Posts Tagged ‘humans’

Genetic adaptation – not stagnating conservation – is the way to help threatened species

October 26, 2013

If the big cats, or elephants or giraffes or pandas want to survive into the distant future they need to evolve. The changes taking place in their environment and in their loss of habitat are happening too fast for natural selection to throw up the genetic changes needed for long term survival. As long as humans remain the dominant species in their environment they will need to come to terms with that – genetically. Conventional conservation efforts are fundamentally flawed. They are backwards looking. They try to preserve these species – as they are – in artificially protected habitats which are frozen in time, which remain unchanged while the world around them changes. Conservation attempts to freeze these species and thereby lock them into the non-viable position they have found themselves in. This is not going to help them to continue into the future, except as an unsuccessful species. It is paradoxical that unsuccessful species are subject to conservation efforts and successful species get labelled as pests.

Much of the rapid change to the environments for these species is a consequence of the success of humanity as a species. Trying to keep a species unchanged and stagnating in a changing world seems to me to be irresponsible. And creating  little protected bubbles of habitat – whether in a reserve or a zoo can only be a short term measure. Domesticated animals are at little risk of extinction as long as humans thrive. Their success is inextricably linked with the human species and they have been adapted genetically to be what they are today. They are not allowed to breed freely or indiscriminately and that is the genetic price they pay. But their survival is assured – at least as long as humans thrive and maybe even beyond.

‘There are many more “urbanised” species which have through a natural – but environmentally coerced or forced – selection adapted genetically to have the traits which allow them to be successful in  the human-dominated environments they find themselves in. Foxes, bears, wolves, badgers and even the polar bears of Churchill have evolved and adapted to survive in human dominated environments. But they generally live surreptitious lives in the shadow of man. They have not found a sustainable position  as yet. An increasing number of birds have adapted their behaviour (presumably also by genetic changes) to take advantage of human behaviour. They have learned to live in and around our cities, to take advantage of our agricultural and harvesting habits and to use our waste streams as their food source. Even in the water, there are fish species which succeed because of the changes brought about by man. Many insects – be they cockroaches or spiders or mosquitoes, or termites – now know how to take advantage of man-made environments. At the microbial or viral level, species are not much concerned by the changes wrought by humans and continue their merry way.

Now in this new age of DNA analysis and intentional selection of genes I think it is time for Conservation to move away from merely trying to “freeze” species in an artificially protected environment and to move into a pro-active phase where humans actually help threatened species to continue into the future. This does not mean that the neo-species that appear must necessarily be domesticated or in the service of humans but it does mean that they must share the same habitat and be able to co-exist. If they require a specialised habitat which is likely to disappear or change due to man or for any other reason, they are destined to eventually go extinct. Putting such species into zoos or other artificially maintained or otherwise protected habitats only preserves an obsolete species in a temporary environment. Conventional conservation as it is practiced today goes down that route. And while it may provide a short term method for preserving the genes of such species, it is in an unsustainable form. It is a method which does no real service to such species.

Instead of trying to recreate the woolly mammoth for an environment which is totally unsuitable or of making futile attempts to preserve habitats for elephants so that they continue “unchanged”, it would be better if we considered how elephants – or the big cats – could be assisted along the evolutionary path such that they could find a natural and sustainable place in the brave new world that they now inhabit. For example, if neo-elephants were helped to evolve genetically such that their propensity to wander over very large areas reduced, or if they preferred certain kinds of trees and bushes and left others alone, or where their wanderings were more discerning and not as damaging to human crops, then herds of neo-elephants could find a sustainable place by the side of humanity.

Perhaps Siberian neo-tigers could be evolved genetically to help herd reindeer and develop a mutually beneficial partnership with man. An occasional reindeer kill would then be quite acceptable. It would be so much more contructive if neo-wolves were helped not to stagnate genetically, but instead to evolve the behavioural characteristics that allowed them to find a way of co-existing with humans and human flocks of sheep. The idea of neo-dolphins who communicate with man and have a herding behaviour in the oceans which benefit both humans and themselves has long been a subject of science fiction. Our nearest primate cousins have to be helped to move on and not to stagnate into extinction. The pace of environmental change is much too fast for natural selection to throw up the individuals capable of survival. Instead a natural deselection of individuals incapable of surviving is taking place. Neo-gorillas and neo-chimpanzees will not appear without human intervention.

Conservation – as stagnation – is not sustainable.  Trying to prevent change is a futile exercise. It is change which is the fundamental characteristic of life. It is managing change and even designing change which is a particular strength of the human species. It is human ingenuity at work. It is time to give thought to how we can help the species around us evolve into the neo-species which can cope with the changes which are inevitable.


Baboons can tell “more” from “less” – but that is still a long way from counting

May 4, 2013

Being able to distinguish between “more” and “less” is – most likely – a capability that is a pre-requisite for the evolutionary development of the ability to count which itself must lead to the invention of numbers. Recent experiments with baboons demonstrates that they have a clear ability to make quite complex more/less distinctions.

Allison M. Barnard, Kelly D. Hughes, Regina R. Gerhardt, Louis DiVincenti, Jenna M. Bovee and Jessica F. Cantlon.Inherently Analog Quantity Representations in Olive Baboons (Papio anubis)Frontiers in Comparative Psychology, 2013 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00253

From the University of Rochester press release:

… Now a new study with a troop of zoo baboons and lots of peanuts shows that a less obvious trait—the ability to understand numbers—also is shared by man and his primate cousins.

“The human capacity for complex symbolic math is clearly unique to our species,” says co-author Jessica Cantlon, assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester. “But where did this numeric prowess come from? In this study we’ve shown that non-human primates also possess basic quantitative abilities. In fact, non-human primates can be as accurate at discriminating between different quantities as a human child.”

“This tells us that non-human primates have in common with humans a fundamental ability to make approximate quantity judgments,” says Cantlon. “Humans build on this talent by learning number words and developing a linguistic system of numbers, but in the absence of language and counting, complex math abilities do still exist.” ……

……… The baboons’ choices, conclude the authors, clearly relied on this latter “more than” or “less than” cognitive approach, known as the analog system. The baboons were able to consistently discriminate pairs with numbers larger than three as long as the relative difference between the peanuts in each cup was large. Research has shown that children who have not yet learned to count also depend on such comparisons to discriminate between number groups, as do human adults when they are required to quickly estimate quantity. 
Studies with other animals, including birds, lemurs, chimpanzees, and even fish, have also revealed a similar ability to estimate relative quantity, but scientists have been wary of the findings because much of this research is limited to animals trained extensively in experimental procedures. The concern is that the results could reflect more about the experimenters than about the innate ability of the animals. ……..

……… To rule out such influence, the study relied on zoo baboons with no prior exposure to experimental procedures. Additionally, a control condition tested for human bias by using two experimenters—each blind to the contents of the other cup—and found that the choice patterns remained unchanged.

A final experiment tested two baboons over 130 more trials. The monkeys showed little improvement in their choice rate, indicating that learning did not play a significant role in understanding quantity.

“What’s surprising is that without any prior training, these animals have the ability to solve numerical problems,” says Cantlon. The results indicate that baboons not only use comparisons to understand numbers, but that these abilities occur naturally and in the wild, the authors conclude. …….

Monkeys – except the top monkey – switch behaviour to conform to local customs

April 29, 2013

Where humans are in a subordinate position in a new society (new immigrants for example) they usually conform to avoid attracting attention which could be dangerous. They observe, they copy behaviour to try to fit in and thereby ensure their own security in the new environment. All driven no doubt by the instinct to survive. But a conquering human does not bother to conform to local customs – he imposes his own. All humans are clearly capable of both types of behaviour. Whether to conform or not is then entirely dependent upon the individual’s position in the society he finds himself in.

And monkeys are – it seems – no different.

I suspect this holds true for many more species than just humans and primates and am a little surprised that the researchers are surprised at this behaviour.

A new paper: E. van de Waal, C. Borgeaud, A. Whiten. Potent Social Learning and Conformity Shape a Wild Primate’s Foraging DecisionsScience, 2013; 340 (6131): 483 DOI:10.1126/science.1232769

From University of St. Andrews press release:

Noha group feeding on pink corn

Noha group feeding on pink corn

….. In the initial study, the researchers provided each of two groups of wild monkeys with a box of maize corn dyed pink and another dyed blue. The blue corn was made to taste repulsive and the monkeys soon learned to eat only pink corn. Two other groups were trained in this way to eat only blue corn. A new generation of infants were later offered both colours of food – neither tasting badly – and the adult monkeys present appeared to remember which colour they had previously preferred. Almost every infant copied the rest of the group, eating only the one preferred colour of corn.

The crucial discovery came when males began to migrate between groups during the mating season. The researchers found that of the ten males who moved to groups eating a different coloured corn to the one they were used to, all but one switched to the new local norm immediately.

The one monkey who did not switch, was the top ranking in his new group who appeared unconcerned about adopting local behavior.

Dr van de Waal conducted the field experiments at the Inkawu Vervet Project in the Mawana private game reserve in South Africa. She became familiar with all 109 monkeys, making it possible for her to document the behaviour of the males who migrated to new groups.

She said, “The willingness of the immigrant males to adopt the local preference of their new groups surprised us all. The copying behaviour of both the new, naïve infants and the migrating males reveals the potency and importance of social learning in these wild primates, extending even to the conformity we know so well in humans.”

Commenting on the research, leading primatologist Professor Frans de Waal, of the Yerkes Primate Center of Emory University, said that the study “is one of the few successful field experiments on cultural transmission to date, and a remarkably elegant one at that.”

Abstract: Conformity to local behavioral norms reflects the pervading role of culture in human life. Laboratory experiments have begun to suggest a role for conformity in animal social learning, but evidence from the wild remains circumstantial. Here, we show experimentally that wild vervet monkeys will abandon personal foraging preferences in favor of group norms new to them. Groups first learned to avoid the bitter-tasting alternative of two foods. Presentations of these options untreated months later revealed that all new infants naïve to the foods adopted maternal preferences. Males who migrated between groups where the alternative food was eaten switched to the new local norm. Such powerful effects of social learning represent a more potent force than hitherto recognized in shaping group differences among wild animals.

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