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  • Reviews for Richard Conniff’s Books


    Ending Epidemics: A History of Escape from Contagion: “Ending Epidemics is an important book, deeply and lovingly researched, written with precision and elegance, a sweeping story of centuries of human battle with infectious disease. Conniff is a brilliant historian with a jeweler’s eye for detail. I think the book is a masterpiece.” Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer

    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 ‘trophic cascades’

Bears Nosh on Ants, and that Makes Everything Different

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 30, 2015

(Photo: Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

(Photo: Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

My latest for Takepart:

In a remote mountain meadow in central Colorado, treehopper nymphs and western thatching ants have come to a mutual understanding, and it makes for a case study in just how nuanced the natural world can be, and how small changes—changes we might consider trivial—can send huge effects cascading through a habitat.

The nymphs are the immature stage of treehopper insects, and they’re not wonderful to look at, with spines, and hairs, and legs sticking out everywhere from their tiny black-and-gray bodies.  (Think Jeff Goldblum in “The Fly.”) When you’re having a John Denver moment about the beautiful shrubbery on that mountain meadow, they’re clustered along the stems and branches, busily sucking out the sugar-rich phloem.  But the ants think they’re adorable. They keep the nymphs safe from marauding beetles and spiders.  In return, the ants get to eat the sweet honeydew excreted by the nymphs.

This lovely bit of mutualism is part of a larger food web extending, improbably, to the black bears living nearby. Black bears, it turns out, like to eat ants. Lots of ants. In Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park ants make up nearly a third of the diet for black bears, by volume. And yep, grizzlies Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Food & Drink | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Turns Out Wolves Really Do Change Rivers, After All

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 10, 2014

UPDATE FRIDAY MARCH 30: At the suggestion of a reader, I’m changing the title of this item–formerly “Maybe Wolves Don’t Change Rivers, After All” to reflect the consensus of scientific research noted in my updates before and after this article.

UPDATE MONDAY FEBRUARY 19 2018, new study supports the hypothesis that wolves have changed the character of stream-side vegetation at Yellowstone.

UPDATE SATURDAY MARCH 25 2016: PLEASE NOTE THAT ARTHUR MIDDLETON (below) and all other ecological researchers agree that reintroducing wolves to their former home range across the American West is a major benefit to wildlife and healthy habitats. It is also essential.  All this article says is that the results are not as quick or simple as some environmentalists want to believe:

The story of how wolves transformed the Yellowstone National Park landscape, beginning in the 1990s, has become a favorite lesson about the natural world.  A video recounting (above) has gone viral lately, with British writer George Monbiot re-telling the story in his best breathy David Attenborough.

The only problem,  according to field biologist Arthur Middleton, writing in today’s New York Times, is that it isn’t true.

I don’t like the NYT headline “Is the Wolf A Real American Hero?” which seems to fault the wolf for our myth making.  But otherwise, this op-ed is a good reminder that nature is almost always more complex than the stories we tell about it :

FOR a field biologist stuck in the city, the wildlife dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History are among New York’s best offerings. One recent Saturday, I paused by the display for elk, an animal I study. Like all the dioramas, this one is a great tribute. I have observed elk behavior until my face froze and stared at the data results until my eyes stung, but this scene brought back to me the graceful beauty of a tawny elk cow, grazing the autumn grasses.

As I lingered, I noticed a mother reading an interpretive panel to her daughter. It recounted how the reintroduction of wolves in the mid-1990s returned the Yellowstone ecosystem to health by limiting the grazing of elk, which are sometimes known as “wapiti” by Native Americans. “With wolves hunting and scaring wapiti from aspen groves, trees were able to grow tall enough to escape wapiti damage. And tree seedlings actually had a chance.” The songbirds came back, and so did the beavers. “Got it?” the mother asked. The enchanted little girl nodded, and they wandered on.

This story — that wolves fixed a broken Yellowstone by killing and frightening elk — is one of ecology’s most famous. It’s the classic example of what’s called a “trophic cascade,” and has appeared in textbooks, on National Geographic centerfolds and in this newspaper. Americans may know this story better than any other from ecology, and its grip on our imagination is one of the field’s proudest contributions to wildlife conservation. But there is a problem with the story: It’s not true.

We now know that elk are tougher, and Yellowstone more complex, than we gave them credit for. By retelling the same old story about Yellowstone wolves, we Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , | 154 Comments »