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'

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Update: Researchers fight poaching with presence, not guns

Researchers fight poaching with presence, not guns
Gottfried Hohmann

From Nature Correspondence


Your News Feature 'Peaceful primates, violent acts' (Nature 447, 635–636; 2007) reports on the conflicts that arise when wild animals studied for research are threatened by poaching and the bush-meat trade. Regional and international conservation organizations can help, but sometimes individual researchers feel that more immediate measures are required. Local presence has been shown to be one of the most efficient conservation actions, and many research programmes, including the bonobo research project of the Max Planck Institute, have taken risks in continuing to work even when unrest prevails.

You tell the story of Jonas Eriksson, a PhD student who left his academic career to engage in an unusual form of conservation action. From your report, readers may have gained the impression that Eriksson has been engaging in firefights using guns obtained illegally, but this was not the case. The aim of the project was to strengthen the capacity of the guards of the Congolese wildlife authority (ICCN) and to lead joint patrols of villagers and park guards into areas of Salonga National Park where poachers operate. The guards from ICCN are armed with automatic weapons that are owned by the wildlife authority, with a mandate to use them for law enforcement.

We emphasize that the anti-poaching project is neither typical nor representative of the work of the Max Planck Society. Researchers at LuiKotal, in Salonga National Park, have never been armed. Carrying arms would violate national and international laws, and would be counterproductive to the goals of our research.

Conservation and research have to go hand in hand, without weapons. The pressures that we can exert are physical presence and a strong motivation to protect those who provide us with the information we seek. This is what Eriksson did when he started his Salonga mission, and it is what other researchers from our institute do at their field sites across the African continent.

Canadian Creationists: "Wow, Oh Boy"

What does that Darwin know anyway?
From the Globe and Mail - Tue. June 26. 07

If your picture of creationists is limited to barefoot hillbillies and Republican U.S. presidential candidates, it's time for your thinking to evolve.

New polls show that a larger share of Americans - 53 per cent - believe in evolution than do Ontario residents, only 51 per cent of whom believe that "human beings evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years."

Over all, 59 per cent of Canadians said they believe in evolution, according to the Angus Reid poll of 1,088 adults conducted June 12-13. Twenty-two per cent agreed that "God created human beings in their present form within the last 10,000 years," and 19 per cent told pollsters they weren't sure.

Even those who say they believe in evolution may be confused about what that means exactly. The poll found 42 per cent of Canadians agree that dinosaurs and humans co-existed on earth - but evolutionary theory says non-avian dinosaurs died out about 60 million years before humans evolved in their current form.

"Wow. Oh boy," responded Pam Willoughby, an anthropology professor at the University of Alberta. "We're obviously not getting our message across."

While the evidence for evolution, such as fossil records dating back millions of years, is clear and persuasive, Prof. Willoughby acknowledged that creationism has one big advantage over evolutionary theory: certainty. Even though evolution is a strong theory with overwhelming scientific support, it doesn't offer the 100-per-cent certainty of religious doctrine.

"Religion gives people a way of explaining the world," Prof. Willoughby said. "We're not in the belief business, we're in the science business."

She was cheered to learn that roughly one in five Canadians aren't sure whether they believe in evolution or creationism.

"We might be able to convince a few more," she said.

Don't count on it, said Ian Juby, a Chalk River, Ont.-based consultant to creationist museums. He says evolution opponents are gaining steam.

"Part of it is the controversy, and people getting fed up with having their views stifled," Mr. Juby said. "There are lines being drawn in the sand."

People whose religious beliefs lead them to creationism have more resources than ever to back them up these days. Mr. Juby estimates a dozen new creationist museums have opened in North America in the past five years.

He consulted on the Big Valley Creation Science Museum, which opened earlier this month in Alberta. Thousands of people have visited the state-of-the-art Creation Museum in Kentucky since it opened last month, not long after three of 10 Republican U.S. presidential candidates declared they don't believe in evolution.

According to the Angus Reid poll, Canadians who are younger than 34, have an income of more than $50,000 a year or are university-educated are significantly more likely to believe in evolution.

Quebeckers embrace evolution more than other Canadians, with 71 per cent saying they believe humans evolved over millions of years and only 9 per cent reporting they believe in creationism.

The poll demonstrates how secularization during Quebec's Quiet Revolution in the 1960s still resonates today, said Craig Worden, vice-president of public affairs for Angus Reid.

The results of the evolution poll "may speak to a need in our education system to speak to history that predates the 20th century," Mr. Worden said.

"There is a large segment of the population that is confused."

