giant ostrich Crimean cave

Bird three times larger than ostrich discovered in Crimean cave

Bird three times larger than ostrich discovered in Crimean cave

First evidence that giant ostrich-like birds once roamed Europe

giant ostrich Crimean cave
PaleoArt of the bird discovered in a Crimean cave. It weighed three times the largest living bird, the common ostrich. Credit: Andrey Atuchin

A surprise discovery in a Crimean cave suggests that early Europeans lived alongside some of the largest ever known birds, according to new research published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

It was previously thought that such gigantism in birds only ever existed on the islands of Madagascar and New Zealand as well as Australia. The newly-discovered specimen, discovered in the Taurida Cave on the northern coast of the Black Sea, suggests a bird as giant as the Madagascan elephant bird or New Zealand moa. It may have been a source of meat, bones, feathers and eggshell for early humans.

"When I first felt the weight of the bird whose thigh bone I was holding in my hand, I thought it must be a Malagasy elephant bird fossil because no birds of this size have ever been reported from Europe. However, the structure of the bone unexpectedly told a different story," says lead author Dr Nikita Zelenkov from the Russian Academy of Sciences.

"We don't have enough data yet to say whether it was most closely related to ostriches or to other birds, but we estimate it weighed about 450kg. This formidable weight is nearly double the largest moa, three times the largest living bird, the common ostrich, and nearly as much as an adult polar bear."

It is the first time a bird of such size has been reported from anywhere in the northern hemisphere. Although the species was previously known, no one ever tried to calculate the size of this animal. The flightless bird, attributed to the species Pachystruthio dmanisensis, was probably at least 3.5 metres tall and would have towered above early humans. It may have been flightless but it was also fast.

While elephant birds were hampered by their great size when it came to speed, the femur of the current bird was relatively long and slim, suggesting it was a better runner. The femur is comparable to modern ostriches as well as smaller species of moa and terror birds. Speed may have been essential to the bird's survival. Alongside its bones, palaeontologists found fossils of highly-specialised, massive carnivores from the Ice Age. They included giant cheetah, giant hyenas and sabre-toothed cats, which were able to prey on mammoths.

Other fossils discovered alongside the specimen, such as bison, help date it to 1.5 to 2 million years ago. A similar range of fossils was discovered at an archaeological site in the town of Dmanisi in Georgia, the oldest hominin site outside Africa. Although previously neglected by science, this suggests the giant bird may have been typical of the animals found at the time when the first hominins arrived in Europe. The authors suggest it reached the Black Sea region via the Southern Caucasus and Turkey.

The body mass of the bird was reconstructed using calculations from several formulae, based on measurements from the femur bone. Applying these formulae, the body mass of the bird was estimated to be around 450kg. Such gigantism may have originally evolved in response to the environment, which was increasingly arid as the Pleistocene epoch approached. Animals with a larger body mass have lower metabolic demands and can therefore make use of less nutritious food growing in open steppes.

"The Taurida cave network was only discovered last summer when a new motorway was being built. Last year, mammoth remains were unearthed and there may be much more to that the site will teach us about Europe's distant past," says Zelenkov.

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glaciers World Heritage list UNESCO

Almost half of World Heritage sites could lose their glaciers by 2100

Almost half of World Heritage sites could lose their glaciers by 2100

glaciers World Heritage list UNESCO
Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch natural World Heritage site. Credit: IUCN/Martin Price

WASHINGTON-- Glaciers are set to disappear completely from almost half of World Heritage sites if business-as-usual emissions continue, according to the first-ever global study of World Heritage glaciers.

The sites are home to some of the world's most iconic glaciers, such as the Grosser Aletschgletscher in the Swiss Alps, Khumbu Glacier in the Himalayas and Greenland's Jakobshavn Isbrae.

The study in the AGU journal Earth's Future and co-authored by scientists from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) combines data from a global glacier inventory, a review of existing literature and sophisticated computer modeling to analyze the current state of World Heritage glaciers, their recent evolution, and their projected mass change over the 21st century.

The authors predict glacier extinction by 2100 under a high emission scenario in 21 of the 46 natural World Heritage sites where glaciers are currently found. Even under a low emission scenario, eight of the 46 World Heritage sites will be ice-free by 2100. The study also expects that 33 percent to 60 percent of the total ice volume present in 2017 will be lost by 2100, depending on the emission scenario.

"Losing these iconic glaciers would be a tragedy and have major consequences for the availability of water resources, sea level rise and weather patterns," said Peter Shadie, Director of the International Union for Conservation of Nature's World Heritage Programme. "This unprecedented decline could also jeopardize the listing of the sites in question on the World Heritage list. States must reinforce their commitments to combat climate change and step up efforts to preserve these glaciers for future generations."

Several iconic landscapes found in World Heritage sites will be impacted by rising temperatures.

  • Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina contains some of the largest glaciers on Earth and a very large ice loss - about 60 percent of the current volume - is predicted by 2100 within this site.
  • In North America, Waterton Glacier International Peace Park, Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks and Olympic National Park could also lose more than 70 percent of their current glacier ice by 2100, even under drastically lowered carbon dioxide emissions.
  • In Europe, the disappearance of small glaciers is projected in the Pyrénées - Mont Perdu World Heritage site before 2040.
  • Te Wahipounamu - South West New Zealand, which contains three quarters of New Zealand's glaciers, is projected to lose 25 percent to 80 percent of the current ice volume over the course of this century.

Beyond these alarming results, the authors emphasize the key role that glaciers play for ecosystems and societies at a global scale. Glacier conservation could thus serve as a trigger to tackle the unprecedented issue of climate change.

"To preserve these iconic glaciers found in World Heritage sites, we urgently need to see significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. This is the only way of avoiding long-lasting and irreversible glacier decline and the related major natural, social, economic and migratory cascading consequences," says Jean-Baptiste Bosson, scientific advisor for the IUCN's World Heritage programme and lead author of the new study. "The study on glacier decline further emphasizes the need for individual and collective actions to achieve the mitigation and adaptation aspirations of the Paris Agreement on climate change."

Climate change is the fastest growing threat to natural World Heritage sites, according to the IUCN World Heritage Outlook 2 report, with the number of sites threatened by climate change doubling between 2014 and 2017.

The authors of the study also developed the first ever inventory of glaciers on the UNESCO World Heritage list, documenting about 19,000 glaciers present in 46 out of the 247 natural World Heritage sites.

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Multiple Denisovan-related ancestries in Papuans

Multiple Denisovan-related ancestries in Papuans

DNA sequences from Indonesia and New Guinea reveal new branches of the Denisovan family tree

Papuans Papua New Guinea Denisovans
People from New Guinea and nearby islands, such as these children from Kei Island, carry evidence of ancestry from more than one group of Denisovans. Credit: © Isabella Apriyana

As they dispersed out of Africa anatomically modern humans interbred with their close relatives, the Neanderthals and Denisovans. An international research team examined DNA fragments passed down from these ancient hominins to modern people living in Island Southeast Asia and New Guinea. Their study suggests that the ancestry of Papuans includes not just one but two distinct Denisovan lineages, which had been separated from each other for hundreds of thousands of years. In fact, one of those Denisovan lineages is so different from the other that they might even be considered an entirely new group of archaic hominins.

The findings are based on a new study led by Murray Cox from Massey University in New Zealand and made possible by sampling efforts led by Herawati Sudoyo from the Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology in Jakarta, Indonesia. The data were collected and analyzed by an international team of researchers, including Mark Stoneking from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Taken together with previous work - which has pointed to a third Denisovan lineage in the genomes of modern Siberians, Native Americans, and East Asians - the evidence "suggests that modern humans interbred with multiple Denisovan populations, which were geographically isolated from each other over deep evolutionary time," the researchers write.

The new evidence also unexpectedly shows extra mixing between Papuans and one of the two Denisovan groups, suggesting that this group actually lived in New Guinea or its adjacent islands. Moreover, Denisovans may have lived in the area until as recently as 30,000 years ago, making them one of the last surviving groups of archaic hominins. "People used to think that Denisovans lived on the Asian mainland and far to the north," says Cox. "Our work instead shows that the center of archaic diversity was not in Europe or the frozen north, but instead in tropical Asia." Stoneking adds, "Moreover, this archaic diversity seems to have persisted much longer in Island Southeast Asia and New Guinea than elsewhere in the world."

It had already been clear that Island Southeast Asia and New Guinea was a special place, with individuals there carrying more archaic hominin DNA than anywhere else on Earth. The region was also recognized as key to the early evolution of Homo sapiens outside Africa. But there were gaps in the story.

Divergent Denisovan lineages

To help fill those gaps, the team identified stretches of archaic DNA from 161 new genomes spanning 14 island groups in Island Southeast Asia and New Guinea. Their analyses uncovered large stretches of DNA that did not jibe with a single introgression of genes from Denisovans into humans in the region. Instead, they report, modern Papuans carry hundreds of gene variants from two deeply divergent Denisovan lineages. In fact, they estimate that those two groups of Denisovans had been separated from one another for 350,000 years.

The new findings highlight how "incredibly understudied" this part of the world has been, the researchers say. To put it in context, many of the study's participants live in Indonesia, a country the size of Europe that is the 4th largest country in the world based on population size. And yet, apart from a handful of genome sequences reported in a global survey of genomic diversity in 2016, the new paper reports the first Indonesian genome sequences. There also has been a strong bias in studies of archaic hominins toward Europe and northern Eurasia, because DNA collected from ancient bones survives best in the cold north.

Missing data bias scientific interpretation

This lack of global representation in both ancient and modern genome data is well noted, the researchers say. "However, we don't think that people have really grasped just how much of a bias this puts on scientific interpretations - such as, here, the geographical distribution of archaic hominin populations," Cox says.

As fascinating as these new findings are, the researchers say their primary aim is to use this new genomic data to help improve healthcare for people in Island Southeast Asia. They say this first genome survey in the region now offers the baseline information needed to set that work in motion.

People from New Guinea and nearby islands carry evidence of ancestry from more than one group of Denisovans. Credit: © Mark Stoneking

Press release from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology