Were Neanderthals More Than Cousins to Homo Sapiens?

These members of the genus Homo have long occupied two different branches on the family tree. But now that researchers think these groups interbred, scholars are giving serious consideration to whether we are the same species after all.

Around 200,000 years ago, in what is now northern Israel, a small band of tech-savvy humans dragged home and dismembered a bounty of wildlife. Using exquisitely pointed flint spearheads and blades, they hunted and butchered myriad prey, including gazelles, deer, and now-extinct aurochs, the ancestors of modern cattle.

In the cool, humid climate of the coastal plain, these early Homo sapiens foraged for acorns in nearby forests of oak, olive, and pistachio. They ate the saline leaves of shrubby saltbush and lugged ostrich eggs back to the cave, where they slurped down the yolks.

This vision of the past comes from Haifa University archaeologist Mina Weinstein-Evron. In 2002, she and her colleagues discovered the upper jaw and teeth of a H. sapiens that dated to between 177,000 and 194,000 years old in Israel’s Misliya Cave, with animal bones and sharp tools nearby.

It’s probable, Weinstein-Evron explains, that these humans migrated to the Arabian Peninsula more than 200,000 years ago, trekking along lush corridors out of Africa. “We don’t know how many crossed, and how many of them perished, and how many went back. We only know that these people arrived,” she says.

We also know that they were likely not alone. Based on small finds of teeth and bones from local caves, “we know that the area was inhabited by Neanderthal-like creatures,” or the predecessors of Neanderthals, at that time, says Tel Aviv University anthropologist Israel Hershkovitz, an expert on modern human origins.

While out foraging, H. sapiens may have mated with these Neanderthal-like inhabitants. In this land that later birthed the Bible, they likely knew each other in the Biblical sense.

The Misliya Cave in northern Israel may have seen early human habitation some 200,000 years ago. Reuveny/Wikimedia Commons

The humans* who lived in the Misliya Cave were part of a population that, many scholars suspect, ultimately died out. Later waves of H. sapiens that left the African continent succeeded in reproducing and spreading out. But braided into the story of those human migrations is that of Neanderthals, hominins—members of our family tree closest to modern humans—who may have first evolved in Europe from African ancestors some 400,000 years ago.

Many scientists now suspect that H. sapiens and Neanderthals met and mingled their genes multiple times. Geneticists have documented how Neanderthal genes survive today among modern humans, evidence of some earlier instances of interbreeding.

New studies, made possible in part by computational techniques that enable researchers to analyze huge quantities of genetic data, show that H. sapiens and Neanderthals interbred far more than previously imagined. Indeed, their proclivity for pairing off has led many researchers to question the old dictum that Neanderthals and H. sapiens were separate species.

Such ideas raise questions as to what it really means to be a distinct “species.” They also raise the possibility that perhaps H. sapiens did not outcompete Neanderthals into extinction, as some scientists have suggested. Rather, one species may have simply absorbed the other—and so, Neanderthals, in a sense, could survive in us.

In 1856, in the Neander Valley of Prussia (now Germany), limestone cutters discovered the partial skeleton of a thick-boned, brow-ridged hominin in a cave. A German anthropologist named Hermann Schaaffhausen examined the bones.

Schaaffhausen realized that the skull differed from that of modern humans but concluded it could nonetheless belong to what he called a “barbarous and savage race” of human. However, his contemporary, Irish geologist William King, disagreed.

This fragment, found in what is today Germany, comes from the skull of a Neanderthal.
This fragment, found in what is today Germany, comes from the skull of a Neanderthal. DEA Picture Library/Getty Images

King noted that the skull of this fossil, with its “strong simial [apelike] tendencies” was “generically distinct from Man.” In 1863, King declared it a new species, which he named Homo neanderthalensis.

Scientists have been arguing over whether H. sapiens and H. neanderthalensis are truly separate species ever since. By appearances alone, Neanderthal fossils resemble ours—they are clearly members of our hominin family tree. But on closer examination, Neanderthal features are also quite distinct.

There was debate back and forth: Was this just a weird variant of us—a more primitive, brutish-looking thing than living humans—or was it really something different?” asks physical anthropologist and evolutionary biologist Jeffrey Schwartz of the University of Pittsburgh.

Schwartz can rattle off a raft of anatomical differences between H. sapiens and Neanderthals: H. sapiens are flat-faced; the Neanderthal face sticks out. Neanderthals had boxy, stout bodies, and their major arm and leg bones were thick. H. sapiens, by contrast, have thinner, gracile bodies. Neanderthals had different teeth and thumb lengths, as well as longer collarbones.

The argument might have been confined to questions of anatomy had it not been for a singular discovery in 2010. A team led by evolutionary geneticist Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, extracted bits of DNA from Neanderthal fossils and published an early version of the Neanderthal genome.

Bcomparing portions of the Neanderthal genome with the genomes of five modern-day humans—from Southern Africa, West Africa, Papua New Guinea, China, and France—they found that Neanderthals share more genetic snippets with humans in Europe and Asia today than with people living presently in much of sub-Saharan Africa.

Pääbo and his team’s findings showed that between 1 and 4 percent of the genomes of modern non-African humans consist of Neanderthal DNA. That overlap suggested, for the first time, that our H. sapiens ancestors could have had intimate encounters with Neanderthals.

This 450,000-year-old jaw from Tautavel, France, held by a paleontologist, came from an archaic human.
This 450,000-year-old jaw from Tautavel, France, held by a paleontologist, came from an archaic human. Raymond Roig/AFP/Getty Images

That study would be the first of many to indicate that these two hominins interbred. And such studies matter to the question of whether Neanderthals and H. sapiens are one or two species because, by biologist Ernst Mayr’s “classic definition,” Hershkovitz explains, “if two organisms can breed and produce fertile offspring, it means that they belong to the same species.”

Genetic research has long faced a challenge in scale. There are an estimated 21,000 genes in the human genome that code for proteins, complex molecules that do most of the work in cells and play crucial roles in the body. Sequencing these genes involved studying the 3 billion DNA base pairs that make up the human genome.

Every advance that makes studying an individual genome cheaper, more accurate, and faster is a major step forward in understanding how individuals—whether H. sapiens, Neanderthal, or other—compare. For all of those reasons, the development of artificial intelligence (AI) techniques, which enable researchers to set computers to solving problems and conducting analyses, has been a game changer.

AI has not only helped to confirm earlier genetic findings that H. sapiens and Neanderthals interbred, but also suggested their sexual encounters occurred to a degree that scholars never anticipated. All of this builds the case that the two could be the same species.

In 2018, for example, research published by population geneticists Fernando Villanea and Joshua Schraiber, then at Temple University in Philadelphia, made use of an AI tool called a deep learning algorithm, which seeks patterns in complex layers of data and is inspired by the brain’s approach to acquiring knowledge.

Computer scientists “train” algorithms by instructing them to identify specific patterns based on previously assembled data. In this case, Villanea and Schraiber used an algorithm to spot Neanderthal ancestry.

The pair then analyzed the distribution of Neanderthal DNA in the genomes of about 400 contemporary East Asians and Europeans, people whose ancestors have lived in these regions for a long time. This data came from the 1000 Genomes Project, an international collaboration to catalogue human genetic variation.

By the “classic definition,” explains anthropologist Hershkovitz, “if two organisms can breed and produce fertile offspring, it means that they belong to the same species.”

