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.

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.


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.


How the Right Whale Gets By

Conservation biologists are a twitchy bunch, fluctuating wildly between nervous and excited depending on the current status of their preferred species. They have nightmares in which robotic Paul Bunyan-types maraud through woodlands cutting down the homes of small brown birds, and celebrate with almost perverse ecstasy if two endangered tortoises deign to mate. Conservation biologists are the Victorian ladies of the science community: their corsets are cinched just a little too tight, making them prone to fainting spells1. And fewer things can cause them to swoon more quickly than the threat of a small population size.

"Oh heavens, the new IUCN Red List has been released."

“Oh heavens, the new IUCN Red List has been released.”

When endangered or threatened species fall to a critically low population level, conservation biologists get nervous. Very nervous. Small populations – below 500 individuals is a good enough estimate for now – carry with them the looming specter of the ‘extinction vortex’. The extinction vortex occurs when a species begins to circle the drain of existence, and gets trapped in its own downward-spiraling momentum, ever less likely to escape. As a population of animals gets smaller, every negative influence becomes exacerbated.

Imagine two species, one with 1000 animals remaining, and one with 10. Now, just because you’re feeling malicious, imagine a natural disaster wiping out half of each population. The population with 1000 individuals is still sitting pretty at 500: they’re likely to survive. But that small population? It’s down to five now, and in trouble.

Every process that can affect the growth of a population – immigration, emigration, disease, birth rates, natural disasters, and inbreeding – has a disproportionately stronger effect on small populations. Inbreeding can be particularly insidious. Inbreeding rapidly causes a multiplicative effect on unhealthy mutations. Most organisms carry within them a few alleles – gene copies – for dangerous or lethal syndromes. Luckily they tend to be recessive – they don’t show up unless both copies of the gene (you have two of each, one from each parent) are identical.

Mutant redneck murder family is not on the list, but zombie redneck torture family is fairly similar.

Mutant redneck murder family is not on the list, but zombie redneck torture family is conceptually similar.

But there is a good chance that your closest relatives share those dangerous alleles. If you breed with strangers, your bad alleles and their bad alleles probably won’t match, and everything is swell. However, if you’re keeping it in the family, you increase the chances that your offspring are going to end up with two copies of the bad allele, and turn into some sort of mutant redneck murder family.

Case in point: the Florida panther. The Florida panther used to be part of a large population of cougars that roamed most of the Americas. It interbred freely, and was healthy (and presumably happy). But habitat fragmentation and development as left a small population of cougars stranded in Florida, along with senior citizens and members of the Bush family. Over time, the Florida panther has become terribly inbred (unlike the senior citizens, but the jury is still out on the Bush family). The inbreeding has led to kinked tails, weird looking testicles, and reduced survivability.

You can't pin the blame for this one on inbreeding though. Poor drafting, maybe.

You can’t pin the blame for this one on inbreeding though. Poor drafting, maybe.

All of that is to say that small populations make conservation biologists nervous. But they can rest easy, because some unlikely species have figured out the ‘right’2 way to handle the situation all on their own.

The North Atlantic right3 whale (Eubalaena glacialis) is, you guessed it, a whale (no prize for guessing where it lives). Its name is popularly thought to derive from whaling: it was supposedly the ‘right’ whale to hunt, because it spends much of its time on the surface and has a high oil content. But the name probably comes from an alternate meaning of the word ‘right’. Not ‘correct’, but ‘proper’ – the right whale is a good, proper whale: the sort of whale all whales should aspire to be.

That upright moral character and inspirational whale-ness haven’t really helped it though – centuries of whaling, banned only in the 1960s, have left the North Atlantic right whale as one of the most endangered whale species on earth, with between 400 and 500 individuals still alive. Coupled with their long lifespans, slow reproductive rates, and low levels of genetic diversity, it’s enough to give whale biologists a conniption. Which is a bit rude, and not at all a right or proper thing to do.

They're not really an attractive whale, but looks don't count in the kingdom of the cetaceans, I guess.

They’re not really an attractive whale, but looks don’t count in the kingdom of the cetaceans, I guess.

Luckily, right whales have taken pity on the poor biologists, and figured out their own way to cope with such a small population. If a female mates with a male too genetically similar to her, some part of her body says “no way buddy4”, and fertilization fails. This results in slightly lower overall reproductive rights for right whales: if its too late in the mating season, she won’t get another chance to mate with a male her body finds more appropriate. But it’s better than the alternative of rampant inbreeding in a small population.

