With a little help from my friends


Scientists have discovered that support from family and friends significantly reduces stress in wild chimpanzees during conflicts with rival groups.

In humans and other social animals stress is associated with poor health and high mortality. These negative effects can be buffered by receiving social support from relatives or friends. However, the mechanisms responsible for this effect remain largely unknown.

Research conducted by scientists at the University of St Andrews and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig studied how wild chimpanzees cope with stressful and non-stressful situations when a close bond partner is present or absent.

They measured the animals’ urinary stress hormone levels during episodes of intergroup conflict and during periods of grooming and resting and found that the support of a friend significantly reduced the chimpanzees’ stress hormone levels, especially in situations of conflict.

‌But even during affiliative activities with the bond partner stress levels were generally lower. The scientists concluded that daily supportive actions by friends and family may be key to regulating stress hormone activity, and thus the negative effects of stress, a finding with potential medical implications for humans.


Call to understand cumulative impacts of human activities on marine mammals

Rising levels of noise in the ocean have been identified as a growing concern for the well-being of marine mammals, but other threats such as pollution, climate change, and prey depletion by fisheries may also be harming marine mammals.

A major new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has concluded that current knowledge and data are insufficient to determine what combination of factors cause the greatest concern.

The study, by a committee of experts chaired by professor of marine biology at the University of St Andrews Peter L Tyack, includes a newly developed conceptual framework model to help federal agencies and research communities explore the potential cumulative effects of human activities on marine mammals.

The report, which was launched in Washington DC, found that although the impacts from some stressors such as persistent chemical pollutants or ocean climate cannot be readily reduced, others like noise, fisheries, or shipping routes can be managed to reduce their impact.

One tool recommended in the report is a real-time, centralised system for reporting health data of different populations.

Professor Tyack said:

“Current scientific theory and data for individual marine mammals or their population is not enough to predict the total risk from a combination of threats.

“The model we developed in this report provides a way to examine the effects associated with the exposure to a single stressor in the context of the cumulative effect of other stressors in the animal’s environment.”


Apes can understand how others see the world


The ability to understand how others see the world, may not be unique to humans as previously thought, but exist in apes too, an international team of researchers, including the University of St Andrews, has discovered.

Being able to put themselves in another’s situation, was thought to be a trait specific to human beings, however a new study – published in Science – shows chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans can also think this way.

The ability to attribute goals, desires and beliefs to others (so-called Theory of Mind) plays a crucial role in understanding other people and accurately predicting their behaviour.

In the last few decades dozens of studies have shown that apes are sensitive to what others can and cannot see, and can interpret the behaviour of others, in terms of the goals that they pursue, not necessarily the outcomes that they achieve.

However, repeated attempts to provide evidence that they were also capable of predicting what others would do when they held a false belief had failed.

The latest study adapted an anticipatory looking task (originally developed for human infants) that only required subjects to watch videos while sipping juice.  The researchers then measured apes’ gaze movements using an infrared eye-tracker installed below the screen showing the movies.

Apes watched two short videos depicting a person watching another person, dressed in a King Kong suit, hiding in one of two haystacks. In the first scenario the agent witnessed the King Kong character hiding inside the first haystack; in the second, the agent witnessed the King Kong character hiding in the first and then the second haystack.


Tropical crow species is highly skilled tool user


A captive Hawaiian crow (‘Alalā) using a stick tool to extract food from a wooden log. The ‘Alalā is an iconic Hawaiian bird species of great cultural significance.Credit: © Ken Bohn/San Diego Zoo Global

An international team of scientists and conservation experts has discovered that the critically-endangered Hawaiian crow, or ‘Alalā, is a highly proficient tool user, according to a paper published today in the leading scientific journal Nature.

For decades, another species – the famed New Caledonian crow – had baffled researchers with its remarkable tool-using skills. These birds, which only live on the remote South Pacific island of New Caledonia, use tools to winkle insects and other prey from deadwood and vegetation, exhibiting an astonishing degree of dexterity. The big question was why they, but apparently no other members of the crow family (‘corvids’), had evolved such technological prowess. But without other tool-using crow species for comparison, the New Caledonian crow remained a puzzling oddity.

There are over 40 species of crows and ravens in the world, and many of them – especially those living in remote tropical locations – remain poorly studied. “This raises the intriguing possibility that there are some undiscovered tool users out there,” explains the study’s lead scientist, Dr Christian Rutz, from the University of St Andrews, UK.

“We had previously noticed that New Caledonian crows have unusually straight bills, and wondered whether this may be an adaptation for holding tools, similar to humans’ opposable thumb,” Rutz elaborates. By searching for this tell-tale sign amongst some of the lesser-known corvid species, he quickly homed in on a particularly promising candidate for further investigation – the ‘Alalā.


A captive Hawaiian crow (‘Alalā) using a stick tool to extract food from a wooden log. ‘Alalā have relatively straight bills and highly mobile eyes – morphological features that may aid their handling of bill-held tools. Credit: © Ken Bohn/San Diego Zoo Global

Following a population crash in the late 20th century, the ‘Alalā is now sadly extinct in the wild. In a last-ditch effort to preserve the species, the remaining wild birds were brought into captivity, to launch a breeding programme. “Later this year, in collaboration with our partners, we will be releasing captive-reared ‘Alalā on Hawai‘i Island, to re-establish a wild population,” says Bryce Masuda, co-leader of the study and Conservation Program Manager of San Diego Zoo Global’s Hawai‘i Endangered Bird Conservation Program.

Masuda was excited when the St Andrews scientists got in touch with his team: “We had occasionally seen birds using stick tools at our two breeding facilities, but hadn’t thought much of it.” The St Andrews and San Diego teams quickly agreed to conduct a collaborative project, to examine the tool-using skills of ‘Alalā under controlled conditions.

“We tested 104 of the 109 ‘Alalā alive at the time, and found that the vast majority of them spontaneously used tools,” says Masuda. Current evidence strongly suggests that tool use is part of the species’ natural behavioural repertoire, rather than being a quirk that arose in captivity, according to Rutz: “Using tools comes naturally to ‘Alalā. These birds had no specific training prior to our study, yet most of them were incredibly skilled at handling stick tools, and even swiftly extracted bait from demanding tasks. In many regards, the ‘Alalā is very similar to the New Caledonian crow, which my team has been studying for over 10 years.”

Experts have applauded the ‘tour de force’ of controlled experiments. “Most studies in our field investigate just a handful of subjects, so it is truly mindboggling to see an entire species tested,” comments Professor Thomas Bugnyar, a corvid expert at the University of Vienna, Austria, who was not involved in the study.

Dr Sabine Tebbich, an expert on animal tool use, also based at the University of Vienna, is similarly impressed by the scope of the study: “It was important that the authors took on the extra challenge of investigating how the behaviour develops in juvenile ‘Alalā. Their results show that the species has predispositions that allow chicks to ‘discover’ the behaviour independently, without ever observing tool-proficient adults.” Interestingly, study co-author Dr Richard James, Director of the Centre for Networks and Collective Behaviour at the University of Bath, UK, could demonstrate through extensive computer simulations that it is unlikely that a single bird once had a smart idea, which subsequently spread across the captive population through social learning.

The discovery of a second tool-using crow species finally provides leverage for addressing long-standing questions about the evolution of animal tool behaviour. “As crow species go, the ‘Alalā and the New Caledonian crow are only very distantly related. With their last common ancestor living around 11 million years ago, it seems safe to assume that their tool-using skills arose independently,” explains Rutz. “It is striking that both species evolved on remote tropical islands in the Pacific Ocean that lack woodpeckers and ferocious bird predators – perfect conditions, apparently, for smart crows to become accomplished tool users!”

According to Douglas Myers, President and Chief Executive Officer of San Diego Zoo Global, the study marks an important milestone for the long-running ‘Alalā recovery programme: “This is a wonderful example of how scientific research can contribute to conservation efforts. The discovery that ‘Alalā naturally use tools is of great significance, especially at this critical stage of our recovery efforts, as it provides completely unexpected insights into the species’ ecological needs. After more than 20 years of hard work, we are finally ready to release birds. I am confident we will manage to bring this iconic Hawaiian bird species back from the brink of extinction.”

In 1964, world-renowned primatologist, Dr Jane Goodall DBE, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and UN Messenger of Peace, provided the first detailed report of tool use in wild chimpanzees. Her landmark paper, published in the journal Nature, categorically refuted the long-held idea that only humans are gifted tool users. Two years later, along with Hugo van Lawick, she described in Nature the first recorded observation of the use of rock tools by Egyptian vultures to open ostrich eggs.

Goodall is excited about the ‘Alalā study: “I love learning about the discovery of tool use behaviours in other species of animals. This latest finding is especially wonderful. With two tool-using corvids, the well known Galapagos finches, and one vulture in the list of tool using birds, we can now make comparisons with avian and primate tool using. Each of these discoveries shows how much there is still to learn about animal behaviour, and it makes me re-think about the evolution of tool use in our own earliest ancestors.”

But Goodall cautions: “Let this discovery serve to emphasise the importance to conserving these and other animal species so that we can continue to learn ever more about the range of their behaviour before they vanish for ever in the 6th great wave of extinction. We owe it to future generations.”


Full Press release from: http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/news/archive/2016/title,703122,en.php


Notes to news editors

  • The paper is published as the cover story in Nature, on 15 September 2016: Rutz C, Klump BC, Komarczyk L, Leighton R, Kramer J, Wischnewski S, Sugasawa S, Morrissey MB, James R, St Clair JJH, Switzer RA, and Masuda BM (2016). Discovery of species-wide tool use in the Hawaiian crow. Nature 537, 403–407.
  • The paper is also available via DOI (doi:10.1038/nature19103).
  • The Hawaiian crow Corvus hawaiiensis is best known by its indigenous Hawaiian name, ‘Alalā (pronounced: ‘a-la-lah). It is a bird of great cultural significance in Hawai‘i. As of September 2016, the world’s ‘Alalā population comprises 131 birds, all of which are kept in two facilities, on Hawai‘i Island and Maui respectively.
  • Tool use is extremely rare in the animal kingdom. According to recent estimates, the behaviour has been documented in less than 1% of all known genera, and in an even smaller percentage of species. This rarity poses both an intriguing scientific puzzle, and major methodological challenges. Ultimately, scientists hope to uncover how humans evolved their unsurpassed tool-using skills, but to achieve this, they need other tool-using species – both primates and non-primates – for comparison. This is why the discovery of a second tool-using crow species is such an important advance.
  • It is well known that naturally non-tool-using animal species sometimes use tools in captivity, especially when the behaviour is facilitated. The case of the ‘Alalā is unusual in several regards: almost all adult birds expressed tool behaviour; tool users were highly proficient; and naïve subjects acquired tool-using skills, without observing adults or being trained. Based on these results, and other circumstantial evidence, it seems likely that ‘Alalā once used tools in the wild.
  • First reports of New Caledonian crows Corvus moneduloides using foraging tools were published in 1928 and 1972. Following these early anecdotal observations, the first detailed description of the species’ remarkable tool-using habits was published in Nature in 1996 by Dr Gavin Hunt, from the University of Auckland, New Zealand. The discovery of ‘Alalā tool use is published on the 20-year anniversary of this paper, also in Nature.
  • Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the goal of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes onsite wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The important conservation and science work of these entities is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global. The Hawai‘i Endangered Bird Conservation Program is a field program of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, in partnership with the State of Hawai‘i’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
  • Founded over 600 years ago, the University of St Andrews is the third-oldest university in the English-speaking world. It is consistently ranked amongst the UK’s top universities, together with Oxford and Cambridge. Dr Rutz’s research group, which studies the ecology and evolution of tool use in non-human animals, is based at the Centre for Biological Diversity, in the School of Biology.
  • The study was funded by a grant from the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), held by Dr Rutz at the University of St Andrews; he was one of only a handful of early-career scientists to be awarded a prestigious BBSRC David Phillips Research Fellowship in 2009. Funding for the captive ‘Alalā propagation programme was provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Hawai‘i Division of Forestry and Wildlife, Moore Family Foundation, Marisla Foundation, several anonymous donors, and San Diego Zoo Global.
  • Photos and videos of birds, and other media materials, are available from the press offices of the two lead institutions: University of St Andrews (UK) viaproffice@st-andrews.ac.uk and San Diego Zoo Global (USA) viapublicrelations@sandiegozoo.org.
  • The two lead authors are available for interview (via phone, Skype, radio and TV: ISDN line and live TV link available), and members of the research team can provide assistance in a wide range of languages (including English, German, French, Japanese, Swahili, Dutch, Danish, Swedish and Finnish): Dr Christian Rutz (UK) via cr68@st-andrews.ac.uk or on +44 (0) 7792851538; Bryce Masuda (USA) via publicrelations@sandiegozoo.org or +1 (619) 6853291.

Chimps filmed grieving for dead friend

A unique, remarkable and intimate film may change the way we think about animals, and their ability to feel grief.Clay-eating-chimp-mainbody The newly-published film captures the solemn reactions of a group of chimpanzees who discover the dead body of a friend. For 20 minutes, the chimpanzees quietly gather around their friend, despite offers of food to tempt them away. They gently touch and sniff his body, with chimps who were closer friends with the deceased appearing to be the most upset. An older female chimp then attends to the dead ape, tenderly attempting to clean his teeth with a stem of grass.

BBC Earth: Chimps filmed grieving for dead friend


International project to further our understanding of evolution

An international team of experts led by the University of St Andrews has been awarded a £5.7 million grant to further our understanding of evolution.

The multi-disciplinary teakevinpicture-mainbodym of 50 world-renowned figures will tackle the question with new perspectives on the relationships between genes, organism and environment.

A unique feature of the research programme is that scientists will team up with leading philosophers of science.

The grant from the John Templeton Foundation is one of the largest to ever be awarded to evolutionary research. It will fund 22 inter-linked projects under four umbrella themes and support a wide range of additional activities that will promote interaction and collaboration between institutions in the UK, Sweden and the USA.

The guiding principles of the projects are to identify conceptual differences between traditional and alternative interpretations of the evolutionary process, to develop theory that fills the gaps in contemporary understanding, and to devise key projects that provide critical tests of points of contention.

Institutional contributions to salaries and studentships amount to a further £2 million that support the research and the education and training of doctoral students.

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Apes remember their old friends’ voices

Humanity’s closest living relatbonobos-mainbodyive, the bonobo ape, can remember the voices of old friends for several years, just as people can, researchers have shown.

An international research team from the Universities of St Andrews and Saint-Etienne in France, made the discovery after recording the calls of individual bonobos and playing them to those they had known years before.

When it was a familiar voice in the recording, the bonobos became excited and would search for the individual, while the animals gave little reaction to hearing the calls of bonobos they had never known.

The team concluded that the primates are therefore capable of remembering the voice of a former group member, even after five years of separation.

Sumir Keenan, of the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of St Andrews, said: “Members of a bonobo community separate regularly into small groups for hours or even days and often use loud calls to communicate with one another. Moreover, females leave their original community but may continue to interact with their old companions in subsequent meetings between communities.  So, effective social navigation depends on the ability to recognise social partners past and present.

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Professor Josep Call FRSE and Professor Peter Tyack FRSE

Prof Josep Call FRSE and Prof Peter Tyack FRSE

Congratulations to Prof Josep Call and Prof Peter Tyack who have been elected as Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Prof Call will remain a Corresponding Fellow until he takes a UK residential address, expected next summer, but that is a formality.

This brings to eight the number of senior staff of the Centre who are FRSEs.

When crows connect

crows-tools-feature2‌An international team led by scientists at the University of St Andrews has studied social networks to understand how information might spread within and between groups of tool-using New Caledonian crows, according to a paper published in Nature Communications 

The New Caledonian crow is well-known for its ability to make and use tools to winkle nutritious insects out of their hiding places.

Dr James St Clair, lead author of the study, explains: “Tool-use is unusual in animals, and requires special knowledge. Individuals not only need to know how to make tools, but also where, when and how to actually use them. Crows could perhaps learn this sort of information from their neighbours, so we looked at how skills might spread among groups of birds.”

To achieve this, the researchers analysed the social interactions of wild New Caledonian crows in their tropical habitat. Each crow was fitted with a high-tech, miniature spy tag, which communicated with tags on other crows and provided a continuous record of who met whom at any given time.

After recording crows’ encounters during ‘natural’ conditions, the scientists altered the environment to see how this would affect the social network.

Dr Christian Rutz, team leader and co-author of the study, said: “Because we were interested in tool-use behaviours, we reasoned that hard-to-reach food would bring the crows together, providing extra opportunities to learn new skills from one another.” Continue reading