Sunday 27 December 2009

British Wildlife: Y

Before I begin the penultimate installment of the British alphabet series, I'll just say I hope everyone had a merry Xmas! Mine was full of food and frolics. Not a lot of booze though, in fact, I don't think I had any, but I didn't really need it anyway.

Yaverlandia bitholus Galton, 1971
Family incertae sedis; Saurischia; Sauropsida; Chordata

Not many scientific names begin with 'Y'. This was a difficult letter to do: it took me quite a while, with a bit of help, to find an extant British species, but I got there eventually.

Yaverlandia was described in the '70s from a partial skull, found at Yaverland Point on the Isle of Wight. It was placed within the group of ornithischian ('bird-hipped') dinosaurs known as the pachycephalosaurs. The more derived members of this group, such as Pachycephalosaurus itself, had thickened skulls which may have been used in intraspecific fights, like wild sheep (Ovis spp.) do nowadays. Under this interpretation, Yaverlandia's skull wasn't that thick, but then, being from the early Cretaceous, it predated these derived pachycephalosaurs.

Further study found that Yaverlandia wasn't a basal pachycephalosaur, nor even an ornithischian, but some kind of theropod. Since only an incomplete skull (the back of it) is known, it can't be made more specific than that. To my knowledge, there are no other prehistoric British genera beginning with 'Y', so I had to illustrate Yaverlandia. I went with the reconstruction of it as a pachycephalosaur, as I had nothing else to base it on.

Spindle ermine moth
Yponomeuta cagnagella (Hübner, 1813)
Yponomeutidae; Lepidoptera; Insecta; Arthropoda

The ermine moths are a family of cosmopolitan lepidopterans named after the appearance of some of the species, like Yponomeuta cagnagella, which are white with black spots, remarkably similar to the winter coat of the stoat (Mustela erminea), also known as ermine. This is also reminiscent of the furry borders of royal cloaks, which were traditionally made of ermine, dotted with the black tail-tips of the stoats.

The common name 'spindle' derives from the food plant of the larva, the spindle tree (Euonymus europaeus), a shrub which bears crimson lobed fruit which are toxic to humans. The larvae, like those of many other ermine moths, spin a silken web in which they gather to feed. The larvae themselves are yellow in colour, with similar black spots to the adult moths.

Emberiza citrinella Linnaeus, 1758
Emberizidae; Passeriformes; Aves; Chordata

The yellowhammer is a resident passerine found throughout Europe and parts of Asia, having been introduced to New Zealand in 1862. The male is distinctive with his lemon-yellow face and breast marked with rusty brown and black, but he is more well known for his song. It has been interpreted by humans as saying 'a bit of bread and butter with no cheeeeeeese'. In reality, it is a scratchy warble with a long last note, but all the same, it is a very distinctive sound that's always a pleasure to hear in the British countryside in early summer, when the male sings to attract a female.

Yellowhammers are buntings, a group of finch-like birds unique to the Old World. It is similar to other members of the genus, such as the reed bunting (E. schoeniclus) in build, but has brighter coloration, in the males at least.

For the final part next week (next year even!) we have Z: a megalosaur, a bright blue bug and a viviparous lacertid.

Monday 21 December 2009

Sunday 20 December 2009

British Wildlife: X

Xenoposeidon proneneukos Taylor and Naish, 2007
Family incertae sedis; Saurischia; Sauropsida; Chordata

Xenoposeidon was one of the largest animals ever to live in what is now the United Kingdom. It is known from only one bone, found in East Sussex in the last decade of the 19th century, geologically dating from the early Cretaceous period, some 140 million years ago. This bone is a vertebra from the rear portion of the animal, and it is incomplete; the neural arch (spine at the top of the bone) and part of the centrum (solid part at the middle) are missing. This makes it extremely difficult (if not impossible) to place the animal systematically, other than it is definitely a dinosaur, and more specifically a sauropod.

My reconstruction is based on members of the Brachiosauridae, such as Brachiosaurus and Sauroposeidon from North America, and Giraffatitan from Tanzania. Of course, it might not even be a brachiosaurid, in which case it probably was more elongated in body form, looking like the diplodocoids (including Apatosaurus and of course Diplodocus).

