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.

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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!

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:

mystery325a

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!