Site update

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

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

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Rhinos now being poisoned

Is the only solution cutting off the rhino horns like they did with elephant tusks in the 80s/90s or could the amount of funds it would require to undertake that be used to up anti-poaching patrols? -MA
Thanks to Louwtjie dT for the link

From News24

Rhinos are now being poisoned

Johannesburg – A wildlife organisation warned on Wednesday that rhino poachers were now reverting to poison to kill the animals. Wildlife Ranching SA operational manager Reinhardt Holtzhausen said 14 cabbage halves sprinkled with poison were found on a game farm in Mookgophong at the weekend. He came across the heap by chance while driving through the game farm with his friend.

"The rhinos were literally 100m from the spot where we found the heap of cabbages. Luckily we could remove all of them before any damage was done." He said the cabbages were placed in the vicinity of rhino middens. Rhinos have the habit of visiting their dung piles often, and then eating whatever food has been planted there.

Clever people
"These are clever people; they obviously know the rhinos' habits," said Holtzhausen. Seven cabbages were cut in half and sprinkled with blue crystals, smaller than the size of ground pepper corns. Holtzhausen said he suspected the poison was either curaterr or albicarap and had been sent to the police for forensic tests."We are waiting for the results," he said.

Last week, a group of people, including two veterinarians and a game farmer, appeared in the Musina Magistrate's Court for allegedly being part of a rhino poaching syndicate.

More than 200 rhinos have already been killed by poachers this year, compared to 122 the whole of last year.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Black Fish cuts nets to free dolphins in Taiji, Japan

thanks to Jen F for the link!
You can follow the black fish on facebook HERE

Divers from the European conservation organisation The Black Fish have last night cut the nets of six holding pens in Taiji, Japan, that were holding dolphins caught during a dolphin drive hunt a few days earlier. During this hunt a number of dolphins were selected for the international dolphinarium trade and transferred to these holding pens. In rough weather conditions the divers swam out and cut the nets of six of these holding pens, allowing a number of dolphins to swim back out to sea. No arrests were made.

Every year, between September and April, the sea around the fishing village of Taiji on the east coast of Japan turns red as it becomes the scene of one of the biggest mass slaughters of marine wildlife in the world. The dolphin drive hunt, which recently made global headlines through the Oscar winning documentary 'The Cove', is responsible for capturing and killing over 2,000 dolphins of Japan's annual quota of 20,000. Fishermen drive the dolphins from sea into a cove, where some animals are selected for dolphinariums while the others are killed for their meat.

The Black Fish and other marine conservation and animal welfare organisations run ongoing campaigns to push for the closure of the remaining dolphinariums in Europe, where some of the dolphins caught at Taiji inevitably end up. Dolphinariums are already banned in United Kingdom. The Black Fish believes that it is unacceptable to keep dolphins, orca's and other marine wildlife in captivity, given the vast areas which these animals normally inhabit, the miserable and squalid conditions under which they are often kept and the stress that public performances put on them.

Co-founder of The Black Fish, Wietse van der Werf, explains about their decision to intervene: "The connection between the dolphin entertainment industry and this annual drive hunt can no longer be denied. To be successful in our campaigns in Europe we need to get to the root of this illegal trade, which is right at Taiji."

The Black Fish is aware of the sensitivity surrounding the hunt at Taiji this year. With an international media spotlight on the Japanese dolphin hunts, tensions within the country have heated up and Japanese nationalists have seized the opportunity to defend this 'traditional' activity. While we acknowledge that change also needs to come from within Japanese society, we vow to continue to work for the protection of these defenceless dolphins and push to make dolphinariums and the drive hunts which supply them history.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Social Activism: Chimps in entertainment, cover of new Daily Show book FAILs

Jon Stewart (who i adore) & the Daily Show (which i adore) have a new book out and on the cover is a chimpanzee. I think everyone on here knows why this is unacceptable. A lot of great conservationists, scientists and animal rights activists have already posted on the wall of their facebook page. Please consider adding your voice, or "liking" the comments of others to show your support (You must first "like" the page to post) Thanks, MA.

Here is my post:
"I see that a lot of people here think this "chimpanzee issue" is one of animal activist nut jobs. It is not. It is a major conservation problem. Just so we are all on the same page, please read this paper that came out in the March 14 2008 journal Science "Inappropriate Use and Portrayal of Chimpanzees" which can be found here: One of the authors is "moderate" Jane Goodall! If you cannot access it, a good summary is here: If you are interested in the article, send me a message I would be happy to send you a pdf."
Ross Sr. Lukas KE, Lonsdorf EV, Stoinski TS, Hare B, Shumaker R, Goodall J (2008) Inappropriate Use and Portrayal of Chimpanzees. Science 319(5869): 1487 DOI: 10.1126/science.1154490

Pitch of Cat Calls Varies with a Cat Species' Territory

From BBC news via neatorama
Why lions roar and wildcats miaow
The low roar of a lion, or the miaow of a wildcat, has more to do with where a cat lives than its size.

Scientists analysed the calls of 27 cat species, investigating how they vary in habitats from open sandy deserts to thickly planted jungles. Cats living in open areas have deeper calls than those in dense habitats, the researchers found. Previous research suggested a cat's size determined the pitch of its calls, made to find mates or defend territory.

Forest dwelling wildcats call at a higher pitch
Dr Gustav Peters and Dr Marcell Peters at the Alexander Koenig Zoological Research Museum in Bonn, Germany analysed the average frequencies of long-distance calls made by 27 different species of cat. These included the great or "roaring" cats, such as lions, tigers and jaguars, which are able to roar due to the specialised structure of their throats. They then looked for any relationships between the cats' calls and their size, and the habitats in which they live.

Cat species that live in more open types of habitat, such as lions and servals, have deeper calls. Cats living in dense habitats, such as wildcats, clouded leopards and the little known marbled cat, communicate at a higher pitch, the researchers found.

The findings are published in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society.

The results are unexpected. "Most studies of sound transmission of animal acoustic signals found that lower frequencies prevail in dense habitats," says Dr Peters. For example, previous research has found that high pitch calls are disrupted by dense vegetation. Low pitch calls meanwhile are disrupted by air turbulence in open spaces. But that does not explain why lions roar so deeply, for instance. Another suggestion is that big cats simply produce sounds at a lower frequency. That would explain a lion's roar compared to a smaller cat's miaow, but when the researchers took into account the genetic heritage of each species studied, they found body weight has no effect on the dominant frequencies of its call.

Members of the cat family Felidae occur naturally on all continents except Australia and Antarctica, and with the exception of lions, they live solitary lives. Due to this isolation, both males and females use long-distance calls to communicate, to attract mates and deter competition.

Peters G & Peters M (2010) Long-distance call evolution in the Felidae: effects of body weight, habitat, and phylogeny. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 101(2): 487–500

Long-distance calls used for mate attraction and territorial spacing are distinctive signals in the felid vocal repertoire. Their evolution is subject to natural and sexual selection, as well as various constraints. Body size is an important morphological constraint, with the scaling of the spectral characteristics of a species' vocalizations with its body size being established for several vertebrate groups. Alternatively, the structure of long-distance calls may have been optimized for transmission in species' habitats (acoustic adaptation hypothesis). The present study assessed whether the mean dominant frequency of long-distance calls in the Felidae (approximately 70% of all species incorporated) is influenced by the species' body size and/or conforms to the acoustic adaptation hypothesis. After controlling for phylogenetic relationships, we found a significant correlation between mean dominant frequency of a taxon's long-distance calls and conditions for sound transmission in its habitat type (‘open/heterogeneous’ versus ‘dense’), although no significant influence of body size. Taxa living in more open habitat types have long-distance calls with significantly lower mean dominant frequencies than those living in dense habitats. The result obtained in the present analysis is fairly robust against random removal of single or few taxa from the data, and also against the use of different branch-length transformation models in phylogenetic regression. © 2010 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2010, 101, 487–500.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Bonobo conservation via community development

adult literacy class
Into the Congo: saving bonobos means aiding left-behind communities, an interview with Gay Reinartz

Unlike every other of the world's great apes—the gorilla, chimpanzee, and orangutan—saving the bonobo means focusing conservation efforts on a single nation, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While such a fact would seem to simplify conservation, according to the director of the The Bonobo and Congolese Biodiversity Initiative (BCBI), Gay Reinartz, it in fact complicates it: after decades of one of world's brutal civil wars, the DRC remains among the world's most left-behind nations. Widespread poverty, violence, politically instability, corruption, and lack of basic infrastructure have left the Congolese people in desperate straits.

"From a place of privilege, I have had the opportunity to look upon a society essentially reduced to its simplest, most fundamental term—survival. In Congo, I have witnessed wider extremes of cruelty and kindness, exploitation and generosity, revenge and forgiveness," Gay Reinartz told in an interview. While developing and directing BCBI—a program established through the Zoological Society of Milwaukee (ZSM)—Reinartz has spent years working closely with Congolese communities in order to improve lives and, hopefully, ensure the long-term survival of the bonobo.

From the moment Reinartz first met a troop of bonobos as they arrived at the Milwaukee Zoo, she was smitten. "They were charming," she says of that encounter. Bonobos are most closely related to chimpanzees, but have been considered a separate species since the 1930s. While bonobos have some notable physical differences from chimpanzees, it is their behavioral differences that have really grasped the public imagination, especially their reputation of being lovers, not fighters.

"Bonobos have a playful nature. The idea that bonobos are a peace loving society is true—but to a certain extent," Reinartz explains. "This trait is relative and must be seen in comparison to other great ape species. The media have overplayed bonobos as peaceniks. While it’s true that bonobos show less aggression, that they have less big-male domination, that 'wars' have not been observed, they do fight. […] Nevertheless, the bonobo has evolved ways to deal with social tension and reduce aggression or conflict—that being social sexual interactions—having intimacy and intercourse for reasons other than reproduction—and empathy."

To save the world's least known great ape, the BCBI has developed a number of initiatives. The organization has trained Congolese field workers to survey bonobo and other large mammal populations in Salongo National Park, providing baseline data for before and after conflict erupted in the region. The surveys are also studying different bonobo densities in a number of sites in the park, variously affected by poaching.

BCBI has also established programs to support protective measures in the park, including setting up an anti-poaching patrol, training park guards, and coming through with supplies and funds for park guards in emergencies. Reinartz says the situation is incredibly difficult for park guards, and often dangerous especially when facing elephant poachers.

"There are fewer than two hundred park guards who are responsible for patrolling this entire area. They lack training, guns, means of transportation, communication, and basic forest equipment. There is approximately one gun per four men. They are no match for the well-armed elephant poachers who come in brandishing AK-47s."

The biggest current threat to bonobos and most of the wildlife in the park is hunting: the great apes are killed for bushmeat as well as trapped in snares meant for other big mammals. Given the poverty of the region, and few ways to make money, the bushmeat trade has boomed in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"So, how do we convince them not to hunt? We have to give communities incentives to do something else and begin to build greater awareness. At the same time then, the park guards have to do their job in law enforcement. The two approaches must work from either side simultaneously—one with the other," says Reinartz.

Giving communities incentives not to hunt includes working on providing new economic and education opportunities, both of which are basically non-existent in the region. BCBI has established a farming cooperative with a local NGO, helping villagers can learn to grow their own food and hopefully start up markets to sell the extra. The organization has also set-up primary schools, including providing materials and paying local teachers, and adult literacy courses. In such a region, if conservation is to succeed, conservation programs have to become humanitarian programs, filling in the role of a crippled government, a battered economy, and a region still suffering from bouts of violence. Part of the battle, says Reinartz, is convincing people that conservationists can be trusted, that BCBI won't abandon communities if times get rough again.

"For many people, even though they might understand why and regret that elephants, bonobos and other animals have vanished from their communal forests, they consider conservation efforts as just another way they are being cheated and neglected. To change these attitudes will take a long time and program consistency to overcome generations of negative conditioning and hopelessness," she says, adding that "what surprises me is that they aren’t more cynical than they are."

Even in the face of war and poverty, Reinartz is clearly amazed at the generosity and strength of many of the Congolese people.

In a September 2010 interview Gay Reinartz spoke about the uniqueness of the bonobo, the challenge of saving a species in one of the world's most forgotten places: the Congo, and of combining conservation work with humanitarian programs.

Reinartz will be presenting at the up-coming Wildlife Conservation Network Expo in San Francisco on October 3rd, 2010.

To learn more, read the INTERVIEW WITH GAY REINARTZ at

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Zoos and Conservation

From the CharlotteObserver
N.C. Zoo works without borders
Animal conservation efforts send researchers across the state - and all the way to Africa

Watching a 400-pound gorilla lollygag in his habitat at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, visitors can see up close how the zoo preserves and showcases natural wonders. Not as evident are the thousands of wild animals in the zoo's care that live far beyond the park's managed grounds. "What most people see when they come to the zoo are the animals and the rides and the restaurants. But what's less visible is the research that goes on behind the scenes," said Rich Bergl, N.C. Zoo curator of conservation and research.

The N.C. Zoo spends approximately $400,000 each year on field conservation programs, both in Africa and closer to home in North Carolina. More than 5,000 miles away in the African countries of Nigeria and Cameroon, for example, N.C. Zoo researchers are using remote sensing and satellite tracking tools to bring endangered animals back from the brink. Tracking tools provide vital information for the conservation of animals in the wild, not only species such as gorillas and elephants that are star zoo attractions, but also other animals and plants that share their homes. "When those areas are protected, the elephants are just the tip of the iceberg," said Mike Loomis, the zoo's chief veterinarian, who leads a project that uses satellite tracking collars to monitor elephants' movements in Cameroon. Bergl agrees. "When you conserve a population of gorillas in an area, you're not just conserving the gorillas. The gorillas act as umbrellas for the rest of the plants and animals in the forest as well."

The work is a testament to how far zoos have come from the menageries they once were, said Bergl: "Conserving animals in their natural habitats is a key part of a zoo's mission."

Rediscovering rare apes
In one project, the zoo is collaborating with New York's Wildlife Conservation Society to protect the critically endangered Cross River gorilla, one of the world's rarest and least-understood apes. Named for the river that flows through their forest home, Cross River gorillas were thought to be extinct until the mid-1980s, when they were rediscovered in a remote region along the Nigerian-Cameroon border. Current counts suggest there are fewer than 300 Cross River gorillas left in the wild and only one known in captivity. Due to their low numbers, their remote highland habitat, and their wariness of people, Cross River gorillas are extremely difficult to study, Bergl said. "In the 10 years that I've been working on these gorillas, I've probably observed them for a total of 10 seconds," he said.

Instead, Bergl and colleagues rely on clues the great apes leave behind. Researchers can tell how many gorillas are in a group, what they eat, and where they go by analyzing their trails, dung and nests - the beds of leaves and twigs the animals make each night for sleeping. Much of the work revolves around a hand-held computer system designed to help researchers and park rangers gather information about gorillas and other wildlife as they patrol the forest. "We're using exactly the same GPS technology many people have in their cars or cell phones," Bergl explained, pointing to a photograph of a black-and-yellow device that looks like an oversized iPhone.

Rangers enter their observations and hit a button to register the latitude and longitude via satellite. They then download the information to a central database, where it can be used to create computerized maps that allow scientists to better monitor the elusive animals. "We've found gorillas in at least two areas not previously known to be inhabited," Berg said.

Keeping the peace

In addition to monitoring the Cross River gorilla, researchers at the N.C. Zoo are working to protect an animal that is much less wary of humans, but just as tricky to track.

In partnership with other conservation organizations and the government of Cameroon, Loomis, the zoo veterinarian, uses satellite tracking collars to trace elephants' movements in and out of Cameroon's national parks. They share data with nearby farmers and communities when elephant herds may be heading toward crops. The aim is to ease conflict between humans and the roaming animals.

The world's largest living land animals, elephants need a lot of space. At the recently expanded African elephant exhibit at the N.C. Zoo, for example, seven elephants roam a 7-acre enclosure. In the wild, elephant herds can travel tens of miles each day in search of food and water. "Though Cameroon has a nice series of parks and preserves, it's almost impossible to make sure elephants stay within protected areas," Loomis said.

Elephants in search of an easy meal raid farmers' fields and trample crops. Farmers sometimes kill them in retaliation. Elephants also occasionally kill or injure people with their sharp tusks, Loomis said. Satellite collars can provide an early warning system when the animals are on the move, transmitting their comings and goings back to researchers.

"I get the location for those animals every day by e-mail on my computer," Loomis said. "By setting up this early warning system, we've been able to reduce the number of elephants killed, the number of people injured, and the amount of crops destroyed."

A big, dangerous job
Putting a tracking collar on a 10,000-pound elephant is no easy task. The work requires a team of trackers, porters, veterinarians and biologists, hauling heavy loads over difficult terrain, sometimes for days at a time, Loomis said.

"It's a matter of trying to get close enough to the elephant, quietly enough, and downwind from the elephant so we can get in a position to dart the animal," Loomis said.

Once an elephant has been anesthetized, the team fits a tracking collar around its neck, reverses the anesthesia and releases the animal.

For the collaring team it's treacherous work.

"We're working with really large, really dangerous animals in remote areas. A few injuries goes along with the territory," he added.

The researchers have succeeded in collaring 35 elephants since the project began in 1998. Most are larger, older females at the heads of their herds. By targeting matriarchs, researchers can follow an entire herd - as many as 250 elephants - for up to 16 months, Loomis said.

The data help wildlife managers identify key migration corridors to focus their conservation efforts more effectively. This also helps the Cameroon government identify priority areas for protection when creating or expanding national parks. One of only four species of elephants still alive, the African elephant is threatened throughout its range by illegal hunting for meat and ivory, Loomis said.

"By understanding elephant movement patterns," he said, "anti-poaching patrols can concentrate on areas where elephants are more likely to be."

Read more:

DOUCHE BAGS OF THE YEAR: South African vets involved in 100s of cases of rhino poaching!

from NEWS24
Rhino poaching - vets arrested

Johannesburg - Two well-known veterinarians from Modimolle in Limpopo were arrested on Monday, along with seven other people, over their alleged involvement in "hundreds of incidents" of rhino poaching. National police spokesperson Vishnu Naidoo said the suspects are "the masterminds" of a syndicate believed to be involved in rhino poaching across the country. "The arrests were a great breakthrough for us. More arrests may follow," Naidoo said.

Dr Karel Toet and his wife, Marisa, were arrested early on Monday morning. Dr Manie du Plessis, one of Toet's partners, was also arrested. They own the Nylstroom animal clinic, as well as Limpopo Wildlife, which is involved with catching and transporting game on farms. Naidoo said two businessmen - as well as the one businessman's wife - were also behind bars. The other suspects' occupations are unknown. They were arrested in Polokwane, Musina and Modimolle respectively. "These people were supposedly involved with killing rhinos, selling the horns and disposing of the carcasses," said Naidoo.

This breakthrough comes after five rhinos were killed for their horns in a nature reserve in the North West at the weekend. Altogether 210 rhinos have been killed for their horns since the start of the year, compared to 122 poached last year.

Naidoo said the police's specialist unit, the Hawks, conducted the investigation and made the arrests in co-operation with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), SANParks, the department of nature conservation and the national prosecuting authority (NPA). Farmers in Limpopo's Lephalale and Vaalwater areas, as well as the North West, have recently complained about helicopters with obscured registrations flying over game farms. The CAA was approached to take part in the investigation.

It was alleged that poachers were dropped on farms by helicopter and then picked up again once they had cut off the animals' horns.

Cold-blooded slaughter
Beeld has heard that the vets from Modimolle have been under investigation for the last few months. The news of their arrest spread through town like a wildfire on Monday. Monday's arrests came about a week after Tom Fourie, a well-known figure in wildlife circles in Musina, was arrested. He has already appeared in court and was released on R2 000 bail. It is not clear whether Fourie is involved with the same syndicate.

Naidoo said the police have their eye on other syndicates that are involved in "the cold-blooded slaughter" of rhinos in nature reserves and game farms.

The investigating team is still searching various properties.

Naidoo said the nine suspects are being held in the police cells in Musina. They will appear in the magistrate's court on Wednesday, at which time the exact charges will be announced.

Faan Coetzee, head of the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), was overjoyed about the news on Monday. "We've been waiting a long time for this," he said.

Thanks to Louwtjie dT for the link!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Gorilla flash mob - Thursday Sept 23rd at 1pm at Frankfurt zoo

Go the facebook event page HERE to sign up and get details on the flashmob! If anyone needs to borrow a gorilla costume, I have an extra one -MA

New "population" of high altitude tigers found in Bhutan

There is a cool video at the of the camera trap footage of these newly discovered high altitude tigers.

from the website:
Television footage shot by the BBC's Natural History Unit has provided the first evidence that tigers can live and breed at extremely high altitudes. The team filmed the animals, normally found in jungle habitats, more than 4,000 metres high in the Himalayas.Experts say the discovery could make it easier to create a conservation corridor, linking populations of the endangered felines across Asia.
Lost Land of the Tiger will be broadcast on BBC One at 21.00BST on Tuesday 21st, Wednesday 22nd and Thursday 23rd September.

Filming chimpanzees in the wild is tough

Discovery has a nice little video about filming chimpanzees for the miniseries "Life". They mention Tatyana Humle and Guinea, so I think the footage is from Bossou. It shows how hard it is to film and study wild chimpanzees and I also like that it shows how field sites are now making face masks mandatory to reduce zoonotic disease transmission. It makes the work harder but so much safer for the apes. -MA

video at:

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Nature Opinion articles: Scientists show "Road will ruin Serengeti"

An alternative route - Nature editorial
A proposed road through the Serengeti can be halted only by providing a viable substitute, not by criticism.

Football fans who watch the televised English Premier League match between Stoke City and West Ham United on Saturday may get an urge to visit Tanzania. Adverts in Stoke's Britannia Stadium will tout the country's attractions, including the Serengeti National Park.

Home to an iconic wildebeest migration, the Serengeti is one of the most valuable ecosystems on the planet. So why does President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania want to build a road through it?

In an Opinion piece on page 272 [see below-MA], 27 conservation experts warn that the proposed road could drive the entire Serengeti ecosystem to collapse by interrupting or diverting migration routes. No more wildebeest migration. No more tourists. The consequences seem dire.

Plans for a road across the Serengeti have been rejected on environmental grounds before. The World Bank refused funds in the 1980s, and impact assessments by external consultants in the 1990s found that the probable damage was too high a price for transport convenience.

Yet, in late July, Kikwete confirmed that his government would send bulldozers to the Serengeti in 2012, repeating a campaign pledge that he made in 2005. Markers along parts of the proposed route are already in place.

The president's desire to push the road through the Serengeti is especially puzzling given that an alternative route, farther south and outside the boundaries of the park, would bring many of the same economic benefits from increased trade and avoid the most serious effects.

As the New York Times noted last month, Kikwete's government is not keen for anyone to pursue its reasoning — especially Tanzanians.

Conservation and politics are tightly bound, and in this case the politics are opaque indeed. Ahead of coming elections in the country, there are rumours of favours to be repaid to the communities in the north and east of the Serengeti that would benefit the most from the road.

Some observers claim that the Chinese government is set to fund the US$480 million project, to help extract raw materials such as minerals from its existing investments in east Africa. There has been no official explanation of the reasons for the decision or of where funds will come from. It is difficult for anyone outside the Tanzanian government to know anything for sure.

Against this uncertain background, those pushing for the Serengeti road to be abandoned should proceed with caution to avoid exacerbating the situation. Thousands of people across the world have backed protest websites, and some in the US tourist industry mutter about a possible boycott of Tanzania — leading Kikwete to hit out at what he characterizes as pressure from ill-informed foreigners.

A swell of well meaning but poorly targeted international criticism could strengthen the president's position and allow him to promote the road as a way for Tanzania to stand up to meddling outsiders.

Critics should also be careful not to overstate the case. The government has so far promised only a gravel road; predictions of the most serious ecological damage are based on an upgraded tarmac highway protected with fences, which would probably follow.

The next step should be a comprehensive and independent assessment of the two routes and their respective merits. If the southern route proves as superior as its supporters promise, then those both outside and inside the Kikwete government will be able to present it as the wise environmental and political choice. That is the best way to stop the road taking this damaging and unnecessary route.

From Nature

Andrew P. Dobson,Markus Borner, Anthony R. E. Sinclair, Peter J. Hudson, T. Michael Anderson, Gerald Bigurube, Tim B. B. Davenport, James Deutsch, Sarah M. Durant, Richard D. Estes, Anna B. Estes, John Fryxell, Charles Foley, Michelle E. Gadd, Dan Haydon, Ricardo Holdo, Robert D. Holt, Katherine Homewood, J. Grant C. Hopcraft, Ray Hilborn, George L. K. Jambiya, M. Karen Laurenson, Lota Melamari, Alais Ole Morindat, Joseph O. Ogutu, George Schaller & Eric Wolanski (2010) Road will ruin Serengeti Nature 467 (272-273) doi:10.1038/467272a

Tanzania's iconic national park must not be divided by a highway, say Andrew Dobson, Markus Borner, Tony Sinclair and 24 others. A route farther south would bring greater benefits to development and the environment.

Plans for building a two-lane road through 50 kilometres of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania must be halted. The road will cause an environmental disaster by curtailing the migration of wildebeest. Evidence from other ecosystems demonstrates that migratory species are likely to decline precipitously, causing the Serengeti ecosystem to collapse, and even flip from being a carbon sink into a major source of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

A road linking Tanzania's coast to Lake Victoria and Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been under discussion for the past 20 years. Pressure to start digging is mounting in the run-up to Tanzania's election next month, in part because of increasing foreign economic interest in the mineral wealth of Central Africa.

There is an alternative to driving the road through the World Heritage Sites of the Serengeti National Park, where humans took their first recorded steps1 and which harbour one of the last great animal migrations2. Building a road to the south of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area would minimize environmental and economic damage and maximize benefits to human development and infrastructure.
Domino effect

The Serengeti is a rare and iconic example of an ecosystem driven by a large mammal migration3. Classic, long-term studies there have made fundamental contributions to knowledge of how natural ecosystems function4, 5. Rain falling on rich volcanic soils creates phenomenal nutrient-rich plant life that wildebeest, zebra and gazelle consume during their breeding seasons. When the rains end, these herds migrate to southern Kenya, hundreds of kilometres north, to access water and pastures nourished by dry-season rainfall. The nearly 2 million herbivores are an essential resource for a large predator community that includes globally important populations of threatened carnivores such as lions, cheetahs and wild dogs.

Wildebeest — 1.3 million of them — are the keystone species in the Serengeti ecosystem. They determine the abundance and diversity of all other species. Each year about 500,000 calves are born in February, on plains where they consume about 50% of the rapidly growing grasses. Each day the herd produces 500 truckloads of dung and 125 road tankers of urine, recycling vast quantities of nutrients throughout the system. Their grass consumption removes fuel that would otherwise cause fires to destroy trees. They also maintain grasslands by trampling and thrashing seedlings and saplings. Disrupting their annual migration cycle would dramatically alter this ecosystem.

Each year, about 1.5 million wildebeest and zebras cross the path of the proposed road as they head north, and then again on their return south. In drier years, or those with erratic rainfall, they cross many times, responding to local rainfall. This would be a significant hazard for traffic, and would probably result in human and animal casualties. The proposed road (see graphic) would also bisect newly re-established wild dog and rhinoceros populations, reducing the probability of the emergence of spatially distinct, interbreeding populations of these endangered species.
Figure 1

Once the public road is built, the area within 50 metres on either side would no longer be under the jurisdiction of the national parks (as in Mikumi National Park in eastern Tanzania). Traffic could travel at night and at speed — restrictions and calming methods are difficult to implement in rural Tanzania6. Increasingly hazardous road-traffic collisions would probably necessitate fencing, as happened in Banff National Park in Canada7, 8. Fences, roads and habitat fragmentation have caused the recent collapse of at least 6 of the last 24 terrestrial migratory species left in the world2. Although speed bumps in Mikumi and overpasses in Banff have reduced the number of wildlife collisions, these have cost several million dollars and speed bumps scarcely slow traffic or prevent collisions. In Banff, overpasses carry populations of several hundred elk and deer and increasingly rare carnivores. No overpass could be wide enough, or long enough, for 1.5 million wildebeest and zebras. In all other areas where fences and roads have hampered large-mammal migrations, notably Banff, Etosha National Park in Namibia and Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in Botswana, the ecosystem has collapsed to a less diverse and less productive state9, 10.

Simulations11 suggest that if wildebeest access to the Mara river in Kenya is blocked, the population will fall to less than 300,000. This would lead to more grass fires, which would further diminish the quality of grazing by volatizing minerals, and the ecosystem could flip into being a source of atmospheric CO2. The trees and soil there are a significant carbon sink. The system would return to the impoverished state that developed when wildebeest numbers plummeted during the rinderpest pandemic in the last decade of the nineteenth century12. There would be far fewer game, fewer predators and more than 80% of the park would burn every year.

The public road would carry goods and supplies, including seeds of potentially invasive and non-native species, chemical pesticides, herbicides and livestock pathogens transmissible to wildlife. It would also disrupt local patterns of water drainage, increasing erosion and changing local vegetation. The road would become a source of chemical pollutants, particularly lead and other heavy metals; these would accumulate in the dry season and then flow into streams and rivers at high concentrations during the rains13, 14. Roads also allow easy access for poachers, and create a ribbon of communities on either side, increasing human–animal conflict.

Construction of the road by the Tanzanian government is planned for 2012; marker flags have already been placed in some sections of the park. An evaluation, 15 years ago, of a route between the coast and Musoma considered a route through Ngorongoro and the Serengeti — it was discarded because of their environmental sensitivity. At the time, the Tanzania National Parks authority was not supportive of the road through the park. After the last election (2005), promises by President Jakaya Kikwete for a road linking Lake Victoria to the coast led to two more evaluations: both concluded that a road would ruin the Serengeti's status as a major tourist destination and as a World Heritage Site.
A better way

There is a clear alternative to the Serengeti route. A road going around the southern end of the park, and never crossing park boundaries (see graphic), would also connect Lake Victoria to Arusha and then to the coastal ports. It would provide valuable access to agricultural markets for around 2.3 million people as opposed to 431,000 on the northern route. The southern road could use an existing gravel road network and would require an additional 155 kilometres of new road, as opposed to 120 kilometres. The total southern road from the coast would be about 50 kilometres longer than the northern route, but could cost less, in not having to climb the 500-metre cliff face of the Rift Valley. Above all, it would allow crucial development in rural Tanzania to proceed with minimal damage to tourism, which contributed US$824 million to the nation in 2005 — 23% of the total foreign revenue and 6.3% of all Tanzanian jobs.

Tanzania is a developing country, with an average gross national income of $350 per year; more than 95% of its people live on less than $2 per day. These people need improved infrastructure to facilitate development, distribute goods and reach agricultural markets. However, wildlife tourism is a cornerstone of Tanzania's economy, and the Serengeti, along with Mount Kilimanjaro, is central to the success of this industry. Moreover, ecotourism is supported by pastoralist land use in conservation areas, such as Loliondo and Ngorongoro (see graphic), that surround the park. Livestock production accounts for well over half of all household income across these buffer-zone districts15 and drives regional, national and international livestock trade. The proposed road would severely affect these economic and ecological synergies.

In sum, the proposed road could lead to the collapse of the largest remaining migratory system on Earth — a system that drives Tanzania's tourism trade and supports thousands of people. Such a collapse would be exceedingly regrettable for a country that has consistently been a world leader in conservation. We therefore urge the government of Tanzania and all stakeholders to consider carefully the full ecological and economic benefits of building the route to the south. This road would open up transport to the interior, but explicitly acknowledge and conserve the global benefits of preserving the Serengeti National Park, one of the world's natural wonders and one of Africa's last surviving pristine ecosystems.

70% of tigers live in 6% of their habitat. Protect the 6%, save the species.

In contrast to yetserday's post, its been found that focusing protection on the main pockets of tiger distribution instead of swaths of land in which they once ranged is crucial for their conservation. Thanks to Emma S. for the link! -MA

From the Washington Post
To save tigers, protect key breeding areas

Conservationists must protect tiger populations in a few concentrated breeding grounds in Asia instead of trying to safeguard vast, surrounding landscapes, if they want to save the big cats from extinction, scientists said. Only about 3,500 tigers are left in the wild worldwide, less than one third of them breeding females, according to one of the authors of the study, John Robinson of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Much has been done to try to save the world's largest cat - threatened by over-hunting, habitat loss and the wildlife trade - but their numbers have continued to spiral downward for nearly two decades. That's in part because conservation efforts are increasingly diverse and often aimed at improving habitats outside protected areas, according to the study, published in Tuesday's issue of the peer-reviewed PLoS Biology journal. Instead, efforts should be concentrated on the areas where tigers live - most are clustered in just 6 percent of their available habitat - and especially where they breed.

"The immediate priority must be to ensure that the last remaining breeding populations are protected and continually monitored," it says, adding if that doesn't happen, "all other efforts are bound to fail."

The WWF and other conservation groups say the world's tiger population has fallen from around 5,000 in 1998 to as few as 3,200 today, despite tens of millions of dollars invested in conservation efforts. The cats have been lost largely to poachers, who cash in on a huge market for tiger skins and a belief, prevalent in east Asia, that eating or applying tiger parts enhance health and virility.

The new study - to which researchers from the conservationist group Panthera, the World Bank, the University of Cambridge and others also contributed - identifies 42 key areas that have concentrations of tigers with the potential to grow and populate larger landscapes. Eighteen are in India - the country with the most tigers - eight in Indonesia, six in Russia's Far East and the others scattered elsewhere in Asia. The price tag for the plan - which would require greater levels of law enforcement and surveillance - would be around $82 million a year, the study says. The bulk of that is already being provided by state governments and international support. Similar efforts have been successful in the past - especially in India.

The Malenad-Mysore landscape in southern India has 220 adult tigers, one of the largest populations in the world, thanks largely to intensive protection of its "source site," the Nagarahole National Park, in the 1970s. Those high densities have now been maintained for 30 years, the authors wrote, pointing to similar success stories with the African rhinoceros. Alan Rabinowitz, president of Panthera, said focusing on breeding grounds is "absolutely necessary right now if we are to save tigers in the wild." But he stressed that in the long-term, it is important that tigers be able to move in surrounding landscapes to maintain genetic and demographic viability. "Otherwise we are boxing ourselves into a corner that would allow only for contained, managed populations."

Michael Baltzer, leader of the WWF Tiger Network Initiative and independent of the study, agreed, saying conservationists need to be careful not to create "wild zoos." Some money needs to go toward key surrounding habitats, like movement corridors, before the land is swallowed up by palm oil plantations, illegal loggers or roads, he said. Others noted there are several tiger populations not mentioned in the study that have a good chance for recovery - such as in Bangladesh and Thailand - and can't wait for help.

One of the criticisms about recent tiger conservation efforts is that they extend well beyond protected areas, managing ecosystems and working with local communities to help tiger and human populations coexist. Debbie Martyr, who set up an anti-poaching unit on Indonesia's island of Sumatra, said much can be achieved by protecting key tiger habitats. She also was not tied to the study. If the government is determined to help protect such areas and crack down on poachers there could be a significant increase in tiger numbers, she said. "In fact, I'm going to stick my neck out a little here, but I'd say in 10 years time, there could be more tigers on Sumatra (around 300 today) than in India (1,400)."

Walston J, Robinson JG, Bennett EL, Breitenmoser U, da Fonseca GAB, et al. (2010) Bringing the Tiger Back from the Brink—The Six Percent Solution. PLoS Biol 8(9): e1000485. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000485

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Op-ed: Your role in wildlife crime

I think this Op-ed raises some interesting points, but I disagree with Dr. Duffy's assertion that conservation organisations are "getting it wrong". She states:
"By focusing on front-line problems such as anti-poaching patrols and enforcing park boundaries, conservation organisations ignore important global dynamics that drive species to extinction."
That might have been true 10-20 years ago, but I think the major conservation NGOs are making huge gains with their public awareness campaigns in developed nations as well as influencing local and international governments. Maybe what we hear about are their anti-poaching campaigns because it's just more difficult to talk about the tedious processes of making change at the governmental level. I really do feel that the major conservation NGOs have been pursuing a holistic approach to wildlife crime and that THAT is what is needed. Nevertheless Dr. Duffy's call for us to investigate our own behaviours as they relate to the illegal wildlife trade are important which is why I'm posting this piece.-MA

From New Scientist

The illicit wildlife trade is intimately linked to wealth and organised crime. Conservation groups should target consumers, says Rosaleen Duffy

WHEN 23 people drowned picking cockles on Morecambe bay, UK, in February 2004, it gave us a grim insight into the murky and frightening world of people trafficking.

The cockle pickers had been smuggled into the UK from the Fujian province in China by transnational criminal networks and used as cheap labour to extract lucrative shellfish from the sands. They were working at night in dangerous conditions, paid just £5 per sack of cockles while their gangmaster Lin Liang Ren received three times as much from the seafood companies at the shoreline. The people who died had hoped that two or three years working in the UK would provide a better life for their families back home. How wrong they were. The case shocked the world.

As well as highlighting the practice of people trafficking, the tragedy also revealed some stark realities about the international wildlife trade - how it is driven by wealth not poverty, and how it is inextricably linked with organised crime.

The words "wildlife trade" conjure up images of rhino horn, tiger parts, bushmeat and ivory being poached and smuggled in distant and poverty-stricken parts of the world. We tend to blame such trading on poorer communities, either because they are greedy and don't care about wildlife or so poverty-stricken that they have no choice.

In reality, we are all participants in the wildlife trade. Wealthy consumers use wildlife for food, medicine, fashion, pets and furniture, and this is largely what drives the legal and illegal trades in shellfish, meat, leather, live animals, skins and bones.

Wildlife is big business. TRAFFIC International, a wildlife trade monitoring network based in Cambridge, UK, estimates that the legal wildlife trade is worth around $160 billion a year and the illegal side between $10 and $20 billion - the second-largest illicit market in the world after drugs. Some species, including tigers, sturgeon, elephants and rhinos, have been heavily affected.

Much of the global wildlife trade is governed by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Although CITES came into force in 1977, it has had a hard time bringing the trade under control. Understanding why is crucial. Blaming poorer people for poaching or illegal fishing fails to identify the real reasons for the problem.

The most important of these is wealth. Without demand from rich countries, poorer people would not engage in poaching, smuggling and trading. The international trade in cockles and other shellfish is a good example. It is driven by demand from wealthy consumers, which is partly met via illegal fishing or - as in the case of Morecambe bay - the use of trafficked workers.

Similarly, if elephants are poached for ivory, who is it for? If mining minerals for mobile phones threatens mountain gorillas, who is buying the minerals?

The second reason is the involvement of organised crime, attracted by the lure of high profits and a relatively low risk of being caught.

The global trade in caviar is a good example of this. In 2003, the UK's Metropolitan Police raided three shops on Kensington High Street in London, confiscating 200 tins of illegal caviar smuggled in from the Caspian Sea by the Russian mafia. The involvement of such networks, which are mobile, flexible and able to avoid detection, makes it extremely difficult to enforce international laws. CITES is supposed to provide strict controls on caviar, but in 2001 the illegal catch was 10 times the legal amount.

It was the same story for ivory in the 1980s, when poaching devastated elephant populations across sub-Saharan Africa. Elephant numbers plummeted from 1.3 million to just 600,000 in a decade. The legal and illegal trade in ivory was highly lucrative, so it attracted the attentions of organised criminal networks that moved the ivory from Africa to consumers in Asia, Europe and North America.

Wildlife trafficking is usually afforded a low priority by governments, which are keener on using police and customs to tackle drug smuggling or people trafficking. This makes it very attractive to organised crime.

The illegal wildlife trade is now inextricably linked to other forms of criminality. The networks that move ivory, tiger skins, caviar and shellfish to consumer markets are not wildlife specialists. The same techniques and routes used to traffic wildlife are also used to traffic drugs, people, weapons and stolen cars.
The same techniques and routes used to traffic wildlife are also used to traffic drugs and people

Organisations such as Interpol and the UK National Wildlife Crime Unit are well aware of these complex connections. Yet conservation organisations rarely target such networks in their campaigns, even though they are known to be a critically important part of the problem.

Instead, they continue to tell us that people poach and smuggle because they are poor, reinforcing the stereotype that local people are the problem and that poverty drives wildlife to extinction. By focusing on front-line problems such as anti-poaching patrols and enforcing park boundaries, conservation organisations ignore important global dynamics that drive species to extinction.

Consumer behaviour can be changed - the collapse in the ivory trade in Europe and North America since the late 1980s shows it can be done. By highlighting how global consumer culture connects all of us to the wildlife trade and organised crime, conservation organisations could make similar gains elsewhere. Instead of blaming poor people, they should tackle the problems in their own backyards.

Rosaleen Duffy is professor of international politics at the University of Manchester, UK, and author of Nature Crime: How we're getting conservation wrong (Yale University Press, 2010)

Hybridization is a normal part of speciation (and so freakin' cool!)

I ♥ hybridization. Thanks to Vanessa Van D for the link! -MA

from the

Hybrids May Thrive Where Parents Fear to Tread

On May 15, 1985, trainers at Hawaii Sea Life Park were stunned when a 400- pound gray female bottlenose dolphin named Punahele gave birth to a dark-skinned calf that partly resembled the 2,000-pound male false killer whale with whom she shared a pool. The calf was a wholphin, a hybrid that was intermediate to its parents in some characteristics, like having 66 teeth compared with the bottlenose’s 44 and the 88 of the false killer whale, a much larger member of the dolphin family.

In 2006, a hunter in the Canadian Arctic shot a bear that had white fur like a polar bear’s but had brown patches, long claws and a hump like a grizzly bear’s. DNA analysis confirmed the animal was a hybrid of the two species.

While one might think that these oddities are examples of some kind of moral breakdown in the animal kingdom, it turns out that hybridization among distinct species is not so rare. Some biologists estimate that as many as 10 percent of animal species and up to 25 percent of plant species may occasionally breed with another species. The more important issue is not whether such liaisons occasionally produce offspring, but the vitality of the hybrid and whether two species might combine to give rise to a third, distinct species.

While several examples of human-bred animal hybrids are well known and can thrive in captivity including zorses (zebra-horse), beefalo (bison-beef cattle) and, of course, mules (donkey-horse), naturally occurring animal hybrids have many factors working against their longer-term success.

One of the main obstacles is that, even if members of different species might mate, when the two species are too distant genetically or carry different numbers of chromosomes, the offspring are usually inviable or infertile (like zorses and mules), and are therefore evolutionary dead ends. A second problem is that any hybrid will usually be vastly outnumbered and outcompeted by one or both parent species.

But because species hybrids create new combinations of genes, it is possible that some combinations might enable hybrids to adapt to conditions in which neither parent may fare as well. Several such examples are now known from nature. Furthermore, DNA analysis is now allowing biologists to better decipher the histories of species and to detect past hybridization events that have contributed new genes and capabilities to various kinds of organisms including, it now appears, ourselves.

The familiar sunflower has provided great examples of adaptation by hybrids. Loren H. Rieseberg of the University of British Columbia and colleagues have found that two widespread species, the common sunflower and prairie sunflower, have combined at least three times to give rise to three hybrid species: the sand sunflower, the desert sunflower, and the puzzle sunflower.

The parental species thrive on moist soils in the central and Western states, but the hybrids are restricted to more extreme habitats. The sand sunflower, for instance, is limited to sand dunes in Utah and northern Arizona and the puzzle sunflower to brackish salt marshes in West Texas and New Mexico.

The species distributions suggest that the hybrids thrive where the parents cannot. Indeed, recent field tests that examined the relative ability of the parental species to thrive in the hybrids’ habitat, and vice versa, found that the sand sunflower was better able than its parents to germinate, grow and survive in its dune habitat but fared relatively poorly in parental habitats. Similarly, the puzzle sunflower was much better at growing in salty conditions than its parents.

One lesson from the sunflowers appears to be that hybrids may succeed if they can exploit a different niche from their parents. The same phenomenon has been discovered in animal hybrids.

In the past 250 years, various forms of honeysuckle have been introduced to the Northeastern states. In the late 1990s, researchers led by Bruce McPheron of Pennsylvania State University discovered that this invasive honeysuckle was infested by a particular fruit fly species they called the Lonicera fly. When they analyzed DNA to determine its relationship to others, they were stunned to find that it was a hybrid of two closely related flies, the blueberry maggot and the snowberry maggot.

In laboratory experiments, the researchers found that the Lonicera hybrid preferred its honeysuckle host plant over its parent species’ host plants and that each parent species preferred its own host plant over the other’s. However, both parents also accepted honeysuckle. The researchers suggest that since the two parental species were thus more likely to encounter each other on honeysuckle in the wild, the newly invasive weed served as a catalyst for matings between the species and the formation of the hybrid species that now prefers honeysuckle.

The sunflower and Lonicera fly examples raise the question of whether hybridization between species has been more frequent than biologists once assumed. The most provocative report of possible hybridization came from the recent analysis of more than 60 percent of the Neanderthal genome sequence, which raised the specter of our ancestors commingling their genes with a long-diverged cousin.

Analyses of the overall genetic distance between Neanderthals and modern humans reveal that our DNA is 99.84 percent identical to that of Neanderthals. This small divergence indicates that the two lines split off from each other about 270,000 to 440,000 years ago. The fossil evidence shows that Neanderthals were restricted to Europe and Asia, whereas Homo sapiens originated in Africa. Various kinds of evidence indicate that modern humans migrated out of Africa and reached the Middle East more than 100,000 years ago and Europe by about 45,000 years ago, and would have or could have encountered Neanderthals for some time in each locale. The crucial question for paleontology, archaeology, and paleogenetics has been what transpired between the two species. To put it a little more crudely, did we date them or kill them, or perhaps both?

If the former, then there could be a bit of Neanderthal in some or all of us. The first comparisons of small sections of Neanderthal DNA did not indicate any hybridization, and the lack of interbreeding became a widely accepted conclusion. That remained the case until this year, when a much greater portion of the Neanderthal genome was obtained by Svante Paabo and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. It now appears that 1 percent to 4 percent of the DNA sequence of Europeans and Asians, but not Africans, was contributed by Neanderthals mixing with Homo sapiens, perhaps in the Middle East 50,000 to 80,000 years ago. It is possible that some Neanderthal versions of genes enabled modern humans to adapt to new climates and habitats.

The discovery of hybrid species and the detection of past hybridizations are forcing biologists to reshape their picture of species as independent units. The barriers between species are not necessarily vast, unbridgeable chasms; sometimes they get crossed with marvelous results.

Sean B. Carroll is a molecular biologist and geneticist at the University of Wisconsin.

Primate conservation field course in Udzungwa Mountains, Tanzania (July-August 2011)

There is a really great primate conservation field school for undergrads and new grad students being held in Tanzania in 2011. Dr. Nelson Ting (a friend and colleague of mine) will be teaching it and I can guarantee you it will be one of the best courses you ever take! Not only is he extremely entertaining, he also has tons of field and laboratory experience so you will leave the course having been taught by a master AND its in Tanzania! Go the flyer for more information. -MA

Program Description
This course will focus on the issues facing the conservation of primates in disturbed and threatened habitats, including an examination of complex human-wildlife conflicts that arise between primate habitats and neighboring human settlements (e.g.,deforestation and hunting). Students will observe numerous primate species including yellow baboons, Sykes monkeys, black and white colobus, as well as the Endangered Sanje mangabey and Iringa red colobus, which are found only in the Udzungwa Mountains of Tanzania. Throughout the course, students will learn basic conservation biology theory as well as methods for primate observation and ecological data collection.

This four-week program will run from mid-July to mid-August. Please check the webpage in Spring 2011 for exact dates.

For lots more information check out the flyer HERE


Nelson Ting
Program Director
Department of Anthropology

TREE Field Studies:


Sunday, September 12, 2010

Zombie-fying parasites

Ever since reading about Toxoplasma gondii in the book Monkeyluv I have been interested in zombie-fying parasites, they are cooler and more twisted then anything the film industry has come up with. Here is what T. gondii does (from the paper Fatal attraction in rats infected with Toxoplasma gondii (Berdoy et al 2000):
"although rats have evolved anti-predator avoidance of areas with signs of cat presence, T. gondii's manipulation appears to alter the rat's perception of cat predation risk, in some cases turning their innate aversion into an imprudent attraction. The selectivity of such behavioural changes suggests that this ubiquitous parasite subtly alters the brain of its intermediate host to enhance predation rate whilst leaving other behavioural categories and general health intact. This is in contrast to the gross impediments frequently characteristic of many other host parasite systems." came out with a list of the Top 10 Zombie parasites. Sadly, Toxoplasma gondii didn't make the list but the Lancet fluke is almost as incredible:
"Another one that messes with ants, the adult lancet fluke inhabits the body of a cow, releasing its eggs into the host’s feces. Snails, who happen to enjoy a nice hot cow pie, end up eating the eggs and getting infested with worm larvae. The snails react to the larvae by spitting them back out in big balls of slime, and these wormy slimeballs smell incredibly delicious to passing ants. Once eaten by an ant, the worm waits until nightfall – when it’s nice and cool – and forces the ant to climb a blade of grass, bite down on the tip, and raise its butt into the air. This is the perfect position to get swallowed by another cow, and if the ant doesn’t get swallowed? The worm releases control in the morning, allows the ant to live a normal day of anthood, and repeats the whole process night after night. It’s just like a vampire, if vampires awoke every night trying to get eaten by cows, so actually nothing like a vampire. Nevermind."
Go to the Top 10 Zombie parasites at to read the rest of the list

David Attenborough: naturalist, broadcaster, comedian.

You have to listen to the audio of David Attenborough and Richard Dawkins chatting, Sir Attenborough does, what i can only hope is, a dead-on imitation of 100-year old Ernst Mayr. The audio is here: David Attenborough and Richard Dawkins . Thanks to Dieter L for the link-MA

From the guardian
Of mind and matter: David Attenborough meets Richard Dawkins
We paired up Britain's most celebrated scientists to chat about the big issues: the unity of life, ethics, energy, Handel – and the joy of riding a snowmobile

Op-ed: Chimp tests don't help advance human medicine

A really great and succinct op-ed piece about why chimpanzee research is quite simply useless and wasteful. Thanks to Jen F for the link! -MA

Chimp tests don't help advance human medicine

From Alamogordo Daily News
Daily News Letter to the editor
John Pippin, Dallas, Texas

As a physician, educator and former animal researcher, I know that moving more chimpanzees into laboratory cages will not help advance human medicine.

Chimpanzees share 98 percent of our genes, but millions of immutable differences in genetic structure and expression make these human cousins scientifically unsuitable for the study and treatment of human diseases.

The director of the Southwest National Primate Research Center that hopes to receive the Alamogordo chimpanzees touts the importance of chimpanzees in research regarding hepatitis C, HIV-AIDS, monoclonal antibodies and cancer. It is compelling that these are all areas of dismal failure for chimpanzee research.

After decades of chimpanzee experiments, there still is no hepatitis C vaccine. All of the 200 human trials of HIV-AIDS vaccines have failed. The TGN1412 monoclonal antibody that was safe and effective in primates nearly killed all human volunteers tested. And chimpanzees are rarely used for cancer research because the results are unreliable.

There are also better ways to do this research. Hepatitis B vaccines have been produced in human cultures for many years, and this is an active area for hepatitis C research. The best work being done on HIV-AIDS vaccines involves so-called "elite controllers," patients who are resistant to HIV. Safer monoclonal antibodies are routinely developed using human cultures instead of animals.

The United States is the only industrialized nation that still conducts invasive chimpanzee experiments. We must urge NIH not to make the Alamogordo chimpanzees more fodder for scientifically and ethically flawed experiments. NIH should instead focus on modern, ethical research that offers the most hope for human medicine.

For more on the Alamogordo reserach chimpanzees go to "200 chimps are being put back in US lab testing - here's how you can help!"

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Elephant poaching in Semliki Wildlife Reserve, Uganda...

From New Vision Online via the Far Horizons Facebook Page
Elephants killed in Semliki wildlife reserve

Two elephants have been killed in Toro-Semliki wildlife reserve in western Uganda by poachers who crossed over from the Congo.

Sources said one of the poachers was intercepted with elephant ivory and was being held by the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces. The sources added that the elephants were butchered on Wednesday and the carcasses were discovered the following day.

“It is unusual for poachers to cross over from the DR Congo and kill endangered species undetected,” the source said. In a separate interview, John Makombo, the acting head of the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), said the poacher who is being held is a Ugandan from Ntoroko and not a Congolese.

“UWA is working with security operatives to identify the ownership of the gun recovered from the poacher,” he said. “It is possible that he was working for someone from Congo which has a porous border. Many poachers prefer working in Congo and use Uganda as a trafficking route.”

He also said UWA will share information with a watchdog called the Monitoring of the Illegal Killing of Elephants and the Lusaka Task Agreement Force, which polices wildlife crime. Uganda has 5,000 elephants and the number is increasing after the population had slumped in the 1970s due to political and civil unrest.

Poachers killed a lot of wildlife including elephants, which are key tourist attractions. The black and white rhinos were driven into extinction.

Elephants are categorised as endangered species, according to the World Conservation Union, meaning that they are likely to disappear if nothing is done to protect them and their habitats. Locally, a kilo of ivory goes for sh120,000 [~ $50 US dollars]. The value in the Far East is about $600.

Although last week’s incident is the first case of killing elephants in Semliki, elephants in Queen Elizabeth National Park cross over to Congo.

“This is an ecological system and that is why Uganda and the DR Congo collaborate in managing the animals,” said Okello Obongo, the chief park warden.

“Large mammals do not know boundaries and the most important thing is to protect them irrespective of where they are,” said Obongo.

The Far Horizons posted the following statement today:
"We condemn the recent poaching of elephants in Semiliki Valley Wildlife Reserve, and support the quick action taken by Uganda's armed forces to apprehend the poachers and recover the ivory. Poaching in East Africa has seen a sharp increase in the last two years and we will be looking to support efforts to counter the l...ooming threat posed by the influx of so called "investors" that are fuelling the trade."

Thursday, September 9, 2010

New David Suzuki movie: "Force of Nature"

There is a new biopic on David Suzuki coming out called "Force of Nature". Dr. Suzuki is an icon in Canada. Biologist and environmental activist, I and many others, grew up on his program "the Nature of Things". I don't get the feeling that he is so well known outside of Canada, but he should be, he is passionate, entertaining and knowledgeable and just keeps getting better every time I hear him speak. -MA

Via the WWF Canada facebook page

Previous Dr. David Suzuki posts:

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Attention Men: Scientists identify moves that make men irresistible on the dancefloor

From the
Psychologists have used avatars to pinpoint the killer moves that can make men great dancers

The enduring mystery of why men rarely flatter themselves when they take to the dancefloor may finally have been solved. A team of psychologists used video footage of men strutting their stuff to pinpoint the killer moves that separate good dancers from bad. Men who were judged to be good dancers had a varied repertoire and more moves that involved tilting and twisting the torso and neck.

But the majority of men displayed highly repetitive moves that used their arms and legs, but not the rest of their bodies. "It's rare that someone is described as a good dancer if they are flinging their arms about but not much else," said Nick Neave, a psychologist at the University of Northumbria, who led the study.

"Think about a head banger. Their head movement has a large amplitude, but it's not changing direction or showing any kind of variability. That's a bad dancer. Or someone who is just twisting and turning left and right? That's a bad dancer too."

While features such as body shape and facial symmetry are well known indicators of healthy development, a person's dance moves may send out more subtle clues about their potential as a mate, Neave said.

Neave's team recruited 19 male volunteers aged between 18 and 35 and asked them to dance to a simple drum beat in front of a video camera for 30 seconds. To capture the dance moves, 38 infra-red reflectors were attached to their clothing. These produce bright spots that allow the movement of every limb and joint to be tracked and studied in detail. The researchers used software to transfer each man's dance routine to an avatar on a computer screen. This ensured that the judges ranked the dancers according to their moves and not their height, looks or other physical features.

The dancers were judged by 37 straight women, also aged 18 to 35, who watched the avatar perform 15 seconds of each man's routine before ranking them on a scale of one to seven, where one was very bad dancing.

"The head, neck and upper body come out as the key features that are important for good dancing and that surprised us," said Neave, whose study is published in the journal Biology Letters. "When you see brilliant dancers, you'll see their bodies, heads and necks are all doing ever so slightly different things in time to the music."

Will Brown, a psychologist at the University of East London, said more work was needed to disentangle why dancing is attractive and its biological significance. "When you have so much movement data from a relatively small sample of dancers, you might get chance associations between certain moves and dance attractiveness," he said. "Flexing the trunk while dancing may be attractive, but we need to show it is indicative of a better quality male using an independent measure of biological quality."

Neave said his group is working through the results of blood tests on the men, which appear to show that the better dancers are healthier.

Selected: Why some lead, others follow and why it matters

New Scientist also has a write up on the book "The natural selection of leaders"

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Enviro Music: Playlist for the planet

check out a nice long list of environmentally themed songs from all genres of music at CBC radio 3's Playlist for the Planet. You have to be logged in to vote, but not to listen to them all. I would love to link to ANY of the great songs, but all the songs are by up and coming artists and there is nothing on them except myspace pages and the CBC link - so its up to you to explore a bit, I promise, very pretty and powerful music :)

Thanks to Naim M for the link! Naim's pick is David Myles' "I don't wanna know":

TED talk: Costa Rica FTW!!! The Happy Planet Index: Why good lives don't have to cost the earth

My favorite line from this talk is:

"I have a dream, that the future doesn't have to be a nightmare"

(If you find this getting a bit dry at first, just fast forward to the 7:30 mark thats when it gets GREAT!) -MA

Statistician Nic Marks asks why we measure a nation's success by its productivity -- instead of by the happiness and well-being of its people. He introduces the Happy Planet Index, which tracks national well-being against resource use (because a happy life doesn't have to cost the earth). Which countries rank highest in the HPI? You might be surprised.

Research that NEEDS to be repeated in humans: Flies can forgo sleep when starved!

I hate sleep, I wish I didn't have to do it. I feel bad for these flies, so let's just jump straight to human testing, i totally volunteer! Thanks to Nathalie M for the link!-MA

From the
Hungry flies ok with less sleep

There may be certain conditions under which animals can forgo sleep without serious consequences, even though scientists have considered it an activity that is absolutely indispensible, new research suggests.

When flies are starved, they are able to stay awake for long periods of time without suffering the negative outcomes of sleep deprivation, including cognitive impairment, according to a study published online today (August 31) in PLoS Biology.

The paper demonstrates "that in Drosophila, when there isn't food in the environment, they're able to increase waking time without any of the deleterious effects of sleep loss," said neuroscientist Jerry Siegel of the Center for Sleep Research at the University of California, Los Angeles, who did not participate in the study.

There seems to be "this ability to reduce sleep when it's adaptive for the animals to do that," Siegel added. "If there's food available and it can be found by exerting greater effort, then it's highly adaptive for them to suppress sleep."

By and large, sleep appears to be a necessary part of life, and sleep deprivation can lead to serious impairments in cognitive function and even death. But under certain conditions, the amount of sleep an animal needs appear to vary. Starvation, for example, is known to be arousing, with starved animals being more active and sleeping less, but until now, no one could say why.

Recently neuroscientist Paul Shaw of the Washington University School of Medicine noticed that in addition to staying awake more, starved flies were also less susceptible to the effects of sleep deprivation. They didn't, for example, sleep more after they ate to make up for the sleep they lost while hungry.

Comparing starved flies to flies that were forced to be awake for similar amounts of time by a brief physical jolt every 10 seconds, Shaw and his colleagues found that starved flies didn't seem to get sleepy or suffer the same cognitive impairments as normal sleep-deprived flies.

Furthermore, they used flies that lacked a functional copy of the canonical clock gene cycle, making them extremely sensitive to sleep loss, even dying within just 10 hours of being deprived of sleep. When these flies were starved, however, they survived nearly three times as long.

Indeed, parallels in vertebrates point to another interesting case of sleep deprivation, Siegel said -- that of migrating birds and marine mammals. Some whale species "reduce sleep for long periods of time, for a month or more, well beyond the duration of sleep loss that's lethal [experimentally], and yet these animals are quite active and responsive," he said. "So what we have assumed in the past -- that there's a fixed need for sleep and the more you get the better -- may be the wrong way of looking at sleep."

As for what mechanism may underlie these unexpected effects of starvation, the team suspected that metabolism genes may play a role. Along with the fact that starvation keeps flies awake and alert, sleep deficits in another species -- humans -- can lead to an increased risk of the metabolic disorders obesity and diabetes, as well as coronary disease.

Sure enough, mutations in fat metabolism genes appeared to affect flies' ability to withstand the effects of sleep loss. Brummer (bmm) flies, which are fat and resistant to starvation, were particularly affected by sleep loss, sleeping more afterwards to make up for the loss and showing greater signs of cognitive impairment. Lipid storage droplet 2 (Lsd2) flies, on the other hand, are lean and were able to stay awake without showing signs of sleepiness or cognitive decline.

"Our hypothesis is that fats themselves play a role in regulating sleep," Shaw said. They are, after all, signaling molecules, he said, and it's possible "that lipids themselves are somehow signaling to the brain that you should be sleepy or are initiating cascades that either result in impairment or can protect you from impairment."

While these results are currently limited to flies, the authors are "providing a blueprint for how we can potentially counteract the effects of sleep deprivation in humans," agreed endocrinologist and fat cell biologist Perry Bickel of the University of Texas Health Science Center, who was not involved in the research. Indeed, mice knockouts of the mammalian homologs of both bmm and Lsd2 already exist, he said. "That will get us that much closer to understanding what's going on in humans."

Thimgan MS, Suzuki Y, Seugnet L, Laura Gottschalk L, Shaw PJ (2010)The perilipin homologue, lipid storage droplet 2, regulates sleep homeostasis and prevents learning impairments following sleep loss PLoS Biology, 8: e1000466


Extended periods of waking result in physiological impairments in humans, rats, and flies. Sleep homeostasis, the increase in sleep observed following sleep loss, is believed to counter the negative effects of prolonged waking by restoring vital biological processes that are degraded during sleep deprivation. Sleep homeostasis, as with other behaviors, is influenced by both genes and environment. We report here that during periods of starvation, flies remain spontaneously awake but, in contrast to sleep deprivation, do not accrue any of the negative consequences of prolonged waking. Specifically, the homeostatic response and learning impairments that are a characteristic of sleep loss are not observed following prolonged waking induced by starvation. Recently, two genes, brummer (bmm) and Lipid storage droplet 2 (Lsd2), have been shown to modulate the response to starvation. bmm mutants have excess fat and are resistant to starvation, whereas Lsd2 mutants are lean and sensitive to starvation. Thus, we hypothesized that bmm and Lsd2 may play a role in sleep regulation. Indeed, bmm mutant flies display a large homeostatic response following sleep deprivation. In contrast, Lsd2 mutant flies, which phenocopy aspects of starvation as measured by low triglyceride stores, do not exhibit a homeostatic response following sleep loss. Importantly, Lsd2 mutant flies are not learning impaired after sleep deprivation. These results provide the first genetic evidence, to our knowledge, that lipid metabolism plays an important role in regulating the homeostatic response and can protect against neuronal impairments induced by prolonged waking.

Author Summary:

It is well established in humans that sleep deficits lead to adverse outcomes, including cognitive impairments and an increased risk for obesity. Given the relationship between sleep and lipid stores, we hypothesized that metabolic pathways play a role in sleep regulation and contribute to deficits induced by sleep loss. Since starvation has a large impact on metabolic pathways and is an environmental condition that is encountered by animals living in the wild, we examined its effects on sleep in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. Interestingly, when flies are starved they display an immediate increase in waking. However, in contrast to sleep deprivation, waking induced by starvation does not result in increased sleepiness or impairments in short-term memory. To identify the mechanisms underlying these processes, we evaluated mutants for genes that have been shown to alter an animal's response to starvation. Interestingly, brummer mutants, which are fat, show an exaggerated response to sleep loss. In contrast, mutants for Lipid storage droplet 2 are lean and are able to stay awake without becoming sleepy or showing signs of cognitive impairment. These results indicate that while sleep loss can alter lipids, lipid enzymes may, in turn, play a role in regulating sleep and influence the response to sleep deprivation.