Posted by Richard Conniff on May 28, 2013
Flick-blade marsupial lion (Illustration: Peter Schouten)
Let me admit up front that I am an enthusiastic admirer of predatory behaviors. I have taken unseemly delight in the spectacle of a cheetah tackling and disassembling a wildebeest. And once, while tracking radio-collared African wild dogs in Botswana, I had the great privilege of arriving at the scene of the kill before the rest of the pack. (The smell of fresh blood in the morning. Hmmmm.) When a television documentary dwells mournfully on the plight of an aging zebra no longer able to keep up with the herd, I am generally rooting for the killers.
And I have a hunch I am not alone. Research on predatory behaviors has been in the news a lot lately, starting with the discovery of the earliest known archaeological evidence of our own past as predators, and as scavengers on other predators’ kills. Writing early this month in PLOS ONE, Baylor University anthropologist Joseph Ferraro and his co-authors describe new finds from the Kanjera archaeological site [photo] on the shores of Lake Victoria in western Kenya.
For our hominin ancestors two million years ago, this was the perfect picnic spot, a grassy plain between the shore of a lake and the wooded slopes of nearby hills and mountains. And the menu? Mainly small to mid-size antelopes like Grant’s gazelle and topi, but with the occasional buffalo or hippopotamus as a special treat.
The authors of the new paper note that when modern lions or hyenas kill small antelope, they generally consume the carcass within minutes after death. “As a result, hominins could only have acquired these valuable remains on the savanna through active hunting.” The fossil bones also show evidence of tool use “consistent with both defleshing and disarticulation activities,” including marks of fist-size hammerstones for … To read the rest of this article click here.
Posted in Evolution, Food & Drink, Kill or Be Killed | Tagged: meat eating, Pleistocene diet, predation, Skull and bones | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Richard Conniff on May 2, 2013
Come closer, see how pretty I am. (Photo: Michael Bok)
This is my latest post for TakePart:
One day early this year, on the Connecticut beach where I have walked most days for the past 15 years, I came across an animal I’d never seen before, washed up in the seaweed. At first, a neighbor and I thought it might be an immature lobster. It was about eight inches long, with a greenish-gray segmented carapace, and goggle eyes mounted on stalks. But in place of a lobster’s formidable claws, it seemed to have only a couple of feathery antennae.
So: Lobster-like, but lame.
Lord, were we ever wrong. It was in fact one of the most violent creatures on Earth, “enchantingly violent,” in the words of a biologist who studies them, violent enough to bring to mind the old “Jaws” soundtrack (DUNT-dunt, DUNT-dunt) and the teaser line: “You’ll never go in the water again!”
It was a mantis shrimp, so named because many people think they look like a cross between a preying mantis and a shrimp, though they are actually members of their own crustacean order, the Stomatopoda. There are about 400 species of mantis shrimp and they inhabit coastlines worldwide, leading mostly solitary lives, typically burrowing in mud and silt on the sea floor, or hiding out in rocky formations.
But let’s get to the violence. Click hear to read the rest of the story.
Posted in Biodiversity, Kill or Be Killed | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Richard Conniff on March 13, 2013
Baby blues on an Antheraea polyphemus (Photo: Howard Ensign Evans, Colorado State Univ.)
Eye spots on animals have always intrigued and occasionally alarmed me. Like most naturalists, I always assumed that they had evolved on butterflies and other small animals to scare off birds, snakes, and other big, nasty predators.
Now it turns out that spiders, those underrated predators, may also drive natural selection of this trait. Here’s the press release:
Mar. 12, 2013 — Since the time of Darwin 150 years ago, researchers have believed large predators like birds mainly influenced the evolution of coloration in butterflies. In the first behavioral study to directly test the defense mechanism of hairstreak butterflies, University of Florida lepidopterist Andrei Sourakov found that the appearance of a false head — a wing pattern found on hundreds of hairstreak butterflies worldwide — was 100 percent effective against attacks from a jumping spider. The research published online March 8 in the Journal of Natural History shows small arthropods, rather than large vertebrate predators, may influence butterfly evolution.
