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.

  • Categories

  • Wall of the Dead

Why Not Pay Herders to Make Wolves & Wolverines Thrive?

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 21, 2015

(Photo: Anna Yu/Getty Images)

(Photo: Anna Yu/Getty Images)

People who kill predators don’t get much sympathy, and they don’t generally deserve any either. But there is an exception: impoverished herders and pastoralists whose animals are being killed by lions, tigers, wolves, or other large carnivores. These people are often caught in a bind: Kill a protected animal and risk fines or imprisonment, or watch their livestock vanish and their families go hungry.

In Sweden, the government has been trying to ease this dilemma with an innovative strategy that aims to encourage coexistence. It rewards herders as local carnivore populations increase—and a new study says it works.

In the Arctic regions of northern Scandinavia, the Sámi people, also known as Lapps or Laplanders, live by herding semi-domestic reindeer. But they share the landscape (and often the reindeer) with wolverines—big, bearlike weasels with ferocious personalities. (Their aggressiveness has made wolverines a popular team mascot, generally among people who have never met one.) To defend their livelihood, Sámi herders often end up killing wolverines, which are a protected species.

The usual remedy to reduce that kind of herder-carnivore conflict Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | 2 Comments »

“Extinct” Monkey Photographed For First Time Ever

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 16, 2015


A lovely photo, and a rare encouraging wildlife story from West Africa.

Here’s the press release from the Wildlife Conservation Society:

Two primatologists working in the forests of the Republic of Congo have returned from the field with a noteworthy prize: the first-ever photograph of the Bouvier’s red colobus monkey, a rare primate not seen for more than half a century and suspected to be extinct by some, according to WCS (the Wildlife Conservation Society).

The elusive primate was recently photographed by independent researchers Lieven Devreese and Gaël Elie Gnondo Gobolo within Ntokou-Pikounda National Park, a 4,572-square-kilometer (1,765-square-mile) protected area created on advice from WCS in 2013 to safeguard gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants, and other species.

The field researchers set off in February 2015 to

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | 1 Comment »

Everybody’s Favorite Dinosaur Says: “Hey, Baby, I’m Back.”

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 7, 2015


Here’s a quick quiz. Choose the one that doesn’t belong:

A) Tyrannosaurus

B) Stegosaurus

C) Brontosaurus

D) Triceratops

Yes, I know, you’re way too smart for this. You chose “C” because you remember that everybody’s favorite dinosaur, that 16-ton vegetarian with the long neck and the whip-like tail, is really named Apatosaurus. Scientists have long since declared that Brontosaurus was a taxonomic error, and doesn’t technically exist.

In fact, it’s been 112 years since a paleontologist named Elmer Riggs first pointed out that Brontosaurus, described by Yale’s O.C. Marsh in 1879, was an awful lot like Apatosaurus, which Marsh himself had described just two years previously. Marsh thought the two species were different because one had more vertebrae than the other in the sacral region, at the base of the spine. But Riggs pointed out that the sacral vertebrae in four-limbed species, including humans, normally fuse as an individual matures. Marsh’s two specimens were thus supposedly no more than older and younger individuals of the same species.

That is, until this morning. In a paper published Tuesday in the journal PeerJ, a team of paleontologists has declared that Brontosaurus is back, baby, and better than ever. They argue that Brontosaurus is different enough Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Evolution | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The Best Hope for Ethiopia’s Wildlife Is From the Barrel of a Gun

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 29, 2015

Ethiopia's mountain nyala. (Photo: Gabrielle and Michel Therin-Weise/Getty Images)

Ethiopia’s mountain nyala. (Photo: Gabrielle and Michel Therin-Weise/Getty Images)

Over the past quarter century, Ethiopia has lost 90 percent of its elephants. Of its other large mammals, at least six species—the black rhinoceros, the African wild ass, the Ethiopian wolf, the mountain nyala, the Walia ibex, and the Grévy’s zebra—are slinking toward oblivion. Could trophy hunting be one way to turn this grim decline around? That is, could killing endangered animals help to save them? That’s what a new study, published earlier this month in the journal Conservation Biology, suggests.

