Fifty million years from now, having long since destroyed the ozone layer and buried itself in styrofoam cartons, the human race - or what's left of it - will look different than it does now, predict Norman Suchar and Mat Williams.
Suchar and Williams, students at Judge Memorial High School, call their future human Homo Novus, and he's definitely a 50001980s kind of guy. For starters, his eye sockets are so wide that he can see prey sneaking around behind him, and his pinkie fingers have evolved into second thumbs.He has no ear lobes and his feet are different too, having adapted into a bone structure that enables him to run efficiently on his toes, like dogs do.
Homo Novus is part of "Creatures in Time: A Glimpse into the Future," at the University of Utah's Museum of Natural History. He stands alongside other futuristic animals, including an aquadile and a spinetailed weasel, in the same room as the the museum's regular hulking dinosaurs.
The exhibit grew out of an assignment in John LeCavalier's biology class at Judge. The students were asked to be sort of reverse paleontologists: instead of giving us a look into the prehistoric past based on fossil remains, the students speculated on what the Earth will look like in the future, based on both their imaginations and their knowledge of evolutionary biology. Students in Tom Bettin's art class were then asked to create background illustrations for each animal.
The 20th century's crocodile, predict students Ashley Harris and Andrea Henkels, will evolve into the 500,020th century's aquadile. During the millions of years in between, note Harris and Henkels, the crocodile will have headed from fresh water to the ocean, in search of more food.
Over the millennia it will turn a bluish color for protection, grow fins instead of feet, and adapt smoother features. The clever aquadile also will learn to mimic the whale's call, in order to lure baby whales for lunch.
In reality, the students explain, the crocodile hasn't changed much since the time of the dinosaurs. "We decided it was about time."
LeCavalier thinks his biology students have learned more about evolution, adaptation and population genetics by researching and concocting their creatures than they would have through books and lectures alone.
"Most science course work is traditional," he notes. "And that's what students think science is something to learn and then spit back. They don't see scientists as creative. They see them as nerds."
LeCavalier urged his students to use their imaginations but to back those up with knowledge. Students were required to show a logical evolutionary pathway for their animals, basing their predictions on past adaptations. The result, LeCavalier says, are creatures that are all "biologically sound."
Local artist Bri Matheson was brought in as a consultant to help the students (some of whom had never taken an art class) construct the creatures out of styrofoam and papier mache. Art students (some of whom knew little about evolutionary biology) were recruited to make background illustrations.
The interdisciplinary results range from Tori Blackwelder and Chris O'Brien's furry, bat-like glider monkey to Kim Brauson and Sarah Wolstenholme's quilled inland penguin.
And then there is the spitting lizard, or as it is known in some scientific circles, Iguana Vulgaris "because he's a disgusting kind of guy," explains co-creator Seth Friedman.
The lizard hangs from trees and kills his prey by covering them with toxic spit. He used to just jump on his victims, says co-creator Joe Smart, but the thought of food made him salivate and the saliva eventually became more useful.
But Iguana Vulgaris is even more vulgar than that. In a mutualistic symbiotic relationship, poisonous bacteria live happily on the lizard's stomach, and at the same time protect the lizard from predators.
The rest of the world will have to wait 50 million years to see this slime ball in action. You can catch him at the museum through May 28.