TIME Environment

The Sixth Great Extinction Is Underway—and We’re to Blame

Goodbye to all that: millions of earth's species, like the white rhino, are no match for the one species that considers itself the smartest
Goodbye to all that: millions of Earth's species, like the white rhino, are no match for the one species that considers itself the smartest Getty Images

The Earth has been stripped of up to 90% of its species five times before in the past 450 million years. Now it's happening again—and this time there's no rogue asteroid responsible

Here’s hoping the human species likes its own company, because at the rate Earth is going, we might be the only ones we’ve got left.

Nobody can say with certainty how many species there are on Earth, but the number runs well into the millions. Many of them, of course, are on the order of bacteria and spores. The other ones, the ones we can see and count and interact with—to say nothing of the ones we like—are far fewer. And, according to a new and alarming series of papers in Science, their numbers are falling fast, thanks mostly to us.

One of the first great rules of terrestrial biology is that no species is forever. The Earth has gone through five major extinction events before—from the Ordovician-Silurian, about 350 million years ago, to the Cretaceous-Paleogene, 65 million years back. The likely causes included volcanism, gamma ray bursts, and, in the case of the Cretaceous-Paleogene wipeout, an asteroid strike—the one that killed the dinosaurs. But the result of all of the extinctions was the same: death, a lot of it, for 70% to 90% of all species, depending on the event.

As increasingly accepted theories have argued—and as the Science papers show—we are now in the midst of the sixth great extinction, the unsettlingly-named Anthropocene, or the age of the humans.

The numbers are sobering: Over all, there has been a human-driven decline in the populations of all species by 25% over the past 500 years, but not all groups have suffered equally. Up to a third of all species of vertebrates are now considered threatened, as are 45% of most species of invertebrates. Among the vertebrates, amphibians are getting clobbered, with 41% of species in trouble, compared to just 17% of birds—at least so far. The various orders of insects suffer differently too: 35% of Lepidopteran species are in decline (goodbye butterflies), which sounds bad enough, but it’s nothing compared to the similar struggles of nearly 100% of Orthoptera species (crickets, grasshoppers and katydids, look your last).

As the authors of all this loss, we are doing our nasty work in a lot of ways. Overexploitation—which is to say killing animals for food, clothing or the sheer perverse pleasure of it—plays a big role, especially among the so-called charismatic megafauna. So we get elephants slaughtered for their tusks, rhinos poached for their horns and tigers shot and skinned for their pelts, until oops—no more elephants, rhinos or tigers.

Habitat destruction is another big driver, particularly in rainforests, where 25,000 miles (75,000 km) of tree cover are lost annually—the equivalent of denuding one Panama per year, year after year. And you don’t even have to chop or burn an ecosystem completely away to threaten its species; sometimes all it takes is cutting a few roads across it or building a few farms or homes in the wrong spots. Environmental fragmentation like this can be more than sufficient to cut species off from food or water, to say nothing of mates, and start them in a downward spiral that becomes irreversible.

Then too there is global warming, which makes once-hospitable habitats too hot or dry or stormy for species adapted to different conditions. Finally, as TIME’s Bryan Walsh wrote in last week’s cover story, there are invasive species—pests like the giant African snail, the lionfish or the emerald ash borer—which hitch a ride into a new ecosystem on ships or packing material, or are brought in as pets, and then reproduce wildly, crowding out native species.

The result of all this species loss—what the Science researchers dub defaunation—goes far beyond simply leaving us with a less rich, less diverse world. After all, the Earth bounced back from far worse extinctions and did just fine. But it bounced back a different way each time, and the most recent version, the one in which we emerged, is the one we like—and it’s easy to destroy.

Loss of species, the authors point out, means loss of pollinators—which is a real problem since 75% of food crops rely on insects if they’re going to thrive. Nutrient cycles—the decomposition of organic matter that feeds the soil—collapse if mobile species can’t get from place to place and do their living and dying in a fairly even distribution. The same is true for water quality, which relies on all manner of animals to prevent lakes and rivers and streams from becoming too algae-dense or oxygen poor. Pest control suffers as well — when animals like bats are no longer around the eat the insect pests that attack crops, it’s bad news for autumn harvests. North America alone is projected to suffer $22 billion in agricultural losses as desirable bat populations continue to decline.

