Goodall: Letters from “Chimpland”

Jane Goodall in 2006.Photo by Jeekc.  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

Jane Goodall in 2006. Photo by Jeekc. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

I recently came across this fascinating collection of letters by primatologist Jane Goodall: Africa in My Blood: An Autobiography in Letters. The Early Years (Houghton Mifflin).

Published in 2000, the correspondence begins with Goodall’s childhood in the London suburb of Weybridge. Full of curiosity for scientic subjects, Goodall rallied friends to take part in various nature clubs, including her Alligator Society. (In order to earn an alligator badge, each member had to identify at least 10 species of birds, dogs, trees, and butterflies or moths. “As I am the leader I will give my Aligator an eye and you must not,” she once wrote to her friend Sally Cary Pugh.)

The bulk of the letters, however, focus on the first several years of Goodall’s work in Africa–including her arrival in 1960 at the chimpanzee reserve now known as Gombe Stream National Park (in Tanzania) and her discoveries that chimpanzees eat meat and use tools.

As Goodall gradually earned the trust of the chimpanzees at Gombe and was able to observe them more closely, she regaled her family back home with detailed descriptions of the personalities in “Chimpland,” as she sometimes called it. Here are a few lines she wrote about a chimpanzee named William:

The odd thing is that he knows it’s evil, when he steals these things. I have a new haversack made in Kogoma. Three times already he has tried to take it. He always says “hoo” in an aggrieved way when I say no and hold onto it! Anyway, this morning after his bananas he looked so melting sitting there that I resolved to get him one from the bunch I had hidden in the tent. A shriek from Dominic who was making my bed warned me—too late. William had taken my haversack from the table and was dragging it off, bumpity bump, into the bushes. In it was my camera. Also the 300 and 150 mm lenses. Also exposure meter and my last 5 KII films. Well, I yelled at him and just charged after him. He dropped it just before getting to the bushes opposite the tent. Now this is the amazing thing. I told you he knows it is wrong—I quickly followed him with a banana, but was afraid that I might have scared him badly. Not at all. He came up at once, though he did pause and say “hoo” in a rather defiant way before taking it. And came out again, bold as ever, to try and push me off the box to see if there were more inside. Which proves most positively that he recognized my right to get my property back. He is a real menace—a real cleptomaniac.

–from a letter sent in early January 1963

Another volume, Beyond Innocence: An Autobiography in Letters. The Later Years, follows Goodall’s life and career from 1966-1999.

Falsehoods: The Truth About Lying in the Digital Age

“The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs,” by Georges de La Tour. (Late 1620s.)
Wikimedia. PD-Art.

In this recently posted TED talk, psychologist Jeff Hancock identified three types of lies that he’s been seeing a lot of lately—the colorfully named Butler, Sock Puppet, and Chinese Water Army—but he also challenged the common notion that the Digital Age, with its greater anonymity, generates more deception.

Hancock, who did his share of deceit-tracking as a customs officer for Canada in the mid-1990s and is now an associate professor of cognitive science and communications at Cornell University, acknowledged how much has changed in the way we communicate. “We email, we text, we Skype, we FaceBook … That’s had an impact on deception.”

He gave examples of the Butler, a tiny lie someone tells when they want to spare feelings, protect themselves, or preserve a relationship in an environment where it’s possible for others to connect to us 24 hours a day: “Sorry I didn’t respond to you earlier. My battery was dead. Your battery wasn’t dead … You just didn’t want to respond to that person at that time,” he said.

“These lies are being used to create a buffer like the butler used to do between us and our connections to everybody else. But they’re very special,” he said. “They use the ambiguity that comes from using technology. You don’t know where I am, or what I’m doing, or who I’m with.”

Another kind of deception is the Sock Puppet (for an example, read about R.J. Ellory’s fake reviews of his own books on Amazon.) Take the same kind of deception to a larger scale and you get the Chinese Water Army (or its American equivalent, Astroturfing). “We see this especially with product reviews, book reviews—everything from hotels to whether you think that toaster is a good toaster or not,” Hancock said.

