Who Smells Better, Humans or Other Animals?

Guest speaker: Dr. John McGann (Rutgers U.)

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Hi readers, long time no see! We’ve been slow getting back into the journal club swing of things after our winter break hiatus as we had ANOTHER Center for Human Evolutionary Studies guest speaker. Dr. John McGann (Psychology Department, Rutgers University) came by last Friday to give a lecture on the neuroscience of olfaction (or, put plainly, on how brains, genes, and your nose interact to process smells). It was super cool. Dr. McGann was an engaging speaker – I’d consider the myth that humans don’t smell very well to be thoroughly busted.

As I did for Dr. Bernard Wood’s guest lecture from last semester, I live-tweeted this one as well and have condensed it into a Twitter moment for your enjoyment. Check it out and let me know what you think of the format!

Today in BS&M we’ll be talking about the new modern Homo sapiens fossil material from Israel that suggests some humans left Africa earlier than previously thought. I’ll put a post together on that for y’all later this week.

Next Friday we have another guest speaker, Dr. Alan Rogers from the University of Utah, who will be talking about Neandertal and Denisovan ancient DNA. If you want to follow along with that in real-time (Friday, Feb. 9 at 3:30 pm EST) I’ll be tweeting it from the handle @CHES_Rutgers. Otherwise, expect a recap here!

BS&M Does Dissertation Defenses

Congrats to Dr. Hlubik & Dr. Janiak!

Hey BS&M fans, thanks for sticking around. We’ve had fewer journal club meetings than usual this semester (and thus, fewer papers to blog about) thanks to a host of awesome guest speakers and, now, two successful dissertation defenses in as many months! Major BS&M congrats go out to Dr. Sarah Hlubik and Dr. Mareike Janiak, whose names you might recognize from their guest blog posts on mystery spit and Cretan footprints.

For the readers who aren’t in academia, the dissertation defense is the culmination of a person’s graduate student career. While the format varies from school to school, there tend to be some common elements. After a PhD candidate submits their written dissertation to their committee members (made up of their main advisor[s], department members with complementary areas of expertise, and an “outside” expert or two from another university), they schedule a time and place for a public “defense” of their dissertation (some schools call this a “Final Public Oral Examination”). For us at Rutgers, the defense itself is a 40-50 minute powerpoint presentation on our work, followed by questions from our committee, followed by public questions. The whole thing generally takes between an hour and a half and two and a half hours.

The dissertation defense is a stressful rite of passage that has been likened to a snake fight. It’s also incredibly rewarding for the fellow grad students in the audience, because, while we know generally what our friends are working on, we rarely get into the nitty-gritty details of it with them. The defense is an opportunity to celebrate their hard work and hear them get called “Doctor” for the first time (the novelty of which has yet to wear off for me, personally).

So, here’s a toast to Dr. Hlubik: may you find Prometheus in the Kenyan desert.

Sarah_defense

And to Dr. Janiak: may your exoskeletons be chinitous and your copy numbers variable.

Mareike_defense

BS&M Gets Visitors: the Tapanuli Orangutan and Dr. Sarah Tishkoff

Expanding our understanding of diversity

This week’s BS&M blog takes on two new pieces of anthro news – neither of which we’ve actually had a journal club meeting about!

The first bit of news has been making waves all over the internet (as news tends to do, I guess): a third species of orangutan has been named! The newly designated Pongo tapanuliensis, or the Tapanuli orangutan, comes from the southernmost extent of the previously known Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) range. P. tapanuliensis was named on the basis of morphological and genetic comparisons, which suggested that its skeleton looks subtly different from that of all other living orangutans (for example, in having relative broad upper canines and a relatively shallow face) and that it’s the oldest orangutan lineage (having split from the line leading to the other two species around 3.38 million years ago). Pretty cool!

pongo_tapanuliensis
Welcome to the fam, Pongo tapanuliensis! (From Nater et al. 2017)

While the naming of a “new” mammal species (especially one as large as an orangutan) is always exciting, there are a few potential issues to consider. First, P. tapanuliensis was named on the basis of a single (male) specimen and two genomes. It’s possible that there are other Tapanuli orangutan skeletons in museum collections that were not previously recognized as different from the northern Sumatran populations; this would be a something to look into, in the interest of increasing sample size. I’m also curious about what the skeleton of a female Tapanuli orangutan might look like.  Second, Nater et al. estimate that there are already fewer than 800 Tapanuli individuals left. This (and splitting the Sumatran orangutans into two species) has implications for conservation. Is it worth it to prioritize saving the more endangered Tapanuli orangutan, which may already lack a population of viable size, or is it better to concentrate efforts on the Sumatran orangutan? A more optimistic view might be that this new species will attract attention (and money, which is ultimately what allows conservation efforts to happen) to the plight of orangutans generally. It’s impossible to know. Either way, the “discovery” of the Tapanuli orangutan expands our understanding of the diversity of our closest relatives – again, pretty cool!

The second bit of anthro news is also about expanding our understanding of diversity, but this time of our own genome.

Continue reading “BS&M Gets Visitors: the Tapanuli Orangutan and Dr. Sarah Tishkoff”