Monday, January 31, 2011

Africa's big mammal populations drop 59% in 40 years!

African elephants in Kruger National Park. Photo: Sally Kneidel

Just saw a distressing news item.  In an interview published 1/27/11, scientist Ian Craigie says populations of big mammals in Africa have decreased 59% in 40 years. And those figures are only from protected areas such as national parks. If unprotected areas were included in the study, the percent would probably be much higher.  Craigie is a zoologist (University of Cambridge) and former employee of South Africa National Parks.

Craigie says the primary causes of the decline are agriculture, hunting and the bushmeat trade. But all are due to human actions and Africa's population explosion. Africa's human population has increased 5-fold since WWII. The additional human population has moved into cultivated areas that were previously wildlife habitat, leading to widespread habitat destruction.

I might add (my words, not Craigie's) that deforestation for agriculture and timber has increased access to previously secluded or inaccessible wildlife.  Modern weaponry has also increased the ease of killing large numbers of animals for commercial trade as bushmeat or traditional medicine.

White rhino in an African national park. Photo: Sally Kneidel

Craigie says that Southern Africa is better off than West Africa or East Africa because the parks in Southern Africa have better funding and the human population is less dense.

West Africa has the most serious wildlife problem of the three regions because of the strong tradition of hunting for bushmeat, the countries are poorer, and the human population density is high.

What's the solution? Increase funding for programs to help communities develop livelihoods that depend on protecting wildlife (such as ecotourism) rather than over-harvesting and destroying their greatest resource (wildlife) and their greatest potential for income.  These are my words, not Craigie's.  Americans alone spend 12 billion dollars per year on ecotourism in Africa.

Keywords: Africa wildlife big mammals elephants rhinos poaching hunting bushmeat population growth deforestation habitat loss 59% loss in 40 years Ian Craigie


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

New study: Hope for polar bears

 Polar bear. Photo credit: wikimedia commons

Two-thirds of the world's polar bears could disappear within 50 years due to greenhouse-gas emissions, said a 2007 report by the U.S. Geological Survey. The bears need Arctic sea ice in order to hunt the seals and other offshore prey that sustain them. But our warming climate is rapidly melting the vital sea ice.  Between 1979 and 2010, Arctic sea ice cover decreased by an average of 11.5% per decade. Due to loss of ice, many bears are starving to death already. The polar bear, Ursus maritimus, is now officially listed as "threatened."
Polar bear hunting along the edge of sea ice. Photo credit: wikimedia commons

A team of scientists stationed in Alaska may have some tentative good news, though. They just published a new assessment of polar bears' future in the Dec 16 (2010) edition of the journal Nature. Steven Amstrup, senior scientist with "Polar Bears International," and his team reported five possible scenarios for greenhouse-gas emissions and ice melting this century. The researchers concluded that Arctic sea ice may not necessarily reach a catastrophic "tipping point" that would lead to an inevitable disintegration of all the ice.  The future of the bears' ice depends on how much we can limit greenhouse-gas emissions in the years to come and how much we can stabilize the climate. One factor in the bears' favor is that thinner ice (as it diminishes) becomes more responsive to the cold water below it and can more easily regrow in winter.

Amstrup's team used climate modeling to predict "sea ice habitability" for the bears over the coming decades, an index that includes the amount of ice over the shallow waters (continental shelves) where seals and other prey hang out, the number of months per year those waters are covered with ice, and the distance between that ice and the more northerly pack ice where polar bears also hunt (there's a limit to how far polar bears can swim from one ice mass to another).
Polar bear swimming from one pack of ice to another. Photo credit: wikimedia commons

Says Amstrup, “There’s a widely held perception that nothing can be done to help polar bears and the arctic ecosystem. Our findings show this isn’t true. Our findings offer a message of hope but they also underscore the urgent need for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. ”

For more information about Amstrup's study and a 2-minute video message from the bear researcher, go to this page on "Polar Bears International." Or check it out on youtube, called "Hope for Polar Bears" by Steven Amstrup.

Keywords: polar bears Steven Amstrup Polar Bears International bear conservation climate change greenhouse gas emissions global warming Arctic sea ice

Our books on this topic:Veggie Revolution: Smart Choices for a Healthy Body and a Healthy Planet. 2005. Sally and Sadie Kneidel. Fulcrum Books.

