The Species Seekers by Richard Conniff (Norton). Ecotourists today expect to be whisked off to remote locations to enjoy intimate views of wildlife from purpose-built hides. But explorers and naturalists formerly risked their lives and their sanity in pursuit of exotic species. Their prize was the thrill of novelty: to be the first to name what are still referred to as “species new to science.” In the eighteenth and ninteenth centuries, explorers thought nothing of battling with malaria, starvation or shipwreck to bring home the prize of a beautiful but unnamed bird or butterfly. Richard Conniff provides a thoroughly entertaining series of adventure stories revealing these taxonomic heroes, amply peppered with tales of rogues and nadmen. Many of these scientists are as exotic as the species they sought to discover.
Archive for December, 2011
Posted by Richard Conniff on December 31, 2011
Posted by Richard Conniff on December 30, 2011
Camera traps around the world have been accumulating some spectacular and revealing images of wildlife, without disturbing the animals. Here’s the latest. A Wilderness Conservation Society camera trap caught this image of a snow leopard mother and cub on a craggy peak in Afghanistan’s Sarkund Valley.
Posted by Richard Conniff on December 28, 2011
The New York Times has a report on the nuances of the trade in monkeys and other bushmeat, a threat to wildlife everywhere. It raises the interesting possibility that making chickens widely available would provide people with an alternative way to feed their families.
I have always been a little suspicious of Heifer International, because the idea of providing environmentally demanding cattle to poor families just seemed like a way to increase the destruction of habitat. But chickens get around that objection.
Here’s the relevant part of the Times article:
Fortunately, rare species did not seem to be priced any higher than common ones. For example, primates fetched about the same price as brush-tailed porcupines, which are more common.
This is good news for conservation, since it suggests that people could be steered away from the rarer animals and encouraged to focus on common species.
The researchers suspect that alternative protein sources, like poultry or livestock, are missing from villagers’ menus simply because they are not available. “There’s no tradition of keeping livestock,” Dr. Foerster said. “Perhaps one approach could be making certain species of livestock more available and widespread.”
Other studies found that Central Africans usually rank chicken similarly to their favorite bush meat varieties, so the potential may exist for alleviating pressure on wild species by introducing poultry farming.
Posted by Richard Conniff on December 28, 2011
In an article earlier this year about the hidden value of species, I wrote about how much, and in how many ways, the dramatic decline in its vultures had cost India.
When we cause a species to go into decline, we almost never know — and hardly even stop to think about — what we might be losing in the process. In truth, it may be hard to think about, because the cascading effects of our actions are sometimes freakishly distant from the original cause. So in India in the early 1990s, farmers began using the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac for the apparently worthy purpose of relieving pain and fever in their livestock. Unfortunately, vultures scavenging on livestock carcasses accumulated large quantities of the drug and promptly died of renal failure. Over a 14-year period, populations of three vulture species plummeted by between 96.8 and 99.9 percent.
Losing these efficient scavengers meant livestock carcasses often got left in the open to rot. It was one of those “ecosystem services” — manufacturing oxygen, soaking up carbon dioxide, preventing floods, taking out the garbage — that species generally provide unnoticed, until they stop. But the impacts went well beyond the stench, according to a 2008 article in Ecological Economics. Moving into the niche vacated by the vultures, feral dog populations boomed by up to 9 million animals over the same period. Dog bites and the incidence of rabies in humans also increased, and the authors conservatively estimated that an additional 48,000 people died during the 14-year period as a result. Calculating the bottom-line worth of what we get from the natural world is notoriously difficult. But even pricing lives at a fraction of developed world values, the near-total loss of three insignificant vulture species has so far cost India an estimated $24 billion.
Now Meera Subramanian has a first-hand report in the Virginia Quarterly Review. These paragraphs near the end of the article seemed particularly poignant and powerful to me:
I realized as I spoke with Rahmani that I had come to India looking for an eco-catastrophe. Though the vulture is the unloveliest of creatures, though few cared for them while they were here nor notice that they are missing, their absence has left a void. There is a physical abyss that is filling with dogs that can be ferocious, and a spiritual vacuum that is forcing questions of adaption for the most orthodox of India’s Parsis.
