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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Want More Crab and Lobster? Go Fish for Lost Gear

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 29, 2016

A boat filled with recovered crab pots. (Photo: CCRM/VIMS)

A boat filled with recovered crab pots. (Photo: CCRM/VIMS)

Chesapeake Bay watermen took it hard in 2008, when their blue crab industry was officially declared a commercial failure. The blue crabs are to the Chesapeake what lobsters are to Maine, not just a major contributor to the economy but also the object of a venerable waterman culture, based on crab pots in warmer weather and dredging in winter.

Faced with decline of this iconic industry, Virginia opted to shut down the winter crab harvest in its waters. Scientific studies had shown that it dredged up a disproportionately large number of reproductive females, meaning fewer crabs to catch in future years. The crabbers were skeptical, at best, when the state offered to put them back to work during the winter retrieving derelict and abandoned crab pots. Pulling up empty crab pots in winter is nobody’s idea of a good time.

But the pots weren’t empty, “and that’s the headline,” said Kirk Havens, a biologist at William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS). In the middle of winter, the pots were loaded with Read the rest of this entry »

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“Bitch.” A Poem.

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 27, 2015

Just belatedly read this in The New Yorker.  It’s by Craig Raine, and so good I thought it worth sharing here.  Hilarious to see idiots on Twitter denouncing Raine as a misogynist.  It’s a poem about a dog. Yes. That kind of bitch.

This Weimaraner in spandex,

tight on the deep chest,

webbed at the tiny waist.


The drips and drabs of her dugs:

ten, a tapering wedge,

narrowed toward the back legs.

Wish I could show you the whole poem here, but click on over to The New Yorker and  take the time to enjoy it there.

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Leopard Stalks Steenbok at Kruger

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 19, 2015

Turn off the sound on this one.  Too much microphone wind.  Or just don’t watch if you are a Friend of Bambi.

Posted in Food & Drink, Kill or Be Killed, Uncategorized | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

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 »

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How An Attorney General Sold Out to Corporate Paymasters

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 7, 2014

Scott Pruitt, Attorney General and Corporate Shill (Not in that Order)

Scott Pruitt, Attorney General and Corporate Shill (Not in that Order)

Everybody in the United States should be reading and talking about Eric Lipton’s terrific story in today’s New York Times. It’s about how American democracy is being sold out by government officials who are supposed to be protecting the interests of the people but instead sell their services to the highest corporate bidder.  It’s a deeply serious story, but, honestly I also really love the part where the lobbyist tells the Attorney General of the State of Oklahoma, one Scott Pruitt, to bark.  And, of course, Mr. Pruitt barks.

Woof, woof.  I am laughing as we slide rapidly down to government of the corporation, by the corporation, and for the corporation. Here’s an excerpt:

[Oil industry lobbyist Andrew P.] Miller made it his job to promote Mr. Pruitt nationally, both as a spokesman for the Rule of Law campaign and as the president of the Republican Attorneys General Association.

“I regard the general as the A.G. best suited to take this lead on this question of federalism,” Mr. Miller wrote to Mr. Pruitt’s chief of staff in April 2012. “The touchstone of this initiative would be to organize the states to resist federal ‘overreach’ whenever it occurs.”

To Mr. Miller, having Mr. Pruitt as an advocate fit a broader strategy. He wanted state attorneys general to band together the way they did when they challenged the health care law in 2010. In that effort, they hired a major national corporate law firm, Baker Hostetler, to argue the case, with much of the bill being paid through donations from executives at corporations that oppose the law.

In his initial appeal to Mr. Pruitt, Mr. Miller insisted that his approach was not “client driven.” But he soon began to name individual clients — TransCanada and Pebble Mine in Alaska — that he wanted to include in the effort. The E.P.A. has held up the Pebble Mine project, which could potentially yield 80 billion pounds of copper, after concluding it would “threaten one of the world’s most productive salmon fisheries.”

“This strike force ought to take the form of a national state litigation team to challenge the E.P.A.’s overreach,” Mr. Miller said in an email to Mr. Pruitt’s office. “Like the Dalmatian at the proverbial firehouse,

Read the rest of this entry »

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A U.S. Plan to Sacrifice Wolves for Lumber

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 28, 2014

A proposed USFS logging auction threatens this wolf subspecies (Photo: Hyde?)

A proposed USFS logging auction threatens this wolf subspecies (Photo: Hyde?)


Today’s New York Times reports on a U.S. Forest Service (USFS) plan to cut most of the remaining virgin forest on Prince of Wales Island Island in the Tongass National Forest on the Alaska coast.  Conservationists say the proposed auction, called Big Thorne, threatens a wolf population that’s already in trouble:

In the island’s northern half, nearly 94 percent of the biggest stands of virgin forest have been cut down. Big Thorne will clean up some of what remains; the 9.7 square miles of woodlands marked for cutting are sprinkled over 360 square miles, much of it clear-cut in decades past.

The conservationists’ lawsuit argues that the Forest Service ignored the law and its own rules in choosing tracts of forest for logging in Big Thorne and five other sites. Example 1, they say, is the Alexander Archipelago wolf. [N.B., my link. The NY Times linked to the USFS site for the subspecies.]

The wolf, a smaller, many-colored cousin of the timber wolf, relies on the Sitka black-tailed deer for food. The deer winter in the island’s old-growth forests, where big trees and underbrush provide forage, shelter from snows and cover from the island’s hunters.

Federal rules require the Forest Service “to maintain viable populations” of the wildlife on its lands. For the wolf, that means having enough deer Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

How Tiny Brains Accomplish Amazing Stuff

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 1, 2014

Serial thinkers  (Photo: Ali Jarekji/Reuters)

Serial thinkers (Photo: Ali Jarekji/Reuters)

Here’s a conundrum: Insects have microscopically tiny brains and yet manage some astonishingly intelligent behaviors. Human brains, on the other hand, are massive enough to make our heads fall forward onto our desks, and yet we seem to use them mainly to find new ways to be stupid.  (I am going on personal experience here.)

Honeybees, for instance, have only a million neurons in their brains, versus an estimated 85 billion neurons in a human brain. And yet the bees in a colony have to forage over an area of several square kilometers, according to the authors of a 2009 study in Current Biology, memorizing the location of flowers, sorting out which ones are more rewarding at particular times of day, then linking them in a flight pattern that’s stable and repeatable. It requires “learning landmark sequences and linking vector instructions to landmarks,” as well as “cognitive abilities previously attributed exclusively to ‘higher’ vertebrates, including, for example, simple forms of rule learning and categorization.” Meanwhile, on a typical morning the average human is still struggling to lift that massive brain off the pillow.

A honeybee must manage its daily foraging even when it isn’t driven by hunger, because Read the rest of this entry »

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A Great Idea from when the GOP Still Believed in Solutions

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 3, 2014

The “cap-and-trade”  idea is back in the news.  Here’s my article from the August 2009 issue of Smithsonian reminding everyone that this was originally a Republican innovation:

John B. Henry was hiking in Maine’s Acadia National Park one August in the 1980s when he first heard his friend C. Boyden Gray talk about cleaning up the environment by letting people buy and sell the right to pollute. Gray, a tall, lanky heir to a tobacco fortune, was then working as a lawyer in the Reagan White House, where environmental ideas were only slightly more popular than godless Communism. “I thought he was smoking dope,” recalls Henry, a Washington, D.C. entrepreneur. But if the system Gray had in mind now looks like a politically acceptable way to slow climate change—an approach being hotly debated in Congress—you could say that it got its start on the global stage on that hike up Acadia’s Cadillac Mountain.

People now call that system “cap-and-trade.” But back then the term of art was “emissions trading,” though some people called it “morally bankrupt” or even “a license to kill.” For a strange alliance of Read the rest of this entry »

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Jamaica To Hand Over Heart of Its Largest Protected Area to Blacklisted Chinese Conglomerate

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 22, 2014

Hellshire coast

Tourism has long been the leading economic sector in Jamaica, bringing in half of all foreign revenue and supporting a quarter of all jobs. Yet government officials now risk jeopardizing that lucrative business, and Jamaica’s reputation in the international community, with a secretive deal to let a Chinese company build a mega-freighter seaport in the nation’s largest natural protected area.

The planned port would occupy the Goat Islands, in the heart of the Portland Bight Protected Area, which only last year the same government officials were petitioning UNESCO to designate a Global Biosphere Reserve. Instead, the lure of a $1.5 billion investment and a rumored 10,000 jobs has resulted in the deal with China Harbour Engineering Company, part of a conglomerate blacklisted by the World Bank under its Fraud and Corruption Sanctioning Policy.

Many details of the proposed project remain unknown, and the government has rebuffed repeated requests for information under Jamaica’s equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act. But the plan is believed to involve clear-cutting the mangrove forests on both Goat Islands, building up a level work area using dredge spoils from the surrounding waters, and constructing a coal-fired power plant to support the new infrastructure. The port, including areas currently designated as marine sanctuaries, would accommodate “post-Panamax”-size ships—up to 1,200 feet long and with a 50-foot draft—arriving via the newly expanded Panama Canal.

Landscape in the Hellshire Hills area (Photo: Robin Moore/Global Species Conservation)

Landscape in the Hellshire Hills area (Photo: Robin Moore/Global Wildlife Conservation)

The new port would compromise an area known for extensive sea‐grass beds, coral reefs, wetlands, and Jamaica’s largest mangrove forests. The protected area is also home to the Jamaican iguana, a species believed extinct until its dramatic rediscovery in 1990. Since then, the international conservation community has spent millions of dollars rebuilding the iguana population in a protected forest in the Hellshire Hills, part of the reserve adjacent to the proposed port. Much of that investment hinged on the government’s promise, now apparently discarded, that the Goat Islands would become a permanent home for the iguanas, which are Jamaica’s largest vertebrate species.

“It sends a really poor message to the international conservation community—that an investment in Jamaica is not a good investment, that it can be wiped out in the blink of an eye,” said Byron Wilson, a herpetologist at the University of the West Indies. Wilson warned that Read the rest of this entry »

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Ocean Extremists and the Strange World of Bomb Dating

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 11, 2014

Billfish preparing to dice and slice (or rather gun and stun).

Billfish preparing to dice and slice (or rather gun and stun).

One problem with a lot of writing about the natural world is that it’s all plotline, and the plotline is depressingly familiar: The world is a mess, it’s getting messier by the minute, and in the end, or probably sooner, everybody dies.

Oh, and it’s your fault.

“How can you care about the plot,” asks Stephen R. Palumbi, a biologist and director of the Hopkins Marine Station at Stanford University, “until you care about the characters?” That’s how he and his son Anthony R. Palumbi, a science writer, came up with the idea for their new book The Extreme Life of the Sea, a tour of “the fastest, the deepest, the coldest, and the hottest” creatures in the oceans, minus “the sensational fearmongering of ‘Shark Week.’ ”

The result is a giddy scientific tour of weird underwater life, or what the elder Palumbi calls “a collection of guiltless wonder about amazing things going on in the oceans, things that are mostly secrets, except to marine biologists.”

For instance, the authors point out that some Antarctic fish can die of heat stroke at 43 degrees Fahrenheit. Many corals, meanwhile, falter at 90 degrees. But hold that guilt! They mean this by way of introducing Read the rest of this entry »

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