Category Archives: Primates


The internet is abuzz this morning with news that a previously undiscovered tribe has been found in the remote Javari Valley region of Brazil, on the Peruvian border. There are an estimated 70 “undiscovered” tribes left in the world, people who have not ever made contact with the civilized world — most of them from the Amazon rainforest of Western Brazil — and so the existence of even one more tribe is rare and exciting news. The last discovery of an uncontacted tribe came two years ago, when unknown Indians in Brazil came out of the trees to try to shoot down a government photographer’s plane with arrows.

Indiana Jones was for real.

Yesterday morning, I was video-chatting with a friend in Australia, where it was late at night. The other day, I ate plums that were grown in Chile. Lord knows which sea the fish I eat comes from, or what brown hand sews my shirts. As fond as we are of musing about our rapidly shrinking, ever more interconnected globe, it is important to remember that there are still people in the world who exist outside of both our economy and our knowledge. There are villages where no Coca-Cola t-shirts hang on laundry lines, no hunter runs the forest in Reeboks, where no white anthropologist plays with the children between notes in his orange book. These people are neither fighting with oil companies nor being taught how to grow sustainable shade-grown coffee by non-profit do-gooders. As far as we know, these uncontacted tribes have no idea that we, the rest of the world, exist. Civilizations have risen and fallen, monuments and cities have been built, been demolished, and regrown on the rubble; world wars have been fought and revolutions both violent and scientific, artistic, philosophical, and musical have shaken governments and their people; empires have stretched their tentacles into almost every crevice of the Earth. The Eighties happened. Beyonce recently dropped her hot new single. Man landed on the moon. But for a few villages in the Amazon, none of this is true. Their reality does not include us, or what we call “history.” Their world is still the fish at the end of the spear. It is the dragonfly and its god, the rainwater and the fruiting of the blue-flowered tree, and the one and only language.

We also know that we cannot contact these tribes, because of the risk of contagion. When the Matis people of Brazil made first contact with the government after years of avoiding them as an enemy, more than half the tribe died of pneumonia; a modern-world retelling of the story of thousands of European/Indian contacts throughout history. The recently-discovered tribe in the Vale do Javari will remain a mystery to us, and we to them; we may never learn their names or customs or language, nor gain their unique knowledge of their remote corner of the planet. In fact, because we will not attempt to contact them, nor the eight to two dozen other uncontacted species in the Javari, we’ll never be able to see their forest home nor the flora and fauna therein. This got me thinking: If we never make contact with the new tribe, what else will we never contact? Brazil is second only to Indonesia in number of endemic species, and the Amazon rainforest is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. It seems logical that there would be at least a dozen species endemic only to that region. The Unknown People know what they are. Can we, sight unseen?

Beautiful Metropolitan Downtown... Somewhere

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La Moustache

As anyone who’s ever played with a Woolly Willy knows, facial hair is fun. But none so fun as the mustache, that bold yet whimsical upper lip sprout with so many iterations. Originated by Persian horsemen in 300 B.C., as far as we’ve yet discovered, the mustache has long been the symbol for male virility and nobility, until it reached its current period of disgrace as a hipster accoutrement. But lately I have been wondering about the natural and biological history of what the French so aptly call la moustache.

It would be 2,250 years before NASCAR caught up the mustache.

For a stylistic statement occupying the narrow real estate between the nose and the upper lip, mustaches enjoy a nearly unbelievable number of species within its genus; truly, the mustache is a miracle of adaptive radiation. Some varieties can be best described by their most famous hosts, both heroic and nefarious: There’s the Western mustache group, exemplified by the Sam Elliot, and also in its evil counterparts, the Yosemite Sam, the Josef Stalin, and the John Bolton. The Fu Manchu owes its name to racist 20th Century origins in pulp fiction, but once grown into a full “horseshoe” style, has since been redeemed by Mötorhead and American Chopper. The Handlebar finds its zenith in Rollie Fingers, Dick Dastardly, and Salvador Dali. Then there’s the proud Mexican mustache, associated with armed revolution: the Pancho Villa, the Emiliano Zapata, and the Zorro. The latter also qualifies as one of the thin pencil mustaches, or “lip-brows,” like the John Waters and the Gomez Addams, which have a dignified and aristocratic quality, while bushy mustaches like the Friedrich Nietzsche, the Mark Twain and the Chester A. Arthur exude their own leonine charisma. Hitler’s mustache is so iconic it should be attempted by no one else. Tom Selleck’s mustache is so exquisite that every man, woman, and child should be required by law to wear one.

Mario has been known to “freestyle.”

While mustaches retain popularity in many countries and regions, such as India, the Middle East, and Latin America, they have languished here in the United States in the past twenty years. They are worn only by retro holdouts who are supremely assured of their masculinity — the “awesome uncle” category — or lonely, perverted outsiders who have no idea the fashion has changed since the days of public porno theatres in Times Square — the “creepy uncle” category. They are handy for covering scars and hare lips, for concealing lip-twitching “tells” during poker, and for preserving wayward soup for later consumption. (Or booze.) They’re also not called “handlebars” for nothing. To be sure, some people should never wear mustaches. Conversely, some people who shaved off their mustaches to keep “with the times” should be court-ordered to grow them back immediately. (I’m talking to you, Alex Trebek. AND YOU, DAD. I’M TALKING TO YOU.)

Hair is a uniquely mammalian trait designed to conserve the body heat necessary to maintain a constant body temperature. We’re not sure exactly why, but in the course of human evolution, we have lost most of our body hair, except in the places most prone to heat loss: the top of the head, the armpits, and the pubis. This must be the first and foremost reason we have preserved our under-nose hair: it insulates air traveling into the lungs, keeping our core temperature from dropping precipitously each time we take a breath in the winter. Take as Exhibit A the walrus, which has every reason to keep an aura of warm air around its mouth and nostrils by rocking a righteous ‘stache:

Yet with its upturned nostrils, and most animals’ wet noses, I suspect that air insulation isn’t the primary reason for the mustache. So we turn to the animal with what is undoubtedly the most magnificent cookie duster in the animal kingdom: The Emperor Tamarin Monkey.

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Imagine this: a chill Halloween night in Western Massachusetts, a cloud cutting across the full moon like a razor. Frost brightens the sky, and the trees in the apple orchards are decrepit, tortured skeletons of their daylight selves, holding the moonlight like a tulle veil. And from just beyond the trees, a howl rises like the fresh dead; a terrible, pipe-organ howl, voices sliding into each other on black-key notes, a chorus of the damned.

It was neither wolves, which have long been banished from New England, nor coyotes. It was the pack of New Guinea Singing Dogs kept at the farm on my college campus. I was a freshman then, the year we sold the Singing Dogs to a zoo because of noise complaints. They were a pet of two professors: one, an expert on canid evolution, and the other, a professor of animal behavior and bioacoustics. The mysterious and rarely-seen New Guinea Singing Dog is a fascinating species that is slowly helping scientists understand one of the most blood-curdling sounds in Animalia, and the reasons behind why, and how, we howl.

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Neanderthals in the Mist

There is no such thing as Bigfoot. There’s no Sasquatch, no Stink-Ape, no Yeti. The existence of Bigfoot, I believe, is indefensible: there are no fossils, no remains, not even Bigfoot scat. But a more interesting question than “Does Bigfoot exist?” is “Why doesn’t Bigfoot exist?” In other words, why isn’t there room for a large, hairy primate in the forests of North America? The answer, I believe, is two-fold. The first reason there aren’t more monkeys north of the Rio Grande is that primates don’t tend to do well in chilly climates. The other reason is that if Bigfoot were real, we would have eaten him by now.

The Golden Snub-Nosed Monkey is the primate living at the highest, coldest altitudes besides mankind. While those hot spring-loving Japanese Macaques are the northernmost-dwelling monkey, the Golden Snub-Nosed Monkey tolerates cold the best in its home in the mountains of Southern China, up to 14,850 feet above sea level. This semi-arboreal species able to survive the freezing temperatures with their double layer of golden fur, and by eating lichen and tree bark during the winter. They’ve been seen eating snow, and digging through the snow to find grasses when times are really tough. These sociable monkeys have no qualms about huddling together for warmth, and make a variety of cheerful noises — often without moving their faces at all. They’re the ventriloquists of the monkey world.

So this is as close as evolution has come yet to producing a Yeti. No ape besides us can stand snow, as apes are either vegetarians or omnivores, and palatable plants are in short supply in places that have white Christmases. If our imaginary Bigfoot existed, he’d be in direct competition with another giant, hairy omnivore: the grizzly bear. It is, after all, what undoubtedly made “Bigfoot’s” tracks. When it comes to the big fuzzy monster niche, perhaps the giant shoes had already been filled. And perhaps that’s for the best, because Homo sapiens has a habit of taking out its competition in the hominid department: first, the other species of humans, and now, the monkeys.

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This post isn’t about a lost, mythological animal. It’s about a lost, mythological continent.

The history of scientific thought is marked with many mythological and hypothetical places. Most famous and enduring is Plato’s lost continent of Atlantis, written about in his Timaeus and supposedly located in the ocean for which it’s named. Despite the odds that Atlantis was a parable designed to prove a philosophical point — this is Plato we’re talking about, after all — authors, adventurers, spiritualists and even some modern archaeologists have chosen to take the myth literally. The Pacific Ocean has its own mythological sunken continent of Mu, invented by French explorer Augustus Le Plongeon, who claimed to have teased the fact of its existence from hieroglyphs at the ruins of a Mayan temple. Le Plongeon claimed that descendents of Mu, fleeing the catastrophe in every direction, went on to found the empires of Egypt, Mesoamerica and India. Later fantasists connected the Mu diaspora with the cultures of Easter Island and New Zealand.

There was a third sunken continent proposed in the 19th century, this time located in the Indian Ocean. Its “discoverer” was neither a philosopher nor a deluded anthropologist, but a reasonably unromantic British ornithologist named Philip Sclater. It was a hypothetical continent proposed to answer a biogeographical mystery for which science had no answer yet: the inexplicable existence of prosimian primates in both Madagascar and the Indian subcontinent. Sclater called it Lemuria.

Biogeography, the study of why certain species live where they do, was Sclater’s forte. In 1858, he proposed six zoographical regions (Aethopian, Neotropical, Indian, Australasian, Palearctic and Nearctic) which are still used by biologists today to describe zones of life. He collected nine thousand bird specimens, wrote several indispensable books of natural history, and founded The Ibis, the official ornithology journal of Great Britain. And though it was Harry Johnston who “discovered” the okapi, it was Sclater who gets credit for scientifically describing the animal — despite never having seen one — and naming it after its discoverer.

But it was in Madagascar in 1864 where his eminent zoological legacy took a turn toward the supernatural. Astounded by the incredible diversity of lemurs on that strange island, he took to wondering why Madagascar was blessed with all the lemurs, yet mainland Africa had none. What’s more, the fossils of ancient lemurs had been found in India, where the lemurs’ distant cousins, the lorises, also lived. He reasoned that Madagascar and India must have, at one time, been connected by a now-sunken continent. Geology was a new science then, and large-scale catastrophes were much on the mind of the Victorians, so a scuttled landmass the size of the proposed Lemuria couldn’t be ruled out with complete certainty. The true story of the division of African and Asian lorids is, of course, even more mysterious and possibly even more violent.

Sclater’s Blue-Eyed Black Lemur

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The New Drake Equation

The conservationist world got some rare good news last week. A pair of researchers at the University of Queensland researched every species of mammal that had, at one time since the 1500’s, been deemed extinct, and concluded that, in approximately one-third of cases, reports of their deaths had been greatly exaggerated. This hopefully means that up a third of mammals currently considered extinct today may actually just be extremely rare and hiding. The whole article is worth the read (especially since it’s by my favorite science blogger, Brian Switek). But I’ll summarize, too.

Considering not just how many mammal species survived, but what kind of mammals survived, the researchers noticed a trend. If the species was declared extinct — which is usually official 50 years after a confirmed sighting, or after an exhaustive search — because of human hunting, it was probably truly extinct. Likewise for death by invasive species. But if habitat loss was the murder weapon, it was more than likely that a few members of the species survived somewhere. If that’s the case now, it means it’s possible to save them.

A good deal of my blog is dedicated to cryptozoology, the study of hidden animals. Cryptozoology isn’t just unicorns and Sasquatch. It’s also the search for hypothetical animals, as well as the search for animals that used to exist but haven’t been seen in some time. Is it largely a sensationalist pseudoscience? Sure. Do cryptozoologists waste their time and reputations hunting chupacabras for the benefit of History Channel specials? Absolutely. But when it comes down to finding real-life hidden animals — like, say, the possible one-third of “extinct” mammals out there — it’s a good idea to have a little faith in folklore and trust that maybe the illiterate villager who saw the shadow of an animal out of the corner of his eye is telling the truth. That’s precisely how the Horton Plains Slender Loris was finally rediscovered last summer, after having been declared extinct in 1937.

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I recently had a conversation with a crazy red-headed friend of mine about his crazy red-headed ex-wife and why their crazy red-headed daughter is so crazy. You know the stereotype: redheads are supposed to be sharp-tongued, hot-headed, sex-crazed nutjobs. This led me to wonder: Are redheads actually nutjobs, and if so, why would that be true?

My first instinct is to say that the stereotype is bunk. It fits a pattern of maligning every genetic phenotype for the purpose of convenient pigeonholing, and holds no more water than saying that all blondes are dumb, or that big-handed men are well-endowed. The world population of redheads, currently estimated at 1%, would seem to have no more nutjobs in it than any other hair color, and there are plenty of level-headed gingers in the world. The recessive gene that gave us Caligula was the same that gave us Queen Elizabeth I.

Though as far as “sex-crazed,” we can only fantasize.

(In the interest of full disclosure: While not a redhead per se — my hair color was once described by a hairdresser friend as “medium maize” — I come from a redheaded family and even express the gene in the form of a perfectly ginger beard when I go too long between shaves. So as a below-the-ears redhead, I’m not exactly neutral. However, I can say objectively that my immediate family is composed of sharp-tongued hot-heads of which I am one. As for the sexual proclivities of redheads, I’ll decline to comment because, hey, that’s my sister.)

Cultural stereotypes aside, I’m intrigued by the fact that a gene for coloration could carry with it a gene for some other effect. For example, the efficiency of some birds’ immune systems are linked to plumage color. And as Darwin noticed, albino animals are more prone to deafness. So is it possible for the redhead gene to carry with it another gene which might influence behavior? Actually, yes.

First: A Natural History of Redheads. Red hair is caused by the pigment phaeomelanin, which is in turn caused by a mutation in the melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R) protein which is controls what type of melanin our cells produce. So, essentially, redheads are mutants. But the reason for the evolution of this mutation is unclear. It is found in people worldwide, even in Africans, Aborigines and Persians, but of course it’s most prevalent in Western and Northern Europeans, where it is expressed by 2-6% of the population. One theory posits that the defective MC1R receptor was successful in Europe for the same reason white skin was: pale people absorb more heat and more ultraviolet radiation, which can make all the difference in sun-forsaken countries prone to Vitamin D deficiencies. Essentially, the MC1R mutation served to make your whites whiter. (The Neanderthals possessed the ginger gene, too. Somewhere in prehistoric Europe was a club-wielding caveman Ron Howard.) The only problem with this theory is that there’s no evidence for positive selection in this environment; blondes get sunburns just like redheads, so the recessive gene shouldn’t have given any advantage to our freckly forefathers and should thus have been squelched.

Also, it can’t explain why Carrot Top’s ancestors weren’t violently erased from the genetic line.

A second proposal is that red hair was promoted not by competitive selection, but by sexual selection. (Somewhere in prehistoric Europe was a berry-picking, wolfskin-clad Christina Hendricks.) As a fan of redheaded girls as much as the next guy with a pulse, I’m more inclined to trust this hypothesis. After all, phaenomelanin is also the pigment responsible for the red coloration of the lips, the nipples, the head of the penis, and the vagina. The secret to your good looks, my redheaded readers, is your vagina-colored hair.

Sexual selection for the mutated MC1R receptor among early hominids.

But what the mutant MC1R receptor also carries is a different relationship to pain. The same MC1R receptor that receives the melanocyte-stimulating hormone which colors your hair also receives another, more popular hormone: endorphins. (The two hormones are structurally similar.) A 2005 study concluded that redheads are more sensitive to thermal pain, while another found that redheads feel more pain at the dentist and needed 20% more anesthesia than blondes or brunettes. However, another study was said to prove that redheaded women have a higher pain threshold than blondes and brunettes, at least when the pain was noxious (such as electric shocks) and not thermal (such as a curling iron). So, which is it? Are redheads pansies or bad-asses? Are they both? Are they neither? And if red hair really does effect pain thresholds, would that say anything about a common behavior?

As if this article couldn’t get ridiculous enough, let’s make an awkward segue into the “zoological mystery” segment of our program: What if the answer to redheaded temperament and licentiousness could be found in those ultimate redheads, the orangutans?

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