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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Don’t Feed the Bears

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 19, 2014

Bear feeding days at Yellowstone.

Bear feeding days at Yellowstone.

Once, walking through head-high sagebrush in Yellowstone National Park, a couple of field researchers and I ran into a grizzly bear heading straight toward us, at a gallop. The bear had better things on his mind, luckily for us. It was elk calving season, and between us and him, three elk cows were racing away, pink mouths open, eyes wide with fear, trying to protect their young. They cut left, and the bear followed, moving at a rocky sprint, his loose brown flanks rippling in the sunlight, intent on hunting down his dinner.

It wasn’t maybe the safest way to see grizzlies, but for the bear it was heaven. He was visibly better off than in those long decades when the National Park Service allowed Yellowstone grizzlies to become dependent on garbage dumps and roadside tourist handouts. Since that practice abruptly ended in the 1970s, the Yellowstone bears have become wild again, learning which foods to eat in which seasons, and living by their considerable wits.

Incredibly, though, there are places in North America where the tourist-handout approach persists. In Canada’s Quebec province, travel companies bill it as “ecotourism.” They set up feeding stations on private land to provide paying guests with what they describe as a “one-of-a-kind encounter with the black bear of Quebec.” It is perhaps a reliable way to see black bears. But it borders on consumer fraud to pretend these animals are “wild.”

The feeding stations effectively domesticate the bears, changing their

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

That Transmission Line You Hate? It Could Be Pollinator Habitat

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 16, 2014

unnamedMy latest for Yale Environment 360:
Nobody loves electrical power transmission lines. They typically bulldoze across the countryside like a clearcut, 150 feet wide and scores or hundreds of miles long, in a straight line that defies everything we know about nature. They’re commonly criticized for fragmenting forests and other natural habitats and for causing collisions and electrocutions for some birds. Power lines also have raised the specter, in the minds of anxious neighbors, of illnesses induced by electromagnetic fields.

So it’s a little startling to hear wildlife biologists proposing that properly managed transmission lines, and even natural gas and oil pipeline rights-of-way, could be the last best hope for many birds, pollinators, and other species that are otherwise dramatically declining.

 This Lasioglossum sopinci specimen, a rare species of sand-specialist bees, was found along a power line right-of-way in Maryland's Patuxent Wildlife Research Refuge. (Photo: Sam Droege/USGS)

This Lasioglossum sopinci specimen, a rare species of sand-specialist bees, was found along a power line right-of-way in Maryland’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Refuge. (Photo: Sam Droege/USGS)

The open, scrubby habitat under some transmission lines is already the best place to hunt for wild bees, says Sam Droege of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, and that potential habitat will inevitably become more important as the United States becomes more urbanized. He thinks utility rights-of-way — currently adding up in the U.S. to about nine million acres for power transmission lines, and another 12 million for pipelines — could eventually serve as a network of conservation reserves roughly one third the area of the national park system.

Remarkably, some power companies agree. Three utilities — New York Power Authority, Arizona Public Service, and Vermont Electric Power Company — have already completed a certification program from the Right of Way Stewardship Council, a new group established to set standards for right-of-way management, with the aim of encouraging low-growth vegetation and thus, incidentally, promoting native wildlife. Three more utilities, all from Western states, are currently seeking certification.

“Whether the other few hundred will be similarly interested, we don’t know. We hope they’ll see the value,” said Jeffrey Howe, the council’s president. The gist of the program is straightforward: Federal regulations currently require power companies to keep their transmission line corridors free of large trees and other tall vegetation. Beyond that, though, there is nothing to require the common practice of routinely mowing everything down to grass, or broadcast-spraying herbicides. So instead, some utilities have shifted to Read the rest of this entry »

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

Under Pressure, Texas Moves to Stop Ocelot Traffic Deaths

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 15, 2014

(Photo: Ana Cotta)

(Photo: Ana Cotta)

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece for Takepart about the only U.S. population of the endangered ocelot suffering from roadkills because of poor planning on Texas State Highway 100.  Among other things, I asked readers to phone or email to let the Texas Department of Transportation know how they felt about that.

Now TexDot, as it’s known, says it’s going to fix the problem.  It’s not clear whether this is a smokescreen or the beginning of a genuine improvement.  I’ll keep an on it to see what really happens, and whether it happens soon enough to make a difference.  Meanwhile, here’s the report from

Funding has been secured for four ocelot crossings on Highway 100 between Laguna Vista and Los Fresnos.

After four of the endangered cats were killed on the busy road and years of meetings with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is prepared to construct four wildlife crossings beneath the roadway similar to this one on Highway 48 near the Port of Brownsville.

Regional TxDOT spokesman Octavio Saenz spoke to the Nature Report about the project.

“We secured funding for four crossings,” Saenz said. “We are still in negotiations or talks, I should say regarding the size of two of those crossings.”

With less than 50 of the rare cats estimated to remain in the wild, Read the rest of this entry »

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

How Beavers Build Biodiversity

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 13, 2014

It's not postcard pretty to human eyes. But it's habitat to wildlife.

It’s not postcard pretty to human eyes. But it’s habitat to wildlife.

Even species as small and relatively uncharismatic as beavers produce dramatic changes in the environment, to the benefit of many species and the detriment of others.  This press release caught my eye partly because of the debate over how reintroduction of wolves has changed Yellowstone National Park.  It’s also of interest because the British, who seem t0 suffer from a profound fear of their native wildlife (wolves, bears, badgers), are currently debating reintroduction of beavers (with much “we shall fight in the fields and in the streets” rhetoric):

Felling trees, building dams and creating ponds — beavers alter the landscape in ways that are beneficial to other organisms, according to ecologist Carol Johnston of South Dakota State University.

“Beavers influence the environment at a rate far beyond what would be expected given their abundance,” said Johnston, who is now completing a National Science Foundation grant to study how beavers have affected the ecosystem at Voyageurs National Park, near International Falls, Minnesota. She’s been doing beaver research there since the 1980s.

Beavers create patchiness because they cut down big trees and make dams that flood the landscape, creating wet meadows and marshy vegetation, Johnston explained. Historical and aerial photos from 1927 and 1940 showed solid forests, meaning little evidence of beaver activity.  But from the 1940s through the 1980s, the beaver population in the nearly 218,000-acre park increased steadily. By 1986, 13 percent of the landscape was impounded by beavers.

“We saw lots of ponds where before there were none,” she said. Ducks, amphibians,

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Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

Got a Favorite Beer? Thank a Fruitfly For That

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 11, 2014

beerWhen I am not thinking about wildlife, I am often thinking about beer. So it’s nice (and also sort of icky) to see these two interests come together in a study showing that  fruitflies give beer its flavor.  Interesting that the study comes from Belgium, home of some of the more aromatic beers.  (Do beer flavors vary regionally depending on the Drosophila species?)  Also not in the least surprising that the researcher got the idea for this work as a graduate student.

I suppose the fruitfly-beer connection shouldn’t seem all that novel because I have often used a small dish of beer to attract and kill fruitflies around the kitchen.  But the idea that the fruitflies have contributed to the taste of beer suggests I need to think about them more kindly.  To butcher  A.E. Housman a bit, “Malt does more than Darwin can/to justify the ways of Drosophila to man.”

I’m going to shut up now and go to the press release:

Meet the bartender

Meet the bartender

The familiar smell of beer is due in part to aroma compounds produced by common brewer’s yeast. Now, researchers reporting in the journal Cell Reports have discovered why the yeast make that smell: the scent attracts fruit flies, which repay the yeast by dispersing their cells in the environment.

Yeast lacking a single aroma gene fail to produce their characteristic odor, and they don’t attract fruit flies either.

“Two seemingly unrelated species, yeasts and flies, have developed an intricate symbiosis based on smell,” said Kevin Verstrepen of KU Leuven and VIB in Belgium. “The flies can feed on the yeasts, and the yeasts benefit from the movement of the flies.”

Verstrepen first got an idea that this might be going on about 15 years ago as a graduate student studying how

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Posted in Fear & Courage, Food & Drink | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

An App To Help Cops Spot Illegal Wildlife

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 11, 2014

My latest for Takepart:

(Illustration: John Gould)

(Illustration: John Gould)

One of the unintended consequences of sending the United States military abroad is to promote illegal trafficking in wildlife. Young soldiers typically want souvenirs of their foreign service, and neither military patrol officers on bases abroad nor customs agents back home can usually tell whether, say, that fur hat is made from Eurasian lynx (illegal) or Corsac fox (not wonderful, but OK).

