Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Teenagers In Custody Over Darwin Marmoset Theft

stolen monkey teenagers
A wee monkey kidnapped from one of Darwin's top tourist attractions has been found, traumatised and desperate for a drink, but otherwise OK.

Two teenagers from Palmerston near Darwin city are in police custody over the theft, which occurred last Friday night.

Workers at the popular Crocodylus Park park woke last Saturday to find a hole in the monkey enclosure and the marmoset - worth about $2000 - gone.

The monkey hunt ended today when police, acting on a tip-off, searched a house in Palmerston.

The park's chief scientist Charlie Manolis said his team was thrilled at the return of the marmoset, which has distinctive tufts of white hair sprouting from its ears.

"I haven't seen him but he was stressed and dehydrated so the keepers are giving him a feed and then he'll be back with his buddies where he feels more secure," he said.

"They were all quite distressed by the whole thing ... they are tiny little things and they are gregarious animals who don't like being alone."

After the theft, the other two monkeys in the enclosure went off their food and stopped jumping on the keepers when they entered the enclosure, he said.

"They shake almost when they are really frightened. We are just overjoyed to get him back."

Story here.

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Genomics Study Provides Insight Into The Evolution Of Unique Human Traits

Human beings can run long distances because we carry multiple copies of a gene that helps supply our cells with energy, a new study suggests. That supports the idea that endurance running gave our human ancestors an evolutionary edge.

An analysis of DNA from 10 primate species reveals that, compared with the genome of chimpanzees and gorillas, our genome includes many more duplicates of a gene called aquaporin 7 (AQP7), which transports water and sugary compounds into cells. Humans appear to have five copies of this gene, whereas chimps have just two, and other primates carry only one copy.

Humans are believed to possess anywhere from 20,000 to 25,000 different genes. But in some cases, we carry multiple copies of the same gene. And the more duplicates of a gene that exist within a cell, the more protein from the gene that gets produced, according to James Sikela at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Aurora, Colorado, US.

In some cases, though, having an extra copy of a gene can translate into a serious health problem. For example, a given cell normally has two copies of the gene for a brain protein called alpha-synuclein. But people born with a third copy of this gene are predisposed to developing Parkinson's disease.

Given the potential influence exerted by extra gene copies, Sikela and his colleagues wondered how humans might differ from other primate species in terms of the number of duplicates we carry. The team extracted DNA from blood samples taken from various primates including humans, along with chimpanzees, gorillas, baboons, lemurs and several others.

The researchers calculated how many copies of various genes each species carries with the help of DNA "micro-array" technology. If large quantities of the DNA from a given genome attached to certain parts of the micro-array chip, this indicated that it contained multiple copies of a specific gene.

After using this method to screen more than 20,000 genes, Sikela and his colleagues found 84 genes for which the copy number in the human genome differs from that of other primates.

The AQP7 gene in particular caught their attention. The protein made by the gene functions as an important channel in the cell membrane. Specifically, the channel allows water and a sugary compound called glycerol to enter the cell, where they are used to produce energy. This has the potential to make a difference in long bouts of exercise, when the body needs to mobilise energy molecules from fat stores.

Given its role in transporting glycerol, the AQP7 gene "would certainly be a good candidate to be involved in endurance running", says Sikela. He notes that recent studies have suggested endurance running perhaps gave our ancestors an advantage over other primates by enabling them to travel better across sweeping African savannahs.

Sikela hopes that closer examination of the data provided by his new DNA analysis will shed light on how other duplicate copies of other genes might make human development and physiology different from that of other primates.

Story here.

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Monday, July 30, 2007

Missing Baby Gorilla From Slaughter Found Alive

Three female mountain gorillas and a male silverback were found shot dead this week in the D R Congo's Virunga National Park, but now worried conservationists have found a baby gorilla alive, RNA has established.

National Geographic News reports that park rangers yesterday discovered a five-month-old baby of one of the dead females roaming the bushes alone after losing its mother. They were killed by unknown assailants on Sunday night.

The baby gorilla, named Ndeze, was badly dehydrated but otherwise fine, the rangers reported. She was taken to the nearby city of Goma, where the young ape will be looked after at the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project.

Ndeze was born on February 17 from now dead mother Safari bringing the Rugenge family to 12 gorillas. Another female in the group is expected to give birth.

Park rangers chose the name in honor of Rene Ndeze, a powerful local tribal chief who died two days before the newborn was discovered, even though the baby's sex isn't yet known.

The good news is tempered by memories of recent disaster, however. In January the dismembered remains of two adult male gorillas were discovered in the same area of Virunga National Park after armed rebels invaded. Rangers fear that four additional missing gorillas were also shot and eaten.

Rangers said the siblings had been seen fleetingly in the dense forest, but rangers had expected that the baby would die from dehydration because the brother could not feed her.

When they found the pair, rangers say, Ndeze's brother was reportedly calm as they took her away. Paulin Ngobobo, the head ranger of the southern sector of Virunga National Park, called the baby's rescue "an amazing piece of news."

"We had given up hope on Ndeze," National Geographic News quotes him to have said.

Story here.

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Killings Of Mountain Gorillas In Congo Prompt U.N. Probe

gorillas shotThe shooting deaths of four mountain gorillas -- three females and an alpha male silverback -- are prompting a United Nations agency to send a mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Rangers made the gruesome find in the southern sector of Virunga National Park earlier this week, said Flora and Fauna International, an organization that acts to conserve threatened species and ecosystems. The group said it is unclear who shot the gorillas or why.

"Just over 700 mountain gorillas survive in the wild today, and none exist in captivity," Flora and Fauna International said in a statement. "For such a small population, the unnecessary and indiscriminate killing of four mountain gorillas is a huge loss."

The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) said Friday it will send a mission to the site as soon as possible "to provide support to those fighting to preserve the integrity of Virunga National Park."

The agency said it will try to find out the reasons behind the slayings and work with Congolese authorities and the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation to prevent future deaths.

The females, named Safari, Neeza and Mburanumwe, and the male, Rugendo, were shot Sunday night, UNESCO said. They belonged to a group that was frequently visited by tourists, providing an economic boon to the area. "The situation threatens to become an ecological and economic disaster for the neighboring local communities," the agency said in a statement.

The chief executive of Flora and Fauna International expressed deep concern about the killings, which he said follow more than 20 years of successful collaboration for mountain gorilla conservation.

"Whatever the motive underlying this tragedy, the gorillas are helpless pawns in a feud between individuals," Mark Rose said.

The death of Rugendo could have a ripple effect, the organization said. "Alpha males fulfill a leadership role within a group, and in their absence the integrity of the group is often compromised."

Rugendo's group contained 12 gorillas before he was killed, the group said. Now, six have been found safe, but two -- a female and an infant -- are missing.

Seven gorillas have been killed in the park so far this year, Flora and Fauna International said.

At least two of them were believed killed by supporters of rebel leader Gen. Laurent Nkunda, Flora and Fauna International said. The skin of one was found in a latrine in a nearby rebel camp. The infant of another female gorilla is being hand-raised by the nature conservation institute, which oversees the Democratic Republic of Congo's wildlife and protected areas.

Nkunda's rebels have been fighting government troops in the eastern part of the country for several years.

Conservation institute patrols were increased in the park's southern sector with support from the DRC army, the organization said, and guard posts are being built to enable 24-hour park surveillance.

The bodies of the four gorillas will undergo post-mortem examinations, Flora and Fauna International said, and will be buried near Bukima, a park outpost.

"Just two months ago, we celebrated the increase of the gorilla population in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda," said Kwame Koranteng, a regional representative of the World Wildlife Fund's Eastern Africa Regional Program Office, in the Flora and Fauna statement. "Seven gorillas killed in seven months is a horrifying statistic and a trend that cannot continue."

Story here.

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Monkey Stolen From Darwin Tourist Spot

stolen monkeyMonkey business at one of Darwin's top tourist attractions has the owners of Crocodylus Park scratching their heads.

Workers at the popular park woke last Saturday morning to find a Marmoset - worth about $2,000 - had been stolen from the monkey enclosure.

Police are investigating the disappearance, which staff believe occurred some time between 4.30pm (CST) on Friday and 9am on Saturday.

"Unknown person/s have entered the park by cutting a hole in the perimeter fence which backs onto bushland towards Mickett Creek," police said in a statement.

"The offender/s have then gone to the cage housing the Marmoset monkeys and cut a further hole."

The cage usually houses three Marmosets, two of which were found perched on top of their cage.

But the whereabouts of their furry friend, who measures about 15cm, remains a mystery.

"Anyone who may have been in the area during these times and saw any suspicious activity, or has any information that could assist police with their investigation, is urged to call them," the statement said.

Story here.

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Friday, July 27, 2007

Know Your Primate: Galago Demidoff

Order: Primates
Suborder: Strepsirrhini
Family: Galagidae
Genus: Galago
Species: Galago demidoff
Common Name: Dwarf Galago

Read more information at Afarensis.

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

4 Mountain Gorillas Shot Dead In Congo National Park

safari and ndezeFour rare mountain gorillas have been killed and an infant is likely to die after gunmen sneaked up on them and opened fire in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Safari was killed in the shooting, and her daughter Ndeze is thought unlikely to live

One of the gorillas slain on Sunday night was pregnant, and another was a female named Safari, who had received widespread international attention when she gave birth in February.

Her five-month-old, Ndeze, was still breast feeding and probably won't live.

"The baby was picked up by an elder brother, it's with the elder brother and will almost certainly die because of dehydration because the gorilla that rescued her can't feed her," Emmanuel de Merode, director of the Nairobi-based conservation group WildlifeDirect, said in a phone call from the park.

Mr de Merode said two others from the group of 12 gorillas were missing. The leader of the group, a silverback named Rugendo, was one of the dead.

The attacks will be devastating for the gorilla population in Virunga, estimated at 100 animals - of a world population of about 700.

At least three other gorillas have been killed in Virunga so far this year.

The 3,000-square mile park is home to several armed militia groups, and more than 100 rangers have been killed in recent years trying to protect the wildlife.

Mr de Merode said the four gorillas were probably killed by traders who cut down trees in Virunga to be sold as charcoal in Rwanda and the nearby city of Goma, which has 500,000 people.

Park rangers have campaigned hard to keep charcoal traders out.

"Virunga has been under enormous pressure from the exploitation of timber for the charcoal trade," said Mr de Merode.

"There's a very real possibility that this is an act of sabotage against the national park because it represents an opposition to the charcoal trade."

Story here.

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Sierra Leone Bans Capture, Killing Of Chimps

Sierra Leone outlawed the capture and killing of chimpanzees on Wednesday, declaring a one-month amnesty for anyone holding a chimp to hand it over to authorities in the war-ravaged West African nation.

A statement from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Marine Resources read on national radio said anyone violating the new regulations would face a fine of up to $1,000 or a prison sentence.

"It is now illegal by law to posses, capture, kill or keep chimpanzees," said the statement.

"To provide the public sufficient time to surrender chimps in their possession a month's notice is hereby given for chimps to be handed over to the authorities."

The government has established a chimp orphanage at Charlotte, in the outskirts of the coastal capital Freetown, to receive chimps from the public.

Ecologists say Sierra Leone's wild chimpanzee population has declined dramatically since around 20,000 in the 1970s as a result of hunting, incursions on their territory and the trade in pets and animals for scientific research.

Sierra Leone's 1991-2002 civil war, during which drug-fuelled rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) hacked limbs off civilians, drove many of its 6 million inhabitants from the countryside.

Conservationists say that wildlife populations, including chimpanzees, recovered as a result of rural depopulation caused by the war, but the return of villagers in the wake of a 2002 peace deal has resulted in the destruction of habitant, more hunting, and trapping of rare animals for sale overseas.

The Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary in the outskirts of Freetown, which was closed last year after 30 of its chimps escaped and killed a taxi driver, was reopened just four weeks ago.

Story here.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Promiscuous Primates Develop Speedy Sperm

Whether sperm fly at high speed or laze their way towards an egg might depend on how much competition they face, suggests a new analysis of sperm samples. The study reveals that promiscuous primate species have faster sperm than their more monogamous counterparts.

Jaclyn Nascimento at the University of California in San Diego, US, and her colleagues received sperm samples from humans, gorillas, chimpanzees and rhesus monkeys for analysis. Researchers had collected sperm samples from the latter two species using artificial vaginas, while the gorillas were trained to give up sperm (with the helping hand of a researcher) in exchange for candy.

Nascimento, an electrical engineer, and her collaborators focused in on specific sperm within the diluted samples, and recorded the activity of these individual sperm on film. Next, they used a sophisticated computer algorithm specifically created to determine the speed of a given sperm by tracking its head.

After examining numerous sperm from the two men who provided sperm samples, the team calculated that human sperm travel at about 0.2 kilometres per hour, a finding within the same range as some previous studies.

By comparison, the sperm from chimpanzees and macaques – which are much more sexually promiscuous than humans – appears to travel at a rate of 0.7 km/h. Sperm from gorillas – a relatively monogamous species in which females tend to mate with just one male – is "ridiculously slow" and clocks in at just 0.1 km/h, according to Nascimento.

Then, scientists assessed the force with which the sperm move. This step involved using used a laser technology known as "optical tweezers" to try to hold sperm in place using light. If the sperm moved with enough force, they could break past this resistance field and go forward – otherwise, they continued to push against it without luck.

The experiment showed that not only do the sperm from chimps and macaques move faster, they also move with greater force, at about 50 piconewtons. By comparison, human sperm swim with a force of about 5 piconewtons, and gorillas with a measly 2 piconewtons. (Watch movies of the sperm caught in the optical tweezers.)

Nascimento says the findings suggest that sperm from promiscuous species such as chimps, where a female might mate with multiple males within an hour, have evolved to move faster as a result of competition. "The first ones to make it to the egg" succeed, she says.

Gorilla mating, on the other hand, follows a harem-like pattern: females are more likely to mate with only the dominant male. "You are the best by default," Nascimento says of the leisurely sperm in the less promiscuous primates.

The speed at which sperm travel is partly determined by a motor structure inside the cell that powers the movement of their tails. In humans, certain compounds such as caffeine and anti-impotence drugs can alter how fast sperm move.

Story here.

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Chimp Research Ban May Help Studies Into Aging

Seventy-eight chimpanzees once used for medical testing will now give researchers insights into how to improve geriatric care for humans.

Since a ban on medical testing on chimpanzees last year, the aging primates have been living out their days at a luxurious ape "retirement" center run in Kumamoto Prefecture by a pharmaceutical company.

A new research wing will open at the center on Aug. 1 to study the aging process in primates.

The project, an initiative of Kyoto University and Nagoya-based Sanwa Kagaku Kenkyusho Co. pharmaceutical company, will be funded by drug companies.

Chimps were first brought to Japan by drug companies in the 1970s for research on infectious diseases caused by viruses and bacteria and for new drug trials.

Chimps are now classified as endangered. Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, also known as the Washington Convention, Japan banned the import and export of the primates since 1980.

With mounting pressure from animal rights activists to stop experiments on living animals, experiments on chimps were halted in Japan last year.

Sanwa Kagaku Kenkyusho had been keeping chimps for research since 1978. The company constructed a breeding facility in Uki, Kumamoto Prefecture, in 1982 which has ultimately expanded to 3.3 hectares.

In response to last year's ban, the facility was renamed from "Kumamoto Reichorui (Primate) Park" to "Chimpanzee Sanctuary Uto" this April.

The sanctuary has also taken in chimpanzees from five other research facilities in Japan, bringing the total population to 78.

After discussions with Tetsuro Matsuzawa, primatologist and director of the Primate Research Institute of Kyoto University in Inuyama, Aichi Prefecture, the company decided to donate a total of 150 million yen over a five-year period to run the center, while the research institute would take over management.

The institute invited Genichi Idani, director of Hayashibara Great Ape Research Institute, as visiting professor. Other staff will be brought in who specialize in geriatric medicine and who have been trained to prepare a suitable environment for the primates. The center will rely on industry to fund research chairs.

The chimp sanctuary will be run with the apes' happiness in mind. Meals will be more varied, and will be spaced throughout the day. Seasonal menus will be included to spice up their diet.

The chimps will be able to pick and choose their own bedding. An array of toys will be on offer to keep them occupied. The animals will be able to romp around in a spacious exercise area. They will not be kept in cages but be urged to live in groups.

Seventeen chimpanzees that have hepatitis C caused by past experiments will undergo proper treatment at the sanctuary.

"We would like to see what it really means for a chimpanzee to live out its lifespan with the cooperation of these chimps," Matsuzawa said. "Hopefully, in turn, we will learn something about welfare and longevity for humans."

Story here.

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Monkey Saves Kitten From Crows’ Wrath

Motherhood knows no borders. That’s why a female monkey jumped to the rescue of a new-born kitten, who had been attacked by crows recently at Yari Road, Andheri. She even bit two people who tried to take the kitten away from her.

After the rescue act, the monkey scurried away with the kitten. Just like a mother, she tried to feed the kitten, which was continuously crying in pain every time the monkey’s fingers dug into its fur.

It took two days and 12 hours for a team from the Bombay Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (BSPCA) and Shawn, an animal activist from PETA, to rescue the kitten from the monkey. But had it been a bit more delayed, the kitten would have died, they admitted.

Says Mohammad Afzal, a social activist and resident of Yari Road , Andheri, “We are still not equipped with proper rescue equipment. We don't have proper shelters where we can keep rescued animals. I called BMC, Fire Brigade and Thane Forest Department for help, but no one turned up except the activists. It was sheer luck that both the animals were rescued.”

Says Anuradha Sawhney, PETA Chief Functionary, “Animals show such unnatural behaviour as they are living in an unnatural habitat. For example, monkeys are used to living in groups but in urban conditions they find themselves absolutely alone. Luckily, this story had a happy ending.”

Story here.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Mass Gorilla "Execution" Discovered in Congo

gorillaThree female mountain gorillas were found shot dead this morning in the Democratic Republic of Congo's Virunga National Park.

Another three gorillas are missing, and park rangers fear they may have also been killed.

The slaughter deeply shocked the rangers and conservationists who work to protect the endangered gorillas in a park that has been ravaged by civil strife for years.

"This is a disaster," said Emmanuel de Merode, director of WildlifeDirect, a conservation group based in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Kenya that supports the rangers working in Virunga.

Park staff and WildlifeDirect officials stationed in Virunga's Bukima camp said they heard gunshots coming from inside the dense forest around 8 p.m. on Saturday night.

"We conducted a search this morning," de Merode said.

"The rangers went up first and located the gorillas. Then we went up about mid-day with a team of rangers.

"The gorillas were all quite close together. They had all been shot," he said.

One of the dead females was the mother of a three-month-old baby gorilla, while another victim was the mother of a two-year-old animal. The third gorilla killed was pregnant.

The gorillas killed all came from the so-called Rugendo family of 12 individuals, headed by a silverback gorilla named Rugendo.

The family is one of several groups of gorillas that live on the Congo side of the sprawling Virunga National Park, which straddles the border of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda, and are visited from the Bukima camp, Kazinform quotes National Geographic News.

More than half of the gorillas' population, estimated at about 700, is found in Virunga. The rest live in forests in Rwanda and Uganda, Kazinform quotes National Geographic News.

The park lies in the heart of one of the most troubled regions of Africa.

The DRC is struggling to emerge from a civil war that has left an estimated 4 million people dead and dates back to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

Today the area is home to a vast array of rebel militias, government soldiers, foreign troops, and villagers who are unsympathetic to the rangers protecting the park. Poaching remains a major problem.

Early this year two silverback gorillas were killed within the span of two days in the same area as where the latest killings occurred. The incident sparked an international outcry of support for the embattled gorillas.

Those apes appeared to have been butchered for their meat. One of them had had his dismembered body dumped in a latrine.

Last month a female gorilla from the Kabirizi family was found shot to death in the park.

Another female from that family has been missing ever since and is presumed to have been killed too.

The "execution-style" killing of the gorillas last night was identical to the killing last month, de Merode said.

He believes the slaughter was meant to send a chilling message to the rangers to get out of the park.

"We don't think it was the villagers who did it," he said. "This was deliberate … an act of sabotage."

De Merode said there is evidence from the site of the killings linking the incident to the area's lucrative charcoal trade.

Virtually all of the charcoal that is supplied to the nearby city of Goma—worth an estimated U.S. $30 million a year—is made from wood harvested illegally inside Virunga National Park, he said.

"Last year Rwanda put a ban on any charcoal production within Rwanda," de Merode said.

"This means that whole country's charcoal is largely supplied from Congo," he added. "This has put a lot of pressure on the park."

Story here.

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Australian Chimp Fifi Dies

fifi the chimpTaronga Zoo's oldest and much loved chimpanzee Fifi died yesterday.

"Apart from experiencing the normal age-related health problems such as arthritis, Fifi had generally been fit in recent times," the zoo's Mark Williams said last night. "However she decided not to venture outdoors this morning and keepers provided fresh bedding and favorite food items.

"Fifi died late this afternoon and her dedicated keepers allowed the other members of the close group of 18 to spend time with her.

"They noted that the group were very quiet and gentle."

Fifi celebrated her 60th birthday in style in May with a birthday cake iced with mashed potato and decorated with bananas.

She arrived at Taronga in 1954 and was known as a special character, always acting as the peacemaker, Mr Williams said.

"In her prime, Fifi was one of the highest ranked females of the group and even in recent times took a senior role in the female hierarchy. She was very well respected despite her old age and frailty," he said.

A preliminary investigation to confirm the cause of death will take place today.

Story here.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Bill the Chimp 'Appreciation' Set For Sunday

bill the chimp memorialSometimes he'd watch his visitors, sometimes he'd entertain the crowd and sometimes he'd just sit and wonder, “What are you doing here?”

That's how Linda Flint, 66, remembers Bill the Chimp, the Sequoia Park Zoo's beloved and famed chimpanzee who died June 26 after battling a long-term lung infection.

”I think it leaves a void,” Flint said as she watched her grandchild watch the zoo's black bear Tuesday afternoon. “He was always an attraction for the children, that's for sure. We always headed right there to see what he was up to and doing.”

Such memories and parting words will be welcomed at an informal Bill “appreciation” this Sunday at the zoo in response to community requests, the Sequoia Park Zoo Foundation announced Tuesday.

”It's completely informal, so come along and chat about Bill, that's what it's about,” said Pat Bitton, the zoo foundation's communications committee chairwoman and board member. “Whoever comes along is most welcome.”

The chimpanzee's exhibit will be turned into a memorial garden on Monday for Bill and his old sparring partner, Ziggy, zoo officials said.

”Bill will always have a special place in the heart of everyone who's spent time with him, and we feel it's the right thing to do to dedicate 'his' corner of the zoo to his memory,” Zoo Manager Gretchen Ziegler said in a press release. The zoo hopes to have an artist's impression of the memorial garden for the public to view Sunday, Ziegler said. It is expected to be formally opened the first weekend in October, during the zoo's centennial weekend.

”We may have a drawing of this by Sunday, but that's a maybe,” she said.

Eventually Bill's body will be cremated and returned to the zoo, where his ashes will somehow be incorporated into the permanent memorial, Ziegler said. It is hoped that his remains, which is at University of California, Santa Cruz, for further study, will be back in Eureka after the fall semester, Ziegler said.

Story here.

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Possible Link to Lucy's Ancestors Found

lucy relative jawboneNew jaw fossils might suggest a direct line of descent between two species of early humans, including the one to which "Lucy" belongs.

The 3.2 million-year-old Lucy, the earliest known hominid, was found in Ethiopia in 1974 by U.S. paleontologists Donald Johanson and Tom Gray. Lucy and her kind, Australopithecus afarensis, stood upright and walked on two feet, though they might also have been agile tree-climbers.

Anthropologists have suspected an ancestor-descendant relationship between the Lucy species and a predecessor--Australopithecus anamensis--based on their similarities but lacked fossils from an intervening period.

Now, Australopithecus fossils found in the Woranso-Mille area of the Afar Region, Ethiopia, fill the date gap between A. anamensis (4.2 to 3.9 million years ago)—and the Lucy species (3.0 to 3.6 million years ago). The species identifications for all the bones remain uncertain, though it appears that some are A. afarensis.

Yohannes Haile-Selassie, a physical anthropologist at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, says his team's 2007 field season in the Woranso-Mille region uncovered the key evidence.

"We recovered fossil hominids that date to between 3.5 and 3.8 million years ago," Haile-Selassie said in a prepared statement. "These specimens sample the right time to look into the relationship between Australopithecus anamensis and Australopithecus afarensis and will play a major role in testing the ancestor-descendant hypothesis."

The team had found teeth from this time frame at the site over the past few years, but the new material includes more complete jaws that will enable better comparisons, he said.

"We have about 35 specimens, mostly isolated teeth, but including one partial skeleton which we believe will give us a lot of information on the post-cranial morphology of early human ancestors," Haile-Selassie told LiveScience.

At least 40 hominid specimens have been recovered from the site so far, including the complete jaws and the partial skeleton. The latter was found in 2005. The team started work in the Woranso-Mille region in 2004 and quickly started finding fossils of early hominids as old as 3.7 million years old, Haile-Selassie said.

"We were sure of their importance," he said, "because we knew right from the beginning how old these bones were. We used what is called biostratigraphy to estimate the age of the fossils. Now, we have radiometric dates from volcanic rocks that we sampled from the study area, and now we have a minimum age of 3.5 million years and a maximum of 3.8 million years."

Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania have yielded many of the earliest hominid and ape fossils that have allowed anthropologists to piece together the history of human evolution.

Story here.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Walking On Two Feet Was An Energy-Saving Step

chimps treadmill uprightA study of humans and chimpanzees has provided new evidence to support the theory that our ancestors evolved to walk upright for the simple reason that doing so saves energy.

The study, which used treadmills, shows that people walking on two legs use 25% of the energy used by chimps who "knuckle walk" on all fours. Researchers hope that future fossil findings will reveal the precise anatomical changes that enabled our ancestors to take up bipedalism.

There are numerous ideas to explain human bipedalism, some of which stand on firmer ground than others.

Some experts, for example, have suggested that it helped our ancestors move about the forest canopy more easily. Others propose that this adaptation provided a more efficient way to feed and carry young at the same time.

But for decades some scientists have suggested we evolved to walk upright because doing so helped our ancestors conserve precious calories under harsh environmental conditions, when food was scarce. "The critical piece that's been missing is how to link the anatomy to the energy cost," says Herman Pontzer at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

He and his colleagues attempted to provide this missing piece of the puzzle by analysing human and chimp biomechanics. The chimps in the study all knew how to walk on two feet as a result of training. "Chimps can walk bipedally, they just choose not to," he says.

He adds: "Chimps aren't built to be efficient. They're built to be safe." Using all four limbs can help steady them on branches, he explains. "Fall out of the fruit tree and you're dead."

A mask worn by human volunteers and the chimps as they walked on the treadmill enabled the researchers to calculate the number of calories burned, based on oxygen consumption.

Researchers also used non-toxic paint and reflective badges to mark the leg joints of both groups. This allowed a machine to track the subjects' joints as they walked on the treadmill and to characterise their gait. A complex algorithm also revealed the muscle force exerted on the joints in each step.

The results of the experiment revealed that while a 50 kilogram (110 pound) human uses roughly 13 kilocalories to walk a kilometre (above and beyond the energy needed to keep sustain the body at rest), a similarly-sized chimp uses about 50 kcal to walk the same distance on two feet. And when chimps move on all fours they require slightly less energy – 46 kcal, on average – to cover the same distance.

According to Pontzer, chimps require more energy when walking on two feet because of their crouched gait – their bent joints use a lot of calories. The fact that humans have longer legs, and that our hamstrings attach further towards the back of the pelvis bone, might be the reason that we can comfortably walk upright with our legs straight, minimising the muscle energy needed to support our joints.

Pontzer says that future fossil findings will tell us for sure if it energy efficiency was the key advantage and, if so, shed light on exactly which changes in anatomy allowed early hominins to conserve calories by walking upright.

Story here.

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UC Davis Investigation Clears Research Center In Monkey Deaths

Researchers at the University of California, Davis did not mistreat seven monkeys who died in their care after a building heater malfunctioned, according to a report released Monday by the university.

The report dismissed allegations raised last year by a former employee who said researchers routinely abused monkeys at the university's primate research center. In the report, campus investigators called the allegations "unfounded, out of context or too vague to be pursued properly."

"Our initial reaction to these claims was that they were baseless, but I nonetheless felt it appropriate to request an investigation," center director Dallas Hyde said in a statement.

Cheri Stevens, a former animal care technician at the California National Primate Research Center, said seven monkeys died in the summer of 2004 after the building's ventilation system failed. She said officials did not respond to her requests that the monkeys be moved even though the room's temperature climbed to about 115 degrees.

Stevens, speaking last fall during a news conference convened by the activist group Stop Animal Exploitation Now, also complained of routine mistreatment and starvation of the monkeys.

Michael Budkie, executive director of the Ohio-based group, called the UC Davis report a whitewash and said there needs to be better national oversight of primate research.

"To begin with, the people that are conducting this investigation are the very people who would be on some level at fault if there was any admission of impropriety," Budkie said.

The investigation was led by the university's attending veterinarian and members of the campus Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee.

The university paid a $4,815 fine to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in December 2005 because of the monkeys' deaths.

Story here.

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Chimp Study: Only Humans Are Spiteful

It used to be easy to separate man from beast. Then we realised animals, too, can experience sophisticated emotions and communicate through language. But there is one thing that is beyond even our closest relatives, chimpanzees. And that is the ability to be spiteful.

Keith Jensen and his team at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology at Leipzig, Germany, conducted experiments in which they placed a food-laden table in front of a caged chimp.

Attached to the table was a string the chimp could pull to collapse the table. The chimp resisted the urge to pull the string as long as the food was within its reach. But when the researchers moved the food to the opposite side of the table, the frustrated chimp collapsed the table in 30% of the trials.

In a second experiment, the researchers placed a second chimp in a cage at the opposite side of the table. Moving the food across the table now benefited the second chimp at the cost of the first. If the first chimp wanted to be spiteful, it could simply collapse the table and prevent its rival from feeding. But the chimps tested merely showed the same level of frustration as before, collapsing the table 30% of the time.

But if the second chimp attempted to move the food closer to itself, by pulling a string of its own, the first chimp reacted angrily, collapsing the table 50% of the time.

Spite is a common human reaction, says Jensen. "Imagine you're a kid at a birthday party. The mother gives you cake, then takes it away and gives it to another kid. It's not his fault, but you'll still be annoyed with him because of his good fortune. But chimps don't care who's got the cake, just who took it from them," he explains. In other words, chimps fail to see things from another's point of view.

And if a chimp's lack of empathy leaves it unable to feel spite, it may also fail to behave altruistically, says behavioural ecologist Rufus Johnstone of the University of Cambridge in the UK. "There have been experiments that gave chimps the chance to be nice to another at no cost to themselves, but they weren't interested. They didn't have a human propensity to be nice," he says.

"This is where things get tricky," admits Jensen. "Other papers coming out of our research group show chimps are altruistic. One interpretation is that one set of researchers isn't doing their job properly, but we don't like that one! Maybe altruistic tendencies operate in a narrow range in chimps, and a broader range in humans."

In showing that chimps lack spite, the researchers may actually have shown that a set of connected emotions remains unique to humans. "Many differences obviously remain," says Jensen. "Humans actually care about outcomes affecting others. The good side of that is altruism. Spite is the evil twin that can't be separated from it."

Story here.

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Human Tourism Hurting Primates

Primate tourism, an economic benefit and conservation tool in many habitat countries, has exploded in popularity over the past two decades in places like China, Borneo, Uganda, Rwanda, Northern Sumatra, Madagascar, Gabon and Central America.

New research by scientists in the United States, China and Japan, however, has found that some primate tourism practices are inappropriate because they provoke an unprecedented level of adult aggression that is proving deadly for infant monkeys.

The 19-year study, "Primate Tourism, Range Restriction and Infant Risk Among Macaca thibetana at Mt. Huangshan, China" augments findings by previous researchers that some forms of wildlife tourism are counterproductive because they lead to disease transmission, disrupt social behavior and actually increase the risk of habitat destruction.

The authors are Carol Berman, Ph.D., professor of anthropology at the University at Buffalo, and Consuel Ionica, Ph.D., UB Department of Anthropology; Jinhua Li and Huabao Yin, School of Life Sciences, Anhui University, China, and Hideshi Ogawa, Faculty of Liberal Arts, Chukyo University, Japan.

The study, which will be published in the October edition of the International Journal of Primatology, draws two primary conclusions.

One is that infant mortality is a useful indicator of the impact of primate tourism on primate groups. The second is that the specific practice of combining range restriction with provisioning (stocking food in a particular area of the range to increase tourist viewing opportunities) is inappropriate for primate management.

The subjects of the study were Tibetan macaques, Old World monkeys that belong to the world's most widespread primate genus. The group under observation lives in the Mt. Huangshan Scenic Area in China's Anhui province.

Like most primates used for tourism, the Huangshan Tibetan macaques were subjected to various management practices, which Berman says involved relocating them to a new area adjacent to their natural range, providing them with regular provisions in a specific location, restricting their range to varying degrees and exposing them to greater numbers of staff and tourists.

The research team observed the monkeys for six years before they were used for tourism (1986-91), for 12 years during which they were used for tourism (1992-2002 and 2004) and for one year (2003) during which tourism was suspended.

Infant mortality was virtually nil in the six years before management began, Berman says, noting that the only significant death rate for infants was in 1988 when disease swept the group killing four of six infants.

Infant mortality went up to about 20 percent in 1992 when the group was translocated. During the years of management (1992-2002, 2004) it fluctuated considerably, but peaked sharply twice: in 1994, the year that tourism and consistent range restriction began, and in 2002, the year in which the group's range was severely restricted. It decreased sharply in 2003, the year management was temporarily suspended.

The overall rate of infant mortality during management years was 54.6 percent, significantly higher than the 14.8 percent rate of pre-management years.

The researchers found that the increases in infant death rates were related to adult aggression toward the young monkeys following fights among adults in the provisioning area, and that the aggressive behavior was related to level of range restriction (inconsistent, consistent, severe) at various times during the observation period.

It also found that most of the infants who died during management were severely injured shortly before their deaths. No infant deaths were attributed to wounding before 1992, the year that management for tourism began.

"Infant mortality rates during the management years were significantly higher than they were in the years before management began and also in the year in which it was suspended," Berman says, pointing out that monkeys with artificially reduced ranges become highly dependent on provisioned food and are likely to compete intensely over it.

"After management began, we observed serious attacks on infants shortly before they were found dead and a large proportion of infant corpses had bite wounds," Berman says.

"Typically, infants were wounded after aggression broke out among adults in the provisioning area used for tourist viewing," she says, "and adult aggression rates in the provisioning area were positively correlated with infant mortality over time.

"We did not witness each attack on the infants, but we had no reason to believe that the infant injuries were caused by poaching, attacks by tourists or staff, capture, predation or inter-group aggression between the infants," she says.

"The team tested several hypotheses about the affects of specific factors on infant mortality, among them, numbers of tourists, degree of range restriction, demographic changes, changes in alpha males -- factors that may have been harmful to the infants.

Berman says, "We found that range restriction alone accounted for 54 percent of the variation in infant mortality and that it was more closely associated with both mortality and aggression than any other factor examined."

The study found that rates of female-female aggression, male-male aggression and female-male aggression all were notably higher when the monkeys were in the provisioning area than when they were in the forest, away from that area. It found, too, that there was a strong positive correlation between high rates of infant mortality and both high rates of adult aggression and relative degrees of range restriction.

Post hoc analyses suggested that rates of aggression in the provisioning area were significantly lower before translocation and in the early period of management when tourists were absent and range restriction was inconsistent, than when tourism and consistent range restriction were in full force. Aggression rates were significantly higher during 2002 (when the group's range was severely restricted) than in any other time period.

"Primate tourism has been praised for its potential to achieve conservation goals and financial and educational benefits for local communities," Berman says, "but there has been little research about its impact on the primate groups themselves, which is why we undertook this evaluation.

"We would like to believe that primate tourism can be beneficial to both human economic and conservation interests, but it is imperative that we understand which specific practices serve those ends and which are counterproductive," she says.

Story here.

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Clues To Future Evolution Of HIV Come From African Green Monkeys

monkeys hivMonkey viruses related to HIV may have swept across Africa more recently than previously thought, according to new research from The University of Arizona in Tucson.

A new family tree for African green monkeys shows that an HIV-like virus, simian immunodeficiency virus, or SIV, first infected those monkeys after the lineage split into four species. The new research reveals the split happened about 3 million years ago.

Previously, scientists thought SIV infected an ancestor of green monkeys before the lineage split, much longer ago.

"Studying SIV helps us learn more about HIV," said the paper's first author Joel Wertheim, a doctoral candidate in the UA department of ecology and evolutionary biology. "This finding sheds light on the future direction of HIV evolution."

All SIVs and HIVs have a common ancestor, added senior author Michael Worobey, a UA assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

The new work suggests African green monkeys' SIVs, or SIVagm, may have lost their virulence more recently than the millions of years previously thought. Green monkeys almost never get sick from SIVagm. If SIVagm was once a monkey killer, the change in its virulence may shed light on the future course and timing of the evolution of HIV.

The new research also challenges the idea that one ancient SIV was transmitted vertically, down through time, and evolved into many SIVs as its original host diverged into many different species.

Wertheim and Worobey suggest various SIVs arose because SIVs were transmitted horizontally, between primate species, and evolved into a new host-specific form only after transmission.

HIV arose from chimpanzee SIV that was transmitted to humans, probably when people had contact with chimpanzee blood from hunting and butchering the animals, Worobey said.

The team's research article, "A Challenge to the Ancient Origin of SIVagm Based on African Green Monkey Mitochondrial Genomes," is in the July issue of PLoS Pathogens and can be found at http://www.plospathogens.org. The National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health funded the research.

Previous research had sketched out the family trees, or phylogenies, of the four species of African green monkeys and their accompanying SIVagm, but Wertheim wanted to know more.

"I wasn't convinced by the evidence out there that these monkeys were infected before they speciated," Wertheim said. "So I set out to perform a rigorous test of that hypothesis."

He extensively sequenced the mitochondrial DNA genes of the four species of African green monkeys. Mitochondrial DNA is passed from mother to child.

The four green monkeys he studied are the sabaeus monkey, Chlorocebus sabaeus, which lives in western Africa; the tantalus monkey, Chlorocebus tantalus, which is found in central Africa; the vervet monkey, Chlorocebus pygerythrus, which lives in eastern and southern Africa; and the grivet monkey, Chlorocebus aethiops, which lives in northeast Africa.

The scientists used the genetic sequences to sort out the ancestral relationships among the different species of monkeys. Other researchers had already constructed phylogenies for the four different SIVagm that showed their relationships.

"We put together, for the first time, a really solid phylogeny for African green monkeys, which we didn't have before," Worobey said.

If the monkeys' ancestor had been infected with an ancient SIV, the SIV family tree should match that of the four monkey species.

The trees didn't match.

"The monkey tree was significantly different from the virus tree," Wertheim said.

The researchers then looked at the geographic distribution of the four African green monkey species. The relative ages and information on which pairs of SIVagm were most closely related revealed the probable transmission route of SIV.

The researchers hypothesize that the infection started in the westernmost species, sabaeus monkeys, moved east into neighboring tantalus monkeys, and then took one of two paths: southeast into vervets and then north into grivets or northeast into grivets and then south into vervets.

Wertheim said, "I was surprised that the geography could explain the virus phylogenetic tree, how well it fit. You just look and -- there it is!"

The UA researchers suggest that in the border zones where two African green monkey species' ranges come in contact, transmission probably happened during interspecies sexual encounters or fights. Wertheim pointed out that hybrid monkeys have been seen in the wild in the border zones.

Worobey said, "Some of the trends we see give new evidence on how quickly or slowly these changes take place."

Citing some laboratory research that suggests HIVs from the late 1980s are more virulent than HIVs from the 2000s, Worobey added, "For HIV, the really cool thing is that these changes can take place on a more rapid timeline that previously thought."

Wertheim adds, "Understanding how emerging infectious diseases evolve in their natural host organism helps us understand the disease's possible trajectory."

Story here.

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Monkey 'Steals' Korean Tourist's Specs

In an unprecedent occurence, a Korean tourist here has filed a complaint with police for the recovery of his glasses 'stolen' by a monkey.

Kim Dang Hoon, staying with his girl-friend at a guest house in the Meer Ghat area on the banks of Ganga river today lodged a complaint at the Dashwashamedh police station for the recovery of his reading glasses stolen last evening by a monkey.

''I opened the windows of the room for fresh air last evening. A monkey, however, sneaked inside and took away my reading glasses,'' the Korean national told UNI here.

''I brought the matter to the notice of the guest house owner but the spectacles could not be found anywhere. Later we found one of lenses broken on the terrace of the guest house,'' he added.

''I had no other option but to report the matter to the police for the recovery of the reading glasses,'' Kim maintained.

Station Officer (Dashwashamedh) Govind Singh said ''it is not difficult but impossible to initiate action against a monkey for the recovery of the tourist's reading glasses. A complaint of missing glasses has been lodged to enable the Korean tourist to make an insurance claim for his missing belonging.''

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Mauritius Company Gets Green Light To Breed Monkeys For Export

The Ministry of Agro-Industry and Fisheries has given the green light to the Biosphere Trading Company (BTC) to operate a Monkey Breeding Farm in the region of Grand Bassin, 40 km from the capital, Port Louis, APA learns here.

The farm, which has received the authorisation to export some 1500 macaque monkeys per year to the United States, will in the first year export 1200 primates which have been captured in the nearby forests. However, in the following years, all exported monkeys will have to come from the breeding farm.

Speaking to the press Monday at the BTC farm, the Head Monkey Trapper (HMT), Mr Mohun Gopaul explained that the animals will be used in US laboratories as guinea pigs for biomedical researches on such diseases as Parkinsons, malaria, Alzheimer and AIDS. "The breeding of these primates will be carried out under humane conditions. We are following the guidelines of the British Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the International Primatological Society. All primates will be tested for HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis in our animal hospital prior to export," added Mr Gopaul.

The HMT pointed out that the government has set certain guidelines that his company will have to adhere to, mainly that the company will have to contribute US$70 to the ’Conservation Fund’ for each primate that its exports. The fund has been established by the government for the protection and feeding of animals in the wild in the form of the installation of food boxes for birds and wild deer. The fund is expected to grow to US$1 million in the next few years.

Mr Gopaul pointed out that Mauritius should focus in those areas where it enjoys a comparative advantage, especially in the field of animal breeding. "The country is well known for its ’disease-free status’ as compared to other competing countries affected by monkey diseases," underlined Mr Gopaul.

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

Found: The Giant Lion-Eating Chimps Of The Magic Forest

Deep in the Congolese jungle is a band of apes that, according to local legend, kill lions, catch fish and even howl at the moon. Local hunters speak of massive creatures that seem to be some sort of hybrid between a chimp and a gorilla.

Their location at the centre of one of the bloodiest conflicts on the planet, the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, has meant that the mystery apes have been little studied by western scientists. Reaching the region means negotiating the shifting fortunes of warring rebel factions, and the heart of the animals' range is deep in impenetrable forest.

But despite the difficulties, a handful of scientists have succeeded in studying the animals. Early speculation that the apes may be some yeti-like new species or a chimp/gorilla hybrid proved unfounded, but the truth has turned out to be in many ways even more fascinating. They are actually a population of super-sized chimps with a unique culture - and it seems, a taste for big cat flesh.

The most detailed and recent data comes from Cleve Hicks, at the University of Amsterdam, who has spent 18 months in the field watching the Bili apes - named after a local town - since 2004. His team's most striking find came after one of his trackers heard chimps calling for several days from the same spot.

When he investigated he came across a chimp feasting on the carcass of a leopard. Mr Hicks cannot be sure the animal was killed by the chimp, but the find lends credence to the apes' lion-eating reputation.

"What we have found is this completely new chimpanzee culture," said Mr Hicks. Previously, researchers had only managed to snatch glimpses of the animals or take photos of them using camera traps. But Mr Hicks used local knowledge to get closer to them and photograph them.

"We were told of this sort of fabled land out west by one of our trackers who goes out there to fish," said Mr Hicks whose project is supported by the Wasmoeth Wildlife Foundation. "I call it the magic forest. It is a very special place."

Getting there means a gruelling 40km (25-mile) trek through the jungle, from the nearest road, not to mention navigating croc-infested rivers. But when he arrived he found apes without their normal fear of humans. Chimps near the road flee immediately at the sight of people because they know the consequences of a hunter's rifle, but these animals were happy to approach him. "The further away from the road the more fearless the chimps got," he added.

Mr Hicks reports that he found a unique chimp culture. For example, unlike their cousins in other parts of Africa the chimps regularly bed down for the night in nests on the ground. Around a fifth of the nests he found were there rather than in the trees.

"How can they get away with sleeping on the ground when there are lions, leopards, golden cats around as well as other dangerous animals like elephants and buffalo?" said Mr Hicks.

"I don't like to paint them as being more aggressive, but maybe they prey on some of these predators and the predators kind of leave them alone." He is keen to point out though that they don't howl at the moon.

"The ground nests were very big and there was obviously something very unusual going on there. They are not unknown elsewhere but very unusual," said Colin Groves, an expert on primate morphology at the Australian National University in Canberra who has observed the nests in the field.

Prof Groves believes that the Bili apes should prompt a radical rethink of the family tree of chimp sub-species. He has proposed that primatologists should now recognise five different sub-divisions instead of the current four.

Mr Hicks said the animals also have what he calls a "smashing culture" - a blunt but effective way of solving problems. He has found hundreds of snails and hard-shelled fruits smashed for food, seen chimps carrying termite mounds to rocks to break them open and also found a turtle that was almost certainly smashed apart by chimps.

Like chimp populations in other parts of Africa, the Bili chimps use sticks to fish for ants, but here the tools are up to 2.5 metres long.

The most exciting thing about this population of chimps though is that it is much bigger than anyone realised and may be one of the largest remaining continuous populations of the species left in Africa. Mr Hicks and his colleague Jeroen Swinkels surveyed an area of 7,000 square kilometres and found chimps everywhere. Their unique culture was uniform throughout.

However, the future for the Bili apes is far from secure. "Things are not promising," said Karl Ammann, an independent wildlife photographer who began investigating the apes 1996. "The absence of a strong central government has resulted in most of the region becoming more independent and lawless. In conservation terms this is a disaster."

Story here.

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Friday, July 13, 2007

The Great Gorilla Run through Golden Gate Park

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The first Great Gorilla Run through Golden Gate Park in San Francisco was held this week. Go read the article here, and find more information here.

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A Moment Of Langur Zen...

langur monkey and baby
A langur monkey holds its newborn at the Monkey Park in Ben Shemen near Tel Aviv July 12, 2007. A newborn spectacled langur is usually born with golden-yellow fur to draw the female's attention. The newborn, still unnamed, will eventually turn grey like its parents. [Reuters]

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Endangered Black and White Ruffed Lemur Introduced at Sacramento Zoo

The Sacramento Zoo is pleased to announce its newest arrival—one male Black & white ruffed lemur—born to 8-yr old parents. This is the second set of offspring for this pair. The mother is taking exceptional care of her infant which has not yet been named. The three lemurs born last year and the father remain in the exhibit.

The infant was found in the “nest” on the morning of May 16th. Two lemurs were born, but the other male died shortly after birth of natural causes. High infant mortality is not uncommon in this species. Although ruffed lemurs are capable of having up to six infants at a time, typically two or three youngsters (weighing about 100 grams each) are born.

Black and white ruffed lemurs live in small groups of 2 to 16 individuals. Females are dominant over males in their groups. A female yearling will often be forced out of the group by the breeding female when the next litter is born. “Here at the Sacramento Zoo, we are working to keep our female yearling born in 2006 a part of the group. To do so, we have kept the female yearling with the mother when she gave birth and each night since. We also rotated each one of the male yearlings inside at night to keep the youngsters familiar with the mom and infant.,” said Leslie Field, Lead Zookeeper/Supervisor. “All three yearlings are very comfortable with the new baby and the mom has shown no signs of excluded the young female,” Field said. This is a unique situation and our animal care staff collaborated with other zoos to formulate the best plan to keep our group well-bonded.

Like all lemurs, Black and white ruffed lemurs are endangered. Due to loss of habitat and food resources, forest fires, clearing of land for agriculture and hunting, wild populations are at critical numbers.

Story here.

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Baby Monkey Born At Florida Alligator Farm

monkey babyThe newest addition at The Alligator Farm in St. Augustine weighs only 24 grams. The baby monkey was born Thursday morning.

The baby can fit in a human hand. It's a Geoffroy 's Marmoset. It's a rare monkey from South America. The squirrel-sized monkey species is classified as vulnerable, according to The Alligator Farm.

A national coordinator for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association tapped The Alligator Farm to breed its pair of Geoffroy's Marmosets this year.

Amanda Whitaker, the Bird and Mammal Curator at the park, said, "These particular monkeys need to breed so their genetics are out there. They are vulnerable because of habitat destruction."

Whitaker said the marmoset pair had two males in January. Thursday another male was born. He was one of triplets. However, even after an emergency c-section, only one baby out of three survived.

Still, there is excitement at the park... and inside the baby's own family.

The father and brothers ran to the mother and baby when the couple was brought inside the family's cage.

The father and brothers will help raise the little baby, Whitaker said. In fact, two weeks after the birth, the father will become the primary caregiver, she said.

Whitaker says the park has been asked to breed this pair three times. So she expects more little ones in the next year or so.

Story here.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Apples Studded With Nails Found In Prague Zoo Gorilla Enclosure

gorilla apple nailsOn Tuesday morning zoo keeper Marek Zdansky was conducting a routine check of the run at the gorilla compound at Prague Zoo when he made an alarming discovery: five large red apples studded with steel nails. Luckily, the zoo's six gorillas - including Richard, "winner" of the Big Brother parody show - were inside at the time, because it was raining.

"I would put whoever left those apples here in a cage with Richard and let them sort it out between themselves," said Zdansky.

Tuesday's incident was not the first of its kind. A year and a half ago similarly doctored apples were found in the zoo's antelopes enclosure. This time they could perhaps have posed a greater danger to Richard and co. - apples are among the great ape's favourite foods.

"If they swallowed nails their lives would be definitely be in danger - in the worst possible scenario the nails could have perforated their stomachs or intestines," said Pavel Brandl, who is in charge of Prague Zoo's gorilla compound.

The shocking, and as yet unexplained, attempt to harm them uncovered on Tuesday fortunately came to nothing. But what can officials do to prevent repeat "attacks"?

"Prague Zoo is modern and doesn't have bars. Therefore we appeal to visitors to report any suspicious behaviour," said Vit Kahle, the zoo's spokesman.

Story here.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Neutral Evolution Has Helped Shape Our Genome

Johns Hopkins researchers have added to the growing mound of evidence that many of the genetic bits and pieces that drive evolutionary changes do not confer any advantages or disadvantages to humans or other animals.

“For a long time, the basic belief of evolution was that all random genetic changes that manage to stick around have some selective advantage,” says Nicholas Katsanis, Ph.D., Associate Professor at Hopkins’ Institute of Genetic Medicine. “But our work adds to the case that frequently, we are what we are largely due to random changes that are completely neutral.”

“I am not at all discounting the role of natural selection, the persistence of genetic changes that confer some advantage,” Katsanis adds, “because it has been instrumental. What this study does is to reinforce and highlight the equal, and in some cases greater, importance of neutral genetic drift.”

Describing their contributions to genetic drift online in PLoS Genetics, Katsanis says the Hopkins experiments demonstrate that one of the major architectural markers of the human genome, DNA repeat elements that make up over 40 percent of our genome, rose to prominence without offering any benefits to the organism it inhabits. Repeat elements are fragments of DNA containing the same repetitive sequence of chemical base pairs several hundred times.

Katsanis and his team first stumbled onto one type of repeat element while looking at genes associated with Bardet Biedl syndrome, a rare disorder of substantial interest to the lab. While hunting for new genes, they found portions of DNA that had been copied from the mitochondria, the energy-making apparatus of human cells that has its own small genome. These mitochondrial sequences are known as numts.

When they expanded their study across the whole human genome, they found more than 1200 such pieces of mitochondrial DNA of various lengths embedded into chromosomes. While chimps have a comparable number, mice and rats only have around 600 numts. Since they increase in frequency as species advance, it suggested there was some evolutionary purpose to keeping them around.

Strikingly, however, none of these numts contained the blueprint (an actual gene) to make a protein that does anything, nor did they seem to control the function of any nearby genes. “At best, it seems numts are a neutral part of our genome,” says Katsanis. “If anything, they may be mildly negative since long repeat sequences can be unstable or get inserted inside genes and disrupt them.”

The researchers believe they have uncovered a possible reason why these potentially damaging but mostly neutral bits of DNA accumulate over time by comparing the sequences of human numts with those in different animals. How closely the different species’ sequences match can provide an estimate of when that particular sequence got inserted into the ancestor of the human genome.

Their calculations revealed that most numts became embedded in our genome over a 10-million-year period centered roughly 54 million years ago – right around the time when the first primates emerged. “When new species emerge, their numbers and therefore their genetic differences are very small,” Katsanis notes. “This creates a genetic bottleneck during which any changes in the genome will either get eliminated quickly or spread to the whole population quickly.”

Katsanis proposes that numts, being “neutral,” were generally at low levels in ancient mammals, but during the primate emergence 54 million years ago, they accumulated and spread through the small early primate populations precisely because they were not detrimental enough to be eliminated. Then, as these populations expanded, numts reached stable but higher frequencies.

Story here.

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