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Super-predatory humans

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Matt Walker Matt Walker | 15:00 UK time, Thursday, 16 February 2012

Humans fishing underwater

Humans soon learnt how to catch ever greater numbers of prey

Predators have roamed the planet for 500 million years. The earliest is thought to be some type of simple marine organism, a flatworm maybe or type of crustacean, perhaps a giant shrimp that feasted on ancient trilobites. Much later came the famous predatory dinosaurs such as T. rex, and later still large toothed mammals such as sabre toothed cats or modern wolves.

But one or two hundred thousand years ago, the world’s most powerful predator arrived.


We lacked big teeth or sharp claws, huge tentacles or venomous bites. But we had intelligence, and the guile to produce tools and artificial weapons. And as we became ever better hunters we started harvesting animals on a great scale.

We wiped out the passenger pigeon, the dodo, the great herds of North American bison. Last century we decimated great whale populations. Today the world’s fishing fleets routinely take more fish than scientists say is sustainable, leading to crashes in cod numbers for example, while people kill more large mammals in North America than all other causes put together.

But out of our mass consumption of the world’s fauna appears a curious conundrum.

Predators and prey are normally locked in an evolutionary arms race. As predators evolve to run faster, their prey too is selected to become fleeter of foot. As predators evolve sharp teeth, herbivores evolve horns for protection. Some carnivores hunt in packs, so their prey form defensive herds.

But animals don’t appear to have evolved defences against us. Which raises the question why?

Is it that these animals simply haven’t had time to evolve defences, or lack the variation in their genes to produce them? Or is it to do with the way we hunt them?

These questions are raised by Professor Geerat Vermeij of the University of California at Davis, US, in a scientific paper just published in the journal Evolution. He has been studying the effects of predators on evolution for more than thirty years.

“Usually, when new, more powerful predators evolve or come in from elsewhere, the local species can often adapt by themselves becoming better defended through a variety of means; but this option seems to be closed when it comes to the evolution of humans as super-predators,” he tells me.

Graphic showing size of blue whale relative to human

Even huge blue whales have become potential prey

In his paper he investigates why this is so.

First he examines how animals adapt to other non-human predators. He shows how prey animals consistently, and successfully, evolve certain types of defence.

The first is growing big. If you can grow big enough, it becomes very difficult, even for predators hunting in packs, to tackle you without injury and bring you down.

Scientific studies have shown that large terrestrial herbivores are by weight up to ten times bigger than their largest predators, which can’t grow mouths large enough to cope with their outsized prey. It explains why lions, wolves and orca tend to avoid fit adult buffalo, moose and whales respectively, targeting more often the weak and young (which are smaller).

If species can’t grow big, then they evolve other defences, such as the passive armour afforded by shells. As predators evolved to drill through shells, many prey species evolved to become toxic. The evolutionary arms race once more. A good example here, says Prof Vermeij, is the cephalopods, animals including squid and octopi. Early versions of these animals had armour, but as they were eaten by fish and toothed whales, they were replaced by lineages that were faster, more aggressive, venomous or toxic.

But then humans came along.

“The spread of modern humans represents one of the great ecological and evolutionary transformations in the history of life,” Prof Vermeij writes in Evolution.

We hunted and gathered on land, but soon began exploiting intertidal zones, taking shellfish and fish. Such intertidal zones were important food sources for prehistoric human populations living in places as far and wide as South America, South Africa, California and Oceania.

Depiction of boar hunting in the 14th Century

Boar hunting depicted in the 14th Century

Then we started taking big animals. When we did the very adaptations that offered protection against natural predators attracted rather than deterred human hunters. The huge size of mammals such as bison or whales made them juicy targets for meat-hungry humans for example. 

Other defensive ornaments became disadvantageous as humans evolved into super-predators. Elephants were killed for ivory, crabs and lobsters fished for their large meaty claws. These once advantageous traits became liabilities in the modern, human-dominated world.

We didn’t just take large species, we also preferentially harvested out the largest individuals of smaller species, a problem that persists today.

Prof Vermeij has examined the degree to which this happens.

He looked at one group of animals, marine molluscs and echinoderms such as starfish, and surveyed all the scientific research into how they have been exploited by humans. We select the largest individuals among 35 of 40 species studied, he discovered.

That means that size is no longer a refuge. Whereas growing big may have been one defence against natural predators, it offers no defence against human super-predators.

Sticking to rocks, as limpets do, is no good either as humans have invented picks and knives to prise them off.

Prey animals may do better to become toxic instead, and there is evidence that some marine species have become poisonous to people, either producing their own toxins, or by harnessing toxins produced by microbes. Reef fish and crabs are often toxic to people because they contain unpalatable, and sometimes lethal, dinoflagellates, for example.

African elephant (Ron O'Connor / NPL)

Elephant tusks attracted rather than deterred human hunters (Ron O'Connor / NPL)

But humans have found ways to get around this too. Many toxins need to be concentrated into organs such as the liver. And humans have learnt to remove these, to avoid their ill effects.

In short the way humans hunt appears to be the main factor preventing animals evolving adaptations to defend themselves from us.

Animals do respond to selective pressures, even over short time scales, and many species have responded to humans being super-predators, says Prof Vermeij.

By eliminating large apex predators, secondary predators have boomed. As cod numbers crashed in the 20th Century, their place was taken by an abundance of shrimp, lobster and crabs, which in turn feed on marine snails. As a result, these snails may have evolved thicker shells to protect themselves against these marauding shell-crunching crustaceans.

But we hunt on too grand a scale, with too much ingenuity, targeting the biggest animals.

“Our arrival and technological history has engendered an enormous change in the evolution of most species on Earth,” says Prof Vermeij.

In evolutionary terms, we leave our prey with nowhere to go. They have no way to defend themselves and simply cannot respond.

And that, says Prof Vermeij, represents a cataclysmic shift for species on this planet, the implications of which, he adds, we have barely begun to understand.


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  • Comment number 1.

    Enjoyed the article. Here's a thought. Given the unusual nature of our dominance, it could be considered that defending against us has required unusual "work-arounds" by natural selection.
    Animals that have become successful since the rise of Homo sapiens are the domestic dog, the domestic cat, cattle, sheep, goats, etc. In other words, success has come not by competing with us but by becoming commensal or by having a synergistic relationship with us.
    You might think it isn't much of a life being a cow or a sheep but, in biological terms, they are currently extremely successful.
    For that matter, rhinoviruses are doing quite well, the influenza virus, the Lactobacillae, Escherischa coli is booming, Staph., and so on.
    So, our "servant" species and our parasites and micro-predators are doing ok. Perhaps the closest to an "old-fashioned" competitor that is doing well would be the fox, crows and the like. Small, to medium-sized intelligent generalists.
    Oh. And of course, cockroaches. :-)

  • Comment number 2.

    Very interesting article. I suppose the same goes for plant evolution, given the scale of human agriculture, urbanisation, impact on climate etc.

    As the writer says, we have barely begun to understand the implications of the ecosystem transformations we have caused. At the same time, humans themselves have barely evolved over the last 10,000 years, during which our impact on the natutral world has been greatest. So we are altering our environment dramatically without adapting to this genetically.

  • Comment number 3.

    As humans have wiped out many of the major sea predators such as tuna, sharks etc a new kid on the block is becoming dominant and that is the Humboldt squid and it reproduces in large numbers and even likes human.

  • Comment number 4.

    I thought that one explanation of the extinction of large mammals in America after the arrival of humans was that unlike Africa they had not evolved behavioral defenses.

  • Comment number 5.

    Some interesting observations on the flip side of this matter from @sarahtim.

    Far more species have learned and evolved anti-human predator and adaptations than we realise. It is merely that most people are so out of touch with animal behaviour that they never see it. Modern humans are in general extraordinarily poor at reading the behaviour of wildlife. Whilst evolved predator defences can be very effective, they are rarely easily observable as such. This is because if the defence is very effective, the species tends to get ignored by predators, so you won't actually see it in action. The most effective predator protection is probably the most subtle, because of its success. Often protection from predation just involves the numbers game and so whilst greatly reducing the success of predator attacks, it is not a 100% defence against them i.e. it just makes it more difficult for the predator.

    All species have limitations of what type of predation they can adapt to. Ground nesting birds have trouble adapting to introduced ground predators, as it would require a major change in their behaviour. Therefore how quickly a species can adapt to predation depends on what it's experience of analogous predators is, and what genetic or phenotypic tool kit it has at its disposal. Self-evidently there is a continuum of protection from near complete protection from predation, to just subtle statistical drops in the efficacy of predator attacks.

    Through a lifetime of watching and photographing wildlife I've had to learn to get closer to it. To understand how different species see the world, what scares them and what they are comfortable with. This has left me being much better at reading animals than most. What has become very apparent to me is that wildlife is a lot better at reading and understanding us, than we are at reading them.

    For instance in the UK countryside wildlife is far more terrified of humans than even their regular predators. I've seen rabbits ignoring a fox strolling past them, because they've seen it, and it knows that. But the same rabbits will scatter at over 100m if they see a passing rambler. This is because rabbits understand how foxes hunt and when they are safe. People are much harder to read as some have rifles that can kill a rabbit well over 100m away. Nevertheless, whilst not giving themselves complete protection from firearms, in daylight it makes it difficult to do more than pick off the odd rabbit.

    There is plenty of anecdotal evidence for how quickly animals learn. The oral history of one Native American tribe has it that wolves did infrequently take their people in the past, but that quickly stopped after European colonisers and firearms arrived in the area. This is another key point. Most of the more modern dangers from human predation, firearms, commercial fishing boats etc, are relatively new, especially in their modern efficient forms.

    What I'm trying to say is that I believe that plenty of species already have highly adapted responses to human predation. The reason it isn't documented is for a number of reasons. Firstly it is probably because this behaviour is now taken for granted i.e. it's how that species behaves, because we never knew of its previous behaviour. Most of this adaptation is behavioural, like simply keeping out of sight, and therefore very difficult to document. Finally evolution works the numbers game on many dimensions. Species come and go from an ecosystem perspective. The most likely adaptation of ecosystems with species heavily exploited by humans, is that in the future these niches would get filled by more variable species, less interesting and useful to people, and less commercially exploitable.

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 7.

    A very interesting article.

    I think nature always wins and has ways that naturally brings in checks and balances. Nature has the natural power of time. And with natures time, a natural workaround will probably give advantage to our less able fellow lifeforms.

    Humans are predisposed to having a toxic mix of high intelligence with emotional and aggressive traits that has served them well so far, but it's not calibrated and balanced enough to allow humans avoid over aggressive self predation and exploitation. In the long term, old fashioned life forms will be enabled to survive when humans make themselves become extinct.

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • Comment number 9.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 10.

    Is this for real, a professor has conducted a study and reached the conclusion we humans are super predators. Capable of hunting to extinction any other species on the planet, no matter how many, their physical size or defenses. The fact that some of their defenses I.E. large size, actually makes them a better target to hunt. Ever heard the phrase " tell me something new ".

    We as primary predators, made a point of killing the secondary level, not only to eliminate competition, but as trophies. Elephant & rhino horns, lion & tiger pelts, but our predatory instincts have evolved. Many such species actually depend on this shift, they have become protected species.

    Not sure where this study was conducted, but in Europe there are fishing quotas, many of the predatory fishermen have had to find other forms of employment. Whole shipping fleets in certain areas no longer exist. Shrimp, lobster & crab I can have in abundance, cod is caught under accepted quota.

    It's not our hunting habits that will change, just the prey & eating habits.

    The study itself, I found simplistic & nonsensical. But I would like to know if commentators 1 & 2 are professors, angling for a study grant. Parasites - minimal threat, some would say we are super parasites of the Earth :-) Viral evolution is the real threat to the super predator, we have not physically evolved to fight any of them. Only chemical assistance as evolved, then virus mutates ( evolves ), that's the new battleground.

    Commentator 2 brings up a very pertinent point, boring vegetable life. Who wants to save a plant, not as cute as a panda. But far more important to the whole ecological system. Far too much CO2 in the world, governments decide to raise green taxes. At the same time allowing the greatest building development on so called green land. No systematic quotas on forest clearing. Did any of them pass basic biology O level tests .

  • Comment number 11.

    @Highlander , is that all you have to contribute to the debate? A stupid , factualy incorrect piece of psuedo intellectual drivel from 15 year old sci fi movie?

    Many thanks to everyone else for their thoughtful comments, and to the author of the article, very interesting.

  • Comment number 12.

    Of course Evolution is a very slow process. We have intelligence but it's not innate, and we still have to learn. The first step in evolving a defence against man is to fear him.

  • Comment number 13.

    Why haven't animals evolved defenses against us? I think a lot of them have, they fear us or respect us enough to keep some distance. That said we are quite a new arrival on this planet, and modern man is perhaps a few centuries old for this subject.
    Our new ability to strip bare the oceans that so many think is an endless resource is only decades old.
    How can nature prepare for the crazed demand for shark fin soup this past 15 years that is killing tens of millions of sharks for their fins only? These are slow breeding animals nature intended to be apex predators, managing everything below them in that chain. Long-lining is also killing hundreds of thousands of Albatrosses and anything else that is 'by catch', Turtles included.
    Nature can't act fast enough against things like this... https://www.seawitchartist.com/shark-fin-soup.htm

  • Comment number 14.

    thedaver64 I think your comment is unfair, the opening statement by highlander is obviously a rant. The rest is debatable but valid, possibly fuelled by anger ( won't mention drink ). Why do you take exception with him, as class warfare become intellect warfare. I personally, would welcome Highlander back to expand on their thoughts. Arguments are needed, insults are not.

  • Comment number 15.

    Are we really the top predators. I think it would be possible to argue that we are being out evolved by the very smallest living creatures. Bacteria seem to be doing rather well in living on us and killing us.

    Maybe it is just a question of speed, in that our science cannot adapt as fast as the bacteria can evolve.

  • Comment number 16.

    Exactly this study is outdated, the super predator faces attack. Now the hunter is obsolete, chemist & biologists will decide next step of evolution.

  • Comment number 17.

    We've only been around a tiny amount of time and in evloutionary terms that is not really enough time for our predators to adapt. But toolmaking,teamwork,communication skills and an inherent flexibility have meant that we have wiped out most of our predators before they had a chance to return the compliment. However bacteria and viruses that evolve very fast are certainly still giving us a run for our money,despite all our technology and cleverness - something we may regret when antibiotics stop working.

  • Comment number 18.

    The big ones have no hope.
    Even humans have almost zero chance against other humans who have access to the right equipment, Iraq for instance with Afghanistan being an exception

    It's the little guys who will get us eventually, micro organisms, bacteria.

    Wouldn't surprise me in the least if one day a toxic one will appear, explode across the human population which is like a gigantic box stuffed with rabbits, there are after all....BILLIONS of us all living cheek by jowl, and zap most of the human race

  • Comment number 19.

    Mr pedantic. I don't think the plural of octopus should be 'octopi' because this is applying a latin ending to a greek word. How about 'octopodes', the more plain 'octopuses' or the taxonomic order 'octopoda'?

  • Comment number 20.

    @CUNL2 "But I would like to know if commentators 1 & 2 are professors, angling for a study grant." :-) That was amusing. No. I am not a professor and my living takes nothing from the public purse in any way. Thank you for your concern.

    Parasites seem like a minimal threat until you consider the toll malaria takes. Certainly they are no threat to the continued existence of our species but they do terrible damage.

    We have evolved to cope with viruses or we would not be here. The battle is perpetual though as I think you point out and we are fortunate that, anthropomorphically speaking, it is not in the interests of any virus to wipe out its host. It is possible that the battle with viruses is one of the oldest and some of the biological processes and structures in all cellular creatures seem to owe their existence to these ancient battles.

    In a vast biota we only tend to pay attention to relatively few plants and animals. It is easy to see that we may one day regret the drop in diversity and wonder what we may have lost. I agree with your point about the inconsistency of many of our policies on matters ecological. Education is the key - and persistence.

  • Comment number 21.

    Can we get this straight, no animal can evolve defences against humans. They cannot run fast enough, fly high enough or swim deep enough. We as humans decide what species survives. This is a study in bloody obvious. Only commentators have actually raised relevant questions, bacterial & viral evolution. Wholesale destruction of vegetation on the planet. If anybody paid for this study, demand your money back.

  • Comment number 22.

    The problem with very successful predators, they end up being the victims of their own success. The very well documented population explosion is not sustainable, sure as eggs, as a race we are heading for the evolutionary scrap heap because we cannot self regulate. On that cheery thought "Happy Friday".

  • Comment number 23.

    sarahtim You could do a far better, more relevant study than this. Not our hunter supremacy, but our fight against parasitical attackers. The west don't know tsetse fly - elephantiasis et al. Meaning I don't really :-) That's the point, you could tell me far more, important details. Than this study did.

  • Comment number 24.

    There is an implicit assumption in this article that species hunted by humans have not been able to adapt to our predation. But is this really so? A species can adapt genetically in building more defences or making itself less of a viable food source as mentioned, but it can also adapt by acclimatising itself to physical and environmental environments in which incidence with humans has a lower probability. Basically, if you can’t run (or mutate), you still have the option to hide.

    Are we sure cod numbers are down or have they simply relocated to areas we have never or will never fish?

  • Comment number 25.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 26.

    Interesting article with some notible exceptions from the list of species Homo sapiens sapiens have hunted to extinction: principally other species of homo sapiens. Ecosystems are always in a state of flux and humans adapt to and shape their environment, there is nothing 'unnatural' about this. I would highly recommend Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist for a more balanced, less anti-human take on the environmental issues we face today.

  • Comment number 27.

    Why do some humans hope other animals are smarter, or actually believe they are. Because humans feel guilt, whilst animals get on with surviving. Ever seen a vegetarian tiger, because killing a gazelle is intiger.

  • Comment number 28.

    The main difference I see between Humans and other predators/prey is that human intelligence is a major factor. We have created traps and weapons which can be used to catch any prey. Natural born predators only have the skills they're born with such as speed, strength, size. The same can be said for prey.

    In reality it's not a fair fight.

  • Comment number 29.

    As most commentators have pointed out this "academic" study shows the waste of money that goes on in academia. Yes we know that man appears to be "superior" to other animals in his predatory ability, but no against nature as a whole, tsunamis, pestilence and as most have pointed out microbes. It never fails to amaze how some academics seem to re-enforce the stereotype that man has made a difference. We haven't been around long enough on the planet to assume that and as a race humans are pre occupied with their own self importance. In the bigger picture we are no more important that any other species inhabiting the planet and nature will punish us for this arrogance.

  • Comment number 30.

    # 26
    Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist

    You want to make yourself a target for the anti hunt - anti vivisection - anti human brigade. This is a very worrying species, animals that think 100 humans aren't worth the death of a single rat.

  • Comment number 31.

    Interesting but incomplete. The Professor has failed to mention other factors involved i.e. environment and time. Humans have been around a relatively short time and have been the apex predator even shorter. Prey / predator relationships have evolved over millions of years for most large animals not thousands or even hundreds. eg how long has it taken lions and buffalos to evolve into their present forms? Where humans have had the most devastating effect is where they arrive somewhere new and in significant numbers but this is true of many other species eg rats on islands. Evoltion takes time. Then there is the environment. During human dominance time the earth has been relatively stable (no life extinction events). Although we have managed to wipe out some species, species extinction has happened continually through out time where those species not adapted to survive the environment or predator pressure have died out their ecological niche filled by another better adapted organism. For example many large herbivours died out when they grew too big for the available food source and the large predators which evolved to hunt them followed them into extinction. Over sufficient time it is probable that we will destroy ourselves and we will be replaced by another organism (an intelligent cockroach?) who will evolve into the apex predator. Given we have only been 'intelligent' enough to become the dominant predator for a few thousand years it is not unexpected we are still having a major negative impact on SOME organisms but others, especially fast breeders like rats, cockroaches etc have evolved to take advantage of our impact.

  • Comment number 32.

    Typically preditors and prey evolve together in an arms race senario. I think the difference with humans are memes.

    Memes allow novel solutions to problems to be copied to other individuals or groups and handed down generations. So each problem (such as how to build a spear or how to prise a limpet of a rock) needs only to be solved once. Memes can evolve by natural selection in a similar manner to genes however the process can be orders of magnitude faster, many memes can evolve in one generation. It is also likely that memes can be invented by novel thought; so memes are not restricted to a single branching tree like genes in the tree of life, but can be a forest. As memetic evolution occurs on a much faster scale organisms evolving solely by genetic evolution will not be able to keep pace or adapt fast enough.

  • Comment number 33.

    As the behaviouralists never tire of pointing out, half a million years is barely enough time for anything to evolve anything. One would not expect to see many such adaptations yet. When they appear, they will appear first in species whose genetic make-up allows them to adapt quickly, species in which there is all the time an inherently wide genetic variation.

    Wolves, for example, have evolved variants with clumsy movements, floppy ears and big sad soulful eyes, which we tend to share our food with rather than compete for food with. Grasses have done even better, with the handful of variants which are useful to humans covering more of the planet's surface than possibly any other species of plant apart from phytoplankton.

  • Comment number 34.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 35.

    Ok, I think that the article is slightly shrotsighted.
    There are plenty of defenses against us..

    Plants : Poison, Thorns, Inability for us to digest..
    Animals : I wouldn't like to take on a shark, tiger, lion on my own..
    Virus / bacteria : They are our hunters and we are at war! With super bugs emerging it could be that we are at a turning point!

    Where we humans have the infinite advantage is that, not only do we have natural selection to aid us (ie some parts of the population immune to a virus) but we also have the ability to use and design tools!

    Its not humans that are killing animals but tools and our ability to created and develop them much much quicker than natural selection can provide a defense to them. If the arms race were human natural selection v animal natural selection then it would be a different kettle of fish.

  • Comment number 36.

    So many students giving an hypothesis based on time, it's now. Not then, not next, now. This study is of no use, Professor Geerat Vermeij, as done nothing new. The BBC may feel it's relevant, as it was published in a publication - Evolution. Serious commentators will give their replies in respected scientific journals. But let the debate continue, it's far more interesting than the report.

  • Comment number 37.

    Is it more more to do with our advancement in technology, weapons etc, that has meant the advancement of humans has accerated our "evolution" resulting in the blink of an eye (in evolution terms) we are able to kill/eat any animal on the planet, with relative ease. However take away our technology, one on one against any alpha preadator, we are second best and would quickly drop down the food chain.

  • Comment number 38.

    This question may seem simple on tha face of it, but evolution is a glacial process amd mans status as top predator has only really come to the fore in the last few hundered years. The key issue was the industrialisation of our hunting skills.

    The Do-do is alluded to. This turkey like bird was doomed to failure without mans intecession. Limited gene pools and isolated geography married to flightlessness was an evolutionary dead end.

    But consider other predators. Take the Polar Bear. A apex predator in it's own right, it has asapted remarkably well to it's changing socio-economic pressures. Receding habitat and oppertunities have led to it adapting to an urban lifestyle, much like the fox seen in any big UK city. Evolution can be behavioral, not just the development of exaggerated canines and poisonous siliva.

    Also, as a predator, man's large brain and opposable thumb lends an unfair advantage. Advanced communication skills allow for development of complex strategies in the hunting arena. Strategies that will outstrip the more limited skills of the prey.

