strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

  • Richard Conniff

  • Reviews for Richard Conniff’s Books

    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Bill McKibben: Green Mountain Man

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 14, 2018

Bill McKibben (Photo: Mark Teiwes / Lesley University)

by Richard Conniff/Yankee Magazine

It’s a mid-September afternoon, and Bill McKibben—author, climate change activist, nemesis of the fossil fuel industry, cross-country skiing addict, devotee of small-town New England life, and drinker of local beers, in more or less that order—is at the wheel of his electric-blue plug-in hybrid, heading north out of Providence.

He and his wife, writer Sue Halpern, have been away from their home in the Green Mountains outside Middlebury overnight, on a trip to promote his first novel, Radio Free Vermont. It’s a funny book, and McKibben is not known for funny books. Well, it’s funny unless you happen to be a Walmart manager: McKibben starts his fable with small-town renegades flooding a new Walmart store knee-deep with the contents of the local sewer system. (Oh, come on, that’s funny.) And it’s funny unless you think there is something deeply alarming about Vermont seceding from the bigness and manifold badness of the United States at large. McKibben says the independent Republic of Vermont is just a plot device, not a movement. But his passion for his home state is genuine. As he hits the on-ramp out of Providence, he is almost quavering in anticipation of getting back.

McKibben is, of course, better known for books that are genuinely alarming. Climate change is his subject, both as an author and an activist. Fellow climate journalist Andrew Revkin describes him as “the ultimate endurance athlete of climate campaigning.” In a series of books and articles beginning with The End of Nature in 1989, McKibben has meticulously laid out the evidence that the rapid accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, from our massive burning of fossil fuels, is destroying the world as we once knew it. “The basic issue of the planet right now,” he told Revkin in a recent interview, “is that it’s disintegrating.” He refers to “my last grim book,” as if grim books were a genre, and has described his life after The End of Nature as 25 years of “sadness” and of “looking for ways out, for places that work.”

For McKibben, Vermont is one such place. Even in his grim books, he writes yearningly, sentimentally, about the maple cream cookies that a neighbor brings to the annual town meeting, about stopping to visit “the farm of the six Dutch brothers,” about “the sun shining through the winter-bare ridge at dusk,” and about the consoling mantra of local names—Camel’s Hump, Bread Loaf Mountain, Otter Creek—with which he lulls himself to sleep while on the road. The mountainous country around Lake Champlain, he writes, is “the landscape that fits with jigsaw precision into the hole in my heart.”

Vermont is also, however, what transformed him from author to activist and led him reluctantly to spend much of his life away from home. The turning point, he says as he heads north on 95 across Massachusetts, was a five-day protest march for climate action, from his hometown of Ripton to Burlington, in 2006. “We slept in fields,” he recalls, and had potluck suppers at Methodist churches along the way, “potluck suppers being their sacrament.”

He meant the protest to be a one-time thing, “but when I got to Burlington, 1,000 people were marching with us, and in Vermont, 1,000 people is a lot of people,” he says. “But what was amazing was to read the story in the paper the next day.” It was 17 years after The End of Nature, and nine years after passage of the Kyoto Protocol, the first international agreement on climate change. An overwhelming abundance of scientific evidence had demonstrated the reality of climate change and the human role in causing it. And yet a newspaper story was describing 1,000 people walking across Vermont as the largest U.S. demonstration ever against climate change. It dawned on McKibben that writing books and making meticulous arguments wasn’t enough. Read the rest of this entry »


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Guns Kill Kids in Cities, Too. Green Spaces Could Be Part of the Fix.

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 26, 2018

Before treatment.


by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

Outrage over school shootings has dominated headlines, not just because the victims are children, but also because the shootings occur so randomly and in places—Parkland, FL, Newtown, CT– where it once seemed such a thing could never happen.

It’s harder to stir a national debate about the persistent and far larger problem of gun homicides in the nation’s poorest urban neighborhoods, even though more children die in urban gun violence than in school shootings. Maybe it’s just too predictable to hold our attention: The gun violence is extraordinarily concentrated–“hyper-segregated,” in the words of one criminologist–with a handful of neighborhoods in the nation’s 10 largest cities accounting for 30 percent of all gun homicides nationwide.

Now, though, it appears that predictability and geographic concentration could actually make urban gun violence easier to prevent.  For Columbia University epidemiologist Charles Branas, one answer is a relatively simple and inexpensive infrastructure improvement, involving derelict or abandoned city lots. Such lots add up to about 7.5 million acres of land and about 15 percent of the area of cities nationwide—and significantly higher percentages in mid-size cities like Flint, Michigan, or Camden, NJ.

Derelict lots often become the setting for drug dealing and other criminal behaviors and thus function as a primary threat to the health and safety of nearby residents, according to Branas, lead author of a study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).  He and his co-authors liken efforts to clean up these lots to the nineteenth-century public investment in sewage treatment and clean water systems as a means of curbing epidemic diseases and making cities livable.  Instead of cholera, says Branas, the “contagion” this time is urban gun violence, which he says spreads—and can be interrupted in its course—like any other epidemic.

