Arxiu d'etiquetes: carnivorism

Cooking also made us human

Cooking is a distinctive and unique feature of our species. After the success of Eating meat made us human, we continue delving into the nutrition of our ancestors as one of many factors that led us to Homo sapiens. We will analyze the contributions of our readers in the previous post on the importance of carbohydrates and the use of fire.

THE OPPORTUNIST OMNIVOROUS

In the previous post we learned that one factor that contributed to the fast growth of the brain was the increased intake of meat by H. habilis, that allowed them to save energy in digestion (Aiello, L. Wheeler, P, 1995). Another factor that allowed saving energy to dedicate to brain growth, since Lucywas bipedalism (Adrienne L. Zihlman and Debra R. Bolter, 2015).

One of the things that gave us evolutionary success is our ability to take advantage of almost any food, allowing our expansion around the globe. Current diets are varied and traditionally linked to the availability of the geographical area or time of year, which changed with the development of agriculture and livestock. Human groups studied in historical period without agriculture or livestock, hunt, fish and gather very different foods, but no groups exclusively carnivorous or exclusively vegetarian have been found (except Eskimos, who have traditionally fed on hunting and fishing because of the characteristics of their environment, frozen during almost all the year).

Hazdas going hunting The hazdas are a small African tribe of hunter-gatherers 1500 Photo:.. Andreas Lederer
Hazda people returning from hunting. The Hadza are a small African tribe of about 1500 hunter-gatherers. Photo: Andreas Lederer

The first tools, possibly used by Australopithecus but obvious since H. habilis, allowed our ancestors to get food that otherwise would have been impossible to get: drilling and tearing flesh, breaking the hard shells of nuts, and later crushing and grinding grain. Thus, the basis of our current supplies are hard cereal grains (e.g. rice, wheat) and the dried seeds of legumes (e.g. lentils), because our needing of protein intake is low, although meat is consumed in excess in the First World countries.

But before the advent of agriculture, our ancestors ate what they found: Neanderthals in hostile areas had to base the diet with meat and supplement it with vegetables when they were available, while in milder climate zones, like the Mediterranean , make use of aquatic resources as molluscs, turtles and fish. Furthermore, by its robust body and increased muscle they needed more protein intake.

Neanderthals collecting mussels in Gibraltar, one of the last settlements of this species. Photo: DK Discover

THE ORIGINS OF THE CUISINE

As we have seen, seeds are very nutritious because they are rich in carbohydrates (especially starch), but low in protein; in addition, legumes must be cooked to be assimilated. No other animal, except us and our ancestors, prepare food or cooks. Cooking is an unique human trait which opened an infinite number of possibilities in our nutrition.

CONTROL OF FIRE

The first traces of use of fire date back 1.6 million years ago in Africa, although the first reliable evidence is a hearth 0.79 million years old. The responsible: Homo erectus, but those who used fire continuously, especially for cooking, were a later species: Neanderthals.

 Homo erectus, AMNH, American Museun natural history, querol mireia, mireia querol rovira
Homo erectus, American Museum of Natural History. Photo: Mireia Querol Rovira

The advantages of controlling fire were numerous and very important, but in this post we will delve into the first one:

  • Cooking and food storage
  • Better hunting and scavenging: fire allowed them to obtain prey hunted by large carnivores or direct theirs to natural traps .
  • Protection from predators
  • Heat: increased survival when temperatures fell.
  • Light: they could extend its tasks when night had fallen, favouring social skills and later, the development of language. In addition, changing the circadian rhythm (24h internal clock) could have extended the reproductive period .
  • Access to new territories: burning areas of dense vegetation to take dead animals and make use of new areas and encouraging migration to cooler places.
  • Improved tools: wood tools made with fire are more durable.
  • Better hygiene: burning waste avoided infections.
  • Medicine: after H. erectus, the fire has been used as disinfectant and instrument sterilizer and for the preparation of remedies based on medicinal plants, as inhalation of vapors or preparing of  infusions.
    Homo erectus, Daynes, CosmoCaixa, mireia querol mireia querol rovira
    Homo erectus surprised by the strength of his spear warmed with fire. Figure by Elisabeth Daynès, CosmoCaixa. Photo: Mireia Querol Rovira

