Wings as powerful weapons

An extinct bird from Jamaica used its wings as a powerful clublike weapon, according to a new study.

Researchers from Yale University and the Smithsonian Institution studied fossils of the flightless prehistoric bird and reported their findings online in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The bird belongs to the ibis family, a group of long-billed, long-legged birds that live in wetlands, forests and plains. Nearly all other ibises fly.

In this particular species, the hand bones are peculiarly elongated and thick, forming a club that the bird could swing forcefully. “Other birds have weapons, but this is unlike any other,” said Nicholas R Longrich, a paleontologist at Yale and the study’s lead author.

Longrich first encountered the fossil bird, called Xenicibis xympithecus, in 1997 and had been trying to make sense of its anatomical structure. The bird was discovered in the 1970s by Longrich’s co-author, Storrs L Olson, a scientist at the Smithsonian Institution, who even then was puzzled by its strange wings.

After studying a variety of living birds, as well as other extinct birds, Longrich and Olson said that the wings were probably used in combat.  Certain types of geese and swans are among modern-day birds that use their wings for that purpose, the report says.

The researchers were not sure why the birds needed the weapons – it may have been to battle predators or to fight among themselves over territory.Longrich said he was trying to determine when and why the bird became extinct.

The fossil record indicates that the species may have lived as recently as 12,000 years ago, but exactly when it disappeared is unclear. “Whether these particular birds went extinct after humans arrived, we don’t know,” Longrich said, “and the trick is we don’t have a lot of fossils.”

It looks like glass, but is tough as steel

The moment a crack forms in a piece of glass, it is prone to spread. That’s because although glass is very strong and resistant to deformation, it lacks the toughness that metals like aluminum and steel have.

Researchers from the California Institute of Technology and the University of California,
Berkeley, report that they have devised a new type of metallic glass that is as strong as glass, but as tough as steel – the toughest of all metals.

“Typically with materials it’s very hard to get both toughness and strength; either you get one or the other,” said Marios Demetriou, a materials engineer at Caltech and the study’s lead author. He and his colleagues report their findings in the journal Nature Materials.

There is, however, a catch to the seemingly transformational discovery.

“The cost of this material is very high, and it’s essentially high enough to be prohibitive for commodity-type products,” Demetriou said, though he did not have exact numbers. But the researchers, who are patenting the new material, believe that in small amounts it could be usable.

“It could be useful, for instance, in orthodontic implants due to the very high resistance required,” Demetriou said.Metallic glass was first discovered about 50 years ago at Caltech.

Although it has the atomic structure of glass, it is opaque and has a shiny, metallic look. Currently, other compositions of metallic glass are used to make golf clubs, electronic casings and watch bezels.

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