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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

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 »

New Cure for a Nasty Tropical Disease

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 7, 2013



Leishmaniasis is one of the more dreaded hazards of traveling in the tropical wilderness.  It can turn up months after a trip, causes disfiguring skin lesions, and, worst of all, requires treatment with heavy metals.  The cure is said to be a lot like chemotherapy.  A photographer I have worked with was out of commission for months as a result.

Traveling last year in a remote corner of Suriname, I was acutely aware of the threat.  I treated my tent, my pants, and my socks with pyrethrin beforehand.   But the local Indians had the lesions, and the sandflies that transmit “leish,” as it is unaffectionately known, were everywhere.  Out on the trail one night, I asked a companion “What are all these gray things in front of my face?”  They were a constant moving cloud.  “Sandflies,” he replied.

The companion, naturalist and author Piotr Naskrecki, was not exactly blasé about the threat.  But he got bitten so often that he once took a macro photograph of a sandfly working on his own arm.

Luckily, nobody on the trip developed “leish.”  And today the good news comes that there is apparently a much easier cure, using antibiotics:

Feb. 6, 2013 — An international collaboration of researchers from the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command (USAMRMC), Tunisia and France has demonstrated a high cure rate and remarkably few side effects in treating patients with cutaneous leishmaniasis (CL) with an investigational antibiotic cream. CL is a parasitic disease that causes disfiguring lesions, with 350 million people at risk worldwide and 1.5 million new cases annually, Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in The Species Seekers | Leave a Comment »

The Species Seekers: “A Delightful Book”

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 3, 2012

Just in time for the holidays, Australia’s science magazine Cosmos has published a review calling The Species Seekers “a delightful book … compelling for its human stories, anecdotes and well-woven storylines.”

“OUR PERFECT NATURALIST,” Charles Kingsley wrote in 1855, “should be strong in body; able to haul a dredge, climb a rock, turn a boulder, walk all day… be able on occasion to fight for his life.”

Kingsley later lampooned the naturalists he so romantically described, in his children’s book The Water Babies, which features Professor Ptthmllnsprts, who collected new species, and, yes, put them all in spirits.

The 19th century saw a revival of interest in the natural world that pulled at the marrow of a set of (mostly) men who dedicated their lives to collecting, labelling, storing and studying the bewildering diversity of life on Earth. They were “fired with a longing” to explore the “romantic land where all the birds and animals were of the museum varieties”, according to the account of one anonymous explorer in Richard Conniff’s rich and fascinating book.

From Wallace to Darwin, and U.S. founding father Thomas Jefferson to brilliant, ruthless Read the rest of this entry »

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Crab Heaven and Scientific Immortality

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 27, 2012

Tudge’s tiny crab

Here’s a nice piece about having a new species named in your honor, from ScienceDaily:

Areopaguristes tudgei. That’s the name of a new species of hermit crab recently discovered on the barrier reef off the coast of Belize by Christopher Tudge, a biology professor at American University in Washington, D.C.

Tudge has been interested in biology his whole life, from boyhood trips to the beach collecting crustaceans in his native Australia, to his undergraduate and PhD work in zoology and biology at the University of Queensland. He has collected specimens all over the world, from Australia to Europe to North and South America.

Until now, he has never had a species named after him. He only found out about his namesake after reading an article about it in the journal Zootaxa. Apparently, finding out after-the-fact is standard practice in the highly formalized ritual of naming a new species.

The two crustacean taxonomists and authors of the paper who named the new crab after Tudge, Rafael Lemaitre of the Department of Invertebrate Zoology at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History and Darryl L. Felder of the University of Louisiana-Lafayette’s Department of Biology Laboratory for Crustacean Research, have known Tudge since he first came to Washington in 1995 as a postdoc research fellow at the Smithsonian.

Crustacean Elation

Lemaitre and Felder have been collecting specimens on the tiny Belizean island for decades and for more than 10 years, they had asked Tudge — who specializes in the structures of crustacean reproduction and how they relate to the creatures’ evolutionary history — to join them on one of their semiannual research outings. Finally, in February 2010, Tudge joined them on a tiny island covered with hundreds of species of their favorite fauna.

It was crab heaven for a cast of crustacean guys.

“So you can take 40 steps off the island and Read the rest of this entry »

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

Splitsville with Constantine Raffinesque

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 22, 2012

Today’s the birthday of Constantine Rafinesque (1783-1840), a notorious “splitter.”  What did he split?

1.  He split his specimens for easy storage.

2.  He split established species into several new species.

3.  He split wood.

4.  He split collections to sell to different museums.

And the answer is

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in The Species Seekers | 1 Comment »

You Lookin’ at Me?

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 16, 2012

Borneo long-nosed frog

The Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, The Netherlands, has recently completed a species-finding expedition in Borneo, turning up at least 160 new species.  Here’s part of the press release:

The largest numbers of new species were found among the spiders and fungi. Other new species include true bugs, beetles, snails, stalk-eyed flies, damselflies, ferns, termites and possibly a frog. Also a new location of the spectacular pitcher plant Nepenthes lowii has been found.

New blue fungus

For the fungi experts, the area was an Eldorado. József Geml: “While the plant and animal life of this mountain has been the focus of numerous research projects, Kinabalu has remained terra incognita for scientific studies on fungi. It is difficult not to feel overwhelmed by this task. One of the manifestations of this diversity comes in the endless variety of shapes and colors that sometimes are truly breathtaking. While the detailed scientific work will take years, we already know that many of these species are new to science.”

Atlas Moth from Borneo

You can read more and check out a few more photos here.

Posted in Biodiversity, The Species Seekers | 2 Comments »

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 »

New Monkey Species Discovered in a Snapshot

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 13, 2012

A thoughtful looking male of the newly-identified monkey species from the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Photo: M. Emetshu/PLOS One)

UPDATE:  Much of the world seems to be going gaga for this new species, known locally as the lesula, and that’s surely a good thing.  The (UK) Guardian goes entertainingly over the top.  Here’s an excerpt:

The photograph captures a sensitivity and intelligence that makes this monkey look like it is sitting for its portrait by Rembrandt. It reveals a staggeringly insightful, wise, and melancholy face. Like Rembrandt’s son Titus in the portrait of him by his father that hangs in London’s Wallace Collection, the lesula looks right back at its beholder, calm and pensive, examining you as you examine it. Its eyes have the depth and frankness of those seen in moving portraits on Roman-era mummies from the Fayoum, or in Antonello da Messina’s haunting portrait of a man gazing back out of a glassy oil panel.

And here’s a somewhat more earth-bound report on the remarkable new species discovery, from Mother Nature Network:

A shy, brightly colored monkey species has been found living in the lush rainforests at the heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a find that utterly surprised the researchers who came upon it.
“When I first saw it, I immediately knew it was something new and different — I just didn’t know how significant it was,” said John Hart, a veteran Congo researcher who is scientific director for the Lukuru Wildlife Research Foundation, based in Kinshasa.
In fact, the find was something of a happy accident. Hart first spied the suspect monkey in 2007 while sifting through photographs brought back from a recently concluded field expedition to a remote region of central DRC.

Georgette and the snapshot that started the hunt for a new species (Photo: John Hart)

Yet the image that caught his eye hadn’t been taken in the field. It was snapped in a village, and showed a young girl named Georgette with a tiny monkey that had taken a shine to the 13-year-old.

Hart followed up with five years of field work, anatomical comparisons, and genetic analysis.  He and his co-authors officially introduced their fine, named Cercopithecus lomamiensis, yesterday in the online journal PLOS ONE.  The report on Mother Nature Network continues:
It turned out that the little monkey that hung around Georgette’s house had been brought to the area by the girl’s uncle, who had found it on a hunting trip. It wasn’t quite a pet, but it became known as Georgette’s lesula. The young female primate passed its days running in the yard with the dogs, foraging around the village for food, and growing up into a monkey that Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, New Species Discoveries, The Species Seekers | 1 Comment »

Happy Birthday, Elliott Coues

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 9, 2012

“Never put away a bird unlabelled, not even for an hour,” a nineteenth century field guide advised, “you may forget it or die.”  The author was Elliott Coues (9 September 1842-25 December 1899), in his Handbook of Field and General Ornithology.

Naturalists did in fact die, in depressingly large numbers, and they could also be forgetful.  Attaching a label to the leg, with the chicken-scratched details of place, date and habitat, was the only way to make sense of a specimen months later, especially since naturalists then sometimes took dozen of specimens in a day. Collecting multiple individuals within a single species was a way to compile a thorough scientific record of normal variation—the little differences between juveniles and adults, or males and females, or separate populations on neighboring islands.  Even the ordinary differences among individuals in the same population could be crucial for sorting out where one species ended and another began.  Taking multiple specimens also mattered to some naturalists because selling duplicates to collectors back home was their only means of support.

Coues did his scientific work mainly in the service of the U.S. Army, where he was part of the great tradition of military surgeon-naturalists, and later for the Smithsonian Institution.  He joined the Army as a medical cadet in 1862, and served, including long periods on the American frontier, until 1881.  He was a careful scholar and what he once said about bibliography applied equally to his work as a taxonomist, “It takes a sort of an inspired idiot to be a good bibliographer, and his inspiration is as dangerous a gift as the appetite of the gambler or dipsomaniac—it grows with what it feeds upon, and finally possesses its victim like any other invincible vice.”

Posted in The Species Seekers | Leave a Comment »