Going Green: A Wise Consumer's Guide to a Shrinking Planet. 2008. Sally and Sadie Kneidel. Fulcrum Books.

Some of my previous posts about how you can reduce greenhouse gas emissions:
Livestock produce 51% of annual worldwide gas emissions

New study: meat impacts climate more than buying local

Less meat....smaller footprint

Is local food the greenest choice?  New study says no

Earth Day: 3 things you can do

Monday, January 24, 2011

South Carolina dog knows more than 1000 words, says NY Times

Border collie. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A retired psychology professor has taught his dog 1022 nouns as well as several verbs, reports the New York Times. Dr. John Pilley set out to beat the record of a German border collie that had learned to recognize 200 objects. Pilley, who taught at Wofford College for 30 years, read about the German dog in the journal Science in 2004. He bought his own border collie, Chaser, as a puppy in the same year. They've been working together four to five hours a day ever since.

Border collies are among the smartest of dogs. They're working dogs, bred to herd sheep, and have a strong instinct to work and to learn commands from humans. Pilley says Chaser seems to love the lessons and always wants more.

Chaser's lessons

To teach Chaser the name of an object, Pilley shows it to Chaser, says the name of it up to 40 times, then hides it and asks Chaser to find it, while repeating the name over and over. For the first few years, Pilley taught Chaser 1 or 2 new names a day, and continued to reinforce any names she had forgotten.

Within 3 years of starting the lessons, Chaser had learned the names for 800 cloth animals, 116 balls, 26 Frisbees and a collection of plastic objects.  When the dog had learned 1000 names, Pilley decided to begin exploring other aspects of language than just nouns. He has demonstrated now that she also has the capacity to understand verbs. (This isn't surprising, given that a sheep herder's commands to his border collie are often verbs directing the dog's actions.)  Chaser  quickly learned to either paw, nose, or take an object in response to Pilley's commands, demonstrating that she understands that verbs have meaning.

Chaser has also learned categories. For example, she knows that "Fetch a Frisbee" means any of her 26 Frisbees, or "Fetch a ball" means any of the balls.

She can also identify a new object by exclusion - selecting it from among objects that she already knows.

Visual cues ruled out

Pilley has confirmed Chaser's vocabulary in settings where she can hear him but can't see him. This rules out the use of visual clues, such as facial expressions or subtle gestures, that could tell Chaser when she has the correct object. Border collies have been bred to be especially observant of gestures because they are part of the communication between a herder and his or her dog.

Pilley's findings to date are reported in the current issue of the journal Behavioural Processes. The retired professor says he's continuing to work on grammar with Chaser, and developing ways to improve communication between people and dogs.

Juliane Kaminski, part of the research team that worked with the German dog (Rico), says that demonstrating syntax would be interesting.  Syntax would include recognizing that changing the order of words can change the meaning of the sentence.& (As in "Bite cat" versus "Cat bites.")

Chimps and gorillas use American Sign Language

There's been a lot of research on teaching language to other animals. Chimps and gorillas lack the vocal anatomy to talk, but they can use their hands to make signs.  I worked with Dr. Roger Fouts at the University of Oklahoma teaching American Sign Language to a small colony of chimpanzees. The chimps lived on a small island at the Primate Institute. Fouts was a pioneer in this field, along with his mentors, the Gardners, at the University of Nevada. The Gardners were the first to teach a chimpanzee (Washoe) to communicate with ASL. Dr. Penny Patterson was the first to teach a gorilla (Koko) to use ASL.

Alex the African Grey Parrot impressed language scientists

Parrots have also demonstrated abilities to learn and understand human language. Alex the African Grey Parrot was the most of parrot pupils. Dr. Irene Pepperberg taught Alex to name colors, shapes, to count small numbers, and to speak around 150 words that he could put into categories. Of course parrots can vocalize, although most birds that speak human words have no idea of the meaning of what they're saying.

Dogs and touch screens?

Dogs are different in that they have neither the vocal anatomy to speak, or hands to allow signing. So at least for now, Chaser is limited to recognizing names of objects and responding to requests or commands. I don't know of any experiments where dogs can be taught to "speak" by, for example, selecting words by touching symbols on a touch screen. It could be done. But has it been done? I don't know.

Keywords: Chaser dogs Roger Fouts parrots language border collie John Pilley Wofford Sue Savage-Rumbaugh

Friday, January 21, 2011

Banding hurts penguins, says new study in journal Nature

Text and photo by Sally Kneidel, PhD 
Attaching bands to birds is a longstanding method of studying bird populations. The bands allow researchers to collect data on birds' movements and longevity.

But scientists have been debating for 30 years whether bands on penguins may hurt the birds.  On aquatic or marine birds, such as penguins, bands are generally attached to the front base of a flipper rather than to a leg.

Note metal band on this African (Jackass) Penguin, on front of left flipper. Photo: Sally Kneidel, southern tip of Africa [click on photo to enlarge it]

Zookeepers noticed as early as the 1970s that flipper-bands can injure molting penguins.  It's now suspected that bands also create drag when penguins are swimming, which could interfere with prey capture.

A new study published Jan 12, 2011 in the journal Nature provides strong evidence that bands do hurt penguins' survival and reproduction. Yvon Le Maho of the University of Strasbourg in France and his colleagues banded 50 King Penguins from Possession Island in the southern Indian Ocean. These 50 birds had already been implanted with "minute" and subcutaneous electronic tags. Over the course of a 10-year study, Moho and colleagues found that the banded penguins produced 40% fewer chicks and had a 16% lower survival rate compared to 50 nonbanded penguins

Subcutaneous tags, while safer, are a relatively new technology and not yet widely used in ecological studies.  "Still today you will find that most US studies on Adélie penguins use flipper banding," says Le Maho.  But his new publication may encourage the increased use of subcutaneous tags instead.

Climate change studies at stake

There's a wider issue at stake than the birds' welfare: studies on penguins are often used to gauge the effects of climate change on ecosystems. If a study suggests that a slight warming of ocean waters reduces penguin survival, how much of the difference could actually be due to banding effects?

For the birds and for the sake of our climate data, subcutaneous tags that create no drag should replace flipper-banding in future studies with penguins.

Keywords: penguins, bird banding, flipper banding, climate change, subcutaneous tags

Friday, January 14, 2011

Is males' attraction to trucks and balls genetically based?

 Young chimps. Photo: Delphine Bruyere 

My husband and I raised one girl and one boy, close together in age. We tried hard to avoid gender-stereotyping our young kids in any way. They had the same toys, many of them gender neutral, for some time.

Our son clung to the baseball fence, drooling
As it happened, our yard backed up to a school athletic field. From late winter on, we daily heard the THWOCK of  bats hitting balls during baseball practice. Our son was barely able to walk when he began toddling out to the playing field alone, to watch the students play baseball.  He'd hang on the baseball fence with his tiny fingers for hours, mesmerized and drooling. Soon he was into trucks - at the age of 2, he memorized the name of 33 different kinds of trucks from the truck library books he clamored for.  Our daughter's interests were varied, but she showed no inkling of his fascination with balls and trucks. We couldn't understand it. He wasn't in preschool, and my husband and I cared nothing for vehicles of any kind (although Ken is a baseball fan).

We share 98% of our DNA with chimps
So last week I was intrigued to see a paper in the online journal Current Biology about gender-stereotyped roles in young chimps. Since chimps are our closest relatives, sharing 98% of our DNA, any observations about chimp behavior could have implications for the origins of our own behavior.
Young female chimps "play mothering" more than young males
Author Sonya Kahlenberg, a biological anthropologist at Bates College in Maine, observed chimps in Kibale National Park in Uganda over 14 years. She and co-author Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist at Harvard, noted that 67% of young females carried sticks while only 31% of young males did. Sticks are used sometimes as weapons or as tools, to probe holes for food or water. But the young chimps also cradled long thick sticks as if a stick were a baby, carrying it around for no particular reason. They sometimes carried the stick as long as 4 hours, and took it with them to their nests for sleep. The authors felt that the stick-carrying was "play-mothering." The males who did it stopped as they got older. The females stopped when they gave birth to real babies, whereas use of sticks for other purposes continued after motherhood.

In her recent article, Kahlenberg cited previous research in which captive young male monkeys preferred wheeled toys, while female monkeys, like human girls, showed greater variability in preferences. The male monkeys also showed more rough-and-tumble play than females. The authors of this study (published in PubMed) hypothesized that these differences are hormonally influenced.

Some have speculated that boys, including some male primates, prefer toys like balls and trucks because these toys are associated with more freedom of movement than, for example, playing with dolls.

Evolutionary advantage for human males to prefer movement?
Could it be true that very young male humans are drawn to balls and trucks because playing with them involves more movement?  It's not clear at all to me that male attraction to movement would be more advantageous evolutionarily than female attraction to movement. Even while carrying infants, our female prehistoric ancestors still were compelled to move around gathering plants for food, I would think. And keeping up with mobile children certainly involves movement. But if males were the defenders of early human tribes, and if they went on long hunts for food, then perhaps males could have evolved a hormone-based propensity to be more active.

I don't know, it's an interesting question. Culture has so much to do with it. A few decades ago, girls rarely if ever participated in team sports at school (at least in the U.S.). Today they do, when given the opportunity.

One more reason to protect wild apes
I'd love to see more field observations of gender-based behavioral differences in young primates. That's one more reason we need to protect chimpanzees and other primates from the illegal poaching that threatens all populations of wild apes.

For more information about what you can do to protect wild apes, see these links to primate conservation NGOs:
Jane Goodall Institute
Orangutan Outreach
Sumatran Orangutan Society
Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International
Orangutan Land Trust
International Primate Protection League
TRAFFIC:the wildlife trade monitoring network

Some of my previous posts about primates and primate conservation:
Hunting may threaten orangutans even more than habitat loss Dec 6, 2010
Keywords: chimpanzees chimp behavior animal behavior gender stereotypes chimps and dolls chimps and sticks Sonya Kahlenberg Kibale National Park Richard Wrangham

Thursday, January 06, 2011

New study: a wandering mind creates unhappiness

A serene Buddha in Ubud, Bali. Photo: Sally Kneidel

My long-time friend Therese Fitzgerald is an ordained Zen priest who works as a spiritual mentor and meditation teacher. She's also director of Dharma Friends; her husband Arnold Kotler is publisher of Koa Books. Through my friendship with Therese and other Zen friends, I've learned the value of staying in the present moment. Sitting zazen, or counting breaths in meditation, is an exercise in keeping one's attention in the moment. Zen author Natalie Goldberg writes about our "monkey mind" that wanders and must be pulled continuously back to the present to find serenity.

Buddha in Bali. Photo: Sally Kneidel

12-step programs too

Staying in the present is a major tenet in 12-step programs too, with slogans like "Keep your head where your feet are." Good advice, but it doesn't come naturally to the human mind, at least not my mind.

New study confirms it, except for sex

Anyway I was intrigued to see this topic explored in a recently published scientific study. The study was conducted by 2 researchers at Harvard who sampled the mood of 2250 volunteers over several days by contacting them at random times via their iPhones. They found that people's minds wander at least 30% of the time during all activities except sex.

The researchers also found that the volunteers' moods were considerably worse when their minds were wandering to unpleasant or neutral topics, rather than focusing on the activity at hand.

This part surprised me

I was surprised that the researchers found that subjects' minds wandered more often to pleasant than to unpleasant topics. (More about that below.)

But even ruminating on pleasant topics did not improve the volunteers' moods over paying attention to their current actions. In other words, a wandering mind does not improve our mood and often makes it worse.

Other studies show that we remember negative events more readily

Everything in this study makes intuitive sense to me except one thing: when volunteers' minds were wandering, they usually reported pleasant thoughts. I find it hard to believe that's an accurate portrayal of the human mind in general. Humans are programmed evolutionarily to problem-solve. Research by neurologists has shown that negative experiences (anger, fear, pain, etc.) create more prominent memories than pleasant or neutral experiences, because recalling negative experiences has more survival value. It seems to follow that if we're lost in reveries, the reveries are likely to be related to problems and problem-solving.
A zafu to sit on during Zen meditation.

Strategies for staying in the present

But still, even if that part of the experiment is flawed, the upshot is the same. A wandering mind does not contribute to serenity and is likely to undermine our moods.  So.  I feel renewed interest in trying to keep my own "monkey-mind" from wandering. Meditation helps; so does repeating a simple phrase (12-steppers often use the Serenity Prayer or the Lord's Prayer).  Also, just paying attention to my sensations of touch and hearing, etc., while I perform tasks such as washing the dishes can help me stay in the present.

Keywords:  Zen Buddhism wandering mind staying in the present serenity Therese Fitzgerald Dharma Friends Koa Books meditation 12-step programs Matthew Killingsworth Daniel Gilbert Harvard