Beluga mimicry


Beluga whales producing bubble rings

In an article appearing in this week’s Current biology, Dr. Sam Ridgway provides the first ever report of vocal mimicry by a beluga whale. The male beluga spontaneously produced sounds that resemble human speech, which he appeared to learn by listening to divers communicate with each other.  The data was first collected nearly 30 years ago – Dr. Ridgway explained to NPR why he waited so long to publish the results.

While certainly an important and interesting finding, this is not the first time that mimicry of human language has been reported for a marine mammal.   The New England Aquarium reports that the first documented case involved Hoover, a harbor seal who regularly produced several phrases, as well as his own name.

Hoover, the talking harbor seal

Although rarely acknowledged, a study in the 1960’s by Margaret Howe focused on teaching a bottlenose dolphin to produce human words.  He eventually learned to provide reasonable approximations of many words, and could recite numbers in their proper sequence.

Margaret Howe spent days at a time living with her dolphin research partner

Of particular importance was the dolphin’s reported ability to understand syntax – the order in which words were presented to him – and his consistently accurate responses. Unfortunately, Howe’s work only spanned a few short months.

While other great language studies have been conducted with marine mammals (most notably by Lou Herman and Ron Schusterman), Sam Ridgway’s publication this week has resurrected our fascination with how well other species can learn to produce and understand human language.  Critics have always argued that we should make a greater effort to understand other species on their terms, deciphering what they might be communicating to each other naturally.  That’s certainly fascinating and appropriate.  But, have we moved past the era of exploring the possibility that other species might find us interesting and be willing to communicate using a human language?  I hope not.

Thanks for dusting off your old data Dr. Ridgway, your new paper is intriguing and exciting.


Hope for Polar Bears

“As the sea ice goes, so goes the polar bear” – Dr. Steven Amstrup

It’s always gratifying to see good people receive the recognition that they deserve. 

Dr. Steven Amstrup, winner of the 2012 Indianapolis Prize, continues to make headlines.  In a recent Christian Science Monitor interview, he details the current situation for polar bears, and discusses the changes that are necessary to save this magnificent species.   

Even better, Dr. Amstrup is the current CSM Editors’ pick as a “Difference Maker”, a well-deserved distinction. 

Congratulations Steven, polar bears are lucky to have you on their side.

Use of Medicinal Plants by African Apes

On October 16th, Dr. Michael Huffman will present a lecture on the use of medicinal plants by African great apes at IU Bloomington.  Dr. Huffman is on the faculty of Kyoto University’s Primate Research Institute. His research ranges from parasite ecology of apes and macaques, to the biological and ecological foundations of primate behavioral traditions, and the potential animal origins of traditional medicine.

Dr. Michael Huffman – international expert on the use of medicinal plants by African great apes

This is a public lecture, beginning at 6 pm in the Neal-Marshall Grand Hall at 275 North Jordan Avenue. The event is part of the Primate Behavior Speaker Series and is co-sponsored by the Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior, and the College of Arts and Science’s Themester.   

Dr. Huffman’s newest book will be available in late October

Dr. Huffman has written extensively on the behavior of macaques and chimpanzees.  By describing exceptional studies currently being conducted at the Primate Research Institute of Kyoto University, Dr. Huffman introduces readers to the world of Japanese primatology. 


Who’s Your Hero?

I’m not the first person to notice the recent surge in popularity of superheroes.  Not the “more powerful than a locomotive, faster than a speeding bullet” type – our collective interest seems to be focused on the guys who don’t have superpowers, but still want to change the world for the better.  Batman and Ironman come to mind.  Both are fabulously wealthy, and have a basement full of technology that help them fight the bad guys. 

Batman – determined to make the world a better place.


No superpowers here – but lots of expensive technology.






Captain America (the name says it all) started out so frail that the military didn’t want him.  But, with a little bit of help from experimental medicine, he became a super soldier and defender of the free world. 

A patriot, hero, and defender of good.

Of course, these fictional characters have been around for decades, but they’re currently enjoying more attention than ever.  Why so popular now?  I think it might be a sign of the times.  There’s more than enough bad news to go around.  We want something positive, something uplifting, something that reminds us of the bright side of humanity – we also want something real. 

Over the course of last week, I had the privilege to spend time with several real heroes, people who are doing remarkable things to conserve species and save the natural world.  All of them were finalists for the Indianapolis Prize, the world’s leading award for animal conservation. 

Each of these 6 scientists are remarkable, enjoyable, and humble people.  None more so that Dr. Steven Amstrup, the 2012 recipient of the award.  Dr. Amstrup, of Polar Bears International, continues to be a strong and clear voice advocating for the conservation of polar bears and their habitat.

Dr. Steven Amstrup
Dr. Steven Amstrup, winner of the 2012 Indianapolis Prize

All of the events surrounding the Prize were terrific, but for me, the spirit of the award is exemplified by the “Meet a Hero” event held on a Saturday morning at the Indianapolis Zoo.  All of the Prize finalists are in attendance, as well as the winner, and their job is to talk with kids – and they do it with gusto.  Hundreds of kids gather to meet the heroes individually, get an autograph, take a photo, and be inspired. 

All of the heroes share their stories, encourage an interest in nature and science, and make sure that the kids (and adults) know that species are worth saving, and that everyone can do something to make a positive difference.  Conservation is a noble cause, and there are heroes fighting the odds every day – the Indianapolis Prize gives them a chance to take the spotlight.

Dr. Amstrup, encouraging and inspiring the next generation of conservationists


Halloween is right around the corner.  Forget about the Ironman or Batman costumes. 

Grab a parka from the closet and dress your kid up like Steve Amstrup – there’s a real superhero for you.

Lecture on Chimpanzee Behavior


On October 2nd, Dr. David Watts from Yale University will present a public lecture on chimpanzee behavior at Indiana University, Bloomington.  His presentation will occur in the Neal-Marshall Grand Hall at 275 North Jordan Avenue, and begins at 6:00 pm.  He has remarkable experience studying great apes in the wild, and is a skilled and engaging speaker.  His lecture on the chimpanzees of Ngogo will surely be engaging and enlightening. 

This event is part of the Primate Behavior Speaker Series that will occur throughout the Fall semester, co-sponsored by the Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior and the College of Arts and Science’s Themester.


Partners in Conservation

Adult male mountain gorilla

Conservation is hard work.  Working effectively on behalf of any species involves exceptional dedication and relentless optimism, and the people who do it well are truly remarkable. 

In the 1980’s, I met Charlene Jendry.  At the time, we were both caring for gorillas – me at the National Zoo and Charlene at the Columbus Zoo.  Our shared devotion to great apes led to a friendship right away, but I started thinking of her as family years ago.  In 1991, Charlene co-founded Partners in Conservation (PIC), a grass-roots conservation organization dedicated to the preservation of mountain gorillas.  PIC is guided by the fundamental principle that effective conservation requires collaboration with local people.  With this idea as the foundation, PIC has evolved into a major force for good. 

Charlene Jendry, co-founder of Partners in Conservation

PIC has developed relationships with artisans and craftsmenliving near mountain gorilla habitat, buying their products forfair prices that allow the people to live with dignity.  Most of thesepartners are women – many who lost their husbands during theRwandan genocide.  The opportunities provided by PIC allow themto support their children and have great optimism for the future.The proceeds that PIC generates are directed back to the people whoprotect and care for mountain gorillas – trackers, veterinarians,guards, and so on.  How’s that for a wonderful cycle? This past Saturday, I attended PIC’s 18th annual Fete which is held at the Columbus Zoo.  This year’s theme was “Small Steps – Big Changes”.  Although I can’t say that I’ve been at all 18, I’ve attended more times than I’ve missed.  The very first Fete (I was there!) raised about $10,000 for mountain gorillas.  This year, PIC raised a bit more than that, actually about $250,000 more.  These are just really good people with pure intentions who are doing great conservation work.  

One of the best things about attending the Fete is the chance to meet colleagues who are doing important work in the field.  This year, I was so happy to spend time with Dominique Bikaba, the executive director of Strong Roots, a conservation organization based in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  This talented and humble man is responsible for things like gettting 100,000 tree planted every year to create buffer zones between forests and villages.  As the trees grow, local people can harvest and use the wood rather than cutting down the gorilla habitat for the resources they need.  PIC provides Strong Roots with support and Dominique gets the work done where it counts most.   

Dominique Bikaba, Charlene Jendry, and me – fortunate to be in such excellent company

 Of course, support for conservation can come in a variety of forms – including art.  That leads me to David Petlowany, a sculptor with talented hands and a very big heart.  As in past years, his work was part of the live auction at the Fete, and bidding is always fierce. 

David Petlowany with an original piece donated for the 2012 Fete

Conservation isn’t easy, and there are times when it involves one step forward and two steps back.  But, “Small Steps” in the right direction, with the right people, really do make “Big Changes”. 








New species of monkey discovered

The newly discovered lesula monkey


John Hart and a number of talented colleagues announced today, September 12th, that they have discovered a new species of monkey, called the lesula.  This significant finding was made in the Lomami Basin in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a remote area where scientific exploration is relatively recent.  This monkey is a member of the group of primates commonly called guenons, and was given the scientific name Cercopithecus lomamiensis.  The authors note that this is the first new species of monkey to be recognized in Africa in 28 years.

Click here for a link to the full article published in PLOS ONE.


Scientific illustration of the lesula

John Hart gave a wonderful interview on NPR about the process of proving the discovery – definitely worth a listen.

I find it incredible that new species are still being discovered.  In this case, we aren’t talking about something hidden in a volcanic vent at the bottom of the ocean.  The lesula is a relatively large primate, and Hart reports that they are fairly abundant.

The lesula stirs my imagination about wild places, unknown animals, and the thrill of discovery.  This is the stuff that makes science cool.




A great day for orangutans

Today, September 4th, 2012, was the ceremonial groundbreaking for the International Orangutan Center at the Indianapolis Zoo.  Construction gets underway later this month, and the whole complex opens Memorial Day weekend in 2014.

International Orangutan Center groundbreaking
Zoo CEO Mike Crowther, Gov. Mitch Daniels, and Mayor Greg Ballard were among the VIPs who turned the first shovels of dirt for the project.

I was really moved by today’s event – and so were about 200 people who attended.

Board Chair Allen Cohen gave a terrific intro, and set the stage perfectly.  Governor Mitch Daniels talked about the endangered status of wild orangutans – I was impressed.  What a positive thing to have our governor express care and concern about one of the world’s most endangered primates.  Well done Mitch.

Mayor Greg Ballard was also there, and genuinely enthusiastic about the project.  He noted that the project will be a jewel for the city, and a great way to introduce science to kids.  Correct on both counts!

Mike Crowther, CEO of the Zoo, was inspirational.  He’s dedicated to the conservation of orangutans, and is finding innovative ways to get the job done.

When it comes to the conservation of orangutans, good news is hard to come by – but not if you were in Indianapolis today.