This little piece has been inspired by me seeing all of the people running the London Marathon to raise money for rhino conservation. Some people were running in Jim Henson style suits, and I'm sure that 26.2 miles in one of those would be hard. So if you don't read nay more of this blog please go to Save the Rhino and make a donation: http://www.savetherhino.org/support_us/donate/donate_now
The Southern white rhino had almost become extinct in Southern Africa, due to trophy hunting. However, after a group where found in what is Now Kwa-Zulu Natal (in the Umfolozi-Hluhluwe region) a concerted conversation effort meant that the population in South Africa soared. This is a triumph of conservation and something that we should be proud of. Meanwhile outside of the safe haven of South Africa, rhinos continued to be poached for their ivory and the number of rhinos in other countries plummeted. Most of this story I first heard from one of my fellow PhD students after he had started a job for WWF working on rhino protection. During the years that surrounding nations had their rhino stocks completely decimated, the South African population remained relatively unscathed. The reasoning that I've heard for this is that it was just a lot easier to poach from the other countries. But after all of the rhinos outside of SA were killed the poachers turned their sites on the country at the tip of the continent. Since 2007 rhino poaching has accelerated rapidly: in 2014 1,215 rhino were poached, up 200 on the previous year and 1,202 from 2007.
From what I was told by my colleague who worked for WWF, at least three rhinos are poached from Kruger National Park every day. The killing of a rhino takes a lot of preparation, some prosecutions have found that the original targeting of a reserve occurred years in advance. Poaching is so lucrative that flying a helicopter into a private reserve is economically viable, and this makes small reserves particularly vulnerable. But most of the people who actually do the poaching are driven to it by poverty and do not make huge amounts of money. With a wide pool of potential poachers to draw from, the middle men who make the money can always find more people to fill the rolls of any poachers who get caught (and often shot and killed). This makes this a hydralike problem, and so very difficult to stop on the ground in Africa.
So why do rhinos get poached? For their horns, which are shipped mainly to Vietnam to be ground up and used as hangover 'cures' and cancer 'cures.' Most people in Vietnam do not realise that to get the horn to cure your babelas (hangover) a rhino has to die. This seems like a great area for conservation groups and charities to focus, increase the knowledge in the countries that the horn is sent to and maybe the demand will dry up? There has been recent set back because an agreement between South Africa and Vietnam on poaching fell through. Set backs like this are hard to take and almost incomprehensible.
I have two proposals to help solve this problem: one sensible and the other very extreme and probably illegal.
1. Put up huge billboards in Ho Chi Minh City showing poached rhinos, go to schools and teach children about where rhino horn comes from. Pay for TV commercials on pay-per-view to get into the homes of the people who buy rhino horn.
2. (I don't actually advocate this, it's just a hypothetical idea for a serious problem) Poison large amounts of wildebeest, springbok or buffalo horn. This is readily available from the game industry, which effectively farms these animals for food. This horn is almost indistinguishable from rhino horn. Flood the market with this toxic product. I'm pretty sure that people will stop buying rhino horn to cure their babalas when all of their friends who have done it have become seriously ill.
I advocate stopping the demand. The poverty around the source makes this a difficult issue to stop here. So spending money in Vietnam might be the best way to solve it. But what do I know!
For charities, maximizing how much money they get donated is probably one of their biggest issues. Without money from generous people a lot of the great charitable works can't be done. So one very interesting question is what effects how much money people give. Step in behavioural ecology and my PhD supervisor Nichola Raihani. She's just published a paper in Current Biology, getting a fair amount of press coverage (Independent and Huffington Post to name a few).
What she and her co-author found was that men's response to donating is effected by two factors: how attractive a female fundraiser is and how much other men have donated. Males actually appear to compete with each other when donating to a 'high quality' (my words) potential mate. Interestingly, and potentially useful for the fundraising sector, females don't compete when donating to attractive male fundraisers. So there seems to be an aspect of sexual competition between males...
All really useful and cool stuff. Plus it's come from the use of a large database, and more studies are likely to come out as big data becomes more available for biologists. I just hope that people don't take this literally and that facebook now doesn't start bombarding me with charity adverts featuring scantily clad women telling me that my male friends have donated £100! This is great research into how humans cooperate and what drives our behaviour when performing seemingly altruistic behaviours.
Raihani & Smith (2015) Competitive helping in online giving. Current Biology,
Unconditional generosity in humans is a puzzle. One possibility is that individuals benefit from being seen as generous if there is competition for access to partners and if generosity is a costly—and therefore reliable—signal of partner quality [ 1–3 ]. The “competitive helping” hypothesis predicts that people will compete to be the most generous, particularly in the presence of attractive potential partners [ 1 ]. However, this key prediction has not been directly tested. Using data from online fundraising pages, we demonstrate competitive helping in the real world. Donations to fundraising pages are public and made sequentially. Donors can therefore respond to the behavior of previous donors, creating a potential generosity tournament. Our test of the competitive helping hypothesis focuses on the response to large, visible donations. We show that male donors show significantly stronger responses (by donating more) when they are donating to an attractive female fundraiser and responding to a large donation made by another male donor. The responses for this condition are around four times greater than when males give to less-attractive female (or male) fundraisers or when they respond to a large donation made by a female donor. Unlike males, females do not compete in donations when giving to attractive male fundraisers. These data suggest that males use competitive helping displays in the presence of attractive females and suggest a role for sexual selection in explaining unconditional generosity.
It's something that every child wonders at some point while splashing around in the bath or at a swimming pool: 'Why are my fingers all wrinkly?' The rest of your skin stays pretty much the same after a prolonged soak but your hands and feet take on prune like characteristics. I always assumed that your hands just absorbed the water and that caused the problem. I formulated this opinion before I knew much about biology and never really scrutinized this idea, which really doesn't stand up to much scrutinization.
But a cool bit of research (abstract below) has found that it's all to do with being able to handle wet objects better.WE have evolved a mechanism for improving how do things in the wet. Water being absorbed into the fingers isn't even a part of this phenomenon, as it's actually driven by the autonomic nervous system.The authors of the paper talk about theories as to why we don't have wrinkled fingers more often but the question I find interesting is why do we have them at all? Surely results like this tell us about our evolutionary past and the environments in which our ancestors lived and foraged. I have no idea if chimps, gorillas or orangutans have this adaptation. If they don't then it suggests it evolved after we diverged from our closest relatives. Ideas about humans foraging along the seashore have been a big part of understanding how humans evolved and spread out of Africa, so maybe this finding a clue to that?
A lot of this post is speculation, but that's the part of science that drives future areas of research and the joy of think about 'why?' is what I love so much about science.
Kareklas et al. (2013) Water-induced finger wrinkles improve handling of wet objects. Biology Letters
Upon continued submersion in water, the glabrous skin on human hands and feet forms wrinkles. The formation of these wrinkles is known to be an active process, controlled by the autonomic nervous system. Such an active control suggests that these wrinkles may have an important function, but this function has not been clear. In this study, we show that submerged objects are handled more quickly with wrinkled fingers than with unwrinkled fingers, whereas wrinkles make no difference to manipulating dry objects. These findings support the hypothesis that water-induced finger wrinkles improve handling submerged objects and suggest that they may be an adaptation for handling objects in wet conditions.
One of my old colleagues, who's just finishing up his PhD has just had a paper published. James Westrip, supervised by Matt Bell, is working on interspecific communication through the pied babblers. Here's the abstract for the paper and a link to it:
Bell & Westrip (2015) Breaking down the Species Boundaries: Selective Pressures behind Interspecific Communication in Vertebrates. Ethology, DOI: 10.1111/eth.12379
Studying heterospecific communication provides an opportunity to examine the dynamics of cross-species social behaviour. It allows us to ask questions about the extent to which the transfer of information is adaptive or accidental and provides an empirically tractable context for manipulating relationships. To date, most studies of heterospecific communication have focussed on receivers. However, the selective pressures on signallers can be as important in determining the dynamics of interspecific communication. Here, we propose a simple framework for thinking about cross-species information transfer, which (i) considers whether information exchange is either accidental or adaptive and (ii) whether it is unidirectional or bidirectional. To clearly classify interactions, it is necessary to quantify all of the payoffs of interspecific communication to both signallers and receivers. This requires accurate characterisation of the currency influenced by cross-species communication (e.g. weight gain, foraging success, survival). However, quantifying the payoffs may be difficult, because each side may be benefiting via different currencies. To date, studies on heterospecific communication have focussed on only one dimension of a niche (usually antipredator or foraging signals). However, because niches are multidimensional, investigations should incorporate multiple aspects of a species’ niche, to get a better perspective on why we see certain patterns of information use between species.
This post is likely to be controversial and contentious. It’s likely that some people may misread it and interpret what I’ve written in the wrong way – so please read it to the end. Therefore, before I go any further I’ll point out that I am a firm believer in sexual equality; both women and men deserve equal pay and opportunities. I see many examples of sexism in the world and they all make me feel ashamed to be male. As I have gotten older I’ve become more attuned to the prejudices that pervade modern British society, as progressive as we like to think it is. There is no but at the end of this statement. This post has been inspired by both my understanding of biology and the fact that I haven’t heard this argument made anywhere else.
Sexism may be a natural state, but that doesn’t make it a morally defensible one. Conflict is rife in the animal world between predators and prey, between males competing over access to female, females competing over access to males and between members of a breeding pair who are raising joint young. Sexual conflict exists in all sexually reproducing species, be they animal or plant. When two individuals aims are not perfectly aligned, as happens for example when a male and female bird decide to breed together, then there will be conflict – over how much each invests in their offspring and even if they decide to stick around to help raise them. Conflict of this kind is theorized to be the reason behind sexual differentiation: the production of one large gamete with lots of resources or lots of smaller ones with fewer resources. This initial difference sets up conflicting interests between the large gamete producers, females, and the small gamete producers, males. Females typically invest heavily in offspring and so want to choose the best sexual partner, whilst males do best by spreading their inexpensive (although there is a cost to sperm production) seed.
But what has this got to do with feminism and misogyny? In modern human societies men are in a position of power. They are paid better, more likely to be employed etc. For society to be equal we are asking for a subset of a species to voluntarily give up a position of strength, but what benefit do they get from doing this? One argument would be that having more women higher up in companies will be good for business, we’ll be promoting purely on merit and so only the best will get to the top. This is likely to be true. But I’m an evolutionary biologist and this way of thinking seems very close to group selection – which we know is not how evolution works. Animals, plants and even people will behaviour in a way that is optimum for them, if this optimum happens to coincide with the optimum for the group then that’s great and then we get cooperation. But the interests of the group or species do not always coincide with the individual. So, individual members of the board of executives are unlikely to voluntarily give up their position to a woman just because the company will do better. Similarly, a male boss is likely to employ a man in his mid-twenties over a woman of similar age because he is less likely to take leave because of a baby, making the life of the boss easier. In behavioural economics experiments people will actually pay so that others will incur a cost (this is called spite). What I am trying to say is that the reason why sexism still exists in modern western society may be because we haven’t come at it from the correct angle, we’ve simply relied upon people behaving in a way that is moral and ethical, which can only get us so far – we’ve not thought about it in an evolutionary way.
Males don’t always have to win - sexual conflicts are not always static. Some species, like elephant seals, have extreme sexual dimorphism (driven by competition between males) and this makes females very week in the interactions of this species (I’ve not studied seals and so his might be a crap example). However, in species like the dunnock, the balance of power between males and females is in constant flux. Sometimes the males win, getting to mate with two females and have twice the number of offspring, and sometimes the females win, getting to mate with two males and have them both help rear her young. I went to a conference where they found that dunnocks in New Zealand actually behaved differently to those in the UK and the outcomes again were in flux. What this shows is that through changing costs and benefits, even the habitat, we can influence sexual conflict and potentially sexism.
It’s very difficult to change the way people behave, but if we can influence the environment in which businesses work and that men and women interact. The He For She campaign is a great idea to changing male behaviour early, but if the benefits of sexism remain in later life it may have limited effect. Another way to change things is to avoid any possibility of sexism. For example, it used to be thought that women couldn’t play the tuba but then orchestras started to have blind auditions and all traces that the player might be a women were cover up. The result was a massive increase in the number of women playing the instrument in orchestras. In the leave due to a baby example I used above, making it possible for men to take as much paternity leave as women can take maternity leave could eliminate the difference in cost to employer – rendering choosing a man the same as choosing a woman. By reposing the question and asking why sexism exists, we can seek to find evolutionary answers that may allow us to put an end to it.
You may think this is overly simplistic, that we're rational creatures and so above any such 'manipulation' but how much washing up we do is effected by our environment!
I am a behavioural ecologist, my main interests revolve around familial conflicts and their resolutions. However, my scientific interests are fairly broad.