Big Think Interview With Kate Pickett
Kate Pickett is a Professor of Epidemiology at the University of York and a National Institute for Health Research Career Scientist. She studied physical anthropology at Cambridge, nutritional sciences at Cornell and epidemiology at Berkeley before spending four years as an Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago. Her work, with Richard Wilkinson, on "The Spirit Level" was shortlisted for Research Project of the Year 2009 by the Times Higher Education Supplement, and their book was chosen as one of the Top Ten Books of the Decade, by the New Statesman.
Kate Pickett: I’m Kate Pickett. And I’m a Professor of Epidemiology at the University of York in England.
Question: What is the relationship between economic growth and life expectancy?
Kate Pickett: What we find is, in the rich developed market democracies, there’s no longer any relationship between average levels of income in a country and life expectance. So, you can have a country like the USA, or Norway, that’s twice a rich as another country like Greece for instance, and that doesn’t seem to affect life expectancy at all. And the same is true of happiness. Happiness isn’t related to average levels of income in a country either. Now, that’s not true of the developing world when you don’t have enough, when people are lacking food or shelter, or the basic material necessities. Then economic growth is really important. But in our rich, developed democracies, it no longer makes any difference. So, we seem to have come to an end of what economic growth can do for us in terms of life expectance, happiness, well-being and that sort of thing.
If you look at the United States, over the past few decades, you’ve become twice, three times a rich as you used to be, levels of happiness haven’t improved at all.
Question: How does social inequality affect our health?
Kate Pickett: I think this is where it helps that Richard Wilkinson, my co-author and I, we’re epidemiologists, and so we study levels of population health. And one thing we really learned over the past 30 years in epidemiology is the importance of psycho-social factors for health. Things like low social status, or social affiliation, social networks, whether or not you have friends, and the stresses of early childhood. All of those things have turned out to be really important for health. And we have quite a good understanding now of the biology of chronic stress. So, all of these things are working as stresses, low social status, lack of friends or social networks, stress in early childhood. And chronic stress affects our biology, our physiology in lots of different ways. It affects our immune system, our hormonal responses, it affects our cardiovascular health. And that’s quite well understood. And so we have also known for a long time that the people at the bottom of society, the poorer people in our societies, people living in the most deprived neighborhoods have much higher levels of stress and much worse health than those who are more affluent or have higher social status.
Question: Is there a threshold for when economic growth stops affecting life expectancy?
Kate Pickett: Yeah, it’s not so much about the threshold, the threshold changes over time. It’s really just seeing that although life expectancy continues to improve over time, that’s not related to average levels of income anymore in the rich countries. Instead, what we find is really important is the level of income and equality that is the gap between the rich and the poor. That’s what seems to matter these days for our health and social well being.
Question: Why are humans prone to developing unequal societies?
Kate Pickett: Well, I think we’ve lived in every kind of society. I mean, for a lot of our existence as human beings, we’ve lived in fairly egalitarian, hunter/gather societies. But we’ve also lived in very hierarchical tyrannies as well. We clearly can manage to exist in both and develop all kinds of different societies. Why hierarchy seems to matter, why status differences matter so much and so the gap between rich and poor matters, is because as human beings, we are very sensitive to social relationship. We have an evolved psychology that makes us very aware about how others judge us.
If you think about it, some of the most difficult things to do, or the most potentially embarrassing situations wherein, those where other people can judge us negatively. Rather like what I’m doing now, which might go out and been seen by hopefully thousands of people and they might think I’m doing a good job, or a bad job, and being aware of that can make us feel very embarrassed, be very aware of how others judge us, and that really affects our psychology and our biology in very profound ways.
So, if we’re looking at societies where the social distances between people are bigger as they are in unequal societies, there’s just more potential for all of us to feel we are judged negatively by others and to feel that our status really matters, that it’s really important.
Question: What is the Social-Evaluative Threat?
Kate Pickett: Social-Evaluative Threat that’s a term psychologist’s use. There are two psychologists who looked at all the studies that other researches have done on what kind of stresses most reliably raise our cortisol levels. What kinds of stress most reliably stress us? And they usually do this kind of work by inviting students into the laboratory and asking them to do unpleasant tasks. The might ask them to solve math problems or to write about an unpleasant experience, or be videotaped doing something. And the question these researchers asked was, which kind of stress most reliably raises our stress hormone levels? And they found it was ones which contained a social-evaluative threat. So, it’s not so much having to do math problems, it’s having to read out your real marks at the end and your scores and share them with other people. It’s tasks in which other people can judge you negatively, that most reliably make you feel stressed.
Question: How does status anxiety link with consumerism?
Kate Pickett: Well, in our modern societies, we don’t really need to consume more stuff for basic survival. We consume, we shop, and we want to earn more money to show our status. And so, owning things that demonstrate that we are keeping up, keeping up appearances that show we are a valued member of society, that’s why we consume so much. In more unequal societies that competition for status is more important. And so, in more unequal societies there is a stronger drive toward status competition and consumerism. All of those things matter more, matters more to earn more money, not because you need more money for basic things, but you need to show your status relative to other people in society.
Question: What is the link between greater inequality and public health?
Kate Pickett: We look at more and less equal countries, and let me describe what I mean by that. We use income equality as a measure of how hierarchical a society is, how unequal it is. And so we’re comparing – we’re looking at countries and looking at how much richer the top 20% of the population are compared to the bottom 20%. It’s ratio of the top fifth to the bottom fifth of incomes. And in more equal countries like Japan, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, the top 20% earn about 3 ½ to 4 times as much as the bottom 20%. And in the more unequal countries like the UK, where I’m from, the USA, Portugal, Australia, Singapore, it’s 7 ½ to 9 times as much. So, that’s the scale of inequality that we’re looking at.
And what we do in our book is take that scale of income differences and look to see how it affect a range of health and social problems in different societies. And we find that more unequal societies have lower levels of trust, higher levels of mental illness, worse physical health, more obesity, their children do less well in schools, there are more teenage births, more violence, as you just mentioned, a greater percentage of the population is in prison and social mobility is lower as well. So, everything seems to get worse in more unequal societies. This is a general social dysfunction. And because this is politically quite sensitive, we thought we’d test it all out again in separate setting. So, we compared the 50 states of the USA as a sort of independent test, and again, we look at levels of income and equality in the 50 different states and compare that tot heir level of health and social problems. And it’s a remarkably consistent picture. So that all those health and social problems are worse in the more unequal states.
And we think this human sensitivity to social relationships is the underpinning cause of all of those problems. You asked about violence, and in a more unequal society, of course, there are more people who don’t have access to the kinds of things that give us status, money, jobs, cars, employment, those sorts of things. And in a society where social judgments can be harsher, those at the bottom are going to be much more sensitive to threats to their status. And we know from the work of prison psychiatrists, for instance, that being disrespected, or humiliated, or potentially losing face is the most common trigger for violence of all. So, I think that’s the link between greater inequality and high levels of violence.
And the differences are huge. If we compare, for instance, the American states and Canadian Provinces, in the more equal of those, there are about 15 million, sorry, 15 murders per million residents per year. And in the more unequal, it’s about 150. So that’s a ten-fold difference, ten times the murder rate in the more unequal places than the more equal ones.
Question: What is the connection between sustainability and equality?
Kate Pickett: Yeah. I mean, I think this goes back to the idea I was talking about earlier that, in a sense, in the rich developed countries we’ve come to the end of what economic growth can do for us in terms of better quality of life. We also know that we’ve got to constrain economic growth to deal with the challenges of climate change. And we need to develop more sustainable economies. And we think that equality has an important role to play here in several different ways. The first is the increased status competition that I talked about in more unequal societies. That drives consumerism. And we know that high levels of consumerism are a major cause of high levels of carbon emissions and that we need to rein in consumerism to cope with climate change. So, I think more equal societies will be better places to be able to do that because there will be less drive to consume.
