Friday mystery object #334 answer

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

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It’s a type of beetle – so a member of the Coleoptera or “sheathe wing” as palfreyman1414 pointed out) – in the family Dermestidae (as Wouter van Gestel intimated) and the species is Reesa vespulae (Milliron, 1939) as Tony Irwin hinted at with his cryptic clue:

Sometimes attached to a mogg, this seems to belong to a diminutive scooter

There were several other nice cryptic suggestions in the comments section, plus some on Twitter, so very well done to everyone who worked out what this was.

The species gets the name vespulae from its affinity with wasp nests, where it feeds on dead wasps and the scraps of insects that the adult wasps feed their larvae, so they’re sometimes called the Wasp-nest dermestid.

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The natural target of Reesa vespulae

These tiny beetles can strikes terror into the heart of a museum curator, since they are well adapted to feed on dried insect remains (of which we have huge numbers making up our collections) and they are parthenogenic – meaning that they reproduce without mating (only females of the species are known) and just one individual is all it takes to create a full-blown infestation.

Damage caused by a Reesa vespulae infestation

Damage caused by a Reesa vespulae infestation

You can tell them apart from some of the other dermestid beetles (many of which are also museum pests) because they have ‘hairy’ elytra (or wingcases) with a lighter coloured patch on each of their ‘shoulders’ (they’re not shoulders, but you probably get what I mean).

If you find one of these wee beasts in your collection, be afraid – be very afraid!

Friday mystery object #333 answer

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

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I decided that this didn’t need a cryptic answer, since species in the Order of insects that this belongs to can be quite tricky to identify. The Order is of course the Diptera as this has two wings rather than the four most insects have – that means it’s a true fly (as palfreyman1414 pointed out).

Those pointy but sturdy mouthparts (unlike the pointy and skinny mouthparts of things like mosquitoes) give the family that this fly belongs to one of their common names – this is a type of “dagger fly” in the family Empididae – which you can tell from the antennae structure (three segments with the segment at the end being the longest). That helps narrow it down a little, but after that it’s a case of checking against things like wing veination and pattern – note the black line along the back.

Very well done to Emmanuel and James Bryant who noted these features and hit upon the correct genus. This specimen is Empis stercorea Linnaeus, 1761.

This specimen is actually mounted on a microscope slide, which makes it look a little weird:

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The label gives us the species, the sex (female) and the common name of “Corn-fly”, which I’ve seen used for a variety of fly species, but not for one of the Empididae. A bit of searching shows that this name is an old one used for Empis sp. in US catalogues for microscope equipment and mounted insects in the 18th Century.

There’s also a circular mark bearing a Wyvern (a two legged winged dragon), which is presumably a makers mark, although I’ve not yet managed to track down who the maker is.

More mysteries next week!

Friday mystery object #332 answer

Last week I gave you this beach-loving little bird to try your hand at identifying:

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I had a feeling that one or two of you would know exactly what it is, while others would have a pretty good idea of the type of bird, but not the species, since there are quite a few birds on the world’s shorelines that look something like this.

The Waders are a clump of groups of shore birds in the Order Charadriiformes (which also includes non-waders, like Gulls) and the small to medium sized waders, with long straight bills like this one, are mainly in the Family Scolopacidae or Sandpipers (nicely suggested by palfreyman1414 with the cryptic clue “a silicaceous rat enchanter“).

However, there are quite a few species in the sandpiper family – around 80 in total – so there’s still quite a lot to choose from. However, the small size, brown upper parts, white underparts with some spots (only in the breeding season), yellowish legs and bill with a dark tip all point to a widespread wader from North America – the Spotted Sandpiper Actitis macularia (Linnaeus, 1766).

Spotted Sandpiper, at Bluffer's Park (Toronto, Canada), by Factumquintus, c.2005

Spotted Sandpiper, at Bluffer’s Park (Toronto, Canada), by Factumquintus, c.2005

Although this species is from North America, the specimen was actually collected in Ireland – in Finnea, County Westmeath to be more precise. As migratory birds they can sometimes crop up quite a long way from where you’d expect to find them, especially following big storms. Without the spotted breeding plumage it would be very hard to distinguish the specimen from the Common Sandpiper that occurs in Europe, as they are very similar looking birds, apart from the spots.

So well done to Wouter van Gestel, jennifermacaire, and palfreyman1414 who managed to recognised the species, despite the taxidermy being a little jaded.

There will be another mystery next week.

 

Friday mystery object #331 answer

Last week I gave you these skulls from the collections of the Dead Zoo to have a go at identifying:

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The reason for picking these was because I had an enquiry challenging the label associated with a specimen that was on display, and on checking there had clearly been some kind of mix-up, because the first mystery object had been identified as a False Killer Whale Pseudorca crassidens Owen, 1846 – which was definitely wrong.

