Blurred Lines, Part III: The Mad Russian Attempt to Breed Humans with Apes

Part I here.

Part II here.

Part III

OUT OF TIME and out of money, Ilya Ivanov decamped from Africa without accomplishing his goal of breeding a human-ape hybrid. He was tired, but not disheartened, and back home in the Soviet Union he prepared to orchestrate one final effort. But this time things would be different. In Africa he had tried to inseminate chimpanzees with human sperm, but it hadn’t worked. Chimpanzees were too difficult to work with. They were too violent, too unpredictable, and too expensive. So Ivanov opted for some role reversal. Instead of working with chimpanzee females, he would use the sperm of a male ape to try and impregnate a human woman.

In truth, this may have been Ivanov’s original plan. In the early 1920s, prior to his African expedition, Ivanov corresponded regularly with a man named Serge Voronoff. Voronoff, a French-Russian surgeon, was the doctor of choice for the rich-and-famous who crowded the French Riveria in the 20s. His specialization was “rejuvenation”: the ability to prevent and even reverse the aging process. “Rejuvenation” hinged on a technique called xenotransplantation: the transfer of tissue or organs from an individual of one species to an individual of another species. It could be the future of organ transplanting.

So in a way, Voronoff was a trend-setter, decades ahead of his time. And in another way, he was a weird guy. Voronoff ‘s primary rejuvenation technique involved harvesting testicular tissue from chimpanzees, and grafting it onto human patients. According to the good doctor, xenotransplantation increased the sex drive and prevented aging. Yes, in the 1920s celebrities in search of the proverbial Fountain of Youth surgically attached chimpanzee testicle tissue to their bodies. Before we judge them, consider that it was probably healthier than the Botox of today (though not for the chimpanzees).

The French Riviera: movie stars, white sand beaches...chimpanzee testicle grafts? Credit:

The French Riviera: movie stars, white sand beaches…chimpanzee testicle grafts? Credit:

Owing to his peculiar career choice, Voronoff was an expert in the reproductive systems of apes, and Ivanov was curious if it would be possible to obtain chimpanzee sperm that could be used to inseminate humans. The idea interested Ivanov, but both he and Ivanov were leery of the public condemnation that had cut short Hermann Moen’s efforts ten years earlier. Eventually, nothing came of their collaboration. But Ivanov would revisit the ideas after his failed efforts in Africa.

Back in the Soviet Union, Ivanov installed himself in the city of Sukhumi (now in Georgia), and opened the first Soviet primate research station. He then set about developing a new experiment. Unfortunately for him, the Soviet Academy of Sciences rescinded their support. They were happy to help with hybridization experiments that involved inseminating apes, but were repulsed by the ideas of impregnating humans. Ivanov lost his funding, and began to rely solely on the patronage of wealthy supporters. Undeterred, Ivanov and his coterie of patrons forged ahead. First, they located an ape, a 26 year-old orangutan named Tarzan. Then they began soliciting for human participants.

Sukhumi is just down the tracks from Sochi, if you happen to be in Russia for the Olympics. But please don't read this as a recommendation for the trip.

Sukhumi is just down the tracks from Sochi, if you happen to be in Russia for the Olympics. But please don’t read this as being a recommendation for the trip.

Ivanov and his funders settled on trying to “attract the participation of women whose interest would be or idealistic and not of monetary nature.” They looked for volunteers dedicated to the cause of science — both because they thought volunteers would be more agreeable, and also (more practically) because money was tight.

And while they didn’t appear in droves, they did appear. Wrote one volunteer from Leningrad: “Dear Professor, …With my private life in ruins, I don’t see any sense in my further existence…. But when I think that I could do service for science, I feel enough courage to contact you. I beg you, don’t refuse me …. I ask you to accept me for the experiment.”

This eager volunteer, named only G., exchanged letters regularly with Ivanov and he planned to use her in his experiments. But then disaster struck. Tarzan died of a brain hemorrhage, and the institute at Sukhumi was left scrambling for a replacement male. They located five male chimpanzees at other research institutes, and prepared to have them shipped to Sukhumi the following summer.

Unfortunately for Ivanov, the political ideology of the Soviet Union, always unstable, had shifted beneath his feet and below his awareness. His break with the Academy of Sciences over the continued hybridization experiments had incensed some party members and his work on artificial insemination in agriculture was criticized (groundlessly — this was one area where Ivanov was by any account a brilliant scientist) by aggressive young communists. Increasingly, he was viewed as a relic whose particular brand of science did not march in lock step with the Cultural Revolution.

Soviet science was down for lots of weird stuff, but even they drew the line at inseminating a woman with orangutan sperm. It's important to have boundaries.

Soviet science was down for lots of weird stuff, but even they drew the line at inseminating a woman with orangutan sperm. It’s important to have boundaries.

On December 13th 1930, Ilya Ivanov was arrested by the secret police, convicted of counterrevolutionary activities, and exiled to Kazahkstan. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his main accuser took over most of Ivanov’s recently vacated professional positions — including the head of the Soviet Veterinary Institute.

Two years later, the tides shifted again, and Ivanov’s exile was commuted. But by then it was too late. Disheartened by seeing his life’s work in shambles, feeling betrayed by his government, and punished by life in a Kazahk prison, Ivanov’s health had deteriorated beyond help. On March 20th, 1932, Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov died of a stroke — one day prior to his scheduled release.

A few years here took a fatal toll on Ivanov's health.

A few years here took a fatal toll on Ivanov’s health.

Ivanov’s legacy is a strange one. The primate station he founded at Sukhumi went on to become one of the premier primatology research stations in the world until it closed down in 1992 during post-Soviet violence.  Artificial insemination of primates was not attempted again for nearly 50 years, when it began to be used for the captive breeding of endangered species. His efforts at primate hybridization were forgotten, so much so that in 1971, Geoffrey Bourne, the director of the Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta wrote: “It is surprising that this type of hybridization [human and ape] has not in fact already taken place.”

Perhaps Bourne should brush up on his Russian.

Neil Griffin


Bourne, GH. 1971. The Ape People. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Rossiianov K. 2002. Beyond Species: Il’ya Ivanov and His Experiments on Cross-Breeding Humans with Anthropoid Apes. Science in Context 15(2): 277-316.

Sorenson, J. 2009. Ape. Reaktion Books.

Yerkes, Robert. 1925. Almost Humans. New York: Century

Blurred Lines, Part II: The Mad Russian Attempt to Breed Humans With Apes

Part I available here.

Part II

UPON ARRIVING in the African city of Conakry to fulfill his ambition of creating an ape-human hybrid, Professor Illya Ivanovich Ivanov faced an immediate problem: locating apes suitable for his work.

Acquiring apes for captive research has always been difficult. The ape species — gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans — live in tropical countries that have historically been difficult to access. Getting into, and maneuvering through, a rainforest is an exercise in sweaty frustration. And that’s even with modern vaccinations and prophylactics. It’s difficult enough camping in the rainforest when you’re protected against malaria, carry de-worming pills, and have enough Pepto-Bismol to constipate a small nation. Prior to these inventions, tropical travel (at least by white-folk) was a calling restricted to maniacally focused, often egotistical, and frequently deranged individuals.[1]

A tropical field workers best friend.

A tropical field worker’s best friend.

Even once explorers had entered a forest, locating apes was no mean task. Dense vegetation and low light limited vision, and the cacophony of rainforest life was overwhelming. Adult apes are too big and too dangerous to capture, so hunters preferred infants. But that meant killing large, angry adults. This is (rightfully) considered barbaric today (as is capturing wild apes for captive research in general), but in the early 20th century it was accepted.

Accepted, but not commonplace. The costs associated with mounting an expedition, capturing apes, and returning them to a laboratory in a cold, unsuitable European climate were enormous. Even if successful, most captives only lived a few years. Sourcing apes was a significant challenge for a scientist, even one with the backing of the Soviet government. Ivanov had already tried acquiring chimpanzees from an anthropoid research station in French Africa and a private ‘collection’ in Cuba. With the help of a Detroit lawyer and the American Society for the Advancement of Atheism, he even tried to raise funds from American philanthropists to buy a chimpanzee. None of these efforts worked. But in Conakry, Ivanov thought he had uncovered a solution.

The Botanical Gardens in Cayemmene. Credit:

The Botanical Gardens in Camayenne. Credit:

On the outskirts of Conakry lies Camayenne.  Now a suburb of Conakry, in 1927 Camayenne was a separate town, well known for its expansive Botanical Gardens. The Botanical Gardens had the facilities, laboratory space, and holding cages necessary for Ivanov to complete his work. At the behest of the governor of French Guinea, Ivanov was granted access to a two-story building in the Botanical Gardens, and given both the permits and the manpower needed to capture chimpanzees.

In short order Ivanov mobilized two hunting expeditions into the Fouta-Djallon, a mountainous highland region in the centre of French Guinea. With the aid of local hunters, he captured 13 captive chimpanzees and brought them back to his base in the Camayenne Botanical Gardens. He was ready to begin his experiments. But there was a problem.

The Fouta Djallon region of Guinea.

The Fouta Djallon region of Guinea.

The Botanical Gardens were staffed by French Guineans. They cleaned the cages, fed and watered the chimpanzees, and maintained the grounds. It was a job — and probably not a bad one. But they were not fond of the idea behind hybridization experiments. In his diaries, Ivanov speculated that this discomfort was because “The Negroes treat the apes and, in particular the chimpanzees, as an inferior human race.” Ivanov argues, within the racist mindframe of the 1920s, that native Africans were uncomfortable with his experiments because it reminded them of how similar they were to apes (read: much more similar than white people).

Personally, I suspect they were uncomfortable because a) they realized it was more than a little weird, and b) they probably weren’t fond of the racist assumption that the ‘savage’ Africans were basically chimpanzees in clothes.

But neither of those possibilities seemed to have occurred to Ivanov.

Ivanov felt he had to hide his activities from the groundskeepers and caretakers. To do so, he engaged in what must be one of the most bizarre acts of scientific subterfuge in history. One morning, when the research lab was unoccupied, he stole into it with vials of sperm in his pocket, intent on inseminating two female chimpanzees, named Babette and Syvette. With the help of his son (great father-son bonding, Ivanov), he managed to inseminate both females and sneak out before the morning caretakers arrived.

A female chimpanzee. She would likely be unimpressed with Ivanov's research. Credit: flickr user paldor.

A female chimpanzee. She would likely be unimpressed with Ivanov’s research. Credit: flickr user paldor.

Who was the donor for these seminal[2] experiments? Ivanov’s notes are quite detailed about the quality of the sperm, but not about the source. It was “not completely fresh, but approximately 40 per cent of spermatozoa were movable.” Whose sperm was Ivanov acquiring so that it was partially fresh at 8 a.m.? His notes indicate that neither he, nor his son, were the donor. So we’re left to wonder. One of the great questions of science, which sadly, goes unanswered.

Ivanov succeeded in surreptitiously inseminating the two apes, but hastily and sloppily, and both attempts failed: Babette and Syvette both had their periods in the next month.

Not to be deterred, Ivanov tried again when the opportunity arose a few months later. This time he was clearer about the sperm donor (perhaps realizing that, if he wanted to publish his research, a reviewer would certainly ask). In this second attempt, the sperm was “freshly collected from a man of thirty years old.” Lest we doubt the virility of the donor, Ivanov writes the man was a bachelor, “but, according to his claims there already have been conceptions from him.”

Again, the attempt failed. In six months in Africa, Ivanov had only two opportunities to inseminate the female chimpanzees, and neither of them was successful. That’s not particularly surprising as the rates of artificial insemination were low — hovering around 30%.  Ivanov needed more chimpanzees, and more time, but neither was available.

My own illegible research notes (sadly lacking in insane ideas).

My own illegible research notes (sadly lacking in insane ideas).

Discouraged but not dissuaded, Ivanov, like a good scientist, rummaged through his research notes and uncovered a new angle of attack. Chimpanzees, he decided, were difficult to acquire, expensive to keep, and finicky to work with. Humans, on the other hand, were pliable, plentiful, and cheaply available. Why focus on having a plethora of female chimpanzees and one human male, when the other way around was cheaper?

Excited by this realization, Ivanov began making preparations for one more attempt at cross-breeding humans and apes: he would inseminate human women with ape sperm.

Part III here.


Rossiianov K. 2002. Beyond Species: Il’ya Ivanov and His Experiments on Cross-Breeding Humans with Anthropoid Apes. Science in Context 15(2): 277-316.

Sorenson, J. 2009. Ape. Reaktion Books.

Yerkes, Robert. 1925. Almost Humans. New York: Century

[1] Also a description of the average university anthropology department.

[2] Sorry.

HG Wells' "The Island of Dr. Moreau". Missing here is Val Kilmer chewing up the scenery in the 1996 film version.

Blurred Lines: The Mad Russian Attempt to Breed Humans with Apes, Part I

Part I.

FEBRUARY, 1926. Professor Illya Ivanovich Ivanov stepped delicately onto the gangway leading from the steamship down to the bustling dock of the West African city of Conakry. After weeks at sea he had finally escaped the chill grey of a Russian winter and landed in warmer climes. Behind him the crew of the ship were working rapidly to unload their cargo: seeking to discharge their duties as soon as possible so that they might make for the brothels and bars that lined the dirty streets around the port. Ivanov looked eager too. However it wasn’t prostitutes and booze that had whetted his appetite, but the prospect of seeing a project close to his heart come to its culmination. After nearly 20 years of effort, he hoped that in this small colonial city he would be able to fulfill his dream of breeding an ape with a human to create a new hybrid species.

Ilya Ivanov in 1927, shortly after his trip to Africa.

Ilya Ivanov in 1927, shortly after his trip to Africa.

Hybridization between apes and humans has long been a fascination of science fiction writers and naturalists. Classic novels like The Island of Dr Moreau by HG Wells, and more contemporary sci-fi like Michael Crichton’s Congo both contain at their centre examples of human-ape hybrids with the intelligence of a human, and the strength of an ape.

Scientific researchers also encouraged the blurring of any ape-human boundary, though for more prosaic reasons. Keeping and studying apes in captivity was expensive (just as studying primates in the wild is expensive today), but by connecting ape biology to human biology researchers were able to secure the large sums of money they needed. (An activity that still takes place in primatology departments today: “How can I convince a funding agency that my research on flower-eating in monkeys is related to human evolution so I can get money?”)[1].

HG Wells' "The Island of Dr. Moreau". Missing here is Val Kilmer chewing up the scenery in the 1996 film version.

HG Wells’ “The Island of Dr. Moreau”. Missing here is Val Kilmer chewing up the scenery, as he did in the 1996 film version.

The interest in blurring that boundary peaked in a very literal way in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, under the supervision of Illya Ivanov.