Yet it didn’t feel apocalyptic to me. Maybe all of us, whether guided by God or by science, secretly want to be the ones living in the end times, as though it bestows some epic Read the rest of this entry »
Posted by Richard Conniff on December 25, 2011
Early this year, I reported in Smithsonian on the dawning age of civilian drones. I did not imagine Greenpeace would be among the pioneers, but Reuters reports that the environmental group is now tracking Japanese whalers from on high. The article does not say which model drone they are using, but probably better if not equipped with Hellfire missiles.
Dec 25 (Reuters) – Hardline whaling opponents attempting to stop Japan’s annual whale hunt in the Antarctic said on Sunday they had intercepted and photographed its whaling fleet using pilotless drone aircraft.
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society said it located the Japanese factory ship Nisshin Maru off Australia’s western coast on Saturday using the drones, the first time this season it has made contact with the whalers.
However, other Japanese ships shielded the vessel “to allow it to escape”, Sea Shepherd said in a statement.
“We caught them due west of Perth,” founder Paul Watson told Reuters by satellite phone from the ship Steve Irwin. “For the next few days we will be chasing them. We are heading south.”
The two drones are equipped with cameras and detection equipment and allow Sea Shepherd to monitor the whaling fleet from a distance, he said.
Watson said Sea Shepherd’s three ships were well outside Antarctic waters when the Japanese vessel was seen. The Sea Shepherd waited for the Nisshin Maru after hearing from fishermen it had sailed through the Lombok Strait in Indonesia on its voyage to Antarctic waters.
The Sea Shepherd society’s annual attempts to stop the Japanese whale hunt by “direct action” have been widely criticised by other environmentalists and governments, particularly Japan. However, it also has influential supporters.
Watson said sympathisers in New Jersey in the United States contributed to the cost of the two drones.
An international moratorium on whaling has been in place since 1986, but Japan exploits a loophole allowing whaling for scientific purposes to justify its annual hunt.
Posted by Richard Conniff on December 23, 2011
This is a short piece I wrote for the back page of the January Smithsonian:
We have a rule in my house that for every box of stuff stashed in the attic, at least one must be removed. The reality is that it would take 6—or maybe 27—boxes to make a dent in the existing inventory. But this creates a conflict with another rule against adding to the local landfill. So, for a while, I was taking things out of the attic and, for the good of the earth, hiding them in closets and under beds.
Then my grown children sat me down and said, “We love you, but…” I know how interventions work. I put on a glum face and confessed, “My name is Dad, and I am a hoarder.” And with these words, I manfully enlisted in the War on Stuff.
We are all foot soldiers in this war, though mostly AWOL. Surveys say that 73 percent of Americans enter their houses via the garage—all of them staring straight ahead to avoid seeing the stuff piled up where the cars are supposed to go. The other 27 percent never open the garage door, for fear of being crushed beneath what might come tumbling out.
It’s mostly stuff we don’t want. The treasures in my attic, for instance, include a lost Michelangelo. Unfortunately, it’s a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figure my son misplaced when he was 8. There’s also a yearbook from a school that none of us attended and a photograph of a handsome Victorian family, who are either beloved ancestors or total strangers who happened to be in a pretty picture frame we once bought. Two barrels ostensibly contain precious family heirlooms. I suspect that, if ever opened, they will turn out like Al Capone’s vault and contain nothing more than vintage dust.
My opening salvo in the War on Stuff was not, in truth, all that manful: It was a covert mission to slip my college hookah in among the merchandise at the neighbor’s garage sale. (Later I heard him exclaim, “Where the heck did that come from?” and I whispered, “Maybe you’d remember if you hadn’t used it so much.”) Then I tried flinging excess dog toys over a hedge into a doggy-looking yard down the street (my dog is a hoarder, too). That went well, until I hit a small child in the head. Next I tried selling an old golf putter on eBay, but after seven days eagerly waiting for my little auction to flare up into a bidding war, I came away with $12.33.
Then I discovered a web service called Freecycle, and my life was transformed. Like eBay or Craigslist, Freecycle is a virtual marketplace for anything you want to get rid of, but all merchandise is free. This four-letter word seems to unleash an acquisitive madness in people who otherwise regard garage sale goods with delicately wrinkled noses. Suddenly strangers were hot-stepping up the driveway to haul away bags of orphaned electrical adapters, a half bag of kitty litter my cats had disdained and the mounted head of a deer (somewhat mangy).
At first, I experienced twinges of donor’s remorse, not because I wanted my stuff back, but because I felt guilty about having suckered some poor souls into taking it. But others clearly had no such qualms. One day my regular Freecycle e-mail came in touting an offer of pachysandra plants, “all you can dig.” Another day it was “Chicken innards & freezer-burnt meat.” And both offers found takers.
I soon came to accept that there is a home for every object. Well, maybe not for the construction paper Thanksgiving turkey I glued together in fourth grade, with the head on backward.
I’m adding that to a new barrel of family heirlooms that I will give my children when they buy their first homes.
Posted by Richard Conniff on December 17, 2011
The British biologist Mark Paget has an interesting article about how the evolution of ideas parallels the evolution of biological traits. Though we like to think of Homo sapiens (and ourselves) as extraordinarily creative, the truth is that real innovation is rare. Most of us are just spectacularly good at copying and spreading what seem to be the best new ideas. We are champions only at social learning.
The money paragraphs suggest that social networking via the Internet tends to make copying even more pervasive, and innovation still more rare:
Putting these two things together has lots of implications for where we’re going as societies. As I say, as our societies get bigger, and rely more and more on the Internet, fewer and fewer of us have to be very good at these creative and imaginative processes. And so, humanity might be moving towards becoming more docile, more oriented towards following, copying others, prone to fads, prone to going down blind alleys, because part of our evolutionary history that we could have never anticipated was leading us towards making use of the small number of other innovations that people come up with, rather than having to produce them ourselves.
The interesting thing with Facebook is that, with 500 to 800 million of us connected around the world, it sort of devalues information and devalues knowledge. And this isn’t the comment of some reactionary who doesn’t like Facebook, but it’s rather the comment of someone who realizes that knowledge and new ideas are extraordinarily hard to come by. And as we’re more and more connected to each other, there’s more and more to copy. We realize the value in copying, and so that’s what we do.
And we seek out that information in cheaper and cheaper ways. We go up on Google, we go up on Facebook, see who’s doing what to whom. We go up on Google and find out the answers to things. And what that’s telling us is that knowledge and new ideas are cheap. And it’s playing into a set of predispositions that we have been selected to have anyway, to be copiers and to be followers. But at no time in history has it been easier to do that than now. And Facebook is encouraging that.
And then, as corporations grow … and we can see corporations as sort of microcosms of societies … as corporations grow and acquire the ability to acquire other corporations, a similar thing is happening, is that, rather than corporations wanting to spend the time and the energy to create new ideas, they want to simply acquire other companies, so that they can have their new ideas. And that just tells us again how precious these ideas are, and the lengths to which people will go to acquire those ideas.
A tiny number of ideas can go a long way, as we’ve seen. And the Internet makes that more and more likely. What’s happening is that we might, in fact, be at a time in our history where we’re being domesticated by these great big societal things, such as Facebook and the Internet. We’re being domesticated by them, because fewer and fewer and fewer of us have to be innovators to get by. And so, in the cold calculus of evolution by natural selection, at no greater time in history than ever before, copiers are probably doing better than innovators. Because innovation is extraordinarily hard. My worry is that we could be moving in that direction, towards becoming more and more sort of docile copiers.
You can read Paget’s full article here. But I am wondering if I should suggest that you copy this link to Facebook? Maybe come up with your own contrarian perspective instead, and demonstrate that innovation lives.
Posted by Richard Conniff on December 15, 2011
I am resisting the headline about Bird-Slayer Wal-Mart, because this just seems like a horrible tragedy for everyone. Here’s the press release from the American Bird Conservancy:
Officials in Utah are estimating that about 1,500 Eared Grebes were killed late Monday night, possibly as a result of confusing a Wal-Mart parking lot in Cedar City with a body of water and landing on the asphalt during a storm. An additional 3,500 apparently dazed and confused grebes were rounded up through the night by hand by volunteers and staff of the Utah Department of Wildlife, and eventually released into a nearby lake.
