Peter Ungar on Evolution’s Bite

UngarWe carry in our mouths the legacy of our evolution. Our teeth are like living fossils that can be studied and compared to those of our ancestors to teach us how we became human. In Evolution’s Bite, noted paleoanthropologist Peter Ungar brings together for the first time cutting-edge advances in understanding human evolution and climate change with new approaches to uncovering dietary clues from fossil teeth to present a remarkable investigation into the ways that teeth—their shape, chemistry, and wear—reveal how we came to be. Ungar recently took the time to answer some questions about his new book.

Why do paleontologists care so much about teeth? What makes them so special?

PSU: Paleontologists care about teeth because oftentimes, that’s all we’ve got of extinct species to work out details of life in the past. Teeth are essentially ‘ready-made fossils,’ about 96% mineral, so they survive the ages much better than other parts of the body. They are special because they come into direct contact with food, and can provide a bridge to understanding diet in the past. We can tease out the details by studying their size, shape, structure, wear, and chemistry. Teeth connect us to our ancestors, and them to their worlds. I like to think of nature as a giant buffet of sorts. I imagine animals bellying up to the sneeze guard on this biospheric buffet with empty plate in hand. Teeth can teach us about the choices they make; and it’s those choices that help define a species’ place in nature. As the old adage goes, you are what you eat. Teeth are important because they can help us understand relationships between animals in the past and the worlds around them, and about their—and our—evolution.

Why do we have so many problems with our teeth today? Why do we get cavities, require braces, and have impacted wisdom teeth?

PSU: Think about how extraordinary your teeth are. They have to break food, without being broken themselves, up to millions of times over your lifetime. And they have to do it built from the very same raw materials as the foods you are eating. Nature is truly an inspired engineer, and it’s remarkable they last as long and function as well as they do. But they’re not perfect. Most of us today get cavities, and many of us have crooked front teeth, and impacted wisdom teeth. This is largely because of our diets. We eat mostly soft foods, loaded with highly-processed carbohydrates, especially refined sugars. Cavities form by erosion from acids produced by plaque bacteria. Feeding those bacteria diets high in carbohydrates, especially sugars, means more cavities. Also, when we eat soft foods as children, we don’t exercise our jaws enough to stimulate the growth they need to make room for all our teeth. The result is crowded lower incisors, uppers that jut out over the lowers in the front of the mouth, and impacted third molars in the back. It’s not that our teeth are too big for our jaws, it’s that our jaws don’t grow long enough to accommodate all our teeth. Most traditional foragers that eat tougher or harder foods have longer jaws, and so don’t suffer the sorts of orthodontic problems the rest of us have.

Do other species have these problems? If not, why are we so different?

PSU: I’ve seen cavities and evidence for gum disease in some non-human primates, particularly in species that eat a lot of fleshy, sugary fruit, but they’re much rarer than in us. There are very few early human fossils that provide evidence of dental disease in our distant past either. Again, it seems to be a mismatch between our diets today, and the foods that we evolved to eat. Our teeth are not designed for hamburgers and French fries, nor to be bathed in milkshake. If you want to see evidence of that mismatch, just smile and look in a mirror.

What was your motivation for writing a popular science book?

PSU: My PhD dissertation was 654 pages, mostly focused on a quarter of a square millimeter of the surface of some incisor teeth. Most academics are so narrow in their research focus that it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees. I wrote this book to give myself the big picture, to give me an appreciation of the larger context into which my own work fits. Also, no more than half a dozen people actually read my dissertation cover to cover, and that includes my mother. Academics often feel like they’re speaking, but no one is listening. I wanted to reach a larger audience. This book at first glance seems to be about teeth – but it’s really about the biospheric buffet, and how environmental change over deep time swapped out items and choices available to our distant ancestors. The take-home message is that large-scale climate swings winnowed out the pickier eaters among us, and drove our evolution. Teeth are our window through which to see it. The most important message here is that climate changes, and species have to change to accommodate or die. That’s why we’re here. It’s a timely, important lesson.

As a scientist who has spent the last three decades studying evidence for the evolution of human diet, what do you think of today’s “Paleolithic diet” trend? And what was the ancestral human diet, anyway?

PSU: I’m not a fan. I like pizza and bagels too much. Still, there’s little doubt that our ancestors did not eat such things; so it makes sense that a discordance between the foods we evolved to consume and what we fuel ourselves with today can wreak havoc on our bodies. Try putting diesel in a car built to run on regular gasoline (actually, don’t). And people do lose weight when they cut refined carbohydrates and processed sugars from their diets. We could well benefit from eating more like our Stone Age ancestors, with menus like those in some popular diet books—you know, spinach salads with avocado, walnuts, diced turkey and the like. I am not a nutritionist, and cannot speak with authority about the nutritional costs of benefits of Paleolithic diets—but I can address their evolutionary underpinnings. Think about it this way. Any diet that drains the body of fat reserves means not meeting daily caloric needs. It is difficult to believe that nature would select for us to eat only foods that don’t provide the nutrients required to maintain the body. In fact, the whole idea of the Paleolithic diet is problematic. Even if we could (and we can’t) reconstruct the glycemic load, fatty acid, macro- and micronutrient composition, acid/base balance, sodium/potassium ratio, and fiber content of foods eaten at a moment in time in the past, the information would be meaningless for planning a menu. All these nutrients varied with food availability over space and time, as items on the biospheric buffet table were swapped in and out, so focusing on a single point in our evolution is futile. We’ve been a work in progress for millions of years. What was the ancestral human diet? The question itself makes no sense.

Peter S. Ungar is Distinguished Professor and director of the Environmental Dynamics Program at the University of Arkansas. He is the author of Teeth: A Very Short IntroductionMammal Teeth: Origin, Evolution, and Diversity and Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins.

Horses of the World – Free downloadable poster!

We’re excited to introduce Horses of the World, a comprehensive, large-format overview of 570 breeds of domestic and extant wild horses, including hybrids between the two and between domestic breeds and other equids, such as zebras. Written by avid equestrian Élise Rousseau and encompassing every horse breed in existence, this beautifully illustrated and detailed guide covers the origins of modern horses, anatomy and physiology, variation in breeds, and modern equestrian practices. To celebrate the release of this monumental work, we’re making available a free download of a full color poster featuring a gorgeous selection of breeds.

The book, a must-have for all who are interested in horses, provides a treatment of breeds organized by country within broader geographical regions—from Eurasia through Australasia and to the Americas. Each account provides measurements (weight and height), distribution, origins and history, character and attributes, uses, and current status. Every breed is accompanied by superb color drawings—600 in total.

Download the poster here, and check this space each Tuesday for our new “Tuesday’s Trot” series.

 

Presenting the new trailer for Silent Sparks

Fireflies are beloved insects, conjurers of summer magic, but have you ever wondered exactly what is behind their flashing?  Check out the stunning trailer for our new book by biologist Sara Lewis, Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies.

Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies by Sara Lewis from Princeton University Press on Vimeo.

Noah Wilson-Rich on city beekeeping

the bee jacketNoah Wilson-Rich is an unconventional beekeeper who spends most of his time building bee hives on hundreds of buildings, including major stadiums, in nine different cities. These urban settings now support live bee populations and the environmentally friendly trend is only growing. As author of The Bee: A Natural History, Wilson-Rich establishes himself as an authority not only on the species but on conservation as well. An article on his beekeeping and speaking tour appeared recently in The Wall Street Journal.

Wilson-Rich emphasizes the urgency of preserving the bees’ population, pointing out that his urban hives are just one step in the right direction. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Mr. Wilson-Rich is researching ways to improve bee health, so he also carries test tubes to collect samples. He believes urban beekeeping is part of the solution. “Anybody who eats fruits and veggies needs bees. We have to protect our pollinators!” he says.

Wilson-Rich goes on to speak about some little known facts about bees, their habits, and what exactly makes them so uniquely necessary to humans. Read the rest of the article here.

