Friday mystery object #356 answer

Last week I gave you this rather improbable-looking fuzzball to have a go at identifying:

20190516_164207-01.jpeg

Initial consensus on Twitter suggested that it was some kind of taxidermist’s mash up of a tenrec / shrew / weasel and fox. Particular favourites were:

and:

A similar theme emerged in some comments on the blog, but a useful rule of thumb was shared by ch:

Anything that weird looking is either a taxidermists joke or comes from Madagascar- you’d need to look in every ‘nouc’ and cranny to identify this weasily overlooked carnivoran.

https://paoloviscardi.com/2019/05/17/%ef%bf%bc-friday-mystery-object-356/#comment-67302

Madagascar is well known for weird animals, since the island became isolated from the Indian subcontinent over 85 million years ago, allowing a unique variety of species to evolve and fill the ecological niches present. The oddities present include the Aye-aye (a mammal trying to be a woodpecker), the Fossa (a mongoose trying to be a cat) and the Web-footed tenrec (a tenrec trying to be an otter).

Of course, ch left an additional clue hinting at the correct identification (‘nouc’) which was picked up on by several others. There were also plenty of people on Twitter who recognised this distinctive animal.

The mystery object is a Falanouc Eupleres sp. Doyère, 1835 – notice the sp. There are two species of Falanouc – Eastern (E. goudotii) and Western (E. major), but this species split was only recognised in 2010. Therefore, it’s very difficult to know which this one is, especially without details of where in Madagascar it was collected.

Assuming it was collected in Madagascar. I say that, because it was purchased from London based supplier Gerrard & Sons. This means it could have been acquired from London Zoo, since Gerard had a relationship with the Zoo and often got dead specimens from them.

It’s also tricky to identify the species from morphology, since the differences between the species are most noticeable in the skull. The fur colour can provide a clue as well, but 100+ years of being on display in a gallery illuminated with daylight means the colour is pretty much guaranteed to no longer be as it was in life.

So I think we may have to leave it there, unless I can find any additional information about the specimen in the Dead Zoo’s archives. Whatever the species, I think this mongoose-like insectivorous carnivore with a fox-like body and shrew-like face is as charming as it is improbable.

 Friday mystery object #355 answer

Last week I gave you a unfairly tricky mystery object:

My excuse for the poor photography and lack of scale was the fact I was preoccupied with the epic NatSCA conference (whose hashtag is still yielding some great photos and thoughts if you want to see what it was all about).

It probably doesn’t help that this specimen is missing the toes from its right foot, because it makes it hard to tell if the two toes on its left are the natural state for the bird, or if one toe just happens to be missing. This is an important distinction, as picked up on by sallie reynolds, since a bird with two forward-facing toes will have two rear-facing toes, which is a condition known as zygodactyly and it helps narrow down the possible group of birds it belongs to.

As it turns out, the left foot is intact and the specimen does have the zygodactyl toe arrangement, so it will be from one of nine possible groups (owls, ospreys, parrots, cuckoos, cuckoo-rollers, mousebirds, turacos, some swifts and most woodpeckers and their relatives). The bill makes it pretty clear that this isn’t an owl, osprey, parrot, mousebird, or swift. The big head narrows it down further – more than enough for Wouter van Gestel to identify that it’s a Barbet (in Dutch “Baardvogel” or bearded bird), but it doesn’t really provide enough information to get a species identification.

As it turns out, the taxonomy of the existing identification was more than a little out of date, with the label from 1881 reading Heliobucco bonapartii. Now Heliobucco has not been used as a valid genus for at least 100 years, but fortunately the species name indicates that it was named after Bonaparte (not the Emperor, but a French ornithologist who did happen to be the Napoleon’s nephew). This meant that the fantastic Eponym Dictionary of Birds by Beolens, Watkins & Grayson was able to yield the information I was after. The valid name is now Gymnobucco bonapartei Hartlaub, 1854 which is the Grey-throated Barbet.

gray-throated_barbet_-_kakamega_kenya_06_1744

Grey-throated Barbet. Photo by Francesco Veronesi, 2006

My apologies for setting such a tricky object – I promise to try harder to make it easier next week!

 Friday mystery object #355

It’s NatSCA conference week here in Dublin – the best time of the natural history collections year. If you want to hear about what’s going on you should check it out on Twitter under the hashtag #NatSCA2019.

Of course, that means I this week’s mystery object has been taken from a snap on my phone, as I’ve been a bit bust – so here’s a slightly less than ideal photo of an old and slightly grubby bird skeleton to have a go at identifying:

Any idea what this might be? All suggestions gratefully received!

Friday mystery object #354 answer

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

20190418_165821-01.jpeg

It proved a bit of a tricky one, with most people recognising it as the nest and eggs of a passerine bird, but Bernard was absolutely spot-on with an identification of Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio Linnaeus, 1758 – kudos to Bernard!

1024px-red-backed_shrike_28lanius_collurio29

Female Red-backed Shrike. Pierre Dalous, 2012

Generally, being able to identify eggs and nests has become a less commonplace skill in Europe over the last few decades. This is partly because people with an interest in nature tend to steer clear of nests in order to avoid disturbing breeding birds.

In the first half of the 20th Century collecting wild bird eggs was a popular hobby in many parts of Europe, so people would learn the skills needed to identify eggs from different species. However, these sorts of collections negatively impacted on bird populations and helped motivate development of legislation protecting birds and their nests.

Red-backed Shrikes used to regularly visit and breed in the UK, but they largely ceased nesting in Britain around 30 years ago and they are very rare visitors to Ireland. Recently however, there have been records of some successful breeding pairs in the South West of Britain, so they may be making a shift back into Britain.

Of course, if they do start breeding in the UK they’ll need suitable habitats, which mostly means the thorny scrub in wet areas that they prefer (see Svendsen et al, 2015). This is assuming that these sites avoid the current trend of being netted by developers to prevent birds from nesting.

This cynical practice that has recently become quite widespread in the UK is a used as a mechanism to deter birds from nesting in particular suitable sites, which can delay development thanks to the legal protection on nesting birds that was introduced to help protect bird populations (there’s an interesting article on the topic in the Guardian). By limiting access to nesting sites the developers may avoid breaking the letter of the law, but with suitable habitats in decline, depriving birds of nesting sites does seem to be breaking the spirit in which the laws were made. Not cool.

Friday mystery object #353 answer

Last week I gave you this mystery mandible from a cabinet in my office, that I discovered while clearing things out:

20190404_093615-01

I was a hotly debated mystery, with some very interesting discussions in the comments between salliereynolds, Allen Hazen and palfreyman1414. This narrowed the identification down from carnivore, to mustelid, to otter, to a final suggestion of European Otter Lutra lutra (Linnaeus, 1758) by Allen Hazen.

European Otter by Bernard Landgraf

European Otter by Bernard Landgraf

This was the same conclusion that I’d reached and it’s always nice to get a second independent opinion that agrees. I’ve seen quite a few otter jaws (in fact I’ve had two otter mandibles as previous mystery object – one was from an Asian Short-clawed Otter and the other from the same species as this one).

This now gives me what I need to go looking to see if there’s a European Otter cranium that’s missing a mandible, so I can see if this one fits. That still might be a bit of glass-slipper type situation, as we have quite a few European Otters in the collection. Ireland is a bit of an otter stronghold and I’ve even found one dead in the road right in Dublin, near one of the canals and less than a mile from the Museum.

Sadly I’ve not yet seen a live one in the wild, and even when they are around they tend to keep a low profile and are normally only known because of their distinctively fishy spraints left in visible locations.

On that slightly fishy note I will leave you until next week!