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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Giants in the Earth: How Mammoths Changed Our World

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 29, 2017

(Illustration: National Geographic)

by Richard Conniff/The Wall Street Journal

Discovering the Mammoth is one of those books that make you wonder about the author as much as about his topic. John J. McKay writes that he got started with a single blog post aiming to establish “a chronology of what was known about mammoths and when.” Or rather, he got started because he noticed, while indulging his “great love of conspiracy theories and fringe ideas,” that “lost history theories”—think Atlantis, flood geology and rogue planets—“all used frozen mammoths as proof positive of their ideas.”

Mr. McKay, who describes himself on his blog as “an underemployed, grumpy, and aging liberal who lives in the Great Northwest”—that is, Alaska—soon began obsessively collecting facts about these great, hairy pachyderms. He became the “mammoth guy” to his neighbors and apparently also to his long-suffering (now ex-) wife.

The resulting book is unfortunately more the chronology that Mr. McKay set out to write in the first place and less the thrilling “Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science” touted in the subtitle. Mr. McKay’s background as a technical writer shows in his clear sentences, with one carefully authenticated fact logically following another from beginning to end. It also shows, however, in the absence of color, scene setting or a driving narrative arc. And yet I found the book oddly compelling.

Mr. McKay makes the case that, beginning about 1600, mammoths and their mastodon cousins, appearing in bits and pieces from beneath the ice and earth, became “a focusing problem for a scientific revolution.” They were the starting point for sweeping changes in geology and comparative anatomy and in the ways we think about life on Earth.

Scholars could reason their way around Read the rest of this entry »

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Getting Inside a Tyrannosaur’s Head

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 16, 2017

(Photo: DOE/Los Alamos National Laboratory)

 

Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratry have used their unique neutron-imaging and high-energy X-ray capabilities to expose the inner structures of a 74-million-year-old fossil skull. The skull belonged to  tyrannosauroid dinosaur known as the Bisti Beast, or more formally as Bistahieversor sealeyi.  The image is the highest-resolution scan of tyrannosaur skull ever done.

Here’s an excerpt from the press release:

 The results add a new piece to the puzzle of how these bone-crushing top predators evolved over millions of years.

“Normally, we look at a variety of thick, dense objects at Los Alamos for defense programs, but the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science was interested in imaging a very large fossil to learn about what’s inside,” said Ron Nelson, of the Laboratory’s Physics Division. Nelson was part of a team that included staff from Los Alamos National Laboratory, the museum, the University of New Mexico and the University of Edinburgh. “It turns out that high energy neutrons are an interesting and unique way to image something of this size.”

The results helped the team determine the skull’s sinus and cranial structure. Initial viewing of the computed tomography (CT) slices showed preservation of un-erupted Read the rest of this entry »

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Got Drinking Water? Watch Climate Change Turn It Toxic.

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 7, 2017

The algae bloom that ate Lake St. Clair. (Photo: NASA/NOAA)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

It is a painful lesson of our time that the things we depend on to make our lives more comfortable can also kill us. Our addiction to fossils fuels is the obvious example, as we come to terms with the slow motion catastrophe of climate change. But we are addicted to nitrogen, too, in the fertilizers that feed us, and it now appears that the combination of climate change and nitrogen pollution is multiplying the possibilities for wrecking the world around us.

A new study in Science projects that climate change will increase the amount of nitrogen ending up in U.S. rivers and other waterways by 19 percent on average over the remainder of the century — and much more in Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues, Food & Drink | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Using Cadaver-Feeding Insects to Ask, “Are You Out There?”

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 1, 2017

by Richard Conniff

A while back, I reported on use of DNA in the blood meals of mosquitoes to identify species in a habitat. That technique is called iDNA (for invertebrate DNA).  Now the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute has done the same thing using carrion flies.

Two possible drawbacks to this approach: Because these are carrion flies, a significant portion of the animals in the resulting census may already be dead.  (Carrion flies lay their eggs not just on corpses, but in open wounds, so at least some of the DNA may come from live animals.)  And animals that get taken and eaten whole by predators are Read the rest of this entry »

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Can Synthetic Biology Save Species?

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 20, 2017

(Illustration: Luisa Rivera)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

The worldwide effort to return islands to their original wildlife, by eradicating rats, pigs, and other invasive species, has been one of the great environmental success stories of our time.  Rewilding has succeeded on hundreds of islands, with beleaguered species surging back from imminent extinction, and dwindling bird colonies suddenly blossoming across old nesting grounds.

But these restoration campaigns are often massively expensive and emotionally fraught, with conservationists fearful of accidentally poisoning native wildlife, and animal rights activists having at times fiercely opposed the whole idea. So what if it were possible to rid islands of invasive species without killing a single animal? And at a fraction of the cost of current methods?

That’s the tantalizing – but also worrisome – promise of synthetic biology, a Brave New World sort of technology that applies engineering principles to species and to biological systems. It’s genetic engineering, but made easier and more precise by the new gene editing technology called CRISPR, which ecologists could use Read the rest of this entry »

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Apocalypse Then … Then & Then. One More for the Road?

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 10, 2017

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Artist’s conception of a major steroid impact

by Richard Conniff/Wall Street Journal

For everyone who loves disaster movies, and the sound of Wile E. Coyote going splat, here’s a book about Planet Earth’s multiple suicide attempts—sorry, mass-extinction events. The Earth “has nearly died five times over the past 500 million years,” notes science writer Peter Brannen in “The Ends of the World.” One of these events, the End-Permian Extinction 252 million years ago, killed more than 95% of all living things, earning it a reputation as “the Great Dying.” The other four, muddling along at a somewhat more modest rate, were nonetheless apocalyptic enough to make biblical floods and famines seem like Monday at the office.

