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 ‘Sex & Reproduction’ Category

20,000-Year-Old Cave Art from Borneo Depicts Humans Dancing

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 6, 2018

by Richard Conniff

A new study in the journal Nature dates this depiction of humans dancing to between 13,600 and 20,000 years ago. But I have to admit that the big news, for the researchers, is actually that another image from the same caves in East Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, is the oldest known figurative art of any kind, and it depicts an unidentified animal.

Let’s go to the press release (but stick around because my heart is in the dancing  and we are going to get back to that topic shortly):

The world’s earliest-known figurative painting is identified in a paper published online this week in Nature. The cave painting, from Borneo, depicts an indeterminate animal and dates back to at least 40,000 years ago.

The limestone caves of Borneo’s East Kalimantan province contain thousands of rock art images, grouped into three phases: red-orange paintings of animals (mainly wild cattle) and hand stencils; younger, mulberry-coloured hand stencils and intricate motifs, alongside depictions of humans; and a final phase of human figures, boats and geometric designs in black pigment. However, the exact timing of these works had been unclear.

Maxime Aubert and colleagues studied a large, red-orange coloured painting of an indeterminate animal in the Lubang Jeriji Saléh cave. Using a uranium-series analysis, the authors date the limestone crusts that have grown over the art. They determine a minimum age for the underlying painting of Read the rest of this entry »

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Hello, My Name is Denisova 11. And Mom Is S-O-O-O-O Weird. Or Is It Dad?

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 22, 2018

Artist’s conception of a Neanderthal: This would be Denny’s mom.  (Photo: Joe McNally/National Geographic)

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

In a remarkable twist in the story line of early human evolution, scientists have announced the discovery of “Denisova 11”—a female who was at least 13 years old, lived more than 50,000 years ago, and was the child of an early mixed marriage.

That is, her parents were not just of different races, but two different and now-extinct early human types. Their exact taxonomic designations—whether they were separate species or subspecies—is still a matter of scientific debate. But the bottom line for Denisova 11 is that mom was a Neandertal and dad was a Denisovan.

The research, published Wednesday in Nature, is the work of a team led by pioneering paleogeneticist Svante Pääbo at Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. He and his co-authors presented the first description of the Denisovans in 2010, based on genetic evidence from one of the 2,000 or so bone fragments found in Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains,

The Telltale Bone, in 360 degrees (Photo Thomas Higham/Oxford University)

where Siberia borders Mongolia and China. The new discovery is based on another bone fragment from that lot, a 2.5-centimeter-long fragment of what was a femur or humerus, from which the researchers extracted six DNA samples and then cloned them for detailed analysis.

Molecular dating indicates that Denisovans, who are so far known only from Denisova Cave, and Neanderthals, known mainly from sites in Europe, diverged from each other almost 400,000 years ago. They coexisted, probably in relatively small populations scattered across the vast Eurasian landmass, until both became extinct some 30,000 to 40,000 years ago.

But the genetic evidence from Denisova 11 and other recent studies suggests that, on the occasions when they met, Denisovans and Neandertals commonly Read the rest of this entry »

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First Footage of Deep-Sea Anglerfish Sex

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 24, 2018

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This Year’s Worst-Timed Science Study Examines Sex with Immature Females

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 16, 2017

If only scientists had better control over publication dates, this new study might not have seen the light just now, in the year of Harvey Weinstein, Dustin Hoffman, and oh-so-many others.  Published this week in the journal Scientific Reports, it’s a finding that males seeking sex with immature females aren’t necessarily engaged in coercion and don’t seem to impose any cost on their partners.

OK, the researchers are talking about redback spiders, not humans.

And lest readers think it’s a good idea to follow examples from the natural world, the press release for the study also notes that these are “one of few arachnids that engage in sexual cannibalism while mating. In fact, males have been observed to actively assist in being cannibalized by doing somersaults to place their abdomen over the adult female’s mouth.”

Still, we’re not all that far out of Harvey Weinstein territory, are we?  (He’d have used a body double for the somersault.)

What’s especially interesting, Read the rest of this entry »

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Eggs in a Basket: Fossil Find Opens Up Lost World of Pterosaurs

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 1, 2017

With apologies, I have been delayed in posting several articles I published previously this year. Attempting to update now.

