Desert on Fire, Qayyarah, Northern Iraq

Desert on Fire, Qayyarah, Northern Iraq

By Namak Khoshnaw and Daniel Silas Adamson, 5 April 2017

Early in summer 2016, the so-called Islamic State set fire to one of Iraq’s largest oil fields.

It has taken Iraqi firefighters 10 months to put the flames out.

The smoke has poisoned the air, the land, and the water across a vast region of Northern Iraq.

Photos from the charity Oxfam reveal how difficult life has been for the people of Qayyarah, since the Islamic State group fled their town.

 

Ali Hassan, his wife Fatima Mahmoud and their three children have been living next to a burning oil well.

Black smoke from the blaze filled their home.

Fatima said she was always cleaning, but the dirt just kept coming.

Mahmoud Ali’s house was ruined by an oil fire that raged for two months outside his front door.

The walls are blackened and the floors thick with tar.

Mahmoud used to be a policeman before the IS group took control of Qayyarah.

He was displaced by the conflict and recently returned to find his home in ruins.

Oxfam has been trying to make Qayyarah’s water supply safe to drink with deliveries of chlorine to the local treatment plants.

The charity’s staff there have been told by local people that up to 60 homes were completely burned in the oil fires.

But many more became uninhabitable because of the oil bubbling in and around them.

From above

In summer 2016, with the Iraqi army and Kurdish forces advancing west towards Qayyarah, fighters from so-called Islamic State rigged the wellheads with explosives.

The jihadists then shot at them from the roofs of nearby houses. Their hope was that the smoke would provide cover against airstrikes.

As the fires took hold, the wellheads collapsed into craters of burning oil that darkened the sky and sent toxic fumes into the villages beyond.

Control area information:
Conflict Monitor by IHS Markit

Satellite imagery:
Google, Nasa, Unitar-Unosat
(Cnes/Spot Image, DigitalGlobe,
Landsat/Copernicus, Data SIO, NOAA, US Navy, NGA, Gebco)

Nasa’s Landsat 8 caught the first signs of trouble in June 2016

The satellite spotted a cloud of dark smoke blooming in the desert of Northern Iraq – about 60km (37.5 miles) south of Mosul.

By October, around 20 oil wells were on fire.

As recently as 25 February 2017, Nasa’s heat-detecting satellites appeared to show several distinct clusters of fires.

Now, in early April, the last of the wells around Qayyarah have finally been extinguished.

But the landscape remains heavily polluted and the clean-up operation is expected to take many months.

Extinguishing an oil fire is a major technical undertaking, even in peacetime.

But the Iraqi government fought these fires on the edge of a war zone, at a time when most of its resources are still deployed in the battle against the so-called Islamic State.

Before Iraqi engineers could even approach these flames, they had to clear the surrounding land of hundreds of improvised explosive devices planted by IS.

No-one knows how many IEDs remain.

The men battling to put out the fires used to work in the oil fields that underpinned Qayyarah’s economy.

But in the past year they have been working eight-hour shifts on the edge of these apocalyptic craters, withstanding intense heat and breathing air that stinks of burning tar.

Close to the edge of craters, pockets of oil and gas ignited without warning.

Excavators dumped load after load of damp sand on to the flames, while men with high-pressure water hoses struggled to keep the machinery cool enough to function.

On some days in Qayyarah the air was so thick with black smoke that it completely blocked out the sun.

In the acrid smoke, children playing out of doors began to struggle for breath and scratch at rashes on their skin.

Their eyes reddened and their lungs burned from smoke that contained carbon dioxide, acidic aerosols, and toxic metals such as lead and mercury.

A film of stinging, abrasive grease settled on people’s clothes and hair.

Boys played on the smouldering remains of extinguished fires, or threw stones into lakes of crude oil that pooled on the surface.

When they cleaned their teeth, they spat blackened toothpaste into the sink.

The public health crisis was exacerbated in October last year when the IS group set fire to a sulphur factory in Al-Mishraq, just north of Qayyarah.

