A Big Think Interview with David Adamovich
The Reverend Dr. David Adamovich is the world's faster and most accurate knife thrower. Better known as "The Great Throwdini," Adamovich holds 25 world records and the Guinness world record for "Most Knives Thrown Around a Human Target in 1 Minute" (102, in case you were wondering). Adamovich only began throwing knives at the age of 50; he holds a doctorate of education degree in exercise physiology from Columbia University and taught graduate students for 18 years. He is also an ordained minister, and he has managed a billiard hall. The Great Throwdini is a currently fixture in the New York sideshow and burlesque scene, and he has performed in venues around the globe. In 2009, he received the Merlin Award from the International Magicians Society.
Question: How did you discover your talent for knife-throwing?
David Adamovich: I was the director of a graduate program in exercise physiology at Long Island University, from there I went out with a friend who had an emergency medicine practice where he would oversee the physicians in an Emergency Department at different hospitals. So I left the university to work with him. I stayed with him for about five years and then went out on my own and decided to open a pool hall. And within the first years of running the pool hall, one of the guys I shoot pool with, Joe Tauraka came in with a small knife; showed it to me and I had no idea what it was. And he said, “Let’s go outside and I’ll show you.” So, we walked outside the pool hall, across the street to a tree and I threw the knife, stuck it into the tree, and said, “I could do that.”
It was just natural for me. And believe it or not, I was 50 years old at the time. I never even saw a throwing knife before then, or would have known what it was when he was showing it to me. It just came as a natural, easy talent for me. As soon as it left my hand, I knew it was going to stick and I understood the physics and the mechanics of how to throw a knife. I believe that everyone has a natural talent; they just have to find what that talent is in, and for me it was definitely knife throwing
Question: How do you deal with the risk involved with throwing knives at another human being?
So, I always use the expression, “I throw around my target, I don’t throw at.” Simply because they last a lot longer if you throw around them than if you throw at them. There’s a risk involved, it’s an incredible risk, and it’s really the target girl that takes the risk. Not me. And the most important thing of my act, I can’t express it any other way than to say, I think of the girl’s safety 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Any stunt I devise, anything I doing, I understand the risk that’s involved, just how close I can throw, how close I shouldn’t throw depending on the stunt, but always what can happen if something goes wrong as to where that girl is up at the board. Always think about it.
Question: Have you ever had a knife-throwing accident?
David Adamovich: Well, there’s two or three questions I’m always asked, one of them is, "Do you do the wheel?" Yes, I do the Wheel of Death. The other question is, are the knives real? Do they come from your hand, or the back of the board? Yes, they’re real, and they do come from my hand. They do not come from the back of the board. And the third question always is, have you ever hit the girl? So I have to answer honestly and say, yes, we’ve had some incidents and I have scraped a girl, I admit it. I got a little closer, I was a little out of control on a fast stunt where I’m throwing at about a half second per knife and after I released that knife I have to come down to my hand to get the next one, and as I do that, sometimes I pulled in a little too fast as the knife was released and then the knife hit her dress, instead of the board. So, yes, I admit, there have been some incidences, scrapes only. I’ve never impaled the girl. And I don’t want to either.
Question: What kinds of knives do you throw?
David Adamovich: That’s a typical throwing knife. It’s a 14-inch knife, about an eighth of an inch thick, it weighs about 12 ounces. A good throwing knife will be at least that size, between 12 ounces and 14 ounces, at the most one pound, 16 ounces. It’s got a good piece of steel in your hand, a nice point, and that’s what sticks in the wood. So whether or not I’m throwing knives, tomahawks, axes, or Bowie Knife, the process is always the same.
Question: What are the physics of knife-throwing?
David Adamovich: The physics of throwing a knife is the same every time, whether I’m throwing by the handle, or the blade. If it’s a blade throw, it’s called a half-spin and it starts back here, right back by my shoulder, and I bring my arm forward and aim it right to where I want it to go. Now in that position right there, when the knife is actually like this, in the air – I’m sorry, as my hand gets into that position, it slides off, the knife makes a quarter turn, which doesn’t count. And now it needs to make another half turn to get that point to the board so it does this in the air, and then finally gets to the board and sticks.
If I were throwing it for a full spin, I would hold it by the handle, I’d start back here, right behind my shoulder, the arm comes forward and straight out pointing to where I want it to go. And then as the hand passes through this position, it slides out, makes a quarter turn, that doesn’t count, and now that point had to make one more full turn to get to the board, which is over there. So, it will go like this in the air, and get there point first.
The speed of the knife has always been a contention among knife throwers. I’ve checked it with radar guns, I’ve checked it with 60-frames-per-second videography, it always works out the same. The knife is going through the air between 26 and 30 miles per hour. So, from where I’m standing to get to the board is somewhere just under two-tenths of a second.
Question: Do you have to be a certain distance from your target?
David Adamovich: When I first started performing, I devised the act for almost everything at a full spin. So all my items were thrown from the handle and I was out about 12 feet. But as I was going to different venues, I found out I didn’t have the space on stage to do a full spin throw, plus the distance to the board to the back of the stage. The stages just don’t allow it. So I revised the whole act to be half-spin, all the knives, and that’s at about seven feet from the board.
So when I’m throwing the big things, like axes and tomahawks, I have to go out to about 12 feet because I’m holding them from the handle versus the blade.
Question: What is the most dangerous stunt you’ve ever done?
David Adamovich: I guess it would have to be when I did the Triple Crown, and that was when I caught a bullet, an arrow, and a knife. I’m the only person to have ever done all three. Others have seen how to catch a knife and they’ve copied it from me. I’ve seen others catch the arrow, I copied that from them. And then I had seen David Blaine do the bullet catch with the cup in his mouth and I decided I would do the same thing, but instead use the steel cup in my hand. So all three items, the knife, the bullet and the arrow were caught with the same hand. And that’s really crazy. And I don’t think I would want to do it again.
Question: How dangerous are these stunts actually?
David Adamovich: Specifically, each of the three have their own issues. Catching the knife, I have to watch that knife coming toward me as it’s being thrown for a full spin and if I didn’t catch it, it would stick in the board right next to me. So I watch the release very carefully as it leaves the thrower’s hand and I’m reaching up and snatching the knife when it’s... as it comes in this position, and then I continue with it, but I don’t lit it hit the board. I just take it out of the air.
I have set the world record for catching 25 knives in one minute. I tried to repeat that and break it down to... I wanted to get it to 30 knives in a minute, and after about five knives into the stunt, I was yelling to the thrower to speed up a little bit, I wanted to get the stunt moving a little faster. Things went wrong. His throw was off, my grab was off, and instead of the knife being here the knife was actually there when I put my hand up. And I took the knife right through to the back of my hand, and it hurt. I really hurt. I looked up to the... you know, setting a World Record, there was an audience full of people—I’m sorry, I was breaking my World Record and I just grabbed the knife, pulled it out of my hand, saw the blood coming out... put my hand over it and looked up to the audience and said, “Show is over.” And walked off stage and took a look at that hand and I thought everything was all over for me. But I didn’t catch any tendons or ligaments, nothing broke, it just went right through to the back. I pulled it out and I was fine.
The arrow catch... the arrow’s coming in at about 55, 60 miles per hour from the archer being at about 30-35 feet away. So, again, I’m watching it, I let some of them go by and then I kind of imagine where I would have to reach up and grab it, and then has it was coming, I just reached up and went like that, and snatched the arrow right out of the air.
The bullet catch is using a small cup about that long and about that round and instead of doing it in the mouth the way David Blain did, I just decided, of course, I would do it in my hand so all three items were caught the same way. And I just held it at my side and the same guy, Chris McDaniel, who threw the knife and who fired... pulled the bow, also fired the rifle. And we had a red laser dot that was on the front of the barrel of the rifle, and I used a mirror next to the gun at about, it was about 14 feet away. And I looked in the mirror and moved my hand to where I saw the laser dot in the cup. And then I gave him the okay to pull the trigger, and he fired and, bang, there it was. I caught it. Stopped it really, but it’s referred to as catching it.
