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 ‘The Primate File’ Category

Spreading the Word About Science–The Patriarch Part 3

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 15, 2015

The Weston meteorite.

The Weston meteorite.

Continued from “The Teacher, Preacher, PR Man of Science”:

In the course of their research, Silliman and Kingsley had spent several hours searching fruitlessly for one unusually large stone that had landed in the town of Trumbull (Silliman’s birthplace, as it happened). When it finally turned up, after they’d gone back to New Haven, it weighed 36.5 pounds—and the lucky farmer who found it thought it was worth $500.

An amateur mineral enthusiast, Colonel George Gibbs (the rank was honorific), placed the high bid. He was the heir to a Newport shipping fortune, which he seems to have had no great interest in preserving. Among other acquisitions, he had recently purchased and brought home the extensive mineral collection of a Russian count, and another collection accumulated over 40 years by a great patron of science in France.

Even before the meteorite episode, Silliman’s brother in Newport had tipped him off about Gibbs. Silliman and Gibbs soon met, became friends, and spent time geologizing together around New England. In 1810, when he was considering a suitable place to display his mineral “cabinet,” Gibbs made inquiries at institutions from Boston to Washington, without quite finding what he was hoping for. Finally, he stopped in to visit Silliman in New Haven and announced, “I will open it here in Yale College, if you will fit up rooms for its reception.” Yale promptly did so, on the second floor of what is now Connecticut Hall. And thus, among many other treasures, the 36.5-pound Weston meteorite came to Yale.

Gibbs also provided one other critical boost not just to Yale but to American science at large. Late in 1817, he bumped into Silliman by chance one day aboard the steamboat Fulton, on the ten-hour run between New York and Read the rest of this entry »

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Science & The Rise of the American University–The Patriarch Conclusion

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 15, 2015

James Dwight Dana, 1857

James Dwight Dana, 1857

Continued from “Spreading the Word about Science”:

The line dividing science and theology was, however, still practically nonexistent, and in this somewhat delicate context, James Dwight Dana was undoubtedly the most important of Silliman’s disciples. He was both a deeply religious man and the greatest American geologist of the nineteenth century, and much as Silliman had done for Timothy Dwight, he made it possible to expand the role of science without seeming overly threatening to religion or the humanities. Dana also explicitly took up Silliman’s mission of using the sciences to build Yale into a university.

In 1856, Dana gave a speech to Yale alumni lamenting those “who still look with distrustful eyes on science.” They seem, he said, “to see a monster swelling up before them which they cannot define, and hope may yet fade away as a dissolving mist.” That specter was twofold: the shadow cast by geology on the Genesis account of the Earth’s history, and the idea of evolution, which was already in the air. (Among other developments, a former student of Silliman’s named Thomas Staughton Savage, a missionary, had recently brought home from Africa the bones of an unknown primate with a disturbing resemblance to humans—the gorilla.) But Dana was deeply committed to a biblical view of creation, and he assured his listeners of the evidence provided by geology “that God’s hand, omnipotent and bearing a profusion of bounties, has again and again been outstretched over the earth; that no senseless development principle evolved the beasts of the field out of monads”—that is, unicellular organisms—“and men out of monkeys, but that all can alike claim parentage in the Infinite Author.” (Silliman shared this belief. In one of his last lectures he had declared, “Young men, those people may think as they please but for my part I shall never believe or teach that I am descended from a tadpole!”)

Having dismissed the evolutionary bugaboo, Dana went on to argue for Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in The Primate File, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

A Butterfly Spreads its Blessings on a Brooklyn Family

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 7, 2015

Eleven-year-old  Skye Rothstein with her black swallowtail butterfly best friend. (Photo: Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

Eleven-year-old Skye Rothstein with her black swallowtail butterfly best friend. (Photo: Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

Nice story in today’s New York Times about a moment of grace in the life of a New York City family:

When Skye Rothstein gazes out her window, she is reminded of winter’s chill and the long, dark nights.

But inside the 11-year-old’s Park Slope home, there are hints of spring with the arrival of a fragile guest that sucks on cotton balls bathed in Gatorade.

For more than two weeks, Skye and her mother, Karla Rothstein, have gently nursed a black swallowtail butterfly that has become the family’s bundle of joy. The butterfly, which was discovered in Skye’s bedroom on Jan. 21, most likely emerged from an overwintering chrysalis hidden in the family’s Christmas tree.

“I went into Skye’s room and saw this slight movement on the floor, which of course in New York you never want to see,” said Ms. Rothstein, an architect and an associate professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

When Skye came home from karate class, she found her mother in her bedroom. “She told me to come over,” Skye said. “And there

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Food & Drink, The Primate File | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Ireland’s Shawshank Hero: Tunnels to Pub to Escape Snoring Wife

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 28, 2014

I can’t think of any plausible reason to run this piece.  Shocking news that movies produce unpredictable effects in human behavior? Um, no.  But I love the Irish in all their perversity and, wait, their penchant for strange behaviors.

