Friday mystery object #369 answer

Last week I gave you this weird, but rather nice object to have a go at identifying:

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Most people seemed to recognise it as the tympanic region (that’s the bony ear-related region) of a whale. But of course, I’m demanding when it comes to getting an identification and there are plenty of species of whale to rule out.

The size immediately narrowed down the possibilities – this is pretty small for a whale. But what really gives it away for the small number of people intimate with the cranial anatomy of whales (which goes beyond even my bone-nerdery), is the spongy bone attached to the tympanic bulla (that’s the bulb-shaped bit of bone that houses the inner ear).

This feature is proposed as a possible pressure receptor that’s found in the Pygmy Sperm Whale Kogia breviceps Blainville, 1838. Amazingly, Conor Ryan identified this on Twitter – his handle of @whale_nerd explains everything you need to know.

Kogia breviceps by George Brown Goode, 1887

Kogia breviceps by George Brown Goode, 1887

These toothed whales only grow to around 3.5m, which is pretty small for a whale. They share some features with their much larger Sperm Whale cousins, particularly in relation to adaptations for echolocation.

I was fortunate enough to meet Conor Ryan at the weekend at the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group conference. There were plenty of whale enthusiasts around and it was fantastic to get a chance to learn more about this incredible group of animals from a lovely bunch of passionate people.

While I was there, I also picked up some useful tips on differentiating between species of dolphin, so I may have to share those with you soon…

Friday mystery object #367 answer

Last week I gave you this rather exciting new specimen from County Kerry, Ireland to have a go at identifying:

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was recognised by pretty much everyone. For people based in the Americas it’s not that unusual a species and for people on the other side of the Atlantic, especially those with an interest in birds, there has been a bit of a stir in the press about this specimen.

This bird is clearly a member of the heron family – the Ardeidae – with its distinctive spear-shaped bill, relatively long legs and long and somewhat kinked neck. But it’s tiny. In fact, this is one of the smallest members of the Ardeidae, perhaps a bit longer in the body than a Dwarf Bittern, but just a bit lighter and quite different in plumage.

Dwarf Bittern in South Africa. Image by Mark Tittley, 2011

Dwarf Bittern in South Africa. Image by Mark Tittley, 2011

And this particular specimen is very light indeed. Sadly it was probably undertaking a migration south from its North American breeding grounds, when it got caught up in hurricane Lorenzo, which blew it off course, forcing it across the Atlantic Ocean, where it finally made landfall in Farranfore in County Kerry, on the west coast of Ireland on 7th October this year.

Exhausted, emaciated and severely dehydrated, the poor bird lasted less than an hour in Ireland, despite efforts to keep it going by John O’Donoghue, the owner of the garden it ended up in. John and his neighbour Anthony O’Connor recognised that it wasn’t a bird normally found in Ireland, so they got in touch with BirdWatch Ireland to find out what it was and let people know about their unfortunate visitor.

Brian Burke and colleagues from BirdWatch Ireland identified the specimen as being a Least Bittern Ixobrychus exilis (Gmelin, 1789) and they got in touch with me at the Dead Zoo about getting the specimen added to the collections, since it’s a first record of this species occurring in Ireland – and only the 10th known to have made it across the Atlantic.

Of course, I was delighted to accept on behalf of the Museum and John arranged to get the bird to me in Dublin via his local Teachta Dála (the Irish equivalent of a Member of Parliament). Now the bird is safely stowed in the Museum’s freezer awaiting assessment by a taxidermist, to see whether it’s in good enough condition to be mounted, or if I’ll need to find another way of preserving the specimen as part of the permanent collection.

If not as taxidermy, this might be as a study skin, a fluid preserved specimen or even a skeleton – each offers different information for future use. But however it gets preserved, it will provide an important physical record of an unusual visitor to the Nation for future scientists and members of the public. After all, that’s a huge part of what collections are for.

Friday mystery object #365 answer

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

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This particular shrimpy specimen arrived as an enquiry, after it was found in some Irish drinking water.

Prawn cocktails may be a thing, but most of us don’t think of shrimps (or shrimp-like decapod crustaceans) as an ideal addition to a beverage.

According to WHO these critters aren’t actually a health problem if they get into the water supply in temperate regions, where they don’t carry significant parasites or pathogens – but it’s a different story in the tropics.

Knowing which species this is could help in working out how it might have entered the water supply. I’m not an expert on crustaceans by any means, but there are useful keys out there [links to pdf] for working out this kind of information and I’m very fortunate in having to hand the expertise of my predecessor at the Dead Zoo, Mark Holmes, who specialises in crustaceans and is still often at the Museum doing research. Of course, I also have all of you lovely people!

My first thought on seeing this was that it was one of the Gammeridae, based mainly on my exposure to many photos of Gammarus shrimps infected by microsporidian parasites that change them from males into females (which is some fascinating biology). I was therefore delighted when so many of you put forth suggestions in that same area.

By working through the key of Irish shrimp I narrowed it down to Gammarus pulex (Linnaeus, 1758), which was also suggested on Twitter by @RobertsZivtins and @DianeBarlee. It could be G. tigrinus or perhaps G. lacustris – or of course a species not previously recorded from Ireland that doesn’t appear on the key.

However, I got it fresh and there were no stripes and the uropods and telson (taily-bit) looks more pulexy to my eye.

I am now eagerly waiting to hear what Mark thinks – I will update this post as soon as I do!

I have now checked with Mark and he identified this as G. lacustris so it looks like the taily bit isn’t pulexy after all. Thanks Mark!

Friday mystery object #364 answer

Last week I gave you this fantastic skull from the Dead Zoo to have a go at identifying:

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It’s clearly a bird and it has a distinctive shield of keratin at the base of the bill that helps with the identification. There aren’t many birds with shields like this, although there are plenty with casques, wattles, combs and crests that need to be ruled out when thinking about possibilities.

The group that springs to my mind when it comes to facial shields like this are the Jacanas or Jesus birds, named for their apparent ability to walk on water which Wouter alluded to in the comments. Of course, they don’t actually support themselves on the surface of the water (unlike the Common Basilisk), rather they walk on vegetation at the water surface, spreading their weight across ridiculously long toes.

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Lesser Jacana, by Derek Keats, 2016

Not all Jacanas have facial shields, but there are a few that do, including the Northern Jacana Jacana spinosa (Linnaeus, 1758) that lives in South America – which is the species that this mystery skull belongs to.

The Wattled Jacana can be ruled out because it has additional drooping lobes on the lower part of the shield. There is also a Crested Jacana that looks similar to this, but the shield runs along the skull more, rather than across the front of it.

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Northern Jacana, by Benjamin Keen, 2012

The Northern Jacana also has yellow spurs on its wings that it uses for defence, which is quite distinctive. Here’s the skull back on its skeleton – you might just be able to make out those bony spurs on the wing.

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You may notice that the scientific name on this specimen label is very different to the scientific name I used – yet another example of some old taxonomy that will need updating in the collection. Some jobs are unending in museums!

Friday mystery object #363 answer

Last week I gave you this crusty critter to identify:

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It’s not the easiest mystery object, since there are around 850 species of crab, and several converge on similar forms. However, the triangular body and spindly legs meant that everyone recognised this as a species of spider crab in the Superfamily Majoidea.

Beyond that it gets harder, although there are resources out there to help. The Marine Species Identification Portal has a useful key for species that occur in the North Sea. I know that’s not always useful in these instances, but as it turns out, this particular species has a range across the East Atlantic and into the Mediterranean, including populations in the North Sea.

This little crab is Pisa armata (Latreille, 1803), which is one of several spider crabs that camouflage themselves with sessile animals and algae from their local environment, earning them the name Decorator Crabs.

Decorator crab covered in stinging hydroid polyps, which defend the crab while benefiting from food scraps and greater mobility. Image by Nick Hobgood, 2006

Decorator crab covered in stinging hydroid polyps, which defend the crab while benefiting from food scraps and greater mobility. Image by Nick Hobgood, 2006

Bit of an obscure one for you, but Diane Barlee did figure it out on Twitter, so it was manageable. Watch out for more mysteries next week!

Friday mystery object #359 answer

Last week I gave you this fishy mystery to have a go at solving:

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I find fish a bit tricky, simply because there are so many different species out there – 33,100 described so far and rising. That’s more than all other vertebrates combined, so it’s not surprising that they can be a challenge.

However, this cartoonish looking little fish has some quite distinctive features that help narrow down the identification. There’s the duck-face with a couple of little barbels between its eyes and the clumping of the fins to the tail end. It also has a nice colour, but as I regularly say, that’s seldom a very reliable guide.

Generally, fish shaped like this don’t swim fast, they don’t lie flat on the sea bed and they don’t wriggle through weeds. This is the shape of a clinging fish – the kind that hold fast to a surface and let the world wash over them.

There are a good fish that do this, but I did say that this one is from Ireland, which helps narrow it down even more – enough for Chris to identify it correctly. This is a Cornish Sucker Lepadogaster purpurea (Bonnaterre, 1788). These weird little fish are pretty awesome. They cling to rocks along the shore with a suction cup made from their fused pelvic fins and they can change colour to blend into the rocks they attach to. Partly this will be for camouflage to avoid predators, but it will also be to help them ambush the smaller fish and crustaceans that they feed on.

One small issue for me is that the name on the label for this specimen is Lepadogaster lepadogaster (Bonnaterre, 1788). The taxonomy of this genus was reassessed in 2002 and the northern population of Lepadogaster (including those from the UK and Ireland) was found to be distinct from the more southerly distributed population. So once again, I need to update a label because advances in taxonomy have messed up our 100+ year old information. That’s the trouble with science – it keeps finding out new stuff.

 Friday mystery object #357 answer

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

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Despite it having a passing resemblance to a Xenomorph Facehugger, it’s a real animal from planet Earth, although not from earthy bit. As many of you recognised, this is one of the pycnogonids or sea spiders.

This group of arthropods is placed in the Chelicerata along with spiders and horseshoe crabs on the basis of their morphology, although genetics suggest that their roots may lie nearer the base of the arthropod family tree.

You’re unlikely to encounter one of these giants since they live in the deep sea, but smaller types (usually only around a 1cm long) are found on most rocky shores, where they feed on bryozoans and hydroids.

This one is from around Franz Josef Land, an archipelago in the Russian Arctic. Several people dropped hints to the genus – in particular Hilary, Chris, Wouter van Gestel, Daniel Calleri & Dan Jones, but Andrew Taylor just came out with it: Colossendeis. The clue there is really in the size.

However, this is a tricky one to narrow down to species. There is an online key to the pycnogonids but unfortunately it’s not totally comprehensive. That said, this species is represented in the key and it’s actually quite distinctive because of its huge proboscis (N.B. the head points upwards in this specimen), quite compact almost disc-shaped body and lack of eyes.

These characteristics match the description for Colossendeis proboscidea (Sabine, 1824), which is more commonly known as the Blind Pycnogonid. Now I want to find out who collected this specimen and donated it to the Dead Zoo back in 1899.

There weren’t too many Arctic expeditions prior to 1900 and this specimen is almost certainly from one of those few. It could possibly be from the Austro-Hungarian North Pole expedition. In 1872 they discovered Franz Josef Land and in 1874 named one of the islands in the archipelago McClintock Island after the notable Irish Arctic explorer Francis Leopold McClintock. It’s not impossible that they would have sent specimens to McClintock or the Museum in Ireland, so it may be time to hit the books to see if I can find any more information!

 Friday mystery object #356 answer

Last week I gave you this rather improbable-looking fuzzball to have a go at identifying:

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Initial consensus on Twitter suggested that it was some kind of taxidermist’s mash up of a tenrec / shrew / weasel and fox. Particular favourites were:

and:

A similar theme emerged in some comments on the blog, but a useful rule of thumb was shared by ch:

Anything that weird looking is either a taxidermists joke or comes from Madagascar- you’d need to look in every ‘nouc’ and cranny to identify this weasily overlooked carnivoran.

https://paoloviscardi.com/2019/05/17/%ef%bf%bc-friday-mystery-object-356/#comment-67302

Madagascar is well known for weird animals, since the island became isolated from the Indian subcontinent over 85 million years ago, allowing a unique variety of species to evolve and fill the ecological niches present. The oddities present include the Aye-aye (a mammal trying to be a woodpecker), the Fossa (a mongoose trying to be a cat) and the Web-footed tenrec (a tenrec trying to be an otter).

Of course, ch left an additional clue hinting at the correct identification (‘nouc’) which was picked up on by several others. There were also plenty of people on Twitter who recognised this distinctive animal.

The mystery object is a Falanouc Eupleres sp. Doyère, 1835 – notice the sp. There are two species of Falanouc – Eastern (E. goudotii) and Western (E. major), but this species split was only recognised in 2010. Therefore, it’s very difficult to know which this one is, especially without details of where in Madagascar it was collected.

Assuming it was collected in Madagascar. I say that, because it was purchased from London based supplier Gerrard & Sons. This means it could have been acquired from London Zoo, since Gerard had a relationship with the Zoo and often got dead specimens from them.

It’s also tricky to identify the species from morphology, since the differences between the species are most noticeable in the skull. The fur colour can provide a clue as well, but 100+ years of being on display in a gallery illuminated with daylight means the colour is pretty much guaranteed to no longer be as it was in life.

So I think we may have to leave it there, unless I can find any additional information about the specimen in the Dead Zoo’s archives. Whatever the species, I think this mongoose-like insectivorous carnivore with a fox-like body and shrew-like face is as charming as it is improbable.

Friday mystery object #349 answer

Last week I gave you this long, pink, wrinkly specimen to have a go at identifying:

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There was a lot of discussion about whether it has limby bits, fins, flaps left over from damage during preparation or some other unnamed and dubious appendages. I’m relieved to confirm that it has limbs – albeit rather reduced limbs.

 

The limbs are important, since they allow us to rule out all the legless groups of similar critters, like Caecilians (limbless amphibians), Synbranchidae (swamp eels), Amphisaenidae (worm lizards) or of course snakes (not that any self-respecting snake would have a face that looks like it belongs to a poorly made sock-puppet).

The state of the legs, especially the very reduced state of the front limbs, also allows us to rule out a variety of Olms, Sirens and other Salamanders – except for one odd little genus called Amphiuma.

There are only three living species of Amphiuma – the One-toed, Two-toed and (believe it or not) Three-toed. Someone in the past hedged their bets and labelled the mystery specimen as follows:

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Since the Three-toed salamander is Amphiuma tridactylus Cuvier, 1827 and the Two-toed is Amphiuma means Garden, 1821 this label is misleading.

The Three-toed salamander does have three visible toes on the forelimb and this specimen clearly doesn’t – with just a vestigial wriggly bit (that doesn’t make it the One-toed salamander however, as they are smaller and they have an even more reduced hind limb). So this is the Two-toed Amphiuma means.

 

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Amphiuma means, Virginia, United States. Image by Brian Gratwicke, 2010

 

Finally, it might be a bit confusing that the mystery object is a pink thing, while the living animal is a mottled muddy colour. That’s just an artefact of it being preserved in ethanol for the last 125 years. Trust me, no-one looks good after that much exposure to alcohol.

Friday mystery object #343 answer

Last week I gave you this mystery skull from the Ulster Museum to have a go at identifying:

If you’re a regular follower of Zygoma then you may have seen some of my previous posts talking about the skulls of the various smallish carnivores like mongooses, mustelids and viverrids. Generally though, mongooses have a more domed region above the eyes, while mustelids have a shorter snout, so this is most likely one of the viverrids.

It’s a difficult one to get down to species, since it’s from a group of carnivores that have have a fairly uniform skull shape, so it takes some detailed investigation to work out exactly what we’re dealing with. However, as I have talked about before (and as palfreyman1414 remembered), there’s a very helpful identification guide developed by some French researchers which summarises some of the most useful characters to use in identification.

Most useful to my mind is the matrix of characters that allows you to narrow down the possibilities until you’re left with the most likely species (watch out, the security certificate has expired). Once you’re down to a few possibilities based on those specific characters it can help to check the specimen images on the Animal Diversity Web which lets you get a better idea of overall shape and things like tooth form.

As it turns out, my 270th mystery object also provided a useful image for comparison:

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The reduced upper second molar (or M2) and the shape of the M1 in this specimen from the Grant Museum of Zoology is remarkably similar to the Ulster Museum specimen and it turns out it’s also from a species that made it to my shortlist using the matrix. So I’m fairly sure that this is an Abyssinian Genet Genetta abyssinica (Rüppell, 1836).

To give you an idea of what they look like, here’s a Common Genet in Wrocław Zoo by Guérin Nicolas, 2008

Well done to everyone who worked out we were dealing with a genet, but particular props to palfreyman1414 who was spot on when he said:

I’m wondering if, … this is related to the Abyssinian thingy you spent hours checking on from a complicated table of characteristics across 27 species…

Well remembered palfreyman1414, well remembered…

Friday mystery object #341 answer

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

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It’s the skeleton of a species that I’ve spoken about before and one for which I have a bit of a soft spot.

Several of you thought it was some kind of galliform (the group of birds including pheasants, quail, chickens, etc.), but although the size and general appearance of the bill is about right, it’s not one of them.

A few of you did however know what it was. Wouter van Gestel was first to recognise this as a Hoatzin Opisthocomus hoazin (Müller, 1776), with James Bryant and Cindilla Trent dropping some nice clues to show they were also in the know.

As it turns out, the original name for the Hoatzin was Phasianus hoazin because it looked so much like one of the Galliformes – and not just in the skeleton:

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As you can see, these birds are quite striking, with colours and a crest that wouldn’t be out of place on a pheasant, but a lot of genetic and morphological research suggests that the Hoatzin is in a unique group, which diverged from the rest of the modern birds 64 million years ago, just after the non-avian dinosaurs went extinct.

Personally I think they are fascinating, with their clawed young that scramble around in dense vegetation, their limited ability to fly as adults and their unusual (for a bird) folivorous diet (that’s leaves) with associated bacterial fermentation tank crop. In fact, if any animal was on the road to becoming fire-breathing I think the Hoatzin may be it, with its ready access to methane and hydrogen sulphide belches – in fact I wonder if some spontaneous Hoatzin combustion due to these gasses gave rise to the myth of the Phoenix?

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!