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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Archive for the ‘Fear & Courage’ Category

Black Hound at Sunset

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 3, 2017

This isn’t quite the first piece I published in a national magazine, but it’s the first one that I felt good about. It ran in 1979 in Sports Illustrated, which back then took an interest in the world beyond Big Four sports.  I sent a copy to E.B. White, to thank him for some of the the things he had taught me about writing, and he replied, saying “when I got around to reading it, later, I could not put it down.”  This piece also appeared in my story collection Every Creeping Thing (Holt 1998).

by Richard Conniff

The sun was shining over the Atlantic when I arrived at the end of what had been a wet, stormy September day. I was staying the night at a hostel on Crohy Head about five miles from Dunglow, County Donegal. Inside, there was a turf fire and tea, and though I had already put in many miles on foot, the sun drew me out of doors again as soon as I had warmed myself a bit.

The hostel stood on a high spot with pasturage running down to the rocks and the water. Clambering over a stone wall, I walked slowly down through the grass. A stream babbled nearby, though the overgrowth almost hid it completely. Distracted by the murmuring water, I didn’t notice until the last moment the black dog racing down on me. It ran with a crazy, bucketing speed, and it leaped up at me almost before I had spotted it.

I have always been good with dogs, and I found I was particularly compatible with those in the West of Ireland. It was easy. The dogs there generally look alike and share the same quiet temperament; they are bred to herd sheep. “You seldom get a cross sheep dog,” a Mayo farmer had told me, as his dog rested its head against my knee. I hadn’t met a cross one yet, and so I didn’t panic when the dog

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Posted in Fear & Courage | 1 Comment »

Animal Music Monday: “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 13, 2016

I probably first heard this song in the Kingston Trio version from 1959, because my older brother was a fan and their “.. from the Hungry I” album got played to ruin on the family’s monotone record player.

But the song dates from 20 years earlier, when a group called The Evening Birds stepped up to the microphones in a studio in Johannesburg and lead singer Solomon Linda, otherwise employed as a cleaner and packer for the record company, began to extemporize.  His song, call “Mbube,” or “The Lion,” became a hit in southern Africa.

In 1952, Pete Seeger and The Weavers introduced the song to the West, largely intact, based on a copy of the 78 rpm recording brought to him by the great musicologist Alan Lomax.  Seeger somehow misheard Linda’s “Mbube Uyimbube,” Zulu words meaning “the Lion, you are the lion” as “Wimoweh,” meaning absolutely nothing.  But his heartfelt, soaring falsetto caught some of the loneliness, fear, Read the rest of this entry »

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Raid Frees Whale Sharks Illegally Bound for Ocean Theme Parks

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 11, 2016

A diver leads a whale shark out of the holding pen and safely back to the wild. (Photo: Paul Hilton/WCS)

A diver leads a whale shark out of the holding pen and safely back to the wild. (Photo: Paul Hilton/WCS)

by Richard Conniff/Takepart.com

In the latest episode in a remarkable crackdown on illegal wildlife trafficking in Indonesia, law enforcement officers there have staged a nighttime raid on a major supplier of large ocean species to the international wildlife trade. The raid revealed a scheme to illegally catch whale sharks—the largest fish species in the world, with the potential to grow to 41 feet in length and weigh 47,000 pounds—and export them to Chinese aquatic amusement parks.

Agents of the Ministry of Fisheries and Maritime Affairs found two whale sharks, each about 14 feet long, being held in submerged pens. Even fully grown, the sharks are harmless, slow-moving fish, typically swimming with mouths agape to filter-feed on plankton. Divers entered the pens and guided the sharks, which had been held for three months, back to freedom.

The raid was the result of a tip from Indonesia’s Wildlife Crimes Unit, a wing of the Wildlife Conservation Society. WCU had conducted an 18-month  investigation of the target company in the case. It was Indonesia’s seventh marine law enforcement action to take place this year with WCU support. In addition to those cases, which involved illegal trafficking in manta ray body parts, seashells, and sea turtles, the WCU assisted this year in the arrest of two poachers trading the body parts of endangered Sumatran tigers.

The raid was also part of an extraordinary campaign against wildlife trafficking by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Minister of Fisheries and Maritime Affairs Susi Pudjiastuti, a former seafood entrepreneur. Indonesia has been notorious as the scene of

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Posted in Environmental Issues, Fear & Courage | Leave a Comment »

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 »

Why Predators Matter

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 22, 2015

Two-African-lions

There are no doubt plenty of contenders in the category “most destructive thing humans have done to Planet Earth,” but killing off predators has to rank near the top. And it is a continuing crime against nature.

Looking just at modern times, the list of predators we have driven to extinction includes North Africa’s Atlas bear, North America’s short-faced brown bear, the Caspian tiger, the thylacine (a marsupial carnivore in Tasmania), and the Zanzibar leopard, eradicated in the 1990s because of nonsense folklore about witchcraft.

We have pushed the few remaining big predators into a sad vestige of their old territory. Leopards are now gone from 66 percent of their range in Africa and 85 percent in Eurasia. Tigers are down to just seven percent of the territory they once ruled. African lion are on the brink of extinction in the wild, with just eight percent of their former range. Gray wolves, exterminated from the entire United States except Minnesota and Alaska, have in recent decades managed to slip back into a half-dozen or so other states, but only against the most violent resistance.

Why are we so terrified of predators? We are haunted by the ghosts of our evolutionary history, much as are pronghorn deer. They evolved to outrun North American cheetahs—and still run that fast even though the cheetahs went extinct 12,000 years ago. You might imagine that humans would be smarter than that, and yet we Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues, Fear & Courage | 2 Comments »

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 »

Got a Favorite Beer? Thank a Fruitfly For That

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 11, 2014

beerWhen I am not thinking about wildlife, I am often thinking about beer. So it’s nice (and also sort of icky) to see these two interests come together in a study showing that  fruitflies give beer its flavor.  Interesting that the study comes from Belgium, home of some of the more aromatic beers.  (Do beer flavors vary regionally depending on the Drosophila species?)  Also not in the least surprising that the researcher got the idea for this work as a graduate student.

I suppose the fruitfly-beer connection shouldn’t seem all that novel because I have often used a small dish of beer to attract and kill fruitflies around the kitchen.  But the idea that the fruitflies have contributed to the taste of beer suggests I need to think about them more kindly.  To butcher  A.E. Housman a bit, “Malt does more than Darwin can/to justify the ways of Drosophila to man.”

I’m going to shut up now and go to the press release:

Meet the bartender

Meet the bartender

The familiar smell of beer is due in part to aroma compounds produced by common brewer’s yeast. Now, researchers reporting in the journal Cell Reports have discovered why the yeast make that smell: the scent attracts fruit flies, which repay the yeast by dispersing their cells in the environment.

Yeast lacking a single aroma gene fail to produce their characteristic odor, and they don’t attract fruit flies either.

“Two seemingly unrelated species, yeasts and flies, have developed an intricate symbiosis based on smell,” said Kevin Verstrepen of KU Leuven and VIB in Belgium. “The flies can feed on the yeasts, and the yeasts benefit from the movement of the flies.”

Verstrepen first got an idea that this might be going on about 15 years ago as a graduate student studying how

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

Leopard Attacks Honey Badger, Loses

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 26, 2014

Yesterday the leopard seemed to have the world by the ass.  But today a leopard meets a honey badger, a quarter of its size and ten times as mean. World now has leopard by ass.  Circle of Life and all that.

This sequence also comes from Botswana, by way of Dutch photograher Vincent Grafhorst.  The text is from The Mail Online (Caveat:  I am doubtful about the attribution of that quote to Mark Twain):

An unlucky leopard got more than it bargained for after trying to catch and eat a honey badger.

These pictures show the leopard lamenting its overconfidence when the smaller beast lived up to Mark Twain’s old adage: ‘It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.’

After spotting the badger from a distance, the leopard managed to rush down inside its burrow and drag it outside for what it thought was going to be an easy meal.

But despite catching its prey by the neck, the tough mammal managed to wriggle free thanks to its loose skin.

David and Goliath: An unlucky leopard

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Posted in Fear & Courage, Kill or Be Killed | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Doing Dumb Things With Black Mambas

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 8, 2014

(Photo: Getty Images)

(Photo: Getty Images)

 

Last weekend, I left my rental car parked overnight in a remote location in northern South Africa, where I have been working on a story. When I got back to the car the following afternoon, there was a freshly shed snakeskin on the ground by the rear bumper.  The biologist I was with (OK, he was a mammals guy) examined the head and ventured, “It could be a young black mamba.”

I contemplated that as I drove for the next four hours south to Pretoria. Off and on, I wondered whether the snake had sought shelter, as animals sometimes do, in the engine compartment of the car. In case you’ve somehow never heard of black mambas, they are among the deadliest snakes in the world and can grow to 15 feet in length. They generally use their considerable speed to escape rather than to attack, but they can also bite aggressively and repeatedly. Death may occur within Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Fear & Courage | Tagged: , | 9 Comments »

A New Tool To Reverse Traumatic Memories

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 23, 2014

 An Iraq war veteran with PTSD. (Photo: Lynn Johnson/National Geographic Society/Corbis)

An Iraq war veteran with PTSD. (Photo: Lynn Johnson/National Geographic Society/Corbis)

 

My latest for Smithsonian magazine.

The best way to forget an alarming memory, oddly, is to remember it first. That’s why soldiers returning from war with post-traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD) often find themselves being asked by therapists to read scripts or view scenes recalling the incident that taught them the crippling fear in the first place.

Stirring up a memory makes it a little unstable, and for a window of perhaps three hours, it’s possible to modify it before it settles down again, or “reconsolidates,” in the brain. Getting patients to relive their traumatic memories over and over in safe conditions can thus help them unlearn the automatic feeling of alarm. It’s what researchers call “fear extinction” therapy—a way, almost, of reversing the past.

The trouble is that this therapy works with recent memories, but not so well with deeply entrenched long-term horrors. But a new study Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Fear & Courage | 2 Comments »