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 ‘drones’

Ear Wiggles Open Up New Worlds In Bat Echolocation

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 17, 2019

Greater Horseshoe Bat Ears (Photo: Mittu Pannala)

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

One big problem with putting autonomous drones to work delivering packages—or flying search-and-rescue missions—is that the sky is complicated and unpredictable. Trees, utility wires and spiraling footballs can turn up almost anywhere in the flight path. A new strategy for dodging these obstacles could come from an unexpected source: the way bats wiggle their ears.

The idea first occurred to Rolf Mueller, a Virginia Tech mechanical engineering professor, a few years ago while looking at bat photographs. He noticed that the ears of some species often looked blurry, because the animals were continually making rapid ear movements. But why?

Mueller studies bat behaviors, including their adaptations to the Doppler effect or Doppler shift. Both terms refer to the way sound waves from a fast-moving object such as a train or an ambulance get compressed—and therefore higher in pitch—as the object approaches a listener. Then the sound waves lengthen out again and become lower in pitch as the vehicle moves away. Even when the train or ambulance is out of sight, a person can tell roughly where it is at any moment from these changes in sound. Bats use the Doppler shift to locate objects in much the same way, but far more precisely.

Scientists have known since the 1930s that insect-hunting bats produce bursts of sound as they bob and weave through the night. They use the reflected sound waves to identify obstacles and target prey, an ability called echolocation or biosonar. Research in the 1960s showed that bats also interpret Doppler shifts, in sounds bounced off of flying insects, to zero in on a meal with high precision—even while maneuvering at breakneck speed through Read the rest of this entry »

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Why Drones?

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 19, 2011

Southern right whales

The idea of an article on drones may seem strange to regular readers of this page.  But there is at least a slight connection to my usual topics in animal behavior.  One pioneer in putting drones to work is Daniela Rus, an MIT researcher, who recently collaborated with whale expert Roger Payne to track southern right whales along the coast of Argentina.

From the beach, in one video clip, they thought that they were seeing four whales.  But when the drone flew overhead, it revealed there were actually six of them.  You can see some of the videos here.

The impressive thing is how close the drone can get without disturbing the animals.

That potential also had naturalists excited in southern Africa when I visited early this year.   Rhino researchers wanted drones as a tool for doing population counts over large distances without scaring off the animals.  And anti-poaching units wanted drones as a means of spotting poachers.

P-51 Mustang

But to be honest, that’s not why I wanted to write about drones.  Here’s what Carey Winfrey, Smithsonian’s outgoing editor, writes in the June issue of Smithsonian:

Richard Conniff, who has written for Smithsonian since 1982, is the author of nine books, most recently The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth, about pioneering 18th- and 19th-century naturalists. But his first love was airplanes. “When I was a kid,” he says, “I was fanatically interested in aviation. My bedroom ceiling was hung with P-38 Lightnings, Black Widows, Mustangs, Stukas—all of these World War II airplanes. When I grew up, I got interested in natural history, but this fascination was still there.” So his story about civilian applications of drones, or unmanned aircraft (“Ready for Takeoff”), had built-in appeal to him. It, too, evoked an earlier time. “The informality of the business, the spontaneity and daring of it, the inventiveness of it, the riskiness of it and characters straight out of a novel—all the things that made aviation so exciting in the early years—are present in this fledgling industry. That’s what got me interested and that’s what I really liked best about the story.”

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