strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

  • 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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U.S. Cities Are Losing Tree Cover Just When They Need It Most

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 8, 2021

strange behaviors

 by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

Scientific evidence that trees and green spaces are crucial to the well-being of people in urban areas has multiplied in recent decades. Conveniently, these findings have emerged just as Americans, already among the most urbanized people in the world, are increasingly choosing to live in cities. The problem—partly as a result of that choice—is that urban tree cover is now steadily declining across the U.S.

A study in the May 2018 issue of Urban Forestry & Urban Greening reports metropolitan areas are experiencing a net loss of about 36 million trees nationwide every year. That amounts to about 175,000 acres of tree cover, most of it in central city and suburban areas but also on the exurban fringes. This reduction, says lead author David Nowak of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), translates into an annual loss of about $96 million in benefits—based, he says, on…

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It’s Time for a Carbon Tax on Beef

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 7, 2021

strange behaviors

(Illustration: Igor Bastidas)

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

Let me admit up front that I would rather be eating a cheeseburger right now. Or maybe trying out a promising new recipe for Korean braised short ribs. But our collective love affair with beef, dating back more than 10,000 years, has gone wrong, in so many ways. And in my head, if not in my appetites, I know it’s time to break it off.

So it caught my eye recently when a team of French scientists published a paper on the practicality of putting a carbon tax on beef as a tool for meeting European Union climate change targets. The idea will no doubt sound absurd to Americans reared on Big Macs and cowboy mythology. While most of us recognize, according to a 2017 Gallup poll, that we are already experiencing the effects of climate change, we just…

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Time to Make City Street Pop-Ups Permanent

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 22, 2021

Yes, there are people in those cars, but not many for the space they occupy.

This is a piece I published in 2018. Since then, #COVID19 has led to widespread re-thinking of streets, to return public space from automotive traffic to the people who live, walk, and bike around a given neighborhood. With vaccination promising to re-open our public lives, it’s time to make these people-oriented streetscapes permanent.

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

In many of the major cities of the world, it has begun to dawn even on public officials that walking is a highly efficient means of transit, as well as one of the great underrated pleasures in life. A few major cities have even tentatively begun to take back their streets for pedestrians.

Denver, for instance, is proposing a plan to invest $1.2 billion in sidewalks, and, at far greater cost, bring frequent public transit within a quarter-mile of most of its residents. In Europe, where clean, safe, punctual public transit is already widely available, Oslo plans to ban all cars from its city center beginning next year. Madrid is banning cars owned by nonresidents, and is also redesigning 24 major downtown avenues to take them back for pedestrians. Paris has banned vehicles from a road along the Seine, and plans to rebuild it for bicycle and pedestrian use.

Yes, car owners are furious. That’s because they have mistaken their century-long domination over pedestrians for a right rather than a privilege. The truth is that cities are not doing nearly enough to restore streets for pedestrian use, and it’s the pedestrians who should be furious.

Many American cities still rely on “level of service” (LOS) design models developed in the 1960s that focus single-mindedly on keeping vehicle traffic moving, according to Elizabeth Macdonald, an urban design specialist at the University of California, Berkeley. “Hence improvements for other modes (walking, cycling, transit) that might increase vehicle delay are characterized as LOS. impediments,” she and her co-authors write in The Journal of Urban Design. The idea of pedestrians as “impediments” is of course perverse, especially given the word’s original meaning: An impediment was something that functioned as a shackle for the feet — unlimited vehicle traffic, say.

The emphasis on vehicle traffic flow is also a perversion of basic social equity, and the costs show up in ways large and small. Vehicles in cities contribute a major portion of small-particle pollution, the kind that penetrates deep into the lungs. (The percentage can reach as high as 49 percent in Phoenix and 55 percent in Los Angeles. It’s just 6 percent in Beijing, but that’s because there are so many other pollution sources.) People living close to busy roads, particularly infants and older people in lower-income households, pay most of the cost in respiratory, cardiovascular and other problems. A 2013 M.I.T. study estimated that vehicle emissions cause 53,000 early deaths a year in the United States, and a study just last month from Lancaster University in Britain found that children with intellectual disabilities are far more likely to live in areas with high levels of vehicle pollution.

Among the smaller costs: Most people in cities from Bangalore to Brooklyn cannot afford to keep a car, and yet our cities routinely turn over the majority of public thoroughfares to those who can. They allow parked cars to eat up 350 square feet apiece, often at no charge, in cities where private parking spaces rent for as much as $700 a month. And they devote most of what’s left of the street to the uninterrupted flow of motor vehicles.

