strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

  • Richard Conniff

  • Reviews for Richard Conniff’s Books


    Ending Epidemics: A History of Escape from Contagion: “Ending Epidemics is an important book, deeply and lovingly researched, written with precision and elegance, a sweeping story of centuries of human battle with infectious disease. Conniff is a brilliant historian with a jeweler’s eye for detail. I think the book is a masterpiece.” Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer

    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

Posts Tagged ‘dinosaurs’

“The Dinosaur Artist” Review: Bad Boy Makes Old Bones Big Business

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 10, 2018

by Richard Conniff/The Wall Street Journal

On a Thursday afternoon in May 2012, a paleontologist named Bolortsetseg Minjin was having lunch near the American Museum of Natural History in New York when she heard a news broadcast about a spectacular dinosaur being put up for auction. It was a specimen of Tarbosaurus bataar, a 70-million-year-old close kin and look-alike of Tyrannosaurus rex.

Heritage Auctions, which bills itself as “the world’s largest collectibles auctioneer,” had it splashed across the centerfold of its sale catalog. In midstride, with the mouth on the 4-foot-long skull gaping to show its spiky teeth, and its counterbalancing tail stretched out behind, Lot 49135 stood 8 feet tall and 24 feet long. The auction would take place that Sunday afternoon, just three days off, at a converted warehouse a short subway ride south of the museum. The estimate was that it would sell for $950,000 to $1.5 million. There was only one hitch: Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Business Behaviors | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

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: , , , , | 6 Comments »

The Dinosaur Who Taught Us How To Look At Birds

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 15, 2016

by Richard Conniff/
It’s a little embarrassing to admit this, as a wildlife writer, but I didn’t used to think fossils mattered all that much. I wanted to know what was happening to wildlife right now. And fossils were so very then, so 66 million years ago.The fossil that woke me from my ignorance is named Deinonychus. If that sounds like too much of a mouthful, too much like science, just bear with me for a minute: This story comes with a Jurassic Park plot twist. It also involves correcting a mistake I recently repeated in print.

deinonychus_patte_arriere_gaucheThe Deinonychus story began one afternoon in late August 1964, near Bridger, Montana. John Ostrom, a paleontologist at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, was standing with an assistant on the flank of a conical hill and considering sites for the following summer’s fieldwork—when the answer appeared before them in the form of a large claw eroding out of the slope just below. They soon unearthed an astonishing foot: Two of the three toes had ordinary claws. But from the innermost toe, a sharp claw, sickle shaped and 4.7 inches in length, curved murderously up and out. Ostrom gave the new species the name Deinonychus because it means “terrible claw” in Greek.

In the public imagination then, dinosaurs were plodding, thunderous monsters, cold-blooded, swamp bound, and stupid. Even paleontologists had lost interest in these “symbols of obsolescence and hulking inefficiency,” Ostrom’s student Robert T. Bakker later wrote. “They did not appear to merit much serious study because they did not seem to go anywhere: no modern vertebrate groups were descended from them.”

Deinonychus didn’t fit the plodding stereotype. On the contrary, Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Evolution | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Man Who Saved The Dinosaurs

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 12, 2014

John Ostrom, in the field

John Ostrom, in the field

In the summer of 1970, early in the research that would radically transform how we think about birds, dinosaurs, and the origins of animal flight, Yale paleontologist John H. Ostrom was traveling through Europe studying pterosaur fossils. His itinerary took him, in early September, to the Teylers Museum in Haarlem, the Netherlands. Ostrom, then 42, was an unprepossessing figure and the world’s leading authority on dinosaurs, and the museum curator was pleased to leave him alone with the twin halves of the limestone slab catalogued TM6928 and 29.

This fossil was a dinner plate–size muddle of limb fragments, vertebrae, and ribs preserved in limestone from the Solnhofen beds. It had been discovered near Riedenburg, Germany, in 1855 and named by the great nineteenth-century paleontologist Hermann von Meyer. Von Meyer later became famous for the first scientific description, in 1861, of Archaeopteryx. Coming just after the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, the unveiling of that 150-million-year-old urvogel, or archetypal primitive bird, made an international sensation. With Archaeopteryx, it seemed as if the proof of evolutionary theory had arrived, like the Ten Commandments, engraved in stone. But in 1857, the confusing fossil von Meyer was describing—the future TM6928 and 29—seemed like something far more ordinary: another pterosaur, a type of flying reptile. He dubbed it Pterodactylus crassipes.

