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Watanabe. 2017. The Auk: Ornithological Advances.

A New Way to Tell If a Dead Duck Could Fly

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Watanabe. 2017. The Auk: Ornithological Advances.

As any toddler chasing pigeons in the park knows, it’s not hard to figure out which birds can fly and which can’t. Sorting the flighted from the flightless is a little harder when those birds are dead—and even harder when they’re extinct. Now one fossil expert has developed a system that may help. He published his findings in The Auk: Ornithological Advances.

Junya Watanabe studies paleontology, evolutionary biology, geology, and mineralogy at Kyoto University. His research into the evolutionary history of birds has brought him up close with the anatids, a large family that includes ducks, geese, and swans. Today, most of these birds are happily flapping around, but that may not have always been the case.

Experts have found more than 15 fossilized anatid species that would have been unable to fly. We think. We’re not sure, because until now, we haven’t really had a good way of sussing out what flying looks like in animals that have been gone for millions of years.

To look back into the past, Watanabe started in the present. He took precise measurements of 787 different modern anatids from 103 different species—some volant (flighted), some flightless—focusing on their legs, wings, and breastbones. Then he fed those stats into an algorithm that compared the proportions of each bird’s body with its flying ability.

Fossilized bones from Chenonetta finschi.
Junya Watanabe

Fossilized bones from Anas marecula.
Junya Watanabe

The results showed physically tiny but evolutionarily significant differences between the species that could fly and those that couldn’t. Like the doomed dodos of yore, today’s flightless birds generally have chunkier legs and smaller wings than their airborne cousins.

By using the same algorithm on 16 species of fossilized anatids, Watanabe could easily spot which birds might have flown, long ago. His results confirmed other scientists’ suspicions about birds like Ptaiochen pao, whose name derives from the Greek and Hawaiian words for “destroyed stumbling goose.”

Helen James is curator of birds at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. She said Watanabe’s new system will be especially helpful in cases where only part of a fossilized bird has been found.

“Other researchers will appreciate that he offers a way to assess limb proportions even in fossil species where the bones of individual birds have become disassociated from each other,” she said in a statement. “Disassociation of skeletons in fossil sites has been a persistent barrier to these types of sophisticated statistical analyses, and Dr. Watanabe has taken an important step towards overcoming that problem.”

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Are Recreating Recipes from 17th-Century Ships
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Arthur Tanner/Getty Images

If ships’ logs and sailors' diaries are to be believed, the gastronomic situation during early voyages across the Atlantic was dire.

“Lady Sea will not tolerate or conserve meat or fish that is not dressed in her salt,” wrote Spanish explorer Eugenio de Salazar in his complaint-filled 1573 letter that’s now dubbed “The Landlubber’s Lament.” He griped that water is rationed “by the ounce, as in a pharmacy,” and he described wooden plates “filled with stringy beef joints, dressed with some partly cooked tendons.” Other food, Salazar said, is so “rotten and stinking” that you’d be better off losing your sense of taste and smell just to get it all down.

Most chefs would be happy to leave this grim slice of food history behind. But a group of archaeologists in Texas has just begun an unusual experiment to faithfully recreate the menu onboard a typical transatlantic sailing ship. By doing so, they hope to learn more about sailor nutrition.

“We use modern standards to extrapolate health from the past,” project leader Grace Tsai, a doctoral student in Texas A&M University’s nautical archaeology program, tells Mental Floss. “But you won’t know [the food’s] nutritional value until you actually make it with a historical recipe and get that tested in a lab.”

Over the last few months, Tsai and her colleagues have been perfecting 17th-century recipes for provisions like ship’s biscuit (a long-lasting dry cracker) and salted meat. On August 19, they loaded their canvas sacks and heavy barrels into the hold of a 19th-century tall ship named Elissa that’s moored in Galveston. They’ll perform nutritional and microbial analysis on the food every 10 days over the next three months.

A barrel used to store the research team's salted beef
Erika Davila

Without canning or refrigeration, salting was indeed the most popular way to preserve food for long journeys. And when sailors would reach new lands, they preserved whatever animals they could hunt. Richard Wilk, an anthropologist at Indiana University who is not affiliated with the project, said there are some accounts of hungry sailors in the Southern Hemisphere stuffing casks with salted penguins. “Basically, if it was meat and they could salt it and dry it, then they could carry it around with them,” Wilk tells Mental Floss.

Nearly every account from European vessels between the 16th and 18th centuries lists salted beef, which is similar to corned beef, among the provisions, Tsai said. So her team butchered a steer and a hog to make salted beef and salted pork. They based their cuts of meat on the bones that were found at the shipwreck of the Warwick, an English galleon carrying supplies to Jamestown, Virginia, that sank in 1619 off the coast of Bermuda during a hurricane. They followed a recipe from a 1682 English text on salting food, ordered salt from France, and consulted local environmental officials in Texas to find the purest river water to make their brine.

Though it was probably warm and flat, beer could make or break a voyage, too. Useful as a social lubricant, beer was also often cleaner than drinking water, and it provided some calories, nutrients, and probiotics, Tsai noted. One bit of American lore that suds enthusiasts love to cite is that beer might have played a role in the lost Mayflower pilgrims’ decision to settle down at Plymouth, Massachusetts. “We could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our Beere,” Governor William Bradford explained in his diary.

Tsai plans to add casks of 17th-century-style English beer to the Elissa in November. To make their own brew even closer to the original, the Texas team is trying to secure a yeast culture from 220-year-old bottles of beer found at a British shipwreck in Australia. (Tsai said a sponsor of the project, Texas's Karbach Brewing Company, will eventually make a commercial version of their historical beer.)

Changes in temperature and humidity, and the rocking of the waves, could have affected the food on early transatlantic voyages, too. That’s why the researchers are storing their supplies in the Elissa instead of a lab. They expect to find not just colonies of microbes, but insects, too. “The ship’s biscuit would almost always grow weevils,” Tsai said. And English sailors, sticklers for tradition, didn’t use an airtight container for the crackers, but a canvas bag. Exposed to sea air and humidity, the biscuits often became moldy and mushy over time.

Salted beef made with an 18th-century recipe
The team made this salted beef using a 17th-century recipe.
Grace Tsai

In some ways, the project in Texas isn’t a totally new idea. In recent years, brewers have attempted to resurrect Egyptian ales and Iron Age meads. Experimental archaeologists have tried to recreate Stone Age barbecues and butchering techniques. Food historian Ken Albala of the University of the Pacific pointed out that sites like Hampton Court Palace in London, Colonial Williamsburg, and Plimoth Plantation serve historical meals regularly, though those institutions tend to be less adventurous about preserving and curing. “Modern people are indeed very frightened about food poisoning, so things like this that can go wrong are usually beyond their comfort zone,” Albala, who is not involved in the Texas project, tells Mental Floss.

Tsai saw those limitations firsthand while doing research at Colonial Williamsburg. Dressed like a colonial boy (the adult clothes were too big for her), she went behind the scenes at the living history museum for two weeks to learn more about handling the watertight oak barrels she’ll be using for the project. She noticed that the cooks at Colonial Williamsburg were using a brine recipe for salted beef that called for 35 pounds of salt to 8 gallons of water, but her 17th-century recipes say the brine is ready when it floats an egg. “That’s actually a lot less salt,” Tsai said. While historical reenactors may alter recipes for public safety reasons, the Texas team is aiming for authenticity.

When the team opens the barrels, they’ll look for caloric content, water content, sodium, vitamins, and minerals. Tsai is particularly interested in what kinds of bacteria she’ll find growing on the food—not just the disease-causing bugs, but probiotics, too.

“We barely ever eat anything that has probiotics anymore, and even when we do it’s a strict genre,” Tsai said. She suspects that sailors ingested a more diverse group of microbes than we do today, and investigating these organisms could shed light on changes in the human gut microbiome as modern diets have become bound to better hygiene standards.

