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10 Unfurled Facts About Frilled Dragons

Flamboyant and reclusive in equal measure, this iconic lizard can bluff like a poker champion. Here’s a brief introduction to the weird world of frilled dragons.

1. THEY’RE TREE DWELLERS.

Frilled dragons are native to the semiarid forests and grassy woodlands of northern Australia and southern New Guinea, and if you know what you’re looking for, the lizards can be easy to spot: Just look to the trees, where the creatures spend 90 percent of their lives. Frilled dragons press themselves vertically against a trunk and tend to stick their necks out at a 45-degree angle, making the lizards quite recognizable from afar. Once a predator wanders by, the dragon rests its chin against the bark, its gray-to-brown scales acting as camouflage.

2. WHEN UNFURLED, THE FRILL CAN BE A FOOT WIDE.

Like many lizards, frilled dragons have an insect-based diet supplemented with the occasional rodent or small reptile. But mealtime can be perilous. Though they spend much of their time safe in trees, hunting generally takes place on solid ground, where the dragons have a greater risk of getting hunted themselves. In the face of danger, a dragon’s first instinct is to either bolt toward the nearest tree or lie motionless. But if neither seems like an option, the reptile fights back with an underrated tool: deception.

The frilled dragon is named after the twin frills on either side of its head, which flare open when something invades the animal’s personal space. Ideally, this bluff will make the lizard appear twice as large as it truly is. From nose tip to tail tip, adult frilled dragons have a maximum length of 33 inches, but their foot-wide frill helps them look much, much bigger.

To enhance the performance, our dragon may hiss, rear up on two legs, and run at the marauder. Of course, some onlookers don’t buy this charade. If its big show doesn’t scare away the audience, the lizard will take off.

3. OPENING THE FRILL REQUIRES OPENING THE MOUTH.

Your tongue has an anchor called the hyoid bone, a small, u-shaped structure atop the Adam’s apple. Frilled dragons have two. They're long and rod-like. By flexing the muscles connected to these hyoids, a dragon can expand or contract its frill. For anatomical reasons, it can only pull off the frill-opening motion while also widening its jaws.

4. THEY’RE SOMETIMES CALLED “BICYCLE LIZARDS.”

It’s a cute nickname that’s inspired by the way frilled dragons run. When the reptiles rear up on their hind legs and zip around in bipedal fashion, they wheel both legs in a broad, circular motion.

Plenty of other saurians are known to move like this once in a while; when the big-headed, North American collared lizard does so, it almost looks like a miniature T. rex. Meanwhile, the basilisks of Central and South America are also called “Jesus Christ lizards” because they can stand up and run across bodies of water.

Why do lizards like frilled dragons rear up to run instead of cruising along on all fours? To find out, in 2008 an international research team set up a reptile gymnasium. They gathered specimens that represented 16 different types of semi-bipedal lizard, including the frilled dragon. Afterward, the team placed their subjects on miniature treadmills.

Footage of those workouts revealed surprising results. Apparently, the bipedal running style is less energy efficient than its quadrupedal alternative. However, many of the species they tested were able to accelerate faster on two legs than on four. In nature, a quick first step can be critical. 

5. AUSTRALIAN CURRENCY USED TO FEATURE FRILLED DRAGONS.

Introduced in 1966, the 2-cent coin remained in circulation until 1992. On the front was a profile of Queen Elizabeth II; on the back, a frilled dragon with its tail curling and mouth agape. These coins became a huge collectors item … in Japan. After the lizard featured in a Japanese TV ad in the mid-'80s, sales of the coin skyrocketed to 20,000 to 30,000 a day with 2-cent coins going for 43 cents (100 yen) each.

6. THE FRILLS COME IN MANY COLORS.

In Queensland, the lizards usually have yellow or whitish frills, while those that live in Western Australia and the North Territory have red and orange ones instead. According to Thomas Merkling of Australian National University (ANU), certain insects contain pigments that can alter the shade of a lizard’s frill. If these prey items are consumed regularly, the appendages will become darker in color.

On top of looking great, vibrant colors might offer a combat advantage. In 2013, scientists from ANU and Macquaire University (MU) examined numerous fights between male dragons. They found that in 90 percent of these squabbles, victory went to the lizard whose frill was brighter. “Surprisingly, traits such as frill size, head size, and bite force did not predict contest outcome,” said MU biologist Martin Whiting. “Instead, males with brighter and more colorful frills were more likely to dominate opponents and take gold.”

7. IN VICTORIAN TIMES, THE DRAGONS WERE ROPED INTO AN EVOLUTIONARY DEBATE.

Sometimes known as “Darwin’s bulldog,” Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895) was a passionate defender of evolutionary theory. A respected anatomist, he was among the first scientists to ever suggest that there might be a link between birds and reptiles.

Huxley found a supporter in Johan Ludwig Gerard Krefft (1830–1881). In 1870, Krefft—then the curator of Australia’s National Museum—told the Sydney Morning Herald that he’d written Huxley about the frilled dragon, describing it as “a lizard which would squat on its hind legs, and even hop in a manner not unlike a bird.” Could this species help prove Huxley’s hunch?

Huxley asked another scientist to investigate further.Huxley’s recruit was marine biologist William Saville-Kent (1845-1908). After scrutinizing the anatomy and behavior of the lizard, Saville-Kent concluded that neither its skeleton nor habits were all that bird-like—much to his own disappointment. Still, history has vindicated Huxley: A tidal wave of evidence now indicates that our feathered friends are descended from those most celebrated of reptiles, the dinosaurs.

8. NEST TEMPERATURES DICTATE THE SEX OF UNBORN HATCHLINGS.

Eggs kept at 26°C overwhelmingly yield female babies, while clutches that are continuously exposed to a temperature of 29°C produce males and females in about equal measure. Biologists call this phenomenon temperature-dependent sex determination, or TSD. It’s something that a great many reptiles—including alligators and red-eared slider turtles—have to contend with.

9. FRILLED DRAGONS BELONG TO AN EXTREMELY DIVERSE GROUP.

The agamid family includes more than 350 species that come in every oddball shape you could ask for. Consider, for example, the aptly-named “flying dragons,” which use their elongated ribs and specialized skin flaps to glide between trees. Australia’s thorny devils are burrowing, color-changing ant-gobblers that are covered with spikes. Over in the Philippines, you may encounter a gang of large, semiaquatic omnivores known as sailfin lizards. And pet stores all over the world now stock the ever-popular bearded dragons. When threatened, these little creatures expand a pouch on the underside of their throat that’s covered in tiny spines.  Fortunately, captive-bred “beardies” tend to be quite docile.

10. THEY INFLUENCED ONE OF JURASSIC PARK’S MUTANT DINOSAURS.

Never underestimate a genetically-modified dinosaur. After killing the electric fences in Jurassic Park, the vile Dennis Nedry (played by Seinfeld’s Wayne Newman) gets his comeuppance from a poison-spewing Dilophosaurus. Right before it pounces on him, the beast unfurls an oversized, retractable frill—which strongly resembles the namesake attribute of a certain Australian lizard.

In reality, there’s no evidence that Dilophosaurus—or any other dinosaur—had such an apparatus. Still, the man who originally named this animal back in 1954 didn’t seem to mind Jurassic Park’s little inaccuracies. “It was quite a thrill to see Dilophosaurus as an actor,” raved paleontologist Sam Welles. Though he admitted that the dinosaur’s neck vertebrae would have been incompatible with a frilled dragon-style hood, Welles dismissed his own critique as a minor point. “I enjoyed the movie thoroughly,” he said.

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Atlanta Shelters Give Pups a Temporary Home for the Holidays
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The holidays are looking a little brighter for adoptable dogs from two animal shelters in Atlanta, Georgia. As ABC News reports, a new program called Home for the Pawlidays is providing temporary homes to longer-term residents of Fulton County Animal Services and DeKalb County Animal Services for the week of Thanksgiving.

The initiative was organized by Atlanta's LifeLine Animal Project, a local group dedicated to providing healthcare and homes to shelter dogs. The dogs that were chosen for the project may be older, have special health needs, or other issues that make it more difficult to find them forever homes.

