The first adventurous fish began to crawl onto land 365 million years ago, give or take a few million years, and began the wild and bumpy journey that has led to my writing these words and your reading them. Evolution is a long, slow process, an endless saga of trials and errors, and seemingly impossible to witness in action. So I was astounded to read about a large, river-dwelling species of catfish in southern France that has recently learned to launch itself out of the water and snatch nearby pigeons—yes, pigeons—and drag them back into the water, an environment the surprised pigeons find themselves supremely unsuited to. Local fishermen in Toulouse reported this amazing phenomenon to Julien Cucherousset, a researcher from a nearby university, and he filmed numerous attacks by what he dubbed “the freshwater killer whales.” You can see this tiny slice of evolution yourself on YouTube by searching for “catfish grabs pigeon.”
It was with such spectacles in mind that we decided to find hot spots where you can go to see evolution, which has been the greatest show on earth for many millions of years but also one of the hardest to catch. Last year, we coined (and trademarked!) the word “evotourism” to describe this new brand of travel and it proved so popular that we’re doing it again in this issue. We’re taking you to meet the venomous dragons of Komodo Island, unlikely stars of the latest James Bond movie; to the best site to play with the giants that once roamedAmerica, Dinosaur National Monument; and to the English country home where Charles Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species, forever changing our understanding of who we are and where we came from.
The mystery of who Americans are and where we came from is a hotly debated topic. For decades, conventional wisdom held that the original settlers trekked over the Bering land bridge, headed south and spread into the plains and beyond, a theory that was defended fiercely by the archaeologists who had planted their spears on it. That consensus is now nearly extinct, displaced by new research that shows that there was an earlier group of immigrants who walked or sailed along a different route farther west. But a Smithsonian scientist, Dennis Stanford, is trying to puncture our equilibrium once again, arguing that another group sailed across the Atlantic and landed on the East Coast, more than 20,000 years before Columbus. You can read about the evolution of thought regarding the origin of humans on our continent in “The First Americans."
It seemed only fitting to make “origins” the theme of our Phenomenon section this month. In it we explore the murky beginnings of life on earth, climate change, grammar, rockets and superheroes. Oh, and the universe itself.
With lots of bangs, big and little, we hope you enjoy this issue.
Michael Caruso, Editor in chief