strange behaviors

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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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Posts Tagged ‘Disease’

How Outdoor Cats Mess Up Our Minds

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 19, 2015

Toxoplasmosis from outdoor cats makes major changes in the brain's most common and critical cells, called astrocytes.  (Image: Indiana University School of Medicine)

Toxoplasmosis from outdoor cats makes major changes in the brain’s most common and critical cells, called astrocytes.
(Image: Indiana University School of Medicine)

Neuroscientists are coming closer to understanding how cat-borne Toxoplasmosis messes with the brains of mice, men, and women.

With apologies, the press release could be a lot more clear in describing a new study showing how this parasite affects the brain.  But I’m on another deadline, and want to post this now because it’s important for pet-owners to get the message: We endanger ourselves when we allow our pet cats to wander outdoors:

Rodents infected with a common parasite lose their fear of cats, resulting in easy meals for the felines. Now Indiana University School of Medicine researchers have identified a new way the parasite may modify brain cells, possibly helping explain changes in the behavior of mice — and humans.

The parasite is Toxoplasma gondii, which has infected an estimated one in four Americans and even larger numbers worldwide. Not long after infecting a human, Toxoplasma parasites encounter the body’s immune response and retreat to a latent state, enveloped in hardy cysts that the body cannot remove.

Before entering that inactive state, however, the parasites

Read the rest of this entry »

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

Brain-Manipulating Parasite: A Gift From Your Outdoor Cat

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 16, 2015

Adorable but deadly (Photo: Richard Conniff)

Adorable but deadly (Photo: Richard Conniff)

Two professors from Indiana University School of Medicine have a disturbing story in Scientific American about the threat to human health from outdoor cats.  Here’s the lead:

Imagine a world without fear. It might be empowering to go about your daily life uninhibited by everyday distresses. You could cross highways with confidence, take on all kinds of daredevilry and watch horror flicks without flinching. Yet consider the prospect a little more deeply, and the possibilities become darker, even deadly. Our fears, after all, can protect us.The basic aversion that a mouse has for a cat, for instance, keeps the rodent out of death’s jaws. But unfortunately for mice everywhere, there is a second enemy with which to contend, one that may prevent them from experiencing that fear in the first place. A unicellular organism (a protozoan), Toxoplasma gondii, can override a rodent’s most basic survival instincts. The result is a rodent that does not race away from a cat but is instead strangely attracted to it.

Toxoplasma‘s reach extends far beyond the world of cat and mouse. It may have a special relationship with rodent and feline hosts, but this parasite also infects the brains of billions of animals on land, at sea and in the air. Humans are no exception. Worldwide, scientists estimate that as many as three billion people may be carrying Toxoplasma. In the U.S., there is a one-in-five chance that Toxoplasma parasites are lodged in your neural circuits, and infection rates are as high as 95 percent in other countries.

For most people, this infection appears asymptomatic, but recent evidence shows that Toxoplasma actively remodels the molecular landscape of mammalian brain cells. Now some researchers have begun to speculate that this tiny single-celled organism may be tweaking human health and personalities in stealthy, subtle ways.

What the cat dragged in

Researchers first discovered T. gondii in 1908, and by the end of the 20th century they had a good grasp on how people could pick up this parasite. The story starts with cats: for reasons that scientists have yet to unravel, Toxoplasma can sexually reproduce only in the feline gut. The parasite breeds within its feline host and is released from the feline’s tail end. Cats are such obsessive groomers that it is rarely found in their fur. Instead people can become infected from kitty litter or by ingesting it in contaminated water or food.

Within a new host the parasite begins Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , | 8 Comments »

Why Bats Are So Prone to Pathogens

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 13, 2015

 A pallid bat holds a meal of a katydid. (Photo: Merlin D. Tuttle/Bat Conservation International)

A pallid bat holds a meal of a katydid. (Photo: Merlin D. Tuttle/Bat Conservation International)

I’ve written here before about why bats are the source of so many deadly diseases–including MERS, SARS, Nipah virus, Hendra virus, Lassa and Marburg hemorrhagic fevers, and of course Ebola.

Why bats? It’s partly because they are such a diverse group, with 1,250 species, comprising about 20 percent of all mammals, says Jon Epstein, a veterinary disease ecologist with EcoHealth Alliance in New York. Some researchers theorize that immune systems or other physiological differences might make bats more likely to carry viruses. But so far that’s only a theory. The bat lifestyle of roosting together in dense colonies may also encourage viruses. These colonies often occur in and around human habitations, and the ability of bats to fly means any virus can get dispersed across a wide geographic area.

But when you see an emerging disease come from wildlife, says Epstein, “it’s generally triggered by something people have done to manipulate the environment,” meaning agricultural expansion or intensification, or urbanization, coupled with the modern tendency to move plants, animals, and people all over the world.  “It’s really human activities that are driving spillover.”

In today’s New York Times, Natalie Angier suggests that the proneness to pathogens is all about the immune system:

Yet bats appear largely immune to the many viruses they carry and rarely show signs of the diseases that will rapidly overwhelm any human, monkey, horse, pig or other mammalian host the microbes manage to infiltrate.

Scientists have also learned that Read the rest of this entry »

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

The Scariest Animal in the World?

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 28, 2010

Here’s the candidate, nominated by a group called EcoHealth Alliance, as reported by Katherine Hobson in the Wall Street Journal:

What’s the scariest animal on the planet?

For Peter Daszak, a disease ecologist and president of EcoHealth Alliance, it’s not a great white shark or a tiger or even the disease-spreading mosquito.

It’s this cutie over there on the right that keeps Daszak awake at night. That’s a Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »