Tag Archives: whales

A bear there was, a bear, a bear

50.2-47.5 Million years ago

The end-Cretaceous mass extinction knocked off not only the dinosaurs (except for birds), but also air-breathing marine predators like mososaurs and plesiosaurs. Birds and mammals started moving into the empty niche: penguins from early on, and eventually whales.
penguins

(Cartoon by Sam Gross. Not scientifically accurate.)

People around the world seem to be naturally inclined to distinguish major animal life forms according to whether they walk, fly, swim, slither, or creep, so evolutionary shifts in modes of travel – the origin of flight, the return to the sea – really catch people’s imagination – and provoke Creationists. The whale story is particularly dramatic. When Darwin was tried to account for the evolution of whales from a land-dwelling ancestor, he cited accounts of bears swimming and feeding in water, and wrote “I can see no difficulty in a race of bears being rendered, by natural selection, more and more aquatic in their structure and habits, with larger and larger mouths, till a creature was produced as monstrous as a whale.” This statement attracted so much ridicule that Darwin took it out of later editions of The Origin of Species. But he turns out to have been very much on target. We now have a great sequence of whale ancestors. The sequence runs from today’s Pakicetus — a wolf size meat-and-fish eater that splashed along the shores of the ancient Tethys sea separating Africa from Eurasia — to the “walking whale,” Ambulocetus, and on to true whales. Darwin was sort of on the right track thinking of bears, but anatomy and genetics put the ancestors of whales firmly among artiodactyls – hooved animals including hippos, pigs, and cows.

Toba? or the sperm whale effect?

74 thousand years ago, a big chunk of the island of Sumatra blew up. It was the biggest volcanic explosion in the past two million years, expelling 2800 times as much debris as the Mount Saint Helens eruption in Washington State in 1980. Ash from the super-eruption is found all the way from Lake Malawi to the South China Sea. The resulting Toba caldera measures about 20 by 60 miles.

toba

The Toba eruption coincides with a shift back to glacial conditions, and it may be that there’s a connection, that Earth went through a long volcanic winter after the eruption, which shifted climate to a colder equilibrium.

Did Toba have an effect on human evolution? Somewhere between 100 and 50 thousand years ago, human populations went through a bottleneck: modern humans are descended from just 1,000 to 10,000 breeding pairs from that period. It’s been argued that Toba wiped out the majority of Homo sapiens around at the time, leaving only a small group of survivors.

But the evidence that Toba is responsible for the bottleneck is equivocal. In some places humans seem to have passed through the period of the eruption without major disruptions. Also, there’s a point that gets missed in a lot of popular reporting: just because a species went through a bottleneck doesn’t necessarily mean that the population of the whole species ever shrank to that size. In the case of Homo sapiens it could be that the total population was always many times larger than 1,000-10,000. It’s just that the other tens or hundreds of thousands got replaced. In other words, we may not be looking at an external catastrophe wiping out most of humanity, and a few groups of survivors recovering. Instead, we may be looking at a small population of our eventual ancestors expanding and outcompeting other populations, so that it was our ancestors, not a volcano, who made sure that most human beings alive 74,000 years ago didn’t leave descendants.

This may reflect something special about human evolution: human beings typically belong to tribes and ethnic groups defined by distinctive cultures, and cultural boundaries (including language boundaries) often act as barriers to interbreeding. Several authors have suggested that this may make human beings unusually susceptible to population replacement via “cultural group selection,” and that this might account for humans having unusually low effective population size, as genes “hitchhike” along with expanding cultures. Interestingly, sperm whales, which live in populations defined by different song dialects (and other cultural differences) may show the same genetic pattern.

In May 2015, the Toba volcano grew more active than usual, producing large emissions of steam and foul gases. Locals were reported to be concerned.

A bear there was, a bear, a bear

The end-Cretaceous mass extinction knocked off not only the dinosaurs (except for birds), but also air-breathing marine predators like mososaurs and plesiosaurs. Birds and mammals started moving into the empty niche: penguins from early on, and eventually whales.
penguins

(Cartoon by Sam Gross. Not scientifically accurate.)

People around the world seem to be naturally inclined to distinguish major animal life forms according to whether they walk, fly, swim, slither, or creep, so evolutionary shifts in modes of travel – the origin of flight, the return to the sea – really catch people’s imagination – and provoke Creationists. The whale story is particularly dramatic. When Darwin was tried to account for the evolution of whales from a land-dwelling ancestor, he cited accounts of bears swimming and feeding in water, and wrote “I can see no difficulty in a race of bears being rendered, by natural selection, more and more aquatic in their structure and habits, with larger and larger mouths, till a creature was produced as monstrous as a whale.” This statement attracted so much ridicule that Darwin took it out of later editions of The Origin of Species. But he turns out to have been very much on target. We now have a great sequence of whale ancestors. The sequence runs from today’s Pakicetus — a wolf size meat-and-fish eater that splashed along the shores of the ancient Tethys sea separating Africa from Eurasia — to the “walking whale,” Ambulocetus, and on to true whales. Darwin was sort of on the right track thinking of bears, but anatomy and genetics put the ancestors of whales firmly among artiodactyls – hooved animals including hippos, pigs, and cows.

A bear there was, a bear, a bear

The end-Cretaceous mass extinction knocked off not only the dinosaurs (except for birds), but also air-breathing marine predators like mososaurs and plesiosaurs. Birds and mammals started moving into the empty niche: penguins from early on, and eventually whales.
penguins

(Cartoon by Sam Gross. Not scientifically accurate.)

The whale story is particularly dramatic. When Darwin was tried to account for the evolution of whales from a land-dwelling ancestor, he cited accounts of bears swimming and feeding in water, and wrote “I can see no difficulty in a race of bears being rendered, by natural selection, more and more aquatic in their structure and habits, with larger and larger mouths, till a creature was produced as monstrous as a whale.” This statement attracted so much ridicule that Darwin took it out of later editions of the Orgin of Species. But he turns out to have been very much on target. We now have a great sequence of whale ancestors. The sequence runs from yesterday’s Pakicetus — a wolf size meat-and-fish eater that splashed along the shores of the ancient Tethys sea separating Africa from Eurasia — to today’s “walking whale,” Ambulocetus, and on to true whales. Darwin was sort of on the right track thinking of bears, but anatomy and genetics put the ancestors of whales firmly among artiodactyls – hooved animals including hippos, pigs, and cows.