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)

  • Wall of the Dead

  • Categories

Pandemic Pastimes in the Natural World

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 21, 2020

Today's photos of wildlife in my own Connecticut neighborhood are all by Kristofer Rowe.

Today’s photos of wildlife in my own Connecticut neighborhood are all by Kristofer Rowe.

 

Yes, the times are incredibly stressful.  But getting outdoors will help, and watching wildlife is one place where social distancing works just fine. Not only can you do it on your own, but the animals don’t want you in their faces, and you’ll see a lot more of them if you keep your distance. 

 I wrote this piece a while ago to introduce newcomers to birdwatching and other quiet joys of the natural world. I’m deleting the lead, which was about new year’s resolutions back in that peaceful time. But most of the ideas that follow still make sense in the face of COVID19.

by Richard Conniff

Instead of resolving to exercise more, lose weight, and spend more time outdoors, try giving yourself a motive to do all three. Set out to see something new at least once a day among the beautiful and often dramatic wildlife that lives all around you. Birds are the easiest way to start, and good binoculars help. But insects, spiders, mammals, plants, mushrooms, and even rocks will do. (And note: Being in the city shouldn’t be an impediment.  Matthew Wills of @backyardbeyond, seems lately to see more copulating by kestrels on chimney pots and antennas around his Brooklyn apartment than locked-down millennials even want to think about right now.)

Here are a baker’s dozen ideas to get you in the swing of things:

Gray squirrel (Photo: Kristofer Rowe)

Gray squirrel (Photo: Kristofer Rowe)

1. Learn to identify 10 species in your neighborhood. Go for the easy stuff—house sparrows, mourning doves, cardinals, blue jays, gray squirrels, chipmunks. Then move on to 20, 50, 100 species. Do it on the golf course, to distract your pals from your lousy swing or to remind them that birdies can matter in more ways than one. If you’re a college student stuck back at home with your parents and cursing those birds that dare to wake you up at 10 a.m., demonstrate your romantic side by learning to identify their songs. (Try here for help.  You’ll also find good stuff here.

2. Hold still and just watch a wild animal for a while, even if you don’t know its name: a cormorant diving for fish, a seagull smashing open shellfish on the rocks, a squirrel burying seeds, birds mating, a snapping turtle laying her eggs. Just look. And don’t get too close. Wild things deserve a little respect.

3. You use your smartphone to help you get started.  Try not to let it distract you from the experience, but, sure, take a picture, or record a song. When you get home, you can Read the rest of this entry »

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

Good God! The Way We Talk to Each Other Sure Has Changed!

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 12, 2020

(Illustration: William Bramhall)

 

I happened to run across this piece this morning. It’s an “On Language” column I wrote for the September 18 1983 New York Times Magazine, and, holy crap, how much our culture has changed since then! It’s about a time, long, long ago, when Americans were excessively nice to one another. The headline was “The Case for Malediction,” and, America, I take it back.

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times Magazine

Apple Computer ran an advertisement in various magazines early this year about the writing of a tricky business letter. The first draft of the letter began with the promising salutation ”Dear Mush-for-Brains.” But by the final version, the magic of word processing had transformed it, in effect, to ”Dear Valued Colleague.” The change may be good for business, but it is bad for the language, not to mention the blood.

Why not just come right out with something really wicked? It is the only healthy response to the terribly friendly times in which we live. The sharp word and the cutting retort are, moreover, commodities badly needed just now in American speech, which is becoming bloated and lazy with smile-button platitudes.

There are at least two ways to approach what might be termed the nice-nice crisis. It is possible, on the one hand, to take a sort of perverse sporting interest in the question of how much farther we can push back the boundaries of our national capacity for vapidness. Not long ago, I heard a television newscaster conclude her roundup of the usual atrocities with the earnest plea, ”Remember, you can make tomorrow a nicer day.”

Or, on the other hand, we can rebel. Tomorrow is almost certainly not going to be a nicer day, and what you’re going to need when you go out there is

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Fear & Courage, Funny Business | 3 Comments »

Farmers Are Abandoning Land. It Could Save the Planet

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 21, 2020

Castro Laboreiro, Portugal

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

With apologies for my recent absence, I have been focusing on a book project lately and will continue to do so most of this year. But this is one I wrote in December.

People have lived in Castro Laboreiro, where northern Portugal borders Spain, long enough to have built megaliths in the mountainous countryside and a pre-Romanesque church, from 1,100 years ago, in the village itself. But the old rural population has dwindled away, leaving behind mostly elders yearning for their vanishing culture.

Roughly half the area once grazed by sheep, goats, and cattle is now unused and reverting to nature, meaning that wolves, bears, wild boars, and other species have rebounded in their old habit. Iberian ibex and griffon vultures thrive where they were extinct, or nearly so, as recently as the 1990s. So what feels like loss to some village residents, looks to others like a great recovery.

Places like Castro Laboreiro are of course everywhere. Abandonment of rural lands has become one of the most dramatic planet-wide changes of our time, affecting millions of square miles of land. Partly it’s a product of rural flight, and the economic, social, and educational appeal of cities. Partly it’s about larger forces like climate change and globalization of the food supply chain. But the result, according to a new study in Nature Ecology and Evolution, is that the global footprint of agriculture has “started decreasing in size during the past two decades, with more land now being abandoned Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Climate change, Conservation and Extinction | 1 Comment »

Now Is Our Time to End Polio Forever

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 17, 2019

What it looks like when the vaccines don’t get there. (Photo: Unknown)

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

In January 2014 an American public health worker was visiting northern Nigeria to observe a polio prevention campaign by local health workers. It was a big, festive event with a marching band to bring out parents and children for their immunizations. But the American visitor and the local program manager soon found themselves being drawn away from the action, down deserted streets to an area still under construction. They were being led by a young girl.

“And what was happening was that she was Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues, Food & Drink | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Was Our Ancestral Homeland in Botswana–not East Africa?

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 28, 2019

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

Anyone lucky enough to have visited the Okavango Delta in the southern African nation of Botswana will recall the comforting and oddly familiar sensation of looking out from the shelter of a stand of trees at the panorama of wildlife—from elephants and African wild dogs to lilac-breasted rollers—moving across the lush surrounding floodplains. That sense of familiarity may run deeper than we imagine, a new study suggests—back to a time when early modern humans also wandered there.

The study, appearing Monday in the journal Nature, uses genetic, archaeological, linguistic and climatic evidence to argue that the ancestral homeland of everyone alive today was in northern Botswana—not in East Africa, as previously thought. Based on mitochondrial DNA, passed down from mother to daughter, the paper’s co-authors argue that we are all descended from a small community of Khoisan hunter-gatherers who lived 200,000 years ago in vast wetlands encompassing Botswana’s Okavango Delta and the Makgadikgadi regions.

Much of that place is now a dry salt pan—and inhabited by modern Khoisan people, sometimes called Bushmen. But back then, it was a vast wetland covering an area the size of Switzerland. The community that lived there was Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Evolution, The Primate File | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Eeeek! There’s a Dinosaur in The Living Room

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 3, 2019

by Richard Conniff/National Geographic

Sitting poolside at a motel in the middle of Tucson, Arizona, a head-and-neck surgeon in cowboy boots and blue jeans is rhapsodizing about skulls. He has brought one along in his carry-on luggage on the flight into town, and he’s plainly thrilled by the perfect state of the brain case and the openings where cranial nerves once ran.

“I can see the ophthalmic nerve that gave vision,” he says, as if the former occupant of this skull still lives. “I can see the abducens nerve which allowed lateral eye motion, and the trigeminal nerve, which gave sensation to the skin of the face.”

The surgeon has asked not be identified in this article. Owning a collection of fossil skulls makes him both gleefully happy and nervously private, like many other collectors in town for the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. At the moment, the surgeon is building an underground room to house the skulls, and he grins at the thought of displaying them in chronological order: the 36-inch-long Allosaurus skull, the toothy sea monster Elasmosaurus, the most complete skull of a Pteranodon ever found.

Private fossil collectors are pretty common these days. Some, like the surgeon, are serious enough about it to pass for professional paleontologists. He buys unprepared fossils and spends much of his free time meticulously extricating them from their stone prisons. Other collectors seem mainly to be indulging a boyish taste for big, scary—and expensive—monsters. (“The things that sell are jaws, claws, and horns,” one dealer confides.)

A few collectors rank among the world’s mega-rich, like the Chinese real estate developer haggling in Tucson for a slab fossil of an Ichthyosaurus, a large marine reptile, being offered at $750,000. More nervous privacy: The developer interrupts a question to his translator by loudly clearing his throat and marching off grimly in the direction of a $3 million Stegosaurus. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The CIA, World War II Bombs, and 8 Million Dead Fish: A True Story

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 19, 2019

Mississippi paddlefish, Polyodon spathula. (Photo: Richard Conniff)

by Richard Conniff/National Geographic

It is a horror movie director’s dream of a natural history collection. You find it by driving 10 miles southeast of New Orleans, to a piece of land that is part swamp, part forest, on a bend in the Mississippi River, down a dirt track named Wild Boar Road. Alligators and water moccasins live in the tangled woods to the left. On the right stands ammunition bunker number A3, its flanks heavily bermed against the danger of explosion, its loading dock cracked and skewed forward by the more reliable detriments of time.

There are 26 such bunkers, widely distributed around the roughly 400-acre property, most of them abandoned. During World War II, U.S. Navy ships stopped here to pick up artillery shells before heading out to sea. Later the Central Intelligence Agency trained Cuban guerrillas on the property for the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

Tulane University owns the place now, and the visitors tend to be biologists, drawn here by the nearly eight million dead fish housed in bunkers A3 and A15. (Another bunker nearby holds the University of Louisiana Monroe’s fish collection.)

Inside, the fish soak in alcohol, in tightly sealed jars of assorted sizes, lined up on shelves that rise 10 feet high and run 36 feet long, in row after row after row. Some of the specimens are outlandish. A couple dozen paddlefish huddle together in a five-gallon jug with their translucent paddles raised heavenward, looking like congregants at an extraterrestrial prayer meeting. But nine of the 22 rows in the main collection are Cyprinidae, which mostly means minnows. Ordinary is really the guiding aesthetic of the place.

It is the world’s largest fish collection, a title that comes with asterisks.

“It’s actually the largest post-larval collection,” says Justin Mann, the 38-year-old collection manager, who spends much of his time fighting back the mildew that paints and repaints itself across the interior walls. It’s the largest by number of specimens, he adds, not species. In fact, more than a million specimens belong to a single species, Cyprinella venusta. (Yes, it’s a type of minnow.) The collection includes outliers from as far away as Indonesia. But most of the fish here originally were Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All The Authors

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 16, 2019

(Illustration: Wellcome Library, London.)

I didn’t plan this piece to coincide with the Patreon campaign I started last week. But it suggests what’s happened for writers like me on the book publishing side of our lives. The magazine and newspaper sides of our work have also suffered at the hands of Internet giants like Google and Facebook.  For me, 2017 was the year these changes really hit home.  In the past, magazines sent me wherever I needed to go to get the story, from Easter Island to Bhutan.  But suddenly three major magazines hiring me to write feature stories asked me, in so many words, to phone it in. One wanted me to write a story “with lots of tick-tock” about tropical deforestation. But the editor would only give me expense money to travel to Washington, D.C. (On reading the manuscript, he complained that he wasn’t “smelling the rainforest.”) Another magazine where I have been a contributor for 34 years asked me to write a travel feature but wouldn’t send me to the destination because a different magazine had sent me there on an unrelated feature the year before. (The editor made it that month’s cover story.) Finally, a magazine (contributor for almost 30 years) didn’t actually tell me I couldn’t travel.  But they asked me for an expense estimate for a proposed day trip to New Jersey from my home in Connecticut. (I went. Yay!)

I don’t mean to complain. I have been extremely lucky to have a career and support my family as a writer. I want to continue doing this work, though, and I want younger writers to have the same opportunities. That is becoming harder and harder for us all. 

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

One day not long ago in a college class I was teaching, some of my students couldn’t find the page I was talking about in the reading. And it dawned on me: There was only one required text in the class, an anthology of writing about the natural world called “American Earth.” And they were reading pirated copies — versions downloaded free from some dubious “provider” on the internet.

It was a college well known for its progressive politics. So maybe my students thought they were striking a blow against the dark hegemony of greedy textbook publishers. Or maybe, tuition and textbook costs having soared into the stratosphere, they just wanted to save 27 bucks, the discounted online price. As gently as possible, I informed them that they were in fact stealing from the author (or, in this case, editor) who happened to be the climate activist Bill McKibben, one of their environmental heroes. Also, Library of America, which published the book, is legally a nonprofit. (Many other publishing companies now achieve that status merely de facto.)

I’m afraid it was a teaching moment fail. My students looked baffled, but unpersuaded, caught up in the convenient rationalization that authors subsist on inspiration and the purest Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Food & Drink | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

The Single Best Thing You Can Do to Protect Your Child

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 14, 2019

by Richard Conniff/Patreon

Lately, I have been thinking about the changes in American health that have taken place in my lifetime, all of them explainable in one word. But before everybody shouts out the word, let’s look at a few of the changes, detailed in an article published in 2007 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, by Sandra W. Roush & Trudy V. Murphy, both then at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Incidence of measles down 99.9%, deaths down 100%. (Peak year was 1958, when 763,094 cases occurred, my own among them.)
  • Mumps cases down 95.9 %. (Peak was 212,932 in 1964.) Deaths down 100% from peak of 39.
  • Polio cases and deaths both down by 100%. (Peak year was 1952, at 21,269 cases and 3145 deaths.)
  • Rubella cases down 99.9%, deaths down 100%. Peak year was 1964 with 488,796 cases, but deaths were higher in 1968 at 24.
  • Smallpox down 100%.  Peak of 110,672 cases occurred in 1920, and 2510 deaths in 1902. (OK, I wasn’t alive then. But the last major U.S. outbreak occurred in 1949, two years before I was born. And the disease was still causing 10-15 million Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Cool Tools | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

How We Lived (and Died) Before Vaccines

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 16, 2019

By Richard Conniff/National Geographic

Like most American children of my generation, I lined up with my classmates in the mid-1950s to get the first vaccine for polio, then causing 15,000 cases of paralysis and 1,900 deaths a year in the United States, mostly in children.  Likewise, we lined up for the vaccine against smallpox, then still causing millions of deaths worldwide each year. I’ve continued to update my immunizations ever since, including a few exotic ones for National Geographic assignments abroad, among them vaccines for anthrax, rabies, Japanese encephalitis, typhoid, and yellow fever.

Having grown up in the shadow of polio (my uncle was on crutches for life), and having made first-hand acquaintance with measles (I was part of the pre-vaccine peak year of 1958, along with 763,093 other young Americans), I’ve happily rolled up my sleeve for any vaccine recommended by my doctor and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with extra input for foreign travel from the CDC Yellow Book.  I am deeply grateful to vaccines for keeping me alive and well, and also for  helping me return from field trips as healthy as when I set out.

One result of this willingness, however, is that I suffer, like most people, from a notorious Catch-22: Vaccines save us from diseases, then cause us to forget the diseases from which they save us. Once the threat appears to be gone from our lives, we become lax. Or worse, we make up other things to worry about. Thus, some well-meaning parents avoid vaccinating their children out of misplaced fear that the MMR vaccine (for measles, mumps, and rubella) causes autism. Never mind that independent scientific studies have repeatedly demonstrated that no such link exists, most recently in a study of 657,000 children in Denmark.  This irrational fear is why the United States has experienced almost 1200 cases of measles so far this year, almost two decades after public health officials proudly declared it eliminated. About 124 of these measles victims, mostly children, have been hospitalized, 64 of them with complications including pneumonia and encephalitis, which can cause brain damage or death.

And yet autism can still seem like a bigger threat than measles, if only because it appears in countless television shows and movies such as “Rain Man” and “Gilbert Grape.” Meanwhile, you’re more likely to catch measles at a movie theater than see the disease featured onscreen.

And so, parents forget, or more likely never knew, that 33 of every 100,000 people who experienced actual measles ended up with mental retardation or central nervous system damage. (That’s in addition to those who died.)

They forget that an outbreak of rubella in the early 1960s resulted in 20,000 children being born with brain damage, including autism, and other congenital abnormalities.

They forget that, before it was eradicated by a vaccine in the 1970s, smallpox left many survivors Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Cool Tools | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »