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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

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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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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
10 Juicy Facts About Sea Apples

They're both gorgeous and grotesque. Sea apples, a type of marine invertebrate, have dazzling purple, yellow, and blue color schemes streaking across their bodies. But some of their habits are rather R-rated. Here’s what you should know about these weird little creatures.

1. THEY’RE SEA CUCUMBERS.

The world’s oceans are home to more than 1200 species of sea cucumber. Like sand dollars and starfish, sea cucumbers are echinoderms: brainless, spineless marine animals with skin-covered shells and a complex network of internal hydraulics that enables them to get around. Sea cucumbers can thrive in a range of oceanic habitats, from Arctic depths to tropical reefs. They're a fascinating group with colorful popular names, like the “burnt hot dog sea cucumber” (Holothuria edulis) and the sea pig (Scotoplanes globosa), a scavenger that’s been described as a “living vacuum cleaner.”

2. THEY'RE NATIVE TO THE WESTERN PACIFIC OCEAN.

Sea apples have oval-shaped bodies and belong to the genus Pseudocolochirus and genus Paracacumaria. The animals are indigenous to the western Pacific, where they can be found shuffling across the ocean floor in shallow, coastal waters. Many different types are kept in captivity, but two species, Pseudocolochirus violaceus and Pseudocolochirus axiologus, have proven especially popular with aquarium hobbyists. Both species reside along the coastlines of Australia and Southeast Asia.

3. THEY EAT WITH MUCUS-COVERED TENTACLES.

Sea cucumbers, the ocean's sanitation crew, eat by swallowing plankton, algae, and sandy detritus at one end of their bodies and then expelling clean, fresh sand out their other end. Sea apples use a different technique. A ring of mucus-covered tentacles around a sea apple's mouth snares floating bits of food, popping each bit into its mouth one at a time. In the process, the tentacles are covered with a fresh coat of sticky mucus, and the whole cycle repeats.

4. THEY’RE ACTIVE AT NIGHT.

Sea apples' waving appendages can look delicious to predatory fish, so the echinoderms minimize the risk of attracting unwanted attention by doing most of their feeding at night. When those tentacles aren’t in use, they’re retracted into the body.

5. THE MOVE ON TUBULAR FEET.

The rows of yellow protuberances running along the sides of this specimen are its feet. They allow sea apples to latch onto rocks and other hard surfaces while feeding. And if one of these feet gets severed, it can grow back.

6. SOME FISH HANG OUT IN SEA APPLES' BUTTS.

Sea apples are poisonous, but a few marine freeloaders capitalize on this very quality. Some small fish have evolved to live inside the invertebrates' digestive tracts, mooching off the sea apples' meals and using their bodies for shelter. In a gross twist of evolution, fish gain entry through the back door, an orifice called the cloaca. In addition expelling waste, the cloaca absorbs fresh oxygen, meaning that sea apples/cucumbers essentially breathe through their anuses.

7. WHEN THREATENED, SEA APPLES CAN EXPAND.

Most full-grown adult sea apples are around 3 to 8 inches long, but they can make themselves look twice as big if they need to escape a threat. By pulling extra water into their bodies, some can grow to the size of a volleyball, according to Advanced Aquarist. After puffing up, they can float on the current and away from danger. Some aquarists might mistake the robust display as a sign of optimum health, but it's usually a reaction to stress.

8. THEY CAN EXPEL THEIR OWN GUTS.

Sea apples use their vibrant appearance to broadcast that they’re packing a dangerous toxin. But to really scare off predators, they puke up some of their own innards. When an attacker gets too close, sea apples can expel various organs through their orifices, and some simultaneously unleash a cloud of the poison holothurin. In an aquarium, the holothurin doesn’t disperse as widely as it would in the sea, and it's been known to wipe out entire fish tanks.

9. SEA APPLES LAY TOXIC EGGS.

These invertebrates reproduce sexually; females release eggs that are later fertilized by clouds of sperm emitted by the males. As many saltwater aquarium keepers know all too well, sea apple eggs are not suitable fish snacks—because they’re poisonous. Scientists have observed that, in Pseudocolochirus violaceus at least, the eggs develop into small, barrel-shaped larvae within two weeks of fertilization.

10. THEY'RE NOT EASILY CONFUSED WITH THIS TREE SPECIES.

Syzgium grande is a coastal tree native to Southeast Asia whose informal name is "sea apple." When fully grown, they can stand more than 140 feet tall. Once a year, it produces attractive clusters of fuzzy white flowers and round green fruits, perhaps prompting its comparison to an apple tree.

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