Monday 28 September 2009

I'm back...

...back from SVP that is. The meeting in Bristol was for the 69th meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology. I met some fantastic people and had an odontocete of a time (that's a toothed whale).

The day after I arrived in Bristol I went to the Zoo which was walking distance from my guest house in Clifton, at the very top of the hill. The zoo features such bizarre and unusual creatures as keas (Nestor notabilis), Inca terns (Larosterna inca), aye-ayes (Daubentonia madagascariensis), American paddlefish (Polyodon spathula), Bornean white-bearded gibbons (Hylobates agilis albibarbis), three species of lion tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia, L. chrysopygus, L. chrysomelas), pink pigeons (Nesoenas mayeri) and mongoose lemurs (Eulemur mongoz). Photos are being edited and will probably appear on here at some point, and definitely on Facebook...

I also went to the City Museum in the afternoon, seeing various galleries of British wildlife, world wildlife, dinosaurs, extinct marine reptiles, minerals and local geology. Amongst the highlights were a Plateosaurus engelhardti skeleton, amazing material of Scelidosaurus harrisonii and Thecodontosaurus antiquus, a full skeleton of a male Irish elk (Megaloceros giganteus) and lots of nice ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs and a pliosaur.

The meeting started on the Wednesday and went on until Saturday. Lectures included themed symposia on marine reptiles, synapsids, the evolution of birds and other topics, and there were three sets of talks running simultaneously. I wish I could have split myself into three: as a result of not being able to do that, I missed quite a lot of talks. I'm not allowed to say a lot about the subject matter, but there were lots of new species described, a fair few new genera, and even some controversial new theories on dinosaur taxonomy. Posters (for more on which see Zach Miller's post...) were held in another building, with the temperature of an oven.

I met lots of cool people, and I could name a few, but I won't. You know who you are, if you're reading this and were at the conference. I went there with an open mind, and left with an even more open one. I gleaned lots of advice from people, and to all of those I am eternally grateful.

On Sunday, after stopping briefly at the Avon Gorge to see some peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) and ravens (Corvus corax), I left Bristol to visit Slimbridge Wetland Centre. I was instantly shocked by the stark difference in size and layout to the sister site in London, but of course Slimbridge was there first. The variety of anseriform, phoenicopteriform and gruid birds is outstanding and can hardly be summarised in a blog post, but I'll try.

All six species of flamingo, that's the greater (Phoenicopterus roseus), Caribbean (P. ruber), Chilean (P. chilensis), lesser (Phoeniconaias minor), puna (Phoenicoparrus jamesi) and Andean (P. andinus) flamingos, are present; cranes of the Eurasian (Grus grus), demoiselle (Anthropoides virgo) and grey crowned (Balearica regulorum) varieties too. I was not expecting to see a beautiful pair of southern screamers (Chauna torquata), a distant relative of ducks, geese and swans.

Of the rest of the Anseriformes, most of the genera and species are represented, with such oddities as the freckled duck (Stictonetta naevosa) and Cape Barren goose (Cereopsis novaehollandiae) of Australia, all of the extant shelducks (Tadorna tadorna, T. tadornoides, T. cana, T. ferruginea, T. radjah and T. variegata), blue-winged geese (Cyanochen cyanopterus) and white-backed ducks (Thalassornis leuconotus). And loads more besides.


Have you checked out the new service offered by the BBC? Known as 'Wildlife Finder', it is an archive of video and audio footage from the BBC Natural History Unit which is being made available to all on the Internet. Already there are almost 400 species represented, and it is growing. You can find animals based on species, distribution, habitat or behaviour. It should be available worldwide, unlike the annoying BBC iPlayer which has programmes only for a limited time, and is limited to the UK. I'd love to know what people think of it... if you can access it of course.


The British Wildlife: L will be a bit late, but it is coming. It's been a hell of a week and have recently received some bad news which I am still dealing with.

Sunday 20 September 2009

British Wildlife: K

Kuehneotherium praecursoris Kermack, Kermack and Musset 1968
Kuehneotheriidae; clade Symmetrodonta; clade Mammaliaformes; Chordata

Kuehneotherium is only known from teeth and jaws, so my reconstruction is almost entirely frivolous. I expected the closest relatives of the mammals to look something like this. Badger-coloration was a complete frivolity, though.

Kuehneotherium is known from Wales and England within the UK, but also France, Luxembourg and Greenland. All remains date from the boundary between the Triassic and Jurassic Periods, a time when there was a mass extinction.

It is hard to place the Kuehneotherium into a definite order and class because of the sparsity of remains. The Symmetrodonta are distinguished by their multi-cusped teeth which are symmetrical in shape. It may not be a true order, however, and Kuehneotherium has also sometimes been placed in the order Pantotheria, itself considered a waste-basket taxon (the name given to a group into which organisms of uncertain affinities are 'dumped' until further study can put them elsewhere).

Sharp-leaved cancerwort
Kicksia elatine (L.) Dumortier
Scrophulariaceae; Lamiales; Magnoliopsida; Magnoliophyta

What's this? A plant? Well, yes, it is, and as the only native British anything with a scientific name beginning with 'K', I had no choice but to include it. For a British plant, it is rather pretty, with flowers reminiscent of a snapdragon (Antirrhinum spp.). I don't have anything interesting to say about it, not even anything etymological.

(Eurasian) Kingfisher
Alcedo atthis
Alcedinidae; Coraciiformes; Aves; Chordata

Kingfishers of the family Alcedinidae are found almost all over the world: they are present in the Americas, Eurasia, Africa, Australasia, and even many Pacific islands. Only one, however, occurs in the British Isles, and that is Alcedo atthis, known in the UK simply as 'the kingfisher'. It is an unmistakable bird, smaller than you expect, with plumage of azure blue, tangerine orange and a wisp of pure white. Often, all I ever see of this is the brightest turquoise of the rump as the bird flies away from me.

Kingfisher on a river boat on the Cam in Cambridge
December 2005

The above (crappy) photo is the only one I have of a wild kingfisher: the only reason why I even had a camera on me at the time was that I was doing a photography assignment on movement and went to the river to get shots of boats, cyclists and pigeons. I hadn't expected this guy to turn up, but it was at the other side of the river to me and I didn't have a zoom lens.

Kingfishers aren't songbirds, so they don't have a pretty song (I've never heard them call, either), and they don't make nests in trees. They will create a burrow in a riverbank and lay their eggs in there. Males can be told from females by the bill: the mandible (lower jaw) of the male is black, as is the upper jaw; in females, the mandible is orange.

Kingfishers don't have to rely on fresh water bodies, as I recently discovered. Although I didn't see any in Cyprus, relatives have, and in several cases, they have been seen fishing in harbours, notably in Kyrenia. This is probably because, I suspect, there is a lack of fresh water. All of the lakes I have visited on the island are stagnant and algae-covered, and also have a lack of tree cover in which the bird can stalk its prey. The coast provides clean water, a cornucopia of fish, and plenty of boats and piers on which to stand.

Letter 'L' (a pliosaur, a wader and a lagomorph) will be slightly late next week, as I'm going to Bristol tomorrow for SVP, and will try to fit in trips to Bristol Zoo and Slimbridge while I'm in the area. I would schedule a post to appear in my absence, but the last time I tried it went wrong, and I figured you could all wait anyways!

Sunday 13 September 2009

British Wildlife: J

Jamoytius kerwoodi White, 1946
Family incertae sedis; Order incertae sedis; Anaspida; Chordata

Looking a lot like a modern lamprey, the fish known as Jamoytius was found in Scotland. It dates back to the Silurian Period, and is reputed to be the earliest known anaspid (jawless) fish. The unusual generic name apparently comes from the name 'J. A. Moy-Thomas'.

Reconstruction of Jamoytius kerwoodi, taken at Manchester Museum, July 2008

As you can see, I based my extra-colourful turquoise reconstruction on this model in Manchester Museum.

Jynx torquilla (Linnaeus, 1758)
Picidae; Piciformes; Aves; Chordata

Looking quite unlike any other member of the Picidae, the wryneck is an aberrant species of woodpecker native to Eurasia. It was formerly a regular summer visitor to the UK, but has ceased breeding, and is now a rare vagrant. Like their larger relative the green woodpecker (Picus viridis), the wryneck eats mostly ants, which it collects from anthills. It doesn't create its own nest holes in trees either.

Corvus monedula Linnaeus, 1758
Corvidae; Passeriformes; Aves; Chordata

One of the smallest and most distinctive members of the genus Corvus, the jackdaw is an ubiquitous bird in the UK and most of Europe; it betrays its presence by its heckling 'jack' call. There is a related species in Asia, the Daurian jackdaw (Corvus dauuricus).

Corvus monedula soemmerringii (Fischer, 1811)
Lefkosia, Cyprus
May 2009

The western jackdaw, the species found in the UK, has four races. C. m. spermologus is the one most commonly found in the UK, with some vagrants from Scandinavia of the nominate race being found in winter. C. m. soemmerringii is from eastern Europe and western Asia, and is the subspecies found in Cyprus. I saw few jackdaws there, and this was the only individual I got a photo of. Lefkosia is the 'new' name for Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus (incidentally, the capital of both North Cyprus and the Greek side), and is almost completely built up. This bird was seen perching by the roadside at a busy junction. It looks slightly different to British jackdaws, mainly by the band of white on the neck.

Next week, K: a symmetrodont mammal, a flowering plant and an exquisite riparian bird.

Sunday 6 September 2009

British Wildlife: I

Iguanodon anglicus Holl, 1829
Iguanodontidae; Ornithischia; Sauropsida; Chordata

Iguanodon is one of the most well known ornithopods (bird-footed dinosaurs, including 'duck bills' like the hadrosaurs). It was the second dinosaur genus to be officially named (after Megalosaurus) in 1825 by Gideon Mantell. He did, however, neglect to nominate a type species for the genus.

Iguanodon anglicus, the English Iguanodon, was nominated as the type, but the name remains a nomen dubium ('dubious name', meaning it is difficult to assign specimens to that name, due to a lack of unique features). All that was known of I. anglicus at the time was a single tooth.

The species I. bernissartensis Boulenger was chosen as the neotype, and it is probably the most well known species, in terms of number of specimens. Whole skeletons are recognised, many of which being found at the coal mines in Bernissart, Belgium, hence the specific name. This is also the reason why the bones of this species are very dark in colour.

Iguanodontid footprint cast
Compton Bay, Isle of Wight
May 2008

It's hard to appreciate the sheer size of Iguanodon without seeing the whole skeleton, but take this cast of a footprint, taken in situ on the beach in Isle of Wight. A human foot of about size 10 would fit in the middle digit on that footprint. Just three toes can be seen - digits II, III and IV, relating to the middle three digits on a human hand. The famous thumb, consisting of a conical spike, does not make an imprint. The cast was made, completely naturally, by the sediment filling up the original impression made by the dinosaur, over time turning to limestone. The stratum (rock layer) in which the animal walked had been eroded by the waves, leaving the cast behind.

Dentary (lower jaw bone) of Iguanodon sp.
Dinosaur Isle museum, Isle of Wight
May 2008

The name Iguanodon of course means 'iguana tooth'. The similarity was noticed by Mantell when naming the genus back in 1825 between the tooth of the new reptile and those of living iguanas, except the new tooth was much bigger. The animal then had to be huge too, and it was reconstructed as a giant lizard with a long tail, a sprawling build and a horn on its nose. This last detail was added because part of the specimen was a conical bone looking like a horn. Had the skeleton been articulated, like those at Bernissart, it would have been clear to Mantell and others that the bone belonged on the thumb. Not knowing that, he reconstructed the animal with the bone on its nose.

Blue-tailed damselfly
Ischnura elegans (Vander Linden, 1820)
Coenagrionidae; Odonata; Insecta; Arthropoda

There are no tetrapods or other vertebrates native to and currently extant in the UK. There are insects though, so I chose a pretty damselfly to illustrate the letter I. Damselflies make up the suborder Zygoptera ('yoke wing'), and are generally daintier than their more well known relatives, the dragonflies (order Anisoptera - 'unequal wing'). Both types lay their eggs in water, and the young, known as nymphs, lead a carnivorous lifestyle, eating animals many times their size, including fish and amphibians. Once metamorphosed, they become graceful fliers, remaining close to water. When it comes to mating time, the damselflies will form what is known as a mating wheel. This involves the male hooking the tip of his abdomen to the back of the female's head. This appears to the uninitiated to be how the male fertilises her eggs. Of course not, silly! The 'wheel' part involves the female hooking up the end of her abdomen to the front of the male's abdomen, where his genitalia are. The male will still be attached to the female's head for a while after mating, and this can be seen easily when looking out for the insects by the waterside in summer.

Ingrailed clay
Diarsia mendica Fabricius, 1775
Noctuidae; Lepidoptera; Insecta; Arthropoda

Another insect for the letter I, this time a lepidopteran ('scaly wing'). Lepidopterans are better known as the butterflies and moths. The ingrailed clay is of the latter type, in the family of moths known as noctuids. I don't have much to say about this species unfortunately.

Next week: J; an agnathan, a corvid and an unusual woodpecker.