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The Mail is feeling a little horse

  • 24 Feb 2012, 12:45
  • Verity Payne

Here at Carbon Brief we like to keep abreast of new climate science, and we enjoy spotting interesting new studies to write about.

So we were surprised to read in the Mail Online today: Global warming 'could make us shorter' after horses are found to have shrunk the LAST time the world heated up. How had we missed that one?

As it turns out, we hadn't. You can relax - there has been no major scientific breakthrough linking shrinking humans to climate change.

Instead, published today was research linking the size of horses some 55m years ago to climate change, and the Mail article, which gets a few things slightly wrong.

Let's start with the research: A paper published in the journal Science today finds that as temperatures rose during the Palaeo Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) - a period of warming 55m years ago - horses became smaller. Apparently they started off about the size of a small dog, and 130,000 years and several degrees of warming later were roughly the size of a house cat.

The research might have implications for how modern animals may adapt to a warming planet, but neither the paper nor it's accompanying press release made any mention of any impact on human height.

So where does the Mail get the idea that:

"Global warming could make us shorter, scientists say."

It looks like a throwaway joke made by one of the authors of the study quoted in the Mail Online article may be the culprit here:

"Philip Gingerich of the University of Michigan said that the study clearly demonstrates the relationship between temperature and body size and agrees this may occur as a result of current warming patterns. He said: 'I joke about this all the time - we're going to be walking around 3 feet tall if we keep going the way we're going. Maybe that's not all bad and if that's the worst it gets, it will be fine."

Scientists with a sense of humour may want to suppress it the next time they talk to the press. Of course, even this may not work. (See another classic of the genre - 'Teenage sex leads to bad moods in later life.' ...if you're a hamster.)

The article gets some other things wrong. It confuses carbon monoxide with carbon dioxide:

"This was a time of warming lasting 175,000 years, in which increased carbon monoxide saw temperatures gradually rise by between ten and 20 degrees."

… and it proclaims that 55m years ago was "the LAST time the world heated up", which isn't the case - for example, there have been many ice ages and subsequent warming events over the last 450,000 years.

Anyway, relax, you're not going to shrink. Unless you're a horse. Well strictly speaking, if you are a horse, your descendants may be a bit smaller. But you get the point.

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