New study to uncover how climate change and tectonics drove evolution in East Africa

First-of-its-kind international study is rooted in 17 million year-old whale fossil


Grant Announcement


STONY BROOK, NY, (Under Embargo until September 25, 12:01 AM, EST) – A 17 million-year-old whale fossil discovered in the 1970s is the impetus for new research by an international team led by Stony Brook University that takes a unique approach to uncovering the course of mammalian evolution in East Africa.

The whale fossil represents a massive change from the Miocene to today in Kenya’s Turkana Basin, as the fossil of this sea animal was originally found 740 miles inland and 620 meters in elevation – an indication perhaps of a transformed geological and ecological landscape with the open-ended question: Why was the whale there?

That is one of the questions the Stony Brook University-led international team will seek to answer when it launches the new, first-of-its-kind project in January 2021. The aim is to understand how climate change and tectonics on Miocene ecosystems in this region influenced life and evolution, from the whale to now.

The work is supported by a four-year $2.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Frontier Research in Earth Sciences (FRES) Program. Named the Turkana Miocene Project, the research is multinational, interdisciplinary and involves five core U.S. universities. The goal is to better define through fieldwork, laboratory analysis and climate modeling how tectonics and climate interacted to shape the environment that gave rise to the ancestors of humans and our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangs that emerged in Africa.

“A longstanding question at the intersection of Earth and Life Sciences is: What roles, if any, do climate and tectonics play in the evolution of life? The East African Rift is among the best places to study the influences of Earth processes on the evolution of mammals,” explains Isaiah Nengo, PhD, Principal Investigator, Professor of Anthropology and Associate Director of Stony Brook University’s Turkana Basin Institute (TBI). “Here, uniquely, the region’s geologic and climate histories, including the formation of the rift system that is the cradle of humankind, are preserved in sedimentary rocks. Our collaborative work will tease out how tectonics and climate come together to drive evolution.”

The research team will tackle a task not done before by investigating the basin’s sediments, and the fossils they contain, to gain insight into ancient climate and habitats that record the emergence of humans, their primate ancestors, and African mammals over the last 25 million years.

It is estimated that the human-chimpanzee common ancestor evolved approximately 7.5 million years ago (mya) and diverged from the common ancestor with the gorilla ancestor about 9.3 mya. Meanwhile, the common ancestor of the great apes and humans is estimated to have diverged from the ancestor of the gibbons and siamangs approximately 19.1 mya. All these key divergence events would have occurred in the time period known as the Miocene (from about 23 mya to 5 mya).

Professor Nengo will collaborate with Stony Brook Geosciences Professors and co-investigators Gregory Henkes and William Holt, along with the international team. They will explore relationships between tectonics, climate, and mammal evolution in the Turkana Basin using integrated field, laboratory, and modeling studies.

New and existing data will be combined to study the links between rift development, climate change, and their respective roles in vegetation and mammal evolution.

Years one and two will consist of data collection from the field. The third year will involve laboratory analyses. In the fourth year, the team will conduct the analysis and be on site at TBI to produce a tectonic model that reconstructs rift evolution in this region of East Africa over the past 25 million years or Miocene period.

That tectonic model will be integrated with climate-vegetation models of equal or better resolution. Independent geological, geochemical, paleoecological, and paleontological data will be used to validate these model outputs to distinguish the influences of tectonics and climate on the evolution of Turkana ecosystems and mammals.

“This integrated approach across geoscience subdisciplines is really the future of paleoenvironmental reconstruction,” adds Gregory Henkes, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook University. “The challenge of separating commingled effects of climate, tectonics, and evolution is incredibly complex. We hope to leverage the best of these different approaches to demonstrate that its possible, at least at the scale of a single, very important basin.”


About the FRES-Supported International Research Team

The international team members include experts in tectonics, sedimentology, geochronology, isotope geochemistry, paleoecology, climate modeling, and paleontology.

The Turkana Miocene Project includes five core institutions: Stony Brook University, Rutgers University, Hamilton College, the University of Michigan, and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University (Lamont).

International collaborators include team members based at the National Museums of Kenya and University of Helsinki, Finland.

NSF’s FRES also provides funding to complete extensive fieldwork that will provide training for a cohort of students and postdocs at Stony Brook University, Lamont, Rutgers, Michigan, Hamilton College, and Turkana University College.

The project involves four existing members of Interdepartmental Doctoral in Anthropological Sciences (IDPAS) at Stony Brook and the incoming Presidential TBI hire in E&E, Tara Smiley.

