Thursday, June 28, 2007

Lucy Fossil Approved for US Tour

A fossil tour doesn't have to mean an aging rock band's reunion concerts. The State Department gave final approval Wednesday for one of the world's most famous fossils — the 3.2 million-year-old Lucy skeleton unearthed in Ethiopia in 1974 — to tour the U.S. on exhibit for the first time.

The Smithsonian has objected to the idea, however, because museum experts don't think the fragile remains should travel. So Lucy won't be stopping at the National Museum of Natural History, but in other U.S. museums instead.

Smithsonian scientists feel that certain artifacts, such as Lucy, are too valuable for the stresses of travel and should remain in their homes, according to National Natural History Museum spokesman Randall Kremer.

"This is one of the most important specimens relating to human origins in the world," Kremer said Wednesday. "We think it is too much of a risk to have it travel for the purposes of public viewing."

Even in Ethiopia the public has only seen the real Lucy remains twice. The Lucy exhibition at the Ethiopian Natural History Museum in the nation's capital, Addis Ababa, is a replica and the real remains are usually locked in a vault.

"We share with them the fact that artifacts like this need to be surrounded with the utmost care, but that should not preclude them from traveling," said Dirk Van Tuerenhout, curator of anthropology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, which is arranging the tour. He added that representatives from his museum did deem some of the other artifacts offered by the Ethiopian government unable to travel.

"If you are able to showcase an original fossil, then you have a story, then you have a point of attraction that will bring in the most number of people, and then you can tell them that story," Van Tuerenhout said.

The State Department approved the exhibit for temporary importation into the U.S., saying that display of Lucy and the other artifacts is in the national interest because of their "cultural significance." The official announcement was published Wednesday in the Federal Register.

Lucy goes on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science on Aug. 31, continuing through April 20, 2008. The other tour stops have not been finalized, according to museum spokeswoman Melodie Francis. But in announcing the plans to display the artifact last October, Ethiopian officials listed Washington, New York, Denver and Chicago as tour stops.

The fossilized remains were discovered in 1974 in the remote, desert-like Afar region in northeastern Ethiopia. Lucy is classified as an Australopithecus afarensis, which lived in Africa between about 4 million and 3 million years ago, and is the earliest known hominid.

Most scientists believe afarensis stood upright and walked on two feet, but they argue about whether it had ape-like agility in trees. The loss of that ability would suggest crossing a threshold toward a more human existence.

Story here.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Bill The Chimp Dies At 62

bill the chimpBill the Chimp, Sequoia Park Zoo's most well-known resident, died late Tuesday night after a long illness, zoo officials said. He was 62.

Zoo manager Gretchen Ziegler had been saying for several days that Bill wasn't expected to live. He suffered from a lung infection. She said they made him as comfortable as possible.

According to a press release, Bill was euthanised at 6:56 p.m.

”We're not going to let him suffer needlessly,” Kelley-Day said early in the day.

Bill had been sleeping or resting most of Tuesday, Ziegler said, in between visits from veterinarian Jeff Kelley-Day who has been overseeing his medical care.

Due to pain medication and a semi-comatose state, Bill wasn't in pain, Kelley-Day said.

The chimpanzee, who would have celebrated his 50th year at the Sequoia Park Zoo come July, had been under near round-the-clock observation. Ziegler said staff had been present late into the night and returned early in the morning.

An autopsy will be performed to determine the cause of his symptoms, then his body will be shipped to University of California, Santa Cruz, for further study.

The zoo will reopen today. A memorial service is being planned.

Story here.

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Which Came First: Primates' Ability To See Colorful Food Or See Colorful Sex?

The adaptive significance of the unique ability in many primates to distinguish red hues from green ones (i.e., trichromatic color vision) has always enticed debate among evolutionary biologists. The conventional theory is that primates evolved trichromatic color vision to assist them in foraging, specifically by allowing them to detect red/orange food items from green leaf backgrounds.

However, the results from several empirical studies have called into question the extent to which trichromacy functions in foraging and if it provides a performance advantage over dichromatic primates (who lack red-green color vision). Other studies have suggested that trichromacy evolved in primates so that they could use physical traits like red skin in socio-sexual communication, such as a male providing information to a female about his mate quality.

Now, researchers at Ohio University (André Fernandez, a PhD student and his mentor, Dr. Molly R. Morris) have found that trichromatic color vision was present before it functioned in communication, suggesting that the ability to discriminate red from green was a pre-existing sensory bias that then drove the evolution of red-orange pelage and skin, possibly through sexual selection.

The study used comparative methods which incorporated the evolutionary relationships among 203 primate species to determine the sequential evolution of color vision, skin color, fur color, and mating systems. In addition the authors examined possible correlated evolution among these four traits. "The first thing our analysis revealed was that skin and pelage color was not responsible for the initial evolution of trichromacy in primates as some studies have suggested, because red-orange traits appeared after trichromatic color vision had already evolved," states André Fernandez, lead author on the study.

However, once trichromatic color vision in primates did evolve, species that possessed it were more likely than not to evolve red-orange pelage and skin (which are more easily detected with trichromacy) as well as gregarious mating systems that would help in the visual comparison of potential mates.

Furthermore, the correlated evolution of red-orange pelage and skin with visual capacity was even more pronounced in species that possessed both gregariousness mating systems and trichromacy, establishing the importance of social living in the evolution of red-orange physical characteristics. Taken as a whole, this study provides the first statistical support for the hypothesis that a pre-existing bias promoted the evolution of red traits in primates through sexual selection and explains why current foraging performance does not always correlate with the ability to discriminate red.

Trichromacy in primates evolved in a context other than socio-sexual communication, and this context may have been foraging performance. However, once trichromacy evolved, it was recruited for other purposes: modern primates that possess this adaptation are more likely to be highly social and have red-orange traits used in communication and mate choice decisions

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Diabetic Monkey Trained To Take Her Medicine

diabetic monkeyAfter Knoxville Zoo keepers discovered that Shelley had Type II diabetes, they had to train the blue monkey to accept the injections she needed.

Keepers first tried oral medications to treat the disease caught in its early stages, but that didn't work. It was decided that the almost-18-year-old monkey would need daily insulin injections.

Keepers trained Shelley to move into a small cage in the outdoor exhibit she shares with the male blue monkey, J.T. They practiced giving her saline injections before starting the animal's daily insulin treatments in March.

Training wasn't easy. Shelley was initially very aggressive toward keepers, but patience, positive reinforcement and treats of apple pieces gradually worked, said Amy Chester, the zoo's great apes lead keeper.

Now, Shelley goes into the small cage on voice command each morning. "She goes in and eats her apple and sits and waits for us," Chester said.

One wall of the small cage can be moved so that a zookeeper can shift Shelley close enough, reach through the cage opening and inject her in the right or left hip.

The 13-pound Shelley's diet was adjusted. Bananas were cut out of her diet, and she can have only four grapes a week.

Story here.

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Monday, June 25, 2007

Monday Monkey Keywords

Our favorite keyword searches from the past week that have led people to find the Monkeys In The News blog:

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Nepal's First Primate Research Center to Breed Lab Animals

rhesus monkeys to be breed in NepalTwo internationally known wildlife biologists - one from Nepal and one from the United States - have expanded their long collaboration in the field to establish Nepal's first primate research center. Based on the captive breeding of Nepal's rhesus monkey, the center will facilitate the study of disease progression and treatment in both countries.

Dr. Mukesh Kumar Chalise, president of the Nepal Biodiversity Research Society and associate professor at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, is well known for his efforts in the conservation of Nepal's wildlife with particular focus on non-human primates.

Dr. Randall Kyes, associate professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and Head of the Division of International Programs at the Washington National Primate Research Center, has worked for 20 years to promote the conservation of natural populations of primates around the world.

Their international partnership blossomed when they collaborated as Fulbright Scholars at each other's institutions during 2001-2002.

The two scientists are modest when discussing their accomplishments, but they speak with passion when it comes to the need for human health care.

They have initiated a program to breed rhesus macaque monkeys of Nepalese origin to fill a shortage of laboratory animals used in work to develop vaccines against diseases such as HIV/AIDS. Rhesus macaques are the primates used for most AIDS research.

The Nepal Primate Research Center, now under construction at Lamatar in Lalitpur District, will breed the monkeys in captivity, and the offspring will be sold for research into AIDS and other human diseases.

The rhesus macaque, Macaca mulatta, is physiologically similar to humans and so is widely used in medical research, particularly in vaccine testing and as a model for AIDS research.

The rhesus macaque is prevalent in many countries and is not considered an endangered species. But not just any rhesus macaque will do for research labs. Those from Nepal are particularly in demand by scientists because of their genetic makeup.

Writing in the May 2006 issue of the "American Journal of Primatology," Kyes reported that Nepal macaques are more closely related genetically to their Indian cousins than to macaques from China.

Indian-origin animals have been used for more than half a century in biomedical and behavioral research. But in 1978 India banned the export of all macaques, setting the stage for the current shortage of research animals.

China does export captive-bred macaques, but scientists have noticed a number of behavioral and physiological differences in disease progression between animals from the two countries, and the Indian-origin macaques are preferred for research on certain diseases.

To facilitate the use of rhesus macaques in research while conserving Nepal's naturally occurring rhesus populations, the government of Nepal enacted the Wildlife Farming, Breeding and Research Working Policy in 2003 that allows only captive-bred animals to be used for scientific research.

After the policy was in place, an agreement between the Nepal Biodiversity Research Society and the Washington National Primate Research Center was signed in September 2003.

The Nepal Primate Research Center was the first facility in Nepal to receive official approval for captive breeding.

Critics of the macaque captive breeding program include renowned primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall, who said, "Nepal's monkeys are both sacred and beautiful creatures. They should not be exported to any country for research purposes, but should be allowed to live wild and free."

Animal Nepal and Wildlife Watch Group are among those who oppose the breeding and exporting of Nepalese monkeys for biomedical research in America.

These groups have obtained the signatures of more than 1100 people from 21 nations on a petition calling on the government of Nepal to cancel its plans to establish laboratories using rhesus monkeys and to export monkeys.

Mangal Man Shakya of Wildlife Watch Group and Jiggy Gaton of Animal Nepal say that the monkeys are considered sacred and are an important part of Nepal's heritage.

Another similar project, located at Lele, Lalitpur District, is also underway, funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health through the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in Texas.

Dr. John Vandeberg, head of the foundation, wrote in a letter to Dr. Shirley McGreal, who heads the International Primate Protection League, "The goal of the project is to develop a breeding colony of rhesus monkeys in order to produce progeny for exportation to the U.S."

"These monkeys will help fill the critical shortage of rhesus macaques for biomedical research, a shortage that has caused a two- to three-year delay in some research projects and holds up the development of potential new vaccines and treatments for life-threatening diseases, including AIDS and tuberculosis which are major killers in Nepal and in many other countries," Vandenberg wrote.

McGreal opposes the captive breeding program, saying, "I appeal to the people of Nepal and to its religious and cultural and nature protection organizations to stand up for the monkeys of Nepal and keep them in the wild where they belong."

"This program will not harm the natural populations because we will establish the self-sustaining breeding colony with a relatively small number of animals that will be acquired from areas of known human-monkey conflicts," said Kyes.

"In Nepal, this conflict is caused by monkeys that raid staple crops such as sweet potatoes and corn. Crop raiding is prevalent in many areas in Nepal and in the last five to 10 years there are many instances of local people seeking to solve this problem by chasing or killing macaques.

"One of the goals of our international program is to assist our collaborators in creating the first primate research center in Nepal and to help address some of Nepal's most pressing health concerns that include HIV, tuberculosis, hepatitis and malaria.

"In addition, the program has a strong conservation thrust. Establishing this center will allow more resources to be dedicated to primate conservation in Nepal because it has the potential to generate significant funding that can be directed toward the management and conservation of natural populations. This kind of program has been effective in other habitat countries and is supported by the World Health Organization and the World Conservation Union," he said.

Both Chalise and Kyes assure that the Nepal Primate Research Center will adhere to the highest standards and strictest guidelines regarding animal care and use and will follow the principles of sustainable use that have been outlined by the IUCN-World Conservation Union and the World Health Organization.

The scientists believe that to help ease human suffering from disease, the humane use of animals for research is justified. Both are committed to the conservation of wildlife but say that conservation also involves support of the human species.

Story here.

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Chimpanzees show alturistic traits

The roots of human altruism may go back far further than had been realised, according to a new study showing that chimpanzees are also capable of helping others without any thought of personal reward.

Until now, most scientists have believed that altruism emerged only after the evolutionary line that produced humans split away from the one that gave rise to chimpanzees - around six million years ago.

However, new research shows that chimpanzees, too, are capable of altruistic acts and that this appears to be programmed into their genes.

In the study, young chimpanzees spontaneously and repeatedly helped humans who appeared to be struggling to reach sticks in the animals' enclosure.

It suggests that altruism may have been an element of the social life of the "primitive" apes that eventually led to both humans and chimpanzees.

"We thought we were very different from other animals including our primate relatives, but this is not the case. At least some altruism may have been present in the common ancestor to humans and chimpanzees," said Felix Warneken, a psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who led the research.

Anthropologists have long recognised altruism as a vital element in allowing complex social groups to form. This raised the question of when it first evolved.

True altruism has always been seen as a uniquely human trait in that only people were thought capable of deliberately helping others, knowing there would be a cost to themselves.

Dr Warneken and his colleague Brian Hare carried out the study on 36 chimpanzees at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary, in Uganda. The animals were not allowed to interact with any humans they knew or had received food from.

In the first experiment, the chimpanzee saw a person unsuccessfully reach through the cage bars for a stick on the other side, too far away for the person but within reach of the ape.

The chimpanzees spontaneously helped the reaching person regardless of whether this yielded a reward or not. When the chimpanzees could see the person making no effort to reach the object, they did not help.

A second experiment made it much harder to offer help, with the chimps forced to climb two metres to get the stick. There were no rewards but, again, the animals still helped.

A third piece of research looked at the apes' willingness to help each other. One chimp was made to watch as a second animal tried to get into a closed room containing food.

The only way it could get in was if the watching animal removed a chain on the door. In each case they did so.

Story here.

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Missing Monkey Back In Her Cage After Five Days On The Lam

tobi monkeyLured by a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in her cage, Tobi the capuchin monkey returned to captivity on Sunday afternoon, five days after she fled her St. Charles home.

"She's just chirping and chirping. She's so ecstatic to be back," said Tobi's owner, Shirley Wipfler, who sounded ecstatic, too.

A motorist, Paul Corley, who had been looking for the monkey, spotted the animal on a fence near the St. Charles Family Arena about 4 p.m., and notified Shirley and Earl Wipfler.

The couple responded and Shirley Wipfler put a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in Tobi's cage to get her down from a tree. Tobi had escaped Tuesday from the Wipflers' home on Duckett Place.

"I think she was hungry and thirsty, but otherwise she was fine," Shirley Wipfler said.

Story here.

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Dutch Monkey Researcher Jailed In Brazil

biologist Marc van Roosmalen monkeyDutch biologist Marc van Roosmalen faces 14 years in a Brazilian prison. He has been convicted of failing to apply for a licence for the monkey refuge at his home in the Amazon region of Brazil. Mr Van Roosmalen, hailed in 2000 as a "hero for the planet", is appealing against the sentence.

Monkey researcher Marc van Roosmalen, sentenced to 14 years in prison, seems on the face of it to be a victim of bureaucracy. The primatologist has been living and working for years in the Amazon. He has even discovered several new species of monkey, one of which reminded him of Prince Bernhard. He named it "Callicebus Bernhardi" and five years ago he visited Soestdijk Palace to inform the prince in person.

In 2002, in a Dutch television programme, Mr Van Roosmalen explained the original methods he had devised to be able to rescue and study monkeys. Anyone who wanted could give their name to one of the monkeys in his refuge - in exchange for a financial contribution.

Meanwhile, he was expanding his activities. He no longer merely hunted for new species of plants and animals, but increasingly turned his attention to the protection of the Brazilian rainforest.

It is his campaigning activities and his enthusiasm that have been his undoing, says David van Gennip, director of the AAP Foundation, an animal refuge in Almere: he was "a pain in the ass" particularly for logging and soybean companies with major interests in the Brazilian rainforest.

Bert de Boer, director of Apenheul, a zoo and conservation organisation in Apeldoorn, describes Mr Van Roosmalen as "A great conservationist, and passionate with it. These are both things you have to be very cautious about in Brazil." He suspects that the big companies have bribed the government to act against the vociferous biologist.

It was easy to find a reason to take legal action against Van Roosmalen. He was accused of failing to apply for a permit for the monkey refuge at his home. This meant that the 28 orphaned monkeys he was keeping there were technically stolen. He was accused of monkey theft and biopiracy and sentenced to 14 years in prison. He is appealing against the sentence.

The 60-year-old biologist, hailed by Time Magazine in 2000 as a "hero for the planet", is now behind bars in Brazil.

Story here.

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Monkey Runs Amok In Girls' School

A monkey went on the rampage at a girls' school on Wednesday morning. It snatched food from students and held them by their shirts. Finally, police had to be called in.

The monkey invaded Jewish Girls' School on Royd Street during the break. The girls, who were either playing or having their tiffin panicked, resulting in a near stampede, said an officer of Park Street police station.

Some were caught unawares. The monkey ran up to them and snatched their tiffin. When one girl tried to resist, it slapped her. It also held on to the shirt of another girl, who tried to flee.

Park Street police was informed and rushed to the school. It was finally trapped with a bait of bananas and taken to the police station.

Later, the forest department's rescue squad took it to the Salt Lake wildlife rescue hub. "The monkey is doing well. It became aggressive as it was out of its group," said V K Yadav, deputy chief wildlife warden.

Story here.

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

Gorilla Manners At Meal Times

gorilla manners leafsThey are known for aggressive displays of chest-beating, loud roaring and the occasional headlong charge.

But despite their macho reputation, gorillas are surprisingly delicate, especially when it comes to meal times.

Researchers have found that they use giant leaves as napkins to clean their fingers and faces after eating messy food.

The trackers, who were working for the Zoological Society of London in West Africa, witnessed several gorillas performing the same routine.

The finding is further evidence that gorillas and other great apes behave similarly to humans.

Dr Noelle Kumpel, the society's forests conservation programme manager, said: "We were amazed to discover that gorillas use these leaves like napkins.

"The team saw that the gorillas were wiping their mouths and hands after eating messy fruits. It's a surprisingly human activity. It clearly demonstrates that we still have plenty to learn about these incredible animals."

The apes tore giant leaves off a flowering plant to wipe themselves before throwing them to the ground.

The society's staff made the discovery while following a family of western lowland gorillas through the trees of a conservation park in Gabon. The trackers were trying to get the gorillas used to humans in the hope that it will draw ecotourism to the area.

Gorillas are actually far more gentle than their chimpanzee cousins and follow a vegetarian diet of leaves and fruit.

They also take some pride in their appearance. Grooming - where fleas, bugs and mud are picked from each other's hair - is an essential part of family life for gorillas.

Unlike chimpanzees, which routinely use tools such as twigs and stones to hunt and gather food - gorillas are less technologically minded.

They have, however, been seen using sticks to find their way across swamps and pools.

According to the most recent estimates, there are around 100,000 western lowland gorillas left in Africa. But logging, the spread of diseases such as ebola and the illegal trade in ape meat has seen numbers plummet. Some campaigners suspect there could be only 50,000 left.

Western lowland gorillas - one of the four sub-species of gorilla - usually live in family groups of between six and ten, led by a silverback, the fiercest and strongest male.

Once adolescent males are big enough they either challenge the silverback for leadership or leave home in search of a new family to lead.

Normally nomadic, gorillas use twigs and leaves to make overnight nests in trees or on the ground.

Story here.

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Board Rejects Monkey Owner's Plea For Seized Pet

pet monkeyA Montgomery County woman whose pet monkey was seized last month won't be getting him back anytime soon.

The county's Animal Matters Hearing Board has ruled that police were right to take the capuchin monkey, named Armani, because he did not live with Elyse Gazewitz before May 2006, the state's cutoff date for having such a pet.

Gazewitz argued that she owned Armani at that time, but panel members said they believed veterinary and zoo reports that Armani is only five months old.

Gazewitz says she'll appeal the ruling to Montgomery County Circuit Court.

Gazewitz calls Armani her "baby" and dressed him in diapers and infant outfits.

While the case is pending, the four-pound, 18-inch brown and black capuchin will remain at the Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo in Frederick County, where officials say he watches DVD movies like "Madagascar" with other monkeys and interacts with keepers.