But that’s not really such a small cost, after all: It means that we often cannot afford room for parks or shade trees, which other studies have repeatedly shown to be an important factor in the health and mental well-being of residents. Even when car-mad cities leave enough room on the side to squeeze in trees, they tend to be miniaturized, lollipop versions of what street trees used to be. Hardly anyone plants the towering oaks or maples that used to intertwine their branches overhead and make the sidewalks feel like a leafy grove in the heart of the city.

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Gee, I Guess Biofuels Haven’t Actually Fixed Global Warming, After All

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 22, 2019

The Trump Administration is increasing the amount of biofuel oil refiners must blend into their fuel. But the green image of corn ethanol biofuel is based on big lie. It puts profits in the pockets of corn ethanol refiners but does nothing to slow the rate of global warming, as I pointed out in this article for Smithsonian Magazine.

By Richard Conniff
Smithsonian magazine, November 2007

I first started to think that the biofuels movement might be slipping into la-la land when I spotted a news item early this year about a 78-foot powerboat named Earthrace. In the photographs, the boat looked like a cross between Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose and a Las Vegas showgirl. Skipper Pete Bethune, a former oil industry engineer from New Zealand, was trying to set a round-the-world speed record running his 540-horsepower engine solely on biodiesel.

Along the way, he spread the word that, as one report put it, “it’s easy to be environmentally friendly, even in the ostentatious world of powerboating.”

Well, it depends on what you mean by “easy.” Bethune’s biodiesel came mostly from soybeans. But “one of the great things about biodiesel,” he declared, is that “it can be made from so many different sources.” To prove it, his suppliers had concocted a dollop of the fuel for Earthrace from human fat, including some liposuctioned from the intrepid skipper’s own backside.

Given the global obesity epidemic, that probably seemed like a sustainable resource. You could almost imagine NASCAR fans lining up for a chance to personally power Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Chevy Monte Carlo into the tunnel turn at Pocono. But biofuel skeptics were seeing warning flags everywhere. Read the rest of this entry »

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It’s Time for a Carbon Tax on Beef

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 21, 2018

(Illustration: Igor Bastidas)

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

Let me admit up front that I would rather be eating a cheeseburger right now. Or maybe trying out a promising new recipe for Korean braised short ribs. But our collective love affair with beef, dating back more than 10,000 years, has gone wrong, in so many ways. And in my head, if not in my appetites, I know it’s time to break it off.

So it caught my eye recently when a team of French scientists published a paper on the practicality of putting a carbon tax on beef as a tool for meeting European Union climate change targets. The idea will no doubt sound absurd to Americans reared on Big Macs and cowboy mythology. While most of us recognize, according to a 2017 Gallup poll, that we are already experiencing the effects of climate change, we just can’t imagine that, for instance, floods, mudslides, wildfires, biblical droughts and back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes are going to be a serious problem in our lifetimes. And we certainly don’t make the connection to the food on our plates, or to beef in particular.

The cattle industry would like to keep it that way. Oil, gas and coal had to play along, for instance, when the Obama-era Environmental Protection Agency instituted mandatory reporting of greenhouse gas emissions. But the program to track livestock emissions was mysteriously Read the rest of this entry »

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Gaining Ground in the Fight to Stop Illegal Logging

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 9, 2018

Illegal logging of Spanish cedar along the Las Piedras River, Madre de Dios, Peru. (Photo: Andre Baertschi)

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

Strange as it may sound, we have arrived at a moment of hope for the world’s forests. It is, admittedly, hope of a jaded variety: After decades of hand-wringing about rampant destruction of forests almost everywhere, investigators have recently demonstrated in extraordinary detail that much of this logging is blatantly illegal.

And surprisingly, people actually seem to be doing something about it. In November, the European Court of Justice put Poland under threat of a 100,000-euro-per-day fine for illegal logging in the continent’s oldest forest, and last month Poland’s prime minister fired the environment minister who authorized the logging.

In Romania, two big do-it-yourself retail chains ended purchasing agreements with an Austrian logging giant implicated in illegal logging there. And in this country, the Office of the United States Trade Representative, normally dedicated to free trade at any cost, has barred a major exporter of Read the rest of this entry »

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Celebrating Psychedelica: Live on The Leonard Lopate Show

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 7, 2017

Swims like a drunken sailor. (© David Hall/seaphotos.com)

I was a guest this afternoon on “The Leonard Lopate Show” on WNYC in New York, talking about species discovery.  The interview runs about 13 minutes and listening to it is definitely better than a sharp stick in the eye. (A courageous listener called in to tell one of the other guests that he didn’t like the sound of her voice. Thank goodness, I didn’t have a call-in segment.)

