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?