Category Archives: natural world

Himalayan Tahrs on Table Mountain again

Himalayan Tahr on Table Mountain
During the 1930s some Himalayan Tahrs escaped from the Groote Schuur zoo near UCT. They bolted onto the mountain and lived happily up there for the next 70 years.

In 2004 SANParks controversially decided to cull them because they are an alien species and were causing damage to the indigenous species. I agreed with that decision.

But, I can tell you for a fact that they didn’t get all of them.

Yesterday afternoon I saw three tahrs grazing right next to the path on Platteklip Gorge. They were right above the site where I saw someone jump to his death exactly 2 weeks ago.

I was able to walk really close to them and they just looked at me. They’ve obviously forgotten about the culling almost 6 years ago!
Himalayan Tahr on Table Mountain

The Psychology of Power and Corruption

The old anecdote says that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The Economist has a fascinating article describing experiments into this effect.

These experiments show that there is in fact a causal link between power and corruption. Even more interestingly, they may point to the reason for this link.

How the experiments work

The researchers used “priming” techniques to make test subjects feel either powerful or powerless.

Once primed, both high-power and low power subjects were asked to rate the morality of various situations. For example the researchers asked subjects to rate the morality of cheating on taxes or of taking an abandoned bicycle.

The results

The experiments showed a significant difference in the judgments of high-power and low power subjects:

  • High-power = Judge others more harshly than yourself
  • Low-power = Judge others more leniently and yourself more harshly

Power does indeed seem to cause people to judge themselves more leniently than others – they are moral hypocrites.

The entitlement hint

It seems that powerful people not only abuse the system, they also feel entitled to abuse it. This proved to be an important hint and the researchers did more experiments to explore this entitlement.

In these experiments the subjects were primed again, but this time entitlement was split from power:

  • High-power subjects who felt they deserved to be powerful
  • High-power subjects who felt they did not deserve the power
  • Low-power who deserved to be powerless
  • Low-power who did not deserve to be powerless

These subjects were also asked to rate moral actions of themselves and others.

Again the powerless judged others leniently and themselves harshly. This was true whether they legitimately powerless or not.

As expected, those who felt entitled to their power judged others very harshly and themselves very leniently.

The interesting result is for those who were powerful but felt the high-power position was undeserved. These subjects were lenient on others but very harsh on themselves.

This was the exact opposite of the normal result for high-power test subjects.

The reasons why

Why would undeserving powerful people be harsher on themselves than others? That is the opposite of the usual reaction to having power.

The answer to that question provides an elegant explanation for the whole set of results.

Humans evolved living in smallish groups with dominance hierarchies. In such hierarchies all of the experimental results make sense.

Powerful (dominant) members of the band can get away with bending the rules (judging themselves more leniently). They should also deal harshly with anyone lower in the hierarchy taking a chance (judging others more harshly).

Powerless group members should be submissive – they should judge others (normally more dominant) leniently and themselves harshly.

When people from low in the hierarchy find themselves temporarily in powerful positions they are in danger of attracting punishment from the true dominants.

So they act extra-submissively by judging themselves extra harshly and being extra lenient on others.

It all makes sense!

Photos of diving under the Antarctic ice

Norbert Wu has spent a lot of time diving under the ice of Antarctica. Very dangerous, very interesting.

Despite the extreme cold, life is relatively abundant and he has some great photos.

Click through to the gallery for more pictures and explanations. Here are some of the best images.


Here a diver is swimming below a crack in the sea ice.


Starfish can be quite vicious. In this case they are slowly devouring a dead seal pup.


In Antarctica you don’t just dig a hole in the ice and start diving. They maintain ‘dive huts’ from which they dive in water as cold as -1.8 Centigrade.


Great idea – a portal and tube have been built to allow researchers to observe what is going on underwater.


Photos of a chicken developing inside an egg

I came across this blog showing the development of a chicken inside an egg. Seems like these guys cleverly got an egg to develop inside a clear container – like a ziplock or something.

Anyway, I had assumed that birds develop in the yolk – I don’t know why. But this chick definitely develops outside the yolk and consumes the yolk through a network of blood vessels. Very interesting.

Chick Developing
Chick Developing
Chick Developing
Chick Developing
Chick Developing

There’s a hippo moving along the coastline towards Durban

Sea Hippo!IOL reports that there is a hippo moving along the coast in KwaZulu-Natal! Apparently the lone hippo took to the ocean and has been making its way along the coast with stops at beaches and estuaries along the way. Imagine how strange it must be to be sitting on the beach and then seeing a hippo pop up!

I know that there are hippos that live in the Mangrove swamps and oceans in Tanzania (that’s actually where the hippo in the picture is), but I still find it weird to think of one moving along towards Durban’s beaches. I hope that doesn’t happen because then the Parks Board will have to shoot it – hippos are very dangerous.

Fertile women have more attractive voices

New Scientist has this article about a study showing that a woman’s voice becomes more attractive when she is most fertile. The researchers made recordings of women during four different phases of their menstrual cycles. The recordings were played in random order to both men and women, who consistently rated recordings made during fertile stages as more attractive. It seems that using voice alone both men and women are able to subconsciously detect fertility.

I’ve previously blogged about another experiment showing that fertile lap dancers earn more tips – this is just another example of the fact that we can subconsciously detect fertile women.

I explain the evolutionary reasoning behind these interesting effects in that article. In short, it pays women to conceal when they are fertile – so men will stick around all the time to be sure. It pays men to know when women are fertile so that they can focus energy when it counts.

NewScientist headline: Great tits enjoying the warmer weather (picture included)

NewScientist has an awesome headline on one of it’s stories today: “Great tits enjoying the warmer weather”. I think that one might get quite a lot of traffic…

Anyway, the article is actually about how a species of birds in the UK known as great tits have responded to global warming by laying their eggs earlier. They need to time their laying pretty precisely and over the last 30 years their laying has shifted 2 weeks earlier in the spring.

So here is that picture of some young great tits:

Does eating carrots really improve night vision?

No. Carrots do contain high levels of Vitamin A which is essential to eyesight, among other things. However, eating carrots only makes a difference to sight for those who have a serious Vit A deficiency.

The myth was started by the British during World War 2 as a plausible explanation for their remarkable success rates at shooting down German planes at night. Stories were told about pilots with amazing night vision like, Lieutenant John “Cats Eyes” Cunningham who was said to have exceptional night vision thanks to his love of carrots.

In fact, the Brits were making use of a secret invention – radar – and they didn’t want the Germans to realize something was up. So they told the public that they were feeding the defenders massive amounts of carrots and that was leading to improved night vision.

They were so persuasive that the British public actually increased carrot consumption in an effort to improve their own night vision – which was important when cities were being blacked out to prevent bombing!