strange behaviors

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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Posts Tagged ‘mammoths’

Giants in the Earth: How Mammoths Changed Our World

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 29, 2017

(Illustration: National Geographic)

by Richard Conniff/The Wall Street Journal

Discovering the Mammoth is one of those books that make you wonder about the author as much as about his topic. John J. McKay writes that he got started with a single blog post aiming to establish “a chronology of what was known about mammoths and when.” Or rather, he got started because he noticed, while indulging his “great love of conspiracy theories and fringe ideas,” that “lost history theories”—think Atlantis, flood geology and rogue planets—“all used frozen mammoths as proof positive of their ideas.”

Mr. McKay, who describes himself on his blog as “an underemployed, grumpy, and aging liberal who lives in the Great Northwest”—that is, Alaska—soon began obsessively collecting facts about these great, hairy pachyderms. He became the “mammoth guy” to his neighbors and apparently also to his long-suffering (now ex-) wife.

The resulting book is unfortunately more the chronology that Mr. McKay set out to write in the first place and less the thrilling “Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science” touted in the subtitle. Mr. McKay’s background as a technical writer shows in his clear sentences, with one carefully authenticated fact logically following another from beginning to end. It also shows, however, in the absence of color, scene setting or a driving narrative arc. And yet I found the book oddly compelling.

Mr. McKay makes the case that, beginning about 1600, mammoths and their mastodon cousins, appearing in bits and pieces from beneath the ice and earth, became “a focusing problem for a scientific revolution.” They were the starting point for sweeping changes in geology and comparative anatomy and in the ways we think about life on Earth.

Scholars could reason their way around Read the rest of this entry »

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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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