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'

Monday, August 30, 2010

The origin of some animal names

From and Uncle John’s Unstoppable Bathroom Reader.

“First used in a Greek translation of 5th century BC Carthaginian explorer Hanno’s account of a voyage to West Africa. He reported encountering a tribe of wild hairy people, whose females were, according to a local interpreter, called gorillas. In 1847 the American missionary and scientist Thomas Savage adopted the word as the species name of the great ape and by the 1850s it had passed into general use.”

“Ferret comes from the Latin furritus, for ‘little thief,’ which probably alludes to the fact that ferrets, which are related to pole cats, like to steal hens’ eggs. Its name also developed into a verb, to ferret out, meaning ‘to dig out or bring something to light.’”

“Because the little striped animal could squirt his foul yellow spray up to 12 feet, American Indians called him segankw, or segonku, the Algonquin dialect word meaning simply ‘he who squirts’. Early pioneers corrupted the hard-to-pronounce Algonquin word to skunk, and that way it has remained ever since.”

“Before the Norman conquest of England, French hunters bred a keen-nosed dog that they called the St. Hubert. One of their rulers, William, took a pack to England and hunted deer-following the dogs on foot. Saxons had never before seen a dog fierce enough to seize its prey, so they named William’s animals hunts, meaning ’seizure’. Altered over time to hound, it was long applied to all hunting dogs. Then the meaning narrowed to stand for breeds that follow their quarry by scent.”


“It was once wrongly believed that the leopard was a cross between a ‘leo’ (a lion) and a ‘pard’ (a white panther)-hence the name ‘leopard.’”

“According to Greek legend, the god Apollo’s earliest adventure was the single-handed slaying of Python, a flame-breathing dragon who blocked his way to Pytho (now Delphi), the site he had chosen for an oracle. From the name of this monster derives the name of the large snake of Asia, Africa, and Australia, the python.”

“One would think that such an attractive creature would have given its name to many things, but in fact it is the other way around. The bird’s name comes from the red-robed official of the Roman Catholic Church, who in turn was named for being so important-that is, from the adjective cardinal, from the Latin cardo, meaning ‘hinge’ or ‘pivot’. Anything cardinal was so important that events depended (hinged or pivoted) on it.”

“Captain John Smith, one of the original leaders at Jamestown, wrote accounts of the colony and life in Virginia, in which he defined the creatures as Moos, a beast bigger than a stagge. Moos was from Natick (Indian) dialect and probably derived from moosu, ‘he trims, he shaves,’ a reference to the way the animal rips the bark and lower branches from trees while feeding.”


“This long-legged pink wading bird is named for the people of Flanders, the Flemings, as they were called. Flemings were widely known for their lively personalities, their flushed complexions, and their love of bright clothing. Spaniard explorers in the New World thought it was a great joke naming the bird flamingo, which means ‘a Fleming’ in Spanish.”

Friday, August 27, 2010

Best Practice Guidelines for Great Ape Tourism

From the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group:
We are pleased to announce that the next issue (the fifth) of the series “Best Practice Guidelines” for great ape conservation – Series Editor Liz Williamson, the PSG coordinator for the Section on Great Apes (SGA) – is being printed, and is now available, open access, in pdf on the Primate Specialist Group website.

“Best Practice Guidelines for Great Ape Tourism” by Elizabeth J. Macfie and Elizabeth A. Williamson, number 38 of IUCN’s series “Occasional Papers of the IUCN Species Survival Commission”. 78pp. 2010.

Our sincere congratulations to Liz Macfie and Liz Williamson, and to those who contributed -Marc Ancrenaz, Chloe Cipolletta, Debby Cox, Christina Ellis, David Greer, Chloe Hodgkinson, Anne Russon, and Ian Singleton, amongst many others.

Many organizations provided support for drawing up, editing and printing these guidelines, but we acknowledge here especially the US Fish and Wildlife Service – Great Ape Conservation Fund, and the Arcus Foundation and Conservation International besides.

Although specifically for great ape tourism, the ideas, principles, and recommendations provided in this document are pertinent and valid for all research, monitoring and tourism that involves proximity to primates in the wild. Those involved in habituating and following wild primate groups for research would do well to investigate the advice provided.
Best Practice Guidelines for Apes – IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group.
Series Editor E. A. Williamson.

Morgan, D. and Sanz, C. 2007. Best Practice Guidelines for Reducing the Impact of Commercial Logging on Great Apes in Western Equatorial Africa. Occasional Paper of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (34): 32pp. Series editor E. A. Williamson. IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group, Gland, Switzerland.

Morgan, D. and Sanz, C. 2007. Lignes directrices pour de meilleures pratiques en matière de réduction de l’impact de l’exploitation forestière commerciale sur les grands singes en Afrique centrale. Occasional Paper of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (34): 40pp. Série éditée par E. A. Williamson. Groupe de spécialistes des primates de la CSE de l’Union mondiale pour la nature, Gland, Suisse.

Beck, B., Walkup, K., Rodrigues, M., Unwin, S., Travis, D. and Stoinski, T. 2007. Best Practice Guidelines for the Re-introduction of Great Apes. Occasional Paper of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (35): 48pp. Series editor E. A. Williamson. IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group, Gland, Switzerland.

Beck, B., Walkup, K., Rodrigues, M., Unwin, S., Travis, D. and Stoinski, T. 2007. Lignes directrices pour de meilleures pratiques en matière de réintroduction des grands singes. Occasional Paper of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (35): 51pp. Série éditée par E. A. Williamson. Groupe de spécialistes des primates de la CSE de l’Union mondiale pour la nature, Gland, Suisse.

Beck, B., Walkup, K., Rodrigues, M., Unwin, S., Travis, D. and Stoinski, T. 2009. Panduan Re-introduksi Kera Besar. Terbitan tidak Berkala IUCN Species Survival Commission (35): 56pp. Editor Seri. E. A. Williamson. IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group, Gland, Switzerland. Diterjermahkan oleh Purwo Kuncoro, BOS Canada.

Kühl, H., Maisels, F., Ancrenaz, M. and Williamson, E. A. 2008. Best Practice Guidelines for Surveys and Monitoring of Great Ape Populations. Occasional Paper of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (36): 28pp. Series editor E. A. Williamson. IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group, Gland, Switzerland.

Kühl, H., Maisels, F., Ancrenaz, M. and Williamson, E. A. 2009. Lignes directrices pour de meilleures pratiques en matière d’inventaire et de suivi des populations de grands singes. Document occasionnel de la Commission de la sauvegarde des espèces de l’UICN (36): 32pp. Série éditée par E. A. Williamson. Groupe de specialists de primates de la CSE/UICN Gland, Suisse.

Hockings, K. and Humle, T. 2009. Best Practice Guidelines for the Prevention and Mitigation of Conflict Between Humans and Great Apes. Occasional Paper of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (37): 41pp. Series editor E. A. Williamson. IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group, Gland, Switzerland.

Hockings, K. and Humle, T. 2009. Lignes directrices pour de meilleures pratiques em matière de prevention et d’attenuation des conflits entre humains et grands singes. Document occasionnel de la Commission de la sauvegarde des espèces de l’UICN (37): 52pp. Série éditée par E. A. Williamson. Groupe de specialists de primates de la CSE/UICN, Gland, Suisse.

Hockings, K. and Humle, T. 2009. Panduan Pencegahan dan Mitigasi Konflik antara Manusia dan Kera Besar. Occasional Paper of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (37): 72pp. Series editor E. A. Williamson. IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group, Gland, Switzerland.