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

Thanks in part to an abundance of fossil discoveries in recent decades, scientists now recognize more than 200 species of pterosaur—the winged reptiles that dominated the world’s skies for 160 million years. But almost nothing is known about how they bred or how their young developed. As recently as 2014 the available scientific evidence on those topics added up to a grand total of just three pterosaur eggs, all badly flattened.

That dramatically changes with the description in this week’s Science of a sandstone block containing at least 215 fossilized eggs of a Cretaceous era pterosaur, Hamipterus tianshanensis. Many are preserved in three dimensions, and at least 16 contain partial embryonic remains.

Paleontologists Alexander Kellner and Xiaolin Wang

A research team led by Xiaolin Wang of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing discovered the eggs, embedded in a rock slab more than three square meters in area, at a dig in northwestern China. Analysis of sediments in the find suggests “that events of high energy such as storms passed over a nesting site” by an ancient lake, the co-authors write, causing the egg mass to float “for a short period of time, becoming concentrated and eventually buried.”

Preservation of any pterosaur fossil is exceptional, partly because their bones were so thin. Extreme scarcity is even Read the rest of this entry »

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Here’s an Eyeful About Why We Need Wildlife Sanctuaries

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 9, 2017

Two young tuskers play-jousting in the Corbett Tiger Reserve, Uttarakhand, India (Photo: Anuradha Marwah)

Two young tuskers play-jousting in the Corbett Tiger Reserve, Uttarakhand, India (Photo: Anuradha Marwah)

Wildlife refuges and sanctuaries are the best hope for many wildlife species in a world that is rapidly being overwhelmed by humans.  The Sanctuary Asia web site holds an annual photo contest and these are Read the rest of this entry »

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Animal Music Monday: Muskrat Love

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 27, 2016

Yep, this is a song about two muskrats having sex. And even if most of us have never heard the actual event, muskrat vocalizations consist of squeaks and squeals, which sounds about right. The principals in this song are Muskrat Susie and Muskrat Sam, and there is apparently talk of marriage before they do the thing.  Texas singer Willis Alan Ramsey wrote and recorded the song in 1972, under the title “Muskrat Candlelight,” and this is his version.

I find just looking at the Captain and Tenille cover from 1976 hideously Read the rest of this entry »

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Animal Music Monday: “Little Red Rooster”

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 30, 2016

Sometimes I suspect that songs about animals are really songs about people, only slightly disguised.

But you will be shocked, shocked, as I am I, that some callow writer would interpret a gentle barnyard ditty like “Little Red Rooster,” made famous in 1961 by the Chicago blues singer Howlin’ Wolf, as the “most overtly phallic song since Blind Lemon Jefferson’s ‘Black Snake Moan'” in 1927.

And, wait, wait, wasn’t Blind Lemon really singing about his ophidophobic nightmare of a snake loose in the bedroom? And when he finishes with “Black snake mama Read the rest of this entry »

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Rare Amur Tiger Family–Dad, too–Caught on Film

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 6, 2015

This remarkable footage comes from the Wildlife Conservation Society. Here’s a composite photo of the animals passing in succession by the camera trap:

tigerfamilyphoto

And here’s the WCS press release:


NEW YORK (
March 6, 2015) –The Wildlife Conservation Society’s Russia Program, in partnership with the Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve and Udegeiskaya Legenda National Park, released a camera trap slideshow of a family of Amur tigers in the wild showing an adult male with family. Shown following the “tiger dad” along the Russian forest is an adult female and three cubs. Scientists note this is

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Sex & Reproduction | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

When a Baby in the Oven Means Mom is Totally Cooked

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 24, 2015

This one goes out to all you happy couples stuck at home by the snow and thinking about maybe having sex and making a baby.  It’s a heartwarming little story about a species where mom’s blessed event is also always her funeral.

Don’t thank me. It comes from Matt Simon at Wired:

Ah, motherhood. I don’t know anything about it, but I heard there’s a lot of, like, sacrifice and stuff. Not only do you have to bring the brat into the world, but then you have to feed it for at least 18 years or you get in big trouble. That’s a lot of pressure.

But with all due respect to human mothers out there, their sacrifice is nothing compared to a momma strepsiptera. (Cue phone call from my own mother in 3…2…1…) This little parasite invades the bodies of all manner of insects, where she waits patiently as the young that fill her body consume her from the inside out. Eventually they

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