For the new study, Branas and his co-authors looked at 541 vacant lots in randomized clusters across the entire city of Philadelphia, which has one of the highest murder Read the rest of this entry »

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How Forest Certification Fails

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 20, 2018

Logging in tiger habitat (Photo: Anatoly Kabanets / WWF-Russia)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

When the Forest Stewardship Council got its start in 1993, it seemed to represent a triumph of market-based thinking over plodding command-and-control government regulation. Participants in the 1992 Rio Earth Summit had failed to reach agreement on government intervention to control rampant tropical deforestation. Instead, environmental organizations, social movements, and industry banded together to establish a voluntary system for improving logging practices and certifying sustainable timber.

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) soon set standards that seemed genuinely exciting to environmental and social activists, covering the conservation and restoration of forests, indigenous rights, and the economic and social well-being of workers, among other criteria. For industry, FSC certification promised not just a better way of doing business, but also higher prices for wood products carrying the FSC seal of environmental friendliness.

A quarter-century later, frustrated supporters of FSC say it hasn’t worked out as planned, except maybe for the higher prices: FSC reports that tropical forest timber carrying its label brings 15 to 25 percent more at auction. But environmental critics and some academic researchers say FSC has had little or no effect on tropical deforestation. Moreover, a number of recent logging industry scandals suggest that the FSC label has at times served merely to “greenwash” or “launder” trafficking in illegal timber:

  • In a 2014 report, Greenpeace, an FSC member, slammed the organization for standing by as FSC-certified loggers ravaged the Russian taiga, particularly the Dvinsky Forest, more than 700 miles north of Moscow. Greenpeace accused FSC-certified logging companies there of “wood-mining” forests the way they might strip-mine coal, as a nonrenewable resource, and of harvesting “areas that are either slated for legal protection or supposed to be protected as a part of FSC requirements.”

Read the rest of this entry »

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Gaining Ground in the Fight to Stop Illegal Logging

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 9, 2018

Illegal logging of Spanish cedar along the Las Piedras River, Madre de Dios, Peru. (Photo: Andre Baertschi)

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

Strange as it may sound, we have arrived at a moment of hope for the world’s forests. It is, admittedly, hope of a jaded variety: After decades of hand-wringing about rampant destruction of forests almost everywhere, investigators have recently demonstrated in extraordinary detail that much of this logging is blatantly illegal.

And surprisingly, people actually seem to be doing something about it. In November, the European Court of Justice put Poland under threat of a 100,000-euro-per-day fine for illegal logging in the continent’s oldest forest, and last month Poland’s prime minister fired the environment minister who authorized the logging.

In Romania, two big do-it-yourself retail chains ended purchasing agreements with an Austrian logging giant implicated in illegal logging there. And in this country, the Office of the United States Trade Representative, normally dedicated to free trade at any cost, has barred a major exporter of Read the rest of this entry »

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The Deadly Myth of Clean Coal

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 3, 2018

With Donald Trump preaching the myth of “clean coal,” this piece from 2008 is timely again. Profitable lies, like cats, seem to have multiple lives.

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

You have to hand it to the folks at R&R Partners. They’re the clever advertising agency that made its name luring legions of suckers to Las Vegas with an ad campaign built on the slogan “What happens here, stays here.” But R&R has now topped itself with its current ad campaign pairing two of the least compatible words in the English language: “Clean Coal.”

“Clean” is not a word that normally leaps to mind for a commodity some spoilsports associate with unsafe mines, mountaintop removal, acid rain, black lung, lung cancer, asthma, mercury contamination, and, of course, global warming. And yet the phrase “clean coal” now routinely turns up in political discourse, almost as if it were a reality.

The ads created by R&R tout coal as “an American resource.” In one Vegas-inflected version, Kool and the Gang sing “Ya-HOO!” as an electric wire gets plugged into a lump of coal and the narrator intones: “It’s the fuel that powers our way of life.” (“Celebrate good times, come on!”) A second ad predicts a future in which coal will generate power “with even lower emissions, including the capture and storage of CO2. It’s a big challenge, but we’ve made a commitment, a commitment to clean.”

Well, they’ve made a commitment to advertising, anyway. The campaign has been paid for Read the rest of this entry »

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This Makes Me Want to Eat Pancakes. (But It’s Only Thursday.)

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 18, 2018

Fish scales in a piranha’s belly (and enlarged at left)

by Richard Conniff

I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about piranhas and what they eat. In fact, I wrote a book called Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals. And, yes, I have also spent a fair amount of time swimming with piranhas.

So naturally this caught my eye:

The piranha that eats scales its whole life, named Catoprion mento, tends to live alone. When it does hunt, it swims up behind its prey, opens its large, Jay Leno-like jaw 120 degrees and Read the rest of this entry »

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Triassic Butterfly Park: Oldest Fossil Unhinges Flower-Pollinator Timeline

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 10, 2018

Modern Glossata

By Richard Conniff/Scientific American

For years, researchers studying core samples drilled from deep in the Earth have noticed odd flecks of material, possibly from insects—and generally treated them as a distraction from the real work: They focused instead on pollen and spores as a continuous record for understanding past ecosystems. But a surprising abundance of those flecks in a recent sample from northern Germany has now led a team of researchers to pay closer attention.

