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

Is Climate the Funhouse Mirror for Animal Size & Shape?

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 8, 2015

The conch snail Gibberulus gibbosus.

The conch snail Gibberulus gibbosus.

My latest for Takepart:

There’s plenty of evidence that species are already relocating in response to climate change. Tarpon now show up in summer as far north as Maryland. Humboldt squid have recently moved up from South and Central America into California. But is climate change also affecting the size and shape of animals’ bodies, or the way they function?

I first started thinking about the idea when I ran across a 2013 study of ocean acidification. It’s a subject I had scrupulously avoided until then because the words “ocean acidification” are, let’s face it, sleep-inducing. But stay with me a moment: The oceans have soaked up about a third of all the carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere by human activity over the past three centuries, with the result that marine creatures now live in water that is 30 percent more acidic than in pre-industrial times.

Think of it this way: If you jump into a swimming pool where the pH has crept up a little above the accepted range (say, from 7.6 to 7.7), you may notice that your eyes sting and your skin starts to itch. You can of course just jump out again and run to the shower. But sea creatures can’t.

The study by Australian and European researchers looked at how increasing acidity might affect an Indo-Pacific conch snail living on coral reefs. (It’s got a pretty white shell with some brown stripes, but it goes by the unlovely name Gibberulus gibbosus.) The good news: Spending a week Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

After 29 Million Years, A River Dolphin Faces Risky Future

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 2, 2015

A blind dolphin swims on the Indus River in the southern Pakistani city of Sukkur. (Photo: Rizwan Tabassum/AFP/Getty Images)

A blind dolphin swims on the Indus River in the southern Pakistani city of Sukkur. (Photo: Rizwan Tabassum/AFP/Getty Images)

My latest for Takepart:

If you recall the emotional impact of the 2009 movie “The Cove,” you know how horrible it is to witness the spectacle of hunters trapping and slaughtering dolphins. But it was also gratifying to our feelings of outrage, because it seemed like something we could fix, with a bit of public outrage and international pressure.

It’s infinitely harder to come to terms with the fate of an animal like the blind dolphin of the Indus River in Pakistan and India. Nobody stabs or beats them to death any more. Hunting ended by law in the early 1970s. But that is not the same thing as saving the subspecies. Instead the Indus River dolphins are on the red list of endangered species. They have lost 80 percent of their old home range, which once extended almost 2200 miles from the Arabian Sea to the foothills of the Himalayas.

Beginning in the early twentieth century, irrigation dams have repeatedly sub-divided the dolphin’s habitat, into a current total of 17 segments—10 of them now devoid of dolphins. According to a new study in the journal Biological Conservation, anywhere from 1200 to 1750 individuals survive—with 70 percent of them confined to a single 118-mile stretch of river.

That raises the disheartening prospect that the river dolphin will join Mexico’s vaquita and China’s baiji, or Yangtze River dolphin, on the spiral down to Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Leopard Becomes Total Pothead. So Sad.

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 1, 2015

In India's Rajasthan state, a leopard got stuck when he attempted to drink water from a pot. Forest Department officials tranquilized him and managed to remove his headgear and later set him free. (Photo: AP/Kabir Jethi)

In India’s Rajasthan state, a leopard got stuck when he attempted to drink water from a pot. Forest Department officials tranquilized him and managed to remove his headgear. They later set him free. (Photo: AP/Kabir Jethi)

Posted in Funny Business | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Why Obscure Species Matter

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 25, 2015

Without bats, a lot more corn would look like this. (Photo: Flickr)

Without bats, a lot more corn would look like this. (Photo: Flickr)

Odd bits of recent wildlife news, mostly about very small and obscure species, have left me thinking lately about a game called Jenga. If you happen never to have played it, here’s how it works: The game consists of small wooden blocks, and you start by assembling them into a tower, with each level consisting of three blocks laid horizontally, and the layers arranged crisscross to one another. On each turn, a contestant removes one block and places it on top, the point being to remove as many blocks as possible without causing the whole thing to collapse.

Believe it or not, something called the “Jenga hypothesis” has become an alternative model for understanding how ecosystems really work. In the conventional paradigm, keystone species are typically predators at the top of a food chain, and plenty of evidence has demonstrated that removing them can cause a “trophic cascade” of unexpected and sometimes catastrophic changes down the entire food chain. It’s like removing the “keystone,” the central stone that holds up an architectural archway, and watching everything fall down.   Take sea otters out of the coastal Pacific, for instance, and the sea urchins, abalone, and other invertebrates they feed on predictably boom; the sea urchins and friends in turn demolish the kelp forests, and so on down the ecosystem.

But according to the “Jenga Hypothesis,” first proposed in the journal Science in 2005, the keystone analogy is too static. It misses Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Me and My Jetta: How VW Broke My Heart

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 25, 2015

THE day I went to pick up my new Volkswagen Jetta TDI in March 2009, the salesman had me sit in the driver’s seat while he introduced the car’s various features. The engine was softly idling, and as I reached to shut it off, he told me not to bother. The minimal amount of fuel this car burned — sipped, in the automotive argot — was its great selling point. That, and the almost complete removal of hazardous exhaust that had made earlier diesel vehicles notorious.

This was that new thing in the world, “clean diesel,” using ingenious German technology to keep nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions out of kids’ lungs, and low enough to meet even California’s stringent pollution standards. A committee of jurors, including the executive director of the Sierra Club and the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, had just called it the “Green Car of the Year.” A review in this newspaper described the Jetta TDI, persuasively, as “easy on money, fuel and the planet.”

It was quiet, too. The salesman told me to rev the engine, to hear just how quiet, and I hesitated. I am not …  Read the full story in the New York Times.

Posted in Business Behaviors, Environmental Issues | 4 Comments »

How Farm Subsidies Could Save the World, Not Trash It

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 18, 2015

Ol' Syngenta had a farm. Ee-i-ee-i-o (Photo: Gary Cameron/Reuters)

Ol’ Syngenta had a farm. Ee-i-ee-i-o (Photo: Gary Cameron/Reuters)

My latest for Takepart:

Agricultural subsidies are, let’s face it, incredibly complicated and boring, and that’s the eternal problem with changing them: It’s just too hard to get the public to care even about a system that is, on its face, bizarre, destructive, and politically corrupt. It’s especially hard to care when the big losers are wildlife and the environment.

Well, o.k., taxpayers lose, too. In the United States, agribusiness takes $20 billion worth of subsidies out of our pockets every year. Hardly any of that supports the production of healthier foods, or benefits wildlife, the environment, or the public. But most of us would rather scrub toilets or run marathons than think about it. Meanwhile, agribusiness spent $138 million on lobbying in 2012, and another $90 million on federal campaign contributions to keep these handouts just the way they are.

And yet, it’s worth thinking hard about how to design a farm subsidy program that benefits wildlife, the public, and farmers alike. It’s worth it because—and forgive me for being the buzzkill on a day when you would rather be happily cleaning toilets–the survival of life on Earth depends on it.

Check out this 2010 TED talk by ecologist Jon Foley for the scary details. Or let me summarize: It’s bad enough that agriculture is already the single largest consumer of land and water, the biggest polluter of our waterways with suffocating quantities of nitrogen and phosphorous, the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, and the biggest driver of species extinctions and biodiversity loss on Earth. But here’s the really scary part: Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | 1 Comment »

The Pygmy Hippo Edges Toward Extinction (But Zoos Can Help)

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 11, 2015

Captive-bred pygmy hippo

My latest for Takepart:

Most people have never heard of pygmy hippos, much less seen one. Until 1844, even scientists did not recognize the existence of this species—a miniaturized, snubbier-nosed (and considerably cuter) 400-pound version of the familiar 3300-pound common hippo. But pygmy hippos are now rapidly disappearing from their West African habitat—and the culprits are entirely familiar.

