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As it turns out, the taxonomy of the existing identification was more than a little out of date, with the label from 1881 reading Heliobucco bonapartii.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 #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!