Wednesday, May 27, 2015

New consequence of grooming discovered

Macaca fuscata grooming, Photo: Noneotuho
When primates groom each other, they improve their health and hygiene by removing parasites, dirt, and dead skin. This practice is also known as allogrooming. If a primate lives in a group, you'll likely observe allogrooming. (Note: this is not a term restricted to primates: other animals allogroom as well.)

The benefits of allogrooming extend beyond hygiene though, as evidenced by a study on mangabeys (Cercocebus torquatus lunulatus) that found difficult to reach areas were not groomed as often as one would expect if hygiene were the sole purpose of grooming (Perez and Baro, 1999). The practice also maintains and betters affiliative bonds (Seyfarth and Cheney, 1984; Stammbach and Kummer, 1982). Allogrooming promotes cooperation over food in Japanese macaques (Ventura et al, 2006). It reduces tension in Macaca fascicularis (Schino et al., 2005) and M. mulatta (Aureli, Preston, and de Waal, 1999).

During allogrooming, the primate doing the grooming is obviously focused on another individual, thus it is not entirely surprising that there's a tradeoff between allogrooming and vigilance. Macaque mothers that engage in allogrooming glance at their infants significantly less and those infants are the victim of harassment more often than when mothers are present (Maestripieri, 1993). In general, the costs of allogrooming are less well understood than the benefits. Energetic, cognitive, and other opportunity costs have all been suggested to exist (Russell and Phelps, 2013).

Brown spider monkey, Photo credit: Fir0002
A new study by Rimbach and colleagues describes a previously unknown consequence of allogrooming in the critically endangered brown spider monkey, Ateles hybridus. Studying sixteen individuals, Rimbach and colleagues found that the more connected monkeys had a greater richness of gastrointestinal parasites than monkeys that were less connected. This relationship is based on physical contact, as when the authors examined proximity alone, there was no such relationship. The authors concluded that the largest parasite risk to this particular community of brown spider monkeys is in fact social grooming.

Given that this species is critically endangered due to habit loss and hunting, identifying other potential threats to their health and survival is crucial. I'm not positive what the applications of this new study would be though, as it's impossible to stop primates from grooming each other, thus parasite transmission will continue to occur. If these monkeys aren't negatively affected by their parasites in a significant manner though, the threat posed may be small. One of the parasites found in this study, Strongyloides, has cased moderate to severe disease in grey wooly monkeys though (Lagothrix cana) (Mati et al., 2013), so it seems reasonable to assume a negative effect in brown spider monkeys as well. 

Food for thought: How might the adaptive benefits of allogrooming counter the effects of increased gastrointestinal parasites? Is it possible allogrooming no longer acts as a benefit to this particular primate population given their low numbers?

Further reading:
Sciencedaily article
IUCN Redlist page on Brown spider monkeys
What are they picking at?
Baboons groom in the morning to reap benefits in afternoon

Aureli F, Preston S.D, de Waal F.B.M. Heart rate responses to social interactions in free-moving rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta): a pilot study. J. Comp. Psychol. 1999;113:59–65. doi:10.1037/0735-7036.113.1.59 
Russell, Y. I., & Phelps, S. (2013). How do you measure pleasure? A discussion about intrinsic costs and benefits in primate allogrooming. Biology & Philosophy, 28(6), 1005-1020.
Rimbach, R., Bisanzio, D., Galvis, N., Link, A., Di Fiore, A., Gillespie T.R.,. Brown spider monkeys (Ateles hybridus): a model for differentiating the role of social networks and physical contact on parasite transmission dynamics. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2015; 370 (1669): 20140110 DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2014.0110
Schino G, Scucchi S, Maestripieri D, Turillazzi P.G. Allogrooming as a tension reduction mechanism: a behavioral approach. Am. J. Primatol. 1988;16:43–50. doi:10.1002/ajp.1350160106
Seyfarth, R. M., & Cheney, D. L. (1984). Grooming, alliances and reciprocal altruism in vervet monkeys. Nature, 308, 541-543.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Questions every biologist should ask before starting research

It's getting to be that magical time of year again! No, it's not Christmas. I'm talking about the time of year when most professors and students have time off from coursework and can venture out to do fieldwork! Whether you're spending the better part of a full day traveling to Madagascar or driving a few minutes from home to your field site, field work is arguably the best part of being a biologist. That said, there are a few things I've learned from my own experiences that I think are worth sharing. Here are ten questions I think everyone should ask themselves before they head to the field.

