Friday mystery object #407 answer

Last week I finally got a chance to share a nice skull from the Dead Zoo for you to identify:

Bird skulls are always an interesting challenge, because the bill can give away some useful clues and there is a fantastic online resource available to help with their identification, in the form of SkullSite, run by Zygoma regular Wouter van Gestel. Perhaps unsurprisingly Wouter tends to be one of the first to get a correct answer when the mystery object is avian – and this one was no exception.

One of the useful features on SkullSite is the ability to do a custom search, which allows you to restrict the size range of skulls and the bill shapes to search through. This allows easy comparison between the skulls of possible taxa, making identification more straightforward, once you get your eye trained to recognise useful features.

In this case there are a few species in the same size range with similar shaped bills. The closest species in size and shape (that’s not a close relative) is the Great Bustard. However, the Great Bustard has much longer nares (the fancy name for nose-holes) than the mystery object and the bustard’s lacrimal bones (the small bones that flare out just to the front of, and above, the eye sockets) are much smaller and less pronounced than what we see in the mystery specimen.

That leaves the two species in the Family Cariamidae (or Seriemas) to pick from. The size of the specimen alone makes that fairly straightforward, as there’s around 15mm difference in the skull length between the two. However, if you want a morphological feature, the mandibular fenestra (the ‘window’ visible in the side of the lower jaw slightly back from the midway point) is proprtionally a lot larger in the Black-legged Seriema compared to that of the Red-legged Seriema.

The fenestra is small in the mystery object, while the skull is large, making this a specimen of the Red-legged Seriema Cariama cristata (Linnaeus, 1766).

A Red-legged Seriema in Reserva Ambiental, Piraju, São Paulo, Brazil. Image by Dario Sanches, 2010

I tend to think of Seriemas as the South American equivalent of the Secretarybird, since they are ground-hunting predators in scrubby environments that have a fondness for venomous snake snacks.

Both have long legs and small feet, neither fly much and both have eyelashes, as pointed out by Goatlips on Twitter:

I’d never really consider the bird eyelashes thing and it makes perfect sense for terrestrial birds foraging on the ground in arid environments to have some extra eye protection from sun and dust afforded by filamentous feathers around the eyes. It turns out this holds true for birds like Ostriches, Emus, Cassowarys, Rheas, Road-runners and the Ground Hornbills.

However, some other Hornbills that live in very different environments also have eyelashes as do those odd arboreal Hoatzins, so there must be something else going on with those lovely lashes that I’m missing.

I hope you enjoyed this bony challenge – please feel free to add your thoughts on the eyelash situation and perhaps mention any species you’ve noticed this feature in before. You never know, together we might figure out what those lashes are all about.

Friday mystery object #405 answer

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

There was no scale and admittedly there’s not much of the specimen visible, but I didn’t think that would pose much of a problem. And I was right. Tony Irwin immediately indicated the identity of this rather rare specimen with the anagram:

Maybe found it – in rosy pea?

The “in rosy pea” unscrambles to Aepyornis which is the generic name for the Elephant Bird.

Of course, this isn’t a complete Elephant Bird, it’s only an egg (had to get some Eastery link in there somehow). Elephant Birds have been extinct for about 1,000 years, so surviving eggs are very rare, hence the special fancy box. Here’s the actual egg:

The total length is just shy of 1 foot at 29.6cm, making this one of the largest eggs ever laid by any animal. There are other Elephant Bird eggs that are a bit bigger (up to 34cm), but no other type of animal ever laid a bigger egg, even the vast sauropod dinosaurs laid eggs that were smaller than this.

I’m not going to tell the story of this specimen here, since it’s already on the National Museum of Ireland’s website. If you have a read of that, you’ll see that this specimen is from the southern end of Madagascar (the island on which these birds lived) and that plus the particularly large egg size suggests that this is from Aepyornis maximus I. Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire 1851.

This is not the first time I’ve dealt with Elephant Bird eggs, since I borrowed one from David Attenborough for an exhibition at the Horniman Museum about 5 years ago, which I talked about here.They are remarkable objects and it’s strange to think of something as fragile and seemingly ephemeral as an egg surviving intact for over a thousand years.