Schraiber and Villanea found fragments of Neanderthal ancestry: about 1.5 percent in each individual and 1.7 percent among people in East Asia specifically. Fabrizio Mafessoni, an evolutionary geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, reviewed Schraiber and Villanea’s findings and argued that the proportion of Neanderthal fragments among modern humans was a bit higher than would be expected if there had only been one episode in which these two populations mated.

The intuitive explanation,” Schraiber says, “is that there were multiple episodes of interbreeding and that [populations in East Asia] interbred more.”

A 2019 study, co-led by Oscar Lao, who studies population genomics at Spain’s National Center of Genomic Regulation, and Jaume Bertranpetit, an evolutionary biologist at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, used deep learning algorithms to identify a hitherto-unknown human population, a hybrid of Neanderthals and Denisovans. (The Denisovans are archaic hominins identified from the Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains of Siberia.)

Their data showed that—given the distribution of Neanderthal DNA in various living human groups—Neanderthals interbred with Denisovans in East Asia, creating the Neanderthal-Denisovan population, and their hybrid descendants did the deed with modern humans before their arrival in Australia some 60,000 years ago.

That evidence for “admixing” between Neanderthals, Denisovans, and modern humans, Bertranpetit says, indicates “that all of these populations belong to a single lineage.”

Still other research, published in 2017, indicates that gene flow from early H. sapiens into Neanderthals might have occurred earlier in humanity’s story—around the time that the Misliya Cave H. sapiens were sucking the yolks of those ostrich eggs.

That study, led by Cosimo Posth, an archaeogeneticist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, examined DNA collected from an approximately 120,000-year-old femur bone excavated in a cave in southwestern Germany.

A researcher examines a Neanderthal fossil with protection on so as not to contaminate the sample’s DNA.
A researcher examines a Neanderthal fossil with protection on so as not to contaminate the sample’s DNA. Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology via Wikimedia Commons

Specifically, they turned to mitochondrial DNA, genetic information handed down from mother to child and found within the cells’ energy-generating structures called mitochondria. The analysis concluded that the ancestors of Neanderthals and H. sapiens interbred at some point between 270,000 and 220,000 years ago, most likely in the Levant.

Taken together, these studies strengthen the case that H. sapiens-Neanderthal pairings occurred and that such mating was by no means unusual. Rather, H. sapiens, Neanderthals, Denisovans, and their hybrids all interbred (hinting, yes, that all three were the same species). And that mixing may have occurred as early as some of the first forays of modern human ancestors out of Africa.

For hundreds of thousands of years, modern humans as well as archaic humans, such as Neanderthals and Denisovans, have been … crossing modern-day borders that, of course, were not existing in the past and multiple times admixing and exchanging genetic material,” Posth says. “This was not the exception but was the norm.”

If “species” is defined in large part by the ability to breed and have young who can also reproduce, one might argue that Neanderthals and H. sapiens are indeed one species. And many of the scientists who work on these studies agree. Yet some experts still contend otherwise.

Approximately 75 kilometers south of the Misliya Cave, Hershkovitz is sitting in his tiny office in Tel Aviv. Around him, the skulls of H. sapiens—the oldest dating back 15,000 years—jostle with one another on shelves lining the walls.

These skulls, which belonged to living, breathing human beings, evoke an aura of a long-forgotten world. And once, earlier still, such humans coexisted with other hominin species. Yet determining how different these species were from each other is difficult. Hershkovitz, for example, sees H. sapiens and Neanderthals as “sister populations” within the same species.

Anthropologist Israel Hershkovitz stands by a cast of human remains in his office.
Anthropologist Israel Hershkovitz stands by a cast of human remains in his office. Josie Glausiusz

But Mayr’s “classic definition” of a species, based on interbreeding, is riddled with exceptions. For instance, if members of two different species happen to reproduce, they can have offspring but that new generation of “hybrids” may not be able to reproduce.

A horse and a donkey’s offspring, the mule, is typically sterile, for example. But lions and tigers, separate species that in the wild live on different continents, can sire “ligers” or “tigons” in captivity, and those hybrid felines can rarely or occasionally reproduce. In other words, scientists recognize instances where two species remain separate despite interbreeding—and some researchers extend that exception to H. sapiens and Neanderthals.

New York University biological anthropologist Shara Bailey believes H. sapiens and Neanderthals reproduced but remained distinct species—just like lions and tigers. She describes the two hominins as morphologically separate species who diverged from each other at least 800,000 years ago.

For all intents and purposes, they were separate species,” Bailey says, “but they maintained the ability to hybridize.” Their offspring, she argues, would have been rare and, though able to reproduce, less successful in reproducing compared with their parents. The genetic record, then, indicates that some hybrids did sometimes succeed, contributing Neanderthal DNA to the modern human gene pool.

Bailey’s not alone in this viewpoint. Anthropologist Chris Stringer, at the Natural History Museum in London, also concludes that these populations both were separated long enough in terms of their evolution and were physically distinct enough in their features to remain separate species that occasionally hybridized.

Given the complications in Mayr’s definition, some scholars argue it ought to be replaced. To that end, there are now 20 different conceptions of what a “species” could be—and no strong consensus on which should take center stage. Some scientists subscribe to the theory of species mate recognition, in which members of the same species “recognize” one another as mates through courtship rituals, breeding seasons, or protein compatibility.

Untold Homo species contributed to the eventual emergence of both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens.
Untold Homo species contributed to the eventual emergence of both Neanderthals and Homo sapiensFiorella Ikeue/SAPIENS

And at least one researcher still questions the genetic evidence for interbreeding. Schwartz says he has seen and studied almost every specimen of the entire human fossil record and notes that “Neanderthals are clearly a different species from us: They are so morphologically unique.”

Schwartz doubts the interpretation of genetic evidence thus far. Although dozens of hominins once existed, Schwartz points out, scientists have only sequenced the genomes of three specimens whose species they could clearly identify by their morphology: modern H. sapiens, the Neander Valley Neanderthal, and a 400,000-year-old hominin called Homo heidelbergensis. (Researchers have endeavored to identify the species of other, fragmentary specimens, primarily using genetic clues derived from the definitively identified Neanderthal and H. sapiens fossils.)

Because we don’t know how many hominin species there were—and because the vast majority have not had their DNA sequenced—we can’t know how many of these hominins had genes that were specifically “Denisovan” or “Neanderthal,” Schwartz argues. Therefore, he says, there is no way of knowing whether the DNA sequences extracted from Neanderthals were exclusive to Neanderthals.

Pääbo and his group are very good technicians,” Schwartz says. “I don’t doubt that they have really worked hard to make sure these sequences are not contaminated.” Still, he says, we lack the DNA of many other hominins. The evidence that the sequenced DNA is specific to Neanderthals is therefore unreliable, he argues, and so claims that they interbred with H. sapiens are also dubious.

I’m not saying that the comparisons are incorrect or that the sequences are incorrect,” Schwartz says. “I’m saying that the conclusion is not that solid.”

Schwartz doubts that Neanderthals and H. sapiens would have recognized each other as mates: “Neanderthals don’t look like us; we don’t look like them; they wouldn’t move the same way we did,” he says. Also, “they probably smelled different than we do.”

For the moment, then, the answer to whether or not H. sapiens and H. neanderthalensis were the same species is still up for debate (along with the entire messy concept of “species”). But the larger message that comes through with each wave of findings is simple: Despite a long history of derogatory “cave man” descriptors, H. neanderthalensis was probably a lot like us.

The first time H. sapiens and Neanderthals met was likely in the region that is now Israel. Just as the Misliya Cave helps establish how long anatomically modern humans were present in the region, tools associated with Neanderthals, such as spearheads and knives, have been found in other caves in Israel.

But many mysteries remain. Did H. sapiens and Neanderthals whisper sweet nothings to each other beneath the leaves of a pistachio tree? Was there some secret lure, facial or pheromonal, that attracted one to the other? We can only speculate.

Archaeologists fit together chipped stone pieces that may have been tools crafted by Neanderthals at a Stone Age site in northern Israel.
Archaeologists fit together chipped stone pieces that may have been tools crafted by Neanderthals at a Stone Age site in northern Israel. Netta Mitki /PLOS ONE

Neanderthals were intelligent; they were skilled toolmakers. We don’t know whether they had spoken language, because even though they had vocal anatomy similar to H. sapiens, the soft tissue associated with the vocal box—the area of the throat containing the vocal cords—has not been preserved.

Both H. sapiens and Neanderthals shared a propensity for primping. Neanderthals made jewelry out of animal teeth, shells, and ivory. They decorated themselves with feathers and probably ochre as well.

Some scholars suspect that fierce competition between H. sapiens and Neanderthals pushed the latter from the warmer Levant into an ice-covered Europe. “The world was almost empty,” Hershkovitz says. “The way I personally see this—probably most people would not agree with me—the European Neanderthals had no other choice.”

Though Hershkovitz declines to conjecture as to whether female Neanderthals were forced into sex—rape has been used as a weapon of war through the ages to punish and terrorize—he does offer, “I don’t think it was a happy marriage.”

Others, including Schraiber, posit more peaceful encounters. “I imagine that when humans ran into some vaguely human-like thing, they were like, ‘This is cool,’” he speculates. But, he demurs, “I really don’t know, Did they whisper sweet nothings beneath the leaves of a pistachio tree? We can only speculate.especially since I’m not an anthropologist, I’m a geneticist.”

At least one researcher, computational biologist Rasmus Nielsen of the University of California, Berkeley, goes further. He hypothesizes that Neanderthals never went extinct: They, or their genes, were simply absorbed into modern humans. In other words, instead of dying out through violence or starvation, the Neanderthal population hybridized with H. sapiens.

Using mathematical models, Nielsen and his colleague Kelley Harris have argued that at one point, the proportion of Neanderthal DNA in humans alive today was as high as 10 percent—and that proportion later dwindled. That 10 percent figure is significant because other researchers have estimated H. sapiens outnumbered Neanderthals 10-to-1, so perhaps, Nielsen contends, the two species interbred to such an extent that they merged together.

Over time, however, modern humans lost significant amounts of Neanderthal DNA, perhaps because it carried harmful mutations. Indeed, another research team, which included Pääbo, found that most Neanderthal genes survive in H. sapiens in regions of non-coding DNA. “The regions that are most important for function—the protein-coding genes—are depleted of Neanderthal DNA,” Nielsen says.

In a Q&A for the journal BMC BiologyNielsen and Harris write: “It is possible that Neanderthals did not truly die off at all but simply melted together with the human species. One could perhaps argue that Neanderthals did not disappear due to warfare or competition—but due to love.”

If they are right, then whether we were once one species or two does not matter because we are all one now.

 

*Editor’s note: Many anthropologists use the term “human” to not only mean modern Homo sapiens but also many other hominin species on our family tree. (In other words, for some scholars, Neanderthals have always been “human,” as members of the genus Homo.) In our story, we use “human” broadly while using “H. sapiens” to refer to the only living species of the Homo lineage and “modern humans” to point to “all humans living today.”

Giant Chinese paddlefish declared extinct after surviving 150 million years

Beijing — Scientists say a giant fish species that managed to survive at least 150 million years has been completely wiped out by human activity. Research published in the Science of The Total Environment this week says the giant Chinese paddlefish, also known as the Chinese swordfish, is officially extinct.

The monster fish, one of the largest freshwater species in the world with lengths up to 23 feet, was once common in China’s Yangtze River. Due to its speed it was commonly referred to in China as the “water tiger.”

giant-chinese-paddlefish.jpg
A model of a giant Chinese paddlefish is seen on display in Chongqing, China.CCTV/REUTERS

Study leader Qiwei Wei of the Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences called it “a reprehensible and an irreparable loss.”

Zeb Hogan, a fish expert at the University of Nevada, Reno, told National Geographic that it was “very sad” to see the “definitive loss of a very unique and extraordinary animal, with no hope of recovery.”

According to the researchers, no giant paddlefish have been sighted in the Yangtze since 2003, and there are none in captivity. They estimate that the last of the fish likely died between 2005 and 2010.

paddlefish-china-graphic.jpg
A graphic provided by the Science of The Total Environment report in January 2020 shows a timeline depicting the depletion of the giant Chinese paddlefish species in the Yangtze River.SCIENCE OF THE TOTAL ENVIRONMENT

The species had been deemed “functionally extinct,” or unable to reproduce enough to maintain itself, since 1993.

The main causes of the ancient species’ demise have been listed as over-fishing and the construction of a major dam in 1981 that split the Yangtze, and the Chinese paddlefish population along with it, in two.

The 3,900 mile Yangtze River ecosystem has seen half of the 175 species unique to its waters go extinct, according to Chinese media.

Two other species native to the river have also been declared functionally extinct: the reeves shad and the Yangtze dolphin.

Last week China announced a 10-year fishing ban on some areas of the Yangtze in a bid to protect its beleaguered biodiversity.

Did Humans Survive an Extinction Level Event?

November 30, 2019  Topic: History  Region: Europe  Blog Brand: The Buzz  Tags: EvolutionHumansExtinctionAnthropologySurvival

Warfare became a check on population growth, perhaps the most important one.

Nine human species walked the Earth 300,000 years ago. Now there is just one. The Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis, were stocky hunters adapted to Europe’s cold steppes. The related Denisovans inhabited Asia, while the more primitive Homo erectus lived in Indonesia, and Homo rhodesiensis in central Africa.

Several short, small-brained species survived alongside them: Homo naledi in South Africa, Homo luzonensis in the Philippines, Homo floresiensis (“hobbits”) in Indonesia, and the mysterious Red Deer Cave People in China. Given how quickly we’re discovering new species, more are likely waiting to be found.

By 10,000 years ago, they were all gone. The disappearance of these other species resembles a mass extinction. But there’s no obvious environmental catastrophe – volcanic eruptions, climate change, asteroid impact – driving it. Instead, the extinctions’ timing suggests they were caused by the spread of a new species, evolving 260,000-350,000 years ago in Southern AfricaHomo sapiens.

The spread of modern humans out of Africa has caused a sixth mass extinction, a greater than 40,000-year event extending from the disappearance of Ice Age mammals to the destruction of rainforests by civilisation today. But were other humans the first casualties?

Human evolution. Nick Longrich

We are a uniquely dangerous species. We hunted wooly mammoths, ground sloths and moas to extinction. We destroyed plains and forests for farming, modifying over half the planet’s land area. We altered the planet’s climate. But we are most dangerous to other human populations, because we compete for resources and land.

History is full of examples of people warring, displacing and wiping out other groups over territory, from Rome’s destruction of Carthage, to the American conquest of the West and the British colonisation of Australia. There have also been recent genocides and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Rwanda and Myanmar. Like language or tool use, a capacity for and tendency to engage in genocide is arguably an intrinsic, instinctive part of human nature. There’s little reason to think that early Homo sapiens were less territorial, less violent, less intolerant – less human.