A barrel full of salted beef is loaded into a tall ship
A barrel of salted beef is hoisted into the Elissa.
Grace Tsai

“If they do it correctly, the food should still be palatable, but whether it’s going to stand up to modern scientific standards of 'ok to eat,' I can’t really guess,” Albala said. “Of course, on many ships in the past, the food did indeed go bad. Sometimes they ate it anyway because they had no choice. It would have been a luxury to toss it.”

Because of safety concerns (and institutional review board restrictions), Tsai and her colleagues won’t get to eat the meat they’re storing on board the Elissa. But she has an idea of how the salted beef might taste after preparing some she got from Colonial Williamsburg. “You know that metallic taste you get when you have a bloody nose? It tasted like that.”

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History
Civilian Researchers Discover Wreckage of the USS Indianapolis
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Wikipedia/Public Domain

On July 30, 1945, the cruiser USS Indianapolis sank in the Pacific Ocean after it was torpedoed by the Imperial Japanese Navy submarine I-58. More than 70 years after the historic naval tragedy— which claimed the lives of nearly 900 crew—The New York Times reports that the ship’s mysterious final resting place has been found.

The discovery came courtesy of a team of civilian researchers, led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. His state-of-the-art research vessel, Petrel, located the wreck 18,000 feet below the Pacific’s surface, the team announced on Saturday, August 19.

"To be able to honor the brave men of the USS Indianapolis and their families through the discovery of a ship that played such a significant role in ending World War II is truly humbling,” Allen said in a statement. “As Americans, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the crew for their courage, persistence, and sacrifice in the face of horrendous circumstances."

Before it sank, the USS Indianapolis had just completed a top-secret mission to a naval base on the Northern Mariana island of Tinian. After delivering enriched uranium and components for Little Boy— the atomic bomb that the U.S. would drop on the Japanese city of Hiroshima about a week later—the cruiser forged ahead to Guam, and then to the Philippines. It was supposed to meet the battleship USS Idaho at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines to prepare to attack Japan.

The USS Indianapolis never made it to Leyte Gulf. Shortly after midnight on July 30, the Japanese submarine I-58 spotted the cruiser and fired six torpedoes. The USS Indianapolis—which was hit twice—sank within 12 minutes. Around 300 to 400 sailors and Marines were killed in the attack; the rest were stranded in the Pacific Ocean for several days.

Many of these survivors would ultimately lose their lives to sharks, a grisly scene that would be famously (albeit semi-accurately) recounted in the 1975 movie Jaws. Others died from drowning, heat stroke, thirst, burns and injuries, swallowing salt water or fuel oil, and suicide. More than 300 crew members were rescued after a bomber pilot accidently sighted the imperiled men while on a routine antisubmarine patrol.

The mass tragedy—which wouldn’t be announced to the public until August 15, 1945—sparked controversy: Charles B. McVay III, captain of the USS Indianapolis, was found guilty in a court martial of failing to steer the ship on a “zigzag” course to elude Japanese submarines. A Japanese submarine captain testified that this precautionary measure wouldn’t have thwarted the enemy, but McVay was charged nonetheless. The captain died by suicide in 1968, and wouldn’t be officially exonerated by the Navy until 2001.

For decades, the remains of the USS Indianapolis were lost to the ravages of time and nature. But in 2016, naval historian Richard Hulver found a historic ship log that mentioned a sighting of the USS Indianapolis. Allen’s search team used this information to locate the ship, which was west of where experts assumed it had gone down.

Allen’s crew took pictures of the wreckage, including a piece of its hull, and will search for more of the ship. They plan to keep the exact location of the USS Indianapolis a secret, however, to honor the sunken ship as a war grave.

"While our search for the rest of the wreckage will continue, I hope everyone connected to this historic ship will feel some measure of closure at this discovery so long in coming,” Allen said.

[h/t The New York Times]

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