I’ve never read Richard Conniff’s award-winning articles in magazines like Outside, Smithsonian, Discover, National Geographic, Audubon and Yankee, but his twenty-three chapters in 2009’s Swimming With Piranhas At Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff With Animals have been previously published in those magazines (and permission was received to reprint here). He covers different wild animals he has directly researched, such as African wild dogs, lemurs, jellyfish, piranhas, leopards, chimpanzees, baboons, horseshoe crabs, hummingbirds, termites, alligator snappers, spiders and more. He also finds out just how well follicle mites are flourishing on his upper forehead. And he does a few seemingly stupid things with wild animals and nothing happens to him, just to debunk myths that African wild dogs, leopards and most piranhas are dangerous and that the misnamed jellyfish aren‘t.
I enjoy learning about wild animals and the dwindling natural world around them and so does Conniff. He's written or edited seven other books, but not all appeal to me like Rats: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or, I must say, Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Fairly Repulsive Wildlife. Sometimes he discusses repulsive things in his latest book, so be warned. He's stupid enough to stick his hand in a fire ant mound for a television crew, but not so stupid to risk his life. Often he reports on stupid researchers he's met like Justin Schmidt in Tucson, Arizona who is co-author of the standard text in the insect-sting field. The Justin Schmidt Pain Index is the guide to turn to if you want to know how bad a sting will be.
Then there are the bored or silly scientists who name their wildlife discoveries with whatever comes to mind. Here's something to make you smile:
...Erwin contemplated the 1,500 species ready to be named in the ground beetle genus Agra, and dubbed one species Agra vation and another Agra phobia...(Menke at the National Museum of Natural History named) a fly Phthiria relativitae, a spider Draculoides bramstokeri, and a pair of musical chiggers in the genus Trombicula doremi and fasolla.
The most amusing chapter perhaps was the one called "A Little Sneaky Sex" where he makes us aware that many, many male species resort to disguising themselves as females so that they may sneak in to the guarded female of the big jocks to have sex and/or spill their seed.
Conniff debunks yet another myth (started by Darwin's theory) with his research:
...The natural world is full of what biologists call ‘satellite males' or ‘sneaker males.' Many of them are relative weaklings, or lack the masculine ornamentation to dazzle choosy females. Some even practice unconventional strategies like cross-dressing. Yet they manage to defeat the expectations of the macho types. Surprisingly often, it's the 98-pound weakling (so to speak) that gets the girl.
British biologists refer to them as 'sneaky f*ckers.' I also learn that in at least one dung beetle species, smaller, sneakier males have larger testes and produce more sperm.
Swimming With Piranhas At Feeding Time says nearly as much about our own species as it does about wildlife species. I was impressed with Dutch biologist Franz de Waal from the chapter "Family Politics" about his research with chimps who are our closest relatives genetically. His 1982 book Chimpanzee Politics was recommended by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, but not understood well. I think he just liked the title because de Waal goes against the myth that chimps are only aggressive, competitive creatures.
Conniff has taken us all over the world in this book, from New Orleans to Africa to Madagascar to the Netherlands to finally a twelfth-century monastery in Bhutan in the Himalayas. He is able to join a Bhutanese expedition to search of the migoi (wild man) as one of the skeptics, but when scientists later couldn't identify hair strands they found where the migoi supposedly lives at times, Conniff isn't as skeptical. In his last paragraph he observes that sometimes mystery is enough and he wouldn't want Bhutan, rich in unexplored wilderness and demons, any different. I agree. It was a nice way to end the 288-page book. I just wish there had been more chapters like them instead of ones about creepy, crawly things!
Swimming With Piranhas At Feeding Time is very well-researched, descriptive and detailed, and mostly fascinating. If you love nature writing and have a quirky sense of humor as well as an adventurous spirit, you should check out this and other Conniff books.
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