Tag Archives: Mammals

Discovering The Mammoth: The Evolution Of Modern Scientific Thinking

It wasn’t a mammoth, it was a mastodon. But it was still a big hairy elephant featured at the climax-end of the main exhibit hall in the New York State museum. And it was an exhibit to end all exhibits. The New York State Museum, during its heyday, was world class, and the hall of evolution, which seemed old enough to have involved Darwin himself as a consultant, featured the reconstructed skeleton as well as a fur-covered version, of the creature discovered in a kettle only a few miles away. That exhibit, along with a dozen other spectacular exhibits that to my knowledge have not been equaled elsewhere or since, are the reason I became a scientist, and probably helped direct me towards the study of prehistory and archaeology.

It is because of that background to my own thinking that I paid a lot of attention over the years to elephants and elephant evolution. I got to help excavate an African four-tusker one year even though I had to push off my other responsibilities to do so. I’ve studied the pseudo archaeological traces left behind by wild forest elephants in the Congo, and now and then, ate one, which may seem strange but I was living among the Pygmy elephant hunters at the time so it seemed like the thing to do.

Several years ago, I came across John McKay. First, his blog, then I met him in person. He had been writing about Pleistocene megafauna but focusing on mammoths. Over our many years of friendship, I watched as he steadily worked on a book putting together his findings, and finally, Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science has been completed and is out and in print now!

I liken the discovery of the Mammoth by western science to the mostly lost to history but critical coral reef debate involving Darwin. Both events shaped how we do science today and at the same time revealed mind-changing features of the natural world. I didn’t know until interviewing John on Ikonokast (check out the podcast!) that he had originally become interested in Mammoth by a somewhat indirect route because of the extinct animal’s role in, let us say, alt-theories about the Earth and its history. But regardless of how John became interested, he discovered a complex and almost inexplicable relationship between what people were thinking, the way they arrived at those thoughts, and reality which led to a centuries-long struggle to understand something that to us, today, is fairly simple but to 19th century scholars was outrageous.

Religion and cultural belief prohibited thinking about extinctions or the evolution of one species into another, while at the same time, these bodies of thought and knowledge provided explanations for ancient mammal remains that were, to our minds today, seemingly unbelievable. It was the process of going from being totally wrong and basing conclusions on a combination of bad information and unsupportable logic, to the state of understanding that mammoths are a different species of elephant that once existed where we find their remains, but that went extinct because of major changes in their habitats and possibly other causes.

And that is only part of the central story John brings to the reader in the engagingly written and carefully researched Discovering the Mammoth.

I tend to divide science books into two categories: those written by writers about science, and those written by scientists. Both categories have their duds and their great books, though the former category almost always lacks a certain depth and breath but often in a way the typical interested reader can’t see. Meanwhile, books in the latter category can easily go off the rails or assume too much, and be a burden to read. John McKay’s book is written by an expert on the field (this book is in lieu of his PhD thesis) who had previously spent years developing his craft of explaining scientific things, so it is well done in that regard. But there is another reason the typical reader of this blog will grok McKay’s Mammoths. John’s passion other than dead woolly elephants is falsehoods. This is an interest we share. John McKay is a Snope of science, especially in certain areas, but better. Unlike Snopes, which is content to find enough chinks in the armor of some myth or another to snarkily discard it, McKay often recognizes the ways in which a falsehood informs, and contains non-trivial truth, while various truths can misinform while at the same time containing insidious or at least interesting falsehoods. It is his thinking about the way people get things wrong, combined with scholarly training in various areas of literature and history, that uniquely allow him to tell this particular important story about the the evolution of modern scientific thought.

I highly recommend Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science. Also, consider it as a holiday gift for your favorite smart person, so they can get even smarter.

Once again, the Mystery of the Tsavo Lions Solved

I’ll never forget my first lion.

A colleague and I had just arrived in the Semliki Valley, in the Congo, to a part of that valley then known as the most predator-rich region of Africa, with loads of lions and heaps of hyenas. Lots of leopards too. We arrived at the main base camp for a large expedition that I was to join a year later (this was a brief visit) and were told to find the satellite camp, out in the bush.

“Ten clicks that way, then a left on their road. Good luck finding the road.”

Good luck indeed. Took us forever. And, at one point, after night fell, we had the brilliant idea that we could stand on the hood of of the Land Rover and maybe see lights in the distance (this turns out to have been totally worthless, as the camp was down in a valley, very far away, they mainly had candle light, and by this time only a single hurricane lamp would be burning, invisible from this distance).

So, we stopped, and I got out of the Land Rover, climbed up on to the hood, and just before the driver switched off the headlights, a giant lioness walked up to the truck, right in the headlight beams, looked at me, sniffed at the grill of the truck, and wandered off into the blackness of night, now invisible to us.

She was was about ten feet tall, fifty feet long, and had fangs about a foot long.

OK, I’m exaggerating slightly, but here’s the thing. You see a giant cat, like a lion or tiger, in a zoo, in the enclosure, and that’s one thing. You see a giant cat in the wild, a wild giant cat, not a tame one, and it is close enough to reach over and take your leg off without going anywhere, and that’s a different thing.

That was not to be my first close call with lions, nor the closest in fact, over the next year and a half. And, though I was not eaten by a lion, something like six people were, right near that spot.

Between this short trip and the later, much longer visit to this site, a lion, it is said, started eating people. It was local villagers, living in the usual wattle and daub grass-roofed huts who were being eaten. Lions tend to go for the head region when they kill, but they usually attack much more robust prey, like a large antelope or a buffalo. So, when the take a human, they may crush the head in such a way that an eye ball or two pops out. I was told that in a few of the locations where the lion ate someone, all that was left was an eye ball or two, and that freaked the freaken heck out of the people in those tiny villages.