    ADVANTAGES OF COOKING FOOD

    • Variety in the diet: certain foodstuff is indigestible raw or difficult to chew (especially for individuals with dental problems). Stewed food is softer and easier to digest, allowing H. erectus expand their diet respect their ancestors, accessing food of higher nutritional value (Richard Wrangham, 2009). Cooking improves the palatability and increases the assimilable carbohydrate availability in tubers, vegetables… and therefore it gives them more energy value. According to Wrangham and other experts, raw foodism can be harmful to health, because our body is adapted to this “pre-digestion” in the stoves, which allows us to be the primate with the shorter digestive system in relation to the body.
    • Reduction of the teeth: tusks and teeth could have been reduced due to consumption of cooked food. A tooth that has to bite a boiled potato instead of a raw one can be 82% smaller. Less space were needed for chewing muscles and teeth in the skull, so the mouth and face became smaller. This free space can be dedicated to accommodate an increasingly large brain. H. erectus had a brain 42% larger than H. habilis.
    • Less energy consumption: energy and time dedicated to chew and digest cooked food is less, so the number of final calories obtained increases. This energy can be devoted to brain development rather than digesting food.

      comida neandertal, dieta neandertal, neanderthal, dietPossible Neanderthal diet. Photo: Kent Lacin LLC/The Food Passionates/Corbis.
    • Fewer diseases: raw food, especially meat, may contain potentially pathogenic or deadly bacteria and parasites. But from certain temperatures, many of these bacteria die, so eating cooked rather than raw, our ancestors increased their survival significantly.
    • Less poisoning: some plants, fungi and tubers are toxic if are consumed raw, like some edible mushrooms, sweet potato or potatoes with green areas.
    • Food preservation: by smoking meat, it could be kept in good condition for longer and take advantage of it in times of scarcity. In addition, cooked food lasts longer than raw food.

CONCLUSION

In short, cooking was another factor involved in the brain development and cognitive abilities of our ancestors, allowed energy savings to digest and chew food, decreased masticatory apparatus, allowed the young become earlier independent from their breast-feeding mothers (who could mate more often), improved immune system… Even improved social skills: left more free time so they could dedicate it to other tasks, such as cooperation to keep the fire, planning the collection or capture of food, distribution of food in the group acoording to range and health of individuals… intelligence enhanced cooking techniques, which in turn enhanced the intelligence, in an infinite wheel that still exists today.

REFERENCES

MIREIA QUEROL ALL YOU NEED IS BIOLOGY

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Carnivorous plants

The carnivorism is a nutrition style associated to animals, to the world of heterotrophs. But it has been seen that there are plants that are also able to feed on other organisms. They are called carnivorous plants and their strategies to capture dams are very different and curious.

WHAT IS A CARNIVOROUS PLANT?

A carnivorous plants , even being autotroph, get part of their nutritional supplement by feeding on animals, especially insects.

There are three basic requirements that  carnivorous plants must comply:

  • they must be able to attract, capture and kill the preys. To get their attention, they usually show reddish coloration and secrete nectar. Morphological and anatomical adaptations for retaining and killing the preys such as traps are used.
  • Digestion and absorbance of the nutrients releasedby the damn .
  • And finally, it has to draw significant benefit from the process.
Dionaea muscipula
Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) (Author: Jason).

WHERE DO THEY LIVE?

Carnivorous plants are  not competitive in normal environments and tend to have a small root system, they need this specialization to allow them to grow faster. They are usually found in low mineralization soils, but with a high concentration of organic matter, sunny areas (as they still perform photosynthesis) and with  a high humidity.

Normally they are also calcifuges, i.e., they are not well adapted to alkaline soils and prefer acidic environments, where the source of calcium comes from the prey. They tend to inhabit soils with low oxygen and  saturated in water in a reducing environment. Some are aquatic and live either floating or submerged, but always near the surface.

TRAPS AND EXAMPLES

The capture system is quite diverse, but can be classified according to whether there is movement or not. We consider active strategies for those plants having mechanical or suction movements. Semi-active strategies which present mucilaginous glands and have movement and finally, passive ones, with no motion for prey capture. They can present mucilaginous glands or pitfall traps. Somes amples are given below.

ACTIVE TRAPS

Venus flytrap

In the case of this plant, the traps are mechanical and they are formed by two valves joined by a central axis. These valves are the result of non photosynthetic leave transformations. The stem acts as a petiole and performs photosynthesis, for this reason, it is thickened, increasing its surface and facilitating the process. Furthermore, the valves have nectar glands to attract preys and its perimeter is surrounded by teeth which help the capture, as when the trap is closed, the teeth overlay perfectly avoiding the animal’s escape..

But, what mechanism drives the closing? There’s a gigh number of triggers hairs inside the valves. When the dam is located on the trap and makes the trigger hairs move twice or more in less than 20 seconds, the valves close immediately.

In this vídeos From the BBC one (Youtube Channel: BBC) we can observe the whole process.

Utricularia, the bladderwort

This plant lives submerged near the surface and is known as the bladderwort, because it has bladder-like traps. The bladders are characterized for having sensitive hairs that activate the suction mechanism of the dam. Then, the bladder generates a very strong internal pressure that sucks water in, dragging the animal to the trap. It’s volume can increase up to 40% when water enters.

In the following video we can see the bladderwort trapping a tadpole of cane toad (Youtube Channel: Philip Stoddard):

SEMIACTIVE TRAPS

When I caught you, you won’t be able to escape

The presence of stalked mucilaginous glands is not unique in the carnivorous plant world, many plants use them as a defence or to prevent water loss. But, some carnivorous plants they are used to capture animals, as the sundews (Drosera) does.

The glands presents on the leaves of the sundews are formed by a stalk and an apical cell that releases mucilage. This substance attracts preys by its smell and taste. When the dam is located on the leaves, some drops of mucilage join each other to form a viscous mass that will cover all the prey, preventing its escape. We note that the glands have some mobility and move themselves to get in contact with the prey. Also, as a result, the leaf wrappes, facilitating the subsequent digestion.

The following video shows the operation of this mechanism (Youtube Channel: TheShopofHorrors):

PASSIVE TRAPS

Don’t get to sticky! 

The Drosophyllum‘s case is very similar to the previous one, but this time the stalked mucilaginous glands don’t have mobility and, therefore, the leaf doesn’t have either. The insect gets caught just because it is hooked on it’s sticky trap and cannot escape.

Drosophyllum
Insects trapped by Drosophyllum‘s stalked mucilaginous glands  (Author: incidencematrix).

Carefull not to fall!

Finally, we see the passive pitfall traps. They sometimes have a lid that protects them from an excess wàter getting in, even though it isn’t a part of the trap mechanism. The pitfall traps can be formed by the leaf itself or by an additional structure that is originated from an extension of the midrib (the tendril). The tendril lowers to ground level and then forms the trap.

Nepenthes
Nepenthes (Author: Nico Nelson).

Dams are attracted to these traps due to nectar glands located inside. Once inside, going out is very complicated!  Walls may be viscous,  have downwardly inclined hairs that hinder to escape or present translucent spots that suggest the prey that there’s an exit, acting like windows , confusing and exhausting the prey, making it fall to the bottom, where it will drown. Other species also release substances that stun the preys, preventing them from running away.

Heliamphora
Heliamphora (Author: Brian Gratwicke).

In some cases, large animals have fallen into these traps, though it is considered more as an effect of “bad-luck” than the plants supposed diet, though some traps measure up to 20cm long.

Difusió-anglès

REFERENCES