Mr. Brannen sets out to learn “just how bad” it could get, with a view to understanding our own future as climate change advances across the planet. Brace yourself. It’s not just about “a rock larger than Mount Everest” slamming into the planet at a speed “twenty times faster than a bullet.”

That is of course the leading theory about what happened to Tyrannosaurus rex and friends in the best-known mass extinction, at the end of the Cretaceous Period 66 million years ago. Debate about this theory in the 1980s began in ridicule and progressed to widespread acceptance, with the fatal asteroid ultimately linked to an impact crater 110 miles wide on the coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. An alternative—or possibly complementary—theory puts the blame on massive volcanic eruptions occurring almost simultaneously on the opposite side of the planet, in the Deccan Traps of India.

As a result of the debate over what killed the dinosaurs, the study of mass extinctions, “long pushed aside as a disreputable fringe of paleontology,” became cutting edge, Mr. Brannen writes, and it has opened up a whole new world of potential Armageddons. Thus he gleefully introduces readers to Read the rest of this entry »

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Seal Team 6 Dolphins to Rescue the World’s Most Endangered Dolphin?

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 7, 2017

(Richard Ellis/Getty)

Many news organizations are reporting that conservationists will use military-trained dolphins to find and help round up the last vaquitas for a captive breeding program. I’m not sure if these dolphins are playing the part of Jesus bringing Lazarus back from the dead, or if it’s a Judas find-and-betray thing.  But the notion of Seal Team 6 dolphins coming to the rescue of critically endangered species fills me with trepidation. By way of background, I am republishing this column I wrote at Thanksgiving in 2014 about the plight of the world’s most endangered dolphin.

 

by Richard Conniff/Takepart.com

One thing for which we should give profound thanks this year is the success of environmental action at stopping or slowing the killing of many endangered marine mammals. As a result, populations of humpback whales, bowhead whales, gray whales, and other species are now rebuilding. But this Thanksgiving, one of the world’s 78 cetacean species still faces its do-or-die moment.

The vaquita, a small porpoise found only in the Gulf of California, is the world’s most endangered marine mammal. Fewer than 100 exist in the wild. Without drastic and immediate action, this species will almost certainly go the way of the Chinese river dolphin, or baiji—declared extinct after a 2006 survey of the Yangtze River turned up zero dolphins. It was the only cetacean humans are known to have snuffed out: a global moment of infamy, not just for China, but for us all. In a final effort not to share that shame, Mexico is expected to announce this week a last desperate effort to save the vaquita.

The vaquita (Phocoena sinus) is a strange and elusive creature, only discovered by scientists in 1958.  It grows to a length of four feet, has a blunt, balloon-like face, and lives by feeding on fish and crustaceans in the shallow waters of the Gulf. People almost never see them alive. Vaquita sightings occur

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How To Be Dead

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 7, 2017

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(Illustration: JooHee Yoon)

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

Years ago, doing some research in England on moles — the burrowing kind — I paid a visit to the grave of Kenneth Grahame. As author of “The Wind in the Willows,” Grahame was the creator of the fictional Mole, a mild-mannered character beloved by children everywhere for messing about in boats, bumbling dimly into the Wild Wood and otherwise misadventuring with Ratty, Badger and Mr. Toad of Toad Hall.

There were plenty of things poignant about the grave. But what struck me most was that all of Grahame’s characters would have been at home there. Holywell Cemetery, off a busy road in the heart of Oxford, is both a graveyard and a wildlife refuge. Footpaths wind through shrubby undergrowth, and the graves support a natural succession of snowdrops, daffodils and so on through the seasons. Moles no doubt burrow there, and toads do whatever it is that toads do. (But please tell me it involves tootling about in motorcars and flinging coins to urchins.)

I doubt that I put it in so many words at the time, but the thought has lately come back to me: This is how I want to be dead. That is, Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Necrology | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Eye in the Sky on Nature: Satellites are Transforming Conservation

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 22, 2017

Satellite image of the Sundarbans coastal forest in Bangladesh, home to the endangered Bengal tiger. NASA

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

As recently as the 1980s, gray seals were effectively extinct on Cape Cod. So when researchers announced last week that the population there has recovered not to 15,000 gray seals, the previous official estimate, but to as many as 50,000, it was dramatic evidence of how quickly conservation can sometimes work.

But the researchers, writing in the journal BioScience, weren’t just interested in the seals. They also sought to demonstrate the rapidly evolving potential of satellites to count and monitor wildlife populations and to answer big questions about the natural world.  That’s still news to many wildlife ecologists, according to senior author David W. Johnston, of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment.  Ecologists have been slow to incorporate satellite data in their work so far, in part because their training and culture are about going into the field to get to know their study subjects at first hand. The perspective from outer space has not necessarily seemed all that relevant.

But the rapidly growing abundance and sophistication of satellite imagery and remote sensing data is about to change that:  “High-resolution earth imagery sources Read the rest of this entry »

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Why Don’t Green Buildings Deliver on Promised Energy Savings?

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 25, 2017

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360
Not long ago in the southwest of England, a local community set out to replace a 1960s-vintage school with a new building using triple-pane windows and super-insulated walls to achieve the highest possible energy efficiency. The new school proudly opened on the same site as the old one, with the same number of students, and the same head person—and was soon burning more energy in a month than the old building had in a year.The underfloor heating system in the new building was so badly designed that the windows automatically opened to dump heat several times a day even in winter.  A camera in the parking lot somehow got wired as if it were a thermal sensor, and put out a call for energy any time anything passed in front of the lens.  It was “a catalogue of disasters,” according to David Coley, a University of Bath specialist who came in to investigate.Many of the disasters were traceable to the building energy model, a software simulation of energy use that is a critical step in designing any building intended to be green. Among other errors, the designers had

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