Monday, December 21, 2009

Those Fongoli chimps are at it again...

I LOVE the Fongoli chimps. Now, granted, I am a bit biased, because Jill Pruetz was my master's advisor, so between her and other grad students, I have heard so much about the chimps that I feel almost like I know them. But nonetheless, individually, there's quite a few fascinating characters that are full of charm and personality, and as a group, they always seem to be stretching the limits about what we know about chimpanzees, and what we might be able to infer about our ancestors.

(Note: the picture above is by Frans Lanting and is published in National Geographic's Almost Human. I think they male pictured might be K.L., but I'm not sure).

So first, Jill and Paco Bertolani have just published an article in Paleoanthropology about behavioral responses to a savanna environment. While savanna environments present a number of stressors, the chimps utilize a number of behavioral adaptations to cope. During the dry season, they use caves to shelter themselves from the sun. During the early part of the rainy season, they take advantage of naturally forming pools to soak in. Furthermore, when the moon is full, they take advantage of that light to travel and forage (who would have thought that chimps would be night owls?). Furthermore, unlike the typical fission-fusion social organization, the Fongoli chimps travel in one large party over their huge home range.

I highly suggest checking out Jill's description of nighttime activities as well.

Furthermore, Jill and Tom LaDuke have also recently published a paper on chimpanzee understanding of fire, which is online in the American Journal of Primatology, and will be published in print in 2010. Due to fires set for agricultural purposes, parts of the chimps' home range experiences burning on a seasonal basis. The chimps are able to predict the direction and movement of fires, and rather than expressing fear or stress, calmly adjust their ranging patterns to avoid it.

Pruetz and LaDuke (2010) explain that human conceptualization of fire involves three cognitive stages:

1) Conceptualization of fire--an understanding of the properties of fire, in order to predict where it will move, which allows for maintaining close proximity to the fire.
2) The ability to control fire--this includes understanding how to contain the fire, provide or deprive fuel, and possibly the ability to extinguish it.
3) The ability to start a fire.

They argue that the Fongoli chimps exhibit mastery of the first stage. Furthermore, it's possibly that they may have cognitive understanding of the second stage. However, Jill notes that she doesn't think that they'll be figuring out how to start fires anytime soon.

You can read more about it here.

Finally, one of Nickel's (pictured above, with her infant Teva) hunting tools will be displayed at the Smithsonian's Hall of Human Origins, which opens in March. You can read more about it here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tool use in invertebrates!

The veined octopus selects coconut shells, empties them, and then carries them across the sea floor to create a hiding spot. You can see it on video here. And unlike hermit crabs, they select and collect the coconut shells for later use, and when they carry them to the selected spot, they provide no protection. Seems like those octopi are planning ahead. Who would have thought octopi are so forward-thinking?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Baby spider monkey!

Baby spider monkeys are pretty much the most beautiful thing in the world (at least to me). Just look at that darling face!

Read about this adorable little guy on Zooborns!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Monkeys using syntax!

Check it out at Prancing Papio

I will have to read that paper when I get time. If monkeys are using syntax, it sounds like one of the hardest-to-achieve feature of language, thought to be unique to humans, is not quite as unique as we thought...

Friday, December 4, 2009

Four Stone Hearth #81

Welcome to this addition of Four Stone Hearth! Sorry for getting it up a couple days late. This weeks edition has several perspectives on human evolution. Over at, Tim Jones follows up Turkey Day with a discussion on the archaeological evidence for bird consumption in the Middle Pleistocene. While bird consumption may have been overlooked due to a focus on larger prey items, catching prey that can fly away indicates sophisticated hunting techniques. Over at Ad Hominen, Ciarán Brewster argues that Chins do Not a Human Make; rather, the presence of a slight chin in archaic Homo, as well as the lack of a defined chin in some 'modern' Homo indicates gene flow between archaic and modern humans. So basically, the simple rule that I gave my students at the beginning of this week, "If it has a chin, it's a modern human," was apparently inaccurate.... Ooops.

Ciarán also pointed out a couple other posts to check out. Over at Gene Expression, Razib Khan discusses his thoughts on The Future of Human Evolution. Khan takes issues with Ian Tattersall's statements in National Geographic that large population size and extensive mobility makes further evolutionary change of our own species unlikely. Khan argues that, in a large population, even though fixation due to genetic drift is unlikely, more mutations arise, and selection can act more effectively. Furthermore, he argues that the mixing of different populations will not reduce variation; rather, it will result in the emergence of new genotypic combinations. At NeuroLogica, Steven Novella discusses the latest Update from Hobbiton. Steven addresses the limitations of the current evidence, the controversy over interpretations, and recent evidence, concluding that the small brain size of H. floresiensis, "suggests that H. floresiensis specifically evolved a small brain, while retaining a rather advanced tool-making ability. This has led some to speculate that H. floresiensis had a more efficient brain design – packing more cerebral power into a smaller space."

