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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 ‘Species Classification’ Category

Digging Out From the Ashes of a Ruined Museum

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 7, 2018

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

With the hollowed-out shell of their old building standing in ruins nearby, and its history-rich contents in ashes, staff and scientists of Brazil’s National Museum met Wednesday morning for the first time since Sunday’s fire. They face a future suddenly bereft of a vast assortment of items from Brazil’s natural and cultural heritage, which explorers and researchers had collected and preserved over the museum’s 200-year history.

No one died or was injured in the fire—astonishingly, given staffers’ last-minute efforts to salvage specimens and equipment as parts of the building’s interior tumbled down around them. But one museum official estimated up to 18 million of the institution’s original 20 million specimens might have been destroyed in the raging blaze, which began soon after the building closed Sunday evening. Among the unique items missing and presumed lost were the only recordings of languages of tribes that have vanished, and the only specimens of plants and animals that have gone extinct, from places that in some cases no longer exist.

Museum Director Alexander Kellner told Scientific American that a meeting with members of Brazil’s congress, cabinet and Pres. Michel Temer had secured an immediate guarantee of $2.4 million to stabilize the museum’s gutted shell, located in a park on the north side of Rio de Janeiro, “and to recover what can be recovered.” This will inevitably be a slow process. Some paleontology specimens, for instance, may have survived within heavy-duty storage containers called compactors. But those compactors are now singed and covered with Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Species Classification, The Species Seekers | Tagged: , , , | 7 Comments »

Strange New Brazilian Porcupine Discovered

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 19, 2013

New South American porcupine (Photo: Hugo Fernandes-Ferreira)

New South American porcupine (Photo: Hugo Fernandes-Ferreira)

The big news in species discovery this week is the first new tapir species since 1865–an animal that can weigh in at 240 pounds.

But this one is quirkier.  Here’s the report from a web site that snarks it up amusingly, or idiotically, depending on your point of view.  The author seems to think the new species is some sort of bizarre cross between a porcupine and a monkey.   It’s really just a porcupine, not a “monkey pine”:

Biologists from the Federal University of Paraíba in Brazil have discovered a new species of porcupine that – to the uninitiated – basically just looks like an amazing, pug-nosed, spiky monkey.

With a prehensile tail, these Coendou porcupines are very similar to most internet writers we know: nocturnal, solitary, prickly, and slow-moving. Found only in Central and South America, the monkey-pines live in trees, where they spend their nights collecting leaves and fruit for food. Their tail operates as a fifth hand for balance in the treetops; unfortunately, they’re incapable of jumping, and have to climb all the way down if they want to venture into a new tree.

This new species of monkey-pine is called the Coendou baturitensis, or the Baturite porcupine. According to this paper in Revista Nordestina de Biologia, “[t]he name refers to the locality of origin, a forests on a mountain range similar to the Brejos de Altitude of the Brazilian Northeast.”

Sadly, the Baturite monkey-pine probably wouldn’t make the greatest of pets, as it is still covered in sharp, tri-colored quills. Cuddle with caution.

Here’s a more detailed (and less fanciful) report from Sergio Prostak at  The new species is from the Brazilian state of Ceará, right out on the easternmost tip of the country.

Posted in Species Classification, The Species Seekers | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

At Play in the Fields of Fliskets, Zant, and Fred

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 28, 2013

Jawsius charlottei (Illustration: Calene Luczo)

Jawseus charlottei (Illustration: Calene Luczo/

I happened to come across two lovely poems this morning about the challenge of naming the animals.  The first is by John Hollander.*

                                 Adam’s Task

And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field … GEN. 2:20

Thou, paw-paw-paw; thou, glurd; thou, spotted
Glurd; thou, whitestap, lurching through
The high-grown brush; thou, pliant-footed,
Implex; thou, awagabu.

Every burrower, each flier
Came for the name he had to give:
Gay, first work, ever to be prior,
Not yet sunk to primitive.

Thou, verdle; thou, McFleery’s pomma;
Thou; thou; thou—three types of grawl;
Thou, flisket; thou, kabasch; thou, comma-
Eared mashawk; thou, all; thou, all.

Were, in a fire of becoming,
Laboring to be burned away,
Then work, half-measuring, half-humming,
Would be as serious as play.

