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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Bikini on Baker Day

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 25, 2016

By Richard Conniff

Carl O. Dunbar, director of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History in the 1940s, wasn’t the sort of person you would immediately imagine as an eyewitness to one of the epochal events of the twentieth century. He was a paleontologist, specializing in little known marine invertebrates called fusilines, which vanished from the Earth, along with most other life forms, in the Great Permian Extinction of 252 million years ago.

So I was surprised during the research for my book House of Lost Worlds, about the Peabody’s colorful history, when a researcher at the University of Kansas sent me the painstakingly photographed pages of a journal kept by Dunbar 70 years ago this summer, during his time as part of a scientific delegation invited to witness Operation Crossroads, the first atom bomb tests of the post-World War II era, on Bikini Atoll in the mid-Pacific. (Dunbar, a Kansas native, had left the journal and associated papers to the university archives, where they were largely forgotten.)

James Dwight Dana

James Dwight Dana

The Pacific had figured in my research, up to that point, mainly because one of the Peabody’s founding scientists, James Dwight Dana, had served as naturalist on the 1838-42 U.S. Exploring Expedition around the world. Dana saw the Pacific islands much as they were when they first entered Western lore, as places of incredible beauty and occasional terror, both due in part to the underlying volcanoes. He wrote about climbing the volcanoes, and also about gathering corals by “floating slowly along in a canoe,” studying the reefs through the clear water and pointing out specimens for his hired divers to retrieve. In the “Feejee” Islands, he did his collecting among people he regarded as “a cruel, treacherous race of cannibals.” But they were “kindly disposed towards us,” he wrote, adding, “A white man, they say, tastes bitter.”

This work led Dana to a theory about the origin of Pacific atolls with their peculiar, idyllic lagoons: Coral reefs had built up in a ring around volcanic islands, which later subsided. He was no doubt dismayed on arriving in Australia in November 1839 to find a brief notice that Charles Darwin had just proposed the identical theory. Dana generously remarked that Darwin’s work “threw a flood of light over the subject, and called forth feelings of peculiar satisfaction, and of gratefulness to Mr. Darwin.” The two men later corresponded at length, each playing the part of the gentleman scientist.


USS Panamint

USS Panamint

Dunbar’s colleagues in the summer of 1946 were also gentlemen scientists, 22 of them altogether, invited not just from the United States, but from Russia, China, and other nations to see for themselves the appalling power unleashed just eleven months earlier on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The U.S.S. Panamint, a Navy amphibious force command ship, carried them from San Francisco, and the atmosphere was remarkably casual, even high-spirited, as the scientific delegation made its way more than 4000 miles across the Pacific. At various stops en route, the military welcomed the group with an open bar and tours of recent battle sites. (Only the summer before, Panamint itself had faced repeated torpedo and Kamikaze Read the rest of this entry »

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

New Neighbor, Serial Killer, Just Wants to be Friends

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 25, 2016

The ghost of Griffith Park (Photo: Steve Winter/National Geographic)

The ghost of Griffith Park (Photo: Steve Winter/National Geographic)

by Richard Conniff/

Most people are clueless that carnivores—big, scary flesh eaters—can adapt to live among us, unnoticed, even in the most densely populated landscapes. By adapt, I mean, for instance, that 4,000 coyotes are living in and around the Chicago Loop, without incident. One especially wily pack has even chosen to make its den on Navy Pier, one of the world’s top 50 tourist attractions. The 9 million or so visitors a year who come to ride the giant Ferris wheel or see an IMAX movie never notice.

It’s the same in Southern California, where a mountain lion hunts deer in Griffith Park, in the middle of Los Angeles, and may recently have snatched a koala from the city zoo. In central Spain, wolves bed down in agricultural fields on the outskirts of Madrid and picnic on wild boar. In Norway, lynx hunt in the forests just outside Oslo. In Mumbai, India, the most spectacular case of mutual adaptation, 35 leopards live in an unfenced national park in the middle of the city’s

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

Animal Music Monday: Rockin’ Robin

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 25, 2016

Leon René, a West Coast R&B producer and composer, had an ornithological hit with this song, released in 1958 by Bobby Day. It fits with a tradition, dating back to the Middle Ages, of trying to imitate birdsong in music. Both René and Day found gold in the animal music theme.  Just the year before, Day sang “Buzz Buzz Buzz” with the Fabulous Flames.  René, born in 1902, had written the very 1940s hit “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano,” later performed by Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biomimicry, Funny Business, Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Animal Music Monday: Dead Skunk In The Middle of the Road

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 18, 2016

Loudon Wainwright III is said to have written this absurdist little country tune by accident, in 15 minutes. He later mock-boasted that it made it to number one on the hit parade for six weeks in Little Rock, Arkansas, “and only very intelligent people live in Little Rock.”  It became his biggest hit, reaching number 16 on the Top 100 nationwide in 1973.

