strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

  • Richard Conniff

  • Reviews for Richard Conniff’s Books

    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Eeeek! There’s a Dinosaur in The Living Room

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 3, 2019

by Richard Conniff/National Geographic

Sitting poolside at a motel in the middle of Tucson, Arizona, a head-and-neck surgeon in cowboy boots and blue jeans is rhapsodizing about skulls. He has brought one along in his carry-on luggage on the flight into town, and he’s plainly thrilled by the perfect state of the brain case and the openings where cranial nerves once ran.

“I can see the ophthalmic nerve that gave vision,” he says, as if the former occupant of this skull still lives. “I can see the abducens nerve which allowed lateral eye motion, and the trigeminal nerve, which gave sensation to the skin of the face.”

The surgeon has asked not be identified in this article. Owning a collection of fossil skulls makes him both gleefully happy and nervously private, like many other collectors in town for the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. At the moment, the surgeon is building an underground room to house the skulls, and he grins at the thought of displaying them in chronological order: the 36-inch-long Allosaurus skull, the toothy sea monster Elasmosaurus, the most complete skull of a Pteranodon ever found.

Private fossil collectors are pretty common these days. Some, like the surgeon, are serious enough about it to pass for professional paleontologists. He buys unprepared fossils and spends much of his free time meticulously extricating them from their stone prisons. Other collectors seem mainly to be indulging a boyish taste for big, scary—and expensive—monsters. (“The things that sell are jaws, claws, and horns,” one dealer confides.)

A few collectors rank among the world’s mega-rich, like the Chinese real estate developer haggling in Tucson for a slab fossil of an Ichthyosaurus, a large marine reptile, being offered at $750,000. More nervous privacy: The developer interrupts a question to his translator by loudly clearing his throat and marching off grimly in the direction of a $3 million Stegosaurus. Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The CIA, World War II Bombs, and 8 Million Dead Fish: A True Story

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 19, 2019

Mississippi paddlefish, Polyodon spathula. (Photo: Richard Conniff)

by Richard Conniff/National Geographic

It is a horror movie director’s dream of a natural history collection. You find it by driving 10 miles southeast of New Orleans, to a piece of land that is part swamp, part forest, on a bend in the Mississippi River, down a dirt track named Wild Boar Road. Alligators and water moccasins live in the tangled woods to the left. On the right stands ammunition bunker number A3, its flanks heavily bermed against the danger of explosion, its loading dock cracked and skewed forward by the more reliable detriments of time.

There are 26 such bunkers, widely distributed around the roughly 400-acre property, most of them abandoned. During World War II, U.S. Navy ships stopped here to pick up artillery shells before heading out to sea. Later the Central Intelligence Agency trained Cuban guerrillas on the property for the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

Tulane University owns the place now, and the visitors tend to be biologists, drawn here by the nearly eight million dead fish housed in bunkers A3 and A15. (Another bunker nearby holds the University of Louisiana Monroe’s fish collection.)

Inside, the fish soak in alcohol, in tightly sealed jars of assorted sizes, lined up on shelves that rise 10 feet high and run 36 feet long, in row after row after row. Some of the specimens are outlandish. A couple dozen paddlefish huddle together in a five-gallon jug with their translucent paddles raised heavenward, looking like congregants at an extraterrestrial prayer meeting. But nine of the 22 rows in the main collection are Cyprinidae, which mostly means minnows. Ordinary is really the guiding aesthetic of the place.

It is the world’s largest fish collection, a title that comes with asterisks.

“It’s actually the largest post-larval collection,” says Justin Mann, the 38-year-old collection manager, who spends much of his time fighting back the mildew that paints and repaints itself across the interior walls. It’s the largest by number of specimens, he adds, not species. In fact, more than a million specimens belong to a single species, Cyprinella venusta. (Yes, it’s a type of minnow.) The collection includes outliers from as far away as Indonesia. But most of the fish here originally were Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All The Authors

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 16, 2019

(Illustration: Wellcome Library, London.)

