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.

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A Tale of Pooters & Malaise

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 28, 2015

9781101870150_p0_v1_s260x420This is a book review I wrote for yesterday’s Wall Street Journal:

Anyone who spends time in the field with people who study insects is likely to encounter the “malaise trap,” a tent-like device with a sloping ridge. Insects have a tendency to escape by moving upward, and this trap ingeniously encourages them to do so, into a collecting jar at the top. I always assumed the name “malaise” referred to the dreamy idleness of the collectors who rely on such an efficient device.

In his curious book “The Fly Trap,” Swedish journalist, translator and entomological enthusiast Fredrik Sjöberg corrects my mistake: The name comes from the inventor of the device, a peripatetic 20th century sawfly specialist named René Malaise. Mr. Sjöberg’s entertaining memoir is partly about his own unsuccessful attempts to write a biography of Malaise, partly about life on Runmarö Island in the Stockholm archipelago, where the author lives and Malaise sometimes visited, and mostly about Mr. Sjöberg’s own obsession with a group of insects called hoverflies.

The writing is whimsical, digressive and pleasingly devoid of anything too weighty or purposeful. Mr. Sjöberg attempts to pass off the hoverflies early on as “only props,” a means to write “about the art and sometimes the bliss of limitation.” But clearly they have a hold on him. Hoverflies are a worldwide family of insects, known for pollinating plants, attacking agricultural pests and achieving a magnificent degree of mimicry, mostly of wasps and bees. They are worthy of enthusiasm. For his part, the author, using a net, a tube-and-bottle device called a pooter, and a mega-Malaise—“a real monster,” of which he is inordinately proud—has collected 202 species on his island of just six square miles, and solved a puzzle or two that have eluded other specialists in the field.

“The Fly Trap” fits into a surprisingly rich genre of great and idiosyncratic writing about insects—from Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity | Leave a Comment »

Saving Wildlife is Good for Your Health (But It’s Complicated)

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 19, 2015

(Photo: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

(Photo: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

I live in one of the towns that gave Lyme disease its name, and yet I also love wildlife. So I rejoiced a few years ago when a study argued that maintaining healthy natural habitats with a rich diversity of wildlife can help keep people healthy, too, by protecting us from infectious diseases. Now two new studies out this week support this theory—though skeptics say they still have their doubts.

The basic idea, first proposed by ecologists Richard Ostfeld and Felicia Keesing, is called the “dilution effect,” and it works like this: for a given disease affecting multiple species—like Lyme disease or malaria—some host animals readily transmit the disease organism to the tick or mosquito that will carry it to the next victim. But other species are dead ends.

In the case of Lyme disease in the western United States, for example, western gray squirrels readily contract the bacteria and pass it on to ticks. But when those same ticks feed on western fence lizards, it kills the Lyme-causing bacteria in the ticks’ blood. That makes the lizards a bad host for Lyme, and good for us. In theory, the greater the biodiversity in any habitat, the more chances Read the rest of this entry »

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

That Fish for Dinner? It Comes with a Dose of Prescription Drugs

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 12, 2015

 (Photo: UGA College of Ag and Environmental Sciences/Flickr)

(Photo: UGA College of Ag and Environmental Sciences/Flickr)

Researchers have known for more than a decade that the pharmaceuticals we consume tend to turn up secondhand in wildlife–sometimes with horrible effects.

Chemical hormones in birth control pills, for instance, pass into the urine and are released via municipal sewage plants into the environment, where they can become potent endocrine disruptors. These drugs alter the reproductive physiology and behavior of fish downstream, with impacts including feminized or intersex males. But so far, society’s reaction has largely been a collective shrug: Those are fish, not people. Why should we care? Attempts to limit drug pollution have mostly gone nowhere.

A new study in the journal Food Chemistry should shake us out of our complacency. Chemical analyst M. Abdul Mottaleb and his team at Northwest Missouri State University went to fish counters at local supermarkets and purchased fillets of 14 different species. Then they tested them for the presence of several human pharmaceuticals, including the antihistamine found in medications like Benadryl, and the antianxiety compound found in medications like Valium.

The results: Eleven of 14 fish servings contained elevated levels of the two drugs.

Moreover, the fish weren’t just freshwater species like Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues, Food & Drink | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Champagne, Please! A Toast to Good News About Threatened Wildlife

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 5, 2015

Gray seals on Cape Cod

Gray seals on Cape Cod

Wildlife biologists and other conservationists often suffer from chronic pessimism—not surprising, given the endlessly gloomy news about habitat loss, species extinction, and the latest delicacy being eaten by rich people in China. (“Boiled baby pangolin, dear?”) But sometimes things go right.

“There are glimmers of light that lead me to feel that what I’m doing is not absolutely mad and idiotic and senseless,” the author and captive breeding proponent Gerald Durrell once remarked. He told me this one morning on the Isle of Jersey while both of us were consuming large glasses of whiskey well before cocktail hour, or even lunch. But we toasted his point because it was a good one: There are success stories, and conservationists should cheer up and celebrate them.

A new article in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution makes the same point, minus the whiskey, and also proposes an agenda for dealing with the almost miraculous—but sometimes complicated—transformation of once-endangered species into commonplace neighbors.

Let’s start with a few of the success

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

The Land Mafia Schemes to Gobble Up A Wildlife Oasis in the City

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 29, 2015

Moving in on Mumbai's Aarey Milk Colony

Moving in on Mumbai’s Aarey Milk Colony (Photos: Richard Conniff)

When a builder hungers to develop a patch of open space, he finds an environmental consultant to conclude that there isn’t any wildlife living there. It’s an ecological desert, the consultant dutifully reports. A wasteland. Really, the developer is doing a public service by even offering to put a building there.

I have seen this Big Lie prevail at home, where critical wetland habitat in the Jersey Meadowlands has given way to a hideous mega-mall described, by Gov. Chris Christie, no less, as “the ugliest damn building in New Jersey, and maybe America.” And I saw The Lie at work again early this month on a visit to Mumbai, India’s largest city and the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the world.


The cattle stalls in the middle of Mumbai

One of the odder things about Mumbai is that it contains a 40-square-mile national park, in the middle of a metropolis of 20.5 million people. Also oddly, the park has a very agricultural 4,000-acre appendage on its southern end called Aarey Milk Colony. The name means what it suggests: In the 1940s, the city moved dairy farmers 20 miles north to what was then forested countryside with the aim of providing a reliable milk supply for the city. About 16,000 buffalo now live in open sheds there, and the rest of the colony is a mix of woodlands and fields growing fodder for the cattle. Locals sometimes refer to Aarey as “the green lungs of Mumbai.”

But pressure to develop open land has become unbelievably fierce in the surrounding area, where population density can top 71,000 people per square mile. Developers nibble away at open space, regardless of whether they actually own it. Early this year, for instance, local journalist Ranjeet Jadhav reported that the so-called “land mafia”—developers and their collaborators in government—were selling off shanty-size chunks of Aarey Milk Colony for Read the rest of this entry »

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

The War on India’s Tiger Reserves

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 15, 2015

(Photo: Aditya Singh/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo: Aditya Singh/AFP/Getty Images)

I’ve been reporting a story lately in India, and one day’s drive between two important tiger reserves reminded me that wildlife survives here only in the face of endless challenges, and with almost all the money and power working in opposition.

The day started in Bhadra Tiger Preserve in the Western Ghats mountain range, and our destination was Kudremukh National Park, 75 miles to the west, with just a thread of wildlife corridor—less than a mile in width—connecting the two.

Bhadra is a beautiful forest with a dirt road winding among tall, straight teak trees. The tigers were in hiding, but there were chital deer in herds, and solo muntjac deer peering out at us nervously. A giant squirrel with big ears and a red tail half again as long as its body stared down. Yellow-toed green pigeons with gorgeous crimson wings busied themselves at a patch of mud.

People were the main challenge here, as everywhere in India. More than 700 families used to live in this forest, in 13 villages. The politically correct point of view, especially among human rights activists, is that indigenous people should stay in the forest, as an integral part of the natural world. There is plenty to be said for this point of view when loggers, palm oil producers, and oil companies hack down forests around tribal people who have always lived there.

But the reality in India

Read the rest of this entry »

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

How Bird Lovers Push Species to the Brink of Extinction

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 2, 2015

The bird market in Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia. (Photo: Megan Ahrens/Getty Images)

The bird market in Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia. (Photo: Megan Ahrens/Getty Images)

It’s sometimes said that we are loving nature to death—with our sightseeing traffic jams to gawk at bison loitering in Yellowstone National Park, and our safari vehicles huddled together to watch lions yawn in the Masai Mara.  But few people take their affection for nature to such a destructive extreme as the bird lovers of Indonesia and Malaysia.

Roughly 35 percent of homes in that Southeast Asian region keep birds as pets. People love the sound of their singing and build them elaborately carved mahogany cages. But they prefer the birds to be wild caught, and the more unusual the better. The result, according to a new study in the journal Biological Conservation, is that wild bird populations are being drastically reduced, and some species are probably being driven into extinction.

The region is already notorious for hacking down huge swaths of old-growth forest for lumber, or to make room for palm oil and rubber plantations. But the pet trade seems to be almost as destructive to bird life, finishing off what deforestation has merely begun. Even birds that might have survived in secondary forests or on agricultural lands are vanishing.

Princeton University’s Bert Harris, lead author of the new study, focused on bird markets in Medan, Sumatra, “one of the primary hubs of the Asian wildlife trade,” with more than 200 bird species typically for sale. In a region with almost no field studies to monitor bird populations in the wild, Harris and his coauthors theorized that recording price and volume for different bird species in the marketplace could serve as a quick-and-dirty tool for detecting population trends in the wild.

It worked. By comparing current market data with a historical sample Read the rest of this entry »

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

Where the Rubber Meets the Orangutan

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 28, 2015


A lot of shoppers now routinely reach for fair-trade coffee. Many also look for foods that contain no palm oil, a notorious destroyer of tropical forests. Few, however, think about the tires on their car. But the typical car tire is 28 percent natural rubber. It comes from rubber trees grown on plantations, and those plantations are rapidly replacing forests across vast swaths of Southeast Asia.

According to a new paper published in Conservation Letters, the rubber tree is now the fastest-growing crop in Southeast Asia. Car tires consume 70 percent of the production, and demand is booming, largely because of the rapid rise of the Chinese economy. Without major changes, the rubber trade is on track to eat up between 10 million and 21 million acres of tropical forest over the next decade.

The larger figure works out to more than 30,000 square miles of forest, an area roughly the size of South Carolina, and it will mean taking down habitat for a stunning Read the rest of this entry »

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

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 »


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