So well done to everyone who worked out what this mystery was – eggcelent work!

Friday mystery object #404 answer

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

It wasn’t really much of a challenge for the usual suspects, with everyone recognising this as a Common Hill Myna Gracula religiosa Linnaeus, 1758.

However, my reason for picking this as a mystery object wasn’t for the challenge offered, but as an illustration of just how frustrating the taxonomy of old collections can be. Everyone recognised this bird, which is not a huge surprise, given how familiar this species has become due to the pet trade, but anyone looking at this specimen on display would probably struggle to match the specimen to the species considering the label that was attached:

The common name here suggests that the specimen is from Malaysia, then the scientific name suggests Java, but then the locality associated is just “East Indies”. The genus name does at least bear a passing relationship to the modern specific name (“Eulabes” means “pious” or “devout” while “religiosa” is self-explanatory). Similarly “Grackle” does hold a clue to the modern Genus name of “Graculus“. Most confusing.

To make things worse, the Graculus is now recognised as forming a species complex across Asia, so it would be good to narrow down which subspecies this specimen belongs to:

Distribution of the various species and subspecies within the genus Gracula. Image by L. Shyamal, 2009

The pattern of coloured feathers on the neck and head on the Dead Zoo specimen appears to match G. religiosa intermedia most closely, so when I eventually reach the stage of rewriting labels for specimens on display, I’ll do my best to improve the information. Unfortunately, this will probably need to happen for around 75-80% of the collection, so no pressure…

Friday mystery object #402 answer

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

Skull length approx. 170mm

Of course, you’d only recognise this as being awesome if you knew what it’s from, since apart from bit of a weird shape to the top of the skull, it looks like it could be from a chunky galliform or perhaps a Screamer. However, this skull is from a type of pigeon.

Of course, it’s not from one of your boring standard sorts of pigeon, this skull is from a very special pigeon. Adam Yates pipped everyone to the post in the comments, identifying that this is the skull of a Rodrigues Solitaire Pezophaps solitaria (Gmelin, 1789).

If you’re not familiar with the Solitaire, it’s the closest known relative of the Dodo and, like its cousin, it was large, flightless and it’s now extinct. The similarity doesn’t stop there, as both were endemic to a small, unpopulated island in the Indian Ocean, hundreds of miles east of Madagascar and both were driven to extinction not long after humans first visited the island and dropped off goats, pigs and (inadvertantly) rats.

The closest living relative of both of these extinct birds is the Nicobar Pigeon, found in a string of islands in the Bay of Bengal. While the Nicobar Pigeon is colourful with iridescent feathers that shift colour in changing light, the Solitaire was reported to be a a grey and brown bird about the size of a swan.

The colourful Nicobar Pigeon

A handful of reports are the only real source of information about the plumage and general appearance of a live Rodrigues Solitatire, with just one illustration ever being made by someone who has seen the bird. That was François Leguat, a French naturalist who arrived in Rodrigues in 1691. His artistic skills were more stylistic than descriptive, but he did describe the Solitatire’s plumage as beautiful.

Le Solitaire by François Leguat, 1708

Fortunately, we know a lot more about the bones of Solitaires than we do their plumage, thanks to large fossil deposits of the bird uncovered during the Transit of Venus observations from Rodrigues in 1874. The Dead Zoo specimen is a composite skeleton made up of bones brought back from that expedition and presented to the Museum on behalf of the Royal Society.

My favourite bit of the skeleton is probably the fighting knobs on their wrist bones. They’re a little hard to see here, but apparently the Solitatire’s could be quite aggressive and attack with their wings, which had presumably become repurposed for competition (and perhaps defense) since they were no longer needed for flight:

There will be more mysteries next week, but before you go I wanted to drop in a reminder that I’ll be doing a talk about Dismantling the Dead Zoo this evening at 7pm GMT. If you’re interested in finding out more about how to take apart whales and wrangle hippo heads, why not sign up and join in for free?

