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 ‘Food & Drink’ Category

Now Is Our Time to End Polio Forever

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 17, 2019

What it looks like when the vaccines don’t get there. (Photo: Unknown)

This is a piece I published on October 23 but, with apologies, I forgot to post it here. Now is a good time to re-visit the topic, though, because on Tuesday many nations and non-profit organizations will be meeting in Abu Dhabi to announce their pledge amounts for the final push to eradicate polio from the Earth. It’s an incredible opportunity, to go from the introduction of the first effective vaccine in 1955 to the eradication of the disease in a single lifetime.  But if we fail, we could be back to 200,000 cases a year–kids looking like the photo above–within a decade.

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

In January 2014 an American public health worker was visiting northern Nigeria to observe a polio prevention campaign by local health workers. It was a big, festive event with a marching band to bring out parents and children for their immunizations. But the American visitor and the local program manager soon found themselves being drawn away from the action, down deserted streets to an area still under construction. They were being led by a young girl.

“And what was happening was that she was Read the rest of this entry »

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

First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All The Authors

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 16, 2019

(Illustration: Wellcome Library, London.)

I didn’t plan this piece to coincide with the Patreon campaign I started last week. But it suggests what’s happened for writers like me on the book publishing side of our lives. The magazine and newspaper sides of our work have also suffered at the hands of Internet giants like Google and Facebook.  For me, 2017 was the year these changes really hit home.  In the past, magazines sent me wherever I needed to go to get the story, from Easter Island to Bhutan.  But suddenly three major magazines hiring me to write feature stories asked me, in so many words, to phone it in. One wanted me to write a story “with lots of tick-tock” about tropical deforestation. But the editor would only give me expense money to travel to Washington, D.C. (On reading the manuscript, he complained that he wasn’t “smelling the rainforest.”) Another magazine where I have been a contributor for 34 years asked me to write a travel feature but wouldn’t send me to the destination because a different magazine had sent me there on an unrelated feature the year before. (The editor made it that month’s cover story.) Finally, a magazine (contributor for almost 30 years) didn’t actually tell me I couldn’t travel.  But they asked me for an expense estimate for a proposed day trip to New Jersey from my home in Connecticut. (I went. Yay!)

I don’t mean to complain. I have been extremely lucky to have a career and support my family as a writer. I want to continue doing this work, though, and I want younger writers to have the same opportunities. That is becoming harder and harder for us all. 

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

One day not long ago in a college class I was teaching, some of my students couldn’t find the page I was talking about in the reading. And it dawned on me: There was only one required text in the class, an anthology of writing about the natural world called “American Earth.” And they were reading pirated copies — versions downloaded free from some dubious “provider” on the internet.

It was a college well known for its progressive politics. So maybe my students thought they were striking a blow against the dark hegemony of greedy textbook publishers. Or maybe, tuition and textbook costs having soared into the stratosphere, they just wanted to save 27 bucks, the discounted online price. As gently as possible, I informed them that they were in fact stealing from the author (or, in this case, editor) who happened to be the climate activist Bill McKibben, one of their environmental heroes. Also, Library of America, which published the book, is legally a nonprofit. (Many other publishing companies now achieve that status merely de facto.)

I’m afraid it was a teaching moment fail. My students looked baffled, but unpersuaded, caught up in the convenient rationalization that authors subsist on inspiration and the purest Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Food & Drink | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Bison Begin to Return to Their Old Home on the Great Plains

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 26, 2018

by Richard Conniff/Smithsonian Magazine

Sometime this winter, if all goes as planned, a caravan of livestock trucks will carry 60 American bison out of Yellowstone National Park on a 500-mile journey into the past. Unlike their ranched cousins, which are mainly the result of nineteenth-century attempts to cross bison with cattle, the Yellowstone animals are wild and genetically pure, descendants of the original herds that once astonished visitors to the Great Plains and made the bison the symbol of American abundance. Until, that is, unsustainable hunting made it a symbol of mindless ecological destruction.

