Via Smithsonian.com: Over the course of 45 years studying the chimpanzees of Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, Jane Goodall revolutionized our understanding of our closest primate relatives. A champion of animal conservation and the author of 26 books, she turns her attention for the first time to plants with Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants, to be published April 2 and excerpted in the March issue of Smithsonian.
As one of the world’s most renowned animal researchers, what made you decide to write a book about plants?
For my last book about saving endangered animals from extinction, I wrote a long section about plants, but my publisher said the book was way too long, so apart from one or two examples, the plants got left out. I was particularly upset because the botanists and horticulturalists had been so cooperative and excited that their stuff was going to get into my book, and I thought it’d be really mean to leave it out. So my first idea was just to add a bit to that section and put it out as a slim volume. But the plants seemed to think otherwise. It was almost as though they put their roots into my brain saying, “Look, Jane, you’ve spent all your life talking about animals, and now it’s our turn.”
So it morphed. It started simple, just about rescuing endangered plants from extinction, but then that needed some kind of introduction to answer this question you ask. And then I’ve always loved trees and forests, so they decided that they wanted a prominent place, and so one thing led to another.
Do you have any particular memories from your life in which you felt close to plants?
The tree I had in the garden as a child, my beech tree, I used to climb up there and spend hours. I took my homework up there, my books, I went up there if I was sad, and it just felt very good to be up there among the green leaves and the birds and the sky. All around our home in Bournemouth, [England], there were wild cliffs with trees, and pines, and I just came to really love trees. Of course, reading books about Tarzan, I fell in love with the jungle—as we called it then—and that was part of my dream of wanting to go to Africa, to be out in the forest.
Ecologically, when people think about endangered species, they mostly consider animals. Why should we be concerned about plants?
For one thing, without plants, we wouldn’t exist—everything eats plants, or it eats animals that live on plants. So for the entire ecosystem, plants are the underpinning. If you start to restore an area, you start with the plants, and then the insects appear, and then the birds follow, and mammals come along. Also, plants are fantastic at removing impurities from the soil. And the forests play this incredibly important role in sequestering carbon dioxide.
But it’s also more than that. It’s been proven by quite a few studies that plants are good for our psychological development. If you green an area, the rate of crime goes down. Torture victims begin to recover when they spend time outside in a garden with flowers. So we need them, in some deep psychological sense, which I don’t suppose anybody really understands yet.
You’re most well known for your work with chimps. Should we be just as concerned about their future? How endangered are they right now, compared to when you first started working with them?
Back then, we said there were somewhere between one and two million wild chimps. Now, there are 300,000, maximum. They’re spread over 21 countries, and many of them—like the Gombe chimps—are in small fragmented remnant populations, which in the long term won’t survive.
What are some solutions?
First of all, there are different ways to address different threats. One threat, which is what the Gombe chimps face, is habitat destruction and human population growth. What we’ve introduced recently is a high-resolution mapping GIS system, so [locals] can sit down with these high-resolution maps and actually see where their village boundaries are, and work out which land they want to put under conservation
The other big threat is the use of bush meat, so that’s where education is important. In Uganda, because the chimps and people are living very closely together, we have an intensified effort to help the people and chimps find ways of living together, with buffer zones between the forest and people. But you also need to provide alternate ways of living, for hunters. You can’t just say, ‘Okay, stop hunting,’ because all their revenue is cut off.
Finally, tourism is a two-edged sword. Somehow, you have to bring money in, particularly as far as the governments are concerned—because why wouldn’t they want to make a fortune by selling off a forest concession to a logging company? So we have to try to find other ways to make money [to avoid logging.]
All’s fair between chimps? Psychologist Darby Proctor of Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Lawrenceville, Ga., and her colleagues say chimpanzees tend to react in a way that recognizes fairness. “Humans and chimpanzees show similar preferences in dividing rewards, suggesting a long evolutionary history to the human sense of fairness,” Proctor said.
However, other researchers claim that the chimps in the study “interacted little with each other and showed no signs of understanding that some offers were unfair and could be rejected.”
Josep Call and Keith Jensen co-authored previous studies where chimps “generally shared as little as possible with partners, who accepted most offers.”
Does Proctor’s new study, which compares the actions of her chimps with those of pre-school aged kids, prove that fairness can transcend species lines? Do humans even play fair anyway?
What if I told you there were populations of chimpanzees that made spears to hunt, lived in caves, and loved playing in water? These are behaviors usually associated with ancient humans, not chimpanzees. However, recent research has revealed that there are populations of western chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus) that engage in all of these behaviours, and it is challenging our current understanding of chimpanzee taxonomy.
Bonobos Offer Banana Bribes for Friendship
[I]n 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.
Orangutans Have a Big Idea
Even when they are very young, orangutans may start to form ideas about their world—specifically, how and when to use certain tools. That’s the conclusion of a new study, which indicates that ape cultural traditions may not be that different from our own.
Like humans, orangutans have behavioral traditions that vary by region. Orangutans in one area use tools, for example, whereas others don’t. Take the island of Sumatra, in western Indonesia. By the age of 6 or 7, orangutans from swampy regions west of Sumatra’s Alas River use sticks to probe logs for honey. Yet researchers have never observed this “honey-dipping” among orangutans in coastal areas east of the water.
How do such differences arise? Many experts say that social learning is key—that the apes figure out how to honey-dip by watching others. But even the most careful field researcher can have difficulty proving this, says Yale University anthropologist David Watts. Wild apes are always responding to their environment, he says. And it may be influencing their behavior far more than social learning.
Kipolo arrived from Kikwit in June 2010 in perfect shape. It was only early 2011 that we noticed that he was beginning to gradually lose his sight. Little by little his eyes started to fog up with a blue tint, a symptom characteristic of cataracts. He started to trip over objects, couldn’t aim properly when he wanted to reach for something… so we called in an ophthalmologist from Kinshasa who confirmed the diagnosis.
The only solution possible… an operation! In order to give him the best chance of getting his sight back he was going to need an implant and that entailed a rarely used procedure that required specialised equipment and of course a high price. It is thanks to a Belgo-Congolese team of volunteers that Kipolo was able to be operated on this past October. It was the first time ever that this procedure, called a phacoemulsification, was to be carried out on a bonobo.
For that reason we took it slowly and first operated Kipolo on one eye only… what a miracle to see that just the newt day he could see again! It was unimaginable… and very promising for Kipolo’s future! Like the first, the second operation was also a success. Kipolo has had no complications and calmly accepted his eye drops 4 times a day. Now Kipolo sees life in pink… ever since Bolomba, a young female arrived… they are inseparable!
A big Thanks to the whole ophthalmology team, Doctors Brabant and Kaimbo as well as the Livingstone Nursery School in Paris who has been supporting Kipolo from the beginning.
Short Sharp Science: A gorilla in the midst – of emotional rebirth? (Via New Scientist)
Chimpanzees Create ‘Social Traditions’: Unique Handclasp Grooming Behavior Reveals Local Difference
ScienceDaily (Aug. 28, 2012) — Researchers have revealed that chimpanzees are not only capable of learning from one another, but also use this social information to form and maintain local traditions.
This adult female chimpanzee, named Natasha, scored far better on intelligence tests. She is classified as “exceptional.”
A perfect storm of abilities seems to come together to create the Einsteins of the animal kingdom. Natasha’s keepers at the Ngamba Island chimpanzee sanctuary in Uganda knew she was special even before the latest study.No one factor seems to affect intelligence, but instead multiple skills could explain why certain chimps seem smarter. As the saying goes, necessity may be the mother of invention and, at least in some cases, one reason behind chimp cleverness.
Luckily, we’ve still got an edge, for now.
To calculate when a species diverged, researchers look at the average age of members of the species when they give birth and mutation rates. The older the average age, the more time it takes for mutations to cause changes. Insects that produce offspring in a matter of months, for example, can adapt much more quickly to environmental changes than large animals that produce offspring many years after they themselves are born. To find such data for both chimps and gorillas, the research team worked with many groups in Africa that included studies of the animals that totaled 105 gorillas and 226 chimps. They also looked at fossilized excrement that contained DNA data. In so doing they found that the average age of giving birth for female chimps was 25 years old. They then divided the number of mutations found by the average age of birth to get the mutation rate. In so doing, they found it to be slower than humans, which meant that estimates based on it to calculate divergence times were likely off by as much as a million years.
The end result of the team’s research indicates that humans and chimps likely diverged some seven to eight million years ago, while the divergence of gorillas (which led to both humans and chimps) came approximately eight to nineteen million years ago. To put the numbers in perspective, humans and Neanderthals split just a half to three quarters of a million years ago.