Friday, April 30

Troop Mind Journal 03/05

The troop was sleeping in one of the usual spots, a spot which was once a favorite of the second troop, and effectively ceded by tr.2 to tr.1 during the summer months. Now the first troop sleeps there more often than any other site, which is of little surprise given the proximity of the site to the ripe feeding grounds.

On a very ordinary day, the group would lazily travel a short distance through small valley and field to the grounds, stopping a few times to groom or look out for signs of other baboons. There are a few small variations on these very ordinary days, but all ultimately end the same.

An exception occurred early one morning when the animals came down from their roost in the trees. Instead of crossing the valley which lay between the monkeys and the feeding grounds, the young males set out in the opposite direction, up the mountain, away from the feeding grounds. I expected them to come back to the main sleeping site, but they never did. They continued up the mountain, and the whole troop followed them.

I didn't hear any distant baboon sounds that would have indicated the presence of another troop, but of course, my ears are not tuned to perceive baboon vocalizations and on an absolute scale, my sense of hearing is not as powerful as a baboon's. So maybe Tim Curry's troop was sitting just on the other side of the ridge, or further up the mountain, and the troop was responding to their presence.

If this were the case, we would have expected the young males to act as they did, but after a short time, these males retreat to the core of the troop, and the day continues almost as if there was no disturbance. This is a grossly simplified version of what I see, yet these troop movements seem to defy "baboon logic," which I'd seen predictably employed at this site countless times.

I followed the baboons up the mountain to another large forested sleeping site which I call Giraffe Hill. We'd not seen any of the troops sleep at that location for some time, as it was quite out of the way. The baboons made haste in reaching the spot; I've never seen them move so fast along that route when moving downhill. The halted their march on the edge of Giraffe Hill, and proceeded to play, feed, groom: the usual restful activities. Everyone seemed to be wondering, What next?

The situation lost further clarity when I left troop 1 to investigate the whereabouts of Rainer, Tim, and their buddies. I found that troop in the forest down the mountain, still at their sleeping site. They did not sleep over the ridge, up on Giraffe Hill, or at any of the sites along that slope of the mountain. They were almost as far away as they could get, which I had previously guessed was out of audible range.

When I returned to troop 1 later in the day, I found they had resumed their usual behavior, following a known route to the feeding grounds. It took them longer than usual, but ultimately the situation was as it always ended: almost as if nothing odd occurred.

Many more lingering questions remain from this day than from your typical encounter scenario. Two in particular:

Why was the first troop's response so strong when the other troop was so far away?

That is, if they even heard another troop. If they did, then the movements make some sense. Troop 1 did not move in the right direction after the initial push - it was almost as if some other aspect of the troop mind took over the movements, and decided to make the most of the mess the young ones made.

I'm trying real hard to think about what could make the response so strong. For all we know, female vocalizations sound different when their issuers are at the peak of their reproductive fitness. Under such conditions, it would make sense for the males to pursue the other troop with greater vigor. A few words to the wise: the ethology community has nowhere near enough evidence to support such a hypothesis.
Even if this was a legitimate response to the presence of another group, why did dictate the choices of the troop mind for the entire morning? 

If the young males were really in control that whole time, then I've no idea how they managed it, because this is my only observation of such an event. As I mentioned above, its actually quite probable that the young males only influenced that first push, and afterward, the troop mind was just "going with the flow," so to speak. Still, what exactly would Aaron have to gain from continuing along this path?

The forest floor on Giraffe Hill is strewn with pine cones, so there's a great deal to eat. These baboons will sift through the needles for pine nuts, or if they're lucky, they will find unripe cones which have yet to eject their seeds. Baboons will lay into those cones, which is an impressive sight. I can rarely tear out a seed with my hands, but the baboons will crush and crunch through the rock-like shells of the cones as if it was a potato chip.

Since none of the troops have spent much time up on the hill lately, there ought to be a great deal more food laying around than in the usual, more traveled areas of the forest.

So why have I only seen the troop visit Giraffe Hill this one time in months, and why only under such bizarre circumstances?

Do the baboons need to be reminded of the presence of other feeding sites? When a large feeding ground is in season, and plentiful with food, do other options slip out of mind? This would say a great deal about the event/state driven nature of baboon cognition.

I like how I look through my logbook and try to find an interesting but brief (because I'm unexpectedly still very busy) story from the field, and it balloons into this massive endeavor which raises all these fascinating questions about primate behavior. I suppose there are worse things that could happen to a person.

Wednesday, April 28

Awesome Tapes from Africa

This is a sweet find, and I wish I could remember who originally linked me to this.

Awesome Tapes from Africa is a side project of a Brian Shimkovitz, who apparently did extensive work studying contemporary forms of music deep in Africa. There isn't so much South Africa in here because of how comparatively visible the country is, but I'm grateful for that, since at this point I don't need much help discovering local SA music.

The variety you can find is this site is exceptional. The site showcases pretty much everything under the sun that sits between the lowest-fi traditional recordings and modern electronica hip-hop. So basically its kind of like the awesome radio show, Afro-pop worldwide (which I highly recommend the podcast for), minus the worldwide part. Plus, Shimkovitz makes the entire tape available... Though it is a little funky how all of the music comes from cassettes still. I suppose they are much more durable in the cases than CD's are.

I almost wish I had discovered the site earlier in my stay, except that oh wait, my internet would never have allowed me to take advantage of the audio.

Saturday, April 24

New species of giant fruit eating lizard discovered

NewsDaily: Philippines dragon-sized lizard is a new species

NewsDaily (2010-04-24) -- A dragon-sized, fruit-eating lizard that lives in the trees on the northern Philippines island of Luzon has been confirmed as a new species, scientists reported on Tuesday. ... > read full article

This news is a little far out of my usual reach, but its a pretty big deal for the zoology world. You can throw a bag into a bush in the Amazon and pull out a bunch of bugs and find your self looking at a few new species, but when it comes to six foot long, 22 pound lizards, there's just not of opportunities left. The last similar event I remember was when they discovered a new species of tree kangaroo in '94.

From an ethology standpoint, this is particular interesting because the lizard lives in the trees and feeds primarily on fruit. There are only three known species of fruit eating lizards in the world, and this new lizard is apparently quite distantly related to its closest relative (another fruit eater), so it open up some great opportunities to investigate the hitherto unknown behavioral ecology of this animal.

Good luck to any ethologist who wished to rise to the challenge of chasing a rare and extremely skittish lizard through the jungles of the Philippines for the purposes of understanding its behavior.

Thursday, April 22

Just copulate with me already

Dolly is a little female baboon with a problem. Her problem is that she must suffer through the discomfort of active estrous swellings without being able to reproduce. Something else in her reproductive system isn't quite mature yet, so... no babies for her. This is nothing out of the ordinary; as far as I've been able to discern, all sub-adult females go through a phase such as this before becoming pregnant for the first time. A juvenile female becomes a sub-adult when her first swelling appears, and a full fledged female when she become pregnant. Or gives birth. Baboonists tend to argue about these definitions from time to time.

Unfortunately for Dolly, she tends to be ignored by the prime meat of the troop. This doesn't stop her from trying, however. One particular day, I noticed her hanging around Aaron for nearly an hour, berating him ever couple minutes with the swollen pink flesh of her rear end. He'd just be sitting on a rock, solemnly gazing out across the expanses of his females, and suddenly there would be a bright female butt thrust into his face. If she was lucky, he'd glance at her before returning to his seemingly emotionless survey of the troop. Quite a far cry from a gruntalicious copulation.

But there's always a chance.

Chasing after Aaron is not risk free, however. The adult females, particular the top ranked one, often take great offense at Dolly and young/low ranked females when they attempt to solicit attention from Aaron. Some serious beatings have resulted from young females stepping out of line.

Thus, Dolly makes due with younger males, some of which are smaller than she is. If she's lucky, Janny, one of the sub-adults will take interest in her for a few days, but as soon as a fertile adult female becomes "available" he'll be off to greener pastures with her.

Dolly has an active, if slightly underpowered sex drive and no way to get rid of it (i.e. pregnancy). There's not a lot else to do but obey the urges until her system comes fully online in a year or so and pregnancy hits. Its unclear if the males have any understanding of her infertility. The young guys are still all over her, but then again, they might just be acting out their own sex drives, which as I've established, is quite strong in males at a young age.

There are many other females who Aaron regularly ignores - he sticks to the top 4 or 5 females usually, sometimes even when they're clearly not capable of becoming pregnant: for the first few cycles after giving birth the female's hormones aren't right for reproduction. But Aaron doesn't seem to care, he keeps going at it with Lottie. Why not go after every female possible? He could do it, he's the strongest alpha male in the entire locality, he might have to give up some extra-pair copulations for some of the females, but that'd be a small price.

If Aaron isn't doing it though, he must have a good reason. The subconscious is way smarter than any reasoning can be, after all. Sperm competition and its extremely intricate and complex guidelines (which we only are beginning to understand) indicates a few possibilities, for instance, Aaron wouldn't want to decrease the quality of his sperm balance by rampantly copulating without forethought. Even in the monkey world, you can't just have indiscriminate sex all the time. Paradise can be such a drag.

Tuesday, April 20

Heavy Monkey Rock & Roll

Tuesday already. Hoppzor sent me this article (thanks again) a short while back, and it seemed like something worth sharing.

Heavy metal music and monkeys? How silly. Some monkeys apparently like Metallica though.

Since this is just the Daily Mail we're talking about, this short article doesn't link to the actual publication... if one exists. No direct indication of a paper was ever made, so these might just be "findings," lacking any peer review.

And since today's post is a little short, I'll throw in a bonus amusing and disturbing recent clip from a press conference with South Africa's Julius Malema, President of the ANC Youth League.
There are few living individuals I believe can be better described as "infamous."

Sunday, April 18

Human Ethology: MIT Housing Edition

I meant to post this the day it came out, but times be hectic.

I wrote an editorial for The Tech, MIT's Oldest and Largest Newspaper, briefly applying principles of human ethology and evolutionary psychology to dormitory housing in defense of MIT's current housing system. Newspaper spaces are a bit more constraining, forcing me to omit a more in depth explanation, but the ethology of living is important enough that I'll return to it, probably many times. The particular issue of dining plans is a recurring big issue, so that's a major focus of almost all discussions concerning MIT's housing system. But enough enough synopsis, go read the full article for your self.

That piece had been lying in wait for an opportune moment for some time, but these particular writing take quite a bit more time and energy to put together. However, I think I'll be having a little more time now, so I'm hoping to produce human ethology posts on a more regular basis.

Thursday, April 15


Lightning storms are rare in South Africa, at least around Cape Town. But, when they happen, they are some of the darned impressivest sights I've encountered... as most sights tend to be when they are transplanted into the environment of the Cape of Good Hope.
Africa: back 2 da hood
 I recommend you make a relevant google search for more slick pics.

Anyway, point here is that most people miss these experiences because they come at inopportune times of day. Like, say, 5 in the morning, when I get up to go to work. So sometime I get a surprise lightning storm to enjoy while eating my breakfast in the dark.

By the time one reaches the baboons in the field, the clouds are usually clearing up, and there's not much chance left of a good thunder storm.

Once in a while, things turn a bit wild and the tablecloth slips over the mountain into the city and forests, filling the sky with clouds, and sending sheets of rain down upon us. Baboons prefer to huddle in the rain, sometimes in clumps, sometimes alone.

Lightning appears to be a different story. The rain began first, and the huddling began, but was quickly interrupted by a couple blasts of thunder.

The troop erupted into screams and shrieks. It sounded like the reaction to two troops had collided head on, and were tearing each other to pieces. All was chaos, females running for shelter, juveniles calling for their mommies and tearing about distraughtly. And the males running about intensely because they're males and they got reputation to be holding up.

The lightning wasn't that close, honestly. Maybe a couple of miles. I've heard thunder with the troop before, and no reaction was elicited. The volume of the clap and the brightness of the flash were obviously more powerful than I'd seen before, but I'm curious what throws them over the edge, into this state of frenzy.

Furthermore, I wonder why the baboons care so much about a little thunder. The greatest danger seems like it would be a fire. It would certainly make sense for them to run away from the lightning, as that would be the source of any wildfire that might form. But their reaction seemed a bit extreme for that, why the panic and screaming? On the other hand, this is just a single datum, so maybe Aaron or Janny decided to freak out, chase females, and make a big deal out of no big thing.

So... I'm back.

Thursday, April 8

At this very moment

Sorry about the lack of updates lately - there's no lack of material, but internet/computer woes and intense scheduling makes writing good posts a bit difficult. We're switching gears here right now, and I'm going to be traveling next week, so this darkness may persist sometime longer. Though I'll try in the next few days to at least post some interesting things I've found recently.

So, in about a week, hopefully less, things will return to normal, and we'll be back to your regularly scheduled monkey stories.

Thursday, April 1

South Africa's Finest News Source

Buzz unwittingly did me a solid yesterday by sending me a link to this video from The Onion. I haven't made a humor entry in a little while, and I'm hosed out of my mind, plus the internet is still wonky. My theory is that everyone is in the same boat where we run out of internet at the end of the month, and are conserving for the necessities, and then when the new month hits and your limits are reset, people go ballistic and max out the tired old tubes we have to make due with.

Anyhow, here you are:

Scientists Successfully Teach Gorilla It Will Die Someday

Real posts again soon I totally swear. My main two secondary tasks are coming back under control, so I should have more time for awesome biz like this thing.