I was told this by a local Greek merchant named Andre, who happened to be the guy with the biggest and most accurate firearm in the region, who, with his brother, took out the lion. Andre was wearing a nice neckless he had made himself, using one of the canines of the lion. His brother, he told me, had a matching neckless.

So, what about Tsavo? You may remember “The Ghost And The Darkness,” which was a book and a movie, or you may have heard about them from another source. It is an old story.

Back when the British were building a railroad across what is now Kenya, during much of the year 1898, two lions took to dining on the mostly Chinese rail workers. The number of victims they are said to have eaten ranges up to 135 people (see: The Man-Eaters of Tsavo and Other East African Adventures), and the lions were said to be mysterious and demonic. The reality is a bit different. They are known to have eaten 28 railway workers, and they were just regular lions, but of the mainless variety found in that region.

Lions, like cats generally, tend to be specialists. The way to find, trap, and kill (and sometimes, to process or eat) a particular species involves a lot of important detail. They way a Zebra vs. a Buffalo can kick you to death if you are a lion matters. The way to entrap a Ugandan kob vs. a wildebeest are not even close to the same thing, if you are a lion. Lions, therefore, tend to hunt a particular prey, or a small number of possible prey type, for a long time, possibly their entire lives.

Putting this a different way, the list of prey lions are known to have fed on is long. The list of species you actually observe a given pride of lions to feed on, if you watch most of their kills for many months, is very short. Humans are totally on the long list, and of all the wild mammals that kill humans in Africa, lions kill the most. But humans are rarely on the sort list. Why? Because they taste bad to lions, right? That’s what everyone says. Unfortunately, that is not true. We taste just fine, if a bit stringy. But we are bad prey for other reasons. First, we are rare. Yes, yes, seven billion is a lot, but in lion country, we are rare. Second, we live inside hard to get into nests much of the time, so it is not really worth it. Third, lions are not idiots. We have sharp weapons and sometimes guns, so even if a lion can easily sneak up on a human, some other human is going to stick or shoot you. In any event, once a lion starts to eat humans, it does not live too long. The Tsavo lions probably lived longer than the average man eater. The Semliki man eater emerged on the scene, ate some people, and was dispatched between my visit in late August and my return the following June.

But there is some new research telling us a few cool things. Here’s the paper:

DeSantis, L.R.G. and B. D. Patterson. 2017. Dietary behaviour of man-eating lions as revealed by dental microwear textures. Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 904 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41598-017-00948-5.

Here is the abstract:

Lions (Panthera leo) feed on diverse prey species, a range that is broadened by their cooperative hunting. Although humans are not typical prey, habitual man-eating by lions is well documented. Fathoming the motivations of the Tsavo and Mfuwe man-eaters (killed in 1898 in Kenya and 1991 in Zambia, respectively) may be elusive, but we can clarify aspects of their behaviour using dental microwear texture analysis. Specifically, we analysed the surface textures of lion teeth to assess whether these notorious man-eating lions scavenged carcasses during their depredations. Compared to wild-caught lions elsewhere in Africa and other large feliforms, including cheetahs and hyenas, dental microwear textures of the man-eaters do not suggest extreme durophagy (e.g. bone processing) shortly before death. Dental injuries to two of the three man-eaters examined may have induced shifts in feeding onto softer foods. Further, prompt carcass reclamation by humans likely limited the man-eaters’ access to bones. Man-eating was likely a viable alternative to hunting and/or scavenging ungulates due to dental disease and/or limited prey availability.

You need to know that at Tsavo, at that time, the prey was very reduced in frequency because of a drought and the rinderpest. So some lions were probably desperate. In the case of Tsavo, one lion had a tooth problem, which may have made killing larger and more formidable prey difficult, and the other lion was apparently its friend and went along with it. (Male lions do form such small teams.) Other research at Tsavo indicated that these lions had eaten more people than recorded by the railroad, so they may have been eating humans for a while, though not their entire adult lives.

There are two other writeups on this work you will want to check out:

Virginia Morell, “Why did these lions eat 35 men?

Bem Giaromp “Why did the Tsavo lions eat people?

See also: Michael Torrice, “A body count for two man-eating lions

How the nose knows: Neurobiology of odor detection

How doe a mammal know what a smell is, and more importantly, how does a mammal learn new smells?

Recent research suggests that different kinds of neurons reorganize in novel ways in response to olfactory signals to produce an olfactory memory.

Below is a video made by the research team that explains this. If that video does not render correctly for you, click here to see it on the original page.

From the press release:

The human brain has the ability to recognise and process a very wide range of sensory stimuli, from which it builds a mental representation. But do these representations change over time? Can we learn to classify and interpret stimuli more e ectively? Neuroscientists at the University of Geneva (UNIGE) have been trying to answer these questions by studying the olfactory system of mammals. They have succeeded in identifying the complementary role played by two dis- tinct kinds of neurons in processing olfactory information and the different brain reorganisation that occurs depending on the context. After having previously demonstrated the possibility to boost the capacity to distinguish similar smells by regulating the inhibition of certain neural networks, the scientists now explain why the brain has to make use of di erent sorts of cells to form, maintain and res- hape the representations of odours. In fact, it is their very combination that enables us to recognise and distinguish similar smells. Find out more about the research outcomes in the journal Neuron.

I have not read the paper, but this looks seriously interesting. It addresses, among other things, the question of how much olfactory sense (sens-ability?) is built in (genetic) vs. learned, and how that learning happens.

Bovids Of The World

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, there are 143 species of bovids. The Animal Diversity Web is a bit less precise, indicating that there are “more than 140 extant and 300 extinct species.” That second number is highly questionable because today there exist sister species that are so similar I doubt they could be told apart from fossils alone. If you check around the internet, this ~140 number comes up again and again, and Wikipedia says 143.

horns640hResearch published in 2011 and later by Colin Groves, Peter Grubb, and David Leslie, which has been tagged as controversial by some but accepted by others, puts this number much higher, over 270. Why such a difference, and why is this controversy only emerging recently? It isn’t like bovids are barely studied, or highly cryptic.

One of the reasons probably has to do with vagueness in the species concept itself, and it may well be the case that there are sets of species defined by Groves et al that are too finely split. But, the most likely explanation is that more modern methods, using DNA and recently developed statistical techniques, simply come up with a larger number. I’ve only read some of this literature, but I’m pretty sure the larger number is much closer to correct than the smaller number.

This has an important impact on understanding and addressing problems of ecology, diversity, evolution, and conservation. With respect to conservation, this means that some populations of bovids, the more rare and geographically restricted ones, are likely to be more at risk of extinction, if there are other populations at different locations that can no longer be referenced as survivors. It has been suggested, indeed, that splitting large taxonomic groups into larger numbers of species is some kind of pro conservation shenanigans. Such hippie-punching has no place in modern biology, of course. The increase in our accounted-for diversity that happens with more research is both expected from historical trends over recent decades (though it is a reverse of earlier decreases in diversity as more was learned about certain groups) and is predicted by evolutionary theory.

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 3.00.19 PMAnyway, I’m not here to talk about that controversy exactly. Rather, I want to point you do a new book, a really fantastic book, called Bovids of the World: Antelopes, Gazelles, Cattle, Goats, Sheep, and Relatives, by José Castelló.

Castelló uses the larger number, by the way: 271. And this book includes all of them.

The majority of this 664 page book consists of plates and a species description on the left, and details on the right, including excellent range maps, with one species in each layout. The species are divided by the usual commonly accepted tribes. This also means that many but not all of the species are grouped by very large geographical regions, because that is how the bovids are organized across our global landscape.

The back matter consists of nothing more than an index, critical in such a volume, and the front matter has an overview of what a bovid is, and details about key anatomy used in the field guide.

This book is one of a handful in the emerging subcategory of animal books that covers an entire taxonomic group either globally or nearly globally. I recently reviewed Waterfowl of North America, Europe and Asia by Reeber, which isn’t quite global but since waterfowl tend to migrate is nearly so. A while back I reviewed the guide “Sharks of the World” by Compagno, Dando, and Fowler. And I’ve reviewed one of my favorite guides of all time, “Carnivores of the World“, which covers all the carnivores except those that evolved partly into fish.

pantelope640hThis category of book is not meant to be the one book you carry with you while touring around in the field. If you go to Africa, bring The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals (it includes the bovids), for example. Rather, this book is to understand the bovids as a major and important taxonomic group.

Paging through a given tribe’s entries, you can come to understand biogeography better, as you see the ranges depicted on the maps of a continent or region. Also, small bovids tend to have smaller geographical ranges than larger bovids, but there are major exceptions. Why those exceptions?

Looking at the physical variation in key features, such as body size, sexual dimorphism, head dress, and markings, you can see patterns that are best explained with interesting evolutionary and ecological theories. If you teach behavioral biology or zoology, this will be a useful reference point for your thinking on all those key bovid examples. Or, if you are just interested in animals, or are planning a trip to a place where you’ll be observing antelopes or other bovids, you may want to invest in this.

And when your crotchety Uncle Bob is over for a holiday dinner and you get into an argument about how many duikers there are in West Africa vs. Central Africa, you can pull out your copy of Bovids of the World and settle the bet!

The plates are drawings, not photographs, which is entirely appropriate in this sort of book. Habitats matter to photographs and that would bias the physical comparisons. Also, I can tell you from personal experience that many of the bovids, especially the forest dwellers, just don’t have great photographs anyway.

I studied the information on the bovids with which I’m familiar from my own fieldwork, and I see only quality information.

As far as I know, there is not another guide like this available. Also it is not that expensive.

Table of Contents:
FOREWORD by Brent Huffman and Colin Groves 5
Impalas 24
Sunis, Royal Antelope, Pygmy Antelope 28
Reedbucks, Waterbucks, Rhebok 38
Gazelles, Oribis, Steenbok, Grysbok, Dik-diks 82
Klipspringers 224
Duikers 244
Sheep, Goats, and relatives 302
Horse Antelopes 466
Tsessebes, Topis, Hartebeests, Wildebeests 496
Nilgai, Four-horned Antelope 542
Spiral-horned Antelopes 546
Bison, Buffaloes, Cattle, Saola 596

Are Pigs Really Like People?

We hear this all the time. Pig physiology is like people physiology. Pigs and humans have the same immune system, same digestive system, get the same diseases. Pigs are smart like people are smart. Pigs are smarter than dogs. And so on. Ask a faunal expert in archaeology or a human paleoanatomist: Pig teeth are notoriously like human teeth, when fragmented. Chances are most of these alleged similarities are overstated, or are simply because we are all mammals. Some are because we happen to have similar diets (see below). None of these similarities occur because of a shared common ancestor or because we are related to pigs evolutionarily, though there are people who claim that humans are actually chimpanzee-pig hybrids. We aren’t.

But what if it is true that pigs and humans ended up being very similar in a lot of ways? What if many of the traits we attribute to our own species, but that are rare among non-human animals, are found in pigs? Well, before addressing that question, it is appropriate to find out if the underlying assumption has any merit at all. A new study by Lori Marino and Christina Colvin, “Thinking Pigs: A Comparative Review of Cognition, Emotion, and Personality in Sus domesticus,” published in the International Journal of Comparative Psychology, provides a starting point.

There are two things you need to know about this study. First, it is a review, looking at a large number of prior studies of pigs. It is not new research and it is not a critical meta-study of the type we usually see in health sciences. The various studies reviewed are not uniformly evaluated and there is no attempt at assessing the likelihood that any particular result is valid. That is not the intent of the study, which is why it is called a review and not a meta-study, I assume. But such reviews have value because they put a wide range of literature in one place which forms a starting point for other research. The second thing you need to know is that the authors are heavily invested in what we loosely call “animal rights,” as members of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy and the Someone Project (Farm Sanctuary). From this we can guess that a paper that seems to show pigs-human similarities would ultimately be used for advocating for better treatment for domestic pigs, which are raised almost entirely for meat. There is nothing wrong with that, but it should be noted.

In a moment I’ll run down the interesting findings on pig behavior, but first I want to outline the larger context of what such results may mean. The paper itself does not make an interpretive error about pig behavior and cognition, but there is a quote in the press release that I’m afraid will lead to such an error, and I want to address this. The quote from the press release is:

Dr. Marino explains that “We have shown that pigs share a number of cognitive capacities with other highly intelligent species such as dogs, chimpanzees, elephants, dolphins, and even humans. There is good scientific evidence to suggest we need to rethink our overall relationship to them.”

What does that mean? In particular, what does the word “relationship” mean? In a behavioral comparative study, “relationship” almost always refers to the evolutionary structure of the traits being observed. For example, consider the question of self awareness, as often tested with the Gallup Test, which measures Mirror Self Recognition (MSR). If a sufficient sample of test animals, when looking in a mirror almost always perceive a conspecific, then that species is considered to not have MSR. If most, or even many, individuals see themselves, then that species is said to have MSR, a kind of self awareness that is linked to a number of important other cognitive capacities.

Humans have MSR. So, do our nearest relatives, the chimps have it? Do the other apes have it? Other primates? Is this a general mammalian capacity or is it a special-snowflake trait of our own species? It turns out that all the great apes have MSR, but primates generally do not. It may or may not appear among other primates (mostly not). So MSR reflects something that evolved, likely, in the common ancestor of humans and all the other apes. So, the relationship among the primates with respect to MSR, phylogenetically, is that MSR is a shared derived trait of the living apes, having evolved in or prior to that clade’s last common ancestor.

But we also see MSR in other species including, for example, elephants. The presents of MSR in elephants does not mean MSR is a widespread trait that humans and elephants both have because a common ancestor hat it. Rather, in some cases (the great apes), MSR is clustered in a set of closely related species because it evolved in their ancestor, and at the same time, it appears here and there among other species for either similar reasons, or perhaps even for different reasons.

This is why the word “relationship” is so important in this kind of research.

It is clear that Dr. Marino does not use the word “relationship” in that press release to mean that pigs and humans share interesting cognitive and behavioral traits because of common ancestry, but rather, I assume, the implication is that we may want to think harder about how we treat pigs because they are a bit like us.

One could argue, of course, that a species that is a lot like us for reasons other than shared evolutionary history is a bit spooky. Uncanny valley spooky. Or, one could argue that such a species is amazing and wonderful, because we humans know we are amazing and wonderful so they should be too. Indeed one could argue, as I have elsewhere, that similarity due to shared ancestry and similarity due to evolutionary convergence are separate and distinct factors in how we ultimately define our relationship to other species, how we treat them, what we do or not do with them. The important thing here, that I want to emphasize, is that human-pig similarity is not the same thing as human-chimp similarity. Both are important but they are different and should not be conflated. I honestly don’t think the paper’s authors are conflating them, but I guarantee that if this paper gets picked up by the press, conflation will happen. I’ll come back to a related topic at the end of this essay.

I’ve been interested in pigs for a long time. I’ve had a lot of interactions with wild pigs while working in Africa, both on the savanna and the rain forest. One of the more cosmopolitain species, an outlier because it is a large animal, is the bush pig. Bush pigs live in very arid environments as well as the deepest and darkest rain forests. There are more specialized pigs as well. The forest pig lives pretty much only in the forest, and the warthog does not, preferring savanna and somewhat dry habitats. Among the African species, the bush pig is most like the presumed wild form of the domestic pig, which for its part lived across a very large geographical area (Eurasia) and in a wide range of habitats. I would not be surprised if their populations overlapped at some times in the past. This is interesting because it is very likely that some of the traits reviewed by Marino and Colvin allow wild pigs to live in such a wide range of habitats. There are not many large animals that have such a cosmopolitain distribution. Pigs, elephants, humans, a few others. Things that know something about mirrors. Coincidence? Probably not.

Pigs (Sus domesticus and its wild form) have an interesting cultural history in the west. During more ancient times, i.e., the Greek and Roman classical ages, pigs were probably very commonly raised and incorporated in high culture. One of Hercules seven challenges was to mess with a giant boar. Pigs are represented in ancient art and iconography as noble, or important, and generally, with the same level of importance as cattle.