But when Hancock and his colleagues looked at people’s ordinary online behaviors, they didn’t find them replete with deception. In one study, Hancock and his colleagues asked participants to document all their communications and lies for a week. They found that people were the most honest on email and the least honest over the phone. They also found greater honesty on Linked In, as opposed to paper resumes, and discovered that users’ FaceBook profiles were actually a pretty accurate reflection of their personalities.

This evidence that online communication is actually fairly honest may have something to do with how, for the first time in human history, so much of our lives are thoroughly documented, Hancock explained. On their own, humans do a poor job of recognizing deceit, but today’s networked communications open us up to greater scrutiny. Hancock went on to discuss how he has developed a computer algorithm (based on language patterns) that can distinguish between real and fake hotel reviews with greater accuracy than people can.

Today’s communication records, with all the truths and falsehoods they contain, are a goldmine for social scientists, he added. “We’re going to learn so much more about human thought and expression—about everything from love to attitudes.”

In addition, they may lead people to be more honest, he believes, as they consider what legacies they want to leave behind. “Because now, in the networked age, we are all leaving a record.”

Estrogenic: Consumption of Certain Plants May Be Linked to Aggression in Monkeys

Red colobus monkeys in Uganda.
Image by Duncan (Wellington, NZ). CC By-S.A. 2.0.

Munching on large amounts of phytoestrogen-rich leaves from the Milletia dura tree appears to alter hormone levels and behavior among red colobus monkeys, according to a study published in the journal Hormones and Behavior.

Studying a group of male red colobus monkeys in Uganda, scientists from the University of California-Berkeley found that levels of estradiol and cortisol rose with seasonally higher consumption of estrogen-like compounds. In addition, the monkeys fought and mated more, and indulged less in the social-bonding activity of grooming.

“It’s one of the first studies done in a natural setting providing evidence that plant chemicals can directly affect a wild primate’s physiology and behavior by acting on the endocrine system,” said study lead author Michael Wasserman, who conducted the research as a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management. “By altering hormone levels and social behaviors important to reproduction and health, plants may have played a large role in the evolution of primate — including human — biology in ways that have been underappreciated.”

via Eating estrogenic plants alters hormones in monkeys, may increase aggression and sex.

Researchers warned against assigning too much influence to phytoestrogens, however, explaining that diet is just one factor in behavior. Others include the hormones already produced inside the body as well as the amount of competition for food and mates.

Einstein’s Brain: New Insights on Old Gray Matter

Albert Einstein.
Photograph by Oren Jack Turner. Image in the Public Domain due to age.

Albert Einstein would unquestionably be called one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century. So did his brain look much different from the average person’s? As reported on SciTech Daily, anthropologists from Florida State University recently examined photos from Einstein’s 1955 autopsy and found some notable features:

The most striking observation was the complexity and pattern of convolutions on certain parts of the cerebral cortex, especially in the prefrontal cortex and also the parietal lobes and visual cortex.

The prefrontal cortex is important for abstract thinking. The complex pattern of convolutions probably gave the region an unusual surface area, which might have contributed to his remarkable thought processes.

via Photos of Einstein’s Brain Show Unique Features | SciTech Daily.

For those who want to mull over Einstein’s gray matter some more, scans of his brain can be purchased as an App, according to this article on redOrbit.

Elements: A Periodic Table For Superheroes and Villains

Found on BoingBoing, here’s a periodic table with a little Ka-pow!

University of Kentucky chemistry professors John P. Selegue and F. James Holler are collecting comic book references to chemical elements.

via The comic book periodic table of elements – Boing Boing.

Below are just a few of the many elements that figure into comic book plots:

Selenium (Se).
Image by W. Oelen, Creative Commons. CCO 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Above, selenium (Se), with an atomic number of 34, is a nonmetal found in metal-sulfide ores. (It is also contained in the poisonous tail of Stingaree in the comic series Metamorpho.)

Vanadinite, which contains vanadium (V).
Image by Didier Descouens (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.) Unported license).

The mineral vanadinite contains vanadium (V), atomic number 23, a hard, ductile metal. (When Mr. Element sprays it on a wall, Flash can’t break through.)

Sulfur (S).
Ben Mills. Wikimedia Commons.

Sulfur (S), atomic number 16, has been used to make everything from gunpowder to medicinal balms to insecticides. (It also comes in handy for setting safes on fire in Doom Patrol.)

& Attoseconds: A Moment With the Scientist Behind the Shortest Laser Pulse

Zenghu Chang, in the Florida Atto Science and Technology Lab at UCF. He is wearing goggles to protect his eyes from the laser light. Photo by Susan Frith.

Briefly returning to the A’s at the Curiosity Dispensary … Before I enter Zenghu Chang’s lab at the University of Central Florida, he hands me a pair of blue booties and tells me to put on some safety goggles. The booties help keep out the dust. The goggles will protect my eyes from intense laser light. Inside the Florida Atto Science and Technology Lab, a research team led by Chang has used a new optical technique to generate the shortest laser pulse on record—just 67 attoseconds (or 67 quintillionths of a second) in duration. Their results appear in the journal Optics Letters. Chang’s accomplishment brings scientists a step closer to the goal of being able to observe chemical reactions as they unfold.

When I think of incredibly short bursts of time, I think of Olympic sprinters crossing the finish line. I think of speeding bullets. (I think of how long I am actually sitting down at the dinner table before my kids start haggling over what they have to eat to get dessert.)

Dr. Chang, a professor of optics and physics, works in a whole different world—the world of the attosecond. In the time it takes you to blink your eye, he explains, 1015 attoseconds have passed. Comparing an attosecond to a second is like comparing one second to twice (actually 2.3 times) the age of the universe. Continue reading

Eavesdropping: A Peek at the Snooping Skills of Beetles, Bats, Canaries (and a Few Humans)

The Eavesdropper by Eugene de Blaas (1843-1932).
Image in the Public Domain due to age.

Human history is full of examples of eavesdropping, from neighbors snooping on the party line to the FBI scouring the Gmail account of Gen. David Petraeus. In a post on her blog Brain Pickings, Maria Popova takes a peek at John L. Locke’s book Eavesdropping: An Intimate History (Oxford University Press, 2010) for some explanation of its causes. Animals do plenty of eavesdropping, too, to avoid predators, defend their territories, and assess the fitness of their mates. Here are some ways that beetles, bats, and canaries snoop for information. (But don’t tell anybody you heard this from me.):


Margaridisa sp. Flea beetles normally like to chomp away on leaves from the pink flowering Cordobán tree (Conostegia xalapensis). But the presence of aggressive ants seems to put a damper on their appetite.

To test if these beetles eavesdrop on the communication pheromones of ants in order to avoid them, David Gonthier, an environmental sciences researcher at the University of Toledo, coated the underside of some leaves with “crushed ant liquids” from the species A. instabilis and dotted others with only water. His results appear in the open-access journal PLOS One.

The control leaves sustained 3.8 times more damage and had three times more beetles on them than the ant-marked leaves. In addition, two experiments comparing control leaves with leaves that had previously been “patrolled” by A. instabilis and another ant species, C. textor, found about twice as much damage among the control leaves.

The researcher found no significant differences in leaves that had been patrolled by a third ant species, S. geminata, but more experiments may be needed to understand those results.


Bats use echolocation, releasing short wavelength signals that bounce off other objects, in order to find food and orient themselves, as well as to socialize. By eavesdropping on these signals, bats can glean information from others. One study in Proceedings of the Royal Society Bby scientists from Germany’s University of Ulm and other institutions looks at the extent to which bats can gather social information, such as the sex of the caller, from these vocal signatures.

Greater sac-winged bat (S. bilineata).
Felineora. Creative Commons.

Their study involved the greater sac-winged bat (Saccopteryx bilineata). Even though they mate only during a brief time in December, males of this species defend their daytime roosting space from other males and try to attract females to it throughout the year.

After capturing bats with mist nets, researchers banded individuals and released them one at a time in order to record their distinctive echolocation calls. Then they recorded the responses of roosting males as individual bats were released, one by one, near the colony’s roosting site. All of the roosting males crooned courtship songs to approaching females and warned off approaching males with territorial vocalizations.

Due to the distance and darkness, it is unlikely that scent or visual information helped these males tell the difference between male and female bats, the study concludes. “Through passive information transfer and eavesdropping, echolocation calls play a crucial and hitherto underestimated role for social communication in a highly mobile and gregarious nocturnal mammal.”


Eavesdropping doesn’t always generate reliable information, however—especially when the subject knows they’re being watched.

Domestic canary (Serinus canaria).
L.E. MacDonald. Creative Commons.

A study published in PLOS One on socially-monogamous domestic canaries looked at the effect of having an audience on males’ behavior. Researchers from Paris West University Nanterre la Défense paired up 21 male canaries and 21 female canaries in cages, allowing them to mate. Later they placed those same male canaries in cages with different, but familiar, females, with whom they could interact. These interactions either took place in front of another empty cage or a cage containing a familiar female or their own mate. When there was no audience, the male canaries courted the most. They courted the least in front of their own mates.

“These results show that male domestic canaries can adjust their behaviour according to the social bond they share with the audience,” the study states. “Indeed, subjects courted less in the presence of their mate than in the presence of a familiar female. This suggests that males suffer costs while engaging in extra-pair behaviours in the presence of their mate.”

A second eavesdropping experiment found that male canaries competed more aggressively against other males for food when they had an audience. The presence of a mate or a familiar female led to more attacks on the competing male.

The study concluded: “One could assume that males losing a contest would suffer a decrease in their reproductive success in both situations: eavesdropping familiar females would not choose them as sexual partners … while eavesdropping mates would engage more in extra-pair copulations … ”

Elephants: Around the Waterhole with Field Biologist Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell

Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell in Etosha National Park.
Photograph by Tim Rodwell.

When it’s time to leave the waterhole, African elephant family groups have a special way of announcing their departure. “We call it the ‘let’s go’ rumble,” explains Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell, a Stanford University scientist who has been studying elephants in Namibia’s Etosha National Park for 20 years. First comes the low-frequency call of the matriarch, followed by a series of close or overlapping rumbles from other high-ranking females. “What you get is a call that’s at least three times the size of the original call,” O’Connell-Rodwell says. “It’s as if they need the motivation of this call to action.” Her study of these departure vocalizations recently appeared in the journal Bioacoustics.

But the scope of O’Connell-Rodwell’s research is larger (one might say elephantine): Her interests extend from seismic communication to wildlife conservation to the effects of the environment on elephants’ social structure. “There are a lot of different questions we have, because elephants are long-lived social animals,” she says. “It takes years to find particular social patterns.” Hoping to learn as much as possible about the elephants without disturbing them, O’Connell-Rodwell and her colleagues have set up a solar-powered camp at Mushara waterhole. 

O’Connell-Rodwell is also co-founder of Utopia Scientific, a nonprofit research and education organization, as well as the author of three books, including The Elephant’s Secret Sense: The Hidden Life of the Wild Herds of Africa. Here are a few glimpses of her work among the elephants of southern Africa:

You Talking to Me?

