Thursday, 19 March 2015

A leadership role for post-menopausal killer whales

Male killer whale (Orcinus orca) near Tysfjord, Norway
Wikimedia Commons (CC)
The male killer whale above may have an impressive dorsal fin, but when it comes to leadership, older females play a greater role. A recent study of a resident population found that females with an age of 35 or older led the pod, especially when food resources were scarce.

Ovarian function in whales has been assessed by counting the number of corpora lutea and corpora albicantia in each ovary. Baleen whales ovulate from both ovaries with about the same frequency. In toothed whales, however, the left ovary tends to be more active. In some dolphins, all ovulations occur on the left side early in life; later the right ovary kicks in, perhaps because the left ovary is becoming exhausted. According to the renowned scientist Seiji Ohsumi, this pattern occurs in the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) and striped dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba).

In some cetaceans, it would seem the ovaries have a limited capacity. Once it is exhausted the females enter a post-reproductive phase that has been likened to human menopause. This was documented for the short-finned pilot whale (Globicephala macrorhynchus) by Marsh and Kasuya and later for the killer whale (Orcinus orca).

A resident population of killer whales off the coast of British Columbia and Washington State has been under observations for years. Individuals can be identified in the field and their ages are known. Their main source of food is Chinook salmon. When resources were scarce the hunt was led by females of post-reproductive age.

Does this provide an explanation for "the evolution of menopause" as the authors of the new study suggest? To my thinking that is a bit of a stretch.    

Ohsumi S. Scientific Reports of the Whale Research Institute 1964; 18: 123-49.

Marsh H, Kasuya t. Rep. Int. Whaling Commission (Special Issues) 1986; 8: 57-74. 

Thursday, 5 March 2015

East African fossils cast new light on the origins of Homo

Reconstructed skull of Homo rudolfensis (KNM ER 1470)
Wikipedia Commons (CC) Durova
This week two important papers address the antiquity and diversity of the genus Homo.

A study published in Nature (here) takes a fresh look at Homo habilis, "The Handy Man," first described half a century ago (see previous post). The mandible (lower jaw) of the type specimen (OH 7) is badly distorted, but has been reconstructed using state-of-the-art computer tomography and 3D imaging technology. Comparison with other fossil mandibles from the region shows that not all can be ascribed to H. habilis. Indirectly. this supports the validity of Homo rudolfensis (pictured) as a distinct species.

A similar approach yielded a new estimate for the endocranial volume of OH 7 (a proxy for brain size). Interestingly, similar values are obtained for H. habilis, H. rudolfensis and H. erectus

A new fossil from Ethiopia, described in Science (here and here), is too incomplete to assign to a species. It is exciting because it can be assigned to the genus Homo and is 400,000 years older than all previous fossils. It pushes the origin of our genus back to at least 2.8 million years ago. There could well be overlap with Australopithecus afarensis best known from the skeletal remains of "Lucy"