Friday, January 29

Remembrance of Things Past

I've been sick this week, so I decided to bring back and expand an old story which I feel really deserves its own entry. Also someone mentioned something about this being "the place to go for monkey sex stories" or something like that, and I hate to disappoint.

This day in the field had been a trying one already. Twas Friday, and far past noon, the two key ingredients in an itis inducing recipe for fatigue. We had just followed the troop into a bush and tree filled ravine less than an hour earlier. The bushes often stood well over our heads, and some of them were thorny to boot. Visibility and comfort were at a minimum. But, we decided to tough it out in hopes that the monkeys would stop here only briefly, and soon pass on.

Our gamble was lost. The baboons decided to enter the ravine for feeding purposes, and when they feed they can stay for quite a while. We didn't know this at the time, so we just followed them around while they moved back and forth in the tiny valley.

I took a break from this chase, exhausted, and sat down on a large fallen log. I had chosen the spot because it was surrounded on three sides, and out of the way of the baboons. In the dense bushes, one had to keep moving and be constantly vigilant of baboons ahead and behind. Generally, there was one route from place to place within the ravine, so a small appendix jutting off the intestine of the main route was a relief to find.

Let me tell you a thing or two about how the baboons were feeling on this day. The most notable detail was that Nadine was in estrus, and as the second ranking female, Aaron was highly absorbed in her movements, particularly those of her butt. This had been going on for a couple of days, and the two had been mostly inseparable. However, when the troop enters just such a mess of tangles and vines, if two baboons become separated, it can be quite difficult to reconnect, especially if one of them doesn't want to be found.

Just such a situation had developed between Aaron and Nadine, while I sat for a few minutes on that log. Nadine came strolling around the corner (i.e. a tree) and stepped onto the log about ten meters away. She sat.
This is Old Bert, not Nadine... it took a lot for me to not shout OF COURSE THAT'S NOT NADINE HAVEN'T YOU EVER SEEN A FEMALE CHACMA BABOON BEFORE?!
From out of nowhere, Grandpa Bertrand came swaggering towards her. She remained immobile. His bulky coat whirling, he deftly pulled around behind her. At this, she rose and began walking briskly towards me. Bertrand followed, outpacing her, rapidly closing the meter between them. Nadine was now five meters away from me. Three. One.

Impact. Betrand reached out, grabbed her, slid his feet onto her calves, and fired up the plunger.

About five seconds later, Nadine erupted with a "urrrh......urrh......urrh......urrh...urrh...urrh...urrh... urrhurrhurrhurrhurrhurrhurrhurrhurrh......... uuurrrrhh......... uuurrrrhh......... uuurrrrhh" and darted away from Bertrand, breathing laboriously. Its, um... hard to represent a female copulation call onomatopoetically. And I couldn't find anything on youtube, sorry. Researchers like me write whole papers about this stuff, though.

Bertrand plopped down and grunted a few times, and sat down, excess semen plopping from his glans to the surface of the log, about a foot from where I sat. Bertrand looked around for a few moments, I swear he allowed himself an expression of self-satisfaction. The baboon rose again and sauntered into a thicket after about ten more seconds.

Moments later, Aaron bounded around the bend, intensely examining the scene of the crime. His eyes were alight in that special Aaron way. It was just him and me in that small clearing. "Don't look at me, dude," I held up my hands innocently. "I think you understand that there's no way that I was the one who did that..."

Aaron calmed down quite quickly, and sat himself on a rock about ten meters away, readpoting his characteristic impassive poker-face. "You messed up this time, buddy. There's nothing to do now but learn from your error."

A lot of baboon life comes off as "nothing to do but learn what not to do next time." A mother is too lenient with her baby, it walks too far on a tree branch, slips, and falls to its death? Oh well, be more protective of your next baby. A juvenile plays too exuberantly with a baby and the mother's family all rush in to shriek at him with those awful wails? Be more careful of how rough your play is, and who you choose to play with. An alpha male is not vigilant enough of his prize female when she is in estrous and some joker slips in an extra-pair copulation? Tough luck, guard her zealously on her next cycle. A study of different aspects of baboon memory could be fascinating indeed.

In the end, the troop retreated from the ravine... back up the slope to exactly were they had come from. Our tracking adventure had been in vain. It was one of "those" Fridays. You know, the kind where you just thank the powers that you didn't get trampled by an orgasm addled baboon. We all have those days.

EDIT: I found this article while searching for baboon copulation calls. Its an accessible read, and the guy has his sociobiology down pretty nicely.

Thursday, January 28

Technical Report

So all of yesterday was consumed with the hubbub surrounding the new Apple iPad. Despite having my life split between the ultra-progressive technology world and the maddening simplicity of third-world following-monkeys-through-the-forest-studies,  I realize that consumer devices still are not exactly within the "scope" of this blog. The links do exist, when one considers that the research of social networking gurus such as Ronald Burt and Sandy Pentland is just an extension of Human Ethology.

