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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The War on India’s Tiger Reserves

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 15, 2015

(Photo: Aditya Singh/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo: Aditya Singh/AFP/Getty Images)

I’ve been reporting a story lately in India, and one day’s drive between two important tiger reserves reminded me that wildlife survives here only in the face of endless challenges, and with almost all the money and power working in opposition.

The day started in Bhadra Tiger Preserve in the Western Ghats mountain range, and our destination was Kudremukh National Park, 75 miles to the west, with just a thread of wildlife corridor—less than a mile in width—connecting the two.

Bhadra is a beautiful forest with a dirt road winding among tall, straight teak trees. The tigers were in hiding, but there were chital deer in herds, and solo muntjac deer peering out at us nervously. A giant squirrel with big ears and a red tail half again as long as its body stared down. Yellow-toed green pigeons with gorgeous crimson wings busied themselves at a patch of mud.

People were the main challenge here, as everywhere in India. More than 700 families used to live in this forest, in 13 villages. The politically correct point of view, especially among human rights activists, is that indigenous people should stay in the forest, as an integral part of the natural world. There is plenty to be said for this point of view when loggers, palm oil producers, and oil companies hack down forests around tribal people who have always lived there.

But the reality in India

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How Bird Lovers Push Species to the Brink of Extinction

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 2, 2015

The bird market in Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia. (Photo: Megan Ahrens/Getty Images)

The bird market in Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia. (Photo: Megan Ahrens/Getty Images)

It’s sometimes said that we are loving nature to death—with our sightseeing traffic jams to gawk at bison loitering in Yellowstone National Park, and our safari vehicles huddled together to watch lions yawn in the Masai Mara.  But few people take their affection for nature to such a destructive extreme as the bird lovers of Indonesia and Malaysia.

Roughly 35 percent of homes in that Southeast Asian region keep birds as pets. People love the sound of their singing and build them elaborately carved mahogany cages. But they prefer the birds to be wild caught, and the more unusual the better. The result, according to a new study in the journal Biological Conservation, is that wild bird populations are being drastically reduced, and some species are probably being driven into extinction.

The region is already notorious for hacking down huge swaths of old-growth forest for lumber, or to make room for palm oil and rubber plantations. But the pet trade seems to be almost as destructive to bird life, finishing off what deforestation has merely begun. Even birds that might have survived in secondary forests or on agricultural lands are vanishing.

Princeton University’s Bert Harris, lead author of the new study, focused on bird markets in Medan, Sumatra, “one of the primary hubs of the Asian wildlife trade,” with more than 200 bird species typically for sale. In a region with almost no field studies to monitor bird populations in the wild, Harris and his coauthors theorized that recording price and volume for different bird species in the marketplace could serve as a quick-and-dirty tool for detecting population trends in the wild.

It worked. By comparing current market data with a historical sample Read the rest of this entry »

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Where the Rubber Meets the Orangutan

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 28, 2015


A lot of shoppers now routinely reach for fair-trade coffee. Many also look for foods that contain no palm oil, a notorious destroyer of tropical forests. Few, however, think about the tires on their car. But the typical car tire is 28 percent natural rubber. It comes from rubber trees grown on plantations, and those plantations are rapidly replacing forests across vast swaths of Southeast Asia.

According to a new paper published in Conservation Letters, the rubber tree is now the fastest-growing crop in Southeast Asia. Car tires consume 70 percent of the production, and demand is booming, largely because of the rapid rise of the Chinese economy. Without major changes, the rubber trade is on track to eat up between 10 million and 21 million acres of tropical forest over the next decade.

The larger figure works out to more than 30,000 square miles of forest, an area roughly the size of South Carolina, and it will mean taking down habitat for a stunning Read the rest of this entry »

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Why Not Pay Herders to Make Wolves & Wolverines Thrive?

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 21, 2015

(Photo: Anna Yu/Getty Images)

(Photo: Anna Yu/Getty Images)

People who kill predators don’t get much sympathy, and they don’t generally deserve any either. But there is an exception: impoverished herders and pastoralists whose animals are being killed by lions, tigers, wolves, or other large carnivores. These people are often caught in a bind: Kill a protected animal and risk fines or imprisonment, or watch their livestock vanish and their families go hungry.

In Sweden, the government has been trying to ease this dilemma with an innovative strategy that aims to encourage coexistence. It rewards herders as local carnivore populations increase—and a new study says it works.

In the Arctic regions of northern Scandinavia, the Sámi people, also known as Lapps or Laplanders, live by herding semi-domestic reindeer. But they share the landscape (and often the reindeer) with wolverines—big, bearlike weasels with ferocious personalities. (Their aggressiveness has made wolverines a popular team mascot, generally among people who have never met one.) To defend their livelihood, Sámi herders often end up killing wolverines, which are a protected species.

The usual remedy to reduce that kind of herder-carnivore conflict Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | 2 Comments »

“Extinct” Monkey Photographed For First Time Ever

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 16, 2015


A lovely photo, and a rare encouraging wildlife story from West Africa.

Here’s the press release from the Wildlife Conservation Society:

Two primatologists working in the forests of the Republic of Congo have returned from the field with a noteworthy prize: the first-ever photograph of the Bouvier’s red colobus monkey, a rare primate not seen for more than half a century and suspected to be extinct by some, according to WCS (the Wildlife Conservation Society).

The elusive primate was recently photographed by independent researchers Lieven Devreese and Gaël Elie Gnondo Gobolo within Ntokou-Pikounda National Park, a 4,572-square-kilometer (1,765-square-mile) protected area created on advice from WCS in 2013 to safeguard gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants, and other species.