Noah Wilson-Rich is founder and chief scientific officer of The Best Bees Company, a Boston-based beekeeping service and research organization. He is author of the book The Bee: A Natural History.

PUP celebrates National Bird Day with our most-loved birding post

Stephenson_WarblerGWarblers exhibit an array of seasonal plumages and have distinctive yet oft-confused calls and songs, making them one of the most challenging birds to identify. Enter The Warbler Guide, a phenomenal field guide that assists novice and experienced birders alike in the proper identification of the 56 species of warblers in the United States and Canada. This groundbreaking guide features more than 1,000 stunning color photos, extensive species accounts with multiple viewing angles, and an entirely new system of vocalization analysis that helps you distinguish songs and calls. We also have a Warbler Guide app, with exciting new 3D graphics that let you view a bird from the exact angle you see it in the field—an ideal companion to the book.

To celebrate annual National Bird Day, we give you one of our most popular posts to date, the downloadable quick-finders from The Warbler Guide. You can enjoy some free, and in-high-demand downloads here.

Still need more birds? You might also want to check out this fabulous interview with the authors of Better Birding, George L. Armistead of the American Birding Association and Brian L. Sullivan of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Both discuss how they became birders, and how it grew into an emotional, even spiritual endeavor.

Happy birding.

Why beekeeping in L.A. is a good thing, according to Noah Wilson-Rich

The BeeAccording to Noah Wilson-Rich, author of The Bee: A Natural History, bees exert an overwhelmingly positive influence, despite their bad rap as stinging pests. In his recent op ed in the Los Angeles Times, bees are efficient entities that produce “tangible benefits.” Wilson-Rich draws attention to the peculiar and outmoded 1879 ban on urban beekeeping in L.A.– a ban that has now been reversed– declaring that urban beekeeping in single-family residential zones is legal, and for good reason. He argues:

Bees contribute more than $15 billion to the U.S. economy annually in their role as pollinators of more than 100 fruit and vegetable crops. That number balloons to $100 billion globally. I won’t pretend that bees will put a dent in L.A.’s unemployment rate or add significantly to the state’s gross domestic product. But legal beekeeping would spur job creation, allowing skilled professionals to make a living by installing and maintaining beehives for residences, companies and schools.

According to Wilson-Rich, urban beehives are actually more productive than their rural counterpart. Urban beekeeping is already legal in numerous cities, including Washington D.C., Paris and New York, and he questions why Los Angeles, a city where allegedly ten bee colonies exist every square mile, fails to keep up with the valuable and safe practice or urban beekeeping.

Read the full piece in the Los Angeles Times here.

Noah Wilson-Rich is the founder and chief scientific officer of The Best Bees Company, a Boston-based beekeeping service and research organization. He is the author of The Bee: A Natural History.

The Bees in Your Backyard – a slideshow

Bees are in decline, bringing many to embrace their value and think twice before decimating a hive. Even urban beekeeping has experienced an explosion in popularity. But the sheer number and variations that exist in the species can be confusing for novice (and seasoned) bee enthusiasts alike.

The Bees in Your Backyard by Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril provides an engaging introduction to the roughly 4,000 different bee species found in the United States and Canada, dispelling common myths about bees while offering essential tips for telling them apart in the field. The authors are bee and wasp experts, and between them they have been studying these often misunderstood pollinators for more than three decades. The book contains over 900 stunningly detailed color photos, a few of which we’re excited to share with you here:

[portfolio_slideshow size=large id=36624 autoplay=false random=false centered=true carousel=false navstyle_graphical navpos=top pagerstyle=thumbs pagerpos=bottom]

Birdfair 2015 at Rutland Water, UK

blue TitBirdfair 2015, the birdwatcher’s Glastonbury, took place last weekend at Rutland Water, UK.  This year’s event – three days of events and lectures with hundreds of stands for wildlife fans – was hot and thundery.  Princeton University Press and the WildGuides team were there displaying the breadth and importance of our natural history books and chatting to enthusiastic birders, authors, potential authors, booksellers, and bloggers. Andrew Brewer, PUP Europe Sales Director, called the event a huge success.

Andy Swash, Brian Clews, and Andrew Brewer at Birdfair 2015

Andy Swash, Brian Clews, and Andrew Brewer at Birdfair 2015

Seven PUP authors gave talks at the event: Adam Scott Kennedy (Birds of Kenya’s Rift Valley), David Newland (Britain’s Butterflies), James Lowen (Antarctic Wildlife), Sophie Lake (Britain’s Habitats), Dominic Couzens (The Crossley ID Guide), Dave Smallshire (Britain’s Dragonflies), Stuart Ball (Britain’s Hoverflies). All talks were well attended and followed by book sales and signings. David Newland’s talk, in which he shared tips on searching for, identifying and photographing butterflies and moths in the wild, was given to a full house. He signed copies and sold books after the event until they ran out and the queue of eager butterfly spotters moved across the large Birdfair site to continue chatting and buying at the WildSounds bookshop.

Plans are already afoot for Birdfair 2016 which will be particularly exciting as we will have our new and magnificent Britain’s Birds to share.  Perhaps we’ll see you there?

Weekly Wanderlust: Yellowstone

Yellowstone is the world’s first national park, and home to some of the oldest and most awe inspiring sites in the United States. Commonly known for tourist attractions such as the geyser Old Faithful, Yellowstone is a complex geothermal area containing half the world’s natural geysers. It is also a highly valued protected ecosystem, home to some of the most amazing wildlife, from grizzly bears and wolves, to herds of bison and elk. The human story of Yellowstone spans more than 11,000 years, making the area an important archaeological site as well.

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

Grand Prismatic Spring

Grand Prismatic Spring

Excelsior geyser

Excelsior geyser

 

Whether you plan to camp, hike, fly-fish, or immerse yourself in the region’s history, you may want to check out Justin Farrell’s new book, The Battle for Yellowstone for some background on the park’s moral, cultural, and spiritual roots.

Farrell jacketYellowstone is globally recognized as the crown jewel of modern environmental preservation. But the park and its surrounding regions have recently become a lightning rod for environmental conflict, plagued by intense and intractable political struggles among the federal government, National Park Service, environmentalists, industry, local residents, and elected officials. The Battle for Yellowstone asks why it is that, with the flood of expert scientific, economic, and legal efforts to resolve disagreements over Yellowstone, there is no improvement?

Justin Farrell argues that the battle for Yellowstone has deep moral, cultural, and spiritual roots that until now have been obscured by the supposedly rational and technical nature of the conflict. Tracing the moral causes and consequences of large-scale social change in the American West, he describes how a “new-west” social order has emerged that has devalued traditional American beliefs about manifest destiny and rugged individualism.

Justin Farrell is assistant professor of sociology in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University. You can read a Q&A with him here.

Photos of Yellowstone courtesy of Claudia Classon

Bird Fact Friday – Warblers

From page 539 of The Warbler Guide:

17D_SpeciesAccounts_422-511A Yellow-rumped Warbler can be identified in flight by a numbers of features. It’s slight is bouncy and strongly tacking with irregular wing beats that are mostly below the body. It takes short glides, both open- and closed-winged and often mixes flight with chip calls. It is large, stocky, and hunchbacked with long blunt wings. Its color is overall gray with yellow shoulders, wing bars and rump.

 

The Warbler Guide
Tom Stephenson & Scott Whittle

k9968Warblers are among the most challenging birds to identify. They exhibit an array of seasonal plumages and have distinctive yet oft-confused calls and songs. The Warbler Guide enables you to quickly identify any of the 56 species of warblers in the United States and Canada. This groundbreaking guide features more than 1,000 stunning color photos, extensive species accounts with multiple viewing angles, and an entirely new system of vocalization analysis that helps you distinguish songs and calls.

The Warbler Guide revolutionizes birdwatching, making warbler identification easier than ever before. For more information, please see the author videos on the Princeton University Press website.

Download the app here!

j10416

Weekly Wanderlust: The Caribbean

Southeast of the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean (taken from Caribs, an ethnic group native to the Lesser Antilles and parts of South America at the time of the Spanish conquest) is home to over 700 islands and reefs. With its warm water, proximity to ports, and easy accessibility from the mainland US, the islands have long been a popular vacation destination. Whether you enjoy swimming with the dolphins in the islands of Aruba or taking advantage of the Bahamas’ extensive nightlife scene, the Caribbean offers enough variety in activities, climate, and geography for everyone. Make sure to make time during your trip for plenty of snorkeling with the migratory schools of fish, and exploring the wildlife that can only be found in these islands. If you’re lucky, you’ll even catching a glimpse of some of the unusual animals inhabiting the area.

Caribbean Image

Perhaps these books will help you familiarize yourself with the Caribbean’s natural offerings.

Raffaele Jacket Wildlife of the Caribbean is the first comprehensive illustrated guide to the natural world of the Caribbean islands. It contains 600 vivid color images featuring 451 species of plants, birds, mammals, fish, seashells, and much more. While the guide primarily looks at the most conspicuous and widespread species among the islands, it also includes rarely seen creatures—such as the Rhinoceros Iguana and Cuban Solenodon—giving readers a special sense of the region’s diverse wildlife.
Kohn Jacket Conus is the largest genus of animals in the sea, occurring throughout the world’s tropical and subtropical oceans and contributing significantly to marine biodiversity. The shells of these marine mollusks are prized for their amazing variety and extraordinary beauty.  This beautifully illustrated book identifies 53 valid species of the southeastern United States and the Caribbean, a region that supports a diverse but taxonomically challenging group of Conus.
Lieske Jacket Expanded and updated to include an additional 44 species, Coral Reef Fishes is a handy guide to those fishes that are likely to be observed by anybody visiting or diving on the coral reefs of the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, and the Pacific to a depth of sixty meters. Accessible to amateur marine life enthusiasts, this book is the first comprehensive guide of its kind. It enables the reader to quickly identify 2,118 species of fish and includes over 2,500 color illustrations depicting the major forms of each species–male, female, immature, or geographical varieties.

PUP Op ed Original: Noah Wilson-Rich on why urban dwellers should be raising bees on their rooftops

Belted beeNoah Wilson-Rich studies bees and the diseases that are depleting their colonies. He founded the Best Bees Company, a Boston based beekeeping service and research organization, has given a TED talk, and is now the author of The Bee: A Natural History, recently published by Princeton University Press. Today he shares with us the vital importance of urban beekeeping.

CITIES ARE KEY TO SAVING BEES
By Noah Wilson-Rich

Nearly a decade after the start of Colony Collapse Disorder (C.C.D.), a bizarre phenomenon whereby honey bees simply vanished from their hives across the United States during 2006-2011, bees are still dying at unsustainable rates today. Across the country, about one in every three hives does not survive the winter. Germany shares this alarming statistic across their apiaries. Bee deaths seem higher in areas with harsh winters and in areas with monoculture agriculture use – but lower death rates in cities. In Boston, urban bees not only survive the winter at higher rates, but they also produce more honey than beehives in surrounding suburban and rural environments.

The Bee jacketBees are vitally important creatures. We tend to give honey bees (Apis mellifera) all the credit for pollination because most people are familiar with the old man beekeeper working his white painted beehives image. Yet, honey bees are only one species of bee from about 20,000 total species worldwide. Their contributions span far past pollinating around 100 fruit and vegetable crops that we rely upon, and an estimated $100 billion to the global economy each year. Of the $15 billion that bees contribute to the United States economy annually, the alfalfa bee alone contributes an estimated $7 billion. The alfalfa bee! (Cattle rely on alfalfa for feed.) If the future of humanity is to involve nutritious food, then we must consider bees.

Regardless of what caused or ended C.C.D., or why bees are thriving in cities, the discovery of urban beekeeping as a safe haven for bees gives us hope. The post-C.C.D. world still has myriad dangers for bees; they are still dying. The three leading hypotheses for what’s killing bees: 1) Diseases, 2) Chemicals (e.g., fungicides, pesticides, etc.), and 3) Habitat loss. The Typhoid Mary event for bees that opened the flood gates to a series of additive plagues was in 1987, when Varroa mites first came to the United States. In 1998, small hive beetles were added. In 2004, imported Australian honey bees brought with them Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus. In 2006, C.C.D. began. In 2013, the fungus Nosema ceranae became omnipresent in all 200 hives that my laboratory sampled. And we haven’t even started on the pesticides, fungicides, and habitat loss yet.navigating bee

Spring brings to light the brighter side of things. My beekeeping team was back out this year, tirelessly checking hives, maneuvering rooftop equipment on skyscrapers, trekking through waist-high snow drifts, looking for signs of life. One team returned to our Urban Beekeeping Laboratory and Bee Sanctuary in Boston’s South End, reporting that 100% of the day’s hives visited were alive. I assume they stayed around Boston or Cambridge that day, and my suspicion was right. The next day, another team of beekeepers returned from the field, their faces long trodden and forlorn, with only 1 out of 15 hives visited that day having survived the winter. I assumed they visited countryside beehives; I was right.

Policy makers are increasing their legislative actions to be more permissive for urban beehives, with beekeeping allowed in Seattle in 2008, New York City in 2010, Boston in 2014. San Francisco totally allows beekeeping unrestricted, while Denver limits to 2 hives in the rear 1/3 of a zone lot. Los Angeles is slated to be the next major metro area to allow beekeeping in residential areas. Even Washington, DC now has its first beehives at the White House grounds, in step with President Obama’s 2014 memorandum, “Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.”

Urban beekeeping took flight in New York City in March of 2010. It was made illegal by the Giuliani administration in the 1990’s, along with a list of dozens of prohibited animals. In the years since its legalization, the island of Manhattan became a pollinator haven. After my recent talk at the March 30, 2015 meeting of the New York City Beekeepers Association, local beekeepers asked if there were too many beehives in the city. Beekeepers in London talk about this, as well. Is there a saturation point, with too many beehives in the City? That’s how common beekeeping is in New York and London. (One way to measure this is based on the Great Sunflower Project, whereby everyday citizens record the number of bees visiting a flower for 10 minutes each day, as a means of gathering data to measure pollinator abundance; this hasn’t yet been done for cities.)

Los Angeles is the only major city in the United States with illegal beekeeping. The pesticide policy came into effect long ago, way before “killer bees” gave the non-aggressive bees a bad rap. Rather, policy makers received bad info, that bees attack fruit – and decided that the best way to preserve our crops was to ban the bees. We now understand pollination. We know that more bees actually lead to more fruits and vegetables. Yet the law of the land remains, and Angelinos must kill beehives upon site. The future for beekeepers in Los Angeles may be bright, however, with City Councilor Katie Peterson and other policy makers working to legalize beekeeping as soon as within the next few months.

Access to urban beekeeping is a social justice issue. It gives everyone access to local, healthy food. What’s more is that is allows for a new avenue of corporate sustainability, with businesses opting to put beehives on their rooftops as a display of their commitment to the environment. For example, simply reusing a towel or having an herb garden on the rooftop is not necessarily enough these days for a hotel to rise to the top of the sustainability ranks. Beekeeping and pollinator protection are the next step for sustainability branding.

Urban beekeeping is happening across the globe, and it’s a good thing. We should change laws to allow more of it to happen and also educate the public so they can also raise bees on their rooftops to allow for a more sustainable future for both humans and bees, alike.

Noah Wilson-Rich, Ph.D. is founder and chief scientific officer of The Best Bees Company, a Boston-based company. His latest book is THE BEE: A Natural History.

Read the introduction here, and take a peek inside here: