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 New Tool To Reverse Traumatic Memories

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 23, 2014

 An Iraq war veteran with PTSD. (Photo: Lynn Johnson/National Geographic Society/Corbis)

An Iraq war veteran with PTSD. (Photo: Lynn Johnson/National Geographic Society/Corbis)


My latest for Smithsonian magazine.

The best way to forget an alarming memory, oddly, is to remember it first. That’s why soldiers returning from war with post-traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD) often find themselves being asked by therapists to read scripts or view scenes recalling the incident that taught them the crippling fear in the first place.

Stirring up a memory makes it a little unstable, and for a window of perhaps three hours, it’s possible to modify it before it settles down again, or “reconsolidates,” in the brain. Getting patients to relive their traumatic memories over and over in safe conditions can thus help them unlearn the automatic feeling of alarm. It’s what researchers call “fear extinction” therapy—a way, almost, of reversing the past.

The trouble is that this therapy works with recent memories, but not so well with deeply entrenched long-term horrors. But a new study Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Fear & Courage | Leave a Comment »

Jamaica To Hand Over Heart of Its Largest Protected Area to Blacklisted Chinese Conglomerate

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 22, 2014

Hellshire coast

Tourism has long been the leading economic sector in Jamaica, bringing in half of all foreign revenue and supporting a quarter of all jobs. Yet government officials now risk jeopardizing that lucrative business, and Jamaica’s reputation in the international community, with a secretive deal to let a Chinese company build a mega-freighter seaport in the nation’s largest natural protected area.

The planned port would occupy the Goat Islands, in the heart of the Portland Bight Protected Area, which only last year the same government officials were petitioning UNESCO to designate a Global Biosphere Reserve. Instead, the lure of a $1.5 billion investment and a rumored 10,000 jobs has resulted in the deal with China Harbour Engineering Company, part of a conglomerate blacklisted by the World Bank under its Fraud and Corruption Sanctioning Policy.

Many details of the proposed project remain unknown, and the government has rebuffed repeated requests for information under Jamaica’s equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act. But the plan is believed to involve clear-cutting the mangrove forests on both Goat Islands, building up a level work area using dredge spoils from the surrounding waters, and constructing a coal-fired power plant to support the new infrastructure. The port, including areas currently designated as marine sanctuaries, would accommodate “post-Panamax”-size ships—up to 1,200 feet long and with a 50-foot draft—arriving via the newly expanded Panama Canal.

Landscape in the Hellshire Hills area (Photo: Robin Moore/Global Species Conservation)

Landscape in the Hellshire Hills area (Photo: Robin Moore/Global Wildlife Conservation)

The new port would compromise an area known for extensive sea‐grass beds, coral reefs, wetlands, and Jamaica’s largest mangrove forests. The protected area is also home to the Jamaican iguana, a species believed extinct until its dramatic rediscovery in 1990. Since then, the international conservation community has spent millions of dollars rebuilding the iguana population in a protected forest in the Hellshire Hills, part of the reserve adjacent to the proposed port. Much of that investment hinged on the government’s promise, now apparently discarded, that the Goat Islands would become a permanent home for the iguanas, which are Jamaica’s largest vertebrate species.

“It sends a really poor message to the international conservation community—that an investment in Jamaica is not a good investment, that it can be wiped out in the blink of an eye,” said Byron Wilson, a herpetologist at the University of the West Indies. Wilson warned that Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

Badger, Badger, Badger … Bat

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 22, 2014

Niumbaha superba (Photo: Bucknell University-DeeAnn Reeder)

Niumbaha superba (Photo: Bucknell University-DeeAnn Reeder)

This is a spectacular new bat from Sudan.

Here’s the story from Flora and Fauna International:

Researchers have identified a new genus of bat after discovering a rare specimen in South Sudan. With wildlife personnel under the South Sudanese Ministry of Wildlife Conservation and Tourism, Bucknell Associate Professor of Biology DeeAnn Reeder and Fauna & Flora International (FFI) Programme Officer Adrian Garside were leading a team conducting field research and pursuing conservation efforts when Reeder spotted the animal in Bangangai Game Reserve.

“My attention was immediately drawn to the bat’s strikingly beautiful and distinct pattern of spots and stripes. It was clearly a very extraordinary animal, one that I had never seen before,” recalled Reeder. “I knew the second I saw it that it was the find of a lifetime.”

After returning to the United States, Reeder determined the bat was


Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity | Leave a Comment »

How Your Supermarket Trafficks In Illegal Wildlife

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 22, 2014


My latest for Yale Environment 360:

When people talk about illegal trafficking in wildlife, the glistening merchandise laid out on crushed ice in the supermarket seafood counter — from salmon to king crab — probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But 90 percent of U.S. seafood is imported, and according to a new study in the journal Marine Policy, as much as a third of that is caught illegally or without proper documentation.

The technical term is IUU fishing, for illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. But such improbable allies as Greenpeace and Republican members of the U.S. Senate now refer to it as “pirate fishing.” And it ensnares seafood companies, supermarkets, and consumers alike in a trade that is arguably as problematic as trafficking in elephant tusks, rhino horns, and tiger bones.

Among the egregious violations, according to the study: Up to 40 percent of tuna imported to the U.S. from Thailand is illegal or unreported, followed by up to 45 percent of pollock imports from China, and 70 percent of salmon imports. (Both species are likely to have been caught in Russian waters, but transshipped at sea and processed in China.) Wild-caught shrimp from Mexico, Indonesia, and Ecuador are also more likely to be illegal, and some illegal wild-caught shrimp may be disguised as farmed shrimp.

