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Specimen of the Month: The Giant Squid

The good news is that you still have until the 29th October to enjoy our incredibly popular temporary exhibition the Robot Zoo and interact with the larger than life animatronic animals that inhabit the gallery. In even better news, there is still one final species in the exhibition to have not yet been investigated by the Specimen of the Month blog series, hoorah, and that is the Giant Squid (Architeuthis). NB: There is no bad news in the Specimen of the Month blog series.

Squid or Cuttlefish?

Today is International Squid and Cuttlefish Day, so let’s start with the difference between a squid and a cuttlefish as let’s be honest, probably not everyone has nailed it. Cuttlefish are a type of squid so, that’s confusing for a start. What we’re really asking is - what’s the difference between a cuttlefish-squid and all of the other types of squid that we call squid, ‘traditional squid’ if you prefer. The answer - Cuttlefish have a lovely fringe that skirts their entire body like a tutu, and a face that looks like it got stuck in a spiralizer. A squid-squid, on the other hand, could be compared to an ice cream cone with an octopus stuck on the top. The tutu is restricted to two triangular ‘wings’, one on either side of the mantle, that in some species form an arrow-shaped ‘tail’.

Unlike their close relative, the octopus, whose anatomy is restricted to just the eight appendages, both squid and cuttlefish have eight arms and two tentacles as well for good measure. The arms are covered in suckers, which in the Giant Squid can measure 5 cm across. Tentacles tend to be much longer than the arms and have sucker-covered ‘tentacular clubs’ on the tips. The tentacles are used in the same way as rocket-propelled net launchers; they are flung out at prey with great speed in ambush attacks. Once they’ve got a hold, the tentacles bring the prey in closer to where the arms can get involved and help guide the prey back to the mouth at their base.

  • Cuttlefish+Squid, Left: A Cuttlefish showing the tutu that surrounds the body (mantle). Right: A common squid showing the triangular wing on either side.
    Left: A Cuttlefish showing the tutu that surrounds the body (mantle). Right: A common squid showing the triangular wing on either side.

They don't make it easy

Incredibly, despite extensive efforts by scientists to study them, no Giant Squid had ever been seen alive until 2004 when Japanese scientists managed to get the first photographs of a living animal. It took another two years for scientists to hook one and pull it to the surface, thus making history with the first human (on record) to ever clap eyes on a live Giant Squid. In 2012, scientists used a submersible and both saw and recorded a Giant Squid feeding in its natural habitat. The story of how they acquired the footage that had scientists around the world drooling over their laptops is quite wonderful. Given how vast the world’s oceans are, rather than going in search of a Giant Squid they decided it would be much more efficient to attract a squid to them. The Giant Squid doesn’t prey on jellyfish (that we know of) but jellyfish luminesce when predators are nearby, and jellyfish predators are what the Giant Squid eats. So the research team attached a series of bioluminescent lures to the outside of their submersible in an ingenious effort to mimic panicked jellyfish, and, as you can see from this clip beneath, the ingenuity paid off.

20,000 leagues under the sea

There is a lot of misinformation about the Giant Squid, specifically in relation to its size. It doesn’t help that what we do know about their dimensions is largely based on carcasses that have washed up on beaches half decayed, with tentacles and arms missing, and often bloated with water. Without a doubt, the Giant and Colossal Squid are the two largest invertebrates on the planet (currently known to science), yet because they are so elusive, and we can’t just go out and catch a good sample of specimens, we don’t know realistic maximum body lengths. Putting aside anecdotes from fishermen who report 900 foot monsters far out at sea - the Giant Squid is thought to be responsible for the myth of the Kraken for example - the largest scientifically recorded Giant Squid specimen was 13 metres. That is a massive animal with enough wow-factor to not warrant exaggeration in my book, but exaggeration is human nature I suppose. Measurements for the largest Colossal Squid on record vary greatly but most references seem to acknowledge the Giant Squid as being the larger of the two.