Macfie, E. J. and Williamson, E. A. 2010. Best Practice Guidelines for Great Ape Tourism. Occasional Paper of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (38): 78pp. Series editor E. A. Williamson. IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group, Gland, Switzerland.

A little shamless "self" promotion: Club P.A.N.

Club P.A.N. is a conservation education program I have been involved with that runs in 12 schools around Tai National Park, Cote d'Ivoire. Every year we have been expanding the number of schools, students and community members we reach, through workshops, lessons and interactive community days. We have secured a large part of the funding for 2010-2011 and have just wrapped up the 2009-2010 school year.

We also initiated a African Giant Snail microproject last year which has been a huge success so far! This project provides a cheap, sustainable protein source to the Sakré community, and thus discourages bushmeat hunting, as well as a source of income to the Club P.A.N. group in Sakré. African Giant Snails are already enjoyed and eaten in the region (although they are normally wild caught).

Please visit our Club P.A.N. blog for our latest updates and more information, and thank you for checking it out!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

every piece of plastic ever made still exists today!

From the WWF Canada facebook page:

Use Less Plastic from TakePart on Vimeo.

(FYI: the song is: "Pot Kettle Black", Written by Kianna Alarid, Neely Jenkins, Derek Pressnall, Jamie Lynn Pressnall & Nicholas White, Performed By Tilly and the Wall,


In response, to the above posting, Dieter L linked me to this VERY tongue in cheek mockumentary on the majestic plastic bag, its sadly excellent!

Thar she blows! Novel method for collecting non-invasive dolphin DNA

I love the push for cool ways to collect non-invasive samples and I love that this study has gotten press AND is freely available from PLoSOne. Its so exciting when science pushes forward so positively (and with a cheeky title to boot!) -MA

From the BBC via Africa Geographic
New technique to collect DNA from dolphin breath

Biologists have developed a new way of harmlessly collecting DNA from dolphins from their exhalations or "blow". Understanding dolphin genetics is critical to the conservation of wild populations. Current methods to collect dolphin DNA use a procedure which can be harmful. Scientists hope the new technique, successfully used to extract DNA from aquarium dolphins, can also be used in the wild.

The most commonly used way of collecting DNA from dolphins and whales is by "Dart biopsying". This involves firing a dart with a small barb into the flank of the animal, which then extracts a small plug of tissue. For whales this procedure is less invasive than it is for smaller dolphins and there has been one documented case of death of a dolphin from a dart biopsy. Finding a new technique has become a priority particularly for internationally protected species of dolphins.

Dolphins are mammals, so get their oxygen from breathing air. They breathe out through their blowholes, located on tops of their heads. The "blow" is exhaled at great force at speeds of 70 litres per second. Because of this cells from the surface of their lungs can be found in their blow and so DNA can be extracted from it.

The researchers worked with six bottlenose dolphins at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, US, which were already trained to blow on command with a touch on the forehead. Janet Mann, professor of biology and psychology at Georgetown University in Washington DC, is one of the authors of the study.

"The blow goes way up high in the air as if it's a geyser and we know what it's like because they blow in our faces and that's also partly what gave us the idea. You could think of it as analogous to when a human is coughing hard." The scientists held a test tube above the dolphin's blowhole to collect the sample. By taking DNA from blood samples and comparing it to the DNA taken from their blow, they were able to prove that DNA can successfully be extracted using this technique.

Being able to get a good picture of the genetics of dolphin and whale populations is critical to their conservation. "You can tell by looking at the DNA, their genetic diversity... It's really important in understanding what's happening to wild dolphins and whales." she told BBC News

Now the idea has been successfully demonstrated with aquarium dolphins, the researchers are confident it can be used in wild populations. They often like to bow ride at the front of research vessels and so are used to being close to their boats. "They breathe near our boats anyway so we hope we can get the fluid without stressing them. If you can get this kind of information without stressing them at all then it's golden." Professor Mann also hopes the technique could, in the future, be used to measure dolphin hormones. "With hormones you can look at stress hormones or reproductive hormones. Being able to pregnancy test a dolphin would be fantastic. That would be the Holy Grail for us. "Also, fatty acids can tell you what type of fish they're eating, because each fish species has a fatty acid signature. So you could assess diet," she told BBC News.

The research was published in the journal Plos (Public Library of Science) One.


Frère CH, Krzyszczyk E, Patterson EM, Hunter S, Ginsburg A, et al. 2010 Thar She Blows! A Novel Method for DNA Collection from Cetacean Blow. PLoS ONE 5(8): e12299.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0012299

Molecular tools are now widely used to address crucial management and conservation questions. To date, dart biopsying has been the most commonly used method for collecting genetic data from cetaceans; however, this method has some drawbacks. Dart biopsying is considered inappropriate for young animals and has recently come under scrutiny from ethical boards, conservationists, and the general public. Thus, identifying alternative genetic collection techniques for cetaceans remains a priority, especially for internationally protected species.

Methodology/Principal Findings
In this study, we investigated whether blow-sampling, which involves collecting exhalations from the blowholes of cetaceans, could be developed as a new less invasive method for DNA collection. Our current methodology was developed using six bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops truncatus, housed at the National Aquarium, Baltimore (USA), from which we were able to collect both blow and blood samples. For all six individuals, we found that their mitochondrial and microsatellite DNA profile taken from blow, matched their corresponding mitochondrial and microsatellite DNA profile collected from blood. This indicates that blow-sampling is a viable alternative method for DNA collection.

In this study, we show that blow-sampling provides a viable and less invasive method for collection of genetic data, even for small cetaceans. In contrast to dart biopsying, the advantage of this method is that it capitalizes on the natural breathing behaviour of dolphins and can be applied to even very young dolphins. Both biopsy and blow-sampling require close proximity of the boat, but blow-sampling can be achieved when dolphins voluntarily bow-ride and involves no harmful contact.

Serengeti highway opposition gaining steam

I haven't been posting too much on the Serengeti highway because there are many great resources out there to keep updated about the project, including the great facebook page "stop the serengeti highway" and its affiliated website. It seems like recently all was lost, the president had OKed the project, made his declarations and all the protests in the world were not going to stop him.
But, it seems like now opposition to the highway is gaining steam and the New York Times even reported on it today. Please visit for more information. -MA

Wildebeest Roadblock? Highway Planned in Serengeti
From the NYTimes

Tanzania's Serengeti is a vast plain dotted with acacia trees and watering holes, where wildebeest and zebra gather in huge herds for annual migrations.

But conservationists warned Wednesday that one of the world's natural wonders will be scarred and the ancient migratory patterns destroyed if Tanzania's government carries through with a plan to build a highway through the park.

The Wildlife Conservation Society and the Zoological Society of London called on Tanzania to reconsider the plan.

''The Serengeti is the site of one of the last great ungulate (hoofed) migrations left on Earth, the pre-eminent symbol of wild nature for millions of visitors and TV viewers, and a hugely important source of income for the people of Tanzania through ecotourism,'' said James Deutsch, executive director of the WCS's Africa Program.

''To threaten this natural marvel with a road would be a tragedy,'' Deutsch said.

Tanzania plans to build a 420-kilometer (260-mile) road between Arusha, near Mount Kilimanjaro, and Musoma, on Lake Victoria, in 2012. The route would bisect the northern Serengeti, potentially jeopardizing the 2 million wildebeests and zebra who migrate in search for water from the southern Serengeti north into Kenya's adjacent Masai Mara reserve.

Tanzania's government says the road is needed to connect the country's west with commercial activity on the eastern coast. The president has vowed to move forward with its construction.

A spokesman for Tanzania National Parks, Pascal Shelutete, said the road won't be built until feasibility studies have been done.

''All the precautions will be taken care of. The government is aware of the importance of this portion of the road,'' Shelutete said. ''The project won't take off until all the kinds of studies are carried out to see what will be the positive and negative impact of it.''

But Tanzanian media have previously quoted officials as saying such feasibility studies have already been completed and that the road project is on track.

Critics say a new highway could just as easily be built through the southern parts of the park and not harm the migratory route.

The northern road could provide easier access for poachers, and conservationists predict a ''catastrophic decrease'' in wildebeests and zebras, both from a stunted migration and animals being hit by vehicles.

''Once that starts to happen officials are going to want to put a fence up, and once you have a fence you stop the migration completely,'' said Sarah Christie, a conservationist at the Zoological Society of London.

The Frankfurt Zoological Society sounded an alarm against the road earlier this year, saying its construction would have ''disastrous effects'' on the region's ecosystem.

A Kenya Wildlife Service spokeswoman, Kentice Tikilo, said the road would negatively affect Kenya's Masai Mara, which sits directly above the Serengeti. Animals move back and forth over the border between the two parks. If the road is built and the animal populations dwindle, Masai Mara stands to lose animals and consequently fewer tourists will want to visit.

''At the end of the day we want to be sure conservation wins, whether it's on the Tanzania side or the Kenya side,'' Tikilo said. ''We are all conservationists and we want to be sure we preserve our heritage.''

previous posts:

Sherman's Lagoon TED talk: how a catoonist can change the world.

When I accidentally ended up taking anthro 101 for my undergrad social science requirement (all the cool courses were full :P), I remember what I loved about the field was (the claim at least) that it is holistic. Meaning that any one approach to understanding our evolutionary history was not going to cut it. I think that is true of most of the interesting things that we study and the problems we are trying to solve. It irks me, when people think they have come up with "the solution" or "the approach". Are we not at a point where we realize that things are incredibly interconnected and no one way is going to work everywhere (or anywhere for that matter). For example, when people say "surveys aren't conservation" or even that "conservation science isn't conservation". It's true, a survey alone or a study on any aspect of conservation is nothing without followup, but we are all contributing our puzzle pieces. Yes, law enforcement is important and currently lacking, but without conservation education and knowing what we are protecting, conservation cannot work in the long term. My point is, we can all do our part, no matter how small, to change people's minds and make conservation and ecological sustainability a global concern and goal. A cartoon strip might not seem much like conservation, but imagine how many young minds Jim Toomey has touched, how many people are thinking about conservation when maybe they would not have otherwise.-MA


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

New Type of Glass Prevents Needless Bird Collisions

From Neatorama

Perhaps 100 millions birds die every year in the United States due to collisions with glass. Ornilux, a new type of glass made by the German company Arnold Glas, may provide a solution. It has an ultraviolet coating that birds can see, but humans can’t under normal conditions.

The latest version of the glass, called Ornilux Mikado, received the “red dot” award this year from the Design Zentrum Nordrhein Westfalen in Essen, Germany. Judges noted that the glass uses the same techniques that spiders use to keep birds from flying through and destroying their webs.

Link via Geekosystem

chimpanzee culture: now featuring back scratchers

Cultured Chimps Invent and Share Back-Scratching Tool

By learning an utterly superfluous technique for scratching their backs, wild chimpanzees are displaying even more evidence that humanity's closest living relatives are capable of what might be deemed culture.

In recent years, researchers have accumulated many examples of chimpanzees apparently learning relatively complex ideas that get passed down over generations much like in human cultures. For instance, chimps in the wild have developed a variety of specialized tool kits for foraging army ants that differ across regions.

Still, not all scientists are convinced the apes can learn practices by mimicking their companions, at least not in the wild. Instead, one could argue that generations of chimps might either instinctively know or independently figure out techniques for accomplishing certain tasks, a process that might resemble the learning by imitation seen in humans.

The new evidence that chimpanzees are indeed capable of "monkey see, monkey do" came from the Sonso chimp community in Uganda.

"I would sometimes spend days trying to find the chimps and then they might travel through everything from muddy swamps and thick undergrowth to colonies of army ants before there'd be a good chance to film them," said researcher Catherine Hobaiter, a primatologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. "But then, when you do get to observe them in their natural habitat, it's an incredibly rewarding experience, and you completely forget about the fact you're sitting in the mud with ants in your socks!"

One chimpanzee there was named Tinka, a roughly 50-year-old male who had near-total paralysis in both hands. Until recently, Sonso chimpanzees would encounter large numbers of snares intended for bush pigs and kinds of antelopes known as duiker, leading one-in-three adult chimps in the community to have permanent disabilities.

To compensate for his paralysis, Tinka invented a new way to groom himself using a liana, or woody vine. Imagine using a towel on your back, except in this case, rather than moving the towel, Tinka held the liana taut with his feet and moved his body against it. [Watch video of Tinka using his invention.]

"It's always sad to see chimpanzees with these debilitating injuries," Hobaiter said. "On the other hand, it was incredible to see just how individuals such as Tinka were able to innovate new techniques in order to overcome these disadvantages."

Other chimps follow suit

Scientists then video-recorded seven perfectly healthy, able-bodied wild young chimps ages 4 to 13 who shared Tinka's home range. The videos revealed the chimpanzees mimicking Tinka's backscratching technique, even though they could just as readily have groomed themselves with their hands, as chimpanzees normally do. This suggested the apes learned this novel, distinct practice through imitation.

"Copying behavior that has no function is one of the classic characteristics of human imitation," Hobaiter said. "To see that in wild chimps was incredibly exciting."

The capability to imitate an organized sequence of action was something that had been argued to be a uniquely human trait.

"The fact that we are able to show that wild chimpanzees have the ability to learn new behavioral routines through imitation is not only relevant to how they might be able to acquire complex technical skills such as food processing, for example nut-cracking, but it also suggests that this cognitive capacity evolved earlier than previously supposed -- at least as far back as our last common ancestor," Hobaiter told LiveScience.

The scientists detailed their findings online Aug. 5 in the journal PLoS ONE.

Hobaiter C, Byrne RW (2010) Able-Bodied Wild Chimpanzees Imitate a Motor Procedure Used by a Disabled Individual to Overcome Handicap. PLoS ONE 5(8): e11959. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0011959

Chimpanzee culture has generated intense recent interest, fueled by the technical complexity of chimpanzee tool-using traditions; yet it is seriously doubted whether chimpanzees are able to learn motor procedures by imitation under natural conditions. Here we take advantage of an unusual chimpanzee population as a ‘natural experiment’ to identify evidence for imitative learning of this kind in wild chimpanzees. The Sonso chimpanzee community has suffered from high levels of snare injury and now has several manually disabled members. Adult male Tinka, with near-total paralysis of both hands, compensates inability to scratch his back manually by employing a distinctive technique of holding a growing liana taut while making side-to-side body movements against it. We found that seven able-bodied young chimpanzees also used this ‘liana-scratch’ technique, although they had no need to. The distribution of the liana-scratch technique was statistically associated with individuals' range overlap with Tinka and the extent of time they spent in parties with him, confirming that the technique is acquired by social learning. The motivation for able-bodied chimpanzees copying his variant is unknown, but the fact that they do is evidence that the imitative learning of motor procedures from others is a natural trait of wild chimpanzees.

LOL of the day: getting your priorities straight


bonus LOL:

China's 45 Billion Disposable Chopsticks Require 100 Acres of Forests Every 24 Hours

I never thought about it, but its so true! If you are going to IPS this year you may want to think about bringing your own chopsticks or buying a pair when you get to Japan as a great souvenir and to help reduce the waste disposable chopsticks cause. SCB gave away free chopsticks to all its participants at the 2008 and 2009 meetings, man do i love that organization, so forward thinking! (although a bit much, i bet if you get a set of these you are less likely to dispose of them at all) - MA


That's a Lot of Chopsticks
Apparently China's Ministry of Commerce has had it with disposable chopsticks. It sent out a warning to chopstick makers in June to warn them that: "Production, circulation and recycling of disposable chopsticks should be more strictly supervised." The reason? With about 45 billion disposable chopstick pairs made every year in the country, or about 130 million a day, a lot of wood is being wasted, and that in a country that is trying to increase its forest coverage (from about 8% in 1949 to 12-13% today, compared to 30% for the USA).
Greenpeace China has estimated that to keep up with this demand, 100 acres of trees need to be felled every 24 hours. Think here of a forest larger than Tiananmen Square -- or 100 American football fields -- being sacrificed every day. That works out to roughly 16 million to 25 million felled trees a year. Deforestation is one of China's gravest environmental problems, leading to soil erosion, famine, flooding, carbon dioxide release, desertification and species extinction. (source)
If you compare 100 acres per day to the size of China's forests, it still isn't that much (it's a big country), but chopsticks are far from the only thing pressuring Chinese ecosystems. It's one more thing the country's forests could do without.

Sadly, change has been slow so far. The Bring Your Own Chopsticks movement has been gaining momentum, but is still far from succeeding in changing people's minds (or even being on most people's radar). But there is some hope on the horizon: As China grows richer, more restaurants will be able to afford the equipment to wash and sterilize reusable chopsticks.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Mathematical theorem written and proven for Futurama episode!


Last night’s episode of Futurama required a mathematical formula to explain a plot element. Producer David X. Cohen is noted for leaving real mathematical statements on screen during the show and had a staff mathematician compose an original theorem for that episode:

In an APS News exclusive, Cohen reveals for the first time that in the 10th episode of the upcoming season, tentatively entitled “The Prisoner of Benda,” a theorem based on group theory was specifically written (and proven!) by staffer/PhD mathematician Ken Keeler to explain a plot twist. Cohen can’t help but chuckle at the irony: his television-writing rule is that entertainment trumps science, but in this special case, a mathematical theorem was penned for the sake of entertainment
More about David X Cohen and the physics easter eggs strewn thoughout futurama can be found at Profiles in Versatility - The Futurama of Physics with David X. Cohen

and you can watch the episode HERE on project free TV

Blog link: Pwned Experiments

If you have ever done lab work, especially experiment-based lab work, you will LOVE this blog:

For example:

"Rotor incident"

"This is the current state of an ultracentrifuge down the hall. I have no idea how it happened, but I guess it's a reminder to always balance your tubes. I also like how the tape says "do not use," as if otherwise someone would just brush aside the debris, put in their rotor, and proceed. "

Thanks to Naim M for the link!

Friday, August 20, 2010

6 ways to establish workplace dominance

Allie Brosh (from possibly THE funniest blog on the interwebz Hyperbole and a half) presents: 6 Ways To Establish Workplace Dominance:

In the modern workplace, everyone wants to stand out as a leader. Everyone wants to be respected and admired by their coworkers. This is normally achieved through hard work, dedication and good interpersonal skills, but I’m going to give you a few shortcuts based on ancient, unquestionable principles of dominance.

1. Use your appearance to stand out as much as possible.

Have you ever seen a peacock that is wildly successful but also brown and unimpressive-looking? No. You haven’t. Unfortunately, brightly colored clothing is pretty commonly available to humans, so you’re going to need to go one step further if you want to be noticed. Demonstrate your superiority by wrapping your body in colorful, flashing lights and display your mastery of fire by carrying sparklers with you to important meetings.
For the other 5 ways visit

and click here to read Allie's hysterical blog, Hyperbole and a Half.

Humans drove ancient turtles to extinction 3000 years ago

Fig. 1. Map of southwest Pacific showing locations where meiolaniid remains have been discovered: 1, Lord Howe Island (Australia); 2, Pindai Caves (New Caledonia); 3, Walpole Island (New Caledonia); 4, Tiga Island (New Caledonia); 5, Teouma, Efate Island (Vanuatu); and 6, Viti Levu Island (Fiji).
Ancient turtles 'driven to extinction by humans'
An ancient species of giant turtle was driven to extinction by humans in the Pacific almost 3,000 years ago, scientists have discovered.

Researchers found the last example of supersize animals to roam the earth, a never-before-seen species in the genus Meiolania, were driven to extinction by settlers on an island of Vanuatu. This was despite the turtles, which were more than eight feet in length, outliving most of the other outsized, extinct animals known as megafauna. Experts believe most of the Australian megafauna species, such as the woolly mammoth, died almost 50,000 years ago although debate has raged over what exactly killed them.

But according to scientists at the University of New South Wales the giant turtles were alive when a people known as the Lapita arrived in the area about 3,000 year ago. They found the turtle leg bones, but not shells or skulls, which they said suggested humans helped drive the giant turtles to extinction. The bones, discovered in a graveyard on a site on the island of Efate that was known to be home to a Lapita settlement, date about 300 years after humans' arrival. The majority of the bones, found above an even older human graveyard, were from the creatures' legs, which was their fleshy and edible part. The scientists, reporting Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), concluded this was proof that the turtles were hunted by humans to extinction for their meat.

"It is the first time this family of turtles has been shown to have met with humans and there are many turtle bones in the middens," said Dr Trevor Worthy, from the UNSW. "People arrived on Vanuatu 3100 years ago and the village middens, which are the rubbish dumps that provided these bones, date to 2800 years ago," "So there's essentially a 300-year gap between those first human arrivals and the end of these turtles in these middens."

Dr Arthur Georges, an expert on the evolution of turtles at the University of Canberra, added: "This is a remarkable find, and adds the horned tortoises to the list of charismatic megafauna that has gone extinct in Australasia and the Pacific during the Holocene."

White AW, Worthy TH, Kawkins S, Bedford S, Spriggs M (2010) Megafaunal meiolaniid horned turtles survived until early human settlement in Vanuatu, Southwest Pacific. PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1005780107

Meiolaniid or horned turtles are members of the extinct Pleistocene megafauna of Australia and the southwest Pacific. The timing and causes of their extinction have remained elusive. Here we report the remains of meiolaniid turtles from cemetery and midden layers dating 3,100/3,000 calibrated years before present to approximately 2,900/2,800 calibrated years before present in the Teouma Lapita archaeological site on Efate in Vanuatu. The remains are mainly leg bones; shell fragments are scant and there are no cranial or caudal elements, attesting to off-site butchering of the turtles. The new taxon differs markedly from other named insular terrestrial horned turtles. It is the only member of the family demonstrated to have survived into the Holocene and the first known to have become extinct after encountering humans.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

pet primate SOOOOO cute, so you want one, right?

