Sunday 30 August 2009

British Wildlife: H

Hypsilophodon foxii Huxley, 1869
Hypsilophodontidae; Ornithischia; Sauropsida; Chordata

Hypsilophodon is one of the most well-known small ornithischian (bird-hipped) dinosaurs. It was first thought to be a juvenile Iguanodon until it was studied in detail by T. H. Huxley, who formally named it twenty years after its discovery. It is known from many locations in England, most notably the Isle of Wight.

Hypsilophodon foxii mounted skeleton
Dinosaur Isle Museum, Isle of Wight
May 2008

Historically, it was thought that dinosaurs like Hypsilophodon were partially arboreal, that is, spending some time in the trees, in a method somewhat akin to tree kangaroos. We now know, through study of the bones, especially the pelvis, limbs and tail bones, that it would have been a mostly bipedal, and wholly terrestrial, animal.

Restored skull of Hypsilophodon foxii at Dinosaur Isle museum (it spins!)

One of the more unusual traits of the Hypsilophodontidae in general (the family which also contains Zephyrosaurus, Thescelosaurus, Parksosaurus and their kin) is their "primitive" hands and feet. They retain five 'fingers' and four 'toes', which other contemporary ornithopod groups had reduced to these somewhat. This is supposedly due to the fact that hypsilophodontids were doing well as they are and there were no selective pressures put on them to change this.

Grey seal
Halichoerus grypus (Fabricius, 1791)
Phocidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata

There are two species of seal that have breeding colonies in the UK; the common or harbour seal (Phoca vitulina) and the grey seal. Ironically, the grey seal is more common than the common seal in the UK; indeed I've never seen the common seal in the wild. Grey seals, however, are plentiful around many of Britain's rocky coasts and even some of the more protected sandy beaches, such as Donna Nook in Lincolnshire, where their breeding has been studies for decades.

I have illustrated a male grey seal here, who can be distinguished by his "Roman nose"; the female's snout is more like a dog's. The 'grey' in their names is also a misnomer: they are more likely to be dark with pale blotches or vice-versa, and the calves are pure white. The lanugo (the name for the white fur in a young seal, or any woolly covering in an infant, even human babies) is shed by the time the young is a month old, at which time it is also weaned and able to enter the water. As you can imagine, the lanugo is not waterproof, so a very young seal cannot swim. It is also imperative that a seal pup must put on enough weight in order to insulate it from the cold waters (seal pups are oddly enough born in winter), so the mother's milk is very high in fat (something like 60%, more like clotted cream than milk!). In the four weeks or so before weaning, the pup has put on enough weight to keep itself warm. It's not just the pup that changes drastically in those four weeks; the mother does too. The female after giving birth is quite a large object: her weight is displaced to her offspring through suckling.

Harvest mouse
Micromys minutus (Pallas, 1771)
Muridae; Rodentia; Mammalia; Chordata

The harvest mouse is Europe's smallest rodent. In Britain, only shrews beat it to the title of smallest mammal. It truly is a tiny creature, constructing a nest out of grass the same shape and size of a cricket ball. Inside the ball-like nest would not only be the mother mouse, but a whole litter of young.

The harvest mouse will spend most of its time in arable fields amongst the crops. It is not a pest, unlike house mice (Mus musculus), which would probably strip the field of all grain in a single season, as its numbers are low and it is generally a rare animal. In order to manoeuvre through the tall grasses, the mouse uses its prehensile tail as a fifth limb.

For I, another ornithopod, a damselfly and a moth. I is not a good letter for extant vertebrates, it seems.

Sunday 23 August 2009

British Wildlife: G

Goniopholis crassidens Owen, 1841
Goniopholidae; unranked clade Mesoeucrocodylia; Sauropsida; Chordata

Although looking a lot like a modern crocodile, Goniopholis lived during the late Jurassic and early Cretaceous periods. This was before the Crocodylia, the order containing modern alligators, crocodiles, caimans and gharials, and the extinct giant alligatoroid, Deinosuchus, had evolved, and as such it doesn't quite fall into that order.