Heidi Kretser, a social scientist from the Wildlife Conservation Society, was living in upstate New York in 2008 when nearby Fort Drum was training and mobilizing 80,000 troops a year, many with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. She thought she could help with training programs, handouts, and a video about illegal wildlife products. But frequent turnover, especially among M.P.s, meant that it was difficult to train everyone, or make that training stick.

Later, she saw the problem firsthand in Afghanistan, where merchants coming onto military bases for weekly or monthly bazaars routinely sold fur coats from Eurasian lynx, skulls and horns of Marco Polo sheep, and even snow leopard pelts. Soldiers, contractors, and international aid workers also frequented the wildlife market known as “Chicken Street” in Kabul. Sweeps of bases by military police turned up hundreds of contraband wildlife products, and a survey back at Fort Drum found that 40 percent of soldiers had either purchased or seen other soldiers purchase wildlife products while abroad.

To help fix the problem, Kretser has produced a smartphone app called Wildlife Alert that gives law enforcement officers a mobile decision tree for figuring out whether or not a wildlife product from Afghanistan is legal. Writing in the journal Biological Conservation, Kretser and her WCS coauthors also announced the development of a similar app, called Wildlife Guardian, already being tried out by forest police and customs officers to address rampant illegal wildlife trafficking in China.

Neither app attempts to turn cops into taxonomists. The apps are merely tools, Kretser said, “that help people

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Never Mind Biodiversity. Think Color, Movement, Noise

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 7, 2014

This is a nice description by Chris Helzer, a Nebraska ecologist, about the aftermath of a tour he was giving of some of the prairie habitat he manages for the Nature Conservancy:

As we were finishing the last tour of our site and walking back to the vehicles, Wayne Copp, of the Tall Grass Bison Ranch in Auburn, Kansas, caught up with me.  He told me how much he had enjoyed the tours and that he thought our prairies looked great.  I thanked him, of course – it’s always nice to hear that.  But then he went on…

“A lot of prairies I visit,” he said, “look pretty dead – there’s not much going on. But your prairies are really alive, and they’ve got the three things I always look for in grasslands.”

“Which are?” I asked.

“Color, movement and noise.”

And there you go.  I’ve not heard a more concise, all-encompassing description of a good prairie.  Even better, you don’t have to be a botanist or ecologist to recognize color, movement and noise.  Anyone, regardless of age or background, can walk through a prairie and judge whether or not that prairie has those qualities.

Color is easy to find in many prairies.  Wildflowers are an obvious source of color, but not the only one.


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How Monarch Butterflies Found (and Lost) Their Migration

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 2, 2014

monarch cluster by Jaap de Roodee

Monarchs at their overwintering site cluster against the cold (Photo: Jaap de Roodee)

As the monarch butterfly migration faces a worsening risk of extinction, a research team has discovered the basis of that legendary migration in a single gene. Genetic analysis also suggests that monarch butterflies originated here in North America, not in the tropics, as previously thought.

Here’s the press release:

The monarch butterfly is one of the most iconic insects in the world, best known for its distinct orange and black wings and a spectacular annual mass migration across North America. However, little has been known about the genes that underlie these famous traits, even as the insect’s storied migration appears to be in peril.

Sequencing the genomes of monarch butterflies from around the world, a team of scientists has now made surprising new insights into the monarch’s genetics. They identified a single gene that appears central to migration — a behavior generally regarded as complex — and another that controls pigmentation. The researchers also shed light on the evolutionary origins of the monarch. They report their findings Oct. 1 in Nature.

“The results of this study shift our whole thinking about

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

Wild Horses a Problem for Ranchers? Wolves Could Fix That

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 1, 2014

wild_horses_0Today’s New York Times has a report on the wild horse population boom in the American West, and for once, I agree with the ranchers:  Bizarre federal policies over the last 40 years have allowed wild horse populations to expand dramatically, causing rampant overgrazing while also running up out-of-control costs (currently $50 million a year) to house horses that have been taken off the land, but can’t be euthanized.

The federal policies are the result of misguided sentimental attitudes toward a favored species, the same sort of attitudes that cause city people to feed feral cats in parks that would otherwise be havens for wildlife. If animal rights activists want to protect excess horses from being euthanized, or sold for meat, they should be picking up that $50 million cost of housing them, not taxpayers.

And here’s an idea for the ranchers: If you want to keep down the horse population, learn to tolerate wolves, grizzly bears, and other predators.  They would act as a natural check on the horses.  And, yes, you can have wolves and cattle, too, just Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , | 6 Comments »

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 »


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