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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 ‘pollinators’

Triassic Butterfly Park: Oldest Fossil Unhinges Flower-Pollinator Timeline

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 10, 2018

Modern Glossata

By Richard Conniff/Scientific American

For years, researchers studying core samples drilled from deep in the Earth have noticed odd flecks of material, possibly from insects—and generally treated them as a distraction from the real work: They focused instead on pollen and spores as a continuous record for understanding past ecosystems. But a surprising abundance of those flecks in a recent sample from northern Germany has now led a team of researchers to pay closer attention.

Writing in the journal Science Advances, Timo van Eldijk and his co-authors describe their find as the earliest fossil record of Lepidoptera, from about 201 million years ago, at the boundary between the Triassic and Jurassic periods. The new find fits the timeline for evolution of the Lepidoptera suggested by molecular evidence and helps correct a puzzling gap in the fossil record.

Triassic Wing Scale

The study looks at 70 specimens, found in a drill core from more than 300 meters below the surface, and identifies them as the wing scales that give butterflies and moths their spectacularly varied colors and patterns.  A light microscope, and later a scanning electron microscope, revealed the scales to be petal-like structures.  Some of them are beautifully preserved, with neatly ridged surfaces, herringbone webbing between the ridges, “micro-ribs,” and in some cases, perforations in the surface.

The perforations turned out to be a critical detail. They indicate, according to the co-authors, that a moth of that period had the hollow wing scales characteristic of Glossata, the taxonomic group that includes all modern moths and butterflies equipped with a sucking proboscis. The oldest previously known such fossil was from 129 million years ago–just as the flowering plants were making their spectacular emergence across the planet.  And the accepted theory was that the sucking proboscis only emerged at that point as a product of co-evolution between flowers and the insects that pollinate them.

That co-evolution, and the often exquisitely precise matchup between flower and pollinator, have been a subject of perennial fascination for naturalists.  In one of the most celebrated stories in all of botany, for instance, Read the rest of this entry »

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Can We Save Bees by Using Them to Deliver Natural Pesticides?

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 16, 2016

Pest control agent on the wing? (Photo: Sam Droege/USDA)

Pest control agent on the wing? (Photo: Sam Droege/USDA)

One of the most persistent and destructive problems in modern agriculture is its heavy reliance on pesticides. The United States alone uses about 1.1 billion pounds of these chemicals every year to protect flowering crops. The indiscriminate spraying doesn’t just pollute soil and water, it also kills many of the beneficial organisms those same flowering crops depend on. That’s in addition to contamination of fruits and vegetables: residues of 165 different pesticides turned up in a 2013 U.S. Department of Agriculture sampling of the foods we eat every day.

But what if, instead of crop-dusters blanketing fields with chemicals, you could use bees to deliver a precise dose of a treatment directly to the plants that need them? That is, what if you could piggyback on the vital work pollinating insects are already performing, instead of inadvertently killing them?

That’s the idea in the technology called “entomovectoring.” Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Cool Tools | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

How Deadly Power Lines Could Become Great Wildlife Habitat

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 4, 2015

(Photo: Ken Schulze/Getty Images)

(Photo: Ken Schulze/Getty Images)

In a lot of peoples’ minds, power transmission lines are the devil, and the idea that a transmission line right-of-way could function as useful wildlife habitat is the devil speaking in tongues. These corridors, an infuriated reader once told me, “have a devastating impact on the environment, kill thousands of birds, cause habitat segmentation, ruin property values, chase people from their homes, have dreadful visual impacts, and significantly reduce wildlife use per acre.”

These are no doubt all important issues to discuss, especially when wind, solar, and hydroelectric projects are increasing the demand for new power line corridors everywhere. And it’s not “thousands of birds.” A 2014 analysis estimated that 25.5 million birds now die every year in the United States from power line collisions and another 5.6 million from electrocutions. These are appalling numbers.

But the other reality is that the United States now has an estimated 9 million acres of land in existing power transmission corridors. That’s largely open space underneath the electric wires, and much of it is in regions where open space is hard to come by. In some cases, it is already becoming the best available habitat for

Read the rest of this entry »

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That Transmission Line You Hate? It Could Be Pollinator Habitat

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 16, 2014

unnamedMy latest for Yale Environment 360:
Nobody loves electrical power transmission lines. They typically bulldoze across the countryside like a clearcut, 150 feet wide and scores or hundreds of miles long, in a straight line that defies everything we know about nature. They’re commonly criticized for fragmenting forests and other natural habitats and for causing collisions and electrocutions for some birds. Power lines also have raised the specter, in the minds of anxious neighbors, of illnesses induced by electromagnetic fields.

So it’s a little startling to hear wildlife biologists proposing that properly managed transmission lines, and even natural gas and oil pipeline rights-of-way, could be the last best hope for many birds, pollinators, and other species that are otherwise dramatically declining.

 This Lasioglossum sopinci specimen, a rare species of sand-specialist bees, was found along a power line right-of-way in Maryland's Patuxent Wildlife Research Refuge. (Photo: Sam Droege/USGS)


This Lasioglossum sopinci specimen, a rare species of sand-specialist bees, was found along a power line right-of-way in Maryland’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Refuge. (Photo: Sam Droege/USGS)

The open, scrubby habitat under some transmission lines is already the best place to hunt for wild bees, says Sam Droege of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, and that potential habitat will inevitably become more important as the United States becomes more urbanized. He thinks utility rights-of-way — currently adding up in the U.S. to about nine million acres for power transmission lines, and another 12 million for pipelines — could eventually serve as a network of conservation reserves roughly one third the area of the national park system.

Remarkably, some power companies agree. Three utilities — New York Power Authority, Arizona Public Service, and Vermont Electric Power Company — have already completed a certification program from the Right of Way Stewardship Council, a new group established to set standards for right-of-way management, with the aim of encouraging low-growth vegetation and thus, incidentally, promoting native wildlife. Three more utilities, all from Western states, are currently seeking certification.

“Whether the other few hundred will be similarly interested, we don’t know. We hope they’ll see the value,” said Jeffrey Howe, the council’s president. The gist of the program is straightforward: Federal regulations currently require power companies to keep their transmission line corridors free of large trees and other tall vegetation. Beyond that, though, there is nothing to require the common practice of routinely mowing everything down to grass, or broadcast-spraying herbicides. So instead, some utilities have shifted to Read the rest of this entry »

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

Why Farmers Must Grow Insects Like A Crop–Or Starve

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 3, 2014

One of our forgotten pollinators: Megchile fortis from Badlands National Park, South Dakota (Photo: USGS/Sam Droege)

One of our forgotten pollinators: Megchile fortis from Badlands National Park, South Dakota (Photo: USGS/Sam Droege)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

For the last few years, Richard Rant has agreed to let researchers introduce strips of wildflowers among the blueberry plants on his family’s farm in West Olive, Michigan. It’s part of an experiment to see if the wildflowers can encourage pollinating insects and, in a small way, begin to reverse the worldwide decline in beneficial insects. It’s also a pioneering effort in the nascent movement to persuade farmers to grow insects almost as if they were a crop.

That movement is being driven by news that is disturbingly bad even by gloomy environmental standards. Insects pollinate 75 percent of the crops used directly for human food worldwide. They contribute $210 billion in agricultural earnings. But honeybees are now so scarce, according to a new study from the University of Reading, that Europe is 13.6 million colonies short of the number needed to pollinate crops there. Nor can farmers count on natural pollinators as a backup system. A 2011 study sampled four North American bumblebee species and found that they have declined by as much 96 percent over the past century. In China, the loss of wild bees has forced farmers to hand-pollinate apple blossoms using paint brushes.

The broad decline in beneficial insects has also affected species we take for granted as part of our cultural heritage. Just last week, researchers announced that monarch butterfly numbers, already at record lows, once again fell by half in the annual count at overwintering sites in Mexico, with the iconic monarch migration now “at serious risk of disappearing.”

So far, the movement to get farmers to grow beneficial insects amounts, in the United States, to no more than a few hundred thousand acres of pollinator plantings, mostly subsidized by state and federal governments. Through its Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) now partners with the Xerces Society and other conservation groups to get the message out to farmers and help them with the technical issues of how to grow beneficial insects, and how to get paid for doing it. USDA also recently added a pollinator component to the farmland set-asides it pays for through its Conservation Reserve Program. Similar programs are also under way as part of the European Union’s “agri-environment” schemes, Australia’s Landcare program, and the United Nations International Pollinator Initiative.

The experiment on Richard Rant’s blueberry farm — part of a research study by Michigan State University entomologist Rufus Isaacs — is an example of what can happen when such efforts work well. The study results are not expected to be published until later this year. But for Rant at least, planting for pollinators has seemed to work. He noticed that the wildflower patches were humming not just with bees and other pollinators but also with wasps, ladybugs, lacewings, and predacious beetles known to attack the sort of insect pests that damage blueberries. On his own, he started to add Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | 6 Comments »