Friday mystery object #307 answer

Last week I gave you this specimen from the Irish Room of the Dead Zoo to try your hand at identifying:

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Now it’s not a particularly difficult species to identify for a keen birder, so I asked for cryptic clues to the identity, and I was not disappointed. Some suggestions were so cryptic I still haven’t managed to work them out!

First in was Jennifer Mccaire who quoted a brief line of poetry:

“…Thou hast no sorrow in thy song, No winter in thy year.”

This is a section of a poem published in 1770 by John Logan – the title being “Ode to the Cuckoo“. Now, it seems likely that Scottish born Logan wrote this about the Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus Linnaeus, 1758 that breeds in Europe and which looks like this:

Common Cuckoo. Image by Chris Romeiks, 2011

Common Cuckoo. Image by Chris Romeiks, 2011

Clearly it’s a different bird (one which mimics the appearance of a female Sparrowhawk) and it’s not quite the same as the mystery object – although there are similarities. However, we must keep in mind that Jennifer is of the North American persuasion, so her thoughts on Cuckoos will probably veer towards the Black-billed Cuckoo or Yellow-billed Cuckoo (or maybe the Mangrove Cuckoo, but that’s not as widespread as the other two).

If you don’t know the difference between these two North American Cuckoos, here’s a handy illustration to help differentiate:

Black-billed Cuckoo (left), Yellow-billed Cuckoo (right). Watercolour by Louis Agassiz Fuertes between 1910 and 1914.

Black-billed Cuckoo (left), Yellow-billed Cuckoo (right). Watercolour by Louis Agassiz Fuertes between 1910 and 1914.

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Friday mystery object #302 answer

Last week I gave you this egg to try your hand at identifying:

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Eggs can be tricky, since they are largely similar in shape and, since egg collecting was banned many years ago, there are few modern resources for identification.

However, you can pick up clues by thinking about colour and pattern and working out what advantage it may have. So you might expect a brightly coloured egg to be laid in a well disguised and deep nest, where it’s unlikely to be spotted except by the parent, whereas a yellowy speckled egg is more likely to be camouflaged if laid in a fairly open, sandy environment.

So this egg was probably laid somewhere near the sea, which means it’s probably from a charadriiform bird (those are the shorebirds).

Now there are a lot of shorebirds, but this egg is pretty big and it lacks the strongly conical shape you’d expect from a cliff-nester like a Guillemot (the shape means it rolls in tight circle, making it less likely to be blown or knocked off a cliff). That actually narrows it down to a handful of birds that makes comparison easier. Curlew eggs, for example, are a similar size, but they tend to be more grey and have larger blotches, plus they’re a bit less elongated.

This particular egg has the shape and colour of a gull egg and large size means it’s almost certainly the egg of a Greater Black-backed Gull Larus marinus Linnaeus, 1758.

I would say more, but at the moment I’m at the natural history highlight of the year – the NatSCA conference. Here’s the Twitter feed in case you’re interested in the discussion:

Friday mystery object #295

For many of you, last week’s mystery object answer was a little disappointing, since I was unable to pin down what the specimen was. Normally with birds it’s not so difficult, because of useful resources like skullsite.com, but the fact is that some bird groups are still quite poorly represented in collections and finding comparative material is difficult, especially online.

The most frustrating thing about last week’s object is that it did once have a label, but at some point in the past it was lost, so the only information with the specimen now is this:

mystery295_label

However, this label does offer a glimmer of hope, since it identifies the specimen as being from a particular collection and that can often mean there will be more information somewhere.

As it turns out, this specimen is one of several that were purchased in 1867 from an auction of the collections of Dutch anatomist Theodoor Gerard van Lidth de Jeude. This is helpful because auction catalogues can contain information like the species names of the specimens being sold. It is particularly helpful when you have the original catalogue with annotations about the specimens bought by your institution.

Fortunately, at the Dead Zoo we have the auction catalogues. Unfortunately we bought quite a lot of stuff, so working out which of the specimens our mystery object represents is still quite a lot of work.

However, if other specimens from the auction have their names and numbers, it should be easier to narrow down the ones that lost their labels. It also can also help to have an identification of the specimen to track back to the catalogue, which is why I was keen to get your thoughts last time and why this week’s mystery object is from the same collection.

So can you help me work out what species this skull belonged to?

mystery295

No need for cryptic clues, but if you want to show off your taxonomic prowess you could always offer the 1860’s scientific name or the name of what you think it is in Dutch.

I hope you have fun with this one!

Friday mystery object #293 answer

Last Friday I gave you this unidentified specimen from Dublin’s Dead Zoo and asked you to help me work out what it was:

mystery293

The response was incredibly helpful and it was great to see that most of you were drawn by the morphology to make a similar identification to me.

The fact that it’s from the family Anatidae (the ducks, geese and swans) was immediately noticed, and from there the likely genus was quickly narrowed down to Branta, based on the morphology. This is the genus containing the ‘burnt’ geese (that’s what ‘branta’, derived from the Old Norse, means), which includes: the Brant Goose; Barnacle Goose; Canada Goose; Cackling Goose; Red-breasted Goose, and Hawaiian Goose.

However, the nominate examples of all these species (that means the ones derived from the type on which the species name is based) are either the wrong shape or a bit too large to have this skull, which you can see by checking them on the excellent Skullsite by Wouter van Gestel.

The closest species in terms of morphology are the Cackling Goose (B. hutchinsii), Canada Goose (B. canadensis) and Barnacle Goose (B. leucopsis), but it turns out that there are various subspecies of each and one (that was previously recognised as a subspecies of Canada Goose, but which is now considered a subspecies of Cackling Goose) is rather small, as flagged by the subspecies name minima.

This smallest subspecies seems to fit both the morphology and the size very well, so I’m quite confident to identify the mystery specimen as the Small Cackling Goose Branta hutchinsii minima (Ridgway, 1885).

640px-small_cackling_goose_brood

A family of Small Cackling Geese, by Tim Bowman, USFWS, 2003

So thanks to you all for helping me to narrow down where in the Anatidae to start looking! More mysteries from the Dead Zoo next week.

Friday mystery object #293

This week I have the first of what I hope will be many mystery objects from my new job as zoology curator at the National Museum of Ireland:

mystery293.jpg

I haven’t quite got myself a proper photographic set up yet, but I hope this photo of an unidentified skull in the collection will be good enough for you to be able to help me work out what species it belongs to.

As usual you can leave your thoughts, questions and suggestions in the comments section below. Have fun!

Friday mystery object #292 answer(ish)

Last week I gave you a final mystery object from the Grant Museum of Zoology to help me identify:

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Part of the reason for that was because I knew I’d be starting my new job in Dublin where there is a great collection of comparative bird osteology that I thought I’d get a chance to look at in time to write this post.

Alas, I’ve had a whirlwind first week at Dublin’s Dead Zoo and although I’ve managed to take a look at a few sterna, I’ve not had much time to really think about them or consider the identification. I’ve also had limited opportunity to follow up on everyone’s very useful suggestions, although I have tried to use them as a guide to narrow down my perusal of the comparative collections.

However, I did get a chance to take some quick snaps of a range of bird sterna with my phone, so I’m going to provide you with a veritable feast of breast bones to compare the mystery specimen against:

You can click on each image to see a large version – hopefully this will prove useful for future identifications!

None of them quite match the combination of having perforations near the straight and truncated bottom of the mystery specimen, which sports a broad triangular flattening of the lower portion of the carina or keel. This may be a feature of the particular individual, or it might be diagnostic – herein lie the problem with using strongly functional features for identification, as a juvenile or zoo specimen may have differences due to developmental progress of lack of use of a feature. To illustrate, this keel from a Griffon Vulture from the Royal Zoological Society of Ireland shows a significant asymmetry (although it’s hard to see the deformation in the image due to the shadow – I’ll see if I can get a better image):

Griffon Vulture sternum

Griffon Vulture sternum

It’s also worth noting that the Grant specimen has had the top of the sternum cut off, so the overall shape is a little misleading. From comparing the sterna of a variety of bird groups I’m in agreement with the emerging group consensus that this is probably from a pretty large bird of prey.

Thanks for your input on this – I will check some more next week when I have a zooarchaeologist looking at the comparative bird collection and I’ll get the chance to dig out some more material.

Cheers!

Friday mystery object #292

This week I have my last mystery object from the Grant Museum of Zoology, since I am starting my new job as Assistant Keeper of Natural History at the National Museum of Ireland next week. However, there is one specimen that’s been getting on my nerves the whole time I’ve worked at the Grant, as it says on its label that it’s from an Albatross, but I simply don’t believe it. Can you help me work out what this rather dusty specimen actually comes from?:

dsc06030No need for cryptic clues I think, since it’s probably going to be a little bit of a challenge and some discussion seems likely – which will be easier if we all know we’re talking about the same thing.

Have fun with this one!