Friday, April 29, 2005

Daejeon lab replacing recently lost monkeys

The Daejeon research institute that lost 99 monkeys last week when a climate control system malfunctioned will buy 30 Philippine monkeys from an Indonesian laboratory, the Science Ministry said yesterday.

The accident killed all of the Philippine and marmoset monkeys at the Korea Research Institute of Bioscience and Biotechnology's primate center, leaving it with only 36 African green monkeys. The institute said that the Philippine monkeys were worth 10 million won ($10,000) each, and the marmosets 3 million won. The marmosets came from Britain's Cambridge University.

The 30 monkeys on order are not likely to arrive at the research center anytime before June, an official there said, since they need to undergo strict quarantine inspections before being approved for use in research studies.

Story here.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Gorilla Gossip Scotched by Ugandan Reappearance

A family of "missing" gorillas reappeared in Uganda, scotching speculation in the national media that they had been lured to neighbouring Rwanda.

Ugandan wildlife officials have consistently scoffed at the flurry of conspiracy theories in the Ugandan national press, which accused Rwanda of spiriting the apes away to beef up its tourist trade.

Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) director Moses Mapesa told reporters in Kampala on Wednesday that the Nyakagezi group of gorillas, who "disappeared" from Uganda's Mgahinga National Park in November had reappeared last week with a new baby in tow.

"So contrary to speculation by some people that the Nyakagezi group was being 'held' in Rwanda, we were always confident this group would return," Mapesa said.

The eight Nyakagezi mountain gorillas were the only group tame enough for tourists to view in the reserve. Their disappearance from Mgahinga in November was a blow to a major money-spinner for Uganda and sparked a gorilla gossip frenzy.

Ugandan newspapers, always keen to cater to a sense of rivalry with Rwanda, poured out a stream of conspiracy theories over the disappearance, accusing Rwanda of "stealing" them to attract the lucrative gorilla-spotting tourist trade.

Story here.

Scores of research monkeys dead due to malfunction at Daejeon lab

A breakdown last week in the climate control system at Korea's only primate studies center resulted in the deaths of 99 monkeys kept for research purposes.

According to the Science Ministry and the Korea Research Institute of Bioscience and Biotechnology yesterday, a power transformer at the Daejeon-based institute caught fire late April 20, causing a malfunction in temperature control systems for at least two hours. As a result, the temperature inside the laboratory rose out of control, threatening 135 monkeys kept inside a sealed room.

"We found more than half of them dead inside the laboratory," said Hyun Byung-hwa, head of the institute's primate research center.

The center was the first established in the country to do reseacrh on primates. The laboratory had tight filter systems to control air flows into the room in order to keep it germ-free. The monkeys cost the facility from 3 million to 5 million won ($5,000) each, the institute said. Breeding a single monkey there costs the institute even more, at up to 10 million won a year. The Science Ministry said it would soon send an inspection team to the institute to conduct an investigation. The institute said it would import 30 monkeys from Indonesia to continue its research.

"When the transformer caught fire, power from a backup source was supplied immediately," said Kim Yeong-gwon, manager of the institute's publicity department. "But the fire somehow broke down the temperature control device."

Story here.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Peter Gabriel jams with Ape Trust's Bonobos

It made perfect sense for musician Peter Gabriel, a big fan of experimental and world music, to jam with two bonobos at an Atlanta ape-language research center several years ago.

Those two bonobos, Panbanisha and Kanzi, are among eight moving to the Great Ape Trust of Iowa in Des Moines. On Monday, Panbanisha, 19, and her sons, Nyota, 7, and Nathan, 4, arrived in Des Moines after a 20-hour van ride from Georgia.

The bonobos became excited when they saw their sprawling new home in southeast Des Moines, said Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, the trust's lead bonobo scientist. Savage-Rumbaugh has spent weeks preparing the apes for the move from a Georgia State University research center.

Five more bonobos will arrive from the Atlanta center in early May.

Savage-Rumbaugh and an international team of collaborating scientists will study the apes' communication, memory and forgiveness behaviors, among other things.

Gabriel said in a telephone interview last week that he has no doubt the bonobos have a sense of music and composition. He hopes to visit them in Des Moines to continue pursuing his curiosity about ape-language research.

"In my mind, there is no question that they responded with great musicality and responded musically," said Gabriel, a co-founder of the rock group Genesis. "When I play the tape to other musicians, they are just amazed."

In a video that has not been made public because of copyright issues, Gabriel and his band interacted musically with the bonobos; each ape got a turn to play a keyboard along with music Gabriel was playing from an adjoining room.

A Register reporter viewed the video last week. Panbanisha appeared to carefully pick notes one at a time with both index fingers. Kanzi seemed more interested in rhythm. Both kept time well.

"I was always interested in the reports of apes learning our language," said Gabriel, who called bonobo researcher Savage-Rumbaugh and asked to visit her project at Georgia State. "She said, 'Come on down!' " said Gabriel, who lives in England.

Story here.

DNA solves mystery of Gibraltar's macaques

Gibraltar’s macaques are considered symbols of British good hygiene

A DNA investigation has solved the mysterious origin of Gibraltar's Barbary macaques, the only free-ranging monkeys in Europe, according to a report on Monday.

The approximately 200 macaques alive today had nearly disappeared in 1942, and Britain's then-prime minister, Winston Churchill, ordered that their numbers be replenished or risk fulfilling a folklore belief that Britain would lose Gibraltar if the macaques ever died out.

"Our project was designed as a test case for conservation genetics," said Robert Martin, lead author of the study released by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"The Gibraltar colony of Barbary macaques provided an ideal example of genetic isolation of a small population, which is now a regular occurrence among wild primate populations because of forest fragmentation.

"To our surprise, we found a relatively high level of genetic variability in the Gibraltar macaques. This is now explained by our conclusion that the population was founded with individuals from two genetically distinct populations in Algeria and Morocco," said Martin, a primatologist and provost of the Field Museum in Chicago.

Story here.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Gratuitous Test Tube Gorilla Picture

The baby gorilla was born April 8, 2005, at the Zoo to Timu, the world's first test tube gorilla, who lost interest in her baby seven hours after giving birth probably due to her neediness.

Via yahoo.

Study Shows Ethylmercury Used in Vaccines Ends Up in the Brain of Primates; Environmental Journal Puts Happy Spin on Results Says NAA

A newly-released primate study published in Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP), a NIEHS publication, is getting fluffy reviews today. The NIH-funded study, conducted by Dr. Thomas Burbacher, a University of Washington researcher, found that Thimerosal, best known for its use as an ethylmercury-based preservative in infant vaccines and pregnancy shots, is actually more toxic to the brain than methylmercury (MeHg).

MeHg has always been widely hailed as the greater of two evils, pushing ethylmercury out of the limelight as "most toxic." Burbacher's study, however, proves ethylmercury is more damaging because it crosses the blood-brain barrier at a quicker rate than MeHg. Once in the brain, ethylmercury converts to what's called "inorganic" mercury -- the more toxic form -- and is unable to be excreted.

Regardless of the study's grim findings, EHP is presenting their interpretations of the findings in a positive tone, " ... injected Thimerosal reacted differently from methylmercury in that it cleared from the infant [blood] much more quickly."

In the actual study, Burbacher states: "There was a much higher proportion of inorganic Hg [mercury] in the brain of Thimerosal infants than MeHg infants (up to 71% vs. 10%). Absolute inorganic Hg concentrations in the brains of the Thimerosal-exposed infants were approximately twice that of the MeHg infants."

Several organizations that advocate on behalf of children with neurodevelopmental disorders are surprised that the powerful findings are trivialized by those appointed to protect America's health. NAA asks the media to investigate this discrepancy. "To minimize Thimerosal's damage to the brain is concerning to say the least," says Scott Bono, Durham, NC, parent and Board Member of NAA. "These primates are shown to have the most toxic form trapped in their brains -- how is that not the center of focus? To say that ethylmercury clears the blood faster and is therefore less toxic than MeHg is deceptive by omission, attempting to deflect attention from the alarming fact that ethylmercury makes its way to the brain much faster than MeHg and can be trapped there for years."

Burbacher is a long-time researcher of the effects of mercury. Earlier work by Burbacher and colleagues on low-dose MeHg demonstrated that inorganic mercury was the principle cause of tissue changes and toxic effects in primate brains. "This latest study in primates shows what happened to our children," says Jo Pike, Executive Director of NAA. "When people who can help turn a blind-eye to children injured by Thimerosal, it only adds to the heartache our children endure each and every day."

Story here.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Babies recognise individual monkey faces

Researchers at the University of Sheffield have shown that babies can be taught to distinguish between different monkey faces in the same way that they distinguish individual human faces. The team had previously demonstrated that babies begin life with a general ability to distinguish faces, regardless of species, but that this ability becomes more specialised around the age of 9 months. However, this new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that children can retain the ability to distinguish between other species´ faces if they are exposed to them on a regular basis.

Dr Olivier Pascalis, of the Department of Psychology at the University of Sheffield explains, "Face recognition is remarkable in that it is a cognitive development that actually involves a loss of ability. Basically, until around 6 months old babies can recognise individuals from any species but, by the age of nine months they have `tuned in´ to human faces, giving them an ability to spot smaller differences between human faces, but eroding the ability to recognise animals from other species.

"Our experiment aimed to discover whether this `tuning in´ effect was due to babies being exposed to human faces more often than to other species, or whether it is something that happens over time, regardless of environment.

Possibly the most useless research grant ever here.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Drunken monkey madness keeps villagers on their toes

New Delhi - Residents of a small Indian village were at their wits' end when a group of intoxicated monkeys rampaged through their town after drinking a specially fermented drink.

According to news reports, the monkeys drank a substance made from marijuana leaves that residents were preparing for a religious drink called "pana".

The stunned villagers apparently chased the inebriated monkeys away with sticks and other weapons, driving them back into a nearby forest.

Three residents were injured and taken to hospital.

The intoxicating drink was being prepared outdoors as part of an offering to Hindu gods for the Oriya new year.

Some of the monkeys passed out and have since been returned to the forest.

Story here.

Police chief spurns monkey idea

Mesa Police Chief Dennis Donna does not see a monkey in the SWAT team’s future.

The chief responded Monday to a Tribune article and multiple national news inquiries about a Mesa SWAT officer who asked the U.S. Department of Defense to fund a monkey for use in SWAT situations.

"The purchase of a capuchin monkey has not been considered by executive staff," Donna said in a news release put out by a Mesa spokeswoman.

The release said SWAT officer Sean Truelove had submitted an "inquiry" to the Defense Department to explore if the idea was workable, but the monkey had not been approved for the SWAT team and it was not part of an official police grant request.

Story here.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Mesa Police Want to Add Monkey to SWAT Team

The Mesa Police Department is looking to add some primal instinct to its SWAT team, and to do that, it's looking to a monkey.

The department has submitted a request to purchase and train a capuchin monkey, which is considered the second smartest primate to the chimpanzee.

The department is seeking about $100,000 in federal grant money to put the idea to use in Mesa SWAT operations.

The monkey weighs only three to eight pounds, has tiny humanlike hands and puzzle-solving skills. Police say it would be able to get into places no officer or robot could go and could unlock doors, search buildings and find suicide victims on command.

Story here.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Rare aye-aye born in Bristol zoo

Staff at the Zoo say Kintana is growing more evil each day

An aye-aye - a rare species of lemur - has been bred in captivity in Britain for the first time.

The striking animal, with its yellow eyes, pointed ears and spiky hair, has made its first public appearance since its birth at Bristol Zoo in February.


Kintana is also only the second aye-aye to be hand-reared in the world.

The zoo is hailing his birth as a key development in the long-term survival of aye-ayes, which are classified an endangered species.

The nocturnal animals, which are native to the African island of Madagascar, have long been persecuted for their unusual appearance. In some regions, they are killed by local people who believe they are ill omens.

Bristol Zoo Gardens announced Friday April 15, 2005, that it is the first UK zoo to successfully breed and hand-rear an aye-aye, the largest nocturnal primate in the world and one of the most evil mammals on the planet.

Story here.

IFAW to South African Government: Return Gorillas to Cameroon

One of the 'Taiping Four' infant Western lowland gorillas is seen in an indoor enclosure at the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa in Pretoria obviously enjoying his stay.

An animal welfare group criticised South Africa on Thursday for keeping four rare gorillas smuggled out of West Africa at its national zoo rather than returning them to their homeland.

The Western Lowland gorillas were illegally exported from Nigeria via South Africa and to Malaysia's Taiping zoo. Upon discovery of the illegal shipment, the Malaysian government sent them back to South Africa, where they arrived exactly one year ago and were quarantined at Pretoria zoo.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare said that by keeping the gorillas, nicknamed the Taiping Four, South Africa was violating the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).

"There is strong evidence to suggest that the gorillas originated from Cameroon and as a member of Cites, South Africa is required to uphold stipulations that illegally confiscated animals should be returned to their country of origin," it said in a statement.

Story here.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Monkey auction winner comes forward and names the species!

golden shower anyone?

An infinite number of newly discovered monkeys trying to name themselves could have pounded on their keyboards a long time before coming up with this one:

The Internet casino paid $650,000 for the right to name the foot-high primate, online auction house announced Wednesday. won a March 3 online auction that raised money to help manage Madidi National Park in Bolivia, where the species of titi monkey was discovered by a Wildlife Conservation Society scientist last year.

A statement from CEO Richard Rowe suggested the company was looking for a publicity-generating investment more enduring than an item it paid $28,000 for in another online auction last year: a 10-year-old, partly eaten cheese sandwich thought to contain the image of the Virgin Mary.

"This species will bear our name for as long as it exists," Rowe said. "Hundreds, even thousands of years from now, the Monkey will live to carry our name through the ages."

The monkey, one of about 30 species of titi monkeys found in South America, has a golden crown and a white-tipped tail. Its formal name will be Callicebus aureipalatii — Latin for "golden palace."

Scientific staff at the Wildlife Conservation Society believe the new name will comply with the rules of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, according to Alison Power, a spokeswoman for the society.

Story here.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Rare Monkey Born At San Antonio Zoo

drink, drink, buh-wah-ha-ha.

For the first time in San Antonio Zoo's history, a Francois Lemer monkey was born.

The birth, which occurred over the weekend, is significant because the monkey is an endangered species, said John Gramieri, of the San Antonio Zoo.

Gramieri said there are only 73 Francois Lemer monkeys in North America.

The baby monkey hasn't been named yet because its protective mother is preventing zoo keepers from checking its gender.

Story here.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Test tube gorilla not bonding with newborn

A gorilla keeper holds an unwanted newborn Western lowland female gorilla, at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska.  One more case for gorilla abortions

The world's first test tube gorilla is not bonding with her new daughter, zoo officials said Saturday.

Timu, a 9-year-old Western lowland gorilla, took care of her newborn for a few hours after Friday's birth, but then lost interest, said Dr. Lee Simmons, director of the Henry Doorly Zoo.

Timu was hand-raised, which makes it hard for her to bond with her offspring, Simmons said.

The baby will be hand-raised and given to a surrogate gorilla mother in hopes that Timu will learn from watching that relationship and will be a better mother when she has another baby, Simmons said.

Story here.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Missing 25-foot gorilla returns

A 25-foot inflatable gorilla is back home after it was snatched last week.

Two Stanwood High School students brought the blue and yellow simulated simian to the Stanwood Police Department Wednesday afternoon, Snohomish County Sheriff's Office spokesman Rich Niebusch said.

The teens read news reports of the gorilla caper, made calls to classmates and located the balloon in Stanwood, Niebusch said.

It wasn't clear where the 25-foot gorilla had been since March 29.

The gorilla was being displayed for a sale at All Seasons Spa and Stove when high winds forced the handlers to deflate it. However, someone cut the tethers sometime between 6 and 9 p.m. and took off with the balloon and the fan that keeps it inflated.

Balloon owner Mike McDaniel said he heard rumors that the suspects planned to inflate the gorilla on top of the high school.

No one has been arrested, and police continue to investigate the theft.

Story here.

25 Primate Species Face Extinction

what me woorry?

Human activities such as hunting and logging have driven nearly one quarter of the world's primate species - man's closest living relatives - to the brink of extinction, according to a new report.

Without concerted action, great apes such as the Sumatran orangutan of Indonesia and the Eastern gorilla of central Africa are at risk of disappearing, according to the report to be released Thursday by the World Conservation Union, the International Primatological Society and Conservation International.

It said Madagascar and Vietnam each have four primates on the list of 25 most endangered. Brazil and Indonesia have three. Sri Lanka and Tanzania have with two each. Colombia, China, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda, and Congo have one each.

"The situation for these primates is down to the wire in terms of extinction," said Russell A. Mittermeier, president of Conservation International. "If you took all the individuals on the list and gave them a seat in a soccer stadium, they probably wouldn't fill it," he said in a telephone interview from Madagascar, where primate specialists are meeting.

While listing 25 species as most endangered, the report said that one in four of the 625 primate species and subspecies are at risk. Fifty experts from 16 countries cited deforestation, commercial hunting for meat and the illegal animal trade - including for use in traditional medicines - as the biggest threats.

A list of 25 primates most threatened by extinction:

_Greater bamboo lemur (Prolemur simus), Madagascar

_White-collared lemur (Eulemur albocollaris), Madagascar

_Perrier's sifaka (Propithecus perrieri), Madagascar

_Silky sifaka (Propithecus candidus), Madagascar

_Eastern gorilla (Gorilla beringei), Congo, Rwanda, Uganda

_Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli), Nigeria, Cameroon

_Mt. Rungwe galago (an as yet undescribed form of the genus Galagoides), Tanzania

_Tana River red colobus (Procolobus rufomitratus), Kenya

_White-naped mangabey (Cercocebus atys lunulatus), Ghana, Ivory Coast

_Sanje mangabey (Cercocebus sanjei), Tanzania

_Bioko red colobus (Procolobus pennantii pennantii), Equatorial Guinea

_Black-faced lion tamarin (Leontopithecus caissara), Brazil

_Buffy-headed tufted capuchin (Cebus xanthosternos), Brazil

_Northern muriqui (Brachyteles hypoxanthus), Brazil

_Brown spider monkey (Ateles hybridus brunneus), Colombia

_Horton Plains slender loris (Loris lydekkerianus nycticeboides), Sri Lanka

_Miller's grizzled surili (Presbytis hosei canicrus), Indonesia

_Pagai pig-tailed snub-nosed monkey, (Simias concolor), Indonesia

_Delacour's langur (Trachypithecus delacouri), Vietnam

_Golden-headed langur (Trachypithecus poliocephalus poliocephalus), Vietnam

_Western purple-faced langur (Semnopithecus vetulus nestor), Sri Lanka

_Grey-shanked douc (Pygathrix nemaeus cinerea), Vietnam

_Tonkin snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopithecus avunculus), Vietnam

_Hainan black-crested gibbon, (Nomascus nasutus hainanus), China

_Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii), Indonesia

Story here.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Pig cell transplants into monkeys 'safe and effective'

New Zealand biotech company Living Cell Technologies Ltd (LCT) says it has successfully completed six months of monkey trials to show the safety of using pig cells in another species.

The company, listed on the Australian stock exchange, has been testing its product for the treatment of diabetes, developed when it was operating in New Zealand as Diatranz.

American medical regulators require controlled safety and efficacy studies before allowing trials in humans with type 1 diabetes.

In New Zealand, a Government law amendment which requires approval by the health minister to approve any animal-to-human transplant clinical trials, is set to expire in June.

LCT has three products under development - NeurotrophinCell for Huntington's, Fac8Cell for haemophilia and DiaBCell (encapsulated living islet cells) for diabetes.

Six New Zealanders were injected with pig islet cells in the mid-1990s as part of a clinical trial, but fears arose in medical circles that a pig virus might cross species to infect people.

Diatranz failed to get approval from New Zealand's health ministry to continue the clinical trials of its novel technique for transplanting insulin-producing pig cells into people with diabetes, a form of xenotransplantation

The Cook Islands also refused permission for a trial there, after New Zealand Health Minister Annette King said the ministry was reviewing the safety of all transplants of animal cells into humans.

So Diatranz moved to Australia and floated on the stock exchange as LCT last year, with Diatranz founder Professor Robert Elliott as its chairman.

Story here.

Blue and yellow 25-foot gorilla stolen from shopping center

STANWOOD, Wash. — Police in this town north of Everett are looking for an oversized but rather limp gorilla.

Owner Mike McDaniel said the 25-foot blue and yellow inflatable animal was cut from its tether at Viking Village after the air was let out because of high winds last Friday.

The overgrown ape, which was being used to advertise a hot tub sale at the mall, was more vulnerable to thieves because they could make an instant getaway, McDaniel said.

"If it's fully inflated, it does take five or 10 minutes for it to fully drain out," he said.

According to a police report, the last All Seasons Spa and Stove employee left the mall at 6 p.m., and the gorilla was gone when a night guard came to work three hours later.

Story here.

Evidence Shows Skull Is of Earliest Hominid

The reconstruction corrects distortions in Toumaï's fossilised skull and his hairlip

Experts are a step closer to answering whether an ancient skull from Africa belonged to a possible human ancestor or was closer to apes, Nature reports.
Fresh fossil finds from Chad in central Africa, as well as a new analysis of the skull, seem to confirm "Toumaï" was closer to us, say researchers.

The Toumaï skull was unearthed in Chad in 2002 to international acclaim.

But rival researchers attacked claims by the discoverers that it was the oldest hominid, or human-like creature.

The near-complete skull, pieces of jawbone and several teeth unveiled in 2002 were discovered in the desert of northern Chad by a team led by Michel Brunet, of the University of Poitiers, France.

At six to seven million years old, Sahelanthropus tchadensis (better known by its nickname Toumaï) dates to about the time where, according to genetic data, the ancestors of humans and the ancestors of chimpanzees went their separate evolutionary ways.

Story here.

Emory scientist finds different paths lead to similar cognitive abilities

Despite the divergent evolutionary paths of dolphins and primates -- and their vastly different brains -- both have developed similar high-level cognitive abilities, says Emory University neuroscientist and behavioral biologist Lori Marino. She presented her latest findings on the evolution of and differences in brain structure between cetaceans (ocean mammals like whales and dolphins) and primates April 5 during the 14th annual Experimental Biology 2005 meeting in San Diego.

Marino's presentation examined the diverse evolutionary patterns through which dolphins and primates acquired their large brains, how those brains differ, and how sensory information can be processed in different ways and still result in the same cognitive abilities.

"Eventually, a better understanding of how other species process information might be useful in helping people impaired in "human" ways of processing information. Perhaps there are alternative ways to sort out information in our own brains," says Marino, whose talk was part of the scientific sessions of the American Association of Anatomists.

Story here.

Human chromosomes 2, 4 include gene deserts, signs of chimp chromosome merger

The first detailed studies of two of the largest human chromosomes have revealed enormous gene "deserts" lacking any protein-coding sequences and relics of the merger of two ape chromosomes to form a single human chromosome.

Scientists from the Genome Sequencing Center (GSC) at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis will publish the completed DNA sequences of human chromosomes 2 and 4 in the April 7 issue of Nature.

With this publication, the GSC completes its contributions to initial human genome sequencing and early inventory of potentially interesting genetic features in the 23 human chromosomes. Researchers at the GSC were primarily responsible for chromosomes 2, 4, 7 and Y, producing the initial analyses of more than 20 percent of the human genome.

Story here.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Ebola virus: from wildlife to dogs

Since 1976 the Ebola virus has caused some lethal human epidemics in Central Africa. Research now indicates that humans do not become directly contaminated from the animal reservoir, which is an any case still unknown, but from infected carcasses of chimpanzees, gorillas and certain forest antelopes. Results have come from work conducted over the past several years by IRD scientists and their partners (1) to shed light on the virus's propagation paths. The discovery of Ebola virus antibodies in several species of non-human primate suggests the existence within this fauna of different degrees of susceptibility to Ebola and, possibly, of strains of various levels of virulence. However, most large primates, once infected, soon die of the disease. Their bodies then become a potential source of contamination for humans, but also for certain domestic animals. Ebola virus antibodies were detected in dogs exposed to the virus during the latest epidemics, which suggests that these animals may well have been infected and can therefore be a new source of transmission to humans. Ebola virus infection in humans provokes a violent haemorrhagic fever. It usually flares up as intense epidemics. These kill 80 % of the people infected. Seven such outbreaks have hit Gabon and the Republic of Congo since 1994, leading to 445 cases resulting in 361 deaths. Ebola virus thus constitutes a grave public health problem in these countries. No medicine or vaccine is currently available, only prevention and rapid control of epidemics by isolation of disease victims can limit its spreading.

Since 2001, IRD research scientists and their partners (1) have been working to unravel the virus's biological cycle, in other words the whole range of ways in which the virus circulates in its natural environment, from its natural host (or reservoir) right up to humans. They showed that strong epidemics of Ebola have decimated populations of large primates over the past several years in the border regions between Gabon and the Republic of Congo. Human infection appears to occur only in a secondary way, through contact with carcasses of dead animals (2). However, the virus's natural cycle is not restricted just to transmission from the reservoir to the non-human primate and then to humans. It is quite possible that several reservoir species co-existent and that many other animal species can become infected, thus contributing to propagation of the virus in nature.

A serological investigation conducted from 1980 to 2000 on 790 nonhuman primates from Cameroon, Gabon and the Republic of Congo, belonging to 20 different species, hence revealed that 12.9 % of wild chimpanzees carry Ebola virus antibodies, several of the positive samples dating from before the first epidemics in these countries. These results therefore indicate that chimpanzees are regularly in contact with the animal virus reservoir and that some of them develop non-fatal infections. The presence of specific antibodies in the animals taken before the epidemics means that the Ebola virus has probably been circulating for a long time in Central African forests. The detection of such antibodies in other primate species (including 5 drills, 1 baboon and 1 mandrill) suggests that circulation of the virus involved many contamination events between distinct animal species. Thus, the multiplicity of infected species, their different susceptibilities to the virus and the great differences in their ways of life, are indicators of the complexity of Ebola virus's circulation in its natural environment. These observations also show that an epidemic or sporadic cases can appear at any moment in the sub-region of Central Africa as a whole.

Story here.

"Green Monkey" disease under control in Angola's northern province

The outbreak of Marburg hemorrhagic fever is under control in Angola's northern Cabinda province, nine days after the record of the first case, a provincial health source has disclosed.

According to local media on Tuesday, Cabinda Main Hospital Director Alberto Paca said that the about 20 people who were in direct contact with a person who died of Marburg and currently under medical care at Cabassango hospital are not infected.

As preventive measure, they will keep in quarantine in that hospital so that they complete 21 days which correspond the period of incubation of Marburg virus, he said.

Angola's Health Ministry announced on Monday that the epidemic of Marburg hemorrhagic fever has claimed 150 lives among 163 reported cases, but its focus remains limited to one northern province.

It noted that all 163 cases so far reported had originated in the northwestern province of Uige, despite several deaths having occurred in Luanda and the neighboring provinces of Malange, North Cuanza and Cabinda.

Marburg is a viral infection of the rhabdovirus group whose clinic manifestations are a hemorrhagic fever syndrome feared to originate from a type of green ape.

The transmission occurs either through contact with infected animals and human beings, or through the semen during sexual intercourse, as well as through the manipulation of body fluids.

The Marburg virus was first identified in 1967. Several African countries including South Africa and Kenya have also experienced the epidemic.

Three-quarters of the deaths in Angola have been children under the age of five, according to the WHO, but the virus has also started to claim adult victims since it erupted in October in Uige province and began rapidly spreading in February.

