Monday, April 30, 2007

Ape at Boise Zoo rejected by its mother is being raised by humans

The first ape ever born at Zoo Boise is being hand-raised by humans and is gaining weight, after being rejected by its mother.

The unnamed female baby - a type of ape called a gibbon - was born April 9 and weighed half a pound, but is now up to three-quarters of a pound, zoo director Steve Burns said. Her mother rejected her five days after she was born, Burns said.

Gibbons are the smallest member of the ape family and are part of the Species Survival Plan, in which zoos work together to try to make sure there is a viable population of specific species in captivity that could be used for reintroduction into the wild if necessary.

"They're amazing acrobats and they can swing - even put the best gymnast to shame," Burns told the Idaho Statesman. "People really like the gibbons."

The baby gibbon is growing stronger in an incubator similar to that used for humans that Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center located and is renting from the Oregon Zoo in Portland.

"It's the most unusual request I've ever received at the foundation," said Linda Payne Smith, executive director of the Saint Alphonsus Foundation. "But we're very supportive of Zoo Boise, and we're very excited to be able to help."

Burns said the zoo will evaluate the baby gibbon's health after three months for possibly displaying her to the public.

"We have to take the animal's health first and foremost into concern," Burns said, noting the baby is the first ape born at the zoo. "We appreciate everyone being patient with us."

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Friday, April 27, 2007

Chimp denied a legal guardian in court

hiaslAn Austrian judge turned down a request this week to appoint a woman as legal guardian of a chimpanzee.

The decision is a blow to a growing movement in Europe attempting to give apes some of the legal rights of humans, such as protection from being owned. But proponents of ape rights say they will appeal the decision and continue fighting for the cause elsewhere in Europe. In Spain, for example, they are pushing for a national law that would extend some human rights to apes.

Paula Casal, a vice-president of the Great Ape Project branch in Spain, says the Spanish law, first proposed a year ago, might finally be put to a vote soon in parliament. "After that battle is won, then we will have momentum to start organizing groups in other countries to do the same," said Casal, a philosopher at the University of Reading, UK.

The goal of the Great Ape Project is to extend basic human rights to apes, such as the right to life, protection of individual liberty and prohibition of torture.

Apes are no longer used in most western nations for research, with the United States being a major exception. New Zealand passed an ape rights law in 1999, backed by the Great Ape Project, which prohibits using apes in any experiments that would benefit humans.

The proposed Spanish law goes beyond this, additionally banning private ownership of apes, or their use for employment or entertainment. The state would be responsible for putting the more then 200 apes registered in Spain in sanctuaries. Furthermore, as written it would require the Spanish government to work towards convening an international forum of developed and developing nations on the issue of protecting the rights of great apes.

Before filing the lawsuit, Balluch consulted with international experts and ape supporters such as Jane Goodall and US animal rights lawyer/author Stephen Wise. They chose the legal-guardian strategy because it would mean Hiasl could not be sold, Balluch says. And a lawsuit could then be filed on Hiasl's behalf against the laboratory that tried to import him, in order to obtain support payments. "Hiasl is now dependent on the goodwill of others," Balluch says. "If he were still in the west African jungle, he would not need money. It was the company that brought him here and started this mess."

In a trustee court hearing on 24 April, the judge denied the request. She said that if she appointed a legal guardian for a chimp, then this might create the public perception that humans with court-appointed legal guardians are at the same level as animals.

Balluch says his group will appeal the decision to a higher district court. He notes that many other chimps from the same research laboratory are in a sanctuary north of Vienna. Donations for that sanctuary are drying up, Balluch says. If Hiasl eventually wins the right to guardianship, then Balluch says he "would not hesitate to expand that to the 44 chimps north of Vienna."

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Pet Monkey Bites IRS Agent

A pet monkey that weighs ten to twelve pounds, in Rankin County, attacked an IRS Agent last Tuesday. The Macatue monkey, which is at least seven years old and came from Japan is now locked in a secure cage in Rankin County.

Sheriff Ronnie Pennington confirmed the attack and said the owner of the monkey was given a citation for having a wild animal in captivity. The monkey is being tested for disease and will eventually be turned over to the Animal Rescue League. It's canine teeth have been removed, according to the Sheriff. Pennington will who not release the name of the owner of the monkey or the IRS agent.

The agent was treated for scratches and bites on her face and arms.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Study shows chimp cooperation going beyond family

chimp cooperationNepotism is known to be important in chimpanzee society, but male chimps' ability to cooperate extends beyond family connections, new research reveals.

This extra level of sophistication is yet another way in which the social behaviour of chimps parallels that of humans.

Kevin Langergraber, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, US, and colleagues recorded alliances, meat-sharing and other cooperative behaviour among 41 male chimps in Kibale National Park, Uganda.

The team also genotyped each animal to measure how closely they were related. Over a period of seven years, and over 5000 hours of observations, they observed 753 aggressive coalitions - where they cooperated to fight enemies – and 421 instances of meat sharing.

Chimps who shared a mother were far more likely to cooperate with each other. In contrast, there was no evidence that the same applied to chimps with a shared father. This is probably because fathers do not stay with their offspring, so a chimp has no easy way to recognise his paternal brothers.

However, since maternal brothers were rare in this population, most of the cooperating pairs were unrelated or only distantly related.

Extensive cooperation among non-relatives suggests that chimps do it for selfish reasons, with the expectation that favours will be reciprocated, says Langergraber. Human societies use cooperation with similar motives – another behaviour shared with our primate cousins.

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Monkeys Get Bionic Eyes

bionic eye monkeyJohn Pezaris and colleague R. Clay Reid, both at Harvard Medical School in Boston, US, have shown that phosphenes can be produced by stimulating the lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN) – an area deep in the centre of the brain that relays visual signals from the retina to the cortex.

The LGN was previously thought to be too difficult to reach. But surgical advances for deep brain stimulation – including treatment used for movement disorders such as Parkinson's disease – have made accessing it relatively easy, via a single small hole in the skull.

Pezaris and Reid tested LGN electrode implants on two adult macaques. Each animal had previously been trained to quickly direct their gaze towards a point of light on a computer screen. They then ran three types of trials: one in which a flash appeared on the screen; another in which the monkey received an electrical pulse from their implant; a third in which nothing happened at all.

With electrical stimulation, the monkeys directed their gaze at specific points in front of them, exactly as if they had just "seen" a flash. When the researchers implanted two separate electrodes, stimulating different parts of the LGN, the monkeys looked in two different directions, one after another.
General vision

"This research establishes that there is a new avenue for further exploration," says Pezaris. "What we created was only two points of light, two pixels. Though the exact numbers haven't been determined accurately, it's generally thought that we need some hundreds of them for general vision."

In the coming months, the team will repeat the experiment with eight electrodes, and ultimately plan to apply the technique to humans.

Peter Schiller at MIT, who works with implants in the visual cortex, says only further research will reveal what area is best suited for implants. "The geniculate is more promising than the retina, but I am not at all convinced that is it better than the primary visual cortex," he says.

"Given the limitations of how tightly packed you can put in an [electrode] array, and how much the current spreads at the tip of the electrodes, it is highly desirable to place them in an area with the largest amount of visual tissue available," he told New Scientist.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

A moment of spectacled monkey zen...

spectacled monkey zen
spectacled monkey
Spectacled Langur monkey sits on a signboard in a wildlife sanctuary for endangered species in Sepahijala, 35 km (22 miles) south of India's northeastern city of Agartala April 22, 2007.

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Uganda's Mountain Gorillas Increase In Number

uganda mountain gorillaThe most recent census of mountain gorillas in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park--one of only two places in the world where the rare gorillas exist--has found that the population has increased by 6 percent since the last census in 2002, according to the Uganda Wildlife Authority, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Max Planck Institute of Anthropology and other groups that participated in the effort.

"This is great news for all of the organizations that have worked to protect Bwindi and its gorilla population," said Wildlife Conservation Society researcher Dr. Alastair McNeilage, who is also the director of the Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation in Bwindi. "There are very few cases in this world where a small population of a endangered primates is actually increasing."

According to the census, which also successfully used for the first time genetic samples from fecal specimens, Bwindi's gorilla population now numbers 340 individual gorillas, up from 320 in 2002, and 300 in 1997.

The census was conducted between April and June 2006 to determine the size and makeup of the Bwindi population, in addition to their distribution and to gauge human impacts on the gorillas. During that time, survey teams set out with the intention of counting every family group in the population, a method possible only with small animal populations in a relatively small area; Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is approximately 127 square miles in size.

In addition to census methodologies such as counting trails and nests (gorillas construct a nest each night), researchers used genetic analyses as well, specifically because many of the groups were clustered in the same area of the park, which presented survey teams with the risk of double-counting the same individuals or groups. DNA analysis, however, allowed individuals to be identified and distinguished, even among groups which have never been seen by people. Fecal specimens were analyzed at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

Researchers were encouraged by the overall growth of the population, showing an annual increase of one percent over the past decade. The age composition of the population shows a healthy distribution of adult and immature classes, including infants and juveniles. Other findings are that gorillas are not using the eastern side of the park, a possible result of human disturbances there. Particularly encouraging, however, is that one group of gorillas are starting to use the northern sector of the park for the first time in living memory.

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Monkeys' Ability To Reflect On Their Thoughts May Have Implications For Infants, Autistic Children

monkey cognitionNew research from Columbia's Primate Cognition Laboratory has demonstrated for the first time that monkeys could acquire meta-cognitive skills: the ability to reflect about their thoughts and to assess their performance.

The study was a collaborative effort between Herbert Terrace, Columbia professor of psychology & psychiatry, and director of its Primate Cognition Laboratory, and two graduate students, Lisa Son -- now professor of psychology at Barnard College -- and UCLA postdoctoral researcher Nate Kornell.

The study, which appears in the January issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, was designed to show that a monkey could express its confidence in its answers to multiple-choice questions about its memory based on the amount of imaginary currency it was willing to wager. Their experiment was derived from the observation that children often make pretend bets to assert that they know the answer to some question. According to Son, "the ability to reflect on one's knowledge has always been thought of as exclusively human. We designed a task to determine if a non-human primate could similarly learn to express its confidence about its knowledge by making large or small wagers."

In the experiment, two monkeys were trained to play a video game that would test their ability to remember a particular photograph while also allowing them to make a large or a small bet. Ultimately, this wager would reflect the monkey's perception of their memory accuracy.

The test used touch-screen technology and a multiple-choice format. Six novel photographs were presented at the beginning of each trial, one at a time. One photograph was selected at random and then displayed simultaneously with 8 novel photographs. The monkey's task was to select the photograph that appeared at the beginning of the trial. The monkey then evaluated the accuracy of its choice by selecting a high and a low-risk icon presented on the screen. It earned a large reward if it selected the high-risk icon after a correct response (3 tokens dropped into a bank displayed on the video monitor).

Choosing the high-risk icon following an incorrect response resulted in the loss of 3 tokens. Low risk bets were always followed by a small reward (a gain of 1 token). When the monkey accumulated enough tokens, it was rewarded with food. The results demonstrated that with the monkeys, there was a strong correlation between high-risk bets and correct responses and between low-risk bets and incorrect responses.

Terrace argues that, "the pattern of the monkeys' bets provided clear evidence of their ability to engage in meta-cognition, an ability that is all the more remarkable because monkeys lack language." But the results may have further reaching implications as well. Terrace notes "our results are of general interest because non-verbal tests of the type used in this and other experiments on animal cognition can be adapted to study cognitive abilities of infants and autistic children."

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A moment of gorilla glass zen...

gorilla glass

From here.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Study Shows Chimps Evolved More Than Humans

chimp evolutionSince the human-chimp split about 6 million years ago, chimpanzee genes can be said to have evolved more than human genes, a new study suggests.

The results, detailed online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, contradict the conventional wisdom that humans are the result of a high degree of genetic selection, evidenced by our relatively large brains, cognitive abilities and bi-pedalism.

Jianzhi Zhang of the University of Michigan and his colleagues analyzed strings of DNA from nearly 14,000 protein-coding genes shared by chimps and humans. They looked for differences gene by gene and whether they caused changes in the generated proteins.

Genes act as instructions that organisms use to make proteins and thus are integral to carrying out biological functions, such as transporting oxygen to the body’s cells. Different versions of the same gene are called alleles.

Changes in DNA that affect the making of proteins are considered functional changes, while “silent” changes do not affect the proteins. “If we see an excess of functional changes (compared to silent changes) the inference is these functional changes occurred because they were positively selected, because they were useful in some way to the organism,” said study team member Margaret Bakewell, also of UM.

Bakewell, Zhang and a colleague found that substantially more genes in chimps evolved in ways that were beneficial than was the case with human genes.

The results could be due to the fact that over the long term humans have had a smaller effective population size compared with chimps.

“Although there are now many more humans than chimps, in the past, human populations were much smaller, and may have been fragmented into even smaller groups,” Bakewell told LiveScience. So random events would play a more dominant role than natural selection in humans.

Here is why: Under the process of natural selection, gene variants that are beneficial get selected for and become more common in a population over time. But genetic drift, a random process in which chance “decides” which alleles survive, also occurs. In smaller populations, a fortuitous break for one or two alleles can have a disproportionately greater impact on the overall genes of that population compared with a larger one.

Chance events could also explain why the scientists found more gene variants that were either neutral and had no functional impact or negative changes that are involved in diseases.

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Gorilla dies over weekend at Calgary Zoo

Despite the efforts of veterinarians and keepers, a popular lowland gorilla at the Calgary Zoo has died.

Tabitha, who was born in Toronto in November of 1980, was diagnosed with an abscess on the right side of her brain at eight months of age.

As a result, she suffered partial paralysis on her left side.

Despite some improvement, Tabitha's left arm remained paralyzed and she suffered several seizures each year.

Tabitha suffered an attack last week, and again on the weekend.

She died Saturday despite efforts to resuscitate her, and a preliminary autopsy indicates she had pronounced swelling and fluid on the right side of her brain.

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Green Mountain Coffee, Jane Goodall create brew to save chimp habitat

Green Mountain Coffee is partnering up with Jane Goodall to help preserve chimp habitat with a new special coffee — Gombe Reserve.

Green Mountain Coffee and the Jane Goodall Institute unveiled Monday a new coffee — “Gombe Reserve—In Cooperation with the Jane Goodall Institute.”

The coffee is grown by members of the Kalinzi Cooperative, a group of 2,700 small-scale farmers who live near Gombe National Park in Tanzania.

The effort is not a fundraiser, company officials said. Rather, it’s a business model designed to support coffee farmers by giving them an above-market price for high-quality beans. At the same time, it hopes to raise awareness of Goodall’s work and protect chimp habitat.

The park is the site of Goodall’s groundbreaking research into chimp behavior, and the world’s longest-running field study of a wild chimpanzee group continues there today.

Social and economic pressures are closing in on the habitat, and the burgeoning human population, in its struggle to survive, has greatly deforested the land around the 32-squarre kilometer Gombe National Park. This deforestation has isolated the park, and limited the range of the chimps, and their ability to enlarge their communities.

Chimpanzees in the wild are on the brink of extinction. At the turn of the last century, about 1 million chimpanzees lived in 25 countries across western and central Africa. Today, their number has dwindled to perhaps fewer than 200,000, with significant populations found in only four countries.

Because coffee beans thrive under the shade of a forest canopy, they grow in harmony with chimps. Coffee farming gives farmers an incentive to preserve the forest, and a chance at economic stability.

"Our effort to involve local citizens in restoring the forests and practicing sustainable agriculture is the most important work we can do to ensure a future for the Gombe chimpanzees and the people of Africa," said Goodall in a statement.

The coffee has a floral top notes and vibrant flavors of tropical fruit, according to Lindsey Bolger, director of coffee sourcing and relationships for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters.

“Green Mountain Coffee Roasters has always had a values-driven approach to coffee, believing that coffee can help the greater good. We’re thrilled to work with the Jane Goodall Institute to bring this great coffee to market and, ultimately, protect the chimps,” Bolger said.

The coffee will be available for a limited time on Green Mountain's website.

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Vaccination Could Protect Thousands Of Wild Apes Against Ebola Virus

Why have large outbreaks of Ebola virus killed tens of thousands of gorillas and chimpanzees over the last decade? Observations published in the May issue of The American Naturalist provide new clues, suggesting that outbreaks may be amplified by Ebola transmission between ape social groups. The study provides hope that newly developed vaccines could control the devastating impact of Ebola on wild apes.

Direct encounters between gorilla or chimpanzee social groups are rare. Therefore, when reports of large ape die-offs first surfaced in the late 1990s, outbreak amplification was assumed to be through "massive spillover" from some unknown reservoir host. The new study, conducted by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Cambridge University, and Stony Brook University at three sites in northern Republic of Congo, suggests that Ebola transmission between ape groups might occur through routes other than direct social encounter.

For instance, as many as four different gorilla groups fed in the same fruit tree on a single day. Thus, infective body fluids deposited by one group might easily be encountered by a subsequent group. Chimpanzees and gorillas also fed simultaneously in the same fruit tree at least once every seven days.

The study also provided the first evidence that gorillas from one social group closely inspect the carcasses of gorillas from other groups. Contact with corpses at funerals is a major mechanism of Ebola transmission in humans. Together with other recent observations on patterns of gorilla mortality, these results make a strong case that transmission between ape social groups plays a central role in Ebola outbreak amplification.

The study has important implications for controlling the impact of Ebola, which has killed roughly one quarter of the world gorilla population. "It means that vaccinating one gorilla does not protect only that gorilla, it also protects gorillas further down the transmission chain," said Peter Walsh of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, the lead author on the study. "Thus, protecting remaining ape populations may not require vaccinating a high proportion of individuals, as many people naively assume." Walsh and collaborators are currently searching for funding to implement a vaccination program using one of the several vaccines that have now successfully protected laboratory monkeys from Ebola.

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Escaped chimp leads zookeepers on chase around Osaka zoo

escaped zoo chimpAn escaped chimpanzee led zookeepers on a chase around Osaka's Tennoji Zoo on Monday before being shot with a tranquilizer gun and netted, officials said.

The 24-year-old female chimpanzee, named "Puteri," fled from its unlocked cage at about 11:25 a.m. on Monday, and ran for about 300 meters around the zoo. When the chimp stopped near the cage of a polar bear that had been let out, a veterinarian and other zoo officials shot it with a tranquilizer gun and netted it.

Since the zoo was not open on Monday, there were no visitors at the zoo and no one was injured. Nevertheless, zoo officials expressed regret over the incident.

"It was something that should never happen at a zoo where people enjoy themselves," said Minoru Miyashita, the head of the facility. "We deeply regret this and are sorry for what happened."

Zoo officials said the chimpanzee had been put in its cage overnight. Workers were to give the chimpanzee anesthetic ahead of its yearly health check, but forgot to lock the cage, leaving the door open. The door leading outside from a corridor in front of the cage was shut, but Puteri turned the doorknob by herself and opened it.

It was reportedly the first time since 1993 that an animal had escaped from its cage at the zoo. In that year a spectacled bear escaped. In an earlier incident in 1975, a leopard escaped from its enclosure.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

Study Names Orangutans As The Most Intelligent Primate

Orangutans have been named as the world's most intelligent animal in a study that places them above chimpanzees and gorillas, the species traditionally considered closest to humans.

The study found that out of 25 species of primate, orang-utans had developed the greatest power to learn and to solve problems.

The controversial findings challenge the belief that chimpanzees are the closest to humans in brainpower. They also suggest that the ancestry of orang-utans and humans may be more closely entwined than had been thought.

Orang-utans are now endangered as never before. Once widespread throughout the forests of Asia, they are confined to just two islands - Sumatra and Borneo - and are highly endangered as a result of habitat loss and poaching.

James Lee, the Harvard University psychologist behind the research, collated a series of separate studies into the intelligence of different primate species. However, his research first had to overcome a much greater hurdle: would it be possible to compare different species of primates at all?

Mr Lee found that in primates, at least, different rules seem to apply - the development of one set of mental skills seems to prompt the primate brain to develop other mental abilities as well.

"A primate genus with a high rank in an experiment testing particular mental abilities appears to have high ranks in all of them," Mr Lee said.

He also found that the single most important factor in deciding a species' intelligence was simply the size of its brain: "The correlation of brain size with mental ability found in humans appears to extend throughout the primate order."

This "remarkable finding" suggests, he said, that all primate brains work in much the same way. But they have evolved, allowing comparisons between species.

Mr Lee's research threw up some other surprises, too. Gorillas, for example, emerged as less intelligent than spider monkeys, while baboons were ranked only 14th.

Recent field work by Carel van Schaik, a Dutch primatologist at Duke University, North Carolina, appears to bear out Mr Lee's findings.

Studying orang-utans in Borneo, he found them capable of tasks well beyond chimpanzees' abilities - such as using leaves to make rain hats and leakproof roofs over their sleeping nests. He also found that in some food-rich areas, the creatures had developed a complex culture in which adults would teach youngsters how to make tools and find food.

He and Mr Lee both suggest that the key factor in such developments is the orang-utans' lifestyle, spent mostly in the tops of trees where there is little risk from predators. This has allowed them to establish long and settled lives similar to humans' and also to develop culture and intelligence.

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Analysis of rhesus monkey genome uncovers genetic differences with humans, chimps

rhesus macaqueAn international consortium of researchers has published the genome sequence of the rhesus macaque monkey and aligned it with the chimpanzee and human genomes. Published April 13 in a special section of the journal Science, the analysis reveals that the three primate species share about 93 percent of their DNA, yet have some significant differences among their genes.

In its paper, the Rhesus Macaque Genome Sequence and Analysis Consortium, supported in part by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), compared the genome sequences of rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta) with that of human (Homo sapiens) and chimp (Pan troglodytes), the primate most closely related to humans. Four companion papers that relied on the rhesus sequence also appear in the same issue.

The rhesus genome is the second non-human primate, after the chimp, to have its genome sequenced and is the first of Old World monkeys to have its DNA deciphered.

"The sequencing of the rhesus macaque genome, combined with the availability of the chimp and human genomes, provides researchers with another powerful tool to advance our understanding of human biology in health and disease," said NHGRI Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. "As we build upon the foundation laid by the Human Genome Project, it has become clear that comparing our genome with the genomes of other organisms is crucial to identifying what makes the human genome unique."

The rhesus, because of its response to the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), is widely recognized as the best animal model for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection. The rhesus genome sequence will also serve to enhance essential research in neuroscience, behavioral biology, reproductive physiology, endocrinology and cardiovascular studies. In addition, the rhesus serves as a valuable model for studying other human infectious diseases and for vaccine research.

The sequencing of the rhesus genome was conducted at the Baylor College of Medicine Human Genome Sequencing Center in Houston, the Genome Sequencing Center at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md., which are part of the NHGRI-supported Large-Scale Sequencing Research Network. The DNA used in the sequencing was obtained from a female rhesus macaque at the Southwest National Primate Research Center (NPRC) in San Antonio, which is supported by the National Center for Research Resources, part of NIH. Independent assemblies of the rhesus genome data were carried out at each of the three sequencing centers using different and complementary approaches and then combined into a single "melded assembly." In their analysis, scientists from 35 institutions compared this melded assembly to the reference sequence of the human genome, a newer unpublished draft sequence of the chimp genome, the sequence of more than a dozen other more distant species already in the public databases, the human HapMap, and the Human Gene Mutation Database that lists known human mutations that lead to genetic disease.

"This study of the rhesus genome is invaluable because it gives researchers a perspective to observe what has been added or deleted in each primate genome during evolution of rhesus, chimp, and the human from their common ancestors ," said Richard Gibbs, Ph.D., director of Baylor College of Medicine's Human Genome Sequencing Center in Houston and the project leader.

One of the most useful features of the rhesus genome is that it is less closely related to the human genome than to the chimp genome. This means that important features that have been conserved in primates over time can be more easily seen by comparing rhesus to human, than chimp to human.

By adding the rhesus genome to the primate comparison, researchers identified nearly 200 genes likely to be key players in determining differences among primate species. These include genes involved in hair formation, immune response, membrane proteins and sperm-egg fusion. Many of these genes are located in areas of the primate genome that have been subject to duplication, indicating that having an extra copy of a gene may enable it to evolve more rapidly and that small duplications are a key feature of primate evolution.

The analysis also revealed a few instances in which whole families of genes were radically different in the rhesus, containing more copies of certain genes than in the chimp or human. These gene families include important immune related genes, as well as genes with functions not yet fully known.

In addition to comparing the rhesus with the chimp and human genomes, the group also studied genetic variation in macaque populations, and developed a set of 'single nucleotide polymorphisms' or SNPs (single base DNA differences) that can be used for future analysis of inheritance of biomedically important traits in rhesus. The rhesus genomic DNA samples used for these studies were contributed by the California NPRC, Oregon NPRC, Southwest NPRC and Yerkes NPRC. This advance in macaque genetics will enhance the use of macaques for the study of genetic diseases of man.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

A moment of banana tower zen...

monkey tower
banana tower
banana monkey tower
A three-years old male orangutan Ali, top, and four-years old male monkey Baekgun play on 'the banana tower' of 3 meter-tall made of 5,000 bananas during a special event to promote the new Monkey Valley at Everland amusement park in Yongin, south of Seoul, South Korea.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Researchers Give Video Games To Orangutans

orangutans computerZoo Atlanta is using 21st century techniques to study the way orangutans think and learn.

Tara Stoinski, who heads the zoo's Conservation Partnership, said a great deal of research exists on a close relative, the chimpanzee. But data on orangutans is relatively sparse.

One avenue of research involves computer games. In one program, a picture of an orangutan appears on the screen. Every time the real primate touches the photo, the visual disappears and the animal receives a treat. Stoinski said that teaching orangutans to use computers helps scientists retrieve data that's objective.

The computer screen is built into a tree-like structure to blend in with the environment.

Visitors get to watch the antics, and zoo officials hope that opening up the research will raise awareness of the world's rapidly diminishing orangutan population.

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Czech zoo's gorilla birth ends in tragedy

gorilla birthFans of a Prague zoo gorilla named Kamba who earned nationwide fame in a 2005 mock radio reality show were mourning Wednesday after her offspring died during birth. The 35-year-old gorilla was brought to the zoo from Cameroon in autumn 2005 when Czech Radio opened its mock reality-style show focussed on the life of the zoo's gorilla family.

While the new female's entry proved dramatic at first, calm Kamba soon became its darling. After the popular programme ended, the station continued live online broadcasts from the gorilla pavilion.

Kamba's followers watched her pregnancy online for some three months expecting her to give birth any day, as forecasts of the due date turned out to be inaccurate.

However, on Wednesday Kamba tore her umbilical cord, which suffocated her partly-delivered first-born. The news of the baby gorilla's death triggered a wave of grief among the community of Kamba's online fans.

"I wept like a little girl when I saw those little heels that are not moving," one wrote in a Czech Radio chatroom.

Spirits were also low among Czech Radio employees who had monitored Kamba's pregnancy day and night since mid January.

"Some of them cried," Miroslav Bobek, the director of Czech Radio Online, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa. "It was a blow for us. We have been living with the gorillas for a year and a half."

Other members of the Prague zoo gorilla band have been cautiously observing Kamba's ordeal. One followed her closely as she slowly moved around the gorilla run and gently examined the tiny legs and torso dangling from her body.

As Kamba has struggled to push out the stillborn, the zoo summoned a team of specialists, including a gynaecologist and an anesthetist from Prague hospitals, who plan to separate Kamba from the others, anesthetize her and relieve her of the dead foetus, zoo spokesman Vit Kahle said.

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Tarzan chimp celebrates 75th birthday

tarzan cheetah chimpCheetah, the chimpanzee who starred in the Tarzan movies in the 1930s and who is considered the world's oldest chimp, has celebrated his 75th birthday.

Cheetah, whose coat is now peppered with grey hair, marked the occasion with a party featuring sugar-free cake and diet soft drinks in the California desert town of Palm Springs, famous as a retirement community for old movie stars.

He has lived there with his trainer for the past 16 years.

Chimpanzees rarely live past their 40s in the wild but often live into their 60s in captivity.

According to his trainer, Dan Westfall, Cheetah's only health problem is that he has been diabetic for about seven years.

Cheetah was brought from Liberia in 1932 as a baby and made his movie debut in 1934.

He starred in about a dozen Tarzan films and retired from his film career after appearing in the 1967 picture Dr Doolittle.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Vomiting in Wild Bonnet Macaques

"Researchers have given little consideration to vomiting in non-human primates." Quite so. A new report called Vomiting in Wild Bonnet Macaques points that out, and tries to remedy the deficiency.

Elizabeth Johnson, Eric Hill and Matthew Cooper published their study in the International Journal of Primatology. Johnson is at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia. Hill is at Arizona State University, and Cooper at Georgia State University.

They start with a fond look back at the work of earlier experts. The consensus view, they say, is that vomiting "is a theoretically complex behaviour that to date lacks a comprehensive explanation".

Johnson, Hill and Cooper spent time with macaques, carefully noting when each individual animal vomited and whether it then reingested (for that is the technical term) whatever came up. All told, the scientists compiled "both quantitative and qualitative data on observations of 163 instances of vomiting from two groups of bonnet macaques in southern India". They used this data to "establish a conservative rate of vomiting in free-ranging macaques".

The rate is 0.0042 vomits per individual per hour. That's the conservatively high estimate, using data gathered by watching macaques who live near a temple on Chamundi Hill, a forested outcrop near Mysore in Karnataka. But it is not the whole story. Another group of macaques lives in the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary, in Anaimalai Hills, Tamil Nadu. These forest-dwellers vomit at a different rate from their temple cousins: 0.0028 vomits per macaque per hour.

The scientists observed closely and keenly. Here is a typical passage from their report: "Only one adult female in the forest showed interest in another macaque's vomit; she twice smelled the mouth of an adult female. During observations at the temple, we saw 20 different individuals show interest in another's vomit on 21 occasions. Ten of the individuals were successful in eating some of it on 11 occasions. Of the individuals that ate or tasted another monkey's vomit, two were adult females, two were adult males, three were juvenile females, and three were infants."

The study builds to a thrilling conclusion. The researchers explain what, to them, is a central mystery about vomiting in wild bonnet macaques. Why, they ask, don't the macaques simply vomit and walk away? Why do they immediately "reingest" the vomit?

Earlier scientists seem not to have noticed this mystery or, if they did notice, to have offered a good explanation.

The key, according to Johnson, Hill and Cooper, lies in a simple fact. Macaques have spacious pouches in their cheeks. Johnson, Hill and Cooper apply some logic. "We suggest that the tendency to hoard food in their cheek pouches explains why they reingested the vomit."

The study concludes with a modest statement: "Our data offer insight into a normal, but largely ignored, behaviour of cercopithecines."

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Escaped Spider Monkey Alarms Oregon Neighbors

A spider monkey escaped from its cage and terrorized residents in the town of Otis on Sunday, according to Lincoln County deputies.

Authorities said they responded to a report of a 20-pound monkey running through a neighborhood at about 4:15 p.m.

One man who lived in the area was cornered in his garage by the monkey, the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office said.

Deputies said the monkey belonged to Douglas Rhoton, 42, who told them that his 12-year-old monkey escaped through a small hole in its cage.

Rhoton safely recaptured his monkey in the 800 block of the North River Bend Road before deputies arrived at the scene.

Authorities said Rhoton did not have proper paperwork for a permit to keep an exotic animal.

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Chimps smart enough to take shelter in caves to beat the heat

Chimpanzees in the West African nation of Senegal take shelter from the scorching heat in caves, a new study has found.

Coincidence or not, the unusual behaviour, the first known case of regular cave use by an ape species, is found among the same chimpanzees that were recently found to hunt small mammals using sharpened sticks.

Jill Pruetz, an anthropologist at Iowa State University, who began her fieldwork in 2001, at a site known as Fongoli, said local Malinke people showed her the caves, which were often occupied by chimpanzees during the hottest part of the year.

"It took years and years for the chimpanzees to get habituated [to the researchers' presence. As soon as we would walk anywhere close, it would scare them out of the caves," National Geographic quoted Pruetz as saying.

Even with few direct observations, Pruetz's team was able to assess the extent of cave use using clues left behind on sandy cave floors: tracks, droppings, and food remains.

Intrigued at first, she observed the chimpanzees' odd behaviour. Research showed that the cave use was concentrated at the end of the dry season in May and June.

"The behaviour appears to be an adjustment to heat stress," said Pruetz.

"No one has ever before published reports of apes in caves. This is one of those cases in which the apes genuinely surprise us, exceeding our expectations and imaginations," added William McGrew of Cambridge University in England.

According to Pruetz, cave use is just one of several strategies chimpanzees use to cope with their difficult environment, where both shade and water are critical resources.

In April and May maximum temperatures in open grassland near the caves can reach 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit (42 degrees Celsius).

Findings revealed that the temperature in the largest of the three small caves used by the chimpanzees never exceeded 84.2 degrees Fahrenheit (29 degrees Celsius).

Pruetz said that while her new paper is based solely on data collected at the Fongoli study site, her team has also observed cave use in other nearby chimpanzee populations.

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Bonobos join forces better than chimps

We know them as the most highly sexed of all the apes. Now it appears that the easy-going social life enjoyed by bonobos makes them better at cooperating than their more aggressive chimp cousins.

Brian Hare of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and colleagues tested how well chimps and bonobos coped with challenging social situations. Bonobos, they found, were more likely to share a plate of food, using play or sex to defuse social tensions. In contrast, chimps' more limited social skills meant one individual was more likely to take all the food.

The researchers gave pairs of each species a task that required them to work together to retrieve a food reward that neither could reach alone. When the food was easily shared, both species quickly learned to do this. But when the food was in a single bowl - making it easy to monopolise - chimps were less willing to work together (Current Biology, vol 17, p 619).

"It's so simple and obvious that no one's ever demonstrated it," says Hare. "You can't cooperate if you can't share the spoils." The flexibility that allows humans to work together evolved more from social adeptness than high-powered reasoning, he suggests.

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Friday, April 06, 2007

Louisville Zoo Mystified By Death Of Siamang Apes

The Louisville Zoo is saddened over the loss of their siamang couple-Ziggy, 15, and Sue Ann, 9. The couple died April 4. No cause has been determined.

The pair was recently in the news with the birth of their first offspring, Zoli, a male who was born at the Zoo Feb. 20.

“We are still at a loss as to what happened,” said General Curator Steve Wing. “They were fine the night of April 3 when we checked on them-active, bright, alert and eating well.”

The next morning, April 4, staff discovered the two had died. Zoo veterinary staff, assisted by a local leading pathologist, State Medical Examiner Dr. Barbara Weakley-Jones, performed post mortem exams.

“As with all animals that die at the Zoo, a thorough necropsy was performed,” Zoo Veterinarian Dr. Roy Burns said. “Diagnostic samples were collected, and it will likely be a few weeks before we have any reliable information for cause of death.”

Baby Zoli is in an incubator and being cared for by staff. “He seems to be doing well,” Wing said.

“The staff is very saddened,” said Assistant Director Mark Zoeller. “As devoted animal lovers, our entire Zoo family is mourning their loss.”

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Honey Bear Excapes Zoo, Rides A Bus And Then Bites A Woman

In response to those who have emailed me this story, the media initially identified the animal as a spider monkey. It has since then been identified by the zoo as a kinkajou, or honey bear, a nocturnal rainforest mammal related to the ringtail, raccoon, and the lesser panda. Here is the interesting story anyways:

A woman had to be treated by paramedics after a kinkajou, or honey bear, escaped from a zoo and then went for an hour-long ride on a bus.

Eventually, firemen had to try to rope the escaped animal to get it back to the zoo. The animal spent quite a lot of time just sniffing the noose they were trying to get round its neck.

The animal had escaped from the San Juan de Aragon Zoo in Mexico City, after which it got on the bus at around 11pm. It then spent about an hour riding on the bus, sitting next to the driver.

The animal attacked the woman when she tried to hold it, according to local news agency Notimex.

However, paramedic Eduardo Martinez said: 'She was attacked. She was on a bus or a minibus, and this animal got on to the minivan and started to swing on the support rails in the bus, and what she says is that this animal attacked her, jumped up to her head, she tried to defend herself and the animal bit her arm.'

There was some initial confusion about exactly what type of animal had got on the bus. Initially, the Red Cross said that the animal was a monkey, while some local media thought that it was a lemur. It was eventually decided, by the city's main Chapultepec Zoo, that it was a kinkajou – a relative of the raccoon.

Kinkajous gained prominence last year, when thin socialite Paris Hilton owned a kinkajou called Baby Luv who she carried around on her arm. In scenes reminiscent of Mexico's bus horror, Hilton also had to be taken to hospital when Baby Luv bit her on the arm.

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Apes to Name Neighboring Trumpeter Swans

apes name swansThe eight bonobos at the Great Ape Trust of Iowa howled Tuesday as they watched two trumpeter swans dip into a lake for the first time. Who can blame them? Not only will the apes get new neighbors, they'll get a chance to name the rare birds. "They were very excited," said scientist Karyl Swartz. "It's something new in their environment."

Department of Natural Resources officials released the white swans as part of a restoration project that places birds to nest and produce offspring that are then released into the wild.

The Great Ape Trust's grounds include 40 acres of lakes and wetlands, making it a perfect spot for the swans. And the birds will give the bonobos at the trust an interesting distraction.

"They're going to be curious about what's going on down here," Swartz said. "They monitor their environment closely."

Bonobos walk on two legs and are the most humanlike in appearance of the great apes. They have sophisticated language skills, a trait they'll demonstrate when asked to name the swans.

Swartz said they'll either use a board that has symbols the apes associate with objects or choose names from a list researchers provide. The apes already use the board to communicate with humans to identify things like location, food and color.

Swartz said after observing the swans, the bonobos could pick a name that they think reflects the birds' behavior. They'll also get photos of the swans to carry around. She said the apes can recognize gender, with the help of a tag collar around the male swan's neck.

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Aging Gorilla Dies At Atlanta Zoo

Banga, the youngest of Zoo Atlanta's five elderly gorillas, died Tuesday of respiratory and heart failure.

Dennis Kelly, the zoo's president and CEO, said that Banga, who suffered from arthritis, was undergoing treatment for her lameness. She did not regain consciousness from anesthesia and was pronounced dead shortly before noon.

Until Banga's death, the zoo had five western lowland gorillas ranging in age from 42 to 48, old age for a gorilla. Like elderly humans, the gorillas suffer from a variety of ailments and sometimes take the same medication, like Celebrex for arthritis.

"We will all miss her here at Zoo Atlanta," Kelly said of Banga.

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