X Close

Researchers in Museums

Home

Engaging the public with research & collections

Menu

“When gibbons sing, I know it will rain”

CarolynThompson13 May 2019

I started writing this blog post whilst sat in a half-deserted village high up in the Gaoligong mountains in China. Occupied by only 10 remaining elders who refused to leave their traditional lives behind, I had the privilege of staying here and immersing myself into daily life.

Gaoligong mountain village, Yunnan Province, China. © Carolyn Thompson

I am seated by myself as the morning sun blinds me as it peeps out from over the moss-covered tiled roofs. Two chickens are currently sneaking past me into the kitchen to morbidly watch their duck cousin be prepared for breakfast. They scream as my host shoos them away flapping her arms wildly.

The houses date back 50+ years and are made from old wood and bamboo harvested from the forest in the days before the nearby reserve was established. Mules are found on the ground floor of these dwellings with humans roosting above. As a result, night-time can be a very noisy affair!

I also experienced a huge storm at 3 am. I’ve slept through many tropical storms when I lived and worked in Indonesian Borneo, but this was something else. The walls rattled as the rain beat against it and droplets started to seep through and trickle down. I thought the storm would snatch the flimsy roof right off, but I am glad to report that all houses — and mules — were still standing when I woke up.

Typical village dwelling. © Carolyn Thompson

My PhD is all about understanding local nature and wildlife values, comparing gibbon (small ape) knowledge, and investigating patterns of natural resource use. I have spent the past few months collecting social data in the form of structured interviews and small group discussions with local communities in both Hainan and Yunnan provinces. To get the most candid answers, it is important to immerse yourself into local life.

I have drunk countless cups of green tea and bottles of “bai jiu” (lethal Chinese wine) as a result, been dressed up as a local Hei Lisu person, braved eating the 100-year old egg, and scoffed so many sunflower seeds that I am ready to sprout!

Adult female Skywalker Hoolock gibbon (Hoolock tianxing). © Fan Peng-Fei.

Before embarking on my PhD journey, I was given an antique book by Robert Van Gulik, a Dutchman fascinated by gibbons and their significance in Chinese culture. Published in 1967, “The Gibbon in China” is a magical collection of poems, stories and paintings dating back to 200 BC. Rich in its content, I was overwhelmed with the stories about “lonely”, “sad-looking” yet “magical” apes who sing haunting and melancholy songs in the Chinese mountains.

Taoists (those that believe in ancient nature-worship regarding the flow of “ch’i” energy in all living things) talked about gibbons being superior to humans. Gibbons were often referred to as “gentlemen” as discussed in my previous blog. Everyone loves good manners — bring a gibbon to meet the parents and they won’t be disappointed due to their impeccable “table manners” (unlike their mischievous macaque monkey cousins), according to an 8th-Century poet, Liu Tsung-Yuan. Their intelligence, supposedly similar to humans, is also regularly mentioned, especially when needing to drink water from a nearby river. Forming a chain by holding hands, gibbons would lower themselves down to the river. One should therefore never “…place a gibbon (Yuan-yu) in a barred cage [as] how could he then show his clever skills?” (4th Century statesman, Ch’u-tz’u).

Forming a “Gibbon Chain”. Nineteenth Century. Sourced from Van Gulik’s 1967 essay on “Gibbons in China”.

Having read this book from cover to cover, I was pumped to record rich gibbon stories during my field season. I was therefore incredibly shocked and disappointed to learn that many traditional stories have not been passed down through the generations.

China is made up of 56 different ethnic groups, all of which used to be rich in culture and history with traditional dress and sigils (both of which are now rarely seen). I interviewed participants from six of these ethnic groups and asked them questions regarding  the importance of gibbons and forests in their local culture. Participants either didn’t understand the question or they would say there is no connection.

I was relieved to hear that a few elders still have a tale or two to tell, especially when it comes to gibbons being able to predict the weather:

“When gibbons sing, I know it will rain tomorrow.” (Anonymous).

An elder in Hainan province told me about how gibbons came to be which involved a naughty, lazy boy who was scolded with an iron on his butt. He then sprouted hair and turned into a gibbon.

I also had a surprisingly funny interview with a 70-something year old man who used to work in Burma harvesting wood to sell back to the Chinese. He spoke about his love of gibbons…to eat! We spent most of our interview crying with laughter as his opinion was so far from my own. He kept insisting that gibbons were incredibly ugly and thought I was crazy because I felt they had aesthetic value.

An on-looker listening in to an interview whilst looking at gibbon photographs. © Yu Yue Jiang.

“Look at their ugly faces!” He would yell. “Ah, they taste so good! Such a shame the government won’t let me hunt them anymore.”

It is important when I conduct these interviews that I remain impartial. At the end of the day, my PhD is all about finding sustainable solutions for both humans and gibbons alike.

My favourite moment was with an 87-year old woman who heard that a “laowai” (foreigner) was staying in the village. Having never left her village or seen a Caucasian woman before, we had a very special, informal moment bonding over gibbons and discussing what life was like during her youth — and what life was like now.

https://www.instagram.com/p/Bu6JKNjAWA8/

Although I am still at the start of my PhD journey, I have teamed up with a local non-governmental organisation called Cloud Mountain, who carry out conservation education activities. We hope to work together to reintroduce some of these traditional gibbon stories back into these villages. With only 28 Hainan gibbons, 150 Skywalker Hoolock gibbons and 110 Cao Vit gibbons remaining (my three study species), hopefully we can remind people of their magical, shared history and raise the profile of these forgotten apes before it is too late.

If you would like to follow my PhD journey, you can do so here: Personal blog, Twitter, Instagram. Or come and meet me in the UCL Grant or Petrie museums next month!

What is the relationship between frogs and fertility?

Hannah BPage10 July 2018

During my first few weeks as a student engager I began to notice the presence of frogs… everywhere. I saw them in various forms and objects in the Petrie Museum, and found frog and other amphibious specimens in the Grant Museum. The Surinam toad quickly became one of my favourite objects to show visitors—the female stores her eggs in her back, and they then burst through the skin when fertilised (Fig 1.). As you can imagine, when you tell people this, you get a mixed response. I took this all as a sign and decided I should do a bit of splashing around in the amphibian research pool and dedicate my first blog post to them.

Fig 1 Surinam Toad with emergent young (Grant Museum W332)

What became immediately obvious when I started to do some digging is just how common frogs are in cultural and religious belief systems. Frogs are used as characters in folk law and in fairy tales—just think of the frog prince in the Grimm stories—but I discovered that their use in religion and culture goes back much, much further. Both the ancient Egyptians and the Mesopotamians saw the frog as a symbol of fertility and life giving. This connection is obvious when you understand the importance these past civilisations gave to the rivers that flowed through their lands. The Nile, Tigris and Euphrates rivers are hailed as the facilitators of the fertile lands that made the development of the first major cities and the centralised hierarchical societies that lived there possible. So the frog, as a watery symbol of the life-giving waters, was then depicted in reliefs, sculpture and objects. One such object is a beautifully crafted, smooth limestone frog in the Petrie Museum (Fig. 2). In fact, frogs are such a strong and consistent symbol in ancient Egyptian culture that they are found depicted in important and specialist objects from the predynastic Naqada periods to the Roman period—some 4,500 years.

Fig 2 Limestone frog from Meroe in the (UCL Petrie Museum, UC.43984)

The Egyptians even depicted a goddess, Haqet, in the image of a frog. Unsurprisingly Haqet is the goddess of fertility and is often depicted either as a frog or in human form with the head of a frog. Amulets were then fashioned in the shape of frogs/Haqet, and were worn, providing fertility to the wearer.

Frogs have also been the subjects of art in other areas of the world as well, for example for the Moche culture of Peru (Fig. 3). The frog species found in the Amazon basin are the most numerous and some of the most deadly, including the poison dart frog who has enough deadly toxin to kill between ten and twenty grown people. Interestingly enough, in Moche society they were also associated with fertility and growth, but with their toxicity (and sometimes hallucinogenic quality), it is thought that their symbolic meaning stretches far beyond this interpretation.

Fig 3 Moche Frog stirrup spout bottle (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992.60.8)

However in Europe, frogs and toads haven’t always been seen in such a positive light. The prince in the frog prince was cursed and turned into a frog as punishment, and in the epic biblical poem Paradise Lost, John Milton depicts Satan as a toad poisoning Eve.

So, their social and symbolic importance is well recorded, but what about their biological history? For this I interrogated the case in the Grant Museum dedicated to them. Frogs and toads it seems started life in the Triassic period, some 240 million years ago. The museum even has a cast of an early German species (Palaeobatrachus) that lived around 130-5 million years ago. What is also striking about the frog is its wide native distribution across the globe, from Europe, to the Americas, Africa to Australasia. So it is unsurprising that these springy species have such an important and consistent cultural presence worldwide.

Finally in my research I discovered that the study of the relationship between human culture and amphibians even has a name: ethnoherpetology. Clearly we have a long and intimate history with our croaky friends.

So next time you’re close by, why not hop into the Grant or the Petrie Museum to see how many frogs you can find?

The Imperial Gentleman of China

CarolynThompson3 July 2018

I am a primatologist; that is, a scientist who studies the behaviour, abundance and conservation status of monkeys, lemurs and apes. My specialty area and the focus of my PhD research here at University College London, is the plight of the gibbons, the smallest of the apes.

The Skywalker Hoolock gibbon (Hoolock tianxing). Photograph taken on Carolyn Thompson’s recent field trip to China. (Photo credit: Carolyn Thompson)

Gibbons are often forgotten in the shadow of their great cousins — the orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas — receiving less funding, as well as research and media attention. This is very unfortunate seeing as 19 of the 20 species are on the brink of extinction. The Hainan gibbon, for example, is the world’s rarest primate with a mere 26 individuals making up their entire global population.

I am always thrilled therefore to see media articles raising some much needed gibbon awareness, even if the news story doesn’t always paint us humans in the best light.

In 2004, one of my supervisors from the Zoological Society of London, stumbled across a gibbon skull inside a tomb in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, China. The skull is believed to be ca. 2,200-2,300 years old and the potential property of Lady Xia, the grandmother of China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuang, who is famous for his striking terracotta army. Inside this ancient tomb was a whole menagerie of other animal skeletons including a crane, bear and a leopard — yet another example of human-animal relationships that have dated back millennia.

The skull of Junzi imperialis. (Photo credit: Samuel Turvey).

Although this exciting discovery could tell us a lot about our evolutionary shared ancestry with gibbon species, there are still many unanswered questions. We are unsure if the skull, now said to belong to Junzi imperalis (meaning the ‘imperial man of virtue’ due to the strong historical relationship between humans and gibbons in Chinese culture) is in fact a new species and where it came from. There are strong indicators, however, suggesting that this potentially new species of gibbon could be the first ape to have vanished off the face of the earth due to human pressures. Now extinct, we need to look at our current impact on the planet to ensure we don’t do the same with our other cousins.

Part of my PhD research examines the relationship between humans and animals, especially amongst local communities found in gibbon habitat regions. This intrigue, along with my love of mingling with the public, led me to my new role as a Student Engager in the UCL museums. For example, the Ancient Egyptians also had a strong connection with animals which I hope to explore over the coming months in the UCL Petrie Museum, and the Grant Museum of Zoology also has a couple of gibbon skeletons hanging around. Come and see for yourself!

In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for my upcoming blogs on Twitter: @gibbonresearch and @ResearchEngager

Are whales and dolphins as smart as we are?

CitlaliHelenes Gonzalez10 August 2017

Although humans are land mammals, we still occupy marine environments whether for work, leisure or exploration. But real sea mammals have adapted to living their entire lives in the ocean and the best adapted are whales and dolphins. Over time their adaptations have allowed them to live in a world with hardly any shelter where sound is more important than sight. Being smart and able to cooperate plays a vital role in surviving in this kind of environment.

