Friday, March 10, 2017

Climate Change and Primates

Climate change is real - we are already seeing the effects worldwide.  It is affecting everything on earth, large and small creatures alike; non human primates are no exception.

According to an article published in the Journal of Primatology and Concordia University last year, the species that will be the most affected by climate change are located in Central America, the Amazon, Southeastern Brazil, East and Southeast Asia.  The authors Tanya L Graham, H. Damon Matthews (Concordia University of Montreal) and Sarah Turner (McGill University) predict that some will experience "1.5 degree Celsius for every degree Celsius of global warming".

This is not something new.  Scientists have known for some time that climate change, combined with other factors linked to human activity, such as deforestation, pose a major threat to the survival of our closest cousins.  I would recommend checking another article published in 2010 in the Journal of Biogeography which emphasized that gorillas may not be able to survive - and we know how few of them are left in the world.  Rising temperatures and decreased rain falls will affect foraging, it will displace groups and impose additional stress to already difficult conditions.
Primate habitat will be fragmented and group size will be impacted.

Climate change has been on my mind for quite some time.  Floods, extremely summer temperatures, extremely cold winters, spring days arriving too soon, Peacock having chicks out of season, canceled flights… everything is out of whack.

I have been concerned about the plight of endangered species - such as the black and white ruffed lemur, I have been friends with for the past fiver years.  Many days, I felt angry and powerless.  This is why I finally decided to do something different and applied to the Climate Reality Project Corp Leadership Training and I was privileged to be accepted and attend a three day training session last week in Denver, CO.  I expected the experience to be amazing, but it was more than amazing.  It was life changing.  There were about 700 trainees (900 people total) from all over the world - all dedicated to the mission of combatting climate change one step at a time to save our beautiful planet and its many inhabitants.  I met the most interesting, passionate and warm people ever.

Listening to former Vice President Al Gore Chairman of the Climate Reality Project., former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, the panel of scientists who attended and so many other speakers, I became hopeful for the first time in so long.

It is encouraging to know that solutions are at end - renewable energies are gaining momentum, they are cheaper, produce clean energy, have a lesser impact on the environment, will prove to be profitable to businesses, create jobs and last but not least will give us a chance to save our species and our planet, IF we take action quickly.
There is a "IF" but if we all do our part, we have a fighting chance.  Hope at last!!!

I was equally encouraged to hear that large companies, campuses and indeed entire cities are committing to 100% renewable energies.  Such progress!

It is a world issue, that concerns us all - hence the Paris Agreement on Climate.  If primates don't survive, we won't either.

So, on behalf our fellow human primates and my dear non human primate friends, I urge everyone to take a little step - however small - to heal our Planet - our only home.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Do Primates Understand Property?

As is the tradition in many zoos and sanctuaries, we distributed Christmas boxes filled with shredded paper and some treat items to small primates at the place where I have been volunteering for many years .

"What is the point?" - will you ask - "animals, do not know the meaning of Christmas."

True.  They don't, but keepers have a duty to ensure animals in their care are busy. They must provide some enrichment to their lives in captivity and the gift boxes are an opportunity to forage for treat items. Foraging is a natural behavior in the wild. Figuring out how to unwrap and open a box provides primates with an opportunity to use their brains and hands.  It is an exciting moment.  All observe carefully as volunteers place the boxes in their enclosures.  They get excited. They know it is for them.
No sooner is the catch cage open than they each rush and grab a box. They bring it to a corner where their mates will not disturb them and start the grand ceremony of opening their gifts.
One colorful capuchin reaps the wrapping paper apart with the enthusiasm of a 5 year old human child under the Christmas tree. He utters little screams of joy as he finally opens a side of the box - but then seems disappointed that it only contains the usual shredded paper, peanuts and seeds.  He jumps over to the next platform where his friend opened another box. The two exchange places and seem pretty satisfied to get the treats out.
Another capuchin monkey leaps up in the air screaming, while he swiftly lifts a gift box and brings it to his catch cage.  He is a lot more delicate than his friend and carefully opens one side of the box without spilling anything out.  He calmly eats out the treats as his two roommates who already finished up theirs look at him.  The baboon gets slightly irritated because the box is not cooperative- harder to open than he anticipated.

I am rejoiced at their reaction to the gifts. They each individually behaved as if they knew this was a special gift - which made me wonder if primates do have a sense of ownership and property.
In the wild, this manifests around food items.  In captivity, studies have demonstrated that they understand and practice barter - giving different values to different food items (or even tokens representing food items).

I refer you to two interesting articles:
Property in Non-Human Primates - Georgia State University
How scientists taught monkeys the concept of money (

And to cheer everyone up, a video from Chimp Haven.

Wishing all a great end of the year and holidays!

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Cheek Pouches

Cheek pouches are pockets between the jaw and the cheek used to temporarily store food.  Many rodents, marsupials and monkeys have them.

Apes and New World monkeys do not have cheek pouches.
Old World monkeys have cheek pouches but do not use them with the same frequency.  For instance, baboons in the wild don't seem to use their cheek pouches as much as they do in captivity.

It was long believed that cheek pouches were the result of an adaptation to ground foraging, to store food in high risk situation while on the ground and consume it later high in a tree, however Ciochon and Feagle argue that cercopithecines who live mostly arboreal have the largest cheek pouches. (Primate Evolution and Human Origins).

Unlike those of rodents, primates' cheek pouches secrete large quantities of amylase - which converts starches into sugar.  In her book "Primate Behavioral Ecology",  Karen Strier writes: "this adaptation for digesting unrip fruits, which are often high in starch, gives cercopithecines a competitive advantage over sympatric chimpanzees which tend to wait for fruits to ripen and may account for cercopithecines' high evolutionary success compared to apes (Lambert, 2005)." Cheek pouches also soften the fruit.  Gautier-Hion recorded in 1971 that cercopithecus talapoin used their cheek pouches to hold live prey - such as insects. Lindburg suggested that in addition to providing temporary storage for food monkeys could eat in a safer place away from danger and conspecific individuals, it also allowed the animal to continue feeding while engaging in social activities (like grooming and feeding the young).

In a study conducted in Japan between 1986-1995, scientists collected data related to seed dispersal via cheek pouches and compared the results to seed dispersal via feces.  (Japanese monkeys - Macaca fuscata yakui, on Yakushima Island, Japan - Takakazu Yumoto, Naohiko Noma, Tamaki Maruhashi).  They found that the seeds dispersed via cheek pouches were bigger than those spread through feces and a higher percentage (82%) germinated compared to those spread through feces.  They conclude that cheek pouch seed dispersal plays an important role in the evergreen forest of Yakushima.

More recently a study looked at the correlation between cheek pouch use and the use of a preferred hand.  The scientists wanted to find out if right or left-handedness evolved from the pre-existing laterality of basic brain functions and behavior of if the two evolved simultaneously.  (Do Right-Handed Monkeys Use the Right Cheek Pouch Before The Left?)

In captivity, it seems that primates use their cheek pouches more than in the wild - most likely because in a small environment where escape is not much of an option (apart from climbing up or hiding under a contraption), they feel more pressure to take as much food as they can before a higher ranking individual shows up.  I have seen this scenario many times with baboons - females will fill their cheek pouches as quickly as possible before the dominant male arrives and grabs all the enrichment items he can get his hands on.  What I have never seen is an individual stealing food directly from the cheek pouches ofa lower rank individual or a juvenile.  Yet, this situation occurs.  So cheek pouches are a safe  way to save food, but not always…

Sunday, November 1, 2015

A Tail’s Tale

Humans and great apes seem to be the only creatures deprived of a tail. Yet, our coccyx is what scientists call a “vestigial” organ. It doesn’t serve any purpose but it is there. As Darwin writes in his Origin of Species: “Rudimentary organs may be compared with the letters in a word, still retained in the spelling, but become useless in the pronunciation, but which serve as a clue for its derivation.” In short, the fact we don’t have a tail doesn’t exclude the possibility that one of our distant ancestors had one. So, what is a tail for?

For some, it is a built-in fly swatter – like cows in the field; for others a navigation tool like fish; for many a means to keep their balance and for others a way to communicate. When you come home, I am sure your dog greets you by jumping around with vigorous tail wagging – that is, if you are lucky enough to have one. Scientists at the University of Bari, Italy, have been studying tail wagging and its meaning for quite some time. The results of their research show that the direction of the tail indicates different emotional states in dogs. For instance, if the tail wags more to the left, emotions tend to be negative; whereas wagging to the right is a sure sign of happiness. The direction the tail goes is a by-product of the asymmetry of the brain and dogs probably do not intentionally communicate their emotional state to others. However experiments showed that when dogs watched videos of other dogs wagging their tails to the left, they exhibited signs of anxiety; they were more relaxed when watching other dogs wag their tails to the right. A domestic cat holding its tail high up can be trusted. It is a friendly and contented cat. Stay clear if the tail is bushy though, that means the cat is bristling with anger.

Now that we know a little bit more about cats and dogs, let’s talk about wild animals. Equidae, like zebras, use their tails to keep away biting insects and, much like dogs, the position and movement of the tail is a good indicator of the animal’s emotional state and condition. Side to side or up and down wagging is a sign of irritation. A threatening zebra will lower its head, pull its ears back, bare its teeth and lash its tail around. One can also read the mood of a panther by its tail. A flicked and twitched tail indicates annoyance, anticipation or anger. As for tigers, they usually keep their tails in a low position, unless they’re curious about something, then they hold it high up.

For birds, the tail is an aerodynamic tool serving pretty much the same function as the rudders of a boat. It helps them steer while flying and provides stability when they take off and land. It also helps them keep their balance when they’re perched. However, nature can be fickle and some birds have a tail so cumbersome, one can wonder what purpose it really serves. Take the male peacock for instance – why does it have such a long, colorful tail? The theory is that it conveys a clear message to females that the individual is healthy. A peacock uses its tail in an elaborate dance to court females and hope to get lucky! Peacocks are not the only ones to attract mates with their exuberant tails, the long-tailed widowbird, Cape sugarbird, quetzal, long-tailed sylph are but a few other examples.

Not all tails are equal. Prehensile tails are by far the coolest! Arboreal mammals, like kinkajous, spider monkeys, capuchin monkeys and also pangolins, anteaters and some rodents have prehensile tails. Those provide safety and come in handy when you have to find your food and evolve in an environment full of unevenly spaced branches. Skeletal structural differences can be found in mammals with and without prehensile tails. Mammals with a prehensile tail have more vertebrae. Those are more robust and allow for increased strength and flexibility of the distal end of the tail. Prehensile tails are so strong they can support the entire weight of the animal it belongs to. Both spider monkeys and capuchin monkeys have prehensile tails – but these differ in more than one way. Spider monkey tails are long, thin and bare underneath with dermatoglyphs (i.e. ridges in the skin like our own fingers). This area of their tail is highly enervated and therefore tactile. As a matter of fact, it pretty much acts as an extra limb or hand. When touching something with the bare part of their tails, spider monkeys gather information about its texture, scent and consistency. Capuchin monkey tails, in contrast, are shorter, fully covered with hair and deprived of tactile receptors. The tail of spider monkeys represent about 7% of their total body weight, slightly less for capuchins – about 5%. While spider monkeys use their tails for suspensory locomotion and for feeding, capuchin monkeys use it mostly as a weight-bearing tool when feeding in the canopy.

Black and white (or red) Ruffed lemurs, who spend their lives up in the canopy, use their tails for balance during locomotion. They can leap great distances between trees, but the use of her tail as a balance mechanism can be easily observed when they walk on all fours along branches or (suspended fire hoses when in captivity). They hold her tails low, slightly curved to the right or the left to keep moving straight along the path. As opposed to black and white ruffed lemurs, ringtail lemurs spend a lot of time foraging on the ground and hold their tails high up in the air. So do coatis. This helps them keep track of each member of the group while foraging or traveling.

So you see, there is much to tell about tails!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Should Great Apes Be Granted Similar Legal Status as Humans?

How we treat great apes (and other animals for that matter) is a question that has been gaining momentum the last few years.
Organizations like The Non-Human Rights Project argue that a legal status, other than that of "property" should be granted to great apes in particular.

I could not agree more.  Animals are not objects and should not be considered as such by the law, no matter which country they live in.
We do know that animals (from mice to apes) have feelings and experience empathy ** (see references below) - so how can we justify trading them as mere junk?

The question is even more pertinent when it comes to the ethical treatment of great apes in facilities using them for the greater good - (think medical research).  Progress has been made and it seems that we (humans) are now moving towards a consensus that medical research should move away from animal testing where other solutions apply.  However, some argue that computer simulation, in vitro testing cannot viably replace animal testing - here's an interesting article on the subject from "Speaking Of Research".

Yesterday, non human rights were debated again in the press and the battle is far from being over if some continue to think that keeping things as they are is the right thing to do.  See "Sanity In the Court: Judge Denies Claims that Chimps are Persons".  However, per the article, an Argentinean judge granted habeas corpus to an orangutan at the end of last year.  To quote the article in Scientific American: "In Argentina, at least, Sandra now has the right to life, liberty and freedom from harm." It also mentions that in New Zealand, a river was granted rights as well "Agreement Entitles Whanganui River to Legal Identity"
This means there is hope for those who think that advanced species (and natural resources*** essential to our lives) should be granted some rights - even if they cannot plead their own case in our language.

**  The Scientist "Mice Show Evidence of Empathy"
** Frans De Waal interview about The Feelings of Animals

** Frans De Waal talks about empathy

*** The idea that natural resources should have rights first was formulated in the 1970s by Professor Christopher D. Stone when the book "The Lorax" came out.  You can check out this document "Should Trees Have Standing?" for more details.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Gorilla News!

Gorillas are endangered and your children may never see one alive.  This is why the event that just took place in London is so encouraging.  Who would have thought a bunch of runners could raise funds and awareness for gorillas when the world is going through so many trials and there are so many things to worry about.  Yet, these runners were able to raise the not so shabby sum of one hundred thousand pounds!

Read the full article in the Irish Independent here.


More gorilla news…

Kiki a seven year old epileptic gorilla was transferred from her home in Germany to the Antwerp zoo where she will find some much needed quiet and rest.  She is being integrated slowly into her new group.

For more information read the full article in Flanders Today.


Some hope for Bua Noi (Little Lotus) a female gorilla who has been exhibited in a high rise zoo in Bangkok since 1987.  It is now a well known fact that great apes (but really all primates) are social animals who do not do well in small cages and isolation.  Activists are requesting Bua Noi be transferred to a facility offering a better environment and it seems they are being heard.
Let's hope this works out and let's follow-up on the story.

More on BBC news.


Let's watch some happy baby gorillas now.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Chimpanzee Gestures Interpreted

While for many years researchers focused on teaching great apes how to learn our language, through sign or symbols, Dr Catherine Hobaiter from the University of St Andrews in Scotland just published an article in the journal Current Biology. She expands on her research into chimpanzee communication and says that wild chimpanzees are able to communicate very specific messages to one another using specific gestures.
For instance, offering a particular part of the body to another chimpanzee is a request to be groomed; whereas tearing strips from a leaf indicates a chimpanzee is showing sexual interest in another individual.
The study findings are based on the analysis of numerous videos made while the research team was following chimps in Uganda.
While we are not quite ready yet to understand the subtleties of chimpanzee gestures and partake in comprehensive conversations with our next of kin, it is great news.

You can consult the BBC article for more details.

Along the same line, an article "Pantomine in Great Apes", published by Anne E. Russon (Professor of Psychology, Glendon College, York University, Toronto) and Kristin Andrews (York University, Toronto) outlines that wild orangutans can communicate using gestures as well.
Orangutans solicite grooming by initiating grooming with another individual; they pretend to be unable to do something when they need help and like chimpanzees, they teach other individuals how to do something through demonstration.

Why Do Apes Point? (Janni Pedersen, Iowa State University), Par Segerdahi (Uppsala University) and William M. Fields (Great Ape Trust of Iowa), argue that bonobos deliberately use pointing gestures.

Although not related to primates, here are two interesting articles addressing how dogs and elephants understand human gestures and sometimes can use that knowledge to their advantage.

The Scientist : Catch My Drift?

National Geographic: African Elephants Understand Human Gestures

html web counter
free html web counter