Quirks & Quarks

Jan 28: Humans understand ape gestures, wolves eat sea otters, 'Golden Boy' mummy and more…

Polar pre-primate, Black in science update and domestication and taming.

Polar pre-primate, Black in science update and domestication and taming.

several young chimpanzees sitting on logs.
Chimpanzees and other great apes have a rich suite of gestures to communicate. Here a young chimp uses a “reach” gesture which is often a request for food. (Catherine Hobaiter, University of St. Andrews)

On this week's episode of Quirks & Quarks with Bob McDonald:

Humans intuitively understand ape gestural communication

Non-human great apes — chimps, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans — use a rich system of gestures for social interaction, over food, play, sex, grooming and more. And the gestures they use are largely shared across species. A new experiment by KIrsty Graham and her colleague Catherine Hobaiter from the Wild Minds Lab at the School of Psychology and Neuroscience of the University of St Andrews in Scotland, has shown that humans are pretty good at interpreting these gestures as well. That suggests they likely go way back in our common evolutionary history. The research was published in PLOS Biology.

You can take the ape gesture recognition test used in the experiment.

Wolves on an Alaskan island ate all the deer, so now are preying on sea otters

Wolves living on an island in Alaska have depleted the deer population they previously relied on and have switched their diet to primarily otters. Gretchen Roffler, a wildlife biologist from the Alaska Department of Fish and Gamewas surprised the wolves were able to make the change in only a few years. It is the first known instance of a sea based predator becoming a mainstay food resource for a land-based predator. Her research was published in the journal PNAS.

A brown coloured wolf pup devours the remains of a sea otter in a stony beach in Alaska
A wolf pup devours a sea otter on a stony beach in Alaska (Landon Bazeley)

A unique mummy is digitally unwrapped to reveal historical treasures

A CT scan of a 2300 year old mummy reveals new information regarding Egyptian burial practices and beliefs about the journey to the afterlife. Dr. Sahar Saleem, a professor in the Faculty of Medicine of Cairo University was able to digitally unwrap the mummy of the teenage boy, which was nicknamed "Golden Boy'' because of the many gold amulets the scan revealed in and around the body. Her research was published in Frontiers in Medicine.

Four CT images of a mummy showing the stages from completely wrapped to skeletal
A CT scan of a 2300 year old mummified teenage boy (Sahar Saleem)

52 million years ago Canada's Arctic was home to pre-primates

There are no monkeys or lemurs on Ellesmere Island today, but 52 million years ago when it was warmer and wetter, you could find relatives of primates. The island was home to animals that diverged from the branch of primates that eventually gave rise to monkeys, apes and us. They were different from other non-human primates living then and now in that they had claws instead of nails, and eyes on the sides of their heads instead of in front. Chris Beard, a professor of paleontology at Kansas University, said they were also different from their ancestral species living further south in that their jaws and teeth were adapted to living in six months of darkness every year. Their research was published in the journal PLoS ONE.

An four legged creature that looks a little like a cross between a squirrel and a lemur climbing a tree.
Artist's reconstruction of Ignacius dawsonae, a creature that was part of the lineage that would lead to primates. They had to survive six months of winter darkness in an ancient, but much warmer Canadian Arctic. (Kristen Miller/Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum/University of Kansas)

Read more about the Arctic pre-primate

Black in Science: have recent years of activism made a difference?

2020 was a transformative year for Black people in science. In the context of the Black Lives Matter protests, it was a year that brought a lot of attention to the way systemic racism in science created obstacles for talented researchers, preventing them from fully participating in the scientific process. In 2021 we broadcast a special program looking at what it was like to be Black in science, and spoke with academics to ask them how to start fixing the problem. We get an update on what's different two years later from evolutionary ecologist Maydianne Andrade, University professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough, and president of the Canadian Black Scientists Network.

Read a Q&A with Maydianne Andrade

Quirks & Quarks listener question

A listener asks: Why are some animals resistant to domestication?

For the answer we hear from Chris Dutton, a Zoo, Exotic, and Wildlife consultant veterinarian currently working at the University of Guelph.


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