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'

Saturday, October 30, 2010


its my favorite day of the year!!! this post is sorta unrelated, but its funny and I will just file it under "society" -MA

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Worst Science Jobs 2010

As a side note - I am a shit-stirrer by trade, and its really not that bad ;P and the last job seems awesome! To see a list from 2009 - check out this old post -MA

Fart collecting and testicle mashing: The grossest jobs in science

Fart collecting and testicle mashing: The grossest jobs in science Considering a career in science? You know, all those clean labs and shiny white coats? Well consider this: A lot of science jobs are more disgusting than all the Saw movies put together. We round up seven of the grossest.

Beetle testicle crusher
Do the size of your balls help you find a mate? To answer this burning question, a group of researchers in Japan set out to study whether big-balled beetles scored more with the ladies than small-balled beetles. To do this, I'm afraid, they sacrificed a lot of beetle balls. And to measure their size and volume, they had to grind up their little sacs and measure the volume of each one. The good news is that you don't need big balls to enjoy reproductive success in the beetle world. The bad news is that there are some really sad beetles limping around the lab right now.

Corpse grinder
Sometimes forensic scientists have to analyze corpses after they've been buried. In cases where they are trying to identify the person buried, or do toxicology studies (to see if the person may have been poisoned, for example), they need to get samples of the dead person's DNA. So they exhume the body, take chunks of bone or tissue, grind it up, filter out the DNA, and sequence as much of it as they need to for their research. It's just like that famous cult movie Corpse Grinders, except without the cat food thing.

Whale snot collector
One of this year's IgNobel Prizes for weird science went to three biologists who spent so much time collecting whale snot (to study disease patterns) that they actually invented a special remote-controlled helicopter to scoop up the goo for them. Not only do these brave researchers spend their days sifting through giant whale boogers, but now they have a robot slave to help out. Extra points for evil minionage!
Many studies have been done on the microbes that live in animal guts, from mice to humans. Before scientists get to play around with their fancy DNA sequencers, somebody has to collect what once research team delicately referred to as "freshly voided fecal matter." And then they have to put that steaming poop into a special solution and shake it up. That's right - in labs all over the world, there are genomics and proteomics researchers who are shaking up giant bottles full of poop.

Bacteria chaser
Although bacteria may be the most awesomely adaptable creatures on the planet, they aren't exactly easy on the nose. In fact, scientists who study extremophiles - microbes that live in highly acidic areas, or in regions of intense heat or cold - often have to gather their samples in areas that smell hideous and are intensely hot. It's a stinky job, but somebody has to do it.

Fart statistician
How do you know when you fart too much? Because gastroenterologists have studied human fart production, figured out what the average number of daily farts should be, and determined that levels above that might indicate a medical problem. All hail the fart counters, who are keeping our gastrointestinal tracts healthy. And because I know you want to know: The mean number of farts in humans is "13.6 episodes per day," according to one expert.

Drunken hookup data analyst
Is it true that people look more attractive after you've tossed back a couple of drinks? To find out, a group of long-suffering researchers had to ask drunk people in bars who they would hit. These social scientists endured the real-life version of reading comment threads on YouTube, and discovered - not surprisingly - that people get more attractive the more obnoxiously wasted you get.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


From the Daily Mash
Thanks to Amanda S for the link!

BEAVERS are to be renamed 'riverdogs' after zoologists finally conceded defeat to the overwhelming forces of sexual innuendo.

The move comes after conservationists admitted that vital research was being hampered by email spam filters which prevent the exchange of information on species such as the dik-dik, the blue tit and the cock-eared fuckmonkey.

Professor Nikki Hollis, a beaver, tit and cock specialist at Reading University, said: "In a world retarded by the proliferation of free internet pornography and the children's magazine Nuts, it is no longer viable for any species to have a name that is transferrable to the male or female genital parts."

She added: "Last week I addressed a conference in Geneva on the threats posed by global warming to the natural habitats of the beaver, the booby and the shag.

"I then faced a series of what I strongly believe were non-zoological questions, such as 'aren't beavers supposed to be wet?' and 'are the hairiest beavers more waterproof?'"

Wildlife bodies have now agreed that tits should be renamed 'skylings', thrushes will become 'horse sparrows' and all varieties of cock bird shall henceforth be known simply as 'Ian'.

But Professor Henry Brubaker, of the Institute for Studies, warned: "In terms of stimulating students' interest in the natural world, we believe it would be beneficial if more animals had names that were not only sexually suggestive, but overtly obscene.

"Would teenagers not be more receptive to the plight of the Asiatic fox if it were called the red spunker? Would the orangutan not have more charitable sponsors if it were called the fannydongball?"

He added: "Professor Hollis may be very worried about her tits, but I think they're stunning."

*updated* New monkey with a hairdo discovered in Myanmar

With no photos yet of a living Myanmar snub-nosed monkey, this image was reconstructed using Photoshop, based on a Yunnan snub-nosed monkey and the carcass of the newly discovered species, the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey. Image by: Dr. Thomas Geissmann.

new monkey discovered in Myanmar

Hunters' reports have led scientists to discover a new species of monkey in the northern forests of Myanmar. Discovered by biologists from the Myanmar Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association with support from primatologists with Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and the People Resources and Biodiversity Foundation, the strange looking primate is a member of the snub-nosed monkey family, adding a fifth member to this unmistakably odd-looking group of Asian primates. However, the species survives in only a small single population, threatened by Chinese logging and hunting.

Described in the American Journal of Primatology, the new monkey, dubbed the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopithecus strykeri), was only discovered after researchers heard reports from hunters of a strange monkey with upturned nostrils and prominent lips. It is known locally as mey nwoah,or 'monkey with an upturned face'.

Locals have an easy time finding the species, since, according to them, it sneezes whenever it rains. Rainwater collects on the monkey's upturned noses causing them to sneeze. To combat this, the monkeys spend their rainy days with heads tucked between legs.

The new primate is especially notable for being the only snub-nosed monkey known in Myanmar. The other four snub-nosed monkey species are found in parts of China and Vietnam.

Frank Momberg, FFI’s Regional Program Development Coordinator in the Asia Pacific and co-author of the paper, told that this new species proves "snub-nosed monkeys must have had a much largest distribution in China and adjacent areas in the past," adding that "[the new species] is most closely related to the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey. However, the two species are morphologically very distinct and are now separated by two major species barriers, the Salween and the Mekong River."

Researchers believe only 260-330 individuals survive of the new species, which would rank it as Critically Endangered according to IUCN Red List standards. Unfortunately, the new species faces a large variety of threats.

"Snub-nosed monkey get frequently trapped in traps laid out for bears. Local hunters also use shotguns. Until 8 years ago hunting was primarily for subsistence use only. Since Chinese logging roads are moving closer, hunting is now increasingly supplying bushmeat for local logging and dam construction camps, as well as feeding into the wildlife trade to China," Momberg says.

But overexploitation of the species isn't the only concern.

"By next year Chinese logging companies will have moved into the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey range, which will cause serious degradation of their habitat and increase hunting pressure," Momberg says.

Saving the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey will require quick work on many different issues, according to Momberg. First, the Chinese government must "crackdown on illegal Chinese logging in the area" and "step-up law enforcement of CITES regulations by Chinese customs officers to reduce trans-border illegal wildlife trade."

A protected area should be established in the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey's range, a recommendation already given by the China Power Investment Corporation, which is building a dam in Myanmar.

In addition, conservationists must work quickly with local people to minimize hunting and trapping, as well as provide income.

Momberg recommends that conservationists "develop a community-based conservation program for the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey range, involving all surrounding villagers in the conservation initiative. Employ local hunters as species guardians and provide alternative livelihoods for forest dependent communities."

The discovery of a new monkey in Myanmar proves just how little we know about the country's wildlife according to Momberg.

"There is plenty of more species to be discovered [in Myanmar], even mammal species. Myanmar is a priority country for biodiversity conservation with currently the second highest deforestation rate in Asia after Indonesia."

REFERENCE: Geissmann. T, Lwin. G, Aung. S, Naing Aung. T, Aung. Z M, Hla. T, Grindley. M, Momberg. F, “A new species of Snub-nosed monkey, Genus Rhinopithecus Milne-Edwards, 1872 (Primates, Colobianae), From Northern Kachin State, Northeastern Myanmar”, American Journal of Primatology, Wiley-Blackwell, October 2010, DOI: 10.1002/ajp.20894

here is an actual picture of the new species moments before it was eaten, from National Geographic

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Hippo saves infant wildebeast and zebra from drowning

From Africa Geographic
Two miracle rescues by a hippo

We believe this might be the first ever recorded rescue of a baby zebra and wildebeest by the same hippo on the Mara River close to Lemala Mara camp. Both were rescued within space of 10 minutes as they crossed over from the Lamai side. The photos and videos were captured by Michael Yule and other guests as they were watching a major wildebeest crossing at the time.

The hippo was watching as the wildebeest herd swam past. As soon as the calf jumped in, the hippo swam up to it and pushed it along all the way across until it had reached safety on the other side. It then went back and did the same for a zebra foal just minutes later.

The wildebeest and zebra are now moving down in large numbers from the Masai Mara across the Lamai plains and crossing the Mara River. Guests of Lemala Camp are witnessing crossings every day. Some of the herds have arrived north of Lobo.

From the 15th of November, Lemala Ndutu will be newly appointed with the larger styled tents. As this camp moves to the banks of the Mara River in the Northern Serengeti, the Mara Camp as from 1st of June 2011 will also have the new tents.

We still have space available at Lemala Mara and your guests might just witness the miracle rescues again. It appears the crossings will continue until end of October and possibly longer if there are showers and the wildebeest return to the Lamai and Kogatende areas.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

wtf: Croc escapes on board DRC plane, panic spreads, plane crashes.

Original post from Jeune Afrique (in french)
Crocodile on plane kills 19 passengers
(There is also video of the crash here)

A STOWAWAY crocodile on a flight escaped from its carrier bag and sparked an onboard stampede that caused the flight to crash, killing 19 passengers and crew. The croc had been hidden in a passenger's sports bag - allegedly with plans to sell it - but it tore loose and ran amok, sparking panic. A stampede of terrified passengers caused the small aircraft to lose balance and tip over in mid-air during an internal flight in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The unbalanced load caused the aircraft, on a routine flight from the capital, Kinshasa, to the regional airport at Bandundu, to go into a spin and crash into a house.

A lone survivor from the Let 410 plane told the astonishing tale to investigators.

Ironically the crocodile also survived the crash but was later killed with a machete by rescuers sifting through the wreckage.

British pilot Chris Wilson, 39, from Shurdington, near Cheltenham, Glocs was acting as the plane's first officer alongside Belgian pilot Danny Philemotte, 62, who was owner of the plane's operator Filair. The plane smashed into an empty house just a few hundred metres from its destination.

"According to the inquiry report and the testimony of the only survivor, the crash happened because of a panic sparked by the escape of a crocodile hidden in a sports bag,” news organisation Jeune Afrique reported.

"One of the passengers had hidden the animal, which he planned to sell, in a big sports bag, from which the reptile escaped as the plane began its descent into Bandundu."The terrified air hostess hurried towards the cockpit, followed by the passengers." The plane was then sent off-balance "despite the desperate efforts of the pilot", said the report. "The crocodile survived the crash before being cut up with a machete."

The plane was a Czech-made Let L-410 Turbolet, one of more than 1,100 produced as short-range transport aircraft and used mainly for passenger services.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

very cool new resource:

Check out this cool new UNEP/IUCN database, on the globe's protected areas, which is wiki based (but with fact checking) so you can update the database with information that you have on some of the more remote areas.

from their website:
Be inspired by the most beautiful places on the planet. Explore the worlds national parks, wilderness areas and world heritage sites. Help us find and improve information on every protected area in the world. lets you discover these incredible places through elegant mapping and intuitive searching. wants you to contribute information about protected areas alongside national agencies and international organisations. helps you understand what and where our natural resources are being conserved. If you are interested in analysing a global dataset on protected areas, you can download the data, today, here at

Monday, October 18, 2010

Hausergate gives ammo to pro-religion anti-science proponents

An interesting article by Dr. de Waal...must say I disagree with several points, especially that we need religion because it offers moral guidance and science cannot replace that. I think many of the "moral dilemas" out there are a total consequence of the weird rules of religion. Would we even care about homosexuality if it were not for religious dogma? We don't need science to provide moral answers as a replacement for religion, we would be better offer if we just could act as a society with its own evolutionarily built in consequences. Why should determining whether a course of action is "morally" right or wrong be any different then picking what to eat for lunch...somethings don't have right and wrong answers, but you can be sure that if you go around raping people, society will disaprove and treat you accordingly.
Also I think the part about altruism is weak but I like the discussion on empathy.
Most importantly though, I did not realize how much ammo "Hausergate" has given the anti-science pro-religion faction, and that really is too bad. -MA

From the NYTimes
Morals Without God?

I was born in Den Bosch, the city after which Hieronymus Bosch named himself. [1] This obviously does not make me an expert on the Dutch painter, but having grown up with his statue on the market square, I have always been fond of his imagery, his symbolism, and how it relates to humanity’s place in the universe. This remains relevant today since Bosch depicts a society under a waning influence of God.

His famous triptych with naked figures frolicking around — “The Garden of Earthly Delights” — seems a tribute to paradisiacal innocence. The tableau is far too happy and relaxed to fit the interpretation of depravity and sin advanced by puritan experts. It represents humanity free from guilt and shame either before the Fall or without any Fall at all. For a primatologist, like myself, the nudity, references to sex and fertility, the plentiful birds and fruits and the moving about in groups are thoroughly familiar and hardly require a religious or moral interpretation. Bosch seems to have depicted humanity in its natural state, while reserving his moralistic outlook for the right-hand panel of the triptych in which he punishes — not the frolickers from the middle panel — but monks, nuns, gluttons, gamblers, warriors, and drunkards.

Five centuries later, we remain embroiled in debates about the role of religion in society. As in Bosch’s days, the central theme is morality. Can we envision a world without God? Would this world be good? Don’t think for one moment that the current battle lines between biology and fundamentalist Christianity turn around evidence. One has to be pretty immune to data to doubt evolution, which is why books and documentaries aimed at convincing the skeptics are a waste of effort. They are helpful for those prepared to listen, but fail to reach their target audience. The debate is less about the truth than about how to handle it. For those who believe that morality comes straight from God the creator, acceptance of evolution would open a moral abyss.

Our Vaunted Frontal Lobe

Echoing this view, Reverend Al Sharpton opined in a recent videotaped debate: “If there is no order to the universe, and therefore some being, some force that ordered it, then who determines what is right or wrong? There is nothing immoral if there’s nothing in charge.” Similarly, I have heard people echo Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, exclaiming that “If there is no God, I am free to rape my neighbor!”

Perhaps it is just me, but I am wary of anyone whose belief system is the only thing standing between them and repulsive behavior. Why not assume that our humanity, including the self-control needed for livable societies, is built into us? Does anyone truly believe that our ancestors lacked social norms before they had religion? Did they never assist others in need, or complain about an unfair deal? Humans must have worried about the functioning of their communities well before the current religions arose, which is only a few thousand years ago. Not that religion is irrelevant — I will get to this — but it is an add-on rather than the wellspring of morality.

Deep down, creationists realize they will never win factual arguments with science. This is why they have construed their own science-like universe, known as Intelligent Design, and eagerly jump on every tidbit of information that seems to go their way. The most recent opportunity arose with the Hauser affair. A Harvard colleague, Marc Hauser, has been accused of eight counts of scientific misconduct, including making up his own data. Since Hauser studied primate behavior and wrote about morality, Christian Web sites were eager to claim that “all that people like Hauser are left with are unsubstantiated propositions that are contradicted by millennia of human experience” (Chuck Colson, Sept. 8, 2010). A major newspaper asked “Would it be such a bad thing if Hausergate resulted in some intellectual humility among the new scientists of morality?” (Eric Felten, Aug. 27, 2010). Even a linguist could not resist this occasion to reaffirm the gap between human and animal by warning against “naive evolutionary presuppositions.”

These are rearguard battles, however. Whether creationists jump on this scientific scandal or linguists and psychologists keep selling human exceptionalism does not really matter. Fraud has occurred in many fields of science, from epidemiology to physics, all of which are still around. In the field of cognition, the march towards continuity between human and animal has been inexorable — one misconduct case won’t make a difference. True, humanity never runs out of claims of what sets it apart, but it is a rare uniqueness claim that holds up for over a decade. This is why we don’t hear anymore that only humans make tools, imitate, think ahead, have culture, are self-aware, or adopt another’s point of view.

If we consider our species without letting ourselves be blinded by the technical advances of the last few millennia, we see a creature of flesh and blood with a brain that, albeit three times larger than a chimpanzee’s, doesn’t contain any new parts. Even our vaunted prefrontal cortex turns out to be of typical size: recent neuron-counting techniques classify the human brain as a linearly scaled-up monkey brain.[2] No one doubts the superiority of our intellect, but we have no basic wants or needs that are not also present in our close relatives. I interact on a daily basis with monkeys and apes, which just like us strive for power, enjoy sex, want security and affection, kill over territory, and value trust and cooperation. Yes, we use cell phones and fly airplanes, but our psychological make-up remains that of a social primate. Even the posturing and deal-making among the alpha males in Washington is nothing out of the ordinary.

The Pleasure of Giving

Charles Darwin was interested in how morality fits the human-animal continuum, proposing in “The Descent of Man”: “Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts … would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed … as in man.”

Unfortunately, modern popularizers have strayed from these insights. Like Robert Wright in “The Moral Animal,” they argue that true moral tendencies cannot exist — not in humans and even less in other animals — since nature is one hundred percent selfish. Morality is just a thin veneer over a cauldron of nasty tendencies. Dubbing this position “Veneer Theory” (similar to Peter Railton’s “moral camouflage”), I have fought it ever since my 1996 book “Good Natured.” Instead of blaming atrocious behavior on our biology (“we’re acting like animals!”), while claiming our noble traits for ourselves, why not view the entire package as a product of evolution? Fortunately, there has been a resurgence of the Darwinian view that morality grew out of the social instincts. Psychologists stress the intuitive way we arrive at moral judgments while activating emotional brain areas, and economists and anthropologists have shown humanity to be far more cooperative, altruistic, and fair than predicted by self-interest models. Similarly, the latest experiments in primatology reveal that our close relatives will do each other favors even if there’s nothing in it for themselves.

Chimpanzees and bonobos will voluntarily open a door to offer a companion access to food, even if they lose part of it in the process. And capuchin monkeys are prepared to seek rewards for others, such as when we place two of them side by side, while one of them barters with us with differently colored tokens. One token is “selfish,” and the other “prosocial.” If the bartering monkey selects the selfish token, it receives a small piece of apple for returning it, but its partner gets nothing. The prosocial token, on the other hand, rewards both monkeys. Most monkeys develop an overwhelming preference for the prosocial token, which preference is not due to fear of repercussions, because dominant monkeys (who have least to fear) are the most generous.

Even though altruistic behavior evolved for the advantages it confers, this does not make it selfishly motivated. Future benefits rarely figure in the minds of animals. For example, animals engage in sex without knowing its reproductive consequences, and even humans had to develop the morning-after pill. This is because sexual motivation is unconcerned with the reason why sex exists. The same is true for the altruistic impulse, which is unconcerned with evolutionary consequences. It is this disconnect between evolution and motivation that befuddled the Veneer Theorists, and made them reduce everything to selfishness. The most quoted line of their bleak literature says it all: “Scratch an ‘altruist,’ and watch a ‘hypocrite’ bleed.”[3]

It is not only humans who are capable of genuine altruism; other animals are, too. I see it every day. An old female, Peony, spends her days outdoors with other chimpanzees at the Yerkes Primate Center’s Field Station. On bad days, when her arthritis is flaring up, she has trouble walking and climbing, but other females help her out. For example, Peony is huffing and puffing to get up into the climbing frame in which several apes have gathered for a grooming session. An unrelated younger female moves behind her, placing both hands on her ample behind and pushes her up with quite a bit of effort, until Peony has joined the rest.

We have also seen Peony getting up and slowly move towards the water spigot, which is at quite a distance. Younger females sometimes run ahead of her, take in some water, then return to Peony and give it to her. At first, we had no idea what was going on, since all we saw was one female placing her mouth close to Peony’s, but after a while the pattern became clear: Peony would open her mouth wide, and the younger female would spit a jet of water into it.

Such observations fit the emerging field of animal empathy, which deals not only with primates, but also with canines, elephants, even rodents. A typical example is how chimpanzees console distressed parties, hugging and kissing them, which behavior is so predictable that scientists have analyzed thousands of cases. Mammals are sensitive to each other’s emotions, and react to others in need. The whole reason people fill their homes with furry carnivores and not with, say, iguanas and turtles, is because mammals offer something no reptile ever will. They give affection, they want affection, and respond to our emotions the way we do to theirs.

Mammals may derive pleasure from helping others in the same way that humans feel good doing good. Nature often equips life’s essentials — sex, eating, nursing — with built-in gratification. One study found that pleasure centers in the human brain light up when we give to charity. This is of course no reason to call such behavior “selfish” as it would make the word totally meaningless. A selfish individual has no trouble walking away from another in need. Someone is drowning: let him drown. Someone cries: let her cry. These are truly selfish reactions, which are quite different from empathic ones. Yes, we experience a “warm glow,” and perhaps some other animals do as well, but since this glow reaches us via the other, and only via the other, the helping is genuinely other-oriented.

Bottom-Up Morality

A few years ago Sarah Brosnan and I demonstrated that primates will happily perform a task for cucumber slices until they see others getting grapes, which taste so much better. The cucumber-eaters become agitated, throw down their measly veggies and go on strike. A perfectly fine food has become unpalatable as a result of seeing a companion with something better.

We called it inequity aversion, a topic since investigated in other animals, including dogs. A dog will repeatedly perform a trick without rewards, but refuse as soon as another dog gets pieces of sausage for the same trick. Recently, Sarah reported an unexpected twist to the inequity issue, however. While testing pairs of chimps, she found that also the one who gets the better deal occasionally refuses. It is as if they are satisfied only if both get the same. We seem to be getting close to a sense of fairness.

Such findings have implications for human morality. According to most philosophers, we reason ourselves towards a moral position. Even if we do not invoke God, it is still a top-down process of us formulating the principles and then imposing those on human conduct. But would it be realistic to ask people to be considerate of others if we had not already a natural inclination to be so? Would it make sense to appeal to fairness and justice in the absence of powerful reactions to their absence? Imagine the cognitive burden if every decision we took needed to be vetted against handed-down principles. Instead, I am a firm believer in the Humean position that reason is the slave of the passions. We started out with moral sentiments and intuitions, which is also where we find the greatest continuity with other primates. Rather than having developed morality from scratch, we received a huge helping hand from our background as social animals.

At the same time, however, I am reluctant to call a chimpanzee a “moral being.” This is because sentiments do not suffice. We strive for a logically coherent system, and have debates about how the death penalty fits arguments for the sanctity of life, or whether an unchosen sexual orientation can be wrong. These debates are uniquely human. We have no evidence that other animals judge the appropriateness of actions that do not affect themselves. The great pioneer of morality research, the Finn Edward Westermarck, explained what makes the moral emotions special: “Moral emotions are disconnected from one’s immediate situation: they deal with good and bad at a more abstract, disinterested level.” This is what sets human morality apart: a move towards universal standards combined with an elaborate system of justification, monitoring and punishment.

At this point, religion comes in. Think of the narrative support for compassion, such as the Parable of the Good Samaritan, or the challenge to fairness, such as the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, with its famous conclusion “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” Add to this an almost Skinnerian fondness of reward and punishment — from the virgins to be met in heaven to the hell fire that awaits sinners — and the exploitation of our desire to be “praiseworthy,” as Adam Smith called it. Humans are so sensitive to public opinion that we only need to see a picture of two eyes glued to the wall to respond with good behavior, which explains the image in some religions of an all-seeing eye to symbolize an omniscient God.

The Atheist Dilemma

Over the past few years, we have gotten used to a strident atheism arguing that God is not great (Christopher Hitchens) or a delusion (Richard Dawkins). The new atheists call themselves “brights,” thus hinting that believers are not so bright. They urge trust in science, and want to root ethics in a naturalistic worldview.

While I do consider religious institutions and their representatives — popes, bishops, mega-preachers, ayatollahs, and rabbis — fair game for criticism, what good could come from insulting individuals who find value in religion? And more pertinently, what alternative does science have to offer? Science is not in the business of spelling out the meaning of life and even less in telling us how to live our lives. We, scientists, are good at finding out why things are the way they are, or how things work, and I do believe that biology can help us understand what kind of animals we are and why our morality looks the way it does. But to go from there to offering moral guidance seems a stretch.

Even the staunchest atheist growing up in Western society cannot avoid having absorbed the basic tenets of Christian morality. Our societies are steeped in it: everything we have accomplished over the centuries, even science, developed either hand in hand with or in opposition to religion, but never separately. It is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion. It would require a visit to a human culture that is not now and never was religious. That such cultures do not exist should give us pause.

Bosch struggled with the same issue — not with being an atheist, which was not an option — but science’s place in society. The little figures in his paintings with inverted funnels on their heads or the buildings in the form of flasks, distillation bottles, and furnaces reference chemical equipment.[4] Alchemy was gaining ground yet mixed with the occult and full of charlatans and quacks, which Bosch depicted with great humor in front of gullible audiences. Alchemy turned into science when it liberated itself from these influences and developed self-correcting procedures to deal with flawed or fabricated data. But science’s contribution to a moral society, if any, remains a question mark.

Other primates have of course none of these problems, but even they strive for a certain kind of society. For example, female chimpanzees have been seen to drag reluctant males towards each other to make up after a fight, removing weapons from their hands, and high-ranking males regularly act as impartial arbiters to settle disputes in the community. I take these hints of community concern as yet another sign that the building blocks of morality are older than humanity, and that we do not need God to explain how we got where we are today. On the other hand, what would happen if we were able to excise religion from society? I doubt that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good. Any framework we develop to advocate a certain moral outlook is bound to produce its own list of principles, its own prophets, and attract its own devoted followers, so that it will soon look like any old religion.

so cool: whale tracked 6,000 miles through Flickr photos

The image above, taken in 2001, was used to identify a female humpback
whale who traveled more than 6,000 miles from Brazil to Madagascar.
from the NYTimes

If you cruise the Web you can find long-lost friends, high school sweethearts and ... far-traveling humpback whales.

With the help of Flickr, a photo-sharing site, Peter Stevick, a biologist at the College of the Atlantic, in Bar Harbor, Me., and colleagues have identified a whale that made an unprecedented journey, an epic 6,000 miles from Brazil to Madagascar, about 10 years ago. The whale’s adventure is described in Biology Letters.

Gale McCullough, a research assistant in Dr. Stevick's lab, often checks Flickr for whale photos because humpbacks can be identified by their tails, which are as individual as fingerprints. An amateur photographer had taken a photo on a film camera in 2001 and only recently posted it. That photo matched one taken by researchers of a whale off the coast of Brazil in 1999.

There is no way to know what the humpback’s exact journey was, but the shortest route it could have taken would have been across the south Atlantic Ocean and around Africa to arrive in Madagascar, in the Indian Ocean, said Dr. Stevick, the study’s lead author.

During the course of a year, humpback whales spend their summers in cooler climates and focus their efforts on getting as much nourishment as possible. In the winter, they travel to warm tropical areas where they mate and give birth to their calves. It is not uncommon for the whales to travel close to 4,000 miles in a single year.

But this female’s journey was unprecedented. “It traveled between two different breeding habitats, which is something that is virtually unseen,” Dr. Stevick said. Just why this particular whale made the unusual journey is unclear. It is possible that it was in search of a better habitat, or that it simply got lost, he said.

Stevick PT, Neves MC, Johansen F, Engel MH, Allen J, Marcondes MCC, Carlson C (2010) A quarter of a world away: female humpback whale moves 10 000 km between breeding areas. Biology Letters doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2010.0717

Fidelity of individual animals to breeding sites is a primary determinant of population structure. The degree and scale of philopatry in a population reflect the fitness effects of social facilitation, ecological adaptation and optimal inbreeding. Patterns of breeding-site movement and fidelity are functions of social structure and are frequently sex biased. We report on a female humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) first identified by natural markings off Brazil that subsequently was photographed off Madagascar. The minimum travel distance between these locations is greater than 9800 km, approximately 4000 km longer than any previously reported movement between breeding grounds, more than twice the species' typical seasonal migratory distance and the longest documented movement by a mammal. It is unexpected to find this exceptional long-distance movement between breeding groups by a female, as models of philopatry suggest that male mammals move more frequently or over longer distances in search of mating opportunities. While such movement may be advantageous, especially in changeable or unpredictable circumstances, it is not possible to unambiguously ascribe causality to this rare observation. This finding illustrates the behavioural flexibility in movement patterns that may be demonstrated within a typically philopatric species.

Goddamit: South African Rhino Horn Syndicate Case Involving Safari Operators Thrown Out

Gert Saaiman and Frans van Deventer leave the court (photo credit: Chris Collingridge)

From Bush Warriors

The rhino horn syndicate case involving George Fletcher, Gert Saaiman, and Frans Deventer has been thrown out by Judge Nomonde Mngqibisa of the North Gauteng High Court.

The suspects were believed to be responsible for slaughtering at least 19 rhinos, including three calves, in order to profit from the illegal rhino horn trade. Multiple charges had been brought against the accused, including racketeering, money laundering, various counts of theft, malicious damage to property and contraventions of the various provincial Conservation Acts and the Aviation Act.

Accused were ‘losing their social standing’ because of trial delays

After the prosecution’s star witness, Gideon van Deventer, refused to testify because of intimidation claims, a postponement was sought. However, the court ruled that to delay the case any further would be unfair to the accused. The judge pointed out that the State’s case was based on the testimony of a convicted criminal.
She said while she understands he is making it hard for the state to prepare for trial, the three accused – George Fletcher, Gerhardus Saaiman, Frans van Deventer – as well as their families, are living under the stigma of the charges which were levelled four years ago.

The judge said they are losing their social standing because of delays caused by a man in prison.
The defense team included attorney Terry Price, who was also responsible for getting Paris Hilton’s marijuana charges dropped during her World Cup visit.

Illegal rhino horn business ‘booming’
Rhino poaching has returned to South Africa with a vengeance and the illegal rhino horn business is booming. The killing has reached a 16-year high, with more than 600 rhinos slaughtered since 2005. Well-funded rhino horn syndicates maintain an extensive network of accomplices, and have managed to recruit game farmers, professional hunters, and even veterinarians into the gruesome business. Illegal rhino horn is still in high demand for traditional medicines in China and Vietnam, despite the fact that rhino horn has been extensively analyzed and found to be of no medicinal value. Most rhino horn leaving southern Africa is destined for China and Vietnam, according to the latest research by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network.

About the author: Rhishja Larson is the founder and Program Director of Saving Rhinos LLC, a public awareness program focusing on the illegal trade in rhino horn. She shares news, opinion, and commentary on her blog Rhino Conservation: Rhino Horn is Not Medicine. She has also been a guest blogger on National Geographic’s NatGeo News Watch, Rhino horn: All myth, no medicine.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

More on human sexual strategies and preferences

Thanks to Claudio T for the link!
From J.R. Minkel's blog: A Fistful of Science
David Buss defends evolved sex differences (exclusive!)

This week Scientific American ran an article of mine, “Student Surveys Contradict Claims of Evolved Sex Differences.” Here’s the gist:

For more than three decades evolutionary psychologists have advanced a simple theory of human sexuality: because men invest less reproductive effort in sperm than women do in eggs, men’s and women’s brains have been shaped differently by evolution. As a result, men are eager for sex whereas women are relatively choosy. But a steady stream of recent evidence suggests this paradigm could be in need of a makeover.

A highly cited 1993 paper on evolved sex differences (linked to below) served as the story’s jumping off point and foil. Evolutionary psychologist David Buss of the University of Texas at Austin, a co-author of that paper, kindly responded to a query of mine while I was writing the story, laying out his objections to the evidence I cited in the article. I knew I wasn’t going to have room to do justice to his views, so I asked him if I could post his comments to this blog. He did me one better: he wrote a direct response to my article, which I’m reprinting below in its entirety. Naturally, this will make more sense after you’ve read my article. [I've posted it below - MA]

Evolved Sex Differences: Not Gone, Not Forgotten, and Not Explained by Alternative Hypotheses

It is both astonishing and disturbing that evolutionary psychology as a field, and the specific hypotheses that have been advanced under its broad umbrella, continue to be so badly mischaracterized by other “scientists” as well as by science journalists writing for popular media (see, for example, Dr. Kurzban’s recent account of one vivid example directly related to the current article). That these errors and scholarly lapses continue to occur, despite numerous attempts to correct common misunderstandings about them, suggests poor scholarship, non-scientific motivations of the ideological or religious kind, or both.

Given the large number of lapses contained in the current article and in thecomments of the authors it quotes, I’ll restrict my comments to a few of the more egregious errors and point interested readers to the relevant scientific sources so they canjudge for themselves.

The first problem is that sexual strategies theory, initially advanced in 1993, is erroneously depicted. Contrary to the cartoonish depiction of “eager males-choosy females,” our theory proposed that BOTH men AND women have evolved short-term AND long-term sexual strategies. Subsequent publications from my own lab and the labs of other scientists (e.g., Gangestad, S.W., & Thornhill, R. (2008). Human oestrus. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 275, 991-1000) have tested specific evolutionary hypotheses about the benefits to women of short-term mating strategies. Although the final word is not in, currently viable hypotheses for women’s short-term sexual strategies include increased access to resources, securing good genes, and trading up to a better mating partner. Readers in the science of female sexuality should check out my recent book, co-authored with Dr. Cindy Meston, entitled Why Women Have Sex.

Just as some women pursue a short-term sexual strategy some of the time, many men pursue a long-term mating strategy marked by love, commitment, and heavy parental investment in children. Humans have a complex “menu” of mating strategies, selectively deployed depending on predictable contexts such as population density, matevalue, and sex ratio. Given that these elements have been central to sexual strategiestheory since its inception 17 years ago, responsible scientists and science journalists should put a stop to the cartoonish depiction of sexual strategies theory.

Now let’s address the issue of whether men and women differ in their psychology of short-term mating. Among the 9 key hypotheses and 22 empirical predictions contained in the original version of sexual strategies theory is indeed the hypothesis that men will attach a higher motivational priority to short-term mating, depending on contextual factors such as personal mate value, sex ratio in the mating pool, risk, and cost. The logic follows from Trivers’s theory of parental investment and sexual selection, which has been abundantly supported in the non-human and human scientific literatures. Indeed, the scientific evidence supporting this prediction for humans is overwhelming. Contra the data cited in the current article, readers should consult the massive cross-cultural studies that have been conducted both by evolutionary psychologists such as David Schmitt and by scientists who have no commitments to evolutionary psychology, such as Dr. Richard Lippa. The Lippa study, for example, tested more than 200,000 individuals across 53 different nations and found robust sex differences precisely as predicted by sexual strategies theory, as well as findings flatly contradicting the Eagly-Wood “alternative” theory [that women and men are simply responding to their society's division of labor]. I urge readers who really doubt the existence of sex differences on variables such as desire for sexual variety to consult these massive cross-cultural studies. Indeed, these psychological sex differences are among the largest psychological sex differences ever discovered, as meta-analyses by Dr. Janet Hyde of the University of Wisconsin have documented.

Although some researchers try to market their data as contradicting hypotheses about evolved sex differences, viewed in the broader context of the massive data sets such as those of Janet Hyde, Richard Lippa, and David Schmitt, dispassionate readers will come to the conclusion that massive weight of the scientific evidence supports thefundamental tenets of sexual strategies theory.

David M. Buss, Ph.D. Professor of Psychology Head, IDEP Area

For those who want to know how Eagly and Wood’s alternative paradigm might account for the cross-cultural data collected by Schmitt and Lippa, here’s your starting point. Happy reading!

Original Article in Scientific American by J.R. Minkel
Student Surveys Contradict Claims of Evolved Sex Differences

New data is undermining the evidence that has long been proposed to support the eager males—choosy females paradigm
For more than three decades evolutionary psychologists have advanced a simple theory of human sexuality: because men invest less reproductive effort in sperm than women do in eggs, men's and women's brains have been shaped differently by evolution. As a result, men are eager for sex whereas women are relatively choosy. But a steady stream of recent evidence suggests this paradigm could be in need of a makeover.

"The science is now getting to a point where there is good data to question some of the assumptions of evolutionary psychology," says social psychologist Wendy Wood of the University of Southern California (U.S.C.).

