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  • 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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Archive for the ‘Biodiversity’ Category

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 »

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 »

Christmas in August: Give to These Wildlife Groups Now

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 13, 2016

One cause worth your donation (Photo: Craig Taylor/Panthera)

One cause worth your donation (Photo: Craig Taylor/Panthera)


by Richard Conniff/

Most writers wait until the Christmas season to put together their recommendations for charitable giving. But the trouble with that timing ought to be obvious: In December, most people are broke or about to be broke. They’re also a little crazy. In August, on the other hand, life is fat and slow, and there’s time to think about our own lives and what we can do to make the world a better place. With that in mind, I’m going to offer a few recommendations for giving, with my usual focus on wildlife.

First, though, let’s talk about two candidates for this year’s charitable giving purgatory: The World Wildlife Fund is in many ways a great organization, but it has a long history of paying too much attention to marketing. That tendency showed up this year when a WWF vice president put out an announcement, widely reported in the press, that tiger populations were on the increase for the first time in a century. Too bad it was totally bogus. Sorry, but the folks at the top need to put wildlife conservation first and fund-raising somewhere down the list. Hoping to see you next year.

My other newcomer in purgatory is Ducks Unlimited. I’ve recommended it in the past for its single-minded focus on increasing populations of wildfowl. But, hey, save your money. Late last year, DU fired a staffer who had the nerve to take on a prominent donor. Media muckety-muck Jim Kennedy, chairman of Cox Enterprises, was trying to block public access to the Ruby River, which runs through his Montana ranch. But defending public access is one of the core beliefs at DU, and Don Thomas, a longtime contributor to Ducks Unlimited magazine, called out Kennedy for his hypocrisy. DU promptly fired Thomas while praising Kennedy as “a dedicated DU volunteer.”

Where should you send your money instead? Let’s start with

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

A Miracle Drug Saves People But Buggers The Environment

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 5, 2016

Ivermectin is bad news for dung beetles. (Photo: George Grall/'National Geographic'/Getty Images)

Ivermectin is bad news for dung beetles. (Photo: George Grall/’National Geographic’/Getty Images)

by Richard Conniff/

See if you can spot the pattern here: Widespread reliance on the herbicide Roundup has pushed the monarch butterfly to the brink of extinction. Neonicotinoid pesticides stand accused of knocking down populations of honeybees and other pollinating insects. The veterinary drug diclofenac has killed off 99.9 percent of the vultures in India. Now it looks as though ivermectin, long hailed as a miracle drug, may be doing the same thing to dung beetles everywhere.

Yep, it’s definitely a pattern: Companies find some alleged wonder product and move it to market as quickly as possible, with a tight focus on profits and no regard (or responsibility) whatever for the inadvertent side effects.

The dung beetle story has gotten relatively little attention, perhaps because people have the idea that these funny little feces eaters exist only in Africa and only to help clear the landscape of gargantuan elephant droppings. There are 5,000 dung beetle species, and they do their humble work on every continent except Antarctica. And if you think dung beetles don’t matter pretty much everywhere, try imagining a world neck-deep in

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Posted in Biodiversity, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

New Neighbor, Serial Killer, Just Wants to be Friends

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 25, 2016

The ghost of Griffith Park (Photo: Steve Winter/National Geographic)

The ghost of Griffith Park (Photo: Steve Winter/National Geographic)

by Richard Conniff/

Most people are clueless that carnivores—big, scary flesh eaters—can adapt to live among us, unnoticed, even in the most densely populated landscapes. By adapt, I mean, for instance, that 4,000 coyotes are living in and around the Chicago Loop, without incident. One especially wily pack has even chosen to make its den on Navy Pier, one of the world’s top 50 tourist attractions. The 9 million or so visitors a year who come to ride the giant Ferris wheel or see an IMAX movie never notice.

It’s the same in Southern California, where a mountain lion hunts deer in Griffith Park, in the middle of Los Angeles, and may recently have snatched a koala from the city zoo. In central Spain, wolves bed down in agricultural fields on the outskirts of Madrid and picnic on wild boar. In Norway, lynx hunt in the forests just outside Oslo. In Mumbai, India, the most spectacular case of mutual adaptation, 35 leopards live in an unfenced national park in the middle of the city’s

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Tyrannosaurs: It’s Not Just About Rex

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 16, 2016

Jane_Tyrannosaurusby Richard Conniff/Wall Street Journal

Given that tyrannosaurs are the most studied of all dinosaurs, and familiar to almost everyone above the age of 5 (or maybe make that 3), it’s extraordinary how little we really know about them: huge bodies, big spiky teeth, tiny arms, scary as hell. That’s about it for most of us.

Go a little deeper and we mostly go wrong, according to David Hone, a paleontologist at the University of London. “Tyrannosaurs,” he writes, in “The Tyrannosaur Chronicles,” “were not pure scavengers; they didn’t spend their lives battling adult Triceratops, they did not have poor eyesight, they could not run at 50 km/h, females were not bigger than males,” and they weren’t all Tyrannosaurus rex, that flesh-rending, scenery-chomping, lunkheaded box-office giant of our nightmares.

Mr. Hone’s unsensational and resolutely middle-of-the-road account lists 29 tyrannosaur species. He adds that Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Kill or Be Killed | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

The Prince and the Paleontologist

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 24, 2016

Wieland with a fossil turtle known affectionately as "Stumpy"

Wieland with a fossil turtle known affectionately as “Stumpy”

This morning a lovely email came in about my book House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life On Earth.  It’s from a writer and radio commentator named Jill Hunting:

“I have just finished reading your book and wanted to offer congratulations on a marvelous achievement … The writing throughout is beautiful and consistent, and I am in awe, frankly, of the soft landings at the end of your chapters.”

She added: “My favorite page is 154.” So naturally I wondered what the hell was on p. 154, and found a short anecdote about an eccentric paleontologist–is that redundant?–named George R. Wieland.

In the late 1890s, Wieland began working in South Dakota on a forest of fossilized plants called cycadeoids, also known as cycads for their resemblance to a variety of modern plant with a woody stem and palm-like crown.  He soon became hooked on cycads. They had obvious visual interest, with their intriguing shapes, often resembling a beekeeper’s traditional basket beehive, and with a surface pattern of orderly pockmarks, from old leaf attachment points.


Wieland reconstructions of cycadeoid flowers and cones.

Local ranch families who collected the fossilized trunks as curios described them, Wieland wrote, as “beehives,” “wasps’ nests,” “corals,” “mushrooms,” and even “beefmaws,” for their resemblance to a bovine reticulum, the first digestive organ of a ruminant’s alimentary tract.  On repeated trips back to the site in South Dakota, Wieland retrieved more than 700 cycad specimens, giving the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History the most extensive collection of these fossil plants in the world (and also earning Wieland a reputation in South Dakota as a plunderer). He went on to develop various methods of drilling and slicing cycads to study their interior anatomy.  But let’s go to p. 154:

Over the years, Wieland became obsessed with his subject, even by the standards of museum curators. He could talk about nothing else, and he seems to have talked endlessly, to the point that it became necessary to

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Animal Music Monday: “Cantus Arcticus”

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 6, 2016

This is a good one to listen to at dawn, with your coffee. It’s also known as “Concerto for Birds and Orchestra.”  It’s a classical piece, about 16 minutes long.  Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara wrote it in 1972. It features the calling of birds that Rautavaara taped around the Arctic Circle and in the marshlands Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Freshwater species | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Texas Tunnels Under for Ocelots

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 27, 2016


(Photo: Francis Apesteguy/Getty Images)

by Richard Conniff, for

Back in the fall of 2014, I took a whack at the Texas Department of Transportation for treating the nation’s only viable population of endangered ocelots—beautiful spotted cats about twice the size of a house cat—as fodder for roadkill. The department had flagrantly disregarded recommendations from wildlife experts on the critical need for safe road crossings, instead installing an impassable concrete barrier down the center of a busy highway bordering a national wildlife refuge.

TxDot, as it’s known, responded with a note suggesting that they were hurt, deeply hurt, by my suggestion that they were anything less than acutely sensitive to the needs of wildlife. But it would cost $1 million apiece for crossings in the area of that concrete barrier. Not that anyone was counting. They had only asked whether it was worth spending that kind of money on a species nearing extinction in this country so they could “learn and understand the historical dynamics of wildlife survival.” This was at a time when the relevant dynamic was that highway accidents were causing 40 percent of all ocelot deaths.

But occasionally good things happen, even in the unlikeliest places. So I am delighted Read the rest of this entry »

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

A Dam Pushes A Great American Fish Toward Extinction

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 13, 2016

pallid sturgeon2

by Richard Conniff, for

“We should be grandfathered in.” That’s how the manager of the Lower Yellowstone Project irrigation district in Montana put it. His farmers have been using a dam on the river to supply water to their fields since time immemorial—or for 112 years, anyway—and see no reason to change. But the pallid sturgeon would certainly say it should be grandfathered in too. The monster fish has depended on the river for 78 million years, roughly since Tyrannosaurus rex ruled this region.

The problem is that the farmers and their timber-and-rock dam are now killing off the sturgeon. Intake Dam is an unimpressive structure, located near Glendive, Montana, just before the Yellowstone River joins up with the Missouri River. The dam—really just a weir—stretches for 700 feet across the Yellowstone but does not even rise above the water surface in some seasons. The irrigation district has to pile on new stones each year just to make it back up enough water for its purposes.

So the Intake is easy to overlook—and allows some people to celebrate the 692-mile-long Yellowstone as “the longest undammed river” in the Lower 48. But the dam blocks off 165 miles of upstream habitat that the sturgeon would otherwise use for spawning. Because of that,

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