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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The Unsung Heroes Who Ended a Deadly Plague

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 11, 2022

Grand Rapids, Michigan, shortly before the Depression. (Photo: Unknown)

by Richard Conniff/Smithsonian Magazine

Late November 1932, the weather cold and windy, two women set out at the end of their normal working day into the streets of Grand Rapids, Michigan. The Great Depression was entering its fourth year. Banks had shut down, and the city’s dominant furniture industry had collapsed.  Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering both biologists for a state laboratory, were working on their own time to visit sick children and determine if they were infected with a potentially deadly disease.  Many of the families lived in “pitiful” conditions,” they later recalled. “We listened to sad stories told by desperate fathers who could find no work. We collected specimens by the light of kerosene lamps, from whooping, vomiting, strangling children. We saw what the disease could do.”

It could seem at first like nothing all, a runny nose and a mild cough. A missed diagnosis is common even now: Just a cold, nothing to worry about. After a week or two, though, the coughing can begin to come in violent spasms, too fast for breathing, until the sharp, strangled bark breaks through of the child desperately gasping to get air down her throat. That whooping sound makes the diagnosis unmistakable. 

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, means nothing to most parents in the developed world today.  But the helpless feeling of watching a baby in the agonizing grip of a prolonged coughing spasm is unforgettable.  “It’s awful, it’s awful. You wonder how they can survive the crisis,” says a modern researcher who has seen it. “I mean, they’re suffocating. They’re choking. They become completely blue. They cannot overcome the cough, and you have the impression that the child is dying in your hands.” It can go on like that for weeks, or months.

Until the mid-twentieth century, there was also nothing anyone could do to prevent the disease.  It was so contagious that one child with whooping cough was likely to infect half his classmates, and all his siblings at home.  In the 1930s, it killed 4000 Americans on average every year, most of them still infants.  Survivors could suffer permanent physical and cognitive damage.

All that changed because of Kendrick and Eldering, now largely forgotten. They’d been hired to conduct routine daily testing of medical and environmental samples at a state laboratory.  But whooping cough became their obsession. They worked on it late into the night, without funding at first, in what a reporter later described it as a “dumpy broken down stucco” building.  They benefited from the work of their own hand-picked research team, which was remarkably diverse for that era in race, gender, and even sexual orientation. They also enlisted the trust and enthusiasm of their community.  

Medical men with better credentials were deeply skeptical.  But where other researchers had failed repeatedly over the previous 30 years, Kendrick, Eldering, and their team succeeded in developing the first reliably effective whooping cough vaccine.  Childhood deaths from whooping cough soon plummeted in the United States, and then the world. (To continue reading, click here)

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SOLAR BELONGS ON PARKING LOTS & ROOFTOPS, NOT FIELDS & FORESTS

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 12, 2022

A solar-covered parking lot at an engine plant in Chuzhou, China. (Photo: Imaginechina via AP Images)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

Fly into Orlando, Florida, and you may notice a 22-acre solar power array in the shape of Mickey Mouse’s head in a field just west of Disney World. Nearby, Disney also has a 270-acre solar farm of conventional design on former orchard and forest land. Park your car in any of Disney’s 32,000 parking spaces, on the other hand, and you won’t see a canopy overhead generating solar power (or providing shade) — not even if you snag one of the preferred spaces for which visitors pay up to $50 a day.

This is how it typically goes with solar arrays: We build them on open space rather than in developed areas. That is, they overwhelmingly occupy croplands, arid lands, and grasslands, not rooftops or parking lots, according to a global inventory published last month in Nature. In the United States, for instance, roughly 51 percent of utility-scale solar facilities are in deserts; 33 percent are on croplands; and 10 percent are in grasslands and forests. Just 2.5 percent of U.S. solar power comes from urban areas.

The argument for doing it this way can seem compelling: It is cheaper to build on undeveloped land than on rooftops or in parking lots. And building alternative power sources fast and cheap is critical in the race to replace fossil fuels and avert catastrophic climate change. It’s also easier to manage a few big solar farms in an open landscape than a thousand small ones scattered across urban areas.

But that doesn’t necessarily make it smarter. Undeveloped land is a rapidly dwindling resource, and what’s left is under pressure to deliver a host of other services we require from the natural world — growing food, sheltering wildlife, storing and purifying water, preventing erosion, and sequestering carbon, among others. And that pressure is rapidly intensifying. By 2050, in one plausible scenario from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), supplying solar power for all our electrical needs could require ground-based solar on 0.5 percent of the total land area of the United States. To put that number in perspective, NREL senior research Robert Margolis says it’s “less land than we already dedicate to growing corn ethanol for biofuels.” (Continue reading)

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E.O. WILSON on Cooperation & the Tribal Mind

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 27, 2021

Photo: Gerald Forster

by Richard Conniff

Discover Magazine, June 2006


Edward O. Wilson has spent a lifetime squinting at ants and has come away with some of the biggest ideas in evolutionary biology since Darwin. “Sociobiology” and “biodiversity” are among the terms he popularized, as is “evolutionary biology” itself.

He has been in the thick of at least two nasty scientific brawls. In the 1950s, his field of systematics, the traditional science of identifying and classifying species based on their anatomies, was being shoved aside by molecular biology, which focused on genetics. His Harvard University colleague James Watson, codiscoverer of the structure of DNA, declined to acknowledge Wilson when they passed in the hall. Then in the 1970s, when Wilson published Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, other Harvard colleagues attacked the idea of analyzing human behavior from an evolutionary perspective as sexist, racist, or worse. He bore all the hostility in the polite, courtly style of his Southern upbringing, and largely prevailed. Sociobiology, though still controversial, has become mainstream as evolutionary psychology. The molecular biology wars may also be ending in a rapprochement, he says, as the “test tube jockeys” belatedly recognize that they need the “stamp collector” systematists after all.

Wilson, who turns 77 this month, has published three books during the past year that fit his own wry definition of a magnum opus: “a book which when dropped from a three-story building is big enough to kill a man.” Nature Revealed (Johns Hopkins) is a selection of his writings since 1949. From So Simple a Beginning (W. W. Norton) is an anthology of writings by Darwin, and Pheidole in the New World (Harvard) is a reorganization of an entire ant genus, including 341 new species Wilson discovered and more than 600 of his own drawings.

RC: You once wrote that you saw yourself parading provocative ideas “like a subaltern riding the regimental colors along the enemy line.”

Wilson: That’s right, “along the enemy line.” That’s an adolescent and very Southern way of putting it, but I wanted to say that I’m a risk taker at heart.

RC: And a provocateur?

Wilson: Yes, but not a controversialist. There’s a distinction. Once I feel I’m right, I have enjoyed provoking.

RC: Your adversaries from the 1970s would be appalled by how much your ideas about sociobiology have taken hold.

Wilson: The opposition has mostly fallen silent. Anyway, it was promoted by what turned out to be a very small number of biologists with a 1960s political agenda. Most of the opposition came from the social sciences, where it was visceral and almost universal.

RC: The social scientists were threatened by the invasion of their territory?

Wilson: That’s right.

RC: The same way that you were threatened by the molecular biologists invading the biological field in the 1950s?

Wilson: They didn’t invade it so much as they dismissed it. What’s been gratifying is to live long enough to see molecular biology and evolutionary biology growing toward each other and uniting in research efforts. It’s personally satisfying and symbolic that Jim Watson and I now get on so well. We even appeared onstage a couple of times together during the 50th anniversary year of the discovery of DNA.

RC: You once described Watson as “the most unpleasant human being” you’d ever met. (Keep reading)

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U.S. Cities Are Losing Tree Cover Just When They Need It Most

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 8, 2021

strange behaviors

 by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

Scientific evidence that trees and green spaces are crucial to the well-being of people in urban areas has multiplied in recent decades. Conveniently, these findings have emerged just as Americans, already among the most urbanized people in the world, are increasingly choosing to live in cities. The problem—partly as a result of that choice—is that urban tree cover is now steadily declining across the U.S.

A study in the May 2018 issue of Urban Forestry & Urban Greening reports metropolitan areas are experiencing a net loss of about 36 million trees nationwide every year. That amounts to about 175,000 acres of tree cover, most of it in central city and suburban areas but also on the exurban fringes. This reduction, says lead author David Nowak of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), translates into an annual loss of about $96 million in benefits—based, he says, on…

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It’s Time for a Carbon Tax on Beef

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 7, 2021

strange behaviors

(Illustration: Igor Bastidas)

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

Let me admit up front that I would rather be eating a cheeseburger right now. Or maybe trying out a promising new recipe for Korean braised short ribs. But our collective love affair with beef, dating back more than 10,000 years, has gone wrong, in so many ways. And in my head, if not in my appetites, I know it’s time to break it off.

So it caught my eye recently when a team of French scientists published a paper on the practicality of putting a carbon tax on beef as a tool for meeting European Union climate change targets. The idea will no doubt sound absurd to Americans reared on Big Macs and cowboy mythology. While most of us recognize, according to a 2017 Gallup poll, that we are already experiencing the effects of climate change, we just…

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Time to Make City Street Pop-Ups Permanent

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 22, 2021

Yes, there are people in those cars, but not many for the space they occupy.

This is a piece I published in 2018. Since then, #COVID19 has led to widespread re-thinking of streets, to return public space from automotive traffic to the people who live, walk, and bike around a given neighborhood. With vaccination promising to re-open our public lives, it’s time to make these people-oriented streetscapes permanent.

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

In many of the major cities of the world, it has begun to dawn even on public officials that walking is a highly efficient means of transit, as well as one of the great underrated pleasures in life. A few major cities have even tentatively begun to take back their streets for pedestrians.

Denver, for instance, is proposing a plan to invest $1.2 billion in sidewalks, and, at far greater cost, bring frequent public transit within a quarter-mile of most of its residents. In Europe, where clean, safe, punctual public transit is already widely available, Oslo plans to ban all cars from its city center beginning next year. Madrid is banning cars owned by nonresidents, and is also redesigning 24 major downtown avenues to take them back for pedestrians. Paris has banned vehicles from a road along the Seine, and plans to rebuild it for bicycle and pedestrian use.

Yes, car owners are furious. That’s because they have mistaken their century-long domination over pedestrians for a right rather than a privilege. The truth is that cities are not doing nearly enough to restore streets for pedestrian use, and it’s the pedestrians who should be furious.

Many American cities still rely on “level of service” (LOS) design models developed in the 1960s that focus single-mindedly on keeping vehicle traffic moving, according to Elizabeth Macdonald, an urban design specialist at the University of California, Berkeley. “Hence improvements for other modes (walking, cycling, transit) that might increase vehicle delay are characterized as LOS. impediments,” she and her co-authors write in The Journal of Urban Design. The idea of pedestrians as “impediments” is of course perverse, especially given the word’s original meaning: An impediment was something that functioned as a shackle for the feet — unlimited vehicle traffic, say.

The emphasis on vehicle traffic flow is also a perversion of basic social equity, and the costs show up in ways large and small. Vehicles in cities contribute a major portion of small-particle pollution, the kind that penetrates deep into the lungs. (The percentage can reach as high as 49 percent in Phoenix and 55 percent in Los Angeles. It’s just 6 percent in Beijing, but that’s because there are so many other pollution sources.) People living close to busy roads, particularly infants and older people in lower-income households, pay most of the cost in respiratory, cardiovascular and other problems. A 2013 M.I.T. study estimated that vehicle emissions cause 53,000 early deaths a year in the United States, and a study just last month from Lancaster University in Britain found that children with intellectual disabilities are far more likely to live in areas with high levels of vehicle pollution.

Among the smaller costs: Most people in cities from Bangalore to Brooklyn cannot afford to keep a car, and yet our cities routinely turn over the majority of public thoroughfares to those who can. They allow parked cars to eat up 350 square feet apiece, often at no charge, in cities where private parking spaces rent for as much as $700 a month. And they devote most of what’s left of the street to the uninterrupted flow of motor vehicles.

But that’s not really such a small cost, after all: It means that we often cannot afford room for parks or shade trees, which other studies have repeatedly shown to be an important factor in the health and mental well-being of residents. Even when car-mad cities leave enough room on the side to squeeze in trees, they tend to be miniaturized, lollipop versions of what street trees used to be. Hardly anyone plants the towering oaks or maples that used to intertwine their branches overhead and make the sidewalks feel like a leafy grove in the heart of the city.

Read the rest of this entry »

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It’s Not Just COVID19: The Trump Agenda for Killing More Americans

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 7, 2020

Growth industry.

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

On the perpetual campaign trail, Donald Trump likes to brag that his regulatory rollbacks will save Americans from having to depend on the latest energy-saving light bulbs. (“To me, most importantly, the light’s no good. I always look orange.”) He promises to get rid of water-efficiency standards because toilets require too much flushing. (“Ten times, right?… Not me. But you. Him.”) The aim is to find a homey way to put across the message that regulations — especially environmental regulations — inconvenience the average American. They hurt the economy. They cost jobs.

But of course, these regulations almost always have corresponding benefits: They create jobs, they save human lives. They make life better and healthier for the tens of millions of Americans living downstream from polluting industries that were once unregulated.

That’s the reality Trump wants to shout down, cover up, make go away. The irony is that, even as the U.S. toll in the coronavirus pandemic is now at 74,000 deaths, he is aggressively pursuing a regulatory rollback that will kill far more Americans, and continue to kill them for years into the future.  To rub in the irony, Trump is pursuing this agenda as Read the rest of this entry »

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How to Prevent the Pandemic Next Time

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 5, 2020

Nipah virus

This is a piece I published in 2013, and–surprise!–major governments did not institute the preventive measures suggested by the experts here. In fact, not much has changed, except that half the world is now under lock-down in a desperate, last-ditch bid to stop the spread of COVID-19. The recommendations here still matter. The challenge is to remember and finally act, after the all-clear.

by Richard Conniff

In 2007, in a rural district in northwestern Bangladesh, a man fell ill with fever, followed by fatigue, headache, and coughing. His wife tended to him at home over the next four days, feeding him and wiping froth and saliva from around his mouth. When he began to have trouble breathing, a cousin and a friend rode to the doctor’s office with the patient sandwiched between them on a motorcycle. The next day, they transported him via microbus to the nearest hospital, where he quickly died. All five people in close contact with the patient in his final days soon came down with the disease, known as Nipah virus, and the wife and cousin also died.

It was a small tragedy at the other end of the Earth, and in the grand scheme of things hardly worth noting.

But a new [2013] article in the journal Antiviral Research argues that we ought to pay close attention, and not just for philanthropic reasons. Without intervention by the developed world, says Stephen P. Luby, M.D., of Stanford University, a case like this is how the next great plague could leap from wildlife and quickly turn up in our own homes. “Bring out the dead” could become the catch phrase of 2020, or 2025.

Bangladesh is among the poorest and most densely populated nations in the world, says Luby, who worked there for eight years before returning to the United States in 2012. But when he talks with people back home about poor clinical care there, and the absence of basic infection-control measures, “they see it as an issue only for Bangladesh.” Luby wrote his article to show just how deadly that sort of thinking could be.

Indian flying foxes in Madhya Pradesh (Photo: Charles J. Sharp)

Nipah virus was first discovered in 1998, and outbreaks now occur almost every year in Bangladesh and just across the border in India. As with SARS, Ebola fever, and a dismaying variety of other emerging diseases, Nipah virus comes from bats—in particular, the Indian flying fox, Pteropus giganteus. Luby was part of the team that figured out how the disease gets from bats to humans.

In Bangladesh, date palm sap is a favorite treat. Collectors climb to the top of a date palm tree, shave the bark, and set a clay pot underneath to catch the sap. The bats can’t ordinarily penetrate the bark, but they’re quick to adapt to a new food source and, in the course of feeding on the sap, they often leave bat urine and droppings in the clay pot. People relish the sap as a seasonal delicacy, preferably fresh and raw, and they are generally unaware of the hazard of Nipah virus until symptoms begin.

About 70 percent of victims die. But so far, says Luby, the virus is not highly contagious. It spreads via the saliva mainly to people who care for a victim. So how realistic is the threat? That is, could Nipah virus cause a pandemic?

RNA viruses like Nipah “have the highest rate of mutation of any virus or living organism,” Luby writes, enabling them to adapt readily to new environments. He likens the possibility of a pandemic to what happened with another virus in the same family: Until about a thousand years ago, an early form of rinderpest was a problem only for cattle, buffalo, giraffes, and certain other ungulates. Then a mutation occurred and the new virus jumped from domestic livestock to humans. It also became fiercely contagious. Measles, as this terrifying new disease became known, went on to kill tens—if not hundreds—of millions of people worldwide, until a vaccine brought it under control in the 1960s.

To avoid a replay of that scenario, Luby wants the governments of the United States and the European Union to invest in infection control and other preventive measures in undeveloped countries like Bangladesh.  For instance, bringing a powdered detergent and proper hand-washing protocols to healthcare workers can cost less Read the rest of this entry »

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Cheer Up, Folks: It Ain’t So Bad

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 4, 2020

by Richard Conniff

For all of you who need cheering up in the time of plague (and apologies to those who have lost family or friends and are beyond cheering): I was randomly listening to Spotify when I heard someone named John Craigie singing, and this lyric leapt out, from the song “Dissect the Bird.”

