Wednesday, December 29

Chimps Use Dolls?

Young female chimpanzees treat sticks as dolls: Growing evidence of biological basis for gender-specific play in humans##

ScienceDaily (2010-12-22) -- Researchers have reported some of the first evidence that chimpanzee youngsters in the wild may tend to play differently depending on their sex, just as human children around the world do. Scientists say female chimpanzees appear to treat sticks as dolls, carrying them around until they have offspring of their own. Young males engage in such behavior much less frequently. ... > read full article

This article elicited a "huh?" reaction from me when I first saw it. However, the results are derived from 14 years of aggregate data, is being supervised by Richard Wrangham, which means I am inclined to believe it. It would not be entirely preposterous for them to need so much observation time in order for them to be able to pick out a significant number of instances of a very particular behavior such as this.

Wired has their take on the story as well (wait, since when does Wired cover primatology?), which is also worth skimming over for the images at very least.

Saturday, December 25

The Entity Known as Tim Curry

That's a bit of an place to pickup again after long delay, isn't it? You see, I'd been spending a bit more time with Tim Curry's group (TC), and as time wore on, it became almost half the time that I was with them, one way or another. They're a bizarre little group, but let me introduce a few of the key players.
  • Tim Curry, but of course. I talked a bit about him in the past, but he has one of the longest and most dignified known histories of any of the baboons in the forest. He is distinguished by his limp, many scars, and being really damn old.
  • Cyrus. The current alpha male. Quite Aaron-like in his demeanor, but probably a couple years younger.
  • Xerxes. The tyrant upstart male of the troop. He's quite new, and no one seems to like him, except me, and I would only say that I don't mind him. Male baboons will be male baboons.
  • Clio. The highest ranking female. A raging and angry bitch of a female baboon. As those dominant females so often tend to be. She doesn't have all that much to be proud of, the troop is less than a dozen adults in total.
  • Terpsichore. Probably the oldest female in the group, possibly the lowest ranking, but definitely the largest. She's a regular behemoth. She looks very similar to Hilda and Midi of the main group, neither of whom I've discussed at great length, which reminds me...

Yes, other than Mr. Curry, whose name defies the measurement of time, all of the adult baboons are given Greek names which have Herodotus' Inquiries in common. But I'm sure we all knew that, so let's just keep moving. You'll hear of the other members of the troop a few posts down the line.

The history of this group is shrouded in mystery and shadows. Before I spent any significant measure of time with these misfits, there was an ancient female among them, far older than Terpsichore. She vanished one day, according to our colleague who regularly visited TC, and was never seen again. As an aged female, her permanent disappearance was marked down to natural causes.

When I began appearing regularly on the scene, Xerxes had just joined the little troop, and had yet to be accepted by the rest of the group. Honestly, he's yet to reach a level of full acceptance on my watch. Maybe the guy really was too much of an asshole to everyone else for his own good. Cyrus had been with the group some time, probably as alpha for most of that, thus the infants and juveniles were likely almost all his. He could afford to get most of the females with so few to worry about.

Terpsichore and Tim seemed to have a thing going on, so that the two of them would consort whenever she swelled in estrous. Tim probably kept control of the deceased old lady who I never met, too. Tim might have occasionally copulated with the lower ranked females. That left 2 or 3 for Tim, and 4 or 5 for Cyrus. Respectable numbers, until Xerxes appeared on the scene.

Since then, everything has been in flux. Cyrus' dominance has been eroding, and looks like it will continue to erode, and the consortship assortments between males and female more and more appear to be completely out the window.

Tim's role in the new male triumvirate was unclear to me. Many civilians said that the troop would go nowhere without him, in spite of his comparatively low position in the male hierarchy. They were mistaken, or at least they were some of the time.

One time in particular, Timmy found his way up into a tree while foraging, as if he were reliving his juvenile years. He apparently found some tasty stuff to munch (the other working theory, which would explain much of Tim's behavior, is that he is no longer quite right in the head), since he remained up there for almost half an hour. This gave the rest of the troop time to move out of sight, cresting a low but steep embankment. Minutes later, we heard a wahoo from further back in the forest and second later we saw Tim limp-running towards us, to the climb the embankment and rejoin the troop at the outskirts. Or rather, in the words of Rainer, Timmy's reaction: "hey guys I was lying here for a few minutes and you all disappeared where are you wahoo."

Tim might just be another old male, only tenuously holding any grip whatsoever on the command of the troop. He's an odd fellow, that one, perhaps the oldest baboon in the area, or at least the one who shows his age far and way more than any other. Tim's eccentricities are just the icing on the cake for this troop because when it comes down to it, they are crazy and weird. Makes for some decent stories, at least.

    Wednesday, October 27


    Some breaking news for once. Whenever I get some fascinating new primate news coming my way, there's always an associated paper, and I always feel the need to read the paper before I say anything about the findings. It turns out that the papers can take a while to read, usually because I am compelled to look back into the references, and well, time just tends to go by.

    This time, I have decided not to read the paper, and merely relay the basic facts. Someone discovered a new species of monkey. That's sort of a big deal.

    A new species of monkey with unusual upturned nostrils has been discovered in north eastern Myanmar.

    Scientists surveying in the area initially identified the so-called snub-nosed monkey from skin and skulls obtained from local hunters. A small population was found separated from the habitat of other species of snub-nosed monkeys by the Mekong and Salween rivers. The total population has been estimated at just 260-330 individuals.

    Note: the picture, taken from the BBC story, is a computer reconstruction, not an actual photo.

    Perhaps next, I will discuss the once newsworthy item of chimpanzee behavioral genetics. Its bound to happen eventually, given that the study is everything I ever wanted in the world, but maybe I should pick it up sooner rather than later?

    Friday, October 22

    Nowhere to Run

    Seven months of daily exposure hasn't been enough to acclimate me to the surprise of a female baboon screaming from the bottom of her lungs. Aged Afrikaans nature lovers who have been walking among these trees for close to half a century still think some human is trapping or hunting the baboons when they hear a run of the mill female scream.  Sometimes I think that a few of my colleagues have their limbic systems under control in this respect, but then again, who is to say they are just more stoic than I?

    As always, I wasn't present for the beginning of this turgid affair, or, if I was, the spark was subtle enough to escape my perception. Noticing things is hard when you're surrounded by sixty baboons for hours on end, and there are all these juveniles bouncing around the slopes and rooftops of a rural school.

    As previously alluded, there were screams. Yet, these screams sounded like nothing I'd heard before, even from these baboons. Perhaps the oddest part was that the screams just kept going. I ignored them at first, as I had tended to do once the novelty of female baboon at their worst wore off. But then four or more different voices chime in, and they just keep going, it becomes something one I, for one, cannot restrain myself from seeking out. It helps if a few wahoo's are thrown into the mix, for a little extra primal flair, though often the most interesting fights are those that the males have no part in, and seemingly want no part in.

    The cacophony became too much, and I strode in the direction of the conflict, neither jogging nor running. Still the wailing continued. I rounded the corner of the building and spotted the mess. A few dekameters from where I now stood, Mariam hung from a roof top ledge, alternately hanging onto the gutter by her nails with one arm, and clasping her infant to her for good measure. Above her, roaring and shaking their coats in exhileration were both Aaron and Damian.

    The two males, volumes infalted by hairs standing on end, both leaned over the edge of the building and swatted at Mariam. Its never clear to me when the males really mean it when it comes to those swipes. I've seen Aaron press a female out onto a thin tree branch, three stories in height, and then let her go free without a visible scratch, and then I've seen him chase a female till she was so exhausted and torn up, she could only croak out her complaints. He bounded along behind her showing no sign of giving her a break from whatever heretical transgression she perpetratesd against his authority.

    Anyhow, I'd never seen two males take aim at the same female (two males between which the tension grows ever more palpable). What would the low-ranking mother of an infant do to rouse the ire of two separate male authorities? What could a low-ranking mother do, for that matter. If only I'd seen the beginning, or rather, if only baboonists had a good method for knowing when something was about to begin.

    Mariam continued to howl, perhaps in pain, perhaps in terror, maybe just as an instinct which might attract some defenders or push away her attackers. Her wailing continued for quite a while after I came to the scene. The only change was abrupt, and played out quite lucky for her.

    At seemingly great personal risk to herself and her baby, Mariam let herself hang by one arm and slowly, surprisingly calmly, reached out her other arm towards the pipe into which the gutter emptied. It ran down the wall of the building, and was a bit more than a meter from where she clung. Once she'd reached as far as she could, she let go with her other arm, and almost gracefully swung over to the pipe.

    Speedily, she shimmied down the pipe with the infant and bolted. Taking a few moments to realize what had just transpired, literally under their noses, Aaron and Damian looked around for means of pursuit. One of them followed down the pipe, the other bounded along the roof out of sight, to find another route. Don't ask me which did which.

    I tried to follow Mariam, then one of the males, but when they're moving at full tilt through semi-urbanized areas, its like trying to keep up with Spiderman in a chase scene. The climax had passed, anyhow, Mariam had won herself a reprieve from the torments of the males for a brief time. That's to say nothing of the guff she'd get from the females throughout the rest of the day, though.

    My paper log has returned. Now if I could find a minute to read it.

    Sunday, September 19

    These are two of my favorite things

    ...nor do I allow this blog to become an interior clone of Cute Overload or Zooborns. But, exceptions can, and must be made. And its the weekend.

    oh shit there's two of them
    I don't know much about Long-tailed macaques, but it does seem quite unusual for a male monkey to be so attached to a "child." I'd rather not taint this precious moment with ethological analysis, at least this time. Go look at the rest of the pictures.

    Oh, and this one:
    so is this pick up  and drop off for the baboons in attendance or the people coming to fiesta with the baboons?
    Next time, baboons for reals.

    Friday, September 17

    Fake Genetics

    I try not to let this blog deteriorate into place I would splatter with arbitrary links, but this one is deserving, particularly because of the conversation it provokes. Also, its a bloody Friday afternoon.

    Rare Breeds Petunias has a straight forward premise and approach: take a random assortment of petunias, and start breeding a colony of them. You can simulate n generations of petunias, and their traits will be passed on based on legit genetic models. Its simpler than breeding for petunia traits in the real world, for sure. Its also a flash game.

    So, I've managed to develop RSI, a condition which, when conjoined with the fact that my journal is still absent, makes it extremely challenging for me to be able to recount myriads of hilarious monkey hijinx. However, the journal will be resurfacing very soon (one can't get these things out of order...), and with the aid of the modern science of ergonomics, my hands are doing much better. In the meantime, there's not much at all I can do, which in short, is a real pain... But I think I have one or two plays secreted away for special occasions.

    Thursday, September 2

    Drunken Monkey Stance

    Drunk baboons plague Cape Town's exclusive suburbs

    The sun is setting over South Africa's oldest vineyard and the last of the wine-tasting tourists are climbing onto their buses. But one large family group has no intention of leaving – and there is little the management can do about it.

    First, a few notes about this article:
    • I've been to Groot Constantia many times, sometimes for leisure, and sometimes in search of the baboons in question.
      • Never seen them intoxicated, though.
    • I believe that the photographer who took the pictures was one who I met out in the field. If I'm correct, he chose a good day; the baboons were having a great deal of fun around a pond.
    • I had no idea Nelson Mandela lived in Constantia. I have a feeling that means he has one house, of many, in that suburb. I was under the impression that he spent most of his time in and around Guateng. Maybe not these days, since he's originally from Eastern Cape.
    • I can't say I've heard of anyone mentioned by name in the article, except Justin O'Raian. That said, I've never met him (nor anyone else in the story).
    Anyway, have a read. Its from a British news source, not a South African one, but most of the story appears to be based on personal accounts and I have no idea what manner of fact checking took place. The harvest season was months ago, though, and there haven't been any grapes on the vines since then. Hardly constitutes news.

    Friday, August 27

    A Bit of Humor

    I was once an avid reader of Fuck You, Penguin, but that blog faded into the ether for me a number of years ago. Now he has a bloody book! It took a particular post like this being sent my way to recapture my attention of a brief moment.
    Honestly, it might be this picture that I found to be the most captivating aspect of the post. The photo manages to capture the silliness of monkey behavior via the stick in the mouth, as well as the sleekness of the animal in its seemingly perfectly groomed coat. And the eyes. Always the eyes. They've got that perfect intensity I've gotten so used to seeing among the males of my troops.

    The mandrill was once thought to be a type of baboon; categorized under the same genus: papio. In more recent years, the mandrill and the drill have been given their own genus, but they're still recognized as being close relatives of the baboons, and if you ask me, the resemblance is clear in spite of the vibrant color differences.

    ...plus you know, the shots that the author takes at the mandrill are also quite amusing.

    Wednesday, August 18


    As a rule, I try to avoid primate-human interaction affairs if it is at all possible. Posting interesting stories about how monkeys or apes get along with humans is a different tale entirely.

    When chimpanzees attack humans: Loss of habitat may lead to increased conflict

    ScienceDaily (2010-08-11) -- Scientists from Japan, studying chimpanzees in Guinea, have published research revealing why nonhuman primates attack humans and what preventive measures can be taken. The study suggests that while rare, attacks by primates on humans may increase as wild habitat is increasingly converted for agriculture. ... > read full article

    Given that the International Primatology Society's (IPS) annual meeting is being held next month in Kyoto, I thought I could use this opportunity to say a few things about the unique Japanese school of Primatology. Unfortunately, I've never met a true Japanese primatologist in real life. However, I've been to Japan, and have spent a number of years studying the Japanese language and culture on the side.

    I was a bit surprised when I first learned that Japanese Primatology involves establishing a very personal connection with one's subject. To quote wikipedia,
     "Japanese primatology is a carefully disciplined subjective science. It is believed that the best data comes through identification with your subject. Neutrality is eschewed in favour of a more casual atmosphere, where researcher and subject can mingle more freely. Domestication of nature is not only desirable, but necessary for study."
    Definitely not how the Euro-American schools of primatology go about it, at least in my experience. This, after all, is the kind of thing that can get you into Dian Fossey degrees of trouble. Or so we're often lead to believe.

    I occasionally check the faculty, staff, and students in the Japanese primatology programs, and while they are composed almost exclusively of Japanese, there is usually an odd European student or two. I've known people to go abroad and live among the Japanese for years on end, but what would it be like to be in the boonies of Africa with a Japanese research team? I don't think I've ever seen one of the Japanese teams advertise on the Primate Job List. Its another bold new frontier in the world of Primatology that few would consider, and fewer are given an opportunity to experience. Unless you're Japanese, of course.

    Thursday, August 12

    The Odd One Out

    There is an epilogue to the tale of Trish and the curse that hangs over her. A few weeks after her child died, things were mostly back to normal for her. Trish had always been a pudgy baboon, which made us all think she was a month overdue on her child when she was pregnant. In one brief moment, I even thought she had become pregnant again. The my senses took hold. So she went about her fat, low ranking business, getting pushed around and having relatively little support. She's not particularly remarkable except for being overweight and having defective breasts.

    She became quite remarkable when one day, I was standing by one of the standard paths, trying to collect a bit of data, when Trish waddles by, carrying an infant on her back. It was a brown and gray infant, with not a trace of black hair remaining. Its legs straddled Trish's tail, its upper body lay flattened against her back, and the tiny arms clutched down at her flanks. This is the second most popular infant riding position, and once they get too big for a ventral mount (as this one very much was), this is just about all that their mothers will still allow.

    The infant offered an occasional grunt, but I coudn't quite place the vocalization. It almost seemed as if it were complaining or in mild distress. Trish looked up at me as she passed with he infant, and quickened her pace to be rid of me. I was too shocked to follow. What the hell was this about?

    This scene repeated herself for all of us several times, and left us all equally baffled. This infant clearly wasn't hers. It was only a year or so old, too young for us not to have seen her with it previously. So who's baby did Trish decided to adopt, or perhaps, who's baby decided to adopt Trish? And which mother was okay with her young infant pulling this kind of stunt?

    At first, the running belief was that the infant was Punzle's, who was adventurous enough to perhaps make up for how bitchy Punzle tends to be. This theory was disproven when Trish trotted by with infant astraddle, and Hilda following not more than a few paces (baboon paces, not human). The scene played out with the infant hopping off Hilda for a brief suckle before returning to Trish.

    I'm happy that of all the females, this has happened to Trish. Maybe it is precisely because of who she is and what she goes through that she seeks out surrogates so effectively. There are stories of females who go about it quite poorly: they effectively steal a baby from a lower ranking female and carry it around treating it as their own, except the infant usually can't suckle, and eventually dies. A bad business for everyone involved.

    Trish is too low ranked for such disrespectful behavior. That doesn't explain why Hilda, one of the highest ranking females in the troop, is okay with this. It occurred to me that since she is one of the older females in the troop, Trish might be one of her own children. If this were the case, Trish ought not to be so low ranking herself, given baboons' matrilineal patterns of inheritance. Perhaps a granddaughter? That would make the ranking discrepancy less of an issue, but Hilda doesn't seem that old.

    Wishy washy as it may seem, maybe Hilda is old and secure in her rnaking and motherhood habits, and is wise enough to see that Trish is not a threat, in moderation. The child is at least a year old, and Hilda's still keeping an eye on things. Its good for her, too, since she has to deal with the little brat less than if Trish hadn't been appointed baby-sitter. So it makes decent sense from a anthropomorphic standpoint, for whatever that is worth.

    It seems like a small consolation for Trish, and its unclear if she's actually enriching the troop through this behavior. Yet, all of the three involved seem to be satisfied with the arrangement. Far from me to tell baboons what to do.

    Tuesday, August 10

    Monkeys aren't donkeys

    But, its a moot point, since gorillas aren't monkeys. What am I blabbering about, you may say? Well, Molly sent me a highly amusing link about apes from Gizmodo of all places.

    Real Life Donkey Kong Playing With His Nintendo DS
    Real Life Donkey Kong Playing With His Nintendo DS"Donkey Kong plays Donkey Kong while Donkey Kong Jr. watches. OK, maybe he's not playing DK, but it's just as good. The story involves a kid, a couple of real gorillas at the San Francisco Zoo and a happy ending."

    Go read the story, watch the movie, and look at the pictures. Pretty great stuff. I just keep finding more and more little things that make me like Gizmodo.

    There's more interesting stuff to be said about the baboons. I have a coda for the woeful tale of Trish in the works, but then I went and of all things, injured my wrist, so I'm trying to keep my keyboard strain to a minimum. But if I had nothing but gorillas and video games news to read about, I'd be happy.

    Tuesday, July 27

    A Tale of Two Babies

    I've been holding back on this story, waiting for a more opportune time to tell it. I may have just been trying to put it off because of the difficulty in telling it.

    When the original team first began working with the main troop at this site, a few months before I arrived, there had been a baby boom, and almost a dozen black infants had been recently born. Most adult females in the troop were carrying around a baby at that time, including Trish, the first female to be identified and named. She was the easiest to pick out because of her baby, who was dead.

    No one ever saw how the infant died. Its a common enough occurrence after all. What counted was that the baby had only recently perished, so Trish proceeded to carry the baby around for about a week before discarding the corpse. By that time, her image and persona had solidified itself in the team's mind.

    After that, the months passed uneventfully for Trish. She went into estrus again after a few weeks, several cycles later, her swelling abated and didn't grow again. She began to show, and for the following six months, gradually took on the bloated shape of a pregnant baboon.

    Tina had noted months earlier just how small her nipples were, but for us, this as just a characteristic for identification. Only when the baby was born did we fully realize the potential problem with this feature.

    Trish attempted to nurse the new infant for almost a week. She held the infant close to her chest, and it searched, but never did it seem to catch on one of her nipples. I watched her raptly when I had the time, and often thought I saw some progress, but the deterioration of the baby's condition proved me conclusively wrong. Over the course of that week, I slowly watched Trish's baby starve to death in her arms. The baby stopped squeaking after the first few days, its movements growing progressively more sluggish, responding to fewer and fewer cues from Trish. Eventually, the baby ceased to move voluntarily, though if you watched closely, you could see a weak breathing motion in the chest. After she finally died, the Trish carried the child around for a few more days, and then, as before, she discarded the corpse for good.

    My front row view of this progression had quite an impact on me, emotionally. Yet, I try as hard as I can to approach the situation both subjectively and objectively in what I ought to take away from what is arguably a tragedy. On the one hand, her inferior genes prevent her from successfully reproducing, thus preventing this particular unfortunate trait from being passed on to any subsequent generation of baboon.

    On the other hand, I can't imagine how painful this must be for her, physically or emotionally. For starters, I'm not a female, so I do not know what feminine hormones or the physiology of gestation and birth are like, but I hear (from most people) that they're less than spectacular. Yet, I have a decent enough imagination. Trish will spend the entirety of her life, up till menopause, dealing with cumbersome swellings, pestering males, and the following discomforts of pregnancy, all for naught. Furthermore, she misses out on the reprieve period which other females spend suckling their babies and gaining social ground. Instead, Trish returns to cycling a few weeks after her latest baby dies, and the whole annoying process begins afresh... despite the preordained outcome.

    Another reason I can't imagine her suffering is because the human race has a hundred ways around this sort of problem. Modern technology has given us formula milk, but since time immemorial, humans could use wet nurses to save the life of a child. For baboons, there is no such option. Female social bonds can be quite strong, but not that strong. Females in this situation have to deal with their pain, mostly alone.

    A question that always rises in my mind when I think about Trish is, what do we do with her? Practically, there is nothing we can or should do about Trish, the individual. She's part of the wild ecosystem, and its not good practice to intervene in natural aspects of baboon life. Not much to be done for her except... euthanization. Would it be better to euthanize Trish than to let her continue a harsh life which is, pretty convincingly, pointless? It may be fortunate, that as scientists we can escape such decisions by invoking, or perhaps hiding behind, the principles of non-involvement.

    Monday, July 19

    Latest and Greatest

    Its a bit rare for me to find as many newsworthy items on the great apes other than the three chimpanzees; I just haven't been interested in the others for years now. Yet what have we here? Honest, intriguing findings that are the results of gorilla studies.

    Great apes 'play' tag to keep competitive advantage

    ScienceDaily (2010-07-14) -- Gorillas hit-and-run in 'games' of tag in the same way humans do and for the same reason -- to keep their competitive advantage, a new study has found. It is the first study to show apes, like humans, will hit a playmate then run in order to try to get away with the upper hand. ... > read full article

    My main beef with orangutans is that they look so alien. I am especially referring to the males and their purple skin, shambling arms, and cheek flanges. Plus, think about it - all the great apes are from central Africa, except the orangs, which are way out on a couple of islands of Indonesia. It means there is a potentially fascinating evolutionary back story, but also that they don't share much in common with humans or even the rest of the apes. The people I know who've gone out there to do field with them tell some nightmarish stories about following them through the trees through the nastiest rain-forest imaginable. But here you have it, one of the worst the Killers references I've seen in quite some time, followed by an interesting article.

    Signal like you mean it: Orangutan gestures carry specific intentional meanings, study finds

    ScienceDaily (2010-06-17) -- Great ape gestures have intentional meaning and are made with the expectation of specific behavioral responses, according to researchers. The study of meaning in animal communication takes a significant step forward with the authors' new systematic approach to assessing intentional meaning in the gestural communication of non-humans, applied here to a group of orangutan gestures. ... > read full article

    Odd they may be, but you'll not likely see me insult orang intelligence.

    Finally, a chimpanzee field study by the great Klaus Zuberbuhler and company, yielding impressively metacognitive linguistic findings. Right up my alley.

    Chimpanzees are aware of the social impact of their communications, primatologists have discovered.

    Chimps communicate using a variety of calls and gestures, including making vocalizations known as pant grunts, which signal subordination. But researchers have found that chimps will change what they "say" depending on who is listening. That reveals a previously unrecognized social awareness that has implications for the origin of human language.

    Oops, I lied. Since I like to emphasize that humans are great apes, and close relatives of chimpanzees, I went looking for result research on Homo sapiens and I actually found one I liked. 

    Too Fine to Sign:

    Very attractive job seekers may face discrimination from prospective employers of the same sex, according to a new study just published online in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

    I'm still surprised by the number of upper-middle class (and above) people I encounter who aren't fully aware of our status as apes. Someone should really do something about that.

    Tuesday, July 13

    They Grow Up So Quick

    Previously, I told the story of a young juvenile male who represents a broad swatch of perversion in the baboon population ages 2 to 5. They really like to have sex. However, this epidemic of carnal lust extends into the female domain as well.

    Female baboons have it rough. That post focused on the violence against females, and briefly touched on their swellings. Females get their first swellings quite young. The swellings aren't very large, but they're definitely there. What isn't there is the ability to reproduce. They'll wish they could, but it takes more than a year usually for the young females to become fertile. Even then, they'll have quite a bit of trouble finding a decent male to mate with.

    These females are barely more than juveniles, are not old enough to be as physically strong as mature females, and just don't have mothering experience. There is a good chance that a female will be impregnated by some low ranking sub-adult male, and first two or three babies will all die in infancy because the female isn't strong or experienced enough. After those first few "trial" runs, they'll start attracting the attention of more worthy mates.

    All females go through this phase, but seem just a bit small for those enormous swellings. The running theory is that our baboons mature earlier due to their comparatively high calorie diet. They grow in size much quicker than baboons living in the northern bush, but the accelerated growth might not be fully synchronized with the accelerated sexual development, allowing them to develop swellings when they are younger and smaller.

    Summarizing Sapolsky, these females are driven crazy by an overdrive of hormones which they're just getting used to, and the males are no help. The males won't touch the females because they know that the potential is low, so the females get little relief from their torment.

    We call these young females Lolitas, after Nabokov's original novel... and perhaps after the following mainstream cultural phenomenon. We all had our own reasons. The females are all small compared to the adult males, or sub-adults for that matter, but the Lolitas are almost inconceivably small. All they need do is hold on for a few more years and then they can mate with real males and have adorable baboons babies that everyone in the troop will line up to grunt to. If they have a decent rank in the hierarchy.

    Thursday, July 8

    How the mighty fall?

    In spite of my lack of real updates, I can't help but bring up the recent ScienceBlogs controversy. I would have to say I am a fan of the site; it provide great real estate for some quality bloggers. Granted, I primarily read biology related material, so I can't speak for the other disciplines the site represents, but I have found ScienceBlogs to be a worthy venture.

    A couple of days ago, ScienceBlog unveiled a new blog, Food Frontiers, which was written and edited by individuals employed in Pepsico's research and development deaprtment. Chaos ensued! The comments were awash with angry denizens crying out in rage. My favorite might have been this post by one of the sites' other bloggers, condemning the action.

    I personally don't like this move, not because of the bad science that might be present in Pepsico's new blog, but because the move will forevermore mar the reputation of ScienceBlogs. That's a shame because there's no where else like it on the net at this point. But I'm not too concerned overall because someone could always make a clone of ScienceBlogs to great effect.

    As of writing this, I have returned to the blog, and found it removed. I agree that there should be a discussion between business and the science community, and I hope this won't significantly tarnish ScienceBlogs' reputation.

    What I'm most interested in is how much of a silent majority follows ScienceBlogs. The comments on that first post made by Pepsi overwhelmingly indicates that ScienceBlogs readers will not stand for this. It seems I won't have my chance to see this happen, since Food Frontiers is no more. I also highly doubt that many people will stay away now that their demands were met so quickly and completely. Sigh, its no fun when people cave to drama.

    Substantial (aka, monkeyish) updates soon, I hope. The real-life Troop Mind Journal is missing, cutting off many sources of content, but I think I know its whereabouts. Additionally, publication takes a lot of the writing spirit out of a person. Okay fine, less excuses, more monkeys.

    EDIT: This post from a different ScienceBlogger not only addresses many of the questions I've had on the situation, but comprehensively describes the long lead-ins and direct aftermath to the Pepsi incident. Plus, it is essentially a brief history of ScienceBlogs, which I previously knew next to nothing about.

    Tuesday, June 29

    Taunt the Researcher

    Pretty much every day among the baboons is quirky in one or two ways. That's part of what makes field work so great. One or two quirks aren't much though, but they're certainly enough to sustain you between occasional days that are rife with bizarre or unruly behavior.

    One day filled with low level quirkiness, I was hounded by a small band of young juveniles for much of the day. Or at least it seemed that way. They might also have been entirely different groups of juveniles, for all I could tell. There are so many infants and juveniles around, and they all grow like weeds, making it quite difficult to tell them all apart.

    In the morning, I was first surprised by a young baboon who for some reason or other, voluntary or involuntary, fell out of a tree and landed on my backpack. I felt very little on impact; I was much more surprised by the noise. Given that all these events were transpiring beyond the rear side of my skull, I was mightily confused for a few seconds. On turning around, I found nothing unusual - there were some young baboons running around and playing nearby. Then I thought to look up, and there spied a couple of hairy munchkins peering curiously down at me. Ah! I thought to myself, and it all came together. Above all, I was relieved that the little one hadn't handed on my face or made a racket to attract the attention of adults to the incident.

    Several hours later, near noon, I took a short rest under a tall pine tree. I sat down in the grass and pulled off my pack to stretch my back and shoulders. I felt an unforeseen tingle of sensation on my cheek. I brushed at it in shock and surprise, and felt more tingles around my face. After a few seconds of wild flailing, I came to my sense, and realized that I had been showered in a light flurry of dried pine needles. My gaze shot upwards, into the foliage. Directly above me, a baboon coyly perched, head cocked, eyes innocently fixed on me.

    There's nothing worse than cuteness and mischief all mixed up in one.

    Thursday, June 24

    Another side of the chimp war

    Christopher Ryan, an evolutionary psychologist, writes a blog for Psychology Today which I tend to enjoy. However, I found a new post today addressing the breaking news I discussed yesterday. After reading his take,  which emphasized how these findings do not excuse human warfare, and the media runs away with this kind of shit, a few thoughts notes arose in my mind.

    I do agree that findings such as these should not be used as explanations for all violent human behavior, much less excuses for such actions. Calling what these male chimps are doing "warfare," may not be accurate; unfortunately I do not know of a better word we could use. Battles, perhaps? That too is misleading, as these conflicts are prolonged struggles, not single confrontations. They are wars in the "tribal war" sense of contemporary hunter-gatherer's unsurprisingly. Those are small scale conflicts, but they are certainly described as wars. The total war of technologically advanced nations, the type of war which now dominated the connotation of the word, is unlike the basic conflicts of the chimpanzees. In fact, there's quite a bit of ethological evidence in humans to say that can people can only be made to participate in total war through cunning and unnatural means.

    Additionally, over the course of reading all these reports, rebuttals, and replies, it occurred to me that I may be missing some perspective, since I don't see as much of the mainstream media take (on these particular issues). I read the papers, abstracts, listen to academic speakers on the issues, and if I have a choice between reading the NYTimes article on a story and the equivalent ScienceDaily article, I'll choose the ScienceDaily option. I hear media-focused academics (such as Ryan) decry the relevance of chimpanzee behavior and expound on the wonders of Bonobo behavior. As I also learned today from Vanessa Woods, more than 40 books on chimps have been published in the past ten years, but only one about Bonobos: her book. This explains a great deal; while I knew Bonobos were certainly less known, such extreme lack of awareness by the general public was unexpected. Personally, I ought to work out ways to become more tuned in with what broader audiences know and perceive.

    Wednesday, June 23

    Chimpanzee Warfare

    As an undergraduate at MIT, I wrote a term paper for 9.20 (Animal Behavior) about carnivorous chimpanzee behavior. Many years earlier, I had watched a documentary on apes, and a single brief scene described the basics of male chimpanzee hunting parties. The majority of that scene was filled with ominous music and wild screams, with little or no footage of chimps engaging in true raids. When the topic of ape feeding behavior arose in 9.20, I was mystified by the absence of any mention of meat-eating chimps in the texts. Why so little discussion? My curiosity was further aroused, and it turned out to be a fine topic for a term paper.

    Over the course of my research, I couldn't ignore the many papers on inter-species chimpanzee fighting, often because there were common authors such as John Mitani. One of the most interesting cases I came across in my research was an instance where a group of males encountered a female with a young baby at the edge of the group's territory. The female had not been seen in the area for at least a few months. Researchers believed she might have been with an adjacent group, among their males.

    The males she encountered seemed to think so, or at very least knew that none of them had copulated with her anytime recently. Her baby was not of their group, so, they forcibly took it from her and tore it apart. This fit into my carnivorous behavior research because the males then ate some of the baby after it was assuredly dead.

    Chimps take their borders quite seriously. Now, from more recent research by Mitani with the chimps of Ngogo in Uganda, it has been revealed that their wars are even more sophisticated.

    Chimpanzee gangs kill for land, new study shows

    ScienceDaily (2010-06-22) -- Bands of chimpanzees violently kill individuals from neighboring groups in order to expand their own territory, according to a 10-year study of a chimp community in Uganda that provides the first definitive evidence for this long-suspected function of this behavior. ... > read full article

    Good read. Mitani concedes that they can't be sure if the territorial acquisition is aimed at increasing resources or mates. I like their take on cooperation: while these findings are incredibly violent, it is still worth noting the incredible level of group unity necessary for the success of such efforts. So much cooperation research emphasizes friendly or altruistic interactions, probably because the competitive and violent sorts are not pleasing for most audiences to hear about.

    I like chimps a lot. Some people complain that they're too aggressive and unfriendly, unlike bonobos or gorillas. First of all, chimps aren't that aggressive; I think they have a bad rap. Secondly, yes, they are more aggressive than many other apes, but so are humans.

    Monday, June 21

    Show 'em the monkey

    I occasionally find myself reading classic Marvel comic books from the 60's, 70's, and 80's. I don't often come across gems such as this embedded in the pages of kitchy advertisements.
    even worse than those DC ads where Aquaman saves the day by offering the villain a Hostess Fruit Cake

    Now that's a darned impressive offer. 19 bucks for a monkey plus cage and toys? I'll take eight! I shudder to think how many little squirts suffered as a result of this ad. The feeding recommendations might be the worst part. It doesn't even have a diaper like in bathroom monkey commercial! They're cute little guys and all, but they'll make a mess of everything they can touch. Which I suppose is why you have that handy FREE cage sitting around.

    They were offering up squirrel monkeys, a new world monkeys, not much like baboons at all. For a comparison, see this picture of me chilling with a real live, non-lollipop fed squirrel monkey at World of Birds.
    thankfully I was not one of the individuals who got peed on
    They're quite small, which is why they'd be ideal for stuffing in a box and and mailing across the country. I'd be very interested to hear just how they guaranteed a live monkey on arrival.

    Anyway, thanks Stan Lee!

    Thursday, June 17

    Mo Infants, Mo Problems

    Thanks to a colleague for haphazardly pointing this out to me: an interesting bit of research managed to surface on the front of the Science Times from Tuesday. The article discusses male-infant interactions in a variety of species, but most notably, primates.

    The main citation of the Times article is a recent publication in Animal Behaviour from Julia Fischer's Cognitive Ethology Group. I know a few of these people: its solid research. Alas, I don't know so much about the everyday behavior of Barbary macaques - though they are the only primate species to have a wild population in Europe, on Gibraltar.
    Gall time!
    In my rendition of a previous near-death-experience, I mentioned a hitherto unexpected behavior where old Chester forcibly "played" with a nearby infant who was handily playing nearby. At the time, I was only able to come up with a paper which examined male monkey's treatment of dead infants (how was it easier to study their handling of dead infants rather than live ones?). Fischer's paper was what I was actually looking for, it just didn't exist yet.

