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.