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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 Secret to Helping Conservatives Care About Climate Change

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 30, 2016

(Photo: George Rose/Getty Images)

(Photo: George Rose/Getty Images)

My latest for

Environmentalists are, by and large, idiots when it comes to talking with the people who disagree with us. We go on (and on) about fairness, about injustice, about caring. We are outraged. We are gloomy. Everything is going extinct, and it’s because of that company you work for, that pickup truck you drive, or that hamburger you’re eating. And, sure, everything does seem to be going extinct, and there is plenty of blame to go around. But people just tune us out.

Is there a better way? A way that might persuade ranchers to think differently about wolves, for instance? Or that might persuade conservatives to acknowledge the reality of climate change? Is there a way that might intrigue our political counterparts instead of just antagonizing them?

The good news, according to a new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, is that conservatives might not at heart have any real issue with protecting the environment. The bad news? What they are rejecting is us, our tone and tenor, and our self-righteous way of always framing environmental questions “in ideological and moral terms that hold greater appeal for liberals and egalitarians.” That may help affirm our in-group status as environmentalists. But it almost obliges our counterparts

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Smarter Farming (and Eating) to Save the World

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 20, 2016

(Photo: Chris Winsor/Getty Images)

(Photo: Chris Winsor/Getty Images)

My latest for

You probably don’t think agricultural intensification could ever be a good thing. And you certainly wouldn’t expect an argument for more of it in a column about wildlife. But here’s the deal: If we don’t figure out how to grow more food on less land, we’re going to have to plow under what little remains of the natural world and turn it into farmland.

And we have to figure it out fast, because there are going to be 10 billion people to feed by mid-century. The way we grow food now, that won’t leave enough room at all for creatures from ants to elephants—or for the plants with which they have coevolved over the history of the Earth.

The answer, according to a lot of agricultural experts, is sustainable intensification. Basically it means growing more food on less land, but doing so with minimal environmental damage. And it’s arguably even more important than the usual conservation strategy of creating national parks and other protected natural areas.

“If we want to save biodiversity in the world,” said G. David Tilman, an ecologist at the University of Minnesota, “the most important thing is not to buy a piece of land and put a fence around it but to help farmers feed their families—and feed other families.” He’s talking mostly about Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues, Food & Drink | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

That Big Rise in Tiger Numbers? It Was a WWF Fantasy.

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 15, 2016

(Photo: Jim Cook/Getty Images)

(Photo: Jim Cook/Getty Images)

My latest for

Lately, media worldwide have been frothy with happy talk about an unexpected increase in populations of the endangered tiger, with the global count suddenly up from 3,200 to 3,890. The World Wildlife Fund and the Global Tiger Forum reported the result based on a tally of recent counts by government agencies and conservation groups.

The announcement predictably produced headlines everywhere that tiger populations were on the rise for the first time in 100 years. Even National Geographic and the BBC sang along, in tune: “Tiger Numbers Rise for First Time in a Century.”

There was only one problem: The news was a publicity-friendly confection of nonsense and wishful thinking, unsupported by any published science.

Instead, the timing of the announcement had everything to do with politics: It came the day before the scheduled opening of the Asia Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation in New Delhi, bringing together scientists and political leaders from 13 nations.

That group has committed its member nations to the daunting (and arguably unrealistic) goal of doubling the population of tigers between 2010 and 2022. With half that time elapsed, WWF Senior Vice President Ginette Hemley apparently meant to kick things off with some good news and a key takeaway message for the conference attendees. “When you have high-level political commitments, it can make all the difference,” she said. “When you have well-protected habitat and you control the poaching, tigers will recover. That’s a pretty simple formula. We know it works.”

At various points, Hemley carefully attributed the results to better counting methods, not to an actual increase in tiger numbers. “The tools we are using now are more precise than they were six years ago,” she told The New York Times. But that nuance got lost along the way, as it was perhaps intended to do. The Times headline: “Number of Tigers in the Wild Is Rising, Wildlife Groups Say.”

WWF did not respond to a request to interview Hemley—a policy person who spends most of her time in Washington, D.C. So for a reality check, I phoned a tiger biologist: John Goodrich

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Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , | 11 Comments »

Discovering Dinosaurs (and Much More)

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 15, 2016

anchiornishuxley on wing

The first depiction of a dinosaur feather-by-feather in its natural colors.

Matt Shipman published an interview this week about my new book House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaur, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth.  Here’s Shipman’s opening:

I first visited the Peabody Museum of Natural History in the company of hundreds of science writers. The museum was hosting a social event for the annual conference of the National Association of Science Writers, which gave me the opportunity to explore its exhibits in the company of people who were exceptionally well-informed and gifted storytellers. It was the best possible introduction.

I visited again a few years later, this time in the company of family and friends. The enthusiasm our kids showed for the exhibits was contagious, as was my friend Jeff’s passion for discussing anything related to geology. I could have spent all day there. The Peabody, in my limited experience, is just that kind of place.

So, when I saw that Richard Conniff had written a book about the Peabody, House of Lost Worlds, I wanted to read it. And I had questions.

How do you assemble a coherent narrative based on the wildly diverse research done by hundreds of people over more than a century? How do you decide what to focus on? How do you decide what to leave out?

Conniff recently took the time to answer some of my questions, ranging from the characters he left out of the book to the future of natural history museums.

Communication Breakdown: You attended Yale as an undergrad. Did you spend much time at the Peabody while you were a student?

Richard Conniff: I was an English major, and Science Hill was largely foreign territory—except for the Peabody Museum. But I realize now that I was missing the real story, both as an undergraduate and during repeated visits as an adult (often with my kids). I gawped at the dinosaurs, like everybody else. But I had no idea that T.H. Huxley, “Darwin’s Bulldog,” thought the horse fossils were important enough to spend five days at the museum working through them with paleontologist O.C. Marsh, or that Darwin himself thought

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

When Animal Rights Sabotage the Natural World

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 8, 2016

Deer-herd-web-2-26-06My latest for

There are times—too many times, in truth—when understanding and protecting the natural world demands that we band together to stop the killing: The macho practice of shooting wolves in the American West comes to mind as an example. So does the relentless slaughter of elephants and rhinos in Africa. But at other times, protecting the natural world requires us to kill, and this is the painful reality some animal rights activists refuse to understand.

It’s not a failure to communicate. Animal rights groups are often brilliant at communicating. It’s a failure to reason in the face of scientific evidence, and it comes up almost endlessly for people who do the real work of protecting the natural world.

The latest case happened in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The city wanted to cull a booming deer population that is destroying the forest understory, damaging local landscaping, and causing car accidents (88 last year, double what it was just five years ago). Then both the Humane Society of the United States and the local chapter of the Humane Society—two separate entities—showed up to cry, “Cruelty!”

But, hang on, why should the rest of us care about Ann Arbor, a university town of 113,000 people 45 minutes west of Detroit? It matters, says Christopher Dick, a plant ecologist at the University of Michigan, because “HSUS is pitting its huge resources and cherry-picked science against every small town in the eastern U.S. that is having deer overabundance issues and considering lethal options.”

Activists put on a reasonable face when they come into town to

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Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues, Food & Drink | Tagged: , , , , , | 27 Comments »

How Natural History Museums Save the World

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 1, 2016


Triceratops, by O.C. Marsh at the Peabody Museum

Triceratops, by O.C. Marsh at the Peabody Museum

My latest for The New York Times:

When people talk about natural history museums, they almost always roll out the well-worn descriptive “dusty,” to the great exasperation of a curator I know. Maybe he’s annoyed because he’s spent large sums of his museum’s money building decidedly un-dusty climate-controlled storage sites, and the word implies neglect. (“Let me know,” the curator advises by email, “if you want to hear me rant for an hour or so on this topic.”)

Worse, this rumored dustiness reinforces the widespread notion that natural history museums are about the past — just a place to display bugs and brontosaurs. Visitors may go there to be entertained, or even awe-struck, but they are often completely unaware that curators behind the scenes are conducting research into climate change, species extinction and other pressing concerns of our day. That lack of awareness is one reason these museums are now routinely being pushed to the brink. Even the National Science Foundation, long a stalwart of federal support for these museums, announced this month that it was suspending funding for natural history collections as it conducts a yearlong budget review.

It gets worse: A new Republican governor last year shut down the renowned Illinois State Museum, ostensibly to save the state $4.8 million a year. The museum pointed out that this would actually cost $33 million a year in lost tourism revenue and an untold amount in grants. But the closing went through, endangering a trove of 10 million artifacts, from mastodon bones to Native American tools, collected over 138 years, and now just languishing in the shuttered building. Eric Grimm, the museum’s director of science, characterized it as an act of “political corruption and malevolent anti-intellectualism.”

Other museums have survived by shifting their focus from research to something like entertainment. A few years ago, in the Netherlands, which has a rich tradition of scientific collecting, three universities decided to give up their natural history collections. They’re now combined in a single location, at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, and the public displays there struck me on a recent visit as a sort of “Animal Planet” grab bag, with cutout figures of a Dutch version of Steve Irwin steering visitors, with cartoon-balloon commentary.

The pandering can be insidious, too. The Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, which treats visitors to a virtual ride down a hydraulic fracturing well, recently made headlines for avoiding explicit references to climate change. Other museums omit Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity | Tagged: , | 6 Comments »

The Big Thing Killing Off the World’s Only Lemurs

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 1, 2016

Verreaux's sifaka ballet dancer in a croisé (Photo: Kevin Schafer/Arkive)

Verreaux’s sifaka ballet dancer in a croisé (Photo: Kevin Schafer/Arkive)

My latest for
Once, in Madagascar, I ordered lunch at an outdoor restaurant. A cluster of street kids gathered on the other side of the railing, plainly famished, to watch me eat. Some beany dish, if I recall correctly, with bits of chicken in it. It might even have tasted good under other circumstances.

In any case, I ate. It’s too easy to get overwhelmed by beggars in places like that, and maybe I thought it would be rude to the restaurant owner to indulge them. Maybe I was also hungry, or at least hungry by American standards, after two weeks in the bush eating a lot of rice. Or maybe I was just a callous bastard. In any case, what happened next stunned me: I got up to leave, and the kids instantly reached over the rail to grab my plate and lick it clean.

Madagascar is one of the poorest countries on Earth and always seemingly getting poorer. But like most visitors, I was there to look at lemurs and other wildlife, not poverty. In particular, I saw sifaka lemurs, with their stark, staring, reddish-brown eyes, and theirartful way of leaping from branch to branch like ballet dancers in perfect partnership with the trees. They were gorgeous. The idea of killing and eating them seemed like an abomination, especially since lemurs occur nowhere else in the world, and 94 percent of the 110 or so lemur species are now threatened with extinction.

But a new study in the journal Biological Conservation makes clear that understanding and addressing

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Risky Business: Releasing A Live Cougar from a Trap

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 1, 2016

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

Letting Fishermen Stake Out A Turf Saves Jobs–and Fish, Too

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 28, 2016

Gaffing a halibut. (Photo: Scott Dickerson/Getty Images)

Gaffing a halibut. (Photo: Scott Dickerson/Getty Images)

My latest for

The way the world is currently consuming (and wasting) seafood, we will soon be living on our familiar blue planet, but with oceans that abound in plastic debris rather than marine life.

What if we could make a few relatively simple reforms and start seeing improved fisheries worldwide in just ten years?

What if those reforms could ensure that 98 percent of the world’s fisheries would be biologically healthy and feeding the world on a sustainable basis by 2050?

What if, finally, it doesn’t require the old, and deeply unpopular, method of shutting down fisheries and leaving fishing boats idle at the dock?

That all may sound too good to be true, and there are critics willing to say so.  But it’s achievable, according to a study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers looked at the current status and trends in 4,700 fisheries around the world, representing 78 percent of the world’s reported catch.  Then, they projected the future prospects of those fisheries under three different management regimes: business as usual, management to maximize long-term catch, or something called rights-based management.

Their conclusion is that rights-based-management simultaneously feeds more people, boosts profits, and protects the marine resource.

If rights-based management is so good, why aren’t we already doing it?

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Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Cool Tools, Food & Drink | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

When the Killing’s Done, Island Wildlife Roars Back

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 21, 2016

The world's only oceanic hummingbird, the Juan Fernandez Firecrown. (Photo: Island Conservation)

The world’s only oceanic hummingbird, the Juan Fernandez Firecrown. (Photo: Island Conservation)

My latest for

For conservation biologist Holly Jones, one of the best experiences of her work on island wildlife was the night she went out hunting for a rare lizard-like creature called the tuatara on Stephens Island in New Zealand. The place was cacophonous with seabirds, which also happened to be attracted to her headlamp. At one point, she found herself sitting in the dark with birds in her lap, at her shoulders, and flapping endlessly around her head. It was like Hitchcock’s The Birds, she said, except that she was ecstatic to be part of this island explosion of life.

Stephens Island happens to be the site one of the most notorious episodes in the history of humanity’s enraptured—but rocky—affair with islands. In 1894, a crew of lighthouse keepers arrived there, bringing a cat named Tibbles with them. The cat was soon coming back to the lighthouse with small, flightless birds in its teeth. One of them turned out to be a new species, the Stephens Island Wren. Within a year or two, a rapidly expanding community of cats had driven it to extinction. By 1897, there were so many cats killing so many birds that a lighthouse keeper urged the authorities “to employ some means to destroy them.” It took another 27 years, but the successful effort to eradicate the cats was the chief reason such an abundance of seabirds survived to greet Holly Jones that night on Stephens Island.

What happened there is now standard conservation practice around the world to protect the incredible diversity of species on islands. Jones, an assistant professor at Northern Illinois University, is the lead author on a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that looks at the long-term effects of eradicating cats, rats, goats, pigs, and other invasive mammals from islands. On the 181 islands where biologists have conducted follow-up studies, Jones and her coauthors found that eradication turns out to be

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Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction, Cool Tools | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »


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