Surviving Piranhas

Surviving Piranhas

There’s dumb, and then there’s dumber. Swimming with a school of fish whose nickname is “the donkey castrator” makes the cut. Ditto to sitting down and letting a pack of African wild dogs, known for tearing prey to shreds, surround you and sniff your neck — while your children look on from the Land Rover.

Natural history writer Richard Conniff has been there, done that kind of stuff, and lived to tell the tales. Hitherto, Piranhas and those wild canines had gotten a bad rap from the natural history media. Hummingbirds, it turns out, are way more aggressive.

The author of “Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time” is a regular contributor to magazines such as National Geographic and Smithsonian and has appeared on television (Animal Planet, naturally) and NPR radio. Conniff’s eighth book is a compilation of his journalistic forays into Amazon rainforests and African savannas as well as into his own receding hairline, where he explored a thriving colony of indigenous follicle mites.

The author has run with cheetahs, hung with leopards, and even confronted feral thrips and springtails in a Connecticut inner city park, where he helped to identify 1,369 species in a single day.

The book title and aforementioned stunts notwithstanding, what Conniff does and writes about is not dumb in the least. He captures outlandish and obscure creatures with his eminently digestible prose — leavened with civilized wit and a well developed sense of irony — and then releases his menagerie right under the reader’s nose.

Consider, for example, the common horseshoe crab, with its ten eyes and milky blue blood. While technically not aristocratic, the species does have a long pedigree. Its ancestors lived 445 million years ago and hobnobbed with dinosaurs. Despite once having a bounty on their heads (actually their tails, which were worth three cents apiece), horseshoe crabs are good for a number of things besides turning upside down along the seashore. Their blood is the only commercially viable source of LAL, a product that is used to test the purity of vaccines and antibiotics. LAL harvesters would capture the crabs, draw some blood and then return them to the water alive and well.

Eel and conch fishermen also use the easy-to-catch species as bait. When the crab’s population began to suffer in recent decades, the federal government stepped in. A blanket ban on gathering the arthropods left Cape Cod’s LAL industry up a creek without a paddle, as the feds threw the baby out with the bathwater. In compelling and delicious detail, Conniff brings this familial critter (that most of us know precious little about), as well as the controversy surrounding its future into clear focus.

Across the Atlantic, in Madagascar, Conniff tagged along with Russ Mittermeier, president of Conservation International, who was looking for lemurs. He had already seen more than half of the world’s 650 species of apes, monkeys and prosimians and was hoping to add two more to his “life list.” The animated movie “Madagascar” had boosted tourism to the remote and impoverished African nation, and Mittermeier was touting ecotourism as a way of helping to sustain that interest. The hope is that seeing monkeys – “monkeying,” for short – would become a pastime equivalent to birding. The lemurs’ habitat could serve as a sustainable source of income, of national pride, as opposed to a short-term fix from logging and the killing of “bush meat.”

In a separate piece, Conniff reports on how Patricia Wright, an American primatologist, lobbied (badgered, really) the Madagascan government and a resident timber baron into establishing a national park the size of Manhattan to protect lemurs and other rain forest species. While the author refrains from preaching throughout, it is clear who the good guys, and gals, are.

Indeed, the human characters Conniff cavorts with are interesting animals in their own right. He describes one biologist plying the African bush thusly: “He wore a grimy jacket, held together with bloodstains and duct tape, and a pair of shorts, which revealed that he had scribbled field notes up both legs from knee to cuff.”

Whether he is tracking fearsome predators, or merely promiscuous dung beetles, Conniff transports the wild things right into our cozy dens, and makes us root harder for their survival in a world that is stacked against so many of them.