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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 ‘The Species Seekers’ 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 »

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

The Making of a Naturalist: Bill Stanley

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 29, 2016

Bill Stanley, a mammalogist at the Field Museum, prematurely appeared on the Wall of the Dead last year, after succumbing  to a heart attack, age 58, while running a trapline for rare species in Ethiopia.

Now the Field Museum has posted a nice video about the flipping of a switch Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in The Species Seekers | 2 Comments »

Why Field Biologists Do What They Do

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 18, 2014

I like this account of working in the natural world.  I found it in an article by Don Lyman, about field work in a New Jersey salt marsh. (That’s my old habitat.  And “ticks on the delicates”? Yes, I have been there, too.)  The speaker is Yoel Stuart, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Texas at Austin:

“We like being surprised by nature. We enjoy watching an organism conduct some behavior in the field that we could have never seen in the lab. We enjoy finding organisms living in places we never would have expected them, like kilometers under the Antarctic ice. We enjoy the adventure of getting to new places and discovering species new to science. We take great pleasure in understanding how species interact with each other in the wild as they find food, avoid predators, reproduce, and pass genes on to the next generation. Nature never ceases to amaze, so we always return to nature, where we pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake. To many of us, that’s worth bloody knuckles, Read the rest of this entry »

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

A Cold Death in South America

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 15, 2014

View of Tierra del Fuego painted by Alexander Buchan four days before he joined the fatal expedition into the interior

In putting together The Wall of the Dead:  A Memorial to Lost Naturalists, I have been continually aware that local collectors and other underlings often get left out of history.  So I was intrigued to come across an account of two explorers lost in January 1769 on Capt. Cook’s first circumnavigation of the globe.  Both Richmond and Dorlton were servants–and specimen collectors–for the great botanist Joseph Banks.  Cook’s journal noted them both as negro servants.

Banks writing afterward in his journal:

 The weather had all this time been vastly fine much like a sunshiny day in May, so that neither heat nor cold was troublesome to us nor were there any insects to molest us, which made me think the traveling much better than what I had before met with in Newfoundland.

We passd about half way very well when the cold seemd to have at once an effect infinitely beyond what I have ever experienced. Dr Solander was the first who felt it, he said he could not go any fa[r]ther but must lay down, tho the ground was coverd with snow, and down he laid Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in The Species Seekers | 5 Comments »

A Beetle Like a Book of Prayers

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 2, 2014

Neolucanus baongocae,  named by the discoverer after his daughter, Nguyen Bao Ngoc

Neolucanus baongocae, named by the discoverer after his daughter, Nguyen Bao Ngoc

A researcher in Vietnam reports the discovery of a beautiful new stag beetle from Bidoup-Nui Ba National Park in the Central Highlands.

I’m posting it here because the colors and patina remind me of an old leather-bound volume illuminated by medieval monks and rubbed smooth by devoted handling through all the centuries since then.

But self-reproducing.

Ain’t nature frickin’ grand?

The genus is Neolucanus, and entomologist Nguyen Quang Thai fashioned the species name baongocae after his daughter, Nguyen Bao Ngoc, which is also a lovely thing.

The description appears in the journal Zootaxa.

Posted in Biodiversity, New Species Discoveries, The Species Seekers | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

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 Sci-News.com.  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 »

Spectacular New Dolphin Species Discovered

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 29, 2013

This new species somehow managed to go unnoticed.

This new species somehow managed to go unnoticed.

Just the other week I was talking about how giant species unknown to science keeping turning up, and now a pretty one–and a pretty big one, at that–has turned up in sight of land, off the coast of Australia.

Here’s the press release from the Wildlife Conservation Society, and also check out a few more lovely photos below:

A species of humpback dolphin previously unknown to science is swimming in the waters off northern Australia, according to a team of researchers working for the Wildlife Conservation Society, Read the rest of this entry »

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

How Naturalists Die

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 17, 2013

Oh, geez. A field biologist has charted all the ways naturalists have died on my Wall of the Dead.  Is this cautionary?  Or just macabre?

Anyway, here you go.  It automatically saved to my computer as death.jpg:

How naturalists die.

How naturalists die.

Posted in Fear & Courage, The Species Seekers | Tagged: , , , | 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 »

Why Species Discovery Matters: A Talk by Richard Conniff

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 12, 2013

Here’s a talk I gave at Ursinus College in February.  It’s about the discovery of species, and how that changed almost everything.  It’s an hour long, including the questions.  So skip around and see if you find something you like.

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