Animals!

Evolution has created wild and weird animals. Get to know a few of them.

Pablo Escobar’s hippos: Why drug lords shouldn’t play God

Females run spotted hyena society for a fascinating reason

Sloths: Evolutionary losers or the true jungle king?

On the origin of beauty: Darwin's controversial idea about sex

Giving animals rights enriches our own lives

Is animal cruelty the new slavery? 

The extinct animal Bill Nye would bring back to life

Bill Nye: Zoos enrich our lives but cost animals their dignity 

More playlists
  • Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic announces a partnership with Rolls Royce.
  • The space tourism company will create a new supersonic jet for super-fast travel on Earth.
  • The aircraft will travel at Mach 3 – three times the speed of sound.

Virgin Galactic made the hearts of all speed enthusiasts beat faster by announcing a new agreement with Rolls-Royce to create a supersonic passenger jet.

The space tourism company founded by billionaire Richard Branson revealed an enticing look at the aircraft's design, which would not be taking people to the edge of space but between points on Earth. The move allows the company to leverage its space technology for super-fast travel across the planet. Crucially, the craft would utilize sustainable, next-generation fuel.

The concept for the supersonic jet, which can potentially disrupt commercial airline travel, has undergone a NASA review. Next, the company is planning to work with the FAA to create a framework for certifying the new aircraft for flight.

Virgin's Galactic's partner in this venture, the British company Rolls-Royce, is, of course, no stranger to supersonic aircraft-making, having built engines for the famous Concordes.

The first aircraft built will be targeted the speed of Mach 3, which is three times the speed of sound. In other words – a blazing 2300 mph. The plane will be able to carry from 9 to 19 people, cruising at an altitude of over 60,000 feet.

Virgin Galactic's chief space officer George Whitesides was bullish on the company's achievement:

"We have made great progress so far, and we look forward to opening up a new frontier in high speed travel," he said in a statement.

Credit: Virgin Galactic

The company has also made great strides in the development of its spacecraft. Check out the recently-released interior of its SpaceShipTwo Unity cabin:

Virgin Galactic Spaceship Cabin Design Reveal

  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
  • The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.

Everyone remembers Bill Murray's hilarious time loop in the 1993 film Groundhog Day. While covering the infamous annual event in Punxsutawney, Murray comes to terms with waking up over and over again in the same situation. The movie is responsible for making "Groundhog Day" a metaphor for dealing with monotonous and unpleasant situations.

That's what happens when Sarah (Cristin Milioti), a maid of honor at a Palm Springs wedding, wakes up the morning after the ceremony only to discover the wedding is that day. She approaches Nyles (Andy Samberg), who she connected with the prior evening, to figure out what's happening to her.

Nyles has been in the time loop for some time. The story flips the generic romantic comedy on its head as the two figure out how to navigate this shared reality together.

Palm Springs is a perfectly timed release in a nation that feels like it's stuck in a time loop during the pandemic. In fact, the film offers another perspective from the fear portrayed in the media on a daily basis: the triumph of love during a time of immense confusion and frustration. Instead of being weighed down by the stress of the situation, the characters adapt to their circumstances while learning plenty about themselves along the way.

Palm Springs is a Hulu Original. Sign up for a free 30-day trial now. After the trial period expires, enjoy a subscription starting at only $5.99/month.

One month free trial offer valid for Hulu (ad-supported) or Hulu (No Ads) plans only. Offer valid for new and eligible returning subscribers only. After free trial ends subscription fees apply starting at $5.99/mo unless canceled. Cancel anytime. Terms apply.

Sponsored by Hulu

  • Researchers have known Stonehenge's smaller bluestones came from Preseli Hills, Wales, but the source of its sarsens has remained a mystery.
  • Using chemical analysis, scientists found at matching source at West Woods, approximately 25 kilometer north of the World Heritage Site.
  • But mysteries remain, such as why that site was chosen.

    • Many mysteries surround Stonehenge. Who built it and what purpose did it serve? Why that arrangement of megaliths and lentils? How did Neolithic people move and erect such massive stones using 5,000-year-old technology? Because Stonehenge's builders left us no written record, historians, archaeologists, enthusiasts, conspiracy theorists, and outright cranks have tried for centuries to translate their prehistoric silence into answers.

      As scientific tools and techniques have advanced, we've learned to better discern the forensic clues left behind in the megaliths, inhumed bodies, and landscape of the Salisbury Plain. Today, scientists have traced Stonehenge's "bluestones"—smaller dolerite stones found in the monument's interior—to quarries in Preseli Hills, Wales. They've also established that the bluestones likely served as grave markers for the people buried there, also from Wales.

      Thanks to our scientific tools, and a reclaimed piece of history, another Stonehenge mystery has been solved. Scientists have pinpointed the source area for most of the monument's extant sarsens. And no, aliens did not carry these megaliths with tractor beams to create an interstellar landing pad. Sorry, cranks. Stonehenge's origin is far more terrestrial, found in a little spot near Marlborough Downs.

      Discovering Stonehenge's signature

      In 1958, engineers undertook the task of re-erecting a Stonehenge trilithon that fell in 1797. Three cores drilled into a sarsen disappeared soon after.

      (Photo: John Franks/Getty Images)

      "Sarsen" is the common term for the giant sandstone—more specifically, duricrust silcrete—megaliths that enwreathe Stonehenge. Fifty-two of an estimated 80 sarsens remain today. They form both the interior horseshoe and the uprights and lintels of the outer circle, as well as peripheral stones like the Heel and Slaughter Stones. The largest sarsens stand at about nine meters (30 feet) tall and weight around 22.6 metric tones (25 tons).

      The immense size of these boulders sits at the center of one of Stonehenge's most enticing enigmas. How did people, using only Neolithic technology, manage to move and prop up such massive stones? A major piece to that puzzle has been their source as the answer would inform scientists on the opportunities and challenges facing the builders as they moved the sarsens.

      To find that piece, David Nash, the study's lead author and a professor at Brighton University, and his team analyzed the sarsens using a portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometer. This non-intrusive analysis allowed them to generate initial chemical characterizations for the stones' 34 chemical elements.

      "Until recently we did not know it was possible to provenance a stone like sarsen," Nash said in a release. "It has been really exciting to use 21st century science to understand the Neolithic past and answer a question that archaeologists have been debating for centuries."

      To further hone in on the source area, the team needed to generate high-resolution chemical signatures by analyzing a sample. Of course, the idea of tearing a sample out of this World Heritage Site would be near sacrilege. Luckily, a previously lost piece of history had recently been returned to the British people.

      In 1958, a restoration program re-erected a Stonehenge trilithon that fell in 1797. After lifting the sarsens, engineers discovered cracks in one of the uprights (Stone 58). They drilled out three cores from the stone and inserted metal ties to reinforce its integrity. The holes were filled with sarsen plugs to hide the intrusion. However, the three cores disappeared.

      Flash forward to 2018. Robert Phillips, an 89-year-old U.S. citizen and on-site worker during the restoration, returned one of the three cores. Nash and his team were granted permission to sample a piece from "Phillips' core." They used a plasma mass spectrometer to create a chemical signature for the monument, one they could compare to potential source sites across southern Britain.

      They found a match in West Woods, Wiltshire. Fifty of Stonehenge's 52 sarsens share a chemical signature with the stones in this area, strongly suggesting they were sourced there. The area also sports a high concentration of evidence for early Neolithic activity, adding to its plausibility.

      "To be able to pinpoint the area that Stonehenge's builders used to source their materials around 2,500 BC is a real thrill," Susan Greaney, senior properties historian at English Heritage, told the BBC. "While we had our suspicions that Stonehenge's sarsens came from the Marlborough Downs, we didn't know for sure, and with areas of sarsens across Wiltshire, the stones could have come from anywhere."

      She added the evidence showed "how carefully considered and deliberate the building of this phase of Stonehenge was."

      The study was published in Science Advances.

      For every answer, another question

      A view of Stonehenge during the Summer Solstice.

      (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

      Thanks to Nash and his team, scientists now know the source of Stonehenge's sarsens. This clue can help them solve other Stonehenge mysteries. That most of the stones were sourced from one location, the study notes, suggests that they were erected at about the same time. It also reveals the routes the Neolithic builders had to traverse with their heavy loads.

      But questions remain. Why did the builders choose West Woods when the Salisbury Plain is dense with sarsen? Why were two megaliths (Stones 26 and 160) sourced elsewhere? And were the missing stones gathered from West Woods or elsewhere?

      These questions only touch on the sarsens. The question that intrigues so many of the monument's visitors remains hotly debated: Who built Stonehenge and why? Was it a burial site for the Stone age elite? A monument marking British unification? A Druid Mecca? We don't know, but as scientific tools advance, we may be able to break the prehistoric silence that has laid over Stonehenge for so long.

      Something curious happened in human population history over the last 1 million years.

