A New Way to Tell If a Dead Duck Could Fly

Watanabe. 2017. The Auk: Ornithological Advances.
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.”

A Pair of Dutch World War II Shipwrecks Have Disappeared Off the Coast of Malaysia

jfybel/iStock via Getty Images
jfybel/iStock via Getty Images

For nearly 80 years, two Dutch submarines have been occupying the ocean floor off the coast of Malaysia, with the remains of their crews still inside. They were among dozens of shipwrecks in the same area, all of them casualties of underwater World War II battles. Now, the ships— known as HNLMS O 16 and HNLMS K VII—are gone.

There’s nothing paranormal at work, though. Instead, the ships have vanished as a result of greed. Scavengers in the area have made a profitable pursuit of placing explosives within the wrecks, blowing them into manageable pieces and taking off with the scrap metal using a crane. Copper and bronze materials can also be resold. It’s estimated that about 40 ships in Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia have been demolished as a result of such efforts in recent years.

Because the ships are typically considered unmarked graves, the thieves may be committing the crime of desecrating corpses. After several British ships were found ransacked, the UK’s Ministry of Defense urged Indonesia to increase their efforts to protect the ships. The United States has dispatched representatives in Indonesia to guard ships they believe have been targeted by the scavengers.

Marine archaeologists have expressed some puzzlement at the phenomenon, as the scrap can often take weeks to retrieve, is frequently corroded, and would seemingly be cost-prohibitive to steal considering the labor involved. It’s possible that the ships may be targeted for having low-background metals, which are free from radiation because they pre-date atomic bomb testing and can be used in delicate scientific instruments like Geiger counters. In China, scrap metal could bring in about $1.3 million per ship. 

[h/t Live Science]

10 Shipwrecks You Can Visit

Suphaporn/iStock/Getty Images Plus
Suphaporn/iStock/Getty Images Plus

UNESCO says that there are no fewer than 3 million shipwrecks lost beneath the waves, with many of their locations just waiting to be discovered. But for tourism purposes, the most interesting shipwrecks are those we already know about—and can visit. These 10 shipwrecks have intriguing stories, and they’re all places where you can step foot, although in some cases a boat (and possibly scuba gear) may be necessary. Remember: Look, don’t touch, since removing artifacts can spoil the chance for valuable archeological research (and is often illegal).

1. Bessie White, Fire Island, New York

Fire Island shipwreck on white sand
A Fire Island shipwreck thought to be the Bessie White
Nick Normal, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The 200-foot schooner Bessie White wrecked off the shore of this barrier island while laden with coal in 1919 or 1922 (historians aren't sure of the exact date). The crew escaped, but the 3-year-old ship ran aground. In October 2012, Superstorm Sandy revealed the battered remnants of what's believed to be the ship's hull, which had been carried to a spot near Skunk Hollow in the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness. The National Park Service sometimes leads hikes to the wreckage, whose location over time provides scientists with clues to how the landscape of Fire Island has changed.

2. MS World Discoverer, Solomon Islands

World Discoverer wreck off Guadalcanal
World Discoverer wreck off Guadalcanal
Philjones828, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

A cruise ship built in 1974 that once carried passengers to polar regions, MS World Discoverer ran aground in the Solomon Islands in 2000. No lives were lost—all the passengers escaped via ferry after an uncharted rock pierced the ship's hull. Today the wreckage is still a tourist attraction in Roderick Bay in the Nggela Islands, listing heavily against the shore.

3. Peter Iredale, Warrenton, Oregon

The wreck of the Peter Iredale in the Fort Stevens State Park, Oregon, USA, at sunset
The wreck of the Peter Iredale in the Fort Stevens State Park, Oregon, USA, at sunset
ROBERT BRADSHAW, WIKIMEDIA COMMONS // CC BY 2.5

Now a haunting ruin along the Oregon coast, the Peter Iredale was once a four-masted steel barque sailing vessel owned by British shipping firm Iredale & Porter. In September 1906, the ship left Santa Cruz, Mexico, on its way to Portland, Oregon, where it was supposed to pick up wheat bound for the United Kingdom. But a heavy wind and strong current sent her on to the breakers and she ran aground at Clatsop Beach, with three of her masts snapping from the impact, according to the Oregon History Project. The wreckage became an immediate tourist attraction, and despite being buffeted by the wind and waves ever since, it remains so today. It’s now part of Fort Stevens State Park.

