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8 Prehistoric Saber-Toothed Animals

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The first Ice Age movie hit theaters in 2002and with it came the cinematic debut of “Scrat," an accident-prone saber-toothed squirrel with an insatiable lust for acorns (as of this writing, the manic critter’s Facebook page has netted more than 12,000 “likes”). Although Scrat is a fictitious animal, these distinctive canines were donned by a vast array of prehistoric creatures from cats and marsupials to deer and even salmon. Here are eight of the most unusual.

1. Gorgonops: A Whiskered Predator

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Named for the gorgon of Greek mythology, Gorgonops stalked the plains of South Africa some 250 million years ago—long before the first dinosaur came along.

Intriguingly, however, this killer and its relatives (“gorgonopsians”) were much more closely-akin to us, even sporting whiskers and (according to some) scale-less skin. In recent years, gorgonopsians have gained publicity as frequent antagonists on the time-traveling BBC series Primeval.

2. Machaeroides: The First Saber-Toothed Mammal

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As far as true mammals are concerned, Machaeroides is the earliest known. Stout and powerfully built, this terrier-sized carnivore lived approximately 40 million years ago in modern-day Wyoming.

3. Uintatherium: A Bizarre Herbivore

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Saber teeth proved to be remarkably versatile throughout the course of evolution. Hence, just as they’d be used to disembowel hapless victims by an assortment of predatory felines, these mysterious mammals likely employed them for gathering aquatic plants and territorial disputes. Another distinctive feature is the quartet of knobs (scientifically dubbed “ossicones”) atop their prehistoric noggins.

For a stop-motion and massively-oversized Uintatherium (in reality, they were roughly the size of a modern white rhino), check out this 1992 Nissin Cup-O-Noodle Ad:

4. Longistromeryx: A Saber-Toothed Deer

Four separate species of this Nebraskan genus are known to science. The function of their odd canines remains something of a mystery, but the official website of Ashfall Fossil Beds State Park highlights some of the bizarre company it kept 12 million years ago.

5. Oncorhynchus rastrosus: A Salmon With A Nasty Bite

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Native to the rivers and streams of Ice Age Oregon and California, this saber-toothed salmon reached more than six feet in length—an absolutely massive size by salmon standards. According to paleo-ichthyologists (prehistoric fish experts), its closest living relative is the sockeye (Oncorhynchus nerka). 

6. Smilodon: The Legendary Saber-Toothed Cat

Courtesy of American Museum of Natural History

In actuality, there were more than a dozen species of “saber-toothed cat" (none of which, by the way, was a tiger). But Smilodon is by far the best-known: More than 100 specimens have been unearthed at the La Brea Tar Pits alone. But how did the animal whose Latin name literally means “knife tooth” use its dreaded sabers? No consensus exists, but there’s certainly no shortage of ideas. These include relying on powerful forelimbs to subdue prey before severing its windpipe and throwing back their heads and repeatedly jabbing their target. A particularly speculative hypothesis holds that they may have even been “blood-sucking” tools.

7. Thylacosmilus: A Prehistoric ‘Copy Cat’

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Convergent Evolution” is a term used to describe “the independent emergence of similar traits and body outlines in unrelated organisms." Often, the life forms in question are separated by thousands of miles, as in the case of the aforementioned Smilodon and Thylacosmilus—a marsupial-like carnivore from present-day South America.

8. Gomphotaria: A Four-Tusked Walrus

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Denver Museum of Nature and Science paleontologist Kirk Johnson once correctly observed that “walruses are saber-toothed seals.” Particularly well-endowed was Gomphotaria, which lived off the North American western seaboard and boasted two sets of saber-teeth. These were rooted in the marine mammal’s upper and lower jaws. A rather technical account on these fascinating beasts can be seen here.

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The Real Bay of Pigs: Big Major Cay in the Bahamas
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When most people visit the Bahamas, they’re thinking about a vacation filled with sun, sand, and swimming—not swine. But you can get all four of those things if you visit Big Major Cay.

Big Major Cay, also now known as “Pig Island” for obvious reasons, is part of the Exuma Cays in the Bahamas. Exuma includes private islands owned by Johnny Depp, Tyler Perry, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, and David Copperfield. Despite all of the local star power, the real attraction seems to be the family of feral pigs that has established Big Major Cay as their own. It’s hard to say how many are there—some reports say it’s a family of eight, while others say the numbers are up to 40. However big the band of roaming pigs is, none of them are shy: Their chief means of survival seems to be to swim right up to boats and beg for food, which the charmed tourists are happy to provide (although there are guidelines about the best way of feeding the pigs).

No one knows exactly how the pigs got there, but there are plenty of theories. Among them: 1) A nearby resort purposely released them more than a decade ago, hoping to attract tourists. 2) Sailors dropped them off on the island, intending to dine on pork once they were able to dock for a longer of period of time. For one reason or another, the sailors never returned. 3) They’re descendants of domesticated pigs from a nearby island. When residents complained about the original domesticated pigs, their owners solved the problem by dropping them off at Big Major Cay, which was uninhabited. 4) The pigs survived a shipwreck. The ship’s passengers did not.

The purposeful tourist trap theory is probably the least likely—VICE reports that the James Bond movie Thunderball was shot on a neighboring island in the 1960s, and the swimming swine were there then.