The eager males–choosy females paradigm doesn't imply that men and women literally make conscious decisions about how much effort they should put into short- and long-term mating relative to their costs of reproduction—minutes versus months. Instead the idea is that during human history, men and women who happened to have the right biochemical makeup to be easy and choosy, respectively, would leave more offspring than their counterparts.

In 1993 psychologists David Buss and David Schmitt, then at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, used that idea to generate a series of predictions about men's and women's sexual behavior. As part of their study, Buss and Schmitt surveyed college students about their desire for short- and long-term mates (that is, one-night stands versus marriage partners), their ideal number of mates, how long they would have to know someone before being willing to have sex, and what standards a one-night stand would have to meet. In all categories the men opted for more sex than the women.

Although the study has been cited some 1,200 times, according to Google Scholar, there were "huge gaps from what I'm used to as a scientist," says Lynn Carol Miller of U.S.C. Miller says that in order to evaluate the relative proportion of mating effort devoted to short- and long-term mating in the two sexes, the proper method is to use a scale such as time or money, which has the same interval between units, not the seven-point rating scale that Buss and Schmitt used.

In a study to be published in the journal Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, Miller and her colleagues carried out their own version of Buss and Schmitt's work, asking how much time and money college students spent in a typical week pursuing short-, intermediate- or long-term relationships. The proportion of mating effort dedicated to short-term mating was the same for men and women. Similarly, both men and women showed an equivalent tendency to lower their standards for sex partners, and men did not report feeling constrained to have far fewer sexual partners than they truly desired.

"I'd certainly accepted the idea that men pursue purely sexual relationships with greater fervor than women do," says Paul Eastwick of the Texas A&M University in College Station. "This is the first time I've seen data that makes me think, 'Hmm, I wonder if that sex difference isn't so robust.'" Miller says the results are to be expected if paternal investment boosted the survival rate of offspring during our species' 200,000-year history. If both sexes invest in their offspring's survival, she says, they should both show similar mating adaptations.

As a corollary to male eagerness for sex, men are also supposed to be bothered more by sexual infidelity than emotional infidelity, because men have a vested interest in making sure their offspring are their own and not another man's. Surveys have indeed found that in the U.S. and several other industrialized countries more men than women express greater concern with sexual infidelity than with emotional infidelity (falling in love with someone else). But another recent study suggests jealousy patterns could have something to do with glitches in people's ability to form secure relationships.

Psychologists Kenneth Levy and Kristen Kelly of The Pennsylvania State University surveyed 416 undergraduates to see which type of jealousy bothered them more. They also assessed the students' so-called attachment styles. Previous studies had found that more men than women have what's called a "dismissing avoidant" style in relationships, meaning they tend to deny their emotions and their need for the other person.

When Levy and Kelly broke down their jealousy results by attachment style, they found that men and women who had secure attachment styles were both more likely to view emotional infidelity as more upsetting than a sexual affair. Men with the dismissing style were more bothered by sexual infidelity, but women who manifested this style were also, although the effect was more pronounced in the males.

Levy says attachment styles are largely determined by early experiences with caregivers—usually mom and dad. To explain why more men than women exhibit the dismissive style, he says, "we would have to hypothesize that men are more likely to be raised in such a way that would promote dismissive attachment."

Beyond simply poking holes in the standard evolutionary psychology narrative, researchers have another paradigm ready to put in its place: U.S.C.'s Wood and Alice Eagly of Northwestern University propose that men and women adapt their outlooks to fit their society's division of labor between the sexes, which results from physical differences in size, strength and mobility (during pregnancy).

In a 2009 study Eagly, along with Eastwick and another colleague asked college students of both sexes to imagine themselves as either a future homemaker or provider. Students who imagined being homemakers rated their anticipated spouse's provider qualities as more important than that spouse's homemaker qualities. The finding fits with data indicating that women and men who earn more are more likely to get married, suggesting they make more attractive partners.

"In more equal actual roles, men and women have more similar mate preferences," Eagly says. "In very different marital roles that confine women to a domestic role, men and women choose differently."

The evidence, however, does not move Buss, now at the University of Texas at Austin. He calls Eagly and Wood's theory "bizarre" for positing that "natural selection has shaped sex differences in male and female bodies, but not in male and female brains and the psychological adaptations those brains contain."

In Wood's view the traditional evolutionary psychology paradigm was attractive because it explained the pattern of sex differences people saw around them in a way that made those differences seem natural. It assumed that men and women have always interacted in the way they do now. "We would say that men and women have evolved to act in a lot of different ways," Wood says. "We're the ultimate flexible species."

Booty Call: How to Spot a Fertile Woman

From LiveScience (Thanks to Alex P for the link!)

Ask the average person how the menstrual cycle affects women's moods, and you're likely to get an earful about PMS, or premenstrual syndrome. While it's true that PMS symptoms are common (although not as stereotypical as usually believed), new research is finding women's behavior shifts at another point in the reproductive cycle: ovulation.

Two new studies in the November issue of the journal Evolution and Human Behavior find that women get a little wilder during their most fertile days of the month. One study found that fertile women are more open to the idea of hooking up with a stranger or acquaintance, while the second found that women with less masculine-looking partners are more likely to lust after strong-jawed men during fertile days than women with partners with manly mugs.

The new studies are two of more than 20 that have examined the effects of ovulation on the way women dress, talk and think. While it's not yet clear if or how these temporary changes affect women's relationships in the real world, they may by a key to humanity's past.

"The idea is you see the preferences that would have evolved ancestrally still show up," Steven Gangestad, a University of New Mexico evolutionary psychologist and co-author on both new papers, told LiveScience.

Ovulation and lust
Until about a decade ago, most research on the menstrual cycle focused on PMS, which occurs after ovulation and before menstruation. Few people had investigated whether ovulation affected women, Martie Haselton, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, told LiveScience. (Ovulation occurs when a woman's body releases an egg down the fallopian tube where it can meet up with Mr. Sperm.)

"Nobody was asking what happens on fertile or non-fertile days," Haselton said.

One reason no one had tackled the question is that researchers in human evolution had long assumed that ovulation didn't matter much in humans. Unlike other mammals, which go into "heat" during fertile periods, women can be up for sex any time of the month. Evolutionary theorists have tried at several explanations for the loss of this estrus cycle in humans, one of the most common being that humans lost the "heat" phase to conceal ovulation. If a man didn't know which sexual encounter would pass his genes along, the theory went, he'd be more likely to stick around and help raise offspring.

The problem is that men do seem to be able to tell when their partner is ovulating, albeit imperfectly. No one knows how men can tell (smell is one hypothesis), but several studies have found women report that men become more attentive and jealous around fertile days. One 2006 study published in Evolution and Human Behavior found that when women were fertile, their male partners saw other men as a greater threat to their dominance.

Another problem is that women do seem to have a "heat" phase, although it works very differently than in other mammals. It's not that women become more receptive to sex in the five or so days around ovulation, Gangestad said. It's that they want sex for different reasons.

"It may be experienced more as a kind of lust mid-cycle," Gangestad said. "Outside of mid-cycle, women may be more interested in sex for intimacy."

Multiple studies have found that women go for more masculine-looking men when they're ovulating. According to a 2008 review of research by Gangestad and his colleagues published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, some of the masculine traits fertile women prefer are strong-jawed faces, muscular bodies, dominant behaviors, deep voices and tallness.

Because most studies on the topic have been done on heterosexual women, little is known about how ovulation affects lesbians or bisexual women. One study, published online in May 2010 in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, found that ovulation boosted lesbian women's motivation to act on their desires for other women, while bisexual women showed smaller increases in motivation. While women's sexuality is more fluid than men's, study coauthor Lisa Diamond, a psychologist at the University of Utah, told LiveScience, the findings suggest that ovulation could be a window into the biologically-based component of female sexual orientation.

Girls gone fertile
Back in the more-studied world of heterosexual couples, Gangestad's most recently published study on female preferences finds that if a woman is partnered with a man without a masculine face, her eye is more likely to wander during her fertile days.

This wandering eye doesn't necessarily translate into a cheating heart. Most women probably notice nothing more than a "funny little feeling" of lust during their fertile days, Haselton said. But other studies have shown that the hormonal fluctuations surrounding ovulation do change women's attitudes and behavior.

For instance, fertile women seem to be more open than non-fertile women to the idea of taking "sexual pleasures where [they] find them," in the words of one question asked to participants in the study by Gangestad and his colleagues published in the November issue of Evolution and Human Behavior. They're also more likely to express interest in sleeping with an attractive stranger or someone they don't care about.

A 2006 study in the journal Hormones and Behavior found that women who had their pictures taken during fertile and non-fertile stints were judged to be trying harder to look nice on fertile days, suggesting the hormonal boost of ovulation may translate to real-life decision-making. The women's faces were blacked out, so judges could only go on hairstyles and clothes to make their assessments, said Haselton, who co-authored the paper. To avoid any menstruation effects, none of the women were photographed right before or during their periods.

"We saw that the effect was strongest for women who were photographed closest to the day of ovulation within the high-fertility window," Haselton said.

An online shopping experiment reveals fertile women are also more likely to choose sexy clothes and accessories than women who weren't fertile, according to the study published online in the Journal of Consumer Research in August. For those who aren't as interested in sexy clothes, ovulation can mean more money. In a widely publicized study published in Evolution and Human Behavior in 2007, researchers found that ovulating strippers made an average of $30 more an hour than menstruating strippers and $15 more an hour than non-ovulating, non-menstruating strippers.

Do fertility fluctuations matter?
The big question, of course, is how much ovulation affects the real lives of the non-strippers among us. Do women give in to the temptation to cheat more often when fertile? (No one has found any evidence suggesting they do, Gangestad said.) And what about the massive number of women on the birth control pill? The pill halts ovulation and smoothes out monthly hormonal cycles, so do women on hormonal birth control act differently than those who aren't on the pill?

The answer to that question depends on whether women base any long-term relationship decisions on the changes that happen around ovulation, Haselton said. So far, none of the studies on the topic have shown that ovulation changes women's preferences for long-term mates, just short-term flings.

"Being on the pill does remove a lot of the variation in the changes in hormones across the cycle, so we certainly would expect it to have an impact on a woman's behavior," Haselton said. "But if it's only having an impact within that narrow range of fertility, then maybe it's not that big a deal."

From an evolutionary perspective, unraveling the question of ovulation could reveal a lot about how human reproduction evolved. It's possible that women really are trying to signal their fertility with sexy clothes, Haselton said, but it's more likely that the changes are side effects of the hormonal tides women experience throughout the month.

Perhaps women really did evolve to conceal ovulation but can't quite cover up all the side effects, Haselton said. "There may be a co-evolution arms race between women concealing and men detecting any cues that leak out."

Friday, October 15, 2010

South African rangers are kicking ass and taking names: 119 poachers arrested!

From News 24
Poachers shot in Kruger Park
Thanks to Louwtjie for the link!

A poacher was shot dead and another wounded in the Kruger National Park, SABC News reported on Thursday. The men were allegedly found armed inside the park on Wednesday by rangers who were patrolling, Sanparks CEO David Mabunda said. A shoot-out ensued and one of the men was killed. His accomplice escaped, but was arrested later while he was being treated at a hospital. A rifle, cellphone and ammunition was found on the dead man, SABC News reported.

Since the beginning of the year, 232 rhino had been poached throughout South Africa, 104 of them from the Kruger National Park.

One-hundred-and-nineteen alleged poachers had been arrested, 45 of them in the park.

also from News 24
Twenty-one people have been arrested in connection with rhino poaching in South Africa in the past three weeks.

Eleven people, including two veterinarians, a pilot and a game farmer, all allegedly part of a rhino poaching syndicate, were arrested in Limpopo last month. National police spokesperson Colonel Vishnu Naidoo said it was believed they had been involved in several hundred incidents of rhino poaching, rhino killing, selling of the horns and disposing of the rhino carcasses over the past few years. They allegedly operated around Polokwane, Modimolle and Musina.

Veterinarian Karl Toet and his colleague Manie du Plessis were said to be the two alleged masterminds behind the syndicate.

R1m bail
All 11 were released on bail ranging from R20 000 to R1m. Another two men were arrested in Limpopo in connection with dehorning rhinos and the buying and selling of horns. It was alleged that Jan Karel Pieter Els, 37, bought 36 rhino horns from Tom Fourie, 51, who allegedly dehorned the rhinos. The men had appeared in the Musina Magistrate's Court. Els was released on R30 000 bail and Fourie on R5 000 bail. A few days later three men were arrested inside the Kruger National Park by game rangers.

The game rangers came across the men walking around the park with rifles and allegedly in possession of two rhino horns while a carcass was found nearby. They appeared in the White River Magistrate's Court and were granted R7 500 bail each.

Highest level in 15 years
Police were investigating the possibility that the men were part of a syndicate responsible for other poaching incidents in the area. Last week five people believed to be rhino poachers were arrested in Ophathe Game Reserve near Ulundi in KwaZulu-Natal. The arrests were the result of months of investigating by a team of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife staff and police. The group was expected to appear in the Ulundi Magistrate's Court this week.

The Ophathe Game Reserve had been plagued by rhino poaching with three rhinos killed and their horns removed in the past ten days. Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife said the recent poaching of rhinos in the game reserve had bought the number of poached rhinos to 17 in KwaZulu-Natal this year.

South Africa has lost 210 rhinos to poaching since January, compared to 122 for all of last year. Black-market demand for rhino horns had risen sharply as economic growth had spread through east and south-east Asia, where the horn was believed to have medicinal properties.

Wildlife monitoring group Traffic said the surge in demand, combined with endemic poverty in many rhino habitats, had helped to push rhino poaching to the highest levels in 15 years.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

CI's 25-15 petition - consider signing!

Conservation International is proposing the 25-15 petition with its goal of protecting and effectively managing at least 25 percent of Earth's land and inland waters and 15 percent of marine ecosystems by 2020.

Currently, only 13.9 percent of the world's terrestrial areas are under formal protection. Less than 1 percent of the oceans are protected.

This October, world leaders will gather in Nagoya, Japan, for negotiations on the global Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The attendees of this meeting have the power to take binding action to preserve life around the world.

CI will collect your names and take them to Nagoya, Japan to demonstrate that people around the world – like you – support the protection of ecosystems and their biodiversity, essential to the future of all life on Earth.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Remote camera traps tiger then illegal bulldozer then another tiger

From WWF

Jakarta, Indonesia — A video camera trap installed by WWF and partners has captured footage linking the destruction of a crucial Sumatran tiger forest to the expansion of palm oil plantations in Indonesia’s Riau Province.

Videos and photos captured in May and June 2010 – released to the public for the first time today – caught a male Sumatran tiger walking straight to a camera and sniffing it.

A week later, the heat-activated-video camera trap documented a bulldozer clearing trees for an illegal palm oil plantation in the same exact location. The next day, the camera recorded a Sumatran tiger walking through the devastated landscape.

