Nicrophorus Vespilloides

In most species large males have more mating success than small males, either because females find them more attractive or because they can use their strength to intimidate small rivals. They are also more likely to have more sexual partners and be less committed fathers. Unfortunately this tendency exists in humans as well. If we are to embrace a desire for small we need to somehow defeat this dominance of tall males. Nicrophorus Vespilloides, aka the burrying beetle, shows us it’s not impossible, and there are certain advantages to shorter males.

study by the University of Exeter has found that female burying beetles are more attracted to small partners. In the first study of its kind, male beetles were placed in the wild with a dead mouse, an ideal place for them to mate and rear a family. After getting comfortable on top of the rodent corpse, they called for mates by releasing pheromones. Unexpectedly, small males were more successful than large males at attracting a female partner to the carcass. Researchers believe that this is because they attracted less competition and potential for squabbles. The apparent allure of small males also led to them breeding more often in ‘faithful’ pairs than larger males which potentially gives their offspring a better chance at survival. Dr. Paul Hopwood, lead researcher on the project, said: “These results show that by being choosy about their males, female burying beetles might avoid complicated relationships involving male fights and extra female competitors.”

Are we perhaps witnessing the burrying beetles’s development towards dwarfism?

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Micro-Livestock: A Possible Future

Although animal science has traditionally emphasized bigness, the 1991 report Micro-Livestock: Little-Known Animals with a Promising Economic Future shows that smallness has many advantages. If in the future the human species will become smaller, we will benefit from most of the advantages listed below.

  • Small animals are cheaper and give faster return on investment since they generally have a high reproductive capacity.
  • Small animals are often more efficient converters of food energy.
  • Farmers can more easily change the size of their herd or flock according to market developments.
  • Breeding stock is more likely to be retained in times of scarcity.
  • Easy and more sustainable transport.
  • Efficient use of space and availability to landless inhabitants.
  • A much smaller food-related footprint.
  • Less expensive facilities and tools.
  • Easier Management.
  • Valuable by-products. Many species have by-products that are more valuable than their meat, milk, or eggs.
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Small Chameleon’s Mighty Tongue

Chameleons employ a power amplification mechanism to ballistically project their tongue as far as two body lengths from their mouth to capture prey. To do so, the tongue is rapidly accelerated off the hyoid with the tongue subsequently traveling to the prey on its momentum alone. Dr Christopher Anderson a postdoctoral research associate at Roberts Lab of Brown University wanted to find the upper limit of chameleon tongue projection performance. To do that, he gathered individuals of 20 species of widely varying sizes in his lab.

Anderson perched each chameleon one by one in front of a camera that shoots 3,000 frames a second. For each measurement, a cricket hung off a small dangling mesh to tempt the tongue to emerge. When it did, he could measure the distance the tongue went, the elapsed time, and the speed and the acceleration at any given time. In total, 279 feeding events from 55 different individuals were analysed. Anderson noticed that across all his measurements the smallest chameleons had the higher peak acceleration, more relative power, and greater distance of tongue extension relative to body size. Larger chameleons produced impressive motions too, but not compared to their smaller cousins. “All of the chameleons have the same catapult-like apparatus for launching the tongue, but proportional to their size, smaller chameleons have a bigger one than larger chameleons.” Dr Anderson said. The evolutionary reason why tiny chameleons are proportionately better equipped for feeding is presumed to be because, like all small animals, they need to consume more energy per body weight to survive. Their tongues have to burst out unusually fast and far to compete for all that needed nutrition. Because they’re smaller, they need to be better at the same game than their bigger cousins. According to Dr. Anderson examining movements in smaller animals may expose movements harbouring cryptic power amplification mechanisms and illustrate how varying metabolic demands may help drive morphological evolution.”

Although shrinking the human body might not immediately influence the size of The Incredible Shrinking Man’s tongue, the same metabolic rules apply for humans too. What would Shrinking Man get better at?

