strange behaviors

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  • 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 the ‘Biodiversity’ Category

Bison Begin to Return to Their Old Home on the Great Plains

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 26, 2018

by Richard Conniff/Smithsonian Magazine

Sometime this winter, if all goes as planned, a caravan of livestock trucks will carry 60 American bison out of Yellowstone National Park on a 500-mile journey into the past. Unlike their ranched cousins, which are mainly the result of nineteenth-century attempts to cross bison with cattle, the Yellowstone animals are wild and genetically pure, descendants of the original herds that once astonished visitors to the Great Plains and made the bison the symbol of American abundance. Until, that is, unsustainable hunting made it a symbol of mindless ecological destruction.

When the appalling mass slaughter of 30 million or so bison finally ended early in the 20th century, just 23 wild bison remained in Yellowstone, holed up in Pelican Valley. Together with a roughly equal number of animals saved by ranchers, they became the basis for the recovery of the species, Bison bison, carefully nurtured back to strength within Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone has done its job so well, in fact, that the herd now routinely exceeds the limit of about 4000 bison thought to be sustainable within park boundaries. Park rangers have thus had the disheartening annual job of rounding up “excess” bison for slaughter or watching some step across the park’s northern border into a hunt that critics deride as a firing squad. Relocating the animals would be the humane alternative, except for one scary problem: Ranchers and others have long maintained that bison spread brucellosis, a bacterial infection that is devastating to both cattle and bison. But an authoritative 2017 study using whole genome sequencing determined that Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted in Biodiversity, Environmental Issues, Food & Drink | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Take a Deep Breath and Say Hi to Your Exposome

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 29, 2018

Pig-Pen in his element (Illustration: Charles M. Schulz)

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

Over the past few decades, researchers have opened up the extraordinary world of microbes living on and within the human body, linking their influence to everything from rheumatoid arthritis to healthy brain function. Yet we know comparatively little about the rich broth of microbes and chemicals in the air around us, even though we inhale them with every breath.

That struck Stanford University genomics researcher Michael Snyder as a major knowledge gap, as he pursued long-term research using biological markers to understand and predict the development of disease in human test subjects. “The one thing that was missing was their exposure” to microbes and chemicals in the air, Snyder says. “Human health is clearly dependent not just on the genome or the microbiome, but on the environment. And sampling the environment was the big hole.”

In a new study published September 20 in Cell, Snyder and his co-authors aim to fix that, with a wearable device that monitors an individual’s daily Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Cool Tools | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Hello, My Name is Denisova 11. And Mom Is S-O-O-O-O Weird. Or Is It Dad?

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 22, 2018

Artist’s conception of a Neanderthal: This would be Denny’s mom.  (Photo: Joe McNally/National Geographic)

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

In a remarkable twist in the story line of early human evolution, scientists have announced the discovery of “Denisova 11”—a female who was at least 13 years old, lived more than 50,000 years ago, and was the child of an early mixed marriage.

That is, her parents were not just of different races, but two different and now-extinct early human types. Their exact taxonomic designations—whether they were separate species or subspecies—is still a matter of scientific debate. But the bottom line for Denisova 11 is that mom was a Neandertal and dad was a Denisovan.

The research, published Wednesday in Nature, is the work of a team led by pioneering paleogeneticist Svante Pääbo at Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. He and his co-authors presented the first description of the Denisovans in 2010, based on genetic evidence from one of the 2,000 or so bone fragments found in Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains,

The Telltale Bone, in 360 degrees (Photo Thomas Higham/Oxford University)

where Siberia borders Mongolia and China. The new discovery is based on another bone fragment from that lot, a 2.5-centimeter-long fragment of what was a femur or humerus, from which the researchers extracted six DNA samples and then cloned them for detailed analysis.

Molecular dating indicates that Denisovans, who are so far known only from Denisova Cave, and Neanderthals, known mainly from sites in Europe, diverged from each other almost 400,000 years ago. They coexisted, probably in relatively small populations scattered across the vast Eurasian landmass, until both became extinct some 30,000 to 40,000 years ago.

But the genetic evidence from Denisova 11 and other recent studies suggests that, on the occasions when they met, Denisovans and Neandertals commonly Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Sex & Reproduction, The Primate File | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

India’s The Tiger Capital of the World. Here’s How It Could Do 5X Better

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 9, 2018

Sunderbans National Park, West Bengal, India (Photo: Soumyajit Nandy/ Wikimedia)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

Ullas Karanth, a senior scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, is one of the world’s premier tiger experts and a leader in the effort to restore India’s depleted tiger populations. Raised in the South India state of Karnataka, he has spent much of his professional life studying and working to bring back tigers there, starting in Nagarahole National Park in the foothills of the Western Ghats, and then across a 10,000-square-mile region of that mountain range.

Karanth’s emphasis on scientific methods has frequently brought him into conflict with India’s forest bureaucracy, particularly over its insistence on estimating tiger populations based on footprint counts. Karanth instead pioneered the use of camera traps for population estimates based on identification of individual tigers. That method belatedly became the national standard after a 2004 scandal, when Sariska Tiger Reserve, officially estimated to have 26 tigers, turned out to have none.

