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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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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We’re Still Slaughtering Bison–and American Indians Lose

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 31, 2019

Old habits die hard: Bison skulls from their 19th century annihilation.

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

In a 120-acre pasture on an Indian reservation in northeastern Montana, five prime examples of America’s national mammal rumble and snort. They shake their enormous heads and use them to plow aside the snow to get to their feed. In the night, I like to think, they put those shaggy heads together to ruminate on the weird politics of the American West and blast clouds of exhausted air out their shiny nostrils.

These five, all males, arrived last month from Yellowstone National Park, the last great refuge of the wild bison that once dominated the American landscape from Pennsylvania to Oregon. Their arrival marks the beginning of what will ostensibly become a pipeline sending surplus bison from Yellowstone out to repopulate portions of their old habitat.

Since 2000, it has been the custom to send 600 or 1,000 prize Yellowstone bison to slaughter every year at about this time to keep the park’s booming population at roughly 4,000 animals. The meat goes mainly to tribal nations. Even so, the culling is perverse and wasteful: Yellowstone is home to genetically pure wild bison, coveted by national parks, Native American tribes and conservation groups across the West.

But Yellowstone is also home to a notorious disease called brucellosis, dreaded by cattle ranchers everywhere. And while Congress in 2016 designated the American bison the national mammal, everyone knows that title comes with fine print reading “other than cattle.” And when it comes to cattle — a species that is not native to North America — the politics always gets weird.

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How the Polynesians Made Odysseus Look Like a Day-Tripper

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 21, 2019

Hōkūle’a (Photo: Unknown)

In the early 1990s, on an assignment for National Geographic, I made a trek on horseback around Easter Island, with a couple of islanders as guides. I still vividly recall wandering just before sunset through the quarry where the celebrated statues, called mo‘ai, were carved, and then sitting on a cliff staring out at the curvature of the Earth and the great emptiness of the Pacific. Reviewing this book brought some of those memories back.

by Richard Conniff/The Wall Street Journal

As HMS Endeavour was preparing to leave Tahiti in July 1769, after a tropical sojourn of four months, a celebrated Polynesian priest and navigator named Tupaia announced that he wished to join the British in their travels. James Cook, commander of the expedition, demurred at first. But with a nudge from the expedition’s naturalist Joseph Banks, he relented, allowing that Tupaia “was the likeliest person to answer our purpose.”

This soon proved to be the case at sea, where the new passenger’s navigational guidance through the intricacies of the Society Islands proved extraordinarily precise. But Tupaia’s real value only became evident on land, three months later, as Cook struggled to make peaceful contact with the Māori. The Endeavour had by then traveled 3,500 miles from Tahiti, Christina Thompson writes in “Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia,” and “there was nothing in the geography of New Zealand to suggest that the people who lived there might have anything in common with the people in the tropical islands they had left behind.”

The first encounter at Poverty Bay had gone badly, with bloodshed on the Māori side. “The following day, Cook tried again, this time taking two additional precautions,” Ms. Thompson continues. “First, he landed with a party of marines, and, second, he took Tupaia with him.” Again, the situation deteriorated, with about a hundred Māori brandishing their weapons and staging a haka, their ferocious war dance. The marines advanced in turn, with the Union Jack in front. “The stage was set for a confrontation—and then Read the rest of this entry »

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Eradicating Disease-Causing Pests Sound Like a Smart Idea? Not So Fast.

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 21, 2019

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

Sleeping sickness (or trypanosomiasis), endemic to sub-Saharan Africa, is a horribly debilitating disease. When the parasitic protozoan that causes it gets into the nervous system and brain, weeks or months after being transmitted by the blood-eating tsetse fly, it sends the victim into a steep decline marked by depression, aggressiveness, psychotic behavior, disrupted sleep patterns and—if untreated—death.

Happily, a concerted multinational effort has reduced the reported incidence of the disease by 92 percent in this century, from 26,550 cases in 2000 to just 2,164 cases in 2016. That puts the fight against sleeping sickness on track to meet the World Health Organization (WHO) goal of eliminating it by 2020, according to a study published in December in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases. Thanks to increasingly sophisticated methods of reducing the population of tsetse flies, the area where people are at risk of infection has also decreased by 61 percent in the same period.

Why not just finish the job and end sleeping sickness by eradicating the tsetse (pronounced TET-see) fly from the entire African continent? That’s the stated goal Read the rest of this entry »

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