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Avengers: Endgame

Thanos really is an idiot — he doesn’t understand evolution, either

Worst megalomaniacal scientist ever.

Welcome to the concluding article in AiPT! Science‘s three-part, multi-year series affectionately asking, “Is Thanos an idiot?” We’ve seen Russ Dobler and Aaron Rabinowitz square off on how sensible “the snap” is, and today paleontologist Jim Lehane wonders … who the hell taught this guy about evolution?

Among the many strange things in Jim Starlin’s Marvel Universe:  The End, Thanos is seen lecturing us on the evolution and extinction of a couple of species that have been found in past times on Earth. Within two pages of comics, almost everything he says is wrong.

“If a species develops in any way that is counterproductive to its survival, it does not last long.”

Marvel Comics

This is essentially the antithesis (the opposite) of how evolution works. A species evolves if the animal (or any organism) has a trait that helps it survive better than its peers. That animal will have more offspring, spreading that useful trait. Traits that are counterproductive are usually wiped out quickly, and not allowed to spread.

This is not always the case, but generally, that’s how evolution works. Once an animal’s environment changes (either due to climatic changes or if it migrates to a new one), that evolutionary adaptation may not always be beneficial still. The animal doesn’t know what future environments it may face, so it has no way to prepare for future eventualities.

Thanos then brings up the “Brontothere”, an animal that “lived some 55 to 30 million years ago” (according to him). Thanos goes on to state that, nature made an enormous error when designing this brute.

The scientist in me cringes at the use of the word “design” when talking about evolution, because nothing in nature is “designed.” There is no forethought into how things evolve; evolution is a reaction to the environment.

Think of the phrase “survival of the fittest”. This means that only the animals that are fit for their environment survive. These fit animals then proliferate and take over the environment. There is no “designing” of them.

Megacerops life reconstruction by Nobu Tamura (http://spinops.blogspot.com)

Back to Thanos and his misunderstanding of how nature works. As Thanos states above, the Brontothere, or more accurately called the Megacerops, did indeed have a horn made out of bone, while a rhino does have a horn made of keratin (the same protein that makes up hair, feathers, and fingernails).

And Thanos is correct that the animal lived “some 55 to 30 million years ago”. It was more accurately determined to be 38 to 33.9 million years ago, but he’s trying here. Give him credit where it’s due.

Thanos’ hypotheses have introduced several questions:

  1. Which horn material is stronger — bone or keratin?
  2. What was this horn being used for?
  3. Most importantly, would a horn made of bone lead to the extinction of the Megacerops? (Or really, any animal. If it happened once, it would likely happen again.)

Which horn material is stronger — bone or keratin?

This is a difficult question because there is no definitive answer. Bone and keratin can be formed into many different structures. Paleontologist Matt Mihlbachler, a brontothere expert at the New York Institute of Technology, says the animal’s bone horns were very strong, and out of the hundreds of brontothere specimens he’s examined, he’s never come across a brontothere with a horn that had been broken in life. Even if the horn had been fractured, he says, it would have healed quickly.

So regardless if the bone horn or the keratin horn was stronger, it’s really a moot point since the bone horn is plenty strong enough to be doing whatever the animal needed it to be doing, without getting broken.

Rhino photo by me at the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City, Brontothere skeleton from Wikipedia

What was this horn being used for?

The use of the horns is not very well understood, even in modern day animals like the rhinos. Mihlbachler says male brontotheres likely did use their heads and horns for intraspecies aggression.  The animal was built like an upside-down suspension bridge, with very large spines along its back to support strong neck muscles, increasing the amount of strength and speed the brontothere was able to put into each blow with its horn.

So mostly the horns would be used in brontothere-on-brontothere combat, especially since the size of the animal alone could protect it from predators. Females however also had horns, and they would have likely used theirs for protecting the young.

Would a horn made of bone lead to the extinction of the Megacerops?

Remember, some of the biggest things factoring into extinctions are changes in the environment in which the animal lives. The Megacerops is no different. Mihlbachler and paleontologist Thomas Holtz, of the University of Maryland, agree that the extinction of the Megacerops is likely tied to climatic changes that occurred at the end of the Eocene Epoch, 33.9 million years ago. This was a time of global cooling, causing extinctions of many species across the planet, not just this one species.

All species of brontotheres across Asia and North America died out at this same time after surviving on Earth for ~4 million years. It’s hard to imagine these separate groups all went extinct, nearly simultaneously, because of their horns being a bit brittle. Thanos’ Brittle Horn Theory is not only ridiculous, it’s not based on any sort of scientific evidence or facts.

Marvel Comics

After his brontothere discussion, Thanos continues on with his example of the Gastornis, an animal commonly referred to as a “Terror Bird,” because of its large size. This brings us to a conversation about animal niches. A niche is an environment for which a particular animal is best suited. After the extinction of large non-avian dinosaurs (we say “non-avian” because birds are descendants of dinosaurs, so birds = dinosaurs), there were large niches that were suddenly left vacant.

These vacant niches included grasslands and other areas where large herbivorous animals could roam and feed, and where large predators could come feed on them. The birds, which did not go extinct, took up many of these niches shortly after the other dinosaurs died out.

Gastornis skeleton, from Wikipedia

Gastornis, like the non-avian dinosaurs before it, did not fly. So therefore it could not nest in trees, as Thanos points out, and the juveniles were indeed hatched on the ground. In fact, animals have laid eggs on the ground for hundreds of millions of years. Turtles, crocodiles, and modern-day flightless birds like penguins and ostriches all do this exact same behavior. Why would insects only impact this one species?

There is a certain lack of logic with these points that can’t be ignored. They all stem from the fact that Thanos is ignorant of how evolution works, but also that there are lots of species on this planet which have similar adaptations, and none of them are impacted in the ways he seems to think are detrimental to a species.

A heartfelt thank you to Dr. Thomas Holtz and Dr. Matt Mihlbachler for help on this article.

AiPT! Science is co-presented by AiPT! Comics and the New York City Skeptics.

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