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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A Cold Death in South America

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 15, 2014

View of Tierra del Fuego painted by Alexander Buchan four days before he joined the fatal expedition into the interior

In putting together The Wall of the Dead:  A Memorial to Lost Naturalists, I have been continually aware that local collectors and other underlings often get left out of history.  So I was intrigued to come across an account of two explorers lost in January 1769 on Capt. Cook’s first circumnavigation of the globe.  Both Richmond and Dorlton were servants–and specimen collectors–for the great botanist Joseph Banks.  Cook’s journal noted them both as negro servants.

Banks writing afterward in his journal:  “The weather had all this time been vastly fine much like a sunshiny day in May, so that neither heat nor cold was troublesome to us nor were there any insects to molest us, which made me think the traveling much better than what I had before met with in Newfoundland.”

We passd about half way very well when the cold seemd to have at once an effect infinitely beyond what I have ever experienced. Dr Solander was the first who felt it, he said he could not go any fa[r]ther but must lay down, tho the ground was coverd with snow, and down he laid Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in The Species Seekers | Leave a Comment »

Help for Farmers When Honeybees Fail

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 14, 2014

Right now in Washington and Oregon, 380,000 honeybee hives are at work pollinating cherry, pear, and apple orchards. Last month, a million hives—three-quarters of the nation’s entire stock of commercial honeybees—were pollinating almonds in the Central Valley of California. Pollination by insects is an essential service, necessary for71 percent of the top 100 crops worldwide. But it has also become alarmingly expensive and uncertain, as colony collapse disorder and other problems have doubled or tripled the cost of renting honeybee hives.

Why not let native pollinators do the same work for free?

That might be a good idea, except that populations of wild pollinators have also collapsed, largely because intensive agriculture has eaten up huge swaths of former habitat, with no end in sight. When researchers in Utah and Illinois recently looked at four North American bumblebee species, they found that their geographic range had shrunk by as much as 87 percent, and population by as much as 96 percent, with a significant share of the loss having occurred just within the past 20 years.

The developing concern over a different kind of national security—pollinator security—recently led the White House for the first time to include a pollinator garden in its plantings, with the aim of supporting bees and monarch butterflies and drawing attention to their crucial role in food production. A group called Make Way For Monarchs is lobbying for large-scale federal action ahead of National Pollinator Week in June. (It has also called on Americans to “join us in a day of action and contemplation for imperiled pollinators” today, April 14.)

But what’s probably more important is that Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Leave a Comment »

There’s Something Fishy About These Bats

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 12, 2014

The long-fingered bat. (Photo: Antton Alberdi, UPV/EHU)

The long-fingered bat. (Photo: Antton Alberdi, UPV/EHU)

For researchers on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, near Valencia, the mystery began when bat excrement on the floor of a cave turned out to be loaded with scales, suggesting that an insect-eating bat species had instead turned to fishing.

It wasn’t a complete surprise. Bats are amazingly diverse, with 1,240 species (that’s 20 percent of all mammals), and they’ve had 50 million years to develop a multitude of quirky behaviors. Different bat species are known to eat almost anything—insects, of course, but also fruit, leaves, flowers, nectar, pollen, and, yes, blood. It might be genuinely surprising if somebody said bats catch and eat songbirds, except that researchers caught bats doing just that in 2007.

Frogs too. Early this year, researchers in Central and South America reported on how the male túngara frog’s love song produces a widening pattern of ripples on the surface of the water. Bats have learned to use that pattern as a flight path to cruise in and pluck up the unfortunate Lothario for dinner.

Still, Ostaizka Aizpurua-Arrieta and her coauthors on a new study in the journal PLOS One wanted to find out how Spain’s long-fingered bat learned to fish. “It was a special challenge for me because we didn’t think fishing was among the habits of the long-fingered bat,” says Aizpurua-Arrieta. These bats use echolocation to hunt down their main food source, immature midges, at the surface of the water. But the sonic pulses the bats emit for echolocation can’t penetrate below the surface, to where fish live. The long-fingered bat also weighs no more than a third of an ounce, which is “why it is difficult to imagine it fishing.”

And yet,

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Posted in Biodiversity, Cool Tools, Food & Drink | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The Crank Who Made Cities Livable

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 8, 2014

British social reformer Edwin Chadwick. (Photo: The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

British social reformer Edwin Chadwick. (Photo: The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Visiting a city in a tropical nation a few years ago, I was puzzled to see that the trees opposite a makeshift slum were all plastered in a thick, almost congealed, layer of shopping bags.

“Why doesn’t the government just ban plastic bags?” I asked my taxi driver stupidly.

“People would be angry,” he explained and then grew vague. It turned out that in makeshift slums without plumbing, those bags were the closest thing a lot of people had to a toilet. And because there was no proper way to dispose of them afterward, the nearby trees and bushes had become a waste disposal system.

