Born to be Wild 3D – Baby Orangutans!!

Born to be Wild 3d is an amazingly cute IMAX film about how two exceptional people (with the help of their teams) rescue orphaned baby elephants and orangutans and raise them. They help the animals overcome their loss and prepare them to one day be re-released into the wild. Today’s blog post is about Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas, and the orphaned orangutans she raises at the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine in Borneo.

Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine (OCCQ)

Orangutan means person of the forest in the Malay language. “They are one of our closet living relatives in the animal kingdom,” Dr. Galdikas states. “They share 97% of our genetic material, are benign beings and very intelligent.” They live exclusively in the tropical rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra, and are the only great ape living in Asia.

The OCCQ employs over 130 local staff who care for over 300 orangutan orphans, with the intention that all will ultimately be released into the wild. The facilities include an operating and X-ray room, medical laboratory, library, living quarters, as well as a separate quarantine complex.

The orphan orangutans living at the OCCQ are separated into age groups. The youngest ones are infants who live in the center’s nursery. These orphans require constant attention and coddling. A baby orangutan will physically not leave its mother’s body for the first year of life. So the human caretakers are tasked with caring for infants even more demanding than human babies.

In the wild, orangutans will naturally leave their mothers around eight years old, so that is the typical age when OFI’s orangutans are released back into the jungle. At a younger age, they’re still immature and small enough to become prey to clouded leopards. But once they’re older, as their natural instincts kick in, additional time spent under human care can impede their ability to thrive in the wild.

The relationship between the caretakers and the orangutans is significant. The young ones are so fragile during their formative years that the humans who commit to caring for them become, in fact, surrogate mothers. “If you put a baby orangutan on the ground it will not stop screaming,” Dr. Galdikas details. “They are literally pulled off their dead mother’s body when they are captured. They know no other place than in her arms or on her back.”

In a peat swamp forest near the OCCQ the orangutan orphans enjoy a kind of supervised release, learning invaluable nest-building skills as well as foraging techniques. Small wooden facilities allow the orangutans and their caregivers to sleep in the forest at night. The halfway house this forest represents to the orphans is of dire importance in their journey back to surviving in the wild. When the orangutans reach the age of eight years, they are usually ready to be released into the wild.

Several scenes in the film Born to be Wild were shot at the OCCQ and in the surrounding jungle, including interaction with Tom, the dominant male orangutan now living in the area outside the camp. Tom is a totally wild orangutan, but Dr. Galdikas has known him ever since he was born. Thirty-five years ago, she helped raise his mother, Tut, who was one of the original rehabilitated orangutans released at OCCQ in the 1970s.

“We spent a lot of time with the larger orangutans that have been rehabilitated by Biruté,” comments Drew Fellman, producer of the film. “They might be 30 years old, having lived wild now for over 20 years, but they’ll come back to Camp Leakey to visit. They might just come up and sit down next to you, or as you hike through the forest, one will take your hand and walk with you awhile. Many of those that Biruté raised now have offspring who are completely wild, and don’t interact with humans at all, which is a great thing. That’s the whole point of her project. Sometimes the first generation that returns to the wild is transitional and still leans on humans for support, but success is about the future generations.”

Can’t see the video?Click here.

If you missed our blog on orphaned elephants and their upbringing at the Nairobi Elephant Nursery, you can read it by clicking here. Make sure to check out Born to be Wild in 3D, now showing in IMAX

Born to be Wild – in IMAX 3D

Born to be Wild 3d is an amazingly cute IMAX film about how two exceptional people (with the help of their teams) rescue orphaned baby elephants and orangutans and raise them. They help the animals overcome their loss and prepare them to one day be re-released into the wild. Today’s blog post is about Dame Daphne, and the Nairobi Elephant Nursery she started in order to take care of orphaned elephants.

Nairobi Elephant Nursery

Since its inception, The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (TDSWT) has hand-reared more than 130 orphaned elephants. Dame Daphne has trained over 50 keepers to rescue and rehabilitate the elephants, with the goal of releasing them back into the wild population of Tsavo’s National Park.

From the moment they arrive, the orphans are very fragile, both physically and emotionally. Dame Daphne explains, “When a new elephant comes to the nursery, they are terrified and more often than not emaciated. They’ve not only lost their mothers but their entire family. We’ve also had to capture them and transport them on a plane so they’re completely traumatized. Once they get to the nursery, the most urgent task is to check their state of health and, to do that, we must first calm them down and begin to instill a sense of trust. Most of all, they have to want to survive.”

Perhaps most crucial to that survival is nourishment. They need milk. After years of trial and error, Dame Daphne developed a mixture to act as a replacement for an elephant mother’s milk. She details, “At first we couldn’t get the formula right as elephants cannot process cow milk, so we got samples of elephant milk analyzed and discovered it was very high in fat. But it couldn’t be just any sort of fat. We kept trying different variations until we found a type of human baby formula that seemed to be working and continued adding other ingredients, like coconut milk, and finally got it right. We also found that some orphans like to drink their milk from under a blanket. The rough fabric reminds them of their mother’s body, it feels natural to have somewhere to rest their trunks while they suckle, so that helps to soothe them.”

Elephants are also extremely social, so having other elephants nearby helps to quiet the new orphans, like Sities, who is featured in the film.

In this respect, the caregivers are also an integral part of the equation. The staff, which comes from different tribes and different backgrounds, have found a common purpose working together to save elephants. The keepers not only spend their days with their charges; they tuck the elephants in at night and sleep beside them in their stalls. David Lickley, director of Born to Be Wild 3D, affirms, “When you watch the keepers with the elephants, you instantly see the intense emotional impact they have on each another.” Because the elephants and their human caregivers must eventually part ways, the keepers are rotated among TDSWT’s three orphan facilities so the elephants don’t become too attached to any one man, as this would create problems should he ever be absent.

A big part of the elephants’ recovery regimen includes enrichment activities like wrestling and mud baths.

Lickley says, “They love to playfully bump up against you and they like games, too. We were able to film this crazy soccer game, with three balls bouncing around, elephants trumpeting, people hooting and hollering, and dust flying up. There are obviously no rules, but everyone was having a great time.”

Can’t see the video?Click here.

Make sure to check back next month to learn about the Camp Leakey Research Station, where Dr. Galdikas raises orphaned orangutans in Borneo. You can purchase your tickets online by clicking here.

Deep Ancestry: Our Story

Anyone who is interested in family history, or anyone who has ever gone to a library or archive to undertake genealogical research knows that while the subject is an exciting one, the work can be tedious and the resulting picture often fuzzy.

This is where we stand with regards to family research writ large, that of modern humanity. To be sure, we have come a long way since we humans even became aware of the fact that we had a very long history, or a deep ancestry. Consider the day, now more than 180 years ago, when people went into a cave in Belgium and encountered remains later identified as belonging to a Neanderthal individual. Compare that against our current understanding of human evolution. How we got here is an interesting story and it is an interesting tale to relate,. Where we go from here is equally intriguing.

Here is part one: how did we get here?

Traditionally, we rely on three main sources of information when studying human origins, our origins. These sources are: the material remains of that past (including both fossil remains and man-made tools), genetics and comparative primatology. The latter refers to observation of current non-human primates and possible correlations between their habitat and behavior with the environment in which our ancestors once lived and their behavior. If there is one constant in the picture generated by these sources is that it is always being refined and updated. Such is the nature of scientific endeavor: it never stands still. Thankfully, our thirst for greater understanding is never slaked either. There is always more to investigate.

Material remains have been the backbone of paleoanthropological studies. After all, what could be a better illustration of human evolution than a fossil of an ancient ancestor, or a tool made by a distant relative of ours? By carefully plotting where these remains have been found, we can reconstruct a picture of human evolution, we can start to see where our earliest ancestors once arose, evolved and eventually migrated from. By studying their tools, we can see human inventiveness at work. At first this is a tediously slow process, but eventually we see it picking up pace to the point we are today: new gadgets developed on a daily basis.

For a while, as people were studying fossil human remains, others were investigating genetics. However, initially the practitioners of these two pursuits did not know of each other’s work, or, did not realize how their work could benefit from the other person’s insights. And so we see how Mendel and Darwin were contemporaries, but their respective scientific insights and breakthroughs did not cross over and inspire the other.

DNA rendering
Creative Commons License photo credit: ynse

Our genetic makeup is the result of millions of years of evolution.

Since the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, we have learned a lot about our genetic makeup. Since then, the chimp genome, gorilla genome, and the orangutan genome have been finished; by the way, the latter was sequenced in our own backyard here in Houston. This provides a nice platform to start comparing our genetic makeup with that of our close primate relatives, and find out where we differ, and, more interestingly, how similar we are below the surface. It turns out we are quite similar.

The difference 1% makes.

Differences, no matter how ostensibly small, remain important. One can be in awe about the fact that we share around 99% of genes with chimps. One could also turn that around and say “See how much difference 1% makes?” That difference, in turn, may help us figure out when in time we started to go our own way, after the split from a common ancestor. This is where the notion of a molecular clock comes in. This concept has been used to “to investigate several important issues, including the origin of modern humans, the date of the human/chimpanzee divergence, and the date of the Cambrian explosion.”

Thus we see in the literature that orangutans, with whom we share around 97 % of our DNA, split from the family tree around 16 to 15 million years ago. Humans and chimps became their own branches on the family tree around 6 to 5 million years ago.

As one researcher recently put it: “There remain signals of the distant past in DNA, and our approach is to use such signals to study the genetics of our ancestors.”

The concept of the molecular clock continues to be refined as our understanding of its potential and limitations has grown. For better or worse, however, it provides us with a tool to help situate major branching events on the family tree. This brings us to our own immediate past, our place in history, when modern humans appeared on the scene.

Modern Humans

Discoveries made in East Africa date the emergence of modern human beings to about 200,000 years ago. Two skulls, found in 1967 in Ethiopia were recently identified as the earliest known modern humans. While that makes all of us Africans, it data from mitochondrial DNA have suggested that our ancestors did not make it out of Africa until 60,000 years ago. The archaeological record seems to disagree, however. Man-made tools twice that age have recently been found in the Arabian Peninsula.

It is at times like these, when dates provided by genetics and archaeology diverge, that we hear voices criticizing the invalidity of this approach. What we will see happen, however, is that this apparent disjunction between two sets of data, will spur on researchers to find where the source of this disparity lies and resolve it. Were that to be impossible then we would have to go back to the drawing board and rethink our ideas about human evolution and the timing of critical events related to it.

Now for part two: where do we go from here?

As people become more mobile, we are now finding our mates much further away than we did just a few generations ago. This means that it will become more difficult to check that box on the census form asking for our ethnicity. It also means that we are slowly becoming more homogenized. Indigenous cultures are disappearing and language follow suit.

To get an idea of how exhilarating and mind-boggling this pursuit of science can be, I would like to invite the reader to attend an upcoming lecture.

On March 7, the Houston Museum of Natural Science will host Dr. Spencer Wells, lead scientist of the Genographic Project.

His lecture, entitled “Deep Ancestry: Inside the Genomic Project,” is brought to us by the Leakey Foundation. Dr. Wells is an Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society and Frank H. T. Rhodes Class of 1956 Professor at Cornell University. Dr. Wells will share with us how the Genographic Project, using data from hundreds of thousands of people, including members of the general public, the Genographic Project is deciphering the migratory routes followed by early humans as they populated the Earth.

I look forward to this lecture, and hope to see many of you at the museum that evening.

In the meantime, a pop quiz.

Q: What do the following individuals have in common?

Brazilian indian chiefs, Kaiapos tribe, during a collective interview.
Left to right: Raony (state of Mato Grosso), Kaye, Kadjor, Panara (Pará)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Valter Campanato, Agência Brasil (ABr). April 17, 2005
Ethiopian Orthodox Christian woman – Lalibela, Ethiopia
Creative Commons License photo credit: Dirk Van Tuerenhout
Lake Titicaca – Uros people
Creative Commons License photo credit: Dirk Van Tuerenhout

A: They are us. We are them. This is us.

We’ll, I’ll be a Monkey’s Uncle. Or an Orangutan’s.

Our Guest blogger today is Dr. Todd Disotell, a professor of anthropology and a molecular primatologist at New York University’s Center for the Study of Human Origins. He will be speaking at HMNS on Feb. 9 at 6:30 p.m. about new molecular analytical techniques and how mapping whole genome sequences has affected what we know about the past. In his blog below, Dr. Disotell debates a recently proposed theory that humans are more closely related to orangutans than chimpanzees – a theory he disagrees with.

Posing for the Camera
Creative Commons License photo credit: jimbowen0306

This past summer upon the publication of a paper by a colleague, I found myself at the intersection of a 25 year old hypothesis, the latest research in genomics and bioinformatics, and popular culture.  Jeffrey Schwartz of the University of Pittsburgh and his coauthor, John Grehan of the Buffalo Museum of Science published an updated version of their hypothesis that orangutans are more closely related to humans than are chimpanzees in the Journal of Biogeography.  This intrigued me because in my final year of graduate school, my advisors and I published one of the earliest papers utilizing DNA sequence data supporting the growing consensus that chimpanzees were our closest relative, followed by gorillas, and much more distantly orangutans.

Perhaps due to my working in New York City, a producer from the Daily Show with Jon Stewart called me at my office and wanted to know if I was willing to be interviewed about Schwartz’s hypothesis.  As a fan I readily agreed and correspondent John Oliver was dispatched to my laboratory to interview me.  During the course of the interview in which I stated that the hypothesis flew in the face of all known genetic evidence, I opined that I would at least get to write a counter paper and perhaps a counter-counter paper if Schwartz responded.  That got me thinking about newly available genomic data that was now available in various databases which had not been fully analyzed.

Confused chimp
Creative Commons License photo credit:
Tambako the Jaguar

I then downloaded the complete genome alignments that included human, chimpanzee, gorilla, orangutan, macaque, marmoset, lemur, and galago.  After writing a series of Python scripts (an open source computer programming language) to parse and reformat the masses of sequence data, I chose the first 1 million bases of each chromosome for which all of the above species were represented.  I then used well characterized statistical and analytical techniques to infer the evolutionary history of each DNA region.  Not surprising to me, the analysis of each region convincingly rejects the hypothesis that orangutans are more closely related to humans than are chimpanzees.  Furthermore, when these 30 million DNA bases are used to estimate the time of divergence between humans, chimpanzees, and orangutans using molecular clock techniques, the orangutan appears to have diverged at over twice the age chimpanzees have from humans.

These results are not at all surprising to the absolute majority of paleoanthropologists and evolutionary primatologists.  However, it is still worthwhile to occasionally revisit theories and hypotheses that we now take for granted when new data are generated and new analytical techniques are developed.  In this genomic age, as the genomes of more and more species and even individuals within species are being sequenced, a whole new class and scale of analyses can be carried out from the keyboard.

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Check out Dr. Disotell’s lecture, “Times Are a-Changin’: New Methods Tell A New Tale of Primate Evolution” at HMNS on Feb. 9 – get tickets here!