Friday mystery object #358

Another Friday, another mystery object. This week I’m going back to my favourite subject – skulls. This particular specimen has been brought in to the Dead Zoo for identification by customs and although I’ve narrowed it down, I’m still not 100% sure of the species just yet:

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It’s a fairly straightforward genus for anybody who knows their ungulates, so cryptic clues are appreciated. However, the species is harder to work out, so bonus points for detail. Have fun!

 Friday mystery object #357 answer

Last week I gave you this leggy mystery object to have a go at identifying:

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Despite it having a passing resemblance to a Xenomorph Facehugger, it’s a real animal from planet Earth, although not from earthy bit. As many of you recognised, this is one of the pycnogonids or sea spiders.

This group of arthropods is placed in the Chelicerata along with spiders and horseshoe crabs on the basis of their morphology, although genetics suggest that their roots may lie nearer the base of the arthropod family tree.

You’re unlikely to encounter one of these giants since they live in the deep sea, but smaller types (usually only around a 1cm long) are found on most rocky shores, where they feed on bryozoans and hydroids.

This one is from around Franz Josef Land, an archipelago in the Russian Arctic. Several people dropped hints to the genus – in particular Hilary, Chris, Wouter van Gestel, Daniel Calleri & Dan Jones, but Andrew Taylor just came out with it: Colossendeis. The clue there is really in the size.

However, this is a tricky one to narrow down to species. There is an online key to the pycnogonids but unfortunately it’s not totally comprehensive. That said, this species is represented in the key and it’s actually quite distinctive because of its huge proboscis (N.B. the head points upwards in this specimen), quite compact almost disc-shaped body and lack of eyes.

These characteristics match the description for Colossendeis proboscidea (Sabine, 1824), which is more commonly known as the Blind Pycnogonid. Now I want to find out who collected this specimen and donated it to the Dead Zoo back in 1899.

There weren’t too many Arctic expeditions prior to 1900 and this specimen is almost certainly from one of those few. It could possibly be from the Austro-Hungarian North Pole expedition. In 1872 they discovered Franz Josef Land and in 1874 named one of the islands in the archipelago McClintock Island after the notable Irish Arctic explorer Francis Leopold McClintock. It’s not impossible that they would have sent specimens to McClintock or the Museum in Ireland, so it may be time to hit the books to see if I can find any more information!

 Friday mystery object #356 answer

Last week I gave you this rather improbable-looking fuzzball to have a go at identifying:

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Initial consensus on Twitter suggested that it was some kind of taxidermist’s mash up of a tenrec / shrew / weasel and fox. Particular favourites were:

and:

A similar theme emerged in some comments on the blog, but a useful rule of thumb was shared by ch:

Anything that weird looking is either a taxidermists joke or comes from Madagascar- you’d need to look in every ‘nouc’ and cranny to identify this weasily overlooked carnivoran.

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Madagascar is well known for weird animals, since the island became isolated from the Indian subcontinent over 85 million years ago, allowing a unique variety of species to evolve and fill the ecological niches present. The oddities present include the Aye-aye (a mammal trying to be a woodpecker), the Fossa (a mongoose trying to be a cat) and the Web-footed tenrec (a tenrec trying to be an otter).

Of course, ch left an additional clue hinting at the correct identification (‘nouc’) which was picked up on by several others. There were also plenty of people on Twitter who recognised this distinctive animal.

The mystery object is a Falanouc Eupleres sp. Doyère, 1835 – notice the sp. There are two species of Falanouc – Eastern (E. goudotii) and Western (E. major), but this species split was only recognised in 2010. Therefore, it’s very difficult to know which this one is, especially without details of where in Madagascar it was collected.

Assuming it was collected in Madagascar. I say that, because it was purchased from London based supplier Gerrard & Sons. This means it could have been acquired from London Zoo, since Gerard had a relationship with the Zoo and often got dead specimens from them.

It’s also tricky to identify the species from morphology, since the differences between the species are most noticeable in the skull. The fur colour can provide a clue as well, but 100+ years of being on display in a gallery illuminated with daylight means the colour is pretty much guaranteed to no longer be as it was in life.