Also because we find that levels of trust are much higher in more equal places, social cohesion is better. People are more willing to act together for the common good, there’s a greater public spiritedness and people are less out for themselves. And we see that in more equal countries, this translates into the way the population acts with respect to the planet and with respect to other countries. For instance, more equal countries donate more in foreign aid. A greater portion of their national income is given in foreign aid and they do better at recycling across a whole variety of waste goods. And in more equal countries, business leaders are more likely agree that their government should comply with environmental regulations. So, there are all kinds of ways in which more equal societies seem better able to act for the common good.
But there’s a third thing as well, and I think this is really important because I think a lot of people have thought in the past that we need a certain level of inequality to drive aspirations and creativity. And we’ve actually found that using a sort of proxy measure of innovation, we use the number of patterns grounded per head of population, sort of a measure of innovation and creativity, and we find that there is a significant tendency for more equal countries to have a higher level of patterns grounded per capita than the more unequal ones. Probably because in more unequal societies educational achievement is lower and social mobility is lower. So, they’re wasting a much higher proportion of their potential human capital.
So in terms of consumerism, acting in a public spirited way, and being creative and innovative, it looks as if greater equality might be a very necessary precondition as far as coping with climate change.
Question: What practical steps can countries take to enhance equality?
Kate Pickett: I think the first thing to note is that not only do we find that inequality is related to a whole range of social problems, we also find that it affects the vast majority of the population, and I think that’s really key to getting greater support for measures that would make our societies more equal. Greater equality won’t just benefit the poorer in our society; the benefits seem to extend all the way up the population so that even among the wealthier, more educated, affluent sections of our populations, they are healthier and do better in a more equal society. So, I think that’s really key.
But we also find that it is the level of inequality that matters for all of these health and social problems and it doesn’t seem to matter how that greater equality is achieved. So we often point to the contrasts between Sweden and Japan, for instance. Both of them are at the more equal end of the spectrum and they do very well in terms of health and social problems. But they achieve their greater equality in very different ways.
Sweden has quite large income differences to start with and redistributes through taxes and benefits, whereas Japan has smaller income differences to start with. And that doesn’t seem to matter, it’s the level of inequality of equality that they achieve that matters. And we find the same contrast actually among the U.S. states. So, we have two states bordering each other, Vermont and New Hampshire, culturally very alike, but New Hampshire has very low levels of state expenditure and taxation and Vermont much higher. So, New Hampshire looks a bit more like Japan and Vermont a bit more like Sweden. But because they are among the more equal states, they do very well in terms of health and social problems.
So we don’t advocate any particular way of achieving greater equality. There are big state interventions that could work such as higher tax rates on higher incomes, or raising minimum wage levels. But there are sort of small state solutions as well that are around institutions, how companies decide to set their salary structures. And it does seem that where there is more economic democracy, more employees on the board for instance, or promotions from within a company, more employees owning shares in a company. Income differences within those institutions are kept smaller. So, there are lots of different ways that greater equality can be achieved
Question: Why do Cubans live longer on average than Americans?
Kate Pickett: Sure. If you look at the international rankings of life expectancy, yes, the U.S.A. does particularly badly among the rich developed countries, which is fairly recent. You used to be one of the high performers in terms of life expectancy. And it’s interesting; actually, that the U.S.A. and Japan have rather swapped places after the Second World War and Japan was a very unequal country with very poor levels of life expectancy, whereas America was very equal and performed very well internationally with life expectancy. And since that time, you’ve swapped places. So that America has become much more unequal and slipped down the rankings of life expectancy and Japan has become much more equal and now has the highest life expectancy in the world, and crime rates have come down, etc. And there are countries that are much poorer. You mentioned Cuba, but we can also look at Costa Rica, and some of the other Latin American countries and some of the poorer European countries, such as Greece that achieve life expectancies as high, or higher than the United States without that higher level of affluence.
Question: Is the U.S. inherently unequal?
Kate Pickett: Although the U.S.A. does come very near the top in terms of income inequality today among the rich capitalist countries, only Singapore does worse in our dataset. This isn’t a sort of fixed American problem. In the past, after the Second World War and right up through the 1970’s, you were one of the more equal of the western developed countries. And so, it’s not anti-American to suggest that American society might become more egalitarian, more equal. That’s actually very characteristic of your fairly recent past. And it’s certain true of the founding principles on which your country or society is based.
And so, although I think Americans have perhaps gotten used to high levels of inequality in the very recent past, you do have a long tradition of a more egalitarian ethos and of smaller income differences in your society. And so, I think the American Dream isn’t dead, although levels of social mobility are much slower here, educational performance is suffering, you can look to your past, I think, to recover that hope and that optimism and see it as a very true American ambition to have the kind of society that offers a fair opportunity for everybody.
Recorded on: January 15, 2010
A conversation with the University of York Epidemiologist
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How imagining the worst case scenario can help calm anxiety.
- Stoicism is the philosophy that nothing about the world is good or bad in itself, and that we have control over both our judgments and our reactions to things.
- It is hardest to control our reactions to the things that come unexpectedly.
- By meditating every day on the "worst case scenario," we can take the sting out of the worst that life can throw our way.
Are you a worrier? Do you imagine nightmare scenarios and then get worked up and anxious about them? Does your mind get caught in a horrible spiral of catastrophizing over even the smallest of things? Worrying, particularly imagining the worst case scenario, seems to be a natural part of being human and comes easily to a lot of us. It's awful, perhaps even dangerous, when we do it.
But, there might just be an ancient wisdom that can help. It involves reframing this attitude for the better, and it comes from Stoicism. It's called "premeditation," and it could be the most useful trick we can learn.
Broadly speaking, Stoicism is the philosophy of choosing your judgments. Stoics believe that there is nothing about the universe that can be called good or bad, valuable or valueless, in itself. It's we who add these values to things. As Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Our minds color the things we encounter as being "good" or "bad," and given that we control our minds, we therefore have control over all of our negative feelings.
Put another way, Stoicism maintains that there's a gap between our experience of an event and our judgment of it. For instance, if someone calls you a smelly goat, you have an opportunity, however small and hard it might be, to pause and ask yourself, "How will I judge this?" What's more, you can even ask, "How will I respond?" We have power over which thoughts we entertain and the final say on our actions. Today, Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
Helping you practice StoicismCredit: Robyn Beck via Getty Images
One of the principal fathers of ancient Stoicism was the Roman statesmen, Seneca, who argued that the unexpected and unforeseen blows of life are the hardest to take control over. The shock of a misfortune can strip away the power we have to choose our reaction. For instance, being burglarized feels so horrible because we had felt so safe at home. A stomach ache, out of the blue, is harder than a stitch thirty minutes into a run. A sudden bang makes us jump, but a firework makes us smile. Fell swoops hurt more than known hardships.
What could possibly go wrong?
So, how can we resolve this? Seneca suggests a Stoic technique called "premeditatio malorum" or "premeditation." At the start of every day, we ought to take time to indulge our anxious and catastrophizing mind. We should "rehearse in the mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck." We should meditate on the worst things that could happen: your partner will leave you, your boss will fire you, your house will burn down. Maybe, even, you'll die.
This might sound depressing, but the important thing is that we do not stop there.
Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
The Stoic also rehearses how they will react to these things as they come up. For instance, another Stoic (and Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius asks us to imagine all the mean, rude, selfish, and boorish people we'll come across today. Then, in our heads, we script how we'll respond when we meet them. We can shrug off their meanness, smile at their rudeness, and refuse to be "implicated in what is degrading." Thus prepared, we take control again of our reactions and behavior.
The Stoics cast themselves into the darkest and most desperate of conditions but then realize that they can and will endure. With premeditation, the Stoic is prepared and has the mental vigor necessary to take the blow on the chin and say, "Yep, l can deal with this."
Catastrophizing as a method of mental inoculation
Seneca wrote: "In times of peace, the soldier carries out maneuvers." This is also true of premeditation, which acts as the war room or training ground. The agonizing cut of the unexpected is blunted by preparedness. We can prepare the mind for whatever trials may come, in just the same way we can prepare the body for some endurance activity. The world can throw nothing as bad as that which our minds have already imagined.
Stoicism teaches us to embrace our worrying mind but to embrace it as a kind of inoculation. With a frown over breakfast, try to spend five minutes of your day deliberately catastrophizing. Get your anti-anxiety battle plan ready and then face the world.
A study on charity finds that reminding people how nice it feels to give yields better results than appealing to altruism.
- A study finds asking for donations by appealing to the donor's self-interest may result in more money than appealing to their better nature.
- Those who received an appeal to self-interest were both more likely to give and gave more than those in the control group.
- The effect was most pronounced for those who hadn't given before.
Even the best charities with the longest records of doing great fundraising work have to spend some time making sure that the next donation checks will keep coming in. One way to do this is by showing potential donors all the good things the charity did over the previous year. But there may be a better way.
A new study by researchers in the United States and Australia suggests that appealing to the benefits people will receive themselves after a donation nudges them to donate more money than appealing to the greater good.
How to get people to give away free money
The postcards that were sent to different study subjects. The one on the left highlighted benefits to the self, while the one on the right highlighted benefits to others.List et al. / Nature Human Behaviour
The study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, utilized the Pick.Click.Give program in Alaska. This program allows Alaska residents who qualify for dividends from the Alaska Permanent Fund, a yearly payment ranging from $800 to $2000 in recent years, to donate a portion of it to various in-state non-profit organizations.
The researchers randomly assigned households to either a control group or to receive a postcard in the mail encouraging them to donate a portion of their dividend to charity. That postcard could come in one of two forms, either highlighting the benefits to others or the benefits to themselves.
Those who got the postcard touting self-benefits were 6.6 percent more likely to give than those in the control group and gave 23 percent more on average. Those getting the benefits-to-others postcard were slightly more likely to give than those receiving no postcard, but their donations were no larger.
Additionally, the researchers were able to break the subject list down into a "warm list" of those who had given at least once before in the last two years and a "cold list" of those who had not. Those on the warm list, who were already giving, saw only minor increases in their likelihood to donate after getting a postcard in the mail compared to those on the cold list.
Additionally, the researchers found that warm-list subjects who received the self-interest postcard gave 11 percent more than warm-list subjects in the control group. Amazingly, among cold-list subjects, those who received a self-interest postcard gave 39 percent more.
These are substantial improvements. At the end of the study, the authors point out, "If we had sent the benefits to self message to all households in the state, aggregate contributions would have increased by nearly US$600,000."
To put this into perspective, in 2017 the total donations to the program were roughly $2,700,000.
Is altruism dead?
Are all actions inherently self-interested? Thankfully, no. The study focuses entirely on effective ways to increase charitable donations above levels that currently exist. It doesn't deny that some people are giving out of pure altruism, but rather that an appeal based on self-interest is effective. Plenty of people were giving before this study took place who didn't need a postcard as encouragement. It is also possible that some people donated part of their dividend check to a charity that does not work with Pick.Click.Give and were uncounted here.
It is also important to note that Pick.Click.Give does not provide services but instead gives money to a wide variety of organizations that do. Those organizations operate in fields from animal rescue to job training to public broadcasting. The authors note that it is possible that a more specific appeal to the benefits others will receive from a donation might prove more effective than the generic and all-inclusive "Make Alaska Better For Everyone" appeal that they used.
In an ideal world, charity is its own reward. In ours, it might help to remind somebody how warm and fuzzy they'll feel after donating to your cause.
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to life recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
The 'Monkeydactyl' was a flying reptile that evolved highly specialized adaptations in the Mesozoic Era.
- The 'Monkeydactly', or Kunpengopterus antipollicatus, was a species of pterosaur, a group of flying reptiles that were the first vertebrates to evolve the ability of powered flight.
- In a recent study, a team of researchers used microcomputed tomography scanning to analyze the anatomy of the newly discovered species, finding that it was the first known species to develop opposable thumbs.
- As highly specialized dinosaurs, pterosaurs boasted unusual anatomy that gave them special advantages as aerial predators in the Mesozoic Era.
A newly discovered flying dinosaur nicknamed "Monkeydactyl" is the oldest known creature that evolved opposable thumbs, according to new research published in Current Biology.
The 160-million-year-old reptile is officially named Kunpengopterus antipollicatus. Discovered in China, the dinosaur was a darwinopteran pterosaur, a subgroup of pterosaurs, which first appeared 215 million years ago during the Triassic Period. Pterosaurs, like the pterodactyl, were the first vertebrates to evolve the ability of powered flight.
But unlike other pterosaurs, the Monkeydactyl was the only species in its group known to have opposable thumbs. It's a rare adaptation for non-mammals: The only extant examples are chameleons and some species of tree frogs. (Most birds have at least one opposable digit, though that digit is usually classified as a hallux, not a pollex, which means "thumb" in Latin.)
To analyze the anatomy of K. antipollicatus, an international team of researchers used microcomputed tomography scanning, which generates images of the inside of the body.
"The fingers of 'Monkeydactyl' are tiny and partly embedded in the slab," study co-author Fion Waisum Ma said in a press release. "Thanks to micro-CT scanning, we could see through the rocks, create digital models, and tell how the opposed thumb articulates with the other finger bones."
"This is an interesting discovery. It provides the earliest evidence of a true opposed thumb, and it is from a pterosaur — which wasn't known for having an opposed thumb."
As a tree-dwelling reptile, the Monkeydactyl probably evolved opposable thumbs so it could grasp tree branches, which would have helped it hang, avoid falls, and obtain food. This arboreal (tree-dwelling) locomotion would help the Monkeydactyl adapt to its home ecosystem, the subtropical forests of the Tiaojishan Formation in China during the Jurassic Period.
The researchers noted that the forests of the Tiaojishan Formation were likely warm and humid, thriving with "a rich and complex" diversity of tree-dwelling animals. But while the forests were home to multiple pterosaur species, the Monkeydactyl was likely the only one that was arboreal, spending most of its time in the treetops, while other pterosaurs occupied different levels of the forest.
K. antipollicatus and its phylogenetic position. (A and B) Holotype specimen BPMC 0042 (A) and a schematic skeletal drawing (B). Scale bars, 50 mm.Credit: Zhou et al.
This process — in which competing species manage to coexist by using the environment in different ways — is called "niche partitioning."
"Tiaojishan palaeoforest is home to many organisms, including three genera of darwinopteran pterosaurs," study author Xuanyu Zhou said in the press release. "Our results show that K. antipollicatus has occupied a different niche from Darwinopterus and Wukongopterus, which has likely minimized competition among these pterosaurs."
In general, pterosaurs are a prime example of how animals can evolve remarkably specialized adaptations. As pioneers of vertebrate flight, pterosaurs had strong and lightweight skeletons that ranged widely in size, with some boasting wingspans of more than 30 feet. The largest pterosaurs weighed more than 650 pounds and had jaws twice the length of Tyrannosaurus rex.
Unlike birds, which jump into the air using only their hind limbs, pterosaurs used their exceptionally strong hind limbs and forelimbs to push off the ground and gain enough launch power for flight. That these massive dinosaurs managed to fly, and did so successfully for about 80 million years, has long fascinated and puzzled scientists.The recent discovery shows that pterosaurs developed even more remarkable adaptations than previously thought, suggesting there's still more to learn about the "monsters of the Mesozoic skies."