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.

The Roots of Red Riding Hood

If you grew up in the West, odds are you have at least a passing familiarity with Grimm’s Fairy Tales (or at least the sanitized and castrated versions presented by Disney). One of the most enduring of these folktales is Little Red Riding Hood — the story of a little girl in a cap or cape that delivers treats to her grandmother in the deep, dark forest, is tricked by a wolf, and ultimately saved by a lumberjack.

A Red Riding Hood woodcut by Gustave Dore.

A Red Riding Hood woodcut by Gustave Dore.

The story has been told and retold: as a tale of stranger danger, ritual rebirth (and more recently), sexual awakening.[1] But despite its ubiquity and familiarity, the roots of Red Riding Hood have sometimes been obscure. The earliest known written version dates to 17th century France were it was included in the Histories et contes du temps passé, avece des moralitiés. Contes de ma mère l’Oye,[2] a collection of French folktales, by Charles Perrault. In Perrault’s version, the wolf eats Red Riding Hood, and no lumberjack appears to save her — and the moral of the story is that children shouldn’t listen to strangers.

But the story existed in Europe as an oral tradition long before Perrault’s written version, and an 11th century Latin poem from Liège in Belgium hints at an earlier version of it. The story also exists in similar form in parts of Asia and Africa, but the relationship between those versions and the European tale has been uncertain, until a paper published recently tried to shine some light on the situation.

Using phylogenetic analysis, Jamshid Tehrani at Durham University in the UK tried to understand the relationship between different strains of Red Riding Hood tales, and how they related to a similar story, “The Wolf and the Kids” (one of Aesop’s fables).

Phylogenetic analysis is a tool use by evolutionary biologists to determine the relationship between animal species. Using shared characteristics, and a few simple rules; it calculates the most likely evolutionary path a group of species may have taken to reach its current arrangement. It’s a useful tool for evolutionary biologists, but also for anthropologists and linguists interested in understanding the cultural evolution of folktales and languages.

An example of a phylogenetic tree, detailing broadly the evolution of life.

An example of a phylogenetic tree, detailing broadly the evolution of life.

In his study, Tehrani took 58 variants on the Red Riding Hood and “Wolf and the Kid” folktales from around the world, and analyzed them using 72 plot variables (for example: did the victim escape? gender of the protagonist? type of villain?).

His results suggest that these folktales can be split into international “types”. Red Riding Hood-type tales are common in Europe, but virtually non-existent in Africa, where “Wolf and the Kid” are more frequently told[3] (although the ‘wolf’ in question tends to be an ogre — the names of the archetypes are based on European traditions, as most scholarly analysis of folktales has been centered in-and-around Europe).

The story varients used in Tehrani's study. Note the lonely red dot in Nigeria, signifying a 'Red Riding Hood' variant.

The story variants used in Tehrani’s study. Note the lonely red dot in Nigeria, signifying a ‘Red Riding Hood’ variant. Credit: Tehrani 2013

The Asian “type” though, is different altogether. It doesn’t show a distinct difference between the two story types — Red Riding Hood stories and “Wolf and the Kid” stories co-exist, and overlap with one another significantly. One interpretation of this is that this combined story is the original, ancestral folktale that gave rise to both Red Riding Hood and “Wolf and the Kid” stories — that is, that European folktales were actually born in Asia, and then transmitted across the continent by trade, before they arrived in Europe and diverged into the two types of story we know today.

That would be a fun re-telling of Western folkloric history, but unfortunately, we know that “Wolf and the Kid” stories date back to at least 400 AD, and the “Out of Asia” hypothesis wouldn’t have taken place until at least the 12th century.

A phylogenetic tree showing different 'types'. The red shows the European "Red Riding Hood stories". Blue is the Africa "Wolf and Kid" variants, and purple are the Asian hybrid stories. Credit: Tehrani 2013.

A phylogenetic tree showing different ‘types’. The red shows the European “Red Riding Hood stories”. Blue and green are the African “Wolf and Kid” variants, and purple are the Asian hybrid stories. Credit: Tehrani 2013.