The second mystery specimen is in fact the False Killer Whale (an identification that palfreyman1414 got right, supported by Rémi), whose label had been mixed up. That left the first mystery object still to be solved. Obviously it’s a toothed whale of some sort and the scale suggests it’s not a porpoise (a bit big) and it’s clearly too small to be one of the bigger dolphins (like a Killer Whale or Pilot Whale).

Generally it takes a bit of time looking at dolphin skulls from a few angles before you can start to get your eye in for identification – they just look so weird compared to the skulls of other mammals. They can also photograph quite poorly due to the large size – by which I mean that the height, length and breadth of a specimen can be distorted considerably in an image depending on small changes in the angle it sits at and the distance between the camera and the specimen.

However, the things I always try to look out for are the shape of the rostrum (or snout), the slope of the forehead, the patterns made by sutures between the bones around the nares (nostrils) and sutures between the bones in the ‘cheek’ area.

In this case there’s a very steep forehead, with a small bump midway, an upward deflection of the posterior maxillary margin (it looks like it’s got a bit of a smirk) and the sutures around the nares and the general shape of the nares all adds up to make me think that this is a White-beaked Dolphin Lagenorhynchus albirostris (Gray, 1846).

Imagine how pleased I was when I discovered that there was a label with that name on it, hiding in a different case and missing a specimen!

Friday mystery object #330 answer

Last week I gave you three guest mystery objects from The Écomusée du pays de Rennes to try your hand at identifying:

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Now these are genuine mysteries because in the words of Paul Offelman-Flohic, who provided these images: “No one really remembers how we get all of the specimens because some were donated by visitors, some we collected, some were donated by the agronomy school here in Rennes, Bretagne… In the pictures you will find things I found in the darkness of a cupboard that went through a fire (no joke) which might explain their bad condition.”

To give you an idea of what the specimens are used for, here’s what Paul says about the Museum:

“The Écomusée du pays de Rennes is installed in an old farm researchers dated back to the 15th century. 30 years ago, the City of Rennes bought the farm to create a museum interested in explaining the link between the network of farms surrounding the city and the evolution of lifestyle in both the city and the country. Related to that, the Écomusée presents livestock of local breeds and different orchard trees that our ancestors would have found around Rennes.

We welcome a lot of pupils and students and the specimens are really useful to us when we are working with our visitors (young and old).”

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Some of the specimens used in education at the Écomusée du pays de Rennes

This approach sounds like a fantastic way to integrate an understanding of how the human and natural world are entirely interlinked (unlike the interpretive approach of many museums, which treat natural history and human history as separate concepts) and it’s great that we can help add some identifications to these unlabelled specimens for the Écomusée.

As pointed out by Sergio, these specimens are all examples of Deyrolle didactic products (Deyrolle is a famous natural history emporium in Paris that has been selling educational scientific specimens and charts since 1831). These particular specimens show bony parts of two common species that have interesting and unique characteristics which are often referred to when teaching comparative and functional anatomy.

First up is the complete skeleton in a characteristic pose:

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Several people suggested that this was a Toad Bufo bufo, but if you look closely at the skull you can just make out some teeth in the maxilla:

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This means it can’t be a Toad as they lack teeth – it seems more likely to be one of the toothed frogs in the family Ranidae, probably Rana temporaria Linnaeus, 1758.

This specimen demonstrates adaptations to jumping in the Anura (frogs and toads), with the long and folded hind limbs that provide a lot of propulsive power – also useful in the water, thanks to the large feet.

Next up is the skull, which looks a bit shrewy, but as Rémi pointed out, it has a zygomatic arch (which is absent from shrews), plus the teeth are wrong for a Hedgehog (which has a relatively shorter face and is generally more robust).

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This is the skull of a European Mole Talpa europaea, Linnaeus, 1758. Its long, tapered, cylindrical shape is ideal for an animal that lives in a tube of its own creation and those teeth are like meat grinders for dealing with earthworms.

Finally there was the very distinctive limb:

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The reason it’s so distinctive is largely down to the fact that it is remarkably broad and powerful and it has an extra ‘digit’, which is actually a bone from the wrist that’s been recruited to add more area to the big shovel-like hands. This helps this animal dig its way through soil in its hunt for earthworms. It is of course the forelimb of a European Mole.

I think that apart from a couple of mix ups between toads and fogs, everyone ended up getting the species, often with some nice puns, cryptic clues and even a poem (nice work joe band) so well done to Sergio, Chris, palfreyman1414, Wouter van Gestel, Allen Hazen, Rémi, jennifermaccaire, Wood, and salliereynolds.

More mysteries next week!

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!