Ivanov was born in 1870 in Kursk, Russia. With an interest in bacteriology and physiology, by the time he was 30 Ivanov had become an internationally recognized expert in artificial insemination — moving it from a laboratory curiosity to a legitimate tool of veterinarians and animal breeders. His success, coupled with a new government focused on rapid modernization, made Ivanov a scientific superstar, and gave him access to the funding and support necessary to open his own research lab.

With a new lab,and government support, Ivanov was able to return to his research roots. His work on artificial insemination had been a side-interest: a challenge he found technical interesting, but not intellectually stimulating. Ivanov’s real interest was in the physiology of reproduction and experimental biology. Specifically, he was interested in the creation of animal hybrids, especially the tantalizing possibility of crossing a human with an ape.

Ivanov wasn’t the first scientist to develop in interest in ape-human hybrids. In 1908, the same year Ivanov was establishing his first laboratory, the Dutch zoologist Hermann Marie Bernelot Moens proposed inseminating female chimpanzees with human sperm. His idea was supported by the Institut Pasteur in Paris (better known for its efforts combating infectious disease), and enthusiastically championed by the developmental biologist and evolution expert Ernst Haeckel. Unfortunately for Moens, the support of the scientists did not carry over into popular society. When he published a short book in 1908 outlining his research plan and asking for funding, a morally outraged public condemned the idea, and Moens’ plan died on the spot.[2]

Hermann Moens.

Hermann Moens.

The scientific discussion of ape-human hybrids disappeared from the public eye, but continued unabated in obscure conferences and by quiet correspondence. In 1910, at a conference in Graz, Ivanov gave a talk on the theoretical possibility of using human sperm to inseminate a female ape. But, lacking funding, a colony of captive apes, and government support, the idea slipped to the back-burner until the Russian Revolution of 1917.

The Russian Revolution gave Ivanov access to something Moens did not: a government capable of covering up, ignoring, or suppressing any sort of moral outrage, and the financial backbone necessary to make things happen. In the new Soviet government, he had a governmental apparatus that found his ideas interesting, and his research worth funding. (According to an unsourced article in The Scotsman, that interest came straight from the top: allegedly, Joseph Stalin was interested in the possibility of creating an army of ape-human warriors).


The end result of ape-human experiments, if Stalin had it his way.

More realistically, the Soviet government saw Ivanov’s ideas as potential dynamite in their ideological war. The project, wrote the Commissariat of Agriculture, could provide “a decisive blow to religious teachings, and may be aptly used in our propaganda and in our struggle for the liberation of working people from the power of the Church.” If Ivanov could prove that humans and apes could interbreed, the uniqueness of humans as taught by religion would be undermined, leaving a void for Soviet materialism to fill. With this in mind, on September 21st 1925, the Soviet government’s Financial Commission awarded Ivanov $10, 000 for “the realization of scientific work on the hybridization of anthropoid apes in Africa.”

Five months later, Illya Ivanovich Ivanov was on his way to Africa to realize a project he had been developing for nearly 20 years — breeding humans with apes.

Part II to follow.


Rossiianov K. 2002. Beyond Species: Il’ya Ivanov and His Experiments on Cross-Breeding Humans with Anthropoid Apes. Science in Context 15(2): 277-316.

Sorenson, J. 2009. Ape. Reaktion Books.

Stephen, C and A Hall. ’Super-Troopers: Stalin Wanted Planet of the Apes-like Troops, Insensitive to Pain and Hardship’. The Scotsman, 20 December 2005.

[1] I couldn’t (because it isn’t).

[2] Moen, and later Ivanov, spent shockingly little time discussing the ethics of their shared dream. Perhaps its a good thing that, in this case, the non-scientific public was there to do it for them.

Why are Mammals Called Mammals: Breasts, A Swede, and the French Revolution

Why are mammals called mammals? The answer, which your biology textbook won’t tell you, is because a fussy scientist in the 18th century held very strong feelings about breasts.

The fussy scientist in question was Carl Linnaeus, who I’ve covered in some detail before. Linnaeus was a Swedish biologist with a life-consuming passion for classification. He invented a system of scientific naming called binomial nomenclature, which is still used today. Binomial nomenclature gives every species on Earth a two part name, consisting of a genus and species. These two part names are then structured into a hierarchy based on shared physical traits, creating the hierarchical system of naming you might’ve learned in grade school: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.

Born Carl von Linne, changed his name to Carolus Linnaeus 'cause he loved his own system that much.

Born Carl von Linne, changed his name to Carolus Linnaeus ’cause he loved his own system that much.

This system allows taxonomists to easily compare relative relatedness among different species, and gives every species on Earth a unique identifier. For example, humans:

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Primates
Family: Hominidae
Genus: Homo
Species: Sapiens

Linnaeus’s crowning achievement though was not necessarily the creation of this system, but his fanatical implementation of it. Over the course of his career, he named and classified some 4,400 species of animals, and nearly 8,000 species of plants. These names were collected in the Systema Naturae, a mammoth book which, by forcing itself into the public and scientific conscience, forever codified Linnaean taxonomy as “the way things are done.”

Linnaeus’s self-appointed position of “Namer-in-Chief” also gave him great power, which, as we all know, comes with great responsibility. Generally Linnaeus’s decisions were uncontroversial and immediately accepted. Birds, for example, where placed in the class Aves – simply Latin for ‘bird’. (Or I should I say bird is English for Aves?).

That’s not to say Linnaeus was above a little bit of fun. Being the arbiter of names also gave him ample opportunity for revenging himself upon his enemies. For example, Linnaeus named the small, ugly plant Siegesbeckia after a scientist who had criticised him.

It's pretty ugly. Credit:

It’s pretty ugly. Credit: M. Belov.

Passive aggressive? Perhaps. But also a compelling reason not to cross him — lest you be forever associated with a noxious smelling weed.

But Linnaeus’s most curious, most controversial, and most political-driven choice was in the naming of the class we now call ‘mammals’. Naming this particular group of animals has proven tricky ever since Aristotle first took a stab at it, and despite various deviations, that first Aristotelian attempt – Quadrupedia – stood until Linnaeus came along and opted to change it.

Linnaeus included two groups – whales and humans – in the Quadrupedia which made that name incompatible with the general theme, so he had to change the name. Natural historians had a few suggestions, based on physical traits shared by all animals of that grouping. Pilosa, they suggested, “the hairy ones”; or Aurecaviga, “the hollow-eared ones”. More recent anatomical research suggests that Neocorticia “the ones with a neocortex” would be appropriate too. But Linnaeus choose a different name, Mammalia – “the ones with breasts.” Specifically, the ones with mammary glands.

Breasts (meaning here, mammary glands), while undeniably a shared trait among a large group of animals, are a curious choice. They are present in only one-half of individuals (females), and even then are biologically functional for a relatively small portion of the time (lactation). In many mammals, they are shrunken and heavily reduced outside of pregnancy and lactation. For example, platypus and echidna do not have breasts, and instead have highly reduced internal mammary glands which exude milk through the animal’s skin during lactation. In the face of the ubiquity of hair, or the acknowledged anatomical fact of the three inner ear bones, mammary glands seemed to some biologists to be a strange choice of name.

Not 100% accurate, but reasonable enough. Credit:

Not 100% accurate, but reasonable enough. Credit:

But Linnaeus had his reasons — which may have been rooted in the gender politics of the 18th century.

The 18th century was awash in breasts — the maternal breast, in particular. Prior to the 18th century, the ideal breast was the sort found on Greek and Roman statues: high, round, young and decidedly unmotherly. A virginal breast. But in the 18th century, the maternal breast proved resurgent, rising in fascination in the culture of 18th century Europe. Its peak, perhaps, came during the French Revolution, when a maternal breast, heavy with milk, became a symbol used by delegates to the French National Convention.

