31 January 2008

worth thinking about

captive audience, part 2

[Lion Gold Necklace by DAM]

A letter to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, in today's paper:

Torture by Disney

Editor - Regarding "Big cats nearly set for display" Jan. 29, I am horrified that the San Francisco Zoo is forcing quarantined tigers to watch "Lion King" videos. Haven't these poor creatures suffered enough without inflicting Walt Disney on them?

Chris Jehle
San Francisco

30 January 2008

"chameleons evolved color changing to communicate"

"Chameleons evolved their famous skin-altering abilities not for camouflage but to communicate quickly with others, a new study suggests."

…continues with cool photo at National Geographic News.

"bionic entities needing compassion"


The only difference between the Disney world and the Cartesian view is that Descartes had an old-fashioned suspicion that machines were things not beings, while the futurist premise is not only that animals (and we ourselves) are machines but that machines are beings. It is not only a conflict between living tissue and springs or circuits but a world composed entirely of cyborg or bionic entities needing compassion. That supposition is not really new. Beneath it lurks the same old assumption that the world and life are made, not grown, that technique is the key. The futurists think of the extremely improbably performance of two and a half billion years of our genesis as if it were a fabrication, a
making. To this, Romain Gary replies, "In an entirely man-made world, there can be no room for man either. All that will be left of us are robots. We are not and could never be our own creation. We are forever condemned to be a part of a mystery that neither logic nor imagination can fathom."

…from: The Others: How Animals Made Us Human by Paul Shepard, p. 283.
I'm reading and enjoying Shepard's book, although enjoying may not be the most accurate verb. Beautifully written, his book teases out and pulls together more threads of animals in myth, literature, religion, than any other. And, it challenges many of the notions I've formed about humans and nonhumans. In response, I'm preparing a series of blog posts to address several of his most intriguing concepts, so stay tuned.

29 January 2008

wonder if they liked the video?

[Sketch by Nonhuman Crew member, DAM]

The lions and tigers at the San Francisco Zoo could be back on public display next week, more than a month after they were quarantined from public view after the Christmas Day tiger attack, city and zoo officials said Monday.

The zoo's four lions and four tigers have lived in cages behind their grotto as contractors work to raise the height of their enclosures so that the walls meet minimum safety standards. The tiger that escaped and killed a 17-year-old visitor is believed to have jumped over her grotto's 12 1/2-foot moat wall. The minimum recommended height for such walls is about 16.4 feet.

In the weeks since the animals were quarantined, zookeepers have come up with creative ways to stimulate the cats, including entertaining them with games and toys and even showing them videos of the Disney cartoon "The Lion King."

…read it all:

Lions and tigers back on display next week
by Cecilia M. Vega, SF Chronicle, 29 January, 2008

28 January 2008

virtual reality teaches autistic children street crossing

…from the University of Haifa, via EurekAlert!:

Virtual reality teaches autistic children street crossing

Recent research conducted at the University of Haifa found that children with autism improved their road safety skills after practicing with a unique virtual reality system. "Children with autism rarely have opportunities to experience or to learn to cope with day-to-day situations. Using virtual simulations such as the one used in this research enables them to acquire skills that will make it possible for them to become independent," said Profs. Josman and Weiss, from the Department of Occupational Therapy at the University of Haifa.

The independence of children with autism depends on their receiving treatment in natural settings. One of the main problems they face is their inability to learn how to safely cross the street, a necessary skill for independent living. While acquiring this skill could greatly improve these children's independence, most of the methods for teaching street-crossing have been designed for use within the classroom, and they have been shown as insufficiently effective among autistic children.

The best way to teach children with autism skills is through repeated practice in natural settings, but the danger of learning to cross the street in a natural setting obviously prohibits this method. This is where virtual reality is very effective, as demonstrated by the research team which included Hadass Milika Ben-Chaim, then a student in the Occupational Therapy master’s program and Shula Friedrich, the principal of the Haifa Ofer School for Children with Autism as well as Profs. Josman and Weiss.

Six autistic children, ages 7-12, spent one month learning how to cross virtual streets, to wait for the virtual light at the crosswalk to change and to look left and right for virtual cars using a simulation programmed by Yuval Naveh. The children in the study showed substantial improvement throughout the learning process: at the beginning of the study, the average child was able to use the 2nd level of the software while by the end they mastered the 9th level, which is characterized by more vehicles traveling at a higher speed.

However, the research team was not looking to teach a virtual skill; they wanted to see if the children were able to transfer the skills they had mastered in a virtual environment to the real world. A local practice area with a street and crosswalk, complete with traffic signals, was used for this purpose. The children's ability to cross the street safely was tested in this area evaluating, for example, whether they stopped to wait on the sidewalk or waited for a green light before crossing. The children were brought to the practice area before and after their virtual learning. Here too, the children exhibited an improvement in their skills, following the training on the virtual street, with three of the children showing considerable improvement.

One of the study participants, 16 years old, had participated in the past in a road safety program in the school, but he was not able to learn how to cross the street safely. Following learning the skill in a virtual environment, he learned how to stop on the sidewalk before stepping into the street, to look at the color of the traffic light, to cross only when the light was green and to cross without waiting too long.

"Previous studies have shown that autistic children respond well to computer learning. In this research we learned that their intelligence level or severity of their autism doesn't affect their ability to understand the system and therefore this is an important way to improve their cognitive and social abilities," summarized Profs. Josman and Weiss.

27 January 2008

bear mask

"luna followed the song and they turned into the wind"

.…On assignment from Smithsonian Magazine, Chisholm and Parfit, who are married, initially arrived in Gold River, British Columbia, in the spring of 2004 to cover Luna's attempted capture by Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans. They wound up living in that inlet town for almost three years, documenting an iconic relationship between people and nature that broke all rules.

At the start of the film, Parfit narrates, "There is a wall, built of fear and respect, which normally stands between humans and wild beings. We humans tell sweet and magical fables about going through that wall and making friends with a mysterious creature on the other side. ... But we don't think it could actually happen."

That theme resounds throughout the film: whether it was possible to actually befriend a wild animal such as Luna, and whether friendship could have saved him. To some, this idea may verge on anthropomorphism, but Parfit contends it is a legitimate way of understanding how Luna himself broke that barrier.

"My sense of it," explains the filmmaker, "is that the social need that he had and that we have, that we call friendship, is extremely complicated in our lives and in theirs. In the details it's going to be different. But that big thing we think of as 'friendship,' which encompasses all of those emotional structures, is a good metaphor for what he needed and a good metaphor for what we sensed when we looked in his eye."

And a look into Luna's eyes is just what viewers get. We are virtually introduced to the playful, winsome orca, sometimes through stunning underwater photography, and sometimes through the moving first hand accounts of the people who encountered Luna and whose interactions with him are captured on tape. We are also afforded a view of the orca from the cultural perspective of Nootka's first nations people, for whom killer whales are esteemed protectors of the sea and who believed Luna embodied the spirit of their deceased chief.

The film presents an eye-opening depiction of the attempt to capture the orca, and the Mowachat/Muchalaht tribe's nonviolent confrontation to stop it. As the tribe paddles out into the sound, singing to lure the orca away from his would-be captors, Parfit's narration evokes the mystical.

"Luna followed the song and they turned into the wind. An ancient people trying to make a modern legend of sea and spirit with a little whale."

read it all:
"Saving Luna documents lost baby killer whale's struggle"
by Stephan Michaels, San Francisco Chronicle 27 January 2008

25 January 2008

what's that supposed to mean?

" 'telepathic' genes recognize similarities in each other"

…from Imperial College London and the National Institute of Health (NIH) in the USA, via EurekAlert!:

'Telepathic' genes recognize similarities in each other
Genes have the ability to recognise similarities in each other from a distance, without any proteins or other biological molecules aiding the process, according to new research published this week in the Journal of Physical Chemistry B. This discovery could explain how similar genes find each other and group together in order to perform key processes involved in the evolution of species. This new study shows that genes – which are parts of double-stranded DNA with a double-helix structure containing a pattern of chemical bases - can recognise other genes with a similar pattern of chemical bases.…

24 January 2008

sweet disposition, filly style

Filly Style, originally uploaded by ERIK98122.

…via streetsy.com.


Wolf, originally uploaded by mrman17.

…from the photo's flickr page:

"One of the wolves at the UK Wolf Conservation Trust - not sure if this is Duma or Dakota (Sorry!)."

new autism research sheds some light

More autism research results that don't seem to make things much clearer, except to suggest that looking into both psychological and biological factors may aid earlier diagnosis.

23 January 2008

2 gorillas sitting in the jungle talking

Gorilla #1: We share 99% of our DNA with humans but there are 6 million of them and we're nearly extinct. What's the difference?

Gorilla #2: We're pacifists.

…from the always-interesting (because so often he gives nonhumans a voice) cartoon feature, Bizarro by Piraro, a
vegan with a cool Web site and a fun blog I wish he'd update more often, too.

Speaking of gorillas, here's one of my all-time favorite street art images:

…and an old sketch of mine:

not neighborly

Farmers Branch bans illegal immigrants from renting houses

That reminds me of a story I heard quite a bit about, very recently, it goes something like, "No room in the inn, so they sheltered in a barn…."

22 January 2008

flying manhattanite

nyc hawk, originally uploaded by NinetyNineOcean.

This is the New York City I want to inhabit; the note for this photo says:

"taken from our balcony on 79th st in Manhattan. had to wait in the freezing cold till he (or she) took off! maybe I'll post the whole series someday."

upper westside bear

Bear, originally uploaded by SReed99342.

…another image from "My Manhattan".…

"sos stencil zebra"

sos stencil zebra, originally uploaded by ExcuseMySarcasm.

"the music of treetop troubadours"

Birds and their songs have haunted the poet's imagination since the days of the ancient Greeks, but none have sought out the music of treetop troubadours with the combined persistence, scientific rigor, and sheer religious awe of Olivier Messiaen.

This remarkable French composer and grandfather of the 20th-century avant-garde wrote mind-bendingly original music full of radiant washes of color. He was a devout Catholic with mystical sympathies, and a man for whom ornithology was a perfect extension of religious faith. Outfitted with his notebooks, binoculars, a tape recorder, and an almost childlike sense of wonder, he traveled all over the world, transcribing bird songs and declaring himself an avid student of the grand orchestra of the skies.

"For me," wrote Messiaen, "it is here that music lives: music that is free, anonymous, improvised for pleasure, to greet the rising sun, to charm one's mate, to tell all the world that this branch and this meadow belong to you, to put an end to all disputes, bickering and rivalry, to work off the excessive energy born of love and joie de vivre, to articulate time and space and join with your neighbors in constructing rich and improvised counterpoint, to solace your fatigue and to say farewell to another portion of life as the evening falls."

…read it all:
The birds who gave a composer wings, by Jeremy Eichler
Boston Globe, 20 January 2008

The Globe article includes links to a video of Messiaen's Oiseaux Exotiques. I like his piano and orchestral works, they are, like many of my own thoughts and visions, strange and bold, and his attention to birdsong I find inspiring.

21 January 2008

los lobos

(Click to see a larger version.)

Los Lobos

As silent as the slow release of snow,
the forest draped heavy with the drift,
limbs freshly frocked and insulated
warmly in winter's fashioned lambswool,
beneath wood appendage swept low below
this filigreed fantasy of wet winter weight,
they step from the shadows into silver light
and are free to linger long enough to howl
at the swirling face of the fully lit moon,
and instinctively they pierce the night.

Small-eared, wide-muzzled, sharp-eyed,
white black gray cream roan-coated,
ceaseless hunter of the wildest beast,
kin to coyote jackal dingo loyal dog,
once free roamer of all the forests,
of mountains plains and snow country,
misunderstood magnificent creature
born of this untamed american landscape,
legend of terror fright and sly treachery
and of evil werewolfian nightmare fear.

To be hunted trapped and poisoned,
yours a difficult history filled with being
chased across this captured land
much like we treated all natives whom
we failed to understand or embrace,
and so, our freedom is lost as well.
Sadly, we have all but forgotten about
the bond that ties us to each other,
bold seekers of freedom one and all,
we are both the hunter and the hunted.

20 January 2008

upper west side, represent!

Con Coyote, originally uploaded by SReed99342.

19 January 2008

a cool collage by my friend warren

Warren is in 6th grade and lives in California.

el lobo

el lobo, originally uploaded by QUiNmela.

no words necessary

Chankanaab Dolphin, originally uploaded by eschipul.

17 January 2008

they decided to do something about it

Bravo, Benjamin Potts and Briton Giles, for putting yourselves at risk to stop the Japanese fleet on its way to kill 1,000 whales, for the moment at least. Non-violently, too, as far as I can tell -- they came aboard the whaling ship to deliver a letter asking them to not kill whales, then the Japanese detained them and accused them of an act of "piracy." Well maybe that's what it was, but if that's technically true, then it should be OK to call the Japanese murderers for killing whales.

Now if those whale-loving Australians could just stop slaughtering kangaroos back at home, that would be nice.

easy pickin's for out-of-town tigers

…news from UC Davis:

Island Monkeys Do Not Recognize Big Cat Calls

January 16, 2008

Monkeys living on an island without big cat predators do not show any particular alarm when recorded tiger growls are played to them, according to research by a UC Davis graduate student. The pig-tailed langurs do, however, flee in a hurry from the sound of human voices.

"This contributes to a growing literature on how animal behavior changes under relaxed selection pressures," said Jessica Yorzinski, a graduate student in animal behavior at UC Davis, who authored the study with Thomas Ziegler of the German Primate Center in Göttingen, Germany.

Pig-tailed langurs are medium-sized monkeys that spend most of their day sitting in trees in small groups eating leaves. Their close relatives on the mainland of Indonesia are prey for tigers and leopards, but on the Mentawai islands, the monkeys have been isolated from big cats for about half a million years.

Yorzinski played recordings of tiger and leopard calls and growls, as well as the sounds of elephants (another animal unknown to the monkeys), pigs and birds (animals they know, but which do not eat monkeys) and people talking in the local language. People do hunt the monkeys for food.
On hearing the noises, the monkeys would look around and at each other and might leave the area. They did not show any greater alarm at hearing big cat noises than at hearing an elephant, and would flee in about four to five seconds. But on hearing recorded human voices, the monkeys would flee within a second. They did not flee from bird or pig noises.

Yorzinski, of course, had to take care to stay out of sight when locating monkeys and setting up speakers. "We couldn't do the experiment if the monkeys saw us first," she said.
The study is published in the December 2007 issue of the journal Ethology.

Pig-tailed lemur

16 January 2008

bush to whales: go away & die, or something

[drawing by DAM]

If you can't stand the sound, get out of the ocean?

…sez the
New York Times:

Last August, the Natural Resources Defense Council persuaded a federal judge in Los Angeles to order a stop to Navy training exercises off Southern California using medium-range sonar. The judge said that the Navy’s own assessments predicted that dozens of marine mammals, particularly deep-diving whales, could be harmed by the intense sound waves. In January, a fresh injunction was issued by the court requiring the Navy to establish a 12-nautical-mile, no-sonar zone along the coast and to post lookouts for marine mammals.

The A.P. quoted a White House memorandum as saying, “The Navy training exercises, including the use of sonar, are in the paramount interest of the United States…. This exemption will enable the Navy to train effectively and to certify carrier and expeditionary strike groups for deployment in support of worldwide operational and combat activities, which are essential to national security.”

Environmental campaigners and California officials sharply attacked the decision in a joint news release today.

“There is absolutely no justification for this,” said California Coastal Commissioner Sara Wan. “Both the court and the Coastal Commission have said that the Navy can carry out its mission as well as protect the whales. This is a slap in the face to Californians who care about the oceans.”

“The president’s action is an attack on the rule of law,” said Joel Reynolds, director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “By exempting the Navy from basic safeguards under both federal and state law, the president is flouting the will of Congress, the decision of the California Coastal Commission and a ruling by the federal court.”

…'nuff said.

it takes a computer to understand a dog

…from Animal Cognition:

Heidelberg, 15 January 2008

Computer learns dogspeak
Study shows computer programs can classify dog barks better than humans

Computer programs may be the most accurate tool for studying acoustic communications amongst animals, according to Csaba Molnár from Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary and his research team. Their paper, published in Springer’s journal Animal Cognition this week, shows that a new piece of software is able to classify dog barks according to different situations and even identify barks from individual dogs, a task humans find challenging.

