Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Power of a Photo

In this blog, I will be discussing a photo of interest, this specular picture of a young Jane Goodall grooming a chimpanzee in the Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve (Tanzania). This photo, taken by the Hugo Van Lawick of the National Geographic Society, features an intimate scene between the now famous primatologist and the chimpanzee of which little was known at the time. 

In 1960, Jane got to work studying chimps at the direction of the world-famous anthropologist, Louis Leakey, who believed that evaluating chimps could shed some light on our evolutionary history. So, why is this picture so dynamic? First all of, we can clearly see the young, ambitious Jane working intimately with the chimp. She seems to excited, but also has a calming influence on her subject. Secondly, we make connections between the bananas and some of the techniques Jane was using to increase the chimp's comfort level. Additionally, the background is real and raw, and not staged with amazing views or a dense, green jungle canopy. We can see the gentle interaction between the two of them, free from note pads, binoculars, cameras, and any other research equipment. Jane looks as if she is meant to be part of this scene, in harmony with the surroundings and her animal of interest. It is a wonderful picture that captures the essence of Jane Goodall's work and what she now means to the international primatologist and animal conversation communities. For more information or to make a donation to her institute, please see the links below.

Check out these books by Jane Goodall

 For more information on The Jane Goodall Institute please visit The Jane Goodall Institute

Sunday, February 19, 2012

"These Are a Few of My Favorite...Primates!"

I developed a deep interest in caring for animals from an early age. I began working at a local, small animal hospital when I was only fifteen years old. After a few years of work experience and some maturation, my love for animals had been reinforced, regardless of any financial limitations associated with the profession. After exposure to animal biology in high school and select extracurricular activities, I decided to pursue a career in animal sciences. 
However, my focus on primates and the field of Primatology blossomed while I was studying at Tulane University. My experiences from the classroom, a zoo internship, and animal behavior research prompted the following list of my favorite primate species. These primates come from across the globe and showcase incredible diversity and beauty:

1.) Siamangs - Symphalangus syndactylus - If you did not get enough heartfelt love on Valentines Day, please look into a relationship with a Siamang! Siamangs are a monogamous species (one partner for life) that spend days perfecting love duets that they sing in harmony together, often heard from over 30 miles away!

2.) Golden Lion Tamarin - Leontopithecus rosalia - An exquisite, endangered species from a very small concentrated area in Africa. What I find most interesting about these little guys is that females most always conceive twins! GLTs can appear to move like squirrels based on the design of the claws and use of four legs to propel along branches.

3.) Lemurs – suborder strepsirrhine – Lemurs are one of the most primitive primate species, endemic to the African island of Madagascar. They typically live in smaller groups, and social interactions are an important factor (from solitary to social). While in New Orleans, I lead an experiment to redesign a lemur exhibit for Stella, a very old lemur (considered almost the oldest known living lemur at 32 years old). Unfortunately, she did not have any other lemurs to interact with, but I did enjoy observing and participating in some of her social grooming behaviors.

Stella and I sharing a grooming moment 

4.) Black and White Colobus - Colobus satanas - I worked with a few Colobus monkeys during my internship at the Audubon Institute in New Orleans. The species typically can only be found along the western coast of Sub-Saharan Africa. 

These monkeys are very expressive and had such different personalities. However, they apparently share their messy eating habits, which I later learned was actually a very important contribution to the environment. These horrible table manners, that can sometimes resemble a huge food fight, were a key factor in seed dispersal in the wild.

Evolution, Primatology, and Politics

An interesting topic in the news lately has been the issue of teaching evolution across public, primary and secondary schools. As the Republican Presidential Nomination process continues, the more conservative candidates and the conservative media have once more engaged with this topic. Catering to their conservative beliefs and constituents, Presidential candidates such as Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have used interesting language to characterize biological evolution. These well educated, career politicians claim that evolution is a "theory with holes" and that education must balance evolution with God, Creationism, and Intelligent Design. Mitt Romney, the leading Republican candidate, has recently stated, "I believe that God designed the universe and created the universe. I'm not exactly sure what is meant by intelligence design." Other candidates, such as Rick Santorum, have previously authored an Amendment to teach intelligent design attached to No Child Left Behind. 

God, shown here in the center organized evolution according to intelligent design

Regardless of political affiliation and beliefs, we must all think about the impact and consequences of teaching any other evolution perspectives beside biological evolution. Do we have strong evidence to support intelligent design? Do we have a body of evidence to refute biological evolution? Is it proper for a government-sponsored education system to inject faith and religious beliefs into science? How can the existence of primates and their extreme similarities to humans be consumed by other theories? The debate will continue and unfold into the Fall, but educators and voters must decide a path forward that is sure to shape how we see ourselves and primates in the future.

Primates Portrayal in Film

The human species has a special connection with and relationship to primates, and not simply because we share up to 96% of our DNA. Throughout media developments of the last 50 years, major motion pictures have addressed and engaged with the topic of primates. Sometimes monkeys are involved as sidekicks in popular movies such as Aladdin, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. However, most film makers choose to use primates as a method to achieve fear for cinematic purposes, rather than convey more meaningful messages. In this post, I will discuss three films in particular, Congo (1995), Outbreak (1995), and Planet of the Apes (1968, 2001, 2011) to analyze how primates can be portrayed.    
The movie Congo, released in 1995, is based on a Michael Crichton novel and stars Laura Linney and Dylan Walsh. In this film, a greedy corporation seeks a supply of rare diamonds and sends a research and recovery team deep into gorilla-dominated Congo. The gorillas in this film are considered a "special" breed, the "white ape" or a aggressive variation of the common Silverback Gorilla. The film makers present gorillas that are highly intelligent, organized, and combative and vicious as they battle with the humans sent to explore the diamond territory. An interesting undertone is that humans choose to insert themselves into this more "unpredictable" natural environment for personal and corporate gain. Sadly, the movie slogan sums up the theme and portrayal of these primates: "Congo: where you are the endangered species."

The next film, Outbreak, also released in 1995 (Year of the Monkey in Film?) stars Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman, and a very critical, white-headed capuchin monkey from Zaire. In this film, the film makers take a different approach from the movie Congo, developing a concept of fear around primates using a viral infection disaster. The plot features a monkey, carrying a lethal Ebola-like virus, removed from its natural habitat in Africa and soon sparking a deadly outbreak in a small California town. As scientists try to understand the virus, it becomes clear that the one primate is the cause and the potential cure of the disease. The film makers offer a fairly reasonable scenario of viral outbreak, but use a primate over any other carrier (rat, bird, pig, bat, etc). Once again, like in the movie Congo, human disruption of the natural environment in Zaire and the monkey's extraction to a California pet store are at the heart of the problem. Despite Dustin Hoffman's acting and the fictional plot, the movie made some media headlines highlighting the fact that government forces would struggle to stop an imported, deadly disease. 


The final film for our discussion is the blockbuster series of hits, Planet of the Apes. This movie has been done (1968), re-done as a TV series (1974), re-created as a modern film (2001), and again recently, completely refreshed as The Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). In these films, film makers experiment with a much more interesting primate concept. In another world in another time, could monkeys have evolved to be superior to humans in intellect? Planet of the Apes explores a world in which monkeys rule, maintain order with law, develop poetry, art, and fine dining, and subject humans to cruel slavery. The newest version of the series of movies features more content from the primate's point of view, with experimentation on him as well as torture and neglect at a "primate rehabilitation center." Humans can be fascinated with the potential monkeys have to learn, think, and adapt as humans do, and these movies balance thought with action. Interestingly enough, The Rise of the Planet of the Apes concludes with a large group of escaped primates gaining something precious: their freedom to explore the California redwood forests. 

To conclude, primates are typically portrayed in film to produce the cinematic effect of fear. This presentation is questionable considering the generally peaceful nature of primates and our growing understanding of their ability to learn and reason. Perhaps, in the future, film makers will make better attempts to carefully engage with the topic and balance plot points with more realistic and thought-provoking representations of primates.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Our World or Theirs?

Although we all love the zoo and its many attractions, we have all probably (at some point) let our minds drift off and think of the animals in the exhibits. This week's post will focus on the standing debate of animals living in captivity compared to their natural environments. 
To better understand the issue at hand, let's take a look at some of the pros and cons associated with animals living in captivity (ex: zoo setting). The captive environment allows us to repopulate endangered species, as many threats such as disease and poaching are eliminated. Additionally, we can nurse newborns rejected by their mothers and rehabilitate sick or injured animals. These animals can bring a sense of appreciation to the public as children are exposed to their beauty growing up. 
However, the other side of captivity is often more complicated and can be quite dark. Captivity can expose animals to cruel practices and abuse, extensive or unnecessary scientific experimentation, and sometimes permanently altered animal behavior. Also, animals in captivity often have lower reproduction rates, non-seasonal diets, a level of stress from their interactions with humans, and a lack of enriching stimuli for the body and brain.
I have studied animal biology and worked and interned in a zoo setting long enough to form a basic opinion on the issue. However, like all opinions and beliefs, it is possible that it will evolve as I commit to a career in this field.
Animal welfare has become a trendy and more commonly discussed topic over the past several years. Advocate groups like Peta (People of the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and the WWFHuman Society (Wild Wildlife Foundation) are growing in popularity as we all find ourselves tearing up during those similar commercials, singing along with Sarah Mclachlanin. 

While I am clearly aware of the potential for life-saving, medical and disease breakthrough that continue to save countless lives, the "captivity status quo" is below the standards we should provide to animals. Zoos and other institutions must commit the budget to optimally create the animals "natural habitat"; funding levels play a huge role in the standard of care. Established rules are often not carefully followed, and some additional guidelines (and their enforcement) can dramatically improve the animal's quality of life. I believe as long as these and new more rigid standards are and can be met broadly across all our animal institutions, captivity is ultimately a beneficial thing.