Other co-investigators include: Kevin Uno at Columbia; Craig Feibel at Rutgers; Catherine Beck at Hamilton College; Chris Poulsen at Michigan; and IDPAS faculty members Troy Rasbury (Geosciences)and Gabrielle Russo (Anthropology); Sidney Hemming (Lamont), Stephen Cox (Lamont), Ali Bahadori (Stony Brook University), Mae Saslaw (Stony Brook University), Sara Mana (Salem State University), Mikael Fortelius (University of Helsinki, Finland), Indr? ?liobait? (University of Helsinki, Finland), Guilluame Dupont Nivet (Rutgers University), Rahab Kinyanjui (National Museums of Kenya, Kenya), Patricia Princehouse (Institute for the Science of Origins, Case Western Reserve University), Ellen Miller (Wake Forest University), Francis Kirera (Mercer University), Nasser Malit (SUNY Potsdam), Peter Ungar (University of Arkansas), and Liam Zachary (University of Arkansas).

Permission for field and laboratory research in Kenya is provided by the Kenya Government with the support of the National Museums of Kenya.\

From EurekAlert!

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John Tillman
September 27, 2020 2:28 pm

The fossil was found in 1975, then lost and rediscovered at Harvard in 2011. From 2015:

A 17-My-old whale constrains onset of uplift and climate change in east Africa

The beaked whale was stranded up an inlet.

Reply to  John Tillman
September 27, 2020 3:26 pm

..rediscovered at Harvard in 2011

After being stolen by some Harvard professor. All I could think of on my first trip to the Louvre and walking through the Egyptian section was just how much of this stuff was marshaled out of Egypt way back in the 1800’s and early 1900’s by the French. Of course they weren’t the only ones doing it. At least the Egyptians have their act together now and control their own antiquities.

Reply to  rbabcock
September 28, 2020 11:12 pm

Perhaps the antiquities were sold by the Egyptians. Egypt was in the Ottoman Empire at the time and presumably the Turks did not value items which were rescued by French and American museums. Many could have been sold in Alexandria by the Greek colony .

Gary Pearse
Reply to  rbabcock
September 30, 2020 4:24 pm

I don’t think there is any doubt that without archeological work done in 19th and early 20th Century by European and American archeologists, a lot of our knowledge of antiquity may well have been lost. Third World countries were not set up technically or educationally to have done this work at the time.

As it was, laws had to be introduced to preserve and curb selling and BUYING of antiquities that were found. The 2001 Mullah Mohmmad Omar-ordered dynamiting of the Bamyan valley buddha (53m tall) carved into a sandstone cliff in the 5th Century is an example of the vulnerability of such treasures. Even the “terrorist protesters” destruction of statues and monuments in the US shows that historical objects are vulnerable to vandals in countries that do have a strong sense of responsibility about such things.

Reply to  John Tillman
September 27, 2020 8:22 pm

That sounds as though the origin (place found) could reasonably be open to question. Maybe said whale was never really in that area. It does seem like the most solid foundation for a major study; colloborating evidence seems necessary.

John Tillman
Reply to  AndyHce
September 28, 2020 2:18 am

As the paper discusses, the discovery before GPS means field workers must rely on old-fashioned geographical coordinates and description.

There are maps in the text.

John Tillman
September 27, 2020 2:34 pm

Actually a river, not an inlet, but a low elevation river running across a coastal plain.

John Tillman
September 27, 2020 2:37 pm

Recent river stranding of a much bigger, baleen rather than toothed whale:

The principle of uniformitarianism on parade: present observations are guide to past processes.

September 27, 2020 2:46 pm

Talk about self-important! When I read:

“The research team will tackle a task not done before by investigating the basin’s sediments, and the fossils they contain, to gain insight into ancient climate and habitats …”, I threw up my hands.

This is NOT a radical, innovative, never-done-before approach – – – It’s standard paleontology practice!!

The grant review group was either clueless or simply handing out other people’s money like participation ribbons.

To their penetrating question “Why was the whale there?”, a simple answer – That’s where it died and was buried and preserved!!

Reply to  GeologyJim
September 27, 2020 3:11 pm

Being also Jim, I thought the same thing, ancient climate is always figured out when studying fossils and the times they belonged to. I doubt the animals whose fossils were found in the Arctic or Antarctica lived under the ice.

Reply to  PCman999
September 27, 2020 8:29 pm

But now there must be found good (enough) evidence of whatever atmospheric CO2 concentrations are necessary to support whatever theoretical climate is indicated by whatever other evidence is friendly enough to fulfill PC science requirements.

John Tillman
Reply to  AndyHce
September 28, 2020 7:15 am

Climatic conditions dictate how much CO2 will be in the air rather than oceans.

No single ECS operates for 4.55 billion years. Most of the CO2 in Earth’s early atmospheres has gone into rocks and organisms.

Rich Davis
Reply to  GeologyJim
September 27, 2020 3:18 pm

But Jim, how can you be so cynical? They’re going to be using climate models. The science will be settled.

Bill Powers
Reply to  Rich Davis
September 28, 2020 8:48 am

And bureaucratically Peer Reviewed!

John Tillman
Reply to  GeologyJim
September 27, 2020 3:18 pm

Right you are. Using fossils deposited at or near sea level to study uplift and MSL changes is as old as geology.

Consider Steno’s shark’s teeth or Darwin’s marine fossils in the Andes.

Ron Long
Reply to  John Tillman
September 27, 2020 3:44 pm

Even higher than the Andes, John, are the 400 mya marine fossils, both bivalves and fish, almost at the very top of Mt. Everest. Plate Collisions! Film at 11:00.

John Tillman
Reply to  Ron Long
September 27, 2020 7:07 pm

I don’t think that even when young and hearty, Darwin could have made it to base camp for an attempt on Everest.

Due to Nepal’s suspicion of British and Indian surveyors, Everest wasn’t recognized as the world’s current highest peak until 1852.

There have been much higher mountains in the past.

John Tillman
Reply to  John Tillman
September 27, 2020 4:03 pm

Montane marine fossils were already a commonplace among geologists by 1830. What impressed Darwin the most was the petrified forest he found in a desert on the Argentine side of the Andes, between Santiago, Chile and Mendoza, Argentina, at 7000 feet above sea level.

The fossils are in fact much older than Darwin thought. He considered them Tertiary in age, but they’re actually Triassic.

Reply to  GeologyJim
September 27, 2020 5:56 pm

PR flacks get things really wrong really often. In that light, I’m willing to assume the scientists actually know what they’re doing (but you’d never know it if you had to rely on press releases).

Gordon A. Dressler
September 27, 2020 3:35 pm

But . . . but . . but . . . but I thought it was only modern day man that created climate change™.

This article is implying that climate change™ affected human evolution.

Now, I’m so confused.

/sarc off

Reply to  Gordon A. Dressler
September 28, 2020 12:12 am

Man has just added a new driver for climate change on top of the existing natural cycles – one which has become the dominant climate driver.

I fail to see why it is impossible for man to add to the climate change already there: the physics of how CO2 works is indisputable.

Reply to  griff
September 28, 2020 1:41 am

Ok so then we just reduce all the natural cycles and claim it all for ourselves …. nature doesn’t vote or complain …. problem solved 😉

John Tillman
Reply to  griff
September 28, 2020 2:21 am

Nobody knows the magnitude of the GHE from the human addition of CO2, or how much we’ve contributed with any precision or accuracy. Nor what the net effect of all our activities might be on climate.

Samuel C Cogar
Reply to  John Tillman
September 28, 2020 3:12 am

John Tillman September 28, 2020 at 2:21 am

Nobody knows the magnitude of the GHE from the human addition of CO2,…………….

“HA”, …. most everyone knows the magnitude of the GHE from the human addition of CO2 into actual “greenhouses”, ……. but not a clue about the effect, if any, to/in the natural world.

David A And
Reply to  Samuel C Cogar
September 28, 2020 3:35 am

Ha, we know a great deal about the POSITIVE affects of CO2 in the natural world, yet the modeled harms are failing to manifest globally.

John Tillman
Reply to  Samuel C Cogar
September 28, 2020 7:07 am

Yup. More CO2 in the atmosphere, more C6H12O6 in plants, with less H2O from the ground lost to the air. Hence, an observably greener world.

Samuel C Cogar
Reply to  Samuel C Cogar
September 29, 2020 3:06 am

Don’t be forgetting that the ….. “the human addition of CO2” ….. has nothing to do with
an observably greener world ….. except the world inside of a ‘greenhouse’.

Ray in SC
Reply to  Samuel C Cogar
September 29, 2020 7:09 am

Samuel, please tell me that your post was sarcasm.

Samuel C Cogar
Reply to  Samuel C Cogar
September 29, 2020 11:16 am

T’was not sarcasm, not satire and not BS, ….. Ray in SC, …. human emissions of CO2 inside a ‘greenhouse’ is only place said causes a detectable “greener” world.

Rich Davis
Reply to  griff
September 28, 2020 4:08 am

griff, have you gone mad(der)? You can’t admit to natural effects while clinging to absolute certainty that our current warming is mostly or completely man-made.

This is blasphemy! Recant!

It’s settled science that CO2 has overwhelmed all natural effects. Even though temperatures were hotter in the Holocene Climate Optimum, Egyptian, Minoan, Roman, and Medieval Warm Periods, we are certain that most if not all current warming is due to fossil fuel burning. (Just as we were confident that 30 yrs of cooling from 1945 to 1975 was due to fossil fuel burning). While we don’t have a model that can explain the past, we know exactly what is the possible range of natural variation.

Now repeat after me:

I confess to almighty CO2, that I have sinned, through my fault (strike breast), through my fault (strike breast), through my most grievous fault (strike breast), and I ask blessed Greta, and all the IPCC to pray for me to my Lord CO2. Amen.

May our Lord CO2 have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to socialist GND utopia everlasting. Amen.

Ok griff, go in peace.

Tom Abbott
Reply to  griff
September 28, 2020 7:20 am

“the physics of how CO2 works is indisputable.”

What is the physics of CO2 you refer to? Does a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere raise the tempratures by 1.5C or 4.5C, or some other figure? Since you know the physics of CO2, you should be able to tell us how much a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere would amount to temperature-wise.

If you do know this temperature number, you would be the first one. Noone else on the planet knows this number, so your assurances that the physics of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere is well known and indisputable is just empty talk (unsubstantiated assertions).

What CO2 does or does not do in the Earth’s atmosphere is still unknown, but there’s more of it in the Earth’s atmosphere today than in the 1930’s, yet it was just as warm in the 1930’s as it is today, so it appears that CO2 has had very little effect, if any, on current temperatures.

Reply to  griff
September 28, 2020 7:50 am

However, a few tenths of a degree of extra warming isn’t at all frightening. So we need models to amp the scare and preserve the income stream.

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  griff
September 28, 2020 8:02 am

Well, griff, first I would start by using a dictionary to understand the difference between the verb “create” (which I used) and the verb “add to” (which you used in your response above).

Then, we can go from there.

As to your statement, “the physics of how CO2 works is indisputable” —- PHFFFFPTH! You only need look at IPCC Assessment Reports, and see how they are adjusted from one issue to the next, to see the stupidity in such a statement.

Also, there is meaning in the use of the phrase “/sarc off”.

As if you care.

Phil Salmon
Reply to  griff
September 28, 2020 11:39 am

< Man has just added a new driver

Along comes the Sunday School teacher to chide us for taking an interest in life itself, instead of puritanical finger-wagging hellfire sermonising about how sinful we are and the most fantastic fairy tale of all – that the trace has CO2 is the sin that damns us all to hell. Sorry but keep your felt board children’s picture stories to yourself. Evolution and life are a wonderful and majestic story of grandeur and beauty. No place for starched collars, straight lace and dour moralising.

BTW is it OK if you’re an alarmist to use the gender exclusive word “man” for humanity. Or is this a new retro morality since men not women are responsible for CO2?

Ron Van Wegen
September 27, 2020 3:52 pm

“Why was the whale there?”
Why did the chicken cross the road?

[The mods do point out that “42” is the answer to everything, not the question of everything. .mod]

Reply to  Ron Van Wegen
September 28, 2020 7:52 am

Mod. Didn’t the hippies tell us to question everything?

September 27, 2020 3:54 pm

It was well-advised that they kept prevailing whale-evolution theory from being included.

The leading, prevailing theory is that some cow-like ancestor, 50 million years ago, was not so happy breathing air, and decided to give it a go in the water. This cow logically came from some species of cow that was able to reproduce and survive. Yet a handful of these cows opted for the water.

Across time, they ?? somehow became so aquatic that they developed the ability in toto to extract air out of water, as whales do – along with? or in lieu of? their lungs extracting oxygen out of atmospheric air.

Maybe they formed parallel sets of lungs. Because it seems pretty incredible to have your air-lungs morph into water lungs.

Either way. In today’s academia you must go along with this most unlikely of whale tales, or face ridicule and expulsion.

Zig Zag Wanderer
Reply to  TheLastDemocrat
September 27, 2020 4:35 pm

Whales do not breathe underwater. They only breathe air. They can, however, spend several hours underwater, by maximising the efficiency of oxygen usage (it is believed).

What’s quite amazing is why they went back to the ocean, and didn’t redevelop gills, IMO.

Adam Gallon
Reply to  Zig Zag Wanderer
September 27, 2020 11:36 pm

No mammals have gills, so nothing to redevelop.

Zig Zag Wanderer
Reply to  Adam Gallon
September 28, 2020 12:07 am

All mammals are descended from something that did have gills

John Tillman
Reply to  Zig Zag Wanderer
September 28, 2020 3:02 am

It has been a long time since our ancestors lost their gills. There are still some amphibians today who retain their external gills after metamorphosis into adults, but few.

The amphibians from which amniotes (reptiles and mammals) descend did not retain gills as adults, so it has been hundreds of millions of years.

Mammalian embryos develop structures related to gills, but the genes for functional internal gills have been lost. Vertebrate jaws however evolved from gill arches, which process can be seen in embryonic development.

Reply to  Zig Zag Wanderer
September 28, 2020 7:53 am

I thought the gills evolved into lungs.

John Tillman
Reply to  Zig Zag Wanderer
September 28, 2020 8:57 am


Sort of. Gills were present in the earliest fish, but lungs also evolved promptly, probably from the tissue sac surrounding the gills. Swim bladders evolved soon after lungs, likely from lung tissue. Darwin guessed that lungs evolved from swim bladders, but further discoveries have shown this hypothesis incorrect.

Our lobe-finned fish ancestors had both lungs and gills, as do modern lungfish, although vestigially in all but the Queensland species. So too did those ancient coelacanths which lived in shallow water. But the two surviving coelacanth species now rely solely on their gills, since they live at depth.

Michael S. Kelly
Reply to  Zig Zag Wanderer
September 28, 2020 8:40 pm

This explains a lot. If we are now actually descended from whales, I can’t be considered “obese”, as my doctor currently classifies me.

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  Zig Zag Wanderer
September 28, 2020 8:21 am

“What’s quite amazing is why they went back to the ocean, and didn’t redevelop gills, IMO.”

Not surprising at all, IMHO. Once mammals developed lungs for oxygen intake (with the particular benefit that lungs support the much higher metabolism rates associated being a “warm-blooded” animal) evolution had accomplished its natural tendency to optimize life forms for “survival of the fittest”.

What IS quite surprising to me, is that the lung capacity (and metabolism) in whales further evolved to the extent that some of today’s whale species can hold their breath for up to 90 minutes, or while diving to ocean depths up to 3000 meters.

I have not found any reference to a whale species that can “spend several hours underwater”.

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  Zig Zag Wanderer
September 28, 2020 3:20 pm

ZZW, thanks! Today I learned something new!

John Tillman
Reply to  Zig Zag Wanderer
September 28, 2020 3:38 pm

A modern relative of the Miocene beaked whale stranded upriver in Kenya.

John Tillman
Reply to  TheLastDemocrat
September 27, 2020 7:15 pm

Like all mammals and other land vertebrates, whales breathe air, not water. Whales can however drink saltwater.

Whales didn’t evolve from cows. They share a distant common artiodactyl ancestor with cows. The closest living land animal relatives of whales are the aquatic artiodactyl hippos.

Re-evolving gills really isn’t an option, given land vertebrate anatomy. That applies even to our closest “fish” relative, the lungfish. Of all extant lungfish species, only the Australian still has functional gills. The gills of its African and South American kin are atrophied to the point of uselessness.

John Tillman
Reply to  TheLastDemocrat
September 28, 2020 8:24 am

Paleontologists go along with the evidence.

The 2015 paper does discuss the evolution of whales and other organisms, to include humans.

Evolution is a scientific fact, ie an observation of nature. Details of the evolution of whales and humans of course depend upon more observations of rocks and molecular clocks, ie fossils, genetics, etc. But the broad outlines are clear.

The mid-Miocene was an important interval in the evolution of our African ape ancestors, before the development of the current gorilla, chimp and human lineages. The world was drying out, opening up our ancestors’ previously unbroken forest habitat.

This climatic change affected most land mammal groups, such as antelopes.

John Tillman
Reply to  TheLastDemocrat
September 28, 2020 3:43 pm

Please state what you find wrong about whale evolution as revealed by fossils, genetics, embryology, biogeography and every other line of evidence.


John Tillman
Reply to  TheLastDemocrat
September 28, 2020 3:56 pm

Even today, some whales are born with vestigial leg bones, and more often than humans and other apes are born with vestigial tails.

Just last year, the earliest Pacific whale fossil was discovered, at about 43 million years of age. Cetaceans got their start in the Tethys Sea between India and Asia, migrated to Africa, thence across the Atlantic to South America, all while retaining the ability to walk on land. Once in South America, they crossed to the Pacific and followed the paleo-Humboldt Current north to Peru.

In case I forgot to add this to the previous comment:,skulls%20and%20large%20carnivorous%20teeth.

Bruce Cobb
September 27, 2020 4:28 pm

The whale asked itself the same question: “Why am I here?” But then it contemplated the deeper question of “what is the sound of one fin clapping”, and said oooooommmmmmm, and forgot all about everything. It was a New Age sort of whale.

Zig Zag Wanderer
Reply to  Bruce Cobb
September 27, 2020 8:12 pm

The bowl of petunias, however, just thought “oh no, not again!”

Mike Dubrasich
September 27, 2020 5:53 pm

One might ask why “climate change” is thought to be a driver of evolution. Is it a pop culture thing where “climate change” explains everything from whale tails to prosthetic feet? The winner of the next election is due to climate change, as is the color of oranges and the sound of noise. It’s a catch-all excuse for “we have no idea” and the Answer to every question under the sun, similar to Adams’ 42.

But there actually might be a connection between “climate change” and evolution, somewhat tenuous, and possibly worthy of a little consideration on a dull day. Firstly, please note that Evolution follows Extinction. New species arise when the older species die out. If the older species did not fail the Survival Test, they would still be here (and some are). It is only when gene pools dry up that new adaptations come about.

There have been many Major Extinction Events in geologic history. These events are noted and flagged by the disappearance in the fossil record of what were previously common species. The sudden shift from old species to new ones is the hallmark of evolution, but it’s also the smoking gun of extinction.

At least five major extinction events occurred in the Eocene alone: the Lutetian-Bartonian event (41 mya), the Bartonian-Priabonian event (37 mya), the Late Priabonian event (35 mya), the Terminal Eocene event (33.5 mya), and the Late Rupelian event (30.5 mya). All these extinction events were associated with reductions in global temperature, thinning CO2, declining rainfall, and falling sea levels. And also, the appearance of new species.

It appears to be the case that every Major Extinction Event since the Paleocene-Eocene transition is due to COOLING, not warming. Warmer epochs supported more species and greater species diversity, just as warmer regions do today. Global cooling events led to mass extinctions. The separation of Antarctica from South America, the closure of the Panamanian Gap, and the Greenland blockage, were all cooling events and major extinction events — which resulted after a time in new species arising. Similarly, the desertification of East Africa was a cooling and drying change caused by the oncoming Ice Age.

Or so I speculate. Please feel free to add your two cents.

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  Mike Dubrasich
September 27, 2020 7:22 pm

The major problem, as I see it, with the proposed research is that the ‘charter’ is similar to the IPCC. That is, instead of being open-ended research on the evolution of whales, where the researchers are free to come to their own conclusions, the caveat of the role of climate is an implicit incentive to conclude that climate played a major role — if they want to get any future grants.

Rich Davis
Reply to  Clyde Spencer
September 28, 2020 4:29 am

Well of course climate change played a role, they’re going to use climate models to explain it. Probably some kind of freak CO2 anomaly.

Paul Johnson
Reply to  Mike Dubrasich
September 27, 2020 9:55 pm

Do climate changes and tectonics drive evolution or does tectonics drive climate changes that drive evolution? Do tectonic shifts change atmospheric and ocean circulation patterns that then change climate? Looking back at Willis Echenbach’s September 15th post, are there tectonic events that kick climate from one stable equilibrium (icehouse/coolhouse/warmhouse/hothouse) to another? Are there significant tectonic events at 67, 55, 47, 34, 13.9, or 3.3 mya?

John Tillman
Reply to  Paul Johnson
September 28, 2020 2:38 am

Tectonics are one source of climatic changes affecting evolution and extinctions.

One such Cenozoic event is the upthrust of the Himalayas as the Indian Plate collided with the Eurasian, which gives us such good protowhale fossils in Pakistan. The opening of deep channels between Antarctica and South America and Australia is another around the Eocene-Oligocene boundary. Temporary shoaling of the SA-Antarctic channel in the Miocene is yet another, as is formation of the Isthmus of Panama in the late Pliocene.

At the end of the Mesozoic, the Indian Plate’s passage over a hotspot caused the Deccan Trap flood basalt eruptions, but the Cretaceous-Paleocene mass extinction is best attributed to the Yucatán impact.

Samuel C Cogar
Reply to  John Tillman
September 28, 2020 3:42 am

The summit of Mount Everest: five and half miles above sea level, buried in snow and ice are marine fossils, which were deposited in a shallow sea a hundred million years ago and uplifted by unimaginable forces. The story of how they got there is one of the most fascinating stories in geology.

September 27, 2020 5:58 pm

Personally, I would have my doubts about any ” field technicians” that look like they are well showered and posing for the camera.
At least get them dirty !!

September 27, 2020 6:13 pm

Perhaps it was a land whale…

John Tillman
Reply to  Photios
September 27, 2020 7:22 pm

Killed an eaten by land sharks!

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  John Tillman
September 28, 2020 8:32 am

Well, John, let’s not be too quick to dismiss the theory that “sharknadoes” might have combined with “whalenadoes” to produce the fossil evidence noted in the above article.

Heck, there have even been six films produced documenting the occurrence of sharknadoes.

John Tillman
Reply to  Gordon A. Dressler
September 28, 2020 9:23 am

Clash of the ‘Nadoes!

High concept!

Let’s do lunch, baby!

September 27, 2020 6:55 pm

Climate change caused living things to die, some of which became fossils, which lead us to begin to study geological processes that created fossil fuels that created climate change? Perfectly clear.

Robert Doyle
September 27, 2020 6:56 pm

Why is the whale there?
The fossil was in the hands of a thief. Is there any thought that the thief could also be a fraudster?
Would the Harvard thief believe that moving a sea going fossil would produce money for such a revolutionary find.
Fine art without careful tracking of the holders of the art at any time. Provenance is the key.

Robert Doyle
September 27, 2020 6:57 pm

Why is the whale there?
The fossil was in the hands of a thief. Is there any thought that the thief could also be a fraudster?
Would the Harvard thief believe that moving a sea going fossil would produce money for such a revolutionary find.
Fine art without careful tracking of the holders of the art at any time is worth much less. Provenance is the key.

Adam Gallon
Reply to  Robert Doyle
September 27, 2020 11:45 pm

Which, if you read the link posted in the first comment, by John Tillman, you get.

September 27, 2020 8:25 pm

“A longstanding question at the intersection of Earth and Life Sciences is: What roles, if any, do climate and tectonics play in the evolution of life?”

Is this guy serious? Climate and tectonics have long been recognized as primary drivers of evolution.
What is this guy thinking?

Pariah Dog
September 27, 2020 11:57 pm

I predict there will be a fossilised bowl of petunias found nearby.

Coeur de Lion
September 28, 2020 1:30 am

How did we survive in the hostile African savannah? No armour, can’t run very fast, not even a honing canine? It was the ability to chuck rocks while bipedal women shinned up a tree with the food and a baby. Teamwork, alpha male ad organiser. Proof? Primitive not derived characteristic operative before the Pan Split – chimps in zoos stockpile rocks to chuck at tourists , women can’t throw a cricket ball for toffee.

John Tillman
Reply to  Coeur de Lion
September 28, 2020 2:45 am

Fastest female bowlers are slower than best males of course, same as with baseball or softball, but still pretty darn speedy:

Samuel C Cogar
Reply to  Coeur de Lion
September 28, 2020 11:49 am

Coeur de Lion September 28, 2020 at 1:30 am

How did we survive in the hostile African savannah? No armour, can’t run very fast, not even a honing canine?

Our early ancestors never evolved on the hostile African savannah, therefore they never had to survive thereon. To wit:


Our early human ancestors evolved to be the “brainy” ones of the family of Great Apes simply because they resided on the shores of large bodies of saltwater which provided them an easily accessible, abundant supply of “iron rich” high protein food sources, ….. to wit:

What seafood is rich in iron? If oysters, mussels, and clams aren’t on your regular menu, common fin fish, like haddock, salmon, and tuna, are also good sources, although not as high in iron as mollusks (shellfish).

The evolution of bipedal locomotion, loss of protective body hair and the growth/formation of “sweat glands” over their entire epidermal skin area are just three (3) of the physical attributes that our early human ancestors (the only living sub-species in the Family of Great Apes) acquired during the past two (2) million years, ….. for them to best survive in the environment that they chose to live and reproduce in.

So, the question is, what was their selected environment like that best suited a bipedal stance or movement, ….. did not require the protection of a heavy coating of body hair, ,,,,, but absolutely, positively required that their entire body surface (epidermis) contain sweat glands that secrete copious amounts of salt (NaCl) containing water (H2O).

Surely that environment was not a hot, semi-arid African savannah, …. simply because salt (NaCl) and water (H2O) are the two (2) most important, precious resources necessary for pre-human or human survival, ….. and thus it would be highly detrimental to one’s survival if they indiscriminately rid their body of said without an immediate means of replacing said losses. Too little, or too much water (H2O) or salt (NaCl) is a cause of certain death to humans.

As far as anyone knows, ….. the evolving of “sweat glands” in the epidermis covering of the human body may have specifically evolved for ridding the body of excess salt (that was/is ingested as a result of their primary food source) …… because the retention of too much salt will kill you “deader than a door nail”, There has been more than one (1) human that has died from drinking “salty” water. And a “heat stroke” is the result of “sweating out” too much of the body’s salt content.

If one is only focusing on or only considering “human furlessness”, …. then I agree, one will not readily see anything particularly aquatic about it. And the same goes for human bipedalism, you won’t see anything particularly aquatic about it either. But you can’t be “focusing on” human furlessness or bipedalism if you are going to apply a kind of “reverse evolution” to determine the environmental “driver” of said attributes. Thus said, one has to focus on the “environmental driver(s)” responsible for the evolved attributes, …… and not the attributes themselves.

Thus, it is of my learned opinion that human “furlessness” is a direct result of human “bipedalism”. In other words, human bipedalism was the “environmental driver” responsible for human furlessness.

And I say that because, if our early human ancestors had never evolved the ability of bipedal walking over the course of 300K or a million years, ….. then there would not have been any logical reason (environmental driver) for their body to evolve furlessness. Human bipedalism and furlessness go “hand-in-hand”, no need of one without the other.

And, the next obvious question that I am sure you will want me to provide an answer to/for is: “And just what is the “environmental driver” responsible for human bipedalism?”

And the simple answer to the aforesaid question is, ….. our early human ancestors, which eventually evolved to be a sub-species of the Family of Great Apes, established a close association with an aquatic environment by taking up residence on or near the shoreline of a river, lake, tidal zone, estuary or inland sea simply because said body of water (H2O) provided them an easily accessible, abundant supply of high-protein foods that did not require the expenditure of great amounts of time and energy, …… or the use of tools, …. for harvesting said food or for eating of said foods. Life is good …… for any animal species that doesn’t have to spend all their waking hours searching for food and evading predators.

And bipedal walking evolved as a result of ….. harvesting their food from the shallow waters. It is quite easy to learn to walk bipedally by walking (wading) in water because the water provides buoyancy to easily hold oneself in an upright position. And thus, our early ancestors that were the best bipedal waders/walkers in the water ……. were also the bestest provider of aquatic foods ….. and the bestest food provider got to do the mostest procreating with the females.

Loss of body hair/fur by early humans resulted in the loss of a protective covering of the epidermis, which meant that it would have been highly improbable for early humans to walk or run amongst or through the brush, weeds, thorns, briars, etc., of the hot/dry African savannahs while looking for tubers or fruits, …… or either trying to catch a prey animal or trying to evade a predator animal ……. without their “bare” skin being cut, scraped, gouged and/or lacerated …. which would have surely resulted in their demise. Loss of body hair/fur also meant a loss of protection from blood-sucking and biting insects that commonly inhabit brushy fields, grasslands, savannahs and hot/humid locales.

Loss of the majority of body hair/fur by early humans meant that they could more easily walk or wade bipedally in the water when harvesting aquatic foods. Heavy or thick body hair/fur would cause a severe “drag” on quick movements required to capture aquatic prey animals, especially in deep water.

Humans retained their body hair under their arms and between the legs in their groin area simply because said patches of hair serves the purpose of a “dry lubricant”.

And humans retained their body hair on their head most likely because of their bipedal stance. It protected their head and brain from the solar irradiance …… as well as providing a “glare reducing” aid or shield when bipedally walking in the water harvesting their food.

“YUP”, the harvesting of their aquatic grown foods whose remains provided them with a variety of “natural tools” (bivalve shells, spines, claws, fish bones, etc.) that didn’t need any “inventing” by those early humans, …… who just had to figure out how best to use them for other purposes. And they had plenty of “free time” to do their “figuring” ….. because they were not spending all their awake hours searching for food and evading predators.

It is utterly asinine and idiotic for anyone to claim that our early pre-human ancestors expended 200/300+ thousands of years on the African savannahs, at first evolving to walk bipedally, then to run bipedally, in order to chase down, kill and butcher Savannah living animals in order to acquire a sufficient source of high-protein foods, …… that they required for evolving a large brain and greater intelligence, ……. that was prerequisite to them being capable of “inventing” the tools ….. that was absolutely, positively necessary for the killing and/or butchering of the aforesaid animal protein.

Cheers, …… S C Cogar

Also posted @

John Tillman
Reply to  Samuel C Cogar
September 29, 2020 1:02 pm

Larger brains required more fat. Humans got the needed fat by scavenging marrow from the long bones of megafauna which even hyenas couldn’t access, or by scaring them their kills. A main use for the hand ax, an essential tool which remained virtually unchanged for a million years, was cracking open marrow rich bones.

The salt and freshwater lakes of the growing Rift Valley did figure in human evolution and nutrition, but our ancestors didn’t live in them or drink salt water. Our ancestors then couldn’t tolerate water any more salty than we can now. Sweat is part of the human cooling system, as is body hair loss.

John Tillman
Reply to  Samuel C Cogar
September 30, 2020 11:31 am

The modern human brain is 60% fat. Our ancestors got the fat they needed by using the handax, a multitool which remained unchanged for about a million years, to crack open megafaunal long bones for the marrow, and their skulls for the brains.

Both fresh and salt Rift Valley lakes figured in human evolution, but not as you imagine. Our ancestors didn’t live in them nor drink salt water. Their tolerance for saltwater was no greater than ours.

Smart Rock
September 28, 2020 4:00 am

After stripping away the usual PR hype, what’s left is that they are going to do a more detailed study of an already very well studied, rift-related, intra-continental sedimentary basin that has persisted from the late Cretaceous to the present. They are focusing on the Miocene, a period when things started getting cooler as the earth moved towards the current ice age, and it’s going to be multi-disciplinary.

The references to climate change are an essential part of getting the research grant in the 21st century. Doing a multi-disciplined geological and palaeontological study requires getting whatever climatic information is preserved in the sediments and the fossils they contain.

It looks like a real research project. Nothing to see here, move on.

Wolf at the door
September 28, 2020 4:42 am

£2.5 million for fluff.

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  Wolf at the door
September 28, 2020 8:43 am

Wolf, sorry, but the article refers to “research” out of Stony Book college in New York, USA, with the specific mention of a “four year $2.7 million grant” from the US NSF. That would not translate to £2.5 million.

Nonetheless, you basic point is well made, and I agree with it wholeheartedly.

Walter Sobchak
September 28, 2020 4:53 pm

“he aim is to understand how climate change and tectonics on Miocene ecosystems in this region influenced life and evolution, from the whale to now.”

This is ridiculous. There was no climate change 17 million years ago. Exxon did not exist yet, there were no fossil fuel driven power plants, and no SUVs. Therefore there was no climate change.

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