Xanthogramma pedissequum (Harris, 1776)
Syrphidae; Diptera; Insecta; Arthropoda

This wasp-like insect is in fact a true fly of the order Diptera. Dipterans have only two wings (hence the name), unlike most other winged insects which have an extra pair. The hind wings are vestigial, being made only of a much reduced pair of halteres, drumstick-shaped organs which are believed to aid flight. Hoverflies make up a family of dipterans which are known for their hovering flight, seen as they search for flowers from which to sip nectar. Young hoverflies, known simply as maggots, are usually more carnivorous, eating aphids and other small insects, being an important biological control agent. Other hoverfly maggots will live in dung and stagnant water, using a long breathing tube extending from the anus as a snorkel to breathe fresh air.

The featured hoverfly, Xanthogramma pedissequum, is not a common species in the UK. More widespread syrphids include Syrphus ribesii and Episyrphus balteatus, both of which are similarly patterned. This is obviously an example of Batesian mimicry: when a harmless organism mimics the warning coloration of a more dangerous one. Other examples include the milk snakes (Lampropeltis spp.) copying the coral snakes (Micrurus spp.), and the viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) copying the monarch (Danaus plexippus). This works because predators learn to avoid the dangerous/toxic organism because of its warning coloration (known as aposematism) and previous experience. When the same predator sees the mimic, it will avoid that too.

Black carpenter bee
Xylocopa violacea (Linnaeus, 1758)
Apidae; Hymenoptera; Insecta; Arthropoda

OK, so its common name doesn't begin with 'X', but I'll have to make an exception for this and 'Z'. Carpenter bees are so called because they make their nests in wood. They are partially social, but nowhere near as much as the bumblebees and honey bees to which they are related. Carpenter bees are large, with Xylocopa violacea being a glossy purple-black colour. Like other bees, carpenter bees are important pollinators, visiting flowers for nectar and cross-pollinating them in the process. However, carpenter bees often 'rob' flowers of their nectar by slitting the side of the flower where the nectar is kept, hence avoiding being 'used' by the flower as a pollen-carrier. Females do sting, but won't unless provoked. The males, like other bees, lack stings as this organ is a modified ovipositor (egg-laying tube).

Next week, Y: a pachycephalosaur that probably isn't really a pachycephalosaur, a lemon-yellow warbler and a furry musteline moth.

Monday 14 December 2009

British Wildlife: W

Westlothiana lizziae Smithson et al., 1994
Family incertae sedis; Order incertae sedis; Class incertae sedis; Phylum Chordata

Westlothiana was a lizard-like tetrapod dating to the early Carboniferous (c. 350 million years ago) rocks of eastern Scotland, not far from Edinburgh. It has so far proven impossible to know whether Westlothiana was a reptile or not. Reptiliomorphs are a group of not-yet-reptiles but no-longer-amphibians that falls outside of the Amniota clade (the members of which group have shelled eggs - this includes mammals, which ancestrally had shelled eggs). Since eggs of Westlothiana are unknown, it can't be placed with any confidence in any class, order or family.

Westlothiana lizziae fossil
Cambridge Zoology Museum
June 2009

The specific epithet, lizziae, appears to come from the informal name the holotype was given - Lizzie - due to the resemblance of the animal to a lizard.

Barred hook-tip moth
Watsonalla cultraria Fabricius, 1775
Drepanidae; Lepidoptera; Insecta; Arthropoda

The drepanids are a family of around a thousand species of moth, mostly drably-coloured. The name comes from the Greek word for 'sickle', for the shape of the wing. The barred hook-tip is found throughout most of Europe, and the larvae eat beech (Fagus) leaves.

(Dartford) Warbler
Sylvia undata (Boddaert, 1783)
Sylviidae; Passeriformes; Aves; Chordata

Dartford is either a town in Essex or a borough of south-east London, depending on your view. It is known for the eponymous tunnel that carries traffic on the London orbital motorway, known as the M25 (or, more sardonically, Britain's biggest carpark) under the Thames Estuary (at least when travelling north - south-bound traffic now goes over the river courtesy of the Queen Elizabeth II suspension bridge).

