Biology

The New York Times on Craig Packer

December 30, 2015
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The New York Times on Craig Packer

From an expansive profile of lion expert and University of Chicago Press author Craig Packer at the New York Times: Like many scientists, Dr. Packer, a professor of ecology, evolution and behavior at the University of Minnesota, has fought his share of battles in the pages of professional journals. But he has also tangled with far more formidable adversaries than dissenting colleagues. He has sparred with angry trophy hunters, taken on corrupt politicians, fended off death threats and, in one case, thwarted a mugging. Like the lioness, his opponents discovered that he is unlikely to give ground. “My reflex is to confront the danger and go right at it,” he said. Dr. Packer’s boldness — he concedes some might call it naïveté — eventually led to the upheaval of his life in Tanzania, where for 35 years he ran the Serengeti Lion Project, dividing his time between Minnesota and Africa. Assisted by a bevy of graduate students, he conducted studies of lion behavior that have shaped much of what scientists understand about the big cats. But in 2014, Tanzanian wildlife officials withdrew his research permit, accusing him of “tarnishing the image of the Government of Tanzania” by making derogatory statements about . . .

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Richard B. Primack on Thoreau

October 22, 2015
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Richard B. Primack on Thoreau

  In their October 19, 2015 issue, the New Yorker published a piece by staff writer Kathryn Schulz on Henry David Thoreau’s legacy. “Who was this cold-eyed man who saw in loss of life only aesthetic gain, who identified not with the drowned or the bereaved but with the storm?,” one of its takeaway lines, evidences Schulz’s polemical intent: “Pond Scum,” as the piece is titled, resituates Thoreau as a narcissistic control freak churning out our earliest instances of “cabin porn” and doling out misanthropic moral judgments as if they were fodder for page-a-day self-help calendars. One point she does concede, though: Thoreau was “an excellent naturalist and an eloquent and prescient voice for the preservation of wild places.” Richard B. Primack, author of Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods, responded in an op-ed for the Boston Globe, “Sorry, New Yorker, Thoreau is more relevant than ever,” which addressed Thoreau’s contributions to our understanding of species extinctions, the value of education, the dangers of consumer culture, and even, climate change. As Primack argues: Everyone knows that Thoreau was an unusually perceptive observer of nature who wrote eloquently and passionately about the need to preserve wild spaces. He also kept a voluminous journal — 2 . . .

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Free e-book for September: Craig Packer’s Into Africa

September 1, 2015
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Free e-book for September: Craig Packer’s Into Africa

Our free e-book for September: Into Africa by Craig Packer *** Craig Packer takes us into Africa for a journey of fifty-two days in the fall of 1991. But this is more than a tour of magnificent animals in an exotic, faraway place. A field biologist since 1972, Packer began his work studying primates at Gombe and then the lions of the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater with his wife and colleague Anne Pusey. Here, he introduces us to the real world of fieldwork—initiating assistants to lion research in the Serengeti, helping a doctoral student collect data, collaborating with Jane Goodall on primate research. As in the works of George Schaller and Cynthia Moss, Packer transports us to life in the field. He is addicted to this land—to the beauty of a male lion striding across the Serengeti plains, to the calls of a baboon troop through the rain forests of Gombe—and to understanding the animals that inhabit it. Through his vivid narration, we feel the dust and the bumps of the Arusha Road, smell the rosemary in the air at lunchtime on a Serengeti verandah, and hear the lyrics of the Grateful Dead playing off bootlegged tapes. Into Africa also . . .

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World Elephant Day

August 12, 2015
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World Elephant Day

Tuesday, August 12th, is the inaugural “World Elephant Day,” initiated by a number of elephant conservation organizations, each working in collaboration toward “better protection for wild elephants, improving enforcement policies to prevent the illegal poaching and trade of ivory, conserving elephant habitats, better treatment for captive elephants and, when appropriate, reintroducing captive elephants into natural, protected sanctuaries.” Caitlin O’Connell, the author of Elephant Don: The Politics of a Pachyderm Posse, recently posted at National Geographic about the loss of Greg, the iconic elephant whose rise and reign as a don among his peers was chronicled in her book. Finally reconciling that fact that she hadn’t seen Greg in four years with the increasing likelihood of his death inspired O’Connell to post a formal obit, of sorts, in which she reminisced on Greg’s presence, absence, and legacy. In part: Four years after what most probably marked the passing of the don, I can’t ignore the impact that his absence has had on this male society, and just how similar their social dynamics have been to a human society after the loss of a great figure head. In 2012, the first season without the don, there seemed to be competing factions, Prince Charles leading one camp and Luke . . .

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The crisis in non-fiction publishing

June 26, 2015
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The crisis in non-fiction publishing

Bolder. More global. Risk-taking. The home of future stars. Not a tagline for a well-placed index fund portfolio (thank G-d), but the crux of a piece by Sam Leith for the Guardian on the “crisis in non-fiction publishing”—ostensibly the result of copycat, smart-thinking, point-taking trade fodder that made Malcolm Gladwell not just a columnist, but a brand. As Leith asserts: We have a flock of books arguing that the internet is either the answer to all our problems or the cause of them; we have scads of books telling us about the importance of mindfulness, or forgetfulness, or distraction, or stress. We have any number about what one recent press release called the “always topical” debate between science and religion. We have a whole subcategory that concern themselves with “what it means to be human.” Enter the university presses. Though Leith acknowledges they’re still capable of producing academic jargon dressed-up in always already pantalettes, they are also home to deeper, more complex, and vital trade non-fiction that produces new scholarship and nuanced contributions to the world of ideas, while still targeting their offerings to the general reader. If big-house publishers produce brands, scholarly presses produce the sharp, intelligent, and individualized contributions that later (after, . . .

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Revisiting Paul R. Ehrlich’s Population Bomb

June 12, 2015
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Revisiting Paul R. Ehrlich’s Population Bomb

Earlier this month, the New York Times revisited Paul R. Ehrlich—through both his cult favorite 1968 work The Population Bomb, and as a doomsday-advocating talk show guest, who spent much of the 1970s and years since advancing the notion that it was just a matter of time before the strained resources of our overcrowded planet could no support humanity. Though the years since might have seeded us with a kinder, gentler apocalypse, Ehrlich remains (mostly) resolute: But Dr. Ehrlich, now 83, is not retreating from his bleak prophesies. He would not echo everything that he once wrote, he says. But his intention back then was to raise awareness of a menacing situation, he says, and he accomplished that. He remains convinced that doom lurks around the corner, not some distant prospect for the year 2525 and beyond. What he wrote in the 1960s was comparatively mild, he suggested, telling Retro Report: “My language would be even more apocalyptic today.” And yet, in a second Times piece, an op-ed, “Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb Argument Was Right,” by statistics professor Paul A. Murtaugh, Ehrlich’s ideas are framed less as nostalgia for a time of reasonable doomsday bets, and more as the inevitable catastrophic . . .

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Feral wins the 2015 Orion Book Award

June 10, 2015
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Feral wins the 2015 Orion Book Award

Congratulations to George Monbiot, author of Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, Human Life, which was just announced as the winner of the 2015 Orion Book Award for nonfiction, which honors “books that deepen the reader’s connection to the natural world, represent excellence in writing.” In Feral, Monbiot, a journalist, columnist for the Guardian, and environmentalist (see his recent TED talk here), argues for a twenty-first-century movement based upon the concept of rewilding, which seeks to free nature from human intervention and allow ecosystems to resume their natural processes. From a recent profile of the book at the Orion Blog: When’s the last time you walked into the woods, or a park, or your garden, and felt unsure of what—or who—you might see? If the answer is “it’s been a while,” you’re not alone. With his intrepid and imaginative new book, Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life, journalist George Monbiot has invented a term for this twenty-first-century condition that afflicts so many of us in the developed world: “ecological boredom.” He’s come up with a prescription, too, which involves large-scale reintroductions of keystone species to the landscapes that humans have emptied out and made their own. If this sounds reckless and implausible, it’s . . .

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Excerpt: Edible Memory

May 22, 2015
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Excerpt: Edible Memory

An excerpt from Edible Memory: The Lure of Heirloom Tomatoes and Other Forgotten Foods by Jennifer A. Jordan *** “Making Heirlooms” How could anything as perishable as fruits and vegetables become an heirloom? Many things that are heirlooms today were once simple everyday objects. A quilt made of fabric scraps, a wooden bowl used in the last stages of making butter, both become heirlooms only as time increases between now and the era of their everyday use. Likewise, the Montafoner Braunvieh—a tawny, gorgeously crooked-horned cow that roams a handful of pastures and zoos in Europe, a tuft of hair like bangs above her big brown eyes—or the Ossabaw pigs that scurry around on spindly legs at Mount Vernon were not always “heirlooms.” Nor were the piles of multicolored tomatoes that periodically grace the cover of Martha Stewart Living magazine or the food pages of daily newspapers. What happened to change these plants and animals from everyday objects into something rare and precious, imbued with stories of the past? In fact, food has always been an heirloom in the sense of saving seeds, of passing down the food you eat to your children and your children’s children, in a mixture of the . . .

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INFESTEDBOOK.COM

May 4, 2015
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Brooke Borel’s Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World, a history, is the kind of book that can make you squirm—and not in a way that reassures you about the general asepsis of your mattress, hostel accommodations, luggage, vintage sweater, sexual partner, electrical heating system, duvet cover, trousseau, or recycling bin. Consider this excerpt from the book, recently posted at Gizmodo, about the plucky bed bug’s resistance to DDT (read more at the link to learn about how it—yes, the insect—was almost drafted in the Vietnam War): Four years after the Americans and the Brits added DDT to their wartime supply lists, scientists found bed bugs resistant to the insecticide in Pearl Harbor barracks. More resistant bed bugs soon showed up in Japan, Korea, Iran, Israel, French Guiana, and Columbus, Ohio. In 1958 James Busvine of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine showed DDT resistance in bed bugs as well as cross- resistance to several similar pesticides, including a tenfold increase in resistance to a common organic one called pyrethrin. In 1964 scientists tested bed bugs that had proven resistant five years prior but had not been exposed to any insecticides since. . . .

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Excerpt: Elephant Don

April 27, 2015
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Excerpt: Elephant Don

An excerpt from Elephant Don: The Politics of a Pachyderm Posse  by Caitlin O’Connell “Kissing the Ring” Sitting in our research tower at the water hole, I sipped my tea and enjoyed the late morning view. A couple of lappet-faced vultures climbed a nearby thermal in the white sky. A small dust devil of sand, dry brush, and elephant dung whirled around the pan, scattering a flock of guinea fowl in its path. It appeared to be just another day for all the denizens of Mushara water hole—except the elephants. For them, a storm of epic proportions was brewing. It was the beginning of the 2005 season at my field site in Etosha National Park, Namibia—just after the rainy period, when more elephants would be coming to Mushara in search of water—and I was focused on sorting out the dynamics of the resident male elephant society. I was determined to see if male elephants operated under different rules here than in other environments and how this male society compared to other male societies in general. Among the many questions I wanted to answer was how ranking was determined and maintained and for how long the dominant bull could hold his position . . .

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