In recent months, government agencies and international maritime regulators have begun taking counter-measures to stop the illegal trade. Late last month, the European Union banned the importation of fish from Belize, Cambodia, and Guinea, alleging that those nations either sold flags of convenience — registrations having nothing to do with the location of the actual owners — or otherwise failed to cooperate in efforts to stop illegal fishing. The EU also issued “yellow card” warnings to Curaçao, Ghana, and South Korea.

The United States, which has lagged behind Europe on the illegal imports issue, also acted early this month, with the U.S. Senate approving four treaties aimed at Read the rest of this entry »

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

Take 10 Doses of Hope for Earth Day

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 21, 2014

Feeling much better today, thank you.

Feeling much better today, thank you. (Photo: Mike Blake/Reuters)

In the thick of the struggle to achieve any progress on environmental issues, it’s easy to despair. The political world can seem to be dominated by preening nimrods who value wildlife only as targets. Plutocrats with bottomless bank accounts call the shots. And nothing seems to change.

In retrospect, though, amazing changes have happened, and it’s worth bringing some of these past success stories to mind, as a source of strength in the day-to-day struggle:

1. Peregrine falcons now routinely do their 200-mile-an-hour headfirst dive off skyscrapers from Fifth Avenue in New York, to Third Avenue in Seattle. But just 40 years ago they were almost extinct. They came back—as did ospreys, cormorants, and a host of other bird species—because Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring led to a ban on DDT. This broadly destructive pesticide had been causing a fatal thinning of eggshells in many bird species, among other unintended effects. Carson’s book put an end to an era of indiscriminate and unexamined use of pesticides and herbicides.

2. The bald eagle, our national bird, was down to just 417 nesting pairs in the 1970s—and

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | 1 Comment »

Love on Rogers Lake: A Tale of Two Alewives

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 21, 2014

(Illustration: Eric Nyquist)

(Illustration: Eric Nyquist)

My latest, for the op-ed page of today’s New York Times  (I had to edit that version down. This is a slightly longer version.):

We would see amazing things if we could learn to be travelers in our own neighborhoods, Henry David Thoreau once suggested. Lately, I have come to think that this is more true than I had imagined.

Most mornings in warm weather, when I am home in coastal Connecticut, I head out before dawn to row on a 260-acre dogleg of a lake, backed up behind a rickety old dam. And I see plenty of wonderful things as I do my laps: An osprey cruising with a freshly-caught fish carried underneath, like a seaplane pontoon. A kingfisher looping along the shoreline. A newly emerged damselfly riding on my deck for a lap-and-a-half till its wings harden enough for flight. And once, at a distance of 50 feet, a bald eagle scavenging the carcass of a cormorant. But I did not realize until recently that a grand evolutionary experiment was taking place beneath my hull.

Along with other members of my rowing club, The Blood Street Sculls, I spent an inordinate amount of time last year moaning about a project to rebuild the dam where Rogers Lake in Old Lyme, Conn., spills down to become Mill Brook, on route to Long Island Sound and the sea. Construction required dropping the lake level by more than two feet, and that increased the risk for rowers of tearing off a skeg, or ripping out the bottom of a boat, or just spilling ignominiously while running across an unexpectedly low patch.

Now, though, the dam is finished, and starting this month, alewives, also known as river herring, are climbing the new fish ladder there and returning to Rogers Lake from their feeding grounds at sea. The work is part of a coast-wide effort to remove dams, build fish ladders, and improve habitat in the hope of returning the river herring to their former glory.

Alewives are anadromous fish: Born in freshwater, they spend their lives in the ocean, returning annually to their birthplaces to spawn. Until colonial era dams cut off the migration, hundreds of thousands of alewives would have come pouring into Rogers Lake every spring—and into other lakes like it along much of the Atlantic seaboard. Farmers used to apply them to their fields as fertilizer, at a rate of up to 1400 fish per acre. In towns all along the coast, river herring festivals celebrated their arrival.

What’s particularly intriguing about Rogers Lake, though, is that Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Evolution, Sex & Reproduction | 1 Comment »

When Should Scientists Kill?

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 17, 2014

Lost but now is found: A Holdridge's toad. (Photo: Juan G. Abarca Alvarado)

Lost but now is found: A Holdridge’s toad. (Photo: Juan G. Abarca Alvarado)

In May 2006, in the Himalayan foothills of northern India, an astronomer and ecologist named Ramana Athreya caught two of an elusive bird species in a mist net. Hed first spotted these birds and recognized them as something unfamiliar in 1995. Now, after more than 10 years, he held the prize in his hand. It was unmistakably a new species, the sort of thing most ornithologists can only dream of discovering.

The usual procedure would have been to kill those specimens as mercifully as possible and carefully preserve them for science. That’s been the usual procedure for the past 250 years of species discovery and identification. Having the bird literally in hand has been the essential means of defining a species, both for the original scientific description and as source material for later researchers.

Instead, to the chagrin of many scientists, Athreya set the birds free. “We thought the bird was just too rare for one to be killed,” he said at the time. “With today’s modern technology, we could gather all the information we needed to confirm it as a new species. We took feathers and photographs, and recorded the bird’s song.” Even without a complete bird, that was enough to publish a scientific description of the species, now known as Bugun liochichla.

An article out today in the journal Science argues, in essence, that more scientists should follow Athreya’s example. That is, they should think twice before taking specimens, particularly when rediscovering species that had been presumed extinct. Those kinds of rediscoveries have happened more than 350 times over the past century or so, and for an excited naturalist, the instinct is to bring home proof in the form of a specimen.  But such collecting risks consigning the species to “re-extinction,” as the headline of the new article puts it.

“This is the only article I have ever written out of rage,” coauthor and herpetologist Robert Puschendorf said, in an interview. A few years ago, Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | 6 Comments »

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,

Read the rest of this entry »

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


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