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'

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Endagered species facebook thread

From the WWF Canada facebook page (created by Isaac Fresia, a student at NSCAD in Halifax)

Virunga Forests Going to Pot

Marijuana Trade Threatens African Gorilla Refuge
Pot-growing rebels in Virunga National Park clashing with rangers.
from National Geographic News

The battle over the war-ravaged Virunga National Park, home to some of the world's last wild mountain gorillas, is heating up.

In early April a ranger in the park, in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was shot to death by militias—the eighth ranger to have been killed in the past three months.

And rebels who have been fueling the illegal charcoal business, which destroys critical gorilla habitat, now appear to have turned to an additional criminal activity: growing marijuana.

"The same people are involved," said Innocent Mburanumwe, the warden in charge of the southern sector of Virunga, where the mountain gorillas live.

A crackdown on the charcoal and marijuana businesses in 2009 was very successful. But the Rwandan militia living in the park, known as FDLR, seems to have reorganized and stepped up its activities, Mburanumwe said.

"The most recent attack is by far the most worrying, as it appears the rebels may be changing their tactics, and are currently getting the better of the wildlife authority," Rob Muir, of the Frankfurt Zoological Society's office in Goma, DRC, said via email.

Virunga Forests Going to Pot
The latest trouble has been occurring in the volcanic Nyamulagira region of the park, away from the gorilla sector, which has so far remained calm.

With the Congolese government absent in much of eastern Congo, the rangers have been left to fight the ragtag militias, poachers, and bandits who have turned Virunga—Africa's oldest national park—into a battleground for decades.

Charcoal is illegally produced in the park by cutting down wood, then slowly burning it for six days inside a kiln made of wood and covered with dirt, according to the park's website. People then sell the charcoal in Goma, or trade it for guns and bullets. In 2007, people involved with the charcoal trade killed seven gorillas. (See a National Geographic interactive time line of the turmoil in Virunga.)

The FDLR rebels, remnants of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, are based in the forest and provide "security" for traders, who transport the illegal charcoal from forest kilns to the main road to be sold.

Villagers provide the FDLR with money, food, cell phone airtime, and medicine in exchange for being allowed into the forest to make the charcoal, the rangers say.

When the charcoal has been removed, the area may be cleared and seeded with marijuana, usually by the FDLR. Rebels will come back to harvest, dry, and sell or exchange the pot, often for uniforms, bullets, and guns, according to the rangers.

"The charcoal trade is destroying the forest, and the marijuana comes in after it," said LuAnne Cadd, a spokesperson for the park service.

In March two people were caught with marijuana plants that had been grown in the forest.

Rangers Need to Rethink Security
Patrols are aimed at eradicating the charcoal business, not going after the marijuana traders. But in the most recent incident, rangers patrolling the Kibumba area in Nyamulagira found not only a charcoal kiln but also a lot of marijuana plants.

A team of 15 rangers began a patrol in Kibumba, specifically looking for charcoal kilns, when they came under fire by an unknown number of men believed to have been FDLR rebels. Ranger Magayane Bazirushaka was killed in the attack.

"It seems likely that the rebels established a charcoal fire to draw the rangers into an area where they could be easily ambushed, and then sat and waited," the Frankfurt Zoological Society's Muir said.

"If this is indeed the case, the rangers will need to rethink their current law enforcement strategy, increase their intelligence and surveillance networks, and diversify their operations on the ground," he said.

"The bottom line is that the park is now under greater pressure than it has been for many years, and this is directly linked to the efforts to uphold and enforce the law."

Gorilla Population Up Despite Strife
Despite the turmoil, the mountain gorilla population in the Virunga region—which straddles the borders of the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda—has increased by 26 percent in the last seven years and now totals 480.

Emmanuel de Merode, Virunga's director, said rangers are now planning to launch new operations to stop illegal marijuana trade.

"Perhaps the most remarkable outcome of this terrible war," de Merode said, "is the unwavering determination of our rangers on the ground not to give up on the efforts to bring stability and the rule of law back to Virunga."

From Geekologie: Men's fashion - monkey tail beards

From Geekologie
All The Rage: Ridiculous 'Monkeytail' Beards

There's a new fad sweeping the nation, and, sadly, it's not women going topless. Nope -- it's monkeytail beards. Monkeytail beards (NOT BEARS) start at one ear and then wrap around your chin and mouth to make it look like you just finished picking the ticks off a monkey's nuts with your teeth. Personally, I'm more of a sloth man. "HEEEEEY YOOOOOOU GUYS!" Not him, he still gives me nightmares. You don't actually have to stripe your beard like this Dapper Dan did to achieve a monkeytail, it just scores some extra 'girls talking to you at the bar' points if you do. Unfortunately, any girl who does talk to you will NOT being accompanying you home at the end of the night. "Why not?!" And the answer to that, my friend, lies in the mirror.

"Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the handsomest of them all?"
"You're out of your f***ing mind! Just break me already."

Go the Geekologie entry for a pictorial field-guide, including one guy trying to candidly include his gramma in the picture, and another taken on the can. Classy.
Or go here straight to the monkey tail website

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Congolese ecoguards prosecuted for ivory trafficking

From the Africa Geographic facebook page

Congo’s courts slam 13 wildlife criminals in push against corruption and ivory trafficking

On Monday, 18 April 2011 in Ouesso, northern Republic of Congo, thirteen wildlife traffickers were prosecuted for various wildlife crimes, hit with tough jail sentences ranging from 12 to 24 months in prison. The highest profile cases include two international ivory dealers, a notorious large-scale elephant poacher and four Ecoguards revealed to have committed the same crimes they were supposed to prevent, and arrested in the act of facilitating ivory traffic.

Other notable cases included other elephant hunters and ivory traffickers, two gorilla hunters, and a truck driver for the logging company working in the region, CIB (Congolaise Industrielle des Bois), who was involved in ivory traffic as well.

The Ecoguards admitted to corruption, having turned their noble task into an organized trafficking operation. They were sentenced to two years in prison each. Other sentences ranged between 12 and 18 months in jail, the two year sentences representing a crackdown on corruption.

The Republic of Congo started a push for the application of its wildlife laws by launching PALF (Project for the Application of Law for Fauna) - a partnership between two NGOs and the Ministry of Sustainable Development, Forest Economy and the Environment. The purpose is to support the ministry in investigations of wildlife crime, operations, follow up on court cases; and to fight corruption which often blocks the full application of the law. “While Congo has advanced in wildlife law enforcement, the North of the country remains an area of great concern, with ivory traffickers and poachers being freed from jail often before ever seeing the inside of a courtroom.

With the support of PALF and serious treatment of illegal trafficking networks by the Ministry of Justice, the way wildlife crimes are treated in Congo is beginning to change. No one is above the law.” says PALF Coordinator Naftali Honig.

