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, January 17, 2012

Vegetarian orang-utans eat world's cutest animal

by Michael Marshall
from the New Scientist
Thanks to Tracy K for the link!

When fruit is scarce, try chomping on a slow loris. That seems to be the strategy adopted by the normally vegetarian orang-utans, which have been spotted knocking the small primates out of trees and killing them with a bite to the head.

Sumatran orang-utans (Pongo abelii) get almost all their nutrients from fruit and other plant products, but there are a few isolated reports of them eating meat (American Journal of Primatology, vol 43, p 159). Madeleine Hardus of the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands and colleagues have now observed three more cases, bringing the total to nine.

In 2007 Hardus was tracking two orangs in the canopy above her – a female called Yet and her infant Yeni – when Yet abruptly changed direction and approached a slow loris (Nycticebus coucang). She knocked it out of the tree, crashed down to the ground, bit the stunned loris's head, then carried the body back into the tree to eat it. When Yeni begged, she was allowed to share the meat. The great apes each chomped on opposite ends of the dead primate, sharing it between them like lovers might a strand of spaghetti.

Searching through the scientific literature, Hardus found detailed studies of six orang-utan hunts. All stunned their prey before eating it, which Hardus thinks may be to avoid being bitten. Slow lorises are unique among primates in that their saliva is toxic.

All the documented hunts took place when there was little fruit available, which may push the apes to meat-eating, says Hardus.

By contrast, chimpanzees hunt more when fruit is abundant, perhaps because it doesn't matter if they waste energy on a failed hunt.

The sample is unavoidably small, but the data have been thoughtfully analysed, says Richard Wrangham of Harvard University.

Only five individual orang-utans have been observed hunting. Yet has so far been caught in the act four times – three times by Hardus, and once by another researcher – making her the best documented hunter.

In other accounts, the apes stumbled upon their prey, but Yet systematically changed direction and headed straight for the loris, which Hardus says may be because she has learned to smell them. Because a few cases have been documented within a 40-kilometre range, all using the same killing method, she thinks it may be a cultural behaviour, passed from orang-utan to orang-utan.

Madeleine E. Hardus, Adriano R. Lameira, Astri Zulfa, S. Suci Utami Atmoko Han de Vries, Serge A Wich (2012) Behavioral, Ecological, and Evolutionary Aspects of Meat-Eating by Sumatran Orangutans (Pongo abelii). International Journal of Primatology, DOI: 10.1007/s10764-011-9574-z

Meat-eating is an important aspect of human evolution, but how meat became a substantial component of the human diet is still poorly understood. Meat-eating in our closest relatives, the great apes, may provide insight into the emergence of this trait, but most existing data are for chimpanzees. We report 3 rare cases of meat-eating of slow lorises, Nycticebus coucang, by 1 Sumatran orangutan mother–infant dyad in Ketambe, Indonesia, to examine how orangutans find slow lorises and share meat. We combine these 3 cases with 2 previous ones to test the hypothesis that slow loris captures by orangutans are seasonal and dependent on fruit availability. We also provide the first (to our knowledge) quantitative data and high-definition video recordings of meat chewing rates by great apes, which we use to estimate the minimum time necessary for a female Australopithecus africanus to reach its daily energy requirements when feeding partially on raw meat. Captures seemed to be opportunistic but orangutans may have used olfactory cues to detect the prey. The mother often rejected meat sharing requests and only the infant initiated meat sharing. Slow loris captures occurred only during low ripe fruit availability, suggesting that meat may represent a filler fallback food for orangutans. Orangutans ate meat more than twice as slowly as chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), suggesting that group living may function as a meat intake accelerator in hominoids. Using orangutan data as a model, time spent chewing per day would not require an excessive amount of time for our social ancestors (australopithecines and hominids), as long as meat represented no more than a quarter of their diet.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The long, slow sexual revolution

PLOS Blogs has a LONG blog series about the LONG SLOW SEXUAL REVOLUTION (with video too)

The long, slow sexual revolution (part 1) with nsfw video
from PLOSblogs

A while back, Bora Zivkovic directed me (well, …all his Facebook followers) to the word, ‘sapiosexuality’: the tendency to become ‘attracted to or aroused by intelligence and its use’ (thanks, Bora!).

Ironically, although the term may be a bit of a joke, the idea that intelligence is a species-specific aphrodisiac has more than a shred of evolutionary plausibility. Moreover, ‘sapiosexuality’ is a crucial point of reference in the contemporary discussion of human sexual selection, especially to break the stranglehold that Victorian social mores and sexist assumptions have on popular understandings of human sexual evolution.

I was reminded of the term ‘sapiosexuality’ after teaching my annual introductory course on human evolution. Student evaluations are in, and over and over again, student comments lead me to think that, in order to change popular understandings of evolution, we need not simply better data, but also better stories. Especially when tired, old tropes are repeatedly trotted out again in a popular discussion of how ‘evolution’ has shaped ‘human nature,’ even when the data is showing the opposite, we should wonder if evidence alone can ever overturn rusted on bad interpretations.

Jason Antrosio makes a similar point about the need for new metaphors in his post, The Tangled Bank: Old metaphors for new evolutionary understandings. I believe Jason is right. Pernicious evolutionary narratives cannot be displaced by facts alone: to replace a story, you need a competing story. Specifically, in this series of columns, I’ll discuss a contender that might displace the man-the-promiscuous-horny-hunter/woman-the-choosy-chaste-gatherer chestnut (if for no other reason, to try to head off too many more Ed Rybicki short ‘comedy’ pieces like ‘Womanspace’).

I believe that a story we might title, ‘the long, slow sexual revolution,’ does a better job of foregrounding the most important salient facts about human sexual selection and evolution. The opportunity I’m taking to discuss this alternative narrative is a documentary series that you can watch most of online where I got to try out this framing, and it seemed to work (as it also worked in my evolution class).

To read more go here!

Bootylicious! Horse fly with bling named after Beyonce

Australian insect with golden butt reminded researcher of pop-music diva
By Jennifer Welsh
Thanks to Erin W for the link!

Beyonce may be one of the biggest pop divas out there, but she isn't the only diva with that name. A previously unnamed species of horse fly with a glamorous golden rear end has been named Beyonce because it is the "all-time diva of flies," researchers say.
Bryan Lessard, a researcher from Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, is responsible for officially describing the fly and naming it Scaptia (Plinthina) beyonceae, according to the Australian National Insect Collection.

Beyonce isn't the first celebrity to be honored with her own species. Traditionally named after scientists involved in their discovery, organisms have also been linked to the likes of Harrison Ford, Matt Groening (creator of "The Simpsons"), Mick Jagger and other celebrities, including a beetle named after Roy Orbison.

Gold and bold
The rare Scaptia (Plinthina) beyonceae species of horse fly was collected in 1981 (the year that Beyonce was born) together with two other previously unknown specimens from northeast Queensland's Atherton Tablelands.

The singer Beyonce, on the other hand, was a member of the group Destiny’s Child, which recorded the 2001 hit single "Bootylicious." The fly got its booty-ful name from its extreme diva feature: a big gold butt.

