Wild Things: Life As We Know It

From chimpanzee communication to paper wasps and humans fleeing Vesuvius

Itching to Communicate
To direct someone’s attention, point. Until now, zoologists had observed such “referential gestures” only in apes that interact with people. But a new study shows that wild chimpanzees in Uganda’s Kibale National Park (above) signal what parts of their bodies they want groomed. And most of the time, the chimps’ grooming partners went to work on the itchy spot. Study co-author Simone Pika of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland says chimps, our closest relatives, are better than we realized at giving—and following—the directions.

Slackers, Take Note
Polybia paper wasps in Costa Rica bite nestmates to goad them into foraging for food, water or building material, says the University of Washington’s Sean O’Donnell, who studied the insects (left, a paint-daubed wasp bites another). Why do wasps need such prompting? While most wasps live a month or so, foragers generally are eaten, are crushed or work themselves to death within about six days of leaving the nest.

Heads Up
A newly discovered sauropod species called Erketu ellisoni (above, an artist’s sketch) was not the biggest or the longest dinosaur. But the herbivore’s nearly 2-foot-long vertebrae, among the fossil remains dug up in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, indicate that its neck measured 24 feet—the longest neck, relative to the rest of the body, of any known dinosaur. Daniel Ksepka, of New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, suggests that air cavities in the animal’s vertebrae, as well as two parallel ridges of bone that ran along the spine, possibly cradling a long ligament, helped Erketu keep its head (and chin) up.

Fleeing Vesuvius
Sure, Mount Vesuvius erupted in a.d. 79 and entombed Pompeii. Now a University of Buffalo scientist and colleagues have uncovered evidence the volcano erupted even more violently some 2,000 years earlier. Thousands of human footprints excavated in deeper volcanic ash (left) indicate a mass flight. Many people did not escape; the researchers found skeletons of a woman and man probably suffocated by scalding dust. With Vesuvius erupting violently every 2,000 to 3,000 years, Naples may be in more peril than previously believed: about two-thirds of the metropolitan area falls within the 4,000-year-old blast zone.

NAME: Sula nebouxii, or blue-footed booby
OLD IMAGE: Getting mugged for food by the frigate bird, a co-resident of the Galápagos Islands
NEW IMAGE: Fathering chicks at Hugh Hefneresque ages
THIS HAPPENED HOW? Booby males, which live about 15 years, support the key evolutionary idea that long-lived animals increase their reproductive effort as they age and their chances for passing on their genes decline. In a recent study by Mexico City researchers, older male boobies injected with bacteria to mimic illness successfully raised 98 percent more fledglings than a control group. Younger injected males produced fewer fledglings than their controls. Interpretation? Young fathers saved their effort for future broods.