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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The Real Threat on the Border Threatens Poor Nations

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 23, 2016

Tuta absoluta may sound like vodka, but it's Ebola for tomatoes. (Photo: Peter Buchner)

Tuta absoluta may sound like vodka, but it’s Ebola for tomatoes. (Photo: Peter Buchner)

by Richard Conniff/

You may not think of Portal, North Dakota, a town of 120 people on the Canadian border, as a key link in national defense. But late last month, United States Customs and Border Protection agents there boarded a freight train entering the country and found six carloads contaminated with invasive insects and seeds from China and Southeast Asia. They were the kind of invasive species that demolish crops, destroy people’s livelihoods, and displace indigenous wildlife.

The government sealed three carloads and sent them back to Asia, releasing three others to the owners after decontamination. It was a reassuring victory for American agriculture and ecosystems—the sort of save that happens every day on American borders. Ample experience with the destructive power of invasive species, from the gypsy moth to the emerald ash border, has taught this country the importance of being alert to imported danger.

Other nations aren’t so careful, according to a new study in the journal Nature Communications, and that’s likely to become a major problem, especially for low-income countries, as

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Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

America’s Wildlife Body Count: Your Tax Dollars at Work.

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 17, 2016

canis_latransby Richard Conniff/The New York Times

Until recently, I had never had any dealings with Wildlife Services, a century-old agency of the United States Department of Agriculture with a reputation for strong-arm tactics and secrecy. It is beloved by many farmers and ranchers and hated in equal measure by conservationists, for the same basic reason: It routinely kills predators and an astounding assortment of other animals — 3.2 million of them last year — because ranchers and farmers regard them as pests.

To be clear, Wildlife Services is a separate entity, in a different federal agency, from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, whose main goal is wildlife conservation. Wildlife Services is interested in control — ostensibly, “to allow people and wildlife to coexist.”

My own mildly surreal acquaintance with its methods began as a result of a study, published this month in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, under the title “Predator Control Should Not Be a Shot in the Dark.” Adrian Treves of the University of Wisconsin and his co-authors set out to answer a Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

How China Could Lead the World in Getting Reforestation Right

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 16, 2016

A site in Sichuan that's part of the world's largest reforestation project. (Photo: Eye Ubiquitous/UIG via Getty Images)

A site in Sichuan that’s part of the world’s largest reforestation project. (Photo: Eye Ubiquitous/UIG via Getty Images)

by Richard Conniff/Takepart

What if you undertook the world’s largest reforestation program but planted the wrong trees? That’s what China’s been up to.  Since 1999, it has spent $47 billion planting trees on 69.2 million acres of abandoned farm fields and barren scrubland.

That’s an area almost equivalent to New York and Pennsylvania combined—and should be great news in an era of worldwide deforestation. Moreover, from China’s point of view, the program has succeeded at its original purpose, controlling soil erosion. But the vast majority of the new forests consist of only a single tree species, according to a new study in the journal Nature Communications. That is, China has been creating tree plantations—monocultures, not forests—and with nonnative trees. That choice has sacrificed one of the major benefits of healthy forests: diversity of plants and wildlife.

The study, led by Princeton University researchers, puts an optimistic spin on these findings. The coauthors argue that China could

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Posted in Biodiversity, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Sorry, Right-Wing Hacks: Zika’s No Reason for a DDT Comeback

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 9, 2016

Osprey coming home on the Connecticut River (Photo: Kris Rowe)

Osprey coming home on the Connecticut River (Photo: Kris Rowe)

by Richard Conniff/

In New England, where I live, this is the time of year when ospreys take their last turn on the waterways before heading south. They’ve mated, reared their young, and seen their fledglings take wing and begin to hunt for themselves. If you are lucky and know your local watering holes, you can still sometimes see them plunging out of the sky and carrying home blood-spangled fish in their talons. It is one of the great spectacles of summer.