A really great op-ed piece from Britannica Blogs on that super super adorable video of a loris that was circulating around the interwebs some time ago. PS: did you know they were poisonous? -MA

From Britannica Blogs
Tickled to Death

So, you want one, right?

This writer did, at least for a brief, selfish moment, before the obvious ethical questions effectively quashed any acquisitive desires. How exactly did this otherworldly creature—clearly a wild animal—end up in somebody’s bedroom? As much he seems to be enjoying his belly rub, his voyage from lush greenery to a threadbare boudoir can’t have been a pleasant one.

Indeed, his captor’s questionable taste in bedroom décor and incessant giggling likely represent the least of his travails to this point. Though the species is not designated on YouTube, the animate Furby depicted in the video appears to be a Sunda, or greater, slow loris (Nycticebus coucang), the species of slow loris most commonly found in the illegal pet trade. As their name indicates, all five species of slow loris move ploddingly and deliberately through their arboreal habitats—picture a chinchilla-wrapped Gollum in really slow motion—making them easy pickings for poachers. Though fairly docile, slow lorises are among the few venomous mammals and the only venomous primates. They possess glands at their elbows that they lick before sinking their needle-like teeth into their aggressors. (While the mechanism of the poison in the gland is unknown, chemical analysis has determined that it shares several characteristics with the main allergens produced by domestic cats.) Though usually not fatal, the toxin may induce anaphylaxis and the wound, due to oral bacteria from the loris, heals slowly. This incongruously unpleasant tendency leads exotic animal traders to defang their hostages with pliers, a practice that, aside from inflicting pain and causing infection, means that any animals recovered by wildlife officials after this barbaric procedure cannot be returned to the wild.

The slow loris belongs to the primate suborder Strepsirrhini—which also contains lemurs, tarsiers, bush babies, and the related slender lorises—and like all strepsirrines possesses a toothcomb, an arrangement of the teeth used in securing food and grooming. While rehabilitated lorises whose teeth have been removed seem to manage to groom themselves, the extent to which the loss would impair their normal feeding habits in the wild is unknown. They feed on fruits, insects, and smaller animals, but also often scrape resin from trees using their uniquely adapted chompers.

Brutal dental practices aren’t the end of it: because their tree-dwelling existence mandates the ability to grasp branches for long periods of time, they have vice-like grips that make them difficult to extract from wire cages. Being wrenched from the bars of their mesh prisons often tears the skin on their hands and ruptures the unique system of blood vessels that provides a steady flow of oxygenated blood to the muscles in their extremities and enables them to maintain static grips for hours on end without cramping.

Native to southeast Asia, from India to Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, the creatures are frequent victims of the wildlife trade despite numerous restrictions on their capture and sale. Four of the five species of slow loris, including the Sunda slow loris, are considered vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the Javan slow loris is endangered. All five were transferred to Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 2007, meaning that all international trade is banned. Yet lax airport inspections allow thousands to slip into the Middle East and Japan where people pay thousands of dollars for what to the careless buyer is essentiallly a stuffed animal with an incidental pulse.

Furby-like though they may appear, these primates are relatively intelligent animals whose habits and social structure are still not entirely understood. An amateur pet owner cannot possibly fully accommodate the needs of a creature still cryptic even to experts in some respects..

Even those animals that are intercepted in their native countries face further problems. The slow lorises were once considered a single species and understandably so—the morphological differences are fairly subtle. Because of this, well-meaning rescuers often release the captured animals into habitat suited for another species of slow loris where, lacking adaptations to the demands of the environment, they die.

Though some avaricious “animal lovers” may not be deterred by the litany of crimes—both ethical and legal—that enabled this tickle-fest, hopefully most can see that having one’s own personal Ewok is best relegated to the realm of fantasy.

Nice people rise to power (win!) THEN they become dicks (fail)

From the Wall Street Journal
The Power Trip

Contrary to the Machiavellian cliché, nice people are more likely to rise to power. Then something strange happens: Authority atrophies the very talents that got them there.

When CEO Mark Hurd resigned from Hewlett-Packard last week in light of ethics violations, many people expressed surprise. Mr. Hurd, after all, was known as an unusually effective and straight-laced executive.

But the public shouldn't have been so shocked. From prostitution scandals to corruption allegations to the steady drumbeat of charges against corporate executives and world-class athletes, it seems that the headlines are filled with the latest misstep of someone in a position of power. This isn't just anecdotal: Surveys of organizations find that the vast majority of rude and inappropriate behaviors, such as the shouting of profanities, come from the offices of those with the most authority.

Psychologists refer to this as the paradox of power. The very traits that helped leaders accumulate control in the first place all but disappear once they rise to power. Instead of being polite, honest and outgoing, they become impulsive, reckless and rude. In some cases, these new habits can help a leader be more decisive and single-minded, or more likely to make choices that will be profitable regardless of their popularity. One recent study found that overconfident CEOs were more likely to pursue innovation and take their companies in new technological directions. Unchecked, however, these instincts can lead to a big fall.

But first, the good news.

A few years ago, Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, began interviewing freshmen at a large dorm on the Berkeley campus. He gave them free pizza and a survey, which asked them to provide their first impressions of every other student in the dorm. Mr. Keltner returned at the end of the school year with the same survey and more free pizza. According to the survey, the students at the top of the social hierarchy—they were the most "powerful" and respected—were also the most considerate and outgoing, and scored highest on measures of agreeableness and extroversion. In other words, the nice guys finished first.

This result isn't unique to Berkeley undergrads. Other studies have found similar results in the military, corporations and politics. "People give authority to people that they genuinely like," says Mr. Keltner.

Of course, these scientific findings contradict the cliché of power, which is that the only way to rise to the top is to engage in self-serving and morally dubious behavior. In "The Prince," a treatise on the art of politics, the 16th century Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli insisted that compassion got in the way of eminence. If a leader has to choose between being feared or being loved, Machiavelli insisted that the leader should always go with fear. Love is overrated.

That may not be the best advice. Another study conducted by Mr. Keltner and Cameron Anderson, a professor at the Haas School of Business, measured "Machiavellian" tendencies, such as the willingness to spread malicious gossip, in a group of sorority sisters. It turned out that the Machiavellian sorority members were quickly identified by the group and isolated. Nobody liked them, and so they never became powerful.

There is something deeply uplifting about this research. It's reassuring to think that the surest way to accumulate power is to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In recent years, this theme has even been extended to non-human primates, such as chimpanzees. Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University, has observed that the size and strength of male chimps is an extremely poor predictor of which animals will dominate the troop. Instead, the ability to forge social connections and engage in "diplomacy" is often much more important.

Now for the bad news, which concerns what happens when all those nice guys actually get in power. While a little compassion might help us climb the social ladder, once we're at the top we end up morphing into a very different kind of beast.

"It's an incredibly consistent effect," Mr. Keltner says. "When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools. They flirt inappropriately, tease in a hostile fashion, and become totally impulsive." Mr. Keltner compares the feeling of power to brain damage, noting that people with lots of authority tend to behave like neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe, a brain area that's crucial for empathy and decision-making. Even the most virtuous people can be undone by the corner office.

Why does power lead people to flirt with interns and solicit bribes and fudge financial documents? According to psychologists, one of the main problems with authority is that it makes us less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others. For instance, several studies have found that people in positions of authority are more likely to rely on stereotypes and generalizations when judging other people. They also spend much less time making eye contact, at least when a person without power is talking.

Consider a recent study led by Adam Galinsky, a psychologist at Northwestern University. Mr. Galinsky and colleagues began by asking subjects to either describe an experience in which they had lots of power or a time when they felt utterly powerless. Then the psychologists asked the subjects to draw the letter E on their foreheads. Those primed with feelings of power were much more likely to draw the letter backwards, at least when seen by another person. Mr. Galinsky argues that this effect is triggered by the myopia of power, which makes it much harder to imagine the world from the perspective of someone else. We draw the letter backwards because we don't care about the viewpoint of others.

Of course, power doesn't turn everyone into ruthless, immoral tyrants. Some leaders just end up being tough, which isn't always a bad thing. The key is keeping those qualities in balance.

At its worst, power can turn us into hypocrites. In a 2009 study, Mr. Galinsky asked subjects to think about either an experience of power or powerlessness. The students were then divided into two groups. The first group was told to rate, on a nine-point scale, the moral seriousness of misreporting travel expenses at work. The second group was asked to participate in a game of dice, in which the results of the dice determined the number of lottery tickets each student received. A higher roll led to more tickets.

Participants in the high-power group considered the misreporting of travel expenses to be a significantly worse offense. However, the game of dice produced a completely contradictory result. In this instance, people in the high-power group reported, on average, a statistically improbable result, with an average dice score that was 20% above that expected by random chance. (The powerless group, in contrast, reported only slightly elevated dice results.) This strongly suggests that they were lying about their actual scores, fudging the numbers to get a few extra tickets.

Although people almost always know the right thing to do—cheating is wrong—their sense of power makes it easier to rationalize away the ethical lapse. For instance, when the psychologists asked the subjects (in both low- and high-power conditions) how they would judge an individual who drove too fast when late for an appointment, people in the high-power group consistently said it was worse when others committed those crimes than when they did themselves. In other words, the feeling of eminence led people to conclude that they had a good reason for speeding—they're important people, with important things to do—but that everyone else should follow the posted signs.

The same flawed thought processes triggered by authority also distort our ability to evaluate information and make complex decisions.

In a recent study led by Richard Petty, a psychologist at Ohio State, undergraduates role-played a scenario between a boss and an underling. Then the students were exposed to a fake advertisement for a mobile phone. Some of the ads featured strong arguments for buying the phone, such as its long-lasting battery, while other ads featured weak or nonsensical arguments. Interestingly, students that pretended to be the boss were far less sensitive to the quality of the argument. It's as if it didn't even matter what the ad said—their minds had already been made up.

This suggests that even fleeting feelings of power can dramatically change the way people respond to information. Instead of analyzing the strength of the argument, those with authority focus on whether or not the argument confirms what they already believe. If it doesn't, then the facts are conveniently ignored.

Deborah Gruenfeld, a psychologist at the Stanford Business School, demonstrated a similar principle by analyzing more than 1,000 decisions handed down by the United States Supreme Court between 1953 and 1993. She found that, as justices gained power on the court, or became part of a majority coalition, their written opinions tended to become less complex and nuanced. They considered fewer perspectives and possible outcomes. Of course, the opinions written from the majority position are what actually become the law of the land.

It's not all bad news for those in authority. Mr. Galinsky has found that under certain conditions, power can lead people to make fewer mistakes on tedious tasks, such as matching a color with its correct description. After all, if you're powerless, why bother?

There is no easy cure for the paradox of power. Mr. Keltner argues that the best treatment is transparency, and that the worst abuses of power can be prevented when people know they're being monitored. This suggests that the mere existence of a regulatory watchdog or an active board of directors can help discourage people from doing bad things.

However, people in power tend to reliably overestimate their moral virtue, which leads them to stifle oversight. They lobby against regulators, and fill corporate boards with their friends. The end result is sometimes power at its most dangerous.

That, at least, is the lesson of a classic experiment by the economist Vernon Smith and colleagues. The study involved the dictator game, a simple economic exchange in which one person—the "dictator"—is given $10 and asked to divide the cash with another person. Although the dictators aren't obligated to share—they are in a position of pure power—a significant majority of people act generously, and give away $2 or more to a perfect stranger.

There is one very simple tweak that erases this benevolence. When the "dictators" are socially isolated—this can occur, for instance, if the subjects are located in separate rooms, or if they're assured anonymity—more than 60% of people keep all of the money. Instead of sharing the cash with someone else, they pocket the $10. Perhaps the corner office could use a few more windows.

—Jonah Lehrer is the author of "How We Decide" and "Proust Was a Neuroscientist."

*UPDATED*: "There was no evidence the bears were also being fed marijuana"

UPDATE: You can now sign an online petition requesting that these bears are sent to a sanctuary rather than euthanised! CLICK HERE TO GO TO THE PETITION (Thanks to Carol R-L for the update!)

From the Globe and Mail
Raid on B.C. marijuana grow-op bears big surprise
Officers greeted by troop of furry black creatures thought to be part of security contingent

Busting a marijuana grow-op is fairly routine for police in B.C.’s West Kootenay region. But when RCMP raided a grow-op near the tiny town of Christina Lake recently, they found what they say was an unusual security contingent – a troop of black bears.

Officers were “a little shocked” to discover 10 bears prowling the property like live “traps” waiting to greet intruders, said RCMP spokesman Corporal Dan Moskaluk. Officers went about their work “cautiously,” said Corp. Moskaluk, but quickly realized the bears were quite mellow. The docile bears “were essentially large dogs,” he said. “It was evident that the occupants were feeding the bears dog food.”

There was no evidence the bears were also being fed marijuana.

During their July 30 raid, police also discovered the bears were not the only wildlife being kept by the occupants. “Inside the residence there was a large pig roaming around and there was a large raccoon sleeping on the bed,” Corp. Moskaluk said. “Who knows what the raccoon was up to because he was just vegging in the house ... the pig was strolling around the household. He seemed to be a bit more nervous than the raccoon about the police officers’ presence.”

Police seized between 1,100 and 1,200 marijuana plants and arrested the owners of the property, a man and a woman who Corp. Moskaluk described as being in their late 40s. RCMP have recommended they be charged with cultivating and possessing marijuana.

Corp. Moskaluk said it’s not unusual for people running grow-ops to use animals for security, but they almost always use dogs. “It can be very dangerous,” he said. And while police suspect the bears were being used to guard the grow-op near Christina Lake, that hasn’t been confirmed. “We haven't got comment from the owner in regard to the bears at this time ... is this a matter where they enjoyed the bears’ company and saw nothing wrong in feeding them or were they intentionally doing this in order to protect their grows,” Corp. Moskaluk said.

Grace McGregor, the director who represents Christina Lake on the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary board, said she has known the woman who lives on the property for 35 years and that she doubts the bears were being used as a security detail. “She is a close-to-nature kind of person. She makes friends of all animals and has been feeding the bears for a number of years from what I understand ... so I don't think that the grow-op and the bears are really related,” she said. “This thing has gotten blown out of proportion. We all know every time you turn around there's another grow-op busted somewhere.

“The unfortunate part of this whole story is probably the bears are the ones who are going to end up paying here,” Ms. McGregor said.
Bears that get used to being fed by humans tend to become aggressive once the feeding stops and often have to be put down by conservation officers.

Christina Lake has a population of about 1,400 people and is a 540-kilometre drive east of Vancouver.

Thanks to Carol R-L for the link!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Amazing wildlife tattoos!

The bushwarriors blog has an AMAZING collection of wildlife tattoos! See them HERE
I've posted a few of my favorites below, but make sure to see the whole post, there are some AMAZING sleeves and back pieces!
You can join the bush warriors facebook page here to get their tattoo-of-the-week sent to your newsfeed as well as all their other wonderful posts!

FAIL: Green and Clueless.

I didn't really agree with this article until the second time I read it, what really changed my mind was this line: "No wonder Americans are so resistant to taking personal steps to mitigate climate change: they think it means doing without." Therein lies the problem, measures are not efficient if no one takes them. Its a great read even (especially?) for those of us who think we know what we are doing. -MA

Green and Clueless
Even people who want to ‘save the planet’ have no idea what they’re doing.

You could practically hear a collective groan from enviros across the world yesterday, when The New York Times reported on city apartment dwellers who leave their air conditioning running for days and days when they are not even home: with “utilities included” in their rent, these model citizens don’t pay for it, and they want to walk into a nice cool room when they get back from vacation or just a tough, hot slog from the subway. So much for all those 50 Things You Can Do books, magazine articles, and Web sites, all of which patiently explain that it would be really, really helpful if we didn’t run appliances when we’re not using them. Apparently, that message—which green groups have been disseminating for at least 20 years—can’t hold a candle to people’s apathy, ignorance, and selfishness.

But the problem goes beyond the fact that people don’t care about, or perhaps understand, the fact that wasting energy and using it inefficiently accounts for a good chunk of the greenhouse-gas emissions that cause global warming. (In one 2009 analysis, scientists led by Thomas Dietz of Michigan State University estimated that household-based steps—as opposed to national policies like cap-and-trade—such as weatherizing homes, upgrading furnaces, switching to higher-mpg cars, changing air filters in a furnace, and not wasting power would cut U.S. carbon emissions by 123 million metric tons per year, which is 20 percent of household direct emissions and 7.4 percent of U.S. emissions.) Despite the millions of words that have been written on how to save energy and use it more efficiently, people basically have no idea what to do.

Scientists led by Shahzeen Attari of the Earth Institute at Columbia University surveyed 505 Americans (recruited through Craigslist), asking them to name the best ways to conserve energy. The most common answers had to do with curtailing use (by turning off lights or driving less, for instance) rather than improving efficiency (installing more efficient lightbulbs and appliances, say). But it is energy efficiency that offers the only possibility for dialing back our voracious consumption of energy and the fossil fuels that generate it. The reason is basic psychology: we are just not going to become a nation of pedestrians, let alone do without all our electronic toys. The only hope is therefore to continue satisfying those materialistic needs but with less electricity and gasoline. Yet as Attari and her colleagues report in a study in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, only 12 percent of participants mentioned efficiency improvements as “the most effective way” to conserve energy, while 55 percent mentioned curtailing use. Specifically: 20 percent said turn off lights, but only 3.6 percent said use more efficient bulbs; 15 percent said drive less or use public transit, but only 3 percent said use a more efficient car. No wonder Americans are so resistant to taking personal steps to mitigate climate change: they think it means doing without.

And the ignorance continued. The scientists next asked people to estimate how much energy different appliances used and how much different behaviors saved. More said line-drying clothes saves more than changing the washing-machine settings (the reverse is true). Most people also think trucks and trains that transport goods use about the same energy; in fact, trucks use 10 times more to move one ton of goods one mile. Most people also said that making a glass bottle takes less energy than making an aluminum can (the reverse is true: a glass bottle requires 1.4 times as much energy as the can when virgin materials are used, and 20 times as much when recycled materials are used; making a recycled glass bottle actually takes more energy than making a virgin aluminum can).

The higher the energy used by an appliance, the more wrong people were in their estimates. “In other words,” the scientists write, “people’s understanding may be worse where the potential for CO2 reductions is large.”

Here’s my favorite: participants who said they did lots of environmentally responsible things on the energy front actually had less accurate perceptions of all this—suggesting that while people may think they’re doing the planet good, they are not. The notion of making “informed choices” is great, but it kind of requires being, well, informed. What we have instead, it seems, is rampant ignorance. The real problem, Attari told me, is that when people pick the easy things, the low-hanging fruit, they figure they’ve done their bit for the environment and then don’t take steps that could actually make a difference. [Related Post: Does "our internal moral cup runneth over" when we go green?]

Why the ignorance? As usual, the press and green groups bear some of the blame, for promulgating simple feel-good but ultimately almost-useless steps such as turning off your cell-phone chargers. (Yes, it does add up, but a typical cell-phone charger draws one watt of power, so over a day that’s 24 watt-hours, or about one 40th of a kilowatt-hour, for a grand total of about 10 cents per day in savings.) The press and enviros have also spread the comforting myth that we can shop our way to saving the planet, a notion I have pilloried before. Whoever’s to blame, the consequences are clear: even people who want to conserve energy have barely a clue how to do it, and lots of people don’t even want to. No wonder those apartment ACs are running full tilt while nobody’s home.

Dietza T, Gardnerb GT, Gilliganc J, Sternd PC, Vandenbegrhe MP (2009) Household actions can provide a behavioral wedge to rapidly reduce US carbon emissions. PNAS 106 (44): 18452-18456

Most climate change policy attention has been addressed to long-term options, such as inducing new, low-carbon energy technologies and creating cap-and-trade regimes for emissions. We use a behavioral approach to examine the reasonably achievable potential for near-term reductions by altered adoption and use of available technologies in US homes and nonbusiness travel. We estimate the plasticity of 17 household action types in 5 behaviorally distinct categories by use of data on the most effective documented interventions that do not involve new regulatory measures. These interventions vary by type of action and typically combine several policy tools and strong social marketing. National implementation could save an estimated 123 million metric tons of carbon per year in year 10, which is 20% of household direct emissions or 7.4% of US national emissions, with little or no reduction in household well-being. The potential of household action deserves increased policy attention. Future analyses of this potential should incorporate behavioral as well as economic and engineering elements.

Most climate change policy attention has been addressed to long-term options, such as inducing new, low-carbon energy technologies and creating cap-and-trade regimes for emissions. We use a behavioral approach to examine the reasonably achievable potential for near-term reductions by altered adoption and use of available technologies in US homes and nonbusiness travel. We estimate the plasticity of 17 household action types in 5 behaviorally distinct categories by use of data on the most effective documented interventions that do not involve new regulatory measures. These interventions vary by type of action and typically combine several policy tools and strong social marketing. National implementation could save an estimated 123 million metric tons of carbon per year in year 10, which is 20% of household direct emissions or 7.4% of US national emissions, with little or no reduction in household well-being. The potential of household action deserves increased policy attention. Future analyses of this potential should incorporate behavioral as well as economic and engineering elements.

Attari SZ, DeKay ML, Davidson CI, Bruine de Bruin W (2010) Public perceptions of energy consumption and savings. PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1001509107


In a national online survey, 505 participants reported their perceptions of energy consumption and savings for a variety of household, transportation, and recycling activities. When asked for the most effective strategy they could implement to conserve energy, most participants mentioned curtailment (e.g., turning off lights, driving less) rather than efficiency improvements (e.g., installing more efficient light bulbs and appliances), in contrast to experts’ recommendations. For a sample of 15 activities, participants underestimated energy use and savings by a factor of 2.8 on average, with small overestimates for low-energy activities and large underestimates for high-energy activities. Additional estimation and ranking tasks also yielded relatively flat functions for perceived energy use and savings. Across several tasks, participants with higher numeracy scores and stronger proenvironmental attitudes had more accurate perceptions. The serious deficiencies highlighted by these results suggest that well-designed efforts to improve the public's understanding of energy use and savings could pay large dividends.

WTF of the week!?!: Trading HUMAN albinos and their body parts!

How do we even start to convince people that ivory and rhino horn are bad, when they are trading their own species??? -MA

Albino children in a school for the blind in Tanzania
Kenyan jailed for trying to sell albino
In Tanzania, albino body parts are believed to bring wealth or health

A court in Tanzania has sentenced a Kenyan accused of trying to sell an albino to 17 years in jail and a fine of more than $50,000 (£41,200). The court sentenced Nathan Mutei after he pleaded guilty to human trafficking. Police said they arrested Mutei in a sting operation as he tried to sell an albino fellow Kenyan for the equivalent of more than $250,000. Albino body parts are prized in parts of Africa, with witch-doctors claiming they have special powers.

The albino, Robinson Mkwama, is being escorted home to Kenya with a police guard, the BBC's Eric Nampesya reports from Tanzania. Mutei, 28, was arrested just outside the town of Mwanza. In the sting operation, which was announced on Tuesday, police pretended to be businessmen buying albino body parts.

The regional police commander, Simon Siro, told the BBC that Mr Mutei had tricked Mr Mkwama, 20, into believing he would secure a job in Tanzania as a lorry driver's assistant.

In Tanzania, the body parts of people living with albinism are used by witch-doctors for potions which they tell clients will help make them rich or healthy. Dozens of albinos have been killed, and the killings have spread to neighbouring Burundi. Tanzanian authorities have promised to crack down on albino traffickers, and several people have been sentenced to death in connection with killings.

New study broadens debate on human and chimpanzee culture

Are Some Chimp 'Cultural' Behaviors Actually in the Genes?

Thirty-five years ago, researchers studying chimpanzees in the wild noticed that neighboring communities had distinct grooming behaviors that could not be explained by differences in their environments. They contended that these behavioral idiosyncrasies were learned, or "cultural," and other scientists soon began noting group-specific tool uses and courting behaviors that also didn't appear to be environmental. But in a new study, researchers say some of these behaviors may be genetic after all.

Before that 1975 revelation, few researchers had observed different communities of wild chimpanzees, and no one had even recognized that these behavioral differences existed. Investigators have been arguing about whether chimps truly have culture ever since. Proponents of culture published a landmark Nature paper in 1999 documenting 39 behaviors that were frequently observed in some communities and never seen in others. In the article's wake, a flood of reports began to appear about culture in other species, and the debates roiled on, with endless discussions about the meaning of the word itself.

The new study, published online tomorrow in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, examines partial sequences of the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from wild chimpanzees in nine different groups. This DNA is handy because it's inherited only from mothers, and only chimp females typically move to new communities. Team members examined the links between the groups and 38 of the 39 supposed cultural variants documented in the earlier report. The study does not link behaviors to specific genes or even conclude that there is a genetic explanation. Rather, it assesses whether genetic differences can be excluded as an explanation for each behavior; it finds that they cannot more than half the time.

This distinction may seem subtle, but the idea of animal culture turns on the requirement of first excluding ecological forces as an explanation for behaviors. The study now adds yet another hurdle to clear before making bold claims about culture. "I have no horse in this race," says lead author Kevin Langergraber, a molecular ecologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. "I saw some studies that claimed they were settling this question, and I had gathered data that spoke to quite a different explanation."

The findings, as might be expected in this controversial field, are receiving a mixed reaction. The first author of the 1999 Nature study, evolutionary psychologist Andrew Whiten of the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom—who did not contribute to the new study—says Langergraber and colleagues have done "a very careful and rigorous job." But Whiten contends that they have given too much weight to the "the relationships between behavioral and genetic differences they found." Specifically, he contends that the sequencing of small regions of mtDNA as well as the relatively few documented behavioral differences are "very crude overall measures" of the true genetic and behavioral differences. He further singles out several experiments that he and others have conducted with unrelated captive chimpanzees that clearly demonstrate sophisticated social learning skills, especially for tool use. "Given all we know about chimpanzee social and individual learning, it seems unlikely that there are any chimpanzees that, because of their genetic constitution, cannot observationally learn all the kinds of tool use seen in Africa."

Ethologist Frans de Waal of Emory University in Atlanta has a more generous take on the new work. In 1999 de Waal wrote an accompanying editorial in Nature that said Whiten and colleagues had provided a "record so impressive that it will be hard to keep these apes out of the cultural domain." The new work, de Waal contends, "is not dismissive of the culture concept, but adds a complication to the picture."

De Waal notes that individuals of a species often have similar behaviors that are not controlled by genes. "No one would assume a gene for ant fishing in the chimpanzee in the same way that no one would assume that some humans have a knife-and-fork gene and others a chopstick gene," says de Waal. Still, he says the new findings likely will make the nature vs. nurture discussion more interesting. "If we simply accept that chimpanzees have cultural habits that spread by means of social learning and then add this genetic picture to it, we get in fact a view closer to what we know about humans, and a broader debate that we have hardly had before," says de Waal.

Langergraber, who studies the evolution of cooperation and social relationships in wild chimpanzees, notes that there's compelling evidence in finches, crows, and gorillas that some behaviors—like learning to use tools or eat nettles that will sting unless they are handled just so—have genetic underpinnings. And the same is true of humans, he notes. "Some things you'd never think are genetically determined are highly inheritable. Genes, for example, appear to play a role in whether a person is an extrovert who wears loud clothing or an introvert who dresses for comfort.

But he stresses that in wild chimpanzees, especially since females often migrate to different communities, it will be particularly difficult to sort the genetic from the cultural. "They're not moving only their genes, but it could be behavior as well," says Langergraber. "So you could get a positive correlation between genetic and behavioral similarity even if it were 100% cultural." Langergraber says he'd make a more conservative point, "You can't rule out that it's genetic."

Thanks to Claudio T for the link
Langergraber KE, Boesch C, Inoue E, Inoue-Murayama M, Matani J, Nishida T, Pusey A, Reynolds V, Schubert G, Wrangham R, Wroblewski E, Vigilant L (2010) Genetic and ‘cultural’ similarity in wild chimpanzees. Proceedings of the Royal Society B doi: 10.1098/rspb.2010.1112


The question of whether animals possess ‘cultures’ or ‘traditions’ continues to generate widespread theoretical and empirical interest. Studies of wild chimpanzees have featured prominently in this discussion, as the dominant approach used to identify culture in wild animals was first applied to them. This procedure, the ‘method of exclusion,’ begins by documenting behavioural differences between groups and then infers the existence of culture by eliminating ecological explanations for their occurrence. The validity of this approach has been questioned because genetic differences between groups have not explicitly been ruled out as a factor contributing to between-group differences in behaviour. Here we investigate this issue directly by analysing genetic and behavioural data from nine groups of wild chimpanzees. We find that the overall levels of genetic and behavioural dissimilarity between groups are highly and statistically significantly correlated. Additional analyses show that only a very small number of behaviours vary between genetically similar groups, and that there is no obvious pattern as to which classes of behaviours (e.g. tool-use versus communicative) have a distribution that matches patterns of between-group genetic dissimilarity. These results indicate that genetic dissimilarity cannot be eliminated as playing a major role in generating group differences in chimpanzee behaviour.

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