Site update

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

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

Sunday, February 28, 2010

CNN reports on the Cross River gorilla

In search of world's rarest and most endangered gorilla
By Christian Purefoy

We shouldered our packs -- leaving behind us a small town of wooden shacks, and making our way up a steep climb into the Mbe mountains and Nigeria's last rainforest. In this area there's no mobile phone network and only a few hours of electricity a month for the local community. One of our guides waved towards the forest ahead of us: "We used to hear the gorillas roar from here in the town," reminisced Joseph Njama. "But not anymore."

We're searching for the world's rarest and most endangered gorilla -- the Cross River gorilla. In Nigeria and Cameroon there are thought to be only 300 left, and in these Mbe mountains maybe only 30 remain. The gorillas are under threat from local poachers, who sell the meat in local bush-markets. So far, it seems the rugged terrain of the Mbe mountains has saved the gorillas from extinction -- difficult access and thick forests make it a perfect hiding place. But with Nigeria's burgeoning population of 150 million people -- the small gorilla population is under increasing pressure.

Our guides -- or "eco-guards" -- are ex-poachers now turned guardians for the gorillas, patrolling the rainforest daily for hunters. But even they see the gorillas maybe only two or three times a year.

As we trekked through encroaching farmlands, scattered banana plantations and then cutting our way through the rainforest, eco-guard Joseph Njama would point out the few signs that show the gorillas still inhabit the region. "These are the teeth of the gorilla," Joseph pointed to teeth-markings in an old fruit. "Look at them biting it -- forcing it to break." The U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the local Cross River government are throwing their support behind a community-based conservation program.

The nine local communities living in the shadow of the Mbe mountains have come together to try to protect the gorillas -- holding regular meetings on how to stop poachers and farmland encroachment. But disagreement over exactly how is proving divisive. And the conservation support they've been promised by government, says local king Oduo Abang-Aban, has not been forthcoming. "We're trying to cry to government -- we who are trying to keep this mountain safe ... otherwise some people will encroach." And so the consequences of neglect and delay remain.

Emmanuel Oshibeka untied his small nylon bag, and one by one, pulled out four gorilla skulls. He was jailed for only six months after he killed three gorillas in 2006. A tenth of the local gorilla population in one day. "They were in a group and I was with a dog. The dog ran and met them and they began to shout. Then I also entered and I saw them on top of a tree," Emmanuel explained the moment when he killed the three gorillas. "I began to shoot three of them in the trees, and as they fell to the ground I went and slaughtered them," Emmanuel pulled his hand across his throat in a graphic description of how he killed them. WCS now help him tend bees as an alternative to hunting. But so far, only one out of five hives have successfully colonized. "When I do not succeed in beekeeping and there's no money from there -- I can still go back to the forest," Emmanuel warned.

But as we continued our search through the rainforest we find further signs of life. Bent branches and leaves all folded into a small bed on the ground -- a gorilla nest only two to three weeks old. "The only way we can get information on the population is by finding nests such as this," explained Inaoyom Imong, a local biologist with WCS, "To give an idea of the population size and ranging behavior. And also looking at the food remains you can see what plants the gorillas are eating." As he pulled out a tape measure to record the size of the nest, Inaoyom described an encounter with the gorillas.

"It's exciting -- they're huge animals, very charismatic -- they're a beauty to withhold. The way they charge at you, roar, open their fangs -- it's exciting, fearful but very exciting."

And finding nests like this, says Nigerian WCS Director Andrew Dunn, is a hopeful sign that their efforts are not in vain. "There are people who wrote off the Cross River gorilla entirely, but we've shown that although there are only three or four small groups left -- there are corridors left between these remaining groups. So the future is not entirely bleak."

As we trekked out of the mountains and the end of our three day trip, the sound of singing and church service rang through the communities banana plantations -- a warning of human encroachment towards the forest. We didn't see any gorillas but the more these gorillas fear humans and stay hidden the better their chances of survival.

Jean-Michel Cousteau's Statement on Captive Orcas

From youtube:
Jean-Michel Cousteau comments on the tragedy on February 24th, 2010, when trainer Dawn Brancheau was dragged into the water and killed by Tilikum, an orca at Sea World's Orlando park. This is the third death associated with Tilikum while in captivity. The tragic death of the trainer suggests that maybe we have outgrown the need to keep such wild, enormous, complex, intelligent and free-ranging animals in captivity, where their behavior is not only unnatural, it can become pathological.

For more info visit

PETA also has a petition against SeaWorld which you can read and sign here.

Thanks to Cleve H for the link

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Computer program can compose as good as the masters.

Triumph of the Cyborg Composer
David Cope’s software creates beautiful, original music. Why are people so angry about that?
By Ryan Blitstein

Excerpt 1:

Emmy was once the world’s most advanced artificially intelligent composer, and because he’d managed to breathe a sort of life into her, he became a modern-day musical Dr. Frankenstein. She produced thousands of scores in the style of classical heavyweights, scores so impressive that classical music scholars failed to identify them as computer-created. Cope attracted praise from musicians and computer scientists, but his creation raised troubling questions: If a machine could write a Mozart sonata every bit as good as the originals, then what was so special about Mozart? And was there really any soul behind the great works, or were Beethoven and his ilk just clever mathematical manipulators of notes?

Cope’s answers — not much, and yes — made some people very angry. He was so often criticized for these views that colleagues nicknamed him “The Tin Man,” after the Wizard of Oz character without a heart. For a time, such condemnation fueled his creativity, but eventually, after years of hemming and hawing, Cope dragged Emmy into the trash folder.