The area has also given its name to a scratchy-songed passerine - the Dartford warbler. Sylvia undata is endemic to western Europe and northwest Africa. It looks similar to several other species of the same genus found across the Mediterranean region into Asia. Dartford warblers are heathland birds, preferring coastal regions. They are uncommon in the UK, and are classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN, since much of the world population occurs in England. Harsh winters have been known to cause local extinctions, as the warbler is non-migratory and just has to put up with the British soggy winter climate and its lack of insect food, or die.

Next week, X (oh yes, I have found three species for X!): a wood-loving bee, a sauropod known only from a partial vertebra, and a bee-like fly with a larva that has a dung-snorkel.

Sunday 6 December 2009

British Wildlife: V

Valdosaurus canaliculatus (Galton, 1975)
Dryosauridae; Ornithischia; Sauropsida; Chordata

The dryosaurids are a family of basal iguanodontians (the clade of ornithopod - bird-foot - dinosaurs including such iconic beasts as Parasaurolophus, Camptosaurus and Iguanodon). Within the family, the type genus - Dryosaurus, from Jurassic North America - is probably most well-known. There are at least two, but probably three, other genera though: Callovosaurus of Jurassic England; Valdosaurus of Cretaceous England; and Elrhazosaurus of Cretaceous Niger. The latter genus was until very recently considered an additional species of Valdosaurus, V. nigeriensis. A recent paper by Peter Galton (2009) erects the new genus for that species.

Valdosaurus canaliculatus, currently the only species in the genus, is known from parts of southern England (notably West Sussex and the Isle of Wight), as well as Romania. The generic name means "Wealden lizard", after The Weald, the part of southeast England known for its unique geology. Although only incomplete skeletons are known, enough can be inferred about the animal's body shape from more-or-less complete skeletons of its cousin Dryosaurus.

Vipera berus (Linnaeus, 1758)
Viperidae; Squamata; Sauropsida; Chordata

The adder is one of three snakes native to Great Britain (there are, of course, none at all in Ireland: if you believe the legend, St. Patrick, patron saint of the island, drove all serpents out; if you believe in cold, hard evidence, Ireland was isolated from Great Britain and mainland Europe during glaciated periods when the snakes could have migrated back from the Continent). It is, however, the only venomous snake. Despite about a hundred adder bites inflicted upon humans each year, very few have ever been fatal (about twelve in the entire 20th century), and most of these would have been people with weakened immune systems, i.e. old or very young.

Preserved female adder
Oxford Museum of Natural History
July 2008

Adders are also the only British snake to be sexually dimorphic. Males, as illustrated in the artwork, are silvery-grey with a black zigzag along the back. Females are browner overall, with a less contrasting zigzag. Famously, you can also get black adders. Apart from Great Britain, adders can also be found across Eurasia right away across to Far Eastern Russia. They also range very far north, up to the Arctic Circle.

(Water) vole
Arvicola amphibius (Linnaeus, 1758)
Cricetidae; Rodentia; Mammalia; Chordata

The water vole is a familiar rodent to many people: those who were brought up reading or watching the many TV adaptations of Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows will know this animal as Ratty. Of course, the water vole is not a rat, but a plump, relatively short-tailed muroid rodent in an altogether different family, being closely related to other voles, lemmings and hamsters. You may double take at the scientific name: isn't it supposed to be Arvicola terrestris? Well, Carl Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy as we know it, described two species of water vole, a terrestrial one (A. terrestris), and an amphibious one (A. amphibius). In his tome Systema Naturae (10th ed.), which in which most of the animal species he had ever seen were described, the name A. amphibius appears on an earlier page than A. terrestris. This gives A. amphibius priority. This was only realised recently, and however much we might prefer A. terrestris, it is the other name which will stick. Unless enough people appeal to the ICZN for a reversion of the name back to A. terrestris. Anyhoo, the current name makes more sense; it's as much as a terrestrial mammal as I am an arboreal one.