But, I was so enraged by the prospect of this Apple tablet, I had to figure out a way I could open my yapper publicly. Fortunately, I realized this was a perfect excuse for me to talk about my computer that I'm using while I'm in Africa down under. I had no idea what sort of setup I was in for when I decided to move to South Africa. I'd say was quite fortunate in the end, but I planned conservatively. I decided I wanted a legitimate netbook after my last stillborn Sager - it would be smaller, cheaper, and probably somehow better.

I'm now using an Asus eeepc 1005HA for all my work and play needs. It performs about as good as I could have expected. I still keep way too many firefox tabs open, way too many other programs open at the same time, and it seems to handle it all with poise. Battery life is very good, too, though I don't move it much because its tethered into my external HD's, speakers, mouse, and keyboard. One shortcoming - not enough USB ports (only 3) but I don't think there's another way to have done it. I just bought a cheap USB hub and now everything is fine. Well, except maybe that the 10 inch screen is a bit small for my one and only source of computing technology.

I initially wished to buy one of the exotic Asus tablet eeepc's, but they weren't widely enough released before I moved to Cape Town. Plus, Asus never did release the 10 inch version, only the 9 incher. Plus, I have no idea what I'd actually use a tablet PC for, I just liked the idea, so I'm very happy with my choice.

This returns us my original impetus for making this post: the new iPad. Let's cut to the chase and compare it to the Asus Tablet PC.


What netbooks have that Apple doesn't
  • Built in physical keyboard and mouse
  • Better specifications
  • Stylus support and handwriting recognition
    • Apple, what the fuck is the point of having a tablet without this?
  • USB ports, flash ports
  • Multitasking
  •  A real OS with real hardware
    • like a camera
    • end a useful amount of storage space
    • and flash
  • A hell of a lot better price point
  • Freedom to do what you bloody well please
  • A sensible way to hold and use the computer
What Apple has that netbooks don't
  • 3G support
    • if you like AT&T
  • um
  • uh
  • oh right, better battery life
    • because 6 hours at heavy load on a netbook isn't enough
  • BOOKS!
    • fuck yeah
  • ...
  • Bueller?
Yes, I am a hater.

Bottom line: guys, there's a reason why no one has made a successful tablet, despite trying for 20 fucking years. I'm all for innovation and shit, but a tablet is a peripheral. I've used the iPhone a respectable amount, and I find it to be a useful enough device (haven't done a hands-on comparison with a droid yet, sadly). The iPad is not even an iPhone - its an iTouch with everything a little bit bigger, which on the whole is not an improvement.


In all seriousness, the libertarian in me (which grows stronger by day, it seems) screams in agony every time I read more than a page about recent apple products. Apple purposefully releases products which are sometimes cripple, but almost always take power out of the hands of the user. Apple was once the glorious crusader against the evil Microsoft, but their tactics are not much different. Apple makes it easier for themselves by viciously controlling their hardware specifications, again taking power out of the hands of the user. When viewed in this light, and you see the incredibly vast collection of hardware Windows supports, that product is damn impressive.

I'd like to sum this up with a little anecdote about one of my recent Apple experiences. I was taking a reused G4 machine and setting it up as a multi-zone music playback server, and I intended to use OSX because of all the optimizations it has for Apple hardware. However, in order to cover multiple zones, I needed to add extra output ports for speakers; the single on-board stereo jack wouldn't cut it. I asked one of the local Mac Fanatics about how I could get the OS and software to handle the extra sound card I installed. She replied, with a short laugh, "this is Apple, you don't do that."

To me, this encapsulates the modern Apple mentality. This was not perceived as an issue of whether or not such a thing is possible. Rather than being something you can't do, it was something that you don't do. Don't ask questions, Uncle Steve always knows best - you, the user, are a incapable of judgment and decision.

So I used Linux instead, and everything worked pretty damn peachy.

In other news, you know you're getting over a sickness when you start getting annoyed with yourself that you spent all this time recovering at home and didn't use the time to catch up on little things in the house that you'd been meaning to do for a month or longer.

Tuesday, January 26

Chimps make their own movies because why not

pfeng sent me this link the other day, and because it is BREAKING NEWS I thought I would share it with you all.

Scotland is known for its strong primatology programs, and they've recently built some cutting edge primate enclosures up there which ought to do great things for primate research.

Something which may or may not be a "great thing" for primatology is a video being broadcast on networks, which was filmed by the chimps. I have a few complaints, mainly that the score is a bit silly - they might as well let the chimps compose that part of the film as well. Or at very least give the film a more organic score, or possibly something like Gorillas in the Mix. The film is also heavily edited, which makes the videos almost useless to me as a researcher. But, I suppose any exposure like this is good for public chimpanzee awareness, and I cannot complain about such a thing.

The graduate research which provided the excuse to make this movie ought to be legitimately interesting as well. There are some fascinating results produced by studies of chimps who have painted their own pictures... results which I'll get to writing about one of these days.

Monday, January 25

They Grow Up So Fast

I was confronted with a startling scene recently. We researchers gradually become dulled to the violent and melodramatic lives of monkeys. Yet, there are still little moments when we are momentarily taken over by human partiality, and are surprised.

