Monday 27 July 2009

Five photos to tide you over

On Wednesday I'm leaving for Somerset for the Sea Dragons of Avalon seminar. I'll be back on Sunday, in time for the next instalment of the British Wildlife Alphabet, but until then, enjoy this eclectic mix of tetrapods.

Frilled lizards
Chlamydosaurus kingii Gray, 1827
Agamidae; Squamata; Sauropsida; Chordata
Pet shop in Crews Hill, Enfield, North London
May 2009

Until I saw these guys in a pet shop specialising in reptiles, I had no idea you could keep them as pets. I imagined them like the Dilophosaurus in Jurassic Park, a bit mean and possibly dangerous. It seems not; they look quite curious and friendly, just like their relatives, the bearded dragons (Pogona spp.), and the individual in the foreground of the photo was 'following' me with its eyes as I walked past. The background one even splayed its hood a little, but too quickly for me to photograph it.

Male lion with cub
Panthera leo (Linnaeus, 1758)
Felidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata
Linton Zoo
July 2009

Linton Zoo has a few big cats, including Amur (or Siberian) tigers (Panthera tigris altaica), leopards (P. pardus), both spotted and melanistic (black panthers), snow leopards (Uncia uncia) and the lion. There are two enclosures for the lions (derived from Africa, but of unspecific origin): in the first one I encountered there were an adult male and female who started playing, just like ginormous cats. Try as I might, I couldn't get any decent photos, as there were not only two wire mesh barriers, but also a fence between me and the enclosure. After walking around the zoo a little while, I noticed an adult male lion sitting atop a hill in another enclosure. I was snapping photos of him happily, as the wire mesh wasn't as thick. As I was doing so, this cub (only 2 months old!) came out from behind his dad. According to Linton Zoo's website, the male (Zuri) and female (Safina) are the parents of three cubs, born on the 16th May.

Greater rhea
Rhea americana (Linnaeus, 1758)
Rheidae; Rheiformes; Aves; Chordata
Botany Bay Farm Shop, Enfield
July 2009

It's usual to see a variety of animals on the farm: cows, sheep, goats, chickens... I could go on for a while. But it's not that usual to see a South American ratite, let alone a pair of them, in a barn. I can't remember when the farm first acquired them, and still don't know why (surely most people just think they're ostriches, or emus). They've been there for a few years at least, however, and share their barn with a few small ponies. They're quite friendly, and will feed from your hand. I stole a feather from the ground a few years back, and still have it in my collection. A beautiful thing it is.

Budgerigar sitting atop a Japanese quail
Melopsittacus undulatus (Shaw, 1805) + Coturnix japonica Temminck & Schlegel, 1849
Psittacidae; Psittaciformes + Phasianidae; Galliformes (both Aves; Chordata)
Van Hage Animal Centre, near Ware, Hertfordshire
July 2009

I'd seen this kind of thing on YouTube or on Animals Do The Funniest Things, and have now seen it for real. A budgie came down from its perch at the top of the aviary and landed on top of the quail. The quail continued to run around the enclosure, still with the budgerigar on its back, for a few minutes. I don't know if the budgie's just having a laugh (seeing as parrots are intelligent birds and probably enjoy playing), or if there's a seedier side to the behaviour (i.e., what certain ducks have been known to do). Either way, it's hilarious, and gets kids interested in watching birds. You may have noticed the overgrown beak of the quail; I've seen the same kind of thing in Cyprus on a chukar (Alectoris chukar - a kind of partridge), again in captivity.

For the final photo in this series, I've decided not to identify the animal for you. It may be easy, it may be hard, depending on how much you know about mammals in general. The animal's rear end you see here does not usually look like this. The tail is usually much longer. Why is it like this? And more importantly, what does the rump belong to? Photo taken at Van Hage Animal Centre, July 2009.

Sunday 26 July 2009

British Wildlife: C

Cetiosaurus oxoniensis Phillips, 1871
Cetiosauridae; Saurischia; Sauropsida; Chordata

At sixteen metres (53 feet) in length, Cetiosaurus was one of the largest animals ever to live in the UK. The genus Cetiosaurus was named by Sir Richard Owen, who also famously coined the name ‘dinosaur’. He named six species, C. brevis (currently the type species, but this is disputed – see below), C. medius, C. longus, C. brachyurus, C. hypoolithicus and C. epioolithicus in 1842. All are poorly known: C. medius is considered a nomen dubium, as it has no distinguishing features; C. hypoolithicus and C. epioolithicus, although the first names to be published, were published without descriptions, and are thus nomina nuda.

Cetiosaurus oxoniensis femur (thigh bone) with my nephew Eren for scale
Oxford Museum of Natural History
July 2008

Cetiosaurus oxoniensis, first discovered in Oxfordshire, is much better known, and it has been proposed that it become the type species of the genus, over-riding the Principle of Priority that Owen’s species have. The proposal, by Upchurch et al. (2009), states that all of the species named by Owen are less well known than the Oxfordshire specimens, and on this basis the name should be fixed against this species.

Owen thought that the bones belonged to a whale or other marine creature, hence the name Cetiosaurus, meaning ‘whale lizard’.

Smooth snake
Coronella austriaca Laurenti, 1768
Colubridae; Squamata; Sauropsida; Chordata

The smooth snake is the rarest and most locally distributed of Britain’s three native snake species (think that’s bad? Ireland has none!). It is a non-venomous species from the large family Colubridae, and is quite restricted, in Britain anyway, to heathland. Its distribution is centred upon parts of Dorset, Hampshire, Surrey and West Sussex in the south of England.

They are called smooth snakes because their scales lack ridged keels down the centre. They could be confused with adders (Vipera berus), but the adder usually has bolder markings. Other than the UK, smooth snakes are found through most of Europe, and have a close relative, C. girondica, living in southern Europe.

Fringilla coelebs Linnaeus, 1758
Fringillidae; Passeriformes; Aves; Chordata

The chaffinch is one of my favourite British songbirds. The male (pictured above) has bold facial markings of pink and grey, and has a delightful song, which is short and consists of descending notes and a final flourish that sounds a bit like a sneeze. I hear it throughout the year and always cheers me up.

Female chaffinch
Broxbourne, Hertfordshire
May 2008

The female doesn’t sing, and has a more muted coloration. Both sexes have quite a lot of white on the wing, which shows in flight, helping to identify it from sparrows or other finches. Outside of the UK, the chaffinch is also found in north Africa, Europe and western Asia, as well as some of the Canary Islands, where an endemic relative, the beautiful blue chaffinch (C. teydea) is also found.

Upchurch, P., J. Martin & M.P. Taylor (2009). Cetiosaurus Owen, 1841 (Dinosauria, Sauropoda): proposed conservation of usage by designation of Cetiosaurus oxoniensis Phillips, 1871 as the type species. In: Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature 66(1) 51-5

For D we have a stegosaur, a woodpecker and a cetartiodactyl.

Wednesday 22 July 2009

Photo of the Day #37: Blue-eyed Lemurs

Male blue-eyed lemur
Eulemur flavifrons Gray, 1867
Lemuridae; Primates; Mammalia; Chordata
Linton Zoo
July 2009

I mentioned in the last post about lemurs that most of the genus Eulemur are sexually dimorphic. The black lemur (E. macaco) and this species are the most obvious examples of this phenomenon. The male of both species has pure black fur. Although the eyes look greenish in this photo, they appear more blue in reality.

Female blue-eyed lemur

The female, however, looks extremely different. She has the same blue eyes, but her coat is tawny, with paler areas on the face and underside (hence the specific name, flavifrons, meaning 'yellow forehead'). Since most organisms were described using skins and stuffed specimens, the most obvious feature of the female to distinguish it from other lemurs would probably have seemed to be the face, and not the eyes.

Male blue-eyed lemur
Colchester Zoo
June 2009

Also known as Sclater's lemur, the blue-eyed lemur has been considered until recently to be a subspecies of the black lemur - Eulemur macaco flavifrons. I can tell you that both sexes make an endearing, quiet grunting sound. An interesting fact about the blue-eyed lemur is that it is the only non-human primate to consistently have blue eyes (the odd leucistic animal with white hair and blue eyes - thus not a true albino - pops up from time to time in zoos). Apart from the eyes, the male blue-eyed lemur can be told from a black lemur (whose eyes are orange) by the lack of ear tufts. Females also lack the telltale tufts, but look altogether more distinctive. Interestingly, the offspring of any black/blue-eyed lemur matings will always have orange eyes - this occurs naturally in the wild where both species overlap. They are, alas, considered Endangered by the IUCN, but are becoming more plentiful in zoos.

Sunday 19 July 2009

British Wildlife: B

Baryonyx walkeri Charig & Milner, 1986
Spinosauridae; Saurischia; Sauropsida; Chordata

A British member of one of the most impressive dinosaur families, which includes the immense Spinosaurus, Baryonyx walkeri is most well known for its heavy thumb claws.

Baryonyx walkeri was described by Alan Charig (sadly deceased) and Angela Milner. Both were based at the Natural History Museum, where the above photo was taken of a bizarrely-mounted cast of the animal (the whole dinosaur exhibit there is quite poorly lit; hence most of my photos are wobbly and amateurish).

One of my favourite dinosaurs growing up was Baryonyx. I had first read about it in a magazine series I used to collect, called Dinosaurs!, with 104 parts. The first thirty or so parts came with a few pieces of glow-in-the-dark plastic which fitted together to make a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton. I’ve since lost all those pieces, but still have all the magazines. Anyway, after reading that all it took was a single claw (albeit a huge one) to discover a huge new carnivorous dinosaur in England, I was hooked on dinosaurs. It would be hyperbole to say this alone sparked my interest in palaeontology, but I feel it was a major part of it. I even wrote an acrostic poem about the beast. Look!

Please excuse the lack of imagination for both ‘Y’ lines, and the last one. I was only eight years old!

Barbastella barbastellus (Schreber, 1774)
Vespertilionidae; Chiroptera; Mammalia; Chordata

There are sixteen species of flying mammal currently found in the UK. All but two belong to the vesper bat family, Vespertilionidae (the two horseshoe bats are in the Rhinolophidae). I’ve been bat-watching a few times, seeing common pipistrelles (Pipistrellus pipistrellus), soprano pipistrelles (P. pygmaeus), Daubenton’s bats (Myotis daubentonii) and noctules (Nyctalus noctula). One of the rarer species is the barbastelle. Having chosen only one chiropteran for my British A-Z, I’m glad I chose the barbastelle, as it isn’t one many people, outside of specialist natural history circles, have heard of. It has a squished-looking face and thick dark fur.

Beaver (European)
Castor fiber Linnaeus, 1758
Castoridae; Rodentia; Mammalia; Chordata

What’s this? Beavers in the UK? Of course, they used to be found here, but were exterminated by the 16th Century. Recently, however, they have been reintroduced to the wild in Scotland, specifically Knapdale, where the first legally introduced, truly wild European beavers have been seen in Britain for over 400 years.

The above skeleton (photograph taken in Cambridge Zoology Museum) is of a specimen of Castor fiber from Pleistocene deposits in Cambridgeshire. This is proof therefore of the beaver’s natural existence in the UK before being wiped out. Evidence for this even exists in some place names, such as Beverley (meaning ‘beaver stream’) in Yorkshire.

Amongst beavers’ favourite foods are willow saplings. Willow bark contains salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin. It has been known since time immemorial that willow bark has analgesic (pain-killing) properties. It’s also true, however, that the beavers can sequester the salicylic acid in their own bodies, storing it in a gland near the anus. The secretion, called castoreum, contains concentrated salicylic acid, and has also been used as an analgesic. If given the choice between chewing a bit of wood and sniffing a beaver’s behind, I think I know what I would choose!

Next week, C. We have a whale-like sauropod, a colubrid snake and a small passerine. Keep guessing!

Thursday 16 July 2009

Photo of the Day #36: Red-bellied Lemur

Male red-bellied lemur
Eulemur rubriventer (I. Geoffroy, 1850)
Lemuridae; Primates; Mammalia; Chordata
Linton Zoo, Cambridgeshire
July 2009

The number of lemur species in existence keeps on growing; when I began learning about them 15 or so years ago, there were something like 25 species. Now, through brand new discoveries and taxonomic splitting (when subspecies are considered species in their own right), there are almost four times that many.

There are five families of lemurs: Daubentoniidae, containing only the aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis); Indriidae, containing the indris (Indri indri), 9 avahis (Avahi spp.) and 9 sifakas (Propithecus spp.); Cheirogaleidae, the 30 mouse and dwarf lemurs; Lepilemuridae, or Megaladapidae, the 25 sportive lemurs (Lepilemur spp.); and the Lemuridae.

Arguably the most well known of this latter family is the ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta), but there are four other genera: Prolemur, the greater bamboo lemur; Hapalemur, the gentle lemurs; Varecia, the ruffed lemurs; and Eulemur, the 'true' lemurs.

The red-bellied lemur, a male is depicted here, is typical of the genus Eulemur, in that most species are sexually dimorphic. The most striking of the genus are the black lemur (E. macaco) - where the male is completely black and the female is rufous - and the blue-eyed lemur (E. flavifrons) - much the same except both sexes have shocking blue eyes. Whilst both the male and female red-bellied lemurs have the distinctive white "teardrops" in front of their eyes, they are more noticeable in the male. He also has the red belly which gives the species its common and specific name; the female's is paler and contrasts with the dark russet-grey upper parts.

A word about Linton Zoo: a small and overlooked zoological garden just to the south of Cambridge, and less than an hour from London by car. It is most renowned for its breeding programmes of several rare and endangered lemur species. Not only has it had breeding success for this species, but also crowned, mongoose, grey gentle, red ruffed and grey-headed lemurs too. More on some of those in the near future.

Sunday 12 July 2009

British Wildlife: A

Welcome to the first instalment of a themed set of posts called ‘A to Z of British Wildlife’. I’ve been off work for a few weeks with a dodgy knee, and in my spare time I decided to pick one British animal from each letter of the alphabet. I soon found that I could include even more wildlife if I doubled the amount and did one portfolio of extant native wildlife and another of prehistoric ones. I got even more carried away, and did a third alphabet using the animals’ common names.

There were a few problems, however. No matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t find an animal with a scientific name beginning with ‘K’ or ‘Y’ that currently lives in the UK. I managed to get around ‘K’ by drawing something different, but had to leave out ‘Y’ completely. For the third alphabet, I soon realised there are no native British animals, or plants, beginning with ‘X’ or ‘Z’, so I cheated and used scientific names.

Once a week, or maybe more often if it’s popular, I will present the three illustrations (or two for ‘Y’) – with some background and some relevant photos – for each letter, starting today with ‘A’, of course. I’d like to invite readers to guess the identity of the following week’s critters, for which I’ll give clues for at the end of the post. This week, prepare for an amazing plesiosaur, an adorable passerine and an attractive wader.

Attenborosaurus conybeari (Sollas, 1881)
Plesiosauridae; Plesiosauria; Sauropsida; Chordata

In 2008 I got to meet the world’s best known living natural historian, not once, but twice. Sir David Attenborough was signing copies of his latest book, Life in Cold Blood, at my place of study, the Natural History Museum. I almost didn’t make it as the queue was so long, it snaked around Diplodocus several times and I almost had to leave the queue as I was having a hypoglycaemic episode. In the end I got to meet one of my most admired celebrities, who was understandably tired and bored of scribbling on hundreds of books.

It was not long after that, however, that I met Attenborough again in more comfortable surroundings, again at the Museum. He gave a lecture to postgraduate students and Museum staff about his time making natural history films and some funny anecdotes. After the lecture, me and some friends were hanging out outside the lecture theatre, trying to mingle at the after-show party. Some of the most important people of the institution were there, including popular ambassador for the Museum, Richard Fortey, and several directors. What a shock then, that in his short time hanging out after the talk, that Sir David Attenborough would approach us, a humble group of students. He engaged in conversation with us, and the subject was brought up about some of the organisms named after him. A friend asked him how he felt about the echidna, Zaglossus attenboroughi, being named after him. He said he felt honoured, but was even more proud of the plesiosaur, Attenborosaurus conybeari.

The plesiosaur was first described as Plesiosaurus conybeari in 1881, by the geologist and lecturer William Johnson Sollas. It was none other than Bob Bakker, the American dinosaurologist, who erected the new generic name for the species whose affinities, such as a large head combined with a long neck, place it apart from the classic Plesiosaurus species.

Attenborosaurus conybeari
Natural History Museum, London
February 2008

The specimen photographed above is a cast of the holotype (the specimen against which the description was originally written). The original, of which photographs still exist (see this wonderful website), was destroyed during the Bristol Blitz whilst in that city. Other specimens exist, but none as complete as the holotype. Thanks to whoever created the cast that the holotype can still be viewed, in a reversed position however!

Attenborosaurus has been found in lower Jurassic sediments at Charmouth, Dorset.

Long-tailed tit
Aegithalos caudatus (Linnaeus, 1758)
Aegithalidae; Passeriformes; Aves; Chordata

The long-tailed tit is an endearing bird found in most of Eurasia. It is similar to other tits (titmice or chickadees in North America), but differs, amongst other ways, in the length of its tail. Long-tailed tits often associate with other tits in the winter, in mixed-species flocks. The subspecies illustrated is the western European race, A. c. europaeus. The nominate race, A. c. caudatus, from northern Europe, has an entirely white head.

Long-tailed tit nest and eggs
Manchester Museum
July 2008

One wonderful thing about the long-tailed tit is the nest it builds for its eggs and chicks. The nest is made of fine plant material, lichen, moss and spider webs woven together quite intricately, and is lined with feathers. I know long-tailed tits have been breeding in my garden, but have never managed to find the nest.

Recurvirostra avosetta (Linnaeus, 1758)
Recurvirostridae; Charadriiformes; Aves; Chordata

Known to most Britons as the logo of the RSPB, the pied avocet is one of four species of elegant, long-legged waders from the same family as stilts. Other than its black and white plumage, the avocet’s most distinctive feature is its slender upturned beak, which it uses to search for aquatic invertebrates in shallow water. Avocets can swim well, and have webbed feet.

Cambridge Museum of Zoology
June 2008

Pied avocets were extinct in Britain for several decades but began breeding again in the mid-20th Century, with populations centred in the south of England, but breeding as far north as Newcastle in northeast England. They have thus become a symbol for avian conservation in Britain, hence its use as a logo for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. I have seen wild avocets in Norfolk, Devon and London. In the latter city, in the Wetland Centre, avocets have bred a few times in the last few years.

That’s it for ‘A’, I hope you enjoyed that. Clues for B: an amphibious mammal, a long-clawed theropod and a rare chiropteran.

Sunday 5 July 2009

More Rogue Taxidermy

Check out an interesting post on the blog Word Grrls about taxidermy, especially rogue taxidermy, which was partially inspired by my post last year on the subject. If you recall, I described the horrific conditions of some (most, in fact) of the stuffed specimens at the Museum of Archaeology and Natural History at Güzelyurt (Morphou) in North Cyprus. Remember that fox?

Saturday 4 July 2009

Rhamphorhynchus Taphonomy

"Rhamphorhynchus Taphonomy"
Black drawing pen and violet brush pen illustration
June 2009
By Mo Hassan

Taxon illustrated is Rhamphorhynchus longicaudus (Münster, 1839)
Rhamphorhynchidae; Pterosauria; Sauropsida; Chordata

R. longicaudus fossil (cast)
Oxford Museum of Natural History
July 2008

My contribution to the pterosaur gallery at ART Evolved (still accepting submissions, by the way!) is one of my favourite of the Mesozoic flying reptiles, the wonderful long-tailed Rhamphorhynchus. I decided to draw the skeleton, copied from the photograph of a fossil I saw in Oxford last year. I then decided to depict the animal as it would have looked when it just died and before the body started to decay. Both illustrations were done with drawing pens, and the "fur" and tail diamond on the non-fossilised pterosaur were accentuated with a purple brush pen.

I decided to join the wing membrane to the knee; this does not mean I have a preference for this particular type of restoration, it's just that the legs and tail appear better in this case when they are free of membranes. The piece is titled "Rhamphorhynchus Taphonomy" because it depicts two stages of taphonomy. This is the process of decay, and potentially fossilisation, of an organism from the point of death. In this case, the two extremes of the taphonomic process are shown side-by-side; the very beginning, on the right, and the very end, on the left.