Writing in the journal Science Advances, Timo van Eldijk and his co-authors describe their find as the earliest fossil record of Lepidoptera, from about 201 million years ago, at the boundary between the Triassic and Jurassic periods. The new find fits the timeline for evolution of the Lepidoptera suggested by molecular evidence and helps correct a puzzling gap in the fossil record.

Triassic Wing Scale

The study looks at 70 specimens, found in a drill core from more than 300 meters below the surface, and identifies them as the wing scales that give butterflies and moths their spectacularly varied colors and patterns.  A light microscope, and later a scanning electron microscope, revealed the scales to be petal-like structures.  Some of them are beautifully preserved, with neatly ridged surfaces, herringbone webbing between the ridges, “micro-ribs,” and in some cases, perforations in the surface.

The perforations turned out to be a critical detail. They indicate, according to the co-authors, that a moth of that period had the hollow wing scales characteristic of Glossata, the taxonomic group that includes all modern moths and butterflies equipped with a sucking proboscis. The oldest previously known such fossil was from 129 million years ago–just as the flowering plants were making their spectacular emergence across the planet.  And the accepted theory was that the sucking proboscis only emerged at that point as a product of co-evolution between flowers and the insects that pollinate them.

That co-evolution, and the often exquisitely precise matchup between flower and pollinator, have been a subject of perennial fascination for naturalists.  In one of the most celebrated stories in all of botany, for instance, Read the rest of this entry »

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Habitat on Our Doorsteps: Making Room for Wildlife in an Urbanized World

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 3, 2018

(Illustration: Luisa Rivera)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

One morning not long ago, in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, I traveled with a Wildlife Conservation Society biologist on a switchback route up and over the high ridge of the Western Ghats. Our itinerary loosely followed the corridor connecting Bhadra Tiger Reserve with Kudremakh National Park 30 miles to the south.

In places, we passed beautiful shade coffee plantations, with an understory of coffee plants, and pepper vines — a second cash crop — twining up the trunks of the shade trees. Coffee plantations managed in this fashion, connected to surviving patches of natural forest, “provide continuous camouflage for the predators,” — especially tigers moving through by night, my guide explained, and wildlife conflict was minimal.  Elsewhere, though, the corridor narrowed to a thread winding past sprawling villages, and conservationists played a double game, part handholding to help people live with large predators on their doorsteps, part legal combat to keep economic interests from nibbling into the wildlife corridor from both sides. It was a microcosm of how wildlife hangs on these days, not just in India, but almost everywhere in the world.

For conservationists, protecting biodiversity has in recent years become much less about securing new protected areas in pristine habitat and more about Read the rest of this entry »

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As Climate Change Bears Down, Do We Relocate Threatened Species?

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 26, 2017

(Photo: Frans Lanting)

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

On a knob of rock in New Zealand’s Cook Strait known as North Brother Island, a population of the lizard-like creature called the tuatara is quickly becoming all male. When scientists first noticed the imbalance in the late 1990s, the sex-ratio was already 62.4 percent male, and it has rapidly worsened since then, to more than 70 percent. Researchers say climate change is the cause: ground temperature determines the sex of tuatara embryos, with cooler temperatures favoring females and warmer ones favoring males.  When climate pushes the sex ratio to 85 percent male, the North Brother Island tuataras will slip inescapably into what biologists call the extinction vortex.

So what should conservationists do? For the tuatara and many other species threatened by climate change, relocating them to places they have never lived before–a practice known as assisted colonization—is beginning to seem like the only option. “We’d prefer to do something a little more natural,” says Jessica Hellman, a lepidopterist at Notre Dame, who was among the first researchers to put the assisted colonization idea up for discussion. That is, it would be better for species to shift their ranges on their own, using natural corridors to find new homes as their old ones become less habitable. But for many island and mountain species, long distance moves were never an option in the first place, says Hellman. In other cases, old corridors no longer exist, because human development has fragmented them.

The idea of assisted colonization as a conservation tactic has elicited fierce criticism, however, because of its potential Read the rest of this entry »

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This Year’s Worst-Timed Science Study Examines Sex with Immature Females

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 16, 2017

If only scientists had better control over publication dates, this new study might not have seen the light just now, in the year of Harvey Weinstein, Dustin Hoffman, and oh-so-many others.  Published this week in the journal Scientific Reports, it’s a finding that males seeking sex with immature females aren’t necessarily engaged in coercion and don’t seem to impose any cost on their partners.

OK, the researchers are talking about redback spiders, not humans.

And lest readers think it’s a good idea to follow examples from the natural world, the press release for the study also notes that these are “one of few arachnids that engage in sexual cannibalism while mating. In fact, males have been observed to actively assist in being cannibalized by doing somersaults to place their abdomen over the adult female’s mouth.”

Still, we’re not all that far out of Harvey Weinstein territory, are we?  (He’d have used a body double for the somersault.)

What’s especially interesting, Read the rest of this entry »

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