Friday mystery object #339 answer

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

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I was deliberately mean and only provided a lateral view, since I reckoned that many of you would be able to work out what it was from that.

I was not disappointed, although it definitely made things a bit more difficult.

The bill shape is fairly long and fairly thin, which is often characteristic of birds that feed in water or wet mud, but there a lot of birds which do that.  This one is somewhere between a mud-probing and worm-catching wader like a Redshank and one of the stabby-faced-fish-catchers, like an Egret.  However, there are a couple of things that make the skull different to things like either of these – unlike the herons it has an inferior angular process (that bit that sticks down at the bottom of the mandible near the articulation with the cranium). A lot of birds don’t have this, although many of the charadriiforms (waders like the Redshank) do, although theirs is a different shape – tending to be broader, rounder and generally less well-defined.

This combined with the size (around 75mm) and the bump in the upper part of the bill near the junction with the cranium leads us towards a more secretive bird that does a bit of stabby-faced-fish-catching and a bit of worm-catching. As ably hinted at by Richard Lawrence, Wouter van Gestel, salliereynolds and joe vans, this is in fact the skull of a Water Rail Rallus aquaticus Linnaeus, 1758.

These odd birds are omnivorous and well-adapted for skulking through reed-beds, with a narrow profile and high-stepping gait. As with most birds of dense habitats, they have a loud and distinctive call referred to as ‘sharming’, which they will do while they are feeding – which may contribute to their vulnerability to introduced Mink, which follow their sound and ambush the birds while they’re preoccupied with feeding themselves.

Tune in next week for another mystery object!

Friday mystery object #338 answer

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

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I thought it would prove tricky and I wasn’t wrong. For starters, it’s not a great photo – you can’t see many of the more distinctive features that might provide a clue, like the face with the nose shape. This wasn’t because I was trying to hide anything, it was simply because things have been very busy recently and I took this photo in a hurry as a record of a new specimen, rather than as an image for the Friday mystery object.

However, there are some clues available. First of all, the wing claw is on a short digit, unlike the long finger that you see in the fruitbats – plus it doesn’t have the big eyes that the fruitbats have so this is one of the microbats. Next, the scale shows that this animal would have a body length around 10cm – which is pretty big for one of the microbats.

Then you don’t have a big visible nose structure, which considering the angle of the photo doesn’t mean there isn’t one, but if it has one it’s not very prominent. In fact, there may be something a bit misleading in that area – a shiny black bump in the nose area that almost looks like a fake nose has been stuck on. This in fact is a bit if a clue as to the identify of this bat.

It’s actually a waxy secretion from just behind the nose that the males of this species produce as a signal to females and, I can attest, it’s quite pungent smelling. This combined with the colour of the fur suggests that this is a Diadem Round-leaf Bat Hipposideros diadema (É. Geoffroy, 1813).

20180913_170608-01.jpegThis is a very widespread species with a range from South East Asia to the top of Australia. Because they’re quite large and heavy they’re not very manoeuvrable, so they ambush their prey of large moths and beetles from a perch, launching themselves at anything their sonar picks up as it flies by. In fact these bats are big enough to take small birds and those large canines combined with having a very high bite force mean the Diadem Round-leaf Bat is able to handle these bigger prey and for researchers it’s reported to have a very painful bite.

This particular specimen was presented to the Museum by Customs, who seized it in the post because it lacked the appropriate import paperwork. I’m now in a bit of a quandary about what to do with the waxy secretion on the head. It has gummed down the leaf on the nose and it smells pretty strongly, so it make the specimen less useful for display, but it is still an interesting feature of the biology. It may a case of removing a sample and keeping it in a small tube with the specimen and then cleaning the rest off, so the full beauty of this bat’s face can be revealed.

 

Friday mystery object #337 answer

Last week I gave you this largely amorphous blob to have a go at identifying:

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Perhaps unsurprisingly it proved quite tricky, with most people opting for a brain, heart or gland of some kind. However, believe it or not, this is actually a whole animal.

In the comments a close suggestion came from palfreyman1414 who said:

“…invasive crab lip parasitical crustacean isolated…”

Tony Irwin clearly knew the actual answer with a nicely crafted cryptic link to the two common sequential hosts of this animal, the Flounder and the Cod. Meanwhile, on Twitter there were another couple of suggestions – one was a good general biological principle:

The other was a straight-up correct answer from Dr Ross Piper, an old zoological buddy from postgrad days and an aficionado of odd animals:

This is indeed a Codworm or Lernaeocera branchialis (Linnaeus, 1767) a type of copepod parasite that has a life history in which they spend part of their mobile larval stage parasitising flounders (and similar fish that sit around a lot) until they’re able to mate, at which point the fertilised female seeks out one of the mobile gadoid fish (the Cod family), where she gets into the gills and plumbs herself in to the Cod’s blood supply right at the heart, with her egg sacs at the gills and protected by the operculum (gill covers). She then spends the rest of her life sustained by fish blood, releasing eggs into the water and looking like a black pudding being eaten by maggots. Now those are life goals.

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Adult female Codworm in Whiting gills. Image by Hans Hillewaert, 2006

Friday mystery object #336 answer

Last week I gave you this impressive beetle to try your hand at identifying:

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Now although it’s big and showy, beetles can be hard to identify because there are just so many of them and closely related species can be very hard to tell apart.

This one has distinctive elongated jaws that mark it as being one of the stag beetles (family Lucanidae), which narrows it down, although there are well over a thousand species in the family. This one is a little bigger than most and the jaws are relatively unbranched, with a cleft at the end of a relatively squared-off and downward deflected ‘antler’.

Those ‘antlers’ are used by the males to wrestle for access to females, who have much more sensibly sized jaws and are smaller. Effectively they’re doing the same thing as deer and this is a good example of how evolution can lead to similar trends in behaviour and even sexual dimorphism across very different animal groups.

I think this is Mesotopus tarandus Swederus, 1787 which is a species from West Africa that is becoming increasingly popular in the pet trade. It has slightly shorter ‘antlers’ than the other species (or possibly subspecies) in the same genus, M. regius.

As you probably know, I’m more familiar with vertebrate identification than insects, so I was fortunate to have my intern Esmeralda, who is a keen coleopterist helping narrow this down, although I’m pleased to congratulate jennifermacaire who was on the same track with her identification.

Another mystery next week!

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!

 

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 #325 answer(ish)

Last week I gave you the challenge of identifying this bit of bone found in a rockpool in Kimmeridge by 7 year old Annie:

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It’s not the easiest item to identify for a variety of reasons. First of all it’s broken, only showing one end and probably missing quite a lot of the element. Next, the images don’t show all of the angles you might want to see and because the object is small the images aren’t as clear as you might like.

However, there are a few angles visible (see below) and there is a scale, so the main requirements to get an approximate identification are in place. I say approximate, because with something like this I think you really need the object in your hand where you can compare it to other material in detail if you want to make a confident identification.

Excuses aside, let’s take a look and see what it might be…

The first thing to note is that the bone is hollow with thin walls. This rules out fish, reptiles, amphibians and mammals (including humans jennifermacaire) – leaving birds.

Weathered mammal bones may have a void in the bone where the marrow would have been, but the cortex (outside layer) will be thicker and near the articular surface it tends to be quite solid.

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Hollow bone = bird (usually)

Next, the articular surface of the bone is concave, which palfreyman1414 picked up on:

As far as I recall (mentally running through images in my head) both ends of the proximal limb bones in tetrapods have convex ends?

This is accurate, but while the proximal (near end) of the limb bones are convex, the more distal (far end) limb bones tend to have concave ends, so that helps narrow down what this bony element might be.

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Concave articulation

For me the give-away here is the fact that there’s no ridge within the concavity of the articular surface, which means that it will allow movement in several directions – something that the bones of bird feet don’t really need, which is why bird lower legs,  feet and toes have a raised ridge inside the articular surface that corresponds with a groove in the other surface, keeping the articulation of the joint tightly constrained.

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Articulation of Shag phalanx showing raised ridge

However, bird wing need to make a wider range of motion (at least in some species), so the mystery object is most likely the distal end of a bird radius (the ulna tends to have a hook at the distal end). This is the conclusion that Wouter van Gestel and DrewM also came to (joe vans should’ve stuck to his guns).

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Distal articulation if duck radius

Identifying the species of bird is a lot more complicated. The size suggests a pretty big bird, which narrows it down and the locality in which it was found makes some species more likely than others. I took a look at the radius of some species that are commonly found on the coast, like Guillemot, Herring Gull, Duck, Cormorant/Shag and Gannet, Skimmer, Pigeon and I also checked out Chicken, since their bones are probably the most commonly occurring on the planet.

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Gannet radius with some distinctive structure around the articulation

Many of the species I checked had quite a distinctive structure around the distal radius articulation, but the gulls, ducks and chickens that I looked at had fairly unremarkable distal radius articulations, making it hard to definitively decide what the mystery object is based on the images.

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Herring Gull radius

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Chicken radius

 

So with that somewhat disappointing conclusion I admit partial defeat, but I can say that it’s not from a Cormorant, Shag, Gannet, Pigeon or Guillemot. Sorry I can’t be more specific Annie!

Unfortunately that’s just how the identification game works sometimes… we’ll try again with something new 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 #315 answer

Last week I gave you this big bug to identify:

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I had a feeling it would be fairly straightforward for some of you, since insects as big as this are reasonably distinctive, and I was therefore not disappointed with the flurry of correct identifications.

The first with a correct identification in the comments was Chris, who hinted at the scientific name with this suggestion:

Trying to identify this Cic-sac? Tho phar, Tho good! (Excuth the lithp!)

On social media people made suggestions relating to the common name for the species, mostly pointing out that it’s very loud. Putting the various hints together gives you the Double-drummer Cicada Thopha saccata (Fabricius, 1803).

Cicadas are weird. They’re in the Order Hemiptera (the true bugs) and the Suborder Homoptera (although that’s disputed and it’s probably safer to say Auchenorrhyncha). Best known for being noisy and having some species with synchronised emergence times that vary between every year and up to every 17 years, or somewhere in-between depending on species and environment. They have widely spaced eyes and a blunt head that is pretty distinctive.

As jennifermacaire pointed out regarding cicadas:

According to Plato, “[This species] used to be human beings who lived before the birth of the Muses. When the Muses were born and song was created for the first time, some of the people of that time were so overwhelmed with the pleasure of singing that they forgot to eat or drink; so they died without even realizing it. It is from them that the race of the [these insects] came into being; and, as a gift from the Muses, they have no need of nourishment once they are born. Instead, they immediately burst into song, without food or drink, until it is time for them to die. After they die, they go to the Muses and tell each one of them which mortals have honored her.”
– Phaedrus

The implications of this is that adult cicadas have a general inability to feed, although this isn’t quite true, since adult cicadas may still feed on sap.

This particular cicada is Australian and is one of the loudest insects on the planet, able to produce a call of over 120 decibels – loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage if right up against a human ear.

The abdomen is fairly hollow in the males of these insects, creating a resonating chamber, but sadly the last segment of this specimen has fallen off, making it hard to be sure of the gender on the basis of the genitals. However, the males have a couple of resonating sacs behind the hind-wing that is missing from this specimen, suggesting that it’s a female.

As far as noisy neighbours go, these insects are an occasional disruption, popping up every 4-6 years and making a noise that is apparently similar to high-pitched bagpipes.

It doesn’t sound great to me, so I’m (not so) secretly glad that I only have to deal with dead examples of these fascinating insects.

More mystery object fun next week!

Friday mystery object #310 answer

Last week I thought it was time for some more bones, so I gave you this specimen from the Dead Zoo to have a go at identifying:

mystery310

There was no scale, the photo is far from ideal and the specimen isn’t in the best condition, but the animal is pretty distinctive, so I thought it wouldn’t prove too much of a challenge – and it turns out that I was right.

Palfreyman1414 was the first to identify it to genus level, correctly recognising that it was one of the two Notoryctes species of Marsupial Mole from Australia.

The weird limbs are a pretty good indicator this being a digger, with large muscle attachments and robust forelimbs, but it has couple of large claws rather than the ridiculous giant hands of the Old World Moles and it has a shorter skull.

Double prep mole from the Horniman Museum

Double prep of an Old World Mole Talpa europaea from the Horniman Museum & Gardens

The skull is more similar to that of the golden moles of southern Africa, although their rostrum (nosey bits) tends to be more concave while the marsupial moles have a more convex rostrum (and in some cases, weirdly flaring zygomatic arches).

mystery268

Lateral view of the skull of a Giant Golden Mole Chrysospalax trevelyani from the Grant Museum of Zoology

Now distinguishing between the two species of Marsupial Mole is a bit more tricky, not least because they are quite poorly known animals and there aren’t many specimens available for comparison – this is particularly true of the Northern species, which was first described as recently as 1920.

This is actually quite useful to know, since the mystery specimen came into the collection in 1897 – from Southern Australia – so it’s safe to say it’s the Southern Marsupial Mole Notoryctes typhlops (Stirling, 1889), but that’s not very helpful from a morphological perspective.

So far I’ve not found any useful skeletal features that help differentiate the two species, but apparently their fur colour is a little different, with the Northern species having pinkish or cinnamon fur and the Southern species having yellowish-white to a deep gold. To see what they look like with their fur, here’s the taxidermy partner to the mystery skeleton:

Southern_marsupial_mole

Taxidermy Southern Marsupial Mole Notoryctes typhlops in the National Museum of Ireland – Natural History

As with most moles these subterranean critters have adapted to spending much of their time underground by losing their eyes, investing in some serious digging equipment and tuning in to smells and low frequency sounds.

I hope you enjoyed this little tour around the main moles of the world! More mysteries next week.

Friday mystery object #309 answer

There are lies, damn lies and statistics* and then there are inaccurate statements made from assumptions that are based on insufficient knowledge and poor research. Last week I fell into this sort of untruth when I offered up this diminutive mystery object that I said was from Ireland:

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My excuse for that untruth is the fact that the specimen was in a part of the collection dealing with native species (which I forgot also includes British taxa, because the collection is old enough to have been split into “native” and “foreign” before Ireland stopped being part of the UK) and I’d quickly checked the distribution with reference to a handy online checklist of British and Irish Hymenoptera, but I then missed the bit under the species that said the range was restricted to England. I assumed based on context and as a result I got it wrong – and we all know that we should never ASSUME, because when you ASSUME, you make an ASS of U and ME*.

So thanks to jennifermacaire  and David Notton for pointing out my mistake – it is much appreciated. I should have checked the label for the collection locality, but unfortunately the image was taken as a snap on my phone while bagging the drawer containing this specimen (while I was preparing hundreds of of other such drawers and insect boxes as part of a major collections move) so I didn’t get the chance. This is actually a bit of a problem for digitisation when insects are pinned like this, because the label is invisible from above.

insect room

Insect boxes bagged for transport and freezing

If I was more familiar with the insect fauna of Britain and Ireland it would have helped, but as you may be aware, my main area of experience is in bones and the critters that have them, so my knowledge of insects tends to be quite generalised or restricted to particularly important or interesting species that I’ve had reason to research.

Skull of female Jaguar in the Dublin Dead Zoo

The kind of specimen I really understand

This is one of the challenges in my role as curator of Zoology and Entomology at the National Museum of Ireland, where I work with somewhere in the region of 2 million specimens, covering the whole of the animal Kingdom, from all over the world.

Normally museums with collections of this size would have a few specialist curators to focus on the main taxonomic divisions, but for the time being I’m dealing with the lot, so I have a steep learning curve to get up to speed with the whole collection. Of course, it’s well worth it, as there are some incredible specimens in there – either because of what they are, or who they were collected by and how important they are for science and culture.

Wasps collected by Charles Darwin during the Voyage of the Beagle.

Wasps collected by Charles Darwin during the Voyage of the Beagle.

Anyway, excuses aside, I expect you’re keen to find out what that small hymenopteran was. Chris very quickly identified it as one of the small, solitary carpenter bees. This is the only one that is “native” – in that it occurs in Southeast England – and even then it’s pretty rare to find it except in downlands in the South, mainly in East Hampshire.

The name is Ceratina cyanea (Kirby, 1802) and the female excavates a burrow in the stem of a dead plant, making tiny cells with walls of sawdust in which she lays eggs – hence the name “carpenter bees” for the group that shows this behaviour.

Another mystery object to come next week – this time it will hopefully be a bit less misleading!

 

*Attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, by Mark Twain

*I’m attributing that to the fictional character Dawn Summers from Buffy the Vampire Slayer because that’s where I heard it first, but it was coined by Jerry Belson

Friday mystery object #302 answer

Last week I gave you this egg to try your hand at identifying:

mystery302

Eggs can be tricky, since they are largely similar in shape and, since egg collecting was banned many years ago, there are few modern resources for identification.

However, you can pick up clues by thinking about colour and pattern and working out what advantage it may have. So you might expect a brightly coloured egg to be laid in a well disguised and deep nest, where it’s unlikely to be spotted except by the parent, whereas a yellowy speckled egg is more likely to be camouflaged if laid in a fairly open, sandy environment.

So this egg was probably laid somewhere near the sea, which means it’s probably from a charadriiform bird (those are the shorebirds).

Now there are a lot of shorebirds, but this egg is pretty big and it lacks the strongly conical shape you’d expect from a cliff-nester like a Guillemot (the shape means it rolls in tight circle, making it less likely to be blown or knocked off a cliff). That actually narrows it down to a handful of birds that makes comparison easier. Curlew eggs, for example, are a similar size, but they tend to be more grey and have larger blotches, plus they’re a bit less elongated.

This particular egg has the shape and colour of a gull egg and large size means it’s almost certainly the egg of a Greater Black-backed Gull Larus marinus Linnaeus, 1758.

I would say more, but at the moment I’m at the natural history highlight of the year – the NatSCA conference. Here’s the Twitter feed in case you’re interested in the discussion:

Friday mystery object #291 answer

Last week I gave you this skull from the Grant Museum of Zoology to identify:

mystery291

I thought this would be a fairly easy one and so I wasn’t surprised when Chris was straight in with a correct identification, in a suitably cryptic manner of course.

The huge open sinuses inside the orbit and openings around the auditory bullae (as spotted by palfreyman1414) immediately suggest that this is an animal that dives deep underwater, as the large openings help prevent pressure from building up inside the skull. The shape of the teeth are another giveaway that this is a fish-catching mammal in the Order Carnivora. It is of course a seal.

But what kind of seal? There are 33 species of pinniped, so there are a few options, although the large and distinctive species like Walruses can be ruled out for obvious reasons. In this size range and with multicusped teeth like these we’re looking at one of the true seals (the Phocidae) at the medium to small end of the size range.

When you start looking at the skulls of seals in this range, you need to look  closely. It lacks the flat top of the head and steeply sloping profiles following the nares of a Grey Seal, plus the interorbital distance (the distance between the eyes) is much smaller.

It lacks the inflated nasal region of the cold water Bearded Seal, Ribbon Seal, Ringed Seal and Harp Seal, which need well developed nasal turbinates to help warm the air they breathe in. It also lacks the deflection of the zygomatic below the orbit that is seen in the smaller species like the Caspian and Baikal Seals.

Overall the morphology is most similar to either the Spotted Seal or Harbour Seal, but picking between the two is tricky, especially since the Harbour Seal has around five subspecies that vary somewhat in size and shape of things like the auditory bullae. There is a list of characters that can be used to distinguish between the skulls of the two species by John J. Burns in the Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. Using that as a guide I think this is a Harbour Seal Phoca vitulina Linnaeus, 1758.

Thanks to everyone who had a go at identifying this – I hope you had fun with it!

Friday mystery object #286 answer

Last week I gave you this mystery object to identify, found on a beach in Ireland:

mystery286

It led to a lot of great cryptic comments relating to marine birds and sternum keels, but Lena was the first to comment and was spot on with the species (or at least as far as I can tell!)

Bird sterna are quite distinctive, with overall shape giving an indicator of mode of life. Long narrow but well-developed keels like this tend to be seen in marine birds that use their wings to fly underwater. The shape of the bottom and sides of the sternum tend to be quite specific to particular genera and species, making sterna pretty good for identification.

Of course that depends on having good comparative material and I was delighted to find John Rochester’s very helpful Flickr page, that has a comparison of British Auks (in this case we’re talking about the geographical British Isles rather than the sociopolitical concept of Britain).

If you take a look at those images you’ll notice that one fits the shape very well indeed – the Guillemot or Common Murre Uria aalge (Pontoppidan, 1763).

1024px-common_murre_rwd2

Guillemot with its meat and feathers on. Image by Dick Daniels, 2011

So that’s the identification I gave to Emer, Ronan, Rory and Paddy who found it on their hols!