Evolution skeptics

A poll asked 1,088 adult Canadians what they believe about the origin of man.

Evolution: Human beings evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years

British Columbia 65%
Alberta 58%
Manitoba/Saskatchewan 56%
Ontario 51%
Quebec 71%
Atlantic 53%
Canada 59%
United States* 53%
(*Separate poll by USA Today of 1,007 American adults)

Creation: God created human beings in their present form within the last 10,000 years

British Columbia 21%
Alberta 28%
Manitoba/Saskatchewan 33%
Ontario 26%
Quebec 9%
Atlantic 26%
Canada 22%

Not Sure

British Columbia 15%
Alberta 14%
Manitoba/Saskatchewan 11%
Ontario 23%
Quebec 20%
Atlantic 21%
Canada 19%


Sunday, June 24, 2007

Fun at the Creation Museum!!!!

Taken from Blue Grass Roots
(Image from

This Saturday, I made my much anticipated field trip to the Answers in Genesis Creation Museum, a $27 million monstrosity devoted to religious fanaticism, disguised as “science”.

Two of my heretical friends and I ventured an hour north up I-75 from Lexington, just short of Cincinnati, to discover a museum full of shocking idiocy and unintentional humor.

Early in the museum, the visitor is given advice on the proper mind frame to have for your visit: “Don’t think, just listen and believe”. As you can see in the picture below, Human Reason is the enemy and God’s Word is the hero. Descartes represents Human Reason, saying “I think, therefore I am”. But God tells us there no need to waste your beautiful mind, for God says “I am that I am”.

So logic, reason and science are Bad; blind faith is Good.

“Reason” says the planets formed many billions of years ago. God’s Word says only 6,000 years ago.

“Reason” says the evolution began 14 billion years ago. God’s Word says creation began 6,000.years ago.

After showing the “days” (literally days) of creation, we venture into the 6th day of creation, when we meet Adam and Eve. A video recreation below shows how Adam was created. In about 3 seconds, a burst of wind swept up funnel of dirt and, “wah-la”, it turned into Adam. Oh, and the actor playing Adam? He happens to be a naughty, naughty, naughty boy.

Keep Reading and with AWESOME PICTURES at Blue Grass

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

UPDATE: very important scientist of the year - Svante Pääbo

click here to check out TIME's ACTUAL write up on Dr. Svante Pääbo.

click here to see my previous entry on this very important scientist.

Very Important Scientist of the Month - Jonas Eriksson

Primatology: Peaceful primates, violent acts
From Nature v447, pp635-636 (7 June 2007)

by Carl Gierstorfer

Brought up in the Congo basin, Jonas Eriksson has worked through a war and battled poachers to help reveal the secrets of bonobo societies. Carl Gierstorfer reports.

In 1998 in Lomako, a study site in the northwestern Équateur province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a peace-loving primate closely related to the chimpanzee showed its darker side. A group of bonobos (Pan paniscus) was feeding when a male started to act aggressively towards a female with an infant — an unwelcome act in the typically female-dominated primates. Suddenly, all hell broke loose. The females banded together to attack the male, and beat him viciously for more than a half hour. The other males fled, and the wounded aggressor disappeared, never to be seen again.

The event epitomizes a paradox in bonobo societies. DNA studies1 done at the site have shown that the females aren't related, so cooperation would not benefit their kin directly. So why would females cooperate to exclude aggressive males? That is one thing that Gottfried Hohmann and Barbara Fruth from the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, had been studying at the Lomako site for eight years before the thrashing. But soon after the incident, violent raids from a different primate — human rebels from nearby Rwanda — evolved into a full-blown war that eventually reached Lomako and forced the researchers to leave.

A year before the event, Jonas Eriksson (pictured), a former graduate student at the University of Uppsala in Sweden had joined the research team. The son of Swedish Baptist missionaries, Eriksson had spent his childhood in the pristine forests of the Salonga National Park in the central Congo basin and had gained a detailed knowledge of the region. While working on his degree, he learned about primate behaviour and field studies. The softly spoken 38-year-old says that he thought of his childhood hunting trips with bow and poison arrow and knew he could contribute something to the field. He was to prove instrumental in keeping the research going during the crisis.

