This species was not a savanna species like Darwin proposed,” said University of Illinois anthropology professor Stanley Ambrose, a co-author of two of 11 studies published this week in Science on the hominid, Ardipithecus ramidus. This creature, believed to be an early ancestor of the human lineage, lived in Ethiopia some 4.4 million years ago.
One of the crucial pieces of evidence to show that Darwin didn’t get it right, Ambrose said, was the analysis of carbon isotopes in the soil and in the teeth of Ardipithecus and other animals that lived at roughly the same time and in the same location.
The mass of carbon atoms in the atmosphere varies, and during photosynthesis, trees and tropical grasses absorb different proportions of carbon-12, the most common carbon isotope, and carbon-13, which is rare. These isotopes pass into the soil and into the bodies of animals that eat the plants, making it possible to accurately reconstruct the proportions of grass to trees on the landscape and in the diets of the animals that lived there.
Ambrose analyzed stable carbon isotope ratios in the soil in which the bones of 36 Ardipithecus individuals were found. He also analyzed the teeth of five Ardipithecus individuals and 172 teeth of two-dozen mammal species found in the same ancient soil layer.
The fossil-bearing layer, in the Afar Rift region of northeastern Ethiopia, spans a broad arc about 9 kilometers long. Sandwiched between two layers of volcanic ash that both date to about the same age, it provides a well-focused snapshot of an ancient African ecosystem.
The carbon isotope ratios of the soils indicated that in the time of Ardipithecus the landscape varied from woodland in the western part of the study zone to wooded grassland in the east. None of the Ardipithecus specimens were found in the grassy eastern part of the arc.
“Fossils of many species are common all the way across the landscape,” Ambrose said. “But this species is missing in action from the east side of the distribution.”
Isotopic analysis of teeth found on the site gave a more complete picture of the habitat of the animals that lived and died there, Ambrose said.
“The distribution of plant carbon isotope ratios conveniently separates out grasslands from forests,” he said. “And it also separates out grazing animals, like zebras, from browsing animals that eat the leaves off of trees, like giraffes.”
The distribution of the fossil browsers and grazers echoed that of the habitat, he said.
“On the west we find lots of Ardipithecus fossils and they’re associated with a lot of woodland and forest animals,” he said. “And then there’s a break; Ardipithecus and most of the monkeys that live in trees disappear, and grass-eating animals become more abundant.”
The carbon isotope ratios of the Ardipithecus teeth also tell the story of a woodland creature, he said.
“The diet of the Ardipithecus is much more on the woodland and forest side,” he said. “It’s got a little bit more of the grassland ecosystem carbon in its diet than that of a chimpanzee but much less than its fully bipedal savanna-dwelling descendents, the australopithecines.”
This evidence, along with the anatomical studies indicating that Ardipithecus could walk upright but also grasped tree limbs with its feet, suggests that this early hominid took its first steps on two legs in the forest long before it ventured very far into the open grassland, Ambrose said.
“Multiple lines of evidence now suggest that they were beginning to leave the trees before they left the forest,” he said.
Diana Yates | EurekAlert!
In times of climate change: What a lake’s colour can tell about its condition
21.09.2017 | Leibniz-Institut für Gewässerökologie und Binnenfischerei (IGB)
Did marine sponges trigger the ‘Cambrian explosion’ through ‘ecosystem engineering’?
21.09.2017 | Helmholtz-Zentrum Potsdam - Deutsches GeoForschungsZentrum GFZ
Plants and algae use the enzyme Rubisco to fix carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere and converting it into biomass. Algae have figured out a way to increase the efficiency of carbon fixation. They gather most of their Rubisco into a ball-shaped microcompartment called the pyrenoid, which they flood with a high local concentration of carbon dioxide. A team of scientists at Princeton University, the Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford University and the Max Plank Institute of Biochemistry have unravelled the mysteries of how the pyrenoid is assembled. These insights can help to engineer crops that remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while producing more food.
A warming planet
Our brains house extremely complex neuronal circuits, whose detailed structures are still largely unknown. This is especially true for the so-called cerebral cortex of mammals, where among other things vision, thoughts or spatial orientation are being computed. Here the rules by which nerve cells are connected to each other are only partly understood. A team of scientists around Moritz Helmstaedter at the Frankfiurt Max Planck Institute for Brain Research and Helene Schmidt (Humboldt University in Berlin) have now discovered a surprisingly precise nerve cell connectivity pattern in the part of the cerebral cortex that is responsible for orienting the individual animal or human in space.
The researchers report online in Nature (Schmidt et al., 2017. Axonal synapse sorting in medial entorhinal cortex, DOI: 10.1038/nature24005) that synapses in...
Whispering gallery mode (WGM) resonators are used to make tiny micro-lasers, sensors, switches, routers and other devices. These tiny structures rely on a...
Using ultrafast flashes of laser and x-ray radiation, scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics (Garching, Germany) took snapshots of the briefest electron motion inside a solid material to date. The electron motion lasted only 750 billionths of the billionth of a second before it fainted, setting a new record of human capability to capture ultrafast processes inside solids!
When x-rays shine onto solid materials or large molecules, an electron is pushed away from its original place near the nucleus of the atom, leaving a hole...
For the first time, physicists have successfully imaged spiral magnetic ordering in a multiferroic material. These materials are considered highly promising candidates for future data storage media. The researchers were able to prove their findings using unique quantum sensors that were developed at Basel University and that can analyze electromagnetic fields on the nanometer scale. The results – obtained by scientists from the University of Basel’s Department of Physics, the Swiss Nanoscience Institute, the University of Montpellier and several laboratories from University Paris-Saclay – were recently published in the journal Nature.
Multiferroics are materials that simultaneously react to electric and magnetic fields. These two properties are rarely found together, and their combined...
19.09.2017 | Event News
12.09.2017 | Event News
06.09.2017 | Event News
22.09.2017 | Life Sciences
22.09.2017 | Medical Engineering
22.09.2017 | Physics and Astronomy