strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

  • 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 ‘naturalists’

How Naturalists Die

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 17, 2013

Oh, geez. A field biologist has charted all the ways naturalists have died on my Wall of the Dead.  Is this cautionary?  Or just macabre?

Anyway, here you go.  It automatically saved to my computer as death.jpg:

How naturalists die.

How naturalists die.

Posted in Fear & Courage, The Species Seekers | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Natural History Upgrade

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 2, 2011

People who work in the natural world often get asked how on Earth they came to devote their lives to gastropods, or ground beetles, or whatever other species happens to have found its way into their hearts. What the questioners generally mean is that becoming a naturalist is a little enviable, but also odd. As kids, they may have dreamed of becoming Jane Goodall. Then they forgot, setting it aside as a childish thing and becoming plumbers or investment bankers instead.

This would not ordinarily be so terrible. We need plumbers and maybe investment bankers, too. But lately, without realizing it, we also seem to have set aside nature itself.

We like to imagine ourselves as active and outdoorsy. But the reality is that hiking, backpacking, camping, and fishing have all declined sharply over the past 30 years, as have visits to U.S. National Parks and other public lands. The trend is particularly ominous among American children, who now spend fewer than seven minutes a day in unstructured outdoor play—and seven hours a day in front of an electronic screen.

But technology may be too easy a scapegoat. Naturalists at a workshop on the topic that I recently attended showed little appetite for technology-bashing. On the contrary, much of the conversation was about how technology can draw people back to the natural world. And the general consensus was that naturalists themselves need to change if they hope for natural history to thrive in this distracted new world.

The workshop sponsor, the Natural History Network, is a new group dedicated to “reawakening human connections with the natural world.” The participants were mostly people who teach natural history or otherwise earn a living as naturalists. As we looked around the room, one target for change was immediately apparent: we were exclusively white, in a nation where whites will cease to be a majority just 30 years from now. And we were largely middle-aged or older, the same dwindling-party demographic that worries the Sierra Club (where the average member is 60 or older) and The Nature Conservancy (65-plus). “The arrogance of asking somebody to come to us isn’t working,” one workshop participant declared. “We have to find ways to go to them.”

Hispanics, for instance, often get ignored by conservationists but typically display greater environmental concern on surveys than other ethnic groups, including whites. Fishermen and hunters sometimes face open disdain, though their shared interest in good habitat ought to make them a natural affinity group. And whatever they may think about the origin of species, certain fundamentalist Christian groups Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction, Cool Tools, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Wall of the Dead: A Memorial to Fallen Naturalists

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 14, 2011

(Updated 6/14/22)

We go to great lengths commemorating soldiers who have died fighting wars for their countries.  Why not do the same for the naturalists who still sometimes give up everything in the effort to understand life?  Neither would diminish the sacrifice of the other.  In fact, many early naturalists were also soldiers, or, like Charles Darwin aboard HMS Beagle, were embedded with military expeditions.

With that in mind, I started to construct a very preliminary Naturalists’ Wall of the Dead, to at least assemble the names in one place, as I was researching my book The Species Seekers.  If I have missed someone, or made other mistakes, please suggest changes in the comments.  I am trying to focus on naturalists who died in the course of their work.  Though he may have acquired Chagas disease in his travels, for instance, Darwin died at home, age 73, of Crohn’s disease, and so does not really fit this list.  (UPDATE: Texas conservationist John Karges just tipped me off to this article on “Job-Related Mortality of Wildlife Biologists in the United States,” with a lot of names not yet included in this list.  Please take a look and let me know if you see people in your field who are missing and deserve mention. It will help me get names up faster if you could please include dates and links to additional sources in roughly the format below:

Last name, First Name, (year of birth-death), brief description of specialty and contributions, died, age ??, of what cause, where. Add URL for relevant link.   Photos also welcome.

To check your information, it may help to look at this list of species seekers and their finds, complied by

If you want to link to this list on Twitter or elsewhere, the Tiny URL is    I’ll also post a notice on Twitter if I have to add new names.  You can follow me @RichardConniff.  And please be careful out there, so you do not become one of the names I have to add.  Thank you.

Aaronsohn, Aaron (1876 -1919), botanist who discovered wild emmer,  “the mother of wheat.”  He was also the founder and head of Nili, the Jewish spy network that provided critical aid to British troops in Palestine during World War I.  The brilliant military campaign led by Field Marshall Edmund Allenby might have seemed to outsiders to take unwarranted risks, the chief of British military intelligence later said, but “That is not true. For Allenby knew with certainty from his intelligence [in Palestine] of all the preparations and all the movements of his enemy … Under these conditions, victory was certain before he began.”  Aaronsohn died, age 43, in a plane crash on route to Britain after the war.

Abe, Katsumi (c.1953-1998),  Japanese researcher of the evolution and behavior of planktonic bioluminescent ostracodes (minute crustaceans known in Japan as “marine fireflies”), died, in his mid-40s, driving home late from a conference.

Abe, Takuya (1945-2000)  termite ecologist at Kyoto University, drowned, age 55, when his small boat was caught in a storm during an expedition on the Sea of Cortez.

Abramchuk, Siarhei (1984-2010),  promising young Belarusian ornithologist, of encephalitis, age 26, after a tick bite in the national park Belavezhskaya pushcha, Belarus.

Adams, Alan (1960-1983); a British birdwatcher from Liverpool, disappeared, age 22, while following the vocalizations of Tragopan satyra, also known as the crimson horned pheasant, in late afternoon on the Langtang trek at Tharepati, Nepal

Adams, Charles Baker (1814-1853), American malacologist, named about 800 species of mollusks from Jamaica, Panama and eastern USA, died, age 39, of yellow fever, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands.

Adamson, Joy (1910–1980), a naturalist, artist, and author best known for the book and movie Born Free, found murdered, age 69, in her camp on Kenya’s Lake Naivasha, by a former employee.

Adamson, George (1906 –1989), British wildlife conservationist and author best known through the book and movie Born Free, shot dead, age 83, in Kenya’s Kora National Park by Somali bandits.



Akeley, Carl (1864–1926), naturalist-taxidermist for the American Museum of Natural History, age 62, while collecting mammals in the eastern Congo, of dysentery.

Alberico, Michael S. (1947-2005), American mammalogist, namesake of Alberico’s broad-nosed bat, died, age 58, in a robbery as he was getting into a taxicab in Cali, Colombia, immediately after taking money out of an ATM.

Alexander, Capt. Boyd (1873–1910), explorer and ornithologist, was murdered, age 37, in what is now Chad.

Anchieta, José Alberto de Oliveira  (1832-1897) was a Portugese naturalist and collector who traveled widely in Angola and Mozambique. He died, age 64, probably from chronic malaria, when returning from an expedition to the Caconda region of Angola.   He was responsible for identifying 25 new species of mammals, 46 of birds and 46 of amphibians and reptiles.  Three birds, seven reptiles and four mammals are named after him.

Anderson, James D. (1930-1976), herpetologist and taxonomist at Rutgers University who described several snake and salamander species, died, age 46, in a car accident on a field trip to study bog turtles.  The species Ambystoma andersoni, which he discovered in Mexico, was named in his honor.

Anderson, William (1750–1778), surgeon-naturalist on Cook’s second and third voyages, died at sea, age 27, possibly from scurvy.

Andrews, Timothy Peter (1958-1990), British amateur ornithologist, shot dead, age 32, while trying to escape guerrillas of the Marxist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) while conducting an expedition in north-central Peru, in the Tingo María area of the Upper Huallaga River Valley; no body was found. (See also Entwhistle, Michael Alan, below)

Archambault, Noel (1961-1998), IMAX cameraman, died, age 36, in an ultralight accident while filming in the Galapagos.

Arenas, Miguel Ángel Soto (1963–2009), a Mexican orchid specialist who described many new species and was an outspoken conservationist, assassinated while working at home late one night, age 46.

Artedi, Peter (1705-1735), Swedish “father of ichthyology,” drowned, age 30, in Amsterdam, where he was cataloging the vast natural history specimen collection of Albertus Seba.  Artedi is the subject of a recent biography,  The Curious Death of Peter Artedi, by Theodore W. Pietsch

Banister, John (1650–1692), British naturalist and clergyman, shot  “per misadventure,” age 42, when he bent over to pick a plant while exploring in Virginia. Another account says he fell from rocks. His dried plant specimens are now in the British Museum.

Barbadillo, Pablo (1984-2008), a young Spanish biologist, was doing his doctoral dissertation fieldwork on large reptiles and how humans interacted with them in Amazonian Peru. He was based at the Los Amigos Biological Station (CICRA) in the Madre de Dios department, when he traveled to a small town upriver on the Madre de Dios and did not return, age 23. Police found his body in an advanced state of decay, cause of death unknown.

Barthelt, Annette (1963-1987), marine biologist from the University of Kiel in Germany, killed, age 24, with a large group of others in a terrorist attack in Djibouti while waiting to board a three-month expedition of the German research vessel Meteor in the Indian Ocean.


Bassignani, Filippo (1967?-2006), Italian zoologist and lover of travel, large mammals, and the conservation of nature, died age 39, on a trip to Mozambique, after being charged by an elephant that had been wounded by poachers.

Bastard, Toussaint (1784-1846), a French botanist, died, age 62, by falling from a cliff in France while trying to collect a fern.

Batty, Joseph H. (1850–1906), taxidermist and specimen hunter who had endured plague, drought, and other hardships while collecting for more than three years for the American Museum of Natural History.  He had recently been accused of fraudulent practices, when he was “killed instantly by the accidental discharge of his gun,” age 55, in Mexico.

Beaulieu, Ryan (1987-2005) pioneered the banding and research program for rosy finches in New Mexico’s Sandia Mountains, killed, age 18, in an automobile accident while on a birding trip.

Bečvář, Stanislav (1938-1997), Czech entomologist, shot dead, age 59, by soldiers in Laos while collecting beetles.  Here’s a detailed account of the incident.  His son of the same name, also an entomologist, was seriously wounded in the attack but survived and continues to do field work.

Berlandier, Jean Louis  (1805–1851) was a French botanist, who worked as a collector in Mexico. He drowned, age 46, while trying to cross the San Fernando River. A reptile, an amphibian, two mammals and a bird are named after him.

Bergman, Robert D., (1942-1974), ornithologist, was studying waterfowl and wetland relationships in advance of development of the oil fields of Alaska’s North Slope. He died, age 31, when his plane went down in an extreme windstorm over the Gulf of Alaska. The aircraft was never found despite 750 hours of searches.

Bernstein, Heinrich Agathon (1828–1865), German physician and collector of birds and mammals, age 36, on the island of Batanta off New Guinea, cause unknown.

Bevins, John (1955-1990), bear researcher, disappeared, age 34, during a polar bear monitoring flight over the Arctic Ocean 240 miles northwest of Point Barrow, Alaska.

Biermann, Adolph(1839–1880), curator of the Calcutta Botanical Garden, sur­vived attack by Read the rest of this entry »

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