Tuesday, November 1

The Tooth Fairy

Good, here is the post, left intact on my other computer. I said I would keep this update at least once a week. Once a month, however shameful that rate may be, is something I can stick to. So now I've technically got October and November covered. But it doesn't help matters that there hasn't been a great deal of interesting news coming out of the monkeyworld, either, so I can't even write half-strength posts about that. Regardless, here is an entry that is quite overdue.
I eat you
Life as a male baboon is short and brutish, as it is for so many males in the wild. And females, when you often think about it. But usually not as short.

The bottom line is that males fight a lot, and when they fight, almost all of the damage they do to one another is with their massive fangs. But teeth don't last forever, just like male rank in the troop never lasts. After years of raking each others' flesh and bones with their canines, not to mention the added wear from, you know, eating, the canines will be lost.

Usually it doesn't happen all at once. I haven't had a chance to witness this process much, but usually the tip ends up broken, and then the main shaft will break off, and finally the entire tooth will fall out.
This isn't a great picture, but it is an amusing one to be sure, and as informative as we need. I unfortunately do not have any pictures from my own baboons because no one I know has a quality camera and the particular attention or desire to snap shots of the old males' canine-less maws. However, the above picture of a gelada serves the purpose well enough. He's mid yawn in this picture, and you can't see his remaining teeth yet, but you can already easily tell that they're missing. Look at how the skin stretches, and is pulled inward; if there were teeth there, the skin would be a comparatively flat surface, but without the large canines, the skin is pulled into the empty space to lessen the tension as the monkey yawns.

Among the troops, there are many old males who look like this. Old Chester and Betrand are missing all of their canines, and Mortimer is almost there. I suppose Morty must be a bit younger than I initially thought, since a chipped, yellowed, but intact lower canine remains in his mouth. None of these baboons will ever be on the top of the pile ever again, but they're still extremely dangerous, and have more than enough strength to take on any baboon female out there.

Fights aren't the only thing that ends the lives of monkey teeth. I know a few middle-aged rhesus macaques who've barely faught a day in their lives, but some of them are missing canines as well. Furthermore, there is a troop of baboons further down on the cape which roams near a bread factory. They frequently raid said factory, and the result is extremely bad baboon teeth, thanks to the large amounts of processed carbohydrate in the bread.

I mention the topic of teeth because recently, Aaron came out of a routine fight, and one of his upper canines was missing. Not too long ago, I noticed that Aaron's teeth were not as bright and shiny as we had previously thought. They were not visibly marred, but quite yellow. Further reason to believe that while Aaron is still a strong baboon in his prime, he is not as young an we once thought.

Rather than being on the upswing in terms of strength, Aaron has begun his decline, which is a scary prospect for a male baboon. There will be many more challenges to Aaron's authority, and the end of his reign is now in sight.

On that note, Happy Solemnity of All Saints.

Monday, October 31

Post Averted

Hi everyone,

I had a post all ready, and I kind of deleted it all and Blogger saved over. I don't even know how it happened, I couldn't seem to even undo the deletion. Kind of a crappy deal. And I was feeling pretty bad about not posting, even though my RSI has not been treating me well of late.

There is a chance that the post survives on my other computer, in which case I will post it tomorrow, otherwise I may wait until Wednesday or Friday to rewrite the thing. Sorry.

At least in the formal archive, there will be no blank entry for the entire month of October.

Thursday, September 1

Rural Legends

One day, about a year ago, I heard a colleague recalling a tale from the north of the country, about how the baboon up there would raid the local farms, and at times, they would not only take food with them, but puppies. I inititally assumed the puppies were being dragged along to be eaten, despite the fact that baboons do not hunt. I was quickly corrected, for according to the story, the puppies were subdued by the baboons, for as long as necessary, until they behaved as if they were born baboons.

The idea was that the baboons were basically forcing the dogs to ethologically imprint on them, causing the dogs to identify with the baboons as members of their own species, other dogs. What is odd is that the puppies, at least those in the video, are not terribly young, which is usually a requirement for successful imprinting. On the other hand, humans can adopt puppies who have been raised by a mother for some time. The likely key is that the dog is a domesticated species, altered to allow for easier taming and imprinting. Konrad Lorenz had no such advantage when he trained his geese.

You hear a lot of crazy things about baboons from some of the locals, that they eat farm animals by night, or cast magical curses on innocent townsfolk, so at the time, I assumed that the yarn about dogs being raised as baboons was just another tall tale. What baboon would sit on top of a dog for years until it wised up?

I'm not one to contradict video evidence, though. In the future, perhaps I will be able to know better: though I originally heard the story from an unreliable source, it was corroborated by the aforementioned colleague, who I trust. He hadn't seen any such cases first-hand, but the evidence he'd been presented with was convincing enough for him. The truth of the phenomenon makes it no less impressive. Monkeys, baboons included, are often quite impatient, and I am honestly shocked that baboons around the continent have the forethought and will to tame their own dogs.

I look forward to reading a scholarly paper on this process any day now.

Monday, August 15

Missing the Point

Project Nim, the hot new film about the life and times of Nim Chimpsy, famed ape language subject, has been out in select theaters for a few weeks now. The press has been abuzz about the film, and its been received remarkably well by critics and viewers alike. Someone is my position was bound to hear a lot about it before I ever got around to seeing it, but see it I did, and now that I have, I can say a few words about how troubling a film it is.

When the director, James Marsh, was interviewed on a recent episode of The Bat Segundo Show, he repeatedly stated things like "that isn’t the film that I think would work for me" or "(that film isn't) the one I’m interested in making" when asked why he left out any mention whatsoever of other key players like Washoe and Nim's namesake, Noam Chomsky. But wait a moment, Mr. Marsh who's story is this, yours or Nim's?

Our society has entered a bountiful era of docu-dramas: The Kennedys, John Adams, The Tudors, and Frost/Nixon, just to name a few. We are inundated by colorful depictions of "history," some of which vary wildly from the known facts. I believe that in this new epoch of docu-dramas, now more than ever, films that call themselves documentaries have a responsibility to viewers, a responsibility to constructively inform.

Marsh makes it clear that his intent is to tell a story, a very particular story about the entity that was Nim. The other characters, the humans, don't really matter. They're in the movie because they need to be, without them there could be no telling of Nim's story. Once they no longer have a place in telling the story, they have no place in Marsh's movie. What results is the depressing tale of one misunderstood chimpanzee who made scientific history, but honestly got off pretty damn good compared to the vast majority of research animals. Is it accurate? The film manages to be scientifically accurate, but that isn't saying much, considering that Marsh's technique for ensuring scientific accuracy is to only include as much scientific history in the movie as is absolutely necessary.

Let us now return to my prompt, and I admit right here, that I am missing the point. If its neither about the people and how they were changed by Nim, nor the science and how it changed our understanding of our place in the world, nor the animal rights angle, then just what is a person supposed to think about after watching Project Nim?

I've been told that my "What can we learn from this? How can we act on what we learn?" mentality is part of my lot as a member of Generation Y. I've never found that to be an explanation why one shouldn't try to learn how to improve and not repeat past mistakes. Its not as if my generation was the first in a hundred years to overquote George Santayana.

These are the questions I must ask: "What are we to take away from this? What are we supposed to learn about the world around us, and in turn ourselves? How are we intended to change, as enlightened by this documentary?"

Marsh's films do not lend themselves to his approach. The problem first appeared to me when I saw Man on Wire, Marsh's first documentary film. Marsh does some ingenious stuff with style and cinematography, but the entire experience left me wanting. Look at other critically acclaimed, modern documentaries which focus on small group, like King of Kong (or Darkon, Murderball, The Woman Who Married the Eiffel Tower, and plenty of others). King of Kong is a narrative, and a compelling one at that. It also has no trouble taking the time to tell you about the people, the communities who make these stories possible, how these groups have come to exist (and persist), and why they mean something.

Man on Wire fails spectacularly at this aspect. Marsh is excellent at manipulating his audience in order to draw them into the immediate story (though personally I never managed to care that much), but in the end it falls flat. Marsh shows us an entire team of underground tightrope walkers, but who are these people? What kind of person was drawn to that ideal in the 70's? Where are they now? What did that experience mean to them in the context of the rest of their lives? Man on Wire failed to actually address the most important part of a documentary: Why should anyone care about these brief events from the 70's? What's the impact? What's the point?