The cases exposed international trafficking routes, highlighting the need for international collaboration in the fight. Congo joined Cameroon in an alliance, now including Gabon and CAR as well, coordinated by LAGA (Last Great Ape Organization) to intensify the crackdown regionally. LAGA Coordinator Ofir Drori says, “Corruption
remains our number one obstacle in the struggle to protect Africa’s forests. Not just corruption in government offices but in NGO projects. Congo’s prosecutions serve as a lesson to all those ignoring corruption that it can be fought and won over.”

WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society), who supports Ecoguards in a number of protected areas in Congo, is intent upon rooting out the corruption amongst the park rangers. “Corruption in conservation is unacceptable” says Director of WCS-Congo, Paul Telfer. “This case demonstrates that it exists and that we can fight it. We will root it out wherever it exists to make sure that conservation efforts serve to protect wildlife and do not become victim to individual greed.”

The difficulties are numerous in putting wildlife legislation into practice. Arms suppliers are often authorities. Traffic may be facilitated by the presence of logging companies and even park rangers. Bribery attempts are commonplace from the moment a trafficker is taken into custody through the carrying out of a prison sentence.

“The battle is uphill,” says Honig, “but these sentences are a major success for Congo. More sentences like these could really change the way people weigh out the risks of illegally trafficking wildlife and we hope this will echo from cities all the way to the forests and work in the favor of protected species.”


PALF website –

Sunday, April 24, 2011

200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 Minutes: global development over the last 200 years

perhaps a little too optimistic but very well done and a good message about bridging the gap between scientists and their data and public outreach and understanding. -MA

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Why Heavy Metal Chicks Love Sex

From Men's Health
Why Heavy Metal Chicks Love Sex

You know how we know if you’re a prude? Because you listen to Coldplay.

According to a survey from, a dating site that connects you with people who share your musical preferences, fans of the British soft-rock band best known for hits like “Yellow” and “Viva La Vida” are least likely to have sex on the first date.

The site conducted a simple survey that asked users how far they would take things on the first date, and gave them three options to choose from: “I’d only meet up for a chat,” “Perhaps a kiss,” and “I’d go all the way if the mood was right.” After answers were matched with the favorite music listed on users’ profiles, Tastebuds determined that Coldplay fans don’t put out, while Nirvana fans are the easiest of them all.

Here’s a closer look at the results:

Least Likely to Have Sex on the First Date
  1. Coldplay
  2. Adele
  3. Lady Gaga
  4. Katy Perry
  5. Kings of Leon
Most Likely
  1. Nirvana
  2. Metallica
  3. Linkin Park
  4. Kanye West
  5. Gorillaz
What gives, Kings of Leon fans? It seems like your sex is hardly on fire. As for you, Kanye crew: Keep living the good life.

Even though the survey was unscientific, its results do make some sense. Listeners respond to the dominant messages in music and accept them as normal, which indicates that they’re more likely to partake in such behaviors, says Sena Agbo-Quaye, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Buckinghamshire New University in the U.K. “So if you’re comparing first-date behaviors between fans of Coldplay to fans of Nirvana, one should look at the dominant themes in their lyrics and videos.”

It may be as simple as comparing Kurt Cobain, Nirvana’s late lead singer, and Chris Martin, the front man of Coldplay, to see where the sex will be found, Agbo-Quaye says. “Cobain lived the rock and roll lifestyle, whereas Martin plays the conscious sweet boy role. They are normalizing very different behaviors. So one possible explanation is that [Nirvana fans] may be more tolerant to first date exploration than [Coldplay fans.]”

But what leads one person to Coldplay and the other to Nirvana? In a 2003 study from the University of Texas-Austin, researchers examined the relationship between personality and music preferences. After surveying more than 3,500 college students’ music tastes, the researchers split all genres up into four basic categories and found a clear personality trait for each one:

* Intense, rebellious music (like rock and punk): More open
* Reflective, complex music (like jazz): Politically liberal
* Rhythmic music (hip-hop): Extroverted
* Regular, conventional pop music: Conscientious and politically conservative

A 2007 study in Psychology of Music corroborates those results: Researchers in England found that fans of “problem” music styles were relatively liberal compared to fans of more conservative music on factors like number of sexual partners, religious beliefs, and drug use.

“Of course no single preference is 100 percent diagnostic for anything, but preferences do reflect attitudes and values. And people use music as a shorthand way to broadcast them,” says Sam Gosling, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

In fact, music is so useful in conveying information that according to Gosling’s 2006 study in Psychological Science, it’s the topic that’s talked about more than any other when people are trying to get to know each other, beating out books, clothing, and sports.

Which leads us to this question: If you met a girl with completely opposite tastes—she likes Nickelback, while you’re a fan of … good music—how long could you date her before breaking it off? “It’s not so much the music that may be a problem in the relationship, but the fact that music is symptomatic of much deeper values, attitudes, and dispositions, which would then be a problem,” Gosling says.

But don’t call it quits just yet. “There are many happy couples who have vastly different cultural backgrounds, like different religions and ethnicities, so similarity in music preference can’t be the only basis of a successful relationship,” says Agbo-Quaye.

1) North AC and Hargreaves DJ (2007) Lifestyle correlates of musical preference: 1. Relationships, living arrangements, beliefs, and crime Psychology of Music January 35 (1) 58-87
Several studies indicate that musical preferences provide a means of discriminating between social groups, and suggest indirectly that musical preferences should correlate with a variety of different lifestyle choices. In this study, 2532 participants responded to a questionnaire asking them to state their musical preference and also to provide data on various aspects of their lifestyle (namely interpersonal relationships, living arrangements, moral and political beliefs, and criminal behaviour). Numerous associations existed between musical preference and these aspects of participants' lifestyle. The nature of these associations was generally consistent with previous research concerning a putative liberal–conservative divide between differing groups of fans. It is concluded that participants' musical preferences provided a meaningful way of distinguishing different lifestyle choices.

2)Rentfrow PJ and Gosling SD (2006) Message in a Ballad The Role of Music Preferences in Interpersonal Perception. Psychological Science 17 (3) 236-242

How is information about people conveyed through their preferences for certain kinds of music? Here we show that individuals use their music preferences to communicate information about their personalities to observers, and that observers can use such information to form impressions of others. Study 1 revealed that music was the most common topic in conversations among strangers given the task of getting acquainted. Why was talk about music so prevalent? Study 2 showed that (a) observers were able to form consensual and accurate impressions on the basis of targets' music preferences, (b) music preferences were related to targets' personalities, (c) the specific cues that observers used tended to be the ones that were valid, and (d) music preferences reveal information that is different from that obtained in other zero-acquaintance contexts. Discussion focuses on the mechanisms that may underlie the links between personality and music preferences.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Monday, April 18, 2011

***updated: Richard Branson translocating lemurs to Carribean Island

***update: I am reposting this since the telegraph came out with another piece on the subject today: Richard Bransons eco-island plans hit by row over non-native lemurs

It has been suggested to me several times that the only way to save apes is to move them to an island somewhere. My immediate reaction is always the conservation "party line" which is nicely outlined in the article below (its bad for endemic wildlife, the wrong type of foods will exist on the island so the animals won't be able to survive unassisted, where will you even get enough individuals to make a viable population, the money is better spent doing on the ground conservation, you aren't protecting biodiveristy just a single species with a translocation, etc etc). But at the same time, so many of these animals live in the harshest environments in the sense that they are being attacked from all directions, especially from anthropogenic effects, and from the poorest people who simply cannot afford the luxury of nature conservation. I have no idea what Mr. Branson's true intentions are, maybe he isn't trying to save a species and this is all for tourism and dollars, but I am keen on seeing what happens with this lemur translocation.
I know there are a lot of hopeful people and there have been many conservation success stories achieved by all the hard working NGOs out there. I hope that I am just too cynical, but I just don't see how wildlife in equatorial Africa is going to survive over the next 50 years if today's current trends continue. Despite heavy conservation efforts I have friends and colleagues coming back from the field (DRC, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, to name a few) where they say the forests are empty. Beautifully pristine and protected forests devoid of any wildlife. I think the chips are stacked against Mr. Branson but he is one of the few with the money and will to try something like this. It will either be the nail in the translocation argument's coffin or he will be a primate conservation pioneer. -MA

From BBC
Richard Branson's lemur plan raises alarm

Sir Richard Branson is to import lemurs to the Caribbean, where they will live wild in the forest on his islands.

The project has alarmed conservation scientists, who point out that many previous species introductions have proved disastrous to native wildlife.

But Sir Richard's team maintains that both the lemurs, which will come from zoos, and native animals will be fine.

Introducing species found on one continent into another for conservation purposes is virtually unprecedented.

Lemurs are found only on the African island of Madagascar and many species are threatened, largely because of deforestation.

The threat has grown worse since the toppling of President Marc Ravalomanana's government two years ago, which allowed illegal logging to flourish.

"We've been helping to try and preserve lemurs, and sadly in Madagascar because of the government being overthrown the space for lemurs is getting less and less," Sir Richard told BBC News from his Caribbean property.

"Here on Moskito Island we've got a beautiful rainforest - we brought in experts from South Africa, and they say it would be an absolutely perfect place where lemurs can be protected and breed."

Ring-tailed and red ruffed lemurs are two of the species in the plan. Both are on the Red List of Threatened Species.

Moskito (also spelled Mosquito) Island is one of two that Sir Richard owns in the British Virgin Islands (BVI). Several luxury houses, including one for the boss of the Virgin business empire himself, are being built on it.

His other island is Necker, home to an eco-tourism resort where a stay is priced at around $2,000 (£1,200) per day.
Continue reading the main story
“Start Quote

It's crucial that this move does not send the wrong message to people that it may be a good idea to keep lemurs as pets”

End Quote Christoph Schwitzer IUCN Primate Specialist Group

The plan has aroused a lot if interest locally, with the bulletin boards of BVI news websites buzzing with comments for and against, and politicians locking horns.

And it concerned conservation scientists contacted by BBC News.

"Maybe [Sir Richard] has got some people to say it is alright - but what else lives on the island, and how might they be affected?" asked Simon Stuart, chair of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Species Survival Commission (IUCN SSC).

"It's pretty weird - I would be alarmed about it and would want some reassurances."

Dr Stuart suggested the project could contravene the IUCN's code for translocations - designed to prevent the repetition of disastrous events such as the introduction of rabbits and cane toads to Australia.

Among other things, it says that translocations should never happen into natural ecosystems.

When they do happen into areas that have already been altered by human hand, there should be a controlled trial period with continual assessment.

In the past, it says: "The damage done by harmful introductions to natural systems far outweighs the benefit derived from them".
Sifaka Sifakas can jump, but not swim - still, some local people are concerned about them escaping

And Christoph Schwitzer, who co-ordinates the Madagascar work of the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group, said the lemurs should really be kept in some kind of confinement.

"The project would only be acceptable if he intended to keep them in a controlled environment - that is, in some kind of fenced-in enclosure where they cannot become a problem to the native fauna and flora," he said.

"It's crucial that this move does not send the wrong message to people that it may be a good idea to keep lemurs as pets for their own personal pleasure."

And he warned that there could be impacts on local wildlife.

While some species of lemur are faithful to a diet of fruit, others will grab whatever is around, including lizards and other small animals.

"There may be birds nesting, and if there are some of the lemurs would attempt to predate on their eggs - or there may be small invertebrates that they'd go for," said Dr Schwitzer.

Necker and Moskito Island are home to reptiles such as the stout iguana, the turnip-tailed gecko and the dwarf gecko that local conservationists have identified as being of specific concern.

Sir Richard told BBC News that an environmental impact assessment had been carried out for Moskito Island; but critics in the BVI said it did not include evaluation of "introduced exotic species".
Welfare benefits

Sir Richard's motivation for wanting to introduce the animals is not entirely clear.

They seem unlikely to make a significant difference to his eco-tourism business.
Ring-tailed lemurs Ring-tailed lemurs will be the first arrivals - adaptable feeders with a taste for bird eggs

One of his principal advisors is Lara Mostert, one of the managers of the Monkeyland Primate Sanctuary, a South African facility where many species of monkey and lemur live together in a patch of forest.

She said Sir Richard's lemurs would have a much better life than in the zoos where they currently live - some, she said, in "horrific" conditions.

"Unfortunately, primates have become rather like a business - the animals are seen as a commodity and apart from that they don't really have an identity," she said.

"And that's one of the things I like about Sir Richard's plan - he's not going to sell them."

She thinks the animals will thrive on Moskito Island.

Sir Richard sees the project as bringing conservation benefits, envisaging that at some point in the future, lemurs could be re-introduced from Moskito Island to Madagascar.

But captive breeding programmes already exist for this purpose.

Lara Mostert suggested Sir Richard's son "wanted a lemur after seeing the movie 'Madagascar'".

Despite the concerns, the plan has been approved by the BVI government and appears to be going ahead.

The first consignment, consisting of about 30 ring-tailed lemurs, is due to arrive within a few weeks, moved from zoos in Sweden, South Africa and Canada.

The much more imperilled red ruffed lemur may follow, possibly alongside some of the sifakas, famed for their calls and their jumping, may follow.

As threats to natural diversity multiply around the world, transporting species from place to place for conservation is one of the "extreme schemes" that conservationists are talking about and even beginning to implement.

But almost without exception, these translocations are taking place within the ecological region where the animal originated, rather than halfway across the planet.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Universality of language called into question, culture appears to drive underlying grammar of language families

From BBC
Language universality idea tested with biology method
A long-standing idea that human languages share universal features that are dictated by human brain structure has been cast into doubt.

A study reported in Nature
has borrowed methods from evolutionary biology to trace the development of grammar in several language families.

The results suggest that features shared across language families evolved independently in each lineage.

The authors say cultural evolution, not the brain, drives language development.

At the heart of both studies is a method based on what are known as phylogenetic studies.

Lead author Michael Dunn, an evolutionary linguist at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands, said the approach is akin to the study of pea plants by Gregor Mendel, which ultimately led to the idea of heritability of traits.

"By looking at variation amongst the descendant plants and knowing how they were related to each other, [Mendel] could work out the mechanisms that must govern that variation," Dr Dunn explained to BBC News.

"He inferred the existence of some kind of information transfer just from knowing family trees and observing variation, and that's exactly the same thing we're doing."

Family trees
Modern phylogenetics studies look at variations in animals that are known to be related, and from those can work out when specific structures evolved.

For their studies, the team studied the characteristics of word order in four language families: Indo-European, Uto-Aztec, Bantu and Austronesian.

They considered whether what we call prepositions occur before or after a noun ("in the boat" versus "the boat in") and how the word order of subject and object work out in either case ("I put the dog in the boat" versus "I the dog put the canoe in").

The method starts by making use of well-established linguistic data on words and grammar within these language families, and building "family trees" of those languages.

"Once we have those trees we look at distribution of these different word order features over the descendant languages, and build evolutionary models for what's most likely to produce the diversity that we observe in the world," Dr Dunn said.
Pea plants in a greenhouse The methods use inference in a similar way to Mendel's studies of pea plants

The models revealed that while different language structures in the family tree could be seen to evolve along the branches, just how and when they evolved depended on which branch they were on.

"We show that each of these language families evolves according to its own set of rules, not according to a universal set of rules," Dr Dunn explained.

"That is inconsistent with the dominant 'universality theories' of grammar; it suggests rather that language is part of not a specialised module distinct from the rest of cognition, but more part of broad human cognitive skills."

The paper asserts instead that "cultural evolution is the primary factor that determines linguistic structure, with the current state of a linguistic system shaping and constraining future states".

However, co-author and evolutionary biologist Russell Gray of the University of Auckland stressed that the team was not pitting biology against culture in a mutually exclusive way.

"We're not saying that biology is irrelevant - of course it's not," Professor Gray told BBC News.

"But the clumsy argument about an innate structure of the human mind imposing these kind of 'universals' that we've seen in cognitive science for such a long time just isn't tenable."

Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist at Harvard University, called the work "an important and welcome study".

However, Professor Pinker told BBC News that the finer details of the method need bearing out in order to more fully support their hypothesis that cultural boundaries drive the development of language more than biological limitations do.

"The [authors] suggest that the human mind has a tendency to generalise orderings across phrases of different types, which would not occur if the mind generated every phrase type with a unique and isolated rule.

"The tendency may be partial, and it may be elaborated in different ways in differently language families, but it needs an explanation in terms of the working of the mind of language speakers."


Dunn M, Greenhill SJ, Levinson SC, Gray RD (2011) Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals. Nature doi:10.1038/nature09923

Languages vary widely but not without limit. The central goal of linguistics is to describe the diversity of human languages and explain the constraints on that diversity. Generative linguists following Chomsky have claimed that linguistic diversity must be constrained by innate parameters that are set as a child learns a language1, 2. In contrast, other linguists following Greenberg have claimed that there are statistical tendencies for co-occurrence of traits reflecting universal systems biases3, 4, 5, rather than absolute constraints or parametric variation. Here we use computational phylogenetic methods to address the nature of constraints on linguistic diversity in an evolutionary framework6. First, contrary to the generative account of parameter setting, we show that the evolution of only a few word-order features of languages are strongly correlated. Second, contrary to the Greenbergian generalizations, we show that most observed functional dependencies between traits are lineage-specific rather than universal tendencies. These findings support the view that—at least with respect to word order—cultural evolution is the primary factor that determines linguistic structure, with the current state of a linguistic system shaping and constraining future states.

Kahuzi Biega highland sector gorillas stable

The good news, is that the higland sector Kahuzi Biega gorilla population seems to be at least stable. We know that even these direct count nest surveys are unreliable and contain a large amount of error (see Guschanski et al 2009), so I am a bit suspicious of any hard number or claims of increase that this press release reports. But it is great news that this population seems to be doing fine depsite the human conflict that surrounds its habitat . Major kudos to the rangers and teams who are doing these censuses despite such violent and dangerous circumstances.- MA

From eureka alert - WCS press release
Recent census in war-torn DR Congo finds gorillas have survived, even increased
Census team led by Wildlife Conservation Society, ICCN braves insecurity of imperiled Kahuzi-Biega National Park

A census team led by the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Insitut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) in Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo today announced some encouraging news from a region plagued by warfare and insecurity: a small population of Grauer's gorillas has not only survived, but also increased since the last census.

The census, conducted late 2010 in the highland sector of Kahuzi-Biega National Park, revealed the presence of 181 individual Grauer's gorillas, up from 168 individuals detected in the same sector in 2004.

A "cousin" to the more famous mountain gorilla, the Grauer's gorilla is the largest subspecies of gorilla in the world, growing up to 500 pounds. The Grauer's gorilla (also known as the eastern lowland gorilla) is the least known subspecies, due in large part to the 15 years of insecurity in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The gorilla is listed as "Endangered" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN's) Red List and may number fewer than 4,000 individual animals.

"We had several close calls with armed militias during the survey," said Deo Kujirakwinja, WCS's Albertine Rift Coordinator in DRC. "Thankfully, no one was hurt, and our census result is positive news for the conservation community."

The census team surveyed the 600-square-kilometer highland sector of the park. The lowland sector has been largely inaccessible to researchers due to the frequent presence of militia. Census teams used nest counts—gorillas make a nest each night—along with the size of nearby dung (the size of which indicates how many adults, juveniles, and infants occur in a group) to estimate the total number of gorillas in the area.

"Given the insecurity that has been present here for so long, we were not sure what we would find," said Radar Nshuli, Chief Park Warden for Kahuzi-Biega. "We were very happy to see that all the efforts that our staff and partners have been taking are leading to a growth in the population."

The Wildlife Conservation Society's field staff have been monitoring the region's gorillas since the 1950s, when preeminent field biologist George Schaller first surveyed the distribution of what would later become classified as Grauer's and mountain gorillas. Since then, surveys have revealed that in the highland sector of Kahuzi Grauer's numbers climbed from 223 animals in the 1970s to 250 in the early 1990s before crashing to 130 in 2000 following the outbreak of civil war in the region.

"Given we were unable to survey the entire highland sector, we are hopeful that our minimum count of 181 might actually be higher than this," said Dr. Andy Plumptre, Director of WCS's Albertine Rift Program. "We hope to be able to survey some of the areas we were unable to visit in the near future."

"This census finding gives us great hope for the future of the Grauer's gorilla," said Dr. James Deutsch, Director of WCS's Africa Program. "It's also a testament to the courage of our colleagues working to protect a World Heritage site in this challenging landscape."

Grauer's gorillas are one of four recognized gorilla sub-species, which also include mountain gorillas, western lowland gorillas, and Cross River gorillas. The Wildlife Conservation Society is one of the only conservation groups working to safeguard all four subspecies.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Eyes Made of Rock Really Can See

from National Geographic News
Eyes Made of Rock Really Can See, Study Says
Mollusks' mineral lenses can distinguish shapes, not just light.

When it comes to hard stares and stony gazes, no animal can match the chiton, a small mollusk with eyes made of rock crystal. Now a new study shows just what these strange eyes are capable of.

Scientists had long known that chitons have hundreds of beadlike structures resembling eyes on the backs of their shells. The lenses "are like big, clear pieces of rock," said study leader Dan Speiser, a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

What's been unclear, however, is if the creatures could actually see using these organs or whether the eyes were good only for sensing changes in light intensity.

"It's been known for over a hundred years that these eyes exist, but no one's really tested what sort of vision they provide," Speiser said.

His latest research—conducted while he was a graduate student at Duke University in North Carolina—revealed that the sea creatures' eyes are the first known to be made of the mineral aragonite, the same material chitons use to make their shells.

What's more, these stony eyes likely have unique advantages over the squishy eyeballs of other animals.

Mollusks in Lockdown
To test the chiton's vision, Speiser and his team collected Indian fuzzy chitons (Acanthopleura granulate) from the Caribbean.

When left alone, a chiton will lift part of its oval-shaped body to breathe. But when threatened, the animal will clamp down tightly on the seafloor to protect its soft underbelly.

In the lab, the scientists placed individual animals on a stone slab beneath a white screen, which could change colors. Once the chitons seemed relaxed, the team either placed a black disk directly above the mollusks or changed the color of the background screen from white to gray.

The black disk was designed to simulate a suddenly appearing predator, while the dimming screen mimicked subtle changes in natural light that chitons might experience in the wild—for example, when a cloud passes in front of the sun.

In the experiment, the chitons went into lockdown mode when shown the black disk, but the animals remained at ease when the screen dimmed. This suggests the chiton's eyes are able to distinguish shapes, a prerequisite for true vision.

"The eyes allow the chitons to see objects—not with much detail—but they can distinguish between approaching objects and just decreases in light," Speiser said.

Speiser estimates chiton vision is about a thousand times courser than human vision, and it's likely they see only in black-and-white.

"Even compared to other animals with small eyes, chitons don't see particularly well," Speiser said.

Rock Eyes Better for Tidal Creatures
Chitons' rock eyes do appear to have some specific advantages. For one thing, the hard aragonite is extremely resilient, an important trait for chitons, which are constantly being pummeled by waves in their natural habitats, shallow tidal pools.

"If their eyes were made of protein"—which is the case for humans and most other animals—"they would get worn right away," Speiser said. (See "Hammerhead Sharks Have 'Human' Vision.")

For another thing, the experiments suggest aragonite allows the chitons to see equally well in air or underwater, something that's probably useful as tides ebb around the mollusks.

"Behaviorally, the chitons react the same" in both mediums, Speiser said.

That's probably because aragonite has two refractive indices, the extent to which a particular material focuses incoming light. With an aragonite eye, one index creates an image on the eye in water while the other works in air.

Meanwhile, a few mysteries remain about chiton eyes. For instance, it's still not known why only some chiton species have eyes, or how the creatures are able to use the same material to make both their eyes and their shells.

"It's going to be interesting to see how they're shaping these lenses,” Speiser said. "How do they make them the right size and shape and keep them translucent? They're exerting some very fine control."

The chiton-eyes research will be detailed in the April 26 issue of the journal Current Biology.

Speisersend DI, Eernisse DJ, Johnsen S (2011) A Chiton Uses Aragonite Lenses to Form Images. Current Biology doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2011.03.033


* A chiton has the first aragonite lenses ever discovered
* Chiton lenses facilitate image formation
* Ocelli allow chitons to detect 9° objects in and out of water

Hundreds of ocelli are embedded in the dorsal shell plates of certain chitons [1]. These ocelli each contain a pigment layer, retina, and lens [2], but it is unknown whether they provide chitons with spatial vision [3]. It is also unclear whether chiton lenses are made from proteins, like nearly all biological lenses, or from some other material [4]. Electron probe X-ray microanalysis and X-ray diffraction revealed that the chiton Acanthopleura granulata has the first aragonite lenses ever discovered. We found that these lenses allow A. granulata's ocelli to function as small camera eyes with an angular resolution of about 9°–12°. Animals responded to the sudden appearance of black, overhead circles with an angular size of 9°, but not to equivalent, uniform decreases in the downwelling irradiance. Our behavioral estimates of angular resolution were consistent with estimates derived from focal length and receptor spacing within the A. granulata eye. Behavioral trials further indicated that A. granulata's eyes provide the same angular resolution in both air and water. We propose that one of the two refractive indices of the birefringent chiton lens places a focused image on the retina in air, whereas the other does so in water.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Cell phone recycling for Goualougo Apes!

News from the Minnesota Zoo and the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project:
"Dr .Tara Harris (Conservation Biologist, Minnesota Zoo) is spearheading a cell phone recycling campaign to benefit the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project. Goualougo will receive a small donation for every cell phone received through this program!!!

A group of video production students from the University of Minnesota filmed a public service announcement which features Tara promoting the cell phone recycling program:

People anywhere in the USA can send in phones for free through the mail by printing out the mailing label at and all of the proceeds benefit the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project!!!

We would really appreciate if you could help us to promote this program! Many thanks to Tara for the great initiative!

All the Best,
Dave, Crickette, Jean Robert, and the GTAP team!"

More info can be found at the Minnesota Zoo website

Taint length correlated to male fertility

From Geekologie
(Taint That The Truth!: Length of A Man's Gooch Directly Related To His Fertility)
" According to a recent study, the length of a man's taint is directly related to his fertility, with shorter measurements having a significantly greater chance of being infertile."
Mendiola J, Stahlhut RW, Jørgensen N, Liu F, Swan SH (2011) Shorter Anogenital Distance Predicts Poorer Semen Quality in Young Men in Rochester, New York Environmental Health Perspectives-. doi:10.1289/ehp.1103421

Background: In male rodents, anogenital distance (AGD) provides a sensitive and continuous correlate of androgen exposure in the intrauterine environment and predicts later reproductive success. Some endocrine disrupting chemicals can alter male reproductive tract development, including shortening AGD, in both rodents and humans. Whether AGD is related to semen quality in human is unknown.

To examine associations between AGD and semen parameters in adult males.

We used multiple regression analyses to model the relationships between sperm parameters and two alternative measures of AGD (anus to the posterior base of the scrotum [AGDAS], and to the cephalad insertion of the penis [AGDAP]), in 126 volunteers in Rochester, NY.

Results: AGDAS, but not AGDAP, was associated with sperm concentration, motility, morphology, total sperm count and total motile count (p-values 0.002-0.048). Men with AGDAS below (compared to above) the median were 7.3 times more likely (95% CI 2.5, 21.6) to have a low sperm concentration (<20x106/ml). For a typical study participant, sperm concentrations were 34.7 x106/ml and 51.6 x106/ml at the 25th and 75th percentiles of (adjusted) AGDAS. Conclusions: In our population, AGDAS was a strong correlate of all semen parameters and a predictor of low sperm concentration. In animals, male AGD at birth reflects androgen levels during the masculinization programming window and predicts adult AGD and reproductive function. Our results suggest, therefore, that the androgenic environment during early fetal life exerts a fundamental influence on both AGD and adult sperm counts in humans, as demonstrated in rodents.

Complex interplay between whales, penguins, krill, hunting and climate change - whales bounce back, penguins now decline...

National Geographic News
Penguin Numbers Plummeting—Whales Partly to Blame?
Krill declines in parts of Antarctica linked to warming, whales, study says.

Penguin populations have plunged by as much as 50 percent during the past three decades in the West Antarctic Peninsula and Scotia Sea, scientists report.

The problem appears to be a shortage of krill, the seabirds' primary fare, caused by rising regional air temperatures and rebounding populations of hungry whales.

Fisheries biologist Wayne Z. Trivelpiece of the National Marine Fisheries Service in La Jolla, California, has been monitoring colonies of chinstrap and Adélie penguins since the mid-1970s.

Because Trivelpiece regularly bands and monitors individual penguins, he's been able to uncover a key factor in the collapse: Far fewer young penguins are surviving their first winter on their own, because they're having a hard time finding krill.

"It's gone from about half of the chicks surviving in the 1970s and mid-1980s to only about one tenth now," Trivelpiece said.

"And we see from direct measurements of krill that there's about 80 percent less out here than there was just 20 years ago. So the probability of young penguins finding it often enough to survive during those first months of independence is much reduced."

Penguins at Risk as Krill Vanish
Krill are tiny, shrimplike animals that live in enormous numbers and represent a large part of the Antarctic food web. Like flocks of herbivores on land, krill feed on single-celled plants called phytoplankton and are in turn gobbled up by many marine predators, including penguins.

The local krill collapse is probably due to a pair of factors, Trivelpiece said.

One is regional air temperatures, which are some 10 degrees Fahrenheit (5 or 6 degrees Celsius) higher than they were in the 1940s and 1950s. Those temperatures drive how much ice forms at the sea surface.

"If the ice no longer forms, phytoplankton in that sea ice aren't available to provide a winter food source for the young krill that spawned the summer before," Trivelpiece said. "Without that food, the young krill don't survive."

The second krill killer is actually a conservation success story—rebounding populations of whales.

"From what information is available, stocks of krill-eating whales are beginning to return, and their numbers are growing," Trivelpiece said. (Related: "Whale Hunting to Continue in Antarctic Sanctuary.")

Nineteenth- and 20th-century whale hunts, which severely impacted populations of the giant marine mammals, appear to have ushered in a penguin heyday.

"We don't have good data prior to the 1930s, but it appears that at least the 1930s to the 1970s were a real boom time for penguins, primarily because of the removal of competition in the form of whales."

"Population data from that period is largely anecdotal and provided by the rough counts of British Antarctic workers. But even if you're counting by the seat of your pants, the difference between 100,000 penguins in the 1930s and 500,000 or 600,000 in the 1970s is enormous."

Marine ornithologist Steve Emslie also provided valuable evidence of the boom with his studies of historic penguin colonies. Chemical analyses of old tissue sources, such as eggshells, found that Adélie penguins actually had been fish-eaters before whale numbers dropped.

"Only in the last hundred years or so did krill come into their diet, when the whales were taken out of the system and there was a krill surplus," Trivelpiece said.

Can Penguins Survive Without Krill?
With krill now dwindling, the previous shift in penguin behavior begs a question: Can the birds simply switch back to eating fish?

"From everything we've seen over a 30-year period, while krill has declined 80 percent, we haven't seen an increase of fish in [penguin] diets," Trivelpiece said.

"But the fish stocks have also been heavily fished out by Russian trawlers, so we don't even know how much of that prey is available to them at this point."

The penguin-decline study appears in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Trivelpiece WZ, Hinke JT, Miller AK, Reiss CS, Trivelpiece SG, Watters GM (2011) Variability in krill biomass links harvesting and climate warming to penguin population changes in Antarctica PNAS doi:10.1073/pnas.1016560108


The West Antarctic Peninsula (WAP) and adjacent Scotia Sea support abundant wildlife populations, many of which were nearly extirpated by humans. This region is also among the fastest-warming areas on the planet, with 5–6 °C increases in mean winter air temperatures and associated decreases in winter sea-ice cover. These biological and physical perturbations have affected the ecosystem profoundly. One hypothesis guiding ecological interpretations of changes in top predator populations in this region, the “sea-ice hypothesis,” proposes that reductions in winter sea ice have led directly to declines in “ice-loving” species by decreasing their winter habitat, while populations of “ice-avoiding” species have increased. However, 30 y of field studies and recent surveys of penguins throughout the WAP and Scotia Sea demonstrate this mechanism is not controlling penguin populations; populations of both ice-loving Adélie and ice-avoiding chinstrap penguins have declined significantly. We argue in favor of an alternative, more robust hypothesis that attributes both increases and decreases in penguin populations to changes in the abundance of their main prey, Antarctic krill. Unlike many other predators in this region, Adélie and chinstrap penguins were never directly harvested by man; thus, their population trajectories track the impacts of biological and environmental changes in this ecosystem. Linking trends in penguin abundance with trends in krill biomass explains why populations of Adélie and chinstrap penguins increased after competitors (fur seals, baleen whales, and some fishes) were nearly extirpated in the 19th to mid-20th centuries and currently are decreasing in response to climate change.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

SAFE (Species Ability to Forestall Extinction): a new method to predict how close species are to extinction

New method to measure threat of extinction could help conservationists prioritize

Researchers have developed a new method to predict how close species are to extinction. Dubbed SAFE (Species Ability to Forestall Extinction) the researchers believe the new tool, published in the Frontiers in Ecology and Environment, should help conservationists select which species to focus on saving and which, perhaps controversially, should be let go.

"The idea is fairly simple—it's the distance a population is (in terms of abundance) from its minimum viable population size. While we provide a formula for working this out, it's more than just a formula—we've shown that SAFE is the best predictor yet of the vulnerability of mammal species to extinction," co-author Professor Corey Bradshaw, Director of Ecological Modeling at the University of Adelaide's Environment Institute, says in a press release.

The authors say that the index is not necessarily meant to be a replacement to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species but a tool to use alongside. However, the SAFE index did prove to be a better predictor of extinction threat than another approach of looking at the percentage species' habitat loss.

"The SAFE index provides a more meaningful and fine-grained interpretation of the relative threat of species extinction than do the IUCN threat categories alone," the authors write.

Using rhinos as an example, Bradshaw explains: "our index shows that not all Critically Endangered species are equal […] For example, our studies show that practitioners of conservation triage may want to prioritize resources on the Sumatran rhinoceros instead of the Javan rhinoceros. Both species are Critically Endangered, but the Sumatran rhino is more likely to be brought back from the brink of extinction based on its SAFE index."

