31 August 2007

what do the traces of antique british beaver architecture communicate?

[…] Chapter 4 focuses upon the human exploitation of beaver resources or beaver modified landscapes. Here it is evident that beavers were not just a potential source of food or fur but also that their territories could in addition have provided human populations with readily available kindling, firewood, ‘coppice’ poles and ponds stocked with fish and waterfowl. Dams could also have been used as ‘natural’ crossing points. An interesting observation is that beaver ‘canals’ just might have inspired later human engineering works on floodplains.

Chapters 5 to 12 look at the possible archaeological evidence of beaver activity in the British Isles over the last 15 000 years. Using the modern structures and plans as a guide, the case for features at sites such as at Thatcham (Mesolithic) and West Cotton (Neolithic) being possible beaver structures is carefully and fully explored. It is apparent that from the Neolithic to the Iron Age the evidence for beaver shifts away from beaver ‘structures’ and toward beaver remains, particularly their striking incisors, as tools or ornamentation. Throughout the possibility that archaeological excavation might have created a bias is fully acknowledged.

Can it be that the Romans weren't interested in beaver?

Interestingly evidence for beaver is scant during the Roman period. The possibility is raised that this may actually be due to the relative invisibility of beaver at that time, rather than actual decline. As is also discussed elsewhere in the volume beaver are adaptive, and will only build lodges and dams when stream or river conditions require deepening of water. […]

Beavers in Britain’s Past by Bryony Coles (WARP Occasional Paper 19). x+242 pages, 158 illustrations. 2006. Oxford: Oxbow; 978-1-84217-2261

reviewed at: http://antiquity.ac.uk/reviews/davies.html

30 August 2007

all-spectrum communication

The analysis of communication between individual animals has led to several discoveries of the highest significance. Althgough something simpler was initially expected, communicating signals have turned out, at the very least, to include an announcement that the sender is of given species, sex, and appropriate age, and is in one of a relatively few basic behavioural states, such as readiness for fighting, fleeing or mating (Sebeok and Ramsay, 1969; Hinde, 1972; Smith, in press). These messages also have an intensity scale from weak to strong. Conspecific partners respond to varying degrees and in different ways, but often appropriately according to their own age or reproductive condition. Individual recognition of conspecific companions is common at least in birds and mammals (Falls, 1969; Beer, 1973a, 1973b, 1975, 1976). A frequent element is the flexibility and interrelatedness of the signaling behaviour; fairly complex sequences are performed, with each step depending on an appropriate signal or response from the partner (Griffin, 1976).

The study of animal behaviour brings out the fact that one part of animal activity includes reactions of individuals to informative signals coming from other individuals. Signals are generally defined according to the physico-chemical nature of the stimulus or the sensory properties of the organs which act as detector-receptors. They are chemical (smell), visual (sight), electrical (galvanic sensibility) tactile and kinaesthetic (vibratory sense) and acoustical (hearing).

So almost every sensory system is employed by some species of animals for communication with conspecies. Chemical signals, including pheromones, are ordinarilyy detected by the olfactory system and are especially important in insects, flying phalangers, rodents, cats, and monkeys (Wilson, 1975). Surface waves are used by aquatic insects (Wilcox, 1972). Tactile communication includes not only direct contact between animals, but communication via vibrations of the ground or vegetation. Many groups of fishes that use electrical orientation (Bullock, 1973) also communicate by electrical signaling (Hopkins, 1974; Westby, 1974). Then there is Tanzsprache (dance speech) of bees which is a very complexly received and expressed message system. Sounds are extensively used by many groups of invertebrates, as well as by all classes of vertebrate animals (Sebeok, 1968, 1972). Communication by visual signals too is widespread, but it hasn't been studied as extensively as has acoustical communication, primarly because it is technically more difficult to record and play back visual signals (Griffin, 1976).

Several studies of languagelike communication learned by chimpanzees have taken place. For example chimpanzees are able to learn sign language rather than vocalizations to communicate. The reason for this is suspected to be that the chimpanzees brain is capable of relatively complex communication but that this capability can be expressed far more readily through manual gestures than by vocalization. The extensive observations by Goodall (1968, 1971, 1975) have clearly demonstrated that wild chimpanzees use gestures and facial expressions that are effective but are difficult for human observers to analyze in detail. This shows that the physiological prerequisitions of a species are to be kept in mind when studying the communication of that species. Other animals are largely controlled by their instincts not their free analytic minds, as humans. Different acoustic signals are sometimes triggered by specific hormonal or other activity or vice versa. For example the roar of a lion seems to be not controllable by the lion itself. When started, his muscles are so tensed and his chest under a lot of pressure, so it looks like he must finish in a certain time and not before, because this pressure has a way of natural decay. Also a dog or a wolf doesn't seem to be able to suddenly just close his mouth when howling. Biomusicological aspects should not be left out when studying animal communication and it's musical values. But they are not dicussed more deeplu in this essay though. I leave it to further studies.

Chemical messages have the wildest range, and their remanence enables them to impart lasting information. Visual information is more limited in range because of natural screening caused by vegetation, and also by the sensitivity of the eye. Acoustical message is clearly greater than optical or gestural messages, though sound emission can be parially hindered by climatic conditions. Acoustic message undoubtedly represents the most complete and efacious mode of imparting information, owing to its facility of diffusion, its resistance to disturbances and also to its possibility of creating a vocabulary by a variation of its different parameters. (Dumortier, 1963)

Communication and Music
Some issues of non-human animal communication. Is there a difference between ordinary communication and musical behaviour
by Kairi Kosk

Elephants communicate with sounds below the range of the human ear.
[drawing by Doug Millison]

29 August 2007

"we cannot escape our brain's structure"

A common belief among scientists, especially biologists, is that they can achieve a noninvolved, objective, nonhuman observer status, nonanthropocentric, nonanthropomorphic. This belief must go the way of the illusions promulgated in the name of human religions. As participants in Earth's ecology, we are anthropocentric observers: quite humanly centered without communication with other species in our ecology.

The further scientific research progresses, the more we learn that we are not anything but that which we are discovering that we are. We are a species of mammals with a particular kind of brain and a particular kind of organization of the programming within that brain organized as individuals in a human consensus reality.

We tend to say that our language, our languages, can express anything and everything. The more progress we make in our scientific research, the more we learn of our own limits, not, as yet, defined in our languages. We cannot escape our brain's structure, nor can we escape its programming by the human consensus reality during a relatively short lifetime. The illusion that somehow we can get outside ourselves and look at ourselves as if we were not human, not humanly organized and limited, must go the way of "omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence."

"The Possible Existence of Nonhuman Languages"
by John C. Lilly, M.D.
a 1976 talk collected in Communication Between Man and Dolphin: The Possibilities of Talking with Other Species (1978)

drawing by doug millison

28 August 2007

nudge-nudge, wink-wink headline of the day

…from the University of Exeter:
Sex is thirst-quenching for female beetles

Female beetles mate to quench their thirst according to new research by a University of Exeter biologist. The males of some insect species, including certain types of beetles, moths and crickets, produce unusually large ejaculates, which in some cases can account for around 10 percent of their body weight. The study shows that dehydrated females can accept sexual invitations simply to get hold of the water in the seminal fluid.

giraffe beetle by doug millison

24 August 2007

fluent in "motherese

…from the University of Chicago:

Monkeys use 'baby talk' to interact with infants

Female rhesus monkeys use special vocalizations when interacting with their infants, the way human adults use "baby talk, " to engage babies’ attention, new research at the University of Chicago shows.

“Motherese is a high pitched and musical form of speech, which may be biological in origin,” said Dario Maestripieri, Associate Professor in Comparative Human Development at the University. “The acoustic structure of particular monkey vocalizations called girneys may be adaptively designed to attract young infants and engage their attention, similar to how the acoustic structure of human motherese, or baby talk, allows adults to visually or socially engage with infants.”

In order to determine if other primates also use special vocalizations while interacting with infants, researchers studied a group of free-ranging rhesus macaques, which live on an island off the coast of Puerto Rico. They studied the vocalizations exchanged between adult females and found that grunts and girneys increased dramatically when a baby was present. They also found that when a baby wandered away from its mother, the other females looked at the baby and vocalized, suggesting that the call was intended for the baby.

“Adult females become highly aroused while observing the infants of other group members,” explains lead author of the article, Jessica Whitham, a recent Ph.D. graduate of the University of Chicago, who investigated this topic as a doctoral student at the University and currently works at Brookfield Zoo near Chicago. “While intently watching infants, females excitedly wag their tails and emit long strings of grunts and girneys.

“The calls appear to be used to elicit infants’ attention and encourage their behavior. They also have the effect of increasing social tolerance in the mother and facilitating the interactions between females with babies in general. Thus, the attraction to other females’ infants results in a relatively relaxed context of interaction where the main focus of attention is the baby,” Maestripieri and his colleagues write in the article, “Intended Receivers and Functional Significance of Grunt and Girney Vocalizations in Free-Ranging Rhesus Macaques” published in the current issue of the journal Ethology. In addition to Whitham and Maestripieri, Dr. Melissa Gerald, a researcher at the University of Puerto Rico, was also a co-author.

Researchers have long been interested in the noises that non-human primates make and how they are used for communication. Monkey vocalizations could be carrying information that the sender expects the recipient to understand, or they could be noises that the recipient can draw inferences from, but are not intended to carry information. A human sneeze, for instance, is a noise that people understand may be associated with a cold, but it did not develop evolutionarily to convey information.

The study by Maestripieri’s team showed that the grunts and girneys emitted by the rhesus macaques fall into the category of vocalizations not intended to convey specific information, and appear to be used to attract other individuals’ attention or change their emotional states. When females vocalize to young infants, however, the infants’ mothers infer that the females simply want to play with the infants and are unlikely to harm them. Therefore, these vocalizations may facilitate adult females’ interactions not only with infants, but with the infants’ mothers as well. They found, for instance, that the grunts and girneys were sometimes followed by an approach and grooming of the mothers.

Additionally they discovered that, unlike human mothers, the rhesus macaque mothers did not direct grunts or girneys toward their own offspring. It could be that the monkey mothers are familiar with their own offspring and use the vocalizations with other babies because they are excited about the novelty of seeing a new infant, Maestripieri said.

23 August 2007

"ironic" headline of the day:

Chimps keep busy to control their urges

If they can do it, why can't we?

"rigid, precisely timed, and complex vocal interactions"

Gibbons produce loud and long song bouts that are mostly exhibited by mated pairs. Typically, mates combine their partly sex-specific repertoire in relatively rigid, precisely timed, and complex vocal interactions to produce well-patterned duets. A cross-species comparison reveals that singing behavior evolved several times independently in the order of primates. Most likely, loud calls were the substrate from which singing evolved in each line. Structural and behavioral similarities suggest that, of all vocalizations produced by nonhuman primates, loud calls of Old World monkeys and apes are the most likely candidates for models of a precursor of human singing and, thus, human music. Although a few other mammals are known to produce songlike vocalizations, gibbons are among the few mammals whose vocalizations elicit an emotional response from human listeners.

Music and Primates
by Oiane Ruiz Alonsoù

22 August 2007

music the universal?

In ancient mythology music and nonhuman animals (hereafter ”animals”) are very closely related to each others. Animals seem to share the realm of music with humans; or to be more precise, music appears as a universal phenomenon which covers the whole phenomenological reality, from the smallest plant to the transcendental powers of the universe. For example, in the hindu mythology Siva in his dynamic form Nataraja is often represented as a flute playing satyr, a snake around his neck, dancing in ecstasy of his own music. This dance creates the whole universe, and the snake is the very symbol of that creative energy which penetrates all the beings and phenomenons. Francois-Bernand Mâche is in his book Music, Myth and Nature collected a bunch of myths from the Greeks related to the relationship between music and animals pointing out this all-embracing power of music. Similar to the symbol of Siva is the myth of Orpheus, who enchanted all the creatures around him into ecstasy with his playing.

The universe, impregnated with sound, is found from the depths of unconsciousness. The myth of Arion is a good example. Arion, who is captured by the pirates, sings a song standing at the prow of the ship before he´s about to be executed. After that he hurls himself into the sea and the dolphins of Apollo come to save him. An irrational act like this is a symbol of meditation and represents daring to risk the great leap into the primordial unconscious (Mâche 1992, 11-12). Apollo is the symbol of the healing force of this leap. On the other hand, the unknown depths of the ocean represent the Dionysiac ecstasy. When Apollo and Dionysos are united they form a powerful force which manifests as a musical myth. It is the quest for truth which is made possible by music, the universal power of reconciliation. Nietzche describes the ecstasy of Dionysiac music:

Not only is the bond between man and man sealed by the Dionysiac magic: alienated, hostile or subjugated nature, too, celebrates her reconciliation with her lost son, man. The eart gladly offers up her gifts, and the ferocious creatures of the cliffs and the desert peacefully draw near. [...] Singing and dancing, man expresses himself as a member of a higher community: he has forgotten to walk and talk, and is about to fly dancing into the heavens. His gestures express enchantment. Just as the animals now speak, and the earth yields up milk and honey, he now gives voice to supernatural sounds... [The birth of tragedy out of the Spirit of music, 17

If myths are considered as spontaneously produced universal mental images, there must be some direct connection between musical sounds and natural universe, including all the animals, since myths deal so much with music. Myth is a psychic content from which words, gestures and music radiate. The poet translates mythic thought into cultural values and makes it understandable, communicable. What part do animals play in all this? Through music Orpheus and Arion are in a direct contact with the entire, animate and inanimate world. Music is the means of discovering the truth (of the world) since it ”hurls musicians into the water to rediscover themselves, so that they are helped by the very monsters they were carrying within”. (Mâche 1992, 18-23.)

Animal music: Music as a universal phenomenon
by Viivi Jokela

Dolphin Energy Map (2007), Doug Millison

21 August 2007

let me rub that suntan lotion on your back for you

A female and male crested auklet, left, engage in alloanointing on St. Lawrence Island in June of 2007. During courtship, females and males intertwine necks, an embrace that helps to distribute the citrus scent in their feathers.
[photo & caption: University of Alaska]

…from the University of Alaska:
Researcher finds amorous avian anointment protects mates

University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher Hector Douglas has found that, for crested auklets, chemistry has both amorous and practical applications. The birds rub a citrus-like scent, secreted in wick-like feathers on their backs, on each other during courtship, a behavior called alloanointing. It is well known among some mammals, such as peccaries, but until now was not documented among birds. His research also indicates that the behavior could help protect the birds from parasites, such as ticks.

"During courtship the male solicits the female by adopting a horizontal posture and giving a soft choking call," explained Douglas, an assistant professor of biology at UAF’s Kuskokwim Campus. "She rubs her bill and upper body over his wick feathers. Then she offers her wick feathers to the male, and they reciprocate several times, smearing the chemicals over their heads, necks and upper bodies."

Douglas’ findings are published in the German journal Naturwissenschaften, a monthly publication of advances in natural sciences, medicine and technology.

Crested auklets are small black and gray seabirds that nest in huge colonies on remote island cliffs in Alaska and Siberia. They have bright orange bills, white facial plumes and a showy feather crest protruding from their foreheads. Douglas observed the unique mating ritual while conducting experiments with lifelike models of crested auklets on St. Lawrence Island, a remote outpost in the northern Bering Sea just 38 miles from Siberia. Douglas concealed chemical dispensers in blocks of construction foam that he painted to resemble rocks. Then he placed the decoys and models on the blocks.

"The crested auklets searched for the scent with their heads down in a conspicuous sniffing behavior," Douglas said. "They honed in on the scent, rotating their heads to place their nostrils directly over the dispenser. Then they rubbed their bills over the dispensers just as they would on the wick feathers of their partner. Next, the birds rubbed themselves on the lifelike models right in the area where the wick feathers are located." …

17 August 2007

why not turn it around the other way?

Instead of

Crows wield tools with human-like skill

why not

Humans wield tools with crow-like skill

and flatter the nonhumans for a change?

…from the New Scientist article:

New Caledonian crows, famed for their tool-making skills, can also use tools to manipulate other tools. Such “metatool” use shows that the crows have the brainpower to apply their skills to a completely new situation and plan ahead to solve a task, researchers believe.…

16 August 2007

more people report seeing big, mysterious cats


can't tell the players apart without a program

Public release date: 15-Aug-2007

Male elephants get 'photo IDs' from scientists
Identifying male Asian elephants by unique features will help monitor threats

Asian elephants don’t carry photo identification, so scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society and India’s Nature Conservation Foundation are providing the service free of charge by creating a photographic archive of individual elephants, which can help save them as well.

The researchers have developed a unique “photographic capture-recapture” survey method that identifies individual male elephants, specifically by the shape and size of their tusks, ears, and other features. This in turn can be used to monitor their survival rates and movement, according to a new study published in the current issue of the Journal Animal Conservation (10: 391-399).

“Unlike African elephants where both males and females have tusks, only male Asian elephants have valuable tusks, so they are specifically targeted by poachers,” said WCS researcher Varun Goswami, the study’s lead author. “In light of this fact, just counting all elephants with generic techniques isn’t enough. Our new method allows specific tracking of male elephant population dynamics, so it is a powerful conservation tool.”

Working in collaboration with the Karantaka State Forest Department in Nagarahole and Bandipur reserves, researchers systematically took more than 2400 photographs of individual elephants, sampling game roads and waterholes over an 80-day period. Male elephants in particular were given special treatment, with the scientists recording data such as tusk length, thickness, angle, arrangement, as well as other characteristics ear shape, shoulder height, tail length, and scars. These data revealed some 134 individual male elephants in a population of 991 elephants, with an adult male/female ratio of 1 to 4.33. The data were analyzed using advanced ‘open capture-recapture models’.

The new method complements traditional survey techniques, which can gauge overall elephant densities and sex ratios at population levels, but are unable to monitor demographics of male elephants with a degree of rigor attained by studies that focus on data from individual animals. More importantly, such accurate assessments of male elephants can help conservationists monitor poaching rates over the long term. Also, elephant carcasses can be compared with archival photos to identify individuals and even to aid in law enforcement efforts.

In addition to poaching, another threat to male elephants comes from human farmers defending their food resources from crop-raiders. Recognizing individual males that are prone to crop-raiding can inform better management interventions. At present, exactly how many male elephants engage in crop-raiding is unknown.

“The rigor of this technique can help us achieve real conservation success with the Asian elephants, which are threatened across their 13 country range,” said Dr. Ullas Karanth, a co-author of the study who pioneered the use of the photographic capture-recapture method to study tigers earlier. “We believe this method can be expanded to answer other questions relevant to Asian elephant conservation across their entire range.”

[drawing by Doug Millison]

15 August 2007

revolutionary concept: help birds, don't make them suffer more

Wild and domestic birds go to market together. [photo: WCS ]

Instead of attacking wild birds for our new disease problems, a far more cost effective approach should focus on keeping wild animals separate in the places where they often commingle: in wildlife markets and international trade, according to wildlife health experts from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in a recent issue of the prestigious Journal of Wildlife Diseases.

“This is an ounce of prevention that we really need to use in trading hubs where human commerce of wild animals allows for the spread of diseases,” said Dr. William Karesh, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Field Veterinary Program and lead author of the peer-reviewed paper titled ‘Implications of wildlife trade on the movement of avian influenza and other infectious diseases.’ “The wildlife trade, and markets in particular, serve as very dirty mixing bowls for diseases. We can significantly reduce the threat of avian flu and other emerging diseases by decreasing contact among different animal species in markets and thus giving pathogens fewer opportunities to mutate and spread.”

In the paper, Karesh and his co-authors point out birds and other animals moving through wildlife markets give pathogens a chance to jump into new species and geographic regions via the global trade in wildlife. For example, two instances of highly pathogenic avian influenza traveling vast distances in bird hosts include two mountain hawk eagles that were illegally smuggled from Thailand to Belgium and wild songbirds shipped from Taiwan to the United Kingdom. Besides direct health effects, disease outbreaks damage regional and global economies by destabilizing trade. Disease outbreaks such as SARS, Nipah virus and others are thought to have cost some $80 billion in economic damage. Efforts to control avian influenza, such as a culling of 140 million chickens in Asia entailed a significant cost and in developing countries, a terrible loss of food and income for families dependent on those animals.

Some of these impacts could be greatly reduced by directing attention to wildlife markets and trade where many pathogenic problems originate. Preventing the spread of pathogens among animal species will require either banning trade or extending the current regulatory frameworks used in the trade in domestic animals to the wildlife trade, which largely lacks regulations and monitoring in many countries. Control strategies at these trade hubs would include:

  • Strengthening and enforcing of disease-control and trade regulations
  • Developing and implementing quarantine procedures
  • Shifting the costs of controlling outbreaks to the animal suppliers and vendors
  • Ending trade that is unsustainable.

“Preventing the spread of the next potential pandemic could depend on closing the valves through which pathogens currently flow,” said Martin Gilbert, a WCS veterinarian currently studying diseases in wildlife markets in Asia. “There is a sound basis for the tight restrictions on trade of livestock and sadly, those concepts have not been recognized for wildlife.”

will the circle be unbroken

Leah Grachik reports, in the San Francisco Chronicle today:

On Bernal Heights last week, the death of two horned owls was marked with an Owl Wake attended by about 40 adults, 10 children and a number of frisky dogs, reports Monica Conrady. This took place at the top of the Esmeralda Street steps. "These great horned owls have been the talk of the neighborhood for some months now, and everybody had a tale to tell about them" as a candle was passed around from speaker to speaker. Memorial cards were handed out by Art Siegel, a photographer who had often focused on the owls. The birds were said to have died of disease.

One of the Bernal Heights owls, from a flickr.com photo set worth the click:

Remembering the owls:

14 August 2007

wings & wisdom of the ancestors

The University of Sheffield reports:
Birds learn to fly with a little help from their ancestors

A researcher at the University of Sheffield has discovered that the reason birds learn to fly so easily is because latent memories may have been left behind by their ancestors.

It is widely known that birds learn to fly through practice, gradually refining their innate ability into a finely tuned skill. However, according to Dr Jim Stone from the University of Sheffield´s Department of Psychology, these skills may be easy to refine because of a genetically specified latent memory for flying.

Dr Stone used simple models of brains called artificial neural networks and computer simulations to test his theory. He discovered that learning in previous generations indirectly induces the formation of a latent memory in the current generation and therefore decreases the amount of learning required. These effects are especially pronounced if there is a large biological 'fitness cost' to learning, where biological fitness is measured in terms of the number of offspring each individual has.

The beneficial effects of learning also depend on the unusual form of information storage in neural networks. Unlike computers, which store each item of information in a specific location in the computer's memory chip, neural networks store each item distributed over many neuronal connections. If information is stored in this way then evolution is accelerated, explaining how complex motor skills, such as nest building and hunting skills, are acquired by a combination of innate ability and learning over many generations.

Dr Stone said: "This new theory has its roots in ideas proposed by James Baldwin in 1896, who made the counter-intuitive argument that learning within each generation could guide evolution of innate behaviour over future generations. Baldwin was right, but in ways more subtle than he could have imagined because concepts such as artificial neural networks and distributed representations were not known in his time."

Notes for Editors: Results are reported in: Stone JV, "Distributed Representations Accelerate Evolution of Adaptive Behaviours", PLoS Computational Biology, 2007 (in press).

what humans can learn from hot squirrel tail

"California ground squirrels have learned to intimidate rattlesnakes by heating their tails and shaking them aggressively," reports the Associated Press.

"The tail "flagging" puts the snakes on the defensive, said Aaron Rundus, lead author of a study in this week's online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The snakes, which are ambush hunters, can sense infrared radiation from heat. So the warming makes the tails more conspicuous to them -- signaling that the squirrels may come and harass them, he said.

Adult squirrels are not the snakes' prey. The adults have a protein in their blood that allows them to survive the snake venom, and they have been known to attack snakes. Rather, the snakes are looking for young squirrels, which they can kill and eat, said Rundus.

Researchers are not sure how the squirrels heat up their tails, but they think it may be by shunting warm blood from the body core into the tail. But apparently it isn't just a reflex, because they do it only with rattlesnakes.

Rundus said that learning more about animal communication methods may help improve understanding of how human communications evolved.

13 August 2007

"we’re in the middle of a mass extinction"

[...] I think the fastest way to wake up to what is happening on the planet is to think in terms of mass extinction. Every now and then, the Earth goes through a die-off of the diversity of life. Over the last half-billion years, there have been five moments like this. We didn’t know about this two hundred years ago; we didn’t have the slightest idea that the Earth did this. Now we’ve discovered that around every hundred million years, the Earth went through these amazing cataclysms. And just within the last thirty to forty years, we’ve discovered that the last one, which eliminated all the dinosaurs and ammonites and so many other species, was caused by an asteroid hitting the Earth. This happened sixty-five million years ago. There was no awareness of this any previous time in human history. You look through the Vedas, you look in the Bible—it’s nowhere. But at the same time as we’re discovering this, we’re discovering that we’re causing one right now. Two years ago, the American Museum of Natural History took a poll among biologists. They asked a simple question: Are we in the middle of a mass extinction? Seventy percent said yes. A mass extinction. You can’t open your eyes and see that. It’s a discovery that involves the whole. Our senses have evolved to deal with the near-at-hand, and this is a conclusion that involves the whole planet.

So now we’re just discovering that we’re in the middle of a mass extinction. We happen to be in that moment when the worst thing that’s happened to the Earth in sixty-five million years is happening now. That’s number one. Number two, we are causing it. Number three, we’re now aware of it. There’s only a little splinter of humanity that’s aware of it. The numbers are this: At the minimum, twenty-five thousand species are going extinct every year. And if humans’activity were otherwise, or if humans weren’t here, there would be one species going extinct every five years. We’ve pushed up the natural extinction rate by the order of something like a hundred to a thousand times.

The point is that we haven’t been prepared to understand what an extinction event is. We’ve had all these great teachers. We’ve had tremendously intelligent people, going back through time, but you can look, for example, through all the Sutras or Plato’s dialogues, and they never talk about an extinction. As a matter of fact, I don’t think that Plato or the Buddha were even capable of imagining an extinction. First of all, at that time we weren’t aware of evolution. We weren’t aware of the whole process, so the idea of extinction didn’t make sense. [...]

…from: Brian Swimme interview with Enlightenment magazine

which came first: deep diving or echolocation?

from NewScientist.com:

Echolocation took whales to the depths

Toothed whales may owe their deep-dive ability to the power of echolocation.
Early whales preyed on nautiluses and squid, which rose to the surface waters only under cover of darkness. To take advantage of this midnight feast, the ancestors of today's sperm whales evolved to find their prey by echolocation. Once in place, this adaptation allowed whales to track molluscs into the inky depths during the day, say David Lindberg and Nicholas Pyenson of the University of California at Berkeley. The researchers drew their conclusion after analysing whale fossils, looking for the presence of bones specially adapted for each trait. Early whales from the Oligocene - between 34 and 23 million years ago - had bones conducive to echolocation but not those associated with deep diving.

[drawing by Doug Millison]

09 August 2007

headline of the day

Ancient ape was an early swinger

It was both the king of the swingers and a tree-walker. A new study of an extinct ape suggests it had the hands to both swing from branches and walk along them on all fours. But no one knows whether it was an evolutionary dead end or a key step in the evolution of the tree-dwelling lifestyle led by modern orang-utans.… (New Scientist)


[drawing by doug millison]

He charges right out of our dreams.

08 August 2007

gone before we had a chance to really get to know each other

Yangtze river dolphin is almost certainly extinct

[...] The researchers warn that a similar fate could await a subspecies of the finless porpoise Neophocaena phocaenoides, which only lives in the Yangtze and is already extremely rare.

They say the extinction of the Baiji "merely reflects the latest stage in the progressive ecological deterioration of the Yangtze region, home to approximately 10% of the world’s human population". During their expedition they noted more than one large fishing boat for every 100 metres of river.

The world's most endangered cetacean is now the Gulf of California porpoise Phocoena sinus, or "vaquita", of which a few hundred remain. It is also threatened by accidental by-catch.[...]

07 August 2007

research shows how little we know about elephant seals

from the US National Academy of Sciences:

Miniature oceanographic sensors attached to southern elephant seals have provided scientists with an unprecedented peek into the secret lives of seals. The measurements reveal in detail where the seals go on their winter feeding trips, where they find food and where they don’t, and help explain why some populations have remained stable since 1950 while others have declined.

The results are the subject of a paper published today in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the USA.

The work was carried out by an international team including scientists from France, the United States and the United Kingdom and included Australian researchers Professor Mark Hindell from the University of Tasmania’s Animal Wildlife Research Unit, Dr Steve Rintoul, from the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystem Cooperative Research Centre and CSIRO (through the Wealth from Oceans Flagship), and Professor Nathan Bindoff from the University of Tasmania and the Flagship. Lead author of the paper is Dr Martin Biuw, from the Sea Mammal Research Unit at the University of St Andrews in the UK.

Until recently, the response of large marine predators to environmental variability has been almost impossible to observe directly.

Sensors were deployed on 85 elephant seals from key colonies in January and February 2003 and lasted throughout most of the Antarctic winter season. The longest track was 326 days and up to 30,000 profiles of temperature and salinity were obtained.

By simultaneously recording movements, dive behaviour and oceanographic conditions, the new sensors allow researchers to examine in detail how elephant seals respond to changes in ocean conditions.

“Most of what we know about these seals has been based on observations made when the seals haul out on sub Antarctic islands to breed, such as the number and physical condition of the animals,” Professor Hindell said. “In particular, we have had no way to study how the seals interact with their environment and the prey within it.”

By monitoring changes in the rate at which seals drift up or down during passive “drift dives,” the scientists could determine where the seals were gaining fat (and becoming more buoyant) and where food was harder to find and the animals lost fat.

“These measurements have allowed us for the first time to make circumpolar maps of the areas that provide good foraging for seals, and areas where conditions are less favourable for them,” Professor Hindell said.

The oceanographic measurements collected by the seals provided a detailed view of the feeding behaviour of the seals in relation to oceanographic features. “The measurements of temperature and salinity collected by the seals show that the seals target very specific water bodies,” Dr Rintoul said.

“By simultaneously recording movements, dive behaviour and oceanographic conditions, the new sensors allow researchers to examine in detail how elephant seals respond to changes in ocean conditions.”

“An intriguing surprise was that the feeding preferences of the Atlantic seals were very different from seals tagged on Kerguelen and Macquarie Islands, in the Indian and Pacific sectors of the Southern Ocean,” Dr Rintoul said.

The Atlantic seals preferred the open ocean waters of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. The Kerguelen and Macquarie seals spent the winter feeding season in the sea ice pack, near the Antarctic continent.

“We think the fact that these seal populations have different foraging strategies may explain why seal numbers in the Indian and Pacific declined between the 1950s and 1970s, while Atlantic populations remained stable,” said Professor Hindell.

“The Indian and Pacific seals have to travel more than 1000 km further during their winter migration than Atlantic seals. The extra energy expended would mean less energy for breeding in years of low food abundance,” he said.

“Studies suggest that the amount of sea ice declined during the 1950s to 1970s off east Antarctica; since the Indian and Pacific seals prefer to feed in the sea ice zone, the decline in sea ice may have contributed to the decline in those seal populations,” added Dr Rintoul.

Support for the Australian component of the research was provided by the Australian Research Council, the Australian Antarctic Science Grants Scheme, CSIRO (through the Wealth from Oceans Flagship) and the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre.

Background: Secret life of Elephant Seals

By providing detailed information on how animals at the top of the Southern Ocean food chain respond to variability in the ocean, this study will guide development of effective strategies for management of living resources in the Southern Ocean and predictions of how animals will respond to climate change.

Oceanographic sensors with satellite transmitters were deployed on southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) in three locations – Macquarie Island south of Tasmania, the French sub-Antarctic island of Kerguelen and South Georgia in the Atlantic.

The tags are glued to the fur of the elephant seals before they leave on long foraging journeys. The tags are retrieved when the animals return to the same beach to moult, which is up to 10 months later.

The tags record the position of the animal, monitor its diving cycle with a pressure sensor, and record water temperature and salinity – data which they upload to satellite while they are at the surface.

Southern elephant seals can dive to 1,500 metres but more commonly frequent depths of 200-500 metres.

06 August 2007

"cell central, get me amanuensis on the line!"

Comforting to know that the process we use to transmit culture exists at the heart of every living being.
In a Scientific First, Einstein Scientists Discover the Dynamics of Transcription in Living Mammalian Cells

Transcription — the transfer of DNA’s genetic information through the synthesis of complementary molecules of messenger RNA — forms the basis of all cellular activities. Yet little is known about the dynamics of the process — how efficient it is or how long it takes. Now, researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University have measured the stages of transcription in real time. Their unexpected and surprising findings have fundamentally changed the way transcription is understood.

[...] To visualize the transcription process, the researchers used living mammalian cells, each of which contained 200 copies of an artificial gene that they had inserted into one of the cell’s chromosomes. Then, by attaching fluorescent tags to RNA polymerase II, they were able to closely monitor all three phases of the transcription process: binding of the enzyme molecules to DNA, initiation (when the enzyme links the first few RNA nucleotides together) and elongation (construction of the rest of the RNA molecule). [...]