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'

Friday, January 29, 2010

British scientists deny existence of Gspot - world pities British women...

from The
French hit back after British attack on G-spot touches nerve
by Lizzy Davies
After scientists in London declared the G-spot may be a myth, gynaecologists gather in Paris to launch counterattack

There are a handful of subjects - among them cricket, the weather and the art of downing pints through a funnel - on which the French deign to allow the English a degree of authority. Sex, however, is not one of them.

Today, just three weeks after scientists at King's College London declared that the elusive G-spot may be a myth, a group of gynaecologists gathered in Paris to launch a counter-attack on what they called a "totalitarian" approach to female sexuality.

Denouncing the study carried out last year by British researchers as fundamentally flawed, the French scientists insisted the fabled erogenous zone did exist in many women – around 60% according to Sylvain Mimoun, the organiser of the conference.

But, they said, it had fallen victim to an Anglo-Saxon tendency to reduce the mysteries of sexuality to absolutes. This attempt to set clear parameters on something variable and ambiguous, they said, was characteristic of British scientific attitudes to sex.

"The King's College study ... shows a lack of respect for what women say," said Pierre Foldès, a leading French surgeon. "The conclusions were completely erroneous because they were based solely on genetic observations and it is clear that in female sexuality there is a variability ... It cannot be reduced to a 'yes' or 'no', or an 'on' or an 'off'."

The British study – the largest ever carried out on the body part that bears the initial of its discoverer, German gynaecologist Ernst Gräfenberg – involved 1,800 female twins being asked whether or not they thought they had a G-spot. Researchers concluded earlier this month that there was no proof to suggest it existed.

Odile Buisson, a gynaecologist, said the study was a demonstration of a cultural difference in attitudes to sex, with Gallic acceptance of ambiguity sitting uneasily beside an Anglo-Saxon need to explain everything. "I don't want to stigmatise at all but I think the Protestant, liberal, Anglo-Saxon character means you are very pragmatic. There has to be a cause for everything, a gene for everything," she said, adding: "I think it's totalitarian."

Foldès, who pioneered a globally renowned technique to restore the clitorises to women who have been circumcised, said the questions in the King's College study started from the false premise that all G-spots are alike. In fact, he says, the highly sensitive area bears little resemblance to the famed magic button guaranteed to generate immediate pleasure.

Moreover, said Mimoun, it will only be felt by a woman who knows it is there and takes steps to cultivate it. "In discovering the sensitive parts of her own body, this sensitive zone [the G-spot] will become more and more functional," he said "But if she has never touched it and no one else has ever touched it ... it won't exist for her as a consequence."

Thanks to Andrew F. for the link!
I think Wayne Marshall would have much to say about this outrage:

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Mount Cameroon National Park comes to being

from WWF (

A new park created by the Cameroonian government that encompasses the highest mountain in West and Central Africa will help protect some of the rarest ecosystems in the Congo Basin. The government of Cameroon recently signed a decree creating the 58,178 hectare Mount Cameroon National Park, which includes the 4,095-metre high Mount Cameroon – also one of the largest active volcanoes on the African continent.

“A park of such importance will help animal populations to rebuild,” said Atanga Ekobo, Manager of WWF Coastal Forest Project, which covers the region. “It will also encourage the sustainable use of natural resources by introducing and promoting alternative sources of income to the local communities”.

Mount Cameroon is an important refuge and home to many species found nowhere else, including high numbers of plants. A very isolated population of forest elephant also lives there.

For many years, poor land-use planning, land clearance, increasing agriculture, and the bushmeat trade damaged the area’s forest resources and high biological diversity. But if well managed, the new park will both conserve the remaining natural richness of this fragile ecosystem and improve the livelihoods of local people, according to WWF.

About 300,000 people live the area, which provides them with large amounts of non-timber forest products, protects their water supplies and shelters sacred sites for many traditional communities. In addition, Mt. Cameroon has a great potential for eco-tourism, according to WWF. The conservation organization expects the creation of the park will increase this potential.

“Cameroon is once again showing its will to protect and properly manage the environment,” said Natasha K. Quist, Regional Director of WWF in Central Africa. “The park has been created in an area where human activity has been intense over the years and the management plan will be developed with the participation of local villagers to define how they can still use their natural resources.”

Creation of the new Mt Cameroon National Park is the result of intense efforts and collaboration since 2007 between MINFOF (Cameroon’s Ministry of Forestry and Fauna) and WWF, with the financial support of the German Cooperation (KfW). WWF Sweden also provided specific support to track and monitor activities of three forest elephants through radio-collars.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Conservation Canines @ U. of Washington

Dieter L drew my attention to this, thanks! Since I work on genetic capture-recapture of elusive species this amazed me, especially the "matching dogs" (See last paragraph)

Conservation Canines
Our center developed the scat detection dog program in 1997. Having pioneered the development and application of many of the fecal-based hormone and genetic techniques widely used today, we realized the need for a sampling method that would increase sample acquisition over large remote areas, while reducing bias associated with unequal capture probabilities common with other sampling techniques. We collaborated with Sgt. Barbara Davenport, Master Canine Trainer with the Washington State Department of Corrections, modifying narcotics detection dog methods to train dogs to locate scat from endangered species. Our scat detection dogs are now being used to maximize sample collections over large remote landscapes, for use in a wide variety of population-based ecological, genetic and physiological studies. Our training methods are thoroughly described and validated in the following publication: Scat detection dogs in wildlife research and management: application to grizzly and black bears in the Yellowhead Ecosystem, Alberta Canada. Wasser et al. 2004. The ideal detection dog has an excessive, highly focused play drive. They live to play fetch. These dogs happily work all day long, motivated by the expectation of a tennis ball play reward upon sample detection. The obsessive, high-energy personalities of detection dogs also make them difficult to maintain as pets. As a result, they frequently find themselves abandoned to animal shelters, facing euthanasia. We rescue these dogs and offer them a satisfying career in conservation research.

The Research

Since 1997, we have deployed our conservation canines in numerous projects around the world, noninvasively providing vast amounts of information on resource selection, genetics and physiology to address conservation problems around the world. Such information has proved vital for determining the causes and consequences of human disturbances on wildlife as well as the actions needed to mitigate such impacts in species as diverse as killer whales, Pacific fisher, grizzly bear, caribou, moose and wolves, cougar, jaguar, giant anteater and giant armadillo.

We have built a state-of-the-art dog kennel on a 4300 acre forested facility at the UW Pack Forest in Eatonville, WA. Our kennel holds up to 30 detection dogs and is built on land that allows us to simulate a wide variety of real-life field conditions for training.
Pack Forest provides permanent housing for our dog handlers and conference facilities that can accommodate large parties for training and/or capacity building workshops. The kennels also include specialized facilities for conducting canine-based scent matching work to replace expensive DNA analyses used to assign individual identity to wildlife scat. The latter technique greatly enhances the affordability and hence accessibility of our methods to the broader conservation community. Matching

Dogs Can Replace DNA Analyses

We trained dogs to match scat samples collected from the same individual in order to reduce or eliminate the time and financial costs of DNA analyses. Our matching dogs can reliably match samples from individuals whose low genetic diversity may prohibit DNA discrimination at the individual level-a common problem among endangered species. They can also accurately match samples that would otherwise have to be discarded because they are too degraded for DNA analysis. Once samples are grouped by the individual, a single sample from each group can still be selected for DNA amplification to genetically mark the individual, providing more cost-effective means of acquiring the same data from more exhaustive DNA analyses. This approach can save tens of thousands of dollars in DNA analysis costs, greatly enhancing the accessibility of these powerful noninvasive methods to conservation programs whose budgets are limited.

Please visit Conservation Canines for more information & meet them here!

Wasser SK, Smith H, Madden L, Marks N, Vynne C (2009)Scent-Matching Dogs Determine Number of Unique Individuals From Scat. JOURNAL OF WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT 73(7):1233–1240

Noninvasive scat sampling methods can generate large samples sizes, collected over vast landscapes, ideal for addressing wildlife conservation and management questions. However, the cost of genotyping scat samples limits the accessibility of these techniques. We describe detection-dog methods for matching large numbers of scat samples to the individual, reducing or eliminating the need for sample genotyping. Three dogs correctly matched 25 out of 28 samples from 6 captive maned wolves (Chrysocyon brachyurus) of known identity. Sample scent-matching can increase overall accessibility and breadth of applications of noninvasive scat-collection methods to important landscape scale problems in wildlife sciences.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Ivory trading is set to resume

from the Independant
Save the elephant: ivory trading is set to resume

By Michael McCarthy
Britain urged to oppose demands from Tanzania and Zambia to lift ban on tusk sales / Conservationists fear the move would intensify slaughter of elephants

Two African countries are trying to open a new breach in the worldwide ivory trade ban, which conservationists fear could lead to more African elephants being slaughtered by poachers.

Environmental campaigners called on Britain to take a clear lead in opposing the proposals by Tanzania and Zambia to sell their ivory stocks, which will be voted on at the next meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Qatar in March.

Other African countries, led by Kenya and Mali, are strongly opposed to the idea, and are sending representatives to Brussels this week to urge the European Union not to support it. If it went ahead, the sale would be the third "one-off" auction of ivory since the world ban came into force, 20 years ago last week.

The ban was initially successful in halting the huge scale of elephant killing of the 1980s, when Africa's elephant population crashed from 1,300,000 to 625,000 in a mere decade. But following the most recent sale, in November 2008, of 100 tonnes of ivory owned by Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa - bought by dealers from China and Japan - there has been a notable upsurge in worldwide seizures of illegal ivory, and of elephant poaching. It is thought that the resumption of any trading creates a market into which illegal poached ivory can be laundered, thus boosting demand for it.

In some Central and West African countries this is now pushing elephant populations to extinction. Chad is thought to have only a few hundred elephants and Senegal and Liberia may have fewer than 10; Sierra Leone's last elephants were wiped out by poachers in November.

In Kenya, whose wildlife protection measures are among the strongest in Africa, the number of elephants killed by poachers rose from 47 in 2007, to 98 in 2008, and 214 in 2009. Reports suggest that at least 15 tonnes of African ivory tusks and pieces - the equivalent of up to 1,500 elephants - were seized in, or en route to, Asia in the past year.

Yet the British Government has declined to offer unequivocal opposition to a new one-off sale. "The global ban on international trade in ivory imposed in 1989 remains firmly in place and the UK strongly supports this," said the Wildlife minister, Huw Irranca-Davies. "CITES is assessing the likely effects of another one-off sale, but rigorous enforcement of protection for the planet's endangered species must be paramount, and be the driving force behind CITES' recommendations."

Conservationists say CITES' recommendations regarding the last two sales, in 1997 as well as 2008, were that they should go ahead, and in both cases, Britain, as part of the European Union voting block within the convention, did not oppose them.

"The African elephant population is in crisis, and it's not enough for the British government to take a 'wait and see approach'," Caroline Lucas, the MEP and leader of Britain's Green Party, said last night. "Instead of hiding behind advice from officials, ministers should show leadership by giving a clear guarantee now that they will oppose a further one-off sale."

Allan Thornton, head of the Environmental Investigation Agency, the Washington and London-based pressure group which provided much of the evidence of poaching which led to the original ban, said: "The present level of poaching as a result of the illegal ivory trade is already devastating and wiping out elephant populations across Africa. If this new sale went ahead it would be throwing fuel on the fire. Britain is represented on the standing committee of CITES and should take a lead role in opposing this."

Tanzania and Zambia want to sell their stocks of legally acquired ivory (from culling, or from elephants which have died naturally) which amount to 90 tonnes and 22 tonnes respectively, worth a total of $16m. They also want their elephant populations "downlisted" from CITES' Appendix 1 (which prohibits all trade in the species) to Appendix 2 (which allows trade if it is monitored).

When CITES sanctioned the last ivory auction in 2007, it was agreed that there would be no more such one-off sales for at least nine years, and Tanzania and Zambia are seen as having reneged on this. Their move has aroused resentment and anger among other African states which have elephant populations and wish to protect them. Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Rwanda and Sierra Leone, have tabled a counter-proposal for the March meeting, calling for a 20-year moratorium on any such sales, from the date of the last one.

And delegates from the 23-government African Elephant Coalition (AEC) are in Brussels aiming to persuade the EU Commision, the European Parliament and EU member states, to oppose the new sale, with the Kenyan Forestry and Wildlife Minister, Noah Wekesa, giving a press conference to detail recent poaching.

"This is really the last call for elephants in Africa," said Bourama Niagate, director of parks and natural reserves in Mali. "The devastating poaching of the 1980s first controlled through CITES is now so prevalent that the African elephant is all but extinct in some countries. This is because limited legal sales were allowed in the recent past providing the perfect cover for illegal trade in poached ivory.

"If we do not let elephant populations recover over the next 20 years by stopping the trade entirely, there will be no more African elephants outside a few zoological specimens in reserves in southern parts of Africa. Europe needs to do the right thing and back our stance now because it is nearly too late."

Ivory ban: A sad history

*1989: Member states of CITES agree at their meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, to place the African elephant on CITES' Appendix One, meaning all all trade in elephant products, ivory, is banned around the world.

1990: The ban comes into force, halting the rapid crash of elephant populations caused by poaching. Poaching levels drop substantially across Africa.

1997: Led by Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, inset, four southern African states with substantial elephant populations - Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia and Botswana - get CITES to agree to a "one-off" sale of 50 tonnes of ivory. Britain goes along with it. Poaching rises.

2007-08: The same four African states get CITES to agree to another "one-off" sale, this time of 100 tonnes. Britain goes along, despite warnings that it will increase poaching. AndChina is allowed by CITES to become an official ivory buyer, in spite of harbouring the largest amount of illegal ivory. Britain goes along with it, despite warning this too will increase poaching, which soars.

2010: Tanzania and Zambia seek a third "one-off" sale. Will Britain go along with it? Time will tell.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Betty White rules!

I realize Betty White's SAG lifetime achievement award acceptance speech is a bit off topic for my blog. But Ms. White has been a champion for animal rights and conservation for decades and she is such a strong and sassy woman, I just had to post it.-MA

More of Moscow's stray dogs

Biologist Andrei Poyarkov

Follow up to last year's posting "
Moscow's stray dogs well adapted to Russian metropolitain life" (originally published in the Wall Street Journal) - Last year when i blogged about the story an anonymous reader answered with this video: I never got any follow up from the reader, but I think its important to keep such things in mind when reading such an overall heart warming story as the one about the Moscow dogs...-MA

Moscow’s stray dogs
By Susanne Sternthal
From the Financial Times

Russians can go nutty when it comes to dogs. Consider the incident a few years ago that involved Yulia Romanova, a 22-year-old model. On a winter evening, Romanova was returning with her beloved Staffordshire terrier from a visit to a designer who specialises in kitting out canine Muscovites in the latest fashions. The terrier was sporting a new green camouflage jacket as he walked with his owner through the crowded Mendeleyevskaya metro station. There they encountered Malchik, a black stray who had made the station his home, guarding it against drunks and other dogs. Malchik barked at the pair, defending his territory. But instead of walking away, Romanova reached into her pink rucksack, pulled out a kitchen knife and, in front of rush-hour commuters, stabbed Malchik to death.

Romanova was arrested, tried and underwent a year of psychiatric treatment. Typically for Russia, this horror story was countered by a wellspring of sympathy for Moscow’s strays. A bronze statue of Malchik, paid for by donations, now stands at the entrance of Mendeleyevskaya station. It has become a symbol for the 35,000 stray dogs that roam Russia’s capital – about 84 dogs per square mile. You see them everywhere. They lie around in the courtyards of apartment complexes, wander near markets and kiosks, and sleep inside metro stations and pedestrian passageways. You can hear them barking and howling at night. And the strays on Moscow’s streets do not look anything like the purebreds preferred by status-conscious Muscovites. They look like a breed apart.

I moved to Moscow with my family last year and was startled to see so many stray dogs. Watching them over time, I realised that, despite some variation in colour – some were black, others yellowish white or russet – they all shared a certain look. They were medium-sized with thick fur, wedge-shaped heads and almond eyes. Their tails were long and their ears erect.

They also acted differently. Every so often, you would see one waiting on a metro platform. When the train pulled up, the dog would step in, scramble up to lie on a seat or sit on the floor if the carriage was crowded, and then exit a few stops later. There is even a website dedicated to the metro stray ( on which passengers post photos and video clips taken with their mobile phones, documenting the ­savviest of the pack using the public transport system like any other Muscovite.

Where did these animals come from? It’s a question Andrei Poyarkov, 56, a biologist specialising in wolves, has dedicated himself to answering. His research focuses on how different environments affect dogs’ behaviour and social organisation. About 30 years ago, he began studying Moscow’s stray dogs. Poyarkov contends that their appearance and behaviour have changed over the decades as they have continuously adapted to the changing face of Russia’s capital. Virtually all the city’s strays were born that way: dumping a pet dog on the streets of Moscow amounts to a near-certain death sentence. Poyarkov reckons fewer than 3 per cent survive.

Poyarkov works at the A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution in south-west Moscow. His office is small, but boasts high ceilings and tall windows. Several wire cages sit on a table in the centre of the room. Inside them, four weasels scurry through tunnels and run on a wheel. Poyarkov and I sit near the weasels and sip green tea.

He first thought of observing the behaviour of stray dogs in 1979, and began with the ones that lived near his apartment and those he encountered on his way to work. The area he studied came to comprise some 10 sq km, home to about 100 dogs. Poyarkov started making recordings of the sounds that the strays made, and began to study their social organisation. He photographed and catalogued them, mapping where each dog lived.

He quickly found that the strays were much easier to study than wolves. “To see a wild wolf is a real event,” he says. “You can see them, but not for very long and not at close range. But with stray dogs you can watch them for as long as you want and, for the most part, be quite near them.” According to Poyarkov, there are 30,000 to 35,000 stray dogs in Moscow, while the wolf population for the whole of Russia is about 50,000 to 60,000. Population density, he says, determines how frequently the animals come into contact with each other, which in turn affects their behaviour, psychology, stress levels, physiology and relationship to their environment.

“The second difference between stray dogs and wolves is that the dogs, on average, are much less aggressive and a good deal more tolerant of one another,” says Poyarkov. Wolves stay strictly within their own pack, even if they share a territory with another. A pack of dogs, however, can hold a dominant position over other packs and their leader will often “patrol” the other packs by moving in and out of them. His observations have led Poyarkov to conclude that this leader is not necessarily the strongest or most dominant dog, but the most intelligent – and is acknowledged as such. The pack depends on him for its survival.

Moscow’s strays sit somewhere between house pets and wolves, says Poyarkov, but are in the early stages of the shift from the domesticated back towards the wild. That said, there seems little chance of reversing this process. It is virtually impossible to domesticate a stray: many cannot stand being confined indoors.

“Genetically, wolves and dogs are almost identical,” says Poyarkov. “What has changed significantly [with domestication] is a range of hormonal and behavioural parameters, because of the brutal natural selection that eliminated many aggressive animals.” He recounts the work of Soviet biologist Dmitri Belyaev, exiled from Moscow in 1948 during the Stalin years for a commitment to classical genetics that ran counter to state scientific doctrine of the time.

Under the guise of studying animal physiology, Belyaev set up a Russian silver fox research centre in Novosibirsk, setting out to test his theory that the most important selected characteristic for the domestication of dogs was a lack of aggression. He began to select foxes that showed the least fear of humans and bred them. After 10-15 years, the foxes he bred showed affection to their keepers, even licking them. They barked, had floppy ears and wagged their tails. They also developed spotted coats – a surprising development that was connected with a decrease in their levels of adrenaline, which shares a biochemical pathway with melanin and controls ­pigment production.

“With stray dogs, we’re witnessing a move backwards,” explains Poyarkov. “That is, to a wilder and less domesticated state, to a more ‘natural’ state.” As if to prove his point, strays do not have spotted coats, they rarely wag their tails and are wary of humans, showing no signs of ­affection towards them.

The stray dogs of Moscow are mentioned for the first time in the reports of the journalist and writer Vladimir Gilyarovsky in the latter half of the 19th century. But Poyarkov says they have been there as long as the city itself. They remain different from wolves, in particular because they exhibit pronounced “polymorphism” – a range of behavioural traits shaped in part by the “ecological niche” they occupy. And it is this ability to adapt that explains why the population density of strays is so much greater than that of wolves. “With several niches there are more resources and more opportunities.”

The dogs divide into four types, he says, which are determined by their character, how they forage for food, their level of socialisation to people and the ecological niche they inhabit.

Those that remain most comfortable with people Poyarkov calls “guard dogs”. Their territories tend to be garages, warehouses, hospitals and other fenced-in institutions, and they develop ties to the security guards from whom they receive food and whom they regard as masters. I’ve seen them in my neighbourhood near the front gate to the Central Clinical Hospital for Civil Aviation. When I pass on the other side with my dog they cross the street towards us, barking loudly.

“The second stage of becoming wild is where the dog is socialised to people in general, but not personally,” says Poyarkov. “These are the beggars and they are excellent psychologists.” He gives as an example a dog that appears to be dozing as throngs of people walk past, but who rears his head when an easy target comes into view: “The dog will come to a little old lady, start smiling and wagging his tail, and sure enough, he’ll get food.” These dogs not only smell who is carrying something tasty, but sense who will stop and feed them.

The beggars live in relatively small packs and are subordinate to leaders. If a dog is intelligent but occupies a low rank and does not get enough to eat, he will separate from the pack frequently to look for food. If he sees other dogs begging, he will watch and learn.

The third group comprises dogs that are somewhat socialised to people, but whose social interaction is directed almost exclusively towards other strays. Their main strategy for acquiring food is gathering scraps from the streets and the many open rubbish bins. During the Soviet period, the pickings were slim, which limited their population (as did a government policy of catching and killing them). But as Russia began to prosper in the post-Soviet years, official efforts to cull them fell away and, at the same time, many more choice offerings appeared in the bins. The strays flourished.

The last of Poyarkov’s groups are the wild dogs. “There are dogs living in the city that are not socialised to people. They know people, but view them as dangerous. Their range is extremely broad, and they are ­predators. They catch mice, rats and the occasional cat. They live in the city, but as a rule near industrial complexes, or in wooded parks. They are nocturnal and walk about when there are fewer people on the streets.”

My neighbourhood is in the north-west of Moscow and lies between a large wooded park and one of the canals of the Moscow river. Leaving the windows open once the thaw of spring finally took hold, I found myself pulled out of a deep slumber by a cacophony that sounded as if packs of dogs were tearing each other apart in the grounds of our apartment complex. This went on for weeks. I later learned that spring is when many strays mate – “the dog marriage season”, as Russians poetically call it.

There is one special sub-group of strays that stands apart from the rest: Moscow’s metro dogs. “The metro dog appeared for the simple reason that it was permitted to enter,” says Andrei Neuronov, an author and specialist in animal behaviour and psychology, who has worked with Vladimir Putin’s black female Labrador retriever, Connie (“a very nice pup”). “This began in the late 1980s during perestroika,” he says. “When more food appeared, people began to live better and feed strays.” The dogs started by riding on overground trams and buses, where supervisors were becoming increasingly thin on the ground.

Neuronov says there are some 500 strays that live in the metro stations, especially during the colder months, but only about 20 have learned how to ride the trains. This happened gradually, first as a way to broaden their territory. Later, it became a way of life. “Why should they go by foot if they can move around by public transport?” he asks.

“They orient themselves in a number of ways,” Neuronov adds. “They figure out where they are by smell, by recognising the name of the station from the recorded announcer’s voice and by time intervals. If, for example, you come every Monday and feed a dog, that dog will know when it’s Monday and the hour to expect you, based on their sense of time intervals from their ­biological clocks.”

The metro dog also has uncannily good instincts about people, happily greeting kindly passers by, but slinking down the furthest escalator to avoid the intolerant older women who oversee the metro’s electronic turnstiles. “Right outside this metro,” says Neuronov, gesturing toward Frunzenskaya station, a short distance from the park where we were speaking, “a black dog sleeps on a mat. He’s called Malish. And this is what I saw one day: a bowl of freshly ground beef set before him, and slowly, and ever so lazily, he scooped it up with his tongue while lying down.”

Stray dogs evoke a strong reaction from Muscovites. While the model Romanova’s stabbing of a stray demonstrated an example of one extreme, the statue erected in his memory depicts the other. The city government has been forced to take action to protect the strays, but with mixed results. In 2002, mayor Yuri Luzhkov enacted legislation forbidding the killing of stray animals and adopted a new strategy of sterilising them and building shelters.

But until Russians themselves adopt the practice of sterilising their pets, this will remain only a half-measure. One Russian, noting that my male Ridgeback is neutered, exclaimed: “Now, why would you want to cripple a dog in that way?” Even though the city budget allocated more than $30m to build 15 animal shelters last year, that is not nearly enough to accommodate the strays. Still, there is pressure from some quarters to return to the practice of catching and culling them. Poyarkov believes this would be dangerous. While the goal, he acknowledges, “is to do away with dogs who carry rabies, tapeworms, toxoplasmosis and other infections, what actually happens is that infected dogs and other animals outside Moscow will come into the city because the biological barrier maintained by the population of strays in Moscow is turned upside down. The environment becomes chaotic and unpredictable and the epidemiological situation worsens.”

Alexey Vereshchagin, 33, a graduate student who works with Poyarkov, says that Moscow probably could find a way of controlling the feared influx. But that doesn’t mean he thinks strays should be removed from the capital. “I grew up with them,” he says. “Personally, I think they make life in the city more interesting.” Like other experts, Vereshchagin questions whether strays could ever be eliminated completely, particularly given the city’s generally chaotic approach to administration.

Poyarkov concedes that sterilisation might control the number of strays, if methodically conducted. But his work suggests that the population is self-regulating anyway. The quantity of food available keeps the total steady at about 35,000 – Moscow strays are at the limit and, as a result, most pups born to strays don’t reach adulthood. “If they do survive, it is only to replace an adult dog that died,” Poyarkov says. Even then, their life expectancy seldom exceeds 10 years. Having spent a career studying the stray dogs of Moscow and tracing their path back towards a wilder state, he is in no hurry to see them swept from the streets.

“I am not at all convinced that Moscow should be left without dogs. Given a correct relationship to dogs, they definitely do clean the city. They keep the population of rats down. Why should the city be a concrete desert? Why should we do away with strays who have always lived next to us?”

Thanks to Cleve H. for the link!

Feet hold the key to human hand evolution

By Victoria Gill
Scientists may have solved the mystery of how human hands became nimble enough to make and manipulate stone tools.

The team reports in the journal Evolution that changes in our hands and fingers were a side-effect of changes in the shape of our feet. This, they say, shows that the capacity to stand and walk on two feet is intrinsically linked to the emergence of stone tool technology. The scientists used a mathematical model to simulate the changes. Other researchers, though, have questioned this approach. Campbell Rolian, a scientist from the University of Calgary in Canada who led the study, said: "This goes back to Darwin's The Descent of Man. "[Charles Darwin] was among the first to consider the relationship between stone tool technology and bipedalism. "His idea was that they were separate events and they happened sequentially - that bipedalism freed the hand to evolve for other purposes. "What we showed was that the changes in the hand and foot are similar developments... and changes in one would have side-effects manifesting in the other."

To study this, Dr Rolian and his colleagues took measurements from the hands and feet of humans and of chimpanzees. Their aim was to find out how the hands and feet of our more chimp-like ancestors would have evolved. The researchers' measurements showed a strong correlation between similar parts of the hand and foot. "So, if you have a long big toe, you tend have a long thumb," Dr Rolian explained."One reason fingers and toes may be so strongly correlated is that they share a similar genetic and developmental 'blueprint', and small changes to this blueprint can affect the hand and foot in parallel," he said. With this anatomical data, the researchers were able to create their mathematical simulation of evolutionary change. "We used the mathematical model to simulate the evolutionary pressures on the hands and feet," Dr Rolian explained. This model essentially adjusted the shape of the hands or the feet, recreating single, small evolutionary changes to see what effect they had. By simulating this evolutionary shape-shifting, the team found that changes in the feet caused parallel changes in the hands, especially in the relative proportions of the fingers and toes. These parallel changes or side-effects, said Dr Rolian, may have been an important evolutionary stem that allowed human ancestors, including Neanderthals, to develop the dexterity for stone tool technology.

Robin Crompton, professor of anatomy at the UK's Liverpool University, said the study was very interesting but also raised some questions. "I am not personally convinced that the foot and hand of chimpanzees are a good model [of human ancestors' hands and feet] - the foot of the lowland gorilla may be more interesting in this respect," he told BBC News. He pointed out that there was a lot more to the functional shape and biomechanics of the human foot than just its proportions. Paul O'Higgins, professor of anatomy at the Hull York Medical School, UK, said: "The results are quite exciting and will doubtless spur further testing and additional work."

Rolian C, Lieberman DE, Hallgrímsson B (2009) The Co-Evolution of Human Hands and Feet. Evolution (online first)


Human hands and feet have longer, more robust first digits, and shorter lateral digits compared to African apes. These similarities are often assumed to be independently-evolved adaptations for manipulative activities and bipedalism, respectively. However, hands and feet are serially homologous structures that share virtually identical developmental blueprints, raising the possibility that digital proportions co-evolved in human hands and feet because of underlying developmental linkages that increase phenotypic covariation between them. Here we show that phenotypic covariation between serially homologous fingers and toes in Homo and Pan is not only higher than expected, it also causes these digits to evolve along highly parallel trajectories under episodes of simulated directional selection, even when selection pressures push their means in divergent directions. Further, our estimates of the selection pressures required to produce human-like fingers and toes from an African ape-like ancestor indicate that selection on the toes was substantially stronger, and likely led to parallel phenotypic changes in the hands. Our data support the hypothesis that human hands and feet coevolved, and suggest that the evolution of long robust big toes and short lateral toes for bipedalism led to changes in hominin fingers that may have facilitated the emergence of stone tool technology.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Cannibalism in wild bonobos

Last year we found out bonobos eat monkeys and now a case of cannibalism in bonobos is being reported by Drs. Fowler and Hohmann from the MPI-EVA. The chimpanzee-bonobo gap gets smaller and smaller...-MA

Fowler A, Hohmann G (2010) Cannibalism in wild bonobos (Pan paniscus) at Lui Kotale. Am. J. Primatol. 71:1-6


We describe the cannibalization of an infant bonobo (circa 2.5 years old) at Lui Kotale, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The infant died of unknown causes and was consumed by several community members including its mother and an older sibling one day after death. Certain features concerning the pattern of consumption fit in with previously observed episodes of cannibalism in Pan, whereas others, such as the mother's participation in consuming the body, are notable. The incident suggests that filial cannibalism among apes need not be the result of nutritional or social stress and does not support the idea that filial cannibalism is a behavioral aberration.

Commitment to protecting forests may fail forest people - apparently, its complicated

Copenhagen 'fails forest people'
By Mark Kinver
A multi-billion dollar deal tabled at the Copenhagen climate summit could lead to conflicts in forest-rich nations, a report has warned.

The study by the Rights and Resources Initiative said the funds could place "unprecedented pressure" on some areas. Six nations offered $3.5bn as part of global plans to cut deforestation, which accounts for about 20% of all emissions from human activity.

Campaigners warn the scheme fails to consider the rights of forest people.

The money - tabled by Japan, Norway, Australia, France and the US and UK - was made available under the UN's Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (Redd) scheme. However, delegates in the Danish capital failed to reach agreement on the mechanisms needed to monitor and manage the framework.

"One of the things that the world has learned over the years is that Redd is far more difficult than many people imagined," said Andy White, co-ordinator of RRI, a US-based think-tank, and one of the report's lead authors. "The forested areas of the world - by and large - have very high levels of poverty, low levels of respect for local rights, and a very low level of control among local people to shape and control their destiny. "So the rather simplistic notion that money from the rich North can control or limit deforestation was unrealistic." Redd was developed as a global concept that would provide developing countries with a financial incentive to preserve forests.

The Copenhagen conference was expected to finalise an international Redd finance mechanism for the post-2012 global climate change framework. The RRI's report, The End of the Hitherlands, said that there would be "unparalleled" attention and investment in forests over the coming year. It asked: "But who will drive the agenda and who will make the decisions?"

The authors said studies showed that there was the potential for "enormous profits", but this would lead to increased competition for forest resources between governments and investors on one hand, and local communities on the other. Dr White told BBC News that the UN-Redd scheme still had "tremendous potential". "It requires, from our perspective, that the governments who tabled the $3.5bn quickly get together and decide on the standards and mechanisms that they will set up," he suggested. "This would send the necessary signals to the private sector, as well as forest-rich nations, about what is expected from them in order to comply with the policy. "Sorting out the institution arrangements in developing nations in order to manage the forest market is a huge undertaking."

But the report said that the "unprecedented exposure and pressure" on forest regions was being met by a rise in local groups setting up co-operatives and representative bodies. The authors added that it gave "nations and the world at large a tremendous opportunity to right historic wrongs, advance rural development and save forests".

Friday, January 22, 2010

Genetics Helps to Crack Down on Chimpanzee Smuggling


The population of chimpanzees across western Africa has decreased by 75% in the past 30 years, due in part to widespread chimp hunting. New strategies are needed to curb this illegal activity, experts say.

Research published in BioMed Central's open access journal BMC Ecology suggests that genetics may provide valuable clues as to how to crack down on the animal smuggling trade, while also helping to safely reintroduce rescued apes into the wild.

A smuggler can get up to US $20,000 for a live chimpanzee on the international black market and around US $100 in the local market in Cameroon. It's perhaps not surprising then that despite the existence of enforced wildlife protection laws, smugglers in this poor country will risk the penalties.

In a collaboration between the University at Albany, State University of New York and Limbe Wildlife Centre in Cameroon, researchers have been comparing genetic sequences from rescued chimpanzees with those of their wild counterparts across several areas of the country and its border with Nigeria. In doing so, they hoped to determine where the rescued chimps come from and thereby assess whether smuggling was a widespread problem, or if hunting hotspots existed.

Lead scientist Mary Katherine Gonder said, "The data that we collected were put into a sophisticated computer program that mapped out the origins of the rescued chimpanzees. We found that all the rescued chimps were from Cameroon, implying that international smuggling is less of a problem than local trade. Worryingly though, the problem seems to occur throughout Cameroon, with some rescued chimps even coming from protected areas."

Chimps are often taken while hunters poach other animals, many of which are also endangered, so it is hoped that by identifying hunting patterns in smuggling routes the study could help reduce other illegal animal trade. Since as many as ten chimpanzees are killed for every one that is rescued, the findings of this study could have a significant impact on the restoration of the population.

Happily, for those chimpanzees that are rescued, the genetic information obtained in the study will also help to reunite them with their relatives in the wild. According to Gonder, "Most of the chimpanzees at Limbe Wildlife Centre belong to the most endangered subspecies of chimpanzee. They only inhabit Nigeria and adjacent parts of Cameroon. In 2004, this subspecies was predicted to be extinct within the next 25 years if current rates of decline continue. For these reasons, understanding where these refuge chimps are from is really important from a conservation point of view."

Lora Ghobrial, Felix Lankester, John A Kiyang, Akih E Akih, Simone de Vries, Roger Fotso, Elizabeth L Gadsby, Peter D Jenkins Jr and Mary K Gonder (in press) Tracing the origins of rescued chimpanzees reveals widespread chimpanzee hunting in Cameroon BMC Ecology

Abstract (provisional)
Background: While wild chimpanzees are experiencing drastic population declines, their numbers at African rescue and rehabilitation projects are growing rapidly. Chimpanzees follow complex routes to these refuges; and their geographic origins are often unclear. Identifying areas where hunting occurs can help law enforcement authorities focus scarce resources for wildlife protection planning. Efficiently focusing these resources is particularly important in Cameroon because this country is a key transportation waypoint for international wildlife crime syndicates. Furthermore, Cameroon is home to two chimpanzee subspecies, which makes ascertaining the origins of these chimpanzees important for reintroduction planning and for scientific investigations involving these chimpanzees.
Results: We estimated geographic origins of 46 chimpanzees from the Limbe Wildlife Centre (LWC) in Cameroon. Using Bayesian approximation methods, we determined their origins using mtDNA sequences and microsatellite (STRP) genotypes compared to a spatial map of georeferenced chimpanzee samples from 10 locations spanning Cameroon and Nigeria. The LWC chimpanzees come from multiple regions of Cameroon or forested areas straddling the Cameroon-Nigeria border. The LWC chimpanzees were partitioned further as originating from one of three biogeographically important zones occurring in Cameroon, but we were unable to refine these origin estimates to more specific areas within these three zones.
Conclusions: Our findings suggest that chimpanzee hunting is widespread across Cameroon. Live animal smuggling appears to occur locally within Cameroon, despite the existence of local wildlife cartels that operate internationally. This pattern varies from the illegal wildlife trade patterns observed in other commercially valuable species, such as elephants, where specific populations are targeted for exploitation. A broader sample of rescued chimpanzees compared against a more comprehensive grid of georeferenced samples may reveal 'hotspots' of chimpanzee hunting and live animal transport routes in Cameroon. These results illustrate also that clarifying the origins of refuge chimpanzees is an important tool for designing reintroduction programs. Finally, chimpanzees at refuges are frequently used in scientific investigations, such as studies investigating the history of zoonotic diseases. Our results provide important new information for interpreting these studies within a precise geographical framework.

Dr. Brian Hare stands up against chimps in entertainment

Brian Hare and Alan Alda taping "the human spark"
Hollywood Chimps - The Debate
By Maggie Villiger
Most of the scientists who work closely with chimpanzees in their research are also sensitive to the species’ endangered status. A number of factors contribute to chimps’ precarious position in their native Africa: habitat loss, the bushmeat trade, and the pet trade. And some chimp experts also have concerns about how media portrayals here could affect chimpanzee survival abroad. Read on to learn about The Human Spark’s interaction with evolutionary anthropologist Brian Hare and why he says it’s problematic to have chimps in the pet and entertainment industries.

Part of my job as Associate Producer for The Human Spark is getting each person who appears on camera to sign our release form, which gives us permission to use what we film with them. To be honest, it’s usually the easiest part of my job! But when we filmed with Duke University’s Brian Hare at the North Carolina Zoo, he resisted.

Brian wanted to wait to grant his permission to air the footage we shot with him until we could guarantee that we’d used no “Hollywood” chimpanzees in our show. He’d recently had a bad experience with another film crew that did include Hollywood chimps in their program about human cognition, and he was adamant that he wouldn’t sign until he could know for sure that The Human Spark had not done the same.

So our crew left North Carolina with footage of a fantastic exchange between Brian Hare and Alan Alda – but with the release form unsigned. At the time, it just seemed like a speed bump, not a brick wall. The Human Spark had no intention of turning to stunt trainers to get footage – our interest is in the behavioral studies that respected scientists do with chimps, not tricks they can be trained to perform. We continued on our travels around the world, filming as we went.

One of our most important scenes was the open of the second program, So Human, So Chimp. Each Human Spark episode begins with Alan Alda setting up the hour’s theme by speaking directly to camera. In this case, the theme is that chimps and human beings share a lot of characteristics, but are also 6 million years of evolution apart. After hearing about a docile, home-raised chimp from another one of our experts, Series Producer Graham Chedd had an idea; he decided the most effective way to get this theme across was to have Alan introduce it while sitting with a young chimp and a young child. Filming with Noah, this young pet chimp who was well-accustomed to being around people, seemed like the safest and most responsible way to create this kind of compelling scene.

Cut forward several months. We needed to get that appearance release signed by Brian once and for all in order to broadcast the footage of him. But through email exchanges, it quickly became apparent we hadn’t fully understood Brian’s objections. He was OK with the material we had shot at zoos, sanctuaries and research centers because they are regulated by tough animal welfare standards. But featuring ANY privately owned chimp in the program would be enough for him to refuse to participate. And so we came to an impasse.

Brian patiently explained his ethical objections to us. He believes that filming pet or entertainer chimps helps contribute to the illegal international trade in infant chimpanzees – a trade that is helping push this endangered species closer to extinction. Brian worried viewers would get the mistaken impression that chimps make good pets; in fact, once they mature into strong and unmanageable adult chimps, virtually all of these animals are given up by their owners. Brian says some are even killed. There’s simply not enough space or resources to rehabilitate the hundreds of pet chimpanzees that are kept across the United States. Brian is troubled by the overall effect on the chimp species in the wild as well as by the suffering endured by individual privately owned chimps. Others agree, and in fact, major scientific, welfare and health organizations have policies against using privately owned primates in films.

Brian’s arguments were thoughtful and reasonable to The Human Spark team though he did concede that there is little scientific evidence that links TV portrayals of animals to the illegal pet trade. His group is currently conducting research into just this question so in future the debate can be informed by empirical evidence in addition to compassion for our primate relatives.

On the other hand, Graham pointed out how important the opening scene was to the film. Alan’s narration clearly included the facts that the differences between the child and the chimp would increase as they each grow up, and that the native habitats of chimps and their continued survival in the wild is in jeopardy. Graham also explained that the shot that follows this introduction is of Hondo, a full-grown alpha male at the North Carolina Zoo, lunging at his glass enclosure and scaring Alan. Graham felt the contrast between the cute baby chimp reaching up to Alan and the aggressive adult chimp trying to hit him, would powerfully transmit the idea that keeping chimps as pets is a very bad idea. He also added a line of narration that explains how Hondo was captured illegally in Africa as an infant, and shipped to the United States as a pet before he was rescued and eventually brought to the zoo.

We needed to come up with a compromise. Since all of us involved in this debate are in possession of our own human sparks, we called upon our sociability and ability to work together to move toward a solution. First, Graham made sure that Alan’s narration clearly explains the threats to chimpanzee survival posed by the bushmeat business and the illegal international trade in baby chimps. Graham also took out a portion of the opening scene where the baby chimp climbed up unbidden to hug Alan – it was undeniably cute, but in light of the points Brian had raised, Graham agreed that it might give the wrong impression.

Then The Human Spark production team arranged for Brian to take part in an ethics panel at a major nature film festival. Panelists discussed the use and abuse of animals in documentary films, and Brian was able to educate a vast group of filmmakers about the dangers of filming with privately-owned chimps. He even had a pamphlet [.RTF] ready for festival participants. So, as a result of our experience on The Human Spark, filmmakers are now better informed about the controversy surrounding the use of Hollywood chimps, and more aware of the possibility of unintended consequences.

Finally, we all eagerly agreed to post an explanation of this issue on the Human Spark website. By exploring the controversy and explaining our case study, we hope to get our viewers thinking about the issues as well, something that wouldn’t have happened if we had simply cut the problematic scene and moved on.

Read an article Brian Hare wrote for The Human Spark about why chimpanzees are not pets.

Thanks to Steve R for the link

updated: In the comments section of this post on the PBS website the following great exchange occurred as well:

Carol -- January 20th, 2010 at 9:51 pm

“He (Brian) was OK with the material we had shot at zoos, sanctuaries and research centers because they are regulated by tough animal welfare standards.”

What silly nonsense. Not only is 2 year old Noah not a ‘pet’, but his owner is by law permitted by the USDA and must meet the same ‘tough animal welfare standards’ as all other permittees. She also did not ask for or receive any compensation for Noah’s participation in The Human Spark.

Brian Hare -- January 22nd, 2010 at 12:46 am

Dear Carol,

If the private owner of Noah had to follow the same standards followed by accredited zoos, labs and sanctuaries Noah would never have been in a room with a young child. The U.S. needs a federal law against private ownership of chimpanzees (and other primates). This will help protect the public and these endangered animals in their native habitat countries. Otherwise – if U.S. citizens can have pet chimpanzees…then why shouldn’t Africans be allowed to take wild chimpanzees as pets? There is thriving (illegal) international trade in primates. If we want chimpanzees and other endangered primates to make it into the next century we must do everything to discourage this trade. I hope Noah’s owner and Carol will join the International Primatological Society, the Humane Society, and the AZA in trying to end the primate pet trade in this country and in Africa. There is nothing silly about extinction.

Thanks to Carol R (a very different Carol ;)) for bringing it to my attention

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

LOL: Lemur Cognition

Great video on lemur cognition from Dr Evan MacLean at Duke University - To see just how smart lemurs are, keep watching to trial 4.
(thanks to Vanessa Woods for drawing it to my attention)

Malaria found in apes

By Doreen Walton

The parasite which causes malignant malaria in humans has been identified in gorillas for the first time.

Researchers analysed faeces from wild gorillas in Cameroon and blood samples from a captive animal from Gabon. The study says increasing contact between humans and primates due to logging and deforestation raises the risk of transmission of new pathogens. The research findings are published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

New genetic sampling techniques allowed scientists from France, Cameroon, Gabon and the US to examine evidence of malaria parasites in the faecal matter of wild gorillas and chimpanzees in Cameroon. "Sampling malaria parasites from apes in the wild has until now been very difficult", said Dr Francisco Ayala from the University of California, Irvine. The team also took blood samples from wild born, pet animals in Gabon. DNA evidence of Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes malignant malaria in humans, was found in faecal samples from two gorilla subspecies, the highly endangered cross-river gorilla and the western lowland gorilla. The parasite was identified in a blood sample from a captive gorilla.

Malaria parasites were first identified in chimpanzees and gorillas in Africa by scientists working in the 1920s. But this new technology has allowed scientists to confirm the presence of P. falciparum.

P. falciparum is the most deadly type of malaria infection. It is most common in Africa, south of the Sahara, where the World Health Organization says it accounts for a large part of the extremely high mortality in the region. The study says that human destruction of the natural forest habitat means more contact with primates and greater chances of pathogen transmission between the two, including from humans to the endangered great apes.

Dr Ayala said the findings underline the danger of contact between the two. "Even if it were eradicated in humans we would still have the problem that it's present in apes and therefore they would be a reservoir for the disease. "It's not clear what we can do with respect to this problem other than trying to decrease contact."

Dr Ian Hastings, senior lecturer at the Liverpool School of Medicine said it would help to know more about the spread of the parasite in gorillas. "Mosquitoes often bite different species. Often they have a preference but if they can't find what they want to bite they'll just go and bite something else," he said. "The question is whether this is just sporadic infection that's come from humans after the mosquito bit an infected person and passed it on to gorillas or whether it's endemic and is passed from gorilla to gorilla."

Dr Ayala acknowledges that Plasmodium parasites are much less malignant for apes than humans because primates have been exposed to them for so long. "They have had P. reichenowi and perhaps other species for thousands or millions of generations, so one expects less malignancy to have taken place over time."

Story from BBC NEWS:

China's Africa footprint: a makeover for Algeria


ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) - While still struggling with the aftermath of a decade-long Islamic insurgency, oil-rich yet impoverished Algeria is getting a makeover: a new airport, its first mall, its largest prison, 60,000 new homes, two luxury hotels and the longest continuous highway in Africa.

The power behind this runaway building spree is China.

Some 50 Chinese firms, largely state-controlled, have been awarded $20 billion in government construction contracts, or 10 percent of the massive investment plan promised by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika for a nation where jobs and housing are scarce and al-Qaida has struck roots.

Algiers, the tense and rundown capital, now has something relatively new to the Arab world: a Chinatown.

The Beijing government has been a supporter of Algeria since the 1960s, after it won independence from France, and today the 35,000 Chinese in the country are the biggest foreign population after the French.

Trade both ways soared to $4.5 billion last year, from just $200 million in 2001, according to Ling Jun, deputy head of the Chinese Embassy in Algiers. China, is now second only to France in exports to Algeria.

Algerian exports to China barely top $300 million because China is a latecomer to the North African nation's biggest asset, the oil and gas under its portion of the Sahara Desert, which is dominated by U.S. firms. "But we're very active for the prospecting of new fields," Ling said.

And meanwhile, they're earning a hefty chunk of Algeria's oil money.

The China State Construction Engineering Corp., is building two-thirds of Algeria's 1,200 kilometer (745 mile) east-west highway at breakneck speed and was on the verge of completing it this month after just three years, Ling says.

The Algerian story mirrors China's inroads elsewhere in Africa, which are helped not just by its bulging coffers but by the fact that unlike some Western countries, China doesn't make human rights and corruption-free procedures a condition for investment.

It has drawn heavy criticism from human rights groups accusing it of bypassing the arms embargo on the embattled Darfur region by trading weapons for oil with the Sudanese government. Elsewhere it is accused of failing to spread the jobs among local workers, and of mistreating those it hires.

Some feel the China's African footprint has gotten too deep.

"Africa shouldn't have eluded one form of neocolonialism to fall headfirst into Chinese neocolonialism," Rene N'Guettia Kouassi, the head of the economic commission at the African Union, was quoted as saying in Jeune Afrique, the leading French-language weekly on the continent.

In Algeria too, that footprint has not been trouble-free.

Last summer Algiers saw its first anti-Chinese riot, apparently touched off when an Algerian got into a scuffle with a Chinese trader in the capital's Chinese market over a parking space, and the confrontation took on Islamic overtones.

Residents and local media say the Chinese beat up at least one man, whereupon an Algerian mob looted Chinese shops and vandalized cars.

The Chinatown in Bab Ezzouar, a suburb of Algiers, is now heavily patrolled by police cars, and the Chinese continue to sell their wares - bed linen, sports shoes, European fashion knockoffs - imported direct from China. "Business is good around here, but it's not as good as it used to be, because there are too many of us now," said Qing Nei, a shopkeeper from Beijing who moved here two years ago and can haggle over prices in rudimentary Arabic and French.

Also last summer, anti-Chinese sentiment rose after Beijing repressed its Muslim minority in western China. Al-Qaida and its Algerian branch, Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) threatened retaliation.

The Chinese Embassy issued warnings to its citizens and heightened security measures, although no specific violence has yet targeted China's interests, Ling said.

In June an AQIM ambush killed at least 19 police officers escorting Chinese workers near the highway construction site. No Chinese were hurt, and Ling says the ambush appears to have been against the state, rather than the Chinese.

The Islamic violence today is scattered, sporadic, and nothing like the 1990s, when regular slaughters by rebels and government forces left up to 200,000 people dead. And despite the lingering al-Qaida threat, most Muslims in Algeria and elsewhere express no hostility to the Chinese as such.

"Islam accepts other religions, and we don't mind that they come to build in our country," said Abdeljabar Saad, an imam with strong ties to Islamists, who lives in area with many Chinese construction projects.

What Saad and others increasingly object to is that there is no trickle-down from China's investment.

Chinese firms import everything from the largest cranes to refills for their water coolers. On construction sites, even the unskilled workers pushing wheelbarrows are usually Chinese, not Algerian.

Ling, at the embassy, said state firms now have the obligation to hire and train two Algerian workers for each employee they bring from China.

But the few Algerian laborers working for Chinese contractors have begun complaining about their conditions. Some of those working on the new highway's construction site went on strike in late September, demanding overtime pay. Two months later, several newspapers reported they stormed and sealed the Chinese workers' camp.

Another image problem is a persistent rumor that some Chinese workers are convicted criminals who got a plea bargain for agreeing to work abroad.

Tang, a chief engineer at a site near Algiers where several hundred homes are being built, denied the rumor as "pure fantasy." Giving only one name because his management had not authorized him to be interviewed, he said every Chinese wishing to work for a state firm must show a clean police record.

He said his site employs 40 Chinese and 10 Algerians.

"Frankly," he said, "the Chinese work better, and longer hours, without complaining."

Thanks to Chrissie E for the link

Friday, January 15, 2010

Goualougo featured in National Geographic!

National Geographic's February issue has a feature story on the Goualougo Triangle! Please visit to read the article, see the amazing photographs taking by Ian Nichols and watch some great chimpcam video! MA

 The Truth About Chimps

By Joshua Foer &Photograph by Ian Nichols
Virtually innocent of human contact, the chimps of Congo's Goualougo Triangle display a sharp curiosity about us—and a sophisticated culture of toolmaking observed nowhere else.

A few years ago, while setting up camp deep in the Congolese rain forest, Dave Morgan and Crickette Sanz heard a party of male chimpanzees vocalizing raucously in the distance. The hoots grew louder, and they could tell the group was moving rapidly through the canopy.

The chimps, they realized, were headed straight for their camp and would soon be nearly on top of them. Then, just as the group seemed to be closing its distance to a few dozen yards, the forest went silent. A few seconds passed before Sanz and Morgan heard a gentle hoo from a tree almost directly above them. They looked up and saw a perplexed adult chimp peering down.


and click here to read past DNApes posts on the Goualougo Triangle and the great work of Drs. Morgan & Sanz!

Stingray's 'tool use' revealed

From BBC Earth News (great videos of the stingrays can be found on the BBC site)
By Jody Bourton

Freshwater stingrays use water as a "tool" in problem-solving tests, scientists reveal for the first time.
Researchers gave South American freshwater stingrays tests to evaluate their problem-solving ability. The stingrays learned to use jets of water as a tool to extract a meal of hidden food from a plastic pipe. It reveals that the fish, once thought a "simple reflex animal", has cognitive abilities to rival birds, reptiles and mammals, scientists say. Scientists from Israel, Austria and the US publish their study in the journal Animal Cognition

Fresh water stingrays, found in many tropical waters such as the Amazon river, are related to ocean stingrays. Like sharks, they have skeletons made of cartilage, rather the bony skeletons of less closely teleost fish.

In the past, scientists have assumed that cartilaginous fish have limited cognitive abilities, in part because they have been difficult to study, says Dr Michael Kuba from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel who undertook the latest study. His team tested the ability of captive South American stingrays (Potamotrygon castexi) to solve problems, by setting them a series of underwater tasks. Using a plastic pipe with one end sealed and containing hidden food, researchers observed how the fish overcame the challenge of getting the meal from the container. They also tested the fish to see if it could discriminate between black and white ends of the tube.The stingrays not only performed the tasks well but also demonstrated a range of problem-solving strategies, including using water as a "tool" to obtain the hidden reward. "Tool use in fish is far from anything seen in birds or mammals," explains Dr Kuba.

Dr Kuba says that the definition of tool use, using an agent to achieve a goal, was set by cognitive scientist Dr Benjamin Beck in 1980. The stingrays meet this definition by using water as a tool, manipulating their bodies to create a flow of water that moves food towards them.

At least one other fish species is known to use water in a similar way. The archer fish, a teleost, shoots spurts of water from its mouth to dislodge prey from leaves above the water's surface."Archer fish use water as a projectile to hunt insects," says Dr Kuba. Like the archer fish, the stingrays also use jets of water to dislodge food stuck among plants on the surface of the fish tank, a behaviour caught on video by the researchers.

Previously, stingrays have largely been on the sidelines of cognitive research for a number of reasons, says Dr Kuba."Firstly, they are bigger and more difficult to study than other model animals such as zebra fish, guppies or mice," he says."Second, they, like sharks, have often been considered to be reflex machines having very acute senses but limited cognitive capacities.""What our study shows is that stingrays are capable of problem solving," he says.

Dr Kuba also suggests that research on stingrays may reveal important aspects of the vertebrate thought process."They are members of one of the oldest lines of vertebrates and to know more about their abilities will help us to learn more about the evolution of cognition in vertebrates."

Gene map of anti-malaria plant could boost supply

From BBC NEWS (please visit the site for a good informational video on artemisia)
By Doreen Walton

Global supply of a key, plant-based, anti-malaria drug is set to be boosted by a genetic study, scientists say. Researchers have mapped the genes of Artemisia annua to allow selection of high-yield varieties. The study, published in the journal Science, aims to make growing the plant more profitable for farmers. "It's a major milestone for the development of this crop," Professor Ian Graham from the University of York in the UK told BBC News.

The research has been welcomed by Dr Chris Drakeley, director of the Malaria Centre at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. "Anything that enables an increased yield of product from something like Artemisia annua is a major step. "This is the first line anti-malarial in nearly all endemic countries at the moment and supplies can be limited."

Artemisinin combination therapies, or ATCs, are used widely to treat malaria and are seen as the best solution to the parasite's increasing resistance to anti-malarial drugs.

Professor Graham, who led the study, hopes that new higher yielding and more robust varieties could increase global supply of the malaria treatment within three years. "Our aim is to have hybrid seeds that can be released to farmers in the developing world by 2011 or 2012. With a year lag for planting, this would have an impact on supply in 2012 or 2013." We have to wait six to eight months from putting the seed in the ground to harvesting the crop and seeing how it has performed." Dr Drakeley hopes the new varieties will become available quickly. This will allow an increase in the basic compound that forms ATC therapies. If they can get these seeds out in the timeframe they're talking about it'll be a major advance," he said.

To identify the best plants for hybrid seed production, researchers measured characteristics of individual plants, for example, the number of artemisinin producing glands on the leaf. They also performed tests to find the plants with the best genetic make-up. The resulting seeds are being planted in field trials in China, East Africa, India and Madagascar. "We are expecting to end up with not just one hybrid. "Ideally we would like good hybrids for east Africa and good hybrids for India etc.," explained Professor Graham.

The study is the culmination of three years work funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the genetic maps and markers the researchers have identified will be made available for free all over the world. "All the information and tools we've developed in this work are free for people to use for the charitable purpose," Professor Graham told BBC News.

"We're also working with seed producers so they can produce the seeds as cheaply as possible for the developing world."

Scientists hope a better supply of the drug might also help with the problem of fake drugs being distributed. Some treatments being sold have been found to have no drug content or to be substandard in quality. This can make them fatal or they can be more likely to encourage resistance rather than combat the disease. "Hopefully, if the final product is easier and cheaper to procure after this development, it might lessen the production of counterfeit drugs," said Dr Drakeley. Professor Graham believes that the development of drug resistance by the malaria parasite has made the work more urgent.

"We have a window of time when we can use artemisinin effectively, and we want to have a stable, reliable supply that can be used in that window," he said.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Primate "language" in the NY Times

Deciphering the Chatter of Monkeys and Chimps

Walking through the Tai forest of Ivory Coast, Klaus Zuberbühler could hear the calls of the Diana monkeys, but the babble held no meaning for him.

That was in 1990. Today, after nearly 20 years of studying animal communication, he can translate the forest’s sounds. This call means a Diana monkey has seen a leopard. That one means it has sighted another predator, the crowned eagle. “In our experience time and again, it’s a humbling experience to realize there is so much more information being passed in ways which hadn’t been noticed before,” said Dr. Zuberbühler, a psychologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Do apes and monkeys have a secret language that has not yet been decrypted? And if so, will it resolve the mystery of how the human faculty for language evolved? Biologists have approached the issue in two ways, by trying to teach human language to chimpanzees and other species, and by listening to animals in the wild.

The first approach has been propelled by people’s intense desire — perhaps reinforced by childhood exposure to the loquacious animals in cartoons — to communicate with other species. Scientists have invested enormous effort in teaching chimpanzees language, whether in the form of speech or signs. A New York Times reporter who understands sign language, Boyce Rensberger, was able in 1974 to conduct what may be the first newspaper interview with another species when he conversed with Lucy, a signing chimp. She invited him up her tree, a proposal he declined, said Mr. Rensberger, who is now at M.I.T.

But with a few exceptions, teaching animals human language has proved to be a dead end. They should speak, perhaps, but they do not. They can communicate very expressively — think how definitely dogs can make their desires known — but they do not link symbolic sounds together in sentences or have anything close to language.

Better insights have come from listening to the sounds made by animals in the wild. Vervet monkeys were found in 1980 to have specific alarm calls for their most serious predators. If the calls were recorded and played back to them, the monkeys would respond appropriately. They jumped into bushes on hearing the leopard call, scanned the ground at the snake call, and looked up when played the eagle call.

It is tempting to think of the vervet calls as words for “leopard,” “snake” or “eagle,” but that is not really so. The vervets do not combine the calls with other sounds to make new meanings. They do not modulate them, so far as is known, to convey that a leopard is 10, or 100, feet away. Their alarm calls seem less like words and more like a person saying “Ouch!” — a vocal representation of an inner mental state rather than an attempt to convey exact information.

But the calls do have specific meaning, which is a start. And the biologists who analyzed the vervet calls, Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney of the University of Pennsylvania, detected another significant element in primates’ communication when they moved on to study baboons. Baboons are very sensitive to who stands where in their society’s hierarchy. If played a recording of a superior baboon threatening an inferior, and the latter screaming in terror, baboons will pay no attention — this is business as usual in baboon affairs. But when researchers concoct a recording in which an inferior’s threat grunt precedes a superior’s scream, baboons will look in amazement toward the loudspeaker broadcasting this apparent revolution in their social order.

Baboons evidently recognize the order in which two sounds are heard, and attach different meanings to each sequence. They and other species thus seem much closer to people in their understanding of sound sequences than in their production of them. “The ability to think in sentences does not lead them to speak in sentences,” Drs. Seyfarth and Cheney wrote in their book “Baboon Metaphysics.”

Some species may be able to produce sounds in ways that are a step or two closer to human language. Dr. Zuberbühler reported last month that Campbell’s monkeys, which live in the forests of the Ivory Coast, can vary individual calls by adding suffixes, just as a speaker of English changes a verb’s present tense to past by adding an “-ed.”

The Campbell’s monkeys give a “krak” alarm call when they see a leopard. But adding an “-oo” changes it to a generic warning of predators. One context for the krak-oo sound is when they hear the leopard alarm calls of another species, the Diana monkey. The Campbell’s monkeys would evidently make good reporters since they distinguish between leopards they have observed directly (krak) and those they have heard others observe (krak-oo).

Even more remarkably, the Campbell’s monkeys can combine two calls to generate a third with a different meaning. The males have a “Boom boom” call, which means “I’m here, come to me.” When booms are followed by a series of krak-oos, the meaning is quite different, Dr. Zuberbühler says. The sequence means “Timber! Falling tree!”

Dr. Zuberbühler has observed a similar achievement among putty-nosed monkeys that combine their “pyow” call (warning of a leopard) with their “hack” call (warning of a crowned eagle) into a sequence that means “Let’s get out of here in a real hurry.”

Apes have larger brains than monkeys and might be expected to produce more calls. But if there is an elaborate code of chimpanzee communication, their human cousins have not yet cracked it. Chimps make a food call that seems to have a lot of variation, perhaps depending on the perceived quality of the food. How many different meanings can the call assume? “You would need the animals themselves to decide how many meaningful calls they can discriminate,” Dr. Zuberbühler said. Such a project, he estimates, could take a lifetime of research.

Monkeys and apes possess many of the faculties that underlie language. They hear and interpret sequences of sounds much like people do. They have good control over their vocal tract and could produce much the same range of sounds as humans. But they cannot bring it all together.

This is particularly surprising because language is so useful to a social species. Once the infrastructure of language is in place, as is almost the case with monkeys and apes, the faculty might be expected to develop very quickly by evolutionary standards. Yet monkeys have been around for 30 million years without saying a single sentence. Chimps, too, have nothing resembling language, though they shared a common ancestor with humans just five million years ago. What is it that has kept all other primates locked in the prison of their own thoughts?

Drs. Seyfarth and Cheney believe that one reason may be that they lack a “theory of mind”; the recognition that others have thoughts. Since a baboon does not know or worry about what another baboon knows, it has no urge to share its knowledge. Dr. Zuberbühler stresses an intention to communicate as the missing factor. Children from the youngest ages have a great desire to share information with others, even though they gain no immediate benefit in doing so. Not so with other primates.

“In principle, a chimp could produce all the sounds a human produces, but they don’t do so because there has been no evolutionary pressure in this direction,” Dr. Zuberbühler said. “There is nothing to talk about for a chimp because he has no interest in talking about it.” At some point in human evolution, on the other hand, people developed the desire to share thoughts, Dr. Zuberbühler notes. Luckily for them, all the underlying systems of perceiving and producing sounds were already in place as part of the primate heritage, and natural selection had only to find a way of connecting these systems with thought.

Yet it is this step that seems the most mysterious of all. Marc D. Hauser, an expert on animal communication at Harvard, sees the uninhibited interaction between different neural systems as critical to the development of language. “For whatever reason, maybe accident, our brains are promiscuous in a way that animal brains are not, and once this emerges it’s explosive,” he said.

In animal brains, by contrast, each neural system seems to be locked in place and cannot interact freely with others. “Chimps have tons to say but can’t say it,” Dr. Hauser said. Chimpanzees can read each other’s goals and intentions, and do lots of political strategizing, for which language would be very useful. But the neural systems that compute these complex social interactions have not been married to language.

Dr. Hauser is trying to find out whether animals can appreciate some of the critical aspects of language, even if they cannot produce it. He and Ansgar Endress reported last year that cotton-top tamarins can distinguish a word added in front of another word from the same word added at the end. This may seem like the syntactical ability to recognize a suffix or prefix, but Dr. Hauser thinks it is just the ability to recognize when one thing comes before another and has little to do with real syntax.

“I’m becoming pessimistic,” he said of the efforts to explore whether animals have a form of language. “I conclude that the methods we have are just impoverished and won’t get us to where we want to be as far as demonstrating anything like semantics or syntax.”

Yet, as is evident from Dr. Zuberbühler’s research, there are many seemingly meaningless sounds in the forest that convey information in ways perhaps akin to language.

Thanks to Chrissie E for the link