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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.

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

Specimen of the Month: an un-iconic icon, the robin (Erithacus rubecula)

Emma-Louise Nicholls, our Deputy Keeper of Natural History, is looking at the robin, and its associations with Christmas, for her Specimen of the Month series.

'Robins are well known to be one of the traditional cover models of Christmas card multipacks. An icon of Christmas in the UK, the robin is only meant to appear when the festive lights are up, The Grinch is on TV, and the shops become a hostile habitat visited only by the brave, followed a week later by the disorganised.

  • Specimen of the Month: an Un-iconic Icon: The Robin (Erithacus rubecula), The robins, delicately painted background and realistic looking snow make our diorama by Edward Hart a picture perfect Christmas scene*
    The robins, delicately painted background and realistic looking snow make our diorama by Edward Hart a picture perfect Christmas scene*

But robins live in the UK throughout the year. Why then do we associate them with Christmas? There are a number of theories…

According to the RSPB, robins spend December roaming around the neighbourhood, looking for a mate to settle down with in the New Year, a resolution that’s mirrored by many humans. This extra movement around Christmas time, and presumably, the extra effort they put into showing off their musical talents, simply makes them more visible to the untrained human passer-by.

Following on from this line of reasoning, robins are also more ‘in your face’ around Christmas because they are one of the only birds that don’t suffer from Seasonally Affected Disorder** and thus continue their cheery singing even though the clocks have gone back and going to the toilet in the middle of the night is a race against frostbite.

In the winter, robins are also one of the earliest to start singing in the morning and one of the last to stop singing at night. They sound like neighbours from hell.

  • Specimen of the Month blog category, Robins sing to attracts a mate and to let other robins know this is its territory,  Wikinature, 2005, image in public domain
    Robins sing to attracts a mate and to let other robins know this is its territory,  Wikinature, 2005, image in public domain

An entirely different theory is that the association comes from the first postmen in the UK, who used to wear bright red waistcoats. They were, for obvious reasons of visual association, therefore nicknamed 'Robins'. Whilst the festive season is certainly a busy time for these robin-people, surely it’s not the only time of year in which they were employed? Personally, I find this association somewhat tenuous. However if you’d like a challenge, I will happily eat my blog if sufficient evidence is produced to support this claim.

Maybe the question should really be, would they be better off representing a different holiday? Unlike Father Christmas who is categorically absent for the rest of the year (supermarket shelves in October aside), the robin clearly raises its family with a staycation mentality. They may remind you of a time when everyone is obliged to be happy to see their extended family, and be nicer to fellow commuters, but the robin is an aggressive bird that when required transforms into a small, vicious, wing-ed nightmare that will fight other robins to the death if needs be. Call me a traditionalist, but that’s not very Christmas spirit-y. So in short, next time you’re selecting Christmas cards, perhaps you should go for the snowman.

  • Specimen of the Month: an Un-iconic Icon: The Robin (Erithacus rubecula), The robin is widely used as a pin-up for Christmas cards,  Hisgett, 2010, image in public domain
    The robin is widely used as a pin-up for Christmas cards,  Hisgett, 2010, image in public domain

*This diorama is just masquerading as a beautiful Christmas scene. If you look closer, the bricks the robin is standing on are actually a Victorian sparrow trap. If the robin went for the seed inside, the little stick would budge and BAM. Lights out Christmas robin.

**It is unknown if SAD affects any avian species.'

References

ARKive. (No date). Robin (Erithacus rubecula).

Horniman Museum and Gardens. (No date). Zoology: Edward Hart Collection

RSPB. (No date). Birds and Wildlife: Robin.

RSPB. (2009). Birds and Wildlife: Ask an Expert.

Specimen of the Month: The Aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis)

Emma-Louise Nicholls, our Deputy Keeper of Natural History, is looking into the world of the Aye-Aye for her Specimen of the Month series.

A Law unto its Own

The Madagascan Aye-aye is not like the other kids in the playground. Whilst it’s most closely related to lemurs, it’s the only surviving species within its entire scientific family (Daubentoniidae). Awww, sad face.

A curious looking creature, it has the body of a lemur, the ears of a huge bat, the tail of an Ikea toilet brush and the teeth of a well-flossed beaver.

The Aye-aye first became known to western science in the late 1700s, but other than working out which end was the front, scientists didn’t seem to know what to make of it. The first formal description had the Aye-aye classed as a rodent based on the continually growing teeth. Via a brief sojourn into the squirrel family in 1790, it finally arrived in the primate sector in 1850.