But only for a little while longer. Soon the ospreys will migrate 2,500 miles or more, down to the Caribbean or the northeastern coast of South America, where males and females will overwinter separately. They’ll return in March, find their old nest mate (they’re faithful to mates and nest sites, more or less), and begin the ritual once again.

Carson-w-book-1-340The resurgence of ospreys from near extinction in the 1970s to their modern abundance always makes me think with gratitude of Rachel Carson and the demise of DDT as a standard tool of mosquito control in this country. Her book Silent Spring, published in 1962, first alerted Americans to the risky business of spraying the countryside with as much as 80 million pounds of DDT, an untested chemical, in a single year. One effect of DDT, scientists were demonstrating, was the fatal thinning of the eggshells of ospreys, eagles, peregrine falcons, brown pelicans, and other species. The eggs collapsed under the weight of the nesting parent, and generations were lost. As a result, the osprey population in my home territory, the lower Connecticut River Valley, plummeted from 200 nesting pairs to just two by the early 1970s. The same thing happened to ospreys and other species nationwide. Then the Nixon administration banned most uses of DDT in this country, and wildlife slowly began to recover.

This year, though, my gratitude to Carson, and my pleasure in ospreys, is complicated by the political response to the devastating birth defects and deaths from mosquito-borne Zika virus, along with the persistent effects of mosquito-borne West Nile virus, which has killed

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Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Embarrassing Moments in Research: #FieldWorkFail Illustrated

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 8, 2016

glued-to-a-crocodile-by-jim-jourdaneScientists doing fieldwork sometimes get into seriously embarrassing, or even dangerous, situations.  Some of them end up, tragically, on the Wall of Dead: A Memorial to Fallen Naturalists.

But others live to tell the tale, and dine out on Read the rest of this entry »

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After 500 Million Years, Doomed to Decorate Toilet Tanks

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 2, 2016

A chambered nautilus off Palau, Micronesia (Photo: Reinhard Dirscherl/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

A chambered nautilus off Palau, Micronesia (Photo: Reinhard Dirscherl/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

by Richard Conniff/

Humans have for centuries coveted the chambered nautilus for its elegantly spiraled shell. But too much beauty can be a dangerous gift. We buy nautilus shells in unbelievably huge numbers, with the United States alone importing 789,000 of them during one recent five-year period, mostly to gather dust as knickknacks. As a result, chambered nautilus populations appear to be crashing in their deep-sea Indo-Pacific habitat.

Later this month, a conference in South Africa will take up the question of what to do about it. Four nations, including the United States, have proposed protecting the nautilus under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. A CITES II listing would not ban the trade but would sharply limit it, according to Frederick Dooley, an evolutionary physiologist at the University of Washington.

The Center for Biological Diversity has also petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the chambered nautilus under the Endangered Species Act, which would completely end imports. (The nautilus is found in American Samoa, a U.S. territory. But its range extends from Indonesia to the Philippines.)

Dooley, coauthor of a recent review of nautilus biology, says he has seen nautilus shells being sold by the basketful in Hawaii tourist shops for as little as $4.99 apiece. If someone has bothered to polish the shells to bring out their pearliness, the price may go up to $9 apiece. “They mostly end up being stuck on

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

Sorry, Wildlife Farming Isn’t Going to End the Poaching Crisis

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 31, 2016

Asian civet at a wildlife farm in Bali (Photo: Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)

Asian civet at a wildlife farm in Bali (Photo: Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

More than a decade ago, looking to slow the decimation of wildlife populations for the bushmeat trade, researchers in West Africa sought to establish an alternative protein supply. Brush-tailed porcupine was one of the most popular and high-priced meats, in rural and urban areas alike. Why not farm it? It turned out that the porcupines are generally solitary, and when put together, they tended to fight and didn’t have sex. In any case, moms produce only one offspring per birth, hardly a recipe for commercial success.

Wildlife farming is like that — a tantalizing idea that is always fraught with challenges and often seriously flawed. And yet it is also growing both as a marketplace reality and in its appeal to a broad array of legitimate stakeholders as a potentially sustainable alternative to the helter-skelter exploitation of wild resources everywhere.

Food security consultants are promoting wildlife farming as a way to boost rural incomes and supply protein to a hungry world. So are public health experts who view properly managed captive breeding as a way to prevent emerging diseases in wildlife from spilling over into the human population. Even Sea World has gotten into the act, promoting captive breeding through its Rising Tide nonprofit as a way to reduce the devastating harvest of fish from coral reefs for the aquarium hobbyist trade.

Conservationists have increasingly joined the debate over wildlife farming, with a view to … read the full story here.

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The War on Rhinos? It’s an Investment Bubble

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 26, 2016

Carved rhino horn offered at a 2011 Christie's auction in Hong Kong (Photo: Xinhua/Song Zhenping)

Carved rhino horn offered at a 2011 Christie’s auction in Hong Kong (Photo: Xinhua/Song Zhenping)

by Richard Conniff/

Since the start of the current war on rhinos, in 2006, journalists and wildlife trafficking experts alike have treated the trade as a product of Asia’s new-found wealth combined with old-style traditional medicine: Rich buyers pay astounding sums for rhino horn in the belief that it will cure cancer or a host of other ills.

This reporting often comes with an undertone of bafflement or even thinly veiled condescension. Buyers, mainly in China and Vietnam, appear to be so naive that they ignore the total absence of scientific support for the medicinal value of rhino horn and put their faith instead in a substance that is the biochemical equivalent of a fingernail.

But a new paper in the journal Biological Conservation raises a startling alternative theory. Rhinos are dying by the hundreds for what may be in essence

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

Animal Music Monday: “Wondering Where the Lions Are”

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 22, 2016

Given the rapid disappearance of lions from entire regions of Africa, this song seems appropriate, though mostly for its title.

Singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn has said he was inspired by reading Charles Williams’s fantasy novel The Place of the Lion, which I suspect is about lions the way C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is about lions, and in that one the Aslan the lion is Jesus Christ’s avatar.

Anyway, here’s a Read the rest of this entry »

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

China Drops the Hammer on Tortoise Smugglers

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 19, 2016

A radiated tortoise in Madagascar (Photo: Insights/Getty Images)

A radiated tortoise in Madagascar (Photo: Insights/Getty Images)

by Richard Conniff/

Get caught smuggling illegal wildlife in most countries in the world, and you can expect a slap on the wrist. A very gentle slap at that. “Somebody could take an AK-47 and just shoot up a pod of pilot whales,” one frustrated investigator recently complained. “That’s the same as a traffic offense.” It’s why wildlife crime has become a $10 billion-a-year industry: It’s safer than robbing the bank. It’s more lucrative than selling drugs.

So it should be big news that China, the leading market for wildlife trafficking worldwide, has just handed out jail sentences ranging from 21 months to 11 years to seven defendants caught smuggling hundreds of Madagascar’s critically endangered radiated tortoises. “This sentencing sends a strong message to illegal wildlife dealers that the punishment for these activities will fit the severity of the crime,” said Brian D. Horne, a Wildlife Conservation Society herpetologist who provided expertise to the prosecution.

The sentencing is the result of an investigation that began with the 2015 arrest of an airport security worker at Guangzhou Baiyun Airport toting two backpacks containing 316 juvenile tortoises. The animals had come in on a flight from Madagascar, as part of the baggage of Chinese immigrant workers there. The animals were wrapped in tinfoil, a precaution to avoid x-ray detection during transit via commercial airlines.

The airport worker, who had access to the baggage area, agreed to cooperate with investigators, leading to the dismantling of the criminal ring. Investigators also seized a second shipment containing another 160 radiated tortoises. The plan was to deliver the animals to an apartment in Guangzhou being used as a breeding facility, in an attempt to Read the rest of this entry »

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