The field researchers set off in February 2015 to

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Posted in Conservation and Extinction | 1 Comment »

Everybody’s Favorite Dinosaur Says: “Hey, Baby, I’m Back.”

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 7, 2015


Here’s a quick quiz. Choose the one that doesn’t belong:

A) Tyrannosaurus

B) Stegosaurus

C) Brontosaurus

D) Triceratops

Yes, I know, you’re way too smart for this. You chose “C” because you remember that everybody’s favorite dinosaur, that 16-ton vegetarian with the long neck and the whip-like tail, is really named Apatosaurus. Scientists have long since declared that Brontosaurus was a taxonomic error, and doesn’t technically exist.

In fact, it’s been 112 years since a paleontologist named Elmer Riggs first pointed out that Brontosaurus, described by Yale’s O.C. Marsh in 1879, was an awful lot like Apatosaurus, which Marsh himself had described just two years previously. Marsh thought the two species were different because one had more vertebrae than the other in the sacral region, at the base of the spine. But Riggs pointed out that the sacral vertebrae in four-limbed species, including humans, normally fuse as an individual matures. Marsh’s two specimens were thus supposedly no more than older and younger individuals of the same species.

That is, until this morning. In a paper published Tuesday in the journal PeerJ, a team of paleontologists has declared that Brontosaurus is back, baby, and better than ever. They argue that Brontosaurus is different enough Read the rest of this entry »

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The Best Hope for Ethiopia’s Wildlife Is From the Barrel of a Gun

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 29, 2015

Ethiopia's mountain nyala. (Photo: Gabrielle and Michel Therin-Weise/Getty Images)

Ethiopia’s mountain nyala. (Photo: Gabrielle and Michel Therin-Weise/Getty Images)

Over the past quarter century, Ethiopia has lost 90 percent of its elephants. Of its other large mammals, at least six species—the black rhinoceros, the African wild ass, the Ethiopian wolf, the mountain nyala, the Walia ibex, and the Grévy’s zebra—are slinking toward oblivion. Could trophy hunting be one way to turn this grim decline around? That is, could killing endangered animals help to save them? That’s what a new study, published earlier this month in the journal Conservation Biology, suggests.

Let’s acknowledge up front that big game hunting, especially in Africa, arouses strong emotions. When Melissa Bachman, host of a hunting show on cable television, grinned for the camera a few years ago beside a lion she had just killed, the photo didn’t just go viral: It also garnered nearly 500,000 signatures on a petition to ban her from South Africa. When Namibia auctioned off the right to shoot a trophy black rhino last year, the winning bidder harvested a boatload of death threats.

But for many African countries, big game hunts generate millions of dollars in revenue every year, both from trophy fees and from the money hunters spend on their multi-week trips. “Hunters spend 10 to 25 times more than

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Finding 30 New Species in Los Angeles Backyards

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 26, 2015

30newSpeciesA team of researchers in Los Angeles has just described 30 new species discovered during a three-month study in ordinary backyards.  Emily Hartop, who did much of the biological grunt work, has written a nice description of the project, and what it means:

When I came to work at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, I had no idea exactly what was in store for me. The NHM had recently initiated a massive study to search for biodiversity, or the variety of life forms in a particular area. This study wasn’t taking place in some lush tropical jungle, though; in fact, far from it. This fabulous study was (and is) taking place in the backyards of Los Angeles. I got hired to be part of the entomological team for this urban project called BioSCAN (Biodiversity Science: City and Nature) and before I knew it, I was describing 30 new species of flies collected right here in the City of Angels.

Before I explain how this all happened, let’s pause and say that again: 30 new species of flies were described from urban Los Angeles in 2015. Let’s expand: these flies were caught in three months of sampling and are all in the same genus. What does this mean for us? It means that even in the very areas where we live and work,

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Posted in Biodiversity | Leave a Comment »

Thank Maggots for the Ecological Succession Idea

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 23, 2015

The big idea that there is a more or less predictable succession of species in the history of any ecosystem generally gets credited to Henry C. Cowles at the University of Chicago, with a nod to Henry Thoreau.

But the two Henrys can now take a backseat to a forensic entomologist–the sort of character otherwise familiar from the various CSI shows–working at the beginning of the nineteenth century in France.  Here’s the press release, from Cowles’s own University of Chicago (oh, the ingratitude):

For generations, students have been taught the concept of “ecological succession” with examples from the plant world, such as the progression over time of plant species that establish and grow following a forest fire. Indeed, succession is arguably plant ecology’s most enduring scientific contribution, and its origins with early 20th-century plant ecologists have been uncontested. Yet, this common narrative may actually be false. As posited in an article published in the March 2015 issue of The Quarterly Review of Biology, two decades before plant scientists explored the concept, it was forensic examiners who discovered ecological succession.

According to Jean-Philippe Michaud, Kenneth Schoenly, and Gaétan Moreau, the first formal definition and testable mechanism of ecological succession originated in the late 1800s with Pierre Mégnin, a French veterinarian and entomologist who, while assisting medical examiners to develop methodology for estimating time-since-death of the deceased, recognized

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A Wildlife Where’s Waldo

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 22, 2015

1395180_939683106081777_4770492552988501563_nTexas conservationist John Karges picked up a piece of lumber lying on the ground at Las Estrellas Preserve, a Nature Conservancy Property in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.  Then he took this picture and immediately put the plank back down.  He now calls that plank “the Waldo Board,” because it set him off on a search for species taking shelter beneath it. So far he’s found “three Texas banded geckos, three Great Plains narrow-mouthed toads, one centipede, at least one beetle larva,” and probably other stuff since he posted this seven hours ago.

I still can’t find the damned centipede.  You give it a try.  Hints after the break.  Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity | 1 Comment »


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