Friday mystery object #362 answer

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


I thought that it might be a bit on the easy side for some of you – especially Wouter van Gestel who is one on the brains behind the fantastic Skullsite resource, that I expect everyone is familiar with by now.

The skeleton of this bird isn’t really all that distinctive, but the skull – particularly the bill – is very distinctive indeed, although this photo doesn’t capture the full weirdness.


Wouter’s cryptic clue:

Apparently, this species processes sound twice as well as you might expect from a bird.

was a hint at the scientific name Cochlearius cochlearius (Linnaeus, 1766) – playing on the fact that the name comes from the same source as the name for the cochlea, which is a part of the inner ear that has a snail-like shape. The common name, as hinted at by Richard Lawrence is Boat-billed Heron, as you can see a bit more clearly here:


Boat-billed Heron. Photo by Patrick Coin, 2007

These odd looking birds are members of the Ardeidae or heron family, but rather than having the spear-like bill of the classic Grey Heron, they have broad bills used for scooping up prey in the shallow, murky waters of Mangrove swamps in Central and South America.

They have big eyes and that large, sensitive bill to help catch small fish and crustaceans in the shade or at night. This nocturnal habit is common in the Nycticoracidae a subfamily commonly known as night herons, as mentioned by Josep Antoni Alcover in his clue in the comments.

So well done to everyone who recognised this unusual animal – more mysteries next week!

Friday mystery object #361 answer

Last week I gave you what looks like a pickled cauliflower floret to identify:


As most of you worked out, this is a soft coral, although Tony Irwin was more detailed with his cryptic suggestion placing it in the Nephtheidae, and mpbx3003’s clue was spot on.

The name on the jar is Eunephthya florida (Rathke, 1806), but as with the last mystery object, there’s been a change in name. Eunephthya is now only applied to a genus that happens to be found in South Africa. This specimen is now considered to be in the genus Duva and the species name florida is more of a reflection of the fact it has a flushed pink colour in life than any reference to the American state.

Most soft corals they tend to live in warm shallow waters of the Atlantic, so Florida wouldn’t be a bad bet for where this might come from, but it actually happens to be one of the more unusual cold and deep water species. This particular specimen is from off the West coast of Ireland at a depth of between 738-900m (410-500 fathoms in old money).

Unlike the shallow water corals, these ones don’t get enough light to photosynthesise using symbiotic dinoflagellates, so they rely on capturing zooplankton from the dark but rich cold waters of the Atlantic.

Friday mystery object #360 answer (not really)

Last week I gave you a specimen with a radial arrangement to mark the 360th mystery object:


It’s a stony coral of some sort, as everyone in the comments recognised. The shape also suggests that it’s a solitary coral, as it forms one cup containing the radial arrangement of septa.

I picked this specimen as it’s one on the (currently inaccessible) balcony in the Dead Zoo and I was a bit doubtful about the identification on the label (see below).


I must admit, I did liked the idea of this being a giant Caryophillia smithi, since that’s the Devonshire Cup Coral and the previous mystery object was a Cornish Sucker, so I thought it would be nice to do a tour around the Southwest of England in specimens.

However, I don’t think that’s possible, since Devonshire Cup Corals are much smaller than this (up to a maximum of about 25mm across). I also harbour doubts that this specimen was collected in S.W. Ireland, so I think there may have been a mix up with the labels. This can happen for a variety of reasons, but most commonly when an object gets temporarily moved and not put back with the right label.

The specimen does look like one of the Caryophylliidae, although corals are notoriously difficult to identify as different families can converge on very similar forms. There is a great key dealing with stony corals that should shed some light on this, but unfortunately I’ve not had a chance to put it to use yet.

At some point I will need to go through all of the labels in the exhibitions at the Dead Zoo to check the accuracy, since most are over 100 years out of date and changes in taxonomy mean that the majority of labels on display will have some kind of error now. With around 10,000 specimens on display this is not a job that can be done overnight…