Sunday, June 28, 2009

No Monkey Breeding in My Back Yard!

Residents in San Juan Puerto Rico are upset about plans to introduce a 13,000 sq.ft. monkey breeding facility, for fears that monkeys will escape and overrun their island. Their fears are not unfounded since the coastal town of Lajas is currently plagued by monkeys that escaped several decades ago from research centers onother islands. Now authorities have permission to shoot and kill the ~1,000 running around the Lajas Valley that cause $300,000 a year in damage.

The farm under construction is the plan of the Mauritius-based company Bioculture, which traps and exports crab-eating macaques for various purposes. The monkeys are not native to Mauritius and were probably introduced in the 16th-17th century by Dutch explorers. Presently the invasive monkeys endanger native species, complicate conservation efforts, and are considered a pest to residents. Each exported monkey requires a $70 export fee that the government uses for conservation purposes.

Hundreds of people are signing a petition asking the governor of the U.S. Caribbean territory and its resident commissioner to halt the project. The Bioculture facility will hold at least 3,000 macaque monkeys that will be sold for up to $3,000 each and could be used to study various diseases including swine flu.

Full story here.


Friday, June 26, 2009

Monkeys don't all think alike

Tamarins not used in the studies below. Which one is smarter?

We all know that some individuals often seem inherently 'smarter' than others. The same is true for some monkeys. 'General intelligence' refers to our inherent ability to learn new tasks. Monkeys are thought to have something very similar to general intelligence. General intelligence is thought to account for 40-60% and 80% of performance on cognitive tasks for humans and tamarins respectively (environmental and other factors explain the remaining variation in performance between individuals). Also, these are indirect comparisons since the species were subjected to different tests in different studies.

Research led by Konika Banerjee at Harvard University tested the general intelligence of a group of 22 cotton-top tamarins with an 11 task 'monkey IQ test'. She and her colleagues found that there was variation between the general intelligence of individuals across all of the tasks studied. By quantifying such performance across species we might gain insights into the role that general intelligence played in evolution of human intelligence. The work was funded by the Harvard College Research Program, the Goelet Fund to Banerjee, and from grants from the McDonnell Foundation and NSF.

The original research article can be found in the journal PLosOne here

A nice summary can be found here.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Monkey Urinates On Zambian President

urinates monkeyA monkey urinated on Zambian President Rupiah Banda as he spoke to journalists at a news conference today.

Banda softly shouted: "You (monkey) have urinated on my jacket," and paused as he looked up to see the animal playing in a tree just above his chair.

"Perhaps these are blessings," he said continuing his address amid laughter from the audience of journalists and diplomats at the State House presidential offices.

Several monkeys play around the grounds of Banda's residence and his office. There are also many species of antelope and birds in the State House grounds.

Full story here.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Gorilla War Averted After Ape Grabs Knife

gorilla brings a banana to a knife fight
There's no gorilla warfare going on at the Calgary Zoo.

Photographs taken after a keeper accidentally left a knife in the zoo's gorilla enclosure appear to tell a menacing story. One shows a gorilla, named Barika, clutching the blade in her black, hairy hand, seemingly pointing the sharp end at an unsuspecting troop mate sitting nearby.

But zoo officials say the primates don't understand the idea of using weapons and were never in any real danger.

A keeper carried the paring knife into the enclosure to help prepare food for the gorillas, said Cathy Gaviller, the zoo's director of conservation, education and research.

He stuck the blade in his pocket, but it slid out unnoticed and was left behind.

Soon, a curious Barika stumbled across the shiny object and picked it up by the handle.

That's when Joe and Heike Scheffler, who were standing outside the enclosure with about 20 people, including several children, noticed it glinting.

"In the first moment, I thought it might be a (toy)," said Joe Scheffler, adding people began pointing and murmuring as they caught sight of the blade.

"I though maybe it's out of rubber, but I thought no, it's ... a knife, you can see the steel, you see it's really bright and there's no rust."

"You see that it's a knife, but you think it's not possible there's a knife inside."

Scheffler's wife snapped photographs as Barika carried the knife around, holding it near another female gorilla, named Zuri.

Within minutes of picking the blade up, Barika placed it on a chair and all of the gorillas were called out of the enclosure by keepers, Gaviller said.

The zoo actually has a system in place to retrieve lost items that have slipped into the enclosure.

"The public members quite often drop cameras or sunglasses or hats or water bottles, by accident, into the exhibit," Gaviller said. "So this ... is actually a fairly common procedure."

The primates will often pick up new items in their enclosure out of curiosity, but they quickly get bored if they can't eat the objects or figure out a use for them, she said.

While gorillas will use crude tools in captivity, they have no concept of using weapons and would never have thought to be violent with the knife, Gaviller said, adding any aggression seen in the photographs is entirely in the eye of the beholder.

"Gorillas are very passive, non-aggressive, shy-temperament creatures, and certainly the idea of a tool to hurt another gorilla is entirely foreign to their behaviour," she said.

It's zoo policy for keepers to count tools and equipment going in and coming out of exhibits.

"Clearly this was an oversight by a very dedicated professional, a very experienced keeper," said Gaviller.

"We will be reviewing those procedures will all the staff, just to ensure this doesn't happen again."

Full story here.

Pitt Anthropologist Argues Humans More Like Orangutans Than Chimps

orangutanA University of Pittsburgh anthropologist argues in a paper published today that humans most likely share a common ancestor with orangutans, and not chimpanzees, which is the prevailing belief.

Jeffrey H. Schwartz hopes the paper will get researchers to practice fundamental science and question some assumptions.

"What I'll be happy with is if people actually think out of the box and consider alternative theories of human relationships with apes," Schwartz said Wednesday in a phone interview from Zagreb, Croatia.

He concedes it won't happen overnight, but the paper in the Journal of Biogeography that he co-authored could help, said Schwartz, who's the president of the World Academy of Art and Science.

"We've done the analysis," said John Grehan, who is the paper's other co-author, director of science at the Buffalo Museum in New York and a research associate at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Jeffrey L. Boore, an adjunct biology professor at the University of California-Berkeley who specializes in interpretive genome sequences, said he knows of no strong reason to discount the DNA studies that have demonstrated chimps and gorillas are more closely related to humans than orangutans.

"The overwhelming majority of those studies have given very strong support to excluding orangutans from the human-chimp-gorilla group," said Boore, who's also CEO of Genome Project Solutions, Inc., in Hercules, Calif.

"If people disagree with it, they need to put out their evidence and let it go back and forth," said Grehan, an entomologist who also studies the origin and evolution of animals and plants. "But I think a lot of people are incapable of dealing with it."

That's because for years most of the scientific community accepted DNA analyses that suggest humans are most closely related to chimps, Schwartz and Grehan said.

But an examination of fossil and other evidence shows humans and orangutans share 28 features — including reproductive systems, tooth structures and mouth palates, the scientists say.

Schwartz and Grehan write in their paper that humans share only two features with chimpanzees and seven with gorillas.

"In science, you must integrate the fossil record with the living record," Grehan said. "That's what we've done."

They propose a scenario that explains the migration of the human-orangutan common ancestor from Southeast Asia, where modern orangutans are from.

The molecular evidence that scientists commonly cite to demonstrate the link between humans and chimps is flawed, Schwartz said.

"Only 2 percent of the entire human genome can be verified," he said. "But people are saying that chimps and humans share 98 percent of some portion of that 2 percent to make their case."

That's not good science, said Malte Ebach, a paleontologist at Arizona State University's International Institute for Species Exploration, who, like Grehan, studies the origin and evolution of animals and plants.

"People think DNA data is better because they perceive it as technologically superior and more progressive," Ebach said. "But technology doesn't make data better."

Full story here.

Des Moines Zoo Says Monkey Sets Age Record

baldy oldest monkey captivityThe Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines says a 35-year-old snow monkey known as "Baldy" is the oldest female ever with a confirmed birth date.

The monkey, officially a Japanese macaque, was born June 16, 1974, at the Texas Snow Monkey Sanctuary, then moved to the Minnesota Zoo. She came to the Blank Park Zoo in 1985.

The zoo's animal curator, Jeff Dier, says snow monkeys usually live 20 to 25 years. They are threatened in their homeland due to deforestation and the loss of habitat. Baldy remains healthy and an active member of the animals'

Full story here.

Rare Primate Twins Born At Lincoln Park Zoo

tamarin twin babiesFather's Day will be a busy one for a rare small primate at Lincoln Park Zoo after his mate gave birth to twins last week.

The pied tamarin gave birth to two youngsters on June 10, not an uncommon occurrence for the species, considered one of the most endangered monkeys in the Amazon rain forest, according to a release from the zoo.

What makes the species unusual is that unlike nearly all other non-human primates, is father serves a very prominent role in childcare, according to Maureen Leahy, assistant curator for primates at Near North Side zoo.

"Newborn tamarins are equivalent to 20 percent of the mother's body weight," she said in the release. "The father's role is essential to help carry all of this 'extra weight.' The fathers do a majority of the infant carrying when mom is not nursing."

And Mitch, father of the new twins, "is an exceptional dad, even by tamarin standards," Leahy said. "He carried his other kids, which were born last year, until there literally wasn't any room on his back for the both of them. In fact, he could barely keep his balance on a branch at times!"

Pied tamarins so rare that Lincoln Park Zoo is one of only eight accredited institutions to house them, part of a cooperative breeding program to help bolster the wild population, the release said.

Full story here.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Chimp Bites Off Zoo Director's Finger

chimp bites finger offThe director of the Berlin Zoo had his finger bitten off by a chimpanzee Monday, Reuters reports .

Bernhard Blaszkiewitz, 51, was feeding walnuts to a 28-year-old chimp named Pedro as he showed a visitor around the zoo when Pedro grabbed his hand and bit off his right index finger.

"Pedro is the boss of the group so he has to demonstrate a certain dominance in it to prove himself," zoo spokesman Andre Schuele told Reuters. "Under normal circumstances, a chimp would never have the chance to reach a keeper or our director."

Doctors sewed Blaszkiewitz's finger back on, but they weren't sure if the operation would be successful.

Full story here.

Gorilla Injures 1 During Brief Escape At Zoo

gorilla escapeA 390-pound gorilla grabbed some low-hanging bamboo to scale a wall at a South Carolina zoo Friday, escaping his enclosure and tackling a worker before returning to his pen about five minutes later.

The gorilla at Riverbanks Zoo and Gardens ran into a pizza-stand employee who curled up and played dead to try to avoid further injuries, officials said. The man, who works for Aramark Corp., was taken to a hospital and released a short time later with cuts and bruises.

Zoo executive director Satch Krantz said the worker heard a strange sound, saw the gorilla outside the enclosure and turned to run.

"Then the gorilla did what gorillas do," he said.

The animal quickly closed the 30-foot gap between them and knocked the worker down. Two minutes later, the gorilla went over another wall and back into his enclosure.

"By then, the gorilla realized he was probably somewhere he shouldn't have been and wanted to go home," Krantz said.

The culprit is believed to be a 16-year-old western lowland gorilla named Mike, though zoo officials said they didn't know for certain. Three gorillas are in the exhibit.

Krantz praised the worker for doing the right thing. Neither he nor the company would identify the man.

Zoo officials said they were alerted to the escape by a bird-keeper who heard the commotion and the gorilla pounding on his own chest. About 340 people were ushered to indoor exhibits or outside the gates for about 45 minutes after the gorilla escaped, zoo officials said.

Krantz said employees reacted by the book and "it was an excellent job of preventing a more serious situation."

The gorilla got out about a half-hour after the zoo's 9 a.m. opening. He returned to the gated sleeping area connected to his outdoor enclosure, which is separated from the public by different barriers in different spots, including mesh and plexiglass.

A second gorilla, 15-year-old Kimya, also went inside the sleeping area after the escapee returned. It took another 40 minutes for workers to coax the zoo's oldest gorilla, 24-year-old Chaka, into the sleeping area.

Animal keepers patrol each enclosure every morning before opening the zoo and nothing looked out of the ordinary in the exhibit, Krantz said.

Officials believe a powerful rainstorm Thursday night swept a clump of bamboo over the top of the enclosure wall. Krantz showed reporters photos of a zoo worker using the slim bamboo reed to climb the wall and images of gorilla footprints on the wall.

Full story here.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Human Laughter Likely Evolved From Apes

laughing orangutanResearchers mapping the evolution of laughter gently tickled the feet, palms, necks and armpits of baby humans and apes.

By analysing the sounds the animals made - giggles, hoots, grunts and pants - they concluded that laughter can be traced back some 16million years, and that it evolved along the same pathway as our evolution.

In the first study of its kind, Portsmouth University researchers tickled three human babies and young orangutans, gorillas, chimps and bonobos and recorded their 'laughter'.

They then teased apart the different sounds in the recordings and mapped the similarities between animals. The result looked like the evolutionary family tree, in which humans are most closely related to chimps and bonobos and most distanced from orangutans.

And it showed that laughter evolved gradually over the last 10million to 16million years, reports the journal Current Biology.

Primatologist Dr Davila Ross said: 'Our results on laughter indicate its pre-human basis.

'This is important for emotional research in humans and animals as well as for the management of primates in captivity and in the wild.'

The analysis also revealed that gorillas and bonobos have some control over their breathing - a skill that was thought to be unique to humans and to have played an important role in the evolution of speech.

Dr Ross said that apes use laughter differently to humans, adding: 'Although we can use it to mock each other, previous research has indicated it developed in our ancestors as a play tool.

'Apes like to play with each other and sometimes this can get out of hand so their form of laughter is used to prevent them getting over aggressive.'

Full story here.
Bonus, gorilla tickling: