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 November, 2011

Why Babies Still Take Daddy’s Surname

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 24, 2011

Why do kids still typically get their Dad’s surname, 50 years after the rise of feminism?  Today’s New York Times offers an explanation that hadn’t occurred to me:

Traditional practices grew out of a male-dominated culture and a need for simple rules. But there is another, less obvious motive: to hold men accountable for their offspring.

“How do you attach men to children?” said Laurie K. Scheuble, a senior lecturer at Pennsylvania State University who has done several studies on naming practices. Names are “a very functional and practical way” to do so.

The article goes on to suggest that “perhaps, in an age when men wear BabyBjorns, it is no longer always necessary.”  But despite our delusions of modernity, the writer inadvertently reveals that  even college professors apparently still rely on another ancient means of keeping restless and paternity-insecure  males attached to family:  Jocular talk about how much the kiddies look like them..

When Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, 32, an English professor who lives in Portland, Ore., married Laura Rosenbaum, he toyed with the idea of a creative synthesis.

But “Rosenpollackpelznerbaum sounded like a weapon of mass destruction,” he said. When they had a son, Read the rest of this entry »


Posted in Read That Face, Sex & Reproduction, The Primate File | Leave a Comment »

Beware of Seducers Bearing Gifts

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 22, 2011

Some male spiders deceive the females they mean to seduce with wedding gifts that look good but don’t offer much beyond the wrapping, according to a new paper just out in BMC Evolutionary Biology.  I wrote about the delicate negotiating of gifts between male and female in my book The Natural History of the Rich.  I also did an NPR commentary on the topic a few years ago.

But beware, reader, I am trying to seduce you with a gift:

When evolutionary psychologists talk about human sexual behavior, they tend to draw analogies from the animal world and they particularly like to talk about hangingflies.  These inch-long predators live by the thousands in the temperate forests of North America.  They specialize in catching other insects, injecting digestive enzymes into them, and sucking out their innards.  So the analogy to the behavior of rich people may seem remote.  But when a male hangingfly wants romance, he goes out and catches an even bigger insect than usual and advertises his catch to the female world.   Male and female pair off in the undergrowth, hanging by their forelimbs face-to-face like trapeze artists about to attempt an aerial minuet.  (One can imagine the billionaire balloonist Richard Branson in this position, all banked blond hair and eager teeth.)  He clutches the dead insect in his hind legs and holds it up to her as a nuptial gift–or to put it in human terms, he buys her dinner and she allows sex to follow.

But neither male nor female is a patsy in this partnership.  If the dinner is too small, she throws him out before he can do much good.  It’s a variation on the “diamonds are a girl’s best friend” theme, and bigger diamonds, or dead insects, make better friends.  It takes twenty minutes of vigorous copulation to get her to lose interest in other males and lay her eggs–and he only gets twenty minutes if Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Cool Tools, Evolution | Leave a Comment »

As Rhinos Go Extinct, Asia Keeps Buying

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 22, 2011

An update on the new war against rhinos, from the New York Times:

Authorities at the Hong Kong International Airport made a record seizure of illegal rhino horns last week, estimated to be worth about $2.2 million, officials said.

Customs agents confiscated 33 rhino horns, 758 ivory chopsticks, and 127 ivory bracelets concealed inside a shipping container from Cape Town, South Africa. The concealed animal parts were labeled as “scrap plastic,” an increasingly common trick for smuggling horns and ivory out of Africa and into Asia.

Tom Milliken, a program coordinator at Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring network, said the rhino horns were likely bound for Guangzhou, China, where the largest waste processing industry in the world is located. “Unfortunately, Guangzhou also has a very large ivory carving industry,” he said.

In this case, airport scanners revealed the presence of hidden rhino horn and elephant ivory, but conservationists have no way of telling Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Leave a Comment »

Gift Guide: Best of Science

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 19, 2011

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Jennie Erin Smith put together a gift guide for holiday reading.  It’s a nice list, not least because it includes The Species Seekers.  (One notable omission, for obvious reasons, was Smith’s own highly praised  Stolen World:  A Tale of Reptiles, Smugglers and Skulduggery.)  Here are Smith’s recommendations:

What would our lives be like if we were as immersed in nature as we are in technology? Measurably better, says Richard Louv, whose 2005 book, “Last Child in the Woods,” advanced the idea of a “nature-deficit disorder” afflicting young people. In The Nature Principle” (Algonquin, 317 pages, $24.95), Mr. Louv lays out a patchwork of scientific findings and personal anecdotes to contend that adults, too, suffer from what he defines as “an atrophied awareness, a diminished ability to find meaning in the life that surrounds us.”The good news, Mr. Louv says, is that it’s never too late to correct your NDD. Set up a bird feeder, join a hiking club, grow food locally, or plant a butterfly garden and you’re on your way to becoming a “high-performance human”—saner, leaner, longer-lived and more enterprising. Mr. Louv’s diagnosis rings true, but his prescriptions can sound shallow and fashionably “green.” Many proven, traditional avenues into lifelong engagement with nature—hunting, fishing, sketching, specimen collecting, journaling—are given little or no attention. There’s something beside the point, too, about Mr. Louv’s promotion of ¬nature-as-therapy, like saying that Zen meditation tones the inner thighs.

Might there be a deeper value in old-fashioned naturalist pursuits, something greater than the sum of their side effects? Several outstanding recent books argue unequivocally that there is.

In an essay collection titled The Way of Natural History” (Trinity, 204 pages, $45), a group of writers—mostly biologists but also poets, a guitarist, a Buddhist theologian and a former prisoner—discuss why they became naturalists and how they practice their craft. A surprising number got started as adults. One learned the ecology of Big Sur as a soldier, while stationed nearby; another took up birding to lessen the boredom of touring with his band. Most subscribe to the general idea of “nature-deficit disorder,” but the recommendations for reversing it are fairly rigorous compared with Mr. Louv’s.

To become a naturalist—that is, someone with “a working knowledge of a broad slice of the biota, and how the parts fit together with one another and their physical setting,” as contributor and butterfly expert Robert Michael Pyle explains it—requires copious reading and long days outdoors, exploring and observing. None of this will necessarily lower your cholesterol or make you a better executive, if that even matters. “Must any sort of practical justification really be invoked?” Mr. Pyle asks. “Isn’t it enough that the pursuit of deep natural history is one of the surest paths toward an entirely earthly state of enlightenment?”

For a sustained dose of inspiration toward that end, a would-be naturalist can fill a Kindle with enough 99-cent natural-history classics—by Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, Henry Walter Bates and Alexander von Humboldt—to last years. Harder to find are the obscure gems of natural-history writing contained in “The Essential Naturalist” (Chicago, 534 pages, $39), a collection of lost or dimly remembered articles unearthed by the book’s assiduous editors.

A pirate, a rural French bug collector, a Soviet mineralogist and a Holy Roman Emperor count among this volume’s contributors. Prince Albert I of Monaco recalls an 1895 whale hunt in which he found himself “gripped down to the marrow” by the sight of the bleeding, suffering beast—until it conveniently vomited up some scientifically valuable giant squid. Ernst Mayer’s account of his youthful expedition to New Guinea in 1928 is studded with jarring references to its “primitive” and “inferior” natives.

The editors have struck many tables and statistics from the original articles, leaving a volume heavy with emotion, surprise and wonder. “The book of nature has no beginning, as it has no end,” advises contributor Jim Corbett, late hunter and photographer of man-eating tigers. “Open the book where you will, and at any period of your life … No matter how long or how intently you study the pages your interest will not flag, for in nature there is no finality.”

A fine companion to such a stimulating anthology is Richard Conniff’s The Species Seekers (Norton, 464 pages, $27.95), a rollicking group-biography of men and women who collected scientific specimens between the 17th and early 20th centuries. The awful fates of so many of these hardworking field naturalists—shot through with arrows, sickened by parasites, snubbed and slandered by envious museum curators—offer a sobering corrective to Mr. Louv’s prediction that a life engaged in nature will be healthier and more prosperous. And yet, like naturalists today, the species seekers were motivated most of all by “the sense of private joy in small moments of discovery,” Mr. Conniff says, which mitigated the “hunger, loneliness, disease and other hardships of field life.”

If you’re feeling inspired by now, another exceptional collection of essays, “Field Notes in Science and Nature” (Harvard, 297 pages, $27.95), offers practical tips for the born-again naturalist, who, after all, is useless without a notebook. Here biologists, geologists, anthropologists and scientific illustrators open notebooks from all stages of their lives, showing how they record and organize their observations. Some sketch, others paint, some combine graphs and cryptic scrawl making a glorious mess. The point is that their observations don’t go unrecorded and that many seemingly random notations, made during routine or aimless forays, have led to important discoveries. “If there is a heaven,” writes contributor E.O. Wilson, “I will ask for no more than an endless living world to walk through and explore. I will carry with me an inexhaustible supply of notebooks.”

Posted in Book News | Leave a Comment »

Why Raindrops Don’t Kill Those Damned Mosquitoes

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 18, 2011

I’ve always been puzzled by the mystery of mosquitoes flying through rain without getting splattered.  The conventional wisdom in the past was that they somehow dodged the raindrops, which we should have realized was an impossibility.  Now a physicist has come up with a better explanation.  (Note:  I find the analogy of a falling boulder hitting a falling human somewhat disturbing.):

Newswise — Mosquitoes, which thrive in hot, humid climates, are as adept at flying in rainstorms as under clear skies. That’s puzzling: Why aren’t the bugs – which each weigh 50 times less than a raindrop – battered and grounded by those falling drops? Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Cool Tools | Leave a Comment »

Apes in Elevators

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 18, 2011

I’m at a hotel in Chicago today, riding the elevator with my eyes fixed on the floor.  Primatologist Dario Maestripieri of the University of Chicago invited me to visit yesterday for a talk about my book The Species Seekers.  Dario has a new book of his own coming out next year, Games Primates Play (Basic Books), and his first chapter offers a very nice explanation of our odd behavior in elevators:

In horror movies, more people are probably murdered in elevators than in any other closed space, including the shower. In real life, the probability of being the victim of a deadly attack in an elevator is virtually zero. Yet, the way people act towards others when they ride together in an elevator suggests that they have serious concerns about their own safety.

If the elevator is crowded, everybody stands still and stares at the ceiling, the floor or the button panel as if they’ve never seen it before. If two strangers ride together in the elevator, they stand as far as possible from each other, don’t face each other directly, don’t make eye contact and don’t make any sudden movements or noises.

Much of people’s behavior in elevators is not the result of rational thinking. It’s an automatic, instinctive response to the situation. The threat of aggression is not real, yet our mind responds as if it is, and produces behaviors meant to protect ourselves.

Elevators are relatively recent inventions, but the social challenges they pose are nothing new. Close proximity to other people in restricted spaces is a situation that has occurred millions of times in the history of humankind.

Imagine two Paleolithic cavemen who follow the tracks of a large bear into the same small, dark cave. There is no bear in there, only the other hungry caveman ominously waving his club: clearly an awkward situation that requires an exit strategy. In those Paleolithic days, murder was an acceptable way to get out of socially awkward situations, much in the way we use an early morning doctor’s appointment as an excuse to leave a dinner party early. In the cave, one of the cavemen whacks the other over the head with his club and the party is over.

Similarly, when male chimpanzees in Uganda encounter a male from another group, they slash his throat and rip his testicles off — just in case Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in The Primate File | Leave a Comment »

Heroes and Villains in the War on Rhinos

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 11, 2011

Park rangers are the unsung heroes in the war on wildlife–underpaid, overworked, and routinely at risk to their lives, especially in areas where poachers do their dark work.  When I was in South Africa early this year,  a section ranger (who asks to be unnamed) at  Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal, told me about arresting one of the notorious Van Deventer brothers in 2006.   “I was standing in front of the vehicle with a semi-automatic weapon saying, ‘Get out of the car!'” she said.  “And he was reaching for something under the seat.  The guy I was with reached in and snatched him out of the car.  It turned out there was a .38 snub-nosed under the seat that he was trying to reach.”