When the appalling mass slaughter of 30 million or so bison finally ended early in the 20th century, just 23 wild bison remained in Yellowstone, holed up in Pelican Valley. Together with a roughly equal number of animals saved by ranchers, they became the basis for the recovery of the species, Bison bison, carefully nurtured back to strength within Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone has done its job so well, in fact, that the herd now routinely exceeds the limit of about 4000 bison thought to be sustainable within park boundaries. Park rangers have thus had the disheartening annual job of rounding up “excess” bison for slaughter or watching some step across the park’s northern border into a hunt that critics deride as a firing squad. Relocating the animals would be the humane alternative, except for one scary problem: Ranchers and others have long maintained that bison spread brucellosis, a bacterial infection that is devastating to both cattle and bison. But an authoritative 2017 study using whole genome sequencing determined that Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Environmental Issues, Food & Drink | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

It’s Time for a Carbon Tax on Beef

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 21, 2018

(Illustration: Igor Bastidas)

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

Let me admit up front that I would rather be eating a cheeseburger right now. Or maybe trying out a promising new recipe for Korean braised short ribs. But our collective love affair with beef, dating back more than 10,000 years, has gone wrong, in so many ways. And in my head, if not in my appetites, I know it’s time to break it off.

So it caught my eye recently when a team of French scientists published a paper on the practicality of putting a carbon tax on beef as a tool for meeting European Union climate change targets. The idea will no doubt sound absurd to Americans reared on Big Macs and cowboy mythology. While most of us recognize, according to a 2017 Gallup poll, that we are already experiencing the effects of climate change, we just can’t imagine that, for instance, floods, mudslides, wildfires, biblical droughts and back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes are going to be a serious problem in our lifetimes. And we certainly don’t make the connection to the food on our plates, or to beef in particular.

The cattle industry would like to keep it that way. Oil, gas and coal had to play along, for instance, when the Obama-era Environmental Protection Agency instituted mandatory reporting of greenhouse gas emissions. But the program to track livestock emissions was mysteriously Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues, Food & Drink, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

This Makes Me Want to Eat Pancakes. (But It’s Only Thursday.)

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 18, 2018

Fish scales in a piranha’s belly (and enlarged at left)

by Richard Conniff

I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about piranhas and what they eat. In fact, I wrote a book called Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals. And, yes, I have also spent a fair amount of time swimming with piranhas.

So naturally this caught my eye:

The piranha that eats scales its whole life, named Catoprion mento, tends to live alone. When it does hunt, it swims up behind its prey, opens its large, Jay Leno-like jaw 120 degrees and Read the rest of this entry »

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Got Drinking Water? Watch Climate Change Turn It Toxic.

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 7, 2017

The algae bloom that ate Lake St. Clair. (Photo: NASA/NOAA)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

It is a painful lesson of our time that the things we depend on to make our lives more comfortable can also kill us. Our addiction to fossils fuels is the obvious example, as we come to terms with the slow motion catastrophe of climate change. But we are addicted to nitrogen, too, in the fertilizers that feed us, and it now appears that the combination of climate change and nitrogen pollution is multiplying the possibilities for wrecking the world around us.

A new study in Science projects that climate change will increase the amount of nitrogen ending up in U.S. rivers and other waterways by 19 percent on average over the remainder of the century — and much more in Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues, Food & Drink | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

As Ethiopia Reclaims the Nile, Egypt Dwindles

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 6, 2017

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Africa’s largest, is now nearing completion. (Photo: Zacharias Abubeker/AFP/Getty Images)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

Though politicians and the press tend to downplay the idea, environmental degradation is often an underlying cause of international crises.  For instance, deforestation, erosion, and reduced agricultural output set the stage for the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s.  And prolonged drought pushed rural populations into the cities at the start of the current Syrian civil war. Egypt could become the latest example, its 95 million people the likely victims of a slow motion catastrophe brought on by grand-scale environmental mismanagement.

It’s happening now in the Nile River delta, a low-lying region fanning out from Cairo roughly a hundred miles to the sea. About 45 or 50 million people live in the delta, which represents just 2.5 percent of Egypt’s land area. The rest live in the Nile River valley itself, a ribbon of green winding through hundreds of miles of desert sand, representing another 1 percent of the nation’s total land area. Though the delta and the river together were long the source of Egypt’s wealth and greatness, they now face relentless assault from both land and sea.

The latest threat is a massive dam scheduled to be completed this year on the headwaters of the Blue Nile, which supplies 59 percent of Egypt’s water. Ethiopia’s national government has largely self-financed the $5 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), with the promise that it will generate 6,000 megawatts of power. That’s a big deal for Ethiopians, three-quarters of whom now lack access to electricity. The sale of excess electricity to other countries in the region could also Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues, Food & Drink | 1 Comment »

To End Bushmeat Hunting, Let Them Eat Chickens

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 18, 2017

(Photo:Jeannie O’Brien/Flickr)

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

The idea that the humble chicken could become a savior of wildlife will seem improbable to many environmentalists. We tend to equate poultry production with factory farms, downstream pollution and 50-piece McNugget buckets.

In much of the developing world, though, “a chicken in every pot” is the more pertinent image. It’s a tantalizing one for some conservationists because what’s in the pot there these days is mostly trapped, snared or hunted wildlife — also called bushmeat — from cane rats and brush-tailed porcupines to gorillas.

Hunting for dinner is of course what humans have always done, the juicier half of our hunter-gatherer origins. In many remote forests and fishing villages, moreover, it remains an essential part of the cultural identity. But modern weaponry, motor vehicles, commercial markets and booming human populations have pushed the bushmeat trade to literal overkill — an estimated 15 million animals a year taken in the Brazilian Amazon alone, 579 million animals a year in Central Africa, and onward in a mad race to empty forests and waterways everywhere.

A study last year identified bushmeat hunting as the primary threat pushing 301 mammal species worldwide toward extinction. The victims include bonobo apes, one of our closet living relatives, and Grauer’s gorillas, the world’s largest. (The latter have recently lost about 80 percent of their population, hunted down by mining camp crews with shotguns and AK-47s. Much of the mining is for a product integral to our cultural identities, a mineral used in

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The Hunger Gains: Calorie Restriction Shows Anti-Aging Benefits

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 17, 2017

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Note: Almost 40 years ago (!) I wrote a piece on anti-aging research.  Part of it was about the fasting diet (aka severe calorie restriction or CR).  The article featured Roy Walford, a pioneer of that research at UCLA. Walford did not merely research CR, he also practiced it, and he looked emaciated to me. He later became part of the Biosphere 2 experiment of the early 1990s, which turned into a prolonged CR experiment for everyone. Walford came out of it with his health broken, and died in 2004 at 79, about normal life expectancy then. So I came to the latest research on CR with a lot of caveats in mind.

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

The idea that organisms can live longer, healthier lives by sharply reducing their calorie intake is not exactly new. Laboratory research has repeatedly demonstrated the anti-aging value of calorie restriction (or CR), in animals from nematodes to rats—with the implication that the same might be true for humans.

In practice though, permanently reducing calorie intake by 25 to 50 percent or more sounds to many like a way to extend life by making it not worth living. Researchers have also warned that what works for nematodes or rats may not work—and could even prove dangerous—in humans, by causing muscle or bone density loss, for example.

But now two new studies appear to move calorie restriction from the realm of wishful thinking to the brink of practical, and perhaps even tolerable, reality. Writing in Nature Communications, researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the National Institute on Aging reported

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As Coal Use Drops, So Does Mercury in Tuna. Will Trump Un-Do That?

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 23, 2016

 (Photo: Yusuke Kawasaki/Flickr).

(Photo: Yusuke Kawasaki/Flickr).

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

Levels of highly toxic mercury contamination in Atlantic bluefin tuna are rapidly declining, according to a new study. That trend does not affect recommended limits on consumption of canned tuna, which comes mainly from other tuna species. Nor does it reflect trends in other ocean basins. But it does represent a major break in the long-standing, scary connection between tuna and mercury, a source of public concern since 1970, when a chemistry professor in New York City found excess levels of mercury in a can of tuna and spurred a nationwide recall. Tuna consumption continues to be the source of about 40 percent of the mercury contamination in the American diet. And mercury exposure from all sources remains an important issue, because it causes cognitive impairment in an estimated 300,000 to 600,000 babies born in this country each year.

The new study, published online on November 10 by Environmental Science & Technology, links the decline directly to reduced mercury emissions in North America. Most of that reduction has occurred because of the marketplace shift by power plants and industry away from coal, the major source of mercury emissions. Pollution control requirements imposed by the federal government have also cut mercury emissions.

Progress on both counts could, however, reverse, with President-elect Donald Trump promising

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Posted in Environmental Issues, Food & Drink | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »