How Alien Life Might Evolve in Outer Space: Dinosaurs, Kiwis, New Zealand | Jonathan Losos

How Alien Life Might Evolve in Outer Space: Dinosaurs, Kiwis, New Zealand | Jonathan Losos

So there’s a lot of discussion of what might
life look like on other planets, if life has evolved there. Will it diversify in a way like the world
today? And there’s a lot of speculation about that
question. But we actually don’t need to go to other
planets to ask that question. And that’s because there are different places
on Earth that have had different evolutionary histories. And so we can ask on different places in the
world, has life evolved in the same way under similar conditions? And it turns out that we’re very well set
for that, because there are isolated islands that have been their own evolutionary theaters,
if you will, that life has evolved very differently or very independently for a long time. The best example of that I think is New Zealand. Now New Zealand broke off from Australia about
80 million years ago. And this was before most modern mammal groups
had really diversified. And, in fact, today there are no native land
mammals on New Zealand. There are some seals that come ashore on the
beach, there are a few species of bats, but there are no rodents, there are no carnivores,
and so on, except the ones that humans have introduced in the last couple hundred years. So the question is how did New Zealand evolve
in the absence of land mammals? Well it turns out that birds in particular
have taken advantage of that and they’ve evolved to do many of the things that mammals
do elsewhere in the world. And there are carnivores and herbivores and
all kinds of birds. Now if we thought that evolution is deterministic
then we would expect New Zealand, even though it’s dominated by birds, to have species
very similar to those elsewhere in the world. But that’s not at all the case. The best example is the kiwi. Now people know the kiwi, it’s a bird this
big. It turns out that it has no wings. It runs around on the ground. It has an extremely good sense of smell, which
is very unusual for birds. It also has little whiskers, very similar
to mammals. Basically a kiwi does the same thing that
a hedgehog or maybe a badger or an armadillo does. It goes around rooting through the leaf litter
looking for worms and other invertebrates. Yet it has adapted in a very different way. And, in fact, the entire cast of characters
in New Zealand is very different. There are carnivorous parrots, there are parrots
that are completely flightless and walk around on the ground looking for seeds. There was a ten foot tall moa, a land bird
that can’t fly, that is the dominant herbivore that looks nothing like a deer or a bison
or its ecological equivalence elsewhere. So New Zealand is an alternative world if
you will. Almost an alternative planet in evolutionary
terms. What has evolved there is completely different
from the rest of the world. And this is true of other places. Australia in at least some respects is very
different. Madagascar – or go back to the age of the
dinosaurs. Well the dinosaurs came, they went extinct. If evolution is so deterministic why don’t
we have t-rex and brontosaurus-type dinosaurs today? It’s because evolution has gone in a very
different direction. So we don’t need to go to other planets
to see how deterministic evolution is. We can just look in different places on Earth
and we can see that the outcome often is very different.

Randy Schultz

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40 thoughts on “How Alien Life Might Evolve in Outer Space: Dinosaurs, Kiwis, New Zealand | Jonathan Losos

  1. Robert Harness says:

    I have always wondered this such an interesting thing to think about

  2. Hammering Hank says:


  3. Jake Y says:

    Sorry but myself with a high school graduate could have articulated that with far less stopping and in far less time.

  4. Jacob Gray says:

    New Zealand didn't evolved to be completely different. The animals still have resemblance to their common ancestors before branching. Life other planets could be radically different.

  5. Discoloured Buttflaps says:

    i'd love to agree but i can't. the word "evolve" only applies to parent-descendent based beings that live in the 3rd dimension and experience the 4th dimension (aka time), e.g. everything on earth. in another word, evolution doesn't apply to an alien individual that is immortal and constantly replaces old body parts with new ones instead of dying or reproducing. it also doesn't apply to beings exist in 4th or higher dimension since being able to manipulate time (aka the 4th dimension) would completely mess up the course of evolution.

  6. Ed B says:

    This is hugely reductionist and quite frankly straight up laughably stupid. To say that "isolated" islands show us an independent evolutionary history despite the fact that not only did the organisms (and notice he literally only mentions animals, with no thought given to plants, fungi or any prokaryotes) become marginally separated from the rest of the world very recently (on an ecological and evolutionary time scale) but they also have been exposed to very similar environmental factors (such as temperature, rain systems, tidal forces etc. etc.)

    In all this seems like an entirely half-baked idea coming from a mind far too pre-occupied with mammals to see the bigger picture.

  7. MetallicReg says:

    There is a reason there are no big reptiles around. It starts already with the temperature and the composition of the air (physically not possible to exist today). In terms of land-animals elephants are about on the limit of exotherm life today – endotherm ones would need to be even smaller.

  8. Bur Bun says:

    No one ever said evolution was deterministic… Is always been a random process through which natural selection picks those that will survive best, and discards the rest.

  9. Adolfo H Cristo says:

    You know what ha hasa is Frank?

  10. Home Wall says:

    How would evolution be deterministic if it operates on natural selection?

  11. Centre at best says:

    Shout out to my NZ cuzzybros.

  12. 2CHUNKA says:

    The moa is extinct and has been for a very long time. We also had the haast eagle which when standing would be taller than a human and a 3 metre wingspan!

  13. Liam Kehoe says:

    All of this is based on life on Earth, with our particular atmosphere, position from the sun etc, where are the scientists who actually don't base everything off Earth? Who could say "ok Methane environment at this particular tempurature exposed to this particular radiation, would cause these microbes to develop and here is what a predicted evolutionary model looks like."

    spread the net far guys, its a big universe after all

  14. ಮಂಜುನಾಥ ಕುಬಸದ says:

    A clear and concise talk, a rarity these days on bigthink.

  15. Ematched says:

    This was extremely lazy thinking. Evolution can produce different creatures under different circumstances and still be deterministic. It's the result of selection pressures, not that we should see the same animals in different locations.

  16. ScottMarshNZ says:

    We don't have moa they died out a very long time ago

  17. LagiNaLangAko23 says:

    When a niche becomes available, someone will take it.

  18. Liam says:

    The Moa's dead mate

  19. Nicolás Bascuñán says:

    Kiwis will soon evolve to T-Rex, just wait

  20. yoyofargo says:

    Consider that there are five kingdoms of life here on earth. It's weird to me that we'd assume animalia or anything like it would be dominant on other planets. 😐
    We probably can't even begin to imagine, with our human brains, what else there could be out there. Also consider, we're rapidly approaching the development of general intelligence in computers. What kingdom of life would general intelligent computers be? What if that type of life already exists on another planet?

  21. Witchfinder Finder says:

    I don''t think he fully understands the meaning of the word deterministic.

  22. Mike Tyson says:

    How alien life might evolve….Very different!

  23. Max Min says:

    The puzzle is greater with alien life affected by different land mass, different gravitational force, different day lengths, different atmospheres, different sun radiance, different moons, different everything. That's what we are curious about.

  24. jo han says:

    And he didn't even include the platypus….. 🙂
    And just look at the weirdness of the creatures in the ocean / deep ocean.

  25. Jerry VanNuys says:

    I can see from the comments that there are a lot of people who don't seem to have the minimum requisite number of brain cells to grasp the point being made.

  26. Theosphilus Thistler says:

    1:11, couple of thousand years mate. (Pacific rat fossils preserved by volcanic eruption of 181AD). Also, as has been pointed out – Moa are goneburgers, and while the species themselves is different and the ecosystem was composed differently the rules are the same. It's like if there are 10 kids in a room building things from leggo and another kid in another room doing so alone that kid might build something different from the other kids but it will still be leggo.

  27. smcic says:

    The dinosaurs aren’t here because of an asteroid. Not because of evolution. I don’t understand.

  28. Catherine Timaru says:

    Most kiwi are closer to half that size 😢

  29. carolo364 says:

    Good video but Kiwi is still a bird.looks like a bird.

  30. Marcus Coster says:

    What if another livable planet has drastically less or drastically more variation in environments or external forces (like meteors/asteroids)? What if another planet with life is significantly older? Too many assumptions made here.

  31. Ryan Yang says:

    It's only been 80 millions years though.

  32. dj tolls says:

    Chur my Maoris

  33. Ruby Honey says:


  34. Abu Feras Abdullah says:

    Watch Mutant Planet, there’s an episode for New Zealand 🇳🇿

  35. snäppet bättre says:


  36. F. OPE says:

    Its true that we can study different branches of the same tree here on earth, and thus talk about evolution… What we cant do here is study different trees, since all life on earth is related and influences each other.

  37. Marvin Price says:

    Kiwi space marines!!for the egg-mperor!!!

  38. Taylor III Centauri says:

    i came to see animals not an old guy talking about animals

  39. Quidditch Attention Seeker says:

    How Alien life might evolve in outer space:
    A porcu-pecker.

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