Later, Van Deventer told police that he’d already been to prison once and was determined never to go back.   It’s not clear if he was intending kill the ranger or himself.  In any case, one brother ended up with a five-year jail sentence, and the other got 10.  “These two brothers were responsible for the deaths of 25 rhinos,” said the ranger.

Now they are speaking out about their crimes, probably in a bid for early parole.  Here’s the report from investigative journalist Ian Michler:

The poachers
We never liked doing what we did and telling our story will help the public be aware of how to catch other poachers,’ says Rhino One, the name the older brother goes by in prison. ‘We are relieved it’s over because we were always stressed. I lost perspective on life,’ added Rhino Two, his younger brother. Involved from the very beginning, Rhino Two is serving a Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues, Fear & Courage | Leave a Comment »

One Place Trophy-Hunting Lions Seems to Work

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 8, 2011

The December issue of Atlantic Monthly includes my Dispatch on trophy hunting of lions in Namibia:

We were crossing on foot through a scrubby patch of African wilderness when the guide casually noted that all the usual prey animals seemed to have gone elsewhere, a hint of lions in the neighborhood. This particular neighborhood, he added informatively, was home to a pride known for being “Full of shit.  Ballsy.  They don’t run away from people, the way lions usually do.”

The standard protocol, when hikers and lions bump into each other in the African bush, is for the lions to run, with the dominant male lion fleeing first. (That business about noble lion kings sacrificing themselves for family turns out to be one of the bigger, ballsier lies ever told about the male gender.) The females may stick around briefly, to snarl and show their teeth while the cubs also exit. Sometimes, a lioness will make a stiff-legged charge, skidding to a stop close enough to scatter sand on your shoes. And that’s generally as bad as it gets (though alternate endings are always possible). “Never run,” the guide advised. “Unless I tell you to.”  Discreetly peeing your pants is permitted.

That day, sadly or otherwise, our lions did not rouse themselves, and I was reduced to the standard tourist pastime of watching lions from an open game-drive vehicle. Lumbering diesels do not make the lions skittish, oddly. They lift their heads as if to say, “Oh, those wankers,” then flop back down in the dust and fall asleep.

What brought me on my visit early this year to South Africa and Namibia was the continuing controversy over the idea of using trophy hunting as a tool for lion conservation. The lion population in Africa has declined by at least a third over the past 20 years, due to Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues, Kill or Be Killed | Leave a Comment »

If It Bleeds, It Misleads

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 6, 2011

Images of child soldiers reinforce the idea that warfare is getting worse

We tend to think the world is caught up an endless and ever worsening round of bloody warfare.  But in his new book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Stephen Pinker argues that the opposite is true.  The Guardian recently headlined its excerpt with a clever twist on an old newspaper rubric:  “If it Bleeds, It Misleads”:

Why the gloom? Partly it’s the result of market forces in the punditry business, which favour the Cassandras over the Pollyannas. But mainly, I think, it comes from the innumeracy of our journalistic and intellectual culture. If we don’t keep an eye on the numbers, the programming policy “If it bleeds, it leads” will feed the cognitive short cut “The more memorable, the more frequent”, and we will end up with what has been called a false sense of insecurity.

The pessimism has been inspired by “new wars” involving guerrillas and paramilitaries that plague the developing world, symbolised by images of Kalashnikov-toting teenagers. It has been stoked by the widely repeated (and completely bogus) meme that at the beginning of the 20th century 90% of war deaths were suffered by soldiers and less than 10% by civilians, but by the end of the century these proportions had been reversed. It has fed on the claim that the world learned nothing from the Holocaust, and that genocides are as common as ever. And of course it has been redoubled by the threat of terrorism, which has been said to pose an “existential threat” to western countries, having the capacity to “do away with our way of life” or to end “civilisation itself”.

Each of these scourges continues to take a toll in human lives. But it’s only recently that political scientists have tried to measure how big a toll it is, and they have reached a surprising conclusion: all these kinds of killing are in decline. Battle deaths per 100,000 of the world population have fallen from 300 during the height of the second world war to the teens in the postwar years, single digits during the cold war, and less than one in the 21st century.

The deliberate killing of civilians has shown a similar bumpy yet downward trajectory. And other than in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, deaths from terrorism in the past decade were far lower than they were in the 1970s and 1980s, with their hijackings and bombings by countless revolutionary fronts, leagues, brigades and factions. A mental model in which the world has a constant allotment of violence – so that every ceasefire is reincarnated somewhere else as a new war, and every interlude of peace is just a time-out in which martial tensions build up and seek release – is factually mistaken.

It’s not easy to see the bright side in the world today, where the remnants of war continue to cause tremendous misery. The effort to quantify the misery can seem heartless, especially when it undermines claims that are serving as effective propaganda for raising money and attention. But there is a moral imperative in getting the facts right, and not just because truth is better than error.

The discovery that fewer people are dying in wars all over the world can thwart cynicism among compassion-fatigued newsreaders who might otherwise think that poor countries are irredeemable hellholes. And a better understanding of what drove the numbers down can steer us towards doing things that make people better off, rather than congratulating ourselves on how morally sophisticated we are.

The argument that humans are born to cooperate, to make love, not war, is of course hardly new with Pinker.  Primatlogist Frans de Waal, among others, has made the case repeatedly, and my book The Ape in the Corner Office also emphasized our tendency to exaggerate the importance of conflict.

Posted in Kill or Be Killed | Leave a Comment »

Built for Singing Duets

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 4, 2011

That old slogan “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” always struck me as not nearly as clever as its admirers seemed to think.  The truth, often annoying, sometimes delightful, is that women and men need each other like a fish needs a school.

Or, maybe, like birds need a flock.  Here’s a new study published yesterday in Science:

Long-married human couples may finish each others’ sentences, but the plain-tailed wrens of the Andes take things a step further. Male and female wrens sing intimate duets in which they alternate syllables so quickly it sounds like a single bird is singing. New research shows that the brains of both the male and female wrens actually process the entire duet, not just each bird’s own contribution. These findings are surprising because researchers have generally assumed that the brain activity of each songbird would be largely devoted to that bird’s own singing role. Eric Fortune and colleagues recorded the wrens as they sang while hiding in the bamboo forests on Ecuador’s Antisana volcano. Analyzing these recordings, the researchers learned that the female birds seem to establish the timing of the song and that males, but not females, make occasional mistakes during singing. Next, the researchers recorded the brain activity in the birds’ song center while playing back recordings of bird duets as well as solos. The brain neurons responded most vigorously to the duets, suggesting that certain brain circuits — which are shared by humans — are primed for cooperation.

And here’s an account of the study from Newswise:

The brain was built for cooperative activity, whether it be dancing on a television reality show, constructing a skyscraper or working in an office, according to a study led by Johns Hopkins behavioral neuroscientist Eric Fortune and published in the Nov. 4 issue of the journal Science.“What we learned is that when it comes to the brain and cooperation, the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts,” said Fortune, of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the university’s Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. “We found that the brain of each individual participant prefers the combined activity over his or her own part.”

In addition to shedding light on ourselves as social and cooperative beings, the results have important implications for engineers who want to be able to program autonomous robots to work effectively as teams in settings such as bomb squads and combat.

But Fortune’s work didn’t involve androids or take place on a battlefield. Instead, he and his team took to the cloud forests of Ecuador, on the slopes of the active Antisana Volcano. Why? It’s one of the only places in the world where you can find plain-tailed wrens. These chubby-breasted rust-and-gray birds, who don’t fly so much as hop and flit through the area’s bamboo thickets, are famous for their unusual duets. Their songs — sung by one male and one female — take an ABCD form, with the male singing the A and C phrases and the female (who seems to be the song leader) singing B and D.

“What’s happening is that the male and female are alternating syllables, though it often sounds like one bird singing alone, very sharply, shrilly and loudly,” explained Fortune, who spent hours hacking through the thick bamboo with a machete, trying to Read the rest of this entry »

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