    In summary, the question should not be "Why haven't anamals out-adapted humans?" but rather "Why have Humans outstripped everything else in the evolution stakes?"

  • Comment number 39.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • Comment number 40.

    Evolution is often misunderstood. Whatever attributes allow an individual to grow up and make babies is passed on. If the species does not produce enough random variations, it will not suddenly evolve particularly important survival attributes.

    Yes selection has been shown to happen over short periods of time on small populations but to affect real change takes millions upon millions of years.

  • Comment number 41.

    I think it might be a mistake to assume we have 'won' the evolutionary race outright. We might have left all other species with nowhere to go, but maybe only for now. Intelligence is a game-changer in that it speeds up our ability to adapt. As the first species on the planet to evolve intelligence we are now leaps and bounds ahead of any other species. But perhaps if another species evolves better intelligence than they currently have, they will quickly catch up. Ironically, we may be hastening our demise by helping other species to embrace their intelligence as we do with experiments in labs! Sounds like science fiction but give it another few million years....

  • Comment number 42.

    I have to disagree with the premise of this article. Animals have evolved to survive us. You just have to consider that survival of the fittest means that the fittest is the cutest or most useful. That is natural/human selection.

  • Comment number 43.

    Just off topic slightly, Smallpox, Humans actually eradicated a disease, I think that is an incredible acheivement that a species has evolved to the point where it can do something like that.

    Genetics is the next human step, stem cell manipulation etc, A species that can control how life is created in just a couple of hundred thousand years... amazing.

  • Comment number 44.

    It's refreshing to have such an intelligent set of comments on this site, with @sarahtim setting the tone. Having browsed over from the more tribal BBC News page, I was expecting somebody to blame Cameron for the failure of animals to evolve anti-human defences.

  • Comment number 45.

    Re 39. It could be... but nope, it turns out a much better explanation than the Bible! Still, that aside...

    40 is right, evolution isn't directed as we think of it, rather it's those traits that survive long enough to reproduce that count and the rest are lost or reduced in prevalence.

    The fish we eat are becoming smaller as we prefer the largest individuals. One could postulate a time when the delicious fish are all too small to be worth catching (quite an amusing, if also depressing idea). As the industrial harvesting is quite recent there are still genes in the commercial fish populations to allow them to become large again but if we continue the selective pressure these will gradually be lost and will only occur again through mutation.

    If, of course, one believes in such things :D Otherwise it'll be down to God to fix our mess (I don't know who thought it would be a good idea to leave Humans in charge....)

  • Comment number 46.

    Bacteria and Virus have evolved to cope with our attempts to kill them, such as resistance to penicillin for example. Even rats evolve to resist poisons. These subtle chemical changes evolve far faster than large scale physical features.

  • Comment number 47.

    Final word - each & everyone of you knew what Professor Geerat Vermeij was saying. Some of you raised more important topics, some argued his case better than him. I have been impressed, my first time on this sort of stuff.

    But bible bashers have arrived, logical discussion is out the window. Thanks to all who commented, I have read & noted each argument, some may make me question my own beliefs. Bible bashers are squirming at that thought. Listen to someone else no way.

  • Comment number 48.

    Humans have only been around for a miniscule fraction of the time since life began. Its hubris to suggest we're at the game end.

    In ten million years new species will fill the vacant niches left by tigers, elephants and whales.

    Our population will collapse eventually, perhaps because of pathogens or because we do what every species does when times are good, exhaust food supplies and living space.

    And then life will find a way to fill the empty niches.

    Its just a crying shame that we can't behave with more foresight than say, E. Coli growing on a petri dish.

  • Comment number 49.

    A lot of these comments are fair and make a good point, but is it not the case that we evolved much faster than any other living thing on this rock, thus rendering the competitions efforts to develop any kind of defence redundant.

  • Comment number 50.

    The biggest threat to man is himself.

  • Comment number 51.

    # 30. Think you might be guilty of anthropomorphising such species (joke!)

  • Comment number 52.

    Nice article, thank you. An interesting question. I suppose the crux of it is that humans change at a rate that far surpasses that of natural selection. For natural selection to have noticeable effects a consistent selective pressure needs to be present over many generations. We humans just aren't consistent. We change more rapidly than any other species because we undergo cultural and technological evolution which can bring about massive changes in years rather than the generations needed for change through biological evolution.

  • Comment number 53.

    Here's a facet that hasnt been mentioned
    'Evolution' has produced its own downfall.
    Humans are the super predators that no other species can withstand, and evolutionary principals are destroyed by us.
    On the whole we control, manipulate, reshape (completely) and decimate the biosphere around us - often for immoral flimsy desires and needs.

    So - where does that leave 'evolution' - in a mess - its conjured up its own downfall, with a new shape that is basically destructive. All other species & biospheres are smashed aside by the super predator that can destroy at a whim. The explosive and technological power are like nothing ever experienced before, and its only been for less than a hundred years at most
    We dominate the planet and therefore 'evolutionary' principals no longer are in control - apart from global weather patterns (but dont worry we're working on that as well).
    Result - 'evolution' is a fraud. Entropy is king, and 'evolutionists' will not be able to admit that

    Perhaps there was another system happeing all along that we missed?

  • Comment number 54.

    #48 - Guy; again, I think taking a look at Ridley's thesis in The Rational Optimist might change your mind about human sustainablity. It's a vital corrective to the more common catastrophists

  • Comment number 55.

    Hi Highlnder. Contrary to what Agent Smith says in the Matrix the classification of animals as mammals has nothing to do with their population dynamics or how they exploit resources.
    I'm sad that you have such a low opinion of our species.

  • Comment number 56.

    Perhaps the best way to defend against such lethal human predation now is to become the most popular source of human food? Human's tend to lean towards certain food stuffs above all others; like Cod, Beef, Chicken etc. While we may have made a bit of a mess with the Cod we're also smart enough to figure out how to farm them or hunt less.

    By being a super-predator's main source of food the prey actually ensure their survival.

  • Comment number 57.

    I believe one of the main reasons for other species being unable to evolve defences against humans is because we have no natural weapons (I'm not counting our intelligence as a weapon). Our use and rate of creation of tools has made us formidable and unpredictable, allowing no time for the other species to adapt defences. Additionally we have the capability to alter our environment to suit our needs rather than us to adapt to the environment, slowing our physical evolution but also rapidly tilting the effects on the species around us.

  • Comment number 58.

    Are we really the most advanced predator? ever heard of.... KONG. Those who think we are top dog will be eating their words when we are displaced by a group of super-intelligent, highly aggressive, marauding apes. Stroking their beards they will muse over our fate and will keep only the most handsome humans as their butlers.

  • Comment number 59.

    I should think that the main reason that animals haven't developed defenses against human predators is that we hunt indiscriminately, as I believe the article hints at. It doesn't matter if the prey is large, small, terrestrial, airborne or marine, armoured or venomous; if it lives we will kill it, even if we don't intend to eat it. Survival of the fittest doesn't come in to it, simply because we consider even the 'fittest' to be fair game. Why do we do this?

    Because we can.

  • Comment number 60.


    Didn't we shoot Kong? :-)

  • Comment number 61.

    I am back.

    Why are you all trying to write a thesis on this on the internet, I have lecture at 11. Wish I had so many replies then.

  • Comment number 62.

    There are two key reasons for our global dominance in the food chain:

    The first is near exponential population growth and the second is our use of weapons, tools and technology. Go back about 700years - before the advent of firearms when we were still hunting with bows and spears - and you'll find that the balance of power between human and animal was more equal and hunting was sustainable.

    The only way any species has a chance of properly taking on the human race is if that species of animal was able to learn how to use a weapon outside of its normal nature...such as the rifles used by the primates in the movie "Planet of the apes". (Asinine I know but I'm only using it as an example).

    If you train the ape to aim, shoot and kill its prey with a firearm, ie reinforce the animals experience with a meal it has shot itself, I wonder how quickly the ape would learn that the weapon ends life and shoot its trainer during a fit of frustration one day?

    So forget poison, toxins, size, speed and numbers. If you really want to put the cat amongst the pidgeons - or the apes amongst the humans - train them to use rifles.

  • Comment number 63.

    Are we sure no animals have evolved to taste more horrible, as tasting yucky and not being exciting to hunt must be one of the best defences against humans.

  • Comment number 64.

    If you were to take the position of an outsider looking at us as a hunter we are obviously a strange anomaly as compared to other species of carnivorous and omnivorous hunters on Earth. Because we are not even close to being a carnivore and are barely omnivores. Plus we do not really eat the diet we were basically physically evolved to eat. Though as the dominating species of animal on Earth we can choose to supply ourselves with and eat anything we want.

    As a hunter we play a completely different opportunistic game more of gathering then hunting. We never really directly engage our pray in a fight to the death because we would lose. Nor do we directly engage the other species of hunters toe to claw by directly driving them away from their pray or taking it directly from them by force, again we would lose.

    We are even against ourselves since the diet we have adopted for ourselves conflicts with our evolved genetic ability to digest and absorb it nutritionally. This adopted diet has become a source of chronic epidemic diseases of digestion, heart and cancer etc. Then if you add in the pressure we put on the whole planet by continuing to gather and eat this way we appear suicidal. The one fact that the authors left out of the article is that we may become the best source of defense for other species here on Earth against ourselves.

    May 15, 1979 issue of the New York Times. Dr Alan Walker and his associates, anthropologists at John Hopkins University.
    Every tooth examined from the hominids of the 12 million year period leading up to Homo Erectus appeared to be that of a fruit-eater." - NY Times, May 1979 The essence of Walker's research is that even though humans have adopted omnivorous and carnivorous eating practices, our anatomy and physiology have not changed. We remain biologically a species of fruit eaters.

    Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), Regne Animal, Vol 1, p73www.iol.ie/~creature/Biological Adaptations.htm Carolus Linnaeus
    The great taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus,(1707-1778), a Swedish naturalist and botanist who established the modern scientific method of classifying plants and animals, classified humans not as carnivores, not as omnivores, nor even as herbivores, but as frugivores. Linnaeus writes: Man's structure, internal and external compared with that of the other animals, shows that fruit and succulent vegetables are his natural food.

    Chimps consume approximately 65% fruit; 20% leaves, 5% animal, along with fractions of other non-fruit plant items making up the other 10% or so, estimates from. Goodall 1986, McGrew 1992, Tutin 19

  • Comment number 65.

    How have people come to the conclusion that humans haven't evolved that much? Physically we may resemble our early ancestors but what sets us apart is our intelligence. Where as the process of an evolutionary step for most species is thousands of generations, humans adapt instantly to changes in the environment, and in fact, evolve many times in a single generation. The negative impact of this is that our awareness of the impact on our surrondings has been lost. We are a superior predator which wants to have it's cake and eat it....or cod, if we wish.

  • Comment number 66.

    Simon at #40 - Your first sentence should be in 48-point bold type!

    Selection pressures mean that attributes that are definitely a disadvantage (in terms of producing viable offspring) get wiped out of the gene pool fairly quickly, whereas those attributes which produce a positive advantage TEND to increase in the population as a whole. Not WILL increase, but TEND to increase - any advantageous adaptation only increases the probability of the owner passing it on to it's progeny. This is obviously far slower than the rate at which a disadvantage will be eliminated, which is why (as has been commented upon above) the defensive adaptations which have been made over the period of human hunting tend to be behavioural rather than anatomical.

    Deadly at #39, if there are no facts to back up the theory of evolution, please explain the increasing resistance of bacteria to commonly used antibiotics. And please also, while you are at it, look up (or have someone explain it to you) the definition of a scientific theory.

    David Wallis at #19 - surely the plural of octopus is calamari?

  • Comment number 67.

