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.