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Archive for the ‘Biodiversity’ Category

Will “Flexibility” Benefit Threatened Beach Birds?

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 6, 2016

Young piping plovers. (Photo: Shawn Patrick Ouellette/'Portland Press Herald' via Getty Images)

Young piping plovers. (Photo: Shawn Patrick Ouellette/’Portland Press Herald’ via Getty Images)

My latest for

Visiting Nantucket a few years ago, I was dismayed to hear some of the island’s wealthy retirees complaining that the damned piping plovers were keeping them from their chosen fishing spots. The plovers, small beach-nesting birds, are a threatened species along the Atlantic Coast and endangered in the Midwest. And I had naively assumed that people with the money to summer in one of the world’s priciest destinations might have a little sympathy for birds that barely manage to survive at all on the open beach.

Not so. The recreational fishermen were determined to drive their off-road vehicles out the sandy spit of land called Great Point to their favorite surf-casting spots, and they were enraged that designated protected areas and buffer zones around plover nests blocked certain areas in breeding season.

So it caught my eye the other day when I saw that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is currently seeking public comment on a draft proposal to give Massachusetts beach managers more flexibility in determining how to protect piping plovers. “Flexibility” is often a code word for letting noisy constituents prevail over good science, and my suspicions increased when I read that an FWS spokeswoman was describing the change as “a solution that works for people and plovers.”

For such small and unobtrusive birds, piping plovers have elicited an extraordinary amount of animosity over the years. That’s because Read the rest of this entry »

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

Walk on the Wild Side! A Tale of Wine & Sex in the Vineyard

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 19, 2016

(Photo: Timm Schamberger/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo: Timm Schamberger/AFP/Getty Images)

My latest for

Some of the finest things on Earth—among them beer, bread, and wine—depend on yeast. But after more than 5000 years of reliance on its powers, and endless modern research into yeast genetics, we knew almost nothing until recently about its natural history. The many strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the fungus we call yeast, were considered entirely domesticated, the cats and dogs of fermentation.

That began to change a few years ago, when researchers in Italy discovered that yeast has a wilder side. It summers on ripening fruit, which is how we first discovered its magical ability to turn humble grapes into wine. But it overwinters, the researchers reported, in the guts of social wasps, as the wasps are hibernating through the winter, sealed within the trunks of oak trees.

With a new study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the natural history of yeast has just become even richer. If Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the common yeast we buy at the supermarket, is the household pet of brewing, Saccharomyces paradoxus is its wild cousin, Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Food & Drink | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Hope for Wildlife in the New Year

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 31, 2015

This is from Dr. Cristián Samper of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). He takes a closer focus on government action than I normally do, because I am a cynic about such things.  But I’m hoping he’s right, and it’s worth a read for that reason:

Yes, wildlife across the globe faces threats from all angles, including climate change; over-hunting and over-fishing; illegal wildlife trade; and habitat destruction and degradation. But during this past year, I found a spirit of hope for wildlife.

In 2015, countries across the globe took important steps on behalf of wildlife that provided hope for their future protection. (Photo: Mileniusz Spanowicz ©WCS)

As I reflect on 2015, here are a few of the events that will have a positive impact on wildlife and wild places: Some were taken by the global community and others on a national or local level. I’ve included some of the actions where WCS is leading the way. Thankfully, this list of wildlife wins in 2015 could be even longer. So, I welcome hearing about more actions you think were great for wildlife this past year. I will be sure to Tweet those additions to show them support. [Note: You can follow Samper on Twitter @CristianSamper.]

  1. Paris Climate Summit: The agreements in Paris at the Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was a major step forward in 2015 for wildlife and for all life on our planet. The climate accord, agreed to by 195 countries, shows a commitment by the global community to reduce the greenhouse gases warming our planet. One aspect of the accord not given a lot of attention was recognition of the urgent need to take significant actions to reduce emissions of CO2 caused by deforestation, representing around 15% of global emissions (more than all the cars, trucks, and airplanes in the world combined). This push to save intact forests is good for all life and protects wildlife habitat and Read the rest of this entry »

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

Bright Lights, Big Predators

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 19, 2015


(Illustration: Andrew Holder, by permission)

My latest for The New York Times:

IT was tea break one afternoon this past May, in a business park in Mumbai, one of the world’s most crowded cities. The neighborhood was chockablock with new 35-story skyscrapers adorned with Greek temples on top. On the seventh-floor deck of one building, 20-something techies took turns playing foosball and studying the wooded hillside in back through a brass ship captain’s spyglass.

They were looking at a leopard, also on tea break, up a favorite tree where it goes to loaf many afternoons around 4:30. That is, it was a wild leopard living unfenced and apparently well fed in the middle of the city, on a dwindling forest patch roughly the size of Central Park between 59th and 71st Streets. When I hiked the hillside the next day, I found a massive slum just on the other side, heavy construction equipment nibbling at the far end, and a developer’s private helipad up top. And yet the leopard seemed to have mastered the art of avoiding people, going out by night to pick off dogs, cats, chickens, pigs, rats and other camp followers of human civilization.

Welcome to the future of urban living. Predators are turning up in cities everywhere, and living among us mostly without incident. Big, scary predators, at that. Wolves now live next door to Rome’s main airport, and around Hadrian’s Villa, just outside the city. A mountain lion roams the Hollywood Hills and has his own Facebook page. Coyotes have turned all of Chicago into their territory. Great white sharks, attracted by …

Click here to read the rest of the article.

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

Your Pretty Face is an Ecosystem

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 14, 2015

The genus name "Demodex" means "lard worm" and they live on your forehead. (Photo: All Species Wiki)

The genus name “Demodex” means “lard worm” and they live on your forehead. (Photo: All Species Wiki)

My latest for

When people talk about wildlife, they’re generally thinking about wolves running through forests, or maybe squirrels skittering around the neighborhood trees.  But let’s look a bit closer to home: Blink.  Wildlife just took a ride on your eyelashes.  If that makes you lift your eyebrows in puzzlement (or dismay), well, there’s animals in your eyebrows, too.

In fact, your face is an ecosystem of long standing for two species, which have been passed on for generations in your family. They probably climbed aboard while you were nursing at your mother’s breast.  Demodex folliculorum has evolved to live in human hair follicles. Its cousin Demodex brevis ensconces itself slightly deeper in the microhabitat of your sebaceous glands.

Follicle mites, as they are commonly known, are distant relatives of spiders.  They eat our dead skin cells, or maybe the oils, bacteria, and fungi on our skin, and they are, I should quickly add, utterly harmless.  It’s even possible they perform some sort of housekeeping service, making us mutually beneficial: We give them habitat, they minimize zits.  But no one really knows for sure.  In any case, mites have co-evolved with humans and pre-humans for millions of years.

A study released Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that mites may also provide a sort of skin-deep view of our genealogy and shed new light on

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity | Leave a Comment »

Terrific Video of Siberian Tiger Cubs

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 24, 2015

This just came in from the Wildlife Conservation Society.  It’s camera trap video of rarely seen Amur tigers from Russia’s Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve.

Fewer than 500 of them survive in the wild. But here you can see an adult female trailed by three of her big cubs.  I’m using a Twitter link here, so hoping this works:

The cats are using an overgrown forest road as a travel corridor; the same type of road patrolled by poachers with spotlights. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Cool Tools | Leave a Comment »

Hey, Science Fiction! Face it: Reality is Weirder

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 27, 2015

(Photo: Piotr Naskrecki)

(Photo: Piotr Naskrecki)

This is the latest of many bizarre insect images the entomologist and photographer Piotr Naskrecki posts at his website The Smaller Majority.  He found these characters in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, where most people think wildlife means only those hairy things with four legs Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Funny Business, Read That Face | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Moth Loves Tobacco, Booze, Good Times

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 11, 2015


This photo appears in The Guardian‘s selection “This Week in Wildlife” and the caption pretty well says it all:

Nature lovers hope to attract the huge convolvulus hawk-moth to their gardens with tobacco and alcohol. The moths like to feed on the nectar of tobacco plants and wine-soaked ropes

Photograph: Keith Baldie/PA

I think they mean Agrius convolvuli, found at all the best spots Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Food & Drink, Funny Business | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

No, Rachel Carson Was Not a Mass Murderer

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 10, 2015

My latest for Yale Environment 360:

Any time a writer mentions Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring or the subsequent U.S. ban on DDT, the loonies come out of the woodwork. They blame Carson’s book for ending the use of DDT as a mosquito-killing pesticide. And because mosquitoes transmit malaria, that supposedly makes her culpable for just about every malaria death of the past half century.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank, devotes an entire website to the notion that “Rachel was wrong,” asserting that “millions of people around the world suffer the painful and often deadly effects of malaria because one person sounded a false alarm.” Likewise former U.S. Senator Tom Coburn has declared that “millions of people, particularly children under five, died because governments bought into Carson’s junk science claims about DDT.” The novelist Michael Crichton even had one of his fictional characters assert that “Banning DDT killed more people than Hitler.” He put the death toll at 50 million.

Carson-w-book-1-340It’s worth considering the many errors in this argument both because malaria remains an epidemic problem in much of the developing world and also because groups like the Competitive Enterprise Institute, backed by corporate interests, have latched onto DDT as a case study for undermining all environmental regulation.

The first thing worth remembering is that it wasn’t Rachel Carson who banned DDT. It was the very Republican Nixon Administration, in 1972. Moreover, the ban applied only in the United States, and even there it made an exception for public health uses. The ban was intended to prevent the imminent extinction of ospreys, peregrine falcons, and bald eagles, our national bird, among other species; they were vulnerable because DDT caused a fatal thinning of eggshells, which collapsed under the weight of the parent incubating them. But the ban did nothing to stop Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues, Fear & Courage | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Survivalist Art Show on Wings

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 3, 2015

Yes, she/he is winking at your coyly. (New species Automeris amanda. Saturnidae) All photos: Mileniusz Spanowicz WCS

Yes, she/he is winking at your coyly. (New species Automeris amanda. Saturnidae)

A new geometrid moth

A new geometrid moth

 Xylophanes amadis

Xylophanes amadis

Oospila albicoma matura

Oospila albicoma matura

Here’s the press release from the Wildlife Conservation Society:

WCS has released a stunning gallery of images of some of the moths uncovered by the groundbreaking Bolivian scientific expedition, Identidad Madidi. A staggering 10,000 species of moths may live in Madidi National Park – considered the most biodiverse protected area on the planet. The moths were found in the montane savannas and gallery forests of the Apolo region.

The expedition’s entomologist, Fernando Guerra Serrudo, Associate Researcher of the Bolivian Faunal Collection and the Institute of Ecology, said of Madidi’s moths: “Moths are often very beautiful and present a diversity of shapes and patterns. In Bolivia, several species are known locally as ‘taparaku’ and feared because of the belief that when they are found in a house they indicate that someone in that home will die.  In most cases the adults of these species do not feed and have very poorly developed mandibles. The whole purpose of their life is to reproduce.”

Identidad Madidi is a multi-institutional effort to describe still unknown species and to showcase the wonders of Bolivia’s extraordinary natural heritage at home and abroad. The expedition officially began on June 5th, 2015 and will eventually visit 14 sites lasting for 18 months as a team of Bolivian scientists works to expand existing knowledge on Madidi’s birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and fish along an altitudinal pathway descending more than 5,000 meters (more than 16,000 feet) from the mountains of the high Andes into the tropical Amazonian forests and grasslands of northern Bolivia.

The first leg of the expedition, which concluded last month, uncovered a new frog, three probable new catfish, and a new lizard. The expedition currently underway is exploring three sites in the High Andes of Madidi, specifically within the Puina valley between 3,750 meters and 5,250 meters above sea level in Yungas paramo grasslands, Polylepis forests and high mountain puna vegetation.

Participating institutions in Identidad Madidi include the Ministry of the Environment and Water, the Bolivian National Park Service, the Vice Ministry of Science and Technology, Madidi National Park, the Bolivian Biodiversity Network, WCS, the Institute of Ecology, Bolivian National Herbarium, Bolivian Faunal Collection and Armonia with funding from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and WCS.

You can follow the expedition online at, #IDMadidi.”


Posted in Biodiversity | Leave a Comment »


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