Two other, more reasonable hypotheses are that an ancient version of the Red Riding Hood story, perhaps earlier even than the Latin poem at Liège, travelled from Europe to Asia. Or — more exciting, to my mind — the stories had an independent origin in both Europe and Asia. Rather than descending from a shared ancestor, these international “types” may have evolved independently — by convergent evolution, rather than shared homologies.

Story telling is a quintessentially human activity. If ever you were looking for a trait that separated humans from other animals, you’d be hard-pressed to find something more distinctly Homo sapiens then sitting around a campfire, radio, or television, enjoying the shared experience of an utterly fabricated tale. Tehrani’s research on the roots of Red Riding Hood highlight that story-telling nature: whether evolved independently, or transmitted across the globe by caravan and merchant-ship, diverse populations of humans have been telling and re-telling the same tales for centuries.

So next time you tell your children, or nieces and nephews, the story of Red Riding Hood, stop and consider for a second that you’re continuing on a global tradition that has been shared, day-in and day-out, for hundreds of years. That’s pretty cool.

Story telling is one of our 'most human' traits, and it's pretty ancient.

Story telling is one of our ‘most human’ traits, and it’s pretty ancient.


Tehrani, Jamshid J. 2013. “The Phylogeny of Little Red Riding Hood.” Edited by R. Alexander Bentley. PLoS ONE 8 (11) (November 13): e78871. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078871.

[1] One of my favourite retellings, sympathetic to the wolf, is found in Sara Maitland’s book-length meditation on forests and folktales, Gossip from the Forest.

[2] Book titles used to be a little longer.

[3] One exception, visible on the map, is the Igbo in Nigeria, who tell a version of the Red Riding Hood tale. Tehrani speculates that this is an Igbo re-telling of a European folktale, transmitted to the area via sea-trading.

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.


What’s in a Name? Juliet’s Rose and the Science of Naming

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.
– Romeo and Juliet, (II, ii, 47-48)

Juliet may have been on to something here, lamenting Romeo’s familial allegiances while he skulks below her in the shadows. “What’s Montague?” she says, “it is nor hand, nor foot, nor arm, nor face, nor any other part belonging to a man” (II, ii, 45-46). This attitude, a willingness to look past her family’s prejudices and see the man that Romeo is, beyond his name, makes Juliet a great romantic.

But it would’ve made her an awful scientist.

Good science, and by extension good scientific writing, occludes confusion by being tediously specific. Scientific writing tends to be devoid of metaphor, simile, or any other forms of figurative language. Most scientists are even a little bit afraid of a good evocative verb (although we’re allowed to write ‘masticate’ instead of ‘chew’, which is sort-of fun). The purpose of this fuss-budget writing, other than to make scientific papers blindingly boring to read, is to avoid confusion. A sentence should have only one meaning and not be open to interpretation.

So when it comes to science, everything is in a name. Every species on Earth has a name, which applies to it, and to no other species. These names all take on the same, two-part structure: Genus species. The first part of the name gives the genus to which the species belongs, for example Homo. The second part of the name identifies a specific species within that genus, for example sapiens. Combined together, this two-part name grants a unique identifying tag to every species, which is universally identifiable by scientists regardless of their native language. For example, Homo sapiens – humans.

This system, called ‘binomial nomenclature’, allows scientists to communicate about specific species. This is important because many different species have the same common name. As an example, lets consider Juliet’s rose. Roses, as we think of them, are not a species but a genus – the genus Rosa. All roses are identified by the traits that they share. Some of these are obvious (sickle-shaped thorns, the number of petals, and the type of fruit – a rosehip), and some of them are the sorts of thing that only excite botanists (alternate pinnate leaves with serrated leaflets and basal stipules. Yawn.). Those are traits shared by all roses in the genus Rosa.

But within that genus, there are at least 100 species of rose.

What type of rose was Juliet talking about? The play is set in Verona, in Northern Italy, so maybe Juliet was speaking about Rosa gallica, the French Rose. It was (and remains today) a widely cultivated species native to southern Europe. She was probably not referring to Rosa californica, native to, obviously, California. In Romeo and Juliet it doesn’t really matter. But scientists need to be able to determine exactly which species their colleagues are referring to – a problem that took over a thousand years to be solved.

Beginning with Aristotle, natural historians struggled to label species in a way that was both descriptive and simple. The problem of the roses arose (hah) quickly; it wasn’t long before the people categorizing organisms realized that the same local name was used in many different places to refer to many different species. So scientists gave up on the idea of trying to be simple, and focused on being descriptive: species were given polynomial names that became increasingly more complex as more species were discovered.

Unique or strange species would be easy to name. For example, if we were to make up a descriptive name for the aye-aye, we could call it “long-fingered nocturnal lemur”. The animal is strange enough, and shares few enough traits with other species, that it is easy to hone in on a unique identifier. But that becomes more difficult when considering species that have fewer uncommon characteristics. Consider the hoary plantain, a small flower native to Western Europe. The hoary plantain illustrates both the problem of common names – it is in no way related to plantains, the banana-type vegetable that is a staple food item throughout the Tropics – and the problems that arose with polynomial names.

The hoary plantain looks a lot like just about every other small flower in Western Europe. Finding a unique identifier is extremely difficult. So in the days before binomial nomenclature, the hoary plantain was identified using an absurdly long and complex polynomial name: Plantago foliis ovato-lanceolatus pubescentibus, spica cylindrica, scapo tereti. Meaning, of course, “Plantain with pubescent ovate-lanceolate leaves, a cylindric spike and a terete scape”. The need for these complex names made classifying an ever-growing number of species virtually impossible.

And then along came Carl Linnaeus.

Carl, who later got carried away with his own brilliance and Latinized his name to Carolus, was a Swedish botanist who revolutionized biology and invented modern taxonomy (the classification of species). He grew up in Sweden, and lived most of his life there, teaching botany during the week, and rampaging through the countryside collecting plants and animals in his spare time. (I’ve seen the field kit he used to collect samples and it looks like a portable version of Frankenstein’s lab). He lived abroad between 1735 and 1738, before returning home to Sweden for the rest of his life. But it was while he was away from Sweden and living in Amsterdam that Linnaeus made his first major contribution to science.

Linnaeus was a popular lecturer and a dedicated teacher, and like many scientists, a bit fussy. The polynomial system of names frustrated him: it was inefficient and inaccurate. In his travels around Sweden, he had begun to develop a new way of categorizing plants by subdividing them into categories based on shared physical characteristics. On one of these trips, he found the jawbone of a small animal and experienced a revelation: the same categorization could be applied to animals too, based on number and structure of teeth.

In Amsterdam, Linnaeus began compiling these categorizations into a book, the Systema Naturae. He listed the species of animal and plants he was familiar with alongside their complex, polynomial names. Then, beside each name, he wrote a simple binomial name – one generic term (the genus), and one specific (the species). These he then lumped into higher categories according to their physical characteristics. The first edition of Systema Naturea, published using a loan from a friend in 1735, was only 12 pages long.

But it was a hit. The simple way of classifying animals, and the strict consistency of Linnaeus’s naming, became instantly popular in the scientific community. Scientists, students, and natural historians fanned out across the globe, sending Linnaeus samples of plants and animals to be included in his naming scheme. When the 10th edition of Systema Naturae was released in 1758, Linnaeus had classified over 7000 species of plant and over 4000 species of animal, and invented the hierarchical system of organization that biologists still use today: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species.

Under Linnaeus’s scheme, the hoary plantain became Plantago media, and life got a whole lot simpler. Scientific names today are the best place for researchers to actually indulge in a little creativity. Sometimes they’re clever (Apopyllus now, a species of sac spider found on Curacao), sometimes they’re juvenile (Batrachuperus longdongensis, a salamander), and sometimes they’re oxymoronic (Mammuthus exilis, the pygmy mammoth), but they’re always unique to one individual species.

Binomial nomenclature allowed scientists to begin categorizing, and from there understanding, the organization of life. It is one of the most important inventions in the history of science. But we should be glad Shakespeare never heard of it. “That which we call a Rosa gallica by any other word would smell as sweet” isn’t very poetic.


Originally posted at

Featured photo by flickr user Fotos4RR


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.


The Life and Death of the Largest Tree in the World

“The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.”

– John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

On March 24th, 1991, in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California, a tremendous crash rent the quiet spring air. Park rangers over a mile away feared the worst. Had a train derailed? The rail bridge over the Eel River had seen better days, and most of the tracks were in need of repair. Rangers, park stuff, and curious onlookers rushed to the site of the noise. The bridge was intact, and there was no sign of a derailed train. But just south of the river a giant had fallen. The Dyerville Giant, a California coast redwood, and probably the largest tree in the world, had reached the end of its life.

The Dyerville Giant had been having a bad week. It was the rainy season, and the soil in the forest was saturated with water, creating a shifting, roiling, muddy base for the tree to stand in. The shallow root system it used to anchor itself in the ground was becoming exposed, and the winds whipping around its canopy – 370 ft above the forest floor – pulled and pushed 24 hours a day. A smaller tree had given up a few days earlier, crashing to the forest floor, but not before knocking other trees into precarious positions, like a gigantic domino. One of those dominos was left teetering ominously towards the Dyerville Giant. On March 24th, the leaning tree fell, and took the giant down with it.

The scene of the fallen giant must have looked, as well as sounded, like a train wreck. The shockwave created by the impact had disturbed the forest up to four hundred feet away, and splattered mud and debris nearly three storeys high on the trunks of surrounding trees. In the blink of an eye, the largest tree in the world was down. At the time it fell, the Dyerville Giant was 372 ft tall – far taller than the Statute of Liberty (a petite 150 feet), and taller even than Niagara Falls. It was of another age, at least 1600 years old when it fell. When the Dyerville Giant was a seedling, pushing its way through the soil for the first time, the Visigoths were sacking Rome, and the Roman Empire was beginning its final decline.

As a sapling (at 65 ft, a tall sapling), while it struggled for light and nutrients in a forest crowded with taller relatives, Liu Yan was establishing the Han Dynasty in China, and a Hindu philosopher in India was writing the Kama Sutra. Every year, if growing conditions were right, it grew up to another six feet. It grew steadily through the years, as kingdoms of men appeared, expanded, grew corrupt, and fell apart. Great works of literature were written and lost. Art was produced, and burned. The Dyerville Giant stretched inexorably upwards.

In the 1860s, as the newly created country of America sought to tame the wildness of the American West, for the first time in its life the Dyerville Giant faced a threat other than wind and fire. Settlers in California quickly established the value of the coast redwood. The wood is light but strong, and resists decay. Its red sheen is beautiful, and perhaps most importantly, the wood doesn’t catch fire easily. In 1863, the Pacific Lumber Company was created, and its owners, A. W. McPherson and Henry Wetherbee purchased 6,000 acres of good redwood forest at $1.25 an acre. By 1882, the PLC was the largest employer in the area, and solely responsible for the growth and development of towns springing up all along the valleys of Northern California. By 1895, McPherson and Wetherbee had sold a controlling share in the company to a Detroit millionaire named Simon J. Murphy. The Murphy family would steward the Pacific Lumber Company for the next 100 years, and demonstrate a rare sense of ethical corporate management.

At the beginning of the 1900s, cosmopolitan Americans in San Francisco, New York, and Chicago, were developing the first idea of a conservation ethic, focused on preserving some of the wildness of the American frontier. As a young country, America had a love-hate relationship with its untamed parts. The boundless forest and unexplored mountain ranges both mesmerized and frightened Americans. For pioneers, the wildness was an ugly thing to be tamed and controlled, but latter generations recognized that America’s wildness could be what established it as a unique country all of its own. Let Europe have its cathedrals and ruins, America’s forests would be its cathedrals; its mountains would be castles.

In 1917, the Save-the-Redwoods League travelled from San Francisco to Humboldt County to witness the majesty of the redwood forests. Amazed by what they saw, the League raised money and in 1921, Humboldt Redwoods State Park was established. Other companies might have seen this as an infringement, but Pacific Lumber worked with the conservationists. It both sold, and donated, land to the League for far less than it would have been made if they had cut the trees down. In the 1950s, Pacific Lumber pioneered the idea of selective logging and sustainable yield – rather than clear-cutting; they cut down only mature trees, allowing young trees to continue growing. The bulk of today’s Humboldt State Park is made up of the Pacific Lumber Company’s holdings.