  • Sonnerat's Aye-aye, Earliest known illustration of an Aye-aye, in the first published account (Sonnerat, 1780). No offense to Sonnerat, but this isn't a remarkable likeness!
    Earliest known illustration of an Aye-aye, in the first published account (Sonnerat, 1780). No offense to Sonnerat, but this isn't a remarkable likeness!

Portent of Evil

People across the world are inclined to be suspicious of things that look weird, act strangely, or smell funny. Unfortunately for the Aye-aye, it probably does all three. With its dark wiry fur, ginormous eyes, tarantula-like hands (see below), and secretive nature, the Aye-aye was awarded the title ‘Portent of Evil’ early on by the people of Madagascar, and has been persecuted ever since. In a delightful letter (in an historic context sort of a way) written by Sonnerat, he described the difficulty this caused him in obtaining a specimen:

“I am told that the Aye-aye is an object of veneration at Madagascar, and that if any native touches one, he is sure to die within the year; hence the difficulty of obtaining a specimen. I overcame this scruple by a reward of £10.”

We all know the pre-Brexit pound was worth a whole lot more than it is today, so it is little wonder this was enough to sway a local to ‘dance with the devil’, as it were.

  • Tarantula hand, 'Is this a spider which I see before me?' The hand of an Aye-aye looks suspiciously like a tarantula to me...
    'Is this a spider which I see before me?' The hand of an Aye-aye looks suspiciously like a tarantula to me...

The Walking Dead

After the first formal description was published in 1782, no other western scientist saw hide nor hair of an Aye-aye for the next 70 years. One would clearly lose every time at hide-n-seek with an Aye-aye. As a consequence, it was rumoured that either the Aye-aye had gone extinct, or that the whole thing had been a hoax all along.

In 1844, De Castelle travelled to Madagascar and was successful in not only seeing another Aye-aye but in capturing a live animal. As we western scientists liked to do ‘back in the day’, he caught it, bundled it into a crate, and shipped it off to Europe. Inevitably, the poor thing expired en route.

It wouldn’t be until 1862 that someone would manage to convince an Aye-aye to stay alive for the duration of the journey to England. Although both a male and a female boarded the boat, only the stronger sex survived and the female was subsequently taken to London Zoo where, as of 12th August 1862, she became the first live Aye-aye seen on public display. She even featured in the Illustrated London News in 1862. Due to its incredibly elusive nature, the Aye-aye was again declared extinct in the wild in 1933, until it was re-re-discovered in 1957.

By the way… well-taken photographs of living Aye-ayes will prove that they are actually adorable!

  • Our Aye-aye, Our Aye-aye specimen was purchased for the Horniman on 24th August 1922, and is on display on the balcony in the Natural History Gallery
    Our Aye-aye specimen was purchased for the Horniman on 24th August 1922, and is on display on the balcony in the Natural History Gallery

References

ARKive. (No date). Aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis).

Bartlett, A. (1862). Observations of the living aye-aye in the Zoological Gardens. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London. 30 (1) pp.222-223

Brehm, A. B. (1896). The Animals of the World. Brehm’s Life of Animals. Chicago, A. N. Marquis & Company. pp.73-74

EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered). (No date). Aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis).

Mittermeier, R. A., Rylands, A. B. Wilson, D. E. eds. (2013). Handbook of the Mammals of the World. 3 Primates. Lynx Edicions pp.952

Natural History Museum. (No date). Joseph Wolf (1820-1899). Drawing overview: The Aye-aye.

Owen, R. (1863). Monograph on the Aye-aye; Chiromys Madagascariensis, Cuvier. London, Taylor and Francis pp. 1-72

Sonnerat, P. (1780). Voyage aux indes orientales et a la chine. Vol IV

Unknown. (6th September 1862). The Aye-aye. The Illustrated London News. pp.256

Specimen of the Month: The Glyptodon

Emma-Louise Nicholls, our Deputy Keeper of Natural History, is looking into the world of the Glyptodon for her Specimen of the Month series.

A Glypto-what?

This beautiful model shows what Glyptodon (a type of Glyptodont) would have looked like, and is available to enthusiastic viewers in the Natural History Gallery. You’d be forgiven for assuming it was a huge great tortoise, but the hair gives it away as a mammal.

