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Wikimedia Commons

6 Winners and Losers of Globe Making

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes it’s good to be a little fish in a big pond—especially if you’re a municipality yearning for recognition on a mapmaker's globe.

It’s easy to miss the cut if your metropolis juts up against another, larger megalopolis, or a capital city. Or perhaps your hometown falls right in the path of a big, bold continent label. In either case, you might never locate your home, no matter how many libraries you visit.

At the other end of the scale are the obscure cities in the sparsely populated expanses of eastern Siberia, northern Africa, northern Canada and most of Australia. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, globe makers abhor empty space on their spherical canvas. With the choice between placing another dot on the map or leaving the space empty, globe makers tend to err on the side of more detail.

Here are a series of tiny towns you'll see on nearly every globe you can find—and some major cities that are almost always left off.

Small Towns on Nearly Every Globe

1. Oodnadatta, SA, Australia

Fewer than 300 residents. Abandoned by the railroad. Accessible only via hundreds of miles of unpaved roads. And on just about any globe you can find.

Why it makes an appearance is no mystery: There’s nothing else there. A sign on the Pink Roadhouse, a gathering place for locals and tourists alike, proclaims the town to be “the driest town, the driest state, of the driest continent.” Although the town was formerly a stop on the narrow gauge Central Australian Railway, stretching from Darwin in the north to Adelaide in the south, the town was bypassed by the new standard gauge railway in 1981.

2. Montpelier, VT, United States

If there’s one hard-and-fast rule of globe making, it’s this: When it comes to capital cities, size doesn’t matter. Montpelier, with fewer than 8000 residents, is the smallest capital in the United States. It’s less than 60 percent of the size of the next smallest capital (Pierre, SD).

In addition to being committed to rote memory by every elementary school student in America, Montpelier is also well known for something it doesn’t have—it’s the only state capital in the United States without a McDonald’s.

3. Any City in Greenland

Seriously, any of them. The capital, Nuuk, is home to fewer than 17,000 residents. After that, the next-largest city is under 6000. In all, there are just 13 towns in Greenland with more than 1000 residents, and all of them are on the coastline.

Depending on the age of your globe, you might find an entirely different set of municipal names. Following the establishment of the Greenland Home Rule government in 1979, names of Danish origin were changed to names derived from the three Inuit languages spoken in Greenland.

Huge Cities That Miss the Cut

4. Shenzhen, China

The world’s 11th most populous city is rarely seen on large-scale maps, let alone globes. But its lack of notoriety is through no fault of its own. With over 10.5 million residents in the city proper, Shenzhen would be in the upper third of national populations, falling in line between Greece and Rwanda. Shenzhen’s misfortune is to be located across the river from Hong Kong—a city with 3.4 million fewer residents.

Shenzhen and Hong Kong built each other in the latter half of the 20th century—Shenzhen as the manufacturing hub providing goods to the West, and British Hong Kong as the capitalist trade and financial center tapping directly into communist China’s factories and labor. In the world’s eye, though, Hong Kong wins out. The Globalization and World Cities Research Network labels Hong Kong as an Alpha+ City, where its larger neighbor to the north is deemed merely Beta-.

5. Louisville, Kentucky, United States

The largest city in Kentucky is the focus of the horseracing world each May, but good luck finding its location on a standard globe. Despite 610,000 residents within city limits, Louisville is usually the largest American city regularly missing the cut on globes.

There's a perfect storm working against the Derby City. Globe makers place higher importance on capitals (even state and provincial capitals) than population. Frankfort, with barely more than 25,000 residents, elbows its way to the front of the line. Meanwhile, the Ohio River, connecting the Rust Belt with the Mississippi, needs to be labeled somewhere in its relatively short run. Doing that in southern Ohio would make sense, if labels for Cincinnati and the state’s capital, Columbus, weren’t taking up space. More often than not, the northern border of Kentucky is the landing place for the river’s label, and Louisville finishes out of the money.

6. Dortmund, Germany

Dortmund may not be the first name that comes to mind when thinking of German cities—it may not even be in your top ten. But it’s the largest city in the Ruhrgebiet, Germany’s largest urban agglomeration and home to more than one out of ten Germans.

Most globes are designed with an eye toward relaying discrete units of information: nations, provinces, cities, rivers, and oceans. When cities grow together to form conurbations like the Ruhrgebiet, the whole may be greater than the sum of each part—even though none of the component cities are significant enough to appear on a standard classroom globe.

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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