I didn’t plan this piece to coincide with the Patreon campaign I started last week. But it suggests what’s happened for writers like me on the book publishing side of our lives. The magazine and newspaper sides of our work have also suffered at the hands of Internet giants like Google and Facebook.  For me, 2017 was the year these changes really hit home.  In the past, magazines sent me wherever I needed to go to get the story, from Easter Island to Bhutan.  But suddenly three major magazines hiring me to write feature stories asked me, in so many words, to phone it in. One wanted me to write a story “with lots of tick-tock” about tropical deforestation. But the editor would only give me expense money to travel to Washington, D.C. (On reading the manuscript, he complained that he wasn’t “smelling the rainforest.”) Another magazine where I have been a contributor for 34 years asked me to write a travel feature but wouldn’t send me to the destination because a different magazine had sent me there on an unrelated feature the year before. (The editor made it that month’s cover story.) Finally, a magazine (contributor for almost 30 years) didn’t actually tell me I couldn’t travel.  But they asked me for an expense estimate for a proposed day trip to New Jersey from my home in Connecticut. (I went. Yay!)

I don’t mean to complain. I have been extremely lucky to have a career and support my family as a writer. I want to continue doing this work, though, and I want younger writers to have the same opportunities. That is becoming harder and harder for us all. 

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

One day not long ago in a college class I was teaching, some of my students couldn’t find the page I was talking about in the reading. And it dawned on me: There was only one required text in the class, an anthology of writing about the natural world called “American Earth.” And they were reading pirated copies — versions downloaded free from some dubious “provider” on the internet.

It was a college well known for its progressive politics. So maybe my students thought they were striking a blow against the dark hegemony of greedy textbook publishers. Or maybe, tuition and textbook costs having soared into the stratosphere, they just wanted to save 27 bucks, the discounted online price. As gently as possible, I informed them that they were in fact stealing from the author (or, in this case, editor) who happened to be the climate activist Bill McKibben, one of their environmental heroes. Also, Library of America, which published the book, is legally a nonprofit. (Many other publishing companies now achieve that status merely de facto.)

I’m afraid it was a teaching moment fail. My students looked baffled, but unpersuaded, caught up in the convenient rationalization that authors subsist on inspiration and the purest Read the rest of this entry »

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The Single Best Thing You Can Do to Protect Your Child

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 14, 2019

by Richard Conniff/Patreon

Lately, I have been thinking about the changes in American health that have taken place in my lifetime, all of them explainable in one word. But before everybody shouts out the word, let’s look at a few of the changes, detailed in an article published in 2007 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, by Sandra W. Roush & Trudy V. Murphy, both then at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Incidence of measles down 99.9%, deaths down 100%. (Peak year was 1958, when 763,094 cases occurred, my own among them.)
  • Mumps cases down 95.9 %. (Peak was 212,932 in 1964.) Deaths down 100% from peak of 39.
  • Polio cases and deaths both down by 100%. (Peak year was 1952, at 21,269 cases and 3145 deaths.)
  • Rubella cases down 99.9%, deaths down 100%. Peak year was 1964 with 488,796 cases, but deaths were higher in 1968 at 24.
  • Smallpox down 100%.  Peak of 110,672 cases occurred in 1920, and 2510 deaths in 1902. (OK, I wasn’t alive then. But the last major U.S. outbreak occurred in 1949, two years before I was born. And the disease was still causing 10-15 million Read the rest of this entry »

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How We Lived (and Died) Before Vaccines

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 16, 2019

By Richard Conniff/National Geographic

Like most American children of my generation, I lined up with my classmates in the mid-1950s to get the first vaccine for polio, then causing 15,000 cases of paralysis and 1,900 deaths a year in the United States, mostly in children.  Likewise, we lined up for the vaccine against smallpox, then still causing millions of deaths worldwide each year. I’ve continued to update my immunizations ever since, including a few exotic ones for National Geographic assignments abroad, among them vaccines for anthrax, rabies, Japanese encephalitis, typhoid, and yellow fever.

Having grown up in the shadow of polio (my uncle was on crutches for life), and having made first-hand acquaintance with measles (I was part of the pre-vaccine peak year of 1958, along with 763,093 other young Americans), I’ve happily rolled up my sleeve for any vaccine recommended by my doctor and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with extra input for foreign travel from the CDC Yellow Book.  I am deeply grateful to vaccines for keeping me alive and well, and also for  helping me return from field trips as healthy as when I set out.