People still have a fond place for it in their Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Funny Business | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Tyrannosaurs: It’s Not Just About Rex

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 16, 2016

Jane_Tyrannosaurusby Richard Conniff/Wall Street Journal

Given that tyrannosaurs are the most studied of all dinosaurs, and familiar to almost everyone above the age of 5 (or maybe make that 3), it’s extraordinary how little we really know about them: huge bodies, big spiky teeth, tiny arms, scary as hell. That’s about it for most of us.

Go a little deeper and we mostly go wrong, according to David Hone, a paleontologist at the University of London. “Tyrannosaurs,” he writes, in “The Tyrannosaur Chronicles,” “were not pure scavengers; they didn’t spend their lives battling adult Triceratops, they did not have poor eyesight, they could not run at 50 km/h, females were not bigger than males,” and they weren’t all Tyrannosaurus rex, that flesh-rending, scenery-chomping, lunkheaded box-office giant of our nightmares.

Mr. Hone’s unsensational and resolutely middle-of-the-road account lists 29 tyrannosaur species. He adds that Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Kill or Be Killed | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Our Blue-Butterfly Days Are Rapidly Vanishing

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 14, 2016

The large blue butterfly is on the way to recovery in the United Kingdom after having been declared extinct there in 1979. (Photo: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)

The large blue butterfly is on the way to recovery in the United Kingdom after having been declared extinct there in 1979. (Photo: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)

by Richard Conniff/

You do not need to be a naturalist to love butterflies. Dolly Parton sings about them. So does Miley Cyrus. Tracy Morgan says he used to be an angry young man in a cocoon, but “now I’m a beautiful black butterfly.” And the poet Robert Frost once celebrated the “blue-butterfly” days of spring.

But hold the lyrics. The butterflies are vanishing, according to an article in this week’s edition of the journal Science, and it’s happening even in protected areas. In a reserve in Germany’s Bavaria region, for instance, a study early this year found that just 71 butterfly species survive where there were 117 in the 19th century. That’s a 40 percent decline. In the Netherlands and England’s Suffolk County, researchers have found that 25 to 42 percent of resident breeding species are extinct.

“There is evidence for similar declines,” writes Oxford University lepidopterist Jeremy A. Thomas, “in North America, Japan, and hotspots of butterfly endemism such as Brazil, South Africa, and Australia.” Charismatic species such as the Indo-Pacific birdwings, with their six-inch wingspan, are among the victims.

Thomas acknowledges that the decline in butterflies is not exceptional. Bumblebees, dragonflies, moths, and ladybirds (or ladybugs, in this country) may be even worse off because of environmental damage inflicted by humans. Those insect groups really matter in the sense that they have ecological value for pollination and predator control. Butterflies, on the other hand, are mostly just pretty to look at.

But their very uselessness, their pointless beauty, is the one thing that has made butterflies

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

Animal Music Monday: From the Diary of a Fly

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 11, 2016

This is a piece by Béla Bartók, both whimsical and empathetic, about a fly becoming caught in a spider’s web. It’s built on what musical types call ostinato, a single repeated musical phrase, and somehow over the course of less than two minutes, this captures both the buzzing repetitiveness of an insect’s life and the desperation in the face of death.

