Royal (Feynmann) Antelope

The royal antelope is the smallest member of the deer family. It stands only 25cm tall and weighs a mere 3kg. It is closer in size to a pet rabbit than to other antelopes. Its evolution may have been the result of dietary strategy. Antelopes are herbivores, and each species tends to eat specific types of foliage. A single tree can feed any number of antelope, as each different height lets each species eat leaves in its own range. The ancestors of royal antelopes ate lower leaves, and due to competition from other small antelopes eating leaves at the same level, it gradually evolved to become the incredibly tiny animal it is today.

The tiny deer is mentioned in the Micro-livestock report as a possible animal for game farming in eastern and southern Africa. The large uninhabited expanses of land here are difficult for farming. However, the royal antelope has some advantages over regular cattle and larger species of deer such as higher turn-over, resistance to many local diseases and a preference for other and more varied grasses and foliage than bigger species. They also affect the habitat less then cattle because they spread out more while feeding and therefor cause less erosion. The report states: “Antelope farming is not a panacea for Africa’s food problems but it might pave the way to a new and more gentle way to make savannas useful.”  Instead of destroying the natural habitat to enforce big animals to feed ourselves, local farmers might allow nature to thrive while still creating food security.

  • Share/Bookmark

Red Knot Migration

Reductions in body size in various animals are increasingly being identified as a response to climate warming. It’s not surprising, as early as the mid 19th century biologists observed that animals in warmer condition often tended to be smaller. The principle was formulated as Bergmann’s Rule. It is is an ecogeographic principle that states that within a taxonomic clade, populations and species of larger size are found in colder environments, and species of smaller size are found in warmer regions.

There have been examples of fish, horses, crustaceans, birds and even the human brain becoming smaller as the environment warms up. A new investigation by Jan Gils et al. of the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research presents an interesting new case of the migratory red knot bird. Migratory animals have adapted to life in multiple, often very different environments. They spend their summers far away from their wintering grounds. Possibly this makes them more able to adjust to changing environmental situations. However, the paper suggests the complexity of their existence also makes them more vulnerable for changed circumstances. Seasonal migrants can experience reduced fitness at one end of their range as a result of a changing climate at the other end. Juvenile red knots stay smaller because global warming causes there to be less food available in their Arctic breeding grounds. Later, upon arrival in their tropical wintering grounds the resulting smaller, short-billed birds have difficulty reaching their major food source, deeply buried mollusks. In response the red knots have taken to eating shallowly buried seagrass rhizomes. This vegetarian switch, although forced by circumstance, is an interesting development. If the red knot manages to adept and survive it could inspire different human eating habits. A vegetarian diet is in many ways the much better option. The question is if we will adept before circumstances leave us with no choice?

  • Share/Bookmark

Shrink Agents

It’s not easy for an individual human being, nor for the human species in general, to embrace the radical change implied in an existence as a smaller being. Growth, it seems, is the rhythm of life. But not for all life. Fortunately there are species of animals and plants that go against the tide and embody some of the shrink values we would like to develop within the human community. Through a process of interspecial learning these specific growth antagonists may be able to ‘teach’ us how to appropriate some of their qualities and abilities. Or perhaps our increased ability to manipulate and exchange genetic information will allow us to physically import the embodied shrink desires of other species. Could it inspire a preference for smaller partners in women, like in the pygmy squid female? What if people were able to shrink up to 20% of their regular body size in times of food scarcity like the marine iguanas of the Galapagos? What if we could adopt the bonsai tree’s ability to arrest growth through hormonal self-therapy as well as their potential for extremely long, if not eternal, life? Such ideas may seem radical. On the other hand perhaps the first and most important step is the understanding that smallness has amazing potential for an equally, if not more, satisfying and fulfilling life.

  • Share/Bookmark

Full Growth Potential

In 1997 the World Health Organisation undertook a comprehensive review of child growth references. It stated: ‘We now have scientific evidence proving that infants and children from geographically diverse regions of the world experience very similar growth patterns when their health and nutrition needs are met. This provides us with a crucially important and scientifically robust tool to assess compliance with a child’s “right to grow.”’

Okay, no arguing with that. The review, named the Multicentre Growth Reference Study, was purposefully designed to produce a standard by selecting healthy children living under conditions likely to favour the achievement of their “full genetic growth potential”. Hmmm, full growth potential. Although one might easily find such words equally convincing, the influence of current growth doctrines already manifests itself in such terminology. It overlooks the notion that reaching full potential, in some cases, may not be the best option. Is inflating a balloon to its full potential always smart? Perhaps not if you want the balloon to have a longer life. Like balloons perhaps it would be better if people always retain some of their potential, a little slack to deal with unexpected circumstances. Although height is the result of good circumstances for growing tall, like plants in a greenhouse, being tall itself is not healthy. In fact every centimeter of height takes about 6 months of your average life expectancy. At the moment the WHO does no relate the historically high intake of proteins and sugars to an unnecessary increase in height, only to obesity. And although the obesity epidemic is a serious concern and it is good that the WHO addresses this, it is worrying that our increasing height, with all its consequences for our health, needs and footprint, is not considered with equal attention. On the contrary, it’s celebrated.

