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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 ‘New Species Discoveries’ Category

Utah Yields a Giant Triassic Pterosaur–and It’s Largely Intact

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 15, 2018


Here’s the press release from Brigham Young University. (Sorry, didn’t have time to add it earlier.)  And small correction: Pterodactyl(us) is just a name for one genus of pterosaur, rather than a common name for all pterosaurs.

When Brooks Britt, a geological sciences professor at BYU, searched through the latest Triassic sandstone samples in his lab, he expected to find bones of early crocodiles and dinosaurs. Instead, he discovered the bones of a new pterosaur specimen, now named Caelestiventus (heavenly wind) hanseni. Dating back more than 200 million years, it’s one of the earliest ever found.

Until Britt’s discovery, newly published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, there were only 30 known Triassic pterosaur (more commonly known as pterodactyl) specimens known to man — and none lived in deserts. Caelestiventus hanseni predates all desert pterosaurs by 65 million years. “We’re getting insights into the beginning of pterosaurs,” he said. “Ours shows that Read the rest of this entry »

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Inside China’s Motherlode of Ancient Monsters

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 26, 2018

Junchang Lü and friend (Photo: Richard Conniff)

by Richard Conniff/Smithsonian Magazine

Not long ago in northeastern China, I found myself being driven in a Mercedes Benz SUV down a winding country road, trailed by a small motorcade of local dignitaries, past flat-roofed brick farmhouses and fields full of corn stubble. Abruptly, we arrived at our destination, and my guide, a stylishly-dressed woman named Fangfang, slipped out of her high heels into fieldwork gear: pink sneakers with bright blue pompoms on the Velcro straps.

We were visiting a dinosaur dig, but it was also a museum in the early stages of construction—steel beams riveted together to form oddly birdlike layers, stacked one atop another, climbing a hillside in two parallel rows. At the top, a central pavilion connecting the two rows looked like a bird about to take off.  The new museum didn’t have a definite name yet, though it is due to open sometime next year.  But it was unmistakably huge.  It was also expensive (Fanfang thought $28 million for construction alone).  And it was in the middle of nowhere.

We were in a rural village called Sihetun, in the western part of Liaoning Province.  And in the exuberant fashion of a lot of modern development in China, the new museum is going up in anticipation of visitors arriving by speed train from Beijing, 250 miles to the southwest, except that the speed train hasn’t been built yet.  More sensibly, the new museum is going up to celebrate the epicenter of modern paleontological discovery, an area that is at least as rich in fossils, and in some ways as wild, as the American West during the great era of dinosaur discovery in the late nineteenth century.

Liaoning Province (pronounced “lee-ow-NING”) is an area about the size of Michigan, sandwiched between Inner Mongolia and North Korea.  It used to be known mainly for coal, corn, and decrepit factories, which have given it a reputation as “China’s rust belt.” That’s put it off the usual itinerary for the average tourist. But developments over the past quarter-century have made it a point of pilgrimage for people interested in fossils.

Liaoning farmer and fossil hunter Lang Shi Kuang (Photo: Stefen Chow)

In the mid-1990s, on that hillside in Sihetun, a farmer planting a tree stumbled onto the world’s first known feathered dinosaur, a creature now named Sinosauropteryx (meaning “the China dragon wing”).  Actually, the farmer found two halves of a slab, each preserving a mirror image of this dinosaur.  In the freebooting spirit that has characterized the fossil trade in the area ever since, he promptly sold half to one unwitting museum, and half to another. It was the start of a fossil gold rush.

Since then, the region has produced more than 40 dinosaur species, and they have inevitably grabbed the headlines. Standing on a hillside a few minutes from the new museum site, my guide pointed out the low hills of a nearby farm where Yutyrannus, a 3100-pound feathered dinosaur, turned up a few years ago. (Think Tyrannosaurus rex, but plumed like a Mardi Gras Indian.)  This was also the former home range of Anchiornis huxleyi, a chicken-size creature with enough preserved detail to become the first dinosaur ever described feather-by-feather in its authentic colors—an event one paleontologist likened to “the birth of color tv.”

What has emerged from beneath the fields of Liaoning (and parts of neighboring provinces) is, however, bigger than dinosaurs: A couple of decades of digging have yielded Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Evolution, New Species Discoveries | Tagged: , , , , | 6 Comments »

Celebrating Psychedelica: Live on The Leonard Lopate Show

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 7, 2017

Swims like a drunken sailor. (© David Hall/

I was a guest this afternoon on “The Leonard Lopate Show” on WNYC in New York, talking about species discovery.  The interview runs about 13 minutes and listening to it is definitely better than a sharp stick in the eye. (A courageous listener called in to tell one of the other guests that he didn’t like the sound of her voice. Thank goodness, I didn’t have a call-in segment.)

At one point, I talked about a favorite new species from 2009 named psychedelica. Here’s the background, from my previous post on the discovery:

Once again, science makes my day. Researchers have discovered a wonderful new fish in shallow water off the Indonesian island of Ambon, much visited by great naturalists of the past including Alfred Russel Wallace. And this one just makes you want to keep looking and looking, even in the same places everybody else has looked before, because Mother Nature is such a relentless joker.

University of Washington scientist Ted Pietsch has dubbed the discovery Histiophryne psychedelica because, well, just look at that face. Or consider its swimming behavior, which also suggests that it has been dabbling in mind-altering drugs. It doesn’t so much

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, New Species Discoveries, Species Seekers Almanac, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

A Beetle Like a Book of Prayers

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 2, 2014

Neolucanus baongocae,  named by the discoverer after his daughter, Nguyen Bao Ngoc

Neolucanus baongocae, named by the discoverer after his daughter, Nguyen Bao Ngoc

A researcher in Vietnam reports the discovery of a beautiful new stag beetle from Bidoup-Nui Ba National Park in the Central Highlands.

I’m posting it here because the colors and patina remind me of an old leather-bound volume illuminated by medieval monks and rubbed smooth by devoted handling through all the centuries since then.

But self-reproducing.

Ain’t nature frickin’ grand?

The genus is Neolucanus, and entomologist Nguyen Quang Thai fashioned the species name baongocae after his daughter, Nguyen Bao Ngoc, which is also a lovely thing.

The description appears in the journal Zootaxa.

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Wonder, Terror, Surprise, and Despair: The Year in Wildlife

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 24, 2013

This new species, off the coast of Australia, somehow managed to go unnoticed until 2013.

This new species, off the coast of Australia, somehow managed to go unnoticed until 2013.

My latest for TakePart:

Sometimes in our modern urbanized world we get the feeling that wildlife is history, an absurd nineteenth-century holdover, hopelessly analog in a world that has become obsessed with all things digital.

Then something happens: A red-tailed hawk rips open a pigeon in Washington Square; a coyote lopes through Chicago’s Loop; a shark flips a seal in the air just off the beach on Cape Cod.

Then we remember: This stuff is real, and it’s still happening all around us.

For those lucky enough to pay attention, the year in wildlife was an endless source of surprise, delight, terror, despair, nobility, and wonder.

Here are a few of my favorite wildlife stories from 2013.

Cute but killers (Photo: Richard Conniff)

Cute but killers (Photo: Richard Conniff)

1. The Environmental Catastrophe of Free-Roaming and Feral Cats

For all of us who used to think it was nice to let our cats wander outdoors, the big, bloody shock of the New Year came from a study in January in the journal Nature Communications. An analysis by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that free-roaming cats kill an estimated 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds and between 6.9 and 20.7 billion mammals in this country every year. The bottom line: Send the kids out to play, but keep your little killer at home.

2. Birds, Bees, and Kinky Sex

The vast and colorful animal Kama Sutra continued to add new twists. In February, Japanese researchers announced that the marine sea slug Chromodoris reticulata loses its penis after copulation. But then, “new tissue emerges like lead in a mechanical pencil.” That is, it grows a new one. Later, scientists reported that a sea slug from the Great Coral Reef uses its forked and spine-ringed penis to stab Read the rest of this entry »

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Crab Heaven and Scientific Immortality

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 27, 2012

Tudge’s tiny crab

Here’s a nice piece about having a new species named in your honor, from ScienceDaily:

Areopaguristes tudgei. That’s the name of a new species of hermit crab recently discovered on the barrier reef off the coast of Belize by Christopher Tudge, a biology professor at American University in Washington, D.C.

Tudge has been interested in biology his whole life, from boyhood trips to the beach collecting crustaceans in his native Australia, to his undergraduate and PhD work in zoology and biology at the University of Queensland. He has collected specimens all over the world, from Australia to Europe to North and South America.

Until now, he has never had a species named after him. He only found out about his namesake after reading an article about it in the journal Zootaxa. Apparently, finding out after-the-fact is standard practice in the highly formalized ritual of naming a new species.

The two crustacean taxonomists and authors of the paper who named the new crab after Tudge, Rafael Lemaitre of the Department of Invertebrate Zoology at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History and Darryl L. Felder of the University of Louisiana-Lafayette’s Department of Biology Laboratory for Crustacean Research, have known Tudge since he first came to Washington in 1995 as a postdoc research fellow at the Smithsonian.

Crustacean Elation

Lemaitre and Felder have been collecting specimens on the tiny Belizean island for decades and for more than 10 years, they had asked Tudge — who specializes in the structures of crustacean reproduction and how they relate to the creatures’ evolutionary history — to join them on one of their semiannual research outings. Finally, in February 2010, Tudge joined them on a tiny island covered with hundreds of species of their favorite fauna.

It was crab heaven for a cast of crustacean guys.

“So you can take 40 steps off the island and Read the rest of this entry »

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Our Undiscovered Earth

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 12, 2012

Out of its depths

I’m still playing catch up in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy (no damage but no power at home), and a reporting trip to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  This item by Michael McCarthy in The Independent caught my eye, about finding a whale no one had ever seen before, and what that suggests about how much we still need to learn about life on Earth:

We all know the baleen whales, which have baleen plates, or giant filters in their mouths to trap plankton, because these 15 or so species include the world’s biggest animals, such as the blue whale and the humpback, and around British coasts, the minke whale. And we all know the toothed whales, because this group of 50-plus species includes all the dolphins and porpoises, and other very familiar creatures such as the sperm whale – Moby Dick in Melville’s epic – and the orca or killer whale, and the white whale, the beluga.

But the beaked whales are largely a mystery, to zoologists as well as to general wildlife enthusiasts. Cuvier’s beaked whale, Gervais’ beaked whale, Blainville’s beaked whale, Sowerby’s beaked whale – ever heard of any of them? Top of the class if you have. This group of about 20 species is undoubtedly the least-known of all marine mammals, and very likely the least known large mammals on earth, because they spend much of their time at tremendous depths in the ocean, feeding on squid, and are rarely encountered on the surface.

I have always been fascinated by them, so I was even more fascinated to learn that the rarest of them all has just been seen and described for the first time. This is Read the rest of this entry »

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New Monkey Species Discovered in a Snapshot

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 13, 2012

A thoughtful looking male of the newly-identified monkey species from the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Photo: M. Emetshu/PLOS One)

UPDATE:  Much of the world seems to be going gaga for this new species, known locally as the lesula, and that’s surely a good thing.  The (UK) Guardian goes entertainingly over the top.  Here’s an excerpt:

The photograph captures a sensitivity and intelligence that makes this monkey look like it is sitting for its portrait by Rembrandt. It reveals a staggeringly insightful, wise, and melancholy face. Like Rembrandt’s son Titus in the portrait of him by his father that hangs in London’s Wallace Collection, the lesula looks right back at its beholder, calm and pensive, examining you as you examine it. Its eyes have the depth and frankness of those seen in moving portraits on Roman-era mummies from the Fayoum, or in Antonello da Messina’s haunting portrait of a man gazing back out of a glassy oil panel.

And here’s a somewhat more earth-bound report on the remarkable new species discovery, from Mother Nature Network:

A shy, brightly colored monkey species has been found living in the lush rainforests at the heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a find that utterly surprised the researchers who came upon it.
“When I first saw it, I immediately knew it was something new and different — I just didn’t know how significant it was,” said John Hart, a veteran Congo researcher who is scientific director for the Lukuru Wildlife Research Foundation, based in Kinshasa.
In fact, the find was something of a happy accident. Hart first spied the suspect monkey in 2007 while sifting through photographs brought back from a recently concluded field expedition to a remote region of central DRC.

Georgette and the snapshot that started the hunt for a new species (Photo: John Hart)

Yet the image that caught his eye hadn’t been taken in the field. It was snapped in a village, and showed a young girl named Georgette with a tiny monkey that had taken a shine to the 13-year-old.

Hart followed up with five years of field work, anatomical comparisons, and genetic analysis.  He and his co-authors officially introduced their fine, named Cercopithecus lomamiensis, yesterday in the online journal PLOS ONE.  The report on Mother Nature Network continues:
It turned out that the little monkey that hung around Georgette’s house had been brought to the area by the girl’s uncle, who had found it on a hunting trip. It wasn’t quite a pet, but it became known as Georgette’s lesula. The young female primate passed its days running in the yard with the dogs, foraging around the village for food, and growing up into a monkey that Read the rest of this entry »

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A Democratic American Science (A Glorious Enterprise–Part 2)

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 28, 2012

Peale was a showman for his museum

Philadelphia was already home, in 1812, to the American Philosophical Society, dedicated by Benjamin Franklin to all studies “that let Light into the Nature of Things, tend to increase the Power of Man over Matter, and multiply the Conveniencies or Pleasures of Life.”  The Philadelphia Museum was also thriving then, with the entrepreneurial artist Charles Willson Peale displaying portraits of great American patriots and specimens of great American wildlife side by side.

The founders of the Academy meant to set themselves apart by focusing exclusively on the natural world, not culture or the arts.  And they wanted to do scholarly work, avoiding the kind of promotional hoopla Peale sometimes indulged in to attract paying customers.  The Academy was also determined to be democratic.  Whereas the American Philosophical Society drew its members from the elite (including 15 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence), the Academy’s founders were local businessmen and immigrants drawn together by a single idea: “We are lovers of science.”  They resolved that their organization would be “perpetually exclusive of political, religious and national partialities, antipathies, preventions and prejudices.”   This was no doubt wishful thinking.   As at most such institutions then, the Academy’s membership was entirely white and male, until the widow of one of the founders was admitted in 1841.  And even brotherhood would prove elusive.  (One founder was soon describing another as a “hot headed eccentric Irishman” and “some what crack brained.”)

Thomas Say

But the founders of the Academy were at least sincere in wanting to develop a proper American science for understanding and describing the riches of the still largely unexplored continent.  The time will arrive,” wrote Thomas Say, the intellectual force behind the Academy in its early years, “when we shall no longer be indebted to the men of foreign countries, for a knowledge of any of the products of our own soil, or for our opinions in science.” Say himself would become the father of American entomology, describing roughly 1400 insect species in his lifetime, including many of critical economic importance in agriculture.

Say would also become the first trained naturalist to visit the American West, as chief scientist on the Long Expedition of 1819-20, and he provided the first descriptions of many now beloved species there, from the swift fox to the Lazuli bunting—and also of many insects.  At one point, Say recounted how he was seated with a Kansa chieftain, “in the presence of several hundred of his people assembled to view the arms, equipment, and appearance of the party,” when a darkling beetle came scurrying out from among the feet of the crowd.  Diplomatic dignity wrestled briefly with the passion for species.  Then Say went plunging after the beetle and impaled it on a pin, for which the astonished Kansa admiringly dubbed him a medicine man.

Back home in Philadelphia, studying insects was more likely to attract “the ridicule of the inconsiderate,” as Say ruefully admitted.  But another of his discoveries, the mosquito species Anopheles quadrimaculatus, would turn out, long after his death, to be the chief carrier of “ague,” or malaria.  And identifying this culprit would become the key to eliminating a plague that routinely killed Americans from the Gulf Coast as far north as Boston and the Great Lakes.

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The Collecting Life

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 21, 2012

Too often, people send me names of naturalists to be added to the Wall of the Dead.  (Josh Nove is the latest, added this morning.) But this time, a son has written to ask that his father be removed from the list.  Here’s the original entry:

Van Gelder, Richard G. (1928-1994), prominent mammalogist with the American Museum of Natural History, died, age 65, either from acute monocytic leukemia or, as friends recall, from falciparium malaria acquired in Kenya.

But Gordon Van Gelder writes: “I’m emailing you to thank you for listing him, but I think he—like his idol, Charles Darwin—doesn’t belong on the list.”  The list memorializes naturalists who died in the course of their field research to discover and describe new species. But Richard Van Gelder “did in fact die at home from acute monocytic leukemia.  It is true that he contracted malaria during one of his trips to Kenya and it recurred several times, [but] that was in the 1980s.

Richard is, however, clearly worth remembering in a context other than the Wall of the Dead.   Among his many achievements, he discovered a new species of vesper bat, commonly known as Van Gelder’s Bat.

Gordon kindly also sent along a description of the collecting life from his father’s unpublished memoir:

Mammal collecting is perhaps the most arduous of all the fields.  The entomologist can set up his nets and lights and run through the fields like my old friend “Madam Butterfly.”  When they catch something they pop it into a killing-jar and when it is dead they lay it out between soft cellulose sheets and take it home.  The rest of the preparation, mounting on pins, labeling, or making microscope slides of the specimen is done by their technicians.  The herpetologist goes around turning over logs and grabbing snakes and lizards or pops them with his .22 dust shot.  When he has a bag full he plunks them into alcohol and throws in a label. 

But mammalogists do most of their preparation in the field, and they also deal with some pretty big critters.  Each one has to be measured and weighed, and we usually pick them over for fleas and ticks (for our entomologist colleagues), and then we have to skin them and stuff them.  We don’t do taxidermy, but we make something called a study skin, that looks like some of the fluffy toys they sell in F.A.O. Schwarz.  Then Read the rest of this entry »

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