A New Way to Tell If a Dead Duck Could Fly

Watanabe. 2017. The Auk: Ornithological Advances.
Watanabe. 2017. The Auk: Ornithological Advances.

As any toddler chasing pigeons in the park knows, it’s not hard to figure out which birds can fly and which can’t. Sorting the flighted from the flightless is a little harder when those birds are dead—and even harder when they’re extinct. Now one fossil expert has developed a system that may help. He published his findings in The Auk: Ornithological Advances.

Junya Watanabe studies paleontology, evolutionary biology, geology, and mineralogy at Kyoto University. His research into the evolutionary history of birds has brought him up close with the anatids, a large family that includes ducks, geese, and swans. Today, most of these birds are happily flapping around, but that may not have always been the case.

Experts have found more than 15 fossilized anatid species that would have been unable to fly. We think. We’re not sure, because until now, we haven’t really had a good way of sussing out what flying looks like in animals that have been gone for millions of years.

To look back into the past, Watanabe started in the present. He took precise measurements of 787 different modern anatids from 103 different species—some volant (flighted), some flightless—focusing on their legs, wings, and breastbones. Then he fed those stats into an algorithm that compared the proportions of each bird’s body with its flying ability.

Fossilized bones from Chenonetta finschi.
Junya Watanabe

Fossilized bones from Anas marecula.
Junya Watanabe

The results showed physically tiny but evolutionarily significant differences between the species that could fly and those that couldn’t. Like the doomed dodos of yore, today’s flightless birds generally have chunkier legs and smaller wings than their airborne cousins.

By using the same algorithm on 16 species of fossilized anatids, Watanabe could easily spot which birds might have flown, long ago. His results confirmed other scientists’ suspicions about birds like Ptaiochen pao, whose name derives from the Greek and Hawaiian words for “destroyed stumbling goose.”

Helen James is curator of birds at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. She said Watanabe’s new system will be especially helpful in cases where only part of a fossilized bird has been found.

“Other researchers will appreciate that he offers a way to assess limb proportions even in fossil species where the bones of individual birds have become disassociated from each other,” she said in a statement. “Disassociation of skeletons in fossil sites has been a persistent barrier to these types of sophisticated statistical analyses, and Dr. Watanabe has taken an important step towards overcoming that problem.”

A WWII Navy Submarine, Lost for 75 Years, Has Been Discovered Off the Coast of Japan

MR1805/iStock via Getty Images
MR1805/iStock via Getty Images

The U.S. Navy lost 52 submarines during World War II, many of which are still missing today. But as The New York Times reports, the wreck of the U.S.S. Grayback—a submarine that disappeared along with its 80-person crew in 1944—has been found off the coast of Okinawa, Japan.

On January 28, 1944, the Grayback departed from Pearl Harbor for its 10th combat patrol. It missed its scheduled return date that spring, and after weeks of failing to locate the vessel, the Navy declared it was likely lost.

Immediately following World War II, the U.S. military studied Japanese war records in search of clues that might lead them to their missing ships. One recording clearly states the Grayback was brought down by a bomb dropped by an Japanese aircraft, and it even gives the longitude and latitude of the attack. But due to a poor translation of the audio, the Navy went looking for the sub 100 miles away from its actual resting place.

Seventy-five years later, the submarine's coordinates were finally uncovered in old Imperial Japanese Navy files.

A Japanese researcher named Yutaka Iwasaki noticed this error while looking at the World War II records of the Imperial Japanese Navy base at Sasebo. He was asked to review the files for the Lost 52 Project, an organization dedicated to finding lost World War II submarines. Using the newly uncovered information and an autonomous underwater vehicle, the team was able to locate the vessel at the bottom of the East China Sea near Okinawa.

Lost 52 doesn't hunt for submarine wrecks with plans to recover them. Rather, the goal of the project is "documenting and preserving the story of the Lost 52 WWII Submarines, leaving a foundation of knowledge for future generations." In the case of the Grayback, the site where it settled on the seafloor will be protected from any human interference.

[h/t The New York Times]

Swedish Divers Just Discovered Two Shipwrecks That Might Be Related to the Famous Vasa Warship

The Vasa shipwreck displayed in Sweden's Vasa Museum.
The Vasa shipwreck displayed in Sweden's Vasa Museum.
Christian Lundh, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

In 1625, King Gustavus II Adolphus of Sweden commissioned shipbuilders to create the most beautiful, lethal flagship that ever existed, as a symbol of Sweden’s naval strength. Three years later, crowds gathered to watch the Vasa, named after Sweden’s royal house, set sail for the first time. But less than a mile into its maiden voyage, the poorly and hastily constructed warship sunk to the bottom of the Baltic Sea, where it remained until 1961 when it was salvaged and later transported to the Vasa Museum.

Now, the Guardian reports Swedish maritime archaeologists from Vrak—Museum of Wrecks have located two shipwrecks in the Swedish archipelago outside of Vaxholm that could be linked to the Vasa. This is because the shipwright responsible for the Vasa built three other ships, the Äpplet, the Kronan, and the Scepter (though, unlike their ill-fated sibling, they actually made it into battle).

“It was like swimming around the Vasa ship,” maritime archaeologist Jim Hansson said in a museum press release. They believe the first wreck they discovered may be the Äpplet, and the second wreck could be either the Kronan or the Scepter.

“We think that some of them were sunk in the area,” Patrik Hoglund, another Vrak archaeologist, told the Guardian. But these ships didn’t capsize because of shoddy engineering or even an enemy attack. Instead, experts believe the Swedish navy intentionally sunk them after they were decommissioned, so their wrecks would function as surprise spike strips to damage approaching enemy ships.

The divers brought back wood samples from the wrecks to send to a laboratory for testing. Once they know when and where the timber came from, they can cross-reference the data with Swedish archives to find out if it matches information from the Vasa.

Even if the warships do turn out to be the Vasa’s long-lost siblings, it’s unlikely that they’ll be salvaged and displayed alongside it, since the Baltic Sea’s brackish waters actually preserve them much better than a museum could.

Sweden isn’t the only nation that boasts a beautiful shipwreck or two—here are 10 other shipwrecks around the world that you can visit.

[h/t The Guardian]

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