So Nice They Named It Twice: Gorilla and Bison

I have a fascination with scientific names that have an identical (or nearly identical) genus and species epithet. So nice they named it twice! Here are somebrief introductions to some of these plants and animals. If you know of any more, feel free to include them in the comments and I will add them to my list.

Gorilla gorilla

Cross River gorilla, Limbe Wildlife Centre, Cameroon. Photo by Arend de Haas (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Gorilla gorilla is commonly known as the Western gorilla and is divided into 2 subspecies: western lowland gorillas and Cross River gorillas. They are critically endangered great apes endemic to western Africa. After chimpanzees and bonobos, gorillas are humans’ closest relatives. Unfortunately human activities including poaching, commercial logging, and civil wars are primarily to blame for the gorillas’ decline.

Gorillas live in groups of up to 20 individuals, with a dominant silverback male as well as several females and their offspring. Despite their immense size and fearsome teeth, their diet consists mainly of plant matter and invertebrates.

Bison bison

American bison. (Photos by Eadweard Muybridge, animation by Waugsberg)

There are only 2 living species of bison: the American bison (Bison bison) and the European bison (B. bonasus). Despite commonly being referred to as ‘buffalo’, bison are distantly related to buffalo. However, bison are very closely related to cattle and are sometimes bred and called ‘beefalo’. As recently as the Ice Age there were other species of bison (with very impressive horns) wandering the plains of North America and into Central Asia and Western Europe (B. antiquusB. latifronsB. occidentalisand B. priscus).

Until relatively recently, bison roamed across much of North America: from the Appalachian Mountains to eastern Oregon and from northern Mexico to Alaska. Unfortunately, as settlers spread across what would become the United States they took advantage of this abundant source of meat (as anyone who has played Oregon Trail knows). Today bison are restricted to isolated patches in the Rocky Mountains of the United States and Canada.

Word Wednesday: Australopithecus

Paleontology and paleoanthropology are full of unwieldy scientific names and these names crop up from time to time in news stories. I will be discussing the meaning of the names of three alliterative hominid species: Australopithecus afarensisAustralopithecus africanus, and Australopithecus anamensis.

Australopithecus

Australopithecus breaks down into two parts: australo and –pithecusAustralo comes from the Latin word ‘australis‘ which means southern and pithecus comes from the Greek word ‘pithekos‘ which means ape. Australopithecus is a genus of gracile hominids that originated in eastern Africa around 4 million years ago and went extinct around 2 million years ago.

anamensis

Anamensis breaks down into two parts: anam and –ensisAnam comes from the Turkana word for lake, and ensis is a Latin word which means belong to or originating in. Therefore, Australopithecus anamensis means southern ape originating in a lake. The first fossils were found  near Lake Turkana in Kenya and were named for the region. Fossils have also been found in the Middle Awash of Ethiopia. Australopithecus anamensis lived in East Africa between 4.2 to 3.9 million years ago.

afarensis

Afarensis breaks down into two parts: afar and –ensisAfar is a region in Ethiopia and we already know that ensis means originating inAustralopithecus afarensis therefore means southern ape originating in the Afar. Many fossils have been found in East Africa and fossil sites include those in Hadar (part of the Afar region of Ethiopia) and Laetoli in Tanzania, as well as other sites in Ethiopia and Kenya. Australopithecus afarensis is best known for including Lucy and the makers of the Laetoli footprints. Australopithecus afarensis lived in East Africa between 3.85 and 2.95 million years ago. 

The Taung Child (By Guerin Nicolas via Wikimedia Commons)

africanus

Africanus is the Latin word for Africa, so Australopithecus africanus means southern ape from Africa. Unlike Australopithecus anamensis and Australopithecus afarensis, this species has been found at 4 sites in South Africa: Taung, Sterkfontein, Makapansgat, and Gladysvale. The first Australopithecus africanus fossil was the Taung Child found by Raymond Dart in 1924. The Taung Child was the first specimen to be included in the genus Australopithecus. They lived in South Africa between 3.3 and 2.1 million years ago.

This list only includes some of the gracile australopithecines. There are other species within Australopithecus, as well as the robust australopithecines that have been placed in either Australopithecus or Paranthropus. However, that is a discussion for another day.

To learn more about the species I mentioned above, I recommend the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Human Origins website. If you want to learn more about human evolution, I highly recommend John Hawks’ blog.

Check out this song about australopithecines!

This Week in Science: October 19-25 2013

‘How many ‘human’ species are there? Is it even a real question? Why does anybody care?’

You want a great white shark on your side during the zombie apocalypse.

Even turtles get the bends.

The past meets the future: paleontology and photogrammetry.

The man who forgot everything.’

Since it’s almost Halloween: ‘Where did the fear of poisoned Halloween candy come from?

Losing fossils to thieves and private collectors is a terrible thing for science.

When did humans split from Neanderthals?

Caitlin Syme explains some of the details of her taphonomy research.

If only I had found a juvenile hadrosaur when I was in high school! It’s so cute! Here’s more about it.

Interested in paleontology? Check out the Palaeocast podcast.

Sorry to break it to you, but crocs eat fruit, as well as everything else.

And if you are curious as to how croc sex works

The remipede is the only venomous crustacean and it means business.

More on the Dmanisi skulls.

The level of preservation of these Archaeopteryx fossils is incredible.

Plants aren’t as harmless as you might think. Even plants you eat every day can be lethal if not prepared properly.

Why is human childbirth so painful?

How do scientists know the age of rocks and fossils?

This Week in Science: October 12-18 2013

Maritime Moose Sex Corridor‘.

Our planet didn’t always have oxygen in the atmosphere and the key to life came from life.

Giant Chinese salamanders are the size of a person, smell like pepper and sound like a child.

A lot of Snapple’s “Real Facts” aren’t facts at all.

The myth of NASA’s expensive space pens‘.

I love Emily Graslie’s YouTube channel and you should check out how she ended up being a passionate advocate for museums.

If there is ever a zombie apocalypse, nature will win.

Bogs, bugs and bryophytes: reconstructing past climate from peatlands‘.

Almost like Jurassic Park: a blood-filled mosquito fossil.

11 Unsung Science Heroines You Really Should Have Heard Of‘.

This might come as a surprise, but Finding Nemo wasn’t entirely accurate: whales don’t shoot water out of their blowholes.

Ancient oceans: their names and how we know where they were.

The Brilliant Botany YouTube channel is amazing and informative and I highly recommend it!

Which T. rex is the largest of them all?

Fish Evolve Stabbier Genitals When Predators Are Near‘.

A Nervous System From Half A Billion Years Ago‘.

Fossil skulls from Dmanisi shed light on human ancestors.

The government shutdown could have a permanent impact on science.

Check out this video about why paleontology rocks!

Scientific Controversy: The Earliest Human Ancestor?

For many, the holy grail of paleoanthropology is to find the earliest human ancestor. For the last decade there have been three primary candidates: Ardipithecus kadabba, Orrorin tugensis, and Sahelanthropus tchadensisA. kadabba lived in the Middle Awash Valley of Ethiopia between 5.8 and 5.2 million years ago, O. tugensis was found in the Tugen Hills of central Kenya between 6.2 and 5.8 million years ago, and the oldest, S. tchadensis lived in Chad between 7 and 6 million years ago.

Cases have been made for and against these three species and anthropologists can not agree on our earliest ancestor. Brunet and his team, the fossil’s discoverers, suggested the S. tchadensis (nicknamed Toumaï) lived just after human’s split from chimpanzees, our nearest ancestor. They put forth Toumaï’s relatively small canine teeth and forward foramen magnum as evidence. Critics believed that Toumaï was cranially too primitive and too old, and therefore came before the split. However, more information has come to light. New analysis of the braincase suggests that Toumaï is more similar to us than originally thought.

At the Collège de France, Thibaut Bienvenu and his team have reconstructed the distorted skull and revealed the key to Toumaï’s braincase: the endocast. An endocast is a mold of the inside of the braincase and allows scientists to measure the approximate size and shape of Toumaï’s brain. By virtually reconstructing the endocast, Bienvenu’s team could correct for the distortion and produce an accurate representation of what the brain was actually like. The reconstruction showed that while Toumaï had a relatively small cranial capacity (only 378 cubic centimeters), morphologically it was similar to that of a hominin (human ancestors).

This new information could help to shine light on our earliest human ancestor and help us to piece together our evolutionary history. However, science is rarely straightforward and this is probably not the last that we have heard of this debate.

For more information, check out Kate Wong’s Scientific American blog!

Brain Shape Confirms Controversial Fossil as Oldest Human Ancestor

Smithsonian: Human Evolution