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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 ‘New Zealand’

How the Polynesians Made Odysseus Look Like a Day-Tripper

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 21, 2019

Hōkūle’a (Photo: Unknown)

In the early 1990s, on an assignment for National Geographic, I made a trek on horseback around Easter Island, with a couple of islanders as guides. I still vividly recall wandering just before sunset through the quarry where the celebrated statues, called mo‘ai, were carved, and then sitting on a cliff staring out at the curvature of the Earth and the great emptiness of the Pacific. Reviewing this book brought some of those memories back.

by Richard Conniff/The Wall Street Journal

As HMS Endeavour was preparing to leave Tahiti in July 1769, after a tropical sojourn of four months, a celebrated Polynesian priest and navigator named Tupaia announced that he wished to join the British in their travels. James Cook, commander of the expedition, demurred at first. But with a nudge from the expedition’s naturalist Joseph Banks, he relented, allowing that Tupaia “was the likeliest person to answer our purpose.”

This soon proved to be the case at sea, where the new passenger’s navigational guidance through the intricacies of the Society Islands proved extraordinarily precise. But Tupaia’s real value only became evident on land, three months later, as Cook struggled to make peaceful contact with the Māori. The Endeavour had by then traveled 3,500 miles from Tahiti, Christina Thompson writes in “Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia,” and “there was nothing in the geography of New Zealand to suggest that the people who lived there might have anything in common with the people in the tropical islands they had left behind.”

The first encounter at Poverty Bay had gone badly, with bloodshed on the Māori side. “The following day, Cook tried again, this time taking two additional precautions,” Ms. Thompson continues. “First, he landed with a party of marines, and, second, he took Tupaia with him.” Again, the situation deteriorated, with about a hundred Māori brandishing their weapons and staging a haka, their ferocious war dance. The marines advanced in turn, with the Union Jack in front. “The stage was set for a confrontation—and then Read the rest of this entry »

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It Took 2500 Humans Just 100 years to Hunt the Moa to Extinction

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 8, 2014

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A new study shows that early Polynesian settlers in New Zealand needed just a century, and a maximum population of about 2500 people, to drive the huge flightless bird called the moa to extinction.  This strikes me as interesting partly because environmentalists often exaggerate and romanticize the conservationist ethic of pre-European populations, a line of wishful thinking now widely discredited by evidence from around the world.  If the timetable is correct, Polynesians were ravaging the environment in New Zealand–2500 people in an area the size of Colorado–at about the same time Europeans were doing so in the New World.

What’s more interesting, by inference, is the idea that it’s not just the number of people living in a place that causes extinctions. It’s how they choose to live there.  That is, with the skills and weapons any human population brings to the hunt, it takes basic rules to ensure the permanent availability of major resources.  Eating all the eggs of your largest bird? Bad idea.

Here’s the press release:

A new study suggests that the flightless birds named moa were completely extinct by the time New Zealand’s human population had grown to two and half thousand people at most.

The new findings, which appear in the journal Nature Communications, incorporate results of research by international teams involved in two major projects led by Professor Richard Holdaway (Palaecol Research Ltd and University of Canterbury) and Mr Chris Jacomb (University of Otago), respectively.

The researchers calculate that the Polynesians whose activities caused moa extinction in little more than a century had amongst the lowest human population densities on record. They found that during the peak period of moa hunting, there were fewer than 1500 Polynesian settlers in New Zealand, or about 1 person per 100 square kilometres, one of the lowest population densities recorded for any pre-industrial society.

They found that the human population could have reached

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