In 2000, Hohmann and Eriksson set out on a trip worthy of Henry Morton Stanley's epic exploration of the Congo basin in the 1870s. They combed the better part of the bonobo's range — around 200,000 square kilometres — by foot and bicycle, hunting for bonobo faeces, scooping them from the forest floor, sealing them in plastic bags and sending them to Leipzig to sequence their DNA. Although a dirty job, this way of collecting DNA samples puts as little stress on the bonobos as possible. Their analysis of 34 males from four distinct sites2 showed that males from the same site had more similar Y chromosomes than did those from different sites, indicating that related males stay together, as they do in chimp societies. But mitochondrial DNA from these males, which is inherited down the female line, did not show such clustering, indicating that females tend to leave the group. Combined with their observation that females will work together to maintain their dominant status within their society, these findings further challenged the idea that genetic relatedness plays any part in female cooperation.

Brenda Bradley, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Cambridge, UK, says that many researchers realized that they were "overestimating genetic relatedness when they see cooperation." Eriksson and colleagues' work helped to clarify that issue by providing data on long-range gene flow in the apes, she says.

Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) have a similar kinship pattern but behave differently. Like the bonobos, female chimps in a group are generally unrelated. But unlike the bonobos, chimp societies tend to be dominated by the males. Whereas violent encounters are the norm in the chimp society, conflicts such as that observed at Lomako are rare in bonobos. Perturbations to bonobos' social order are generally defused through sexual acts, often in homoerotic encounters between females.

Eriksson and Hohmann had been hunting for more than just bonobo droppings on their trek. They had also been looking for a new study site and settled on the southern reaches of Salonga National Park. Eriksson's mastery of the Congolese language and culture were integral to securing permission from villagers to use the site. "He has a strong emotional attachment to Congo and the Congolese people," Hohmann says.

Fruth says that she admires Eriksson's ability to penetrate the Congolese culture. But his intimate link also has its downsides: Fruth says that Eriksson's 'Congolese' way of approaching things means that he refuses the pace of the western world and prefers a more laid-back lifestyle. "He has to be pushed to bring things to an end," he says. Nevertheless, the team managed to secure the study site in 2000, and work could resume. For Hohmann, Fruth and Eriksson, a new opportunity to explore the bonobo paradox began to take shape.

The researchers think that the coopperation between unrelated females to keep aggressive males in check was to protect against infanticide, which is common in male chimps — bonobos closest relatives. Moreover, the females may pool their efforts to collect high-value resources such as meat. Hohmann and Fruth have found that at Salonga, meat consumption is much more pronounced than previously thought in the normally fruit-eating apes. The prey is caught by females, possibly even in groups, and males rarely share in their spoils — a striking contrast to chimpanzees. "They are just sitting there, begging for meat, or even guarding the kids only to score well with the females," Fruth says.

The lack of male aggression could be down to the plentiful supply of good-quality resources. Meat might be a delicacy enjoyed only by the females, but fruit is abundant and sex is readily available, reducing the need for competition.

But while Eriksson was in Leipzig sequencing the bonobo droppings, a new problem erupted. The bitter war that shook the country and cost an estimated four million human lives had ended, but leftover weapons were being put to use in the bush-meat trade.

"Suddenly, in 2005, I got these reports from my friends in Congo that the poachers were coming closer and closer to that area that's really fond to me," says Eriksson. For more than two years poachers had been moving steadily into the Salonga National Park, mainly targeting the abundant and easy to kill red colobus monkey. "They pick them off like fruit," Eriksson says. As colobus numbers dwindle, the bonobos are more likely to be targeted.

So, with support from his mentors, Eriksson abandoned his research to protect the site. He convinced local park rangers and villagers to help him chase out the poachers, armed with automatic weapons. "I think the combination of being foreign, white-skinned, but speaking to them in a way that penetrates their culture and language is the key," Eriksson says. His approach has been effective in keeping the poachers out of the study site, at least for now.

Having put down his pipette for an AK-47, Eriksson says that he's determined to return to science, but not necessarily in the same role. "I probably won't spend too much more time in a lab; it's a waste of time. There are other people who are much more skilled than me." Hohmann chides that Eriksson's "academic ambitions are easily outrun by his liking for adventures". Nevertheless, Salonga is still in danger and the conflict is bound to escalate as the poachers take greater risks. Eriksson says that he has already received death threats.

Having seen their Lomako site collapse, the team is determined to hold on to the one in Salonga. Too many questions remain about how bonobos manage to avoid violent conflicts. Ironically, saving the peaceful bonobos from the poachers may require more aggressive displays. Eriksson says: "I did not spend years studying to run around in the forest with a Kalashnikov and my finger on the trigger. But emotionally, it is very easy to convince myself that these steps are necessary. I have to try to do something."

Carl Gierstorfer is a freelance writer in Berlin.

To see a video of Jonas Eriksson discussing his work, go to

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