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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Archive for March, 2011

Walking with Rhinos

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 15, 2011

I arrived this morning in South Africa, where the newspapers are reporting that 71 rhinos–and nine poachers–have been killed this year here.  That’s on track with last year’s very bad total of 333 rhinos killed in South Africa, all for the mythical medicinal powers of the rhino’s horn.  I’ll be traveling around this week learning what wildlife authorities are trying to do about it.


Posted in Conservation and Extinction | 1 Comment »

My Favorite Science Headline of the Week

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 8, 2011

From the folks at Science Daily comes a story headlined “Great Tits Also Have Age-Related Defects.”

Yes, it’s about the birds.

Great Tit Parus major (Credit: iStockphoto/Andrew Howe)

Specifically, Parus major, a songbird common in Europe.

That includes England, where “titting about” means wasting time, and “ta-ta” means “goodbye.”    Such a disappointment.

But “tit” also means breast, and the scientific name of this species means “larger breast.”  I have no clue why it got this name, or why our American species Baeolophus bicolor is named the titmouse.  Neither looks like D-cup material.  More informed readers can perhaps advise?

But enough adolescent sniggering.  On to the science, which is what you’re here for, right?  It’s based on the work of evolutionary biologist Sarah Bouwhuis:

Although great tits can live for nine years, breeding success declines rapidly after the age of two. Nevertheless, older great tits keep on breeding every year, says Bouwhuis: ‘They carry on to the bitter end’. What is remarkable is that at the start of the breeding period there’s very little difference between the nests of older and younger females. Bouwhuis discovered, however, that massive mortality occurs just after the young leave the nest. ‘The parents still have to guide their young in the first crucial weeks after leaving the nest. Perhaps the older mothers have more trouble with that guidance; their young often fall prey to sparrowhawks, for example. Or maybe the older mothers have only been able to find less suitable places in the woods.’

Posted in Sex & Reproduction | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

Luddites as Fashion Victims

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 8, 2011

When I wrote about the birth of the Luddite movement–200 years ago this week– in the current Smithsonian Magazine, I had to leave out one entertaining detail.  So here it is :

The machines the original Luddites smashed were “stocking frames” –that is, looms for making stockings.  It was a thriving business early in the nineteenth century, because men need stockings to wear with their knee breeches.

Then along came that great fashion-maker Beau Brummell, popularizing the idea of full-length pants.

The stocking business sagged, and the loss of business imperiled the jobs of struggling  stocking frame operators, who ultimately began to riot.  Thus the original Luddites were fashion victims.

This hilarious note from Ian Kelly’s Beau Brummel: The Ultimate Man of Style may help explain why the new style of pants suddenly became so popular:

One Persian ambassador to the Court of St. James’s was moved to write that he found the Brummell style of trousers “immodest and unflattering to the figure … [they] look just like underdrawers–could they be designed to appeal to the ladies?”  A more sympathetic or aroused observer noted that they were “extremely handsome and very fit to expose a muscular thigh,” and society hostesses were later said to regret the passing of the fashion because “one could always tell what a young man was thinking.”

Posted in Sex & Reproduction | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

New Petrel Hiding in Plain Sight

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 7, 2011

People have this notion that there’s nothing left to discover, other than a bunch of obscure insects.  So it’s lovely when a big, spectacular new species turns up hiding in plain sight  That’s what just happened within sight of crowded beaches in Chile, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.  Noted ornithologist Peter Harrison caught the new species on camera:

“This is the first new species of storm petrel discovered in 89 years, and the first new species of seabird discovered in 55 years –- and if we had won the lottery we could not feel better,” Harrison said in an interview

“We believe this is a relic population that was completely missed by Darwin himself, who sailed along that very coast a century ago,” Harrison said.

“And guess what? There are thousands of them in that area, which is plied by cruise ships, cargo vessels and fishing boats, all within sight of crowded beaches.”

Researchers at the University of Chile in Santiago are analyzing collected blood samples and feathers to learn more about the birds, where they breed and if they migrate to wintering grounds elsewhere.

“Important discoveries usually happen in remote places like Borneo or the Amazon forests,” said Garry George, chapter network director for Audubon California.

“Not this time,” he said. “This bird has been under everyone’s noses in a popular area for decades.”

Posted in Biodiversity, The Species Seekers | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Tough Love for Bambi?

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 7, 2011


The last eastern cougar shot in the state of Vermont

A week or two back, when the snow was a foot deep and food was scarce, I had 18 white tail deer in  my yard on the Connecticut coast.  So what’s the answer to deer overpopulation in the U.S. Northeast?

Sorry, it’s now officially extinct.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has just removed the  eastern cougar from its endangered species list, says Mark McCullough, a biologist there, because years of searching have turned up no evidence of its survival:

A breeding population of eastern cougars would almost certainly have left evidence of its existence, he said. Cats would have been hit by cars or caught in traps, left tracks in the snow or turned up on any of the hundreds of thousands of trail cameras that dot Eastern forests.

But researchers have come up empty.

The private Eastern Cougar Foundation, for example, spent a decade looking for evidence. Finding none, it changed its name to the Cougar Rewilding Foundation last year and shifted its focus from confirming sightings to advocating for the restoration of the big cat to its pre-colonial habitat. The wildlife service said it has no authority under the Endangered Species Act to reintroduce the mountain lion to the East.

The promising news is that the eastern cougar may actually be genetically identical to its western siblings, and they are rapidly expanding their range back eastward.  If it happens, that could make running in the woods a lot more interesting for the deer (and maybe for us, too) and it might help restore a more natural balance of species.  It may sound a little tough on poor Bambi.  But scientific evidence demonstrates that species–and entire ecosystems–are better off when top predators are around to do their regrettable business.

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Kill or Be Killed | 1 Comment »

Our Built-In Propensity for Staring Down Rivals

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 6, 2011


Our staring contests appear to be an instinctive dominance behavior passed down from our simian ancestors, though whether we glower or quickly turn away depends on individual tendencies to dominance or submission, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands.  They published their work in the journal Psychological Science.  Here’s part of the press release:

Imagine that you’re in a bar and you accidentally knock over your neighbor’s beer. He turns around and stares at you, looking for confrontation. Do you buy him a new drink, or do you try to outstare him to make him back off? New research … suggests that the dominance behavior exhibited by staring someone down can be reflexive.

Our primate relatives certainly get into dominance battles; they mostly resolve the dominance hierarchy not through fighting, but through staring contests. And humans are like that, too.

Psychologist David Terburg and his co-authors set out to test the standard assumption that staring for dominance is automatic for humans:

For the study, participants watched a computer screen while a series of colored ovals appeared. Below each oval were blue, green, and red dots; participants were supposed to look away from the oval to the dot with the same color. What they didn’t know was that for a split-second before the colored oval appeared, a face of the same color appeared, with one of three expressions–angry, happy, or neutral. The researchers were testing how long it took for people to look away from faces with different emotions. Participants also completed a questionnaire that reflected how dominant they were in social situations.

People who were more motivated to be dominant were slower to look away from angry faces, while people who were motivated to seek rewards gazed at the happy faces longer. In other words, the assumptions were correct—for people who are dominant, engaging in gaze contests is a reflex.

“When people are dominant, they are dominant in a snap of a second,” says Terburg. “From an evolutionary point of view, it’s understandable—if you have a dominance motive, you can’t have the reflex to look away from angry people; then you have already lost the gaze contest.”

By the way, that’s a photo of Terburg at top, left, and my advice?

Buy him the beer.

Posted in Social Status, The Natural History of the Rich, The Primate File | 1 Comment »

Charlie Sheen and the Cookie Monster Test

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 4, 2011

The very public bad behavior of Charlie Sheen and fashion designer John Galliano–a future couple? …  They have so much in common–reminds me that it’s time to reprise this op-ed piece about why the rich and famous often act like such flaming idiots.  It originally appeared in 2007 in the New York Times:

THE other day at a Los Angeles race track, a comedian named Eddie Griffin took a meeting with a concrete barrier and left a borrowed bright-red $1.5 million Ferrari Enzo looking like bad origami. Just to be clear, this was a different bright-red $1.5 million Ferrari Enzo from the one a Swedish businessman crumpled up and threw away last year on the Pacific Coast Highway. I mention this only because it’s easy to get confused by the vast and highly repetitious category “Rich and Famous People Acting Like Total Idiots.” Mr. Griffin walked away uninjured, and everybody offered wise counsel about how this wasn’t really such a bad day after all.

So what exactly constitutes a bad day in this rarefied little world? Did the casino owner Steve Wynn cross the mark when he put his elbow through a Picasso he was about to sell for $139 million? Did Mel (“I Own Malibu”) Gibson sense bad-day emanations when he started on a bigoted tirade while seated drunk in the back of a sheriff’s car? And if dumb stuff like this comes so easy to these people, how is it that they’re the ones with all the money?

Modern science has the answer, with a little help from the poet Hilaire Belloc. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Social Status, The Natural History of the Rich, The Primate File | 3 Comments »

Strange Sex

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 3, 2011

The Natural History Museum in London has a new exhibition called “Sexual Nature,” and The Telegraph recently featured a few of the odd behaviors described there.  Here is the prize for least seductive courtship technique:

Male porcupines also have a rather unpleasant habit. They spray the females with their urine in a bid to attract them. The urine is filled with hormones that cause the females to become sexually attracted.

And this might just be the most, oh, anti-climactic:

Red velvet mites try another ploy often seen in humans – they paint for their partners. The tiny male arachnids lay down intricate trails of silk for the female to follow.

If she likes the artistry of the trail, she will follow it to the end and sit on a deposit of sperm the male has left there.

You can read the whole article here.

Posted in Sex & Reproduction | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Loud Neighbors

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 2, 2011

Howler monkey with a song in its heart

The first time I visited a rain forest, in Panama in about 1981, I woke up to a horrific roaring.  My first thought was, “Oh, my God, Reagan’s done it.  He’s fired off the cruise missiles.”

Turned out it was just the howler monkeys saying “I’m awake now and if you come any closer I will throw shit at your head.”

With that memory in mind, this item from The Mail caught my eye.  It’s about a few of our noisier neighbors:

The male blue whale’s song reaches an astonishing 188 decibels, while a jet engine reaches 140. A staggering difference when you think that the decibel system means that a rise of ten decibels corresponds roughly to a doubling of volume.

That means a whale’s song is almost five times louder than a jet.

Blue whale calls can be heard up to 1,000 miles away — which is useful because they can be miles apart from one another, and only occasionally meet to mate.

Their call is produced at a very low part of the frequency spectrum, at between 15 and 30 Hertz, because water is a good carrier of low-frequency noise.

By contrast, human voices are in the frequency range of 80 to 1100 Hertz. This means that we would feel a blue whale’s song rumbling through our bones Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Cool Tools | Leave a Comment »

Reader Reactions to How Species Save Our Lives

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 1, 2011

Readers have posted some interesting responses to my latest New York Times column, with pros, cons, and quibbles.  These are a few that caught my attention.  Many readers disagreed with my utilitarian and anthropocentric emphasis on how we should value nature because it is saves our own lives:

Something that troubles me is that the emphasis seems to often be on the ways that human beings can benefit from our interaction with nature. Of course, the benefits from medicine and vaccines which have happened because of a discovery in nature are wonderful.  But don’t we have a moral and human obligation to protect all life, all species, whether or not we as a species benefits? We share this planet with other species. Those species, and individuals, have as much right to exist as we do.
Tim B

Others wrote to provide additional examples of benefits we have derived from nature:

Most interesting of recent note was a Bacteria discovered in Mono Lake in Eastern California that may be the key to treating Cyanide laced waters created by gold mining Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity | Leave a Comment »