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.