The extinction of steam locomotives is derailing hypotheses about biological evolution, says researcher

The extinction of steam locomotives is derailing hypotheses about organic evolution, says researcher

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The Union Pacific Large Boy steam engine (one of many largest steam engines ever constructed and nonetheless in operation) visited Lawrence, Kansas on September 2, 2021. Credit score: Bruce Lieberman

When The Kinks’ Ray Davies wrote the track “Final of the Steam-Powered Trains”, vanishing locomotives have been nostalgic symbols of a less complicated English life. However for a College of Kansas paleontologist, the alternative of steam trains with diesel and electrical motors, in addition to automobiles and vans, might be a mannequin for the disappearance of sure species within the fossil report.

Bruce Lieberman, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and senior curator of invertebrate paleontology on the KU Biodiversity Institute & Pure Historical past Museum, sought to make use of the steam engine story to check the deserves of “aggressive exclusion “, a long-standing concept in paleontology that one species can drive different species to extinction by competitors.

Working with former KU postdoctoral researcher Luke Strotz, now of Northwestern College in Xi’an, China, Lieberman found that the fossil report was largely missing in detailed knowledge verifying the aggressive exclusion discovered within the historical past of steam engines: “It is actually exhausting to see proof that competitors performs an enormous function in evolution,” Lieberman mentioned.

Their findings have simply been revealed within the article “The tip of the road: competitors exclusion and the extinction of historic entity” within the journal Royal Society for Open Science.

“There’s at all times been a bias within the scientific group that competitors is form of the elemental drive that drives evolution and performs the largest function in extinction,” Lieberman mentioned. “This concept comes from many various areas of analysis, together with the fossil report. However we as paleontologists must dive deeper into the information and analyze it.”

What would the best “fossil log” appear like for steam trains? The researchers found a mom lode of steam engine knowledge, together with their mortality, in Locobase, a database of steam locomotives compiled and curated by Steve Llanso and accessible by way of, a web site run by Wes Barres.

“I’ve at all times been fascinated by steam engines as a result of they’re the technological equal of dinosaurs,” Lieberman mentioned. “They’re gigantic. We deduce that the dinosaurs made a whole lot of noise. We all know that the steam locomotives made a whole lot of noise, however they’re not with us.”

Lieberman and Strotz discovered the prepare database to be an instance of the kind of proof wanted for paleontologists to conclude that some species died out attributable to aggressive exclusion or direct competitors with different species.

“We considered looking for a sample from the know-how the place let’s imagine, ‘Aha! Right here we now have good proof that competitors is taking part in the crucial function,'” Lieberman mentioned. “We’d know when some new know-how got here out, just like the mass manufacturing of the motorcar and the diesel locomotive. Possibly it is a case the place we see what occurred attributable to competitors. Then , let us take a look at the fossil report and attempt to use this know-how for instance of what we have to see if we’re, actually, going to display that competitors performed a task in extinction.”

The related historical past of trains for KU researchers begins earlier than steam trains confronted competitors from rising applied sciences that carried out the identical duties. They centered on the tractive effort generated by steam engines versus the newer engines that might change them.

The Acanthopyge trilobite, from Oklahoma, within the collections of the Division of Invertebrate Paleontology, KU Biodiversity Institute. Credit score: Steven Wagner

“You begin to see these new aggressive challenges for the steam locomotive first, the electrification of engines within the Eighteen Eighties, after which the event of the auto,” Lieberman mentioned. “It was not environment friendly for the railroads to make use of steam locomotives to tug issues. Then they begin to specialize and might solely thrive in a single or a couple of areas pulling heavy issues and perhaps touring longer distances.”

In analyzing the phasing out of steam locomotion, the researchers discovered proof “of an instantaneous and directional response to the primary look of a direct competitor, with subsequent opponents additional decreasing the realized area of interest of the steam locomotives, till ‘that extinction is the inevitable consequence’.

However the research means that extinction can solely be straight linked to competitors between species in particular circumstances “when the area of interest overlap between an incumbent and its opponents is almost absolute and the incumbent is unable to shift to a brand new adaptive zone”.

How may this work within the pure world? Lieberman cited three examples the place paleontologists believed that direct competitors between species triggered the extinction of a number of the opponents. In some circumstances, the concept that aggressive exclusion was at stake was belied; in different situations, proof of aggressive exclusion falls far wanting the meticulous knowledge accessible on the demise of steam engines.

“One of many basic examples was with non-flying mammals and dinosaurs, the place the standard view was, ‘Hey, mammals have been smarter and sooner and so they made these dinosaurs disappear,'” he mentioned. “Now we all know that it was an enormous boulder that fell from the sky that brought about this huge environmental injury, and greater issues usually tend to be prone to it. The second well-known instance is trilobites and crustaceans, and the final instance considerations clams and brachiopods.”

The KU researcher mentioned the steam locomotive knowledge may forged doubt on the concept that a species’ adaptability is a trademark of evolutionary success. Relatively, the research provides to the proof that species that adapt to new roles and environments accomplish that out of desperation.

β€œAt a time when there aren’t any opponents to steam locomotive know-how, we see them virtually branching out and spreading in no specific course,” Lieberman mentioned.

“However when these new locomotives seem, we see a profound shift in direction of actually energetic pure choice and adaptation of the steam locomotive. Usually adaptation is regarded as a superb signal for a gaggle. However what we’d say , it’s, actually, when issues begin to adapt and alter course historically in evolution, it isn’t a superb time for a gaggle. We’d say that it’s a signal that the group could also be coerced or pressured by different issues.

By higher understanding the causes, situations and frequency of aggressive exclusion, Lieberman mentioned it might be attainable to foretell which species are vulnerable to extinction in coming years as human-induced local weather change alters and reduces the habitats of the world’s species.

“We wished to not solely have a look at the previous, however have the ability to predict the competitors,” Lieberman mentioned. “Can we have a look at particular teams alive in the present day that we may mission into the longer term and say, ‘Hey, this factor is exhibiting indicators that it is already on this hazard zone. We will predict if it would disappear.”

Extra info:
Luke C. Strotz et al, The Finish of the Line: Aggressive Exclusion and the Extinction of Historic Entities, Royal Society Open Science (2023). DOI: 10.1098/rsos.221210

Journal info:
Royal Society Open Science

Author: ZeroToHero

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