Tag Archives: footprint

Our long shadow: humanity places ‘intense’ pressure on 17,500 species of land vertebrates

Humanity has a massive impact on wildlife across the world, new research found.

Image via Pixabay.

A new study looking into the impact of human activities on wildlife reports that a staggering number of terrestrial vertebrate species are exposed to ‘intense’ human pressure, spelling trouble ahead for biodiversity and the integrity of wild ecosystems.

Wild no more

“Given the growing human influence on the planet, time and space are running out for biodiversity, and we need to prioritize actions against these intense human pressures,” says Said senior author James Watson of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the University of Queensland.

“Using cumulative human pressure data, we can identify areas that are at higher risk and where conservation action is immediately needed to ensure wildlife has enough range to persist. “

Using the most comprehensive dataset on the human footprint to date — this maps the net impact of human activity on a given surface of land — a new study looked at the pressure humanity is exerting on 20,529 terrestrial vertebrate species. Roughly 85% of that number (or 17,517 species) have half of their range exposed to ‘intense’ human pressure, and 16% (3,328 species) are exposed throughout the entirety of their range, the team found.

Terrestrial vertebrates with small ranges were impacted most heavily, they add. A further 2,478 species considered ‘least concern’ have large portions of their range overlapping with areas of intense human pressure, which may place them at risk of decline.

The Human Footprint dataset the team used takes into account the impact of human habitation (population density, dwelling density), accessways (roads, rail), land-use (urban areas, agriculture, forestry, mining, large dams), and electrical power infrastructure (utility corridors). These factors are known to put pressure on local wildlife and are driving the high extinction rates seen today.

While the findings are pretty grim, the team hopes they can be used to better assess which species are buckling under the human footprint, which would allow us to better conserve them and the habitats they live in. The data, they explain, can aid current assessments of progress against the 2020 Aichi Targets — especially Target 12, which deals with preventing extinctions, and Target 5, which deals with preventing loss of natural habitats.

“Our work shows that a large proportion of terrestrial vertebrates have nowhere to hide from human pressures ranging from pastureland and agriculture all the way to extreme urban conglomerates,” says Christopher O’Bryan of the University of Queensland, the study’s lead author.

The paper “Intense human pressure is widespread across terrestrial vertebrate ranges” has been published in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation.


Our social brains handle environmental issues poorly — “You can’t kiss and make up with the environment,” researchers say

A team of Sweedish researchers says we treat our relationship with the planet like a social exchange — and that undermines our efforts to protect the environment.


Image via Picserver.

We often blunder in our personal lives, but we can usually make amends. The planet doesn’t work like that, a new study says, but our brains are so deeply wired to navigate social relationships that it treats it the same way. This leads to the belief that ‘environmentally friendly’ or ‘green’ behavior can make-up for our carbon footprint — which is down-right not the case, the authors explain.

They propose that advertisers, government officials, and economic systems currently play on our innate ‘climate compensation’ psychology leading us to harm the environment even as we try to protect it. If we truly want to safeguard the environment and our place in it, they add, we need a paradigm shift.

“You can’t kiss and make up with the environment”

The team says that it’s practically impossible to measure how each of our actions impacts the environment. So we shorthand it to certain rules of thumb that, when followed, we perceive as reducing our environmental footprint. But, while the motivation behind them is definitely commendable, this rule of thumb approach simply doesn’t work.

Such innate, intuitive judgments are borne of the way our brains handle social interactions, they write, where a good decision can cancel out a faux pas. The environment, however, doesn’t work like that. In this arena, a ‘bad’ decision (i.e. consumption) causes permanent damage to the environment, but ‘good’ decisions (i.e. green options) are at best less harmful — not restorative.

“Reciprocity and balance in social relations have been fundamental to social cooperation, and thus to survival, so the human brain has become specialized through natural selection to compute and seek this balance. But when applied to climate change, this social give-and-take thinking leads to the misconception that ‘green’ choices can compensate for unsustainable ones,” says lead author Patrik Sörqvist, Professor of Environmental Psychology at the University of Gävle, Sweden.

“You can’t kiss and make up with the environment. Jetting to the Caribbean will make you a huge environmental burden, no matter how many meat free Mondays you have.”

The study cites past research which showed that climate compensation is wide-spread and pervasive. Sörqvist cites studies which found that people perceive the environmental impact of a shopping cart as staying the same — or even dropping — when items labeled as ‘eco-friendly’ are added to next to their conventional items. For example, people “intuitively” feel that the combination of a hamburger and an organic apple is less environmentally-taxing that the hamburger alone, or that the total emissions of a carpool stay constant when hybrid cars are added — note that it’s ‘added’, meaning the same number of conventional cars remain in use.

When spelled out like this, the inconsistencies are hard to miss. But in our day-to-day, Sörqvist explains, our brains pursue a wide range of these misguided quick fixes to address our eco-guilt.

“People might purchase some extra groceries because they are ‘eco-labeled’; think that they can justify jetting abroad for vacation because they have been cycling to work; or take longer showers because they’ve reduced the water temperature. And companies — nations, even — claim to balance greenhouse gas emissions by planting trees or by paying for carbon offsets through the European Union Emission Trading Scheme.

“Meanwhile, the best thing for the environment would of course be for us to consume less overall,” he stresses.

The team says that stricter legislation regarding marketing ploys and obligatory carbon footprint estimates on products could help people avoid the environmental compensation pitfall. Consumers would benefit from immediate feedback on each product’s environmental impact — even something as simple as the accumulated carbon footprint of your shopping basket at check-out would help.

“Terms like ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘green’ encourage the view that objects, behaviors and decisions with these labels are ‘good’ rather than ‘less bad’ for the environment,” says co-author Dr Linda Langeborg, also of the University of Gävle.

“Calling a hamburger restaurant ‘100 % climate compensated’, for example, may deceive people into believing that eating dinner at that restaurant has no environmental burden.”

I actually quite like this study. It’s a fresh take on how each of goes about our own little climate-protection efforts, and how our inherent nature may shoot them in the foot. Hopefully, now that we know ourselves a little bit better, we’ll be more aware of these pitfalls — and avoid them.

The paper “Why People Harm the Environment Although They Try to Treat It Well: An Evolutionary-Cognitive Perspective on Climate Compensation” has been published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Neanderthal footprints discovered in Gibraltar

Using an optical technique, researchers have identified numerous mammal footprints in Gibraltar — including one that seems to come from a Neanderthal.

The place where the footprint was found. Image credits: Universidad de Sevilla.

“In this work we present the first record of fossil footprints of terrestrial mammals in the Late Pleistocene coastal aeolian deposits of Gibraltar (southern Iberian Peninsula),” researchers write.

For the past 10 years, researchers from Gibraltar, Spain, Portugal, and Japan have been analyzing aeolianites — rocks formed by the solidifying of sediment deposited by aeolian processes (that is, wind). Most such rocks come from coastal limestones, just like is the case in Gibraltar.

The Gibraltar aeolianites are riddled with footprints from vertebrates that used to inhabit the area some 28-31,000 years ago. The footprints correspond to Red Deer, Ibex, Aurochs, Leopard and Straight-tusked Elephant — iconic mammal megafauna that lives alongside early humans. In a new study, researchers describe what they believe to be the footprint of another mammal that inhabited the area: Neanderthals.

A 3D model of the single track described as Hominipes isp. seen from different angles. A and D. Different oblique views of the microtopographic representation of the track with false colors (hot colors represent higher areas, cold colors the lower areas and the dark ones correspond to the printed horizon). Image credits: Muñiz et al.

Of course, much of the sediment in and around the footprint has been eroded, and it’s not clearly visible to the naked eye. So the team used a technique called Optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) to date the footprint and get a better view of it. OSL is somewhat analogous to radiocarbon dating, the main difference being that radiocarbon dating is used to date organic materials, while OSL is used to date minerals.

The Neanderthals in Gibraltar are well known, being among the first to be discovered by modern scientists. They’ve been thoroughly studied, and most anthropologists believe that the Iberian Peninsula and Gibraltar acted as a “refuge” for the shrinking Neanderthal populations in the area.

If the footprint is confirmed to be Neanderthal, it would only be the second one in the world, the other being Vartop Cave in Romania. There are rare documented examples of human footprints in coastal aeolianites, but Neanderthal footprints have turned out to be much more elusive.

Researchers hope that this can be another piece of the puzzle that allows us to understand these close relatives of ours, their culture, and ultimately — what led to their demise. In a way, though, Neanderthals still live through us: it is suggested that 20 percent of Neanderthal DNA survived in modern humans, notably expressed in the skin, hair, and diseases of modern people.

Journal Reference: Fernando Muñiz et al. Following the last Neanderthals: Mammal tracks in Late Pleistocene coastal dunes of Gibraltar (S Iberian Peninsula)Quaternary Science Reviews, 2019; DOI: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2019.01.013


Coastal erosion reveals incredibly well-preserved dinosaur footprints in southern England

They’re the most detailed and well-preserved dinosaur tracks ever found in England.

An ankylosaurus print with claw impressions. Image credits: University of Cambridge.

At least 85 dinosaur footprints have been discovered in East Sussex, southern England — relatively close to the town of Hastings, where William the Conqueror won one of the most famous battles in history in 1066, essentially starting his conquering of England. But way before William was making his way across the English Channel, England had a completely different set of occupants: dinosaurs.

The footprints date from the Lower Cretaceous epoch, between 145 and 100 million years ago, and are a very varied bunch, belonging to herbivores including IguanodonAnkylosaurus (a species of stegosaur), as well as species from the sauropod group (which included Diplodocus and Brontosaurus) and meat-eating theropods (the group to which T-Rex also belonged).

Two large iguanodontian footprints with skin and claw impressions. Image Credits: Neil Davies.

The discovery is extremely fortuitous. Not only would there need to be a very particular environment to draw all these dinosaurs together (like a water source) but the conditions need to be exactly right to ensure that the tracks are fossilized and not destroyed over the course of more than 100 million years. It’s like finding a needle in a geological haystack.

“Usually you only get small pieces, which don’t tell you a lot about how that dinosaur may have lived. A collection of footprints like this helps you fill in some of the gaps and infer things about which dinosaurs were living in the same place at the same time,” said Anthony Shillito, a Ph.D. student in Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences and the paper’s first author.

Shillito co-authored the study with Dr. Neil Davies. Together, the two spent the past four winters looking for fossils. Over the past two centuries, there have been sporadic mentions of fossil tracks in the area, but nothing of this caliber. However, the two got lucky as strong storms and surges collapsed chunks of the sandstone and mudstone cliffs, revealing the perfectly preserved tracks

“To preserve footprints, you need the right type of environment,” said Davies. “The ground needs to be ‘sticky’ enough so that the footprint leaves a mark, but not so wet that it gets washed away. You need that balance in order to capture and preserve them.”

“As well as the large abundance and diversity of these prints, we also see absolutely incredible detail,” said Shillito. “You can clearly see the texture of the skin and scales, as well as four-toed claw marks, which are extremely rare.

The quality of the footprints allows paleontologists to understand some finesse elements about the dinosaurs’ impact on their ecosystems. For instance, Shillito is studying how dinosaurs may have affected the flows of rivers. In modern times, biologists have observed how large animals such as hippos or even cows can create tiny channels that affect the flow of rivers — it’s quite likely that big dinosaurs would have done the same thing.

“Given the sheer size of many dinosaurs, it’s highly likely that they affected rivers in a similar way, but it’s difficult to find a ‘smoking gun’, since most footprints would have just washed away,” said Shillito. “However, we do see some smaller-scale evidence of their impact; in some of the deeper footprints you can see thickets of plants that were growing. We also found evidence of footprints along the banks of river channels, so it’s possible that dinosaurs played a role in creating those channels.”

If the storms and surges will continue, we may witness more and more dinosaur tracks being exposed. However, this erosion can also be dangerous, so authorities have constructed sea defenses in the area to prevent this from happening.

Journal Reference: Anthony P. Shillito et al, Dinosaur-landscape interactions at a diverse Early Cretaceous tracksite (Lee Ness Sandstone, Ashdown Formation, southern England), Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology (2018). DOI: 10.1016/j.palaeo.2018.11.018




We’re watching a ‘horror story’ in which the casualty is Earth’s wilderness

The West is no longer wild — nor all other cardinal directions, a new paper reports.


Image via Pixabay.

The first comprehensive fine-scale map of the world’s remaining wild areas reveals that only 23% of the world can now be considered wilderness. The analysis included all terrestrial and marine environments, excluding Antarctica. Every other place on Earth has been directly affected by human activities.

Tamed with the stick

“These results are nothing short of a horror story for the planet’s last wild places,” says lead author James Watson of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the University of Queensland. “The loss of wilderness must be treated in the same way we treat extinction.”

“There is no reversing once the first cut enters. The decision is forever.”

The findings raise particular concerns as wilderness areas play an increasingly important role in mitigating a host of human impacts on the planet, including species extinction and climate change.

The team defined wilderness areas as those that have escaped industrial-level activity. Local communities can live, hunt, fish, forage, or whatever else they like to do within these areas — as long as the community’s footprint is under that of an industrialized society. They’re the last untouched ecosystems around and are much more robust than their counterparts as a result. Several previous papers (here’s an example) have shown that intact ecosystems are much more effective in sequestering carbon than degraded ones — overall, they capture over two times as much of the element as degraded ones. In the oceans, intact habitats are the last regions that can still support viable populations of top predators such as tuna, marlins, or sharks.

If those two points aren’t enough to sway you, first of all, shame on you. Secondly, it’s not only an environmental issue. Wild areas are home to millions of indigenous people who have forged a very deep bond with their environments. Their culture, as well as their livelihoods, are deeply intertwined with the wilderness — losing it would effectively render many of the world’s most unique cultures extinct.

Bushman group.

Cultures such as this.
Image credits Aino Tuominen.

Not all is lost, however. The authors note that two upcoming gatherings of key decision makers will be crucial to preserving Earth’s wild areas. These are the 14th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), held from November 17-29, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, held between December 2-14 in Katowice, Poland.

Just 20 nations hold 94% of the worlds marine and terrestrial wilderness areas (excluding Antarctica and the High Seas), the team writes. Five of them (Russia, Canada, Australia, United States, and Brazil) together hold 70%. The authors say that these countries can make or break our efforts of securing the last wild vestiges of Earth’s ecosystems.

“Wilderness will only be secured globally if these nations take a leadership role,” says John Robinson, Executive Vice President for Global Conservation at WCS and a co-author of the paper.

“Right now, across the board, this type of leadership is missing. Already we have lost so much. We must grasp these opportunities to secure the wilderness before it disappears forever.”

The authors and their organizations urge participants at the meetings to include a mandated target for wilderness conservation. They recommend setting 100% conservation of all intact wild ecosystems as a bold but achievable goal. Formally documenting the carbon sequestration and storage capacities of wilderness areas, and enshrining them into policy recommendations, would also help governments include such ecosystems in their emission-reduction strategies, they add.

The paper “Protect the last of the wild” has been published in the journal Nature.

An artist's illustration of an ancient encounter between human hunters and a giant ground sloth. Credit: Alex McClelland/Bournemouth University.

Fossilized footprints show human hunters stalked giant sloths more than 11,000 years ago

An 11,000-year-old trackway still carries signs of an incredible encounter between human hunters and a mythological-like creature — the now-extinct giant ground sloth. This is the first evidence showing modern humans and giant sloths interacted directly. However, this was no friendly encounter.

An artist's illustration of an ancient encounter between human hunters and a giant ground sloth. Credit: Alex McClelland/Bournemouth University.

An artist’s illustration of an ancient encounter between human hunters and a giant ground sloth. Credit: Alex McClelland/Bournemouth University.

David Bustos, of the National Park Service, had long suspected he’d be able to find fossilized footprints of ancient humans in New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument Park. The dry climate the area has had over the ages provides excellent opportunities for such fossils to be preserved in pristine conditions. Bustos and colleagues struck gold in April 2017, when they found giant sloth tracks — and inside these tracks, they found human footprints. Quite literally, the humans were following the footsteps of the sloth, which they most likely were looking to hunt for food.

Today, the six living species of sloths are usually found dangling from tree branches, or going viral on YouTube. But sloths used to be a lot more diverse—and a lot bigger. The largest giant sloth, called Megatherium, weighed several tons, reached 20 feet in length, and—when reared up on its hind legs—stood over 12 feet tall. That’s about the size of an elephant. However, the White Sands tracks were made by a much smaller ground sloth, either Nothrotheriops or Paramylodon. 

Giant sloth footprints are easy to spot: they’re almost two feet long (30 cm) and a foot wide, shaped like kidneys, and show deep claw marks. In total, the researchers found 251 giant sloth tracks in White Sands from between 15,000 and 10,000 years ago.

The impressions left in the mud, which later become fossilized, suggest that the animal was 7-8 feet tall (up to 2.4 m) when standing on its rear legs. But even so, it would have been a formidable match for any pack of human hunters, with its tight muscles and Wolverine-like claws. According to Bustos who analyzed the fossilized foot, paw and claw marks left at the site, there was actually a standoff between the giant sloth, which reared up on its hind legs, and the humans who were hunting it.

“Human interactions with sloths are probably better interpreted in the context of stalking and/or hunting,” the researchers wrote in the study published in the journal Science Advances. “Sloths would have been formidable prey. Their strong arms and sharp claws gave them a lethal reach and clear advantage in close-quarter encounters.”

Human footprint inside a sloth track. This composite track is part of a trackway in which the human appears to have stalked the sloth. Credit: Matthew Bennett, Bournemouth University.

Human footprint inside a sloth track. This composite track is part of a trackway in which the human appears to have stalked the sloth. Credit: Matthew Bennett, Bournemouth University.

It’s not clear who won but chances have it that the humans, who were only equipped with stone weapons, likely didn’t make the kill. During those times, Bustos says that most human hunts ended in failure. Of course, the standoff might have never happened — instead, the humans might have followed the sloth trail an hour or so later after they were made. Without any butchered bones or artifacts, it’s quite anyone’s guess what happened here.

“The thing that is special about these prints and sets them apart from any other fossil trackways in the world is that this discovery records the interaction between humans and Ice age giant megafauna,” Bustos said. “White Sands National Monument has the largest concentration of human and Ice-age giant megafauna prints in the Americas.”

Beyond the breathtaking story it tells, the ancient trackway reveals how humans and giant ground sloths interacted at the end of the last ice age. The furry giants went extinct around this time, along with other iconic beasts, such as the mammoth and the North American horse. We know that the unforgiving climate made life very challenging for many of these ice age species but more and more evidence suggests humans took an active role in pursuing them. It’s likely that the sad fate of these species was sealed by a lethal combination of climate change and human hunting.

“At the end of the ice age, many of these animals became extinct,” Bennett said. “Were human hunters the cause of this extinction? The footprints at White Sands help us answer this question, by showing how ancient hunters stalked and attacked these fearsome animals.”

Rare dinosaur footprint fossils give clues into a forgotten era

Around 170 million years ago, a group of long-necked sauropods was taking a stroll along a muddy, shallow lagoon in what is now the north-east coast of the Isle of Skye. Using a mixture of modern techniques and good old-fashioned paleontology, researchers have now found and analyzed these footprints, gaining new insight into this ancient period.

The Isle of Skye used to be a dinosaur haven. Image credits: Avery Ng.

Lying just off the coast of Scotland, the Isle of Skye has been inhabited since the Mesolithic period, and its rich history includes a time of Norse rule and a long period of domination by the legendary Clan MacLeod. But before that (way before that), it was a coastal lagoon inhabited by several species of dinosaur.

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh, Staffin Museum, and Chinese Academy of Sciences found 50 footprints in a tidal area at Brothers’ Point, in one of Skye’s numerous small peninsulae. In addition to numerous isolated footprints, researchers identified two pathways which feature footprints from both sauropods and therapods (older cousins of Tyrannosaurus Rex).

Sauropod footprint discovered in Scotland. Image credits: Paige dePolo.

The finding is particularly significant since the footprints have been dated to the mid-Jurassic. Middle Jurassic dinosaur fossils “are exceedingly rare, but new discoveries from the Isle of Skye, Scotland, are beginning to fill this gap,” researchers write. Paige dePolo, who led the study, commented:

“This tracksite is the second discovery of sauropod footprints on Skye. It was found in rocks that were slightly older than those previously found at Duntulm on the island and demonstrates the presence of sauropods in this part of the world through a longer timescale than previously known. This site is a useful building block for us to continue fleshing out a picture of what dinosaurs were like on Skye in the Middle Jurassic.”

Studying Skye isn’t easy — the site’s location in a tidal area made the task extremely difficult. Researchers had to use drone photographs to create a map of the site, in addition to a paired set of cameras and tailored software they used to model the tracks. This allowed the team to assess the shape and orientation of the toes, as well as the presence of claws

But it was well worth it. Skye has already yielded a trove of valuable findings and Dr. Steve Brusatte, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, who led the field team, says there might be even more in store.

“The more we look on the Isle of Skye, the more dinosaur footprints we find. This new site records two different types of dinosaurs — long-necked cousins of Brontosaurus and sharp-toothed cousins of T. rex — hanging around a shallow lagoon, back when Scotland was much warmer and dinosaurs were beginning their march to global dominance,” said Brusatte.

Journal Reference: dePolo et al. A sauropod-dominated tracksite from Rubha nam Brathairean (Brothers’ Point), Isle of Skye, Scotland. https://doi.org/10.1144/sjg2017-016

Several 13,000 year-old human footprints discovered on Canadian Pacific coast

Scientists were thrilled to identify the ancient footprint, confirming that humans came to North America at least 13,000 years ago. It’s the clearest smoking gun you could ask for.

Photograph of one of the tracks beside a digitally-enhanced image of the same feature. Note the toe impressions and arch indicating that this is a right footprint. Image credits: Duncan McLaren.

Canada’s Pacific Coast isn’t the nicest place to go looking for archaeological remains. It’s covered by thick, lush forests, and much of it is only accessible by boat. But scientists weren’t deterred by this. They excavated intertidal beach sediments on the shoreline of Calvert Island, British Columbia.

After a painstaking analysis, they identified 29 human footprints of at least three different sizes in these sediments. Using enhanced photography, they were able to clearly distinguish the footprints, and conclude that they probably belonged to two adults and one child, all barefoot.

“This article details the discovery of footprints on the west coast of Canada with associated radiocarbon dates of 13,000 years before present,” says Duncan McLaren, lead author of the study. “This finding provides evidence of the seafaring people who inhabited this area during the tail end of the last major ice age.”

At the end of the last ice age, sea level was 2-3 meters lower than it is today. This provides evidence that peoples in the Americas were using watercraft and exploring and thriving in coastal areas, McLaren told ZME Science. Along with the footprints, archaeologists also found several artifacts, indicating that people were passing through the area.

“We found a few stone tools with the footprints. We found them while subsurface testing for archaeological deposits dating between 14,000 and 10,000 years ago use the local sea level history as a guide,” McLaren added for ZME Science.

This finding adds to the growing body of evidence supporting the hypothesis that humans used a coastal route to move from Asia to North America during the last ice age. The authors suggest that further excavations with more advanced methods are likely to uncover more human footprints in the area and would help to piece together the patterns of early human settlement on the coast of North America.

Currently, researchers are carrying out preservation work around the footprints, also looking for similar areas which might yield valuable traces of ancient civilizations.

“We have stopped excavating the footprint to preserve them for future generations. Our research now turns to finding other areas on the coast that may have been ice free during the last ice age,” McLaren concluded.

Journal Reference: McLaren D, Fedje D, Dyck A, Mackie Q, Gauvreau A, Cohen J (2018) Terminal Pleistocene epoch human footprints from the Pacific coast of Canada. PLoS ONE 13(3): e0193522. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0193522

Google used DeepMind to cut their electricity bill by a whopping 15%

Google is putting DeepMind’s machine learning to work on managing their sprawling data centers’ energy usage, and it’s is performing like a boss — the company reports a 15% drop in consumption since the AI took over.

Image via brionv/flickr

Google is undeniably a huge part of western civilization. We don’t search for something on the Internet anymore, we google it. The company’s data servers pretty much handle all of my mail at this point, along with YouTube, social media platforms and much more. But even so, it’s easy to forget that the Google we know and interact with every day is just the tip of the iceberg; it relies on huge data servers to process, transfer and store information — and all this hardware needs a lot of power.

So much power, in fact, that the company decided to do something about it. On Wednesday, Google said it had proved it could cut the energy use of its data centers by 15% using machine learning from DeepMind, the AI company it bought in 2014. These centers use up significant power to cool and maintain an ideal working environment for the servers — requiring constant adjustments of air temperature, pressure, and humidity.

“It’s one of those perfect examples of a setting where humans have a really good intuition they’ve developed over time but the machine learning algorithm has so much more data that describes real-world conditions [five years in this case]” said Mustafa Suleyman, DeepMind’s co-founder.

“It’s much more than any human has ever been able to experience, and it’s able to learn from all sorts of niche little edge cases seen in the data that a human wouldn’t be able to identify. So it’s able to tune the settings much more subtly and much more accurately.”

Suleyman said that the reduction in power use was achieved through a combination of factors. On one hand, DeepMind is able to more accurately predict incoming computational load — in other words, it could estimate when people accessed more data-heavy content such as YouTube videos. The system also matched that prediction more quickly to the required cooling load than human operators.

“It’s about tweaking all of the knobs simultaneously,” he said.

Ok, so Google’s electricity bill just went down; good for them, but what does this have to do with us? Well, a lot, actually. Data centers gobble up a lot of energy, and that means a lot of greenhouse gas emissions — combined, data centers have emission levels similar to those seen in aviation. When Google first disclosed its carbon footprint in 2011 it was roughly equivalent to Laos’s annual emissions but since then they claim they upped their game, getting 3.5 times as much computational power for the same amount of energy. Using machine learning is only the latest step in optimizing their system. The company began toying with this idea two years ago, and since then they’ve tested it on “more than 1%” of its servers, Suleyman said. It is now being used across a “double-digit percentage” of all Google’s data centers globally and will be applied across all of them by the end of the year.

Using machine learning is only the latest step in optimizing their system. The company began toying with this idea two years ago, and since then they’ve tested it on “more than 1%” of its servers, Suleyman said. It is now being used across a “double-digit percentage” of all Google’s data centers globally and will be applied across all of them by the end of the year. They haven’t released the exact amount of power their data centers use, but claims that in total its activity makes up 0.01% of global electricity use (and most of that probably goes towards the data centers.)

But DeepMind is leaving a considerable mark on their energy efficiency. It cut energy expenditure for cooling by 40%, which reduced the company’s overall power consumption by 15%.

“I really think this is just the beginning. There are lots more opportunities to find efficiencies in data centre infrastructure,” Suleyman added.

“One of the most exciting things is the kind of algorithms we develop are inherently general … that means the same machine learning system should be able to perform well in a wide variety of environments [think power generation facilities or energy networks].”

Sophia Flucker, the director of Operational Intelligence, a UK-based consultancy that advises data centers on their energy use, said it was feasible that Google had achieved such a big reduction.

“I’ve worked with some award-winning data centres, which still had plenty of room for improvement,” she said.


Area A at Happisburgh: View of footprint surface looking south, also showing underlying horizontally bedded laminated silts. (c) PLOS ONE

Oldest footprints discovered in Europe are 800,000 years old

Area A at Happisburgh: View of footprint surface looking south, also showing underlying horizontally bedded laminated silts. (c) PLOS ONE

Area A at Happisburgh: View of footprint surface looking south, also showing underlying horizontally bedded laminated silts. (c) PLOS ONE

Right on the English coast, near Happisburgh, scientists discovered what so far are the  earliest footprints discovered thus far in Europe, dated  800,000 years old. Some five human ancestors left these historical footprints in mud on the bank of an ancient river estuary. Perfect timing and the geological circumstances of the time allowed the prints to be preserved until the present.

As one might imagine, the chances of coming across a find such as this is extremely rare, after all we’re not talking about some fossil, but one of the oldest walks of fame ever.  Only those at Laetoli in Tanzania at about 3.5 million years and at Ileret and Koobi Fora in Kenya at about 1.5 million years are older. If this wasn’t enough, weren’t for the researchers’ keen eye on the site who were there for a completely different matter – a regular geological survey – just two weeks later the tide would have eroded the prints away forever.

“At first we weren’t sure what we were seeing,” explains Dr Nick Ashton of the British Museum “but as we removed any remaining beach sand and sponged off the seawater, it was clear that the hollows resembled prints, and that we needed to record the surface as quickly as possible.”

The team of researchers studied the shallow prints using photogrammetry, a technique that can stitch together digital photographs to create a permanent record and 3D images of the surface. The analysis eventually confirmed that the prints indeed were of ancient human origin, a mix of both adults and children. In some cases the heel, arch and even toes could be identified, equating to modern shoes of up to UK size 8.

[RELATED] Oldest North American human footprints found

This latest find joins other breakthroughs gathered from the area, since a series of sites with stone tools and fossil bones have been discovered in the same sediments at Happisburgh over the past 10 years. It’s impossible to tell what the ancient humans were up to from the prints alone. Some 800,000 years ago Britain was a whole lot different. First of all, it wasn’t much of an island, since it was linked to continental Europe. Ancient mammals like bison, mammoth, hippo and rhino grazed the river valley at Happisburgh, while our early ancestors were surely lurking about next to them.

The findings were reported in the journal PLOS ONE.

oldest human footprints

Oldest North American human footprints found

oldest human footprints

(c) Arturo Gonzalez

In a fantastic discovery, a team of archaeologists have dated a pair of footprints preserved in the mineral-rich sediment in the Chihuahuan Desert to find that these are 10,500 years old. These are the oldest human footprints discovered thus far in North America, predating any previous find by some 5,000 years. Moreover, the footprints mark for the oldest archaeological find in the region and help paint a broader picture of how early human culture might have been at the time.

Only two tracks were preserved, left and right. These were discovered about 300 kilometers from the Texas border, in 1961, during digs for a highway construction. Luckily these were well preserved and were taken to the local museum. The bad part is that the precise location where the footprints were excavated has been lost.  In 2006, a follow-up effort led by  Dr. Nicholas Felstead, a geoarchaeologist at Durham University, tried to locate the original site only to find an additional 11 tracks somewhere in the vicinity of the supposed original site. Apparently, these didn’t belong to the hunter-gatherer that roamed those lands some 10,500 years ago, nor were the tracks made during the same millennium for that matter as dating revealed that these were about 7,250 years old.

“Both sets of prints are ones that have been identified before and are the only reported footprints in the Cuatro Ciénegas Basin, but neither have previously been dated,” Felstead said in an interview.

An ancient ‘walk of fame’

Though these 11 tracks don't come from the original site of the oldest pair of footprints in North America, the  remains discovered  in a quarry in Cuantrocienegas still offer precious insights into the ancient culture that once called these lands home. (c) Prof. Silvia Gonzalez)

Though these 11 tracks don’t come from the original site of the oldest pair of footprints in North America, the remains discovered in a quarry in Cuantrocienegas still offer precious insights into the ancient culture that once called these lands home. (c) Prof. Silvia Gonzalez)

It’s the region’s favorable climate of some thousand of years ago that we have to thank for the preservation of these remarkable time capsules. The desert refuge known as Cuatro Ciénegas is marshy and filled with  carbonate-rich sediments. Although very rare, through some stroke of luck and exactly favorable conditions the tracks left in the muddy soil solidified and turned into rock (travertine). This sedimentary rock, well known to geologists, contains minute traces of uranium which decays in the element thorium at predictable rates. By measuring the uranium/thorium ratios, the researchers were able to estimate the age of the footprint pair. Their results showed that the pair of tracks discovered in 1961, now housed at Saltillo’s Museo del Desierto, were about 10,550 years old.

Previously, other footprints were discovered after being preserved in similar conditions throughout North America,  from Nicaragua to California. The oldest of these are still some thousands of years earlier than the Cuatro Ciénegas footprint pair or the other 11 tracks found in the vicinity for that matter. Concerning the 11 tracks, which are 7,200-year-old, the researchers also discovered traces of ancient pollen from trees like pecan and willow. This type of fauna suggests that the climate back then was much wetter and colder than it is today.

Leaving their mark

This is extremely valuable information, since archaeologists know very little about the humans that inhabited this region. Around the time the oldest North American tracks were made, a diverse group of nomadic hunter-gatherers that ranged from central Mexico to the Texas plains lived there known as the  Coahuiltecans. Although they were present in the region for thousand of years, remarkably enough these people left little vestiges to tell of their life there.  Previously, the   reported human fossil evidence in the area were coprolites — fossil  feces — found in a rockshelter dated to about 9,000 years ago. This means that officially, the footprint pair is now also the oldest archaeological evidence reported  from the Cuatro Ciénegas Basin.

The oldest human footprints discovered, however, belonged to a child and were made some 13,000 years ago in modern day Chile. The  findings were reported in a paper published in the journal Journal of Archaeological Science.

ZME readers, judging from the  photo, what shoe size do you think would have fitted the hunter-gather? My guess is an 8.