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Ask a Vertebrate Paleontologist and Marine Mammal Biologist Questions!


Off-Topic Discussions

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Hey folks,

For those who haven't pieced it together, my profession and field of study is vertebrate paleontology. In particular my research focus is on the evolution of marine mammals and how they adapted to a life in water. That latter background also has given me quite a bit of background in living marine mammal biology.

Paleontology is cool and I like to think other people agree with me, or at least us nerdy folks who would spend time on a gaming forum. I also think outreach is important and anything I can do to spread knowledge about extinct critters of all kinds and living marine mammals I think is a good thing.

So feel free to ask my any question you might have on paleontology, dinosaurs, whales, museums, how science works, etc. Or just random silly questions if you want!


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Can you look at my spine for me then, or do I have to come back when I've evolved into some sort of frog dolphin hybrid.


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What's the current accepted timeline for the mammalian "return" to the sea?


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Captain Yesterday Smurf wrote:
Can you look at my spine for me then, or do I have to come back when I've evolved into some sort of frog dolphin hybrid.

I could look at it sure, but not sure what I could tell you :)

As someone with a persistent walrus skull induced back problem I can sympathesize :P


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Cole Deschain wrote:
What's the current accepted timeline for the mammalian "return" to the sea?

Whales and sea cows separately evolved around 55 million years ago, although whales probably have hung around mostly in freshwater environments until 48 or so. We can infer the type of environment a fossil critter was swimming around in by looking at the stable isotopes preserved in tooth enamel. Ambulocetus, the famous "walking whale", had oxygen values typical of what we would see in something spending time in the ocean, while the more terrestrial and wolf-like Pakicetus has oxygen values indicating freshwater.

Oddly enough sea cows have the opposite pattern. They seem to have started off grazing in seagrass beds, and only later entered freshwater habitats, like today's manatees.

The oldest known marine seals are about 25 million years old, so quite a bit younger. They probably also started off in freshwater environments. Sadly we are still rather uncertain of the very early history, due to how similar the earliest seals were to the ancestors of bears and weasels, there close relatives.


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Being an armchair paleontologist since I could read, I'm sure I'll have a few questions for you.


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Since form follows function, what's the friggin' deal with the long-necked plesiosaurs?

It's not a shape we've seen crop up since, to my knowledge.


Do all sea mammals use tidal respiration or do you see any with countercurrent?


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Do you watch Spongebob.

Shadow Lodge Contributor, RPG Superstar 2010 Top 8

What's it like being a paleontologist?

What advice would you give someone interested in becoming a paleontologist?

(Context: I'm just about to finish my BS in Geology, and looking into grad school)


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I have read that there is a minor alternate theory of evolution that does not include apes in the human line directly, but more that we evolved ore directly from mammals in the sea (and as such I suppose apes would be the side line, like Neanderthals to homo sapiens were) and as such are far closer related to dolphins than many of the more popular current evolutionary models state.

I've never heard the full theory of it however (as it's a minor theory, most of evolutionary science I've heard discusses either the Leakey theory or the other theories of different areas of Africa in regards to Ape to Human evolution).

I'd be interested in that in far more detail (as I said, my knowledge of it is very sketchy as no one really discusses out of acadamea and why some individuals (from what I understand, a very small minority) lean towards it rather than the major theories of the ape and man relationship.


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Cole Deschain wrote:

Since form follows function, what's the friggin' deal with the long-necked plesiosaurs?

It's not a shape we've seen crop up since, to my knowledge.

The most recent idea I have heard is that the extreme long neck in some plesiosaurs to sneak up on schools of fish.

Basically...the small head is interpreted as a "relatively" small fish to a school, and they avoid dispersing or otherwise evading the plesiosaur. The plesiosaur is thus able to follow behind/above/below the school of fish, and raise or lower it's neck into fish school for lunch with little disturbance to it's food source.

That long neck morphology is indeed really unique to Plesiosaurs. Nothing like it is seen in mammals, and the only other comparable animal that may have done something similar is the weird reptile Tanystropheus.


