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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 ‘Evolution’ Category

Feeling That Old Mammalian Thing

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 24, 2015

Two Seals Sleeping on Rock

I was just reading a scene in one of the Patrick Melrose novels where a young child is watching his baby brother nurse, and when someone asks what he wants for lunch, he says, “I want what he’s having.” (Yes, yes, the Edward St. Aubyn novels post-date the “I want what she’s having” scene in “When Harry Met Sally,” so it’s derivative, but also more deeply resonant.) Then I ran across this intriguing essay in the New York Times about our deep mammalian identity:

In a world of conscious beings, identity matters. Self-perception plays a vital role in behavior, so the question of how human beings think about themselves in relation to the world is more than simply one of semantics; ways of seeing lead, directly and indirectly, to ways of acting.

Given all that, I choose to identify as mammal.

And this is my reason: Our relationship to the natural world, which is changing in such dramatic ways, is in desperate need of revision. Human exceptionalism — expressed in our treatment, use and abuse of other animals, and in the damage we do to the natural environment — has paved the way for enormous harm. It seems clear, then, that identifying exclusively as human has its pitfalls.

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

Everybody’s Favorite Dinosaur Says: “Hey, Baby, I’m Back.”

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 7, 2015


Here’s a quick quiz. Choose the one that doesn’t belong:

A) Tyrannosaurus

B) Stegosaurus

C) Brontosaurus

D) Triceratops

Yes, I know, you’re way too smart for this. You chose “C” because you remember that everybody’s favorite dinosaur, that 16-ton vegetarian with the long neck and the whip-like tail, is really named Apatosaurus. Scientists have long since declared that Brontosaurus was a taxonomic error, and doesn’t technically exist.

In fact, it’s been 112 years since a paleontologist named Elmer Riggs first pointed out that Brontosaurus, described by Yale’s O.C. Marsh in 1879, was an awful lot like Apatosaurus, which Marsh himself had described just two years previously. Marsh thought the two species were different because one had more vertebrae than the other in the sacral region, at the base of the spine. But Riggs pointed out that the sacral vertebrae in four-limbed species, including humans, normally fuse as an individual matures. Marsh’s two specimens were thus supposedly no more than older and younger individuals of the same species.

That is, until this morning. In a paper published Tuesday in the journal PeerJ, a team of paleontologists has declared that Brontosaurus is back, baby, and better than ever. They argue that Brontosaurus is different enough Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Evolution | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Proud of Your Ancestry? Namibia’s Khoisan Have You Beat

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 5, 2014

141204074144-largeOne of the great experiences of my life was to travel with Khoisan hunters as they tracked wildlife in northwestern Namibia. They didn’t dress all that differently from other Namibians. (That traditional half-naked look in the photograph is something they seem to do now mainly at the behest of photographers.) But, lord, they were different: For me, it was like being illiterate among scholars who had devoted their lives (and hearts and souls) to studying the subtle nuances of the footprint.

I remember one night when an African wild cat had come into the camp and stolen the precious organ meat from a kill, which the Khoisan had hung up a tree for safekeeping.  When they discovered their loss in the morning, the two hunters simply followed the trail back to the cat’s lair, and re-claimed their meat. But, sorry, let me get to the point.

A new genetic study has revealed just how different, and ancient, the Khosan lineage really is.  And yet they were the majority of the human species just 20,000 years ago, meaning their evolution was our evolution. Here’s an excerpt from the press release:

Through advanced computation analysis, a team from Nanyang Technological University (NTU Singapore) and Penn State University found that these Southern African Khoisan tribespeople are genetically distinct not only from Europeans and Asians, but also from all other Africans.

The team also found that there are individuals of the Khoisan population whose ancestors did not interbreed with any of the other ethnic groups for the last 150,000 years and that Khoisan was the majority group of living humans for most of that time until about 20,000 years ago.

Their findings mean it is now possible to use genetic sequencing to reveal the ancestral lineage of any ethnic group even up to 200,000 years ago, if non-admixed individuals are found, like in the case of the Khoisan. This will show when in history there have been important genetic changes to an ancestral lineage due to

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

Travel Hell? Whales Stuck in Middle East for 70,000 Years

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 3, 2014

A whale named Spitfire (Photot: © Tobias Friedrich)

A whale named Spitfire (Photot: © Tobias Friedrich)

As I read this, these humpbacks extended their range into the Arabian Sea 70,000 years ago, and then got bottled up there by some temporary glacial barrier, or long-term thermal barrier.  Even if they could travel elsewhere now, they don’t and their numbers are down to just 100 individuals.  It may be that they stick to the Arabian Sea because, as a result of their lengthy isolation, their reproductive cycle got out of whack with the rest of the humpback world.

Or maybe–could it be–they just like it there?

Here’s the press release:

Scientists from WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society), the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), the Environment Society of Oman, and other organizations have made a fascinating discovery in the northern Indian Ocean: humpback whales inhabiting the Arabian Sea are the most genetically distinct humpback whales in the world and may be the most isolated whale population on earth. The results suggest they have remained separate from other humpback whale populations for perhaps 70,000 years, extremely unusual in a species famed for long distance migrations.

(Photo credit: Darryl MacDonald)

(Photo credit: Darryl MacDonald)

Known for its haunting songs and acrobatics, the humpback whale holds the record for the world’s longest mammal migration; individuals have been tracked over a distance of more than 9,000 kilometers between polar feeding areas and tropical breeding areas.

“The epic seasonal migrations of humpbacks elsewhere are well known, so this small, non-migratory population presents a wonderful and intriguing enigma,” said WCS researcher and study co-author Tim Collins. “They also beg many questions: how and why did the population originate, how does it persist, and how do their behaviors differ from other humpback whales?”

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Posted in Biodiversity, Evolution | 1 Comment »

Becoming Iconic. Almost by Accident

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 5, 2014

When the foldout page is closed, this image in the 1965 Time-Life book Early Man, drawn by Rudolph Zallinger, shows only six steps in human evolution. The image has been endlessly parodied.

When the foldout page is closed, this image in the 1965 Time-Life book Early Man, drawn by Rudolph Zallinger, shows only six steps in human evolution. The image has been endlessly parodied.

When the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale unveiled one of the largest murals in the world, shortly after World War II, the New York Times splashed the image across six columns of type. The 110-foot-long, 16-foot-tall painting, called The Age of Reptiles, depicted roughly 300 million years of dinosaur evolution, from the Devonian through the Cretaceous periods, and, according to paleontologist Karl Waage, later the museum’s director, it “put the museum on the map.”

It also made a name for Rudolph Zallinger, a young Russian-born graduate of the Yale School of Fine Arts, who had spent more than four years on the mural. His work won the 1949 Pulitzer Fellowship in Art, and it caught the eye of editors at Time-Life; in 1953 Life magazine published a foldout image of the entire mural. (Hence Zallinger’s image of Tyrannosaurus became an unintended inspiration for the main character in a 1954 film from Japan called Godzilla.) Zallinger continued to work on assignments for Life and Time-Life Books after that. In the course of one such assignment, he made cartoon history, almost by accident, with a visual trope that’s instantly recognizable and yet almost never attributed to him

It started with an illustration he produced for the 1965 Time-Life book Early Man. In a section headlined “The Road to Homo Sapiens,” Zallinger depicted a line of proto-apes, apes, and hominids rising Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Evolution | Leave a Comment »

The Man Who Saved The Dinosaurs

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 12, 2014

John Ostrom, in the field

John Ostrom, in the field

In the summer of 1970, early in the research that would radically transform how we think about birds, dinosaurs, and the origins of animal flight, Yale paleontologist John H. Ostrom was traveling through Europe studying pterosaur fossils. His itinerary took him, in early September, to the Teylers Museum in Haarlem, the Netherlands. Ostrom, then 42, was an unprepossessing figure and the world’s leading authority on dinosaurs, and the museum curator was pleased to leave him alone with the twin halves of the limestone slab catalogued TM6928 and 29.

This fossil was a dinner plate–size muddle of limb fragments, vertebrae, and ribs preserved in limestone from the Solnhofen beds. It had been discovered near Riedenburg, Germany, in 1855 and named by the great nineteenth-century paleontologist Hermann von Meyer. Von Meyer later became famous for the first scientific description, in 1861, of Archaeopteryx. Coming just after the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, the unveiling of that 150-million-year-old urvogel, or archetypal primitive bird, made an international sensation. With Archaeopteryx, it seemed as if the proof of evolutionary theory had arrived, like the Ten Commandments, engraved in stone. But in 1857, the confusing fossil von Meyer was describing—the future TM6928 and 29—seemed like something far more ordinary: another pterosaur, a type of flying reptile. He dubbed it Pterodactylus crassipes.

That didn’t make sense to Ostrom as he puzzled over the ankles, toes, and arm bones of the fossil that day in 1970. He could envision the ways they might fit together just by examining the proportions of the bones and the shape of their articulations. But it wasn’t like any pterosaur he had ever seen. Ostrom had recently finished describing a remarkable dinosaur he had discovered a few years earlier in Montana. His monograph on Deinonychus included exquisitely detailed descriptions showing how the bone endings and attachments helped make these dinosaurs such fast, agile little killers. To Ostrom, the bones of the Teylers specimen looked an awful lot like those of Deinonychus. And there was something more.

Half of the Teylers specimen

Half of the Teylers specimen

Ostrom picked up one of the slabs, carried it over to the window, and held it up at an angle in the light. First one way, then the other. The late afternoon sun caught on some faint ridges. Ostrom was seeing, unmistakably, the clear impression of feathers. This fossil wasn’t Pterodactylus after all. It was another Archaeopteryx. In fact, it would have been the scientific world’s first Archaeopteryx, if von Meyer had gotten his taxonomy right.

In 1970, only three other specimens of Archaeopteryx were known to exist. But this was by no means the only thing that excited Ostrom at that moment. His mind was already ticking over about the resemblance to Deinonychus—and the unsettling idea that the wrist and shoulder bones of a primitive bird should be identical to those of a small meat-eating dinosaur.

To write a proper technical description, Ostrom needed to take the specimen home to the Peabody Museum at Yale for closer study. A crisis of conscience ensued: should he mislead the Teylers curator, telling him it was merely a pterosaur, only to make the great discovery back home? Or should he come out with the truth and risk that the museum would lock up these suddenly precious slabs of rock? Being a “squeaking honest” man, in the words of a former student, Ostrom confessed his belief that it was Archaeopteryx.

The curator immediately took back TM6928 and 29 and hurried out of the room. Ostrom slumped in his seat, despairing. A few minutes later, the curator returned Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Evolution | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Don’t Look Now, But You’re Probably Swimming With Dinosaurs

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 9, 2014

Richard Conniff and hostile friend.

Richard Conniff and hostile friend.

The other night, I was out working on the dunes near my house on Long Island Sound when I noticed strange widespread footprints, with a tail mark slashing back and forth down the middle.  It mystified me for a moment, and I stopped what I was doing to follow the track down to where it started in a creek coming out of the salt marsh.

Then I remembered.

It’s June. The snapping turtles are emerging from the water to lay their eggs. There was a second trail 10 feet away from the first, presumably where Big Mama headed back to the creek after covering her nest. I didn’t hunt for the nest itself. The 35 or so eggs laid by a typical snapping turtle need to incubate until they hatch in early August. They’ll have enough trouble till then avoiding careless beachgoers and hungry raccoons and foxes.

A few years ago, I showed a British visitor a big female snapping turtle wandering on this exact spot, and his eyes fell out of his head. The Brit was the guy who produces the TV series River Monsters. So you’d figure he’d be a little jaded. But

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Posted in Evolution, Freshwater species | Leave a Comment »

Love on Rogers Lake: A Tale of Two Alewives

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 21, 2014

(Illustration: Eric Nyquist)

(Illustration: Eric Nyquist)

My latest, for the op-ed page of today’s New York Times  (I had to edit that version down. This is a slightly longer version.):

We would see amazing things if we could learn to be travelers in our own neighborhoods, Henry David Thoreau once suggested. Lately, I have come to think that this is more true than I had imagined.