This month, he is scheduled to unveil the results of a successor effort that’s already generating the controversy and high expectations that Emmy once drew. Dubbed “Emily Howell,” the daughter program aims to do what many said Emmy couldn’t: create original, modern music. Its compositions are innovative, unique and — according to some in the small community of listeners who’ve heard them performed live — superb.

Excerpt 2:

The results were a great improvement. Yet as Cope tested the recombinating software on Bach, he noticed that the music would often wander and lacked an overall logic. More important, the output seemed to be missing some ineffable essence.

Again, Cope hit the books, hoping to discover research into what that something was. For hundreds of years, musicologists had analyzed the rules of composition at a superficial level. Yet few had explored the details of musical style; their descriptions of terms like “dynamic,” for example, were so vague as to be unprogrammable. So Cope developed his own types of musical phenomena to capture each composer’s tendencies — for instance, how often a series of notes shows up, or how a series may signal a change in key. He also classified chords, phrases and entire sections of a piece based on his own grammar of musical storytelling and tension and release: statement, preparation, extension, antecedent, consequent. The system is analogous to examining the way a piece of writing functions. For example, a word may be a noun in preparation for a verb, within a sentence meant to be a declarative statement, within a paragraph that’s a consequent near the conclusion of a piece.

Finally, Cope’s program could divine what made Bach sound like Bach and create music in that style. It broke rules just as Bach had broken them, and made the result sound musical. It was as if the software had somehow captured Bach’s spirit — and it performed just as well in producing new Mozart compositions and Shakespeare sonnets. One afternoon, a few years after he’d begun work on Emmy, Cope clicked a button and went out for a sandwich, and she spit out 5,000 beautiful, artificial Bach chorales, work that would’ve taken him several lifetimes to produce by hand.

To read the entire article go to:

Thanks to Claudio T for the link

Friday, February 26, 2010

Vertebrate DNA in Fecal Samples from Bonobos and Gorillas: Evidence for Meat Consumption or Artefact?

Hofreiter M, Kreuz E, Eriksson J, Schubert G, Hohmann G (2010) Vertebrate DNA in Fecal Samples from Bonobos and Gorillas: Evidence for Meat Consumption or Artefact? PLoS ONE 5(2): e9419. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0009419

Deciphering the behavioral repertoire of great apes is a challenge for several reasons. First, due to their elusive behavior in dense forest environments, great ape populations are often difficult to observe. Second, members of the genus Pan are known to display a great variety in their behavioral repertoire; thus, observations from one population are not necessarily representative for other populations. For example, bonobos (Pan paniscus) are generally believed to consume almost no vertebrate prey. However, recent observations show that at least some bonobo populations may consume vertebrate prey more commonly than previously believed. We investigated the extent of their meat consumption using PCR amplification of vertebrate mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) segments from DNA extracted from bonobo feces. As a control we also attempted PCR amplifications from gorilla feces, a species assumed to be strictly herbivorous.

Principal Findings
We found evidence for consumption of a variety of mammalian species in about 16% of the samples investigated. Moreover, 40% of the positive DNA amplifications originated from arboreal monkeys. However, we also found duiker and monkey mtDNA in the gorilla feces, albeit in somewhat lower percentages. Notably, the DNA sequences isolated from the two ape species fit best to the species living in the respective regions. This result suggests that the sequences are of regional origin and do not represent laboratory contaminants.

Our results allow at least three possible and mutually not exclusive conclusions. First, all results may represent contamination of the feces by vertebrate DNA from the local environment. Thus, studies investigating a species' diet from feces DNA may be unreliable due to the low copy number of DNA originating from diet items. Second, there is some inherent difference between the bonobo and gorilla feces, with only the later ones being contaminated. Third, similar to bonobos, for which the consumption of monkeys has only recently been documented, the gorilla population investigated (for which very little observational data are as yet available) may occasionally consume small vertebrates. Although the last explanation is speculative, it should not be discarded a-priori given that observational studies continue to unravel new behaviors in great ape species.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

How Africa is Becoming the New Asia

Pretoria, South Africa
By Jerry Guo

China and India get all the headlines for their economic prowess, but there's another global growth story that is easily overlooked: Africa. In 2007 and 2008, southern Africa, the Great Lakes region of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, and even the drought-stricken Horn of Africa had GDP growth rates on par with Asia's two powerhouses. Last year, in the depths of global recession, the continent clocked almost 2 percent growth, roughly equal to the rates in the Middle East, and outperforming everywhere else but India and China. This year and in 2011, Africa will grow by 4.8 percent—the highest rate of growth outside Asia, and higher than even the oft-buzzed-about economies of Brazil, Russia, Mexico, and Eastern Europe, according to newly revised IMF estimates. In fact, on a per capita basis, Africans are already richer than Indians, and a dozen African states have higher gross national income per capita than China.

More surprising is that much of this growth is driven not by the sale of raw materials, like oil or diamonds, but by a burgeoning domestic market, the largest outside India and China. In the last four years, the surge in private consumption of goods and services has accounted for two thirds of Africa's GDP growth. The rapidly emerging African middle class could number as many as 300 million, out of a total population of 1 billion, according to development expert Vijay Majahan, author of the 2009 book Africa Rising. While few of them have the kind of disposable income found in Asia and the West, these accountants, teachers, maids, taxi drivers, even roadside street vendors, are driving up demand for goods and services like cell phones, bank accounts, upmarket foodstuffs, and real estate. In fact, in Africa's 10 largest economies, the service sector makes up 40 percent of GDP, not too far from India's 53 percent. "The new Africa story is consumption," says Graham Thomas, head of principal investment at Standard Bank Group, which operates in 17 African countries.

Much of the boom in this new consumer class can be attributed to outside forces: evolving trade patterns, particularly from increased demand coming out of China, and technological innovation abroad that spurs local productivity and growth like the multibillion-dollar fiber-optic lines that are being laid out between Africa and the developed world. Other changes are domestic and deliberate. Despite Africa's well-founded reputation for corruption and poor governance, a substantial chunk of the continent has quietly experienced this economic renaissance by dint of its virtually unprecedented political stability. Spurred by eager investors, governments have steadily deregulated industries and developed infrastructure. As a result, countries such as Kenya and Botswana now boast privately owned world-class hospitals, charter schools, and toll roads that are actually safe to drive on. A study by a World Bank program, the Africa Infrastructure Country Diagnostic, found that improvements in Africa's telecom infrastructure have contributed as much as 1 percent to per capita GDP growth, a bigger role than changes in monetary or fiscal policies. Shares of stocks in recently privatized local airlines, freight companies, and telecoms have skyrocketed.

Entrepreneurship has increased at the same time, powered in part by the influx of returning skilled workers. Just as waves of expats returned to China and India in the 1990s to start businesses that in turn attracted more outside talent and capital, there are now signs that an entrepreneurial African diaspora will help transform the continent. While brain drain is still a chronic problem in countries such as Burundi and Malawi—some of the poorest in the world on a per capita basis—Africa's most robust economies, such as those in Ghana, Botswana, and South Africa, are beginning to see an unprecedented brain gain. According to some reports, roughly 10,000 skilled professionals have returned to Nigeria in the last year, and the number of educated Angolans seeking jobs back home has spiked 10-fold, to 1,000, in the last five years. Bart Nnaji gave up a tenured professorship at the University of Pittsburgh to move back to Nigeria in 2005 and run Geometric Power, the first private power company in sub-Saharan Africa. Its $400 million, 188-megawatt power plant will come online this fall as the sole provider of electricity for Aba, a city of 2 million in southeast Nigeria. Afam Onyema, a 30-year-old graduate of Harvard and Stanford Law, turned down six-figure offers in corporate law to build and run a $50 million state-of-the-art private hospital with a charitable component for the poor in southeast Nigeria.

Many experts believe Africa, with its expansive base of newly minted consumers, may very well be on the verge of becoming the next India, thanks to frenetic urbanization and the sort of big push in services and infrastructure that transformed the Asian subcontinent 15 years ago. Just as India once harnessed its booming population of cheap labor, Africa stands to gain by the rapid growth of its big cities. Already the continent boasts the world's highest rate of urbanization, which jump-starts growth through industrialization and economies of scale. Today only a third of Africa's population lives in cities, but that segment accounts for 80 percent of total GDP, according to the U.N. Centre for Human Settlements. In the next 30 years, half the continent's population will be living in cities.

Nowhere is this relationship between the consumer class and urbanization more apparent than in Lagos, Nigeria, a megalopolis of 18 million that has the anything-goes pace of a Chongqing or Mumbai. On Victoria Island, the city's commercial center, real estate is as expensive as in Manhattan. Everywhere you look, there is construction: luxury condos, office buildings, roads, even a brand-new city nearby being dredged from the sea that will hold half a million people. "Everything is in short supply, so everything's a high-growth area," explains Adedotun Sulaiman, a venture capitalist and chairman of Accenture in Nigeria. "In terms of opportunities, it's just mind-blowing." Aliko Dangote, Africa's richest black entrepreneur, has also cashed in on this consumer culture, with a net worth of $2.5 billion, according to Forbes. His empire, which began in 1978 as a trading business that imported, among other things, baby food, cement, and frozen fish, is focused on Nigeria's burgeoning domestic growth, producing cement for shopping and office complexes; renting luxury condos; making noodles, flour, and sugar; and now expanding into services such as 3G mobile networks and transportation. "There's nowhere you can make money like in Nigeria," says the 53-year-old Dangote. "It's the world's best-kept secret."

Not anymore. A recent study by Oxford economist Paul Collier of all 954 publicly traded African companies operating between 2000 and 2007 found that their annual return on capital was on average 65 percent higher than those of similar firms in China, India, Vietnam, or Indonesia because labor costs are skyrocketing in Asia. Their median profit margin, 11 percent, was also higher than in Asia or South America. African mobile operators, for instance, showed the highest profit margins in the industry worldwide. As a result, foreign multinationals like Unilever, Nestlé, and Swissport International report some of their highest growth in Africa. So even as foreign direct investment fell by 20 percent worldwide in 2008, capital in-flows to Africa actually jumped 16 percent, to $61.9 billion, its highest level ever, according to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Even Chinese companies are thinking of outsourcing basic manufacturing to Africa. The World Bank is now helping China set up an industrial zone in Ethiopia, the first of perhaps several offshore centers akin to the sprawling free-trade zones that opened up China's economy in the 1980s.