    These studies feed into the nebulous domain sometimes known as "monkey economics." A related paper which investigates baboons, was published a few years ago in Animal Behaviour as Infants as a commodity in a baboon market. Baboons, nay monkeys, nay primates love babies. Why they love babies so much is unclear, but they sacrifice a great deal of time and effort in the form of grooming the mother in order to be able to handle and/or grunt to the infant. Its a fascinating paper which explores the details of these interactions, from which a market has emerged. In short, the fewer young infants in the troop, the more demand there is for them, and the greater "price" a mother can charge for another female to handle her infant. However, someone like Lottie can always pull rank and handle the baby with a minimal amount of grooming in return.

    The paper focuses exclusively on female-infant interaction, which is no surprise, since the female baboons spend all day grooming each other and grunting to babies. The males are a lot less involved with the infants. They prefer to herd the troop, aloofly hang around the periphery, or lay about. In the last case, females will often approach and groom the male in order to strengthen or maintain a reciprocal bond with the powerful male.

    Barbary macaque males are intensely social with their infants, likewise among female baboons. How do the Chacma males fit into this picture? Again, as I described in the near-death-experience, the use of the infant appeared to diffuse tension between the two... or redirect it elsewhere.

    A similar incident occurred more recently, and this time around, I wasn't directly in the line of fire. It occurred in a another troop between the alpha male (not quite as secure in his position as Aaron) and a young adult male, perhaps only a couple years younger than the alpha. The younger male has been growing like a weed, but still lacks the experience; possible the drive of the current alpha. I missed any lead-up to the incident, what I saw and heard, was the younger male come charging down a hill full tilt directly at the alpha, who was sitting a few feet up in a tree. The younger male was grunting like an express train, and clutching a screaming infant to his chest throughout the charge. It happened to suddenly, out of nowhere, but the alpha made no response. The younger guy just charged into the thicket under the tree, and I believe passed straight on by. I lost sight of him then, and am unsure what became of the infant and his carrier.

    In both these instances, it seems like when the infant is brought into play by the lower ranked male, the higher ranked baboon will act ignorant of the lesser baboons offense. The infant is sort of like a shield, a bit of insurance against reprisal. My next question, is the male afraid of incurring the wrath of the females by messing with the male and infant, or does the infant appeal to the male's adoring baby-sense?

    Very recently, I was pleased to discover a 2003 Nature article which specifically addresses paternal behavior in Savannah baboon (not Chacmas, but very close). Its a Letter to Nature, so it is brief, but its a wonderfully descriptive study which lays the foundation for expansive research into the how and why of male-infant relationships among baboons.

    I'd like to see the Barbary macaques in action, since its adorable to see the musky males toss the babies about, sometimes carelessly as if they don't know their own strength. Perhaps the behavior would lose some of its magic were it to become common-place as it is in Barbary macaques, but there's just something constantly comical about the males in primate species where a large sexual dimorphism exists.

    Tuesday, June 15

    The Motherhood Game

    There's been an explosion of births in the troop over the past few months, which has given me an opportunity to observe the differing mothering strategies of various parents. The variance is considerable, largely due to rank, but even within the strata, the mothers exhibit unique quirks and foibles in how they care for their infants.

    The upper-crust crowd, Lottie, Punzle, and Hilda in particular, appear to be very good at being mothers. Of course, their infants have the advantage of inheriting their rank from mommy, so no one is too keen on messing with the younglings. The entire social order is implicitly looking out for them.

    Lottie's infant in particular is coddled way too much. That guy is almost two years old, and he's still screaming at his mom to suckle every day, and he will eventually get his way. This isn't a particularly good strategy for Lottie, but it might not matter. A female infant will inherit the mother's rank, and even if she doesn't become the strongest or smartest baboon, she'll do well because of her heritage. The only other baboons who will be likely to unseat her will be her sisters, and sibling relationships are usually quite calm. For Lottie's male offspring, it could be tougher: if coddled too much, they might not learn the aggressive tactics and techniques they'll need as adults. On the other hand, being well fed and cared for might just make them outright strong enough.

    For Lottie it doesn't matter too much either way. She'll be able to keep popping 'em out, and they'll be much more likely to survive just because she is top female. Unless some fertility problem kicks in, there'll be plenty of little baboons (then big) floating around with her blood in them. Her offspring, and her genes, will be fine.

    Once you get into the middle and lower classes of the troop, you can start to look at how effective the actual mothering strategies are. These females no longer have the luxury of having every other baboon in the troop wanting to snuggle and grunt to their baby. They have to keep an eye out for their infants' safety, and balance how much they coddle their infant with how much they let the tykes make their own mistakes.

    Some mothers are frustratingly bad. I say frustrating for many reasons. Harley, for instance, just let's her baby do whatever it wants. It comes to her for milk, and little else. I barely ever see her with the kid anymore, which can be a problem for making observations. When there's an interaction with one of the infants, its important to be able to identify the infant, usually accomplished when the infant runs back to its mom after a few minutes. If the infant never does that, its not a lot of fun to agonize over the lost data. The "Oh there's a random infant running around without a mother? It must be Harley's" assumption only stretches so far. Harley's behavior isn't just annoying for me; there have definitely been a few times when her infant has been socked by a juvenile and left screaming, while Harley doesn't seem to notice a thing.

    Diane treats her infant as a table mat. The infant clings to mommy's chest for most of the day, and when Diane finds herself a nice juicy pine cone, she stops and lays into that solid green mass of meaty fiber. I've never seen such voraciousness. Baby Di, suffers the consequences, i.e. gets covered in splinters of pine cone. At first, I thought that someone had dragged the baby through a pile of sawdust a few times. She usually remains that way for the rest of the day. At least Diane keeps her infant close to her, even if it is to the point of suffocation.

    The worst is probably Naomi. Every week, her baby is sporting some concerning new head trauma. The infant is slowly losing all of the hair on its head, and developing long scratches from face to torso. We weren't sure why until we watched Naomi climbing through a barbed wire fence with her ventrally attached infant. She pretty much tired to barrel through as if she was still childless, at first ignoring the screams of the infant getting squashed against the barbed wire and just pressing ahead in vain. Finally she took a little effort and worked her infant through the barbs. Judging from the number of scratches continually inflicted in this way, its a wonder that the infant hasn't lost an eye or had a crucial vein opened up in the process. Naomi is sort of the crack mom version of a baboon. She doesn't do any drugs, but she's about as negligent and thoughtless when it comes to her kid.

    These three mothers share something in common, which is that they all appear to be relatively young. Unfortunately, I don't have any historical data to say how many infants they've each given birth to. It definitely appears that over time, the mothers somehow get better at their job. How could that be?

    Look back on the story of Alia and her child, and consider the implications on motherhood. Death is perhaps the most significant way in which mothers learn what works and what doesn't. If your baby croaks, then your bodies' hormones are thrown out of control, your breasts swell up to painful proportions, and life sucks for a while. That's good enough incentive to try something different the next time. The older the child gets before it dies, the easier the repercussions are on the mother. It makes sense, the longer the offspring survives, the better the a job the mother is doing.

    Sometimes, it is pure bad luck that an infant dies, and no fault of the mother. Rolling snake-eyes is a bad beat, but it happens. Fortunately, baboons young and old are tough creatures, so if an infant or juvenile falls ten meters from a tree, it'll just scream and be fine. Fifteen meters and it might fracture a few bones, but it'll heal.

    Each mother has to do things her own way and determine based on her position, what will be the most effective strategy for her. Its certainly easier to for some to find their niche than it is for others (Lottie, Punzle). Ultimately, its about composing your own strategy which consist of plays which work the most often, where work means "the infant doesn't end up maimed or dead."

    ... I've been watching too much futbol.

    Friday, June 11

    The Cough

    At the core of animal behavior is the concept of the Fixed Action Pattern (FAP). They're a basic unit of behavior, which is effectively the same, every time you or your monkey does it. A classic example if the yawn. You can't stop a yawn once it starts, and its pretty much the same deal each time around. Many other simple behaviors are FAPs as well, like a sneeze or a... cough.

    And what would this blog be without constant mentions of baboon intercourse? Mating behavior is likely directed by FAPs. The male approaches the female in the same way, each time, the body language is the same, and the ultimate motions are identical. The post-climax period is marked by the female copulation call and dart. The dart and calls vary, with the calls being more robust than the dart.

    Any variance is a negative indicator, however. FAPs are supposed to happen the same way, every time. If you try to interrupt a FAP, you generally won't succeed. Possibly the most famous example is from the Graylag Goose, which exhibits an "egg rolling FAP." If a mother spots an egg outside of the nest, she will engage in a distinct rolling behavior with her beak to move the egg back to safety. If you pull the egg out of the environment after initiating the behavior, the mother goose will continue to roll a space of empty air until the behavior is complete. The "egg roll" is also an excellent example of a elaborate, multi-motion FAP.

