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 Makes Me Want to Eat Pancakes. (But It’s Only Thursday.)

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 18, 2018

Fish scales in a piranha’s belly (and enlarged at left)

by Richard Conniff

I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about piranhas and what they eat. In fact, I wrote a book called Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals. And, yes, I have also spent a fair amount of time swimming with piranhas.

So naturally this caught my eye:

The piranha that eats scales its whole life, named Catoprion mento, tends to live alone. When it does hunt, it swims up behind its prey, opens its large, Jay Leno-like jaw 120 degrees and Read the rest of this entry »

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

Triassic Butterfly Park: Oldest Fossil Unhinges Flower-Pollinator Timeline

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 10, 2018

Modern Glossata

By Richard Conniff/Scientific American

For years, researchers studying core samples drilled from deep in the Earth have noticed odd flecks of material, possibly from insects—and generally treated them as a distraction from the real work: They focused instead on pollen and spores as a continuous record for understanding past ecosystems. But a surprising abundance of those flecks in a recent sample from northern Germany has now led a team of researchers to pay closer attention.

Writing in the journal Science Advances, Timo van Eldijk and his co-authors describe their find as the earliest fossil record of Lepidoptera, from about 201 million years ago, at the boundary between the Triassic and Jurassic periods. The new find fits the timeline for evolution of the Lepidoptera suggested by molecular evidence and helps correct a puzzling gap in the fossil record.

Triassic Wing Scale

The study looks at 70 specimens, found in a drill core from more than 300 meters below the surface, and identifies them as the wing scales that give butterflies and moths their spectacularly varied colors and patterns.  A light microscope, and later a scanning electron microscope, revealed the scales to be petal-like structures.  Some of them are beautifully preserved, with neatly ridged surfaces, herringbone webbing between the ridges, “micro-ribs,” and in some cases, perforations in the surface.

The perforations turned out to be a critical detail. They indicate, according to the co-authors, that a moth of that period had the hollow wing scales characteristic of Glossata, the taxonomic group that includes all modern moths and butterflies equipped with a sucking proboscis. The oldest previously known such fossil was from 129 million years ago–just as the flowering plants were making their spectacular emergence across the planet.  And the accepted theory was that the sucking proboscis only emerged at that point as a product of co-evolution between flowers and the insects that pollinate them.

That co-evolution, and the often exquisitely precise matchup between flower and pollinator, have been a subject of perennial fascination for naturalists.  In one of the most celebrated stories in all of botany, for instance, Read the rest of this entry »

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Habitat on Our Doorsteps: Making Room for Wildlife in an Urbanized World

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 3, 2018

(Illustration: Luisa Rivera)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

One morning not long ago, in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, I traveled with a Wildlife Conservation Society biologist on a switchback route up and over the high ridge of the Western Ghats. Our itinerary loosely followed the corridor connecting Bhadra Tiger Reserve with Kudremakh National Park 30 miles to the south.

In places, we passed beautiful shade coffee plantations, with an understory of coffee plants, and pepper vines — a second cash crop — twining up the trunks of the shade trees. Coffee plantations managed in this fashion, connected to surviving patches of natural forest, “provide continuous camouflage for the predators,” — especially tigers moving through by night, my guide explained, and wildlife conflict was minimal.  Elsewhere, though, the corridor narrowed to a thread winding past sprawling villages, and conservationists played a double game, part handholding to help people live with large predators on their doorsteps, part legal combat to keep economic interests from nibbling into the wildlife corridor from both sides. It was a microcosm of how wildlife hangs on these days, not just in India, but almost everywhere in the world.

For conservationists, protecting biodiversity has in recent years become much less about securing new protected areas in pristine habitat and more about Read the rest of this entry »

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As Climate Change Bears Down, Do We Relocate Threatened Species?

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 26, 2017

(Photo: Frans Lanting)

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

On a knob of rock in New Zealand’s Cook Strait known as North Brother Island, a population of the lizard-like creature called the tuatara is quickly becoming all male. When scientists first noticed the imbalance in the late 1990s, the sex-ratio was already 62.4 percent male, and it has rapidly worsened since then, to more than 70 percent. Researchers say climate change is the cause: ground temperature determines the sex of tuatara embryos, with cooler temperatures favoring females and warmer ones favoring males.  When climate pushes the sex ratio to 85 percent male, the North Brother Island tuataras will slip inescapably into what biologists call the extinction vortex.

So what should conservationists do? For the tuatara and many other species threatened by climate change, relocating them to places they have never lived before–a practice known as assisted colonization—is beginning to seem like the only option. “We’d prefer to do something a little more natural,” says Jessica Hellman, a lepidopterist at Notre Dame, who was among the first researchers to put the assisted colonization idea up for discussion. That is, it would be better for species to shift their ranges on their own, using natural corridors to find new homes as their old ones become less habitable. But for many island and mountain species, long distance moves were never an option in the first place, says Hellman. In other cases, old corridors no longer exist, because human development has fragmented them.

The idea of assisted colonization as a conservation tactic has elicited fierce criticism, however, because of its potential Read the rest of this entry »

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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 necessarily 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 »

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 eyes 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 »

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Eggs in a Basket: Fossil Find Opens Up Lost World of Pterosaurs

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 1, 2017

With apologies, I have been delayed in posting several articles I published previously this year. Attempting to update now.

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

Thanks in part to an abundance of fossil discoveries in recent decades, scientists now recognize more than 200 species of pterosaur—the winged reptiles that dominated the world’s skies for 160 million years. But almost nothing is known about how they bred or how their young developed. As recently as 2014 the available scientific evidence on those topics added up to a grand total of just three pterosaur eggs, all badly flattened.

That dramatically changes with the description in this week’s Science of a sandstone block containing at least 215 fossilized eggs of a Cretaceous era pterosaur, Hamipterus tianshanensis. Many are preserved in three dimensions, and at least 16 contain partial embryonic remains.

Paleontologists Alexander Kellner and Xiaolin Wang

A research team led by Xiaolin Wang of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing discovered the eggs, embedded in a rock slab more than three square meters in area, at a dig in northwestern China. Analysis of sediments in the find suggests “that events of high energy such as storms passed over a nesting site” by an ancient lake, the co-authors write, causing the egg mass to float “for a short period of time, becoming concentrated and eventually buried.”

Preservation of any pterosaur fossil is exceptional, partly because their bones were so thin. Extreme scarcity is even Read the rest of this entry »

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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 »

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