The final thing I want to tell you about the Giant Squid is how they got so big. The best guess scientists have come up with is this species has evolved larger and larger in an eight-arms race with predators. The only (known) predator of an adult Giant Squid is the Sperm Whale, which in itself is a huge beast and imagining epic battles between these two colossal creatures makes one's inner geek salivate. Although this has never been witnessed (presumably their encounters occur many fathoms below the surface) beak parts of Giant Squid are regularly recovered from the stomachs of Sperm Whales, and in a tit-for-tat scenario that suggests a battle rather than clear-cut predation, many Sperm Whales are found to be covered in scars from giant suckers, duh duh duuuuuh...

  • Smithsonian Report 1916 (003), A piece of Sperm Whale skin showing signs of a battle with Giant Squid, note the scarring from suckers - In Smithsonian Report 1916 - Bartsch
    A piece of Sperm Whale skin showing signs of a battle with Giant Squid, note the scarring from suckers - In Smithsonian Report 1916 - Bartsch

Specimen of the Month: The Grasshopper (Caelifera)

This month, Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Emma-Louise Nicholls, tells us all about noisy grasshoppers.

'A plague upon both your houses'

Grasshoppers are those cute, colourful, hoppy insects you may have run around in circles trying to catch as a kid. Grasshoppers are also the thing of nightmares, capable of gathering in their billions and swarming across the land, much to the chagrin of Ancient Egyptians and modern farmers alike. It is only a small number of grasshopper species that form these gargantuan, crop-decimating swarms, causing mayhem and bringing dishonour to the good name of grasshoppers worldwide, earning them the alternative name of locust.

A locust is just as much a grasshopper as any other species of grasshopper, but their gregarious phase sees them swarming in groups of up to 50 billion individuals. A swarm of this magnitude can weigh up to 79 tonnes. To give you some context, that’s more than 13 adult male African elephants, or if you’d prefer the equivalent of 10 Tyrannosaurus rexes. I’d say everything is better if the unit of measurement is dinosaurs. Locust swarms of this size will decimate the land by consuming around 192,000 tonnes every day until it dissipates. That’s 32,000 African elephants worth of crops being eaten. Or 24,000 T. rexes…either way, the take home message is it’s a good job they’re vegetarians.

  • Swarm of Locusts, This swarm of locusts was photographed in Madagascar in 2014.
    This swarm of locusts was photographed in Madagascar in 2014.

A Rhythmic Symphony

There are lots of insects that look like grasshoppers but only those within the suborder Caelifera are ‘true grasshoppers’. They’re also known as the short-horned grasshoppers which refers to their antennae length, they don’t have actual horns.

Grasshoppers make their chirping sound by rubbing a series of small pegs located on the inside of their hind legs across their forewing. In general, male grasshoppers have evolved to deploy this to greater effect than females as grasshoppers primarily use the sound to attract a mate or repel a rival. Both of which seem to be a ‘boy job’. Grasshoppers have a number of different ‘songs’ depending on what they are doing, their favourite of which, I am sure, is the ‘Copulation Song’.

The act of rubbing two body parts together is called stridulation. Whilst this fancy term is primarily used in relation to insects, some spiders and snakes also use stridulation. A few species of grasshopper take a slightly different tack and produce sound by snapping their wings together in flight, akin to the sound my knees make when I stand up after a three-hour board game. The snapping noise made by grasshoppers (and my joints) is referred to as 'crepitation'. Two great words for your next pub quiz.

If true grasshoppers decided to join forces and work out how to alter pitch and coordinate a harmony, they would have the means to rival the best orchestra in the land. It’s not particularly likely to happen anytime this side of a lot of evolution as at present, the 21st Century grasshopper can hear intensity and rhythm, but really struggles to differentiate between pitches. So they’d be pretty rubbish in the performance of all scores bar the most basic of percussion segments.

  • Robot Grasshopper, The metal parts in our giant Grasshopper means it does a lot of crepitating. The Robot Zoo exhibition is open until 29th October 2017.
    The metal parts in our giant Grasshopper means it does a lot of crepitating. The Robot Zoo exhibition is open until 29th October 2017.

 

Goodbye to the Hands on Base fox

Learning Assistant Lucy Maycock says farewell to one of our fox friends.

The time has finally come to retire our friendly old fox after nearly twenty years of service. He has been a firm favourite of visitors to our Hands on Base - young and old alike. Poised by the entrance, our fox has warmly greeted every school child, family and community group who have walked through the door, totalling thousands of people.

Over the years, he has inspired artwork, taught children about habitats, and allowed visitors to see these beautiful creatures up-close. Unfortunately, after too many hugs, kisses and pats on the back, he has grown tired and threadbare and is in need of a well-earned rest.

We’ll be sending our old friend to a new home soon - rumour has it he’s looking forward to retirement! Don’t worry though, we’ve found another furry doorman. Just a few weeks ago we received an exciting delivery of a brand new fox. Here he is, carefully wrapped up with a badger from our Handling Collection.

Our lovely new fox has now settled into his new home and is ready to greet a whole new generation of visitors. We hope you’ll all give our fluffy new fox a warm welcome; be sure to carefully stroke his velvety ears and bushy tail next time you’re in the Hands on Base.

You can visit the Hands on Base every Sunday, 11am-12.30pm, during Open for All. Let us know what you think of him, and send us your selfies on Twitter and Instagram!

Farewell Armadillo

Our Engage Volunteer, Gemma, is reflecting on one of the objects she has enjoyed working with over the last few months.

One thing working on the Engage table has shown me time and time again is that there is always more than one way of looking at things.

As of 29 April there have been new objects to handle out in the Museum at the trolley next to the Natural History Gallery. While I am really looking forward to working with them, I’ll be sad to see the back of the things we have been using for the last couple of months.

All the most recent batch of items had bags of personality.

The python skin has been a real winner. Kids and adults alike never seem to tire of unrolling its massive 4m length - so I’m sure it will be back! The duiker has been stroked and petted as we’ve cooed over the idea of tiny antelopes the size of bunny rabbits.

The wonky turtle has kept us guessing about the life it led before ending up at the Horniman and, fortunately or unfortunately (depending on how keen you are to meet one), I never did come across a single visitor who had seen a longhorn beetle in the UK.

There was also an armadillo carapace.

The handling has darkened it a bit, but it was not particularly well preserved in the first place having been badly bent and stuffed with bits of newspaper. The old newspaper kept the Engage team entertained as it has fallen out piece by piece providing snippets of news about a driving ban, the number 1870 and some sort of warning about German girls (I have no idea what they are alleged to have done).

The carapace has great links to the rest of the Horniman. Armadillos have traditionally been used in the Andes to make music. With its lumps and ridges, I’d pictured something like a guiro – a percussion instrument which you would rub with a stick or brush, but apparently it’s usually made into a stringed instrument called a charango. Sort of like a lute.

As a lovely example of animal adaption, it makes a good introduction to The Robot Zoo exhibition. There are also a couple of armadillos in the Natural History Gallery, but actually, one of those is not all it seems…

One of the things the Engage staff were told about armadillos is that only the three banded armadillo can curl completely into a ball. However, at the far end of the Natural History Gallery, there is another armadillo carapace. It’s a nine banded armadillo like the one on the trolley. It is very much curled into a ball.

According to the Curator, this may have been the work of an over-enthusiastic Victorian and is not a fully accurate reflection of the abilities of nine banded armadillos. Then again, when most of your audience wouldn’t have seen an armadillo in action, it gets the point across that they are bendy when they need to defend themselves and is no more misleading than our much loved (but very overstuffed) walrus.

As anyone who was around in the 1990s will tell you, the armadillo has links to the café too. Anyone for a certain smooth on the outside and crunchy in the middle chocolate snack? Or you can just eat it. I am told it tastes like pork.

So goodbye to our lovely, intriguing armadillo with all its great uses and links.

Or, as one American visitor said to me lately, "yuck, it’s just road kill."

How to make an origami walrus

Coco Sato shows us how to recreate our star Natural History specimen in paper form. 

We recently had origami artist, Coco Sato, come into the Museum for one of our Big Wednesday events. 

Coco made some amazing giant origami animals with our visitors and had a pop-up installation in our Music Gallery. 

As an added extra for us, Coco showed us how to make an origami walrus, in honour of the big man himself.

It was modelled on the walrus in our Natural History Gallery. Here, you can see how Coco copied the walrus' shape and size into paper form. 

If you would like to make your own origami walrus, you can watch the following video where Coco goes through the whole process. 

All you need is a square of coloured paper and some scissors. 

If you do manage to master the skill, share your masterpieces with us on social media using #horniman.

Birds in the Horniman Gardens

Ornithological consultant and bird expert David Darrell-Lambert tells us what to expect at our annual Dawn Chorus Walk

  • Birds in the Horniman Gardens, Blackbird, David Darrell-Lambert
    Blackbird, David Darrell-Lambert

How long have you been leading the Horniman Dawn Chorus Walk?

My first one was seven years ago, seven years! I didn’t realise that it has been so long.

Are the Horniman Gardens a good place to hear the tweets of the dawn chorus?

The Horniman Gardens are an excellent place to hear the explosion that erupts as the dawn chorus starts. You have a nice mix of habitat there with the wooded section along the bottom of the hill, the open grass section in the middle and the gardens at the top. This means you get a nice variety of birds and not too many so you are bombarded, which can be daunting.

  • Birds in the Horniman Gardens, Stock Dove, David Darrell-Lambert
    Stock Dove, David Darrell-Lambert

What birds are you likely to hear?

A great variety, from Great Spotted Woodpeckers to Blackcaps to Goldfinches to Great Tit to Wrens – you can stand on the Nature Trail and hear two miniature Wrens trying to out-compete each other with their loud vocal skills. Once the early birds have finished then you get the second wave with species such as the Goldfinch jangling away from the various chestnut trees in the grounds.

What are the most distinctive bird tweets?

That would be either the Robin, which sings the beginning of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony with long pauses between each burst, or the Great Tit, singing the mechanical Tea-cher, Tea-cher, Tea-cher.

  • Birds in the Horniman Gardens, Robin, David Darrell-Lambert
    Robin, David Darrell-Lambert

Do you have any good tips for bird watchers and listeners out there?

Don’t try to learn more than one or two every time you go out; you’ll just overload yourself. Join a guided walk and listen to the explanations as to how you can distinguish between the different bird song you can hear. If you don’t know what species is singing, try to find it or record it on your phone, then you can upload it to a website and ask people what it is.

What do you love about listening to the dawn chorus?

You never know what you will hear or how the birds will behave. Only last week, I heard a Wren giving an odd song/call – a rattle all on one note – that stumped me completely.

Book tickets for the Dawn Chorus Walk on 6 May or join David on Big Wednesday: Spring for a free tour.

Museum Club wildlife photography

Children from Horniman Primary School come to our Museum once a week for an after-school Museum Club.

Last term they created their own photography inspired by our European Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition.

The children wrote their own labels which explain why they chose the animal and how they decided to photograph it.

Their photographs show a talent for composition. A lot of time was taken to think about the characteristics of the animals they were photographing and how the animals act in their natural habitats. 

Here are a few examples of these artistic photographs. 

'Midsummer Night breeze!' by Maisie 

  • Midsummer Night breeze!, A baby rabbit is called a kit, a female rabbit is called a doe and a male is called a buck. I chose this animal because I want people see what would have happened when the sun goes down. It makes a beautiful contrast with the mouse and the bird. The background makes the animals stand out
, Maisie
    A baby rabbit is called a kit, a female rabbit is called a doe and a male is called a buck. I chose this animal because I want people see what would have happened when the sun goes down. It makes a beautiful contrast with the mouse and the bird. The background makes the animals stand out , Maisie

'ΜΑΎΡΟ ΚΑΙ Ξ†ΣΠΡΟ ΖΩΞ‰Σ' (black and white life) by Sophia

  • Black and White Life, I took this photo of a badger because of its large size and secretive way of living. The background shows the pattern of the badger's fur. Badgers are short-legged omnivores in the family mustelidae, which includes otters, polecats, weasels and wolverines, Sophia
    I took this photo of a badger because of its large size and secretive way of living. The background shows the pattern of the badger's fur. Badgers are short-legged omnivores in the family mustelidae, which includes otters, polecats, weasels and wolverines, Sophia

'Criaturas que Cazan' (hunting creatures) by Rosa and Angel

  • Criaturas que Cazan – hunting creatures, These animals circle in a fight for survival. The stoat, a wonderfully deft animal, edges away from the looming buzzard. We angled it so the elegant bird seems to look disdainfully down upon the lonely stoat, Rosa and Angel
    These animals circle in a fight for survival. The stoat, a wonderfully deft animal, edges away from the looming buzzard. We angled it so the elegant bird seems to look disdainfully down upon the lonely stoat, Rosa and Angel

'Awesome Elster' (awesome magpie) by Lucian

  • Awesome Elster – awesome magpie, I love the Magpie because he has a cute face.  I think he has a serious expression.  The feathers of a magpie are very soft.  Its feet are very small.  I angled it so it's looking you in the eye
, Lucian
    I love the Magpie because he has a cute face. I think he has a serious expression. The feathers of a magpie are very soft. Its feet are very small. I angled it so it's looking you in the eye , Lucian

'The Bird with Blue' by Livvy 

  • The Bird With Blue,  I was looking for an animal, then this one stood out like a shining star. I thought that it would look nice on a blue background. Blue jays are sometimes known to eat eggs or nestlings, and it is this practice that has tarnished their reputation
, Livvy
    I was looking for an animal, then this one stood out like a shining star. I thought that it would look nice on a blue background. Blue jays are sometimes known to eat eggs or nestlings, and it is this practice that has tarnished their reputation , Livvy

'The Semi-Darkness' by Caity

  • The Semi-Darkness , I chose to photograph the mongoose because it is interesting how it looks like a meerkat.  I like how pretty the fur is. I think the animal goes well with the background. I hope you like it too, Caity
    I chose to photograph the mongoose because it is interesting how it looks like a meerkat. I like how pretty the fur is. I think the animal goes well with the background. I hope you like it too, Caity

We had the Museum Club's photographs specially printed and they are now on display in our Education Centre.

Find out more about school sessions at the Horniman

Specimen of the Month: The Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus)

Our Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Dr Emma-Louise Nicholls, gets to know the enigmatic Platypus. 

Our Venomous Piece of the Past

We have a number of platypodes (or platypuses if you prefer, but never platypi), however, this one is part of the original Frederick Horniman Collection. That enigmatic accolade means it must have been acquired by our illustrious founder, and prior to the Museum opening in 1906. So in modern social media speak, it’s well old.

We don’t know what the platypus looked like when it was first acquired by the Museum; it could have been either a skin or a taxidermy mount. Either way, at some time in the past the platypus was ‘re-set’ (wording on record card), by the taxidermist Charles Thorpe, into the swimming position that you can see in the image below. The price for this exquisite demonstration of skill was £0 d7 s6. For those who didn’t suffer through the confusing period of decimalisation, £0 d7 s6 means zero pounds, seven pennies, and six shillings, the value of that price today is around £10 (an exact figure is impossible to calculate on the basis we don’t know what year the work was carried out).

  • Specimen of the Month: The Platypus, Our platypus is over 100 years old, and was given a make-over sometime in the early to mid-1900s
    Our platypus is over 100 years old, and was given a make-over sometime in the early to mid-1900s

We know the specimen is a male as it has a sharp spike, called a spur, on the rear of each thigh. Platypodes* are one of the few mammals that are venomous, and the small amount of venom that can be injected through one of these spurs is potent enough to kill mammals many times their size. I was told by a friend who works in a zoo in Australia that their colleague was once spurred in the arm. Apparently, it was so painful he was pleading with the doctors for his arm to be amputated, ouch! During the mating season the amount of venom a male produces increases, which presumably means one of the main purposes of evolving such potent venom is to fend off rival males and get a girlfriend. In more anthropogenic cases, recent research suggests platypus venom could be used in a treatment for Type 2 diabetes. For which they have frisky platypuses to thank I guess.

They Don’t Have Teeth

Platypodes don’t have teeth in the traditional sense. Their fossil ancestors had teeth but the modern platypus decided the sound of growing their own enamel was reason for concern, and produced coarse keratin pads instead. A mouth full of hair** sounds disgusting, and it only seems to work ‘fairly well’ to boot, as according to a number of sources, platypodes will also scoop up coarse gravel to aid mastication. Perhaps they should have planned it out better before embarking on their otherwise admirable attempt to avoid expensive dental bills.

Platypodes are bottom feeders (legit term), which means animals that feed off of the substrate in aquatic environments. In the case of the platypus, it lives in rivers and uses the receptors in its bill to pick up the electrical signals given off by their prey, which are normally found in the form of insects, insect larvae, worms and shellfish.

  • Specimen of the Month: The Platypus, As platypodes don't have teeth, the keeper was in no danger of being bitten.− © Adrian Good
    As platypodes don't have teeth, the keeper was in no danger of being bitten.

They Do Have Teeth

Platypodes don’t have teeth… I wasn’t lying before. However, platypodes are monotremes which means they lay eggs. One of only two mammals to do so, the other being the echidna. As with more traditional egg breaking youngsters like those belonging to birds and many reptiles, for example, the tiny egg-bound platypus has to break its way out of the egg. For this, its ancestry provided it with an egg-tooth on the top of its bill. This tooth is only a temporary facial addition that, once the baby platypus has broken free of its yolky home, will normally be shed within the next two days. The egg-tooth is not a real tooth as ours are, but a sharp, tooth-shaped structure made of keratin, around 0.3 mm high. That may seem ridiculously small but a freshly hatched platypus is only around the size of a kidney bean so any larger and it would probably get neck ache.

  • Specimen of the Month: The Platypus, These line drawings show the development of the platypus from the day of hatching to five days post-hatching. The egg-tooth can be seen in the first two columns of sketches. The protuberance on the bill in the two right-hand columns represent the caruncle, or fleshy nub, left behind by the egg-tooth. , Image from Manger et al., 1998
    These line drawings show the development of the platypus from the day of hatching to five days post-hatching. The egg-tooth can be seen in the first two columns of sketches. The protuberance on the bill in the two right-hand columns represent the caruncle, or fleshy nub, left behind by the egg-tooth. , Image from Manger et al., 1998

* The more I say it, the more you’ll get used to it
** Keratin is the protein that makes up your hair and fingernails

References

ARKive
Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus)

Live Science
Platypus Facts 

Manger, P. R., Hall, L. S., and Pettigrew, J. D. (1998). The development of the external features of the platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus). Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B 353 pp.1115-1125

National Geographic
Platypus 

Project Britain
Old English Money 

Tosatto, D., and Zool, W. S. (2016). Feeding and digestive mechanisms of Obdurodon dicksonii and its implications for the modern Platypus, Ornithorhynchus anatinus. Unpublished. pp.1-12

Specimen of the Month: the Collared Aracari (Pteroglossus torquatus)

Our Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Emma-Louise Nicholls, tells us all about our collared aracari, part of the foundation collection of the Horniman Museum.