A cloud of sulphur dioxide and sulphuric acid spread across Iraq, reaching south as far as Baghdad and northwest into Turkey and Syria.

A UN report found that over a period of just three days in that month, when the sulphur fire was still burning, more than 1000 people were treated for respiratory complaints and skin conditions caused by smoke from the factory fire and oil wells.

Also in October, a doctor in the nearby village of Haji Ali, Basima Obnar Mohammed, told Oxfam that she was treating around 20 children every day for breathing difficulties and gastritis caused by drinking polluted water.

“They need steroid cream for their skin,” she told the charity, “but we have a shortage of medicine.”

In the polluted air, the sheep on which many families in Qayyarah depend became black, sick and starving.

Soot settled on the animals’ grazing land and sank into the water they drank.

Full circle – a 360 view

See the smoke and flames in Qayyarah up close in this video from January 2017.

Use your mouse, trackpad or arrow buttons to look left, right, up and down.

It will not work in the Safari web browser – and is best experienced on the YouTube mobile app.

Find out more

BBC News: Islamic State conflict

Oxfam

 

Credits

Authors

Namak Khoshnaw and Daniel Adamson

Producer

Paul Kerley

Drone Footage

Joey L / Oxfam

Photos/Credits

Oxfam

Sam Tarling

Abbie Trayler-Smith

Tegid Cartwright

Joey L

Video Production

James Percy

Satellite Imagery

Google, Nasa, Unitar-Unosat

(Cnes/Spot Image, DigitalGlobe,

Landsat/Copernicus, Data SIO, NOAA,

US Navy, NGA, Gebco)

Iraq control information

Conflict Monitor by IHS Markit

Editor

Kathryn Westcott

Built with

Shorthand

Publication date

6 April 2017

All images subject to copyright

For more information please visit the following link:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/desert_on_fire

Ing-OnVibulbhan-Watts’ Comments:

I love all kinds of artwork. I love nature and I am interested in science, new inventions or exploration under the sea or outer space.  So I put most of my time into these subjects.

When I watch the news that shows wars and corruption from all types of professions I tend to ignore them because they cause me to be unhappy and feel like giving up everything.  Then I happen to read or watch an article about war, and feel like someone has hit me on the head.  I feel very unhappy and depressed.  Just yesterday I read BBC News’ article called, “Desert on Fire”.

 I never get used to seeing how a person or a group of people can be so vicious and cause so much trouble without remorse or any human decency.  How can some humans grow up to be so destructive and cruel?  I take care of our sixteen month old grandson, playing with him, seeing his cute little body running away from me with innocence and freedom. 

How, and why, can some of these innocent little ones become so vicious, adding more people to become part of destructive groups who want power and possessions and everything around them their way? 

Do we adults everywhere in the world question whether we feed these innocent little ones greed and uncivilized thoughts? 

Let us be more conscious about how we educate and raise our younger generations.  Let us not blame anybody but be more concerned and ask ourselves the following.

Do we do our best to cultivate and care for every youngster to be mentally and physically healthy to create a peaceful civilization?    

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Go to the top

A Change in Diet may have Helped our Brains get so Big

A Change in Diet may have Helped our Brains get so Big

Many anthropologists think that living in large social groups drove the evolution of bigger brains, but new findings call that into question

By Melissa Hogenboom, 27 March 2017

There are bones hidden away in almost every cupboard in many of the rooms of New York University’s primatology department, and James Higham is keen to explain to me what they can tell us about an important part of our evolution: why we have such big, heavy brains.

He shows me hordes of lemur skulls, as well as casts of our extinct relatives.

Of particular interest to him are the sizes of their braincases. After studying this feature in primates including monkeys, lemurs and humans, he and his colleagues have presented an intriguing new idea as to why our brains are so large.

Orangutans live in very small groups (Credit: Mervyn Rees/Alamy) 

The reason why some primates have bigger brains than others is often said to be their social behaviour. That is, primates that move around in bigger and more complex social groups require bigger brains in order to efficiently manage all of those social relations.

The new analysis found that diet – not social group size – was the key factor linked to brain size

This theory has been around for over two decades, and is called “the social brain hypothesis”.

Following a large-scale analysis of primates, Higham and his colleague Alex DeCasien are confident that the social brain theory does not tell the whole story. 

Rather, brain size is more accurately predicted by primates’ diet, according to their new study published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

To come to this conclusion, the team, led by DeCasien, put together a dataset of 140 primate species, including animals like the aye-aye and several species of gibbon. This allowed them to study the relationship between the size of primate brains and several social factors, such as group size and social structure.

Skulls of an adult male lemur, vervet monkey, gibbon, baboon, chimpanzee, and human (Credit: Megan Petersdorf) 

They tell me that this is the first time such a large dataset has been used to explore the idea. When the social brain hypothesis was formulated, it did not consider primates like orangutans, which have large brains despite often living solitary lives.

The new analysis found that diet – not social group size – was the key factor linked to brain size.

That is not to say that social group size plays no role in the evolution of large brains

It has long been known that fruit-eating primates (frugivores) tend to have bigger brains than leaf-eating primates (folivores), says Higham.

This might be because there are benefits to eating fruit. It has a higher nutritional value and is far easier to digest than leaves.

However, it is also a more demanding diet in some ways. For instance, fruit is more patchily distributed in both space and time, which makes the task of finding food more complex, says Higham.

That is not to say that social group size plays no role in the evolution of large brains, say the authors.

Skulls of an adult male spider monkey and a howler monkey (Credit: Megan Petersdorf)

Because fruit can be less abundant than leaves, frugivores often travel across larger ranges. They tend to form larger social groups for those long journeys. 

All of these things are co-evolving

“If there’s another group in that fruit tree, what determines which group ends up holding the fruit is usually just about group size,” says Higham.

In other words, the larger the group, the easier it will be to “push the smaller group out” when competing for food.

“All of these things are co-evolving, but the main problem with the social brain hypothesis is that it’s explicitly saying that this one force is contributing more than another force,” says DeCasien.

“If you want to break it down like that, our study shows that it’s the opposite force [diet] that is contributing more,” she adds.

DeCasien and Higham are aware that their findings will have their critics.

The new study says brain size is better predicted by diet than social complexity (Credit: Dr. James Higham)

I put their conclusions to the researcher behind the social brain hypothesis, Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford in the UK. He contests the findings.

First, Dunbar says that it is not overall brain size that is the important factor. Instead, it is the size of a particular part of the brain called the neocortex, which plays an important role in cognition, spatial reasoning and language.

“There is an important distinction between neocortex volume and brain volume,” says Dunbar. “The original social brain analyses showed that social group size does not correlate especially well (if at all) with total brain size, but only with neocortex size… That would be difficult to reconcile with their claim.”

Second, Dunbar points out that social group size and diet need not be two alternative explanations of brain evolution.

“Both are necessarily true,” he says. In line with DeCasien and Higham, Dunbar thinks these features must be connected at a deep level. “You cannot evolve a large brain to handle anything, social or otherwise, unless you change your diet to allow greater nutrient acquisition, so as to grow a larger brain,” he says. 

However, Dunbar still maintains that social group size, not diet, is the key driving force.

Follow Melissa Hogenboom on Twitter.

Join over six million BBC Earth fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

For more information please visit the following link:

http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170327-why-our-brains-grew-so-big

Go to the top

Happy Mother’s Day to Every Mother on Earth

Happy Mother’s Day to Every Mother on Earth

We appreciate your hardship carrying us through nine months and raising us with love and care.

The real reasons why child birth is so painful and dangerous

There is a long-standing idea that it is because we walk upright, but new research suggests that might not be the whole story

By Colin Barras, 22 December 2016

Giving birth can be a long and painful process. It can also be deadly. The World Health Organization estimates that about 830 women die every day because of complications during pregnancy and childbirth – and that statistic is actually a 44% reduction on the 1990 level.

“The figures are just horrifying,” says Jonathan Wells, who studies childhood nutrition at University College London in the UK. “It’s extremely rare for mammalian mothers to pay such a high price for offspring production.”

So why exactly is childbirth so risky for humans? And is there anything we can do to further reduce those death rates?

Hominins have walked upright for millions of years (Credit: Juan Manuel Borrero/naturepl.com)

Scientists first began thinking about the problem of human childbirth in the middle of the 20th Century. They soon came up with an idea that seemed to explain what was going on. The trouble began, they said, with the earliest members of our evolutionary lineage – the hominins.

From an early date in our prehistory, hominin babies may have had to twist and turn to pass through the birth canal

The oldest hominin fossils so far found date back about seven million years. They belong to animals that shared very few of our features, except perhaps one: some researchers think that, even at this early stage, hominins were walking upright on two legs.

To walk on two legs efficiently, the hominin skeleton had to be pushed and pulled into a new configuration, and that affected the pelvis.

In most primates the birth canal in the pelvis is relatively straight. In hominins, it soon began to look very different. Hips became relatively narrow and the birth canal became distorted – a cylinder that varied in size and shape along its length.

So from an early date in our prehistory, hominin babies may have had to twist and turn to pass through the birth canal. This would have made birth a far more difficult task than it had been previously.

Then things got even worse.

Most hominins walked upright (Credit: P. Plailly/E. Daynes/Science Photo Library)

About two million years ago, our hominin ancestors began to change again. They lost their more ape-like features such as a relatively short body, long arms and small brain. Instead they began to gain more human-like ones, like taller bodies, shorter arms and bigger brains.

That last trait in particular was bad news for female hominins.

I was going to find evidence that supported the obstetric dilemma, but very soon everything came crashing down

Big-brained adults start out life as big-brained babies, so evolution came into conflict with itself. On the one hand, female hominins had to maintain a narrow pelvis with a constricted birth canal in order to walk efficiently on two legs. But at the same time the foetuses they carried were evolving to have larger heads, which were a tighter and tighter fit through those narrow pelvises.

Childbirth became a distressingly painful and potentially lethal business, and it remains so to this day.

In 1960, an anthropologist called Sherwood Washburn gave this idea a name: the obstetrical dilemma. It is now often called the “obstetric dilemma”. Scientists thought it explained the problem of human childbirth perfectly. Many still think it does.

But some, including Wells, are no longer happy with this standard explanation. In the last five years, Wells and several other researchers have begun to push against the classic story of the obstetric dilemma.

They think Washburn’s idea is too simplistic, and that all sorts of other factors also contribute to the problem of childbirth.

 Many women use pain relief during labour (Credit: Science Photo Library/Alamy)

Holly Dunsworth of the University of Rhode Island, Kingston, was drawn to the obstetric dilemma while she was still a grad student. “I thought it was so exciting, I was going to find evidence that supported the obstetric dilemma,” she says. “But very soon everything came crashing down.”

We have bigger babies and longer pregnancies than you would expect

The problem was with the predictions Washburn made. “When Washburn wrote his article, he was actually saying that the obstetric dilemma was solved by giving birth to babies at a relatively early stage in their development,” says Wells.

Go back to that moment two million years ago when human brains began to grow larger. Washburn suggested that humans found a solution of sorts: shortening the length of the human pregnancy. Human babies were forced out into the world earlier than they really should be, so that they were still relatively small, with diminutive, underdeveloped brains.

Washburn’s explanation seems logical. Anyone who has held a newborn can appreciate how underdeveloped and vulnerable they are. The standard view is that other primates hold onto their pregnancies for longer and give birth to babies that are more developmentally advanced.

But, says Dunsworth, it is simply not true.

Some animals, like this baby common eland (Taurotragus oryx), can walk straight after being born (Credit: blickwinkel/Alamy)2

“We have bigger babies and longer pregnancies than you would expect,” she says.

Women give birth to babies with larger brains than we would expect

In an absolute sense human pregnancies are long. They typically last 38-40 weeks, whereas a chimpanzee pregnancy is 32 weeks long, and gorillas and orang-utans give birth after about 37 weeks.

As Dunsworth and her colleagues explained in a 2012 paper, this remains true even if we adjust the pregnancy durations to take into account differences in body mass. Human pregnancies last 37 days longer than they should do for an ape our size.

The same thing applies for brain size. Women give birth to babies with larger brains than we would expect of a primate with the average woman’s body mass. This means that a key prediction of Washburn’s obstetric dilemma is incorrect.

There are other problems with Washburn’s idea too.

Male (left) and female (right) human pelvises (Credit: Visuals Unlimited/naturepl.com)

A central assumption of the obstetric dilemma is that the size and shape of the human pelvis – and the female pelvis in particular – is highly constrained by our habit of walking upright on two legs. After all, if evolution could have “solved” the problem of human childbirth by simply making women’s hips a little wider and the birth canal a little larger, it surely would have done so by now.

The birth canal is extraordinarily variable in size and shape

In 2015, Anna Warrener at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and her colleagues questioned this assumption.

The researchers collected metabolic data from male and female volunteers who were walking and running in the lab. Volunteers with wider hips were no more inefficient at walking and running than their narrow-hipped peers. From purely energetic considerations, at least, there does not seem to be anything stopping humans evolving wider hips that would make childbirth easier.

“The basic premise of the obstetric dilemma – that having a small or narrow pelvis is best for biomechanical efficiency – is likely not correct,” says Helen Kurki of the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada.

Kurki was not involved with Warrener’s study, but her own research has identified yet more problems for the traditional obstetric dilemma hypothesis.

Childbirth is notoriously painful (Credit: Blend Images/Alamy)

If the female pelvis really is tightly governed by two opposing forces – the need to be narrow for walking and the need to be wide for giving birth – the shape of the birth canal should vary little between women. It should be “stabilised” by natural selection.

Pregnant women sometimes joke that their developing foetus feels like an energy-sapping parasite

But after analysing hundreds of human skeletons, Kurki reported in 2015 that the birth canal is extraordinarily variable in size and shape. It varies even more than the size and shape of human arms, a trait that is known to vary between individuals.

“I think my findings do support shifting attitudes to the obstetric dilemma,” says Kurki.

Washburn’s tidy narrative does not seem quite as satisfying as it once did. There has to be something else going on.

Dunsworth thinks she has identified one important missing piece in the puzzle: energy.

“We max out toward the end of pregnancy,” says Dunsworth, herself a mother. “Those last weeks and months of pregnancy are tiring. They are pushing right against the possible sustainable metabolic rates in humans. It has to end at some point.”

Evolution could, in principle, make the pelvis larger – but it has not had to

Pregnant women sometimes joke that their developing foetus feels like an energy-sapping parasite. In a sense it really is, and its energy demands grow with every passing day.

In particular, human brains have an almost insatiable appetite for energy. Growing a second, tiny brain inside the womb can push a pregnant woman close to the edge, metabolically speaking.

Dunsworth calls this idea the energetics of gestation and growth (EGG) hypothesis. It suggests the timing of childbirth is governed by the difficulties of continuing to nourish a developing foetus beyond 39 weeks – not by the difficulties of squeezing the baby out through the birth canal.

This CT scan shows the size of a full-term foetus (Credit: Cultura Creative RF/Alamy)

Dunsworth thinks people obsess too much about the tight fit between a baby’s head and its mother’s birth canal. It might seem too much of a coincidence that the two are so closely size-matched, but she says the pelvis has simply evolved to be the size it needs to be. Evolution could, in principle, make the pelvis larger – but it has not had to.

For most of human evolution, childbirth might have been quite a lot easier

By and large, Kurki shares this view. “The obstetric canal is big enough, the majority of the time, for the foetus to pass through,” she says.

This is true. But even so, take another look at the maternal mortality figures: 830 deaths every day. Even among women who do not lose their lives during childbirth, some studies say the process leads to life-changing but non-lethal injuries in as many as 40% of cases. The price women pay for childbirth seems extraordinarily high.

Wells agrees. “It’s impossible to imagine the problem has been this bad over the long term.”

Perhaps it has not. In 2012, Wells and his colleagues took a look at the prehistory of childbirth, and came to a surprising conclusion. For most of human evolution, childbirth might have been quite a lot easier.

Homo erectus may have found birth easier than we do (Credit: Volker Steger/4 Million Years of Man/Science Photo Library)

The prehistory of childbirth is a difficult subject to study. The hominin pelvis is rarely preserved in the fossil record, and newborn skulls are even thinner on the ground. But from the meagre evidence available it seems that some earlier species of human, including Homo erectus and even some Neanderthals, had a relatively easy time of it when it came to giving birth.

A shift to farming may have led to developmental changes that made childbirth far more difficult

In fact, Wells and his colleagues suspect childbirth might even have been a relatively minor problem in our species – at least to begin with. There are very few newborn baby skeletons among the human remains from early hunter-gatherer groups, which might hint that death rates among newborns were relatively low.

This situation changed a few thousand years ago. People began farming, and newborn baby skeletons became a far more common feature of the archaeological record, at least in some places.

If there was a rise in newborn death rates at the dawn of farming, there were almost certainly several factors involved.

Farming changed our bodies yet again (Credit: Jose Antonio Penas/Science Photo Library)

For instance, early farmers began living in relatively dense settlements, so transmissible disease probably became a far greater problem. Newborns are often particularly vulnerable when an infection is going around a community.

But Wells and his colleagues suspect a shift to farming also led to developmental changes that made childbirth far more difficult. A rise in infant mortality at the dawn of farming might be due in part to a raised risk of death during childbirth.

Human childbirth suddenly became more difficult about 10,000 years ago

There is one striking feature archaeologists have noticed when comparing the skeletons of early farmers with their hunter-gatherer ancestors. The farmers were noticeably shorter in stature, probably because their carbohydrate-rich diet was not particularly nutritious compared to the protein-rich hunter-gatherer diet.

This is a telling observation for those who study childbirth, says Wells, because there is evidence of a link between a woman’s height and the size and shape of her pelvis. In general, the shorter a woman, the narrower her hips. In other words, the shift to farming almost certainly made childbirth a little bit more challenging.

On top of that, the carbohydrate-rich diets that became more common with farming can cause a developing foetus to grow larger and fatter. That makes the baby harder to deliver.

Combine these two factors and human childbirth – which might have been relatively easy for millions of years – suddenly became more difficult about 10,000 years ago.

Pregnancy gets pretty exhausting (Credit: Blend Images/Alamy)

Something rather like this “farming revolution effect” replays whenever human diets become poorly nutritious – particularly if those diets also contain a lot of carbohydrates and sugars, which encourage foetal growth.

“We can make a simple prediction that the nutritional status of mothers should be associated with a local prevalence of maternal mortality and difficulties with giving birth,” says Wells. The statistics clearly follow such a pattern, suggesting that improving nutrition might be a fairly easy way to reduce maternal mortality.

Pregnant women have adapted to nourish their foetus for as long as they can

Both Dunsworth and Kurki think that Wells has identified something significant in his work – something that perhaps would only be evident to a researcher with the right background in nutrition and development.

“I’m so lucky that Jonathan is describing these complex issues from his perspective of human health,” says Dunsworth. “At the same time I’m approaching the problem from my perspective of human evolution.”

So we now have a new explanation for the difficulties of human childbirth. Pregnant women have adapted to nourish their foetus for as long as they can before it grows too large to feed internally. The female pelvis has adapted to be just the right size to allow this maximally-nourished foetus to travel through safely. And dietary changes in the last few thousand years have upset this fine balance, making childbirth risky – particularly for mothers who have a poor diet.

However, Dunsworth says that is probably not the end of the story.

A female chimp with her granddaughter (left) and son (Credit: Fiona Rogers/naturepl.com)

You do get something quite cute at the end, though (Credit: Tetra Images/Alamy)

Washburn’s ideas made good intuitive sense for decades, until Dunsworth, Wells, Kurki and others began to pick them apart. “What if the EGG perspective is too good to be true?” asks Dunsworth. “We have to keep searching and keep collecting evidence.”

This is exactly what other researchers are doing.

For instance, in 2015 Barbara Fischer of the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research in Klosterneuburg, Austria and Philipp Mitteroecker of the University of Vienna, Austria took another look at the female pelvis.

A woman’s pelvis takes on a shape more conducive to childbirth in her late teens – when she reaches peak fertility

It seemed to them that Dunsworth’s EGG hypothesis – compelling though it is – could actually be seen as complementary to Washburn’s ideas, rather than disproving them entirely. Dunsworth agrees: she thinks many factors are involved in the evolution of modern childbirth.

Fischer and Mitteroecker investigated whether there is any correlation between female head size and pelvis size. Head size is heritable, at least to some extent, so women would benefit during childbirth if those with larger heads also naturally had a wider pelvis.

The researchers’ analysis of 99 skeletons suggested such a link does indeed exist. They concluded that a woman’s head size and her pelvic dimensions must somehow be linked at the genetic level.

“This does not mean that the [problem of childbirth] has been resolved,” says Fischer. But the problem would be even worse if there was no link between head size and pelvis width.

And there is another complication: women’s bodies change as they get older.

You do get something quite cute at the end, though (Credit: Tetra Images/Alamy)

A May 2016 study led by Marcia Ponce de León and Christoph Zollikofer at the University of Zurich, Switzerland examined pelvic data from 275 people – male and female – of all ages. The researchers concluded that the pelvis changes dimensions during the course of a woman’s lifetime.

Many babies are now born by Caesarean section

Their data suggested that a woman’s pelvis takes on a shape more conducive to childbirth in her late teens – when she reaches peak fertility. It then stays that way until around her 40th birthday, when it then gradually changes shape to become less suitable for childbirth, ready for the menopause.

The scientists suggest these changes make childbirth a little easier than it otherwise would be. They call this idea the “developmental obstetric dilemma” (DOD).

“The DOD hypothesis provides a developmental explanation for the variation in pelvic obstetric dimensions,” says Ponce de León.

If all these evolutionary pressures are acting on childbirth, is the process still changing and evolving even now?

A baby born by Caesarean section (Credit: Martin Valigursky/Alamy)

In December 2016, Fischer and Mitteroecker made headlines with a theoretical paper that addressed this question.

Earlier studies had suggested that larger babies have a better chance of survival and that size at birth is at least somewhat heritable. Together, these factors might lead the average human foetus to push up against the size limit imposed by the female pelvis, even though it can be fatal to push too far.

We all either did or didn’t arrive in the world through a pelvis

But many babies are now born by Caesarean section, an operation in which the baby is taken out of the mother’s abdomen without ever entering the birth canal. Fischer and Mitteroecker suggested that, in societies where C-sections have become more common, foetuses can now grow “too large” and still have a reasonable chance of survival.

In theory, as a consequence the number of women giving birth to babies that are too big to fit through their pelvis might have risen by 10 or 20% in just a few decades, at least in some parts of the world. Or, to put it in cruder terms, people in these societies might be evolving to have larger babies.

For now this is only an idea and there is no hard evidence that it is really happening. But it is an intriguing thought.

“We all either did or didn’t arrive in the world through a pelvis,” says Wells. “If we did, that pelvis mattered. And if we didn’t, that in itself is interesting.”

Ever since live birth evolved, babies have been constrained to some degree by the size of the birth canal. But maybe, for some babies at least, that is no longer true.

Join over six million BBC Earth fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

For more information please visit the following link:

http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20161221-the-real-reasons-why-childbirth-is-so-painful-and-dangerous

Go to the top