At one point, I talked about a favorite new species from 2009 named psychedelica. Here’s the background, from my previous post on the discovery:

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

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Posted in Conservation and Extinction, New Species Discoveries, Species Seekers Almanac, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Dirty Donald Wants You to Believe in Clean Coal

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 10, 2016

coal-plant

During the course of his rambling, belligerent, bullying remarks in last night’s debate, Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump at one point remarked, “There is a thing called clean coal.”

This is like asserting that Donald is an honest businessman, a good husband, and a true friend of African-Americans, Mexicans, and women.  Anyway, It reminded me of a piece I wrote in 2008 about the origins of the shady myth of clean coal, and why there is, in fact, no such thing:

You have to hand it to the folks at R&R Partners. They’re the clever advertising agency that made its name luring legions of suckers to Las Vegas with an ad campaign built on the slogan “What happens here, stays here.” But R&R has now topped itself with its current ad campaign pairing two of the least compatible words in the English language: “Clean Coal.”

“Clean” is not a word that normally leaps to mind for a commodity some spoilsports associate with unsafe mines, mountaintop removal, acid rain, black lung, lung cancer, asthma, mercury contamination, and, of course, global warming. And yet the phrase “clean coal” now routinely turns up in political discourse, almost as if it were a reality.

The ads created by R&R tout coal as “an American resource.” In one Vegas-inflected version, Kool and the Gang sing “Ya-HOO!” as an electric wire gets plugged into Read the rest of this entry »

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Animal Music Monday: Baby Elephant Walk

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 4, 2016

This song was an unlikely pop hit from the early 1960s, by Henry Mancini.  He wrote it for the 1962 Howard Hawks film “Hatari!” about the adventurous characters who made a living then catching elephants, rhinos, and other African wildlife to stock zoos.  These days we would call that line of work “dubious” or even “criminal.” But those were different times.

Hawks had filmed an impromptu scene of the Martinelli character leading three baby elephants to a watering hole.  But he didn’t know what to do with it.  Before giving up on it, Hawks came to Mancini and said, “Take a look and let me know if you have any ideas.”

Mancini later wrote:

“So I looked at the scene several times  and still thought it was wonderful. As the little elephants went down to the water, there was a shot of them from behind. Their little backsides were

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Clearcutting Europe’s Last Virgin Forests (& Calling it “Green”)

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 1, 2016

One of the European brown bears that roam Romania's Carpathian Mountains. (Photo: Jamie Lamb/Getty Images)

One of the European brown bears that roam Romania’s Carpathian Mountains. (Photo: Jamie Lamb/Getty Images)

by Richard Conniff/Takepart.com

We tend to imagine that illegal logging mostly targets tropical forests in the Amazon, Southeast Asia, and other remote and poorly regulated regions, not in our own backyards. For people who pay attention to such things, there’s comfort in the idea that buying only Forest Stewardship Council–certified lumber keeps us free of complicity in that sort of criminal destruction of woodland habitat.

The latest undercover work by the Environmental Investigation Agency focuses on Europe and undermines both those assumptions. It’s a significant embarrassment for the FSC, which until last week was putting its seal of sustainability on timber said to be illegally harvested from Europe’s last

 A clear cut forest in Romania. (Photo: Environmental Investigation Agency)


A clearcut forest in Romania. (Photo: Environmental Investigation Agency)

surviving virgin forests, in the Carpathian Mountains, and from national parks and other protected areas in Romania. Those habitats were for many years the only refuge in Europe for bears, wolves, lynx, and other species—and they have played a major part in the recent continent-wide rewilding of Europe.

The FSC’s decision to suspend its certification of the Austrian logging company Holzindustrie Schweighofer comes eight months after the U.K.-based EIA published its initial report, Stealing the Last Forest, alleging extensive ties between the company and illegal logging and corruption in Romania. It’s also more than a year after the release of an EIA video showing a company executive offering to accept illegal timber from an undercover investigator posing as an American investor in Romanian forests.

FSC announced that it is also suspending Quality Austria, the auditing body that was supposed to have done due diligence on Schweighofer’s operations. Both suspensions are temporary,

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