Ask the Biological Anthropologist: Issue #2

Last year I introduced a Q&A feature to the blog, inviting any and all questions related to primates/evolution/anthropology.    Today I’m pleased to present Issue #2 of Ask the Biological Anthropologist!

Q: Since evolution relies on the mixing of genes to create new offspring, with the chance that a random mutation can result in something “interesting,” do organisms with longer replication intervals fare poorer at the evolution game than those with very short replication intervals (like viruses)?  –Matt, Arlington

A: This is a great question.  But I’m going to pause to clarify some terminology and basic reproductive biology before I give an answer that will complicate the dichotomy Matt has proposed.

A Note on Terminology: As I explained way back when I first started this blog, it’s important to distinguish between ‘evolution’ and ‘natural selection.’  Evolution describes the gradual changes that occur in populations as new genetic/physical/behavioral traits emerge.  These changes, however, are driven by natural selection, which is a process that acts on individuals.  Essentially, individuals must compete for the resources necessary to survive and reproduce, and those individuals who have more advantageous traits (i.e. those that are the most ‘fit’ in a particular environment), are able to reproduce more and pass on these traits.  I emphasize this because while, as Matt’s question suggests, mutation is the ultimate engine of evolutionary change, beneficial mutations don’t just produce something “interesting.”  They produce adaptations that improve an individual’s odds for survival/reproduction, leading those advantageous traits to become more common in subsequent generations.

A Note on Reproductive Biology: Mixing genes from two parents is not the only way to create offspring!  Asexual reproduction, in which a single organism reproduces by passing on its full complement of genes (producing, in theory at least, a genetically identical individual), occurs in species such as bacteria, sea stars, and many fungi and algae.  Viral replication is a more complex process, but still different from sexual reproduction, in which gametes from two parents (i.e. egg and sperm) combine to produce a genetically novel offspring.  As for mutations — changes to a DNA sequence due, for example, to copying errors during cell division — they can occur in any of these reproductive scenarios. More often than not mutations have deleterious or neutral effects but, as stated above, natural selection will favor a mutation in those cases in which it produces a trait that confers an advantage to survival/reproduction.

wolverine

Such as incredible healing powers that allow for the implantation of adamantium claws.

So how do mutations and a species’ method of reproduction relate to replication intervals — what I will refer to as generation times — and species-level competition?  Let’s start by thinking about those species that have short generation times.  In populations of such species, mutations arise more frequently simply because new individuals are being produced more often: individual members of these species reproduce at frequent intervals, and may  produce many offspring with each reproductive event.  On the one hand, this means that beneficial mutations can appear in these species more often, allowing populations to evolve more quickly as natural selection favors the rapid spread of new adaptive characteristics.  In the case of asexually reproducing species, however, there are two major downsides.  First, mutations are the only way to introduce new genetic variation into the population.  Second, deleterious mutations are also able to accumulate and, with no mechanism for ‘correction,’ may raise the likelihood of extinction (see: Muller’s Ratchet).

Species with long(er) generation times provide a notable contrast in both life history pattern and reproductive strategy.  “Life history” is a term used in biology to refer to the pacing or scheduling of events in an organism’s life, and encompasses factors such as rate of maturation, age and size at first reproduction, frequency of reproduction, size and number of offspring, and total lifespan.  Life history theory posits that for any species, all of these factors have been shaped by natural selection to maximize individual reproductive success in the context of specific ecological challenges (e.g. predation pressures).  The result is that species with a ‘slow’ life history reproduce more infrequently and produce relatively few offspring with each reproductive event.  Of particular interest to us in the present context, they also tend to reproduce sexually.

Romance is optional.

Romance is optional.

But why??  The truth is that sex has long been considered a bit of a conundrum from an evolutionary perspective.  It is costly, both in terms of the time and energy that individuals must use to find, access, and potentially keep a mate, and in terms of the fact that a sexually reproducing individual is able to pass on only 50% of his/her genetic material to each offspring.  From a fitness standpoint, this means that a sexually reproducing individual must produce twice as many offspring as an asexually reproducing individual in order to pass on its genes as successfully.  But as the differences in life history patterns mentioned above illustrate, this is highly unlikely.  So why?  Why rely on such a complex and costly system?

It turns out this isn't a great answer in evolutionary biology.

It turns out this isn’t a great answer in evolutionary biology.

This brings us back to species-level competition.  The Red Queen hypothesis, proposed by WD Hamilton, states that sexual reproduction is widespread, especially among species with long generation times, precisely because one of the perks of sex is that it produces offspring with increased genetic variability.  This is a necessary consequence of the mechanics of sexual reproduction —  the process of creating haploid gametes and having them fuse to combine the DNA/chromosomes of two individuals creates opportunities for what is known as genetic recombination — and is, according to Hamilton, a key tactic in the ‘arms race’ between parasites and host species.  Put another way, the reproductive mode of species with long generation times is likely an adaptation that compensates for the faster rates of reproduction and evolutionary change characteristic of parasitic organisms.

This is an important point, so I’m going to hammer home the logic:

  • Because they have short generation times, parasites undergo rapid evolutionary change that allows them to adapt to the most common host genotype.
  • This means that genetic diversity and new combinations of resistant genes — exactly the outcomes produced by sexual reproduction and genetic recombination — are important ‘counterstrategies’ in host species.
  • Sexual reproduction allows species with long generation times (such as humans) to ‘keep up with’ viruses and other potentially threatening organisms that have faster life histories.

Just as the Red Queen describes in a passage in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass”:

Illustration by John Tenniel, courtesy of Wikipedia

Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get              to somewhere else — if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.” “A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

This may seem like a very long-winded answer to a seemingly straightforward question about how reproductive rate affects success in “the evolution game.”  But hopefully I have made it clear that it’s not quite as simple as ‘fast’ vs. ‘slow’ reproduction, and that while natural selection may favor different life history patterns in different environments, it also produces adaptations that even the playing field in other ways.  The Red Queen hypothesis, for example, has been supported by data demonstrating that animals with longer generation times have higher levels of genetic recombination (Burt & Bell 1987).  So cool!

Natural Selection: Helping stack the deck in your favor for over 1 billion years.

Stay tuned next week for Issue #3 of Ask the Biological Anthropologist!


References Cited:
1. Burt A, Bell G (1987) Mammalian chiasma frequencies as a test of two theories of recombination.  Nature, 326, 803-805.

Further Reading:
1. Fabian D, Flatt T (2012) Life History Evolution.  Nature Education Knowledge.  [http://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/life-history-evolution-68245673]

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Have you met….me?

“Who are you?”
“No one of consequence.”
“I must know.”
“Get used to disappointment.”
-William Goldman, The Princess Bride

I’m not naive enough to think that the internet at large has been clamoring for the past several years to figure out my ‘secret identity’.  The truth of the matter is that most of the people who read this blog do so because they already know me.  But with the launch of my brand new Twitter account a couple weeks ago (yes I’m often late to the party, but I usually get there eventually; in this case you can find me @tinkeringprim8), I think now is a good time for me to finally step out from behind the curtain, remove my cape & cowl, and introduce myself properly.

Hello.  My name is Inigo Montoya Lara Saipe Durgavich, and I am a College Fellow in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University.  It’s my second year in this position, which is essentially a teaching-based post-doc, and I am happy to be one of those rare people able to say that I honestly enjoy my job.

For today’s “Introduction to Me” seminar, I’m going to stick to a simple two-part recipe: my work in academia (research + teaching) and my life outside academia (imagining, for the moment, that the notion of ‘work/life balance’ is more than just a muddy puddle).

Life in the Ivory Tower
I got where I am today via a circuitous academic pathway, although I have not traveled far geographically.  I completed my undergraduate education at Tufts University (go Jumbos!) in 2003, and received my doctoral degree in biological anthropology from Boston University in 2013.  As the “About Me” page on this site describes, my research focuses on the reproductive endocrinology, behaviors, and life history pattern of orangutans, and I use this information to try to better understand the evolution of human reproductive and life history characteristics.  I recently presented some of the results from my dissertation at the inaugural Nor’Eastern Primate Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior conference (name since changed to NEEP: Northeastern Evolutionary Primatology), which I highly recommend attending next year.  Hopefully in the not-too-distant future I’ll also manage to get some manuscripts submitted for publication, and will be able to describe my findings to all of you in more detail.  But in the meantime, here’s a close-up photo of Chinta, one of the orangutans at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle who generously provided urine samples for my dissertation analyses. [Fun fact: it is easier to train an orangutan to provide a urine sample in a cup than it is to train a toddler to use the potty.]

P1000591

While it’s fun to use the fact that I analyze orangutan urine as an ice-breaker at parties, teaching is how I actually spend the great majority of my time.  As a graduate student, I taught a variety of courses at Boston University, including Introduction to Biological AnthropologyThe Ape Within, Human Population Biology, Human Sex Differences, and Medical Anthropology.  As a College Fellow at Harvard I’ve continued to develop and teach additional courses, adding Reproductive Ecology, The Behavioral Biology of Women, and Evolutionary Health and Medicine to my CV.  In the future, I hope to continue to develop more new courses, particularly some that focus on primate behavior/cognition or conservation.  I also aspire to someday teach the Primates and Pop Culture class that’s been on my mind for the past several years, so if anyone knows of a good venue for that, please let me know.

You KNOW you’d take that class.

 

Life in the Condo that We’re Rapidly Outgrowing
Outside academia, my energies are mostly devoted to my husband, my 3-year-old daughter, and a red standard poodle who barks too much.  We also have a baby boy due to arrive in April (my reproductive success is going up, up, up!) and, as was the case last time, pregnancy is proving draining.  But here’s a quick list of things I enjoy doing when time and money permit:

  • Reading fiction (the last 5-star book I read was called ‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’)
  • Crossword puzzles, Acrostic puzzles, and other word games.  Also jigsaw puzzles.
  • Watching TV & movies (you don’t get the idea for a ‘Primates and Pop Culture’ class without being a bit of a pop culture junkie)
  • Writing
  • Traveling (our most recent big trip was to the Galapagos Islands last winter)
IMG_2591

A great place to spend New Year’s Eve, incidentally.

 

That’s hardly an exhaustive autobiography, I know.  But hopefully it helps fill in my background and contextualize my enthusiasm for science & nature (primates and other animals in particular).  Please subscribe to this blog if you enjoy my sadly-few-and-far-between posts, or follow me on Twitter (@tinkeringprim8), where posts require far less effort!

Sgt. Macaque and Dr. Shepherd, reporting for duty!

What’s that?  You’ve never heard of Sgt. Macaque or Dr. Shepherd?  Well that’s probably because I just made those names up.

Dr. Dog

What do you mean “questionable credentials”?

I did so, however, based on two very real headlines that I happened across in the past few weeks.  Both are fascinating examples of humans taking advantage of other species’ adaptations to help us meet our goals, and both got me thinking about the prevalence and significance of this kind of human/animal ‘partnership.’

Headline #1: “Meet the Monkeys Keeping Chinese Troops Safe” 

For those of you not inclined to click on the link, I will summarize.  The People’s Liberation Army of China (aka the Chinese military) has revealed that a small unit of trained macaque monkeys is being used at one of the country’s Air Force bases to prevent migrating birds from nesting in the area and potentially getting sucked into aircraft engines (an occurrence that is good for neither the bird nor the aircraft/pilot).  According to the PLA, the monkeys, which are trained to destroy birds’ nests in response to whistle commands, are proving a more effective deterrent than scarecrows, netting, firecrackers, or human soldiers.  Not surprising, given that monkeys have evolved to be more adept at arboreal maneuvering than men of either flesh or straw.

And in other news…..

Headline #2: “Dogs Sniff Out Prostate Cancer With 98 Percent Accuracy”

This one is pretty self-explanatory.  Researchers in Italy trained two German Shepherds that had previously worked as explosive-sniffing dogs to recognize the scent of volatile organic compounds — chemicals associated with cancerous tumors — in urine samples.  In a subsequent blind study of almost 700 men, the dogs correctly identified which urine samples came from men with prostate tumors 98% of the time.  This success echoes previous research with medical detection dogs, which has found evidence that dogs can detect lung and breast cancers by smelling a person’s breath, and that they can be trained to warn individuals with diabetes or epilepsy of low blood sugar or impending seizures.

Considered alongside the other tasks in which dogs aid humans (some, such as search-and-rescue efforts and drug-sniffing, are well-known; others, such as identifying diseased beehives, sniffing out bedbugs, and tracking orca poop, are not), two inescapable conclusions appear:

1. Dogs have an amazingly good sense of smell.  Their noses contain up to 300 million olfactory receptors (ours have a measly 6 million), and a substantial portion of their brain is devoted to analyzing the smells registered by those receptors.   This means that they can smell in parts per trillion.  Imagine being able to smell one drop of blood in 20 Olympic swimming pools worth of water (sharks, by contrast, smell in parts per million or billion), and you’ll start to get an idea of how natural selection has honed this adaptation in canines.

2. Humans are good at co-opting it.

Best picture ever? Dog in homemade bee suit. Image credit Josh Kennett.

Humans, in fact, have created quite a niche for ourselves by exploiting other animals’  abilities.  And we’ve been doing it for a long time.  Recent evidence suggests that humans have been co-evolving with dogs, the first domesticated animal, for 30,000 years.  The domestication of farm and labor animals was more recent but, as evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond has thoroughly explained, it has had an enormous impact on the development of human societies over the past 10,000 years.  The truth of the matter is that humans just wouldn’t be where we are today if we didn’t have these conscripts.

But here, I think, is where it is worth making a big distinction between the subjects of the two headlines above.  Macaques are not domesticated.  Nor are a variety of other species that humans have put into service more recently, such as military marine mammals.  And this raises some major ethical dilemmas.  Is it okay for humans to use animals in this way?  For decades, the US Navy has taken advantage of dolphins’ swimming and echolocation abilities to detect and clear mines (good for the human population), but military sonar has simultaneously contributed to making the ocean a more unhealthy environment (bad for marine wildlife).  How much of a qualitative difference is there between this and the efforts of an organization like Helping Hands, which trains capuchin monkeys to act as service animals to the severely disabled?  Under what circumstances, if any, does human need trump an animal’s (or species’) right to live undisturbed in its natural habitat?  Do the “rules” differ for domesticated vs. non-domesticated species?  As someone who has admitted to having a Grand Canyon-sized soft spot for animals, these are questions that I genuinely don’t have answers for, and I am curious to hear other people’s thoughts.

In the meantime, I will finish with one more current news story, this time about a handful of humans doing something to help out animals:

Headline #3: “Wolf Pups Rescued From Funny River Fire in Alaska’s Kenai National Wildlife Refuge”

Image credit Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, via livescience.com

Thanks, guys.


Medical Detection Dogs and the In Situ Foundation are but two of myriad organizations devoted to training dogs to use their noses in service of human health.  Read this essay, however, for an alternative perspective on the use of dogs in medical detection.

New Q&A series

Last week I solicited friends and family to help me initiate a new feature for the blog: Ask the Biological Anthropologist!  I invited people to submit any and all queries related to primates and/or evolution, and I received so many great questions that I’ll be making ‘Ask’ a regular feature henceforth.

For this initial installment, I’m going to tackle a couple of ‘softballs.’  This isn’t to say they’re not great questions —  I actually really enjoy the opportunity to discuss things that may be common knowledge to primatologists but are completely new to people outside the field — but the answers are relatively straightforward.  So without further ado…..

Q: What are the differences between monkeys and gorillas, and how do you tell them apart?    -Gladys, Cambridge

A: I’m so glad someone asked this question because it is a pet peeve of mine that most people refer to all primates as monkeys.  In fact the Primate order, which is only one of many orders of the Mammal class (some others include Carnivores, Rodents, and Cetacea (better known as whales)), consists of over 200 species, ranging in size from the mouse lemur (approx. 1 ounce) to the mountain gorilla (400+ pounds), and new species continue to be discovered .

Image copyright John Fleagle (Primate Adaptation and Evolution)

Image copyright John Fleagle (Primate Adaptation and Evolution)

As primates, all of these species share certain characteristics; for example, five digits on each hand and foot, a grasping (prehensile) thumb, good depth perception (stereoscopic vision), and a large brain relative to body size.  But, as the above image illustrates, the Primate order also includes a great deal of diversity.  Not all primates are alike, and not all primates are monkeys!

Other than size, what differentiates all of these species from one another?  Quite a bit, actually.  Different species have different diets (some eat mainly fruit, some eat mainly leaves, and the tarsier is entirely carnivorous), social structures (some primates are mostly solitary, others live in large groups), mating systems (chimpanzees are highly promiscuous, whereas marmosets and tamarins are mostly monogamous), and degrees of intelligence/behavioral complexity.  Some of it is geographic, too.  Lemurs, for example, are found only on the island of Madagascar, off the east coast of Africa, while monkeys are divided into two primary taxonomic groups: the “Old World Monkeys” (Cercopithecoidea), which are found in Africa or Asia, and the “New World Monkeys” (Platyrrhini), which are found in Mexico and Central & South America.

Clockwise from top left: Squirrel monkey (new world), Mandrill (old world), Capuchin (new world), Japanese macaque (old world)

Clockwise from top left: Squirrel monkey (new world), Mandrill (old world), Capuchin (new world), Japanese macaque (old world)

Gladys’s question, though, is about gorillas, and gorillas are apes, a subgroup of the Primate order that also includes gibbons, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos, and humans.

So how do you tell an ape from a monkey?  The easiest way is to look for a tail.  While all monkeys (with the exception of Barbary macaques) have a tail — some of them prehensile — none of the apes does.  This is far from the only difference between the two groups (I have listed a few more below in case anyone is curious), but it is the most obvious, and an excellent example of how pop culture so often gets primates wrong.

"Look Ma, no tail!" Curious George isn't a "good little monkey" after all.

“Look Ma, no tail!”
Curious George isn’t a “good little monkey” after all.

Additional differences between monkeys and apes:

1. Apes are adapted for suspensory locomotion — hanging from beneath tree branches rather than walking on top of them — which means they have a broad chest, arms that are longer than their legs (in monkeys arm & leg length is roughly equal), and a highly flexible shoulder joint.

2. Apes tend to rely more on vision than smell.  New World monkeys in particular have a better olfactory sense than apes, but they tend to have dichromatic rather than trichromatic vision.

3. Apes tend to be more intelligent than monkeys.  They also mature more slowly, and tend to live longer.

Q: At what point did tool use first become a primate characteristic?    –Diana, Chicago

A: In the not too distant past, it was thought that only members of our own species had the cognitive sophistication to make and use tools.  We now know, however, that chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas all make and use tools in the wild*.  Moreover, in 2007 researchers documented finding stone tools of the type chimpanzees use to crack open nuts that date to 4,300 years ago, suggesting that tool use in apes is not a recent innovation (though whether it was characteristic of the last common ancestor of chimps and humans 6 million years ago, or possibly the last common ancestor of all the living great apes 15-20 million years ago, remains unknown).

Chimpanzee nut-cracking

Chimpanzee nut-cracking

In the hominin lineage — that branch of the primate evolutionary tree on which the genera Australopithecus and Homo lie —  the earliest stone tools date to approximately 2.6 million years ago, and are found in east Africa.  Production of these Oldowan tools, named after Olduvai Gorge in modern-day Tanzania, in which they were found, is most often attributed to Homo habilis, one of the earliest members of the genus Homo.  It’s worth noting, however, that circumstantial evidence suggests that Australopithecus garhi, a contemporaneous species in east Africa, may also have been a tool user.

*Capuchins — New World monkeys notable for having a brain to body size ratio comparable to a chimpanzee — are also capable tool users in the wild.

Q: Please explain this: 

-Noah, Madison

A: That, of course, is one of natural selection’s most fabulously awesome achievements: the star-nosed mole.  It is fabulous.  And awesome.  So awesome, in fact, that the only way I can do it justice is to offer you a very short list of facts about it, and a video so you can see it in action.

Star-nosed mole facts:

1. The mole’s snout consists of 22 tentacles, which are used as a touch organs.  Each tentacle has over 25,000 sensory receptors known as Eimer’s organs, which enable the mole to forage faster and more efficiently than any other mammal on Earth.

2. They smell underwater by blowing bubbles.

Check the little guy out here (the real magic starts at 1:00):

ARKive video - Star-nosed mole - overview

And that’s it!  I hope you’ve all enjoyed this first installment of Ask the Biological Anthropologist!, and please keep the questions coming.

Hamadryas and Pangolins and Mastodons, oh my!

As mentioned in my very first blog post, one of the reasons I started with this endeavor is that I have a lifelong love of learning.  Education is an ongoing process, and knowledge, whether it is put to practical use or sought simply to satisfy personal curiosity, is a fantastic thing.  Imagine my excitement, therefore, when I learned of the 2014 Mammal March Madness competition run by Dr. Katie Hinde, an assistant professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University.

Picture adapted from art by Tracy A. Heath, Matt Martyniuk, Sarah Werning, via Phylopic! As seen on the blog Mammals Suck…Milk!

This is my kind of pedagogy!

The competition first caught my attention, I must admit, simply because of its enthusiastic mention of mammals (note the exclamation point in the title of her blog post).  As I’ve said before, I have a rather large soft spot for animals, and am easily persuaded to investigate stories or headlines that promise some kind of faunal component.  The more I thought about it, though, the more I began to admire the ingenuity of this exercise.  Here’s why:

1. It brings science to the masses, and makes it fun.

The NCAA March Madness tournament is ubiquitous at this time of year, and the popularity of bracket competitions is continuing to increase.  ESPN even has its own “resident bracketologist,” which at first glance sounds like a job title as realistic as “space smuggler.”

Although it turns out space smugglers are not only real, but fairly common.

Taking advantage of the pervasiveness of this cultural phenomenon to educate people about science is brilliant.  It not only puts the lesson in a familiar context, but appeals to people’s natural competitive instincts by turning it into a game. And for those like me, who are already interested in science but not well versed in basketball, it provides a different kind of learning opportunity: I now understand the nature of “seeds” and know how to fill out a bracket.

2. It only looks simple.

You may be thinking, “If I want to play I just need to look at the bracket and pick some winners, right?”  Technically you’re correct, but as with the NCAA bracket your chances of winning are much better if you make educated picks.  And in this case, that means you need to know not only what an animal is (Hinde’s bracket, as seen below, has an entire division entitled “The Who in the What Now” that is populated by little-known species), but where it lives and how it lives.  

Hamadryas Baboon. Image from Arkive.org.

Pangolin. Image from Arkive.org.

Mastodon. Image from National Geographic.

A laundry list of questions quickly emerges:  How big is it?  How fast is it?  What kind of “weaponry” or defenses does it have?  Does it live by itself or in a group?  To make things even more exciting, the simulated battles in the early rounds of competition take place in the natural habitat of the higher-ranked seed — Hinde calls it the “home court advantage” — but battle locations are randomized at the level of the Elite Eight and beyond.  Could a pack of hyenas triumph over an orca?  Probably, if the battle were to take place on land!