Karanth’s willingness to report illegal logging, cattle grazing, and poaching in protected areas — and to implicate corrupt officials in the damage — has also earned him enemies. In one incident, an angry mob set a fire that destroyed his car, laboratory, and eight square miles of forest. But Karanth’s persistence has helped reestablish the tiger population in the Western Ghats and fueled his ambition to see that success extended across India and to empty tiger habitat far beyond.

Richard Conniff: India has managed to maintain a population of about 3,000 tigers for decades. What’s the potential population in a nation that’s also home to 1.3 billion people?

Ullas Karanth: There are at least 300,000 square kilometers of the type of forest in which tigers can live, which are still not converted to agriculture and which are under state ownership, protected as state-owned forest reserves. A subset of that, maybe 10 or 15 percent, is protected as wildlife reserves. So basically if all these 300,000 square kilometers were reasonably well protected and the prey base is brought up, we could have 10,000 to 15,000 tigers.

Conniff Is there any chance that that will happen?

Karanth: I don’t see why not. It’s essentially a function of Read the rest of this entry »

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

Selling the Protected Area Myth (No Wildlife Need Apply)

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 11, 2018

Chevron’s Gas Plant Being Built in a Class A Protected Area

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

It’s widely celebrated as one of the few success stories in the push to protect the wildlife we claim to love: Since the early 1990s, governments have roughly doubled the extent of natural areas under protection, with almost 15 percent of the terrestrial Earth and perhaps 5 percent of the oceans now set aside for wildlife. From 2004 to 2014, nations designated an astonishing 43,000 new protected areas.

These numbers are likely to increase, as the 168 nations that are signatories to the 1993 Convention on Biological Diversity work to meet their target of 17 percent terrestrial and 10 percent marine protected area coverage by 2020. And at that point, even more ambitious targets should kick in.

So, hurrah, right?

Sadly, there are two big delusions at work here. The first is that designating protected areas is Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Environmental Issues | 10 Comments »

Dawn of The Flying Murder Heads

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 15, 2018

The bristling teeth of Anhanguera piscator were for snagging fish. (Photo: Robert Clark)

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By Richard Conniff/National Geographic

Heading out into the geological layer cake of Big Bend National Park in southwestern Texas, British pterosaur researcher Dave Martill proposes a “to do” list for this brief reconnaissance: 1.) Find a rattlesnake to admire. 2.) “Find a complete Quetzalcoatlus skull sitting on the ground.” The odds are almost infinitely better for item one.  But he and Nizar Ibrahim, a fellow paleontologist, promptly fall into a detailed discussion about how to obtain a research permit in the event of item two.

This is the first rule of pterosaur research: You need to be an optimist. Thinking you will go out on a given day and find any trace of pterosaurs—the winged dragons that ruled Mesozoic skies for 162 million years–is like buying a Powerball ticket and expecting to win. Pterosaur fossils are vanishingly rare. Their whole splendid world, built on hollow bones with paper-thin walls, has long since collapsed into dust. Scarcity is especially the rule for Quetzalcoatlus northropi, thought to be one of the largest flying animals that ever lived, nearly as tall as a giraffe, with a 35-foot wingspan, and a likely penchant for picking off baby dinosaurs.  It’s known from a few fragments discovered at Big Bend in 1971, and not much else.

Ibrahim and Martill at Big Bend (Photo: Richard Conniff)

Martill and Ibrahim spend three days bone-hunting among the fissured hillsides. They cross and re-cross the promisingly named “Pterodactyl Ridge,” frequently consulting the “x-marks-the-spot” on maps left by the discoverer of Quetzalcoatlus. They decipher the nuances of geological strata (“Look at that Malinkovitch-controlled cyclicity!” Martill exclaims, referring to the way the Earth’s shifting movements show up in the rock), and they conjure up forgotten worlds. On a sandstone ridge with no obvious way down, Martill remarks, “Haven’t found a mountain yet we can’t fall down,” plunges forward, and emerges unscathed below, eyes fixed on the passing landscape.

They do not, however, stumble across any rattlesnakes, nor even the faintest whiff of a pterosaur. The femur of an Alamosaurus, the largest North American dinosaur that ever lived, turns up, by way of consolation. But dinosaurs are not pterosaurs, or vice versa. Leaving the park, the two paleontologists are already mapping out a return search for Quetzalcoatlus, permanently hooked on the tantalizing pterosaur mix of extreme biological richness glimpsed through the rarest of fossil remains.

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Optimism against all odds has, however, lately begun to look almost reasonable in pterosaur research, with a rush of discoveries revealing Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity | Tagged: , , , , | 7 Comments »

Back from Extinction: Baja’s Very Cute Kangaroo Rat

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 20, 2018

Last year, I wrote about a major international effort to rediscover lost–and supposedly extinct–species.  This one isn’t part of that effort, run by the group Global Wildlife Conservation, but they’ll be as delighted by the discovery as I am. Here’s the press release from … well, you can figure it out from the first eight words :

Researchers from the San Diego Natural History Museum (The Nat) and the non-profit organization Terra Peninsular A.C. have rediscovered the San Quintin kangaroo rat (Dipodomys gravipes) in Baja California; the Museum is partnering with the organization and local authorities on a conservation plan for the species.

