Chimps Like African Beats

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

Research has shown that chimps don’t like human music — but those studies all used Western music:

“Although Western music, such as pop, blues and classical, sound different to the casual listener, they all follow the same musical and acoustic patterns. Therefore, by testing only different Western music, previous research has essentially replicated itself,” the authors wrote. The study was published in APA’s Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition.

When African and Indian music was played near their large outdoor enclosures, the chimps spent significantly more time in areas where they could best hear the music. When Japanese music was played, they were more likely to be found in spots where it was more difficult or impossible to hear the music. The African and Indian music in the experiment had extreme ratios of strong to weak beats, whereas the Japanese music had regular strong beats, which is also typical of Western music.

“Chimpanzees may perceive the strong, predictable rhythmic patterns as threatening, as chimpanzee dominance displays commonly incorporate repeated rhythmic sounds such as stomping, clapping and banging objects,” said de Waal.

Chimpanzee War

Friday, June 27th, 2014

Chimpanzees go to war — and eat their fallen foes:

Chimpanzees Hunting Colobus Monkey

Friday, June 20th, 2014

Chimpanzees aren’t gentle herbivores. Watch them hunt a Colobus monkey, as a team:

In Pursuit Of An Ancient Pursuit

Monday, June 9th, 2014

Back in 1978 Michael Baughman wrote about trying to run down a deer Indian-style for Sports Illustrated:

A large stone in each hand, I trotted down to it through the star thistle. Breathing deeply, I stood in the warm shade on the uphill side. The thicket was even denser than I remembered, much too thick to see into. I tossed the first stone, shook the slender trunk of a willow and yelled. There was a heavy thrashing deep within the thicket, then a whirring of wings. A covey of 30 or 40 valley quail burst out in all directions. A pheasant came behind them, a cock this time, and then the deer. I heard the deer before I saw it, crashing out of the bottom end. I circled around the top to avoid the swampy area. It was a young buck.

I dropped the second stone and started after him. He had a 40- or 50-yard head start, going south, parallel with the ditch above us, and his head was turned to watch me as he picked up speed. I held my pace and angled back to the firmer footing along the ditch.

He was 200 yards ahead and gaining ground. I maintained my pace. As long as I stayed within a quarter mile of him I would have a chance of running him down.

The springy, almost jumping gait of the buck was beautiful to see. His raised tail and rump were startlingly white in the dusty heat, and small clouds of powdery dust rose like smoke behind him.

I kept my pace. I’d covered better than a quarter mile by now without tiring. He stayed below the ditch, heading, as I had hoped he would, for the next thicket along the way.

By then I was sweating hard, but my legs were fine. As he entered the thicket, I was little more than 300 yards behind. I could see him in the willows, see the white rump, and then even closer, the turned head with its brown, glassy eyes staring back at me in fright.

A hundred yards away I yelled, and this time he broke out from the top end, raced straight up the hill and cleared the irrigation ditch with one incredibly graceful bound. This was lucky for me. By coming up the hill, he had actually shortened the distance between us.

Once across the ditch, he picked up speed again. The next mile or two, I knew, would be the hardest. But after that his fright would work to my advantage.

He started up the slope on the other side of the ditch, stopped, turned again to look, then headed straight for the nearest thicket. I had to step up my pace. My legs hadn’t begun to tire, but my breath was coming so hard that my side ached. Two hundred yards above me, and twice that far ahead, the buck reached the sparse thicket near the long-deserted ranch house with the rusted Model T in the yard.

Twenty minutes later the buck was exhausted:

I was only 10 yards away from him. He took a tentative step, but his head sank. He could go no further. I stopped where I was and talked to him soothingly.

Flies circled over his back, at least a couple of dozen of them, but he was trembling so severely that they couldn’t light. His wide brown eyes never blinked or left my own the whole time I was talking to him.

When a full minute had passed that way, he had rested enough to raise his head. The trembling eased. The flies alighted.

I walked up slowly and touched his sweaty flank. He started away, jerkily and graceless for the first few steps, then with increasing confidence, and all the way his head was turned to watch me.

Catch-and-release persistence hunting never caught on.

A Toothy Torpedo Covered in Sandpaper

Sunday, June 8th, 2014

You might describe a shark as a toothy torpedo covered in sandpaper:

A shark’s skin is covered in millions of microscopic denticles, rigid tooth-like scales that jut out from the soft skin beneath. By disrupting the flow of water over the fish’s skin, it is thought, the denticles reduce drag, making for a more efficient swimmer. But to really empirically understand how the denticles do their job, you need to see how different sorts of skin coverings affect the fluid dynamics as water washes over the skin of swimming fish. You can’t take a real shark and give it new skin, so Harvard University researchers Li Wen, James C. Weaver, and George V. Lauder created artificial shark skin instead. They manufactured it using a 3D printer.

Artificial shark skin with rigid denticles attached to a flexible membrane

Lauder’s group then subjected their 3D-printed faux skin to a series of tests in water. They found that it managed to reduce drag by 8.7% when the water flowing over it moved slowly, which is consistent with the thought that denticles reduce drag. But in faster currents, the denticles actually increased drag by 15% compared to a smooth sheet. That might seem surprising at first, but sharks don’t swim in a straight line, they wriggle their bodies. As soon as the researchers started wriggling their artificial skin, the swimming again become more efficient: swimming speed increased by 6.6% and the energy expended was reduced by 5.9%.


Saturday, May 10th, 2014

Pinnipèdes is a 3D animated short about elephant seals:

Eagle Huntress

Friday, April 18th, 2014

What is best in life?

The open steppe, a fleet horse, falcons at your wrist, and the wind in your hair.

So, 13-year-old Ashol-Pan might say — although the Mongolian girl hunts with an eagle:

Ashol-Pan 01

Ashol-Pan 02

Ashol-Pan 03

Ashol-Pan 04

Ashol-Pan 08

Ashol-Pan 09

Hawk, Dove, Bourgeois

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Game theorists have long turned to the classic hawk-dove game to study conflict:

‘Doves’ are individuals who never fight. If attacked, they run away. ‘Hawks’, on the other hand, are always ready for violence and will attack anybody who has something that they want. In a country populated by meek doves, the hawk strategy does very well. But as hawks become more numerous at the expense of doves, they spend more and more time fighting and killing each other.

There is, however, a simple modification of the hawk strategy that is superior to both hawks and doves: playing ‘bourgeois’. First, you declare a resource item — a herd, a piece of cropland — as your private property (hence the ‘bourgeois’ designation). Then you signal that you are willing to defend it no matter what it takes. Again, this is not rational in the narrow sense. You must be willing to escalate conflicts to the point where your life is at stake, even though your life is worth incomparably more than the disputed property. But again, in evolutionary terms, the strategy is a winner. While the hawks overreach, getting embroiled in self-destructive conflict, the bourgeois steadily divide the spoils among themselves, fighting only to defend their property against hawks. In the long run, the bourgeois always replace the hawks.

I’m no ornithologist, but there has to be a notoriously territorial bird we could use to extend the metaphor, doesn’t there?

Personality Predicts Social Learning

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

Researchers conducted a three-year study of how personality interacts with social learning — in wild baboons in Namibia:

Carter and her colleagues had given all the baboons “personality tests” to measure two traits, boldness and anxiety. They assessed boldness by looking at a baboon’s response to a new food (such as a hard-boiled egg dyed green); the bolder the individual, the more time he or she spends inspecting a new food. They assessed anxiety by presenting the baboons with a taxidermied venomous snake; in this test, more anxious individuals spend more time investigating the potential threat. Boldness and anxiety are stable personality traits and are independent in baboons, meaning a bolder baboon is just as likely to be anxious as a shy baboon.

After figuring out where individual baboons fell on these two personality traits, the researchers looked at whether the traits were related to the time spent watching a demonstrator or the subsequent ability to then solve the task being demonstrated.

They found bolder and more anxious individuals were more likely to learn about a novel foraging task from another baboon — despite the fact that shy baboons watched the demonstrators just as much as bold baboons, and calm baboons paid even more attention to the demonstrators than anxious baboons. This means that an individual’s ability or interest in watching a demonstrator does not necessarily translate to then solving the task. All personality types seemed to collect social information, but bolder and more anxious baboons were better at using it.

Carter thinks that bold baboons may show more social learning not because they are smarter or better at learning this type of information, but because they are more willing to interact with something new. “I imagine that watching another individual manipulate a novel food requires less boldness than manipulating a novel food directly,” she says. “It’s likely the shy baboons were just too shy to handle the food, even after watching a demonstrator.”

Caribbean Reef Shark

Monday, March 17th, 2014

A scuba diver was about 70 feet down, in the Western Caribbean Sea, culling lion fish, when a Caribbean reef shark attacked — and just kept coming:

Yosemite Bears and Human Food

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

Researchers performed isotope analysis of hair and bone samples to study Yosemite bears’ changing diets over the past century:

Yosemite National Park was established in 1890, and Hopkins obtained samples from bears killed between 1915 and 1919 to represent the earliest time period. In those early years, bears were attracted to garbage dumps in the park and were often killed when they became a nuisance. Visitors liked to see bears, however, and in 1923 the park began intentionally feeding bears where visitors could watch them. The last artificial feeding area closed in 1971. There was also a fish hatchery in Yosemite Valley, from 1927 to 1956, where bears once helped themselves to fresh trout from the holding tanks. But closing the hatchery and the feeding areas didn’t stop bears from eating human food.

“The bears just went back to the campgrounds and hotels and continued to find human food,” Hopkins said.

The average figures for the proportion of human food in bear diets during the four time periods in the study were 13 percent for the period from 1915 to 1919; 27 percent for 1928 to 1939; 35 percent for 1975 to 1985; and 13 percent again for 2001 to 2007.

These results are based on a kind of chemical forensics in which Koch’s lab specializes. Isotopic analysis of an animal’s tissues can yield clues to its diet because of natural variability in the abundance of rare isotopes of elements such as carbon and nitrogen. Isotope ratios (the ratio of carbon-13 to carbon-12, for example) are different in human foods than in the wild plants and animals that black bears naturally eat in Yosemite, partly due to the large amounts of meat and corn-based foods in our diets.

In order to analyze the data from Yosemite bears that ate a mixture of human and natural foods, Hopkins had to get samples from bears that did not eat any human food, and he had to track down samples of the non-native trout that had been raised in the hatchery. He also needed data representing a 100 percent human food diet, for which he turned to the Smithsonian Institution for samples of human hair from different periods over the past century.

“He searched far and wide to get the collection of samples we analyzed, and that collection made the study powerful enough to answer the question of how management practices affect bear diets,” Koch said.

According to Hopkins, the key to managing bear problems is to prevent bears from becoming conditioned to eat human food in the first place.

Moby Dick’s Counter-Attack

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

Moby Dick is usually regarded as a novel of deep symbolism, but, Randall Collins notes, it is built on a practical observation:

Herman Melville, through his experiences on whaling ships, recognized that a harpooned whale essentially kills itself. By running away, the whale dragged a boat-load of sailors for several miles until the whale was exhausted, and this eventually allowed the harpooner to close in and finish it off. A whale is much bigger and stronger than its pursuers; if it fought them head-to-head in the water it would win. But whales are not belligerent animals, and they are frightened, and this is what drags them to their death.

Moby Dick is a thought-experiment. Melville imagines what it would be like if a whale were as intelligent as a human. Instead of running away it would turn and fight. Moby Dick, the white whale, is scarred with harpoons still tangled on his back; these are wounds or trophies from previous encounters with humans, but he always turned and wrecked the harpooners’ boats. As literary critics have generally recognized, he is white to indicate he is nearly human. But no one in the novel explicitly recognizes wherein his humanness lies — that he recognizes the tactic humans rely on to kill whales. The limits of humans’ perceptiveness of animals come out in their seeing Moby Dick only as supernatural or diabolical (and in the case of the critics, as symbolic). Moby Dick is not necessarily malevolent, but he is intelligent enough to see that running away will kill him, and that his only chance is to turn and counter-attack.

In this respect, Moby Dick also illustrates a main principle of human-on-human conflict. Winning a fight generally begins with establishing emotional dominance; and most of the physical damage occurs after one side emotionally dominates the other (Collins, 2008, Violence: A Macro-Sociological Theory).

The Unfortunately Innate Nature of Intelligence

Sunday, March 2nd, 2014

Anyone having experience with dogs knows that these admirable creatures differ in intelligence, Fred Reed notes:

Border Collies are simply smarter than pit bulls. Since there is no political penalty for noticing this, it is widely noticed and not disputed.

Poor, naive Fred Reed hasn’t witnessed just such a dog-breed discussion as it turned political. I suppose he isn’t Facebook-friends with the “right” people.

Leopard on the Loose in Hospital

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

A leopard made its way into the Meerut Cantonment Hospital in Uttar Pradesh, India on Sunday, terrifying patients and staff for 12 hours before wounding a police officer after it smashed its way through a window and fled.

Leopard Jumping Between Buildings in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, India

There Are Whales Alive Today Who Were Born Before Moby Dick Was Written

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

Some of the bowhead whales in the icy waters off of Alaska today are over 200 years old — meaning they were born before Moby Dick was written:

Bowheads seem to be recovering from the harvest of Yankee commercial whaling from 1848 to 1915, which wiped out all but 1,000 or so animals. Because the creatures can live longer than 200 years — a fact George discovered when he found an old stone harpoon point in a whale — some of the bowheads alive today may have themselves dodged the barbed steel points of the Yankee whalers.