Now I’m embarrassed to admit that I have completely forgotten the sources). But the images still merit your attention. Read the rest of this entry »
Posted by Richard Conniff on April 22, 2017
Posted by Richard Conniff on April 21, 2017
by Richard Conniff/The New York Times
Heroic acts to preserve our national heritage often take place off the battlefield. In the 1890s, for instance, a handful of people, mostly friends of Theodore Roosevelt, stepped forward to protect the American bison as it was about to be butchered into extinction. Likewise, the conservationist Rachel Carson and her followers saved the bald eagle and other species from poisoning by pesticides in the 1960s and ’70s.
We cannot, of course, expect this type of heroism on behalf of wildlife from the Trump administration. On the contrary, the challenge is to figure out which of the many species the administration is gleefully stripping of protection now stands in the most immediate danger. Will the greater sage grouse go extinct as the administration works to unravel a compromise protection plan already agreed on by all parties? Will freshwater mussel species vanish because coal companies Read the rest of this entry »
Posted by Richard Conniff on April 19, 2017
by Richard Conniff/Scientific American
A few years ago at a bar in Reno, graduate student John Zablocki was talking about his research on the rediscovery of lost species—those presumed to have gone extinct only to turn up again alive and well. “The Lord Howe Island stick insect,” someone down the bar remarked, recalling the widely reported 2001 rediscovery of that species on an island in Australia. Then, living his beer glass, he uttered the celebrated line from the 1993 movie Jurassic Park: “Life, uh, finds a way.”
And this is the tantalizing thing when a species thought to be lost comes back, in effect, from the dead. It hints at rebirth in an era otherwise dominated by headlines about climate change and mass extinction. Scientists even refer to these rediscovered organisms as “Lazarus species,” after the man raised from the dead by Jesus Christ in the New Testament.
But finding lost species does not take a miracle, according to Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC), a small Texas-based nonprofit. GWC is now launching an ambitious “Search for Lost Species” initiative to rediscover 1,200 species in 160 countries that have not been seen in at least 10 years. The first expeditions will launch this fall in pursuit of the 25 “most wanted” species, says GWC herpetologist Robin Moore, who is leading the effort.
Among the top 25: a pink-headed duck last seen in 1949 in India, a tree-climbing freshwater crab last observed in 1955 in the West African forests of Guinea and the world’s largest bee (with a wingspan of 2.5 inches) last sighted in 1981 in Indonesia. “For many of these forgotten species,” Moore says, “this is likely their last
Posted by Richard Conniff on April 6, 2017
by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360
Though politicians and the press tend to downplay the idea, environmental degradation is often an underlying cause of international crises. For instance, deforestation, erosion, and reduced agricultural output set the stage for the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s. And prolonged drought pushed rural populations into the cities at the start of the current Syrian civil war. Egypt could become the latest example, its 95 million people the likely victims of a slow motion catastrophe brought on by grand-scale environmental mismanagement.
It’s happening now in the Nile River delta, a low-lying region fanning out from Cairo roughly a hundred miles to the sea. About 45 or 50 million people live in the delta, which represents just 2.5 percent of Egypt’s land area. The rest live in the Nile River valley itself, a ribbon of green winding through hundreds of miles of desert sand, representing another 1 percent of the nation’s total land area. Though the delta and the river together were long the source of Egypt’s wealth and greatness, they now face relentless assault from both land and sea.
The latest threat is a massive dam scheduled to be completed this year on the headwaters of the Blue Nile, which supplies 59 percent of Egypt’s water. Ethiopia’s national government has largely self-financed the $5 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), with the promise that it will generate 6,000 megawatts of power. That’s a big deal for Ethiopians, three-quarters of whom now lack access to electricity. The sale of excess electricity to other countries in the region could also Read the rest of this entry »
Posted by Richard Conniff on April 3, 2017
This isn’t quite the first piece I published in a national magazine, but it’s the first one that I felt good about. It ran in 1979 in Sports Illustrated, which back then took an interest in the world beyond Big Four sports. I sent a copy to E.B. White, to thank him for some of the the things he had taught me about writing, and he replied, saying “when I got around to reading it, later, I could not put it down.” This piece also appeared in my story collection Every Creeping Thing (Holt 1998).
by Richard Conniff
The sun was shining over the Atlantic when I arrived at the end of what had been a wet, stormy September day. I was staying the night at a hostel on Crohy Head about five miles from Dunglow, County Donegal. Inside, there was a turf fire and tea, and though I had already put in many miles on foot, the sun drew me out of doors again as soon as I had warmed myself a bit.
The hostel stood on a high spot with pasturage running down to the rocks and the water. Clambering over a stone wall, I walked slowly down through the grass. A stream babbled nearby, though the overgrowth almost hid it completely. Distracted by the murmuring water, I didn’t notice until the last moment the black dog racing down on me. It ran with a crazy, bucketing speed, and it leaped up at me almost before I had spotted it.
I have always been good with dogs, and I found I was particularly compatible with those in the West of Ireland. It was easy. The dogs there generally look alike and share the same quiet temperament; they are bred to herd sheep. “You seldom get a cross sheep dog,” a Mayo farmer had told me, as his dog rested its head against my knee. I hadn’t met a cross one yet, and so I didn’t panic when the dog
Posted by Richard Conniff on March 28, 2017
Today’s the day the Trump Administration makes its bid to set the coal industry free, against all the basic research demonstrating that this will be terrible for both the climate and the health of the American people. It reminds me of a time, not so long ago, when wiser Republicans saw the value of basic research, and genuinely worked to make America a better country. I wrote what follows for the National Academy of Sciences, so its not a personal piece. But as I wrote, I was remembering that my daughter Clare had asthma all the time she was growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s. And as the the Clean Air Act Amendment of 1990 gradually came into effect, sharply reducing pollution from coal-fired power plants, Clare’s asthma went away. That’s an experience many other families have shared, without ever stopping to think that they owed their improving health to basic research by–of all people–economists.
by Richard Conniff/National Academy of Sciences
On the morning of June 13 1974, readers of The New York Times swirled their coffee and mulled the front-page headline, “Acid Rain Found Up Sharply in East.” A study in the journal Science was reporting that rainfall on the eastern seaboard and in Europe had become 100 to 1000 times more acidic than normal—even “in occasional extreme cases,” said the Times, “as acidic as pure lemon juice.” The analogy was a little misleading: Lemon juice is not nearly as corrosive as the nitric and sulfuric acids then raining down on the countryside. But it was enough to make acid rain a topic of anxious national debate.
Both the recognition of the problem and the eventual solution to it would be products of basic research, the one in physical science, the other in social science, neither directed at any narrow purpose. The journey from problem to solution would be tangled and difficult, across unmapped scientific and political territory, over the course of decades. Along the way, it would become apparent that acid rain was more serious than anyone suspected at first, threatening the health of tens of millions of Americans. The solution, when it came, would demonstrate the potential of basic research to be literally a lifesaver.
The authors of the Science study hadn’t set out to find acid rain. Their long-term project was aimed merely at understanding how forest ecosystems work, down to the chemical inputs and outputs. But the first rain sample they collected in the summer of 1963, at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire, was already surprisingly acidic. By the early 1970s, after almost Read the rest of this entry »
Posted by Richard Conniff on March 18, 2017
by Richard Conniff/The New York Times
The idea that the humble chicken could become a savior of wildlife will seem improbable to many environmentalists. We tend to equate poultry production with factory farms, downstream pollution and 50-piece McNugget buckets.
In much of the developing world, though, “a chicken in every pot” is the more pertinent image. It’s a tantalizing one for some conservationists because what’s in the pot there these days is mostly trapped, snared or hunted wildlife — also called bushmeat — from cane rats and brush-tailed porcupines to gorillas.
Hunting for dinner is of course what humans have always done, the juicier half of our hunter-gatherer origins. In many remote forests and fishing villages, moreover, it remains an essential part of the cultural identity. But modern weaponry, motor vehicles, commercial markets and booming human populations have pushed the bushmeat trade to literal overkill — an estimated 15 million animals a year taken in the Brazilian Amazon alone, 579 million animals a year in Central Africa, and onward in a mad race to empty forests and waterways everywhere.
A study last year identified bushmeat hunting as the primary threat pushing 301 mammal species worldwide toward extinction. The victims include bonobo apes, one of our closet living relatives, and Grauer’s gorillas, the world’s largest. (The latter have recently lost about 80 percent of their population, hunted down by mining camp crews with shotguns and AK-47s. Much of the mining is for a product integral to our cultural identities, a mineral used in
Posted by Richard Conniff on March 14, 2017
With California now on track to have the rainiest year in its history—on the heels of its worst drought in 500 years—the state has become a daily reminder that extreme weather events are on the rise. The recent near-collapse of the spillway at California’s massive Oroville Dam has put an exclamation point on the potentially catastrophic risks.
More than 4,000 dams in the U.S. are now rated unsafe because of structural or other deficiencies. Bringing the entire system of 90,000 dams up to current standards would cost about $79 billion, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. Hence, it has become increasingly common to demolish problematic dams, mainly for economic and public safety reasons, and less often to open up old habitats to native fish. About 700 dams have come down across the U.S. over the past decade, with overwhelmingly beneficial results for river species and ecosystems.
Now, though, a new study in Biological Conservation takes the science of dam removal in an unexpected direction. While acknowledging that reopening rivers usually leads to “increased species richness, abundance and biomass,” a team of South African and Australian authors argues
Posted by Richard Conniff on March 7, 2017
I was a guest this afternoon on “The Leonard Lopate Show” on WNYC in New York, talking about species discovery. The interview runs about 13 minutes and listening to it is definitely better than a sharp stick in the eye. (A courageous listener called in to tell one of the other guests that he didn’t like the sound of her voice. Thank goodness, I didn’t have a call-in segment.)
At one point, I talked about a favorite new species from 2009 named psychedelica. Here’s the background, from my previous post on the discovery:
Once again, science makes my day. Researchers have discovered a wonderful new fish in shallow water off the Indonesian island of Ambon, much visited by great naturalists of the past including Alfred Russel Wallace. And this one just makes you want to keep looking and looking, even in the same places everybody else has looked before, because Mother Nature is such a relentless joker.
University of Washington scientist Ted Pietsch has dubbed the discovery Histiophryne psychedelica because, well, just look at that face. Or consider its swimming behavior, which also suggests that it has been dabbling in mind-altering drugs. It doesn’t so much
Posted in Conservation and Extinction, New Species Discoveries, Species Seekers Almanac, Uncategorized | Tagged: Conservation International, new species, species discovery, Suriname | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Richard Conniff on March 5, 2017
The Wellcome Trust presents an annual award for scientific imagery, and two of this year’s winners (above and below) caught my eye for the new ways in which they reveal the natural world. Think of the one above as new insight into the cardiovascular system of living (and extinct) dinosaurs. Or just a bloody pigeon.
Here’s how The Guardian‘s Nicola Davis describes it:
Open-beaked against a jet-black background, the image of a bird leaps forth, a frenzy of red-and-white squirming lines hinting at its form. It looks like a still from a Hitchcockian nightmare. “It looks so cross, sort of squawking at you,” says Catherine Draycott, head of Wellcome Images.
In fact, the eerie shot is the product of