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Robert Boessenecker
Robert Boessenecker

Scientists Discover Seal-Like Prehistoric Predator

Robert Boessenecker
Robert Boessenecker

Last month, paleontologists announced a new species of ancient pinniped—a group that includes modern seals, sea lions, and walruses. The animal lived off the coast of what is now Washington state about 10 million years ago and probably fished like seals do, relying on the power of its oversized eyes to track its prey. Robert Boessenecker, an adjunct lecturer who works for College of Charleston’s department of geology and environmental sciences, recently presented a study on the newfound fossil at the annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Salt Lake City.

Discovered in Washington’s Grays Harbor County in the 1980s, the incomplete skeleton consists of neck vertebrae, a well-preserved ribcage, a partial sternum, and a skull with jawbones. It was encased in exceptionally hard rock that took scientists prepping the fossil two decades to clear away. Judging by the available remains, the animal was more than 8 feet long—about the size of an adult male California sea lion. 

Boessenecker coauthored the study with paleontologists Tom Deméré of the San Diego Museum of Natural History and Morgan Churchill of the New York Institute of Technology. Together, they were able to classify the creature as a new species of Allodesmus, a pinniped genus whose members once roamed coastal Japan and North America’s western seaboard. Although a species name has been chosen for the animal, it has yet to be made public. “We plan on naming [it] after a beloved colleague who has contributed extensively to pinniped paleontology,” Boessenecker tells mental_floss. “But we’re going to keep that under wraps for now.”

The newly discovered animal hailed from a marine mammal family known as the desmatophocids, which evolved around 23 million years ago. From the neck down, they looked very much like today’s seals and walruses, both of which sport a combination of enlarged front flippers and well-developed hind limbs. But the skulls contained a mix of features seen in a variety of pinnipeds today—and some evidence suggests that they had trunk-like noses similar to modern elephant seals.

Notably, the new Allodesmus also features proportionally huge eye sockets, each of which could house a poolroom eight ball. Their dimensions suggest it had exceptionally keen eyesight, allowing the animal to function as a deep-diving predator. Because the ocean gets darker the farther you get from the surface, the size of its eyes would have allowed it to absorb large quantities of light far beneath the waves. While navigating through the inky depths, it would’ve most likely hunted down such game as fish and squid.

Boessenecker’s team closely studied the skeleton to see what they could learn about its life. With the exception of some seals, most pinnipeds are strongly sexually dimorphic: Their relative body size, in other words, makes it easy to distinguish their gender. Fossil evidence reveals that the same was true of this Allodesmus species; the skeleton’s size and the thickness of its canines suggest it was male.

It’s also obvious that the Grays Harbor specimen was nibbled on after it died. “Fossil dogfish teeth were found around the skeleton of our Allodesmus, and numerous bite marks are present [as well],” Boessenecker says. Then, as now, a marine mammal’s corpse must’ve looked like an irresistible banquet to the ocean’s many opportunists.

At about 10 million years old, the animal is the youngest-known desmatophocid specimen on record. Its relative youth may reveal quite a bit about the evolution and ultimate disappearance of this pinniped group. “Truth is, we have no idea why desmatophocids died out,” Boessenecker says. “Perhaps our new species was in a very specialized niche, surviving as long as possible [until it was] eventually snuffed out, a possibility that remains for our most charismatic extant pinniped." 

To Boessenecker, the "most charismatic extant pinniped" is the walrus. In fact, the rise of walruses might have been a factor in the disappearance of pinnipeds like the Grays Harbor animal, because they may have gradually outcompeted Allodesmus and its kin between 13 and 8 million years ago. Back then, the walrus family was a large and diverse group whose members included such oddballs as the four-tusked, mollusk-eating Gomphotaria pugnax. But today, there’s only one remaining species of walrus—and it’s currently at risk of becoming endangered. Boessenecker and his team hope that by learning more about the Grays Harbor Allodesmus, we’ll be able to better understand and protect pinnipeds today.

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15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
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People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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Watch an Antarctic Minke Whale Feed in a First-of-Its-Kind Video
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WWF

New research from the World Wildlife Fund is giving us a rare glimpse into the world of the mysterious minke whale. The WWF worked with Australian Antarctic researchers to tag minke whales with cameras for the first time, watching where and how the animals feed.

The camera attaches to the whale's body with suction cups. In the case of the video below, the camera accidentally slid down the side of the minke whale's body, providing an unexpected look at the way its throat moves as it feeds.

Minke whales are one of the smallest baleen whales, but they're still pretty substantial animals, growing 30 to 35 feet long and weighing up to 20,000 pounds. Unlike other baleen whales, though, they're small enough to maneuver in tight spaces like within sea ice, a helpful adaptation for living in Antarctic waters. They feed by lunging through the sea, gulping huge amounts of water along with krill and small fish, and then filtering the mix through their baleen.

The WWF video shows just how quickly the minke can process this treat-laden water. The whale could lunge, process, and lunge again every 10 seconds. "He was like a Pac-Man continuously feeding," Ari Friedlaender, the lead scientist on the project, described in a press statement.

The video research, conducted under the International Whaling Commission's Southern Ocean Research Partnership, is part of WWF's efforts to protect critical feeding areas for whales in the region.

If that's not enough whale for you, you can also watch the full 13-minute research video below:

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