On this day, I watched in amazement as a juvenile male baboon mounted a receptive adult female, and began to have sex with her.

When baboons copulate, the male will almost always stand on the back legs of the female, his foot cradled in her knee joint, like so:
Unless the male is a really meaty boy, the female is a Lolita, and the dude's feet can thus reach all the way to the ground, they will always copulate in this position. And they'll try their darnedest to follow protocol, no matter what.

Take my little tyke for example. He was probably less than 2 year old. He looked old enough to still be suckling; I wouldn't have been surprised if after he did the dirty deed he ran back for a quick nip of milk to get his strength back.

This guy is struggling for all his worth to get up onto those knee-pits, but for the life of him, he could only manage one leg. So he made the most of the deal and began thrusting madly... successfully impregnating the vast span of air between the adult female's vulva and his undersized phallus. Its all for the best, as there is a good chance that this female was an aunt or grandmother.

They start young, there's no denying that.

Friday, January 22

Troop Mind Journal 01/12

The troop came down from the trees at the break of dawn, and started their day off with a strenuous session of waiting. They sat in the sun and shade, laying, playing, and grooming. All good things must come to an end, however, though not always as one expects.

Very soon after descended from the firs, Damian and Lauren began edging away from the group, toward the mountain. Prime feeding grounds are located near this sleeping site, just across a field of fynbos, which the baboons pass through almost every day.

Every ten minutes or so, Lauren would get up from some grooming combination among Damien's threesome and walk towards the trees north of the field. There's nothing in the trees, except maybe the baboons of another troop.

It turned out there weren't, though. Lauren's been acting funny lately, she keeps looking for the other group. Usually she wanders in the right direction but gives up after a while. Other times she's found them, and dragged Damian and sometimes the whole troop along with her.

Which brings us back to this particular day. Damian followed her, and eventually the whole troop was diverted to the north, around the feeding grounds. Aaron sure seemed to want to go feed. The others probably did as well. Why was this chain of events a success?

Was the troop following Damian, and Damian following Lauren? Were they all following that single female baboon? Lauren was making contact barks, usually only emitted when an animal is lost. Was this added stimulus enough to alter the "good sense" of the rest of the troop?

If the bark hypothesis is correct, it would imply there are deep complexities in how strongly a baboon wishes to move toward a particular goal. This seems likely, but how effectively can other baboons interpret these feelings? As researchers, we can hear the barks, but we can't tell exactly what they mean in context, and furthermore, the subtle visual communication between baboons adds another whole level of complexity.

Tuesday, January 19

Damian's Pitch

There is a young adult male in the main troop named Damian - this is to say he is not a sub-adult, because he copulates with adult females, can vocalize full wahoo's, and most importantly, he wasn't born in the troop, he came from the outside. Damian is still a bit slim,  having yet to fill out his fluff like the more ripe adult males. This shouldn't fool you; he's not one to mess with.

Damian possesses strong aloofness: he sits away from the rest of the troop much of the time and doesn't deign to involve himself in the affairs of the everyday troop melodrama. Yet, one still finds him with occasional wounds no doubt obtained during heated male-on-male action. Bertrand and Chester have a lot of weight to throw around, but they are unquestionably the past; Aaron is unequivocal alpha. Aaron is not as spry as we once believed, however. Damian is image of the troop's future.

For some time, I felt that it was inevitable that Damian would usurp Aaron's position, probably during my stay here. Lately, a different strategy has emerged, and may remove any need for Aaron and Damian to battle over the coveted top slot.

Some time in the past few months, Damian took a liking to an unremarkable female named Lauren. It began with a standard consortship. Damian would follow Lauren's swollen rear-end through wood and bush, copulating to his heart's content. Usually a consortship lasts a few days, when the female's swelling is at its peak and the allure of the estrous aroma is irresistible. Damian's consortship persisted long after her swelling had begun to deflate... and just kept going.

The two are constant companions now. She has joined him in his little world away from the rest of the group. Recently a sub-adult female has joined them which is good for Lauren, otherwise she would have no social life. I've seen a couple other females visiting Damian on the outskirts, but none of the other adult females have joined his harem, yet.

This doesn't appear to be a typical strategy, as far as I'm aware. There are stories of how a big male once pulled away seven or eight females from a huge troop and started his own, mini-troop. This could be Damian's long term plan. In the meantime, he's yet to annoy Aaron past the point of no return.

Perhaps Damian is attempting to gather support, and once he has enough females backing him, he'll attempt to overthrow Aaron. I've not heard of such complexity in baboon social affairs. Usually, a new male will just fight with the old alpha until he wins or dies. Maybe Damian just doesn't care for society. He has a brooding look about him, accentuated by his thick mane of long black hair and missing right eye. He's isolated from support, but still not someone you would ever want to mess with. I think I've seen him get into a tussle with another adult only a couple of times. He's your token dark and mysterious guy.

What's in it for the females? Well, Damian basically gives exclusive attention to his entourage, and does not need to divide himself between 20 others like an alpha would. I have heard of this strategy, which basically amounts to what we humans would call "being a good father." Lauren has yet to bear Damian's child, however, so I can't pass judgment on how strong his paternal instinct is.

