbirds.  The roots, or rhizomes, of the phragmites grew one on top of the other, crowding out native plants and threatening to turn the marsh into dry land.

When a study demonstrated that out-of-control phragmites are an invasive variety introduced in the nineteenth century from Europe, I went to work, deploying a one-man version of the anti-phragmites protocol now used by many state environmental protection agencies. Wearing a backpack sprayer, I cut tunnels through the dense foliage, then worked my way back out, spraying an herbicide called Rodeo, an aquatic variety of Roundup, on the leaves of the phragmites.  I wasn’t comfortable with the idea (and in neighboring New York the practice is illegal).  But it seemed to work.  The phragmites started to die back, and I saw a lot more wildlife, from otters to glossy ibis.

Now, though, a new study proposes a better way get the same results with less work, lower cost, and fewer environmental complications:

Send in the goats.

Duke University ecologist Brian Silliman got the idea while doing research on marshes in Europe.  He noticed that the same variety of phragmites turned up there mainly in drainage ditches and at construction sites.  But the marshes remained

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

Indonesia Busts Manta Ray Poachers

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 30, 2014


Following on the good news of multiple arrests of elephant poachers in Mozambique, Indonesia is now cracking down on people who traffick illegally in manta ray parts.  It’s very encouraging to see this kind of enforcement from developing nations that have experienced some of the most dramatic wildlife losses ever.

Here’s the press release from the Wildlife Conservation Society:

NEW YORK (SEPTEMBER 30, 2014) – The Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries (MMAF), Government of Indonesia, and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)’s Wildlife Crimes Unit announced today the first-ever series of enforcement actions against a trader of sharks and rays in Indonesia, home to the largest shark fisheries on earth.

Between August 22nd and September 26th, 2014, the team of officials, led by Pantja Waluyo Prasetyanto of the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, arrested four traders of CITES-listed sharks and rays products, assisted by the WCS Wildlife Crimes Unit.

A fisheries police dicusses the difference between manta and mobula ray gills (Photo: Paul Hilton/WCS)

A fisheries police dicusses the difference between manta and mobula ray gills (Photo: Paul Hilton/WCS)

The first arrest took place on August 22nd in Surabaya, Indonesia, the nation’s second largest city, and involved a shipment of 50kg (110 pounds) of gill plates, of which 19.5kg (43 pounds) were from manta rays – two newly protected species under Indonesian law; and 13kgs (28 pounds) of marine turtle meat. The arrested trader, named Suep, is the owner of Sido Mampir Seafood.

Then on September 1st, in Bali, the Indonesian National Police’s Criminal Investigation Division, led by Police Adjunct Senior Commissioner Sugeng Irianto, arrested a trader Johan who was trafficking 53 snouts of the Critically Endangered sawfish ray.

The third arrest by the MMAF team, of a trader named Jnd, took place on September 9th in Sidoarjo near Surabaya. The team confiscated 558 kg (1,231 pounds) of manta ray bones, 4 kg (8.8 pounds) of sea turtle scales, manta gill plates and nautilus shells.

A final arrest occurred on September 26th at the Indramayu fisheries landing site in West Java, when a fisheries trader named Wrm was apprehended by MMAF trying to sell an entire

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Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Leave a Comment »

Ireland’s Shawshank Hero: Tunnels to Pub to Escape Snoring Wife

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 28, 2014

I can’t think of any plausible reason to run this piece.  Shocking news that movies produce unpredictable effects in human behavior? Um, no.  But I love the Irish in all their perversity and, wait, their penchant for strange behaviors.

Beware that the source may not be 100 (or even 30) percent reliable (“Gombeen” is an Irish term for a small-scale wheeler-dealer thief).

Any way, read it for a laugh (especially the last line):

Omagh’s ‘Shawshank Husband’

Dug Tunnel From Bedroom To Pub

Over 15 Years; Wife Snored Too Loud


Kerry re-enacts escape from wife’s snoring.

An Omagh plumber tunnelled a hole from under his bed to the local pub 800 feet from his house over the course of 15 years, a court heard today.

Patsy Kerr had been summonsed to Omagh County Court after it emerged he had been the cause of a collapsed sewage pipe from a neighbouring house. Kerr told the court about his secret tunnel and the reasons behind it:

“The wife has a bad snore on her and after watching the Shawshank Redemption on RTE one night in 1994, I decided to do something about it so I waited til she was in a deep sleep and then set about digging a hole under the bed in the direction of the pub. I used all manner of tools from spoons to a heavy duty tunnel boring machine I managed to sneak down there when she was at the shops. It wasn’t until 2009 that I hit the jackpot and came up through the women’s toilet mop and bucket room.”

Kerr explained how he spent the last five years heading to the pub via his tunnel at 11pm before returning at 1am, undetected by his deep sleeping wife:

“To be honest I was sort of glad I was caught. She was always smelling drink off me in the morning and I was explaining it away as

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Posted in Funny Business, The Primate File | Leave a Comment »

A U.S. Plan to Sacrifice Wolves for Lumber

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 28, 2014

A proposed USFS logging auction threatens this wolf subspecies (Photo: Hyde?)

A proposed USFS logging auction threatens this wolf subspecies (Photo: Hyde?)