Prior to the 18th century in Europe, you were likely to see this. Credit: Met. Museum of Art

Prior to the 18th century in Europe, you were likely to see this… Statue of Aphrodite. Credit: Met. Museum of Art

Unfortunately for women, what that flag was meant to symbolize was a return to ‘nature’ — and nature, in a society where the terms of citizenship were determined by men — meant a system where women were denied political agency, forbidden citizenship, and confined solely to a life at home. Breasts were used as a symbol to “legitimize the sexual division of labor in European society”, writes historian Londa Schiebinger. Philosophers, politicians, and natural historians (unsurprisingly, all men) used the breast, and the act of breast-feeding, to argue that women’s proper place was in the home.

But not so much this. Nami Island, Korea. Credit:

But not so much this. Nami Island, Korea. Credit:

In particular, they took issue with the common practice among upper and middle-class women of wet-nursing. Wet-nursing most commonly involved a wealthy mother having her offspring nursed by a poor woman who had lost her own infant, but was still lactating. Wet-nursing was a hotly debated issue. There was some evidence that it contributed to increased infant mortality, but it also allowed women the choice of continuing in public life while still having a newborn. It was also a useful source of income for poor women, who were paid for their time. The important thing was that women generally had a say: they could use a wet-nurse, or nurse their own offspring — they were given a choice.

Wet-nursing was unpopular with (male) commentators, including Linnaeus. As a practicing physician, and a firm believer in nursing by the mother, he published tracts condemning women who used wet-nurses. In writings that predated his System Naturae, Linnaeus contrasted ‘wicked’ wet-nursing with a wholesome and loving animal mother – whales, lions, tigers – that nursed their own young. Predicting our own contemporary specious arguments about poor people making poor parents, Linnaeus argued that the milk of lower-class wet-nurses could corrupt infants.

Erasmus Darwin (Chuck's granddad) once argued that cause of Caligula's nuttiness was being wet-nursed by a poor woman. Linnaeus quotes him appreciatively.

Erasmus Darwin (Chuck’s granddad) once argued that cause of Caligula’s nuttiness was being wet-nursed by a poor woman. Linnaeus quotes him appreciatively.

Linnaeus wrote strongly, and frequently, about the ‘natural’ role of women as a stay-at-home mom. In a heady culture rife with arguments over the meaning of nature, sexual division of labour, and whether or not women were deserving of citizenship and equal treatment under the law, is it any wonder that he chose Mammalia as a name? Schiebinger writes that Linnaeus “sought to render nature universally comprehensible, yet the categories he devised infused nature with middle-class European notions of gender.”

If you ask a biologist now why mammals are called mammals, they will likely tell you its because of the presence of mammary glands. But the underlying history — why mammary glands were chosen as the signifier instead of another shared trait — is less widely known. But that history is important as a reminder that science, no matter how much it would conceive of itself as disinterested and objective, can be, and often is, political.


Koerner, Lisbett. 2001. Linnaeus: Nature and Nation
Schiebinger, Londa. 1991. “The Private Life of Plants: Sexual Politics in Carl Linnaeus and Erasmus Darwin.” in Science and Sensibility.
Schiebinger, Londa. 1993. “Why Mammals Are Called Mammals: Gender Politics in Eighteenth-century Natural History.” The American Historical Review 98 (2): 382–411.

PS: Fun fact: mammalogy, “the study of mammals,” doesn’t mean what it thinks it means. The actual study of mammals would be “mammalology”. Mammalogy just means “the study of breasts.” I couldn’t find anywhere to include that naturally above, but since I live with a mammalogist, I felt obligated to include it here.

Hot Boys, Cool Girls, and the Fate of a Living Fossil

Imagine if the sex of your unborn offspring was determined by the climate you lived in while pregnant. Vacation in Cabo? Guaranteed son. Visiting the Northern lights? You’re having a daughter. This method of sex determination would play havoc with human sex ratios: countries like India and China, already on the verge of sex-ratio breakdown would become even more male-dominated, while Canada and the Scandinavian countries would swing towards a female majority (and given the general state of the world when men have been in charge, that’s a fairly appealing thought).

But sadly that’s not how sex determination works in humans — instead it’s a 50-50 chance based on whether the sperm fastest to the egg carries a male chromosome or a female chromosome. However, it is how sex is determined in lizards and crocodiles,[1] which might prove to be a bit of a problem as the worlds climate changes for the warmer.

When mating season comes, and reptile hormones are all in a tizzy, males donate a packet of sperm to a female, which is stored in her cloaca (how romantic). She then uses this sperm to fertilize eggs, and bury them in a nest for incubation. Lizard moms manipulate the sex ratio of their offspring by choosing where to build a nest: if they want more females, they will build a deeper nest in cooler areas — if they want sons, they build a shallow nest in warm habitats.

A doting mom.

A doting Nile crocodile mom.

Why exactly this method of sex determination has evolved is up for debate. Some research indicates that it may be the ancestral state for all amniote vertebrates (animals which lay eggs on land), dating back around 300 million years. It may continue to exist in lizards, crocodiles, and turtles because it is adaptively neutral — that is, it doesn’t necessary convey a great evolutionary advantage, but it also isn’t disadvantageous.

Other scientists argue that temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD) ensures that regardless of the climate or seasonal conditions, the sex best able to cope will hatch. For example, the spotted skink in Tasmania uses TSD: cool incubation temperatures lead to male offspring, and warm incubation temperatures lead to female offspring. In order for newborn female skinks to survive winter, they need ample amounts of time to grow during the summer. Having a brood of female skinks late in the breeding season is a bad idea: they won’t have time to grow, and will likely die over winter, meaning a wasted breeding season for mum. However, because of TSD, this doesn’t happen – females hatch only early in the summer, when temperatures are warm. As the average temperature cools down in mid- and late-summer, any egg laid hatch as males. No matter what time a clutch of eggs is laid, TSD makes sure that the sex that appears is the one best able to survive.

The Tasman spotted skink. Credit: Parks and Wildlife, Tasmania

The Tasman spotted skink. Credit: Parks and Wildlife, Tasmania

Unfortunately, this can backfire if the climate moves out of the ranges in which that behaviour has evolved to be adaptive (the evolutionary trap that also affects sea turtle behaviour — a behaviour that was previously beneficial becomes negative in light of recent, rapid changes). That’s the possible fate facing the tuatara.

The tuatara is a New Zealand reptile that looks like a lizard, but isn’t. Instead, it is the only living member of an ancient order of reptiles, the Rhynochocephalia, which reached its peak 200 million years ago. Anatomically, they are the most unspecialized amniote, and researchers think they may be good models for understanding the behaviour of dinosaurs. They don’t reach sexual maturity until they’re 20, and can live until well over 100. For millennia they were widespread across New Zealand, until the introduction of rats and cats as invasive predators led to a dramatic decline in their numbers, and eventually extirpation from the main islands. Currently, the tuatara survives in relic populations on the small islands of New Zealand which have never been colonized by predatory mammals.

Looks like a lizard...but isn't.

Looks like a lizard…but isn’t.

But even if it can survive the rats, cats, and minuscule gene pool, climate change might get it. Tuatara sex is determined by temperature — warm temperatures lead to males, cool temperatures to females. Like in other TSD species, to some degree the effect of air temperature can be mitigated by changing nest depth. Digging a deeper nest can, in theory, counter-balance increased solar radiation or air temperature to maintain a balanced sex ratio. Unfortunately, the islands of New Zealand that the tuatara inhabit don’t have a soil base deep enough to allow that sort of digging (plus, tuatara arms are pretty stubby, they’d be hard-pressed to dig a deep nest).

