Friday mystery object #451 answer

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

In the ornithological community, birds like this are sometimes referred to as an LBB / LBJ (Little Brown Bird / Job), because they are small, brown and hard to identify (especially in the field) due to the large number of similar looking species.

This specimen has a robust, conical bill and grey-streaked breast, which led some of you to think it could be a juvenile Crossbill or perhaps a female Grosbeak. However, as indicated by Wouter van Gestel in an excellent cryptic clue (and by Tim Dixon in a rather rude one), this is a Corn Bunting Emberiza calandra Linnaeus, 1758. It was collected in County Dublin and donated to the Dead Zoo in 1880.

These seed-eating passerines were widespread in arable farmland across Ireland in the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, changing land use practices reduced the available habitat until they became locally extinct as a breeding species in the late 1990s – well within living memory for many people.

The Irish name for the Corn Bunting is Gealóg bhuachair and an interesting fact about these birds is that their populations are remarkably sedentary, allowing them to develop unique dialects in their breeding area. This means that even if this species is reintroduced to Ireland – assuming farming practices become better suited to their survival – the landscape will never again ring with quite the same song that these birds would have sung in the past.

Friday mystery object #451

Happy New Year!

2023 has started off with a bit of a bang. The Dead Zoo has been given the go-ahead for the next phase of a major redevelopment project, and yesterday I signed an employment contract accepting the position of Keeper of Natural History at the National Museum of Ireland, so it looks like I have a busy few years ahead!

But that has nothing much to do with the mystery object, so here’s the specimen I have for you to identify:

It’s probably a bit on the easy side for anyone with an interest in ornithology, so if you know what this is, please keep your answer cryptic to give everyone else a chance. If not, I hope you enjoy the challenge!

Friday mystery object #435 answer

Last week I tried something a bit different for the Friday mystery object. Instead of giving you a few different views of a skull or whole animal, I offered just a small detail:

I hope the challenge proved fun for everyone who tried to figure this out. There were quite a few correct answers, although I think it was quite a challenge.

In fact, it was a challenge issued to the 5th class of St. Laurence’s National School by the Sallins Biodiversity Group in their excellent #MapOfLife2022 project.

Here’s what Gavin Brangan has to say about it:

For many children, the Dead Zoo is their first experience of being struck by the wonder of nature up close and in person.

In #MapOfLife2022 wanted to bring as many facets of that experience to the school and local community. On Wednesday, 5th Class in St Laurence’s had a video tour and workshop given by the education department of National Museum of Ireland – Go Extinct!

Joanne Murray, a local artist, based her art workshops with Senior Infants and 3rd class in the school on the specimen drawers containing insects. To cap it all, we’ve invited the children to find Paolo’s mystery object on the ground floor of the virtual tour of the museum.

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you’ll know that one of the reasons I’ve kept it going for so long (this is its 13th year!) is the community that has developed here and the opportunities the blog offers to help people engage with objects from the natural world and the stories they can tell.

In this case, I thought sharing this beautiful feather pattern would help me tell the story of an extremely rare visitor to Ireland – the Great Bustard Otis tarda Linnaeus, 1758.

This particular bird is a female that somehow ended up in Castletown, Berehaven, Co. Cork in the winter of 1925. At this point in time the Great Bustard had been extinct in Britain for over 90 years and was not to be seen again until they were reintroduced to Salisbury Plain around 2007, so it couldn’t have come from Ireland’s closest neighbour.

It’s more likely to have come from France, Spain or Portugal, meaning it was off course by over 1,000km. I haven’t found any records of particularly big storms in the winter of 1925, but often it will be something like that which brings a migrating bird so far off track.

These birds like dry open grassland, with plenty of insects to feed on. Ireland is probably too wet for them to become established, although with a changing world climate that could possibly change in the future.

This is the interesting thing about nature – it changes constantly. What we think of as being normal is actually just what we’re used to seeing in the span of our lives. This is why it is so important to understand biodiversity over time – to see how it’s changing and to work out why it’s changing.

Museums like the Dead Zoo have specimens collected by people over the last 250 years and the activities of community groups doing projects like #MapOfLife2022 can help feed into that preserved knowledge and add a new level of understanding of the natural world today.

I think it’s especially important for young people to have an opportunity to get involved with this sort of thing, since they will be our future naturalists, life scientists and museum curators. This is why the efforts of people like Gavin, and teachers like Ms Hennessy and Ms Scott are incredibly important and deserve recognition.

To wrap up, I recommend taking a look at the photo journal of the #MapOfLife2022 events to see the young and old of Sallins getting involved in Biodiversity and natural history.

Friday mystery object #426 answer

Last week I gave you this beautiful, but rather enigmatic bird of prey as a mystery object:

It was a bit of mean one, because it’s not a natural species, which meant almost everyone was driven to distraction by the subtle differences from anything readily recognisable. I say almost everyone, because Pete Liptrot got it spot-on:

This is indeed a hybrid falcon, that was hatched in Co. Galway to a Saker Falcon Falco cherrug Gray, 1834 mother (called Farah) and Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus Tunstall, 1771 father back in 1971, marking the first example of this cross.

The specimen was donated to the Dead Zoo in 1976 by the Rt. Hon. Johnny Morris – who by all accounts was as interesting and unique as the bird he reared. Sadly, I heard that Johnny passed away recently, which will doubtless be a blow to the many people he met.

But Johnny has left a legacy, and as he once said donating to the museum “is a way of making yourself immortal”. In this case his donation has been seen by millions of people and the unexpected cross-breeding he enabled helped inform the captive breeding of birds of prey for conservation.

Friday mystery object #424 answer

I hope that you had a very merry festive season and that you didn’t spend too much time contemplating last week’s mystery object from a dig by Irish Archaeological Consultancy that’s been taking place in Dublin:

Because the object is still partly in the soil and I was unable to get images from every angle and I think that there are some helpful features still buried, so I apologise for that. Still, we can take a look at what we know and start narrowing down possibilities.

First of all, we know that this is the lower part of the hind limb of a bird. That much is clear due to the shape of the articulations, in particular the lobed shape of the distal end of the tarsometatarsus (or TMT, which is the long bone in the image that is intact apart from a hole in the midshaft).

Considering that based on the scale bar the total length of the TMT must be around 380mm, this is clearly from a VERY big bird. The largest bird species occurring in Ireland would be the Great Bustard, which has a TMT length of between 138 and 176mm in the males (which are significantly larger than the females). So that’s not even close.

There are birds common to Ireland which are smaller, but with longer legs, such as the Grey Heron. However, their TMT would seldom be greater than 210mm. Even the Common Crane, which has historcially be reported in Ireland, only has a TMT in the 200-250mm range – about the same as a Greater Flamingo, which is the kind of exotic bird that may have been brought to Ireland by humans as an ornamental in the last few hundred years. We need to look further afield.

The next obvious stop has to be the largest bird, to at least get a sense of just how big the TMT is likely to get. Ostriches have a TMT in the region of 448mm, so we’re not quite up to that size, but we’re also not all that far away. On a side note, as we mentioned earlier, the mystery object probably still has part of the distal articulation buried in the soil – but if it didn’t then it would be a good contender for a small Ostrich, since they only have two toes and their TMT would be missing the section of articulation that is likely buried here.

The next largest bird to consider would be the Emu, which has a TMT around 400mm. This is getting into the right sort or size range, but we should consider the other possible candidates. Staying with Antipodean species, the Southern Cassowary has a TMT in the region of 325mm long and the Northern Cassowary is around the same size. Then we jump over to South America and the rheas. The largest is the Greater Rhea, for which I could only find a measurement of 320mm, which was taken from one male specimen.

Based on size alone this suggests that Emu is the most likely option, but we all know how size can be a bit unreliable. The next thing to look at is probably the shape of the unguals (those are the ends of the digits where the claws would attach):

In most ratites the ungual on the middle digit seems to have quite a flat profile, but from the images I’ve seen of skeletons, the Emu appears to be the only one with a similarly curved middle ungual.

