strange behaviors

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  • 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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Archive for the ‘Biodiversity’ Category

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 »

The Pond Scum Artist

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 22, 2014

This video caught my attention this morning, partly because it reminded me of the beautiful arrangements made by the nineteenth-century naturalist Ernst Haeckel, and partly because it documents an indisputably strange behavior of the species-seeking kind.  It’s about a British eccentric who makes microscopic arrangements of diatoms.  They are a kind of algae, with simple but symmetrical bodies, and there an estimated 100,000 different species of them at the base of the aquatic food chain.

I like the line at about four minutes: “I just could not get over Read the rest of this entry »

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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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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 | 12 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 »

Why We Need to Save Wildlife to Save Ourselves

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 24, 2014

Cone snail shells: Not just something pretty to look at.

Cone snail shells: Not just something pretty to look at.

Midway through the new special issue of Science, about the global loss of wildlife, my heart caught on this idea: We now live with a steady, imperceptible loss “in people’s expectations of what the natural world around them should look like,” and “each generation grows up within a slightly more impoverished natural biodiversity.” It’s not just about elephants, rhinos, and other iconic species disappearing. It’s about the decline of everything.

When children go outdoors today—to the extent that they go outdoors at all—they see 35 percent fewer individual butterflies and moths than their parents would have seen 40 years ago, and 28 percent fewer individual vertebrates—meaning birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and fish.  It’s not quite a silent spring, just one that is becoming quieter with each passing year, insidiously, so we hardly notice. The Science authors dub this phenomenon “defaunation.” I prefer to think of it as “the great vanishing,” but either way it’s bad news.

Why don’t we do something about it? Wildlife conservation suffers under a misguided notion that it is a boutique issue. “Animals do matter to people,” according to one article in the Science special issue, “but on balance, they matter less than food, jobs, energy, money, and development. As long as we continue to view animals in ecosystems as irrelevant to these basic demands, animals will lose.”

That need not be as hopeless as it sounds, because the authors go on to remind us in alarming detail just how utterly

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Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , | 4 Comments »

Rude Houseguests This Weekend? These Guys Are Worse.

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 25, 2014

Care to babysit for a little while? (Photo: Craig Rotermund)

Care to babysit for my maggot? (Photo: Craig Rotermund)

They aren’t as sexy as vampires, but roughly 40 percent of species on Earth live on the flesh, blood, and brains of other species. They’re parasites, and where vampires have a monotonous penchant for making their victims wander around with hollow eyes and prominent canines, parasites are highly imaginative in the ways they turn their hosts into instruments of their will.

The classic example is a parasitic fluke that infects a land snail, causing the snail to cough up slime balls, which deliver the fluke to an ant. But the ant is a way station en route to the fluke’s ultimate destination inside a sheep. So the fluke induces the ant to climb up on the tip of a blade of grass—the opposite of its normal instinct for self-preservation—and wait till a grazing sheep comes along to gobble it up along with the grass. The parasite then reaches its adult life as a fluke in the sheep’s liver. After it mates there, its eggs find their way back to other snails by way of the sheep’s droppings.

This is the strange circle of life, and since the discovery of that bizarre strategy in the 1950s, researchers have documented hundreds of other such parasite-host associations, in every animal phylum. For instance, a South American ant, normally black, sometimes develops a bulbous, bright red abdomen and then climbs up to assume the position, abdomen skyward, among the similarly colored fruit on a berry bush. The ant is mimicking a berry under orders from a nematode parasite, which is intent on achieving its destiny in the gut of a berry-eating bird.

Biologists are of course fascinated and regularly reveal intricate new parasite career plans. Thus a new study in Animal Behaviour describes a solitary fly in Virginia that ambushes a worker bumblebee as it forages among the flowers. Both fall to the ground. The fly (a conopid fly also known as “the thick-headed fly”) then uses can opener–like extrusions on its abdomen to shove apart the segments of the bee’s carapace and fire an egg into its abdomen. The bee soon recovers and Read the rest of this entry »

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Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 1, 2014

A drop of ocean water magnified 25 times. (Photo: David Liittschwager)

A drop of ocean water magnified 25 times. (Photo: David Liittschwager)

I just love the cartoon-like character of this photograph from David Liittschwager.  (Check out his book, A World In One Cubic Meter.)

It’s the world in a single drop of ocean water, alive with crab larva, diatoms, bacteria, fish eggs, zooplankton, and worms.

It reminds me of the lines in Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

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


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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 »


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