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10 Pterosaur Facts from AMNH's New Exhibit

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AMNH

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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The Real Bay of Pigs: Big Major Cay in the Bahamas
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iStock

When most people visit the Bahamas, they’re thinking about a vacation filled with sun, sand, and swimming—not swine. But you can get all four of those things if you visit Big Major Cay.

Big Major Cay, also now known as “Pig Island” for obvious reasons, is part of the Exuma Cays in the Bahamas. Exuma includes private islands owned by Johnny Depp, Tyler Perry, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, and David Copperfield. Despite all of the local star power, the real attraction seems to be the family of feral pigs that has established Big Major Cay as their own. It’s hard to say how many are there—some reports say it’s a family of eight, while others say the numbers are up to 40. However big the band of roaming pigs is, none of them are shy: Their chief means of survival seems to be to swim right up to boats and beg for food, which the charmed tourists are happy to provide (although there are guidelines about the best way of feeding the pigs).

No one knows exactly how the pigs got there, but there are plenty of theories. Among them: 1) A nearby resort purposely released them more than a decade ago, hoping to attract tourists. 2) Sailors dropped them off on the island, intending to dine on pork once they were able to dock for a longer of period of time. For one reason or another, the sailors never returned. 3) They’re descendants of domesticated pigs from a nearby island. When residents complained about the original domesticated pigs, their owners solved the problem by dropping them off at Big Major Cay, which was uninhabited. 4) The pigs survived a shipwreck. The ship’s passengers did not.

The purposeful tourist trap theory is probably the least likely—VICE reports that the James Bond movie Thunderball was shot on a neighboring island in the 1960s, and the swimming swine were there then.

Though multiple articles reference how “adorable” the pigs are, don’t be fooled. One captain warns, “They’ll eat anything and everything—including fingers.”

Here they are in action in a video from National Geographic:

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Christine Colby
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13 Secrets From the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London
Christine Colby
Christine Colby

Christopher Skaife is a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, an ancient fortress that has been used as a jail, royal residence, and more. There are 37 Yeoman Warders, popularly known as Beefeaters, but Skaife has what might be the coolest title of them all: He is the Ravenmaster. His job is to maintain the health and safety of the flock of ravens (also called an “unkindness” or a “conspiracy”) that live within the Tower walls. According to a foreboding legend with many variations, if there aren’t at least six ravens living within the Tower, both the Tower and the monarchy will fall. (No pressure, Chris!)

Skaife has worked at the Tower for 11 years, and has many stories to tell. Recently, Mental Floss visited him to learn more about his life in service of the ravens.

1. MILITARY SERVICE IS REQUIRED.

All Yeoman Warders must have at least 22 years of military service to qualify for the position and have earned a good-conduct medal. Skaife served for 24 years—he was a machine-gun specialist and is an expert in survival and interrogation resistance. He is also a qualified falconer.

Skaife started out as a regular Yeoman Warder who had no particular experience with birds. The Ravenmaster at the time "saw something in him," Skaife says, and introduced him to the ravens, who apparently liked him—and the rest is history. He did, however, have to complete a five-year apprenticeship with the previous Ravenmaster.

2. HE LIVES ON-SITE.

The Tower of London photographed at night
Christine Colby

As tradition going back 700 years, all Yeoman Warders and their families live within the Tower walls. Right now about 150 people, including a doctor and a chaplain, claim the Tower of London as their home address.

3. BUT HE’S HAD TO MOVE.

Skaife used to live next to the Bloody Tower, but had to move to a different apartment within the grounds because his first one was “too haunted.” He doesn’t really believe in ghosts, he says, but does put stock in “echoes of the past.” He once spoke to a little girl who was sitting near the raven cages, and when he turned around, she had disappeared. He also claims that things in his apartment inexplicably move around, particularly Christmas-related items.

4. THE RAVENS ENJOY SOME UNUSUAL SNACKS.

The Ravenmaster at the Tower of London bending down to feed one of his ravens
Christine Colby

The birds are fed nuts, berries, fruit, mice, rats, chicken, and blood-soaked biscuits. (“And what they nick off the tourists,” Skaife says.) He has also seen a raven attack and kill a pigeon in three minutes.

5. THEY GET A LULLABY.

Each evening, Skaife whistles a special tone to call the ravens to bed—they’re tucked into spacious, airy cages to protect them from predators such as foxes.

6. THERE’S A DIVA.

One of the ravens doesn’t join the others in their nighttime lodgings. Merlina, the star raven, is a bit friendlier to humans but doesn’t get on with the rest of the birds. She has her own private box inside the Queen’s House, which she reaches by climbing a tiny ladder.

7. ONE OF THEM HAS EARNED THE NICKNAME “THE BLACK WIDOW.”

Ravens normally pair off for life, but one of the birds at the Tower, Munin, has managed to get her first two mates killed. With both, she lured them high atop the White Tower, higher than they were capable of flying down from, since their wings are kept trimmed. Husband #1 fell to his death. The second one had better luck coasting down on his wings, but went too far and fell into the Thames, where he drowned. Munin is now partnered with a much younger male.

8. THERE IS A SECRET PUB INSIDE THE TOWER.

Only the Yeoman Warders, their families, and invited guests can go inside a secret pub on the Tower grounds. Naturally, the Yeoman Warder’s Club offers Beefeater Bitter beer and Beefeater gin. It’s lavishly decorated in police and military memorabilia, such as patches from U.S. police departments. There is also an area by the bar where a section of the wall has been dug into and encased in glass, showing items found in an archaeological excavation of the moat, such as soldiers’ discarded clay pipes, a cannonball, and some mouse skeletons.

9. … AND A SECRET HAND.

The Byward Tower, which was built in the 13th century by King Henry III, is now used as the main entrance to the Tower for visitors. It has a secret glass brick set into the wall that most people don’t notice. When you peer inside, you’ll see it contains a human hand (presumably fake). It was put in there at some point as a bit of a joke to scare children, but ended up being walled in from the other side, so is now in there permanently.

10. HE HAS A SIDE PROJECT.

Skaife considers himself primarily a storyteller, and loves sharing tales of what he calls “Victorian melodrama.” In addition to his work at the Tower, he also runs Grave Matters, a Facebook page and a blog, as a collaboration with medical historian and writer Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. Together they post about the history of executions, torture, and punishment.

11. THE TOWER IS MUPPET-FAMOUS.

2013’s Muppets Most Wanted was the first major film to shoot inside the Tower walls. At the Yeoman Warder’s Club, you can still sit in the same booth the Muppets occupied while they were in the pub.

12. IF YOU VISIT, KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR MONEY.

Ravens are very clever and known for stealing things from tourists, especially coins. They will strut around with the coin in their beak and then bury it, while trying to hide the site from the other birds.

13. … AND ON YOUR EYES.

Skaife, who’s covered in scars from raven bites, says, “They don’t like humans at all unless they’re dying or dead. Although they do love eyes.” He once had a Twitter follower, who is an organ donor, offer his eyes to the ravens after his death. Skaife declined.

This story first ran in 2015.

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