On balance (and I’d be happy to reconsider if I can get my hands on the fully excavated specimen) I think this is most likely to be the leg of an Emu Dromaius novaehollandiae (Latham, 1790) – an opinion shared by Adam Yates.

I realise there are some other extinct large ratites (various moas and the elephant birds) that may have found their way to Ireland as fairly complete fossils, but the lack of holes for wiring, and with the bones still in their correct orientation suggests that this specimen went into the ground with its skin still more or less intact.

I’d like to thank everyone for their suggestions – I’m not sure I’d call this a cut-and-dried answer, but hopefully I’ll get a chance to take a closer look at the specimen in 2022 and confirm the identity with more certainty.

Happy New Year to everyone!

Friday mystery object #424

This week I thought it would be nice to have something seasonal and festive for Christmas Eve, but I couldn’t think of anything that I haven’t done before, so you’re getting a genuine mystery object that came to light on an archaeological dig in Dublin by Irish Archaeological Consultancy:

I’ve been thinking about a possible identification for this specimen (and I’ve ruled out a LOT of possibilities), but I’ve not had much time to check on comparative material, so I’d be keen to hear your suggestions about what you think this leg might have come from in the comments below.

Have a Merry Christmas and try not to spend too much time thinking about this 😉

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 #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 #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.

gray-throated_barbet_-_kakamega_kenya_06_1744

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 #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

This week I’ve been looking at birds, so I thought I’d share the joy with you. Do you have any thoughts about what this might be?

I expect that quite a few of you will have a pretty good idea, so please keep your suggestions cryptic, to let people who are less familiar with avian identification have a chance of improving their skills.

Have fun!

Belated Friday mystery object #328 answer

The other Friday I gave you this specimen to have a go at identifying, but alas when the time came to write an answer I was at the Natural Sciences Collections Association (normally just called NatSCA) conference (which has been referred to as “the highlight of the natural history curator’s year”) and as a result I didn’t get much of a chance to write an answer or even read the comments.

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Now I’m back, buoyed up by the fantastic shared experience of the conference (take a look at the #NatSCA2018 hashtag to get an idea of what was going on) and I’ve finally have a chance to look at the specimen, read the comments and write an answer. I was delighted to find some great cryptic poetry, prose and comments – some requiring perhaps a little more intellectual prowess than I’m capable of commanding, especially after an intense few days of conferencing (sorry salliereynolds!)

This specimen has a somewhat thrush-like appearance, but the hooked tip of the bill doesn’t quite sit right for a member of the Turdidae (the family of true thrushes). This somewhat raptorial feature of the beak is seen more in birds like the Laniidae (shrikes) and some of the Saxicolinae (chats). It’s the chats that I’m interested in with regard to this specimen, although not the “typical” chats. The ones I’m interested in have been moved around taxonomically a fair bit.

A lot of birds with a thrush-like general appearance will have been called a “something-thrush” by Europeans and will have kept that in their common name even after taxonomy has moved on and that species has been moved out of the Turdidae. In the Saxicolinae there are a lot of birds that were once considered thrushes and one genus in particular tends towards being a fairly dark colour with blue elements – Myophonus or the whistling-thrushes.

The distribution of glossy blue feathers on members of Myophonus is variable and reasonably distinctive. Also, because these glossy feather colours are structural, they don’t tend to fade in old museum specimens like the colour from pigments. In this specimen the blue patch is fairly dull and confined to the shoulder (or epaulet) and the rest of the plumage is even more dull – possibly faded, but also possibly because it’s female (we all know that it’s usually the boys that are show-offs).

Keeping in mind the distinctive bill, overall size and pattern of colouration, a trawl through the epic Del Hoyo, et al. Handbook of the Birds of the World -Volume 10 yielded one description that fit rather well – that of the female Javan Whistling-thrush Myophonus glaucinus (Temminck, 1823).

These forest dwelling birds live in, you guessed it, Java. They feed on various invertebrates and frogs, a slightly ramped-up diet from thrushes, necessitating a hooked bill tip to keep the more jumpy morsels from getting away.

More mysteries to come this Friday!

 

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!