Tag Archives: primates

Is Curious George an Ape or a Monkey?

Curious George is called a “little monkey” in all of the Curious George literature, TV shows, and movies. But Curious George has no tail, and generally, that means you are an ape. But, there is one monkey with no tail, or at least one that is vestigial and not visible: The Barbary Macaque (Macaca sylvanus). For this reason, some have suggested that George is a monkey, specificaly, a Barbary Macaque or perhaps a close previously undiscovered species.

However, one of the main features distinguishing between monkeys and apes is the intermembral index. This is simply the relative proportion of the forelimbs and hind limbs. Apes have short legs and long arms (unless you are a Man in a Yellow Hat variety of ape) while monkeys have more even length limbs. This image compares a young Chimpanzee to stand in for the apes, a Barbary Macaque, and Curious George, with the limb lengths marked off with a red line.

This seems to indicate the George is an Ape.

Also, note that the Man in the Yellow Hat originally kidnapped George in a Jungle that appears to be in Central Africa, to which he returns in later episodes.

Curious George returns to a jungle with gorillas (and, not pictured, a number of other African mammals).

There is another possibility, that Curious George is an undiscovered type of primate that is technically a Monkey but with certain Ape features. We are not certain of the genetic heritage of the mysterious ape Sungudogo, so perhaps George is one of those.

Note that these comparisons are being made among Old World Primates. If New World Primates are included in the mix, there may end up being more questions than answers.

Global Warming Negatively Impacts Wild Monkey Diets

Yes, yes, we hear it all the time: More CO2 is good because plants love CO2

That is a rather dumb thing to say for a number of reasons; nature is not simple. You don’t change one variable and expect other variables to respond as though we were turning a garden hose up or down. For example, while plant growth might be enhanced with more CO2 in the atmosphere, there is no reason to think this would be linear, or similar across all plants. You have to dance with the one who brung ya. The plants we have are the plants that have been under Darwinian selection optimizing growth and maintenance physiology for gazillions of plant generations. Changing a fundamental variable may have little effect (and in fact, CO2 increase only enhances growth somewhat, and for only some plants) and may even have negative effects.

A new paper out in Ecology looks at the nutritional value of plants in a Ugandan rainforest and finds that the nutritional value of the leaves eaten by some Colobine monkeys there has declined, because fibre has increased at the expense of usable protein. From the abstract:

Global change is affecting plant and animal populations and many of the changes are likely subtle and difficult to detect. Based on greenhouse experiments, changes in temperature and rainfall, along with elevated CO2, are expected to impact the nutritional quality of leaves. Here, we show a decline in the quality of tree leaves 15 and 30 years after two previous studies in an undisturbed area of tropical forest in Kibale National Park, Uganda. After 30 years in a sample of multiple individuals of ten tree species, the mature leaves of all but one species increased in fiber concentrations, with a mean increase of 10%; tagged individuals of one species increased 13% in fiber. After 15 years, in eight tree species the fiber of young leaves increased 15%, and protein decreased 6%. Like many folivores, Kibale colobus monkeys select leaves with a high protein-to-fiber ratio, so for these folivores declining leaf quality could have a major impact. Comparisons among African and Asian forests show a strong correlation between colobine biomass and the protein-to-fiber ratio of the mature leaves from common tree species. Although this model, predicts a 31% decline in monkey abundance for Kibale, we have not yet seen these declines.

Jessica M. Rothman, Colin A. Chapman, Thomas T. Struhsaker, David Raubenheimer, Dennis Twinomugisha, and Peter G. Waterman, 2014. Long term declines in nutritional quality of tropical leaves. Ecology

Amazingly cute new primate species in Borneo

The Slow Loris (Genus Nycticebus) is a category of prosimian (primates that are neither monkey or ape) that lives in southeast Asia. Most prosimian species live on the island of Madagascar, but there are several African and Asian forms, all of which are nocturnal. The Slow Loris is special because it is the only primate we know of that has a toxic bite.

ResearchBlogging.orgThe total number of nocturnal primates known has increased considerably over the years and I’d wager there are many more to be found. “Technological advances have improved our knowledge about the diversity of several nocturnal mammals,” said Rachel Munds from the University of Missouri Columbia. “Historically many species went unrecognized as they were falsely lumped together as one species. While the number of recognized primate species has doubled in the past 25 years some nocturnal species remain hidden to science.”

Tomorrow, a paper will be released providing the diagnosis of a new species of slow loris. From the abstract:

The slow lorises … once included only two species, but recent taxonomic studies resulted in the description of three additional species; … The Bornean loris in particular is characterized by pelage and body size variation. In this study, we explored facemask variation in the Bornean loris (N. menagensis). Differing facemask patterns, particularly influenced by the amount of white on the face, significantly clustered together by geographic regions, separated by notable geographic boundaries. Our results support the recognition of four species of Bornean lorises: N. menagensis, N. bancanus, N. borneanus, and N. kayan. Genetic studies are required to support these findings and to refine further our understanding of the marked variability within the Bornean loris populations

Previously, one species of Bornean slow loris, with three subspecies, was recognized. The present study elevates the three subspecies to species status and add the fourth as a new discovery. Obviously, this significantly increases our conception of diversity in the nocturnal Bornean rainforest. One of the biggest threats to these animals is the pet trade. “The pet trade is a serious threat for slow lorises in Indonesia, and recognition of these new species raises issues regarding where to release confiscated Bornean slow lorises, as recognition by non-experts can be difficult,” said co-author Professor Nekaris, from Oxford Brookes University.

The study used 25 photographs and 27 museum specimens including the type specimens for two of the previously designated subspecies. A large number of features were examined and measured, of which eight showed variation across the sample, thus showing promise to use as in classification. Here is an example of one of the traits, called “Crown”:

Various fancy statistical analysis were done to produce two “functions” (combinations of variables) that separate the samples as indicated in this graph:

These traits clearly sort out the groups, and these groups have geographical distinctions as well.

Group 1 is on the island of Bangka and in the southwestern portion of Borneo south of the Kapuas River and east to the Barito River; this group’s boundaries appear not to extend all the way east to Barito River. Group 2 is found in central Borneo, north of the Kapuas and Mahakam Rivers. It is often found in higher ele- vations, but is not restricted to them. The boundary of Group 3 overlaps in part with Group 1, as it is found north of the Kapuas River, but its range ex- tends as far east as the Barito River. Finally, Group 4 inhabits the southern Philippines and northern and eastern Borneo, primarily in coastal and low- land areas. It does not range south of the Mahakam River.

So there are now four species: N menagensis, N. bancanus, N. borneanus and N. kayan. That last one is the new designation, and is named for a river flowing through the region in which it lives..

The conservation and research project responsible for this work has a web page with cute pictures, interesting videos, and more information on conservation related matters: Prof Anna Nekaris’ Little Fireface Project

Munds, Rachel, Nekaris, K.A., & Ford, Susan (2012). Taxonomy of the Bornean Slow Loris, with new species Nycticebus kayan (Primates, Lorisidae) American Journal of Primatology, 75, 46-56 : 10.1002/ajp.22071

Wild angry baboons on the high cliff

We three had somehow wound our way down into the canyon without experiencing any really steep slopes, but having walked for several miles in the sandy dry riverbed, Trusted Companion, Young One, and I were now looking rather hopelessly at unsafe-to-climb cliffs on both sides, covered with imposing vegetation of the kind that sports a thorn every few inches. The sun was low enough that the canyon floor was in a dark shadow, and the air was beginning to chill down. We were far enough from the vehicle, lost enough, and sufficiently plan-free that it would be perfectly reasonable to worry that we might not make it across the remote African Savanna before the leopards and hyenas came out to hunt. It was even possible that we’d have to spend the night huddled in some spot we could convince ourselves was protected from the elements and the wild animals. All this dark and scary truth had dawned on me over the last hour as we continued heading up a seemingly endless side canyon in search of a place to climb out of this river valley known among international extreme outdoors people as one of the most treacherous in the world, and known among the more traditional local folk for its dragon-like 50-meter long human-eating snake that was supposedly mythical.
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On the Move

On the Move: How and Why Animals Travel in Groups, edited by Sue Boinski and Paul Garber is a compendium of academic research on … well, on how and why animals travel in groups. Notice of this book is a fitting start to a series of reviews of migration-related books that is part of Migration Week on GLB. (For an overview of the Bigness and Vastness of bird migration in particular, see A Question of Migration.)
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Isabel Behncke: Evolution’s gift of play, from bonobo apes to humans

With never-before-seen video, primatologist Isabel Behncke Izquierdo (a TED Fellow) shows how bonobo ape society learns from constantly playing — solo, with friends, even as a prelude to sex. Indeed, play appears to be the bonobos’ key to problem-solving and avoiding conflict. If it works for our close cousins, why not for us?

Continue reading Isabel Behncke: Evolution’s gift of play, from bonobo apes to humans

What I know about Marc Hauser, the recently ‘investigated’ Harvard primatologist

I know Marc Hauser, and I trust him. I worked with him for a few years as a colleague on the faculty in the Anthropology department on various administrative matters (such as graduate admission and undergraduate program development) and we taught together. We are very different kinds of people, and did not always see eye to eye (well, we disagreed on one thing, once), but the same can be said of almost any two people from those days and that department, to some degree.
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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.
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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.
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Falsehood: Humans evolved from apes

Is it a Falsehood that Humans Evolve from Apes?

How about this one: Is it a Falsehood that Humans did NOT evolve from Apes????

Yes and no. Humans descend from a population of primates from which other apes also descended (minimally the two species of living chimps) and which was part of the panoply of late Miocene forms, all related to each other, that we call apes. So yes, humans evolved from apes.
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Nyamulagira Volcano and Human Evolution

I had mentioned earlier that the volcanoes of the Virugna region in the Western Rift Valley (as well as other highland spots) have often been islands of rain forest separated from each other by different habitats, including grasslands and wooded savannas. this has produced an island effect that has been a laboratory for evolution, and it is likely that these forest islands (and others in the greater region of east Central Africa and western East Africa) have been the loci of evolution of many endemic species. (See Island Africa: The Evolution of Africa’s Rare Animals and Plants by Kingdon for an excellent overview of the Island Effect in highland regions of Central and East Africa.)

It is probably not a coincidence that two of the three subspecies of gorilla live within sight of each other (and of the main subspecies, the lowland gorilla) within this region. The Virunga volcanoes are not old enough to have supported island forests for the evolution of these specific subspecies, but other highlands in the region, or other volcanoes (perhaps in the Eastern Rift) may well have been the location in which they evolved.

And, as it turns out, there is reason to believe that the split between chimps and humans occurred on one of these volcanic mountain tops several million years ago. Or, at least, in an environment geologically similar to the upper reaches of the Virunga Volcanoes. But to tell this story right, I have to go back a few years.
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Ida the Fossil Primate

You probably know that there is a new primate fossil, nicknamed “Ida,” and that there is quite a buzz about it.


Darwinius masillae, aka Ida

Ida comes from fossil deposits in Germany, and was originally excavated in two different parts by private collectors, and only recently rejoined and recognized for the amazing fossil it is. This is considered to be a new genus, and is named Darwinius masillae


…holotype skeleton in right lateral view…

Ida is a 47 million year old adapid primate of outstanding, unprecedented state of preservation that seems to have some very interesting and possibly unexpected features that could shed light on the evolutionary relationships among the extinct primates. But before we get to that, we need to cover some background on primates, extinct and otherwise.

The first thing you need to know is that order of living primates can be divided into two groups: the suborders Strepsirrhini and the Haplorrhini.

Strepsirrhini includes the lemurs of Madagascar, and the lorises, pottos and galagos of Africa and Asia. In other words, Strepsirrhini are the Prosimians, more or less.

The Haplorrhini include the old world monkeys and the new world monkeys, and the apes, as well as this one strange group called the Tarsiers (which used to be in the Prosimians, which has caused some confusion.) The Haplorrhini are the “Anthropoid primates,” more or less.

Based on morphology and DNA and so on, it is believed that these two groups diverged from one another perhaps as far back as 80 million years ago (Murphy et al 2009). Subsequent to that time, the different smaller groups of primates (old world vs. new world monkeys, for instance) diversified.


Artist reconstruction

Now, here is a basic problem that plagues primate evolutionary research. If you look at all the features that make a primate a primate (as opposed, say, to a tree shrew or some other mammal) using only living species, you get a workable set of features. If you take standard lemurs and, say, Old World Monkeys and you make a set of distinctions between those two groups, you get a reasonable set of criteria to distinguish among them. But, when you either add in Tarsiers (or some other primate groups) or start looking at fossils that are tens of millions of years old, it starts to get tricky. It becomes difficult to distinguish between convergence and common ancestry for certain traits. In other words, it is hard to tell if two traits are the same in two groups because the common ancestor of those groups had the trait and the specimens you are looking at both inherited this, or if the two lineages independently evolved the same trait.

“How likely is that to happen?” you may be asking yourself. Answer: Under some conditions, very very unlikely. Under other conditions, very likely. Let me explain.

Imagine we wanted to do a phylogeny of sedans. Once a line of car develops a square-back or pickup design, we eliminate it from our analysis. Sedans only. At the same time, some other research team is analyzing “powered vehicles” …. things that go with engines. This would include cars, trucks, boats, trains, and space ships. Even though both lineages may have been around for about the same amount of time, the sedan lineage would be much more prone to convergence because all sedans are almost exactly the same length, width, and height, have almost exactly the same number of seats, the same method for driving (like, auto vs. one stick) and so on, compared to the vehicles in the second study. The comparisons across vehicles that can carry nine tons of gravel, vehicles that can go under water, and vehicles that can fly are going to result in only the most trivial and easily exposed convergences.



Same with primates. At many important levels, all primates are the same. Compared to carnivores, all primates have almost the same pattern of teeth … there are very few variants on tooth pattern among all the primates that exist today, but many many variants for the carnivores. Even body size is fairly restricted for primates. Yes, there are a few whopping big ones, but compared to the elephants or the hyracoidea, not so much. With only a few exceptions, primates live in moist to wet heavily vegetated environments. Compare this to antelope, who have water-dependent and water-independent species. And so on.

Perhaps because of this limited range of variation, or perhaps causing this limiting range, is the simple fact that morpholgically all primates are primitive. So there is not some group of primates where the radius and ulna are fused, and a different group where they are not. All primates have unfused radius and ulna. There are not primates with vs. without some kind of grasping hand (I simplify slightly here). All primates have the same number of fingers and toes. In comparison, for instance, carnivores have varying numbers of toes and different patterns of bone fusions among them.

So that is the background. If you are going to look at ancient fossils, you’ve got a very conservative set of lineages so a) you’ll always recognize a primate, quite easily, when you see one and b) convergence will haunt you for your entire life if you are a paleo-primatologist.

For various reasons, especially the item noted above about the moist heavily vegetated habitats, but also the sparseness on the landscape and lightly built skeletons, primates make lousy fossils. There are very few places in the world where we have primate fossils, and they are much restricted in geographical space and time range. In short, the primate fossil record sucks. The primate fossil record is mostly teeth, and the teeth look all the same. All the work I’ve done in the primate fossil record has been in the Miocene, and that is not so bad. There are better conditions: You get some real fossils, even postcranial (body) bones, sometimes. But the pre-Miocene record is really scary.

Paleontologically, primates are anatomically ambiguous ghosts.


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As a juvenile, Ida has both deciduous (“baby”) teeth and adult teeth. More teeth = more data.

Within the fossil record, there are probably four or five sets of fossils that represent groups different from living primates, but most “crown” fossils can be placed into two major groups: The adapids and the omomyids. If either of these two groups could be linked to later, living primates, this would have to be done using a number of physical characteristics of the bone … there is not much chance of finding ancient DNA in these very old fossils.

This part of the fossil primate record includes the Adapoidea, including the widespread Adapids and some other fossil groups, but no living forms, and the Tarsioidea, which includes the fossil Omomyids, some other fossil forms, and the living Tarsius. The Adapids and Omomyids date mainly to the Eocene about 55 to 34 million years ago. Note that this is well after the Haplorrhini-Strepsirrhini split. Over the years, various groups of primatologists have attempted to link either of these groups to the major living groups of primates.

One subgroup of the Adapoidea is the Cercamoniinae, identified in the 1970s by one of the present paper’s authors, Philip Gingerich. This group exhibits a few traits that seem to link it with the living Haplorrhini (monkeys and apes). For example modern monkeys often have a premolar that is shaped a certain way to “hone” the canine. This is a bit unusual, and is a marker for this kind of modern primate. Something that looks like such a tooth appears, more or less, among the Cercamoniinae. This sort of connection (and other factors) has led some (Gingerich included) to link the Adapoidea in general to the modern anthropoid primates (monkeys and apes). Others disagree.

The fossil being reported now, Ida, is grouped by the authors into the Cercamoniinae. If that phylogenetic conclusion ends up being verified by further study, this excellent, well preserved fossil will be an important touchstone in interpreting early anthropoid (non-lemur) primate evolution and behavioral ecology.

The phylogenetic argument that is being made in this paper is admittedly preliminary (more work is promised on this) but so far it is very tricky and is likely to remain tricky. The structure of the prior arguments that links either of the two main fossil groups to either of the two main living groups has always been tenuous. The reason for this, as I’ve alluded to above, is that those two fossil groups fall about half way in time between the present and the original split of these groups, and there are not enough fossils between 80 and 55 million years ago to understand the details of that early split. Then, there are not enough fossils from about 34 million years ago to recent times to understand this later period during which the modern forms arose. While more work will be done on the phylogenetic relationships, considering that the contemporary fossils …. the old fossils roughly of the same age as “Ida” … are mostly teeth, and tens of millions of years separates Ida from the modern forms, I do not expect much more in the way of a resolution until more fossils like Ida, but of different species, are found.

Getting away from phylogeny, let’s have a look at other aspects of this fossil. This is a remarkably well preserved specimen. The animal probably died from volcanic gas (like C02) and fell into the water, and was slowly buried in fine sediment. Once encapsulated, the body began to rot, and the slime layer that started out as the animals’ flesh, skin, and fur approximated the outer surface of the body and was preserved in the fine sediment as well. The sediments in which this fossil is preserved are compressed, so the entire skeleton is uniformly crushed, slightly, but everywhere, affecting every bone. In order to visualize and measure the specimen, fancy 3D imaging and image processing techniques were applied.

The animal was a juvenile female and weighted between 385 and 580 grams, and would have grown up to be about 660 grams by one estimate, or a whopping 1600 or 1700 grams by another estimate. Since the larger estimate is based on molar size, which in turn can be secondarily influenced by adaptations to diet, I’d go with the lower estimate. Indeed, using the brute force method of holding the fossil up to full scale pictures of living primates to find one that matches, the estimated adult body size is about 845 to 892 grams.

The contents of the digestive track were preserved (that is extraordinary) and include leaves and fruit. There are no insect remains in the gut.

You are going to hear more about this fossil, as more analysis is done. I have two meta-remarks to make about this finding. First, there was a lot of hype about how this fossil is a “missing link” and so on and so forth. That was overdone. But equally overdone is the reaction to the hype. Almost every blog post or other secondary report I’ve seen on this has talked almost as much … or more … about the hype than about the fossil. Second, please note that this find was reported in PLoS ONE, an open access on line journal. This means that you can see the report yourself, look at all the cool pictures, and try if you must to slog through the highly technical text. This is big for Open Access publishing.


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Franzen, J., Gingerich, P., Habersetzer, J., Hurum, J., von Koenigswald, W., & Smith, B. (2009). Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology PLoS ONE, 4 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005723

Murphy, W., Pringle, T., Crider, T., Springer, M., & Miller, W. (2007). Using genomic data to unravel the root of the placental mammal phylogeny Genome Research, 17 (4), 413-421 DOI: 10.1101/gr.5918807

There is a LOT of blogospheric and media coverage on this find. I was going to provide a list of links and then realized that there is only one good way to do this … I’m sending you here, to A Blog Around the Clock. Bora has every single link.

All of the images used above come from the original on line article.

Chimps in captivity are a problem.

The incident just reported an hour or so ago is unusual, but not unexpected or unheard of.

A 200-pound chimpanzee kept as a pet and once used in commercials was shot and killed by police Monday after it mauled a woman visiting its owner and later cornered an officer in his cruiser, authorities said.

Stamford police Lt. Richard Conklin said the injured woman was hospitalized late Monday in “very serious” condition at Stamford Hospital; her identity was not immediately released. Conklin said she suffered “a tremendous loss of blood” from serious facial injuries.