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Full Length over Exon Deficient

The growth hormone receptor is embedded in the outer membrane of cells throughout the body and is most abundant in liver cells.It has three major parts. 1. An extracellular region that sticks out from the surface of the cell. 2. A transmembrane region that anchors the receptor to the cell membrane.  3. An intracellular region that transmits signals to the interior of the cell. The extracellular region attaches to growth hormone, fitting together like a lock and its key. When joined this triggers signaling via the intracellular region of the receptor that stimulates the growth and division of cells. This signaling also leads to the production, in the liver and the anterior pituitary, of another important growth-promoting hormone called insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I). Growth hormone and IGF-I have a wide variety of effects on the growth and function of many parts of the body and also influence metabolism, including how the body uses and stores carbohydrates, proteins, and fats from food. Researchers have identified two major versions (isoforms) of the growth hormone receptor. The two isoforms differ by the presence or absence of a particular segment known as exon 3, which is located in the extracellular region of the receptor. The version of the receptor that includes exon 3 is known as the full-length isoform (fl-GHR), while the version that is missing exon 3 is known as the exon 3-deficient isoform (d3-GHR). Both isoforms are relatively common in most populations. Each individual can have fl-GHR only, d3-GHR only, or a mix of both isoforms. Both bind to GH in the same way on the surface of cells, but for reasons that remain as of yet unclear, d3-GHR is associated with enhanced signaling within cells compared with fl-GHR.

In regards to GHR, full length is to be preferred as it stimulates less than full length in the human body.

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Pruning

Plants grow towards the light. And because getting to the light first is so important for plants, their endocrinological system, especially just after germination, is all about favouring the top branch to grow fast at the expense of other branches. The cells in the top part of the plant, known as the terminal bud, produce a growth inhibiting hormone called auxin, a class of plant growth substances with some morphogen-like characteristics. First described by the Dutch scientist Frits Warmolt Went auxin moves downward in the shoot and inhibits the development of the other branches. This phenomenon is not unlike some of the principles of dominance we witness in contemporary society. The tall grow taller, at the expense of the small.

For The Incredible Shrinking Man the staying small part of this story is interesting. Not as an endocrinological strategy to ‘favour’ the few but rather as the material expression of the possibility of abundance for all. A gardner understands the need to follow simple pruning principles to create healthy plants that provide an abundance of flowers and fruits. For all to prosper the terminal buds need clipping.

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The Devil’s Dwarfs

During WWI the British Army made it perfectly clear that no man under the height of 160cm (5 ft 3 inches) was deemed strong enough to fight and serve their country. But as the war dragged into the second year, with the enormous losses in men’s lives and a growing understanding that this would not be an easy win, the 160cm height barrier suddenly became a lot less absolute. In fact the deteriorating circumstances drastically changed the official army standpoint as they asked the famous physiologist Marcus Seymour Pembrey to investigate the virtue of shorter soldiers. Permbrey soon enough declared that “The short man, in nearly every respect, made a better soldier than his taller comrades” Among the list of positives for the enlistment of small men in the army he suggested that: “The short man has a smaller weight of body to carry and the weight of his clothing and equipment is less; he is lighter upon horse; he does not require so deep a trench, and offers a smaller target to the enemy.” As a direct result the 1st Birkenhead Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment was created, consisting entirely of men that only one year before were deemed too weak to fight. Over 50,000 British and Canadian soldiers signed up. They arrived ready for battle after their own personal fight just to be allowed to serve their country. In the end the regiment, nicknamed the Devil’s Dwarfs, fought in some of the toughest battles of WWI.

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The Cell Cycle: Gap Zero

The Cell Cycle is a series of articles on the mechanisms and substances that regulate cell growth. The contemporary cell climate is one of constant biological and cultural high pressure to grow, to proliferate, to expand and conquer. The Incredible Shrinking Man wants to investigate how to relax and reverse this climate.

There is actually a long period in the life of a cell when it doesn’t seem concerned with growing at all. We call this time the interphase, the ’living’ phase of the cell in which it basically performs the functions it was designed for. At some point however, within this state of equilibrium, most cells will start to express the desire to duplicate. It starts to hamster nutrients, grows in size, reads its DNA, and eventually starts the process of mitosis. The cell reaches within itself, doubles up, and man has grown yet a little bit taller. The Incredible Shrinking Man beliefs most of the excess growth of the last 150 years has been unnecessary. It just adds weight and height but not to health or functionality. We need to calm our cells down. If we look at the interphase in more detail it becomes apparent that even during its living phase the cell is already making all the necessary preparations for its division, and therefor is already part of the growth paradigm. However for most cells there’s also a time, albeit much shorter, that nothing seems to happen at all. This period is called Gap Zero, and perhaps some possibilities towards relaxing our biologically programmed desire to grow ever taller can be found there. Cells enter the Gap Zero phase in response to a lack of growth factors or nutrients. During the phase, the cell cycle machinery is dismantled and cyclins and cyclin-dependent kinases disappear. Cells then remain in the Gap Zero phase until there is a reason for them to divide such as the repair of damaged tissue (good) or in response to that obsessive desire, expressed in a myriad of hormonal growth protagonists, to grow beyond what it good for us.

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Social Kogao Chins

A Japanese company for beauty products has developed masks to reduce the size of your face. The inside of the mask is laced with the metal germanium and generates heat on the skin surface to make you sweat out excess moisture. The existence of this product, no doubt condemned to end up in that unholy realm of unused stuff under the bed, in itself perhaps signifies no more than an understanding that small is beautiful. However Nathan Holton, a post doctoral researcher who studies craniofacial features at the University of Iowa, published a paper in the Journal of Anatomy that shows the desire for small faces has been deeply embedded within our genes for at least 20.000 years. And the proof is in our chin.

Co-author Robert Fanciscus explains that as humans migrated from Africa 20,000 years ago and settled down into societies, males had to become less competitive and more cooperative—giving an advantage to those with lower testosterone levels and a less violent nature. Modern humans evolved from hunter-gatherer groups that were rather isolated from each other to increasingly cooperative groups that formed social networks across the landscape. As it turned out this reduced testosterone level also softened and shrank the craniofacial structure. In other words, while we became more social, the modern human head and face became smaller and our chins emerged. Since we’ve grown to love our strong chin lines so much it makes you wonder what other loveable qualities further shrinking the human species will create.

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The Turkish Seat

The Turkish Seat, also known as the Sella Turcica, forms a bony throne for one of the most important protagonists in our ambitious desire for a smaller human species: the pituitary gland. It is here within the deepest part of the cavity (called the hypophysial fossa) above the Turkish Seat that this small gland, the size of a fingertip, synthesises growth hormone. Sella Turcica is part of the sphenoid bone towards the front middle of the skull, a few centimeters behind the eyes, where it seems to direct our gaze towards the ever larger. The sphenoid bone somewhat resembles a 3d printed Rorschach test reminding us that this obsession with growth is something we’ll need to overcome, if we are to truly grow as a species.

It’s going too far to hold the Turkish Seat accountable for the destructive desires that it helps to accommodate, yet we cannot help fantasising about what would happen if we were to restrict the pituitary’s physical space. If we’d create a slightly smaller chair for all this productivity would things slow down? There’s something wonderfully odd in the idea of downsizing the seat for the actual engine that creates the seat: something self-fulfilling. Would pituitaries respond like fish in a small aquarium?

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The Tall Dutch

The Dutch are the tallest people in the world: its women stand almost 1.71 metres (5.6 feet) tall, and its men 1.84 metres. But how the Dutch became the world’s tallest people is still debated. Now a Dutch scientist, Gert Stulp, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, found that tall Dutch men have more children than average or shorter men.

Stulp searched the public record LifeLines for clues. It contains details about the lives and health of more than 94,500 people who lived in the Netherlands from 1935 to 1967. In this 30 year snapshot, the people who had the most children were tall men, and women of average height. The most fertile men were 7 centimetres above the average height. Statistically, they had 0.24 more children than the least fertile men, who were about 14 cm below the average height. Compared to counterparts in other countries where they often tended to have fewer children, taller women also reproduced more in the Netherlands. The study concludes that natural selection must have played a part: with time, more and more Dutch had ‘tall’ genes. “Height is very heritable – taller parents tend to have somewhat taller children than shorter parents,” Stulp said. “Because taller individuals would have more offspring in the next generation who would be taller, the average height in that generation would be a bit taller on average than the preceding generation, if all else is equal.” Stump’s most interesting observation is that there seems to be a cultural preference as well. Dutch people seem to love tallness even more than others. He points to figures showing that, in the United States, it is shorter women and men of average height that have the most reproductive success. If we learn how to reprogram the Dutch then perhaps we can reprogram the world.

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