    Survival of the fittest, end therefore evolution, can only happen if the fittest are more likely to escape predation than the less fit.
    Human hunting methods are so efficient that it makes no difference - the fastest & biggest bison is no more likely to escape a bullet than the slowest. Similar arguments for fish, whales and any other species that man predates. It doesn't need a professorship to see the obvious...

  • Comment number 68.

    Surely there is a bigger preditor than humans, and that comes from bacteria and microbes. Size isnt a factor yet these kill people daily. We adapt to kill them, yet they adapt back!

  • Comment number 69.

    54:CPM - Thanks for pointing me to "The Rational Optimist".

    If humanity does keep getting richer, healthier and more ordered, history shows that this is bad news for the future diversity of flora and fauna.

    We are like any other species, when times are good we just can't stop ourselves from exploiting finite resource.

    Whats good for us might be bad for those who come after.

  • Comment number 70.

    We certainly are a very destructive creature, not content like other animals in surviving. We have the concept of a life. And this has all of the connotations of wanting to be famous, travelling all around the world, loading ourselves with all sorts of educational degrees (the more degrees one has the more important one is) and so on. We need to have castles and mansions, we need expensive cars, and so on. Well just take sex. We must have millions of positions when having sex, most animals I have seen seem to be content with the one. We classify ourselves as mammals, but we need a category all for ourselves.

  • Comment number 71.

    I seem to recall being told once while visiting kenya that before elephants were adequately protected the proportion of tuskless elephants, a natural polymorphism, in Tsavo increased. This would be a reaction to human hunting.

    Also, the human impact on these species extends far beyond hunting -- and perhaps the evolutionary pressure imposed by other human activities has, in part, stymied adaptation to us as a predator. Habitat destruction, pollution, hunting, etc all leading to a situation in which there are fewer individuals, and with less variation in the population there are less opportunities to develop adaptations to the new predator and environment. For example, the impact of human predation on the dodo was probably minimal, they tasted foul -- rather the environmental change of introduced rats and pigs lead to their decline.

    A very interesting and thought provoking piece.

  • Comment number 72.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • Comment number 73.

    Lets face facts the prey don't stand a chance.

    The super-bacteria don't stand a chance either. Right now, they are harmful as we got lazy and over-used common antibiotics. But our tools are enabling us to now understand the very genetic code that makes everything on this planet work including those super-bacteria. Once this is cracked and we understand how they work we can develop ways to kill them too.

    The only thing that can stop man is man. Or some other form of advanced being not from our world that's far more advanced than us in its knowledge and understanding of life and the universe.

  • Comment number 74.

    I subscribe to the chaos theory. I do think it's highly arrogant for us as a species to think that we can predict where evolution will go. Whether humans evolve into a number of different species and eventually become unidentifiable from each other, maybe even prey on each other, or the species is wiped out due to lack of resources, disease and overpopulation, or etc. etc. etc. There are almost an infinite number of different elements at play when it comes to evolution acting over an uncomprehendible time period, I don't think we have the intelligence (yet at least!) to predict what the implications will be.

  • Comment number 75.

    Um...because evolution is just a theory, and is being proven to be incorrect from all angles...why didn't humans evolving in coastal areas, and on islands, keep their gills? A lot easier to swim with them, than build a boat, don't you think? and humans in forests and jungles could have kept their tails...it was safer in the trees than walking on the ground, methinks...and then, there is the ultimate puzzle for all evolutionists - why, in the majority of species, are two genders required for procreation? Science hasn't solved that riddle, yet...nor even come close...

  • Comment number 76.

    Many of the comments are inferring, without explicitly stating, that the speed of evolution for the human species has far exceeded the relative slow development of defences that other species (human's prey) can provide through the mechanism of evolution. This is due to the rapid acceleration of human's thought processes (intelligence) in combination with the necessary tools to carry out his thoughts (dexterousness of hands/fingers being one such)

  • Comment number 77.

    Perhaps our greatest evolutionary threat will not come from the natural world, but rather the un-natural world; and a higher intelligence than that of our own:-Artificial Intelligence.
    Just as we have evolved in our abilities at a faster rate than any of the other species on the planet, so have computers. Computing intelligence has been growing at an exponential rate, something humans cannot compete with, how long before we are regarded as an inferior intelligence?

  • Comment number 78.

    Why didn't hey give this article to someone with a science background to write? It is not that humans evolve faster. Our technology does. How are you going to kill a blue whale with your bare hands? Technology improves at a rate far faster than evolution. An evolutionary change takes millions of years. We have gone from spears to inter-continental ballistic missiles in less than 100,000. How is an animal supposed to of evolved in just the last 100 years to defend against machine guns? What a stupid, stupid article. Go up to a polar bear naked and take it on, to see just how far we have evolved physically. Still a Super-predator??

  • Comment number 79.

    Interesting study, but just another statement of the obvious dressed as science. We don't use sharp teeth, claws or fleetness of foot to catch prey. If a prey animal develops armour, we just use armour piercing rounds. If a prey animal develops extreme speed, we just develop a machine that moves faster. The bigger they are, the easier they are to hit. The smaller they are, the easier they are to catch. The only way an animal could defend itself from us would to be unpalatable, useless for scientific experimentation and unappealing as a pet. Even if a prey animal developed the ability to produce a noxious gas, or fire some kind of lethal biological weapon at predators, we would just make it our mission to subdue the species, because we are not prepared to be anything but the apex predator.

  • Comment number 80.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • Comment number 81.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • Comment number 82.

    I was thinking exactly the same as Sarahtim. Of the organisms that are succesful around us are the ones that are synergistic with us. The domestication of animals, and in their domestication we are changing their evolution. Look at the many breeds of Dogs, Cats, Cattle etc...
    To such an extent were some of these creatures cannot survive without us. Camels, and Bulldogs seem to be examples of this.

    We are also wasteful creatures and others that thrive, do so by exploiting this.

  • Comment number 83.

    CUNL2 I didn't insult Highlander, I disparaged what he/she actually said ( that humans are a virus -- which is a factualy incorrect pop cliche from a 2nd rate sci fi film ), there is a big difference. Of course I would welcome it if he or she elaborated.

