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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Spider on Drugs

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 22, 2016

Just in case you missed this important video, suggested to me by Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Funny Business | Leave a Comment »

It’s Time for the Fur Trade to Protect Big Cats in the Wild

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 22, 2016

The 20th century fur trade killed at least 182,564 Amazonian jaguars for their pelts. (Photo: Mauricio Lima/AFP/Getty Images)

The 20th century fur trade killed 182,564 Amazonian jaguars for their pelts. (Photo: Mauricio Lima/AFP/Getty Images)

by Richard Conniff/

Reporting last month for National Geographic magazine, I came away with a contrarian approach to the fur trade:  Animal rights activists have always wanted to ban fur farming, “but banning doesn’t stop people from wearing fur,” I wrote. “It just moves production to areas where no rules apply,” notably China. A more logical approach would be to keep fur farming legal, particularly in North America and Europe, under regulatory and marketplace pressures intended to make it a model for the entire livestock industry.

Interviewing people who work in the trade, I added one other idea: They know customers increasingly seek assurance that animals are being farmed as humanely possible, and on environmentally sustainable lines.  New industry initiatives like Europe’s WelFur farm inspection system explicitly aim to meet those expectations.  So why not go a step further? Why not set aside a percentage of each fur coat to support conservation of fur-bearing animals in the wild? It would of course be a marketing tool. But it would also begin to compensate for the unregulated commercial exploitation of spotted cats and other species in the past.  I’ll get to the industry response in a moment. First the news:

A study out this week in the journal Science Advances aims to calculate just how devastating that trade used to be. A team of researchers Read the rest of this entry »

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

Donald Trump and Other Animals

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 15, 2016

                 (Art:  Tim Enthoven)

(Art: Tim Enthoven)

by Richard Conniff/New York Times

I once interviewed Donald Trump for a magazine story. The topic was rivalries, which seemed like a natural for him. But he was so bombastically short on specifics, so braggadociously vague, that in the end there was nothing to quote. I left him out of the story.

So I was surprised recently to learn, by way of an article in The New Yorker, that Mr. Trump had, in fact, quoted me in a passage from his 2004 book “Trump: Think Like a Billionaire.” I would not have imagined Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in The Primate File | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The Dinosaur Who Taught Us How To Look At Birds

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 15, 2016

by Richard Conniff/
It’s a little embarrassing to admit this, as a wildlife writer, but I didn’t used to think fossils mattered all that much. I wanted to know what was happening to wildlife right now. And fossils were so very then, so 66 million years ago.The fossil that woke me from my ignorance is named Deinonychus. If that sounds like too much of a mouthful, too much like science, just bear with me for a minute: This story comes with a Jurassic Park plot twist. It also involves correcting a mistake I recently repeated in print.

deinonychus_patte_arriere_gaucheThe Deinonychus story began one afternoon in late August 1964, near Bridger, Montana. John Ostrom, a paleontologist at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, was standing with an assistant on the flank of a conical hill and considering sites for the following summer’s fieldwork—when the answer appeared before them in the form of a large claw eroding out of the slope just below. They soon unearthed an astonishing foot: Two of the three toes had ordinary claws. But from the innermost toe, a sharp claw, sickle shaped and 4.7 inches in length, curved murderously up and out. Ostrom gave the new species the name Deinonychus because it means “terrible claw” in Greek.

In the public imagination then, dinosaurs were plodding, thunderous monsters, cold-blooded, swamp bound, and stupid. Even paleontologists had lost interest in these “symbols of obsolescence and hulking inefficiency,” Ostrom’s student Robert T. Bakker later wrote. “They did not appear to merit much serious study because they did not seem to go anywhere: no modern vertebrate groups were descended from them.”

Deinonychus didn’t fit the plodding stereotype. On the contrary, Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Evolution | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Dirty Donald Wants You to Believe in Clean Coal

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 10, 2016


During the course of his rambling, belligerent, bullying remarks in last night’s debate, Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump at one point remarked, “There is a thing called clean coal.”

This is like asserting that Donald is an honest businessman, a good husband, and a true friend of African-Americans, Mexicans, and women.  Anyway, It reminded me of a piece I wrote in 2008 about the origins of the shady myth of clean coal, and why there is, in fact, no such thing:

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 Read the rest of this entry »

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The Man Who Invented Modern Ecology

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 9, 2016

Given four minutes, this film by Patrick Lynch at Yale says a great deal about G. Evelyn Hutchinson, who founded the science of modern ecology, largely by studying a lake just outside New Haven:

Among his many other influences, other writers made Hutchinson’s work the basis for the Gaia Theory, the popular idea Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Maggots for Bambi: Endangered Florida Deer Face a Gory Attack

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 7, 2016

Key deer--& sparing you the sight of maggots for Bambi. (Photo: Steve Waters/'Sun Sentinel'/MCT via Getty Images)

Key deer–& sparing you the sight of maggots for Bambi. (Photo: Steve Waters/’Sun Sentinel’/MCT via Getty Images)

by Richard Conniff/

Let’s face it: Key deer, a slightly smaller, stockier subspecies of the common white-tailed deer, had plenty of problems to start with. Only about 800 of them survive, confined to a few small islands in the Florida Keys. You could whip through their entire habitat in about 10 minutes on Route 1, and plenty of motorists do, incidentally killing about 150 of the deer every year. They’re on the endangered species list.

Sound bad? Early this week, it got much worse.

Staff at the National Key Deer Refuge found deer infested with maggots of the New World screwworm fly, an invasive species that hasn’t been seen in this country in half a century. The flies have a nasty habit of laying their eggs on open wounds, and when they hatch, the maggots feed by digging corkscrew holes into the flesh of the host animal.

“They’re in as gory Read the rest of this entry »

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

Killing Off The Wildlife Is Just a Slow Way to Kill A Forest

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 3, 2016

(Photo: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

(Photo: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

by Richard Conniff/

In the aftermath of bushmeat hunting, pet trade harvesting, habitat fragmentation, selective logging, and other human intrusions, forests and national parks can still look surprisingly healthy. They may even feel like beautiful places for a walk in the woods. But these forests face what researchers in one recent study describe as a “silent threat” due to the rapid decimation of wildlife almost everywhere in the tropics. Without wildlife, forests rapidly deteriorate, losing their value for carbon storage and becoming unsustainable.

That’s because tropical forests, particularly in the Americas, Africa, and South Asia, are primarily composed of tree species that depend on animals to disperse their seeds. This is especially true for the tall, dense canopy trees that are best at carbon storage, a critical factor in climate change calculations. For instance, in a Smithsonian Institution research forest on Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal, roughly 80 percent of canopy trees produce large, fleshy fruits. A ravenous cacophony of animals zeroes in on these trees as the fruit ripens.

In a healthy forest like Barro Colorado, the customers may include monkeys, big pig-like tapirs, large rodents like the agouti, toucans with their long, colorful bills adapted for snatching fruit, and a long list of hungry birds, fruit bats, and other species. After these happy diners have eaten

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Posted in Biodiversity | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

The Real Threat on the Border Threatens Poor Nations

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 23, 2016

Tuta absoluta may sound like vodka, but it's Ebola for tomatoes. (Photo: Peter Buchner)

Tuta absoluta may sound like vodka, but it’s Ebola for tomatoes. (Photo: Peter Buchner)

by Richard Conniff/

You may not think of Portal, North Dakota, a town of 120 people on the Canadian border, as a key link in national defense. But late last month, United States Customs and Border Protection agents there boarded a freight train entering the country and found six carloads contaminated with invasive insects and seeds from China and Southeast Asia. They were the kind of invasive species that demolish crops, destroy people’s livelihoods, and displace indigenous wildlife.

The government sealed three carloads and sent them back to Asia, releasing three others to the owners after decontamination. It was a reassuring victory for American agriculture and ecosystems—the sort of save that happens every day on American borders. Ample experience with the destructive power of invasive species, from the gypsy moth to the emerald ash border, has taught this country the importance of being alert to imported danger.

Other nations aren’t so careful, according to a new study in the journal Nature Communications, and that’s likely to become a major problem, especially for low-income countries, as

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

America’s Wildlife Body Count: Your Tax Dollars at Work.

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 17, 2016

canis_latransby Richard Conniff/The New York Times

Until recently, I had never had any dealings with Wildlife Services, a century-old agency of the United States Department of Agriculture with a reputation for strong-arm tactics and secrecy. It is beloved by many farmers and ranchers and hated in equal measure by conservationists, for the same basic reason: It routinely kills predators and an astounding assortment of other animals — 3.2 million of them last year — because ranchers and farmers regard them as pests.

To be clear, Wildlife Services is a separate entity, in a different federal agency, from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, whose main goal is wildlife conservation. Wildlife Services is interested in control — ostensibly, “to allow people and wildlife to coexist.”

My own mildly surreal acquaintance with its methods began as a result of a study, published this month in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, under the title “Predator Control Should Not Be a Shot in the Dark.” Adrian Treves of the University of Wisconsin and his co-authors set out to answer a Read the rest of this entry »

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