Voyage to the Amazon Part 1: Monkeys

Posted in nature on November 13th, 2013 by Samuel Kenyon

Recently I voyaged with my girlfriend to the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest near a black lagoon named Challuacocha.

Welcome to the Amazon

To get there we flew to a miniscule airport in the town of Coca where everyone disembarking was kept locked in a hallway before being let out into the blinding sun to be accosted by various guides, none of which were from our destination—Sani Lodge. A random dude politely informed us that he knew our dude (“He has a ponytail like me”). We were whisked away in a taxi to the back of a hotel on the water to find our guide.

Napo River

Coca, on the Napo River

And we found our Sani guide at the bar. After being joined by a lovely couple from Spain who had four large fancy suitcases (the helpers tried to give us a couple later on, not believing that Emily and I only had backpacks) we were soon on our way via motorized canoe.

An interesting tree (view from a boat on the Napo River)

An interesting tree (view from a boat on the Napo River)

Ah, nature. Wait…what? The Napo River is used for business as well.

Trucks on the Napo River

About 2.5 hours later, having cruised along the Napo River past all the other lodges, we docked and walked for about ten minutes (on a raised walkway since we didn’t have rubber boots on yet) through the jungle to another, smaller, non-motorized canoe. They rowed us to the lodge on what appeared to be a small river, but was in fact the narrow Challuacocha lagoon.

The black lagoon

We were now smack in the middle of primary forest.

Above the canopy

And here I am, roughing it in the lodge:

me in the Amazon

me in the Amazon

So, although it wasn’t the first type of animal we saw, I was most excited about seeing monkeys and apprehensive that I might not see them. Before the trip I had jokingly predicted to some blokes that the monkeys would throw something at me and disappear before I saw them. But we did see them on the second day. The first night, of course, every time I saw movement in the distance I declared “monkey!” only to realize a moment later that it was yet another “stinky turkey” (Hoatzin).

The guide rowed us to an area where two species of monkeys were cavorting in the trees on both sides of a very narrow part of the lagoon. And they didn’t throw anything at me (although later a falling jungle coconut almost hit me in the head). This Capped Heron was in the lagoon on the way to the monkeys:

Capped Heron

The monkeys were almost always moving, but occasionally would stop for a photo.


I was told these were capuchins—by comparing to photos online, I’m guessing they are Ecuadorian capuchins (Cebus albifrons aequatorialis), which would make sense as we were in Ecuador.




The second type of monkey in that area were some variety of squirrel monkey.

squirrel monkey

squirrel monkey

squirrel monkey

squirrel monkey

squirrel monkey

squirrel monkey

My pitiful attempts at photography here of monkey behavior are not meant to be “good” or informative. Seeing exotic animals in the zoo is always duller than one hopes, but in the wild it is more thrilling. Unfortunately, the buggers are fast.

squirrel monkey

squirrel monkey

I’m not an ethologist, but I appreciate their work even more now.


monkey sihlouette

Image credits: Photo of me by Emily Durrant. All others by the author (Samuel H. Kenyon).

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Human Head Evolution with Daniel Lieberman

Posted in interfaces, nature on January 28th, 2011 by Samuel Kenyon

You spend a large portion of your time staring at heads of people. But have you wondered how they evolved? Harvard scientist Daniel Lieberman, Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology, has been studying human head evolution, particularly the unique features relative to other animals.

I attended his lecture at Harvard tonight, “Heads Up! How and Why the Amazing Human Head Evolved to Be the Way It Is,” which is timed with the release of his new book The Evolution of the Human Head.

First, Lieberman took off his shoes. It just snowed again in Cambridge and he doesn’t like wearing his boots (or maybe he has some kind of Mr. Rogers complex).

Second, Lieberman talks about how the functions and ontogeny of the human head would boggle any engineer if they had to make something like that. For instance, it’s hard to imagine how to design and implement a pea-sized robot that grows into a cantaloupe-sized robot while maintaining survival functionality the entire time.

If robot heads could grow.

Of course, it’s not an entirely fair comparison since natural products aren’t engineered, but the point is that the head seems overwhelmingly complex to us.


Not surprisingly (to me), Lieberman’s basic recipe for head development is integration. You can view the development of a body part as a series of interactions with atomic parts, which lie at various levels of granularity. For instance, you have proteins, cells, tissues, organs, etc. All the parts constantly adjust to each other, so as to maintain the overall system.

Lieberman uses the concept of skeletal capsules, but he warns us that it’s just a hypothesis called the functional matrix hypothesis. Some of his past research was to find correlations between various bone structure sizes in mice, and apparently he found a wicked lot of correlations.

Integration continues all through ontogeny.

Integration continues all through ontogeny.

He showed two photos of characters from Harry Potter, and claimed that it showed how each person’s nose matches their face. However, it wasn’t very convincing, especially his calling Daniel Radcliffe’s head narrow when it looks really wide to me, like as wide as Elijah Wood’s.

Harry Potter, wide in cranium, narrow in patience.

What would have been better is an example of what would happen without the integration between subsystems—would somebody have a nose covering up their eyes or something?

Harry Potter with development error.

Or the nose would just fall off and run away?



Of course, the environment is also involved in ontogeny—later in the presentation he described an experiment he did with hyraxes, in which they found that if the babies chewed softer food, they had smaller teeth as adults.

Hyrax Potter.

Anyway, the way this complex head integration relates to evolution is that it gives evolution something very hackable. It enables evolution to cause major changes in growth from minor tweaks.

The rest of the talk was a quick tour of the evolutionary history of human heads.

Human Head Uniqueness

So what are the aforementioned unusual characteristics of human heads? Well, the brain case is different, our neck comes out of the bottom of our head, we have vertical foreheads, visible eye whites, external nose, no snout, small mouths, small canine teeth, big ear holes, etc.

Your head is remarkably unusual.

Your head is remarkably unusual.

Unfortunately, Lieberman does not have a good theory for one of the human head’s unique features: the chin. It’s still a mystery.

The Chin: Science's Next Challenge

Image credits:

Robot head: Rodimuspower
Hyrax: Nitzan Cohen Kafri

Cross-posted with Science 2.0.

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