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'

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Monitoring the Health of Endangered, Wild Chimpanzees

Siv Aina, Nadin, me and Simone in Tai in 2006

Congratulations Siv Aina!!!
from Science Daily

Siv Aina Jensen Leendertz has studied wild chimpanzees living in the tropical rain forest in Ivory Coast at close quarters for a year, and her doctoral thesis describes the health monitoring of this endangered species. Her thesis focuses on the risk of retroviral infection in these chimpanzees due to their hunting of monkeys.

Infectious diseases represent a growing threat to wild chimpanzees and other endangered species of apes. There is therefore a great need to monitor the health of these animals and to map sources of infection in their habitat.

Siv Aina Jensen Leendertz' research has shown a high incidence of the retroviruses simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), simian T-cell leukemia virus (STLV- type1) and simian foamy virus (SFV) in red colubus monkeys, which are the main prey of chimpanzees. Furthermore, she shows that the chimpanzees become infected with SFV due to their habit of hunting these monkeys.

However, infection by SIV was not detected in the chimpanzees, even though they are highly exposed to this virus. This apparent resistance poses interesting questions about the host-parasite relationship between SIV in red colobus monkeys and wild chimpanzees in their natural habitat. Retroviral infections in primates are precursors of, for instance, the human immunodeficiency virus HIV and Leendertz' doctoral research can therefore contribute towards research into retroviral infections in humans.

The thesis also describes general principles for health monitoring. The health of wild chimpanzees often has to be monitored from a distance and samples for analysis consist for the most part of faeces and urine. Leendertz has therefore developed and refined methods that are particularly apt for this kind of fieldwork.

Her research has been carried out in collaboration with The Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, The Taï Chimpanzee Project at the Department of Primatology at The Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and The Epidemiology and Biostatistics Centre at The Norwegian School of Veterinary Science.

Siv Aina J. Leendertz presented her doctoral thesis on 29th October 2010 at The Norwegian School of Veterinary Science (NVH). The thesis is entitled: "Investigation of wild chimpanzee health and risk of retroviral infection through hunting of red colobus monkeys."

Telomeres: Fountain of youth proven in mammals

One of the best talks/debates I ever went to was at U of Toronto BACK in the day (like 2002 maybe?!?!) which asked, what is the default state for cells: death or life? That is, could cells persist forever if death pathways are blocked or can cells simply not handle excessive replication events and just get worn out?
This new research definitely makes it seem like cells are programmed for life, which is great news for those of us who plan on staying beautiful forever ;) -MA

from Via Geekologie

(I am stealing the intro from Geekologie because it is beyond brilliant):
In a recent act of actually doing something useful instead of trying to kill us all with robots/determine which animal has the biggest balls, scientists have taken a step towards the proverbial fountain of youth.
Harvard scientists at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute say they have for the first time partially reversed age-related degeneration in mice, resulting in new growth of the brain and testes, improved fertility, and the return of a lost cognitive function.

In a report posted online by the journal Nature in advance of print publication, researchers led by Ronald A. DePinho, a Harvard Medical School (HMS) professor of genetics, said they achieved the milestone in aging science by engineering mice with a controllable telomerase gene. The telomerase enzyme maintains the protective caps called telomeres that shield the ends of chromosomes.

As humans age, low levels of telomerase are associated with progressive erosion of telomeres, which may then contribute to tissue degeneration and functional decline in the elderly. By creating mice with a telomerase switch, the researchers were able to generate prematurely aged mice. The switch allowed the scientists to find out whether reactivating telomerase in the animals would restore telomeres and mitigate the signs and symptoms of aging. The work showed a dramatic reversal of many aspects of aging, including reversal of brain disease and infertility.

While human applications remain in the future, the strategy might one day be used to treat conditions such as rare genetic premature aging syndromes in which shortened telomeres play an important role, said DePinho, senior author of the report and the director of Dana-Farber’s Belfer Institute for Applied Cancer Science. “Whether this would impact on normal aging is a more difficult question,” he added. “But it is notable that telomere loss is associated with age-associated disorders and thus restoration of telomeres could alleviate such decline.” The first author is Mariela Jaskelioff, a research fellow in medicine in DePinho’s laboratory.

Importantly, the animals showed no signs of developing cancer. This remains a concern because cancer cells turn on telomerase to make themselves virtually immortal. DePinho said the risk can be minimized by switching on telomerase only for a matter of days or weeks — which may be brief enough to avoid fueling hidden cancers or cause new ones to develop. Still, he observed, it is an important issue for further study.

In addition, DePinho said these results may provide new avenues for regenerative medicine, because they suggest that quiescent adult stem cells in severely aged tissues remain viable and can be reactivated to repair tissue damage.

“If you can remove the underlying damage and stresses that drive the aging process and cause stem cells to go into growth arrest, you may be able to recruit them back into a regenerative response to rejuvenate tissues and maintain health in the aged,” he said. Those stresses include the shortening of telomeres over time that causes cells and tissues to fail.

Loss of telomeres sends a cascade of signals that cause cells to stop dividing or self-destruct, stem cells to go into retirement, organs to atrophy, and brain cells to die. Generally, the shortening of telomeres in normal tissues shows a steady decline, except in the case of cancer, where they are maintained.

The experiments used mice that had been engineered to develop severe DNA and tissue damage as a result of abnormal, premature aging. These animals had short, dysfunctional telomeres and suffered a variety of age-related afflictions that progressed in successive generations of mice. Among the conditions were testes reduced in size and depleted of sperm, atrophied spleens, damage to the intestines, and shrinkage of the brain along with an inability to grow new brain cells.

“We wanted to know: If you could flip the telomerase switch on and restore telomeres in animals with entrenched age-related disease, what would happen?” explained DePinho. “Would it slow down aging, stabilize it, or even reverse it?”

Rather than supply the rodents with supplemental telomerase, the scientists devised a way to switch on the animals’ own dormant telomerase gene, known as TERT. They engineered the endogenous TERT gene to encode a fusion protein of TERT and the estrogen receptor. This fusion protein would only become activated with a special form of estrogen. With this setup, scientists could give the mice an estrogen-like drug at any time to stimulate the TERT-estrogen receptor fusion protein and make it active to maintain telomeres.

Against this backdrop, the researchers administered the estrogen drug to some of the mice via a time-release pellet inserted under the skin. Other animals, the controls, were given a pellet containing no active drug.

After four weeks, the scientists observed remarkable signs of rejuvenation in the treated mice. Overall, the mice exhibited increased levels of telomerase and lengthened telomeres, biological changes indicative of cells returning to a growth state with reversal of tissue degeneration, and increase in size of the spleen, testes, and brain. “It was akin to a Ponce de León effect,” noted DePinho, referring to the Spanish explorer who sought the mythical Fountain of Youth.

“When we flipped the telomerase switch on and looked a month later, the brains had largely returned to normal,” said DePinho. More newborn nerve cells were observed, and the fatty myelin sheaths around nerve cells — which had become thinned in the aged animals — increased in diameter. In addition, the increase in telomerase revitalized slumbering brain stem cells so they could produce new neurons.

To show that all this new activity actually caused functional improvements, the scientists tested the mice’s ability to avoid a certain area where they detected unpleasant odors that they associated with danger, such as scents of predators or rotten food. They had lost that survival skill as their olfactory nerve cells atrophied, but after the telomerase boost, those nerves regenerated and the mice regained their crucial sense of smell.

“One of the most amazing changes was in the animals’ testes, which were essentially barren as aging caused the death and elimination of sperm cells,” recounted DePinho. “When we restored telomerase, the testes produced new sperm cells, and the animals’ fecundity was improved — their mates gave birth to larger litters.”

The telomerase boost also lengthened the rodents’ life spans compared to their untreated counterparts — but they did not live longer than normal mice, said the researchers.

The authors concluded, “This unprecedented reversal of age-related decline in the central nervous system and other organs vital to adult mammalian health justifies exploration of telomere rejuvenation strategies for age-associated diseases.”

Jaskelioff M, Muller FL, Paik J-H, Thomas E, Jiang S, Adams AC, Sahin E, Kost-Alimova M, Protopopov A, Cadiñanos J, Horner JW, Maratos-Flier E, DePinhoron RA (2010) Telomerase reactivation reverses tissue degeneration in aged telomerase-deficient mice. Nature doi:10.1038/nature09603

An ageing world population has fuelled interest in regenerative remedies that may stem declining organ function and maintain fitness. Unanswered is whether elimination of intrinsic instigators driving age-associated degeneration can reverse, as opposed to simply arrest, various afflictions of the aged. Such instigators include progressively damaged genomes. Telomerase-deficient mice have served as a model system to study the adverse cellular and organismal consequences of wide-spread endogenous DNA damage signalling activation in vivo1. Telomere loss and uncapping provokes progressive tissue atrophy, stem cell depletion, organ system failure and impaired tissue injury responses1. Here, we sought to determine whether entrenched multi-system degeneration in adult mice with severe telomere dysfunction can be halted or possibly reversed by reactivation of endogenous telomerase activity. To this end, we engineered a knock-in allele encoding a 4-hydroxytamoxifen (4-OHT)-inducible telomerase reverse transcriptase-oestrogen receptor (TERT-ER) under transcriptional control of the endogenous TERT promoter. Homozygous TERT-ER mice have short dysfunctional telomeres and sustain increased DNA damage signalling and classical degenerative phenotypes upon successive generational matings and advancing age. Telomerase reactivation in such late generation TERT-ER mice extends telomeres, reduces DNA damage signalling and associated cellular checkpoint responses, allows resumption of proliferation in quiescent cultures, and eliminates degenerative phenotypes across multiple organs including testes, spleens and intestines. Notably, somatic telomerase reactivation reversed neurodegeneration with restoration of proliferating Sox2+ neural progenitors, Dcx+ newborn neurons, and Olig2+ oligodendrocyte populations. Consistent with the integral role of subventricular zone neural progenitors in generation and maintenance of olfactory bulb interneurons2, this wave of telomerase-dependent neurogenesis resulted in alleviation of hyposmia and recovery of innate olfactory avoidance responses. Accumulating evidence implicating telomere damage as a driver of age-associated organ decline and disease risk1, 3 and the marked reversal of systemic degenerative phenotypes in adult mice observed here support the development of regenerative strategies designed to restore telomere integrity.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Recycling: Toshiba to Extract Rare Earth Metals From Uranium Waste

...or will they?

Toshiba to Extract Rare Earth Metals From Uranium Waste
from Autotech daily
(thanks to Z for the link!)

(For a little background on rare earth minerals check out: Pay dirt: Why rare earth metals matter to tech)

Toshiba Corp. is developing a low-cost method to recover rare earth minerals and other metals from liquid waste generated by uranium processing, The Nikkei reports. It says Toshiba aims to commercialize the technology in about two years. The Japanese newspaper says Toshiba will conduct trials of the new process with partner Kazatomprom, Kazakhstan’s state-run nuclear company. Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp. is providing part of the project’s financing. Toshiba will use electrolysis to extract dysprosium and neodymium, which are used in high-strength magnets for electric motors in hybrid vehicles, and rhenium, which is used in jet engines, The Nikkei says. The process reduces waste and costs about one-fifth as much as mining rare earth.

Automakers and other manufacturers have been looking for new sources of rare earth metals after China restricted exports of the material earlier this year. China has 37% of the world’s rare earth reserves. But it has supplied more than 95% of the
material in recent years as other countries shied away from the toxic nature of such mines.

Earlier this month, Toshiba signed a memorandum of understanding with Mongolia to explore the potential for mining uranium and rare earth minerals there.

Impact of seismic oil exploration on chimps, gorillas, elephants and other primates (Loango, Gabon)

The previous post on the oil exploration in the Virungas made me realize I never posted about Luisa Rabanal's (and colleagues) amazing paper on the impact of oil exploration in Loango National Park -MA

The impact of seismic oil exploration on rainforest wildlife
From Conservation

A new study looks at the impact of seismic oil exploration on wildlife in Gabon's Loango National Park. Luisa Rabanal and fellow researchers found evidence that the loud noises generated by oil exploration activities can cause elephants to move large distances to escape the disturbance. The study findings also indicate that seismic activities can cause smaller scale disturbances for gorillas.

In threatened species like African forest elephants that have few offspring and mature slowly, disturbances that cause large scale shifts in spatial distribution may negatively affect the health of populations. According to the authors, this is the first study they know of to quantitatively assess the impact of noise from seismic activities on rainforest mammals.

Oil development activities in rainforests have raised a number of deep concerns about social and ecological impacts. During seismic oil exploration, dynamiting and other human activities can generate extremely loud noises - up to 210 decibels next to the explosion site or 10,000 times louder than a jet aircraft flying by at 300 m altitude.

The researchers surveyed elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, duikers, and monkeys in Loango National Park over a 6-week period of dynamiting in 2007. They used modeling to detect impacts to wildlife distribution at large, intermediate, and small scales.

The researchers hypothesized that large wildlife like elephants, gorillas, and chimpanzees with expansive home ranges would experience large-scale disturbance. They also hypothesized that smaller wildlife like monkeys with limited ability to disperse large distances would experience small scale disturbance - i.e. dynamiting would just cause them to move short distances during the period of the activity.

While the study found large-scale impacts in elephants, they only found medium and small-scale effects in gorillas. The weaker than expected impacts on species distribution may have been due to the fact that the oil exploration activities were actually much less invasive then they could have been.

Environmental organizations commissioned by the Gabon government audited the activities to enforce certain agreed upon best practices to minimize disturbance to wildlife - for example, no chainsaws were permitted and dynamite had to be placed at least 6 meters deep. So seismic activities in other cases without rigorous environmental standards might cause much worse impacts.

The researchers also warn that seismic activity may cause other negative impacts to species unrelated to habitat use. They write,

"Our results may also suggest that the apes were even more disturbed by the explosions if they were unable to move larger distances and hence we stress the need for other methods of examining the seismic impact such as hormone and physiological measures. This also applies to certain species whose movements are restricted by their ranging patterns (e.g. duikers) where stronger responses may be exhibited through physiological mechanisms such as increased stress levels and/or reduced reproductive output"
Rabanal L, Kuehl H, Mundry R, Robbins M, Boesch C (2010) Oil prospecting and its impact on large rainforest mammals in Loango National Park, Gabon Biological Conservation 143(4): 1017-1024 DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2010.01.017

Resource extraction is increasingly affecting protected areas worldwide. However, aside from studies on logging, limited information is available about the effect this has on wildlife, which may be of great consequence, especially when endangered species could be affected. Specifically, the effect of intense human-induced noise during oil exploration on wildlife is poorly understood. We explore the effect of seismic oil exploration on large mammal distribution in an 80 km2 area of Loango National Park, Gabon. Following the ecological theory of habitat disturbance, we predicted that changes in habitat use in response to noise disturbance would scale with the body/home range size of each species examined. Our study was conducted over six months before, during and after low-impact seismic operations. We recorded counts along transects of indirect signs of elephants (Loxondota africana cyclotis), chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes troglodytes), gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla), duikers (Cephalophus spp.), and the vocalizations of five monkey species (Cercocebus torquatus, Cercopithecus cephus, C. nictitans, C. pogonias and Lophocebus albigena) and modeled seismic impact over different spatial scales (small, intermediate and large). We found that elephants avoided seismic activity on all three spatial scales, apes avoided on the intermediate and small scales, and there was no effect for duikers and monkeys. We conclude that low-impact seismic operations can cause considerable temporary habitat loss for species with large ranges and suggest that the impact on those endangered species can be minimized by adequately spacing seismic lines and activity in space and time to enable species to move away from the progressive noise disruption.

Oil extraction may happen in/around Virungas

Oil extraction does not have to be a horribly invasive and destructive force if done properly. If managed properly (and if one wants to be as optimistic as possible) oil income could really boost up the standard of living around the park and within the country. On the more skeptical side, one must realize that it will probably happen no matter what, and that there are smart ways to extract oil and protect the park and its inhabitants (horizontal drilling comes to mind). The seismic surveys are already a bad sign that things are not being done as well as they could be (boo)...In any case, it will be interesting to see how it plays out, since its one of the only places where long-term conservation revenue might trump oil revenue...Thanks to Chrissie E for the link! -MA

UN urges Congo to ban oil drilling in gorilla park
From International Business Times

The United Nations' cultural arm UNESCO has appealed to Congolese President Joseph Kabila to guarantee there will be no oil exploration in the forest home of rare gorillas where two UK-listed firms hold drilling rights.

SOCO International and Dominion Petroleum were awarded a presidential decree to Block 5 of east Congo's Albertine Graben in June. Plans for a seismic survey include exploding dynamite, despite the fact that the rebel-heavy area overlaps with the protected Virunga National Park.

In a letter seen by Reuters, UNESCO chief Irina Bokova warned Kabila of "extremely damaging repercussions" of oil activity and asked him to ensure no exploration took place in the park, which is also home to chimpanzees, lions, elephants, and migratory birds so rare it has special wetland status.

"I call on you to guarantee that no oil exploration or production will be committed at the heart of the Virunga national park," she said in the letter dated August 6, which noted past commitments by Congo to protect the World Heritage site.

Local environmentalists argue that any exploration would be contrary to Congo's own laws.

"Congolese legislation does not authorise mineral and petrol production in national parks," said a November 15 letter seen by Reuters to Environment Minister Jose Endundo from the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN).

It noted SOCO's environmental impact assessment, required by law, made no reference to the park's status as a protected zone.

Separately, a World Bank official said it and other donors were planning to express concern to the government and question how oil development was compatible with Congo's commitments.

Calls to Kabila's office for comment went unanswered on Friday. However, Endundo played down the concerns.

"We'll do everything to preserve the park but the Congolese people also have to benefit from the riches under the soil," he told Reuters by telephone.

Endundo noted that if oil activities were excluded from the park, he might seek compensation along the lines of a pact signed by Ecuador in August, under which the Andean nation expects payments from rich nations in return for not drilling for oil in a wildlife reserve in the Yasuni National Park.

Operator SOCO, which has 38.25 percent of the block, and Dominion, with 46.75 percent, told Reuters in July they would start seismic exploration this year with a view to production after three years. Congo has the remaining share.

Company maps seen by Reuters indicate drilling will take place throughout the park and the companies have sent in teams.

"I don't see any problem if it's done correctly," Roger Cagle, deputy CEO and chief financial officer for SOCO told Reuters by telephone, adding its partner Dominion was already working in Uganda's Queen Elizabeth National Park.

"We've paid for the opportunity to explore a previously unexplored block; we're not expecting it to be a moving feast because it hasn't been sold to us as that," said Cagle, adding the company's presence could increase security of the park.

Conservation Justice

LAGA now has a counterpart in Gabon, PR-Congo and C.A.R. called Conservation Justice

(to see the previous LAGA posting go to: KICKING ASS! Ofir Drori and LAGA (the Last Great Ape Organization) )

From the Conservation Justice website:
Conservation Justice suit le modèle développé au Cameroun par l’ONG LAGA ( depuis 2003 et ayant fait ses preuves en matière de lutte contre le traffic d’espèces et de produits fauniques protégés en Afrique centrale (ivoire, peaux de panthère, grands singes,…).

Conservation Justice a pour vocation de faciliter la réplication de ce modèle en Afrique centrale et prioritairement au Gabon, après l’expérience au Cameroun (LAGA) mais aussi en Républiques du Congo (Projet PALF) et en République centrafricaine (Projet RALF).

Tous ces projets fonctionnent selon une même approche afin de :

1. identifier des trafiquants notoires;
2. faciliter leur arrestation ainsi que leur emprisonnement;
3. aider à leur condamnation;
4. et médiatiser les résultats obtenus comme moyen d’information de grand public.

Le développement d’un volet sensibilsiation/éducation autonome est également à l’étude.

Thanks to Boo M for the link!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A 2009 Tasmanian Tiger (Thylocine) sighting?

I have had a passing intrest in the tasmanian tiger since i saw a program on trying to clone it and return it to its native habitat (since human hunting was the cause for its extinction). I think it makes for an interesting ethical and conservation debate. Anyway, if it is indeed not extinct, I guess it renders much of the cloning project obsolete...

From Animal
The thylacine, also called the "Tasmanian tiger" or "Tasmanian wolf" even though it's not a feline or a canine, was a carnivorous marsupial once native to Australia. Unfortunately, the animal was wiped out by people in its last remaining stronghold, the island of Tasmania. It is now officially considered to be extinct, with the last known living individual dying in the Hobart Zoo in 1936.
But there are some that believe these strange predators still survive in the remote Australian wilderness. There are occasional sighting reports as well as potential tracks, scat and kills, although none can be definitely said to be those of a living thylacine. The video was released this month and the man that shot the footage [Murray McAllister, a physical education teacher at Pembroke Secondary College in Melbourne Victoria] in 2009 claims that it shows a living thylacine.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Our imperfect human evolution: hiccups, goosebumps & hypothermia

via neatorama from
The Top Ten Daily Consequences of Having Evolved
From hiccups to wisdom teeth, the evolution of homo sapiens has left behind some glaring, yet innately human, imperfections

Natural selection acts by winnowing the individuals of each generation, sometimes clumsily, as old parts and genes are co-opted for new roles. As a result, all species inhabit bodies imperfect for the lives they live. Our own bodies are worse off than most simply because of the many differences between the wilderness in which we evolved and the modern world in which we live. We feel the consequences every day. Here are ten.

1. Our cells are weird chimeras
Perhaps a billion years ago, a single-celled organism arose that would ultimately give rise to all of the plants and animals on Earth, including us. This ancestor was the result of a merging: one cell swallowed, imperfectly, another cell. The predator provided the outsides, the nucleus and most of the rest of the chimera. The prey became the mitochondrion, the cellular organ that produces energy. Most of the time, this ancient symbiosis proceeds amicably. But every so often, our mitochondria and their surrounding cells fight. The result is diseases, such as mitochondrial myopathies (a range of muscle diseases) or Leigh’s disease (which affects the central nervous system).
2. Hiccups
The first air-breathing fish and amphibians extracted oxygen using gills when in the water and primitive lungs when on land—and to do so, they had to be able to close the glottis, or entryway to the lungs, when underwater. Importantly, the entryway (or glottis) to the lungs could be closed. When underwater, the animals pushed water past their gills while simultaneously pushing the glottis down. We descendants of these animals were left with vestiges of their history, including the hiccup. In hiccupping, we use ancient muscles to quickly close the glottis while sucking in (albeit air, not water). Hiccups no longer serve a function, but they persist without causing us harm—aside from frustration and occasional embarrassment. One of the reasons it is so difficult to stop hiccupping is that the entire process is controlled by a part of our brain that evolved long before consciousness, and so try as you might, you cannot think hiccups away.

3. Backaches
The backs of vertebrates evolved as a kind of horizontal pole under which guts were slung. It was arched in the way a bridge might be arched, to support weight. Then, for reasons anthropologists debate long into the night, our hominid ancestors stood upright, which was the bodily equivalent of tipping a bridge on end. Standing on hind legs offered advantages—seeing long distances, for one, or freeing the hands to do other things—but it also turned our backs from an arched bridge to an S shape. The letter S, for all its beauty, is not meant to support weight and so our backs fail, consistently and painfully.

4. Unsupported intestines
Once we stood upright, our intestines hung down instead of being cradled by our stomach muscles. In this new position, our innards were not as well supported as they had been in our quadrupedal ancestors. The guts sat atop a hodgepodge of internal parts, including, in men, the cavities in the body wall through which the scrotum and its nerves descend during the first year of life. Every so often, our intestines find their way through these holes—in the way that noodles sneak out of a sieve—forming an inguinal hernia.

