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 ‘predation’

Kingfisher Triumphant

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 27, 2014

kingfisher by Haibo Chi

(Photo: Haibo Chi)

This photo is from the Epson International Pano Awards, a photo contest, and a selection of winners is appearing in the Mail Online.  I think a number of the winners could have competed in the Best Photoshopping category, or maybe The Best Manipulation of a Photograph Beyond Any Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Food & Drink, Kill or Be Killed | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Don’t Look Now, It’s A Leopard Dive-Bomb

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 25, 2014

I was in the Okavango Delta recently and saw a leopard gracefully climb down a tree, at leisure. 

But this photo and video sequence from the same vicinity is incredible.  It’s by Yasmin Tajik of Shalimar Studios (which is–go figure–a Las Vegas wedding photo outfit; I bet they catch every punch when a cat fight breaks out on the dance floor).

First the video, then the stills, with Tajik’s narration.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Kill or Be Killed | Tagged: , , | 14 Comments »

Five Ways Real Spiders Spin Webs Around Spider-Man

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 29, 2014

Wheel spider (Photo:

Wheel spider (Photo:

My latest for Takepart:

You remember that seminal scene in the “Spider-Man” story where young Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider? It is of course the event that turns mild little Parker into the celebrated web slinger. And in case you have somehow forgotten, despite endless repetitions in movies, television shows, video games, and theater, yet another version, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, will descend on unsuspecting moviegoers May 2.

dick-at-zooIt reminds me of a turning point in my own life, though I don’t normally identify much with superheroes. My father was a journalist, and one day when I was about 12, he took me along to New York City’s Staten Island Zoo. There veterinarian Patricia O’Connor introduced me to a year-old chimp, which reached out cordially, or so it seemed, to shake my hand. My father captured this endearing scene in a photo, which subsequently appeared with his article about zoo veterinarians under the headline “Physicians for Fang and Fur.”

Then, immediately after the photo was taken, the chimp leaned over and sank his teeth into my arm. And, need I say, NOTHING WAS EVER THE SAME.

OK, I didn’t develop a magical ability to swing through the trees or, chimpanzee fashion, hurl shit at the heads of approaching strangers. But I became a writer about wildlife. Same thing, almost.

As a result of that life-changing moment of infection, I have often tried to see the world from the point of view of the animals I am writing about. And at one point, for a National Geographic assignment about spider webs, I actually attempted to become a web slinger. I strapped on climbing gear and ropes, looking a bit like Charlotte’s Web meets Rambo. Then I set out to weave my web 15 feet above a concrete floor in the corner between two climbing walls at a YMCA. You can read the gory details in my book Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff With Animals. But here’s the bottom line: Spiders have a magical ability to pull silk out of their butts. People don’t.

That assignment made me realize that all the bogus special effects in Spider-Man movies cannot come close to what real spiders do every day. With that in mind, here are five examples to make the latest Peter Parker weep:

1. While hanging from a trapeze line, a spider in Colombia uses its silk to make a sticky ball at the end of a thread. By mimicking the perfume of a female moth, it lures male moths into the area, where it beans them in midair with the ball, then reels them in for dinner. William Eberhard, the Universidad de Costa Rica biologist who discovered the species, recorded nine hits in 21 attempts. He named the species Mastophora dizzydeani,in honor of one of the greatest baseball pitchers of all time, Jerome ‘Dizzy’ Dean.”

2. Europe’s water spider spends its whole life underwater Read the rest of this entry »

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The Unnatural World of Killer House Cats

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 28, 2014

Adorable but deadly (Photo: Richard Conniff)

Adorable but deadly (Photo: Richard Conniff)

My latest for Takepart:

Earlier this week, I published an article in the New York Times remembering a cat I once owned and loved named Lucky. She was my last outdoor cat, partly because her own death was a bloody reminder of just how dangerous the outdoor life can be for the cats themselves: She died one night, torn to pieces by a bobcat, after 10 years of wandering freely around the neighborhood.

But she was also my last outdoor cat because I realized, after the fact, how deadly outdoor cats can be for wildlife: By letting Lucky wander freely, I had made it possible for her to kill hundreds of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians over the years. While writing about wildlife and maintaining my own yard with wildlife in mind, I had unintentionally been stripping wildlife from the entire neighborhood.

Other cat owners are increasingly coming to the same grim realization—in part because of a federal study last year that added up the billions of animals killed by cats every year in the Lower 48 States. I argued in my article that outdoor cats will soon be as socially unacceptable as smoking in the office, or leaving dog poop on the sidewalk. The editors headlined it “The Evil of Outdoor Cats,” and it attracted widespread attention on the web, some of it angry. One reader commented that a better headline would have been “The Evil of Humans.”