Skull and teeth of Goniopholis sp.
Dinosaur Isle Museum, Isle of Wight
May 2008

There were many species of Goniopholis from Britain, Europe, North America and Thailand. They must have been numerous, as teeth and bones are found fairly commonly in these areas.

Eurasian jay
Garrulus glandarius Linnaeus, 1758
Corvidae; Passeriformes; Aves; Chordata

By far the most colourful British corvid, the jay is a beautiful and intelligent bird, and is always a joy to spot when in wooded areas or parks. The combination of pinkish grey, black and white, topped off with the flash of blue in the wing, makes for a memorable sight.

Eurasian jay in Hyde Park, London
October 2008

There are jays found across Eurasia and the Americas, but they are not closely related. The genus Garrulus found in Eurasia is close to the crows, ravens and jackdaws of the genus Corvus and the magpies of the genus Pica whereas the American jays Cyanocitta, Cyanocorax, Aphelocoma, Gymnorhina and Calocitta form their own monophyletic clade, according to a study of nucleotide sequences by Ericson et al. (2005). A jay is therefore just a small, colourful corvid, and doesn't imply phylogenetic relationships.

If you're from eastern Europe or Asia, in part of the range where Garrulus glandarius is found, you might not be familiar with the illustrated plumage. This is the western European nominate race. The plumage differs the further east you go, with more or less black or white on the head, making it look quite different.

(Red) grouse
Lagopus lagopus scotica (Latham, 1787)
Phasianidae; Galliformes; Aves; Chordata

The red grouse, along with the pied wagtail (Motacilla alba yarrellii) and the Scottish crossbill (Loxia scotica), is one of Britain's endemic birds. The species Lagopus lagopus, known outside of Britain and Ireland as the willow ptarmigan, is widespread across northern Eurasia and North America, where it has two plumages: reddish-grey in summer, and pure white in winter. The red grouse, however, is always russet.

Male red grouse in Highland Wildlife Park, Invernessshire, Scotland
June 2005

I know, the above picture isn't fantastic, but it's the only one I have of a red grouse. The individual was making its distinctive 'go-back! go-back!' call, which is more funny to hear than I had imagined.

It is currently hunting season in Britain, which started on the 12th of August, known to gamekeepers and shooters as 'Glorious Twelfth'. Not so glorious for the poor birds, eh?


Ericson, P.G.P., A-L. Jansen, U.S. Johannson & J. Ekman (2005). Inter-generic relationships of the crows, jays, magpies and allied groups (Aves: Corvidae) based on nucleotide sequence data. In: Journal of Avian Biology 36:222-34 (link here)

Saturday 15 August 2009

British Wildlife: F

Flexicalymene caractaci (Salter, 1865)
Calymenidae; Phacopida; Trilobita; Arthropoda

My favourite of all invertebrates, with the possible exception of the oribatid mites, are the trilobites. They came in a variety of forms, from the tiny, blind agnostids to ornately spined members of the Phacopidae (not to mention flying ones). They lived in marine environments throughout the Palaeozoic Era, being on Earth for a period of almost 300 million years.

The suborder Phacopina are known for their amazing eyes (Phacops means 'lens face'). In a good specimen, you can see, and even count, the individual lenses of each eye. This is because they are much larger than usual. This type of optic structure is known as schizochroism. The suborder Calymenina, to which Flexicalymene belongs, has a different eye structure, called holochroism. The lenses are smaller and much harder to count.

Flexicalymene ouzregui from Morocco, but bought from a museum gift shop

Flexicalymene is known from many parts of the world, and although being found in Britain, fossils are rare. Most of those for sale come from Morocco, which often yields beautiful trilobites. Flexicalymene lived during the Ordovician period (about 450 million years ago), a time when all animal life on Earth was marine, and the only lifeforms to colonise the land were primitive plants. Animals that may have predated trilobites in the Ordovician include the earliest sharks and nautiloids (both groups still being found on Earth today).

Scottish wildcat
Felis silvestris grampia Miller, 1907
Felidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata

Britain currently has only one native felid, the Scottish wildcat. Lynxes (Lynx lynx) were found here until they were hunted to extinction by humans, and some other exotic species, like the leopard (Panthera pardus), jungle cat (Felis chaus) and leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis) have been sighted in remote, and not-so-remote, parts of the UK, obviously released by humans from captivity. But only the Scottish wildcat remains.

It clings on, just about, in conifer forests in northern Scotland. One of the main threats to its survival is hybridisation. There are many subtle differences between a true wildcat and the domestic cat, including size, cranial characteristics and teeth, but ultimately, both belong to the same species, so when two cats meet at the right place at the right time (and are of the right sex), they will ultimately try to reproduce, whether they are both wildcats, both domestic, or one of each. This dilutes the gene pool, and there are very few places in Scotland where domestic cats haven't reached.

Scottish wildcat in captivity
Highland Wildlife Park, Invernessshire, Scotland
June 2005

Their status as a unique subspecies is in doubt; they have very few differences with wildcats from continental Europe, known as Felis silvestris silvestris. They are obviously different from the African wildcats, generally known as F. s. lybica and those from western Asia, known as F. s. ornata. Because they may not be an exclusive to Britain, it may be possible to introduce wildcats from the Continent, where they are more plentiful and widespread, to boost the gene pool of the Scottish wildcats. The fact remains, however, that all populations of wildcats will interbreed with domestic cats, because wherever there are humans, their pets usually follow.

(Red) Fox
Vulpes vulpes Linnaeus, 1758
Canidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata

Most people in the UK have seen a fox. Many of those, if not most of them, have seen them a city or town. They seem to have replaced the hedgehog as the most common and ubiquitous urban mammal. I'm not complaining; a wild animal is a wild animal and I love seeing foxes when out at night.

Red fox cub in my back garden
August 2007

But as you can see, it doesn't even have to be dark to see them. When foxes have cubs, they are constantly active and on the search for food. The cubs, more curious than wary of humans now that hunting is (mostly) banned, are easy to watch, and I got within 3 metres of this youngster as it watched me snapping photos of it. Occasionally we get a glimpse of one of the adults; the dog fox (male) is a huge and impressive-looking animal in his full coat. Unfortunately, it is all too common to see foxes with manky-looking coats and thin, rat-like tails, probably from infection from scabies mites (Sarcoptes scabiei canis), causing mange. This year, the local foxes have been playing havoc in our garden, the cubs being extremely playful and uprooting plants, including my mum's prize dahlias! There's not an awful lot we can do about it, and anyway, the cubs will soon grow up and disperse.

Next week, G: a Mesozoic crocodylomorph, a brightly coloured corvid, and an endemic game bird.

Tuesday 11 August 2009

Crested Porcupines

Crested porcupine
Hystrix cristata Linnaeus, 1758
Hystricidae; Rodentia; Mammalia; Chordata
Natural History Museum
July 2009

During my rounds as a shelving assistant at the Natural History Museum library, I often go to the Mammal Sectional Library, just off the General/Zoology Library where the majority of my work is. After you push through the double doors into the library, before the rows of specialised mammalogical books and journals hits you, you see two mounted crested porcupines. The above photo depicts one of them.

Porcupines are familiar to most people as spiny, pig-like animals. They are more widely known than hedgehogs (see previous post), as some form of porcupine or another are found in North and South America, Europe, Asia and Africa. Hedgehogs are restricted to the latter three continents. The porcupines in the Americas (the New World porcupines) are quite unrelated to the Old World group. Although both classed as hystricomorph rodents (belonging to the same group as, amongst others, capybaras, maras, guinea pigs, chinchillas and coypus), they do not form a monophyletic group (one with a single origin), forming two separate families: Erethizontidae for the New World porcupines; and Hystricidae for the Old World porcupines.

Crested porcupine
Linton Zoo
July 2009

The Hystricidae consists of two main types of animal, in three genera: Hystrix are the crested porcupines; the genera Trichys and Atherurus are the brush-tailed porcupines. Hystrix (meaning 'hairy pig') is the most widely distributed genus, with members in Europe, Africa and Asia. They may not be native to Europe, however (see below). The crested porcupines, as a group, are known for their black-and-white spines and their elongated nuchal crests.

Crested porcupines
Linton Zoo

Most predators do not mess with a porcupine more than once. A flustered porcupine will erect its quills and rattle the hollow spines in its tail as a visual and auditory warning to any potential foes. If the enemy doesn't retreat, the porcupine turns away from it and slowly backs into the predator's face. This is usually enough to deter all but the most determined, and foolhardy, of foes. Should they not retreat, the next thing the attacker knows is a face full of quills. The porcupine cannot shoot them, contrary to popular belief, but they are easily detached, and the ends are barbed, so once embedded in the, often sensitive, flesh, they are hard to remove. A lesson learned the hard way for many a predator.

Crested porcupine mandible
Natural History Museum
March 2008
The above mandible is from Pleistocene Europe. The mammalian fauna of Europe was different to today's, not only through completely extinct taxa, like mammoths and sabre-toothed cats, but also those which are still extant in other parts of the globe. Spotted hyaenas (Crocuta crocuta), hippopotamuses (Hippopotamus amphibius) and lions (Panthera leo) not only roamed ancient Europe, but also reached Britain. It's likely that the periods of glaciation that punctuated the late Pleistocene, known colloquially as the Ice Age, saw the retraction of their ranges into Africa (and Asia). The crested porcupine is another one of these animals; however, they may have clung on to warmer areas of Italy and Sicily. It is also likely that they were brought to these areas by the Ancient Romans as a food source, from northern Africa, where they are certainly native. I like to think that, like genets (Genetta genetta) and Egyptian mongooses (Herpestes ichneumon), the status of the crested porcupine in Europe is native, not introduced.

Sunday 9 August 2009

British Wildlife: E

Eotyrannus lengi Hutt, Naish, Martill, Barker & Newbery, 2001
Family incertae sedis; Saurischia; Sauropsida; Chordata

Eotyrannus is the only known genus of tyrannosauroid theropod, with the possible exception of Iliosuchus, to have been found in the UK*. It is believed to be an early ancestor (early Cretaceous in age) of the large tyrannosaurids, such as Tyrannosaurus itself, found in North America and Asia during the late Cretaceous. Eotyrannus ('dawn tyrant') would have looked somewhat like a smaller version of these familiar dinosaurs.

* I have been informed by Darren Naish (thanks!) that there is another British tyrannosauroid, Stokesosaurus, formerly known only from North America.

Eotyrannus lengi bones, including parts of the maxilla, mandible, rear portion of the skull, claws and limbs

Remains of the genus have so far been found only on the Isle of Wight. Close relatives occur in Portugal (Aviatyrannus), China (Dilong, Guanlong) and North America (Stokesosaurus). I've illustrated my Eotyrannus with feathers; it is known that the Chinese Dilong paradoxus was feathered, and it makes sense that other basal tyrannosauroids would have been similar.

European hedgehog
Erinaceus europaeus Linnaeus, 1758
Erinaceidae; Eulipotyphla; Mammalia; Chordata

Several years ago, hedgehogs were a common sight in gardens and urban areas in the UK. I don't even mean a long time ago; I'm only 23 and I can remember seeing them in the garden on a weekly basis when I was a child. Nowadays, they are more commonly seen squished on the road.

European hedgehog found in Street, Somerset
August 2009

The above individual, rolled in a ball for protection, is the first live Erinaceus europaeus I have seen in years. Hedgehogs are the most conspicuous of Britain's three types of insectivores (eulipotyphlans); the mole (Talpa europaea), although common, is rarely seen due to its subterranean habits; and the shrews are small, highly active, and often mistaken for mice or voles. Hedgehogs, although primarily nocturnal and crepuscular (active at twilight), often make an appearance in daylight hours as they are well protected by their spines, derived from thickened, sharpened hairs. Only the most determined foxes, badgers and dogs will risk a nose full of prickles to make a meal of an urchin. Hedgehogs carry out the most unusual behaviour known as self-anointing. They will froth at the mouth and lick this froth over their entire body. It is believed to make them distasteful to predators.

Skull of European hedgehog

It is easy to see the hedgehog's teeth in this photo of a skull. Hedgehogs have fairly unspecialised teeth. The cheek teeth follow the tribosphenic design. This is the triangular shape, when viewed from above, which is generally found in the most 'primitive' mammals. By 'primitive', I mean those which are close to the ancestral mammals. Young platypuses have tribosphenic molars, and lose them as they grow. Most insectivores also have them: they are great for crushing the hard exoskeletons of their arthropod prey.

(White-tailed) Eagle
Haliaeetus albicilla (Linnaeus, 1758)
Accipitridae; Falconiformes; Aves; Chordata

Britain has two types of eagle: the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) and the white-tailed eagle. Neither are that closely related to each other; members of the genus Aquila are considered the classic eagles, with members across Eurasia, Africa and Australia, with the golden eagle spreading into North America as well. The genus Haliaeetus, however, are collectively known as the 'fish eagles' and are actually larger than the Aquila eagles. There are members in North America (the United States' emblem, the bald eagle, H. leucocephalus), Eurasia (including the immense Steller's sea eagle, H. pelagicus), Africa (like the African fish eagle, H. vocifer) and Australasia (including the white-bellied sea eagle, H. leucogaster). They habitually eat fish and catch them with incredible agility with their talons.

In the UK, golden eagles are found only in Scotland and northern England. They were formerly more wide-ranging. I have seen them on the island of Rum. The white-tailed eagle was extirpated from the UK, and has slowly been reintroduced to islands off western Scotland. There has been much public outcry, mainly from sheep farmers, who object to their reintroduction, as they are reported to take lambs. The culprits are more likely to be buzzards, as white-tailed eagles prefer fish. There are talks of releasing the white-tailed eagle to England, and it would be fantastic to see this huge raptor take to the English skies once more, like a giant flying barn door.

For F, prepare for a trilobite, a canid and a felid.

Thursday 6 August 2009

Heaven's Kitchen

Something a little different from my usual writing, I think you’ll agree. What follows is a restaurant review. My uncle Ahmed and his partner Cathy have turned a disused chapel in rural Somerset into a gorgeous restaurant with mouth-watering food.

Rear view of At The Chapel

Called, simply enough, At The Chapel, my uncle’s restaurant in Bruton was converted from a chapel. The exterior walls of the building remain unchanged, as it’s a listed building, but the interiors have been revamped, to the extent that it no longer looks like a place of worship. The walls are a pure snow white, and the wooden floors echo beneath your feet. The stained glass windows were modernised, and although the colour is lost, it makes the place brighter and seem more comfortable. Most impressive in the main seating area of the restaurant and bar, is the sculpture of an ethereal being – called, aptly enough, The Angel – painted the same white as the walls. This is the only reminder that you are inside what was once the village chapel.

Brother and sister

My uncle is a carpenter by trade, and all of the wooden furniture you see, including the bar, stools, tables and chairs, were all made by him. Even more impressive is the wood-burning oven where all the pizzas are made. The basement, where some of the kitchens, seating area and the toilets are, was created from scratch, and the stone dug out from beneath the chapel was used to create the oven. An interesting talking piece is the wooden logs and large marble ‘pebbles’ used as casual seats around the place. The limestone tiles in the basement leading to the toilets are from the Blue Lias, dating back to the late Triassic and early Jurassic periods, around 200 million years ago. As such, some of the tiles contain fossil molluscs.

Me and my uncle

Not only is At The Chapel a restaurant, but Ahmed and Cathy sell wine and freshly baked bread to locals and those from further afield. The well-stocked bar serves popular alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, as well as tea and coffee, and home made crisps. When we finished our drinks, we were seated in a room apart from the main atrium. This isn’t because we were getting preferential treatment; it’s because there was no space for us on a hectic Saturday night! Due to bookings by such groups as a gaggle of girls on a hen party, and it being our last night in the region, we were given the privilege of a private room.

Mozzarella and basil pizza

On to the food then; it’s like Gordon Ramsey without the pretension. The menu consists of stunning food, of the order you’d expect to find in a top end London restaurant, but for a fraction of the price. Such well-made food is rare and hard to come by in these times of cost-cutting. Our party of five decided to have two pizzas to share for starters: one came with pure tomato and herb sauce, buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil; the other with the same sauce, goat’s cheese and various herbs.

Goats cheese and herbs

It is easy to tell that this is no shop-bought pizza sauce; the flavours show right through. It’s even possible to tell that the mozzarella is no cow cheese. We were told that the chefs were sent to Italy to learn how to create authentic pizzas. It must have been worth the cost; these are the best pizzas I’ve ever had.

My Chapel burger: I stole my sister's egg!

An assortment of eight different dishes was on offer for the main course, not including the various pizzas. I went for the Chapel burger. Simply a giant meatball of beef, onion and herbs in a huge homemade bap with rocket salad and ginormous circles of onion, served with chips. Too big I couldn’t eat it all. I noticed a hint of Mediterranean cooking in the way the burger contained mint and parsley, and it was reminiscent of traditional Cypriot meatballs called köfte.

Sea trout with salad nicoise (without egg!)

Slow-roasted tomatoes, red peppers and goats cheese

Chargrilled lamb leg with chard and horseradish sauce

Other dishes ordered by my party included a fillet of sea trout on a salad nicoise, slow-roasted tomatoes and red peppers with goat’s cheese; and chargrilled lamb leg with chard and horseradish sauce. The menu, however, changes not only seasonally, using ingredients that are currently bountiful, but also daily, depending on what’s in stock and what they can source from local farmers, butchers and fishmongers.

Eton mess

Desserts were suitably rich: the two that our party had were Eton mess (strawberries, meringue and whipped cream all mixed together in a huge mess) and chocolate fudge pot. Me and my sister ordered the latter: it consisted of rich dark chocolate and was finished with a dollop of clotted cream, a sprig of mint and a generous helping of blackcurrant jam. Yes, you read that correctly: it is a combination that I’d never heard of but, by golly, it works. The sweetness of the jam, combined with the crunchiness of the seeds, sets off the rich gooey confection of the chocolate fudge.

Chocolate fudge pot with clotted cream and blackcurrant jam

By this point, my stomach was full and I couldn’t look at any more food, but I still went and joined the folks in watching Uncle Ahmed make some pizzas. If a client wants a pizza without sauce (they must be crazy, the sauce is the best part!) or with several types of cheese, he can do that. The preparation of the pizza - rolling out the dough, creating the correct shape and size, and layering the combination of toppings - takes more time than the cooking: the pizzas are crispy around the edges in two minutes flat. The pizza kitchen is conveniently placed at the front of the property, along the high street, where passers by can look through the window. If the smell of freshly baked sourdough bread or melting cheese manages to entice them in, they can watch the process through a huge pane of glass.

The Guardian gave At The Chapel 9/10 in a food critique in June this year: I can do one better and give them a full ten out of ten! Not just because I’m related to the owner!

Contact details:
At The Chapel, High Street, Bruton, Somerset, BA10 0AE
01749 814 070

Tuesday 4 August 2009

Sea Dragons of Avalon

Better late than never, here's my quick synopsis of the goings-on in Somerset and Dorset last week.

On Thursday night in the village of Street, there was a stimulating public lecture on ichthyosaurs by Professor Ryosuke Motani of University of California, Davis. Friday was a day full of talks on, amongst other things, geology, stratigraphy, taphonomy, extinction and palaeobiology of fishes, invertebrates, ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs and other tetrapods. Amongst the speakers were Dave Martill of Portsmouth, Mike Benton of Bristol and Peter Forey (formerly) of the Natural History Museum. The day of talks was followed by a visit to the private collections of Alfred Gillett, consisting of more than a dozen ichthyosaurs and a specimen of Thalassiodracon hawkinsi, a plesiosaur from Street.

The original plan to go to a couple of quarries in Somerset was changed as health and safety deemed it unsafe to visit following the torrential rains of the previous week. Instead we were brought to Charmouth, and then Lyme Regis, on the Jurassic coast of Dorset. I'd never been, and had wanted to go for years, so I was happy, even though it meant no actual fossils were to be found.

Me with a (rather fat) model of a Scelidosaurus at Charmouth Heritage Centre

The trip started with a visit to the Charmouth Heritage Centre, where a few nice specimens were on show, such as the following cast of a Scelidosaurus harrisoni.

After a visit to a workshop, where newly exposed and recovered fossils were being prepared, we were on our way to Lyme Regis. After a quick (and delicious) lunch, we explored the Lyme Regis Museum, also called the Philpot Museum, which lies on the site of Mary Anning's birthplace.

Mary Anning, of course, being the first professional fossil collector, and an all-round admirable historical character. I especially liked this touch, a cardboard cutout of the lady herself, declaring the museum to be 'open'.

And this one of the floor outside the museum. Not real ammonites, of course, but quite stunning to see.

Inside the museum was an impressive specimen of Temnodontosaurus platyodon, a very large ichthyosaur, which is almost complete save for most of the skull. I don't have a good photo of it, but see here for Darren Naish's photo... you can see the back of my head underneath it as I try to photograph various Jurassic ammonites. As well as large ichthyosaurs, there were some smaller specimens:

Excalibosaurus costini McGowan, 1986
Leptopterygiidae; Ichthyosauria; Sauropsida; Chordata

Here's the cast of the holotype of Excalibosaurus, the name coming from the extraordinarily sword-like rostrum. Might've been a Mesozoic analogue of swordfish (Xiphias) and their kin.

Other non-marine tetrapod remains were at the museum, including this anterior portion of the upper jaw of a Dimorphodon, a pterosaur.

Dimorphodon macronyx (Buckland, 1829)
Dimorphodontidae; Pterosauria; Sauropsida; Chordata

One of the more unusual specimens at the museum was a table made of coprolites. That's fossilised dung to those who don't know.

There are ammonites a-plenty in Lyme... even on the lamp-posts.

And now for something completely different... well, in a little while.

Sunday 2 August 2009

British Wildlife: D

Dacentrurus armatus (Owen, 1875)
Stegosauridae; Ornithischia; Sauropsida; Chordata

Stegosaurs (‘roof lizards’) are a well known, familiar-looking, dinosaurs ranging from the middle Jurassic to the early Cretaceous.* The most familiar is the North American genus Stegosaurus, with its huge pentagon-shaped dorsal plates. Other species had more elongated plates, such as the African Kentrosaurus and Asian Tuojiangosaurus.

* The late Cretaceous taxon Dravidosaurus from India, known only from fragmentary remains, actually turned out to be a plesiosaur.

Europe’s stegosaurs include Lexovisaurus, the recently described Miragaia, and Dacentrurus. The latter genus, known only by a single species, D. armatus, was described by Richard Owen as Omosaurus (‘shoulder lizard’). Omosaurus turned out to be preoccupied by an extinct crocodylian, Omosaurus Leidy, 1856, so the name Dacentrurus (‘stinging tail’) was chosen.

The above fossil, photo taken at the Natural History Museum, shows various bones of the holotype of D. armatus, including the pelvis, femur and some vertebrae. Dacentrurus is often described as a ‘small’ stegosaur, but that is far from the truth: it is among the largest, at 6-10 m (20-33’), potentially larger than Stegosaurus armatus.

Great spotted woodpecker
Dendrocopos major (Linnaeus, 1758)
Picidae; Piciformes; Aves; Chordata

Most birds make distinctive sounds using their vocal chords, their songs and calls being used by birdwatchers to identify species which can be heard but not seen. A few birds, however, make characteristic sounds using other parts of their bodies: the white stork (Ciconia ciconia) clacks its beak like castanets; the snipe (Gallinago spp.) rubs its wing feathers together; and the trumpeter (Psophia spp.) from South America even emits its eponymous sound from its anus. The most well known non-vocal bird sound probably has to be that of the woodpecker.

Britain has four species of woodpecker. The aberrant wryneck (Jynx torquilla) apart, the group have long bills. Green woodpeckers (Picus viridis) rarely use their beaks for drumming, preferring to spend their time on the ground. The genus Dendrocopos, containing mostly black and white woodpeckers from across Eurasia, are classic in their wood-pecking behaviour.

I’ve seen great spotted woodpeckers, the more common and easily seen of the spotted species, in a few London parks, and are conspicuous in late winter/early spring when they hammer the trunks of large trees to construct a new hole in which to rear their young. The lesser spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos minor) is less frequently seen, as it is small, hammers very quietly, and skulks at the tops of trees on branches that don’t easily support the weight of their great cousins. I’ve only ever once seen a lesser spotted woodpecker.

Deer (red)
Cervus elaphus Linnaeus, 1758
Cervidae; Cetartiodactyla; Mammalia; Chordata

Deer are the largest currently extant native British ungulates (hoofed animals). Before several other species were introduced at various points in human history, and since the extinction of others during glacial and interglacial periods of prehistory, only two (or arguably three) species of deer existed in the UK; the red deer and the roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), and perhaps the reindeer (Rangifer tarandus). The Romans introduced fallow deer (Dama dama), now ubiquitous in parkland. Owners of large estates in the south of England had various oriental deer species imported, such as sika deer (Cervus nippon), Reeves’ muntjac (Muntiacus reevesi) and Chinese water deer (Hydropotes inermis). All three escaped and managed to spread across the UK. Some didn’t make it very far; the centre of the Chinese water deer’s distribution is still Woburn Abbey and Deer Park in Bedfordshire where it was released, whereas sika deer reached Scotland, Wales and Cornwall at the other ends of the island.

Female red deer
Paradise Wildlife Park
May 2008

The red deer, however, is a true native, and despite threat of hybridisation from its close relative, the sika deer, it is still an awe-inspiring creature. My first truly wild red deer was seen from the train from Euston Station to Fort William in western Scotland in October 2004, when I was on the way to the island of Rum. The heads of mature stags could be seen against the moody cloudy skies of the Scottish moors and glens as we sped past. I was to get more sustained views, albeit more distantly, on the island itself when we visited the Kilmory Red Deer Project. The herd of deer on the island has been studied by the University of Cambridge since 1953, and much information on their behaviour, population dynamics and ecology has been gleaned from them since. The deer were introduced as a game species, so are not truly native, but are certainly not intermixed with sika, as their introduction predates that of Cervus nippon.

Next week, for E, we have a theropod from Vectis, a eulipotyphlan and an enormous bird of prey.