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Illustration by Henrik Grönvold via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Illustration by Henrik Grönvold via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Science Explains This Duck’s Rare Pink Feathers

Illustration by Henrik Grönvold via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Illustration by Henrik Grönvold via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As anyone who’s ever seen a peacock or a hummingbird can attest, birds are some of this planet’s most magnificent inhabitants. Their feathers are highly specialized and often dazzling. Scientists have a good idea about the ways many of those beautiful feathers came about, but others remain a mystery. Now, at least, one feather question has been answered. In a paper published this week in the journal The Auk: Ornithological Advances, researchers explain the source of the pink-headed duck’s lovely coloring.

Figuring this out was more complicated than you might think. As far as ornithologists can tell, the pink-headed duck (Rhodonessa caryophyllacea) has been extinct for decades. The last living bird was seen in India in 1949. This is a blow to biodiversity, for sure, but it also makes it pretty hard to study the species. While some museums have taxidermic specimens in their collections, they’d generally prefer that those specimens remain intact. It’s the same puzzle facing scholars of ancient manuscripts: The objects of study are both scarce and fragile. Nobody wants to destroy a manuscript or a rare specimen just to find out what makes it tick. 

So zoologists Daniel Thomas and Helen James got creative. They scanned a preserved pink-headed duck from the Smithsonian Institution using a technique called Raman spectroscopy. Raman spectroscopy is a pretty simple process in which scientists shine a laser on their sample and analyze the way the light scatters. 

The pink-headed duck gave up its secrets under laser light. The bird’s rosy head feathers were colored by carotenoids, a type of naturally occurring pigment. Carotenoids are responsible for the pink in flamingo feathers and the red of a cardinal’s wing, but such colors are nearly nonexistent in the duck family. In fact, there’s only one other pink-feathered species of waterfowl: the pink-eared duck (Malacorhynchus membranaceus).

"Working with the pink-headed duck specimen was an incredible privilege," Thomas said in a press statement. "While the extinction of the pink-headed duck has not been explicitly confirmed, it has sadly not been seen alive now for many decades. The duck specimen was a physical and somber reminder of extinction, but I was grateful that the study skin had been preserved in the collections at the Smithsonian Institution. This gave us an opportunity to make new natural history discoveries that emphasize the value of other living species." 

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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
Google
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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