Early descriptions of Glyptodonts were made by some of the most famous palaeontologists in history, including Richard Owen (who invented the word dinosaur, and was almost single-handedly responsible for the Natural History Museum in London) and Thomas Henry Huxley, who worked side-by-side with Charles Darwin and helped to spread the word of the theory of evolution.

But when these initial scientific descriptions were being recorded in the mid-1800s, the affinity of Glyptodont had many guises. Descriptions included ‘feet of a hippo’, ‘skull of a sloth’, ‘shell of an armadillo’, ‘teeth of a capybara’, and a more general statement that described Glyptodonts as something between a rhinoceros and a giant ground sloth (Megatherium). I can’t see either of those myself but we have to remember early specimens weren’t complete and that the animated film Ice Age only came out in 2002. Glyptodon’s closest living relative is in fact the armadillo.

  • The Glyptodon, Our Glyptodon scale model is 1/12th actual size and was made by Edward Vernon.
    Our Glyptodon scale model is 1/12th actual size and was made by Edward Vernon.

Learn more about Edward Vernon, who made our model.

Perturbing pesky predators

In the mid-1800s a voyage to South America came back with two full boxes of bone fragments from a river deposit in Uruguay. These boxes were eventually emptied onto the desk of a curator at the Natural History Museum in Paris and took ‘four months of constant toil’ to piece back together. Once done however, the curator found themself looking at the huge shell of a Glyptodon.

The shell and bony coverings from elsewhere on the body could weigh up to 400kg, which meant Glyptodonts were lugging around a quarter of their body weight in armour plating. There are those among us that find Medieval Role Play on a Sunday afternoon a great deal of fun, but for a wild animal the energy cost of wearing this suit of armour is too great for it to be for anything other than pure necessity. Voracious predators were indeed stalking around the underbrush during the Pleistocene and an un-armoured Glyptodont would have had its goose cooked before it could say 'Which way to the Amazon?'

  • The Glyptodon shell, This rosette shaped fossil fragment shows part of the huge mosaic of interlocking hexagons that would have formed the huge dome shell of Glyptodon.
    This rosette shaped fossil fragment shows part of the huge mosaic of interlocking hexagons that would have formed the huge dome shell of Glyptodon.

Why stop there?

In two of the largest Pleistocene species, a number of small gaps left by the traditional spread of Glyptodont shielding were protected by bonus armour plates. As these are only present on species that appeared later in the geological timeline, it is reasonable to suggest they’re adaptations to the evolution of larger carnivores than their predecessors had to contend with. Indeed, the largest land predators ever to have inhabited South America lived during this time. Poor Glyptodonts.

As you can see on our model Glyptodon had a heavily armoured tail. A number of other Glyptodont species thought this wasn’t enough however, and decided to evolve a huge club on the end. Clever scientific bods have worked out that an adult Glyptodont with a 40kg tail club could smack into a predator at speeds of up 12 metres per second. In a fight with another Glyptodont, that blow had the power to shatter the armour of the adversary.

My advice as a professional scientist? Don’t mess with a Glyptodont.

  • Illustration of the Glyptodont, What did I say? Don't mess with a Glyptodont. Even if you have teeth as big as your face. Images used with kind permission from The Field Museum, Chicago., (c) The Field Museum, GEO80218 through GEO80221
    What did I say? Don't mess with a Glyptodont. Even if you have teeth as big as your face. Images used with kind permission from The Field Museum, Chicago., (c) The Field Museum, GEO80218 through GEO80221

Slow but steady

Most Glyptodon specimens have been found in Patagonia and Argentina. 

Despite its appearance as a lumbering cumbersome animal, the fossil record shows it managed to venture as far as North America on occasion. Presumably they managed this courtesy of the handy bridge of land that popped up in Panama during the Pleistocene. The same bridge of land in Panama that connects North America to South America in the modern day.

References

Alfredo Eduardo Zuritaa, A. E., Soibelzonb, L. H., Soibelzonb, E., Gasparinib, G. M., Cenizoc, M. M., and Arzanid, H. (2010). Accessory protection structures in Glyptodon Owen (Xenarthra, Cingulata, Glyptodontidae). Annales de Paléontologie 96 (1) pp.1-11

Benton, M. J. (2005). Vertebrate Palaeontology, Third Edition. Oxford, Blackwell Science Ltd pp.317-318.

Gould, C. N. (1928). The Fossil Glyptodon in the Frederick Gravel Beds. Oklahoma Geological Survey pp.148-150

Hubbe, A., Vasconcelos, A. G., Vilaboim, L., Karmann, I., and Neves, N. (2011). Chronological Distribution of Brazilian Glyptodon sp. Remains: A Direct 14C Date for a Specimen from Iporanga, São Paulo, Brazil. Radiocarbon 53 (1) pp.13–19

Huxley, T. H. (1864). On the Osteology of the Genus Glyptodon. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 155 pp.31-70

Zurita, A. E., Miño-Boilini, A. R., Soibelzon, E., Scillato-Yané, G. J., Gasparini, G. M., and Paredes-Ríos, F. (2009). First Record and Description of an Exceptional Unborn Specimen of Cingulata Glyptodontidae: Glyptodon Owen (Xenarthra). Comptes Rendus Palevol. 8 (6) pp.573–578

Specimen of the Month: The Three-Toed Sloth

Our Deputy Keeper of Natural History - Emma-Louise Nicholls - is back with her Specimen of the Month blog series to bring you closer to the specimens as well as the species for which each is an ambassador. Next up is...

The three-toed sloth

Olympic athlete

The scientific name for a three-toed sloth is Bradypus: Brady = slow and pus = feet. Not yellow fluid in this case.

Sloths are collectively the slowest mammals in the world, never in a hurry to do anything they wear their name with pride. In terms of speed - on the ground they are useless, but in the trees where they’re in their element… they’re also useless.

They move so slowly that algae is able to grow on their fur undisturbed by movement. Besides providing a rather fetching green tint to their otherwise unfashionable grey outfit, the algae also provides the sloth with a little extra camouflage.

  • Specimen of the Month - The Three-Toed Sloth, You can see the vivid green algae on the fur of this three-toed sloth in Costa Rica, D. Gordon
    You can see the vivid green algae on the fur of this three-toed sloth in Costa Rica, D. Gordon

They may be the slowest mammals in the world, but catching a sloth can still be a tricky affair.

In Central and South America where these sloths are found, indigenous people sometimes hunt them for food. Slow they are, but weak they aren’t. The sloths grip is so strong that not only can they sleep whilst still hanging upside down, but they can also stay hanging upside down after they die. This means that if one is speared or darted (or shot) there’s a strong chance it won’t fall to the ground immediately.

It can take several days for the flesh to decay enough for the locked digits to loosen their grip on the branch sufficiently for gravity to take over. By which time, the hungry hunter will have given up and found something else to eat.

  • Our three-toed sloth, Sloths can hang upside down whether they are old, young, asleep, awake, alive or dead
    Sloths can hang upside down whether they are old, young, asleep, awake, alive or dead

An old young sloth

We know our sloth is at least 111 years old, given it came to the Horniman in 1905 with the Samuel Prout Newcombe Collection.

The original specimen record described it as a young pale-throated sloth (Bradypus tridactylus), however it seems to lack the substantial markings on its facial fur characteristic of that species.

Unless the sloth’s fur has faded in highly isolated patches against the laws of physics (extremely unlikely), the markings on the back and more monotone face (not meaning to bruise its ego) suggest it’s probably a juvenile of the brown-throated sloth (Bradypus variegatus). With a good pair of glasses and some enthusiasm you can just make out the patterns on its fur in the image above.

Whatever species it turns out to be, the specimen definitely has three toes and is unequivocally a sloth, so three-toed sloth is still the correct genus and an accurate title for this blog. No science lies here.

  • Close up of our three-toed sloth, A lack of facial markings suggests the original identification may be incorrect
    A lack of facial markings suggests the original identification may be incorrect

References

ARKive (No date), Brown-throated three-toed sloth (Bradypus variegatus).

ARKive (No date), Pale-throated three-toed sloth (Bradypus variegatus).

National Geographic, (No date). Three-Toed Sloth (Bradypus variegatus)

Moraes-Barros, N., Chiarello, A., and Plese, T. (2014). Bradypus variegatus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2014

Suutari, M., Majaneva, M., Fewer, D. P., Voirin, B., Aiello, A., Friedl, T., Chiarello, A. G., and Blomster, J. (2010). Molecular evidence for a diverse green algal community growing in the hair of sloths and a specific association with Trichophilus welckeri (Chlorophyta, Ulvophyceae). BMC Evolutionary Biology 10 (86) pp.1.

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