Question: Who was your first human target?
David Adamovich: Well, after the five years of competition throwing and aiming, and aiming to specifically put a knife in a two-inch bull’s-eye, I know how to refocus my entire thinking and say, okay, the guy... the person in the middle is the target, but he’s not really the target, I want to be just a few inches to the side. And I recruited this guy who works for a printer that did my printing and he said, “Oh, I’d love to stand there and be your target. I didn’t really tell him he was my first target. But he stood at the board and I psyched myself up and I did this profile of knives up one side and then the other side and after the ten knives were in the board, he jumps away and he goes, “That was so good. It was more fun than when I had my nipples pierced! Can we do it again?” And that’s a true story about the first person I ever threw knives around.
But from him it became target girls, not target guys. Target guys on stage don’t work. You need a pretty girl with a nice figure who’s afraid to stand there... I’m sorry, who’s not afraid to stand there and be very brave and look like she’s enjoying it at the same time. So, I have a variety of target girls each with their own personalities, each with their own issues, like I have issues. But we kind of work everything out and they stand there and we do our act and the audience loves to see the interaction between the thrower and the target. The entire act is really a cabaret-style act where I like to perform it in front of a live audience that I’m talking to them at the same time as I go through the stunts, and then there's this interaction between the target girl and myself and it’s, you know, it’s got tension, it’s got energy, the audience is wondering perhaps are these two up to something when they’re not on stage? We never tell. We do what we have to do. We do our act and we let the audience wonder what’s going on between us.
Question: Why would anyone want to be a target girl?
David Adamovich: So who does somebody contact me, or I would ask a certain person, “How would you like to be a target girl?” And very often, it’s the girls who have a variety act background of their own that want to also be a knife thrower’s assistant. One of them is a hula-hoop artist, another one is a contortionist, another one has an act where she lies on a bed of machetes and nails, and another girl is a sideshow performer from Coney Island. So these type of girls are used to being on stage, are used to doing dangerous things, for the most part, on their own, but then decide, "Well, besides my own act, I’d like to work with a magician or a knife thrower and be the target girl or the magician’s assistant." And they are the ones that work out best for me.
Topic: The Great Throwdini’s Most Popular Stunts.
David Adamovich: One of the more interesting stunts in the act is when I do some speed throwing, to demonstrate one of my world records. So, the girl stands at the board and I’ll hold 16 knives and I’ll tell the audience, “I’m going to throw these 16 knives in about eight seconds. That’s a half-second each. Not only am I going to throw them that fast, but I’m going to throw them opposite sides to the board.” Then I say, “Just one more thing, there’s going to be a girl in the middle that I have to throw on each side of.” So, I’m standing there with this handful of knives, and they’re all right there. I got one in my hand and we give each other the signal that she’s ready and I’m ready, and I start to throw and it’s fast, fast, fast, fast, fast, fast, fast, fast, fast right to each side of her body as I’m doing the stunt and emptying my hand of the knives.
And there you can see I’m throwing to each side. Of course she’s pretending she’s afraid, but she’s not. She’s very brave. And there are 16 knives in probably eight seconds.
And one of the other stunts I do is throwing a bunch up one side; we call it “Lateral with the straw.” She backs up to the eight or 10 that I put on the side of her then I would put a straw in her mouth and I throw right up the front, four or five knives, getting very close to her bod. And on the one that I decide that I’ll break the straw with is thrown about three inches from her nose and goes right through the straw and the piece that was cut falls right to the ground.
And then we have another stunt where I pile five knives in each of my pocket and I refer to it as, “Knife throwing the old western style, instead of gun slinging.” And I pull knives out of my pockets, the right hand and then the left hand and I throw them to alternate sides of the girl, right across the front of her body.
