Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Primates are cool, mmmkay?

From the NZ Herald:

Remarkable video clips of wild chimpanzees using "tool kits" to dig out termites from their underground nest have been recorded by scientists who believe it is the most sophisticated culture yet observed in great apes other than man.

Although chimps are known to use long twigs as simple tools to fish for termites - a nutritious delicacy - this is the first time that a far more complex behaviour involving two different kinds of tools has been observed in the wild.

Crickette Sanz of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig and David Morgan of Cambridge University make the video with the help of hidden cameras trained on termite mounds in the tropical forests of the Congo that chimps were known to frequent.

They filmed the chimps using a thick stick, which they had previously prepared by stripping it of its leaves, to push a long tunnel about a foot deep into the heart of the underground termite nest. Once they had removed the stick, they pushed a far more delicate twig that had been deliberately frayed at one end down the tunnel and into the heart of the nest, said Professor Andrew Whiten of Edinburgh University.

Sweet. I've been flirting with the idea of pursuing a career in Primatology for a few months now. Stuff like this really makes me want to go for it (once I get the whole education thing going again, of course).

And one more important point from the story:

However, the primatologists warned that the study of primate culture is getting more difficult because all species of great ape are threatened with extinction.

"On a daily basis we're losing the opportunity to document culture in wild gorillas because these populations are disappearing faster than we can actually study them," she said.

Our closest cousins (especially Mountain Gorillas, Orangutuans and Bonobos) are in serious danger of extinction due to a variety of factors including loss of habitat due to deforestation and the bushmeat trade. This is a real tragedy that I hope can be averted, but I'm fairly pessimistic about our chances. If I could devote my life and career to saving as many of these incredible animals as possible (ala Jane Goodall), I would consider it time well spent.

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