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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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Dawn of The Flying Murder Heads

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 15, 2018

The bristling teeth of Anhanguera piscator were for snagging fish. (Photo: Robert Clark)

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By Richard Conniff/National Geographic

Heading out into the geological layer cake of Big Bend National Park in southwestern Texas, British pterosaur researcher Dave Martill proposes a “to do” list for this brief reconnaissance: 1.) Find a rattlesnake to admire. 2.) “Find a complete Quetzalcoatlus skull sitting on the ground.” The odds are almost infinitely better for item one.  But he and Nizar Ibrahim, a fellow paleontologist, promptly fall into a detailed discussion about how to obtain a research permit in the event of item two.

This is the first rule of pterosaur research: You need to be an optimist. Thinking you will go out on a given day and find any trace of pterosaurs—the winged dragons that ruled Mesozoic skies for 162 million years–is like buying a Powerball ticket and expecting to win. Pterosaur fossils are vanishingly rare. Their whole splendid world, built on hollow bones with paper-thin walls, has long since collapsed into dust. Scarcity is especially the rule for Quetzalcoatlus northropi, thought to be one of the largest flying animals that ever lived, nearly as tall as a giraffe, with a 35-foot wingspan, and a likely penchant for picking off baby dinosaurs.  It’s known from a few fragments discovered at Big Bend in 1971, and not much else.

Ibrahim and Martill at Big Bend (Photo: Richard Conniff)

Martill and Ibrahim spend three days bone-hunting among the fissured hillsides. They cross and re-cross the promisingly named “Pterodactyl Ridge,” frequently consulting the “x-marks-the-spot” on maps left by the discoverer of Quetzalcoatlus. They decipher the nuances of geological strata (“Look at that Malinkovitch-controlled cyclicity!” Martill exclaims, referring to the way the Earth’s shifting movements show up in the rock), and they conjure up forgotten worlds. On a sandstone ridge with no obvious way down, Martill remarks, “Haven’t found a mountain yet we can’t fall down,” plunges forward, and emerges unscathed below, eyes fixed on the passing landscape.

They do not, however, stumble across any rattlesnakes, nor even the faintest whiff of a pterosaur. The femur of an Alamosaurus, the largest North American dinosaur that ever lived, turns up, by way of consolation. But dinosaurs are not pterosaurs, or vice versa. Leaving the park, the two paleontologists are already mapping out a return search for Quetzalcoatlus, permanently hooked on the tantalizing pterosaur mix of extreme biological richness glimpsed through the rarest of fossil remains.

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Optimism against all odds has, however, lately begun to look almost reasonable in pterosaur research, with a rush of discoveries revealing Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted in Biodiversity | Tagged: , , , , | 6 Comments »

Montana Wants to Save A Dino-Era Fish from Federally-Induced Extinction

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 8, 2018

Pallid sturgeon

UPDATE: The fate of the pallid sturgeon–an American species that’s been with us since the age of dinosaurs–now depends on a judge’s decision about a dam replacement plan that would effectively consign it to extinction.  That decision is due soon, and today, in a poll by Defenders of Wildlife, 81 percent of Montana residents (and 73 percent of Republicans) indicated that they support efforts to protect the pallid sturgeon.  With the hope that the judge will hear those voices, I’m re-printing this story about the fight to save the pallid sturgeon.

by Richard Conniff

“We should be grandfathered in.” That’s how the manager of the Lower Yellowstone Project irrigation district in Montana put it. His farmers have been using a dam on the river to supply water to their fields since time immemorial—or for 112 years, anyway—and see no reason to change. But the pallid sturgeon would certainly say it should be grandfathered in too. The monster fish has depended on the river for 78 million years, roughly since Tyrannosaurus rex ruled this region.

The problem is that the farmers and their timber-and-rock dam are now Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Leave a Comment »

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

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 8, 2018

 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 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 “only a few of the benefits that we know about.” The economic calculation looked at just four such benefits that are relatively easy to express in dollar terms—the capacity of trees to remove air pollution, sequester carbon, conserve energy by shading buildings, and reduce power plant emissions.

Nowak and a USFS colleague, co-author Eric Greenfield, found tree cover had declined in metropolitan areas across 45 states. The biggest losers Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Cool Tools | Tagged: , , , | 6 Comments »

Our Love for Exotic Pets is Emptying Forests and Oceans

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 7, 2018

(Photo: FLIGHT Protecting Indonesia’s Birds)

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

Conservation biologist David S. Wilcove was on a birding trip to Sumatra in 2012 when he began to notice that house after house in every village he visited had cages hanging outside, inhabited by the sort of wild birds he had expected to see in the forest. Nationwide, one in five households keeps birds as pets. That got him thinking, “What is this doing to the birds?”

Wilcove, who teaches at Princeton University, made a detour to the Pramuka bird market in Jakarta,

White-rumped shama (Photo: Shanaka Aravinda)

Southeast Asia’s largest market for birds and other wildlife, from fruit bats to macaques. “It was this sort of Wal-Mart-size space filled with hundreds of stalls,” he recalled recently, “each stall of which was filled with

hundreds of birds. An awful lot of them were in very poor condition, with signs of disease, feathers frayed, behaving listlessly–or thrashing around in their cages, because a lot of these are wild birds that are not at all suited to living as caged birds.” Some were species that even zoos with highly trained professional staff cannot maintain in captivity; they would die soon after purchase, “the cut flower syndrome,” he remarked.  “It was really a shocking site. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Research by Wilcove and his colleagues subsequently linked demand for birds in Indonesia’s pet marketplace to the decline of numerous species in the wild. Prices in the pet market, they suggested, in a 2015 study in Biological Conservation, can even serve as an alarm system for species declines that might not show up in field studies until years later, if at all:  When the average price for a white-rumped shama, a popular species in Indonesian songbird competitions, shot up 1500 percent from 2013 to 2015, the shift tipped conservationists off for the first time that these birds were vanishing from the wild.

Follow-up field studies in Indonesia by co-author Bert Harris, now at the Rainforest Trust, found no trace of shamas even in seemingly intact habitats where they should thrive, such as in national parks and in forests five kilometers from the nearest roads.  Buyers were paying especially high prices for distinctive island populations, some of them likely unrecognized species or sub-species. The pet trade, said Wilcove, thus has “the potential to drive species to extinction even when they have suitable habitat, and drive them to extinction without anyone being aware of it.”

The problem isn’t just about birds.  Nor is it limited to Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | 8 Comments »

Inside China’s Motherlode of Ancient Monsters

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 26, 2018

Junchang Lü and friend (Photo: Richard Conniff)

by Richard Conniff/Smithsonian Magazine

Not long ago in northeastern China, I found myself being driven in a Mercedes Benz SUV down a winding country road, trailed by a small motorcade of local dignitaries, past flat-roofed brick farmhouses and fields full of corn stubble. Abruptly, we arrived at our destination, and my guide, a stylishly-dressed woman named Fangfang, slipped out of her high heels into fieldwork gear: pink sneakers with bright blue pompoms on the Velcro straps.

We were visiting a dinosaur dig, but it was also a museum in the early stages of construction—steel beams riveted together to form oddly birdlike layers, stacked one atop another, climbing a hillside in two parallel rows. At the top, a central pavilion connecting the two rows looked like a bird about to take off.  The new museum didn’t have a definite name yet, though it is due to open sometime next year.  But it was unmistakably huge.  It was also expensive (Fanfang thought $28 million for construction alone).  And it was in the middle of nowhere.

We were in a rural village called Sihetun, in the western part of Liaoning Province.  And in the exuberant fashion of a lot of modern development in China, the new museum is going up in anticipation of visitors arriving by speed train from Beijing, 250 miles to the southwest, except that the speed train hasn’t been built yet.  More sensibly, the new museum is going up to celebrate the epicenter of modern paleontological discovery, an area that is at least as rich in fossils, and in some ways as wild, as the American West during the great era of dinosaur discovery in the late nineteenth century.

Liaoning Province (pronounced “lee-ow-NING”) is an area about the size of Michigan, sandwiched between Inner Mongolia and North Korea.  It used to be known mainly for coal, corn, and decrepit factories, which have given it a reputation as “China’s rust belt.” That’s put it off the usual itinerary for the average tourist. But developments over the past quarter-century have made it a point of pilgrimage for people interested in fossils.