Let’s acknowledge up front that big game hunting, especially in Africa, arouses strong emotions. When Melissa Bachman, host of a hunting show on cable television, grinned for the camera a few years ago beside a lion she had just killed, the photo didn’t just go viral: It also garnered nearly 500,000 signatures on a petition to ban her from South Africa. When Namibia auctioned off the right to shoot a trophy black rhino last year, the winning bidder harvested a boatload of death threats.

But for many African countries, big game hunts generate millions of dollars in revenue every year, both from trophy fees and from the money hunters spend on their multi-week trips. “Hunters spend 10 to 25 times more than

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Finding 30 New Species in Los Angeles Backyards

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 26, 2015

30newSpeciesA team of researchers in Los Angeles has just described 30 new species discovered during a three-month study in ordinary backyards.  Emily Hartop, who did much of the biological grunt work, has written a nice description of the project, and what it means:

When I came to work at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, I had no idea exactly what was in store for me. The NHM had recently initiated a massive study to search for biodiversity, or the variety of life forms in a particular area. This study wasn’t taking place in some lush tropical jungle, though; in fact, far from it. This fabulous study was (and is) taking place in the backyards of Los Angeles. I got hired to be part of the entomological team for this urban project called BioSCAN (Biodiversity Science: City and Nature) and before I knew it, I was describing 30 new species of flies collected right here in the City of Angels.

Before I explain how this all happened, let’s pause and say that again: 30 new species of flies were described from urban Los Angeles in 2015. Let’s expand: these flies were caught in three months of sampling and are all in the same genus. What does this mean for us? It means that even in the very areas where we live and work,

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity | Leave a Comment »

Thank Maggots for the Ecological Succession Idea

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 23, 2015

The big idea that there is a more or less predictable succession of species in the history of any ecosystem generally gets credited to Henry C. Cowles at the University of Chicago, with a nod to Henry Thoreau.

But the two Henrys can now take a backseat to a forensic entomologist–the sort of character otherwise familiar from the various CSI shows–working at the beginning of the nineteenth century in France.  Here’s the press release, from Cowles’s own University of Chicago (oh, the ingratitude):

For generations, students have been taught the concept of “ecological succession” with examples from the plant world, such as the progression over time of plant species that establish and grow following a forest fire. Indeed, succession is arguably plant ecology’s most enduring scientific contribution, and its origins with early 20th-century plant ecologists have been uncontested. Yet, this common narrative may actually be false. As posited in an article published in the March 2015 issue of The Quarterly Review of Biology, two decades before plant scientists explored the concept, it was forensic examiners who discovered ecological succession.

According to Jean-Philippe Michaud, Kenneth Schoenly, and Gaétan Moreau, the first formal definition and testable mechanism of ecological succession originated in the late 1800s with Pierre Mégnin, a French veterinarian and entomologist who, while assisting medical examiners to develop methodology for estimating time-since-death of the deceased, recognized

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Cool Tools | Leave a Comment »

A Wildlife Where’s Waldo

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 22, 2015

1395180_939683106081777_4770492552988501563_nTexas conservationist John Karges picked up a piece of lumber lying on the ground at Las Estrellas Preserve, a Nature Conservancy Property in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.  Then he took this picture and immediately put the plank back down.  He now calls that plank “the Waldo Board,” because it set him off on a search for species taking shelter beneath it. So far he’s found “three Texas banded geckos, three Great Plains narrow-mouthed toads, one centipede, at least one beetle larva,” and probably other stuff since he posted this seven hours ago.

I still can’t find the damned centipede.  You give it a try.  Hints after the break.  Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity | 1 Comment »

A Plan to Mine Coal in the Birthplace of Rhino Conservation

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 21, 2015


(Photo: Richard Conniff)

My latest for Takepart:

A few years ago, I was reporting a story about South Africa’s war on rhinos. I suppose you could call it “Vietnam’s war” or “Asia’s war,” since that’s where most of the rhino horn ends up, to supply a bogus medicinal trade. But let’s face it: South Africa’s own political and financial elite tolerate the poaching of more than 1,000 rhinos in the nation every year, probably because they profit from it.