And then we have a stunt called, “The Profile,” where I throw three knives to the board and she leans back and rests her head on those three knives and I take a handful of nine or 10 knives and I outline her body, starting from her ankles or knees right up across the abdomen and the chest and finally right over the throat. There have been times went he knives were really close and they were laying against her body, and she had to like wiggle her way out to stand up and take the applause
I do two blind stunts during the act; this one is called the double blind. I wear a metal mask and a hood and she sets me in place and hands me the knives, and then she takes one long knife and stands in the middle of the board and bangs the knife on each side of her body in a random fashion and I just listen for that sound and that’s where I throw the knife. If I don’t get the right sound, or I’m not sure where she tapped, I just ask her to repeat it, and we do it again and then finally when those six knives are out of my hand, I’m left with one knife, which is a flaming, firing knife and that one is thrown right where she was standing. She just turns, hits the center of the board and jumps out of the way and that knife has gasoline on it and a lighter, the knife has a big flame on it, and there’s a bullet loaded into the blade. It’s a crimped bullet, and she jumps out of the way, I throw it, it’s on fire, hits the board and the bullet bangs and the audience literally jumps right out of their seat and then I turn, I pull off the hood and I pull of the mask and get a thunderous round of applause.
And the other blind stunt I do is throwing six, 16-inch knives, three on each side of the girl, but the target girl is behind a six-foot high by four-foot wide veil of paper. And to make this stunt even harder, I say, it really is maximum risk because we’ll do it in the dark. And the lights go out in the theater and a strobe light goes on and I’m just looking at this really quick flash of strobe against where I believe the paper is, and I through three to one side, three to the other and then I walk to the paper, I pull the paper, we drop it down and the lights go on. And there she is, right behind that piece of paper and the knives are right up the side of her body.
Recorded on July 15, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller
A conversation with the world’s fastest knife-thrower.
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How imagining the worst case scenario can help calm anxiety.
- Stoicism is the philosophy that nothing about the world is good or bad in itself, and that we have control over both our judgments and our reactions to things.
- It is hardest to control our reactions to the things that come unexpectedly.
- By meditating every day on the "worst case scenario," we can take the sting out of the worst that life can throw our way.
Are you a worrier? Do you imagine nightmare scenarios and then get worked up and anxious about them? Does your mind get caught in a horrible spiral of catastrophizing over even the smallest of things? Worrying, particularly imagining the worst case scenario, seems to be a natural part of being human and comes easily to a lot of us. It's awful, perhaps even dangerous, when we do it.
But, there might just be an ancient wisdom that can help. It involves reframing this attitude for the better, and it comes from Stoicism. It's called "premeditation," and it could be the most useful trick we can learn.
Broadly speaking, Stoicism is the philosophy of choosing your judgments. Stoics believe that there is nothing about the universe that can be called good or bad, valuable or valueless, in itself. It's we who add these values to things. As Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Our minds color the things we encounter as being "good" or "bad," and given that we control our minds, we therefore have control over all of our negative feelings.
Put another way, Stoicism maintains that there's a gap between our experience of an event and our judgment of it. For instance, if someone calls you a smelly goat, you have an opportunity, however small and hard it might be, to pause and ask yourself, "How will I judge this?" What's more, you can even ask, "How will I respond?" We have power over which thoughts we entertain and the final say on our actions. Today, Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
Helping you practice StoicismCredit: Robyn Beck via Getty Images
One of the principal fathers of ancient Stoicism was the Roman statesmen, Seneca, who argued that the unexpected and unforeseen blows of life are the hardest to take control over. The shock of a misfortune can strip away the power we have to choose our reaction. For instance, being burglarized feels so horrible because we had felt so safe at home. A stomach ache, out of the blue, is harder than a stitch thirty minutes into a run. A sudden bang makes us jump, but a firework makes us smile. Fell swoops hurt more than known hardships.
What could possibly go wrong?
So, how can we resolve this? Seneca suggests a Stoic technique called "premeditatio malorum" or "premeditation." At the start of every day, we ought to take time to indulge our anxious and catastrophizing mind. We should "rehearse in the mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck." We should meditate on the worst things that could happen: your partner will leave you, your boss will fire you, your house will burn down. Maybe, even, you'll die.
This might sound depressing, but the important thing is that we do not stop there.
Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
The Stoic also rehearses how they will react to these things as they come up. For instance, another Stoic (and Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius asks us to imagine all the mean, rude, selfish, and boorish people we'll come across today. Then, in our heads, we script how we'll respond when we meet them. We can shrug off their meanness, smile at their rudeness, and refuse to be "implicated in what is degrading." Thus prepared, we take control again of our reactions and behavior.
The Stoics cast themselves into the darkest and most desperate of conditions but then realize that they can and will endure. With premeditation, the Stoic is prepared and has the mental vigor necessary to take the blow on the chin and say, "Yep, l can deal with this."
Catastrophizing as a method of mental inoculation
Seneca wrote: "In times of peace, the soldier carries out maneuvers." This is also true of premeditation, which acts as the war room or training ground. The agonizing cut of the unexpected is blunted by preparedness. We can prepare the mind for whatever trials may come, in just the same way we can prepare the body for some endurance activity. The world can throw nothing as bad as that which our minds have already imagined.
Stoicism teaches us to embrace our worrying mind but to embrace it as a kind of inoculation. With a frown over breakfast, try to spend five minutes of your day deliberately catastrophizing. Get your anti-anxiety battle plan ready and then face the world.
A study on charity finds that reminding people how nice it feels to give yields better results than appealing to altruism.
- A study finds asking for donations by appealing to the donor's self-interest may result in more money than appealing to their better nature.
- Those who received an appeal to self-interest were both more likely to give and gave more than those in the control group.
- The effect was most pronounced for those who hadn't given before.
Even the best charities with the longest records of doing great fundraising work have to spend some time making sure that the next donation checks will keep coming in. One way to do this is by showing potential donors all the good things the charity did over the previous year. But there may be a better way.
A new study by researchers in the United States and Australia suggests that appealing to the benefits people will receive themselves after a donation nudges them to donate more money than appealing to the greater good.
How to get people to give away free money
The postcards that were sent to different study subjects. The one on the left highlighted benefits to the self, while the one on the right highlighted benefits to others.List et al. / Nature Human Behaviour
The study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, utilized the Pick.Click.Give program in Alaska. This program allows Alaska residents who qualify for dividends from the Alaska Permanent Fund, a yearly payment ranging from $800 to $2000 in recent years, to donate a portion of it to various in-state non-profit organizations.
The researchers randomly assigned households to either a control group or to receive a postcard in the mail encouraging them to donate a portion of their dividend to charity. That postcard could come in one of two forms, either highlighting the benefits to others or the benefits to themselves.
Those who got the postcard touting self-benefits were 6.6 percent more likely to give than those in the control group and gave 23 percent more on average. Those getting the benefits-to-others postcard were slightly more likely to give than those receiving no postcard, but their donations were no larger.
Additionally, the researchers were able to break the subject list down into a "warm list" of those who had given at least once before in the last two years and a "cold list" of those who had not. Those on the warm list, who were already giving, saw only minor increases in their likelihood to donate after getting a postcard in the mail compared to those on the cold list.
Additionally, the researchers found that warm-list subjects who received the self-interest postcard gave 11 percent more than warm-list subjects in the control group. Amazingly, among cold-list subjects, those who received a self-interest postcard gave 39 percent more.
These are substantial improvements. At the end of the study, the authors point out, "If we had sent the benefits to self message to all households in the state, aggregate contributions would have increased by nearly US$600,000."
To put this into perspective, in 2017 the total donations to the program were roughly $2,700,000.
Is altruism dead?
Are all actions inherently self-interested? Thankfully, no. The study focuses entirely on effective ways to increase charitable donations above levels that currently exist. It doesn't deny that some people are giving out of pure altruism, but rather that an appeal based on self-interest is effective. Plenty of people were giving before this study took place who didn't need a postcard as encouragement. It is also possible that some people donated part of their dividend check to a charity that does not work with Pick.Click.Give and were uncounted here.
It is also important to note that Pick.Click.Give does not provide services but instead gives money to a wide variety of organizations that do. Those organizations operate in fields from animal rescue to job training to public broadcasting. The authors note that it is possible that a more specific appeal to the benefits others will receive from a donation might prove more effective than the generic and all-inclusive "Make Alaska Better For Everyone" appeal that they used.
In an ideal world, charity is its own reward. In ours, it might help to remind somebody how warm and fuzzy they'll feel after donating to your cause.
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to life recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
The 'Monkeydactyl' was a flying reptile that evolved highly specialized adaptations in the Mesozoic Era.
- The 'Monkeydactly', or Kunpengopterus antipollicatus, was a species of pterosaur, a group of flying reptiles that were the first vertebrates to evolve the ability of powered flight.
- In a recent study, a team of researchers used microcomputed tomography scanning to analyze the anatomy of the newly discovered species, finding that it was the first known species to develop opposable thumbs.
- As highly specialized dinosaurs, pterosaurs boasted unusual anatomy that gave them special advantages as aerial predators in the Mesozoic Era.
A newly discovered flying dinosaur nicknamed "Monkeydactyl" is the oldest known creature that evolved opposable thumbs, according to new research published in Current Biology.
The 160-million-year-old reptile is officially named Kunpengopterus antipollicatus. Discovered in China, the dinosaur was a darwinopteran pterosaur, a subgroup of pterosaurs, which first appeared 215 million years ago during the Triassic Period. Pterosaurs, like the pterodactyl, were the first vertebrates to evolve the ability of powered flight.
But unlike other pterosaurs, the Monkeydactyl was the only species in its group known to have opposable thumbs. It's a rare adaptation for non-mammals: The only extant examples are chameleons and some species of tree frogs. (Most birds have at least one opposable digit, though that digit is usually classified as a hallux, not a pollex, which means "thumb" in Latin.)
To analyze the anatomy of K. antipollicatus, an international team of researchers used microcomputed tomography scanning, which generates images of the inside of the body.
"The fingers of 'Monkeydactyl' are tiny and partly embedded in the slab," study co-author Fion Waisum Ma said in a press release. "Thanks to micro-CT scanning, we could see through the rocks, create digital models, and tell how the opposed thumb articulates with the other finger bones."
"This is an interesting discovery. It provides the earliest evidence of a true opposed thumb, and it is from a pterosaur — which wasn't known for having an opposed thumb."
As a tree-dwelling reptile, the Monkeydactyl probably evolved opposable thumbs so it could grasp tree branches, which would have helped it hang, avoid falls, and obtain food. This arboreal (tree-dwelling) locomotion would help the Monkeydactyl adapt to its home ecosystem, the subtropical forests of the Tiaojishan Formation in China during the Jurassic Period.
The researchers noted that the forests of the Tiaojishan Formation were likely warm and humid, thriving with "a rich and complex" diversity of tree-dwelling animals. But while the forests were home to multiple pterosaur species, the Monkeydactyl was likely the only one that was arboreal, spending most of its time in the treetops, while other pterosaurs occupied different levels of the forest.
K. antipollicatus and its phylogenetic position. (A and B) Holotype specimen BPMC 0042 (A) and a schematic skeletal drawing (B). Scale bars, 50 mm.Credit: Zhou et al.
This process — in which competing species manage to coexist by using the environment in different ways — is called "niche partitioning."
"Tiaojishan palaeoforest is home to many organisms, including three genera of darwinopteran pterosaurs," study author Xuanyu Zhou said in the press release. "Our results show that K. antipollicatus has occupied a different niche from Darwinopterus and Wukongopterus, which has likely minimized competition among these pterosaurs."
In general, pterosaurs are a prime example of how animals can evolve remarkably specialized adaptations. As pioneers of vertebrate flight, pterosaurs had strong and lightweight skeletons that ranged widely in size, with some boasting wingspans of more than 30 feet. The largest pterosaurs weighed more than 650 pounds and had jaws twice the length of Tyrannosaurus rex.
Unlike birds, which jump into the air using only their hind limbs, pterosaurs used their exceptionally strong hind limbs and forelimbs to push off the ground and gain enough launch power for flight. That these massive dinosaurs managed to fly, and did so successfully for about 80 million years, has long fascinated and puzzled scientists.The recent discovery shows that pterosaurs developed even more remarkable adaptations than previously thought, suggesting there's still more to learn about the "monsters of the Mesozoic skies."