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© Sean McMahon
© Sean McMahon

Scientists Finally Identify the ‘Tully Monster’

© Sean McMahon
© Sean McMahon

It’s all right, everyone. We can breathe easy now, because scientists have finally identified the creature known as the Tully monster. The monster’s fossilized remains have puzzled paleontologists for nearly 60 years, but at last we have an answer. The researchers published their findings today in the journal Nature.

The first Tully monster remains were spotted in Illinois in 1958 by an amateur fossil collector named Francis Tully. What he found was so bizarre and hard to categorize that Tully settled on “monster.” Scientists determined that the Tully monster (now with the scientific name Tullimonstrum gregarium) had oozed or trod or swum the Earth 307 million years ago—240 million years before T. rex. As paleontologists continued to sweep Illinois’s Mazon Creek, where the first fossil was found, they found many, many more.

Holotype fossil. Image credit: © Paul Mayer, The Field Museum

In 1989, T. gregarium became the state fossil of Illinois, despite the fact that nobody really knew what its was. Theories abounded, of course. Most assumed that the Tully monster was a soft-bodied invertebrate, but beyond that there was little agreement. Was it some kind of snail? A worm? A cuttlefish?

No, no, and no. A team of scientists from Chicago’s Field Museum, Yale, the American Museum of Natural History, and Argonne National Laboratory found that the monster was, in fact, a vertebrate: a really, really weird-looking jawless fish somewhat similar to modern lampreys.

They came to this conclusion after reviewing digitized data and x-rays of more than 1200 T. gregarium fossils from the Field Museum’s collection. They determined that the creature was submarine-shaped, with fins, eyestalks, and an extra-long snoot ending in spiky teeth.

Co-authors Scott Lidgard and Paul Mayer both work at the Field Museum. “Mazon Creek is an amazing window into deep time,” Lidgard said in a press statement. “Only a tiny fraction of all the kinds of creatures that have ever existed become fossils, and it’s mostly hard parts like bone and shell that survive to tell the tale. Mazon Creek gives us an extraordinarily clear view of past life, preserving even insects, jellyfish, and the Tully monster. Research like this is a great way of learning where our world today comes from.”

“The Tully monster is a wonderful fossil that captures the imagination of every school kid,” Mayer added. “When I talk to school groups, I used to use the Tully monster as an example of a mystery that paleontologists have been trying to solve ever since it was discovered. Now I’ll have to change my talk and use it as an example that highlights the importance of how amateur paleontologists and researchers from different backgrounds can work together using new technologies and museum collections to solve a mystery.”

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Why Can Parrots Talk and Other Birds Can't?
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If you've ever seen a pirate movie (or had the privilege of listening to this avian-fronted metal band), you're aware that parrots have the gift of human-sounding gab. Their brains—not their beaks—might be behind the birds' ability to produce mock-human voices, the Sci Show's latest video explains below.

While parrots do have articulate tongues, they also appear to be hardwired to mimic other species, and to create new vocalizations. The only other birds that are capable of vocal learning are hummingbirds and songbirds. While examining the brains of these avians, researchers noted that their brains contain clusters of neurons, which they've dubbed song nuclei. Since other birds don't possess song nuclei, they think that these structures probably play a key role in vocal learning.

Parrots might be better at mimicry than hummingbirds and songbirds thanks to a variation in these neurons: a special shell layer that surrounds each one. Birds with larger shell regions appear to be better at imitating other creatures, although it's still unclear why.

Learn more about parrot speech below (after you're done jamming out to Hatebeak).

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Extinct Penguin Species Was the Size of an Adult Human
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A penguin that waddled across the ice 60 million years ago would have dwarfed the king and emperor penguins of today, according to the Associated Press. As indicated by fossils recently uncovered in New Zealand, the extinct species measured 5 feet 10 inches while swimming, surpassing the height of an average adult man.

The discovery, which the authors say is the most complete skeleton of a penguin this size to date, is laid out in a study recently published in Nature Communications. When standing on land, the penguin would have measured 5 feet 3 inches, still a foot taller than today’s largest penguins at their maximum height. Researchers estimated its weight to have been about 223 pounds.

Kumimanu biceae, a name that comes from Maori words for “monster" and "bird” and the name of one researcher's mother, last walked the Earth between 56 million and 60 million years ago. That puts it among the earliest ancient penguins, which began appearing shortly after large aquatic reptiles—along with the dinosaurs—went extinct, leaving room for flightless carnivorous birds to enter the sea.

The prehistoric penguin was a giant, even compared to other penguin species of the age, but it may not have been the biggest penguin to ever live. A few years ago, paleontologists discovered 40-million-year-old fossils they claimed belonged to a penguin that was 6 feet 5 inches long from beak to tail. But that estimate was based on just a couple bones, so its actual size may have varied.

[h/t AP]

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