Friday mystery object #370 answer

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

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It proved a little more tricky than I thought it would, but I shouldn’t have been surprised given the poor quality of the photo and the fact that the cranium isn’t properly seated on the mandible (as pointed out by Allen Hazen).

Of course, that didn’t keep you all confused for too long. The large sinuses and relatively undifferentiated and widely-spaced teeth – except for those large canines – suggest that this is the skull of a some kind of seal.

Jeanie and salliereynolds noted the large, depressed opening over the nasal region, which is definitely one of the most distinctive features of this species. However, it also misled in the first place, with discussion of the possibility of it being from an Elephant Seal taking over for a while.

However, salliereynolds got back on the right track, while on Twitter Ray Chatterji was on the right track from the start with his suggestion:

The Hooded Seal Cystophora cristata (Erxleben, 1777) is really weird – well, the male is. He has an inflatable bladder on its head and one nostril contains a membrane that he can inflate to show off to other Hooded Seals.

I find it hard to think of this as anything other than nature’s attempt at making slightly disgusting balloon animals.

Well done to everyone who worked it out – I have a couple of fun guest mystery objects for you next week!

 

Friday mystery object #369 answer

Last week I gave you this weird, but rather nice object to have a go at identifying:

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Most people seemed to recognise it as the tympanic region (that’s the bony ear-related region) of a whale. But of course, I’m demanding when it comes to getting an identification and there are plenty of species of whale to rule out.

The size immediately narrowed down the possibilities – this is pretty small for a whale. But what really gives it away for the small number of people intimate with the cranial anatomy of whales (which goes beyond even my bone-nerdery), is the spongy bone attached to the tympanic bulla (that’s the bulb-shaped bit of bone that houses the inner ear).

This feature is proposed as a possible pressure receptor that’s found in the Pygmy Sperm Whale Kogia breviceps Blainville, 1838. Amazingly, Conor Ryan identified this on Twitter – his handle of @whale_nerd explains everything you need to know.

Kogia breviceps by George Brown Goode, 1887

Kogia breviceps by George Brown Goode, 1887

These toothed whales only grow to around 3.5m, which is pretty small for a whale. They share some features with their much larger Sperm Whale cousins, particularly in relation to adaptations for echolocation.

I was fortunate enough to meet Conor Ryan at the weekend at the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group conference. There were plenty of whale enthusiasts around and it was fantastic to get a chance to learn more about this incredible group of animals from a lovely bunch of passionate people.

While I was there, I also picked up some useful tips on differentiating between species of dolphin, so I may have to share those with you soon…

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:

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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 #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