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Hannah Keyser

Did Ostriches and Emus Ever Fly?

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Hannah Keyser

Not recently, of course. But what about their ancestors? The question is: Did the flightless birds of today, a family known as Ratites, evolve from flightless birds of yore or did their airborne ancestors lose the ability to fly over the millennia?

Research has shown that ostriches' wings are not just ornamental, but rather help the animals—and some other, if not all large, flightless birds—maintain their balance and maneuver when running at high speeds. This would support the possibility that these seemingly useless wings are not necessarily vestigial and, therefore, that the birds never had the ability to fly.

This fits the long-held hypothesis that Ratites evolved around 200 million years ago when Australia, New Zealand, South America, Africa, Antarctica, Madagascar, and India were merged into a supercontinent known as Gondwana. As shifting tectonic plates broke Gondwana apart, the ancestral giant flightless birds were separated from each other and eventually evolved into the ostriches, emus, and New Zealand’s recently extinct giant moa.

However, one question remained: How do you reconcile an ancient flightless bird with the existence of dinosaurs, who would have made quick work of earth-bound prey? The answer is, you don't. Fossil evidence supported the explanation that Ratites evolved around 65 million years ago, just as the dinosaurs were dying out. But by then, the continents had already broken apart, upending the existing theory that all the contemporary Ratites evolved from the same flightless ancestor.

The author with an ostrich. Can confirm, he did not fly.

More recent research led by Dr. Matthew Phillips, an ARC Postdoctoral Fellow at the ANU Research School of Biology, addressed this issue and found that, in fact, Ratites dispersed across the continents at a time when their wings were used for flight and, from there, independently evolved to be larger and flightless once the extinction of the dinosaurs removed the pressure to escape to higher ground.

“Our study suggests that the flighted ancestors of Ratites appear to have been ground-feeding birds that ran well," Phillips wrote. "So the extinction of the dinosaurs likely lifted predation pressures that had previously selected for flight and its necessary constraint, small size. Lifting of this pressure and more abundant foraging opportunities would then have selected for larger size and consequent loss of flight.”

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FRED TANNEAU/AFP/Getty Images
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Animals
Fisherman Catches Rare Blue Lobster, Donates It to Science
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FRED TANNEAU/AFP/Getty Images

Live lobsters caught off the New England coast are typically brown, olive-green, or gray—which is why one New Hampshire fisherman was stunned when he snagged a blue one in mid-July.

As The Independent reports, Greg Ward, from Rye, New Hampshire, discovered the unusual lobster while examining his catch near the New Hampshire-Maine border. Ward initially thought the pale crustacean was an albino lobster, which some experts estimate to be a one-in-100-million discovery. However, a closer inspection revealed that the lobster's hard shell was blue and cream.

"This one was not all the way white and not all the way blue," Ward told The Portsmouth Herald. "I've never seen anything like it."

While not as rare as an albino lobster, blue lobsters are still a famously elusive catch: It's said that the odds of their occurrence are an estimated one in two million, although nobody knows the exact numbers.

Instead of eating the blue lobster, Ward decided to donate it to the Seacoast Science Center in Rye. There, it will be studied and displayed in a lobster tank with other unusually colored critters, including a second blue lobster, a bright orange lobster, and a calico-spotted lobster.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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Courtesy Murdoch University
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Australian Scientists Discover First New Species of Sunfish in 125 Years
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Courtesy Murdoch University

Scientists have pinpointed a whole new species of the largest bony fish in the world, the massive sunfish, as we learned from Smithsonian magazine. It's the first new species of sunfish proposed in more than 125 years.

As the researchers report in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, the genetic differences between the newly named hoodwinker sunfish (Mola tecta) and its other sunfish brethren was confirmed by data on 27 different samples of the species collected over the course of three years. Since sunfish are so massive—the biggest can weigh as much as 5000 pounds—they pose a challenge to preserve and store, even for museums with large research collections. Lead author Marianne Nyegaard of Murdoch University in Australia traveled thousands of miles to find and collected genetic data on sunfish stranded on beaches. At one point, she was asked if she would be bringing her own crane to collect one.

Nyegaard also went back through scientific literature dating back to the 1500s, sorting through descriptions of sea monsters and mermen to see if any of the documentation sounded like observations of the hoodwinker. "We retraced the steps of early naturalists and taxonomists to understand how such a large fish could have evaded discovery all this time," she said in a press statement. "Overall, we felt science had been repeatedly tricked by this cheeky species, which is why we named it the 'hoodwinker.'"

Japanese researchers first detected genetic differences between previously known sunfish and a new, unknown species 10 years ago, and this confirms the existence of a whole different type from species like the Mola mola or Mola ramsayi.

Mola tecta looks a little different from other sunfish, with a more slender body. As it grows, it doesn't develop the protruding snout or bumps that other sunfish exhibit. Similarly to the others, though, it can reach a length of 8 feet or more. 

Based on the stomach contents of some of the specimens studied, the hoodwinker likely feeds on salps, a jellyfish-like creature that it probably chomps on (yes, sunfish have teeth) during deep dives. The species has been found near New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and southern Chile.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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