Friday mystery object #332

This week I’ve been looking at birds, so I thought I’d share the joy with you. Do you have any thoughts about what this might be?

I expect that quite a few of you will have a pretty good idea, so please keep your suggestions cryptic, to let people who are less familiar with avian identification have a chance of improving their skills.

Have fun!

Friday mystery object #331 answer

Last week I gave you these skulls from the collections of the Dead Zoo to have a go at identifying:

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The reason for picking these was because I had an enquiry challenging the label associated with a specimen that was on display, and on checking there had clearly been some kind of mix-up, because the first mystery object had been identified as a False Killer Whale Pseudorca crassidens Owen, 1846 – which was definitely wrong.

The second mystery specimen is in fact the False Killer Whale (an identification that palfreyman1414 got right, supported by Rémi), whose label had been mixed up. That left the first mystery object still to be solved. Obviously it’s a toothed whale of some sort and the scale suggests it’s not a porpoise (a bit big) and it’s clearly too small to be one of the bigger dolphins (like a Killer Whale or Pilot Whale).

Generally it takes a bit of time looking at dolphin skulls from a few angles before you can start to get your eye in for identification – they just look so weird compared to the skulls of other mammals. They can also photograph quite poorly due to the large size – by which I mean that the height, length and breadth of a specimen can be distorted considerably in an image depending on small changes in the angle it sits at and the distance between the camera and the specimen.

However, the things I always try to look out for are the shape of the rostrum (or snout), the slope of the forehead, the patterns made by sutures between the bones around the nares (nostrils) and sutures between the bones in the ‘cheek’ area.

In this case there’s a very steep forehead, with a small bump midway, an upward deflection of the posterior maxillary margin (it looks like it’s got a bit of a smirk) and the sutures around the nares and the general shape of the nares all adds up to make me think that this is a White-beaked Dolphin Lagenorhynchus albirostris (Gray, 1846).

Imagine how pleased I was when I discovered that there was a label with that name on it, hiding in a different case and missing a specimen!

Friday mystery object #331

This week I have couple of specimens for you to have a go at identifying:

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I think these have been mislabelled and need their identifications checked to see if it’s a simple label swap or if it’s a deeper problem with the documentation. I won’t make it easier by providing the labels I’m suspect about – let’s see what you think working just from these images…

Have fun!

Friday mystery object #330 answer

Last week I gave you three guest mystery objects from The Écomusée du pays de Rennes to try your hand at identifying:

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Now these are genuine mysteries because in the words of Paul Offelman-Flohic, who provided these images: “No one really remembers how we get all of the specimens because some were donated by visitors, some we collected, some were donated by the agronomy school here in Rennes, Bretagne… In the pictures you will find things I found in the darkness of a cupboard that went through a fire (no joke) which might explain their bad condition.”

To give you an idea of what the specimens are used for, here’s what Paul says about the Museum:

“The Écomusée du pays de Rennes is installed in an old farm researchers dated back to the 15th century. 30 years ago, the City of Rennes bought the farm to create a museum interested in explaining the link between the network of farms surrounding the city and the evolution of lifestyle in both the city and the country. Related to that, the Écomusée presents livestock of local breeds and different orchard trees that our ancestors would have found around Rennes.

We welcome a lot of pupils and students and the specimens are really useful to us when we are working with our visitors (young and old).”

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Some of the specimens used in education at the Écomusée du pays de Rennes

This approach sounds like a fantastic way to integrate an understanding of how the human and natural world are entirely interlinked (unlike the interpretive approach of many museums, which treat natural history and human history as separate concepts) and it’s great that we can help add some identifications to these unlabelled specimens for the Écomusée.

As pointed out by Sergio, these specimens are all examples of Deyrolle didactic products (Deyrolle is a famous natural history emporium in Paris that has been selling educational scientific specimens and charts since 1831). These particular specimens show bony parts of two common species that have interesting and unique characteristics which are often referred to when teaching comparative and functional anatomy.

First up is the complete skeleton in a characteristic pose:

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Several people suggested that this was a Toad Bufo bufo, but if you look closely at the skull you can just make out some teeth in the maxilla:

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This means it can’t be a Toad as they lack teeth – it seems more likely to be one of the toothed frogs in the family Ranidae, probably Rana temporaria Linnaeus, 1758.

This specimen demonstrates adaptations to jumping in the Anura (frogs and toads), with the long and folded hind limbs that provide a lot of propulsive power – also useful in the water, thanks to the large feet.

Next up is the skull, which looks a bit shrewy, but as Rémi pointed out, it has a zygomatic arch (which is absent from shrews), plus the teeth are wrong for a Hedgehog (which has a relatively shorter face and is generally more robust).

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This is the skull of a European Mole Talpa europaea, Linnaeus, 1758. Its long, tapered, cylindrical shape is ideal for an animal that lives in a tube of its own creation and those teeth are like meat grinders for dealing with earthworms.

Finally there was the very distinctive limb:

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The reason it’s so distinctive is largely down to the fact that it is remarkably broad and powerful and it has an extra ‘digit’, which is actually a bone from the wrist that’s been recruited to add more area to the big shovel-like hands. This helps this animal dig its way through soil in its hunt for earthworms. It is of course the forelimb of a European Mole.

I think that apart from a couple of mix ups between toads and fogs, everyone ended up getting the species, often with some nice puns, cryptic clues and even a poem (nice work joe band) so well done to Sergio, Chris, palfreyman1414, Wouter van Gestel, Allen Hazen, Rémi, jennifermaccaire, Wood, and salliereynolds.

More mysteries next week!

Friday mystery object #330

This week I have some guest mystery objects for you, provided by Paul Offelman-Flohic of the Écomusée du pays de Rennes. These are specimens that survived a fire, but lost their information, so let’s help fill in the blanks!

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I recognise these specimens and I expect many of you will have a pretty good idea of what they are, so a bit of cryptic punnery (is that a word?) in the answers would be fun and will help avoid spoiling the challenge for everyone else. Amusez-vous bien!

Friday mystery object #329 answer

Last week I gave you this mystery object to have a go at identifying:

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I expected most of the regulars to recognise that it’s a bird sternum, since I’ve talked about them quite a lot in the past – to the point of putting together images of a range of sterna from different bird families to help narrow down identifications:

However, this mystery sternum didn’t appear in my gallery, so I thought it would offer a bit of a challenge. Of course, that was before Wouter van Gestel (creator of the fantastic Skullsite resource) recognised it as being from a bird with a fascinating reproductive method based around carefully planned neglect. Yep, this is the sternum of a Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus Linnaeus, 1758.

Cuckoos are visitors to Britain and Ireland, where they spend their summer holidays destroying the families of host birds (like Dunnocks and Reed Warblers) by removing an egg from the nests of a smaller species and laying their own egg. If the switch isn’t noticed (and most of the time it isn’t) the egg hatches and the Cuckoo chick turfs out the remaining eggs of the host birds, then demands vast quantities of food from the unwitting foster parents.

To help pull off this remarkable feat of irresponsible parenting (or brood parasitism as it’s more properly known), Cuckoos have become remarkable mimics. The male is similar in pattern, colour and flight style to a Eurasian Sparrowhawk – a notable predator of small songbirds.

Common cuckoo by Vogelartinfo, 2010

Common cuckoo in flight. Image by Vogelartinfo, 2010

He hangs around, scaring the host birds off their nest or acting as a distraction, so the female can sneak in and drop off an egg, which itself mimics the colouration of the host bird’s eggs. Different Cuckoos have different species of host bird that they specialise in parasitising, so their eggs are adapted to colour match those host eggs – which is important, since several host species have become wise to the Cuckoo’s tricks and will abandon or destroy any egg they recognise as different.

Reed Warbler nest with what looks like a sneaky impostor egg... Image by NottsExMiner, 2012

Reed Warbler nest with what looks like a sneaky impostor egg… Image by NottsExMiner, 2012

Bizarrely, after all this careful disguise and the danger of discovery, the Cuckoo chick that ends up being fed copious amounts of food by the foster parents rapidly becomes a behemoth that could by no means pass as the same species as its hosts, yet the foster parents carry on feeding it.

Reed Warbler feeding a Common Cuckoo chick in a nest. By Per Harald Olsen.

Reed Warbler feeding a Common Cuckoo chick in a nest. Image by Per Harald Olsen.

It’s remarkable to consider that the complex behaviours of Cuckoos must be entirely genetically determined, since they never meet their parents and never get to learn how to Cuckoo from another member of their own species.

With this as the mystery object, I was delighted last weekend when I heard my first Cuckoo of the year in County Clare – and I was even more excited when I saw one in flight. They may be sneaky destroyers of families, but they are also the heralds of summer in the countryside and it’s hard to not have a soft spot for their evocative call.