So I think we may have to leave it there, unless I can find any additional information about the specimen in the Dead Zoo’s archives. Whatever the species, I think this mongoose-like insectivorous carnivore with a fox-like body and shrew-like face is as charming as it is improbable.

 Friday mystery object #355 answer

Last week I gave you a unfairly tricky mystery object:

My excuse for the poor photography and lack of scale was the fact I was preoccupied with the epic NatSCA conference (whose hashtag is still yielding some great photos and thoughts if you want to see what it was all about).

It probably doesn’t help that this specimen is missing the toes from its right foot, because it makes it hard to tell if the two toes on its left are the natural state for the bird, or if one toe just happens to be missing. This is an important distinction, as picked up on by sallie reynolds, since a bird with two forward-facing toes will have two rear-facing toes, which is a condition known as zygodactyly and it helps narrow down the possible group of birds it belongs to.

As it turns out, the left foot is intact and the specimen does have the zygodactyl toe arrangement, so it will be from one of nine possible groups (owls, ospreys, parrots, cuckoos, cuckoo-rollers, mousebirds, turacos, some swifts and most woodpeckers and their relatives). The bill makes it pretty clear that this isn’t an owl, osprey, parrot, mousebird, or swift. The big head narrows it down further – more than enough for Wouter van Gestel to identify that it’s a Barbet (in Dutch “Baardvogel” or bearded bird), but it doesn’t really provide enough information to get a species identification.

As it turns out, the taxonomy of the existing identification was more than a little out of date, with the label from 1881 reading Heliobucco bonapartii. Now Heliobucco has not been used as a valid genus for at least 100 years, but fortunately the species name indicates that it was named after Bonaparte (not the Emperor, but a French ornithologist who did happen to be the Napoleon’s nephew). This meant that the fantastic Eponym Dictionary of Birds by Beolens, Watkins & Grayson was able to yield the information I was after. The valid name is now Gymnobucco bonapartei Hartlaub, 1854 which is the Grey-throated Barbet.

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Grey-throated Barbet. Photo by Francesco Veronesi, 2006

My apologies for setting such a tricky object – I promise to try harder to make it easier next week!

 Friday mystery object #355

It’s NatSCA conference week here in Dublin – the best time of the natural history collections year. If you want to hear about what’s going on you should check it out on Twitter under the hashtag #NatSCA2019.

Of course, that means I this week’s mystery object has been taken from a snap on my phone, as I’ve been a bit bust – so here’s a slightly less than ideal photo of an old and slightly grubby bird skeleton to have a go at identifying:

Any idea what this might be? All suggestions gratefully received!

Friday mystery object #354 answer

Last week I gave you this Eastery object to have a go at identifying:

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It proved a bit of a tricky one, with most people recognising it as the nest and eggs of a passerine bird, but Bernard was absolutely spot-on with an identification of Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio Linnaeus, 1758 – kudos to Bernard!

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Female Red-backed Shrike. Pierre Dalous, 2012

Generally, being able to identify eggs and nests has become a less commonplace skill in Europe over the last few decades. This is partly because people with an interest in nature tend to steer clear of nests in order to avoid disturbing breeding birds.

In the first half of the 20th Century collecting wild bird eggs was a popular hobby in many parts of Europe, so people would learn the skills needed to identify eggs from different species. However, these sorts of collections negatively impacted on bird populations and helped motivate development of legislation protecting birds and their nests.

Red-backed Shrikes used to regularly visit and breed in the UK, but they largely ceased nesting in Britain around 30 years ago and they are very rare visitors to Ireland. Recently however, there have been records of some successful breeding pairs in the South West of Britain, so they may be making a shift back into Britain.

Of course, if they do start breeding in the UK they’ll need suitable habitats, which mostly means the thorny scrub in wet areas that they prefer (see Svendsen et al, 2015). This is assuming that these sites avoid the current trend of being netted by developers to prevent birds from nesting.

This cynical practice that has recently become quite widespread in the UK is a used as a mechanism to deter birds from nesting in particular suitable sites, which can delay development thanks to the legal protection on nesting birds that was introduced to help protect bird populations (there’s an interesting article on the topic in the Guardian). By limiting access to nesting sites the developers may avoid breaking the letter of the law, but with suitable habitats in decline, depriving birds of nesting sites does seem to be breaking the spirit in which the laws were made. Not cool.