Friday mystery object #364 answer

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

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It’s clearly a bird and it has a distinctive shield of keratin at the base of the bill that helps with the identification. There aren’t many birds with shields like this, although there are plenty with casques, wattles, combs and crests that need to be ruled out when thinking about possibilities.

The group that springs to my mind when it comes to facial shields like this are the Jacanas or Jesus birds, named for their apparent ability to walk on water which Wouter alluded to in the comments. Of course, they don’t actually support themselves on the surface of the water (unlike the Common Basilisk), rather they walk on vegetation at the water surface, spreading their weight across ridiculously long toes.

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Lesser Jacana, by Derek Keats, 2016

Not all Jacanas have facial shields, but there are a few that do, including the Northern Jacana Jacana spinosa (Linnaeus, 1758) that lives in South America – which is the species that this mystery skull belongs to.

The Wattled Jacana can be ruled out because it has additional drooping lobes on the lower part of the shield. There is also a Crested Jacana that looks similar to this, but the shield runs along the skull more, rather than across the front of it.

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Northern Jacana, by Benjamin Keen, 2012

The Northern Jacana also has yellow spurs on its wings that it uses for defence, which is quite distinctive. Here’s the skull back on its skeleton – you might just be able to make out those bony spurs on the wing.

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You may notice that the scientific name on this specimen label is very different to the scientific name I used – yet another example of some old taxonomy that will need updating in the collection. Some jobs are unending in museums!

Friday mystery object #363 answer

Last week I gave you this crusty critter to identify:

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It’s not the easiest mystery object, since there are around 850 species of crab, and several converge on similar forms. However, the triangular body and spindly legs meant that everyone recognised this as a species of spider crab in the Superfamily Majoidea.

Beyond that it gets harder, although there are resources out there to help. The Marine Species Identification Portal has a useful key for species that occur in the North Sea. I know that’s not always useful in these instances, but as it turns out, this particular species has a range across the East Atlantic and into the Mediterranean, including populations in the North Sea.

This little crab is Pisa armata (Latreille, 1803), which is one of several spider crabs that camouflage themselves with sessile animals and algae from their local environment, earning them the name Decorator Crabs.

Decorator crab covered in stinging hydroid polyps, which defend the crab while benefiting from food scraps and greater mobility. Image by Nick Hobgood, 2006

Decorator crab covered in stinging hydroid polyps, which defend the crab while benefiting from food scraps and greater mobility. Image by Nick Hobgood, 2006

Bit of an obscure one for you, but Diane Barlee did figure it out on Twitter, so it was manageable. Watch out for more mysteries next week!

Friday mystery object #362 answer

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

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I thought that it might be a bit on the easy side for some of you – especially Wouter van Gestel who is one on the brains behind the fantastic Skullsite resource, that I expect everyone is familiar with by now.

The skeleton of this bird isn’t really all that distinctive, but the skull – particularly the bill – is very distinctive indeed, although this photo doesn’t capture the full weirdness.

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Wouter’s cryptic clue:

Apparently, this species processes sound twice as well as you might expect from a bird.

was a hint at the scientific name Cochlearius cochlearius (Linnaeus, 1766) – playing on the fact that the name comes from the same source as the name for the cochlea, which is a part of the inner ear that has a snail-like shape. The common name, as hinted at by Richard Lawrence is Boat-billed Heron, as you can see a bit more clearly here:

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Boat-billed Heron. Photo by Patrick Coin, 2007

These odd looking birds are members of the Ardeidae or heron family, but rather than having the spear-like bill of the classic Grey Heron, they have broad bills used for scooping up prey in the shallow, murky waters of Mangrove swamps in Central and South America.

They have big eyes and that large, sensitive bill to help catch small fish and crustaceans in the shade or at night. This nocturnal habit is common in the Nycticoracidae a subfamily commonly known as night herons, as mentioned by Josep Antoni Alcover in his clue in the comments.

So well done to everyone who recognised this unusual animal – more mysteries next week!

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 #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 #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 #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!

Friday mystery object #349 answer

Last week I gave you this long, pink, wrinkly specimen to have a go at identifying:

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There was a lot of discussion about whether it has limby bits, fins, flaps left over from damage during preparation or some other unnamed and dubious appendages. I’m relieved to confirm that it has limbs – albeit rather reduced limbs.

 

The limbs are important, since they allow us to rule out all the legless groups of similar critters, like Caecilians (limbless amphibians), Synbranchidae (swamp eels), Amphisaenidae (worm lizards) or of course snakes (not that any self-respecting snake would have a face that looks like it belongs to a poorly made sock-puppet).

The state of the legs, especially the very reduced state of the front limbs, also allows us to rule out a variety of Olms, Sirens and other Salamanders – except for one odd little genus called Amphiuma.

There are only three living species of Amphiuma – the One-toed, Two-toed and (believe it or not) Three-toed. Someone in the past hedged their bets and labelled the mystery specimen as follows:

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Since the Three-toed salamander is Amphiuma tridactylus Cuvier, 1827 and the Two-toed is Amphiuma means Garden, 1821 this label is misleading.

The Three-toed salamander does have three visible toes on the forelimb and this specimen clearly doesn’t – with just a vestigial wriggly bit (that doesn’t make it the One-toed salamander however, as they are smaller and they have an even more reduced hind limb). So this is the Two-toed Amphiuma means.

 

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Amphiuma means, Virginia, United States. Image by Brian Gratwicke, 2010

 

Finally, it might be a bit confusing that the mystery object is a pink thing, while the living animal is a mottled muddy colour. That’s just an artefact of it being preserved in ethanol for the last 125 years. Trust me, no-one looks good after that much exposure to alcohol.