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Pelagornis sandersi, the Largest Flying Sea Bird

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Move over, Big Bird. There’s a new feathered giant in town, and this one can actually fly.

Well, it could fly when it was alive. Pelagornis sandersi (Pelagornis S. for short) has been dead for about 25 million years, but we only just identified its remains [PDF].

Fossilized bones from this giant sea bird were originally discovered in South Carolina in 1983 when workers were excavating to create a new terminal for the Charleston International Airport (during the bird’s life, Charleston would have been submerged under 33 feet of water). But the bird wasn’t studied until recently when Dr. Daniel Ksepka, the Curator of Science at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn., got his hands on it.

"This is pushing the boundary of what we know about avian size,” Ksepka said, “and I'm very confident that the wingspan is the largest we've seen in a bird capable of flight."

How large? Pelagornis S. could spread its wings to span about 24 feet. For reference, that’s the width of an official FIFA soccer goal from pole to pole. It belongs to a family of seabirds called Pelagornithids, which lived all over the world and only became extinct about three million years ago. These birds were characterized by the bony teeth on the outside of their beaks, which they used to impale their prey—probably sea snacks like eels and squid.

But this bird weighed close to 50 pounds. How did it take flight? Researchers think it had to get a good, long running start like a hang glider. Once aloft, its long, slender wings prevented drag and helped it ride wind currents for extended periods of time without needing to expel energy by flapping. "I think they just waited on the beach for a strong wind to carry them aloft," Ksepka said.

The previous record holder for longest wingspan—23 feet wide—belonged to the extinct Argentavis magnificens. This bird also had to get a running start because it was too heavy to take flight from a standstill. Today, the title goes to the royal albatross, which spans just 11.5 feet.

Researchers aren’t sure what killed the Pelagornithids, but they hope to find out. “Pelagornithids were like creatures out of a fantasy novel—there is simply nothing like them around today,” Ksepka said [PDF].

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

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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Animals
Watch Christmas Island’s Annual Crab Migration on Google Street View
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Google

Every year, the 45 million or so red crabs on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island migrate en masse from their forest burrows down to the ocean to mate, and so the female crabs can release their eggs into the sea to hatch. The migration starts during the fall, and the number of crabs on the beach often peaks in December. This year, you don’t have to be on Christmas Island to witness the spectacular crustacean event, as New Atlas reports. You can see it on Google Street View.

Watching the sheer density of crabs scuttling across roads, boardwalks, and beaches is a rare visual treat. According to the Google blog, this year’s crabtacular finale is forecasted for December 16, and Parks Australia crab expert Alasdair Grigg will be there with the Street View Trekker to capture it. That is likely to be the day when crab populations on the beaches will be at their peak, giving you the best view of the action.

Crabs scuttle across the forest floor while a man with a Google Street View Trekker walks behind them.
Google

Google Street View is already a repository for a number of armchair travel experiences. You can digitally explore remote locations in Antarctica, recreations of ancient cities, and even the International Space Station. You can essentially see the whole world without ever logging off your computer.

Sadly, because Street View isn’t live, you won’t be able to see the migration as it happens. The image collection won’t be available until sometime in early 2018. But it’ll be worth the wait, we promise. For a sneak preview, watch Parks Australia’s video of the 2012 event here.

[h/t New Atlas]

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