The SAFE index team analyzed 95 mammals species and found nearly 60% are close to a 'tipping point' that could push the species to extinction, while 25% are worse off and already close to extinction. Such analyses should allow conservationists a better tool to determine where to spend funds and time.

"Conservationists with limited resources may want to channel their efforts on saving the tiger, a species that is at the 'tipping point' and could have reasonable chance of survival," Bradshaw says.

Clements RG, Bradshaw CJA, Brook BW, Laurance WF (2011) The SAFE. index: using a threshold population target to measure relative species threat. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment doi:10.1890/100177.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List is arguably the most popular measure of relative species threat, but its threat categories can be ambiguous (eg “Endangered” versus “Vulnerable”) and subjective, have weak quantification, and do not convey the threat status of species in relation to a minimum viable population target. We propose a heuristic measure that describes a “species’ ability to forestall extinction”, or the SAFE index. We compared the abilities of the SAFE index with those of another numerically explicit metric – percentage range loss – to predict IUCN threat categories using binary and ordinal logistic regression. Generalized linear models showed that the SAFE index was a better predictor of IUCN threat categories than was percentage range loss. We therefore advocate use of the SAFE index, possibly in conjunction with IUCN threat categories, because the former indicates the “distance from extinction” of a species, while implicitly incorporating population viability as a variable.

Variation in the termite fishing of wild chimpanzees

Older chimpanzees more likely to use tools

Age appears to affect the degree to which chimpanzees are prepared to try out new things, at least when it comes to catching termites. Elderly chimpanzees use a greater number of tools, according to an article published in the scientific journal Biology Letters by a group of US researchers.

They discovered that older chimpanzees experimented with tools and used them for tasks apart from catching termites. Younger animals, on the other hand, not only used a smaller range of tools but took more time to get the required result.

Crickette Sanz from Washington University in Saint Louis and David Morgan from the Wildlife Conservation Society in Chicago examined 130 video recordings of chimpanzees. The videos were recorded between 2003 and 2007 in Nouabale Ndoki National Park in the Republic of Congo. Many of the animals were recorded hunting for termites several times.

The region’s chimpanzees are known for their ability to catch termites with several different tools. They are also known to adapt these tools and to show a preference for certain materials. Termites in overground nests are caught by boring a thin branch into one of the nest’s tunnels. A second tool with a brush—like top is then used to fish the termites out. A different method is used for underground nests: the chimpanzees dig a tunnel into the earth through which they then use the brush tool to catch termites.

The researchers discovered that older and younger animals went about employing these two methods in very different ways. Younger chimpanzees used a limited range of tools compared to older animals who also employed different methods of fishing termites from their nest.

If a tunnel became blocked, some of the older chimpanzees would turn the brush tool around and use its other end to remove the blockage. The researchers believe this is an example of how the animals use their knowledge to use certain tools for several functions.

Some chimpanzees also transported tools to termite nests, showing a degree of planning. The researchers say a better understanding of how chimpanzees use tools helps us understand how our human ancestors utilised technology.

Sanz C, and Morgan D (2011) Elemental variation in the termite fishing of wild chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) Biology Letters doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.0088


Chimpanzee tool behaviours vary dramatically in their complexity and extent of geographical distribution. The use of tool sets with specific design features to gather termites extends across a large portion of central Africa. Detailed examination of the composition and uniformity of such complex tool tasks has the potential to advance our understanding of the cognitive capabilities of tool users and processes underlying the maintenance of technological skills. In this study, we examined variation in chimpanzee tool use in termite gathering from video-recorded sequences that were scored to the level of functionally distinct behavioural elements. Overall, we found a high degree of similarity in tool-using techniques exhibited by individuals in this population. The number of elements in each individual's repertoire often exceeded that necessary to accomplish the task, with consistent differences in repertoire sizes between age classes. Adults and subadults had the largest repertoires and more consistently exhibited element strings than younger individuals. Larger repertoires were typically associated with incorporation of rare variants, some of which indicate flexibility and intelligence. These tool using apes aid us in understanding the evolution of technology, including that of our human ancestors, which showed a high degree of uniformity over large spatial scales.

Club P.A.N. cross-post: during the conflict in Cote d'Ivoire

Click HERE for a little update from the Club P.A.N. blog

Monday, April 4, 2011

Copulation Calls in Female Chimpanzees Convey Identity but Do Not Accurately Reflect Fertility

Towsend SW, Deschner T, Zuberbühler K (2011) Copulation Calls in Female Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) Convey Identity but Do Not Accurately Reflect Fertility. International Journal of Primatology DOI: 10.1007/s10764-011-9510-2

Copulation calls are a relatively common feature of female primate behavior thought to function in the advertisement of female receptivity and subsequent incitation of male–male competition. To date, the majority of work on copulation calling behavior has focused on various monkey species, with little empirical evidence from the great apes. Previous research on wild chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) has suggested that estrous females produce copulation calls to avoid monopolization by single males and to minimize competition from other females. We here extended these findings by investigating to what degree these social demands were reflected in the calls’ acoustic structure. We recorded and acoustically analyzed 71 copulation call bouts from 6 adult female chimpanzees in the Budongo Forest, Uganda. We did not find any acoustic differences in calls given by females in fertile and nonfertile periods, as assessed by their hormonal profiles. However, the calls’ acoustic structure did reliably encode identity cues of the calling female. We propose that, in chimpanzees, the use and morphology of copulation calls have jointly been shaped by the selective advantage of concealing fertility. Owing to the low visibility conditions associated with chimpanzees’ natural forest habitat and their dispersed social system, providing identity cues may be of particular biological relevance for these nonhuman primates.

Sunday, April 3, 2011


Climate change and evolution of Cross River gorillas
Max Planck Press Release

Two species of gorillas live in central equatorial Africa. Divergence between the Western gorillas (Gorilla gorilla) and Eastern Gorillas (Gorilla beringei) began between 0.9 and 1.6 million years ago and now the two species live several hundred kilometres apart. An international team of researchers including Olaf Thalmann of the University of Turku in Finland and Linda Vigilant of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany found that the divergence of Western lowland gorillas and the Critically Endangered Cross River gorillas (Gorilla gorilla diehli) occurred more recently, about 17,800 years ago, during the Pleistocene era

An evolutionary model of the two subspecies of Western gorillas was generated using microsatellite genotyping of living gorillas and 100-year-old museum specimens. This data showed that, although Cross River gorillas diverged from Western lowland gorillas about 17,800 years ago, the two subspecies continued to intermittently interbreed. Olaf Thalmann and his co-authors suggest that climate change during the Pleistocene era caused the forests to expand, permitting the Western gorillas to expand their range. When the forest contracted again the gorillas were separated into two populations which began to diverge. Successive rounds of climate change resulted in periods when the two subspecies could interbreed followed by repeated episodes of isolation of the Cross River population.

The model indicates that gene flow finally stopped between the two subspecies approximately 420 years ago. Over the last 320 years there has been a 60% decrease in the numbers of Cross River gorillas causing a loss of genetic diversity within the population. Thalmann said, “The number of Cross River gorillas has continued to decrease, probably due to anthropogenic pressure, such as destruction of their habitat or hunting by humans. There are thought to be fewer than 300 individuals left.” He continued “It is unclear what effect this loss of genetic diversity will have on the long term viability of Cross River gorillas. But, given that this bottleneck occurred so recently, it is possible that if the population was allowed to expand the loss of diversity could be stopped.”

Olaf Thalmann, Daniel Wegmann, Marie Spitzner, Mimi Arandjelovic, Katerina Guschanski, Christoph Leuenberger, Richard A Bergl and Linda Vigilant (2011) Historical sampling reveals dramatic demographic changes in western gorilla populations. BMC Evolutionary Biology. 11:85doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-85


Today many large mammals live in small, fragmented populations, but it is often unclear whether this subdivision is the result of long-term or recent events. Demographic modeling using genetic data can estimate changes in long-term population sizes while temporal sampling provides a way to compare genetic variation present today with that sampled in the past. In order to better understand the dynamics associated with the divergences of great ape populations, these analytical approaches were applied to western gorillas (Gorilla gorilla) and in particular to the isolated and Critically Endangered Cross River gorilla subspecies (G. g. diehli).

We used microsatellite genotypes from museum specimens and contemporary samples of Cross River gorillas to infer both the long-term and recent population history. We find that Cross River gorillas diverged from the ancestral western gorilla population ~17,800 years ago (95% HDI: 760, 63,245 years). However, gene flow ceased only ~420 years ago (95% HDI: 200, 16,256 years), followed by a bottleneck beginning ~320 years ago (95% HDI: 200, 2,825 years) that caused a 60-fold decrease in the effective population size of Cross River gorillas. Direct comparison of heterozygosity estimates from museum and contemporary samples suggests a loss of genetic variation over the last 100 years.

The composite history of western gorillas could plausibly be explained by climatic oscillations inducing environmental changes in western equatorial Africa that would have allowed gorilla populations to expand over time but ultimately isolate the Cross River gorillas, which thereafter exhibited a dramatic population size reduction. The recent decrease in the Cross River population is accordingly most likely attributable to increasing anthropogenic pressure over the last several hundred years. Isolation of diverging populations with prolonged concomitant gene flow, but not secondary admixture, appears to be a typical characteristic of the population histories of African great apes, including gorillas, chimpanzees and

More Press:

Friday, April 1, 2011


CONGRATULATIONS to one of my best friends, colleagues, a very important scientist and an amazing human being, Grit Schubert, who kicked major ass at her PhD defense today :)

Einstein vs Stephen Hawking -Epic Rap Battles of History #7


Animals Find Sanctuary With Scientists

In an 85-square-kilometer swath of rainforest in Côte d'Ivoire's Taï National Park, monkeys call to one another, chimps drum on tree trunks, and tiny antelopes rustle through the underbrush. That's where researchers have been studying primate communities for more than 3 decades. Step outside the research zone, though, and the animal sounds fall silent. The forest is noticeably emptier as a result of heavy poaching. Field researchers all over the world have noticed that long-term research sites double as sanctuaries, but they've never had the numbers to prove it. Now they do.

In 1979, scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, established a research site within Taï National Park to study chimpanzees, and a decade later another group began studying monkeys nearby. Back then, the entire park was teeming with animals, says Geneviève Campbell, a graduate student in primatology at Max Planck, but illegal hunting has since been on the rise. As in many parts of Africa, there are few rangers and little money for extensive patrols, and poachers operate with impunity throughout much of the park, Campbell says. Studies have shown that tourist traffic deters poachers, who may steer clear of other people in part to avoid getting caught. But nothing of the sort had been documented for researchers.

For the present study, published online today in Biology Letters, Campbell and several colleagues established 75-kilometer-long study transects, or temporary flagged paths. They spaced the transects evenly throughout a 200-square-kilometer area that encompassed most of the long-term research area, where the chimpanzee and monkey projects are located, and adjacent park forest. The researchers walked each transect three times during an 11-month period, tallying the primates and duikers—small antelopes—that poachers target, as well as evidence of their presence, such as chimp nests and duiker dung. They also recorded signs of poaching, such as campsites, traps, and empty gun cartridges.

They fed the numbers into a computer model to test whether distance from the research area, density of people, forest type, or distance to the park border best predicted the presence of animals and signs of poaching. Sure enough, distance from the research area was the only consistent and significant predictor. There were at least six times more animals near and within the research area than farther outside. The researchers found almost no signs of poaching within and around most of the area and up to 15 times as many signs outside it.

"Now people can at least say with certainty that their presence [has] a positive effect," Campbell says. She hopes the study will provide researchers with ammunition when they seek funding for long-term work in heavily poached areas. These have become a grim reality in many places, and even researchers more interested in behavior than conservation are realizing that they need to get involved. "All the primate populations are threatened," Campbell says. Even for researchers who are not conservation-minded, she says, "if their study animals are dying, they cannot continue their research."

Joshua Linder, a biological anthropologist with James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, says he's noticed the protective effect of long-term research sites in Cameroon, where he studies primates and the bushmeat trade. Linder says he appreciates the confirmation provided by the paper and has no doubt that it will be cited in many grant applications and papers. But whether it will burst open the funding gates is another question. "It's really, really hard to get long-term funding," Linder says. "I don't know if that's all of a sudden going to change because of this article."

Fabian Leendertz, a wildlife veterinarian with the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, runs the veterinary program for the Taï chimpanzee research project and has worked with the monkey project. In a 2008 paper, he and colleagues documented the transmission of viral respiratory disease from people to chimpanzees living in the Taï research area, highlighting research's possible negative consequences. But the bigger picture was abundantly clear even then, he says. "There are way more animals in the research area than around [it]," Leendertz says, and when it comes to long-term research projects, "the benefit is, I think, always bigger than the possible harm."

Campbell G, Kuehl H, Diarrassouba A, N'Goran PK, Boesch C (2011) Long-term research sites as refugia for threatened and over-harvested species. Biology Letters. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.0155


The presence of researchers, ecotourists or rangers inside protected areas is generally assumed to provide a protective effect for wildlife populations, mainly by reducing poaching pressure. However, this assumption has rarely been empirically tested. Here, we evaluate and quantify the conservation benefits of the presence of a long-term research area in Taï National Park, Côte d'Ivoire. A wildlife survey following 225 km of line transects revealed considerably higher primate and duiker encounter rates within the research area when compared with adjacent areas. This positive effect was particularly pronounced for threatened and over-harvested species, such as the endangered red colobus monkey (Procolobus badius). This pattern was clearly mirrored by a reversed gradient in signs of poaching, which decreased towards and inside the research area, a trend that was also supported with park-wide data. This study demonstrates that even relatively simple evidence-based analytical approaches can bridge the gap between conservation theory and practice. In addition, it emphasizes the value of establishing long-term research sites as an integral part of protected area management.

Think he knew anything before the flash went off?

From the Africa Geographic Facebook page