Note (12/2015): Hi there! I'm taking some time off here to focus on other projects for a bit. As of October 2016, those other projects include a science book series for kids titled Things That Make You Go Yuck! -- available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon and (hopefully) a bookstore near you!

Co-author Jenn Dlugos and I are also doing some extremely ridiculous things over at Drinkstorm Studios, including our award-winning webseries, Magicland.

There are also a full 100 posts right here in the archives, and feel free to drop me a line at with comments, suggestions or wacky cold fusion ideas. Cheers!

· Categories: Biology
What I’ve Learned:

Australopithecus: In hominid evolution, you win some, you Lucy some.
“Australopithecus: In hominid evolution, you win some, you Lucy some.”

Australopithecus sounds like an oddball instrument some grimy dreadlocked dude from New Zealand would play — or possibly a disease you might catch from said grimy Kiwi dude, if you stood too close to him during the concert.

Happily, Australopithecus is actually a genus — that is, a group of species — that lived in southern and eastern Africa between about two and four million years ago. The term “Australopithecus” means “southern ape”, which is a reasonable description of these hairy prehistoric hominid furballs.

(Also, it’s probably not a bad description of that nappy New Zealander. I’m just saying.)

The Australopithecus species — including the famous “Lucy” specimen — are particularly interesting, because they’re the earliest fossil remains of ape-like creatures that weren’t particularly ape-like. Though they had relatively small brains, analyses of Australopithecus toes, feet and hips reveal that they could probably walk upright. They may have also played hopscotch and danced the lambada on steamy Saturday nights.

(Those last bits aren’t really supported by the science. I just like to picture them.)

Also, most Australopithecus species have powerful teeth and jaws not seen in apes, and some may have even used tools. So they were no longer true apes; they were more like apes crossed with crocodiles who could walk on two legs and work a can opener, but probably played a lousy game of chess because their brains were still the size of golf balls.

Or, basically a pack of slightly-hairier Rachael Rays. I apologize in advance for the nightmares that phrase will surely cause.

Thus, Australopithecus has answered one important question about human evolution: the adaptation to stand upright was not driven by the development of a big, human-like brain. Early hominids were walking (and cooking 30-minute meals, apparently) before they had the ginormous craniums we’re all so proud of.

But another question remains: were the Australopithecus species, the original bipedal hairballs, direct ancestors of modern-day humans? It depends on who you ask.

(Just don’t ask Rachael Ray. She’s kind of sensitive about it.)

On one hand, there’s good evidence that Australopithecus species walked upright, and they have several features — like particular bone shapes and relative sizes — intermediate between earlier species’ skeletons and those found in doctors’ offices and Halloween costume shops today. Some scientists say: if it mostly waddles like a prehistoric duck, and it vaguely quacks like a prehistoric duck, then slap a mammoth skin on it and call it Daffy. For them, chances are we have Australopithecuses in our family tree.

Other scientists aren’t so sure. “Upright” is one thing, but these pre-humans probably didn’t walk or run like we do, and likely still climbed trees and “knuckle-walked” on a regular basis. Also, there were still Australopithecus species hanging around after the Homo genus emerged about 2.4 million years ago. Did the Homo species, including Homo sapiens — i.e., every human on the planet, except possibly Carrot Top — evolve from one of the earlier Australopithecus groups? Or intermingle with a later one? Did we evolve from a common ancestor, then watch their branch die out over the millennia?

At this point, nobody knows for sure. More fossil specimens — like the new species Australopithecus sediba, described in 2010 — may someday provide conclusive evidence of a link between the genuses. That would be exciting news, indeed.

Except then we’d have to invite Rachael Ray to the family reunions. And nobody wants to be at that potluck, Junior. Pass the prehistoric potato salad.

Image sources: Discovering Cultures (Australopithecus), Go, See, Write (dreadlocked dude), ResearchMatters/ASU and Armchair Cook (Rachael Ape), After and Before (Make-it-stop, Carrot Top)

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· Categories: Biology, Genetics
What I’ve Learned:

The punctuated equilibrium of Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black
“Properly-punctuated equilibrium: Ten million ellipses, then a whole bunch of exclamation points.”

Punctuated equilibrium sounds like something you get when you perforate an eardrum. Like there should be PSAs about it, with scary pictures of death metal bands and Beats headphones with blood on the cans.

Luckily, it’s not that. No one’s coming to tear the Dethklok from your cold, deaf hands.

Instead, punctuated equilibrium is an evolutionary biology concept that made a big splash in the 1970s. It’s been desplashed a little since then, but it’s still pretty important. Plus Stephen Jay Gould helped think it up, and mostly everybody liked him. So there’s that.

The idea is this: in (at least) some cases, the pressure on organisms to evolve and adapt and squirt out a bunch of funky new species isn’t constant over time. When there’s plenty of food and the water is fine and everybody owns their own TiVo, then it doesn’t matter much if your individual set of genes makes you three percent hardier than your neighbor.

Oh, sure, you might get off your deoxyribonucleic ass and mutate up another leg or some gills or an enzyme to digest styrofoam. But let’s face it: you’ve got a pizza coming, and you’re still catching up on last season’s Orphan Black. Who has the time to speciate? And frankly, why bother?

This could go on for millions, or tens of millions of years.

(Well, Orphan Black won’t, of course. Tatiana Maslany is terrific and all, but she’s going to be too old for this thing at some point. I don’t care how many gills she grows.)

Things get interesting, says punctuated equilibrium, when the going gets tough. If the resources dry up, individuals die out. Small groups get separated from others; exploitable niches become more important. The quickest — and perhaps most radical — to adapt will ultimately thrive. Like the guy who brings a flask to the keg party, in case the beer runs out.

Or something less alcoholic. If you must.

It’s during these periods of ecological pressure and isolation that many new species are born. In between, all the old fern and finch and crocodile species sit around getting fat on Cheetos. And often each other.

But introduce a little hardship, and nature blossoms with adaptation to take advantage. That’s why an oceanful of brine shrimp will remain boring dumb brine shrimp forever. They want for nothing; they’re little trust fund crustaceans, born with silver… um, tiny handled eating utensils that rich baby shrimps would use… in their mouths.

(Or gills. Or whatever. Look, there’s no “aquatic face anatomy” tag on this post, all right? You get the idea.)

However! Scoop a small colony of shrimp out of the sea, stuff them in an envelope and shove them in the mail — now that’s an ecological challenge. And it’s enough to turn them into a whole new species: Sea Monkeys, with legs and fingers and brains and disturbingly human lips and what appear to be testicles growing on stalks out the tops of their heads.

And how does it work? Through the science of punctuated equilibrium.

So far as you know, unless you happen to own any of Stephen Jay Gould’s work. Or a freshman biology book. Or Sea Monkeys.

Stupid Sea Monkeys.

Actual Science:
Princeton UniversityPunctuated equilibrium
Evolution 101 / BerkeleyMore on punctuated equilibrium
National Center for Science EducationThe origin of species by punctuated equilibria
Shaking the Tree / Google BooksPunctuated equilibrium comes of age
Astrobiology MagazineLife after catastrophe

Image sources: BioNinja (evolution models), NeatoShop (poorly punctuated), BioNinja, The Mary Sue, io9 and Huffington Post (Tatiana Maslany clone evolution), She’s Fantastic! (Sea Monkeys)

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