  • Comment number 84.

    @65.At 10:17 17th Feb 2012, Mancgogo

    'How have people come to the conclusion that humans haven't evolved that much?'

    I think many people are talking about Physical evolution, as I did in an earlier comment. Yes we have grown more intelligent over the years, but we have not really adapted to our environment, which brings me to another point you made:

    'humans adapt instantly to changes in the environment'

    Recently (in terms of human history) only in extreme and wide area situations such as natural disasters and not in a physical sense, but an environmental sense. Our own personal environments have changed to suit us, central heating, air conditioning, deforestation, clothing, even the use of fire. This has prevented us from physically evolving over the years.

  • Comment number 85.

    @72: "Who ever wrote this article needs a reality check..."
    I think you're far more in need of a reality check than the author of this article.

    "In the beginning "...God said, “Let Us make man in Our image..."
    It's a book. No more and no less immune to inaccuracies than any other historical tome written by multiple authors with no scientific background over an extended period. It may be 'gospel' but it isn't 'fact', get over it.

    It would be so good if the bible-bashers allowed other people to have scientific debate without diving in with this sort of pseudo-argument.

  • Comment number 86.

    Irreantum Evolution is a scientific theory, this is not a guess , or even a hypothesis. Scientific theories are based on observed facts. For example, Newton's theory of gravity has been usurped by Einsteins theory, however both theories are based on observed facts. Indeed, Newtons theory is accurate enough for everyday use still. It is mischevious or ignorant for religious people to say "it's just a theory" because they have an anti-science agenda.

  • Comment number 87.

    Who on Earth said this was an academic study? It's a piece writtten by the editor. Given, it eludes to studies but supplies a highly distilled account of them. To those who sneer at its content should re-look at it as merely a thought provoking article, which is precisely what it is meant to be.

  • Comment number 88.

    Interesting article - I am wondering, as most evolutionary adaptations of preditor/prey interactions appear to be complimentary to each other it would seem that the best way to evade an intelligent predator, us, would be for intelligence to develop in our prey. If any of our prey indeed has a basic capacity to evade us for long enough could we begin to select for the emergence of a new and genuinely intelligent species on our planet??

  • Comment number 89.

    Essentially the question is about the rate of evolution: why have some species not evolved fast enough to deal with us? The rate will depend on the 'supply' of genetic variation and the selection pressure. Genetic variation comes from mutation (no change there, and anyway it is the least important supply route) and the rate of genetic recombination (much more important important, but probably no change there).The breeding system also matters:long generation times and few offspring do not help you to adapt to high selection pressures.

  • Comment number 90.

    I'm studying ecology at university and I find the questions regarding mankind's ability to step outside of ecological processes such as competition, predation and selection, fascinating. I'm looking forward to reading the paper. There have been some intelligent and interesting comments, but I'm also amused by how many people think that they know more about this subject than a Professor who has been 'studying the effects of predators on evolution for more than thirty years.' There are also undoubtedly a few trolls commenting here - please don't feed them, and keep the debate intelligent.

  • Comment number 91.

    What an interesting question.

    Does small and harmful work ?

    It would be possible to make a case that the bacteria are winning the arms race against us.

  • Comment number 92.

    I believe that it is the combination of human's intelligence/creativity/ingenuity and their ability to make what their minds create that sets them aside from other species and this has accelerated evolution for humans faster than that of other species. Blue whales are bigger, yes, and other species (for example dolphins) may possess greater capacity for intelligence than humans but what they lack (and what super-computers lack at present) is the means to put into form and existence their ideas

  • Comment number 93.

    Is there a point in which evolution stops and a new species advances? Have monkeys changed since we evolved from them?

    Maybe we super humans will be predated by something else in the future, and we wont be able to adapt in time!

  • Comment number 94.

    Don't most animals run from humans? Even big cats run as soon as they hear the bang of a shotgun. Yet they are willing to attack humans without a bang stick, they understand that a bang stick is incompatible to their continuing good heath so leg it as fast as they can.

  • Comment number 95.

    Eventually humans will become so good with their medical and scientific advancements which will prolong life by decades, together with being able to find every last scrap of food on the planet, that they will have nothing left to feed themselves on and consequently billions will die of malnutrition.

    We're currently trying to "save" everyone from dying, from the person with cancer, who not long ago would have died, to millions starving in third world countries. Apparently every life is worth saving (or prolonging since we can't yet prevent death), but if every life was extended by say another hundred years, what will everyone eat? Who will pay the pensions to the population aged between 70 and 200 years old.

    I'm not saying that I wouldn't accept any medical treatment, or that I'd like to see medical advances or food aid to the world's starving stopped, but we can only go so far, and we'll certainly overstep the mark and the planet will not be able to sustain the eventual population.

    Then, once man is gone, the next step in evolution will take place and life will start anew

  • Comment number 96.

    Very interesting article.

    I would surely imagine that the speed of human technological advance means nature simply can't keep up?

    If you look at the advances in fire arms since the 1st World War we have simply pushed forward so far in 100 years which in terms of evolution is a nano second.

    Whilst our great, great, great grandads might have fought with fairly basic weapons such as bows and arrows or long stabbing weapons we can now kill with much more ease due to advances in technology, a hunters rifle is much more advanced. In 4-6 generations of animals does evolution have a chance of making a difference against such improvements?

  • Comment number 97.

    Perhaps animals should evolve to become cuter and fluffier!

  • Comment number 98.

    What humans have done is outpaced evolution's ability to defend its prey, because the pace of their technological advances from generation to generation has been exponential compared with nature's natural evolutionary cycle, which takes tens, hundreds or even thousands of generations to adapt

  • Comment number 99.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • Comment number 100.

    Once again this piece of work shows the gap there is between researchers in the field, and lab based one. As SteB noted, animals have adapted. In african forests animals have become cryptic, so animals around villages and towns make less noise, are less visible, and may even change the time they go back to roost such as African grey Parrots in Yaounde.


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