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.”

Mastodon Bones Have Been Discovered by Sewer Workers in Indiana

Thomas Quine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Thomas Quine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When something unexpected happens during a sewer system project, the news is not usually pleasant. But when workers installing pipes in Seymour, Indiana stopped due to an unforeseen occurrence, it was because they had inadvertently dug up a few pieces of history: mastodon bones.

According to the Louisville Courier Journal, workers fiddling with pipes running through a vacant, privately owned farm in Jackson County happened across the animal bones during their excavation of the property. The fossils—part of a jaw, a partial tusk, two leg bones, a vertebrae, a joint, some teeth, and a partial skull—were verified as belonging to a mastodon by Ron Richards, the senior research curator of paleobiology for the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites. The mastodon, which resembled a wooly mammoth and thrived during the Ice Age, probably stood over 9 feet tall and weighed more than 12,000 pounds.

The owners of the farm, the Nehrt and Schepman families, plan to donate the bones to the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis if the museum committee decides to accept them. Previously, mastodon bones were found in Jackson County in 1928 and 1949. The remains of “Fred the Mastodon” were discovered near Fort Wayne in 1998.

[h/t Louisville Courier Journal]

Middle School Student Discovers Megalodon Tooth Fossil on Spring Break

iStock.com/Mark Kostich
iStock.com/Mark Kostich

A few million years ago, the megalodon was the most formidable shark in the sea, with jaws spanning up to 11 feet wide and a stronger bite than a T. Rex. Today the only things left of the supersized sharks are fossils, and a middle school student recently discovered one on a trip to the beach, WECT reports.

Avery Fauth was spending spring break with her family at North Topsail Beach in North Carolina when she noticed something buried in the sand. She dug it up and uncovered a shark tooth the length of her palm. She immediately knew she had found something special, and screamed to get her family's attention.

Her father recognized the megalodon tooth: He had been searching for one for 25 years and had even taught his three daughters to scour the sand for shark teeth whenever they went to the beach. Avery and her sisters found a few more shark teeth that day from great whites, but her megalodon fossil was by far the most impressive treasure from the outing.

Megalodons dominated seas for 20 million years before suddenly dying out 3 million years ago. They grew between 43 and 82 feet long and had teeth that were up to 7.5 inches long—over twice the size of a great white's teeth. They're thought to be the largest sharks that ever lived.

Megalodon teeth have been discovered on every continent except Antarctica, but they're still a rare find. Avery Fauth plans to keep her fossil in a special box at home.

[h/t WECT]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER