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 (Still-Sharp) Medieval Sword Was Pulled from a Sewer in Denmark

Pipe layer Jannick Vestergaard and engineer Henning Nøhr hold up the sword they found.
Pipe layer Jannick Vestergaard and engineer Henning Nøhr hold up the sword they found.
Nordjyllands Historiske Museum (Historical Museum of Northern Jutland)

If the legend of King Arthur and Excalibur is anything to go by, anyone who successfully extracts a sword in a stone will be treated like royalty. The fable doesn’t say anything about the reward one gets for removing a medieval weapon from feces, though.

As Smithsonian reports, a pipe layer and an engineer recently found a sword from the medieval era while doing construction work on a sewer in Aalborg, Denmark’s fourth-largest city. The relic was plucked from a layer of waste that had accumulated atop an old slab of pavement that once ran through the city.

Most remarkably, the sword was still intact—and the blade still sharp. It’s about 3.5 feet long and of extremely high quality, according to archaeologists. The sword may have been used between 1100 and 1400, but the likeliest explanation is that it got separated from its owner sometime in the 14th century. “Findings from here have always pointed to the 1300s, so the sword must have ended up in the earth in this century,” archaeologist Kenneth Nielsen said in a translated statement.

The sword next to a tape measure
Nordjyllands Historiske Museum (Historical Museum of Northern Jutland)

It’s rare for such an important historical artifact to turn up in such an unlikely—and unhygienic—place. Swords were valuable and highly prized possessions, and they were treated as such. They were typically buried with their owners, but no graves are situated above the sewer where the weapon was found.

The country’s history offers some clues about what may have transpired, though. In the 1300s, power struggles and internecine war were common throughout Denmark. “The best explanation we can come up with is that the owner of the sword was defeated in a battle,” Nielsen told The Local Denmark. “In the tumult, it was then trod down into the layer of mud that formed the street back then.”

Similarly, a 14th-century sword was found in a Polish peat bog in 2017, and archaeologists suspect the owner either sunk into the marsh and met a grisly end, or merely dropped his weapon and was unable to retrieve it.

While these questions will likely remain unanswered, members of the public will have the chance to admire the Danish "sewer sword" in all its glory at the Aalborg Historiske Museum (Aalborg Historical Museum), which is located near the site where the sword was found. Fortunately for future visitors, it will be cleaned and preserved first.

[h/t Smithsonian]

George Pollard Jr., Unlucky Captain of the Ship That Inspired Moby-Dick

Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab during the shooting of the 1956 film Moby Dick
Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab during the shooting of the 1956 film Moby Dick
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Captain George Pollard Jr. had no choice but to eat his cousin. Crammed aboard a small whaleboat with some of his crew, the captain had been drifting aimlessly in the South Pacific for more than two months. The sun was relentless, their thirst was unquenchable, and the hull was leaking. Saltwater had leached into the men’s stash of bread, and one by one, Pollard’s men died of starvation—and were promptly devoured by the hungry survivors.

It was a nightmare scenario. Weeks earlier, in November 1820, Pollard's crew had been pursuing (and harpooning) a pod of sperm whales when an angry 85-foot-long whale barreled head-on into the captain's ship, The Essex of Nantucket, sending it to the ocean's bottom. The 20 survivors scrambled into three small whaleboats, which eventually became separated during a storm. After two and a half months at sea, the days began to blur and the stockpile of food dwindled, and the four men remaining on Pollard’s boat realized they were all going to starve if food didn’t soon become available. So they agreed to draw lots: Whoever pulled the short stick would volunteer to be shot and eaten.

It was a terribly irony. When the Essex sank, the men had been relatively close to the Marquesas Islands, but Pollard's men were afraid of landing there—the islands were rumored to be full of cannibals. Pollard agreed to follow a longer route, hoping to drift south and then east in hopes of reaching Chile. That decision, however, had made cannibals of the men on board.

As for the drawing of lots, Pollard’s 18-year-old cousin, Owen Coffin, was the unlucky loser. When Pollard insisted that he take the young man's place, Coffin refused—and was summarily shot in the head. “He was soon dispatched,” Pollard grimly recalled, “and nothing of him left.” About two weeks later, Pollard's boat was discovered. By that point, the two surviving men—Pollard and sailor Charles Ramsdell—had resorted to drinking their own urine and were found gnawing on the bones of their deceased mates.

The ordeal would haunt Captain Pollard. Before the voyage, he had promised Coffin’s mother that the boy would return home safely, and his failure to keep Coffin alive plagued Pollard's conscience. After surviving a second shipwreck, the captain took a job on sturdy land as Nantucket's night watchman, where he looked over the streets and wharves.

Three decades later, when Pollard was 60, Herman Melville—fresh from finishing Moby-Dick—paid the aging skipper a visit. Pollard didn’t know about the book, and the two didn’t exchange many words. But Melville harbored a secret: The sinking of the Essex had inspired his novel. (We should caution that Melville did not base the monomaniacal character of Ahab on Pollard himself. "While Melville was inspired by Pollard's adventures," the BBC says, "the unlucky seafarer's character is not thought to have been the basis for the novel's obsessive Capt Ahab.")

Melville marveled at the tormented man, saying of his encounter: “To the islanders he was a nobody—to me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble—that I ever encountered.” In fact, Melville mentioned Pollard in his epic Clarel, the longest poem in American literature.

Never he smiled;
Call him, and he would come; not sour
In spirit, but meek and reconciled:
Patient he was, he none withstood;
Oft on some secret thing would brood.

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