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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“That Neglected Cloak of Stillness”

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 6, 2012

I love this paragraph from a New York times interview with novelist Ian McEwan, about the pleasure of reading poetry.  It’s so perfectly phrased, and such a complete, rounded thought that it makes me wonder if these interviews are written, or spoken:

Do you read poetry?

We have many shelves of poetry at home, but still, it takes an effort to step out of the daily narrative of existence, draw that neglected cloak of stillness around you — and concentrate, if only for three or four minutes. Perhaps the greatest reading pleasure has an element of self-annihilation. To be so engrossed that you barely know you exist. I last felt that in relation to a poem while in the sitting room of Elizabeth Bishop’s old home in rural Brazil. I stood in a corner, apart from the general conversation, and read “Under the Window: Ouro Preto.” The street outside was once an obscure thoroughfare for donkeys and peasants. Bishop reports overheard lines as people pass by her window, including the beautifully noted “When my mother combs my hair it hurts.” That same street now is filled with thunderous traffic — it fairly shakes the house. When I finished the poem I found that my friends and our hosts had left the room. What is it precisely, that feeling of “returning” from a poem? Something is lighter, softer, larger — then it fades, but never completely.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

We Need Some of These Suckers in New York City

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 6, 2012

O.k., I know that introduced species are a recipe for disaster.  Pigeons in New York City, for instance.  But this is just so sweet.   A catfish from Europe that thinks it’s a freshwater killer whale, and leaps out of the water to seize its feathery prey.  Let’s go to the video, showing behavior filmed on the Tarn River in Southwestern France:

Here’s the background:

A new study published in PLoS One has revealed that the Wels catfish (Silurus glanis) is successful at hunting birds on the shore. The research found the catfish was able to catch a pigeon 28% of the time, out of 45 observed beaching behaviors.

The researchers say, “Since this extreme behavior has not been reported in the native range of the species, our results suggest that some individuals in introduced predator populations may adapt their behavior to forage on novel prey in new environments, leading to behavioral and trophic specialization to actively cross the water-land interface.”

catfish with cigarBack to the idea of how great these would be in Manhattan, here’s a photo of one Wels catfish, fat, ugly, and with what looks like a cigar in his mouth, just the thing for fitting in on Wall Street.

Source:  Cucherousset J, Boulêtreau S, Azémar F, Compin A, Guillaume M, et al. (2012) “Freshwater Killer Whales”: Beaching Behavior of an Alien Fish to Hunt Land Birds. PLoS ONE 7(12): e50840. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0050840

Posted in Kill or Be Killed | 1 Comment »

In Africa: No Room for Lions

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 5, 2012


(Photo: Jonathan Griffiths/ Solent)

Where does the lion sleep tonight?  Not in the jungle, the mighty jungle.  Not much room on the savanna either. Maybe you can find a spot at the zoo down the road?  I’ve written here before about the rapidly advancing likelihood of an Africa without wildlife.  Now a new study confirms that lions are rapidly being displaced because of human population growth and agricultural expansion.  The stunner here is that only 67 places remain on the entire continent with viable lion populations:

A new study confirms that lions are rapidly and literally losing ground across Africa’s once-thriving savannahs due to burgeoning human population growth and subsequent, massive land-use conversion. Representing the most comprehensive assessment of the state and vitality of African savannah habitat to date, the report maintains that the lion has lost 75% of its original natural habitat in Africa — a reduction that has devastated lion populations across the continent.

Using Google Earth’s high-resolution satellite imagery, the study Read the rest of this entry »

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

Germans United for Sheep-Shagging?

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 3, 2012

Good lord, it must have been a slow news day at The Guardian.  They’ve published a column about the proposed tightening of anti-bestiality laws in Germany.   For some reason, they also chose to illustrate the article  with a photo of an American soldier kissing a British woman on VJ Day in 1945.   (Oh, wait, here’s a reason:  The editors were just delighted to be able to project allegations of sexual weirdness onto anyone other than the British.)  Anyway, here’s the interesting part:

There’s a vulgar joke about a man who complained of a double standard between himself and his fellow villagers: “My neighbour went bungee jumping. Once. And nobody calls him Bertram the bungee jumper. My other neighbour went to the beach. Once. Yet nobody calls him Gunther the beachgoer. But me? I shag just one goat …”

Whatever reputation the man would have acquired in Germany, he would at least have avoided legal repercussions – until now. Germany is banning bestiality, which has been legal there since 1969. The problem is consent – animals can’t give it.

Zoophiles, people who have sex with animals, are suing the German government, however, demanding the continuation of their right to practise bestiality.

You can read the rest of the article here.  But take my advice:  Don’t.  Just savor the weird idea that anyone would come out of the barn long enough to unite on behalf of bestiality.

I’m not sure what the writer had in mind, other than meeting a deadline.  But she goes on to take sheep-shagging laws in Europe as the starting point for a discussion of U.S. laws banning various sex acts between consenting adults.  Adult humans, I mean.

I am thinking this will not attract anyone to saying anything but “ewwww.”  Or maybe:  “Ewe.”

Posted in Sex & Reproduction | 1 Comment »

The Species Seekers: “A Delightful Book”

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 3, 2012

Just in time for the holidays, Australia’s science magazine Cosmos has published a review calling The Species Seekers “a delightful book … compelling for its human stories, anecdotes and well-woven storylines.”

“OUR PERFECT NATURALIST,” Charles Kingsley wrote in 1855, “should be strong in body; able to haul a dredge, climb a rock, turn a boulder, walk all day… be able on occasion to fight for his life.”

Kingsley later lampooned the naturalists he so romantically described, in his children’s book The Water Babies, which features Professor Ptthmllnsprts, who collected new species, and, yes, put them all in spirits.

The 19th century saw a revival of interest in the natural world that pulled at the marrow of a set of (mostly) men who dedicated their lives to collecting, labelling, storing and studying the bewildering diversity of life on Earth. They were “fired with a longing” to explore the “romantic land where all the birds and animals were of the museum varieties”, according to the account of one anonymous explorer in Richard Conniff’s rich and fascinating book.

From Wallace to Darwin, and U.S. founding father Thomas Jefferson to brilliant, ruthless Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in The Species Seekers | Leave a Comment »

A Moonbird Among the Waning Red Knots

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 3, 2012

Red knot taking wing (Courtesy of Farrar Straus Giroux)

Red knot taking wing (Courtesy of Farrar Straus Giroux)

One day in February 1995, on a beach in Tierra del Fuego, a team of researchers equipped with a cannon net trapped and banded 850 shorebirds known as red knots. Among them was an adult male, at least three years old, who would become a legend in the birding world as B95, or Moonbird.

The red knot is a relatively large sandpiper, with a pointy mid-length bill, a dappled brown-and-black back, and in mating season a rust-colored face and abdomen. The way red knots race nimbly along the tide line searching for food apparently reminded the Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus of the Scandinavian King Canute, famous for calling on his royal dignity to keep the tides from washing around his feet.Hence Linnaeus named the species Calidris canutus.

Moonbird jktBut the real story of the red knot, and particularly of the subspecies rufa, is their extraordinary migratory behavior, which scientists have begun to understand only over the past few decades. Phillip Hoose brings that story up to date in his latest book Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95 (Farrar, Straus, Giroux).

“B95 can feel it: A stirring in his bones and feathers,” Hoose begins. “It’s time. Today is the day he will once again cast himself into the air, spiral upward into the clouds, and bank into the wind. … He has packed all the fuel he can, gorging on worms, clams, mussels, and tiny crustaceans. His inner GPS is set for north. The whole flock is rippling with anticipation. …”

Every spring these birds, “among the toughest four ounces of life in the world,” make a 9,000-mile trip from Tierra del Fuego, at the farther end of Argentina, to breeding grounds on an Arctic island at the top of Canada’s Hudson Bay. Then, having reared a new generation, they turn around every fall and head 9,000 miles south again. (Other red knot subspecies travel from their Arctic breeding sites to South Africa, Australia, India and other southerly destinations.) It is a highly demanding way of life and, not surprisingly, the average lifespan for a red knot is only six or seven years.

B95 was different. He Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction | 2 Comments »

“Market-based Conservation” = $$$ For Wolf Hunting

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 2, 2012

A few weeks ago I wrote about the perils of the market-based “ecosystem services” approach to conservation.  Now the New York Times reports a case in point.  The State of Utah has begun allowing private landowners to sell permits for private hunts on their property for thousands of dollars.  The idea, seemingly a sensible one, is to give ranchers  a cash incentive to tolerate–and even cultivate–wildlife.  But listen to how it has worked out:

Critics of the auction and the convention drawing, like Tye Boulter, the president of the United Wildlife Cooperative, said that too much of the money made by the Mule Deer Foundation and Sportsmen for Wildlife went to promoting the groups and lobbying for their political causes.

But Mr. Moretti said, “We believe we’ve fulfilled our obligation” to bring in convention dollars and support wildlife projects.

An audit of the $1 million from the convention drawing was made public in August, prompted by Mr. Boulter’s complaints. It showed that about $250,000 went toward lobbying for increased hunting of wolves, which at the time were still listed as endangered in the Northern Rockies. “They are catering to the industry — guides, outfitters, landowners, things like that,” Mr. Boulter argued, saying groups that support wolf hunts are not necessarily conservationists.

Check out the whole article here.

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | 2 Comments »

Fashionable Slime

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 29, 2012

Sooner or later we all have to eat our words, and today it’s my slimy turn.  Here’s part of what I wrote about slime eels, also known as hagfish, in my 1996 book Spineless Wonders:  Strange Tales of the Invertebrate World:

Among other habits that have endeared them to seafarers, slime eels like to enter dead or dying bodies on the ocean bot­tom by way of mouth, gills, or anus, and gobble up everything except bones and skin, which remain intact. Fish immobilized in gill nets are particularly susceptible. In one study in the Gulf of Maine, slime eels gutted 3 percent to 5 percent of the catch. J. B. Heiser, a biologist at Cornell University’s Shoals Marine Laboratory in Maine, describes what’s left of the fish as “a bag of bones, literally . .. like it had been sucked dry by a high- powered vacuum cleaner.”

Slime eels are often still inside the fish when the bloated gill net spills its contents onto the fisherman’s deck, and Heiser, who has opened up several specimens, says the hags ensconced in their victim are typically well-fed and at ease, “smiling, slimy, usually snoring—gently.” In one case, the record, a single cod contained 123 slime eels, in a pink, wriggling mass.

It is a disheartening sight for fishermen, touching some source of horror beyond mere economic loss. One fisheries ex­pert has attributed this horror to the slime itself: “Being worth­less . . . the hag is an unmitigated nuisance, and a particularly loathsome one owing to its habit of pouring out slime from its mucous sacs in quantity out of all proportion to its small size. One hag, it is said, can easily fill a two-gallon bucket, nor do we think this any exaggeration.”

But, oh, how wrong, how terribly narrow-minded, of both me and my nameless expert, because hagfish slime is apparently destined to become the stuff of high fashion.  ScienceDaily reports:

Nylon, Kevlar and other synthetic fabrics: Step aside. If new scientific research pans out, people may be sporting shirts, blouses and other garments made from fibers modeled after those in the icky, super-strong slime from Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biomimicry, Cool Tools | Leave a Comment »

Gonads Saved by Social Media? Oh, yeah.

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 28, 2012

Gotta like this report on the perils of the biologist’s life, and incidentally, how weird it must be to live in Maine.  It’s from a University of Maine graduate student named Skylar Bayer, who, God bless her, studies invertebrate fertilization and blogs at strictlyfishwrap:

This is my version of what happened Monday.

That morning I drove up to Mount Desert Island to take care of a few things. The first item on my agenda was to have a meeting regarding my thesis progress. The second item was to recover scallop gonads that had been carefully collected and preserved by Andy Mays, a fisherman that I’ve been working with over the past year regarding my scallop reproduction work.

We agreed to meet at the Somesville One Stop, a gas station in Somesville, Maine. Andy had his kids that day, so he was running a pretty tight schedule. He saw a four-door blue Chevy with *official* University plates on it. The car was unlocked (only in Maine) and sans driver. He assumed it was my car and put the buckets of gonad sample jars in the back of the car.

Now, I was parked at the other end of the parking lot when I saw him drive across the street to where his next errand began. I walked over and he asked if I saw that he put the samples in the car. We both pointed to the spot where the blue car was parked and it was gone, as if in a movie or a sitcom, leaving us with the same “Holy-shit-did-that-just-happen” look on our face. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Sex & Reproduction | 4 Comments »

Crab Heaven and Scientific Immortality

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 27, 2012

Tudge’s tiny crab

Here’s a nice piece about having a new species named in your honor, from ScienceDaily:

Areopaguristes tudgei. That’s the name of a new species of hermit crab recently discovered on the barrier reef off the coast of Belize by Christopher Tudge, a biology professor at American University in Washington, D.C.

Tudge has been interested in biology his whole life, from boyhood trips to the beach collecting crustaceans in his native Australia, to his undergraduate and PhD work in zoology and biology at the University of Queensland. He has collected specimens all over the world, from Australia to Europe to North and South America.

Until now, he has never had a species named after him. He only found out about his namesake after reading an article about it in the journal Zootaxa. Apparently, finding out after-the-fact is standard practice in the highly formalized ritual of naming a new species.

The two crustacean taxonomists and authors of the paper who named the new crab after Tudge, Rafael Lemaitre of the Department of Invertebrate Zoology at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History and Darryl L. Felder of the University of Louisiana-Lafayette’s Department of Biology Laboratory for Crustacean Research, have known Tudge since he first came to Washington in 1995 as a postdoc research fellow at the Smithsonian.

Crustacean Elation

Lemaitre and Felder have been collecting specimens on the tiny Belizean island for decades and for more than 10 years, they had asked Tudge — who specializes in the structures of crustacean reproduction and how they relate to the creatures’ evolutionary history — to join them on one of their semiannual research outings. Finally, in February 2010, Tudge joined them on a tiny island covered with hundreds of species of their favorite fauna.

It was crab heaven for a cast of crustacean guys.

“So you can take 40 steps off the island and Read the rest of this entry »

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