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Aren't all paleontologists vertebrates?


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BigDTBone wrote:
Do all sea mammals use tidal respiration or do you see any with countercurrent?

They pretty much inhale oxygen the same way as humans and every other mammal. The big difference is what they do with it. IIRC, most whales and seals during diving collapse there lungs and rely upon their blood and tissues to store oxygen. They can do this by just being way more efficient with their oxygen use, slow their metabolism, and basically run different organ systems at reduced capacity. This allows diving whales to evade the problem associated with swimming deep and experiencing high pressure environments.


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captain yesterday wrote:
Do you watch Spongebob.

Nope...I haven't seen a single episode.


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Benchak the Nightstalker wrote:

What's it like being a paleontologist?

What advice would you give someone interested in becoming a paleontologist?

(Context: I'm just about to finish my BS in Geology, and looking into grad school)

My advice for anyone looking to pursue paleontology as a profession, or academia in general, is to make sure you really really love the subject. The job market is very congested at the moment; When I graduated the going estimate is that if you were lucky, for every 16 jobs you applied for you might get 4 interviews and one offer. That seems to fit my own experience as well. Depending on your area of interest, there might be only 20 or so solid job openings across the world in a given year, and you could be competing with up to two hundred other equally qualified applicants for each of those positions.

I love my job but it definitely took a lot of work to get where I am now, and its not for everyone.

If you have any more specific questions about things, please let me know, but I figured this would be a good starting point advice.


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I've heard a lot of theories, but what's your take on the position and function of the tusks of the Deinotherium line of elephant relatives?


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GreyWolfLord wrote:

I have read that there is a minor alternate theory of evolution that does not include apes in the human line directly, but more that we evolved ore directly from mammals in the sea (and as such I suppose apes would be the side line, like Neanderthals to homo sapiens were) and as such are far closer related to dolphins than many of the more popular current evolutionary models state.

I've never heard the full theory of it however (as it's a minor theory, most of evolutionary science I've heard discusses either the Leakey theory or the other theories of different areas of Africa in regards to Ape to Human evolution).

I'd be interested in that in far more detail (as I said, my knowledge of it is very sketchy as no one really discusses out of acadamea and why some individuals (from what I understand, a very small minority) lean towards it rather than the major theories of the ape and man relationship.

What you are talking about is the "Aquatic Ape Hypothesis", which is indeed a pretty fringe idea that posits that the ancestors of humans evolved from some early ape or Australopithecus ancestor that entered the sea, somewhere on the coast of Africa. This idea puts forward that a lot of the "unique" features we see in modern humans are in fact adaptations to living in water. It doesn't suggest any close relationship with dolphins or whales (which are more closely related to cows than primates).

I admit to having a certain nostalgia for the idea. It's an imaginative scenario that I have played with in fiction, but one in which I don't believe has any actual credence. It's mostly a so so story.

Most of the proposed evidence can be equally and more parsimoniously explained by other hypotheses, or just doesn't hold up, either the traits in question not being particularly similar to what we see in aquatic animals or just being general features we see in tons of critters, aquatic or land.

For instance a frequently cited bit of evidence is the fact that humans lack fur, something that is also absent in whales and sea cows. Hence we lost fur to streamline our bodies! However, hair is actually still retained by many mammals with aquatic adaptations, such as seals and otters. It would be very unlikely that fur would be something loss...if anything we would probably be hairier in order to retain heat while lounging in water, a huge problem for most mammals. And although humans do have subcutaneous fat, it's nowhere near similar to the blubber in whales and seals, and is insufficient to compensate. A more parsimonious interpretation of hair loss is that it evolved with sweating, which functions better with bare skin and direct evaporation than with fur.

Most of the evidence basically comes out like the above. It's an interesting idea but one in which there really is no merit.