Story here.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Gorilla Recovering From Testicle Operation

gorilla testicle operationThe alpha male silverback gorilla at Jersey Zoo is said to be recovering well after an operation.

The 23-year-old primate named Ya Kwanza had one of his testicles removed by Durrell Wildlife vets after suspicious changes were discovered last year.

Staff from the General Hospital assisted during the operation because of the close genetic relationship between gorillas and humans.

The 237kg (37st) silverback has now been returned to his group.

The changes to Ya Kwanza's body were found during an attempt to artificially inseminate the group's youngest female and the decision was taken to operate to protect his health.

It is not thought his ability to reproduce will be affected.

Ya Kwanza was born in Melbourne Zoo in 1984 and was the first gorilla to be conceived by artificial insemination anywhere in the world.

He was brought to Jersey from Australia in 1993.

Story here.

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Study Looks At Inner Ear Relations To How Extinct Primates Moved

primates inner earAn international research team has documented the link between the way an animal moves and the dimensions of an important part of its organ of balance, the three semicircular canals of the inner ear on each side of the skull. "We have shown that there is a fundamental adaptive mechanism linking a species' locomotion with the sensory systems that process information about its environment," says Alan Walker, Evan Pugh Professor of Anthropology and Biology at Penn State University, one of the team's leaders.

The researchers studied 91 separate primate species, including all taxonomic families. The study also included 119 additional species, most of which are mammals ranging in size from mouse to elephant, that habitually move in diverse ways in varied environments.

The project is the first large-scale study to document the relationship of the dimensions of the semicircular canals to locomotion. These structures are filled with a fluid, which moves within the canals when the animal moves. The fluid's movement is sensed by special cells that send signals to the brain, triggering the neck and eye muscles to reflexively keep the visual image stable.

The basic hypothesis of the project was that the organ of balance -- which helps stabilize an animal's gaze and coordinate its movements as it travels through the environment -- should be irrevocably linked to the type of locomotion produced by its limbs. "If an animal evolves a new way of moving about the world, its organ of balance must evolve accordingly," Walker explains. From the visual information, the animal tracks its position relative to stationary objects such as tree trunks, branches, rocks or cliffs, or the ground. Having a stable image of the environment is especially crucial for acrobatic animals that leap, glide, or fly.

To make the discovery, the scientists scanned skull samples of each species, measuring the size of each semicircular canal and calculating the radius of curvature. Most of the specimens were scanned at the Center for Quantitative Imaging at Penn State on the OMNI-X high-resolution x-ray CT scanner, which can resolve features approximately 1/100 the size of those detected by medical CT scanners. In addition, experienced field workers used personal knowledge or film of animals in the wild to classify species into one of six locomotor categories ranging from very slow and deliberate to fast and agile. The scientists then compared the canal size of each species to its category of movement.

The results revealed a highly significant statistical relationship between the radius of curvature of the semicircular canals and the species' habitual way of moving. More acrobatic species consistently have semicircular canals with a larger radius of curvature than do slower-moving ones. For example, a small, fast-moving leaper like a bushbaby has semicircular canals that are relatively and absolutely much bigger than those of the similar-sized, slow-moving loris.

However, because larger animals have absolutely larger canals, the analysis had to take body size into account. The research revealed that this functional tie between the semicircular canals and locomotor pattern is evident both within the primates alone and within the entire mammalian sample.

"How an animal moves is a basic adaptation," says Walker, an expert in primate locomotion. "Now we have a way to reconstruct how extinct species moved that is completely independent of analysis of the limb structure. For the first time, we can test our previous conclusions using a new source of information."

Story here.

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Worlds Oldest Living Orangutan Turns 55

oldest living orangutanVisitors and staff went a little ape Tuesday morning at Miami Metrozoo as they celebrated one of its residents very special birthday.

Nonja, an endangered Sumatran Orangutan, celebrated her 55th birthday, making her the oldest living Orangutan in the world.

Ron Magill of Miami's Metrozoo said the "world's record Orangutan for age was 57 years old at the Philadelphia zoo", and that ape looked its age, but Nonja, "you look at her, and she looks at least 35".

Transferred from a zoo in Holland to Metrozoo in 1983, Nonja was born in the wilds of Sumatra in June of 1952. Her name, "Nonja," means "girl" in Dutch. While in captivity, she's had 5 offspring who've had 2 offspring of their own.

To celebrate her birthday, the staff at Metrozoo whipped up a special "Primate Cake" made of bananas, peanut butter, raisins, primate chow, and other Orangutan favorites.

Story here.

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Atlanta Zoo Adopts Orangutan Orphan From Fort Wayne Zoo

ORANGUTAN orphanZoo Atlanta is adopting an eight-month-old orphan orangutan from an Indiana children's zoo.

Dumadi (doo-MOD-ee) is expected to arrive tomorrow and will be given to 25-year-old female Madu, who has been a surrogate mother to another orphan in the Atlanta zoo's ten-member orangutan family.

Dumadi was orphaned last year at the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo when his mother died an hour after giving birth to him, likely from a blood clot.

Zookeepers in Fort Wayne were unable to find a female adult there to take the infant, and asked other US zoos to help. Zoo Atlanta was selected because of its large orangutan population and experience in connecting adoptive mothers with orphaned apes.

Zookeepers in Atlanta will slowly introduce Dumadi to Madu in coming weeks after the infant adjusts to his new surroundings. The pair will be available for public view in about a month, officials said.

Story here.

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Orangutan At Atlanta Zoo Euthanized Because Of Kidney Failure

A 29-year-old Sumatran orangutan at Zoo Atlanta was euthanized Monday after veterinarians determined she would not recover from kidney problems.

Hati, which is Indonesian for "heart," was diagnosed in January with chronic renal failure, zoo spokeswoman Susan Elliott said.

Sumatran orangutans are native to Indonesia, where their numbers are imperiled by encroachment and poaching.

Fewer than 60,000 live in the wild, said Rob Shumaker, director of orangutan research at the Great Ape Trust of Iowa.

Zoo Atlanta still has 10 orangutans, which can live 40 to 50 years in captivity, on display. An estimated 200 are on display at accredited zoos and other facilities around the country.

Hati's death is the second of a primate at the zoo this year. On April 2, Banga, a 42-year-old female gorilla, died while under diagnosis for declining health.

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Primate Embryos Signal Cloning Breakthrough

A U.S. scientist said he cloned monkey embryos and extracted stem cells from them, a world first that may help researchers develop new medical treatments.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov, an assistant professor at the Oregon National Primate Research Center, said he used somatic cell nuclear transfer, or so-called therapeutic cloning, to produce 21 embryos from a rhesus macaque monkey. Mitalipov prevented the embryos from growing into fully developed animals.

"It's a major step forward for the field," said Alan Trounson, professor of stem cell science at Monash University in Melbourne. Mitalipov has "sound data" to support his work, Trounson said.

A decade after Scotland's Roslin Institute created Dolly the sheep, scientists have yet to produce primates by the same cloning process. The technique involves removing the nucleus from an egg cell and replacing it with the nucleus of a cell taken from the animal whose tissues would be cloned.

Mitalipov presented his research to the annual meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research Monday in Cairns, Australia. His research hasn't yet been published in any scientific journal.

Mitalipov, who earned a PhD in genetics and biotechnology from the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences, moved to Utah State University in 1995 to conduct research in stem cell and developmental biology and has been at the Primate Research Center in Beaverton, Oregon, since 1998.

Trounson said Mitalipov's work is the first major development in therapeutic cloning since Korean researcher Hwang Woo Suk falsely claimed to have created stem cells that have a genetic makeup identical to that of living human adults.

Hwang, whose research was once hailed as a step toward curing diabetes and Alzheimer's disease, faked results of a cloning study in his lab. Both of his research papers published in the journal Science were retracted last year after being found to contain fabricated data.

Embryonic stem cells are among the first cells created after conception. Because they can turn into other types of cells, scientists are investigating their use to replace damaged or missing tissue in the brain, heart and immune system and cure debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. Researchers say those uses remain years away.

The research is controversial because extracting the cells by current methods results in the destruction of the embryo they came from.

Using nonhuman primates to research embryonic stem cells provides a model to evaluate the safety, feasibility and efficacy of cell-based therapies, according to the Primate Research Center's Web site.

Story here.

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Monday, June 18, 2007

Monday Monkey Keywords

Our favorite keyword searches from the past week that have led people to find the Monkeys In The News blog:
  • largest monkey to ever live
  • chimps attacking taxis
  • is john cleese in rehab
  • killer chimp
  • pay per view animal porn
  • nazi gorilla experiments
  • we watch breast for monkey
  • are primates smart enough to graduate
  • monkeys that look like humans
  • list of deputies in guernsey county ohio

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Friday, June 15, 2007

Gorilla's Death Leaves Big Void At Sanctuary

otto the gorillaOtto, the 550-pound gorilla who was one of the best-known residents of the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary, has died.

The massive ape who loved toothbrushes and Hula Hoops died Saturday after suffering from severe colitis. He was 42.

The loss has left a void at the animal sanctuary on Alt. U.S. 19, where Otto served as a very big brother to all.

"I believe I've been very blessed to know him, " said Debbie Cobb, an outreach coordinator who works at the sanctuary. "I've had the privilege of him being in my life."

Among the fondest memories for volunteer Irina Rafalski is Otto's ability to coo - yes, gorillas coo, but it sounds more like a grunt - when a familiar face walked by his cage.

"It was his way of saying, 'I love you, '" Rafalski said.

Otto was born in Africa and then sold to the Houston City Zoo, where he was on display in the 1960s. After developing septic arthritis, Otto was purchased by Anna Mae and Robert Noell, Palm Harbor farmers and circus owners. The couple made Otto a part of their show of gorillas and "boxing" chimpanzees.

By the late 1990s, both of the Noells had died, and Otto was moved to the sanctuary.

Many of the animals at the 19, 000-square-foot outdoor facility are former pets that owners could no longer care for or were once used in laboratory tests.

Otto served as an anchor at the facility in more ways than one. Passers-by couldn't miss the hulking gorilla perched inside the massive cage in the middle of the facility. Volunteers often chatted with Otto only to get a knowing grunt or nod from him.

Otto, a lowland gorilla, fell sick a few weeks ago and died despite the medical care he received in his final days, Cobb said. At 42, Otto was considered elderly. His remains will undergo taxidermy for scientific purposes, Rafalski said.

He was one of the more famous animals to live at the sanctuary, appearing in a 1996 print ad for the luggage company American Tourister.

But the extent of Otto's celebrity appears to be open to debate.

The sanctuary's Web site - - says Otto also starred in American Tourister's famous television ads, which featured a gorilla jumping up and down on a suitcase.

But several online sources credit human actor Don McLeod with playing the role while dressed in an elaborate gorilla costume.

In other ways, according to Otto's sanctuary biography, Otto's life was an open book.

He loved water games, grapes, lettuce, celery and peaches. He painted with his fingers and tongue and liked hairbrushes, blankets and baby toys. He had a television, and like many big guys, he loved to watch football.

Story here.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Primate Parkinson's Treatment Reveals New Side of Stem Cells

Stem cells work in mysterious ways.

That's the tantalizing finding from scientists who treated monkeys with Parkinson's disease using fetal stem cells.

Their results mark the first successful stem cell therapy for Parkinson's in primates. The big news, however, is not simply that the treatment worked, but how it worked: by rescuing and rejuvenating, rather than replacing, diseased cells.

"It's a different principle of stem cell action from what everyone's thinking about," said Dennis Sidman, a Harvard Medical School neuroscientist and co-author of the research.

The study is a landmark, both for treating Parkinson's disease and for highlighting a new therapeutic approach to stem cells. While most scientists are struggling to change stem cells into the types of cells they need -- neurons, insulin-producing cells, heart cells, etc. -- the new work shows that stem cells can perform the remarkable task of saving damaged cells.

The findings, which will soon be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that neural stem cells have "therapeutic mechanisms other than replacement," said Cesar Borlongan, a Medical College of Georgia neurologist. Borlongan said he has observed similar effects when using stem cells to treat Parkinson's symptoms in rodents.

The mechanism could provide an alternative to the tricky prospect of coaxing stem cells to take on specific functions, a process known as differentiation, and then meld seamlessly with the brain, Sidman said.

"It's a lot nicer to protect a patient's own cells, because those cells are already in the brain and are wired to work the way the brain is supposed to work," Sidman said. "If you put in differentiated cells, you have to get them to connect with the other neurons and make a functional circuitry."

Rewiring the brain with new cells is indeed "devilishly difficult," said Bill Langston, founder and scientific director of The Parkinson's Institute, a research foundation. But he's less sanguine about injecting patients with undifferentiated cells and trusting Mother Nature to take care of the details.

"It's not as controlled a directive as we'd like in the clinic," he said. "But these results are going to spur the field forward."

Sidman, along with Yale University's Eugene Redmond and Evan Snyder of the Burnham Institute for Medical Research, injected stem cells taken from the brains of 13-week-old aborted human fetuses into African green monkeys with damaged dopamine-producing brain cells.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that affects motion and balance. The death of so-called dopaminergic neurons has been linked to Parkinson's disease, an incurable neurodegenerative disorder that affects about one million Americans.

At the time of the injections, the monkeys couldn't feed themselves or walk without assistance, and alternated between periods of absolute stillness and uncontrollable tremors. Two months after the treatment, they were able to walk and eat. The tremors had disappeared.

"The behavioral improvement was very impressive," Langston said.

Four months after the injection, the effects started to wear off. Sidman's team sacrificed the monkeys and looked into their brains to see what had happened.

They figured the stem cells, which when injected were on their way to becoming different types of brain cells but hadn't yet specialized, would replace the monkey's own neurons. That's how stem cells are expected to work.

But far from turning into a mass of brand-new dopamine-producing neurons, most of the cells clustered around existing neurons, protecting them from further damage and rejuvenating those that had deteriorated.

Exactly how the injected cells restored the dying cells to life isn't clear. They probably secreted a cocktail of neuron-replenishing chemicals, but the exact recipe needs to be determined.

Borlongan says the study suggests that stem cells might someday be effective against Parkinson's if injected at an early stage of the disease, when there are still dopaminergic neurons to save.

But Sidman cautions that clinical trials in people are still far away, as the procedure's long-term risks aren't known and the method is still being refined.

The transplants' declining effectiveness over time may also indicate that the monkeys' immune systems rejected them. That would require transplant recipients to take immunosuppressant drugs -- but in a medical catch-22, the drugs could prevent the stem cells from working.

"We think this protection is a new principle of some greater generality," Sidman said. "I'm not saying it would apply in all diseases, but it could apply to more than Parkinson's disease. It might not be a clinical treatment tomorrow morning -- but it's a meaningful step."

Story here.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Vermont game wardens seize illegally imported monkeys

monkeys seizedVermont state game wardens this morning seized two monkeys from an Eden home and charged a man with illegally importing and possessing the animals.

According to Col. Robert Rooks, the director of law enforcement for the Agency of Natural Resources’ Department of Fish and Wildlife, John W. Aszklar, 56, of Eden, was charged with two counts of unlawful importation and possession of an exotic wild animal without a permit. He was cited into Lamoille District Court to answer the charges. If convicted, he faces $2,000 in fines and a three-year loss of his hunting and fishing licenses.

The primates - which Department of Fish and Wildlife officials had been tracking for two years - were identified as a Rhesus Macaque Monkey and a Debrazza’s Monkey. Rhesus Macaque monkeys are originally from Asia and are considered poor pets because they can become aggressive and are prone to biting. Debrazza’s monkeys are originally from Africa, preferring to live in swamps, bamboo stands and dry mountain forests. Their use as pets is considered a major threat to the species.

The two monkeys will be transported to an exotic wild animal rescue organization in another state.

“Illegal wildlife that is imported into Vermont poses a serious threat to human and domestic animal health and safety,” Rooks said in a released statement from the department. “Many well-meaning people may think it would be exciting to own an exotic wild animal, but they do not recognize the risks to them and to the animal.” Primates often bite, and many can transmit hepatitis B to humans.

Col. Rooks said that unlawful importation of exotic wildlife is an increasing problem in Vermont. Earlier this spring, wardens seized an alligator in Brattleboro. Other exotic species illegally imported into - and seized from - Vermont include mountain lions and other exotic cats; wallabies; venomous snakes of all kinds; and many dangerous reptiles and amphibians.

Story here.

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Doctor Plans Experimental Monkey Knee Surgery

monkey knee surgeryBy scouring ancient fossils and operating on a 99-pound monkey, a Pittsburgh doctor hopes to prove his controversial theory on human knees. Dr. Freddie Fu, chairman of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's department of orthopedic surgery, intends to use surgery on Johnny, a 12-year-old Mandrill monkey at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, to get a close look at how his knee is put together.

Fu contends that a decades-old method for knee surgery, done to repair a torn ligament that connects the shin to the thigh bone, is incorrect.

When someone tears the anterior cruciate ligament - 200,000 people in the United States do so annually - doctors repair one bundle of fibers, even though there are two, one that allows the knee to bend and another to twist. Fu contends that knee surgery must replace both bundles to be effective.

So far, Fu's research has found that even 50 million years ago monkeys which are long extinct had two bundles of fibers in their knee, pointing to its biological necessity.

"You're born with two bundles, you live with two bundles and you die with two bundles," Fu told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "But when you get surgery, then you have only one bundle."

Fu said Wednesday's planned surgery to repair the 99-pound monkey's knee would provide an opportunity explore his theory by closely examining its ligaments and structure.

Frederick Azar, a surgeon at a Memphis, Tenn.-based orthopedic center, Campbell Clinic, said Fu's theories look good on paper, but it is unclear how it will work with actual patients.

"It's technically more demanding, and I think that's why it hasn't caught on with other orthopedic surgeons in this country," Azar said.

Story here.

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Monday Monkey Keywords

We are starting a new feature here at Monkeys In The News. Half of the fun of looking at the blog stats for Monkeys In The News is the interesting keywords people use to happen across our blog. Each Monday I will present you with a select few of the most interesting and strangest keywords from the previous week, purely for your own amusement. Enjoy:

  • who was the largest primate that ever lived?
  • why is an orang-utan in the news at the moment
  • monkey with beer
  • how trees are useful for monkeys
  • monkey herd
  • what happens to monkeys that break their arms?
  • what happens when pet capuchin monkeys get violent
  • boxing monkeys
  • monkey drinking beer and smoking
  • ape eating monkeys
  • monkey attack otter
  • how to capture a kinkajou
  • ape hanged as a spy
  • paris hilton comics
I would like to personally apologize to the one person who was mislead last week while trying to search for Paris Hilton comics.

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Rare Mountain Gorilla Shot Dead In Reserve, Baby Found Clinging To Body

orphaned gorilla babyWildlife rangers are battling to save an orphaned baby mountain gorilla found clinging to her dead mother in the Congo.

The adult gorilla had been shot a point-blank range in the back of the head.

The two-month-old, who has been named Ndakasi by conservationists looking after her in Goma, is taking baby formula from a feeding bottle.

"She's more or less OK. It is certainly a worrying situation, but not hopeless," Paulin Ngobobo, senior warden in eastern Congo's Virunga National Park.

Ndakasi, who was born on April 15, would normally have suckled for up to three years.

Only 700 mountain gorillas survive in the wild, more than half of them in Virunga.

At least two have been killed and eaten already this year by rebels living off the land as militia fighting drags on despite the official end of Congo's five-year war in 2003.

It is unclear who had killed the adult female or why.

She had been killed "execution-style" in the back of the head and left at the scene rather than taken away to be eaten, said Emmanuel de Merode of conservation group Wildlife Direct.

"It looks like she was lured with bananas because we found bananas at the site.

"A second gorilla was probably shot because there was a trail of blood nearby and three gunshots were heard. The other was probably wounded and got away," he said.

"There are militia groups there. This particular incident was in the Mikeno sector, which is on the border of Rwanda. There was a lot of fighting in that area in January and those problems have not entirely been solved."

Last month Wildlife Direct said Mai Mai rebels had attacked patrol posts in Virunga park, killing one wildlife officer and critically injuring three others, and threatened to slaughter gorillas if park rangers retaliated.

More than 150 rangers have been killed in the last decade while protecting Congo's parks from poachers, rebel groups, illegal miners and land invasions, working through the war without pay.

Story here.

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Thursday, June 07, 2007

Theft of monkey from Brazilian zoo a blow to rare species

The theft of a rare Amazon monkey from a Brazilian zoo could harm biologists' efforts to repopulate the endangered species, zoo officials said Wednesday.

Workers arriving at the zoo Tuesday morning noticed the male pied tamarin was missing, and found a wrench and a coat left behind in its cage.

"This is a significant loss," said Luiz Antônio da Silva Pires, director of the city zoo in Bauru, 220 miles northwest of São Paulo. "The monkey was likely one of the few still alive in captivity and we were hoping to use it to start a new population and keep the species alive."

Pires said the pied tamarins have increasingly lost their natural habitat because of urban growth and as farmers slash down jungle to graze cattle. How many are still alive is not known, although they have occasionally been sighted near the jungle city of Manaus, 1,700 miles northwest of São Paulo.

The zoo has been trying for months to find a female pied tamarin to mate with the 2.2-pound male.

"It's hard to say who would do this," Pires said. "This monkey would not be sold very easily; it's not usually used as a pet." Police did not have any suspects.

According to Renctas, a Brazilian organization that fights animal smuggling, illegal trafficking of rare species generates about $2 billion a year in the country. Many of the animals are sold to collectors in the United States, Europe and Asia.

Story here.

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Beloved Monkey Passes At Texas Learning Center

Face, the eccentric monkey who stole hearts in Plano for his love of soap operas and funny facial expressions, died Wednesday. He was between 25 and 30 years old.

The 30-pound long-tailed rhesus macaque landed at the Plano school district's Holifield Science Learning Center more than two decades ago, abandoned by his young owner.

Face wasn't cut out for the zoo – too alpha male – but he found a permanent home in the center.

"I know it's a monkey, but he and I made faces at one another for 25 years," said Jim Dunlap, the center's director.

"It's enough to get you down."

Face was the third-oldest animal at the center, behind Alex, an 82-year-old parrot, and Katy the python, who is 32.

But Face, a primate with personality, might have been the best known.

He pursed his lips when he was hungry or happy to see somebody, Mr. Dunlap said.

Face didn't like people who wore hats or beards, and he didn't like being interrupted while watching television.

Students who met Face on field trips came back to visit him when they'd grown up, Mr. Dunlap said.

"He was one you could really interact with," said Dr. Randall Hickman, a McKinney veterinarian who treated Face.

Face took his treat as usual as the learning center closed Tuesday.

On Wednesday morning, a janitor found the monkey face down in his cage.

The veterinarian's autopsy was inconclusive, but it showed that Face's kidneys and pancreas had shrunk with age.

Mr. Dunlap just figures it was time for Face, who'd reached the end of his life expectancy.

He said the center's employees agreed to cremate Face and keep his ashes with them.

"We're just going to bring him back home," Mr. Dunlap said. "He seemed pretty happy here."

Story here.

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Chimp Culture Is Passed Between Groups

chimp cultureChimp populations, like humans, have local customs, and these cultural practices can spread to other troops, researchers say.

The spread of such traditions and innovations to different groups is an important hallmark of culture, and a necessary part of development through social learning, they say.

Andrew Whiten at the University of St Andrews, UK, and colleagues taught individual chimpanzees one of two ways to solve complex foraging tasks, and observed how the different techniques spread across two sets of three groups. The chimps had to manipulate a combination of buttons, levers or discs to extract treats from cubes. Watch a video of chimps completing the tasks.

Although no chimps cracked the puzzles without instruction during an initial encounter with the cubes, animals in the two groups learned quickly how to work the devices when watching a peer who had been trained in one of the two possible sets of solutions.

Within a few days, most chimps mastered the techniques that had been "seeded" this way in their group.

The cubes were then moved into the view of a second set of chimp groups, so they could observe their respective neighbours solving the tasks. The new groups learned the same techniques as demonstrated in the adjacent enclosure, and then passed their set of tricks on to a third group in another round of experiments.

"This is the first time we can show such transmission of socially learned behaviour patterns between groups of animals", says Antoine Spiteri, who was involved in the study.

The team had previously found social learning of similarly complex tasks within groups, but to spread widely, cultural traditions must catch on with new groups, too, the researchers say.

Carel van Schaik at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, who studies orang-utan culture, says that the new results show "beyond a doubt that apes are capable of transmitting pretty complex traditions. The question is now to what extent this reflects what's going on in the wild."

Van Schaik's group hopes to find out more about this by measuring "peering" behaviour in wild orang-utans - highly-focused watching of another animal from a short distance which may be a potential mechanism for social learning. "The whole picture is coming together", he says.

Next Spiteri wants to unravel exactly how chimp culture spreads: "We need to see how status and prestige of different animals affect who learns from whom."

An analysis of Whiten's group's studies already shows that the order in which individuals in each group picked up new traditions was similar for foraging tasks, but not for unrelated tasks, giving first insights into the dynamics of cultural transmission.

Story here.

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Monkey Owner Continues To Dispute Seizure Before The Montgomery County Animal Control Board

gimme monkeyElyse Gazewitz continued her fight last night to free her monkey, Armani, from the custody of Montgomery County authorities, arguing that she was not allowed to find her pet a temporary home before he was deemed illegal and seized.

In a 45-minute hearing before the county's Animal Matters Hearing Board, Gazewitz's lawyer argued that she deserved 10 days under county law to move Armani out of state before animal control officers took him from her Rockville home last month. Rockville lawyer Anne Benaroya also argued that capuchin monkeys like Armani are easily tamed and should not be considered a "wild animal" under county law.

Elyse Gazewitz, right, with attorney Anne Benaroya, speaks to reporters outside last night's Animal Matters Hearing Board meeting about her effort to reclaim Armani.
Elyse Gazewitz, right, with attorney Anne Benaroya, speaks to reporters outside last night's Animal Matters Hearing Board meeting about her effort to reclaim Armani.

Gazewitz, 42, did not speak at the hearing but broke into tears afterward, saying, "I want Armani to come home." The monkey, whom she calls her baby and "little boy," is being kept at a Frederick County zoo while the appeal is pending.

William Snoddy, an associate county attorney representing the police department's Division of Animal Control and Humane Treatment, told the board that a 10-day notice was not required. That part of the law, he said, pertains only to animals declared to be dangerous. Armani could be seized immediately because pet monkeys are prohibited under county and state laws, he said.

He said Gazewitz did not meet her legal burden of proving that the decision to seize Armani was "arbitrary, capricious or illegal." The wild-animal laws, he said, are designed to protect the public's health and the welfare of animals that should not be kept as pets.

Board Chairman J.C. Crist, who represents the Montgomery County Humane Society, said the panel usually takes six weeks to issue decisions but will expedite this one. The five-member volunteer panel is appointed by the county executive and includes a veterinarian or veterinary technician, a Humane Society representative and three members of the public.

The case has drawn national attention, from radio talk shows to Internet blogs, and sparked debate over whether Armani is a victim of overzealous authorities who unfairly seized him from a loving home or a wild animal who had no business living in a Rockville neighborhood.

Story here.

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Monday, June 04, 2007

Rhesus monkeys make good statisticians

Rhesus monkeys turn out to be pretty good statisticians, a study reveals.

They can accurately assess which of two behaviours is more likely to bring them a reward by summing together a series of probabilistic clues. And their reasoning is reflected in the firing rate of individual neurons in their brain.

Tianming Yang and Michael Shadlen at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the University of Washington in Seattle, US, tested the reasoning of two rhesus macaques by showing them a series of abstract shapes on a video screen.

Each shape corresponded to a different probability that a drink reward would be associated with a red instead of a green target.

In each trial, the monkey saw a sequence of 4 of 10 possible shapes then, had to choose which target to look at. The probability that the red target would give the reward was the sum of the probabilities for each of the four shapes; otherwise, the green target yielded the drink.

After several weeks of training on thousands of trials per day - clearly, the monkeys are no Einsteins - both macaques learned to match their choices closely to the actual probabilities revealed by the shapes they saw, choosing the correct target more than 75% of the time.

This is the first time monkeys have been shown to make such subtle probabilistic inferences.

"When we started this, we thought it was a high-risk project," says Shadlen. "When we had monkeys doing it, I was pretty shocked."

The researchers also used electrodes in the brain to record the activity of 64 neurons in the lateral intraparietal area - a region on the side of the brain that is involved in attention and visual processing.

They found that the neurons responded to the first shape by firing at a rate proportional to the probability suggested by that shape. As each successive shape was shown, the firing rate changed to match the probability determined by all the shapes seen so far.

"We're seeing neurons that are making computations," says Shadlen. In particular, the neurons appeared to be computing the log likelihood ratio of red versus green rewards - exactly the sort of computation a statistician might do.

"We're exposing the basic elements, the fundamental biology of higher cognition," says Shadlen. Further work should allow the researchers to begin to understand the decision-making process in more detail.

Story here.

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Friday, June 01, 2007

Macaque Monkey Escapes From Aizawl Zoo, Attacks Humans

A pig-tailed macaque, an endangered monkey species, which escaped from the Aizawl Zoological Park (AZP) on May 29, has attacked two persons, officials said today.

The sources added that the monkey was still on the loose and posing a threat to people living in the proximity of the park.

''We have been keeping track of the animal, but since it is an endangered species placed under Schedule I of primates, we just cannot kill it. We have to capture it alive which makes our task more difficult,'' Range Officer of the AZP R Lalrinliana said.

''We have been camping outside the zoo campus, trying to capture the monkey with a tranquilizer gun, since we are hoping that it will come back sooner or later for food,'' Mr Lalrinliana added.

The AZP has two such monkeys which were kept separately when one of them escaped.

''In order to breed them, we kept them in separate cages. Since they are rare species, the Centre is also funding the project for breeding them,'' the range officer said.

The two persons attacked by the monkey were its feeder and the daughter of a police constable living in the nearby Police Training Centre, sources said.

Story here.

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Upright Walking May Have Begun In The Trees By Orangutans

walking orangutanBy observing wild orangutans, a research team has found that walking on two legs may have arisen in relatively ancient, tree-dwelling apes, rather than in more recent human ancestors that had already descended to the savannah, as current theory suggests.

Upright walking, or bipedalism, has long been considered a defining feature of humans and our closest ancestors. One of the most popular explanations, known as the savannah hypothesis, suggests that the ancestors to chimps, gorillas and humans descended from the trees and began walking on the ground on all fours.

Over time, this four-legged gait would have evolved into the "knuckle-walking" that chimps and gorillas still use today and then into upright, two-legged walking in humans.

Paleontologists have conventionally used signs of bipedalism as key criteria for distinguishing early human, or "hominin," fossils from those of other apes. But, this distinction is complicated by recent fossil evidence that some early hominins, including Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis), lived in woodland environments, while even earlier forms such as Millennium Man (Orrorin) appear to have lived in the forest canopy and moved on two legs.

"Our findings blur the picture even further," said Robin Crompton of the University of Liverpool in Liverpool, Great Britain, who is one of the study's authors. "If we're right, it means you can't rely on bipedalism to tell whether you're looking at a human or other ape ancestor. It's been getting more and more difficult for us to say what's a human and what's an ape, and our work makes that much more the case."

Crompton and his colleagues, Susannah Thorpe and Roger Holder of the University of Birmingham in Birmingham, Great Britain, came to their conclusions by observing wild orangutans in Sumatra, Indonesia. Orangutans spend almost their whole lives in trees, making them useful models for how our ancestors moved around several million years ago.

To collect the data, Thorpe spent a year living in the Sumatran rainforest and recording virtually every move the orangutans made. Then, she and her colleagues used these observations to test the hypothesis that bipedalism would have benefited tree-dwelling ape ancestors.

Because these ancestors were probably fruit-eaters, as orangutans are, they would have needed a way to navigate the thin, flexible branches at the tree's periphery, where the fruit typically is. Moving on two legs and using their arms primarily for balance, or "hand-assisted bipedalism," may have helped them travel on these branches.The researchers analyzed nearly 3,000 examples of observed orangutan movement, and found that the orangutans were more likely to use hand-assisted bipedalism when they were on the thinnest branches. When bipedal, the animals also tended to grip multiple branches with their long toes.

On medium-sized branches, the orangutans used their arms more to support their weight, changing their moving style to incorporate hanging. They only tended to walk on all fours when navigating the largest branches, the researchers found.

Hand-assisted bipedalism may have offered several advantages that allowed our arboreal ancestors to venture onto thin branches. They could have gripped multiple branches with their toes and distributed their center of gravity more effectively, while keeping one or both of their long arms free to reach for fruits and other supports.

Orangutans also keep their legs straight while standing on bending branches, the authors report. The exact benefit of the straight legs is still unclear, but when humans run on springy surfaces, we also keep our weight-bearing legs relatively straight, so this may have an energy-related advantage.

"Our results suggest that bipedalism is used to navigate the smallest branches where the tastiest fruits are, and also to reach further to help cross gaps between trees," said Thorpe.

The authors propose an evolutionary scenario that begins as other researchers have envisioned. Somewhere toward the end of the Miocene epoch (24 to 5 million years ago), climate in East and Central Africa became alternately wetter and drier, and the rainforest grew increasingly patchy. Apes living in the forest canopy would have begun to encounter gaps between trees that they could not cross at the canopy level.

The Science authors suggest that early human ancestors responded to this by abandoning the high canopy for the forest floor, where they remained bipedal and began eating food from the ground or smaller trees. The ancestors of chimps and gorillas, on the other hand, became more specialized for vertical climbing between the high canopy and the ground and thus developed knuckle-walking for crossing from one tree to another on the ground.

"Our conclusion is that arboreal bipedalism had very strong adaptive benefits. So, we don't need to explain how our ancestors could have gone from being quadrupedal to being bipedal," Thorpe said.

Observations of orangutan movement should be useful for conservation efforts, according to Thorpe. These animals are seriously endangered, primarily due to habitat destruction.

"If you can understand how they cross gaps in the forest, you can learn about effects that living in logged or degraded habitat would have on their locomotion. These could affect energy levels, for example, if they have to go to the ground, which is incredibly risky because the Sumatran tiger is down there licking its lips. The Sumatran orangutan population is predicted to be extinct in the next decade if habitat degradation continues. Our research further highlights the need for protecting these animals," she said.

Story here.

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