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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 ‘scientific names’

Vengeful Taxonomy (And Other Joys of Scientific Naming)

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 25, 2014

The Black-tailed Godwit's name seems to mean 'good to eat' in Old English, though they are not typically eaten. (Photo: Steve Round/RSPB)

The Black-tailed Godwit’s name seems to mean ‘good to eat’ in Old English, though they are not typically eaten. (Photo: Steve Round/RSPB)

This is a book review I wrote for The Wall Street Journal:

Latin for Bird Lovers

By Roger Lederer and Carol Burr
Timber Press, 223 pages, $24.95

Early this year, a Rutgers University entomologist who had discovered a new species of South American cockroach announced a contest to give it a scientific name: The genus Xestoblatta already existed, but the species name was up for grabs. “Most people have negative feelings about cockroaches, so why not name one out of spite, scorn, or revenge?” Dominic Evangelista wrote. “Got a cheating ex-boyfriend? Hate your boss? Maybe you’re just tired of hearing news about certain celebrities—Xestoblatta justinbieberii, perhaps? You get the idea.” For a bid of about $4,000 (funds that would go to support Mr. Evangelista’s next collecting expedition), anyone could consign an enemy to the seventh circle of scientific immortality. He called it “vengeful taxonomy.”

The incident was a reminder that scientific names, those sometimes cumbersome binomial identifiers, can be more entertaining than we may imagine—a point driven home by “Latin for Bird Lovers,” a book by the husband-and-wife team of Roger Lederer, an ornithologist, and Carol Burr, an artist and former English professor. Their handsomely illustrated account of about 3,000 bird names tells us, among many other things, that the quail genus name Excalfactoria means roughly “source of heat” and derives from the Chinese practice of using these tiny birds as hand-warmers. Almost as oddly, turkey vultures travel under the genus name Cathartes, from the Greek katharsis meaning “cleansing” or “purifying.” The name honors their work clearing away the dead. There’s a genus of flycatchers named Attila, “because of their aggressive nature, as in Attila the Hun.” And such is the richness of avian biodiversity, there’s also a bird genus named after Bleda the Hun, the brother Attila is said to have murdered en route to power.

Birdwatching is hugely popular in the United States: A 2006 study estimated that 48 million Americans participate in some fashion, and spend $36 billion a year at it. But most birders nervously avoid scientific names, because, as the co-authors concede, “it’s nice to be able to speak of the Coppersmith Barbet instead of the tongue-twisting Megalaima haemacephala.” On the other hand, paying attention to scientific names “opens up a whole new way of looking at and understanding birds,” they write. It reveals relationships that might otherwise go unnoticed, and reminds us that similar-sounding common names—American robin and European robin, or meadowlark and lark—can give us false ideas about taxonomic connections. Though Mr. Lederer and Ms. Burr don’t make this point, scientific naming also gives us the opportunity to utter the inexplicably delightful words Upupa epops, the name given to the common hoopoe, in imitation of its call.

The best part of this book, for a beginning birder, will be Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Funny Business | Tagged: , , | 1 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 »

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