Friday mystery object #323 answer

Last week I gave you this incredibly cute mystery floofball to identify:

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It took approximately 10 minutes for palfreyman1414 to work out what it was and come up with an excellent cryptic clue as to the identity of the genus:

Right, best guess is that this is a genus of tiny anno domini public transportation.

Tiny (=micro) anno domini (=AD aka Christian/Common Era, abbreviated to CE) public transportation (=bus) which gives us Microcebus.

Microcebus É. Geoffroy, 1834 are commonly known as the Mouse Lemurs, a genus containing 24 currently recognised species of tiny Malagasy primates.

Lesser Mouse Lemur by Arjan Haverkamp, 2007

Lesser Mouse Lemur by Arjan Haverkamp, 2007

Normally I’d be looking for a species level identification, but that would be a real challenge, since the members of this diminutive genus are remarkably similar in appearance – especially if you only have a very faded 100+ year old specimen to work from.

In fact, before genetic analysis was available, only two species of Mouse Lemur were formally recognised, with another couple proposed but disputed. In the last 20 years there have been a further 20 new species recognised, meaning that despite the label on the Dead Zoo specimen saying it’s Microcebus murinus (Miller, 1777), it could well be something else – perhaps even a new species yet to be described.

I say that because even though researchers have been busy finding new species, they are mostly working in the field and several of the species being discovered are incredibly rare due to habitat loss in Madagsacar. When our specimen was collected it could easily have been from an area that was logged before researchers had a chance to do genetic work on the Mouse Lemurs present, so there may have been species there that were never discovered before they were lost.

This idea of species being lost before they’re discovered is a depressing, but very real one. Most taxonomists agree that there are around ten times as many species on Earth as have been described by science so far. More are being discovered all the time, but they tend to be from areas with fewer scientists (unsurprisingly), but not necessarily areas with less human impact.

Rainforests are a good example, where species diversity is incredibly high, but dams, logging and slash-and-burn agriculture to support soy, palm oil and cattle farming are gobbling up huge swathes of habitat before biologists have ever seen it.

To put that into some kind of perspective, England and Wales are much less diverse than a rainforest environment, but new species are still being found despite having a couple of centuries of extensive and systematic recording and collecting. The perspective comes from the fact that an area of rainforest the same size as England and Wales is destroyed every year, before it’s ever had a chance to be studied.

I talked about some of the issues of extinction on the Mooney Goes Wild radio programme recently, which is repeated tomorrow morning at 10am if you’re interested in having a listen. You can hear it online through the RTE website and it should come out as a podcast a little later, which I will link to.

More mysteries next week!

Friday mystery object #322 answer

Last week I gave you this new acquisition for the Dead Zoo to identify:

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It’s a detail of something large, and it had a lot of you stumped because it looks like a cross between a marble worktop and pork terrine.

However, if you look closely at the bottom left of the image, you may just be able to make out the shape of a sucker-covered arm, because this – as spotted by palfreyman1414 and jennifermacaire – is a big cephalopod.

When I say big, I mean it’s the second largest species after the Colossal Squid (that I’ve talked about before) – that’s right, it’s a view of part of a large ice cube containing a Giant Squid Architeuthis dux Steenstrup, 1857.

Squid holding sailor by Alphonse de Neuville & Édouard Riou, from Hetzel edition of 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, p. 400.

Squid holding sailor by Alphonse de Neuville & Édouard Riou, from Hetzel edition of 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, p. 400.

This individual isn’t actually particularly giant, measuring in at a meagre 5.8m, including its long thin feeding tentacles – quite big, but hardly Kraken-esque. It was caught 118 miles off the Kerry coast after it found its way into shallower waters than the abyssal depths they normally inhabit. You can see details of how it was caught and a photo of the specimen on the Irish Times website.

I haven’t started the process of preserving for the long term yet, as it will require a bit of time to release the kraken from the ice, a large tank and some nasty chemicals – namely a 10% formalin solution and various strengths of Industrial Methylated Spirits (IMS – which is adulterated alcohol), stepping up to 70% in 10-20% increments. I may also need include an alkali buffer in the tank (marble chips are commonly used) since Giant Squid use ammonium chloride in their tissues to increase their buoyancy and that can acidify the solution, leading to accelerated bleaching of the tissues and long-term damage to the specimen.

Even with good preservation it’s unlikely to ever go on display as a full specimen. I can probably find a big enough jar, but the specimen has been dissected and isn’t really looking its best. However, it may be worth showing some of the elements, like an eye, the beak or maybe an arm or tentacle. These may be in good enough condition to use on display to explain some of the interesting features of these denizens of the deep. The rest of the squid will be there for researchers interested in these large, but elusive, molluscs.

Friday mystery object #321 answer

Last week I gave you this fuzzy object from the stores of the Dead Zoo:

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It’s a slightly generic looking creature and I’m not surprised a few ideas for identification were mooted, because it lacks any single distinctive feature in this image (partly because the characteristic grizzled facial hair is a bit indistinguishable due to historic soot). That didn’t stop Wouter van Gestel, Mike Shanahan, RobinBirrrd, James Bryant, and jor from recognising it though.

This is the wonderfully weird Bearcat or Binturong Arctictis binturong Temminck, 1824 which is a South and Southeast Asian carnivore in the viverid family (those are the civets) that is one of only two carnivores with a prehensile tail (I’ve talked about the other one, the Kinkajou, in a previous blogpost).

Like the Kinkajou, the Binturong isn’t a very carnivorous carnivore. It eats more figs than meat and it lacks the restless dynamism of the average predator, plodding flat-footedly on the ground and climbing well, albeit in a much slower and more measured way than other arboreal carnivores that take killing a bit more seriously.

Binturong by Greg Hume, 2017

Binturong displaying characteristic levels of activity. Image by Greg Hume, 2017

Apart from the unusual prehensile tail, the living Binturong has one other unusual characteristic (as pointed out by RobinBirrrd) – it smells like popcorn. This is due to the emissions of its musk gland, situated conveniently near the genitals and anus. Sadly our specimen smells more like a half-washed dog that’s been rolling in mothballs.

More mysteries next week!

Friday mystery object #321

This week I thought I’d give you a break from the bones and offer up a fuzzball for some Friday fun:mystery321

Any idea what this (slightly dusty looking) critter from the collections might be?

It’s probably a bit too easy for some of you, so cryptic clues and subtly veiled hints would be appreciated in the comments section please. Have fun!

Friday mystery object #320 answer

Happy New Year everyone!

Last week I gave you this skull to identify from the collections of the Dead Zoo in Dublin :

King Vulture Sarcoramphus papa (Linnaeus, 1758)

I also included the label, since it offers an interesting taxonomic twist.20171228_163420.jpg

If there’s one principle that I hope I’ve managed to convey over the last eight and half years of doing the Friday mystery object, is that you should never fully trust the label.

For starters, the number NMINH:2006.12.1698 could be misleading, as it reflects the year the specimen was catalogued rather than the year it was acquired. To explain, the NMI uses a very sensible numbering system that starts with the collection (NMINH = National Museum of Ireland Natural History) the year of registration (usually the year of acquisition) which allows you to know which register to look in, followed by the lot number (a sequential number reflecting how many acquisitions have come in that year), followed by the individual object number (the sequential number of that individual item in a particular lot). This system can have additional numbers added if necessary, such as if a piece of an individual object is removed for sampling.

However, some older objects were not registered when they entered the collection and as such they get a number that reflects the year they were documented rather than the year they were acquired. In this case the specimen was registered in 2006, but purchased from an auction of the collections of van Lidth de Jeude who died in 1863, as Nigel (the Dead Zoo Keeper) helpfully pointed out in the comments.

If the specimen had been accessioned and numbered on entering the collection back in the 1860’s then issues with the name would be expected since taxonomy constantly changes and old names are often wrong, but because of the new label and the 2006 date, you’d generally expect the name to be more up-to-date. However, it appears that the information on an old label was directly transcribed without being updated.

This is relevant because the name Orogyps auricularis is what we call a junior synonym, which means it has been used to describe a species that already has an older valid name. When this happens the older name takes precedence. In this case, Orogyps auricularis is a name applied in 1867 by Degland and Gerbe to a species that had already been named Vultur tracheliotos  by J.R. Forster in 1796 and which is now placed in a different genus, giving the name Torgos tracheliotos (Forster, 1796) – where the parentheses around the author name indicate that the scientific name has changed from the original version that was published by Forster.

These taxonomic and documentation twists are however rendered redundant as soon as you realise that this specimen is from a totally different species. In fact it’s not really anything like Torgos tracheliotos the Lappet-faced Vulture:

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Lappet-faced vulture

In fact, the only real similarity lies in the tip of the beak, which is a functional feature for tearing meat and which is convergent between the Old World Vultures and the New World Vultures. The Lappet-faced Vulture is an African species, while the mystery object has the distinctive deflection of the bill in the nasal region that indicates it’s a species from the Americas. This discrepancy in region was noted by palfreyman1414 and Gerard van den Brink.

Once you focus on the New World Vultures it becomes quite easy to make an identification, since there are only seven species and at 121mm this specimen is the third largest species after the condors – something easy to check on Skullsite. So well done to everyone who recognised the skull as belonging to the King Vulture Sarcoramphus papa (Linnaeus, 1758), especially palfreyman1414 who got there first.

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King Vulture by Eric Kilby, 2008

As you can see, not only was the taxonomy very out of date for this specimen, it was also completely wrong, because it was misidentified 150 years ago. This is why you should never fully trust labels – they will often be wrong and if you base research on misidentified specimens, that will be wrong too.

Another mystery specimen next week!