Tetrapod Zoology

Another article from the archives, written back on April 19th 2006. Two days earlier I’d sat up watching BBC4′s night of primate documentaries, and that where our story begins…

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I’ve sat up and watched such things as ‘Natural History Night’ and ‘Dr Who Night’ before – usually they’re a con, the programmes fizzling out round about 10-30, but ‘Primates Night’ (err, if that’s what it was called) wasn’t so thrifty, keeping me in front of the TV until past 01-00 at least. And it was brilliant – the best assortment of TV programmes I’ve seen since, well, ever.

The first episode of the BBC series Cousins (presented by Charlotte Uhlenbroek) was shown: devoted to strepsirrhines, it included some great footage of aye-ayes, indris and sifakas. It’s good, but I’ve seen it before (and got the book [Dunbar & Barrett 2000], but not the t-shirt). Two other documentaries were featured: they are among the best I’ve ever seen, and I really must get hold of copies. The first was essentially ‘Frans de Waal’s guide to cultural primatology’; it was Brian Leith’s award-winning 2002 documentary The Cultured Ape. Fronted by de Waal, and featuring Jane Goodall and a load of other primatologists whose names I’ve forgotten, The Cultured Ape concentrates on the many discoveries – well known to primatologists but still, it seems, alien to people at large – which show that humans are but one end of a behavioural and psychological spectrum, rather than an island separated from the rest of the animal kingdom. Concepts traditionally regarded as uniquely human, such as the development, maintenance and transmission of cultures, complex communication, and the use of tools, are of course now well recorded for chimps and other primates (e.g., Whiten et al. 1999, Byrne 2002), and a good case can be made that chimps and other non-humans also display less quantifiable traits such as guilt, deception, aesthetic enjoyment and hatred. When gorillas in zoos have looked after children who have fallen into their enclosures, are they not displaying altruism? Reportedly, mortally wounded chimps display behaviour that – if witnessed in a human – would be interpreted as pleading for mercy.

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On several occasions Goodall has explained the resistance she has received to her anthropomorphic interpretation of chimp behaviour after witnessing what seemed like jealousy, altruism, hatred and so on, and she explained how she learnt to couch these observations in a neutral language in order to get past reviewers. While I can understand that scientists want to avoid anthropomorphism, at the same time the conclusion seems unavoidable that individuals of at least some non-human species have personalities – surely everyone who’s kept pets has experienced this, as Goodall stated on the programme – and can experience many/most of the same things that we can. Yet it seems that traditional ethology denies such as possible for other species, and in saying these things – the chimp enjoyed looking at the waterfall, the chimp felt guilty when it was caught stealing – one would be accused of being un-scientific. Some ethologists even argue that we shouldn’t speak of non-human animals experiencing pain, given that we don’t know that they are really experiencing the same sensation that we associate with that word. I’ve read some of the literature on this area, but I’m no ethologist, and I have no stake in this area. I’m just interested.

The other documentary – Gorillas Revisited With David Attenborough – was altogether different, but just as excellent. One of the most memorable and talked-about scenes from any TV documentary ever is Sir David Attenborough’s 1978 encounter with wild Mountain gorillas Gorilla beringei in the Parc National des Volcans of Rwanda, broadcast in episode 12 (‘A life in the trees’) of the ground-breaking series Life on Earth, first broadcast in 1979. Gorillas Revisited covered the behind-the-scenes history of the 1978 filming, and what has happened to the Rwandan gorillas since. Attenborough was joined by Life on Earth producer John Sparks, cameraman Martin Saunders, and Ian Redmond, former assistant to Dian Fossey and now director of Global Great Ape Conservation. It was a fascinating story, tragically sad in places, uplifting in others.

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Most people – even those without a special interest in zoology – know the story of Dian Fossey and the gorillas she studied while at the Karisoke Research Center thanks to the 1988 film (and/or Fossey’s 1983 book) Gorillas in the Mist (starring Sigourney Weaver). So it might come as no surprise to learn that the BBC team sought permission from Fossey to film ‘her’ gorillas, as they’d heard that this group had become habituated (= accustomed to humans). Somewhat surprisingly, Fossey gave enthusiastic approval, and urged Attenborough and colleagues to help promote the gorilla conservation work she, Redmond and her colleagues had initiated. At the time of the filming, Fossey was ill and still devastated by the recent killing of Digit, a young male gorilla who had been speared to death on New Year’s Eve 1977. After the filming, the BBC team were shot at and arrested by the Rwandan army, who were under the impression that the film was being made in order to show what a bad job Rwanda was doing for gorilla conservation. The army also thought that the BBC had been filming Digit’s body. They strip-searched Attenborough and confiscated the film cans, but the crew had cleverly swapped the labels on the cans, so the soldiers were confiscating unused film.

During the Life on Earth sequence one young gorilla clambers all over Attenborough and lies back on Attenborough’s chest. From its behaviour you might assume that this gorilla was a plucky, bold and confident individual. Well, he was named Pablo, and today he is an adult silverback. Another individual who was a youngster when Attenborough encountered him, Titus, is today a silverback who leads a group of 59 animals: the biggest recorded gorilla group ever. Many of the gorillas named by Fossey are doing well today, and have become parents and grandparents, and Fossey will always be remembered for initiating one of the first long-term generation-level studies of a wild mammal population.

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If you’ve seen Gorillas in the Mist you’ll know that Fossey’s work was actually inspired by her meeting with a palaeontologist, Louis S. B. Leakey: a great example of a very fruitful crossover between palaeontology and field biology. Prior to Fossey’s work, Rosalie Osborn had studied Mountain gorillas. She also acknowledged Leakey’s involvement in setting up her research (Osborn 1963), and Leakey is also acknowledged by Goodall as initially suggesting that she might study the chimps she eventually became so acquainted with (van Lawick-Goodall 1971). It’s no secret that Leakey regarded women as better suited for observational fieldwork than men, apparently because he regarded women as more observant, and more patient.

Of course, things have not all been rosy in the Virungas. In 1968 half of the Parc National des Volcans was taken for pyrethrum cultivation (ironically, grown for use in Europe as an environmentally-friendly alternative to DDT) and there were plans, backed by the European Development Fund, to replace even more of the park with pyrethrum (Harcourt 1981). Poaching was a serious problem that Fossey and her successors have had to deal with (snares are set for hoofed mammals, but gorillas get caught and injured in them), and during the 1970s several gorillas were shot. Following the humanitarian crisis that engulfed the region following the civil war and resultant genocide of April-July 1994, rebels invaded the park and looted the homes and facilities, and murdered several of the people employed to keep the gorillas safe from poachers. Rebels also killed gorillas, and anti-poaching trackers, in 2001. And of course Fossey herself was murdered in 1985.

From a population that was thought to be around 600 in 1960, Rwandan Mountain gorillas had dwindled to an estimated low of 200 or so by 1980. Today, there are around 380 animals. That’s better than it was, but still pitifully low [UPDATE: much happened in 2007 and 2008; little of it is good news].

Refs – -

Byrne, R. W. 2002. Social and technical forms of primate intelligence. In de Waal, F. B. M. (ed) Tree of Origin. Harvard University Press (Cambridge, Mass. & London), pp. 145-172.

Dunbar, R. & Barrett, L. 2000. Cousins: Our Primate Relatives. BBC Worldwide, London.

Harcourt, A. H. 1981. Why save the mountain gorilla? Wildlife 23 (2), 22-26.

Osborn, R. M. 1963. Observations on the behaviour of the Mountain gorilla. Symposia of the Zoological Society of London 10, 29-37.

van Lawick-Goodall, J. 1971. In the Shadow of Man. William Collins Sons & Co, London.

Whiten, A., Goodall, J., McGrew, W. C., Nishida, T., Reynolds, V., Sugiyama, Y., Tutin, C. E. G., Wrangham, R. W. & Boesch, C. 1999. Cultures in chimpanzees. Nature 399, 682-685.

Comments

  1. #1 Hai~Ren
    December 8, 2008

    It’s unbelievably heart-breaking to read about all the turmoil that’s going on in that part of the world.

    I find it interesting that the gorillas seen in captivity are most often Gorilla gorilla gorilla, whereas the ones most often seen in documentaries are Gorilla beringei beringei, which is nonexistent in captivity. Gorilla beringei graueri and Gorilla gorilla diehli seem to have lucked out, with extremely poor representation in zoos for graueri, and AFAIK, there’s only a single captive individual of diehli.

    I wonder how many out there are aware that the gorillas seen in the zoo are likely to be a different species altogether from the ones they see on TV, or are even aware of the existence of the other two imperiled gorilla subspecies.

    Oh, and I just realised that next year is supposed to be the Year of the Gorilla.

  2. #2 Dartian
    December 8, 2008

    One of the most memorable and talked-about scenes from any TV documentary ever is Sir David Attenborough’s 1978 encounter with wild Mountain gorillas Gorilla beringei in the Parc National des Volcans of Rwanda, broadcast in episode 12 (‘A life in the trees’) of the ground-breaking series Life on Earth, first broadcast in 1979.

    I always find it a little surprising how unanimous people are in saying that the scenes they remember best from Life on Earth are those with the gorillas. I saw Life on Earth at least twice when I was a kid and I must have seen that primate episode as many times as well. But later on, I couldn’t remember any scene from it. And when I watched it on DVD a couple of years ago, I still didn’t get any deja vu feeling.

    (What I do remember from Life on Earth are some scenes from the bird and mammal episodes, as well as the reconstructions of extinct vertebrates. The latter, of course, are pretty laughable to a modern viewer. But I can still remember how awesome it looked to me, as a wee laddie, when a piece of rock next to David Attenborough suddenly turned into a grinning Dimetrodon.)

  3. #3 Pablo
    December 8, 2008

    “we shouldn’t speak of non-human animals experiencing pain, given that we don’t know that they are really experiencing the same sensation that we associate with that word”
    —exactly the same can be said about every feeling, and about every other person; you can’t even know if your twin brother experience the same sensation than you, even if he calls it with the same word. But (some) ethologyst asume that is the same “pain” for every human being, and something enteriy different in a gorilla…for me, is smells like religion…

  4. #4 William Miller
    December 8, 2008

    Yeah, I don’t get the “non-human animals don’t feel pain” Birds and mammals, anyway. (I don’t know enough about reptiles to say; I’ve seen Ball pythons react to being tickled, but I don’t generally see injured reptiles.)

    It’s a slippery slope – you can go off into “all animals are robots” at one end, and “fishing is murder” at the other. I don’t buy either extreme.

  5. #5 Elliott
    December 8, 2008

    My best-remembered Attenborough-documentary moment is the short speech that begins — sotto EXTREMELY voce — “I’m standing upwind from a herd of Komodo dragons …”

    I believe the rest of it (I haven’t seen it in over 25 years!) goes something like, “Were the wind to shift, or their attention to waver, they would [words to the effect of come over here and rip me to shreds like they're doing to that goat I gave them, see?].”

  6. #6 Zach Miller
    December 8, 2008

    As a keeper of lizards, I can testify that leopard geckos, at least, have distinct personalities. I have three adults, and they are all wildly different in their mannerisms. Liquid is adventurous and not easily scared, always checking out new things and watching us humans with what you’d have to call curiosity. Solid is jumpy but ultimately bloodthirsty, ready to sink his teeth into anything that enters the tank including fingers. Mr. Fat is lazy but generally enjoys being out of his tank to explore. He is the oldest of the three (10+) and is also the most docile.

    I can also attest to them feeling pain or discomfort. Whenever one of the geckos steps on another, the stepped-on lizards squirms to get away. Why would he squirm if he didn’t feel anything? Mr. Fat also develops small sand impactions between his “lip” and the tooth row. If these impactions are not taken care of, they tend to grow (like a pearl) and start to overgrow onto the teeth. Well, one time recently that DID happen, and he was very fussy the whole time I was trying to remove the impaction. Eventually it did come out, accompanied by a lost tooth or two and a little bit of blood. Oh, he did NOT like that impaction coming out.

    So yeah, they feel pain. And they have personalities!

  7. #7 Mus
    December 8, 2008

    I cannot comprehend how anyone with the slightest knowledge of evolution and neuroanatomy and physiology could possibly even think of saying that it is “unscientific” to say that nonhuman animals cannot feel pain, have distinct personalities, etc. Only a very ignorant creationist could possibly hold that belief.

    This issue isn’t about philosophy, it’s about science. Science doesn’t start with conclusions (“we cannot possibly say that other animals don’t experience X or Y”), it is guided by the evidence. And ALL the evidence CLEARLY indicates that at the very least, a fairly good number of nonhuman animals are sentient (compare “sentience” with “sapience”). That old, outdated ethological PHILOSOPHY is not only old and outdated, it was never scientific (since it was philosophical), and is actually unscientific.

    If you want to talk philosophy, then you cannot really say that ANYTHING (including other humans, such as your own identical twin… if you have one) is sentient.

    Even at the outset, that dogma is not scientific, it’s philosophical. Within philosophy, it is a fallacious idea unless you also include other humans. And given what we know today, it is also unscientific because it goes against all the available evidence/established body of knowledge.

  8. #8 Angela
    December 8, 2008

    I’ve been accused of my scientist co-workers as anthropomorphic when describing animals as having emotions, but I believe they are just much farther behind on animal behavior research than I am. I find extreme anti-anthropomorphism to be as unscientific as saying animal emotions are the same as human emotions. Each of my fancy rats has had a distinct personality–it really surprised me at first, but all rat owners know it. They also get very “depressed” when a same-sex cagemate dies, becoming inactive and not very responsive for several days. Well, they are social animals…and known to laugh and dream as well.

    Not believing that animals are sentient or feel pain is very convenient when you want to destroy their habitat, raise them for fur, or keep them in factory farms for capital gain.

  9. #9 Dartian
    December 9, 2008

    It’s no secret that Leakey regarded women as better suited for observational fieldwork than men, apparently because he regarded women as more observant, and more patient.

    He certainly had a knack for recruiting women. In addition to Osborn, Fossey, and Goodall, there was also Birute Galdikas, who went to Indonesia to study orangutans. Quite a silverback male, that Louis Leakey.

  10. #10 Dartian
    December 9, 2008

    Angela:

    [rats] are social animals…and known to laugh and dream as well.

    I have to ask… How do rats laugh?

  11. #11 Milo
    December 9, 2008

    I’ve been reading your blog for a while now. I appreciate your writing style and content, though I unfortunately don’t understand all of it!

    I’m no expert in animals like you, but I can still be useful. ;-)

    I’ve found copies of both documentaries you mentioned.
    “The Cultured Ape 2002 (BBC).avi” and “Gorillas Revisited With David Attenborough 2006 Bbc Doc Ws Dvbc Xvid-Acp.avi” They seem to be pretty rare since I couldn’t find any on several different bit-torrent sites, but I found them on emule with a handful of people uploading.

    I’m downloading them now, and I can get you copies.

  12. #12 David Marjanovi?
    December 9, 2008

    Rats laugh when tickled.

    You just can’t hear it. They laugh in ultrasound.

  13. #13 Milo
    December 9, 2008

    I just watched the cultured ape, it was EXCELLENT! VERY moving documentary!

  14. #14 Dartian
    December 9, 2008

    David:

    Rats laugh when tickled. You just can’t hear it. They laugh in ultrasound.

    Oh, I had forgotten about that study. (Hmm. Could laughter be an euarchontogliran synapomorphy? Must go and tickle some colugos next time I get the chance.)

    If rats can laugh, do they also smile when someone says ‘Cheese’?

  15. #15 mus
    December 9, 2008

    Dartian: “I have to ask… How do rats laugh?”

    Here’s a video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myuceywaOUs

    Angela: “Not believing that animals are sentient or feel pain is very convenient when you want to destroy their habitat, raise them for fur, or keep them in factory farms for capital gain.”

    And that is precisely why this issue makes me so angry. The only time I ever even hear it is in the context of people mistreating or abusing animals trying to justify their doing so by saying that you shouldn’t anthropomorphize.

  16. #16 mus
    December 9, 2008

    Funny, I just came across this article about dogs feeling jealousy and having a sense of fairness: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/2008/12/08/dogs-demand-fair-play-or-wont-play-at-all/

    The one thing I didn’t like was this bit: “They can suffer simple forms of many emotions we once thought only primates could experience”

    Now, how in the world do they determine that animals’ emotions are any less complex than any other’s? What does it even MEAN to say that X’s jealousy is more simple than Y’s jealousy? I for one think they’re simply just parroting the nonsense they’ve heard elsewhere… which I CAN say is much simpler than actually thinking about it.

  17. #17 Angela
    December 9, 2008

    Thanks for responding about the rat laughter, David. My friend loaned me his bat detector when I was introducing a new rat to my existing group. Although you could hear nothing with your ears, with the detector you could hear this horribly pitiful wailing from the new rat. It was amazing, yet sort of disturbing because of the way my personal emotions responded to the sound!

    This is a great quote: “Rats may also emit short, high frequency, ultrasonic, socially induced vocalization during rough and tumble play, before receiving morphine, or having sex, and when tickled. The vocalization is described as a distinct “chirping,” has been likened to laughter, and is interpreted as an expectation of something rewarding.”

    I’m surprised you didn’t ask how they know that they dream though! For those who wonder…
    http://discovermagazine.com/2001/oct/featrat

  18. #18 Angela
    December 9, 2008

    mus “I for one think they’re simply just parroting the nonsense they’ve heard elsewhere… which I CAN say is much simpler than actually thinking about it.”

    I always get frustrated reading science articles in mainstream media and on websites. Rather than contributing to Americans’ understanding of science, it merely acts to dumb them down even more!

  19. #19 Dartian
    December 10, 2008

    Angela:

    I’m surprised you didn’t ask how they know that they dream though!

    I didn’t ask that because I already knew that other mammals dream. Research on rat laughter has somehow managed to stay below my radar. I’ve never had pet rats, and I wouldn’t be able to hear their ultrasound vocalizations anyway.

    Now, I’m not entirely convinced that rat ‘laughter’ really is analogous to human laughter, although I don’t have a strong opinion in this matter and I certainly don’t claim any sort of expertise. NMD. But if we assume that rats really ‘laugh’ in the same sense as we do, I would like to make a general point: (human) laughter is not always a positive thing. There is a big difference between laughing with someone and at someone. Who’s to say that rats don’t also sometimes use laughter as a way to bully and humiliate other rats?

  20. #20 David Marjanovi?
    December 10, 2008

    I didn’t ask that because I already knew that other mammals dream.

    Mammals? At the very least, most amniotes dream or anyway have REM sleep. (Though adult birds don’t do it.)

    NMD.

    “Not my discipline”?

  21. #21 Dartian
    December 10, 2008

    NMD = Need More Data.

    (Although Not My Discipline isn’t bad either.)

  22. #22 John Jackson
    December 13, 2008

    Current number of mountain gorillas is surprisingly about 720 according to CNN this week, though I didn’t watch the whole programme.

    > I cannot comprehend how anyone with the slightest knowledge of evolution and neuroanatomy and physiology could possibly even think of saying that it is “unscientific” to say that nonhuman animals cannot feel pain, have distinct personalities, etc.
    < Saying animals do share many of the same feelings as humans, explains quite well what we see. The alternative - that they show similar responses in equivalent circumstances, but due to a different but parallel system - is not as good an explanation, especially, as suggested above, when there are so many physical similarities. I can't remember what Lorenz had to say about this, but it�s quite possible he hadn�t taken on board the views of his compatriot Popper on the nature of science!

    These days, emotions, feelings etc are considered to have useful functionality. In some ways they prepare the body for particular modes of operation, sometimes it's just a different way of running our thoughts (and unconscious mental activity), and often it�s both. For example, surprise can make the body get ready for action, but it also makes the mind stop what it was thinking about before and concentrate on external matters. This sort of thing applies to all animals. Anyway, you can make an artificial mind that works very well, and resembles the behaviour of both humans and animals, which embodies particular emotions and feelings as part of its operation.

    > This issue isn’t about philosophy, it’s about science.
    < They only make sense when they agree. One means knowledge and the other means love of knowledge. Perhaps science is about getting knowledge (i.e. useful beliefs) and the other (philosophy of science, anyway) is about how to get it.

    > Rats laugh when tickled. You just can’t hear it. They laugh in ultrasound.
    < :) Perhaps there's an equivalent for elephants. I�ve heard that mice can�t hear any sound a telephone can transmit. But the squeakings of pipistrelles that are audible to humans are apparently social calls.

    Rats also smile when they taste something sweet, and go :-( if it�s bitter. This is an example of the utility of feelings (or at least of activities linked to them) since the downward corners of the mouth allow nasty stuff to drain out.

    I think it's Grill, H.J. and R. Norgren (1978) [here].

  23. #23 DDeden
    December 20, 2008

    Any living thing that felt no pain would be selected out of a population rather quickly.

  24. #24 Jeremiah
    January 7, 2009

    Is “The Cultured Ape” available for purchase anywhere? I can’t find it online.

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