Writers’ Workshop in Stellenbosch

Mont Fleur

Mont Fleur

Near the end of last month, I went to Stellenbosch with some other members of the Division of Human Genetics to attend a writers’ workshop. I’ve already dealt with the academic portion of workshop in a post on the Human Genetics website, so this one will focus more on the casual aspects and some thoughts stemming from it. While we were there, we stayed at the Mont Fleur conference venue which is amazing. The staff are polite and helpful, the accommodation is clean and spacious and the food is unbelievable. All that in an incredibly beautiful setting. Continue reading


Quicklinks: Science

I’ll start with a link that claims dolphins are unexceptional! This article is based on a book that looks at the claims made about dolphin intelligence. I do think they are particularly intelligent so it might be worth buying if I happen to see it.

Also in the ocean is this interesting report of a mutant lobster, now heading to the Maine State Acquarium. It seems to have too many claws on one of it’s arms, however PZ Meyers takes exception to referring to them as claws. I don’t know enough about lobsters to comment but it’s unusual and interesting. It’s unusually interesting.

Cheetah (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

There’s an encouraging story here about using dogs to keep cheetahs away from livestock in Namibia. This decreases the conflicts between cheetahs and farmers, which is important as they are endangered. When I was younger I had the opportunity to stroke a live cheetah at Cheetah Outreach. They have since relocated but it’s still possible to visit and meet cheetahs in the flesh.

I’m a big fan of open source technology. I do think it is the best direction for us and this is an encouraging example of what it can accomplish. A South African man who lost part of his hand learned how to make his own prosthetic with a 3D printer and has released the plans for anyone to use. This drops the cost of a prosthetic hand from US$10 000 to US$500!

The final story is close to home. One of my lab members, Shareefa Dalvie, has had one of her samples be the first human genome sequenced on African soil! This is a huge achievement for genetics, the University of Cape Town and the University of Stellenbosch. Large sequencing projects like this are the future for genetics research and can help us understand the causes of many diseases. In this case, it should bring us closer to understanding the genetic underpinnings of bipolar disorder.

Quicklinks: Animal intelligence, abuse and some cool posts

To keep to on a topic I’ve put a bit of effort into documenting I have a short press release about a metacognition in chimps.

This pattern of behavior reflects a controlled information-seeking capacity that serves to support intelligent responding, and it strongly suggests that our closest living relative has metacognitive abilities closely related to those of humans.

This is also important when considering the next two links, about bills in the US designed to prevent documenting of animal abuse. There is an attempt to disrupt animal rights activists by making it a crime to infiltrate farming facilities and record abuse of animals. This isn’t about them doing anything disruptive, merely to stop them building a case and reporting abuse to authorities. This deliberately prevents people from knowing what is going on in the industry and there are fears similar laws could spread around the world.

Then to buoy your spirit you can see these two cool stories. One about bees moving each other with electrical fields (and there’s a link to more about bees and electricity inside) and one about the historical value of island weapons. If you don’t want the history then let me say it’s also a chance to see swords made from shark teeth!

Quick link: Brains of the animal kingdom

I’ve been a bit busy lately and I went away with some of my family for the weekend (long weekend here) so I’m just going to link a quick piece by Frans de Waal entitled The Brains of the Animal Kingdom. It’s similar to my pieces on animal intelligence and very much worth reading. Aside from the lesson that animals are more intelligent than many people suspected it is important to note that you have to test them in an appropriate manner. They are not like humans so a human test won’t give a good result, just like we would do very badly at some tasks animals complete. There are good examples on that with both elephants and chimpanzees.

Quicklinks: Bacteria, seafood and dolphins

I’m fairly busy this week so I’m not likely to have time to post anything substantial before Sunday. I don’t like this sitting empty though so I’ve found some more interesting links to share.

You might remember from earlier that I’m rather interested in how we live with bacteria. On that topic I saw two interesting articles lately. The first suggests that the bacteria living in your gut may play a role in your susceptibility to melamine poisoning and the second looks at how the bacteria living on our teeth have changed and what the effects of that have been.

Then there’s a bit about whether seafood feels pain. It’s interesting for me because I became a vegetarian for just those concerns. I’m confident other mammals feel pain and suffer just like us but it’s much harder to say anything about creatures that diverged much further back in time. In the end I decided it was just easier to cut out the grey areas by not eating any animals but it is good to know for certain.

Still in the sea, here are some more entertaining links. 10 reasons why dolphins are undeniably awesome and 10 reasons why dolphins are assholes.

Quick links: Animal thought

There’s a BBC article on whether animals are capable of imagination. It looks like they have limited powers of imagination, similar to small children. Most of the examples seem to be from other apes.

Also from the BBC is a piece on how dogs can understand situations from a human’s point of view.

Still on dogs, here’s an interview with a scientist who studies dog cognition. It covers the launch of his company to help people evaluate the intelligence of their dogs and, at the same time, benefit science. It’s also got a few questions on how smart dogs are, what people wrongly assume about dogs and a bit about the history of their domestication.

Dolphins help their dying friend

After the video showing a dolphin going to divers for help I was glad to hear about a similar story from the BBC, a group of dolphins helping one of their own. This is special for a number of reasons. Dolphins have been recorded helping other dolphins but usually it was only one or two dolphins, this incident involved a number of individuals. Also this was observed and recorded by scientists who had been surveying cetaceans (cetaceans are marine mammals) in the area. The incident happened off the coast of Korea in 2008 but was only recently published in a scientific journal. I’m not sure why the delay but it is rather convenient for me. The paper is here but access is restricted. Continue reading

Hawaiian dolphin rescue

There is an amazing video that was released earlier this month showing some divers helping a dolphin who became entangled by a fishing line. The hook was embedded in it’s fine with the line caught on it’s mouth and fin, restricting it’s movements. Happily the divers were able to help the dolphin and, despite the caption in the clip, the hook and line were all removed. It’s heart-warming, although we shouldn’t forget that it was because of people that it got tangled in the first place, but it also begs the question whether the dolphin co-operated inadvertently or whether it deliberately went to the divers for help.

Continue reading