Gorillas Discovered Using Tools

In a study to be published in the November issue of PLOS Biology scientist announce they have discovered gorillas using tools. It has been known for quite some time that chimps use tools but no one had ever witnessed gorillas using tools in the wild. What makes this study so important, though, isn’t the fact that gorillas were using tools. It’s how they used them that made the study so important.
From New Scientist:

They saw a female gorilla nicknamed Leah attempting to wade through a pool of water created by elephants. After quickly sinking waist deep, she got out of the water and picked up a metre-long stick, says Breuer. She then re-entered the water and repeatedly prodded the stick ahead of her as if to test for depth. She advanced about 10 metres before returning to her wailing infant on the edge of the pool.

“It was exactly how you or I might have tested the depth of the water,” Breuer told New Scientist, by satellite phone from a forest clearing in Nouabalé-Ndoki.

A second example was also captured on film, when Efi, a gorilla from another group, used a stick to lean on for support while she foraged for food with her free hand. She then used the same stick as a bridge to help her cross a patch of swampy ground, says Breuer.


“Both cases seem related to the problems of locomotion in this swampy forest clearing,” says Breuer. This suggests that the tool use stems from an ecological need.

“Most great ape tool use is based around the retrieval of food,” notes Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester who studies gorilla communication at the University of Sussex, UK. But the “incredibly intuitive” behaviour of using a stick to test water depth is something quite different, she says.

The gorillas have understood in some capacity that they can extend their sensory experience and find out more about their environment by physically extending their bodies with an inanimate object,” she says. “This suggests that the gorilla is capable of some mental calculation and abstract thought.

Footprints of gorillas were found on branches in nearby clearings suggesting their use as bridges could be widespread, says Breuer.

From National Geographic News:

“The most fascinating thing about this observation is the similarity [to humans] with which the gorillas solve the problems in this particular habitat,” he said. “If you or me want to cross a swamp, we use the same solutions as gorillas.”

Like humans, the gorillas in the swampy clearing jump from one dry patch to another, walk over branches, swing from trees, and—as the observations and photographs now show—use tools.

Totally cool research!

Added Later: Abnormal Interests has a post on the gorillas as well.

Darwin and the Quagga

If you have read any of Darwin’s works you will recognize the Quagga. It is related to zebra. Darwin mentioned it in several of his works – at least once in connection with atavism (the idea that some organisms revert to some or all of their ancestral traits).

The two animals in the bottom row are quagga. They became extinct around a hundred years ago. Recently researchers, using hides and a skeleton in museum collections were able to unravel phylogeny and evolutionary history of the quagga:

The quagga, Equus quagga, a South African relative of horses and zebras, having a front half with zebra-like stripes and a back section like a horse with no marking, became extinct about 100 years ago. The pelt from a quagga museum specimen was the subject of tissue sampling that launched the field of ancient DNA analysis.

“Twenty years ago this exact species opened the field of ancient DNA studies on extinct animals,” said one of the authors, Gisella Caccone, senior research scientist in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale. “Now, thanks to technological advances in the field, we revisited the story and used a population level approach to this question by analyzing a larger fragment of DNA and multiple specimens.”

In the past, the quagga has alternatively been described as a species and a subspecies of the Plains zebra.These researchers asked how and when the quagga diverged from all the remaining related horses, zebras, and asses. They compared the genetics, coat color and habitats of existing zebras with related extinct species.

Results indicate that the quagga descended from the plain’s zebra some 120,000-290,000 years ago:

These results suggest that the quagga descended from a population of plains zebras that became isolated and the distinct quagga body type and coloring evolved rapidly.

This study reveals that the Ice Age was important not just in Europe and North America, but also in Africa.

“The rapid evolution of coat color in the quagga could be explained by disrupted gene flow because of geographical isolation, an adaptive response to a drier habitat, or a combination of both of the two forces,” said Caccone.

Sounds like a punctuational kind of event to me, but I haven’t read the original study.

The Best Laid Plans….

Originally in this post I was going to mention that the afarensis family was moving about five miles west in about a week and that I was busy packing. I was going to mention that blogging would be light, except on Sunday when I had a special post planned. Except, I was going to say, if I found any really interesting to blog about…

Intelligent Design on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Blog

I don’t know how I missed this but the St. Louis Post-Dispatch blog has a thread on Intelligent Design. Some are against teaching it in schools. Others are for it. Some of the arguments in favor are pretty idiotic. For example, one person makes an argument about the speed of light slowing down (even the ICR stopped using that one), others trot out Behe, flagella and Mt. Rushmore. I’ve put my two cents in. There is still plenty enough silliness to go around if anyone wants to join the fun.

Circus of the Spinless

will be Friday. It is hosted by Tony at milkriverblog (whom I need to add to my blog roll – along with several others). Watch for it!

Bone Eating Sea Worms

Below is a picture of a type of polychaeta belonging to the genus Osedax. They were recently discovered feasting on the skeleton of a juvenile grey whale. This ability of Osadax species to feed on skeletal material is quite interesting and – heretofore – unknown.

According to a recent article in Environmental Microbiology this is how it works. Like a some other sea worms (such as red tube worms)Osedax lack a mouth and functional gut. They also, unlike other sea worms, lack a trophosome (an internal organ that houses endosymbionts – sea worms with trophosomes derive nutrition from the endosymbionts).
Instead, Osedax species have a highly vascularized root system (r in the righthand picture above) that invades the bone marrow. The root system is connected to a large eggsac (o in the righthand picture above). Both eggsac and root system are filled with bacteriocytes. This is where the story gets even more interesting. Normally, the bacteria found in most sea worms are autotrophic, that is, they produce their own food. Osedax bacteria, on the otherhand, are hetertrophic. The way the symbiotic relatonship was established makes for fascinating reading and I strongly recommend you follow the link and read for yourself (you should probably reread my posts on stable isotope analysis first).

Austrian Twins Update

The above is a picture of the 27,000 year old infant skeletons discovered in Austria. New Scientisist has a story on them as well:

The remains have yet to be carbon-dated but are thought to be at least 27,000 years old, because other artefacts from the area have been dated to between 40,000 and 27,000 years old. During this period, which falls within the Upper Palaeolithic, Neanderthals were superseded by modern humans, who were developing increasingly sophisticated hunting abilities and forms of culture.

The babes were placed side by side in their grave and protected beneath a woolly mammoth’s shoulder blade, which was propped up by pieces of mammoth tusk. The bodies were wrapped in a material such as animal hide that has since deteriorated and were covered with ochre.


The pair has been moved to Vienna’s Natural History Museum, where they will be examined further and carbon-dated by Maria Teschler-Nicole. She will place the remains within a chamber with controlled humidity in order to limit further deterioration.

Mexican Footprints: An Update

Readers may remember the footprints found in Mexico that have been dated to about 40,000 years BP. Geotimes has an interesting story on the subject:

In summer 2003, researchers Matthew Bennett of Bournemouth University and Silvia Gonzalez and David Huddart of Liverpool John Moores University in the United Kingdom were dating and mapping the geology of the Valsequillo Basin in Mexico, about 130 kilometers south of Mexico City, when they came across what appeared to be footprints on the floor of an abandoned quarry. Examining the site further, they found the site littered with footprints, Bennett says — 269 individual prints of humans and animals intermingled.

Sixty percent of the footprints appear to be human, with telltale arches and impressions of the heels, balls and toes, and 36 percent of those appear to be child-sized, according to the researchers, whose work is in press in Quaternary Science Reviews. The remaining 40 percent of the prints were from a variety of animals, Bennett says, including dogs, big cats and animals with cloven hooves, such as deer and camels. The researchers also found mastodon and mammoth teeth.

Previously, in the 1960s and 1970s, archaeologists found megafaunal remains, including bones that had been “worked” with tools, scattered throughout the basin. Those remains had been unreliably dated to be between 20,000 and 40,000 years old, Bennett says, so the sites have been somewhat ignored since then.

The footprints are preserved in a layer of volcanic ash from the eruption of Cerro Toluquilla beneath a shallow lake in the Valsequillo Basin just over 40,000 years ago. “Volcanic ash lithifies quickly, like cement,” Bennett says, so when the inhabitants of the lake shores wandered across the mucky ash, their footprints were captured. When lake levels later rose, water washed over the footprints, burying them in lake sediments, he says. “So we have this great stratigraphic sequence” of lake sediments, topped by ash, which is then topped again by lake sediments, Bennett says, that can be dated.

The dissenting opinion:

But Michael Waters, a geoarchaeologist at Texas A&M University in College Station, is not convinced. He says that the ash layer is likely much older than 40,000 years, and should be retested using different methods. Furthermore, says Waters, who has visited the site, “I have serious reservations as to whether or not these are even footprints, human or animal.” The site has been so extensively quarried over the years, being chopped with axes and picks, that these imprints could just be tool marks that have weathered.

The team, Waters says, needs to find tracks in outcrops or areas that have not been quarried — “look for them like you would look for dinosaur or other trackways.” Bennett says that he and his colleagues are planning to begin just such excavations soon.

Even more interesting, there is a link to the Mexican Footprints Website Which contains a wide variety of information on the geology, dating methods, etc. Based on what I saw at the site I am a little less skeptical – although I still have some reservations.

Two 27,000 Year Old Baby Skeltons Found in Austria

News 24 is reporting that two 27,000 year old skeletons – believed to be from twins – have been found in Austria:

The 27 000 year old skeletons of two ice age infants have been found near Krems in northern Austria, the first discovery of its kind in Europe, the Austrian press reported on Saturday.

The perfectly preserved skeletons measuring 40cm had been protected by a mammoth’s shoulder-blade bone, under which they had been buried on a sheltered hillside on the banks of the Danube river.

The grave, discovered 5.5m below ground, also contained a necklace of 31 pearls made from mammoth ivory and was located next to an area inhabited by ancient “homo sapiens fossilis”, newspapers reported.

“It is the first discovery of a child’s grave dating from this period,” confirmed the excavation manager, Christine Neugebauer-Maresch, to the daily newspaper Kurier. “They may have been twins, but we have not yet been able to establish that,” she told Die Presse.

The age of the skeletons will be analysed by the Institute of Natural Sciences in Vienna, which will also determine the cause of death.

“Homo sapiens fossilis” came out of Asia during the ice age as Neanderthal Man was dying out, and mastered stone and wood, but did not discover metal.

Other news sources have reported it as well but all contain about the same amount of info as the above. For example this from Live Science:

Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of two newborns dating back 27,000 years while excavating a hillside in northern Austria, the scientist in charge of the project said Monday.

Last week’s find near the Danube River city of Krems is important because the newborns were buried beneath mammoth bones and with a string of 31 beads _ suggesting that the internment involved some sort of ritual, said Christine Neugebauer-Maresch, the project’s leader at the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

“They could be twins,” she said. “They have the same (length) limbs and were buried together.”

The burial _ one of the oldest in the region _ is also significant in that the children were not simply disposed of after their deaths, Neugebauer-Maresch said. The burial suggests “they were members of society,” she said.

Archaeologists are combing the area to see if the infants’ mother is nearby, as giving birth to twins in that era would have been extremely difficult and potentially fatal.

Interesting, because the burial was intentional and because of the age of the find.

My Politics

You are a
Social Liberal
(71% permissive)

and an…
Economic Liberal
(11% permissive)

You are best described as a:


Link: The Politics Test on Ok Cupid