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.