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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The Pandemic Ahead for North America’s Salamanders and Forests

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 30, 2015

One of the hundreds of salamander species native to North America now threatened by an emerging disease (Photo: Tiffany Yap)

One of the hundreds of salamander species native to North America now
threatened by an emerging disease (Photo: Emanuele Biggi |

Let’s say it’s 1880 and you discover irrefutable evidence that misguided human behavior is about to cause extinction of passenger pigeons—and you have this evidence in time to prevent the disaster from occurring. Or, to bring it closer to home, let’s say it’s 1990 and you have the power to stop the chytrid fungus pandemic that was unknown then, but about to send frogs worldwide twitching and suffocating to their miserable deaths. You’d do something, right?

That’s the situation the United States is in right now, with another unbelievably numerous and ecologically important animal group. The likely victims this time are salamanders and—hang on–before you say “I’m not going to waste time worrying about slimy little animals that live under rocks,” consider first that salamanders are adorable (check out the photo above), second, that they are characteristically North American, and third, that they are vital to the health of our forests.

For salamanders, North America is the Garden of Eden, and they are our true biodiversity: Of the 676 known salamander species in the world, almost half live on this continent, with hotspots of salamander abundance in the southern Appalachians, the Sierra Nevadas, and the highlands of Central Mexico.

The problem this time is that a new variety of chytrid fungus, called Bsal (short for Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans) has recently turned up in Asia, and it is already starting to do to salamanders what its notorious cousin Bd (short for Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) has done to frogs. On introduction to the Netherlands in 2013, Bsal caused Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction | Leave a Comment »

Why Killing Lions Like Cecil Could Be Good for Conservation

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 29, 2015

Cecil the Lion in his prime

Cecil the Lion in his prime

Here’s a counter-argument to the uproar about the killing of Cecil the Lion.  It comes from Niki Rust, a carnivore conservationist at the University of Kent, and Diogo Verissimo of Georgia State University:

The death of a celebrity often makes the headlines, but it is less common that the death of wild animal has the same effect. However, it appears that the entire world has mourned the loss of Cecil the lion, killed on a private game reserve bordering a national park in Zimbabwe. But is the recent barrage of attacks on trophy hunting, and the US dentist who killed Cecil, justified?

Let’s be clear: Cecil was killed illegally, which we don’t condone. The landowner who allowed the hunt on his reserve without the necessary permit should face the justice system. But

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Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | 1 Comment »

The Broken Promise of Ecological Restoration

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 18, 2015

Iron heron sculptures stand by the Los Angeles River--a concrete-lined waterway proposed for restoration to its natural state. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Fake herons stand by the concrete-lined Los Angeles River–a candidate for restoration to its natural state. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Not long ago in the New Jersey Meadowlands, a private company took a 235-acre chunk out of an existing 587-acre protected area and turned it into a “mitigation bank.” The company running the deal paid $6 million for a lease and $25 million for restoration work, altogether about $132,000 an acre. The work involved removing tall, dense stands of phragmites (an invasive grass), knocking down berms along the Hackensack River, cleaning up contaminated soil, and replanting with native species. The idea was to create a bank of mitigation credits for sale at a profit to developers wanting to fill wetlands elsewhere.

The project did not create a single new acre of wetlands. While it did restore stands of spartina grass and other native species, says Erik Kiviat, an ecologist with the conservation nonprofit Hudsonia Ltd., the restoration effort also turned the habitat of a rare plant into an equipment parking lot, killed the last remnant of bluejoint grass wet meadow in the region, and destroyed what had been the state’s only known habitat for a globally rare invertebrate, Mattox’s clam shrimp. Moreover, the mitigation credits for this work require the company to monitor the restored acreage for just 15 years. After that, almost anything can happen. But the wetlands being filled thanks to mitigation credits will remain filled forever.

In the public imagination, there’s always been something tantalizing about the idea that we can restore trashed ecosystems, or—as Joni Mitchell never put it—take a parking lot and put up paradise. But the reality is that too often, ecological restoration projects

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Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues, Freshwater species | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Putting Bees in a Blender to Save Them

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 11, 2015

Three spotted Digger Bee Habropoda excellens (Photo: Sam Droege/USGS)

Three spotted Digger Bee Habropoda excellens (Photo: Sam Droege/USGS)

If you like food, you had better like pollinators, because you eat their work. Bees, hoverflies, butterflies, and other pollinators are essential to the production of 60 percent of crop species and 35 percent of total crop production. Apart from putting food on our tables, their services are worth about $200 billion a year worldwide. And the problem for farmers, conservationists, and food lovers alike is that pollinator populations are collapsing everywhere. They’re under assault from pesticides, pollution, habitat loss, and climate change, among other factors.

To fix the pollinator crisis, researchers need to know which species are declining, and under what circumstances. But that’s generally a slow, costly, cumbersome process, requiring highly trained taxonomists to prepare a species and identify it under a microscope. It can take years to get the results—and there aren’t enough taxonomists to do the job, in any case. So instead of studying them in minute detail, some researchers now think mashing pollinators into a soup may be

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Posted in Biodiversity, Cool Tools, Environmental Issues | Leave a Comment »

The Postcard Poems

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 5, 2015

(Illustration: Ping Shu)

(Illustration: Ping Shu)

MY father was a great believer in the Postal Service, and when his grandchildren were young, his postcards to them arrived almost daily. They were plain white postcards, never the photo variety, so there was plenty of room to write on both sides, and from edge to edge. What he wrote was almost always nonsense verse, with titles like “The Mother of All French Fries,” and “Reasons to Sneeze.”

I keep them, now that my father is gone and my children are grown, in a couple of file boxes under a bed and pull them out occasionally to remind myself of that time. They have almost nothing to do with reality, and yet they are the reality that survives. On a postcard from 1985, my oldest child is still a 2-year-old hunting for jelly beans with his entourage:

Jamie Conniff took a ride

With six monkeys by his side,

Fourteen leopards out ahead,

Sharp of fang with eyes of red…

My youngest, from a 1997 postcard, is still 8 years old and birdlike:

Clare paints her hair to look like wings

Because that lets her fly

Over the hills at break of day

Into the by-and-by

Animals were my father’s usual theme, as they are in many verses and stories for children. He wrote about monarch butterflies, singing mice, spitting camels Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Funny Business | 3 Comments »

Waiter! Why Aren’t There Any Insects in My Salad?

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 4, 2015

Cricket mealworm scampi. Yum. (Photo: Camren Brantley-Rios)

Cricket mealworm scampi. Yum. (Photo: Camren Brantley-Rios)

Years ago in a South American rainforest, the researcher I was visiting announced with something like joy that he had just found some palm beetle grubs. They were fat, yellow, and the length of my fingers, and when we sautéed them with garlic in a frying pan, the skins took on a lovely al dente chewiness around the creamy interiors. They were delicious—and I ate just one.

Would they have gone down smoother if the researcher had called them “rainforest baked brie” instead, or maybe “Amazon croquetas”? That’s one idea put forward by Matan Shelomi, an American entomologist at the Max Planck Institute of Chemical Ecology, in a new article titled “Why We Still Don’t Eat Insects.”  Writing in the journal Trends in Food Science & Technology, Shelomi chronicles 130 years of clumsy marketing and entomological un-trendiness, ever since an eccentric British author named Vincent Holt first introduced nose-wrinkling Western society to what’s come to be termed “entomophagy” in his 1885 book Why Not Eat Insects? Shelomi points out that the word entomophagy itself is a lousy place to begin. It’s like saying “decapophagy” (a made-up word) when you mean “Let’s go eat some crab rolls.” Better even Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Food & Drink | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

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

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


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