Females have another trick up their…’sleeve’ too. Females tend to mate with multiple males. The best way for a male to insure that his sperm reaches the egg is to produce as much sperm as possible (the so-called, and slightly gross, “lottery principle” – if you buy more tickets, you have a better chance of winning). To aid him in this goal, right whales have the largest testicle size-to-body-size ratio of any mammal. But unfortunately for him, the female might have a say too. Females can store the sperm of multiple males in their reproductive tract, and scientists think they may be able to ‘choose’ which sperm fertilizes an egg. In essence, they may be able to scan for the most genetically dissimilar sperm, and use it to fertilize their egg, thereby minimizing the chance of inbreeding.

The point is, that instead of North Atlantic right whales becoming more-and-more inbred, as scientists had feared, they are actually increasing in genetic diversity – a feat almost unheard of in small populations without extensive human management. That’s not to say the right whale will definitely be okay. Four hundred is still a dangerously low population, and some countries in the world retain a bizarre enthusiasm for whaling (*cough* Japan *cough*). But for now, at least, the right whale has confounded expectations and proven that, as Ian Malcolm said in Jurassic Park, “nature finds a way.”

If you had the largest testicle-to-body-size ratio of any mammal, you'd only be able to breach this far out of the water too. Credit:

If you had the largest testicle-to-body-size ratio of any mammal, you’d only be able to breach this far out of the water too. Credit:


Frasier TR et al. 2013. Postcopulatory selection for dissimilar gametes maintains heterozygosity in the endangered North Atlantic right whale. Ecology and Evolution doi: 10.1002/ece3.738.

Featured photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission 

1 Lest this sound a little too harsh, please note that I’d count myself among them.

2 You’re going to hate me for that in a second.

3 See? Sorry.

4 This is how a uterus would talk, if it could

The Death and Life of the American Buffalo, Pt II

(Part I is here)

Part II. Guns, Germs, and Horses

Our war whoop instantly stopt, our eyes were appalled with terror; there was no one to fight with but the dead and the dying, each a mass of corruption

– Saukamapee, a Cree recalling an aborted attack on a Snake village decimated by smallpox

 Before Europeans arrived in North America, the aboriginal population of the continent lived complicated lives that took advantage of the diverse ecological bounty provided by the nearness of plains, forests, and riverine ecosystems. Most groups exploited multiple ecosystems – they were masters of the “creative use of the land.” For example, the Sioux, who later became known as expert horsemen and buffalo hunters, had an utterly different lifestyle before the arrival of Europeans. During the fall and winter, Sioux families lived spread out in river valleys near the border between the Great Plains and the extensive forests of the Northeast. They ice-fished and hunted small game in the forest, and developed extensive trade networks with coastal peoples. During the spring, they gathered pine nuts and mushrooms, and made use of rudimentary agriculture, especially corn. And during the summer, they hunted buffalo.

An Algonquian village. Credit: Thomas Taber Museum

An Algonquian village. Credit: Thomas Taber Museum

During the summer rut, when bison aggregated in large herds, the Sioux mirrored the behaviour, and many individual family groups and tribes would come together in large groups to hunt. Without horses or guns, bison hunting was inefficient for a small group – Sioux families would occasionally kill two or three bison for meat or fur; but for most of the year, they subsisted on other food. In the summer, with a large group of people and large bison herds, hunting became more efficient.

Before horses, buffalo hunting was a pedestrian affair, in a very literal sense of the word. Sioux warriors, on foot, would carefully surround a buffalo herd. Then at the signal of the hunt marshal – the akcitas – each warrior set fire to the dry prairie grass, creating a hemisphere of smoke and flame around the bison. Panicked, the bison would stampede away from the fire, where more carefully positioned warriors lit fires, funneling the bison towards their eventual doom: a cliff edge. As bison hurtled over the cliff, women, children, and the old waited at the bottom to dispatch the survivors and begin the process of skinning and dressing the carcasses.

A buffalo jump.

A buffalo jump.

Mass bison hunts were an uncommon occurrence – maybe once or twice a summer. They became great social events – feasts, dancing, and story telling. A good opportunity to meet a first wife, or a second, or a third. In the quiet, away from the fire, older people would gossip, swapping stories of the voyageurs and other white people steadily inching westward along the road system of rivers and streams. Sometime, in the mid-to-late 17th century, this gossiping took on a more serious tone.

Refugees began to appear, streaming out of the coastal forests – people and tribes displaced by fighting with the white colonists. Rumours began to spread of whole villages decimated by strange illnesses. Increasing numbers of white traders began to appear – the pioneers of the rapidly expanding fur trade, which sought to feed Europe’s insatiable demand for beaver pelts. They brought guns, pots and pans, and other trade goods that the native people immediately put to good use. Other whites brought horses. These forces together: the European trade goods, and their diseases, changed forever the lifestyles of the Plains Indians – and put in motion the cascade of events that led to the virtual extermination of the bison.

Voyageurs, caneo-based fur traders, were many aboriginal groups first encounter with Euroamericans. Credit: Frances Anne Hopkins, 1869

Voyageurs, caneo-based fur traders, were many aboriginal groups first encounter with Euroamericans. Credit: Frances Anne Hopkins, 1869

All three factors – guns, germs, and horses – led together to a change in the relationship between bison and people. Prior to the appearance of Europeans, the plains peoples relied on bison for seasonal sustenance but didn’t abuse them year-round. But when European’s arrived, the previously semi-sedentary aboriginal groups were forced to adopt a nomadic, plains-dwelling lifestyle that was dependent almost completely on the bison – a dependency that was unsustainable from the start.

The fur trade came first – voyageurs combed the forests and rivers of eastern North America, displacing people and abusing the fragile ecological systems that aboriginal people relied on for large portions of their annual subsistence. Displacement from their traditional gathering and agricultural grounds caused native peoples to specialize more seriously in hunting on the plains: both small and large bison hunts, now made more efficient by guns, began to occur more frequently.

The success of hunting was also increased by the introduction of horses to the plains. Plains Indians tribes rapidly became capable horsemen (though they were less capable when it came to horse husbandry – hunters regularly rode horses to death, and replenished their stocks by raiding both colonists and other tribes). Horses made populations mobile, and allowed people to efficiently hunt bison in small herds, using only a few warriors.

Horses made bison hunting an efficient practice for even small family groups.

Horses made bison hunting an efficient practice for even small family groups.

If these two factors – guns and horses – increased the pressure on the bison population directly, the third did so indirectly. Smallpox, a bacterial infection native to Europe, decimated the aboriginal population of North America, which had no innate defences.  It was the scourge of villages, amplifying rapidly wherever people aggregated in large groups. Aboriginal groups realized this quickly: a Kiowa folktale tells of the hero-trickster, Saynday, meeting Smallpox while out hunting. Smallpox asks Saynday where it can find the Kiowa people. Saynday tells Smallpox that his people are nomads now, and live in groups too small to make it worth Smallpoxs’ effort. Instead, he suggests, perhaps Smallpox would like to visit the Pawnee, who lived in large villages?

A woodcut of the first smallpox epidemic in North America

A woodcut of the first smallpox epidemic in North America, which began in the 1600s. 

The Pawnee and the Kiowa, not surprisingly, were enemies.

Smallpox, cholera, and other European diseases pushed aboriginal groups away from sedentary living in river valleys, and towards nomadic living on the plains. At the same time, easier hunting, facilitated by guns and horses, pulled people to the plains. These three factors together resulted in a massive social and culture shift – now instead of being semi-sedentary hunters and gatherers, a population of 60,000 Native Americans began to live a nomadic lifestyle on the Great plains; a lifestyle almost utterly dependent on one animal: the bison.

Pressure from European diseases, plus the arrival of guns and horses, caused a large population of American Indians to adopt a nomadic lifestyle on the Great Plains

Pressure from European diseases, plus the arrival of guns and horses, caused a large population of Native Americans to adopt a nomadic lifestyle on the Great Plains

Each of the 60,000 nomads needed to kill between 6 and 7 bison per year in order to live. With subsistence hunting, plus additional seasonal hunting by farming tribes, an estimated 500,000 bison a year were being killed by the late-1700s. In a stable environment, this number might have been sustainable – bison reproduce quickly, and between 4 and 7 million new calves were born every year. But with summer droughts and difficult winters, the bison population was perpetually in a precarious state. This new hunting pressure heaped more trouble on the bison’s chaotic existence. Still, bison may have muddled through.

But then in the 1800’s, Europeans grew tired of beaver fur and developed a new obsession: buffalo robes.

Neil Griffin

At this point I should confess that bison are one of my favourite animals. No, I don't know why either. Credit: Julie Larsen Maher

The Death and Life of the American Buffalo, Pt I

Part I. The American Buffalo

 The whole country appears one mass of buffalo

– Colonel Richard Irving Dodge, “Plains of the Great West”

"The country was crowded with them. Their bellowing sounded from hills to forest." Quoted in "The Extermination of the American Bison", by William Hornaday

“The country was crowded with them. Their bellowing sounded from hills to forest.” Quoted in “The Extermination of the American Bison”, by William Hornaday

North America, by quirk of nature and history, lacks large mammals. The last remnants of our megafauna went extinct around 10,000 years ago – a period of time that coincided with both the arrival of humans from Eurasia over the Bering Strait, and an ice age. Around that time, North America lost the American lion, saber-toothed cats, giant beavers, a nine-foot long salmon, and the iconic ice age species, the mammoth. For millions of years the mammoth was North America’s largest mammal, and ruled the continental plains. Its extinction left an ecological vacuum, which in time became filled by the American plains buffalo.

Probably not coming back to life, despite that weird TEDx conference about it a few months ago.

Probably not coming back to life, despite that weird TEDx conference about it a few months ago.

Perhaps no animal, except maybe the bald-eagle, carries as much symbolic weight in North America is the buffalo. It is a symbol of a romantic, faded West, of the frontier spirit, and, eventually, a symbol of greed, consumption and disregard for the environment. The buffalo is central to American iconography, and the story of its dominance, decline, near extinction, and nascent recovery is the story of the vast social, economic, and ecological changes that swept North America in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The American plains bison (colloquially called the buffalo, but biologically not a buffalo) originated in Europe, and then wandered over to America about 500,000 years ago. When it first arrived, the Mammoth Congress was still working on immigration reform, and the bison were unwanted. Mammoths and mastodons dominated the Great Plains, and bison were confined to river valleys and woodland-prairie margins. These are ecologically rich environments, but not abundant, and the bison population was small. But when the mammoths went extinct, the bison population exploded.

At this point I should confess that bison are one of my favourite animals. No, I don't know why either. Credit: Julie Larsen Maher

At this point I should confess that bison are one of my favourite animals. No, I don’t know why either. Credit: Julie Larsen Maher

When Europeans first arrived on the Great Plains, towards the end of the 17th century, bison numbered in the tens of millions. The great, nomadic herds cut swathes across the plains as the migrated in search of food and water. The Great Plains are an unforgiving, difficult environment in which to live. In winter they freeze, and in summer they bake. Precipitation is low and uncommon – less than 16 inches a year, delivered in deluges that score the parched ground like mortar-fire, and cause rivers to burst their banks: a third of the years rainfall may come in a single hour-long storm. When the rain doesn’t come, which is often – drought length is measured in years, not months – the short-grasses drop their leaves and flowers, and wither into a dormant state that can last for seasons. In 1811, Henry Breckenridge, an explorer, compared the Great Plains unfavourably to the African Sahara. But this environment, as it turns out, suits the bison just fine.

The Great Plains: beautiful, when not trying to kill you. Credit: Stephen Weaver

The Great Plains: beautiful, when not trying to kill you. Credit: Stephen Weaver

Bison are well adapted for the harsh life of the Great Plains. Their size – 6 ft at the shoulder and up to 3000 lb in the wild – grants them a slow metabolism that makes the most of their diet of sedges and grass. Bison spend most of their day, most of their lives, walking and eating slowly, travelling back-and-forth across the plains like a giant herd of lawnmowers. In winter, bison travel in two types of small herds: one type containing cows and calves, and the other containing bulls. They grow a thick, shaggy coat to protect them against the cold, and spend the harshest months of the year sequestered in sheltered river valleys. In summer they grow a light weight coat, and wallow in mudholes to cover their skin against insect bites. The small, segregated winter herds coalesce into tremendous summer herds, hundreds of thousands strong, which sent European writers and explorers into rhapsodies (in part because they viewed the bison as walking dollar signs, and in part because the sight truly must have been breath-taking for someone from domesticated, urban Europe). The individuals in these herds have one goal for the short, hot summer months: finding a mate.

During the summer rut, male bison use elaborate displays of stamping, snorting, and staring one-another down to establish a dominance hierarchy. Violence and actual physical conflict is rare: usually the threat of it is enough to put an impetuous young bull in its place. Because of the strict hierarchy, a few of the largest, most powerful males account for most of the mating. That’s not exactly egalitarian, but the Great Plains are a harsh environment, and the strongest bulls are likely to create the strongest calves. Large herds stay together for most of the summer, before splitting up again for the winter. In the spring, calves are born, and the cycle begins again. Life on the plains is difficult, but bison are well-suited to it.

That's not to say they don't ever get violent though. Credit: Buffalo Field Campaign

That’s not to say they don’t ever get violent though. Credit: Buffalo Field Campaign

That’s not to say everything is easy. The Great Plains is a land of stability, punctuated by frequent periods of devastation: drought, wildfire, torrential storms, and blizzards all wreak havoc on the prairies. Bison populations, even without human hunting, were historically unstable, going through explosive boom-and-bust periods. In good seasons, the population reproduced well beyond the carrying capacity of the environment – leading to a dramatic crash in the next season (for a future case study of this same phenomenon, I recommend looking up “humans” in a 24th century encyclopedia).

A blizzard in 1949. Sometimes the weather gets a little out of hand. Credit: NET Television

A blizzard in 1949. Sometimes the weather gets a little out of hand. Credit: NET Television

But despite these fluctuations, the bison population remained within the bounds of sustainability for 500,000 years – until Europeans and Americans arrived.Then, in the period of time between 1700 and 1880, the near 30 million bison on the Great Plains were slaughtered, reduced to approximately 270 individuals. The reasons, to borrow from Jared Diamond were threefold: guns, germs, and… horses.

Neil Griffin

(This one is a 4-parter, so get cozy)