Today’s New York Times reports on a U.S. Forest Service (USFS) plan to cut most of the remaining virgin forest on Prince of Wales Island Island in the Tongass National Forest on the Alaska coast.  Conservationists say the proposed auction, called Big Thorne, threatens a wolf population that’s already in trouble:

In the island’s northern half, nearly 94 percent of the biggest stands of virgin forest have been cut down. Big Thorne will clean up some of what remains; the 9.7 square miles of woodlands marked for cutting are sprinkled over 360 square miles, much of it clear-cut in decades past.

The conservationists’ lawsuit argues that the Forest Service ignored the law and its own rules in choosing tracts of forest for logging in Big Thorne and five other sites. Example 1, they say, is the Alexander Archipelago wolf. [N.B., my link. The NY Times linked to the USFS site for the subspecies.]

The wolf, a smaller, many-colored cousin of the timber wolf, relies on the Sitka black-tailed deer for food. The deer winter in the island’s old-growth forests, where big trees and underbrush provide forage, shelter from snows and cover from the island’s hunters.

Federal rules require the Forest Service “to maintain viable populations” of the wildlife on its lands. For the wolf, that means having enough deer Read the rest of this entry »

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

Kingfisher Triumphant

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 27, 2014

kingfisher by Haibo Chi

(Photo: Haibo Chi)

This photo is from the Epson International Pano Awards, a photo contest, and a selection of winners is appearing in the Mail Online.  I think a number of the winners could have competed in the Best Photoshopping category, or maybe The Best Manipulation of a Photograph Beyond Any Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Food & Drink, Kill or Be Killed | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

How A Fur Coat Is Helping Save an Endangered Cat

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 26, 2014

ocelotMy latest for Takepart.

Everybody has some dreadful bit of family history stashed away in the attic and preferably forgotten. For the Rockefeller heirs last week, it was their investment in the fossil fuel industry, largely founded by their oil baron ancestor John D. Rockefeller. For me, it was an ocelot jacket inherited from my wife’s grandmother.

And let me tell you, it is hard to write about endangered species when you have a dead one literally hanging over your head. Or more like 15 dead ocelots, to make up the single carcoat-length jacket that has been hidden away in my attic for several decades now. So I decided to get rid of it, more or less the way the Rockefellers decided last week to divest their millions from fossil fuel companies. Only on a somewhat more modest scale.

Ocelots are beautiful little cats, roughly twice the size of a house cat and covered in elongated spots that seem to want to become stripes. They’re hide-and-pounce predators, and tend to be solitary and elusive, but still range through much of South and Central America, and up both coasts of Mexico. The fur trade used to kill as many as 200,000 ocelots annually for jackets like the one in my attic, which probably dates from the 1950s. But Read the rest of this entry »

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

Killing Elephants for Fun and Profit

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 26, 2014


A game guard points out where the poacher’s bullet killed this young elephant.

This is a hard photograph to look at, but it’s what ivory poachers do, and what we are complicit in when we buy ivory objects.

It’s from a poaching incident in Mozambique, where a survey is about to begin to determine how many elephants still survive there.  You need to know how many there are in order to protect them and keep stuff like this from happening.  Here’s the press release:

Great Elephant Survey To Commence in Mozambique

Hard Data Needed to Better Address Elephant Poaching Crisis

Maputo, Mozambique, Sept. 26, 2014 –The Wildlife Conservation Society is partnering with the government of Mozambique, Paul G. Allen, and USAID to conduct a national elephant survey to collect data essential to protecting Mozambique’s highly threatened and diminishing savannah elephant population.

The survey is a part of the Great Elephant Census–an effort to count savannah elephant populations across sub-Saharan Africa  in response to the current escalating wave of poaching sweeping across Africa. The census will provide an essential Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Leopard Attacks Honey Badger, Loses

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 26, 2014

Yesterday the leopard seemed to have the world by the ass.  But today a leopard meets a honey badger, a quarter of its size and ten times as mean. World now has leopard by ass.  Circle of Life and all that.

This sequence also comes from Botswana, by way of Dutch photograher Vincent Grafhorst.  The text is from The Mail Online (Caveat:  I am doubtful about the attribution of that quote to Mark Twain):

An unlucky leopard got more than it bargained for after trying to catch and eat a honey badger.

These pictures show the leopard lamenting its overconfidence when the smaller beast lived up to Mark Twain’s old adage: ‘It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.’

After spotting the badger from a distance, the leopard managed to rush down inside its burrow and drag it outside for what it thought was going to be an easy meal.

But despite catching its prey by the neck, the tough mammal managed to wriggle free thanks to its loose skin.

David and Goliath: An unlucky leopard

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Posted in Fear & Courage, Kill or Be Killed | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Don’t Look Now, It’s A Leopard Dive-Bomb

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 25, 2014

I was in the Okavango Delta recently and saw a leopard gracefully climb down a tree, at leisure. 

But this photo and video sequence from the same vicinity is incredible.  It’s by Yasmin Tajik of Shalimar Studios (which is–go figure–a Las Vegas wedding photo outfit; I bet they catch every punch when a cat fight breaks out on the dance floor).

First the video, then the stills, with Tajik’s narration.

On a safari trip at Chief’s Camp in Botswana we were out one morning with our ranger Tutalife, exploring Moremi National Park, when Tutalife stopped the vehicle and pointed out a female leopard in the tree tops.

The leopard was intently Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Kill or Be Killed | Tagged: , , | 10 Comments »


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