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.

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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 #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:

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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!

 Friday mystery object #355 answer

Last week I gave you a unfairly tricky mystery object:

My excuse for the poor photography and lack of scale was the fact I was preoccupied with the epic NatSCA conference (whose hashtag is still yielding some great photos and thoughts if you want to see what it was all about).

It probably doesn’t help that this specimen is missing the toes from its right foot, because it makes it hard to tell if the two toes on its left are the natural state for the bird, or if one toe just happens to be missing. This is an important distinction, as picked up on by sallie reynolds, since a bird with two forward-facing toes will have two rear-facing toes, which is a condition known as zygodactyly and it helps narrow down the possible group of birds it belongs to.

As it turns out, the left foot is intact and the specimen does have the zygodactyl toe arrangement, so it will be from one of nine possible groups (owls, ospreys, parrots, cuckoos, cuckoo-rollers, mousebirds, turacos, some swifts and most woodpeckers and their relatives). The bill makes it pretty clear that this isn’t an owl, osprey, parrot, mousebird, or swift. The big head narrows it down further – more than enough for Wouter van Gestel to identify that it’s a Barbet (in Dutch “Baardvogel” or bearded bird), but it doesn’t really provide enough information to get a species identification.

As it turns out, the taxonomy of the existing identification was more than a little out of date, with the label from 1881 reading Heliobucco bonapartii. Now Heliobucco has not been used as a valid genus for at least 100 years, but fortunately the species name indicates that it was named after Bonaparte (not the Emperor, but a French ornithologist who did happen to be the Napoleon’s nephew). This meant that the fantastic Eponym Dictionary of Birds by Beolens, Watkins & Grayson was able to yield the information I was after. The valid name is now Gymnobucco bonapartei Hartlaub, 1854 which is the Grey-throated Barbet.

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Grey-throated Barbet. Photo by Francesco Veronesi, 2006

My apologies for setting such a tricky object – I promise to try harder to make it easier next week!

 Friday mystery object #355

It’s NatSCA conference week here in Dublin – the best time of the natural history collections year. If you want to hear about what’s going on you should check it out on Twitter under the hashtag #NatSCA2019.

Of course, that means I this week’s mystery object has been taken from a snap on my phone, as I’ve been a bit bust – so here’s a slightly less than ideal photo of an old and slightly grubby bird skeleton to have a go at identifying:

Any idea what this might be? All suggestions gratefully received!

Friday mystery object #352 answer

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

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I thought that some of you would find it quite easy and I wasn’t wrong, although it’s not quite as straightforward as I thought.

Our regular ornithology expert Wouter van Gestel was straight in with an interesting answer that highlights some of the idiosyncrasies of museum specimens, where the colour of features like bills and legs can fade after death. This can make identifications tricky, since colour can play an important role in distinguishing between species in the same genus. In addition, the maturity of the animal can also complicate identifications, since juveniles can have different colours and markings to adults.

That makes this specimen doubly hard to identify and jennifermacaire pointed out an additional idiosyncrasy – the glass eye used by the taxidermist. The choice of eye is an important one, since eyes play an important role in making something look as it did when it was alive. In this case I think they used an eye that was too large with too much iris showing.

Both Wouter and Jennifer identified this as a Tropicbird, and both thought it was the White-tailed species. However, according to the Museum database the specimen is a young Red-billed Tropicbird Phaeton aethereus Linnaeus, 1758.

Red-billed tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus mesonauta) with chick, Little Tobago by Charles J Sharp, 2014

Red-billed tropicbird with chick – note the yellow bill on the chick. Image by Charles J Sharp, 2014

Now I’m going to check the identification again, since it isn’t unusual for specimens to be misidentified. This is a problem in museums, since specimens come from all sorts of sources and not all of them are necessarily expert.

I recently had to check the identification of a couple of Tern specimens from Jamaica for an enquiry. If the specimens had been the species they were originally recorded as, it would have been the only record of the species on Jamaica and it may have hinted at a lost population. In the end it was a simple misidentification of a common species.

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This is part of the reason why specimens in museums are so important – they provide a primary record that can be checked to ensure information about biodiversity is correct, so we can understand things like changes in population distribution with confidence.

Friday mystery object #351 answer

 

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

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There were a variety of clues and suggestions (some beyond my ken) but they tended towards identifying this as the nest of a Tailorbird. In fact salliereynolds even provided a video of the Common Tailorbird in action:

This was pretty darn close (excuse the pun), but the nest structure isn’t quite what I would expect from a true Tailorbird in the genus Orthotomus, plus I had a bit of extra information on a secondary label suggesting that this nest is from Sierra Leone (although the quality of the handwriting on the primary label made it indecipherable, so I’m not sure if it mentions the species or something else entirely):

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It’s worth noting that most of the true Tailorbirds are in Asia (mainly the Philippines), but in Africa there are some closely related birds that build similar nests that are a little more similar to the mystery object. A birds in the genus Cisticola is the most likely culprit in Sierra Leone, and I’ve seen Red-faced Cisticola Cisticola erythrops (Hartlaub, 1857) nests that match the structure, leaf selection and construction technique used here, so I think it will be something along those lines, but I simply can’t be sure.

This is a great example of why good, clear handwriting is really important in a museum setting. A bit of time spent with examples of Capt. H. W. Long’s writing might help decipher the original note, assuming such examples exist. Or, it may be that there’s a talented palaeographer who can read the original  note – if you have any thoughts your suggestions would be welcome!

Friday mystery object #350 answer

Last week I gave you this mystery bird as my 350th specimen for identification:

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It wasn’t particularly easy, although that oddly preserved crest did help narrow it down.

As Wouter van Gestel pointed out, the general shape of the bird, particularly the legs and sternum, suggest that it’s a passerine. There are quite a lot of crested passerines, from Crested Tits to Crested Jays, but the bill shape on this specimen only matches a few.

Bob Church worked it out and left a nice cryptic clue:

Well, I could be wrong and might bomb this one, but perhaps if I wax poetic, I could wing it a bit.

Taking bomb, wax and wing clearly relates to the waxwings in the genus Bombycilla.

For the full species definition there was a response on Twitter from the Scarborough Museums Trust Collections Team:

“Chattering silk-tail” is a direct translation of the scientific name Bombycilla garrulus – which is spot on!

They get their common name from the waxy red tips on their secondary feathers and their ‘Bohemian’ lifestyle – in the 19th Century sense of them being wanderers. They migrate thousands of miles and have a huge distribution across the Northern Hemisphere.

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Bombycilla garrulus by Andreas Trepte, 2012

I find their silky plumage and rich but quite blended colouring particularly beautiful – something that is a bit lacking in the mystery specimen.

Friday mystery object #350

This week marks a minor milestone for my blog – the 350th mystery object. Thanks to everyone who comes to take a look at the specimens I’ve been sharing from the various museums I’ve worked in over the years. I hope you’ve enjoyed them!

This week I have a funky specimen from the Dead Zoo for you to have a go at identifying:20170213_113309-01.jpeg

It stands around 17cm high, including the crest, which is a particularly striking feature to be preserved on a skeleton.

Any ideas what this is? As usual, you can put your questions, observations and suggestions in the comments below. Most importantly, have fun!

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.