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 #339

This week I have a mystery skull for you to have a go at identifying:

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I’ve made it a bit more tricky by only providing one view, but I think it should be identifiable from this.

By the way, I hope you like the NatSCA scale bar – the most useful swag I’ve ever received in a conference pack. Hoping to get another one at the Caring for Natural Science Collections one-day conference in October – really looking forward to geeking out about conservation of natural history collections!

Enjoy the mystery object!

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 #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.

Friday mystery object #328

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

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