Sunday 25 October 2009

British Wildlife: P

Polacanthus foxii Owen, 1865
Ankylosauridae; Ornithischia; Sauropsida; Chordata

Polacanthus is Britain's best-known ankylosaur. Despite this, the entire skeleton has not yet been found, and indeed, the skull is very poorly known. It was found in the Isle of Wight, and was contemperaneous with such dinosaurs as Eotyrannus and Neovenator, with the latter possibly large enough to have been a potential predator.

Various bones and osteoderms (armour plates) of Polacanthus foxii
Dinosaur Isle Museum, Isle of Wight
May 2008

One of the most notable features of Polacanthus, and its close relatives Gastonia and Mymoorapelta of North America, is the sacral shield, a large plate of armour covering the lower back, hips and upper portion of the tail. This, like the rest of the armour plates, was made of dermal bone, hence it was embedded in the skin and not attached to the skeleton.

Great crested grebe (in breeding plumage)
Podiceps cristatus (Linnaeus, 1758)
Podicipedidae; Podicipediformes; Aves; Chordata

One of my favourite freshwater birds is the great crested grebe. It's always a thrill to see it on medium-sized to large bodies of water, even in areas very close to human habitation (the photographs that follow were taken in Hyde Park, very close to the centre of that little town called London). They tend to stick to the centre of such water bodies, mainly because they dive for their food, but also because they're a little shy and wary of humans.

Adult great crested grebe in breeding plumage
Hyde Park, London
September 2008

Adult great crested grebes hang on to their breeding plumage until quite late in the year, when they take on a more sedate hue for the few months of winter. At that time of year, the four British members of the genus Podiceps (red-necked grebe - P. grisegena; Slavonian grebe - P. auritus; black-necked grebe - P. nigricollis; and great crested grebe) all look quite similar and are hard to tell apart. The great crested grebe is the largest and is less likely to take to estuaries and coasts in winter than its congeners.

Immature great crested grebe
Hyde Park, London
September 2008

The chicks are endearing little things; when very young they climb aboard one of their parents' backs and stay there, as adult grebes do not make nests. What they are known to do, however, is collect twigs as 'presents' to each other, a behaviour I have witnessed in early spring. The young have a bold striped pattern, which remains on the face until late in the year, when they moult into the adult winter plumage.

Fratercula arctica (Linnaeus, 1758)
Alcidae; Charadriiformes; Aves; Chordata

The puffin is one of the most recognisable of birds; short stubby wings, black and white plumage and the tri-coloured bill reminiscent of a toucan, not to mention the triangle around the eye giving it a clown-like air. Puffins are auks, with relatives including guillemots (or murres) and razorbills. Most are unknown to the general public, except when a wandering auk from the other side of the globe ends up in British waters and has its picture and ultimate fate published in tabloids. The other infamous auk is the great auk (Pinguinus impennis), pushed to extinction in the 19th Century.

Stuffed and mounted Atlantic puffin
Bristol City Museum
September 2009

The Atlantic puffin is one of three species in the genus Fratercula ('little monk'), and the only one that breeds in Britain. Colonies exist on deserted cliffs and islands, and are quite approachable, if only for the reason that they will only fly if they have to, due to their short wings. Despite this, they are capable flyers, and are able to take off and land proficiently, in order to reach their clifftop nest. The nest is created in a burrow, but they don't create them themselves. Puffins have declined significantly in number in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, partly due to hunting (it is an Icelandic delicacy), but overfishing is also to blame.

Next week, Q: a trilobite, a butterfly and a game bird.

Monday 19 October 2009

Eco-Friendly Xenarthran

Southern long-nosed armadillo skeleton
Dasypus hybridus (Desmarest, 1804)
Dasypodidae; Xenarthra; Mammalia; Chordata
Cambridge Zoology Museum
May 2008

I was looking at this photo and felt like sharing it: it shows some wonderful features of armadillos and xenarthrans in general. The southern long-nosed armadillo is a close relative of the nine-banded armadillo (D. novemcinctus) from North America, often seen as roadkill in southern states (I once saw two black vultures - Coragyps atratus - pecking at an almost stripped armadillo carcass near Orlando, FL). Where D. hybridus differs from its northern cousin is, of course, fuel consumption - it doesn't rely solely on petrol or diesel, and can use biofuel or electricity. Of course, I'm referring to the specific name 'hybridus', which refers to their chimaeric-looking blend between a pig and a reptile. The southern long-nosed armadillo has fewer 'bands' than the nine-banded armadillo, six or seven usually, but there are already taxa named 'six-banded armadillo' (Euphractes sexcinctus) and 'seven-banded armadillo' (Dasypus septemcinctus).

Let's start with that skull, specifically the dentition. Anteaters and sloths, together making up the rest of the extant members of the order (or superorder) Xenarthra, are known for being toothless, or almost so, hence the former ordinal name Edentata ('toothless'). Anteaters are truly edentate, but sloths and armadillos possess small, peg-like teeth with little function. These are made up of molars and premolars only in Dasypus. Next, look at those cervical vertebrae (neck bones). They are fused together! This strengthens the neck, allowing the animal to dig and forage in hard soil without damaging the spinal cord and vital blood vessels in the neck.

The ribs are worthy of note: they are very broad and unlike those seen in any other mammalian order, and again probably serve to protect the animal's viscera whilst in heavy earth.

Sunday 18 October 2009

British Wildlife: O

Ornithocheirus simus Seeley, 1869
Ornithocheiridae; Pterosauria; Sauropsida; Chordata

Ornithocheirus simus, often referred to the genus Criorhynchus Owen, 1874, is a medium-sized pterodactyloid pterosaur formerly found in Europe and South America during the Late Cretaceous period. The genus is a taxonomic nightmare, as often a fragment was named as an entirely new species: 28 species of Ornithocheirus were named by Seeley within two years! Only one of those remains valid, O. simum.

Piece of bone from tip of snout of O. simus
Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, Cambridge
June 2008

O. simus remains one of the largest British pterosaurs, with Istiodactylus latidens (formerly of the genus Ornithodesmus) about the same size.

Great bustard
Otis tarda Linnaeus, 1758
Otididae; Gruiformes; Aves; Chordata

The family Otididae consists of about 25 species of turkey-sized birds from Eurasia, Africa and Australia. The heaviest flying bird is the kori bustard (Ardeotis kori) from Africa. The Eurasian great bustard is almost as heavy, and often has difficulty in taking off. It is a muscular, and therefore meaty, bird, a fact which led to its extinction in the British Isles.

Great bustard (stuffed)
Natural History Museum
March 2008

It was thought to have been eaten to extinction by the upper classes: by the middle of the 19th century there were none left in the UK. Their last stronghold was Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire in the south of England, famed for being the location of Stonehenge. Reintroductions of Russian birds are in progress; one of the only hitches being the chicks getting eaten by foxes.

(Eurasian) Otter
Lutra lutra (Linnaeus, 1758)
Mustelidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata

Otters are highly social, semi-aquatic (or sometimes wholly) mustelids, with a distinctive shape. They are found in five of the world's continents, and marginally into one of its oceans (the sea otter, Enhydra lutris, lives in the north Pacific, and the marine otter, Lontra felina, in the south-east Pacific). The most wide-ranging species is the Eurasian, or European, river otter, found from western Europe throughout Asia to Indonesia. Despite its wide range, it is almost threatened with extinction, due to conflict with humans.

Awful picture, but the only one I have of a live Lutra lutra
Highland Wildlife Park, Invernessshire
June 2005

I came close to seeing a wild otter when I visited the Isle of Rum off the coast of western Scotland in 2004. Every morning there were excursions to the shore to try and spot them. It was October, the sun hadn't even risen yet, and it was bloody cold. I think I went one morning, and was put off not just by the darkness and cold, but also the stench of rotting seaweed, a smell that has yet to leave me. The last morning I decided to have a lie in and not go out to look for otters, but regretted it: the hardcore few who went managed to see one.

Next week, P: an ankylosaur, a grebe and a harlequin-like auk.

Saturday 17 October 2009

Sauropod Live Blog Part XII

So this is it, the end, the final two sauropods, and the most recently discovered.

Diamantinasaurus matildae Hocknull et al., 2009
Family Saltasauridae (?)

Spinophorosaurus nigerensis Remes et al., 2009
Family incertae sedis, basal sauropod

No songs of the hour... turned the radio off. Here are some photos of me with my proud achievement after twelve long hours and a much needed haircut. Plus some of the sources I used to help with the illustration.

I hope you have enjoyed this live blog experience, I have. Sorry if your RSS feed has been full of 'Sauropod Live Blog Part x' posts. Sorry if I've made the same mistake on each and every sauropod featured here. I won't draw another sauropod for a good long while, I know that!! Unless it's a brachiosaur, I didn't do enough of those.

Sauropod Live Blog Part XI

Antetonitrus ingenipes Yates & Kitching, 2003
Family incertae sedis, basal sauropod

Brachytrachelopan mesai Rauhut et al., 2005
Family Dicraeosauridae

Songs of the hour: The Lemonheads - Mrs. Robinson; Foo Fighters - Break out; Pearl Jam - Alive

Sauropod Live Blog Part X

Jobaria tiguidensis Sereno et al., 1999
Family incertae sedis, Eusauropoda

Nigersaurus taqueti Sereno et al., 1999
Family Rebbachisauridae

Songs of the hour: Manic Street Preachers - You love us; Feeder - Come back around; The Cure - Friday I'm in love; Kaiser Chiefs - Everyday I love you less and less; Weezer - Hash pipe.

Four left... I'm starting to feel ill, but I must finish!

Sauropod Live Blog Part IX

Argentinosaurus huinculensis Bonaparte & Coria, 1993
Family incertae sedis; most likely a titanosaur.

Agustinia ligabuei Bonaparte, 1999
Family Titanosauridae(?)

Songs of the hour: Muse - Plug in baby; Nirvana - In bloom; The Strokes - Last nite

Sauropod Live Blog Part VIII

Haplocanthosaurus delfsi McIntosh & Williams, 1988
Family Haplocanthosauridae

Amargasaurus cazaui Salgado & Bonaparte, 1991
Family Dicraeosauridae

Songs of the hour: R.E.M. - The one I love; and Queens Of The Stone Age - No-one knows.

Sauropod Live Blog Part VII

Rebbachisaurus garasbae Lavocat, 1954
Family Rebbachisauridae

Saltasaurus loricatus Bonaparte & Powell, 1980
Family Saltasauridae

Songs of the hour: Muse - Knights of Cydonia; and that Florence and the Machines one they keep playing over and over on XFM, something about sirens and bells.

Sauropod Live Blog Part VI

Omeisaurus junghsiensis Young, 1939
Family incertae sedis (family uncertain)

Mamenchisaurus constructus Young, 1954
Family Mamenchisauridae

Songs of the hour: Foo Fighters - This Year; Ash - Burn baby burn; Weezer - (If you're wondering if I want you to,) I want you to.

Sauropod Live Blog Part V

Melanorosaurus readi Haughton, 1924
Family incertae sedis - basal sauropod

Euhelopus zdanskyi Wiman, 1929
Family Euhelopodidae

Songs of the hour: Stereophonics - Innocent and The Smiths - Panic

Sauropod Live Blog Part IV

Brachiosaurus altithorax Riggs, 1903
Family Brachiosauridae

Apatosaurus louisae Holland, 1915
Family Diplodocidae

Song of the hour: Blur - There's no other way

Sauropod Live Blog Part III

Barosaurus lentus Marsh, 1890
Family Diplodocidae
Diplodocus carnegii Hatcher, 1901
Family Diplodocidae
Songs of the hour (or two): Foo Fighters - Learn to fly, Radiohead - Creep and Muse - Uprising.
I'm half an hour ahead! Woo hoo!

Sauropod Live Blog Part II

Cetiosaurus oxoniensis Phillips, 1871
Family Cetiosauridae

Camarasaurus lentus Marsh, 1889
Family Camarasauridae

Sauropod Live Blog Part I

Anchisaurus polyzelus (Hitchcock, 1865)
Family Anchisauridae

Hypselosaurus priscus Matherson, 1869
Family Titanosauridae

So here are sauropods 1 and 2, no time to write anything in detail, must get on with 3 and 4! I will say that I'm drawing them in pencil and then drawing pen (0.5 and 0.3 mm), and they are being created in order of description (Anchisaurus and Hypselosaurus are the 'oldest' sauropods in my list, being described in the 1860s. Some pictures of me at work below... see you in an hour.

Songs of the hour: Manic Street Preachers - If you tolerate this your children will be next and Rolling Stones - Paint it black.

Friday 16 October 2009

Got that Fry-Day feeling!

Look who I met...

Yes it's the lovable Mr Stephen Fry! Just got back from seeing him give a talk about Oscar Wilde, in celebration of his 155th birthday (Wilde's, not Fry's), and the release of a hardback compilation of some of Wilde's children's stories, which Fry contributed some text to.

Got to the building nice and early, took my place in the queue, and got wonderful seats in the third row of a small, intimate theatre. At half past six, Fry came on stage and gave a biography of Wilde's life, from his birth in Ireland, education in Dublin and Oxford, his marriage and his homosexual affairs which ultimately caused Wilde to be a social outcast, and his death. Fry gave two striking analogies: the first was the persecution, death and reverence (in that order) which liken Oscar Wilde to Jesus Christ; and the second a comparison to the shock one gets when you see the Empire State Building for the first time, shooting into the sky like five rockets as you drive down 5th Avenue - this is likened to how Wilde's reputation as one of history's greatest playwrights and authors has skyrocketed ever since his death.

Next, Fry read one of the short stories from the anthology, entitled 'The Young King', featuring a bejewelled gilded statue with a heart of lead and a swallow. A sad story which brought a tear to many eyes. Next came a sort of Q&A session, except he both asked and answered the questions. Much of what he had to ask and answer was about Twitter, and how, with more than 800,000 followers, he has such great influence on the world that it can be scary. For example, if he praises a particular website, the amount of traffic generated by followers visiting that website will cause it to go down: he equated it to everybody in the auditorium instantly going to a pub and getting stuck in the doors, with the management having to pay bills for broken windows and doors and having to contact their insurance and worrying about their premiums going up.

He also mentioned Jan Moir, a name now familiar to all of Fry's followers, as the journalist for the Daily Mail who wrote hurtful comments about Stephen Gately (member of Irish pop group Boyzone who died a week ago from a congenital heart defect at the age of 33). She wrote bigoted and homophobic remarks about him and his life partner, saying there was nothing natural about his death, it being caused by his homosexual lifestyle. I don't want to go into that too much, as I feel I don't know all the facts. He supposedly took drugs, and his last night was spent less than sober, but to bring his sexuality into it is just bad journalism and screams of bigotry.

Anyway, most of the people in the theatre wanted their books signed, as did I, so a queue amassed by the side of the auditorium. Note I said 'amassed', not 'formed orderly like civilised people should'! I ended up near the back of the queue because people were pushing and shoving, most unhumanlike. Ironic really, as they are all there to see someone who values good manners and erudition above chaos and disorder. While I was waiting, I started having a hypoglycaemic attack (low blood sugar, quite common, as I'm Type I diabetic) and had to leave the queue and sit down. Management were most unkind to me as I requested some way to quickly meet Mr. Fry and then leave, but as my symptoms worsened before I could get some sugar in me, I just felt plain weak and collapsed on the floor outside the auditorium.

Well, as you can see, I did get to meet Stephen, and it took a lot of persuasion with the staff at the event. They did eventually oblige my whimsy and let me cut in the queue. The photo above shows Fry looking at an illustration I just gave him. I thought I should give him a little something, to show my appreciation for being one of my idols, and decided to give him an original drawing of some sauropodomorphs in glorious colour (I'm about to embark on a mass sauropod drawing fest, so I don't mind parting with that piece). He seemed pleased with it, and grateful that I gave it to him. He tried to pronounce the scientific names on there, but struggled with Plateosaurus. I said I hoped I'd pronounced them correctly, and that I'm not as good a scholar of Ancient Greek as he is, but I try. I left the stage with my newly signed book, and left to sit down and get over the rest of the hypoglycaemia. A hefty price to pay, but at least I got to meet one of my greatest idols of all time. The next one has to be Shirley Manson...

Tomorrow morning at approximately 11 am I will start on my epic sauropod bonanza. The first post, consisting of the first two sauropods, will be up on this blog, and linked to on ART Evolved, at about midday GMT. Hmmm, twelve hours until I get started... I'd better get some sleep!


Last time I spoke about the two smaller families of extant Anseriformes, the screamers of the Anhimidae, and the magpie goose of Anseranatidae. Now it's the turn of the whistling-ducks and white-backed duck; the Dendrocygnidae.

White-faced whistling-ducks
Dendrocygna viduata (Linnaeus, 1766)
Dendrocygnidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata
London Wetland Centre
September 2009

The white-faced whistling-duck is native to sub-Saharan Africa, Madagascar and South America. Quite a disjointed distribution; the Fulvous whistling-duck (Dendrocygna bicolor) takes it even further by also living in Asia. White-faced whistling-ducks are really neat; highly social and constantly whistling to and preening each other.

West Indian whistling-ducks
Dendrocygna arborea (Linnaeus, 1758)
Dendrocygnidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata
Slimbridge Wetland Centre
September 2009

With a scientific name meaning 'tree-dwelling tree swan', you'd except the bird to live in trees. And it does. Well, it nests in trees. The rest of the time is spent on the ground and in water. It's found throughout the islands of the Caribbean, and also whistles while it works.

Wandering whistling-duck
Dendrocygna arcuata Horsfield, 1824
Dendrocygnidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata
Slimbridge Wetland Centre
September 2009

Not really a wanderer, but what else are you gonna call it? Found in parts of southeast Asia and Australasia.

Black-bellied whistling-ducks
Dendrocygna autumnalis (Linnaeus, 1758)
Dendrocygnidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata
Slimbridge Wetland Centre
September 2009

This pretty species with bright red bill (and legs) is found in the Americas from southern parts of the States to northern Argentina, but pretty much only in coastal habitats. Pairs are monogamous and stay together for life, or at least a few consecutive years.

African white-backed ducks
Thalassornis leuconotus leuconotus Eyton, 1838
Dendrocygnidae; Anseriformes; Aves; Chordata
Slimbridge Wetland Centre
September 2009

There has to be one aberrant one in the family, and this is it. Those are its feet on its back, by the way. The white-backed duck, also found in Madagascar, has always been hard to place amongst its relatives. It is usually placed in a monotypic subfamily, Thalassorninae, within the Anatidae, perhaps close to the stiff-tailed ducks of the subfamily Oxyurinae. The 'white back' referred to in both its common and scientific names is hardly ever seen, and can probably only be noticed on a dead individual.