Born This Way? Gender-Based Toy Preferences in Primates

Last week, British parents who had hidden their child’s gender from the world finally revealed that their five year old, now ready to enter school, is a boy. While the parents had hoped to raise their son Sasha in a gender-neutral way (“Stereotypes seem fundamentally stupid. Why would you want to slot people into boxes?”), their approach raised eyebrows and controversy. Were they creating an environment where their child could find his own gender identity, free from crippling societal expectations, or were they conducting a bizarre and possibly harmful experiment on a family member?

Putting aside the issue of whether the parents acted appropriately, the story raises fascinating questions about gender-specific traits and preferences. To what degree are gender differences innate and biological, and to what extent do they arise out of societal modeling and environment?

Some (including Sasha’s parents) may see gender preferences as being primarily influenced by human social pressures, but there are indications of biological influences as well. For example, girls with a particular genetic condition that exposes them to high prenatal levels of androgen often show “masculine” toy preferences, even when their parents strongly encourage them to play with female-typical toys. Given the intertwining impacts of nature and nurture in human societies, can we learn anything from our animal relatives who grow up free from human societal norms?

In this post, I’d like to take a look at two recent studies that examine differing male and female toy preferences in primates.

Male Monkeys Prefer Trucks

First, in 2009 a research team led by Janice Hassett of the Yerkes National Primate Center at Emory University reported on experiments in which they the researchers to see whether rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) would exhibit gender-specific toy preferences similar to those of human children.

In humans, studies have shown that boys gravitate strongly to stereotypically “masculine” toys such as trucks and other vehicles, while girls are less rigid, spending relatively equal amounts of time playing with boy-favored toys and with more traditionally “feminine” toys such as dolls. One hypothesis put forward to explain this difference has been that boys face greater societal discouragement when they play with “girl toys” than girls do in the reverse situation. The researchers figured that by looking at rhesus monkeys, who don’t face comparable social pressures to conform to gender roles, they might be able to illuminate biological influences on toy selection as well.

Of course I'm not playing; you gave me a Raggedy-Ann. Pass me that truck. Now. (photo credit: J.M.Garg, Wikipedia)

In their study, the researchers compared how 34 rhesus monkeys living in a single troop interacted with human toys categorized as either masculine or feminine. The “masculine” set consisted of wheeled toys preferred by human boys (e.g., a wagon, a truck, a car, and a construction vehicle); the “feminine” set was comprised of plush toys comparable to stuffed animals and dolls (e.g., a Raggedy-Ann™ doll, a koala bear hand puppet, an armadillo, a teddy bear, and a turtle). Individual monkeys were released into an outdoor area containing one wheeled toy and one plush toy, with the researchers taping all interactions using separate cameras for each toy, identifying all specific behaviors, and statistically analyzing the results.

The results closely paralleled those found in human children. As with human boys, male rhesus monkeys clearly preferred wheeled toys over plush toys, interacting significantly more frequently and for long durations with the wheeled toys. Also mirroring human behavior, female rhesus monkeys were less specialized, playing with both plush and wheeled toys and not exhibiting significant preferences for one type over the other. Here’s a chart illustrating the similar gender preferences of humans and rhesus monkeys (the information regarding human preferences comes from a 1992 study by Sheri Berenbaum and Melissa Hines):

The researchers noted that these similarities show that distinct male and female toy preferences can arise in the absence of socialization pressures and hypothesized that “there are hormonally organized preferences for specific activities that shape preference for toys that facilitate these activities.”

Barbie Really Is a Stick Figure

Next, in a brief paper published in 2010, Sonya Kahlenberg of Bates College and Richard Wrangham of Harvard University presented the first evidence of wild male and female primates, chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) in the Kanyawara chimpanzee community of Kibale National Park, Uganda, interacting differently with play objects.

Over a 14 year period, Kahlenberg and Wrangham observed that juvenile Kanyawara chimpanzees tended to carry sticks in a manner suggestive of rudimentary doll play and that the behavior was more common in females than in males. Juvenile chimps, particularly females, would carry around small sticks for hours at time while they engaged in other daily activities such as eating, climbing, sleeping, resting and walking. While the same chimps used sticks as tools for specific purposes, the researchers were unable to discern any practical reason for the stick-carrying. The following chart shows the degree to which female chimps were more likely to engage the in stick carrying behavior:

Age and sex differences in the rate of stick-carrying in chimpanzees. Females: circles, solid line. Males: triangles, dashed line.

The researchers hypothesized that “sex differences in stick-carrying are related to a greater female interest in infant care, with stick-carrying being a form of play-mothering (i.e. carrying sticks like mother chimpanzees carrying infants).” In support of this proposition, they pointed to several factors. First, they never observed stick carrying by any female who had already given birth; that is, stick-carrying ceased with motherhood. Also, the chimps regularly carried sticks into day nests where they “were sometimes seen to play casually with the stick in a manner that evoked maternal play.” Finally, nurturing behavior towards objects like sticks had previously been reported in captive chimps and documented on a couple of occasions in the wild.

Also, the researchers suggested a social rather than biological basis for the behavior. Because regular stick-carrying hasn’t been reported in other wild chimpanzee communities, they proposed that that young Kanyawara chimpanzees may be learning the behavior from each other as a way of practicing for adult roles – a form of social tradition passed between juveniles previously described only in humans. Kahlenberg and Wrangham conclude by noting that:

Our findings suggest that a similar sex difference could have occurred in the human and pre-human lineage at least since our common ancestry with chimpanzees, well before direct socialization became an important influence.

So there you have it. One rhesus monkey study positing a biological and hormonal basis for gender-specific play, and another chimpanzee study emphasizing social learning… At least for now, the threads of nature and nurture impacting gender roles seem difficult to disentangle for non-humans, just as they are for us.

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ResearchBlogging.orgHassett, J., Siebert, E., & Wallen, K. (2008). Sex differences in rhesus monkey toy preferences parallel those of children Hormones and Behavior, 54 (3), 359-364 DOI: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2008.03.008.

Berenbaum, S., & Hines, M. (1992). EARLY ANDROGENS ARE RELATED TO CHILDHOOD SEX-TYPED TOY PREFERENCES Psychological Science, 3 (3), 203-206 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.1992.tb00028.x.

Kahlenberg, S., & Wrangham, R. (2010). Sex differences in chimpanzees’ use of sticks as play objects resemble those of children Current Biology, 20 (24) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2010.11.024.

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It’s Not That Funny, the Chimp Is Just Being Polite

“Ha ha ha,” politely hoots the chimpanzee, not exactly rolling on the floor. He’s not laughing spontaneously or for very long, but he does want to encourage his playmate to keep up the antics.

Continuing on in the spirit of last week’s post on the rodenty laughter of tickled rats, today’s post features a recent study on social laughing in chimpanzees.

As we all know quite well from experience, human laughter is a many-faceted thing. Sure, we sometimes laugh spontaneously and joyously (this is known as Duchenne laughter), but we also use our laughter as a multipurpose social tool, enabling us to establish rapport with social partners, to announce that we are nonthreatening and open to further communication, to alleviate tension and break barriers when meeting an unfamiliar face, and even to exclude others by demonstrating scorn or derision. In short, laughter sends a wide range of communicative signals, and our mastery over its many varieties lies close to the core of what’s sometimes referred to as emotional intelligence – the sophisticated way in which we assess, understand and navigate social situations.

Well, do any other animals manage their laughter for social reasons, or is nonhuman laughter inevitably spontaneous and reactive, like the high-pitched chirping of tickled rats? (Not that this would be a bad thing, just ask the rats….)

Marina Davila-Ross and her co-researchers from the University of Portsmouth decided to test some chimpanzees to find out. They studied 59 male and female chimpanzees of all ages living in four separate colonies at the Chimfunshi sanctuary in Zambia – two smaller colonies that had formed within the past five years, and two larger ones that had been together at least 14 years. In general, the chimps in the colonies that had been together longer belonged to more established families and had grown up with more opportunities to play with others in a familiar social environment.

Did you see the look on Mr. Mookimbo’s face when he bit into the “cake”? (photo credit: David Eppstein)

First, the researchers videotaped almost 500 one-on-one play sessions, documenting what the chimps did and when they laughed. The researchers recorded spontaneous laughter as well as laugh replications (laughter that followed within five seconds after a playmate’s laughter), and further noted whether the laugh replications occurred during the first second (rapid laugh replication) or within the next four seconds (delayed laugh replication).

The research team soon discovered that the chimps’ spontaneous laughter was substantially different than their laugh replications: the laugh replications were much shorter, consisting of significantly fewer calls per laugh series. Among other things, the researchers also found that:

  • Chimps in the more recently-formed colonies replicated the laughter of their playmates more frequently than did the chimps in longer-established colonies, even though the aggregate amount of all laughter in each of the colonies was relatively comparable.
  • Infants generally engaged only in spontaneous laughter, with little or no laugh replication.
  • Play bouts lasted significantly longer when they were accompanied by laugh replications than when they weren’t.
  • Laugh replications peaked at two discrete points, first at about .7 to .8 seconds after the initial laugh, and then again between 2 and 3 seconds after the initial laugh.

Next, the researchers tried to verify whether laugh replications were specifically triggered by a playmate’s laughter, and not just coincidentally associated with it. They combed through their previously-recorded video footage and, for specific chimps and their playmates, found matching play scenes that generally lined up very closely in terms of specific behaviors (chasing, tickling, grabbing, wrestling, gnawing, hitting, jumping, game playing, etc.), but that differed in one important respect – in one scene, the chimp’s playmate engaged in a potentially-triggering bout of laughter; in the other scene, it did not. When the researchers reviewed these paired scenes, they found that a chimp was significantly more likely to laugh in those scenes in which the other chimp laughed first, suggesting strongly that replicated laughter really was triggered by the playmate’s laughter as opposed to any other aspect of the chimps’ play behavior.

Well, one thing’s for sure, they’re not going to trust us with *next year’s* holiday decorations… (photo credit: Christa Saayman)

Based on their findings, the researchers concluded that chimps laugh in response to the laughter of their playmates, that this laughter differs in acoustic form and timing from their spontaneous laughter, and that the purpose of their non-spontaneous laughter appears to be to prolong social play, promoting group cohesion and perhaps providing the chimps with important social advantages.

In support of these conclusions, the researchers also observed that the lack of laughter replication in infant chimps suggests that socially managed laughter is a skill that chimps learn as they mature. Further, they hypothesized that the chimps in the newer colonies may have engaged in more replicated social laughter because they were living in a less predictable social environment and may have had a greater need to manage laughter in order to establish social cohesion.

So, next time you’re at a party with a group of laughing chimpanzees (don’t think I don’t know you, AnimalWise readers), listen very closely to the rising levels of laughter around you. While you might be tempted to believe that you’re hanging out with a particularly hilarious crowd, the truth may be that your fellow party goers are simply adept at using laughter as a social lubricant. Let the good times roll!

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ResearchBlogging.orgDavila-Ross, M., Allcock, B., Thomas, C., & Bard, K. (2011). Aping expressions? Chimpanzees produce distinct laugh types when responding to laughter of others. Emotion, 11 (5), 1013-1020 DOI: 10.1037/a0022594.

A Yawning Divide? Contagious Yawning and Empathy in Animals

A group of red-footed tortoises ran away (rather slowly) with the 2011 Ig Nobel Prize in physiology1, bringing to center stage the potential link between contagious yawning and empathy in animals. While the Ig Nobels are a tongue-in-cheek spoof of the Nobel Prizes, their purpose is not frivolous – they “honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative — and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology.” Here’s the story of the tortoises’ claim to fame and what we know about contagious yawning in animals.

Tortoise yawning? I don’t think so!

It turns out that the underlying cause of contagious yawning has been something of a puzzle – why is it that when you see someone else yawn (or even hear a yawn or just think about yawning), you sometimes are overcome with the urge to yawn yourself? The most common hypotheses are that contagious yawning results either from empathy or from non-conscious social mimicry, the tendency to adopt a social partner’s postures, gestures and mannerisms. An alternative hypothesis, however, is that it may simply reflect a fixed action pattern, an innate or instinctual response to a stimulus (a triggering yawn).

No, really, go on - I'm listening... (photo: Peter Baumber)

And that’s where the red-footed tortoises lumber into the picture. Lead researcher Anna Wilkinson and her colleagues figured the tortoises would offer a good way of testing the fixed action pattern hypothesis, since they are known to yawn and respond to social stimuli, but are not believed to exhibit empathy or engage in non-conscious social mimicry.

The researchers worked very hard to induce contagious tortoise yawning, spending six months training one of them (Alexander, if you’re curious) to yawn whenever he saw a red square-shaped symbol, and then devising a series of tests to see whether six “observer” tortoises would yawn after seeing Alexander yawn. Initially, the observers were presented with three scenarios: one in which they watched Alexander giving one of his patented yawns, another in which they watched a non-yawning tortoise (Alexander?), and a third in which they simply viewed Alexander’s red square. A second experiment mirrored the first, except this time the observers watched Alexander yawn multiple times. Finally, they went to the movies, seeing clips of real tortoise yawns, fake yawns and an empty background.

And the results? Nothing, nada, zilch. The tortoises simply didn’t yawn more frequently after seeing another tortoise yawn; no contagious yawning whatsoever. This spectacular display of non-yawning in tortoises led the researchers to “suggest that contagious yawning is not simply the result of a fixed action pattern and releaser stimulus …. We suggest that contagious yawning may be controlled through social processes such as nonconscious mimicry or empathy….” Naturally, international acclaim ensued.

Apes and Monkeys and Dogs, Oh My!

So, which animals do demonstrate contagious yawning? Well, as with other cognitive realms, our views of contagious yawning have followed “AnimalWise’s Rule”: first we believed it to be an exclusively human behavior, then we observed it in chimpanzees, then we saw it in monkeys, next in dogs, now … hmm … Taste it, fur-face, I have opposable thumbs!  Ok, I lied, that’s not a real rule; I just made it up.

Here’s a run-down on what we actually know about contagious yawning in non-humans:

Chimpanzees

The phenomenon was first demonstrated in chimpanzees in 2004 when a research team led by James Anderson of the University of Stirling reported2 on a small study in which six adult female chimps watched video scenes of other chimps who were either yawning naturally or, alternatively, displaying open-mouthed facial expressions that weren’t yawns. Two of the observers (33%) yawned significantly more often in response to the yawn videos and none of them yawned more frequently in response to the open-mouth control videos, a response rate only slightly lower than that in humans watching comparable videos. In 2009, Matthew Campbell and colleagues from the Yerkes National Primate Research Center (YNPRC) expanded on these findings, reporting3 that, much like humans responding to on-screen yawns by Pixar characters, a group of 24 chimps yawned significantly more often after watching 3D computer animations of yawning chimps than after watching animations of chimps displaying non-yawn mouth movements. Finally, Matthew Campbell and Frans de Waal of the YNPRC reported4 this year on an experiment lending empirical support to the hypothesis that contagious yawning stems from empathy. Campbell and de Waal found that, consistent with studies showing that humans demonstrate greater empathy towards others they view as being similar, chimps yawned significantly more frequently in response to videos of familiar chimps yawning than they did to either videos of unfamiliar chimps yawning or videos of chimps (regardless of familiarity) who were at rest.

Monkeys

The first study supporting contagious yawning in non-ape primates was published5 in 2006 by University of Stirling researchers Annika Paukner and James Anderson, who had 22 stumptail macaques watch video clips of other macaques either yawning or making non-yawn facial movements. Although the macaques yawned significantly more in response to yawn tapes than to non-yawn tapes, the researchers noted that the macaques engaged in more self-directed scratching (a tension-relieving behavior) while watching the yawn tapes, making it difficult to differentiate between actual contagious yawning and the release of stress perhaps brought on by the yawn tapes. The case for non-hominid contagious yawning was bolstered in 2009, though, when Elisabetta Palagi of Pisa University and her colleagues published6 a study in which they recorded and reviewed over 3,200 baboon yawning displays (all occurring in the absence of stressful events or behavior). They not only found clear evidence of contagious yawning among adult baboons, but also discovered that females (but not males) tended to match the type of yawning display (baboons make different facial expressions when yawning) that had triggered their own yawn, and that the degree of contagiousness correlated with social closeness, thus supporting an empathy-basis for yawn contagion and anticipating the results of 2011 chimpanzee experiment described above.

Dogs

Lastly, in 2008 Ramiro Joly-Macheroni and colleagues from the University of London reported7 on an experimental first on multiple fronts: yawn contagion in a non-primate species and the first demonstration of possible contagious yawning across different species. In their study, 29 dogs observed an unfamiliar human either yawning or making non-yawning mouth movements, with 21 dogs yawning in response to the yawning human and not one yawning in response to the human who displayed the non-yawning control behavior.

Future Directions

I know that if the Internet were allowed to vote, researchers would spend much of their waking hours considering YouTube videos of impossibly cute kittens yawning, but I want to take this opportunity to call for a full and serious investigation into the concerning link between contagious duck wing flapping and odd French Canadian music:

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ResearchBlogging.org1Wilkinson, A., Sebanz, N., Mandl, I., & Huber, L. (2011). No evidence of contagious yawning in the red-footed tortoise Geochelone carbonaria. Current Zoology, 57(4), 477-484.

2Anderson, J., Myowa-Yamakoshi, M., & Matsuzawa, T. (2004). Contagious yawning in chimpanzees Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 271 (Suppl_6) DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2004.0224.

3Campbell, M., Carter, J., Proctor, D., Eisenberg, M., & de Waal, F. (2009). Computer animations stimulate contagious yawning in chimpanzees Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 276 (1676), 4255-4259 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2009.1087.

4Campbell, M., & de Waal, F. (2011). Ingroup-Outgroup Bias in Contagious Yawning by Chimpanzees Supports Link to Empathy PLoS ONE, 6 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0018283.

5Paukner, A., & Anderson, J. (2006). Video-induced yawning in stumptail macaques (Macaca arctoides) Biology Letters, 2 (1), 36-38 DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2005.0411.

6Palagi, E., Leone, A., Mancini, G., & Ferrari, P. (2009). Contagious yawning in gelada baboons as a possible expression of empathy Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106 (46), 19262-19267 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0910891106.

7Joly-Mascheroni, R., Senju, A., & Shepherd, A. (2008). Dogs catch human yawns Biology Letters, 4 (5), 446-448 DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2008.0333.

Converging with Canines: Are Humans and Dogs Evolving Together?

In our man-made world, it can feel like everything is converging all at once. Indistinguishable glass skyscrapers sprout up in cities all over the globe, near identical car models vent carbon dioxide into the air on different continents, and people around the world see their waistbands expand as they gulp down the same McFood. Global economies are more connected than ever, with natural disasters in Japan, sovereign debt issues in Europe, and rumors of Wall Street misdeeds shaking worldwide markets within minutes. Even the social media that deluge us with information seem like they’re growing more and more alike, as we now drown in unending streams of look-alike feeds, postings, messages and links from Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and others.

You may wonder whether the forces of convergence are a recent phenomenon, a product of human technology, or whether they may have deeper roots in the natural world. In fact, convergence can and does occur in the realm of biological evolution, albeit at a more comfortable pace. For example, “convergent evolution” occurs when different species independently evolve similar solutions to comparable evolutionary pressures. A classic example of this is the development of wings and the ability to fly by birds, bats and pterosaurs:

Diagram of wing morphology and/or and comparative network hub structure of Twitter, Facebook and Google+ (image credit: National Center for Science Education)

Consider also the independent evolution of sleek, torpedo-shaped bodies by fish, cetaceans and ichthyosaurs:

Sleek ocean swimmers (image credit: All About Reptiles)

Closer to home, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology have concluded that we may be undergoing a process of cognitive convergent evolution with dogs based on our social relationships over thousands of years with these “best friends” of ours. In a paper published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Brian Hare and Michael Tomasello reviewed a large number of studies focused on canine, human, and non-human primate social and communicative skills and reached some interesting conclusions.

Proof of convergent canine-human evolution (source unknown)

They began their analysis by focusing on research showing how well domestic dogs do at interpreting human social and communicative behavior. For example, dogs excel at tests in which experimenters hide food in one of several opaque containers and then signal where it has been hidden by pointing, gazing, bowing or nodding, or placing markers in front of the target location. The dogs easily interpret this type of cue, passing tests such as these on the first attempt and performing correctly even when humans try to trick them by walking towards the wrong container while pointing in the opposite direction to the correct container.

Also, studies have shown that dogs are aware of what humans can see. For instance, if a human turns around during a game of fetch, the dog will almost invariably bring the ball back around the human and drop the ball in front of his face. Similarly, dogs have shown that they prefer to beg for food from humans whose eyes are visible than from ones whose eyes are covered with a blindfold or bucket, but are more likely to approach forbidden food when a human’s eyes are closed.

Indeed, dogs actually consistently outperform chimpanzees and other primates at these types of skills, even though, in areas of non-social cognitive performance, dogs do not do so well. For example, non-human great apes are much better at making inferences about the location of hidden food based on non-social cues (such as a tilted board that might be tipped up by hidden treats) and at tests that require them to achieve food rewards by, for example, reeling in food attached to strings.

With this in mind, Hare and Tomasello turned to whether domestic dogs’ specialized social skills are likely to be due to convergent cognitive evolution with humans or whether another explanation is more plausible.

First, they considered the possibility that dogs learn to recognize human social cues based on their experiences growing up in human households. They found, however, that studies show that even puppies as young as nine weeks old are adept at solving problems using human pointing and gaze cues, and that puppies raised without much exposure to humans are equally skilled at interpreting these cues.

Then, they considered whether domestic dogs may have simply inherited their social skills based on their common ancestry with wolves, since wolves are, after all, pack hunters who need to be able to follow complex social interactions with other wolves and with prey. However, although wolves are generally equal to or better than domestic dogs at memory tests and tasks involving general problem-solving abilities, wolves (even those raised by humans) are simply unable to match the performance of dogs at spontaneously using human social cues to solve problems.

Next, the researchers sought evidence for the evolution of social skills in dogs through their long-term relationship with humans. They looked at a population of domesticated foxes, where the selection for breeding had been based solely on the tendency of individual foxes to be non-aggressive and fearless around humans. Interestingly, these foxes were just as adept as dogs in using and interpreting human social cues, and far better than a population of control foxes that had been bread randomly with respect to their attitude towards humans.

Based on all of these comparative findings, Hare and Tomasello concluded that the best explanation for dogs’ specialized social skills is that they evolved as a consequence of dogs having been domesticating by humans, representing a case of convergent cognitive evolution. Interestingly, Hare and Tomasello went further and, based on their review of the research on domesticated foxes, concluded that the evolution of specialized social skills in domesticated dogs may actually have been an incidental byproduct of an initial decision to select based solely on nonaggression (as opposed to social intelligence).

Finally, turning to primate evolution, Hare and Tomasello speculated that a similar process may have contributed to differences between human and chimpanzee social skills. Under what they refer to as the “emotional reactivity” hypothesis, they predicted that differences in temperament between humans and other primates may help explain some of humans’ extraordinary social cognitive abilities. They point to studies showing that chimpanzees’ willingness to cooperate with each other can often be limited by lack of social tolerance for one another resulting from fear and/or aggression, and contrast this to a more socially tolerant temperament that may ultimately have enabled our hominid ancestors to develop flexible forms of cooperation and communication. In other words, humans underwent a form of self-domestication leading to greater social abilities, thereby convergently evolving with our canine companions who were undergoing the same process.

I’m not sure I entirely buy the notion that we humans are so exceptionally tolerant, but I have noticed that you’ve started to look a bit like your dog. In a future post, we may look at whether we may also be evolving to be more like members of the cat family:

Which one is the lion? (source unknown)

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ResearchBlogging.orgHare, B., & Tomasello, M. (2005). Human-like social skills in dogs? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9 (9), 439-444 DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2005.07.003

Grief in Animals

I’ve been thinking about grief lately. It can be so overpowering – the dull ache of emptiness, the stabbing pain of loss, and the prism of sadness that transforms the bright colors of everyday life into a harsh and alien landscape. Consumed by grief, we are alone; yet somehow our solitary suffering can end up strengthening the bonds we have with others we know and love.

I’ve also been thinking about grief in animals, and what we know about it. When our cat Puggsley died, our younger Siamese, Moose, felt the full impact of the loss. The two had always been close, perhaps tied together by their mutual skepticism over Wednesday, our third cat and official people-pleaser. Moose and Puggsley were constant companions, playmates, napping buddies, and a rather frightening pair of mischief makers. When Puggsley became old and frail, he would curl up stiffly by the fireplace, and Moose would bed down near him. At the very end, Moose was right there, tenderly licking Puggsley as he was overcome by a seizure. And after he was gone, she mourned – she was lost without her friend, and had little appetite or energy for weeks. She never bedded down by the fireplace again. How do I know this was grief? Well, it was obvious; I just know.

Puggsley and Moose

But what do we really know about grief in animals – that is, in a scientific sense? Not particularly much, it turns out.

We are (mostly) beyond the era in which animals were considered thoughtless automatons, incapable of feeling pain and other emotions. Still, there have been relatively few formal studies of how animals experience grief.

In a way, this isn’t so surprising. For one, opportunities to systematically observe grieving behavior in the wild are rare and, if you think about it, it’s difficult to design ethical studies intended to cause social animals to grieve in captive settings. Also, what specifically do you test for and how do you quantify and evaluate an inherently subjective experience like grief? It’s tough enough to evaluate this sort of thing in humans, who can respond to questionnaires and use language to express their emotions….

As a result, most the scientific literature about grief in animals is anecdotal or observational in nature, and in many of these accounts it’s clear that otherwise objective researchers have struggled to come up with scientific ways of reporting what, in the end, are their own reactions, what they just know.

Although the record is sparse everywhere, there have been some recent papers on grief in primates. Brian Switek, who writes the Laelaps blog for Wired Magazine, has written a terrific piece on this research in his “What Death Means to Primates” posting (I strongly encourage you to check out Laelaps; it’s one of the best blogs out there on paleontology, evolution, and the history of science).

As Brian recounts in detail, studies have documented chimpanzee and other primate mothers who have continued to carry dead infants, sometimes for weeks and even to the point of mummification. In one of the studies1, researchers described two chimpanzee mothers (Jire and Vuavua) in Bossou, Guinea, who carried their dead babies (aged 1.2 years old and 2.6 years old, respectively) after they had died in a respiratory epidemic, grooming them regularly, chasing away flies, and carrying them during all travel. The researchers pondered:

An obvious and fascinating question concerns the extent to which Jire and Vuavua “understood” that their offspring were dead. In many ways they treated the corpses as live infants, particularly in the initial phase following death. Nevertheless they may well have been aware that the bodies were inanimate, consequently adopting carrying techniques never normally employed with healthy young (although mothers of handicapped young have also been known to respond appropriately).

In another study2, James Anderson, Alasdair Gillies and Louise Lock reported on the peaceful death of an older chimpanzee, Pansy, who lived in a safari park. They videotaped the reactions of Pansy’s companions and observed a number of behaviors that they found to be comparable to human bereavement. The degree to which the researchers sought out human counterparts to the chimps’ behavior is evident from the following description in their paper:

During Pansy’s final days the others were quiet and attentive to her, and they altered their nesting arrangements (respect, care, anticipatory grief). When Pansy died they appeared to test for signs of life by closely inspecting her mouth and manipulating her limbs (test for pulse or breath). Shortly afterwards, the adult male attacked the dead female, possibly attempting to rouse her (attempted resuscitation); attacks may also have expressed anger or frustration (denial, feelings of anger towards the deceased). The adult daughter remained near the mother’s corpse throughout the night (night-time vigil), while Blossom groomed Chippy for an extraordinary amount of time (consolation, social support). All three chimpanzees changed posture frequently during the night (disturbed sleep). They removed straw from Pansy’s body the next morning (cleaning the body). For weeks post-death, the survivors remained lethargic and quiet, and they ate less than normal (grief, mourning). They avoided sleeping on the deathbed platform for several days (leaving objects or places associated with the deceased untouched).

With this focus, it’s not surprising that they concluded by proposing that “chimpanzees’ awareness of death has been underestimated.”

Also, more anecdotally, many were moved by the apparent grief captured in this poignant National Geographic photo of chimpanzees at a rehabilitation center peering at the lifeless body of Dorothy, their long-time companion, being taken to her burial:

Chimpanzee burial (National Geographic, photo: Monica Szczupider)

There has also been some research into the behavior of elephants towards the dead and dying. In one study3, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Shivani Bhalla, George Wittemyer and Fritz Vollrath reported on the death of Eleanor, a matriarch elephant in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya. They were able to use GPS technology to track the movements of elephants in Eleanor’s family and in other families as they reacted to her collapse and subsequent death. The researchers found that Eleanor was visited frequently by both related and unrelated elephants, concluding:

Combined with earlier work and the data of other scientists it leads to the conclusion that elephants have a generalized response to suffering and death of conspecifics and that this is not restricted to kin. It is an example of how elephants and humans may share emotions, such as compassion, and have an awareness and interest about death.

Grace visiting Eleanor's body (photo: Douglas-Hamilton, et al)

In another paper4, Karen McComb, Lucy Baker and Cynthia Moss described experiments in which they assessed elephants’ strong interest in and sometimes dramatic reactions to elephant bones and tusks. After systematically presenting elephants in Amboseli National Park in Kenya with different combinations of elephant and other animal skulls, ivory and pieces of wood, the researchers found that the elephants were significantly more interested in elephant skulls and tusks than they were in the skulls of other animals or in the wood, but that they did not demonstrate a special affinity to the skulls or ivory of deceased relatives. The following video provides a nice glimpse into the way in which elephants seem to be fascinated by elephant bones and tusks:

Several reports have also documented cetaceans reacting with apparent grief. In one report5, for example, Mark Simmonds described an incident in which two male orcas appeared to grieve over the death of a female orca thought to be their mother. For years, the two males had spent all their time swimming with this female. After her death, the males were seen swimming together but apart from all other orcas for a day or two, repeatedly visiting the places that their mother had passed in her last few days. In another instance, Robin Baird of the Cascadia Research Collective reported seeing two orcas, a mother and adult son, swimming with a dead calf in the Puget Sound, with the mother balancing the calf on her rostrum or carrying it on top of her head and occasionally lifting it out of the water, and both adults diving deep to recover the baby when it began sinking.

Dolphin and calf (Tethys Research)

Scientists at the Tethys Research Institute related a similar occurrence off the coast of Greece, where a mother bottlenose dolphin was seen interacting with a dead newborn calf. Their description vividly underscores the difficulties in evaluating these sorts of situations from a scientific perspective:

Whilst researchers must avoid being driven by their own feelings and make arbitrary interpretations, in this case it was quite clear that the mother was mourning. She seemed to be unable to accept the death, and was behaving as if there was any hope of rescuing her calf. She lifted the little corpse above the surface, in an apparent late attempt to let the calf breath. She also pushed the calf underwater, perhaps hoping that the baby could dive again. These behaviours were repeated over and over again, and sometimes frantically, during two days of observation.

The mother did never separate from her calf. From the boat, researchers and volunteers could hear heartbreaking cries while she touched her offspring with the rostrum and pectoral fins. Witnessing such desperate behaviour was a shocking experience for those on board the research boat.

Finally, Marc Bekoff (he of the Yellow Snow fame) has written an eloquent article that includes many additional anecdotes regarding animal grief in his Psychology Today column.

Ultimately, there is much we will never be able to understand regarding how animals experience the world. We can trace commonalities between human and other animal brain structures and neural pathways associated with emotional experiences, and we can try to add more systematic observations to our collection of behavioral anecdotes, but in some fundamental ways the animal mind (and, for that matter, the mind of other humans) will always be cloaked in private experience, inaccessible to us. Moreover, as some of the accounts in this post have illustrated, our attempts at understanding animal emotions are inevitably colored by our own human experiences. We can know human grief, but how can we understand what it means to experience chimp grief, or elephant grief, or orca grief?

Nevertheless, just because we cannot fully comprehend what we see in other animals, that does not mean that grief in animals does not exist or that animals cannot lead rich emotional lives. Indeed, what we do see is a pattern that makes it increasing clear that death can impact other animals profoundly.

How do I know this? Just ask Moose, Puggsley or Wednesday – I just know.

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ResearchBlogging.org1Biro, D., Humle, T., Koops, K., Sousa, C., Hayashi, M., & Matsuzawa, T. (2010). Chimpanzee mothers at Bossou, Guinea carry the mummified remains of their dead infants Current Biology, 20 (8) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2010.02.031.

2Anderson, J., Gillies, A., & Lock, L. (2010). Pan thanatology Current Biology, 20 (8) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2010.02.010.

3Douglas-Hamilton, I., Bhalla, S., Wittemyer, G., & Vollrath, F. (2006). Behavioural reactions of elephants towards a dying and deceased matriarch Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 100 (1-2), 87-102 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2006.04.014.

4McComb, K., Baker, L., & Moss, C. (2006). African elephants show high levels of interest in the skulls and ivory of their own species Biology Letters, 2 (1), 26-28 DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2005.0400.

5Simmonds, M. (2006). Into the brains of whales Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 100 (1-2), 103-116 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2006.04.015.

On the Branch of a Tree, Not at the Top of a Ladder

Every so often, it’s good to see something clearly illustrating that it’s not all about us, that evolution doesn’t simply progress its way up a ladder, climbing ever higher until it reaches humans on the top rung.

Genetic comparisons offer one such clear illustration.

For example, now that we’ve fully sequenced the human and chimpanzee genomes, we can take a close look at the different paths our genes have travelled during the six or seven million years since we parted ways from a common ancestor. In that time, humans and chimpanzees have plainly diverged quite a bit — on the one hand, humans have learned to walk on two legs, experienced dramatic growth in brain size, and now excel at speech, language and a whole host of cognitive functions; on the other hand, although chimpanzees are clearly intelligent primates, they still retain many of the physical and behavioral characteristics that they had millions of years ago.

Obviously, then, our genes have undergone the greater process of Darwinian natural selection … right?

Wrong.

The Human-Chimpanzee Genome Comparison

Do you think those humans are ever going to evolve like us? (photo credit: Delphine Bruyere)

A team of researchers led by Margaret Bakewell and Jianzhi Zhang of the University of Michigan1 decided to systematically compare the human and chimpanzee genomes to find out which species’ lineage has undergone more positive Darwinian selection over time. In essence, they lined up the two genomes to identify where they differed, and then used the DNA of the rhesus macaque, which shares an older ancestor with each of us, to figure out whether differences were due to changes in the human or in the chimpanzee DNA.

Moreover, since some DNA changes have no impact on protein production, the team was able to use statistical methods to look at the changes that do impact protein production and identify which of these were positive in the sense that they conferred a survival or reproductive advantage. (Without getting into the mathematical details, genes where a disproportionate number of the DNA changes do impact protein production are the ones where positive selection is taking place.)

In all, the researchers scanned nearly 14,000 genes (greater than 50% of the genes in the primate genome), and carefully controlled for relatively quality differences in the available genomic sequences. Using their most conservative data, they identified 154 genes that were under positive selection in the human lineage and 233 in the chimpanzee lineage. In other words, chimpanzees have 51% more positively-selected genes than humans have.

The research team summed up these findings:

[I]n sharp contrast to common belief, there were more adaptive genetic changes during chimp evolution than during human evolution. Without doubt, we tend to notice and study human-specific phenotypes more than chimp-specific phenotypes, which may have resulted in the prevailing anthropocentric view on human origins.

Interestingly, the types of genes undergoing positive change are not particularly correlated to the areas where we have seen the greatest physical divergence, such as brain size. Rather, as the below charts indicate, the areas of positive selection are widely distributed through biological processes, molecular functions and tissue groups (in the charts, PSG stands for “positively selected gene”) :

What Explains the Greater Positive Selection in Chimps?

The researchers believe that the principal explanation for the findings is that, for most of the time that humans and chimpanzees have evolved separately, the average population size of chimps was 3-5 times as large as that of humans. This is significant, as population genetic theories predict that positive selection is less effective in smaller populations (i.e., in a small group there are simply fewer opportunities for the occurrence of beneficial mutations with survival and/or reproductive advantages).

Now, there are a few caveats to this story. For one, this type of comparison does not necessarily capture recent or ongoing changes that are not yet “fixed” in the genome, so recent positive changes to the human genome may have gone undetected. Also, while this analysis adds up the relative number of genes undergoing positive change, it does not take into account the fact that some changes may be more important than others, as a change to a single gene can sometimes have a dramatic impact. Also, the study focuses on changes to genes that impact the proteins that they produce, but not the way in which those genes are expressed (e.g., whether and when the genes are turned on or off), and gene expression can account for very significant differences between species.

Nevertheless, even with these caveats, this study is an eye-opener.

From a human perspective, we naturally see our distinguishing characteristics as critically important, and often assume that they reflect something special from an evolutionary standpoint. When we look closely, though, we sometimes find that our views are far more subjective than objective. From a broader perspective, we have been just a single species with (for most of our history) a relatively small population, and have accordingly undergone a correspondingly slower rate of natural selection.

Makes one wonder whether the chimps, with all of those positive genetic changes, could have evolved a way for handling debt ceilings and political consensus. Now that would be an adaptation that would come in handy these days!

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1Bakewell, M., Shi, P., & Zhang, J. (2007). More genes underwent positive selection in chimpanzee evolution than in human evolution Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104 (18), 7489-7494 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0701705104

Chimps Don’t Ape Humans – Develop Tools Independently

The more we learn about the capabilities of animals, the less it seems we can claim as uniquely our own. Now it appears that we may even have to share our treasured Flintstones cartoons, as we have learned that we aren’t the only species to have enjoyed an ancient Stone Age history.

Chimp eating nuts and thinking about upcoming Chimpanzee Iron Age

A few years ago, archeologists led by Julio Mercader of the University of Calgary discovered that chimpanzees in West Africa were using stone tools to crack nuts thousands of years ago, before humans had begun engaging in agriculture in the area. The research team, exploring sites located in the Ivory Coast’s Taï National Park, found stone “hammers” that were 4,300 years old and that had all the hallmarks of chimpanzee tools, rather than human ones. Science 2.01 described the tool findings as follows:

The stone hammers that the team discovered, essentially irregularly shaped rocks about the size of cantaloupes – with distinctive patterns of wear – were used to crack the shells of nuts. The research demonstrates conclusively that the artifacts couldn’t have been the result of natural erosion or used by humans. The stones are too large for humans to use easily and they also have the starch residue from several nuts known to be staples in the chimpanzee diet, but not the human diet.

The research team elaborated further in the paper it published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences2:

This discovery speaks of true prehistoric great ape behavior that predates the onset of agriculture in this part of Africa. The chimpanzee assemblages are contemporaneous with the local Later Stone Age; thus, they represent a parallel “Chimpanzee Stone Age”….

The systematic archaeological study of prehistoric chimpanzee cultures suggests that the “Chimpanzee Stone Age” started at least 4,300 years ago, that nut-cracking behavior in the Taï forest has been transmitted over the course of >200 generations, and that chimpanzee material culture has a long prehistory whose deep roots are only beginning to be uncovered. These findings substantiate the contribution of rainforest archaeology to human evolutionary studies in areas other than the classical savanna-woodlands of East and Southern Africa and add support to fossil discoveries from these other regions indicative of an ancient chimpanzee past.

I love it: the Chimpanzee Stone Age! Also, it’s amazing that this tool use tradition has been passed down over 200 generations, and is still in use today.  Here’s a nice BBC video clip that shows today’s generation of chimps using the same sort of tools to expertly crack open nuts.

Archeology3, the official publication of the Archeological Institute of America, haled Mercader’s research as one of the “Top 10 Discoveries” of 2007, noting that:

The discovery shows that stone tool use is not a behavior that chimpanzees learned recently by watching the farmers who live in the area, as some skeptics believe. Mercader thinks that humans and chimpanzees may have inherited stone tool use from an ancestral species of ape that lived as long as 14 million years ago.

At this point, Mercader’s views on the origins of tool use are still open to debate and further research. The fact, though, that there can even be such a discussion about tool use, a capability once thought to so uniquely identify the human species, illuminates how much thinking we have had to do recently about the common characteristics we share with other animals. Interesting stuff.

We’ll keep you posted as the story unfolds, and let you know as soon as they discover the first prehistoric chimpanzee satellite TV dishes and computer operating systems.

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1Science 2.0, “Hammer Using Chimps Make Us Wonder Where They Learned It,” February 13, 2007.

2Mercader, J., Barton, H., Gillespie, J., Harris, J., Kuhn, S., Tyler, R., & Boesch, C. (2007). 4,300-Year-old chimpanzee sites and the origins of percussive stone technology Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104 (9), 3043-3048 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0607909104.

3Archeology, “Ancient Chimpanzee Tool Use,” Volume 61, Number 1, January/February 2008.

Memory: Chimp is Champ!

It didn’t sound like a fair contest: the memory champion of the UK against a lowly chimpanzee. In one corner, Ben Pridmore, a man capable of memorizing all of the cards in a shuffled deck in less than half a minute; in the other corner, Ayumu, a seven year old hairy primate wearing no clothes.

No, it wasn’t fair at all.

As reported in the UK Daily Mail1, both chimp and man watched a computer screen on which five numbers flashed up at various positions before being obscured by white squares, and then had to touch the squares in order of the numbers they concealed, from lowest to highest.

Ayumu hard at work (photo credit: Primate Research Institute Kyoto University)

By the time the competition heated up and the numbers were shown for a mere fifth of a second, the results weren’t even close: while the winner was able to order the numbers correctly almost 90% of the time, the loser couldn’t even manage 33%.

Fortunately, NaturalNews.com2 notes that the loser was gracious in defeat: “It is extremely impressive for anybody,” Pridmore said when asked about Ayumu’s performance. “He is doing something which I think is a really great performance even by human standards, so I’m sort of forgetting he is not a human being. When I bring that into the equation, it makes it overwhelmingly impressive.”

(If you wish to try to avenge Mr. Pridmore’s loss, the good news is that there’s a website3 where you can watch a video of Ayumu in action and then take the memory test yourself. Good luck, our species is counting on you.)

You may be thinking that this is a meaningless fluke, a highly specific area where a chimpanzee just happens to excel, a parlor trick that is not at all indicative of true intelligence. Well, maybe so, but don’t we as humans like to point to these sorts of unique abilities as precisely what set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom? Are we tilting the playing field by giving inordinate weight to the mental gifts that we enjoy, downplaying others and defining intelligence to suit ourselves and our abilities? Perhaps we should ask Ayumu what he thinks…

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1The Mail Online, “I’m the chimpion! Ape trounces the best of the human world in memory competition,” January 26, 2008.

2NaturalNews.com, “Chimpanzee Beats Human Memory Genius in Memorization Competition,” August 3, 2008.

3lumosity games website, visited June 28, 2011.

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