5. Choking
In most animals, the trachea (the passage for air) and the esophagus (the passage for food) are oriented such that the esophagus is below the trachea. In a cat's throat, for example, the two tubes run roughly horizontal and parallel to each other before heading on to the stomach and lung, respectively. In this configuration, gravity tends to push food down toward the lower esophagus. Not so in humans. Modifications of the trachea to allow speech pushed the trachea and esophagus further down the throat to make way. Simultaneously, our upright posture put the trachea and esophagus in a near-vertical orientation. Together these changes leave falling food or water about a 50-50 chance of falling in the “wrong tube.” As a consequence, in those moments in which the epiglottis does not have time to cover the trachea, we choke. We might be said to choke on our success. Monkeys suffer the same fate only rarely, but then again they can’t sing or dance. Then again, neither can I.
6. We're awfully cold in winter
Fur is a warm hug on a cold day, useful and nearly ubiquitous among mammals. But we and a few other species, such as naked mole rats, lost it when we lived in tropical environments. Debate remains as to why this happened, but the most plausible explanation is that when modern humans began to live in larger groups, our hair filled with more and more ticks and lice. Individuals with less hair were perhaps less likely to get parasite-borne diseases. Being hairless in Africa was not so bad, but once we moved into Arctic lands, it had real drawbacks. Evolution has no foresight, no sense of where its work will go.

7. Goosebumps don't really help
When our ancestors were covered in fur, muscles in their skin called “arrector pili” contracted when they were upset or cold, making their fur stand on end. When an angry or frightened dog barks at you, these are the muscles that raise its bristling hair. The same muscles puff up the feathers of birds and the fur of mammals on cold days to help keep them warm. Although we no longer have fur, we still have fur muscles just beneath our skin. They flex each time we are scared by a bristling dog or chilled by a wind, and in doing so give us goose bumps that make our thin hair stand uselessly on end.

8. Our brains squeeze our teeth
A genetic mutation in our recent ancestors caused their descendants to have roomy skulls that accommodated larger brains. This may seem like pure success—brilliance, or its antecedent anyway. But the gene that made way for a larger brain did so by diverting bone away from our jaws, which caused them to become thinner and smaller. With smaller jaws, we could not eat tough food as easily as our thicker-jawed ancestors, but we could think our way out of that problem with the use of fire and stone tools. Yet because our teeth are roughly the same size as they have long been, our shrinking jaws don’t leave enough room for them in our mouths. Our wisdom teeth need to be pulled because our brains are too big.

9. Obesity
Many of the ways in which our bodies fail have to do with very recent changes, changes in how we use our bodies and structure our societies. Hunger evolved as a trigger to drive us to search out food. Our taste buds evolved to encourage us to choose foods that benefited our bodies (such as sugar, salt and fat) and avoid those that might be poisonous. In much of the modern world, we have more food than we require, but our hunger and cravings continue. They are a bodily GPS unit that insists on taking us where we no longer need to go. Our taste buds ask for more sugar, salt and fat, and we obey.

10 to 100. The list goes on.
I have not even mentioned male nipples. I have said nothing of the blind spot in our eyes. Nor of the muscles some of use to wiggle our ears. We are full of the accumulated baggage of our idiosyncratic histories. The body is built on an old form, out of parts that once did very different things. So take a moment to pause and sit on your coccyx, the bone that was once a tail. Roll your ankles, each of which once connected a front leg to a paw. Revel not in who you are but who you were. It is, after all, amazing what evolution has made out of bits and pieces. Nor are we in any way alone or unique. Each plant, animal and fungus carries its own consequences of life's improvisational genius. So, long live the chimeras. In the meantime, if you will excuse me, I am going to rest my back.

Find this article at:

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Symphony of Science - A Wave of Reason

I'm sure you've seen lots of these before, but i found this one especially beautiful and joyous ;) -MA

When you are studying any matter
Or considering any philosophy
Ask yourself only: what are the facts,
And what is the truth that the facts bear out

Science is more than a body of knowledge
It's a way of thinking
A way of skeptically interrogating the universe

If we are not able to ask skeptical questions
To be skeptical of those in authority
Then we're up for grabs

In all of science we're looking for a balance
between data and theory

You don't have to delude yourself
With Iron age fairy tales

The same spiritual fulfillment
That people find in religion
Can be found in science
By coming to know, if you will, the mind of God

The real world, as it actually is,
Is not evil, it's remarkable
And the way to understand the physical world
is to use science

There is a new wave of reason
Sweeping across America, Britain, Europe, Australia
South America, the Middle East and Africa
There is a new wave of reason
Where superstition had a firm hold

Teach a man to reason
And he'll think for a lifetime

Cosmology brings us face to face with the deepest mysteries
With questions that were once treated only
in religion and myth

The desire to be connected with the cosmos
Reflects a profound reality
But we are connected; not in the trivial ways
That Astrology promises, but in the deepest ways

I can't believe the special stories that have been made up
About our relationship to the universe at large
Look at what's out there; it isn't in proportion

Never let yourself be diverted
By what you wish to believe
But look only and surely
At what are the facts

Enjoy the fantasy, the fun, the stories
But make sure that there's a clear sharp line
Drawn on the floor
To do otherwise is to embrace madness

From the Youtube page:
"A Wave of Reason" is the seventh installment in the Symphony of Science music video series. It is intended to promote scientific reasoning and skepticism in the face of growing amounts of pseudoscientific pursuits, such as Astrology and Homeopathy, and also to promote the scientific worldview as equally enlightening as religion. It features Carl Sagan, Bertrand Russell, Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, Lawrence Krauss, Carolyn Porco, Richard Dawkins, Richard Feynman, Phil Plait, and James Randi.

More science music videos can be found at

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

New MPI Primatology Book: Among African Apes Stories and Photos from the Field

Among African Apes
Stories and Photos from the Field
Edited by Martha M. Robbins, and Christophe Boesch

These compelling stories and photographs take us to places like Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, Ivindo National Park in Gabon, and the Taï National Park in Côte d’Ivoire for an intimate and revealing look at the lives of African wild apes—and at the lives of the humans who study them. In tales of adventure, research, and conservation, veteran field researchers and conservationists describe exciting discoveries made over the past few decades about chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas. The book features vivid descriptions of interactions among these highly intelligent creatures as they hunt, socialize, and play. More difficult themes emerge as well, including the threats apes face from poaching, disease, and deforestation. In stories that are often moving and highly personal, this book takes measure of how special the great apes are and discusses positive conservation efforts, including ecotourism, that can help bring these magnificent animals back from the brink of extinction.


1. Discovering Apes - Martha M. Robbins
2. Life and Death in the Forest - Christophe Boesch
3. Encounters with Bili Chimpanzees in the Undisturbed Gangu Forest - Cleve Hicks
4. Is Blood Thicker Than Water? - Gottfried Hohmann and Barbara Fruth
5. Our Cousins in the Forest—or Bushmeat? - Christophe Boesch
6. Discovering Chimpanzee Traditions - Crickette Sanz and David Morgan
7. Keeping it in the Family: Tribal Warfare between Chimpanzee Communities - Josephine Head
8. Winona’s Search for the Right Silverback: Insights into Female Strategies at a Natural Rain Forest Clearing in Northern Congo - Thomas Breuer
9. The Long Road to Habituation: A Window into the Lives of Gorillas - Chloé Cipolletta
10. Among Silverbacks - Martha M. Robbins
11. The Diversity of the Apes: What Is the Future? - Christophe Boesch
"Some of the most devoted primatologists offer a wonderful collection of first-hand accounts and splendid photographs that make us feel like we're beside them watching our relatives in the forest."
-Frans de Waal, author of Our Inner Ape and Chimpanzee Politics
Click here to go to buy it and find out more

LOL: 5 Famous Scientists Dismissed as Morons in Their Time

Morning's post was a bit heavy, here is something lighter but in the same revolutionary & inspirational vein. Great photos and captions at the original website ( but am stealing anyway because its so funny and you know i like to archive :) -MA


Every nutjob in the world with some out-there theory thinks he's Galileo, rejected for daring to think different. Virtually all of them are, in fact, simply insane.

Yet, there have been brilliant rebels who put their own world-changing ideas on the line, only to end up like Doc Brown in his alternate timeline: humiliated, ridiculed, ignored and/or straight driven to insanity.

#5. Gregor Mendel
Photograph of Gregor Mendel.
You probably know Mendel as the guy who pioneered the science of genetics, and for keeping eighth-graders busy while science teachers watch porn at their desks. Anybody with a high school diploma has filled out those dominant/recessive trait Punnett squares, though astute readers are probably wondering why that technique is called a Punnett square if it predicts patterns Mendel discovered.

What you probably didn't know was that before making his revolutionary discovery, Gregor Mendel flunked his ass out of school and resigned himself to a quiet life as the abbot of a monastery. It had an extensive experimental garden and there Mendel patiently spent the next seven years of his life breeding and cross-breeding peas.

He carefully documented his work and developed what would eventually be known as Mendel's Laws of Inheritance. Then he wrote it up and got it published in an lesser-known journal, the Journal of the Brno Natural History Society in 1866.

His Genius Was Rewarded By ...
A quiet life of complete anonymity. Mendel's work was read by about zero people, even after he took it upon himself to contact the highest minds of his time by personally sending them copies of his theory. It turns out he would have been better off writing it on a paper bag filled with dog shit and leaving the whole flaming mess on porches.

Why did they ignore him? Because the greatest minds of his time couldn't understand him. It wasn't until 16 years after his death that three independent botanists rediscover Mendel's work and started the genetics ball rolling.

#4. Ignaz Semmelweis

We've brought up poor old Semmelweis once before, but just in case you don't have a running loop of Cracked articles going through your head, here's the recap: Back in 1847, Semmelweis found himself in charge of two maternity clinics. The first clinic was a teaching school, with medical students learning birthing, autopsying and everything in between. The second clinic was intended for women who couldn't afford health care and was serviced by midwives, not actual doctors or students.

Yet it was the second clinic that women of all social statuses begged to get into. Why? Because if they went to the first clinic they'd have a 10 percent chance of dying of puerperal fever, a six percent greater rate of death than in the midwife-run hospital. Women literally had a better chance of surviving a birth on the street than in the first clinic. After an exhaustive study, Semmelweis figured out that medical students were smothered in disease cooties from cadavers, and that maybe, just maybe, they should wash their hands in between the autopsy room and the birthing rooms.

He insisted students perform a simple chlorine wash after handling dead guys and immediately got the death rate down to one to two percent. With numbers like that, you'd think the whole continent of Europe, much less the medical community, would have crowned him "king of live babies" or something.

His Genius Was Rewarded By ...
First dementia, then a beatdown at an insane asylum, then death, by virtually the same disease he had eradicated in his own hospital.

Semmelweis didn't just have the disregard of his contemporaries, he had their flat-out scorn. Maybe it was because he didn't get around to explaining himself on paper right away, so no one understood what hand-washing had to do with keeping people alive. Some doctors were actually insulted that he was accusing Viennese medical students being dirty enough to kill people.

Within 14 years of his groundbreaking discovery, Semmelweis just stopped giving a fuck. He got drunk all the time and called all his detractors "ignoramuses" and "murderers." He started chilling with prostitutes and lashing out at family. That last part proved to be a bad move, because in 1865 they had him committed to an insane asylum, where he was promptly beat up and stuck in a dark cellar.

He died two weeks later. It took another 20 years and Louis Pasteur's germ theory for the rest of the world to come around to the concept of washing your hands to keep from getting sick.

#3. George Zweig

The year 1964 was a watershed year by any measure. The Beatles arrived, the Civil Rights Act was passed, Nicolas Cage was born and in two separate parts of the world, two separate scientists proposed the existence of quarks, the teeny-tiny subatomic particles that combine to form matter. If you've been paying attention, you know one of these guys is about to get screwed. (Hint: It's George Zweig.)

Zweig had three things going against him in 1964. One, he was a young graduate student, unpublished and unproven. Two, he was working at a particle research center in Geneva. You'd think that would be an advantage, but it turns out his institute had a stringent model for publication, and his paper on quarks, which he called "aces," didn't meet its standards (even though he had come up with a much cooler name for the particle). And three, an older scientist from his grad school proposed the exact same theory at the exact same time and because of his stature was able to publish that exact same theory with the exact same publication that rejected Zweig's.

At first, both men were called crazy for their insane notions of invisible particles. They had no model of behavior for the buggers and no methods of ever actually looking at them. But eventually the science world came around, and by 1969, Zweig's rival was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work. As for Zweig ...

His Genius Was Rewarded By ...
Being blackballed by a major university and accusations of being a "charlatan."

It wasn't until the 1970s that anyone could actually prove the existence of quarks, and by that time, the Nobel Prize committee felt it had already given the little particles enough attention, so it was reluctant to revisit the subject. Nevertheless, in 1977, Zweig and his rival were both nominated, but neither won. Zweig ended up changing his field of study to neurobiology, presumably believing that if he made a seminal contribution to every area of science, he'd eventually get credit for something.

#2. Albert Einstein
Trying to convince you that Albert Einstein was rejected in any way during his lifetime let alone a moron is a hard sell, considering that he was one of the most famous men on the planet at the time. But buried deep in a lifetime of utter brilliance, Einstein was saddled with one big mistake. One that it turned out wasn't a mistake at all.

To understand, you have to know a little bit about Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. Not a whole lot, just the fact that it didn't allow for a static universe. Einstein believed the universe had to be static, or else the forces of gravity would cause the whole universe to contract onto itself, which it apparently wasn't doing. So, to make up for this weird conundrum, he invented something called the cosmological constant, an unknown, unchanging force that allowed him to have his cake (General Theory of Relativity) and eat it, too (stand by a static-universe model).

But not too long after Einstein came up with the cosmological constant, Edwin Hubble burst his little unmoving universe bubble by finding evidence that the whole shebang was expanding. Einstein called the cosmological constant his "biggest blunder" and went to his grave thinking he was an idiot for having proposed it. And so did everyone else. For a while.

His Genius Was Rewarded By ...
Einstein didn't get heaped with scorn like some of the other geniuses on this list, so he got off with a little self-deprecation with a side of regret. And he also dropped the whole idea of the cosmological constant. But here's the thing -- it turns out he may have been right all along. Not about the universe being static, of course, but that this mysterious, unknown entity existed in the first place.

In the 1990s, scientists discovered that the universe was expanding faster than they had previously thought and that the rate of expansion was being fueled by a mysterious, unknown entity. There are several contenders up for consideration as the cause, but everyone's favorite? You guessed it: Einstein's cosmological constant. His math of the constant magically fit the bill. Also because you never go wrong when you bet on Einstein.

(Future super-geniuses reading this article: Please make an effort to be photographed with your tongue out, flipping the bird, gesturing to your genitals or something similar. Cracked's 2089 PR department thanks you.)

#1. Ludwig Boltzmann

Ludwig Boltzmann had the unfortunate luck of being born with a genius brain at the wrong time. Back in the 19th century, there was a huge debate over the nature of matter. Boltzmann not only had the audacity to presuppose the existence of atoms at a time when the atomic model was still controversial among scientists, but also built every one of his brilliant theories as if there was no debate at all. How brilliant? Hang on to your test tubes, because thing are about to get sciencey.

For one, he pioneered the study of statistical thermodynamics, which is a field of physics that provides a framework for predicting how a large number of particles will behave in a system. So, let's say you're camping and you start a fire. Boltzmann was the guy who tried to figure out what the crap was going on in those logs on a molecular level that allowed the fire to kindle, and he used fancy math formulas to figure it out. His work ultimately paved the way for the field of quantum mechanics, which eventually paved the way for the greatest time travel show ever (Quantum Leap).

His Genius Was Rewarded By ...
Death. He got death.

Back then, defending the existence of atoms was akin to defending creationist version of the origins of man today. Boltzmann wasn't just forced to defend something that would be accepted as fact within a few years, he was shamed for his stubborn refusal to yield and for his so-called materialist beliefs.

Nobody ever told scientists that nonmaterial science is already called philosophy. A long series of uneven debates left nearly every other supporter of atoms silent, leaving Boltzmann as their chief defender. Even colleagues who originally agreed with him began to question atoms' existence when his work seemingly undermined previously understood laws of physics.

The emotional burden of being the only right guy in the world, coupled with what was probably undiagnosed bipolar disorder, proved too much for Boltzmann to handle, and he hung himself in 1906, only three years before another scientist proved the undeniable existence of atoms. Nice job, science.

Op-Ed: Fear and conformity in conservation

"Once we realize that the struggle is truly endless — that we will never “win” the war — we can step away out of our internal straitjacket and become the smart, nimble, flexible, adaptable, compromise-seeking and solutions-focused movement that we need to be."
Here is a fantastic Op-Ed by Eric Meijaard from I don't necessarily agree with it all, but I think constant re-evaluation, acceptance of our faults and building on our successes and failures is necessary in conservation and life. Staying stagnant isn't going to get us anywhere, and sometimes things do seem a little ol' school. A great read and food for thought -MA

Fear and conformity in conservation

Conservation is like guerrilla warfare. But are the similarities flattering for conservationists?

No matter how big, conventional and entwined with power conservation organizations get, they still have the posture of guerrilla groups. While conventional warfare seeks to reduce an opponent’s capability through head-on confrontation, guerrillas seek to undermine the opponents’ strength and their public support. Guerrillas often also have popular backing and are financed through outside supporters.

Conservation works similarly through strategically picked battles (our conservation projects). Public and outside support is crucial to conservation’s success. And our “armies” are so much smaller than those employed by “the enemy.”

You might be encouraged by these comparisons. But conservation and guerrilla organizations have other, less comforting similarities: the way they communicate, their near-religious underpinnings, and their penchant for groupthink.

Guerrilla fighters are dispersed and their organizations need strong internal communication to ensure that everyone is in line. External communication through propaganda is vital to ensure public support. Strict loyalty to the group is also crucial. You are either in or out, although “out” is not really an option once you are “in.”

Judged by the hundreds of daily emails, frequent meetings and many papers to sign and forms to fill in that plague our business, conservation workers encounter similar views of communication and a devotion to (if not obsession with) process. Process and groupthink bring coherence to an organization, but they also control its individuals. Holding alternative views and speaking your mind about the direction of conservation, or criticizing management, are generally frowned upon within a conservation organization as harmful to its unity.

This impulse to police makes sense: Conservation and guerrillas are strongly mission-driven. And even if the practical implications of that mission are often unclear, the organizational principles that follow it have quasi-religious powers. Stepping outside that framework and being openly critical are often seen as heretical. Also, those who control and administer the process — the priests or apparatchiks, if you will — become focused on and defenders of process to the exclusion of substantive goals, because that is how they defend their position of power and authority.

As with conservation, the success rate for guerrilla war is mixed. Some guerrillas fail in their mission and either fade away or join regular, established governments. Those that succeed often stay in power for decades, rarely if ever through democratic means. Somewhere along the line, they pass a tipping point in growth, stop being flexible and creative, and become sclerotic.

This is where I see conservation now — as a collection of aging guerrillas, holding on to an old vision, old ways of organizing and communicating, and an aging constituency as we slide toward irrelevance. We’ve forgotten the guerrilla’s ability to improvise under difficult conditions and strategically pick the battles that will lead to the biggest net gain. Do we still have that entrepreneurial spirit in conservation? Does conservation generate enough creativity and reward it appropriately? And can individuals still have a major impact on conservation, or has the agenda been hijacked by conservation organizations that have become too big and cumbersome to function effectively?

Where I hope conservation can differentiate itself from guerrilla fighters is in the nature of our wars, and what we consider success or failure. Our wars are not black and white; this is not about winning the mother of all conservation battles, after which we can rest on our laurels or sleep in our graves. Our battle is never over. Conservation is not about right and wrong, either. There are no religious conservation principles to adhere to; there is only muddling through.

Conservation will forever be a struggle to defend the wildlife and environments of this planet against human greed and indifference. Once we realize that the struggle is truly endless — that we will never “win” the war — we can step away out of our internal straitjacket and become the smart, nimble, flexible, adaptable, compromise-seeking and solutions-focused movement that we need to be. Unfortunately, these are characteristics I rarely encounter in conservation organizations, which tend to be conformist, bureaucratic, internally-focused, opaque, unaccountable, and often in competition with other conservation organizations.

All this leaves me a bit uneasy. I seem to be preaching some neoliberal agenda where conservation is driven by individuals and small groups in some meritocratic framework. While I think this is what conservation needs, there is definitely some personal irony here. Because while promoting that agenda, I realize at the same time that conservation success requires broad-level societal support and a social agenda. This puts me back on the left side of politics. No wonder I feel a bit torn these days.

Maybe I confuse practical needs now with ideal solutions in the long term. In the short term, conservation should become an accepted societal goal with practical solutions to everyday problems. Ideally, it should become a way of life, with individual people building their ethical systems on a basis of respect for nature. The key to either model is the dedication of individuals to set examples about how things can be done better. When choosing between the three spirited fighters depicted above this piece, we might want to be a bit less like Che, stop acting like Don Quixote, and walk and talk more like Nelson Mandela.

Monday, November 22, 2010

CITES joins forces with Interpol, the World Bank & the UN

Illegal wildlife trade: World's police 'must learn from environmental groups'
Chief enforcer of global efforts to halt decline in endangered species says tactics and priorities must change

Thai navy officers and forestry officials display dead tigers and leopards seized after a
raid on an illegal wildlife trade in northeastern Thailand. Photograph: AP

Police forces across the globe need to learn from environmental NGOs in investigating and exposing poachers and smugglers, according to the chief enforcer of global efforts to halt the illegal wildlife trade.

John Sellar, a former Aberdonian police chief who now works for the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), said priorities and tactics needed to change if the alarming decline in tigers and other threatened animals was to be reversed.

Speaking before the the launch of a new international consortium to fight wildlife smuggling, he expressed admiration for international NGOs who work undercover to identify individuals and crime organisations that profit from the contraband sales driving much of the kill-off.

Though he did not mention any of the groups by name, Traffic, the Environment Investigation Agency and Global Witness are among the groups that have produced a series of hard-hitting studies in recent years.

"If an NGO had come to me with these kinds of reports while I was a police officer in Scotland, I would have called my staff into the office for a long shouting match and asked why they are doing what we should be doing in terms of policing," said Sellar. "If we brought to bear the investigative skills that we bear on other criminals, we'd be infiltrating these networks and markets and taking action against them."

Cites has joined forces with Interpol, the World Bank, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the World Customs Organisation to co-ordinate and promote legal action against smugglers.

The International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime will be signed tomorrow at the International Tiger Forum in St Petersburg where delegates have vowed to reverse a dramatic decline that has seen the predators' number fall by 97% in the past century.

"We should agree to eradicate the illegal traffic," said Keshav Varma, director of the Global Tiger Initiative at the World Bank. "This is the cruellest thing. It has to bloody well stop. We have to come down very heavily."

The new group aims to help national police and customs officers to launch undercover investigations, extradite suspects and follow the money trail of profits generated by smuggling.

"There is an opportunity for law-enforcement authorities to make major inroads," said Sellar, who has worked with Cites for 13 years. "In my experience, when dealing with criminals there are only two ways to hurt them, either lock them up or hit them in the pocket."

Currently, he said, the wildlife trade was a source of easy money for organised crime groups because the profits were lucrative and the risk of detection was low. Even if caught, prosecutions were often difficult and penalties minimal.

"Every country could do more," said Sellar. "There is not a single country in the world that has the response to wildlife crime right."

Part of the problem is that police resources are often tied up with other crimes. This was particularly true after the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, when Sellar said priorities shifted noticeably away from wildlife smuggling and are only now starting to return.

Environment groups said enforcement efforts were just as important close to the ground as at international level. "Without that, all other strategies would fail," said Joseph Walston of the Wildlife Conservation Society, which is pushing for at least $35m per year to strengthen anti-poaching efforts.

Thanks to Dieter L for the link!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Movie trailer: Born to be Wild

If I put aside my reservations about re-introduction and its role in conservation and the issues of zoonotic disease transmission, then this movie looks lovely. (Thanks to Tracy K for the link!) -MA

Friday, November 19, 2010

Friendship Among Macaques

From the
Hanging Out, Grooming, Fighting Foes: Friendship Among Macaques

The human tendency to form close bonds with people other than kin may have primal roots. Researchers from Germany report in the journal Current Biology that male macaques exhibit a social bonding behavior similar to human friendship.

Macaque monkeys live in groups of 50 to 60, but “every male in the group has a few other males he interacts with more than others,” said Oliver Schülke, the study’s lead author and an evolutionary biologist at the University of Göttingen.

Dr. Schülke and his colleagues studied male Assamese macaques in Thailand over a period of five years and monitored their behavior. Macaques that spent a lot of time within 1.5 meters of each other were considered friends, since it is easy to attack another macaque at this distance. Males that groomed each other’s bodies frequently and for excessive periods of time were also considered friends. Often, they groomed areas that an individual could groom himself. “The grooming seems to work to foster these bonds,” Dr. Schülke said. “The hygiene aspect was only one part of it.” The bonds can lead to the forming of coalitions, where a group of males might fight another male to improve rank and social status, the researchers found. “The interesting thing is that these coalitions can help pull up low-ranking individuals and help high-ranking males stay where they are,” Dr. Schülke said. “Both things are going on at the same time.”

It appears that, just as in humans, some friendships were long lasting whereas others broke up after a short time. Why this happens is still unclear.

It was previously known that female macaques form strong social bonds, but these bonds tend to be with kin. Females prefer to form close relationships with their mothers, sisters and daughters.

Schülke O, Bhagavatula J, Vigilant L, Ostner J (2010)Social Bonds Enhance Reproductive Success in Male Macaques. Current Biology. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2010.10.058

  • Males act politically when manipulating their own and others' rank
  • High- and low-ranking coalition partners benefit by maintaining and enhancing status
  • The strength, rather than the number, of social ties affects males' siring success
For animals living in mixed-sex social groups, females who form strong social bonds with other females live longer and have higher offspring survival [1,2,3]. These bonds are highly nepotistic, but sometimes strong bonds may also occur between unrelated females if kin are rare [2,3] and even among postdispersal unrelated females in chimpanzees and horses [4,5]. Because of fundamental differences between the resources that limit reproductive success in females (food and safety) and males (fertilizations), it has been predicted that bonding among males should be rare and found only for kin and among philopatric males [6] like chimpanzees [7,8,9]. We studied social bonds among dispersing male Assamese macaques (Macaca assamensis) to see whether males in multimale groups form differentiated social bonds and whether and how males derive fitness benefits from close bonds. We found that strong bonds were linked to coalition formation, which in turn predicted future social dominance, which influenced paternity success. The strength of males' social bonds was directly linked to the number of offspring they sired. Our results show that differentiated social relationships exert an important influence on the breeding success of both sexes that transcends contrasts in relatedness.

More on Lamarck and inheritance of acquired characteristics

I recently put up THIS epigenetics post, then i found THIS op-ed on the reaction norm (rxnm) blog via Gene Expression (gnxp). Its not necessarily epigentics (as no mechansim is provided) but seems likely and is interesting "Lamarkian"ish evolution. -MA

From via
Again with this Lamarck guy
Here he is “late in life.” Everyone already thinks he’s wrong wrong WRONG. We know him now as the Wrongest Biologist Ever. When we say “Lamarckian” we mean the idea that acquired characteristics can be inherited. I can almost hear him crying from the grave, “I produced a lifetime of ideas on all kinds of stuff, yet ‘Lamarckian’ will always mean just that one thing.” No wonder he looks a little shifty and bitter. Well, most of his other stuff was wrong too, but it was like 1800 and he was trying to convince people that species evolved without divine intervention! Pardon him for not getting the details right.

But he was wrong. Except when he was right. “Lamarckian” phenomena aren’t all that uncommon, especially in prokaryotes. Of course, he was still wrong because he didn’t know about any of the phenomena that he was right about—he was basing his ideas on types of evolution that simply aren’t “Lamarckian.” It’s fashionable these days to defend Lamarck, and it’s always been fashionable to dismiss things like genetic assimilation or the Baldwin Effect as “Lamarckian,” which they aren’t. Someday, perhaps someone will describe some epigenetic phenomenon in which an environmental variable specifically alters a locus in the germ line (Weissman stirs in his grave) such that the inheritors of that altered locus are better adapted to that environment. But no one is holding their breath.

But wait! What’s this in today’s issue of Current Biology?

Stable inheritance of an acquired behavior in Caenorhabditis elegans

Huh. First, it’s a single author paper, which is sometimes a crackpot alert. But Current Biology is respectable. And the author, Jean-Jacques Remy is from a respectable lab. And it’s a really simple paper with no mechanism, just getting the phenomenon itself out there. So here it is.

If they are exposed to benzaldehyde as larvae, they show a greater level of attraction to benzaldehyde as adults. This involves a couple neurons. Now, Remy is claiming that if a worm is imprinted, its offspring (F1) show the same enhanced attraction to benzaldehyde, even though it’s never smelled it before. However, the grandkids (F2) do not show the imprinting effect.

If however you imprint multiple generations (more than 4), the behavioral switch becomes stable, and is inherited for multiple generations (at least up to 40 generations). The behavior is odor-specific and is also discrete—there is an “imprinted” state and a “naïve” state, with nothing in between, as you would expect if there was something being diluted over time.

Note, this is not genetic assimilation for two reasons: 1. There is no selection for the behavior, 2. This is all done in an isogenic strain—there is no genetic variation in the population.

That’s all there is to it—no experiments to get at mechanism. So we’re left with a sort of “ok, you need to convince me it’s real” kind of feeling. There is a lot they could be doing here, and probably are. For example, testing the requirement for chromatin modifying enzymes, or microarray analysis of imprinted and unimprinted lines. The fact that they published this as just the behavioral inheritance observation makes me think there is competition and Remy wants priority. Anyway, it will be exciting to see how this plays out.
Remy, J. (2010). Stable inheritance of an acquired behavior in Caenorhabditis elegans Current Biology, 20 (20) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2010.08.013

Sensory imprinting produces life-long attachment to environmental features experienced during a critical period of early development. Imprinting of this kind is highly conserved in evolution and is an important form of adaptive behavioral plasticity [1]. The nematode Caenorhabditis elegans undergoes such adaptation to new environments through imprinting: attractive odorants, when present during the first larval stage, produce life-long olfactory imprints that enhance attraction and egg-laying rates in the adults [2]. Here I report evidence that the olfactory imprint can be transmitted to the next generation. If the imprint is generated successively over more than four generations, it is not just transmitted through one further generation, but rather, it is stably inherited through many following generations. While the transient nature of the inheritance suggests the existence of resetting mechanisms, stable trans-generational inheritance of the kind reported here raises the possibility that a behavioral alteration produced by an environmental change might be genetically assimilated after a limited number of generations.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

*updated* Saving Rhinos website and facebook page

*updated*: Louwtjie sent me this update on the rhino situation in S. Africa, like i said, its bad news "Rhino dump found on govt park - Limpopo officials have discovered a rhino cemetery containing 17 rhino carcasses at the Letaba Ranch, on the western border of the Kruger National Park." -MA

original post:
Maybe you have noticed I haven't been posting too much bad/sad conservation news lately, and there is a lot of it happening right now, I simply cannot keep up. The rhino poaching situation in South Africa is out of control it seems...consider 'liking" the saving rhinos facebook page or visiting their website at to keep up to date with the arrests, releases and poaching situation. -MA

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Not so fast... What's so premature about premature ejaculation?

A very interesting piece although I question the decorum of calling the female reproductive system a "dark, labyrinthine abyss"..... Also I think maybe more emphasis could have been put on how maybe there are multiple male ejaculative strategies competing against eachother, which leads to the variation we see. It sort of reminds me of this paper - Alpha male chimpanzee grooming patterns: implications for dominance "style". Thanks to Tracy K for the link! - MA

From Scientific American

It occurred to me recently, under conditions that I leave to your ample and likely sordid imagination (how dare you), that the very concept of “premature ejaculation” in human males is a strange one, at least from an evolutionary theoretical perspective. After all, the function of ejaculation isn’t really a mysterious biological occurrence…it’s an evolved mechanism designed by nature to launch semen, and therefore sperm cells, as far into the dark, labyrinthine abyss of the female reproductive tract as possible. And once one of these skyrocketed male gametes, in a vigorous race against millions of other single-tasked cells, finds and penetrates a fertile ovum, and—miracle of miracles—successful conception occurs, well then natural selection can congratulate itself on a job well done.

