OnSafari: Wisconsin

OnSafari: Wisconsin

I was sitting in our breakfast room, the corner of the house all windowed, overlooking the lake when a red Corolla with a red canoe on top raced down our driveway and a tall lanky man with wading boots and a funny hat jumped out and ran to the edge of the lake.

When he raised his binoculars my concern turned to relief. I walked out barefoot in my jammies into the 45F spectacularly clear morning and introduced myself, but I all I did was manage to agitate him as he muttered, “Yellow over red. No… pink over red.”

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Spineless Science

Spineless Science

So even scientists have been coopted, now. Today in Paris most all of the most famous scientists in the world issued an 1800-page much anticipated report detailing what the rapid loss of biodiversity is doing to us:

Killing us, essentially. By the way, what did you think about that last Game of Thrones episode? Pretty cool, isn’t it, that Alex Cora is skipping the White House meeting? Is it possible that climate change has something to do with the decline in biodiversity?

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Sometimes you unearth amazing discoveries in the deep masquerading shade under an arch of limestone in the scorching fossil fields of a desert in Kenya. Other times it’s in the backside of a drawer!

What Ohio University scientists Nancy Stevens and Matthew Borths have discovered is no less impressive just because they didn’t get their hands dirty finding it! Intending to study the bones of ancient hyaenas tucked away in hundreds of drawers of the Nairobi National Museum, Nancy discovered the world’s biggest ever lion!

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OnSafari: Up Against the Wall

OnSafari: Up Against the Wall

WallSunday in Wall, South Dakota, is not unlike any other day at first glance. The town is jam-packed with tourists. This is because the town is the Wall Drug Store, founded in 1933, an enterprising theme park that collects tourists off I-90 like black flies off the Black Hills, motorists at their wits ends after 12 hours of driving through flat cornfields.

Main Street is Wall Drugs on one side and Wall Drug spinoffs on the other side. Wall Drugs is a half-mile of winding creaking corridors of fudge shops, gun dealers, American flags, skin sellers, tonic brewers, restaurants, western clothing dealers with every clerk dressed like Annie Oakley or Roy Rodgers. Roy Orbison booms behind the many old photos plastered everywhere and if you accidentally bump into an employee in the halls, she courtsies or he bows.

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A Better View

A Better View

A better viewAlmost all wild carnivores and most omnivores give birth in secrecy. The mother senses imminent birth and removes herself from her normal group to safely hide away. She rejoins her group with her infant(s) several days to several weeks later. We now think we know why.

Childbirth is among the starkest behaviors that even the wildest animal shares with us. Childbirth was rarely welcomed in primitive human societies. It was considered bad luck, and a variety of reasons were explored immediately after birth to trigger infantacide, including twins and physical deformities.

The new chimp behavior reported last week may shed light on this grissly behavior.

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Past Pirate Treasures

Past Pirate Treasures

SnakefrMauritiusSnakes? I know, for most people they command little love. We place the few humans who like them in remote categories generously tagged as “weird.” But where I’m going in a few weeks, they’re more precious than pirate treasure!

Next week I travel to the furthest eastern part of Africa, Mauritius. Everything about the island nation is unique, including its biology probably best represented by … a snake.

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#8 – Evolutionary Excitement

#8 – Evolutionary Excitement

by InkyBoy
by InkyBoy
My #8 most important story in Africa was the wondrous advancement in evolutionary science the continent provided us in 2015!

Paleontology — especially in Africa — is just simply growing in leaps and bounds. Not too many years ago when it was presumed we (homo sapiens sapiens) evolved in a linear way from just a few creatures that preceded us and followed the apes, enormous attention was applied to finding the gaps, or “missing links” in that line.

That’s all blown away, now. The last few decades have proved so rich with discoveries showing that there were many, perhaps many many species of “early man.” Even the Neanderthals, who were likely not on our own linear evolutionary line, probably had cousins who died out.

So as the universe of potential discovery grows, so does the depth, range and interest of scientists, and that as you can imagine leads to more and more discoveries.

Here are the high points of 2015:

Most important certainly was the announcement of the initial conclusions about Homo Naledi, a new early man species found in South Africa in 2013.

I don’t agree with all the conclusions, particularly that the cave in which the 15 individuals were found was a burial site, but there are many other equally interesting conclusions that come from this remarkable discovery.

First and foremost, the appendages (hands and feet) of the creature were very close to our own, even though the brain size suggested a very primitive and early creature that would, for example, predate both homo erectus and homo habilis.

The individuals were astoundingly complete, at least in terms of what most 2½ million year old fossils normally look like.

And from my layman point of view, the incredible transparency of the discovery, from almost the moment it was found to the invitation to scientists worldwide to analysis the data, marked a real turning point in the until to now bitter infighting common among paleontologists.

Some other important bones discovered included fingers! Million-year old fingers aren’t easy to come by, and the discovery in Olduvai parallels Naledi’s suggestion that our physical traits existed much earlier in the hominin record than previously thought.

In the category of “keeps getting older” scientists also in South Africa found a homo habilis dated to almost 3 million years old. This predates by nearly a half million years the next oldest habilis find and resurrects suggestions this is our own most immediate ancestor.

This was hotly contested, by the way, with another 2015 discovery in Georgia of another homo erectus. The scientists on this site insist this creature is in line for our most immediate ancestor.

Moving away from old bones, there were scores of new tool finds, deeper analysis of existing data and actual field science regarding the dynamics of evolution itself.

Stone tools were very many years presumed to mean the user was an early man. That’s changed as we documented less than mankind, like chimpkind, also uses them.

In 2015 scientists announced finding what they claimed were the oldest fossil stone tools on record, more than 3 million years old. I disagree with their conclusion that this find by itself pushes back “humanness,” but it remains an argument that still carries weight.

One of the hottest topics this decade is trying to figure out why we prevailed and Neanderthals didn’t. Some really clever research suggests at least one of the reasons is that we had … and enjoyed music! (And that the big guy didn’t.)

Some may fear I’m sinking into the arcane, but there was also some really fascinating research on Africa’s cichlid fishes that qualifies the value of natural selection! Cool stuff.

Some people lay on their back and peer into the heavens, wondering what’s out there. I do sometimes as well, but I much prefer peering into the distant past and wondering what marvels of the universe transformed us into what we are, today!

(For my summary of all the top 10 stories in Africa in 2015, click here.)

Super Jaws Bite the Dust

Super Jaws Bite the Dust

superjawsAfrica’s evolutionary star, the cichlid fish, is once again in the forefront of our growing understanding of natural selection.

In a beautiful twist of evolutionary intuition, a recent study by University of California-Davis scientists shows that selective adaptation might just as easily lead to extinction as species preservation.

Their studies were made in the two African lakes, Malawi and Tanganyika.

The easy way many think of natural selection is that the physical changes in a species caused by random forces (like heat or radiation) prove so advantageous to those changed individuals that they become the genetic kings and soon dominate the species.

Bipedalism in hominins, for example, was so advantageous in the acquisition of food that it became an essential characteristic to all man-like creatures.

But the UC-Davis scientists proved that what at one point may be an advantage can quickly turn into a disadvantage, further supporting the idea that evolution is hardly linear, random and sometimes even counter-productive.

Many contemporary studies of the mechanics of evolution use sub-Saharan Africa’s Great Rift Lake fishes. This is because so many rapid changes are occurring to the environment in the area, and the fish there breed so rapidly, that evolutionary change can actually be measured in real time.

Cichlid fishes are the usual subject. These are the “angel fish” and “neon tetras” and other fresh-water “tropical fish” typically sold in pet stores.

In this particular study, the scientists showed how cichlid fishes came to dominate their ecosystem by developing pharyngeal jaws, a second set of jaws located below the mouth’s first set.

It proved a fabulous adaptation, because it gave them much more power to bite. Previous potential prey, both vegetative and other fish, too hard to consume because of protective outer protection like thick scales or strong fibrous outer layers, became useful food to the fish with pharyngeal jaws.

Soon almost all the cichlid fishes had pharyngeal jaws.

But when Nile Perch appeared in the ecosystem of the cichlids, some of the cichlids began to rapidly decline.

Scientists at first thought that the Nile Perch were consuming the cichlids, even though they were often around the same size with the same mouth size, so there was interest as to why the Nile were winning.

Turns out the Nile Perch weren’t directly responsible. The perch does not have pharyngeal jaws, so it’s able to open its mouth twice as much as the cichlids with the super jaws.