It appears that a storm and associated cloud cover was a key factor in causing the birds’ confusion, as well as a glistening parking lot surface that may have looked like a water body in conditions of poor visibility.
According to American Bird Conservancy (ABC), the nation’s leading bird conservation organization, several traits of this bird likely played a role in this incident. Grebes are only able to land and take off from water so a shimmering parking lot on a stormy night may have looked like a natural landing area. The Eared Grebe carries out the latest fall migration of any bird species in North America, putting it in this storm at a time when other migrating birds likely have already arrived South. The Eared Grebe only migrates at night, which increases the risk of the bird getting confused by city lighting and cloud cover.
“Night-flying birds use dim light from the moon and stars and the earth’s magnetic field for navigation. Adverse conditions on Monday night may have caused the same kind of disorientation that can afflict pilots in fog – the birds may have flown directly into the ground, not realizing Read the rest of this entry »
Posted by Richard Conniff on December 12, 2011
The Harvard entomologist, photographer, and writer Piotr Naskrecki has a beautiful new book out from University of Chicago Press. It’s called Relics: Travels in Nature’s Time Machine. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Naskrecki begins by defining the concept of a relic—a creature or habitat that, while acted upon by evolution, remains remarkably similar to its earliest manifestations in the fossil record. Then he pulls back the Cambrian curtain to reveal relic after eye-popping relic: katydids, ancient reptiles, horsetail ferns, majestic magnolias, and more, all depicted through stunning photographs and first-person accounts of Naskrecki’s time studying them and watching their interactions in their natural habitats.
And here’s an excerpt:
First came the big females. Nearly all had males in tow. In the dimming light we could see spiky tails of hundreds more as they tumbled in the waves, trying to get to the dry land. By the time the sun fully set, the beach was covered with hundreds of glistening, enormous animals. Females dug in the sand, making holes to deposit their eggs, nearly four thousand in a single nest, while the males fought for the privilege of fathering the embryos. Fertilization in horseshoe crabs is external, and often multiple males share the fatherhood of a single clutch. Equipped with a pair of big compound eyes (plus eight smaller ones) capable of seeing the ultraviolet range of the light spectrum, male horseshoe crabs are very good at locating females even in the melee of waves, sand, and hundreds of other males. Scientists studying this behavior suspected at first that males might be attracted by female pheromones, but as it turns out they rely solely on their excellent vision. They do make mistakes, however, and it is not rare to find males forming chains, which disperse as soon as a real female shows up.
Watching the drama of the mass spawning of horseshoe crabs is to me as close to a religious experience as I will ever get. My heart seems to slow down and a natural calmness helps me momentarily forget all the ills of the world. As strange and distant as horseshoe crabs may seem, these majestic organisms remind me that we share the same evolutionary heritage. Although our paths to what we are now diverged early, humans and horseshoe crabs at some point shared the same ancestor. It was a very long time ago. Horseshoe crabs have been around longer than most groups of organisms that surround us now. In the fossil deposits of Manitoba, the recent discovery of an interesting little creature named Lunataspis aurora proves that horseshoe crabs quite similar to modern forms were already present in the Ordovician, 445 million years ago. By the time the first dinosaurs started terrorizing the land in the Triassic (about 245 million years ago), horseshoe crabs were already relics of a bygone era. And yet they persisted. Dinosaurs came and went, the polarity and climate of Earth changed many times over, but horseshoe crabs slowly plowed forward. Yet during this time they changed surprisingly little. Species from the Jurassic were so similar to modern forms that I doubt I would notice anything unusual if one crawled in front of me on the beach in Delaware. Somehow horseshoe crabs had stumbled upon a lifestyle and morphology so successful that they were able to weather changes to our planet that wiped out thousands of seemingly more imposing lineages (dinosaurs and trilobites immediately come to mind). But despite claims to the contrary by creationists and other lunatics, they kept evolving. Modern horseshoe crabs, limited to three species in Southeast Asia and one in eastern North America, differ in many details from their fossil relatives. We know, for example, that many, if not most, fossil horseshoe crabs lived in fresh water, often in shallow swamps overgrown with dense vegetation, and some might have even been almost entirely terrestrial.
You can buy the book here.