Neanderthals evolved greater intelligence independently

A rare find of Neanderthal fossils or subfossils shows that early Neanderthals were small-brained and developed larger brains independently of the line that led to us.

As best we can tell, humans and Neanderthals diverged from a common ancestor about 500,000 years ago, a species called Homo heidelbergenesis. Modern humans appeared in Africa some 300,000 years later, a time when Neanderthals were already romping around Europe and Asia.

These skulls are 430,000 years old. They have a small  braincase but in other respects have Neanderthal characteristics.

…the Neanderthal trait of an elongated and rounded brain case came later.

Placoderms evolved penetrative sex

Placoderms are an extinct class of armoured fishes containing several orders. Placoderm comes from Greek words for “plate” and “skin.” They are jawed fishes, but so ancient that they precede both sharks & rays and bony fishes: some elements of the skeleton are cartilaginous while others are bony and there are bony elements in their skin armour. Yes, bones and teeth are derived from skin tissue. They appeared in the fossil record about 420 Ma in the Early Silurian and by 400 Ma in the Devonian all major placoderm orders were present. (See “Australia: The Land Where Time Began: Placoderms“.}

402px-Dunkleosteus_terrelli_2 (From Wikipedia)

Before placoderms, all fertilization of eggs by sperm occurred outside the body, as females released eggs and males released sperm into the water. They might hover near each other, but if sperm found egg it was partly by chance. Female fishes release their eggs through a cloaca, an opening for both eggs and bodily wastes. As the fish that were closest had the most success, eventually males began to position themselves at the cloaca. One group of placoderms, the ptyctodontids, have these external claspers to hold the female, as do sharks. The pelvic fin perhaps developed a tube shape to funnel the male’s sperm into the female’s cloaca. Some modern fish mate in this way. What is known is that some placoderms gave birth to live young, which means that that at the very least, eggs were fertilized while still in the female. In short, these early fishes invented internal fertilization.

Two prehistoric fish swimming

Rhamphodopsis threiplandi, a placoderm with claspers (from Wikipedia)

There are two pathways after internal fertilization. One is ovivipary, where eggs are retained and hatch inside the mother, who then expels the young. Some sharks still do that. In fact, in some sharks the first young to hatch eat the other eggs to nourish themselves until birth. Females may develop areas of nourishing skin that the young can scrape off. The other main path is for the young & the female to cooperatively grow a placenta, which attaches to the her and extracts nourishment from her blood. (Placentas could  not have happened without a retrovirus inserting itself into the genome, but that’s another topic.)

At first, scientists thought that young placoderms inside larger fossils could have been evidence of predation; but at last a tiny fossil placoderm was found with a tiny umbilical cord, still attached to the mother.

“Only a theory” debunked

There are some arguments based on misunderstanding of how words are used in science, or deliberate mis-use by creationists. Just as Microsoft Windows is different from house windows, so in science “theory” means well-tested explanation, not a notion. Hypothesis means explanation that can be tested, not wild-assed guess. Here are seven science words that we need to learn, or perhaps that scientists should simply stop using. I’m in favour of replacing “theory of evolution” with “explanation of the mechanics of evolution” to start with:

“Just a theory”: Seven mis-used science words

Giant viruses join as another ancestral superkingdom

Mimivirus in amoeba. Credit: Professor Didier Raoult, Rickettsia Laboratory, La Timone, Marseille, France

A study of the proteins of giant viruses adds them to the list of primitive life forms that have existed since the dawn of life.  They seem to constitute a fourth superkingdom. Professor Gustavo Caetano-Anollés led the analysis.

Scientists found ancient structural patterns in the folds of the virus proteins, which are virtually molecular fossils. Folds that are common to all organisms studied are the oldest. Less common folds are, literally, new wrinkles.

The researchers looked at archaea, bacteria, eukaryotes, and both kinds of viruses. The giant viruses have  biochemistry for making proteins, which small viruses have lost.

Modern viruses have lost much of their biochemical machinery and become obligate parasites of an extreme kind.

Giant Viruses Coexisted With the Cellular Ancestors and Represent a Distinct Supergroup Along With Superkingdoms Archaea, Bacteria and Eukarya

Research to follow: Oakley Evolution Lab

Todd Oakley at the University of California is unravelling the mysteries of convergent and parallel evolution in a variety of organisms, aided by post-doctoral students on several projects.

“My research involves comparisons of independent evolutionary transitions such as convergence, parallelism, duplication, and homoplasy. Such transitions provide an element of replicability within the singular history of life, and can yield insight into the most general evolutionary questions. For example, when and why do the same molecular or developmental changes underlie similar – though independent – evolutionary changes? What are the fates of duplicated genes, and what causes them to diversify or retain old functions? How can we even determine what is an independent evolutionary event?”

One of his students has discovered that chitons have eye lenses made of aragonite, which is the material used by trilobites.

Evolution 2012 in Ottawa, Ontario

Check out the reaction and link fest at Jeremy Voder’s Denim and Tweed: Evol2012.

All in all, I had a great time, and saw a lot of really cool science. This was the first Evolution meeting I’ve been to where I was never at a loose end—every moment I was in the Convention Centre, I had someone to go see, or a talk to go hear. And, honestly, I finished the meeting without having checked in with everyone I’d have liked to.

Date of first walker pushed back 30 million years

A tiny trackway discovered in sedimentary rock has pushed back the date of the first organism capable of walking to 585 million years ago. This proof is 30 million years older than previously known evidence.It took two years to precisely date the trackway by radiometric dating of igneous rock that intruded into the sedimentary rock. The fossil was found in Uruguay.

The organism was about the size of a grain of rice. A trackway like this shows that it had front and back ends and was bilaterally symmetrical, with limbs that could move it forward. We could call it First Explorer.

See also Study resets date of earliest animal life by 30 million years.

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