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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South Africa Busts (Another) Major Rhino Poaching Syndicate

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 19, 2014


South Africa’s “Hawks” anti-poaching squad has broken up another major rhino poaching syndicate.  The question is whether they can bring them to trial.  The Hawks made a similar splash when they busted the “Musina Mafia” poaching gang in 2010, but the suspects have yet to come to trial four years later.

Here’s the story on the new arrests, from The Citizen:

The accused, wearing a white collared shirt and black formal pants, exited the court building cuffed  hand  and foot.

The arrest formed part of an operation led by the Hawks, who pounced on the alleged gang boss and nine other syndicate members simultaneously in various parts of the country during an arrest mission.

The alleged head of the syndicate was nabbed in front of court as he was due to appear on charges of illegal possession of scheduled substances and firearms.

The Citizen learnt that among the members arrested is the alleged right-hand-man, a Warrant Officer for the Organised Crime Unit in Pretoria, as well as the alleged kingpin’s wife, attorney, brother, a pilot and a professional poacher.

Nine of members of the syndicate were arrested, while one

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Intelligence Is About Making Friends, Not Tools

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 19, 2014



My latest, for the Yale Alumni Magazine:

One day in the late 1990s, Nicholas Christakis was on the South Side of Chicago visiting a woman who had Alzheimer’s disease. Christakis was then a young physician and social scientist at the University of Chicago, taking care of terminally ill patients and also studying the widower effect—in which the death of one spouse dramatically worsens the likelihood of death for the other.

That day’s patient was gradually dwindling away, attended by her daughter. “The daughter was exhausted from caring for her mother,” Christakis recalls. The daughter’s husband was also sick from his wife’s exhaustion. Then Christakis got a phone call from one of the husband’s pals, “depressed by what was happening to his friend.”

It dawned on Christakis that the widower effect was not just about husbands and wives, or even pairs of people like the mother and her daughter. It rippled outward across networks of family, friends, and coworkers. Most surprisingly, given the narrow focus of his own work up to that point, it wasn’t just about death. “So I started to see the world in a completely new way,” Christakis recalled, in a 2010 TED talk, “and I became obsessed with how it might be that we’re embedded in these social networks, and how they affect our lives.”

Questions about the nature of networks have dominated his research ever since, first at Chicago, then during a 12-year stint at Harvard, where his growing interest in networks and biosocial science ultimately led him to give up his medical practice, and now at Yale, to which Christakis returned in summer 2013 as a professor of both sociology and medicine. (His full title is the Sol Goldman Family Professor of Social and Natural Science.)

Over the past few years, his work illuminating the nature of social networks has won Christakis recognition not just within the scholarly world, but on Time magazine’s 2009 list of 100 “people who affect the world,” and on Foreign Policy’s 2009 and 2010 lists of top global thinkers. His 2009 book, Connected: How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do, has appeared in nearly 20 languages. He wrote it, appropriately, with his best friend and longtime research collaborator James H. Fowler ’97MA, now at the University of California, San Diego. Their work demonstrating the contagious nature of everything from obesity to altruism has stirred up considerable debate in the research world. It has also suggested powerful new ways to intervene in networks—for instance, to speed the switch to generic drugs, or to slow the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

What Christakis and Fowler are proposing amounts to a strikingly different way of looking at our own lives, adding a new “n’ to the familiar dichotomy of nurture and nature: we are also creatures of our social networks—simultaneously individuals and, says Christakis, intimately connected parts of a superorganism. We are metagenomic. It’s a term that has lately come into common usage to describe how the microbial genomes in and around our bodies help shape our physical and emotional well-being. But Christakis means it in a broader sense, too. Each of us also “lives in the sea of genes of others, others with whom we have chosen to connect.” Our friends’ genes, for diverse traits, may help determine how our own genes are expressed and thus who we are.

Christakis believes, moreover, that three recent developments make it possible for the first time to understand how these networks function: first, cell phones, Twitter feeds, medical administrative records, and countless other sources now make possible “massive, passive” gathering of data about social networks. New computational methods also allow researchers to identify social patterns in this sea of data and begin to make sense of them. And finally, inexpensive and widely available DNA sequencing technologies provide a window into the genetic character of these networks.

In another 2010 TED talk, Christakis likened the combined effect to the moment “when Galileo came to use the telescope and could see the heavens in a new way, or Leeuwenhoek invented the microscope and could see biology in a new way.” What’s opening up this time is the hidden universe of our own social behavior.

“Maybe intelligence isn’t about making tools, but about making friends,” Christakis tells his audience, at one of the get-acquainted talks he has been giving Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Business Behaviors, The Primate File | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Africa’s Hidden Population Boom Is Bad News For Humans & Wildlife

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 18, 2014

(Photo: Simon Maina/Getty Images)

(Photo: Simon Maina/Getty Images)

A few years ago in Kenya, a taxi driver and I were remarking on the endless shambas—tin-roofed farmhouses on impossibly small plots of land–sprawling out from Nairobi all the way across the Great Rift Valley to Lake Nakura. Kenya’s population had quintupled in the driver’s lifetime, from 8.1 million people in 1960 to 44.4 million today, and the consequences were all around us. He pointed out places where he could remember seeing rhinos, hippos, elephants and other wildlife.

All gone now.

It’s the sort of thing that makes conservation biologists foresee an Africa without wildlife. And a new analysis just out in the journal Science suggests that the problem may be worse than anyone has imagined, with the population in Africa increasing from a billion people today to as much as 5.7 billion by 2100.

Past analyses have generally concluded that the total world population would increase from 7.2 billion today to about 9.6 billion in mid-century and then stabilize or even slowly decline. But the new analysis, from a global consortium of demographers and the Population Division of the United Nations, finds “little prospect of an end to world population growth in this century.” Instead, the Earth will somehow need to feed and accommodate 11 or 12 billion people by 2100, with much of the increase happening in sub-Saharan Africa.

That conclusion is surprising because the birth rate continues to decline worldwide and in Africa. But the decline in Africa is happening at only a quarter of the rate seen “in Asia and Latin America in the 1970s, when they were at a comparable stage” in the transition to smaller families, according to the new analysis. In some African countries, the rate of decline has actually stalled over the last 15 years, according to John Wilmoth, the report’s co-author and director of the UN Population Division.

Among possible factors behind the slowdown: The desired family size reported in Africa was

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Why Field Biologists Do What They Do

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 18, 2014

I like this account of working in the natural world.  I found it in an article by Don Lyman, about field work in a New Jersey salt marsh. (That’s my old habitat.  And “ticks on the delicates”? Yes, I have been there, too.)  The speaker is Yoel Stuart, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Texas at Austin:

“We like being surprised by nature. We enjoy watching an organism conduct some behavior in the field that we could have never seen in the lab. We enjoy finding organisms living in places we never would have expected them, like kilometers under the Antarctic ice. We enjoy the adventure of getting to new places and discovering species new to science. We take great pleasure in understanding how species interact with each other in the wild as they find food, avoid predators, reproduce, and pass genes on to the next generation. Nature never ceases to amaze, so we always return to nature, where we pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake. To many of us, that’s worth bloody knuckles, Read the rest of this entry »

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

Every Tree Its Own Microbiome

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 17, 2014

Lush life in the Barro Colorado Forest (Photo: Les Cunliffe /Fotolia)

Lush life in the Barro Colorado Forest (Photo: Les Cunliffe /Fotolia)

I like this new study in part because I’ve written about the microbiome, but also because the research took place on Barro Colorado Island in Panama, and I think it relates to a story I wrote there about the microbiome of sloths.  This was back in 1982, before the word “microbiome” existed.  (You can read that story in my book, Every Creeping Thing, or I may try to get around to posting some of the details here at a later date.  In brief, it turns out sloths partition the forest canopy based on the microbiome of different trees.)

Anyway, here’s the press release:

Each tree species has its own bacterial identity. That’s the conclusion of University of Oregon researchers and colleagues from other institutions who studied the genetic fingerprints of bacteria on 57 species of trees growing on a Panamanian island.

“This study demonstrates for the first time that host plants from different plant families and with different ecological strategies possess very different microbial communities on their leaves,” said lead author Steven W. Kembel, now a professor of biological sciences at the University of Quebec at Montreal.

For the study — published this week in the online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — researchers gathered bacterial samples from 57 of the more than 450 tree species growing in a lowland tropical forest on Barro Colorado Island, Panama.

Scientists at the UO’s Genomics Core Facility sequenced the bacterial 16S ribosomal RNA gene isolated from the samples. That gene, which biologists call a barcode gene, allowed researchers to identify and measure the diversity of bacteria based on millions of DNA fragments produced from bacterial communities collected from the surfaces of leaves, said Jessica Green, a professor at both the UO and Santa Fe Institute.

“Some bacteria were very abundant and present on every leaf in the forest, while others were rare and only found on the leaves of a single host species,” Kembel said. “Each tree species of tree possessed a distinctive community of bacteria on its leaves.”

In the world of microbiology, plant leaves are considered to be a habitat known as the phyllosphere. They are host to millions of bacteria, Kembel said. “These bacteria can have important effects — both positive and negative — on the health and functioning of their host plants,” he said. “For example,

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Getting Too Close to a Wasp Nest

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 15, 2014


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Useless Creatures (and Why They Matter)

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 13, 2014

(Illustration: Chloé Poizat)

(Illustration: Chloé Poizat)

My latest for The New York Times:

This article contains no useful information. Zero. Nada. Nothing. If usefulness is your criterion for reading, thank you very much for your time and goodbye, we have nothing more to say. The truth is that I am bored to tears by usefulness. I am bored, more precisely, of pretending usefulness is the thing that really matters.

I mostly write about wildlife. So here is how it typically happens for me: A study comes out indicating that species x, y and z are in imminent danger of extinction, or that some major bioregion of the planet is being sucked down into the abyss. And it’s my job to convince people that they should care, even as they are racing to catch the 7:10 train, or wondering if they’ll be able to pay this month’s (or last month’s) rent.

My usual strategy is to trot out a list of ways even the most obscure species can prove unexpectedly, yes, useful. The first effective treatment that turned H.I.V. from a death sentence into a manageable condition? Inspired by Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity | 8 Comments »

In Mozambique, A Turning Point in the War on Elephants

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 12, 2014

Tusks seized in Niassa raid (Photo: WCS)

Tusks seized in Niassa raid (Photo: WCS)

The arrest of a deadly six-man poaching gang this past Sunday in the Niassa National Reserve, on Mozambique’s border with Tanzania, could mark a turning point in the war on elephants for two African nations critical to the survival of the species.

In a 1 a.m. raid, the result of a 10-month-long investigation, local police together with wildlife scouts from Niassa and the adjacent Lugenda Wildife Reserve surrounded the gang members as they were transporting a dozen ivory tusks.  The largest of the tusks, at 57 pounds apiece, came from an elephant believed to have been at least 40 years old.  Police also confiscated two high-powered hunting rifles.  During questioning, the shooter in the group, a skilled marksman, admitted to having killed 39 elephants in the Niassa Reserve this year alone.

That admission came in a bid to obtain repatriation to Tanzania, where four of the alleged poachers are based, according to Alastair Nelson, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Mozambique program, which co-manages the Niassa reserve with the national government.  “But that’s not going to happen this time,” he said. “These guys are in prison now and we’re pretty confident they’re going to remain there. Mozambique’s new minister of tourism himself phoned the warden and asked that these men be tried under a new law passed June 20.”

That law, for the conservation of biodiversity, criminalizes poaching of endangered species.  In the past, poachers often got off with a fine.  But the new law now mandates a prison sentence of eight to 12 years, on conviction.  That represents a major change for Mozambique, where in the run-up to elections last year, local police and politicians were rumored to be themselves participating in ivory poaching.

“We’re seeing a number of things beginning to align,” said Nelson.  “We have had

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

It’s Not Just Deforestation, it’s Degradation. And Wildlife Loses

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 5, 2014

Black bear meets dragonfly (Photo: Reuters)

Black bear meets dragonfly (Photo: Reuters)

Deforestation—the worldwide destruction of forests—is the calamitous problem that everybody worries about.  But a new analysis makes the case that forest degradation is also happening at “alarming speed” and may be just as bad, particularly for wildlife.

Just since the year 2000, almost 250 million acres of the world’s last remaining undisturbed forests have become degraded, mostly by logging and new roads, according to the analysis, the first attempt to measure forest degradation on a global scale.   That’s more than triple the land area of Germany, and represents eight percent of the world’s remaining “Intact Forest Landscapes,” or IFLs.

Ilona Zhuravleva, a Greenpeace GIS scientist who worked on the analysis, said forest degradation poses a major threat to some of the most charismatic animals on Earth, particularly large, wide-ranging species that depend on genuine wilderness for their survival. Among the victims are forest elephants in the Congo, jaguars in the Amazon, woodland caribou in Canada, wolves and bears in Russia, and tigers in Asia.  Indigenous forest people also typically become displaced, or worse, when industrial forestry brings the outside world into formerly inaccessible regions.

In the worst case cited in the study, the South American nation of Paraguay has already Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , , , | 9 Comments »

How a Fraction of Farm Subsidies Could Save 10,000 Species

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 2, 2014

Saffron toucanet

Saffron toucanet

If Brazil shifted just 6.5 percent of its present agricultural subsidies to reforestation, it could save its precious Atlantic Forest–and incidentally benefit farmers, by improving pollination and pest control.  Here’s the press release from the Imperial College London:

Brazil could conserve its valuable Atlantic Forest by investing just 0.01 per cent of its annual GDP, according to a new study.

The Atlantic Forest (Mata Atlântica) is one of the most important and threatened biodiversity hotspots in the world, containing the only living examples of nearly 10,000 species of plant and more bird species than all of Europe.

Situated along the Atlantic coast of Brazil, it once covered an area of nearly 1.5 million square kilometres. Today, the forest is home to more than 130 million people and it covers only 160,000 km2, because of deforestation.

Reporting in the journal Science, a team of international scientists have calculated that it would cost US$198 million per year to pay private owners to set aside land for reforestation. Together with the conservation of existing tracts, this would be enough

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


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