Wednesday, May 31, 2006

"Hobbit" humans able to make tools

Hobbit-sized humans who survived on an isolated Indonesian island until 12,000 years ago were smart enough to make stone tools even though they had small brains, scientists said on Wednesday.

Some researchers doubt that tools found with the remains of the species named Homo floresiensis in a cave on the island of Flores could have been made by the 3 foot (90 cm) tall creatures whose brains were about the size of a grapefruit.

They believe the tools must have been made by modern humans.

Experts have also argued that the 'hobbit' people were modern humans suffering from an illness that caused their small brain and size.

But an international team of scientists said older tools dating back more than 800,000 years also found on the island showed the 'hobbits' probably inherited their tool-making skills from their ancestors.

"Small-brained or not, Homo floresiensis was capable of making stone tools and therefore the standard story of the relationship between brain size and behavioural complexity in human evolution may be less straightforward than currently assumed," said Adam Brumm, of the Australian National University in Canberra, who headed the team.

Until now it was thought that the larger the brain, the smarter the hominid. Brumm said his findings suggest that may not be the case.

"The causal relationship between brain size and the complexity of tool behaviour in humans is assumed, not demonstrated," said Brumm.

Story here.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Source of HIV virus traced to chimps from Cameroon

The origin of the virus that causes Aids has been traced to chimpanzees living in the forests of southern Cameroon.

The closest known cousin of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) has been identified among chimps living south of the West African country’s Sanaga River, allowing scientists to pinpoint where the germ jumped the species barrier to people.

The findings by an international research team fill a "missing link" in the evolution of HIV, the cause of the world’s most deadly infectious disease with an annual death toll of more than three million.

It bolsters the standard theory that Aids began when an ape version of HIV crossed into humans, probably first infecting a bushmeat hunter, and demolishes more sensational alternative explanations.

Some conspiracy theorists have suggested that HIV could have escaped from a bioweapons laboratory, while another controversial hypothesis advanced by the journalist Edward Hooper holds that the epidemic began with a batch of contaminated polio vaccine in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Neither possibility fits with the new evidence, which is published tomorrow in the journal Science.

Paul Sharp, Professor of Genetics at the University of Nottingham, a member of the research group, said the work indicates that the HIV-1 virus that causes Aids almost certainly arose in south-east Cameroon, in the early part of the 20th century.

"Particularly when you consider that HIV-1 probably originated more than 75 years ago, it is most unlikely that there are any viruses out there that will prove to be more closely related to the human virus," he said. "Thus, the initial jump of a virus from a chimpanzee to a human probably occurred in that region."

The ape version of HIV, known as Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV), has long been considered the source of the human virus, and chimps are by far the most likely species to have conveyed it to people.

Only a few captive animals, however, have been identified as carrying chimp SIV (SIVcpz), leaving the wild reservoir of the virus that first infected humans unknown. The possibility remained that another type of ape might have passed it on, and the location of the crossover was still uncertain.

In the new research, trackers combed the forest floor at 10 sites in the jungles of Cameroon for chimp faeces, samples of which were then sent for genetic analysis. This detected SIVcpz in up to 35 per cent of chimpanzees in some populations.

An evolutionary analysis of the genetic sequence of these chimp viruses has now shown that it is very closely related to HIV-1. Different chimp communities had slightly different genetic variants of SIVcpz, with those that are closest to the human virus found in south east Cameroon.

As well as solving the mystery about the origin of the virus, the new findings pave the way for future work exploring the natural history and behaviour of the simian form of HIV in its natural host.

Story here.

Oldest gorilla at San Francisco Zoo dies

Workers and visitors at the San Francisco Zoo are mourning a 48-year-old gorilla named Pogo. Zoo officials said she was the “auntie” of the gorilla group.

Pogo was a female Western lowland gorilla. She died sometime Tuesday night in her sleep.

Gorilla keeper Mary Kerr discovered Pogo Wednesday morning.

Zoo officials said Pogo is believed to have been one of the oldest living gorillas in captivity.

Pogo's level of activity had been declining for some time, according to zoo officials.

A necropsy is being conducted. Results have not been made available.

Story here.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Budapest Zoo apes and monkeys get wine daily

Monkeys and apes in Budapest's Zoo drink their way through 55 litres of red wine each year, albeit in small quantities each day, to help boost their red blood cells, the zoo said on Monday.

Budapest Zoo spokesman Zoltan Hanga said it was the 11 anthropoid apes who drank most of the wine in 2005.

"Obviously, they do not have it all at once and get drunk, but they get it in small amounts mixed in their tea," Hanga said.

"And it's not Eger Bull's Blood or some expensive wine that they are getting but simple table wine, as it's mainly good for their blood cells."

Bull's Blood from the town of Eger in northeast Hungary, became one of eastern Europe's best-known wines under communism.

Story here.

Tumai died of heart disease during zoo transfer

Tumai, a 21-year-old lowland gorilla from the Memphis Zoo, died during a flight to Cleveland on Thursday. He was traveling to the Erie Zoo in Pennsylvania as part of a recommended pairing, when he stopped breathing halfway through the flight.

The results of a necropsy performed by Cleveland and Erie Zoo officials on Friday showed that Tumai died of heart disease.

Zoo veterinarians gave the 500-pound primate a physical prior to the transfer, saying he was in good health when he left the Memphis Zoo. He also had no health problems in the past. Tumai was in a pressurized, climate-controlled cabin on the plane -- a routine way to transport animals. He was slated to become a companion to a female gorilla named "Samantha" when he arrived in Erie. The Memphis Zoo has one other gorilla -- 18-year-old male "Koga" -- on exhibit in Primate Canyon.

Story here.

Heart Failure Caused Death Of 2nd OSU Chimp

Heart failure caused the death of the second chimpanzee from Ohio State to die after being moved to a Texas animal sanctuary.

The 16-year-old male, named Bobby, was found dead in his enclosure last month.

An examination of the body showed the chimpanzee's heart tissue was decaying and indicated he apparently had an existing heart problem.

Bobby was one of nine chimps moved to Primarily Primates in San Antonio after Ohio State decided to close the center where the animals were taught basic counting and letters because of a lack of funds.

In March, a 35-year-old male named Kermit died of a heart attack a day after arriving at the sanctuary.

An animal rights group has filed a lawsuit claiming the chimpanzees are not properly cared for at the sanctuary.

Story here.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Second Erie Zoo Gorilla Dies En Route

Tumai, the 21 year old lowland gorilla enroute to the Erie Zoo, on Thursday, May 18th, has died. The gorilla was being delivered from a zoo in Memphis, Tennessee, when zoo officials say his heart simply "stopped beating." He was onboard an airplane scheduled to land in Cleveland when he died. This is the second time a gorilla expected to arrive at the Erie Zoo has died. In November 2005, Kuba, a 16 year old gorilla from Topeka, Kansas died of a heart attack, just prior to his arrival. Both Tumai and Kuba were to be mated with Samantha, Erie's female gorilla. Erie Zoo spokesman Scott Mitchell said in a phone conference with Newswatch that the zoo is devistated by the loss, and it's too early to tell what the zoo's next step will be. A necropcy will be performed to determined Tumai's exact cause of death.

Story here.

Apes Demonstrate Capacity to Think Ahead

Humans show remarkable foresight. From storing food to carrying tools, we can imagine, prepare for and, ultimately, steer the course of the future. Although many animals hoard food or build shelters, there is scant evidence that they ponder the long-term ramifications of their actions or the future more generally. But new research hints that our ape brethren may share our ability to think ahead.

Nicholas Mulcahy and Josep Call of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig tested whether our closest great ape relative--the bonobo--and our most distant--the orangutan--share our ability to plan for the future. The researchers first trained five bonobos and five orangutans to use a tool to get a fruit treat from a mechanical apparatus. They then blocked access to the treat but allowed the apes to handle suitable and unsuitable tools for the task before ushering them into a waiting room for an hour. After that hour, they were brought back into the first room and, if they had brought the right tool, they could use it to get the treat.

The apes both took a suitable tool out of the test room and brought it back in with them after the waiting period significantly more often than predicted by chance. A female orangutan named Dokana proved particularly adept, completing the task successfully in 15 out of 16 attempts. Even when the delay time was extended through the night--14 hours--Dokana succeeded in garnering the tool and the fruit more than half of the time. A bonobo named Kuno did even better with the long delay than the short one, completing the task in eight out of 12 attempts.

To determine whether the apes were simply associating the tool with the food reward, or whether they were actively planning ahead, the researchers devised two more tests. In the first, two of the bonobos and two of the orangutans faced a similar challenge but with only juice as a reward--to discount for the possibility that the apes had taken the right tool previously simply because they were currently hungry. Again, the apes proved capable.

Finally, some naïve apes were presented with tools but not the mechanical apparatus. If they brought back the right tool they were still rewarded with a treat. But most did not, seemingly disproving a simple associative link between the tool and the treat. "Apes selected, transported and saved a suitable tool not because they currently needed it but because they would need it in the future," the authors write in the paper presenting the research in today's Science.

Story here.

Scientists Claim New Monkey Species Found

Brazilian scientists say they have discovered a new monkey species overlooked in the receding rain forest of the country's northeast coast, although other experts believe the primate may have been documented before.

Antonio Rossano Mendes Pontes, a professor of Zoology at the Federal University in Pernambuco, said in a telephone interview on Thursday that the discovery of the monkey, dubbed Cebus queirozi, showed how little is known about Brazil's flora and fauna even in developed areas.

He spotted the monkey near the Pernambuco state capital of Recife, about 1,200 miles northeast of Rio de Janeiro.

"As soon as I saw the monkey with its golden-yellow hair and the white tiara on its head, I knew it was a new species," Pontes said.

A scientific description of Cebus queirozi, which has longish golden-yellow fur and a snow-white cap on the front half of its head, was published in the international scientific journal Zootaxa earlier this month.

A male adult weighs about 6.4 pounds and measures 32 inches from head to tail, according to the description.

But some primatologists questioned whether the species was in fact new to science.

Some suspect Pontes merely rediscovered a monkey called Simia flavia, named and depicted in a drawing by German taxonomist Johann Christian Daniel von Schreber in the 18th Century but never seen since.

Mario de Vivo, a primatologist at the University of Sao Paulo not involved in the new finding, said the monkeys look almost exactly alike.

"But we don't know, because Pontes didn't keep a specimen of the monkey," he said.

Scientific descriptions usually require that scientists kill a specimen and deposit it in a museum for future examination, though there are exceptions.

Pontes said he captured, examined and photographed one of the monkeys but returned it to the wild because of the small number of individuals surviving in nature.

Story here.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Monkeys Use 'Code Words' to Warn of Predators

If you're a putty-nosed monkey and you hear one of your friends whoop out a loud "pyow" call, you know there's a leopard sneaking around and it's time to boogie.

Similarly, if you hear a "hack," it means you should watch out for a hungry eagle.

A new study reveals that the critters can mix the two calls into a "pyow-hack" sequence to broadcast other types of information.

The findings, reported in the May 18 issue of the journal Nature, indicate that non-human primates can combine calls into higher-order sequences that have a particular meaning.

Putty-nosed monkeys, Cercopithecus nictitans, spend their lives among the trees in African rainforests. Their three main goals in life are to reproduce, eat, and not get eaten.

To take care of the latter two objectives, the monkeys rely on two calls. If the male let's out a "pyow," the monkeys scramble away from the lower levels of the trees. If they hear a "hack," they climb away from the canopy to avoid getting picked off by an eagle.

Researchers from the University of St Andrews in Scotland followed a group of putty-nosed monkeys for two months and recorded the lead male's calls. They observed that the males sometimes let out a combination of "pyow-hacks," which on average gets the pack moving a little quicker and further—up to 100 yards in half an hour—than either call on its own.

"They might make a 'pyow-hack' in response to a predator, but the strange thing is they also do it early in the morning while foraging," said study co-author Klaus Zuberbuhler. "If the male wants to move on, he produces that sequence, which is followed by the group moving."

Once the male makes the call, which is sometimes spurred on by input from the elder females in the group, the rest of the monkeys congregate around the leader to see which way to head next.

Story here.

Human and chimp genomes reveal new twist on origin of species

The evolutionary split between human and chimpanzee is much more recent -- and more complicated -- than previously thought, according to a new study by scientists at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and at Harvard Medical School published in the May 17 online edition of Nature.

The results show that the two species split no more than 6.3 million years ago and probably less than 5.4 million years ago. Moreover, the speciation process was unusual -- possibly involving an initial split followed by later hybridization before a final separation.

"The study gave unexpected results about how we separated from our closest relatives, the chimpanzees. We found that the population structure that existed around the time of human-chimpanzee speciation was unlike any modern ape population. Something very unusual happened at the time of speciation", said David Reich, the senior author of the Nature paper, and an associate member of the Broad Institute and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School's Department of Genetics.

Previous molecular genetic studies have focused on the average genetic difference between human and chimpanzee. By contrast, the new study exploits the information in the complete genome sequence to reveal the variation in evolutionary history across the human genome. In theory, scientists have long known that some genomic regions must be 'older' than others, meaning that they trace back to different times in the common ancestral population that gave rise to both humans and chimps (see Graphic). But, the new study is the first to actually measure the range of ages. It gave three surprising results:

The time of from the beginning to the completion of divergence between the two species ranges over more than 4 million years across different parts of the genome. This range is much larger than expected.

The youngest regions are unexpectedly recent -- being no more than 6.3 million years old and probably no more than 5.4 million years old. This finding implies that human-chimp speciation itself is far more recent than previously thought.

If one looks only at the X chromosome, it almost entirely falls at the lower end of the time frame. In fact, the average age of the X chromosome is ~1.2 million years "younger" than the average across the 22 autosomal (non-sex) chromosomes.

"The genome analysis revealed big surprises, with major implications for human evolution," said Eric Lander, Director of the Broad Institute and co-author of the Nature paper. "First, human-chimp speciation occurred more recently than previous estimates. Second, the speciation itself occurred in an unusual manner that left a striking impact across chromosome X. The young age of chromosome X is an evolutionary 'smoking gun.'"

Story here.

Man attacked by a chimp sues City of West Covina

monkey attackA man attacked by two chimpanzees in Kern County is suing the City of West Covina for what his attorney calls violating his civil rights and trespassing.
At the Los Angeles Superior Court on Tuesday, Ernest Algorri filed a motion to enforce a settlement he says the city reached four years ago, but on which it reneged.

Algorri says nearly seven years ago, the City of West Covina conducted what he calls a storm operation on the home of St. James Davis and his wife Ladonna, to remove their pet chimpanzee Moe, according to Algorri.

Since then, Davis went home some time ago and recovered from serious injuries that he received when he was attacked by two chimpanzees at a refuge in Havilah, in Kern County.

But, his attorney said it was September 1999, when West Covina Police stormed Davis' home. They used helicopters, SWAT team and blocking off the street while they removed Moe, their pet chimp, from the home.

Algorri said they were responding to citizen noise complaints. But, Algorri says Moe eventually ended up in Kern County.

Story here.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Bear versus Monkey!

Bears killed and devoured a monkey in front of horrified visitors at a Dutch zoo, officials and witnesses said.

Visitors reported that the grisly scene began as several bears chased the monkey, a macaque, onto a wooden structure at Beekse Bergen Safari Park.

They said a bear tried unsuccessfully to shake the monkey loose, ignoring attempts by keepers to distract it. The bear then climbed up and grabbed the monkey, mauling it to death and bringing it to its concrete den, where three bears ate it.

The park confirmed the killing. "The habitats here in the safari park are arranged in such a way that one animal almost never kills another, but they are and remain wild animals," it said in a statement.

The attack occurred in an area of the zoo that contains both monkeys and sloth bears, a type of black bear found in the Asian subcontinent.

The park said it plans now to move the macaques to another part of the park.

Story here.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Monkey brings down Taj Mahal gate turret top

The 350-year-old Taj Mahal, which has weathered many a storm over the centuries, could not bear a bit of jostling by a monkey.

A monkey brought down a flower vase carved atop the sandstone turret on the main entrance gate of the monument.

The incident occurred on Sunday morning when a leap by a monkey literally severed the flower vase from the steep turret and brought it down. It is said that the three-and-a-half century-old mortar used to fix the flower vase on the turret easily gave way under the monkey's weight.

"Fortunately, it did not hurt anyone. The passage below is the routine entrance for thousands of tourists visiting the Taj every day," Archaeological Survey of India official B Vikram told over telephone from Agra.

The restoration work was taken up on a war footing and by Monday afternoon, the flower vase was restored at its place. "We have successfully managed to fix the flower vase back after repair," Vikram said, adding, "It was not a very big task. Such minor repairs are undertaken off and on, and we have the expertise to carry these out."

Story here.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Newly Discovered Monkey Rates Own Genus

A recently discovered type of African monkey is different enough from others that it needs to be listed in a separate genus, scientists have decided.

The monkey, which lives in Tanzania, was first described last year. At that time it was listed in the genus Lophocebus, which includes the mangabey.

After further study, researchers now say the monkey -- known as kipunji -- is more closely related to some types of baboon than to mangabeys, though it is anatomically different from baboons, and thus should have its own genus.

A research team led by Tim R. B. Davenport of the Wildlife Conservation Society suggests in the Science Express that kipunji should be placed in the newly created genus Rungwecebus.

It is the first new genus for an African primate in 83 years. The name refers to Mt. Rungwe, where this type of monkey was first seen.

Several kipunji have been observed and one was studied at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago after it was killed in a farmer's trap. The animal was about 15 inches long and weighed about nine pounds.

It has light to medium gray-brown fur, with white toward the end of the tail and off-white fur on the belly.

Story here.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Study shows monkeys drink like people, especially after a long day of being tested in the lab

Monkeys drink more alcohol when housed alone, and some like to end a long day in the lab with a boozy cocktail, according to a new analysis of alcohol consumption among members of a rhesus macaque social group.

These and other observed behaviors strongly correspond with human patterns of alcohol use. Researchers attribute a predisposition to alcohol abuse in some monkeys and people to a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

In the study subjects, "blood alcohol levels often exceeded the .08 percent level, which is the legal limit for most states in the U.S.," said Scott Chen, one of the study’s authors and a researcher at the National Institutes of Health Animal Center in Maryland.

The study, recently published in the journal Methods, also found that booze affects monkeys much the same way it affects people.

"It was not unusual to see some of the monkeys stumble and fall, sway, and vomit," Chen added. "In a few of our heavy drinkers, they would drink until they fell asleep."

For the initial experiment, 21 females gained access to an aspartame-sweetened ethanol concoction during a group "happy hour." Neck collars registered the amount of fluid consumed, and each monkey received a blood alcohol level test at the end of the period.

In a follow-up experiment, 10 monkeys were housed individually during the "happy hour."

"The singly housed monkeys certainly drank more than the socially housed monkeys- at least two to three-fold more," Chen told Discovery News. "With the socially housed monkeys, there are a number of factors that can potentially compete with access to alcohol, such as social status or dominance ranking."

Lower-ranked monkeys and males tended to drink more overall, but certain individuals consistently drank more than others, regardless of status or housing conditions

"Similar to humans, rhesus macaques have individual differences in taste preference, stress levels, drug tolerance and genetic background that lead to differences in alcohol intake," explained Chen.

In yet another study, the scientists gave a group of male monkeys 24-hour access to the beverage dispensers. According to the researchers, a spike in consumption immediately followed the facility’s working hours.

"Like humans, monkeys are more likely to drink after stressful periods, such as soon after the daily 8-5 testing hours and after a long week of testing," said Chen.

Judy Cameron, a professor and senior scientist at Oregon Health & Science University, told Discovery News, "The fact that different animals consume very different amounts of ethanol suggests that the neural systems in the brain that govern alcohol consumption differ in macaques as they do in humans."

"Monkeys show highly individual responses in their choice to drink alcohol excessively," agreed Kathleen Grant, a senior scientist at the Oregon National Primate Research Center. "There are important parallels to human alcoholism."

Story here.

A moment of monkey popsicle zen...

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Some killer chimps return home, leader still missing

Most of the 31 chimpanzees that escaped a sanctuary and attacked a group of sightseers in Sierra Leon two weeks ago have returned, but the leader of the group is still missing, said the sanctuary director on Saturday.

The April 23 attack on a taxi of American and Sierra Leonean tourists left the car's driver dead.

A Sierra Leonean man lost his hand in the mauling.

Head of the Tacugama chimp sanctuary outside of Freetown, Balasingam Amarasekeran, said 21 of the chimps had returned.

But 10 chimps, including the oldest and leader of the group, Bruno, were "still out on the hills".

Amarasekeran said the chimps had escaped at night, and had used sticks to disable a sliding metal door.

"We never thought they could use sticks to destroy the slide," said Amarasekeran. "We are dealing with a species that is very intelligent and which bypassed one of the safety mechanisms we put in place."

This is the first accident at the sanctuary since it opened 10 years ago.

The sanctuary has been closed to the public since the incident.

"We are very sorry for the loss of life. The whole incident was very unfortunate," said Amarasekeran.

Story here.

Dallas Zoo opens safer exhibit two years after gorilla's escape

The Dallas Zoo is reopening part of a gorilla exhibit that has been closed for two years after one of the animals escaped and attacked three people.

The zoo spent more than $2 million to renovate the gorilla den. It now features higher walls topped with an electrified wire. Part of the exhibit opens Saturday, with the full exhibit open in June.

The renovations were necessary after a western lowland gorilla named Jabari jumped over 12-foot walls and bit a toddler and two others before police killed him.

Zoo officials say even with the improvements they cannot promise a gorilla will not escape again. The zoo's director says "We all think it was a fluke thing, but in this business, you expect the unexpected."

Story here.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

New Study Finds Similarities Between Monkey Business And Human Business

Little attention has been paid to whether systematic economic biases such as risk-aversion are learned behaviors -- and thus easily ameliorated through market incentives -- or biologically based, arising in novel situations and in spite of experience. In a groundbreaking new study from the Journal of Political Economy, Yale researchers extend this question across species, exploring how a colony of capuchin monkeys responds to economic decisions. They found that monkeys doing business -- including trading and gambling -- behave in ways that closely mirror our own behavioral inclinations.

"Traditionally, economists have remained agnostic as to the origins of human preferences," write M. Keith Chen, Venkat Lakshminarayanan, and Laurie R. Santos. "[But] if much of the fundamental structure of our preferences were so deep rooted as to extend to closely-related species, this would bolster the assumption of preference stability."

As part of the study, the researchers presented capuchin monkeys with two payoff-identical gambles: one in which a good outcome was framed as a bonus, and the other in which bad outcomes were emphasized as losses. Like humans, the monkeys displayed a strong preference for the first option, and like humans, the monkeys seemed to weigh the losses more heavily than comparable gains.

"Our results suggest that loss-averse behavior is a very general feature of economic choice," explain the authors. "Given our capuchins' inexperience with trade and gambles, these results suggest that loss-aversion extends beyond humans, and may be innate rather than learned."

Story here.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Activists concerned about monkeys welfare after they began to cannibalize their own intestinal tracts

Animal rights activists say the treatment of monkeys at the University of South Alabama's Primate Research Laboratory is so bad that at least one monkey gnawed through part of her own body.

At a news conference in Mobile on Monday, two activists said the lab conditions are causing the animals to go insane.

"The only conclusion we can draw is that the conditions in which these animals are housed are so barren, so utterly lifeless, that they have essentially lost their minds," said Michael A. Budkie, director of Stop Animal Exploitation Now.

Budkie, who was accompanied at the news conference by Kit King, director of Alabama Voice for Animals, said if conditions don't improve, he will file a complaint with the Department of Agriculture.

Paul Taylor, associate director of public relations at USA's College of Medicine, declined to comment on specific allegations, but said the lab "conforms to all applicable laws in the care and humane treatment of animals."

The animals are bred and housed at the lab for experiments elsewhere.

The activists said they went to USA to see the monkeys but were turned away. However, they have autopsy results of monkeys that died in captivity.

"One of the primates, that was the most disconcerting for us, was a female I believe who had become so stressed that she began to cannibalize her own intestinal tract," King said.

Story here.