‘Neanderthal Pompeii’: dig places humans in Europe earlier than thought

Researchers find Homo sapiens moved into Madrin cave in France one year after Neanderthals abandoned it


The fossil of a child's tooth is the earliest known evidence of modern humans in western Europe. Researchers say the area also documents the first clear  alternating occupation of a site by Neanderthals and early modern humans.
The fossil of a child’s tooth is the earliest known evidence of modern humans in western Europe. Researchers say the area also documents the first clear alternating occupation of a site by Neanderthals and early modern humans. Photograph: The Natural History Museum/PA

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Wed 9 Feb 2022 16.09 EST

Homo sapiens ventured into Neanderthal territory in Europe much earlier than previously thought, according to a new archaeological study.

Up to now, archaeological discoveries had indicated that Neanderthals disappeared from the European continent about 40,000 years ago, shortly after the arrival of their “cousin” Homo sapiens, barely 5,000 years earlier and there was no evidence of an encounter between these two groups.

The new discovery, by a team of archaeologists and paleoanthropologists led by Ludovic Slimak of Toulouse University, pushes back the arrival of Homo sapiens in western Europe to about 54,000 years ago.

Another remarkable finding of the research is that the two types of humans alternated in inhabiting the Mandrin cave in what is now the Rhone region of southern france.

“The findings provide archaeological evidence that these hominin cousins may have coexisted in the same region of Europe during the same time period,” the team said.

Using new techniques, the authors dated some of the human remains to about 54,000 years ago – almost 10,000 years earlier than previous finds in Europe, with one exception in Greece.

“This significantly deepens the known age of the colonization of Europe by modern humans,” said Michael Petraglia, an expert on prehistory at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

Petraglia, who was not involved in the study, said it had major implications for understanding the spread of modern humans and our interactions with the Neanderthals.

Stone artefacts found at Bacho Kiro cave

The researchers said they spent more than 30 years carefully sifting through layers of dirt inside the cave, which is 140 kilometers (87 miles) north of the French Mediterranean city of Marseille. They discovered hundreds of thousands of artifacts that they were able to attribute to either Neanderthals or modern humans. These included advanced stone tools known as “points” that were used by Homo sapiens – our closest ancestors – to cut or scrape and as spear tips.


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Similar tools from almost the exact same period have been found 3,000 kilometers (nearly 1,900 miles) away, in present-day Lebanon, indicating that modern humans with a common culture may have traveled across the Mediterranean Sea, said Ludovic Slimak, one of the lead authors of the new study.

While the researchers found no evidence of cultural exchanges between the Neanderthals and modern humans who alternated in the cave, the rapid succession of occupants is in itself significant, they said. In one case, the cave changed hands in the space of about a year, said Slimak.

Katerina Harvati, a professor of paleoanthropology at the University of Tuebingen, Germany, who was not involved in the study, said the findings upend the idea that most of the European continent was the exclusive domain of Neanderthals until 45,000 years ago.

However Homo sapiens’ first venture into the region wasn’t particularly successful, she noted.

“Mandrin modern humans seem to have only survived for a very brief period of time and were replaced again by Neanderthals for several millennia,” she said.

Slimak, an archaeologist at the University of Toulouse, said the findings at Mandrin suggest the Rhone River may have been a key link between the Mediterranean coast and continental Europe.

Depiction of a Homo sapiens, or modern human.

“We are dealing with one of the most important natural migration corridors of all the ancient world,” he said.

He and his colleagues expect to publish several further significant findings based on the mountain of data collected from the cave. Slimak said a steady supply of sand carried in by the local Mistral winds has helped preserve a rich trove of treasures that rivals other famous archaeological sites.

“Mandrin is like a kind of neanderthalian Pompeii, without catastrophic events, but with continuous filling of sands in the cave deposited progressively by a strong wind, the Mistral,” he said.

Steep global wildlife decline may be worse than feared, Israeli study finds

University researchers confirm disputed World Wildlife Fund estimate of 68% decline in vertebrate numbers over past 50 years, say drop was likely even higher

By STUART WINERToday, 3:55 pm  


Image: Some of the extremely declining species in the Living Planet Report. Top Left- The Mountain Nyala (photo credit: Charles J Sharp – link), Top right – The Yosemite Toad (photo credit: Maierpa – link), Bottom left – The White-rumped Vulture (photo credit: Ravi Sangeetha- link), and bottom right – The Gharial (photo credit: Charles J Sharp – link). All images from Wikimedia Commons via Ben Gurion University of the Negev)

A new paper by Israeli researchers has not only confirmed a disputed estimate that wildlife populations have declined by over two-thirds in the past 50 years, but showed that the true drop may have been even more severe, according to a Monday statement.

The study, published last week in the journal Nature, should spur people to action and reconsider the relationship between human beings and nature, said the authors, from Ben Gurion University of the Negev and Tel Aviv University.

“Rather than discourage us from action, we feel that our work should be viewed as a call to arms,” said co-author Shai Meiri from Tel Aviv University. “Rapid and comprehensive changes in how we view our relationships with nature are needed – and the onus is on us to make sure they happen before it is too late.”Top articles on The Times of IsraelRead More

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Researchers had re-examined findings of 2020 Living Planet Report, compiled biannually for the past 24 years by the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London, which estimated there was an average 68 percent drop in vertebrate populations around the world between 1970 and 2016.

