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Specimen of the Month: The Hawfinch

Our latest exhibition has got Emma-Louise Nicholls, our Deputy Keeper of Natural History, twitching as she tells us all about Hawfinches (Coccothraustes coccothraustes) in her latest Specimen of the Month blog post.

New delights at the Horniman

At the Horniman, we currently have the pleasure of playing host to the British Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. These 87 invariably fetching images were submitted across 13 categories including the intriguingly named ‘Hidden’, which got imaginations whirring and macro-lenses reeling.

In the 'Habitat' category, a colourful hawfinch sits in a cherry tree, showing off its striking golden eyeshadow and jet black ‘beard’ in remarkable detail. It also reveals the ‘ringing’ that is evidently being carried out on this species in the shape of jewellery about both of the finch’s ankles. The gifter of these adornments is a brave soul indeed. As much as I too would like to get up close and personal with such a beautiful bird, its incredible biting force makes this comparatively tiny bird capable of cracking open tough nuts such as cherry stones - the human equivalent is a force of 60 tonnes.

  • Hawfinch in a Cherry Tree, This image, taken by Jeremy Moore, shows off the beauty of this bulky but shy finch species. − © Jeremy Moore
    This image, taken by Jeremy Moore, shows off the beauty of this bulky but shy finch species.

Twitching is a coincidence

This rather eye-catching bird is not one I’ve ever had the personal pleasure of seeing in the wild. However, in carrying out research for this article I came across, and am now an avid follower of, @HawfinchesUK on Twitter (there has to be a pun in that alone) which documents hawfinch sightings throughout the UK. The regular images of this beautiful bird popping up in their Twitter feed brighten a dreary autumn day and I’ve become thoroughly sold on the idea of a becoming a birdwatcher, who I am reliably informed are not to be called twitchers. Fair enough I’d say… as a palaeontologist, I get extremely irritated when someone says- “Oh you mean like archaeology?” (Another blog for another time).

The word ‘twitcher’ is connected to birdwatchers purely, it seems, due to a gentleman called Howard Medhurst, a British birdwatcher. Depending on your source, his twitching is attributed to either a ‘nervous behavioural trait’ of his or alternatively his shivering in the cold. Bracing against the English winter (and occasional summer) is not something specific to birding, but I can imagine it gets pretty darn chilly sitting motionless in a hide awaiting the arrival of a bird on its own schedule. I quite like the word twitcher, and it certainly appears a damp and chilly day in this nevertheless stunning image caught by birdwatcher Nick Truby, but it is for birdwatchers to decide on their own noun.

  • Nick Truby-1, Two hawfinches in a hornbeam tree, taken in Great Hampden, Buckinghamshire. Note the striking patterns on the wings and tail, being kindly displayed by the bird on the right for your appreciation. Image used with kind permission of Nick Truby− © Nick Truby
    Two hawfinches in a hornbeam tree, taken in Great Hampden, Buckinghamshire. Note the striking patterns on the wings and tail, being kindly displayed by the bird on the right for your appreciation. Image used with kind permission of Nick Truby

In the Hart of our Collection

The Horniman has an alluring case of taxidermy hawfinches that belonged to the esteemed taxidermist and wildfowler Edward Hart (1847-1928). The description of the case on the Museum’s database and Hart’s original catalogue lists the fine feathered figures as ‘two adult males, one immature male, and one adult female’. Those of you who got as far in maths as four will notice that only three hawfinches adorn this case - one is intriguingly absent. The missing male absconded before the case arrived at the Horniman in the 1980s and his original incorporation is only known at all due to Hart’s description of the case.

Of the three remaining finches, the doleful-looking one on the left is the female, identifiable by her slightly lighter plumage (or ‘much’ lighter in the case of certain faded historic specimens). The resplendent young man in flight is an adult male in his summer finery (the missing finch was in winter plumage), and in the bottom right is an immature male, indicated, as in many human teenagers, by the spots on his chest. Hart collected, and subsequently prepared, all three himself between 1873 and 1896 in Christchurch, Dorset*.

It is possible that the female (on the left in the image below) has faded, or perhaps that she was always slightly paler (leucistic) than your average lady hawfinch. Certainly, oddities were a fascination amongst Victorian collectors such as Hart. Thoughts on an electronic postcard (@HornimanMuseum).

*During Hart’s lifetime Christchurch was located in Hampshire, but has since been adopted by Dorset.

  • Hart's Hawfinches, Edward Hart would collect, prepare and mount the taxidermy specimens himself.
    Edward Hart would collect, prepare and mount the taxidermy specimens himself.

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 White Rhino (Ceratotherium simum)

This month, Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Emma-Louise Nicholls, has the pleasure of telling us all about her favourite odd-toed ungulate, the rhinoceros. 

Oh my goodness gracious, I get to write a blog about rhinos, my absolute favourite animal. Hold on to your hats and don't go anywhere folks, this is going to be exciting. Not only is this the penultimate Specimen of the Month blog to focus on each of the eight species of animal in our incredible Robot Zoo, it also happens to be World Rhino Day!

A feat of engineering 

  • Robot Rhino, The rhino robot in our very popular Robot Zoo.
    The rhino robot in our very popular Robot Zoo.

The robotic rhino grazing on the snazzy grey carpet in the Robot Zoo is made largely out of every day and household objects, this ingenious work of engineering manages to pick out all of the White Rhino’s most important features. It has a fly swatter hanging off of its rear end for example, as real rhinos flick away irritating insects with a swish of their hair-tipped tails - although only two of the five species of rhino have a particularly tufty tail per se; the White Rhino and the smaller, delightfully furry Sumatran Rhino. Microphones for ears, and large cones they called 'smell-inlets' for nostrils demonstrate the rhinos excellent senses of smell and hearing. Armour plating represents their thick skin and bright purple rubber takes the place of thick grass-gripping lips. It even uses a crane to lift the head, demonstrating how strong their neck muscles are.

A tale of two rhinos

  • Southern White Rhinoceros, Southern White Rhino at Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park in South Africa. Very few people can tell the difference between a Northern and a Southern White Rhino by eye, in case you were wondering.
    Southern White Rhino at Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park in South Africa. Very few people can tell the difference between a Northern and a Southern White Rhino by eye, in case you were wondering.

There are two subspecies of White Rhino; the Southern and the Northern. The wild population numbers of Southern White Rhino is a huge feather in the cap of conservation, and every one of these thick-skinned beasts hoofing about in sub-Saharan Africa is a testament to how humans aren’t entirely useless as a species. The White Rhino was down to just 100 individuals in the late 19th Century due to hunting in the colonial era. Due to intensive conservation efforts, the numbers have risen to over 20,000 and subsequently the (Southern) White Rhino is not currently listed as endangered. 

In contrast, their friends in the North are not doing so well. There are three Northern White Rhinos in the world. Three. They are called Sudan, who is the only male, and Najin and Fatu who are both females. Unfortunately, Sudan is Najin’s father and Fatu’s grandfather, making repopulating the earth with Northern White Rhinos an awkward conversation. Further complicating things is that Sudan has to be under armed guard 24 hours a day to protect him from poachers who would target him for his horn, which is as medicinal as the metal cone on our robot. 

A sixth rhino?

  • Nola the Northern White Rhino, This is a female Northern White Rhino that used to live at San Diego Zoo.
    This is a female Northern White Rhino that used to live at San Diego Zoo.

There has been an argument put forward that the Northern White Rhino is not, in fact, a subspecies of the slightly larger White rhino but a distinct species in its own right. Personally the idea of there being six rather five species of rhino in the world means Christmas has come early in my book, but the proposed name of Nile Rhino may never make it into the history books as the rhino scientists of the world met the proposal with scepticism. Darn it. Still - as exciting as it would be on the one hand if Sudan and his family of two did represent a distinct species, on the other, it would mean we are on the verge of losing a much more genetically distinct animal than previously thought. I could explain in detail why having distinct species is important to the ecosystem (not just rhino enthusiasts), but I’m out of space so you’ll have to campaign for the Horniman to allow me more rhino airtime.

