strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

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    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 January, 2012

Nasty Boys and Toxic Females

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 31, 2012

I used to think that the paradoxical platypus and certain shrews were the only venomous mammals.  But it turns out that poisons, if not venoms, are surprisingly common in mammals.  A recent report in Proceedings of the Royal Society B described an African rat that uses a poison to repel lions and other pesky predators.  Now Natalie Angier has a roundup of mammal bad boys, all of them dabblers in nasty toxins of one sort or another.  Here’s an excerpt from The New York Times:

Venoms and repellents are hardly rare in nature: Many insects, frogs, snakes, jellyfish and other phyletic characters use them with abandon. But mammals generally rely, for defense or offense, on teeth, claws, muscles, keen senses or quick wits.

Every so often, however, a mammalian lineage discovers the wonders of chemistry, of nature’s burbling beakers and tubes. And somewhere in the distance a mad cackle sounds.

Skunks and zorilles mimic the sulfurous, anoxic stink of a swamp. The male duck-billed platypus infuses its heel spurs with a cobralike poison. The hedgehog declares: Don’t quite get the point of my spines? Allow me to sharpen their sting with a daub of venom I just chewed off the back of a Bufo toad.

Other mammals chemically gird themselves against smaller foes: Capuchin monkeys ward off mosquitoes and ticks with extracts gathered from millipedes and ants, while black-tailed deer rub themselves liberally with potent antimicrobial secretions produced by glands in their hooves. According to William Wood, a chemistry professor at Humboldt State University in California, these secretions have been shown to be effective against a broad array of micro-organisms, including acne bacteria and athlete’s-foot fungus, which could explain why teenage deer are especially diligent with the hoof-rubbing routine right before the annual deer prom.

For each newly identified instance of a chemical fix, researchers seek to identify its benefits, drawbacks and evolutionary back story, and to compare it with other known cases of chemical arms. Distinctive themes have emerged.

Read the rest of Angier’s article here.


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Accentuating The Negative

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 29, 2012

This is one I wrote for The New York Times back before I started this blog.  But it still applies, and, yes, I am still grunting.

One of the most daunting and widely repeated insights from recent social research holds, in essence, that your marriage is doomed if you and your spouse can’t muster up five positive interactions for every negative one.

“Five seems like a lot,” I suggested to a friend, who promptly rattled off five nice things he had done for his wife before leaving the house that morning to go for a run. It was easy stuff once you put your mind to it, he said, like making the coffee and getting the newspaper.

“Gee, that’s terrific,” I replied. And I immediately started thinking of his marriage as “The Gottman Wars,” after the University of Washington psychologist, John Gottman, who came up with the five-to-one ratio. I imagined my insufferable friend and his wife creeping around the house before dawn desperately racking up positives to cushion the big fat negative that was burning a hole in their hearts. Meanwhile, I was having trouble getting my wife to accept that Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in The Primate File | 1 Comment »

Making the First Great Evolutionary Sensation

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 28, 2012

Who was “Mr. Vestiges” who first shook the world with his evolutionary thinking?

1.  The celebrated biological thinker Charles Darwin

2.  The Edinburgh journalist Robert Chambers

3.  The Engish mathematician and philosopher Charles Babbage

4.  Botanist and explorer Joseph Dalton Hooker

And the answer is Read the rest of this entry »

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The Species Seekers Quiz: A Movement to Make Museums New

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 27, 2012

What spurred the 19th-century “new museum” movement?

1.  Generous donations from American “robber baron” railroad magnates 

2.  The British urge to out-compete the museums of rival nations

3.  Dermestid beetles, which ruined many old museums

4.  Advances in taxidermy

And the answer is Read the rest of this entry »

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The Dance of the Dung Beetles

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 25, 2012

After they have gathered a ball of dung, but before they wheel it away from the dung heap, dung beetles always climb on top and spin around in a little dance.  It looks like a moment of triumphant celebration, and one we can all identify with as we slog through our version of the same old shit.  But it turns out they are actually just taking a compass reading.

Here’s the report from Science Daily:

Dung beetle dance provides crucial orientation cues: Beetles climb on top of ball, rotate to get their bearings to maintain straight trajectory.

The dung beetle dance, performed as the beetle moves away from the dung pile with his precious dung ball, is a mechanism to maintain the desired straight-line departure from the pile, according to a study published in the Jan. 18 issue of the online journal PLoS ONE.

The purpose of this dance, in which the beetle climbs to the top of the ball and rotates, had previously been unknown, so the authors of the PLoS ONE study, led by Emily Baird of Lund University in Sweden, investigated the circumstances that cause the beetle to dance.

They found that the beetles are most likely to perform the dance before moving away from the pile, upon encountering an obstacle, or if they have lost control of the ball, suggesting that the behavior is crucial for keeping the ball moving in a straight line.

Such direct, efficient navigation allows the beetle to quickly move away from the intense competition from other beetles at the dung pile. The authors propose that the beetles store a compass reading of celestial cues during the dance, which they then use to guide their straight-line trajectory.

So it’s all about geography, not poetry.  Even so, musicians, rise up!  We need a modern-day Bela Bartok or Edvard Grieg to celebrate this particular peasant dance.


Emily Baird, Marcus J. Byrne, Jochen Smolka, Eric J. Warrant, Marie Dacke. The Dung Beetle Dance: An Orientation Behaviour? PLoS ONE, 2012; 7 (1): e30211 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0030211

Posted in Cool Tools, Food & Drink | 1 Comment »

Impression Management 101

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 25, 2012

I watched the news without sound at the gym last night and was impressed by how NBC anchor Brian Williams always manages to keep the inside of his right eyebrow cocked up, to look like an inquiring reporter.  It is almost as good as the real thing.  Does he do exercises for that?

You can read one of my past articles about facial expressions here, and a profile of the founder of the science of facial expressions in my book The Ape in the Corner Office.



Posted in Business Behaviors, The Primate File | Leave a Comment »

The Species Seekers Quiz: A Different Kind of Precious

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 24, 2012

Who or what is The Precious Wentletrap?

1.  An orchid once regarded as a remedy for syphilis.

2.  An audacious neo-punk  Trapp Family tribute band.

3.  A bird so rare that a half-dozen biological explorers lost their lives in the search for it.

4.  An unusually ornate shell.

And the answer is Read the rest of this entry »

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The Soft, Slow, Deadly Flight of Owls

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 19, 2012

Owls need to wing down through the dark almost silently, to hear–and avoid being heard by–their prey.  [Update:  This amazing footage shows the moments before impact.] They have to be good because a barn owl, for instance, needs to find and eat about six vole-sized rodents a night.  The secret of their extraordinary stealth lies in their ability to fly slowly, according to  Thomas Bachmann, from the Technical University Darmstadt in Germany.  He  presented his study of barn owl wings at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology’s annual meeting in Charleston, South Carolina.  BBC Nature reports:

To find out how they managed to fly so slowly and quietly, Dr Bachmann examined the birds’ wings in minute detail.

He examined the plumage and took 3-D medical scans of their skeletal structure.

The wings’ most important features, he explained, were the high curvature or “camber” … This curvature means that each wing beat produces more lift.

Air flow is accelerated over the upper surface the curved wing. “So the pressure drops,” he said. “[And] the wing is sucked upwards into the lower pressure on the upper wing surface.”

The fine feathery fringes of each wing also help silence the owl’s flight

The feathery edges of each wing are also extremely fine – reducing any loud turbulence during flight, explained Dr Bachmann.

“Friction noise between single feathers is also reduced [by] their velvety surface,” he told BBC Nature.

In fact, Dr Bachmann explained, “all the body parts of the owl are covered by very dense plumage – owls have more feathers than other similarly sized birds”.

This soft, dense plumage absorbs other sounds the birds make as they fly.

It turns out Bachmann is interested in barn owl flight mainly as a model for biomimicry in Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Cool Tools, Kill or Be Killed | 2 Comments »

Powerful People Live Large

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 18, 2012

A new study finds that the psychological experience of power makes people feel taller than they are.  The paper begins with snarky promise, quoting  BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg, who was referring to the victims of the largest oil spill ever when he said “We care about the small people.”  Here’s how the paper starts:

Height is an oft used metaphor for power: Powerful people “feel like the big man on campus” and “people look up to them.” Development psychologists have suggested that a metaphorical association between power and height may take root very early as, for instance, children are confronted with taller parents who have power over them and during adolescence taller children use their strength to physically coerce smaller children. This association continues to be reinforced as taller people earn higher salaries, are more likely to be found in
higher status occupations, to emerge as leaders and to win presidential elections.

But even if they are not taller to start with, people who get power quickly come to share that high-and-mighty feeling.  Here’s the press release from Washington University:

“Although a great deal of research has shown that more physically imposing individuals are more likely to acquire power, this work is the first to show that powerful people feel taller than they are,” says Michelle M. Duguid, PhD, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Olin Business School.

Duguid is co-author, with Jack Concalo, PhD, of Cornell University, of “Living Large: The Powerful Overestimate Their Own Height,” published in the current issue of the journal Psychological Science.

In a series of three experiments, the researchers found a definite correlation between feeling powerful and feeling tall, and even suggest that future research may want to examine whether employers should consider placing short high-ranking workers in Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in The Primate File | Leave a Comment »

Single Ladies and Species Discovery

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 16, 2012

One of my frustrations in writing The Species Seekers was the shortage of women in the early history of biological discovery.  Mary Kingsley was clearly wonderful, but once is never enough.  So this morning I was delighted to come across two stories of occasionally cross-dressing women and the discovery of new species.

This is surely the first time this blog has picked up an item from the Australian website CelebrityFix, but in a good cause:

Australian scientists have named a species of horse fly after Beyoncé, because its ‘spectacular gold colour’ makes it the “all time diva of flies.”

The scientist responsible for the fly’s superstar name, officially Scaptica (Plinthina) beyonceae, has explained the similarities between the insect and the singer in a CSIRO media release.

“It was the unique dense golden hairs on the fly’s abdomen that led me to name this fly in honour of the performer Beyoncé as well as giving me the chance to demonstrate the fun side of taxonomy – the naming of species,” said Australian National Insect Collection researcher, Bryan Lessard.

We’re hearing ‘gold’ (hotpants), (luscious)’hair’, (toned) ‘abdomen’, strange(ly attractive) species…yep, sounds like Beyonce to us!

Mr. Lessard also said that while the horse fly is “often considered a pest” they are “extremely important pollinators of plants” and “act like hummingbirds during the day, drinking nectar from their favourite varieties of grevillea, tea trees and eucalypts.”

Amazingly, the rare Scaptia (Plinthina) beyonceae was collected in 1981 — the same year Beyoncé was born! Although, it was found in north-east Queensland’s Atherton Tablelands, not in the arms of Mathew and Tina Knowles in Houston, Texas.

Amazingly, Beyonce isn’t the first star to get a creepy crawly named after her. Check out our totally educational gallery of organisms named after celebrities…

And from a more familiar source, Cynthia Graber at 60 Second Science, here’s a story about a female species seekers finally receiving her small share of recognition:

Jeanne Baret was passionate about science. So passionate that, in the 1760s, the Frenchwoman disguised herself as a man. She hid her true identity to accompany her lover, Read the rest of this entry »

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