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6 Prehistoric Body Parts You Don’t See Anymore

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Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes the sheer wonder of the natural world can be overwhelming. So, at the risk of oversimplifying the following crazy-cool animals, allow us to highlight their most unusual structural features. You may find yourself wondering why these body parts haven’t been around in many, many millenia.

1. Anvil Fin - Stethacanthus

In most ways, Stethacanthus (above) probably looked like any of your average early sharks. Except, that is, for its bizarre anvil-shaped dorsal fin (sometimes described as an “ironing board”). Equally nonsensical is the rough patch of sharp, tooth-shaped scales atop the anvil/ironing board, and a second scaly patch on the top of its head which, like the anvil, seems pretty un-hydrodynamic.

At five to six feet long, Stethacanthus was among the smaller prehistoric sharks, and scientists have theorized that the weird dorsal shape might have served to mimic a huge mouth to deter would-be predators or competitors. But Stethacanthus wasn’t a very dynamic hunter, and probably stayed in shallower, coastal waters, feeding on small fish and crustaceans. More likely, the fin, the scales, and a pair of long, thin “whips” trailing from its sides have something to do with mating displays, as they’re only found on males of the genus.

2. Circular “Saw” Jaw - Helicoprion

Ray Troll

Helicoprion, a giant, shark-like “ratfish,” was host to one of the most notoriously baffling body parts ever discovered: a circular set of teeth that scientists now believe resembled a buzzsaw upended in the fish’s lower jaw. Back in 1899, scientist Alexander Karpinsky was left guessing after he discovered Helicoprion’s whirlygig of teeth sans the rest of the fish. For years, scientists and enthusiastic illustrators traded guesses as to how the teeth fit into an entire animal, which would prove to have reached lengths of 25 feet. They knew Helicoprion replaced its teeth intermittently, much like modern sharks, but it didn’t seem to share other sharky characteristics. The specifics of Helicoprion’s tooth replacement evaded them until earlier this year, when a team of Idaho State paleontologists pinned down the (still totally weird) mouth-mechanism seen here.

3. Tail Club - Ankylosaur

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Most dino-inclined kids are well aware of the concept of the “tail club”: a tail which ends in a massive knob of bone and ossified tissue, good for defending against attackers, competing for mates, and knocking around whatever needs knocking around. Paleobiologist Victoria Arbour recently utilized CT scans to digitally reconstruct the muscles of the Ankylosaur’s tail club, allowing her to estimate the force with which the tail could smash. Her conclusions: Tail clubs with large “knobs” could break bone. Smaller-knobbed tail clubs, though, could do some lesser damage, leaving open the question as to whether tail clubs were more for offense, defense, or show. You know Ankylosaurs and their knob comparing.

4. “Baleen” Teeth - Pterodaustro

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And speaking of size, Pterodaustro had the longest rostrum (snout) of any pterosaur, but its bottom teeth were truly the weirdest. Set in scooping underbite, its teeth were so long and skinny that they were all rooted a single, long groove in the bottom jaw instead of individual sockets. The overall effect is reminiscent of the baleen in modern whales, leading paleontologists to believe that Pterodaustro fed much in the same way, scooping up mouthfuls of muck from the shallows and filtering away the water to munch on what was left.

In modern whales, baleen is made out of keratin and is therefore more like hair than teeth, and for some time, scientists believed Pterodaustro’s teeth were composed of a similar protein. But closer inspection revealed microscopic evidence of real, toothy characteristics: enamel, dentine, and pulp cavities.

Here’s an hilarious and slightly outdated illustration of Pterodaustro in a synth rock video, for some reason.

5.  The Ol’ Single Claw - Mononykus

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Named for the Latin Mono-, meaning “one,” and nykus, meaning “nail or claw,” Mononykus olecranus is a dinosaur best known for having only one claw on each of its puny forelimbs. And you thought T. rex had it bad.

Scientists have entertained many competing theories over the years as to the behavior of Mononykus olecranus, whose forelimbs would have been fairly useless for hunting or even grazing. The supposed presence of a birdlike chest ridge had many scientists believing M. olecranus may have been a winged but flightless bird. But a 2005 study examining range of motion in those stubby forearms decisively concluded that M. olecranus would have used its claws to scratch into insect nests and scoop out food. In this way, Mononykus’ single claw is analogous to modern animals with similar diets like anteaters and pangolins, though their claw count isn’t quite so minimalist.

6. Shoulder Spikes - Gigantspinosaurus

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With one of the most satisfying names in taxonomy, this dino is named after the gigantic spikes that were situated on his shoulders. Exactly how they were situated on those shoulders (and therefore their exact purpose) is yet unknown, though it’s reasonable to guess that they were used for displaying and/or competing for mates. And before you ask, Gigantspinosaurus is indeed a stegosaur, just one of several members of the genus Stegosaurus. Another of Gigantspinosaurus’ close relatives, Kentrosaurus, may have had similar spikes on its shoulders, or possibly on its hips (on this spike-placement question, the jurassic jury’s still out). But Gigantspinosaurus appropriately maintains the record of largest shoulder spikes in prehistory.

A very special thanks to our good friend, prehistorian Brian Switek, for lending his expert eye to this piece!

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25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog
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According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E
New Smithsonian Exhibit Explains Why Felines Were the Cat's Meow in Ancient Egypt
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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E

From bi-coastal cat cafes to celebrity pets like Lil Bub, felines are currently enjoying a peak moment in popular culture. That’s part of the reason why curators at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—which will re-open to visitors on Saturday, October 14, following a 3-month closure—decided to dedicate a new exhibition to ancient Egypt’s relationship with the animals.

Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” looks at the cultural and religious importance of cats, which the Egyptians appreciated long before YouTube was a thing and #caturday was a hashtag. It's based on a traveling exhibition that began at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. On view until January 15, 2018, it's one of several exhibits that will kick off the grand reopening of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, the conjoined national museums of Asian and Middle Eastern Art.

The Freer has been closed since January 2016 for major renovations, and the Sackler since July 2016 for minor ones. The upgraded institutions will make their public debut on October 14, and be feted by a free two-day festival on the National Mall.

Featuring 80 artworks and relics, ranging from figurines of leonine deities to the tiny coffins of beloved pets, "Divine Felines" even has a cat mummy on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. These objects span from the Middle Kingdom (2008 to 1630 BCE) to the Byzantine period (395 to 642 CE).

An ancient Egyptian metal weight shaped like a cat, dating back to 305 to 30 BCE, on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Weight in Form of a Cat, 305 to 30 BCE, Bronze, silver, lead
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

The term “cat” is used loosely, as the Egyptians celebrated domestic mousers and fearsome predators alike.

“The Egyptians were close observers of nature, so they were observing cat behaviors,” Antonietta Catanzariti, the exhibition's in-house curator, tells Mental Floss. “They noticed that cats and lions— in general, felines—have aggressive and protective aspects, so they associated those attributes to deities.”

The ancient Egyptians viewed their gods as humans, animals, or mixed forms. Several of these pantheon members were both associated with and depicted as cats, including Bastet, the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and protection; and Sakhmet, the goddess of war and—when appeased—healing. She typically has a lion head, but in some myths she appears as a pacified cat.

A limestone sculptor's model of a walking lion, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Sculptor's Model of a Walking Lion, ca. 664 to 630 BCE, limestone
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 33.190

While Bastet was a nurturer, Sakhmet—whose name means “The Powerful One”—could use her mighty force to either slay or safeguard humanity. These characterizations are typical of the ancient Egyptian worldview, which perceived the universe in dualistic terms. “There’s always a positive and a negative,” Catanzariti explains.

Contrary to popular belief, however, ancient Egyptians did not view cats themselves as gods. “The goddess Sakhmet does have the features as a lion, or in some cases as a cat, but that doesn’t mean that the Egyptians were worshipping cats or lions,” Catanzariti says. Instead, they were simply noting and admiring her feline traits. This practice, to an extent, also extended to royalty. Kings were associated with lions and other large cats, as they were the powerful protectors of ancient Egypt’s borders.

These myriad associations prompted Egyptians to adorn palaces, temples, protective amulets, ceremonial vessels, and accessories with cat images. Depending on their context, these renderings symbolized everything from protection and power to beauty and sexuality. A king’s throne might have a lion-shaped support, for example, whereas a woman’s cosmetics case might be emblazoned with a cat-headed female goddess of motherhood and fertility.

An ancient Egyptian figurine of a standing lion-headed goddess, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Figurine of a Standing Lion-Headed Goddess, 664 to 630 BCE, Faience
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.943E

While cats were linked with heavenly figures and kings, they were also popular domestic pets. Their ability to catch vermin made them an important addition to households, and owners loved and anthropomorphized their pets just like we do today.

Egyptians often named, or nicknamed, their children after animals; Miit (cat) was a popular moniker for girls. It's said that entire households shaved their eyebrows in mourning if a house cat died a natural death. Some also believe that cats received special legal protection. (Not all cats were this lucky, however, as some temples bred kittens specifically to offer their mummified forms to the gods.) If a favorite cat died, the Egyptians would bury them in special decorated coffins, containers, and boxes. King Tutankhamen, for example, had a stone sarcophagus constructed just for his pet feline.

An ancient Egyptian bronze cat head adorned with gold jewelry, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Cat's Head, 30 BCE. to third century CE, bronze, gold
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

“Divine Felines” breaks down these facts, and more, into five thematic sections, including “Cats and Kings"; “Cats and Gods”; “Cats and Death”; “Cats and Protection”; and “Dogs as Guardians and Hunters.” Yes, there’s also an exhibition section for dog lovers—“a small one,” Catanzariti laughs, that explains why canines were associated with figures like Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife.

Did the ancient Egyptians prefer cats to dogs? “I would say that both of them had different roles,” Catanzariti says, as dogs were valued as hunters, scavengers, and guards. “They were appreciated in different ways for their ability to protect or be useful for the Egyptian culture.” In this way, "Divine Felines" is targeted to ailurophiles and canophiliacs alike, even if it's packaged with pointed ears and whiskers.

An ancient Egyptian cat coffin, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Coffin for a Cat, 664 to 332 BCE, or later, Wood, gesso, paint, animal remains
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1944Ea-b


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