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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Could Your Air Conditioning Help Cure–Not Cause–Climate Change?

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 2, 2019

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

It is one of the great dilemmas of climate change: We take such comfort from air conditioning that worldwide energy consumption for that purpose has already tripled since 1990. It is on track to grow even faster through mid-century—and assuming fossil-fuel–fired power plants provide the electricity, that could cause enough carbon dioxide emissions to warm the planet by another deadly half-degree Celsius.

paper published Tuesday in the Nature Communications proposes a partial remedy:  Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (or HVAC) systems move a lot of air. They can replace the entire air volume in an office building five or 10 times an hour.  Machines that capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere—a developing fix for climate change—also depend on moving large volumes of air.  So why not save energy by tacking the carbon capture machine onto the air conditioner?

This futuristic proposal, from a team led by chemical engineer Roland Dittmeyer at Germany’s Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, goes even further. The researchers imagine a system of modular components, powered by renewable energy, that would not just extract carbon dioxide and water from the air. It would also convert them into hydrogen, and then use a multistep chemical process to transform that hydrogen into liquid hydrocarbon fuels.  The result: “Personalized, localized and distributed, synthetic oil wells” in buildings or neighborhoods, the authors write. “The envisioned model of ‘crowd oil’ Read the rest of this entry »

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We’re Still Slaughtering Bison–and American Indians Lose

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 31, 2019

Old habits die hard: Bison skulls from their 19th century annihilation.

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

In a 120-acre pasture on an Indian reservation in northeastern Montana, five prime examples of America’s national mammal rumble and snort. They shake their enormous heads and use them to plow aside the snow to get to their feed. In the night, I like to think, they put those shaggy heads together to ruminate on the weird politics of the American West and blast clouds of exhausted air out their shiny nostrils.

These five, all males, arrived last month from Yellowstone National Park, the last great refuge of the wild bison that once dominated the American landscape from Pennsylvania to Oregon. Their arrival marks the beginning of what will ostensibly become a pipeline sending surplus bison from Yellowstone out to repopulate portions of their old habitat.

Since 2000, it has been the custom to send 600 or 1,000 prize Yellowstone bison to slaughter every year at about this time to keep the park’s booming population at roughly 4,000 animals. The meat goes mainly to tribal nations. Even so, the culling is perverse and wasteful: Yellowstone is home to genetically pure wild bison, coveted by national parks, Native American tribes and conservation groups across the West.

But Yellowstone is also home to a notorious disease called brucellosis, dreaded by cattle ranchers everywhere. And while Congress in 2016 designated the American bison the national mammal, everyone knows that title comes with fine print reading “other than cattle.” And when it comes to cattle — a species that is not native to North America — the politics always gets weird.

Read the rest of this entry »

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How the Polynesians Made Odysseus Look Like a Day-Tripper

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 21, 2019

Hōkūle’a (Photo: Unknown)

In the early 1990s, on an assignment for National Geographic, I made a trek on horseback around Easter Island, with a couple of islanders as guides. I still vividly recall wandering just before sunset through the quarry where the celebrated statues, called mo‘ai, were carved, and then sitting on a cliff staring out at the curvature of the Earth and the great emptiness of the Pacific. Reviewing this book brought some of those memories back.

by Richard Conniff/The Wall Street Journal

As HMS Endeavour was preparing to leave Tahiti in July 1769, after a tropical sojourn of four months, a celebrated Polynesian priest and navigator named Tupaia announced that he wished to join the British in their travels. James Cook, commander of the expedition, demurred at first. But with a nudge from the expedition’s naturalist Joseph Banks, he relented, allowing that Tupaia “was the likeliest person to answer our purpose.”

This soon proved to be the case at sea, where the new passenger’s navigational guidance through the intricacies of the Society Islands proved extraordinarily precise. But Tupaia’s real value only became evident on land, three months later, as Cook struggled to make peaceful contact with the Māori. The Endeavour had by then traveled 3,500 miles from Tahiti, Christina Thompson writes in “Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia,” and “there was nothing in the geography of New Zealand to suggest that the people who lived there might have anything in common with the people in the tropical islands they had left behind.”

The first encounter at Poverty Bay had gone badly, with bloodshed on the Māori side. “The following day, Cook tried again, this time taking two additional precautions,” Ms. Thompson continues. “First, he landed with a party of marines, and, second, he took Tupaia with him.” Again, the situation deteriorated, with about a hundred Māori brandishing their weapons and staging a haka, their ferocious war dance. The marines advanced in turn, with the Union Jack in front. “The stage was set for a confrontation—and then Read the rest of this entry »

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Eradicating Disease-Causing Pests Sound Like a Smart Idea? Not So Fast.

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 21, 2019

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

Sleeping sickness (or trypanosomiasis), endemic to sub-Saharan Africa, is a horribly debilitating disease. When the parasitic protozoan that causes it gets into the nervous system and brain, weeks or months after being transmitted by the blood-eating tsetse fly, it sends the victim into a steep decline marked by depression, aggressiveness, psychotic behavior, disrupted sleep patterns and—if untreated—death.

Happily, a concerted multinational effort has reduced the reported incidence of the disease by 92 percent in this century, from 26,550 cases in 2000 to just 2,164 cases in 2016. That puts the fight against sleeping sickness on track to meet the World Health Organization (WHO) goal of eliminating it by 2020, according to a study published in December in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases. Thanks to increasingly sophisticated methods of reducing the population of tsetse flies, the area where people are at risk of infection has also decreased by 61 percent in the same period.

Why not just finish the job and end sleeping sickness by eradicating the tsetse (pronounced TET-see) fly from the entire African continent? That’s the stated goal Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

How to Send a Finch Extinct

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 31, 2019

Australia’s southern black-throated finch: Going, going …

This one caught my eye because it’s such a pretty bird, and because of the mindlessness with which Australia is letting human development drive it to extinction.

The state of Queensland and Australia’s federal government have allowed more than 1900 square miles of potential finch habitat to be cleared without anybody asking: Is this really a good idea? Almost 800 developments have been proposed and only one was turned down for its unacceptable impact on the finch, which has now vanished from 80 percent of its original habitat. Still in the works, five new coal mines in the last remaining high quality finch habitat.

It’s kind of amazing in a country that just this month is experiencing fish, wild horse, and bat die-offs  because of climate change.  (“Their brain just fries.“)

There’s a Senate hearing in Brisbane Friday on the continuing decline and extinction of Australia’s diverse wildlife. Time for somebody to get riled up. And of course it’s not just Australia. Development is our God everywhere, and the natural world pays the price.

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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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When Trade Deals Become an Invitation to Environmental Crime

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 17, 2019

camion-transportando-madera-eia

(Photo: EIA)

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

When the trade deal between the United States and Peru went into effect in 2009, proponents touted it as a shining example of environmental good sense. It was the first time the main text of any trade deal included detailed protections for the environment and for labor. That mattered — and still matters — both as a model for other trade deals and also because the environment ostensibly being protected includes a large chunk of the Amazon rain forest.

As part of the deal’s Forest Sector Annex, the United States provided $90 million in technical assistance to beef up enforcement by Peru’s forest service and to create an electronic system intended to track every log from stump to export. (That system does not appear to be working so far, because of software issues, according to rumors.) Peru in turn agreed, among other things, to ensure the independent status of its forest watchdog agency, called Osinfor, which sends its agents into the field to check that loggers have actually harvested the trees reported in their export documents. (That system works all too well, repeatedly demonstrating that logging companies lie.) On passage, then-Senator Max Baucus assured skeptics that enforcement of the treaty’s added provision would “have real teeth.”

Sadly, the U.S.-Peru Trade Promotion Agreement is now slouching toward its 10th anniversary on Feb. 1 in shambles, brought on this time by the Peruvian government’s latest attempt to hobble, cripple or otherwise rid itself of this meddlesome Osinfor.

From the start, the Peru deal has served as a cover for almost laughably rampant Read the rest of this entry »

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When Trump Babbles About His Damned Wall, Just Think Ocelots

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 8, 2019

(Photo: Ana Cotta)

This is a piece I wrote a few years ago about an awkward family secret. But it seems appropriate to reprint tonight, as a man with too much power and too little sense holds the nation hostage over his dream of building a useless $6 billion wall. That wall will do a lot of bad things. But one of them is that it will ultimately kill off the last remaining ocelots on American soil.

by Richard Conniff

Everybody has some dreadful bit of family history stashed away in the attic and preferably forgotten. For the Rockefeller heirs last week, it was their investment in the fossil fuel industry, largely founded by their oil baron ancestor John D. Rockefeller. For me, it was an ocelot jacket inherited from my wife’s grandmother.

And let me tell you, it is hard to write about endangered species when you have a dead one literally hanging over your head. Or more like 15 dead ocelots, to make up the single carcoat-length jacket that has been hidden away in my attic for several decades now. So I decided to get rid of it, more or less the way the Rockefellers decided last week to divest their millions from fossil fuel companies. Only on a somewhat more modest scale.

Ocelots are beautiful little cats, roughly twice the size of a house cat and covered in elongated spots that seem to want to become stripes. They’re hide-and-pounce predators, and tend to be solitary and elusive, but still range through much of South and Central America, and up both coasts of Mexico. The fur trade used to kill as many as 200,000 ocelots annually for jackets like the one in my attic, which probably dates from the 1950s. But Read the rest of this entry »

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Pterosaurs Just Keep Getting Weirder

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 20, 2018

Wild and crazy anurognathid

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

Even experts often resort to the word “bizarre” when describing pterosaurs, the winged dragons that ruled the skies for more than 160 million years. This is especially true of the group of short-tailed pterosaurs called anurognathids, which used to dart and bob through Mesozoic era forests like bats, hawking for insects.

Now it appears anurognathids and other pterosaurs may also have worn a weirdly varied coat of feather- and fur-like structures, according to a new study published Monday in Nature Ecology & Evolution. A team led by paleontologist Zixiao Yang from Nanjing University in China reached that conclusion based on two near-complete, pigeon-size anurognathid pterosaur specimens found in northern China.

The idea that pterosaurs (which lived from around 228 million years ago to the Cretaceous extinction 66 million years ago) may have had some kind of furlike coat is not by itself new. Researchers have proposed as much since the discovery of the first known pterosaurs in the 19th century. But the exact character of this covering has been difficult to determine from the short, filamentlike structures—called pycnofibers—preserved in pterosaur fossils. The new study set out to fill in that gap with the help of a battery of advanced technological tools. As a result, the authors characterize what they say are Read the rest of this entry »

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Cities Are For People, Not Cars

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 18, 2018

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

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. (Thepercentage 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 Read the rest of this entry »

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