Archive 2010

Evolution of Altruism Brendan Moyle Dec 28

1 Comment

Altruism is one of those delightful things about biology that at the outset, doesn’t make a lot of sense. The concept of altruism is that an organism undertakes actions that come at some cost or risk to it, but these benefit another organism. This altruism can take elaborate forms in social animals, and in humans, be codified as a system of morality or ethics. Nonetheless, altruism- and the ability to act consistently within some social rules- is common to all social species. Ants and humans undertake actions that can require sacrifices for the group. Murder (or predation) is eschewed within a group.

The puzzle would seem to be why would an organism bear this risk or cost? Risks for instance, may come from participating in joint defense of a group. Costs come from providing say, resources or forgoing opportunities to another.

The answer however is somewhat subtle. The evolutionary rule isn’t about the survival of the organism. At a biological level, organisms are a means to transmit genes from one generation to the next. So the point is not to evaluate morality in the context of what happens to the individual. It is to evaluate it in terms of what happens to the genes.

This first insight was elaborated by Bill Hamilton in the 1960s. Hamilton developed the kinship mechanism for the selection of altruism. This recognises that there are two ways an organism can transmit its genes to the next generation. One is directly through its own efforts. The other is indirectly through other close relatives. This explains why in social insects- bees, wasps, ants- social behaviour is common. (In fact, social organisation of the ants has probably made them one of the most successful organisms on the planet. They are found nearly everywhere and in high densities in many natural habitats).

The peculiar biology of ants, bees and wasps is that sex is determined by whether an organism is haploid or diploid. (In mammals, both sexes are diploid, in bees, ants and wasps the males are haploid, females are diploid).  The biological consequences are that each female ant is even more closely related to her sister’s offspring than would be the case in mammals. This makes evolution of altruism in such insects far more likely.

The second evolutionary mechanism for altruism is reciprocation. This was developed by Robert Trivers in 1971. The principle here is that there may be gains from reciprocation that encourage altruism.  For example, social spiders often combine webs and cooperate to bring down larger prey that a single spider would be too small to take-down. The society of spiders within the combined web, follows certain social  rules also. Contributing resources (spider silk) to the community comes at a cost, but is sustained by other spider’s willingness to share larger prey.

Both kinship and non-kinship mechanisms act strongly in humans. Most early human communities would have been closely related genetically. Reciprocation would have led to gains in three major areas of human groups. The first is in terms of mutual defense. Being able to act as a team to defend against predators or the like generates an evolutionary advantage. The second is in terms of hunting. Again, the ability to act as a team to take down large prey would be selected for. The third is in terms of child care. Humans invest heavily time and resources into raising infants. Reciprocation- joint community care of juveniles- would lead to another evolutionary advantage.

Since then research on the evolution of altruism has continued. Dawkins used the earlier work of Trivers and Hamilton in his book The Selfish Gene. Axelrod and Hamilton extended the work on reciprocation in the mind-1980s with work on repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma and search for evolutionary stable strategies towards cheating. Axelrod showed that of a number of strategies, tit-for-tat (a simple reciprocation rule mimicking ‘the golden rule’) had the highest payoff in repeated encounters.  In effect, it would be selected for.

Research building on and elaborating these approaches has continued. A check of the ISI Web of Knowledge database shows that 780 papers on evolution of altruism have been published in just the last 5 years.

In short, much of our social instincts and moral rules have an evolutionary basis

Sea Eagle Flight Sequence Brendan Moyle Dec 17

No Comments

I stitched together these three photos of the same flight path of this sea eagle. Each frame has been shot at 1/3000 to 1/4000 of a second, freezing each wing stroke. Which I thought looked kind of cool :)

Link to larger image

The estuarine area I was photographing crocodiles had a lot of sea eagles around, and the species is adept at catching fish.

Seventh human kill in the Uttar Pradesh Region Brendan Moyle Dec 15

No Comments

Reinforcing the extent to which human-tiger conflicts are an issue is this news report on Sunday

A 40 year old man was killed by a tiger when he entered the Katarniya Ghat Tiger reserve to collect firewood. This is the seventh death by tigers in this region, and there have been another reported 15 non-fatal attacks.

Some days I’m ashamed to be a human Brendan Moyle Dec 06


Well, today I hit the NZ Herald website and was shocked by the 23 seals clubbed to death story. Evidence is that these attacks have been sustained over a week, and 8 pups are included in that tally.

Such callous brutality is sickening at so many levels. There is nothing admirable about someone who can derive pleasure from beating a defenseless, small seal pup to death. And to do it 8 times. Shudder.

Ever get the feeling that some people are just depriving some rare crocodile species of some useful protein? Here’s hoping that the culprits will be caught and justice done. With a strong punitive edge for deterrence.

Juvenile Fur Seal

Itchy Fur Seal

Corsac Fox Photos Brendan Moyle Dec 03

No Comments

The corsac fox is an Asiatic species, that unusually for foxes, can live in social groups.It’s also sometimes referred to as the steppe fox. It’s a nomadic hunter, adapted to arid environments.

I managed three shots of one last trip to China.

Global Tiger Recovery Program 2010-2022 Brendan Moyle Nov 26

No Comments

Just a quick note that the document outlining the planned recovery program is available-
GTRP English Version

It is a solid read, and I hope to make some comments on the controlling the illegal trade in tiger parts over the next few days.

Some more photos from Hunchun Brendan Moyle Nov 25

No Comments

Part of the Siberian tiger conference in Hunchun included a trip out to look at some of the reserves in the area. Hunchun is in an area of China bound by Russia, North Korea and the Sea of Japan. It’s relatively rugged ground- and still has lots of forests and mountains.

The area has 4 tiger reserves and the intention is to develop and enlarge these, and connect them to similar reserves in Russia.

I suspect there is still a lot of work to do, as there were few signs of abundant small prey available in these reserves. The closest we got to an actual tiger was this sign here:

Part of trying to get a cultural shift to support tiger conservation in the region is a Siberian Tiger festival. This incorporated performers doing traditional drumming acts.

And of course, some not so traditional performances.

The Cost of Conservation: Tiger mauls two to death Brendan Moyle Nov 24


Well, the Tiger Summit in St Petersburg has come up with a price tag of $350m to save the tiger. I wish I could be surprised that part of the solution to save the tiger is to spend even more money. I wish I could be surprised that we are starting to evaluate the success of our efforts to save tigers on the basis of meetings held and money spent.

I’m more than a little uncomfortable that we have such a single-minded focus on a single species. Most poachers for example, aren’t tiger poachers. They’re leopard poachers that sometimes take tigers. A wider, more cohesive strategy that looked at all of Asia’s big cat species could be merited. Going after leopard poachers would net in tiger poachers anyway. Targeting tiger poachers just keeps poachers in business as they persist with their hunting of leopards.

Asian Fishing Cat- Nocturnal Photo

Asian Fishing Cat- Nocturnal Photo

Finally, while we are thinking about $350m and who is going to come up with the money (hat-tip to Leonardo diCaprio for putting $1m into the pot), there is another cost of conserving the tigers. Live tigers mean people are going to die from tiger attacks. This sadly illustrated by the following news.

Tiger kills two in Assam

The attack occurred at the village Habiborongabari in Morigaon district, about 60 km east of Assam’s main city of Guwahati.
First a woman was mauled to death, then a man working in a field. The attack continued with a police official and girl being injured (both reported to be battling for their lives in hospital).

The tiger was eventually shot to death by forest rangers.

Saving tigers isn’t just a matter of good reserve design and controlling commercial poaching. The fundamental problem we face is that a lot of locals who live within, and next to these forests, don’t see these 1/4 ton monsters as cute, fuzzy, conservation icons to be saved. Insisting they tolerate the deaths of family members, children and livestock to save tigers is a big ask.

Crazy Creationists Unleashed #4 Brendan Moyle Nov 23


From the “yes, they really think that” files, we have this assertion from a @Dunnam0127 who has decided that humans have not evolved.


This appeared to be the entire argument for why humans and chimps have not evolved from a common ancestor.  As an argument goes, well, that’s a pretty generous description. It depends entirely on two popular Creationist fallacies.

The first is the whole monkey-thing. Nowhere in human evolution is it claimed we descended from monkeys. It turns out, creationists really don’t get that there’s a difference between monkeys and apes. Of course, they don’t get much of anything in biology.

The second is a fallacious understanding of what a species is either. That’s kind of what prevents viable, fit offspring being produced by the mating pair.  Fortunately, no crocoducks were brought up in this discussion.

Actually, the poor guy doesn’t understand that both modern chimps and humans have adaptations to bipedalism. The foot/hand distinction isn’t that easy to establish. Especially when we sometimes transplant toes onto hands in the place of lost fingers or thumbs.

There are of course, all sorts of actual, real scientific facts that we use to establish that humans have a common ancestor with chimps.

The anatomical similarities- especially once you get to the skeletal level- are quite profound and striking. This is the sort of thing that Darwin noticed over a century ago [1]

There is the evidence from our own fetal development. In humans a layer of hair (lanugo hair) is formed during fetal development, a relic of our earlier, more hirsute ancestors.

The real smoking-guns though of our primate evolution has been the molecular. Chimps have a very similar genomes to people. But within that, its not just the similarities in the coding parts of the genome that show the trail. It’s the similarities in the non-coding parts.

One of the most compelling pieces of evidence is the vitamin C pseudogene [2] Chimps and humans have one extraordinary thing in common. Neither of these two species can synthesise vitamin C. That’s why we (& chimps) need to eat fruit and vegetables to get vitamin C in our diet. Otherwise we get scurvy and die. The curious fact is that this is caused by both chimps and humans having the same broken gene. This mutation occurred about 6mya. We are in effect, the only species to have this exact, same, broken gene. (Guinea pigs also can’t synthesis vitamin C but that’s caused by a different mutation).

The other ‘smoking gun’ are our endogenous retroviruses [2]. These are ancient viruses that have become inserted into our genome, but no longer generate disease.  For humans, these ERVs make up about 10% of the non-coding parts of our genome.  And yes, both chimps and humans share many of these same defunct ERVs.

The mutation rate in the human genome also means we can clock back into time when these events occurred. This converges on a common ancestor with chimps at about 6mya.


[1] Darwin, C. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. D Appleton and Company, New York, 1871.

[2] The Chimpanzee Sequencing and Analysis Consortium, Initial sequence of the chimpanzee genome and comparison with the human genome, Nature 437, 69-87 (1 September 2005)

The Myanmar Connection Brendan Moyle Nov 22

1 Comment

Associated Press released this story in the weekend.

Wildlife group targets Myanmar-China tiger trade

BANGKOK (AP) – Wildlife trafficking officials say they have reached a preliminary agreement with an ethnic minority group in Myanmar to close down markets where hundreds of poached tigers from across Asia are sold for use in purported medicines and aphrodisiacs in China.

This is in line with my work in China in 2007-08, including a sojourn in the most southern Chinese province of Yunnan. Local minorities are often involved in the tiger poaching markets. Myanmar is within the range of both the Indo-Chinese and Bengalo subspecies, but the political situation has made conservation work there challenging.

With nearly a third of all tiger-smuggling incidents occurring in Yunnan, it was quickly apparent that the tigers under most threat from poaching were Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam [1].  The Indo-Chinese makes up the bulk of the intercepted bone supplied into Traditional Chinese Medicine Markets. [1] This was at odds with what I was assured in early 2007, that India was the major supplier of tiger parts into the Chinese medicine markets. Sadly, most facts about the black market in tiger parts in Asia you read on the web, are made up.

The article refers to a TRAFFIC study on tigers where it was noted that the Wa people were operating quite visible and open markets in big cat parts. It cites observing parts of more than 400 big cats (tigers, leopards) being traded in the last decade. Chinese traders were also coming to the area to consume various wild animals including tiger-bone wine.

This underscore a lot of the problems we’ve had in Asia. The areas where tigers live are also areas where a lot of ethnic minorities.  A lot of these minorities don’t get on very well with the Government. Sometimes it’s because government efforts to create reserves destroys hunting opportunities. That tends to annoy groups who are traditional hunters. This prompts them to become very adept poachers instead. In India for example, the Bawariya and Behliya tribes are involved in a lot of wildlife poaching [1]

In Myanmar the Wa people have conspicuously bad relationships with the military government. It’s so bad the Wa run a semi-autonomous region with their own army of their own within Myanmar (next to the Thai border). Part of the conservation deal here has been to get agreement with the Wa people to suppress this market in cat parts.

So, what are the sorts of tiger conservation lessons can we draw from this?

Well, first and foremost, a lot of Western conservationists need to lose the idea that local peoples who love to and around big cats, want to preserve them. That’s usually a low priority or indeed, unwelcome. Having big 1/4 ton carnivores roaming around their forest communities is not something people get enamoured with. Tigers kill valuable livestock and people still.

The second is seriously, not all the tiger parts are being consumed in China. Tigers have been used for their parts all through Asia and local people’s have developed all sorts of uses. The Wa region has gone through several hundred big cats that we know of. Different Asian cultures use all sorts of different parts- the teeth, claws, skin, meat, bones and sometimes penises [1].

Third, again, India isn’t a big player in the traditional Chinese medicine markets. It’s a big player for skins. The big 2007 bust in Tibet  recovered 32 tiger skins, 579 leopard skins and 665 otter skins [1].  India isn’t losing tigers to Chinese medicine markets yet. They’re losing them to skin markets in central Asia. Of course, that may change. It’s likely only a matter of time before the Tibetan smuggling rings start diversifying and crossing into supplying bones in the east. It’s just a matter of patiently establishing those networks.



[1] Moyle, B (2009). The black market in China for tiger products. Global Crime 10:1, 124-143