Friday mystery object #442 answer

Last week I gave you this unassuming cobble-like object to have a go at identifying:

What you can’t see is that this is actually a surprisingly lightweight object and it’s most definitely not made of stone – not even a stone as light as pumice.

It is in fact of zoological origin and it’s an example of an object I featured on the blog 13 years ago (almost to the day), when I worked at the Horniman Museum:

Scale in cm

As Chris mentioned in the comments, and as Nigel Cook said on Twitter:

These are both trichobezoars – boluses formed from hair that form in the digestive track of an animal (usually an ungulate, although other animals, including humans can form them too). Bezoars are reputed to have magical properties and historically they were valuable high-status objects.

These two look quite different to each other and that is probably because one of them is fully mineralised (mystery object #442), while the other (mystery object #7) is barely mineralised and still has matted hair visible (and it still smelled pretty bad if I remember correctly).

I was going to add a little more information to my previous answer about these remarkable objects, but David Carter has an interesting article about them on the excellent Mindat website, so why reinvent the wheel? I recommend checking it out, as it’s well worth a read!

Friday mystery object #440

This week I have some news to accompany the mystery object.

After two years of hard work we have reopened the Dead Zoo. As part of that process, we came across this small piece of bone, which was caught in the historic furniture for several decades before jolting loose during some of the moves that have happened recently in the Museum:

A top tier challenge for a seasoned bone geek by the looks of it. So do you have any thoughts on what it might be from?

Oh, and in case you’re in Ireland (or have a VPN) you might be interested in this documentary that was aired on Monday, which follows the work I did on our whale specimens back in 2020. There’s a trailer for it here:

I hope you enjoy!

Friday mystery object #439 answer

Last week I gave you this little crab to have a go at identifying:

I wasn’t sure if it would be an impossible task based on just this image, but I thought I’d see how you fared. There weren’t many comments on the blog, but Twitter yielded some very astute observations, with Pete Liptrot getting the correct Family and Tim identifying it to species:

Most impressive!

I picked this Floating Crab Planes minutus (Linnaeus, 1758) because I spotted it whilst working in the Irish Room of the Dead Zoo and I didn’t recognise it myself. The specimen was collected from Dingle Bay on the 2nd July 1974, where it was found with stalked barnacles on drifting float.

These crabs are pelagic hitchhikers, relying on floating substrates (e.g. seaweed, turtles, ocean rubbish) to rest on between short forays to catch food, such as krill and very small fish. They are present in the North Atlantic, occasionally turning up along the west coast of Ireland and southwestern Britain.

So well done to Tim for that impressive identification. I’m afraid that I haven’t had a chance to figure out the diagnostic characteristics for this small, but well formed crab to share, because I’ve been too busy trying to get the Dead Zoo ready to reopen. If you want to see some of what’s been going on as part of that, check out the #DeadZooDiary.

More exciting news to come, but that can wait 😉

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 #404 answer

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

It wasn’t really much of a challenge for the usual suspects, with everyone recognising this as a Common Hill Myna Gracula religiosa Linnaeus, 1758.

However, my reason for picking this as a mystery object wasn’t for the challenge offered, but as an illustration of just how frustrating the taxonomy of old collections can be. Everyone recognised this bird, which is not a huge surprise, given how familiar this species has become due to the pet trade, but anyone looking at this specimen on display would probably struggle to match the specimen to the species considering the label that was attached:

The common name here suggests that the specimen is from Malaysia, then the scientific name suggests Java, but then the locality associated is just “East Indies”. The genus name does at least bear a passing relationship to the modern specific name (“Eulabes” means “pious” or “devout” while “religiosa” is self-explanatory). Similarly “Grackle” does hold a clue to the modern Genus name of “Graculus“. Most confusing.

To make things worse, the Graculus is now recognised as forming a species complex across Asia, so it would be good to narrow down which subspecies this specimen belongs to:

Distribution of the various species and subspecies within the genus Gracula. Image by L. Shyamal, 2009

The pattern of coloured feathers on the neck and head on the Dead Zoo specimen appears to match G. religiosa intermedia most closely, so when I eventually reach the stage of rewriting labels for specimens on display, I’ll do my best to improve the information. Unfortunately, this will probably need to happen for around 75-80% of the collection, so no pressure…

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:

20191016_094840-01.jpeg

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 #321 answer

Last week I gave you this fuzzy object from the stores of the Dead Zoo:

mystery321

It’s a slightly generic looking creature and I’m not surprised a few ideas for identification were mooted, because it lacks any single distinctive feature in this image (partly because the characteristic grizzled facial hair is a bit indistinguishable due to historic soot). That didn’t stop Wouter van Gestel, Mike Shanahan, RobinBirrrd, James Bryant, and jor from recognising it though.

This is the wonderfully weird Bearcat or Binturong Arctictis binturong Temminck, 1824 which is a South and Southeast Asian carnivore in the viverid family (those are the civets) that is one of only two carnivores with a prehensile tail (I’ve talked about the other one, the Kinkajou, in a previous blogpost).

Like the Kinkajou, the Binturong isn’t a very carnivorous carnivore. It eats more figs than meat and it lacks the restless dynamism of the average predator, plodding flat-footedly on the ground and climbing well, albeit in a much slower and more measured way than other arboreal carnivores that take killing a bit more seriously.

Binturong by Greg Hume, 2017

Binturong displaying characteristic levels of activity. Image by Greg Hume, 2017

Apart from the unusual prehensile tail, the living Binturong has one other unusual characteristic (as pointed out by RobinBirrrd) – it smells like popcorn. This is due to the emissions of its musk gland, situated conveniently near the genitals and anus. Sadly our specimen smells more like a half-washed dog that’s been rolling in mothballs.

More mysteries next week!

Friday mystery object #315 answer

Last week I gave you this big bug to identify:

mystery315

I had a feeling it would be fairly straightforward for some of you, since insects as big as this are reasonably distinctive, and I was therefore not disappointed with the flurry of correct identifications.

The first with a correct identification in the comments was Chris, who hinted at the scientific name with this suggestion:

Trying to identify this Cic-sac? Tho phar, Tho good! (Excuth the lithp!)

On social media people made suggestions relating to the common name for the species, mostly pointing out that it’s very loud. Putting the various hints together gives you the Double-drummer Cicada Thopha saccata (Fabricius, 1803).

Cicadas are weird. They’re in the Order Hemiptera (the true bugs) and the Suborder Homoptera (although that’s disputed and it’s probably safer to say Auchenorrhyncha). Best known for being noisy and having some species with synchronised emergence times that vary between every year and up to every 17 years, or somewhere in-between depending on species and environment. They have widely spaced eyes and a blunt head that is pretty distinctive.

As jennifermacaire pointed out regarding cicadas:

According to Plato, “[This species] used to be human beings who lived before the birth of the Muses. When the Muses were born and song was created for the first time, some of the people of that time were so overwhelmed with the pleasure of singing that they forgot to eat or drink; so they died without even realizing it. It is from them that the race of the [these insects] came into being; and, as a gift from the Muses, they have no need of nourishment once they are born. Instead, they immediately burst into song, without food or drink, until it is time for them to die. After they die, they go to the Muses and tell each one of them which mortals have honored her.”
– Phaedrus

The implications of this is that adult cicadas have a general inability to feed, although this isn’t quite true, since adult cicadas may still feed on sap.

This particular cicada is Australian and is one of the loudest insects on the planet, able to produce a call of over 120 decibels – loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage if right up against a human ear.

The abdomen is fairly hollow in the males of these insects, creating a resonating chamber, but sadly the last segment of this specimen has fallen off, making it hard to be sure of the gender on the basis of the genitals. However, the males have a couple of resonating sacs behind the hind-wing that is missing from this specimen, suggesting that it’s a female.

As far as noisy neighbours go, these insects are an occasional disruption, popping up every 4-6 years and making a noise that is apparently similar to high-pitched bagpipes.

It doesn’t sound great to me, so I’m (not so) secretly glad that I only have to deal with dead examples of these fascinating insects.

More mystery object fun next week!

Friday mystery object #298

This week it’s back to bones. I’ve had a couple of very helpful work experience students photographing some specimens from the Dead Zoo comparative osteology collection and here’s a distinctive bone for you to identify. The Order should be easy, the Family simple enough, but the Genus and Species may prove more difficult:

mystery298

So if you think you know what this is please put your suggestions in the comments below. Have fun!

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

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!