Taking the question further, why Lauren? What about this particular female made her follow Damian, and why did Damian choose her? Did she have little choice in the matter? Did Damian have little choice, taking whatever he could get?

At this point, the questions replicate upon themselves ad infinitum. I'll just have to keep observing and hope I see what happens, and then if I do see it, hope that I can understand the monkeys' subtleties.

Sunday, January 17

Meat Market

Oh man, this is too good to pass up. This past weekend, someone posted an add on Gumtree, offering up a baby for sale. Full story here.

Gumtree is the South African version of Craigslist. It uses almost exactly the same format as Craigslist, and although various South African Craigslist portals exist, for some reason everyone just uses Gumtree.

Since the contact info that was posted appears to be fake, it seems likely enough that the whole thing was a hoax. Yet, the fact that the child welfare services are so concerned says something about how it is down here.

Map and Maze Puzzles

This past weekend was the annual MIT Mystery Hunt, and every year I say that I'm just not going to care that much, and when the hunt actually starts, I reneg on everything I've said and go peddle to the metal. Of course, I then forget this change of mind a year later and it all happens again. The exception was the 2008 hunt, which actually sucked enough for me not to do any meaningful work for it - I can't remember working on a single puzzle from that year.

This year was not an exception to the pattern, which is unfortunate since I am in Africa and remote solving from a netbook over a crappy ADSL connection is extremely frustrating. Plus I'm unable to access most of the puzzles. In spite of this, I've done what I seem to be a satisfactory amount of work and solving. Which is why I can now divert my attention to writing this post which I have been thinking about for a little while.

In the realm of puzzles, some people are specialists. There are the crossword freaks, sudoku nerds, anagram weirdos, cryptic punks to name a few. I'm a map puzzle specialist, as it turns out, and its generally my opinion that way too few people appreciate a good map puzzle. Consider the atrocities and monstrosities I've had to put up with in previous hunts.

My predilection towards map puzzles is a curious thing. One could easily attribute such a strength to one's puzzle upbringing; the title of this post is taken from the puzzle book which is my traditional all-time favorite (it is sort of like a little hunt unto itself, made up entirely of this sort of puzzle and without any need for the internet), thus we can surmise that my library was at least partially an influence.

However, in 9.10 - Cognitive Neuroscience, we spent a class discussion gender difference in cognitive capacities, which was the first time I encountered the literature behind such stipulations. Gender differences are everywhere in the brain, but what I found intriguing were the differences in spatial ability between the sexes. I dug up an old meta-analysis (Linn and Peterson, 1985) of various spatial tests to have a look at just what the data says.

I do mean, old, too - the review is from 25 years ago and more recent analyses have been published. However, publications in purist psychology journals tend to be more resistant to the Open Access revolution, so I couldn't obtain anything more current. This is unfortunate because I don't like this paper too much - its geared towards developmentalists, not... genderists? Sexists? In particular, it provides only a couple of highly lacking tables and figures for the gender comparison data, placing unwarranted emphasis on the age data. The name of your article is "Emergence and Characterization of Sex Differences in Spatial Ability..." Come on.

So, how does one approach evaluate an individuals ability to think spatially? Traditionally, there are different tests for the tree main types of spatial ability.
I confess its not at all clear which answer is correct in this example, feels more like a language test than spatial reasoning.
Rotational analysis refers to ones ability to visualize 3D objects and rotate them around and accurately revisualize them. This is the kind of skill one would find useful in games like Homeworld or X-Wing, and probably general path-finding.

These shapes remind me of this game I had for the Apple II GS back in the early 90's which was called
Very simply put, spatial visualization requires one take an image and alter it, usually in a fairly complex way, following multiple steps.
I don't know what the hell they're asking you to do on the right side. Folding just isn't a full explanation. I think A is the only one that's even conceivable, though.

The bottom line:

Males are significantly better at mental rotation and in spatial perception, females are slightly more able than males at age 4, but at age 5 male ability accelerates and by adulthood, males well-outperform females. In spatial visualization, tests have not revealed significant differences.

I am inclined to attribute map puzzle skill to the one's ability in spatial visualization, due to the highly complex nature of both tasks. This would imply that gender has nothing to do with the matter, which doesn't exactly jive with the stereotypes. Gender stereotypes and bad and all, though usually contain a kernel of truth somewhere within. A small array of tests as we have examined only provides so much information on the big picture of how the brain processes spatial info across the genders. Map and maze puzzles themselves come in all shapes and sizes, thus further obscuring the question.

Which is why the real moral of this post is that one should not too earnestly mix sleep deprived marathon puzzling orgies with stuffy science literature.

Now that the males have a step up at least in the majority of spatial cognition, I'll have to eventually write a counterpoint to level the playing field with the females. Perhaps I'll write about that infuriating female aptitude for multitasking, which is very real. Be afraid.

1. . Marcia C. Linn, Anne C. Petersen. Child Development, Vol. 56, No. 6 (Dec., 1985), pp. 1479-1498.

Friday, January 15

Let's see how far we've come

I've had a long and tiring week, so I will divert the planned substance, and give you something lighter.

I saw Invictus in theaters a couple weeks ago. It was enjoyable. If you haven't heard, it is directed by Clint Eastwood and is an adaptation of Playing the Enemy by John Carlin. The movie was better than Eastwood's previous movie, Gran Torino, yet despite being set in transitional South Africa, it manages to display fewer racist characters. Its really light on the racism I thought - it was as if Eastwood decided to he didn't need to worry about it since the movie was "clearly" about a racist struggle.

The movie cost me about 4 dollars. I was ecstatic. Blue Route Mall is amazing, but true explanation of its glory shall be saved for another time. The show was definitely worthwhile, solely so I could see Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon tromp through baboon poop in the scene filmed right in the middle of where I work everyday.

In related news, hoppzor sent me this link to an amusing blog, and a particular relevantly amusing post.

Also, try playing the "Where's Diapadion's Comment" game while you're browsing.

Thursday, January 14

Troop Mind Journal 01/07

The whole troop came down from the trees, and did what it usually does: Sit. Some troops like to wake up at the crack of dawn and burst up the hill, filled with early morning energy. This troop likes to laze about for a bit and take their dear sweet time. I'm very thankful for this.

There comes a time when all good things must come to an end, and the troop must move on to begin the daily foraging routine. What pushes the troop beyond the threshold? Males are believe to play an awfully big role in this process. I witnessed something this day which is an interesting example of a male not displaying power of his troops movements.

Aaron, the alpha, appeared to be growing tired of sitting under the trees, and wished to move toward the feeding grounds, about half a kilometer away, and well within view across the fynbos. Having enough of lounging beneath the pines, Aaron stood up and walked into the fynbos, and sat down on a whitened tree stump about 20 meters into the bushes. Aaron grunted a few times, movement grunts (one of the major categories of baboon grunts). Then, the waiting began.

Nothing changed. The females continued to lay about and groom each other under the trees, and the juveniles continued to play amongst themselves or lay around in silly positions.

Perhaps you didn't hear me the first time, I imagined Aaron thinking. He moved back to the main body of the troop and settled down. He grunted frequently, and slowly moved bit by bit into the fynbos a second time.

And a second time, his advances were ignored by the body of the troop. Defeated, but not showing it (at least to my unaccustomed sapien eyes), Aaron returned to the core of the troop once more, and satisfied himself with a nap on a soft bed of dried needles.

Eventually the troop did enter the fynbos and committed themselves to seeking the feeding grounds. However, their path lay on a different angle from that intended by Aaron, and the alpha was not fearlessly leading the group as he had intended. New questions arise: was someone else leading the troop, like the young adult Damian? And more interestingly, how was the troop mind able to so completely resist Aaron's impulses?

Wednesday, January 13

Groom to fight, fight to groom

Primates' social intelligence overestimated: Primates groom others if afraid they'd lose fight
from ScienceDaily:
"The grooming behavior displayed by primates is due to less rational behavior than often thought. According to a computer model, one basic rule explains all possible grooming patterns: individuals will groom others if they're afraid they'll lose from them in a fight."

...um, so I've gone ahead and read the actual article to this one because I needed to figure out if I was missing something deeper in the text that would explain how this assertion isn't very misguided. In summary, I didn't find anything.

Firstly, their model is based entirely on macaque data... no new world monkeys, no apes, certainly no baboons. This isn't inherently broken, but it simply is not satisfying when one considers that social grooming is ubiquitous in primates, and a crucial device.

Second, I've seen baboons violate this rule on many an occasion. Since males and females do groom each other, and the model does not appear to exclude such behavior, I have a bit of an issue.

Intergender grooming is a bit problem for this model. It happens. It doesn't follow these rules. Let us stipulate that a fully adult male can beat any female in a fight. This is a fact. On many occasions, I've seen a male, even the alpha male. Plop his shaggy form down next to some female who is sitting, minding her own business. If there is any behavior which say "groom me," its this. Yet, a lot of the time the female will just walk away.

This alone would not be enough to discount their findings. However, on several occasions, after his failed attempt to solicit grooming, the male will follow after the female and begin grooming her. Sometimes its a different female. However, the key is that by all accounts, he has initiated the grooming behavior, not the female. He is not afraid of losing to her in a fight.

So why does he groom her? Well, this paper is trying to discount much of the complex social jockeying and diplomacy that researchers believe grooming to be crucial to. Diplomacy is a damn good reason to groom. I'm not at all convinced of the authors' conclusions. Maybe in some monkeys, this is the case, but saying "all primates" is pushing the boundaries... a lot.

Monday, January 11

Fear and Loathing in Los Fynbos

Baboons like cars. Its probably their novelty that attracts them. You've all seen what they've done on YouTube. Those incidents are outliers, as you've probably guessed. Normal baboons don't want bras, they want food.

Or they want a fun new playground. Cars are like a giant toy: they have all this stuff sticking off of them that you can break, plus some entertaining moving parts. Look at it from a baboon's perspective: they spend all day romping through the forest, jumping up and down on logs, rock, and branches, breaking anything they want, and of all those thousands of objects, no one cares a lick.

Rainer and I ran into an isolated car while following the baboons, one innocent day. As I said, baboons like cars, so the juveniles were already swarming over the automobile. Then I noticed something odd going on... or at least I perceived it to be odd that the time.

These baboons really liked licking this car. I'd never seen this before.

I'm not sure what the baboons got out of this exchange. The car was covered with dirt and dust from the park, and soon to be covered with baboon feces and urine. The all that the car brought with it that was not already readily available to the baboons were particles from the streets. And of course, the paint itself... I wonder...

When baboons lay down, they move heard first, so that the forehead or cheek bumps into the surface before the rest of the body plops down by it. One of them sat on the roof and half-lay down so his head was pressed into the top of the roof and his tongue fell out of the corner of his mouth, furiously licking at the paint job.

"Depraved is the only applicable word which can satisfactorily describe this baboon," I narrated. "He looks as if he were a fiend under the influence of this car's hallucinogenic paint, and his mind is centered on one thought: More."

The baboon raised himself from his half seated position and stared at me indecipherably.

"I don't think he liked what you said," commented Rainer.

Circling around to the rear, I saw a baboon had torn a sticker free from the back windshield, and had begun to eat it. "Congratulations," I offered the absent owner, as the sticker was slowly devoured. "You're been promoted. You're no longer a learner driver."

And now, the truth. I've still got no better idea why they lick cars. They lick the windows too. Novelty is about all I can imagine, and baboons have no concept of disgust. They look at the new cars, touch them, smell them, hear them, so why not taste them?

Sunday, January 10

Return of the Monkeys

In case you hadn't noticed, monkeys are "cool" again, so I decided to write more about them. And I finally got my schedule together to make it happen. You can see the recent products just below, and if you scroll back or search with my the newly enabled box on the right, you can find revised old entries about the baboons. I've finally finished satisfying myself with them, but there should be a few more favorites still to return.

Oh, and I re-enabled comments so you can have your way with my text boxes. In other words, gogogogogo.

Thursday, January 7

Troop Mind

A slice of like scientists and lay people tend to easily throw around the term "Hive Mind." At a glance, the wikipedia disambiguation page reveals the popular associations this slice makes. It comes as no surprise that science-fiction is given the most entries, by far. But look, there's even a little note for usage in animal behavior. Of course, it redirects one to the topic of social insects.

Entomology was, and remains, a massive sub-field within ethology. Queen-centric insects like bees and wasps contributed the word "hive" to the term, and along with termites, ants, and some other colony insects, these hive creatures defined our initial conception of the hive mind.

Thus, in order to have a hive mind, you kind of need to actually have a hive and queen and drones and workers. It part of the definition. However, big social groups have been theorized to have collective consciousnesses of their own, similar to that found in the hives.

So where am I going with this? Well, when you spend your days watching baboons, particularly big groups of baboons, you will inevtiably to wonder how they figure out what to do and where to go every day. It turns out this is a hip issue in primatology, and once again, who better to study it in than the gregarious baboons?

Simply put, a baboon's life consists of moving between a set of safe sleeping sites over the course of a day, while eating. Some form of "troop mind" manipulates the baboons so that they eventually end up at a clear destination, and usually the route they take will pass through some bountiful feeding areas.

What comprises this troop mind? The answer, of course, is that no one knows. But I've seen a few things and have a couple ideas.

The obvious assumption one would make is that the alpha male leads the group. The alpha will certainly exert his will, but its far from being so clear cut. For instance, an alpha male is little more than a donkey following a carrot when he's stalking a female in heat, his head bobbing in rapture a meter behind the female's bright red swelling. During those times, the alpha is hardly the one doing the leading. The female may exert considerable control over when, where, and how often they copulate, and the effectively controls the alpha if he wants to get the sex.

There are of course the other males in the troop as well. Unusually, the cape is home to many old males, who will of course influence the movements of the troop in part. Sometimes I'll see old Chester, off by himself, while Aaron sits in the middle of the troop watching over his females. Chester will slowly saunter ahead a little ways, bit by bit. He could be anticipating the movements of the troop, or he could be guiding them. He is an experienced and wise male, probably a strong alpha ten years ago. He doesn't get many chances to copulate anymore (if he's even interested in sex at his age), so its in interest to look out for the troop as a whole. Afterall, who knows how many of the females and sub-adult males are his children?

Those sub-adult males are a force to be reckoned with as well. When they hear another troop nearby, they'll all meander towards the edge of the group, and if they can, they'll pull the whole troop with them so they can get as close as possible to the excitement of that unknown group.

Similarly, a big fight among females might send a half dozen of them chasing each other a hundred meters away from the center of the group. The troop might be pulled in that direction, and once the whole group is reunited, what then? Do they resume their prior course, or can the momentum be shifted another way?

Troops definitely have goals they seek throughout the day, some more goals being more desirable than others. If a troop is aware of a tasty fruit orchard growing two hills over, they will all wish to head that way and feast. If the monkeys live somewhere more desolate or if the fruit is simply out of season, then the decisions become more complicated.

And when it gets this complicated, my gut observations cease to useful in distilling a root behavior. Big time research needs to be done... and some of its underway... There are benefits from being at very least tangentially involved in this stuff, you see. Much of the existing research looks at how baboons range under different conditions, but that doesn't even to begin to answer the question of who is leading the troop and just how much the baboons listen to particular individuals.

But there's always my gut to fall back on. Sure, the females can manipulate the dudes when they're in estrous, but most of the time, its the males herding and chasing the females wherever and whenever they please. The alpha female might hold the same sway as an average sub-adult male, but the strong males appear to possess what I might call veto power.

This is the great part about this kind of research: you can be gathering all kinds of quantitative data throughout the data, and still be learning more things on the side. A million social interactions happen out there which are too subtle for me to pick up, but there are still a thousand which I can wrap my brain around just by watching with my inferior human visual system.

Sunday, January 3

Mortimer the Midlife Crisis Male

I don't visit the second troop very often, but over the course of my visits I have been more and more struck by the behavior of a grizzled male called Mortimer.

Senior males cannot be described as typical because outside of the Cape Peninsula, they are quite rare. The life of a male is short and violent. My guys lead violent lives to be sure, but they are not all that short because there are no predators to pick them off after they are injured in a fight. Thus, we have a unique culture of older males in these troops.

Mortimer is certainly not young. I say this because he is missing all of his canine teeth. Baboons are not carnivorous, so their canines only get use in heated brawls. Over the years, you'll see the massive canines yellow and chip away. I don't know if they fall out from the accumulated strain or have to be broken out by a traumatic event because this kind of thing can only happen four times in a male's lifetime, and they fight far too often for me to be able to pick out the moment when a baboon loses a coveted fang.

Morty also has the big coat and deeply lined muzzle of an elderly baboon. Though, his coat isn't a massive ball of shag like that of Chester. We debate over just how old Mortimer is, since he looks old but exhibits youthful behavior which I shall describe.

When a foreign troop can be heard (often through wahoos) nearby, the sub-adults of a troop will often edge to the periphery of their troop, in the direction of the offensive sounds. Male baboons inevitably "disperse" when they come of age. In order to preserve the flow of genes and reduce incest, young adult males will change troops. When males this age skirt to the edge of their own troop, they might be seeking any and all information that can be gleaned about the territory and behavior of the neighboring troops... one of which they will go on to join.

The funny thing is, Mortimer engages in this behavior as well. When the sub-adults wander towards the adjacent troop, Mortimer is commonly found at the front of the bunch, keenly interested in the prospects afforded by other troops.

To my knowledge, there are no studies which describe dispersing fully adult males. Once a male joins a new troop, it is assumed he will stay there for life. Yet, Mort acts like a sub-adult, getting into fights, acting aloof, showing interest in other troops. The key difference is that he is larger and much more experienced that the sub-adults of his troop. If he is on the young side, as some believe, then maybe he's in a bad position, for the alpha male of the troop is a commanding individual. Mortimer is no wimp of a baboon, so perhaps he has some virility left in him and wishes to have the chance to use that fire before it goes out.

Saturday, January 2

A Policy of Reconciliation

One morning with the troop, I witnessed a scuffle between two small juveniles. The baboons were little more than infants, aged between one and two years. Both had probably been weaned very recently, and one of them might still be darting in for a quick nip once a day.

I arrived at the scene after the tumult had begun. These two little tykes were biting and screaming at each other. This is hardly news in Baboonland; monkeys will scream during almost every instance of play. However, there is a thin line over which one baboon can cross, and across that line is aggression rather than "simple" play... I'll save the treatise on how the two behaviors are phylogenetically equivalent for another time.

One of these guys clearly broke the pact of playful violence. This, too, is common place. One of the little ones will scurry away, and repeatedly wail his discontent away. Often, older juveniles will come to aid the others, break up the tussle, or perhaps diffuse tension with their mere presence.

The struggle between these two juveniles was somehow perceived by me to be a level or two above the usual scuffle. Even in the presence of the older juveniles, the two were not dissuaded from battling. Eventually, they broke apart, but the violence was far from ended. Each displaced their frustrations on other surrounding juveniles, lunging and swiping at the others. A few smaller fights ensued, but it was clear that these were only half-hearted struggles. Once the two juveniles broke apart, both would emit this rhythmic low whining sound, a bit like a off and on growl or grumble.

The grumbling continued for several minutes, until finally the two broke away from their fellows, whether by choice or for ostracization I could not tell. Then, the two growling baboon juveniles began closing the distance between them. Slowly they creeped towards one another, their motion persistently supported by their growls.

This is it, I thought eagerly. These two are going to have it out with each other right here and now! What trump moves have they not yet played?
The unexpected happened. There was no intense brawl, no torn flesh, or vicious screaming which I have become so accustomed to seeing. The two animals came within reach of one another, clasped each other in their arms, and hugged.

