It’s fairly distinctive, so I doubt you’ll have a problem narrowing down the family, but I’d be interested to hear what species you think this skull belonged to in the comments below.
Last week I gave you this unidentified bird skull from the Dead Zoo to try your hand at identifying:
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.
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!
Last week I gave you this specimen from the Irish Room of the Dead Zoo to try your hand at identifying:
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:
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:
Last week I gave you this egg to try your hand at identifying:
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:
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:
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?
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!
Last Friday I gave you this unidentified specimen from Dublin’s Dead Zoo and asked you to help me work out what it was:
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).
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.
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:
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!