But from November 18 to 25, the dogs are getting to spend time away from the shelter and in the homes of loving foster families.

“We were thinking, everyone gets a break from work, and they should get a break from the shelter,” LifeLine’s public relations director Karen Hirsch told ABC News.

Some caretakers have already fallen in love with their four-legged house guests. Foster Heather Koth told ABC that she hadn’t been considering adoption, but after meeting Missy the shelter dog, she now plans to foster her until she has a permanent home or possibly adopt the dog herself.

And for the dogs that can’t be kept by their temporary owners, just a week of quality playtime and sleeping in a real bed can make a huge impact. You can check out photos of the pets who are benefiting from the program this week below.

[h/t ABC News]

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25 Things You Didn't Know About Turkeys
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Most of us probably associate turkey with a sumptuous Thanksgiving spread, but there’s a lot more to the big bird than how delicious it is alongside your grandma’s famous cranberry sauce. Here are a few bits of knowledge you can drop over the dinner table—when you’re not fighting with your family over white meat or dark meat, that is.

1. THE NORTH AMERICAN WILD TURKEY POPULATION WAS ALMOST WIPED OUT.

Wild turkey
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Wild turkeys once roamed the continent en masse, but by the early 20th century, the entire U.S. population had been whittled down to a mere 30,000 due to hunting and the destruction of their woodland habitats. In the 1940s, many of the remaining birds were relocated to parts of the U.S. with recovering woodlands so the turkeys could repopulate. Despite these efforts, by 1973, there were still just 1.5 million wild turkeys in North America. Today, that number is up to about 6 million.

2. TURKEY APPENDAGES ARE LIKE MOOD RINGS.

Wild turkey
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The dangly appendage that hangs from the turkey’s forehead to the beak is called a snood. The piece that hangs from the chin is the wattle. These fleshy flaps can change color according to the turkey’s physical and mental health—when a male turkey (called a tom, of course) is trying to attract a mate, the snood and wattle turn bright red. If the turkey is scared, the appendages take on a blue tint. And if the turkey is ailing, they become very pale.

3. TURKEYS CAN FLY.

Wild turkey in flight
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Well, domestic turkeys that are bred to be your Thanksgiving centerpiece can’t. They’re too heavy. But wild turkeys can, reportedly at speeds up to 55 miles per hour. Though they don’t go very far—usually less than 100 yards—wild turkeys are among the five largest flying birds in the world. They’re in good company: Others on the list include the swan and the albatross.

4. THEY CAN ALSO SWIM.

Wild turkey drinking water
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Turkeys don’t swim often, it seems, but they can, by tucking their wings in, spreading their tails, and kicking. In 1831, John James Audubon wrote, “I have been told by a friend that a person residing in Philadelphia had a hearty laugh on hearing that I had described the Wild Turkey as swimming for some distance, when it had accidentally fallen into the water. But be assured, kind reader, almost every species of land-bird is capable of swimming on such occasions, and you may easily satisfy yourself as to the accuracy of my statement by throwing a Turkey, a Common Fowl, or any other bird into the water.”

5. TURKEY POOP CAN TELL YOU A LOT.

A handler picking up turkey poop at the White House Turkey Pardon in 2013.

The next time you happen across turkey poop—which happens all the time, we know—take a closer look at it. If the droppings are shaped like a “J,” they were left there by a male turkey. Spiral-shaped poo? The culprit is female.

The citizens of Pilot Rock, Oregon, probably don’t much care about the shape of the stuff, but more about the quantity of it. Earlier this year, Pilot Rock turned to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) for help combating a flock of 50 to 70 wild turkeys that would periodically invade the town, destroy gardens, perch in trees, and poop on pickup trucks. The ODFW offered several solutions, but as far as we know the turkeys still rule the roost at Pilot Rock.

6. TURKEY PROBABLY WASN'T ON THE PILGRIMS' MENU.

A recreation of the Pilgrims' first settlement
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Thanks to historical records, we know for sure that the Wampanoag brought deer, and the English brought fowl—likely ducks and geese.

7. BEN FRANKLIN DIDN'T REALLY WANT THE TURKEY TO BE OUR NATIONAL BIRD.

A drawing of Ben Franklin.
Getty / Hulton Archive / Handout

You may have heard that at least one of our Founding Fathers lobbied hard to make the turkey our national symbol instead of the noble bald eagle. That’s not quite true, but in a letter to his daughter, he did expound on the character of each, which may be where the rumor got started:

“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

“With all this injustice, he is never in good case but like those among men who live by sharping & robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our country…

“I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

8. ANOTHER TURKEY FAN: ALEXANDER HAMILTON.

Portrait of Alexander Hamilton
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Yep, A. Ham liked turkey. In fact, he thought eating turkey was practically a god-given right, and once remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day."

9. TEDDY ROOSEVELT BELIEVED THE BIRDS WERE CUNNING PREY.

Teddy Roosevelt on a hunting trip in Africa.
Getty / Hulton Archive / Stringer

Ol’ TR may have been accustomed to hunting big game, but wild turkeys held a special place in his heart. He believed they were every bit as challenging to hunt as deer. In his 1893 book Hunting Trips of a Ranchman and the Wilderness Hunter, he wrote, “The wild turkey really deserves a place beside the deer; to kill a wary old gobbler with the small-bore rifle, by fair still-hunting, is a triumph for the best sportsman.”

10. WILD TURKEYS HAVE BETTER VISION THAN YOU DO.

Close up of wild turkey's head
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Their fantastic vision is probably one reason Teddy Roosevelt found turkeys such a challenge to hunt. They can detect motion from many yards away, have vision three times greater than 20/20, and have peripheral vision of about 270 degrees. Ours, comparatively, is only 180. And although turkeys can’t see in 3D, they can see UVA light, which helps them better identify predators, prey, mates, and food.

11. THE TOP TURKEY-PRODUCING STATE MAY SURPRISE YOU.

Domesticated turkeys on a farm
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You may know Minnesota for producing Prince, the Mall of America, and Target. But we also have the Land of 10,000 Lakes to thank for our Thanksgiving turkeys. According to the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, approximately 46-48 million turkeys are produced in Minnesota every year. In fact, it’s where the turkey that receives a presidential pardon hails from every year. Speaking of which ...

12. THE PRESIDENTIAL TURKEY PARDON MAY DATE BACK TO ABE LINCOLN.

President Barack Obama pardons a turkey in 2011.
Getty / Mark Wilson / Staff

Officially, the tradition of the sitting president of the United States pardoning his Thanksgiving turkey dates back to John F. Kennedy, who decided to let his gift from the National Turkey Federation off the hook. But he wasn't the first president to let a turkey go free: When Abraham Lincoln’s son Tad befriended one of the birds intended for Christmas dinner in 1863, kind-hearted Abe granted it a stay of execution.

13. THE FIRST TV DINNER MEAL: THANKSGIVING LEFTOVERS

Thanksgiving TV dinner
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In 1953, Swanson ended up with 10 train cars full of frozen turkeys—260 tons of them—when an overzealous buyer ordered too many turkeys for the holidays. Salesman Gerry Thomas solved the problem by ordering 5,000 aluminum trays and setting up an assembly line of workers to scoop dressing, peas, and sweet potatoes into the compartments. Slices of turkey rounded out the meal, which Swanson sold for 98 cents. The idea was a hit: The following year, 10 million turkey TV dinners were sold.

14. NATIONAL TURKEY LOVERS’ MONTH ISN’T WHEN YOU THINK.

Grilled meats on a silver tray
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Everyone eats turkey in November and December, so there’s not a lot of need for extra poultry promotion during those months. If you want to celebrate National Turkey Lovers’ Month, you’ll have to do it in June with some turkey brats and burgers on the grill.

15. THE TURKEY YOU’LL BE EATING IS PROBABLY ABOUT 18 WEEKS OLD.

Roasted turkey on a platter
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That’s how long it typically takes the birds to grow to maturity, which is when they’re usually slaughtered.

16. THERE WAS ALMOST A TURKEY SIDEKICK IN POCAHONTAS.

Loren Javier via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

At one point, Disney thought Pocahontas needed a little comic relief, so they hired John Candy to voice a wisecracking woodland fowl named Red Feather. Sadly, Candy passed away while the logistics were being worked out, so animators dropped the turkey entirely and opted for a clever raccoon named Meeko.

17. NOT ALL TURKEYS GOBBLE.

Close up shot of a wild turkey
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If you hear a turkey making the distinctive noise we all associate with them, then you’re hearing a male communicating with his lady friends up to a mile away. Females make a clicking sound instead of a gobble.

18. IF YOU DON’T EAT TURKEY AT THANKSGIVING, YOU’RE IN THE MINORITY.

A black and white photo of a family gathering around the table as the mother brings in a turkey.
Getty / Evans / Stringer

According to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans eat turkey at Thanksgiving.

19. TURKEY CRAVINGS CAUSED A SPIKE IN KFC SALES IN JAPAN.

A large Kentucky Fried Chicken sign
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When KFC opened its first stores in Japan in the 1970s, the company was surprised to find that sales soared during the holidays. The phenomenon stymied executives since most of Japan celebrates neither Thanksgiving nor Christmas. It was later discovered that foreigners craving holiday turkey had decided that KFC’s chicken was the next best thing. After the company figured this out, they played up the association with their “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” campaign—“Kentucky for Christmas.” It worked on tourists and locals alike, and today, Christmas Eve is still the highest-selling day for KFC Japan.

20. THERE IS PROPER TURKEY TERMINOLOGY.

A flock of turkeys on a farm with one staring directly into the camera.
Getty / Cate Gillon / Staff

You probably know that a group of turkeys is a flock, but they can also properly be called a “rafter.” And should you want to call baby turkeys something a little more precise, you can call them “poults.”

21. THE MAYA USED TURKEYS AS SACRIFICIAL OFFERINGS.

A Maya tripod plate featuring a bird
Los Angeles County Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Archaeologists have found vases dating from 250-800 CE that have turkeys depicted on them. According to University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee art historian Andrea Stone, "turkeys were quintessential animals for feasting and for sacrificial offerings." The Maya even crafted tamales shaped like the birds.

22. DURING THE ‘70S, YOU COULD CALL JULIA CHILD FOR TURKEY ADVICE ON THANKSGIVING.

Julia Child in her kitchen in 1978
Lynn Gilbert via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Even when she was at peak popularity, the famous chef refused to remove her phone number from public listings. According to friends, complete strangers would call Child on Thanksgiving to ask for advice on cooking the perfect turkey. Julia always answered the phone, and typically told callers whatever they needed to hear to get them to relax and enjoy the holiday. She even told some amateur cooks that turkey was best served cold anyway.

23. BIG BIRD IS A TURKEY.

Big Bird and Elmo at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Getty / Matthew Peyton / Stringer

Well, according to Sesame Street, he’s actually a canary—but his plumage makes him a turkey. The good people at American Plume & Fancy Feather provide Sesame Street with several thousand turkey feathers per costume to make sure Big Bird looks soft and fluffy.

24. THE BIRD IS NAMED AFTER THE COUNTRY.

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey
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But the whole thing was a mistake. Centuries ago, the English began to import a rather tasty bird, now known as a helmeted guinea fowl, from Madagascar. But they didn’t know it was from Africa. Because it was imported to Europe from merchants in Turkey, the English believed the birds were also Turkish.

Later, when the Spanish arrived in the New World, they discovered Meleagris gallopavo—the wild turkey. It was delicious, so they started importing it back to Europe. Europeans thought it tasted like the “turkey” guinea fowl they had been enjoying, so they called it the same thing.

25. WHAT, EXACTLY, IS DARK MEAT?

Roasted turkey legs on a piece of butcher paper
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It’s just a different type of muscle than white meat. White meat is the result of glycogen, which doesn't need much oxygen from the blood because the muscles it fuels only require short bursts of energy. Dark meat, however, is found on wings, thighs, and drumsticks—muscles that are used for long periods of time and require more sustainable energy. It’s made dark by the proteins that convert fat into energy.

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