It was at this time that the Dyerville Giant got its name. Dyerville had been a small town at the confluence of the North and South forks of the Eel River, just north of the giant. In the 1920s it was the site of the park headquarters, and beginning in the 1930s also the site of a Civilian Conservation Camp, established as part of the New Deal. The fortunes of the small community ebbed and flowed over the next 40 years, but its fate was decided decisively in 1964, when the Eel River overflowed its banks and swept the town downstream. Dyerville was never rebuilt, but the giant tree in the area gained a name, and today a plaque and a picnic area commemorate the former town site. By the time it was named, the growth of the giant had slowed considerably, and its height was estimated at around 360 feet.

On September 30, 1985, after a week of aggressive stock purchases, Pacific Lumber was taken over by Charles Hurwitz and Maxxam Inc., of Texas. Following the completion of the hostile takeover, the Murphy family resigned, and PLC took on a vastly different form. Hurwitz and Maxxam immediately reinstated clear-cutting. Environmental activists were outraged, and in 1990 Maxxam and the redwoods became a boiling point for protest. In an embarrassing collusion between government and industry, the FBI tried hard to label the protest group, Earth First!, a terrorist organization (a label that has remained largely successful). Protests continued against Maxxam’s clear-cutting for over a decade, to little effect. Eventually, karma had enough and stepped in – Pacific Lumber filed for bankruptcy. In twenty short-years, Hurwitz and Maxxam’s aggressive and unsustainable forestry had undone the Pacific Lumber’s reputation and dismantled the company that the Murphy family worked so hard to build.

The Dyerville Giant, of course, wasn’t around to see the end of Pacific Lumber. It fell in 1991, during the angriest years of the protest. It will lie where it fell for another 400 years, slowly decaying and returning its nutrients to the soil. While it decomposes, it will provide a home for over 4000 species of birds, plants, fungi, insects and animals – a diverse ecosystem in its own right, and essentially ensuring that the Dyerville Giant will live forever. As Edward Munch wrote, “From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.”

Originally posted at

Featured image by: Craig Wolf


“It’s a Trap!” – Evolution in a Human-Altered World

Imagine you’re a member of a species who fate has placed not particularly high on the food chain. Maybe you’re not the quickest, or the brightest; or maybe you just taste good. Regardless of the reason, that dietary position – one of “prey species” – is going to affect your behaviour and evolutionary history. Maybe you’ve grown small and solitary, so you can creep quietly through the night and avoid detection. Or, maybe you’ve taken to living in the trees to avoid ground-dwelling predators.

But these patterns of behaviour come with trade-offs. If you live in the trees, for example, you might reproduce slowly and have long periods of time in between each additional offspring – baby animals require a good deal of attention if you live in the trees, or else they’re liable to fall out. One offspring at a time might be the most you can handle. On the ground you could raise kids more quickly – they’re less likely to hurt themselves, so require less attention. But the predators rule the ground, so you’re forced to stay in the trees.

Tree climbing is hard.

Tree climbing is hard.

However, if the predators disappear – for example, if they’re killed or chased away by humans – you may be able to move to the ground, and raise your children there. You’ll gradually adapt to a ground-living lifestyle, and your kids will raise grand-children on the ground. But what happens if the predators return? In that case, you’re stuck: your lifestyle requires that you live on the ground, in a human-altered environment, but when the situation changes, you’re lifestyle suddenly needs an adjustment you may not be capable of making. You’re trapped.

In the soul-destroying jargon of scientific writing, an evolutionary trap occurs when a formerly adaptive strategy becomes maladaptive in the face of human-induced environmental change. In English, it means that something that was good for you suddenly becomes bad, because of a change that humans initiated. Evolutionary traps occur when human behaviour accidentally reroutes an animal’s behaviour away from something good, and towards something harmful to itself.