Some scientists had challenged the figure, saying it was skewed by a few populations that had experienced a massive decline and were “tipping the scales for all 20,811 of the populations monitored in the Living Planet Report,” the statement said.Get The Times of Israel’s Daily Editionby email and never miss our top storiesNewsletter email addressGET ITBy signing up, you agree to the terms

Gopal Murali, lead author of the paper, said criticism of the report “was unfair” because its detractors had adjusted the estimate by removing less than 3% of the most declining populations, arriving a new figure that showed no net loss trend.

“However, by removing only those populations experiencing greatest declines – these researchers, in essence, gave much more weight to those populations showing greatest increases,” he explained.

The Israeli researchers rebalanced the estimate by also removing the most increasing populations, arriving at a 65% decline over the past five decades.ADVERTISEMENT

Going further, the researchers took a closer look at the overlap between monitored populations and protected wildlife areas around the world. The data was then compared to random samples from other locations and their proximity to the global network of protected areas. The results showed that populations that were sampled for the Living Planet Report were “much more likely to be inside protected areas than would be expected to occur by chance.”

It indicated that the true wildlife decline could be even direr than previously thought.

“This is truly alarming,” said co-author Gabriel Caetano. “If populations inside protected areas – where we focus a lot of our conservation efforts – are doing so badly, those that reside outside protected areas are probably worse off. The true situation of nature – mostly not monitored or protected – may be much worse.”

“A lot of focus and attention by the public, governments, and NGOs is focused on the extinction of species,” the statement said. “Nevertheless, extinction is but the unwanted conclusion of a process that starts with harm to individual animals or plants by people and leads to their populations declining.”

Authors called for greater monitoring of populations and species in different locations and warned that “many populations, species, and pristine locations would be lost forever without concentrated and direct action,” the statement said.

Scientists urge quick, deep, sweeping changes to halt and reverse dangerous biodiversity loss

by Group on Earth Observations Biodiversity Observation Network


Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Halting, then reversing the dangerous, ongoing loss of Earth’s plant and animal diversity requires far more than an expanded global system of protected areas of land and seas, scientists warned today.

Needed is successful, coordinated action across a diverse, interconnected set of “transformative” changes, including massive reductions in harmful agricultural and fishing subsidies, deep reductions in overconsumption, and holding climate change to 1.5°C.

More than 50 scientists from 23 countries today delivered to governments a synthesis of the science informing and underpinning 21 targets proposed in the draft ‘post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework’ being negotiated under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and scheduled for adoption later this year at a world biodiversity summit in China.

The analysis was coordinated by two renowned international science bodies: bioDISCOVERY, a program of the Future Earth organization, and the Group on Earth Observations Biodiversity Observation Network (GEO BON).

Says Paul Leadley, an assessment leader, past chair of bioDISCOVERY, and Professor at Paris-Saclay University, France: “The target of protecting 30% of all land and seas is important and attracting a lot of attention. And expanding protected areas is a good start if done well, but far short of what’s needed to halt and reverse biodiversity loss—called ‘bending the curve’ for biodiversity’. There’s very good evidence that we will fail again to meet ambitious international biodiversity objectives if there’s too much focus on protected areas at the expense of other urgent actions addressing the threats to biodiversity.”

“Governments are clearly struggling with the breadth and depth of the ‘transformative changes’ needed to bend the curve for biodiversity, and sometimes seem unwilling to face up to it. But deep changes are necessary and will greatly benefit people in the long run.”

The essential point, says bioDISCOVERY co-Chair Lynne Shannon, a Professor at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, is that “there is no one-to-one linkage from any action target to a specific milestone or goal; instead, ‘many-to-many’ relationships exist among them. We need to recognize, therefore, the complex relationships among targets, milestones and goals and undertake our planning and actions in an integrated manner.”https://googleads.g.doubleclick.net/pagead/ads?client=ca-pub-0536483524803400&output=html&h=280&slotname=5350699939&adk=3784993980&adf=780081655&pi=t.ma~as.5350699939&w=753&fwrn=4&fwrnh=100&lmt=1642711781&rafmt=1&psa=1&format=753×280&url=https%3A%2F%2Fphys.org%2Fnews%2F2022-01-scientists-urge-quick-deep-halt.html&flash=0&fwr=0&rpe=1&resp_fmts=3&wgl=1&uach=WyJXaW5kb3dzIiwiMTAuMC4wIiwieDg2IiwiIiwiOTcuMC40NjkyLjcxIixbXSxudWxsLG51bGwsIjY0Il0.&dt=1642711363784&bpp=75&bdt=2590&idt=911&shv=r20220118&mjsv=m202201120101&ptt=9&saldr=aa&abxe=1&cookie=ID%3D08c099eba295e980%3AT%3D1638140519%3AS%3DALNI_MZNV01Nc8j2aH03z5xeS4Fgk_us-g&prev_fmts=0x0%2C1123x504&nras=2&correlator=7187285474829&frm=20&pv=1&ga_vid=185394846.1565457508&ga_sid=1642711365&ga_hid=2001884758&ga_fc=1&u_tz=-480&u_his=1&u_h=640&u_w=1139&u_ah=607&u_aw=1139&u_cd=24&u_sd=1.2&dmc=4&adx=263&ady=2144&biw=1123&bih=504&scr_x=0&scr_y=200&eid=44753740%2C21066435%2C31062422%2C31063247&oid=2&pvsid=992866375802519&pem=466&tmod=36736017&nvt=1&ref=https%3A%2F%2Fnews.google.com%2F&eae=0&fc=896&brdim=0%2C0%2C0%2C0%2C1139%2C0%2C1139%2C607%2C1139%2C504&vis=1&rsz=%7C%7CpEebr%7C&abl=CS&pfx=0&fu=128&bc=31&ifi=1&uci=a!1&btvi=1&fsb=1&xpc=3uZ2S0eyed&p=https%3A//phys.org&dtd=M