The grumbling continued for a bit, and the two looked about warily, but t'were completely comfortable in the embrace of the other. It was an unconditional reconciliation. The two were clearly still agitated, and the grumbling continued for some time before gradually abating, but the climax had passed, and the two baboons became noticeably calmer over time with the help of the other's assurances.

After witnessing the cruel and unforgiving world of baboon sociality for these months, it was nice to see something different. It is good to be surprised.

Friday, January 1

Repeat: That was a weird book

This post is borrowed from my old journal of years past. I liked/wanted the content enough to carry it over and bring it up to date.

I picked up a copy of "The Cognitive Neurosciences" Third Edition from the MIT Press garage sale by chance, which was a damn nice find (its a fatty and probably would cost about a hundred bucks new - I paid ten); one of those texts I see often on the shelves of grad students, post-docs, and profs in Course 9. When glancing through it, I found that Sapolsky contributed a section for it called "Stress and Cognition," which sums up much of his own academic research, plus that of others, and is pretty much exactly the research I am talking about when I attack MIT student life circumstances. Plus, its quite a well written piece. It unfortunately isn't available for public consumption on the web, but here are a few articles that talk about the same issue to a less complete degree.

However, my desire is to talk about an entirely different book. My 9.20 professor urged me to try reading a book he had mentioned to me entitled "Sperm Wars." Its about the underlying science (I can't stress this enough, the author is a professor of Biology at Manchester, and has spent years running carefully regulated studies involving thousands upon thousands of samples) of human sexual behavior. So I'm interested in this sort of stuff, and the book seemed pretty cool (and if you examine the back cover, already mildly shocking), so I gave it a read.

The stuff in there is really weird. Downright boggling. Also fascinating, for a number of reasons. For example, one of the scientific findings highlighted in the book is that 10% of all children born to married couples do not possess the genes of their "father." Another: male and female homosexuality exists as a genetic balanced polymorphism. Because of the very real reproductive advantages given by bisexual genes, homophobia probably developed in heterosexuals because the others were a threat to reproductive fitness, plus there is that unfortunate problem of the spreading disease. Its worse in industrial societies; secluded populations with less disease exhibit much higher rates of bisexual behavior and little taboo exists. There's a lot more where that came from, too.

The primary goal of the book is to discuss the anatomy and physiology of human reproduction, leaving all aspects of societal influences out of it. The anatomy and physiology is certainly enough to fill the book since there is some weird weird shit that does make sense from an animal behavior perspective, but is stuff I would not dream of on my own. It is a strange strange thing we've got going for ourselves. I'm not sure I always agree with his uses of "scenes" to illustrate examples of behaviors. Some of it is pretty shocking, which is probably the author's intention, since without presenting the reader with realistic shock value, the legitimate points he is trying to get across simply wouldn't set in.

Perhaps the author's primary takeaway point is that naturally, human reproduction is not innately cooperative. To our Freudian Id (Actuality: Hypothalamus, lower brain areas, endocrine organs, etc.), tis an everlasting conflict against the opposing gender. The male "shotgun" approach is often viewed derisively as crude and stupid, but there is a lot more intelligence in these behaviors than it appears. Its quite unsettling how much simple hormones and unconscious planning/scheming are able to manipulate our actions without our conscious understanding. Due to the drastic difference in "how stuff works down there," the science says males should spread their genes to as many people as possible, minimizing personal risk, and women should try to collect the strongest genes possible (again minimizing risk) while maintaining supportive relationships with at least one male. What does it mean to be the strongest? Well, that's always changing and fluctuating, but that unconscious machine happens to know damn well what's "best," and its often not what our minds are seeing.

In one of Sapolsky's published essay collections, he wrote a little piece about the neurophysiology of escalating arguments amongst people: where they come from, why the develop, how they end up exploding, and at the very end of the piece, what we can consciously do to take advantage of our own physiology and stop ourselves from being stupid. This book is not that. To the author's credit, he explains that he wanted to present the bare facts, unclouded by bias or agenda. To alleviate small arguments is easy, but to take a stance on what people should or shouldn't do sexually involves many questions of morality and ethics, issues we've been seriously debating for hundreds of years. To delve into that would needlessly distort what the book means to do.

Which is to provide fair and balanced view of both genders and the various behaviors and structures involved. He does a relatively good job. After all, the guy knows his ethology and sociobiology, and he's in no way just pulling this out of his ass. I'd have liked to see more data, but that's not what this book is for. Hundreds of additional articles exist for that purpose. Plus, the book really does only touch on one side of human behavior. If we were talking about dogs, bears, monkeys, or any other animal, then this would be it. But, we're not that, and the author recognizes this from the outset.

I'm not sure if this a book that I really think everyone ought to read. The information contained within is important, but its presentation is perhaps not ideal, which is unfortunate because people really should be aware of how we actually work. Some stuff in the book should probably be viewed with skepticism, but many of the results have been shown to be reproducible... Ha. Ha ha.

I think what it really boils down too is, as those silly G.I. Joe cartoons used to say, "knowing is half the battle."