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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Animal Music Monday: “Monkey Man”

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 23, 2016

I’ve always loved “Monkey Man,” from the Rolling Stones “Let It Bleed,” mostly for the great intro by Bill Wyman, on vibraphone and bass, and then for Keith Richards’ guitar.  Oh, hell, I should say I also love it because I identify so strongly with the words, “I am just a monkey man.” Old childhood nickname.

What puzzles me is that the song was inspired by Italian pop artist Mario Schifano, after Mick Jagger and Keith Richards made cameo appearances in Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Evolution, Funny Business | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

How Natural History Museums Open Peoples’ Minds

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 20, 2016

Making new friends at the American Museum of Natural History (Photo: Jon Hicks/Corbis Documentary)

Making new friends at the American Museum of Natural History (Photo: Jon Hicks/Corbis Documentary)

by Richard Conniff, for

Recently I wrote a piece about the worldwide decline of natural history museums, partly at the hands of know-nothing politicians who don’t want to hear what science has to say. It stirred up a lot of strong emotions.


His Dimness

Readers protested what they called “the closing of the American mind” and the “denaturing of humanity.” A lot of them objected especially to the decision by first-term Gov. Bruce Rauner of Illinois to shut down the Illinois State Museum after 138 years. Rauner made his millions at a private equity firm specializing in leveraged buyouts and roll-ups—that is, spinning corporate numbers while producing nothing. But it somehow made sense in his dim little mind to save $4.8 million a year in state funding for the museum, even though it meant losing $33 million in tourism revenues—and that’s not counting the value of the scientific research such museums routinely produce. (You can speak up for the Illinois State Museum in a note to Gov. Rauner. On the subject line, I suggest you write, “Fat Wallet, Dim Mind.”)

But along with the anger, readers also remembered how natural history museums had helped open their own minds. One reader wrote that “my heart still beats faster each time I approach the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco,” and a former New York City resident recalled his childhood delight in discovering the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History: “I immersed myself in each tableau, completely captivated by the recreated reality, which connected me directly to the great natural world beyond my urban surroundings.” That seminal experience

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Posted in Environmental Issues | 5 Comments »

Animal Music Monday: “We Like the Zoo (‘Cause We’re Animals Too)”

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 16, 2016

A lot of people are turned off by zoos these days, because of that captivity thing.  This song skips happily past that whole debate, and instead plays on zoos as the place where city and suburban kids often feel their first connection with the animal world.  The writer is Walter Martin, bassist and organist with The Walkmen, and father of two young girls. Here he’s on his first solo album, from 2014. The singer is Matt Berninger, frontman for The Nationals.

Here’s Martin’s explanation:  “‘We Like The Zoo (‘Cause We’re Animals Too)’ is my tribute to Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Funny Business | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

A Dam Pushes A Great American Fish Toward Extinction

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 13, 2016

pallid sturgeon2

by Richard Conniff, for

“We should be grandfathered in.” That’s how the manager of the Lower Yellowstone Project irrigation district in Montana put it. His farmers have been using a dam on the river to supply water to their fields since time immemorial—or for 112 years, anyway—and see no reason to change. But the pallid sturgeon would certainly say it should be grandfathered in too. The monster fish has depended on the river for 78 million years, roughly since Tyrannosaurus rex ruled this region.

The problem is that the farmers and their timber-and-rock dam are now killing off the sturgeon. Intake Dam is an unimpressive structure, located near Glendive, Montana, just before the Yellowstone River joins up with the Missouri River. The dam—really just a weir—stretches for 700 feet across the Yellowstone but does not even rise above the water surface in some seasons. The irrigation district has to pile on new stones each year just to make it back up enough water for its purposes.

So the Intake is easy to overlook—and allows some people to celebrate the 692-mile-long Yellowstone as “the longest undammed river” in the Lower 48. But the dam blocks off 165 miles of upstream habitat that the sturgeon would otherwise use for spawning. Because of that,

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

At Swim With Five Tons of Shark Per Acre in the Galapagos

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 11, 2016

(Photo: Enric Sala/National Geographic)

(Photo: Enric Sala/National Geographic)

Yep, that’s how many sharks researchers found living in the northern Galapagos Islands, according to a new study in PeerJ. And of course the researchers found out by diving and swimming transects to count the fish they saw en route.  Not sure this would qualify as “nice work if you can get it.”

They did the research around Darwin and Wolf Islands, in part of Ecuador’s newly designated Galapagos Marine Reserve.

The results:

Nearly 73% of the total biomass (12.4 ± 4.01 t ha−1) was accounted for by

sharks, primarily hammerheads

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

John Oliver: How Not to Report Science

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 9, 2016

Posted in Funny Business | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Animal Music Monday: “Piggies”

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 9, 2016

George Harrison wrote the original “Piggies” for The Beatles White Album, released on November 22, 1968.  But I ran across this interesting instrumental cover from 2015 on YouTube.  If the tune were not so familiar, you might mistake it for a pretty bit of folk music from the early baroque era:

I asked a musician friend to comment.  He performs baroque and Renaissance music and, as it happened, had never heard the original Beatles tune. So he listened with an unbiased ear:

“This track started (and concluded, as well) as a completely convincing piece of Italian or Iberian music from the 17th century, in the spirit of Ucellini or Merula or dozens of others. Other than a few goofy chords in the bridge, there is little to give away that it is anything else. Unfortunately, it devolves in the middle section to a more diffuse “pan-Baroque” feel; just kind of a tacky pastiche. But aside from that, a pretty convincing articulation that “popular” music is kind of timeless and has been built on the same idioms and practices for centuries.”

Harrison intended the song as a harmless satire on the grubby, self-serving ways of the rich. According to Song Facts, he originally wrote one verse that was dropped from the final recording but resonates in a post-2008 world:

Everywhere there’s lots of piggies playing piggie pranks
You can see them on their trotters
At the piggy banks
Paying piggy thanks
To thee pig brother.”

The song produced one appalling response: Though it’s better known that  Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Funny Business, Kill or Be Killed | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

I’m Really Hoping That’s Not a Bullet Ant on Justin’s Nose

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 6, 2016

Justin Schmidt being foolish.

Justin Schmidt being foolish.

I wrote about Justin Schmidt and the “Justin Schmidt Sting Pain Index” in my “intensely pleasurable” book Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals.  Here’s the opening to that chapter:

     One morning not long ago, an American entomologist named Justin Schmidt was making his way up the winding road to the Monteverde cloud forest in Costa Rica when he spotted Parachartergus fraternus, social wasps known both for the sculpted architecture of their hive and for the ferocity with which they defend it. This hive was ten feet up a tree, and the tree angled out from an eroded bank over a gorge. Schmidt, who specializes in the study of stinging insects, got out a plastic garbage bag and promptly shinnied up to bag the hive.

He had taken the precaution of putting on his beekeeper’s veil. Undeterred, the angry wasps charged at his face, scootched their hind ends under in midair, and,

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Posted in Biodiversity, Cool Tools, Fear & Courage, Funny Business | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Good News in Dark Times for Russian Leopards & Tigers

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 6, 2016

Amur leopard (Photo: Julie Larsen Maher/WCS)

Amur leopard (Photo: Julie Larsen Maher/WCS)

By Richard Conniff, for

Maybe it’s a little perverse of me, but today I’m going to celebrate a piece of good news about leopards and tigers: Russia has just opened its first roadway improvement designed to protect big cats, on its Siberian border with China.

The Narvinskii Pass tunnel runs for about a third of a mile underneath a major migratory route for Amur leopards and tigers. They’re two of the most endangered big cats in the world, and just to give you a sense of the hazard they face from increased highway traffic in the region, check out this dash-cam video (skip to about 30 seconds in).

Until recently, there wasn’t all that much traffic from Vladivostok down to the border, and there was just a gravel road across the Narvinskii Pass. But over the past 15 years, according to Dale Miquelle, a tiger specialist in the region for the Wildlife Conservation Society, a major city has sprung up on the Chinese side of the border, and a busy four-lane highway now crosses through critical leopard and tiger habitat, with the usual highway barriers on the sides. Miquelle credited Sergey Ivanov, chief of staff to Russian President Vladimir Putin, with taking the initiative to protect the leopards.

So what’s so perverse about celebrating that? Well, pretty much all the recent news for tigers and leopards alike has looked grim. A few weeks ago, I reported that

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

House of Lost Worlds a “Masterful and Engaging” book

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 5, 2016

Triceratops by O.C. Marsh.

Triceratops by O.C. Marsh.

Great article by Bruce Fellman about visiting the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, and, o.k., also about my “masterful and engaging” book about the Peabody, “House of Lost Worlds”:

Almost 150 years ago—October 22, 1866, to be exact—the fabulously wealthy Massachusetts-born financier and philanthropist George Peabody announced that, because he’d become convinced “of the importance of the natural sciences,” he was committed to giving Yale University $150,000 for “the foundation and maintenance of a MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY.” No doubt his favorite nephew, the up-and-coming vertebrate paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh, had more than a little to do with fostering his uncle’s munificence—Peabody, after all, had already bankrolled O.C.’s Yale education and start as a scientist—and no sooner had the gift been announced than Marsh began spearheading an effort to assemble a collection that would “be as extensive,” he said, as those in Berlin and any of the science capitals of the world. A building to house the stuff would come later.

Uncle George, who died in 1869, never got to see the museum that his generosity, “wholely without parallel,” according to Queen Victoria, would eventually make possible, but last week

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Posted in Biodiversity, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »


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