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.