Then something went off for the pigs. Today, two of the major Abrahamic religions view pigs as “unclean.” Ironically, this cultural insult is good for the pigs, because it also takes them right off the menu. In modern Western culture, most pigs are viewed as muddy, dirty, squealing, less than desirable forms. Bad guys are often depicted as pigs. One in three pigs don’t understand their main predator, the wolf. There are important rare exceptions but they are striking because they are exceptions. This denigration of pigs in the West is not found globally, and in Asia pigs have always been cool, sometimes revered, always consumed.

I should note that I learned a lot of this stuff about pigs working with my good fiend and former student Melanie Fillios, who did her thesis (published here) on complexity in Bronze Age Greece, and that involved looking at the role of pigs in the urban and rural economies. At that time Melanie and I looked at the comparative behavioral and physical biology of cattle vs. pigs. This turns out to be very interesting. If you started out with a two thousand pounds of pig and two thousand pounds of cattle, and raised them as fast as you could to increase herd size, in a decade you would have a large herd of cattle, but if you had been raising pigs, you’d have enough pigs to cover the earth in a layer of them nine miles thick. OK, honesty, I just made those numbers up, but you get the idea; Pigs can reproduce more than once a year, have large litters, come to maturity very quickly, and grow really fast. Cattle don’t reproduce as fast, grow slower, take longer to reach maturity, and have only one calf at a time.

On the other hand, if you have cattle, you also have, potentially, milk (and all that provides), hoof and horn (important in ancient economies) and maybe better quality leather. I’ll add this for completeness: Goats are basically small cows with respect to these parameters.

Now, having said all that, I’ll summarize the material in the paper so you can learn how amazing pigs are. From the press release:

  • have excellent long-term memories;
  • are whizzes with mazes and other tests requiring location of desired objects;
  • can comprehend a simple symbolic language and can learn complex combinations of symbols for actions and objects;
  • love to play and engage in mock fighting with each other, similar to play in dogs and other mammals;
  • live in complex social communities where they keep track of individuals and learn from one another;
  • cooperate with one another and show signs of Machiavellian intelligence such as perspective-taking and tactical deception;
  • can manipulate a joystick to move an on-screen cursor, a capacity they share with chimpanzees;
  • can use a mirror to find hidden food;
  • exhibit a form of empathy when witnessing the same emotion in another individual.
  • Pigs are very snout oriented. They have lots of nerve endings in their snouts and can use the information they get from this tactile organ for social interactions and finding food. They can tell things apart very easily, learn new classifications, and remember objects and things about them. This makes sense for an animal that forages at the ground surface, including underground, for a very wide range of food types.

    One of the cool human traits we often look for in other animals is the ability to time travel. We don’t actually travel in time, but in our minds, we can put ourselves in other places and other times, and run scenarios. Some of the basic capacities required to do this include a sense of lengths of times for future events or situations, and an understanding of these differences. Pigs can learn that of two enclosures they can choose from, one will let them out sooner than the other one, for example.

    Pigs have excellent spatial memory and can learn where things are and how to find them. They can do mazes as well as other animals that have been tested in this area.

    Pigs have individual personalities, to a large degree, and can discriminate among other individuals and recognize certain aspects of their mental state. This applies to other individual pigs as well as individuals of other species (like humans).

    Pigs have a certain degree of Machiavellian intelligence. This is rare in the non-human animal world. If a pig has the foraging pattern for a given area down well, and a potential competitor pig is introduced, the knowledgable pig will play dumb about finding food. They don’t have MSR but they can use mirrors to find food.

    Now, back to the evolutionary context. I’ve already hinted about this a few times. Pigs and humans share their cosmopolitain distribution, with large geographic ranges and a diversity of habitats. We also share a diverse diet. But, it goes beyond that, and you probably know that I’ve argued this before. Pigs are root eaters, as are humans, and this feature of our diet is probably key in our evolutionary history. From my paper, with Richard Wrangham, on this topic:

    We propose that a key change in the evolution of hominids from the last common ancestor shared with chimpanzees was the substitution of plant underground storage organs (USOs) for herbaceous vegetation as fallback foods. Four kinds of evidence support this hypothesis: (1) dental and masticatory adaptations of hominids in comparison with the African apes; (2) changes in australopith dentition in the fossil record; (3) paleoecological evidence for the expansion of USO-rich habitats in the late Miocene; and (4) the co-occurrence of hominid fossils with root-eating rodents. We suggest that some of the patterning in the early hominid fossil record, such as the existence of gracile and robust australopiths, may be understood in reference to this adaptive shift in the use of fallback foods. Our hypothesis implicates fallback foods as a critical limiting factor with far-reaching evolutionary e?ects. This complements the more common focus on adaptations to preferred foods, such as fruit and meat, in hominid evolution.

    Pigs and humans actually share dental and chewing adaptations adapted, in part, for root eating. The pig’s snout and the human’s digging stick have been suggested (see the paper) as parallelisms. And so on.

    Yes, humans and pigs share an interesting evolutionary relationship, with many of our traits being held in common. But this is not because of shared ancestry, but rather, because of similar adaptive change, independent, in our evolutionary history. This whole root eating thing arose because of a global shift from forests to mixed woodland and otherwise open habitats, which in turn encouraged the evolution of underground storage organs among many species of plants, which in turn caused the rise of a number of above ground root eaters, animals that live above the surface but dig. Not many, but some. Pigs, us, and a few others.

    That does not make us kin, but it does make us kindred.

    Baby Cries Cause Concern For Mothers Of Other Species

    It has long been known by humans that female mammals can be attracted with the call of a young in distress. There is a famous documentary film of the Hadza, a foraging group in Tanzania, in which this method is used by young boys to trap Dasssies (rock Hyrax). First you catch a baby Dassie (not hard) then you hid and bit it in the neck so it cries out, then when the momma Dassies come to rescue it you shoot them at short range with an arrow or whack them with a stick. Adult Efe Pygmy hunters sometimes imitate the call of a young Duiker (a forest antelope) in distress in order to draw in females. I’ve spent a fair amount of time hanging around with adult male Efe hunters and never saw this work, but they claim it does and I tend to believe them.

    Now, researchers have demonstrated cross-species response to distress calls by young. They recorded distress calls by various mammals such as seals, dogs, cats, and humans. Never mind how they got the distress calls. Anyway, they played these for White Tailed Deer females and got a response. The mother deer moved towards the recordings. These baby mammals all have similar pitched calls. The researchers also recorded bats and lowered the pitch to be within that range, and the deer responded to this as well.

    Presumably there is strong selection on responding to distress calls of young, but not strong selection on being selective, probably because the circumstances do not arise that often.

    More here.

    Killing The Namibian Black Rhino for $350,000 UPDATED

    UPDATE (March 27 2015): US gives Texan rhino hunter an import permit

    A Texan who won an auction to shoot an endangered black rhino in Namibia has been given a US permit to import the trophy if he kills one.

    The US Fish and Wildlife Service said hunting an old rhino bull helps to increase the population.
    There was an outcry when Corey Knowlton won the auction last year, with animal rights activists decrying it. It’s not yet clear when the hunt will happen.

    Namibia is home to some 1,500 black rhino, a third of the world’s total.

    The US agency issuing the permit said that importing the carcass from Namibia would be allowed because it met criteria under the Endangered Species Act of benefiting conservation.

    Since first considering whether to issue the permit in November, the agency has received petitions with around 152,000 signatures demanding that it be denied.

    UPDATE: The identity of the hunter has been revealed over social media.

    Dallas (CNN) — Corey Knowlton is on edge sitting inside a Las Vegas hotel room, surrounded by a private security detail, explaining why he spent $350,000 for the chance to hunt a black rhinoceros in the southern African nation of Namibia.
    “If I sound emotional, it’s because I have people threatening my kids,” Knowlton told CNN. “It’s because I have people threatening to kill me right now [that] I’m having to talk to the FBI and have private security to keep my children from being skinned alive and shot at.”

    Knowlton was outed over social media as the winner of the Dallas Safari Club’s auction for a black rhino hunting permit from the Namibian government last weekend. It didn’t take long for the threats and vitriol to start pouring in.

    “You are a BARBARIAN. People like you need to be the innocent that are hunted,” posted one woman on Knowlton’s Facebook page.
    Some sounded even more sinister. “I find you and I will KILL you,” read another threat. “I have friends who live in the area and will have you in there sights also,” wrote another commenter.

    here is a black rhino in Namibia that will be shot by a sports hunter who won an auction for the privilege. The permit to kill the rhino was won in competitive bidding for the sum of $350,000. All proceeds will be donated to support the rhino conservation efforts in Namibia.

    There has been an expected outcry on the internet over this event. There are people who hunt big game some (but not all) of them have little problem with this, and then there is everybody else, and most people find the idea of killing a black rhino, which are endangered, abhorrent.

    I want to relate the story of another rhino, a white rhino, that was killed after a similar auction, elsewhere in Africa. I won’t give details of time, place, organizations involved, or individuals involved because I feel that the reaction to this sort of thing could spill over in inappropriate ways. The point of relating this story is to add some nuance to the situation.

    There is a rhino conservation project with which I’m intimately familiar. It was initiated years ago by a charismatic conservationist and expert on the rhino. The project has three major components. First, there is a large area fenced off from the surrounding landscape on which both white and black rhinos roam free. You might wonder if rhinos can roam free in a fenced off area, but the area is quite large, nearly 90,000 acres. This is about the size of the city of Montreal or Detroit. Many areas in Africa in which “wild game” live have fences around them, though there is a trend to take down the fences especially where the enclosed areas are on the small side.

    Second, there is a larger project that defines a biosphere, including the aforementioned reserve, of nearly 15,000 square kilometers. This is about the size of Connecticut. The biosphere includes numerous game parks, some that allow hunting, and a number of human-use areas, but with restrictions of what sorts of uses are allowed. The biosphere includes one of the more unique floral communities in the world with a high degree of endemism, and is the home of the usual range of African animals including rhinos and several antelope species, though I don’t think there are any elephants there at the moment. This is also home to an impressive avian and reptilian fauna.

    Third, there are a number of tourist destinations within the biosphere that bring income to the local communities and help run the conservation projects, including one at the aforementioned rhino conservation area. Some of the tourist destinations, as mentioned, accommodate hunting. In addition to the tourist areas there are also nature-oriented schools and childrens’ programs, though I’m not very familiar with them.

    The rhino reserve is big, but so are rhinos. Several years ago, a large and older white rhino took over the breeding rights of a large number of female rhinos in this reserve. White rhinos are not especially aggressive, but when it comes to mating competition they are fairly typical as male mammals go. This rhino was doing damage to other males on the reserve, and was actually starting to damage some of the females. I don’t think any rhinos had been killed but it seemed inevitable at the time.

    And, as it turns out, this particular rhino was sterile. This constituted a serious threat to the otherwise very successful rhino breeding program, which had been producing rhinos for introduction into area where they were previously hunted out.

