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!

Friday mystery object #325 answer(ish)

Last week I gave you the challenge of identifying this bit of bone found in a rockpool in Kimmeridge by 7 year old Annie:

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It’s not the easiest item to identify for a variety of reasons. First of all it’s broken, only showing one end and probably missing quite a lot of the element. Next, the images don’t show all of the angles you might want to see and because the object is small the images aren’t as clear as you might like.

However, there are a few angles visible (see below) and there is a scale, so the main requirements to get an approximate identification are in place. I say approximate, because with something like this I think you really need the object in your hand where you can compare it to other material in detail if you want to make a confident identification.

Excuses aside, let’s take a look and see what it might be…

The first thing to note is that the bone is hollow with thin walls. This rules out fish, reptiles, amphibians and mammals (including humans jennifermacaire) – leaving birds.

Weathered mammal bones may have a void in the bone where the marrow would have been, but the cortex (outside layer) will be thicker and near the articular surface it tends to be quite solid.

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Hollow bone = bird (usually)

Next, the articular surface of the bone is concave, which palfreyman1414 picked up on:

As far as I recall (mentally running through images in my head) both ends of the proximal limb bones in tetrapods have convex ends?

This is accurate, but while the proximal (near end) of the limb bones are convex, the more distal (far end) limb bones tend to have concave ends, so that helps narrow down what this bony element might be.

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Concave articulation

For me the give-away here is the fact that there’s no ridge within the concavity of the articular surface, which means that it will allow movement in several directions – something that the bones of bird feet don’t really need, which is why bird lower legs,  feet and toes have a raised ridge inside the articular surface that corresponds with a groove in the other surface, keeping the articulation of the joint tightly constrained.

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Articulation of Shag phalanx showing raised ridge

However, bird wing need to make a wider range of motion (at least in some species), so the mystery object is most likely the distal end of a bird radius (the ulna tends to have a hook at the distal end). This is the conclusion that Wouter van Gestel and DrewM also came to (joe vans should’ve stuck to his guns).

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Distal articulation if duck radius

Identifying the species of bird is a lot more complicated. The size suggests a pretty big bird, which narrows it down and the locality in which it was found makes some species more likely than others. I took a look at the radius of some species that are commonly found on the coast, like Guillemot, Herring Gull, Duck, Cormorant/Shag and Gannet, Skimmer, Pigeon and I also checked out Chicken, since their bones are probably the most commonly occurring on the planet.

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Gannet radius with some distinctive structure around the articulation

Many of the species I checked had quite a distinctive structure around the distal radius articulation, but the gulls, ducks and chickens that I looked at had fairly unremarkable distal radius articulations, making it hard to definitively decide what the mystery object is based on the images.

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Herring Gull radius

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Chicken radius

 

So with that somewhat disappointing conclusion I admit partial defeat, but I can say that it’s not from a Cormorant, Shag, Gannet, Pigeon or Guillemot. Sorry I can’t be more specific Annie!

Unfortunately that’s just how the identification game works sometimes… we’ll try again with something new next week!

Friday mystery object #320 answer

Happy New Year everyone!

Last week I gave you this skull to identify from the collections of the Dead Zoo in Dublin :

King Vulture Sarcoramphus papa (Linnaeus, 1758)

I also included the label, since it offers an interesting taxonomic twist.20171228_163420.jpg

If there’s one principle that I hope I’ve managed to convey over the last eight and half years of doing the Friday mystery object, is that you should never fully trust the label.

For starters, the number NMINH:2006.12.1698 could be misleading, as it reflects the year the specimen was catalogued rather than the year it was acquired. To explain, the NMI uses a very sensible numbering system that starts with the collection (NMINH = National Museum of Ireland Natural History) the year of registration (usually the year of acquisition) which allows you to know which register to look in, followed by the lot number (a sequential number reflecting how many acquisitions have come in that year), followed by the individual object number (the sequential number of that individual item in a particular lot). This system can have additional numbers added if necessary, such as if a piece of an individual object is removed for sampling.

However, some older objects were not registered when they entered the collection and as such they get a number that reflects the year they were documented rather than the year they were acquired. In this case the specimen was registered in 2006, but purchased from an auction of the collections of van Lidth de Jeude who died in 1863, as Nigel (the Dead Zoo Keeper) helpfully pointed out in the comments.

If the specimen had been accessioned and numbered on entering the collection back in the 1860’s then issues with the name would be expected since taxonomy constantly changes and old names are often wrong, but because of the new label and the 2006 date, you’d generally expect the name to be more up-to-date. However, it appears that the information on an old label was directly transcribed without being updated.

This is relevant because the name Orogyps auricularis is what we call a junior synonym, which means it has been used to describe a species that already has an older valid name. When this happens the older name takes precedence. In this case, Orogyps auricularis is a name applied in 1867 by Degland and Gerbe to a species that had already been named Vultur tracheliotos  by J.R. Forster in 1796 and which is now placed in a different genus, giving the name Torgos tracheliotos (Forster, 1796) – where the parentheses around the author name indicate that the scientific name has changed from the original version that was published by Forster.

These taxonomic and documentation twists are however rendered redundant as soon as you realise that this specimen is from a totally different species. In fact it’s not really anything like Torgos tracheliotos the Lappet-faced Vulture:

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Lappet-faced vulture

In fact, the only real similarity lies in the tip of the beak, which is a functional feature for tearing meat and which is convergent between the Old World Vultures and the New World Vultures. The Lappet-faced Vulture is an African species, while the mystery object has the distinctive deflection of the bill in the nasal region that indicates it’s a species from the Americas. This discrepancy in region was noted by palfreyman1414 and Gerard van den Brink.

Once you focus on the New World Vultures it becomes quite easy to make an identification, since there are only seven species and at 121mm this specimen is the third largest species after the condors – something easy to check on Skullsite. So well done to everyone who recognised the skull as belonging to the King Vulture Sarcoramphus papa (Linnaeus, 1758), especially palfreyman1414 who got there first.

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King Vulture by Eric Kilby, 2008

As you can see, not only was the taxonomy very out of date for this specimen, it was also completely wrong, because it was misidentified 150 years ago. This is why you should never fully trust labels – they will often be wrong and if you base research on misidentified specimens, that will be wrong too.

Another mystery specimen next week!

Friday mystery object #318 answer

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

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It’s a fairly distinctive looking specimen with that massive bill, immediately narrowing down the possible families to two likely contenders – the Toucans (Ramphastidae) or the Hornbills (Bucerotidae).

On closer examination it lacks the serrated bill margins and remarkably long medial (in this case that means ‘towards the midline of the skull’) process of the quadrate bone (a part of the jaw in birds that I’ve blogged about before) that you see in Toucans. So, it’s a Hornbill – as everyone correctly spotted in the comments – but then we have the question of the species.

There are around 60 Hornbill species, with most of them sporting quite distinctive casques which make them quite identifiable (I’ve blogged about several before):

Ceratogymna atrata skull

Black Hornbill Ceratogymna atrata

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Great Hornbill Buceros bicornis

Bucorvus abyssinicus (Boddaert, 1783) sectioned skull

Northern Ground-hornbill Bucorvus abyssinicus

However, this specimen seems to be lacking a casque. This could be due to a few reasons. There are some casqueless species, such as the Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill, it could be a young female adult from a small casqued species with sexual dimorphism in casque development, or it could be a young juvenile from a species that has a small casque that grows as the animal matures.

Assuming it’s one of these, it’s easy to check the few casqueless species by looking at the overall bill shape, the position of the nares (nostrils) relative to the orbits (eye sockets) and checking the structure of the jugal and quadratojugal (the thin bones on the side of the skull under the orbit) – this last only if you can find a reliable skull image for comparison.

Using Skullsite and images on the internet it’s time-consuming, but straightforward to rule out a lot of possibilities, since most Hornbills have a fairly robust jugal/quadratojugal and nares located much further away from the orbit than you see in the mystery specimen. In fact the only Hornbills with a similar nares/orbit position and gracile (skinny) jugal/quadratojugal and in the right size range (that I was able to find) were in the genus Rhyticeros L. Reichenbach, 1849.

Unfortunately I’ve not found good skull images of juveniles for all of the species to make a final comparison and you can’t just compare the skull of a juvenile with an adult and expect to see the same configuration and development of features, as there’s still growth to happen (something else I’ve talked about before).

So based on the information it looks like jennifermacaire was the closest with her suggestion of Wreathed Hornbill, although I’m leaning slightly more towards the Papuan Hornbill Rhyticeros plicatus (J.R.Forster, 1781).

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Hope you enjoyed the challenge!

Friday mystery object #317 answer

Last week I gave you this unidentified bird skull from the Dead Zoo to try your hand at identifying:

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It seems that everyone recognised it as being from a charadriiform, and one of the waders at that. The first response was from Chris, who made reference to Lewis Carroll’s poem the Walrus and the Carpenter in which the eponymous characters eat an enormous quantity of oysters – hinting that this is an Oystercatcher.

There were some other suggestions that it could be from one of the birds in the genus Tringa, which includes the ‘shanks’ (Redshank, Greenshank, etc.), but the morphology fits one of the Oystercatchers better – in particular that weird constriction about halfway down the mandible when you look at the skull in profile.

This mandibular ‘waist’ is quite unusual and it doesn’t even seem to occur strongly in all of the Oystercatchers, which helps narrow down the likely species within the genus Haematopus, especially when you factor in things like the relative bill proportions, although you have to be careful doing this as there is some sexual dimorphism in the shape of the bill, with the females’ being longer.

The three closest species are the American Oystercatcher, the Sooty Oystercatcher and the Blackish Oystercatcher, but unfortunately I’ve not been able to find good reference skulls all of these species to be able to look for any distinguishing cranial characters. Based on bill morphology I’m leaning towards this being the skull of the American Oystercatcher, Haematopus palliatus Temminck, 1820.

American Oystercatcher by DonaldRMiller, 2010

American Oystercatcher by DonaldRMiller, 2010

My next step will be to check through our collections to see if we have comparative material to check the identification (once I get some time – a sadly rare commodity). If I can’t confirm I’ll just stick with Haematopus sp. on the label.

If you’re not familiar with Oystercatchers, they walk along the tideline either prying or breaking open bivalves. In my experience they seem more fond of mussels than oysters, but what do I know?

Another mystery next week!