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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Will “Flexibility” Benefit Threatened Beach Birds?

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 6, 2016

Young piping plovers. (Photo: Shawn Patrick Ouellette/'Portland Press Herald' via Getty Images)

Young piping plovers. (Photo: Shawn Patrick Ouellette/’Portland Press Herald’ via Getty Images)

My latest for

Visiting Nantucket a few years ago, I was dismayed to hear some of the island’s wealthy retirees complaining that the damned piping plovers were keeping them from their chosen fishing spots. The plovers, small beach-nesting birds, are a threatened species along the Atlantic Coast and endangered in the Midwest. And I had naively assumed that people with the money to summer in one of the world’s priciest destinations might have a little sympathy for birds that barely manage to survive at all on the open beach.

Not so. The recreational fishermen were determined to drive their off-road vehicles out the sandy spit of land called Great Point to their favorite surf-casting spots, and they were enraged that designated protected areas and buffer zones around plover nests blocked certain areas in breeding season.

So it caught my eye the other day when I saw that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is currently seeking public comment on a draft proposal to give Massachusetts beach managers more flexibility in determining how to protect piping plovers. “Flexibility” is often a code word for letting noisy constituents prevail over good science, and my suspicions increased when I read that an FWS spokeswoman was describing the change as “a solution that works for people and plovers.”

For such small and unobtrusive birds, piping plovers have elicited an extraordinary amount of animosity over the years. That’s because Read the rest of this entry »

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

Handy New Key for Identifying Owl Species

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 30, 2016


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

Want More Crab and Lobster? Go Fish for Lost Gear

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 29, 2016

A boat filled with recovered crab pots. (Photo: CCRM/VIMS)

A boat filled with recovered crab pots. (Photo: CCRM/VIMS)

Chesapeake Bay watermen took it hard in 2008, when their blue crab industry was officially declared a commercial failure. The blue crabs are to the Chesapeake what lobsters are to Maine, not just a major contributor to the economy but also the object of a venerable waterman culture, based on crab pots in warmer weather and dredging in winter.

Faced with decline of this iconic industry, Virginia opted to shut down the winter crab harvest in its waters. Scientific studies had shown that it dredged up a disproportionately large number of reproductive females, meaning fewer crabs to catch in future years. The crabbers were skeptical, at best, when the state offered to put them back to work during the winter retrieving derelict and abandoned crab pots. Pulling up empty crab pots in winter is nobody’s idea of a good time.

But the pots weren’t empty, “and that’s the headline,” said Kirk Havens, a biologist at William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS). In the middle of winter, the pots were loaded with Read the rest of this entry »

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The Making of a Naturalist: Bill Stanley

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 29, 2016

Bill Stanley, a mammalogist at the Field Museum, prematurely appeared on the Wall of the Dead last year, after succumbing  to a heart attack, age 58, while running a trapline for rare species in Ethiopia.

Now the Field Museum has posted a nice video about the flipping of a switch Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in The Species Seekers | Leave a Comment »

Walk on the Wild Side! A Tale of Wine & Sex in the Vineyard

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 19, 2016

(Photo: Timm Schamberger/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo: Timm Schamberger/AFP/Getty Images)

My latest for

Some of the finest things on Earth—among them beer, bread, and wine—depend on yeast. But after more than 5000 years of reliance on its powers, and endless modern research into yeast genetics, we knew almost nothing until recently about its natural history. The many strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the fungus we call yeast, were considered entirely domesticated, the cats and dogs of fermentation.

That began to change a few years ago, when researchers in Italy discovered that yeast has a wilder side. It summers on ripening fruit, which is how we first discovered its magical ability to turn humble grapes into wine. But it overwinters, the researchers reported, in the guts of social wasps, as the wasps are hibernating through the winter, sealed within the trunks of oak trees.

With a new study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the natural history of yeast has just become even richer. If Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the common yeast we buy at the supermarket, is the household pet of brewing, Saccharomyces paradoxus is its wild cousin, Read the rest of this entry »

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

Researchers Find Deadly Salmon Virus on the Pacific Coast

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 11, 2016

Fish farm in British Columbia (A salmon jumps out of the water while feeding at the mouth of Capilano River in West Vancouver, British Columbia. (Photo: Andy Clark/Reuters)

A salmon feeding at the mouth of Capilano River in West Vancouver, British Columbia. (Photo: Andy Clark/Reuters)

My latest for

A pathogen that is “arguably the most feared viral disease of the marine farmed salmon industry” has now turned up for the first time in farmed and wild fish in British Columbia, according to a new study in Virology Journal. The co-authors warn that the presence of the virus, called infectious salmon anemia virus (ISAV), could greatly increases the risk of devastating outbreaks for salmon fisheries from Alaska down to the Pacific Northwest.

“This is first of all a salmon virus, and a member of the influenza family and it mutates easily and rapidly,” said co-author Alexandra Morton, an independent marine biologist. “There is no place in the world where this virus has existed quietly. It has always caused a problem. It was detected in Chile in 1999, and nothing was done to contain it. They allowed it to reproduce and mutate, and in 2007 a form appeared that swept the coast and caused $2 billion in damage.”