It oughtn’t take appealing to our self-interest to get us to quit making such a mess of what we’re increasingly coming to learn is an exceedingly destructible world. But it’s that very self-interest that led us to make that mess in the first place. We can either start to change our ways, or we can keep going the way we are—at least until the Anthropocene extinction claims one final species: our own.

TIME Disasters

Fear of Flying: Don’t Be Fooled By the Scary News—Air Travel Is as Safe as Ever

If you're like most people, the temptation is to swear off air travel, at least for a while. But you've reached the wrong conclusion.

The news from the skies couldn’t get grimmer. In just the week since Malaysian Airlines flight 17 was brought down by a missile strike in Ukraine, killing 298 people, two more planes have gone down or gone missing: On July 23, a TransAsia flight crashed off Taiwan, killing 58 people, probably due to turbulence caused by typhoon Matmo; this morning an Air Algerie plane with 116 people aboard disappeared from radar and is thought to have crashed off of Mali, another possible victim of weather. And all of this comes in the wake of the still-mysterious March 8 disappearance of Malaysian Air flight 370, with 239 people aboard.

If you’re like most people, the temptation is to swear off air travel, at least for a while. And, like most people, you’ve reached the wrong conclusion.

Human beings are very good at a lot of things, but we’re terrible when it comes to risk assessment. That’s not our fault; we’re wired that way. If the tiger comes from one patch of the forest, you avoid that patch. If snakes are in one fruit tree you never return to it. But the modern world presents a whole lot more complexity than our still slowly developing brains are equipped to handle. And few things flummox us more than airplanes.

Start with the fact that we can’t wrap our brains around how they work in the first place. Yes, there are engines and lift and flaps and who-knows what all keeping them up. But the fact is, a fully loaded 747 weighs 975,000 lbs and attains a top speed of 570 mph at altitudes exceeding 6.5 mi. That kind of machine just shouldn’t work and so we always half-assume it won’t.

There is, too, the much discussed helplessness attendant to buckling yourself into an airline seat, obeying all the rules about seat backs and tray tables and turning off electronic equipment and when you can jolly well get up to go to the bathroom. When you’re behind the wheel, you feel like you’re in control. When an anonymous pilot is at the stick, you feel like little more than cargo.

The occasional rash of disasters like the recent ones don’t help matters any. But the fact is, those are just statistical clusters — the airline equivalent of a few people in one country developing a rare form of cancer, which gets people looking for an environmental toxin or some other cause, when in fact it may just be random numbers at play. Yes, flying into a war zone or the teeth of a typhoon is going to increase the danger that something very bad is going to happen to you. But avoid those obvious no-go zones and the odds are very good you’ll be just fine.

In 2010, according to a report by the U.N.’s Civil Aviation Organization, there were a breathtaking 30,566,513 commercial departures worldwide. Yet, according to an authoritative site that tracks all departures and arrivals, there were only 12 crashes of planes carrying more than 18 people and only three of them resulted in more than 99 fatalities. Those deaths were an unspeakable tragedy for the people who lost their lives and the families they left behind, but in the cold calculus of probability, they’re less than a rounding error compared to all the people who flew aboard those 30.5 million flights.

Despite such low individual odds, one thing that scares us off of airplanes is the unavoidably uneven distribution of the crashes that do occur. So the 35 commercial accidents in 1968 and 1969, the 34 in 1972 and 1973, and the 33 in 1989, would have likely had a lot of people reaching for their car keys and hitting the roads instead. And it’s worse when one of the crashes is especially notorious — such as the Dec. 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which directly preceded 1989’s string of comparatively bad luck.

The Sept. 11 attacks, of course, are the darkest example of all. The two flights that brought down the World Trade Towers alone top the list of the world’s worst air disasters, with the 2,907 deaths easily outdistancing the two-plane runway accident that claimed 583 lives on Tenerife in the Canary Islands in 1977.

Air travel suffered badly in the wake of Sept. 11, but so, it turned out, did some of the people who avoided the planes. From October to December 2001 there were 1,000 more highway fatalities than there had been in that same period the year before — the simple result of more people being on the road. “It was called the 9/11 effect,” David Ropeik, an independent risk consultant and a former professor of the Harvard School of Public Health, told me for my 2007 book Simplexity. Nearly 3,000 people died as a direct result of the attacks and a third again as an indirect one.