Which means that the tuatara might be in trouble. Researchers predict that, if global climate change proceeds according to schedule, by 2080 tuatara’s will be laying nests consisting entirely of male eggs. This might be great for a fantasy football league, but isn’t quite so good when it comes to species survival.

A tuatara, disturbed by the possibility of living only with other males.

A tuatara, disturbed by the possibility of living only with other males.

Active intervention by humans might help. Tuatara’s can be translocated to islands with cooler climates. Or, as has been done with sea turtles, volunteers can move nests — reburying them in shadier locations, or at lower depths. But without that help, one of the last living fossils could very well go extinct.


Mitchell, N. J, M. R Kearney, N. J Nelson, and W. P Porter. “Predicting the Fate of a Living Fossil: How Will Global Warming Affect Sex Determination and Hatching Phenology in Tuatara?” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 275, no. 1648 (October 7, 2008): 2185–2193. doi:10.1098/rspb.2008.0438.

Refsnider, J. M., B. L. Bodensteiner, J. L. Reneker, and F. J. Janzen. “Nest Depth May Not Compensate for Sex Ratio Skews Caused by Climate Change in Turtles: Nest Depth and Turtle Sex Ratios.” Animal Conservation 16, no. 5 (October 2013): 481–490. doi:10.1111/acv.12034.

[1] Also turtles, but they’ve got it flipped the other way: high temperatures lead to females, and low temperatures to males. Just to confuse biologists even further, some species have found a third way. Temperature extremes (high or low) lead to female dominated nests, while mid-range temperatures lead to male dominated nests.


Spider Moms: The Family Lives of Arachnids

In the (fantastic) 1990 horror movie Arachnophobia, Jeff Daniels and John Goodman do battle with a horde of invasive Venezuelan spiders for the soul of a small California town. It’s a great mixture of gross-out, horror, and comedy — although makes for extremely uncomfortable viewing for an arachnophobe.


In the film, a research expedition to Venezuela returns to California with an unwanted hitch-hiker, an aggressive and venomous tropical spider. After completing its illegal immigration, it seeks a green-card by mating with a domestic house spider. The house spider gives birth to infertile babies with poisonous bites that run rampant throughout the town (creating scenes like this one, which for a boy was both titillating and absolutely terrifying).[1]

These small, infertile spiders — intones the mandatory expert scientist — are just preparing the way for the real invasion. The male spider, now called the ‘general’, has produced a queen with which to mate (I don’t know how – spontaneous generation?). This mating will produce fertile offspring, which would be bad news for all of America. Luckily, Daniels and Goodman team-up to hunt down and exterminate the nests before they hatch — contending, along the way, with the aggressive general and the queen who are protecting the nests.

Now, I’m not one to get all Neil DeGrasse Tyson, because it’s tedious in the extreme when a scientist gets preachy about inaccuracies in fiction; but I could always take comfort in the knowledge that generally, spiders don’t work together as families, and don’t actively protect their young, and are generally pretty anti-social. So I never had to worry about evil queen spiders tenderly coaxing thousands of little spiderlings into the world with their eight motherly arms.

I'm trying to temper the nightmare-inducing images that could populate this post. Credit:

I’m trying to temper the nightmare-inducing images that could populate this post. Credit:

Then I opened my email this morning to find a paper called “Maternal care and subsocial behaviour in spiders”, by Eric Yip and Linda Raynor of Cornell University, and now I don’t know what to believe.

Most spider species (and there are many — over 44, 000 have been described), are what Yip and Raynor call “opportunistically cannibalistic”, which is fun to say, but is nonetheless an undesirable trait in friends, family members and sexual partners. When they’re not actively consuming one another, some species may form fragile alliances where they share in the duties of building or maintaining webs — but they’ll still try to eat one another when their backs are turned. I’ve always thought a spider would be a sensible, honest emblem for political parties.

Yip and Raynor, in their far-ranging review, point out that spider social behaviour is a little friendlier than that (some of the time). Some spider families display “subsocial” behaviour, which sounds like an insult, but really means that they aren’t social all of the time, just occasionally, when there is nothing good on TV. In these subsocial species, mother spiders invest a lot of time and effort into their offspring. They guard egg sacs, and sometimes attach the eggs to their backs with silk and carry them around.[2]

And back to nightmares.

And back to nightmares.

But this maternal care can also extend past-birth. Spider moms may catch prey, and regurgitate it for its babies. For some reason this seems totally okay when birds to do it, but horrific when spiders do it.[3] Baby spiders, when hungry, wave their tiny little baby spider legs in the air to let mom know that they need to be fed. Momma spiders also fulfill the other standard maternal role — chasing off predators (which includes John Goodman dressed as an exterminator – if you’re looking for a niche Halloween costume).


In most animal species where mothers put a lot of time and energy into caring for their offspring, biologists generally argue they do it in order to ensure offspring survival, and thereby get a good return on their investment (daddy spiders, like so many other animals, exit the picture immediately after mating). But in spiders, the moms might be a little more self-interested. Remember that “opportunistic cannibalism” thing? The first meal of many baby spiders is…mom, a behaviour called ‘matriphagy’.  No wonder they go to the effort of providing food — if they don’t,  they’re on the menu. Ungrateful kids.

Featured photo by Thomas Shahan

Literature Cited

Yip, Eric C., and Linda S. Rayor. “Maternal Care and Subsocial Behaviour in Spiders: Subsocial Spider Review.” Biological Reviews (October 2013): n/a–n/a. doi:10.1111/brv.12060.

[1] A few years ago at a field site in Belize I was showering, and hadn’t poked around too much in the shower stall before hopping in. A large, hairy spider fell off the shower head when I turned on the water, and half-swam/half-ran down my torso. Life imitating art (though this was a little less titillating, and a lot more terrifying).

[2] Working in a lab once, I saw a small brown spider scurrying across the floor, trailing a white blob behind her on a piece of silk. “Oh no,” said my hapless friend, “She has a piece of styrofoam stuck on her. I’ll help.” He leaned down, and pinched the white blob. Which, of course, was not a piece of styrofoam, but an egg sac. Out burst hundreds of tiny little spiderlings, and that was the end of working in that lab for the day.

[3] The discussion of regurgitation in the paper is fantastic, if only for this sentence alone: “Regurgitation is ubiquitous in eresids and common in theridiids. It has also evolved once in lycosids and once in uloborids.” I think Dr. Seuss had a hand in naming spider families.

Credit: Houston Zoo Blogs.

The Secret Superpower of the World’s Cutest Animal

Venom is generally thought to be the property of snakes, lizards, and various creepy-crawlies. But they don’t have exclusive rights, and mammals are not to be outdone. Some members of our hairy brethren have also shown a propensity for envenomating the unlucky. These would-be poisoners include the American shrew, the Haitian solenodon, and the most famous venomous mammal, the platypus.

The Haitian solenodon is a curious looking critter.

The Haitian solenodon is a curious looking critter. Credit: Eladio Fernandez

The playtpus, and other venomous mammals, are a little weird looking – weird enough that their poisonous bites (or elbow spurs, for the platypus) don’t seem too out of character. But the other venomous mammal? The new kid on the block? It’s not odd-looking – in fact, it’s probably the cutest animal on the entire planet: the slow loris.

Credit: Houston Zoo Blogs.

Credit: Houston Zoo Blogs.

Slow lorises are a collection of primate species that live in South East Asia. Currently, there are eight recognized species (up from one not too long ago), and the number will likely increase again as more research is done on them. They are a comparatively old genus of primate, related to lemurs and galagos (the adorable weirdos of the Primate order). They’re nocturnal, mostly solitary, and move (slowly) through the trees of tropical rainforests, and increasingly, fields of crops, feeding on insects and generally minding their own business.

They’re not monkeys, and will be sad if you call them monkeys, so please don’t.

Do you know what else makes slow lorises sad? Captivity.

Do you know what else makes slow lorises sad? Captivity.

Slow lorises have been in the news recently, thanks to singer Rihanna’s ill-informed decision to pose for a photo with one in Thailand, and then post it on Instagram (which led to the arrest of the people smuggling them, so that’s a happy ending for everyone who isn’t going to a Thai jail now). Prior to that, slow lorises were probably best known for that YouTube video of a loris being ‘tickled’. I’m not going to link to it, because that guy doesn’t really need anymore attention, but if you watch it, you should know that the loris isn’t raising its arms because it wants to be tickled – it’s raising its arms as a defense mechanism.

Now, as far as a defense mechanism goes, surrendering is not necessarily a winning strategy in the “red in tooth-and-claw” natural kingdom. But the slow loris has a trump card – its not raising its arms to surrender, but to access its venom glands.

In the wild, this sort of behaviour generally just gets you eaten.

In the wild, this sort of behaviour generally just gets you eaten…

On the arms of a slow loris, about where you’d get a bicep tattoo (if you were that sort of person), there are venom glands. These glands secrete Part A of the slow lorises venom. But there are problems with your body constantly leaking venom – for example, it makes cuddling difficult. So for the venom to become active, slow lorises mix it with their saliva (Part B). By licking the glands on their arms, slow lorises activate the venom, giving themselves a toxic bite.

...unless you have venomous armpits. Credit: Helga Schulze, in Krane et al 2003.

…unless you have venomous armpits. Credit: Helga Schulze, in Krane et al 2003.

And it can be a nasty bite, for such an adorable little animal. There has been at least one reported human death from a slow loris bite, and even if you don’t die, it is going to swell, pus, bleed, fester, and hurt for a long time. Which serves you right for trying to harass them. When smugglers catch slow lorises for the pet trade, they surgically remove the teeth to prevent bites to the  privileged idiots who illegally buy the animals later on.

The venom serves a number of purposes. It is strong enough to kill small prey, although loris teeth likely do that just as well. During the mating season, male lorises fight violently for access to females, and use their venomous bite to cause serious damage to one another. But again, their teeth would get the job done just as well. Producing venom is energetically-expensive, and would be difficult to favour evolutionarily without it providing a major survival or reproductive advantage at some point in a lorises lifetime. And if there’s one advantage a slow loris is always looking for, its how to not be eaten.

No, it's not trying to seduce you. It's loading up on venom (which you can see glistening around the nose). Credit: Anna Nekaris

No, it’s not trying to seduce you. It’s loading up on venom (which you can see glistening around the nose). Credit: Anna Nekaris

Lorises are small, slow, and vulnerable to many predators. They prefer to avoid confrontation, but that’s not always possible. So when travelling through the forest, the lorises will coat their fur in a layer of venom by licking themselves all over. Predators can smell the venom-wash, and are encouraged to find something else to eat. It’s so effective that slow lorises can saunter casually past the baleful glare of a jungle cat or a sunbear without fear – something that all tiny herbivores wish they could pull off with such aplomb. Rather than being an offensive weapon, the venom of a slow loris is defensive in function.

On the other hand, they shouldn’t get too cocky. While cats and bears shy away from the scent of slow loris venom, orangutans – another predator of lorises – seem to treat it like a healthy dollop of hot sauce on-top of a cute little appetizer. Sometimes even the cutest animal in the world can’t catch a break.

Oops. Credit: Madeleine Hardus.

Oops. Credit: Madeleine Hardus.

Featured photo by Houston Zoo Blogs


Dufton, Mark J. “Venomous Mammals.” Pharmacology & Therapeutics 53, no. 2 (1992): 199–215.

Klotz, John H., Stephen A. Klotz, and Jacob L. Pinnas. “Animal Bites and Stings with Anaphylactic Potential.” The Journal of Emergency Medicine 36, no. 2 (February 2009): 148–156. doi:10.1016/j.jemermed.2007.06.018.

Nekaris, Anne-Isola, Richard S Moore, Johanna Rode, and Bryan G Fry. “Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know: The Biochemistry, Ecology and Evolution of Slow Loris Venom.” Journal of Venomous Animals and Toxins Including Tropical Diseases 19, no. 1 (2013): 21. doi:10.1186/1678-9199-19-21.

Whittington, C. M., A. T. Papenfuss, P. Bansal, A. M. Torres, E. S.W. Wong, J. E. Deakin, T. Graves, et al. “Defensins and the Convergent Evolution of Platypus and Reptile Venom Genes.” Genome Research 18, no. 6 (May 7, 2008): 986–994. doi:10.1101/gr.7149808.


Decoding the Honey Bee’s Dance

The careful insect ‘midst his works I view,
Now from the flowers exhaust the fragrant dew,
With golden treasures load his little thighs,
And steer his distant journey through the skies.

– John Gay, Rural Sports (canto I, l. 82)

In the summer of 1944, as World War 2 reached its climax, one man in the German country-side was turning his eyes away from the shattered world of men and looking towards a more orderly universe: that of the honey bee. Dr Karl von Frisch was an Austrian zoologist. Originally trained as a medical doctor, he found his true calling in animal behaviour. (I also went to university thinking I’d be a doctor, and somehow stumbled into animal behaviour – but the similarities end there). He basically invented the field of ethology (studying animal behaviour), and went on to win a Nobel Prize in 1973, all through the study of the humble honeybee.

Von Frisch had been studying the behaviour of honeybees for over 20 years, his fascination beginning as a post-doctorate student in 1914. At that time, received wisdom held that bees and other insects were simple creatures with poorly developed senses – colourblind automatons that buzzed to and fro in a random, endless search for flowers. von Frisch, rightfully, thought this idea was nonsense: “the bright colours of flowers,” he noted, “can be understood only as an adaptation to color-sensitive visitors.” So, following in the footsteps of all good iconoclasts, von Frisch decided to upend conventional wisdom.

Using a series of elegant experiments, von Frisch set out to prove that honeybees had colour vision – and he accidentally stumbled on to far more. First, von Frisch acquired a beehive with a glass wall, enabling him to observe the activity of the bees within the hive. Then, he captured a number of foraging bees and marked them with paint so that he could tell them apart. He then trained those foraging bees to associate a specific colour – blue – with the presence of food. The forager bees quickly learned to search only food bowls associated with the colour blue, and to ignore food bowls placed on grey or black pieces of paper. This proved that honey bees had some ability to differentiate between colours – and later, using the same methods von Frisch proved that bees can also differentiate red and yellow (completely unsurprising to anyone who has stood in a field of wild flowers).

But von Frisch noticed something else. When his scout bees found a blue dish full of nectar, they would return to the hive. After a short time, entire groups of foraging bees would leave the hive, and head directly for the blue dish – often in a group without the original scout bee. Somehow, the original bee was communicating to the rest of the hive – she was able to tell the rest of the group exactly where they would find food. Somehow, the bees were speaking with one another.

He observed the scout bees as they returned from their foraging expeditions. How did they act when they entered the hive? He found that upon returning to the hive, the foraging bee appears to dance:

“The foraging bee…begins to perform a kind of “round dance”. On the part of the comb where she is sitting she starts whirling around in a narrow circle, constantly changing her direction, turning now right, now left, dancing clockwise and anti-clockwise, in quick succession, describing between one and two circles in each direction. This dance is performed among the thickest bustle of the hive. What makes it so particularly striking and attractive is the way it infects the surrounding bees; those sitting next to the dancer start tripping after her, always trying to keep their outstretched feelers on close contact with the tip of her abdomen….They take part in each of her manoeuvrings so that the dancer herself, in her mad wheeling movements, appears to carry behind her a perpetual comet’s tail of bees.”

The scout bee whirls in circles; her infectious energy sends waves of excitement through the beehive, notifying them that the scout has found food somewhere near the hive. This “round dance”, coupled with the scent of a specific flower trapped in the leg-hairs of the scout bee, alerts the hive to the proximity and type of food available. Other bees then leave the hive, and search the immediate area to find the food source. von Frisch had proved that bees were more complex than anyone (except probably beekeepers) had previously thought, but future research would have to wait. The aftermath of WWI, the crippling effects of the Treaty of Versailles, the rise of Nazi Germany, and the onset of WWII meant that Karl von Frisch would be kept away from his beloved bees for nearly 20 years.

And then, in 1944, they were reunited.

Years later, during his Nobel prize speech, von Frisch said of his younger self, “in 1923,…I believed I knew the language of the bees.” He went on to ruefully acknowledge, “the most beautiful part had escaped [him].” During his early experiments on honeybee behaviour, von Frisch had always kept the experimental food sources close to the hives – within 50m. This time, he tried something different. Setting the food sources hundreds of metres away from the hive, he was astonished to see “the recruits immediately started foraging at that great distance.” von Frisch wondered, “could they possess a signal for distance?”

He began a series of experiments, moving the experimental food sources incrementally further away from the hive. von Frisch found that the ‘round dance’ was used up to 50m. Within a 50m radius of the hive, honeybees communicated the location of food sources by dancing in a circle. But when the food source was moved outside that radius, the bees communicated in a different way – the ‘waggle dance’.

Within a short distance of a hive, honeybees don’t need to be given explicit directions to locate a food source. They’ll find it relatively quickly just by searching the area. But when the distance increases, random searching becomes too inefficient. In discovering the ‘waggle dance’, von Frisch discovered how honeybees give pinpoint locations to distant food sources, and forever changed our understanding of the complexities of insect behaviour.

The waggle dance works like this. A foraging bee returns to the hive, and takes its place in the centre of the honeycomb. Other, eager bees, gather around it. The foraging bee then begins to move in a figure-eight pattern. It moves through the straight part of the figure eight waggling its tail, and then peels off to the left or right to complete the figure eight, before cycling again through the waggling straight phase. Each completed figure eight is called a ‘circuit’, and an individual dance is composed of between 1 and 100 circuits. Each of these two phases, the tail waggling straight phase, and the completing the figure eight’s circles, gives different information to the other bees.

The tail-waggling phase tells the other bees in the hives how far away the food source is. The further away the food source, the more slowly the bee travels through the straight phase. von Frisch said that, “for distances from 200 to 4500m, they increase from about 0.5 second to 4.5 second.” The intensity of the waggling also tells the other bees something – a more frantic waggle indicates a more bountiful food source.

The dancing bee’s movement through the circles of the figure eight tells the other bees what direction to search in. The bee arranges itself along the central vertical axis of the hive, facing directly upward the middle of the hive. If the figure eight is evenly placed across this axis, then the food source is directly in-line with the position of the sun outside. As the bee tilts the figure eight away from the central axis, it indicates that the food source is similarly displaced from the position of the sun. The angle of difference between the figure eight and the central axis of the hive is the same as the angle of difference between the sun and the direction of the food source.

This requires a degree of trigonometry I am almost certainly incapable of doing, and I like to think I’m cleverer than a bee.

But honeybees are capable of something even more remarkable. The sun, obviously, changes position throughout the course of the day. And it takes a foraging bee quite some time to get back to the hive – especially if it has found a food source four kilometres away. The sun may have changed position by the time the foraging bee starts dancing, which would lead it sharing an incorrect direction.

Luckily, bees are better dancers and better mathematicians than most of us. They account for the movement of the sun, and adjust the angle of their dance accordingly to maintain the correct direction. This is about the equivalent of a human in Calgary shaking their ass and running in a circle to tell someone how to get to the McDonalds in Lethbridge. Try that next time someone asks you for directions, and see how far you get.

Originally posted at

Featured image by flickr user Scott Kinmartin


The Weird World of Prehistoric Mammals

Scientifically inclined children tend to fall into one of two camps: space or dinosaurs (with some outliers appearing in the maternally-disapproved areas of ‘bugs’ and ‘reptiles’). They’re either hanging models of the solar system in their room and building model rockets, or digging in the dirt and insisting every oddly coloured rock is a newly discovered fossil animal. They’re reciting the names of Saturn’s major moons, in declining order of their orbital period,[1] at the dinner table, or etching long Latin names into their desks[2] (and, somehow, still only getting 7/10 on spelling tests).

I was undoubtedly a dinosaur kid. Space held no interest for me, but I developed (and still quietly nurture) dreams of paleontology. The release of Jurassic Park surely helped this, as did growing up near the badlands of Alberta and visiting the premier dinosaur museum on the planet – the Royal Tyrell Museum. I would stump around in dry, dusty riverbeds in the hot prairie summer imagining that every crack in the mud, or every exposed cliff face, held a footprint or a rib bone – or better yet, a raptor claw – just waiting to be discovered


Then I grew up, and travelled to Africa for the first time, and learned that living animals could be just as weird and wonderful as the extinct ones[3]. Except, not quite. Living animals can be strange looking. And the dinosaurs, of course, were sublime. But one group of underrepresented animals transcends them all in their bizarre otherworldliness – the failed experiments of the early Cenozoic Era.

The Cenozoic Era is the span of geologic time extending from 68 million years ago through the present day, beginning with the extinction of the dinosaurs. Colloquially (at least, as colloquially as geologic eras can be known), it’s called the Age of Mammals. The standard narrative (though currently up for debate) is that the extinction of the dinosaurs opened up new ecological niches for mammals to exploit. In the absence of big, scary lizards, mammals were able to take over the world.

This "feathered dinosaur" thing has really done some damage to their credibility as terrible lizards. From  Godefroit, Demuynck, Dyke, Hu, Escuillié & Claeys, 2013.

This “feathered dinosaur” thing has really done some damage to their credibility as terrible lizards. From Godefroit, Demuynck, Dyke, Hu, Escuillié & Claeys, 2013.

This early, rapid evolution of mammal species led to a whole lot of tinkering. Not all of it was successful, but much of it was spectacular. In no particular order, here are some of the strangest of evolution’s early experiments in mammals.

1. The Dawn Horse

Let’s start small. Contemporary horses range in side from the small (and faintly ridiculous) miniature horse, to the tall, sturdy draught horses that stand about 6 ft. But the ancestor of the horse makes even a miniature horse look like a giant. The earliest Equid, Eohippus validus, stood a mere 12-18 inches high. A newborn baby would tower over it. Presumably, the ancestors of squirrels rode it.