The perch simply out ate those cichlids that were accustomed to eating other fish, because they simply controlled a larger area for food gathering.

Alas, what not so long ago proved a successful adaptation of natural selection subsequently became a reason for species decline:

“Researchers had seen the pharyngeal jaws of cichlids as a classic example of evolutionary innovation. That’s still true, but the study also reveals that the evolution wasn’t wholly beneficial.”

Well, of course, that’s not necessarily right: The unsuccessful adaptation of the cichlid super jaws was, in fact, beneficial to the Nile Perch. So in the context of the overall ecosystem, evolution did evince beneficial progressions.

Super jaws, though, bit the dust.

Violence is not Genetic

Violence is not Genetic

chimps fightingA recent study of chimps in Uganda is being misinterpreted to suggest human murder is natural, and sloppy scientists are reenforcing these beliefs.

Chimps have long been known to be murderers and cannibals. While dominance within many species is often violent and considered essential for the social organization of many species, it very rarely extends to murder and except for chimps, to cannibalism.

So scientists have been at odds for years trying to explain this behavior in chimpanzees. Research came to a head about five years ago when scientists carefully documented chimp gangs that persistently (sometimes over ten years) plotted against one another then celebrated territorial victories by eating their foe’s babies.

Anthropology Professor Jill Pruetz believed for many years that this chimp behavior was aberrant, that it would not occur naturally in the wild were it not for some unnatural interference. Most of the colleagues who agreed with her believed that “something else” was human interference.

It could be chimps mocking human behavior (many chimp studies occur near very violent parts of Africa) or humans stressing chimp’s habitat, but it seemed just impossible to ascribe murder and cannibalism to natural behavior.

Pruetz and most of the scientific community have relented based on a just published study in Nature.

The “study says chimpanzees kill their own as a survival strategy, not due to human contact,” summarizes science journalist Monte Morin in yesterday’s L.A. Times.

And as far as I can tell, virtually everyone agrees.

That’s fine. But what’s not fine and in my opinion absolutely horrible is to use this study as an explanation for human violence.

Arizona State professor Joan Silk wrote an opinion article in that same issue of Nature, which she titled, “The evolutionary roots of lethal conflict,” which says it all.

A closer look at Silk’s opinion may be more nuanced than the title, but her title is what was picked up and replayed time and again in the less refined media. Clearly she committed a grievous scientific error in not adding “in chimpanzees” to her title.

There is absolutely nothing scientific or even rational to presume that behavior in chimps explains behavior in humans.

In what I feel is yellow science Silk invited the comparisons.

“The origins and prevalence of human warfare may be echoed in the search for the answer to chimpanzee adaptation,” wrote one scientific blogger yesterday, and it’s a wholly rational conclusion from Silk’s title, whether she intended it or not.

“Peace-loving anti-war activists call war ‘unnatural,’ but our closest animal relatives show that at least a little bloodshed is perfectly natural,” wrote Rebecca Kaplan in Tech Times, yesterday.

And on and on.

Studies of evolutionary behavior cannot extend back 6-10 million years to the separation of the hominin and ape branches of the hominid evolutionary tree. That’s just too long ago.

Behavior changes infinitely more rapidly than DNA. To claim that today’s chimp’s murder-and-cannibalism as a survival tool means that our earliest common ancestor with chimps had that behavior, too, is ludicrous.

And even if the ECA did, it’s impossible to suggest that our behavior today is still manifest by it.

There is no question that war has been used as a survival tool by humankind. But this is not because it’s ingrained in our genes, which is how the current chimp study is being distorted.

Why human violence evolved is certainly an interesting question, but it’s not biological. And what’s even more troubling is how the uneducated reaction to this study devolves from societies to individuals, suggesting all individuals carry a kill instinct.

I am so upset by this race to justify murder and violence. It slips so easily into the contemporary narratives supporting police using excessive force, violence and abuse against the less powerful like spouses and children, and not least of all, the rush back to war.

These are very troubling times, and scientists need to be very careful today. Joan Silk was not.

Crocs vs. Crazies

Crocs vs. Crazies

creationistsFor literally hundreds of years we thought there was only one kind of crocodile in Africa, the great Nile beast. Anyone care there are really seven kinds?

Univ. of Florida researcher Matthew Shirley recently announced the fourth new species of crocodile to be found in Africa in the last five years.