4. MV Panagiotis, Zakynthos Island, Greece

The rusty wreck of the Panagiotis on Zakynthos Island
The rusty wreck of the Panagiotis on Zakynthos Island
Simon Dux/iStock/Getty Images Plus

This shipwreck in the Ionian Islands gives its beach its nicknames: Navagio ("shipwreck") Beach and Smugglers Cove. Supposedly, the Panagiotis, which wrecked there in the early 1980s, was smuggling cigarettes and alcohol. The rusting hulk of the boat is far from the only thing to see, however; the beach also attracts visitors for its clear turquoise waters and pristine pale sand. It’s also one of the most popular spots for BASE jumping in the world. The cove can be accessed only by boat. Be careful taking selfies from the cliff, however: At least one tourist fell to their death that way.

5. SS Maheno, Fraser Island, Australia

Fraser Island S.S Maheno Shipwreck
The S.S Maheno Shipwreck on Fraser Island

Once an ocean liner that plied the Tasman Sea between New Zealand and Australia, the SS Maheno was also used as a hospital ship for the New Zealand navy during World War I. She was later sold to a Japanese ship-breaking company for scrap, but broke apart in a cyclone on the journey to Japan in 1935. Since washing ashore on Australia's Fraser Island, the ship has become a major tourist attraction, despite not being particularly safe.

6. SS Oregon, Long Island Sound, New York

Once the fastest liner on the Atlantic, the SS Oregon sunk in 1886 just 18 miles off New York after hitting an unidentified schooner, often thought to be the Charles R. Morse. After an unsuccessful attempt to plug the hole in the hull with canvas, the captain ordered the ship abandoned, even though there were only enough lifeboats for half the ship's 852 passengers. (Fortunately, another ship arrived to save the passengers, and there were no casualties.) Today the wreck is a popular dive site in Long Island Sound. Although the ship's hull and decks have disintegrated over the years, the engine and boilers remain, among other remnants.

7. Uluburun, Bodrum, Turkey

Granted, it's in a museum, but the Uluburun wreck, which sank off the coast of Turkey during the late Bronze Age, is one of the oldest ships ever found—it dates back 3,500 years. A local sponge diver found the wreck of the Uluburun off the southwestern coast of Turkey in the early 1980s. Archeologists then spent 11 years studying the ship, collecting 20 tons of artifacts, including the remains of fruits and nuts, pottery, jewelry, tools, and weapons. No one knows who built the ship or where it was headed, but judging by the amount of gold onboard, someone rich was involved. The remains of the ship and its cargo, as well as a life-sized replica, are kept at the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology.

8. MV Captayannis, River Clyde, Scotland

Once a Greek sugar-carrying ship, the MV Captayannis has become a de facto home for birds and other wildlife since sinking in Scotland's River Clyde in 1974 during a terrible storm. (The minor collision with a BP oil tanker also didn't help.) The shallow waters around the wreck make it relatively accessible, and the ship seems likely to stay where it is, since its precise ownership is something of a mystery.

9. La Famille Express, Turks And Caicos Islands

The La Famille Express shipwreck anchored in the Turks and Caicos Islands
The La Famille Express shipwreck anchored in the Turks and Caicos Islands
Matthew Straubmuller, Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Built in 1952 in Poland, La Famille Express served a large part of its life in the Soviet Navy (where it was known as Fort Shevchenko), before being sold and re-christened with its new name in 1999. It wrecked under mysterious circumstances around 2004. It now lies in just a few feet of water, an attractive landmark for boaters in the Turks and Caicos.

10. Eduard Bohlen, Namibia

Wreck of the ship Eduard Bohlen that ran aground off Namibia's Skeleton Coast
Wreck of the ship Eduard Bohlen that ran aground off Namibia's Skeleton Coast
Anagoria, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

This wreck is unusual for being buried entirely in the sand—it's now stranded about a quarter mile away from shore. A 2272-ton cargo ship that wrecked off Namibia's Skeleton Coast in 1909 in thick fog, the ship has since drifted so far from the water it's now completely land-locked.

This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019.

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