Arxiu d'etiquetes: phylogenetic tree

Ancestors they didn’t teach you in school

Surely you know any of the following names because they are classic ancestors we learned in school: Lucy, Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Neanderthals… but our history has many more players, and every so often new discoveries are made that change our lineage tree. Find out in this article the latest findings your teachers could not explain to you .

HOMO NALEDI

Reconstrucción facial de Homo naledi por John Gurche. Foto de Mark Thiessen.
Homo naledi’s facial reconstruction by John Gurche. Photo: Mark Thiessen.

It is almost forced to start with one of the latest discoveries that is encouraging discussions in paleoanthropology to gain a key position in our family tree. The discovery of a new species, Homo naledi, was published the September 10, 2015 by Lee Berger et al. It was discovered in a cave system in South Africa named Rising Star at the Dinaledi chamber (“Naledi” means “star” in the local language, Sesotho). It is especially interesting for several reasons:

  • At the moment in the site have been found more than 1,700 human fossils accumulated, making it the largest of South Africa, behind the famous Sima de los Huesos (“Pit of Bones”, Atapuerca, Spain), the largest of the world, with more than 6,000 fossils.
  • The cave is very difficult to access, with corridors of only 19 cm wide, so it was a selected team of 6 thin paleoantropologysts (all women) that reached them.
Esquema del sistema de cuevas de la cámara Dinaledi. Imagen de Jason Treat, NGM Staff, NGM maps, fuente: Lee Berger, Wits. Tomada de National Geographic.
Scheme of the cave system of Dinaledi’s chamber. Image by  Jason Treat, NGM Staff, NGM maps, Source: Lee Berger, Wits. Adapted from National Geographic.
  • The bones belonged to 15 individuals of all ages, male and female, so we can get extensive information about the new species. Some were even on the floor of the cave without mineralize.
  • The physical characteristics of H. naledi are a mix of Homo traits (height, feet) and Australopithecus (shoulders, chest, pelvis), the genus from which most scientists believe Homo appears about 2.8 to 2, 5 million years ago. This may suggest that H. naledi could be the first Homo, the missing link between Australopithecus and us.

    Una parte de la impresionante cantidad de huesos de Homo naledi descubiertos. Foto de John Hawks
    Some of the impressive number of bones discovered Homo naledi. Photo by John Hawks
  • The most intriguing of this discovery, it is believed that the bones were placed there deliberately. By geography, access to the cave was the same as today, they could not fall into the pit, the bones could not be brought by a water flooding or any animal, they have no marks of violence … It could be a funeral ritual? So far, the first rites are attributed to H. neanderthalensis, with most modern physical characteristics and a large cranial capacity compared to H. naledi (1.475 cm3 versus 560 cm3  at the most).

The oldest known Homo fossil, 2.8 million years old, corresponds to a jaw found in Afar in March 2015 which has not been associated to any species. Was H. naledi the first Homo? Is it really an ancient species? Is it possible they had self-awareness so early and cared for their dead? Unfortunately, researchers have not been able to date the remains yet, so many questions remain unanswered and we will must wait for future interpretations of one of the most important discoveries of recent times.

THE DENISOVANS

In Denisova Cave (Siberia) in 2008 was found a non-spectacular fossil: a piece of a finger bone that was dated 30,000 years old and attributed to an individual of about 8 years which turned out to be a gir. But when DNA was extracted, it was concluded that belonged neither to H. sapiens or H. neanderthalensis, but to a new species. Later two teeth of another individual of the same population were found. In the same cave also Sapiens and Neanderthal remains were found.

Diente, muela, denisova, denisovanos, teeth, tooth, denisova
The denisovan teeth.  Photo by Max Planck Institute.

Is it possible that Denisovans hybridized with Sapiens? DNA studies in the current populations indicate that 5% of DNA aboriginal Australians, Papuans and other peoples of Melanesia is Denisovan. On the other hand we know that 20% of the DNA of accumulated European populations is Neanderthal.

WHERE DO WE LOCATE THEM IN OUR FAMILY TREE?

It is thought that Neanderthals and Denisovans had a common ancestor (H. heidelbergensis), who emigrated to western Europe and Central Asia evolving to H. neanderthalensis, who subsequently hybridized with us, and from Southeast Asia where would evolve in the hominin Denisova, who also hybridized with H. sapiens. This would explain the presence of DNA in the current populations of Australasia.

HOW THEY WERE LIKE?

The absence of more fossils or traces of objects and tools prevent us to know how they looked like and what were their skills. Nor it has been found explanation for the lack of Denisovan DNA in the Russian or Chinese populations, so close geographically to the Denisova cave. Denisovans remain a mystery to science.

THE FLORES WOMAN

Homo floresiensis. Reconstrucción de John Gurche
Homo floresiensis. Reconstruction by John Gurche. Photo by Chip Clark

Homo floresiensis, as its name indicates, lived on the island of Flores (Indonesia) only between 95,000 and 12,000 years ago. It was discovered 12 years ago. It is the only site where this species is found.

As in previous fossils, the mix of features caught the attention of the scientific community, especially for its small cranial capacity and height, earning them the nickname hobbit. First they thought it was an individual with a pathology, or a pygmy of a known species, as their morphology was very strange in a so modern fossil. But now we have remains of at least 12 individuals with the same traits, so we can talk (for the moment) of another species.

HOW THEY WERE LIKE?

  • Small height: the most complete skeleton belongs to a female only one meter tall and 25 kg weight.
  • Small skull: their cranial capacity (380-420 cm3) was similar to the current Australopithecus or a current chimpanzee, but the brain had a more similar Homo anatomy. The teeth were large relative to the skull.
Reproducción de cráneo de Homo floresiensis. American Museum of National History. Foto de Mireia Querol
homo floresiensis (LB1) skull cast. American Museum of National History. Photo by Mireia Querol
  • Long feet and short legs: feet were very long in relation to the legs, which were short and stout. This and more features suggest that locomotion was different from ours and were bad runners.
  • Long arms: besides a proportion nearest to Australopithecus and H. habilis than H. sapiens, arms were robust and had a powerful musculature.
  • Stone tools and fire: besides the existence of tools of earlier hominans found in the cave, some tools have been associated to H. floresiensis with a technology similar to the Oldowan Industry, the first to be invented. Also they dominated the fire.

WHY THEY WERE SO SMALL?

Controversy continues: was a direct descendant of Australopithecus (how could they have traveled so far from Africa?), or a recent member of our family tree so small due to lack of resources?

The insular dwarfism is an evolutionary process due to a long-term isolation in a small area with limited resources and lack of predators. Flores pygmy elephants (Stegodon) hunted by H. floresiensis  with this adaptation were also found. The opposite process it is the island gigantism, in which animals that are usually small on the continent are giants in the islands, such as the Galapagos turtles and the extinct lizards or rats of Flores.

Un lagarto gigante se enfrenta al hombre de Flores. Imagen de National Geographic
A giant lizard faces Flores man who has caught a rat. Image by National Geographic

H. floresiensis may be the result of this dwarfism, and some scientists believe it could actually be a reduced Homo erectus. The majority opinion today is that they were already so small when they reached Flores (such as the  Australopithecus from whom evolved), and modern features are due to convergent evolution with H. sapiens. Unfortunately it has not been able to extract DNA in good condition to put them in the phylogenetic tree for sure.

How did they get to Flores? They had a language, art and cultural expressions? Did they get in contact with our species? They were extinct due to a volcanic eruption? Who made the other ancient tools previous to H. floresiensis? The debate and the unknowns remain open.

REFERENCES

 

Evolution for beginners

Biological evolution is still not well understood by general public, and when we speak of it in our language abound expressions that confuse even more how mechanisms that lead to species diversity work. Through questions you may have ever asked yourself, in this article we will have a first look at the basic principles of evolution and debunk misconceptions about it.

IS EVOLUTION REAL? IT IS NOT JUST A THEORY OR AN IDEA WITHOUT EVIDENCES?

Outside the scientific field, the word “theory” is used to refer to events that have not been tested or assumptions. But a scientific theory is the explanation of a phenomenon supported by evidence resulting from the application of the scientific method.

scientific method
The scientific method. Image by Margreet de Heer.

Theories can be modified, improved or revised if new data don’t continue to support the theory, but they are always based on some data, repeatable and verifiable experiments by any researcher to be considered valid.

So few people (sic) doubts about the heliocentric theory (the Earth rotates around the Sun), or the gravitational theory of Newton, but in the popular imagination some people believe that the theory of evolution made by Charles Darwin (and Alfred Russell Wallace) is simply a hypothesis and has no evidence to support it. With new scientific advances, his theory has been improved and detailed, but more than 150 years later, nobody has been able to prove it wrong, just the contrary.

WHAT EVIDENCE WE HAVE THAT EVOLUTION IS TRUE?

We have many evidences and in this post we will not delve into them. Some of the evidence available to us are:

  • Paleontological record: the study of fossils tell us about the similarities and differences of existing species with others thousands or millions old, and to establish relationships respect each other.
  • Comparative anatomy: comparison of certain structures that are very similar between different organisms, can establish whether they have a common ancestor (homologous structures, for example, five fingers in some vertebrates) if they have developed similar adaptations (analogous structures, for example, the wings of birds and insects), or if they have lost their function (vestigial organs, such as the appendix).
Homologous organs in humans, cats, whales and bats
Homologous organs in humans, cats, whales and bats
  • Embryology: the study of embryos of related groups shows a strong resemblance in the earliest stages of development.
  • Biogeography: The study of the geographical distribution of living beings reveals that species generally inhabit the same regions as their ancestors, although there are other regions with similar climates.
  • Biochemistry and genetics: chemical similarities and differences allow to establish relationships among different species. For example, species closely related to each other have a structure of their DNA more similar than others more distant. All living beings share a portion of DNA that is part of your “instructions”, so there are also found in a fly, a plant or a bacterium, proof that all living things have a common ancestor.

IS IT TRUE THAT ORGANISMS ADAPT TO THE ENVIRONMENT AND ARE DESIGNED FOR LIVING IN THEIR HABITAT?

Both expressions, frequently used, mean that living beings have an active role to adapt to the environment or “someone” has designed them to live exactly where they are. It is a typical example of Lamarck and giraffes: as a result of stretching the neck to reach the higher leaves of the treescurrently giraffes have this neck for giving it this use. They have a necessity, they change their bodies to success. It is precisely upside down: it is the habitat that selects the fittest, nature “selects” those that are most effective to survive, and therefore reproduce. It is what is known as natural selection, one of the main mechanisms of evolution. It needs three requirements to act:

  • Phenotypic variability: there must be differences between individuals. Some giraffes necks were slightly longer than others, just as there are taller people than others, with blue or brown eyes.
  • Biological fitness: this difference has to suppose an advantage. For example, giraffes with a slightly longer neck could survive and reproduce, while the others don’t.
  • Heredity: these characters must be transmitted to the next generation, the offspring will be slightly different to that feature, while “short neck” feature transmits less and less.
natural selection
The variability in the population causes individuals with favorable characteristics to reproduce more and pass on their genes to the next generation, increasing the proportion of those genes. Image taken from Understanding evolution

Over the years these changes are accumulated until the genetic differences are so big that some populations may not mate with others: a new species has appeared.

If you thought that this is similar to artificial selection that we do with the different breeds of dogs, cows who give more milk, trees bearing more fruit and larger, congratulations, you think like Darwin as it was inspired by some of these facts. Therefore, living beings are mere spectators of the evolutionary process, depending of changes in their habitat and their genetic material.

WHY ORGANISMS ARE SO DIVERSE?

Genetic variability allows natural selection act. Changes in the genetic material (usually DNA) are caused by:

  • Mutations: changes in the genome that may be adverse or lethal for survival, indifferent or beneficial to survival and reproduction. If they have benefits, they will pass to the next generations.
  • Gene flow: is the motion of genes between populations (migration of individuals allows this exchange when mate with others in a different population).
  • Sexual reproduction: allows recombination of genetic material of different individuals, giving rise to new combinations of DNA.

Populations that have more genetic variability are more likely to survive if happen any changes in their habitat. Populations with less variability (eg, being geographically isolated) are more sensitive to any changes in their habitat, which may cause their extinction.

Evolution can be observed in beings with a very high reproduction rate, for example bacteria, since mutations accumulate more quickly. Have you ever heard that bacteria become resistant to our antibiotics or some insects to pesticides? They evolve so quickly that within a few years were selected the fittest to survive our antibiotics.

ARE WE THE MOST EVOLVED ANIMALS?

Theory of Evolution has various consequences, such as the existence of a common ancestor and that therefore, that we are animals. Even today, and even among the young ones, there is the idea that we are something different between living beings and we are in a special podium in the collective imagination. This anthropocentric thinking caused Darwin mockery and confrontations over 150 years ago.

caricatura, darwin, mono, orangutan
Caricature of Darwin as an orangutan. Public domain image first published in 1871

We use our language to be “more evolved” as a synonym for more complex, and we consider ourselves one species that has reached a high level of understanding of their environment, so many people believe that evolution has come to an end with us.

The question has a mistake of formulation: actually evolving pursues no end, it just happens, and the fact that millions of years allows the emergence of complex structures, it does not mean that simpler lifeforms are not perfectly matched in the habitat where they are. Bacteria, algae, sharks, crocodiles, etc., have remained very similar over millions of years. Evolution is a process that started acting when life first appeared and continues to act in all organisms, including us, although we have changed the way in which natural selection works  (medical and technological breakthroughs, etc.).

SO IF WE COME FROM MONKEYS, WHY DO STILL MONKEYS EXIST?

The truth is that we don’t come from monkeys, we are monkeys, or to be more rigorous, apes. We have not evolved from any existing primate. As we saw in a previous post, humans and other primates share a common ancestor and natural selection has been acting differently in each of us. That is, evolution has to be viewed as a tree, and not as a straight line, where each branch would be a species .

darwin, árbol, evolución, darwin tree, arbre evolutiu
First scheme of the evolutionary tree of Darwin in his notebook (1837). Public domain image.

Some branches stop growing (species become extinct), while others continue to diversify. The same applies to other species, in case you have asked yourself, “if amphibians come from fish, why are there still fish?”. Currently, genetic analyzes have contributed so much data that they make so difficult to redesign the classical Dariwn’s tree.

árbol filogenético, clasificación seres vivos, árbol de la vida
Classification of live organisms based on the three domains Archaea, Bacteria and Eukarya, data of Carl R. Woese (1990). Included in Eukarya there are the Protista, Fungi, Plantae and Animalia kingdoms. Image by Rita Daniela Fernández.

Evolution is a very broad topic that still generates doubts and controversies. In this article we have tried to bring to uninitiated people some basics, where we can delve into the future. Do you have any questions about evolution? Are you interested into a subject that we have not talked about? You can leave your comments below.

REFERENCES

MIREIA QUEROL ALL YOU NEED IS BIOLOGY