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10 Facts About Cuban Animals From AMNH's New Exhibition, '¡Cuba!'

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©AMNH/D. Finnin

Though many of us think of Cuba as one island, it’s actually an archipelago made up of more than 4000 islands and keys—20 percent of which is protected area. In its new bilingual exhibition “¡Cuba!”, the American Museum of Natural History looks at the cultural history of the country as well as its natural history, showing everything from how Cuban cigars are made to the endemic creatures that can be found only on Cuba. AMNH scientists have been working in Cuba for more than a century—their first expedition was made in 1892—and this exhibition was created in partnership with scientists at the Cuban National Museum of Natural History. “¡Cuba!” opens to the public on Monday, November 21; here are few things we learned at the preview.

1. Cuba is home to some 372 species of bird, 24 of which are endemic. One such bird is the Cuban parakeet, whose numbers have been depleted by the pet trade; one of the only places you can see big flocks of the birds is in Cuba’s Zapata National Park.

©AMNH/R. Mickens

2. Of the 190 species of butterfly that can be found in Cuba, at least 35 species are endemic to the island, including the clearwing butterfly (Greta cubana). Though it could once be found all across the island, these days its range is restricted to protected areas of humid forests.

3. Want to tell a Cuban crocodile (Crocodylus rhombifer) from an American croc (Crocodylus acutus)? Look for bony ridges behind the eyes, which American crocodiles lack.

©AMNH/D. Finnin

4. In prehistoric times, Cuba was home to the largest owl that has ever lived: Ornimegalonyx. AMNH’s exhibition has the first scientifically accurate rendering of this enormous bird, which was more than 3 feet tall.

5. Solenodon cubanus—a venomous, 2-pound mammal endemic to Cuba and commonly known as almiqui—was once believed to be extinct. Then, in the mid-1970s, scientists discovered one of the animals in Humboldt Park; today, scientists know of 11 individuals, though evidence suggests there may be more out there.

©AMNH/R. Mickens

6. The patterns and colors on the shells of Polymita land snails vary widely even within the same species; scientists theorize this diversity is an adaptation the snails use to confuse predators.

7. Like the other armored fishes in its genus, the Cuban gar (Atractosteus tristoechus) has adapted to breathe air.

©AMNH/R. Mickens

8. Take a trip to “¡Cuba!” and you’ll see a Cuban boa (Epicrates angulifer), a mostly ground-dwelling snake that hangs out around the mouths of caves—the better to grab bats from the air when they fly by.

9. Cuba is home to the bee hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae), the smallest bird in the world. It weighs just one-twentieth of an ounce.

©AMNH/D. Finnin

10. Millions of years ago, Cuba was home to primates, the last of which, Paralouatta varonai, weighed up to 20 pounds and may have been related to howler monkeys. When it was discovered, the skull above was missing large sections; scientists used modern monkeys to reconstruct its face. 

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Animals
Owning a Dog May Add Years to Your Life, Study Shows
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We've said that having a furry friend can reduce depression, promote better sleep, and encourage more exercise. Now, research has indicated that caring for a canine might actually extend your lifespan.

Previous studies have shown that dog owners have an innate sense of comfort and increased well-being. A new paper published in Scientific Reports and conducted by Uppsala University in Sweden looked at the health records of 3.4 million of the country's residents. These records typically include personal data like marital status and whether the individual owns a pet. Researchers got additional insight from a national dog registry providing ownership information. According to the study, those with a dog for a housemate were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease or any other cause during the study's 12-year duration.

The study included adults 40 to 80 years old, with a mean age of 57. Researchers found that dogs were a positive predictor in health, particularly among singles. Those who had one were 33 percent less likely to die early than those who did not. Authors didn't conclude the exact reason behind the correlation: It could be active people are more likely to own dogs, that dogs promoted more activity, or that psychological factors like lowered incidences of depression might bolster overall well-being. Either way, having a pooch in your life could mean living a longer one.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

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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