Site update

Since I have been really terrible at updating the blog (but pretty good at keeping up with the facebook blog posts) I've added the widget below so that facebook cross posts to the blog.

You shouldn't need to join facebook but can just click on the links in the widget to access the articles. If you have any problems or comments please mail me at arandjel 'AT'

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Happy New Year


Thanks to everyone who has passed by my blog this year and all the best to you and yours in 2008!


(pictures from

Last post of the Year

A little Western Lowland gorilla video to cap off the year

For a more recent article, with some fab photos of the habituated Western Gorillas at the Mondika field site, go here (National Geographic January 2008):
In the Presence of Giants

Sunday, December 9, 2007

National Geographic International Photography Contest Animal Winner

Photo by Li Feng
click here to see full size high res image

Animal Winner - China
Caged monkeys await their fate at a medical laboratory in Hubei Province, China. The judges liked that this image subverts the usual romanticized approach to wildlife photography and more accurately reflects the fate of many of the world’s animals. The sneaker at the top provides scale and injects a human being into the scene; the anonymity of the wearer suggests concealment and complicity. The structure of the cages, the horror of the captivity, the crowded composition, and the claustrophobic tension all add up to a sad and compelling photo.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Chimp beats students at computer game


Young chimpanzee can recall number placement better than people can.
by Ewen Callaway

A particularly cunning seven-year-old chimp named Ayumu has bested university students at a game of memory. He and two other young chimps recalled the placement of numbers flashed onto a computer screen faster and more accurately than humans.

“It’s a very simple fact: chimpanzees are better than us — at this task,” says Tetsuro Matsuzawa, a primatologist at Kyoto University in Japan who led the study.

The work doesn't mean that chimps are 'smarter' than humans, but rather they seem to be better at memorizing a snapshot view of their surroundings — whether that be numbers on a screen or ripe figs dangling from a tree. Humans may have lost this capacity in exchange for gaining the brainpower to understand language and complex symbols, says Matsuzawa.

Two decades have passed since Matsuzawa’s team first taught a female chimp, Ai, to recognize and order Arabic numerals1. Later, he and Nobuyuki Kawai trained her to memorize the location of numbers as they flashed onto a computer screen. The numbers would be quickly covered with white squares, and Ai could then touch those squares in order of the numbers concealed beneath them. After much training, chimps can be remarkably good at this task (see video below).

Matsuzawa and Sana Inoue went on to train three pairs of mother chimps and their infants to recognize and remember numerals, as Ai had done. The kids outmatched their mothers most of the time, and Ai's son Ayumu was head of the class, they report today in Current Biology.

When Ayumu went head-to-head against university students in the game, he made them look like dunces. This was most noticeable when the numbers appeared on the screen for just two tenths of a second - too brief for humans to get a good grip on them. Here, Ayumu correctly ordered the numbers in 80% of trials, while the students scored an average of just 40% (see video below).

It's unclear how long Ayumu’s memory of the number placement lasts after seeing them flash on the screen. When a sound across the room caught his attention, he paused in the middle of a game for ten seconds before finishing the puzzle (see video below). Matsuzawa plans to test how much longer chimps can remember the numbers.

Could the chimps' superiority come from simply having had more practice? Ayumu had been playing the game throughout his seven years of life, and got a treat after each run. But the researchers think this practice wasn't Ayumu's only advantage. “We trained university students for six months and their accuracy did not reach this level,” says Matsuzawa.

He suggests that humans made a mental trade-off as they diverged from their common ancestor with chimps some 5 to 6 million years ago. In gaining brawnier brains that can process language and other complex symbols, we may have dulled our ability to take quick mental snapshots.

To find that chimps are better than humans at some specific tasks is not surprising, says Michael Beran, a psychologist at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Chimps and humans are in some ways very similar, he points out. The key to uncovering a chimpanzee's inner Einstein is to put them to the right kind of test, he says.

Hidden colony of orang-utans is discovered in the forests of Borneo

Photo by Sara Hastings (Pandana of the Leipzig Zoo, Germany)

Article from the Independant
By Daniel Howden
Published: 03 December 2007

Conservationists working to combat deforestation on the island of Borneo have uncovered a "hidden colony" of 800 orang-utans in an area under imminent threat from the expansion of the palm oil industry.

The previously uncounted apes have been found in the Sungai Putri, a tract of rare peat swamp forest in the West Kalimantan province of Indonesian Borneo. But the area has recently been rezoned by local government and concessions for palm oil plantations could be sold at any time.

Frank Momberg, country director of the conservation group Flora and Fauna international, is part of a group of scientists and environmentalists who were studying the massive carbon deposits in the area when they came upon the colony. "Local people knew of course [that they were there]," he said. "But no scientist had ... recorded this population before."

Mr Momberg is leading an urgent effort to protect the 57,000-acre forest and guarantee a future for the orang-utans and other endangered species in Sungai Putri, as well as the millions of tons of carbon it secures.

Borneo is divided between Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, and is at the epicentre of deforestation worldwide. Half of all tropical timber used on the planet comes from this one island. Peat swamp forests like Sungai Putri are among the most important carbon sinks on the planet, yet vast areas of them have been drained in recent years for conversion to agricultural land, releasing millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.

The swampy floor of Sungai Putri, thick with decaying trees and rich organic matter up to 11m deep in places, is not only a dense, deep carbon sink, says Mr Momberg, but the "most efficient terrestrial ecosystem for the sequestration of carbon".

Deforestation accounts for one-fifth of all carbon released into the atmosphere and Indonesia's slash and burn policies have already seen the country become the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

It has also meant massive habitat loss for Asia's only great ape. The orang-utan could be the first great ape to be made extinct. The "man of the forest" used to be common throughout Asia but now survives only on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. There are some 7,000 Sumatran orang-utans left and the estimated population of 40,000 remaining on Borneo is also in steep decline.

Delegates at the climate talks in Bali will be asked to radically expand the Kyoto Protocol which would see countries like Indonesia rewarded for avoiding further deforestation.

If the proposals, backed by scientists, environmentalists, developing nations and a growing business lobby, can be agreed, areas such as Sungai Putri could be worth millions of dollars and play a key role in combating climate change.

But the quick returns offered from palm oil mean the threat to the forest remains real and 70 per cent of Sungai Putri could be wiped out within five years.

"Farmers use fire to clear the land and fires are already burning at the edges," said Mr Momberg. "Illegal logging is ongoing with small scale but continuous degradation of the forest."

Help may be at hand from a new kind of conservation effort. A green investment company, Carbon Conservation, has been working with local communities, Flora and Fauna International and local government to bring in outside funding. They are setting up a scheme under which private-sector investors put in money which is used both to protect the forest and offer alternative incomes to local people. In return investors get carbon credits for the area which has avoided deforestation.

At the moment the market for the voluntary credits is small but that could change overnight if the UN talks deliver an international framework deal.

Dorjee Sun, the chief executive of Carbon Conservation, said that negotiations were well advanced. A leading investment bank and others were just waiting for a signal from Bali.

"The private sector is showing the way by buying voluntary credits, now it's over to the governments in Bali," he said. "It's time for them to just do it."

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Poverty, Human Development, and Basic Biology

GO to the PLOSbiology website for the article
by Liza Gross
Citation: Gross L (2007) Poverty, Human Development, and Basic Biology. PLoS Biol 5(11): e295 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0050295

Nearly half of the world's 6.6 billion people exist on less than US$2 a day [1]. Over 1 billion live in “extreme poverty,” defined by the World Bank as US$1 a day or less. As of 2001, nearly 60% of the poorest people inhabit fragile, vulnerable landscapes—many of which are the highest priorities for biodiversity conservation—and most depend on these natural resources for survival [2]. Yet environmental resources are rapidly deteriorating. Human activity has destroyed biodiversity at an unprecedented rate, at least two to four orders of magnitude above background extinction rates inferred from the fossil record [3]. With global population projected to reach 9 billion by 2050, and 95% of that increase occurring in the developing world [4], poverty and ecosystem health have become increasingly linked.

Today, PLoS Biology is publishing two new articles, an Essay and a Community Page, that fall outside the normal scope of our journal. Both address the impacts of growing disparities in social status, but from entirely different perspectives. The Community Page “The Costs of Exclusion: Recognizing a Role for Local Communities in Biodiversity Conservation” (doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0050289) highlights the consequences of ignoring desperate poverty in the fight to protect the world's most endangered species; the Essay “Biology and Health Inequality” (doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0050267) explores the health costs of social stratification from a basic biological framework. A primary research journal like PLoS Biology does not typically publish articles relating to poverty and human development, but tends to feature the work of basic researchers, who investigate fundamental questions about natural processes to gain knowledge for its own sake—to understand the nature and structure of living systems. Such insights in turn lay the foundation for applied research, which is designed to solve practical, albeit serious, problems. Even articles like Essays and Primers, which do not report new research findings, often highlight efforts to understand fundamental principles or components of biological processes, such as why cetaceans evolved large brains (doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139) or how neurons alter their gene expression in response to their experience (doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0050055).

We have taken a slight departure from this tradition to participate in the Council of Science Editors' Global Theme Issue on Poverty and Human Development, along with 230 other medical and scientific journals in developed and developing countries, including PLoS Medicine and PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases. (View a special collection of the new poverty-related content from these PLoS journals, along with a selected collection of older articles on this theme from all the PLoS journals, at The global theme issue was inspired by the 2000 United Nations Millennium Summit (, which outlined an ambitious initiative to eradicate poverty and ensure environmental sustainability. The Council of Science Editors, arguing that achieving the Millennium goals requires the synthesis of scientific knowledge across disciplines, has urged all participating journals to make their poverty theme issues freely available. (As always, all of the PLoS articles are published under our open-access Creative Commons Attribution License: anyone can download, reuse, reprint, modify, distribute, and/or copy any PLoS articles, as long as the original source and authors are properly cited.) While there is no official tally of journals that have agreed to make their content universally available, if all 231 journals comply, they would be contributing to an unprecedented collection of publicly accessible materials (available at

The link between unequal social status and ill health was explored in a study of more than 17,000 civil servants in London nearly 30 years ago. In the landmark Whitehall study, Sir Michael Marmot and his colleagues found a surprising correlation between employment grade and risk of death from cardiovascular disease, with those in the lowest grade experiencing the highest risk of mortality [5]. Subsequent work showed that controlling for conventional coronary risk factors (including smoking, serum cholesterol, and blood pressure) explained only one-third of the social gradient. The biological mechanisms underlying the connection between social status and health have remained obscure, but new hypotheses have emerged from the Whitehall II study, which has followed a second cohort of civil servants for over 20 years. In the new essay “Biology and Health Inequality,” Eric Brunner, who collaborated with Marmot on the second study, describes intriguing parallels in status-related health inequalities between civil servants and nonhuman primate hierarchies and points to evidence suggesting a role for stress-induced neuroendocrine pathways.

Conservation scientists are increasingly finding themselves trying to protect species and ecosystems in places that are inhabited, often by some of the world's poorest people. There is considerable debate about whether species and ecosystem preservation is incompatible with human habitation. In the new article “The Costs of Exclusion: Recognizing a Role for Local Communities in Biodiversity Conservation,” Marc Ancrenaz, Lisa Tabek, and Susan O'Neil describe their efforts to incorporate poverty eradication into two cross-cultural community-based conservation projects: the Kinabatangan Orang-utan Conservation Project in Borneo and the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program in Papua New Guinea. Ancrenaz and colleagues argue that addressing poverty eradication and biodiversity conservation simultaneously “remains one of our best hopes for achieving tangible and durable results.” In both cases, this strategy has yielded significant conservation gains, including a reduction in nonsustainable timber harvest, fewer wildlife–human conflicts, and a return of wildlife species not seen locally for generations.

Although PLoS Biology does not often publish articles that grapple with issues like poverty and human development, we chose to do so here because we believe that the collective output of scientific research can advance the public good. Who knows what connections researchers working in widely disparate disciplines—from evolutionary ecologists to agricultural economists—might make if they had access to the millions of research papers published in the past five years? We applaud the Council of Science Editors' call to make this special collection freely available. Imagine the progress we might see if all the world's scientific literature were truly a public resource.

1. United Nations Population Fund (2007) State of the world population. Available: Accessed 20 September 2007.
2. Hines D (1998) Strategy and policy division UN WFP. Improving food security in marginal, low-potential areas. Available: Accessed 20 September 2007.
3. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) Species Survival Commission, (2004) IUCN red list of threatened species, a global species assessment. Baillio JeM, Hilton-Taylor C, Stuart SN Eds. Available: Accessed 20 September 2007.
4. United Nations (2004) World population prospects: The 2004 revision. Highlights New York: United Nations. Available: Accessed 20 September 2007.
5. Marmot MG, Rose G, Shipley M, Hamilton PJS (1978) Employment grade and coronary heart disease in British civil servants. J Epidemiol Comm Health 32: 244–249

CLICK HERE TO READ The Costs of Exclusion: Recognizing a Role for Local Communities in Biodiversity Conservation

Monday, November 19, 2007

Bushmeat in America

A Taste of Baboon and Monkey Meat, and Maybe of Prison, Too
from the New York Times
Published: November 17, 2007

It takes strategic thinking to find monkey meat in New York. Best to avoid the word “monkey,” for one thing — start with something innocuous-sounding, like “dry meat,” or common, like “grass cutter,” a rodent similar to the guinea pig. Seek out the proprietors of tiny West African restaurants, or the “bushmeat market queens” who do business out of their homes.

That is, if you can find them. And if they trust you enough to sell it to you.

The market in the United States for bushmeat — that is, the meat of African wild game — is obscured to outsiders and virtually impossible to measure. But most everyone agrees it has grown exponentially in recent decades along with immigration from West Africa, thriving in destination cities like Minneapolis and Atlanta.

A case that came before a federal judge in Brooklyn this week may — some believe for the first time — send someone to prison for importing bushmeat — in this case, pieces of baboon, green monkey and warthog.

No law specifically bans their importation, but Mamie Manneh, 39, of Staten Island, an immigrant from Liberia, is accused of falsely labeling her delivery and failing to obtain proper permits, charges that could bring a maximum prison sentence of five years. Her lawyer has made a motion to dismiss the indictment, arguing that bushmeat has spiritual significance and Ms. Manneh’s actions were protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The case has attracted attention from an array of interested parties. Wildlife conservationists see trade in bushmeat as a grave threat to dwindling species; epidemiologists view it as a dangerous vector of disease.

And many African immigrants, who eat bushmeat cubed and cooked in a stew of onions, garlic, tomatoes and chili pepper, see it as a referendum on a cultural practice. This, anyway, is what brought Frances Yalartai to court in Brooklyn on Tuesday.

“They’re coming to catch people for dry meat,” said Ms. Yalartai, 63, who is a member of the same small church as Ms. Manneh. Its members, she said, are so nervous about the case that they no longer attend services.

“People are scared,” she said.

African expatriates like Edward Lama Wonkeryor, a lecturer at Temple University, have long turned to bushmeat as a home comfort: During his earliest trips from Liberia to this country, in the 1970s, his mother would wrap parcels of bushmeat — monkey, bush hog or lion, smoked so it would keep — and slip them into his suitcase. He would save them for events like weddings and christenings, or when he wanted to feel smarter.

“If I were going to take the Graduate Record Examination or the Law School Admissions Test, definitely I would” eat bushmeat beforehand, said Dr. Wonkeryor, who wrote a letter in Ms. Manneh’s defense. “I am really surprised that they are making a big issue out of this.”

Only a tiny percentage of the bushmeat market goes to America. But there is little doubt wild game is flowing between continents in growing quantities, with few controls in place.

Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but Heather E. Eves, director of the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, estimated that more than 15,000 pounds of bushmeat come to market in the United States every month, of which only a tiny fraction is intercepted.

As a result, she said, the outcome of Ms. Manneh’s case could set a crucial precedent. “It may sound extreme, but I think we are facing a shift in wildlife populations that has never been seen before,” she said. “That’s why I think this case is so important. Because I think it sends a message.”

Epidemiologists have shown that ebola can be contracted by butchering chimpanzees, and the first human case of H.I.V. probably originated through similar exposure, said Nathan Wolfe, a professor of epidemiology at the University of California in Los Angeles. The growth in global demand for wild game, he said, increases the potential for spreading agents “that could represent serious threats to humanity,” he said.

When Ms. Manneh took the stand on Tuesday in Federal District Court in Brooklyn, with her extended family packing the courtroom, she did not present herself as a global entrepreneur. Though she acknowledged importing dried fish for resale, she stared blankly at the assistant United States attorney, Jonathan E. Green, when he asked if she recognized customs declarations and other documentation.
“Have in mind, Mr. Green, I don’t know how to read or write, and I never went to school,” said Ms. Manneh, who immigrated at 16 and worked for years as a home health aide. She said her daughter and husband generally filled out forms for her, and she appeared confused when he claimed to have a letter from one of her sisters.

“I have 30 brothers and sisters,” she said. “I can barely remember some of their names.”

Later, as he continued his cross-examination, she broke down. “Mr. Green, what do you want from me?” she said. “I don’t know what’s going on. I’m at the point of committing suicide.”

Ms. Manneh was identified in January 2006 by customs agents at Kennedy Airport who opened a shipment marked “12 ctn African dresses and smoked fish.” Mixed with those items they discovered 65 animal parts: “skulls, limbs and torsos of nonhuman primate species” as well as a hoof and leg “belonging to a small ungulate, possibly a duiker,” according to the criminal complaint against her. A duiker is a small antelope.

More primate parts were found during a search of her garage.

The case took on a new dimension in February, when Ms. Manneh’s lawyer, Jan Rostal of Federal Defenders of New York, filed a motion to dismiss the indictment, arguing that the meat provides “spiritual sustenance” similar to the bitter herbs served at a Passover Seder. Though legal methods of importing bushmeat do exist, she argued, most African immigrants are not aware of them, and they are so complex that they amount to a de facto ban.

“Unfortunately for the government,” she wrote, the bushmeat case “represents the sort of clash of cultural and religious values inherent in the ‘melting pot’ that is America.”

Prosecutors, meanwhile, cast Ms. Manneh as a thriving businesswoman, “selling traditional African foods to immigrants who undoubtedly miss home,” as Mr. Green put it in his response. He compared the meat to ham, reasoning that the tradition of serving ham on Easter “does not render ham a sacred, religious food.”

Ms. Manneh is currently serving a two-year sentence for second-degree assault, stemming from an episode in which she hit a woman with a vehicle in a movie theater parking lot. In court, she said the woman was her husband’s girlfriend. She has nine biological and two adopted children, among them 10-year-old twins named Cauzious and Corinthian and an 11-month-old boy, Cecret.

She was diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder in 2006, according to Ms. Rostal.

Outside the courtroom on Tuesday, Corinthian was fuming. She said she has eaten dried monkey meat, which has the ropy consistency of beef jerky, and does not understand why government objects to it.

Until fairly recently, bushmeat was sold openly in immigrant neighborhoods, said Dr. Wonkeryor, who teaches in the African-American studies department at Temple University. He said the case against Ms. Manneh has made it more expensive and hard to find.

Several immigrants acknowledged interest in the case but were loath to comment on what has become a sensitive issue. One man noted only that a small amount of bushmeat can change the character of a stew, adding a spiciness that is hard to describe.

The Rev. Philip Saywrayne, pastor of Christ Assembly Lutheran Church on Staten Island, said many people in the community are accustomed to carrying small amounts of bushmeat back from Africa. They remain puzzled about what American law allows, he said, and worried for Ms. Manneh.

“What we do is pray,” he said, “and then go along with the lawyers.”

Monkey spit coffee brew

Monkey business yields gourmet Taiwan coffee
Wed Nov 14

YUNLIN, Taiwan (Reuters Life!) - Coffee connoisseurs are going ape for a rare brew that Taiwanese farmers are producing with the help of monkeys.

Formosan rock monkeys have long been a scourge to coffee farmers in Taiwan's mountains because they eat the ripe berries and spit out the seeds.

But now, the farmers are collecting these half-chewed seeds and roasting them to produce a coffee that is being brewed all over the island.

"The monkeys pick the reddest fruits to eat, and spit out the seeds. They cannot swallow them because that may cause indigestion," said Liao Ching-tung, a coffee farmer for 30 years who has recently taken up roasting the regurgitated seeds.

"For other crops it may cause serious loss, but if they eat coffee in this area, then it saves me the trouble of peeling the fruits," he added.

Liao says the discarded seeds yield a sweeter coffee with a vanilla-like scent, which sells for about $56 a pound (450 grams).

For coffee lovers like Wang Chih-ming, price is no object.

"I like coffee it's got a nice aftertaste, that's really good," said Wang.

Coffee beans excreted by native civet cats in Indonesia and painstakingly extracted by hand from the animals' forest droppings reputedly produce the world's rarest and most expensive coffee, which sells for around $1,000 a kg ($450 a pound)

(Reporting by Christine Lu; editing by Miral Fahmy and Doug Young)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Welcome to Club P.A.N.

Visit the club P.A.N. site here

Club P.A.N. is part of the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation's (WCF) conservation education program currently operating around the Tai National Park in Ivory Coast.

The Tai National Park is the largest undisturbed forest block in all of West Africa and home to a large number of western chimpanzees, hence our name P.A.N (the genus name for chimpanzees). P.A.N. also stands for Personnes, Animaux, Nature (People, Animals Nature) as educating people is a crucial part of nature conservation.

Club P.A.N. was conceived by the Conservation Group at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology's Department of Primatology. The Conservation Group is made up entirely of graduate students from the department who want to participate in conservation activities in addition to their doctoral studies.

The Conservation Group approached the WCF with the club P.A.N. concept, in order to use their framework, solid infrastructure and strong ties with the Ivorian school system (Ministère de l’éducation National: Inspection de l’enseignement Primaire de Soubré1 (CPE)) to plan and organize the activities of the education program.

Please take the time to read through our site and support the WCF by buying some club P.A.N. merchandise!

The video below is from the first workshop of club P.A.N. in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. The goal of the workshop was to introduce the teachers from the schools around the Tai National Park to the lessons and activities of club P.A.N. In the clip you will see the teachers acting as if they are students learning the lessons.

Visit the club P.A.N. site here

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Shameless Self Promotion

Our paper on a Fatal Chimpanzee Attack in Loango National Park, Gabon came out today in the International Journal of primatology

Fatal Chimpanzee Attack in Loango National Park, Gabon
Christophe Boesch, Josephine Head, Nikki Tagg, Mimi Arandjelovic, Linda Vigilant and Martha M. Robbins
International Journal of Primatology
Online first - Saturday, October 27, 2007

In some populations, chimpanzees engage in lethal aggression within and between social units. We report a fatal attack on an adult male chimpanzee at a new research site in Loango National Park, Gabon. We found a fresh corpse of an adult male chimpanzee only a few hundred meters from the research camp, after noting numerous vocalizations and chimpanzee movements the previous evening. Previous contacts with chimpanzees and fresh tracks in the area around the corpse suggest that 2 communities of chimpanzees range where the attack occurred and that members of the neighboring community killed the chimpanzee. To support the conclusion, we conducted genetic analysis for 13 Y-chromosome loci and 9 microsatellite loci of fecal samples from the dead individual, 5 possible attackers, and 2 members of the other community Though we cannot exclude the possibility of an intracommunity killing, the combined observational and genetic evidence suggest an intercommunity attack. The case study adds to the growing evidence that intercommunity killings are a rare but widespread phenomenon among chimpanzees and not an artifact of human provisioning or habituation.
Keywords chimpanzees - fatal attack - gabon - intergroup conflict

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Newsweek's 10 Hottest Nerds: (NOT SURPRISINGLY) Svante Paabo

Article from Newsweek
(photo from my personal collection)

The 10 Hottest Nerds
Oct 15, 2007 Issue

The revolution in physics in the 20th century rested disproportionately on the accomplishments of a handful of scientists (Albert Einstein comes to mind) who supplied key insights at just the right moments. The current explosion of discoveries in the biological sciences is no different. NEWSWEEK ASKED 10 of the most esteemed biologists where they think the revolution is taking us. Which among them will turn out to be the Einsteins of the 21st century? You decide.

Svante Paabo
Director of evolutionary genetics, Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany.

NEWSWEEK: You are trying to sequence the genome of a Neanderthal. Why?
Paabo: The genetic differences we find between humans and our closest relative—who happens to be extinct—will tell us how fully modern humans were able to spread over the world, develop technology, start producing art, and so on. By sequencing the genome we will be able to make a catalogue of all the genetic changes that happened in our ancestors after we separated from Neanderthals, and this will help scientists identify which genetic differences are unique to modern humans.

NEWSWEEK: This a good time to be a biologist.
Paabo: It's certainly an extremely exciting time to be a biologist. We've seen the determination of the first genomes of single individuals by Craig Venter and James Watson, and this is just the beginning of the determination of many hundreds of thousands of individual genomes. This will vastly increase our abilities to look for genetic contributions to diseases and other human traits.

NEWSWEEK: Would you call this a revolution?
Paabo: It is of course always very hard to realize if you are experiencing a revolution when you are in the middle of it. Let's not forget that when we discovered the structure of DNA in the 1950s, which in hindsight we would say was truly revolutionary, it actually took around four years before anybody realized it was important. It may certainly be that we overlook things when we're in the middle of them.
Right now there seems to be a number of simultaneous advances in biomedicine. [But] I would not necessarily say that there is a reason why. At the moment there appears to be some sort of synergy between a number of fields, but this is possibly an illusion.

NEWSWEEK: How could your findings benefit people down the road?
Paabo: In the long run, aspects of what we do might become important medically. It may be that we can understand, for example, human speech and how language evolved. This could enable us to understand and eventually treat language problems more efficiently. That may also be true for things such as autism, and other diseases that seem to be specific to humans.

The top 10 hottest nerds are (click here for the full artilce):
* Eric Lander
- Founding director of the Broad Institute, a collaboration between Harvard and MIT

* Leroy Hood
- PRESIDENT of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle

* J. Craig Venter
- Founder, J. Craig Venter Institute

* David Botstein
- Professor of genomics at Princeton University

* Svante Paabo
- Director of evolutionary genetics, Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany.

* Phillip Sharp
- Institute professor, MIT

* Rudolph Jaenisch
- MEMBER, Whitehead Institute, and professor of biology at MIT

- CEO, chairman and co-founder of deCODE Genetics in Reykjavik.

* George Church
- Professor of genetics, Harvard University

* Jay Keasling
- Professor of chemical engineering and bioengineering, University of California, Berkeley

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Neanderthals Had Important Speech Gene, DNA Evidence Shows

from The New York Times

Published: October 19, 2007

Neanderthals, an archaic human species that dominated Europe until the arrival of modern humans some 45,000 years ago, possessed a critical gene known to underlie speech, according to DNA evidence retrieved from two individuals excavated from El Sidron, a cave in northern Spain.

The new evidence stems from analysis of a gene called FOXP2 which is associated with language. The human version of the gene differs at two critical points from the chimpanzee version, suggesting that these two changes have something to do with the fact that people can speak and chimps cannot.

The genes of Neanderthals seemed to have passed into oblivion when they vanished from their last refuges in Spain and Portugal some 30,000 years ago, almost certainly driven to extinction by modern humans. But recent work by Svante Paabo, a biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has made it clear that some Neanderthal DNA can be extracted from fossils.

Dr. Paabo, Dr. Johannes Krause and Spanish colleagues who excavated the new bones say they have now extracted the Neanderthal version of the relevant part of the FOXP2 gene. It is the same as the human version, they report in today's issue of Current Biology.

Because many other genes are also involved in the faculty of speech, the new finding suggests but does not prove that Neanderthals had human-like language.

"There is no reason to think Neanderthals couldn't speak like humans with respect to FOXP2, but obviously there are many other genes involved in language and speech," Dr. Paabo said.

The human version of the FOXP2 gene apparently swept through the human population before the Neanderthal and modern human lineages split apart some 350,000 years ago.

But until more is known about what FOXP2 does in the brain, it is hard to know what powers were conferred by the sweep, said Gary Marcus, a psychologist at New York University who has written about the evolution of language. "Perhaps Neanderthals had some rudiments of language, but then again, maybe not."

A new strain of mice may have something to say about how FOXP2 affects language. Dr. Paabo has developed mice whose FOXP2 genes have been replaced with the human version. The mice have extra neuronal connections in their brains and make an unusual sound. "There seems to be a change in vocalization — they squeak in a different way," Dr. Paabo said. "But there are no obvious differences in behavior; in most ways they are normal mice."

The ability to fish out a specific gene of interest from the Neanderthal genome is a remarkable technical feat, if that has indeed been achieved. The results "have the potential to become a keystone in our understanding of human evolution," wrote an anonymous referee who reviewed Dr. Paabo's report for Current Biology.

The study of human evolution may take a giant leap forward if Dr. Paabo should recover the entire Neanderthal genome, at least in draft form, a feat he said he hopes to accomplish by next year.

But two sudden clouds have overshadowed this grand prospect. One is that the new finding about FOXP2 sharply contradicts an earlier result Dr. Paabo announced five years ago.

Surveying the human version of FOXP2 in populations around the world, Dr. Paabo found in 2002 that everyone had essentially the same version of the gene. This happens when a new version of a gene confers such a survival advantage that it sweeps through the population. This sweep had occurred sometime within the last 200,000 years, Dr. Paabo and colleagues reported in an article in Nature.

That date supported a proposal by Richard Klein of Stanford University, based on archaeological evidence, that the modern human population had undergone some neurological change around 50,000 years ago, which enabled their populations to expand and emerge from Africa. The neurological change could have been the perfection of modern language, given that few evolutionary advances could be more valuable to a social species.

But Dr. Paabo's new report pushes back the language-related changes in FOXP2 to at least 350,000 years ago, the time that the Neanderthal and modern human lineages split, a date that no longer supports Dr. Klein's thesis.

Pushed by the referees of his new report to say why the old one was so wrong, Dr. Paabo told the editors of Current Biology that the calculations underlying the younger date were "not flawed but rely on assumptions that are necessary but also universally known to be oversimplifications of the reality."

While the assumptions may be well known to population geneticists, the caveats were not so clear to others. Dr. Klein said he was disappointed to have lost the genetic support from Dr. Paabo's work but had not changed his views. "The archaeological record suggests a major change in human behavior 50,000 years ago, and I think there is overwhelming evidence for that."

A second cloud over Dr. Paabo's work with Neanderthal DNA is the ever-present danger of contamination with the human DNA, especially since Dr. Paabo reports finding the human version of FOXP2 in Neanderthal bones.

Most fossil bones in museum collections, and even the chemical reagents used to analyze genetic material, are contaminated with human DNA. The contaminant often overwhelms the faint residual traces of Neanderthal DNA, which is hard at best to tell apart since the sequence of units is so similar.

Dr. Paabo has struggled valiantly to cope with the contamination issue. He has recovered the DNA sequence of Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA, a kind that is separate from the main genome in the cell's nucleus. By measuring the ratio of Neanderthal to human mitochondrial DNA, he can assess the degree of contamination in a sample.

Last year, to lay the groundwork for his analysis of the entire Neanderthal genome, Dr. Paabo decoded the sequence of many DNA fragments, and sent samples to a second laboratory for independent analysis.

This seemed a considerable feat. But in an article soon to be published in the journal PLoS Genetics, Jeffrey D. Wall and Sung K. Kim, two biologists at the University of California, San Francisco, say there are serious inconsistencies between the Neanderthal sequences Dr. Paabo published last year and those of the second laboratory, the Joint Genome Center Institute in Walnut Creek, Calif., headed by Edward M. Rubin.

The bottom line of their analysis is that Dr. Rubin's results were probably correct but Dr. Paabo's were highly contaminated with human DNA.

Dr. Paabo said he agreed in general with Drs. Wall and Kim's criticisms but noted the DNA extracts for both studies had been made in his clean room. He had then sent the samples for his own analysis to another laboratory, where the contamination could perhaps have occurred.

Dr. Paabo has now added extra safeguards, he said, such as tagging all the Neanderthal DNA extracted in his clean room.

For the FOXP2 analysis, he and his Spanish colleagues arranged for the bones to be excavated under sterile conditions and immediately frozen. In addition he analyzed the Neanderthal Y chromosome, showing it was very different from the human Y chromosome, and so provided a second test along with mitochondrial DNA to differentiate human and Neanderthal samples.

Dr. Wall said that in the new report Dr. Paabo and his colleagues "have been much more careful than they were before to control contamination, but I think it still remains a small possibility."

Why was such a striking result not presented to a better known journal such as Nature? Dr. Paabo replied that he had done so, but that "Nature rejected it without review. I was surprised."

FOXP2 first came to light in a large London family, half of whose members had subtle defects in their speech and understanding. Geneticists discovered that one of their two copies of FOXP2 was inactivated by a mutation.

The gene "provides an exciting molecular window into brain circuits that are important in speech," said Simon Fisher of Oxford University, a member of the team that discovered the FOXP2 mutation. Neanderthals and mice are not the only species contributing to the discussion. Echo-locating bats have a distinctive change in their FOXP2 gene at the same location as the human changes. Bats that don't hunt with sonar do not have these changes, a team of Chinese biologists, led by Gang Li and Shuyi Zhang of the East China Normal University in Shanghai, report in the current issue of the journal PLoS One.

This suggests FOXP2 may have evolved in bats to support the rapid motor sequencing involved in echolocation. Similar tweaking of FOXP2 could have occurred in the human lineage to support the fine motor sequencing involved in speech, Dr. Fisher said.

Original Article in Current Biology can be found here

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Bonobo and Chimpanzee Blog

Visit Vanessa Wood's Blog to read her updates while she and other researchers from the MPI-EVA, study chimpanzee and bonobo cognition in sanctuaries across Africa

Click the link to go to the Bonobo Handshake Blog

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Peter Walsh Discusses Great Ape Conservation on Minnesota Public Radio - October 11

(photo from the Princeton Weekly Bulletin)

From the Primate-Science mailing list

On Thursday, October 11, Minnesota Public Radio will host an hour-long program on the worsening situation of the western gorilla, which has been recently reassessed as Critically Endangered. To explore this and related issues in great ape conservation, MPR will be interviewing Peter Walsh of the Max Planck Institute, whose research has documented the severe effects of Ebola on great ape populations, and Michael Hoffmann, a biodiversity analyst with IUCN and a key figure in the recent great apes assessment.

Their discussion will be hosted on MPR's "Midmorning," a live radio program airing every weekday morning. Peter Walsh and Michael Hoffmann will discuss the conservation status of the western gorilla with the host of Midmorning, Kerri Miller, and will also be answering selected listener calls and emails. The program begins at 10:00 am Central Standard Time (GMT -06:00) and will be available through streaming audio on the Midmorning website at

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sign the Petition against Another Sell-Out of British Columbia's Ancient Temperate Rainforests Possible


Rare mountain caribou threatened by further closed door, secret forest negotiations; survival depends upon ending logging in the full range of their ancient temperate rainforest habitat

If you did not like the negotiations that signed away two-thirds of British Columbia's (BC) Great Bear Rainforest for first time industrial logging of priceless ancient temperate rainforests, you will want to know that something even worse is happening in BC, Canada's Inland Temperate Rainforest, home of the world's only mountain caribou. These special caribou are totally dependent upon large areas of intact old-growth forest for their survival. But they are critically endangered and declining rapidly, with only about 1,800 animals left. The reason is that there has been too much logging and road building in their habitat... The caribou spend most of the year at high elevations, but twice each year they must descend to the valley bottoms to find shelter and food in the lush inland temperate rainforest. It is critical to their survival. This forest type contains ancient cedar trees commonly over 500 years old, and a spectacular array of rare and endangered lichens and plants. The cedar trees are storing huge amounts of carbon... The agency is now
conducting backroom negotiations between the timber industry, winter recreationists and businesses, and environmental groups ForestEthics and Wildsight... If the past is any guide, the likely outcome will be unrepresentative, foundation based environmental organizations compromising away vast areas of intact ancient temperate rainforest for vague promises that industrial logging will be "ecosystem based" or some other such nonsense. Prompt global citizen response is needed to continue advocating to end ancient forest logging.


Monday, October 8, 2007

More Bili Apes

I opened my email today to find 2 letters about the Cleve Hick's Bili Ape post. A letter from distinguished wildlife champion Karl Ammann followed by a rebuttal by Cleve Hicks who has lived and worked in the Bili area for 18 months since 2004.

I am glad to provide this blog as a forum to discuss these matters. I by no means pretened to know what is happening right now in DRC, but I do know how absolutely devastating it can be to see the conflict between the apes we want to protect and the people living in ape range countries that have so much less than us (those of us living in developed nations). On the other hand, I agree with Karl Ammann that we have too much "feel good conservation" going around (not that the Bili area falls under that title in my opinion). The situation is bad for all the great apes and tough decisions need to be made now by those leading the huge number of conservation agencies working in Africa (and Asia) today.

This by no means is a black and white issue and I think both letters raise some very interesting points (when they are not slandering one another).

I also want to remind you that all is not a lost cause, there have been efforts in DRC around field sites to eliminate the presence of poachers who are emptying the forests of the country. One such example is Jonas Eriksson's work around Gottfried Hohmann's bonobo research site in Solonga National Park. (Original posting HERE with correction by GH HERE).

Finally, I would like to say that I really agree with Cleve's PS. At the end of the day, it is our fault in developped countries, as we have created a market for goods from Africa (and Asia). It is us who turn a blind eye to where the materials we use originate. Until we each became much more conscientious buyers, it will do little good to place blame on the people at the source who have so little to begin with. Its pretty basic supply and demand.

For more information on the Bili Apes please visit Cleve Hick's and Karl Ammann's sites

Karl Amman's letter:
Dear Mimi,

a third party suggested I look at the DNAPes web page and your home page concerning a recent posting on the Bili Chimps.

Below I message I sent to Hans Wasmoeth and Cleve Hicks several weeks ago. It clearly illustrates that the Bili chimps were in big trouble long before any miners moved in.
Their troubles increased once conservation started taking a back seat to collecting scientific data and the main policy became not to rock the boat in any way and to look the other way where and whenever possible.

As ususal this was then combined with new hype and selling of feel good conservation tales which had nothing to do with the realities on the ground.

In the interest of providing the readers with a balanced message I do feel this should also go up on your DNAPES web page.


Karl Ammann

(the reason the Azande of northern Congo hava light foot print is because their are very few of them and the population is declining which in turn and according to the resident missionaries is mostly a result of inbreeding.
Inviting in miners by the traditional chiefs is this opposite of wisdom. It will affect their tribal cohesion and once and for all dispell the rumours of their powerfull witchcraft which so far has kept neighbouring tribes clean of the area.)

Dear Hans,

I guess the fact that we have had some major differences of opinion as far as the Bili conservation project is concerned seems beyond doubt. However I always had high hopes that in the end the project was more then a tax shelter scheme.I am no longer sure that this analysis was right.

I just spent some 12 days in the region with some journalists and while our main objective was to establish the demand pattern for elephant meat compared to that of ivory, we did conduct a wide range of interviews, which included residents of Bili on visit in Zemio, as well as some extensive low level survey flying over many parts of the Bili Uere protected areas and other parts of the CAR and DRC (the first
elephant we managed to spot from the air was however at Dzanga Sangha, while Ron kept pointing out saline/clearings where only ten years ago dozens of elephants would have congregated late in the afternoon).

As such the results of this survey were more then just distressing:

- It would appear that the U$ half a million 'bridge to nowhere' built by MMe Live, combined with the hundred thousands you have put into the coffee scheme have resulted in some kind of an economic boom scenario for Bili. We were told that there are now even large new shops selling electronic equipment among other items. The result, as should have been expected, is an influx of new residents which combined with the new disposable income seem to have drastically increased the demand for bush meat. This influx also includes two prominent hunters from the Gadia village one of them being Caiman, and the fact that they do not seem to have turned to carpentry or agriculture at their new residence.

- We were told a wide range of ammunition and guns are now available for sale in Bili ( a few years ago the lack of ammunition was one of the main restrictive factors as far as poaching was concerned).

- According to Shadraka, during a recent visit by Chief Selesi to Zemio he declared that he had outlawed the sale of elephant meat in the Bili market but that the sale of any other bush meat was not restricted

- The end result appears to be that the bush meat supply and demand pattern has drastically changed: While pretty much all the elephant meat still comes out through Zemio there is now a flow of smaller bush meat items FROM THE BORDER AREA INTO BILI.

- Ron reported that on his most recent trip to Bili he saw five baskets of elephant meat being transported openly on the road between Badai and the camp and that he was able to smell it far down the trail.(something you would have been aware of).

- The reports from Shadrak state that one of the former trackers (Commando) has gone back to active elephant hunting and has killed several this year in the Gangu area.

- Several other parties have killed elephants out of the last remaining herd of elephants along the Gangu. This includes a Mr. Martin and Mr. Merci who delivered an elephant in smoked form to Gadia on May 2nd.

- On May third another elephant arrived in 'the same condition' this time hunted by Tanibouaniwia (the guy Alexis managed to get arrested at one point - albeit without much impact it would appear) in the Ebale area and again transported via Badai and Bulamassi.

- On May fourth the wife of a hunter came to the mission to sell the meat of a hippo which her husband had shot on the Dume River and which again came out via Bulamassi
(I have little doubt that in these hunting forays in the area of the research camp and the Gangu river the research transects are being used to gain access to the forest and transport the meat)

- On May 6th another elephant and ivory arrived in Gadia, hunted by Tanibouaniwia's assistant from the Ebale/village forest again involving the transport through Badai and via Bulamassi to Adama.

- While in the past we contemplated to set up hidden trip cameras to monitor the elephant meat traffic on forest trails running from Ebale up to the Assa River, this no longer seems to be an issue: The meat is now again transported openly on bicycles (most likely including coffee project bicycles) along the main road through chief Selesi's village and the main coffee buying area.

- We also obtained the new custom duty tax list at Zemio and nothing much has changed as far as importing bush meat from the DRC except it has all gotten a lot more detailed. Besides the 'paniers' of smoked meat - which are almost always elephant - there are now taxes for individual pieces and lots of 10 pieces and as a new addition specific taxes for dead antelopes and monkeys. There is little doubt that dead chimps are covered by this and Sadraka has reported the arrival of chimp meat but it also covers a wide range of lesser primates which are all covered under Appendix 2 of the CITES convention two which both the DRC and CAR are signatories.

- Elephant meat in Zemio is no longer openly sold in the market but there now is a very active house to house trade - as by the wife of the Gadia hunter who came to sell hippo meat to MMe Wendy

- A French trophy hunter with a camp on the way to Rafai, which we interviewed, confirmed that there was still regularly meat shipments which came via Ginekoumba and Dembia and that Mmm Reimond from Rafai was still in the meat trading business.

- The cameraman also run the camera while discussing ivory with a Chadian ivory trader in town and while I have not seen a transcript yet he stated that the ivory trade had picked up and was very active at the moment.

I have for the last ten years had one mantra, that of preaching independent third party auditing of conservation projects and to hopefully learn from mistakes. As I said before, I am more then just distressed to see that I initiated a conservation project which now seem to go the route of many of the others, becoming a major part of the problem rather then a solution and without any real effort being made to evaluate the overall impact.(putting Shadrakas reports up on your web page might be an initial step).

If all the above is combined with the fact that the DRC law does not allow commercial cultivation in protected areas and that a big part of the coffee buying project covers areas in the hunting and wildlife reserve, I would have thought that such an independent third party - unannounced - audit would be in everybodys interest but certainly in that of the last hippos and elephants in the Bili Uere area.

I also have now been maintaining for years that conservation projects in this part of the world have no hope to succeed if they do not combine an arsenal of carrots and sticks. Buying the coffee clearly amounts to a major carrot, withdrawing the coffee income and investing it instead in real and serious law enforcement by well trained ecoguards - from outside the project area - could be relevant sticks. At this stage to pretend things are under control and that no additional measurers are needed and that the present approach is working has a high chance of The Wasmoeth Wildlife Foundation, in the end, presiding over the last elephant and hippo of the area ending up in an Azande cooking pot.

Ball in your court


Cleve Hick's letter:
Dear Mimi,
If you do decide to post Ammann's response to my posting, I hope you will post the following as well (but I will understand if you choose not to post either):

Ammann quit the Bili project in early 2005 and has not returned to the area since. The closest he came was Zemio early this year, and much of his reporting from there is based on hearsay and speculation. I actually lived in Bili for a total of 18 months, in 2004-2005, and then 2006-2007. I also spent much time surveying nearby collectivities in 2006. The results can be found on our website presentation. If Ammann choses to ignore the reports of the very scientist he sent into the area, and instead base everything on gossip from sources living 60 km away from Bili, that is his choice. It seems to me he does not have much interest in the pristine Gangu Forest that is currently at risk, and is more interested in proving his point that DRC is corrupt and incompetent, and that all conservationists and researchers (except for him, of course) are sell-outs.

Ammann expresses a clear contempt for the Azande people. He never took the time to learn their language (or even Lingala) and now all he can talk about is their inbreeding. I lived with these people for over a year, and they do have much wisdom. If their leaders have made a bad choice (or have been forced to make that bad choice by outsiders wielding large amounts of money, and probably weapons) that does not mean that their society is worthless, and should not be protected. They have certainly done a better job of guarding their charismatic megafauna than, say, Switzerland.

Re Ammann's claim that hunters have been using our transects to access Gangu: The Dume River boders the Guamonge and Sasa Collectivities to the east. It is perhaps 70 km from Gangu. So why on earth would Ammann imply that a hippo and some elephants were being hunted by poachers using our two year-old transects at Gangu? I can personally attest that this is not the case. First of all, as far as we can tell there are no hippos in the Gangu (it is a very small river). In 2006, we verified that the transects had become completely overgrown and had not been used for anything since our departure (indeed, you could hardly tell they were there). It would have been impossible to follow them even two years ago, as we disguised them by marking them with flagging tape on the savannahs and later removing the tape. Ammann has an active imagination, and his baseless accusations here are nothng short of slander.

It is nothing more than idle (and inflammatory) speculation that TWWF bikes are being used to transport elephant meat through the Bili area. I suppose that this claim is based on missionary pilot Ron Pontier's observation of what was probably elephant meat being carried by bike near Baday (which, Ron acknowledged to me that very day, could have been buffalo meat). This was one incident. I have made the Bili-Baday walk numerous times, and have observed smoked fish and red-tailed monkeys being transported, but never elephant meat nor that of any other large mammals (contrast this to the neighboring collectivity of Sasa, where during a one week survey I found an orphan chimpanzee for sale and saw two big loads of unidentified mammal meat being carried across the Mbomu; Jeroen Swinkels encountered porters carrying elephantt meat,and photographed the meat). No one is claiming that elephants have not been hunted in the Bili area, before and after my arrival. But to me, it was very interesting to see that elephants were still numerous at Gangu and even near Baday (within 5 km!) when I returned in 2006-2007, even after a year in which the coffee had not been bought. We still have a chance at Gangu. However, the gold mining threat may put an end to that chance.

Most outrageous are Ammann's repeated claims that the conservation project was sabotaged by a focus on research. This implies that the situation at Bili (prior to the gold mining invasion) has actually worsened since my arrival in 2004. Again for the record, the research camp was evacuated in early 2004 due to threats from poachers, several months prior to my arrival. On the very first day of my arrival in August 2004, I was sent by Ammann to film a police commandant hiding ivory in his house. Three chimpanzee orphans had been confiscated from Bili and neighboring areas, again, prior to my arrival. And elephants were being killed going all the way back to Ammann's earliest reports on the region - there are photos in Consuming Nature of our very own trackers proudly displaying elephant meat prior to the initiation of the project. Yes, elephants were being killed during my time at Bili (but not at Gangu!!!) as well as before. During my time at Bili, most of the evidence for elephant killing came from Roa, far to the SW, and in the Sasa collectivity in the E (from which elephants have been almost completely extirpated, except for a small population near the Dume, which is probably the source of much of the meat arriving in Zemio). This is nowhere near Gangu. Whether or not the elephants and chimpanzees at Gangu would have done just as well without the presence of the conservation project is difficult to know. But there is no question in my mind that the poaching rate will increase dramatically with thousands of gold miners installed in the area. Why doesn't Ammann focus his anger on that outrage instead of attacking his former colleagues who have not yet given up on the Gangu herds?

The Bili chimps are actually part of what is probably the largest continuous distribution of chimpanzees left on the planet. Our survey work has shown that they are abundant over thousands of square km, and exist even within 4 km of towns like Bili. Far from the roads (at Gangu) they are relatively fearless of humans, which makes me think that they have suffered very low or non-existent hunting pressure in these areas. In areas closer to towns, they are terrified of humans. These are the chimpanzees that I was assigned to habituate by Ammann when I first joined the project in 2004 (indeed, Ammann had been trying for years to habituate them with sugar cane). For the record, based on the chimpanzees' fear of humans and continuing problems with local authorities, I (in agreement with Ammann and Wasmoeth) ceased efforts to habituate these apes in January 2005, and instead embarked on transect work. It was on this transect work that we found the naive chimpanzees and a large population of elephants, which Ammann had assured me over and over again had already been killed. This research obviously had more to do with conservation than chimpanzee behavior.

It seems to me that Ammann's tarring of his conservation partner as running a tax shelter scheme is less an effort to protect the fauna of the Bili area than a stunt to draw attention to himself. Hans Wasmoeth has made repeated trips to the area and to the seats of government in Kinshasa and Kisangani to speak up for Bili. Do I have a solution to the onslaught of commercialism that is devastating Congo's wild places as we speak? No. I am not so sure that Karl Ammann's brand of 'feel bad conservation' is having much of an effect either. But I have not given up. Comfortable though it might be to work somewhere else (where I actually could do the research I was invited in to do, without being harrassed by corrupt officials), I am going to try and stick it out in Congo, because the world needs to know what it is that we are about to lose. Ammann has not been rocking any boats in Bili for over two years now, and seems content to rain down abuse on his friends from his mountaintop in Kenya. I would encourage Ammann to concentrate his considerable intellectual powers on the real problem, which is of unbridled commercial exploitation of African wilderness, which threatens to destroy elephants, chimpanzees, and yes,ancient cultures like those of the Azande for which he seems to have so little respect.

Cleve Hicks

PS. While it may be easy to blame Bili's problems on Madam Liv and her bridge, and The Wasmoeth Wildlife Foundation, might the real culprits be rich Westerners and Asians buying up gold and ivory without even wondering about the effects on rich and complex African ecosystems, and traditional African cultures?

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Very Important Scientist of the Month (again): Kevin Langergraber

Dr. Langergraber and colleague's new paper in PLOSone entitled "The Genetic Signature of Sex-Biased Migration in Patrilocal Chimpanzees and Humans" came out this week.

Click on the title below to read the open-access article:
The Genetic Signature of Sex-Biased Migration in Patrilocal Chimpanzees and Humans
Kevin E. Langergraber, Heike Siedel, John C. Mitani, Richard W. Wrangham, Vernon Reynolds, Kevin Hunt, Linda Vigilant

For other papers from our lab, go to our lab webpage

Shameless Self Promotion

Woo Hoo! DNApes was linked from

check it out here

This is a great resource for all things primate and not just the really biased stuff that I post that I'm interested in.

Check out their post on the recent mountain gorilla killings but I am reposting the Al Jazeera news report here because it is such a great find (the original DNApes post on the killings can be found here):

Monday, September 24, 2007

Bili Gold Rush Crisis

Received an email from Cleve Hicks today (see original post on Cleve and the Bili apes here) and am posting a slightly abridged version:

For the full story on the Bili apes, I recommend that you go to the website , with 2 ebooks containing descriptions, photos and films of these magnificent beings, and the pristine world that they inhabit.
Unfortunately, I have some very bad news to share with you. In June of this year, our study area was invaded by over a thousand gold miners. It seems that the local chiefs have made a very short-sighted choice, and abandoned their collaboration with the conservation and research projects in favor of greedy exploitation. Unless something can be done very quickly, it is only a matter of time before the miners, and the poachers in their midst, make their way out to the untouched Gangu wilderness with their guns and snares. The elephants would be the first to go, and the Bili apes would soon after suffer for their innocence of humans. We are doing everything we can to stop this developing tragedy, but it may be too late. I am returning to DRC in 3 weeks to survey an area called Aketi 200 km SW of Bili, and hopefully I will be able to enlist the ICCN (Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature) to help us reclaim Bili for conservation. But war is raging in the east, and I have just read that the Chinese government has loaned DRC $5 billion dollars to benefit the mining industry. There are very powerful forces arrayed against the protection of the Bili habitat. The loss of Bili would be a senseless tragedy --- we are talking about thousands of square km of pristine habitat for elephants, ground-nesting chimpanzees, forest-visiting lions and hyenas, giant pangolins, etc. Also to suffer will be the Azande people, who have about the lightest ecological footprint of any human group with which I have ever worked, and stand to lose their traditional society with all of its wisdom.
Please feel free to post this letter, and also a link I have made to a letter I posted on this subject at,1650,The-Bili-Apes-Are-in-Trouble,Cleve-Hicks-of-the-Bili-Ape-Project.
And thank you so much for your interest in our work!
All the best,
Cleve Hicks

Friday, August 31, 2007

DNA used to trace origin of Taiping Four

image from

DNA used to trace origin of Taiping Four
From the Globe and Mail


August 31, 2007

JOHANNESBURG -- It has taken years for primatologists and animal-rights organizations to piece together the story of the Taiping Four gorillas.

Analysis of their DNA shows they are related to gorillas in Cameroon. It's likely that their mothers were shot by poachers and they were smuggled across the border and sold to a zoo in Ibadan in northern Nigeria. Then they were shipped to the zoo in Taiping, Malaysia, in 2001, as part of an "exchange" of zoo animals, although it was never clear what the Taiping zoo was meant to be sending to Ibadan.

In fact, according to documents unearthed by the International Primate Protection League, the gorillas were sold from Ibadan by a Nigerian trader working with Nigerians in Malaysia. The Malaysian government allowed the import of the gorillas, as captive-bred animals but - as the IPPL points out - it should have taken them just two minutes to figure out that there is no gorilla-breeding program in Nigeria and the gorillas had to have been wild, and thus their import was a violation of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species.

The IPPL alerted the Malaysian government, which eventually seized the gorillas. But what to do with them?

Somehow, apparently as a result of a close friendship between a CITES official and the then-director of South Africa's National Zoological Gardens, they wound up in Pretoria. (South Africa was already complicit, because the gorillas were flown to Malaysia through Johannesburg with nary a raised eyebrow, although again, the export of live gorillas from Nigeria was clearly illegal.)

And there the gorillas have sat since 2004, while the governments of Nigeria, Cameroon, South Africa and Malaysia argue about where they should go, and when. The International Fund for Animal Welfare has been poised to ship them to a primate centre in Cameroon for years, and even got so far as to book flights and have crates made, but bureaucratic pettiness has kept the Taiping Four sitting in Pretoria.

Nigeria was the only country to take action about this smuggling case; complicit
officials in Ibadan were fired and a commission of inquiry held to map out the smuggling route. The fund hopes the gorillas will finally leave Pretoria next month.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Bonobos, Left & Right: Primate Politics Heats Up Again as Liberals & Conservatives Spindoctor Science

by Frans de Waal
(for original New Yorker article go to THIS post)

Imagine that you’re a writer and you have decided to offer your readers a first-hand account of the politically correct primate, the idol of the left, known for its “gay” relations, female supremacy, and pacific life-style. Your focus is the bonobo: a relative of the chimpanzee, and genetically equally close to us as the chimpanzee. You go all the way to a place called the Democratic Republic of the Congo to see these darling apes frolic in their natural habitat, hoping to come back with new and exciting material.

Alas, you barely get to see any bonobos. You watch a few of them quietly sitting in the trees, eating nuts. That’s all. This is what happened to Ian Parker, who nevertheless managed to write thirteen pages of carefully crafted prose as a “far-flung correspondent” for The New Yorker. We learn about the “hot, soupy air,” the rainstorms, the mud streams, the sound of falling fruit shells, and his German host, Gottfried Hohmann, who is described as rather unsympathetic.1

The main message of Parker’s piece could of course have been that fieldwork is no picnic, but instead he went for profound revelation: bonobos are not nearly as nice and sexual as they have been made out to be. Given that the bonobo’s reputation has been a thorn in the side of homophobes as well as Hobbesians, the right-wing media jumped with delight. The bonobo “myth” could finally be put to rest. Parker’s piece was gleefully picked up by The Wall Street Journal and Dinesh D’Souza (yes, the same one who blamed 9/11 on the left), who accused “liberals” of having fashioned the bonobo into their mascot. D’Souza urged them to stick with the donkey.2

This might all have been amusing if it weren’t for the fact that these are not just political skirmishes. At issue is what we know. Parker presented his trip as a fact-finding mission that had unearthed revolutionary new insights. His message was that bonobos are killer apes, just like their cousins, the chimpanzees. The animal kingdom remained “red in tooth and claw,” as it ought to be.

Yet, the most striking cases of bonobo aggression that he reported have been known for decades, and actually didn’t come from the natural habitat, even less from first-hand observation by our brave explorer. A typical description was given by Jeroen Stevens, a Flemish biologist, of a gang of five bonobos assaulting a single victim at Apenheul Zoo, in the Netherlands. “They were gnawing on his toes. I’d already seen bonobos with digits missing, but I’d thought they would have been bitten off like a dog would bite. But they really chew. There was flesh between their teeth.”1

Many such cases have been documented at zoos over the years, and have actually led to changes in policies of how to keep bonobos. This is why I warned in Bonobo: The Forgotten Apenot to romanticize the species: “All animals are competitive by nature and cooperative only under specific circumstances.”3

The second part of Parker’s revisionist attempt was the suggestion that bonobo sexual tendencies have been grossly exaggerated. Since most observations of bonobo sex come from zoos, they can be safely ignored, we were told, on the assumption that captivity distorts behavior. The problem is, of course, the incongruity of considering zoo observations valid in relation to aggression, yet worthless in relation to sex. One either accepts both or rejects both.

Perhaps it is time to go over the evidence once again and see if bonobos are as special as they have been made out to be. Unfortunately, the evidence that we have is relatively old. The impression that there are new discoveries is merely a product of creative writing. The DRC is only now emerging from a bloody civil war that has kept field workers away. Knowledge about bonobos in their natural habitat has been at a virtual standstill for about a decade.

But there exists excellent field data from before this time. Combined with reports from captive apes, these provide a rather coherent picture. The most important fact, which has remained unchanged over the last three decades of bonobo research, is that there exist no confirmed reports of lethal aggression, neither from the field nor from captivity. For chimpanzees, in contrast, we have dozens of cases of adult males killing other males, of males killing infants, of females killing infants, and so on. This is in the wild. In captivity, I myself documented how two male chimpanzees brutally mutilated a third, castrating him in the process, which led to his death.4 There is absolutely no dearth of such information on chimpanzees, which contrasts greatly with the zero incidence in bonobos.

Reviewing chimpanzee violence in Demonic Males, Richard Wrangham went on to draw the following comparison with “the gentle ape,” the bonobo: “we can think of them as chimpanzees with a threefold path to peace. They have reduced the level of violence in relations between the sexes, in relations among males, and in relations between communities.”5

None of this is to say that bonobos live in a fairy tale. When first writing about their behavior, I spoke of “sex for peace” precisely because bonobos had plenty of conflicts. There would obviously be no need for peacemaking if they lived in perfect harmony. Sexual conflict resolution is typical of females, but also occurs among males: “Vernon regularly chased Kalind into the dry moat … After such incidents the two males had almost ten times as many intensive contacts as was normal for them. Vernon would rub his scrotum against Kalind’s buttocks, or Kalind would present his penis for masturbation.”6

It is entirely possible that one day we will discover serious, perhaps deadly aggression in this species, and it probably will be females collectively attacking a male, since this is the fiercest aggression seen at zoos (and a good argument against attributing female dominance to male “chivalry”). For now, however, bonobos offer the opposite picture. Whereas most observed chimpanzee killings occur during territorial disputes, bonobos engage in sex at their boundaries. They can be unfriendly to neighbors, but soon after a confrontation has begun, females have been seen rushing to the other side to copulate with males or mount other females. Since it is hard to have sex and wage war at the same time, the scene rapidly turns into socializing. It ends with adults from different groups grooming each other while their children play.

These reports go back to 1990, and come mainly from Takayoshi Kano, the Japanese scientist who worked the longest with wild bonobos.7,8 While writing Bonobo, I interviewed field workers, such as Kano and also Hohmann. Asking the latter how his bonobos react to another group, Hohmann replied: “It starts out very tense, with shouting and chasing, but then they settle down and there is female-female and male-female sex between members of the two communities. Grooming may occur, but remains tense and nervous.”9 This is not exactly the stuff expected of killer apes, although Hohmann did add that groups do not always mingle and that he never saw males from different groups groom.

Perhaps the bonobo’s peaceful image can be countered with descriptions of them catching and eating prey? Isn’t this violent behavior? Not really: feeding has very little to do with aggression. Already in the 1960s, Konrad Lorenz explained the difference between a cat hissing at another cat and a cat stalking a mouse. The neural circuitry of the two patterns is different: the first expresses fear and aggression, the second is motivated by hunger. Thus, herbivores are not any less aggressive than carnivores — as anyone who has been chased by a bull can attest. The fact that bonobos run after duikers and kill squirrels — which has been seen many times — is therefore best kept out of debates about aggression.

As for sex, I perceive the shyness of many scientists as a problem. It leads them to either ignore sexual behavior or call it something else. They will say that bonobos are “very affectionate,” when the apes in fact engage in behavior that, if shown in the human public sphere, would get you quickly arrested. Two females may be pressing vulvas and clitorises together, rapidly rubbing them sideways in a pattern known as genito-genital rubbing (or “hoka-hoka”), and Hohmann, who has seen this pattern many times, wonders: “But does it have anything to do with sex? Probably not. Of course, they use the genitals, but is it erotic behavior or a greeting gesture that is completely detached from sexual behavior?”1

Fortunately, a United States court settled this monumental issue in the Paula Jones case against President Bill Clinton. It clarified that the term “sex” includes any deliberate contact with the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks. In short, when bonobos contact each other with their genitals (and squeal and show other signs of apparent orgasm), any sex therapist will tell you that they are “doing it.”10

Bonobos do it a lot, and not just between male and female. Nothing has changed in this regard. The only disagreement arose when Craig Stanford compared existing data in wild chimpanzees and bonobos. Stanford is an American primatologist who has studied chimpanzees but not bonobos, which may explain why he considered only adult heterosexual relations when claiming similar sex rates for both species.11 Since bonobos have sex in virtually all partner combinations, they were seriously short-changed by these calculations.

How much bonobos differ from chimpanzees was highlighted by a recent experiment on cooperation. Brian Hare and co-workers presented apes with a platform that they could pull close by working together. When food was placed on the platform, the bonobos clearly outperformed the chimpanzees in getting a hold of it. The presence of food normally induces rivalry, but the bonobos engaged in sexual contact, played together, and happily shared the food side by side. The chimpanzees, in contrast, were unable to overcome their competition.12 For two species to react so differently to the same experimental set-up leaves little doubt about a temperamental difference.

In another illustration, at a forested sanctuary at Kinshasa it was recently decided to merge two groups of bonobos that had lived separately, just so as to induce some activity. No one would ever dream of doing this with chimpanzees as the only possible outcome would be a blood bath. The bonobos produced an orgy instead.

In short, so long as we call sex “sex” and focus on known levels of intraspecific (as opposed to interspecific) violence, there is absolutely no reason to drop the claim that bonobos are relatively peaceful, and that sexual behavior serves a wide range of non-reproductive functions, including greeting, conflict resolution, and food sharing.

I understand the frustration of field workers with the image of bonobos as angels of peace, which is not only one-dimensional, but incorrect. On the other hand, anyone who objects to the occasional hyperbole (such as “chimpanzees are from Mars, bonobos are from Venus”), should realize that no one would ever have heard of the species — and no reporter would have considered them for a piece in The New Yorker — if they’d been described as merely affectionate. Possibly, one or two decades from now a new image of the bonobo will emerge, one more complex than what we have today. This is already happening thanks to detailed studies of their socio-ecology, observations that nuance the dynamics of female dominance, and video-analyses of their natural communication. No doubt, the return of bonobo field workers to Africa will significantly add to our knowledge.

But whatever we find out, a Hobbesian make-over of the bonobo is not to be expected any time soon. I just can’t see this ape go from being a gentle, sexy primate to a nasty, violent one. Japanese primatologist Takeshi Furuichi, perhaps the only scientist to have studied both chimpanzees and bonobos in the forest, said it best: “With bonobos everything is peaceful. When I see bonobos they seem to be enjoying their lives.”1
About the Author

Frans B. M. de Waal was trained as a zoologist and ethologist in the European tradition resulting in a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Utrecht, in 1977. In 1981, Dr. de Waal moved to the USA, first to Madison, Wisconsin, and now in a joint position in the Psychology Department of Emory University and at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, both in Atlanta. He is known for his popular books, such as Chimpanzee Politics (1982), Peacemaking Among Primates (1989, which received the Los Angeles Times Book Award), Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape (1997), and his latest, Our Inner Ape (2006). His current interests include food-sharing, social reciprocity, and cultural transmission in primates as well as the origins of morality and justice in human society.
References & Notes

1. Parker, I. (July 30, 2007). Swingers. The New Yorker: 48–61.
2. D’Souza, D. (2007). Bonobo Promiscuity? Another Myth Bites the Dust. AOL Newsbloggers.
3. de Waal, F. B. M. (1997). Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape, with photographs by Frans Lanting. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, p. 84.
4. de Waal, F. B. M. (1998 [1982]). Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes, Revised Edition. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
5. Wrangham, R. W., & Peterson, D. (1996). Demonic Males: Apes and the Evolution of Human Aggression. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, p. 204.
6. de Waal, F. B. M. (1989). Peacemaking among Primates. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 215.
7. Idani, G. (1990). Relations between unit-groups of bonobos at Wamba: Encounters and temporary fusions. African Study Monographs 11: 153–186.
8. Kano, T. (1992). The Last Ape: Pygmy Chimpanzee Behavior and Ecology. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
9. de Waal, F. B. M. (1997), p. 81.
10. Block, S. (2007). Bonobo Bashing in the New Yorker. Counterpunch.
11. Stanford, C. B. (1998). The social behavior of chimpanzees and bonobos. Current Anthropology 39: 399–407.
12. Hare, B., et al. (2007). Tolerance allows bonobos to outperform chimpanzees on a cooperative task. Current Biology 17: 1–5.