Air travel, surely, is not risk free, but it’s hardly a new observation to say that nothing is. Statistical clusters do smooth out over even a relatively short period of time and what feels like a grave danger today will seem relatively benign again tomorrow. The tragedy of the lives lost on the recent crashes is a very real thing; but so is the low likelihood of any one person suffering the same sorrowful end.

TIME space

Here’s the Solar System’s Weirdest-Looking Comet

The OSIRIS instrument on the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft photographed the mission's destination comet on July 14, 2014, from about 7,500 miles away.
The OSIRIS instrument on the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft photographed the mission's destination comet on July 14, 2014, from about 7,500 miles away. ESA/Rosetta/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Comets are like movie stars—always more glamorous with their makeup on. A new spacecraft is about orbit and land on what might be the homeliest one ever

A comet has a lot to hide. To most people, it’s among the most glamorous objects in the solar system—brilliantly illuminated, racing through space with its glowing tail streaming far behind it. That, at least, is how comets look from great distances, and only when they’re close enough to the sun for the outward-flowing solar wind to light them up and produce those signature tails.

But deeper in space, without the solar floodlights? Not so much. There the comet reveals itself for what it is: a dirty snowball of ice and rock and not a whole lot more. There may be no comet for which that’s truer than the one known unlyrically as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, as this GIF made up of images taken by the fast-approaching Rosetta spacecraft reveals. The comet is a lumpy, two-lobed body, measuring about 1.8 mi by 3 mi. (3×5 km), which one astronomer compares to a rubber ducky, and most other folks would describe as just plain ugly.

But Rosetta is an anxious suitor all the same. The spacecraft, built by the European Space Agency, has been en route since its launch in 2004. Rosetta will rendezvous with the comet on August 6 and enter orbit around it shortly there after. In November, it will dispatch a small lander down to its surface—becoming the first spacecraft to master either of those maneuvers, never mind both.

The comet may never be much to look at up close, but the science it could yield—offering astronomers their closest ever look at one of the oldest artifacts of the ancient solar system—could more than make up for that. Appearance has never been everything—and in the case of a historic mission like this one, that’s truer than ever.

TIME vaccines

RFK Jr. Joins the Anti-Vaccine Fringe

RFK, Jr.: Big bullhorn, bad ideas
RFK, Jr.: Big bullhorn, bad ideas Ethan Miller; 2014 Getty Images

A man who used to tell hard truths now peddles dangerous nonsense

There are lots of places to go if you want dangerous crazytalk. There are websites, blog threads, cable channels trafficking in all kinds of addled nonsense about birther conspiracies and one-world governments. And then there was Robert Kennedy, Jr., the tireless, honest climate hero long famous for fighting the very good fight.

But that was then. RFK, Jr. may still know a thing or two about global warming, but he has taken a disreputable plunge into the world of anti-science with his new and inexplicable crusade: warning people about the dangers of vaccines.

Let’s be clear: Kennedy will tell you he’s not against vaccines themselves, but rather, against thimerosal, a vaccine preservative purportedly responsible for the rise in autism in the U.S. He’s even publishing a new book—Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak—making this frightening point. The problem is: he’s wrong—utterly wrong, so wrong it’s hard even to know what the biggest piece of that wrongness is.

But let’s start with a single fact that ought to be, as the lawyers like to say, dispositive: the thimerosal ain’t there. With the exception of the flu vaccine, it was removed from or reduced to trace levels in all vaccines given to children under 6-years-old 13 years ago. You face a greater mercury risk eating seafood and fish—and even that danger is low enough that the EPA recently recommended that pregnant and nursing women increase their intake of certain kinds of fish because the nutritional benefits outweigh the theoretical dangers.

Kennedy is wrong on basic epidemiology too. Autism diagnoses have indeed risen steadily in the U.S. in recent years, but that has been happening in the same period in which thimerosal levels in vaccines plunged. When your cause goes away and your reputed effect increases, well, you really do need to review your class notes on what cause and effect mean in the first place.

Most fundamentally, Kennedy does not get chemistry. Thimerosal is an ethylmercury product. Mercury in general may be a neurotoxin, but it’s in its methylmercury form that it does its damage—and only in particular concentrations. The quantity of ethylmercury that was once in vaccines was so small that it was actually within acceptable limits for the more toxic, methyl form—but it wasn’t even in that methyl form to begin with.

Kennedy, more than most anti-vaxxers, really ought to know better. In his long career as a climate crusader he has had to answer the febrile claims from the denialists that the whole threat of global warming is a conspiracy cooked up by “grant-grubbing scientists” and liberal politicians looking to expand the role of government. Yet when it comes to vaccines, he clangs the same loony-tune bells.

As long ago as 2005, he published an anti-vax article in Rolling Stone claiming to reveal how “government health agencies colluded with Big Pharma to hide the risks of thimerosal from the public.” And Keith Kloor, the author of a new Washington Post Magazine profile of Kennedy, reports that last year, in response to a story he wrote on the Discover magazine website labeling this kind of thinking as the nonsense that it is, Kennedy called him up and said bluntly, “I’m trying to figure out whether you are a shill for Big Pharma.”

The worst—and the least explicable—thing about Kennedy and his new cause is the company he keeps. His book is being put out by Skyhorse Publishing—an outfit that also includes the disgraced Andrew Wakefield in its stable of authors. Wakefield is the U.K. investigator whose fraudulent 1998 paper purporting to link autism to the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine set off the entire anti-vaccine wildfire. In 2010, The Lancet formally withdrew the 1998 paper and Wakefield has since been banned from practicing medicine in the U.K. And as for the company Wakefield himself keeps? The foreword to his book was written by Jenny McCarthy.

Kennedy may deeply believe the rubbish he’s peddling—but science doesn’t care about your sincerity; it cares about the facts. That doesn’t mean he’s not in a position to do real harm. Like McCarthy, he has a big soapbox and a loud bullhorn, and every parent he frightens into skipping vaccinations means one more child who is in danger.

In the Washington Post profile, Kennedy complains about the trouble he’s having getting his anti-vaccine message across. “I’m completely f***ing alone on this,” he gripes. Well, good. He deserves to be alone, and if fewer people than he hoped are listening to him, that’s a positive sign.

TIME language

Russia’s Spin Job of the MH17 Crash Brings Back Soviet Memories

Russia's President Vladimir Putin talks to reporters during a meeting in Brasilia
Russia's President Vladimir Putin talks to reporters during a meeting in Brasilia, July 16, 2014. Alexei Nikolskyi—Ria Novosti/Reuters

Moscow's response to the attack on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is a return to the ham-handed ways of the Soviet days — and that portends bad things

A Russian disaster is almost never followed by Russian candor. This is true of most countries, but most countries are at least adept at explaining themselves — even if disingenuously — as the George W. Bush Administration showed with its flood-the-airwaves spin campaign after the weapons of mass destruction that were the casus belli of the Iraq War turned out not to exist. Not so Russia, and — as TIME’s Simon Shuster reports — its response to the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and the murder of the 298 people on board is one more illustration of that fact. Even after what are purported to be recordings between a pro-Russian rebel and a Russian military officer discussing the destruction of the airliner surfaced, Moscow remained in defiant denial — even flipping the script to blame Ukraine. “This tragedy would not have happened if there had been peace on that land, or in any case if military operations in southeastern Ukraine had not been renewed,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov took a lower road, going for the ad hominem: “With regard to the claims raised by Kiev, that it was almost us who did it,” he said to a Russian state-run news channel, “in fact I haven’t heard any truthful statements from Kiev over the past few months.” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott described this response with elegant understatement, labeling it “deeply, deeply unsatisfactory.” Soviet Russia was even more ham-handed in its defense of itself. A few days after the April 26, 1986, explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Soviet Ambassador Eugene Pozdnyakov appeared with Ted Koppel on ABC’s Nightline. When Koppel asked him why Russia initially covered up the accident, coming clean only when radiation readings in Europe revealed the truth, Pozdnyakov blamed the calendar. “It happened on Saturday,” he said, “and the governments of proper countries are usually on holidays on weekends.” Koppel responded with frank incredulity, scolding the diplomat with a simple, “Oh, come on!” In the current crisis, Moscow could at least call on experience, since — depressingly, remarkably — it’s not even the first time Russia has been implicated in shooting down a civilian passenger plane. That first time occurred on Sept. 1, 1983, when a military interceptor jet blew Korean Airlines Flight 007 out of the sky, killing 269 people, after the plane accidentally strayed into Soviet airspace. Moscow hedged and fudged and blamed the Korean pilot for being where he wasn’t supposed to be, and finally decided to fake transparency, releasing what were said to be air to ground transcripts between the interceptor plane and the base, intending to show, if nothing else, that the pilot seemed confused about what was happening. At one point during the attack, he was said to have exclaimed “yolki palki,” which TIME described then as “an exceedingly mild oath,” and indeed it is. Its literal translation is “sticks of the fir tree.” And it’s English equivalent? “Fiddlesticks.” The fighter pilot has not been born who speaks that way when engaging the enemy. Wordplay amounts to little for the 298 people killed in the new attack — or for the 298 grieving families. But it amounts to a lot as the rest of the world tries to reckon with Russia’s new aggression and its return to its old, opaque ways. The attack on the plane was over quickly; the aftermath promises to play out slowly and uncertainly.

TIME space travel

When Man Met Moon

The cover of Time Magazine on July 25, 1969
The cover of Time Magazine on July 25, 1969

Forty-five years after the giant leap for mankind, TIME remembers the July 25, 1969, issue

There’s always something grandiose about gazing back across the gulf of history. Today, we know so much about what was to come, and the people of the past knew so very little. It’s impossible to read through TIME’s July 25, 1969 issue—which was released 45 years ago this week, will be re-released in full on Time’s tablet edition next week and featured the epochal Apollo 11 moon-landing on its cover—and not indulge in some of that generational smugness. There is the good-news story about a lull in the fighting in Vietnam—a story that feels a lot less good when you know that the war would drag on for six more years and kill more than 15,000 additional American soldiers. There was the laudatory profile of Attorney General John Mitchell, the man nicknamed “Nixon’s heavyweight,” who would later come to be known less nobly as inmate number 24171-157, serving 19 months in prison for his part in the Watergate scandal.

There were the ads too—for sugar as a diet food (it can “turn your appestat back to low”), for Marlboro Longhorn 100’s, for RCA’s Octoputer, a computer mainframe that “works from way over here where you are to way over there where it is.” There was the story about the European Common Market, and the question of whether it would ever lead to a true European Union. (Answer: yes, sort of, eventually.) There was the speculation over what effect the Chappaquiddick accident, which occurred the same week as the moon landing, would have on Teddy Kennedy’s “nationwide constituency,” polite code for his Presidential prospects. (Answer: a bad one.) The folly of “the appestat,” the future of the computer, the bloody arc of Vietnam were all part of the unknowable future to the people of then and are just lines in the historical archives to the people of now.

But here’s the thing about those people, the ones who opened that edition of TIME two generations ago—that paper edition with its adhesive mailing label and its Louis Glansman acrylic painting of Neil Armstrong on the cover, which was the best color image of the moonwalk available since the Apollo 11 crew had not yet returned home with their hand-carried rolls of film that would still have to be taken to the lab for processing and then hand-distributed or sent by wire to the world: those people belonged to an age that could put human beings on the moon and you don’t.

They had achieved that momentous feat just days before TIME’s issue hit the stands and would do it again and again and again and again. They had gone from a standing start on a spit of land in eastern Florida in 1961 to the Sea of Tranquility in 1969, not only proving that the damned thing could be done, not only besting the Russians, who had long led the Space Race—the great meme of that pre-meme age—but making a war-torn, race-torn nation that had every reason to feel very, very bad about itself, feel, at least briefly, very, very good.

That the giddy forecasts that followed the mission never materialized—the boot prints on Mars in 1982, the 12-person space stations (“including the first American spacewoman,” TIME reported) by the 1970s—does nothing to diminish the thing that did happen. That thing happened two generations ago this summer, and it kept happening until 1972, when American astronauts left the moon for the last time—and for what has turned out to be a very long time. So hat tip to you, people of 1969; maybe we’ll grow up to be just like you.

TIME psychology

The Myth of the Diseased Immigrant

Border Patrol agents process a group of migrants from Honduras and Guatemala, mostly women and children, found walking near the Rio Grande near McAllen, Texas, June 18.
Border Patrol agents process a group of migrants from Honduras and Guatemala, mostly women and children, found walking near the Rio Grande near McAllen, Texas, June 18. Jennifer Whitney—The New York Times/Redux

The debate over the border crisis has descended to a sad—and depressingly familiar—place

Want to know how far we’ve sunk? Here’s how far: There was never any chance at all that we would handle the crisis of thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children running for their lives and arriving at our border with any maturity or grace at all. There was never a chance we’d take them in, get them fed and settled, and then consider sensibly how we can address the immigration-emigration mess on both sides of our border—and on our border—while working to send the kids safely home.

Instead we got the usual circus, the usual call to send in the troops, lock down the border, impeach the president—because, well, why not?—and under no circumstances to consider the comprehensive immigration reform bill languishing in the House. And now, at last, we have arrived at the inevitable sub-basement level of the debate. Now the nativists and xenophobes have played their nastiest—and least surprising—card: the border must be secured and the immigrants sent back because they are, of course, diseased.

That ugly cawing has been growing in the past week—and a lot of it has come from the usual sources. “Our schools cannot handle this influx, we don’t even know what all diseases they have,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX). Alan Long, the Mayor of Murrieta, Calif., where sign-waving protesters blocked buses carrying immigrants detained at the Texas border, argued, “[Y]ou don’t ship people that are ill and contagious all over the country.”

In a letter to the Centers for Disease Control, Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) added his addled voice: “Many of the children who are coming across the border also lack basic vaccinations such as those to prevent chicken pox or measles. This makes Americans who are not vaccinated—and especially young children and the elderly—particularly susceptible.”

But as numerous sources, most notably The Texas Observer and the New Republic, have reported, the immigrants have more to fear from us than we do from them. The fact is, children from Guatemala, where health care is fully subsidized by the government, have a better chance of being vaccinated than kids in Texas, where one in six people is uninsured. The fact is, in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala again, the vaccination rate for measles is 93%, compared to 92% in the U.S.—and it’s much lower in some poorly vaccinated pockets like New York City, where there has been a recent measles outbreak.

The myth of the diseased immigrant is not exclusively an American phenomenon. All cultures exhibit it and none can completely avoid it. The behavior is deeply, deeply rooted in our brains—specifically in our amygdalae, where base feelings like rage and suspicion and impulsiveness lie. As I write in my upcoming book The Narcissist Next Door, this form of tribal narcissism—of elevating your group above others—was essential for our early survival. The clan that knows you best is the one that is likeliest to protect you and feed you and keep you alive. Wander too far from the campfire and you may run into the alien other—unfamiliar people who would just as soon eat you as say hello. So we’re hardwired to see them as strange and menacing and the people we know as familiar and good.

In the modern era, that simplistic truth becomes harder to sustain, so we lard it up with invented justifications: it’s not that people from the other side of the border are innately bad, it’s that they pose a particular menace. Their frail genes will weaken our hardy stock; their dark-skinned men can’t resist our light-skinned women; and, inevitably, they bring diseases that can strike us all dead.

The nativists and their raging amygdalae have always made claims like this and surely always will. The measure of a culture is not in silencing them—they will never go completely quiet—but in marginalizing them. They are free to descend to—and live in—the sub-basement of the debate. Everyone else is welcome to come up and enjoy the daylight.

TIME Archaeology

The Strangest Beast on the First Americans’ Menu

Remains of the day: post-Clovis humans consider what used to be called dinner
Remains of the day: post-Clovis humans consider what used to be called dinner RONALDO SCHEMIDT; AFP/Getty Images

An early ancestor of the elephant and an early ancestor of modern humans lived together in North America. That was good news for the hungry people, but not for the proto-elephants

There were a lot of things on the menu for early Americans—deer, antelope, buffalo. But if you really wanted to eat well, and you were an especially early early American, there was nothing quite like a good haunch of gomphothere. That, it turns out, may have been one of the staples of the prehistoric Clovis culture, and while plenty of people never heard of this particular predator or its prey, the fact that they crossed paths is very big news.

The Clovis people are believed to be the earliest occupants of North America, arriving in the southwestern part of the continent somewhere between 13,000 and 13,500 years ago. Gomphotheres, a faintly freakish, four-tusked ancestor of the elephant, had the humans beat by a lot, first appearing on the scene as far back as 33 million years ago. The scientific wisdom had always been that the two species never co-existed, but the scientific wisdom hadn’t reckoned with a site called El Fin del Mundo (the end of the world) in northwestern Mexico.