The waterhole is a great place to see the social behavior of elephants, as shown in another recent study by O’Connell-Rodwell in Ethology, Ecology, and Evolution. In a dry year, male elephants appear to know their place in the social order, following a kind of water-hole etiquette. “A lower-ranking elephant will typically stick his trunk inside the dominant bull’s mouth, and then step away as if to say, ‘I’m just going to drink over here where it’s really salty,’” O’Connell-Rodwell says. (“Elephants use their trunks like people use handshakes–as a greeting, a sign of respect, or appeasement.”)

Studying waterhole behavior, O’Connell-Rodwell found that elephants form linear dominance hierarchies in years with low rainfall. “When there are minimal resources, you have to have more order to prevent chaos,” she says. “Everyone knows where they stand, so there is less fighting and less stress.” Acts of affiliation, like the trunk-in-mouth described above, are more common than aggression.

But during wet years, things can get a little surly. O’Connell found younger bulls to be more aggressive than affiliative. (Aggressive behaviors can include anything from charging another elephant to flaring the ears.) “You don’t need to kowtow to the dominant [bull] when you can drink anywhere,” she says. “There is a lot more aggression when there is uncertainty in the ranking.”

Bulls in a Rush

When male elephants break out of the protected borders of the Etosha National Park, they often wind up in places where they’re unwanted. This puts them at risk of getting shot by humans. Concerned about the conservation of this sensitive species, O’Connell-Rodwell has experimented with one promising way of getting bulls to return: broadcasting a recording of an estrus call.

Continue reading

Diamonds Closer to Home

Diamond on matrix.
Photo by Rob Lavinsky, – CC-BY-SA-3.0.

In my last post, “Diamonds, Dinosaurs, and ‘Drunk’ Birds,” I linked to an article at National Geographic Daily News about the possible discovery of a diamond-studded planet 40 light years from Earth. As it turns out, conditions might be favorable for diamond oceans a bit closer to home–such as on Uranus or Neptune. An h/t to pussonalamp, who blogs at the Dead and Trying, for alerting me to  a post from Discovery News on this sparkling topic.

Diamonds, Dinosaurs, and “Drunk” Birds

Rough diamond. Source: United States Geological Survey. Public Domain.

It sounds like a jeweler’s dream-come-true: Scientists have recently discovered what appears to be a carbon-packed, diamond-rich planet. Trouble is, it’s 40 light years away and one of the conditions that makes diamonds possible—its proximity to its parent star—renders it uninhabitable at 3,900 degrees Fahrenheit. An article in National Geographic Daily News explains the discovery, made with the help of NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope:

“Science fiction has dreamed of diamond planets for many years, so it’s amazing that we finally have evidence of its existence in the real universe,” said study leader Nikku Madhusudhan, a postdoctoral researcher at Yale University.

“It’s the first time we know of such an exotic planet that we think was born mostly of carbon—which really makes this a fundamental game-changer in our understanding of what’s possible in planetary chemistry.”

via Diamond Planet Found—Part of a “Whole New Class?”.


Scientists have named a “new” dinosaur after an old villain–Sauron, the evil-doer in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Morocco, not Mordor was the setting for this discovery: a skull fragment that appeared to belong to an unknown theropod. Scientists named it Sauroniops pachytholus, in a reference to Tolkein’s character and the dome on its head. An account  appears in the blog Dinosaur Tracking. Although Sauroniops pacytholus was a carnivore, there is no evidence to suggest that it possessed an all-seeing eye like its namesake.

Flying While Intoxicated


A juvenile Common Blackbird (Turdus merula).
Photo by David Friel. Creative Commons.

Eating fermented berries can cause birds to become “drunk”—sometimes with deadly consequences, according to a study published in the journal Veterinary Record and featured in this report on ScienceDaily.  Researchers examined a dozen young blackbirds found dead at a school in Cumbria, England. The birds showed no signs of infection, but each had consumed fermented rowan berries. An additional bird was found alive, but unsteady in its movements. The study’s authors suspect that some of the birds had been injured in “mid-air collisions.”

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