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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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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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 »

A Plan to Mine Coal in the Birthplace of Rhino Conservation

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 21, 2015

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(Photo: Richard Conniff)

My latest for Takepart:

A few years ago, I was reporting a story about South Africa’s war on rhinos. I suppose you could call it “Vietnam’s war” or “Asia’s war,” since that’s where most of the rhino horn ends up, to supply a bogus medicinal trade. But let’s face it: South Africa’s own political and financial elite tolerate the poaching of more than 1,000 rhinos in the nation every year, probably because they profit from it.

In any case, the obvious place to start my reporting was the birthplace of rhino conservation: Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, in the coastal state of Kwazulu-Natal. This is where an earlier generation of South Africans saved the white rhino from certain extinction, carefully breeding the species back from just 20 animals in the world at the end of the 19th century to a population of 20,000 today.

In 1895, they also designated Hluhluwe-iMfolozi (pronounced “shluh-shloo-ee”) Africa’s first nature preserve.

This should be a great national heritage, and also a source of cultural pride: The broad river valleys and rolling highlands of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi were once the favorite hunting ground of Shaka, the storied Zulu warrior king. The park is home not just to white rhinos but also to critically endangered black rhinos, as well as elephants, lions, leopards, buffalo, and 340 species of birds.

But now Ibutho Coal, a little-known mining company Read the rest of this entry »

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How Outdoor Cats Mess Up Our Minds

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 19, 2015

Toxoplasmosis from outdoor cats makes major changes in the brain's most common and critical cells, called astrocytes.  (Image: Indiana University School of Medicine)

Toxoplasmosis from outdoor cats makes major changes in the brain’s most common and critical cells, called astrocytes.
(Image: Indiana University School of Medicine)

Neuroscientists are coming closer to understanding how cat-borne Toxoplasmosis messes with the brains of mice, men, and women.

With apologies, the press release could be a lot more clear in describing a new study showing how this parasite affects the brain.  But I’m on another deadline, and want to post this now because it’s important for pet-owners to get the message: We endanger ourselves when we allow our pet cats to wander outdoors:

Rodents infected with a common parasite lose their fear of cats, resulting in easy meals for the felines. Now Indiana University School of Medicine researchers have identified a new way the parasite may modify brain cells, possibly helping explain changes in the behavior of mice — and humans.

The parasite is Toxoplasma gondii, which has infected an estimated one in four Americans and even larger numbers worldwide. Not long after infecting a human, Toxoplasma parasites encounter the body’s immune response and retreat to a latent state, enveloped in hardy cysts that the body cannot remove.

Before entering that inactive state, however, the parasites

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How Science Education Came to America–The Patriarch Part 1

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 15, 2015

Benjamin Silliman Sr.

Benjamin Silliman Sr.

Undergraduates at Yale are associated with a single residential college for their entire four years, and when I was a student, my college was named Silliman College.  It was my home.  I was, yes, a Sillimander.  But the name Silliman was just a name to me, another one of those obscurely eminent names from Yale’s past. 

For the past year, though, I have been working on a new book (working title: House of Lost Worlds) about how the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History changed our world. And in the course of my research, I learned that Silliman–Benjamin Silliman Sr.–was a far more important figure in American history, and the history of American science, than I had imagined.  Here’s the story:

On October 26, 1802, a 23-year-old Yale-educated lawyer boarded a stagecoach in New Haven for the long, dusty, motion sickness–inducing trip to Philadelphia. Under his arm, he carried a wooden candle box full of mineral specimens to be properly identified.

They were remnants of a higgledy-piggledy museum of curiosities Yale had maintained for a time but then largely misplaced, not altogether regrettably. The original collection had included a 50-pound set of moose antlers, a nine-foot-long wooden chain carved from a stick by a blind man, and a two-headed calf. It also included miscellaneous unlabeled mineral specimens. The candle box in which Benjamin Silliman carried these specimens to Philadelphia would enter Yale legend as the beginning of proper scientific collecting at Yale. More than that, it was the beginning of the collections that would later become the Peabody Museum of Natural History, and the beginning of Yale’s rise from a college to a university.

The polymath Thomas Jefferson was in the White House, yet for most Americans then, science was still a foreign enterprise, somewhat nervously regarded. There were signs of growing interest in this strange idea of knowing the world not just by faith but by experiments, expeditions, and observation. But many considered it Read the rest of this entry »

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The Teacher, Preacher, P.R. Man of Science–The Patriarch Part 2

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 15, 2015

Continued from “How Science Education Came to America”:

His Eminence

His Eminence

Benjamin Silliman would become a great name. He was “the Patriarch” of American science, according to Louis Agassiz, the Swiss biologist who would take up the mantle of science education at Harvard in 1847. But Silliman would do so without making any great discoveries, without introducing any bold new concepts or systems, and without ever fitting the stereotype of the scientist as solitary brooding genius. On the contrary. What American science needed then was “an organizer, a promoter, a teacher, a preacher, a public relations man, a communicator and coordinator, and an exemplar of professionalism,” science historian Robert Bruce has written. “Silliman was all of these.”

He was a charismatic figure, with a clear and forceful way of speaking and an impressive, even aristocratic physical presence—tall and lean, “erect as a general on parade and with a general’s expression of great power,” as a former student recalled, with a high brow, deep-set eyes, a thin straight nose, and slightly pursed lips—altogether inspiring confidence and even belief in his listeners.

Silliman made it his mission to develop science and science education at Yale, and later nationwide. For this, he also possessed the ineffable trait that Bruce describes as “effectiveness in procuring facilities and supplies.” It wasn’t just that he had a keen eye for new material to embellish the Yale collection; he was also adroit at wheedling funds out of the Yale Corporation to pay for these acquisitions. Much of this effort went in support of mineralogy, a topic early Americans found far more tantalizing than we generally do today. For them, it afforded “a pleasant subject for scientific research,” according to an 1816 account, and also tended “to increase individual wealth” and “to improve and multiply arts and manufactures and thus promote the public good.”

Mineralogy attracted some colorful personalities. Silliman handed over $1,000, a huge sum then, Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Social Status, The Primate File | 1 Comment »

Spreading the Word About Science–The Patriarch Part 3

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 15, 2015

The Weston meteorite.

The Weston meteorite.

Continued from “The Teacher, Preacher, PR Man of Science”:

In the course of their research, Silliman and Kingsley had spent several hours searching fruitlessly for one unusually large stone that had landed in the town of Trumbull (Silliman’s birthplace, as it happened). When it finally turned up, after they’d gone back to New Haven, it weighed 36.5 pounds—and the lucky farmer who found it thought it was worth $500.

An amateur mineral enthusiast, Colonel George Gibbs (the rank was honorific), placed the high bid. He was the heir to a Newport shipping fortune, which he seems to have had no great interest in preserving. Among other acquisitions, he had recently purchased and brought home the extensive mineral collection of a Russian count, and another collection accumulated over 40 years by a great patron of science in France.

Even before the meteorite episode, Silliman’s brother in Newport had tipped him off about Gibbs. Silliman and Gibbs soon met, became friends, and spent time geologizing together around New England. In 1810, when he was considering a suitable place to display his mineral “cabinet,” Gibbs made inquiries at institutions from Boston to Washington, without quite finding what he was hoping for. Finally, he stopped in to visit Silliman in New Haven and announced, “I will open it here in Yale College, if you will fit up rooms for its reception.” Yale promptly did so, on the second floor of what is now Connecticut Hall. And thus, among many other treasures, the 36.5-pound Weston meteorite came to Yale.

Gibbs also provided one other critical boost not just to Yale but to American science at large. Late in 1817, he bumped into Silliman by chance one day aboard the steamboat Fulton, on the ten-hour run between New York and Read the rest of this entry »

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Science & The Rise of the American University–The Patriarch Conclusion

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 15, 2015

James Dwight Dana, 1857

James Dwight Dana, 1857

Continued from “Spreading the Word about Science”:

The line dividing science and theology was, however, still practically nonexistent, and in this somewhat delicate context, James Dwight Dana was undoubtedly the most important of Silliman’s disciples. He was both a deeply religious man and the greatest American geologist of the nineteenth century, and much as Silliman had done for Timothy Dwight, he made it possible to expand the role of science without seeming overly threatening to religion or the humanities. Dana also explicitly took up Silliman’s mission of using the sciences to build Yale into a university.

In 1856, Dana gave a speech to Yale alumni lamenting those “who still look with distrustful eyes on science.” They seem, he said, “to see a monster swelling up before them which they cannot define, and hope may yet fade away as a dissolving mist.” That specter was twofold: the shadow cast by geology on the Genesis account of the Earth’s history, and the idea of evolution, which was already in the air. (Among other developments, a former student of Silliman’s named Thomas Staughton Savage, a missionary, had recently brought home from Africa the bones of an unknown primate with a disturbing resemblance to humans—the gorilla.) But Dana was deeply committed to a biblical view of creation, and he assured his listeners of the evidence provided by geology “that God’s hand, omnipotent and bearing a profusion of bounties, has again and again been outstretched over the earth; that no senseless development principle evolved the beasts of the field out of monads”—that is, unicellular organisms—“and men out of monkeys, but that all can alike claim parentage in the Infinite Author.” (Silliman shared this belief. In one of his last lectures he had declared, “Young men, those people may think as they please but for my part I shall never believe or teach that I am descended from a tadpole!”)

Having dismissed the evolutionary bugaboo, Dana went on to argue for Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in The Primate File, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Seven Ways to Make Your City Wildlife Friendly

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 14, 2015

(Photo: Getty Images)

(Photo: Getty Images)

A few years ago I was visiting the west Baltimore neighborhood that inspired the American television series Homicide and The Wire. It was an urban wasteland, the brick row houses largely abandoned and boarded over. Whoever used to live here had long since gone away. Then we turned a corner onto North Carrollton Avenue, and for one city block it was a miracle:  Handsome old trees formed a green canopy over the street. The houses were occupied and well tended. Someone was selling flavored ices at a stand in the shade in the middle of the block. The trees, a local woman told me, made all the difference, shading the houses, filtering the air, and making it easier to breathe. There were birds and squirrels in the branches overhead.

That visit comes to mind because I have been thinking lately about ways to make cities more livable, for people and wildlife alike. The rapid urbanization of the Earth is the dominant movement of this century, and the sprawling, unplanned growth of cities and suburbs tends to leave behind patches of greenery only by accident—a few neglected parks, some street trees here and there, and the occasional sliver of protected land. Wildlife gets crowded out and pushed toward extinction.

Plenty of studies have already demonstrated that street trees and other green spaces tend to reduce crime, improve health, build stronger neighborhoods, encourage investment in housing stock, slow stormwater runoff and lower pollution. So let’s focus on the wildlife for now. Cities are not ideal wildlife habitat, but they are increasingly the only habitat. So what do we need to do to make room for wildlife in our increasingly urbanized world?

Plan for Green Space

Add some trees along a street, and you’ve got someplace where birds can rest or roost. Add a park at the end of that street, even a small one, and now you’ve got a spot where migrating birds can stop and eat on their way to or from their breeding grounds. Even adding just 150 square meters of green space—that’s 10 parking spaces—will bring one additional bird species into a neighborhood, according to a 2013 study by urban greening specialist Paige Warren at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. The green space can include a community garden that benefits human residents. Bees, butterflies, and other pollinators will also show up, said Warren, “even in very dense metropolitan areas like in Manhattan.”

Make those Green Spaces Connect

Multiple parks or gardens that are connected make for exponentially

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