One thing we have in common with whales and dolphins is that we have big brains. How big? Without taking into account body size, sperm whales have the biggest brain in the world weighing around 7.8 kg. But in proportion to body size, humans have a bigger brain followed closely by dolphins; strangely enough, whales have a smaller brain than most seals.

Delphinus sp Common dolphin Grant Museum Z2277

Delphinus sp
Common dolphin
Grant Museum Z2277

It would make sense to think that a larger brain has more neurons and therefore more cognitive power; but does brain size correlate with cognitive ability? Not necessarily—brain size does not tell us the whole story. The cortex is a thin layer of cells (2-4 mm) that constitutes the outermost layer of the brain and gives it its characteristic wrinkly appearance. The cortex is where all the higher cognitive functions take place, where our senses are processed and where consciousness, thought and language is formed. Because of this, we might assume that having a bigger cortex is the fundamental key to intelligence.

We know that dolphins and killer whales have a much wrinklier cortex than humans, meaning it has a bigger surface area. However, does a bigger cortex mean more neurons? Even though we don’t know the exact number of neurons killer whales or dolphins have, researchers have counted the total number of neurons in the neocortex (part of the cortex) of the minke whale. Although it has a similar thickness to the human cortex, it only has 2/3 of the neurons we have. Even at the cellular level, we don’t yet know what these differences mean. Overall a thick cortex does not necessarily mean more neurons and a big brain does not necessarily mean more cognitive power. Taking into account different parameters, it’s hard to tell which animal is smarter.

However, putting aside our brains, it’s what we can do with them that is interesting. Amongst whales, dolphins and humans, we all share behaviours that could be called culture. I say this carefully because the term culture can have different definitions and there is still debate on whether non-human animals can have culture in the way that we do. But let’s forget about humans—other animals have their own animal culture.

A general definition—taken from the book The cultural lives of whales and dolphins by Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell—is as follows: “Culture is behaviour or information with two primary attributes: it is socially learned and it is shared within a social community”. In other words, culture is basically what you learn from other members of your community and it’s important to note that it’s not determined by your genes.

For instance, dolphins have sophisticated whistles and calls to communicate and some whales, additionally, have songs. They also have very specific ways of feeding depending on where they live and who they “hang out” with. The bottlenose dolphin, for example, has at least 20 different types of hunting. This does not mean that every bottlenose dolphin around the world knows 20 different types of hunting. This means, that depending on their social group and environment, they develop different skills. So one group of dolphins in the Caribbean might hunt a specific fish in a certain way while others in another part of the world do it differently. Even neighbour dolphins might hunt differently depending on who they form social bonds with. Similarly, whale songs can be in or out of fashion changing rapidly and spreading throughout the whole population of whales (grey whales in this case). All of these behaviours could be called culture because they are socially learned and are not determined by genes.

Moreover, why is culture so important? Genetic information is passed from one individual to another from one generation to the next. Communication of cultural information happens quicker than the flow of genetic information. Culture allows a population to learn something very quickly, and this, in turn, translates into better adaptations to new threats or new environments. Culture is what allows us, humans, to learn much more than what we could possibly deduce for ourselves.

Similar to humans, some would argue that whales and dolphins have culture because they have the ability to communicate information with individuals of their own community. Even if whale/dolphin intelligence or culture does not correlate entirely with our definitions of such, the whole idea of trying to fit them into a human definition is somewhat absurd. Animals adapt to their environment and so, will develop strategies to overcome the hurdles their unique habitat presents; thus if a whale cannot invent the wheel maybe it’s because it doesn’t need to.

In addition to big brains and cortices, humans share more with sea mammals than you might think.   So next time you see a brain or a skull in the Grant Museum of Zoology or any other museum, think about how that brain has evolved to adapt to its particular environment.

whale


Hyperoodon ampullatus Northern bottlenose whale Female Z1112

Sources:

Whitehead, H., & Rendell, L. (2014). The cultural lives of whales and dolphins. University of Chicago Press.

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/news-blog/are-whales-smarter-than-we-are/