In this week’s Nature Medicine, a study brings a ray of success in researchers’ quest to fight the deadly viruses Ebola and Marburg. Testing a new approach on monkeys, scientists at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases saw most of the monkeys survive a normally fatal Ebola infection—and all of them who had Marburg lived.
Within an hour of infecting the primates, researchers gave them antisense phosphorodiamidate morpholino oligomers, or PMOs.
The morpholino oligomers are a new class of drugs in a family of what is known as antisense nucleotides. Antisense nucleotides are designed to bind tightly to specific areas of viral messenger RNA, blocking replication. Such compounds already are being used to treat certain types of cancer and cytomegalovirus infections, and they are being tested against HIV [Los Angeles Times].
The good news: After decades of wondering whether this immaculately bearded monkey really existed, but not being able to confirm it because of never-ending violence in Colombia, scientists say they’ve finally found evidence of the Caqueta titi monkey. The bad news: Because of habitat destruction, the cat-sized redbeard primate is critically endangered.
The new species joins about 20 other titi monkeys known in the Amazon basin. They appear to be monogamous to a level that puts humans to shame, says expedition leader Thomas Defler, whose study (pdf) appears in Primate Conservation. The Caqueta monkey couples have about one child per year that they raise together, and that isn’t the end of their absurd adorableness. Read More
Looking through twenty years worth of orangutan observations, researchers believe they have found 18 examples of pantomimes. The study, which appeared today in Biology Letters, supports the claim that we’re not unique when it comes to abstract communication and lends credence to other observations of great ape gesturing, according to lead researcher Anne Russon.
[Orangutans and chimpanzees were already known] to throw an object when angry, for example. But that is a far cry from displaying actions that are intentionally symbolic and referential–the behaviour known as pantomiming. “Pantomime is considered uniquely human,” says Anne Russon from York University in Toronto, Canada. “It is based on imitation, recreating behaviours you have seen somewhere else, which can be considered complex and beyond the grasp of most non-human species.” [New Scientist]
Of the eighteen observed orangutan pantomimes, four took place between orangutans and 14 between a human and an orangutan. If you ever find yourself in the Indonesian jungles, here are some examples of messages that you might expect:
When an orangutan swings through the trees like an acrobat in its rainforest habitat, it’s burning fewer calories than a human couch potato.
A new study by biological anthropologist Herman Pontzer has found that oragutans use less energy, pound-for-pound, than any other mammal–except for that all-time champion of metabolic lethargy, the tree sloth.
“You and I sitting in front of our computers use more energy each day than these orangutans that are walking around, and climbing around and socializing around their big enclosures,” Pontzer says. [NPR]
Perhaps you’re one of those people who get their dander up when you hear creationists saying “I’m not descended from some monkey” not only for the obvious reason, but also because you can’t help but blurt out, “No, you mean ‘ape!’ We’re apes, not monkeys.”
Indeed, our superfamily, Hominoidea, split from the group labeled “old world monkeys” millions of years ago—but perhaps not as many million as we thought. In Nature this week, a team of scientists report on a 28-29 million year old fossil that appears to predate the split, meaning the separation would have happened more recently than other studies suggested.
The partial skull of this new creature, which the team dubbed Saadanius hijazensis, turned up in Saudi Arabia in February 2009.
There may be no game simpler than tag. To play, you need nothing but a few friends and some energy. In fact, tag is so easy to play that it reaches other primate species: Gorillas like to play, too.
Marina Davila Ross and colleagues spent three years watching and filming gorilla colonies at Germany and Swiss zoos for a study now out in Biology Letters. They shot footage of 21 different young gorillas goofing around in a game that resembles human children playing tag.
Like human tag, one gorilla runs up to another and taps, hits, or outright punches the second. The hitter then usually runs away, attempting to avoid being hit back. Davila Ross and her colleagues also noticed that, like kids, the gorillas would reverse roles, so sometimes the first hitter would be the tagger, and vice versa. All African great apes appear to play tag, and younger apes play it much more often than their elders. Tree-dwelling orangutans likely also play a similar game, but not on the ground, according to Davila Ross [Discovery News].
It’s what happens to your brain after you’re born that makes you human.
Jason Hill and colleagues were comparing the structure of newborn brains to those of adults when they came upon a striking find, documented this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Clearly, the brain expands greatly as you grow from baby to adult. But the researchers discovered not only that the brain grows in a non-uniform way, but also that the parts of the brain that change most rapidly as people grow up are the same parts that changed the most as humans evolved away from our primate relatives.
The research revealed that brain regions involved in higher cognitive and executive processes—such as language and reasoning—grow about twice as much as regions associated with basic senses such vision and hearing…. “The parts of the [brain] that have grown the most to make us uniquely humans are the same regions that tend to grow the most postnatally,” Hill said [National Geographic].
Apparently, in the animal kingdom, it’s better to be a girl. We have seen that women macaques are superior conversationalists. We learned that lady humpbacks enjoy long-lasting friendships. Now research published in Current Biology shows that baboon ladies with good friends around them may live longer.
At Botswana’s Moremi Game Reserve, Joan Silk of the University of California, Los Angeles and her team spied on 44 female chacma baboons over the course of six years. Among other things, Silk looked at which girls had the most visitors and how often the women picked junk out of each other’s hair. In other words, true friendship. She also tracked each baboon’s circle of friends, seeing how each lady’s top three buddies changed over time.
Silk saw a correlation between sociability and longevity. She divided the baboons into three groups, and found that the least friendly lived 7 to 18 years, while the friendliest group lived from 10 years on (they were still kicking when the study ended). They also found that those baboons who formed stable, enduring bonds were more likely to have long lives than those with flightier friendship habits.
Chimps kill chimps. And according to a 10-year study of Ngogo chimps in Uganda, they do it to defend and extend their territory. John Mitani documented 21 chimp-on-chimp killings during the study, 18 of which his team witnessed. And when the chimps kill another, they take over its land.
Because of the 1 percent difference of DNA between us and our ape cousins, it can be irresistible to anthropomorphize them, referring to their deadly attacks upon each other with terms like “murder” or “crime.” And given the murders over territory that litter human history books, it’s hard not to see echoes of our ourselves in chimp “warfare.”
Chimpanzee warfare is of particular interest because of the possibility that both humans and chimps inherited an instinct for aggressive territoriality from their joint ancestor who lived some five million years ago. Only two previous cases of chimp warfare have been recorded, neither as clear-cut as the Ngogo case [The New York Times].
But not so fast, says DISCOVER’s own award-winning blogger Ed Yong. He contacted chimp expert Frans de Waal, who would like to dissent:
“There are many problems with this idea, not the least of which is that firm archaeological evidence for human warfare goes back only about 10-15 thousand years. And apart from chimpanzees, we have an equally close relative, the bonobo, that is remarkably peaceful… The present study provides us with a very critical piece of information of what chimpanzees may gain from attacking neighbours. How this connects with human warfare is a different story” [Not Exactly Rocket Science].
For much more, check out Yong’s full post on the study.
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Chimpanzees Murder for Land
80beats: How Chimps Mourn Their Dead: Reactions to Death Caught on Video
DISCOVER: Chimps Show Altruistic Streak
Image: John Mitani
The bones of our ancestors do not speak across time with ultimate clarity. The fossils with which scientists reconstruct our family tree are often fragments that offer hints and clues to where we came from. So it comes as no surprise when, as part of the flow of science, researchers offer counter-interpretations to even the most famous of finds.
That’s what happening to Ardi.
Last October Ardipithecus ramidus hit the main stage when, after 17 years of study, a large team led by paleoanthropologist Tim White published its work in the journal Science. The 4.4-million-year-old find shakes up our understanding of our own history, White said—primarily the story of how and when we learned to walk.
Ardi cast doubt on the widely accepted view that our ancestors became bipeds because they left the forest and entered a flatland savanna habitat that demanded it. But Ardi appeared to be a kind of hybrid, comfortable in the trees and on the ground. And, White said, analysis of the site where the fossil was found indicated that Ardi lived in a woodland habitat. If it’s true that early humans walked in the woods, then the “savanna hypothesis” would be swept away.