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.

Belated Friday mystery object #328 answer

The other Friday I gave you this specimen to have a go at identifying, but alas when the time came to write an answer I was at the Natural Sciences Collections Association (normally just called NatSCA) conference (which has been referred to as “the highlight of the natural history curator’s year”) and as a result I didn’t get much of a chance to write an answer or even read the comments.

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Now I’m back, buoyed up by the fantastic shared experience of the conference (take a look at the #NatSCA2018 hashtag to get an idea of what was going on) and I’ve finally have a chance to look at the specimen, read the comments and write an answer. I was delighted to find some great cryptic poetry, prose and comments – some requiring perhaps a little more intellectual prowess than I’m capable of commanding, especially after an intense few days of conferencing (sorry salliereynolds!)

This specimen has a somewhat thrush-like appearance, but the hooked tip of the bill doesn’t quite sit right for a member of the Turdidae (the family of true thrushes). This somewhat raptorial feature of the beak is seen more in birds like the Laniidae (shrikes) and some of the Saxicolinae (chats). It’s the chats that I’m interested in with regard to this specimen, although not the “typical” chats. The ones I’m interested in have been moved around taxonomically a fair bit.

A lot of birds with a thrush-like general appearance will have been called a “something-thrush” by Europeans and will have kept that in their common name even after taxonomy has moved on and that species has been moved out of the Turdidae. In the Saxicolinae there are a lot of birds that were once considered thrushes and one genus in particular tends towards being a fairly dark colour with blue elements – Myophonus or the whistling-thrushes.

The distribution of glossy blue feathers on members of Myophonus is variable and reasonably distinctive. Also, because these glossy feather colours are structural, they don’t tend to fade in old museum specimens like the colour from pigments. In this specimen the blue patch is fairly dull and confined to the shoulder (or epaulet) and the rest of the plumage is even more dull – possibly faded, but also possibly because it’s female (we all know that it’s usually the boys that are show-offs).

Keeping in mind the distinctive bill, overall size and pattern of colouration, a trawl through the epic Del Hoyo, et al. Handbook of the Birds of the World -Volume 10 yielded one description that fit rather well – that of the female Javan Whistling-thrush Myophonus glaucinus (Temminck, 1823).

These forest dwelling birds live in, you guessed it, Java. They feed on various invertebrates and frogs, a slightly ramped-up diet from thrushes, necessitating a hooked bill tip to keep the more jumpy morsels from getting away.

More mysteries to come this Friday!

 

Friday mystery object #328

This Friday I have a feathery object for you to have a go at identifying. I stumbled across this specimen in the Dead Zoo stores and noticed it didn’t have a species identification (and the genus name also looked dubious to me). Any ideas what species this might be?

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As usual, you can put your thoughts, questions and suggestions in the comments box below. Cryptic clues are fun, poems are delightful but I do love a short story, so if you want to include the identification in a bit of short prose please give it a go!

Friday mystery object #327 answer

Last week I gave you this mystery bone to identify:

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As I suspected, it was simultaneously easy and difficult: easy because it’s clearly an os penis or baculum; difficult because it can be hard to narrow down the species to which a baculum belongs without having specimens for comparison. For some reason people can be funny about penis bones and, despite the fact that male animals tend to be over-represented in museums, the baculum will often have been removed or not included in skeletal mounts.

That said, Steph came closest, getting the right family with the clue:

Bac to the bear-minimum I would guess?

If you remember one of my past posts I showed an image of the baculum mounted on the skeleton of a Giant Panda in Berlin (more about this below):

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You can see that, although it differs slightly with a bit of a dip towards the tip, it’s rather similar in structure to the mystery object.

Oddly however, it appears that this baculum on the Berlin Panda specimen has been switched for that of a different bear species. Pandas have a very distinctive reduced baculum with wings (see below), that looks nothing like this, which is more similar to the os penis of a Spectacled Bear (or possibly a Polar Bear at a push).

The mystery object is actually the baculum of a Sloth Bear Melursus ursinus (Shaw, 1791).

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N.B. note that the writer of this label couldn’t quite bring themselves to write the full word “penis”

In future, should you ever find yourself with an unidentified bear penis on your hands, I suggest taking a look at this handy figure by Abella et al. 2013¹:

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Baculum in laterial view of: A Helarctos malayanus; B Ursus thibetanus; C Tremarctos ornatus; D Ursus americanus; E Melursus ursinus; F Ursus arctos; G Ursus maritimus; H Indarctos arctoides; I Ventral view of the Baculum of Ailuropoda melanoleuca; J Dorsal view of the baculum of Ailuropoda melanoleuca.

So in answering one mystery object we’ve uncovered a far bigger mystery – how did the Berlin Panda end up with the wrong penis?

 

¹Abella J, Valenciano A, Pérez-Ramos A, Montoya P, Morales J (2013) On the Socio-Sexual Behaviour of the Extinct Ursid Indarctos arctoides: An Approach Based on Its Baculum Size and Morphology. PLoS ONE 8(9): e73711. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0073711

Friday mystery object #327

This week I have a mystery object for you that I expect you will find simultaneously easy and difficult:

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If you’ve been following my blog for a while, I expect you’ll be able to work out what this bone is quite easily – however, you may struggle a bit more to work out which species it came from.

Cryptic answers are encouraged as always – but mainly have some fun with this one!