Thou, pambler; thou, rivarn; thou, greater
Wherret, and thou, lesser one;
Thou, sproal; thou, zant; thou, lily-eater.
Naming’s over. Day is done.

The second poem comes from Anthony Hecht, in roughly the same spirit:

                      Naming the Animals

Having commanded Adam to bestow
Names upon all the creatures, God withdrew
To empyrean palaces of blue
That warm and windless morning long ago,
And seemed to take no notice of the vexed
Look on the young man’s face as he took thought
Of all the miracles the Lord had wrought,
Now to be Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Funny Business, Species Classification, Upcoming Events | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Saving Wildlife: It’s Not Just About the Parks

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 7, 2013


Mountain zebra on community land in Namibia

Mountain zebra on community land in Namibia

My latest for Yale Environment 360:

When the United Nations put out its Protected Planet Report in 2012, it touted the news that national governments have designated more than 177,000 protected areas around the world for the long-term conservation of nature, covering an impressive 12.7 percent of the earth’s land surface. Just since 1990, the acreage under protection has increased by 48 percent.

But this encouraging news also masks a significant defect. Setting aside the question of how well officially protected areas actually protect anything, poor planning means these areas often completely omit critical habitats and key species. When a 2004 study in BioSciences looked at a representative sampling of wildlife from around the world, it found that protected areas included little or no habitat for about 90 percent of the threatened or endangered species in the sample. The list of outcasts included 276 mammal species, 940 amphibians, 23 turtles, and 244 birds. Even in parks specifically designed to accommodate certain species, moreover, climate change could make conditions far less accommodating in 50 or 100 years.

Hence the increasing recognition that what happens outside protected areas matters at least as much as what happens within. And that has led to a worldwide upsurge in management of critical habitats by the people who live in them. This movement does not come easy to either side. Park managers have typically regarded nearby communities as a source of illegal logging, poaching, and other problems, not as part of the solution. Local people in turn have often seen the parks as a threat to their crops and livestock, as well as a usurpation of their traditional land rights.

But two studies published in recent weeks suggest that community-managed areas, or areas managed by communities in collaboration with parks, can sometimes do better than traditional parks alone at protecting habitats and species.

The first study, in the journal Ecosphere, looked at the status of tigers in and around Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Species Classification, Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

Discovering Mammals in Insect Soup and Leech Stew

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 7, 2013

The land leech as conservationist

The land leech as conservationist

By Richard Conniff/

Wandering through the forest in Madagascar a while back, I quickly became accustomed to having land leeches turn up on various parts of my body. “Filthy little devils,” iHumphrey Bogart called them, in The African Queen. The leeches were mainly annoying because anticoagulants in their saliva caused the wounds to bleed long after I had flicked the leeches themselves back into the underbrush. It  never occurred to me that I was tampering with one of the most sophisticated and cost effective biological monitoring tools ever invented.

Imagine your mission is to visit a remote protected area and determine the presence of the Annamite striped rabbit (Nesolagus timminsi), first discovered in the Annamite Mountains of Vietnam and Laos in the 1990s, and rarely seen since then. You have tried using camera traps in likely habitats for 2000 nights—that’s more than five years—without success. Monitoring on foot has also failed to produce results, as rare mammals are often nocturnal and have typically managed to survive because they live in steep, wet, densely vegetated places. They also tend to be heavily hunted. So they naturally flee from humans. What to do?

Go out and ask the leeches what they’ve been eating.

Resarchers recently tested the method in the Central Annamite region of Vietnam, using the time-honored technique of picking the leeches—25 of them—off their own   Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Cool Tools, Environmental Issues, Species Classification | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

A Rhino with No Horns: What the World Needs Now

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 8, 2013

Reconstruction of the Late Miocene habitat of Aceratherium piriyai at Tha Chang

Reconstruction of the Late Miocene habitat of Aceratherium piriyai at Tha Chang

This is just what we need for the modern world–a rhino with no horns.  The bad news:  It’s already extinct.

Here’s James A. Foley’s account from NatureWorldNews:

A new but extinct species of hornless rhinoceros has been identified by fossils uncovered in Thailand.

Local villagers working in sand pits located about 140 miles northeast of Bangkok found the fossils, which were turned in to experts and later identified as “a mid-sized rhinocerotid in the subfamily Aceratheriinae, and represents the first discovery of Aceratherium in Thailand,” according to the abstract of the description of the new species written in the Journal of Vertebrate Pathology.