Most mornings in warm weather, when I am home in coastal Connecticut, I head out before dawn to row on a 260-acre dogleg of a lake, backed up behind a rickety old dam. And I see plenty of wonderful things as I do my laps: An osprey cruising with a freshly-caught fish carried underneath, like a seaplane pontoon. A kingfisher looping along the shoreline. A newly emerged damselfly riding on my deck for a lap-and-a-half till its wings harden enough for flight. And once, at a distance of 50 feet, a bald eagle scavenging the carcass of a cormorant. But I did not realize until recently that a grand evolutionary experiment was taking place beneath my hull.

Along with other members of my rowing club, The Blood Street Sculls, I spent an inordinate amount of time last year moaning about a project to rebuild the dam where Rogers Lake in Old Lyme, Conn., spills down to become Mill Brook, on route to Long Island Sound and the sea. Construction required dropping the lake level by more than two feet, and that increased the risk for rowers of tearing off a skeg, or ripping out the bottom of a boat, or just spilling ignominiously while running across an unexpectedly low patch.

Now, though, the dam is finished, and starting this month, alewives, also known as river herring, are climbing the new fish ladder there and returning to Rogers Lake from their feeding grounds at sea. The work is part of a coast-wide effort to remove dams, build fish ladders, and improve habitat in the hope of returning the river herring to their former glory.

Alewives are anadromous fish: Born in freshwater, they spend their lives in the ocean, returning annually to their birthplaces to spawn. Until colonial era dams cut off the migration, hundreds of thousands of alewives would have come pouring into Rogers Lake every spring—and into other lakes like it along much of the Atlantic seaboard. Farmers used to apply them to their fields as fertilizer, at a rate of up to 1400 fish per acre. In towns all along the coast, river herring festivals celebrated their arrival.

What’s particularly intriguing about Rogers Lake, though, is that Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Evolution, Sex & Reproduction | 2 Comments »

A New Science Revamps Our Ideas About Domestication

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 25, 2014

White leghorn rooster.

White leghorn rooster.

My latest column for Takepart:

One of the most startling developments in recent science has been the realization that DNA and environment—or nature and nurture—do not by themselves tell the whole story. If we want to understand who we are and how we live, we need to look beyond genetics to epigenetics. That’s the science of how all the information coded in our DNA gets translated and expressed in our bodies and our behaviors.

And here’s the real stunner: This new science suggests that you can inherit the after-effects of things that happened to your grandparents and perhaps even your great-grandparents.  That is, you can inherit their acquired traits: Did they experience high levels of prenatal stress? Were they neglected as children? Were they exposed to toxic chemicals? Did they smoke? The effects can show up in how their DNA—and yours—get expressed. By extension, the things we experience in our own lives may shape genetic expression in generations to come.

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The First Great Ocean Voyagers? Hint: It Wasn’t the Polynesians

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 25, 2014

bottle gourdMy latest for Takepart, the web site of movie company Participant Media:

An old theory held that one of the earliest domesticated crops—bottle gourds, widely used for drinking vessels, food storage containers, musical instruments, and even medicine—came to the New World from Asia, either drifting across the Pacific or being carried by humans via the Bering Land Bridge. But new evidence argues that gourds made the ocean voyage on their own, not from Asia but from the coast of West Africa.

The new study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is interesting partly for what it says about the hazards of putting too much faith in narrow genetic analysis. It also fits into a much larger scientific movement arguing that plants and animals—including amphibians, monkeys, and perhaps even flightless birds—didn’t need continental drift, land bridges, or human migrations to reach their current locations. They did it, instead, more or less on their own, through a series of chance long-distance ocean voyages.

For the study, Logan Kistler of Pennsylvania State University and his coauthors looked at 36 modern samples of bottle gourds and nine ancient ones from archaeological sites around the Americas. Their results contradict a 2005 study—published in the same journal and including one of the same coauthors—that tracked the original gourds back to Asia.

Why the difference? The earlier study examined only three narrow sites on the gourd genome. Studying a larger sample of the genome revealed that “Africa is the clear source region of the bottle gourds that populated the Americas,” the study concludes, adding that the results “highlight the risk of basing conclusions on very small genetic datasets.”

Using computer models of prevailing currents, Kistler and his coauthors also calculated that sea-going gourds could have hitchhiked from West Africa to Brazil in as little as Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Evolution | Tagged: , , | 6 Comments »