In any case, the obvious place to start my reporting was the birthplace of rhino conservation: Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, in the coastal state of Kwazulu-Natal. This is where an earlier generation of South Africans saved the white rhino from certain extinction, carefully breeding the species back from just 20 animals in the world at the end of the 19th century to a population of 20,000 today.

In 1895, they also designated Hluhluwe-iMfolozi (pronounced “shluh-shloo-ee”) Africa’s first nature preserve.

This should be a great national heritage, and also a source of cultural pride: The broad river valleys and rolling highlands of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi were once the favorite hunting ground of Shaka, the storied Zulu warrior king. The park is home not just to white rhinos but also to critically endangered black rhinos, as well as elephants, lions, leopards, buffalo, and 340 species of birds.

But now Ibutho Coal, a little-known mining company Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

How Outdoor Cats Mess Up Our Minds

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 19, 2015

Toxoplasmosis from outdoor cats makes major changes in the brain's most common and critical cells, called astrocytes.  (Image: Indiana University School of Medicine)

Toxoplasmosis from outdoor cats makes major changes in the brain’s most common and critical cells, called astrocytes.
(Image: Indiana University School of Medicine)

Neuroscientists are coming closer to understanding how cat-borne Toxoplasmosis messes with the brains of mice, men, and women.

With apologies, the press release could be a lot more clear in describing a new study showing how this parasite affects the brain.  But I’m on another deadline, and want to post this now because it’s important for pet-owners to get the message: We endanger ourselves when we allow our pet cats to wander outdoors:

Rodents infected with a common parasite lose their fear of cats, resulting in easy meals for the felines. Now Indiana University School of Medicine researchers have identified a new way the parasite may modify brain cells, possibly helping explain changes in the behavior of mice — and humans.

The parasite is Toxoplasma gondii, which has infected an estimated one in four Americans and even larger numbers worldwide. Not long after infecting a human, Toxoplasma parasites encounter the body’s immune response and retreat to a latent state, enveloped in hardy cysts that the body cannot remove.

Before entering that inactive state, however, the parasites

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

How Science Education Came to America–The Patriarch Part 1

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 15, 2015

Benjamin Silliman Sr.

Benjamin Silliman Sr.

Undergraduates at Yale are associated with a single residential college for their entire four years, and when I was a student, my college was named Silliman College.  It was my home.  I was, yes, a Sillimander.  But the name Silliman was just a name to me, another one of those obscurely eminent names from Yale’s past. 

For the past year, though, I have been working on a new book (working title: House of Lost Worlds) about how the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History changed our world. And in the course of my research, I learned that Silliman–Benjamin Silliman Sr.–was a far more important figure in American history, and the history of American science, than I had imagined.  Here’s the story:

On October 26, 1802, a 23-year-old Yale-educated lawyer boarded a stagecoach in New Haven for the long, dusty, motion sickness–inducing trip to Philadelphia. Under his arm, he carried a wooden candle box full of mineral specimens to be properly identified.

They were remnants of a higgledy-piggledy museum of curiosities Yale had maintained for a time but then largely misplaced, not altogether regrettably. The original collection had included a 50-pound set of moose antlers, a nine-foot-long wooden chain carved from a stick by a blind man, and a two-headed calf. It also included miscellaneous unlabeled mineral specimens. The candle box in which Benjamin Silliman carried these specimens to Philadelphia would enter Yale legend as the beginning of proper scientific collecting at Yale. More than that, it was the beginning of the collections that would later become the Peabody Museum of Natural History, and the beginning of Yale’s rise from a college to a university.

The polymath Thomas Jefferson was in the White House, yet for most Americans then, science was still a foreign enterprise, somewhat nervously regarded. There were signs of growing interest in this strange idea of knowing the world not just by faith but by experiments, expeditions, and observation. But many considered it Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in The Primate File | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,482 other followers