Liaoning farmer and fossil hunter Lang Shi Kuang (Photo: Stefen Chow)

In the mid-1990s, on that hillside in Sihetun, a farmer planting a tree stumbled onto the world’s first known feathered dinosaur, a creature now named Sinosauropteryx (meaning “the China dragon wing”).  Actually, the farmer found two halves of a slab, each preserving a mirror image of this dinosaur.  In the freebooting spirit that has characterized the fossil trade in the area ever since, he promptly sold half to one unwitting museum, and half to another. It was the start of a fossil gold rush.

Since then, the region has produced more than 40 dinosaur species, and they have inevitably grabbed the headlines. Standing on a hillside a few minutes from the new museum site, my guide pointed out the low hills of a nearby farm where Yutyrannus, a 3100-pound feathered dinosaur, turned up a few years ago. (Think Tyrannosaurus rex, but plumed like a Mardi Gras Indian.)  This was also the former home range of Anchiornis huxleyi, a chicken-size creature with enough preserved detail to become the first dinosaur ever described feather-by-feather in its authentic colors—an event one paleontologist likened to “the birth of color tv.”

What has emerged from beneath the fields of Liaoning (and parts of neighboring provinces) is, however, bigger than dinosaurs: A couple of decades of digging have yielded Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Evolution, New Species Discoveries | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »

How Cities Could Still Save Us

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 23, 2018

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(Illustration: Lan Truong by permission)

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

Before the environmental activist and gay rights lawyer David Buckel set himself afire in Prospect Park in Brooklyn on April 14, he wrote a letter explaining that he had chosen his “early death by fossil fuel” as an act of protest against the environmental catastrophe that we are bringing upon ourselves and the planet. It was a horrifying end, not least because in life Mr. Buckel had successfully taken on issues as seemingly intractable as the legalization of same-sex marriage. If someone so capable had given up on the environment, one woman remarked to a Times reporter, “What does that mean for the rest of us?”

I was thinking about Mr. Buckel and about despair a few nights later, over a drink with Joe Walston of the Wildlife Conservation Society. As director of that organization’s worldwide field conservation work, Mr. Walston routinely comes face-to-face with the dark forces of human overpopulation, mass extinction of species, climate change and pollution. But he is also the co-author of a paper being published this week in the journal BioScience that begins with the uplifting words of Winston Churchill to the British nation in June 1940, under the shadow of the Nazi conquest of France: “In casting up this dread balance sheet and contemplating our dangers with a disillusioned eye,” Churchill declared, “I see great reason for intense vigilance and exertion, but none whatever for panic or despair.”

Mr. Walston and his co-authors go on to argue against the increasingly common view that these are the end times for life as we know it. Instead, they suggest that what the natural world is experiencing is a bottleneck — long, painful, undoubtedly frightening and likely to get worse in the short term — but with the forces of an eventual breakthrough and environmental recovery already gathering strength around us.

Mr. Walston sipped his beer and listed what he called “the four pillars” of conservation in the modern era — a stabilized human population, increasingly concentrated in urban areas, able to escape extreme poverty, and with a shared understanding of nature and the environment — “and all four are happening right now.” He singled out the trend Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Celebrated Dodo Died by Shotgun Blast

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 22, 2018

Shotgun pellets in flesh of the Oxford dodo.

The story long told was that Oxford University Museum’s rare specimen of the extinct Dodo, a native of the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, had been an exotic pet in the seventeenth century kept in a London townhouse. But new research using methods pioneered in criminal forensics tells a very different story. Here’s an account from the Museum and the University of Warwick:

If ever the Oxford Dodo were to have squawked, its final squawk may have been the saddest and loudest. For the first time, the manner of death of the museum’s iconic specimen has been revealed: a shot to the back of the head.

This unexpected twist in the long tale of the Oxford Dodo has come to light thanks to a collaboration between the Museum and the University of Warwick. WMG, a cutting-edge manufacturing and technology research unit at Warwick, employed its forensic scanning techniques and expertise to discover that the Dodo was shot in the neck and back of the head with a 17th-century shotgun.

Mysterious particles Read the rest of this entry »

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

Back from Extinction: Baja’s Very Cute Kangaroo Rat

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 20, 2018

Last year, I wrote about a major international effort to rediscover lost–and supposedly extinct–species.  This one isn’t part of that effort, run by the group Global Wildlife Conservation, but they’ll be as delighted by the discovery as I am. Here’s the press release from … well, you can figure it out from the first eight words :

Researchers from the San Diego Natural History Museum (The Nat) and the non-profit organization Terra Peninsular A.C. have rediscovered the San Quintin kangaroo rat (Dipodomys gravipes) in Baja California; the Museum is partnering with the organization and local authorities on a conservation plan for the species.

The San Quintin kangaroo rat was last seen in 1986, and was listed as endangered by the Mexican government in 1994. It was held as an example of modern extinction due to agricultural conversion. In the past few decades, San Quintin, which lies 118 miles south of Ensenada, has become Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction | Leave a Comment »

Plant Messiah Among the Living Dead

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 14, 2018

Magdalena and his beloved water lilies

by Richard Conniff/Wall Street Journal

Not long ago, while teaching a couple of college courses about the natural world, I plucked a random selection of tree leaves on my way into class and asked my students to identify them. These were Yale and Wesleyan students, all highly educated and aware of the world around them—and most of them could not even name oak leaves.

They were suffering from what botanists call “plant blindness”: the tendency to take plants for granted as the undifferentiated green backdrop to our lives. It’s an epidemic, compounded by our penchant for plowing down forests and meadows everywhere, oblivious that what we are destroying is ourselves.

Plant Messiah Cover
“Plants are the basis of everything, either directly or indirectly,” Carlos Magdalena writes in “The Plant Messiah.” “Plants provide the air we breathe; plants clothe us, heal us, and protect us. Plants provide our shelter, our daily food, and our drink.” He counts 31,128 plant species used by humans, and adds that without plants “we would not survive. It is as simple as that.”

Mr. Magdalena, a botanical horticulturalist at London’s Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, writes that he got dubbed “the plant messiah” by a Spanish journalist, for his work “trying to save plants on the brink of extinction,” and also for his “post-biblical (but pre-hipster) beard and long hair.” Taking the name to heart, Mr. Magdalena writes that curing us of plant blindness is the miracle he would like to accomplish.

Thankfully, he does not do much sermonizing on behalf of this mission. Instead, he takes the reader on a lively account of his own transformation from bartender in Spain to Kew horticulturalist in training, clinging much too far up a chestnut-leaved oak in a windstorm, “trying to comfort myself by musing on the tracheids, ray cells, and lignin—which I had seen on the microscope slides—that ensure the trunk won’t snap.”

Mr. Magdalena soon makes a reputation for obsessively experimenting with the arcane sexual behaviors of plants that are the last of their kind and unable to reproduce on their own—the Lonesome Georges of the botanical world. His first case is the café marron tree, considered extinct until a solitary example turns up in 1979 beside a road on the Indian Ocean island of Rodrigues. Someone promptly chops it down, an appallingly common outcome in Mr. Magdalena’s stories. But a few branches Read the rest of this entry »

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Can We Fix Climate Change by Pumping More Oil?

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 9, 2018

At the Petra Nova power plant in Texas, carbon capture technology reduces CO2 emissions from one of four coal-fired units

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

At first glance, it sounds like something cooked up after too many martinis by a K Street lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry: Take legislation making it more profitable for oil companies to pump oil, and easier for coal-fired power plants to continue to operate — and then sell it as a climate change remedy. Calling it “counterintuitive” might sound like an understatement.

In fact, though, the proposal became law in February, as a little-noticed — but remarkably bipartisan — piece of the deal to pass a budget and reopen the United States government. Among the leading sponsors was Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, rated 0 percent in 2017 by the League of Conservation Voters­­­­­.  But joining her was Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, with a 100 percent rating.

Environmental groups backing the initiative, which substantially increases tax credits for projects that capture carbon emissions, included the Clean Air Task Forceand the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, among others. “In terms of reducing emissions, it’s probably the most consequential energy and climate legislation in a generation,” said Brad Crabtree of the Great Plains Institute, a nonprofit focused on decarbonizing the power industry.

But other environmentalists argued that one provision of the new law — promoting use of captured carbon dioxide for “enhanced oil recovery” — would serve, as Greenpeace put it, “to promote oil supply and keep us hooked Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | 1 Comment »