Stuffed water vole
Bristol City Museum
September 2009

Water voles aren't completely aquatic of course, they are amphibious, nesting underground. They spend little time out in the open, except when feeding. The water vole in Britain has been threatened by numerous things, including draining of waterways, but most notably the introduction of the American mink (Neovison vison), a predator which specifically targets the vole as its main source of prey. Water voles are on the increase in the UK, due in part to increased conservation efforts, although mink still remain a threat.

Do not confuse this species with what is known as the water vole in North America: the species found there is Microtus richardsoni (possibly, but probably not, actually in Arvicola).


Galton, P. M. (2009) Notes on Neocomian (Late Cretaceous) ornithopod dinosaurs from England - Hypsilophodon, Valdosaurus, "Camptosaurus", "Iguanodon" - and referred specimens from Romania and elsewhere. In: Revue de Paléobiologie 28(1):211-73. PDF here.

Next week, W: an Essex sylviid, a sickle-shaped moth and a Scottish reptiliomorph.

Sunday 29 November 2009

British Wildlife: U

Cave bear
Ursus spelaeus Rosenmüller, 1794
Ursidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata

Cave bears roamed Europe, including Great Britain, during the mid to late Pleistocene (within the last million years), becoming extinct some 20,000 years ago. As their name suggests (as does the spelaeus in the specific name), they dwelled, or at least spent much time, in caves. Remains of this species are more often found in caves than the still extant brown bear (U. arctos). Cave bears were similar in size to the largest of the brown bears and polar bears (U. maritimus) of today, having a build intermediate between the two.

Cave bear skull
Natural History Museum
March 2008

Much can be inferred about the cave bear's diet from its skull, jaw and dentition. Although the zygomatic arches (cheek bones) are huge, inferring that large muscles were attached to them, they probably did not eat a lot of meat. Like living bears, the cave bears would have been omnivores, taking as much, if not more, plant material as they would animal.

Cave bear mandible
Natural History Museum
March 2008

The canine teeth are large, as is the case in almost all carnivorans, but that doesn't necessarily mean it is carnivorous. The insectivorous aardwolf (Proteles cristatus) and the mostly-vegan giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) have impressive canines, but rarely use them for eating; they are more likely utilised in intra-specific combat only. Note the large diastema (gap) between the canines and the first premolars; this is found mostly in herbivorous animals (such as rodents, lagomorphs and ungulates), as a gap for the tongue to manoeuvre in. The cheek teeth are broad and flat, not being very sharp, perfect for eating vegetation, and sometimes grinding bones.

A very small part of the cave bear's genome has been sequenced; some DNA has been extracted from a 40,000 year old tooth, recovering 21 genes.

Uria aalge (Pontoppidan, 1783)
Alcidae; Charadriiformes; Aves; Chordata

The guillemot, or murre (as it is known in North America), is a slender auk from the North Atlantic and North Pacific coasts. They breed in huge colonies in the UK and elsewhere, being one of the most numerous of all seabirds in Britain. Despite this, I have yet to see a single one. I need to get myself to one of these colonies at some point, the Farne Islands in the North Sea looks like a good place to start.

There are other species of guillemot: Brunnich's guillemot (U. lomvia) is the only other member of the genus Uria; and the three members of the genus Cepphus - black (C. grylle), pigeon (C. columba) and spectacled (C. carbo) guillemots. Interestingly, the two genera are not that closely related, being in two different tribes (a taxonomic rank below subfamily). The distinction is made more clear in North America, by calling only Uria guillemots "murres" and the rest of them are still guillemots.

Another claim to fame for the guillemot is the laying of pyriform (pear-shaped) eggs. The most plausible theory for this is that, because the birds lay their eggs on high cliff faces with no nest, the egg cannot fall off the cliff. A pear-shaped egg will simply roll around in a circle.

(Red) underwing
Catocala nupta Linnaeus, 1767
Noctuidae; Lepidoptera; Insecta; Arthropoda

I've only ever seen one red underwing moth in my life, and wasn't armed with a camera at the time. In summer, one must have flew into my house through an open window at dusk and couldn't get out. I saw it on a wall covered with cream-coloured wallpaper, so it wasn't very well camouflaged. I intended to usher it towards an open window, so I gently prodded it and it exposed its red hindwings. Had I have been I potential predator, I would have been put off my food by this threatening display. As it was, I was a bit perturbed and backed away. The defence works!

Next week, V: a Wealden hypsilophodontid, an amphibious rodent and a venomous snake.

Sunday 22 November 2009

British Wildlife: T

Thecodontosaurus antiquus Morris, 1843
Thecodontosauridae; Saurischia; Sauropsida; Chordata

Thecodontosaurus has often been nicknamed 'The Bristol Dinosaur'. Its remains were first found in Clifton, near the Avon Gorge, and remains one of the earliest dinosaurs yet to be found in Britain. The remains date to the Late Triassic, a time when dinosaurs were radiating from initially theropod-like forms into prosauropods and basal ornithischians. Thecodontosaurus is either a primitive prosauropod or a basal sauropodomorph. This means it could be ancestral to the first dinosaurs to have become either sauropods or prosauropods (long-necks and not-quite-so-long-necks).

Thecodontosaurus antiquus bones in matrix
Bristol City Museum
September 2009

European mole
Talpa europaea Linnaeus, 1758
Talpidae; Eulipotyphla; Mammalia; Chordata

Moles are the third type of 'insectivore' found in Britain (I covered hedgehogs here and shrews here). They are distinctive-looking enough to most people for them to be familiar, despite hardly ever being seen. This probably has something to do with the excellent Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (also see the next 'T' animal). Moles spend all of their time underground; they are only seen when creating molehills or if they have been killed.

Dead European mole
Photo of specimen studied at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge

Moles are actually surprisingly small... before seeing one (never seen a live one, only dead ones like this) I thought they were at least hedgehog-sized, but they are really just a large shrew. The first thing one usually notices about a mole is either its claws or lack of eyes. They don't really lack eyes, but they are extremely reduced in size and are hidden under fur, and sometimes skin. The claws are incredible, especially those of the front paw, which are obviously used for digging.

Eurasian mole skeleton
Booth Museum of Natural History, Brighton
July 2008

Moles mainly eat earthworms, but will also eat other invertebrates and even other vertebrates.

(Common) toad
Bufo bufo Linnaeus, 1758
Bufonidae; Anura; Amphibia; Chordata

The common toad is, surprisingly enough, one of the most abundant amphibians in the UK, along with the common frog (Rana temporaria). Britain's other toad, the natterjack (Epidalea calamita) is much rarer and extremely localised in distribution. Common toads are found very often in bodies of water of varying size, and even found away from water outside the breeding season.

Female common toad
Epping Forest
March 2009

Females are larger than males, and during the breeding season, one can often find pairs in amplexus; this is when the male grips onto the female using 'nuptial pads' (the main method, apart from size, to distinguish the sexes) on his hands. They remain bonded until after the male has fertilised her eggs, which are laid as toadspawn in water. The spawn consists of a double row of black dots encased in a jelly strand.

Immature common toad
Enfield, North London
July 2008

Common toads metamorphose from tadpoles into miniature toads in a few months, and are often found in damp areas. I briefly kept a toadlet last year, which I named Toad of Toad Hall, feeding it on aphids and ants. It didn't really eat the ants, they would just crawl all over it. Aphids, however, it loved. I kept it for a few weeks and released it back into my garden.

Next week, U: an extinct troglodyte bear, a cryptic yet colourful moth, and an auk that lays pear-shaped eggs.

Saturday 14 November 2009

British Wildlife: S

Scelidosaurus harrisonii Owen, 1861
Scelidosauridae; Ornithischia; Sauropsida; Chordata

The Thyreophora are a group of armoured dinosaurs, most familiar as stegosaurs and ankylosaurs. The thyreophorans split into these two groups fairly early in their evolution, splitting from the basal ornithischians (bird-hipped dinosaurs: the group also including ceratopsians, pachycephalosaurs and ornithopods - horn-heads, bone-heads and duck-bills to those with a fear of Ancient Greek). Some thyreophorans, like Scutellosaurus, came about before the primal split between stegosaurs and ankylosaurs. It has been debated whether Scelidosaurus belongs in Ankylosauria or just outside it. Scelidosauridae, the family which also includes a couple of close relatives from China and Portugal, has variously been placed as a basal ankylosaur or a basal thyreophoran.

Scelidosaurus harrisonii skeletal cast
Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre, Dorset
August 2009

Despite this unsureness of Scelidosaurus' relations, there have been some wonderfully preserved specimens. One of the most recent is the one pictured above. The original, at Bristol City Museum (I didn't get a good photo of it when I was there) has been cast, and it is this cast which bedecks much of the wall at the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre, very near to where it was found. The skull, postcranial skeleton and armour plates and scutes are all preserved. Scelidosaurus is not unique to the UK (also being found in Arizona), but the more famous finds are from here. It was Sir Richard Owen who first described Scelidosaurus harrisonii in 1861, and is thus one of the first thyreophorans to be described.

Red squirrel
Sciurus vulgaris Linnaeus, 1758
Sciuridae; Rodentia; Mammalia; Chordata

The red squirrel was, at one time, the only squirrel to be found in the UK. As such, it was a common creature. It has now been replaced, almost nationwide, by the grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), introduced from North America. The grey squirrel is now one of the commonest mammals in the UK, with the red squirrel being one of the rarest. The red squirrel's strongholds in the UK are few and far between, but Scotland is where the majority of Britain's reds live.

Red squirrel
Wild in Invernessshire
June 2005

It was in that part of the UK that I saw my first, and so far only, wild red squirrel. It was feeding from a stand put up in Highland Wildlife Park, designed to attract these pretty beasts to be viewed by the public. Red squirrels also hang on in parts of Norfolk, Merseyside and the Isle of Wight, but this is due to heavy management on the behalf of wildlife biologists and conservation workers to keep grey squirrels out.

Mustela erminea Linnaeus, 1758
Mustelidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata

The stoat, as it is known in the UK, is the larger of the two classic 'weasels' to be found in Britain. Also known as the ermine (in North America, and when in its white winter coat) and short-tailed weasel (in North America only, to distinguish it from the long-tailed weasel - M. frenata), the stoat is a voracious predator, especially on mice, voles and rabbits. The European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) is larger than a stoat, and considerably heavier, but the stoat often preys on rabbits, being able to enter their warrens with ease, and hauling their prey out with surprising strength for their size and build.

A pair of stuffed stoats, with the one on the right in its winter coat (ermine)
Cambridge Zoology Museum
June 2008

In the UK, we only have to distinguish between the stoat and the weasel (Mustela nivalis). Such features you can use include size (the stoat is larger), length of tail (stoat's is longer), presence of black hair at the tip of the tail (only on the stoat), and the border between the brown and white portions of the pelt (the stoat's is clear-cut, the weasel's is jagged). Also, in the UK, only the stoat will ever turn white in winter. Unless an extremely rare albino/leucistic weasel turns up, the only white 'weasel' you'll ever find in winter in Britain is the stoat. That doesn't mean, however, that any brown 'weasel' in winter will be M. nivalis. Stoats only turn white if the temperatures drop low enough for long enough (only in the mountains here in the UK). In the rest of Eurasia and North America, however, the weasel breaks the rules and turns white in winter too. Irish stoats (M. erminea hibernica) apparently never turn white.

Next week, T: a verrucose bufonid, a myopic eulipotyphlan and a Bristolian prosauropod.

Sunday 8 November 2009

It's a shrew opossum!

Another virtual point goes to J. Velez-Juarbe for guessing that the skull belongs to a caenolestid.

Dusky shrew opossum
Caenolestes fuliginosus Tomes, 1863
Caenolestidae; Paucituberculata; Mammalia; Chordata
Cambridge Zoology Museum
June 2008

The caenolestids, shrew opossums, rat opossums, or flap-lips (!) are a family of three extant genera (Caenolestes, Lestoros and Rhyncholestes) in their own order of marsupials, the Paucituberculata. Shrew opossums, as I prefer to call them, are restricted to South America, much like the related opossums of Didelphimorphia, but even more so, not being found outside the Andes Mountains and southern 'boreal' forests of Chile, Argentina and the rest of western South America. As a result, they are poorly known, but exhibit a few distinctive features visible on the skull.

Marsupials can either be polyprotodont or diprotodont. The terms relate to the number of incisors in the upper jaw. The majority of Australian marsupials are diprotodont, having two large incisors at the front of the upper jaw, and two in the lower as well. Opossums and other related orders are all polyprotodon, with as many as five incisors on each side of the upper jaw. The Paucituberculata is one of these orders. All other polyprotodont families also have many incisors in the lower jaw, but the shrew opossums only have two, and these are extremely procumbent (forward-pointing), reminiscent of diprotodonts like kangaroos. There's also the inflected angular process (indented part of the lower jaw) present in all extant marsupials.

Dusky shrew opossum (stuffed)
Oxford Museum of Natural History
July 2008

The caenolestids are rather shrew-like in appearance, as can be seen in the above specimen. They are thought to occupy a similar niche, and since only a couple of shrew species of the genus Blarina have made it to South America, they have remained 'successful' (despite a reduction in the number of genera).

British Wildlife: R

Rhamphorhynchus jessoni (Lydekker, 1890)
Rhamphorhynchidae; Pterosauria; Sauropsida; Chordata

The rhamphorhynchoids were a group of pterosaurs, basal to the short-tailed pterodactyloids. It used to be thought that they formed a true grouping, but it seems that only the pterodactyloids form a true group within the Pterosauria, with the rhamphorhynchoids representing everything that doesn't make it into that group.

Well-preserved Rhamphorhynchus fossils are known from Germany, but some less well-preserved ones hail from England. Rhamphorhynchus had a long pointed snout (the name means 'beak snout') with a few sharp, pointed teeth that overlap each other when the snout is closed. It was very likely a fish-eater, flapping and gliding over the sea surface catching the odd fish by submerging its head. The long tail, ending in a diamond-shaped vane, is one of the most obvious features.

Cast of wing of Rhamphorhynchus muensteri (Goldfuss, 1831)
Oxford Museum of Natural History
July 2008

The wing membrane of Rhamphorhynchus has often been preserved, as you can see in this photo of a cast of the type species of the genus. I have reconstructed the animal with 'fur' because some members of the family, most notably Sordes pilosus, have been found well-preserved with a hairy integument. The purple is just whimsy.

Water rail
Rallus aquaticus Linnaeus, 1758
Rallidae; Gruiformes; Aves; Chordata

The coot (Fulica atra) and the moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) are ubiquitous in Britain near any body of water. Water rails, however, although widespread across Eurasia, and indeed in the UK, are rarely seen. I've never seen one, despite a lot of searching of reed beds at nature reserves. You'd expect a bird with a long bright red bill and zebra stripes down its flanks to be quite conspicuous, but that's not so. Like other rails and crakes, the water rail has long toes to enable it to walk on floating vegetation.

Erithacus rubecula (Linnaeus, 1758)
Muscicapidae; Passeriformes; Aves; Chordata

The robin is Britain's national bird. It's a symbol of Christmas and one of the most familiar of all small birds to the British public. Its influence on worldwide avifauna has been significant: small birds with red on their breast are found in five continents other than Europe, despite not being related to robins. Europeans named such birds 'robins' due to their resemblance to 'little robin redbreast' of the old country. The American robin (Turdus migratorius), for example, is a thrush, and the Australian robins of the genus Petroica are not related to either family.

Broxbourne, Hertfordshire
September 2009

Robins sing throughout the year, one of the only birds that does, and can always be heard on walks in the country, even in winter. They are regular visitors to bird feeders and bird tables in gardens, and most gardens have a resident pair, or are at least visited by them in their search for food. They are extremely territorial, singing to proclaim their patch as their own, and are very bold for their size, fending off predators many times bigger than themselves, such as cats, by singing at them. This extremely high pitched call seems to be coming from somewhere else, and this ventriloquism works, as the cats seem confused by it all!

Next week, S: a primitive thyreophoran, a tufted-eared rodent and a sinuous mustelid.

Friday 6 November 2009

Ganges River Dolphin! And guess the skull III

You've done it again! Indeed, the skull from the previous post has been correctly identified by J. Velez-Juarbe:

Ganges river dolphin
Platanista gangetica (Lebeck, 1801)
Platanistidae; Cetartiodactyla; Mammalia; Chordata
Cambridge Zoology Museum
June 2008

It's those overgrown squamosals (part of the jaw) that give it away as one of the two members of the Platanistidae. The Ganges river dolphin is one of three truly freshwater dolphins currently extant. The franciscana (Pontoporia blainvillei) of South America, although classed as a river dolphin, is mostly estuarine, and the baiji, or Yangtze river dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer) is now considered extinct. Some wonderful photos of the Amazon river dolphin, or boto (Inia geoffrensis) have been highly commended in this year's Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, including a pair of botos playing with a fruit.

The next one I think is difficult, but there are enough clues visible to get it if you know your mammalian orders!

Thursday 5 November 2009

It's a tenrec! And guess the skull II

The answer, as J. Velez-Juarbe correctly guessed, to the question I posed in the previous post is the tailless tenrec, Tenrec ecaudatus.

Tailless tenrec
Tenrec ecaudatus
Tenrecidae; Afrosoricida; Mammalia; Chordata
Cambridge Zoology Museum
June 2008

Tenrecs are hedgehog-like mammals exclusive to Madagascar and some nearby islands. Their closest relatives, apart from the African otter shrews, are the also African golden moles of the Chrysochloridae. They were all formerly considered members of the Insectivora (also called Lipotyphla), but are now placed within the Afrotheria group, containing such odd bedfellows as elephants, sengis (formerly elephant shrews), sirenians (manatees and dugongs), hyraxes and aardvarks. All orders of Afrotheria supposedly originated in Africa, where the majority of the members still live.

So what's this then?

Tuesday 3 November 2009

Guess the skull...

I've been feeling quite crappy of late, I think I've got a cold. Anyway, I've been working heavily on my book for the last couple of weeks, hence a lack of posts apart from the Sundayly A-Z ones. When I feel up to it, I'll reveal some of the more interesting names I've researched.

Until then, however, I'll leave you with a skull. Guess the mammal whose skull appears below for a virtual point.

Sunday 1 November 2009

British Wildlife: Q

Quinquecosta williamsi Tripp, 1965
Pliomeridae; Phacopida; Trilobita; Arthropoda

Quinquecosta is a trilobite of the family Pliomeridae, belonging to the order Phacopida. The phacopidans were capable of rolling into a ball, most likely for defence, and many fossils of this type of trilobite are found in such a shape. They had large eyes with visible lenses, the schizochroal eye, yet members of the Pliomeridae had the more typical holochroal eye, with much smaller lenses which are not separate from each other.

Purple hairstreak
Quercusia quercus (Linnaeus, 1758)
Lycaenidae; Lepidoptera; Insecta; Arthropoda

This is a female purple hairstreak: although she is wonderfully purple, the male is even more so. I wasn't aware of this when I was drawing Q for this alphabet! Quercus is Latin for 'oak', and the name reflects this insect's lifecycle. The female lays her eggs on oak buds, and the larva lives inside the buds. The adults then spend much of their time in the canopy of mature oak trees. The genus is also known as Neozephyrus, but that doesn't begin with 'Q', does it?

Coturnix coturnix (Linnaeus, 1758)
Phasianidae; Galliformes; Aves; Chordata

The common quail is Britain's only native migratory game bird. It only spends the summer months in the UK, but is often kept as a farm bird for its flesh, but more frequently for its eggs, which are considered a delicacy.

Adult common quail
Geçitköy, North Cyprus
April 2009

Quails are hard birds to spot in the wild. They are naturally shy and very cryptically-coloured, but can betray their presence with their distinctive call, often transcribed as 'wet my lips, wet my lips!' I don't see the similarity myself.

Common quail chick
Geçitköy, North Cyprus
April 2009

Quails of the genus Coturnix are commonly kept as ornamental and farmyard birds, with Asian members of the genus (Chinese, or blue-breasted quail, C. chinensis, and Japanese quail, C. japonica) the most popular. In Europe, however, it is predominantly the common quail which is kept.

Next week, R: a long-tailed purple pterosaur, a cryptic gruiform and Britain's national bird.