Why the world needs death to prosper

Scientists have developed new ways of understanding how the biological forces of death drive important life processes.

  • Researchers have found new ways on how decomposing plants and animals contribute to the life cycle.
  • After a freak mass herd death of 300 reindeer, scientists were able to study a wide range of the decomposition processes.
  • Promoting the necrobiome research will open up new areas of inquiry and even commerce.

The biosphere and its many ecosystems rely on more than just life processes to subsist and exist. Death and regeneration are a necessity to the flow of the biome. A new study out of Michigan State University has now figured out a way to investigate how decomposing plant and animal matter helps contribute to a lively ecosystem.

What was coined the necrobiome by Eric Benbowm, forensic entomologist and microbial ecologist, in 2013 – is a collective of organisms that assist in plant and animal decay. The new research sheds light on an established list of organisms that play key roles in carrion decomposition.

The paper was published in Ecological Monographs and its focus is on establishing what they call the necrobiome encyclopedia. The goal is to help bridge the interdisciplinary gap between multiple lines of ecological theory and also show how important death is as a component of all ecosystems.

Researchers have laid out a detailed study of the different stages of the decomposition processes from decaying plant life in the oceans – seaweed, to mass animal herd deaths. The findings are changing the way we view the humble gang of bacterium, vermin, decomposers and more and their ultimate role in the transformation of life.

What is a necrobiome? 

Organisms are always dying. When either a plant or some kind of animal corpse sets itself against the cold hard ground, a new process emerges from the detritus of a once living being. A corpse is a cache of nutrients and a great blend of multiple fats, proteins, carbohydrates and building blocks of life.

Once the life light goes out, a group of bacteria, fungi and other assorted organisms begin to feast. There is a total change in the environment around this once living thing.

The microbiome is in a sense both a process and a coterie of species that act as decomposers and scavengers of life. It's becoming clear to scientists that there is a predictable manner in a way that this multitude of species shows up for a post-mortem dinner.

Some studies have found that mouse and human corpses share a similar group of bacteria colonizers after death for example. Not only are the processes of the necrobiome being uncovered, but the benefits to an environment are being unearthed as well.

What positive changes in ecosystems are seen after massive deaths of animals? 

In a stroke of dumb luck, scientists were able to watch as an area transformed after 300 reindeer in Norway were instantly killed when lighting struck. The mass amount of carcasses drew many larger animals like foxes and wolverines, larger birds and of course maggots and microbes. In an article with the New York Times, one of the scientists, Jen Pechal, who studied the area was quoted as saying that she thought of the site as a "hyperlocal decomposition island."

The mass death created an incredible amount of diversity in such a small amount of time. It is a new and novel idea now that carcasses are able to alter and affect the greater biodiversity in the landscape. The scientists watched the area evolve over a period of a couple of years. The first spring was filled with a horrid stench with blowflies swarming about. But by the fall, the area consisted mostly of skin and bones, with no vegetation yet peaking up.

Researchers have recently seen new types of grass sprouting up bearing flowers and even crowberry seedlings being laid. One of the major changes in the area was an increased amount of plant diversity. The carcasses had actually become a rich soil for the land.

Here we see again, nature proving that it wastes nothing. Scientists believe that as we learn more about the necrobiome, it will lead to new ways of recycling and even one day commerce.

One researcher said that:

"Our research and this study establish a common language and conceptual tools that can lead to new product discovery... We're eliminating organic matter and turning it into a value-added product that can add to the world-food cycle. Understanding the species and the mechanisms, which are essentially recycled, can contribute to establishing food security."

Life to death and back again, the ubiquitous cycle continues and there's no doubt that we will keep learning more about this fascinating phenomena.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.