Still, Africa remains at the very frontier of emerging markets. Despite its gains, the difficulty and cost of running a business there are the highest in the world, according to data from the International Monetary Fund. Couple that with pervasive corruption—Transparency International calls the problem "rampant" in 36 of 53 African states—and it's no wonder Africa is often regarded as a toxic place to operate. But World Bank president Robert Zoellick says that in the aftermath of the economic crisis, long-term investors have recognized that "developed markets have big risks too." Like China and India, Africa is exploiting that fact, and perhaps more than any other region it is illustrative of a new world order in which the poorest nations will still find ways to steam ahead.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

"...while small forest fragments need protecting we should intervene at an earlier stage to protect larger forest areas that are under threat"

Threat to Monkey Numbers from Forest Decline
Monkey populations in threatened forests are far more sensitive to damage to their habitat than previously thought, according to new research.

An analysis of monkeys living in Tanzania's Udzungwa Mountains suggests that the impact of external factors, such as human activity, on species numbers is felt in forests as large as 40 square kilometres.

Researchers also found that the health of monkey populations is closely related to the type of habitat found between forest fragments, rather than the distance that separates them.

The findings have broader implications for conservationists as the number of monkeys and the variety of species is a visible indicator of the underlying health of their habitat.

The research was conducted by Dr Andrew Marshall, from the Environment Department at the University of York and Director of Conservation at Flamingo Land Theme Park and Zoo, in collaboration with colleagues from the University of York, the University of Copenhagen, the Tremto Museum of Natural History (Italy) and the Udzungwa Ecological Monitoring Centre (Tanzania).

Dr Marshall said: "This study suggests that while small forest fragments need protecting we should intervene at an earlier stage to protect larger forest areas that are under threat.

"It also supports the case for working with local communities on practical steps that will help forest species. These could include reducing dependence on bush meat and encouraging the planting of habitat that can form corridors between forest fragments."

The research investigated the distribution of seven species living in an area covering 10,000 km2 and has led to a wider conservation and education project in the area led by Dr Marshall, through Flamingo Land Theme Park and Zoo. The discovery of a new species of chameleon in this area was announced last year.

The latest research is published in the American Journal of Primatology.


Marshall AR, Jørgensbye HIO, Rovero F, Platts PJ, White PCL, Lovett JC (2010) The species-area relationship and confounding variables in a threatened monkey community. American Journal of Primatology

Friday, February 19, 2010

Canadians win the NSF 2009 International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge

2009 Visualization Challenge: Interactive Media
Science and the National Science Foundation announce the winner in the interactive media category in the 2009 International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge.

First-Place Winner - Genomics Digital Lab: Cell Biology

Video games allow players to rock out like Jimi Hendrix or hurl touchdown passes like Peyton Manning. In this interactive media entry, they can turn sunlight into electrons and convert sugar into energy like a plant cell. Jeremy Friedberg and his team at Spongelab Interactive in Toronto, Canada, designed this Web-based game to teach high school students about the intricate cycles and pathways that keep the cell alive by generating and burning energy.

At the start of each game, the camera zooms into the cross section of a leaf and focuses on a glowing cell. Then the students must play the role of that cell, building and maintaining its cycles and pathways to score energy points. In one game, players have to manage glycolysis, the pathway that breaks down the sugar glucose, by shooting enzymes at molecules marching on tracks to convert them into new chemicals that the cell can use. The final games focus on transcribing genes and synthesizing proteins—processes on which cells spend much of their energy. Similar to Guitar Hero, players transcribing a gene must hit the appropriate RNA base letter as the DNA template scrolls down the screen. Too many mistakes and the cell becomes sick.

Games can be important educational tools that go beyond rote memorization, Freidberg says. "I want to know if my students can think critically and be creative and figure out ways through problems," he says. "That's what games can do: They can create scenarios that make students problem-solve."

The judges "were impressed with the incredible attention to detail and accurate representation of cell structures ... as well as the use of story lines to draw in and sustain the users' attention," says panel of judges member Tierney Thys. "My only wish is that I'd had more time to play it!"

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Sign the Petition to ban the sale and trade in Ivory


In 1979 there were an estimated 1.3 million African elephants. A decade later, widespread poaching had reduced that figure by half. Just 600,000 African elephants remained.

Africa’s savannahs and forests were no longer sanctuaries for elephants; they had been turned into graveyards.

In 1989, a worldwide ban on ivory trade was approved by CITES. Levels of poaching fell dramatically, and black-market prices of ivory slumped.

CITES had saved the African elephant. Or had it?

Since 1997, there have been sustained attempts by certain countries to overturn the ban. In 1999, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe were allowed an ‘experimental one-off sale’ of 49,437kg of ivory to Japan. Then in 2002, a further one off-sale was approved, which finally took place in 2008 – and resulted in 105,000kg of ivory being shipped to China and Japan.

Today, levels of poaching and illegal trade are spiralling out of control once again. In many areas, rates of poaching are now the worst they have been since 1989. In 2009, over 20,000kg of ivory was seized and countries have started to report localised extinctions of very vulnerable elephant populations.

Despite this, in March 2010, Tanzania and Zambia will be asking to reduce the level of protection their elephants afforded by CITES (by downlisting their elephant populations from Appendix I, which bans commercial trade, to Appendix II, which allows regulated trade subject to certain conditions). They are also seeking approval for a one-off sale of over 110,000kg of ivory.

The Tanzania and Zambia Proposals are in direct contravention of the spirit a nine-year moratorium on ivory trade, agreed by all range States in 2007. The final wording of this moratorium unfortunately has a loophole which is now being exploited by Tanzania and Zambia.

If these proposals are approved, many fear for the future survival of many of Africa’s more fragile elephant populations that simply cannot withstand any more pressure. For Sierra Leone’s elephants it is already too late – the Government of Sierra Leone announced at the end of 2009 that it feared its last few elephants had been lost to poachers.

The African Elephant Coalition is formed of 23-African elephant range States (the majority of countries with wild African elephants) who are strongly opposing the Tanzanian and Zambian Proposals. They are instead calling on the international community to support a proposal by Ghana, Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Mali, Kenya, Liberia and Sierra Leone to close the loophole in the moratorium, and extend it to twenty years. They believe that only resolute action of this kind can increase the security for Africa’s beleaguered elephants.

This website is intended to be a central portal of information about ivory trade, elephant poaching and the impact of CITES decisions on Africa’s elephants.

It provides those without a voice to join in the battle to protect elephants across Africa. They urgently need your support. Don’t delay – take action today!


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

US Congress Considers Banning Medical Experiments on Chimpanzees

To quote from this article:
says Vandeberg. "It would be unethical for us to turn our back on these people and not conduct the research that is so desperately needed to develop the drugs to treat these diseases and the vaccines to prevent them in the future."
And what if the only way to not turn our backs on these people was to test on people? Does Dr. Vandeberg support human testing, or does he draw lines? And if he draws lines, what are his criteria? cognition? adult apes are "smarter" than small children and "smarter" that some mentally challenged will ever be. Is it at those that possess an emotional life? We know apes care for kin and others as we do. And if its some "species" designation, lets not forget that less than 100 years ago "blacks" and "whites" were considered different species. If you have ever watched apes, then you know that biomedical tests on them is as wrong as tests on humans. -MA

For more info please visit: and please watch the video below!

Congress Considers Banning Medical Experiments on Chimpanzees
Scientists, animal rights advocates, spar over lab tests on chimps
by Julie Taboh

The United States is the only country in the world that still allows federally-funded medical experiments on chimpanzees.

Chimpanzees are our closest animal relative. So close, in fact, that 98 percent of a chimpanzee's DNA is identical to that of humans.

The highly intelligent primates share many of our physical and behavioral characteristics and that similarity has made them attractive to medical researchers, sparking a heated debate over animal rights and medical ethics.

Essential or inhumane

The United States is the only country in the world that still allows federally-funded medical experiments on chimpanzees. The practice includes developing and testing new vaccines and drugs that might prevent or cure potentially-fatal human diseases.

Supporters of the practice say medical tests involving chimps have helped save millions of lives worldwide. Animal welfare activists argue that subjecting chimpanzees to painful, and often lethal, experiments is cruel and inhumane.

Dr. Hope Ferdowsian, director of research policy at the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), says chimpanzees used for HIV and hepatitis research are anaesthetized with a dart gun before being subjected to harmful and invasive procedures. Besides its ethical objections, PCRM argues that the use of chimpanzees in the lab is an ineffective way to advance medical research.

"Over 80 different vaccines have worked in chimpanzees with respect to HIV virus; none of them have worked in human beings," says Elizabeth Kucinich, wife of U.S. Congressman Dennis Kucinich, director of public affairs, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Ineffective in humans?
Elizabeth Kucinich, wife of U.S. Congressman Dennis Kucinich, is a long-time animal welfare advocate. She also serves as director of public affairs for the Physicians Committee.

Kucinich says science has evolved since the 1920s when primates were first used for experimentation. "Since that time we've really learned that as close as they are to human species, they're not close enough for any real scientific outcomes for drug testing."

According to Kucinich, over 80 different HIV-related vaccines have worked in chimpanzees but none have proven effective in human beings.

A recent undercover investigation conducted by the Humane Society of the United States found chimpanzees in a Louisiana research center being subjected to harsh treatment and painful medical experiments.

They also found these highly social animals living in small, prison-like cages where some have languished for decades.

Ethical Questions
Humane Society president Wayne Pacelle says it isn't just the physical abuse of the chimpanzees that's troubling. "I think the larger issue is the psychological torment; animals isolated, kept away from others who can give them companionship, fearing what's going to happen next, and animals living in this constant state of confinement."

Hope Ferdowsian of the Physicians Committee says chimpanzees don't have to suffer like this and explains that there are alternatives to the use of chimpanzees in research. "For example, in HIV research, we've learned a lot from human epidemiological studies and ethically conducted clinical trials," she says. "We've also learned a lot about the virus from mathematical and computer modeling. For hepatitis C vaccine we're learning a lot from in vitro or cell-based methods."

Banning experiments on chimps
Both Kucinich and Ferdowsian were on Capitol Hill recently, campaigning for newly introduced congressional legislation that would eventually ban invasive experiments on chimpanzees.

According to Ferdowsian, the Great Ape Protection Act, or GAPA, "would ban all invasive and harmful research on chimpanzees in American laboratories." It would also "release federally-owned chimpanzees, about half of the thousand chimpanzees that are languishing in American laboratories today, to sanctuaries."

But the legislation is not to everyone's liking. John VandeBerg, director of the Southwest National Primate Research Center in San Antonio, Texas, says the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research is essential.

He argues that there are no other animals that can be infected with Hepatitis C virus, Hepatitis B Virus or HIV.

"So in order to develop drugs to treat people who have Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, particularly, we need to use chimpanzees to determine if the drugs can reduce the level of viruses in their blood and in their livers," says VandeBerg.

While he acknowledges that there is much to be learned from alternative research methods like cell culture - a process by which cells are taken from a living organism and grown under controlled conditions - VandeBerg says they have learned a lot more from research on chimpanzees.

"There are hundreds of millions of people who suffer from hepatitis-B and hepatitis-C, the two diseases which are most important for the moment for chimp research," says Dr. John VandeBerg, director of the Southwest National Primate Research Center.

