strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

  • 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 ‘Cool Tools’ Category

A Probiotic Vaccine Aims to Stop Cholera Epidemics Fast

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 20, 2018

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

The most terrifying things about cholera is its lethal speed. A victim can consume contaminated food or water, come down with diarrhea a day later and, if untreated, be dead a day after that—having inadvertently spread the microorganism to friends, neighbors and family members in the meantime. Hence cholera’s reputation for tearing explosively through populations, mostly recently in Haiti beginning in 2010 and Yemen in 2016.

Two major challenges—one diagnostic, the other preventive—make it difficult to stop cholera epidemics: A simple field test can distinguish cholera from other forms of diarrhea, but only after symptoms have already appeared. And although existing vaccines can prevent the disease, they require two or three weeks to elicit protective immunity. Neither diagnosis nor vaccination is fast enough for public health workers racing to stop the first few cases of cholera from breaking out into an epidemic.

Two new studies published this month in Science Translational Medicine could change that, although both are still in preliminary testing on animal models of cholera. In the first study researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology wanted to know “whether we could engineer a bacterium that could serve both to diagnose and prevent cholera,” says senior author James Collins. The researchers focused on Lactococcus lactis, which people have routinely consumed for thousands of years incultured dairy products like yogurt and sour cream.

The initial plan for treatment was to genetically engineer the bacterium “to produce and secrete antimicrobial peptides specific to cholera,” Collins says. But on attempting to culture L. lactis in a laboratory dish together with the cholera pathogen, he says, the researchers found to their “pleasant surprise” that no such engineering was needed: L. lactis “was either inhibiting or killing off the cholera” on its own. This was apparently because the lactic acid it secretes creates an inhospitable environment for the cholera pathogen in the petri dish—as it also presumably does in the small intestine. In testing on laboratory mice 84.6 percent of those fed L. lactis and the cholera pathogen together survived, compared with 45.7 percent of those fed the cholera pathogen alone. When the researchers experimentally altered L. lactis to stop it from producing lactic acid, this protective effect disappeared. It was, Collins says, the first time anyone has demonstrated Read the rest of this entry »

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Sniffing Out the Deadliest Disease on Earth

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 17, 2018

Anopheles mosquito taking a blood meal.

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

One of the more disturbing things about parasites is their ability to manipulate the behavior of a host, sometimes to suicidal extremes.  The classic example is the liver fluke. It infects an ant as an intermediate host, then manipulates the ant to climb onto a blade of grass, where it is likelier to get eaten by the parasite’s definitive host, a cow or other grazing ruminant.

Over the past few years, scientists have come to recognize that something similar happens to humans under the influence of one of the deadliest pathogens in our history as a species:  The human Plasmodium parasite not only causes malaria, but also makes victims more attractive to mosquitoes, which then transmit the parasite to other victims with every bite. New research suggests, however, that this manipulative behavior could Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Cool Tools, Freshwater species | 2 Comments »

U.S. Cities Are Losing Tree Cover Just When They Need It Most

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 8, 2018

 by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

Scientific evidence that trees and green spaces are crucial to the well-being of people in urban areas has multiplied in recent decades. Conveniently, these findings have emerged just as Americans, already among the most urbanized people in the world, are increasingly choosing to live in cities. The problem—partly as a result of that choice—is that urban tree cover is now steadily declining across the U.S.

A study in the May issue of Urban Forestry & Urban Greening reports metropolitan areas are experiencing a net loss of about 36 million trees nationwide every year. That amounts to about 175,000 acres of tree cover, most of it in central city and suburban areas but also on the exurban fringes. This reduction, says lead author David Nowak of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), translates into an annual loss of about $96 million in benefits—based, he says, on “only a few of the benefits that we know about.” The economic calculation looked at just four such benefits that are relatively easy to express in dollar terms—the capacity of trees to remove air pollution, sequester carbon, conserve energy by shading buildings, and reduce power plant emissions.

Nowak and a USFS colleague, co-author Eric Greenfield, found tree cover had declined in metropolitan areas across 45 states. The biggest losers Read the rest of this entry »

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Dinosaurs Just Get Fluffier by the Day

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 29, 2017

Anchiornis huxleyi revised (Illustration: Rebecca Gelernter)

In my book House of Lost Worlds, I wrote about how a team of researchers used trace chemical elements in a fossil to create the first representation of a primitive dinosaur in its actual colors.

