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

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 »

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First Footage of Deep-Sea Anglerfish Sex

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 24, 2018

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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 »

Posted in Environmental Issues, Food & Drink, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Bill McKibben: Green Mountain Man

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 14, 2018

Bill McKibben (Photo: Mark Teiwes / Lesley University)

by Richard Conniff/Yankee Magazine

It’s a mid-September afternoon, and Bill McKibben—author, climate change activist, nemesis of the fossil fuel industry, cross-country skiing addict, devotee of small-town New England life, and drinker of local beers, in more or less that order—is at the wheel of his electric-blue plug-in hybrid, heading north out of Providence.

He and his wife, writer Sue Halpern, have been away from their home in the Green Mountains outside Middlebury overnight, on a trip to promote his first novel, Radio Free Vermont. It’s a funny book, and McKibben is not known for funny books. Well, it’s funny unless you happen to be a Walmart manager: McKibben starts his fable with small-town renegades flooding a new Walmart store knee-deep with the contents of the local sewer system. (Oh, come on, that’s funny.) And it’s funny unless you think there is something deeply alarming about Vermont seceding from the bigness and manifold badness of the United States at large. McKibben says the independent Republic of Vermont is just a plot device, not a movement. But his passion for his home state is genuine. As he hits the on-ramp out of Providence, he is almost quavering in anticipation of getting back.

McKibben is, of course, better known for books that are genuinely alarming. Climate change is his subject, both as an author and an activist. Fellow climate journalist Andrew Revkin describes him as “the ultimate endurance athlete of climate campaigning.” In a series of books and articles beginning with The End of Nature in 1989, McKibben has meticulously laid out the evidence that the rapid accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, from our massive burning of fossil fuels, is destroying the world as we once knew it. “The basic issue of the planet right now,” he told Revkin in a recent interview, “is that it’s disintegrating.” He refers to “my last grim book,” as if grim books were a genre, and has described his life after The End of Nature as 25 years of “sadness” and of “looking for ways out, for places that work.”

For McKibben, Vermont is one such place. Even in his grim books, he writes yearningly, sentimentally, about the maple cream cookies that a neighbor brings to the annual town meeting, about stopping to visit “the farm of the six Dutch brothers,” about “the sun shining through the winter-bare ridge at dusk,” and about the consoling mantra of local names—Camel’s Hump, Bread Loaf Mountain, Otter Creek—with which he lulls himself to sleep while on the road. The mountainous country around Lake Champlain, he writes, is “the landscape that fits with jigsaw precision into the hole in my heart.”

Vermont is also, however, what transformed him from author to activist and led him reluctantly to spend much of his life away from home. The turning point, he says as he heads north on 95 across Massachusetts, was a five-day protest march for climate action, from his hometown of Ripton to Burlington, in 2006. “We slept in fields,” he recalls, and had potluck suppers at Methodist churches along the way, “potluck suppers being their sacrament.”

He meant the protest to be a one-time thing, “but when I got to Burlington, 1,000 people were marching with us, and in Vermont, 1,000 people is a lot of people,” he says. “But what was amazing was to read the story in the paper the next day.” It was 17 years after The End of Nature, and nine years after passage of the Kyoto Protocol, the first international agreement on climate change. An overwhelming abundance of scientific evidence had demonstrated the reality of climate change and the human role in causing it. And yet a newspaper story was describing 1,000 people walking across Vermont as the largest U.S. demonstration ever against climate change. It dawned on McKibben that writing books and making meticulous arguments wasn’t enough. Read the rest of this entry »

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Guns Kill Kids in Cities, Too. Green Spaces Could Be Part of the Fix.

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 26, 2018

Before treatment.

After

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

Outrage over school shootings has dominated headlines, not just because the victims are children, but also because the shootings occur so randomly and in places—Parkland, FL, Newtown, CT– where it once seemed such a thing could never happen.

It’s harder to stir a national debate about the persistent and far larger problem of gun homicides in the nation’s poorest urban neighborhoods, even though more children die in urban gun violence than in school shootings. Maybe it’s just too predictable to hold our attention: The gun violence is extraordinarily concentrated–“hyper-segregated,” in the words of one criminologist–with a handful of neighborhoods in the nation’s 10 largest cities accounting for 30 percent of all gun homicides nationwide.

Now, though, it appears that predictability and geographic concentration could actually make urban gun violence easier to prevent.  For Columbia University epidemiologist Charles Branas, one answer is a relatively simple and inexpensive infrastructure improvement, involving derelict or abandoned city lots. Such lots add up to about 7.5 million acres of land and about 15 percent of the area of cities nationwide—and significantly higher percentages in mid-size cities like Flint, Michigan, or Camden, NJ.

Derelict lots often become the setting for drug dealing and other criminal behaviors and thus function as a primary threat to the health and safety of nearby residents, according to Branas, lead author of a study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).  He and his co-authors liken efforts to clean up these lots to the nineteenth-century public investment in sewage treatment and clean water systems as a means of curbing epidemic diseases and making cities livable.  Instead of cholera, says Branas, the “contagion” this time is urban gun violence, which he says spreads—and can be interrupted in its course—like any other epidemic.

For the new study, Branas and his co-authors looked at 541 vacant lots in randomized clusters across the entire city of Philadelphia, which has one of the highest murder Read the rest of this entry »

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How Forest Certification Fails

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 20, 2018

Logging in tiger habitat (Photo: Anatoly Kabanets / WWF-Russia)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

When the Forest Stewardship Council got its start in 1993, it seemed to represent a triumph of market-based thinking over plodding command-and-control government regulation. Participants in the 1992 Rio Earth Summit had failed to reach agreement on government intervention to control rampant tropical deforestation. Instead, environmental organizations, social movements, and industry banded together to establish a voluntary system for improving logging practices and certifying sustainable timber.

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) soon set standards that seemed genuinely exciting to environmental and social activists, covering the conservation and restoration of forests, indigenous rights, and the economic and social well-being of workers, among other criteria. For industry, FSC certification promised not just a better way of doing business, but also higher prices for wood products carrying the FSC seal of environmental friendliness.

A quarter-century later, frustrated supporters of FSC say it hasn’t worked out as planned, except maybe for the higher prices: FSC reports that tropical forest timber carrying its label brings 15 to 25 percent more at auction. But environmental critics and some academic researchers say FSC has had little or no effect on tropical deforestation. Moreover, a number of recent logging industry scandals suggest that the FSC label has at times served merely to “greenwash” or “launder” trafficking in illegal timber:

  • In a 2014 report, Greenpeace, an FSC member, slammed the organization for standing by as FSC-certified loggers ravaged the Russian taiga, particularly the Dvinsky Forest, more than 700 miles north of Moscow. Greenpeace accused FSC-certified logging companies there of “wood-mining” forests the way they might strip-mine coal, as a nonrenewable resource, and of harvesting “areas that are either slated for legal protection or supposed to be protected as a part of FSC requirements.”

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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The Deadly Myth of Clean Coal

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 3, 2018

With Donald Trump preaching the myth of “clean coal,” this piece from 2008 is timely again. Profitable lies, like cats, seem to have multiple lives.

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

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 a lump of coal and the narrator intones: “It’s the fuel that powers our way of life.” (“Celebrate good times, come on!”) A second ad predicts a future in which coal will generate power “with even lower emissions, including the capture and storage of CO2. It’s a big challenge, but we’ve made a commitment, a commitment to clean.”

Well, they’ve made a commitment to advertising, anyway. The campaign has been paid for Read the rest of this entry »

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This Makes Me Want to Eat Pancakes. (But It’s Only Thursday.)

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 18, 2018

Fish scales in a piranha’s belly (and enlarged at left)

by Richard Conniff

I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about piranhas and what they eat. In fact, I wrote a book called Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals. And, yes, I have also spent a fair amount of time swimming with piranhas.

So naturally this caught my eye:

The piranha that eats scales its whole life, named Catoprion mento, tends to live alone. When it does hunt, it swims up behind its prey, opens its large, Jay Leno-like jaw 120 degrees and Read the rest of this entry »

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