Beware that the source may not be 100 (or even 30) percent reliable (“Gombeen” is an Irish term for a small-scale wheeler-dealer thief).

Any way, read it for a laugh (especially the last line):

Omagh’s ‘Shawshank Husband’

Dug Tunnel From Bedroom To Pub

Over 15 Years; Wife Snored Too Loud


Kerry re-enacts escape from wife’s snoring.

An Omagh plumber tunnelled a hole from under his bed to the local pub 800 feet from his house over the course of 15 years, a court heard today.

Patsy Kerr had been summonsed to Omagh County Court after it emerged he had been the cause of a collapsed sewage pipe from a neighbouring house. Kerr told the court about his secret tunnel and the reasons behind it:

“The wife has a bad snore on her and after watching the Shawshank Redemption on RTE one night in 1994, I decided to do something about it so I waited til she was in a deep sleep and then set about digging a hole under the bed in the direction of the pub. I used all manner of tools from spoons to a heavy duty tunnel boring machine I managed to sneak down there when she was at the shops. It wasn’t until 2009 that I hit the jackpot and came up through the women’s toilet mop and bucket room.”

Kerr explained how he spent the last five years heading to the pub via his tunnel at 11pm before returning at 1am, undetected by his deep sleeping wife:

“To be honest I was sort of glad I was caught. She was always smelling drink off me in the morning and I was explaining it away as

Read the rest of this entry »

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Intelligence Is About Making Friends, Not Tools

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 19, 2014


My latest, for the Yale Alumni Magazine:

One day in the late 1990s, Nicholas Christakis was on the South Side of Chicago visiting a woman who had Alzheimer’s disease. Christakis was then a young physician and social scientist at the University of Chicago, taking care of terminally ill patients and also studying the widower effect—in which the death of one spouse dramatically worsens the likelihood of death for the other.

That day’s patient was gradually dwindling away, attended by her daughter. “The daughter was exhausted from caring for her mother,” Christakis recalls. The daughter’s husband was also sick from his wife’s exhaustion. Then Christakis got a phone call from one of the husband’s pals, “depressed by what was happening to his friend.”

It dawned on Christakis that the widower effect was not just about husbands and wives, or even pairs of people like the mother and her daughter. It rippled outward across networks of family, friends, and coworkers. Most surprisingly, given the narrow focus of his own work up to that point, it wasn’t just about death. “So I started to see the world in a completely new way,” Christakis recalled, in a 2010 TED talk, “and I became obsessed with how it might be that we’re embedded in these social networks, and how they affect our lives.”

Questions about the nature of networks have dominated his research ever since, first at Chicago, then during a 12-year stint at Harvard, where his growing interest in networks and biosocial science ultimately led him to give up his medical practice, and now at Yale, to which Christakis returned in summer 2013 as a professor of both sociology and medicine. (His full title is the Sol Goldman Family Professor of Social and Natural Science.)

Over the past few years, his work illuminating the nature of social networks has won Christakis recognition not just within the scholarly world, but on Time magazine’s 2009 list of 100 “people who affect the world,” and on Foreign Policy’s 2009 and 2010 lists of top global thinkers. His 2009 book, Connected: How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do, has appeared in nearly 20 languages. He wrote it, appropriately, with his best friend and longtime research collaborator James H. Fowler ’97MA, now at the University of California, San Diego. Their work demonstrating the contagious nature of everything from obesity to altruism has stirred up considerable debate in the research world. It has also suggested powerful new ways to intervene in networks—for instance, to speed the switch to generic drugs, or to slow the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

What Christakis and Fowler are proposing amounts to a strikingly different way of looking at our own lives, adding a new “n’ to the familiar dichotomy of nurture and nature: we are also Read the rest of this entry »

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Chimp Study Suggests Behavioral Differences Between Sexes Are Innate

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 12, 2014

(Photo: Herwig Prammer/Reuters)

(Photo: Herwig Prammer/Reuters)

One of the perennially raging debates in modern society has to do with the origin of male and female behavioral differences: Why are girls more verbal or more attentive to facial expressions? Why do boys like to compete in larger social groups and do risky things? Or as a parent might put it: Why is my daughter playing with dolls when she could be studying toddler astrophysics? And did my son really just chew his peanut butter sandwich into the shape of a gun?

On one side of the debate is the “men are from Mars; women are from Venus” argument that biology frog-marches us into our stereotypical gender roles. On the other is the “gender similarities hypothesis,” arguing that most of our supposed gender differences are small and show up only on average. In a phrase, “Men are from Minneapolis; women are from St. Paul.”

