Friday mystery object #361 answer

Last week I gave you what looks like a pickled cauliflower floret to identify:

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As most of you worked out, this is a soft coral, although Tony Irwin was more detailed with his cryptic suggestion placing it in the Nephtheidae, and mpbx3003’s clue was spot on.

The name on the jar is Eunephthya florida (Rathke, 1806), but as with the last mystery object, there’s been a change in name. Eunephthya is now only applied to a genus that happens to be found in South Africa. This specimen is now considered to be in the genus Duva and the species name florida is more of a reflection of the fact it has a flushed pink colour in life than any reference to the American state.

Most soft corals they tend to live in warm shallow waters of the Atlantic, so Florida wouldn’t be a bad bet for where this might come from, but it actually happens to be one of the more unusual cold and deep water species. This particular specimen is from off the West coast of Ireland at a depth of between 738-900m (410-500 fathoms in old money).

Unlike the shallow water corals, these ones don’t get enough light to photosynthesise using symbiotic dinoflagellates, so they rely on capturing zooplankton from the dark but rich cold waters of the Atlantic.

Friday mystery object #359 answer

Last week I gave you this fishy mystery to have a go at solving:

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I find fish a bit tricky, simply because there are so many different species out there – 33,100 described so far and rising. That’s more than all other vertebrates combined, so it’s not surprising that they can be a challenge.

However, this cartoonish looking little fish has some quite distinctive features that help narrow down the identification. There’s the duck-face with a couple of little barbels between its eyes and the clumping of the fins to the tail end. It also has a nice colour, but as I regularly say, that’s seldom a very reliable guide.

Generally, fish shaped like this don’t swim fast, they don’t lie flat on the sea bed and they don’t wriggle through weeds. This is the shape of a clinging fish – the kind that hold fast to a surface and let the world wash over them.

There are a good fish that do this, but I did say that this one is from Ireland, which helps narrow it down even more – enough for Chris to identify it correctly. This is a Cornish Sucker Lepadogaster purpurea (Bonnaterre, 1788). These weird little fish are pretty awesome. They cling to rocks along the shore with a suction cup made from their fused pelvic fins and they can change colour to blend into the rocks they attach to. Partly this will be for camouflage to avoid predators, but it will also be to help them ambush the smaller fish and crustaceans that they feed on.

One small issue for me is that the name on the label for this specimen is Lepadogaster lepadogaster (Bonnaterre, 1788). The taxonomy of this genus was reassessed in 2002 and the northern population of Lepadogaster (including those from the UK and Ireland) was found to be distinct from the more southerly distributed population. So once again, I need to update a label because advances in taxonomy have messed up our 100+ year old information. That’s the trouble with science – it keeps finding out new stuff.

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.

Friday mystery object #353 answer

Last week I gave you this mystery mandible from a cabinet in my office, that I discovered while clearing things out:

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I was a hotly debated mystery, with some very interesting discussions in the comments between salliereynolds, Allen Hazen and palfreyman1414. This narrowed the identification down from carnivore, to mustelid, to otter, to a final suggestion of European Otter Lutra lutra (Linnaeus, 1758) by Allen Hazen.

European Otter by Bernard Landgraf

European Otter by Bernard Landgraf

This was the same conclusion that I’d reached and it’s always nice to get a second independent opinion that agrees. I’ve seen quite a few otter jaws (in fact I’ve had two otter mandibles as previous mystery object – one was from an Asian Short-clawed Otter and the other from the same species as this one).

This now gives me what I need to go looking to see if there’s a European Otter cranium that’s missing a mandible, so I can see if this one fits. That still might be a bit of glass-slipper type situation, as we have quite a few European Otters in the collection. Ireland is a bit of an otter stronghold and I’ve even found one dead in the road right in Dublin, near one of the canals and less than a mile from the Museum.

Sadly I’ve not yet seen a live one in the wild, and even when they are around they tend to keep a low profile and are normally only known because of their distinctively fishy spraints left in visible locations.

On that slightly fishy note I will leave you until next week!

Friday mystery object #353

I’m currently in the process of moving office, which means sorting through the cupboards and drawers of my predecessors, to try to impose some kind of order on my workspace. If you want an idea of what my office looked like, there’s a lovely video that artist Vicky McGarry did that gives a pretty good idea. In it I also mention something interesting that I found in an office drawer in a different museum I used to work at…

Now I’m moving on up (literally, another couple of flights of stairs) into a more suitable space with an office area and a separate space for working with collections.

While emptying my current office I’ve found all sorts of wonderful things, ranging from a magical* pocket sundial, to a wide variety of specimens.

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Here’s one of the specimens that was in a cupboard, with no label or associated information, that could use an identification:

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Mystery mandible with a snazzy NatSCA scale bar

Any idea what this separated mandible belonged to?

All suggestions welcome – I have my theories, but I’d be delighted to hear yours. Have fun!

 

*Not actually magical

Friday mystery object #352 answer

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

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I thought that some of you would find it quite easy and I wasn’t wrong, although it’s not quite as straightforward as I thought.

Our regular ornithology expert Wouter van Gestel was straight in with an interesting answer that highlights some of the idiosyncrasies of museum specimens, where the colour of features like bills and legs can fade after death. This can make identifications tricky, since colour can play an important role in distinguishing between species in the same genus. In addition, the maturity of the animal can also complicate identifications, since juveniles can have different colours and markings to adults.

That makes this specimen doubly hard to identify and jennifermacaire pointed out an additional idiosyncrasy – the glass eye used by the taxidermist. The choice of eye is an important one, since eyes play an important role in making something look as it did when it was alive. In this case I think they used an eye that was too large with too much iris showing.

Both Wouter and Jennifer identified this as a Tropicbird, and both thought it was the White-tailed species. However, according to the Museum database the specimen is a young Red-billed Tropicbird Phaeton aethereus Linnaeus, 1758.

Red-billed tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus mesonauta) with chick, Little Tobago by Charles J Sharp, 2014

Red-billed tropicbird with chick – note the yellow bill on the chick. Image by Charles J Sharp, 2014

Now I’m going to check the identification again, since it isn’t unusual for specimens to be misidentified. This is a problem in museums, since specimens come from all sorts of sources and not all of them are necessarily expert.

I recently had to check the identification of a couple of Tern specimens from Jamaica for an enquiry. If the specimens had been the species they were originally recorded as, it would have been the only record of the species on Jamaica and it may have hinted at a lost population. In the end it was a simple misidentification of a common species.

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This is part of the reason why specimens in museums are so important – they provide a primary record that can be checked to ensure information about biodiversity is correct, so we can understand things like changes in population distribution with confidence.

Friday mystery object #351 answer

 

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

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There were a variety of clues and suggestions (some beyond my ken) but they tended towards identifying this as the nest of a Tailorbird. In fact salliereynolds even provided a video of the Common Tailorbird in action:

This was pretty darn close (excuse the pun), but the nest structure isn’t quite what I would expect from a true Tailorbird in the genus Orthotomus, plus I had a bit of extra information on a secondary label suggesting that this nest is from Sierra Leone (although the quality of the handwriting on the primary label made it indecipherable, so I’m not sure if it mentions the species or something else entirely):

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It’s worth noting that most of the true Tailorbirds are in Asia (mainly the Philippines), but in Africa there are some closely related birds that build similar nests that are a little more similar to the mystery object. A birds in the genus Cisticola is the most likely culprit in Sierra Leone, and I’ve seen Red-faced Cisticola Cisticola erythrops (Hartlaub, 1857) nests that match the structure, leaf selection and construction technique used here, so I think it will be something along those lines, but I simply can’t be sure.

This is a great example of why good, clear handwriting is really important in a museum setting. A bit of time spent with examples of Capt. H. W. Long’s writing might help decipher the original note, assuming such examples exist. Or, it may be that there’s a talented palaeographer who can read the original  note – if you have any thoughts your suggestions would be welcome!

Friday mystery object #350 answer

Last week I gave you this mystery bird as my 350th specimen for identification:

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It wasn’t particularly easy, although that oddly preserved crest did help narrow it down.

As Wouter van Gestel pointed out, the general shape of the bird, particularly the legs and sternum, suggest that it’s a passerine. There are quite a lot of crested passerines, from Crested Tits to Crested Jays, but the bill shape on this specimen only matches a few.

Bob Church worked it out and left a nice cryptic clue:

Well, I could be wrong and might bomb this one, but perhaps if I wax poetic, I could wing it a bit.

Taking bomb, wax and wing clearly relates to the waxwings in the genus Bombycilla.

For the full species definition there was a response on Twitter from the Scarborough Museums Trust Collections Team:

“Chattering silk-tail” is a direct translation of the scientific name Bombycilla garrulus – which is spot on!

They get their common name from the waxy red tips on their secondary feathers and their ‘Bohemian’ lifestyle – in the 19th Century sense of them being wanderers. They migrate thousands of miles and have a huge distribution across the Northern Hemisphere.

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Bombycilla garrulus by Andreas Trepte, 2012

I find their silky plumage and rich but quite blended colouring particularly beautiful – something that is a bit lacking in the mystery specimen.

Friday mystery object #350

This week marks a minor milestone for my blog – the 350th mystery object. Thanks to everyone who comes to take a look at the specimens I’ve been sharing from the various museums I’ve worked in over the years. I hope you’ve enjoyed them!

This week I have a funky specimen from the Dead Zoo for you to have a go at identifying:20170213_113309-01.jpeg

It stands around 17cm high, including the crest, which is a particularly striking feature to be preserved on a skeleton.

Any ideas what this is? As usual, you can put your questions, observations and suggestions in the comments below. Most importantly, have fun!