April 26, 2013
You probably haven’t heard of the world’s second rarest ape, the cao vit gibbon. Scientists know of only one place the species still lives in the wild. In the 1960s, things got so bad for the cao vit gibbon that the species was declared extinct. But in 2002, to the surprise and elation of conservationists, the animals—whose shaggy coats can be a fiery orange or jet black—turned up along Vietnam’s remote northern border. Several years later, a few gibbons were found in China, too.
Also known as the eastern black-crested gibbon, the cao vit gibbons once covered an expanse of forest spanning from southern China and northern Vietnam just east of the Red River, but today only about 110 individuals survive. This gibbon is highly inclined to stick to the trees—in a previous study, during more than 2,000 hours spent observing gibbons in the field, researchers saw only once and very briefly one young male cao vit gibbon come down from the canopy and walk on a rock for a few seconds. Population surveys based on watching the animals in the branches reveal that the gibbons live in 18 groups scattered throughout the area. That makes it the second least populous species of ape, just after the Hainan gibbon, another type of extremely rare gibbon living in the same area of Asia.
In 2007 and 2009, Vietnam and then China hustled to establish special protected areas dedicated to preventing the cao vit gibbon’s extinction. Much of the area surrounding the remaining populations of gibbons is quickly being converted to agricultural fields and pasturesor cut down to make charcoal to sell and use at home, a common practice in the area. Hunting—though illegal—is also an issue, as exotic wild meat dinners are popular with locals in the region.
For an endangered species to recover rather than just survive, it needs to grow in numbers. But any given patch of land can only support so many animals given the amount of food and space that’s available. If populations exceed this threshold—called a carrying capacity—then animals will either starve, get picked off by predators or have to move somewhere else.
Researchers from Dali University in Yunnan, the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Kunming and the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences in Beijing wanted to find out how much of the protected forest the cao vit gibbons had expanded into, and also how many animals that pocket of land could eventually support. To answer this question, they turned to high-resolution satellite images, describing their results in the journal Biological Conservation.
Once they acquired aerial images of the gibbons’ habitat, they classified it into forest, scrub, shrub land and developed areas. This was important because gibbons can only live high in forest canopies, meaning the latter three categories were out of bounds for potentially supporting the animals. Overall, the area could be divided into five different zones that were split apart by either roads or rivers. From there, the researchers plugged the data into computer models that ranked possible gibbon habitat from high to low quality.
Their results revealed several bits of news, some good and some bad. First, from the models it seems that 20 groups of gibbons could eventually live in the protected forest areas before the population reaches its carrying capacity threshold. However, as human development creeps closer and closer, that disturbance could lower that figure. As things stand, the gibbons will likely reach their carrying capacity in the current habitat in 15 years, which doesn’t bode well for building up the species’ numbers.
There are a couple options. The protected area isn’t all great habitat, it turns out. Some of it is just mediocre for gibbons. If that span of forest could be improved, it could eventually support up to 26 groups of animals. The researchers also identified two other potential areas where gibbons could live if they could somehow manage to travel there (no gibbon has ever been known to cross a river or a road). But these patches of welcoming forest, located in Vietnam, are not protected, so they likely will not remain forests for long. If the government decided to protect those areas, the researchers write, they could serve as places for cao vit gibbons to live in the future, especially if narrow corridors of trees connecting the two areas were protected and restored as well.
If these patches of forest were protected, gibbons would not be the only species to benefit. Numerous other species of primates and monkeys, civets, pangolins, porcupines, birds, bats and many more depend upon those last remaining jungle habitats for survival. “In summary, the last remaining population of cao vit gibbon is nearing its carrying capacity in the current remaining forest patch,” the authors write. “Forest protection and active forest restoration using important food tree plantings to increase habitat quality and connectivity should be the most critical part of the ongoing conservation management strategy.”
April 22, 2013
Anyone who has read a Richard Preston book, such as The Hot Zone or Panic in Level 4, knows the danger of tampering with wildlife. The story usually goes something like this: Intrepid explorers venture into a dark, bat infested cave in the heart of East Africa, only to encounter something unseen and living, which takes up residence in their bodies. Unknowingly infected, the happy travelers jump on a plane back to Europe or the States, spreading their deadly pathogen willy-nilly to every human they encounter upon the way. Those people, in turn, bring the novel virus or bacterium back home to strangers and loved ones alike. Before the world knows it, a pandemic has arrived.
This scenario may sound like fiction, but it’s exactly what infectious disease experts fear most. Most emerging infectious diseases in humans have indeed arisen from animals–think swine and bird flu (poultry and wild birds), SARS (unknown animals in Chinese markets), Ebola (probably bats) and HIV (non-human primates). Therefore, experts prioritize the task of figuring out which animals in which regions of the world are most prone to delivering the latest novel pathogen to hapless humanity.
With this in mind, researchers at Harvard University, the University of Granada and the University of Valencia set out to develop a new strategy for predicting the risk and rise of new diseases transmitted from animals before they happen, describing their efforts in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
To narrow the hypothetical disease search down, the team chose to focus on non-human primates. Because monkeys and great apes are so closely related to us, their potential for developing and transmitting a pathogen suited to the human body is greater than the equivalent risk from animals such as birds or pigs. As a general rule, the more related species are, the greater the chances they can share a disease. The researchers gathered data from 140 species of primates. They overlaid that information with more than 6,000 infection records from those various primate species, representing 300 different pathogens, including viruses, bacteria, parasitic worms, protozoa, insects and fungus. This way, they could visualize which pathogens infect which species and where.
Like mapping links between who-knows-who in a social network, primates that shared pathogens were connected. This meant that the more pathogens an animal shared with other species, the more centrally located it was on the tangled web of the disease diagram.
From studying these charts, a few commonalities emerged. Animals at the center of the diagram tended to be those that lived in dense social groups and also covered a wide geographic range (yes, similar to humans). These species also tended to harbor parasites that are known to infect humans, including more pathogens identified as emerging infectious diseases. In other words, those species that occurred in the center of the diagram are the best positioned to kick off the next pandemic or horrific infectious disease, and thus should be the ones that experts should keep the closest watch on.
Such animals could qualify as “superspreaders,” or those that receive and transmit pathogens very often to other species.”The identification of species that behave as superspreaders is crucial for developing surveillance protocols and interventions aimed at preventing future disease emergence in human populations,” the authors write.
Apes appeared in the heart of the disease diagram and are among the species we should be most worried about, which is not surprising considering that diseases such as malaria and HIV first emerged from these animals. On the other hand, some non-ape primates, including baboons and vervet monkeys, also popped up in the center of the diagram and turn out to harbor many human emerging disease parasites.
Currently, our ability to predict where, when and how new emerging infectious diseases might arise is “remarkably weak,” they continue, but if we can identify those sources before they become a problem we could prevent a potential health disaster on a regional or even global scale. This new approach for identifying animal risks, the authors write, could also be applied to other wildlife groups, such as rodents, bats, livestock and carnivores. “Our findings suggest that centrality may help to detect risks that might otherwise go unnoticed, and thus to predict disease emergence in advance of outbreaks—an important goal for stemming future zoonotic disease risks,” they conclude.
January 2, 2013
In 1719, Daniel Defoe wrote in Robinson Crusoe, ”He declar’d he had reserv’d nothing from the Men, and went Share and Share alike with them in every Bit they eat.” Defoe’s famous sharing phrase has persisted throughout the years, passing from parent to child as a lesson on the virtues of sharing with family, peers and even strangers.
But in the context of evolution and survival of the fittest, sharing makes no sense. Until now, scientists assumed that humans alone subscribed to this behavior, especially when it comes to sharing with strangers, and wrote the trait off as a quirk stemming from our unique cognitive and social development.
Sure, primatologists know that great apes help and voluntarily share food with other group mates (acts that indirectly benefits themselves). But strangers? Such a behavior is unheard of amidst species that often compete aggressively with other groups and even murder foreign individuals.
Researchers from Duke University decided to challenge the great ape’s bad sharing rep, seeking to discover whether or not our furry relatives may also have a propensity for partitioning goods with animals they do not know. The scientists chose bonobos–a type of great ape sometimes referred to as a pygmy chimpanzee–for their study. Compared to chimpanzees, bonobos possess a relatively high tolerance for strangers, so they seemed like a logical candidate for investigations into the nature of sharing.
At a bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, they enrolled 15 wild-born bonobos orphaned and rescued from the illegal wildlife trade in four experiments. In the first experiment, the researchers led a bonobo into a room piled high with delicious banana slices. Behind two sliding doors, they placed either a friend of the main bonobo or a stranger (a bonobo unrelated and unknown to their main research subject). The bonobo with the bananas could chose to eat the food all on its own, or open the sliding door and invite both or either the friend or stranger to join in. In the second experiment, they placed only one bonobo–either the friend or stranger–behind a door and left the second room empty.
The results, which they describe this week in the journal PLoS One, confounded the researchers. In more than 70 percent of the trials, the bonobos shared their food at least once. They preferred to release the stranger over their group mate, and the stranger in turn often released the other bonobo, even though that meant splitting the food three ways and being outnumbered by two bonobos that already knew each other. They ignored the door leading to the empty room, showing that the novelty of opening the door was not motivating their behavior.
So, were the bonobos willing to share their food with strangers because of an overwhelming desire to interact with the unknown apes, or were they motivated by a sense of altruism? The researchers set up two more experiments to find out. They arranged a rope which, when pulled, released either a bonobo stranger or friend into a room which held more bananas. A mesh divider separated the main bonobo from that room, however, meaning it could neither reach the food or interact directly with the released ape. Even when there was no immediate social or culinary reward on offer, the researchers found, 9 out of 10 bonobos still chose to release their friend or the stranger at least once, allowing the other ape to reach the banana reward.
Bonobos drew the line, however, in the final experiment. This setup allowed both bonobos to access the food, but did not let them interact physically with the stranger or friend. In other words, the main bonobo would have to forfeit some of its food but receive no reward of sniffing, petting or playing with another ape. None of the bonobos chose to open the door, suggesting that the seemingly altruistic sharing of the first two experiments was just a ploy to gain gratifying access to intriguing strangers and, to a lesser extent, friends. The third experiment, however, shows that the bonobos’ motivations are not completely selfish. When the food was so far out of reach that they themselves could not benefit, they allowed a friend or stranger to enjoy it instead.
Bonobos, in other words, break the rules when it comes to sharing, showing that kindness towards strangers is not unique to humans. Oddly enough, unlike their bipedal counterparts, bonobos even seem to prefer strangers to group mates. This behavior, the study authors think, might have evolved to help groups of bonobos expand their social networks. Further investigations may lend clues about evolution of sharing in humans.
“Like chimpanzees, our species would kill strangers; like bonobos, we could also be very nice to strangers,” said Jingzhi Tan, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University and lead author of the paper, in a statement. “Our results highlight the importance of studying bonobos to fully understand the origins of such human behaviors.”
November 19, 2012
Stereotypically, people experiencing a mid-life crisis desperately seek to justify their lives through superficial means, perhaps by buying an expensive sports car or getting into a relationship with a younger romantic partner. Although their behavior looks rather different, a new study says that chimpanzees and orangutans go through a mid-life nadir in overall well-being and happiness that roughly resembles our own.
A team led by psychologist Alexander Weiss of the University of Edinburgh asked zookeepers and researchers around the world to keep track of the well-being of resident chimpanzees and orangutans—508 animals in total. The results of all that record-keeping, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that, like humans, these great apes generally experience a U-shaped pattern of happiness and well-being, starting off with high ratings for happiness as adolescents, declining gradually during middle age (bottoming out in their late 20s or early 30s), and then rising back up again in their elder years.
Although popular conceptions of human mid-life crises focus on material acquisitions, psychologists believe they’re driven by an underlying decline in satisfaction and happiness as we go through middle age, and reflected by increased antidepressant use and suicide risk. In this sense, the primates studied went through a similar pattern:
Of course, unlike with humans, no one can directly ask chimps and orangutans how they are feeling. Instead, the researchers relied upon surveys, filled out by zookeepers and caretakers, that rated the animals’ mood and how much pleasure they took from certain situations. They acknowledge the ratings are necessarily subjective, but they feel that the size of the dataset and consistency in the trends as reported from the different zoos with different animals suggests that the pattern is legitimate.
Weiss’ group originally embarked on the ape study to answer the question of why mid-life dissatisfaction is so common in humans. “We hoped to understand a famous scientific puzzle: why does human happiness follow an approximate U-shape through life?” Weiss said in a statement.
Although many are apt to blame external cultural factors such as disappointing careers or mounting bills as the cause, Weiss felt it was something more fundamental. By showing that a similar pattern exists in other primates, he argues that his team has dispelled the notion that these types of external factors are solely responsible. “We ended up showing that it cannot be because of mortgages, marital breakup, mobile phones or any of the other paraphernalia of modern life,” he said. “Apes also have a pronounced midlife low, and they have none of those.”
Instead of these cultural factors, Weiss suggests that this pattern is rooted in biological or evolutionary factors. It might have been the case, for example, that the human ancestors who had an innate tendency for happiness and satisfaction at the stages of life when they were most vulnerable (youth and old adulthood) might have been less likely to venture into risky and potentially harmful situations in the pursuit of more resources.
September 14, 2012
Over the past year, we’ve seen the invention of increasingly sophisticated prosthetic limbs, ears and eyes—ideas and inventions that once seemed so fanciful as to belong to the realm of science fiction. Now, a team of scientists at Wake Forest University in North Carolina is going one step further, working on developing a prosthesis for the most complex organ of all: the mind.
As revealed in a paper published today in the Journal of Neural Engineering, the researchers created a way to manipulate the neural activity of rhesus monkeys to assist them with decision-making when their cognitive abilities were impaired due to the administration of cocaine. The scientists say their research could someday lead to a new way of assisting people who have diminished cognitive ability to disease or injury.
To establish a baseline for the monkeys’ decision-making abilities, the researchers trained them to execute a simple matching task on a computer. As each of the five monkeys used in the study looked at a computer screen, they were shown a single clip-art image, then the screen went blank for a minute or two. Afterward, the original picture came back, along with one to seven other images.
At the same time, the position of the monkeys’ arms on the countertop in front of the computer was tracked via a camera that detected UV light, which bounced off of a special reflector affixed to the back of the monkeys’ hands. The position of their hands, as detected by the camera, was digitized and fed into the computer, so when they moved their hands, a cursor on the computer screen moved, as though they were holding a mouse.
When the images came back onto the computer screen after the blank interval, if the monkeys moved the cursor over the original picture they’d been shown, they were rewarded with a drop of juice via a sipper situated near their mouths. Over the course of several months, each monkey got the hang of the task and trained until they were able to select the correct image 40 to 75 percent of the time, depending on the number of photos shown.
While they were doing the matching, though, the researchers were closely monitoring the monkeys’ neural patterns with recording cylinders that had been implanted in the animals’ prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain known to be active during decision-making tasks. The scientists discovered that the same neural activity patterns reliably occurred in this area whenever the monkeys successfully completed the task and less frequently when the monkeys picked the wrong picture.
Next, things got interesting: As the monkeys looked at the images and sipped juice, the researchers surreptitiously injected each one with cocaine. Because the drug is known to disrupt the sort of continued concentration and decision-making skills necessary to getting the computer matching task correct, the monkeys’ success rates predictably dwindled, and they picked the correct image 13 percent less frequently than before they were administered cocaine.
When the researchers used the electrodes they had previously implanted in the monkeys’ brains–located in the precise locations inside the prefrontal cortex that had been firing reliably when they correctly matched the image–to later trigger those neurons, replicating the firing patterns, the results were dramatic.
“The prosthetic device is like ‘flipping a switch’ to turn on a decision in real time,” said Sam Deadwyler, a professor of physiology and pharmacology at Wake Forest and one of the study’s authors. Under the influence of cocaine, the prosthesis restored and even improved as compared with the baseline, with the monkeys selecting the correct image 10 percent more frequently than before.
“Based on the findings of this study, we hope in the future to develop an implantable neuroprosthesis that could help people recover from cognitive deficiencies due to brain injuries,” said Wake Forest professor Robert E. Hampson, the lead author of the study.
It’s conceivable, though, that the temptation of a neural prostheses could be strong enough to someday appeal to a different crowd—instead of those who suffered a stroke or lesion, people simply looking for a competitive edge. It might sound far-fetched, but in an age of “neuroenhancing” drugs and ever-increasing plastic surgery, there’s no telling where the concept of neural prosthetics might go.