Bukit Batabuh, where the film was taken, was classified as a protected area by Riau Province in 1994, and categorized as a limited production forest based on Indonesia’s 1986 Land Use Consensus, meaning no company can legally exploit the forest.

Clearing forest most likely illegal
“Because of its status, both as a protected area and limited production forest, the area cannot be developed as a palm oil plantation, therefore any forest clearence —including bulldozing activities to clear the path — strongly indicates this excavation was illegal,” said Ian Kosasih, WWF-Indonesia’s Director of Forest and Species Program. “The law should be enforced in this matter.”

“And to stop illegal activities such as this, the palm oil industry should not source its material from farmers or producers who develop their plantations illegally.”

Since mid-2009, WWF has installed video camera traps in Bukit Batabuh to study Sumatran tiger distribution, habits, and threats they are facing. The wildlife corridor connects Rimbang Baling Wildlife Reserve and Bukit Tigapuluh National Park, making it a crucial area for tiger conservation.

This area is an important habitat for Sumatran tigers

“These video camera traps show that Bukit Batabuh area is an important habitat for the Sumatran tiger in Riau, functioning as a wildlife corridor between Bukit Tigapuluh and Rimbang Baling Tiger Priority Landscape, hence it becomes a priority area for tiger conservation,” explained M. Awriya Ibrahim M.Sc Director of Investigation and Forest Protection, Ministry of Forestry.

“Forest clearance in this area threatens this endangered species because it reduces natural habitat and consequently increases human-tiger conflicts, an unfortunate consequence for both sides. Therefore, we encourage all stakeholders—namely provincial and district level government, business sectors, and communities—to support protection for this landscape. The Ministry of Forestry is investigating this matter and will take strong measure in law enforcement, if this activity is proven violating the law.”

Previous footage documents tigress and cubs only 200 metres from this location

The location where the tiger and bulldozer were documented by video in May 2010 is only 200 meters away from a video camera trap which captured a tigress and her cubs passing by in October 2009. ( Watch video)

Indonesia has adopted protection for critical tiger habitats as part of its commitment to the Conservation Strategy and Action Plan for Sumatran Tiger 2007, and the National Tiger Recovery Plan, delivered at the Pre-Tiger Summit Partners’ Dialogue Meeting in Bali, in July 2010.

During the Bali meeting, which was attended by government delegates from all13 tiger range countries, a strategic plan to achieve an overarching goal of doubling wild tiger populations by 2022 was discussed. The plan is expected to be ratified by heads of government at the Tiger Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, scheduled for 21-24 Nov. 2010.

“The Indonesian government’s commitment to improve protection for its biodiversity—including an ecosystem-based land-use planning delivered in international fora like the Pre-Tiger Summit Partners’ Dialogue Meeting in Bali last July, and upcoming Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in October —should be supported by stakeholders in provincial or district levels especially on the issue of overlapping land-use planning,” explained Chairul Saleh, General Secretary of the Sumatra Land Use Forum (ForTRUST).

Saleh said sufficient prey and protection for the remaining wild Sumatran tiger populations will allow the species to procreate and provide it with an intact home range and habitat that will minimize incidents of human-tiger conflict.

“Bearing this in mind, a revision of Riau’s Provincial Land Use Planning—based on sustainable development principles adhering to ecosystem preservation and accomodating the tiger’s habitat—is crucial.”

Land clearing practices for palm oil plantations in the area have been going on for some time, pushing the tiger to have close contact with humans. Workers have testified that they frequently find tiger tracks in palm oil plantations.

The deforestation rate in Riau pushed WWF to intensify tiger population surveys in the province. Aside from vast deforestation, the population declines are exacerbated by illegal poaching. In March, WWF’s Tiger Patrol Unit and Riau’s Nature Conservation Agency confiscated more than 110 tiger snares in Bukit Betabuh.

Tigers everywhere are losing habitat
There are as few as 400 Sumatran tigers left in Indonesia, or about 12 percent of the estimated global tiger population of 3,200 tigers. With its significant percentage of the global tiger population, Indonesia has a prominent role in tiger conservation efforts. The tiger population is threatened by loss and fragmented habitat, decreasing prey populations, illegal poaching and trading of the tiger and its body parts, as well as human-tiger conflicts.

Take action now and sign the Tiger Pledge on the WWF Action Centre.

For more information please contact:

M. Awriya Ibrahim M.Sc of Directorate-General Forest Protection and Nature Conservation, Ministry of Forestry of Indonesia +62 21 5730138

Karmila Parakkasi, WWF-Indonesia’s Sumatran tiger research team leader, m + 62 8117510735

Desmarita Murni, WWF-Indonesia’s Communications Manager, m +62 811793458,

The video of Sumatran tiger and forest clearing activities in Sumatra’s Bukit Batabuh (referenced in the above text) can be downloaded from
- The link includes copyright information, a shot list, and a description.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Talking Elephant in South Korea?

From the Huffington Post:
In this video from CBS, an elephant named Kosik is attracting visitors and scientists alike with his unique ability to vocalize various Korean words...

...Dr. Daniel Mietchen, a biological scientist from the University of Jena in Germany, has come to South Korea with other researchers from the university to study the exceptional elephant. They believe Kosik may reveal that elephants are capable of learning language, though they doubt that he actually grasps the meaning of the words he speaks.

Mietchen says Kosik is the only living elephant capable of this feat that they know of, though other elephants have exhibited the ability to mimic the sounds of trucks and other elephants.

Bansky directs dark, socially conscious, Simpsons opener

British artist & activist Bansky directed the opening sequence of the Simpsons recently and its pretty dark. But kudos for him and the Simpsons for showcasing some uncomfortable aspects of our consumerist culture. -MA (via TreeHugger)

The extended opening sequence, used in the episode MoneyBart, is said to have been inspired by reports the hit Fox show outsources animation to a company in South Korea.

Banksy has claimed his storyboard led to delays, disputes over broadcast standards and a threatened walk out by the Simpsons animation department.

"This is what you get when you outsource," joked The Simpsons executive producer Al Jean.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Kassiisi Proidge Project - short and long term development and education planning

Check out the Kassiisi Porridge Project operating in two schools in Western Uganda. The project provides over 1500 school children with a mug of porridge every day (the mugs are paid for by the community) since many of these children are going to school, and spending the day, on an empty stomach. The project has also recently acquired several acres of farm land so that feeding the children can become a self-sustaining project. Furthermore, the project also has a partnership with the Jane Goodall Instititute's Roots & Shoots to plant trees to prevent forest loss. Seems like all the bases are covered to me!
Do you remember what is was like being a teenager? I recall pervasive hunger and sleepiness, these kids are going to school and aren't eating at all! Please consider supporting the Kassiisi Porridge Project by donating here - MA

From the Kassiisi Porridge Project website:
Why Porridge?
We decided that a daily meal of porridge would be the best choice, both nutritionally and economically.

Whilst most of the children are currently receiving maize flour porridge, we are supporting the trialling of an innovative school food, developed by Florence Muranga, Professor of Nutrition at Makerere University, in Kampala. The study is being carried out by her PhD student, Miriam Kanyago.
Three groups will be fed banana flour porridge
- each with different nutrients added - with those eating maize flour porridge as a control group.
A range of data will then be looked at to demonstrate the impact of the different foods on variables such as the children's health, their level of absenteeism and their school achievement.

also, banana porridge is:

o easily stored

o can be quickly reconstituted – and is therefore an instant porridge
o makes an ideal base for enriching with minerals, protein and vitamins
o an indigenous plant, a local staple, and its production will generate income for the community.

Thanks to Adrian B for the link!