Why Are Our Brains So Big, Anyway?

By Gemma Tarlach | May 23, 2018 12:00 pm
'Brain: lateral view. Colour lithograph by Brocades Great Britain Ltd.' . Credit: Wellcome Collection

Brain: lateral view. Colour lithograph by Brocades Great Britain Ltd. (Credit: Wellcome Collection)

Not to give us a collective swelled head or anything, but the Homo sapiens brain is big. Really big.

For years, researchers have puzzled over why our noggin-embiggening occurred: Big brains are, after all, costly to feed. One leading theory held that our brains increased in size to manage the cognitive demands of ever-more complex communications and other social processes. New research suggests, however, that interactions with each other played only a small role compared with the big driver of bigger brains. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: brains, human evolution

Epic Flight Fail? Pterosaur Models Are Wrong, Says Study

By Gemma Tarlach | May 22, 2018 6:00 pm
An 1817 drawing of a juvenile pterosaur (then called a TKTKTK) shows a bat-like sprawl that researchers studying now say it impossible. (Credit von Soemmering T. 1817 U¨ber einen Ornithocephalus brevirostris der Vorwelt, Denkschriften der ko¨niglichen bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Math.-Phys. Klasse 6, 89–104.)

An early 19th century drawing of a juvenile pterosaur (then called a pterodactylus) shows a bat-like sprawl that is anatomically impossible. (More on this little fella below.) In fact, the authors behind a new study claim most reconstructions of these extinct animals in flight are inaccurate. But are they the ones who’ve got it wrong? (Credit von Soemmering T. 1817, Über einen Ornithocephalus brevirostris der Vorwelt, Denkschriften der königlichen bayerischen Akademieder Wissenschaften, Math.-Phys. Klasse 6, 89–104.)

Have paleontologists just been winging it? Up to 95 percent of the hip joint reconstructions of pterosaurs and their distant relatives, the most birdlike of dinosaurs, are anatomically impossible, according to new research that used a surprising source. But the study’s conclusions, counters a pterosaur expert, should be grounded.
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New Round In The East-West Sweet Potato Kerfuffle

By Gemma Tarlach | May 21, 2018 2:00 pm
CAPTION A) Modern distribution of the sweet potato family (yellow line) and genus (white line). B) Fossil leaf of Ipomoea meghalayensis. C) Modern leaf of Ipomoea eriocarpa, showing similar size, shape and vein pattern. CREDIT Indiana University

Sorting out the roots of the sweet potato and other members of the morning glory family, researchers compared a fossil leaf of Ipomoea meghalayensis (B) with a leaf of the modern Ipomoea eriocarpa, a close relative of the tasty tuber. (Credit Indiana University)

What’s the story, morning glory?

Well, let me tell you: the sweet potato and other morning glory family members may have been around millions of years earlier than believed — after first sprouting thousands of miles from where many paleobotanists thought they evolved.
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The Story Of Southeast Asia Through Ancient DNA

By Gemma Tarlach | May 17, 2018 1:00 pm
Archaeological sites in Southeast Asia, such as this one in Ban Chiang, Thailand, preserve pottery and other artifacts but ancient DNA rarely survives due to the hot, humid climate. (Credit Wikimedia Commons)

Ancient DNA from archaeological sites in Southeast Asia, such as Thailand’s World Heritage site Ban Chiang, has refined our understanding of how farmers and hunter-gatherers mixed and mingled millennia ago. (Credit Wikimedia Commons)

Southeast Asia is home to scores of different languages and cultures, but the story of how such diversity blossomed in the region has always been unclear. A new study out today turns to ancient DNA — a rare find in hot and humid environments — to track waves of human migration over the past 4,000 years.
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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts

Getting Inside The Head Of Homo Naledi

By Gemma Tarlach | May 14, 2018 2:00 pm
Curvature map of a Homo naledi cranial endocast. (Credit PNAS)

Curvature map of a Homo naledi cranial endocast. (Credit PNAS)

Maybe size doesn’t matter that much after all.

Ever since its discovery in 2013, Homo naledi — the newest addition to our family tree — has been a source of speculation and surprise. The South African hominin’s latest mind-bending revelation: Its brain, though notably small, had several structural details similar to those of bigger-brained members of the genus Homo, including us. The new research hints that these structures developed early in the story of Homo, and may have permitted more advanced cognitive functions despite H. naledi‘s overall smaller brain volume.
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Ancient Genomes Revise The Origins Of Leprosy

By Gemma Tarlach | May 10, 2018 1:00 pm
Signs of leprosy mark a skull found in a Danish cemetery in use from the 13th through 16th centuries. (Credit Dorthe Dangvard Pedersen)

Signs of leprosy mark a skull found in a Danish cemetery in use from the 13th through 16th centuries. (Credit Dorthe Dangvard Pedersen)

One of the most dreaded diseases for millennia, leprosy is still with us — though it has lost much of its menace. But some of its mystery remains, particularly its origins. In a study out today, researchers turned to ancient DNA to discover leprosy’s roots, and the path they followed took them to a surprising place.
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Ancient DNA Reveals New Human History Of Eurasian Steppes

By Gemma Tarlach | May 9, 2018 12:00 pm
The Eurasian steppes cover thousands of miles, from Mongolia to Eastern Europe, creating what one researcher calls a "highway" for cultural exchange and conquest. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The grassy Eurasian steppes cover thousands of miles, from northwestern China to Hungary, creating what one researcher calls a “highway” for cultural exchange and conquest. (Credit Wikimedia Commons)

A trio of new studies, two in Nature and the third in Science, analyzed genetic material from scores of ancient humans to create a new map of human movement, as well as the spread of language, the hepatitis B virus and horse domestication, across the sprawling Eurasian steppes. The ancient genomes sequenced for the papers — with more findings to follow, promise the authors — represent the largest collection of ancient human DNA ever studied.
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Hominin Head-Scratcher: Who Butchered This Rhino 709,000 Years Ago?

By Gemma Tarlach | May 2, 2018 12:00 pm
Researchers say cut and percussion marks on a rhino suggest a hominin presence in the Philippines more than 700,000 years ago, ten times earlier than previously known. (Credit Ignicco et al 2018, 10.1038/s41586-018-0072-8)

Researchers say cut and percussion marks on a rhino suggest a hominin presence in the Philippines more than 700,000 years ago, ten times earlier than previously known. (Credit Ignicco et al 2018, 10.1038/s41586-018-0072-8)

More than 700,000 years ago, in what’s now the north end of the Philippines, a hominin (or a whole bunch of them) butchered a rhino, systematically cracking open its bones to access the nutritious marrow within, according to a new study.

There’s just one problem: The find is more than ten times older than any human fossil recovered from the islands, and our species hadn’t even evolved that early.

Okay, so, maybe it was an archaic hominin, you’re thinking, maybe Homo erectus or some other now-extinct species. But there’s a problem with that line of thought, too.

According to the conventional view in paleoanthropology, only our species, Homo sapiens, had the cognitive capacity to construct watercraft. And to reach the island where the rhino was found, well, like Chief Brody says, “you’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

So who sucked the marrow from the poor dead rhino’s bones? It’s a whodunit with the final chapter yet to be written.
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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts

Dinosaur Teeth Show Which Species Preferred Squishier Prey

By Gemma Tarlach | April 26, 2018 11:00 am
Microwear patterns on the teeth of several species of carnivorous dinosaurs have revealed apparent differences in prey and noshing technique, such as this theropod's puncture-and-pull method. (Credit Sydney Mohr/Current Biology)

Microwear patterns and other details on a number of dinosaur teeth suggest differences in prey despite a shared noshing technique, the puncture-and-pull method shown here. (Credit Sydney Mohr/Current Biology)

What did dinos munch for lunch? A new two-pronged approach to analyzing dinosaur teeth reveals that, while all of the dinosaurs in the study were meat-eaters, when sidling up to The Old Cretaceous Country Buffet some went for the soft-serve prey and others gravitated toward the hard stuff.
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Hole-y Cow! Earliest Evidence of Cranial Surgery On Animals

By Gemma Tarlach | April 19, 2018 8:00 am
A hole produced by trepanning — an early form of cranial surgery — is immediately apparent in this 3D reconstruction of a cow skull found in France. (Credit Fernando Ramirez Rozzi)

A hole produced by trepanation — an ancient form of cranial surgery — is immediately apparent in this 3D reconstruction of a cow skull found in France. (Credit Fernando Ramirez Rozzi)

The average cow needs cranial surgery like it needs a hole in the head, but for one ancient bovine, it appears that’s exactly what the doctor ordered.

Researchers describing a hole in the skull of a Neolithic cow say it’s possibly the earliest example of veterinary surgery — though it may have also been mere practice for performing the procedure on a human patient.
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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: medicine
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