      First, our numbers fell to as low as 18,500, and our ancestors were more endangered than chimpanzees and gorillas. Then we bounced back to extraordinary levels, far surpassing the other great apes.

      Today the total population of gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans is estimated to be only around 500,000, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Many species are critically endangered. Meanwhile, the human population has surged to 7.7 billion. And the irony is: Our astonishing ability to multiply now threatens the long-term sustainability of many species, including ours.

      What happened? Why do we live in the Anthropocene and not a world resembling Planet of the Apes? We share around 99 percent of our DNA with our great ape cousins, chimpanzees and bonobos. So, what makes us different from our closest relatives that gives us our staggering capacity for reproducing and surviving?

      As an evolutionary anthropologist, these questions have led me to live and study among the Yucatec Maya of Mexico, the Pumé hunter-gatherers of Venezuela, and the Tanala agriculturalists of Madagascar. My research,* combined with genetic data and other studies, offers clues to what developed in the deep past that has made humans so successful—for better or for worse.

      In the 1970s, the isolated village of Xculoc, in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, was home to about 300 Maya people. The maize-farming residents had no electricity or running water. Women hauled water from a 50-meter-deep well using ropes and buckets. They ground maize—the mainstay of their diet—in hand-cranked grinders.

      Then two technologies were introduced that changed these Maya's lives and, ultimately, their population: a gas-powered water pump and two gas-powered maize grinders.

      Using these devices, young women saved about two and a half hours of labor and 325 calories a day. In addition, younger siblings could more easily fetch water and crush maize, freeing up their older sisters' time and literally decreasing their daily grind. That's important because studies have found that heavy subsistence work suppresses ovarian function, whereas reducing labor and raising women's energy balance is associated with a bump in fertility.

      Subsequently, the age at which women in Xculoc first gave birth dropped by two years. And according to my long-term research, women who started childbearing after these machines arrived produced significantly larger families than prior generations. By 2003, women who started reproducing in the 1970s had eight to 12 children.

      Saving women time and energy is central to increasing the population. And humans have developed numerous technological and social ways of accomplishing this that differ from our great ape relatives.

      It's important to note that scientists must be cautious about drawing direct analogies between contemporary people or apes and our ancient ancestors. But modern humans and primates are our best tools for inferring how the underpinnings of our numerical success may have evolved.

      Somewhere along the evolutionary road, humans started to favor new ways of having and raising their young. Mothers began weaning their infants earlier. In modern societies where infants rely on their mother's milk and not bottle feeding, babies nurse for two to three years. By contrast, great ape mothers nurse their young for four to six years.

      Breastfeeding is calorically expensive. It takes a mother about 600 extra calories a day to produce milk. So, the sooner she stops nursing, the sooner she can biologically support another pregnancy. In modern societies without contraception, mothers give birth on average every three years. Other great apes may wait as many as six to eight years between births.

      Our ancient ancestors also fed, sheltered, and cared for youngsters who were weaned but still growing. This gave them a better chance at surviving than nonhuman great ape young, which fend for themselves after they're weaned. Today a child living in a hunter-gatherer society is twice as likely as a wild chimpanzee to survive to age 15.

      Novel ways of parenting, compared to earlier hominins, meant human mothers were in the unique situation of having multiple dependents of different ages to care for at the same time. I cannot underscore enough how much this sets human mothers and children apart from the other great apes.

      Having lots of kids is great for the success of the species. But there's a hitch. Mothers don't have enough hours in the day to care for their babies full time while providing for their older offspring. That's especially true because the unique aspects of the human diet give mothers a lot of tasks to juggle

      When these ancient life history traits were evolving, our ancestors made their living as hunter-gatherers, who typically eat diverse fare, including fruits, nuts, tubers, roots, large and small game, birds, reptiles, eggs, insects, fish, and shellfish. Cobbling together such a menu requires modern hunter-gatherers to travel, on average, 13 kilometers per day. By contrast, chimpanzees and gorillas roam, on average, 2 kilometers per day.

      What's more, hunter-gatherers process most of their food to make it more digestible or to boost the bioavailability of nutrients. And as everyone who prepares food knows, that takes a significant amount of time.

      Among the Pumé hunter-gatherers from the savannas of Venezuela, women spend about three hours a day cracking, mashing, grinding, pounding, sifting, winnowing, butchering, and cooking food. The same is true of Efe women—hunter-gatherers living in the Ituri forest of Central Africa.

      That prep time is in addition to the hours the Pumé and Efe spend foraging and then carrying ingredients back to camp. Furthermore, each processing task requires a specialized technology, which means someone has to collect raw materials and make tools. !Kung women and men in the Kalahari Desert of Southern Africa spend about an hour each day making and repairing tools. Savanna Pumé women devote nearly two hours to toolmaking—twice as much as the men.

      Hunter-gatherers also build shelters and hearths to provide a safe place to process ingredients, to store food and tools, and to leave children who may be too young to accompany others on long foraging trips. Plus, they must haul water, chop firewood, fashion clothing, and maintain the social and information networks needed to access geographically dispersed resources.

      There are simply not enough hours in the day for any one person to accomplish all this. So, our ancestors came up with a solution.

      That solution was cooperation—but not the kind of task-sharing many species engage in. Hunter-gatherers developed a distinct feature called intergenerational cooperation: Parents help kids, and children help parents.

      This is not a trait we share with the other great apes, who aren't particularly good at sharing food, helping mothers or offspring who aren't their own, or even supporting their own children after they reach a certain age. Nonhuman great ape mothers rarely share meals with their juvenile offspring once they're weaned, and juvenile apes don't offer food to their moms.

      But among humans, intergenerational cooperation means it really does take a village to raise a child. Across cultures, mothers in hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies offer only about half of the direct care an infant receives. Savanna Pumé infants, for example, have an average of nine caretakers besides their mother. Efe infants have an average of 11.

      Fathers and grandparents certainly play important roles in supporting their families. But it's not enough. An average Maya mother is 60 by the time her last child leaves home, so she has very few years after that to be a babysitting or food-collecting grandmother.

      My research suggests a much more obvious source of help has been overlooked: kids. Other than mothers, children provide most of the child care in many cultures. And 7- to 10-year-olds do the bulk of the babysitting.

      Children are also responsible for processing much of the food and running the household. A Pumé boy carries home an average of 4.5 kilograms of wild fruit on days he forages. That's the equivalent of 3,200 calories—enough to feed himself and at least some of his family. (And that's in addition to any snacking he does in the field.) His sister can bring home more than a kilogram of roots (worth about 4,000 calories)—some of which she will eat, but most of which she shares. Among the Hadza hunter-gatherers of East Africa, children forage for five to six hours a day. By age 5, they can supply about 50 percent of their own calories during some seasons.

      Children in agricultural communities are also hard workers. Yucatec Maya between the ages of 7 and 14 devote two to five hours a day to domestic and field work. Teens between the ages of 15 and 18 labor about 6.5 hours a day—as much as their parents.

      By the time a Maya mother is 40, she has an average of seven children at home. These children contribute a combined 20 hours of work a day and supply 60 percent of what the family consumes.

      Thanks to this multigenerational help, a woman can spend time doing what only she can do: have more children. So, children increase the population, but their labor is also a built-in engine to fuel their community's fertility and speed up reproduction.

      With intergenerational cooperation and a diversity of dietary strategies, our ancestors multiplied and weathered population bottlenecks. Just after 1800, the human population hit 1 billion.

      The global population then expanded exponentially, largely due to the enhanced survival of both infants and older people. It reached 2 billion in 1927, 3 billion in 1960, 4 billion in 1974, 5 billion in 1987, 6 billion in 1999, 7 billion in 2011, and today is at over 7.7 billion.

      These figures intrigue me as an evolutionary enigma and deeply concern me as a contemporary issue. There is no question, though, that humans have been incredibly successful. The question is: How long can we maintain that success and still be sustainable? The answer, like our secret to growth in the past, stands on the shoulders of cooperation.

      * Editor's note: The author derived much of this essay from her 47th JAR Distinguished Lecture, "How There Got to Be So Many of Us," which was published in the Winter 2019 issue of the Journal of Anthropological Research.

      This work first appeared on SAPIENS under a CC BY-ND 4.0 license. Read the original here.

    • Species richness among wild bees and other pollinators has been declining for 50 years.
    • A new study found crops like apples, cherries, and blueberries to be pollination limited, meaning less pollination reduces crop yields.
    • Conservation efforts will need to be made to stave off future losses and potential food insecurity.

      • Bees have endured a disastrous half-century. In the winter of 2018, U.S. beekeepers reported losing 37.7 percent of their honeybee colonies. It was the largest die-off reported since the Bee Informed Partnership began its survey in 2006, yet in that decade, average winter losses of managed colonies were 28.7 percent. That's near twice the historic rate and part of a 50-year trend of declining species richness in wild bees and other pollinators.

        That's bad news for the bees and also anyone who depends on the food generated through their labor. That is, all of us. According to the USDA, approximately 35 percent of the world's food crops depend on animal pollinators to reproduce, with some scientists estimating that "one out of every three bites of food we eat exists because of animal pollinators."

        That many crops depend on pollination to reproduce is well-established; however, how much pollination proves a limiting factor to crop yield is less understood. If wild bee and managed honeybee populations continue to decline, will the amount of food available to feed us decline, too? That's the question a Rutgers-led team of researchers sought to answer.

        From bee to farm to table

        A bar graph showing the percentage of pollination limitation for the seven crops studied.

        (Photo: James Reilly, et al/The Royal Society Publishing))

        The research team selected seven crops to study: apples, almonds, pumpkins, watermelons, sweet cherries, tart cherries, and highbush blueberries. These were chosen because each is highly dependent on insect pollination for reproduction. The researchers then established a nationwide study across 131 U.S. and British Columbia farms. They selected only commercial farms in top-producing states—for example, Michigan and Oregon farms for blueberries. This way, their sample would represent the conditions and farming practices in which a majority of these crops are grown.

        After collecting data on pollinator visitation rates and crop production, the researchers measured the data through three statistical models. They also analyzed the contribution differences between wild bees and managed honeybees as well as the economic value of the bees' service.

        "We found that many crops are pollination-limited, meaning crop production would be higher if crop flowers received more pollination. We also found that honey bees and wild bees provided similar amounts of pollination overall," Rachael Winfree, a professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and the study's senior author, said in a release. "Managing habitat for native bee species [and] stocking more honey bees would boost pollination levels and could increase crop production."

        Of the crops studied, apples, blueberries, sweet cherries, and tart cherries were hit hardest when pollination decreased. Watermelon and pumpkin yields weren't as limited by pollinators, possibly because these crops sport fewer blooms and flower in summer when the weather is less inclement. Almonds proved the outlier as the crop is the earliest bloomer yet not pollination limited. The researchers speculate that this is due to the almond industry's intense reliance on managed honeybees.

        "Our findings show that pollinator declines could translate directly into decreased yields or production for most of the crops studied, and that wild species contribute substantially to pollination of most study crops in major crop-producing regions," the researchers write.

        For the seven crops studied, the researchers estimate the annual production value of pollinators to be more than $1.5 billion. They also found that wild bee species provided comparable pollination, even for crops in agriculturally intensive regions.

        Their findings were published in the most recent Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

        Ecological and edible incentives

        hand holding dead bees

        A protester shows a handful of bees that died by pesticides. The protest was held during the Bayer AG shareholder meeting in 2019.

        (PhooMaja Hitiji/Getty Images)

        The concern extends beyond these seven. Crops such as coffee, avocados, lemons, limes, and oranges are also highly dependent on pollinators and may prove pollination limited. If declining bee populations are tied to such yields, it could mean barer supermarket shelves and increased prices. While that may only be an annoyance to some, to poor and vulnerable communities who already struggle to secure salubrious, affordable food, such a deficit would present another barrier to the vital micronutrients necessary for a healthy life and diet.

        Unfortunately, the threats to bees are numerous. Parasites, agrochemicals, monoculture farming, and habitat degradation all play a role, and neither stressor works in isolation. Sublethal exposure to neonicotinoids, an insecticide, can cause impairments in bees, while monoculture farming serves up a monotonous and unhealthy floral buffet. Both impede bees' immune systems, rendering them vulnerable to parasites such as Varroa destructor, a mite that can transmit debilitating viruses as it feeds on bees' fat bodies. And all of these stressors will likely be inflamed by climate change in the years to come.

        Some have proffered mechanical solutions, such as Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology where technicians are developing robotic bees. These micro-drones are covered in gelled horsehair and have successfully cross-pollinated Japanese lilies. Other experiments include pollen sprays. However, the large-scale viability of tech-centric solutions seems questionable. After all, wild bees currently perform their ecological services pro bono and are as effective as managed honeybees. Any technological solution implemented in their absence would add to the agricultural costs and likely increase prices anyway.

        Ecological amelioration will be necessary. To combat habitat fragmentation and strengthen biodiversity, many cities are implementing green-way strategies. For example, the Dutch city of Utrecht has decked its bus stop roofs with plants and grasses to create bee and butterfly shelters, while other cities are looking to foster bee-friend roadsides. And government initiatives incentivize farmers and landowners to adopt bee-friendly management practices. These solutions aren't only a matter of ecological conservation but also food security and public health.