“Everything we observe out there has been blamed on birds: aposematic coloration, mimicry and various defensive patterns like eyespots,” said study author Andrei Sourakov, a collection coordinator at the Florida Museum of Natural History’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity on the UF campus. “It’s a big step in general and a big leap of faith to realize that a creature as tiny as a jumping spider, whose brain and life span are really small compared to birds, can actually be partially responsible for Read the rest of this entry »
Posted in Kill or Be Killed, Biodiversity, Biomimicry | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Richard Conniff on February 24, 2013
The model (a black mamba) gets snappish with the photographer
There’s been a lot of buzz on the internet suggesting that photographer Mark Laita’s image of a black mamba biting him on the calf is just a set-up, a bid to publicize his book Serpentine, due out next week. So I contacted him for further details and he quickly phoned me with the story.
“It looks like a set-up,” he said, “because who the hell would stand there with a black mamba biting his leg and take a photo of it? The whole thing seems preposterous.” But it has also become a distraction and an embarrassment, he said, because everybody is talking about the black mamba bite instead of the book. “The whole thing is stupid, and it makes me look like a reckless jackass, which I’m not.”
It happened when he was photographing snakes at the home of a leading collector, he said. With other venomous snakes, he had taken all the usual precautions. Because the king cobra is aggressive and fast, for instance, he photographed that snake completely enclosed in a plexiglass box. With the spitting cobra, he wore a mask, long sleeves and gloves to keep off the venom.
But when it was time to photograph the black mamba, the collector “was handling him like you would a boa. He was a really calm, cool snake. An old snake, not a young, excitable one.”
Laita said he wore shorts because the movement of pants legs might have startled the snake, and also because snake handlers told him “the worst thing is when it climbs up your pants leg.” (O.K., I think we can all agree on that one.)
Laita proceeded to make the kind of photographs that appear in the book, on a black background, to reveal the texture and color and shape of the snake. Afterward, the mamba calmly started to circle around his foot and Laita asked the collector to take his studio camera and hand him a point-and-shoot. Then he began rattling off 20 or 30 photographs, at which point Read the rest of this entry »
Posted in Kill or Be Killed | 14 Comments »
Posted by Richard Conniff on January 26, 2013
This is one of the more terrifying photos I have ever seen, made more so because the same thing happened not long ago to a young marine biologist named Kirstie Brown, who was working in Antarctica.
Photographer Amos Nachoun took this photo in Port Lockroy, on the Antarctic Peninsula. You can check out some of Nachoun’s other spectacular photos here.
Posted in Fear & Courage, Food & Drink, Kill or Be Killed | Tagged: jaws of death, leopard seal, penguin | 1 Comment »
Posted by Richard Conniff on January 21, 2013
I’m watching a show just now in which one of those snarky British television personalities travels hick America and makes fun of redneck ways. Back in England, this is what used to be the heart of the fox-hunting season. So the two things reminded me of a story I wrote a few years ago in England, with this update: Now that Mitt Romney‘s no longer running for President, hunting humans could just be the perfect philanthropic way to give minimum wage employment to undeserving runners from the 47 percent. Here’s the story:
It was an idea guaranteed to appeal to local foxes: Put 30 or 40 English gentlefolk on horseback and send them hallooing across the countryside behind a pack of frantically baying hounds.
But have their prey be a human being. Get the Queen of England herself to join in the fun. Let the foxes, who are bored with this victim business anyway, become spectators, shouting encouragement and advice to the field: ”Fine day for hunting, no? Got a glimpse of your quarry just now. Big strong redhead in a Gore-Tex jogging suit. Went that way.”
The remarkable thing is that the proposal caught on with humans, in a modest sort of way. At least five packs in England now hunt humans, according to Horse and Hound, the weekly hunt journal. For a cap fee of 15 pounds, an outsider can, for example, join the Windsor Forest Hunt on a Saturday when the weather is fair to hunt down three upstanding citizens of the placid Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Hampshire, or Surrey countryside. Read the rest of this entry »
Posted in Kill or Be Killed, The Natural History of the Rich, The Primate File | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Richard Conniff on December 6, 2012
O.k., I know that introduced species are a recipe for disaster. Pigeons in New York City, for instance. But this is just so sweet. A catfish from Europe that thinks it’s a freshwater killer whale, and leaps out of the water to seize its feathery prey. Let’s go to the video, showing behavior filmed on the Tarn River in Southwestern France:
Here’s the background:
A new study published in PLoS One has revealed that the Wels catfish (Silurus glanis) is successful at hunting birds on the shore. The research found the catfish was able to catch a pigeon 28% of the time, out of 45 observed beaching behaviors.
The researchers say, “Since this extreme behavior has not been reported in the native range of the species, our results suggest that some individuals in introduced predator populations may adapt their behavior to forage on novel prey in new environments, leading to behavioral and trophic specialization to actively cross the water-land interface.”
Back to the idea of how great these would be in Manhattan, here’s a photo of one Wels catfish, fat, ugly, and with what looks like a cigar in his mouth, just the thing for fitting in on Wall Street.
Source: Cucherousset J, Boulêtreau S, Azémar F, Compin A, Guillaume M, et al. (2012) “Freshwater Killer Whales”: Beaching Behavior of an Alien Fish to Hunt Land Birds. PLoS ONE 7(12): e50840. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0050840
Posted in Kill or Be Killed | 1 Comment »
Posted by Richard Conniff on October 11, 2012
The year of 1807 was better for hunters than birds. In the wetlands north of Aberdeen, Scotland, a Presbyterian minister, Rev. Alexander Forsyth, was engaged in a war of wits with local ducks.
They’d figured out how to dodge a shot by diving when the spark from his flintlock produced a flash of gunpowder in the firing pan of his muzzle-loader. Dampness on the North Sea coast also frequently caused Forsyth’s weapon to misfire.
After much tinkering, he devised and patented the first percussion-ignition device, a sort of metal perfume bottle for injecting a tiny amount of mercury fulminate into the chamber of the gun, where the impact of a hammer could ignite it and spark the gunpowder charge far more reliably (and without alarming the birds).
Forsyth’s invention, patented in 1807, would lead by mid-century to the development of the metal percussion cap and the modern bullet. It would prove an essential tool for species seekers, particularly in wet climates—and also the chief instrument of the bloodiest military conflicts in the history of the Earth, from Gettysburg and Gallipoli to the Somme.
Posted in Kill or Be Killed | 1 Comment »
Posted by Richard Conniff on October 9, 2012
Ancient spider attack. This is the only fossil ever discovered that shows a spider attacking prey in its web. Preserved in amber, it’s about 100 million years old. (Photo: Oregon State University)
I love this image of predator and prey caught in 100-million-year-old amber.
Here’s the press release from Science Daily. But I’m not sure why they refer to the presence of a male spider’s body part in the same bit of amber as evidence of social behavior. Isn’t it more likely that the predator here is a female spider, and the male body part is just the sorry evidence of a past mating?
Researchers have found what they say is the only fossil ever discovered of a spider attack on prey caught in its web — a 100 million-year-old snapshot of an engagement frozen in time.
The extraordinarily rare fossils are in a piece of amber that preserved this event in remarkable detail, an action that took place in the Hukawng Valley of Myanmar in the Early Cretaceous between 97-110 million years ago, almost certainly with dinosaurs wandering nearby.
Aside from showing the first and only fossil evidence of a spider attacking prey in its web, the piece of amber also contains the body of a male spider in the same web. This provides the oldest evidence of social behavior in spiders, which still exists in some species but is fairly rare. Most spiders have solitary, often cannibalistic lives, and males will not hesitate to attack immature species in the same web.
“This juvenile spider was going to make a meal out of a tiny parasitic wasp, but never quite got to it,” said George Poinar, Jr., a professor emeritus of zoology at Oregon State University and world expert on insects trapped in amber. He outlined the findings in a new publication in the journal Historical Biology.
“This was a male wasp that suddenly found itself trapped in a spider web,” Poinar said. “This was the wasp’s worst nightmare, and it never ended. The wasp was watching the spider just as it was about to be attacked, when Read the rest of this entry »
Posted in Kill or Be Killed, Sex & Reproduction | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Richard Conniff on October 3, 2012
This is a nice piece of video. Don’t stop after the first little bit of animal friendship, 30 seconds in. There’s more. Oh, dang, it’s just an instant replay. But num-num-num.
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