1. What's the point? No really, what is the significance of your research? This matters because you're probably going to have to include a significant portion of your write-up, whether it's a thesis, academic paper, or paper for class, to what makes your research matter. Knowing the significance of your research also helps you if you're applying for any type of grant or funding because it will definitely be a major factor when considering if your research is worth funding.

Photo credit: US Fish and Wildlife
2. What are the applications of your research? Can anyone use your results? If you're working in a national or state park, are those officials going to use what you've learned in their practices? Or will your results make a difference to future research projects?

3. What's the minimum you need to accomplish this research? Stuff goes wrong. Plans fail. Something you never could have imagined happens and completely changes your plan. Can your research survive? What part of your methods is essential?

4. How much data do you want to collect? What's the least amount of data you need to collect in order for your project to be successful?

5. Who can you rely on for help? You'll likely have questions. Maybe something will go terribly wrong or maybe you'll think of a great idea while in the field. You might not have the time or resources to research that new idea or alternative plan fully, so who can you call? Who can you email for advice? Are there experts out there you haven't met personally, but who may be worth mustering up the courage to shoot an email to? I'm a big fan of collaboration and scientists helping scientists. Chances are, if you're polite and the person you're requesting help from isn't a total jerk, that person will extend a hand or point you in the direction of someone who can answer your question.

6. How excited you are about this research? Because you're going to encounter bumps in the road,
you're probably going to work on this project more than you ever imagined, and your project is going to be questioned and scrutinized, so you better love it. You better be invested. You're going to have a much harder time if this was really your advisor's idea and it's not your baby, it might be a long road.

Me observing sifakas
Photo credit: Saotra Rakotonomenjanahary
7. How can you connect with nonprofits and conservation organizations to make your research have a significant impact? Yes, your research probably has a very important indirect effect on conservation biology. Sure, studying the reproduction of the Vences' chameleon will help us understand more about the species, thus conserving it. But wouldn't it be better if you could pair with WWF for example and attach a more direct conservation project to your research, collaborate with a partner outside of academia, and make more of a difference?

8. What's the best way to collect data, knowing you're going to eventually enter it all into an Excel sheet and run statistical analyses on it? Think about how you're going to analyze your data. Think about how you're going to arrange your observation sheets and your field notebook so that it's painless (relatively) to enter it all into your computer. You also want your data to go smoothly from your Excel or FileMaker Pro or whatever to a statistical software package. Reformatting your data because you didn't take the time to think about it beforehand is painful and can be very time-consuming. If you're not sure about your statistics or data entry, go talk to a statistician (your advisor should also be able to help you with this).

9. Think about how you're going to present your final product and what details you might want to collect or note while you're doing research that aren't essential to your research question, but that might be nice to have. For example, it's hard to show a slide with a photo of everyone in your lab if you never took that photo. For your study on behavior and daily activity budget, it's impossible to determine if humidity might have had an effect on how much time your giraffes spent resting if you didn't measure humidity. Think about the little things.

10. What photos are you going to wish you had taken when you return home/finish your research? There's always at least one...

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The rights of great apes around the world

Pan troglodytes in cage
A few weeks ago, it appeared that a New York judge had granted chimpanzees habeas corpus for the first time in the United States, which would have effectively declared chimps legal persons who could challenge their own imprisonment. It turned out this wasn't true. Great apes (gorillas, orangutans, bonobos, and chimpanzees) have not been awarded the same legal rights as humans in NY or in any other state. What rights do great apes have in the United States and how do these rights compare to other countries?

Currently, different states have different laws and punishments for animal abuse and cruelty. In Washington state for example, a person can face one year in prison and/or a $5,000 fine for animal cruelty in the second degree, with animals defined as nonhuman mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. The only federal law to address animals used in laboratories, research, and in exhibitions is the Animal Welfare Act, which was signed in 1966 and has since been amended seven times. The Act also covers animal transport and how animals are treated by dealers. The Animal Welfare Act basically sets a minimum standard. States can then create stricter rules or not. Take a look at this link to see the best and worst states for animal rights according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

There are multiple organizations lobbying for more rights for great apes. In addiction to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the Great Ape Project and the Nonhuman Rights Project both fight for great ape rights. The Nonhuman Rights Project argues that great apes and other highly intelligent animals such as dolphins and elephants should have legal rights, including personhood. The Nonhuman Rights Project have attempted multiple times to have chimpanzees and other animals are recognized as a person by expanding what common-law defines as a person. They are the group behind the most recent New York ruling mentioned earlier lobbying for the rights of two chimpanzees.

The Nonhuman Rights Project previously attempted to lobby for one of the two chimpanzees mentioned earlier. On December 5, 2014, a NY judge ruled that the chimpanzee, Tommy, was not entitled to legal personhood because no animal has been awarded this right previously and there is no precedent for this case. The judge cited Cupp's argument that rights are connected to "moral agency and the ability to accept societal responsibility in exchange for rights." Judge Sise stated that chimpanzees do not have responsibilities and cannot be held responsible for their actions as a human would. Sise did conclude that chimpanzees are not defenseless and that it is possible to press for further protections for chimpanzees, but the writ of habeas corpus does not apply. To read the full ruling, see here. The Nonhuman Rights Project is currently in the process of appealing this decision.
Chimpanzee named Enos going into space, Public Domain

In what would been a step forward for great ape rights, The Great Apes Protection Act generated interest and controversy when it was first introduced in 2011 (see here and here). This bill would have ended invasive research on great apes. However, it was never voted on before the end of the 2011-2012 session of Congress, thus it must now be reintroduced.

To summarize, while there have been many attempts to grant legal personhood to great apes, these attempts are repeatedly denied. The Great Apes Protection Act would have been a milestone for these animals, but sadly it did not pass. Thus, the only federal protection great apes have is through the Animal Welfare Act. Otherwise, the protection and laws governing what can and cannot be done to apes varies by state.

Let's move on and look at what rights great apes have in other countries.

In 2007, the Balearic Islands (an autonomous community and providence of Spain) became the first in the world to grant legal personhood to great apes. As of today, this remains the only place in the world where great apes are legally recognized as people. While great apes don't enjoy legal personhood in Spain, they can no longer be used in experiments, circuses, and television shows and commercials.

In Belgium, great apes can no longer be used in research since 2008. The same is true for Austria (2006), Sweden (2003), the Netherlands (2002), and the European Union (2010). Japan no longer permits invasive chimpanzee research as of 2006. See a review of the international laws passed here.

Sign for Lucy at National Museum of Ethiopia, Photo Adam Jones
There are those who very strongly believe chimpanzees and bonobos should not be in the genus Pan but in Homo (see Wildman et al., 2003 for a review of the genetics), an argument that would significantly strengthen the case for granting chimpanzees and bonobos the same rights as humans. Placing chimps and bonobos in the same genus as humans would be a large shake up in our evolutionary tree. Lucy, the famed human ancestor shown to the right, is not even in the genus Homo but in Australopithecus. As of now though, chimps and bonobos remain firmly in the genus Pan and are quite far from achieving the same rights as humans.

While other countries have taken significant steps towards protecting great apes, the United States affords these animals no more protection than other primates and animals on a federal level. If something such as the Great Ape Protection Act were to be passed, distinct and ape-specific rules would apply to these intelligent cousins of ours, but no such legislation has been passed. Great apes and other primates in the US are still used in biomedical research, kept privately in some states, and are not awarded any special legal considerations. There are many groups working hard to change this, but it remains to be seen if the US will ever follow the likes of the Balearic Islands and award legal personhood to apes.

Food for thought:

Should humans and great apes both be entitled to the same rights under federal law? What would the implications for this be? Would this change our perception of what defines what it means to be human or would we draw a line between the legal term and our everyday meaning behind what makes us human?

Links of interest:
The Great Apes Project is another organization that seeks to defend the rights of non-human great apes. 
Video from NY Times, "Animals are Persons Too"
Federal laws governing animal care
Should a chimp be able to sue its owner?-NY Times article
A History of Chimps in Medical Research 
Study finds one third of Americans believe animals deserve the same rights as humans

Richard L. Cupp Jr., Children, Chimps, and Rights: Arguments from "Marginal" Cases, 45 Ariz, St LJ 1, 13 (2013)
Wildman, D. E., Uddin, M., Liu, G., Grossman, L. I., & Goodman, M. (2003). Implications of natural selection in shaping 99.4% nonsynonymous DNA identity between humans and chimpanzees: enlarging genus Homo. Proceedings of the national Academy of Sciences, 100(12), 7181-7188.