strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

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Archive for the ‘Cool Tools’ Category

Eye in the Sky on Nature: Satellites are Transforming Conservation

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 22, 2017

Satellite image of the Sundarbans coastal forest in Bangladesh, home to the endangered Bengal tiger. NASA

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

As recently as the 1980s, gray seals were effectively extinct on Cape Cod. So when researchers announced last week that the population there has recovered not to 15,000 gray seals, the previous official estimate, but to as many as 50,000, it was dramatic evidence of how quickly conservation can sometimes work.

But the researchers, writing in the journal BioScience, weren’t just interested in the seals. They also sought to demonstrate the rapidly evolving potential of satellites to count and monitor wildlife populations and to answer big questions about the natural world.  That’s still news to many wildlife ecologists, according to senior author David W. Johnston, of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment.  Ecologists have been slow to incorporate satellite data in their work so far, in part because their training and culture are about going into the field to get to know their study subjects at first hand. The perspective from outer space has not necessarily seemed all that relevant.

But the rapidly growing abundance and sophistication of satellite imagery and remote sensing data is about to change that:  “High-resolution earth imagery sources Read the rest of this entry »

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Fantastic Bloody Pigeon! (Or Hitchcock Nightmare)

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 5, 2017

Bloody pigeon (Photo: Wellcome Images/Scott Echols)

Bloody pigeon (Photo: Wellcome Images/Scott Echols)

The Wellcome Trust presents an annual award for scientific imagery, and two of this year’s winners (above and below) caught my eye for the new ways in which they reveal the natural world.  Think of the one above as new insight into the cardiovascular system of living (and extinct) dinosaurs.  Or just a bloody pigeon.

Here’s how The Guardian‘s Nicola Davis describes it:

Open-beaked against a jet-black background, the image of a bird leaps forth, a frenzy of red-and-white squirming lines hinting at its form. It looks like a still from a Hitchcockian nightmare. “It looks so cross, sort of squawking at you,” says Catherine Draycott, head of Wellcome Images.

In fact, the eerie shot is the product of

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Maggots for Bambi: Endangered Florida Deer Face a Gory Attack

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 7, 2016

Key deer--& sparing you the sight of maggots for Bambi. (Photo: Steve Waters/'Sun Sentinel'/MCT via Getty Images)

Key deer–& sparing you the sight of maggots for Bambi. (Photo: Steve Waters/’Sun Sentinel’/MCT via Getty Images)

by Richard Conniff/Takepart.com

Let’s face it: Key deer, a slightly smaller, stockier subspecies of the common white-tailed deer, had plenty of problems to start with. Only about 800 of them survive, confined to a few small islands in the Florida Keys. You could whip through their entire habitat in about 10 minutes on Route 1, and plenty of motorists do, incidentally killing about 150 of the deer every year. They’re on the endangered species list.

Sound bad? Early this week, it got much worse.

Staff at the National Key Deer Refuge found deer infested with maggots of the New World screwworm fly, an invasive species that hasn’t been seen in this country in half a century. The flies have a nasty habit of laying their eggs on open wounds, and when they hatch, the maggots feed by digging corkscrew holes into the flesh of the host animal.

“They’re in as gory Read the rest of this entry »

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Natural History Museums Go Digital & Science Benefits

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 29, 2016

(Photo: Richard Conniff)

(Photo: Richard Conniff)

by Richard Conniff/Takepart.com

Until the 1990s, at many prominent natural history museums, the staff would ritually log new specimens into their collections much as they did it 200 years ago, using a pen dipped in India ink to inscribe the details into a leather-bound volume.

It was Dickensian, and reliance on that sort of record keeping at museums everywhere was a major impediment to knowing where different specimens were located. That made it difficult, at best, for scientists to put those specimens to work making sense of our world. But this old roadblock is rapidly disappearing, because of the digitization of specimens at museums around the world. At the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands, recently, entomologist Eulàlia Gassó Miracle showed me how it works.

Before digitization. (Photo: Richard Conniff)

Before digitization. (Photo: Richard Conniff)

First, we took a look at what it’s like for scientists to begin to make sense of a collection that hasn’t been properly sorted—specifically tens of thousands of swallowtail butterflies collected by a Dutch physician, JMA van Groenendael, working in Java in the 1930s. A drawer-size sorting box held a dusty jumble of 20 or so of these specimens at a time, each contained in a wax paper envelope or a page of a colonial newspaper neatly folded into a triangle. The job was to open each specimen, photograph it, identify the species, record the information on a database, and place it in a properly labeled archival envelope for permanent storage. Now and then a rare specimen would be set aside to be pinned, or mounted, as if alive, in a collection drawer.

Van Groenendael and his wife had survived in a Japanese internment camp

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What a Lovely World of Liars and Frauds

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 18, 2016

Butterfies disguised as dead leaves inspired Alfred Russel Wallace’s work on evolutionary theory. (Photo: James Laing/Flickr)

Butterfies disguised as dead leaves held inspire Alfred Russel Wallace’s work on natural selection. (Photo: James Laing/Flickr)

by Richard Conniff/The Wall Street Journal

The notion that anything natural must be wholesome and good is, to be honest, idiotic. Polygamy is a natural behavior for some species. Infanticide is natural. Turning your mate into a post-coital snack is not only natural, it’s a strategy for reproductive success.

cheats-300x434We are not those species, fortunately, and “Cheats and Deceits” is not a how-to book for humans. The subtitle is “How Animals and Plants Exploit and Mislead.” Martin Stevens is an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Exeter and also a sensory ecologist. He studies disguise and deception as they appear not just to us but to other species, which may rely on chemical signals we can’t perceive or visual signals we can’t see. For instance: Soon after hatching, the caterpillar of the alcon blue butterfly drops to the ground, where one might expect it to be attacked and eaten by foraging ants. But this caterpillar instead gets carried back to the ants’ nest and fed as an honored guest.

This very hungry caterpillar is a fraud: Read the rest of this entry »

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I’m Really Hoping That’s Not a Bullet Ant on Justin’s Nose

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 6, 2016

Justin Schmidt being foolish.

Justin Schmidt being foolish.

I wrote about Justin Schmidt and the “Justin Schmidt Sting Pain Index” in my “intensely pleasurable” book Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals.  Here’s the opening to that chapter:

     One morning not long ago, an American entomologist named Justin Schmidt was making his way up the winding road to the Monteverde cloud forest in Costa Rica when he spotted Parachartergus fraternus, social wasps known both for the sculpted architecture of their hive and for the ferocity with which they defend it. This hive was ten feet up a tree, and the tree angled out from an eroded bank over a gorge. Schmidt, who specializes in the study of stinging insects, got out a plastic garbage bag and promptly shinnied up to bag the hive.

He had taken the precaution of putting on his beekeeper’s veil. Undeterred, the angry wasps charged at his face, scootched their hind ends under in midair, and,

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Posted in Biodiversity, Cool Tools, Fear & Courage, Funny Business | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Letting Fishermen Stake Out A Turf Saves Jobs–and Fish, Too

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 28, 2016

Gaffing a halibut. (Photo: Scott Dickerson/Getty Images)

Gaffing a halibut. (Photo: Scott Dickerson/Getty Images)

My latest for Takepart.com:

The way the world is currently consuming (and wasting) seafood, we will soon be living on our familiar blue planet, but with oceans that abound in plastic debris rather than marine life.

What if we could make a few relatively simple reforms and start seeing improved fisheries worldwide in just ten years?

What if those reforms could ensure that 98 percent of the world’s fisheries would be biologically healthy and feeding the world on a sustainable basis by 2050?

What if, finally, it doesn’t require the old, and deeply unpopular, method of shutting down fisheries and leaving fishing boats idle at the dock?

That all may sound too good to be true, and there are critics willing to say so.  But it’s achievable, according to a study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers looked at the current status and trends in 4,700 fisheries around the world, representing 78 percent of the world’s reported catch.  Then, they projected the future prospects of those fisheries under three different management regimes: business as usual, management to maximize long-term catch, or something called rights-based management.

Their conclusion is that rights-based-management simultaneously feeds more people, boosts profits, and protects the marine resource.

If rights-based management is so good, why aren’t we already doing it?

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Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Cool Tools, Food & Drink | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

When the Killing’s Done, Island Wildlife Roars Back

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 21, 2016

The world's only oceanic hummingbird, the Juan Fernandez Firecrown. (Photo: Island Conservation)

The world’s only oceanic hummingbird, the Juan Fernandez Firecrown. (Photo: Island Conservation)

My latest for Takepart.com:

For conservation biologist Holly Jones, one of the best experiences of her work on island wildlife was the night she went out hunting for a rare lizard-like creature called the tuatara on Stephens Island in New Zealand. The place was cacophonous with seabirds, which also happened to be attracted to her headlamp. At one point, she found herself sitting in the dark with birds in her lap, at her shoulders, and flapping endlessly around her head. It was like Hitchcock’s The Birds, she said, except that she was ecstatic to be part of this island explosion of life.

Stephens Island happens to be the site one of the most notorious episodes in the history of humanity’s enraptured—but rocky—affair with islands. In 1894, a crew of lighthouse keepers arrived there, bringing a cat named Tibbles with them. The cat was soon coming back to the lighthouse with small, flightless birds in its teeth. One of them turned out to be a new species, the Stephens Island Wren. Within a year or two, a rapidly expanding community of cats had driven it to extinction. By 1897, there were so many cats killing so many birds that a lighthouse keeper urged the authorities “to employ some means to destroy them.” It took another 27 years, but the successful effort to eradicate the cats was the chief reason such an abundance of seabirds survived to greet Holly Jones that night on Stephens Island.

What happened there is now standard conservation practice around the world to protect the incredible diversity of species on islands. Jones, an assistant professor at Northern Illinois University, is the lead author on a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that looks at the long-term effects of eradicating cats, rats, goats, pigs, and other invasive mammals from islands. On the 181 islands where biologists have conducted follow-up studies, Jones and her coauthors found that eradication turns out to be

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

How “Angel’s Glow” Saved Wounded Soldiers at Shiloh

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 29, 2016

578x391xACW-Shiloh.jpg.pagespeed.ic.kslKA8mV5mThis is a natural history story, from Mentalfloss.com though it might not sound like it at first.  It’s by Matt Soniak:

By the spring of 1862, a year into the American Civil War, Major General Ulysses S. Grant had pushed deep into Confederate territory along the Tennessee River. In early April, he was camped at Pittsburg Landing, near Shiloh, Tennessee, waiting for Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell’s army to meet up with him.

On the morning of April 6, Confederate troops based out of nearby Corinth, Mississippi, launched a surprise offensive against Grant’s troops, hoping to defeat them before the second army arrived. Grant’s men, augmented by the first arrivals from the Ohio, managed to hold some ground, though, and establish a battle line anchored with artillery. Fighting continued until after dark, and by the next morning, the full force of the Ohio had arrived and the Union outnumbered the Confederates by more than 10,000.

The Union troops began forcing the Confederates back, and while a counterattack stopped their advance it did not break their line. Eventually, the Southern commanders realized they could not win and fell back to Corinth until another offensive in August (for a more detailed explanation of the battle, see this animated history).

All told, the fighting at the Battle of Shiloh left more than 16,000 soldiers wounded and more 3,000 dead, and neither federal or Confederate medics were prepared for the carnage.

The bullet and bayonet wounds were bad enough on their own, but soldiers of the era

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Can We Save Bees by Using Them to Deliver Natural Pesticides?

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 16, 2016

Pest control agent on the wing? (Photo: Sam Droege/USDA)

Pest control agent on the wing? (Photo: Sam Droege/USDA)

One of the most persistent and destructive problems in modern agriculture is its heavy reliance on pesticides. The United States alone uses about 1.1 billion pounds of these chemicals every year to protect flowering crops. The indiscriminate spraying doesn’t just pollute soil and water, it also kills many of the beneficial organisms those same flowering crops depend on. That’s in addition to contamination of fruits and vegetables: residues of 165 different pesticides turned up in a 2013 U.S. Department of Agriculture sampling of the foods we eat every day.

But what if, instead of crop-dusters blanketing fields with chemicals, you could use bees to deliver a precise dose of a treatment directly to the plants that need them? That is, what if you could piggyback on the vital work pollinating insects are already performing, instead of inadvertently killing them?

That’s the idea in the technology called “entomovectoring.” Read the rest of this entry »

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