    One might think that you could just pen up a rhino like this, keeping it separate from the other animals, perhaps making it an “ambassador rhino” for tourists to see up close. Unfortunately, that turns out to be more difficult than it sounds. Rhinos are large powerful animals and this one was especially large. Black rhinos are very aggressive. Once penned up it would spend considerable effort to escape, and would likely have a certain degree of success. A smaller adult male black rhino that was raised as an orphan, rescued after hunters killed its mother, was easily able to escape from a well built corral a few years ago, at this same reserve. It did considerable damage, focusing mainly on the cars in the nearby parking lot. A white rhino female, also an orphan, raised in the same facility was released at maturity, bred, and the last time I saw her was wandering the bush with her new baby and doing quite well.

    The point is this: If you raise large mammals, there often comes a time when one of them has to be put down owing to any of a number of different reasons. The bush in Africa, for the most part, is highly managed. Unmanaged areas tend to have very little in the way of larger wild animals because either they are poached out or the animals die off because populations grow too large and are then affected by drought or disease. If there were fewer people, less human settlement, and no fences, these die-offs would be offset by better conditions in other regions, and animals would later migrate from high-population areas into decimated areas once the latter were ecologically restored naturally.

    So, the difficult decision was made to put the large white male rhino down. A permit from the government was obtained. And then the people managing the reserve decided, legally and as per the permitting process, to allow a hunter to put the animal down, which would have the same final effect but produce several thousand dollars in funds for the conservation program. The fee in that case was, if I recall correctly, $10,000.

    I spent an evening listening to the story of how that went, told to me by the ranger who was tasked with getting the hunter and the rhino in the same place. It would have been his job to put the rhino down had the decision not been made to bring in the hunter, and he did not relish the idea either way. As he told me the story of how the hunt went, he paused a few times to cry. This, the killing of the rhino in any manner, was something he did not want to do, even though he agreed that it had to be done.

    It would be irresponsible for me to relate the details of what happened, but I’ll tell you in private if you buy me a beer. I can say a little about it. After several days of tracking the rhino, stopping several times for meals and other refreshment, the hunter was finally brought to a point where his quarry was visible and in range. He took a couple of shots but missed. The ranger was ready the whole time to dispatch the animal with a good shot in the event that the hunter merely wounded it. In the end, the ranger shot the rhino, and photographs were taken. If I recall correctly, there was no trophy; I’m pretty sure that would have been illegal.

    The $10,000 was employed usefully and made a difference.

    I’ve spent considerable time on rhino reserves in this area, and with the people who run them. I have never been to a rhino reserve in Namibia but I have met people who worked in that country on conservation, and I’ve worked in a reserve on the Namibian border. I can promise you that there is not a single person involved in rhino conservation in the region who wants to see any rhino put down for any reason, but sometimes, apparently, it has to happen.

    Some of the responses people have had to the Namibian black rhino killing seem to lack a sufficient understanding of the situation. This is perceived as a bad thing to do primarily for two reasons. First, it is wrong to kill an endangered animal. This is a bit naive because a given rhino is not endangered; all of them are. Being endangered is something that happens to a species, not an individual. A given animal may be of great value to the perpetuation of the species, while another may be a detriment to conservation efforts. The second common response is that the rhino should just be left alone. In the case of the white rhino mentioned above, that was not an option. The idea that leaving the rhinos alone is untenable given the current situation of human-animal conflict, ecology and climate, and habitat loss. The only places where there are rhinos at all in Africa are places where management is intensive. Sometimes intensive management means taking down an animal.

    Namibia puts down a small number of black rhinos every year, about three. These are usually hunted but the permits are not issued outside the country. This particular case is the first time that has happened, and the amount of money being raised is considerably more for that reason. The black rhino being hunted is a “geriatric male” who would normally be earmarked for being killed as part of the conservation program. Not all of the people involved in Namibian conservation think things should be done this way, but generally, those that do not agree are hard pressed to propose alternatives.

    It is certainly reasonable to question whether or not sports hunting should be allowed at all, or if specific highly publicized hunts like that of the Namibian black rhino should happen. Even if animals need to be hunted out of a given area for population management, this can be done as part of wild game harvesting, for the most part. Having said that, there is a counter-argument. You can’t really incorporate large older sterile and ornery rhinos in the meat trade very easily. And, of course, there is the money. I think one of the things that troubles people the most, and that troubles me and the ranger who told me the story of the white rhino, is the strong contrast between a big game hunting mentality and a conservation mentality. Even if it can be argued that a great deal of effective conservation occurs in the context of maintaining hunting as a sport, the point of view of big game hunters and conservationists is often dramatically different.

    My opinion on the matter is that the rhino should not be put down, but probably has to be even if I don’t like the idea. I’m happy to see $350,000 put into Namibian rhino conservation … that will go a long way … but I think there is a bigger problem here. $350,000 is nothing at the international level for conservation of rhinos. It simply should not be the case that creating this sort of spectacle is necessary to fund black rhino conservation at this level. It is not OK that $350,000 is small change for some lucky hunter, but a huge sum for conservation. That is the problem.

    Caribou Cam Proves Reindeer Are Real

    Every now and then, more often than you might expect, I mention something in lecture (usually in a classroom in front of students) and a small number of individuals express incredulity that the thing exists. Pygmies are one of those terms that garners disbelief. Many people assume they are made up. At the same time, a disconcerting number of times the opposite happens. Mermaids, aliens, dragons, Atlantis, etc. are not real but many students, educated by the History and Discovery channels, apparently, (I don’t watch them but I hear things), think they are.

    Strangely, one of the things that people often think to be fiction is the venerable Reindeer. The first part of this confusion may be that we use two words for them: Reindeer and Caribou. Also, since Caribou is now a kind of coffee shop, there may be additional confusion.

    Anyway, reindeer are real, and caribou too. And, the Como Zoo in Saint Paul, Minnesota has set up a web cam that lets you watch some of the deer (caribou is kind of deer, of which there are many) live. They don’t do a lot, but they are cute.

    Click here to watch the Reindeer Cam, which really should be called the Caribou Cam but maybe they tried to use that term but got sued by some coffee shop, I don’t know.

    Minnesota Moose

    Minnesota has two populations of moose, one in the northwestern part of the state, one in the northeastern part of the state. Both are in decline. The decline seems to be mainly due to disease, which in turn, seems to be exacerbated by the occurrence of shorter, warmer winters and longer summers.

    Today, the Minnesota DNR is announcing an indefinite halt to the annual moose hunt, because the latest surveys show that the population is in very serious decline. From a brief preliminary report in the Star Tribune:

    Based on the aerial survey conducted in January, the new population estimate is 2,760 animals, down from 4,230 in 2012. The population estimate was as high as 8,840 as recently as 2006. At the current rate of decline, it could be gone from the state in 20 years, wildlife officials say.

    I find it somewhat annoying that the state Department of Natural Resources still refuses to make the direct link between climate change and moose decline. They seem to be still under the thumb of erstwhile Republican administrations and couch their language accordingly. They need to stop doing that.

    This is a developing story and I’ll have more on it in the future. In the mean time, here is an extended excerpt from a post I wrote a while back on the moose: Continue reading Minnesota Moose

    Why shrews are interesting

    It has been said that our most distant primate ancestors, the mammal that gave rise to early primates but itself wasn’t quite a primate, was most like the Asian tree shrew, which is neither a shrew nor does it live in trees. This is, of course, untrue. When the average American sees a shrew native to the new world scurrying past, he or she usually thinks of it as a form of mouse. Which it isn’t. (In fact, there are no “mice” native to the new world, but even if we give our hypothetical observer the concept of “rodent” as in “eeek, a rodent” the shrew is not that either.) If you spend any time hanging out with the Efe Pygmies of the Ituri Forest, eventually there will be a sudden movement on the forest floor, a quick snap of a machete or other similar implement, and … elephant shrew will be on the menu. And, most interesting, all three of the aforementioned shrews do not belong comfortably together in a single taxonomic group. The closest non-shrew relative to the most common North American shrew are moles, the closest non-shrew relative to the Asian tree shrew are flying lemurs, bunnies, primates, and rodents; and the closest non-shrew relative to the African elephant shrew could be, astonishingly, an actual elephant! (Or hyraxes, goldem moles, sea cows or the Aardvark.)
    Continue reading Why shrews are interesting

    Why do women shop and men hunt?

    Or, when the hunting season is closed, watch teh game (the guys), or when there are no sales, admire each other’s shoes (the gals)?

    This is, of course, a parody of the sociobiological, or in modern parlance, the “evolutionary psychology” argument linking behaviors that evolved in our species during the long slog known as The Pleistocene with today’s behavior in the modern predator-free food-rich world. And, it is a very sound argument. If, by “sound” you mean “sounds good unless you listen really hard.”

    I list this argument among the falsehoods, but really, this is a category of argument with numerous little sub-arguments, and one about which I could write as many blog posts as I have fingers and toes, which means, at least twenty. (Apparently there was some pentaldactylsim in my ancestry, and I must admit that I’ll never really know what they cut off when I was born, if anything.)

    Before going into this discussion I think it is wise, if against my nature, to tell you what the outcome will be: There is not a good argument to be found in the realm of behavioral biology for why American Women shop while their husbands sit on the bench in the mall outside the women’s fashion store fantasizing about a larger TV on which to watch the game. At the same time, there is a good argument to be made that men and women should have different hard wired behavioral proclivities, if there are any hard wired behavioral proclivities in our species. And, I’m afraid, the validity from an individual’s perspective of the various arguments that men and women are genetically programmed to be different (in ways that make biological sense) is normally determined by the background and politics of the observer and not the science. I am trained in behavioral biology, I was taught by the leading sociobiologists, I’ve carried out research in this area, and I was even present, somewhat admiringly, at the very birth of Evolutionary Psychology, in Room 14A in the Peabody Museum at Harvard, in the 1980s. So, if anyone is going to be a supporter of evolutionary psychology, it’s me.

    But I’m not. Let me ‘splain….
    Continue reading Why do women shop and men hunt?

    New Primate Fossil Informs Us of the Ape-Monkey Split During the Oligocene

    ResearchBlogging.orgThe newly reported Saadanius hijazensis may or may not be a “missing link” but in order for this monkey to climb onto the primate family tree, a new branch had to be sprouted. So, not only is Saadanius hijazensis a new species, but it is a member of a new taxonomic Family, Saadaniidae, which in turn is a member of a new Superfamily, Saadanioidea. Why is this important? It’s complicated. But not too complicated.

    The fossil was found while University of Michigan paleontologist Iyad Zalmout was busy looking for dinosaur fossils in western Saudi Arabia. He found the monkey, from a much later time period, instead. Ooops.
    Continue reading New Primate Fossil Informs Us of the Ape-Monkey Split During the Oligocene

    Keep an eye on the prey: You’ll find the predator

    In Robert Gardner’s documentary film Dead Birds, the men of a highland New Guinea village guard the perimeter of the territory, watchful for men of the neighboring group who may be intent on sneaking into the gardens to capture and kill an unwitting child or woman in order to avenge a prior death. But they don’t see the men sneaking through the dense riparian forest. They don’t even look for them. Rather, they see the birds fly from their preferred habitat where they are foraging or resting, startled into the open by … something. The birds belie the predator.
    Continue reading Keep an eye on the prey: You’ll find the predator