Now one of those researchers, Jakob Vinther at the University of Bristol, has refined that picture based on the discovery of a “primitive feather form consisting of a short quill with long, independent, flexible barbs erupting from the quill at low angles.”

That would have had the effect of making Anchiornis, a crow-size dinosaur, fluffier than modern flying birds, “whose feathers have tightly-zipped vanes forming continuous surfaces,” according to a University of Bristol press release. “Anchiornis‘s unzipped feathers might have affected the animal’s ability to control its temperature and repel water …”

The newly described quills might also have increased drag and inhibited the ability of Anchiornis to form a suitable surface for lift. To compensate, the species “packed multiple rows of long feathers into the wing, unlike modern birds.” Anchiornis and other para-avians also had two sets of wings.

Illustrator Rebecca Gelernter of nearbirdstudios.com put the re-imagined Anchiornis on paper, including a revised position, not perched on top of a tree, but “climbing in the manner of hoatzin chicks, the only living bird whose juveniles retain a relic of their dinosaurian past, a functional claw.”

Anchiornis huxleyi in a prior representation (Illustration: Michael DiGiorgio)

Posted in Cool Tools, Evolution | Leave a Comment »

Getting Inside a Tyrannosaur’s Head

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 16, 2017

(Photo: DOE/Los Alamos National Laboratory)

 

Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratry have used their unique neutron-imaging and high-energy X-ray capabilities to expose the inner structures of a 74-million-year-old fossil skull. The skull belonged to  tyrannosauroid dinosaur known as the Bisti Beast, or more formally as Bistahieversor sealeyi.  The image is the highest-resolution scan of tyrannosaur skull ever done.

Here’s an excerpt from the press release:

 The results add a new piece to the puzzle of how these bone-crushing top predators evolved over millions of years.

“Normally, we look at a variety of thick, dense objects at Los Alamos for defense programs, but the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science was interested in imaging a very large fossil to learn about what’s inside,” said Ron Nelson, of the Laboratory’s Physics Division. Nelson was part of a team that included staff from Los Alamos National Laboratory, the museum, the University of New Mexico and the University of Edinburgh. “It turns out that high energy neutrons are an interesting and unique way to image something of this size.”

The results helped the team determine the skull’s sinus and cranial structure. Initial viewing of the computed tomography (CT) slices showed preservation of un-erupted Read the rest of this entry »

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Using Cadaver-Feeding Insects to Ask, “Are You Out There?”

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 1, 2017

by Richard Conniff

A while back, I reported on use of DNA in the blood meals of mosquitoes to identify species in a habitat. That technique is called iDNA (for invertebrate DNA).  Now the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute has done the same thing using carrion flies.

Two possible drawbacks to this approach: Because these are carrion flies, a significant portion of the animals in the resulting census may already be dead.  (Carrion flies lay their eggs not just on corpses, but in open wounds, so at least some of the DNA may come from live animals.)  And animals that get taken and eaten whole by predators are Read the rest of this entry »

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

Can Synthetic Biology Save Species?

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 20, 2017

(Illustration: Luisa Rivera)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

The worldwide effort to return islands to their original wildlife, by eradicating rats, pigs, and other invasive species, has been one of the great environmental success stories of our time.  Rewilding has succeeded on hundreds of islands, with beleaguered species surging back from imminent extinction, and dwindling bird colonies suddenly blossoming across old nesting grounds.

But these restoration campaigns are often massively expensive and emotionally fraught, with conservationists fearful of accidentally poisoning native wildlife, and animal rights activists having at times fiercely opposed the whole idea. So what if it were possible to rid islands of invasive species without killing a single animal? And at a fraction of the cost of current methods?

That’s the tantalizing – but also worrisome – promise of synthetic biology, a Brave New World sort of technology that applies engineering principles to species and to biological systems. It’s genetic engineering, but made easier and more precise by the new gene editing technology called CRISPR, which ecologists could use Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Cool Tools, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

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

Read the rest of this entry »

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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 »

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