  • Share/Bookmark

Early Heroics

During the excavation of a common grave at Romito Cave in Italy, P. Graziosi discovered the diminutive remains of a person that turned out to be the earliest known case of dwarfism in the human skeletal record. The specimen, known as Romito 2, exhibits features typical of acromesomelic dysplasia, including a high domed skull, compressed cranial base, and extremely shortened diaphyseal lengths. It extends the time span of this genetically determined growth restriction to approximately 10,000 years ago. Besides providing evidence for a greater antiquity of dwarfism than previously known, the fact that this individual reached late adolescence attests to tolerance and compassion of Upper Paleolithic groups for very short individuals. But why should we presume otherwise?  In most cases we can mostly only speculate on how little people were treated but let’s be careful with presuming they were treated badly. Such conclusion would probably only reflect our own prejudice. It’s well known that during Egyptian times little people were very highly esteemed managers and caretakers within the royal household, often holding positions that allowed them to acquire wealth and power.

Shorter than usual people have been part of human biological and cultural history for a very long time. Dwarfism has infused and enriched our culture. It has expanded the reach of our species (figuratively speaking that is), and it has created the possibility, that hopefully one day soon, we’ll be able to embrace the virtues of a smaller human species. For at least 10.000 years and probably longer, these evolutionary heroes have paved the way, and are still doing so today.

  • Share/Bookmark

Thumbs Up for Teens.

We don’t yet know why but it seems younger mothers have shorter baby’s. A recent study in New Zealand assessed whether increasing maternal age would be associated with changes in height, body composition, as well as lipid and metabolic profiles in childhood. The age of women having their first child has increased considerably over the past decades. Most children in developed countries nowadays are born to mothers aged over 30 years. Unfortunately this increasing maternal age is linked to greater risk of type 1 and type 2 diabetes, higher blood pressure in childhood, complications during pregnancy and physiological changes in the reproductive system such as alterations in hormone levels. And now on top of these increased risks, baby’s of older mothers also turn out to be taller. Although there are certain advantages such as a reduction in abdominal fat and improved insulin sensitivity, children born of mothers over 30 were also an average 1,5 cm taller than those of mothers under 30. The researchers are not sure how to explain the findings. Perhaps, they suggested, the hormonal mix produced during pregnancy by an older woman differs from that made by her younger counterpart. Not surprisingly the researchers then define the taller children as having a favourable phenotype. Why? Because they’re taller? Once again it shows how the auxological confusion about height and health is rooted deeply within the scientific community. Being tall is not necessarily healthy, and the fact that we’re tall as a result of good conditions, doesn’t make the condition of being tall itself good.

But on the other hand, who would have thought teen mums are in fact shrink activists.

  • Share/Bookmark

Trade-Off Theory

trade-off is a situation that involves exchanging one desirable quality or aspect of something in return for another quality or aspect. In an evolutionary sense it is often presumed that every advantageous alteration of a phenotype comes with a disadvantage since energy invested in one feature cannot be invested in another. The Incredible Shrinking Man is interested in those cases where the biological trade-off involves body size. Large body size may be traded for a number of advantages such as the speed of reproduction, food requirements, time to maturity, stamina, and longevity. In terms of evolution decreased size is often the prize to be paid, which presumes that body size is a desirable quality in itself. However, in many environments smaller body size is not a sacrifice but a gift. Our pre-occupation with growth and bigger size as a quality that needs no further explanation positions the research regarding trade-offs in a dialectical framework, using such words as sacrifice, giving-up and loss vs. gaining, overcoming and winning. It’s difficult to ignore such win or lose linguistics, but we must.

In our series on biological trade-offs we’ll try to figure out a way to engage in a discussion regarding size without falling into this pre-fabricated notion that becoming smaller is somehow a negative consequence of some other positive gain. Leading us in this research are the Mth fruitfly, the chuckwalla, large dogs, and the completely indifferent DNA which doesn’t care about any of this.

  • Share/Bookmark

Japanese Miniatures: Okamura Fossil Laboratory

We can only speculate on what inspired the Japanese palaeontologist Chonosuke Okamura to develop his exceptional Fossil Laboratory. Perhaps he felt that the rather unglamorous study of tiny fossil of algae and vertebrates from the Ordovician period limited his imagination. Or maybe this is a case of extreme face pareidolia. And than of course it is possible that Okamura felt he was really onto something. For whatever reason, his attention was clearly directed towards the small. Starting in the 1970’s Okamura reported finding fossil remains of over a thousands different species of mini-creatures. Petrified in the 425 million year old rocks of a Japanese mountain he found tiny fishes, microscopic birds, mini-mammals and plants each no more than a few millimetres tall. He also found extremely small people engaged in all sorts of activities. According to Okamura the tiny ‘homunculus’ had a stature of only 1/350 that of contemporary man, but already had the same basic shape.  Even more puzzling is his detailed description of these microscopic people kissing, dancing and feeding their children.  Although thoroughly embedded within the realm of paleontological fantasy, Okagawa’s suggestion of a smaller reality offers mankind a lens through which to observe the present, and realise that all life started with a microscopic living entity. An entity that may still be embedded within the DNA in all of us. If it is the fossil hunter’s original desire to reconstruct the past then maybe it was Okamura’s wish to project onto them a vision of the future.

Japan is the conceptual epicentre of shrink philosophy. Our ongoing series of Japanese Miniatures collects and connects these stories and hopefully eventually will be able to inspire some of the fundamental Japanese sensitivity and desire towards smallness in the rest of the world.

Image by Michael Ramstead

  • Share/Bookmark

Japanese Miniatures: Akakomugi

Japan is the conceptual epicentre of shrink philosophy. Our ongoing series of Japanese Miniatures collects and connects these stories and hopefully eventually will be able to inspire some of the fundamental Japanese sensitivity and desire towards smallness in the rest of the world. Akakomugi, an old dwarf variety of wheat, is yet another perfect illustration of what such openness towards the small could bring.

Over the last 100 years wheat breeders around the world have worked on increasing the yield of wheat by reducing plant height and making the plants resistant to the below par conditions of intensive agriculture. For this reason, breeders selected plants with short and stiff straw, based on their phenotypic expression, from natural populations or from generations that had been crossed with dwarf varieties. Tracing back the wheat pedigrees showed that most of the dwarfed European wheat varieties have the Japanese variety Akakomugi in their genetic background. Akakomugi is the donor of a ‘‘reduced height gene’’  (Rht8) which reduces plant height while increasing spikelet fertility and bringing flowering forward. It was the Italian plant breeder Nazareno Strampelli, who was in charge of Mussolini’s ‘Wheat Battle‘ that crossed the Japanese varieties with European varieties in his quest to increase yield. His work eventually contributed to the three-fold increase of wheat production in Italy and many countries around the globe. It’s an example of the possibility to shrink towards abundance. Katrina Borojevic, author of an historical reconstruction of Akakomugi’s introduction into European wheat varieties, notes that short varieties are often introduced under government pressure for larger yields. She writes: “This emerging pattern of seed exchange among breeders and governments’ impact on growing these wheat varieties should be investigated further, to explore the underlying socio-historical influences that may have played a role in determining the pathways of these genes”.

  • Share/Bookmark

Sneaky Copulation

In terms of reproduction, size matters. In most species larger dominant males are preferred by the females, and perform better in male to male competition. And as a result they get to spread their ‘king-size’ genes around. But not always. Sometimes smaller is preferred as can be witnessed in the mating behaviour of several dwarfed animal species. Andrea Pilaster of the Sexual Selection Group at the University of Padova found that in terms of male dwarfism the mosquitofish are an interesting species because their reproduction is based on a little bit of both strategies. The larger dominant mosquitofish males are still preferred by the opposite sex, (taking into account that in mosquitofish the females are considerably larger than all males). At the same time the subordinate smaller males, in order to make sure their ’small-size’ genes get a chance at dissemination, sneak-copulate. They sneak in around the unfertilised eggs and release their sperm before the bigger male can respond. The behavioural data indicate that the advantages to small males are two-fold: 1. They have a greater chance to approach females from behind without being detected, and 2: They manoeuvre better when inserting the monopodium into the female’s gonoduct, which is not saying they’re better lovers but in terms of reproductive success at least they don’t miss out. The selective advantage of small size might explain male dwarfism in poeciliids. Similar strategies have been witnessed in flat lizardsburying beetles and long-tailed macaques.

Sneaky copulation is a strategy often used by aquatic organisms who portray sexual mimicry. In this rather obscure reproductive strategy small male fish will look and behave like the females of their species to gain access to female territory and copulate with them. They’re often successful. Perhaps in the grand scheme of life and making sure your genetic material gets spread around it doesn’t make a difference if you fight for it, or steal it. With a little imagination we can speak of a highly developed form of shrink activism. Mosquitofish are the Oscar Matzerath of the animal world.

  • Share/Bookmark