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 ‘Fear & Courage’ Category

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

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Fear & Courage, Kill or Be Killed | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

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: , | 10 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 »

Are Elephants As Smart and Social As We Like To Think?

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 18, 2014

(Photo: Elise Gilchrist/ Think Elephants International, Inc.)

(Photo: Elise Gilchrist/ Think Elephants International, Inc.)

My latest for Takepart, the web site of the movie company Participant Pictures:

One time, in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, I was visiting with researchers studying a baboon troop when one of the animals became separated from her mates. In the distance, Sashe, as we knew her, started to give out her tremulous, plaintive “lost call,” repeating it over and over. It was so heartrending that, after more than a half hour, all of us wanted to go out and lead her back by the hand ourselves. But the really disturbing thing was to be with the troop, and see her friends and family going about their business, blandly indifferent, as if deaf, to Sashe’s plight.

Monkeys may look like us. They may even act like us in some circumstances. But they don’t have our capacity for empathy. They cannot put themselves in another animal’s place. So far, researchers have been able to demonstrate that ability to identify with and console a distressed individual only in great apes, some canines, and a few corvids, such as rooks and ravens.

It’s different, though, for elephants—or at least that’s what we’ve always believed. A new study published in the journal PeerJ and conducted in Thailand systematically tests that belief for the first time. “The reaction to this from the public,” says lead author Joshua Plotnik, who did the research as a doctoral student at Emory University, “is probably going to be Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues, Fear & Courage, Social Status | Tagged: , | 11 Comments »

Holy Crap! These Are Some Scary Slave Raiders

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 11, 2014


These modern slave-raiders work on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, up around Traverse City, Michigan, and the secret of their success is traveling light and quick.  They also employ chemical camouflage and have a deft way of murdering anyone that gets in their way.

European researchers discovered this astonishing behavior.  They’ve named the species Temnothorax pilagens, from pilere (Latin): to pluck, plunder or pillage. The paper is just out in the open access journal ZooKeysHere’s the press release

In contrast to the famous slave-hunting Amazon Ants whose campaigns may include up to 3000 warriors, the new slave-maker is minimalistic in expense, but most effective in result. The length of a “Pillage Ant” is only two and a half millimeters and the range of action of these slave-hunters restricts to a few square meters of forest floor. Targets of their raiding parties are societies of two related ant species living within hollow nuts or acorns. These homes are castles in the true sense of the word — characterized by thick walls and a single entrance hole of only 1 millimeter in diameter, they cannot be entered by any larger enemy ant.

An average raiding party of the Pillage Ant contains four slave-hunters only, including the scout who had discovered the target. Due to their small size the raiders easily penetrate the slave species home. A complete success of raiding is achieved by a combination of two methods: chemical camouflage and artistic rapier fencing.

The observed behavior is surprising as invasion of alien ants in an ant nest often results in fierce, Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Fear & Courage, Kill or Be Killed | 5 Comments »

Mystery of the War Elephants Solved

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 10, 2014

This artist's explanation was that North African forest elephants (left) are smaller than Indian elephants (right). (Source: )

This artist’s explanation was that
North African forest elephants (left) are smaller than Indian elephants (right). (Source: )

Scholars have been arguing almost forever over the “War of the Elephants,” which took place in 217 B.C. between Ptolemy IV, King of Egypt, and Antiochus III the Great, whose kingdom reached from modern-day Turkey to Pakistan.

The battle (also known as the Battle of Raphia) took place in what is now Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on the border between present-day Egypt and Israel. It was the only known battle in which Asian and African elephants faced off against each other.  The great mystery, until now, was why historical accounts described the African elephants as smaller and less powerful than their Asian counterparts.

That never made much sense because we know that the largest African savannah elephants are bigger on average by about a half meter and 1000 kilograms. The historical account said Ptolemy, leading the army with the African elephants, had commandeered his elephants from what is now Eritrea, on the Red Sea, home to the northernmost population of savannah elephants. Some scholars (and the unknown artist for the illustration above) argued that he had obtained African forest elephants rather than savannah elephants.  Forest elephants are a closer match in size with Asian elephants, and research has recently demonstrated that they are a separate species from savannah elephants.