The aim of Molnár and colleagues’ experiments was to test a computer algorithm’s ability to identify and differentiate the acoustic features of dog barks, and classify them according to different contexts and individual dogs. The software analyzed more than 6000 barks from 14 Hungarian sheepdogs (Mudi breed) in six different situations: ‘stranger’, ‘fight’, ‘walk’, ‘alone’, ‘ball’ and ‘play’. The barks were recorded with a tape recorder before being transferred to the computer, where they were digitalized and individual bark sounds were coded, classified and evaluated.

In the first experiment looking at classification of barks into different situations, the software correctly classified the barks in 43 percent of cases. The best recognition rates were achieved for ‘fight’ and ‘stranger’ contexts, and the poorest rate was achieved when categorizing ‘play’ barks. These findings suggest that the different motivational states of dogs in aggressive, friendly or submissive contexts may result in acoustically different barks.

In the second experiment looking at the recognition of individual dogs, the algorithm correctly classified the barks in 52 percent of cases. The software could reliably discriminate among individual dogs while humans can not, which suggests that there are individual differences in barks of dogs even though humans are not able to recognise them.

The authors conclude by highlighting the value of their new methodology: “The use of advanced machine learning algorithms to classify and analyze animal sounds opens new perspectives for the understanding of animal communication… The promising results obtained strongly suggest that advanced machine learning approaches deserve to be considered as a new relevant tool for ethology*.”

* Ethology: the study of animal behavior, with a focus on behavioral patterns in natural environments.

1. Molnar C et al (2008). Classification of dog barks: a machine learning approach. Animal Cognition (DOI 10.1007/s10071-007-0129-9)

15 January 2008

"anybody out there?"

…from Cornell:

Arecibo telescope finds critical ingredients for the soup of life in a galaxy far, far away

AUSTIN, Texas — Astronomers from Arecibo Observatory radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, have detected for the first time the molecules methanimine and hydrogen cyanide – two ingredients that build life-forming amino acids – in a galaxy some 250 million light years away.

“Just add water!” said Robert Minchin, an Arecibo astronomer on the project, who explained that methanimine and hydrogen cyanide are two of the basic ingredients of life, because when combined with water they form glycine, the simplest amino acid, a building block of life on Earth.

The astronomy team, led by Arecibo astronomer Christopher Salter, announced this discovery today (Jan. 11) in a poster presented at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Austin. The Arecibo Observatory is managed by Cornell University for National Science Foundation.

The Arecibo astronomers focused on the distant galaxy Arp 220, an ultra-luminous starburst galaxy, because it forms new stars at a very high rate. They used the 305-meter, or 1,000-foot diameter, Arecibo radio telescope, the world’s largest and most sensitive, to observe the galaxy at different frequencies. In fact, for the first time in April 2007, they used the 800 megahertz wide-band mode of the main spectrometer to make these detections.

These molecules were found by searching for radio emission at specific frequencies. Each chemical substance has its own unique radio frequency and astronomers can in that way identify the different substances, much like people can be identified with their unique fingerprints.

“We weren’t targeting any particular molecule, so we didn’t know what we were going to find – we just started searching, and what we found was incredibly exciting,” said Tapasi Ghosh, an Arecibo astronomer.

“The fact that we can observe these substances at such a vast distance means that there are huge amounts of them in Arp 220,” said Emmanuel Momjian, a former Arecibo astronomer, now at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Socorro, N.M. “It is indeed very intriguing to find that the ingredients of life appear in large quantities where new stars and planets are born.”

14 January 2008

from a dam sketchbook

DAM is a fellow artist out Cali way, sends me pencil sketches from time to time. I like the Chinese-Aztec-Tiki thing he's got going on in this one. He said that's a dancer he saw in a newspaper photo, in a Chinese opera that just opened in San Francisco. Dig that crazy hair-did.

the existential reality of being green

Green Tree Frog, originally uploaded by D Fraser.

13 January 2008

now, imagine how different it would sound through wolf or bear or snake or falcon ears

…from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council:

Lend me your ears -- and the world will sound very different

Recognising people, objects or animals by the sound they make is an important survival skill and something most of us take for granted. But very similar objects can physically make very dissimilar sounds and we are able to pick up subtle clues about the identity and source of the sound. Scientists funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) are working out how the human ear and the brain come together to help us understand our acoustic environment. They have found that the part of the brain that deals with sound, the auditory cortex, is adapted in each individual and tuned to the world around us. We learn throughout our lives how to localise and identify different sounds. It means that if you could hear the world through someone else's ears it would sound very different to what you are used to.

The research, which features in the current issue of BBSRC Business, could help to develop more sophisticated hearing aids and more effective speech recognition systems.

The research team at the University of Oxford, led by Dr Jan Schnupp, have studied the auditory cortex of the brain and discovered that its responses are determined not merely by acoustical properties, like frequency and pitch, but by statistical properties of the sound-scape. In the world loudness and pitch are constantly changing. The random shifts in sounds are underpinned with a statistical regularity. For example, subtle and gradual changes are statistically more regular than large and sudden changes. Dr Schnupp's team have found that our brains are adapted to the former; the neurons in the auditory cortex appear to anticipate and respond best to gradual changes in the soundscape. These are also the patterns most commonly found in both nature and musical compositions.

Dr Schnupp, a research leader at the University of Oxford Auditory Neuroscience Group, said: "Our research to model speech sounds in the lab has shown that auditory neurons in the brain are adaptable and we learn how to locate and identify sounds. Each person's auditory cortex in their brain is adapted to way their ears deliver sound to them and their experience of the world. If you could borrow someone else's ears you would have real difficulty in locating the source of sounds, at least until your brain had relearned how to do it."

Dr Schnupp has also found that the auditory cortex does not have neurons sensitive to different aspects of sound. When the researchers look at how the auditory cortex responds to changes in pitch, timbre and frequency they saw that most neurons reacted to each change. Dr Schnupp explains: "In the closely related visual cortex there are different neurons for processing colour, form and motion. In the auditory cortex the neurons seem to overwhelmingly react to several of the different properties of sound. We are now investigating how they distinguish between pitch, spatial location and timbre.

"If we can understand how the auditory cortex has evolved to do this we may be able to apply the knowledge to develop hearing aids that can blot out background noise and speech recognition systems that can handle different accents."

The Oxford team's current project is using BBSRC funding to fit trained ferrets with harmless auditory implants. The animals are trained to respond to different sounds and the implants enable the team to observe the auditory neurons as the ferret responds to different sounds.

Professor Nigel Brown, BBSRC Director of Science and Technology, said: "This research is revealing how our senses work and how the brain interprets information from the ears. These BBSRC-funded studies of a fundamental biological process may bring exciting developments in helping people with hearing and other disabilities."

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £380 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

frankenstein 101

from a University of Minnesota press release:

U of M researchers create beating heart in laboratory

….By using a process called whole organ decellularization, scientists from the University of Minnesota Center for Cardiovascular Repair grew functioning heart tissue by taking dead rat and pig hearts and reseeding them with a mixture of live cells.

12 January 2008

from nhc to "machine perception"

…from the Machine Perception Laboratory:

Fully Automatic Recognition of Expressions of Basic Emotion

The output of the face detector is scaled to 90x90 and fed directly to the facial expression analysis system (see Figure 1). The system is essentially the same as the one used for Automatic FACS coding. First the face image is passed through a bank of Gabor filters at 8 orientations and 9 scales (2-32 pixels/cycle at 0.5 octave steps). The filterbank representations are then channeled to a classifier to code the image in terms of a set of expression dimensions. We have found support vector machines to be very effective for classifying facial expressions (Littlewort et al., in press, Bartlett et al., 2003). Recent research at our lab has demonstrated that both speed and accuracy are enhanced by performing feature selection on the Gabor filters prior to classification (e.g. Bartlett et al., 2003). This approach employs Adaboost (Freund & Shapire, 1996) a state of the art technique for feature selection that sequentially selects the feature that gives the most information about classification given the features that have been already selected.

Sorry, this is serious research, obviously, but that "Gabor filter" sounds like the punch line to a bad joke.

11 January 2008

chromosome 16

The nature-nurture seesaw swung wildly again this week, with reports of research that seems to indicate a genetic origin for autism, plus word that vaccines aren't to blame. A person could get whiplash trying to follow this story. I'll just keep on keeping on, I guess. Here's a decent overview with links to the research reports.

Here's a chromosome 16 – the culprit of this latest act in the autism research spectacle – graphic with caption I grabbed from the Joint Genome Institute which compares human chromosome 16 to similar nonhuman chromosomes:

Segmental homology maps show continuous segments between human chromosome 16 and homologous portions of chimp, mouse, rat, dog, and chicken genomes.

10 January 2008

biggest mammals hire ants as bodyguards

…press release from the University of Florida:

Africa's biggest mammals key to ant-plant teamwork

GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- Throughout the tropics, ants and Acacia trees live together in intricate interdependent relationships that have long fascinated scientists.

Now researchers are reporting that in Africa, this plant-insect teamwork depends on the very antagonist it is intended to ward off: Africa’s big browsing mammals.

In a paper set to appear this week on the cover of the journal Science, the researchers report that elephants, giraffes and other large plant-eaters spur Acacias to “hire” and support ants as bodyguards – and without the mammals, the trees slash their investment in ants, opening both to other attackers. Because many of the mammals are threatened by human activities, the paper’s conclusions serve as a cautionary tale of how people can influence the ecosystem as their impacts cascade down unexpected paths.

“Throughout sub-Saharan Africa these large mammals are threatened by human population growth, habitat fragmentation, over-hunting, and other degradation, so we have to wonder how their loss will affect these ecosystems,” said Todd Palmer, the paper’s lead author and an assistant professor of zoology at the University of Florida. “The last thing you would think is that individual trees would start to suffer as well, and yet that’s exactly what we see.”

Scientists have observed mutualism, or cooperative interactions between different species, throughout the natural world. The phenomenon is also well-known among plants and insects, with some of the earliest observations surrounding ants and plants in Central America.

What sets the Science paper apart is that it shows how easily these relationships, which likely have evolved over many millennia, can fall apart once a critical cog is removed.

Acacias are mostly shrubby trees common across the tropics and sub-Saharan African savannah. They have swollen thorns that serve as nests for three species of biting ants. Healthy trees have hundreds of the thorns, often containing more than 100,000 ants per tree. Both the ants and the trees benefit from their close cohabitation. The ants get the thorny shelters, as well as nectar they collect from the bases of Acacia leaves. Because the ants swarm in defense against anything that molests the trees, the trees get protection from their chief ostensible nemeses, browsing animals.

That’s when the mutualism is working well. But the research got its start when Palmer noticed that certain Acacias at his research site in central Kenya, which had been fenced off from wild herbivores, looked sickly compared with their unfenced counterparts. That was the opposite of what might be expected, because the browsers feed voraciously on the trees.

Palmer noticed that the sickly trees appeared to have fewer thorn nests, so he began measuring that and other differences on the trees in six experimentally fenced plots and six open plots. The former had been surrounded by an 8,000-volt electric fence for 10 years.

The observations confirmed the fenced trees had fewer swollen thorns. The research also revealed that the fenced trees had fewer active “nectaries” at the base of leaves where the ants sip the trees’ nectar. That indicated the trees were producing less nectar.

Moreover, when Palmer and other researchers jostled the fenced trees, the ants were far less defensive than their counterparts on the unfenced trees. There, the slightest disturbance spurs hundreds of ants to pour out of the thorns.

Without mammals around to eat the trees, sheltering fewer, less aggressive ants would not present a cost to the trees. To the contrary, the trees would seem to be better off, because they would not need to use their resources to support the ants.

But the research revealed that the fewer colonies of weakened ants become less able to defend their territory from another species of ant that, unlike the others, does not have a mutually beneficial relationship with Acacias. Instead, this fourth ant species feeds away from the tree and does not protect it from attackers – in fact, it actually encourages a destructive, wood-boring beetle whose cavities then serve as this ant’s home.

The result appears to be that the trees untouched by browsing mammals are infested with more of the beetles, which is part of the reason that they fare poorly.

Another problem for the fenced trees may be that their ants appeared to gather nectar-like secretions from more aphid-like insects than those on the unfenced trees. This could also serve to weaken the fenced trees, Palmer said. The fenced trees were twice as likely to die as the unfenced ones, and they grew 65 percent more slowly, the paper reports.

“You get a community-wide replacement of ‘good ants’ with ‘bad ants,’ and the result is that the trees start doing poorly,” Palmer said.

One irony of the findings is that the trees have developed their mutualistic relationship with the ants to protect themselves against plant-eating mammals – and yet because of that relationship, the trees wind up actually needing the mammals.

“If you get rid of the large mammals, it shifts the balance of power, because the trees default on their end of the bargain,” Palmer said. “When the trees opt out, their hard-working employees starve and grow weak, which causes them to lose out. So, ironically, getting rid of the mammals causes individual trees to grow more slowly and die younger.”

The research has important implications for conservation.

As Palmer said, “It’s becoming increasingly clear that anthropogenic change can have rapid and unanticipated consequences for cooperative species interactions, and we caught this happening in real time.”

feeling winds of change?

Feeling the winds of change from science, philosophy, and law, it seems that American culture itself is in the midst of a paradigm shift. As we learn to appreciate the complexity of animals and the deep continuities between their world and ours, we begin to respect them more and accord them the rights they deserve. Every marginalized human group has fought for its liberation; now it's the animals' turn. Since they can't speak for themselves, their liberation demands our own liberation from the long-standing tradition of human biases against them. As we grant animals minds, we may free our own.
…from Animal Rights and Wrongs by animal rights activist Steven Best, for Britannica.com in 2000. I can't find it online right now, I got the quote from an old print-out.

vizthink, thinking in pictures

Wish I could go to this VizThink conference in San Francisco later this month, it sounds interesting, quite a few leading cartoonists and illustrators will be there, it seems:

Who are visual thinkers anyway? Visual thinkers are people who use any form of the visual arts such as graphic design, illustration, photos, video, animations, sketches, 3D, etc. for communications and learning. VizThink's goal is to bring together the best of the best in our industry with participation from trainers, marketers, presenters, executives, planners, strategists, and managers, just to name a few. While each approach and application may be different, the community members all share the same philosophy in the power of visualization for learning and communication. We believe that by bringing these diverse groups together, we'll create a community that can take the industry to a new level and invite you to take part.
There's a VizThink blog, too.

What's visual thinking got to do with nonhuman communications? Obviously this conference focuses on human-to-human communication, but I keep going back to the notion that I encountered first in the writing of Temple Grandin, that animals and autistic people think in images. In fact, she wrote a book called Thinking in Pictures and Other Reports From My Life With Autism. Here's the first paragraph of the first chapter from that book, free to read at her web site, here:

I THINK IN PICTURES. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head. When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures. Language-based thinkers often find this phenomenon difficult to understand, but in my job as an equipment designer for the livestock industry, visual thinking is a tremendous advantage.
That "livestock industry" is a big, hot-button issue of course, we'll leave it for another time.

nonhuman headline of the day

Polar Bear Taken From Mother

What are we doing, keeping majestic creatures like this locked up to the point where humans feel they can't trust these precious (ask the zoo how much it has invested in those animals to date) possessions to raise their young?

The link goes to a sad video at the
National Geographic site, which offers this more hopeful image to counter today's shocking reality:

09 January 2008

siberian jays seek precision in communication re predators

…press release from Uppsala University, in Sweden:

Siberian jays can communicate about behavior of birds of prey

With the aid of various alarm calls the Siberian jay bird species tells other members of its group what their main predators-hawks-are doing. The alarm calls are sufficient for Siberian jays to evince situation-specific fleeing behaviors, which enhances their chances of survival. This discovery, being published by Uppsala University researcher Michael Griesser in the journal Current Biology, shows for the first time that animals can assess and communicate about the behavior of predators.

Many animal species are exposed daily to the risk of being killed by a predator. Certain apes and marmots have developed specific alarm calls that communicate the category of predators or the distance of predators to other group members. It has been proposed that this is an adaptation that helps them survive daily encounters with predators

“But the risk a predator represents to its prey is also contingent on the behavior of the predator, so it would be an advantage for survival to be able to communicate whether the predators are in hunting mode or are full and contented,” explains Michael Griesser, a researcher at the Department of Ecology and Evolution at Uppsala University.

The findings of the study show that Siberian jays have different alarm calls for hawks that are sitting, searching for prey, or attacking. With the help of a playback experiment in which the scientist played the various alarm calls for Siberian jays, he was able to demonstrate that the alarm call is sufficient to get Siberian jays to evince a situation-specific fleeing behavior.

Upon hearing the call that is given for sitting hawks, they fly up to the tops of trees and look for the hawk. The attack call prompts them to flee to the closest refuge as quickly as possible and then to start to look for the hawk. Playing the call that is given for hawks searching for prey gets the jays to flee to the nearest refuge and stay there without moving, for several minutes, to avoid being discovered by the hawk.

“These findings are astonishing and show for the first time that animals can assess and communicate about the behavior of their predators, and that not only mammals but also birds have developed advanced communication systems,” says Michael Griesser.

An earlier study of Siberian jays showed that parents protect their young but not unrelated group members with their alarm calls and that this extra protection leads to much lower odds that related group members will be taken by a hawk during their first winter. Together with the new study, this shows for the first time that alarm calls actually do enhance the survival of other individuals. Until now this was merely an assumption, even though this is a basic function of alarm calls.

“Since complex communication systems in the animal world were developed primarily in species that live in family groups, it appears that selection based on kinship is an important factor for the development of such systems in the animal world. To be able to save the life of a related animal ultimately serves to further the animal’s own genes. Perhaps this factor was also a key condition for our ancestors, who also lived in family groups, to be able to develop the capacity for language,” says Michael Griesser.

scientists find cultural differences among chimp colonies

…press release from the University of Liverpool:

Scientists find cultural differences
among chimpanzee colonies

Socially-learned cultural behavior thought to be unique to humans is also found among chimpanzees colonies, scientists at the University of Liverpool have found

Socially-learned cultural behaviour thought to be unique to humans is also found among chimpanzees colonies, scientists at the University of Liverpool have found.

Historically, scientists believed that behavioural differences between colonies of chimpanzees were due to variations in genetics. A team at Liverpool, however, has now discovered that variations in behaviour are down to chimpanzees migrating to other colonies, proving that they build their ‘cultures’ in a similar way to humans.

Primatologist, Dr Stephen Lycett, explains: “We knew there were behavioural differences between chimpanzee colonies, but nobody really knew why. It was assumed that young chimpanzees developed certain behavioural characteristics from the genes passed down from their parents, but there was no evidence to clearly support this. It was also thought that because behaviour was dictated by biology, chimpanzees did not have a ‘culture’ in the same way that humans do.”

By looking at how chimpanzees prepare their food, the research team discovered that one colony used stone tools to crack nuts, whereas another colony used wooden tools as well as stone. They found these methods of preparing food have spread 4000km from East to West Africa over the more than 100,000 years. The team also found this true of other techniques, such as grooming. The research suggests that behavioural variety is due to how chimpanzees socialise rather than genetics as previously thought.

To investigate the theory further researchers built an evolutionary tree of chimpanzee behaviour in East and West Africa as well as a genetic family tree. They had expected to find that those with similar genetic patterns also shared behavioural similarities. Instead, they found that some chimpanzees shared behavioural similarities with those that were genetically different from them.

Dr Lycett, added: “This explains why some colonies, for example, use similar methods for finding food, adopting certain behaviour and adapting different methods to suit their own environment. In this sense we can see for the first time that culture exists in our closest relatives.”

The research is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

Chimp by DAM

headline of the day

Disrupting common parasites' ability to 'talk' to each other reduces infection

stoned teen says pot made him steal monkeys, crocodile

From Darwin, Australia comes news that an Australian teenager blamed "the influence of marijuana" for his decision to steal two crocodiles and a monkey from Crocodylus Park, a tourist attraction. It was a "dumb stoner thing to do" the boy admits.

terrible tip of a tragic iceberg

Nhan Dan reports :
"Two live tigers and frozen pieces from four others along with a large quantity of various animal parts were seized by Hanoi Police on January 7 when they busted a wild animal trafficking group.…The police also found at the two suspects’ houses frozen pieces of four other large tigers, which weighed at least 100 kg each, 11 living bears, limbs of bears and a hefty quantity of solid cakes from rendered animal bones used for traditional medicinal purposes. The police on January 8 handed the two living tigers over to the Hanoi Wild Animal Rescue Centre, an affiliate of the Hanoi Forestry Division."

[White Tiger by DAM]

08 January 2008

state won't rule out possibility of urban mountain lion

Dallas Morning News reports that "State wildlife officials…haven't been able to confirm a mountain lion sighting reported last month in Allen. Witnesses said they spotted a big cat, about 80 to 90 pounds, in an east Allen neighborhood near Lucas." The absence of physical evidence – paw prints or animal carcasses, for example – doesn't mean the state will rule out that someone saw a mountain lion, according to John Young, a mammalogist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. "We want to know about mountain lion sightings in urban areas because we don't want to ever have a situation where someone is attacked by a mountain lion in an urban area," Mr. Young told the DMN.

Why not live and let live? That mountain lion won't bother any humans if they'll return the favor.

[drawing by DAM]

07 January 2008

artists against the war

…is the name of an online exhibit hosted by the Society of Illustrators, with many powerful images including this:

Mirko Ilic
Silkscreen poster

"to pet is to touch"

To pet is to touch. The desire to hold the wild as we do our pets is acute. In the past quarter-century of television, Marlin Perkins, Jacques Cousteau, and others, in the name of science, captured manatees, lassoed gazelles, grappled with crocodiles, or anesthetized lions–ostensibly to treat a disease, restock an area, mark for further study, or rescue from rising waters or industrial development.…In every sequence men clutched, held, or reached out and touched the animals. They fostered our yearning to recover a lost world, to be once again the trusted friend of all beings. They put the animals vicariously into our hands, where we wait for them to tell us something.

…from The Others: How Animals Made Us Human by Paul Shepard, a book that I'm really enjoying and learning from and which I highly recommend.

An old sketch:

…cats I used to be afraid to touch, but didn't mind drawing from a distance.…

wolf in profile

_DSC9243, originally uploaded by Remy van de Guchte.

I just love wolves. This one is from flickr.com, the Animal Planet Pool.

06 January 2008

"usually brown but available in all colors"

Fun in the Dallas Observer as usual with the Ask a Mexican column by Gustavo Arellano, this time it's about Mexican dogs:
Mexico's two indigenous breeds fully represent the Mexican soul. The American Kennel Club doesn't recognize the xoloitzcuintle (also known as the Mexican hairless) even though the noble critters date back millennia, much like Congress won't recognize illegal Mexicans despite their many years working in the United States. Chihuahuas are even more quintessentially Mexican: Napoleonic in complex, clannish, usually brown but available in all colors, maligned by gabachos as puny runts but secretly ferocious and smart and bearers of muchos, muchos babies. Some PC pendejos might cringe at the comparison, but hey: better the anthropomorphic conversation deal with dogs than cockroaches, ¿qué no?

Hairless and Coated Xoloitzcuintles [Wikipedia photo]

sunny sunday

Unseasonably warm here in the Metroplex this sunny Sunday, waiting for the winter shoe to drop. Meanwhile, the DMN covers a story in Arlington today that hits your mixed race editor hard; glad to see Silk Littlejohn trying to make peace in the wake of an attempt to terrorize her, sorry to see racism still so entrenched:

Two weeks ago, Silk Littlejohn was a victim – battered with a two-by-four plank by an angry, white neighbor who also flung racial slurs, she said. On Saturday, the black woman tried to be a healer and a teacher. Several hundred people, led by many ministers, gathered at a historic park for public prayer and a march to Ms. Littlejohn's home to cover her garage doors with royal blue tarps. A few days after the Dec. 19 assault, Ms. Littlejohn and her fiancé, Broderick Gamble, found the words "KILL" and "DIE [N-word]" spray-painted on the doors in red.

05 January 2008

creativity explored

Found a fine and inspiring refuge this cold, dark, and stormy Saturday:

Creativity Explored
"We are a nonprofit visual arts center where artists with developmental disabilities create, exhibit, and sell art."

…from the online gallery:

Jeffrey by Ernesto Sosa

Zodiac by Thanh Diep

…lots of great work for sale in the online store, too.

04 January 2008

friday scribble

with reverence, back in the day…

[collage by Morris Armstrong, Jr. proudly a.k.a. "Little Mo"]

Not that I'm advocating a return to the good old days, Heaven forbid, but there's some distance between looking to animals for cosmic wisdom and guidance and the way humans treat animals today. Especially today, Edison's Warning (see previous blog entry, below) reverberating crazily in the mediasphere.

headline of the day & horrible anniversary

Jan. 4, 1903: Edison Fries an Elephant to Prove His Point
…from Wired, which publishes a disturbing image from the movie Edison made of electrocuting Topsy the elephant at Coney Island, "to demonstrate the dangers of alternating current." The great inventor was willing to torture and kill an elephant, in a doomed effort to win a competitive advantage for his business. Some 1,500 humans watched the grisly spectacle.

Elsewhere, Nonhuman Crew extended team member Dave Monroe clips contemporaneous coverage of the event:
The Commercial Advertiser, New York, Monday, January 5, 1903.

Topsy Meets Quick and Painless
Death at Coney Island.

Topsy, the ill-tempered Coney Island elephant, was put to death in
Luna Park, Coney Island, yesterday afternoon. The execution was
witnessed by 1,500 or more curious persons, who went down to the
island to see the end of the huge beast, to whom they had fed peanuts
and cakes in summers that are gone. In order to make Topsy's execution
quick and sure 460 grams of cyanide of potassium were fed to her in
carrots. Then a hawser was put around her neck and one end attached to
a donkey engine and the other to a post. Next wooden sandals lined
with copper were attached to her feet. These electrodes were connected
by copper wire with the Edison electric light plant and a current of
6,600 volts was sent through her body. The big beast died without a
trumpet or a groan.

Topsy was brought to this country twenty-eight years ago by the
Forepaugh Circus, and has been exhibited throughout the United States.
She was ten feet high and 19 feet 11 inches in length. Topsy developed
a bad temper two years ago and killed two keepers in Texas. Last
spring, when the Forepaugh show was in Brooklyn, J. F. Blount, a
keeper, tried to feed a lighted cigarette to her. She picked him up
with her trunk and dashed him to the ground, killing him instantly.


[drawing by Nonhuman Crew collaborator, DAM]

03 January 2008


This looks and sounds like fun. From the publisher's description:
Learn about wolf ecology by living the life of a wild wolf in Yellowstone National Park. Play alone or with friends in on-line multiplayer missions, explore the wilderness, hunt elk, and encounter stranger wolves in your quest to find a mate. Ultimately, your success will depend on forming a family pack, raising pups, and ensuring the survival of your pack.

The WolfQuest experience goes beyond the game with an active online community where you can discuss the game with other players, chat with wolf biologists, and share artwork and stories about wolves.


[drawing by Nonhuman Crew collaborator, DAM]

purple horses from srayla tip

Another tasty tattoo design from Srayla Tip, a charter member of the Nonhuman Crew out in the East Bay. Tip designed the NHC logos, too.

babs is dead

Babs is dead

Babs is dead.
She died of renal failure.

They laid her in the garden
as all her friends and relatives
paraded past and paid
their last respects.

One of her daughters
lay down next to her,
and with her head on her shoulder
looked up at the marvelous sky,
the big, blue, mysterious sky,
just like they used to do.
She nestled close and
stroked her momma’s belly.

Gorillas grieve too.

[please click image to see a larger version - photo from nailbender & tweaked by Morris Armstrong, Jr.]