As explained to the common man by Scientific America, it was “discovered in plain sight.”

What the magazine means is that the slender snouted Guinean crocodile was not stealthily uncovered in a long forgotten grotto. It had been known for centuries. It was just wrongly classified as the same beast regularly seen as far as a half continent away.

Using the increasing DNA technology that is developing a lot faster than improvements in the Dreamliner, more and more animals thought to be the same thing are being shown as diverged species.

But who cares? Does it really matter?

Very much. It adds each day to the already overwhelming evidence of evolution and some day the threshold must be reached where naysayers are simply laughed at and fade away.

It is been a continual embarrassment to me traveling often abroad to discuss one of my most favorite topics, evolution, because I’m an American. Of the most recent survey of the world’s most developed countries, the U.S. and Turkey were the least to believe in evolution.

Dig deeper and you’ll find in more comprehensive studies that in Muslim countries there is little support for evolution. In other words, our evangelicals and Iran’s jihadists are bedfellows.

The simple-minded and stubborn, clinging to a dying past, embrace a fantasy that their own personal creation was divine. That way, they don’t have to think about it. And unfortunately for America it’s a very stubborn situation.

Why, I’m being newly asked, is American coming round to support same sex marriage but not evolution?

Because evolution doesn’t vote. It has no lobbying group in Congress. Most simply, it’s not alive.

It’s not possible to see and contrast evolution in the moment. So the less educated person is let off the hook. Evidence is not instantly observational. It’s more subtle and in fact, profound.

So thank you Matthew Shirley for continuing to expand the bulging libraries of evidence for evolution.

Some day it will become big enough for even the smallest of minds to grasp.

Equatorial Success

Equatorial Success

nestingtropicbirdThe short-term, visible effects of climate change on equatorial Africa are destructive to human populations but seem to be less damaging to overall species survival than elsewhere in the world.

Not sure that’s good news, but recent reports from such places as the Seychelles on current equatorial seabird populations suggests they are doing much better than seabirds in northern and southern climes.

Seabirds provide good evidence for relatively short-term effects of climate change. This is because they are most closely associated to the most effected natural phenomenon on earth, the sea temperature.

Worldwide as we would expect, therefore, seabird populations are in a steep decline. In fact, of 346 seabird families almost a third (98) are “globally threatened,” an IUCN term suggesting that intervention will be needed soon to stop extinction.

The most critical of these declines is in the northern hemisphere. Puffin populations, for example, in Maine and tern populations in northern Britain are in currently very critical conditions.

The opposite of these declines — although it’s hardly robust growth — are the seabirds found in the equatorial regions, and in Africa the Seychelles provides an excellent place to study them.

This August count of the white-tailed tropicbird and other seabirds that nest in the Seychelles was encouraging, although the study has yet to be published.

The group performing the study did release an interesting single statistic, though, that 57% of the nesting population survives. This is the most critical period in the life cycle of any bird, because once fledged survivability increases dramatically.

It’s also particularly interesting for the tropicbird, which like many seabirds doesn’t actually build a nest. With feet incapable of balancing the bird (they are designed for swimming and flying), the bird must nest on the ground.

Seabirds choose island nesting sites that are as safe from predation as possible. In Hawaii, for example, the white-tailed tropicbird nests on high cliffs. In the Seychelles, where the islands are mostly predator-free, it nests right on the ground.

This dynamic that’s possibly being clarified by how seabirds are adjusting to rapid climate change, gives us a good insight into the workings of natural selection.

Given enough time, environmental changes allow species to evolve and reposition themselves, and as a general theory, increase. As slow change allows for niche exploration, more specialized species arise.

But when change happens as unnaturally fast as it’s occurring, today, the normal mechanics of natural selection are compromised. Water temperatures are just increasing too fast for the northern hemisphere puffin to adapt or be replaced by other species. So instead, it just dies out with nothing replacing it.

Whereas in the equatorial belt the decline is not as dramatic. Basically, warmer is better than colder for our petri dish of life on earth. But at the fringes of ecological system, the great norths and the great souths where our life forms have specially adapted to colder temperatures, a rapid warmer is dangerous.

In the equatorial regions, it’s almost ho-hum.

At least until some threshold of warmth is reached, of course. But thanks to the Seychelles field workers, we know it isn’t happening, yet.