That spectacle clung to me after I retreated to my hotel room, with its polished chrome hardware and its sanitized porcelain throne. And it made me think that what the world needs now is a terrible crank—sorry, I mean, a brilliant social reformer—named Sir Edwin Chadwick, Knight Commander of the Order of Bath.

Chadwick is, admittedly, an unlikely hero for our day. He was so arrogant and self-righteous in his campaigns on behalf of the poor that he managed, despite ample competition, to make himself one of the most hated men in 19th-century Britain. He was also a terrible bore, in the fashion of

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Posted in Environmental Issues | Leave a Comment »

Hidden Superheroes of the Forest Underworld

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 7, 2014

A black-chinned red salamander in Georgia. (Photo: Todd W. Pierson/University of Georgia)

A black-chinned red salamander in Georgia. (Photo: Todd W. Pierson/University of Georgia)

My latest for the New York Times:

If someone asked you to name the top predator in North American forests, you might think of bears, or maybe great horned owls. But here’s another answer to think about: woodland salamanders.

These skittish, slippery amphibians literally live under a rock, or a log, or any convenient dark and damp forest habitat. As apex predators go, they are mainly small, a few inches long and weighing well under an ounce.

But they are hugely abundant — and very hungry. On an average day, a salamander eats 20 ants of all sizes, two fly or beetle larvae, one adult beetle and half of an insect called the springtail. And in doing so, they collectively affect the entire course of life in the forest — and perhaps far beyond.

According to a new study in the journal Ecosphere, salamanders play a significant role in the global carbon cycle. If flatulent cattle are among the black hats of climate change (the livestock industry emits 14.5 percent of human-associated greenhouse gases), then salamanders may just be the white hats, helping to stave off climate disaster. If no one has noticed this before, well, this is how it goes when you live under a rock.

A painted ensatina in northern California. (Photo: Todd W. Pierson/University of Georgia)

A painted ensatina in northern California. (Photo:
Todd W. Pierson/University of Georgia)

The study — by Hartwell H. Welsh Jr., a herpetologist at the United States Forest Service’s research station in Arcata, Calif., and Michael L. Best, now at the College of the Redwoods in Eureka, Calif. — notes that salamanders’ prey consists almost entirely of “shredding invertebrates,” bugs that spend their lives ripping leaves to little bits and eating them.

Leaf litter from deciduous trees is on average 47.5 percent carbon, which tends to be released into the atmosphere, along with methane, when the shredding invertebrates shred and eat them.

If there aren’t as many shredders at work and the leaves remain in place, uneaten, they are covered by other leaves, “like being trapped under a wet blanket,” as Dr. Welsh put it. The anaerobic environment under those layers preserves the carbon until it can be captured by the soil, a process called humification.

At least in theory, having more salamanders in a forest should mean Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Cool Tools, Environmental Issues | 1 Comment »

Are Fences The Only Way to Save Africa’s Lions?

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 3, 2014

(Photo: Marvin E. Newman/Getty Images)

(Photo: Marvin E. Newman/Getty Images)

Is building fences the best way to protect wildlife from people, and people from wildlife? For a lot of wildlife enthusiasts, the question conjures up memories of zebra and wildebeest carcasses piled high in the 1980s, when cattle fences cut off ancient migration routes in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert. But this time, some biologists think that fences might just be the only way to save Africa’s rapidly disappearing lions, which have lost half their population just since 2000.

And while Africa is the focus of the argument, the debate has extended to the idea of building fences to separate wildlife from people and livestock even around habitats as remote and sacrosanct as Yellowstone National Park.

The argument this time got started in March 2013 when lion biologist Craig Packer and more than 50 coauthors published an article in the journal Ecology Letters noting that Africa’s lions have already lost 75 percent of their original habitat. It predicted that almost half of the remaining unfenced lion populations “may decline to near extinction over the next 20-40 years.” On the other hand, “every fenced population is expected to remain close to its carrying capacity for the next century,” largely because Read the rest of this entry »

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

Sorry, Cat Lovers, TNR Simply Doesn’t Work

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 1, 2014

My latest for Takepart, on the feral cat fight:

Various estimates say that anywhere from 20 to 100 million feral cats roam the United States. Together with pet cats that are allowed to wander free, they kill billions of birds, mammals, and other animals every year.

Every time I write about the need to deal with this rapidly worsening problem, certain readers argue for a method called TNR, which stands for “trap, neuter, and release,” or sometimes “trap, neuter, and return.” So let’s take a look at how it might work.

TNR is an idea with enormous appeal for many animal welfare organizations, because it means cat shelters no longer have to euthanize unwanted cats: They just neuter and immunize them, then ship them back out into the world. It’s a way to avoid the deeply dispiriting business of putting animals down, not to mention the expense of feeding and caring for the animals during the usual waiting period for a possible adoption. And it enables animal shelters to put on a happier face for donors: “We’re a shelter, not a slaughterhouse.”

