Arxiu de la categoria: Terrestrial mammals

Dogs made us more sapiens

Look at the dog resting at your side as you read this article or the Yorkshire Terrier that you‘ve seen in the street. French Bulldog, Pug, Chihuahua, West Highland, Golden Retriever, Pinscher… sometimes it’s hard to think that the ancestor of all these races is the wolf. It is known that the variety of breeds of current dogs is due to artificial selection by humans, but the debate is still alive when trying to answer questions about where, when, how and why it occurred domestication of wolves. Have dogs influenced our evolution as a species? Why do we have such a close relationship with them?

HIPOTHESES ABOUT THE ORIGIN OF THE DOG

Currently it is known that the ancestor of the dog is the wolf (Canis lupus), probably of some extinct species. The dog (Canis lupus familiaris) is in fact one of the two domestic subspecies of the wolf; the other is the Australian dingo (Canis lupus dingo) although it is considered wild nowadays.

canis lupus lupus, lobo europeo, eurasian wolf
Eurasian wolf (Canis lupus lupus). Photo by Bernard Landgraf.

The first hypotheses that attempt to explain the origin of the dog, were based on the idea that our ancestors caught wolf cubs and raised them as pets. But since domestication is a slow and long process, this belief is now ruled out. What tell us the most recent researchs?

  • A research in 2002 argued for an Asian origin (China today) 15,000 years ago, based on analysis of mitochondrial DNA from more than 600 dogs.
  • Another researh in 2010  placed the origin of the dog about 12,000 years ago in the Middle East, based on fossils.
  • In 2013, a mitochondrial DNA analysis of prehistoric canids, modern dogs and wolves concluded that domestication occurred between 18,800-32,100 years ago in Europe, much earlier than previously thought. The dog would be then the first living being domesticated by humans, since its origin predates agriculture. This would cast serious doubts in the same year’s rechearch telling that some wolves were able to metabolize starch, and therefore the cereals of early farmers, which favored (among other things) the rapprochement between wolves and humans.
Cánido de Razboinichya, fósil de 33.000 años de antigüedad que persenta rasgos de domesticación. Foto tomada de Plos One.
The Razboinichya canid, a 33.000 years old fossil with evidence of domestication. Photo taken of Plos One.

Agriculture and ranching surely influenced the evolution of the dog, but the contact between humans and wolves was when we were hunters and gatherers, before the domestication of animals more profitable (cows, sheep ). But how did it happen?

THE WOLF WAS DOMESTICATED ITSELF

The domestication of the wolf is unique because it is the only large carnivore in which we have succeeded. As reported by Science in April 2015, most scientists believe that were the wolves who approached human settlements voluntarily. Those who were less timid, more easily obtained food from the remains of dead animals left by our ancestors. Over time, these wolves survived longer and each generation was slightly different to previous, less and less fearful of humans. Humans would choose the most docile up to live with them. Wolves’ social skills and cooperation with its kind were maybe features that helped to cooperation with humans.

Entierro de una mujer y un perro del Neolítico, en Ripoli (Italia). Museo Nacional de Antigüedades de Chieti. (Créditos)
Neolithic burial of a woman and a dog, Ripoli (Italia). National Museum of Antiques of Chieti. (Credits)

Over thousands of years the relationship between humans and dogs has been coevolution (one has influenced the evolution of the other and vice versa), so much to create bonds with just a look, something  that we might think that is a exclusive hominid feature. When you look into the eyes of your dog the same hormone is released in both (oxytocin), the same hormone that is released when a mother looks at her son. If you also have the feeling that your dog understands you when you look at it, you smile at it, you talk to it … apparently you’re not entirely wrong.

CONSEQUENCES OF LIVING TOGETHER WITH DOGS IN HOMO SAPIENS

Althought your dog is just a pet and/or part of your family, they are now also used for almost the same tasks as those already profited early modern Homo sapiens:

  • Help for hunting: dogs could track the dam because they have a better smell, pursue and harass it until we killed it if it was too big for them. In addition, it is possible that humans communicated with dogs with his eyes, making a quieter hunting.
  • Search for buried or hidden food.
  • Transporting objects: fossils indicate that the first dogs carried objects in its backs and pulled carts.
  • Monitoring and protection against other predators, through better night vision and hearing.
  • Use as alternative food if hunting was scarce.
  • After the appearance of ranching, to control livestock.

The dog in turn, also made a profit from its union with H. sapiens, especially in the way of food easy to get.

Tassili dogs cave painting
Cave paintinf inTassili (Argelia) showing a hunting scene with dogs

An important consequence of the domestication of the wolf is that it was the starting point of the domestication of other animals. Our ancestors understood the advantages that supposed to have domesticated animals to their advantage, so the ranching revolution started about 10,000 years ago.

Furthermore, Pat Shipman, antrophologist, has published recently a paper and a book where explains the advantage that H. sapiens with dogs would have had against H. neanderthalensis, even contributing to the extinction of this species. Apparently the advantages set forth above associated with dogs, not only gave the first modern sapiens advantage to compete with other carnivores for food, scarce in full glaciation. Also they had an advantage over the Neanderthals, which had only their own means to feed. Not only disappeared with our arrival the Neanderthal population in Europe, so did the mammoths, European lions and buffalos.

Recreaciópn de un campamento neandertal. American Museum of Natural History. Foto de Mireia Querol
Recreation of a neanderthal camp. American Museum of Natural History. Photo by Mireia Querol

The causes of extinction of the species most similar to ours, the Neanderthals, remain a mystery. The reasons are probably multiple but rarely we ask ourselves that “man’s best friend” has contributed to this. Perhaps thanks to them you’re reading this article and I’m writing it, perhaps we are here as a species thanks to dogs.

REFERENCES

MIREIA QUEROL ALL YOU NEED IS BIOLOGY

Pangolin: poaching is condemning it to extinction

Neither the tiger or elephant or rhino: the most hunted mammals by humans are pangolins, to the point of critically threaten their survival as a species. Discover the only mammal with scales, its current condition and what can we do to prevent the extinction of all species of pangolin in the world.

WHAT IS A PANGOLIN?

manis tricuspis, pangolin, árbol, tree, trepando
Tree pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis). (Photo by Bart Wursten).

The name pangolin (also known as scaly anteater or trenggiling) includes 8 different species distributed by a variety of habitats (tropical rainforests, dry forests, savanna areas, cultivated fields…) in Africa and Asia. They measure between 90 cm and 1.65 m. They are the only family in the order Pholidota: although physically similar, armadillos, sloths and anteaters are not its relatives (order Xenarthra). Most are nocturnal, solitary and shy, so there are still many questions about their biology and behavior in the wild (they don’t usually survive captivity).

MORPHOLOGY

Pangolins are the only mammals with scales: they are made of keratin (like our nails) and give them a look like a pineapple or artichoke. Scales are very sharp and they can move them voluntarily. If pangolins feel threatened hiss and puff, curl into a ball leaving the scales exposed and secrete pestilential acids to ward off predators (tigers, lions, panthers and humans).

leon, leona, pangolin, bola, lion, defensa
An impenetrable defense even to a lioness. (Photo by Holly Cheese)

The claws allow them both climb as digging: terrestrial pangolins hide and breed in underground galleries and arboreal pangolins do the same in hollows on trees. The tail of the tree pangolin is prehensile to attach to the branches. In addition, pangolins are excellent swimmers.
They are mainly bipedal animals: forepaws are so large that force them to walk on its hind legs, with a maximum speed of 5 km/h. Watch a pangolin walking and feeding:

NUTRITION

Pangolin has no teeth and is unable to chew. It feeds on ants and termites, which locates with its powerful sense of smell (the view is underdeveloped) and catch them with its sticky and long tongue (may be longer than the body itself, up to 40 cm). The stones swallowed involuntarily and corneal structures of their stomach help them to crush the exoskeletons of insects. With its powerful claws destroy their nests to access them and avoid their attack plugging his ears and nostrils, besides having an armored eyelid. It is estimated that a pangolin can consume about 70 million insects per year, which makes them important regulators of the population of ants and termites.

lengua, pangolin, tongue
The tongue of the pangolin. (Photo by Wim Vorster).

REPRODUCTION

Pangolins can reproduce at any time of the year. After pregnancy (two to five months, depending on species) only one young is born (African species) or up to three (Asian species).

pangolin, hembra, female, mamas, breast, pecho, tetas
Female pangolin. (Photo by Scott Hurd)

The pangolin is born with soft scales, which begin to harden after two days. When after a month come out of the burrow, they travel on the tail of her mother and become independent at 3-4 months. Their lifespan is unknown, although in captivity an individual lived until 20 years old.

pangolin, baby, cría, zoo bali
Female with her baby in the tail. Bali zoo. (Photo by Firdia Lisnawati)

THREATS AND CONSERVATION

In addition to habitat destruction, the main threat that pangolins face is direct hunting for human consumption. Although there are international laws to protect them, it is estimated that about 100 000 pangolins are hunted annuallyGiven the defense strategy of this animal, poachers only have to catch them of the ground. Like other species, like sharks, the food market and traditional medicine are the main causes of directing the pangolin towards extinction.

pangolin, jaulas, tráfico ilega, illegal trade, bushmeat
Illegal trade in pangolin. (Photo by Soggydan Benenovitch).

WHY PANGOLINS ARE POACHED?

  • Bushmeat is considered a delicacy and an indicator of high social status in Vietnam and China. The pangolin fetus soup is sold as an elixir to increase virility and improve breast milk production. The price of bushmeat on the black market can reach $ 300 per kilo. The price of an individual can reach $ 1,000.
sopa, feto, soup, pangolin, feto, fetus
Pangolin fetus soup. (Photo by TRAFFIC).
  • Blood is sold as a tonic to improve health and as an aphrodisiac.
  • Scales can reach $ 3000 per kilo and are used for almost anything: to cure from acne to cancer. This belief is curious, considering that the scales have the same structure as our fingernails.
pangolín, china, medicina, medicine, tradicional, cura para el cáncer
Products of traditional Chinese medicine made of pangolin. (Photo by TRAFFIC).

All these purported medicinal and magical effects have no scientific basis, making yet more nonsense pangolin smuggling.

CONSERVATION

The population trend of all species of pangolin is declining in some cases to an alarming extent. The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species classifies them as it follows:

RED LIS CATEGORIES IUCN
IUCN Red List categories. (Image from iucn.org)

Because of their status, IUCN restored in 2012 a group of specialists within the Species Survival Commission (SSC) dedicated to pangolins (Pangolin Specialist Group -PangolinSG-). Its main objective are do research to increase knowledge of pangolins, the threats they face and how they can be mitigated to facilitate preservation.

The conservation projects that are being carried out include campaigns to reduce the demand of bushmeat and pangolin scales and the tightening of laws. Still, the total ignorance of populations’ state and low survival in captivity for breeding makes it difficult to design strategies for their conservation.

WHAT CAN YOU DO FOR PANGOLIN?

  • Reject any product derived from this animal, either bushmeat, scales or “miracle” products for the cure of diseases. Read the labels of any traditional remedies, especially if they are from the Asian market, and recall that its hypothetical benefits have no scientific basis, so that you can rethink their use.
  • Share information. If you own new data on pangolins, photos or videos contact with PangolinSG to cooperate with the investigation. Talk about them in your immediate environment to raise awareness and publicize this fantastic single animal.
  • Do a PhD about pangolins. Lot of research on these species is still needed, so if you are a student and you are planning to do a PhD, you can collaborate with PangolinSG with your future research.
  • Become a PangolinSG volunteer. Get involved in the development and implementation of projects and conservation programs.
  • Make a financial donation so PangolinSG can continue its work.

In conclusion, more scientific research, a change of mind and protection policies are needed to prevent the pangolin become an example of extinct species at the hands of ours, as it is about to happen to white rhino.

REFERENCES

MIREIA QUEROL ALL YOU NEED IS BIOLOGY

Grief in animals: the case of elephants

Have you ever wondered if humans are the only ones who give importance to the death of our fellow? Some years ago it was believed that this distinguished us from other animals, but is now known that elephants show special behaviors with corpses and death of their congeners.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE AFRICAN ELEPHANT

The African elephant (Loxodonta africana) is the largest land animal that exists today, with a height of almost 4 meters, weighing up to 6 tons and having one of the highest life expectancies among mammals (it is estimated to be living up to 70 years).
Elephants are organized socially in groups composed of a older female, more experienced, called matriarch, and other related females of various ages with their offspring (males and young females). Sometimes to protect or feed on leafy areas, small herds can be combined to form groups of several hundred individuals. The males join the herd when they find a sexually receptive female, since otherwise are solitary (old males) or form bachelor groups (young males). However, they never go too far from their family and recognize it when they meet again.

Elefantes africanos (Vaughan Leiberum)
African elephants (Vaughan Leiberum)

BEHAVIOR

Although they have not been so studied as primates, elephants are considered intelligent animals and show complex behavior such as altruism, empathy, cooperation and problem solving. The matriarch passes on his knowledge to the rest of the family, as migratory routes, where to find water, food, salt, etc. In this article, however, we will focus on behaviors that have elephants in relation to death, which some studies may qualify for funeral rites. We have the idea that only humans keep vigil our dead and we are aware of death, but it might not be true. Although sometimes we apply our criteria to what we see in other animals and we must discuss these issues with caution, especially elephants, dolphins and apes have been recorded special behaviors related to the death of relatives.

Elephant skeleton (Mike Richardson)
Elephant skeleton (Mike Richardson)

FUNERAL RITES

When we talk about elephants and death, we are not referring to their popularly famous graveyards, which has been proven its inexistence, but other events surrounding the death.
Cyntia Moss is a ethologist who has studied the behavior of a herd of African elephants for over 30 years. His observations allowed to know that elephants show special interest in the bones and remains of other individuals of their species, unlike most animals, that do not specially mark the death of other individuals. According to a study of Sussex University, directed by the Dr. Karen McComb, elephants are the only animals along with humans that can recognize the bones of another individual of the same species althougt it had been dead for years.

Over the body of an elephant, the whole family stops and becomes tense. First approach their trunks to smell it, then move carefully and palpate the bones, especially the skull. Other times, they throw sand and leaves on its remains.

Elefantes ante un cráneo de elefante, rinoceronte y búfalo: sólo se interesaron por el de elefante (Foto: Karen McComb/Royal Society))
Elephants in front of an elephant, rhino and buffalo skull: they only became interested in the elephant one. (Photo: Karen McComb/Royal Society)

When an elephant dies, the whole herd is concerned. If it’s a baby, his mother stays with the body several days and even tries to transport him using the trunk or tusks. The rest of the herd stays at her side or slow down. When an adult dies, the other elephants try to raise it and not separate from it until his remains fall into putrefaction. Sometimes they hold a wake over, driving away the scavengers, and even half burying the body in litter. They are also able to systematically recheck the bones and tusks that are on the road and even –the researchers suggest-, they visit the bones of their relatives. The premature death of the matriarch of the family cause general consternation and can lead to the disintegration of the group. Some females may take up to 20 years to return to rebuild the family unit, others will never achieve it.

These behaviors and social structure are used by hunters and ivory traffickers because killing one adult specimen, especially the matriarch, leads to an almost certain death to the group. But that is another issue to be discussed in future posts.

REFERENCES

Cover photo by John Chaney (National Geographic 2012 Traveler Photo contest 2012)

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Who are the hominids?

Today’s article is dedicated to primates. We will talk about some of its key features, the classification of the living species and we will discover who the hominids and hominans are.

GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF PRIMATES

Primates are an order of placental mammals that appeared about 65 million years ago in the tropical rainforest. There are currently over 400 living species, most of them arboreal. Since there are no single trait that defines them, they are difficult to classify; so we have to consider a set of features, which are:

  • Complex visual system: with frontally placed eyes, their vision is stereoscopic, allowing them to perceive the distance and depth with great accuracy. Most species can see in color.
  • High mobility of the shoulder: allows an easy arm movement in all directions. Hands and feet have five fingers and opposable thumb (at least in hands) allowing them to grasp and manipulate objects with precision. Although some have claws, most have flat nails and all (except some orangutans) have a flat nail on the big toe.
  • Torso and tail: several primates rest and move with an erect torso. Except apes, in some cases they have a prehensile tail, and can use it as a fifth limb.
  • Brain size: besides some species of toothed whales, some primates have, in relation to the body, the largest brain of all mammals.
  • Social organization: only orangutans, some lemurs and galagos are solitary, other primates are organized in complex social groups.
Gorila comiendo (Gorilla sp.) donde se aprecian algunas de las características descritas (Foto: pixabay.com)
Gorilla eating (Gorilla sp.) where whe can see some of the characteristics. Photo: pixabay.com
 

CLASSIFICATION

The relationships among the different groups of primates were not clearly understood until relatively recently, so the commonly used terms are somewhat confused (mokeys, apes…). Modern cladistic classifies primates in two suborders, Haplorrhini (“dry-nosed primates”) and Strepsirhini (“wet-nosed primates“). A possible classification would be:

Taxonomia primates english
Primates taxonomy. Clic to enlarge. Created by Mireia Querol based in an image taken of humanorigins.si.edu.

Traditionally primates are classified into three groups: prosimians, monkeys and apes.

PROSIMIANS

Prosimians are the oldest primate group. They are distributed throughout Southeast Asia and Africa marginal islands. Prosimians include lemurs, lorises, galagosindris, the aye-aye and tarsiers. They share the following characteristics:

  • Claws instead of nails (they have at least a fingernail)
  • Long snout with wet nose. They have the best sense of smell among primates
  • More lateral orientation of the eyes than other primates. These are big and have good nocturnal vision
  • Mobile pinna
  • Minor brain proportion than other primates
Aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis). (Foto: Frans Lanting)
Aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis). Photo: Frans Lanting
 

Tarser de Filipines (Foto: Kok Leng Yeo)
Philippines tarsier (Carlito syrichta). (Photo: Kok Leng Yeo)

OLD AND NEW WORLD MONKEYS

The New World monkeys are distributed throughout Central and South America. They have a long, often prehensile tail. The muzzle is flat and the nostrils are situated in the side. They are completely arboreal. The best known representatives are marmosets, spider monkeys, capuchins, and sakis.

Sakí cariblanco macho (Pithecia pithecia). (Foto: Charles Miller).
Male of White-faced saki (Pithecia pithecia). Photo: Charles Miller
 

The Old World monkeys are distributed throughout Africa and Asia. Usually they are bigger than New World monkeys. The nostrils are directed downward or forward. The Old World monkeys cover a wide range of species, such as macaques, baboons, mandrills, mangabeis, drills, colobus, proboscis monkeys, langurs

Langur dorado (Trachypithecus geei). (Foto: Wikimedia).
Gee’s golden langur (Trachypithecus geei). Photo: Wikimedia
 

APES

Apes are divided into two families: Hylobatidae (gibbons and siamangs) and Hominidae (orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees and humans). They are distributed throughout West and Central Africa and South and Southeast Asia, except humans: we are distributed all over the planet and habitats. Apes have a flat face, with the nostrils downwards and an anatomy that facilitates upright posture and materials handling, including the creation and use of tools in some species.

Bonobo (Pan paniscus). (Foto: Pierre Fidenci)
Bonobo (Pan paniscus). Photo: Pierre Fidenci
In conclusion, hominids are human beings (Homo sapiens) together with orangutans (two species: Pongo pymaeus and Pongo abelii), chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), bonobos (Pan paniscusand gorillas (two species: Gorilla gorilla y Gorilla beringei), because we all belong to the family Hominidae. The term also refers to all fossil species of this family, and therefore our ancestors, that we will discuss in future articles on human evolution. However, to refer exclusively to our evolutionary branch (including H. sapiens) the used term is hominans or hominas, which refers to a tribe (Hominini) of the Hominidae family.

REFERENCES

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