It fits the moment:

So when the candle flickers, when the days get dark
They call them first world problems but they still break your heart
When the universe feels like it’s against you
Just take a minute to realize all it took to make you
Your parents had to meet, as random as that was
And hang out long enough at least, to make some love
And make a baby, and give it your name
And all your ancestors had to do the same
Exponentially backwards to the start of life
So much had to happen just exactly right
Sparks had to catch, oceans had to freeze
Billions of cells had to survive endless disease
Civilizations had to crumble, wars had to be fought Read the rest of this entry »

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Did the Illegal Pangolin Trade Spark this Pandemic?

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 27, 2020

Pangolin in rehab (Photo: Sukree Sukplang/Reuters)

 

Early on, the rumor circulated that SARS-CoV-2 may have made the leap to humans via pangolins sold for food in wild animal marketplaces in China, Vietnam, and other countries. Scientists instead linked the pandemic to bats, like previous coronavirus outbreaks (SARS in 2002 and MERS in 2012). Now, though, a study in the journal Nature has identified a SARS-CoV-2-related virus in Malayan pangolins seized in anti-smuggling operations in southern China. Other new research has also swung to the idea that the virus originated in bats, then jumped to humans via the illegal pangolin trade. With that in mind, here’s some information about the state of the pangolin trade, from past articles I have written.

by Richard Conniff

Pangolins are among the oddest and least-familiar animals on Earth. They’re mammals, but they’re armor-plated. Their chief defensive posture is to tuck their heads under their tails and roll up, like a basketball crossed with an artichoke. (It works: Even lions generally can’t get a grip.) They have tongues that are not only coated with a sticky, fly paper-like substance but can also extend up to 16 inches to probe into nests and snag ants for dinner. They’re shy, nocturnal and live either high up trees or deep underground.

Lisa Hywood has discovered just how charismatic these obscure creatures can be. At the Tikki Hywood Trust, her rescue center in Zimbabwe, one of her current guests, named Chaminuka, recognizes Hywood and makes a soft chuffing noise when she comes home. Then he stands up to hold her hand and greet her, she tells me. (Bit of a snob, though: He doesn’t deign to recognize her assistants.) Hywood finds working with pangolins even more emotionally powerful than working with elephants.

False hope for medicine

It’s also more urgent: Pangolins, she says, are “the new rhinos,” with illegal trade now raging across Asia and Africa. They are routinely served up as a status symbol on the dinner plates of the nouveaux riches in China and Vietnam. Their scales are ground up, like rhino horn, into traditional medicines. Pangolin scales, like rhino horn, are made from keratin and about as medicinally useful as eating fingernail clippings. When poachers get caught with live pangolins, Hywood rehabilitates the animals for reintroduction to the wild.

But a lot of pangolins aren’t that lucky. By one estimate, poachers  killed and took to market as many as 182,000 pangolins just between 2011 and 2013.  In one case in northeastern India, for instance, authorities nabbed a smuggler with 550 pounds of pangolin scales. Something like that happens almost every week. Many more shipments make it through. And the trade seems only to be growing bigger.

There is little prospect that this trade will stop, short of extinction for the eight pangolin species. Three of the eight species are currently listed as endangered and another three are critically endangered status. As pangolins have vanished from much of Asia, demand has shifted to Africa, which has four species. The price for a single animal there was at one point up to $7,000, according to Darren Pietersen, who tracked radio-tagged pangolins for his doctoral research at the University of Pretoria.

In a handful of trouble

Hunters use dogs to locate arboreal pangolins or set snares outside the burrows of ground-dwelling species. That rolled-up defensive posture, which works so well against lions, just makes it easier for human hunters to pick them up and bag them, says Dan Challender, co-chair of the Pangolin Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. His research has taken him to a restaurant in Vietnam where, by chance, he witnessed a pangolin being presented live to a diner, then killed to be eaten. At such restaurants, stewed pangolin fetus is a special treat.

The trade is already illegal in many countries, and it is also banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. But enforcement is minimal, and even poachers seized with tons of smuggled animals often get away with a wrist slap. Authorities sometimes dispose of these shipments by auction, cashing in on the illegal market.

It could be worse than what’s happening to elephants and rhinos.

Zoos at least know how to breed those species in captivity, says Hywood. But so far, no one has managed to captive-breed any of the eight pangolin species. That means that if Chaminuka and his ilk go extinct in the wild before scientists can figure that out, these curious creatures will be gone forever.

##

And here’s a related article I wrote on the pangolin trade for Yale Environment 360.

 

 

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