Until then- Happy World Rhino Day!

 

Specimen of the Month: The Chameleon

This month, Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Emma-Louise Nicholls, gives us the lowdown on Boy George's favourite reptile - the chameleon.

  • IMG_2144[1], This huge reptile is taller than the average human. Meet it for yourself in Robot Zoo.
    This huge reptile is taller than the average human. Meet it for yourself in Robot Zoo.

If you have visited the Robot Zoo already, you will have seen we are currently home to, among other things, a huge, robotic chameleon. It’s about 20 times life size - if you take average chameleon species’ sizes into consideration - and it demonstrates perfectly what fascinates us most about chameleons: their ability to change colour, their bulging eyes, and their massive tongues. If you haven’t visited yet, I can easily entice you by letting you know that you can interact with this giant reptile, and control all of the above features yourself.

The Real McCoy

  • NH.A595, Such a cute couple. This chameleon pair are on display in the Natural History Gallery.
    Such a cute couple. This chameleon pair are on display in the Natural History Gallery.

The lovely pair of specimens shown here are on display in the Natural History Gallery and are Mediterranean Chameleons (Chamaeleo chamaeleon). They are thought to date back to the 1930s and have maintained their beautiful speckled skin due to a healthy (actually incredibly unhealthy for humans) coating of arsenic.

In life, male Mediterranean Chameleons colour can vary from green, through brown, to grey. The females have an even larger repertoire which includes yellow, orange, and even green spots during the mating season. The ability to change colour is very important to a chameleon as changing colour can help regulate its body temperature, which of course reptiles can’t do automatically like mammals can. You’ll never find a sweaty chameleon. It can also change colour to make itself stand out if it wants to attract a mate, or ward off a rival. Or if threatened it can, to a certain extent, blend into its surroundings.

Speaking of threats, the Mediterranean Chameleon’s primary predators, besides humans capturing them for the pet trade, are domestic cats, snakes, and…each other. They may look like a cute cartoon character but an adult chameleon will eat a juvenile if it catches one.

Huge Assets

The giant tongue, to which I referred earlier, can be twice the length of the body and they project it at such a speed that it can nab a fly right out of the air, just like Mr. Myagi with chopsticks.

For this, they rely on the fact that they have incredible eyesight, but they can also move each eye independently of the other. Personally, I don’t get how this doesn’t blow their brain. I can play Lego Batman on the XBox whilst watching re-runs of Star Trek, but that’s as chameleon as I’ll ever get.

  • Panther chameleon, All eyes and tongue. A Panther Chameleon from Madagascar (Furcifer pardalis)
    All eyes and tongue. A Panther Chameleon from Madagascar (Furcifer pardalis)

 

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.

 

Specimen of the Month: The Giraffe

This month, Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Emma-Louise Nicholls, looks at the world’s tallest animal - the Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis).

Microphones; All the better for hearing you with my dear

Giraffe’s are a well-known and well represented animal; most zoos, natural history museums, and Duplo animal sets come with a Giraffe or two. Yet no other place I know of has a Giraffe quite like the one we are currently housing. Reaching over five metres high, the Giraffe is the world’s tallest animal, which is perhaps why we only have half of one. A half-Giraffe.

Our half-Giraffe is 2m and 70cm high from the base of the neck to the tip of the metal horns (or ossicones to be precise). Metal horns aren’t the latest giraffid fashion fad, as far as I know they are only utilised by robot Giraffes, such as ours. It has microphones in its ears which act as ‘moveable acoustic receptors’ and allow the Giraffe to hear the sweetie packet you are rustling, plus moveable optical receptors to give you side-eye as you shouldn’t be eating in the gallery.

The huge flexible tube running the length of its neck lights up to show visitors how food is squeezed down the oesophagus (food pipe) and a parallel, smaller tube shows how valves in the blood vessels help the blood reach the top of that very long neck despite the best efforts of the world’s gravitational field trying to yank it back down again.

  • Giraffe from The Robot Zoo, This friendly chap is waiting for you in The Robot Zoo, open until October.
    This friendly chap is waiting for you in The Robot Zoo, open until October.

My my!

Giraffes are very well-endowed… in the tongue department. No less than 45cm in length, the tongue is prehensile, meaning it can be wrapped around a twig on a tree and used to strip the leaves away. This immense tongue is a dramatic purple-black colour which adds a bit of elegant glamour to the already impressive organ.

Giraffes are also horny. The horns aren’t huge and obvious like a rhino’s, but short with a rounded tip. If you visit our mechanical Giraffe in The Robot Zoo exhibition take a close look at the horns. The normal manner of sexing the Giraffe can’t be used as the half of the Giraffe we have is the wrong half for such obvious assets. The horns however, will give it away. Although both sexes have horns in Giraffes, they are fluffy on top in females and bald on top in males. I’m not making any remarks about human men here as that would be rude.

Giraffes use infrasonic sound, which means we can’t hear them chatting because our hearing range is set too high. The same sound is used by elephants, though I’m unsure whether they can understand each other. I speak on the same frequency as my dear Glaswegian friend, but I can’t understand her most of the time. Giraffes also have a repertoire of bellows, snorts, hisses and a noise that sounds like a flute being played.

  • Giraffe bone fragment, The only non-robotic Giraffe specimen we have is this bone fragment, part of the original Horniman Collection, acquired by Frederick Horniman before 1906.
    The only non-robotic Giraffe specimen we have is this bone fragment, part of the original Horniman Collection, acquired by Frederick Horniman before 1906.

Strange family

The closest living relative to the Giraffe wasn’t known to science until 1901. It is called the Okapi and looks like a cross between a Giraffe and a Deer, with Zebra stripes on its bottom and the upper part of all four legs. Given that Okapis are large animals, it feels like scientists at the turn of the last century weren’t doing a very thorough job of looking for new animals. However, they live in dense jungles in Africa and their populations are naturally low, the combination of these two elements means they are seldom seen. Of course now there are more humans than atoms in the world*, their habitat is shrinking and their populations are even lower.

Another claim to fame for the Okapi is it has a strong connection to the infamous journalist Sir Henry Morton Stanley. If you’re a natural history buff/fan or general know-it-all, you’ll know that Stanley was the chap sent to Africa in the early 1870s to locate David Livingstone, which he did, and (is rumoured) to have subsequently uttered the immortal phrase, 'Dr Livingstone, I presume?' Before the Okapi had been ‘discovered’**, Stanley was told by indigenous people of a horse, that lived in the forest, which had a long neck and striped legs. It turned out not to be a horse, but the closest living relative of the Giraffe, and an animal completely new to science, now known as the Okapi.

  • Okapi , The Okapi is the closest living relative of the Giraffe.
    The Okapi is the closest living relative of the Giraffe.

* Slight exaggeration

** By the academic world/Western science

References

Specimen of the Month: House Fly (Musca domestica)

This month, Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Emma-Louise Nicholls, takes a look at the crime scene investigators of the animal world.

Two Sides to the Coin

It will probably surprise you to hear that the house fly is critically endangered. Just checking you're paying attention… no it won’t surprise you to hear that the house fly is actually thought to be the most common animal on the planet. But don’t let that make you think they’re not special in their own way; humans are also (seemingly) everywhere and we all have at least a few of those we think are pretty great. The house fly may be numerous, and irritating at picnics, and yes, they can carry many disease-causing pathogens including typhoid, cholera, and leprosy, but they have many upsides too.

  • Specimen of the Month: House Fly (Musca domestica) , This housefly specimen on display in the Natural History Gallery is a model approximately 30 x life-size.
    This housefly specimen on display in the Natural History Gallery is a model approximately 30 x life-size.

The Scientist Fly

If CSI Miami was made into a cartoon with insect characters, it would seem reasonable for a mosquito to play a blood sucking lawyer. The house fly, on the other hand, would definitely be the cool-guy crime scene investigator. In the real world, the discipline of Forensic Entomology uses insects and the stages of their development to glean clues from fatal crime scenes that can aid legal investigations. If the body is found immediately after death, pathology-based methods are used. However, if the body isn’t found until a day or more later, insects are one of the most reliable indicators of many aspects of the crime.

The decomposition of a body can be split into five phases. Just in case you’re reading this over dinner, I shan’t use the precise medical terms, but they are as follows:

•    Could be sleeping (1-2 days)

•    Resembles a flotation device (2-6 days)

•    Nose peg required before approach (7-12 days)

•    Starting to become part of the environment (13-23 days)

•    Could be in a museum (24 days onwards)

Flies appear at a dead body very quickly. Some particularly well organised and highly motivated species detect the expiration and land within minutes. As different insects arrive at different stages (listed above), a forensic scientist can use a survey of the species present, and the point at which they are within their life cycle, to accurately establish how long ago the unfortunate person began sleeping with the fishes. In our insect cartoon, our humble house fly is never late to dinner. It likes to get there early in the event, and will land at the point the cadaver starts to resemble a flotation device. There is so much to talk about on this subject and it is extremely interesting, but I’m already going to run out of space so I shall leave it to you to investigate further.

  • Specimen of the Month: House Fly (Musca domestica) , Rather than including an image of flies on a cadaver, as would be appropriate for this point in the blog, I thought you would rather see our beautiful housefly robot from our current exhibition Robot Zoo. This fellow is 200 x life-size!
    Rather than including an image of flies on a cadaver, as would be appropriate for this point in the blog, I thought you would rather see our beautiful housefly robot from our current exhibition Robot Zoo. This fellow is 200 x life-size!

Flies or Armageddon

Entire ecosystems of wildlife live in urban areas because we produce so much rubbish. You just need a bank holiday to realise how much we rely on refuse collectors and their trash squishing trucks, when they haven’t been for a week it only takes a strong wind or a couple of foxes for the streets to look like Armageddon overnight.

Whilst bin boys and girls kindly collect our rubbish and hide it away where we can conveniently forget about how much food we ate over the weekend, it takes other much smaller members of the animal kingdom than humans to break it down. The housefly is amongst those that aid the decay of organic matter and with every fly that vomits onto the waste food in order to digest it, these insects elegantly ensure our food waste is re-harnessed by the natural circle of life. Thank you flies.

References

ARKive

http://www.arkive.org/house-fly/musca-domestica/

Bug Guide

http://bugguide.net/node/view/39559

(Muscidae) typically visit the remains during the bloated stage of decomposition (Joseph et al 2011).

PennState College of Agricultural Sciences

http://ento.psu.edu/extension/factsheets/house-flies

The Forensics Library

http://aboutforensics.co.uk/forensic-entomology/

Specimen of the Month: Greater Horseshoe Bat

This month, our Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Dr Emma-Louise Nicholls, takes a look at the greater horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus ferrumequinum). 

Pigeonholing

You often hear people talk of the Latin name for an animal to refer to the Genus and Species, such as Homo sapien for a human. However, many of these scientific names actually stem from Greek. The scientific name for the genus of the greater horseshoe bat is Rhinolophus. Rhino comes from Greek, and means nose. Lophus is also Greek, and means crest. If you take a look at the greater horseshoe bat in the image below, you’ll see the logic behind a scientific name which means ‘nose crest’. Another example is the rhinoceros, which happens to be both the common name and the scientific name for the Genus. The name rhinoceros stems from Greek and means ‘nose horn’. It’s all very logical.

When referring to the Genus and Species of an animal, the correct term is the ‘binomial name’, which is Latin (not Greek) for ‘two names’. This worked perfectly until we realised evolution had ruined everything by proliferating beyond Genus and Species, at which point we had to introduce a third name for these ‘Subspecies’. When referring to a Subspecies, the correct term is trinomial, which is Latin for ‘three names’. Subspecies tend to occur when two populations of the same species are separated for a significant period of time by some geographical boundary, and subsequently evolve different traits, yet remain so closely related that they’re still considered to be the same species. The greater horseshoe bat has several subspecies (currently thought to be six), only one of which occurs in the UK: Rhinolophus ferrumequinum ferrumequinum.

Scientists, such as myself, are very fond of such semantics. However I’m sure not everyone reading this will be so… let’s move on.

  • Greater horseshoe bat, Our Greater horseshoe bat came into the Museum in 1937 and is on display in the Natural History Gallery.
    Our Greater horseshoe bat came into the Museum in 1937 and is on display in the Natural History Gallery.

Is that a moth I hear before me?

Whilst the binomial name for the greater horseshoe bat is very nice, the bat cares way more about its stomach, for which the nose crest comes in again. As with all Microchiropterans (Microbats), the greater horseshoe bat uses echolocation to find dinner. Echolocation is a system that does exactly what is says on the tin. A bat will emit a series of sounds from its voice box, which echo back when they hit an insect (or anything else), thus allowing the bat to locate it. The nose crest and impressive large satellite dish-esque ears evolved to make the bat extra proficient at picking up the sounds as they echo back in its direction. Beyond location, echolocation also lets the greater horseshoe bat know the size and shape of the object in front of it, meaning it knows, "moth - edible" and "brick wall - inedible".

  • Greater horseshoe bat, Our Greater horseshoe bat came into the Museum in 1937 and is on display in the Natural History Gallery.
    Our Greater horseshoe bat came into the Museum in 1937 and is on display in the Natural History Gallery.

Trophy wall

Bats are overachievers and as a group claim many wildlife records. An obvious one is that they are the only mammals in the world capable of powered flight. There are other contenders, or should I say pretenders, to the Flying Mammal Throne. The vast majority come from Southeast Asia where being a small gravity-bound mammal appears to be a dangerous past time. These mammals have accomplished gliding, or directional falling at a slow-pace, as it would be called if bats had written the text book rather than humans. The sugar glider hands-down wins Most Gorgeous Thing Ever*, however it is still just a furry glorified glider. The only other animals to have achieved powered flight are birds (crown group dinosaurs) and pterosaurs (not dinosaurs at all).

Having done my research for this blog I can tell you no one seems to know how many species of bat there are for certain; estimates range from 1100 to 1300. However whichever end of the scale it actually is, they still win the award for being the Largest Group of Mammals in the World. Not only that, bats make up around a fifth of the world’s mammal species. Some countries will have more non-bat-mammal species than 80% and others will have less, according to the habitats they have available. However the UK, in case you were wondering, is spot on with the world average, i.e. 1 in every 5 mammal species in the UK is a bat.

My personal favourite is that one of their number claims the title Smallest Mammal in the World. The bumblebee bat just about reaches 3 cm in total length and weighs only 2 grams. This means I put the equal weight of two bats in my tea every morning, which makes me think I should start using sweetner.

Incredibly, this entire species was unknown to science until it was first described and given a binomial name (Craseonycteris thonglongyai) in 1974. It is only known to exist in 43 caves, split between Myanmar and Thailand, which means disturbance from over excited wildlife tourists is a problem that local wildlife groups are having to constantly monitor.

  • Indian flying fox, The largest bats are called Megabats. These species, such as this Indian flying fox, have large eyes, small ears, and a fox-like face, making them look very different from the Microbats that echolocate.
    The largest bats are called Megabats. These species, such as this Indian flying fox, have large eyes, small ears, and a fox-like face, making them look very different from the Microbats that echolocate.

* Sadly the pet trade has cottoned on to this but I could write an enormous blog on why you should NOT own one in captivity.

References

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.
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