“Large areas of the original forest habitat, especially in Côte d’Ivoire, have been destroyed or degraded by commercial plantations of oil palm and other products, shifting cultivation, mining and logging, and hunting for bushmeat,” according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The IUCN Red List categorizes the species as endangered, with roughly 3000 adult individuals estimated to survive in the wild. Their shrinking and fragmented habitat occurs in just four countries–Liberia, Cote D’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, and Guinea—all prone to political turmoil, corruption, hit-and-run commercial exploitation, and outbreaks of Ebola and other epidemic diseases. A separate subspecies that lived until recently in Nigeria is now apparently extinct.

How to keep the entire pygmy hippo species from suffering the same fate? It depends Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Moth Loves Tobacco, Booze, Good Times

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 11, 2015


This photo appears in The Guardian‘s selection “This Week in Wildlife” and the caption pretty well says it all:

Nature lovers hope to attract the huge convolvulus hawk-moth to their gardens with tobacco and alcohol. The moths like to feed on the nectar of tobacco plants and wine-soaked ropes

Photograph: Keith Baldie/PA

I think they mean Agrius convolvuli, found at all the best spots Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Food & Drink, Funny Business | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

No, Rachel Carson Was Not a Mass Murderer

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 10, 2015

My latest for Yale Environment 360:

Any time a writer mentions Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring or the subsequent U.S. ban on DDT, the loonies come out of the woodwork. They blame Carson’s book for ending the use of DDT as a mosquito-killing pesticide. And because mosquitoes transmit malaria, that supposedly makes her culpable for just about every malaria death of the past half century.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank, devotes an entire website to the notion that “Rachel was wrong,” asserting that “millions of people around the world suffer the painful and often deadly effects of malaria because one person sounded a false alarm.” Likewise former U.S. Senator Tom Coburn has declared that “millions of people, particularly children under five, died because governments bought into Carson’s junk science claims about DDT.” The novelist Michael Crichton even had one of his fictional characters assert that “Banning DDT killed more people than Hitler.” He put the death toll at 50 million.

Carson-w-book-1-340It’s worth considering the many errors in this argument both because malaria remains an epidemic problem in much of the developing world and also because groups like the Competitive Enterprise Institute, backed by corporate interests, have latched onto DDT as a case study for undermining all environmental regulation.

The first thing worth remembering is that it wasn’t Rachel Carson who banned DDT. It was the very Republican Nixon Administration, in 1972. Moreover, the ban applied only in the United States, and even there it made an exception for public health uses. The ban was intended to prevent the imminent extinction of ospreys, peregrine falcons, and bald eagles, our national bird, among other species; they were vulnerable because DDT caused a fatal thinning of eggshells, which collapsed under the weight of the parent incubating them. But the ban did nothing to stop Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues, Fear & Courage | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Killing Dinner with Your Own Hands

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 6, 2015

I’ve only done it with fish and lobster, but according to today’s New York Times, killing your own dinner is now a foodist movement. Here’s the lead of the story by Kate Murphy:

COULD you look through a rifle’s scope into the long-lashed eyes of an elk and pull the trigger if it would be the only meat you ate for the year? Would your conscience be more or less troubled if instead you slit the necks of animals you planned to eat after they were nurtured like adored pets on an idyllic farm?

Does the thought of doing either send you to the grocery store or farmers’ market, where neat packages conceal the violence committed on your behalf? Or do you forswear meat altogether?

While the morality of our meals is not a new debate, the polemics have reached a shrill intensity lately as a growing number of people, in an effort to raise their culinary consciousness, have committed to eating only meat they kill themselves. They are unapologetic, although not necessarily unflinching, about the blood on their hands. And they are the latest dietary tribe in our increasingly Balkanized food culture where people align with those who consume as they do and question the emotional, spiritual and intellectual capacities of those who don’t.

Read the whole article here. But I particularly like this bit. It is so gratifying to have deep thinkers to sort out the moral implications of what we eat:

Nor can you treat all meat eaters as savages, said Mr. Sarnecki, who writes and teaches on food ethics. “It might not be morally problematic to eat lobsters because they likely don’t conceptualize the world at all, whereas you might feel differently if the animal were a mammal that probably has a higher level of consciousness,” he said, duly noting, “I draw the line at lobsters because they are delicious.”

Posted in Kill or Be Killed | Leave a Comment »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,789 other followers