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.