If it's ok, I'd like to plug my favorite paleoartist, who goes by the name Sinammonite. He's a Chinese artist and does really great work, especially with mammals. His paleoart begins at the bottom of page 2 of his gallery. I use a lot of extinct mammals in my homebrew and having his illustrations compared to human sized silhouettes helps me visualize them even better. Some of the paleoart is mixed in with his other works and photography work, so you'll have to scan through the pages of his gallery to see them all. The best way to see just the paleoart is to click on a single portrait and for the most part afterward will be his paleo-work.

Sinammonite's Artwork


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Tarondor wrote:
Aren't all paleontologists vertebrates?

well on this planet certainly...


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DungeonmasterCal wrote:
I've heard a lot of theories, but what's your take on the position and function of the tusks of the Deinotherium line of elephant relatives?

I've always been partial to the idea it used its tusk to pull down branches and such while feeding. I am not sure that has been rigorously tested yet, and I can't find any recent papers on google scholar suggesting new work has been done. So uh...let's go with that idea?


That's what I always thought, too. Possibly for stripping off bark, as well. The strangest theory I ever heard was digging for roots, which given the immense size some species reached seemed almost impossible to imagine.


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DungeonmasterCal wrote:

If it's ok, I'd like to plug my favorite paleoartist, who goes by the name Sinammonite. He's a Chinese artist and does really great work, especially with mammals. His paleoart begins at the bottom of page 2 of his gallery. I use a lot of extinct mammals in my homebrew and having his illustrations compared to human sized silhouettes helps me visualize them even better. Some of the paleoart is mixed in with his other works and photography work, so you'll have to scan through the pages of his gallery to see them all.

Sinammonite's Artwork

That's some nice work...feel free to drop links like this anytime you want. Always interested in seeing new paleoart!

I too like using extinct mammals in my homebrew (maybe less a surprise given my interests)


Like I said earlier, I've been an armchair paleontologist all my life. If I had the chance to do it all again, I'd have gone to school for it.

"Monsters" aren't common in my homebrew, but extinct animals, particularly mammals, replace many of the modern relatives. It's just a flavor thing, but I think it adds a little something different to my setting.


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Have you read Vonnegut's Galapagos? If so, what do you think of the speculative future evolution of humans in it?


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Cole Deschain wrote:
Have you read Vonnegut's Galapagos? If so, what do you think of the speculative future evolution of humans in it?

I know of the book but haven't read it alas.

For time reasons mostly I read anthologies nowadays (recent horror but also working through the complete works of Clark Ashton Smith)


Do pinnipeds use echolocation?

Why are sawfishes rays rather than sharks?


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Do you do any teaching?

What's a typical 'workday in the life of a paleontologist' like?


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Did you know whale hunting is illegal in Nebraska.

And, if you were a geographer, how mad would that make you.


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How much wood would a wood chuck chuck if a wood chuck could chuck wood?

How many times do you get asked questions like the one I started this post with?


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Sometimes, I wonder about the spectrum of possible dinosaurs... It seems to me that with few fossils found, it is understandable that a single bone gets you a new species... but they all seem to look pretty much the same (excepting the armored dinos). Am I right in suspecting that quite often, drawings of a new dino are merely that way because it's what the complete fossils looked like? I mean, in hundreds of millions of years, there should have been more diversity, right?


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Cruel Illusion wrote:

Do pinnipeds use echolocation?

Why are sawfishes rays rather than sharks?

Nope. Among marine mammals, only toothed whales (odontocetes) use echolocation. Pinnipeds largely rely upon vision, and to a less extent tough via their whiskers, as there main forms of underwater sense. Pinnipeds actually have pretty huge eyes...so huge that the bone behind they eye thins to virtually nothing to make room

Without knowing much about shark evolution, I assume that they share more shared features, morphology and genes, with rays than they do sharks, and share a common ancestor to the exclusion of sharks.


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Steve Geddes wrote:

Do you do any teaching?

What's a typical 'workday in the life of a paleontologist' like?

Yes actually. I am currently a postdoc within an anatomy department at a medical school, and in the fall I taught the labs for the first unit of our foundations of anatomy course. This was dissection-based anatomy of the human torso. I also helped with some of the limb labs and taught the lecture on human breathing.

Right now my day varies based on the time of year. When teaching, I seldom have time for much more than that, since in addition to teaching labs every afternoon all afternoon, I also had to create questions, and review anatomy (I had never taken dissection-based human anatomy before, so I am often learning some of the details specific to that a day or so before I teach it).

for the past two months I have not been actively teaching, and I am in the research phase of my postdoc. My main responsibilities/activities during the week are mentoring a student on a projects related to my work, applying to permanent positions, keeping track and reading new papers, and doing various analyses on the computer. I am also peer-reviewing papers and having regular meetings with my coauthors, as well as writing/revising a couple of papers. I currently come into school 3 times a week. Given the hour plus commute I try to reserve a couple of days a week to work from home. Most weeks I also work from home on Sunday, catching up with whatever I didn't finish by the end of the "work" week.


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captain yesterday wrote:

Did you know whale hunting is illegal in Nebraska.

And, if you were a geographer, how mad would that make you.

I do now! My guess is that as a geographer I would be more mad at all those disputed territorial boundaries or how thawing in the arctic means I would have to revise my map of geography of the region.


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Crusinos wrote:

How much wood would a wood chuck chuck if a wood chuck could chuck wood?

How many times do you get asked questions like the one I started this post with?

Hah...technically I don't think they chuck wood since Woodchucks are marmots, and I don't think they like eating wood

Only started this thread on Friday...not much time to get many of these questions yet!


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Sissyl wrote:
Sometimes, I wonder about the spectrum of possible dinosaurs... It seems to me that with few fossils found, it is understandable that a single bone gets you a new species... but they all seem to look pretty much the same (excepting the armored dinos). Am I right in suspecting that quite often, drawings of a new dino are merely that way because it's what the complete fossils looked like? I mean, in hundreds of millions of years, there should have been more diversity, right?

Certainly a lot of species are not known from much material and so people tend to default to better understood close relatives. And we don't know much of the soft anatomy for most dinosaurs...they could have been way way freakier and bizarre looking (See All Yesterdays by Darren Naish). Also I think certain "memes" get established in paleoart, which leads to animals being drawn in similar ways which maybe makes them seem more similar than they really are.

I do think that their are probably a lot of weird dinos still out there to be found, and things we don't realize as being as weird as they probably are.

For instance, Growing up, we knew practically nothing about Therizinosaurs, since most of there species hadn't been discovered yet and those that were were misidentified. The fact that a large group of dinosaurs which looked like the misbegotten offspring of a sloth and a turkey were roaming across two continents for a considerable period of the Cretaceous without being detected is pretty amazing.

Spinosaurs are another odd group that we didn't really know a whole lot about until recently. Even though Spinosaurus was known from before World War two, no one realized just how weird it was, beyond having a sail. It wasn't until Baryonx was described in the 80's did people realize that they had weird crocodile like heads and massive forearms, and maybe were some sort of weird experimentation in fish eating.

So I think dinosaurs were pretty diverse, but yes we are probably not picking up that full diversity...the fossil record is what it is, and most species simply are not known from much material. Given all the discoveries since I was born I expect that diversity will continue to expand and be even weirder.


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Muwahahahahahah!

It is coming...


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Don't forget Halidir. :-)


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What do you think is the coolest method of communication that aquatic life uses?


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Rednal wrote:
What do you think is the coolest method of communication that aquatic life uses?

Cephalopods do some pretty cool stuff with rapid color changes.


More and more evidence indicates that as late as 50k years ago there may have been as many as 4 Homo species (H. sapiens, H. neandertalensis, H. denisova (?), and H. floresiensis), do you think interbreeding among species is the main reason our species came out on top? And there's even evidence of another unknown species showing up in genetics of some of Oceania's peoples, and there is also evidence Homo erectus stayed around as late as 75k years ago in some places. To me this is one of the greatest paleontological puzzles existing, and it actually keeps me up at night thinking about it. So what's your take on it?


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Thoughts on how well extant species will adapt to ocean acidification?


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captain yesterday wrote:
Don't forget Halidir. :-)

I just now found that. :)


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You were warned.

Some are not so lucky...

Now it is time... for questions!

Jawa*.

Jaaaaaaaawwwwwwwwwaaaaaaaaaaa*.

Super-serious series of questions**:

* This is the best I can do with your name as a casual sound-out. "EEEMMMM" just is weird to read and obscures who I'm talking to. Sorry! If you've got a better suggestion, let me know... though it's too late now, sucker!

** Nnnnnnope.

If you could have 1d4 ⇒ 2 different super-powers, what would they be and why?
(Assume corollary powers required to make a given power work are part of it; i.e. Since you'd need super tensile strength/durability to, you know, not-die when you made use of your super-strength power, you get them both when you say "super strength" as a singular option.)
Why?

If, instead, you could be a gestalt of 1d2 + 1 ⇒ (1) + 1 = 2 super heroes, who would you gestalt to be yourself? Why? Which comic universe would you run around in? Would you prefer to be in that one, or this one?

On the other hand: BAM! You just gained 3d6 + 2 ⇒ (1, 4, 6) + 2 = 13 levels in a Pathfinder class (or classes)! Which class(es) do you pick, and why? Incidentally, if you could spontaneously switch races, would you? And if so, to which?

Similarly, you won the super-lottery, and gained mythic tiers! 3d3 + 1 ⇒ (2, 3, 3) + 1 = 9 of 'em! (And you gain class levels to match; please feel free to change your previous answer if this does so for some reason.) What path do you take? (Alternate option: substitute a single tier for a simple mythic template.)

Yet another query: you monster. Specifically, you CR: 1d30 ⇒ 9 (or less) monster! Which are you?! ... and would this have been your first choice? If not, which would be?

But the wheels of fate-time have spun again, and your everything has been transposed into that of someone else! You've just become a prepublished NPC from an official source! Which prepublished NPC is it?

What campaign setting do you run around in? Why?

As a final thing: blend any and/or all of the above questions into a single ginormous question: an optional blend of a prepublished NPC, monster, and some superheroes all walk into a bar... and out comes you, as a gestalt of those guys, the race you choose, some extra superpowers, and have extra class levels and mythic tiers on top! What are you?! (Other than "awesome" - naturally.)

Equipment is a non-issue (like adjunct super-powers; what you need to do <X> is assumed). Also note that any significant others can be brought with you.

"Official" and "Pre-published" are loose terms, but general expect something that has a solid publishing company and identifiable map/world/conceits behind it (like WotC for Forgotten Realms, Eberron, Dark Sun, Greyhawk, etc; or Green Ronin for Blue Rose, but not "True20"; or Paizo for Golarion, or the Maelstrom, or the upcoming Starfinder; but not "the Bestiaries" or "the Planes" or things like that - basically things that people can find and nerd out about with you). Similarly, if it has a solid AP out for it, that, too, is acceptable (like Legendary Planet; or any of Paizo's APs). It should probably be a d20 variant, but it can be whatever you like of those many variants (True20, Blue Rose, Paizo, 3.5, 3rd; etc.). That said, if a Homebrew or otherwise "weak" entry just needs to be there due to compelling reasons... okay. Similarly other systems. Let us know why! Computer and video game translations of such (Neverwinter Nights and/or expansions/sequels; PFO; etc) are acceptable as interpretations as well.

Similarly, for comics, it needs to be superheroes that people can reasonably be expected to come across - "that one I made up with my cousin as a kid" is an awesome answer, and worth noting and why, but prrrrooooobabaly isn't the best choice, unless it's just so powerful that you've GOT to. In which case: sure, but bring us along for the ride! Related, the super need not come from one of the "big two" in comics, so long as the people and world is both recognizes me and accessible - choosing The Incredibles world is valid, as is Spawn (blech); you're not just limited to Marvel or DC. Similarly "standard" powers need not apply - so long as it is clearly communicable, it's fine (even if all the field specifics aren't clear, that's okay - knowing you're powered by our yellow star is fine; you don't need to know this, but it's acceptable if you do).

Finally, presume you have the basics necessary for a happy life. Your spouse, best friend, and so on, can all be considered to "come with you" (should they choose to do so) wherever it is that you go.

Oh, and one more thing: if you lived through a Legend of Zelda (as one of the Links); which would it be, and why?

Thanks! Enjoy!


I have heard often about the bad health effects of spilled oil (and more recently oil dispersants) on birds and marine life, but what about the health effects on people? Like for instance, what if you were one of the workers trying to help clean up the Deepwater Horizon or similar spill, and you fell overboard into the (oil and possibly dispersant contaminated) water? And possibly ended up ingesting and/or inhaling a bit of it before you could get out or be pulled out? The mainstream news media don't seem to have said anything about this during recent spills.

Edit #1: But I did find this. So at least one scientific/medical article has appeared on the subject (and presumably more -- too late right now for me to do a major Google and/or PubMed search).

Edit #2: Unfortunately the above article doesn't address specific route of exposure (vapor inhalation vs skin contact/immersion/ingestion/etc.).


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Are you applying to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute? Because I need some RPG players in my neighborhood! If you are, look for the security guard who wears RPG/geek T shirts.


Which sea mammal has the easiest spine to rip out?


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What are some common misconceptions about sea life (like sharks having to stay in motion)?


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DungeonmasterCal wrote:
More and more evidence indicates that as late as 50k years ago there may have been as many as 4 Homo species (H. sapiens, H. neandertalensis, H. denisova (?), and H. floresiensis), do you think interbreeding among species is the main reason our species came out on top? And there's even evidence of another unknown species showing up in genetics of some of Oceania's peoples, and there is also evidence Homo erectus stayed around as late as 75k years ago in some places. To me this is one of the greatest paleontological puzzles existing, and it actually keeps me up at night thinking about it. So what's your take on it?

I think Interbreeding with other hominids was a byproduct of us being so successful, not the reason for. There may have been civil interactions that resulted in the occasional pairing, or adoption of infants and refugees from one species to another, but too many interactions between cultures of uneven technology levels in our more recent history doesn't make me optimistic that past interbreeding was of entirely a romantic nature.

As for why Us and not them, as the dominant species? My guess is humans possessed some sort of mental quirk, not necessarily greater intelligence or curiosity, but some feature that allowed us to become more adaptive and out compete other hominids. We may have also benefited, in at least some cases, from being better suited to a warmer climate and not dealing with historical legacies tied to be adapted to ice age Europe or a small tropical island.


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Tacticslion wrote:
Many questions

Two super powers: Shapeshifting, just because it basically is so overall useful. And teleporting, because it would seriously reduce the amount of money I spend per year visiting my parents and museum collections/birding

Gestalt Superhero: lets go with Dr. Doom and Aquaman. I mean Doom is already a gestalt of Sorceror and super scientist, so why not throw talking with dolphins on top of that.

I'd probably take either the CW DCverse or the MCU. But I would prefer to be in this world, where I wouldn't have other superfolk to compete with or worry about.

Probably Druid..maybe with a few levels of wizard. I tend to get along better with critters than people and getting a animal buddy is appealing to someone stuck in a tiny studio apartment. I'd probably go elf if I had a chance because I never hear about elves worrying about losing a few pounds

Hierophant...so I could work toward becoming a god MUAHAHAHA

Monster? no clue probably a dragon of some sort?

NPC? Quinn maybe? he seems pretty kickass

Setting: They all kind of suck to live in honestly. Too many evil gods/demons/despots/monsters. I guess as a high level mythic character...lets go with Deep Tolguth, because dinosaurs are awesome. Or Numeria because android are also awesome

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