"For example," he says, "we cannot determine if a drug is going to work in a human being, and be safe in a human being by testing that drug in cell culture models. We must determine first if it's going to work in a living animal that has all the complexities of a human being."
VandeBerg says he and his colleagues go out of their way to use lower forms of animals before experimenting on chimpanzees. "When the research progresses to a stage when the information coming from mice and rats is not sufficient, we may move up to using monkeys. And when monkeys can't give us the answers we need, only then, do we move to the chimpanzee."

Benefiting millions
VandeBerg also points out that the research that's been conducted on chimpanzees so far has already benefited much of the world's population.

"Three hundred and fifty million human beings in the world are infected with Hepatitis-B virus. Three hundred million people in the world are infected with Hepatitis-C virus. That's almost a tenth of the world's population." says Vandeberg. "It would be unethical for us to turn our back on these people and not conduct the research that is so desperately needed to develop the drugs to treat these diseases and the vaccines to prevent them in the future."

Vandeberg also defends his research facility, saying that the animals in his primate research center receive better care than most people in the world. "They live in social groups, they live in indoor-outdoor enclosures, they have heating in the winter and air conditioning in the summer; our chimps even have televisions," he says.

World renowned primate expert Jane Goodall believes using chimpanzees in medical research is "morally wrong and unacceptable".

But such creature comforts don't change the fact that chimpanzees used in medical research may suffer or die, and that's unacceptable to famed primate expert Jane Goodall. She spent decades studying and living among Central African chimpanzees in the wild and now campaigns to protect the endangered species.

"We need to recognize at the outset that what we do to animals - from their perspective certainly, and probably from ours - is morally wrong and unacceptable, and that it's really important to follow through on all these exciting new leads into ways of doing research without using animals," says Goodall.

But John VandeBerg of the Southwest National Primate Research Center says if the proposed legislation to phase out medical research on chimpanzees is passed, scientists like him will have to end their work. "It will be a great tragedy for humanity if research with chimpanzees were stopped."

The Great Ape Protection Act is currently making its way through the U.S. Congress. It has more than 140 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives. Until the measure becomes law, medical testing on chimpanzees will continue to be a highly divisive, and hotly debated, issue.

For more info please visit:

and check out this video on exactly what is going on in labs:

Travelling is good for cognition

A great article by Jonah Lehrer on how travel expands our minds (and why we go through the hell of getting there) can be found at "Why We Travel" at

an excerpt:

...When we escape from the place we spend most of our time, the mind is suddenly made aware of all those errant ideas we'd previously suppressed. We start thinking about obscure possibilities--corn can fuel cars!--that never would have occurred to us if we'd stayed back on the farm. Furthermore, this more relaxed sort of cognition comes with practical advantages, especially when we're trying to solve difficult problems. Look, for instance, at a recent experiment led by the psychologist Lile Jia at Indiana University. He randomly divided a few dozen under-grads into two groups, both of which were asked to list as many different modes of transportation as possible. (This is known as a creative generation task.) One group of students was told that the task was developed by Indiana University students study-ing abroad in Greece (the distant condition), while the other group was told that the task was developed by Indiana students studying in Indiana (the near condition). At first glance, it's hard to believe that such a slight and seemingly irrelevant difference would alter the performance of the subjects. Why would it matter where the task was conceived?

Nevertheless, Jia found a striking difference between the two groups: when students were told that the task was imported from Greece, they came up with significantly more transportation possibilities. They didn't just list buses, trains, and planes; they cited horses, triremes, spaceships, bicycles, and even Segway scooters. Because the source of the problem was far away, the subjects felt less constrained by their local transport options; they didn't just think about getting around in Indiana, they thought about get-ting around all over the world, and even in deep space.

...and in summary:
So let's not pretend that travel is always fun, or that we endure the jet lag for pleasure. We don't spend ten hours lost in the Louvre because we like it, and the view from the top of Machu Picchu probably doesn't make up for the hassle of lost luggage. (More often than not, I need a vacation after my vacation.) We travel because we need to, because distance and difference are the secret tonic of creativity. When we get home, home is still the same. But something in our mind has been changed, and that changes everything.
Original article "Why We Travel" by Jonah Lehrer can be found here:

Thanks to Dieter L for the link!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Brief History of Pretty Much Everything

via Geeekologie
This is a brief history of the universe and life on earth in 3:12 entirely in flipbook form. It was created by student Jamie Bell for an art class:
This is the final piece for my AS art course, a flipbook made entirely out of biro pens. It's something like 2100 pages long, and about 50 jotter books. I'd say I worked on and off it for roughly 3 weeks.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Virunga Mountain Gorila Census to begin - Genetic samples to be collected for entire population

From the New
Rwanda: Census of Mountain Gorillas Begins Next Month
by Irene V. Nambi

As an effort to strengthen conservation of the mountain gorillas, Rwanda will join neighbouring countries and partners to make an accurate count of the total gorilla population in the Virunga Volcanoes.

According to a statement from the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP), Rwanda will collaborate with Uganda's Wildlife and National Park Authorities as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to conduct the census slated to begin March 1 and end in April.

The count will also help determine the genetic variability and health status of the gorilla population as well as measure the effects of the recent history of conflict in the region on such a small population of critically endangered animals.

"Though the area is now relatively calm, recent conflicts in the Mikeno sector of Virunga National Park in the DRC has left the gorillas there vulnerable," the statement adds.

According to Eugene Rutagarama, the director of IGCP, which is also a partner in the exercise, the census will enable partner-states to assess the impact of conservation efforts carried out by all gorilla conservation stakeholders.

"We are hoping that the census will confirm a continuous increase of the mountain gorilla population and guide us on how we can further contribute to the growth of this still endangered population," Rutagarama is quoted as saying.

The exercise is supported by the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (a coalition of AWF, WWF and FFI), the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Virunga Volcanoes is one of only two habitats where mountain gorillas live, whose total numbers are currently estimated at 680 individuals.

The last Virunga Volcanoes census that was done in 2003 resulted in an estimate of 380 individuals, with the remaining individuals living in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park of Uganda.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Placebo Effect & how to incorporate it into treatment

Ben Goldacre, doctor and author of Bad Science, explains what the placebo effect is and describes its role in medical research and in the pharmaceutical industry.

Thanks to Claudio L for the link

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Biodiversity law could stymie research

by Natasha Gilbert

Tighter rules on accessing and developing genetic resources may be counterproductive for conservation.

Scientists who study the world's biodiversity are facing a dilemma: proposals to regulate access to the riches of ecological hotspots may hamper the research needed to monitor these areas.

The warning comes as signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) begin negotiating ways to strengthen the treaty's legal framework and goals, which include conserving biodiversity and promoting the sustainable use of natural resources (see 'Key questions'). A crucial part of that effort, discussed last week at a meeting in Montreal, Canada, is the reform that is generally regarded as the least effective aspect of the CBD: deciding who can exploit valuable genetic resources, such as plants that produce potential pharmaceuticals, and who should benefit financially.

Many developing countries complain that this aspect of the CBD relies on voluntary guidelines, rather than clear international legislation. This makes it difficult to police how genetic resources are used, and to ensure that countries are paid fairly if commercial products are developed from their resources. Moreover, national regulations governing access and benefit sharing can vary enormously between countries, confusing both commercial and non-commercial researchers.

The negotiators aim to produce a legally binding framework that resolves all these problems, which will be considered for adoption under the CBD at a meeting of the convention's signatory countries in October in Nagoya, Japan.

But tougher regulation could come with a cost, warns David Schindel, an invertebrate palaeontologist and executive secretary of the Consortium for the Barcode of Life, an inter-national initiative to identify species using short genetic sequences, based at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. "We are very concerned that it will become more restrictive," he says. In some cases, it can already take at least two years and reams of paperwork to agree the terms on which research can be conducted, specimens exported and profits shared. "You could go through a field season collecting specimens and then the government says they are going to hold on to them because you don't have the right permission," he says. "The specimens sit on a dock, rot and are lost."

David Oren, coordinator of biodiversity in the ecosystems management office of Brazil's Ministry of Science and Technology, agrees that the framework must strike a balance between protecting a nation's intellectual property and not impeding research. He says that access and benefits legislation introduced by Brazil in 2002 "essentially stopped" research on biodiversity in the country, as it restricted the exchange of specimens between institutions. The rules have since been relaxed to make a clear distinction between basic and commercial research, making it easier for academics to study biodiversity in Brazil, but many other countries, including India, still have highly restrictive regimes, says Schindel. He hopes that the new CBD framework will clarify the situation, although some experts say that defining commercial research will not be easy — it is increasingly common for academic scientists to make patent applications based on their research, for example.

Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the CBD, points out that an improved international framework should also benefit companies, giving them more confidence to invest the time and money required to develop products from natural resources. "What company would invest now if they don't know what a country's legislation will be like in 20 years' time?" he asks.

Other key sticking points in the negotiations include defining exactly what a genetic resource is, and whether the regime should be restricted to plants or should also include animals and pathogens.

Negotiators must reach a consensus on the framework at a meeting in March in Cali, Colombia, the deadline for finalizing the text for consideration at Nagoya. There's a lot at stake, says Djoghlaf. "If we get agreement, it will be a major breakthrough in the sustainable development and environmental movement."

Monday, February 8, 2010

Altruism in Forest Chimpanzees: The Case of Adoption

Figure 3. The adult male Porthos with his adopted female infant Gia.

Altruism in Forest Chimpanzees: The Case of Adoption
Christophe Boesch
, Camille Bolé, Nadin Eckhardt, Hedwige Boesch


In recent years, extended altruism towards unrelated group members has been proposed to be a unique characteristic of human societies. Support for this proposal seemingly came from experimental studies on captive chimpanzees that showed that individuals were limited in the ways they shared or cooperated with others. This dichotomy between humans and chimpanzees was proposed to indicate an important difference between the two species, and one study concluded that “chimpanzees are indifferent to the welfare of unrelated group members”. In strong contrast with these captive studies, consistent observations of potentially altruistic behaviors in different populations of wild chimpanzees have been reported in such different domains as food sharing, regular use of coalitions, cooperative hunting and border patrolling. This begs the question of what socio-ecological factors favor the evolution of altruism. Here we report 18 cases of adoption, a highly costly behavior, of orphaned youngsters by group members in Taï forest chimpanzees. Half of the adoptions were done by males and remarkably only one of these proved to be the father. Such adoptions by adults can last for years and thus imply extensive care towards the orphans. These observations reveal that, under the appropriate socio-ecologic conditions, chimpanzees do care for the welfare of other unrelated group members and that altruism is more extensive in wild populations than was suggested by captive studies.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Amazing TED talk: Pranav Mistry's SixthSense technology!

