11 November 2020: Venomous statistics

Some Australians take perverse pride in the legion of venomous animals infesting the continent and its surrounding seas, from the very small members of the Irukandji group of box jellyfish[i] up to the very large mulga snake[ii].

On the face of it, Australia seems to have had the bum run when it comes to its snakes, spiders, ants, octopuses, cone shells and jellyfish, and this hardly exhausts the list of venomous creatures that call Australia home. On the face of it, if venomous wildlife is your thing then you should be calling Australia home, too.

(As an unpleasant aside, Australia’s venomous biota is not even restricted to its animals; I dare you to read this with the lights off: Australia’s venomous trees.)

If we exclude the 120 kg drop bear[iii], which is sometimes erroneously claimed to use venomous claws to subdue its prey, then the big three that dominate most conversations after a few beers at the pub are the inland taipan, the box jellyfish (particularly the sea wasp), and the Sydney funnel-web spider.

The inland taipan[iv]

For a timid and rarely seen snake, in recent years the inland taipan has garnered a fearsome reputation for itself. In fact, one of its alternative names is the fierce snake, but this is entirely due to its venom, milligram for milligram the most lethal of any of the world’s reptiles. It is often reported that the venom from a 110 mg bite, if carelessly (or maliciously) injected, could kill 100 adult men. The fact that the average dose delivered by an inland taipan is about 44 mg is rarely mentioned, although since this is still enough to kill at least 40 adult men it could be argued I’m being pedantic. Compare this to the most lethal member of the saw-scaled vipers[v], which can reportedly kill six adult males with the amount of venom it delivers with one bite. (We’ll be returning to the saw-scaled viper a little later.)

The chance of encountering the inland taipan, which inhabits that semiarid corner of hell-on-earth between Queensland and South Australia, is vanishingly small. Indeed, in Australia your chance of dying from thirst or a camel stampede is probably greater than dying from a snake bite from any species. It’s also worth noting that the inland taipan has been described as placid and reluctant to strike; of course, if cornered or mishandled it will not hesitate to bite with remarkable speed and precision, and more fool you.

The sea wasp[vi]

The sea wasp is another matter altogether, not because it is remotely vicious, but because it just doesn’t give a damn. All envenomations are accidental. The largest of the box jellyfish, it spends its life floating in the warm tropical waters off northern Australia, Papua New Guinea and Southeast Asia. Well, floating isn’t entirely correct. The sea wasp does swim, but not in the determined way that would get it a place in Australia’s Olympic swimming team; apparently at full pelt they can cover about six metres in a minute. In the right season and the right place, the chance of accidentally bumping into one of these almost transparent jellyfish is depressingly high. Beaches all along the northern, tropical shorelines of Australia have signs warning swimmers of the danger.

Sea wasp.
Photo Creative Commons

An adult sea wasp is made up of a roughly square-shaped bell about 30 centimetres in diameter; 15 tentacles trail from each of the bell’s corners, each of which can be up to three metres long and are covered in around 5,000 cells called cnidoblasts, each of which in turn houses a nematocyst, which is Latin for ‘this will hurt’.[vii]

Nematocysts are the business end of a sea wasp’s venom delivery mechanism. When its prey, usually prawns or small fish, brush against the tentacles, the cnidoblasts release the nematocysts. The nematocysts penetrate the skin of the victim like miniature harpoons and then release their venom. Despite having actual eyes, the sea wasp seems incapable of restraining the cnidoblasts from releasing their load if the tentacles accidentally brush against something which isn’t prey, such as a human. Since this means the sea wasp is missing out on a meal and must now spend what I assume is a lot of energy to rearm the cnidoblasts, this is a serious design fault. Admittedly, that’s small comfort for anyone writhing in the water in unbearable pain, but one can only imagine the cuss words going through what passes for a sea wasp brain.[viii]

According to one study[ix], a sea wasp carries enough venom to kill 60 adults, which considering its size compared to, say, the inland taipan, is some achievement. Nonetheless, most encounters with a sea wasp don’t end with a fatality. The quick application of vinegar to neutralise any nematocysts still attached to the skin, and ice to relieve the pain, is often all that’s necessary. Having said that, one study[x] shows that 8% of envenomations require hospitalisation:

‘Because of the rapidity of fatal C. fleckeri envenoming, the critical window of opportunity for potentially life-saving use of antivenom is much smaller than that for snake envenoming, possibly only minutes. Furthermore, from animal study data, it was calculated that around 12 ampoules of antivenom may be required to counter the effects of a theoretical envenoming containing twice the human lethal dose of venom.’

The lesson here is if you come across a sign at a beach that says beware of box jellyfish (or for that matter crocodiles) consider something marginally safer and decidedly less painful for your daily outing, like jumping off a cliff.

The Sydney funnel-web spider[xi]

I’m an arachnophobe, and this spider pretty well defines the content of my worst nightmares.

I readily admit I’m scared of vampires, malevolent ghosts, land sharks, Brussel sprouts and omelettes – for that matter, any food made mainly from eggs – but my fear of spiders is on a whole other level. Even if I catch a glimpse from the corner of my eye of the completely innocuous daddy longlegs a long shiver will pass down my spine. I don’t know what it is about arachnids that gets me all goosebumpy or triggers my fight or flight instinct (to be honest, my fly or fly-twice-as-fast instinct), but it might have something to do with spiders like huntsmen, wolf spiders, tarantulas and funnel-webs being so damn hairy. It just isn’t right; it’s as if they’d killed a dog or cat, skinned it and donned the fur. Then there’s the eight legs. Six legs on creatures such as ants and earwigs are hard enough to put up with, but eight seems a serious case of overengineering.

Sydney funnel-web.
Photo Creative Commons

Anyway, of all the world’s spiders, the Sydney funnel-web ticks every yuck box: wears dog fur, tick; eight legs, tick; lives in a hole in the ground, tick; likes entering human households, tick; has more than two eyes, tick; has fangs long enough to pierce your toe nail to get to the vulnerable flesh underneath, tick; can kill you with single bite, tick.

Indeed, I cowrote a short story about the Sydney funnel-web with good friend, colleague and fellow-arachnophobe Sean Williams. The story, ‘Atrax’, must have hit a nerve with quite a few people: it won the Aurealis Award for best horror short story in 1999.

The Sydney funnel-web’s lethality can be put down to an extraordinary compound in its venom called δ-atracotoxin (sometimes referred to as delta-hexatoxin[xii]), which bizarrely is brilliant at killing its normal prey of insects, but in small doses causes no harm to mammals … with the single exception of primates. And humans, regrettably in this single instance, are primates. Why the venom should be so damn selective is anyone’s guess, and there have been a few.[xiii]

The other peculiar fact about the Sydney funnel-web is that the male’s venom is up to six times more toxic than the female’s[xiv]. The best theory to explain this is that the male goes wandering during the mating season looking for females and has to defend itself against hungry predators, as hard as it is to imagine any predator being so hard up it needs to feed on such an ugly, hairy and extraordinarily venomous assassin. Admittedly, this doesn’t quite explain why the venom is so effective against primates; I assume almost every human on the continent, like myself, would go to great lengths to avoid antagonising any spider let alone one that can kill you, and as far as I know, humans are the only primates to have made their home in Australia.

Ultimately, the venom’s ability to kill humans is just an accidental byproduct of its evolutionary development.

But, and this is a big ‘but’, no human has died from the bite of a Sydney funnel-web spider since an antivenom became available in 1981.

Most venomous versus most dangerous

And this is where we return to the saw-scaled viper. One of these smallish snakes, the largest will grow no bigger than 90 cm, may only be able knock off six fully grown adults, as opposed to the inland taipan’s potential 100 victims, but nonetheless, to my mind the viper is the more dangerous of the two snakes.

Before I set out my reasons for this, we should remember the saw-scaled viper and the inland taipan only have to kill you once to ruin your day, not six or a hundred times, which would seem – and please excuse the pun – something of an overkill. As far as the average human is concerned, a bite from either of these snakes will see your life flashing before your eyes.

And why do I think the saw-scaled viper is the more dangerous of the two?

First, your chance of encountering a saw-scaled viper on its home turf – anywhere dry in Africa, the Middle East and southern Asia – is dramatically higher than your chance of encountering the inland taipan on its home turf.

Saw-scaled viper.
Photo Creative Commons

Second, the saw-scaled viper is a much testier beast than the inland taipan, and seems inclined to bite anyone passing within striking distance, something the inland taipan is not inclined to do.

Third, your chance of getting good medical care through much of the saw-scaled viper’s range, let alone the appropriate antivenom, can be very small.

Indeed, the saw-scaled viper may be responsible for more human deaths than any other snake, whether we’re talking about other vipers, adders, taipans, cobras, rattlesnakes, kraits or mambas. It’s reported to be responsible for up to 90% of all snakebites in Africa.[xv]

But rather than picking on any one snake, it’s important to understand that snakebites are a serious health problem in most developing countries. According to the World Health Organization[xvi]:

‘Worldwide, up to five million people are bitten by snakes every year. Of these, poisonous (envenoming) snakes cause considerable morbidity and mortality. There are an estimated 2.4 million envenomations (poisonings from snake bites) and 94 000–125 000 deaths annually, with an additional 400 000 amputations and other severe health consequences, such as infection, tetanus, scarring, contractures, and psychological sequelae. Poor access to health care and scarcity of antivenom increases the severity of the injuries and their outcomes.’

It seems to me these statistics, which barely reflect the pain, misery and social desolation that can be caused by a snakebite, are the ones we should obsess over, rather than how many humans can be killed by a single and remarkably shy Australian snake.

One final point. On average, more Australians die each year from the stings and bites of ants, wasps, bees and ticks than snakebite, largely thanks to anaphylactic shock (and not prophylactic shock as I once tipsily declaimed). From 2000 to 2013, 27 Australians died from snakebite; over the same period, 32 Australians died from animals that fly and crawl around us every day of our lives without us giving them a second thought. In the same period, no one died from a spider, scorpion or centipede bite, and only three people died as a result of envenomation from a marine creature[xvii].

To put these statistics into proper perspective, horses were responsible for the deaths of 77 Australians between 2000 and 2010[xviii]. To make the perspective even sharper, consider that between 2000 and 2013, more than 21,000 Australians died in car accidents[xix].

By the way, in those same thirteen years, two people were recorded to have died from an unknown animal or plant. I’m betting it was a drop-bear.


[i] Genus Carukiidae.

[ii] Pseudechis australis.

[iii] Thylarctos plummetus – in my humble opinion, the best species name ever.

[iv] Oxyuranus microlepidotus.

[v] Echis carinatus.

[vi] Chironex fleckeri.

[vii] Disappointingly, and rather mundanely, nematocyst is Latin for ‘a cell with threads’.

[viii] In fact, sea wasps don’t have a brain as such, or anything else we might recognise as a central nervous system. But it does have something: ‘The box jellyfish’s nervous system is more developed than that of many other jellyfish. They possess a nerve ring around the base of the bell that coordinates their pulsing movements … ’ See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Box_jellyfish.

[ix] http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/769538-overview

[x] https://www.mja.com.au/journal/2005/183/11/prospective-study-chironex-fleckeri-and-other-box-jellyfish-stings-top-end#authors

[xi] Atrax robustus

[xii] For example, see:

https://theconversation.com/i-didnt-mean-to-hurt-you-new-research-shows-funnel-webs-dont-set-out-to-kill-humans-146406

[xiii] For an explanation that makes sense to me, see: https://biology.stackexchange.com/questions/8825/why-is-funnel-web-spider-venom-so-lethal-to-humans-and-not-so-much-for-other-mam

[xiv] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delta_atracotoxin

[xv] James Cook University toxinologist Professor Jamie Seymour carefully lays out what makes one venomous animal more dangerous than another in the National Geographic documentary World’s Worst Venom, not only comparing and ranking the inland taipan with other snakes, but also including sea stingers, spiders, scorpions and many other venomous creatures. Well worth a look if you can get your hands on it. See:

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1132196/?ref_=rvi_tt

[xvi] https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/animal-bites

[xvii] https://biomedicalsciences.unimelb.edu.au/news-and-events/archive-news/professor-daniel-hoyer-and-dr-ronelle-welton-featured-academics-in-pursuit-article

[xviii] https://www.australiangeographic.com.au/topics/wildlife/2016/03/here-are-the-animals-really-most-likely-to-kill-you-in-australia/

[xix] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_motor_vehicle_deaths_in_Australia_by_year

02 November 2020: Harrie and the Moon Dogs

A story for Harrie from Alison and Simon

It was a cold, clear Tuesday night. Harrie ate her dinner so quickly she was done by the time Maggie and Rachel were still munching on their third forkful.

‘I don’t think we gave her enough,’ Rachel said.

‘Do you want more dinner, Harrie?’ Maggie asked.

Harrie shook her head, but wasn’t looking at either of her mothers. She was staring out the window behind them. The sun was down and only a pink light softened the horizon. Just above, where the pink became violet, she could just make out the twinkle of Venus, the evening star and the first light to appear in the night sky. It was one of her favourite things to look at with her telescope – but tonight she had other plans.

‘Are you sure you don’t want more food?’ Rachel asked, looking over her shoulder to see what Harrie was gazing at. ‘Remember, it’s a full moon tonight and it will be so bright it will be hard to see anything else.’

Harrie nodded. ‘I know. That’s why I want go out. I want to look at the moon.’

Creative Commons (photographer unknown)

‘That’s a good idea,’ Maggie said. ‘You haven’t looked at it through your telescope for some time; you’ve been too busy with Jupiter and Mars and Orion’s Belt – ’

‘Twenty-two nights ago,’ Harrie said, her voice very definite. ‘And point-two.’

‘Point two?’ Maggie asked.

‘Twenty-two-point-two nights ago.’ Harrie’s face scrunched up in thought. ‘Can you have a point-two night?’

Her mothers shrugged at the same time. ‘I guess,’ Maggie said. ‘You sound very sure of yourself, though.’

‘Uh-huh. The last time I looked at the moon through my telescope was when it was in its last quarter, and that was twenty-two-point-two nights ago.’ Harrie took a deep breath: that sentence was long even for her.

‘When does it come up?’ Rachel asked.

Harrie pointed to the side of the house opposite the window. ‘It should already be up. But the best time to see it will be … ’ Her voice trailed off and her face scrunched up in thought again. She moved her dinner plate out of the way, stretched out her arms and placed her straight hands on top of one another, palms inward. ‘That’s twenty degrees and the moon moves half-a-degree every hour and the moon is about here and the best time to see it is when it’s here … ’ She wiggled fingers to show exactly where the moon was each time she mentioned it.

‘So the best time to see it is when it reached the little finger on your right hand,’ Rachel observed, smiling slightly.

Harrie nodded, taking another deep breath.

‘You are very clever,’ Maggie said matter-of-factly.

Harrie sighed. ‘Yes,’ she agreed, as if it was a burden.

‘So, just to make sure I understood what you’re saying,’ Rachel said, ‘the best time to see the moon is about half-an-hour from now?’

‘Yes.’

‘That’s about your bed time.’

‘Yes.’

‘Hmm,’ both mothers said at the same time.

‘But it has been twenty-two-point-two nights since I saw the moon with my telescope,’ Harrie pointed out reasonably.

Maggie and Rachel looked at one another. ‘True,’ Maggie said.

‘And in the life of five-year old, twenty-two nights is quite a long time,’ Rachel added.

‘Not to forget the point-two,’ Maggie pointed out.

‘Absolutely.’

The mothers fell silent as they considered whether or not to let Harrie stay up past her bedtime.

‘We could ask Banjo what he thinks,’ Harrie suggested. ‘Banjo?’

A young black-and-tan kelpie bounced into the room with more haste than dignity as his back paws skidded out from underneath him and he ended up sliding on his bum for the last two metres. He came to a stop right next to Harrie and gazed up at her adoringly, as if the whole tangled, embarrassing entrance had been planned.

‘One day he’ll grow into those large paws of his,’ Rachel whispered to Maggie. ‘Hopefully.’

‘Banjo, I have an important question for you,’ Harrie said, solemnly meeting the dog’s gaze.

Banjo barked once. Everyone in the family knew that meant ‘yes’, except when it meant ‘no’.

‘Do you think I should stay up late so I can see the full moon in my telescope?’

Again, Banjo barked just once, and Harrie turned back to her mothers. ‘See?’

‘Well, no arguing with that,’ Rachel said.

Maggie let out a small sigh. ‘All right, but just this once. You are not to take this as permission for you to stay up every time you want to go out and look at the night sky.’

‘Maybe once every twenty-two days?’ Harrie suggested.

‘Don’t push it, kiddo,’ Maggie said. ‘Now go and get some warm clothes on. The last thing we need is for you to freeze out there.’

Harrie grinned at her mothers as she left the table, then hurried to her room, eagerly followed by a scurrying Banjo who this time somehow managed stay upright on all four paws.

#

Although winter was officially over and spring had sprung, Harrie’s home town was high up in the mountains and it got cold there when the sun was down. But it did make for spectacular nights, when the stars and the planets danced across the black velvety sky.

Harrie loved looking up at them even when she didn’t have a telescope, but now that she could see them up close the night sky seemed twice as special. And the most special thing in the whole universe to see with a telescope was the Moon.

The first time she had looked through the eyepiece and the Moon suddenly swung into view it seemed to jump right out at her and she forgot to breathe for a long time, and when she finally did breathe out it came in a great big gush.

The Sea of Tranquility
(Creative commons: photographer unknown)

Harrie never got tired of looking at it. She knew all the big craters now – like Copernicus and Kepler – and all the big seas – like the Sea of Nectar and the Sea of Islands. But most especially she knew the Sea of Tranquility, because that is where the first humans who walked on the moon landed their spaceship, called the Lunar Module.

The night was getting colder and colder. But Harrie didn’t feel it. Even Banjo was getting cold, and tried snuggling up against her legs, almost tipping her over. But Harrie didn’t care. Her mothers were softly calling to her to come back inside. But Harrie didn’t hear them. Staring through her telescope at that great white globe with all its craters and seas and mountains was more important than being warm or going to bed.

One day I’ll go there, she thought. One day I’ll go the Sea of Tranquility and touch the dark soil and then look up and see Earth, and with my telescope I’ll find home and wave at my mothers and Banjo and everyone else I know.

Maggie tapped her gently on the shoulder. ‘It’s time, Harrie. We’ve let you stay up for a long while. Come inside now. Your cheeks are as hard and cold as ice.’

Slowly she drew back from the telescope. When she looked up into the sky again the Moon was still there but much smaller.

‘Still pretty,’ she said, ‘no matter how big it is.’

Maggie and Rachel stared up at the Moon as well. Even Banjo, who was wondering what everyone was staring at that seemed so interesting. There wasn’t a rabbit to be seen anywhere.

‘Look!’ Harrie said, pointing at the soft nebula of light that surrounded the Moon. On either side of it was a little light. ‘Are they planets or stars?’

Moon Dogs (Creative Commons:
photographer unknown)

Maggie laughed. ‘I’ve heard of them but never seen them before.’

Rachel and Harrie looked at her expectantly. ‘What are they?’ Harrie asked.

‘They’re called Moon Dogs. It’s so cold up there that the light from the Moon is being caught by ice crystals. They almost look like miniature moons, don’t they?’

Harrie sighed, a deep and immensely satisfying sound. She patted Banjo on the head and started back the house, the moonlight shining in her hair and on his fur.

She stopped for a second, looked back up at the sky, and said, ‘Look Banjo, Moon Dogs.’

Banjo barked once, meaning, ‘Yes, what else would they call them?’

06 April 2020: Possible new date for arrival of Homo sapiens in Australia

In an earlier blog I mentioned a letter to Nature that suggests up to 2% of the Papuan genome originated ‘ … from an early and largely extinct expansion of anatomically modern humans (AMHs) out of Africa.’

If correct, this is important because it pushes back the earliest currently accepted dates for the human occupation of Australia (well, Sahul back then) beyond 50,000 – 60,000 years.

New evidence for a possible earlier date has now come from a site near Warrnambool, a town on the southwest coast of Victoria, where scientists have been investigating a site at the mouth of the Hopkins River. In a paper from CSIRO, it is described as an ‘erosional disconformity of last Interglacial Age’ where the shells of edible molluscs and transported stones were discovered.

Hopkins River mouth

The mouth of the Hopkins River. (Photo from Warrnambool local government website.)

It is not known for sure whether humans or animals such as seabirds made the formation, but the site has been confirmed as a midden, and evidence for fire damage to the stones suggests they may have been used to make a hearth.

Thermoluminescence analysis of the stones, together with independent stratigraphic evidence, suggests the hearth could date back between 100,000 – 130,000 years.

If true, not only does this double the possible dates for the earliest occupation of the Australian landmass, it also considerably pushes back the earliest currently accepted dates for the first successful emigration – an emigration resulting in living descendants – of AMHs out of Africa by as much as 20,000 – 50,000 years.

(The research was presented to the Royal Society of Victoria by, among other academics, Jim Bowler, who discovered Mungo Man in 1974. The Guardian’s Paul Daley wrote about the paper and interviewed Bowler in March last year. Also, see this from the Royal Society of Victoria’s own website.)

30 March 2020: Walls

I live in a compound in the Johannesburg district of Fourways, a favourite location for expats, the white middle class and the growing black and coloured middle class. Our compound is surrounded by a 2.5-metre wall topped with a ring of metal spikes and electric fencing. Our townhouse abuts the north wall. East of our house, and still in the compound, is a children’s playground and a tennis court; before the current lockdown, most weekdays I heard small children laughing and shouting in the playground, supervised by parents and nannies. I like that about where I live: it’s a community, with all age groups.DSC07154

When I call it a compound, I’m sometimes corrected by locals. ‘It’s a complex, not a compound,’ someone will say. Or, ‘It’s a gated community.’

I get that. ‘Compound’ sounds like a kind of prison, except in this case it’s built to keep people out, not keep people in. Having said that, there are times when it feels like we are being kept in, especially early in the morning when I look out north and east and see glimpses of what appears a less restrained city draped across the Gauteng landscape.[i]

But whether you call them compounds, complexes or gated communities, they are small villages separated from the rest of Johannesburg by walls and wires and gates and guards. These compounds have, as Lynsey Chutel wrote in Quartz Africa, ‘created pockets of development – ranging from middle class suburbia to opulence – walled off from South Africa’s socio-economic reality.’

Compounds are not as old as apartheid, and nor is it true to say they are the spatial descendants of apartheid geography[ii], but as Chutel points out there is a direct link in the mentality behind the construction of compounds and their popularity as places to live in cities such as Johannesburg: ‘The prevalence of gated communities may also reveal what South Africans think constitutes middle class life. As it did under apartheid, it often means avoiding the poor unless they are servants, nannies or gardeners.’

As more and more black and coloured South Africans join the country’s middle class, compounds like the one I live in can be seen as the expression of economic rather than racial division, where the better off are made to feel more secure by being separated from the poor, the unemployed and the underemployed. The fact that a large number of well-off South Africans are white can blur the distinction[iii], but compounds are ultimately the concrete expression of an economic divide, and an expression of what I think is the single biggest stumbling block to a more united, more progressive and ultimately wealthier society: the unwillingness to tear down the walls. I don’t see this simply a physical problem, but more importantly, a deeply psychological one.

When I lived in Phuket, one of the things that struck me about Thai society was how the rich and poor lived cheek by jowl. A drive along Thepkrasatree Road would have us passing a palatial estate sandwiched between a two-bedroom concrete box and a refugee camp filled with tin shacks, all of them spouting television aerials and satellite dishes. It wasn’t that the family living in the palatial estate liked living next to a refugee camp, or for that matter that the refugees in the camp liked being constantly reminded of how little they owned, but that there were no 2.5 metre walls and electric fences reinforcing the division. The rich, the aspiring middle class and the desperately poor tolerated each other.

Thai society isn’t without its problems, including crime and violence, but the different classes seem more willing to share common ground, and more than willing to accept the poor becoming middle class and the middle class becoming rich. In Phuket, unlike Johannesburg, divisions aren’t fanned by a history of oppression on one side and fearful insecurity on the other.

Compounds are most common in Gauteng Province, especially its two main cities: Johannesburg and Pretoria. Divisions certainly exist in cities like Cape Town, but I didn’t see many examples of whole communities being fenced off from the world outside.DSC07729

What strikes me most about South Africa and its people is its sheer potential. South Africans I have met are hardworking, smart, confident and optimistic at heart. The country has natural resources aplenty and for its size a large but not excessive population for Africa (around 60 million people in a state somewhat larger than New South Wales). The people genuinely value democracy, freedom, education, initiative and creativity. It seems to me that all the important elements of a successful society are in place; the fact that it is not yet a successful society speaks to its recent history and the scars it’s left behind.

I have to stress that these are impressions on my part, and I’m an interloper. I come from a wealthy, predominantly white middle-class background from a land far, far away. I am a member of the most privileged class of human beings that has ever lived. I have no right to give advice to anyone who lives here, to all those who have struggled through decades of repression and fear, let alone to the new generations that came after the end of apartheid – the ‘Born Frees’. I also know how hard it is to talk about a society as rich and complex as South Africa’s without making generalisations, some of which are unfair to all those who struggle every day against any division, racial or economic.

But I cannot help feeling that greater progress in South Africa cannot be made until there is genuine social and economic freedom for everyone, and I cannot help feeling that will not occur until the walls come down.

[i] The thing you notice most of all about Johannesburg is all the trees. For a city that has grown in South Africa’s Highveld, dry rolling plains that resemble the dry rolling plains around Canberra and Yass, there’s an awful lot of perpendicular vegetation. It’s sometimes claimed that Johannesburg is home to the world’s largest artificially created forest, and I can believe it. A lot of the trees are introduced – eucalypts, lillipillies, jacarandas – but the city still manages to look very African, as if at any moment the traffic weaving along the streets inside the forest could be replaced by herds of wildebeest.

[ii] Where ‘apartheid willfully set out to beggar the Black community for the benefit of the White.’ https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/johannesburg-segregated-city

[iii] https://mg.co.za/article/2016-08-04-00-figures-suggest-sa-has-the-highest-concentration-of-wealth-in-the-hands-of-a-few/, and see https://businesstech.co.za/news/wealth/133164/south-africas-skewed-income-distribution-when-measured-by-race/

10 January 2019: A tale of unrequited love

dsc01509 (2)

Southern masked weaver in our back yard, Johannesburg

What follows is a tragedy. Admittedly, a minor tragedy in the scheme of things, but one that played out in front of AJ, our daughter and myself at our home in Johannesburg just after Christmas. It involves a hardworking bird called a southern masked weaver and its failed attempt to win a mate.

Weaver birds, as their name suggests, weave intricate nests. They are a family of birds mostly native to sub-Saharan Africa, with some species living in tropical Asia.

According to Weaver Watch, one of their number, the red-billed weaver or red-billed quelea, ‘ …is one of the most abundant bird species in the world and its post-breeding population has been estimated to be 1.5 billion birds, leading to its nickname “Africa’s feathered locust”’. Since it readily eats crops, this makes the red-billed quelea a serious threat to subsistence farmers.dsc01471 (2)

Most weaves, however, are harmless. They are beautiful birds, small and compact, and during mating season (September to January) the males are brightly coloured, brilliant architects and hardworking builders.

Since arriving in South Africa six months ago, AJ and I have admired weavers and the intricate nests they make, and were planning to build a feeder and bird bath to attract to them to our home. Then to our surprise, on Boxing Day, AJ and daughter (visiting from Australia over Christmas) noticed a southern masked weaver starting a nest hanging from a branch about halfway up the jacaranda in our backyard.

In fact, by the time we noticed its existence the nest had already been started: the first central ring of long fronds had been weaved together, and an inner lining of fern (or possibly jacaranda) leaves laced in to help make the nest more comfortable.

As we watched over the next two days, the weaver worked virtually non-stop on building the new home. Its skill, agility and determination were remarkable, and the product of its labour a thing of beauty. I wouldn’t be surprised if our distant ancestors learned to weave from watching these little birds at work.dsc01478 (2)When the male has finished building the nest, a female flies in to assess its suitability. While the male of the species is a brilliant architect and hardworking builder, the female is a severe critic and, occasionally, expert demolisher. If she doesn’t like the nest, she will often tear it to pieces; the male will then start again, or choose another location to build a completely new one.

Three days after first noticing the nest in our jacaranda, we left home for most of the day. When we returned, the nest was gone, its ruins laying on the lawn below the tree. At the time AJ theorised it was a young male, new at the game, and a female had let it know in no uncertain terms that its efforts weren’t good enough. But then we remembered that there had been a brief but violent storm while we were out, and it seems likely this was what brought down the nest.dsc01537 (2)

Sadly, we didn’t end up with a happy couple residing in our backyard and raising a new brood of southern masked weavers. On the plus side, male weavers usually build a series of nests; we can only hope our male successfully found at least one female willing to put up with his efforts and share with him a clutch of eggs.

15 September 2018: The not-so-big (but still mightily impressive) ten

Last weekend, AJ and I went camping at Pilanesberg National Park. Well, I say camping. Our tent had a refrigerator in it. And a kettle. And power points for our mobile phones.

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Extraordinarily rough camping conditions prevailed at Pilanesberg.

Anyway, together with some fellow teachers from AJ’s school we went comfortably camping at a park famous for providing visitors the opportunity to catch sight of the Big Five: Cape buffalo, elephants, leopards, lions and rhinos.

While we did manage to see a line of lying lions in the distance – we needed binoculars to find them – for the most part the Big Five managed to elude us.

This is probably because AJ and I decided to forgo the chance of getting up before sunrise and braving subzero temperatures to tour the park in an open truck. Those who did make the effort not only managed to see the Big Five but cheetahs as well. However, they were cold. Very cold. Their fingers snapped off trying to focus their Nikon 70-300 zoom lenses.

We, on the other hand, got up at a civil hour, had a hot breakfast, and entered the park about 9.30 am, courtesy of the generous school librarian and his huge red ute. Although most of the predators and large herbivores had by then decided to migrate to warmer climes, we did see plenty of impressive wildlife, including kudus, wildebeest, zebras and giraffes.

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Grey heron.

And our fingers didn’t drop off focusing our zoom lens. Not just because it was warmer, but because our camera decided to stop working, forcing us to rely on the cameras on our mobile phones.

In fact, we didn’t really have to leave our tent to see some very impressive locals. Our camping site had been colonised by a several groups of impala, vervet monkeys, chacma baboons, banded mongooses, hornbills and helmeted guinea fowls.

The impala were the most impressive of all. They’re magnificently streamlined antelopes with a colour scheme designed by an Italian fashion house. The males sport magnificent horns shaped like ancient Greek lyres. The effect is somewhat spoiled when the males start practicing for the rutting season by pretending to come to blows and blowing through their noses, sounding like a parcel of agitated pigs with head colds.

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Impala cleaning his nose in preparation for a good snort.

The funniest sight is watching the normally docile guinea fowls suddenly scatter, running one way and then the other. AJ said the bird reminded her of a fusty old women from the 19th century picking up her skirts and pelting down the street.

The vervets spend most of their time high in trees or sitting like sandstone statues on the roof line of the campsite’s restaurant. They look down on their fellow primates with aloof disinterest.

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Vervet practising aloofness.

One of the highlights of the expedition was totally unexpected. We came across the ruins of an iron age kraal not far from the park’s entrance. The area’s fenced off, and if the main gate’s red light is flashing – meaning something like a lion or leopard or elephant is also touring the ruins – you’re advised to stay out. On this occasion we were the only visitors.

The kraal was built by the Tswana chief Pilane, hence the name of the park. The ruins are well signed, giving a brief history of the kraal and what the various buildings and spaces were used for. The kraal’s main lookout provided wonderful views of the park. It reminded AJ and me of some of the ancient hill forts on the border of Wales and England we visited in 2010. Although those hill forts weren’t surrounded by thorn trees. I managed to get one long branch wrapped around my left leg. It took some doing to disentangle myself, and the small wounds made by the thorns itched for hours afterwards.

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Warning outside the iron age kraal.

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The kraal itself!

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View from the kraal lookout.

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Thornbush.

A second highlight was the visitor’s centre, where people can eat and drink on a wide deck overlooking the bush. A large salt lick is placed not far from the deck, drawing giraffes, zebra and wildebeest, although when we were there only one giraffe, the biggest, got to enjoy the lick. He’d tolerate other giraffes having a go, but didn’t hesitate kicking any wildebeest who came for their turn. The zebras were pluckier than the wildebeest, but no more successful.

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A giraffe. Not a zebra or wildebeest.

The landscape between Johannesburg and Pilanesberg is eerily familiar. Geographically and botanically it’s very similar to the Southern Tablelands, especially the stretch between Canberra and Yass. It’s not surprising, I suppose: South Africa and Australia were once joined at the hip. The soft landscape is covered in grasses and acacias and other plants adapted to a hot, dry climate. True, South Africa has lions while Australia has sheep, and South African kopjes are rockier than Australian hills, but nonetheless …

The similarity even extends to bushfires. Pilanesberg hosted its own bushfire the week before we arrived, and large parts of the park were black and ash grey, again strangely familiar to anyone from inland New South Wales.

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Bushfire damage.

It’s not like AJ and I are looking for similarities, but perhaps a little homesickness makes you look for them instead of the differences.

In October, we hope to make our way southeast to Durban for a few days, stopping over at the Drakensberg on the way.

24 August 2018: When did humans first leave Africa?

This blog post is titled ‘When did humans first leave Africa?’ I confess, it’s a trick question, but we’ll come back to that later.

So to start with, let’s attempt to answer not a trick question but a trickier question: when did Homo sapiens first reach Australia?

This has been a contested debate for several decades, with proposed dates stretching from 75,000 years ago to 40,000 years ago. The bottom mark was established by the dating of the remains of Mungo Man, the oldest remains  of anatomically modern humans (AMH) yet found outside Africa.

Mungo Man

Mungo Man

Towards the upper end, luminescence dating of sediments around artefacts recently found at Madjedbebe in the Northern Territory give a date of around 65,000 years, although this is contested.

In a recent article in The Conversation, ‘When did Aboriginal people first arrive in Australia?’, authors Alan Cooper, Alan N. Williams and Nigel Spooner state the ancestors of Aboriginal Australian first reached Australia sometime between 50,000 and 55,000 years ago, just after AMH left Africa.

This date comes from geneticists working on Neanderthal ancestry in the modern human genome. In ‘Tracing the peopling of the world through genomics’, authors Nielsen et al. write that:

‘All non-African individuals studied so far contain around 2% Neanderthal ancestry, suggesting that admixture mostly occurred shortly after the dispersal of anatomically modern humans from Africa … the date of hybridization has been estimated to be approximately 50–65 kyr ago …’

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Cast of H. neanderthalensis (Amud 1) from the Australian National University. Photo: Simon Brown

This date is now generally accepted by palaeoanthropologists.

But that presents us with a quandary. As I wrote in an earlier blog, fossils from the cave of Jebel Irhoud in Morocco, together with genetic data from a 2,000 year old Khoe-San skeleton, suggests our species arose in Africa at least 300,000 years ago. So why did it take our species a quarter of a million years to find the exit?

Well, as it turns out it, it didn’t.

In a January 2018 report in Science, authors Chris Stringer and Julia Galway-Witham note that recent fossil evidence from Israel suggests our species had left Africa by 180,000 years ago. The report also recounts genetic analyses of Neanderthal fossils from two caves, Denisova in Russia and Hohlenstein-Stadel in Germany, that ‘indicate at least one earlier phase of introgression, from H. sapiens into Neandertals … estimated at 219,000 to 460,000 years ago’.

At this stage, it seems that AMH could have left Africa over 200,000 years ago, and yet DNA evidence strongly suggests the ancestors of all non-African members of our species left Africa no earlier than 60,000 years ago.

So what’s going on?

Nielsen et al. write that the latter date indicates when the ‘ultimately successful’ dispersal of H. sapiens from Africa occurred. In other words, those members of our species who left earlier are now extinct and left no trace in our genetic record.

Stringer and Galway-Witham write that there is evidence there were several humid phases between 244,000 and 190,000 years ago. But these phases were bracketed by severe periods of aridity, which meant ‘the region was probably more often a “boulevard of broken dreams” than a stable haven for early humans.’

Chris Stringer

Chris Stringer, Research Leader in Human Origins, Natural History Museum

On the other hand, a letter published in Nature in 2016 suggests that earlier migrations of H. sapiens from Africa may have left their mark on some of us after all; specifically, Papuans.

After analysing ‘a dataset of 483 high-coverage human genomes from 148 populations wordwide … ‘ Pagani et al. found ‘ … a genetic signature in present-day Papuans that suggests that at least 2% of their genome originates from an early and largely extinct expansion of anatomically modern humans … out of Africa.’

This brings us back to the article in The Conversation. Cooper et al. discuss how Aboriginal Australians moved to and occupied Australia around 50,000 years ago. Of course, 50,000 years ago it wasn’t Australia, it was Sahul, a single landmass comprising Australia, Tasmania and Papua New Guinea.

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Sahul

Yet the letter in Nature suggests that Sahul might in fact have been occupied by H. sapiens before that date. Its authors hypothesise either that these people came from an unsampled archaic human population that split from modern humans ‘either before or at the same time as did … Neanderthal’, or that they were a modern human population that left Africa ‘after the split between modern humans and Neanderthals but before the main expansion of modern humans in Eurasia’.

The data from all this research is sometimes confusing and contradictory. Over the last quarter century palaeoanthropology has undergone a great revolution driven partly by discoveries of new hominin fossils (eg H. floresiensis and H. naledi), and partly by new and refined techniques in analysing DNA. There is a lot of data to sort through, doublecheck and assess. Nevertheless, as measurements are refined and new discoveries are made, we learn more about our past and so more about ourselves.

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So, why is the header a trick question?

H. habilis

Homo habilis

All the above information deals with the history of just one species, our own. But H. sapiens were not the first humans to leave Africa. For example, some members of H. heidelbergensis left Africa around half a million years ago, evolving into H. neanderthalensis in Europe. Those that remained in Africa almost certainly gave rise to H. sapiens.

And if the conclusions of a recent paper by Argue et al. studying the phylogeny of H. floresiensisis are correct, then another and possibly earlier human migration out of Africa occurred. This species’ forebears are closely related to H. habilis, the oldest species in our genus, Homo.

It’s almost as if the need to migrate is as defining a feature of our genus as bipedalism, a large brain and an opposable thumb.

14 December 2017: Colin Groves (24 June 1942 – 30 November 2017)

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My friend Colin Groves died two weeks ago this day. It came a surprise, although I knew he was in palliative care. He seemed invincible as those with a great intellect always seems invincible, as if death could be put off indefinitely. Although aged he was never an old, and although physically ill his mind was as sharp as an Acheulean hand-axe.

In a real sense his work makes him immortal, at least as far as any human can be immortal. I knew him chiefly as a friend and fellow skeptic, and more recently as a co-writer. Although I had some knowledge of his standing among taxonomists, anatomists, biological anthropologists, primatologists and palaeontologists, he was overwhelmingly modest. Just the preceding list of fields should give you some idea of the breadth of his knowledge.

When Jane Goodall was asked what it felt like to be the world’s foremost primatologist, she replied ‘You’re mistaken. The world’s foremost primatologist is Colin Groves.‘[i]

At his funeral, colleague Professor Kristofer Helgen noted that Colin had named more than 50 new kinds of mammals, and that the first, the Bornean Rhino, remains the largest living mammal described in recent generations.[ii]

‘Colin was the most influential large-mammal taxonomist of the last half-century. His discoveries and impacts are astonishing … The last species he named, in a paper which appeared … in the last month of his life, was the Tapanuli orangutan, one of only eight living great apes on our planet … ‘

As Professor Helgen points out, Colin is probably best known for describing Homo ergaster in 1975, together with Vratislav Mazák. Homo ergaster, which lived in Africa between 1.4 and 1.9 mya, was probably one of our direct ancestors.

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Homo ergaster. ANU cast of cranium KNM ER 3733, discovered at Koobi Fora, Kenya, in 1975 by Bernard Ngeneo.

Professor Helgen said Colin Groves was an original.

‘He was a gentle soul, but could be an immovable opponent. And he was genuinely brilliant, yet every bit as genuinely modest … When I think of Colin, I see him in my mind’s eye in his office at the ANU, decked from floor to ceiling with books and journals and reprints, all of his key resources, usually reckoned obscure to all others, within arm’s reach.’

This rings a cathedral of bells. Whenever something came up in our conversation about – well, almost anything – Colin would have a book, journal or anecdote to clarify, correct or corroborate any fact, no matter how obscure.

But my overriding memory of Colin isn’t his intellect or reputation, but his enormous kindness and placidness. He was never overtaken by anger, only bewilderment at the occasional fecklessness or waywardness of his fellow Homo sapiens.

He was one of my dearest friends, and his passing leaves a gaping hole in the lives of everyone who knew him.

Below is the eulogy I delivered at his funeral last Thursday.

Colin Peter Groves

As I look up at the Canberra’s first blue sky in five days, I’m tempted to think that while Colin did not believe in god, god almost certainly believed in Colin.

Although I knew him for 30 years it wasn’t nearly long enough, but perhaps long enough to discern the three great loves of his life.

Most importantly of all, his partner, best friend, constant companion and carer, Phyll.

Second, his love of science, particularly biology of course, and how it revealed to him the universe he shared with his fellow-primates, ungulates, big cats, avian dinosaurs, tardigrades, dogs, bats and cetaceans.

Third, his love of chinwagging. All the creatures I just mentioned could happily be included in a single lunchtime conversation with Colin. You might start discussing sexual dimorphism among species of African antelope and end by discussing the size of Donald Trump’s genitalia. (Amazingly, and somewhat distressingly, size does matter in nature.)

Let me deal briefly with each of these three great loves, from last to first.

It seemed to me that Colin was in his element when he shared conversation with friends and colleagues. If food and drink were included, so much the merrier, which added a cruel twist to the illness that eventually took him from us.

Although most discussions started with and usually revolved around science, his interests were catholic: skepticism, history, music, art, literature, film and television, and a hundred other subjects. He didn’t possess a ‘comfort zone’ as such; he was happy drifting on a sea of titbits, anecdotes, quotes, and bad puns (because, as Colin would patiently explain, a good pun isn’t a pun but a joke, and the quality of a pun is directly proportional to the volume of the groan it elicits).

He also had a deep and abiding love for startling and unexpected facts.

I remember how much he enjoyed discovering that the Great Pyramid of Khufu, built around 2560 BC, was the tallest building in the world until succeeded by – of all things – Lincoln Cathedral in 1311. A 3,800-year old record. He was just as delighted to learn that when Lincoln Cathedral’s centre spire collapsed in 1549, the Great Pyramid couldn’t resume its title as the world’s tallest building because erosion had reduced its height to below that of a church in Germany.

While an hour’s conversation with Colin could be filled with minor revelations such as these, they were never random thoughts. They were either staging posts that guided you safely to the end of a conversation, or points that illustrated a greater truth Colin was pursuing with the gentle doggedness of a modern-day Socrates.

In a conversation about intelligence and self-awareness, he might include the latest research about the Theory of Mind among corvids, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, gorillas studying their reflection in mirrors while trying on different hats, and the British television series Peaky Blinders. But every diversion would have a point, and every point would add weight in support of an argument for or against a main proposition.

I briefly mentioned Donald Trump. It seemed to me that while Colin never avoided discussing politics, what he cared about were the issues important to all of us in a free and democratic society, issues shaped and sometimes decided by politicians, pundits and lobbyists. It was people that Colin cared about, not cant. It was ideas Colin cared about, not ideology. What Colin wanted for our society was equality, opportunity, fairness and boundless curiosity.

Colin’s second great love was science, particularly anthropology and taxonomy. To say he was a biological anthropologist, while absolutely accurate, is entirely insufficient. Robert [Attenborough] has already talked about Colin’s amazing academic career, but I first met Colin because of his opposition to those forces that set themselves against science, particularly religious inerrancy, with a special focus on the shallow, silted stream of creationism.

From the first time I attended a meeting of the Canberra Skeptics, Colin immediately stood out as the most determined, the most knowledgeable and the most resilient opponent of creationism I have ever encountered. I never imagined someone as steeped in science as Colin would also be so utterly familiar with the Christian bible he could quote chapter and verse.

It wasn’t the idea of opposition that excited him, but the idea of investigating claims and when found wanting, standing up against them. I never once saw Colin angry, at least not in the sense most of us would understand the word, but when confronted by blind stupidity or blind faith, his eyes would open slightly in surprise, then narrow as he marshalled his arguments in defence of rationality.

The only other time I saw this response was when he was confronted by casual arrogance, wilful pride or careless prejudice. He understood how all these were used to stifle debate or to keep underdogs in their place, and he resented it.2

Colin was not a skeptic for the sake of it. It was just the flipside of the scientific method he applied to his everyday investigations of the natural world. It was as much a part of him as that sense of wonder that shone from him whenever he talked about the discovery of a new hominin fossil, or a new species of orangutan, or gravity waves.

Ultimately, forever and always, Colin’s greatest love was Phyll. On those few times I visited when Colin showed off just how much he knew about obscure science or history or culture, he wasn’t doing it to impress me. I think he was doing it because he just loved flirting with Phyll.

Phyll was his touchstone and keystone, his measure and the source of his strength. When she spoke, he listened. Even when he disagreed, he listened, and he listened closely.

And one never visited Colin, one always visited Colin and Phyll. They were as close to being a single unit as any two people I’ve ever met. Two minds, two voices, often two very different opinions, but a single soul, a word even Colin would agree with in this context.

They generously shared their life with family, friends, colleagues and students.

For that I will always be grateful.

[i] Mittermeier, Russell A. & Richardson, Matthew. Foreword to Extended Family: Long Lost Cousins, by Colin Groves. Conservation International, Arlington, 2008.

[ii] Helgen, Kristofer M. 2017. ‘Eulogy for Colin Peter Groves’, Canberra, 7 December.

09 November 2017: the eighth great ape and the problem with ‘species’

Until recently, only seven species made up the group of primates known as the great apes, or Hominidae. Two orangutan species (Sumatran and Bornean), two gorilla species (eastern and western), two chimpanzee species (chimpanzees and bonobos), and us.

But in a report recently published in Current Biology, an international team of scientists announced a new hominid with fewer than 800 members, Pongo tapanuliensis, found just south of Lake Toba in Sumatra. To save your tongue twisting around that particular binomen, we can call it the Tapanuli orangutan.

The scientists compared skull, jaw and dental characteristics of a Tapanuli specimen with those of the Sumatran and Bornean species, and analysed 37 orangutan genomes as a second line of evidence.

Orangutan

Three species of orangutan: from left, Bornean, Sumatran, Tapanuli. Photo credits: Eric Kilby, Aiwok, Tim Laman

The report gained a great deal of media attention: not only because we humans had a new cousin, but because the Tapanuli is an endangered species.

However, there were dissenting voices. In an interview with the ABC, for example, Lee Christidis from Southern Cross University pointed out that the analysis had been carried out on only one specimen and that the DNA evidence was at best ambiguous.

It’s only fair to point out that it’s often the case that a species will be described by a single representative organism, or, as happens frequently in palaeontology, those fragments of a single organism that have been fossilised or otherwise survived over many millions of years.

The report also generated discussion about what we mean by the word ‘species’. Jerry Coyne, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago and author of the excellent Why Evolution is True, wrote in his blog:

‘Not only do I see this new “species” as merely an isolated and genetically differentiated population (as are many human populations regarded as H. sapiens), but I’d also contend that there is only one species of orangutan overall, with these three groups all being subspecies. Sadly, a lot of systematists don’t see it that way, as they seem to think that any isolated population, if it can be told apart morphologically or genetically from others, warrants being named as a new species. Yet to evolutionists, a “species” is not an arbitrary segment of nature’s continuum, but real entities that maintain their “realness” because they don’t exchange any (or many) genes with other such entities where they cohabit in nature.’

But is this indeed the definition of species with the greatest currency among most biologists?

To start with, there has to a definition that works across all fields. A primatologist cannot have a different concept of species from, say, an entomologist, or the whole point of taxonomy – the orderly classification of living things that demonstrates their evolutionary relationships – starts to fall apart.

This doesn’t mean that definitions in biology – or any scientific endeavour, for that matter – are written in stone. As our knowledge of the world around us grows, the language we use to explore, explicate and explain that knowledge must also grow.

The definition I was taught at school is not dissimilar to Coyne’s quoted above, and is based on what is called the Biological Species Concept (BSC), developed by Ernst Mayr and Theodosius Dobzhansky in the early 1960s (Coyne did some graduate work under Dobzhansky at Rockefeller University). As Colin Groves, professor emeritus at the Australian National University, wrote, ‘This concept states that under natural conditions a species ‘should not exchange genes with other species’[i]. Groves goes on to point out that ‘ … the popular idea that two species are “unable” to interbreed is  a misunderstanding: it is not that they cannot interbreed, it is that they do not.‘

The BSC was further refined by Mayr and Jared Diamond in a paper on Melanesian birds in 2001, and then in 2004 by the aforementioned Jerry Coyne with H. Allen Orr in a book about speciation called, appropriately enough, Speciation.

Groves argues that the modified definition of BSC risks different standards of comparison in different taxonomic groups: it’s a definition that won’t work across different fields, in other words.

Groves again: ‘If a genus contains a pair of sympatric[ii] sibling species (species that differ only slightly, inconspicuously), the standard for species recognition will be set much “lower” than in a genus in which sympatric species pairs are grossly different. It is the search for objective standards – for an operational means of distinguishing species – that has been responsible for the controversies that marked taxonomic discussions over the past 15 or 20 years.’[iii]Taxonomy

Many biologists now use what is called the Phylogenetic Species Concept (PSC), developed by American biologist Joel Cracraft from the early 1980s. Put very simply, in this concept a species is the smallest population of organisms that is measurably different from other populations sharing the same ancestry. Note that this concept says nothing whatsoever about species sharing genes, such as happened between Homo sapiens and H. neanderthalensis around 100,000 years ago.

It’s important to note that both the BSC and the PSC are attempts to operationalise the evolutionary concept of species; that is, that a species is an evolutionary lineage.

While the report in Current Biology describing the Tapanuli orangutan as a new species of great ape has, for the most part, been received positively, the fact that many distinguished scientists question the findings shows that the debate about what constitutes a species is ongoing.

[i] Groves, Colin. ‘Speciation in hominin evolution’; African Genesis: Perspectives on Hominin Evolution; ed Reynolds, Sally C. & Gallagher, Andrew; Cambridge University Press; Cambridge; 2012, p 46.

[ii] Sympatry occurs when two or more species live in the same geographic area.

[iii] Ibid.

07 November 2017: Dreaming in the Dark anthology wins World Fantasy Award

For the second time, one of Jack Dann’s Dreaming anthologies has won a World Fantasy Award.

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Dreaming in the Dark, ed Jack Dann, PS Publishing

Last night, Dreaming in the Dark, edited by Jack and published by PS Publishing, won the 2017 World Fantasy Award for Best Anthology.

In 1999, the first in the series, Dreaming Down-Under, edited by Jack and his partner Janeen Webb, won the same award.

I was fortunate enough to have stories included in both.

That the anthologies should receive such an honour says a great deal about Jack’s dedication to Australian writers of speculative fiction. We all owe him a great debt.

Congratulations, Jack!