Friday mystery object #415 answer

Last week I gave you this Blaschka glass model of a marine invertebrate to have a go at identifying:

It was a bit of a mean one, since it’s from a very poorly known group of animals – and I mean that in more than one way. The taxonomic group is poorly known and the model represents a group of animals, not just a single individual.

So while this looks a bit like a jellyfish, it’s actually a siphonophore, which is a type of colonial organism that has discrete cloned zooids which fulfil specialised functions, similar to organs that cooperative to create a metaorganism.

Generally in siphonophores, these zooids are arranged on a stem in an organised pattern, with either two or three main zones of specialised zooids, depending on the taxonomic Suborder.

The zooid zone common to all siphonophores is the siphosome made up of feeding zooids with stinging cells, reproductive zooids and sometimes zooids with defensive functions. The two other zooid zones are the nectosome, which is comprised of zooids that act like tiny jet engines for swimming and the pneumatophore, which is a gas-filled zooid at the top of the stalk that acts as a float:

The presence or absence of particular zones is indicative of the particular Suborder of siphonophore, where the Physonectae have all three zones, the Cystonectae lack the swimming zooid zone and the Calycophorae lack the float.

I’m telling you all of this because it helps in narrowing down the mystery object. As you can see, there is no single zooid at the top acting as a float, so it must be one of the Calycophorae.

Within the Calycophorae most families only have one or two swimming bells and although the nectosome in the mystery object is not quite up to the Blaschka’s usual level of detail, it clearly contains more than two zooids, which is a feature of the Hippopodiidae.

The Hippopodiidae only contains two genera, Vogtia and Hippopodius and the two can be distinguished by the shape of the nectophores – in Vogtia they’re pentagonal whereas in Hippopodius they’re a more simple crescent shape – as we see here.

Back when the Blaschkas were making their models, there were a few species included in the genus Hippopodius, but they only made one that’s mentioned in their catalogues:

“209. Hippopodius gleba, Leuckart (Hippopoda lutea, Qu. & G.)”.

These days all the various species have been synonymised to just one – Hippopodius hippopus (ForsskĂ„l, 1776).

So well done to everyone who recognised that this was a siphonophore, even better if you spotted it was one of the Calycophorae and bravo if you got the genus (and therefore species).

Next week I plan to have a change from Blaschkas, much to everyone’s relief I’m sure 😉

Friday mystery object #415

This week I was hoping to give you some skulls to try identifying from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, but unfortunately all my well-laid plans were scuppered and I was unable to get away from the Dead Zoo. As a result I’ll afraid that I have yet another one of those ghastly Blaschka glass models for you to have a go at identifying:

The usual Blaschka rules apply – full points for the name and order catalogue number used by the Blaschkas (the catalogue can be found here) and bonus points for the current name for whatever this model depicts (if the taxonomy has changed).

I hope you enjoy this week’s challenge!

Friday mystery object #414 answer

Last week I gave you this Blaschka glass model from the Dead Zoo to have a go at identifying:

It seems as though you’ve all managed to get your eye in with the Blaschka identifications, since there was a flurry of correct answers both in the comments on the blog and on Twitter.

Those exposed gills immediately let us know that this is a nudibranch sea slug. From there I thought it might prove more of a challenge, but by looking at the physical characteristics shown it quickly became obvious what we were looking at – at least when there is a handy catalogue to look at and provide clues.

In this case, the clue lay in the scientific name of the species: Polycera quadrilineata (O. F. MĂŒller, 1776). As you might expect, it has many (poly-) horns (-cera) and four (quadri-) lines (-lineata), making the name helpfully descriptive. At least in this instance. The problem is that the name could be much less helpful if this model depicted the same species with a different morphotype.

In fact, it seems that there has been a separate species of Polycera hiding in plain sight until very recently. The wide variety of different colours and patterns associated with P. quadrilineata has meant that the new species Polycera norvegica SÞrensen, Rauch, Pola & Malaquias, 2020 was only identified in last year, because it was lumped together with its more lineated cousin (that often lacks its stripes).

Separating these species relies on finer details than just overall appearance of course – the team that identified this cryptic critter did so on the basis of detailed morphological and genetic work that you can read about here.

It does help illustrate an ongoing problem faced when dealing with historic collections though. There have been a lot of species that have been similarly split, especially since molecular methods have become so much more accessibble. When working with old specimens it’s not unusual for these little bits of scientific progress to have been missed.

I’ve grumbled about this before, but it is a particular problem that can make dealing with Blaschkas so much more complicated. Fortunately there has been some work done on trying to match some of the more distinctly fishy taxonomy used by the Blaschkas to more modern versions, but there are still some impossible examples where the Blaschkas reproduced something from a source that had little bearing on real species. I promise I won’t set one of those as a mystery object.


Friday mystery object #414

The last mystery object I gave you was one of the Dead Zoo’s Blaschka glass models and it proved to be a nice challenge. So here’s another one of them that’s become dissociated from its data in the mists of time for you investigate:

Same rules as last time – let’s see if you can figure out the species and the catalogue number (here’s a link to the catalogue to help with that). Have fun!

Friday mystery object #413 answer

Last week I gave you this cute little Blaschka glass model of a squid to have a go at identifying:

Now that isn’t as easy as it might seem, since the Blaschkas spent over 20 years in their Dresden workshops making models of marine invertebrates, which included 50 different species of cephalopod. Moreover, many of these models did not survive the last 150 or so years, making comparable examples quite hard to find. On top of that, the taxonomy of the animals that the Blaschkas created models for has changed significantly in that time, meaning that everything gets very confusing when even trying to refer to particular models.

As such, when we’re working with Blaschka models we find it useful to refer to the order catalogue numbers established by H.A. Ward in 1878. Of course, that means we also have to rely on the old taxonomy used at the time and we still have problems when referrencing specimens made before 1878, since the Ward numbers hadn’t been established – plus the models offered in the various iterations of the catalogues changed to meet demand.

Much of that demand came from museums and universities all over the world, with the delicate lampworked models being mail ordered. The only way in which the person ordering could know what they were likely to receive in the post was to check out the scientific engravings of the animals that the Blaschkas faithfully reproduced in three dimensions. Usually there would be just a few references for any particular taxonomic group, so it probably wasn’t too difficult to get an idea of what to expect.

In the case of the squids, most were based on illustrations from Mollusques mĂ©diterranĂ©ens observĂ©s, dĂ©crits, figurĂ©s et chromolithographiĂ©s d’aprĂšs le vivant – 1re partie: Céphalopodes de la Méditerranée by Jean-Baptiste VĂ©rany, 1851, so that provides a good place to start looking.

It takes a while to get your eye in, but there are various details in each of the specimens that makes them more or less likely to be the illustration the model was based on. For this one there are a few that have similar proportions and colouring, but this also has what I like to refer to as the “double chin” (or perhaps “double neck” is more accurate). This feature is absent from most of the illustrations and therefore from most of the Blaschka squid models. Except this one.

Trawling through the VĂ©rany book offers up a very good illustration providing the base for this model, the comparison spoiled only by photography done using my phone, which has a propensity for distorting the extremities of small 3D objects. Here’s what I think we’re dealing with:

This is what VĂ©rany (and the Blaschkas) called Enoploteuthis Owenii and what is now known as the Eye-flash Squid, Midwater Squid or Abralia veranyi (RĂŒppell, 1844).

In the Ward versions of the Blaschka catalogue from 1878 and 1888 this model is listed under the number 554. So I offer my hearty congratulations to Adam Yates, who got both the species and the number. I hope you enjoyed this wander into the world of Blaschka models – I have other examples that I’ve identified recently, so I might just challenge you with another again soon…

Friday mystery object #413

This week I’ve been packing some of the Dead Zoo’s beautiful Blaschka glass models, that were moved during our decant and have been sitting in my office waiting to be dealt with:

Most of the Blaschka models we have are well identified and many even have the number that they were given for ordering in the Catalogue of Glass Models of Invertebrate Animals, Ward’s Natural Science Establishment, by H. A. Ward, Rochester, N.Y., 1878.

However, as is sometimes the case with old collections, there has been a degree of dissociation of information from the specimens and one or two of our models have lost their data. This little squid is one such specimen.

I managed to track down the modern accepted name for this specimen, which is very different to the name used by the Blaschka’s when they made and sold this model. With that original name I was even able to figure out the order number from the Ward catalogue. I enjoyed the detective work and I hope you do too!

Let’s see if you all come to the same conclusion about this specimen as I did. I’ve added a couple of extra images below to help you in your quest. Have fun!

Friday mystery object #324 answer

Last Friday I gave you this rather beautiful object to have a go at identifying:


I thought it might prove fairly easy for some of you and I wasn’t disappointed. Both in the comments here and on social media there were lots of you who managed to work out what this is, largely from images or illustrations of the model that could be tracked down online.

This is a glass model of a sea-slug made by the Blaschka father-and-son team of lampworkers, who were based in Dresden in the second half of the 19th Century. They made a huge number and variety of models of marine organisms, based on illustrations they found in a variety of scientific publications, which they adapted to enable reproductions in glass.

Beccaria tricolor by Leopold Blaschka (between 1863-1886). From the collection of the Corning Museum of Glass and Digitized by Boston Photo Imaging May 2011

Design illustration of Beccaria tricolor by Leopold Blaschka. From the collection of the Corning Museum of Glass and Digitized by Boston Photo Imaging May 2011


Caliphylla mediterranea by S. Trinchese in Æolididae e famiglie affini del porto di Genova, Pt.1 (c.1877-1879)

Illustration of Caliphylla mediterranea by S. Trinchese in Æolididae e famiglie affini del porto di Genova, Pt.1 (c.1877-1879). Image from Harvard University, MCZ, Ernst Mayr Library, via Biodiversity Heritage Library

This particular specimen has the number 373 on its label, which corresponds with the number on the Blaschka design illustration above, so we can be confident that the design is for this model.


Label for the specimen – note the National Museum of Ireland – Natural History (NMINH) number which starts with the year the specimen was acquired. This specimen arrived in August 1886 and cost the fairly modest sum of 3d (for  some context, an average UK farm labourer’s weekly wage in 1886 was 13s 4d*,  which would be enough to buy 53 of these models).

I should probably say the design is for this type of model, since the Blaschkas produced multiple versions of each design. These sold all around the world to museums and universities, who ordered them from a catalogue to be used in display and teaching in lieu of real specimens, which would often look like nothing more than tiny grey lumps once preserved in alcohol.

To give you an idea of what these creatures look like alive, here’s an image of an undetermined species of Caliphylla

Caliphylla sp. from RĂ©union, by Nathalie Rodrigues, 2015

Caliphylla sp. from RĂ©union, by Nathalie Rodrigues, 2015

As you might imagine, as soon as you take one of these animals out of water their complex frills start to stick together like a piece of damp fancy lettuce and it becomes hard to see their leafy structure.

And they really are leafy, because Calliphyla is one of the solar-powered Sacoglossa sea-slugs that steal chloroplasts from algae, which they then store in their bodies and can use to obtain energy from the sun. So all those leafy bits are a result of convergent evolution with plants, providing a large surface area for light to reach the chlorophyll. This means they also end up being well camouflaged against predators, although they may get nibbled by the occasional confused herbivore.

* British Labour Statistics: Historical Abstract 1886-1968 (Department of Employment and Productivity, 1971)