Major Evolutionary Discoveries of 2021

Photo Courtesy: Chung Zhao

Evolution, like gravity, is still technically a theory, but recent evolutionary discoveries make this process of development seem ever more plausible. Not only that, but the perception of how we humans came to be as a species may seem a little clearer with each discovery that’s made. Evolutionary findings are more common than one may think, and breakthroughs are constantly being made in the field of biology.

Although they may not have gotten too much in the way of news coverage, some major evolutionary findings from the 2010s include the study of ancient DNA in 2018 to determine migration patterns and the 2010 discovery of 200,000-year old human skeletons – some of the oldest human remains ever unearthed. More recently, scientists may have found the earliest example of giving a “like” in history: from a fossil with an early example of ancient thumbs.

There was a myriad of evolutionary discoveries in 2021. A fossil of what looks to be a hybrid of a monkey and a pterodactyl (dubbed a “monkeydactyl”) was discovered in China. A fossil discovered in Brazil in the 1990s was analyzed with new digital technology. This fossil, known as “Little Foot,” has taught us about the past for three decades. Moreover, Egyptian scientists have also discovered the remains of a 4-legged whale in the Western Desert while researchers in Israel discovered a new ancient human.

Evolution still might be a theory, but it helps us learn more about the world and our place in it. Join us as we review the major evolutionary breakthroughs of 2021.

Digging IN China, Not to It: The Making of a Monkeydactyl

What’s in a name, and just what is the monkeydactyl? You can call it a pterosaur if you want, as a nod to the pterodactyl-ness of it all. According to Current Biology, the peer-reviewed journal that published these April 2021 findings, pterosaurs lived in the Mesozoic era and were the first vertebrates that could fly. It’s hard to keep track of prehistoric eras, so we’re happy to remind you that the Mesozoic era encompasses the three different time periods we think about most when we think about dinosaurs: the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods. So, roughly 250 million years ago to about 165 million years ago. A mass extinction event ended the Mesozoic era.

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Monkeydactyl was found in the Liaoning province of China. This area is in the Northeast section of the country, just near the water. The windier climate that can come with living on the coast may have helped monkeydactyls thrive for years and years. Scientists were able to find where the skeleton of monkeydactyl was by using micro CT scans on rocks.

Monkeydactyl’s scientific name is Kunpengopterus antipollicatus. The first word, Kunpengopterus, refers to Kun Peng, a mythical creature in Chinese mythology. This makes sense, as monkeydactyl was found in China. The mythical beast, Kun Peng, was a giant fish that transformed into a bird. So, for something that’s not quite a bird, not quite primate, but still a reptile, the name makes sense. The second word, antipollicatus, is a combination of Greek words, “anti,” and “pollex.” A “pollex” refers to the innermost finger on the hand of a primate. Adding “anti” to that refers to the opposable thumbs.

According to the findings, monkeydactyl was likely arboreal, meaning it probably lived most of its life in trees. What’s more special about monkeydactyl is that — as its name implies — it was found to have opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs are what enable humans to do all sorts of grabbing, dressing, driving, cooking and more.

It is possible to be human without thumbs, but if you compare another thumbed animal such as monkeys to species that don’t have them, like dogs or dolphins, you’ll see the evolutionary advantages that thumbs confer. There are some frogs with opposable thumbs, but generally, reptiles don’t have them.

There are countless instances of primates using tools, using their thumbs and index fingers to grab bugs from each other’s heads and even shaking hands. If you give a hammer to a dog or a dolphin, they might put it in their mouths and look at you as if trying to say, “What do you want me to do with this?”

The Little Foot Fossil’s Long History

Sometimes, when a fossil is found, it literally takes years for that fossil to be excavated. It can take even longer to study the fossil. And because prehistoric findings are hard to come by, it’s important not to damage or contaminate the goods, so to speak. That, and sometimes scientists don’t have the technology to study their subjects as effectively or thoroughly as they might like to.

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Nowadays, professionals are able to utilize diagnostic technology to piece together different parts of fossils. It’s also possible to 3D print fossil finds to a very accurate level. Being able to email and text helps quite a bit, too; many members of the archaeological field are often dispersed throughout the world, so even the everyday technologies we all use can assist researchers in analyzing their findings.

In the instance of the fossil given the name “Little Foot,” its story goes back 40 years to 1980 in South America. Four foot bones belonging to the then-unnamed Little Foot were found that year, but this did not warrant a major breakthrough. In 1992, a large rock was blown up in an initiative from paleontologist Phillip Tobias. A near-complete skeleton that was both apelike and humanlike was uncovered, rather slowly.

For years, the bones were uncovered and carefully analyzed. Another paleontologist, Ronald K. Tobias, led this process. In 1995, the skeleton was deduced to be an Australopithecus. The names in this one come from “australis,” the Latin word for “southern,” and “pithekos,” the Greek word for “ape.” The found skeleton was small enough to earn the moniker “Little Foot.”

Using diagnostic imaging, USC scientists were able to give the world of today the best visualization of this skeleton to date. Published in the Journal of Human Evolution in April 2021, a discussion of this process focused on Little Foot’s shoulder and pectoral region. The legs of Little Foot’s frame skew more human, but the shoulders are more like a primate. This makes Little Foot’s remains into a bit of an evolutionary snapshot, one that might provide more clues about our common ancestors with apes. Learn more and see the process of putting Little Foot’s parts together for yourself in this video:

Walk Like An Egyptian… 4-Legged Whale?

Scientists believe that modern whales descend from land-dwelling mammals that were similar to deer. Such a bold theory requires bold evidence, hence the significance of discovering the remains of Amphibious Phiomicetus Anubis –  a 4-legged whale who may hold the key to understanding where modern whales came from.

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Amphibious Phiomicetus Anubis potentially reveals a midpoint between modern whales and their landlocked ancestors. This creature’s bones were unearthed in the Fayum Depression – a region that contains a myriad of millennia-old fossils. Paleontologists believe that this species was 10 feet tall and weighed well over 1,300 pounds.

Egypt is a strange place for a whale fossil to appear – especially a land-roving prehistoric whale. Members of the scientific community believe that whales originated in South Asia about 50 million years ago. One quick glance at a map will reveal just how far Egypt and South Asia are from each other.

Why, against all odds, would Amphibious Phiomicetus Anubis fossils be located in Egypt? Migration is the most promising theory; researchers believe that Amphibious Phiomicetus Anubis became more acclimated to traveling by sea than by land at some point in their evolution. Many of these creatures may have migrated across the ocean over time, with some eventually making their way to North Africa. Many Amphibious Phiomicetus Anubis babies may have also been born during these prolonged trips, requiring future generations to adapt more and more to marine life.

Enter The Dragon Man 

Discussions about early humans are rarely ever straightforward conversations. The scientific community largely agrees that Homo sapiens (i.e. modern humans) lived alongside several other ancient human species hundreds of thousands of years ago. Homo erectus, Neanderthals, and Denisovans are some of the most well-known early human species in the world. However, a fossil discovered in China has shed light on a new species – Homo longi.

Photo Courtesy: Kai Geng

A Chinese construction worker allegedly discovered the remains of Homo longi – or the “Dragon Man” – near Heilong Jiang (the Black Dragon River) in 1933. This worker hid Dragon Man’s skull from Imperial Japanese soldiers in a well for 80 years, only revealing its location just before he passed away. Researchers from China and the UK have analyzed Dragon Man’s remains – and fervently debated its precise significance – since June.

Prof. Marta Mirazon Lahr argues that Dragon Man is a Denisovan, as his physical features are consistent with members of that group. Prof. Chris Stringer describes Homo longi as “a separate branch of humanity that is not on its way to becoming Homo sapiens (our species), but represents a long-separate lineage which evolved in the region for several hundred thousand years and eventually went extinct.”

Experts likely won’t come to a consensus regarding Dragon Man for many years. Prof. Xijun Ni, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, ultimately believes these heated debates about Homo longi will deepen our understanding of ancient humans in the long run. As Prof. Ni eloquently puts it, “it is because we disagree that science progresses.”

A Promising Find in Israel

Dragon Man isn’t the only ancient human who’s inadvertently added fuel to the proverbial fire. Researchers in Israel uncovered the remains of an ancient human who lived between 140,000 to 120,000 years ago. Experts believe this person is a member of the Nesher Ramla Homo group – a name derived from the Nesher Ramla Middle Paleolithic site. 

Photo Courtesy: Yossi Zaidner/Wikimedia Commons

Researchers discovered a skull fragment and a jawbone in a sinkhole in late June. These fossils may challenge our understanding of human evolution, according to Dr. Hila May. Dr. May – an Anatomy instructor at Tel Aviv University – suggests that the Nesher Ramla Homo group and Neanderthals share a unique connection. 

Many pundits believe that Neanderthals originated from Europe and Asia. However, Dr. May posits that “during interglacial periods, waves of humans, the Nesher Ramla people, migrated from the Middle East to Europe.” 

Prof. Chris Stringer (one of the gentlemen who discussed Homo longi) has qualms about Dr. May’s assertion. Prof. Stringer doesn’t doubt that Nesher Ramla Homo shared a special bond with Neanderthals, but he believes that they only coexisted as neighbors at best. The notion that they may be related is “a jump too far at the moment” for Stringer. 

Nesher Ramla Homo ultimately marks another significant find in 2021. And debates about this group’s precise significance only further scientific discourse regarding evolution.

The Storytelling Powers of Fossils

What happens when two similar fossil findings are released within a few weeks of each other? A little bit of mental acrobatics and a lot of storytelling. When people talk about a “missing link” in evolutionary science, they’re referring to a transitional fossil. Basically, these missing links help us fill in gaps that exist between two species that might actually be relatives in an evolutionary chain.

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This could mean something that connects humans’ current skeletal form to that of the Neanderthal, or a primate, our evolutionary “cousins.” These two evolutionary findings of early 2021 might be two pieces of the same puzzle.

Both monkeydactyl and the Little Foot fossil hint at the possibility of being our very great grandparents — or at least some sort of early evolutionary relatives. They work together in that they almost tell a story to each other. Maybe, it was too cold to fly, and pterodactyls had to adapt to cave-like settings to live and eat food. That’s where the thumbs come along. Down the line, the planet warms up again, trees sprout from the ground and in that time our relatives forgot how to fly. Clinging to the trees, the wingless, thumbed creature gradually moved to the ground to find food and safety. That’s where Dragon Man and the Nesher Ramla Homo group come in. Once our ancestors took the ground, they eventually migrated all across the globe. Groups of ancient humans likely gained different traits based on their environments. This may be the reason why ancient human species share so many similarities – and so many differences.

That was quite a bit of speculation, but making connections can be a fun exercise because it helps us ask other questions that might lead to clues about bigger scientific mysteries that need answering. Other modern descendants of these creatures could include bats or squirrel monkeys in addition to people, and the more we can learn about them, the better we’ll understand the world around us.

Never forget the “story” in history — and that these fossil discoveries tell us an interesting one. Evolution is a part of how life came to be on Earth. Thanks to archaeologists and those that fund and support deep digs like this, the fossils and samples that scientists find become important entries in our evolutionary “family album.”

We may never know all the answers, but the more we know, the better. Piecing together our collective past matters — and these evolutionary discoveries could definitely make for some great Jurassic Park sequels.