Even with my more-extensive-than-average background in biology, I found myself diving into Wikipedia articles and professional journals to find the information necessary to assess each species and select winners.  Among other things, I’ve learned in the past week that Hamadryas baboons can amass in troops as large as 800 individuals, that the bowhead whale has a layer of blubber that can be 17-19 inches thick, and that, despite its name, the godzilla platypus (which lived 5-15 million years ago) is only twice as large as a modern-day platypus.

Like this.  But 3 feet long!  Image from National Geographic.

3.  It’s memorable.  

I mean this in a dual sense.  First, because it’s happening outside the classroom, the learning that occurs during the Mammal March Madness tournament is likely to be contextualized differently than information read from an assigned textbook.  And while it’s difficult to say whether any knowledge about animals that’s gained through participation in the MMM bracket game will be more likely to be retained due to its association with a cultural touchstone, it’s a form of education that I wholeheartedly endorse (see: my goal to someday teach a Primates & Pop Culture class).

Second, the game itself is memorable.  This may be an especially important factor for kids, or those who are kids at heart: you play, you learn, and then you will want to play again (and learn about a new set of mammals) next year.  It’s the circle of life learning!

_______________________________________________________

The Mammal March Madness tournament is now underway, and you can follow #2014MMM on Twitter to keep track of all the live action.  I have the Saber-toothed Cat going all the way, but anything can happen in this mammal-eat-mammal world!

The Saber-toothed Cat. 850 pounds. 12-inch canines. Good luck.

The Long and Winding Road

It took longer than expected.  Much longer.  Years longer, in fact.  But in May 2013, I finally put the grueling demands of graduate school behind me.  I am now Tinkering Primate, Ph.D.

chimp-graduation

Like this, but with a fancier robe.

Reaching this milestone was a momentous occasion.  As I and others have noted, those of us who embark on the journey to tack those ‘precious’ three letters onto our name must travel a long and winding road, and it is often hazardous.   Many who set out do not reach their goal, and some of those who do find that the road leads nowhere, so to speak.  In the framework of my colleagues who study cultural anthropology, grad school is a liminal stage: students are in essence standing in a threshold, no longer novices but not yet acknowledged as experts in their field of choice.

Now that I have crossed that threshold I am ostensibly a wiser person, with some degree of authority.  Thankfully, I’ve been able to put this newly-acquired status to good use, finding gainful employment that I plan to write about in a future post.  But first, I want to offer some basic advice, gleaned from my own experiences, to any potential or current graduate students who happen to stumble across this blog.

For those of you who have not yet set foot on the long and winding road…

1. Think about why you want to go to grad school and talk to people who are actually in grad school.

One of the main reasons I applied to graduate school was that I couldn’t find a job when I finished college (surprisingly, nobody was lining up to hire someone with a background in archaeology, cultural anthropology, and museum studies).

Open positions are hard to come by.

Open positions are hard to come by.

As it turns out, this is not a good reason to go to grad school.  I would have discovered this had I done some due diligence, but I was so preoccupied with finding something to do with myself that I didn’t think very far ahead — definitely a mistake given the amount of time grad school typically takes.  Talking to current grad students should, in my humble opinion, be a prerequisite for anyone thinking of embarking on this journey.  Their insight into funding issues, departmental politics, and other intricacies of the grad school environment can provide a valuable reality check to those as naive as I was.

2. Have some concrete ideas about what you might want to research.

“I want to study human evolution,” you say.

“What a noble ambition!” I say.

And it is.  But it’s not enough.  Or, rather, it’s far too vague a plan.  In grad school, you must produce knowledge in addition to absorbing it, so it’s important to have some specific potential research questions in mind when you start.  This will not only help you choose a school and find an advisor, but ensure that you have a basic roadmap to follow when you find yourself lost along the way.  This is not to say that you must be inflexible — plenty of people alter their research plans in response to shifting interests and other factors — but entering a program with the attitude that you are “interested in everything” about your field makes it difficult to even find the starting line.  In other words, don’t plan to figure it all out as you go.

If you are already in grad school…

3. Network!

Once you are in a grad program, you can’t network enough.  Making and maintaining professional connections is a crucial component of success (as my husband often reminded me).  For me, it was sometimes difficult: I was in a small department and at times was the only graduate student in my subfield, which meant opportunities to meet and become friendly with other grad students or scholars in my field were rarer than in most programs.  But my husband was right.  When I finally reached the point at which I was qualified to look for a full-time job, it was one of the people who had become part of my professional network that helped direct me to where I am now.  

4. Don’t put the rest of your life on hold.

It took me a long time to finish grad school, but I did a lot of other stuff along the way.  I got married, bought a home, got a dog, and had a kid.      

Here they are together.

Here they are together.

The reason I bring this up is that grad school can easily feel at once all-consuming and fruitless.  It’s easy to forget that life goes on outside the ivory tower, or to think that marriage and/or parenthood can or should wait until you finish your dissertation and get your career “on track.”  But the truth of the matter is that I’m incredibly glad I didn’t put my personal life on hold.  I would much rather snuggle with my daughter than my dissertation, and having one foot planted firmly outside academia helped me maintain sanity and perspective, and gave me that option.

So why am I still writing about graduate school as I approach the one year anniversary of my Ph.D. conferral?  Basically, because I have begun to realize that, as with child labor, memories of the pain associated with being a grad student fade over time.  If I am to give accurate and relevant advice, now is the time for me to do it.

And thus, with these pearls dispensed, I close the door of that threshold behind me.

A bright, sun-shiny day

It would not be inaccurate to describe me as having a bleeding heart when it comes to animals.  It’s one of the reasons I wouldn’t make a great field researcher.   The natural world, as Tennyson wrote, is often “red in tooth and claw,” and although I have recently fallen off the Vegetarian wagon I am not well-suited to the more brutal aspects of ethology.

Orangutan rehabilitation/reintroduction centers, on the other hand, lift my spirits.  Although their existence stems from unfortunate circumstances — most of the resident apes are rescued orphans — their mission is one founded in hope.

So imagine my delight today when I saw this news story about surgeons in Sumatra who restored a blind orangutan’s sight.  The 40-year-old female was blind in both eyes as a result of cataracts, but will now be able to see the babies she gave birth to last year.

Sober and her babies.

Gober and her babies.

Some scientists probably question the legitimacy of this intervention.  As the news story notes, Gober was captured from the wild in 2008 “for her own safety,” despite the fact that the potential danger of her situation was not man-made.  Had people not stepped in, she likely would have died before reproducing again, removing her genes from the population.  And in theory one could make an objective scientific argument in favor of that sequence of events: “That’s natural selection, folks.  Who are we to interfere?”

But here’s the thing.  The news story also notes that Sumatran orangutans are critically endangered.  In fact, both Sumatran and Bornean orangutans are endangered, and could entirely disappear from the wild* within our lifetime.  The combined threats of illegal logging, expanding palm oil plantations, hunting, and the illegal pet trade have drastically reduced their effective population sizes, and conditions show no signs of improving.   Without human action, there soon won’t be any orangutans for objective scientists to study.

It’s not an easy situation to address.  But in this case human action resulted in the birth of two orangutans, and gave their mother the ability to see (and presumably help raise) them.

That’s a bleeding heart intervention I can easily get behind.

*The captive orangutan population of North America numbers a little over two hundred individuals. I offer no comment on orangutans living in captivity elsewhere, as I am not as familiar with the zoos of Europe, Asia, Africa, or other places.

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To learn more about about orangutan rehabilitation projects, visit the following websites:
Orangutan Care Center
Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre
International Animal Rescue