Though multiple articles reference how “adorable” the pigs are, don’t be fooled. One captain warns, “They’ll eat anything and everything—including fingers.”

Here they are in action in a video from National Geographic:

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13 Secrets From the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London
Christine Colby
Christine Colby

Christopher Skaife is a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, an ancient fortress that has been used as a jail, royal residence, and more. There are 37 Yeoman Warders, popularly known as Beefeaters, but Skaife has what might be the coolest title of them all: He is the Ravenmaster. His job is to maintain the health and safety of the flock of ravens (also called an “unkindness” or a “conspiracy”) that live within the Tower walls. According to a foreboding legend with many variations, if there aren’t at least six ravens living within the Tower, both the Tower and the monarchy will fall. (No pressure, Chris!)

Skaife has worked at the Tower for 11 years, and has many stories to tell. Recently, Mental Floss visited him to learn more about his life in service of the ravens.

1. MILITARY SERVICE IS REQUIRED.

All Yeoman Warders must have at least 22 years of military service to qualify for the position and have earned a good-conduct medal. Skaife served for 24 years—he was a machine-gun specialist and is an expert in survival and interrogation resistance. He is also a qualified falconer.

Skaife started out as a regular Yeoman Warder who had no particular experience with birds. The Ravenmaster at the time "saw something in him," Skaife says, and introduced him to the ravens, who apparently liked him—and the rest is history. He did, however, have to complete a five-year apprenticeship with the previous Ravenmaster.

2. HE LIVES ON-SITE.

The Tower of London photographed at night
Christine Colby

As tradition going back 700 years, all Yeoman Warders and their families live within the Tower walls. Right now about 150 people, including a doctor and a chaplain, claim the Tower of London as their home address.

3. BUT HE’S HAD TO MOVE.

Skaife used to live next to the Bloody Tower, but had to move to a different apartment within the grounds because his first one was “too haunted.” He doesn’t really believe in ghosts, he says, but does put stock in “echoes of the past.” He once spoke to a little girl who was sitting near the raven cages, and when he turned around, she had disappeared. He also claims that things in his apartment inexplicably move around, particularly Christmas-related items.

4. THE RAVENS ENJOY SOME UNUSUAL SNACKS.

The Ravenmaster at the Tower of London bending down to feed one of his ravens
Christine Colby

The birds are fed nuts, berries, fruit, mice, rats, chicken, and blood-soaked biscuits. (“And what they nick off the tourists,” Skaife says.) He has also seen a raven attack and kill a pigeon in three minutes.

5. THEY GET A LULLABY.

Each evening, Skaife whistles a special tone to call the ravens to bed—they’re tucked into spacious, airy cages to protect them from predators such as foxes.

6. THERE’S A DIVA.

One of the ravens doesn’t join the others in their nighttime lodgings. Merlina, the star raven, is a bit friendlier to humans but doesn’t get on with the rest of the birds. She has her own private box inside the Queen’s House, which she reaches by climbing a tiny ladder.

7. ONE OF THEM HAS EARNED THE NICKNAME “THE BLACK WIDOW.”

Ravens normally pair off for life, but one of the birds at the Tower, Munin, has managed to get her first two mates killed. With both, she lured them high atop the White Tower, higher than they were capable of flying down from, since their wings are kept trimmed. Husband #1 fell to his death. The second one had better luck coasting down on his wings, but went too far and fell into the Thames, where he drowned. Munin is now partnered with a much younger male.

8. THERE IS A SECRET PUB INSIDE THE TOWER.

Only the Yeoman Warders, their families, and invited guests can go inside a secret pub on the Tower grounds. Naturally, the Yeoman Warder’s Club offers Beefeater Bitter beer and Beefeater gin. It’s lavishly decorated in police and military memorabilia, such as patches from U.S. police departments. There is also an area by the bar where a section of the wall has been dug into and encased in glass, showing items found in an archaeological excavation of the moat, such as soldiers’ discarded clay pipes, a cannonball, and some mouse skeletons.

9. … AND A SECRET HAND.

The Byward Tower, which was built in the 13th century by King Henry III, is now used as the main entrance to the Tower for visitors. It has a secret glass brick set into the wall that most people don’t notice. When you peer inside, you’ll see it contains a human hand (presumably fake). It was put in there at some point as a bit of a joke to scare children, but ended up being walled in from the other side, so is now in there permanently.

10. HE HAS A SIDE PROJECT.

Skaife considers himself primarily a storyteller, and loves sharing tales of what he calls “Victorian melodrama.” In addition to his work at the Tower, he also runs Grave Matters, a Facebook page and a blog, as a collaboration with medical historian and writer Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. Together they post about the history of executions, torture, and punishment.

11. THE TOWER IS MUPPET-FAMOUS.

2013’s Muppets Most Wanted was the first major film to shoot inside the Tower walls. At the Yeoman Warder’s Club, you can still sit in the same booth the Muppets occupied while they were in the pub.

12. IF YOU VISIT, KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR MONEY.

Ravens are very clever and known for stealing things from tourists, especially coins. They will strut around with the coin in their beak and then bury it, while trying to hide the site from the other birds.

13. … AND ON YOUR EYES.

Skaife, who’s covered in scars from raven bites, says, “They don’t like humans at all unless they’re dying or dead. Although they do love eyes.” He once had a Twitter follower, who is an organ donor, offer his eyes to the ravens after his death. Skaife declined.

This story first ran in 2015.

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