Credit: Henrich Harder

2. Glyptodon

Armadillos are strange. I think that’s a fairly uncontroversial thing to say. They’re small, nearly blind mammals best known for their leathery shell, which cartoons have taught us allow them to roll into little balls to protect them from predators, or to be used as balls in a game of croquet. The contemporary armadillo can be used for this purpose[4] because they’re relatively small. But their ancestor, Glyptodon, was a different story altogether. The ancestral armadillo Glyptodon was nearly 12 ft. long, and weighed up to 2 tons – it was the size of a VW Beetle (and far, far cooler). Rather than using it for croquet, early humans hunted it – and then used its protective shell as a house.


Credit: Pavel Riha

3. Amebelodon

Elephant tusks serve a number of purposes: part weapon, part tool, and part method of bothering your older siblings. Learning to use them properly takes time, but when correctly utilized, tusks are a key part of an elephant’s survival strategy. When elephants lose tusks, to disease, fighting, or old age, their chance of surviving the next dry season decreases significantly. So they’re useful now, in their current form. But it took some tinkering to get there – and some tusks were created more equal than others.

Amebelodon was a member of the gomphotheres, a lineage of primitive mammal that eventually led to elephants. Like elephants, they were large bodied, terrestrial herbivores. And, like elephants, they had tusks. But Amebelodon took things to extremes. It had two upper tusks, like an elephant, but on its lower jaw (which is tuskless in elephants), Amebelodon had two long, flattened teeth, which gives it its name, the shovel-tusked gomphothere.

Fossil evidence from the shovels indicates that they were probably used in the same way as elephant tusks. But unlike the elephant, which is a noble, proud animal[5], Amebelodon was simply too silly looking to be allowed to live, and natural selection weeded it out.

That mouth is more than a little frightening.

That mouth is more than a little frightening.

4. Megatherium

What are the largest land mammals to ever live? Elephants? Check. Mammoths? Sort-of elephants, but I’ll give you a half mark. Whales? You didn’t read the question. Sloths?

Now we’re talking.

Sloths today are known as beloved members of childhood films, stars of viral videos, and the butt of jokes. But one genus of sloth, Megatherium, once ruled the Earth (or at least South America). Megatherium, the giant ground sloth, was the size of an elephant, and probably the largest species existing in its time. It dwelt on the ground, and lived in groups. While probably herbivorous, some renegade paleontologists have suggested it might have been at least partially carnivorous, and able to chase saber-toothed cats off their kills. In case you needed fuel for nightmares, hopefully that helps: a pack-living, elephant-sized carnivorous ground sloth.

I kind-of wish this one still existed.


5. The Terror Bird

This seems like a cheat, because it’s not a mammal, but it’s only a half-cheat. The Terror Bird, or Phorusrhacos, was an 8 ft. tall, 300 lb., carnivorous bird. It couldn’t fly, but hardly needed to. It ran down small (child-sized) mammals, grabbed them in its taloned feet, and then smashed them into the ground until they died.

As for why it’s only a half-cheat: the story goes that the paleontologist who discovered it assumed, based on its size, that it must’ve been a mammal, and gave it the name Phorusrhacos – which lacks the ending traditionally ascribed to bird names. “Terror Bird” is much catchier, anyways.

The terror bird, proud owner of one of the greatest names in the animal kingdom.

The terror bird, proud owner of one of the greatest names in the animal kingdom.

[1] For the curious: Iapetus, Titan, Rhea, Dione, Tethys, Enceladus, and Mimas.

[2] ‘Micropachycephalosaurus’ currently holding the dubious honour of longest dinosaur name.

[3] Have you ever really looked at an elephant? Or a giraffe? Those things are weird.

[4] No they can’t, please don’t try.

[5] Ignore what I said earlier about them looking weird.


The Mouse in the Granary

Many people with a Western education are likely familiar with Aesop’s Fables, and particularly the story of Lion and the Mouse. In that fable, a small, frail mouse accidentally wakes up a lion. The lion, being not a morning person, is understandably grumpy, and threatens to eat the mouse. The mouse pleads forgiveness, points out that a he is a little bit small to be breakfast for a lion – and breakfast is the most important meal of the day – and promises that if the lion spares him, the mouse will repay the favour one day. The lion is bemused by the presumptuousness of the mouse: how could something so small aid something so mighty? But he feels merciful, and lets the mouse leave.

A few days later, the lion is caught in a hunter’s net, and, of course, the mouse is nearby. The mouse is able to chew through the ropes, setting the lion free. The moral of the story is first, be merciful. And second: there is no creature so great that it cannot have its very life changed by something small.

So with that in mind, I’d like to tell another story – the story of the Mouse in the Granary.

Wheat is one of the most common staple food items in the world. It’s grown on 15% of the arable land on the planet, and is one of the three foods (the others being maize and rice) that make up 60% of the world’s energy intake. As a species, humans are incredibly reliant on wheat (unfortunate, for the gluten-intolerant). Wheat, Triticum aestivum L., is a hybrid of a few naturally growing grains that arose a number of times independently during the Neolithic Revolution – a period of rapid cultural development that humans in the Fertile Crescent underwent about 12,000 years ago.

Today, wheat comes broadly in two types: “hard” or “soft”, depending on the consistency of the kernel. But the majority of wheat eaten around the world comes from hard kernels. This is strange, because soft kernel wheat is the ‘natural’ state – hard kernel wheat relies on the expression of several genetic mutations that grant it no benefits when it comes to surviving and reproducing in a field.  So why, then, is most wheat hard kernel?

Because that little mouse, once he was done helping the lion, decided to put his paw-print on humanity too.

One of the great (great meaning major, not necessarily good) outcomes of the Neolithic Revolution was the advent of agriculture. Humans invented irrigation, animal and plant husbandry, and learned how to deliberately plant, grow, and harvest food. This allowed them to create surpluses, and stockpile food for the first time – they could trade it, save it for a rainy day, or use the stockpiles to sustain them while they did something else: for instance, create art, or music, or invent and administer a government (only the real sickos did that).

But that food stockpile needed to go somewhere, so humans built granaries and storehouses. Into these granaries they threw the wheat they didn’t use: hard kernels and soft kernels alike – but mostly soft kernels.  Unfortunately, about 10 minutes after the first granary was built and filled, the first house mouse discovered it was an endless supply of food.

The house mouse (Mus musculus L.) is one of the most abundant rodent species on Earth, and is intimately tied with humanity. Wherever we go, mice are sure to follow. They likely originated in Asia, but since then have appeared anywhere that human settlements have begun to stockpile food.

Mice eat a lot of things (including their own feces), but they love grains. And they especially love wheat. That first mouse, in that first granary, in the Fertile Crescent 12,000 years ago was in proverbial rodent heaven. But being spoiled for choice, and with all winter to gorge himself, he could afford to be picky. So he was – he only ate the soft kernels.

At first this was easy, because the soft kernels so widely outnumbered the hard kernels. But as the years and centuries passed, and the mice and his descendants followed the spread of wheat around the world, it got more difficult. Hard kernel wheat became more common – the mice caused the frequency of hard kernel wheat to increase more than 10 times. In the end, the mice have been so effective at selecting against soft kernel wheat, that up to a third of all the human population on Earth relies today on hard kernel wheat.

So if you ate toast this morning, or a sandwich for lunch, pause for a moment, and think of the little house mouse – a tiny creature that has somehow managed to shape the cultural evolution of humanity.



Morris et al. 2013. Did the house mouse (Mus musculus L.) shape the evolutionary trajectory of wheat (Triticum aestivum L.)? Ecology and Evolution 3(10): 3447 − 3454.

Featured picture by Evgenii Rachev.