A lot of readers misunderstood a central point I was trying to make about the dramatic decline in bird populations in this country, and about the loss of habitat. Readers commented correctly that the real menace to wildlife comes from suburban sprawl, agricultural intensification, logging, mining, industrial pollution, and climate change. But a lot of cat-owners seemed to think that was an argument for continuing to let their cats go outside to kill. “Whatever damage cats are doing,” a reader in Seattle commented, “it can only be a small fraction of the many human-caused threats to wildlife, in particular habitat destruction.” It was like arguing that, because there are wars going on out there, my little murders shouldn’t count.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , | 14 Comments »

Best Commuter Show on Earth (Not Nice for Dolphins)

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 4, 2014

This video just went up, showing what commuters saw from a ferry yesterday in British Columbia.  Here’s the story from the Vancouver Sun:

An increase in transient killer whales and white-sided dolphins in the Strait of Georgia led to a rare sighting of an attack between the two mammals on Monday near Nanaimo.Travellers on board a BC Ferry were stunned as they Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Kill or Be Killed | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Fish Leaps, Takes Down Bird on The Wing

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 9, 2014

O.k., in recent months we’ve seen an eagle tackling a saiga deer, and an Australian wedge-tailed eagle carrying off a fox.

Now comes proof that, while birds may be dinosaurs once removed, even a fish will now and then take one down.

Here’s the report from Daniel Cressy at Nature:

1.14496-ALAMY-AWKWNFThe waters of the African lake seem calm and peaceful. A few migrant swallows flit near the surface. Suddenly, leaping from the water, a fish grabs one of the famously speedy birds straight out of the air.

“The whole action of jumping and catching the swallow in flight happens so incredibly quickly that after we first saw it, it took all of us a while to really fully comprehend what we had just seen,” says Nico Smit, director of the Unit for Environmental Sciences and Management at North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa.

After the images did sink in, he adds, “the first reaction was one of pure joy, because we realized that we were spectators to something really incredible and unique”.

Read the full account here.

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A Snake That Ate Dinosaurs

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 23, 2013


The photo of the actual fossil (on the left) is a little inscrutable for non-paleontologists. So the picture above diagrams the action.














This is a pretty exciting fossil, found near Dholi Dungri in Gujarat, western India.  It’s not new, but I just happened to come across it while browsing around the web.  Here’s the authors’ account from their 2010 article in PLOS Biology:

Snakes first appear in the fossil record towards the end of the dinosaur era, approximately 98 million years ago. Snake fossils from that time are fragmentary, usually consisting of parts of the backbone. Relatively complete snake fossils preserving skulls and occasionally hindlimbs are quite rare and have only been found in marine sediments in Afro-Arabia and Europe or in terrestrial sediments in South America. Early snake phylogeny remains controversial, in part because of the paucity of early fossils.

We describe a new 3.5 meter-long snake from the Late Cretaceous of western India that is preserved in an extraordinary setting—within a sauropod dinosaur nest, coiled around an egg and adjacent the remains of a ca. 0.5 meter-long hatchling.

Other snake-egg associations at the same site suggest that the new snake frequented nesting grounds and preyed on hatchling sauropods. We named this new snake Sanajeh indicus because of its provenance and its somewhat limited oral gape. Sanajeh broadens the geographical distribution of early snakes and helps resolve their phylogenetic affinities. We conclude that large body size and jaw mobility afforded some early snakes a greater diversity of prey items than previously suspected.

So was the fossil just an accidental association? Or were snakes really raiding dinosaur nests back then?

Multiple lines of evidence suggest that the snake-dinosaur association preserved at Dholi Dungri was the result of preservation of organisms “caught in the act” rather than a postmortem accumulation of independently transported elements. First, the pose of the snake with its skull resting atop a coil encircling a crushed egg is not likely to have resulted from the transport of two unassociated remains. Second, the high degree of articulation of the snake, hatchling, and crushed egg, as well as the excellent preservation of delicate cranial elements and intact, relatively undeformed eggs rule out substantial transport and are indicative of relatively rapid and deep burial.

Posted in Kill or Be Killed, Sex & Reproduction | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Skull and Bones: The Pleistocene Diet

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 28, 2013


Flick-blade marsupial lion (Illustration: Peter Schouten)

Flick-blade marsupial lion (Illustration: Peter Schouten)

Let me admit up front that I am an enthusiastic admirer of predatory behaviors. I have taken unseemly delight in the spectacle of a cheetah tackling and disassembling a wildebeest. And once, while tracking radio-collared African wild dogs in Botswana, I had the great privilege of arriving at the scene of the kill before the rest of the pack. (The smell of fresh blood in the morning. Hmmmm.) When a television documentary dwells mournfully on the plight of an aging zebra no longer able to keep up with the herd, I am generally rooting for the killers.

And I have a hunch I am not alone. Research on predatory behaviors has been in the news a lot lately, starting with the discovery of the earliest known archaeological evidence of our own past as predators, and as scavengers on other predators’ kills. Writing early this month in PLOS ONE, Baylor University anthropologist Joseph Ferraro and his co-authors describe new finds from the Kanjera archaeological site [photo] on the shores of Lake Victoria in western Kenya.

For our hominin ancestors two million years ago, this was the perfect picnic spot, a grassy plain between the shore of a lake and the wooded slopes of nearby hills and mountains. And the menu? Mainly small to mid-size antelopes like Grant’s gazelle and topi, but with the occasional buffalo or hippopotamus as a special treat.

The authors of the new paper note that when modern lions or hyenas kill small antelope, they generally consume the carcass within minutes after death. “As a result, hominins could only have acquired these valuable remains on the savanna through active hunting.” The fossil bones also show evidence of tool use “consistent with both defleshing and disarticulation activities,” including marks of fist-size hammerstones for Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Evolution, Food & Drink, Kill or Be Killed | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »