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 ‘Social Status’ Category

The Notorious Racist Who Inspired America’s National Parks

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 1, 2016

Madison Grant

Madison Grant

by Richard Conniff/Mother Jones

I used to tune out when my father would go on about eminent domain: how his immigrant grandparents had built up a modest homestead with two houses, three grown children, and a flock of chickens on the banks of the Bronx River. And then, around 1913, how the government had seized the property to make way for the Bronx River Parkway. That the episode still rankled after almost a century just seemed like a manifestation of my father’s cranky late-life conservatism.

That was before I found out about Madison Grant.

It’s a name you should be hearing a lot this year because of the centennial of the National Park Service—in many ways a product of Grant’s pioneering work as the greatest conservationist who ever lived, according to one early Park Service director, and a creator of “the park concept,” in the words of another. But you probably won’t hear Grant’s name so much as whispered, because his peculiar line of thinking also helped lay the groundwork for the death camps of Nazi Germany.

Born in 1865, Grant enjoyed a blue-blood Manhattan childhood thanks to his mother’s family wealth and his father’s reputation as a doctor and Civil War hero. At 16, he went to Germany for four years of private tutoring before coming back for Yale and then Columbia Law School.

Grant was a handsome, urbane figure with a thick mustache and steady, deep-set eyes and a reputation as a ladies’ man. He set up a Manhattan law office but rarely practiced. Nor did he ever hold Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues, Social Status, The Primate File | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Teacher, Preacher, P.R. Man of Science–The Patriarch Part 2

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 15, 2015

Continued from “How Science Education Came to America”:

His Eminence

His Eminence

Benjamin Silliman would become a great name. He was “the Patriarch” of American science, according to Louis Agassiz, the Swiss biologist who would take up the mantle of science education at Harvard in 1847. But Silliman would do so without making any great discoveries, without introducing any bold new concepts or systems, and without ever fitting the stereotype of the scientist as solitary brooding genius. On the contrary. What American science needed then was “an organizer, a promoter, a teacher, a preacher, a public relations man, a communicator and coordinator, and an exemplar of professionalism,” science historian Robert Bruce has written. “Silliman was all of these.”

He was a charismatic figure, with a clear and forceful way of speaking and an impressive, even aristocratic physical presence—tall and lean, “erect as a general on parade and with a general’s expression of great power,” as a former student recalled, with a high brow, deep-set eyes, a thin straight nose, and slightly pursed lips—altogether inspiring confidence and even belief in his listeners.

Silliman made it his mission to develop science and science education at Yale, and later nationwide. For this, he also possessed the ineffable trait that Bruce describes as “effectiveness in procuring facilities and supplies.” It wasn’t just that he had a keen eye for new material to embellish the Yale collection; he was also adroit at wheedling funds out of the Yale Corporation to pay for these acquisitions. Much of this effort went in support of mineralogy, a topic early Americans found far more tantalizing than we generally do today. For them, it afforded “a pleasant subject for scientific research,” according to an 1816 account, and also tended “to increase individual wealth” and “to improve and multiply arts and manufactures and thus promote the public good.”

Mineralogy attracted some colorful personalities. Silliman handed over $1,000, a huge sum then, Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Social Status, The Primate File | 1 Comment »

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 »

Silverback Out for a Stroll

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 20, 2013

More camera trap magic:   This is a silverback Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli), caught with a camera trap in Nigeria’ s Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary. Cross River gorillas are the rarest of the four gorilla subspecies – numbering fewer than 300 individuals and found only in the forested, mountainous border region of Nigeria and Cameroon.  (Photo: Wildlife Conservation Society/WCS)

More camera trap magic: This is a silverback Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli), caught with a camera trap in Nigeria’ s Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary. Cross River gorillas are the rarest of the four gorilla subspecies – numbering fewer than 300 individuals and found only in the forested, mountainous border region of Nigeria and Cameroon. (Photo: Wildlife Conservation Society/WCS)

Posted in Social Status, The Primate File | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Hello, China? This One Needs No Translation

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 20, 2013

It’s a recording of the sound of elephants being shot and killed in Gabon, to turn their tusks into ivory knickknacks that are the blood status symbols of China’s newly rich:


Here’s the press release from the Wildlife Conservation Society:

NEW YORK (November 20, 2013) — The Wildlife Conservation Society released a powerful video today that features shocking audio of an elephant being shot and killed by ivory poachers in Central Africa. The video is part of WCS’s 96 Elephants campaign – named for the number of elephants gunned down by poachers every day.

The low-frequency recording, taken in Gabon in Central Africa, was made by scientists from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Elephant Listening Project studying low frequency communication of elephants using remote devices left in the field then retrieved and analyzed months later.  Gabon’s National Parks Agency (ANPN) is a partner on the project.

The 60-second video opens on a black screen with text that fades up: This is the sound of an elephant fleeing an armed poacher as it is shot repeatedly in the forests of Central Africa. As the audio begins, a running counter appears: How long can you listen? The black backdrop slowly fades to the image of a fallen elephant. Text fades up while the counter keeps running: 35,000 elephants were killed in Africa in 2012. That’s 96 elephants killed everyday. You can make it stop.

WCS’s 96 Elephants campaign amplifies and supports the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) commitment to save Africa’s elephants announced in September.  The WCS campaign focuses on: securing effective U.S. moratorium laws; bolstering elephant protection with additional funding; and educating the public about the link between ivory consumption and the elephant poaching crisis.

 Throughout Africa, elephant numbers have plummeted by 76 percent since 1980 due largely to the demand of elephant ivory with an estimated 35,000 slaughtered by poachers in 2012 alone.

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Social Status | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

That Puppy Love–Is It Mutual?

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 1, 2013

Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn. (Photo: Rekha Garton/Reuters)

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. (Photo: Rekha Garton/Reuters)

My latest for TakePart could make dog owners a little nervous about their attachment style:

A lot of things in this world don’t go exactly the way we might like. And then there are dogs. You may lose your job. You may lose your romantic partner. But you can always count on your dog for unconditional and uncomplaining love.

As the Bill Currington song puts it:

He never tells me that he’s sick of this house
He never says, “Why don’t you get off that couch?”
He don’t cost me nothin’ when he wants to go out
I want you to love me like my dog

But, hey, did anybody ever ask the dog? Is he really so uncritical? Even when we come rolling in drunk and stupid? Or when, with no justification whatsoever, we take out our frustrations at his expense? Or does he sit there thinking, “Oh, man, you didn’t just do what I think you did.”

How do dogs really feel about us after all?

That’s the challenging question taken up by a Scandinavian research team for a new study published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, under the title “I like my dog, does my dog like me?”

Their conclusions may not be quite what you were hoping to hear. “There was no evidence Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Social Status | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Behind the Scenes at The Truman Show for Ants

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 18, 2013


My new post for TakePart:


Even in the arcane world of ant behavior, the right headline can make all the difference. Back in May, Danielle Mersch and her colleagues at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland published an article in Science.They got very little attention for it, perhaps because the headline wasn’t exactly an attention-grabber: “Tracking Individuals Shows Spatial Fidelity Is a Key Regulator of Ant Social Organization.”

But a new article, just published in Current Biology, gives Mersch’s work the spin it clearly deserves. Under the headline “Animal Behavior: The Truman Show for Ants,” the authors describe how the system Mersch’s team devised to track the second-by-second movements of every individual in an ant colony resembles the popular 1998 film starring Jim Carrey. In that film, Truman Burbank, played by Carrey, belatedly discovers that his entire life has been a reality show produced and managed for broadcast.

At Mersch’s laboratory in Lausanne, the lives being recorded take place in a row of Styrofoam boxes, each about the size of a bar refrigerator, lined up on a counter. A computer precisely controls temperature and humidity inside each box, where a colony of about 150 carpenter ants (Camponotus fellah) goes back and forth between daytime and nighttime compartments. Mersch has 11 separate colonies under watch at the moment. Like Truman before he wakes up, the ants are apparently oblivious that the outside world is looking in, though every ant carries a barcode-like placard on its back, for automated identification, and an overhead camera … to read the rest of this post click here.


Posted in Cool Tools, Social Status | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Darwin’s Other Dangerous Idea

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 24, 2013

Today in 1871, Charles Darwin published his Descent of Man. It contained his theory of sexual selection, one of the most important and controversial ideas in our understanding of human and animal behavior. Here’s an excerpt from an article I wrote in 2007 for Men’s Health Magazine:

Charles Darwin is of course best known for his theory that species evolve by natural selection. It holds that nature steadily weeds out unfavorable traits by killing individuals who display them, with the dirty work (or quality control) getting done by predators, natural disasters, accidents, and disease, often with considerable help from stupidity. Last year, for instance, a student writing in the University of Nebraska campus newspaper lambasted seatbelt laws as “intrusive and ridiculous,” then promptly died, unbuckled, on being flung from an SUV in a rollover. For his trouble, he got a Darwin Award, commemorating those “who improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it.” That’s natural selection.

But in his 1871 book The Descent of Man, Darwin proposed that it isn’t enough simply to avoid getting killed. Species also evolve depending on which individuals do better at attracting members of the opposite sex. This may sound obvious. But sexual selection has turned out to be far more quirky and surprising than anyone expected. Among other things, it often rewards stupid male behavior. In fact, sexual selection often puts back the very things natural selection weeds out.

Peahens, for instance, like a peacock with a big Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Sex & Reproduction, Social Status | 1 Comment »

The Wallace-over-Darwin Groundswell

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 15, 2012

Wallace over Darwin, on the arms of a biologist at Auburn University (Photo: Richard Conniff)

OK, I confess, I deliberately posed this picture to put Wallace on top.  But, sad to say, there’s also an obvious forensic clue in the photograph indicating that Darwin came first.  If you spot the clue, please say so in comments.

And if you are completely feckin’ baffled by what I am going on about, Alfred Russel Wallace was the co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection.  But unlike Darwin, he had the balls to say it out loud.  A letter from Wallace explaining his ideas in 1858 is what finally drove Darwin to publish the theory for which he had been gathering evidence over the previous 20 years.  The question of whether Wallace or Darwin deserves credit for the biggest idea in the history of science remains hotly contested, though largely by people who admire them both.  (You can read about it in my book The Species Seekers.)

Meanwhile, in other Wallace news, the world’s leading Wallace maven, George Beccaloni, recently updated his list of species named after Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Social Status, The Species Seekers | 5 Comments »

Bashing Men as the New National Pastime (The Male Advantage–part 1)

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 18, 2012

My latest, for Men’s Health magazine:

On a radio show one morning recently, a female professor at a well-known university tossed off the thought that, if men are just going to hang out with their pals at the bar every night, women will take a pass on having kids with them.   She didn’t cite any studies, and she almost certainly didn’t know any men who fit that description.  But it didn’t matter.

Casually disparaging the entire male gender is not only the last socially acceptable prejudice, it’s a national pastime.  Later I asked some friends to name a few things men do well and the answers ranged from “Leave the toilet seat up” to a flat out, “Nothing.”   Men have become a necessary evil—and maybe not all that necessary, once artificial sperm moves out of the laboratory and into the real world.  At the same time, women have become so disproportionately admired by both genders that psychologists have dubbed this the “Women Are Wonderful Effect.”

And, Lord knows, they are.  But I was hoping someone would pipe up to say that men and women aren’t really all that different, and that both do plenty of things well.   Feminists used to say something like that, for the purpose of moving women into jobs traditionally held by men.  So you would hardly expect them to argue now that men are a defective or inferior gender–unless they have completely forgotten how destructive it was when such things were said about women.

And yet that has somehow become the default assumption for society at large:  Boys raise their hands in class more often than girls so they need to be ignored.  Boys are disruptive in school so they need to be medicated (almost three times as often as girls).  Boys drop out of school more and fail to attend college or grad school at the same rate as girls, so let’s forget them Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Sex & Reproduction, Social Status | Leave a Comment »