I admit that I am a little bit bitter because if Project Nim were more like King of Kong, about the people who are living in a post-Nim primate research world, it would be about people like me. Instead, Project Nim is about a few people, some of whom are still involved in the primate cognition world, as they were almost 40 years ago. And its not actually about them, either! Its about Nim, except that never does Marsh ever consult any real primate ethologist to try and understand what Nim actually would have been going through during these experiences. Marsh implicitly criticizes the human in the movie for personifying Nim and not treating him like a chimpanzee, yet Marsh himself makes no effort to rise above these personifications.

Gah, the frustration mounts the more I contemplate the movie. Anyway, those are my stylistic gripes with Project Nim. Now for the ugly part.

There's some dirty, nasty deceptions of the involved humans by Marsh. I'll only point out one, but I think it is the most egregious. Marsh implies very stongly that when Nim was taken to LEMSIP, Dr. Terrace, the project leader, did nothing whatsoever to aid Nim in his plight. In fact, Terrace spearheaded the effort to have Nim released, bringing the issue to the media's attention and publicly challenging LEMSIP. Terrace offers this and other concerns in an article recently published in the LA Times.

Don't take my word for it, the situation is documented in Elizabeth Hess's book, Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, and the particular passage is available for your reading enjoyment thanks to Google Books (provided the correct pages are up on the rotation). Hess is by no means easy on Terrace, but she gives credit where it is due.

One should note that this is the book which the movie is supposedly based on. Marsh knew what actually happened, he must have, yet he deliberately omitted that part of the story and presented Dr. Terrace in exactly the opposite light. No one in this story is an angel, but they're still people and they still have lives. Marsh refuses to apologize for any of his protrayals.

I'm not an expert in Nim's history though, so I've no idea just how much else Marsh twisted in his presentation of this history. It doesn't matter much, I simply can't condone this level of blatant misrepresentation, and it taints the entire film.

Project Nim is an interesting film to watch, in spite of the fact that it is not a very good movie. It does provide a window into the life of one very real ape, and no amount of misportrayal, deludedness, and lack of direction can make the classic, pure footage of Nim being Nim less remarkable.

Wednesday, August 3

I have no idea what's going on

The picture says it all. I've had all these good things to write about come up, and then BOOM this new grant socked me right in the bean machine and my life instantly shattered into little pieces of madness. In short, I have too much stuff to do, and my hands are sore from all the writing.

In truth, the submissive behavior this (zoo) baboon appears to begin by presenting his butt, a standard submissive behavior, but then everything shifts into nightmare world territory when he lifts the leg, starts screaming at the humans, and does the weird hand thing. I've seen the hand thing before, but in macaque monkeys. And its only this one guy in the colony who will sometimes rest his hand near his tail when he is being groomed from behind. He's a bit of a jittery monkey overall, but not totally neurotic; he's much calmer than that baboon is under similar circumstances.

Then again, its also a juvenile, so his behavior is difficult to analyze. There must be something ethologically relevant to "hand-to-butt" behavior, though. I've seen it too many times in too many species. Its related to the presentation behavior, which is in turn derived from the female copulation stance. Females don't have the luxury of being able to scratch their butts during copulation; there's an awful lot of force involved, and the female's frame needs all the support it can get to absorb it all. Where would the added hand gesture have originated? Oh look, I found at least one recent, directly relevant article discussing this subject.

Well look at that, complex thought is still possible in my mind afterall. I'm too curious not to write up a synopsis of these findings regarding the copulation position, and I do have a much needed vacation coming up.

Tuesday, July 19

Where You're Not Quite On Top

This paper has been making the rounds, unsurprisingly, given its featured status in Science and the fact that it was picked up by the New York Times.

Baboon Study Shows Benefits for Nice Guys, Who Finish 2nd

From the wild to Wall Street, as everyone knows, the alpha male runs the show, enjoying power over other males and, as a field biologist might put it, the best access to mating opportunities.

The beta is No. 2 in the wolf pack or the baboon troop, not such a bad position. But conversationally, the term has become an almost derisive label for the nice guy, the good boy all grown up, the husband women look for after the fling with Russell Crowe.

It may now be time to take a step back from alpha worship. Field biologists, the people who gave the culture the alpha/beta trope in the first place, have found there can be a big downside to being No. 1.

I don't mean to imply that the paper is bad by asking this, but how exactly does the New York Times decide what to write up in their science section? I suppose a great deal of it must be author dependant, like this one by Nicholas Wade, which was clearly a topic which he would choose to write about.
The paper is a great media story, too, since it addresses a controversial issue, and manages to get into the human element of the back and forth rhetoric between Stephen Jay Gould and... well, a lot of people in paleoanthropology.

Enjoy the read. It covers a lot of old and new ground about what may and may not cause stress among primates from all walks of life, who have achieved varied levels of success. If you're trying to figure out how stressed you are and what personality type you are, you're probably still better off getting some old fashioned tests.

Friday, July 15

On post-ejaculatory wiping

Stop monkeying around and pass me a leaf

Chimpanzees in Budongo Forest in Uganda regularly employ leaves as 'napkins' to wipe their penis after sex, researchers discovered

The authors of a study called High Frequency of Postcoital Penis Cleaning in Budongo Chimpanzees do not beat about the bush. "We report on postcoital penis cleaning in chimpanzees," they write. "In penis cleaning, leaves are employed as 'napkins' to wipe clean the penis after sex. Alternatively, the same cleaning motion can be done without leaves, simply using the fingers. Not all chimpanzee communities studied across Africa clean their penes and, where documented, the behaviour is rare. By contrast, we identify postcoital penis cleaning in Budongo Forest, Uganda, as customary."

My first thought: What about masturbation?

The Guardian doesn't mention it at all, but the paper does... once. Its little more than a passing acknowledgement, however, all mentions from there on out are specific to coitus, and the data included in their tables follow suit.

Masturbation is a behavior distinct from copulation. The two end in orgasm for the male, but the resemblances end there. The two activities serve entirely different purposes: coitus is for reproduction and social purposes, masturbation (in males) is for monitoring and controlling ejaculate output.

Which is not to say it is impossible that the two activities could have overlapping purposes. That's where this study starts to come into play, or could come into play. But, the paper chooses not to examine masturbation activities in this context. I'm not sure quite why, to be honest.

Take to the baboons: I've seen them almost always finger clean after they pluck the rooster, but I cannot think of a single copulation which involved cleaning. Granted, copulations are much messier affairs, but its the female who dart after sex. The male generally follows leisurely behind for a few paces, or sits down and starts grunting. That'd be an interesting behavior to compare to across species, and in the case of masturbation, it really should not be difficult at all to gather data.

Unless chimps aren't into jerking off as much as most other social primates. I really think I would have heard about it if that was the case.

A final aside: it would be great to see some, you know, significance statistics for the data in this paper. Otherwise, fun read!

Thanks to Pfeng or Retrochef or whatever she prefers to call herself these days for the tip on this paper.

O’Hara, S., & Lee, P. (2006). High Frequency of Postcoital Penis Cleaning in Budongo Chimpanzees Folia Primatologica, 77 (5), 353-358 DOI: 10.1159/000093700

Tuesday, July 5

When you look into the monkey, the monkey looks into you

Monkey steals camera to snap himself

A macaque monkey in Indonesia took a camera from a wildlife photographer before snapping himself in a variety of poses.
You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me?

The black macaque, one of the more eerie looking monkeys around. I say this a lot, but there's something about those eyes. However, one must remember that while these two pictures are quite a sight, there are probably seventy more of the monkey rubbing his fur against the lens. I'd really like to see all of those, actually.

The picture I've selected is almost certainly an example of aggressive behavior, however. It would be easier to tell with a few more frames, but the bared teeth and the lifted eyebrows. This monkey is looking into a dark, reflective lens, and does not realize that this mirror image is him. He believes it is a different monkey, at least something that is being threatening right back at him.

This reminds me of an idea we had among the researchers. We were out there all day, and as I have noted, the baboons have a particular liking for cars. Since the baboons would swarm over a car, whether new or old, we've been able to witness some interesting behaviors. A slightly reflective windshield does not differ much from a camera lens, and if the monkeys looked into the windshield, one could assess whether or not they were self-aware based on their reaction to seeing their own image.

This also could have yielded an extra effect over the range of ages. A car is sort of like a trophy for certain baboons. The adults give a damn one way or the other about the cars as long as they aren't trying to run the troop over. The largest of the juveniles, even subadults, quickly lay claim to the highest point on the car (the roof), leaving the hood, side mirrors, trunk, and bumpers for the smaller baboons to ensconce themselves on.

The mirrors and windshields created interesting effects from what I did observe on the side. For the young ones, the mirrors were clearly frightening, so there's no theory of mind there. I never determined if the older males reacted in the same way, as they messed around with the mirrors much less. The potential exists for something bigger, however. Put some big mirrors under the windshield, and watch all the monkeys react. You could even introduce a laser pointer to the experiment and to take a kind of mirror recognition approach.

I do not think that an experiment like that would yield positive results, though. A little evidence exists that macaques can pass mirror self-recognition tests, but the majority of research has indicated that they cannot. Baboons might be a different story, but baboons are even more socially adept than macaques, which means that their intelligence is focused on understanding conspecifics, but not necessarily themselves.

Properly controlling this experiment would be kind of a nightmare, but it might have been well suited enough for a pilot study. The large sample size and strong spread of individuals in different age groups is a major strength of working with baboons in general. To my knowledge, not much longitudinal work has been done in wild baboons where the focus has been on the juvenile years. This is a time where social bonds are more malleable, and less clear to everyone. It would be great to better understand social and cognitive development during these formative years, but I freely admit that several lifetimes of work would probably be required to lay the foundations of this research.

Friday, June 24

Day Off

Another morning with the baboons began with two unexpected surprises. We'd had some luck scouting for all the troops the previous evening, but Tim Curry and his cohort could not be located, which happens all the time with such a small group.

As soon as we joined the main troop at dawn, I felt that something was off. The females were all agitated, and began moving quickly when they came down from the trees, despite being at a site where they usually spend some leisure time in the mornings. I circled the perimeter of the troop, looking for signs of trouble, namely the other baboon troop of Mister Timothy Curry. Sure enough, I saw Tim sitting a ways off from the troop, with his "prize" female, Terpsichore.
let's do the time warp
Terpsichore is a special kind of female. I wasn't ever one of the researchers who was into the concept of "baboon beauty," but Terp is an objectively homely baboon. Her flaws do not match the hanging jaw and breasts of Punzle, from the main troop; Terp's are more the sort of imperfections that come with old age, which makes her akin to Hilda. Terp and Hilda have very similar faces, too, I unfortunately do not have decent pictures of Terp.

Comparing Hilda and Terp isn't very effective beyond the realm of human adjudications of baboon attractiveness. Hilda is a reasonably sized female, and ranked quite high among the main troop. Terpsichore is one the largest baboons I have encountered in person, and is dead last in the local hierarchy. Much theorizing is aimed at understanding how she managed to become so huge with such poor social standing.

As Rainer would say, "no one will so much as touch her with a stick, except for Timmy." Timmy doesn't get much play these days, and all of the other females in the troop are either too stuck up or crazy (seriously, some of these females do some bizarre stuff and appear to have no self-respect for their own positions in the hierarchy), so Terp is the only one left for Tim to copulate with. And between Cyrus and Xerxes, all the females with some kind of rank are spoken for.

I digress, but it is important to emphasize how odd both Tim and Terp are. Tim and Terp idled around on the periphery of the group all morning. When the rest of the group quickly made tracks out of the sleeping site, which was almost certainly to avoid the Curries, the pair of outsiders followed.

The troop was in a state of high tension althroughout. Under many circumstances, the juveniles of the troop would relish the opportunity to spar with some new faces, but a weird old man and his mistress are not nearly as fun. Aaron took out his anger on some of the females, with Bertrand and Chester also showing palpable agitation.

Yet Tim simply would not leave. I am missing the part of the story where he wound up separated from his own troop with Terp. Perhaps he fought with Xerxes torwards the end of the previous day, and when the fight took him far from his troop, he decided to stay there overnight. That doesn't explain Terp's presence at all, though. She likes him, but she shouldn't need his protection that badly.

Speculation: clearly my favorite part about baboon blogging. Around noon, Tim and Terp finally got a clue and slowly separated form the group, returning to Tim Curry's troop. What was that clue?

Let's make a little thought experiment out of this. Throughout the day, one could hear male wahoo calls from troop members and from other baboons aways off in the forest. At some point, Tim must have recognized the wahoos of Xerxes and Cyrus, and after hearing enough of them, he could determine location, and possibly heading.

If Tim wants to get back to his troop with Terp, how would a baboon go about doing such a thing? I have a feeling that Timmy's feeble old mind may not have been up to human standards on pathfinding; my previous experience strongly suggests this. If the body of the main troop, which covers quite a sector when in a mobile foraging formation, blocked Tim's path back to his troop, he probably wouldn't be intelligent enough to follow a wide berth around the whole large troop in order to return to his own.

If Tim attempted to push through the group to his troop, he could not do so quickly and without consequence with Terp at his side. Tim might have just been an asshole and left her to fend for herself, but it turns out he didn't, for whatever reason. She wasn't at peak swell, but on the other hand, I don't follow them as much, so my knowledge of their cycles is not so strong.

Were Tim and Terp to slowly move toward his troop with the large main group in his path, the whole group would have just moved away from him, directly along his intended path, maintaining the barricade between Tim and his troop. There wouldn't have been any intentionality to this motion by Aaron and his troop, but after several hours of random walk (and being nudged by Tim) by the main troop and the TC troop, Tim and Terp could have awkwardly skirted around the main troop (displacing them further, this time in a constructive direction), and trekked back to their companions, who no doubt greeted them with repugnance. This is what transpired, at very least.
So ended Tim Curry's day off. It wasn't even a full day, to be honest, Rainer passed me reports a couple of hours after I last saw Tim, informing me that he and his female had safely returned to his eponymous troop. I didn't think to ask how the two missing baboons were welcomed on their return. Somehow, I have a feeling that Timmy gets himself lost in harmless places pretty often, and it stands to reason that the younger generation has written him off. Despite all his flaws, he has no difficultly in making sure he's taken care of by the end of the day.

Friday, June 10

Don't personify your monkeys

I apologize in advance, this is not going to be a pretty one.

Monkey "witch" burned by South African township mob

Animal welfare workers were contacted by a Kagiso resident traumatized by the incident, in which a vervet monkey was beaten, pelted with stones, shot at and burned to death.

I bring attention to this because it is bad news all-around, from the sociopathic behavior of a few people, to the racist comments made in response. The description is brief, but I would be willing to wager it was a bad kernel of a few unsavory individuals who carried out this whole thing.

In retrospect, it seems I've been reading a lot of depressing books lately, the tone of which is slipping into my writing. This endless sinus infection isn't helping matters either. See above for apology.

However, what really set me to writing was a memory brought to the surface by this article. I was once told a story by one of the white women who lived right at the forests edge, almost directly in the path of one of the troop's usual routes. One day she walked out of her house and found herself surrounded by the troop, which was leisurely passing through the yard. They can sneak up on you pretty quickly if you don't know what to look for.

In her surprise, she stumbled, and almost fell. When her bearings returned, she thought the baboons were laughing at her.

Baboons do not laugh.

Baboons will make a sound that we have onapatomeiacally dubbed a "kek." Its not as common as a grunt or a bark, but probably on par with a wahoo, at least in this population of baboons. The females use it in social interactions, it is generally issued by a female in the presence of a higher ranking female, as a way of reducing tension. The details are vague to me, and as far as I know, this is a behavior which has been studied quite little.

Cheney and Seyfarth are the go to people for modern baboon research, moreso even in Chacmas, moreso further in anything to do with vocalizations, particularly those of the females. Pretty much everything in the literature deals with "grunts," unfortunately, which means that a Kek is either being classified as a grunt, or this behavior has actually been too difficult to research.

One could reasonably argue that the Kek is ethologically derived from a grunt. In a process which is well known through Konrad Lorenz' illustration of dog behaviors, pictured below.
Along the left column, Lorenz has drawn the transition of a dog's face from calm to fearful. Along the top, he transitions to aggressive. The other pictures are combinations of the facial expressions at various stages, culminating in the lower right picture, which depicts full on fear and aggression in concert.

The Kek could be the result of a comparable combination. The female might have adopted a grimace of fear, distorting her cheeks and and tightening her facial muscles. While trying to grunt to another baboon in an affiliative manner, the twisting and tightening of muscles could distort the sound of the call, producing a Kek. If this is what is happening, ought we still to call this a "grunt"? If a human observer can distinguish between the two, then a baboon can unquestionably discern a difference in meaning as well.

To make an overly ruminative explanation short, the Kek sounds a bit like a mean spirited laugh, and regardless of what a Kek really means to a baboon, it definitely is not a form of laughter. This story is one of coincidence, but in light of what happened to that vervet, I must be thankful that this encounter involved an enlightened Capetonian, and that baboons are way bigger and scarier than vervets.

There is a sad lack of publicly available baboon sounds that one can find on the web. However, I did find this. There are no Kek'ing sounds included, and some files are mislabeled, but they are all sounds one would hear from a baboon. Have a look if you've got the urge. I'll keep looking for Kek sounds; I may yet be able to dig a few up.

Wednesday, May 25

Wound Up

Big news in primatology, or well, there's always "big" news, I just seldom get around to talking about it until I simply can't keep track of all the stories because my firefox session becomes so slow due to all the tabs I have open. I'm not quite sure what that says about my work ethic.

First, the baboons:

‘Feeding stations’: an answer to conflict?

Baboons foraging in human areas leads to highly undesirable consequences
A question that is being asked of baboon management on a regular basis is whether using feeding stations (or provisioning) can be used to draw baboons away from human areas, where humans and baboons often conflict with one another. In this post we address the question, based on data we have collected . . .

This post is particularly notable because it utilizes some of the actual data that have came out of the BRU projects, in order to make informed recommendations about what to do about the Cape Town groups.

We spent so much time musing over the various proposals for how to keep the baboons apart, its great to see some facts coming to light. Even though the results aren't positive, its at least one option off the floor, narrowing the debate considerably.

The actual big news concerns the gorillas, and might be well known to everyone by now. I was a little slow on the uptake, though the difficulty I am having in finding the original story is making me feel a little better about myself. Oh, that's why, it was from theNewScientist. Shit. Fine, I'll give you the journal reference, none of their noise.

Local traditions in gorilla manual skill: evidence for observational learning of behavioral organization

Elaborate manual skills of food processing are known in several species of great ape; but their manner of acquisition is controversial. Local, “cultural” traditions show the influence of social learning, but it is uncertain whether this includes the ability to imitate the organization of behavior. Dispute has centered on whether program-level imitation contributes to the acquisition of feeding techniques in gorillas. Here, we show that captive western gorillas at Port Lympne, Kent, have developed a group-wide habit of feeding on nettles . . .

The premise here is pretty simple, if you're familiar with the related chimpanzee research. Chimps are known to be able to spread knowledge and techniques among groups, techniques like the famous Use-a-Stick-to-Fish-Some-Tasty-Bugs-Out-of-a-Hole approach. This is the first example of any such evidence in gorillas, which is good news for them, since as far as apes go, gorillas are not known for their intellect, much less tool use. This sort of research drives right at the heart of cultural foundations, one of the least understood concepts, from an ethological perspective, regardless of what a sociologist might tell you.

One of the advisors of one of my advisors worked on this research and paper, so that means it is much more believable research than most other stuff being published... in anything.

This next one bring me backs to my neuroscience days when I studied a fascinating behavior in rats, whereby they were able to transmit taste preferences between rats by breathing tastes and special signal chemicals at each other, in conjunction.

Bonobos 'chat' about good foods

In the first study of its kind, researchers in the UK found the apes gave each other specific details about food quality. The combination of five distinct calls into sequences allowed others to concentrate their foraging around areas known to contain preferred kiwi fruits.

Bononbos be smart. More and more, I get the feeling that if I had to choose between chimps and bonobos in a dream job, I would choose bonobos. I still have my reservations, but chimps often do not seem nearly as interesting when you take them out of the wild. These bonobos were studied entirely in captivity! What I really want to know now is the life history of the animals, and the results line up with that. Also what this Twycross Zoo is all about since it is apparently the World Primate Center.

To conclude, I have an amusing bit of research to share.

I can't wait to see how much (and what kind of...) mileage I can get out of these results.

Apparently women (but not men) like monkey sex… literally.

Previous research suggests that women’s genital arousal is an automatic response to sexual stimuli, whereas men’s genital arousal is dependent upon stimulus features specific to their sexual interests. In this study, we tested the hypothesis that a nonhuman sexual stimulus would elicit a genital response in women but not in men.

Friday, May 13

On the definition of a monkey

This one is mostly for the benefit of Buzz.

Yes, apes are monkeys and therefore so are we. I’ve said it before and I’ve given my reasons, other biology types have said it and given their reasons, yet a crime against pedantry rages unabated.

... from Zygoma.

The author, PaoloV is in osteology, which means he might well be working with different primate species all the time, but I just can't bring myself to consider working with dead primates to being on the same footing as working with live primates. We all have our flaws.

Truthfully, the distinction between monkey and ape is a handy one to have. There are too many people I meet (smart people, too) who do not understand the vast difference between a chimpanzee and a spider monkey, thinking of them both as "monkeys." Maybe I ought to devote an entire Human Ethology post to this, but I don't think people are naturally inclined towards understanding the distinction between inclusive and non-inclusive sets. Its definitely easier to think, "okay they're closely related, but a monkey is one thing and an ape is another." And its even easier to think "anything that swings around and makes hooting noises is a monkey."

I really like the word "monkey," however. Its such a fun pair of syllables, so I would not be opposed to being given more opportunities to use the word. Its unfortunate that there the two main distinctions within are Old World and New World Monkeys. In that case, shouldn't we be assigned some kind of monkey subtitle?

In conclusion, I have no strong opinion one way or the other, though I may wind up changing the name of this blog to Lord of the Monkeys at some point, to promote greater journalistic integrity.

Monday, May 9

More Latest Stuffs on Altruism

At the time, I didn't write much about the Martin Nowab et al. paper which appeared in Nature about a year back, but it generated a bunch a hubbub mostly because everyone thought they were completely wrong.

I thought they were completely wrong, initially. Kin Selection is a wonderfully simple and elegant concept, that is honestly hard to imagine as possibly being wrong. Its too simple and fundamental. I also didn't want it to be wrong because it underlies many of my own core beliefs and personal theories (yes I admit I am allowing my confirmation bias to work here).

In all fairness, I still think they are wrong. I looked around in the months after the initial release, and was satisfied by the refutations from everyone else in the community.

Somehow, the topic came up again more recently and I went back to the original paper. I checked the supplementary materials, unsure if I had looked at them the first time.

I had not. They are almost an entirely new and different paper from the one that actually appears in print. I considered going through this monster 40+ page adversary and critiquing it page by page, but that seemed like it might become a full-time job for a few months, what with having to relearn all of Nowak's obscure mathematical presentations.

Then another article appeared in Science, about ROBOTS and simulations of kin selection in those models. Good read. Yet, Nowak's comment at the end reignited my ire. In orther sources, Nowak says that the critics aren't really going through all of their arguments no matter how many hundreds of scientists print that they're wrong. Its like he's some kind of avate-garde hipster scientist.

Truth be told, I really didn't want to be the one to "go through all their arguments," and very fortunately, someone else came close enough for my tastes, just recently, too.

Rousset and Leon actually tear away at the paper and its supplements, and, because their commentary was not published in Nature like that giant series from March, they can make some much needed criticisms of this article in context.
"The format of the paper itself is an obstacle to scientific communication. The article has two parts: a short illustrated essay for the general reader and a 43-page online mathematical Appendix. Readers who are not mathematically inclined or simply short on time may be tempted to simply trust the authors and gauge the scientific value of the paper based on the ‘weight’ of the supplementary material or on the prestige of the authors."
Thank you, Rousset and Leon. Regardless of the validity of the results, the paper's presentation is a travesty; a travesty that the authors were fully aware of. Devastating stuff, and I really hope everyone involved or even watching has learned a constructive lesson or two from this catastrophe. Now hopefully I can be satisfied that Nowak et al. have been properly refuted.

