Painful Truth: Nasty, brutish, literally short

Ten thousand years from now, what will humans look like?

If we don’t change our ways, we’ll probably be extinct. If we clean up our act environmentally and don’t manage to wipe ourselves out with stupid political decisions (take a long look south) we’ll probably have the technology to look like whatever we want.

But if we just squeak through, wrecking the planet on our way, we’ll probably be a lot smaller, a lot younger, and dead a lot more frequently.

Consider the worst mass extinction in Earth’s history, the Permian-Triassic extinction event. Scientists, not known for wild exaggeration, also call it the Great Dying. A little more than 250 million years ago, 70 per cent of all complex land animals, and 96 per cent of all marine animals, went extinct.

The extinction cleared the decks for the eventual evolution of the dinosaurs. Alongside them were our ancestors, early mammals and their relatives.

One of those was lystrosaurus, one of the few animals to not only make it across the extinction event, but to thrive.

Lystrosaurs did not survive by being big, ferocious badass predators. Nor were they swift, nor well armoured, nor smart.

They were barrel-bodied, stub-tailed, blunt faced plant eaters, about as pretty as a mangy goat crossed with a tortoise.

But they lived. While everything else dropped dead, they not only survived, they thrived. For several million years after the Great Dying, lystrosaurus is one of the most commonly discovered fossils. Herds of them spread across multiple continents, chomping plants and making baby lystrosaurs, and presumably enjoying the fact that most of their predators were becoming fossils themselves. For a time, about 95 per cent of all land animals were lystrosaurs.

But, things weren’t all that great.

New research has shown that lystrosaurs got a lot smaller, and started dying younger, after the extinction.

Apparently, their survival strategy was to live fast, die young, and leave a dumpy looking corpse.

Palaeontologists suspect that lystrosaurs did what a lot of other overstressed species did – they started having offspring younger, too.

Imagine that for humans. If we mess up our world into a Mad Max state, and wipe out half or more of our fellow species, what will become of us? Those who are left in a million years could be ugly hobbits, middle-aged at 20. That’s not a pretty picture, is it?


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