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Showing posts from August, 2012

What Kanzi Didn't Do...Yet

If Neanderthals are the Uber Cool of hominins, then bonobos surely must be the ape equivalent. A species very closely related to the more famous chimpanzees, Pan paniscus have increasingly taken centre stage in research on primate cognition and technical abilities. This week there's been quite a bit of press coverage of some new behavioural experiments with bonobos making and using stone tools, published in PNAS, . Having read the paper, it doesn't sound like the actual technological skill displayed by the apes in the production of the tools is any more adept than we've seen before, i.e. it doesn't match that seen in even the very earliest artefacts from the archaeological record. If it was, I'd expect this to be far more obviously signposted in the paper. Instead, it seems that the bonobos have, in a much more natural task setting than normal, utilised a more diverse range of their stone products to perform a variety of specific functions. These tool-using action…

Exploring Alien Worlds: Different Dimensions, Same Buzz

In an alternate universe, rather than researching extinct and frankly sometimes quite alien hominin species, I would be working in my other dream career: astronomy. More precisely, I would be on one of the teams currently pushing the bounds of our interplanetary exploration. Being on the Cassini mission would be pretty sweet, downloading endlessly beautiful and oddly abstract photographs of the vastness of Saturn and its rings, probing the haze of Titan (seeing reflections of methane lakes!), or the incredible geysers of Enceladus. But I have to admit there's a research field even more beguiling to me: the staggering fact of having robotic explorers actually on the surface of an alien world.  Hello, Mars.

I've been a massive space geek since I was a kid, and probably the only reason I'm not an astronomer in this universe is that I thought I was rubbish at maths for ages, and stopped trying. I scraped my C-grade at GCSE, but perhaps if someone had pointed out the fundament…

Riddles in the Dark: Kent's Cavern and the earliest modern Europeans

For those that enjoy scientific disputes, this week a new one appeared for the Palaeolithic, hinging on the reliability of the date published last year for a diminutive human jaw fragment as the earliest European Homo sapiens. I have to say straight up that I am not entirely independent here, having worked on the site in question, Kent's Cavern (I looked at the Neanderthal artefacts), and with several of the individual researchers concerned. Additionally, the new research challenging the date is as yet unpublished, and is only featured based on a pre-press piece in ScienceNOW, so it's hard to comment in detail on their position. However, as this is an important site that I also have a bit of history with, I do want to talk about it.

Now a glitzy show cave with uplighting and large concrete walkways for the many visitors it receives every year, Kent's Cavern is one of the most important Palaeolithic sites in Britain, and also in Europe. Historically it was one of the very …

Guest blog at Scientific American: Re-igniting the fire

I'm honored to have my first Guest Blog go up today at Scientific American, as part of the "Beginnings" and #BeginScights series (massive thanks to Bora Zivkovic for the fantastic opportunity), celebrating the launch of, a new English-language international blog network.

I'm hoping to contribute regularly to the Guest Blog slot at SciAm, but in the mean time, go check out the other great blogs in the series at SciAm. More can be found at other participating sites: Nature's Soapbox Science, Scitable and the rest of the Scientific American Blogs Network.

You can also follow the #BeginScights series via Twitter.

Flipper's Sponge Crew: contexts of cultural adaptations, transmission and social networks

Despite having several topics to post on lined up, my first piece on The Rocks Remain has been hijacked... by dolphins.

While blearily looking at my Twitter feed this morning I saw a great Nature Communications paper (open access!) that @paleophile had tweeted. It reports on results from a long-term study headed by Janet Mann on the social networks of a community of 105 bottlenose dolphins from Shark Bay, Western Australia.

These are already a famous group of marine mammals, being one of the best studied examples of tool-using in non-human animals. Some dolphins at Shark Bay have developed a method for hunting in rocky channels   by using a type of locally-growing basket-shaped sponge. By wearing this on their beaks, they are protected while foraging over rough surfaces; the sponge also serves to disturb fish that are not detectable to dolphins using their major senses, echolocation and vision.

The headline finding of the paper is that the dolphins that perform sponging (particularly…