Researchers from the University of Arizona, the National Autonomous University of Mexico and elsewhere began exploring the site in 2007, after a local rancher reported finding animal remains. They continued digging until 2012, and in a paper just published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), revealed conclusive proof that the gomphotheres thundered and the Clovis people hunted at the same time and in the same place—and the Clovis got the better of the deal.

The first discoveries at the site were a few complete Clovis spear points, along with bones that appeared to be from a large bison. That made it a nice find, but hardly a remarkable one. The following year, however, the investigators unearthed a mandible that was not remotely bison-like, but was entirely gomphothere-like, and that changed everything.

Further digging revealed the complete remains of two gomphotheres—one 13 to 24 years old and the other a comparative juvenile at 10-12 years old. Mingled in with the bones were more spear points and though weathering on the bones made it hard to look for the cut marks and gouges that usually indicate butchering, the signs of a hunt were unmistakable. For one thing, animals that die natural deaths leave bones arranged in more or less the proper skeletal configuration. In this case, however, the remains were stacked in two distinct, non-anatomical piles.

The fact that some of the spear points the investigators unearthed were mingled in with the bones suggests that the Clovis hunters either simply tossed them there after they were done with the remains, or that the points were somehow lost in the flesh of the carcass and too hard to retrieve. The condition of the points suggests they may indeed have been well-embedded. “Three of the four points are complete,” the researchers wrote, “but the fourth is missing its base due to an impact-related snap.”

History was not kind to either the gomphothere or the Clovis culture. The proto-elephants eventually died off and were replaced by the modern, two-tusked model. And the Clovis culture eventually dispersed and settled into different sub-cultures, each adapting to the conditions on its own part of the continent. Some archaeologists think that the gomphothere might have had the last laugh, since the end of the Clovis line could have been caused by the disappearance of it and other such “megafauna” to hunt. The prey went down, but it may have taken the predator culture with it.

TIME space

Now You Can 3D-Print Your Own Stellar Nebula

A new study makes it possible for you to hold one of astronomy's great mysteries in your hands—and understand it better too

People alive in 1841 understood the Eta Carinae nebula better than we do. They were the ones who were actually around to watch when an enormous star weighing about 130 times as much as our sun erupted more than 7,500 light years from Earth. Maybe if modern astronomers had been on the scene they could have figured out what caused the blast—and specifically why the vast cloud of dispersing matter that makes up the nebula assumed its signature peanut shape.

Still, the good thing about those modern astronomers is that when they put their minds to something, it’s never too late to get some answers. An international team of researchers has just announced that they have done just that, publishing a new study in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society that may at last unravel the Eta Carinae mystery.

The investigators did their work with the help of the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), conducting elaborate cross-sectional observations of Eta Carinae. These allowed them not only to develop a solid theory about how the star blew, but to create a 3D-printed model of the two-lobed space cloud that came from it.

The model is not much to look at—two irregularly shaped balls of plastic that resemble extracted molars as much as anything else. Still, NASA has made the program necessary for printing your own version of Eta Carinae publicly available. Whether you think it’s display-worthy or not, the model tells a complex story.

The star at the center of the Eta Carinae nebula is actually two stars—a binary pair in perpetual orbit around each other. That had been known for a while, but how—or if—they worked together to shape the nebula was never clear. The international team now believes that the eruption occurred when the smaller star—which measures about 30 solar masses—was at the closest point in its orbit to the larger one. It does not appear that a collision triggered the explosion. That seems to have happened on its own, with the blast beginning at one of the poles of the 130-solar-mass star and propagating across its entire body to the other pole.

But the close approach of the smaller star does seem to have had a powerful influence on shaping the eruptive cloud that resulted—and that star had a lot of material to work with. The larger star, which still exists, is now thought to weigh in at just 90 solar masses; the missing material—about 40 times the mass of our sun—is what we see when we look at the huge cosmic peanut.

Why does any of this matter? Well, it doesn’t, if you take “matter” to mean influencing the well-being of the human species responsible for the finding. But if you mean making that species smarter, explaining to it how some of the universe’s most extraordinary and violently beautiful formations came to be, then it matters indeed—and quite a lot, in fact.

TIME space

You Should Worry (a Little) About Falling Space Debris

Clean up your room: A NASA rendering of the low Earth orbit debris field
Clean up your room: A NASA rendering of the low Earth orbit debris field NASA/JSC

A satellite's fiery reentry over Melbourne is a reminder of the danger of putting too much junk in space

Australia knows a thing or two about getting clobbered by stuff from space. It was in 1979 that America’s out-of-control Skylab space station came auguring in from orbit and scattered its remains across the Australian outback—a story captured by this memorable TIME cover. On Thursday there was a repeat performance, when a truck-sized piece of debris from a Russian rocket streaked across the skies over Melbourne—this time in the era of smartphones, which meant that videos and stills of the fireworks went viral instantly, with all sorts of sky-is-falling commentary.

That, in fairness, is perfectly understandable. There’s no light show quite like an incoming meteor or other hunk of ordnance—equal parts exhilarating and terrifying, depending on the size of whatever’s heading earthward. But we really ought to get used to these events, because there’s no shortage of rubbish in space — and the cosmic junk yard is only growing.

It’s been nearly 60 years since Russia’s Sputnik satellite went into orbit, starting its brief life as the planet’s first artificial moon and ending it as its first bit of space garbage. The satellite itself wasn’t the only piece of rubbish that was involved. Its spent booster fell back toward Earth well before Sputnik reached orbit, but all manner of minor debris—bolts, paint chips and other shards of stuff—made it to space. In the six decades since, those early bits of litter have multiplied exponentially. According to NORAD, NASA and other groups that track space debris, there are at least 21,000 orbiting objects 10 cm (3 in.) or larger currently circling the Earth, at least 500,000 in the 1 to 10 cm range, and more than 100 million smaller than 1 cm. The Union of Concerned Scientists lists 1,167 operational satellites now in orbit—and there may be at least as many dead ones.

All of them, eventually, will have to come home, and that gets people spooked, but it shouldn’t—at least not most of the time. First of all, most satellites will incinerate on their way down, though the bigger a piece of junk is and the denser the materials that make it up, the greater the chance it has of striking the surface. Still, fully 70% of that surface is water and most of the land that’s left is entirely uninhabited or only sparsely so. Yes, a burnt-out satellite falling earthward with central Shanghai in its crosshairs would create a deadly mess, but any one individual’s odds of getting hit (which, like it or not, is how most of us reckon these things) are very low.

NASA’s and NORAD’s continuous surveillance lowers that risk even further by modeling orbits and predicting just which pieces are coming in next, and some websites make it easy for the public to stay up-to-date too. The much greater risk from out of control satellites is not to people on Earth, but to other objects still in orbit. Even then though, collisions are less common than they’d seem. The biggest of the relatively small handful of errors in the blockbuster Gravity was (unfortunately) its central premise, which was that a collision between two satellites had created a high speed storm of debris that was racing around Earth in the same orbit as the shuttle and space station and pummeling both structures on each pass. But orbital physics make that impossible.

All objects in the same orbit move at the same speed, so a collision between them is no more likely than if all of the cars on a highway were moving at exactly 60 mph. The gap between any two would never widen or narrow at all. The moment an orbiting object increases its speed even a little, it climbs to a higher orbit, in the same way a lasso will strain to inscribe a wider circle—and will if you loosen your grip on the rope enough—when you spin it faster. When a satellite slows, it drops to a lower orbit. It’s in those orbital shifts that a collision risk exists.

There’s an even greater danger if two satellites orbiting at the same altitude but at different inclinations—say 23º and 56º above the equator—cross paths. Here the accident is more analogous to a westbound car running a stop sign and colliding with a northbound one in the intersection. Such an accident happened in 2009, when an active American satellite and a defunct Russian one crossed paths 500 miles (800 km) above Siberia.

Both of those ships were utterly demolished—which naturally led to a lot of nervous gulps about what would have happened if one of them had been carrying people, though the same regular satellite tracking that goes on every day would likely allow a crewed ship to take evasive action well in advance. Of greater concern is small debris, the kind that’s way too tiny to see but powerful enough to do real damage. The back-of-the-envelope calculation back in the Apollo days was that a chip of paint moving at orbital speed packs about as much of a wallop as a bowling ball moving at 60 mph (96 k/h), and those physics haven’t changed—and never will. Shielding on big-target structures like the space station helps reduce that risk, though nothing can eliminate it entirely.

Ultimately, the answer, as with any environmental issue on Earth, is for people to quit making such a mess of space and clean up what’s already there. But consider how often we actually follow that straightforward advice on Earth. So again: gulp.

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