This one caught my attention because I have written about flies, without much empathy, in my book Spineless Wonders (currently out of print but one of these days I will get it back as an ebook). I have also written about spiders building their webs, and in that case I felt so much empathy that I went out to a climbing wall and tried to build my own web.  I wrote about it in my book Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time. Here’s an excerpt:

One day back home, I was watching a spider spin its astonishing construction between my desk lamp and telephone (it was a slow day), and I suddenly wanted to become a spider, at least for a little while. I picked up the phone (a cataclysm for the spider) and found a climbing instructor named Stefan Caporale, who agreed to help me build my own orb web, in the corner between two climbing walls at the YMCA in Worcester, Massachusetts. Caporale fitted me out with a climbing harness and Jumar ascenders. I’d never done any rope climbing, but with a slingful of the metal clips called carabiners over one shoulder and a rope bag in lieu of a silk gland over the other, I felt like Charlotte’s Web meets Rambo.

I was, of course, going to have to cheat,

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

50 Years After Silent Spring, Herbicides Are Everywhere

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 9, 2016

In a stand of phramites (Photo: Michigan Technological University )

In a stand of phramites (Photo: Michigan Technological University )

by Richard Conniff/

As I write this, I’m looking out at a salt marsh that requires regular spraying with the herbicide glyphosate (sold by Monsanto as Roundup) to keep it from being smothered under dense, eight-foot-high stands of an invasive grass called phragmites. At a nearby lake where I’m a member of a rowing club, the aquatic vegetation is now so dense that it’s being treated with another herbicide called flumioxazin. And along the roads back and forth, even more herbicides get applied, to keep down weedy vegetation along the edges.

More than 50 years after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring first raised the alarm about their uncontrolled use, herbicides are everywhere in North American life. Use of glyphosate alone has increased 15-fold since the introduction of genetically modified Roundup Ready crops in the 1990s. In 2014, that worked out to 250 million pounds of the stuff—eight-tenths of a pound for every acre of U.S. cropland. And it’s not just about agriculture.

A new study in the Journal of Applied Ecology attempts for the first time to add up herbicide use on North American wildlands. “The numbers are much less than those for croplands, but they are astonishing,” said lead author Viktoria Wagner, a plant ecologist at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic. She and her coauthors found reliable information on just 1.2 million acres of wildlands, a fraction of the U.S. government’s 640 million acres of parks, forests, refuges, and rangelands. But in a single year, that sample was sprayed with

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

Animal Music Monday: Baby Elephant Walk

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 4, 2016

This song was an unlikely pop hit from the early 1960s, by Henry Mancini.  He wrote it for the 1962 Howard Hawks film “Hatari!” about the adventurous characters who made a living then catching elephants, rhinos, and other African wildlife to stock zoos.  These days we would call that line of work “dubious” or even “criminal.” But those were different times.

Hawks had filmed an impromptu scene of the Martinelli character leading three baby elephants to a watering hole.  But he didn’t know what to do with it.  Before giving up on it, Hawks came to Mancini and said, “Take a look and let me know if you have any ideas.”

Mancini later wrote:

“So I looked at the scene several times  and still thought it was wonderful. As the little elephants went down to the water, there was a shot of them from behind. Their little backsides were

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Posted in Funny Business, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

The Notorious Racist Who Inspired America’s National Parks

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 1, 2016

Madison Grant

Madison Grant

by Richard Conniff/Mother Jones

I used to tune out when my father would go on about eminent domain: how his immigrant grandparents had built up a modest homestead with two houses, three grown children, and a flock of chickens on the banks of the Bronx River. And then, around 1913, how the government had seized the property to make way for the Bronx River Parkway. That the episode still rankled after almost a century just seemed like a manifestation of my father’s cranky late-life conservatism.

That was before I found out about Madison Grant.

It’s a name you should be hearing a lot this year because of the centennial of the National Park Service—in many ways a product of Grant’s pioneering work as the greatest conservationist who ever lived, according to one early Park Service director, and a creator of “the park concept,” in the words of another. But you probably won’t hear Grant’s name so much as whispered, because his peculiar line of thinking also helped lay the groundwork for the death camps of Nazi Germany.

Born in 1865, Grant enjoyed a blue-blood Manhattan childhood thanks to his mother’s family wealth and his father’s reputation as a doctor and Civil War hero. At 16, he went to Germany for four years of private tutoring before coming back for Yale and then Columbia Law School.

Grant was a handsome, urbane figure with a thick mustache and steady, deep-set eyes and a reputation as a ladies’ man. He set up a Manhattan law office but rarely practiced. Nor did he ever hold Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues, Social Status, The Primate File | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »


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