Don't drills have beautiful rear ends? Since this week's submissions have focused on paleoanthropology and human evolution, I'm adding in a few interesting primatological posts. Beast Ape discusses primate coloration in Badge of Status in Drills. While male coloration is often though to be a result of sexual selection, particularly as a result of female choice, a recent study has found that while male coloration in drills is a badge of social status, it does not relate to female preference within a given a given rank. Over at Prancing Papio, Raymond Ho discusses recent evidence for Grandmothering in Japanese Macaques. Although the evidence is limited and anecdotal, this is one of the first published accounts in support of the Grandmother Hypothesis from nonhuman primates. I think this is important, because I suspect there's been more observations of grandmothering in primates (I'm pretty sure I've heard of it happening in rhesus macaques, and wouldn't be surprised if there were accounts from other species as well), but anecdotal evidence is likely to go unreported. Hopefully this paper will spur some further investigation of this behavior. Finally, for those who haven't read my second installment on tool use and cognition, I highly suggest you read Can Water be Used as a Tool?

Thanks for reading this edition of Four Stone Hearth! The next edition will be hosted by Anthropology in Practice. If you're reading this, I encourage you to submit for future editions. The submissions with this week were predominantly biological, with a focus on human evolution; furthermore, they were all submitted by male bloggers! I'd love to see some more diversity in future editions!

Thursday, November 26, 2009


I have very mixed feelings about Thanksgiving. As someone who does not support genocide or turkey-icide, it's hard to get excited about a holiday that seems to support both. Nonetheless, I have A LOT to be thankful for this thanksgiving, and I'm feeling quite grateful for it all.

But first, this Thanksgiving, remember the Native Americans who lost lives, land, and loved ones due to colonization and American expansion. You might want to read Rethinking Thanksgiving if you get a chance.

Next, Positively Present has some great posts on Happiness and Gratitude and The Benefits of Being Grateful.

I have a lot too be thankful for this year. I've acquired some wonderful furry friends, as well as one scaly friend, and met a wonderful guy. I've had the joy of attending four good friends' wedding in the past 5 months, and they have been wonderful reunion with old friends. I've also successfully passed my candidacy exams and have received $20,000 from Wenner-Gren, which will make my dissertation research possible. Additionally, while it's been a while since I've been able to see my spiders in the wild, I've gotten to visit captive spiders at the Como Zoo and Cleveland Zoo.

Finally, check out Orangutans at the Cleveland Zoo enjoying pumpkin!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

evolution, women in science, oxytocin, and grandmothering macaques

Here's a random assortment of interesting stuff I've come across recently....

I really enjoyed this article in Newsweek about teaching evolution to children, as well as this link about how kids just "get" natural selection.

Also in Newsweek, there's a blog post entitled "Is Motherhood Keeping Good Scientists Down? How to Fix Research's 'Mommy Gap.'"

Unfortunately, it brings up a very difficult point:

"It’s not innate gender differences that hold women back (just look at this year’s Nobel Prize winners in science). It’s not even gender bias (OK, maybe a little, but that’s not the biggest problem). It’s that science is demanding and very, very competitive. No matter how family-friendly a given university is, a scientist who chooses to have a baby risks having her next big breakthrough scooped up by a competitor who chooses to spend 24/7 in the lab. Changing that will take more than a handful of policies; it will require changing the nature of the game itself. I don't think that's possible, and I'm not entirely convinced it's desirable. It’s competition, after all, that spurs innovation and advancement."

I do agree that is the problem--there will always be people that are willing to sacrifice EVERYTHING else in their lives to get ahead. Choosing to have a family means (or should mean) that you aren't willing to sacrifice that for your research or career. Furthermore, I disagree with the author here--I think changing of the nature of the game may be difficult (I have no idea if it's possible or not), but I think it would be desirable. I believe maintaining creative, insightful scientists with different live experiences and interests will spur innovation and advancement more than cutthroat, sacrifice-all competition. Any thoughts?

In other news, The New York Times has an interesting article about oxytocin. I absolutely love this quote:

"Above all, be thankful for your brain’s supply of oxytocin, the small, celebrated peptide hormone that, by the looks of it, helps lubricate our every prosocial exchange, the thousands of acts of kindness, kind-of kindness and not-as-nakedly-venal-as-I-could-have-been kindness that make human society possible."

Finally, head over to the Prancing Papio to read about Grandmothering in Japanese macaques.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Illiniois GAs demand a living wage

Full story here

I hope they succeed in getting their demands met. It shouldn't be considered so radical for grad students to get paid enough to live on--it should be the standard everywhere. Grad students at Illinois were responsible for the majority of my undergrad education and they deserve to be adequately paid for their work. It's ridiculous how much undergrads pay for tuition (even in-state tuition) given how little of that money actually goes toward their "education."

Now if perhaps GESO at OSU could follow suite in making such demands... I would greatly appreciate it.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


There's a couple interesting posts on baboons that I wanted to link to... Raymond at the Prancio Papio has an interesting post about Behavioral Synchronization in Chacma Baboons, and Beast Ape has a post on Contagious Yawning in Geladas.

Saturday, November 7, 2009


In French, but has some amazing footage of interspecies affection, bonding, caretaking, and helping behavior... as well as some commentary on human empathy (I think, my french isn't quite up to par)... I think it really illustrates the strength of mammalian instincts for bonding and caretaking behaviors.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Life choices, happiness, and hormones

The blogs I read fall into three general categories, 1)Academic/life balance, 2) happiness and 3) behavior/endocrinology. My posts are focused on #3, and I never thought I'd write a post that incorporates all three... but I think today I will.

This post is inspired by a post by Balancing Act on Being a Real Person and a Graduate Student and Isis on the compatibility of motherhood and science. Balancing Act writes about how her life of being a real person, with a family, hobbies, and a life outside of grad school is often considered inconsistent with being a graduate student, and both Isis and her readers comment about whether having kids detracts from having a scientific career.

Academia requires a huge commitment. I remember being told by friends (that were conducting their dissertation research) the year before grad school that in this field (specifically, primatology, though this probably applies to other academic fields as well) that it is IMPOSSIBLE to have a successful personal life and a successful professional life--because there are enough people willing to sacrifice everything for their professional life, and those are the people that get ahead. And back then, I hoped it wasn't true. But I do feel that for the two years before grad school (in which I did various internships and field positions), and most of grad school, I have, whether intentionally or not, had very little in the way of a life outside of grad school/primatology.

In the words of Balancing Act, I would be the traditional graduate student. During my masters, I lived alone, without pets, without a tv, and my only friends in town were fellow grad students. And I was INCREDIBLY productive. My social life consisted of going to coffee shops to study with friends, and then occasionally doing dinner or a movie after. I spent the majority of my time holed up in my apartment, sitting at my computer doing work, and in those two years, I got a hell of a lot done. And that level of productivity and constant working is probably what is expected of a typical graduate student.

Since moving to my PhD program, my level of productivity has slowly fallen. I still technically live alone, and lack a tv, but I got a cat. I started to socialize more, watch dvds more frequently, watch tv shows on hulu, and have increasingly become addicted to facebook, checking news sites, blogs, etc. In short, I've lost some of my productivity, and have become much more easily distracted. Nonetheless, I have still managed to get a lot done (though it never seems to be enough). And most importantly, I had a realization that keeping up the breakneck pace of productivity, and having absolutely no life, was making me incredibly unhappy. I want to have a successful professional life, but I've already sacrificed all of my post-undergrad life to doing work. I realized that if I kept this up my entire life, yes, I could be productive, I could probably be successful, but I'd be miserably unhappy and watch life just pass me by.

Since then, my life has changed a bit. A month before my candidacy exams (last April), I took in a foster dog, who I still have. A couple of people have voiced their opinion that I shouldn't have taken in a dog when I was studying for candidacies, because it would be a distraction--but having a dog around made me so much happier. And I started dating someone right before I took my exams (which also makes me happy). And in my post-candidacy slump, I haven't been very productive, but have been enjoying having a life for a change. I've gotten to spend more time outdoors, gone hiking and camping, and rediscovered my love of reading (for fun!) and recently, painting.

Now, in addition to my one original cat, and my foster dog, I have a second cat (a 14-year-old I took in because she desperately needed a peaceful home where she wouldn't get picked on by other cats), and my boyfriend's cat has joined my household (his other cat died, and this cat is too sociable to be alone). In addition, my boyfriend spends most of his time here when he's not at work. Not to mention I have a snake, and will probably be adding another...

So I can't comment specifically on motherhood, because I don't have children. But, it struck me that some of the comments about it was that it took time away from productivity, was exhausting, involved cleaning up bodily fluids, and sadly, at least one commenter said that it made her less of a scientist. And granted, I'm sure it does take away from productivity, must be exhausting, and requires cleaning up a lot of messes. But while pets aren't quite the same, having four of them around can be a lot of work, and I seem to be cleaning up some form of accident quite a lot, and it gets frustrating. I do seem to ask myself why I've acquired this many pets, and I know some of my fellow grad students have commented that they think I'm crazy. But the thing is, they are also incredibly rewarding. They make me happy. I have a wagging tail greeting me at the door, I go on long walks outside with a incredibly cheerful and happy dog, and I spend time cuddling with sweet, purring kitties who are incredibly affectionate. I'm much happier than I used to be, and I think a lot of that comes from the oyxtocin rush I get from having a relationship with these wonderful (though at times, challenging) animals, and all the daily contact and cuddles i get (granted, having a boyfriend now also probably contributes to that).

And so I assume that children have some of those same benefits. Yes, I have no doubt that they are an incredibly amount of work, and probably drive you crazy, and I'm not sure how parents handle the sleep deprivation. But still, just like my cute doggy and kitties, babies have evolved these incredibly appealing characteristics that tap into our hormonal caregiving systems and elicit not only caregiving behaviors, but also a hormonal rush of contentment and connectedness. And I'm sure as they get older, they continue to demonstrate some of the amazing features of being unique human beings, while providing their parents with love and affection.

As an anthropologist, I feel it's easy to see how having kids would in some ways contribute to your scientific ideas. Just thinking about the balance women face between juggling children and work has fueled a lot of interesting questions in my mind, and I think in the future I'd really like to study maternal investment/trade-offs and the underlying endocrinology. And even though I don't study canids or felids, I still think having my pets contributes to my thinking about the questions I study, particularly as I watch their interactions, and their clamoring for affection and attention. My research is on social relationships and stress, and so more than anything, that extensive studying I did for my candidacy exams drummed into my head the importance for humans, and other social animals, of having strong social connections, and the health benefits it provides, both mentally and physically.

While I think one path to being a good scientist might be locking yourself away in the lab, the office, or a remote field location and devoting your life wholesale to your research, I also think having a life of your own can contribute to being a good scientist. By living a full life, complete with social relationships, pets, kids, and hobbies, I think you engage with many of the same aspects of the world that inspired us to become scientists. Most of us didn't fall in love with learning or science because it meant shutting us from the rest of the world--we fell in love with it because we watched the world around us, and were fascinating with how things work, and why wanted to know how and why. And by continuing to engage with the world, and our lives, we maintain that sense of curiosity and wonder we used to have. I believe that engagement can fuel our scientific imaginations and lead us to knew insights and directions to explore in our research. And in doing so, we'll also get those dopamine rushes from learning and action, and those oxytocin rushes from connection with others, and be able to feel happy and fulfilled as we go about doing great science.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Hormone that affects finger length key to social behavior

Here's a really interesting press release on an article being published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology...

Hormone that affects finger length key to social behavior

The hormones, called androgens, are important in the development of masculine characteristics such as aggression and strength. It is also thought that prenatal androgens affect finger length during development in the womb. High levels of androgens, such as testosterone, increase the length of the fourth finger in comparison to the second finger. Scientists used finger ratios as an indicator of the levels of exposure to the hormone and compared this data with social behaviour in primate groups.

The team found that Old World monkeys, such as baboons and rhesus macaques, have a longer fourth finger in comparison to the second finger, which suggests that they have been exposed to high levels of prenatal androgens. These species tend to be highly competitive and promiscuous, which suggests that exposure to a lot of androgens before birth could be linked to the expression of this behaviour.

Other species, such as gibbons and many New World species, have digit ratios that suggest low levels of prenatal androgen exposure. These species were monogamous and less competitive than Old World monkeys.

The results show that Great Apes, such as orang-utans and chimpanzees, expressed a different finger ratio. The analysis suggests that early androgen exposure is lower in this groups compared to Old World monkeys. Lower androgen levels could help explain why Great Apes show high levels of male cooperation and tolerance.

Emma Nelson, from the University of Liverpool's School of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology, explains: "It is thought that prenatal androgens affect the genes responsible for the development of fingers, toes and the reproductive system. High androgen levels from a foetus or mother during pregnancy, may alter gene function and lead to subtle changes in relative digit length and the functioning of the reproductive system. Finger ratios do not change very much after birth and appear to tell us something about how very early androgens affect adult behaviour, particularly behaviour linked to mating and reproduction."

Dr Susanne Shultz, from the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford, said: "Humans are unique in that they live in large multi-male, multi-female groups, but maintain strong bonds and show high levels of group cooperation in both males and females. In most other species males are competitive rather than co-operative. Research from finger ratios may help us understand more clearly the development of human sociality and its evolutionary origins."


This research, published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, is supported by the British Academy Centenary Research Project, Lucy to Language - a multi-disciplinary project that aims to understand the complexities of human social evolution.

Monday, November 2, 2009

In Defense of Anthropomorphism

Is it really anthropomorphic to to apply human emotions and motivations to behaviors in anthropoid (ie, human-like) primates? What about non-anthropoid (ie, prosimian) primates? Non-primate mammals? Where should we be drawing the line? Which is the worst "sin" in science, using anthropomorphic reasoning to attribute certain emotions/motivations/meanings to animal behavior, or to use anthropocentric reasoning to deny commonalities in our behavior and that of other animals?

This is something I've spent a lot of time thinking about, and I'm definitely a primatologist who prefers to err on the side of anthropomorphism rather than anthropocentrism. But the inspiration of this post came from some discussions I read a while back on ScienceBlogs, where a call for photographs of animals "kissing" (to be used in a book on the evolution of kissing), drew some irate responses insisting that referring to such images as "kissing" was anthropomorphic, inappropriate, unscientific.

Anthropomorphism can be problematic, particularly if it is applied without careful consideration of the species, the behavior, and the underlying neuroendrocine mechanisms in question. However, in most of western science, an inaccurate anthropocentric view, based on some of the mistakes of western philosophy (particularly due to Descartes's mistaken belief that animal were mere automatons that did not truly feel), which in turn were rooted in western religious distinctions between humans and animals, have in some ways hampered animal behavior research. For example, in Japan, where the human/animal dichotomy was not present in cultural perceptions, recognizing individual monkeys as unique actors embedded in a social network resulted in insights into social behavior and relationships that took much longer to recognize in western science.

Darwin challenges this human/animal dichotomy; one of his lesser known books was on the commonality of expressions and emotions in humans and other animals. However, even within Darwinian science, a focus on objective, dispassionate science, combined with biases regarding human uniqueness, have often fostered a very anthropocentric viewpoint. Jane Goodall challenged one aspect of this standpoint, by giving her focal subjects names instead of numbers, and by being willing to vocally defend this. Nonetheless, a few years ago, when I was a field assistant working on research on Cayo Santiago (an island off of Puerto Rico with free-ranging rhesus macaques), where all the monkeys were assigned numbers, the naming vs. numbers debate still seemed to active among researchers (personally, I felt that learning names in conjunction with traits helped me to learn the monkeys faster).

"We scientists are privy to a rare and precious opportunity when we come to know intimately nonhuman animals living in their own worlds. We have a responsibility to these animals to show other people who they really are--sentient beings who matter to one another, living lives as full of drama and emotion and poetry as our own. To perceive the planet as populated with billions of such creatures staggers the imagination, but it is true, and if we want the world of the future to retain this richness, we need to become ever more conscious of this reality before it is too late." --Barbara Smuts

I'm lucky that I've been inspired by great primatologists who do not shy away from anthropomorphism. Barbara Smut's quote reminds me that as someone who has the privilege to get to intimately known animal's lives, I have an obligation to share the beauty of their complex social world, including relationships, emotions, triumphs, and tragedies, with the rest of the human world. And I'm lucky that Jill, my master's advisor, recognizes the commonality between human and primate lives, and takes what could be cosnidered a fairly anthropomorphic view--which in turn, I believe, has helped facilitated her research (you can read more about her and her research, as well as some of the issues with anthropomorphism issue in the National Geographic article Almost Human).

Basically, if you are unwilling to attribute human-like emotion or motivation to primates' (and other animals') behavior, you might miss out on a lot of some of the most interesting aspects of primate behavior. The use of planning in tool use, creative innovation, the strengths of social bonds and attachments, deception, manipulation, grief... all of these things that require recognizing these commonalities. And aside from missing so much, if we avoid being anthropomorphic, sometimes we avoid being parsimonious as well. For animals that are so closely related to us, that share the same neural architecture that govern emotions, and the same neurotransmitters and hormones, it's puzzling to assume a huge emotional gulf. And furthermore, if we assume that fundamental disconnect, than we must also assume that our own neuroendocrine mechanisms and neural architecture evolved independently of our closely relatives--and I have my doubts that many scientists truly do that. Most of the biomedical research carried out on other animals including primates as well as other mammals (especially rats), is based on the assumption that we share these qualities as a result of our shared evolutionary past. Thus, to assume that we cannot share the same emotions/motivations requires simultaneously, unquestioningly, holding two conflicting viewpoints (which humans seem to be proficient at doing).

Clearly, I'm coming down on the side of advocating anthropocentrism rather than anthropocentrism. Nonetheless, this does not mean that I advocate careless anthropocentrism. Rather, I believe we should use reasoned anthropocentrism in interpretating primate behavior (as well as other animal's behavior). Instead, I think we need to carefully consider the behaviors, in terms of its operational definition, the underlying neuroendocrine mechanisms, and its proximate functions. For example, in considering a picture we might see of animals kissing, we might want to consider to following questions:

1) Does the behavior fit the operational definitions we would use for a corresponding human behavior?

*ie, two individuals pressing each others lips together, or one individual pressing their lips against another individual's skin.

2) What are the assumed functions/motivations of the behavior?

*ie, in humans, we assume that a kiss is an expression of love and affection, and a sign/mechanism of social bonding.

3) What are the underlying physiological mechanisms?

*ie, in humans, the actions of oxytocin are thought to underly expressions of love and affection, and facilitate social bonding.

4) Does this species share the same physiological mechanism?

*other mammals share the same hormone, and it fulfills the same function--most of our understanding of this hormone is due to research conducted in rodents.

5) If we assume a commonality in intention/motivation, is it consistent with the social structure/organization/behavior of these species? Are there possible alternate explanations?

*If we are looking at a species in which social bonds are important, this would support the assumption that the "kiss" behavior may be fulfilling this function. If ware looking at a species that does not form strong social bonds, then we should consider the possibility that this is NOT a homologous behavior. Furthermore, if there is a possibility that this behavior may be the result of other mechanism (ie, it could potentially be two unfamiliar individuals sniffing each other to gain olfactory information, if it could potentially be one individual preparing to bite the other individual, etc.)

Essentially, when we look at behavior, and we try to infer motivations/intentions, we really need to use the same process we would use in determining if certain anatomical features are similar as a result of homology (ie, similar due to common ancestry), or analogy (ie, similar due to common function, but arose independently).

If we look at many of the behaviors we see in primates (as well as many other animals, particularly other mammals) what is termed "anthropomorphism" is often an interpretation based on assumptions of homology.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Sarah Hrdy

Sarah Hrdy is one of my major heroes. She's developed some of the most fundamental (and controversial) theories in anthropology, has examined anthropological theory through the lens of feminism, unapologetically calls herself a sociobiologist, and seamlessly ties primatological research to understanding human behavior and evolution. In addition, she also writes fantastic books and articles. So here are a couple links to some great material: the first is a Discover article about her, the second is a recent article published in Natural History, entitled "Meet the Alloparents," which discusses some of topics addressed in her recent book, Mothers and Others.

The Hardy Sarah Blaffer Hrdy

Meet the Alloparents

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Orangutan Tool Use

While I still would like to write more about tool use in the future, for now, I'll just leave you with a short little video showing some of my friend Kristina's dissertation research...

Chimps display Humanlike Good Will

It's always interesting reading the headlines making broad statements whether chimps are selfish and thus unlike humans, or that chimps are altruistic and thus like humans.

Anyone consider that humans are both selfish and altruistic in a variety of different contexts, and that BOTH can be considered "human-like?" And for that matter, why not consider altruism "vampire-bat-like?"

Nonetheless, I like seeing headlines like this, if only because they negate the idea that chimpanzees are fundamentally selfish, and thus un-human-like, while humans are supposedly graciously altruistic. And it does have video footage, which is always fun :)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Send GrrlScientist to Antarctica

I know that I have a readership of probably about two, but if you can, check out GrrlScientist's blog
and vote for her to be the official blogger on a Quark Expeditions trip to Antarctica! You can read about her entry and vote here.

Personality, hormones, and attraction

Thanks to my insomnia, I've discovered an awesome website that has podcasts of interviews with authors whose books are related to psychology. I've just listened to interviews with two biological anthropologists, Meredith Small and Helen Fisher, and right now, Fisher's interview has me thinking. While I would have initially dismissed her book (entitled Why Him, Why Her? Finding Real Love by Personality Type) as a cheesy self-help sort of book, now I'm absolutely fascinated and want to read it. Basically, she studies the evolution of attraction and love, and her current research (in conjunction with sounds far more lucrative than the prospects for most biological anthropologists) involves four different personality types that are supposed to be associated with hormones/neurotransmitters. "Explorers" are curious and adventurous and associated with dopamine, "Builders" are traditional and reliable and associated with serotonin, "Directors" are analytical, competitive, and associated with testosterone, and "Negotiators" are passionate and altruistic and associated with estrogen (just from the basic descriptions I knew I would fit into this category, and subsequently taking the questionnaire has confirmed that I am primarily a Negotiator and secondarily an Explorer). According to her interview, Explorers are most compatible with Explorers, Builders are most compatible with Builders, and Directors are most compatible with Negotiators and vice versa.

While this is an interesting concept, and I'm really interested to read her book and read more about her book, thus far I feel it sounds a bit to simplistic, and there's a few things about it that seem problematic. However, it's possible that these will be addressed in her book, so I should reserve final judgement until I've read it. Nonetheless, they seem like some pretty big concerns. First, these categories are based on temperment, and from the interview I get the impression they are based on people's "nature" (ie, what you're born with). She mentions genetics quite a few times in the interview, so I get the impression that genetics is thought to be the underlying basis--however, she does also talk about digit ratio and hormones in the womb, thus it sounds like environmental effects, at least prenatally, are thought to shape these temperments as well. Nonetheless, while the broad personality groups make sense, their linkage with hormones seems rather confusing and counter-intuitive to me. While I could understand that certain genes are associated with increased levels of secretion of particular hormones, and that both that and hormonal fetal environment play an important role in shaping temperment/personality/the individual, the focus on four hormones, particularly two dominant sex hormones, seems simplistic and problematic. While these four are some of the most well-studied hormones/neurotransmitters, they're just four of very, very many. What about norepinephrine, vasopressin, oxytocin, progesterone and cortisol? And nevermind that I'm just mentioning the neurotransmitters and hormones I'm most familiar with--we have tons more. Furthermore, are the effects set by birth, or can they fluctuate? If these inclinations are based on prenatal influences on the brain (which makes the most sense to me), than they should be set by birth, and relatively impermeable to environmental influences throughout life. However, if they are influenced by these hormones throughout life, than a) we would expect a lot of fluctuation, and b) medications such as antidepressants and birth control would alter individual's inclinations. I remember reading an article by her (it's on her website) about the risks of antidepressants jeopardizing attraction, love, and relationships, which suggests that this is a concern--however, I read it a while ago, so I don't quite remember what the specifics were.

While she says that both men and women can be negotiators and directors (as an example, Bill Clinton is characterized as an estrogen-associated Negotiator, while Hillary Clinton is characterized as a testosterone-asssociated Director) it also seems problematic that two of the major categories are tied so closely to major sex hormones.

The other question I have is how these categories, and this concept, relates to attraction. The impression I get is that these categories suggest long-term compatibility, but I wonder how well they relate to attraction. Are people attracted to the categories they "should" be attracted to, or are people often attracted to the "wrong" (ie, less compatible) type? My hunch is that they are. How do these categories fit/conflict with research on attraction that has examined the role of MHCs (ie, the t-shirt sniffing studies) and aspects like symmetry, eye-distance, and hand proportions (all of which have been implicated in influencing attraction). Do these biochemically-related personality types actually relate to the "chemistry" (or, as I think is more accurate, the magic) of attraction?

Finally, I also seem some commonalities between these personality types and other personality measures, such as the Myers-Brigg (ie, the one with categories such as INFJ), and the Big Five (which I remember by the acronym OCEAN from my Personality Psych class many years ago--stands for Openness, Conscientiousness Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism). The Myers-Brigg categories relate to 4 of the Big 5, with Neuroticism excluded, and I can see connections between Openness and Explorers, Conscientiousness and Builders, and Agreeableness and Negotiators. However, I also think Extraversion might relate better to Explorer-tendencies than Director-tendencies.

Nonetheless, I see some potential for an interesting read, and I hope she addresses my questions in the book. I'd also be interested to see if she how certain temperments have tendencies toward certain attraction/relationship patterns associated with the dominant hormones (ie, I would think Explorers would fall in love, or at least infatuation, quite easy, that Builders would be most adept at building steady, committed relationships, etc.)

Anyway, his fascinates me because it both taps into my nerdy interests in hormones and behavior, and is a topic that is interesting and applies to everyone's lives. This is what I love about bio anthro--it helps us understand ourselves, our lives, and the people around us (which is what I try to impart on my students)! You can check out more about Helen Fisher and these ideas at website or the podcast.

And in other news, here's a link to an interesting blog post about voles, oxytocin, and nurturing behavior .

Stay tuned for more updates eventually--I still plan on adding more about tools and cognition at some point, and also intend on writing a post about anthromorphism sometime soon...

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Tool use and cognition, Part 2: Can water be a tool?

I promised that there would be actually spider monkey tales in here...

When I was studying the spider monkeys at Brookfield Zoo (summer 2007), Rita, the youngest of the group, did something really fascinating. She was trying to reach a food item (some kinda of leafy vegetable) that had fallen into the tapir's pool. So, using her spider monkey assets, she did what any spider would do: Anchor her tail to a support, and swing out to try to reach it. However, despite that long tail and long arms, and several swinging attempts, she could not reach out. Looking frustrated, she gave up. She sat there, gazing at the pool and the leaf for a couple minutes. And then, she got up, went to another spot closer to the leaf (that lacked supports for tail-anchoring). She was still to far to reach it, but she paddled the water, floating the leaf closer until she could pick it up and reach it.

Regardless of what to call it, this was a fascinating example of problem-solving. But, it got me thinking of whether manipulating water could be consider tool use. If water can be considered a detached object, it would meet the definition for tool use. But, given the weird and amorphous properties of water... I'm really not sure.

However, there's a couple studies that have specifically looked at water as a tool. In Raising the Level: Orangutans use Water as a Tool, Mendes, Hanus, and Call specifically investigate the use of water as a tool, and the orangs utilize water to float a peanut to the top of a tube. Similarly, in Rooks use Stones to Raise the Water Level to Reach a Floating Worm, Bird and Emery provide use inspiration from Aesop's fable "The Crow and the Pitcher," testing whether rooks can use stones to float a worm to the top of the container. The result is that rooks quickly figure out that they need to add stones to access the worm. You can watch these trials here, thanks to YouTube.

Based on these studies, it sounds like water does qualify as a tool. Furthermore, it really is a more impressive tool, since the animals need to understand water's properties. While the orang and rook studies involve using water to float and object to the top, it would be really interesting to see some studies that investigate the use of water to move an object horizontally closer, the way that Rita got the leaf. And perhaps we should being doing more of these cognitive studies with spider monkeys, so they can show off how smart they are :)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

This is "Science" news?

The headlines (and the articles themselves) at LiveScience are so absurd some times, I have to wonder... If this is labelled as science news, no wonder so many Americans are skeptical of science.... at the fact that this can pass as science journalism is a testament to the fact that science education in our country is truly poor...

Mermaid Sightings Claimed in Israel

Facebook Can Insight Jealousy

High-fat Diets Make You Stupid and Lazy

Men Not Choosy in One-night Stands

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Great student quote...

From one of my student papers, about an article by Barbara Smuts on male-female friendships in baboons...

"The article was very clear and not confusing, other than why someone would want to spend every day for 16 months watching baboons in Kenya."

Umm... my answer would probably be 1)because they are terrestrial and easy to see and follow and 2) because they're feces are WAY easier to collect. But I guess that doesn't apply to that study, considering that she wasn't collecting fecals, and probably wouldn't make any more sense to my student... I guess they just think that following monkeys around all day is weird... perhaps I need to remind students that watching monkeys is much like watching reality TV... only less cheesy and more scientifically important :)

Tool use and cognition, Part 1: Thumbs not required

In my Anth 200 class, I have my students read an article by Craig Stanford entitled "Got Culture." It's from his book Significant Others (2001) so after 8 years, obviously there's been a lot more research that's come out on culture and tool use among animals. But he brings up one question:

"If tool use and other cultural innovations can be so valuable to chimpanzees, why have they not arisen more widely among primates and other big-brained animals?" He later concludes, "So to be a cultural animal, it is not enough to be big-brained. You must have the anatomical prerequisites for tool cultures to develop. Even if these are in place, there is no guarantee that a species will generate a subsistence culture in the form of tools."

I would disagree. As I caution my students, since this article was written, a lot more reports of tool use have come about, in a variety of animals. Furthermore, a lot of them lack the anatomical prerequisites (dexterous fingers, grasping hands, opposable thumbs). Tool use has been observed in elephants (which do have a dexterous trunk, with finger-like appendages), crows (which use their beaks to hold tools), dolphins (who once again, use their "beaks"), and spider monkeys (who have a reduced thumb that is pretty much just a little stub).

So why don't we see tool use more often among other large-brained animals? I suspect that first, it has a lot to do with a) observation time, and b) what we're looking for. Chimpanzees are incredibly well-studied in the wild, as compared to a lot of other species. Furthermore, observations of tool use among orangutans, bonobos, and gorillas were not made until well-after long-term studies had been initiated. Thus, it might take a lot of time to catch these observations, particularly if it's rare behavior. Additionally, if you're not looking for and expecting tool use, you might miss it. In the first field study conducted on spider monkeys back in the 1930s, Carpenter (1935) observed that spider monkeys engaged in directed branch-dropping at observers. This does fulfill the classic definition later articulated by Beck (1980):

‘‘the external employment of an unattached environmental object to alter more efficiently the form, position, or condition of another object, another organism, or the user itself when the user holds or carries the tool during or just prior to use and is responsible for the proper and effective orientation of the tool."

However, this behavior has gone overlooked, and there's some debate whether it counts as tool use. The question is whether it is intentional and directed: personally, given my own experiences nearly being concussed by a branch dropped/thrown by a spider monkey (thanks to one of my field school students last summer, I was warned just in time), I suspect it is--but conclusively demonstrating intentionality and directedness is tough to do. Furthermore, there is even one paper in which an author argues that when capuchins branch-drop, it is directed and intentional, but when spider monkeys or howler monkeys do it, it's not. But clearly, that sounds like a very capuchin-centric double-standard. Furthermore, behaviors like fur-rubbing don't seem to even be included in reports of tool use, even though they also fit that definition (and once again, could be subject to debate).

I think this is because, if a chimpanzee does something with an unattached object, it's more likely to be accepted as tool use. If another animal uses it (especially if it's not an ape or capuchin), it's likely to be questioned--is that really tool use? or should it be classified as object use, or substrate manipulation? Is it really intentional and directed? Do they understand what they are doing? Does it count if they use a tool to modify an aspect of themselves, other individuals, or an "object" such as "water" or "vocalizations?" While all of these are important questions, it's important that we apply the same criteria to evaluating if a behavior meets the definition of tool use. And I think, if researchers studying animals were looking for, or at least considering, that certain behaviors may be tool use, or cultural traditions, they may be more likely to actually take note of them and document them as such. While we still need to be exploring whether the behavior is intentional and directed, and whether the animals understand the properties of what they are using, that doesn't mean we should discount such observations, or reclassify them under another definition (unless, of course, they don't meet the standard criteria).

Anyway, I will write more on this subject later on. But for now, here's a few links and references:

Orangutans use leaves as a tool to modify their vocalizations

Cultural transmission of tool use in bottlenose dolphins

And of course, our recent paper on tool use in spider monkeys . . . You can read the media interpretation here, or read the paper itself:

Lindshield, SL, Rodrigues, MA. 2009. Tool use in wild spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi). Primates 50(3): 269-272.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Welcome to my Blog!

I wanted MonkeyTales, but apparently that was taken. So SpiderMonkeyTales it is!