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Home / Science / BBC – Future – Strange Evolution: The Strange Future of Life on Earth

BBC – Future – Strange Evolution: The Strange Future of Life on Earth



In the early 1980s, author Dougal Dixon published a cult book entitled After Man: A Zoology of the Future, in which he imagined what life would be like in millions of years. Dixon imagined shrews using their tails as parachutes, flying monkeys (or "flunkeys"), super-long snakes catching birds in the midst of flight, night sailors spearing their prey with long spines on their chests, and flower-faced birds and bats who land pollinating insects in their hungry mouths.

Shrews using their tails as parachutes, flying monkeys (or "flunkeys") and flower-faced birds and bats. Decades later, Dixon said his book was not an attempt to predict the future, but an exploration of all the possibilities of the natural world. "Popular science books on evolution seem to indicate that evolution is something that has happened in the past, although this is not intended," he says. "That's not the case at all, evolution is happening today, it's going to continue in the future, long after we leave."

While Dixon's book was a fiction, most biologists agree that the Earth is in millions "I think it will look and feel like a foreign planet," says Athena Aktipis, an evolutionary biologist at Arizona State University, who would have been unlikely from the perspective of the dinosaur era Looking at life in the future, which creatures could evolve in, say, 1

00 million years, considering what we know about life on earth and the principles of evolution?

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Let's start by zooming back millions of years into a much earlier era of life our planet. According to Jonathan Losos, an evolutionary biologist at Washington University in St. Louis, about 540 million years ago, the earth was populated by a series of "crazy" and "cartoonist" creatures.

"The Burgess Shale [in Canada] was inhabited by a true bestiary of the bizarre," he writes in his book "Improbable Fates: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution." An Animal, Hallucigenia was "similar to something from a Futurama episode" with its thin, tubular body covered with rows of giant spines and rod-shaped claw appendages.

So, it's not impossible that similarly strange and unusual creatures will develop in the future. "Almost everything you can imagine has developed in some species at some point," argues Losos. "If we have enough time, even the unlikely will happen at some point."

According to Losos, the world of biological possibilities is huge and we may not have seen everything yet. "At any rate, I'm not convinced that life on Earth has revealed every conceivable way of existing on a planet like ours or even most," he writes. Nevertheless, it is difficult to predict which of these possibilities we can end up with. Losos' book analyzes the arguments for and against the predictability of evolution: the question of whether history would repeat itself if we "repeat the bond of life". The evidence is divided and we simply do not know to what extent the evolution over long periods of time is predictable and repeatable. Add to that a random factor – a huge volcanic eruption or an asteroid that hits Earth, and solid predictions become nearly impossible.

Nevertheless, we can make well-founded assumptions.

We need to look at the implications of a great evolutionary force that is already changing life worldwide: Homo sapiens .

We can observe the development of a bird's beak specialized in feeding from tin cans.

If humans thrive millions of years, they will have a significant impact on future development, and natural selection will spawn new kinds of lives to deal with the altered and probably polluted environments we create. "We can see the development of a bird's beak specializing in feeding from tin cans or rats that develop oily fur to remove toxic sewage," writes Peter Ward, paleontologist at the University of Washington, Seattle, in his 2001 book Future Evolution.

Ward sees opportunities for new species that have "weedy" properties – robust, adaptable creatures that do not mind living with humans and making use of their world, such as domestic cats, rats and raccoons, coyotes, crows, Pigeons, starlings, sparrows, fleas, fleas, ticks and intestinal parasites.

On a hotter, drier earth that is heated by man, a lack of fresh water can also lead to new adjustments. "I could imagine animals doing strange specializations to get airborne moisture," says Patricia Brennan, an evolutionary biologist at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. "Larger animals could develop things like extended sails or flaps that they could pull out in the early morning to try to trap moisture. For example, the ruffle collar of some lizards could become very large and exaggerated to collect water in this way.

In a hotter world, Brennan also sees the rise of naked mammals and birds: "In some, mammals may lose pelt stains and accumulate water in their skin pockets. On a warming planet, endothermic animals [those that generate their own heat] can have a hard time, so birds in warmer climates can lose contour feathers to prevent overheating, and mammals can lose most of their fur. "

Future people may also choose to manipulate life directly – in fact it is already happening. As researcher Lauren Holt wrote earlier this year for BBC Future's Deep Civilization series, a life on earth could be a "post-natural" one. In this scenario, genetic engineering, biotechnology, and the impact of human culture could shift evolution from completely different pathways, from mosquitoes that contain gene drives, to mechanical pollinator drones. The evolution of life would be intertwined with humanity's own desires and needs.

There are, however, alternative ways for future evolution: For example, our enlightened offspring might choose to revive nature and let natural evolution take its course, or humanity may die out (that was the scenario of After Man) ,

In particular, extinction can lead to a comprehensive evolutionary innovation. In essence, a mass extinction puts back the evolution clock, Ward argues. After the mass extinction the plants and animals of the earth radically changed.

The extinction of the Permian some 252 million years ago eradicated over 95% of marine and 70% of land species, including fin-backed reptiles and massive mammals. like reptiles that ruled the earth at that time. There was room for the dinosaurs to evolve and take over as dominant land animals, a result that was perhaps as unlikely and unexpected as the takeover by mammals when they replaced the dinosaurs after the Cretaceous mass extinction.

This article is part of a BBC Future series on the long-term perspective of our world, designed to stand out from the daily news cycle and expand the lens of our current location over time.

Modern society suffers from "fatigue," sociologist Elise Boulding once said. "When you're mentally out of breath all the time because you're busy with the present, there's no energy left to imagine the future," she wrote.

For this reason, the Deep Civilization season explores what is really important in the wider arc of human history and what it means to us and our descendants.

"There was not only sales, but also a change," writes Ward. "The mass extinction has changed more than just the number of species on Earth. They have also changed the composition of the earth. "

After extinction, some biologists believe that new ways of life can develop with new abilities, so different that we can not even imagine what they might look like, for example, oxygen-breathing animals would be the first billions Years of life on Earth had been unthinkable, as oxygen was scarce and cells had not evolved to use it for energy purposes, which changed forever with the great oxidation event about 2.4 billion years ago, when the arrival of photosynthetic bacteria

"The microbes caused the entire planet to contain oxygen, and that caused a great shift," says Leonora Bittelston, an evolutionary biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "There were many innovations that were difficult had to predict before they entered – but as soon as they entered, they changed us eren planet. "

So, if humans die off, how wild and refined could things become 100 million years from now? Could we see how trees start to run or eat animals after killing them with toxic fumes or poisonous arrows? Could life in the sea change when spiders go into the water and catch sardines with their nets while fish learn to fly to feed on insects and birds? Could deep-sea animals project bright holograms to deceive predators, attract prey, or impress potential companions? Maybe killer whales and catfish will regain their ancestral ability to land, so they can hunt more effectively on land?

How wild and refined could things become when people die?

Could we also see organisms living in hitherto unexplored habitats: For example, giant, light poisonous mushrooms that float in the air like an air jelly and entangle and consume everything they encounter? Or could insects and spiders build silk nests in the clouds and feed on photosynthetic organisms in the sky? And if plants or microbes developed something like solar panels to track and focus sunlight, could green life oases flourish on icy glaciers?

None of these fantastic beings sounds impossible, says Aktipis. Many of them are based on what nature already has: there are sailors and gliding spiders, there is microbial life in the clouds, and deep sea angler fish dangle with bioluminescent spheres in front of them to attract prey. Some killer whales and catfish populations can go hunting for animals along the coast, and small independent life oases thrive on ice, where there are residues of cryoconite, a black dust from soot, rocks and microbes.

Jo Wolfe Harvard University evolutionary biologist notes that some trees can "walk" very slowly when moving towards water sources, and it may be possible for trees to develop to hunt with poisonous gases or even branches , We already have carnivorous plants like the Venus flytrap. She also points to the existence of spiders eating fish, and says that cloud-dwelling microbes could possibly evolve from the multitude of tiny organisms known as Prochlorococcus living in the topmost layers of the ocean.

In nature, extreme environments are often all that is needed for unusual adjustments. The Earth already has many, and that will not change. For example, imagine how the male devil reacted to the serious shortage of potential partners in the deep sea. When he meets a woman, he actually fuses with her body. "It's so unlikely that he'll ever meet another woman, that he'll just give up and become a sperm accessory for her," says Kristin Hook, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Maybe we see animals doing more such things, and in time I would imagine that selecting for animals that can fertilize themselves when they find partners is almost impossible."

According to our knowledge of nature we should not I do not assume that future creatures will be limited to their current habitats. Biochemist and author Lynn Caporale points out that some "flying" fish can already catch insects (and even birds) and some fish can go ashore and even climb trees. Even cuttlefish occasionally fly over the sea surface and use splashes of water as propulsion and fins as wings.

Imagine a toad that evolves into a "zeppelinoid," a new species of floating animal that conquers the lower atmosphere.

The potential for habitat change leads to some fantastic possibilities. Imagine a toad whose esophagus swells outward, like a large gas bag used to make mating calls. Ward playfully imagines in his book that it evolves into "Zeppelinoid," a new species of floating animal that will conquer the lower atmosphere. The toad could evolve to make hydrogen out of water and store it in her throat, which helps her to hop and eventually float in the air. His legs – which are no longer needed for walking – could become dangling tentacles used for feeding, and it would turn out to be big to avoid being eaten – maybe even bigger than a blue whale. Huge zeppelinoids hovered like jellyfish in the air, pulling their tentacles to catch prey like deer, and grazing on treetops. They would fill the sky and their shadows would dominate the landscape – the age of the flying toad.

Zeppelinoids, says Ward, are "a fairy tale – but there is a glimmer of reality in this fable." Once upon a time there was the first flying organism and the first floating organism, and we know that more species evolved rapidly as innovation enabled them to adopt a habitat to which they had previously had no access.

Given our understanding of evolution and genetics is incomplete, and so much is likely to depend on random events, no one can know for sure what future life will look like. Choosing the evolutionary winners of the future is like trying to pick winners on the stock exchange or predicting the weather, Ward writes. We have some data to make well-founded assumptions, but also a high degree of uncertainty. "The colors, habits and forms of the newly developed fauna can only be guessed."

Losos agrees. "At the end of the day," he says, "the possibilities are so great and uncertain that it really makes no sense to speculate on what life might look like – there are far too many degrees of freedom." Life could have so many different things

But if the weirdness of today's life is a guide, we should not overlook the possibility that future development will take some truly startling paths, and much of the current natural creativity and diversity remains unexplored.

In fact, Dixon notes that some of the original "purely speculative" creations he described in his 1981 after-man book were later discovered: for example, rappers and snakes that can snap bats from the air In 2018 of the book he said: "In many cases, I came across a new ecological or evolutionary development and thought: If I had inserted this into After Man, everyone would have laughed. "

Mico Tatalovic is a freelance journalist and tweeter @MTatalovic

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