Sunday, July 06, 2014

Researchers Create Glossary Of Gestures Used By Wild Chimpanzees

For the first time, scientists from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland have decoded the meaning behind the various gestures that chimpanzees use to communicate with one another, observing more than 80 wild Ugandan primates in order to compile a glossary of their hand and body movements.

Writing in the July 2 edition of the journal Current Biology, St. Andrews primatologists Dr. Catherine Hobaiter and Professor Richard Byrne explained that they monitored wild chimpanzees in the rainforests of the African nation and discovered that the creatures use a total of 66 gestures to intentionally communicate 19 different and unique meanings.

According to Tom Brooks-Pollock of The Telegraph, among the gestures detected by Hobaiter and Byrne included tapping another chimp in order to ask them to stop doing something, flirting by nibbling on a leaf, making a flinging motion with the hand to ask another chimp to move away, and raising an arm in order to ask for an object.

The study authors said their findings confirm the long-held notion that the creatures most closely related to humans biologically truly do have a purpose when they communicate with each other. While experts had known that they used gestures to communicate, this is the first study to successfully figure out what they are saying.


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Friday, June 27, 2014

Monkeys Believe In Winning Streaks, Study Shows

Humans have a well-documented tendency to see winning and losing streaks in situations that, in fact, are random. But scientists disagree about whether the "hot-hand bias" is a cultural artifact picked up in childhood or a predisposition deeply ingrained in the structure of our cognitive architecture.

Now in the first study in non-human primates of this systematic error in decision making, researchers find that monkeys also share our unfounded belief in winning and losing streaks. The results suggests that the penchant to see patterns that actually don't exist may be inherited—an evolutionary adaptation that may have provided our ancestors a selective advantage when foraging for food in the wild, according to lead author Tommy Blanchard, a doctoral candidate in brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester.

The cognitive bias may be difficult to override even in situations that are truly random. This inborn tendency to feel that we are on a roll or in a slump may help explain why gambling can be so alluring and why the stock market is so prone to wild swings, said coauthor Benjamin Hayden, assistant professor brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester.


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Chimpanzees Prefer African, Indian Beats over Western, Japanese Music

While preferring silence to music from the West, chimpanzees apparently like to listen to the different rhythms of music from Africa and India, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association.

"Our objective was not to find a preference for different cultures' music. We used cultural music from Africa, India and Japan to pinpoint specific acoustic properties," said study coauthor Frans de Waal, PhD, of Emory University. "Past research has focused only on Western music and has not addressed the very different acoustic features of non-Western music. While nonhuman primates have previously indicated a preference among music choices, they have consistently chosen silence over the types of music previously tested."

Previous research has found that some nonhuman primates prefer slower tempos, but the current findings may be the first to show that they display a preference for particular rhythmic patterns, according to the study. "Although Western music, such as pop, blues and classical, sound different to the casual listener, they all follow the same musical and acoustic patterns. Therefore, by testing only different Western music, previous research has essentially replicated itself," the authors wrote. The study was published in APA's Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition.

When African and Indian music was played near their large outdoor enclosures, the chimps spent significantly more time in areas where they could best hear the music. When Japanese music was played, they were more likely to be found in spots where it was more difficult or impossible to hear the music. The African and Indian music in the experiment had extreme ratios of strong to weak beats, whereas the Japanese music had regular strong beats, which is also typical of Western music.

"Chimpanzees may perceive the strong, predictable rhythmic patterns as threatening, as chimpanzee dominance displays commonly incorporate repeated rhythmic sounds such as stomping, clapping and banging objects," said de Waal.


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Facial Features of Old World Monkeys Evolved to Prevent Interbreeding

Old World monkeys have undergone a remarkable evolution in facial appearance as a way of avoiding interbreeding with closely related and geographically proximate species, researchers from New York University and the University of Exeter have found. Their research provides the best evidence to date for the role of visual cues as a barrier to breeding across species.

“Evolution produces adaptations that help animals thrive in a particular environment, and over time these adaptations lead to the evolution of new species,” explains James Higham, an assistant professor in NYU’s Department of Anthropology and the senior author of the study, which appears in the journal Nature Communications. “A key question is what mechanisms keep closely related species that overlap geographically from inter-breeding, so that they are maintained as separate species.

“Our findings offer evidence for the use of visual signals to help ensure species recognition: species may evolve to look distinct specifically from the other species they are at risk of inter-breeding with. In other words, how you end up looking is a function of how those around you look. With the primates we studied, this has a purpose: to strengthen reproductive isolation between populations.”


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Chimpanzees Observed Making A Fashion Statement -- Sticking Blades Of Grass In Their Ears


“Our observation is quite unique in the sense that nothing seems to be communicated by it,” says study author Edwin van Leeuwen, a primate expert at the Max Planck Institute in The Netherlands.

To figure out if this was really a tradition, and not just chimpanzees sticking grass in their ears at random, van Leeuwen and his colleagues spent a year observing four chimp groups in Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust, a sanctuary in Zambia. Only one troop performed the grass-in-ear behavior, although all of the chimps lived in the same grassy territory. There’s no genetic or ecological factors, the scientists believe, that would account for this behavior -- only culture.

Lydia Luncz, a primatologist at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, who was not involved with the research, agrees. This study shows how the chimpanzees who learned to put grass in their ears did so through the “natural transmission” of new behavior, she says.

The cultural quirk first popped up in 2010 when a chimpanzee, named Julie, was spotted sporting a long-stemmed piece of grass.



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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Study: Human Ancestors Got Herpes From Chimps

Adults today are more likely to have herpes — oral or genital — than not. But where did this widespread disease come from?

To answer that question, you’ll have to go back millions of years, to a time before we were human.

New genomic analysis has found that oral herpes may have been around since before our split with chimpanzees happened about 6 million years ago. The virus then branched out and followed the evolution of hominids to become oral herpes, or herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1).

“The ancestor of all monkeys and apes had the herpes virus,” said study author and virologist Joel Wertheim of the University of California at San Diego. “When the host species lineage started to split, the viruses also formed new lineages.”

The virus responsible for genital herpes hit our ancestors later, likely jumping from proto-chimps to a now-extinct hominid — either Homo habilis or Homo erectus — about 1.6 million years ago. The ancient virus eventually gave rise to what is now known as herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2) in humans, commonly spread through sexual contact.

Because the chimpanzee herpes simplex virus found its way back into our lineage, we are the only primate species known to be infected with two distinct herpes simplex viruses. But how the transmission occurred from primate-to-hominid all those years ago remains a mystery.

“We can’t say whether the interaction that led to cross-transmission was physical aggression or sexual contact,” Wertheim said. “We just don’t know, but both are possible.”

Alternate means could have been through hominids hunting and eating the meat of proto-chimps or living with them in close quarters, said virologist Alberto Severini of the University of Manitoba, who was not involved in the research.


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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Chimps Outsmart Humans At Simple Strategy Game

Researchers at the California Institute of Technology have found that chimpanzees at the Kyoto University Primate Research Institute are consistently better at humans when playing simple competitive games.

In one game, called the Inspection Game, chimps and humans played a variation on hide-and-seek. In pairs of their own species (humans and chimps did not directly compete with each other for the study), the players sit back-to-back, each with a computer screen in front of them. After pushing a circle on the screen, they have to choose one of two boxes, right or left. They are then shown their opponent's selection.

Each player has a different role. The "mismatchers" have to choose the opposite of their opponent's selection, while the "matchers" have to choose the same as their opponent's selection. Each game lasted 200 rounds, and players that "won" a round were given a reward. In order to consistently win, players had to be able to anticipate their opponent's choices.

In game theory, there is a concept known as the Nash equilibrium. This means the balance that can be achieved when each player knows their opponent's strategies, but has nothing to gain by changing their own strategy. The 16 Japanese students participating in the study performed as expected: slow to learn their opponents' strategies, and not reaching the Nash equilibrium.

The six chimpanzees, however, learned the game and their opponents' moves rapidly, very nearly reaching the Nash equilibrium, even when the researchers swapped the chimps' roles and introduced higher rewards for specific choices. As the game changed, the chimps changed their strategies accordingly.


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Friday, May 30, 2014

Researchers Control Monkey’s Choice by Activating a Brain Region

According to researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), activating a particular region of the brain affects the decision-making progress. The team was able to change monkeys' choices between two images by artificially stimulating the ventral tegmental area (VTA), which consists of a group of neurons located at the base of the midbrain.

"Previous studies had correlated increased activity in the primate VTA with positive events experienced by the animal but could not prove that VTA activity actually caused behavioral changes," stated study author, Wim Vanduffel, PhD, of the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at MGH and head of the Laboratory for Neuro- and Psychophysiology at the University of Leuven. "Studies in rodents have shown that artificially manipulating VTA activity strongly influences behavior, and our work has bridged the gap between rodent and primate."

In this study, the team placed microelectrodes in the VTAs of macaque monkeys using high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging as a guide. In the beginning of the experiment, the monkeys were showed two images. The researchers recorded which image the monkeys preferred by observing their eye movements. The monkeys had been trained to look initially at a white square and then at either picture. The picture that the monkeys looked at most frequently was considered the favored one.

After knowing which image the monkeys preferred, the researchers showed the monkeys the picture pairs once again. This time when the monkeys looked at the less favored picture, the team administered mild stimulation to the VTA. The researchers noted that the stimulation caused the monkeys to change their preference. The stimulation was then applied when the monkeys glanced at their preferred image. The monkeys' preference changed back to normal.


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Ebola Vaccine For Chimps Could Help Save Wild Populations

Researchers at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette's New Iberia Research Center have conducted a vaccine trial on chimpanzees that could help protect endangered wild apes from deadly infectious diseases, such as the Ebola virus.

It's believed to be the first time that a vaccine intended for apes – rather than humans – has been tested on captive chimpanzees. Results of the trial are published in the latest issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Vaccines haven't been used to fight outbreaks of diseases in chimpanzees and gorillas because of concerns about their safety, according to the journal article.

But Joe Simmons, NIRC director, said high mortality rates have made many conservationists more receptive to the potential protection of vaccines.

"Preserving endangered chimpanzee and gorilla species is a common cause for conservationists and medical researchers," he said.

NIRC researchers tested a virus-like particle vaccine, which contains a small amount of viral proteins but is incapable of replicating. "The vaccine doesn't cause infection, but it does cause an immune response to those proteins that can protect against infection," Simmons explained.


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Six Quarantined Monkeys Die At Oregon Zoo

Six monkeys died of unknown causes while in quarantine at the Oregon Zoo.

The cotton-top tamarins, a species of small New World monkey, were part of a group of nine that arrived at the zoo on May 22.

"It's sad," said zoo visitor Maria Maarigal. "The Oregon Zoo should have taken care of them properly, how can this happen?"

The remaining three monkeys, including a 5-week-old baby, appear to be in good health, according to zoo workers. They are still being closely monitored.

The deaths were discovered by a veterinary staff member early Sunday morning. Initial necropsy results were inconclusive, according to a zoo statement.

"We are shocked and heartbroken," said zoo veterinarian Dr. Tim Storms. "We are really trying to get to the bottom of it. Certainly, I have seen animals die in unfortunate situations before, but never six animals all at once like that."
Tissue samples were submitted to a pathologist for further analysis. Zoo officials hope to receive those results within a few weeks.

"At this point it could be anything, from exposure to something to disease or even acclimation problems, we really don't know," said Storms.


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