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10 Pterosaur Facts from AMNH's New Exhibit

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For a long time, scientists didn't know much about pterosaurs; it was tough to even find fossils of the creatures, since only a tiny fraction died in places where their bones could be preserved. But now, the time is ripe for an exhibition of pterosaurs, says Mark Norell, chair of the American Museum of Natural History's Paleontology Division. "We've learned a lot recently about pterosaurs," he tells mental_floss, "and nobody's ever done an exhibition before."

Norell is one of the curators of the museum's new exhibition, Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of the Dinosaurs, which opens on Saturday. He prepped by creating a wish list of pterosaur fossils and casts, which he got by exchanging some of the museum's fossil casts and things he'd excavated with museum curators around the world. There were items Norell knew he needed to have for this exhibition: "There's the unique pterosaur embryo. We had to have the eudimorphodon, which is the pterosaur from Italy. We had to have dimorphodon from The National History Museum of London. I really wanted to get Dark Wing," top, a fossil discovered in Germany in 2001 that's so well-preserved scientists were able to see details of the wing structure.

The exhibition doesn't just have fossils; scientists also built full-sized models of different pterosaurs and created interactive programs that allow visitors to fly like the creatures. Here's what we learned from an early tour.

1. Pterosaurs weren’t dinosaurs. In fact, that’s the main myth that Norell wants to dispel. Pterosaurs were cousins of the dinosaurs that evolved from a land-dwelling reptile. They were the first animals after insects to evolve powered flight, and the largest creatures ever to fly.

2. The animals varied widely in size, according to Norell: “They range from Nemicolopterus cryptus, which is about the size of a finch, to Quetzalcoatlus northropi,” above, which had a wingspan of more than 33 feet. So far, more than 150 species of pterosaurs have been discovered, and scientists believe there were probably thousands more.

3. Scientists once imagined many ways that pterosaurs might move on land—including upside down in trees, like sloths, or hopping and running on two feet, like birds—but recently discovered fossil tracks suggest that pterosaurs walked on all fours, folding up their wings like umbrellas.

4. Listen up, producers of Jurassic World: If you're going to put pterosaurs in your movie, make sure they've got a little fuzz. New research has revealed that pterosaurs were actually fluffy, which means they were probably warm-blooded, like bats and birds.

5. Scientists aren’t really sure what pterosaurs used their crests for, but they do have some theories: species recognition, sexual selection, cooling, and steering. But Michael Habib, Assistant Professor of Cell and Neurobiology at the University of Southern California and an expert on pterosaur flight who participated in the exhibition, thinks that last one is unlikely, based on tests scientists have performed on model pterosaur heads in wind tunnels. “In order to get [the crests] into a position where they really help at all—for the few crests that could produce useful force in that regard—you had to put the head and neck into really awkward positions that were potentially damaging to the animal,” Habib says. “That also matches what we see in terms of the anatomy, if that is true. If they were used for some other functions—say, a display function—you'd expect the crest would sometimes be very large, and they would be highly variable in the shape. Sure enough, they’re all over the place. They don't seem to particularly correlate with wing shape and structure at all. And that speaks strongly against any kind of aerodynamic function.” That doesn’t mean the crests wouldn’t have an aerodynamic effect; in fact, they’d increase drag. “They would be costly,” Habib says. “But a lot of display structure is costly.”

6. Their eggs were soft-shelled, and only a few have been found so far. (Dinosaurs, by comparison, laid hard-shelled eggs.) By the time a pterosaur hatched, its wings were fully formed; it probably could have taken off shortly after it hatched. Though scientists once imagined pterosaurs caring for their young in nests, they now believe the young hatchlings were on their own from the start.

7. Pterosaur bones were hollow, with walls as thin as playing cards. Like bird's bones, they were strengthened by internal struts. By comparing pterosaur and bird brain casts, scientists have determined that the creatures' brains were similar in certain ways—both had well developed regions for vision and balance, which are important in flying. 

8. Pterosaurs lived from 220 million years ago to 66 million years ago, when they were wiped out with the non-avian dinosaurs.


Photo by Erin McCarthy

9. The first pterosaur discovered and described was Pterodactylus Antiquus (above). It was acquired by a German ruler in the late 1700s and kept in a Wunderkammer, or Curiosity Cabinet; the specimen was eventually named by French naturalist Georges Cuvier, who correctly identified it as a flying reptile, in 1809. (Ptero-dactyle means “wing finger.”) And the discoveries keep coming today: Norell and some colleagues have discovered parts of a new pterosaur that they think is around 15 percent bigger than Quetzalcoatlus 

10. Pterosaurs' closest living relatives are two vastly different animals: Crocodiles and birds. 

All photos courtesy of AMNH unless otherwise noted.

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Animals
14 Fascinating Facts About Foxes
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Foxes live on every continent except Antarctica and thrive in cities, towns, and rural settings. But despite being all around us, they’re a bit of a mystery. Here’s more about this elusive animal.

1. Foxes Are Solitary.

Foxes are part of the Canidae family, which means they’re related to wolves, jackals, and dogs. They’re medium-sized, between 7 and 15 pounds, with pointy faces, lithe frames, and bushy tails. But unlike their relatives, foxes are not pack animals. When raising their young, they live in small families—called a “leash of foxes” or a “skulk of foxes”—in underground burrows. Otherwise, they hunt and sleep alone.

2. Foxes Have A Lot In Common With Cats.

Like the cat, the fox is most active after the sun goes down. In fact, it has vertically oriented pupils that allow it to see in dim light. It even hunts in a similar manner to a cat, by stalking and pouncing on its prey.

And that’s just the beginning of the similarities. Like the cat, the fox has sensitive whiskers and spines on its tongue. It walks on its toes, which accounts for its elegant, cat-like tread. And—get this—many foxes have retractable claws that allow them to climb rooftops or trees. Some foxes even sleep in trees—just like cats.

3. The Red Fox Is The Most Common Fox.

The red fox has the widest geographical range of any animal in the order Carnivora. While its natural habitat is a mixed landscape of scrub and woodland, its flexible diet allows it to adapt to many environments. As a result, its range is the entire Northern Hemisphere, from the Arctic Circle to North Africa to Central America to the Asiatic steppes. It’s also in Australia, where it’s considered an invasive species.

4. Foxes Use The Earth’s Magnetic Field.

Like a guided missile, the fox harnesses the earth’s magnetic field to hunt. Other animals, like birds, sharks, and turtles, have this “magnetic sense,” but the fox is the first one we’ve discovered that uses it to catch prey.

According to New Scientist, the fox can see the earth’s magnetic field as a “ring of shadow” on its eyes that darkens as it heads towards magnetic north. When the shadow and the sound the prey is making line up, it’s time to pounce. Here’s the fox in action:

5. Foxes Are Good Parents.

Foxes reproduce once a year. Litters range from one to 11 pups (the average is six), which are born blind and don’t open their eyes until nine days after birth. During that time, they stay with the vixen (female) in the den while the dog (male) brings them food. They live with their parents until they're seven months old. The vixen protects her pups with surprising loyalty. Recently, a fox pup was caught in a trap in England for two weeks, but survived because its mother brought it food every day.

6. The Smallest Fox Weighs Under 3 Pounds.

Roughly the size of a kitten, the fennec fox has elongated ears and a creamy coat. It lives in the Sahara Desert, where it sleeps during the day to protect it from the searing heat. Its ears not only allow it to hear prey, they also radiate body heat, which keeps the fox cool. Its paws are covered with fur so that the fox can walk on hot sand, like it’s wearing snowshoes.

7. Foxes Are Playful.

Foxes are known to be friendly and curious. They play among themselves as well as with other animals like cats and dogs. They love balls, which they frequently steal from golf courses.

Although foxes are wild animals, their relationship with humans goes way back. In 2011, researchers opened a grave in a 16,500-year-old cemetery in Jordan to find the remains of a man and his pet fox. This was 4000 years before the first-known human and dog were buried together.

8. You Can Buy A Pet Fox.

In the 1960s, a Soviet geneticist named Dmitry Belyaev bred thousands of foxes before achieving a domesticated fox. Unlike a tame fox, which has learned to tolerate humans, a domesticated fox is docile toward people from birth. Today, you can buy a pet fox for $9000, according to Fast Company. They’re reportedly curious and sweet-tempered, although inclined to dig in your furniture.

9. Arctic Foxes Don’t Shiver Until –70 degrees Celsius.

The arctic fox, which lives in the northernmost areas of the hemisphere, can handle cold better than most animals on earth. It doesn’t even get cold until –70 degrees Celsius. Its white coat also camouflages it against predators. As the seasons change, the coat changes too, turning brown or gray so the fox can blend in with the rocks and dirt of the tundra.

10. Fox Hunting Continues To Be Controversial.

Perhaps because of the fox’s ability to decimate a chicken coop, in the 16th century, fox hunting became a popular activity in Britain. In the 19th century, the upper classes turned fox hunting into a formalized sport where a pack of hounds and men on horseback chase a fox until it is killed. Today, whether to ban fox hunting continues to be a controversial subject in the UK. Currently, fox hunting with dogs is not allowed.

11. The Fox Appears Throughout Folklore.

Examples include: the nine-tail fox from various Asian cultures; the Reynard tales from medieval Europe; the sly trickster fox from Native American lore; and Aesop’s “The Fox and the Crow.” The Finnish believed a fox made the Northern Lights by running in the snow so that its tail swept sparks into the sky. From this, we get the phrase “fox fires.”

12. Bat-eared Foxes Listen For Insects.

The bat-eared fox is aptly named, not just because of its 5-inch ears, but because of what it uses those ears for—like the bat, it listens for insects. On a typical night, the fox walks along the African Savannah, listening, until it hears the scuttle of prey. Although the fox eats a variety of insects and lizards, most of its diet is made up of termites. In fact, the bat-eared fox often makes its home in termite mounds, which it usually cleans out of inhabitants before moving in.

13. Darwin Discovered A Fox Species.

During his voyage on the Beagle, Charles Darwin collected a fox that today is unimaginatively called Darwin’s Fox. This small gray fox is critically endangered and lives in just two spots in the world: One population is on Island of Chiloé in Chile, and the second is in a Chilean national park. The fox’s greatest threats are unleashed domestic dogs that carry diseases like rabies.

14. Foxes Sound Like This.

Foxes make 40 different sounds, some of which you can listen to here. The most startling is the scream:

Pleasant dreams!

All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise stated.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Love Scratching Furniture?
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Allergy suffering aside, cat ownership has proven health benefits. A feline friend can aid in the grieving process, reduce anxiety, and offer companionship.

The con in the cat column? They have no reservations about turning your furniture into shredded pleather. No matter how expensive your living room set, these furry troublemakers will treat it with the respect accorded to a college futon. Do cats do this out of some kind of spite? Are they conspiring with Raymour & Flanigan to get you to keep updating home decor?

Neither. According to cat behaviorists, cats gravitate toward scratching furniture mostly because that love seat is in a really conspicuous area [PDF]. As a result, cats want to send a message to any other animal that may happen by: namely, that this plush seating belongs to the cat who marked it. Scratching provides both visual evidence (claw marks) as well as a scent marker. Cat paws have scent glands that can leave smells that are detectable to other cats and animals.

But it’s not just territorial: Cats also scratch to remove sloughed-off nail tips, allowing fresh nail growth to occur. And they can work out their knotted back muscles—cramped from sleeping 16 hours a day, no doubt—by kneading the soft foam of a sectional.

If you want to dissuade your cat from such behavior, purchasing a scratching post is a good start. Make sure it’s non-carpeted—their nails can get caught on the fibers—and tall enough to allow for a good stretch. Most importantly, put it near furniture so cats can mark their hangout in high-traffic areas. A good post might be a little more expensive, but will likely result in fewer trips to Ethan Allen.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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