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Enormous Prehistoric Birds May Have Roamed the Canadian Arctic

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Illustration by Marlin Peterson

An enormous bird terrorized the shrubs of northern Canada around 53 million years ago. Researchers say fossil evidence of the flightless bird Gastornis was found in the Canadian Arctic—much further north than anywhere the creature had been found before. The findings were recently published in the journal Scientific Reports. 

We’ve known about Gastornis for quite some time now, but previous fossils have all been discovered further south, in Wyoming, Europe, and Asia. For many years, paleontologists believed the six-foot-tall bird with a horse-sized head was a carnivore. More recent research suggested that Gastornis’s monstrous beak was used for tearing leaves, nuts, and fruits off of plants. That’s right: this nightmare bird was a vegan. 

Paleontologists found a large, fossilized phalanx (toe bone) on Canada’s Ellesmere Island in the 1970s. The bone looked like it might have belonged to Gastornis, so they recorded it as such, then put it away. The bone lay unexamined for decades until integrative biologist Thomas Stidham and geologist Jaelyn Eberle took an interest. 

“We knew there were a few bird fossils from up there, but we also knew they were extremely rare,” Eberle said in a press release.

So did this toe really belong to Gastornis? Eberle and Stidham compared the Ellesmere Island bone to those found earlier in Wyoming. The bones were not only nearly identical, but very close in age. 

The researchers also took a closer look at an Ellesmere Island humerus (wing bone) assumed to have belonged to the lanky, extinct bird, Presbyornis. That, too, was a match with Presbyornis bones found elsewhere. “I couldn’t tell the Wyoming specimens from the Ellesmere specimen, even though it was found roughly 4000 kilometers (2500 miles) to the north,” Stidham said in the press release. 

As always, it is worth noting that these conclusions were drawn from a single bone of a single animal, and therefore amount to highly educated guesses about what these birds looked like, how they behaved, and what they ate. 

Stidham and Eberle say their findings have implications for climate change. Although Ellesmere Island today is frozen solid, it was likely much warmer during the Eocene Epoch, making it more hospitable for prehistoric reptiles, primates, and birds like Gastornis and Presbyornis. They say that while Gastornis may have lived at Ellesmere throughout the winter, they're not sure whether Presbyronis migrated there or took up residence year-round.  

The Earth is warming again. “Permanent Arctic ice, which has been around for millennia, is on track to disappear,” Eberle said. “I’m not suggesting there will be a return of alligators and giant tortoises to Ellesmere Island any time soon. But what we know about past warm intervals in the Arctic can give us a much better idea about what to expect in terms of changing plant and animal populations there in the future.” 

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

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
Listen to the Impossibly Adorable Sounds of a Baby Sloth
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RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/GettyImages

Sometimes baby sloths seem almost too adorable to be real. But the little muppet-faced treasures don't just look cute—turns out they sound cute, too. We know what you're thinking: How could you have gone your whole life without knowing what these precious creatures sound like? Well, fear not: Just in time for International Sloth Day (today), we have some footage of how the tiny mammals express themselves—and it's a lot of squeaking. (Or maybe that's you squealing?)

The sloths featured in the heart-obliterating video below come from the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica. The institution rescues orphaned sloths, rehabilitates them, and gets them ready to be released back into the wild.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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