That didn’t make sense to Ostrom as he puzzled over the ankles, toes, and arm bones of the fossil that day in 1970. He could envision the ways they might fit together just by examining the proportions of the bones and the shape of their articulations. But it wasn’t like any pterosaur he had ever seen. Ostrom had recently finished describing a remarkable dinosaur he had discovered a few years earlier in Montana. His monograph on Deinonychus included exquisitely detailed descriptions showing how the bone endings and attachments helped make these dinosaurs such fast, agile little killers. To Ostrom, the bones of the Teylers specimen looked an awful lot like those of Deinonychus. And there was something more.

Half of the Teylers specimen

Half of the Teylers specimen

Ostrom picked up one of the slabs, carried it over to the window, and held it up at an angle in the light. First one way, then the other. The late afternoon sun caught on some faint ridges. Ostrom was seeing, unmistakably, the clear impression of feathers. This fossil wasn’t Pterodactylus after all. It was another Archaeopteryx. In fact, it would have been the scientific world’s first Archaeopteryx, if von Meyer had gotten his taxonomy right.

In 1970, only three other specimens of Archaeopteryx were known to exist. But this was by no means the only thing that excited Ostrom at that moment. His mind was already ticking over about the resemblance to Deinonychus—and the unsettling idea that the wrist and shoulder bones of a primitive bird should be identical to those of a small meat-eating dinosaur.

To write a proper technical description, Ostrom needed to take the specimen home to the Peabody Museum at Yale for closer study. A crisis of conscience ensued: should he mislead the Teylers curator, telling him it was merely a pterosaur, only to make the great discovery back home? Or should he come out with the truth and risk that the museum would lock up these suddenly precious slabs of rock? Being a “squeaking honest” man, in the words of a former student, Ostrom confessed his belief that it was Archaeopteryx.

The curator immediately took back TM6928 and 29 and hurried out of the room. Ostrom slumped in his seat, despairing. A few minutes later, the curator returned Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Evolution | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Jurassic Park and the Fear of Feathers

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 9, 2013

Anchiornis huxleyi in full feather (Illustration:  Michael DiGiorgio)

Anchiornis huxleyi in full feather (Illustration: Michael DiGiorgio)

The much-delayed Jurassic Park 4 sequel was delayed again early this week, and it’s tempting to imagine that animal science might be the reason. (Okay, tempting and really, really stupid, but indulge me for a bit.) This lucrative movie franchise dates back 20 years now, to 1993, which is like saying it started somewhere in the Cenozoic as far as our understanding of dinosaurs goes.

When the original Jurassic Park was still in its first theatrical run, paleontologists were already digging up what has since become a gaudy parade of fossils demonstrating that dinosaurs were in fact frequently tricked out with feathers, feather-like filaments, and even a three-inch-thick coating of “dino fuzz.”

Universal Pictures grudgingly acknowledged this new science when it released Jurassic Park III in 2001. Like an anxious parent in the Punk Rock era, it allowed Velociraptor to flaunt a miserable little mohawk of about a dozen filaments sprouting out of the top of its head. 

But otherwise the franchise has conformed to the stereotype of dinosaurs as scaly, naked red-eyed monsters. And for an obvious reason: A Tyrannosaurus rex that looked like Big Bird might not have audiences wetting their pants in the balcony, or opening their wallets at the box office. So back in March, Colin Trevorrow, tapped as the latest director in the series, tweeted:  “No feathers. #JP4”

But maybe now he’s gone back for a re-think.

A Hollywood velociraptor

A Hollywood velociraptor

Here’s where the fossil evidence currently stands, as outlined by Julia Clarke, a University of Texas paleontologist who is also the author of an article “Feathers Before Flight,” appearing today, May 9, in the journal Science: Paleontologists have been thinking about the connection between dinosaurs and living birds since the discovery of the fossil bird Archaeopteryx back in 1861, and especially since 1970, when John Ostrom at Yale University pointed out the many similarities between bird skeletons and those of the Theropoda dinosaurs, including T. rex and Velociraptor.

The current revolution began in the mid-1990s, when  … to read the full article click here.

Posted in Biodiversity, Sex & Reproduction | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »