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William S Bruce via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

William S Bruce via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Time a Scotsman Played Bagpipes for a Penguin in Antarctica

William S Bruce via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

William S Bruce via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1902, Scotland sent explorers on an official national expedition to Antarctica, headed up by polar scientist and naturalist William S. Bruce. In a uniquely Scottish twist, the two-year-long Scottish National Antarctic Expedition included a position that probably no other country found necessary: an official piper.

Gilbert Kerr, the official piper of the Scotia crew, was tasked with maintaining morale—but he became a postcard icon by posing for the photo above, in which he played the bagpipes in full Highland dress next to an Emperor penguin. The bird, according to the Royal Scottish Geographic Society, “was tethered to a large cooking-pot packed full of snow.” The photograph was taken by Bruce in March 1904 while the Scotia was stuck in the ice on the Weddell Sea.

The idea of Kerr bringing out the bagpipes for a bunch of penguins was apparently also intended to test the effect of music on them, according to the 1906 record of the voyage by Bruce and other members of the expedition, The Voyage of the ‘Scotia’: Being the Record of a Voyage of Exploration in Antarctic Seas. The penguins were not impressed. The explorers wrote that “there was no excitement, no sign of appreciation or disapproval, only sleepy indifference.” They further noted that “it was just all that one man could do to lead one up to the ship: with their beaks they bit fairly hard, and with their long flipper-like wings could hit out decidedly hard.” Kerr's bagpipes were later donated to a Scottish battalion during World War I and lost at the Battle of the Somme.

These days, of course, polar explorers would not be allowed to tie a penguin to a pot for a photo op. All Antarctic wildlife is protected, and the continent is a nature preserve. However, in Antarctic weather, it’s possible that the man in a kilt (it’s hard to tell in black and white, but those look like bare legs above his socks) was almost as uncomfortable as the wild penguin tied to a kitchen pot. And who knows which poor crew member got bitten in the process.

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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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paleontology
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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