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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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 necessary 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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Posted in Sex & Reproduction | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Memorial for a Teacher: Vincent Scully

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 12, 2017

In the late 1960s,  I attended an all-boy parochial high school in Newark, N.J., an uninspiring and sometimes  brutal experience. Then, by some miracle, I was admitted to Yale in April, 1969, and began my undergraduate years that September. What made me recognize it was a miracle was a mid-day lecture, delivered twice a week, in the darkened Yale Law School auditorium, by a brilliant teacher named Vincent Scully. He ranged nimbly–no lyrically–across an entire planet’s worth of art and architecture, and carried us along on the wave of his oratory. Over the course of that semester, he also taught us to step out of ourselves and learn to see the world for ourselves, in a new way, with our own yes and emotions. 

I still think of my debt to him almost every day. 

Scully died November 30, at 97. Here’s a profile of him I wrote in 2008. It was a final chance to go back to those same lectures and see again the transformation generations of students experienced in the class known to students as “Darkness at Noon.”

by Richard Conniff/Yale Alumni Magazine

At 11:35 on a Monday morning, Vincent Scully walks to the lectern and glances at his watch. As always at the start of a talk, he’s a little tense, like an actor wound up before a play. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he begins, “you will remember the last time I talked to you about…” The lights of the lecture hall go dark and slides appear on the big screen behind him. His voice is soft and hesitant at first, probing for the way forward. He does not use notes or deliver quite the same lecture twice, even after 60 years. But the words soon catch on the flow of images, and that voice, gentle one moment, all gravel and tumult the next, begins to draw his audience with him.

Part of the Scully legend is that he once got so carried away during a lecture that he fell off the stage.

Names and dates to be memorized do not figure largely in what follows. Scully’s goal is to open his students’ eyes, by showing them how he sees and thus how they can begin to see for themselves. So it’s not just an Ionic column, mid-sixth century B.C., up there on the screen. Nor do the volutes of the capital look to him, as others have proposed, like the ringlets of a woman’s hair. Instead, Scully points out how the slender, fluted columns rise like jets of water, lifting the broad horizontal entablature of the temple, then flowing out to either side. “You can make that shape with a paddle in the water,” he says, of the scrolls on the capital. “It’s geometric. It’s hydraulic.”

He stands off to one side of the stage, the smudge of reflected light from the lectern making a ghostly presence of his reddened face and the pale double curve of the eyebrows. He cants himself toward the slides, and his hands reach out, turning and undulating, as if he means to conjure the image to life on the stage. When he shows the huge choir window behind the altar at Chartres, Read the rest of this entry »

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

Dinosaurs Just Get Fluffier by the Day

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 29, 2017

Anchiornis huxleyi revised (Illustration: Rebecca Gelernter)

In my book House of Lost Worlds, I wrote about how a team of researchers used trace chemical elements in a fossil to create the first representation of a primitive dinosaur in its actual colors.

Now one of those researchers, Jakob Vinther at the University of Bristol, has refined that picture based on the discovery of a “primitive feather form consisting of a short quill with long, independent, flexible barbs erupting from the quill at low angles.”

That would have had the effect of making Anchiornis, a crow-size dinosaur, fluffier than modern flying birds, “whose feathers have tightly-zipped vanes forming continuous surfaces,” according to a University of Bristol press release. “Anchiornis‘s unzipped feathers might have affected the animal’s ability to control its temperature and repel water …”

The newly described quills might also have increased drag and inhibited the ability of Anchiornis to form a suitable surface for lift. To compensate, the species “packed multiple rows of long feathers into the wing, unlike modern birds.” Anchiornis and other para-avians also had two sets of wings.

Illustrator Rebecca Gelernter of nearbirdstudios.com put the re-imagined Anchiornis on paper, including a revised position, not perched on top of a tree, but “climbing in the manner of hoatzin chicks, the only living bird whose juveniles retain a relic of their dinosaurian past, a functional claw.”

Anchiornis huxleyi in a prior representation (Illustration: Michael DiGiorgio)

Posted in Cool Tools, Evolution | Leave a Comment »

I Shop At Companies That Do Bad Stuff

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 22, 2017

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

On the list of companies I dislike, Amazon ranks near the top, for putting bookstores out of business everywhere and destroying the ability of authors and publishers to earn a living. Having fed itself to monstrous size on such small potatoes, the company has now moved on to gut the rest of Main Street retail and cut the heart out of communities everywhere.

And yet I shop at Amazon. My lame excuse is that it’s now a 25-minute drive to the nearest independent bookstore, it’s convenient to have a book turn up at my door, and the price looks right.

This inconsistency isn’t just an issue for left-leaners like me. Starbucks faced a right-wing boycott early this year when it responded to President Trump’s immigration ban with a pledge to hire 10,000 refugees. But new research by Brayden King at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management shows “zero correlation” between public commitments to that boycott and subsequent purchasing behavior by pro-Trump consumers. That is, our failure to vote with our wallets crosses political lines. (United at last!)

Withholding our cash from companies that cause harm or behave badly is one of the few avenues of protest we have as consumers. So why are we so bad at boycotting?

There are hundreds of explanations for our inconsistency, according to Julie Irwin, a professor at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas, Austin, who studies ethical consumerism. “It’s just really hard to think about this stuff,” she said. “It’s uncomfortable; people need to get on with their day. It’s not that they don’t care. People who care more are often more inconsistent with their values. It just upsets them more.”

One problem with boycotts is that they generally start with a company employee blurting out some egregious offense to our sensibilities. Usually it’s the dimwit chief executive opening his mouth to expose his reptilian brain. Think about Guido Barilla publicly scoffing in 2013 at the notion that his company, the world’s largest pasta maker, would ever feature a same-sex family in its advertising. Or recollect almost anything that the former Uber boss Travis Kalanick has ever said or done.

The resulting boycotts may seem effective. Mr. Kalanick was Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Our Love for Exotic Pets is Emptying the Natural World

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 21, 2017

Fennec fox belongs in the Sahara, not your living room.

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

Conservation biologist David S. Wilcove was on a birding trip to Sumatra in 2012 when he began to notice that house after house in every village he visited had cages hanging outside, inhabited by the sort of wild birds he had expected to see in the forest. Nationwide, one in five households keeps birds as pets. That got him thinking, “What is this doing to the birds?”

Wilcove, who teaches at Princeton University, made a detour to the Pramuka bird market in Jakarta, Southeast Asia’s largest market for birds and other wildlife, from fruit bats to macaques. “It was this sort of Wal-Mart-size space filled with hundreds of stalls,” he recalls, “each stall of which was filled with hundreds of birds. An awful lot of them were in very poor condition, with signs of disease, feathers frayed, behaving listlessly–or thrashing around in their cages, because a lot of these are wild birds that are not at all suited to living as caged birds.” Some were species that even zoos with highly trained professional staff cannot maintain in captivity; they would die soon after purchase, “the cut flower syndrome,” he remarks. “It was really a shocking site. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Research by Wilcove and his colleagues subsequently linked demand for birds in Indonesia’s pet marketplace to the decline Read the rest of this entry »

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

Giants in the Earth: How Mammoths Changed Our World

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 29, 2017

(Illustration: National Geographic)

by Richard Conniff/The Wall Street Journal

Discovering the Mammoth is one of those books that make you wonder about the author as much as about his topic. John J. McKay writes that he got started with a single blog post aiming to establish “a chronology of what was known about mammoths and when.” Or rather, he got started because he noticed, while indulging his “great love of conspiracy theories and fringe ideas,” that “lost history theories”—think Atlantis, flood geology and rogue planets—“all used frozen mammoths as proof positive of their ideas.”

Mr. McKay, who describes himself on his blog as “an underemployed, grumpy, and aging liberal who lives in the Great Northwest”—that is, Alaska—soon began obsessively collecting facts about these great, hairy pachyderms. He became the “mammoth guy” to his neighbors and apparently also to his long-suffering (now ex-) wife.

The resulting book is unfortunately more the chronology that Mr. McKay set out to write in the first place and less the thrilling “Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science” touted in the subtitle. Mr. McKay’s background as a technical writer shows in his clear sentences, with one carefully authenticated fact logically following another from beginning to end. It also shows, however, in the absence of color, scene setting or a driving narrative arc. And yet I found the book oddly compelling.

Mr. McKay makes the case that, beginning about 1600, mammoths and their mastodon cousins, appearing in bits and pieces from beneath the ice and earth, became “a focusing problem for a scientific revolution.” They were the starting point for sweeping changes in geology and comparative anatomy and in the ways we think about life on Earth.

Scholars could reason their way around Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Book News | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Getting Inside a Tyrannosaur’s Head

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 16, 2017

(Photo: DOE/Los Alamos National Laboratory)

 

Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratry have used their unique neutron-imaging and high-energy X-ray capabilities to expose the inner structures of a 74-million-year-old fossil skull. The skull belonged to  tyrannosauroid dinosaur known as the Bisti Beast, or more formally as Bistahieversor sealeyi.  The image is the highest-resolution scan of tyrannosaur skull ever done.

Here’s an excerpt from the press release:

 The results add a new piece to the puzzle of how these bone-crushing top predators evolved over millions of years.

“Normally, we look at a variety of thick, dense objects at Los Alamos for defense programs, but the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science was interested in imaging a very large fossil to learn about what’s inside,” said Ron Nelson, of the Laboratory’s Physics Division. Nelson was part of a team that included staff from Los Alamos National Laboratory, the museum, the University of New Mexico and the University of Edinburgh. “It turns out that high energy neutrons are an interesting and unique way to image something of this size.”

The results helped the team determine the skull’s sinus and cranial structure. Initial viewing of the computed tomography (CT) slices showed preservation of un-erupted Read the rest of this entry »

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Got Drinking Water? Watch Climate Change Turn It Toxic.

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 7, 2017

The algae bloom that ate Lake St. Clair. (Photo: NASA/NOAA)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

It is a painful lesson of our time that the things we depend on to make our lives more comfortable can also kill us. Our addiction to fossils fuels is the obvious example, as we come to terms with the slow motion catastrophe of climate change. But we are addicted to nitrogen, too, in the fertilizers that feed us, and it now appears that the combination of climate change and nitrogen pollution is multiplying the possibilities for wrecking the world around us.

A new study in Science projects that climate change will increase the amount of nitrogen ending up in U.S. rivers and other waterways by 19 percent on average over the remainder of the century — and much more in Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues, Food & Drink | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Using Cadaver-Feeding Insects to Ask, “Are You Out There?”

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 1, 2017

by Richard Conniff

A while back, I reported on use of DNA in the blood meals of mosquitoes to identify species in a habitat. That technique is called iDNA (for invertebrate DNA).  Now the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute has done the same thing using carrion flies.

Two possible drawbacks to this approach: Because these are carrion flies, a significant portion of the animals in the resulting census may already be dead.  (Carrion flies lay their eggs not just on corpses, but in open wounds, so at least some of the DNA may come from live animals.)  And animals that get taken and eaten whole by predators are Read the rest of this entry »

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

Can Synthetic Biology Save Species?

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 20, 2017

(Illustration: Luisa Rivera)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

The worldwide effort to return islands to their original wildlife, by eradicating rats, pigs, and other invasive species, has been one of the great environmental success stories of our time.  Rewilding has succeeded on hundreds of islands, with beleaguered species surging back from imminent extinction, and dwindling bird colonies suddenly blossoming across old nesting grounds.

But these restoration campaigns are often massively expensive and emotionally fraught, with conservationists fearful of accidentally poisoning native wildlife, and animal rights activists having at times fiercely opposed the whole idea. So what if it were possible to rid islands of invasive species without killing a single animal? And at a fraction of the cost of current methods?

That’s the tantalizing – but also worrisome – promise of synthetic biology, a Brave New World sort of technology that applies engineering principles to species and to biological systems. It’s genetic engineering, but made easier and more precise by the new gene editing technology called CRISPR, which ecologists could use Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Cool Tools, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »