strange behaviors

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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 ‘predators’

Putting Mountain Lions on Treadmills is Good–if Weird–Science

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 14, 2014

(Photo: Nancy Howard, Colorado Parks & Wildlife)

(Photo: Nancy Howard, Colorado Parks & Wildlife)

In 1892, a congressman from Alabama took the House floor to rant about a recent study showing that primitive birds had reptile-like teeth.  “Birds with teeth!” Hilary Herbert cried, “That’s where your hard-earned money goes, folks—on some professor’s silly birds with teeth.” As it happened, those birds were one of the great advances in our understanding of life on Earth, hinting at what we now know:  Birds evolved from dinosaurs. But with a politician’s instinct for the kill, Herbert simply latched onto the headline-worthy phrase “birds with teeth” and rode it hard. A telegram from a government official soon advised the scientist, “Appropriations cut off. Please send your resignation at once.”

Not much has changed in the 122 years since then.  Using a silly sounding phrase to ridicule scientific research is still a favorite device of cheap-trick politicians, and wildlife studies are an especially tempting target, as Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, recently demonstrated.

First the background: Wildlife researchers customarily use radio collars equipped with GPS to track animals and figure out where they’ve been—but those collars don’t show much about what an animal has been doing. A new collar changes that, with accelerometers to monitor the animal’s position and acceleration. That’s recently enabled scientists working with a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to study how mountain lions in California behave as they search for their prey, stalk it, and finally pounce. Before they

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

The Unexpected Way Dogs Are Saving Cheetahs

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 3, 2013

An Anatolian on the job in South Africa

An Anatolian on the job in South Africa

My latest for TakePart:

Roughly 6,000 years ago in the uplands of Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, a few clever humans began to deploy dogs to guard their livestock. This idea—Fido standing up alone against wolves, bears, or even lions—may seem like ancient (and insanely courageous) history. And yet every now and then, someone wakes up and says, “Oh! Wait! Maybe that was a smart idea, after all.”

That person is right, according to a new study in Wildlife Society Bulletin, which backs up that perception with numbers. Nicola A. Rust and her coauthors looked at a guard dog program launched by the conservation group Cheetah Outreach in 2005 along South Africa’s border with Zimbabwe and Botswana.

Ranchers there, as elsewhere in the world, tend to regard native predators as a menace to their livestock, and given the chance, they sometimes kill them. But the emotional appeal of what American ranchers living with wolves call “shoot, shovel, and shut up” didn’t work out too well in South Africa, says Rust, a University of Kent graduate student.

When twentieth-century farmers exterminated lions, leopards, and spotted hyenas, the lack of competition from larger cats benefited cheetahs and other smaller predators. Populations of jackals and caracals boomed as a consequence, to the point that sheep farming in particular was no longer economical in some areas. When farmers then began to target the smaller predators, it began to seem as if they were only killing off the dumber jackals, leaving the wilier ones to do even more damage. Where jackals normally give away their presence with nocturnal yipping and wailing, says Rust, a population of silent jackals appeared in one area.

Cheetah Outreach thought that guard dogs might work better than random predator killing to protect both the livestock and the predators. So, in 2005, the group began to train Anatolian shepherd guard dogs. These big, powerful animals can weigh 150 pounds and stand 29 inches at the shoulder—slightly larger, in fact, than a cheetah. The name of the breed, and its lore, suggests that it dates back 6,000 years to those same early shepherds in the Eastern Mediterranean uplands.

South African farmer Peter Knipe with his Anatolian shepherd Neeake

South African farmer Peter Knipe with his Anatolian shepherd Neeake

The dog program planners interviewed interested farmers who had suffered livestock losses from predators. The ones who made the cut received instruction in how to train and care for their dogs. In addition to acquiring and training the puppies, Cheetah Outreach agreed to pay the cost of each dog’s food, vaccines, neutering, microchipping, and other veterinary services for the first year. The program also hired a dog officer to visit each farmer monthly for the first year, then quarterly, and finally once a year. In return, the farmers, who had been losing as much as half their livestock to predators every year, agreed not to kill any more cheetahs.

Rust and her coauthors suggest that it worked. Their study Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Cool Tools | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Surprising Fallout From Hunting Top Predators

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 25, 2013


My latest, for TakePart:

Humans have probably been hunting big, scary predators for as long as we have been human, and for the obvious reasons: They are big. They are scary. And they are competition. The fear goes deep in our culture— the Big Bad Wolf was appearing in folk tales in the early middle ages. When I spent a little time on foot in lion habitat a few years ago, the fear felt even more deeply rooted, down somewhere in my gut. Hunting helps restore our precious illusion of control.

Even today, and even among people who may privately loathe the practice, trophy hunting of top predators can seem like a useful tool. The theory is that trophy fees—$10,000 for a lion, say—help pay to protect habitat and keep out poachers. These fees can also provide economic benefits to local communities. That may increase tolerance among people who still live with large, dangerous animals outside their garden gates. Hunting some species may thus serve as the means to increase their numbers— killing predators in order to save them.

But a new study in the journal Biological Conservation asks whether what’s actually happening is the opposite: These methods may be saving large carnivores numerically, but Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

I Feel Bad About This Fish

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 1, 2013

Watch (and wince) as it encounters a giant water bug larva:

Here’s the gruesome story:

The giant water bug Lethocerus patruelis is the largest European true bug and the largest European water insect. The adult bugs reach an impressive 8 cm in length, and the largest representatives of the same family are even bigger — up to almost 12 cm. A new article published in the open access journal Zookeys provides detailed information on karyotype and the chromosome behavior, the male reproductive system of the species, as well as interesting insights into the life habits and the distribution of the species on the Balkans.

Lethocerus patruelis is a member of the family Belostomatidae also known as electric light bugs or toe biters. These bugs are fierce predators which stalk, capture and feed on aquatic crustaceans, fish and amphibians. When they strike, they Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Kill or Be Killed | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »