3rd Trimester Foetal Hunger

Perhaps pregnant women in their last trimester shouldn’t eat too much. In the winter of 1944/45 the Second World War resulted in a severe famine in the Netherlands. The Dutch survived on as little as 30% of their daily needed caloric intake. It is a well-defined group of individuals all of whom suffered just one period of malnutrition, all of them at the same time. And some of them were pregnant.

Because of good health-care infrastructure and record-keeping in the Netherlands analyses of health records allowed for a systematic comparison of the effects of fetal starvation. Depending on their time of conception the unborn babies were subject to different outcomes as a result of their malnourishment. Foetuses under 3 months old during the famine were likely to be born normal size, having caught up with typical developments. Yet later in life many of these individuals developed high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. Contrary to this group the unborn babies between 6 and 9 months old during the Dutch Hunger Winter who had been well nourished up until the last few months of gestation, were born small and generally remained so for the rest of their lives. They also did not develop higher rates of obesity or disease. Even more extraordinarily some of these effects are present in the grandchildren of the women who were malnour­ished. And even their children still showed shrink effects.

Well-Controlled 3rd trimester foetal dieting may very well be a first step towards a shorter and perhaps even healthier human species.

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Small-Bodied Survivor

Ever since 2004 when several remains of a 50.000 year old tiny bodied human species were excavated, the Indonesian island of Flores and its ancient population have been in the centre of paleontologists attention. Homo floresiensis as it was named inspired a lively and sometimes heated debate about smallness and the human species. Who was this very very small human? How long had it been around? How did it get to be so small? And where did it come from?

Now, at a 700.000 year old site called Mata Menge, researchers have found strong evidence that the ancestors of Homo floresiensis were indeed a group of Homo erectus that came to Flores one million years ago, possibly following a tsunami or other major disaster. Interestingly they then became subject to a much more rapid process of insular dwarfism then had previously been suggested. In the course of just 300.000 years since first appearing on Flores the hominin lost 1/3rd of its height. This is up to 500.000 years faster then previously suggested. So, for at least 700.000 years the tiny species roamed the island of Flores, long before Homo sapiens even existed. Adam Brumm at Griffith University in Queensland, who co-led the excavations together with Gert van den Bergh of the University of Wollongong, said: “The island is small and it has limited food resources and few predators, other than komodo dragons, so large-bodied mammals that wound up on this rock would have been under immediate selective pressure to reduce their body mass. Being big is no longer an advantage when you’re trying to survive in such an isolated and challenging environment.”

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Abundance Fantasies: Body Inflation

Skol blowfish people

Body inflation is the practice of inflating or pretending to inflate a part of one’s body. It is commonly done by inserting balloons underneath clothes and then inflating them. Some people have specially made inflatable suits made from latex rubber to make themselves bigger all over. Others explore this fantasy through animation, cartoons or manipulated photography.  Sexual gratification is one of the most common reasons for this practise. In our series on Abundance Fantasies we explore how a deeply rooted desire for abundance manifests itself in our vocabulary, our myths and legends, and our behaviour. If we are to deflate society’s obsession with more, bigger and larger, we first need to understand what inspires this obsession, even if it comes out in obscure and playful ways such as body inflation.

One might argue that body inflation is a more direct and honest translation of the growth obsession that is so much part of how most of humanity expresses itself these days.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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