"It was the unique dense golden hairs on the fly's abdomen that led me to name this fly in honor of the performer Beyonce as well as giving me the chance to demonstrate the fun side of taxonomy — the naming of species," Lessard said in a statement.
Horse flies like the newly named one play an important role in ecology by pollinating plants. "Horse flies act like hummingbirds during the day, drinking nectar from their favorite varieties of grevillea, tea trees and eucalypts," Lessard said.

Lying in wait
The Beyonce fly is one of five detailed in Lessard's paper, published in the online version of the Australian Journal of Entomology in August and announced on Friday. This discovery has doubled the number of known species within the Scaptia (Plinthina) subgenus and extended the known distribution of Scaptia into the Northern Territory and northwestern Australia, where they were not previously thought to exist.
"Most Australian Scaptia species have been described, however, these five 'new' species of a subgroup (Plinthina) have been housed in Australian collections since the group was last studied in the 1960s," Lessard said.

Apparently, the singer hasn't had a chance to respond to the news. The CSIRO blog post reads: "News@CSIRO has sought a response from Beyonce about the great honor bestowed upon her but is yet to receive a response. ... Beyonce has recently had her first larva, sorry, child, and may be too busy to respond."

Friday, January 13, 2012

Bath Time for Baby Sloths

this is to counter balance the post about death today. -MA

Crow roof snow-boarding

OK, tool use people - explain it :)

Thanks to Caro D!

How fast does the Grim Reaper walk?

By correlating average walking speed and mortality rate over 5 years for men over 70, the authors conclude:
The Grim Reaper’s preferred walking speed is 0.82 m/s (2 miles (about 3 km) per hour) under working conditions. As none of the men in the study with walking speeds of 1.36 m/s (3 miles (about 5 km) per hour) or greater had contact with Death, this seems to be the Grim Reaper’s most likely maximum speed
via neatorama

Fiona F Stanaway,Danijela Gnjidic, Fiona M Blyth, David G Le Couteur, Vasi Naganathan, Louise Waite, Markus J Seibel, David J Handelsman, Philip N Sambrook, Robert G Cumming,How fast does the Grim Reaper walk? Receiver operating characteristics curve analysis in healthy men aged 70 and over (2011) BMJ 2011; 343 doi: 10.1136/bmj.d7679


To determine the speed at which the Grim Reaper (or Death) walks.

Design: Population based prospective study.

Setting: Older community dwelling men living in Sydney, Australia.

Participants: 1705 men aged 70 or more participating in CHAMP (Concord Health and Ageing in Men Project).

Main outcome measures: Walking speed (m/s) and mortality. Receiver operating characteristics curve analysis was used to calculate the area under the curve for walking speed and determine the walking speed of the Grim Reaper. The optimal walking speed was estimated using the Youden index (sensitivity+specificity−1), a common summary measure of the receiver operating characteristics curve, and represents the maximum potential effectiveness of a marker.

Results: The mean walking speed was 0.88 (range 0.15-1.60) m/s. The highest Youden index (0.293) was observed at a walking speed of 0.82 m/s (2 miles (about 3 km) per hour), corresponding to a sensitivity of 63% and a specificity of 70% for mortality. Survival analysis showed that older men who walked faster than 0.82 m/s were 1.23 times less likely to die (95% confidence interval 1.10 to 1.37) than those who walked slower (P=0.0003). A sensitivity of 1.0 was obtained when a walking speed of 1.36 m/s (3 miles (about 5 km) per hour) or greater was used, indicating that no men with walking speeds of 1.36 m/s or greater had contact with Death.

Conclusion: The Grim Reaper’s preferred walking speed is 0.82 m/s (2 miles (about 3 km) per hour) under working conditions. As none of the men in the study with walking speeds of 1.36 m/s (3 miles (about 5 km) per hour) or greater had contact with Death, this seems to be the Grim Reaper’s most likely maximum speed; for those wishing to avoid their allotted fate, this would be the advised walking speed.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Nate Hallinan - "real life" smurf

from Nate

from Nate
"The Smurf is actually the result of a symbiotic relationship between two organisms. We believe that Smurfs put their 'embryos' in the button of a developing mushroom. From a
distance, Smurfs seem like they are wearing a hat and pants but as you can see this is a fallacy. The fungus provides camouflage and protective epidermal layers for the creature, while the creature provides nutrients and mobility for the spreading of spores.

Smurfs are believed to be a hunter gatherer society. As you can see, this little guy is returning from a successful venture. It is generally difficult to spot a Smurf; they
are very apprehensive and cunning. Sadly though, it is rumored that they are hunted for their medicinal properties. It's hard to determine but it is thought that there are
not many colonies of Smurf left."

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

*UPDATED* Gorillas at Bwindi (?) play with photographer

*UPDATE* I really should have made a comment when I originally posted this about how this is really not the greatest situation with humans and wildlife coming into contact, especially apes. Liz W posted this great article outlining the issues with these interactions, its important reading (I've posted it below the video link as well) -MA

thanks to josh L for the link (best watched with volume off)
Go to the site to watch


Katie Frohardt wrote about her impulse to touch a mountain gorilla in her reflection of her time with IGCP in the 1990s, “At one point when the snare had been removed, I found myself quite near to the right foot of the female gorilla. I remember looking at that foot, and being transfixed. Without even really realizing that I was doing it, I had reached out my hand towards her foot, and was just inches away from touching her. At that point, I remember José very gently touching my hand, and shaking his head. Of course, I had no gloves on, and he was preventing my misstep, and protecting the mountain gorilla. I remember him doing this with real kindness, and with a look that made me know that he understood what I had just experienced. That was my first real day with IGCP.”

So, while the video that has gone viral is quite mesmerizing, it raises a lot of fears in the conservation community. It certainly isn’t the first time that mountain gorillas have interacted with people outside of the park, and it won’t be the last. And there is no blame to be placed. The fact is that habituated gorillas leave park boundaries, having overcome their natural fear of humans.

The mountain gorillas of Buhoma, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, are now quite notorious for it, roaming through the tourist lodges like they themselves are guests. And tourists to Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda are surprised to find that they might be visiting mountain gorillas outside of the park, in a farmer’s field or in a eucalyptus plantation.

A few months ago, gorilla groups monitored for research in Volcanoes National Park even spent the night outside of the park, forcing rangers to camp alongside them to protect and monitor them. And there are gorilla groups as well as a lone silverback that are also occasionally range outside of Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo, causing neighboring farmers grief and crop loss.

There are several other facts to keep in mind: Tourism is vital to the conservation of mountain gorillas, allowing for regular monitoring of mountain gorilla groups and allowing for veterinary intervention when necessary. Tourism also brings in much-needed revenue to fund park operations and community conservation activities as well as contribute to the national and local economies.

Here are the hard facts: Humans can spread diseases to mountain gorillas and disease outbreaks among mountain gorillas have been recorded in the past, including scabies and respiratory disease. Although it is hard to believe it when seeing the ease at which mountain gorillas can include humans in their social families, mountain gorillas are wild, even those in habituated groups. So now you see the delicate balance that must be struck in tourism as a means for wildlife conservation. Tourist guidelines are in place within the region, a pivotal initiative for IGCP as an advocate for responsible mountain gorilla tourism. We advocate for managing, to the very best of our collective abilities, tourism that carries the smallest risk to people and mountain gorillas.

This is a phenomenon that won’t go away. It will take a constant effort on behalf of conservation organizations like IGCP, park rangers and managers, lodge employees and managers, as well as tourists to take the steps necessary to protect the critically endangered mountain gorillas. Behind the scenes, continued efforts are underway.

Camera Traps FTW: first photographs of the recently discovered Myanmar snub-nosed monkey.

Myanmar snub-nosed monkey with infants. Credit: FFI/BANCA/PRCF

From PhysOrg

Announced today in Yangon, Myanmar, a joint team from Fauna & Flora International (FFI), Biodiversity And Nature Conservation Association (BANCA) and People Resour and Conservation Foundation (PRCF), caught pictures of the monkey on camera traps placed in the high, forested mountains of Kachin state, bordering China.

“The Myanmar snub-nosed monkey was described scientifically in 2010 from a dead specimen collected from a local hunter,” said Frank Momberg of FFI, who organised the initial expeditions that led to the monkey’s discovery. “As yet, no scientist has seen a live individual,” he added.

“These images are the first record of the animal in its natural habitat,” said Ngwe Lwin, the Burmese national who first recognized the monkey as a possible new species. “It is great to finally have photographs because they show us something about how and where it actually lives,” he added.

Heavy snows in January and constant rain in April made expeditions to set the camera traps difficult. “We were dealing with very tough conditions in a remote and rugged area that contained perhaps fewer than 200 monkeys,” said Jeremy Holden, who led the camera trapping team. “We didn’t know exactly where they lived, and I didn’t hold out much hope of short term success with this work.” But in May a small group of snub-nosed monkeys walked past one of the cameras and into history. “We were very surprised to get these pictures,” said Saw Soe Aung, a field biologist who set the cameras. “It was exciting to see that some of the females were carrying babies – a new generation of our rarest primate.”

As with most of Asia’s rare mammals, the snub-nosed monkey is threatened by habitat loss and hunting. The team is now working together with the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forest (MOECAF), local authorities and communities to help safeguard the future of the species. In February this year, FFI and MOECAF will hold an international workshop in Yangon aiming to create a conservation action plan for the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey.

In addition to the world’s first images of the snub-nosed monkey, the camera trapping also caught photos of other globally threatened species including red panda, takin, marbled cat, Malayan sun bear and rare pheasants such as Temminick’s tragopan, documenting the importance of this area for biodiversity conservation.

more info:

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

One joint a week easier on lungs then daily habitual cigarette smoking

from NPR
Study: A Joint May Be Easier On Lungs Than A Cigarette
by Nancy Shute

Smoking marijuana has just got to be bad for the lungs, since it's been made abundantly clear that cigarettes wreak havoc. Or so it would seem.

But the record on marijuana and lung health has been confusing at best. The latest study is typical: It shows that pot smokers' lung function actually improves, at least if they're not smoking a lot.

Smoking a joint a week for up to seven years doesn't hurt lung function, according to researchers at the University of California, San Francisco. They came up with that number after following more than 5,000 people for 20 years. The results were just published in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association.

In fact, those occasional pot smokers actually had improvements in some measurements of lung function. That may be due in part to the stretching involved in the deep tokes typical of marijuana use. By contrast, both past and present cigarette smokers had impaired lung function.

But the pot smokers didn't get a completely clean bill of health. Heavy marijuana users, which the study defined as smoking more than 20 times a month, did see a decline in lung capacity. But that's after exposure to more than 10 "joint-years," which the scientists calculated as a joint a day for a decade. That's a fair amount of weed.

Cigarette use and marijuana use was self-reported, leading some Shots contributors to wonder just how how reliable those pothead reminiscences could be. Indeed, the scientists said that previous studies have shown that people's recollection of cigarettes smoked generally squares with nicotine levels in the blood. But they didn't test pot smokers' blood to see if that was true for them, too.

The lack of ill effect for occasional pot smokers may be good news for people considering marijuana for pain control or other medical purposes, the researchers conclude. But "our findings do suggest an accelerated decline in pulmonary function with heavy use," the scientists wrote, "and a resulting need for caution and moderation."

JOB!!!! seeking new assistant director of the Semliki chimpanzee project

Caro D posted today that "The Semliki chimpanzee project is seeking a new assistant director asap! If you are interested in habituating chimps and running a small camp at this awesome site in Uganda, send me a message! Please pass this on to fellow primatologists or interested students. Former field experience appreciated!" You can contact her at ""

Riusuke Fukahori Paints Three-Dimensional Goldfish Embedded in Layers of Resin

First: watch the video. Japanese artist Riusuke Fukahori paints three-dimensional goldfish using a complex process of poured resin. The fish are painted meticulously, layer by layer, the sandwiched slices revealing slightly more about each creature, similar to the function of a 3D printer. I really enjoy the rich depth of the pieces and the optical illusion aspect, it’s such an odd process that results in something that’s both a painting and sculptural. Wonderful.

for more images go to this is

Angelique Todd, the gorillas' friend

Congrats to Angelique!

From the Telegraph
Angelique Todd left Tunbridge Wells for the central African rainforest to study western lowland gorillas. Now she is on speaking terms with a male called Makumba

Angelique Todd, a 43-year-old mother from Tunbridge Wells, has been called the 'gorilla whisperer' for the effect she has on Makumba. This is misleading because when she sees Makumba she doesn't actually whisper, she makes a soothing sighing noise, accompanied by clucking. It's like an invisible barrier between her and the gorilla. He may come close – really close – but Todd stays calm, no matter what. And Makumba, 400lb of alpha male, turns away.

We are deep in the African rainforest, in the Central African Republic (CAR) near the border with Congo-Brazzaville. The air is thick with sweat bees. Makumba is a few yards from where we are standing, eating termites, popping them in like snacks, and I am close enough to see some escape down his chin. A hundred feet above our heads, in the tangled vines up a tree, is another gorilla.

The thing about being so close to wild gorillas is that you must not run if they come at you. You are supposed to stand still and look at the sky. I ask Todd if Makumba has ever charged her. 'Oh yes, many times,' she replies. 'All silverbacks have different ways of being scary. Makumba charges really close to you, and then he jumps even closer. It's rather shocking.'

Todd has achieved something remarkable. As the head of the Primate Habituation Programme (PHP) in the Dzanga-Sangha Forest Reserve in the CAR, she has accomplished what had eluded scientists for decades – habituated western lowland gorillas for both tourism and research. Habituation means gaining the trust of wild gorillas so they don't run away. And this is significant because although western lowland gorillas are the sort most commonly found in zoos, little is known about them in the wild.

Todd is not the first to win the trust of this subspecies, but few have matched her success (or can claim, as she does, to manage a staff of 46 BaAka pygmies). Her achievement derives partly from persistence. To say it took her a long time is an understatement. She joined the World Wildlife Fund's gorilla habituation programme in the CAR as a young research assistant in 2000. She first spotted Makumba and his family later that year – he has three 'wives' and 10 children. His initial response was to disappear; for two years she hardly saw him at all. Every day she trekked for hours into the forest and only saw 'fleeing backsides'. By the time the job was finally done in 2007, Todd was 38, had been promoted to head of the programme – and Makumba had become her life.

The next day I meet Todd in her office near Bayanga, a dusty village. The capital, Bangui, is a 10-hour drive away. Outside in the trees, monkeys squawk. Inside, exposed wires hang from the plaster above my head. Todd, a girlish woman with round cheeks and wide blue eyes, is drinking tea from a plastic cup with a lid to keep the bugs out and smoking a cigarette. She likes to do both, very regularly, throughout the day.

She is tough: her job combines sweaty treks – she spends about three days a week in the field with the gorillas – with three days doing admin in the office (Sunday is her day off). She has had malaria 25 times, dengue fever and a bot fly infestation. 'They burrow into your skin. They were all over my body, just hundreds.' Almost every day she is bitten or scratched by something – driver ants, thorny vines, leeches. Her forearms and ankles are covered in scars and scabs. 'We've had researchers who have always wanted to study gorillas and they come here and walk straight back out again. They can't cope.'

Home for her and her partner Nestor and their daughter Poppy, nearly two, is a house near Bayanga which is equipped with In the Night Garden DVDs, Sainsbury's Gold Leaf tea and the music from Fiddler on the Roof – reminding you that she is a creature as much of Tunbridge Wells as of the African rainforest. 'My mum is very concerned about ballet lessons for Poppy,' she says.

This is a woman who, aged 25, had her thumb, a finger and a large part of her right forearm bitten off by a chimpanzee when she was working as a keeper in Port Lympne Wild Animal Park, Kent. She was standing outside the chimp's cage when it grabbed her arm, pulling it through the bars. Now the arm is fully functioning but badly scarred.

This proved the making of her. 'It made me more determined to come to Africa and do what I really wanted to do.' Working for WWF, her aim is to locate main groups, learn about their habits and biology, and get them used to humans so she (and her guides) can introduce the gorillas to other visitors – tourists, wildlife photographers, researchers. To this end she has spent the past 10 years living in a country not everyone has heard of ('I said to friends, I'm going to the Central African Republic, and they said, "Yeah, but where in central Africa?" '), doing a job many thought too difficult. 'No one wanted to work in the conditions of the lowlands,' says Dr Richard Carroll, a vice-president of WWF. 'It's tough out there.' Now Todd has been named a WWF 'true conservation hero'.

When Carroll first visited the Dzanga Sangha region as a PhD student and researcher for WWF-US in the early 1980s he was appalled by what he found – 'Lots of gorillas and elephants, but also poachers' camps on every stream.' The rainforest had been impenetrable for thousands of years, but new roads, built largely by logging companies, had created another kind of opportunity.

Bushmeat, the common term for tropical wild game, which includes monkeys, gorillas, chimpanzees, cane rats and other animals, is a popular and potent source of protein in this part of Africa. The carcases of slaughtered apes are sent, for huge profit, to markets in Kinshasa and Yaounde, and for that matter, on aircraft to Paris and New York.

'I was very worried,' Carroll continues. 'There were carcases of elephants everywhere. The hunting would have led to an empty forest.' Carroll had planned to habituate gorillas as research for his PhD. 'But I couldn't justify it if the next person they saw came along with a gun.'

So he shelved that idea and along with Michael Fay, from the Wildlife Conservation Society, spearheaded a conservation drive focusing on an area of rainforest straddling the south-west of the CAR, Congo-Brazzaville and Cameroon. The Dzanga-Sangha Forest Reserve and the Dzanga-Nodki National Park were created in 1990. Dzanga-Nodki is supposedly free of chainsaws, hunters, poachers and miners – the Congo basin has diamonds, gold and coltan (used in mobile phones) – while the Dzanga-Sangha reserve is designated as the place for locals to hunt for food.

There was another part of the strategic plan. Carroll argued that the way to save the lives of hundreds of apes and elephants, to stop trees from being chopped down and to help locals and marginalised groups – in this instance, the BaAka pygmies, traditional hunter-gatherers who depend on the forest for food – was 'responsible' tourism. Which means sharing, not exploitation.

Joining forces with the CAR government, 'We established a legal framework so all [wildlife] tourism revenue that came into the area would be shared with the local community to emphasise that wild animals are more valuable than dead ones,' Carroll explains. The split was 40 per cent for community associations; 50 per cent for salaries for local people working in the park; 10 per cent for national-level conservation programmes.

In addition, the BaAka pygmies were recruited as gorilla trackers. 'No gorilla would be habituated if it wasn't for their skills,' Carroll says. Adult BaAka males are 4ft tall and weigh about 90lb, and it's only when you watch them at work that you realise how superior they are. Walking a mile through the forest takes us the best part of an hour.
A BaAka does it in no more than 20 minutes (in flip-flops). Their heightened senses can even pinpoint individuals from footprints left in mud.

Not everyone is persuaded by gorilla tourism. Some believe it makes gorillas vulnerable to human diseases. A common cold, for example, can be life-threatening to a wild gorilla. But Carroll remains upbeat. 'This isn't tourism for tourism's sake,' he stresses. 'It's tourism for conservation's sake, for cultural survival's sake – for the BaAka people – and to keep the forest intact.'

Angelique Todd was an independent, strong-minded child in a musical family. But she and her older brother Sean preferred the outdoors. Their love of nature was shaped by family holidays in Pembrokeshire, walking the coastal path. (Sean is now a professor of marine mammal physiology and behaviour at Maine University.) Born in Surrey, Todd went to the independent Sutton High School and achieved the Queen's Guide Award, the ultimate honour in guiding.

She read zoology at Aberystwyth, where she became interested in parasites and spent a year of her four-year course studying faeces, firstly of wildcats at Kilverstone Wildlife Park (now Banham Zoo) in Norfolk. 'But as much as I love cats, when you study them in the wild, you don't see them at all. They are such elusive animals, it gets a little bit frustrating. And I was studying cat poo, basically.'

She became fascinated with primates after befriending a spider monkey called Eric at Kilverstone and working with PhD students studying howler monkeys in Costa Rica. She returned to Aberystwyth to finish her degree, then did a masters in primate conservation biology at Manchester University while volunteering at Port Lympne, owned (with its sister park, Howlett) by John Aspinall, the late millionaire conservationist and gambler. In April 1994 Todd was outside a cage feeding chimpanzees when Bustah, a 33-year-old chimp, made a sudden grab at her sleeve. 'He bit my thumb first, then my finger and then started on the rest of my arm.' Eventually a member of the public managed to distract the chimp long enough for Todd to make her escape.

The first thing she said after a five-hour operation to repair her arm was, 'Don't let them touch Bustah,' recalls her mother, Isabella, who lives near Tunbridge Wells. 'Angelique was afraid it would have repercussions for the chimp. But Aspinall was too fond of his animals to put them down. Bustah was sent to a wildlife park in South Africa.'

Todd says Aspinall was 'very sorry and said, "Sue me for all you can". And he invited me and my family around for cream tea and cucumber sandwiches. So I did sue him, because it was a simple health and safety issue – there was a huge gap in the cage.' She was awarded £75,000 damages. After repaying debts – a student loan and £26,000 to the government for sickness and housing benefit while she was off work – she spent £25,000 on a deposit for a house.

Her father died two years after the accident. 'There were a few problems with finances. We lost our family home, so I bought a house with my mum near Tunbridge Wells.' The remaining £7,000 funded her early years in the CAR.

Gorilla tourism is not new in Africa. Since 1970, when the American zoologist Dian Fossey became internationally renowned for her work with mountain gorillas (the hairier type that live in the Virunga Mountains where Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda meet), some 40 groups have been habituated. The 'mountain gorilla tourism model' is generally accepted as the main reason why mountain gorillas survive today.

But tourism built around western lowland gorillas is another matter. 'Mountain gorillas live in hills and you get those long-distance views so the gorillas can see you and see that you are not threatening to them, and that is a really important component of habituation,' Carroll explains. 'In the lowlands, where you can't see forest for the trees, you can come upon a gorilla a yard away before either of you knows it, which is dangerous.'

Even walking in tropical forest is a job in itself. There is hardly a path that does not require a machete, and nowhere outside the main track where anybody over 5ft tall can stand upright. You not only have to bend double, but you must also keep your head up, looking out for elephants.

The other hurdle is that unlike mountain gorillas, western lowland gorillas don't live in stable families. So one day you could see individuals A, B and C, and the next day individuals D, E and F, and ABC are off somewhere else. You can't guarantee you will see the same individuals over and over again. The upshot has been many attempts to habituate lowland gorillas, but few successes.

Dr Diane Doran-Sheehy, an associate professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University, New York, habituated two groups at the Mondika Research Centre, along the border of the CAR and Congo-Brazzaville, in 2004 as part of a research project. And one of the leading experts on western lowland gorillas, Magdalena Bermejo of the University of Barcelona, habituated the first group of lowland gorillas in central Africa, at the Lossi Gorilla Sanctuary in Congo-Brazzaville, in 2001, with JD Rodriguez-Teijeiro. She studied eight families (two for responsible tourism). But they went on to lose more than 90 per cent of their gorillas to an Ebola virus outbreak.

Some years earlier, in 1997, Bai Hokou, a profoundly remote camp in the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park, became the HQ for WWF's Primate Habituation Programme. Originally built by Dr Carroll in the mid-1980s, and now Todd's home in the field, Bai Hokou is a collection of wooden cabins and very basic facilities – the shower, for example, is a waterfall. The nearest shops are a two-hour drive through the wilderness, so staff live off a diet of tinned sardines and Laughing Cow cheese.

In 1998 the PHP came under the direction of Chloe Cipoletta, a primatologist who had previously habituated chimpanzees off the Ivory Coast. Later that year, Cipoletta started working with a small group of gorillas close to the camp. But in 1999 the group's silverback was attacked, probably by a leopard. Half of his forehead was ripped off and his back badly scratched. He recovered (although he was killed in 2004 by a male gorilla in a fight over a female), but the group of four females and their offspring started disintegrating.

In 2000 Todd, by now studying for a PhD, joined Bai Hokou as a research assistant. The deal was that she could collect data in exchange for habituating a second group of gorillas. She first spotted Makumba in November that year. The silverback was asleep in a clearing in dense forest and his daughter was playing with some oleander. Todd remembers the scene in almost mystical terms: 'I thought, oh my God, this is paradise.'

For gorillas, habituation comes in stages: fear; avoidance; aggression; and finally, indifference. By 2003 Todd and her pygmy trackers had worked through the fear and running away stage. It was at this time that Makumba's behaviour changed. 'He started being aggressive,' Todd recalls, 'but I didn't feel particularly worried. It wasn't until around March that he became highly aggressive. We work as a team and the other guides were getting some rather bad charges and I was thinking, it's fine, it's fine, and then one day he gave me a really, really bad charge and it was very scary.'

She says she can normally stop him from charging by talking. 'Not that he understands what I'm saying, it just makes him forget what he's doing – that's my theory, anyway. So yes, he knows my voice. I'm the only one who talks to him. All the trackers think I'm absolutely dippy.' By 2007 she had built a rapport with all of Makumba's family. 'The females are the most elusive,' Todd says. 'They take up to seven years to habituate.'

Todd has since habituated another gorilla group and trained other guides, who help her fulfil the original plan of gorilla tourism. The way it works is that three tourists at a time are taken into the forest to observe the wild gorillas for an hour or so, from a distance of about 20ft, at a cost of about $300 per person. The maximum is 12 tourists a day. 'We've had people cry with joy at seeing such a fabulous sight,' she says. 'Others are so petrified they don't say a thing.'

It is very labour-intensive. A staff of 50 (excluding the BaAka) work from two camps: Bai Hokou and Mongambe. Trackers are required to monitor the gorillas 24 hours a day, 'because if we lose them we spend days finding them again'. Guides are needed for the tourists. And the PHP has become a magnet for scientists, documentary filmmakers and wildlife photographers. 'Each camp costs $100,000 to run, and gorilla revenue last year was around $80,000 – that is why we're so reliant on donor funding. But we've doubled the size of the programme to the point where we can see it could be sustainable and bring in revenue.'

One evening, I walk up a dirt track to Todd's house, an airy, modern building that is anomalous in its size and amenities – fridge, electric lights – but is still surrounded by deep forest and wild elephants. This has been her home since having Poppy. She met Nestor, 37, an administrative assistant for WWF, in the late 1990s. Their relationship started in 2007. Nestor is from the Bantu tribe, and hadn't seen snow before the day he landed at Heathrow in January last year to attend the birth of his daughter.

Nestor works in Bangui, which is 300 miles away. They see each other once a month; otherwise they use Skype. Once a fortnight he sends a car with vegetables and nicer cheese than Laughing Cow.

Todd is frank about how motherhood has changed her. 'For me the ideal life is to be in the forest, but now I have a more village-based lifestyle, which is hard. For the first three months after having Poppy, I tried to live on the camp [at Bai Hokou] but it turned out to be too difficult. We had some elephants push their trunks through our windows, and then of course we had scorpions, cockroaches and centipedes, and I hadn't counted on that panicky feeling of protective mum.'

But there are still difficulties in raising a child here: fear of conjunctivitis and intestinal worms, malaria and TB. And there are constraints from spending her time among Bantu people. 'There's a belief that you must not carry a child on your shoulders after four o'clock because it makes them vulnerable to spirits in the air. I respect it.'

She works six days a week, nine hours a day (she has a nanny with a giant smile, Mama Ange, a local mother of five). She started today by distributing pay to the BaAka (£2 a day: above the national average), then drove to Bai Hokou in her Toyota pickup, led a seven-mile trek to Makumba, and will soon be writing a PowerPoint presentation for a group of German donors arriving tomorrow, before replying to emails for tourist requests. Right now Poppy is 'playing' with Pinky the kitten, and during moments of high tension, Todd leaps from her seat to intervene. She is feeling tired and thoughtful as she drinks her beer. 'There are definitely tough times,' she says. 'But to gain the confidence of a gorilla family in the wild is a real honour.' She smiles, showing a rare willingness to acknowledge her achievement.

And the future? 'If it was just me, I'd stay here for the rest of my life, but Poppy will need schooling and at some point I will have to move on.' But not just yet. Makumba is 31 and all the books say wild gorillas live to about 35 years. 'My plan is to stay here. It will be very difficult when Makumba dies. I want to be here while he's around.'

How we see Africa now

via the MO IBRAHIM facebook page

How we see Africa now
Polling of 2,000 UK adults reveals a huge need to open our eyes to Africa

Recent polling of 2,049 UK adults reveals misconceptions and negative attitudes towards Africa – highlighting the key areas that the See Africa Differentlycampaign needs to focus on.

The polling – conducted by research company ComResin Autumn 2011 – uncovers some shocking misconceptions.

1 in 5 people mis-identify Africa as a country. This rises to more than 1 in 3 people aged 18 – 35. It is, of course, the world’s second largest continent - containing 54 countries.

Hardly anyone (just 2%) knew that 7 of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies are in Africa. Most people (32%) responded that they didn’t know and over a quarter (28%) of participants thought it was a meagre ‘1 to 2’ African economies.

Only 3% of people associate Africa with technological innovations. Yet Wired magazine reported this year that: “From mobile payments to telemedicine...there’s a common pulse of innovation (in) the new Africa” - in a fantastic article showcasing the impressive amount of techno-firsts Africa boasts.

And just 5% equate Africa with gender equality. But 16 African countries have more female MPs than we have here in the UK – and Rwanda has the highest proportion in the world.

The polling highlighted the sort of negative attitudes we’re keen to change.

We asked respondents what words come to mind when they think of Africa: 84% said ‘poverty’ ; 62% said ‘corruption;’ 52% said ‘a long-term charity case.’
Despite the negative images associated with the continent, the good news is people aren’t writing it off – a majority (61%) disagreed with the statement that ‘Africa is a lost cause.’

We’ll keep you updated on how we’ll use these stats to inform our strategy, spread the under-reported good news and campaign to shift perceptions and overturn misconceptions.

Posted by Gary Nunn

Science needs a universal symbol

Thanks to Caro D for the link!

From the New Scientist
by Paul Root Wolpe

In the face of irrational opposition, it's time for the scientific community to have its own bumper sticker

SCIENCE is under assault. In the US and throughout the world, rhetoric about evolution, stem cells, global warming and other controversial and cutting-edge technologies often transcends legitimate disagreement to challenge the work of scientists.

Less visible is the community of those who believe deeply in the integrity of the endeavour, who defend the need for rigorous objectivity in politics and education, and who - even if they are sympathetic to religion or religious themselves - believe in the need for clear jurisdictional boundaries between religion, ideology and science.

They are passionate about science and see themselves as sharing a mission to defend the enterprise. Yet they lack a sign of their position, something that could unite their effort - in short, a symbol that stands for science, in much the same way as the Christian fish symbol declares adherence to that faith on car bumpers worldwide.

A single, unified symbol would have many uses. It could be displayed to represent a position: opposition to the politicising of science in government, support for increased research spending, or concern about global warming and species loss. It could be displayed by an astronomer or geologist or sociologist or teacher as a symbol of their allegiance to science. It could be used on car bumpers and web pages, and in public venues.

It should be simple and versatile, instantly recognisable and encompass all of science - a double helix alone, say, won't do as it does not take in astronomy or particle physics.

And it should be easy to modify, perhaps to identify a subject area - able to accommodate within it a double helix, or an atom, or the word NASA, or any other refinement locating the bearer in the scientific firmament. Perhaps it could even accommodate a cross or star of David or some other symbol to state: "I am a Christian (or Jew or Muslim) and support science as an enterprise."

This symbolic unifier is what I propose. And I hope that, by proposing it, ideas will be offered and debated, and that a symbol, acceptable to all, will take shape and be adopted by all who defend science as a means of understanding our world.

Paul Root Wolpe is director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. Send ideas for a symbol to or to a Facebook page he will set up

Extinct Giant Tortoise May Still Be Alive in Galapagos

A hybrid C. becki tortoise. Photo: Claudio Ciofi
by Brandon Keim

Genetic traces of a supposedly extinct giant tortoise species have been found in living hybrids on the Galapagos island of Isabela.

A few pure Chelonoidis elephantopus almost certainly still exist, hidden in the island’s volcanic redoubts. The hybrids have so much C. elephantopus DNA that scientists say careful breeding could resurrect the tragically vanished behemoths.

“To our knowledge, this is the first rediscovery of a species by way of tracking the genetic footprints left in the genomes of its hybrid offspring,” wrote researchers led by Yale University biologists Ryan Garrick and Edgar Benavides in a Jan. 9 Current Biology paper.

At the beginning of the 16th century, before humans arrived, an estimated 250,000 giant tortoises representing 15 different species lived in the Galapagos. Once fully grown, the tortoises had no natural predators — except people.

For whalers and pirates, the slow-moving animals were like walking grocery stores. They weighed up to 900 pounds; their flesh was tasty and rich in oil. They could survive for months, even years, without eating or drinking, and sailors stored tortoises alive in the hulls of their ships for future consumption.

By the time a young Charles Darwin surveyed the tortoises, they were being indiscriminately slaughtered. (“The inhabitants believe that these animals are absolutely deaf; certainly they do not overhear a person walking close behind them,” he wrote.) Five species, including C. elephantopus, would eventually go extinct. But the tortoises’ long-term storage convenience had one unexpected benefit.

“If a ship was under siege, sailors would unload it by throwing things overboard,” said Garrick. “The first thing to go was stuff stored in the hull. Tortoises don’t swim, but they float like wine corks, and it so happens that the prevailing current runs northeast through the islands. The last place a tortoise might catch land before being swept into the ocean was the northern part of Isabela island. This is where they would have washed up.”

Three years ago, Garrick and Colleagues sequenced the genomes of museum specimens of C. elephantopus and Chelonoidis becki, a closely related tortoise found on the northern part of Isabela island. They found C. elephantopus genes in a few C. becki, suggesting that some castaway tortoises historically made landfall and mated with the locals.

For the new study, the researchers traveled to Isabela island. On the island’s northern tip, on the slopes of Volcano Wolf, they took genetic samples from 1,600 C. becki individuals. Of these, 84 contained so much C. elephantopus DNA that at least one recent ancestor must have been a purebred C. elephantopus.

None of the purebreds was spotted, but because of the genetic signals’ strength and the hybrids’ youth — many were juveniles — the researchers estimate that about 40 purebreds still survive. Given that individual tortoises from other giant Galapagos species have lived for 170 years in captivity, some of the survivors could conceivably have been thrown from ships themselves.

Later this year the researchers will return to Isabela, where they hope to establish a captive breeding program using hybrids and, if they can find them, a few true C. elephantopus. The tortoises could roam again, their slaughter an evolutionary chapter rather than an end.

“The way they were moved around creates a rare opportunity to resuscitate a species that we thought we’d lost,” said Garrick.

Citation: “Genetic rediscovery of an ‘extinct’ Galápagos giant tortoise species.” By Ryan C. Garrick, Edgar Benavides, Michael A. Russello, James P. Gibbs, Nikos Poulakakis, Kirstin B. Dion, Chaz Hyseni, Brittney Kajdacsi, Lady Márquez, Sarah Bahan, Claudio Ciofi, Washington Tapia, and Adalgisa Caccone. Current Biology, January 9, 2012.

Sausage the riot dog of Greece

Thanks to Cleve H for the link!

Evolution in Action: Lizard Moving From Eggs to Live Birth

thanks to mark W for the linK!
from national geographic
by Brian Handwerk

Evolution has been caught in the act, according to scientists who are decoding how a species of Australian lizard is abandoning egg-laying in favor of live birth.

Along the warm coastal lowlands of New South Wales (map), the yellow-bellied three-toed skink lays eggs to reproduce. But individuals of the same species living in the state's higher, colder mountains are almost all giving birth to live young.

Only two other modern reptiles—another skink species and a European lizard—use both types of reproduction. (Related: "Virgin Birth Expected at Christmas—By Komodo Dragon.")

Evolutionary records shows that nearly a hundred reptile lineages have independently made the transition from egg-laying to live birth in the past, and today about 20 percent of all living snakes and lizards give birth to live young only.

(See "Oldest Live-Birth Fossil Found; Fish Had Umbilical Cord.")

But modern reptiles that have live young provide only a single snapshot on a long evolutionary time line, said study co-author James Stewart, a biologist at East Tennessee State University. The dual behavior of the yellow-bellied three-toed skink therefore offers scientists a rare opportunity.

"By studying differences among populations that are in different stages of this process, you can begin to put together what looks like the transition from one [birth style] to the other."

Eggs-to-Baby Switch Creates Nutrient Problem

One of the mysteries of how reptiles switch from eggs to live babies is how the young get their nourishment before birth.

In mammals a highly specialized placenta connects the fetus to the uterus wall, allowing the baby to take up oxygen and nutrients from the mother's blood and pass back waste. (See related pictures of "extreme" animals in the womb.)

In egg-laying species, the embryo gets nourishment from the yolk, but calcium absorbed from the porous shell is also an important nutrient source.

Some fish and reptiles, meanwhile, use a mix of both birthing styles. The mother forms eggs, but then retains them inside her body until the very last stages of embryonic development. (Related: "Dinosaur Eggs Discovered Inside Mother—A First.")

The shells of these eggs thin dramatically so that the embryos can breathe, until live babies are born covered with only thin membranes—all that remains of the shells.

This adaptation presents a potential nourishment problem: A thinner shell has less calcium, which could cause deficiencies for the young reptiles.

Stewart and colleagues, who have studied skinks for years, decided to look for clues to the nutrient problem in the structure and chemistry of the yellow-bellied three-toed skink's uterus.

"Now we can see that the uterus secretes calcium that becomes incorporated into the embryo—it's basically the early stages of the evolution of a placenta in reptiles," Stewart explained.

Evolutionary Transition Surprisingly Simple

Both birthing styles come with evolutionary tradeoffs: Eggs are more vulnerable to external threats, such as extreme weather and predators, but internal fetuses can be more taxing for the mother.

(Related: "Human Sperm Gene Traced to Dawn of Animal Evolution.")

For the skinks, moms in balmier climates may opt to conserve their own bodies' resources by depositing eggs on the ground for the final week or so of development. Moms in harsh mountain climates, by contrast, might find that it's more efficient to protect their young by keeping them longer inside their bodies.

In general, the results suggest the move from egg-laying to live birth in reptiles is fairly common—at least in historic terms—because it's relatively easy to make the switch, Stewart said.

"We tend to think of this as a very complex transition," he said, "but it's looking like it might be much simpler in some cases than we thought."

The skink-evolution research was published online August 16 by the Journal of Morphology.

How to get a faculty job in 20 not-so-easy steps

Thanks to Caro D for sending this to me, mainly because of point #6...which is why I may post-doc forever :D - MA

from the contemplative mammoth

Today’s post is by an anonymous guest blogger, who submitted this in response to a Twitter conversation today that began with a discussion of the recent spate of “Don’t get a PhD!” essays by tenured faculty inspired by the poor job market. I lamented that the process of getting hired isn’t necessarily transparent, for a host of reasons (i.e., how many jobs a person applies for, gets interviewed for, and ultimately offered). Our guest blogger obligingly supplied this hilarious post for your reading pleasure and general edification. I’ll be following up soon with my thoughts on the “Don’t get a PhD!” essays, and in the meantime, feel free to share your application-to-interview-to-hire ratio in the comments. Some of us stubbornly working towards a PhD would love a better sense of what’s typical.

So they’ve called you and scheduled an interview. Congratulations! Get ready for a couple of days of fun with your prospective new faculty. This could be the start of a whole new chapter in your professional career.

1. The Golden Rule of Interviewing: The time to decide if you want the job, is after they offer you the job. The advice below is designed to help you get the job in the first place.

2. When you schedule the interview, tell them how delighted you are and how much you are looking forward to this. They are putting themselves out there by inviting you, and they don’t want to be rejected any more than you do.

3. What to pack? Advice: 1. Better to overdress than underdress; and 2. You want them to remember YOU, not your clothes. Wear something formal but forgettable.

4. Don’t forget to show interest in the local area. It’s effective to wax ebullient about how you view moving to rural Minnesota as a dream-come-true since your personal interests include not being anywhere near a theater, operahouse, symphony or having an escalator in town*.

5. Wear a catheter. Your interview will consist of 1-2 days of 20-minute meetings scheduled back-to-back with absolutely anybody they could cram onto your schedule. There will be no bathroom breaks, no water breaks, and no insulin injections. This is exacerbated by the fact that every single one of the people you meet will want to take the 20-minutes as their coffee break**. In the end, most of the interview will be a blur, except that you will be able to find the coffee cart from any point on campus blindfolded.

6. Point 5 above reminds the author to tell you Not To Wear Heels. Heels make everyone uncomfortable in a scientific setting and I don’t know why. It’s just part of that vast incomprehensible world of feminine frivolity from which we are excluded when we gaze through that first microscope. The author is not sure whether this is good or bad.

7. Never underestimate just how freaking weird these 20-minute meetings can be. Sometimes you will be compulsively talked at as you walk in the door, through the meeting, and you will shut the door on someone still talking as you leave. Sometimes you will share a stony silence with your host for 20 minutes. Many times you will be marched through laboratories, presumably to ogle shiny machines. Ogle them. Ogle them like it is the last glimpse of human civilization you will ever get. The sorry soul who is your tour guide traded her youth and health to become chained to that beeping machine, and is it so much to ask of someone to witness this reality***?

8. People will ask you personal questions. Including questions that are illegal to ask during interviews. Stuff like: “Are you married or are you a lesbian?”, “Do you plan on having children?” and “Would you move here if we offered you the job?” and stuff that’s a lot more crazy than that. The author is telling you now so you won’t be surprised.

9. When people ask you illegal questions, you are not obligated to answer truthfully. Well, that’s the anonymous author’s position anyway. Responses like: “I’m celibate and I’m sterile” and “All my crap is in a moving van on its way here right now” are no harm no foul as far as the author is concerned. I recommend that you don’t get miffy. Nurse your wound and complain about these illegal questions on a blog anonymously many years later after you’ve had the sweet sweet revenge of living well.