Among the group’s key conclusions and recommendations:

  • Success requires transformative change. Past experience in slowing and reversing biodiversity loss as well as scenarios of future biodiversity change show that only a comprehensive portfolio of interrelated actions will significantly reduce direct threats to biodiversity from land and sea use change, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution, and invasive alien species. None of the GBF targets that address these direct threats to biodiversity will alone contribute more than 15% of what’s needed to reach the world’s ultimate goals for ecosystems, species and genetic diversity.
  • Action must be coordinated at every scale, with progress assessed frequently. The degree of biodiversity change, and the relative importance of drivers, vary greatly across scales and from place to place, and drivers in one place can affect biodiversity in other places far away (“telecoupling,” e.g. through global trade, climate change, etc). Success will require action coordinated across local, national and international levels, in natural and managed ecosystems, and across intact and ‘working’ lands and seas. Success will also require upgrading monitoring capability and regular assessment of progress to make sure actions are delivering the intended outcomes at all levels.
  • Substantial investment in better monitoring is needed to guide effective action. There are massive gaps in biodiversity monitoring. Most of the nearly 1 billion existing non-marine biodiversity-related records were collected in developed countries and within 2.5 km of roads, and less than 7% of the globe is sampled. Two key improvements needed: a) a global monitoring system for biodiversity with the ability to attribute biodiversity change to specific drivers, and to integrate data from relevant threat sectors (e.g. agriculture, trade, climate); and b) a predictive capacity to anticipate future trends, to inform decision-making.
  • Act now, and sustain it to ensure recovery. Given that the time lags between action and outcomes are often measured in decades, especially in such areas as restoration of forests, coral reefs and fisheries, it’s imperative to act now to avoid irreversible loss and put biodiversity on a pathway to recovery by mid-century.

Says co-author Maria Cecilia Londoño Murcia of the Humboldt Institute, Colombia: “The sooner we act the better. Time lags between action and positive outcomes for biodiversity can take decades so we must act immediately and sustain our efforts if we are to reach the global goals by 2050. The time needed for safeguarding and restoring ecosystem structure, function and resilience is particularly critical for people and communities whose livelihoods and well-being directly depend on these systems and the benefits they provide.”

Adds co-author David Obura, a distinguished scientist at the Coastal Oceans Research and Development (CORDIO), Kenya: “High levels of ambition for halting and reversing biodiversity loss will be critical. We underline, however, that this cannot be achieved just by conventional conservation actions”.

“We show that the 21 Targets of the Global Biodiversity Framework essentially cover this broad gamut of indirect and direct drivers, but that no one Target can be implemented as a priority over the others to achieve success (other than providing the financial and other means necessary to implement all targets).”

Explore furtherFrom ambition to biodiversity action: Time to hold actors accountable

Federal plans would gut essential protection for endangered Florida panthers, Key deer

Elise BennettView Comments


A Florida Key deer stands on the side of a highway in Big Pine Key.

Taking a page straight out of the Trump administration’s anti-conservation playbook, late last year the Biden administration quietly pushed forward a plan that would put two of Florida’s most beloved and endangered animals on the fast-track to extinction.

Despite President Biden’s directive that all federal agencies follow the best available science, buried in the administration workplan that sets the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s priorities is a proposal to strip protections for the Key deer and the Florida panther.

This proposal flouts the undeniable reality that these animals face an escalating loss of habitat that threatens their existence. The best-available scientific information makes clear both species need more protection, not less. 

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With only an estimated 200 individuals left, Florida panthers are considered among the most endangered big cats on Earth. Their limited habitat in southwest Florida is hemmed in and fragmented by highways and sprawling residential development, leading to 21 being killed by vehicles in 2021.

And in just the first 9 days of 2022, two more panthers have been struck and killed by vehicles this year – one in Glades County last Sunday; another in Collier County on Jan. 2.

A female Florida panther trips a camera trap set up by USA TODAY NETWORK - FLORIDA photographer Andrew West at the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed on Tuesday, March 26, 2019. The panther likely has kittens, said Dave Onorato, Florida panther research scientist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. There is a teat visible in the photo. How the notch came to be in her ear is unknown.

Panthers also face the prospect of industrial oil development in their largest contiguously intact habitat in Big Cypress National Preserve and the looming approval of habitat-destroying residential and commercial development in an area scientists have determined must be preserved to protect the species from extinction.

The threats to Florida’s Key deer are just as troubling.

Scientists have noted that the United States’ tiniest deer — found only on the Florida archipelago — are under severe threat of extinction from disease, vehicle strikes and sea-level rise that will flood their home within decades.

The proposal to gut protections for the two animals exposes an alarming push by federal wildlife regulators to achieve a predetermined, politically driven outcome rather than one based on science and commonsense.

In the case of the Florida panther, a Fish and Wildlife Service email reveals a carefully choreographed plan to weaken or entirely eliminate protections for the panther, giving staff scientists marching orders to reach a prearranged outcome, which has been shamelessly prioritized by the Biden administration.

The politicization of key deer management is just as bad.

No reasonable person, let alone independent scientist, could ever conclude that an imperiled, miniature deer found only on low-lying islands could survive in the face of rising seas and recommend that it should have its Endangered Species Act protections stripped.Your stories live here.Fuel your hometown passion and plug into the stories that define it.Create Account

The Service’s proposal here is so far outside accepted science that it begs the question: Why is the agency doing this? Is it bowing to developers in South Florida who wish to destroy habitat, build more wildlife-killing roads and develop fossil fuel resources in wilderness? Or is it part of the reckless, unscientific plan by Fish and Wildlife Service southeast regional director Leo Miranda to delist or downlist 30 protected species every year?

