A New Way to Tell If a Dead Duck Could Fly

Watanabe. 2017. The Auk: Ornithological Advances.
Watanabe. 2017. The Auk: Ornithological Advances.

As any toddler chasing pigeons in the park knows, it’s not hard to figure out which birds can fly and which can’t. Sorting the flighted from the flightless is a little harder when those birds are dead—and even harder when they’re extinct. Now one fossil expert has developed a system that may help. He published his findings in The Auk: Ornithological Advances.

Junya Watanabe studies paleontology, evolutionary biology, geology, and mineralogy at Kyoto University. His research into the evolutionary history of birds has brought him up close with the anatids, a large family that includes ducks, geese, and swans. Today, most of these birds are happily flapping around, but that may not have always been the case.

Experts have found more than 15 fossilized anatid species that would have been unable to fly. We think. We’re not sure, because until now, we haven’t really had a good way of sussing out what flying looks like in animals that have been gone for millions of years.

To look back into the past, Watanabe started in the present. He took precise measurements of 787 different modern anatids from 103 different species—some volant (flighted), some flightless—focusing on their legs, wings, and breastbones. Then he fed those stats into an algorithm that compared the proportions of each bird’s body with its flying ability.

Fossilized bones from Chenonetta finschi.
Junya Watanabe

Fossilized bones from Anas marecula.
Junya Watanabe

The results showed physically tiny but evolutionarily significant differences between the species that could fly and those that couldn’t. Like the doomed dodos of yore, today’s flightless birds generally have chunkier legs and smaller wings than their airborne cousins.

By using the same algorithm on 16 species of fossilized anatids, Watanabe could easily spot which birds might have flown, long ago. His results confirmed other scientists’ suspicions about birds like Ptaiochen pao, whose name derives from the Greek and Hawaiian words for “destroyed stumbling goose.”

Helen James is curator of birds at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. She said Watanabe’s new system will be especially helpful in cases where only part of a fossilized bird has been found.

“Other researchers will appreciate that he offers a way to assess limb proportions even in fossil species where the bones of individual birds have become disassociated from each other,” she said in a statement. “Disassociation of skeletons in fossil sites has been a persistent barrier to these types of sophisticated statistical analyses, and Dr. Watanabe has taken an important step towards overcoming that problem.”

Homo Erectus Might Have Been Really Lazy

Shipton et. al,
Shipton et. al, PLOS ONE (2018)

Of all the human species that once roamed the world, only one remains—us. Why did our primitive cousins go extinct? For Homo erectus, something like laziness may have played a role, Cosmos reports.

A new study in the journal PLOS ONE explores the role that H. erectus's lack of drive may have contributed to its extinction. The international team of researchers based their analysis on an excavation of a paleolithic site in central Saudi Arabia, finding that the tools H. erectus made were of consistently lower quality than what tool makers in later periods used. Their tools were constructed with whatever material was easiest to get, rather than what would make the best tools.

And it wasn’t because better materials weren’t available. "At the site we looked at, there was a big rocky outcrop of quality stone just a short distance away up a small hill,” study co-author Ceri Shipton of the Australian National University said in a press release. “But rather than walk up the hill, they would just use whatever bits had rolled down and were lying at the bottom.” He added, “They knew it was there, but because they had enough adequate resources, they seem to have thought, ‘why bother?’”

A row of stone tools excavated from Saffaqah
Some of the stone tools
Shipton et. al, PLOS ONE, (2018)

Meanwhile, other hominin species, like our own Homo sapiens, were happily clambering up mountains to seek out better materials for their tools. Shipton suggests that H. erectus lacked the tendency toward exploration and curiosity that has helped our species thrive.

This “laziness,” combined with changes to their environment, was likely what did in H. erectus. As the humid environment around them became drier, H. erectus seemingly didn’t adapt: They didn't invent new kinds of tools to deal with the changing landscape, nor did they relocate or travel farther afield. The research team found the tools largely near dry river beds, suggesting that H. erectus neither progressed technologically nor modified their behavior for their altered habitat.

H. erectus did manage to walk upright as we do—a first in human evolution—and it was likely the first hominin to expand their habitat beyond Africa. But the combination of these two newly identified shortcomings may have contributed to H. erectus's demise.

[h/t Cosmos]

Intriguing New Theory Might Explain the Fate of Easter Island's Civilization

iStock
iStock

Standing up to 33 feet high and weighing 81 tons, the huge moai statues of Easter Island (Rapa Nui) are the most recognizable artifacts of a thriving civilization that peaked at the middle of the last millennium. For hundreds of years, Polynesian peoples lived on the small island 2300 miles west of Chile and developed a complex culture. By the 1700s, when Europeans first arrived, much of the society was decimated.

For years, scientists thought they knew why—but fresh archaeological evidence has provided an alternative theory.

The Journal of Pacific Archaeology published a paper [PDF] this week contradicting the commonly held belief that, in the 1600s, Rapa Nui's inhabitants descended into a Lord of the Flies–like era of infighting and violence as a result of dwindling resources. According to new research, the island’s population may not have devolved into barbarism. Instead, they were collaborating on toolmaking.

University of Queensland archaeologist Dale Simpson, Jr. theorized that the raw materials used in the carving tools would reveal clues about the dynamics of the community. He and his colleagues collected 17 tools found near the moai, including axe-like toki. Using a mass spectrometer to analyze the chemical composition of the tools and samples from stone quarries on the island, Simpson and his colleagues found that most of the toki came from a single quarry.

Simpson believes this is evidence that Rapa Nui's people had not fallen into violent conflict, but were instead sharing resources—or at least allowing one another access to a favorite quarry for tool production. If the islanders were split into factions, it’s unlikely that whoever was controlling the quarry would permit rivals to make use of it.

If accurate, it would join other recent theories that are drawing a revised picture of Rapa Nui's civilization. Explorers once described a surplus of spear-like objects presumably used for combat, but modern researchers examining the tools (called mata’a) in 2015 found that their surfaces were too blunt to pierce skin and were probably used for tilling soil.

While Simpson's take on the newly discovered carving tools is an intriguing theory, researchers aren't ready to rewrite history just yet. Other scholars, including study co-author Jo Anne Van Tilburg, point out that raw materials for the tools could have been seized by force or some form of coercion.

More research will be needed to see if Simpson’s new theory holds up. If it does, it would present a new wrinkle in the storied history of Rapa Nui.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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