strange behaviors

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  • 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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Wilfred Owen on the Horror of War

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 11, 2018

Today marks the hundredth anniversary of the end of the first world war, and of the armistice that took place, in the mournful phrase seemingly designed for generations of sonorous broadcasters, “on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.”

It sent me back to re-read Wilfred Owen, the British poet who died a hundred years ago this past Sunday, and particularly to the poem where he asks the reader to join him as he watches through the panes of his gas mask as another soldier who did not get his mask on slowly dies:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

Owen’s message is the same message almost every soldier unlucky enough to experience war and lucky enough to survive it brings home to whoever will listen:  Honor the dead. But do not glorify this horror.

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Posted in Fear & Courage | Leave a Comment »

20,000-Year-Old Cave Art from Borneo Depicts Humans Dancing

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 6, 2018

by Richard Conniff

A new study in the journal Nature dates this depiction of humans dancing to between 13,600 and 20,000 years ago. But I have to admit that the big news, for the researchers, is actually that another image from the same caves in East Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, is the oldest known figurative art of any kind, and it depicts an unidentified animal.

Let’s go to the press release (but stick around because my heart is in the dancing  and we are going to get back to that topic shortly):

The world’s earliest-known figurative painting is identified in a paper published online this week in Nature. The cave painting, from Borneo, depicts an indeterminate animal and dates back to at least 40,000 years ago.

The limestone caves of Borneo’s East Kalimantan province contain thousands of rock art images, grouped into three phases: red-orange paintings of animals (mainly wild cattle) and hand stencils; younger, mulberry-coloured hand stencils and intricate motifs, alongside depictions of humans; and a final phase of human figures, boats and geometric designs in black pigment. However, the exact timing of these works had been unclear.

Maxime Aubert and colleagues studied a large, red-orange coloured painting of an indeterminate animal in the Lubang Jeriji Saléh cave. Using a uranium-series analysis, the authors date the limestone crusts that have grown over the art. They determine a minimum age for the underlying painting of Read the rest of this entry »

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Bison Begin to Return to Their Old Home on the Great Plains

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 26, 2018

by Richard Conniff/Smithsonian Magazine

Sometime this winter, if all goes as planned, a caravan of livestock trucks will carry 60 American bison out of Yellowstone National Park on a 500-mile journey into the past. Unlike their ranched cousins, which are mainly the result of nineteenth-century attempts to cross bison with cattle, the Yellowstone animals are wild and genetically pure, descendants of the original herds that once astonished visitors to the Great Plains and made the bison the symbol of American abundance. Until, that is, unsustainable hunting made it a symbol of mindless ecological destruction.

When the appalling mass slaughter of 30 million or so bison finally ended early in the 20th century, just 23 wild bison remained in Yellowstone, holed up in Pelican Valley. Together with a roughly equal number of animals saved by ranchers, they became the basis for the recovery of the species, Bison bison, carefully nurtured back to strength within Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone has done its job so well, in fact, that the herd now routinely exceeds the limit of about 4000 bison thought to be sustainable within park boundaries. Park rangers have thus had the disheartening annual job of rounding up “excess” bison for slaughter or watching some step across the park’s northern border into a hunt that critics deride as a firing squad. Relocating the animals would be the humane alternative, except for one scary problem: Ranchers and others have long maintained that bison spread brucellosis, a bacterial infection that is devastating to both cattle and bison. But an authoritative 2017 study using whole genome sequencing determined that Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Environmental Issues, Food & Drink | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Death of a Fossil Hunter

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 17, 2018

Junchang Lu and friend (Photos: Richard Conniff)

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

When I travel to an unfamiliar country to report a story, I seldom know in advance about the personalities of the people I need to work with: Will they be helpful or in a hurry, plainspoken or obscure? But the moment I met the paleontologist Junchang Lü a few years ago in northeastern China, I knew I had lucked out.

So I was stunned, along with fossil lovers worldwide, to learn that Junchang Lü, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences in Beijing, had died on October 8, age 53. The night before, he was pushing students to complete their manuscripts for publication and talking with fellow fossil-hunter Xu Xing about a joint project, according to an email from Hokkaido University Museum paleontologist Yoshi Kobayashi, Junchang’s “academic brother,” from their years together as doctoral students at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “His wife heard Junchang eating and closing windows around midnight. On the next morning, she found Junchang cold. It was a sudden death. Probably heart attack, they said. It is so like Junchang that he talked about manuscripts until the last minute he was gone.”

Junchang Lü made his reputation in part for his numerous discoveries of new pterosaurs. Since parting ways in 2001, he and Xiaolin Wang of Beijing’s Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) had repeatedly one-upped each other in one of the most productive paleontological rivalries of our time, describing a combined total of more than 50 new species, roughly a quarter of all pterosaurs now known.

Among Junchang’s most celebrated finds, he and his co-authors described Darwinopterus modularis—named for Darwin of course, but also for “a remarkable modular combination” of traits from two separate pterosaur groups, suggesting that tightly-linked characteristics could pass down by a process of “modular evolution.” One Darwinopterus specimen, dubbed “Mrs. T” (for Mrs. Pterosaur), came with Read the rest of this entry »

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Take a Deep Breath and Say Hi to Your Exposome

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 29, 2018

Pig-Pen in his element (Illustration: Charles M. Schulz)

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

Over the past few decades, researchers have opened up the extraordinary world of microbes living on and within the human body, linking their influence to everything from rheumatoid arthritis to healthy brain function. Yet we know comparatively little about the rich broth of microbes and chemicals in the air around us, even though we inhale them with every breath.

That struck Stanford University genomics researcher Michael Snyder as a major knowledge gap, as he pursued long-term research using biological markers to understand and predict the development of disease in human test subjects. “The one thing that was missing was their exposure” to microbes and chemicals in the air, Snyder says. “Human health is clearly dependent not just on the genome or the microbiome, but on the environment. And sampling the environment was the big hole.”

In a new study published September 20 in Cell, Snyder and his co-authors aim to fix that, with a wearable device that monitors an individual’s daily Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Cool Tools | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

“The Dinosaur Artist” Review: Bad Boy Makes Old Bones Big Business

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 10, 2018

by Richard Conniff/The Wall Street Journal

On a Thursday afternoon in May 2012, a paleontologist named Bolortsetseg Minjin was having lunch near the American Museum of Natural History in New York when she heard a news broadcast about a spectacular dinosaur being put up for auction. It was a specimen of Tarbosaurus bataar, a 70-million-year-old close kin and look-alike of Tyrannosaurus rex.

Heritage Auctions, which bills itself as “the world’s largest collectibles auctioneer,” had it splashed across the centerfold of its sale catalog. In midstride, with the mouth on the 4-foot-long skull gaping to show its spiky teeth, and its counterbalancing tail stretched out behind, Lot 49135 stood 8 feet tall and 24 feet long. The auction would take place that Sunday afternoon, just three days off, at a converted warehouse a short subway ride south of the museum. The estimate was that it would sell for $950,000 to $1.5 million. There was only one hitch: Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Business Behaviors | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Digging Out From the Ashes of a Ruined Museum

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 7, 2018

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

With the hollowed-out shell of their old building standing in ruins nearby, and its history-rich contents in ashes, staff and scientists of Brazil’s National Museum met Wednesday morning for the first time since Sunday’s fire. They face a future suddenly bereft of a vast assortment of items from Brazil’s natural and cultural heritage, which explorers and researchers had collected and preserved over the museum’s 200-year history.

No one died or was injured in the fire—astonishingly, given staffers’ last-minute efforts to salvage specimens and equipment as parts of the building’s interior tumbled down around them. But one museum official estimated up to 18 million of the institution’s original 20 million specimens might have been destroyed in the raging blaze, which began soon after the building closed Sunday evening. Among the unique items missing and presumed lost were the only recordings of languages of tribes that have vanished, and the only specimens of plants and animals that have gone extinct, from places that in some cases no longer exist.

Museum Director Alexander Kellner told Scientific American that a meeting with members of Brazil’s congress, cabinet and Pres. Michel Temer had secured an immediate guarantee of $2.4 million to stabilize the museum’s gutted shell, located in a park on the north side of Rio de Janeiro, “and to recover what can be recovered.” This will inevitably be a slow process. Some paleontology specimens, for instance, may have survived within heavy-duty storage containers called compactors. But those compactors are now singed and covered with Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Species Classification, The Species Seekers | Tagged: , , , | 7 Comments »

Hello, My Name is Denisova 11. And Mom Is S-O-O-O-O Weird. Or Is It Dad?

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 22, 2018

Artist’s conception of a Neanderthal: This would be Denny’s mom.  (Photo: Joe McNally/National Geographic)

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

In a remarkable twist in the story line of early human evolution, scientists have announced the discovery of “Denisova 11”—a female who was at least 13 years old, lived more than 50,000 years ago, and was the child of an early mixed marriage.

That is, her parents were not just of different races, but two different and now-extinct early human types. Their exact taxonomic designations—whether they were separate species or subspecies—is still a matter of scientific debate. But the bottom line for Denisova 11 is that mom was a Neandertal and dad was a Denisovan.

The research, published Wednesday in Nature, is the work of a team led by pioneering paleogeneticist Svante Pääbo at Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. He and his co-authors presented the first description of the Denisovans in 2010, based on genetic evidence from one of the 2,000 or so bone fragments found in Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains,

The Telltale Bone, in 360 degrees (Photo Thomas Higham/Oxford University)

where Siberia borders Mongolia and China. The new discovery is based on another bone fragment from that lot, a 2.5-centimeter-long fragment of what was a femur or humerus, from which the researchers extracted six DNA samples and then cloned them for detailed analysis.

Molecular dating indicates that Denisovans, who are so far known only from Denisova Cave, and Neanderthals, known mainly from sites in Europe, diverged from each other almost 400,000 years ago. They coexisted, probably in relatively small populations scattered across the vast Eurasian landmass, until both became extinct some 30,000 to 40,000 years ago.

But the genetic evidence from Denisova 11 and other recent studies suggests that, on the occasions when they met, Denisovans and Neandertals commonly Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Sex & Reproduction, The Primate File | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Utah Yields a Giant Triassic Pterosaur–and It’s Largely Intact

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 15, 2018

 

Here’s the press release from Brigham Young University. (Sorry, didn’t have time to add it earlier.)  And small correction: Pterodactyl(us) is just a name for one genus of pterosaur, rather than a common name for all pterosaurs.

When Brooks Britt, a geological sciences professor at BYU, searched through the latest Triassic sandstone samples in his lab, he expected to find bones of early crocodiles and dinosaurs. Instead, he discovered the bones of a new pterosaur specimen, now named Caelestiventus (heavenly wind) hanseni. Dating back more than 200 million years, it’s one of the earliest ever found.

Until Britt’s discovery, newly published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, there were only 30 known Triassic pterosaur (more commonly known as pterodactyl) specimens known to man — and none lived in deserts. Caelestiventus hanseni predates all desert pterosaurs by 65 million years. “We’re getting insights into the beginning of pterosaurs,” he said. “Ours shows that Read the rest of this entry »

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India’s The Tiger Capital of the World. Here’s How It Could Do 5X Better

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 9, 2018

Sunderbans National Park, West Bengal, India (Photo: Soumyajit Nandy/ Wikimedia)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

Ullas Karanth, a senior scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, is one of the world’s premier tiger experts and a leader in the effort to restore India’s depleted tiger populations. Raised in the South India state of Karnataka, he has spent much of his professional life studying and working to bring back tigers there, starting in Nagarahole National Park in the foothills of the Western Ghats, and then across a 10,000-square-mile region of that mountain range.

Karanth’s emphasis on scientific methods has frequently brought him into conflict with India’s forest bureaucracy, particularly over its insistence on estimating tiger populations based on footprint counts. Karanth instead pioneered the use of camera traps for population estimates based on identification of individual tigers. That method belatedly became the national standard after a 2004 scandal, when Sariska Tiger Reserve, officially estimated to have 26 tigers, turned out to have none.

Karanth’s willingness to report illegal logging, cattle grazing, and poaching in protected areas — and to implicate corrupt officials in the damage — has also earned him enemies. In one incident, an angry mob set a fire that destroyed his car, laboratory, and eight square miles of forest. But Karanth’s persistence has helped reestablish the tiger population in the Western Ghats and fueled his ambition to see that success extended across India and to empty tiger habitat far beyond.

Richard Conniff: India has managed to maintain a population of about 3,000 tigers for decades. What’s the potential population in a nation that’s also home to 1.3 billion people?

Ullas Karanth: There are at least 300,000 square kilometers of the type of forest in which tigers can live, which are still not converted to agriculture and which are under state ownership, protected as state-owned forest reserves. A subset of that, maybe 10 or 15 percent, is protected as wildlife reserves. So basically if all these 300,000 square kilometers were reasonably well protected and the prey base is brought up, we could have 10,000 to 15,000 tigers.

Conniff Is there any chance that that will happen?

Karanth: I don’t see why not. It’s essentially a function of Read the rest of this entry »

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