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 ‘invasive species’

The Real Threat on the Border Threatens Poor Nations

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 23, 2016

Tuta absoluta may sound like vodka, but it's Ebola for tomatoes. (Photo: Peter Buchner)

Tuta absoluta may sound like vodka, but it’s Ebola for tomatoes. (Photo: Peter Buchner)

by Richard Conniff/

You may not think of Portal, North Dakota, a town of 120 people on the Canadian border, as a key link in national defense. But late last month, United States Customs and Border Protection agents there boarded a freight train entering the country and found six carloads contaminated with invasive insects and seeds from China and Southeast Asia. They were the kind of invasive species that demolish crops, destroy people’s livelihoods, and displace indigenous wildlife.

The government sealed three carloads and sent them back to Asia, releasing three others to the owners after decontamination. It was a reassuring victory for American agriculture and ecosystems—the sort of save that happens every day on American borders. Ample experience with the destructive power of invasive species, from the gypsy moth to the emerald ash border, has taught this country the importance of being alert to imported danger.

Other nations aren’t so careful, according to a new study in the journal Nature Communications, and that’s likely to become a major problem, especially for low-income countries, as

Read the rest of this entry »

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

How Acting On a Hidden Environmental Threat Saves $11 billion

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 8, 2014


Prevention doesn’t come naturally to the human spirit. Even if we know better, paying the immediate cost often seems more daunting than the possibility of paying a much higher cost (death, say) at some unknown date in the future. This emotional disconnect is what makes it so hard to persuade people to eat less, exercise more, practice safe sex, or take action to prevent climate change.

Lately, the “why worry?” line of thinking has turned up in the debate over invasive species. If you think it’s hard making parents understand that their unvaccinated child could die from measles, just imagine how hard it is to convince them that they should also worry about, say, invasive beetles turning up in the backyard. To make prevention even less likely, some critics now argue that introduced species are often harmless, or in some cases beneficial, and that there are just too many of them to fight. At best, they say, we spend a great deal of money to slow down the invasion. But we can never stop it completely.

A new case study being published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology replies—if I may sum up the scholarship in a phrase—that this is a lot of crap. The coauthors look at the current poster child of invasive species, the emerald ash borer, a beetle with a glittering green carapace and a nasty habit of killing some of the most majestic trees lining the streets of North American cities, as well as in our yards and forests.

Emerald ash borers (also known as EAB) arrived from Asia by accident in the 1990s, and biologists first detected them in Detroit in 2002. In North America, they focus exclusively on ash trees (hence the name), and as their larvae bore into a tree, they block off its ability to transport nutrients and water.

Alarmed at the prospect of dying forests, the Nature Conservancy and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis launched a wide-ranging series of studies on the problem. “By 2003, at least 5–7 million ash trees were dead or dying in a six-county area of southeastern Michigan,” the authors of one such study wrote early this year, “and it was becoming apparent that EAB had the potential to devastate ash on a continental scale.”

The new study looks at the preventive measure undertaken by 70 signatory countries, including the United States, to slow or stop the invasion. ISPM15, as it’s known, requires manufacturers in international trade to treat wood pallets and wood crating (like the box holding your supermarket clementines). Treatment typically involves heat or fumigation with an insecticide, at a cost of about $1.50 per pallet. That added up to a whopping $437 million in 2005, the first year of implementation, with the expectation of continuing costs at a much lower level as pallets run through their typical six-year life span.

So was it a waste of money? Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Dethroned? The Key to Controlling Invasive Lionfish

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 25, 2014

(Photo: Steve Rosenberg/Getty Images)

(Photo: Steve Rosenberg/Getty Images)

My latest for Takepart.

It probably started in the 1980s, with a few tropical fish hobbyists thinking they were doing the humane thing by dumping unwanted pets in the coastal waters of Florida. But introducing the lionfish, which is native to the Indo-Pacific, to the Atlantic Ocean has turned out to be one of the cruelest and most catastrophic tricks ever played on an ecosystem. Now, with the fate of numerous species hanging in the balance, a new paper in the journal Ecological Applications says that scientists have for the first time found a practical way to control the problem.

Lionfish are flamboyantly colorful fish, up to 18 inches in length, striped, and with long, fluttering venomous spines sticking out in all directions. That’s what makes them so attractive in a fish tank. But since their release into the Atlantic, they have spread across an area of 1.5 million square miles, from Venezuela to North Carolina, with stray sightings as far north as southern New England.

In the Caribbean, according to one researcher, it’s common to see lionfish “hovering above the reefs throughout the day and gathering in groups of up to ten or more on a single coral head.” She might just as well have said “hoovering,” because of the speed and thoroughness with which lionfish wipe out native fish populations. They typically flutter their fins to herd smaller fish into a group, and when they have cornered their prey, they pounce.

Because of their extraordinarily painful venom, lionfish have no natural predators. As with many other invasive species, eradication appears to be impossible. Lionfish can repopulate shallow reefs from deepwater populations lurking farther off the coast.

But the study suggests a cost-effective alternative. Getting rid of most—but not all—the lionfish on a given site appears to provide Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

The Next Big Thing #2: Working On The Right Mussels

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 27, 2013

North America is a mother lode of freshwater mussels, with almost 300 native species. Their looks are dull, but their behaviors aren’t. In one species, for instance, the female puts out a fleshy mantle that does a convincing imitation of a minnow. But when a real fish comes to investigate, the mussel blasts larvae into its gills, turning the fish into a mussel incubator.

Unfortunately, many native mussels are now being overwhelmed and suffocated by invasive zebra and quagga mussels. Researchers have been testing scores of microbes in search of a way to kill the invaders and save the homegrown species. The common North American soil bacterium Pseudomonas fluorescens didn’t sound like a contender at first. It’s a beneficial microbe used in agriculture to protect the roots of some plants against fungi and nematodes. One strain even helps turn milk into yogurt. But when researchers tried strain CL145A, it killed the invasive mussels without harming anything else.

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: | 1 Comment »