So given these basic biological facts, and assuming that ejaculation is not so premature that it occurs prior to intromission and sperm cells find themselves awkwardly outside of a woman’s reproductive tract flopping about like fish out of water, what, exactly, is so “premature” about premature ejaculation? In fact, all else being equal, in the ancestral past, wouldn’t there likely have been some reproductive advantages to ejaculating as quickly as possible during intravaginal intercourse—such as, oh, I don’t know, inseminating as many females as possible in as short a time frame as possible? or allowing our ancestors to focus on other adaptive behaviors aside from sex? or perhaps, under surreptitious mating conditions, doing the deed quickly and expeditiously without causing a big scene?

Like so many things before, it turns out that this insight of mine was actually several decades behind the curve, because in 1984, when, at nine years of age I was still anything but a premature ejaculator, a sociologist from California State University named Lawrence Hong published in the Journal of Sex Research a highly speculative, but very original, paper along these same lines, fittingly titled “Survival of the Fastest: On the Origin of Premature Ejaculation.” In this article, Hong—whose most recent work, so far as I can tell, has been on the global phenomenon of cabaret transgenderism—posited that, during the long course of human evolutionary history, “an expeditious partner who mounted quickly, ejaculated immediately, and dismounted forthwith might [have been] the best for the female.”

The empirical centerpiece of Hong’s arriving at this conclusion is the fact that, on average, human males achieve orgasm by ejaculating around just two minutes after vaginal penetration, whereas it takes the owners of these vaginas, on average, at least twice that long to do the same once a penis is inside of them — if they achieve orgasm at all, that is. This obvious gender mismatch between orgasm latencies can be understood, Hong reasons, only once we acknowledge the fact that sex evolved for reproductive rather than recreational purposes; don’t forget, he reminds us, that sex for sex’s sake is a relatively recent technological innovation enabled by prophylactics and other modern contraceptive inventions.

The author compares the mating habits of human beings to other rapid—and not-so-rapid—ejaculators in the primate family, noting that the faster a primate species is in the coital realm, the less aggressive it is when it comes to mating-related behaviors. He calls this the “slow speed - high aggressiveness hypothesis.” For example, male rhesus macaque monkeys often engage in marathon mounting sessions, where sex with a female can be drawn out for over an hour at a time (including many breaks and therefore non-continuous thrusting). That may sound great, but libidinous anthropomorphizers beware: macaque sex is a chaotic and violent affair, largely because the duration of the act often draws hostile attention from other competitive males. By contrast, primate species whose males evolved to ejaculate rapidly would have largely avoided such internecine violence, or at least minimized it to a considerable degree.

Key to Hong’s analysis therefore is the idea that intravaginal ejaculation latencies in males is heritable—there was initially greater within-population level variation in the male ancestral population, he surmises, but over time, “the ancestry of Homo sapiens became overpopulated with rapid ejaculators.” This is because, according to Hong, young reproductive-aged males who ejaculated faster (i.e., had more sensitive penises) avoided injury, lived longer and therefore had a greater chance of attaining high status and acquiring the most desirable females.

Hong’s reasoning on these heritability grounds has in fact received very recent support. You may have missed this in your monthly periodical readings, but in a 2009 article from the International Journal of Impotence Research, a team of Finnish psychologists led by Patrick Jern of Åbo Akademi University reports evidence from a large-scale twin study showing that premature ejaculation is determined significantly by genetic factors. So just as Hong surmised in 1984, this is indeed a heritable trait—if you doubt it, go on, have that awkward conversation with your fathers, boys. In fact, since Jern and his colleagues found that delayed ejaculation—the other extreme end of the ejaculation latency continuum—revealed no such genetic contributions, these authors generally agree with Hong, postulating that “premature” ejaculation may be a product of natural selection whereas delayed ejaculation “would be completely maladaptive.” Delayed ejaculators are considerably rarer, with a prevalence rate as low as 0.15% in the male population compared to as high as 30% with premature ejaculators, and their condition is usually owed to lifelong medical conditions or the recent use of antiadrenergics, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), neuroepileptics, or other modern-day drugs that, I say blushingly from personal experience, are often associated with anorgasmia as a miserably unfortunate side-effect.

Adding additional credence to the evolutionary model is a separate set of self-report data published by Jern and his colleagues last year in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, in which ejaculation latencies were shown to be significantly shorter when men achieve orgasm through vaginal penetration than when doing so in the course of other activities, such as anal, oral, or manual sex. In fact, in light of these differential ejaculation latencies, the authors argue that the very construct of such male orgasmic “timing” is best carved up by discrete sexual behaviors rather than treated as a more general clinical phenomenon. And they offer several helpful acronyms for these ejaculation latency subtypes, too, such as “OELT” for “oral ejaculation latency time” and, conveniently, “MELT” for “masturbation ejaculation latency time.”

I have the niggling, faraway sense that we’ve left something out of the evolutionary equation regarding the variation in male ejaculation latencies. What, oh what, can that possibly, conceivably be? Ah, right—women’s sexual satisfaction. Oh come now. Actually, Hong didn’t leave female orgasms out of his rather viscous analysis altogether; he just didn’t see it as being central to selective pressures. Presumably, like other theorists of that time writing about the biological reasons for female orgasms (such as Stephen Jay Gould, who thought that female orgasms were much like male nipples, a happy leftover of the human embryological bauplan) he saw women’s sexual pleasure as being a nice, but neither here nor there, feature of human sex that nature had thrown into the mix. And, anyway, writes Hong, for women, as a general rule, “genital sex is better with digital sex”:

The tender touch, the passionate caress, the gentle rub, the titillating probe, and all those other infinite maneuvers that humans, as the most sophisticated bipedal primate, are best equipped to do, can be much more satisfying to women than simply a longer time span between intromission and ejaculation.

Hong acknowledges—with great humility and humor, in fact—that his ideas on the evolutionary origins of premature ejaculation in human males are highly speculative. And his ideas were critiqued soundly by University of Louisville psychologist Ray Bixler in his very good 1986 review of Hong’s theory in The Journal of Sex Research. Among many faults that Bixler finds in Hong’s “survival of the fastest” theory, the basic logic just doesn’t mesh with the obvious female pursuit of sexual intercourse. In chimpanzees, for instance—a species for which male ejaculation latencies are measured in seconds, not minutes—it is often females that initiate mating behaviors. And then there’s the “ouch” factor of having a sexually recalcitrant female partner whose dry genitals aren’t terribly inviting. If Hong’s model were correct, says Bixler:

There would be little or no proximal cause, other than coercion, for female cooperation—and it should be very clear that she would have to cooperate if voluntary mating were to be speedy! If she were not lubricated he would have “to rasp it in,” a painful experience for the woman, and … “no pleasure” for him either.

Disappointingly, this is more or less where the evolutionary thinking stops. Apparently no other theorist—at least, no experimentally inclined evolutionary theorist—has picked up Hong’s lead in trying to tease apart competing adaptationist arguments regarding male ejaculation latencies. Pieces of the puzzle are floating about out there, I suspect, such as the Finnish research showing that vaginal sex leads to faster ejaculations compared to other sexual behaviors; but Hong’s article was before its time—premature itself, in light of today’s more informed evolutionary biology, which is now poised to construct a more nuanced empirical model about this evolutionary legacy that is behind so many of us being fast finishers.

Another big piece of the puzzle can probably be traced to our species' specially evolved social cognitive abilities, which enabled us—possibly only tens of thousands of years ago, just a splinter of a splinter’s time in the long course of our primate history—to experience empathy with our sexual partners during intercourse. A male concerned about bringing his female reproductive partner pleasure during sex, and thus deliberately prolonging the act of coitus to delay his own orgasm for her sake, couldn’t possibly have been selected for in an ancestral species that more than likely saw others’ bodies as pieces of mindless meat.

The subject may not appeal to everyone, of course, but given the unpleasant stigma attached to premature ejaculation, I really do believe that an evolutionary approach to the “problem” can greatly inform clinical treatments, a (not surprisingly) high-grossing therapeutic area of which there is no shortage of work being done. But in any event, Hong’s seminal Reagan-era ideas should give us all pause in labeling any particular intravaginal ejaculation “premature”—Mother Nature, arguably the only lover that really matters, after all, may very well have had a thing for our one-minute ancestors.