For an example, consider sea turtles. Sea turtles spend the majority of their long lives as nomadic wanderers in the open ocean, but for reproduction. Female sea turtles drag their not-insignificant bulk out of the forgiving water, and bury their eggs in sandy beaches throughout the tropics. Then they return to the ocean, to let their offspring fend for themselves (remind your ungrateful children of this when they demand an increased allowance – at least you didn’t abandon them on a cold, damp beach). When the baby sea turtles hatch, they have one goal: get to the water. To do this, they follow simple, evolved behavioural cues called ‘Darwinian algorithms’. The simplest is “move towards the light”. This basic rule ensures they dig up, out of the sand, rather than down. Once on the surface on a moonlit night, it ensures they move towards the reflective surface of the ocean water. A basic rule that has served baby sea turtles well for millions of years.

Sea turtle deathtrap. Credit:

Sea turtle deathtrap. Credit:

Until humans discovered electricity and a penchant for beachfront property. Now the sea turtles simple rule backfires, and baby sea turtles hatching at night don’t run towards the ocean, but instead towards the halogen lights of beachside tennis courts and condos and all-night liquor stores. After a hatching, the owners of those properties wake in the morning to find the bodies of baby sea turtles on their doorsteps, dead from exhaustion after a fruitless attempt to find the ocean. The manufactured light of humans overpowers the natural light of the moon, and reroutes the turtles into an evolutionary trap.

That’s one (particularly gruesome) example, but there are more. Grassland birds are predisposed to build nests in open plains. But farm pastures look similar to those plains, and birds that build nests in pastureland are in for a rude surprise when the mechanical harvester comes calling. Manatee’s prefer to winter in warm water – and have recently enjoyed over-wintering near the run-off of coastal power plants, where effluent increases the water temperature. Besides probably being unhealthy, they die of cold if the power plant shuts down for any reason.

Hard to criticize him for swimming in effluent in cold weather. I mean, Canadians go to Arizona in winter - that's basically the same thing. Credit:

Hard to criticize him for swimming in effluent in cold weather. I mean, Canadians go to Arizona in winter – that’s basically the same thing. Credit:

Humans, too, are not immune to an evolutionary trap. For many thousands of years, we have inhabited a world characterized by constant scarcity – particularly food scarcity. Fat, sugar, and salt, were rare and necessary commodities. Because of their rarity, we evolved a craving for these foods – ensuring that we would rarely turn them down if they were available, in order to stockpile resources for the next scarce period.

That worked well, until we created a world that (for some of us) never has a scarce period. In that case, the insatiable cravings for fat and sugar and salt backfire, creating an evolutionary trap that some biologists argue may be one of the causes of the West’s obesity epidemic.

Traps can be escaped. Following a rash of sea turtle deaths in Florida, a lights out policy began to be advocated, mandating that beachfront lighting be turned off or dimmed at night during egg-laying season. It remains to be seen, however, if we can escape the trap that we’ve caught ourselves in.

Featured photo:


Schlaepfer et al. 2002. Ecological and evolutionary traps. TREE 17: 474-480.


The Little Beetle That Could

In 1951, the Hungarian ecologist George Bornemissza moved to Australia, and came to a stark realization: he had just immigrated to a remarkably shitty country. Hold your boos, Australian reader, it’s not a personal insult. It was a serious problem. When the British colonized Australia, and turned it into a penal colony whose current residents are just the descendants of criminals and unwanted riff-raff (that one was personal), they also introduced cattle. Cattle, as any Albertan can attest, produce a lot of manure. When George compared the clean and beautiful cow pastures of his beloved Hungary to his newly adopted home, he noticed something. Australian pastures had a colossal build-up of dried cow pats. For George, this would not do, so he convened a committee to solve the problem, and they hit upon a clever solution: they decided to introduce dung beetles to Australia.

Let’s consider the dung beetle.

Dung beetles are beetles (you may have discerned that on your own), members of the order Coleoptera (Latin meaning “sheathed wing”. Think of a ladybug, the distinctive black and red spotted covering is the sheath, and beneath that covering lies the beetles wings). There are currently over 400,000 species of beetle known to science. That means that beetles account for 40% of all known insect species, and more astonishingly, 25% of all known life-forms. A new species of beetle is discovered almost every day (so if you feel the need to name an animal species after yourself, or want to impress a crush by naming a species after them, becoming a coleopterist offers good odds), and likely well over a million species currently exist. Some estimates range much higher, to over 40 or 50 million species. That’s about the total human population of Spain.

That’s a lot of beetles. Famously (at least in the realm of biological anecdotes) when the evolutionary biologist and geneticist JBS Haldane was asked what the study of nature could reveal about the Creator, Haldane replied “he has an inordinate fondness for beetles.” Haldane wasn’t much for religion, as you might be able to tell.

Who wouldn’t be fond of beetles? They’re kind of cute.

So there are a lot of beetles, but we’re not interested in all of them here. Just dung beetles. You’re likely more familiar with them then you think. Dung beetles are formally known as the Scarabaeoidea (don’t be a scientist if you did poorly at spelling bees). The root of that word may look familiar to any fans of The Mummy or tacky jewlery: scarab. Dung beetles are also known as scarab beetles, though scarab beetles are rarely called dung beetles, which is a bit of a double standard if you ask me. Scarab beetles are an iconic image of Ancient Egypt, and were used as gifts, trade goods, amulets and talismans. According to Egyptian myth, the god of the rising sun, Khepri, rolls the sun (Ra) across the sky every day in the same way that a dung beetle rolls a pile of dung. Interesting imagery, to say the least.

Residents of Calgary will be more intimately familiar with the scarab: for some reason that I’ve never quite understood, the Chinook Centre movie theatre is adorned with Ancient Egyptian symbols, including giant scarab beetles scaling the walls outside.

Yes, Calgary, Canada’s cultural capital of 2012, one of your largest outdoor sculptures is a dung beetle.

There are approximately 6,000 species of dung beetle, and they are present on every continent except Antarctica (scientists describe this as being “cosmopolitan”). They are also an ancient group of animals. Dung beetles are monophyletic – this means that all dung beetles share a common ancestor. There existed, at one point in time, a sort of Ur-Dung Beetle, and all dung beetles have since descended from it. This ancestral beetle evolved on Gondwana, a super-continent which existed 510 to 180 million years ago. That’s old – primates are only 85 million years old at most, and humans are comparative babies, becoming anatomically modern about 200,000 years ago.

Dung beetles are defined by their relationship with their namesake. The scientists who study them generally divide them into three ‘tribes’: tunnellers, burrowers, and rollers (the celebrities of beetle-dom). The names are fairly self-explanatory. Tunnellers bury dung, burrowers live in it, and rollers create massive balls of manure, which they then a) eat, or b) present to their paramour, to serve as a home for their little family of dung-beetle babies.

When George introduced dung beetles he was not deliberately attempting to set off little beetle orgies in the farm fields of Western Australia. He was more interested in their diets. Dung beetles can ingest 100% of their weight every day, in manure. This remarkable gastronomical feat is unique in the animal kingdom – some other insects have a limited ability to ingest waste, but none with quite the gusto that the dung beetle manifests.

This is accomplished in two ways. As a larvae, the dung beetle has tough biting mouth parts which can ingest solid material, making the dung ball a particularly useful brooding chamber: one part nursery, one part all-you-can eat buffet. Adult dung beetles only have filtering mouth parts, and can no longer chew, so they rely on drinking the moisture from dung piles, the “dung slurpie” as one researcher creatively calls it (I bet he is a hit at parties). The two-fold use that dung beetles have for dung, as both a home and a food source, means that they can shovel a tremendous amount of shit. This has immense agricultural benefits. Through their actions, dung beetles fertilize and aerate fields, and help to cycle nutrients through the ecosystem. A few studies have found that the presence of dung beetles in a field can significantly increase a crop yield. Plus they’re cool.

In 1965, George and his team began the process of importing dung beetles to Australia. Currently, 43 species have been introduced, and New Zealand is now eager to get in on the action. The Australian Dung Beetle Programme has been a major success – Australian fields are healthier and more productive, and the tunnelling of dung beetles has improved natural irrigation.

And most importantly, it made Australia a little less full of manure. Well done, George.

Neil Griffin

Originally posted on

Feature image credit: Wikimedia Commons user ‘Kay-africa’