Friday, April 23, 2010

Locating Land of Punt Using Mummified Baboons

Land of Punt, sometimes referred to as Ta-netjer (God's land) by ancient Egyptians was a place where pharaohs organized trading expeditions to. For the ancient Egyptians, Land of Punt is the land of fragrances, giraffes and electrum, among many other exotic items.  Live baboons were among many items brought back from Land of Punt to Egypt. Researchers now think that they know where Land of Punt is, thanks to the mummified baboons found in Thebes and Valley of the Kings.

Mummified baboon, like the one above, was used by researchers to locate the Land of Punt. 

Using the hair of the mummified baboons from both location, researchers ran an oxygen isotope analysis to estimate where these baboons were from (therefore revealing the location of Land of Punt). By comparing the values of oxygen isotope of the mummified baboons to present day baboon populations, all specimens from Eritrea and some from Ethiopia are deemed good matches by the researchers. Thus, Land of Punt is believed to be in Eritrea and the eastern parts of Ethiopia. Yemen, Somalia and Mozambique have been suggested as possible locations but readings of baboons from these locations do not match those of the mummified ones. (Although no baboon samples from Yemen were used, researchers are confident enough to posit that baboons from Yemen would "look an awful lot like a baboon from Somalia isotopically").

Aside from the fact that the researchers failed to obtain baboon samples from Yemen, it's crucial to point out that researchers were able to only identify the origin of the baboon in Valley of the Kings (meaning that the isotope reading from this one sole baboon was used to match up with all the present day baboon isotope reading). The mummified baboon from Thebes have spent some time living as a pet so its oxygen isotope had changed due to ingestion of local diet.

Read more about this discovery on Heritage Key: Baboon Mummy Tests Reveal Ethiopia and Eritrea as Ancient Egyptians' 'Land of Punt'.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

New fossil primate species found in Catalonia garbage dump: Pliopithecus canmatensis

The "discovery" of this new fossil primate species, thought to be more than 11 million years old, is as interesting as how it was found. Quoting from EurekAlert, a jaw bone of this newly discovered fossil primate species was found in a rubbish dump in Catalonia, Spain. Yes, you read that right ... rubbish dump! First of all, out of curiosity , who throws out a fossil. Secondly, I want to know how this fossil was "found". Although I do have a suspicion that the fossil was not thrown out but was just coincidentally dug up in a rubbish dump. Who knows ... Maybe it's just another lost in translation scenario.

The lower jaw of Pliopithecus canmatensis. Photo from EurekAlert.

Now back to the fossil. It seems that from the molars and lower jaw, the fossil belongs to the genus Pliopithecus, an extinct family of primitive Catarrhines (Old World Monkeys). This new species was named Pliopithecus canmatensis in honor of the rubbish dump it was found (the rubbish dump of Can Mata in the Vallès-Penedès basin of Catalonia, Spain). At a glance, the dental formula on the lower jaw seems consistent with those of Catarrhines, 2:1:2:3.

"Based on the anatomical, palaeobiographical and biostratigraphic information available, the most probable evolutionary scenario for this group is that the Pliopithecoidea were the first Catarrhini to disperse from Africa to Eurasia, where they experienced an evolutionary radiation in a continent initially deserted of other anthropoids (apes)", David Alba, main author of the study and researcher at the Catalan Institute for Palaeontology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), explains to SINC.
- EurekAlert, Discovery of a primate more than 11 million years old.

The analysis of this fossil, A new species of Pliopithecus Gervais, 1849 (Primates: Pliopithecidae) from the Middle Miocene (MN8) of Abocador de Can Mata (els Hostalets de Pierola, Catalonia, Spain), was published on American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Insectivory in Geladas

Thought I'd share this interesting observation about desert locust outbreaks in the Guassa Plateau, Ethiopia.  Fashing et al. (2010) observed that geladas (Theropithecus gelada), Ethiopian wolves (Canis simensis) and thick billed raven (Corvus crassirostris) feast on locusts in large quantities during an outbreak and immediately after in the Guassa Plateau. Although geladas are highly specialized herbivores, the observation suggest a surprisingly flexible diet shift during these outbreaks.

I tried to access the article but unfortunately it is paid-only. (Thank you Michelle, from Spider Monkey Tales, for a copy of the article). Judging from the abstract, it seems that this observation was done only during the locust outbreak of June 2009. It would be interesting to conduct a continuous study of this phenomenon to see if this diet shift really is a trend, like the authors suggested.

Fashing, PJ. Nguyen, N. Fashing, NJ. 2010. Behavior of geladas and other endemic wildlife during a desert locust outbreak at Guassa, Ethiopia: ecological and conservation implications. Primates Retrieved April 19, 2010, from DOI:10.1007/s10329-010-0194-6

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Four Stone Hearth #90

The 90th edition of Four Stone Hearth is currently being hosted by Cfeagans on A Hot Cup of Joe. Be sure to check it out! In it, he also share with us his concerns with the dwindling response to participate. Poor chap only got 4 submissions! In his own words:

Unfortunately, participation has waxed and waned a bit over these few years. I only received four submissions and one of these wasn’t, strictly speaking, a post on anthropology. But I’m including it anyway. I’m willing to accept the responsibility for the low turn-out, and here’s why: The Four Stone Hearth blog carnival depends on us, the writers and bloggers to keep it going. The readers will be there. Some of us that host routinely get a thousand or more blog hits a day and have hundreds of unique subscribers (not me… but I’m working on it. some).
We anthro-bloggers need to rally up if we want to keep the Four Stone Hearth going. I propose using the comments section here to brainstorm ideas. Side-bar badges? Advertising? Link-Love? Get PZ Myers to submit?

The next Four Stone Hearth edition will be hosted by Sexy Archaeology on April 28th.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Australopithecus sediba and "missing link"

Skull of juvenile male Australopithecus sediba. Photo from National Geographic.

The announcement last week of a new hominin, Australopithecus sediba, garnered a lot of media attention and of course among the academic circle. The remains of an adult female and a juvenile male was found deposited inside a cave in Malapa, South Africa by Lee Berger and his 9 year-old son. These fossils are thought to date about 1.9 million years ago and are probably a descendant of Australopithecus africanus.

Brain scans reveals the possibility that a chunk of brain is still intact inside the brain case, along with some fossilized bugs. Google Earth was also credited for discovering these fossils. Lee Berger have been used Google Earth to map out known fossil deposits and caves. Armed with these knowledge, Berger found 500 previously unidentified fossil deposits and cave sites.

For more about A. sediba, read:

The discovery of A. sediba, along with the "Denisova hominin" and Homo floresiensis, sparked a lot of media coverage but unfortunately the lingo "missing link" seems to be almost always paired with such discoveries. One should be cautious when using the term "missing link" as most links among known fossil records are not really "missing". Our evolutionary past is not a long linear chain but more like branches coming out of a tree trunk. Remember the missing link, "Aunt Ida" (Darwinius masillae) who turned out to be just a fossil primate on the dead end of an evolutionary branch? Some of these branches indeed lead to evolutionary dead ends, so claiming that all new discoveries are "missing link" is false. For more on the etymology of the phrase "missing link", read John Hawks's "A missing etymological link" and Carl Zimmer's "Yet Another 'Missing Link'".

    Wednesday, April 7, 2010

    Female Rhesus macaques: Grooming, group size, and feeding priority

    Michelle from Spider Monkey Tales has an interesting post about her poster: Grooming, group size, and feeding priority in female Rhesus macaques in Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico. You can check her poster if you happen to be going to the 79th annual AAPA meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

    Friday, April 2, 2010

    Life as an interspecies surrogate mother

    I hope everyone enjoyed yesterday's April Fools post. No, I am not going on a Bigfoot expedition although I truly am interested in the Bigfoot "phenomenon", in a scientific standpoint.

    Life has suddenly taken on an interesting turn for me this week. My friend found a 2 day-old kitten near his house and who's an orphan. Next thing I know, I've became the surrogate mother of this adorable kitten. She is a fighter and a very cute one to boot. In mere 24 hours, I've finally understand what it feels like to be a mother; constantly checking up on the baby, feeding the baby every few hours around the clock and even burping the baby after feeding. So, blog posts will be quite limited for about a month as I will be spending most of my time with her (much to the chagrin of my other 2 cats).

    I'm going to dedicate this blog post to my beloved grandmother who passed away suddenly yesterday. She is an important person in my life. She taught me how to love, be courageous and be independent. Of course the most important thing she instilled on me was how to be mischievous. Without her, I'd be just like my kitten ... lost, cold and hopeless. I lived with my grandmother for 15 years while my parents are in the US. I had not seen my grandmother since 2002 and it turned out that it would be my last time.

    I love you, grandma. Don't be a naughty girl anymore.

    Thursday, April 1, 2010

    Bigfoot, here I come!

    My advisor once told me that I should keep my passion for Bigfoot to myself because other primatologists would think I am cuckoo and no one would take my research seriously. However, I'm pretty elated right now and I figured I should share this good news with you, my readers. 

    I have been selected to be part of an expedition to collect scientific evidence on the existence of Bigfoot. While some information about this expedition is to be kept hush hush until it concludes, I can tell you that this expedition was proposed after frequent sightings of a bipedal ape-like creature in the woods of this area. I will meet up and start the expedition with a few cryptozoologists sometimes around May. These self-proclaimed cryptozoologists, like me, are primatologists who had kept their passion for Bigfoot in the dark from the academia. 

    Sightings of Bigfoot have long existed in the Pacific Northwest, with the now infamous 1967 Bigfoot sighting (and video) of Roger Paterson and Robert Gimlin. However, recent sightings suggests that expanding Bigfoot population is starting to make its way to the Northeast as well. 

    A model of Gigantopithecus. Photo from Wikipedia.

    The most popular theory explaining the existence of Bigfoot is that it is a relic population of Gigantopithecus that crossed the Bering land bridge or Beringia from Asia to America, much like the saber-toothed cats. Dr. Gustav von Koenigswald was the first to discover the fossil remains of Gigantopithecus in an apothecary shop in China, which he later named Gigantopithecus blacki

    Fossil jaw of Gigantopithecus blacki. Photo from Wikipedia.

    Others proposed that Bigfoot is a relic population of a species of Paranthropus instead, judging from the similarity of a crested skull and bipedal gait. However, Paranthropus sp. only occurred in Africa. Unless a small population of these hominin made its way to America, it is very unlikely that Bigfoot evolved from the Paranthropus branch. The existence of Bigfoot is undeniable from the plethora of sightings. I am hoping that this trip will possibly once and for all proved that Bigfoot really does exist. While 2009 is the year of the Flores "hobbits", 2010 will hopefully be the year of Bigfoot. 

    Imagine what a relieve it would be (especially me) that Bigfoot will no longer be featured in cheesy cryptozoology programming such as MonsterQuest. C'mon, those cheesy graphics doesn't help establish the fact that Bigfoot exists. For shame! Even ABC-TV "Wife Swap" is featuring a family of Bigfoot hunters! Check out Loren Coleman's article on Cryptomundo

    This is what Bigfoot is supposed to look like according to MonsterQuest.

    I'm currently reading Joshua Blu Buhs's book, Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend. Hopefully I'll finish reading the book before the expedition starts. So, who said a primatologist can't do fieldwork in North America? Hopefully the experience from this expedition will provide me with enough leverage for grad school application next year!

    "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence". - Dr. Carl Sagan.