One result of this willingness, however, is that I suffer, like most people, from a notorious Catch-22: Vaccines save us from diseases, then cause us to forget the diseases from which they save us. Once the threat appears to be gone from our lives, we become lax. Or worse, we make up other things to worry about. Thus, some well-meaning parents avoid vaccinating their children out of misplaced fear that the MMR vaccine (for measles, mumps, and rubella) causes autism. Never mind that independent scientific studies have repeatedly demonstrated that no such link exists, most recently in a study of 657,000 children in Denmark.  This irrational fear is why the United States has experienced almost 1200 cases of measles so far this year, almost two decades after public health officials proudly declared it eliminated. About 124 of these measles victims, mostly children, have been hospitalized, 64 of them with complications including pneumonia and encephalitis, which can cause brain damage or death.

And yet autism can still seem like a bigger threat than measles, if only because it appears in countless television shows and movies such as “Rain Man” and “Gilbert Grape.” Meanwhile, you’re more likely to catch measles at a movie theater than see the disease featured onscreen.

And so, parents forget, or more likely never knew, that 33 of every 100,000 people who experienced actual measles ended up with mental retardation or central nervous system damage. (That’s in addition to those who died.)

They forget that an outbreak of rubella in the early 1960s resulted in 20,000 children being born with brain damage, including autism, and other congenital abnormalities.

They forget that, before it was eradicated by a vaccine in the 1970s, smallpox left many survivors Read the rest of this entry »

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Taxpayer-Funded Conservation on Private Land Should Not Be Secret

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 12, 2019


Coyote Ridge, part of the Santa Clara Valley Habitat Conservation Plan in Northern California. (Photo: Bjorn Erickson/USFWS)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

A few years ago, an environmental lawyer named Jessica Owley set out to learn how well it works when the federal government allows development in the habitat of an endangered species. Under the terms of these deals, introduced in the 1980s to mollify opponents of the Endangered Species Act, the developers provide mitigation, typically with a conservation easement on some other parcel of private land.

Owley focused on four California examples, out of the almost 700 so-called Habitat Conservation Plans (or HCPs) that now exist nationwide. She had a long list of questions, from “Where are the protected parcels?” to “How do endangered species fare in the face of these deals?”

“I ended up being stopped at the first question,” says Owley, now a professor at the University of Miami School of Law. “It wasn’t just that I couldn’t find the HCP sites, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t know and couldn’t find them.” In one case, an HCP to protect the Mission blue butterfly outside San Francisco, nobody had even bothered to record the easement in municipal land records. Owley came away thinking that a lack of transparency is standard for conservation practices on private land — even when these practices are paid for by taxpayers and meant to serve a significant public interest.

Conservation on private land costs the public hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Just from 2008 to 2012, for instance, landowners donating conservation easements claimed tax deductions that cost the U.S. Treasury

Read the rest of this entry »

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Ear Wiggles Open Up New Worlds In Bat Echolocation

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 17, 2019

Greater Horseshoe Bat Ears (Photo: Mittu Pannala)

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

One big problem with putting autonomous drones to work delivering packages—or flying search-and-rescue missions—is that the sky is complicated and unpredictable. Trees, utility wires and spiraling footballs can turn up almost anywhere in the flight path. A new strategy for dodging these obstacles could come from an unexpected source: the way bats wiggle their ears.

The idea first occurred to Rolf Mueller, a Virginia Tech mechanical engineering professor, a few years ago while looking at bat photographs. He noticed that the ears of some species often looked blurry, because the animals were continually making rapid ear movements. But why?

Mueller studies bat behaviors, including their adaptations to the Doppler effect or Doppler shift. Both terms refer to the way sound waves from a fast-moving object such as a train or an ambulance get compressed—and therefore higher in pitch—as the object approaches a listener. Then the sound waves lengthen out again and become lower in pitch as the vehicle moves away. Even when the train or ambulance is out of sight, a person can tell roughly where it is at any moment from these changes in sound. Bats use the Doppler shift to locate objects in much the same way, but far more precisely.