At TEDIndia, Pranav Mistry demos several tools that help the physical world interact with the world of data -- including a deep look at his SixthSense device and a new, paradigm-shifting paper "laptop." In an onstage Q&A, Mistry says he'll open-source the software behind SixthSense, to open its possibilities to all.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Name a Goualougo chimpanzee!

You have the chance to name a chimpanzee featured in this month's National Geographic Magazine. The adult male chimpanzee in print on page 138-139 is quickly becoming famous as his story is read by millions of readers around the world.

It was only recently that the unique cultural behaviors of chimpanzees in the Goualougo Triangle were discovered. This adult male was the first to be photographed using a complex tool set.

All of the other chimpanzee in the National Geographic article have names, see "Jane" on page 131 and "Dorothy" with her baby "Oz" on page 143.

GTAP's Top Fundraiser will have the honor of naming this legendary chimpanzee. To put the importance of this in perspective, just think of other chimpanzee icons such as "Fifi" and "Flo" at Jane Goodall's Gombe site.

Donate via the Goualougo causes facebook page and recruit to be the Top Fundraiser by March 1st!

All donations will go to support GTAP field teams!

More on cannibalism in bonobos

Following the publication of filial cannibalism in wild bonobos, the BBC has done the following write up:

Bonobo 'cannibalises' own infant
By Matt Walker

A wild bonobo has been seen cannibalising her own recently deceased two and a half-year-old infant.

Among apes, such behaviour is extremely rare, only being reported before among orangutans, and never by bonobos, our closest relative alongside chimps. Though uncommon, the behaviour may not be aberrant, says the scientist who witnessed it. But it does further challenge a widely perceived notion that bonobos are an especially "peaceful" ape species. The discovery is reported in the American Journal of Primatology.

Bonobos ( Pan paniscus ) were once known as pygmy chimps, due to their similarities with the common chimpanzee ( Pan troglodytes ), from which they diverged in the past one million years. Researchers have often emphasised the differences in behaviour between the two species; bonobos are reported as being less aggressive, hostile to one another, and living in societies dominated by females rather than high-ranking males that control communities of common chimps. They were also regarded as less violent, being thought not to commit infanticide or hunt and eat other primate species. Last year, however, that more peaceful image was shattered when scientists discovered that bonobos do kill and eat monkeys.

Now, primatologists Dr Andrew Fowler and Dr Gottfried Hohmann of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany have recorded an example of a bonobo ape consuming, along with other apes in her group, the body of her recently deceased infant.

Dr Fowler and colleague Ms Caroline Deimel were conducting routine observations of a group of bonobos living in the forest at Lui Kotale in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Through the trees, they saw a female called Olga carrying her dead infant, Olivia, over her shoulder. That morning Olivia had been seen alive, and her body showed no signs of injury. The next day, Olga still carried her dead infant, and spent an hour or so grooming her body.

"After an hour, Marta, a dominant female then took the body, retaining it despite initial resistance from Olga. She then began to consume it, joined by most of the community including the mother," Dr Fowler told the BBC. "Consumption took several hours, and possession of the carcass changed several times. At times Olga and Ophelia, her remaining daughter, were not involved but remained nearby throughout the period," he says. "When a single foot and hand only remained attached to a long skin fragment, Olga took the remains, placed them over her back and walked away."

Dr Fowler says that such behaviour is not usual, but it may be more widespread than this one incident. Researchers may have witnessed it, but been unwilling to report it for fear of drawing undue attention to cannibalism among our close relatives, he says. Or there may simply not have been enough long-term studies of bonobos to previously notice it.

Infanticide, the practice of killing younger members of the same species, occurs among common chimps and gorillas, as does cannibalism, where animals eat their own kind. Biologists believe that infanticide is often triggered by males who wish to eliminate infants carrying genes different to their own. By killing infants, they can also make the mothers sexually receptive again, increasing their own chances or mating with her. Filial cannibalism, where a mother eats her own offspring, is much rarer, particularly among great apes, in which it has only once been reported before.

Last year, Dr David Dellatore of Oxford Brookes University in the UK reported two incidences of female orangutans eating their recently deceased babies. He suspected the orangutans may have acted this way due to stress. But Dr Fowler believes the behaviour may occur among apes more often. Like Dr Dellatore, Dr Fowler is reluctant to make any definitive claims as to why the behaviour occurred. He suspects that Olga and the other bonobos consumed Olivia's body for nutritional gain, even though it carried a risk of contracting disease from the dead infant. However, says Dr Fowler: "I am not sure there are wider implications from a scientific point of view."

"I don't see that occasionally consuming dead infants, however distasteful it might seem to us, is a sign of pathology or aberration per se." "I don't think it necessarily says anything about 'empathy' or 'morality'," he adds. "It had been suggested in the past that bonobos might feel more sympathy for victims, which is why they didn't hunt monkeys, for example.

"But we now know they do hunt monkeys. So I think eating an already dead baby says little about bonobos in that respect. "Bonobos are often used in a symbolic way, held up as the sexy, peaceful 'Hippy Chimps'. "The fact that they eat monkeys and consume their own dead offspring may not accord with this view, but I personally don't see this as a problem." "The idea of the 'Hippy Chimp' is more a metaphor than a scientific argument," he continues.

"I think the major implication is that we don't need to see it as an aberration among other apes. "A more interesting question is why this female bonobo, Olga, allowed her infant to be eaten, because this is not always the case in chimpanzees. "The incident might tell us more about relationships between adults, and particularly adult females, in the sense that Marta was able to take and consume the body of another female."

Story from BBC NEWS: