Friday mystery object #343

Last week I had the good fortune to visit the collections of the Ulster Museum in Belfast with the National Museums Northern Ireland’s Curator of Vertebrates Angela Ross. It’s always a valuable experience seeing other museum stores and it was a real pleasure to meet Angela and talk about our shared experiences with collections. 

As you might expect, as with every museum in the world, there are one or two specimens that have lost labels or that have never been identified, so I was fortunate enough to be get some photos of one such example for today’s mystery object. Any idea what this skull was from?

It has similarities to specimens I’ve featured in the past, and in the answers to those I’ve provided links to identification resources. If you have a rough idea of what this is, it may be worth your while using the search box in the top right corner of the blog to look for more information to help you narrow it down.

Have fun hunting for an identification – I know I will!

Friday mystery object #342 answer

Last week I gave you this flouncy fish to try your hand at identifying:

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It proved a tricky one, because it seems that based on genetic data it may be a species that has undergone convergent evolution with another type of fish to produce something very similar morphologically, but not actually closely related.

The similar fish would be the Sea Robins in the family Triglidae, as several of you opted for, but Wouter van Gestel and Rémi were a little more accurate in their cryptic suggestions of Flying Gurnard Dactylopterus volitans (Linnaeus, 1758).

These fish don’t really fly and only a few sources suggest that they can get any kind of glide going. Mostly they stick near the ocean bottom in shallow waters, using those oddly leg-like front fins to manage their more pedestrian movement and using the wing-like large fins to ‘fly’ underwater.

This particular specimen has lost its colour, thanks to the process of being preserved in alcohol, but when they’re alive they’re very colourful, with electric-blue spots on the fins. Perhaps more interestingly, this specimen was collected by Sir Frances Leopold McClintock, who achieved renown for his polar exploration and who was stationed in the Royal Navy’s North America and West Indies station as Commander-in-chief between 1879 and 1884. Since this specimen is from Jamaica, it seems likely that it collected in that period.

More mysteries next week!

Friday mystery object #341 answer

Last week I gave you this striking specimen to try your hand at identifying:

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It’s the skeleton of a species that I’ve spoken about before and one for which I have a bit of a soft spot.

Several of you thought it was some kind of galliform (the group of birds including pheasants, quail, chickens, etc.), but although the size and general appearance of the bill is about right, it’s not one of them.

A few of you did however know what it was. Wouter van Gestel was first to recognise this as a Hoatzin Opisthocomus hoazin (Müller, 1776), with James Bryant and Cindilla Trent dropping some nice clues to show they were also in the know.

As it turns out, the original name for the Hoatzin was Phasianus hoazin because it looked so much like one of the Galliformes – and not just in the skeleton:

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As you can see, these birds are quite striking, with colours and a crest that wouldn’t be out of place on a pheasant, but a lot of genetic and morphological research suggests that the Hoatzin is in a unique group, which diverged from the rest of the modern birds 64 million years ago, just after the non-avian dinosaurs went extinct.

Personally I think they are fascinating, with their clawed young that scramble around in dense vegetation, their limited ability to fly as adults and their unusual (for a bird) folivorous diet (that’s leaves) with associated bacterial fermentation tank crop. In fact, if any animal was on the road to becoming fire-breathing I think the Hoatzin may be it, with its ready access to methane and hydrogen sulphide belches – in fact I wonder if some spontaneous Hoatzin combustion due to these gasses gave rise to the myth of the Phoenix?

Friday mystery object #340 answer

Last week I gave you this mandible from the collections of the brilliant Trinity College Zoological Museum to try your hand at identifying:

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It’s quite a distinctive jaw, so I wasn’t too surprised that many of you recognised it, but I was hoping the relatively small size might have caused a little confusion – after all, it’s from a juvenile.

The robust bone and undifferentiated teeth scream “marine mammal” and the scarcity of those large teeth and that long and well-fused mandibular symphysis (the bit at the front where the two halves of the mandible meet) mean that we’re dealing with something that has an unusual approach to eating.

As Wouter van Gestel, Richard Lawrence, Rémi and palfreyman1414 spotted, it’s the mandible of that infamous oyster (and clam) devourer, the Walrus Odobenus rosmarus (Linnaeus, 1758). I’ve talked about these huge pinnipeds on the blog before (many moons ago now) but since then we’ve learned more about how they feed.

One of the most interesting elements of their feeding, apart from the use of suction to remove the soft parts of molluscs from their shells, is the use of their front flippers to create a vortex in the water that keeps the sediment that gets disturbed by their snuffling hunt through the mud from impairing their ability to see. Useful if you want to avoid predators like Orcas.

You can get an idea of what this looks like in this video:

Friday mystery object #340

This week I have a mystery object for you from one of Dublin’s hidden gems, the Trinity College Zoological Museum:

It caught my eye when I was studying some of their Blaschka models for a project I’m involved in and I thought you might like to have a go at working out what this jaw might be from.

Have fun!