Rousset F, & Lion S (2011). Much ado about nothing: Nowak et al.'s charge against inclusive fitness theory. Journal of evolutionary biology PMID: 21457170

Tuesday, May 3

More Baboon Video

There's a new episode of Baboons with Bill Bailey out:

I also discovered that they're taking the eps down after a couple of weeks, so absolutely watch this one as soon as you have the time. Its mostly Da Gama baboons, but there's a few minutes of Tokai, featuring the young male, Clint.

That guy has got nothing. I ought to feel sorry for him since the troop he comes from is overloaded with males, and he's the youngest and smallest out of them, but he never made himself stand out. There are some pretty exceptional young baboons in that troop, if I may say so myself... More on that later.

I don't like the guy much, but my bet is still on Dani.

Thursday, April 28

Queen me?

I'm in the process of writing a paper concerning the ecology and industry of American bison (meat), so my writing engine is low on fuel.

But, a friend sent me this article about bees that I have found myself suprisingly pleased with. Sure, its about insects, but for someone who doesn't spend much time reading entomology papers, it can be rather refreshing. Plus, I would not dream of understating the importance of entomology to the development of the fields of ethology and sociobiology. The fact that I learned about the paper via theNewScientist is less forgivable.

I honestly had no idea how Queens became differetiated from other bees, we just didn't even get into it in Animal Behavior, other than a brief discussion of "royal jelly" which came across almost as an old wives' tale. These folks are lucky that they found such a clear effect from a single compound. A single author, too... most impressive. So, how do Queens come to be in ants, termites, and other eusocial insects?

Anyway, there's your dose of 'real' ethology; the only one you'll get from me for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, April 20

Every primate's a little bit prejudiced

Scientific American covered a new article out in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology which asks an interesting question, of a sort that is not asked nearly enough, in my opinion. Are our biases and attitudes towards other social groups, and within our own group, uniquely human? Do our strategies arise from experiences which no other species can match?

The answer provided by Neha Mahajan, Laurie Santos and colleagues is no.
"We found the first evidence that a nonhuman species automatically distinguishes the faces of members of its own social group from those in other groups and displays greater vigilance toward outgroup members . . . macaques spontaneously associate novel objects with specific social groups and display greater vigilance to objects associated with outgroup members . . . and we discovered that macaques, like humans, automatically evaluate ingroup members positively and outgroup members negatively."
I won't lie, this is some really intriguing stuff. You can read all this and more on the details in SciAm's article, and I hate to rehash thing that have already been said. Rather, I'd like to switch attention to the spin which SciAm puts on this article in their own report.

Once does the SciAm article mentioned "racism," but its in their subtitle. They shouldn't have done this. This cannot be shown to be racism, not under the current conditions. If some sort of morphological or genetic analysis was performed, then maybe they could make this claim. But all the associations in this research are social, not biological. Unless you believe race is a purely social institution, but people have known for a while that its just not that simple.

The true question is easily found in the abstract, and I've paraphrased it above. Did SciAm have access to the full length article, and I missing something with just the abstract? I assume so, though it is rather odd for their link to take the reader to an abstract with no sign of the full text. Even with my various University sources, I couldn't manage to obtain access to this article. So all I have to go by is the abstract, same as you. Ultimately, even if I wanted to, I couldn't write a critical assessment of the source document.

Thus ends this cautionary tale. I am all in favor of more research like this, and other research which truly investigates the genetic basis for ethnic group biases. However, the story of race, genetics, and scientific inquiry is a troubled one. One SciAm article isn't a huge deal, but it demonstrates how easy it is to make little mistakes, and the pursuit of knowledge in this discipline is a razor thin line which must be carefully walked. Otherwise, unfortunate things can happen.

Thursday, April 14

My monkeys are famous on the internet!

Okay not really. Not yet. There's only a few hundred views at time of this posting. But its TV! Real... British TV...

Another thing about this video is that its quite recent. Not so recent as Fred's untimely demise, as that baboon plays a major role in this video. Its quite a good video, too, comapred to the media I'm used to seeing surrounding these baboons. Bill Bailey doesn't make any judgements on what the baboons are doing, and he mostly chastises humans for being clearly dumb and not protecting their valuables. There are several minor errors, and more than a few leaps to conclusions, but that is The Science talking.

The Tokai troop in this video is my troop, though. You won't recognize the names because they have been changed to protect the innocent. Though one of these days I may reveal the unadulterated truth of these baboon tales. Dani's certainly grown into the hide and build of an alpha male, though.

There are some oddities (minor errors, perhaps, as I alluded to earlier), which I could go on about for pages, but I'll stick to some of the more interesting ones. Bailey implies that the Smitz baboons know that the whales are why the humans come to that area. I won't rule out the possibility that they might be doing this, but Occam's Razor suggest otherwise. Have a look at the terrain - its steep fynbos all around. That troop doesn't need to know about whales or the whale watching season, they only need to know that foolish humans with food tend to congregate along that coast line on a regular basis. Then they can peer down from where they might sleep on the outcroppings and see if the humans are lining up as easy pickings on any given day.

In Tokai, Whitey is far from the oldest female around. She wasn't even one of the females I included in the Old Ladies Club. The leg injury is not likely to be permanent. There is a Limper in the other troop, who I figured would recover, but simply never did, however, so Whitey might be stuck that way. Hard to say. As the film shows, and as I always say, being a female baboon is rough. Easy work for the filmmakers, on the other hand; there is a good chance that any day they were to come by, one of the big males would pick on one of the females. I did like the fact that Bailey acted properly confused as to what particular reason Dani had for chasing Berta on this particular day.

Even if you don't care for the narration, the footage is some of the best (and longest) you'll find anywhere. Definitely worth the watch. It would have been worth it just for that shot of Stettler, sitting in the forest. The old man always was my favorite.

Wednesday, March 30

A Solemn Farewell

South Africa Euthanizes Well-Known Baboon
CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — South African officials said Friday that they had euthanized the country's most famous baboon, known as Fred, who was well-known for raiding cars and frightening tourists along Cape Town's scenic route.  Read more...

I didn't know Fred. I know a different baboon by that name, which was pure coincidence. Our baboons generally had odd names, which is what happens when someone lets me name anything. On the other hand, there is a cohort of well-known males scattered around the Cape Peninsula, with simple, friendly names like Fred, David, George, and Erik.

Right there is one place this story goes odd. As far as I have ever known, Erik is the most famous male baboon on the Cape Peninsula, since he is incredibly old, but quite active, and apparently manages to maintain legitimate alpha male status among his troop (I've heard that from sources I actually probably can trust), despite being over 20. See, that's old.

Calling Fred a "ringleader" was an odd choice. I suppose that could makes sense from a troop mind perspective, but I'm sure that wasn't what was running through the author's mind when he wrote it. I suppose that the paragraph is technically not incorrect, but they sure made the event sound like some kind of tactical black ops mission:
"In 2009, Fred led a group of 29 baboons in a four-car raid outside Simon's Town, a small coastal neighborhood. The baboon chief used his signature tactic of opening unlocked doors and jumping through windows to search for food, while the rest looked for access inside from car roofs and hoods."
Last time was in 2009? I assure you those baboons raided much more recently than that. Its such an odd paragraph for anyone who knows anything. Its like the author googled "Fred baboon Cape Town" and only looked at the first news result that cropped up.

However, if opening car doors truly was Fred's signature move, then I might have seen him on one of his raids while driving past Simon's Town. A large male opened someone's back door and stole their sandwich and bag of crisps. On the other hand, I've seen an awful lot of baboons try (and sometimes succeed at) opening car doors, so I would not consider this behavior to be any baboon's signature.

Nevertheless, it is as the baboon management group says, "this baboon's demise can be contributed mainly to the continuous misguided efforts by humans to befriend and feed baboons." See you space... monkey.

Thursday, March 24

Troop Mind Journal 03/23

The troop mind is assumed to take form at some unclear point in the morning. When the baboons are starting to wake up, a few are on the ground, the important individuals in the troop are getting a feel for what kind of day it is going to be, I like to think that is when this primitive consciousness begins to congeal.

But what if they spend the night right next to another troop?

Just such a thing has happened in the forest a small number of times. On this particular day, the morning opened with restlessness. We weren’t quite sure what was going down at this point, but the truth quickly became apparent. When the main troop rushed down from the sleeping site and immediately headed for the feeding site, and the forest erupted into wahoos and screams, I headed up the hill to investigate.

I found an odd collection of baboons holding the frontier. There were 4 of them: Punzle, Cassandra, Danny, and Kirby. Punzle is well known to us, but none of the others have come up yet.

Kirby is no one too special. He’s an older juvenile, on the verge of being sub-adult. He’s recognizable by torn up ears, and long black side hairs on his head, which he probably inherited from one of the matrilines. He’s not the friendliest of young males, but few of them are at that age. He’s smack in his ‘tween years, where the excitability and extroversion of youth are giving way to the aggressiveness and seriousness of maturity. Right in the middle, their behavior is frequently dominated by extroversion and aggressiveness; the worst of both worlds.

Cassandra and Danny are both special baboons to me. Cassie isn’t particularly remarkable on the surface: she’s a mid-to-low ranking baboon, not too young, or sociable. But she’s a good mother, she doesn’t let her babies get themselves killed. She is also the first baboon female I nailed the identification for. She’s got the black hairs I mentioned earlier, and these highly distinctive half-moon patches on her callosities. Well, I can reliably see them, anyway.

Danny is a young male, a legitimate sub-adult. He’s also a surprisingly nice guy. He doesn’t let himself get pushed around by any but the likes of Aaron and Damian, but he’s not abusive to the females, either. Or us researchers. He’s young, but he looks like he’ll turn into a strong alpha one day, who’s liable to be as benevolent as a male can get.

These four stood there, at the far edge of the group, and alone, appeared to push the entirety of the Tim Curry group up the hill, and out of the sleeping site. The remainder of the main troop continued down hill, across the valley, toward the sleeping site. The four did not back down and rejoin their troop until a couple hundred meters had been allowed to open between the centers of the two groups.

It was not surprising to see Danny and Kirby at the edge. They’re young males and eventually looking to disperse to another troop where they can copulate with some more diverse females. They want to know as much as possible about what other troops are in the area. The strangest part was the lack of other young males at the edge.

The two females were the true oddity, however. I can’t think of reason why Cassie would like to risk harm; she doesn’t have a posse to back her up. Punzle does, in theory, but as the number 3 female, it surprising she wasn’t herded to safety by Aaron. The incident was a mess, and did not last very long, but the major outstanding question has remained: why were there so many females at the periphery, and so few young males?

Returning to where we began, when does this troop mind decision begin to form? The baboons are almost certainly aware of the presence of Tim Curry & Co. when they sit back to rest for the night. Could Tim Curry have arrived later at night after the main troop has nodded off? Considering all the experiments that have been done to show the impressive perception and awareness of a baboon troop, I could hardly allow myself to believe that an entire dysfunctional troop of baboons could just slip under the main troop’s radar.

I can sometimes tell, when I find the baboons arriving late to a sleeping site, that something is up. If there’s an excessive amount of screaming, barking, and wahooing, it will often indicate something is amiss. If I’m having a really outstanding evening, I’ll be able to recognize at least 5 distinct wahoos, which is a strong indicator that there’s more than one troop present, since the main troop only has 4 males capable of producing a solid wahoo. Still, that late in the evening, one seldom has enough light to distinguish baboons well enough to spot someone who is out of place.

So I have my hunches, which are more often correct than not. The baboons, on the other hand, must know. Then when does the decision take place? As Danny nods off into light sleep, is he thinking about how the first thing he’s going to do tomorrow is chase those crazy Tim Curry baboons out of the sleeping site? Did Aaron not think about his plan the next day, and thus allow Punzle to slip past his notice? Did Anna have some plan in mind overnight? Was it just the luck of the draw for her, and she wound up sleeping in a tree right by where Tim Curry slept?

All of these questions, and more, will not be answered next week on this blog, but I did find an excellent complementary story which happens not to shed light on anything.

Monday, March 14

Human Ethology: On Social Networking

I dislike the Facebook (tFB) - that's no secret. One reason is because of this fascinating article about demographics of populations who use different social networking sites. But the real reason is because I'm not on board with the "social networking is the future (of innovation/interaction/huuurgle/etc )" crew is that I just happen to think that its unproductive and unhealthy. Don't get me wrong, I'm from the Internet, and I even am willing to agree that moderate levels of internet browsing helps with work. Hell, I won't even deny that maybe tFB is the future. But that doesn't mean I'm going to say its a good thing. Have a look back at my previous Human Ethology writings: in short tFB isn't friendly with our ethology. Sucks, I know.

The reason I bring this up is because a short while ago, I was linked to an article about how tFB is bad news for people's self-esteem. Aha! I thought to myself, Now that's what to see, meaning either my hunches are getting confirmed, or tFB is not only meritless, but a legitimately negative insitution!

Then I was reading one of my blogs the other day, and was surprised to find myself reading an article which spoke of a recently published paper which indicated that tFB improves one's self-esteem. Now this provides a bit of a conundrum worth investigation, I thought.

Well, let's first have a gander at the more recent of the two. This "mirror, mirror" article is obviously about self-esteem derived from looking at images of one's self. The real-life test is, incredibly enough, having subjects look at themselves in a mirror. Okay. And on theFaceBook? Looking at your own profile.

So the results imply that one gains more self-esteem looking at one's own self-generated profile than ones "physical" profile. This immediately comes back to the dichotomy of stated versus revealed preference. A person's tFB profile is stated information, it is written by the individual according to their choices and beliefs. A mirror reflection is revealing information, it tells no lies, unless one is wearing makeup.

That's all well and good, but the authors, or at very least, the press, would argue that these findings suggest that tFB use in general is better for one's self-esteem than living in the real-world.

Slight problem: I may not be an average tFB user (in fact I hope that I am not), but I don't spend a lot of time looking at my profile. Particularly under the newest layout, its awfully difficult for anyone to easily see the complete contents of one's profile. What's allegedly the best part about tFB, and certainly what takes up most people's time, are the status updates, photos, quizzes, games, etc. Dealing with other people is what takes up the majority of time spent on tFB.

Which is where the original paper comes back into play. Except not as much as you would think. The TIME article, from which I was lead to the scholarly paper, strongly implied that people were more miserable on tFB.
Yet,the actual overview of the paper tells a different tale:
"In a series of five experiments, the study— which was inspired by the Facebook envy experience though does not explicitly address it— identified several intersecting psychological factors that underlie the grass-is-greener phenomenon. The first two experiments showed that people consistently underestimate how often other people have negative emotions, while overestimating how often they have positive ones."
Emphasis mine. Well then.

Blogger seldom angers me in a substantial way, but when it deletes my whole post for reasons I do not comprehend and refuses to let me undo, I get mad. And delayed. Everything should have a built in revisioning system.

By the time I realized what was going on while I was reading the articles and writing this post the first time around, it was "too late." There's not more to be said on the relevance of these two articles. "Mirror, Mirror" is limited by its odd assumption about the importance of profile information and viewing, and "Misery," while a solid paper in its own right, doesn't actually gather any evidence directly related to tFB activities.

The two can hardly be compared under the circumstances. Thus, the moral remaining with us: the press is a difficult creature to interact with.
Read the actual papers, and if you can't do that, at least real the abstracts. I skim a lot of papers, read quite few, since so many pass across my desk, but I will always read the abstracts. From the abstract of "Misery":
"Taken together, these studies suggest that people may think they are more alone in their emotional difficulties than they really are."
That's quite a finding, regardless of not being directly tied to tFB. Ehh, it didn't deserve the attention anyway.

Wednesday, March 2


Last time I promised that I would elaborate on the situation I presented last time, namely, Gertrude and Hilda. To my trained but imperfect human eyes the two look like sisters. As an exercise, let's assume that they are. But if they are, how and why do they appear to differ so greatly in rank?

A few things first. If the two are sisters, they are almost certainly not full sisters, they probably only share one parent. This I shall assume, as males generally do not maintain their rank long enough for a single copulatory pair to make it through two pregnancies. This would also require Gertie and Hilda be born one after the other; there are just too many unlikely aspects to such a setup. Thus we'll assume they shared only one parents, but which parent will prove to be an interesting question.

Sharing a mother between the two sisters is problematic. If this were to be the case, the mother would need to be quite highly ranked, to explain Hilda's own rank. Gertrude's low rank is less of a problem this way - female's can lose a great deal of rank much more easily than they can gain rank. So under this scenario, how does Gertie lose all of her ranks?

Alright, we don't really know enough about Gertrude's rank to say where she's fallen to. Maybe she never really collapsed, maybe she just got super old and couldn't protect herself, or developed some disease which makes her weak. Even though males are the sex whose rank is primarily based on pure strength, and females can rely on the cushion of their matriline, they still need to be able to protect themselves. in truth, Gertie is very seldom bothered by anyone because she stays out of the way and is no longer sexually receptive. In theory she could still hold a high rank, but just doesn't make use of it.

What if they shared the same father? Well, an alpha male is likely to mate with the top rank females, and create progeny of high rank, like Hilda. However, males are never long in the alpha spot. An up and coming male may have joined a troop and impregnated a mid-to-low rank female, and several years later, having risen to alpha status, impregnated a high ranking female who in turn gave birth to Hilda.

On the other hand, a low ranking, but clever male may have regularly mated with low ranked females, but slipped in a few sneaky, extra-pair copulations with a high ranking one, and one such copulation might happened to have yielded a successfully pregnancy. This isn't a terribly likely option, but either scenario would give us Gertrude and Hilda as they are today.

So there you have it, a wealth of different ethologically sound (I swear) explanations for how two old sister baboons ended up in such different places in the autumn of their lives.

Friday, February 25

The Old Ladies Club

In the main baboon troop (but probably not your average troop), there is a small cohort of elderly baboon female folk. It is not a distinct group, but more of a spectrum which merges into the rest of the troop's females.

Gertrude and Midi spend much of their time in solitude. Gertrude in particular is usually found at one end of the troop or the other. Midi is harder to place, mostly because she is a very shy baboon, particularly around humans. And in my personal opinion, she's not much of a remarkable or interesting baboon to observe.

Gertrude is the most easily recognizable baboon in the troop. She is so old that she seems to have developed some type of bone pathology; she stands and walks with a permanent stoop. Her fur is ragged and her ears are torn, even more than usual. I think one might be almost entirely invisible, but the thing is, I never came to recognize her ears because she was so easily identifiable without them.

The connector between these two and the rest of the troop is Hilda, and without her, the group my be mistaken as actually being distinct. Then again, without Hilda, it would only be Gertrude and Midi exchanging groomings all day. The three of them form a triad, though Hilda is quite clearly the dominant of the three.

There is always an exception, however. Punzle's jaw is permanently fused out of place, and she's had so many children that her nipples and breasts can be seen as visibly uneven from possibly a hundred feet away. She is no spring guineafowl. Yet her only connection to the senior citizens of the troop is through Hilda, which indicates nothing, as Hilda is a highly ranked female, and as the beta female, she is deserving of attention from Punzle. I've never seen Punzle affiliate with either Gertrude or Midi.

Hilda is the true exception. She is a powerful memeber of the troop, probably the third ranked female. Why would she interact with the other old ladies?

When I think about the odd structure of the old lady demographic of the troop, I wonder at why some of the older females have maintained their ranks, and why some seem to have fallen off the chart. In a matrilinear system, these old females ought to have many female offspring surrounding them who would be locked into the a similar rank for life. Midi and Gertrude (in particular), appear to have almost no one.

The old ladies club doesn't seem to have any different relationship with the males. They seem to have very little relationship at all with the guys, of little surprise given the low fertility of these females (Gertrude has ceased to cycle at all). Yet, the only time I've ever seen a male herd Gertrude, it was Chester, and he made it into quite an affair. I'd never heard Gertrude make more than a couple grunts before then, and I've never again heard anything quite so desperate as Gertrude's screams.

Hilda and Gertrude are a particularly odd comparison, since I believe the two to be related. I might be totally off, but those faces are just a bit too similar for me to write off. They couldn't have the same mother, though. Then rank would follow inheritance, and they would not appear so far distant in the heirarchy. I tell you what, though. This post is nearing the length I'd like to keep it at, so I'm going to bow out of this example and give it a of its own, in a few days. It deserves it.

Regardless, Hilda does interact with the other old ladies, so maybe Gertrude and Midi were once of higher rank (I have seen female baboons fall and be ruined, in the dramatic Aristocratic sense). Or perhaps Hilda is just a magnanimous kind of baboon. Come to think of it, I just like Hilda. She isn't a shameless flirt like the young Siri, nor a raging bitch like Punzle, nor terrifying like Lottie. She might not be the best looking lady baboon out there, but she seems like a pretty decent monkey being.

Wednesday, February 16

The Southern Siamang Drawl

Crested Gibbons Sing in Different Dialects

Crested gibbons of the genus Nomascus are small apes that live in the dense rainforests of Cambodia, China, Laos and Vietnam. All seven species communicate by singing—they sing to define their territory and find a mate, and male-female pairs sing duets to strengthen their bond, rather like a Bollywood couple.


Have any of these journalists seen a Bollywood movie?

Since I study the origins of communication, language, and not-language, this paper was hard for me to ignore. And the study subjects are gibbons! Gibbons generally are largely ignored for being boring and not-as-smart as great apes. Also, they live in the secluded treetops of Southeast Asian, and are exceedingly rare. Near Extinct kind of rare, in several cases, so its great that they're getting some publicity.

Plus, this is legitimately interesting! Its kind of like that songbird song variation, except more clustering than I've seen in birds and gibbons actually have similar brains as we do, so the research is not as totally ridiculous. Shocking!

Archaeolinguists and population geneticists have tried to connect biological evolution with the evolution of languages, and they haven't exactly failed. There are connections, or at very least correlations, in human, so finding this in gibbons is quite exciting. I hope someone looks into this in other ape species.

Link for the paper, if you so desire.

Wednesday, February 9

Instantaneous Evolution

Gorilla strolls on hind legs

Behavior might give him 'height advantage to look over the wall' at feeding time. A gorilla at a British animal park has achieved fame for walking upright on his hind legs like a human.


Try not to get tired of that GIF. I know I won't.

I don't have all that much to say about this discovery. Its a single gorilla who developed this talent in adulthood. There's no epigenetics madness going on here.

I think the most interesting (read: cold and unfeeling) thing we serve to learn from this dude is how his skeleton is shaped. Can he pull this off with a standard gorilla skeleton? Or are their subtle differences in his physical form which could shed light on which were the first developments in early hominid precursors (Ardipithecus and friends) which lead to bipedal locomotion.

Also this dude weighs almost 500 pounds, so these leisurely strolls are super awesome.

Edit: Pic link has been TRANSFORMED into a youtube video with more footage and interviews and all kinds of shit. Also, the original GIF was of a different gorilla...

Friday, February 4

Dream Paper

A few months back, a paper which excited me to no end. It was the kind of work I fervently wished I could do, and in all honestly, there's not too much I would have given to be the first author of that paper.

However, I this was evidently not to be. Still, I had hoped to give me the original paper a respectful nod here for being totally amazing. Even this, I was unable to accomplish, as my workload exploded.

Now, I have a chance to save face, since the author, esteemed primatologist Kevin Langergraber of the Max Plank Institute EVA and Boston University, has released another paper which might be even finer than the first.

Perspective first: the original paper was a big collaboration featuring Boesch, Mitani, Wrangham, Vigilant, a bunch of the Japanese crew, and others. Not quite the 1999 paper by Andy Whiten and just about anyone who ever studied wild chimpanzees. The second paper is a bit smaller in depth, but for me, quite a bit more interesting.

I see now that in my excitement, I've not given more than the barest inkling of an explanation of just what type of research this is. Well, the first was titled Genetic and 'cultural' similarity in wild chimpanzees. Title says quite a bit, but it doesn't give the reader an instant understanding of how similar these two measures are where the similarity might lie.

Langergraber et al. basically take Whiten's premises that chimp populations have distinct behaviors, some of which are shared between groups, and some of which are unique, and attempts to correlate them with genetic data from these same chimp populations. Authors' report: correlation is strong.

More specifically, levels of overall behavioral dissimilarity was highly correlated with overall genetic dissimilarity. Meaning, few behavior varied between groups who were genetically similar, whereas groups between which much genetic distance exists shared fewer behaviors.

The authors stress that reader should not be drawn in by the correlation fallacy. These data reveal that genetics could very easily be playing a role, but that does not mean they are. Cultural effects may be in play, which are unfortunately notoriously difficult to measure in our species, much less chimpanzees.

So what's new? What do Kevin Langergraber and company have for us this time?

Genetic differentiation and the evolution of cooperation in chimpanzees and humans
Langergraber K, Schunert G, Rowney C, Wrangham R, Zommers Z, Vigilant L (2011) Genetic differentiation and the evolution of cooperation in chimpanzees and humans. Procedings of the Royal Society Series B doi: 10.1098/rspb.2010.2592

It has been proposed that human cooperation is unique among animals for its scale and complexity, its altruistic nature and its occurrence among large groups of individuals that are not closely related or are even strangers. One potential solution to this puzzle is that the unique aspects of human cooperation evolved as a result of high levels of lethal competition (i.e. warfare) between genetically differentiated groups. Although between-group migration would seem to make this scenario unlikely, the plausibility of the between-group competition model has recently been supported by analyses using estimates of genetic differentiation derived from contemporary human groups hypothesized to be representative of those that existed during the time period when human cooperation evolved. Here, we examine levels of between-group genetic differentiation in a large sample of contemporary human groups selected to overcome some of the problems with earlier estimates, and compare them with those of chimpanzees. We find that our estimates of between-group genetic differentiation in contemporary humans are lower than those used in previous tests, and not higher than those of chimpanzees. Because levels of between-group competition in contemporary humans and chimpanzees are also similar, these findings suggest that the identification of other factors that differ between chimpanzees and humans may be needed to provide a compelling explanation of why humans, but not chimpanzees, display the unique features of human cooperation.

The paper combines three of my favorite subject in science, perhaps even the world: behavioral genetics, altruism, and chimpanzees. This is a great premise: compare the genetics of our closest ancestors with comparative human populations. The authors chose to look at modern populations, and not just hunter-gatherers, but also pastoral/agricultural populations. They examined different types of Africans, Aborigines, Pacific Islanders, and American Indians, to see if any connections exists between group genetics, competitive behavior, and altruism.

The work smacks of Mitani's research, in many ways, since it relies on his detailed research into the brutal, territorial male chimp. However, the authors take a more serious look at the other side of aggressive behavior as well, plus, spend much of the paper comparing to humans to test the hypotheses of Samuel Bowles. 

Ultimately, between-group genetic differences in humans were not found to be greater than the between-group differences in chimps. Hooray, negative data! Since these genetic differences are approximately the same between species, the authors suggest that these particular genetics are not responsible for human altruism.

I do take some issues with this paper, compromising their main message for me.
I don't agree with the author's selection of groups representative of humankind at the time when modern levels of cooperation first developed. I commend them for looking at populations outside of contemporary hunter-gatherer, and going out of their way to find minimally admixed population that have displayed significant cultural development. But its still too tenuous an assertion, though the crux of my reasoning is way too elaborate to stick into this already monster post, so I'll need to return to it later.

Nevertheless, this is a great starting point, and the paper was a spectacular read. It definitely elucidated a numbering lingering question about Bowles' theories.  I sincerely hope that this is not the last of such papers we see from Langergraber, and that others will pursue similar lines of research in order to enrich the field.

Wednesday, February 2

Is the monkey touching the man, or the man touching the monkey?

Don't tell anyone, but I've been trying to stick to a Wednesday posting schedule lately. I'm midway through a full post, but I've been writing an awful lot of important stuff lately, and Firefox is making it a bloody difficult job to finish this one.

Here's another sweet youtube video to excuse my need for an extension till tomorrow.

Don't mess with the macaques. I've got footage of squirrel monkeys crawling all over me, but they're no where near that size, and there weren't even anywhere close as many, either.

Wednesday, January 26

Strange Days

So this is on the internet now.

Thanks again, Japan. I have been watching this video several times a day,  and after such exposure, I could not help but begin to think (also thanks to the prodding of others) how this combination of behaviors could come to pass.

At its core, this is a straight-forward example of imprinting. It helps to look at the original video source, which is here. If the comments are to be believed (and I know I am asking a lot for anyone, anywhere, ever, to believe youtube comments), then the pig and monkey were without mothers, and imprinted on each other. Part of this is very reasonable, and quite obvious. The monkey is clearly treating the pig like its mother. I'm not sure about the pig, as I am not much of an armchair swine ethologist.

There are a few oddities about this video, which I intend to discuss. The story probably is not so clear as "akeminxx" would lead us to believe.

Returning to the pig for a moment, I don't know how I feel saying that the pig is imprinted with the baby as its mother. I also don't even know how old the pig is. Imprinting on adults is astronomically difficult in most animals, though. A telling moment in the video comes when the monkey falls off, and the pig bolts. From this, I would guess that the pig and the monkey were put together at some prior date, and the monkey imprinted on the pig. The pig is effectively domesticated, and when placed in such close quarters with the monkey at all hours, there really wasn't much to do but submit. Pigs are smart creatures, too.

And how about that monkey? Like I said, the monkey is clearly treating the pig like as mother. I'm not experienced enough to identify the species from the infant's appearance alone, but if I had to make an educated guess, I'd say this is a Japanese Macaque, seeing as they are popular critters... and this is in Japan.

These monkeys (as do baboons) ride their mothers on the belly, usually, but as they grow older, they will often ride on-top, in a very similar hold as they would on the belly. But they cling to their mother, and generally their mother only. I do not think a screaming fit like that put on display by this baby monkey would ensue unless the animal was separated from its "mother." So there you go: pig-mama it is.

The backwards part is very strange, though. In the baboons, one would occasionally see very young infants climb aboard their mother's bellies backwards, but this behavior was quickly rectified by the mother before she started to carry the baby anywhere. I've not yet thought of a good reason for why this baby monkey would ride backward. It might be that the animal began riding backward by chance, or some small reason, and since the pig was unable to adjust this behavior like a monkey mother, the backwards behavior stuck. Maybe there's even a semi-legitimate reason for the monkey to hold on backwards, perhaps the position affords a better hold on the pig's flanks. I would think that at this age, the monkey would much prefer to look forward than get a slightly better handhold on some tufts of pig hair, but hey, imprinting is a powerful and strange thing. There are just too many thing I don't know and cannot infer from watching two minutes of youtube.

Wednesday, January 5

The Old Man and the Vine Tree

Those wild chimps have been using twigs as dolls for... ever, in all likelihood. Those data were collected over the course of almost two decades, but here's something which is a new(ish) development in Chimp "tool" use, and potentially asks some intriguing questions about the origins of culture.

Cultured Chimps Invent and Share Back-Scratching Tool
"I would sometimes spend days trying to find the chimps and then they might travel through everything from muddy swamps and thick undergrowth to colonies of army ants before there'd be a good chance to film them," said researcher Catherine Hobaiter, a primatologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. "But then, when you do get to observe them in their natural habitat, it's an incredibly rewarding experience, and you completely forget about the fact you're sitting in the mud with ants in your socks!"

One chimpanzee there was named Tinka, a roughly 50-year-old male who had near-total paralysis in both hands. Until recently, Sonso chimpanzees would encounter large numbers of snares intended for bush pigs and kinds of antelopes known as duiker, leading one-in-three adult chimps in the community to have permanent disabilities.

To compensate for his paralysis, Tinka invented a new way to groom himself using a liana, or woody vine. Imagine using a towel on your back, except in this case, rather than moving the towel, Tinka held the liana taut with his feet and moved his body against it.

Yeah, so the article is from August. I've had a bit of a backlog. I'll link to directly to the video, though. You ought to watch it so you can see how unimpressive the actual behavior appears to be. That's not really the point though - its about the fact that this old paralyzed dude invented the behavior from scratch (oh I'm so clever), and then the chimps in community picked up a completely novel behavior by copying the actions of another.

How cultural elements are transferred and absorbed is kind of a big deal (at least to me), since we know so little about it, and in humans, we don't have many effective ways to design ethologically sound experiments. Plus, creating proper controls is a bitch. The chimps in this study were entirely wild, however, and though this study was purely observational, if chimps are capable of cultural transmission, it might open up new avenues for experimentation along these lines.