The B.C. Salmon Farmers Association promptly responded to the new study with a fierce attack on its science. “We have great concerns about Read the rest of this entry »

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

The Dark, Nasty Business of Ethical Shopping

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 8, 2016

My latest for

Though I have written here often about illegal fishing as a leading factor in the “empty oceans” crisis, I still feel like an ignoramus every time I attempt to make an ethical purchase at my supermarket seafood counter. As a crude rule of thumb, I could just assume that everything imported is illegal. But only about a third of imported seafood actually fits that description, and supermarkets seldom bother to label their merchandise by origin, in any case.

So why not just break out my Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch guide, to help me make a sustainable choice? That’s what I tell readers to do. But I am a hypocrite: Shopping this way makes me feel like those hipster restaurant customers in “Portlandia,” fretting about whether the woodland-raised, soy-fed heritage breed chicken named Colin is really the ethically pure choice for dinner. By default I end up buying anything other than shrimp, because I know shrimp is almost always terrible for the environment. Then my wife goes and buys the shrimp anyway, and we have a fight.

Is it any wonder that consumers everywhere opt for willful ignorance? If it’s pretty and the price is right, we Read the rest of this entry »

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

How Our Food Waste Messes With Wildlife

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 6, 2016

My latest for Yale Environment 360:
The world wastes more than $750 billion worth of food every year — 1.6 billion tons of food left in farm fields, sent to landfills, or otherwise scattered across the countryside, plus another seven million tons of fishery discards at sea. That waste has gotten a lot of attention lately, mostly in terms of human hunger.

Hardly anyone talks about what all that food waste is doing to wildlife. But a growing body of evidence suggests that our casual attitude about waste may be reshaping the way the natural world functions across much of the planet, inadvertently subsidizing some opportunistic predators and thus contributing to the decline of other species, including some that are threatened or endangered.

A new study in the journal Biological Conservation looks, for instance, at California’s Monterey Bay, where the threatened steelhead trout population has declined by 80 to 90 percent over the past century. Efforts to restore the species along the Pacific Coast have focused on major initiatives like the recent demolition of a dam that had blocked access to critical steelhead breeding grounds on the Carmel River, which empties into Monterey Bay.

But a team of co-authors led by Ann-Marie Osterback, a marine ecologist at the University of California-Santa Cruz, suspects that garbage and fishery discards might also play an underrated part in the problem. The hypothesis is Read the rest of this entry »

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

Hope for Wildlife in the New Year

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 31, 2015

This is from Dr. Cristián Samper of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). He takes a closer focus on government action than I normally do, because I am a cynic about such things.  But I’m hoping he’s right, and it’s worth a read for that reason:

Yes, wildlife across the globe faces threats from all angles, including climate change; over-hunting and over-fishing; illegal wildlife trade; and habitat destruction and degradation. But during this past year, I found a spirit of hope for wildlife.

In 2015, countries across the globe took important steps on behalf of wildlife that provided hope for their future protection. (Photo: Mileniusz Spanowicz ©WCS)

As I reflect on 2015, here are a few of the events that will have a positive impact on wildlife and wild places: Some were taken by the global community and others on a national or local level. I’ve included some of the actions where WCS is leading the way. Thankfully, this list of wildlife wins in 2015 could be even longer. So, I welcome hearing about more actions you think were great for wildlife this past year. I will be sure to Tweet those additions to show them support. [Note: You can follow Samper on Twitter @CristianSamper.]

  1. Paris Climate Summit: The agreements in Paris at the Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was a major step forward in 2015 for wildlife and for all life on our planet. The climate accord, agreed to by 195 countries, shows a commitment by the global community to reduce the greenhouse gases warming our planet. One aspect of the accord not given a lot of attention was recognition of the urgent need to take significant actions to reduce emissions of CO2 caused by deforestation, representing around 15% of global emissions (more than all the cars, trucks, and airplanes in the world combined). This push to save intact forests is good for all life and protects wildlife habitat and Read the rest of this entry »

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

Among 2016 Conservation Issues: Way Too Much Testosterone

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 29, 2015

What’s ahead for wildlife in the coming year? Anybody reading the headlines would probably answer: Calamity and extinction. Elephants? Rhinos? Lions in the African bush? Pollinators here at home? None of it sounds like good news.

For the past few years, a group of scientists and others with a strong interest in the natural world have tried to look past the headlines and identify emerging conservation issues most people in the field aren’t talking about yet, but will soon. They call it “horizon scanning,” and they try to include opportunities as well as threats. The new list for 2016 is just out in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution, and it makes for interesting reading.

The list the group came up with inevitably includes China, but for a reason that hasn’t gotten much attention so far: The national government has now incorporated the idea of becoming an “ecological civilization” among its leading policies. If you have been hearing about the recent pollution red alert in Beijing, or about poaching and deforestation issues pretty much anywhere in the world, the words Read the rest of this entry »

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


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