Story here.

The Chimp Genome Reveals A Retroviral Invasion In Primate Evolution


It’s been known for a long time that only 2%–3% of human DNA codes for proteins. Much of the rest of our genomes—often referred to as junk DNA—consists of retroelements: genomic elements that are transcribed into RNA, reverse-transcribed into DNA, and then reinserted into a new spot in the genome. Human endogenous retroviruses make up one class of these retroelements. Retroviruses can insinuate themselves into the host’s DNA in either soma (nonreproductive cells) or the germline (sperm or egg).

If the virus invades a nonreproductive cell, infection may spread, but viral DNA will die with the host. A retrovirus is called endogenous when it invades the germline and gets passed on to offspring. Because endogenous retroviruses can alter gene function and genome structure, they can influence the evolution of their host species. Over 8% of our genome is made of these infectious remnants—infections that scientists believe occurred before Old World and New World monkeys diverged (25–35 million years ago).

In a new study, Evan Eichler and colleagues scanned finished chimpanzee genome sequence for endogenous retroviral elements, and found one (called PTERV1) that does not occur in humans. Searching the genomes of a subset of apes and monkeys revealed that the retrovirus had integrated into the germline of African great apes and Old World monkeys—but did not infect humans and Asian apes (orangutan, siamang, and gibbon). This undermines the notion that an ancient infection invaded an ancestral primate lineage, since great apes (including humans) share a common ancestor with Old World monkeys.

Eichler and colleagues found over 100 copies of PTERV1 in each African ape (chimp and gorilla) and Old World monkey (baboon and macaque) species. The authors compared the sites of viral integration in each of these primates and found that few if any of these insertion sites were shared among the primates. It appears therefore that the sequences have not been conserved from a common ancestor, but are specific to each lineage.

PTERV1 contains three structural genes—gag, pol, and env—and regulatory sequences called long terminal repeats (LTRs). To further explore the evolutionary history of the retroviral elements, the authors compared the sequences of gag and pol, as well as the LTR sequences, for each infected primate species. The sequence history, they discovered, did not comport with the established evolutionary history of the primates themselves. Divergence between macaque and baboon was significantly greater than between gorilla and chimp—even though slightly more evolutionary time separates gorilla and chimp than macaque and baboon.

When a retrovirus reproduces, identical copies of LTR sequences are created on either side of the retroviral element; the divergence of LTR sequences within a species can be used to estimate the age of an initial infection. Eichler and colleagues estimate that gorillas and chimps were infected about 3–4 million years ago, and baboon and macaque about 1.5 million years ago. The disconnect between the evolutionary history of the retrovirus and the primates, the authors conclude, could be explained if the Old World monkeys were infected by “several diverged viruses” while gorilla and chimpanzee were infected by a single, though unknown, source.

As for how this retroviral infection bypassed orangutans and humans, the authors offer a number of possible scenarios but dismiss geographic isolation: even though Asian and African apes were mostly isolated during the Miocene era (spanning 24 to 5 million years ago), humans and African apes did overlap. It could be that African apes evolved a susceptibility to infection, for example, or that humans and Asian apes evolved resistance. A better understanding of the evolutionary history and population genetics of great apes will help identify the most likely scenarios. And knowing how these retroviral elements infiltrated some apes while sparing others could provide valuable insights into the process of evolution itself.

Story here.

Researchers to study apes, forgiveness

An international team of researchers will study social interaction at the Great Ape Trust of Iowa this spring to learn more about human forgiveness and the process of culture, officials with the research center said.

Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, lead scientist, said the four-month project studying bonobos will be funded by a $125,000 grant from the Richmond, Va.-based Campaign for Forgiveness Research.

"By looking at how apes learn to channel certain abilities such as forgiveness, our understanding of these processes becomes infinitely deeper," she said. "We cannot gain this depth of understanding by only looking at humans because we are too close to these processes in ourselves to objectify them."

Savage-Rumbaugh said many people believe forgiveness is a concept which only applies to humans. The research center's hypothesis is that it is not a process of species, and that like other social behaviors, "forgiveness is a set of patterned interactions that can be imparted to a group by how its newest members are treated," according to a news release.

Taking part in the program will be bonobos that will arrive at the Great Ape Trust this spring from the Language Research Center at Georgia State University.

The forgiveness research program is expected to be completed in late summer.

Story here.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Animals enjoy good laugh too, scientists say


Tickling rats to make them chirp with joy may seem frivolous as a scientific pursuit, yet understanding laughter in animals may lead to revolutionary treatments for emotional illness, researchers suggest.

Joy and laughter, they say, are proving not to be uniquely human traits.

Roughhousing chimpanzees emit characteristic pants of excitement, their version of "ha-ha-ha" limited only by their anatomy and lack of breath control, researchers contend.

Dogs have their own sound to spur other dogs to play, and recordings of the sound can dramatically reduce stress levels in shelters and kennels, according to the scientist who discovered it.

Even laboratory rats have been shown to chirp delightedly above the range of human hearing when wrestling with each other or being tickled by a keeper--the same vocalizations they make before receiving morphine or having sex.

Studying sounds of joy may help us understand the evolution of human emotions and the brain chemistry underlying such emotional problems as autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders, said Jaak Panksepp, a pioneering neuroscientist who discovered rat laughter.

Panksepp, of Bowling Green State University in Ohio, sums up the latest studies in this week's edition of the journal Science in hopes of alerting colleagues to results that he terms "spectacular." The research suggests that studying animal emotions, once a scientific taboo, seems to be moving rapidly into the mainstream.

"It's very, very difficult to find skeptics these days. The study of animal emotions has really matured.

Things have changed completely from as recently as five years ago," said Mark Bekoff, an expert in canine play behavior and professor of biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Biologists suggest that nature apparently considers sounds of joy important enough to have conserved them during the evolutionary process.

"Neural circuits for laughter exist in very ancient regions of the brain," Panksepp said, "and ancestral forms of play and laughter existed in other animals eons before we humans came along."

Research in this area "is just the beginning wave of the future," said comparative ethologist Gordon Burghardt, of the University of Tennessee, who studies the evolution of play. "It will allow us to bridge the gap with other species."

New investigative techniques often rely on super high-tech scanning wizardry, but the most important tool for scientists in this field is much more simple.

"Tickles are the key," Panksepp said. "They open up a previously hidden world."

Panksepp had studied play vocalizations in animals for years before it occurred to him that they might be an ancestral form of laughter.

"Then I went to the lab and tickled some rats. Tickled them gently around the nape of their necks. Wow!"

The tickling made the rats chirp happily--"as long as the animal's friendly toward you," he said. "If not, you won't get a single chirp, just like a child that might be suspicious of an adult."

Rats that were repeatedly tickled became socially bonded to the researchers and would seek out tickles. The researchers also found that rats would rather spend time with animals that chirp a lot than with those that don't.

During human laughter, the dopamine reward circuits in the brain light up. When researchers neurochemically tickled those same areas in rat brains, the rats chirped.

Rat humor remains to be investigated, but if it exists, a prime component will be slapstick, Panksepp speculated. "Young rats, in particular, have a marvelous sense of fun."

Panksepp said that laughter, at least in response to a direct physical stimulus such as tickling, may be a common trait shared by all mammals.

Psychologist and neuroscientist Robert Provine, author of "Laughter: A Scientific Investigation," tickled and played with chimpanzees at the Yerkes Regional Primate Center in Atlanta while researching the origins of the human laugh.

Laughter in chimps, our closest genetic relatives, is associated with rough-and-tumble play and tickling, Provine found. That came as no surprise.

"It's like the behavior of young children," said Provine, of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. "A tickle and laughter are the first means of communication between a mother and her baby, so laughter appears by about four months after birth."

The importance of such an early behavior is apparent.

"We're talking about a life-and-death deal here--the bonding and survival of babies," Provine said.

When chimps laugh, they make unique panting sounds, ranging from barely audible to hard grunting, with each inward and outward breath.

"We humans laugh on outward breaths. When we say `ha-ha-ha,' we're chopping an outward breath," Provine said. "Chimps can't do that. They make one sound per inward and outward breath. They don't have the breath control to ... make the traditional human laugh."

The breakthrough in dog laughter was accomplished by University of Nevada, Reno, researcher Patricia Simonet while working with undergraduates at Sierra Nevada College in Lake Tahoe.

With extensive chimp research behind her, Simonet was open to the idea of animal emotions, but the laughing sound she discovered in dogs was unexpected: a "breathy, pronounced, forced exhalation" that sounds to the untrained ear like a normal dog pant.

But a spectrograph showed a burst of frequencies, some beyond human hearing. A plain pant is simpler, limited to just a few frequencies.

Hearing a tape of the dog laugh made single animals take up toys and play by themselves, Simonet said. It never initiated aggressive responses.

"If you want to invite your dog to play using the dog laugh, say `hee, hee, hee' without pronouncing the `ee,'" Simonet said. "Force out the air in a burst, as if you're receiving the Heimlich maneuver."

When she played a recording of a laughing dog at an animal shelter, Simonet found that even 8-week-old puppies reacted by starting to play, something they hadn't done when exposed to other dog sounds.

"Some sounds, like growls, confused the puppies. But the dog laugh caused sheer joy and brought down the stress levels in the shelter immediately."

Story here.