Scientists have known since the 1930s that insect-hunting bats produce bursts of sound as they bob and weave through the night. They use the reflected sound waves to identify obstacles and target prey, an ability called echolocation or biosonar. Research in the 1960s showed that bats also interpret Doppler shifts, in sounds bounced off of flying insects, to zero in on a meal with high precision—even while maneuvering at breakneck speed through Read the rest of this entry »

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Hello, China? You’re Wrecking The Ozone Layer (All Over Again)

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 26, 2019

Barrels containing CFC-11 at a factory in Dacheng, Hebei Province. (Photo: The Environmental Investigation Agency)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

When the Montreal Protocol marked its 30th anniversary in 2017, it seemed like an unalloyed triumph for environmental common sense. By banding together to address a planetary emergency, the 197 signatory nations had officially ended production and use of chemicals responsible for depleting the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere, an essential shield against the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. It was a “milestone for all people and our planet,” according to António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations. “The Earth’s Ozone Hole is Shrinking,” one celebratory headline announced. “Without the Ozone Treaty,” another advised, “You’d Get Sunburned in 5 Minutes.”

But an unexpected recent spike in emissions of CFCs (or chlorofluorocarbons), the major ozone-depleting chemicals, now suggests it’s far too soon to close the file on ozone depletion. A new study published this week in Nature pins down the source of 7,000 metric tons a year of new CFC-11 (trichlorofluoromethane) emissions to the provinces of Read the rest of this entry »

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Trophy Fish–And A Chain of Species Destruction at Yellowstone

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 14, 2019

Stocked fish are often home-wreckers for native species

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

Recreational fishing is a pastime in which people have come to expect the fish they want in the places they happen to want them. That is, they want their fish stocked and ready to catch, even in places those fish never originally lived. This practice can seem harmless, or even beneficial. But the introduction of one “beneficial” species in Yellowstone National Park suggests how rejiggering the natural world for human convenience can cause ecological disaster for almost everything else.

All it took at Yellowstone Lake, the 136-square-mile centerpiece of the park, was the introduction of lake trout, a fish originally found mainly in the Northeast and Canada and beloved by anglers everywhere. The federal government had transplanted them to smaller lakes within the park in the 1890s, a time when adding fish to remote fishless lakes seemed like a smart way to spread around America’s amazing abundance. But a century later, in 1994, the introduced species turned up in Yellowstone Lake, which was already celebrated for its own native Yellowstone cutthroat trout. Park managers theorized that an angler illegally introduced the fish, either by accident or in the misguided belief that it would improve a big lake with plenty of potential for further sportfishing. One result is that anglers now catch 20,000 lake trout a year there.

But the lake trout went on to gorge on the young of the cutthroat trout, and the population of the native subspecies Read the rest of this entry »

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Could Your Air Conditioning Help Cure–Not Cause–Climate Change?

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 2, 2019

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

It is one of the great dilemmas of climate change: We take such comfort from air conditioning that worldwide energy consumption for that purpose has already tripled since 1990. It is on track to grow even faster through mid-century—and assuming fossil-fuel–fired power plants provide the electricity, that could cause enough carbon dioxide emissions to warm the planet by another deadly half-degree Celsius.

paper published Tuesday in the Nature Communications proposes a partial remedy:  Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (or HVAC) systems move a lot of air. They can replace the entire air volume in an office building five or 10 times an hour.  Machines that capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere—a developing fix for climate change—also depend on moving large volumes of air.  So why not save energy by tacking the carbon capture machine onto the air conditioner?

This futuristic proposal, from a team led by chemical engineer Roland Dittmeyer at Germany’s Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, goes even further. The researchers imagine a system of modular components, powered by renewable energy, that would not just extract carbon dioxide and water from the air. It would also convert them into hydrogen, and then use a multistep chemical process to transform that hydrogen into liquid hydrocarbon fuels.  The result: “Personalized, localized and distributed, synthetic oil wells” in buildings or neighborhoods, the authors write. “The envisioned model of ‘crowd oil’ Read the rest of this entry »

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