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As it turns out, the taxonomy of the existing identification was more than a little out of date, with the label from 1881 reading Heliobucco bonapartii.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!

Friday mystery object #353

I’m currently in the process of moving office, which means sorting through the cupboards and drawers of my predecessors, to try to impose some kind of order on my workspace. If you want an idea of what my office looked like, there’s a lovely video that artist Vicky McGarry did that gives a pretty good idea. In it I also mention something interesting that I found in an office drawer in a different museum I used to work at…

Now I’m moving on up (literally, another couple of flights of stairs) into a more suitable space with an office area and a separate space for working with collections.

While emptying my current office I’ve found all sorts of wonderful things, ranging from a magical* pocket sundial, to a wide variety of specimens.

20190403_150356

Here’s one of the specimens that was in a cupboard, with no label or associated information, that could use an identification:

20190404_093615-01

Mystery mandible with a snazzy NatSCA scale bar

Any idea what this separated mandible belonged to?

All suggestions welcome – I have my theories, but I’d be delighted to hear yours. Have fun!

 

*Not actually magical

Friday mystery object #352 answer

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

20170213_114120-01.jpeg

I thought that some of you would find it quite easy and I wasn’t wrong, although it’s not quite as straightforward as I thought.

Our regular ornithology expert Wouter van Gestel was straight in with an interesting answer that highlights some of the idiosyncrasies of museum specimens, where the colour of features like bills and legs can fade after death. This can make identifications tricky, since colour can play an important role in distinguishing between species in the same genus. In addition, the maturity of the animal can also complicate identifications, since juveniles can have different colours and markings to adults.

That makes this specimen doubly hard to identify and jennifermacaire pointed out an additional idiosyncrasy – the glass eye used by the taxidermist. The choice of eye is an important one, since eyes play an important role in making something look as it did when it was alive. In this case I think they used an eye that was too large with too much iris showing.

Both Wouter and Jennifer identified this as a Tropicbird, and both thought it was the White-tailed species. However, according to the Museum database the specimen is a young Red-billed Tropicbird Phaeton aethereus Linnaeus, 1758.

Red-billed tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus mesonauta) with chick, Little Tobago by Charles J Sharp, 2014

Red-billed tropicbird with chick – note the yellow bill on the chick. Image by Charles J Sharp, 2014

Now I’m going to check the identification again, since it isn’t unusual for specimens to be misidentified. This is a problem in museums, since specimens come from all sorts of sources and not all of them are necessarily expert.

I recently had to check the identification of a couple of Tern specimens from Jamaica for an enquiry. If the specimens had been the species they were originally recorded as, it would have been the only record of the species on Jamaica and it may have hinted at a lost population. In the end it was a simple misidentification of a common species.

20190215_114626

This is part of the reason why specimens in museums are so important – they provide a primary record that can be checked to ensure information about biodiversity is correct, so we can understand things like changes in population distribution with confidence.