Friday mystery object #402

This week I have another specimen from the Dead Zoo for you to have a go at identifying:

Skull length approx. 170mm

It’s one of almost two thousand birds that will be put into storage as part of the big decant we’ve been working on.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the project and some of the complexities involved, I’ll be doing a virtual talk about it next Friday evening (GMT) for PubSci – it’s free and the details are here if you’d like to join in.

Have fun!

Friday mystery object #399 answer

Last week I gave you this cute little bird of prey to have a go at identifying:

It didn’t prove to be much of a challenge, but I was impressed by the answers nonetheless. In particular, the first answer by Hilary Blagbrough is both a delightful poem and correct:

A little hunter from the east
that feasts on juicy dragonflies
In black and white is smartly dressed
No colours seen on legs or chest
Who is this with the panda eyes?
That of its sort, is not the least

So this mystery object is a bird of prey found in Asia. It’s very small and primarily feeds on insects, although it can take small mammals, reptiles and other birds of a similar size or smaller than itself. Since it’s a falcon, but smaller than expected, it’s called a falconet.

There are a few species of these falconets that are quite similar. However, as Hilary says, this one doesn’t have any colours on the legs or chest and it’s just black and white, without any patches of colour and it has discrete patches of black around the eyes. These features all suggest that this is the Pied Falconet Microhierax melanoleucos (Blyth, 1843).

There were several correct identifications on Twitter and more in the comments on the blog after Hilary’s poetic post. So well done to everyone who figured it out!

Friday mystery object #399

Friday has rolled around again, with startling alacrity.

At the Dead Zoo it’s been another busy week of decanting, with our whale skull being crated up and ready to roll:

All the decant work plus post-Christmas catching-up activity hasn’t left me much time to hunt down mystery objects, but I had this cutie in my office and I thought it might be a nice little challenge:

Any idea what it might be?

As always, you leave your questions, thoughts and suggestions in the comments below. Have fun!

Friday mystery object #398 answer

Happy 2021 – I hope you had a great celebration!

Last year I gave you this mystery skeleton for you to have a go at identifying:

That erect stance and those super-short and chonky wing bones are a dead giveaway that this is one of those charismatic flightless waiter birds (and before you ask, yes the “i” is intentional).

There are around 20(ish) species of penguins or pengwings if you’re Benedict Cumberbatch.

Although the various species look superficially similar, with their black and white base colour scheme and tubby yet streamlined shape, they do have some distinguishing characteristics. Unfortunately, the most obvious relate to plumage and that’s missing here.

Size can help with narrowing it down – and this particular specimen is small. Admitedly it’s hard to tell that without a scale bar, but the large species have relatively small skulls in proportion to their body size, so they can be ruled out.

Bill length and shape can also provide some good indications even from non-skeletal birds and you can of course check out my favourite online resource (SkullSite.com) to see skulls of most of the main penguin genera, if not all the species (yet!). In the comments, James Bryant and Wouter van Gestel (creator of the aforementioned SkullSite) recognised that this is a Little, Blue or Fairy Penguin Eudyptula minor (J.R.Forster, 1781).

Little Penguin in the Melbourne Zoo. Image by fir0002, 2009.

This is the smallest species of penguin, it has breeding colonies in Australia and New Zealand and the population on Phillip Island has become a bit of a tourist attraction. They feed on small fish, like anchovies and pilchards or small invertebrates including squid and jellyfish.

There will be more mystery objects to come for 2021 – let’s hope this year works out better for everyone than 2020…

Friday mystery object #397 answer

I’m going to start this week’s blog mystery object with an apology – it’s going to be a short one, as I’m in the final throes of taking down our Fin whale, which means I’m exhausted after several long weeks of hard graft. Check out the #DeadZooDiary hashtag on Twitter if you want to get an idea of what’s involved.

Last week I gave you this somewhat smaller skeleton from the Dead Zoo to have a go at identifying:

It wasn’t too difficult to narrow it down to one of a few species, thanks to the very distinctive knee region.

There are only a small number of birds that have adopted this extreme elongation of the cnemial crest on their tibiotarsus and patela. These are all specialist foot-propelled swimmers that need that long lever to help power their diving strokes. This is a feature limited to just the grebes and the loons/divers.

