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 ‘DNA’

Shit Happens & It Makes the World a Better Place

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 10, 2015

(Photo: Richard Conniff)

(Photo: Richard Conniff)

My latest for Takepart:

Not long ago in South Africa’s Soutpansberg, I watched a line of otherwise fastidious visiting high school students standing at a workbench happily sifting with their fingertips through specimens of excrement. Leopard excrement, to be precise. They were picking out hair, teeth, bones, horns, and claws, the undigested remnants of victims of predatory attacks—to be used in identifying the shifting dietary habits of local leopards.

The yuck factor aside, animal excrement, dung, scat, spoor, feces, poop, crap, or just plain shit is a topic of enormous importance for biologists and for biodiversity. It is of course also a source of many bad jokes, as anyone who has performed an owl pellet dissection in high school biology may recall.

But never mind that. Let’s start with the biodiversity, or rather, with the story of the honey locust tree. It produces long, leathery seedpods, which look completely unappetizing. But the woolly mammoth and a few other ancient megafauna used to gobble them up, inadvertently dispersing the seeds in their droppings. Then the megafauna went extinct, and the honey locust would inevitably have followed them–except that humans rediscovered the tree and widely dispersed its seeds (by hand) in cities and suburbs around the country.

Other fruiting plants have been less fortunate, and many are now on the path to extinction. New Zealand and Hawaii in particular are full of what botanists call “widow plants,” because extinctions have taken away the species they depended on to consume their fruit and defecate their seeds.

This form of partnership is common to a huge variety of plant species, which over the course of their evolution have come to depend on a bat, a bird, a fish, a gorilla, or even a crocodile to perform this vital service of dispersal by defecation. Beyond the coevolutionary richness of the connection Read the rest of this entry »

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Fighting Back in the New War on Rhinos

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 20, 2011

Here’s the story I reported from South Africa earlier this year.  It’s now out in the November Smithsonian:

Johannesburg’s international airport is an easy place to get lost in the crowd, and that’s what a 29-year-old Vietnamese man named Xuan Hoang was hoping to do one day in March last year—just lie low till he could board his flight home.  The police dog sniffing down the line of passengers didn’t worry him; he’d checked his baggage through to Ho Chi Minh City.  But behind the scenes, police were also manning the x-ray scanners on flights to Vietnam, believed to be the epicenter of a new war on rhinos.  And when Hoang’s bag appeared on the screen, they saw the unmistakable shape of rhinoceros horns—six of them, weighing more than 35 pounds and worth up to $500,000.

Investigators suspected the contraband might be linked to a poaching incident a few days earlier on a game farm in Limpopo Province, on the country’s northern border.  “We have learned over time, as soon as a rhino goes down, in the next two or three days the horns will leave the country,” said police Col. Johan Jooste of South Africa’s national priority crime unit, when I interviewed him recently in Pretoria.

The Limpopo rhinos had been killed in a “chemical poaching,” meaning that hunters, probably traveling by helicopter, shot them with a dart gun loaded with an overdose of veterinary tranquilizers.  As the price of rhino horn has soared, said Jooste, a short, thickly-built bull of a cop, so has the involvement of sophisticated criminal syndicates.

“The couriers are like drug mules, specifically recruited to come into South Africa on holiday.  All they know is that they need to pack for one or two days. They come in here with minimal contact details, sometimes with just a mobile phone, and they meet with guys providing the horns. They discard the phone so there’s no way to trace it to any other people.”

Police were not sure they would be able to send Hoang away for serious jail time, much less get to the professionals who had hired him. South African courts often require police not just to catch someone smuggling rhino horns, but actually connect the horns to a specific poaching incident.   “In the past,” said Jooste, “we needed to physically fit a horn on a skull to see if we had a match.  But that was not always possible, because we didn’t have the skull, or it was cut too cleanly.”

Taking the sample for DNA analysis

Police sent the horns confiscated at the airport to Cindy Harper, head of the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of Pretoria. Getting a match with DNA testing had never worked in the past. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , | 5 Comments »