Sunday, March 29, 2009

90% Of Wild Chimpanzees In Côte d'Ivoire Are Dead

A juvenile chimpanzee playing with a stick in Gdansk Zoo, Poland. Photo from Cellerimus.

Pretty grim statistics from According to the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology census, 90% of all wild chimpanzees that live in Côte d'Ivoire (the Ivory Coast) are dead thanks to civil war, deforestation, poaching and clearing land for farming. Currently, Taï National Park is the last stronghold for a troop of chimpanzees while the remaining population lives in scattered locations all around Côte d'Ivoire.

Read the rest of the article from

Saturday, March 28, 2009

First Ever Casts Of Homo Floresiensis To Be Unveiled At Stony Brook University

Photo from Science Museum

Apparently, the first ever casts of Homo floresiensis or "Hobbit" will be unveiled at the 7th Annual Human Evolution Symposium at Stony Brook University on Tuesday, April 21st, 2009 courtesy of the National Research and Development Center for Archaeology in Jakarta, Indonesia. This symposium will be convened by Richard Leakey, famous paleoanthropologist and Anthropology professor of Stony Brooks. “Hobbits in the Haystack: Homo floresiensis and Human Evolution,” is hosted by the Turkana Basin Institute at Stony Brook.

Click here for the press release from Stony Brook. This all-day symposium is open to the public. Check website for ticket pricing and questions. I HAVE to be there ...

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Roger Wescott's "Upright Display Scenario"

I bet there are some of us out there that wonders how our hominin ancestors started to walk bipedally. They didn't just stood up and walked upright, that's for sure. One good explanation is that they first evolved a bipedal gait, not bipedal locomotion. Many scenarios had been set forth to imagine how the evolution of bipedalism had occurred.

Roger Westcott in 1967 proposed the "Upright Display Scenario" as one of the causes of bipedality, other causes include carrying tools and looking over tall grass while scavenging or predator avoidance. He suggests that bipedal behavior was adaptive because it made the bipedalist appear taller to intimidate their protagonists (other males) and predators. He also suggests that these displays were frequent and impressive. Westcott draws his scenario from threat display behaviors exhibit by the African apes; gorillas and chimpanzees.

Westcott proposed that early hominins had agonistic interactions which includes "two-legged standing or running, probably accompanied by fist-shaking or arm-waving, and possibly involving the seizing and brandishing of sticks or stones" (Parker and Jaffe, 2008).

Chimpanzee upright aggression. Photo from Why Files.

Parker S.T. Jaffe K.E. 2008. Darwin's Legacy: Scenarios in Human Evolution. Plymouth, United Kingdom: AltaMira Press.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Seeing Colors: How It Reflects Our Primate Evolution

We share the same color vision unique to some of our primate cousins. This color vision is call trichromacy because it depends on three types of light to activate pigments in the retina of the eye. Trichromacy evolved from non primate mammals color vision that only requires two types of lights call dichromacy. Almost all non primate mammals are dichromats. Read the full article Color Vision: How Our Eyes Reflect Primate Evolution from Scientific American here.

Generally in humans, color blindness is the result of the inability to distinguish differences between some of the colors others can. It is generally, but not limited to, a genetic disorder.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Little Foot: The Australopithecine

Little Foot's skull and upper left arm. Photo from The Witness.

10 years later, Little Foot will finally be given a species name. Read about the discovery Little Foot in 1998 from Washington Post here.

Professor Ron Clarke of the Institute for Human Evolution and School of Anatomical Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand will start identifying Little Foot for the latest issue of the South African Journal of Science. According to Clarke, Little Foot does not belong to the species Australopithecus afarensis or Australopithecus africanus, but to a unique Australopithecus species previously found at Makapansgat and Sterkfontein Member Four. Read the article from The Witness here.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Chimpanzees: A Growing Arsenal Of Tools

Photo from

We are quite familiar with tools that chimpanzees make to make their life easier: stones to break open nuts, sticks to fish out termites, chewed up leaves to soak up water, etc. We can now add another tool to this arsenal; clubs for honey extraction.

Scientists found that wild chimpanzees from the Republic of Congo craft clubs out of branches to break open bee hives to obtain honey. Crickette Sanz of the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany said that the nutritional returns from honey does not seem to be that significant. "But their excitement when they've succeeded is incredible, you can see how much they are enjoying tasting the honey" she added. Read the article here.

If honey is not a part of chimpanzee's sustenance then why do they even bother spending hours getting at something that doesn't even contribute to their daily nutritional needs? Well, I think it's like us enjoying candies or chocolate bars. They don't really provide us with nutritional needs (unless you count sugar and carbs!) yet we love, and sometimes crave them.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Orangutan Turns 50, Thanks To Kitty

Everyone that knows me knows that I love cats. Cats are the perfect companion and the perfect friend. They never beg for you to drag them out on a snow storm to do their business and they even have the decency to cover their poop! OK enough talk about my cats, that's for my personal blog.

T.K. and Tonda at Zooworld, Fl. Photo from Cat Channel

An orangutan from ZooWorld, Florida named Tonda had adopted a cat name T.K. (short for Tonda's Kitty). Tonda went into depression four years ago after her mate, Yakut died. Faced with the facts that Tonda was too old for another male orangutan and was too fragile to be moved to another location, zookeepers tried a non-conventional method ... giving her a pet cat. Drawing inspiration from Koko, the gorilla who herself had a few pet cats, zookeepers began introducing T.K. to Tonda. It was a success. T.K. had been living with Tonda for the past four years and zookeepers think that he was the reason Tonda celebrated her 50th birthday. Read the article here.

What we can draw from this example, I think, is the power of pets or companion animals. Having a companion animal when we are lonely and sad seems inherent to humans but do great apes feel the same as well? Can pets really help rehabilitate other great apes, maybe even other primates when they are depressed, sad or when they just need a companion? One thing for sure, primates DO NOT MAKE GOOD PETS.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Evidence Of Culture Transfer: Mother and Infant Long-Tailed Macaques

A research done late last year by Masataka et al. (2009) was published on PLoS ONE titled "Free-Ranging Macaque Mothers Exaggerate Tool-Using Behavior when Observed by Offspring". The research found that long-tailed macaque mothers emphasized tool-using action and performed such action longer in the presence of their infant. A group of long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis) in Thailand were recorded using human hair as dental floss to clean their teeth. Mothers would emphasize and repeat the techniques on how to use human hair (tool) in front of the infant in longer periods between each bout. Masataka et al. interpret that such behavior is evidence that mother macaques are exaggerating their action in tool-use to facilitate learning in their infants. Read the National Geographic article here.

This study is important when we look at "culture" and how we define it. Understandably, "culture" is a hard-to-define term and non-human culture are predominantly defined as a knowledge that can be passed down from one generation to another. Observation on culture transfer between mother long-tailed macaques to their infants proves not only that "culture" exist in non-human primates but it is observable.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

You're Named After A Cantaloupe

Exams are happening this week so I might not have time to blog. So for the meantime, I'm gonna divert your attention to some cuteness in the primate world.

Isn't he cute? A three-month-old baby gorilla at the San Francisco Zoo is still name-less but not for long. Tomorrow, his father Oscar Jonesy will be given 5 differently colored cantaloupes, each representing 5 different names that were chosen from suggestions around the world. Whichever cantaloupe Oscar picks, that will be the name of the baby. So if you see the baby next time at the zoo, tell him he got his name from a cantaloupe!

*UPDATED 3/11/09 : The baby's name is Hasani, meaning "handsome" in Swahili*

Photo and news from City Insider.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Hamadryas Baboons: Who's Who At The Prospect Park Zoo


The hamadryas baboon troop at the Prospect Park Zoo are divided into two groups. Group #1 consists of 6 members: a one-male unit (OMU) with a female and 4 offspring. Group #2 consists of 4 members: a OMU with three females. Group #1 is dominant over Group #2. It took me a few visits to tell them apart, observing unique features in their face or body helps a lot. Also, these are not their real names given by the zoo. I find it easier to remember them if I name them myself. The baboon's "zoo name" is given in the bracket ( ). 

Group #1

Ben (Simen) is the leader male of Group #1 and also alpha male of the Prospect Park Zoo population. You can tell Ben apart from the other males because he has a mole underneath his left eye.

Mimi (Matara) is Ben's female. She is the mother of Fifi, Fadi, Neji and Ken. She is always near Ben and you can distinguish her from the rest of the females because she has a bigger belly and yellower fur. She is actually a hamadryas and olive baboon hybrid!

Fifi (Binti) is Ben and Mimi's daughter. She has a scar on the middle of her back and she is always seen with Ken and Neji.

Fadi (Moja) is Ben and Mimi's eldest son. He likes to be alone most of the time and can be seen near Neji a lot to groom him or be groomed by him. Fadi is a little bit tubbier than the rest of the males.

Neji (Nyali) is Ben and Mimi's middle son. He is a troublemaker. He has a scar on his lower left cheek. Neji likes to play with Ken and Fadi. Sometimes you can see Neji trying to herd Pam away from Leo.

Ken (Kito) is Ben and Mimi's youngest son. He is very energetic, much like any other child. Ken likes to hang around with Neji and Fifi.

Group #2

Leo (Bole) is the leader male of Group #2. He is lower ranking than Ben. Leo has a fuller and longer mane than Ben and Fadi. He is always seen with or close to Jenn, his favorite female.

Jenn (Zula) is Leo's female. She is higher ranking than Anne and Pam, and she is Leo's favorite. She can be seen with or near Leo most of the time. Due to obsessive grooming by Leo and her old age, she looks rather mangy. This picture was taken when she was on her estrus cycle (sexual swelling).

Anne (Mekele) is Leo's female. She is lower ranking than Jenn but higher ranking than Pam. She's pretty old with raggedy fur.

Pam (Kobo) is Leo's female. She is the lowest ranking of all females. She was easily recognizable by her short tail. She is herded away from Leo by Neji at times but she doesn't seem to mind as she enjoys grooming and getting groomed by Neji.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Karen Baab and Kieran McNulty: Modern Procrustes

I found this while searching for news articles on "The Hobbits" or "Homo floresiensis". Sometimes taxonomy gives me headaches. I don't know why humans are so obsessive compulsive about putting things in categories. I guess that same reason is why I put labels on my blog posts.

Anthropologists Karen Baab from Stony Brook University Medical Center and Kieran McNulty from University of Minnesota published "Size, shape, and asymmetry in fossil hominins: The status of the LB1 cranium based on 3D morphometric analyses" in the Journal of Human Evolution last July. Click for .pdf version of the article.

Photo from the Science Museum

Using principal components analysis in shape space and in Procrustes form space, they shrank skulls of modern humans, fossil hominins and apes proportionate to their body so that they can use these new simulated models to compare LB1's skull. They found that LB1's skull closely resembles those of the genus Homo, too different to be those of modern human but close enough to be related to Homo erectus or something more primitive.

"You can't just make things bigger or smaller," McNulty explains. "When things change size, they need different mechanical properties." Or, there could be certain spatial requirements for the brain. A host of factors determine the proportions of the "shrunken" skull.

They concluded from their study that LB1 was more primitive than those of the Asian Homo erectus and perhaps LB1 (Homo florensiensis) was a descendent of a hominin population that predates Asian Homo erectus which underwent a process of size reduction.

Read the press releases from University of Minnesota and Stony Brook University.

I think a lot of people see LB1 as modern human because the skull looks like a shrunken modern human skull. They try to explain why LB1 is so small in stature, from microcephaly to dwarfism. But sometimes looks can be deceptive. LB1 might look like a modern human but it's not. I think that Homo floresiensis is a species of its own and it seems that more and more evidence is surfacing to prove so.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Questioning The "Out-Of-Africa" Model

The "Out-Of-Africa" Model is something that all Biological Anthropology students get drilled into their heads in Anthropology 102. Some Homo erectus migrated out of Africa to different regions. Archaic Homo sapiens then evolved from Homo erectus. Archaic Homo sapiens from Africa migrated out and displaced other archaic Homo sapiens from different regions. These archaic African Homo sapiens then evolved and became anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) Academically it is also call the recent single-origin hypothesis (RSOH), the Replacement Hypothesis or the Recent African Origin (RAO) model. These hypotheses came from the discovery of mitochondrial DNA, a kind of DNA that's only passed down by females to their offspring. Tracking this mitochondrial DNA, we can all draw our lineage back to a single female aptly named Mitochondrial Eve. Read about the "Out-Of-Africa" Model from a wiki entry.

The "Out-Of-Africa" Model. Illustration from Raritan Valley Community College

Well all that is fine and dandy. We were even told that the "Multiregional" Model is pretty much not accepted in academia nowadays. However, this dude begs to differ.

The "Multiregional" Model. Illustration from Wikipedia.

Akhil Bakshi, an Indian "explorer" led a multidisciplinary Gondwanaland Expedition across the 17 countries of South Asia, West Asia and Africa. He questions the "Out-Of-Africa" Model and in favor of the notion that anatomically modern humans were the byproduct of interbreeding between archaic Homo sapiens across different regions. He is actually in favor of the "Multiregional" Model.

Read his article here (text or .pdf). What do you think?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Promiscuous Girls: Calculating Baboons at Wellington Zoo Might Be Modifying Sex Cycle To Trick Their Mate

Ray Toble, a Victoria University Master of Science student said that female hamadryas baboons from Wellington Zoo, New Zealand are changing their sex cycle so that they have a higher chance to mate with someone other than their leader male. There are currently two harems in the zoo exhibit; one with three females and the one with six females. Toble found that females from the smaller harem had a fertile phases that's on average three days longer than the females in the larger harem.

Read more about the news article here.

Is this a behavior unique to Wellington Zoo population? Can this behavior be observed in other zoo populations and in the wild? I think more research and observation needs to be done on this topic but it is certainly fascinating to see that female hamadryas are calculated in their reproductive success. One thing I am not clear about, are there only two male hamadryas baboons at the Wellington Zoo or are these females increasing their chance to mate with male bachelors in the same exhibit.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Donald C. Johanson, The Man Who Discovered Lucy

Paleoanthropologist Donald C. Johanson, discoverer of the oldest fossil bones of erect walking humans on record, displays a plaster-cast skull of a female skeleton he named "Lucy." Photo from Time magazine.

Time magazine had a Q&A with paleoanthropologist, Dr. Donald C. Johanson on his new book, Lucy's legacy: The Quest for Human Origins, a continuation of his previous book, Lucy: The Beginning of Humankind and his discovery of "Lucy" the female Australopithecus afarensis.

To set the record straight, it was the Beatles' song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" that gave birth to the hominid's name, correct?

Yes, the whole camp was listening to Beatles' tape because I was a great Beatles fan, and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was playing and this girl said, well if you think the fossil was a female, why don't you name her Lucy? Initially I was opposed to giving her a cute little name, but that name stuck.

Read about the Q&A here.

Here's a trivia for you: Do you know that Australopithecus afarensis means the Southern ape of Afar, named after the area where Lucy was found (Afar, Ethiopia).

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Evolution Of Race: Homo Erectus?

The 2002 discovery of a Homo erectus fossil found in a marble quarry in Denizli, Turkey was a 20 to 40-year-old dark skinned male with signs of tuberculosis, according to Hurriyet news.

"The 500,000 years old skull fossil is expected to provide hints to the science world on the first humans’ migration and spreading on earth. The fossil agrees with the thesis of mankind originating from Africa", said Mehmet Cihat Alçiçek, assistant professor at the Geological Engineering Faculty in Pamukkale University.

It is documented that as modern humans moved north or south from the equator, their skin color becomes lighter. The further north or south from the equator, production of melanin (skin pigment) in the body decreases gradually so that enough vitamin D can be absorbed from sunlight. This Homo erectus fossil was a dark-skinned male, presumably had migrated out of Africa to Turkey. He had suffered from tuberculosis, a disease susceptible from vitamin D deficiency. Though nothing conclusive can be said about his diet, we can infer that his dark skin was not adaptive to his new environment. His body was simply not absorbing enough vitamin D from sunlight.

What I find particularly interesting from this news article is a snippet of natural selection 500,000 years ago. Depending on where you live geographically, there are selective pressures that select for lighter or darker skin color. Individuals with lighter skin color are better adapted to live further away from the equator while individuals that live close to the equator are better adapted with darker skin tone. This leads me to my question, did the evolution of skin color started in Homo erectus?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Bonnie The Whistling Orangutan

A female orangutan named Bonnie from the National Zoo in Washington DC knows how to whistle and she does it because she can. Bonnie's whistling was documented by Great Ape Trust of Iowa early last December. Her self-taught talent shed new light on the evolution of speech, said Bonnie's keeper Erin Stromberg. "Sounds aren't necessarily all genetic ... they also can be behavioral or ecological, and they are also voluntary", Stromberg added. BBC picked up the story last Thursday.

Bonnie whistles because she feels like it, not because for potential food reward. Researchers thought that orangutans have a limited number of sounds that they can make, all are involuntary responses based on emotions or to avoid predators. Bonnie's whistling certainly changed this perception. It turns out that Bonnie's friend, Indah also knew how to whistle. Scientists believe that Indah learned how to whistle from Bonnie. Indah died in 2004.

Bonnie's vocal plasticity might be the answer for the evolution of speech in orangutans or even the great apes.

"Orangutan’s spontaneous whistling opens new chapter in study of evolution of speech". Click on the Great Ape Trust of Iowa website or the .pdf version to read more.