Most people figured out that this is the skeleton of one of the loons. The skull provides some clues, but unfortunately the angle of the photo doesn’t make it easy to figure out which of the five species it is.

The scale does rule out the larger of the species (Gavia immer or G. pacifica), but there are three other possibilities. For me the postorbital region suggests that this is the Arctic Loon Gavia arctica (Linnaeus, 1758), which fortunately matches the label.

I hope you enjoyed this weird kneed bird – congratulations to Goatlips and everyone else who figured it out!

Friday mystery object #386 answer

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

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It’s fairly obviously a duck of some sort, but there are almost 150 species in the duck family Anatidae, so that’s not really enough information.

Of course, the ornithologists were up to the challenge of working out which type of duck this was, with Wouter van Gestel dropping hints at a Steamer Duck. If you’re not familiar with Steamer Ducks, they are in the genus Tachyeres, there are only four species and they all live at the southern end of South America.

Of the four species, only one (the smallest) can fly. The others are very large, heavy and flightless. They sometimes use their small wings as a power assist in fast swimming, using a style reminiscent of an steamer ship’s paddles – hence the name.

The small wings on this specimen, as pointed out by Allen Hazen, suggest that this is one of the three flightless species, ruling out the Flying Steamer Duck T. patachonicus as a possible contender.

The three remaining species are all very similar and although some images online suggest that only one species has an orange bill, they all have quite a bright yellow-orange bill following their moult that becomes duller over time. Of course, when dealing with taxidermy you can’t fully trust things like leg or bill colour as they can rapidly fade after death and they are usually painted to give an impression of the natural colour – sometimes with a bit of artistic license.

This particular specimen is identified as Tachyeres cinereus, which is not a valid species, so I was hoping there would be someone with a useful morphological hint to help distinguish between species, but most ways of distinguishing rely on comparisons of bill length, mass and size.

However, this specimen does have a collection locality – the Falklands. There are two species of Steamer Duck that occur on the Falklands and fortunately one of them is the species that flies and has already been ruled out, so it seems likely that this is a Falkland Steamer Duck Tachyeres brachypterus (Latham, 1790).

Pair of Falkland Steamer-ducks. Image by In Vitrio, 2018

So well done to everyone who said it was a Steamer Duck – I think that’s about the best identification possible from the information provided!

On an unrelated note – over the next few weeks my mystery object answers may be a bit on the brief side. Projects at the Dead Zoo are underway that are taking up a lot of my time, so I may struggle to find time for detailed answers. If you’re interested in what I’ll be doing you’ll be able to check out the #DeadZooDiary hashtag on Twitter and Instagram, which we’ll be adding things to starting next week. Exciting things are underway!

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 #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.

640px-lesser_jacana2c_microparra_capensis2c_chobe_river2c_botswana

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.

northernjacana

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 #362 answer

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

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I thought that it might be a bit on the easy side for some of you – especially Wouter van Gestel who is one on the brains behind the fantastic Skullsite resource, that I expect everyone is familiar with by now.

The skeleton of this bird isn’t really all that distinctive, but the skull – particularly the bill – is very distinctive indeed, although this photo doesn’t capture the full weirdness.

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Wouter’s cryptic clue:

Apparently, this species processes sound twice as well as you might expect from a bird.

was a hint at the scientific name Cochlearius cochlearius (Linnaeus, 1766) – playing on the fact that the name comes from the same source as the name for the cochlea, which is a part of the inner ear that has a snail-like shape. The common name, as hinted at by Richard Lawrence is Boat-billed Heron, as you can see a bit more clearly here:

cochlearius_cochleariapcca20071227-8443b

Boat-billed Heron. Photo by Patrick Coin, 2007

These odd looking birds are members of the Ardeidae or heron family, but rather than having the spear-like bill of the classic Grey Heron, they have broad bills used for scooping up prey in the shallow, murky waters of Mangrove swamps in Central and South America.

They have big eyes and that large, sensitive bill to help catch small fish and crustaceans in the shade or at night. This nocturnal habit is common in the Nycticoracidae a subfamily commonly known as night herons, as mentioned by Josep Antoni Alcover in his clue in the comments.

So well done to everyone who recognised this unusual animal – more mysteries next week!