Short lives, short size – why are pygmies small?

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchBaka pygmiesFor decades, anthropologists have debated over why pygmies have evolved to be short. Amid theories about their jungle homes and lack of food, new research suggests that we have been looking at the problem from the wrong angle. The diminutive stature of pygmies is not a direct adaptation to their environment, but the side-effect of an evolutionary push to start having children earlier.

Andrea Migliano at the University of Cambridge suggests that pygmies have opted for a ‘live fast, die short’ strategy. Their short lives gives them very limited time as potential parents, and they have adapted by becoming sexually mature at a young age. That puts a brake on their pubescent growth spurts, leaving them with shorter adult heights.

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The social life of our extinct relatives

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchOne of our extinct evolutionary cousins, Paranthropus robustus, may have walked like a man but it socialised like a gorilla. Using only fossils, UCL scientists have found that P.robustus males were much larger than females, competed fiercely for mates and led risky lives under heavy threat from predators.

I wrote an article about the cool new finding for Nature Network. Here’s the opening and you can read the full article here.

A single fossil can tell you about the shape, diet and movements of an extinct animal but with enough specimens, you can reconstruct their social lives too.

Charles Lockwood of University College London used an unusually large collection of fossils to peer back in time at the social structures of one of our closest extinct relatives, Paranthropus robustus, which inhabited southern Africa between 1.2 million and 2 million years ago.

Why are women better at food shopping than men?

Men do better than women at most tests of spatial awareness, but not all. A new study set in a farmer’s market shows that women outperform men at remembering the locations of food, particularly the most calorific ones.

Our evolutionary history makes women better at finding food in supermarkets than menWhen men and women do the grocery run, their evolutionary histories play out among the aisles of food in subtle ways. Women are more likely to remember where things are; men are better at plotting efficient paths through the smorgasbord of choice. These different abilities are the result of evolutionary adaptations that took place when we were still hunting and gathering.

The evolution of sex differences

The brains of men and women are clearly different, and rarely more so than in the realms of spatial awareness. In most tests of spatial ability, men routinely outperform women. But to Irvin Silverman and Marion Eals, this crude assertion crumbled under an evolutionary spotlight.

In 1992, the duo noted that our mental abilities were not created from a vacuum – they evolved to allow us to cope with different adaptive challenges. And for the men and women of our dim evolutionary past, these challenges were very different.

Back in the day, when we were still living as hunter-gatherers, men did most of the hunting while women excelled at gathering. And these jobs required very different spatial skills. Hunters, for example, needed to chase their prey over unfamiliar and winding routes; once they had killed, they needed to work out the quickest route home.

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Resistance to an extinct virus makes us more vulnerable to HIV

Immunity to viral infections sounds like a good thing, but it can come at a price. Millions of years ago, we evolved resistance to a virus that plagued other primates. Today, that virus is extinct, but our resistance to it may be making us more vulnerable to the present threat of HIV.

Many extinct viruses are not completely gone. Some members of a group called retroviruses insinuated themselves into our DNA and became a part of our genetic code.

Our resistance to the ancient PtERV1 may explain our vulnerability to HIV.Indeed, a large proportion of the genomes of all primates consists of the embedded remnants of ancient viruses. Looking at these remnants is like genetic archaeology, and it can tell us about infections both past and present.

Viral hitchhikers

When retroviruses (such as HIV, right) infect a cell, they insert their own DNA into their host’s genome, using it as a base of operations. From there, the virus can pop out again and make new copies of itself, re-infect its host or move on to new cells.

If it manages to infect an egg or sperm cell, the virus could pass onto the next generation. Hidden inside the embryo’s DNA, it becomes replicated trillions of times over and ends up in every single one of the new individual’s cells.

These hitchhikers are called ‘endogenous retroviruses’. While they could pop out at any time, they quickly gain mutations in their DNA that knocks out their ability to infect. Unable to move on, they become as much a part of the host’s DNA as its own genes.

In 2005, a group of scientists led by Evan Eichler compared endogenous retroviruses in different primates and found startling differences. In particular, chimps and gorillas have over a hundred copies of the virus PtERV1 (or Pan troglodytes endogenous retrovirus in full). Our DNA has none at all, and this is one of the largest differences between our genome and that of chimps.

Our ancestors shared a similar geographical range to the ancestors of these apes, and would have encountered the same viruses, including PtERV1. And yet, we were spared from infection, while the apes were not. Why?

Protecting against an ancient virus

HIV daughter particles - retroviruses like HIV can integrate into a host’s DNAShari Kaiser and colleagues from the University of Washington and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center believed that the answer lies in a protein called TRIM5α that defends us from retroviruses. It latches onto the outer coat of incoming viruses, and tells other proteins to dismantle or destroy them.

Other primates have their own versions of TRIM5α that protect against a different range of viruses, and the protein has evolved dramatically in different primate lineages. Kaiser believed that our version of TRIM5α protected us from PtERV1, while that of other apes did not. To test her idea, all she had to do was to resurrect a dead virus.

Obviously, PtERV1 is long extinct, but its remnants exist inside the genomes of chimps. Kaiser compared dozens of these remnants and by identifying common elements, she worked out the ancestral sequence of the virus.

She created a small part of PtERV1 and fused it with bits of a modern virus, MLV, to create a fully-functioning hybrid. To nullify any potential for spread beyond the lab, she crippled the virus so that it could infect once and only once.

The reconstructed virus successfully infected mammal cells in a lab, but not when human TRIM5α was around. The guardian protein demolished the virus’s infectivity, reducing it by more than 100 times. As Kaiser predicted, our genomes are free of PtERV1 because TRIM5α killed it before it could reach our DNA.

Resist one virus, succumb to another

TRIM5a provides antiviral protection that seesaws between different virus species.But this protection carries a price – it makes us vulnerable to HIV. Over the course of primate evolution, humans made an important change in the amino acid sequence of TRIM5α that allowed the protein to fight off PtERV1. When Kaiser changed the protein back to its original form, she found that it gained the ability to fight off HIV, but lost its resistance to PtERV1.

In fact, Kaiser found that no primate species has a version of TRIM5α capable of fighting off both viruses at the same time. We are resistant to ptERV1 and vulnerable to HIV, but chimps, gorillas, baboons and rhesus macaques show the reverse strengths and weaknesses.

When it comes to retrovirus immunity, there is no win-win situation. Having defeated one enemy, we have unwittingly made ourselves more vulnerable to another.

Reference: Kaiser, Malik & Emerman. 2007. Restriction of an extinct retrovirus by the human TRIM5a antiviral protein. Science 316:1756 – 1758.

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Orang-utan study suggests that upright walking may have started in the trees

A common theory of human evolution says that after our ancestors descended from the trees, they went form walking on four legs to two. But a new study in orang-utans could overturn that theory, by suggesting that our ancestors evolved a bipedal walk while they were still in the trees.

Did and upright posture evolve in a tree-dwelling ancestor?Walking on two legs, or bipedalism, immediately sets us apart form other apes. It frees our arms for using tools and weapons and is a key part of our evolutionary success. Scientists have put forward a few theories to explain how our upright gait evolved, but the ‘savannah theory’ is by far the most prolific.

It’s nicely illustrated by this misleading image that has become a mainstay of popular culture. It suggests that our ancestors went from four legs to two via the four-legged knuckle-walking gait of gorillas and chimps. Dwindling forests eventually pushed them from knuckle-walking to a full upright posture. This stance is more efficient over long distances and allowed our ancestors to travel across open savannahs.

But this theory fails in the light of new fossils which push back the first appearance of bipedalism to a time before the forests thinned, and even before our ancestors split from those of chimpanzees. Very early hominins, including Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) and Millennium Man (Orrorin) certainly ambled along on two legs, but they did so through woodland not plains.

Our arms provide a further clue. Even though our ancestors’ back legs quickly picked up adaptations for bipedalism, they steadfastly kept long, grasping arms, an adaptation more suited to moving through branches. To Susannah Thorpe at the University of Birmingham, these are signs that bipedalism evolved while our ancestors were still living in trees.

Two legs good, four legs bad?

Orang-utans can go bipedal and our ancestors may well have done the same in the trees.But there is a snag – an adaptation must provide some sort of benefit. And, as many children painfully discover, it is hard to imagine how walking on two legs could benefit sometime in a tree.

But Thorpe has an answer to this too. She spent a year in the Sumatran jungle, studying the orang-utan – the only great ape to spend the majority of its life in the trees.

She carefully documented over 3,000 sightings of wild orang-utans moving through the treetops. On large sturdy branches, they walk on all fours (below right), and on medium-sized ones, they start to use their arms to support their weight.

But on the thinnest and most unstable branches, the apes use a posture that Thorpe calls ‘assisted bipedalism’ (below left). They grip multiple branches with their long, prehensile toes and use their arms to balance and transfer their weight. And unlike chimps which bend their knees while standing up, bipedal orang-utans keep their legs straight, just like humans do.

An orang-utan used both two-legged and four-legged postures.

It’s a win-win posture – the hands provide extra safety, while the two-legged stance frees at least one hand to grab food or extra support. With it, the apes can venture onto the furthest and thinnest branches, which provides them with several advantages.

As Thorpe says, “Bipedalism is used to navigate the smallest branches where the tastiest fruits are, and also to reach further to help cross gaps between trees.” That saves them energy because they don’t have to circle around any gaps, and it saves their lives because they don’t have to descend to the ground. “The Sumatran tiger is down there licking its lips”, she said.

A new view of ape & human evolution

With these strong adaptive benefits, it becomes reasonable to suggest that bipedalism evolved among the branches. Based on this theory, Thorpe, along with Roger Holder and Robin Crompton from the University of Liverpool, have painted an intriguing new picture of ape evolution.

It begins in the same way as many others – with the rainforests of the Miocene epoch (24 to 5 million years ago) becoming increasingly patchy. For tree-dwelling apes, the gaps in the canopy started becoming too big to cross. But in Thorpe’s view, these ancestral apes were already using a bipedal stance, and different groups took it in separate directions.

Our ancestors were bipedal long before they came down from the trees.The ancestors of orang-utans remained in the increasingly fragmented canopy and became specialised and restricted there. The ancestors of chimps and those of gorillas specialised in climbing up and down trees to make use of food both in the canopy and on the ground. The postures used in vertical climbing are actually very similar to those used in four-legged knuckle-walking and this became their walk of choice on the ground.

The ancestors of humans abandoned the trees altogether. They used the bipedal stance that served them well on thin branches to exploit the potential of the stable land environment. Over time, they brought in further adaptations for efficient walking, culminating in the human walking style that we now neglect by sitting at a computer all day.

Thorpe’s reconstruction is delightfully non-human-centric. It suggests that in the evolution of movement, we were conservatives who relied on a walk that had been around for millions of years. Chimps and gorillas with their fancy new knuckle-dragging gait were the true innovators.

Reference: Thorpe, Holder & Crompton. 2007. Origin of human bipedalism as an adaptation for locomotion on flexible branches. Science 316: 1328-1331.

Image: Black and white image from Science magazine.

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Related stuff:
On ape and human evolution:
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Living optic fibres bypass the retina’s back-to-front structure

The human retina is back-to-front. Its silly structure means that light has to cross a tangle of nerves and blood vessels before it reaches the light sensors at the back. Now, scientists have found that the retina uses special cells called Muller cells that funnel light through the retina, in the style of living optic fibres.

If you were a designer tasked with creating a machine for collecting and processing light, the last thing you would come up with is the human eye. Darwin marvelled at the eye’s perfection, but in this, he was wrong. Aside from the many illusions that can fool it, our eyes have a major structural flaw.

The human retina is back-to-front and has the light sensing cells at the back.In humans and other back-boned animals, the light-sensing cells of the eye lie at the back of the retina (see image right; courtesy of University of Michigan).

In front of these sensors lie several layers of nerve cells that carry their signals, and blood vessels that supply them with nutrients. The nerves join to the main optic nerve which passes through a hole in the centre of the retina and connects to the brain.

It’s a stupid, back-to-front design. Light has to pass through several layers of nerves, not to mention blood vessels, before it hits the retina itself. It’s a bit like designing a camera, and sticking the wiring in front of the lens.

Octopuses and squid have a very similar eye to ours, but theirs’ are much more sensibly structured. Their nerves and blood vessels connect to the light sensors from behind so that light can hit the sensor cells without having to negotiate an obstacle course. And because their retina doesn’t need a hole to accommodate the optic nerve, they have no blind spot.

In our own retinas, nerves and vessels are random in their spacing and irregular in their shape. The light that shines past them is reflected, scattered and refracted.

It’s amazing that our eye can see at all. But even though there is clearly no designer, evolution does a pretty good job instead. It has a remarkable capacity for making the best of a bad job. In the case of our eye, some of the obscuring cells act as living optic fibres, to funnel light onto the sensors it covers.

Muller cells – living optic fibres

Muller cells behave like optic fibres.Kristian Franke and colleagues from the Paul Flechsig Institute for Brain Research first noticed these fibres by shining light onto the retinas of guinea pigs. They looked at a cross-section near where the light sensors lay and saw a very regular pattern of bright spots. Clearly, some parts of the retina were transmitting light far better than others.

As they looked at further cross-sections throughout the retina, they realised that the bright spots were the endpoints of long tubes that stretched throughout the retina. Near the top, the tubes widened into funnels.

Franze identified these tubes as Muller cells. The brain cells aren’t nerves themselves, but are part of their supporting cast. They are long cylinders arranged in columns across the entire retina, and provide a route for light to pass through the tangled morass of nerves and blood vessels.

How they work

The eye has evolved to produce images despite a silly back-to-front retina.The Muller cells gather light at the top of the retina and channel it to the light sensors as a tight beam. Along the way, the light is barely reflected or scattered and little is lost when it finally reaches the light sensors, just like modern optic fibres.

Light enters the Muller cells at a shallow angle and is slowed down considerably by the cells’ high refractive index. When it hits the cells’ boundaries, it is almost completely reflected back along the tube.

Their funnel shape allows the Muller cells to gather and transmit as much light as possible. But as they narrow in the middle, they take up a very small amount of space and leave plenty of room for the blood vessels and nerves that the retina needs.

On average, each Muller cell serves a single cone cell and several rod cells. This one-to-one system ensures that the images that eventually hit the light sensors keep strong contrast, and are not distorted.

Evolution has given the vertebrate eye a remarkably ingenious solution to its ludicrous inverted retina. The eye may not be the perfect organ that Darwin thought, but new insights into its’ evolution still provides us with awe-inspiring surprises.


Reference: Franze, Grosche, Skatchkov, Schinkinger, Foja, Schild, Uckermann, Travis, Reichenbach & Guck. 2007. Muller cells are living optical fibers in the vertebrate retina. PNAS 104: 8287-8292.

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Chimps show that actions spoke louder than words in language evolution

Chimpanzees and bonobos use gestures more flexibly and adaptively than other forms of communication. These gestures, and not words, may have been the starting point for the evolution of human language.

Hollywood cavemen typically communicate with grunts and snorts, reflecting a belief that human language originated like this and slowly evolved into the rich and sophisticated tongues we use today.

Chimps and bonobos have thier own vocabularies of gestures.But researchers from Emory University, Atlanta have found evidence that the origins of human language lie in gestures, not words. If they are right, then high-fives, V-signs and thumbs-ups could more closely reflect the beginnings of human language than conversations do.

The importance of gestures

All primates can communicate with each other through facial expressions, body postures and calls, but humans and apes are unique in their use of gestures. These go beyond simple postures or walking patterns – they are movements of the hand, limbs and feet, specifically directed at another individual.

We think of language as mainly spoken or written but gestures play an enormous, often overlooked role. After all, isn’t a speaker who waves their hands animatedly more engaging than one who stands motionless behind a podium?

And they are such an intrinsic part of the way we communicate that a blind speaker will make gestures normally to a blind audience, and babies use gestures long before they learn their first words.

To understand the role of gestures in the origins of human language, Amy PIllock and Frans de Wall decided to see how they are used by our closest relatives – the chimpanzee and the bonobo (the pygmy chimpanzee

How chimps and bonobos communicate

Bonobos may communicate with more sophistication than chimps.For one and a half years, they watched 34 chimps belonging to two separate groups, and 13 bonobos (right), again from two groups. Through painstaking analyses, they identified 31 different gestures and 18 different facial and vocal expressions.

The facial and vocal signals were very consistent between the two species. They were used in the same ways, and in very specific contexts, such as play, grooming or fights. For example, both chimps and bonobos scream when threatened or attacked, a gesture that is shared by many other primates.

This suggests that these signals are an evolutionarily ancient means of communication, and were probably used by the common ancestor that we shared with both chimps and bonobos.

Gestures on the other hand, were altogether more flexible. They were used in all sorts of situations and carried very different meanings depending on the context.

When a chimp stretches out an open hand (below), it can be asking for support during a fight or for a share of food during a meal. In the same way, a person raising his hand could be greeting a friend, surrendering, or answering a question in class.

Chimps use gestures more flexibly than other forms of communication.Chimps and bonobos also differed considerably in their vocabulary of gestures, with each species having its own ‘gesture culture’. The two groups of bonobos even used slightly different sets of gestures to each other.

Gestures and the origins of human language

Pillock and de Waal believe that these studies strongly position gestures as the starting point for human language evolution. In chimps and bonobos, gestures are more adaptable and flexible than calls or facial expressions.

They are relatively disconnected from specific emotions and can be more easily controlled. Facial expressions can give away big clues about a person’s emotional state in all but the best poker faces, but gestures can be used subtly or even deceptively.

Their adaptability means that gestures can be used in many ways and are free to pick up a variety of symbolic meanings. They pick up cultural differences easily, as shown by the very different ‘gesture vocabularies’ used by chimps and bonobos.

Pillock’s and de Waal’s experiments also support other studies which suggest that the language of bonobos is more sophisticated than that of chimps. For a start, their gestures show greater cultural variations.

While bonobos combine them with calls and facial expressions less frequently than chimps do, but they also respond much more strongly to these joint signals. Pillock and de Waal believe that the bonobos could be using these multiple signals more deliberately than chimps to subtly change the meaning of a facial expression or vice versa.

The chimps on the other hand, may just be using joint signals to say the same message more loudly. Among the great apes, the bonobos may deserve the silver medal for their language skills.

Reference: Pollick & de Waal. 2007. Ape gestures and language evolution. PNAS 104: 8184-8189

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