Humans are pretty adaptable compared to other hominin species, and other apes, which may have been key to the survival of our species. Most animals stick to particular habitats, or are wide-ranging, and based on that scientists classify species on a continuum between generalist and specialist.
But homo sapiens are unique in that they can specialize, and they can generalize. We are specialist-generalists. Some humans have adapted intensively to one ecological niche, most famously high-altitude zones, while other wander across ecological zones. Yet we are still all one species, able to intermarry, or switch regions and adapt. That makes homo sapiens unique across species.
Israeli cave finds challenge our theories about evolution’s winners and losers. Because the archaeological evidence shows that homo sapiens lived in the area between 115,000 and 75,000 years ago. Neanderthals lived in the area around the same time, successfully maintaining a population without interbreeding with the neighboring homo sapiens.
Homo sapiens are thinner, adapted for warmer and wetter climates. Neanderthals are stockier and carry more heat, adapted for cooler and drier climates.
So when the climate of the area changed, steppe-glaciers advancing and forests disappearing, homo sapiens retreated while Neanderthals stayed. It’s unclear if the homo sapiens living in the area died out, or moved south to more favorable climes. The archaeological record does not say.
But we do know that it about 5,000 years later, around 60,000 years ago, homo sapiens sent a second successful wave of settlers into the area. And of course, in the long run, the Neanderthals were the ones who died out. But the
evidence from Israel’s caves show that outcome was not always inevitable.
Obscure engravings on animal bones from the site of Lingjing in Henan Province suggest that early hominins who lived there 125,000 years ago may have had more advanced cognitive abilities than once believed. The mysterious markings proved to have been etched into the bone. The bone was then rubbed with red ochre powder to make the markings more visible. It is unknown why they made these marks, or what they represent.
A fossil of an unusual piranha-like fish from the Late Jurassic period has been unearthed by scientists in southern Germany. It belonged to an extinct order of bony fish, and had serrated sharp teeth, perfect for tearing bites off its prey. That’s very unusual since most species in its order were shellfish eaters with flat, crushing teeth.
Even more amazing – some of the fossil’s victims were in the limestone with it! Fish with chunks missing from their fins were found nearby, confirming that the new find was indeed a flesh-eating bony fish, the first one on record.
The fossil has been named Piranhamesodon pinnatomus. The genus name is “Piranha” (you can guess why) plus “mesodon,"a common suffix for bony fish of this order, and the species name is Latin for "fin-cutter.”
Quetzalcoatlus, the largest known flying animal ever, was as tall as a giraffe. It flew over North America during the Late Cretaceous, about 100.5–66 million years ago. The name comes from the Mesoamerican feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl.
More than 40,000 years ago, Australia used to be home to many species of giant kangaroos. One, the
short-faced kangaroo, had a single-toed clawed foot (modern-day kangaroos have three toes), and weighed more than 260 pounds (118 kilograms, modern-day kangaroos reach only 200 lbs). And the short-faced kangaroo had a box-shaped head. A recent study of the short-faced kangaroo’s odd skull shape found that it was specifically adapted to eat
tough foods like mature leaves, stems, and branches when other food sources were scarce.
That makes the short-faced kangaroo very similar to the modern-day giant panda. They both have thick jaws, and specialized skulls, evolved for eating the toughest plants that other animals can’t.
When times are hard, the short-faced kangaroo and the giant panda both have a competitive edge.
These flightless birds were 11 feet tall and weighed nearly half a ton at an estimated 450 kilograms. For context: the ostrich is he largest bird on earth and adult ostriches weigh just 150 kilos (330 lbs).
The Pachystruthio dmanisensis was discovered using a femur bone found in 2018 on the Crimean Peninsula, in the northern Black Sea. Based on other animal remains found in the same cave this particular dmanisensis is estimated to have died between 1.5 and 2 million years ago. That puts it at the right time to have been around when the first humans migrated to the area!
A new computer model has been used to test a variety of factors that may have influenced the extinction of the Neanderthals. And the results suggest that humans probably did not kill them off.
The computer results suggest that wars or epidemics brought on by contact with modern humans
would have caused Neanderthals to die off more rapidly than appears to
have been the case.
Based on findings from the archaeological record,
Neanderthals are believed to have lived alongside modern humans in
Europe for some 4,000 to 10,000 years. The researchers think a slight
drop in the fertility rate among young Neanderthal women, perhaps
brought on by climate change and resulting food shortages, could instead
be to blame.
An amazing recent fossil discovery: a whole school of fish! A single slab of limestone from the Green River Formation in North America contained 259 fish of the extinct Erismatopterus levatus species. They lived between 56 to 34 million years ago.
The discovery is exciting because it is a rare case of fossils demonstrating behavior – in this case, that fish have gathered into shoals for millions of years.