11 Primal Facts About Dian Fossey

Mary-Lynn, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Mary-Lynn, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Born in San Francisco on January 16, 1932, Dian Fossey came from a world far removed from the dense jungles of East Africa. She discovered that environment in her thirties and spent the final decades of her life studying the gorillas that lived there. From her groundbreaking primatology work to her mysterious death, here are 11 facts about the scientist behind Gorillas in the Mist.

1. HER LOVE OF ANIMALS BEGAN WITH A PET GOLDFISH.

Though she went on to become one of history's most famous animal-lovers, Fossey didn't grow up in a pet-friendly household. The only animal she was allowed to keep as a child was a single goldfish. She loved her fish, but when it died, her parents barred her from getting another animal to replace it. Even a pet hamster offered to her by a classmate was forbidden from entering the house.

2. SHE WAS A PRIZE-WINNING EQUESTRIAN.

Not permitted to keep pets in the home, Fossey nurtured her passion for animals through equestrianism. She received her first horseback-riding lesson at age 6. By the time she reached her teen years, she was advanced enough to merit an invitation to join the riding team at Lowell High School in San Francisco. Her hobby earned her several awards and pushed her to pursue an education in animal husbandry at the University of California, Davis. Even after she'd shifted career aspirations to occupational therapy, Fossey chose to move to Kentucky to be closer to farm life.

3. SHE SPENT HER LIFE SAVINGS ON HER FIRST TRIP TO AFRICA.

Dian Fossey was 31 when she first stepped foot on the continent where she'd complete her most important work. Inspired by a friend's trip to Africa, she collected her life savings (about $8000), took out a three-year bank loan, and planned a seven-week trip through the wilderness of Kenya, Tanzania, Congo, and Zimbabwe. On her adventures there she met Louis Leakey, the anthropologist famous for sponsoring the all-woman trio of primatology pioneers (the "trimates") that included Jane Goodall, Biruté Galdikas, and eventually Dian Fossey herself. It was also during this period when Fossey saw gorillas in the wild for the first time. She met wildlife photographers Joan and Alan Root and joined them on an expedition to photograph the animals in the Congolese mountains. The vacation wasn't scientific in nature, but as Fossey later wrote, "The seed was planted in my head, even if unconsciously, that I would someday return to Africa to study the gorillas of the mountains."

4. SHE PROVED HER DEDICATION WITH AN APPENDECTOMY.

Leakey reconnected with Fossey back in the States in 1966. The anthropologist had spent the last several years supporting his former secretary Jane Goodall in her chimpanzee research, and now he was in search of a candidate to do for gorillas what Goodall had done for chimps. After getting to know Fossey better, he decided she was the right woman for the job. He offered to gather the funding for her trip back to Africa, but before she left she would need to remove her appendix as a precaution. This didn't scare her off. When Leakey wrote six weeks later to say the surgery wouldn't be necessary and he had just wanted to make sure she was committed, she was already appendix-less.

5. HER FIRST RESEARCH EXPEDITION ENDED ABRUPTLY.

Fossey returned to the Congo toward the end of 1966—just months before a civil war erupted in the already volatile region. Rebel soldiers captured her at her base camp in July 1967. After spending two weeks in military detainment, she was able to bribe her way out with promises of cash and her Land Rover. The guards agreed to drive her to Uganda, and shortly after they arrived, she had them arrested. After the scare, Fossey was ready to resume her research almost immediately: This time she set up camp in Rwanda, ignoring warnings from the U.S. Embassy.

6. SHE UNCOVERED THE GORILLAS' TRUE NATURE.

Prior to Fossey's research, the public viewed gorillas as beasts similar in temperament to King Kong. She quickly disproved the notion that gorillas were bloodthirsty animals that would attack humans when given the chance.

To infiltrate their society, she adopted their habits. Walking on her knuckles and chewing on celery stalks allowed her to gain the apes' trust. As long as she maintained a nonthreatening profile and made her presence known at all times, she was safe around the gentle behemoths. Today we know that despite their intimidating size, gorillas are some of the least violent members of the great ape family.

7. SHE EARNED A UNIQUE NICKNAME FROM LOCALS.

Dian Fossey spent enough time at her research center in Rwanda to garner a reputation. To the locals she was Nyiramachabelli, a Swahili name that when roughly translated means "the woman who lives alone on the mountain."

8. SHE USED THE GORILLAS' NOSES TO TELL THEM APART.

Many of the gorillas Fossey studied were given names, such as Peanut, Rafiki, and Uncle Bert. Fossey used another method to tell her subjects apart: She drew sketches of their noses. Each gorilla has a unique pattern of wrinkles around its nose that makes it easy to identify. These nose prints are the equivalent of fingerprints in humans, but instead of getting up close to study them, Fossey was able to document them from far away using binoculars and a sketchpad.

9. ONE OF HER GORILLAS IS ALIVE TODAY.

Hundreds of gorillas made it into Dian Fossey's body of research. In 2017, only one specimen from that original pool is still alive. Poppy was born into a group of gorillas on Fossey's radar in 1976. The researcher documented the animal's birth and childhood in her journals. Today, at 41, Poppy is the oldest gorilla currently monitored by the Dian Fossey Fund.

10. HER WORK IS THE SUBJECT OF A BOOK, A MOVIE, AND AN OPERA.

In 1983, Fossey published the book that helped make her famous. Gorillas in the Mist is the autobiographical account of her first 13 years in the African jungle and the scientific discoveries she made about the gorillas living there. The title went on to become a bestseller. Five years later, Sigourney Weaver starred as Fossey in a film of the same name. The biopic snagged five Oscar nominations and converted Weaver into a gorilla conservationist.

There's another dramatization of Fossey's life that's not so widely known: In 2006, the Kentucky Opera VISIONS! program staged an opera called Nyiramachabelli—a nod to the researcher's nickname.

11. HER DEATH REMAINS A MYSTERY.

Next to her groundbreaking gorilla research, Fossey is perhaps best known for her mysterious and tragic murder. On December 27, 1985, she was found dead in her cabin at her Rwandan research camp. The cause of death was a machete blow to the head, but the identity of her assailant remains unknown to this day. (A Rwandan court convicted in absentia her American research assistant, Wayne McGuire, for her murder and sentenced him to death. McGuire, who fled Rwanda before the conviction, has always maintained his innocence.) Fossey was buried in the nearby mountains beside the grave of her favorite gorilla Digit, who had been slaughtered by poachers years earlier. Before she was killed, Fossey wrote one final entry in her diary. It reads:

“When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate on the preservation of the future.”

New Study Reveals 'Hyper-Alarming' Decline of Rainforest Insect Populations

iStock/jmmf
iStock/jmmf

Climate change is decimating yet another vital part of the world's ecosystem, according to a startling new paper. Rainforest insects are dying off at alarming rates, according to a new study spotted by the The Washington Post. In turn, the animals that feed off those insects are decreasing, too.

In the study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a pair of scientists from the Rensselaer Polytechnic University in New York and the National Autonomous University of Mexico studied populations of rainforest arthropods (an invertebrate classification that includes insects and spiders) in the El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico. They compared the number of insects lead author Bradford Lister found on trips in 1976 and 1977 with the number he and co-author Andres Garcia found on trips they took between 2011 and 2013.

Lister and Garcia used nets and sticky traps to collect insects on the ground and several feet above the ground in the forest canopy. They dried these captured bugs and measured the mass of their haul against the mass of insects found in the 1970s, finding that the modern net sweeps captured only an eighth to a fourth of the insects captured in the '70s. The mass of insects captured by sticky traps on the ground declined by 30 to 60 times what they were a few decades ago. They also tracked populations of lizards, frogs, and birds that live off those rainforest insects, finding that those populations had declined significantly, too, at levels not seen in other rainforest animals that don't rely on insects for food.

Tropical insects are particularly vulnerable to climatic changes, since they can't regulate their body temperature. During the time of the study, average maximum temperatures in El Yunque rose by almost 4°F (2°C). The warming climate is "the major driver" of this decline in arthropod populations, the study authors write, triggering a collapse of the forest food chain.

The paper has other scientists worried. "This is one of the most disturbing articles I have ever read," University of Connecticut entomologist David Wagner, who wasn't involved in the research, told The Washington Post, calling the results "hyper-alarming." Other studies of insect populations have found similarly dire results, including significant declines in butterflies, moths, bees, and other species. One recent study found that Germany's flying insect populations had decreased by as much as 75 percent in the last three decades. Scientists don't always attribute those population losses directly to warmer temperatures (habitat loss, pesticide use, droughts, and other factors might play a role), but it’s clear that insect populations are facing grave threats from the modern world.

Not all insect species will be equally affected by climate change, though. While we may see a sharp drop in the populations of tropical insects, scientists project that the number of insects in other regions will rise—leading to a sharp increase in crop-eating pests in some parts of the world and broadening mosquitos' geographical range.

[h/t The Washington Post]

This 'Time-Traveling Illusion' Is Designed to Trick Your Brain

A team of researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have designed an illusion that might trick your brain into seeing things that aren’t there, the New Atlas reports.

Dubbed the Illusory Rabbit, it provides instructions that are simple enough to follow. Start playing the YouTube video below and look at the cross in the middle of the screen while also watching for flashes that appear at the bottom of the screen. Most importantly, you’ll want to add up the number of flashes you see throughout the video. (And make sure your volume is up.)

We don’t want to spoil the fun, so before we explain the science of how it works, check out the video and try it for yourself.

Did you see three flashes paired with three beeps? You’re not alone. This is due to a phenomenon called postdiction, which is a little like the opposite of prediction. According to a paper outlining these findings in the journal PLOS ONE, postdiction occurs when the brain processes information retroactively [PDF]. This occurs in such a way that our perception of earlier events is altered by stimuli that come later. In this case, you might think you missed the flash paired with the second of the three beeps, so your mind goes back and tries to make sense of the missing information. That's why you may see an “illusory flash” in the middle of the screen, sandwiched between the two real flashes.

For this reason, the researchers call the mind trick a “time-traveling illusion across multiple senses” (in this case, vision and hearing). It’s successful because the beeps and flashes occur so rapidly—in less than one-fifth of a second. The senses essentially get confused, and the brain tries to fill in the gaps retroactively.

"Illusions are a really interesting window into the brain," the paper’s first author, Noelle Stiles, said in a statement. "By investigating illusions, we can study the brain's decision-making process.” Researchers wanted to find out how the brain “determines reality” when a couple of your senses (in this case, sight and hearing) are bombarded with noisy and conflicting information. When the brain isn’t sure of what’s going on, it essentially makes up information.

“The brain uses assumptions about the environment to solve this problem,” Stiles said. “When these assumptions happen to be wrong, illusions can occur as the brain tries to make the best sense of a confusing situation. We can use these illusions to unveil the underlying inferences that the brain makes."

[h/t New Atlas]

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