TNR advocates generally cite a handful of studies as evidence that this method works. The pick of the litter is a 2003 study that supporters say shows TNR enabled the University of Central Florida to reduce the feral cat population on its Orlando campus by 66 percent. On closer examination, though, what that study showed was that

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Posted in Environmental Issues | 59 Comments »

Readers Respond To “The Evil of Outdoor Cats”

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 31, 2014

(Illustration:  Christelle Enault )

(Illustration: Christelle Enault )

These letters appeared today in the NY Times, in response to my article “The Evil of the Outdoor Cat.”

The letter from the Humane Society executive is the most interesting.  It says that neither the Humane Society nor other groups can sell euthanasia of feral cats to the public, and therefore we should leave feral cats free to kill wildlife, as we have known them to do for almost a century.

This is a highly selective, even perverse, notion of “animal welfare,” for an outfit that describes itself as “the nation’s largest animal protection organization” dedicated to preventing “cruelty before it occurs” and seeking “a humane and sustainable world for all animals.”

Maybe they mean they are for preventing cruelty, “except when we can’t sell it to the public.”

To the Editor:

Re “The Evil of the Outdoor Cat,” by Richard Conniff (Sunday Review, March 23):

Thank you for addressing a portion of the litany of problems with allowing cats to roam outdoors. There is a new trend by “no kill” “rescue” groups, which oppose all euthanasia, to release even tame cats into the not-so-great outdoors to take their chances as part of trap-neuter-release programs. In addition to killing wildlife and running afoul of it, these cats succumb to freezing winter weather, traffic, infections and infestations, human beings with evil intentions, and other perils.

As a humane officer for many years, I’ve seen it all and can attest to the fact that cats’ predation on other animals aside, it is not kind to allow them to come to such harsh and painful ends. Trap-neuter-return is illegal in most states because it constitutes abandonment of an animal, and should be in all.

President, People for the Ethical
Treatment of Animals
Washington, March 24, 2014

To the Editor:

Richard Conniff sensitively explores an issue that is an impossible dilemma for cat owners. Keeping a cat indoors amounts to caging an animal that was meant to run and roam, and it can make life miserable for both cat and owner. Yet being responsible for the death of small animals, birds especially, is also unacceptable.

I do take issue with Mr. Conniff’s offhand comment that Read the rest of this entry »

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

The Unnatural World of Killer House Cats

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 28, 2014

Adorable but deadly (Photo: Richard Conniff)

Adorable but deadly (Photo: Richard Conniff)

My latest for Takepart:

Earlier this week, I published an article in the New York Times remembering a cat I once owned and loved named Lucky. She was my last outdoor cat, partly because her own death was a bloody reminder of just how dangerous the outdoor life can be for the cats themselves: She died one night, torn to pieces by a bobcat, after 10 years of wandering freely around the neighborhood.

But she was also my last outdoor cat because I realized, after the fact, how deadly outdoor cats can be for wildlife: By letting Lucky wander freely, I had made it possible for her to kill hundreds of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians over the years. While writing about wildlife and maintaining my own yard with wildlife in mind, I had unintentionally been stripping wildlife from the entire neighborhood.

Other cat owners are increasingly coming to the same grim realization—in part because of a federal study last year that added up the billions of animals killed by cats every year in the Lower 48 States. I argued in my article that outdoor cats will soon be as socially unacceptable as smoking in the office, or leaving dog poop on the sidewalk. The editors headlined it “The Evil of Outdoor Cats,” and it attracted widespread attention on the web, some of it angry. One reader commented that a better headline would have been “The Evil of Humans.”

A lot of readers misunderstood a central point I was trying to make about the dramatic decline in bird populations in this country, and about the loss of habitat. Readers commented correctly that the real menace to wildlife comes from suburban sprawl, agricultural intensification, logging, mining, industrial pollution, and climate change. But a lot of cat-owners seemed to think that was an argument for continuing to let their cats go outside to kill. “Whatever damage cats are doing,” a reader in Seattle commented, “it can only be a small fraction of the many human-caused threats to wildlife, in particular habitat destruction.” It was like arguing that, because there are wars going on out there, my little murders shouldn’t count.

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Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , | 12 Comments »

A New Science Revamps Our Ideas About Domestication

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 25, 2014

White leghorn rooster.

White leghorn rooster.

My latest column for Takepart:

One of the most startling developments in recent science has been the realization that DNA and environment—or nature and nurture—do not by themselves tell the whole story. If we want to understand who we are and how we live, we need to look beyond genetics to epigenetics. That’s the science of how all the information coded in our DNA gets translated and expressed in our bodies and our behaviors.

And here’s the real stunner: This new science suggests that you can inherit the after-effects of things that happened to your grandparents and perhaps even your great-grandparents.  That is, you can inherit their acquired traits: Did they experience high levels of prenatal stress? Were they neglected as children? Were they exposed to toxic chemicals? Did they smoke? The effects can show up in how their DNA—and yours—get expressed. By extension, the things we experience in our own lives may shape genetic expression in generations to come.

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Posted in Evolution | Leave a Comment »


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