The San Quintin kangaroo rat was last seen in 1986, and was listed as endangered by the Mexican government in 1994. It was held as an example of modern extinction due to agricultural conversion. In the past few decades, San Quintin, which lies 118 miles south of Ensenada, has become Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction | Leave a Comment »

Plant Messiah Among the Living Dead

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 14, 2018

Magdalena and his beloved water lilies

by Richard Conniff/Wall Street Journal

Not long ago, while teaching a couple of college courses about the natural world, I plucked a random selection of tree leaves on my way into class and asked my students to identify them. These were Yale and Wesleyan students, all highly educated and aware of the world around them—and most of them could not even name oak leaves.

They were suffering from what botanists call “plant blindness”: the tendency to take plants for granted as the undifferentiated green backdrop to our lives. It’s an epidemic, compounded by our penchant for plowing down forests and meadows everywhere, oblivious that what we are destroying is ourselves.

Plant Messiah Cover
“Plants are the basis of everything, either directly or indirectly,” Carlos Magdalena writes in “The Plant Messiah.” “Plants provide the air we breathe; plants clothe us, heal us, and protect us. Plants provide our shelter, our daily food, and our drink.” He counts 31,128 plant species used by humans, and adds that without plants “we would not survive. It is as simple as that.”

Mr. Magdalena, a botanical horticulturalist at London’s Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, writes that he got dubbed “the plant messiah” by a Spanish journalist, for his work “trying to save plants on the brink of extinction,” and also for his “post-biblical (but pre-hipster) beard and long hair.” Taking the name to heart, Mr. Magdalena writes that curing us of plant blindness is the miracle he would like to accomplish.

Thankfully, he does not do much sermonizing on behalf of this mission. Instead, he takes the reader on a lively account of his own transformation from bartender in Spain to Kew horticulturalist in training, clinging much too far up a chestnut-leaved oak in a windstorm, “trying to comfort myself by musing on the tracheids, ray cells, and lignin—which I had seen on the microscope slides—that ensure the trunk won’t snap.”

Mr. Magdalena soon makes a reputation for obsessively experimenting with the arcane sexual behaviors of plants that are the last of their kind and unable to reproduce on their own—the Lonesome Georges of the botanical world. His first case is the café marron tree, considered extinct until a solitary example turns up in 1979 beside a road on the Indian Ocean island of Rodrigues. Someone promptly chops it down, an appallingly common outcome in Mr. Magdalena’s stories. But a few branches Read the rest of this entry »

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

Habitat on Our Doorsteps: Making Room for Wildlife in an Urbanized World

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 3, 2018

(Illustration: Luisa Rivera)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

One morning not long ago, in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, I traveled with a Wildlife Conservation Society biologist on a switchback route up and over the high ridge of the Western Ghats. Our itinerary loosely followed the corridor connecting Bhadra Tiger Reserve with Kudremakh National Park 30 miles to the south.

In places, we passed beautiful shade coffee plantations, with an understory of coffee plants, and pepper vines — a second cash crop — twining up the trunks of the shade trees. Coffee plantations managed in this fashion, connected to surviving patches of natural forest, “provide continuous camouflage for the predators,” — especially tigers moving through by night, my guide explained, and wildlife conflict was minimal.  Elsewhere, though, the corridor narrowed to a thread winding past sprawling villages, and conservationists played a double game, part handholding to help people live with large predators on their doorsteps, part legal combat to keep economic interests from nibbling into the wildlife corridor from both sides. It was a microcosm of how wildlife hangs on these days, not just in India, but almost everywhere in the world.

For conservationists, protecting biodiversity has in recent years become much less about securing new protected areas in pristine habitat and more about Read the rest of this entry »

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Our Love for Exotic Pets is Emptying the Natural World

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 21, 2017

Fennec fox belongs in the Sahara, not your living room.

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

Conservation biologist David S. Wilcove was on a birding trip to Sumatra in 2012 when he began to notice that house after house in every village he visited had cages hanging outside, inhabited by the sort of wild birds he had expected to see in the forest. Nationwide, one in five households keeps birds as pets. That got him thinking, “What is this doing to the birds?”

Wilcove, who teaches at Princeton University, made a detour to the Pramuka bird market in Jakarta, Southeast Asia’s largest market for birds and other wildlife, from fruit bats to macaques. “It was this sort of Wal-Mart-size space filled with hundreds of stalls,” he recalls, “each stall of which was filled with hundreds of birds. An awful lot of them were in very poor condition, with signs of disease, feathers frayed, behaving listlessly–or thrashing around in their cages, because a lot of these are wild birds that are not at all suited to living as caged birds.” Some were species that even zoos with highly trained professional staff cannot maintain in captivity; they would die soon after purchase, “the cut flower syndrome,” he remarks. “It was really a shocking site. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Research by Wilcove and his colleagues subsequently linked demand for birds in Indonesia’s pet marketplace to the decline Read the rest of this entry »

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