Optimists have painted early hunter-gatherers as peaceful, noble savages, and have argued that our culture, not our nature, creates violence. But field studies, historical accounts, and archaeology all show that war in primitive cultures was intense, pervasive and lethal. Neolithic weapons such as clubs, spears, axes and bows, combined with guerrilla tactics like raids and ambushes, were devastatingly effective. Violence was the leading cause of death among men in these societies, and wars saw higher casualty levels per person than World Wars I and II.

Old bones and artefacts show this violence is ancient. The 9,000-year-old Kennewick Man, from North America, has a spear point embedded in his pelvis. The 10,000-year-old Nataruk site in Kenya documents the brutal massacre of at least 27 men, women, and children.

It’s unlikely that the other human species were much more peaceful. The existence of cooperative violence in male chimps suggests that war predates the evolution of humans. Neanderthal skeletons show patterns of trauma consistent with warfare. But sophisticated weapons likely gave Homo sapiens a military advantage. The arsenal of early Homo sapiens probably included projectile weapons like javelins and spear-throwers, throwing sticks and clubs.

Complex tools and culture would also have helped us efficiently harvest a wider range of animals and plants, feeding larger tribes, and giving our species a strategic advantage in numbers.

The ultimate weapon

But cave paintingscarvings, and musical instruments hint at something far more dangerous: a sophisticated capacity for abstract thought and communication. The ability to cooperate, plan, strategisemanipulate and deceive may have been our ultimate weapon.

The incompleteness of the fossil record makes it hard to test these ideas. But in Europe, the only place with a relatively complete archaeological record, fossils show that within a few thousand years of our arrival , Neanderthals vanished. Traces of Neanderthal DNA in some Eurasian people prove we didn’t just replace them after they went extinct. We met, and we mated.

Elsewhere, DNA tells of other encounters with archaic humans. East Asian, Polynesian and Australian groups have DNA from Denisovans. DNA from another species, possibly Homo erectus, occurs in many Asian people. African genomes show traces of DNA from yet another archaic species. The fact that we interbred with these other species proves that they disappeared only after encountering us.

But why would our ancestors wipe out their relatives, causing a mass extinction – or, perhaps more accurately, a mass genocide?

13,000-year-old spear points from Colorado. Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution

The answer lies in population growth. Humans reproduce exponentially, like all species. Unchecked, we historically doubled our numbers every 25 years. And once humans became cooperative hunters, we had no predators. Without predation controlling our numbers, and little family planning beyond delayed marriage and infanticide, populations grew to exploit the available resources.

Further growth, or food shortages caused by drought, harsh winters or overharvesting resources would inevitably lead tribes into conflict over food and foraging territory. Warfare became a check on population growth, perhaps the most important one.

Our elimination of other species probably wasn’t a planned, coordinated effort of the sort practised by civilisations, but a war of attrition. The end result, however, was just as final. Raid by raid, ambush by ambush, valley by valley, modern humans would have worn down their enemies and taken their land.

Yet the extinction of Neanderthals, at least, took a long time – thousands of years. This was partly because early Homo sapiens lacked the advantages of later conquering civilisations: large numbers, supported by farming, and epidemic diseases like smallpox, flu, and measles that devastated their opponents. But while Neanderthals lost the war, to hold on so long they must have fought and won many battles against us, suggesting a level of intelligence close to our own.

The Conversation————————————————————————————————————–

Nick Longrich, Senior Lecturer, Paleontology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Bath

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Image: Reuters

People are reporting sightings of the Tasmanian tiger, thought to be extinct

A Tasmanian tiger, which was declared extinct in 1936, displayed at the Australian Museum in 2002.

(CNN)The Tasmanian tiger, a large striped carnivore, is believed to have gone extinct over 80 years ago — but newly released Australian government documents show sightings have been reported as recently as two months ago.

Tasmania’s Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment (DPIPWE) recently released a document detailing eight reported sightings of the Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, in the last three years.
The thylacine, a marsupial that looked like a cross between a wolf, a fox, and a large cat, is believed to have gone extinct after the last known live animal died in captivity in 1936. It had yellowish brown fur, with powerful jaws and a pouch for its young, according to the Australian Museum.
While stories abound that some continue to live in the remote wilds of Tasmania, an island state off Australia’s south coast, there has been no hard evidence to support this — only claims of sightings, like the ones newly released.
One report last February said that two people, visiting Tasmania from Australia, were driving when an animal with a stiff tail and striped back walked onto the road.
The animal “turned and looked at the vehicle a couple of times” and “was in clear view for 12-15 seconds,” the report read. Both people in the car “are 100% certain that the animal they saw was a thylacine.”
Another report filed the same month described a striped “cat-like creature” moving through the mist in the distance.
“I am accustomed to coming across most animals working on rural farms … and I have never come across an animal anything close to what I saw in Tasmania that day,” the report read.
In 2017, another driver reported seeing a possible thylacine near the Deep Gully Forest Reserve in northwestern Tasmania. He didn’t see stripes, but he was about 150 meters (492 foot) away — likely too far to have seen that level of detail. He “seemed certain that if it was a cat it was a bloody big one,” the report said.
Most recently in July, a man in southern Tasmania, near the state capital of Hobart, reported seeing a footprint that seemed to match that of the Tasmanian tiger.
These reports reflect just how large the thylacine still looms in the collective imagination. Native to Tasmania and the Australian mainland, it was the only member of the Thylacinidae family to survive into modern times, according to the Australian Museum.

This thylacine was the last of its kind to be captured and died in Hobart Zoo on September 7th, 1936.

European colonists killed thousands of thylacines for attacking sheep.
Today, the thylacine still remains a major component of Tasmanian culture. It maintains almost Loch Ness Monster status, with regular claims of unsubstantiated sightings. In 2002, scientists at the Australian Museum even replicated thylacine DNA, opening the door to potentially bringing back the species with cloning technology.

North America Has Lost 3 Billion Birds, Scientists Say

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Migrating shorebirds at Kimbles Beach, N.J. Researchers estimate that the population of North American shorebirds alone has fallen by more than a third since 1970.

Jacqueline Larma/AP

Over the past half-century, North America has lost more than a quarter of its entire bird population, or around 3 billion birds.

That’s according to a new estimate published in the journal Science by researchers who brought together a variety of information that has been collected on 529 bird species since 1970.

“We saw this tremendous net loss across the entire bird community,” says Ken Rosenberg, an applied conservation scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y. “By our estimates, it’s a 30% loss in the total number of breeding birds.”

Rosenberg and his colleagues already knew that a number of bird populations had been decreasing.

“But we also knew that other bird populations were increasing,” he says. “And what we didn’t know is whether there was a net change.” Scientists thought there might simply be a shift in the total bird population toward more generalist birds adapted to living around humans.

To find out, the researchers collected data from long-running surveys conducted with the help of volunteer bird spotters, such as the North American Breeding Bird Survey and the Audubon Christmas Bird Count. They combined that data with a decade’s worth of data on migrating bird flocks detected by 143 weather radar installations.

Their results show that more than 90% of the loss can be attributed to just a dozen bird families, including sparrows, warblers, blackbirds and finches.

Common birds with decreasing populations include meadowlarks, dark-eyed juncos, horned larks and red-winged blackbirds, says Rosenberg. Grassland birds have suffered a 53% decrease in their numbers, and more than a third of the shorebird population has been lost.

A horned lark

Larry Keller/Getty Images

Bird populations that have increased include raptors, like the bald eagle, and waterfowl.

“The numbers of ducks and geese are larger than they’ve ever been, and that’s not an accident,” says Rosenberg. “It’s because hunters who primarily want to see healthy waterfowl populations for recreational hunting have raised their voices.”

Applied ecologist Ted Simons of North Carolina State University says that trying to enumerate bird populations and tracking them over time is a daunting task with a lot of uncertainty.

“People are doing a wonderful effort to try and understand our bird populations, but the actual systems that we have in place to try and answer really tough questions like this are really far short of what we need,” says Simons. “We’re certainly far from having the tools and having the resources to have real high confidence in our estimates of these populations.”

Still, he says, “I think it is very likely that we are seeing substantial declines in our bird populations, particularly migratory birds.”

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A red-winged blackbird

dfwuw/EOL.org

Other researchers say this continentwide decrease in bird numbers is about what they expected.

“I think that I buy the magnitude of loss,” says Kristen Ruegg, a biologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. “Overall, the conclusions weren’t necessarily surprising. I mean, they were depressing but not surprising,”

Ruegg says there have been hints that the loss was this large from a variety of sources over the past few decades. But in most cases, these were species-specific accounts of local extinctions or models of projected losses resulting from things like climate change.

This study, she says, “really sort of wakes people up to the idea that this is happening.”

A dark-eyed junco

Steven Mlodinow/EOL.org

Elise Zipkin, a quantitative ecologist at Michigan State University, says the loss of individuals can be a big problem.

“Just because a species hasn’t gone extinct or isn’t even necessarily close to extinction, it might still be in trouble,” she says. “We need to be thinking about conservation efforts for that.”

The researchers cite a variety of potential causes for the loss of birds, including habitat degradation, urbanization and the use of toxic pesticides, notes Zipkin.

“And so I think this kind of lays the gauntlet,” she says, “for people to be thinking about ‘All right, how can we estimate maybe the relative contributions of these things to individual populations and their declines.’ ”

CorrectionSept. 19, 2019

An earlier version of this story misspelled Kristen Ruegg’s first name as Kristin.

New species related to humans discovered in cave

New species related to humans discovered in cave

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New species related to humans discovered in cave 01:15

(CNN)Ancient bones and teeth found in Callao Cave in the Philippines have led to the discovery of a previously unknown species related to humans called Homo luzonensis, according to a new study. The fossils belonged to two adults and one child who lived between 50,000 and 67,000 years ago.

This time frame means luzonensis would have lived at the same time as Neanderthals, Denisovans, Homo sapiens and the small-bodied Homo floresiensis. Like other extinct hominins, luzonensis is more of a close relative than a direct ancestor.
In 2007, a single foot bone was found in the cave and dated to 67,000 years ago. During excavations in 2011 and 2015, researchers found 12 additional hand and foot bones, including a partial femur and teeth, in the same layer of the cave. The researchers have named the new species luzonensis because of where it was found on the island of Luzon.
They are now the earliest human remains found in the Philippines. Previously, Homo sapiens remains were found on Palawan island and dated to between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago.
But what makes luzonensis different from other species? It’s all in the distinct premolar teeth, which vary considerably from anything identified in the other species belonging to the Homo genus.

Callao Cave on Luzon island, where the fossils were discovered.

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The seven premolars and molars are smaller and more simplified than those of other species. Although some of the characteristics can be compared to Homo erectus and Homo sapiens, the teeth and jaw features remain distinct as far as the odd features they combine.
This factor, along with the fact that the researchers haven’t been able to remove DNA from the fossils, makes it difficult to determine where luzonensis fits, evolution-wise.
The two hand bones and three foot bones also show a unique anatomy.
Although separated by millions of years of evolution, luzonensis’ toe bone strongly resembles that of Australopithecus afarensis, or the famed “Lucy” fossil. Australopithecus lived between 2.9 million and 3.9 million years ago.
The finger bone also resembles that of Australopithecus, as well as early Homo species. The finger and toe bones are curved, like those of early hominins, likely suggesting that climbing was important to their lifestyle and survival.
“If you take each feature one by one, you will also find it in one or several hominin species, but if you take the whole combination of features, no other species of the genus Homo is similar, thus indicating that they belong to a new species,” said Florent Détroit, study author and paleoanthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris.

Complications in the evolutionary tree

Luzonensis presents a bit of a mystery because, as with the discovery of Homo floresiensis, previously unknown hominin species complicate the evolutionary tree. This also shifts the idea of which species migrated.
Given that Africa is regarded as the “Cradle of Life” and Homo erectus was found on the Indonesian island of Java, the idea is that erectus migrated out of Africa and helped disperse the species.
Floresiensis, nicknamed the “hobbit” species, have been found only on the island of Flores near Indonesia and were discovered in 2003. They lived between 100,000 and 60,000 years ago. And although they stood only around 3½ feet tall and had brains about one-third the size of a modern human’s, they made stone tools and hunted elephants.
It is believed that floresiensis was more diminutive in stature due to its island environment and limited resources. The same may be true for luzonensis, the researchers said.
Both of these species lived on islands that would have been reachable only by crossing the sea. And there is evidence of animal butchery on Luzon that dates back 700,000 years, but the researchers don’t know whether luzonensis is responsible.
The finding does build the case that hominins were already present on the island. They could have been luzonensis or the species descended from them, or perhaps they descended from another unknown group, the researchers said.
Seafaring could have happened by accident as they drifted on rafts or due to intentional navigation, the researchers said.
“We have more and more evidence that they successfully settled on several islands in the remote past in Southeast Asia, so it was probably not so accidental,” Détroit said. “Another important thing to have in mind is that you cannot successfully settle on an island with a single event of arrival of only few people, you need several individuals of course, and you need several arrivals, at least at the beginning, so that you have enough founders settled on the island.”

More exploration to come

So how did they evolve, and why do they share such varied characteristics with more ancient hominins? The answer may lie in more excavations and discoveries yet to be made on the islands of Southeast Asia.
“Our picture of homin evolution in Asia during the Pleistocene just got even messier, more complicated and a whole lot more interesting,” Matthew Tocheri wrote in an accompanying News and Views article. Tocheri, the Canada Research Chair in Human Origins at Lakehead University in Ontario, did not participate in this study.
The researchers are planning studying the biomechanical aspects of the fossils and how they may have moved, as well as more excavations of the cave or identifying new potential sites.
“As we can see now, Southeast Asia, and especially their islands, is a fantastic place for studying hominin evolution, and conducting fieldwork to find more sites with ancient archaeology and hominin fossils,” Détroit said.

Over 250 Archaeologists Show Evidence Humans ‘Transformed’ Earth Long Before 1900s

BEN MARWICK & ERLE C. ELLIS, THE CONVERSATION
30 AUG 2019

Examples of how human societies are changing the planet abound – from building roads and houses, clearing forests for agriculture and digging train tunnels, to shrinking the ozone layer, driving species extinct, changing the climate and acidifying the oceans.

Human impacts are everywhere. Our societies have changed Earth so much that it’s impossible to reverse many of these effects.

Some researchers believe these changes are so big that they mark the beginning of a new “human age” of Earth history, the Anthropocene epoch.

committee of geologists has now proposed to mark the start of the Anthropocene in the mid-20th century, based on a striking indicator: the widely scattered radioactive dust from nuclear bomb tests in the early 1950s.

But this is not the final word.

Not everyone is sure that today’s industrialized, globalized societies will be around long enough to define a new geological epoch. Perhaps we are just a flash in the pan – an event – rather than a long, enduring epoch.

Others debate the utility of picking a single thin line in Earth’s geological record to mark the start of human impacts in the geological record. Maybe the Anthropocene began at different times in different parts of the world.

For example, the first instances of agriculture emerged at different places at different times, and resulted in huge impacts on the environment, through land clearing, habitat losses, extinctions, erosion and carbon emissions, forever changing the global climate.

This is a tough question because archaeologists tend to focus their research on a limited number of sites and regions and to prioritize locations where agriculture is believed to have appeared earliest.

To date, it has proved nearly impossible for archaeologists to put together a global picture of land use changes throughout time.

Global answers from local experts

To tackle these questions, we pulled together a research collaboration among archaeologists, anthropologists and geographers to survey archaeological knowledge on land use across the planet.

We asked over 1,300 archaeologists from around the world to contribute their knowledge on how ancient people used the land in 146 regions spanning all continents except Antarctica from 10,000 years ago right up to 1850.

More than 250 responded, representing the largest expert archaeology crowdsourcing project ever undertaken, though some prior projects have worked with amateur contributions.

Our work has now mapped the current state of archaeological knowledge on land use across the planet, including parts of the world that have rarely been considered in previous studies.

Even when these data are shared by archaeologists, they use many different formats from one project to another, making it difficult to combine for large-scale analysis.

Our goal from the beginning was to make it easy for anyone to check our work and reuse our data – we’ve put all our research materials online where they can be freely accessed by anyone.

Earlier and more widespread human impacts

Though our study acquired expert archaeological information from across the planet, data were more available in some regions – including Southwest Asia, Europe, northern China, Australia and North America – than in others.

This is probably because more archaeologists have worked in these regions than elsewhere, such as parts of Africa, Southeast Asia and South America.

Our archaeologists reported that nearly half (42 percent) of our regions had some form of agriculture by 6,000 years ago, highlighting the prevalence of agricultural economies across the globe.

Moreover, these results indicate that the onset of agriculture was earlier and more widespread than suggested in the most common global reconstruction of land-use history, the History Database of the Global Environment.

Our survey also revealed that hunting and foraging was generally replaced by pastoralism (raising animals such as cows and sheep for food and other resources) and agriculture in most places, though there were exceptions.

In a few areas, reversals occurred and agriculture did not simply replace foraging but merged with it and coexisted side by side for some time.

The deep roots of the Anthropocene

Global archaeological data show that human transformation of environments began at different times in different regions and accelerated with the emergence of agriculture.

Nevertheless, by 3,000 years ago, most of the planet was already transformed by hunter-gatherers, farmers and pastoralists.

To guide this planet toward a better future, we need to understand how we got here. The message from archaeology is clear. It took thousands of years for the pristine planet of long ago to become the human planet of today.

And there is no way to fully understand this human planet without building on the expertise of archaeologists, anthropologists, sociologists and other human scientists.

To build a more robust Earth science in the Anthropocene, the human sciences must play as central a role as the natural sciences do today.The Conversation

Ben Marwick, Associate Professor of Archaeology, University of WashingtonErle C. Ellis, Professor of Geography and Environmental Systems, University of Maryland, Baltimore CountyLucas Stephens, Research Affiliate in Archaeology, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, and Nicole Boivin, Director of the Department of Archaeology, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

https://www.sciencealert.com/archaeologists-are-arguing-about-exactly-when-we-started-the-anthropocene

Cadbury bars leave orangutans on ‘brink of extinction’ thanks to ‘destructive’ palmoil

Your Cadbury chocolate bars, Oreo cookies and Ritz crackers are leaving orangutans on the “brink of extinction”, campaigners warn.

Greenpeace says orangutans are “literally dying for a biscuit” in a new report that slams snack giant Mondelez over its controversial use of “destructive” palm oil – which is created by destroying rainforest habitats.

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Palm oil shot to nationwide attention this month after Iceland’s Christmas TV ad about the ongoing crisis was banned in the UK.

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The notorious substance is widely used in products found in British supermarkets, and the ad drew attention to its impact on orangutans.

Voiced by actress Emma Thompson, the ad tugged at heartstrings by showing the destruction of a young orangutan’s home – but was deemed too political by Britain’s ad watchdog.

Now new mapping by Greenpeace has linked Mondelez – which makes Cadbury, Oreo and Ritz products – to the destruction of a major orangutan habitat in Indonesia.

“It’s outrageous that despite promising to clean up its palm oil almost 10 years ago, Mondelez is still trading with forest destroyers,” said Kiki Taufik, who leads Greenpeace Southeast Asia’s Indonesia forests campaign.

“Palm oil can be made without destroying forests, yet our investigation discovered that Mondelez suppliers are still trashing forests and wrecking orangutan habitat, pushing these beautiful and intelligent creatures to the brink of extinction.

“They’re literally dying for a biscuit,” Kiki added.

Mondelez’ own records show it purchased more than 300,000 tonnes of palm oil and palm oil products in 2017.

And Greenpeace says 95% of this is purchased using the “weakest of the certification models” – a regulatory shortcut, basically.

“This means that the plantations and producer groups from which the overwhelming majority of the palm oil that Mondelez purchases is sourced are not governed by any sustainability initiatives,” the report blasts.

Mondelez is part of several industry groups working towards sustainable palm oil usage.

But Greenpeace warns: “Mondelez continues to source palm oil from rainforest destroyers, despite its stated commitment to responsible sourcing.”

Earlier this year, Greenpeace published a report detailing “recent rainforest destruction” by 25 palm oil producers in Southeast Asia.

According to Greenpeace, Mondelez was sourcing palm oil from 22 of these groups – between them, over 70,000 hectares of rainforest was destroyed between 2015 and 2017.

Of that area, 25,000 hectares were “forested orangutan habitat”.

But Greenpeace warns that the scale of the problem may be even worse: “These are just the cases that Greenpeace was able to identify – Mondelez sources from hundreds of palm oil companies and this destruction is likely just the tip of the iceberg.”

The report claims that Mondelez gets lots of its “dirty palm oil” from Wilmar International, the world’s biggest trader.

Greenpeace says that Wilmar fails to monitor its suppliers, and has “refused to make the radical changes that would end its trade with forest destroyers.”

It’s not just wildlife at risk, either.

It’s claimed that Mondelez palm oil suppliers have been accused of “child labor, exploitation of workers, illegal deforestation, forest fires and land grabbing”.

“Mondelez’s new tagline, revealed in September, is ‘snacking made right’, but there’s nothing right about palm oil produced by killing orangutans and fuelling climate change,” said Richard George, Greenpeace UK Forests Campaigner.

“This must be a wake up call to Mondelez and other household brands to take action, starting with cutting off the dirtiest palm oil trader of all, Wilmar, until it can prove its palm oil is clean.

“Ultimately, if big brands can’t find enough clean palm oil to make their products, they need use to less.”

Oreo, one of the products named in the report, is a hit with vegans due to the fact that it contains zero animal products.

But the use of palm oil that contributes to the destruction of the rainforest will raise concerns about the ethics of Oreo consumption.

We spoke to Elisa Allen, director at animal welfare charity Peta, who said: “PETA supports the move towards sustainable palm oil, which doesn’t involve devastating destruction of orangutans’ homes.

“We encourage consumers to check labels on food and – if they contain palm oil – purchase products that have been certified by the Palm Oil Innovation Group in order to ensure that no new deforestation has occurred to create palm plantations,” Elisa told The Sun.

She went on: “Of course, anyone who’s serious about protecting the environment – and the animals who live in it – knows that the meat industry is responsible for an enormous amount of deforestation (for instance, 70 percent of the Amazon rainforest has been cleared for raising cattle), and we can do our part by eating a wholefoods–based vegan diet.”

Responding to the report, a Mondelez spokesperson told The Sun: “Mondelez International is committed to eradicating deforestation in the palm oil supply and we’re actively working with our suppliers to ensure palm oil is fully traceable.

“We’re calling on our suppliers to further map and monitor the plantations where oil is grown so we can drive further traceability. We’re excluding 12 upstream suppliers from our supply chain who have not met our standards.

“For many years we have been calling for 100% sustainable and 100% traceable palm oil and we’re making good progress on our Palm Oil Action Plan.

“This includes actionable steps to ensure the palm oil we buy is produced on legally held land, does not lead to deforestation or loss of peat land, respects human rights — including land and labour rights – and does not use forced or child labor.

“At the end of 2017, 96% of our palm oil was traceable back to mill and 99% was from suppliers with policies aligned to ours.

“We’re calling on our suppliers to improve practices across their entire operations and to engage their third-party suppliers to ensure their palm oil production is 100% sustainable and traceable.

“We will continue to prioritize suppliers that meet our principles, and exclude those that don’t.”

This story originally appeared in The Sun.

Trump Escalates War on Species as We Face an Extinction Emergency

The Trump administration’s recent announcement of rule changes to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) will blow a hole through protections that have been crucial to preventing extinctions and to helping the recovery of many threatened species. The changes, announced by the Interior Department’s, Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Marine Fisheries Service, will take effect in September.

About 1,600 plant and animal species in the U.S. are listed under the ESA. It’s been estimated the ESA has prevented 227 species from going extinct. It has a 99 percent success ratio, meaning only 10 species ever listed have gone extinct. According to a recent study, 77 percent of once-endangered marine mammals and sea turtles protected by the ESA are now recovering. Without the ESA, it is very likely many iconic as well as many lesser-known species would have disappeared forever. Among others, the ESA is believed to have saved the bald eagle, the monk seal, the leatherback sea turtle, the grizzly bear, the gray wolf, the California condor, the snowy plover, and humpback and gray whales. It is also protecting plant, insect and other species that are vital parts of natural ecosystems.

These changes to the ESA will damage the act’s ability to protect species in a number of ways.

First, a blanket rule automatically extending endangered species protections to newly designated threatened species has been torpedoed. Only threatened species that have special rules set up for them will now receive the greater protections given to endangered species. States could now open hunting or trapping seasons or allow other means that kill off threatened species. Noah Greenwald, endangered species director of the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), told Truthout that there is currently a backlog of around 500 species before the FWS under consideration for threatened status. As a result of the changes he said, “Threatened species really won’t have any protections at all” making threatened status an “almost meaningless designation.”

The new rules change the establishment of critical habitat that is crucial for the survival of threatened species.

If a species is impacted by climate change but not primarily by habitat destruction, the new rules won’t designate critical habitat, even though climate change-threatened species need more habitat protection, not less, Greenwald said. “The rules also make it harder to designate unoccupied habitat. So both of these things are very bad for climate change-impacted species because there’s a decent chance they’ll have to move.”

Unoccupied habitat is habitat not yet occupied by the species but that would be beneficial to a species and could help it survive if a species were forced to move, by say, climate change. Scientists have already documented the migration of species northward and to new habitats as a result of climate change, so the need for critical habitat designations isn’t just theoretical.

Greenwald pointed up the example of the wolverine. Only about 300 wolverines are estimated to be left in the wild in the U.S. They are dwindling, particularly as a result of climate disruption lessening mountain snowfall. Wolverines are currently up for a listing decision and are likely to be given threatened status but no designated physical habitat under the new rules. Greenwald says wolverines are affected by winter sports and things like ski resort development because they rely on spring snowfall at high elevations for denning. But since it’s hard to predict exactly how various habitats will be impacted by climate change, the animals are unlikely to be given critical habitat designation now by the FWS rule changes.

Environmental groups are also condemning the ESA changes because they remove language requiring that decisions on protecting species be based solely on science “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of determination.” The new rules allow economic calculations to be made in considering protection of species. This could open the door to weighing those costs against protecting a species. For instance, when deciding whether protecting a certain species threatened by logging of old growth forest is outweighed by the economic benefit of logging. FWS Assistant Director Gary Frazer insisted science would remain the sole basis of determining protections, but the whole attempt to weaken the ESA for many years (mainly by Republicans) has always sought to open the door to overrule protecting species in favor of big capitalist business interests like logging and fossil fuel extraction.

Trump officials are trying to cover over their true intentions by speaking of “updating” or even “improving” the Act. Interior Department head David Bernhardt, a longtime ESA opponent and advocate for coal and oil interests, now claims to just make the ESA more “clear and efficient” to “ensure it remains effective in achieving its ultimate goal — recovery of our rarest species.”

Jacob Malcom of Defenders of Wildlife doesn’t buy it. “They’re going to make these arguments because that’s the only way they’re going to have any traction in trying to defend them, but they’re simply not true,” he told Truthout.

Greenwald concurs. “They say they’re going to rely on the best scientific information in making their decisions but what’s the point of doing the economic analysis?” he told Truthout. Greenwald said these changes will also create pressure by large monied interests to list species as threatened instead of endangered, because they will get less habitat protection. Republicans in Congress like John Barrasso,who have conducted a years-long attempt to undermine and do away with ESA protections, also see these changes as a “good start” and a gateway to even more drastic gutting of the Act, while claiming to “update” and “strengthen” it.

Facing criticism for the rule changes, Trump officials have simply doubled down on their assault on species, denying endangered protections to six more species on August 14.

CBD, Earthjustice and the attorneys general of California and Massachusetts have announced they will go to court to stop the rule changes.

Extinction and the Larger Ecological Crisis

The assault on the ESA happens at a moment of global mass extinction and climate crises. It will further that crisis unless prevented.

“When we’re seeing this kind of crisis … we should be strengthening laws we know are effective at saving species,” Malcom told Truthout. “Instead, the Trump administration is doing the opposite. They are weakening the rules, making it easier for harm to happen to these species and ultimately to drive species closer to extinction.”

In May, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) reported that up to 1 million species are threatened with extinction. The report said “nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history — and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely.”

According to the report, three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66 percent of the marine environment have now been significantly altered by human actions, and land-based habitats have fallen by 20 percent. Approximately 40 percent of amphibian species, 33 percent of reef-forming corals and a third of all marine mammals are threatened. Scientists have also been finding evidence of a collapse of insects in certain places, leading to fears of an apocalypse at the base of the food chain.

About one-fourth of the global land area is “traditionally owned, managed, used or occupied by Indigenous Peoples.” And areas with large concentrations of Indigenous Peoples and many of the world’s poorest people are now “projected to experience significant negative effects from global changes in climate, biodiversity, ecosystem functions and nature’s contributions to people.” IPBES Chair Robert Watson said, “We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

The gutting of the ESA happens against a backdrop of other human-caused catastrophes that has been escalating with shocking rapidity and scope, this summer especially.

This July ranked as the hottest month ever recorded. An intense heat wave scorched the northern hemisphere, causing between 12 and 24 billion tons of Greenland’s ice to melt in a single day. Scientists said the melt was reaching levels climate models hadn’t predicted until 2070. In the Arctic, extremely hot temperatures and resulting drought set off massive wildfires that are visible from space. In vast regions of Siberia, the smoke got so bad that, mixed with dark clouds, it caused the sun to “disappear,” as also happened last summer. Now residents talk about this as the sun “going off.” Waters are so warm in some Alaskan rivers that salmon are literally being killed off.

The increased warming of the Arctic is causing a feedback loop releasing even more greenhouse gases by melting frozen permafrost. “Arctic permafrost isn’t thawing gradually, as scientists once predicted,” reports National Geographic. “Geologically speaking, it’s thawing almost overnight.”

If fossil fuel burning isn’t dramatically altered, in a few decades, emissions of carbon and methane from melting permafrost will contribute as much to greenhouse emissions as that of China, currently the world’s largest emitter. Meanwhile, in the Bering Sea, warming ocean waters are triggering ecological disaster, killing off seabirds, seals, walruses and whales at rates not seen before. Rick Thoman, a scientist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy, said at a public forum in Nome, Alaska, “We’re not approaching the cliff. We’ve fallen off it.”

Trump’s Multileveled and Criminal War on Nature

Given the cataclysm already engulfing the globe, emergency measures are needed to address the crisis.

Nothing like this is occurring, and in the U.S., Trump is instead barreling ahead in ways that will further destroy species and ecosystems to increase profitability for capitalism with what could rightfully be called life-destroying criminality.

A report in Scientific American details how the Trump administration is “torpedoing climate science.” Another report reveals that after meeting with Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, Trump personally intervened with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to force a withdrawal of opposition to the proposed Pebble Gold and Copper Mine that will likely devastate the habitat of the world’s richest and most pristine remaining salmon run, in Bristol Bay, Alaska. Trump’s Interior Department is also being exposed for suppressing science in an environmental assessment of drilling plans in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain. Government scientists warning of the likely damage to caribou, polar bears and Native communities are being disregarded.

And on another front, Trump’s EPA has continued to refuse to stop the use of dangerous pesticides that are killing endangered plants and animals, including important pollinators. In the case of the pesticide chlorpyrifos, which has been shown to cause neurological and developmental damage to humans and animals, the EPA reversed a ban on its use even though the agency knew it could jeopardize the existence of almost 1,400 endangered plants and animals.

In July, Trump gave a speech on what he claimed were the great achievements of his government on the environment, including how under him, the U.S. has the world’s cleanest air and water. However, as Brett Hartl, government affairs director of the Center for Biological Diversity told Truthout, “Since he’s been elected, the air has gotten dirtier, the water has gotten dirtier, the amount of enforcement of our environmental laws has dropped off a cliff so polluters are getting away with much more, and they’re cutting the science and the staff to do the basic research to monitor the air and water.”

The CBD has filed 151 lawsuits to date challenging the Trump administration’s moves that would cause damage to the environment, species and people. The scope of the CBD lawsuits is remarkable, and reviewing them is an excellent way to take in the awful reality of what the regime is attempting to do and the legal attempts to stop this. Hartl said that a number of the lawsuits and legal actions filed by CBD and others have met with success; for instance, blocking Trump moves to open up Arctic waters for drilling, stopping the Keystone XL Pipeline for a time, stopping construction of an open-pit copper mine in Arizona, and winning protected status for a number of species.

The Trump regime is not only a threat to endangered species, but to all species — including our own. Preventing mass extinction and addressing the climate crisis is a global imperative, and time is short.

Humans, not glaciers, likely doomed Ice Age cave bears

Analysis of genetic material from dozens of prehistoric bears shows that their decline neatly matches the arrival of Homo sapiens in Europe.

Neanderthals lived in Europe for thousands of centuries, and during that time, they had to watch their step. Mammoths, woolly rhinos, and saber-tooth cats were common in the region, and the caves these human relatives would sometimes enter for shelter were often already occupied by cave bears, the heaviest adults of which may have weighed over 2,000 pounds.

Today, controversy swirls around the question of why all these large animals eventually disappeared. Some scientists think they were victims of the last glacial maximum, which peaked around 26,500 years ago. Other experts have argued that the appearance of a new human species with a knack for hunting, Homo sapiens, could have driven the unfortunate beasts to extinction.

Now, research presented in the journal Scientific Reports suggests that in the case of cave bears, humans most likely played a crucial role.

“If not for our arrival in Europe, I don’t see any reason why cave bears should not be around today,” says study coauthor Hervé Bocherens, a paleobiologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany who has studied cave bear remains for 30 years.

In some ways, the result may foreshadow the situation of today’s brown bear, which currently has a stable population but may soon be at risk due to conflicts with humans in an increasingly crowded and warming world. (Find out why living brown bears retain traces of cave bear DNA.)

Clan of the cave bear

Bocherens and a team of researchers led by Verena Schuenemann at the University of Zürich in Switzerland collected the remains of 59 cave bears found across Europe to extract what’s known as mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA. These small bits of genetic material are only inherited from an animal’s mother and can reveal genetic relationships between animals found at different locations. Crucially, however, mtDNA can also provide clues to past population sizes.

“Models of the genetics of populations tell us that the more diverse the mtDNA found in fossils from the same period, the larger the population must have been, allowing us to estimate the number of bears at any point in time,” Bocherens says.

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When the scientists ran their analysis, the data suggested that the cave bear decline started some 40,000 years ago—long before the last ice age set in. This also means that cave bears thrived throughout a number of earlier periods when temperatures significantly decreased. Instead, their downward trend starts right about the same time that our species began to spread across Europe.

“There is some evidence suggesting some modern humans may have set foot in Europe even earlier,” Bocherens says. “But as far as we know, they only really populated the continent around the time the cave bears start declining.”

Though Neanderthals were probably killing cave bears as well, modern humans may have used more advanced hunting techniques and were probably more likely to venture into caves, Bocherens argues. Soon, anatomically modern humans became much more numerous than Neanderthals had ever been, sealing the cave bear’s fate.

The work “represents the maximum amount of information we can get from mtDNA data,” says Michael Knapp, a paleobiologist now based at the University of Otago in New Zealand. Knapp was not involved in the present study, but he published an earlier paper based on a more limited dataset that found similar results.

Bear necessities

Humans may have killed cave bears not just for their meat, but also for their fur or even simply because they were perceived as a threat. And as more humans settled in Europe, cave bears may have had a harder time moving into milder climates when it became cold, or finding the abundant plant foods required to sustain their large bodies. Remnant populations survived only in remote corners of Europe, such as the Italian Alps, where the most recent remains appear to be about 24,000 years old.

“Yet as these populations grew more and more isolated, they became genetically impoverished, as it was increasingly difficult for animals to travel between populations to find a mate,” Bocherens says. This may have weakened their offspring and could have made the bears more vulnerable to disease.

Meanwhile, brown bears survived into the modern era, perhaps because they were smaller and had more flexible diets that included meat they probably scavenged from large predators. Still, the decline of the cave bears carries a warning for brown bears, Bocherens says.

“First of all,” he says, “it shows that the most isolated populations are at risk, and that we should do whatever we can to allow some exchange of individuals between them, even if that means moving animals around ourselves.”

Perhaps even more importantly, he adds, the climate is again changing drastically, this time due to the actions of Homo sapiens, and that meansit is not enough to have nature reserves where the animals are left alone. In a world increasingly cluttered with roads, railways, fences, and buildings, we must also preserve the bears’ ability to travel around and keep their populations healthy and diverse.

“Species may survive a changing climate if they can track the changing temperatures,” Bocherens says. “But as the example of the cave bear shows us, climate change can be a very big problem if you cannot move.”