strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

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    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

Sorry, What? Gaga Ferns and Bootylicious Horseflies

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 24, 2012

Lady Gaga and namesake fern gametophyte.

Weird science, from ScienceDaily:

Pop music megastar Lady Gaga is being honored with the name of a new genus of ferns found in Central and South America, Mexico, Arizona and Texas. A genus is a group of closely related species; in this case, 19 species of ferns will carry the name Gaga.

At one stage of its life, the new genus Gaga has somewhat fluid definitions of gender and bears a striking resemblance to one of Gaga’s famous costumes. Members of the new genus also bear a distinct DNA sequence spelling GAGA.

Two of the species in the Gaga genus are new to science: Gaga germanotta from Costa Rica is named to honor the family of the artist, who was born Stefani Germanotta. And a newly discovered Mexican species is being dubbed Gaga monstraparva (literally monster-little) in honor of Gaga’s fans, whom she calls “little monsters.”

“We wanted to name this genus for Lady Gaga because of her fervent defense of equality and individual expression,” said study leader Kathleen Pryer, a Duke University biology professor and director of the Duke Herbarium. “And as we started to consider it, the ferns themselves gave us more reasons why it was a good choice.”

For example, in her performance at the 2010 Grammy Awards, Lady Gaga wore a heart-shaped Armani Prive’ costume with giant shoulders that looked, to Pryer’s trained eyes, exactly like the bisexual reproductive stage of the ferns, called a gametophyte. It was even the right shade of light green. The way the fern extends its new leaves in a clenched little ball also reminds Pryer of Gaga’s claw-like “paws up” salute to her fans.

The clincher came when Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Species Classification | Leave a Comment »

Fleas are not Lobsters

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 8, 2012

Banks as the Great South Sea Caterpillar

Early naturalists often displayed deep confusion about how different species might be connected to one another.  Since the standard belief was that each species was a unique creation by God, some even asserted that there was no connection, merely correlation.  We weren’t biologically related to monkeys, for instance–it was just a sort of coincidental resemblance, perhaps from God getting lazy and plagiarizing his own work.

When naturalists tried to investigate the possible connections across the plant and animal kingdoms, they sometimes came in for ridicule.  I thought about that a little while I go when I came across a satiric roasting of Sir Joseph Banks, the world-traveling naturalist and  eminent “natural philosopher” of late eighteenth-century London.

According to the British comic writer Peter Pindar,  Banks once supposedly cooked up an experiment to boil fleas, 1500 of them, and see if they would turn red, but was disappointed in his expectations.

“There goes, then, my hypothesis to hell,” the naturalist cried, “Fleas are not lobsters, d___n their souls.”

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

How Many, Noah? A Boatload.

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 24, 2011

Red throated barbet

For centuries scientists have pondered a central question: How many species exist on earth? Now, a group of researchers has offered an answer: 8.7 million.  This article by Oxford University researcher Robert May explains why it matters.

And this report from Juliet Eilperin at the Washington Post explains the new study:

Although the number is still an estimate, it represents the most rigorous mathematical analysis yet of what we know – and do not know – about life on land and in the sea. The authors of the paper, published last evening by the scientific journal PLoS Biology, suggest 86 percent of all terrestrial species and 91 percent of all marine species have yet to be discovered, described, and catalogued.

The new analysis is significant not only because it gives more detail on a fundamental scientific mystery, but because it helps capture the complexity of a natural system that is in danger of losing species at an unprecedented rate.

Marine biologist Boris Worm of Canada’s Dalhousie University, one of the paper’s coauthors, compared the planet to a machine with 8.7 million parts, all of which perform a valuable function.

“If you think of the planet as a life support system for our species, you want to look at how complex that life support system is,’’ Worm said. “We’re tinkering with that machine because we’re throwing out parts all the time.’’ Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction, Evolution, Species Classification, Species Seekers Almanac | Leave a Comment »

Slave to Conventional Prejudice

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 8, 2011

Hume had a limited idea of civilization

In a rhapsodic New York Times op-ed about David Hume’s love life, Robert Zaretsky manages to use the word “slave” three times (“reason is indeed passion’s slave”) and also quotes the advice from a friend that Hume should use his mind only in “the service of that portion of mankind we call our country.”

But maybe we should also remember that Hume was concerned only with a narrow segment of humanity.  He once wrote, “There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white.”

In that spirit, he also belittled, sight unseen, a schoolmaster named Francis Williams: “In JAMAICA indeed they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but ‘tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.”

These thoughts parroted conventional thinking of the day, which was obsessed with whether other races were even members of the human species (as I recount in The Species Seekers).

But they also make it clear that the eminent philosopher was right to be skeptical about the powers of reason.

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Race, Sex & The Trials of a Young Explorer

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 14, 2011

Here’s the latest column in my series for The New York Times, based on my book The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth:

In 1859, Paul Du Chaillu, a young explorer of French origin and adopted American nationality, wandered out of the jungle after a four-year expedition in Gabon.  He brought with him complete specimens of 20 gorillas, an animal almost unknown outside West Africa.  The gorilla’s resemblance to humans astonished many people, especially after Darwin published On the Origin of Species later that year.  The politician Edwin M. Stanton was soon calling Abraham Lincoln “the original gorilla” and joking that Du Chaillu was a fool to have gone to Africa for what he could as easily have found in Springfield, Ill.

But the more common way to deal with our resemblance to monkeys and apes then was to fob it off onto other ethnic groups — typically black people, or sometimes the Irish.  A few white scientists even purported to find physiological evidence, in the configuration of the skull, for classifying other races as separate species, not quite as far removed as Caucasians from our primate cousins.  This undercurrent of scientific racism would play out to devastating effect in Du Chaillu’s own life.

When Du Chaillu arrived in London for the 1861 publication of his book, “Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa,” he became the most celebrated figure of the season, and then, overnight, the most notorious.  He was, by all accounts, a charismatic presence, about 30 years old, with a thick moustache, a prominent brow, and bright, flashing eyes.  He also had a gift for colorful lectures about hunting fierce animals and befriending cannibals.

But scientists were soon ripping him to bits in the British press, saying that he exaggerated his own adventures and gave too little credit to other explorers, including some he plagiarized.  Many of these complaints seem to have been valid.  In particular, Du Chaillu’s depiction of the gorilla as a ferocious monster — “some hellish dream creature” — grossly distorted the image of these generally placid animals.  (His stories were still around decades later serving as raw material for the Hollywood legend of King Kong.)

The ferocity of the attack on Du Chaillu that spring and summer of 1861 went well beyond ordinary academic bickering. Each week for more than a month, John E. Gray, keeper of zoology at the British Museum, sent a lengthy letter to The Athenaeum magazine denouncing Du Chaillu.  Other critics eagerly piled on. Newly professional scientists may simply have wanted to distance themselves from the taint of amateurism.  That seems to have been one reason Gray made a minor career out of disparaging field naturalists.  Darwin, who rarely spoke ill of anyone, would later call him an “old malignant fool” for it.  The attack on Du Chaillu was also a way for Gray to undercut his rival (and boss) at the British Museum, the anatomist Richard Owen, one of Du Chaillu’s sponsors in London.

But as I was researching my book The Species Seekers, I kept coming across hints of an uglier motive for the attack on Du Chaillu, based on Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Social Status, Species Classification, The Primate File, The Species Seekers | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Clearing Up The Chaos in the Genital Parking Lot

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 26, 2011

Harvard researcher Naomi Pierce and her co-authors have just published a paper vindicating a far-reaching theory about butterflies proposed by Vladimir Nabokov, who was a lepidopterist as well as a novelist.  In a nice article in the New York Times, Carl Zimmer writes:

He published detailed descriptions of hundreds of species. And in a speculative moment in 1945, he came up with a sweeping hypothesis for the evolution of the butterflies he studied, a group known as the Polyommatus blues. He envisioned them coming to the New World from Asia over millions of years in a series of waves.

Few professional lepidopterists took these ideas seriously during Nabokov’s lifetime. But in the years since his death in 1977, his scientific reputation has grown. And over the past 10 years, a team of scientists has been applying gene-sequencing technology to his hypothesis about how Polyommatus blues evolved. On Tuesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, they reported that Nabokov was absolutely right.

Nabokov once described the years he spent working as a professional lepidopterist at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology as ”the most delightful and thrilling in all my adult life.”   He found the work so rapturously diverting that at one point Vera, his wife, had to speak to him sternly about his true calling. Sulking, Nabokov pulled the manuscript of his latest novel out from under a pile of butterfly articles and recollected that, oh, yes, he could write, too.

You can read more about his ideas on classification and what I once termed “chaos in the genital parking lot” Read the rest of this entry »

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

All-American Monsters–Part 3 (The Killer Nipple Teeth)

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 29, 2010

When similar teeth later turned up in South Carolina, slaves pointed out that they looked a lot like an African elephant’s. Early explorers also brought back whole tusks and bones from the Ohio River Valley. Americans soon started referring to the incognitum as a “mammoth,” after the woolly mammoths then being dug out of the ice in Siberia. It fact, it would turn out that North America had been home primarily to two different types of pachyderm—mammoths, like the ones at the dig in South Dakota, and mastodons, like the ones in the Hudson River Valley. Hardly anybody knew the difference.

European anatomists started to figure out the distinction by making side-by-side comparisons. The teeth of mammoths and modern elephants both have relatively flat running-shoe corrugations on the biting surface. But the teeth of the incognitum are studded with fierce-looking rows of large conical cusps. That difference not only indicated that Siberian mammoths and the incognitum were separate species, it also led some anatomists to regard the latter as a flesh-eating monster.

“Though we may as philosophers regret it,” the British anatomist William Hunter wrote in 1768, “as men we cannot but thank Heaven that its whole generation is probably extinct.” Benjamin Franklin, then on diplomatic duty in London, observed that the animal’s big tusks would have been an impediment “for pursuing and taking Prey.” Ever the practical thinker, he suggested that those fierce-looking teeth might be “as useful to grind the small branches of Trees, as to chaw Flesh”—and he was right. We now know that mammoths predominated in the open grasslands of the American West and in Siberia, where they needed flat teeth for eating grass. The incognitum, a smaller animal with less curvature to its tusks, lived mostly in the heavy forests east of the Mississippi River and browsed on tree branches.

Those teeth also eventually gave the incognitum a name. To the young French anatomist Georges Cuvier, the conical cusps looked like breasts. So in 1806, he named the incognitum “mastodon,” from the Greek mastos (for “breast”) and odont (for “tooth”). But laymen went on applying the name “mammoth” to either species—and to just about anything else really big.  (To be continued.)

Posted in Cool Tools, Evolution, Species Classification | 2 Comments »

Taking a Lichen to President Obama

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 20, 2009

The White House hasn’t commented so far on the announcement of a new species named in his honor, Caloplaca obamae.  But here’s a little background on the strange business of scientific naming from my new book, Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time, due out from W.W. Norton on May 4:

Having a new species named after you is of course a great honor; scientists often characterize it as a form of immortality.  But even among biological types, it can also be an occasion for dread.  Entomologist May Berenbaum became apprehensive, for instance, after she discovered a new species and passed it on to an expert for classification and naming.  “The last thing I need,” Berenbaum fretted, “is for a beetle whose distinguishing feature is a proboscis fully half the length of its body to be known as Berenbaum’s weevil.”

So by the same token, would President Obama want the first species named after him to be what the Los Angeles Times is describing as Read the rest of this entry »

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Strange Baby, with Dr. Seuss as the midwife

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 2, 2009

Elephant shrew baby  (Photo by National Zoo/Mehgan Murphy)

Elephant shrew baby (Photo by National Zoo/Mehgan Murphy)



A few years ago, I wrote about elephant shrews for Smithsonian magazine.  Now a happy couple have produced the National Zoo’s first elephant shrew baby, though it took everybody a while to notice it in its leaf litter nest.  The newborn is five weeks old.  You can see a video of the baby here.  And here’s my original article from Smithsonian:

  “Hey, come over here,” says the child, wandering through the Small Mammal House at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

  “No, Chad.  Mommy doesn’t like rats.”


 “What did Mommy say, Chad?  Mommy …doesn’t … like … rats.

But, Mommy, you are confused.  The animals in question are not rats, though they are roughly the right size, have glossy black eyes, and long, leathery tails.  What they are is a conundrum, a Dr. Seuss sort of animal seemingly put together by a committee from spare parts at the end of a rough day, while God and Darwin were off playing pinochle.   

The sign calls them elephant-shrews, suggesting for one brief moment the appalling possibility of a cross between the largest land mammal on Earth and the smallest.  (That would be a rough day, now, wouldn’t it?)  Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Sex & Reproduction, Species Classification | Leave a Comment »

Uneasy Rider

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 25, 2009


Swims like a drunken sailor.  (© David Hall/

Swims like a drunken sailor. (© David Hall/

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 swim as bounce off the bottom, using its fins to push off the seafloor and jetting itself forward by firing water from its tiny gill openings. Check out the QuickTime video at

It hops along with so little control that, according to the press release, it looks as if it “should be cited for DUI.”  Like other frogfish, it also uses its pectoral fins like feet to go stumping along the bottom.

Fortunately, psychedelica is covered with thick folds of skin to keep it from getting punctured as it bangs along the coral reef. It also has a flattened face with eyes directed forward, something Pietsch, with 40 years of experience studying and classifying fishes, has never seen before in frogfish. He speculates that the species may have binocular vision, overlapping in front, as it does in humans. Most fish, with eyes on either side of the head, don’t have vision that overlaps; instead they see different things with each eye.

Toby Fadirsyair, a guide in Ambon, and Buck and Fitrie Randolph, co-owners of Maluku Divers, first spotted the fish and alerted Pietsch. David Hall, a wildlife photographer and owner of, speculates that the fish came by its crazy coloring by mimicking corals.

Here’s the citation: A BIZARRE NEW SPECIES OF FROGFISH OF THE GENUS HISTIOPHRYNE (LOPHIIFORMES: ANTENNARIIDAE) FROM AMBON AND BALI, INDONESIA Theodore W. Pietsch, Rachel J. Arnold, and David J. Hall Copeia, 2009(1):37−45, 18 February 2009

Posted in Evolution, Read That Face, Species Classification | Leave a Comment »