A recent study on chimpanzees, published in the journal Animal Behaviour under the title “Boys Will Be Boys,” comes down on the side of biology (but hold the Read the rest of this entry »

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Me, Spiderman, and the Life-Changing Bite

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 2, 2014


To mark today’s release of yet another tired version of the Spider-Man story, here’s a slightly different version of the story I published earlier this week.  I wrote this version last year while cleaning out my Dad’s house after his death.  It’s being published today, like Hollywood sequels, as if on auto-pilot, because I scheduled it back then and promptly forgot about it.

You remember that scene in the “Spiderman” comic where young Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider?

By way of reminder, here’s a panel from the original comic, published in the early 1960s.  (Yes, cartoonists back then thought that spiders were insects.)  This was the key event that turned mild little Parker into the celebrated web-swinger.

So when my father died recently, I began going through his father papers and I came across a story he wrote about zoo doctors.  Late in 1963–50 years ago now–he took me to the Staten Island Zoo as part of his research, and there veterinarian Patricia O’Connor introduced me to to the year-old chimp in the picture below.

A photo of this scene appeared in the article “Physicians for Fang and Fur,” published in February 1964 in Columbia Magazine.  It wasn’t my first appearance in a magazine.  The Saturday Evening Post had published a poem he wrote about me as a “pink and precious” infant “tiny, elfin, fey.”  But it was my first appearance as an identifiable person.

Anyway, immediately after this photo was taken Read the rest of this entry »

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Goodall: Colonialist China in New Scramble for Africa

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 18, 2014

(Photo: Michael Collopy)

(Photo: Michael Collopy)

This comes from Agence France-Presse in Johannesburg, via today’s South China Morning Post:

China is exploiting Africa’s resources just like European colonisers did, with disastrous effects for the environment, acclaimed primatologist Jane Goodall has said.

On the eve of her 80th birthday, the fiery British wildlife crusader is whizzing across the world giving a series of lectures on the threats to our planet.

And the rising world power’s involvement on the continent especially raises alarms when it comes to her beloved chimpanzees and wildlife habitats.

During the last decade China has been investing heavily in African natural resources, developing mines, oil wells and running related construction companies.

Activists accuse Chinese firms of paying little attention to the environmental impact of their race for resources.

“In Africa, China is merely doing what the colonialist did. They want Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues, The Primate File | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Lyme Disease? Apply 30 Live Ticks and Call Back in the Morning.

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 15, 2014

The deer tick, Ixodes scapularis

Soon to be available by prescription? The deer tick, Ixodes scapularis

Anyone who has admired the modern medical use of leeches to ease the reattachment of grafts, or maggots to clean infected wounds (anyone?) has gotta like this.  Lyme disease researchers are working on a diagnostic test that requires applying up to 30 live ticks to a human patient.

I am especially excited about the new test because I live in Old Lyme, CT, which is Ground Zero for the Lyme Disease epidemic.  Our high school robotics team actually calls itself the Techno Ticks.  Go, Mighty Arthropods!  Bite, Bite, Bite!

Go, Ticks!

Go, Ticks!

I’ve had the disease two or three times, as have most members of my family.  We know the symptoms pretty well, and the available test are spectacularly unreliable.  So we just call up the family doctor, describe the fatigue, the headaches, the bull’s-eye rash (sorry, I mean erythema migrans), and start right in on our doxcycline.

But now cutting edge medicine promises a more reliable technique for answering the great positive-negative question, in the form of xenodiagnosis.  The study reports that volunteers agreed to be bitten by up to 30 ticks at a time.  (What we call “going outside.”)  And the procedure was “well tolerated by volunteers.”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work.  (But, hey, it was kind of fun.)  Here’s the press release:

In a first-of-its-kind study for Lyme disease, researchers have used live, disease-free ticks to see if Lyme disease bacteria can be detected in people who continue to experience symptoms such as fatigue or arthritis after completing antibiotic therapy. The technique, called xenodiagnosis, attempts to find evidence of a disease-causing microbe indirectly, through use of the natural disease-carrier — in this case, ticks. It was well tolerated by the volunteers, but investigators could not find evidence Read the rest of this entry »

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Hot Calamari: The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 14, 2014

Hokusai octopussy

I spotted this one today in The Guardian and it struck me as a strange, but suitable, image for Valentine’s Day.  Here’s how The Guardian describes it:

In Hokusai’s masterpiece of the Japanese erotic art genre known as Shunga, a woman diving for pearls is being pleaured by two octopuses. The larger of them enfolds her pale, naked body in its tentacles as it performs cunnilingus, its subtle attentions releasing rapture.

Check out the rest of the article for one Read the rest of this entry »

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