Celebrity Status

In most museums, the collections are divided into categories. At the Horniman it is easy, we have Musical Instruments, Anthropology, Natural History, living collections and the Library and Archive. Within those departments are collections which are assigned, for example, by who, where, or perhaps when, they were collected.

The most exciting collections to the average person are probably those of famous people, such as Charles Darwin or Mary Anning. Taking this a step further, someone’s excitement over celebrity status can extend to personal association, such as a specimen that was collected where you grew up, or collected by someone who is from your village/city/country.

The Horniman Museum began as the private collection of Frederick Horniman, who passed away five years after the Museum opened on its current site in 1901. The specimens from his original collection are known as the Frederick Horniman Collection, and are of epic (niche) celebrity status. Not just for their age, but for the connection to Horniman and that they form the foundation of the legacy he left to us. This month’s specimen is one such treasure.

  • Specimen of the Month: the Collared Aracari (Pteroglossus torquatus), This pair of collared aracari's are part of the foundation collection of the Horniman Museum which makes them fantastically exciting. Plus, they're beautiful as an added bonus.
    This pair of collared aracari's are part of the foundation collection of the Horniman Museum which makes them fantastically exciting. Plus, they're beautiful as an added bonus.

A Big Home

The collared aracari (ah-rah-sar-ree) (you’re on your own for collared) is also known as the spot breasted aracari. The preferred (natural) habitat is wet or moist forests, though in an ever changing world, the collared aracari also has a postal address in many fruit, cacao and coffee plantations. Well why not, it was there first.

The aracari is a non-migratory species and so live, breed, frolic, and grow old in their home range. This is referred to in the biz as ‘sedentary’. I know a few people who’d be marked as sedentary if they were in a natural history book.

The aracari may not go outside its range, but then it is huge; stretching from southern Mexico, throughout Central America, and down into northern Venezuela and Columbia. Having such a large range, in terms of a wild animal surviving in a world dominated by our anthropocentric attitude, is a good thing.

  • Specimen of the Month: the Collared Aracari (Pteroglossus torquatus), I had the great pleasure of running into a collared aracari in Guatemala a few years ago. A convivial chap.− © Emma-Louise Nicholls, 2009
    I had the great pleasure of running into a collared aracari in Guatemala a few years ago. A convivial chap.

Trouble with the Neighbours

I applaud your observational skills if the aracari's bill led you to the (correct) conclusion that it is a member of the toucan family; Ramphastidae. As with all families that live too close together however, there are frequent problems. It seems odd for such a beautiful bird but if the aracari lapses in concentration for a moment and leaves its nest unguarded, the black mandibled toucan (see below) will sneak in and, can you believe it, eat the contents. Your family issues don’t seem so bad now huh.

  • Specimen of the Month: the Collared Aracari (Pteroglossus torquatus), Although taxonomically they're in the same family, the black mandibled toucan is big trouble for the collared aracari. − © Brian Ralphs, 2012
    Although taxonomically they're in the same family, the black mandibled toucan is big trouble for the collared aracari.

References

  • BirdLife International (2017).
  • del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. eds. (2002). Handbook of Birds of the World. Volume 2 Jacamars to Woodpeckers. Barcelona, Lynx Edicions pp.127-128.
  • Horniman Museum.

Specimen of the Month: The Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)

Our Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Emma-Louise Nicholls, tells us all about the cheetah.

‘Cat. With. Spots’

The image below is of the Horniman’s Accession Register in 1910, when the cheetah was first acquired by the Museum. It reads ‘Hunt.g leopard’. I have a Ph.D in sharks; I am definitely qualified to say that what we have is a cheetah, not a leopard. Wondering whether it could have been a mistake, I started digging into the original taxonomy* and common names of the cheetah and discovered something interesting…

Back in the day when the British were trying to colonise the world and India was temporarily renamed British India, cheetahs were kept in captivity as feline ‘hunting dogs’ by elite members of Indian society. So the hunting part of the name ‘hunting leopard’ makes sense but as Asia also has leopards why they mixed the common names is anyone’s invitation to research. As our cheetah arrived at the Horniman in 1910, when India was yet to kick the British out, I suppose it is reasonable that the specimen was recorded as ‘hunting leopard’ rather than ‘cheetah’, however confusing that was going to be for future Deputy Keepers of Natural History. Tsk.

  • Specimen of the Month: the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), This photocopy of the original Horniman Accession Register from 1910 shows the cheetah specimen listed as a Hunting leopard
    This photocopy of the original Horniman Accession Register from 1910 shows the cheetah specimen listed as a Hunting leopard

So many cheetahs, and so few

Scientists have proposed that the cheetah is split into five different subspecies. However, genetic analyses haven’t yet been used to confirm, or deny, their differences. One fairly confident split is between the Asiatic/Iranian cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus), and the African cheetah, which encompasses all four remaining, potential, subspecies:

Northwest African cheetah (A. j. hecki)

East African cheetah (A. j. fearsoni)

Southern African cheetah (A. j. jubatus)

Northeast African cheetah (A. j. soemmerringi)

(Apologies for the lack of catchy common names. Please feel free to write to the cheetah specialists of the world and demand they get on this immediately.)

Although the Asiatic and African cheetahs have had around 100,000 years to change their appearance and try something new, the two cheetah types still look pretty much identical. Pretty lazy for the fastest land mammal in the world. Just because I know you’re wondering, our specimen hails from South Africa. So until a rigorous genetic test is put in place, which subspecies it is will be anyone’s guess.

  • Specimen of the Month: the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), Is this an Asiatic or an African cheetah? Who knows!
(Probably the photographer does, as it's likely he knew what country he was in when he took the picture...) 
− © Peter Chadwick
    Is this an Asiatic or an African cheetah? Who knows! (Probably the photographer does, as it's likely he knew what country he was in when he took the picture...)

Deadly in life after death

Cheetahs are excellent predators and so it seems fitting then that even in death, our cheetah could still cause serious harm. A few years ago our cheetah specimen was tested for harmful chemicals and traces of arsenic were found on the fur. The taxidermist who prepared the skin (pre-1910, which is when we acquired it) would have used arsenical soap to protect the specimen from pest damage. Arsenic was a common pesticide used in taxidermy from the 1800s up until quite recently when health and safety departments became more health and safety conscious and started testing things more rigorously. Our cheetah poses no threat whatsoever to the public in the gallery, but curators have to wear PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) when handling historic specimens.

  • Specimen of the Month: the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), Our hunting leopard/cheetah is on display in the Natural History Gallery
    Our hunting leopard/cheetah is on display in the Natural History Gallery

*Acinonyx jubatus (see blog title) is the most recent and up to date taxonomic genus and species for the cheetah.

References

ARKive. Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)

ARKive. Leopard (Panthera pardus)

Wilson, D. E. and Mittermeier, R. A. (2009). Handbook of the Mammals of the World. Volume 1. Carnivores. Barcelona, Lynx Edicions pp.154-156.

IUCN Red List. Acinonyx jubatus

IUCN Red List. Acinonyx jubatus ssp. hecki

IUCN Red List. Acinonyx jubatus ssp. venaticus.

Mammal Species of the World. Genus Acinonyx

Marte, F., Pé Quignot, A., and Von Endt, D. W. (2006). Arsenic in Taxidermy Collections: History, Detection, and Management. Collection Forum 21 (1-2) pp.143-150

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