Friday mystery object #311

This week I have a real mystery object for you, which came in as an enquiry from the bottom of a mine in Ireland that was flooded to the roof with freshwater. It’s earned itself the delightful name of the ‘Clonkeen snot’ thanks to its appearance and texture:

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If you click on the image, it will open a large version so you can have a really good look at the fascinating gunk that was fished from the subterranean dankness.

Any ideas what this might be?

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

Friday mystery object #309 answer

There are lies, damn lies and statistics* and then there are inaccurate statements made from assumptions that are based on insufficient knowledge and poor research. Last week I fell into this sort of untruth when I offered up this diminutive mystery object that I said was from Ireland:

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My excuse for that untruth is the fact that the specimen was in a part of the collection dealing with native species (which I forgot also includes British taxa, because the collection is old enough to have been split into “native” and “foreign” before Ireland stopped being part of the UK) and I’d quickly checked the distribution with reference to a handy online checklist of British and Irish Hymenoptera, but I then missed the bit under the species that said the range was restricted to England. I assumed based on context and as a result I got it wrong – and we all know that we should never ASSUME, because when you ASSUME, you make an ASS of U and ME*.

So thanks to jennifermacaire  and David Notton for pointing out my mistake – it is much appreciated. I should have checked the label for the collection locality, but unfortunately the image was taken as a snap on my phone while bagging the drawer containing this specimen (while I was preparing hundreds of of other such drawers and insect boxes as part of a major collections move) so I didn’t get the chance. This is actually a bit of a problem for digitisation when insects are pinned like this, because the label is invisible from above.

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Insect boxes bagged for transport and freezing

If I was more familiar with the insect fauna of Britain and Ireland it would have helped, but as you may be aware, my main area of experience is in bones and the critters that have them, so my knowledge of insects tends to be quite generalised or restricted to particularly important or interesting species that I’ve had reason to research.

Skull of female Jaguar in the Dublin Dead Zoo

The kind of specimen I really understand

This is one of the challenges in my role as curator of Zoology and Entomology at the National Museum of Ireland, where I work with somewhere in the region of 2 million specimens, covering the whole of the animal Kingdom, from all over the world.

Normally museums with collections of this size would have a few specialist curators to focus on the main taxonomic divisions, but for the time being I’m dealing with the lot, so I have a steep learning curve to get up to speed with the whole collection. Of course, it’s well worth it, as there are some incredible specimens in there – either because of what they are, or who they were collected by and how important they are for science and culture.

Wasps collected by Charles Darwin during the Voyage of the Beagle.

Wasps collected by Charles Darwin during the Voyage of the Beagle.

Anyway, excuses aside, I expect you’re keen to find out what that small hymenopteran was. Chris very quickly identified it as one of the small, solitary carpenter bees. This is the only one that is “native” – in that it occurs in Southeast England – and even then it’s pretty rare to find it except in downlands in the South, mainly in East Hampshire.

The name is Ceratina cyanea (Kirby, 1802) and the female excavates a burrow in the stem of a dead plant, making tiny cells with walls of sawdust in which she lays eggs – hence the name “carpenter bees” for the group that shows this behaviour.

Another mystery object to come next week – this time it will hopefully be a bit less misleading!

 

*Attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, by Mark Twain

*I’m attributing that to the fictional character Dawn Summers from Buffy the Vampire Slayer because that’s where I heard it first, but it was coined by Jerry Belson

Friday mystery object #308 answer

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

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From the start it was pretty clear it’s a wasp (just look at that characteristic waistline) and palreyman1414 pointed out the key things to look for in making sure it isn’t a fly pretending to be a wasp:

I believe that there are some flies that are camouflaged to look like wasps, but a close look suggests that this thingy has a full complement of four wings, instead of the two plus two halteres (?) that characterises the flies

Now there are a LOT of wasps out there – somewhere in the region of 150,000 species (more than all of the vertebrates put together) so that doesn’t narrow it down much. However, that waist isn’t just pinched-in like your average wasp, it’s petiolate (that’s science-talk for “stalked”), which means it’s one of the Sphecidae.

The large size also helps – most wasps are tiny, so big ones like this are relatively scarce, especially bright metallic green-blue jobs. This distinctive appearance brings to mind for me the Steel-blue Cricket Hunter (see below), but it’s from the wrong part of the world (and it’s more green than blue).

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Chlorion aerarium from Maryland, USA, July 2012. Image by USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Laboratory

However, we know there are a lot of wasps, so it’s worth looking at close relatives in the Sphecidae, to see if there is anything from the right part of the world (that’s made reasonably easy by using an appropriate reference with a checklist).

It turns out that we don’t need to look too far, as the mystery specimen looks like it’s in the same genus of Cricket Hunters – Chlorion (as suggested by Ilyas) and checking out the species occurring in India has me leaning towards Chlorion lobatum (Fabricius, 1775), which is what abcdefg200 hinted at.

These active hunters don’t eat Crickets themselves, they actually get their energy from nectar, so they’re helpful pollinators. The Crickets face a more grisly fate than just being killed and eaten – they are paralysed, then buried alive with a wasp egg laid on them, which subsequently hatches and the larvae eat the still-living Cricket. Nightmare fodder.

There are a few subspecies of this particular species of wasp, but I’m not even going to try to work out which this might be, since even carrying out a proper identification to species would require time with a microscope and a lot more experience than I have with this diverse, fascinating and above all nightmarish group of insects.

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 #307

The last few months have been particularly busy for me as I’ve been working on a lighting project in the Irish Room of the Dead Zoo in Dublin, so I’ve not had much opportunity to dig out mystery objects and get good images for you to identify.

However, I have moved pretty much every specimen in the gallery and if you want to see how much stuff that entails there’s a 3D interactive map of the space available here (if you want to have a virtual tour of the whole museum check this out). All this moving means I’ve seen a lot of specimens, so here’s one of them for you to have a go at identifying:

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For a some of you this will be way too easy, so let’s have your best cryptic clues, hints and riddles as to what this is.

Have fun!