The hornless rhino was named Aceratherium porpani in honor of Porpan Vachajitpan, who donated the specimens to science, according to

Aceratheriinae is an extinct subfamily of the rhinoceros that lived through the Pliocene era, which ended 3.4 million years ago.

In their description of the new species, the researchers indicate the creature had smaller-than-usual teeth, which are indicative of a woodland habitat. Paleobotanical evidence from the Tha Chang sand pits regions where the species was uncovered is consistent with description of A.porpani’s habitat.

The description of the news species a was based on a jaw bone and partial skull, which is now housed in Northeastern Research Institute of Petrified Wood and Mineral Resources, Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand.

There are two other known species of Aceratherium and the latest find exhibits a mixture of characteristics that are primitive to and derived from the other known species, suggesting that it lived at a point in time somewhere in the middle of the other two.

Holotype skull of Aceratherium piriyai sp. nov. (Credit: Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Sciences)

Holotype skull of Aceratherium piriyai sp. nov. (Credit: Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Sciences)

Posted in Biodiversity, Species Classification | Leave a Comment »

New Bird in the Big City

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 28, 2013

cambodian tailorbirdWe live in a great age of species discovery, with scientists describing new and spectactular creatures at a rate that would fill the explorers of the Victorian era with sheer envy.  The usual explanation is that modern researchers get to explore remote forests and mountaintops that used to be inaccessible.

But sometimes a sensational species can turn up even in our own backyards.  Something like that happened to Simon Mahood, an ecologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society, who has just described a colorful new bird species found less than a half-hour from his home, in the heart of Cambodia’s crowded capital city Phnom Penh.

The new species is wren-sized gray bird with a cinnamon cap, white cheeks, and a black throat, and it’s one of just two birds species that are found only in Cambodia.  Hence its new common name, the Cambodian tailorbird.  In an article published in the Oriental Bird Club’s journal Forktail, Mahood and his co-authors have given it the  scientific name Orthotomus chaktomuk.   Mahood explains that Phnom Penh was historically known as “krong chaktomuk,” meaning “city of four faces.”  It’s a reference to the low lying area where four rivers come together downtown.

The new species first turned up in January 2009, when …  To read the full article, click here.

Posted in Biodiversity, Species Classification, The Species Seekers | 2 Comments »

The Dragon Mother of King Kong

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 30, 2013

king kongOne fine evening in the mid-1920s, W. Douglas Burden, a New York City gentleman “with sporting tastes and a real interest in natural history,” came home to ask his wife “how she would like to go dragon hunting.”

Burden was a great-great grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, with a bank account to match, and a track record as an adventurer in his own right. So this was the sort of whim he could readily indulge. In 1926, with the blessings of the American Museum of Natural History, Burden and his expedition set out in the S.S. Dog for an obscure island in the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, where the existence of a huge reptile had been reported.

Burden was seeking what he called “a primeval monster in a primeval setting.” Rumors of dragons had been repeated by Dutch sailors in the East Indies as far back as the 1600s. Finally, in 1910, a Dutch colonial administrator with a double-barreled name, Lieutenant van Steyn van Hensbroek, visited the Lesser Sundas, and came back with the skin of a six-foot-long Varanus lizard. Van Hensbroek published the first scientific description and named the species Varanus komodoensis, after the island of Komodo, where it was found.

That account inspired Burden to undertake this expedition in pursuit of bigger specimens. But even very big Varanus lizards did not match his sense of adventure, so he dubbed them “Komodo dragons” instead. The destination also needed to be suitably mythic. When his expedition first laid eyes on the island … to read the rest of this story, click here.

Posted in Fear & Courage, Notable Species Seekers, Species Classification | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Name That Dancin’ Ant

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 1, 2013

name that ant

I’ve written here before about a British contest to give colorful common names to species now known only by their cumbersome scientific names.

Now there’s a chance to do it for an American species.  Submit your flights of fancy at

Posted in Biodiversity, Species Classification | Leave a Comment »

Taxonomy for Dummies

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 8, 2013

It’s embarrassing to admit, since my books are about the natural world, but I often make the same dumb mistakes of confusing dolphins with porpoises, or butterflies with moths.  So here’s some help from Bird and Moon.

Now what about crows and ravens?

taxonomy for dummies

Posted in Biodiversity, Species Classification | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »