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Natures Olympics: Five things humans do better than any other animal

As humans we often marvel at the natural abilities of animals, from the incredible ability of an octopus to change the colour and texture of its skin to the manta shrimp, which is equipped with special clubs that can punch so hard they briefly turn the surrounding water to temperatures as hot as the surface of the sun.

Dont mess.

Nature documentaries are based around showcasing these incredible abilities of animals, but what I would like to explore is the amazing natural abilities of human beings.

Intelligence

This one is obvious, while some other animals such as dogs, dolphins , chimps and octopus can show impressive displays of cognition and problem solving there is still a massive gulf in the intellectual prowess of other animals in comparison to humans. Neuroscientists attribute this to overly large neocortex present in the brains of humans. What is interesting is that it seems our large brains evolved in a very short period of time (around 2 million years).

There are many contrasting theories speculating on the mechanisms for this evolving so fast but one thing is certain, our large brains gave us a massive advantage in surviving and thriving in the natural world.

Running

Humans can out run horses, antelopes and in theory even cheetahs.

Before you start calling bullshit on me, what is important here is the distance.

In a short race humans kinda suck, however we will beat many animals over a long distance, we can do this because bipedal locomotion (walking on two legs) is much more efficient that four legged movement over long distances. Our physiology is also very good at controlling our temperature while running through sweating so we don’t over heat.

As long as the human can track the animal sufficiently (so it cant hide and elude capture) homo-sapiens will out run, exhaust and kill many different prey animals as seen in this clip.

Throwing

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The old saying “don’t take a knife to a gun fight” holds  massive truth in combat and ultimately survival. A ranged attack is devastating to an opponent who is restricted to close combat weapons. Humans are awesome throwers due to our bipedal stance and the unique way our ligaments and tendons are attached (we are kind of like a walking rubber band).

None of the other great apes come close to our range ,power and accuracy. It is by this ability a 75 KG human can bring down a 3 tonne woolly mammoth (provided they have enough spears to throw).

Throwing may of also been an integral factor in how homo-sapiens killed off most of the Neanderthals (a rival species of human) as it is thought that their joints and cartilage where not suited for throwing spears and therefore where limited to close range attacks.

Communication

Humans are capable of making a vast array of sounds and no other animals comes close to this diverse sound making ability. Humans are so good at making sounds that we can even accurately mimic animal calls.

This obviously allowed us to create languages and communicate complex hunting strategies to each other.

Dexterity

No one is going to argue that the other great apes (gorillas, chimps and orang-outangs) are much stronger than humans, the reason for this is because humans traded their strength for fine motor skills and dexterity. 

These fine motor skills allowed us to make and use tools, and combined with our intelligence and communication skills we started to manipulate our environment like no other species before us.

These five combined abilities lead us into the human dominated geological epoch named the anthropycyene and we are now at the point where we have become victims of our own success and we need to work globally to find a safe operating space for humanity.

Science of the sasquatch: The search for Bigfoot

As part of my job I deliver presentations to a range of audiences on the topic of primate cognition. Every now and again in the Q&A section I get asked by a bold audience member what my take is on the legend of Bigfoot.

To some the existence of Bigfoot may seem a ridiculous thing to even discuss but It is always a fun question to answer so I have decided to stray into the realms of Crypto-zoology in this post to look at the possibility of this guy (pictured below) lurking in the wilderness.

People are often surprised to learn that Bigfoot (also referred to as sasquatch) is actually part of the fossil record; the Gigantopithecus Blacki was a prehistoric ape that stood at three meters tall and weighed an estimated 540kg.

Looks pretty mean eh?

Considering that a 1.7m tall Chimpanzee is reported to be several times stronger than your average Human the Gigantopithecus Blacki would have been a formidable animal that our ancestors may have had the misfortune of encountering. Paleontological records suggest that they became extinct around 100,000 years ago meaning that they would have co-existed with Homo Erectus (a precursor to Homo Sapian) 

It is unlikely that the animal was bipedal (walked on two legs) however it may have been able to do this for short periods of time.

So we know that a Bigfoot type animal did exist; but is it still out there?

There are two cases that are relevant here.

The first is from 1938 when a museum curator discovered a living Coelacanth fish in the waters of South America. You may be wondering what the significance of this is until I tell you that this animal was believed to have become extinct during the Cretaceous period (145 Million years ago). Although it may be easier for prehistoric animals to remain undiscovered in the deep ocean than for animals living on land, the fact remains that an animal thought to have died out 145 million years ago was found to be thriving in our present day oceans.

The second case that bears relevance is the Discovery of Homo Floresiensis (also called the hobbit man) in Indonesia in 2003.  Scientists accept that the Homo Floresiensis was a separate species of human that stood around 1m tall when fully grown and could have lived as recently as 12,000 years ago (very recently in the world of palaeontology).

So we have a fish that we thought became extinct 145 Million years ago and a separate species of human living in an isolated island of Indonesia unknown to the modern world until the bones were discovered in 2003.

These cases could be used to argue the continued existence of living Gigantopithecus Blacki populations.

However despite these points there are two gaping omissions for anyone who proposes the existence of Bigfoot.

1) No recent dead specimens.

2) No credible photographic evidence.

Claims of Bigfoot sightings are not rare, hundreds are reported every year across the U.S.A and Canada. The beast has been claimed to of been captured on film before, for example the famous footage from 1967, however this has been proven to be a hoax.  Camera traps have been set up in alleged Bigfoot hotspots but have never managed to capture credible footage of the elusive primate. The picture below is claimed by believers be a roaming Sasquatch however zoologists propose that it is a juvenile bear with a severe case of Mange disease.

Sunplus

From satellites to camera phones we live in an era of surveillance (Monkeys have even started to take their own selfies) and it’s hard to justify that this animal still exists when it has never been recorded or recovered.

What is interesting though is that the Bigfoot legend is part of folklore from two geographically separate cultures.

The Native Americans refer  to the creature as Sasquatch and the people of Nepal name the mystery ape the Yeti. This could just be a coincidence but it is possible that populations of Gigantopithecus Blacki survived in isolated pockets on the globe until far more recently than currently thought (in a similar manner to Homo Floresiensis) .If this is true the animal would have co existed with modern cultures of humans (native Americans and the Napali) and gives a possible explanation to the origin of the beast in their folklore and in turn the modern legend of Bigfoot.

As far as claimed encounters go, I am going to summarise them as one of the following.

A: Crazy people.

B: People on Bath salts.

C: Mistaken identity.

D:  All of the above

 

Great white britain: The rock star approach to conservation

In march 2014 the British press and marine conversation societies bristled with excitement as a mighty four meter Great White Shark named Lydia tagged by Ocsearch  was powering across the Atlantic Ocean on what looked like a direct course for the British Coast line .

Great white sharks have long been suspected to visit the UKs coast however this has never been proven, the Bay of Biscay in France is the closest one of these super predators has ever been confirmed to British waters.  There have been numerous reported sightings of the gigantic animal over the years (some more credible than others), however these do not count as proof of the species inhabiting our seas.

For proof of the existence of White Sharks in UK waters we need one of the following.

Specimen capture

Photographic evidence

Satellite tracking data of tagged animal

As Lydia the Shark was cruising towards UK waters, it looked as if the third on the list was going to transpire. People in marine biology circles where acting like a bunch of kids on Christmas eve  about the trans-Atlantic fish. After years of apparent sightings either turning out to be bogus or mistaken identity we would have concrete evidence that the UK is home to this iconic super predator  – I even heard of people organising shark parties to celebrate the arrival of Lydia into our waters and the proof we had all been waiting for.

Then Lydia did something unexpected:  she turned around……………..

 

1149271-picard_facepalm

As the shark swam in circles for a week and then headed back towards America the disappointment set in. Everyone had gotten a bit carried away (including the tabloid press) before the Shark had even made it into our waters.

Christmas was cancelled.

It was maybe a bit arrogant to get caught up in the hype as you cannot control nature, but people had reason to be disappointed.

Charismatic Mega Fauna is the term used to describe the rock stars of the animal kingdom.

Members of this group include the Siberian Tiger , Bald Eagle, Panda and The Great White Shark. These animals are championed by Hollywood and conservation organisations alike as they have an unparalleled ability to capture the mind of the public and therefore draw attention and support to their cause.

Our marine ecosystems face numerous threats to their biodiversity, from over fishing to sea acidification these issues urgently need to be brought into the public domain. A charismatic resident (aka Lydia) would have been a very effective way to spear head various conservations programmes and draw much needed political attention to the cause. Lydia however had other plans.

When a Great White Shark does eventually grace us with its presence, it presents an unmissable opportunity to draw attention to the  threats facing our marine ecosystem.

If you would like to see Lydia s current location click this link.