June 5, 2020

Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time My Life Doing Dumb Stuff by Richard Conniff

Old Lyme resident Richard Conniff lives the life of which most of us mere mortals can only dream.  He travels to exotic places, meets interesting people … and animals, writes or makes movies about them … and on top of all that, gets paid for doing it.  Jen Mann chose his most recent book as her review pick for this week.

This is very amusing.  I am a big fan of personal essay type books.  The collection of true accounts from Richard Coniff’s bag of tricks is excellent.

Always a fan of Dry Wit, I am thrilled to have found a sizable collection of writings from this intelligent, wildly experienced writer.  After this collection in particular I want to hunt down the rest.  Each chapter is an article slash essay slash short adventure recounting a particular escapade Coniff has had in the wild or with a certain species.

My favorite is without doubt the discussion of zoological identification with particular regard to naming of a species by its discoverer.  Much like Bill Lear (of the jet) naming his daughter Shanda; these men and women have had great fun with the English and Latin languages.  If you are fortunate enough to discover a new species you are allowed to name it.  Coniff’s research into the names chosen by overworked, overwhelmed or just over amusing scientists had me in stitches.

How about the 8,000th beetle you’ve discovered that needs a name?  Ohno.  Or with 1,500 to go?  Agra vation.  Agra phobia.  How about Phthira relativitae?  On the eve of one’s retirement why not throw caution to the winds and go with, Verae peculya, Heerz tooya or Heerz lukenatcha?  Boy have I missed my calling.

Can’t you see me doubled over laughing at my own jokes in a lab somewhere?  Another wonderful chapter is chock full of more things I never knew.  (One could argue that there are many, many such chapters and one would be correct.  (Rude, but correct.)  Why do humans and horseshoe crabs have different blood chemical bases?  Our blood runs red because hemoglobin is an iron-based molecule. Horseshoe crabs have blood that runs blue because hemocyanin is a copper-based molecule. Really, how cool is that? Mother Nature never ceases to totally amaze me.

What other metals are incorporated into varied cellularly similar creatures?  Have you heard of the Justin Schmidt Pain Index?  On a scale of one to four, it rates the pain of insect stings.  I usually use the JPM Index* but his has merit also.  Good to know that a fire ant will cause serious pain for about half an hour and that the Tarantula Hawk Wasp’s sting is best handled by lying down and screaming for the entire three agonizing minutes before it wears off.  A chapter on mosquitos and how many bites can be expected in a short time in various locales is eye-opening.  Some Canadian scientists sat still long enough to report 9,000 bites in a minute.  As Coniff says,” Those Canadians know how to have fun!”  So does Coniff!

*The JPM Pain Index rates the pain of stepping on small matchbox vehicles barefoot while running across the room to catch a glass of milk before it spills on the couch.  For example, a fire-truck with a vaulted metal ladder rates a perfect score when stepped on hard, directly in the arch, after tripping over a cat.


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