This proposal indicates that these are not innocent mistakes by the Service but signs of deeply rooted, systemic problems in an agency that is demonstrating its willingness to manipulate science and on-the-ground facts to achieve political, predetermined outcomes.

Above all, the Service’s proposal reminds us that extinction is a choice.

Elise Bennett is a Florida-based senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Large quantities of saiga horn exported from Ukraine after a breeding facility is launched


11 January 2022

Attempts to establish breeding populations of saiga in zoos have been largely unsuccessful. However, Ukraine’s Askania-Nova Biosphere Reserve, where animals from around the world are kept in semi-wild conditions on the virgin steppe, has managed to breed a small population of saiga that now numbers around 700 animals. The saiga breeding program in Askania-Nova started in the 1970s when 70 wild animals were brought to the reserve.

In 2018, reports appeared in Ukrainian press that a Chinese company, quoted as Shizhen Tan Pharmaceutical Company (in the original Russian – Шичжень тан фармасьютикал компани) launched a venture with Askania-Nova to breed saiga commercially for their horn.

Reports claimed that the Chinese side leased almost 100 hectares of land in Kherson Region near the village of Kamysh. The lease was for 7 years and the Chinese invested over 40,000 US dollars in the infrastructure. The saiga stock for the breeding facility was bought from Askania-Nova.

Ukrainian news portal Noviy Den’ reported that in 2018 the same Chinese company also bought saiga skins and skulls of saiga from Askania-Nova. The body parts reportedly came from animals that had died of natural causes on the reserve. The report mentioned 30 skulls sold and 130 more being prepared to be sent to China. “Several dozens” of skins were also sold. The prices were quoted as 400 US dollars per skull (it was not mentioned if the skulls had horns or not), and 200 dollars for each skin. CITES trade database shows that in 2018, 30 skins and 220 skulls were exported from Ukraine to China.

Noviy Den’ quoted the director of Aslkania-Nova, Viktor Gavrilenko, as to how the reserve’s saiga are turned into a source of revenue: “Our main herd is kept in semi-wild conditions and does not let people anywhere near them. We prepared the animals for captivity … by raising them from birth. This is how they became accustomed to people and at times do not object to being approached and stroked. These are the antelopes that we rehoused into the new breeding facility.”

In August 2020, Kherson regional news portal reported that although 25 saiga were originally “rehoused” to the “breeding facility” in 2019, the number of saiga there has increased to 200. The report claims that in order to harvest the horn, the antelopes will not be slaughtered, but “the horns will sawn off from males under the general anaesthetic, and (the horns) regrow in two years.”

Wild male saiga with horns. (Credit: Andrey Gilijov / Wikimedia Commons.

It is biologically inconceivable that in one year 175 saiga could be born in captivity from an original stock of just 20 animals. If the claims of 200 animals in the breeding facility are correct, then almost a third of Askania-Nova’s total saiga population may now be marked for horn harvesting.

The 2019 CITES zero-quota on wild saiga means that only captive bred animals can be legally traded. However, CITES records showed export of almost 1,500 saiga horns – equivalent to 750 male saiga (only males of the species have horns), in a single shipment, from Ukraine to China in 2019.

For this to have been legal, the horns shipped out of Ukraine would need to have come from dead captive-bred animals kept in storage in a breeding facility. Alternatively, the legal horn could have come from Ukraine’s live captive-bred saiga – “sawn off under general anaesthetic”.

However, the number of horns in the shipment – almost 1,500, is equivalent to more than double the entire captive-bred population of saiga, males and females included, of Askania-Nova. The numbers simply do not add up.

There are no wild saiga in Ukraine – the species went extinct there in the 19th century.

The Species Victim Impact Statements (SVIS) Initiative have provided information to the Hong Kong government on the extent of saiga horn smuggling into Mainland China and the saiga poaching crisis in Kazakhstan that led to murders of wildlife rangers by poachers. Timely access to robust biological data is essential to government departments seeking to effectively counter illegal wildlife trade.

Illegal wildlife trade has now become a grave threat to species and ecosystems. Species Victim Impact Statement (SVIS) Initiative have drafted Species Victim Impact Statements for over a hundred most trafficked species of animals and plants. Species Victim Impact Statements help the judges and the prosecutors understand the harm done when species are taken from the wild. This harm is not limited to the suffering of individual animals, but also includes harm to the ecosystems, as well as to the resources and services that these ecosystems provide to people.

When humans are gone, what animals might evolve to have our smarts and skills?

By Joanna Thompson published 1 day ago

Is this a “Planet of the Apes” situation?


Chimpanzees are adept at using tools in the wild

Chimpanzees are one of nature’s most adept tool-users (Image credit: Getty Images)

Humans are pretty unique among life on Earth. As far as we know, we’re the only living species to evolve a higher intelligence, wear clothes, cook our food, invent smartphones and then get locked out of them when we forget our passwords. 

But what if humans suddenly went extinct? What other animals might evolve to have the smarts and skills to create large, complex societies like we have?

With modern gene-sequencing technology and our understanding of evolution, “we’re pretty good at making short term predictions,” Martha Reiskind, a molecular ecologist at North Carolina State University, told Live Science. For example, we can predict that if humans were to suddenly go extinct tomorrow, climate change would continue to drive many species toward drought resiliency in order to survive. Cold-specialized species will continue to struggle as well, meaning that, sadly, polar bears and penguins are unlikely to thrive in the millennia after humans are gone.Sponsored LinksPersonal Loans to Pay Off Debt or Make a Big PurchaseNerdWallet

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“A big thing will be the concept of convergence,” Dougal Dixon, a geologist, science writer and author of the speculative book “After Man: A Zoology of the Future” (St. Martin’s Press, 1998), told Live Science. Convergence is an evolutionary process by which two unrelated organisms end up developing similar traits in order to succeed in a particular environment or fill a particular niche. 

The classic example, Dixon said, is the fish shape. With their sleek, torpedo-like bodies and stabilizing fins, fish are optimized for life in water. However, dolphins have evolved a very similar body plan — and unlike fish, they are warm-blooded, air-breathing mammals with a totally different evolutionary background.

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One feature that makes humans uniquely good at building and spatial reasoning is our dexterous hands, according to research from the University of Manchester. In order to fill the same ecological role as humans — that is, building cities and heavily modifying our environment — another species would need to develop a similar capacity to manipulate objects. In other words, they would need opposable thumbs — or at least thumb equivalents. 

Other primates, like chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and bonobos (Pan paniscus), our closest living relatives, already have opposable thumbs that they use to make tools in the wild. It’s possible that if humans go extinct, these hominids might replace us hominins, à la “Planet of the Apes.” There is precedent for that kind of overlap — after all, our species managed to outlast the intelligent Neanderthals during the most recent ice age 40,000 years ago, according to a 2021 study published in the journal Nature. That said, it would probably take hundreds of thousands or even millions of years of evolution for other apes to develop the ability to create and use sophisticated, human-like tools. To add context to this scenario, the common ancestor of modern humans and chimpanzees lived about 7 million years ago, Live Science previously reported

But any disaster potent enough to wipe out humans is also likely to wipe out chimps, which leaves another tool-using candidate to fill humans’ niche: birds. 

When non-avian dinosaurs went extinct 66 million years ago, mammals rose to fill many of their vacant niches. If humans were to disappear, it’s possible that birds, the only surviving dinosaurs, could fill our roles as the smartest and handiest land animals. Despite stereotypes to the contrary, birds are very brainy: Some birds, such as crows and ravens, have intellects that rival even chimps, according to research published in 2020 in the journal Science. And some birds can use their dexterous feet and beaks to fashion wire into hooks, according to a famous 2002 study published in Science. Meanwhile, trained African grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus) can learn upward of 100 words and do simple math, including understanding the concept of zero, Live Science previously reported.

Birds can flock together in large groups, and some, such as sociable weavers (Philetairus socius), even build communal nesting sites. Some sociable weaver nests remain occupied by birds for decades, according to research published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. However, these arboreal dwellings wouldn’t look much like human metropolises.These towering termite colonies dot the African savanna.  (Image credit: Getty Images)Advertisement

But there is another group of animals that is extremely adept at manipulating objects with their limbs — all eight of them. 

“Intelligence is modifying your behavior as a result of influence from your environment,” Jennifer Mather, a cephalopod intelligence researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, told Live Science. By that measure, octopuses are probably the smartest non-human animals on Earth. They can learn to distinguish between real and virtual objects, according to 2020 research published in The Biological Bulletin, and they can even engineer their environment by removing unwanted algae from their dens and barricading the entrance with shells, according to a study in the journal Communicative and Integrative Biology. They’re even known to live in communities, of sorts, as shown by the discovery of “Octlantis” off Australia.

Related: How would Earth be different if modern humans never existed?

However, octopuses would be hard-pressed to adapt to life on land. Vertebrates have iron in their blood cells, which binds to oxygen very efficiently. In contrast, octopuses and their relatives have copper-based blood cells. These molecules still bind to oxygen, but less readily, and as a result octopuses are confined to oxygen-saturated waters as opposed to thin air. “They’ve taken an inefficient metabolism as far as they can go,” Mather said.

Because of this, Mather thinks that octopuses and other cephalopods are unlikely to make the transition to land and take over humanity’s mantle as the smartest and most ecologically impactful land animal. Her money is on social insects, like ants and termites. “I think that the insects are tougher than us,” Mather said. “Unfortunately, they’re tougher than cephalopods as well.”

Here’s why: Insects are incredibly adaptable to different types of environments. They have been around for 480 million years, according to the Natural History Museum in London. In that time, they’ve evolved to fill almost every niche imaginable, from flying to burrowing to swimming and even building elaborate city-like towers. The organization of ant and termite colonies probably resembles human civilization more than any other non-human species on Earth. Ants are known to farm fungi, according to research published in 2017 the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, and termites can communicate over long distances inside their colonies using vibrations, according to a 2021 study in the journal Scientific Reports. If humans go extinct, it’s possible that these insect colonies might take over the world — assuming they survive climate change.Advertisementhttps://5227daa893652f2bca8142dc42450aa8.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.htmlRELATED MYSTERIES

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Of course, all of this is speculation; it’s virtually impossible to truly predict how evolution will unfold on a geologic time scale. “As you go further and further out, your precision is less clear, because there’s all these other wonderful things that cause variation,” Reiskind said. Those factors include random mutations, sudden extinction events and population bottlenecks, in which a species pulls itself back from the brink of extinction but loses much of its genetic diversity.

And it’s even more difficult to predict whether another species will develop human-level intelligence or the desire to build cities. Mather thinks that it could happen, but not without millions of years of the right selective pressure. Dixon, however, is less optimistic. “I don’t think nature will make that mistake twice,” he said. 

Originally published on Live Science. 

Headed for a sixth mass extinction? MIT geophysicist warns oceans are on the brink

Daniel Rothman says carbon in the atmosphere may push our seas past a tipping point, triggering a cascading catastrophe for global ecosystems that we do not yet fully understand

By LUKE TRESSToday, 4:57 am


A diver works at an underwater coral nursery inside the Oracabessa Fish Sanctuary in Jamaica, on February 12, 2019. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Earth’s skin already bears the scars of the climate crisis. Fires ravage forests, hurricanes swamp coastlines, floods drown city blocks and entire species disappear. But beneath the surface layer, in the planet’s rocks, lies evidence of past catastrophes much more severe.

Daniel Rothman, a professor of geophysics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, believes we may be creeping toward a calamity for Earth’s life system as a whole — the planet’s sixth mass extinction event.

The staggering amount of carbon humans are pumping into the atmosphere and the oceans may soon cross a threshold that will disorder the planet’s carbon cycle and cause a cascade of disruptions we cannot fully envision, Rothman said.Read More

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What we do know is that such disruptions in the past have coincided with a series of mass extinctions in the 540 million years since life became abundant on the planet. And while the climate crisis is usually framed in terms of years, decades, or the next century, mass extinctions play out over thousands of years.

“Every time there has been a major event in the history of life, there has also been a major perturbation of the environment. These things tend to come together,” he said.Get The Times of Israel’s Daily Editionby email and never miss our top storiesNewsletter email addressGET ITBy signing up, you agree to the terms

These disruptions are associated with the carbon cycle, or the exchange of carbon in the environment, “and we know that by traces that are left in the carbon chemistry of old rocks.”

“The average person doesn’t really think about such long time scales, of course they don’t, but that’s also geology’s gift to the world,” Rothman said.The morning sun is seen through a blanket of smog on the outskirts of New Delhi, India, on January 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri, File)

Testing the water

There have been many disruptions to the carbon cycle in the past that were significant for the climate but did not result in mass extinctions, however. Rothman, from MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, investigated what made the difference, or put another way, “Why were mass extinctions special?”ADVERTISEMENThttps://b5b2934fc8ef1d1ec1e4986ecaafb2f6.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

Carbon is a crucial element in biological compounds, and a major component in many minerals. It enters the atmosphere as carbon dioxide when we burn fuel.

The carbon cycle is a complex, nonlinear system that centers on a loop between photosynthesis and respiration. As part of the cycle, the element is exchanged between the atmosphere and the upper levels of the ocean. Too much carbon can outpace the ocean’s “damping mechanisms” and overwhelm the cycle, leading to a cascade of positive feedback that disrupts the entire system. The perturbation can take thousands of years to even out.Daniel Rothman, professor of Geophysics and co-director of the Lorenz Center at MIT. (Courtesy/John M. Hayes)

Too much carbon in the ocean renders it more acidic, and inhospitable to many types of life. Four of the five past mass extinction events appear to be associated with an increased rate of carbon cycle change, and “it looks as if there’s a special rate of change which is acting as a threshold.”

Rothman concluded that, on a scale of around 10,000 years, what matters is the rate at which carbon is added to the atmosphere. But on a short time scale — a century or two — what matters is the sheer amount of carbon being injected into the skies.

An analogy: if water flows out of the bathtub faucet faster than it goes down the drain, eventually the room will flood. Now imagine you open a firehose in the bathtub for a few seconds. Almost no water goes down the drain, and it may cause a flood — so what matters is the amount of water you pour in during that short interval.

We are adding carbon to the atmosphere much faster than past geologic events, on a shorter time scale.ADVERTISEMENThttps://b5b2934fc8ef1d1ec1e4986ecaafb2f6.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

Rothman calculated that the critical threshold for carbon in the ocean is around 300 gigatons in a century, and we’re on track to add up to 500 gigatons by 2100.

He published peer-reviewed papers on the subject in 2017 and 2019.Lava from a volcano eruption flows on the island of La Palma in the Canaries, Spain, on September 23, 2021. (AP/Emilio Morenatti)

2 million years of magma

Most mass extinctions do not come about with an asteroid impact and a burst of light, but take place over eons.

To the best of our knowledge, the planet’s most severe mass extinction event, the end-Permian extinction, took place around 252 million years ago.

It coincided with massive volcanism in the Siberian Traps, a vast region that burst with eruptions and spewed magma for some two million years, pumping chemicals, including carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. Some 3 million square miles of basaltic rock carpeted today’s Russia as a result.

The volcanic event, one of the largest known, is believed to have spiked ocean temperatures and increased acidification, triggering a collapse in global ecosystems.

The end-Permian extinction event killed off over 96 percent of marine species and over 70% of terrestrial species, according to a 2018 MIT report.

It began abruptly and took place over as much as 60,000 years, researchers said — a blink of an eye in geologic time.ADVERTISEMENThttps://b5b2934fc8ef1d1ec1e4986ecaafb2f6.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

The K-T extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs and three quarters of plant and animal life on earth 66 million years ago was the earth’s most recent mass extinction event. It was likely tied to an asteroid impact, but also coincided with tens of thousands of years of massive volcanism in the Deccan Traps in today’s India.Bleached coral in Guam in 2017. A study released in 2018 that severe bleaching outbreaks are hitting coral reefs four times more often they used to a few decades earlier. (David Burdick/NOAA via AP)

Tipping points

The deep past is murky, the records incomplete, and little is known with absolute certainty. Moreover, extinctions take place on a continuum, with species dying out even when systems are stable.

Paleontologists, scientists who study the history of life on earth, distinguish between “kill mechanisms” and other factors in extinctions. For example, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may not have killed species directly, but may have triggered ocean acidification, which could have in turn annihilated marine species.

Rothman said that during times of environmental stress, we have a record of carbon cycle behavior, and there is a clear association between carbon cycle change and mass extinction, but many other factors likely play a part.

He compares mass extinctions to the 2008 financial crash.

“You can blame mortgages but it’s a whole set of things. Once there’s a modest instigation, the whole thing goes crazy and it basically becomes unstable and you have this recession, so it’s catastrophic change,” he said. “To point your finger at any one thing, you might have been able to identify some kind of proximate cause, but identifying what the real cause is, the way things interact with each other, is a different game.”

“There are what we call tipping points, or positive feedbacks in the system, and we don’t really understand them,” he said. “This is really at the vanguard of scientific research in this area.”ADVERTISEMENThttps://b5b2934fc8ef1d1ec1e4986ecaafb2f6.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.htmlA Late Cretaceous ginkgo leaf fossil from Alaska’s North Slope at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, on June 4, 2021. The Smithsonian is using ginkgo fossils to study ancient climate change. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

For example, many marine animals form shells and skeletons using carbon, and are coated with algae made with organic carbon. When they die, the shells weigh the organisms down and bring the bodies to the seafloor where they are buried by sediments, sequestering the element and removing it from the upper ocean. Ocean acidification impedes organisms from forming shells, further driving up the amount of carbon in the upper ocean.

These kinds of positive feedbacks “are important partly because we don’t understand them and we should understand them, and partly because the magnitude of the cost associated with them is so large that it points out that ignorance is not a good thing.”

The research is part of a global effort. Rothman does not study fossils or carry out digs, but does calculations based on other research. The most clear fossil record is in China. Researchers there can date extinctions in the fossil record, and match those dates with evidence of massive volcanism and the carbon chemistry of rocks in other areas.

Mass extinctions leave both a marine record and a terrestrial record, but he and other researchers focus on the marine record because the data is clearer. The marine geochemical records in sedimentary rocks, and the fossil record, are more straightforward to interpret. A fossil found on land might be indicative of a specific environment, but the oceans are well-mixed, and a find is more likely to be indicative of the global environment.Workers excavate a dinosaur dig site in Yanji, China, on September 13, 2018. (AP/Sam McNeil)

There is a debate over whether we have already entered a mass extinction event, caused by us — the Holocene extinction. The rate of die-offs is already far higher than the natural extinction rate.

Rothman said current research, which involves counting fossils and current die-offs, is factual and connected to his research but outside of his realm. Many of the current extinctions are due to land use, for example, and it’s hard for him to conclusively say we have crossed the Rubicon into a mass extinction grade event.

He began his research into the area five or six years ago partially to address that question.

“Mass extinctions represent some type of cascade of positive feedbacks that cause a global ecosystem crash. What we’re seeing today is very serious; however, I don’t know how much is necessary to move us to the tipping point that would create a global catastrophe for the global ecosystem,” he said. “I can’t say we haven’t, I just don’t know how to say when we would.”Plumes of smoke rise from Europe’s largest lignite power plant in Belchatow, central Poland, on November 28, 2018. (AP/Czarek Sokolowski)

The scientific endeavor

Some species have gone extinct because of human greed and cruelty, others by negligence, some die off despite our best efforts, and the vast majority disappear before we know of their existence. We still don’t understand the ramifications of extinctions, or the destruction we wreak on the environment.

The effort to understand climate change, extinctions, and what causes them is part of a “continuing scientific effort to understand how our world came to be, what happened on the way to the present point. A large number of people around the world are trying to figure out the history of the environment and the history of life and what it might mean,” Rothman said. The endeavor will help us understand the dangers of modern climate change.

Events like the COP26 climate conference are a step in the right direction, but reaching political agreements and getting people to cooperate is still far outside our grasp.

“It’s, I think, frankly a more difficult problem than the sort of stuff I work on because I’m just trying to figure out what the truth is,” Rothman said. “One would like to see more but good people are doing their best.”

Rothman co-founded MIT’s Lorenz Center, a “curiosity-driven” advanced climate research center, to better predict and understand the most complex scientific challenge we have faced as a species.

“We need to limit the ways we pollute the environment and we need to find ways of diminishing the amount of CO₂ we put in the atmosphere. Of course we already knew that but this provides another kind of reason to do it,” he said. “There are things that could happen which essentially go beyond our ability to understand them.”

Stunning Trove of Jurassic Fossils Is Earliest Evidence of Herd Behavior in Dinosaurs

The skeletal remains of nearly 80 dinosaurs and 100 eggs were uncovered at a fossil site in Argentina.

ByGeorge DvorskyToday 12:00PMComments (2)Alerts

Artistic reconstruction of a Mussaurus patagonicus nest. 


A single fossil site containing the remains of dozens of individuals from a range of age groups is the earliest evidence that long-necked, four-legged dinosaurs lived in herds.

“This is a stunning new fossil site,” Steven Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh who wasn’t involved in the new study, wrote to me in an email. “This is convincing evidence that these plant-eating dinosaurs were social, and formed groups, and probably took at least some care of their eggs and young.”

A team led by Diego Pol from the Museum of Paleontology Egidio Feruglio discovered the fossils in the Laguna Colorada Formation in Patagonia, Argentina. They belong to Mussaurus patagonicus—a long-necked sauropod from the Early Jurassic who stood on four legs. Over the past 15 years, the team has been conducting research and excavations at the fossil site, resulting in the discovery of more than 100 eggs and nearly 80 skeletons of Mussaurus.

The fossils, dispersed across an apparent breeding ground, spanned the entire dinosaur life cycle—from embryos still tucked away inside eggs through to fully grown adults. Incredibly, the fossils were clustered into age-specific groupings—a sign that these gigantic herbivores lived in herds. At an estimated age of 192-million-years-old, these Early Jurassic fossils predate prior evidence of this complex social behavior among dinosaurs by around 40 million years. Details of this finding were published today in Scientific Reports.

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“The specimens we have found showed that herd behavior was present in long-necked dinosaurs since their early history,” explained Pol in an email. “These were social animals and we think this may be an important factor to explain their success.”

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Artistic reconstruction of the Mussaurus patagonicus breeding ground. 

The shared Mussaurus breeding ground was located on the margins of a dry lake. The climate was warm, but evidence of drought points to a possible cause of death and a reason for why some of the dinosaurs were buried by wind-blown dust.

Most of the eggs were grouped into clusters containing anywhere from eight to 30 eggs and placed along a series of trenches suggestive of a common breeding ground. X-ray imaging was used to identify the embryos as belonging to Mussaurus.

Analysis of the fossilized skeletons revealed the surprising presence of age-specific groups, including a cluster of 11 juveniles (all younger than one-year-old), a group of nine adolescents, and two adults. The discovery of age-specific groupings is potential evidence that Mussaurus individuals lived in herds, that they did so across their entire lives, and that they preferred to hang out with members of a similar age. I asked Pol to explain the presence of age-specific groupings.

Mussaurus was tiny when it was born—the entire skeleton fits in the palm of your hand—but adults were 1.5 tons, which is roughly the weight of a hippo,” he responded. “The daily motion patterns, speed, and daily foraging was probably very different in newborns, youngsters, and adults.” He said it’s common for animals of the same size group to hang out together and coordinate their activities. This is especially the case, said Pol, “for youngsters that are small, inexperienced, and therefore more vulnerable to attacks from predators.”

Nest with eggs of Mussaurus patagonicus.

This complex social behavior may have emerged as a consequence of increasing body sizes, which started among the sauropods between 227 and 208 million years ago. These dinosaurs, in order to meet their tremendous energy requirements, had to forage over long distances, requiring a new set of adaptive social skills, according to the study.

Ryan Felice, an anatomist from University College London who wasn’t involved in the research, described it as a “really exciting discovery.” As he explained, paleontologists already knew that non-avian dinosaurs were good parents, as evidenced by clusters of nests belonging to the Cretaceous dinosaur Maiasaura—a name that literally means “good mother lizard.”

“From those types of discoveries, we could infer that dinosaurs had a reproductive strategy similar to crocodiles today—the mother protects the babies when they are very small, but once they can fend for themselves the family breaks apart and everyone goes their separate ways,” Felice said. “What makes this discovery so exciting is that there are [hatchlings], juveniles, and fully grown adults of Mussaurus all in the same place. This means that multifamily groups got together not just for breeding and nesting but that they potentially formed life-long herds, more like today’s elephants or wildebeests.”

What makes the new discovery especially important is that Mussaurus is a fairly ancient dinosaur species, “so the authors have hypothesised that maybe social groups and parental care were things that evolved early in dinosaur history,” said Felice.

Brusatte offered a similar take.

“Because these are Early Jurassic dinosaurs, from the early stages of dinosaur history, it is the oldest record, from that first stage of dinosaur history, it is the oldest record of dinosaur social lives,” he explained. “It seems dinosaurs were highly social animals from the very beginning, which may have factored into their stupendous evolutionary success.”

Looking ahead, Pol and his colleagues will continue to inspect the site in hopes of acquiring a better understanding of the nests and how they were structured, along with searching for evidence of predators and the plants consumed by Mussaurus.

One of world’s last two northern white rhinos dropped from race to save the species

FILE PHOTO: Najin and her daughter Fatou, the last two northern white rhino females, graze near their enclosure at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia National Park


Thu, October 21, 2021, 6:44 AM·2 min read

NAIROBI (Reuters) – One of the world’s last two northern white rhinos, a mother and her daughter, is being retired from a breeding programme aimed at saving the species from extinction, scientists said on Thursday.

Najin, 32, is the mother of Fatu who is now the only donor left in the programme, which aims to implant artificially developed embryos into another more abundant species of rhino in Kenya.

There are no known living males and neither of the two remaining northern white rhinos can carry a calf to term.- ADVERTISEMENT -https://s.yimg.com/rq/darla/4-6-0/html/r-sf-flx.html

Northern white rhinos, which are actually grey, used to roam freely in several countries in east and central Africa, but their numbers fell sharply due to widespread poaching for their horns.

A Biorescue team led by researchers from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Germany has been racing against time to save the world’s most endangered mammal.

“The team has reached the decision to retire the older of the two remaining females, 32-year-old Najin, as a donor of egg cells,” Biorescue said in a statement, citing ethical considerations.

Najin’s advanced age, and signs of illness, were also taken into account, they said.

Scientists hope to implant embryos made from the rhinos’ egg cells and frozen sperm from deceased males into surrogate mothers.

“We have been very successful with Fatu… So far we have 12 pure northern white rhino embryos,” David Ndeereh, the acting deputy director for research at the Wildlife Research and Training Institute, a Kenyan state agency, told Reuters.

“We are very optimistic that the project will succeed.”

The team hopes to be able to deliver its first northern white rhino calf in three years and a wider population in the next two decades.

(Reporting by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Nick Macfie)