strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

  • Richard Conniff

  • Reviews for Richard Conniff’s Books


    Ending Epidemics: A History of Escape from Contagion: “Ending Epidemics is an important book, deeply and lovingly researched, written with precision and elegance, a sweeping story of centuries of human battle with infectious disease. Conniff is a brilliant historian with a jeweler’s eye for detail. I think the book is a masterpiece.” Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer

    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)

  • Wall of the Dead

  • Categories

Archive for the ‘Biomimicry’ Category

Animal Music Monday: Rockin’ Robin

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 25, 2016

Leon René, a West Coast R&B producer and composer, had an ornithological hit with this song, released in 1958 by Bobby Day. It fits with a tradition, dating back to the Middle Ages, of trying to imitate birdsong in music. Both René and Day found gold in the animal music theme.  Just the year before, Day sang “Buzz Buzz Buzz” with the Fabulous Flames.  René, born in 1902, had written the very 1940s hit “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano,” later performed by Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biomimicry, Funny Business, Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Seven Ways to Make Your City Wildlife Friendly

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 14, 2015

(Photo: Getty Images)

(Photo: Getty Images)

A few years ago I was visiting the west Baltimore neighborhood that inspired the American television series Homicide and The Wire. It was an urban wasteland, the brick row houses largely abandoned and boarded over. Whoever used to live here had long since gone away. Then we turned a corner onto North Carrollton Avenue, and for one city block it was a miracle:  Handsome old trees formed a green canopy over the street. The houses were occupied and well tended. Someone was selling flavored ices at a stand in the shade in the middle of the block. The trees, a local woman told me, made all the difference, shading the houses, filtering the air, and making it easier to breathe. There were birds and squirrels in the branches overhead.

That visit comes to mind because I have been thinking lately about ways to make cities more livable, for people and wildlife alike. The rapid urbanization of the Earth is the dominant movement of this century, and the sprawling, unplanned growth of cities and suburbs tends to leave behind patches of greenery only by accident—a few neglected parks, some street trees here and there, and the occasional sliver of protected land. Wildlife gets crowded out and pushed toward extinction.

Plenty of studies have already demonstrated that street trees and other green spaces tend to reduce crime, improve health, build stronger neighborhoods, encourage investment in housing stock, slow stormwater runoff and lower pollution. So let’s focus on the wildlife for now. Cities are not ideal wildlife habitat, but they are increasingly the only habitat. So what do we need to do to make room for wildlife in our increasingly urbanized world?

Plan for Green Space

Add some trees along a street, and you’ve got someplace where birds can rest or roost. Add a park at the end of that street, even a small one, and now you’ve got a spot where migrating birds can stop and eat on their way to or from their breeding grounds. Even adding just 150 square meters of green space—that’s 10 parking spaces—will bring one additional bird species into a neighborhood, according to a 2013 study by urban greening specialist Paige Warren at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. The green space can include a community garden that benefits human residents. Bees, butterflies, and other pollinators will also show up, said Warren, “even in very dense metropolitan areas like in Manhattan.”

Make those Green Spaces Connect

Multiple parks or gardens that are connected make for exponentially

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biomimicry | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Limpet, What Strong Teeth You Have!

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 5, 2015


I saw this macrophotograph of a limpet’s incredibly gothic teethSorry, make that goethite teeth, apparently incorporating one of the strongest materials known to man.  Anyway, it made me think about this poem by the impudent rascal Peter Dance:

I dislike the Limpet
always have and always will
watching it needs overtime
all it does is stay quite still
I so dislike the Limpet
to kill it would be easy
perpetrating such a crime
would not make me feel queasy.
Oh I dislike the Limpet
clamped so far as I can tell
on the same old rock all day
just a sucker in a shell.

 To which Dance’s outraged fellow members of the Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland responded with a torrent of  incensed replies (though in one case, including something like a recipe).  Go, limpet lovers, go!

Meanwhile, here’s the press release on those wicked teeth. (And let’s just overlook the desperate news office writer–and the scientist!–who want to turn limpet teeth into Formula One race cars; this is a topic worthy of an entirely different kind of outraged poem.  The press release–a triumph of biomimicry wannabes over natural history–also neglects to answer the essential question of why limpets need such strong teeth to eat algae.)  But I digress:

Limpet teeth might be the strongest natural material known to humans, a new study has found.

Researchers from the University of Portsmouth have discovered that limpets — small aquatic snail-like creatures with conical shells — have teeth with biological structures so strong they could be copied to make

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biomimicry, Cool Tools | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Shape Shifter

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 7, 2013


(Photo: Cally Harper)

(Photo: Cally Harper)

Tongues can do delightful and astonishing things. I am thinking of the way a frog fires its sticky tongue halfway across the universe to snag a passing insect (see below). Or how an alligator snapping turtle wriggles its tongue like a worm as a dinner invitation to fish. And now the Pallas’s long-tongued bat (Glossophaga sorcina) joins this elite club of astonishing animal tongue artists.

These bats, found from Argentina to northern Mexico, and sometimes into Arizona and New Mexico, have the fastest metabolism ever recorded in a mammal, says a 2007 study in the journal Nature. They burn half their body fat each day, and have to make up for it at night by consuming as much as 150 percent of their body weight in nectar from flowers. And of course, they have to do it on the wing. According to a study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, the secret to its success is a remarkable ability to change the shape of its tongue into a hemodynamic—or blood-swollen—“nectar mop.”

When lead author Cally Harper, a doctoral candidate in biomechanics at Brown University in Rhode Island, began her study, specialists already knew that bats of this species have an unusual fringe of hair-like structures around the tip of the tongue.  They assumed these were useful for collecting nectar—but passively, like raking icing off a cake using your fingernails. Biologists also knew that these bats have enlarged blood vessels in their tongues. But they didn’t know what to make of them. Harper had a hunch that the two features might be connected, especially since …  Read the full article here.

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

Why Eyespots? The Better to Scare Spiders

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 13, 2013

Baby blues on an Antheraea polyphemus

Baby blues on an Antheraea polyphemus (Photo: Howard Ensign Evans, Colorado State Univ.)

Eye  spots on animals have always intrigued and occasionally alarmed me.  Like most naturalists, I always assumed that they had evolved on butterflies and other small animals to scare off birds, snakes, and other big, nasty predators.

Now it turns out that spiders, those underrated predators, may also drive natural selection of this trait.  Here’s the press release:

Mar. 12, 2013 — Since the time of Darwin 150 years ago, researchers have believed large predators like birds mainly influenced the evolution of coloration in butterflies. In the first behavioral study to directly test the defense mechanism of hairstreak butterflies, University of Florida lepidopterist Andrei Sourakov found that the appearance of a false head — a wing pattern found on hundreds of hairstreak butterflies worldwide — was 100 percent effective against attacks from a jumping spider. The research published online March 8 in the Journal of Natural History shows small arthropods, rather than large vertebrate predators, may influence butterfly evolution.

“Everything we observe out there has been blamed on birds: aposematic coloration, mimicry and various defensive patterns like eyespots,” said study author Andrei Sourakov, a collection coordinator at the Florida Museum of Natural History’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity on the UF campus. “It’s a big step in general and a big leap of faith to realize that a creature as tiny as a jumping spider, whose brain and life span are really small compared to birds, can actually be partially responsible for Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Biomimicry, Kill or Be Killed | Leave a Comment »

A Microbe to Keel-Haul Troubled Sinuses

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 19, 2013

Here’s a way to understand the stuffiness and thick nasal congestion of sinusitis: Imagine you are sailing some hulk of a freighter through the Sargasso Sea enveloped in a fog as thick as a pillow.

So the latest news from biomimicry fits just right.

Researchers who originally studied a marine microbe with the idea of using it to help strip crud off the hulls of ships have  instead discovered that they can use it to clean out troubled sinuses.

Here’s the press release from Newcastle University:

Feb. 18, 2013 — A team of scientists and surgeons from Newcastle are developing a new nasal spray from a marine microbe to help clear chronic sinusitis.

They are using an enzyme isolated from a marine bacterium Bacillus licheniformis found on the surface of seaweed, which the scientists at Newcastle University were originally researching for the purpose of cleaning the hulls of ships.

Publishing  recently in PLOS ONE, they describe how in many cases of chronic sinusitis the bacteria form a biofilm, a slimy protective barrier which can protect them from Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biomimicry | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Moth Says Pimp My Ride, Drives Robot to Sex

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 6, 2013

This one really needs a photo, or maybe a cartoon.   It’s like a 17-year-old boy with the keys to his Dad’s Mustang out trying to pick up girls.    Here’s the report from ScienceDaily:

 A small, two-wheeled robot has been driven by a male silkmoth to track down the sex pheromone usually given off by a female mate.The robot has been used to characterize the silkmoth’s tracking behaviors and it is hoped that these can be applied to other autonomous robots so they can track down smells, and the subsequent sources, of environmental spills and leaks when fitted with highly sensitive sensors.

The results have been published 6 February, in IOP Publishing’s journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics.

The male silkmoth was chosen as the ‘driver’ of the robot due to its characteristic ‘mating dance’ when reacting to the sex pheromone of the female. Once the male is stimulated Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biomimicry | 1 Comment »

Fashionable Slime

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 29, 2012

Sooner or later we all have to eat our words, and today it’s my slimy turn.  Here’s part of what I wrote about slime eels, also known as hagfish, in my 1996 book Spineless Wonders:  Strange Tales of the Invertebrate World:

Among other habits that have endeared them to seafarers, slime eels like to enter dead or dying bodies on the ocean bot­tom by way of mouth, gills, or anus, and gobble up everything except bones and skin, which remain intact. Fish immobilized in gill nets are particularly susceptible. In one study in the Gulf of Maine, slime eels gutted 3 percent to 5 percent of the catch. J. B. Heiser, a biologist at Cornell University’s Shoals Marine Laboratory in Maine, describes what’s left of the fish as “a bag of bones, literally . .. like it had been sucked dry by a high- powered vacuum cleaner.”

Slime eels are often still inside the fish when the bloated gill net spills its contents onto the fisherman’s deck, and Heiser, who has opened up several specimens, says the hags ensconced in their victim are typically well-fed and at ease, “smiling, slimy, usually snoring—gently.” In one case, the record, a single cod contained 123 slime eels, in a pink, wriggling mass.

It is a disheartening sight for fishermen, touching some source of horror beyond mere economic loss. One fisheries ex­pert has attributed this horror to the slime itself: “Being worth­less . . . the hag is an unmitigated nuisance, and a particularly loathsome one owing to its habit of pouring out slime from its mucous sacs in quantity out of all proportion to its small size. One hag, it is said, can easily fill a two-gallon bucket, nor do we think this any exaggeration.”

But, oh, how wrong, how terribly narrow-minded, of both me and my nameless expert, because hagfish slime is apparently destined to become the stuff of high fashion.  ScienceDaily reports:

Nylon, Kevlar and other synthetic fabrics: Step aside. If new scientific research pans out, people may be sporting shirts, blouses and other garments made from fibers modeled after those in the icky, super-strong slime from Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biomimicry, Cool Tools | Leave a Comment »

An Eyeful of Natural Selection

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 1, 2012

(Photo selection from Rainforest Journeys)

You are looking at the hind end  [see correction below] of various rainforest caterpillars.  But if you thought for just a moment that you were looking at snakes or lizards, well, so do a lot of predators.  And that’s the point.

These false eye spots give defenseless caterpillars a moment of protection, startling birds, for instance, into sudden retreat.  The caterpillars that don’t have that startle effect get eaten up.  Thus natural selection has made the trait widespread in the caterpillar world.

Posted in Biodiversity, Biomimicry, Cool Tools, Evolution, Fear & Courage | 2 Comments »

Biomimicry and Bullet Trains

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 28, 2011


The BBC has a roundup of some of the ways the natural world is shaping industrial design:

For instance, a Canadian firm Whirlpower mimics humpback whale flippers and uses the principle on wind turbines and fans, reducing the drag and increasing the lift.

A paint company Lodafen applies the lotus effect, mimicking the shape of the bump on a lotus leaf.

Lotus leaves are self-cleaning – they have tiny bumps that help remove the dirt when it rains.

Lodafen uses the principle in architecture designs – and in Europe, there are more than 350,000 buildings that have this kind of paint.

The design of the fastest train in the world, Shinkansen bullet train in Japan, was inspired by the beak of a kingfisher.

“And of course the high-speed train, Shinkansen bullet train in Japan – it’s the fastest train in the world, traveling 200 miles per hour.

“Instead of having a rounded front, it has something that looks like a beak of a kingfisher, a bird that goes from air to water, one density of medium to another,” she adds.

You can read the full article here.

And digging through the debris in my office, I just came across another roundup from an airline magazine, Hemispheres, back in January.  The writer is Tiffany Meyers:

When Kaichang Li, a science professor at Oregon State University, discovered that the blue mussel’s sticky fibers resemble soy flour’s proteins, he developed a nontoxic, soy-flour- based adhesive, called PureBond Technology. For Columbia Forest Products, manufacturer of hardwood plywood and veneer, it was the end of a competitive scramble to find an alternative to the pricey, carcinogenic industry standard: urea- formaldehyde-based glue.

Nature-inspired design might even correct our overindulgences. The intemperate use of antibiotics has given rise to drug-resistant bacteria like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a “superbug” that causes difficult-to-treat, drug-resistant infections and beleaguers hospitals. In 2005, MRSA killed more than 19,000 people in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control. The cure? Sharks. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biomimicry | Leave a Comment »