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."