10. Play up the young, fresh and cheerful angle. Universities need infusions of optimism more than they need overhead, if you want to know the truth. Academics are such endlessly relentless complainers that you can often distinguish yourself conspicuously just by intimating something (anything) hopeful and positive. Sincerity optional.

11. Here’s the Secret Key to Everything: In every department there’s one dismal job that everyone has been avoiding for years. It could be anything. It could be offering a required course, it could be leading an alumni field trip, it could be writing the annual newsletter — anything. If you can figure out what this job is, and state forcefully that you want to do it, the position is pretty much yours right there. Not only do you not mind teaching “Science 101 for the Declaredly Uninterested”, all the events of your life have been catapulting you towards doing it. You will never feel fulfilled until you can put on your C.V. that you negotiated putting a vending machine in the department’s front office. You get the idea.

12. The Seminar. News flash: none of these people have read any of your papers and maybe two of them have read your application and recommendation letters. Everyone will make their decision based on your seminar. Honestly, at the end of 35 years, the success of your whole career comes down a few one-hour seminars. So make it good. No pressure, though.

13. After your seminar you will be taken to the Interview Dinner. This will take place at a fancy restaurant with a hybridized group of the faculty most interested in your subject area and the faculty most interested in a free meal. A high degree of overlap between the two groups bodes well for your chances of being hired.

14. Order something simple for dinner. The author always goes with scallops because they seem classy, taste good and come in bite-size pieces. It’s hard to pontificate about the future of science while gumming a fistful of baby-back ribs or while standing to gain leverage over a rack of lamb.

15. Don’t drink at the Interview Dinner. Your hosts will. They will drink like men who’ve been stuck in the Sahara Desert for ten years. This is because the fancy dinner will be at the university’s expense. Years of pent up anguish suffered at the cold sinewy hand of the administration can be soothed by about $30 of Sauvingnon with astonishing efficiency. It’s actually a good deal for the alumni.

16. Don’t get into a car with any of your hosts after the Interview Dinner. See point 15 above. Chirp happily about how there’s nothing like a good long walk in the forty-below to ruminate over all the fascinating science to which you’ve been exposed that day.

17. Bring bubble bath. After the dinner, you will get so damn depressed you won’t know what hit you. Everything you worked so hard for and sacrificed so much for — your deep and raw need for acknowledgment – everything just played itself out in a single hour of seminar theater followed by a cold plate of scallops and a weak iced tea. When you get back to your hotel room, the existential emptiness of it all will hit you like an 18-wheeler descending Donner Pass. A long bubble bath and a DVD of old Jackass episodes is the only constructive way to deal with this.

18. If they are going to offer you the job, you’ll know. You’ll just know. It’s like meeting your soulmate for the first time. Except your soulmate won’t ask you to attend weekly meetings for the next 10 years during which your senior colleagues will complain bitterly about things that happened before you were born.

19. The time after the interview is like a break-up. Don’t dwell on it. Don’t stalk the department on FB and try to figure out who else is interviewing. Move on with your life. Do your best to forgive and forget. Then if you ever hear from them again, it will be a pleasant surprise.

20. Repeat as necessary.


*The anonymous author can say this because she grew up in rural Minnesota and she loves it there, even though she was 12 when she first visited a building with more than three floors.

**In the good old days (when the anonymous author was young and innocent) the 20 minutes could be used as a smoke-break. Many a hypothesis was expounded by the author’s shivering frame while Professor Marlboro Man got his fix.

***Maybe the anonymous author runs a lab.

About the author: The author anonymously lives in Hawaii and she’s published a bazillion papers though none of them in Nature anyway. Her dad says, “honey, I love you but you should probably stop trying to be funny and go back to work”. He’s been saying that since she was in second grade.

Staring into the Beautiful Cold-Blooded Eyes of Reptiles

LinkGo to environmental graffiti to see all the images

What The Panda Won't Tell Us

by Robert Krulwich
from NPR

Every giant panda, said evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould, is a riddle. A contradiction. Each one is, first, a soft, furry ball of adorableness "with a large, round head and clumsy, cuddly body" that we all want to hug. That panda, said Gould, "exists in our mind."

Then there's the hidden panda, the real one that isn't as we imagine, that lives in the wild — and that panda, Gould wrote, "has remained essentially a mystery."

Thirty years ago, scientists knew next to nothing about pandas. Because the animals live in dense forests thick with bamboo, in 1980, when George Schaller from the Bronx Zoo and a team of Chinese scientists spent four years searching in Sichuan, they saw pandas rarely, only 16 times in the first two years. Most viewings, they wrote later, "were brief — a glimpse as an animal crossed an opening or ambled up a trail."

So what do biologists do when close encounters are few? They turn to indirect evidence of behavior. Which, in the panda's case, meant poo. Pandas defecate constantly.

Schaller weighed, measured and examined that poo. He checked the bamboo shoots. (How much did they eat? How much did they digest?) It was exacting, exhausting work, often boring. But Schaller kept at it. Here's his map of one panda moving along a trail on May 31, 1982. The little black dots are poop deposits, all carefully counted.

After four years in the field, Schaller and his team were able to report that giant pandas spend about 60 percent of the day eating, and the rest of the time sleeping or resting (mostly to emit what they ate), plus a few minutes grooming and scent-marking, but almost no time playing or gamboling, as we like to think. Pandas in the wild are rarely romantic, don't cuddle and are certainly not like the pandas of our minds.

As to what goes on in a real panda's mind, Schaller says he has no idea. After years spent tracking, poop collecting and bamboo measuring, he says pandas remain deeply strange to him. He knows everything they do, but he can't say much about who they are. In his book, The Last Panda, he imagines getting a letter from one of them. It's respectful, but the panda tells him, this "science" you do? It will never describe the real me. ....

But in Schaller's defense (and the typing panda should know this), those scientific studies did have consequences.

Before he set out, conservationists thought that pandas were losing population because their food source was untrustworthy, because wild bamboo goes through cycles, and sometimes there's not enough to eat. But Schaller found no evidence of starvation. Instead, he found that human poachers were to blame. So, according to Wikipedia, "Schaller would hand out cards to wildlife hunters that read:

All beings tremble at punishment, to all, life is dear. Comparing others to oneself, one should neither kill nor cause to kill."

After Schaller's first few expeditions, predation went down, the Chinese government stepped up enforcement, and since then, the Wiki entry says, "the panda population has increased in the wild by 45 percent."

So that imaginary panda should go back to his imaginary typewriter and crank out another imaginary "Dear Dr. Schaller" letter, and if Schaller would let him, I'd have him add just a couple of extra words — nothing grand — but right at the end, I'd let the panda say something like, "Thank you."
George Schaller's newest essay and the panda field notes I showed you appear in a 2011 collection edited by Michael R. Canfield, from Harvard University Press. The book is called Field Notes on Science & Nature. Stephen Jay Gould's essay "How does the Panda fit?" can be found in his collection, An Urchin in the Storm: Essays About Books and Ideas.