    So, I've had my doubts about the female copulation call being a FAP because it hardly seems to be fixed. Then came the cough. Lottie, top ranked female, queen of the troop, was beginning to swell, but not so much as to attract the attention of Aaron the alpha. Thus, the usual crowd of randy sub-adults were lining up to have a shot at Lottie's reproductive tract. For us researchers, this means that Lottie will be making copulation calls from dawn till dusk for close to a week.

    Lottie was firing up for yet another copulation call while two of my colleagues were watching her, taking notes. I was about thirty meters away, and not paying much attention to the scene, since as I've indicated, Lottie copulating is not exactly a big deal.

    Above, you can hear an audio sample of a female baboon copulation call (I don't know for certain that this clip is from the the correct species, but it sounds the same as what has been burned into my mind...). Out of all the baboon vocalizations, the copulation call may be the most complex and difficult to reproduce. All the others are short barks or screams, with the possible exception of the male roar-grunt. All the others are quick and easy to miss at a distance, but there is nothing so distinctive as a copulation call.

    As you can hear, there are two parts of the call, a rise and a fall. Lottie did fine with the rise part, but when it came to the fall, she got through one "burst" and then broke out into a fit of coughs and spasms. Lottie's must have been hitting the Marlboro's pretty hard. Either that, or hanging around the braai a bit too much.

    After spluttering for a couple of seconds, Lottie raised her head, and continued the copulation call.  No amount of fiddling with audio samples could allow me to recreate the seamless sonic amalgamation of the two behaviors.

    Nor could Lottie's nonchalance prevent my colleagues from breaking out into raucous laughter at the sight and sounds. If anything, her matter-of-fact approach to the incident enhanced the humor of the event.

    Ridiculousness aside, Lottie's mash-up poses some intriguing ethological questions. The copulation call clearly is not a single FAP. Since there appear to be two parts, its quite likely that there are a complex series of FAPs which make up a copulation call. The rise might be a complete, uninterruptable pattern unto itself, and the falls may be short patterns of varying length. There's considerable variation among the falling cries, which could be a problem. Given how Lottie behaved, it could easily be that the latter part of the call is a voluntary, conscious action, since she continued the behavior after it was rudely interrupted by her cough.

    These days, isolating what is and isn't a fixed action pattern is not exactly hot game in the animal behavior world. Which is why its fun to have a look on the side of another project, if you have the chance. Ultimately, that might be the best part about doing field primatology: the opportunities to see things that just happen in the course of a day, things you're not looking for and might not expect, but make a big impression when they do occur. Or they make you laugh, which is good too.

    Thursday, June 10

    The Cost

    I had planned to tell a monkey story today, but I'm having a devil of a time finding an audio clip of a female baboon copulating. Without that, the post is a little difficult to digest. We'll push back to Friday, and hope I can come up with something by then.

    In lieu of that tale, I decided to offer my thoughts on an interesting post I came across the other day, entitled Ten Reasons Why Grad Students Should Blog.
    "As I thought longer about the vacant state of grad student blogging I wondered if it could be explained as a “they don’t know what they don’t know” situation. Perhaps by standing from the outside looking in, my fellow grad students simply do not know all of the benefits that can come from participating in an online discourse."
    I believe that the author is correct in almost all respects, but I feel that the post glazes over and omits several important issues.

    I blogged during graduate school, but without commitment, and not about anything related to the work I was doing in grad school. This was largely because I didn't possess the combined time and drive. It is misleading to make a sizable list about why you should blog, without giving any mention of the things you shouldn't blog about.

    Prime example: you shouldn't blog about the results of anyone's ongoing research because getting scooped sucks, and opening up a colleague to be scooped can be just as bad. Unless there's some form of misconduct involved, you ought not to talk about the details of someone else's research. Even if there is foul play, you should probably be telling someone who is specifically in a position to do something about it, not just shouting it at the whole internet.

    Otherwise, sure, blogging is great. You can write critically about the published research of others, perhaps draw your own conclusions, forge connections with those in your field, and improved your writing. Getting an audience does take concerted effort; another optimistic omission of the original post.
    "The things I write about . . . are exactly the same kinds of things I say in seminar and write for term papers."
    Ultimately, the author is right on with that statement. If you're confident of your ability to maintain that kind of control over your writing, then blog away. Nevertheless, keeping your boundaries clear is not always an easy task, and many of the pitfalls illustrated in my previous post hold true for this case. You ought to keep a constant eye on yourself because the cost of error can be staggeringly high. In the world of research, its never just your ass alone on the line.

    I realize that the author's purpose was to be positive and encouraging, since he clearly wants more grad students to blog. I too would like to see more intelligent bloggers providing open discussion of complex topics for the entire internet to consume and enjoy, but there are concerns which perspective grad student bloggers should be completely aware of before they jump in. If we're asking intelligent people to blog because they're intelligent, then we also ought to respect them enough to give them both sides of the story.

    Tuesday, June 8

    Trees Please

    A sibling of mine made me aware of a few recent studies published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, which have yielded results which I do not find surprising. Nevertheless, it is wonderful that someone went out, collected the data, analyzed it, and alleviated doubts on the matter. It might also explain my altered moods of late.

    Spending time in nature makes people feel more alive, study shows

    ScienceDaily (2010-06-04) -- Being outside in nature makes people feel more alive, finds a series of studies. And that sense of increased vitality exists above and beyond the energizing effects of physical activity and social interaction that are often associated with our forays into the natural world. ... > read full article

    I buy it. I've found that when I'm living in a city, it helps a great deal to have easy access to natural areas. In Boston, it was very convenient just to be by the river and esplanade, though I found it even more relaxing to ride out onto the Emerald Necklace, a chain of parks and arboretums weaving their way into South Boston. Cape Town is, well... Cape Town. There's no shortage of natural splendor in that city.

    Imprinting may also play an important role in these effects. The primordial human living conditions were under strong sun, on the plains and in the fields. Most people I meet are a bit depressed when the sun doesn't shine on a given day, but that doesn't bother me. I spent all of my childhood in the rainswept Pacific Northwest, living beneath a hillside forest. Despite how much I despised rain as a child, these days I find myself energized by rain and forests. In particular, I enjoy those warm, almost tropical summer rains, the kind you can smell in the air several minutes before they begin.

    Field work obviously places one in natural settings a great deal, and probably does wonders for a person's health. Unfortunately, my personal experience doesn't shed too much light on this, since my lifestyle differs drastically when I'm doing field work; there's a lot of hidden factors that could be confounding my experience. Its very interesting that they mention biodiversity as being a crucial factor, since Cape Town provides data points from both extremes of the spectrum.

    Fynbos and the entire Cape Floral Kingdom is one of the most diverse environments on the planet, despite being so rare. On the other hand, for hundreds of years, European settlers have grown timber plantations on land which was previously filled with fynbos. These plantations must have very low biodiversity, as the trees are imported, regularly planted to maximize yield, and devoid of most undergrowth. Baboons seem to like the trees, though.

    Could we find a significant difference in mood between when I've followed the baboons through plantation or fynbos? I'm inclined to to be pessimistic since any harmony established by the fynbos is negated by the annoyance of having to trudge through a dozen species of spined shrubbery.

    Friday, May 28

    The Rugby

    My pleasant relationship with Rugby began many months ago, in one of the ubiquitous Virgin Active gyms which one can find all across Cape Town and beyond. In Cape Town, its effectively impossible to find a gym other than Virgin Active, who basically has a monopoly on the trade. As with any intelligent monopoly, Virgin Active is rather expensive, which is why I ultimately decided not to join. I spend all day running around the woods with monkeys, so paying 700 Rand a month did not seem like a worthwhile investment.

    Nevertheless, my thanks go out to Virgin Active for presenting me with my first rugby game. There I was, waiting to speak with a VA customer representative and his firmly muscled... apprentice? Bodyguard? In the waiting room, they were kind enough to leave a South African sports network on the TV. There, I witnessed my first professional rugby game.
    I fell for this shirt the moment I saw it, but damned if I paid $45 for it. Its good to know that SOME clothes are cheaper in SA.
    I was captivated almost immediately. I don't remember which teams were playing, the closest I can get is one of their star players, a massive white fellow with long, dark brown hair. Rugby is often compared to American football, and the game did strike me as similar, excepting a few notable differences. The pace is much quicker, the moves feel much more athletic, and there are of course no pads.

    Several months later, after having rugby games mentioned to me quite a few times, occasionally as a suggestion, the posse looked into getting tickets, and found it all quite agreeable. 70 Rand for a decent seat? Of course we'll go. We had to get it together though, the local team - the Stormers, was only playing one more regular game at Newlands Stadium for more than a month as this is the season of the Super 14 Tournament. So, we committed and bought ourselves tickets for the March 20th match against the Free State Cheetahs.

    I'll say it again, Rugby is huge in South Africa. The hugeness is derived largely from the Afrikaans speaking population, which includes Afrikaners, Coloreds, and some other Europeans. The players in the league appear to still be mostly white, but the crowd was surprisingly diverse. The Afrikaans influence was pretty notable when most of the big text is in Afrikaans before English (if English appeared at all, which is damn rare in the city these days). Most unpleasant was some young white dude who practically accosted us as we were trying to find our way in through the crowd. He came out of nowhere and talked at us in Afrikaans, until he picked up on the fact that we weren't going to respond and were moving away from him hastily. I was doing my best to fit in by wearing my stylized Springboks T-shirt (see above); just maybe it worked too well.

    Soon after the game began, the two of us who made it on time realized that there was a tiny problem: we didn't really know the rules of the game. It was obvious that they were trying to score touchdowns (try's) and kick drop (field) goals, but the passing and tackling and throw-ins and scrums were... unclear to us. It didn't help that there were no video monitors which we had a decent viewing angle on, and more surprisingly, no loud overhead announcers. Plus, we picked seats on the Stormer side of the field because they were "our" team, but they dominated the majority of the game so we didn't get to see too much of the action up close. Don't get me wrong, it was all great to watch. The crowd was lively, the action as heavy, and we decided to make up our own rules when we couldn't figure out what was going on, which was quite delightful.

    Rainer arrived just before halftime. He had been taking the train, which was delayed 40 minutes. Seeing as it was about quitting time and there was a game in Newlands, the train was packed. When half-time hit, we all went to look for beer and boerewors. We couldn't seem to locate any of the sausage vendors now that the game had started, but the pub was easy enough to find. I played a zone defense while one of our party worked to the front and purchased cans of Black Label. It was then we discovered that we could not leave the pub room with beer. "No alcohol past this point," the short colored security woman told me.

    Now I found (and still find) this damn confusing. Its rugby! Its South Africa! How can they not let people drink in the stands? They'd make a fortune! The best reason we could come up with was that the crowds became too rowdy if they could drink in the stands. I'm not convinced.

    So, we (okay, maybe just I) chugged our beer and ran back our to our seats for the second half. In short, the Stormers continued to dominate, closing out the game with a 21-8 victory over the Cheetahs. Here is a proper journalist's round up of the game, from people who can appreciate the individual and team talents/moves on the field. Apparently there were quite a few injuries. I didn't really notice, but I can't say I'm at all surprised.

    We worked our way out of the stadium, through the massive crowd to our distantly parked car. I'm not sure how Newlands can support that stadium, but its been there in one capacity or another for decades, so they must know what they're doing. For our post-game show, we went into town somewhere to find delicious food (probably wors rolls), and then probably drank more beer somewhere else.
    mmmmmm so good BEST SAUSAGE EVER
    One of these days I'm going to need to make a post all about my adventures in Deliciousland with my good pal the boerewors.

    Saturday, May 22

    Two Strange Old Men

    In the main troop, there are two old males called Bertrand and Chester, both of whom I've mentioned before. At first it was difficult to tell the difference between the two, as both were toothless, scarred, and shaggy. Both distinguished themselves by being friendly with the children, and occasionally, fiercely protective of the young juvenile baboons.

    It was not till some time later that the two elders were able to distinguish themselves from each other. For instance, I eventually noticed that Bertrand has a little jagged fragment of canine in one corner of his mouth; it isn't completely missing like in Chester's mouth. Chester, on the other hand, is the nuclear family man, and Bertrand has a little cloud of juveniles about him most of the time, but he's not exclusive to one female.

    Something else that's unclear is where these two sit in the male hierarchy. Aaron is clearly the alpha male of the troop, but no one has been able to tell who's higher up, Bert or Chester. There's also Damian to figure into the matter, who is probably sitting in the number 2 slot, above both Bertrand and Chester.

    One particularly interesting morning did nothing to clear up the situation. It began the way most mornings do, the troop came down from the trees and began traveling toward a large feeding site to the north.

    I'd been wondering about the relative hierarchical positions of these two for months, so when I saw Chester present to Bertrand along the path, I began to furiously take notes on the scene. These two are both quite old, each probably almost 20 years of age. Since baboon males disperse around age 7, find a new troop, and stick with that troop for the rest of their lives, these two blokes have almost certainly spent a lot of time together over the past decade. There is history here.

    Right now I need to say a few words on the male-male mount, a ubiquitous dominance behavior. The smallest manifestation is the act of presentation: the dominant individual (dom) will usually be stationary (sometimes walking), and the submissive individual (sub) will stop and present its rear end to the higher ranking male. Most of the time, the lower male will quickly dart away after a few moment of presentation. However, there is a whole sequence to this behavior, which mimics the act of mating. The progression is as follows:
    1. sub male presents to dom
    2. dom will lip smack at sub
      • sub will sometimes edge closer to dom, baring teeth (another submissive gesture)
    3. if sub is close enough, dom will reach out and touch the sub, usually above the ischial callosity by the tail
    4. dom will place the other hand on sub's rump, and begin to stand and move towards sub
    5. dom assumes a standing position directly behind sub, with dom's crotch about level with sub's callosity
      • the dom might raise one foot and place it on the back of the sub's knee 
    6. dom may even give sub a few faux thrusts
    At any point in the process, the sub can dart away, ending the encounter. It appears to be the choice of the sub, and probably depends on how close the two individuals are in the hierarchy, and what local condition and mood have been that day. Behaviors at the end of the chain are seen pretty infrequently, since the sub rarely let's the process progress to that point.

    Getting back to Bertie and Chester - Chester presented to Bertie, complete with lip smacks. Chester just walked away after a second or two, no quick darts like one would expect to see from a submissive juvenile. Bertrand got up and followed after about a minutes. The two were at the back of the troop, but still surrounded by some females and the usual cohort of infants and young juveniles.

    Well, that seemed to settle it. Chester was submissive to Bertrand. I had suspected this for a time, since while Chester is clearly larger, Bert seems to be younger, as indicated by the lone remaining canine.

    I was thrown for a loop when a few minutes later, when Chester plopped himself down on a tree stump after a grueling fifty meter walk. Bertrand came walking up, slowed as he passed, and presented.

    This did not seem right to me. Just five minutes earlier, Bertrand had appeared dominant, and now he was acting clearly submissive. What had changed in those five minutes? What could have changed? The two of them had been twenty meters apart, zig-zagging through the forest, occasionally foraging, seeming to be oblivious of each other.

    The situation grew stranger when the behavior was repeated. Again. And Again. This continued for about two hours: every five to ten minutes, one of these guys would present to the other. There never appeared to be any pattern to the exchanges. Once or twice, the two progressed all the way to butt touching (hands only, not crotch). How intimate.

    I was exasperated by these two guys. I had been meticulously observing the pair and taking notes on their behavior, but I'd no idea what to make of this interchange. I wasn't going to learn any truths about the male hierarchy; I thought I was missing several key pieces of information, and I was right. It was very interesting to watch, but at the same time, damn frustrating.

    Fortunately for me, everything kicked up a notch when these two finally began a physical quarrel. I missed the outbreak, as is usually the case. I only became aware when the wahoo's and screams began. The rest of the troop took to the trees, and Aaron became alert, but did not seem involved. It was Bertrand and Chester who were thrashing around with each other in a a large thicket. They were out of sight until Bertrand followed Chester into a tree which reached above the bushes, placing them in view. The two reached the crown, continued with a few more wahoo's, and then, Chester leaped from the top of the tree, down into the bushes.

    The ground was probably 20 meters below. The fight appeared to be over, and Bertrand soon reappeared. I went looking for Chester around the other side of the thicket. I found him, briskly walking away from the fight and the troop. I followed.

    The old man lead me back to the troop eventually, though he took an alternate route, which I'd not seen this troop take before. After about a half an hour, Chester's meanderings return us to the body of the group, which had followed the standard path under the leadership of Aaron. Chester and Bertrand's spat was over.

    As I said, I don't know what all this means. If two males had reached an equivalent level in the hierarchy, and both wanted to surpass the other, why show submissiveness? I would have expected them to awkwardly avoid and ignore each other until the tension built, and the two broke into fighting. That is, in fact, what usually happens with males. There are very few signs of the underlying struggle until the two break out into open conflict.

    Tension between the two was obvious, but I was thrown off by the oddity of constant presentation behaviors, so I didn't noticed how strained their interactions were. In retrospect, the hours preceding the fight did resemble the usual pre-fight demeanors, they just had the submission displays thrown in. Were the displays not present, I probably wouldn't have noticed anything amiss before the fight. Males signals are usually very subtle, and while I have seen the signs of a fight before, most of the time I miss them.

    I've pondered the events of this morning many times since, and discussed it with several colleagues. I haven't had the resources to investigate the matter thoroughly from South Africa, but when find myself with a reprieve, I'll delve into it (in the meantime, if you are curious, I recommend this paper). For the moment I'm satisfied with writing it off to the antics of two strange old monkeys who have spent way too much time around one another.

    Thursday, May 20

    Less food more life

    Extending lifespan has mixed effects on learning and memory
    ScienceDaily (2010-05-19) -- Decreasing the intake of calories and tweaking the activity of the hormone insulin are two methods long known to increase lifespan in a wide range of organisms. In particular, studies have shown that longevity can be extended by reducing activity in the insulin-signaling pathway -- a chain of events through which insulin influences numerous biological processes, including metabolism, stress response and development. Now, biologists have found the first evidence that these mechanisms also have an impact on cognitive function. ... > read full article

    I am a dedicated fan of anti-aging research. Perhaps you might even call me a desperate fan. Furthermore, I have even done some mild experimentation with Calorie Restriction diets. Usually during the summer when I'm not swamped with so many tasks that I lose my cool and give in to the desire for eats. I will say that I felt damn good during those time, but I'd be willing to believe my reduced stress level could be in part (or mostly) responsible. But I definitely did lose significant amounts of weight, which probably contributed to the "raised energy level" the caloric restriction types like to talk about. In organism more advanced than roundworms (say, humans), its also true that caloric restriction has its own effect on insulin levels, thus tying it closer to these studies.

    Not too surprisingly, both processes tie back to the notorious CREB molecule. CREB pretty much needs to be everywhere cAMP is, and cAMP needs to be everywhere a cell wants to start a signal cascade, and pretty much every cell does that. Okay that might be a major generalization. You want more thought than that? Well then don't ask the guy who took biochemistry on pass/fail (and considers it one of the better choices of his undergraduate career), go read those wikipedia articles I linked to.

    The moral? Eat lots of good food while you're young, and then get into CR when you get older. I'd guess between age 25 and 30. I'm a bit more hesitant at this point to say that people should start sticking themselves with insulin unless they're diabetic.

    Tuesday, May 18

    Sediba means natural spring in Sotho

    One of the worst parts about traveling around is having to deal with a laptop keyboard for all your purposes (if you've even got a lappy with you at all). I'll go ahead and say it: laptop keyboards take the joy out of life.

    A funny thing happened. I was going through some old blog posts on my feeds which I hadn't gotten around to reading in some time. I opened one of the stories from Afarensis in a new tab, but then didn't get around to reading it, probably because is got lost in the seventy or more tabs I keep open at most times.

    Yes, I acknowledge that I have a problem.

    When I did return to said tab, I had completely forgotten that some time had passed, and the news was old to begin with. I also very foolishly blocked out the little line of red text meant to inform me that this information dated back to mid-April.

    The story concerned the recent discovery of Authrulopithecus sediba, the latest hominid fossil skeleton discovered in Africa. South Africa to be precise. It seems we've found yet another quality missing link. But, if you're behind the times like me and want the story, I recommend you ask the good Mr. Hawks.

    The last amusing bit on this is that word of this discovery passed to me some months before the break to the public through an acquaintance of a friend of a colleague, or some chain like that. Not that there was any actual information conveyed, just "something pretty big was discovered up north." Perhaps that was the cost of my tardiness in getting the actual story about sediba.

    Tuesday, May 11

    Relevant recent research round-up

    Much has been going on in the various realms of mind research, and quite a little backlog of interesting studies have come off the presses. Stories featured in order of appearance. 

    Compulsive eating shares addictive biochemical mechanism with cocaine, heroin abuse, study shows
    ScienceDaily (2010-03-29) -- In a newly published study, scientists have shown for the first time that the same molecular mechanisms that drive people into drug addiction are behind the compulsion to overeat, pushing people into obesity. ... > read full article

    Addiction fascinates me. I, for one, greatly enjoy eating. I appreciate food, but one can enjoy a good meal and eat a whole lot of it. A few years ago, I could get away with eating any quantity of food, and I wouldn't gain any significant quantity of weight. That's changed lately, which bothers me since I appear to be just as ravenous in my desire for food. Am I addicted to eating? If one combines the statistics for obesity, alcoholism, and drug addictions, I get the feeling you'd find yourself confronted with a disturbingly large portion of the population. This problem may be more prevalent in the States, which is apt enough, since NIH funds the research.

    Unconscious learning uses old parts of the brain
    ScienceDaily (2010-04-07) -- A new study provides evidence that basic human learning systems use areas of the brain that also exist in the most primitive vertebrates, such as certain fish, reptiles and amphibians. The study involved an investigation into the limbic striatum, one of the evolutionarily oldest parts of the brain, and the ability to learn movements, consciously and unconsciously, through repetition. ... > read full article
    I am a big "fan" of studying the unconscious parts of the brain. The older it gets, the more important it is for our functionality. Of course, if you look at stuff that is too old, then you wind up dealing with medulla structures which regulate the contractions of your digestive track. Since consciousness is probably a very recent development, it makes perfect sense that unconscious (implicit) learning and memory is tied to older brain structures. Its good that someone confirmed this.

    Brain shuts off in response to healer's prayer - life - 27 April 2010 - New Scientist
    WHEN we fall under the spell of a charismatic figure, areas of the brain responsible for scepticism and vigilance become less active. That's the finding of a study which looked at people's response to prayers spoken by someone purportedly possessing divine healing powers...
    I'd like to begin by stating that I heartily dislike The New Scientist. I was going to say that I "abhor" the publication, but that isn't quite accurate. I would be okay if TNS accepted its role as a popular, light science publication, but they continually attempt to make themselves out to be a serious journal, which the quality of their reports prohibits.

    Anyway, this research is still pretty interesting. I'd definitely wager that this commanding effect of charismatic leaders can be seen outside of religious domains.

    Social networking helps hermit crabs find homes
    ScienceDaily (2010-04-28) -- Biologists have discovered that, contrary to their name, hermit crabs may locate new and improved housing using previously unknown social networking skills. These behaviors may shed light on any animal that relies on discrete and reusable resources, from hole-nesting woodpeckers to urban apartment dwellers. ... > read full article
    Despite the buzz-wordiness of the title, this is exceptionally interesting stuff - they've discovered new behaviors among hermit crabs! If a crab in need of a home finds an empty shell that is too large, it will wait around for another crab to come by and take the shell in hopes of picking up the larger crab's old shell. I won't argue that there are massive impacts on our understanding of human social behavior, but still, that's pretty neat.

    Researcher explores role of human behavior in infectious disease emergence
    ScienceDaily (2010-04-30) -- A wildlife scientist has examined how different human behaviors influence disease transmission between domestic dogs and the African wild dog, an endangered species. ... > read full article
    On that last note, here's a study which definitely does have a lot to say about the betterment of the human condition via understanding social behavior. On reading this story, my first musing concerned how far back these human-dog social behaviors related to disease go back. Dog domestication could easily predate the agricultural revolution, and possibly even the formation of complex hunter-gatherers. Thus, the origin of these behaviors might be evolutionary and not environmental, which ought to alter our approach to handling these issues.

    How nerve cells distinguish odors
    ScienceDaily (2010-05-03) -- Whether different odors can be quickly distinguished depends on certain synapses in the brain that inhibit nerve stimulation. Researchers have shown that mice in which a certain receptor in the olfactory center is missing can distinguish similar smells more quickly than mice without genetic manipulation. ... > read full article
     Once, I did a bit of work in the neuroscience of taste and smell perception (in rats and mice). I worked at the systems/behavioral level, but there's a great deal more research occurring one step down, at the cellular level. This stuff is some pretty heavy neurochemistry, but if you are up to date on that knowledge, this is intriguing research.

    Cavemen among us: Some humans are 4 percent Neanderthal - CSMonitor.com
    We have met Neanderthals, and they are us – or about 1 to 4 percent of each of us.

    That is one implication of a four-year effort to sequence the Neanderthal genome – essentially setting out in order some 3 billion combinations of four key molecules that together represent the Neanderthals' genetic blueprint...
    Yet another result of the data being churned out of Svante Pääbo's legendary Neanderthal genomics project. As they mention in the article, "the results and their further refinement are expected to yield a treasure-trove of information on what makes modern humans distinct from Neanderthals, humans' closest extinct relative." Considering the prior lack of evidence in favor of any of the conflicting theories of what became of the Neanderthals, this is a fine change of pace. Plus, I'm at a lucky stage in life where I'm not in favor of any of the particular theories, so these findings do not offend my sensibilities.

    Blinking neurons give thoughts away
    ScienceDaily (2010-05-10) -- Scientists have used a genetic light source to measure brain signals. Electrical currents are invisible to the naked eye -- at least they are when they flow through metal cables. In nerve cells, however, scientists are able to make electrical signals visible. Scientists have now successfully used a specialized fluorescent protein to visualize electrical activity in neurons of living mice. In a milestone study, scientists are able to apply the method to watch activity in nerve cells during animal behavior. ... > read full article
    I swear, I had this same idea a couple of years ago, but I didn't   Plus, I honestly didn't see how it would be a more useful technique than modern two-photon imaging techniques. The advantage I did not for see was that if one can ditch the cumbersome microscope equipment needed for two-photon excitation imaging, you could attach a fibre-optic connection which would allow you to visualize brain activity while the animal was behaving. I confess that I have a soft spot for calcium imaging, so I'm quite pleased by this, but there are still some big issues, like the fact that you can't do this in humans, and its hard to visualize the neurons below the top layers of the cortex.

    Alrighty then. Until... next month?