So did Eritrea have forest or savannah elephants?

Now a study in The Journal of Heredity proposes Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Fear & Courage, Kill or Be Killed | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

Attack of the Killer Journalists

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 3, 2014

Suriname (and Spring Lake) 854

Jan Mol and friend (Photo: Richard Conniff)

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

In the languid news week after Christmas, hungry media outlets swarmed with gnashing teeth over a report of piranhas attacking swimmers on a river in Argentina.  “Massive Piranha Attack ,“ cried The New York Post.  “70 Christmas Day Bathers Are Savaged,” added The (UK) Daily Mail, promising “the truth about the fish with a bite more powerful than a T-rex.”

Otherwise semi-sober outlets took a happy holiday from facts.  Discovery News attributed the “feeding frenzy” to “the Palometa jack (Trachinotus goodei), a species of piranha.” Readers may have been impressed by the use of the scientific name, unless they happened to recall that jacks are saltwater fish, unrelated to piranhas, and in any case not known to visit the site of the incident, 190 miles upriver from Buenos Aires.

But piranhas, or piranha-like entities, have always been among our favorite objects for sheer sputtering nonsense.  Theodore Roosevelt indulged, on a 1913 expedition in South America, glorying in the notion that piranhas were “the most ferocious fish in the world.”  And the “Piranha” movie franchise has repeatedly taken it to the bank, most recently with 2012’s “Piranha 3DD,” in which, if we can believe the plot summary on IMDB, “the piranha in Shelby’s vagina bites Josh’s penis, forcing him to wrestle with it round the room before finally having to chop the organ off with a knife.”

Good gracious, this is an awful lot for piranhas to live up to and, predictably, they disappoint.   Over the years, I have gone out of my way to test the colorful mythology of the ferocious piranha. At the Dallas Aquarium, for instance, I once climbed into a tank of hungry red-bellied piranhas. (They fled to the opposite corner.) In the Peruvian Amazon, I stood waist-deep in the Rio Napo while catching and releasing piranhas on a hook-and-line. (The nibbles were strictly of the usual kind.) In the flooded grasslands of Venezuela, I drove around tossing a chicken carcass into various bodies of water to time how long it took for the flesh-maddened swarms to strip it to feathers. (There was enough chicken left at the end of the day to feed a family of four.)

The point of this exercise, recounted in my book Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time, was that piranhas do that swarming, blood-crazed, flesh-ripping thing only in Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Fear & Courage, Freshwater species | Tagged: , , , | 5 Comments »

Bubbles the Space Cat and the Test Dummy Dog

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 8, 2013

I’m going to venture a little far afield today, though still decidedly within the realm of “strange behaviors.”

These are more photos I pulled out of my Dad’s files for a story he wrote about space travel in the late 1950s.  I’ll do the animal photos first.  Will follow with some photos of human space program folk later, or tomorrow, as I get the chance.

Since space monkeys hog all the attention, let’s start with a cat and a dog.

I’m posting the captions from the U.S. Air Force below each photo.  I get the impression the cat probably did not have finally approval over use of the word “merrily” in this one:


On the other hand, this unnamed dog gives off a decided “Put me in, coach” aura of Read the rest of this entry »

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

How Naturalists Die

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 17, 2013

Oh, geez. A field biologist has charted all the ways naturalists have died on my Wall of the Dead.  Is this cautionary?  Or just macabre?

Anyway, here you go.  It automatically saved to my computer as death.jpg:

How naturalists die.

How naturalists die.

Posted in Fear & Courage, The Species Seekers | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Heading Back to Dzanga Bai

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 2, 2013

Back in May, I wrote about the terrible slaughter of elephants at Dzanga Bai, in the Central African Republic. Now Andrea Turkalo, the biologist who has spent much of her career getting to know the elephants there, is heading back.  She has just released this brief video on the terrible global war against elephants:

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Fear & Courage | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »