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Specimen of the Month: an un-iconic icon, the robin (Erithacus rubecula)

Emma-Louise Nicholls, our Deputy Keeper of Natural History, is looking at the robin, and its associations with Christmas, for her Specimen of the Month series.

'Robins are well known to be one of the traditional cover models of Christmas card multipacks. An icon of Christmas in the UK, the robin is only meant to appear when the festive lights are up, The Grinch is on TV, and the shops become a hostile habitat visited only by the brave, followed a week later by the disorganised.

  • Specimen of the Month: an Un-iconic Icon: The Robin (Erithacus rubecula), The robins, delicately painted background and realistic looking snow make our diorama by Edward Hart a picture perfect Christmas scene*
    The robins, delicately painted background and realistic looking snow make our diorama by Edward Hart a picture perfect Christmas scene*

But robins live in the UK throughout the year. Why then do we associate them with Christmas? There are a number of theories…

According to the RSPB, robins spend December roaming around the neighbourhood, looking for a mate to settle down with in the New Year, a resolution that’s mirrored by many humans. This extra movement around Christmas time, and presumably, the extra effort they put into showing off their musical talents, simply makes them more visible to the untrained human passer-by.

Following on from this line of reasoning, robins are also more ‘in your face’ around Christmas because they are one of the only birds that don’t suffer from Seasonally Affected Disorder** and thus continue their cheery singing even though the clocks have gone back and going to the toilet in the middle of the night is a race against frostbite.

In the winter, robins are also one of the earliest to start singing in the morning and one of the last to stop singing at night. They sound like neighbours from hell.

  • Specimen of the Month blog category, Robins sing to attracts a mate and to let other robins know this is its territory,  Wikinature, 2005, image in public domain
    Robins sing to attracts a mate and to let other robins know this is its territory,  Wikinature, 2005, image in public domain

An entirely different theory is that the association comes from the first postmen in the UK, who used to wear bright red waistcoats. They were, for obvious reasons of visual association, therefore nicknamed 'Robins'. Whilst the festive season is certainly a busy time for these robin-people, surely it’s not the only time of year in which they were employed? Personally, I find this association somewhat tenuous. However if you’d like a challenge, I will happily eat my blog if sufficient evidence is produced to support this claim.

Maybe the question should really be, would they be better off representing a different holiday? Unlike Father Christmas who is categorically absent for the rest of the year (supermarket shelves in October aside), the robin clearly raises its family with a staycation mentality. They may remind you of a time when everyone is obliged to be happy to see their extended family, and be nicer to fellow commuters, but the robin is an aggressive bird that when required transforms into a small, vicious, wing-ed nightmare that will fight other robins to the death if needs be. Call me a traditionalist, but that’s not very Christmas spirit-y. So in short, next time you’re selecting Christmas cards, perhaps you should go for the snowman.

  • Specimen of the Month: an Un-iconic Icon: The Robin (Erithacus rubecula), The robin is widely used as a pin-up for Christmas cards,  Hisgett, 2010, image in public domain
    The robin is widely used as a pin-up for Christmas cards,  Hisgett, 2010, image in public domain

*This diorama is just masquerading as a beautiful Christmas scene. If you look closer, the bricks the robin is standing on are actually a Victorian sparrow trap. If the robin went for the seed inside, the little stick would budge and BAM. Lights out Christmas robin.

**It is unknown if SAD affects any avian species.'

References

ARKive. (No date). Robin (Erithacus rubecula).

Horniman Museum and Gardens. (No date). Zoology: Edward Hart Collection

RSPB. (No date). Birds and Wildlife: Robin.

RSPB. (2009). Birds and Wildlife: Ask an Expert.

Specimen of the Month: The Aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis)

Emma-Louise Nicholls, our Deputy Keeper of Natural History, is looking into the world of the Aye-Aye for her Specimen of the Month series.

A Law unto its Own

The Madagascan Aye-aye is not like the other kids in the playground. Whilst it’s most closely related to lemurs, it’s the only surviving species within its entire scientific family (Daubentoniidae). Awww, sad face.

A curious looking creature, it has the body of a lemur, the ears of a huge bat, the tail of an Ikea toilet brush and the teeth of a well-flossed beaver.

The Aye-aye first became known to western science in the late 1700s, but other than working out which end was the front, scientists didn’t seem to know what to make of it. The first formal description had the Aye-aye classed as a rodent based on the continually growing teeth. Via a brief sojourn into the squirrel family in 1790, it finally arrived in the primate sector in 1850.

  • Sonnerat's Aye-aye, Earliest known illustration of an Aye-aye, in the first published account (Sonnerat, 1780). No offense to Sonnerat, but this isn't a remarkable likeness!
    Earliest known illustration of an Aye-aye, in the first published account (Sonnerat, 1780). No offense to Sonnerat, but this isn't a remarkable likeness!

Portent of Evil

People across the world are inclined to be suspicious of things that look weird, act strangely, or smell funny. Unfortunately for the Aye-aye, it probably does all three. With its dark wiry fur, ginormous eyes, tarantula-like hands (see below), and secretive nature, the Aye-aye was awarded the title ‘Portent of Evil’ early on by the people of Madagascar, and has been persecuted ever since. In a delightful letter (in an historic context sort of a way) written by Sonnerat, he described the difficulty this caused him in obtaining a specimen:

“I am told that the Aye-aye is an object of veneration at Madagascar, and that if any native touches one, he is sure to die within the year; hence the difficulty of obtaining a specimen. I overcame this scruple by a reward of £10.”

We all know the pre-Brexit pound was worth a whole lot more than it is today, so it is little wonder this was enough to sway a local to ‘dance with the devil’, as it were.

  • Tarantula hand, 'Is this a spider which I see before me?' The hand of an Aye-aye looks suspiciously like a tarantula to me...
    'Is this a spider which I see before me?' The hand of an Aye-aye looks suspiciously like a tarantula to me...

The Walking Dead

After the first formal description was published in 1782, no other western scientist saw hide nor hair of an Aye-aye for the next 70 years. One would clearly lose every time at hide-n-seek with an Aye-aye. As a consequence, it was rumoured that either the Aye-aye had gone extinct, or that the whole thing had been a hoax all along.

In 1844, De Castelle travelled to Madagascar and was successful in not only seeing another Aye-aye but in capturing a live animal. As we western scientists liked to do ‘back in the day’, he caught it, bundled it into a crate, and shipped it off to Europe. Inevitably, the poor thing expired en route.

It wouldn’t be until 1862 that someone would manage to convince an Aye-aye to stay alive for the duration of the journey to England. Although both a male and a female boarded the boat, only the stronger sex survived and the female was subsequently taken to London Zoo where, as of 12th August 1862, she became the first live Aye-aye seen on public display. She even featured in the Illustrated London News in 1862. Due to its incredibly elusive nature, the Aye-aye was again declared extinct in the wild in 1933, until it was re-re-discovered in 1957.

By the way… well-taken photographs of living Aye-ayes will prove that they are actually adorable!

  • Our Aye-aye, Our Aye-aye specimen was purchased for the Horniman on 24th August 1922, and is on display on the balcony in the Natural History Gallery
    Our Aye-aye specimen was purchased for the Horniman on 24th August 1922, and is on display on the balcony in the Natural History Gallery

References

ARKive. (No date). Aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis).

Bartlett, A. (1862). Observations of the living aye-aye in the Zoological Gardens. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London. 30 (1) pp.222-223

Brehm, A. B. (1896). The Animals of the World. Brehm’s Life of Animals. Chicago, A. N. Marquis & Company. pp.73-74

EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered). (No date). Aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis).

Mittermeier, R. A., Rylands, A. B. Wilson, D. E. eds. (2013). Handbook of the Mammals of the World. 3 Primates. Lynx Edicions pp.952

Natural History Museum. (No date). Joseph Wolf (1820-1899). Drawing overview: The Aye-aye.

Owen, R. (1863). Monograph on the Aye-aye; Chiromys Madagascariensis, Cuvier. London, Taylor and Francis pp. 1-72

Sonnerat, P. (1780). Voyage aux indes orientales et a la chine. Vol IV

Unknown. (6th September 1862). The Aye-aye. The Illustrated London News. pp.256

Specimen of the Month: The Glyptodon

Emma-Louise Nicholls, our Deputy Keeper of Natural History, is looking into the world of the Glyptodon for her Specimen of the Month series.

A Glypto-what?

This beautiful model shows what Glyptodon (a type of Glyptodont) would have looked like, and is available to enthusiastic viewers in the Natural History Gallery. You’d be forgiven for assuming it was a huge great tortoise, but the hair gives it away as a mammal.

Early descriptions of Glyptodonts were made by some of the most famous palaeontologists in history, including Richard Owen (who invented the word dinosaur, and was almost single-handedly responsible for the Natural History Museum in London) and Thomas Henry Huxley, who worked side-by-side with Charles Darwin and helped to spread the word of the theory of evolution.

But when these initial scientific descriptions were being recorded in the mid-1800s, the affinity of Glyptodont had many guises. Descriptions included ‘feet of a hippo’, ‘skull of a sloth’, ‘shell of an armadillo’, ‘teeth of a capybara’, and a more general statement that described Glyptodonts as something between a rhinoceros and a giant ground sloth (Megatherium). I can’t see either of those myself but we have to remember early specimens weren’t complete and that the animated film Ice Age only came out in 2002. Glyptodon’s closest living relative is in fact the armadillo.

  • The Glyptodon, Our Glyptodon scale model is 1/12th actual size and was made by Edward Vernon.
    Our Glyptodon scale model is 1/12th actual size and was made by Edward Vernon.

Learn more about Edward Vernon, who made our model.

Perturbing pesky predators

In the mid-1800s a voyage to South America came back with two full boxes of bone fragments from a river deposit in Uruguay. These boxes were eventually emptied onto the desk of a curator at the Natural History Museum in Paris and took ‘four months of constant toil’ to piece back together. Once done however, the curator found themself looking at the huge shell of a Glyptodon.

The shell and bony coverings from elsewhere on the body could weigh up to 400kg, which meant Glyptodonts were lugging around a quarter of their body weight in armour plating. There are those among us that find Medieval Role Play on a Sunday afternoon a great deal of fun, but for a wild animal the energy cost of wearing this suit of armour is too great for it to be for anything other than pure necessity. Voracious predators were indeed stalking around the underbrush during the Pleistocene and an un-armoured Glyptodont would have had its goose cooked before it could say 'Which way to the Amazon?'

  • The Glyptodon shell, This rosette shaped fossil fragment shows part of the huge mosaic of interlocking hexagons that would have formed the huge dome shell of Glyptodon.
    This rosette shaped fossil fragment shows part of the huge mosaic of interlocking hexagons that would have formed the huge dome shell of Glyptodon.

Why stop there?

In two of the largest Pleistocene species, a number of small gaps left by the traditional spread of Glyptodont shielding were protected by bonus armour plates. As these are only present on species that appeared later in the geological timeline, it is reasonable to suggest they’re adaptations to the evolution of larger carnivores than their predecessors had to contend with. Indeed, the largest land predators ever to have inhabited South America lived during this time. Poor Glyptodonts.

As you can see on our model Glyptodon had a heavily armoured tail. A number of other Glyptodont species thought this wasn’t enough however, and decided to evolve a huge club on the end. Clever scientific bods have worked out that an adult Glyptodont with a 40kg tail club could smack into a predator at speeds of up 12 metres per second. In a fight with another Glyptodont, that blow had the power to shatter the armour of the adversary.

My advice as a professional scientist? Don’t mess with a Glyptodont.

  • Illustration of the Glyptodont, What did I say? Don't mess with a Glyptodont. Even if you have teeth as big as your face. Images used with kind permission from The Field Museum, Chicago., (c) The Field Museum, GEO80218 through GEO80221
    What did I say? Don't mess with a Glyptodont. Even if you have teeth as big as your face. Images used with kind permission from The Field Museum, Chicago., (c) The Field Museum, GEO80218 through GEO80221

Slow but steady

Most Glyptodon specimens have been found in Patagonia and Argentina. 

Despite its appearance as a lumbering cumbersome animal, the fossil record shows it managed to venture as far as North America on occasion. Presumably they managed this courtesy of the handy bridge of land that popped up in Panama during the Pleistocene. The same bridge of land in Panama that connects North America to South America in the modern day.

References

Alfredo Eduardo Zuritaa, A. E., Soibelzonb, L. H., Soibelzonb, E., Gasparinib, G. M., Cenizoc, M. M., and Arzanid, H. (2010). Accessory protection structures in Glyptodon Owen (Xenarthra, Cingulata, Glyptodontidae). Annales de Paléontologie 96 (1) pp.1-11

Benton, M. J. (2005). Vertebrate Palaeontology, Third Edition. Oxford, Blackwell Science Ltd pp.317-318.

Gould, C. N. (1928). The Fossil Glyptodon in the Frederick Gravel Beds. Oklahoma Geological Survey pp.148-150

Hubbe, A., Vasconcelos, A. G., Vilaboim, L., Karmann, I., and Neves, N. (2011). Chronological Distribution of Brazilian Glyptodon sp. Remains: A Direct 14C Date for a Specimen from Iporanga, São Paulo, Brazil. Radiocarbon 53 (1) pp.13–19

Huxley, T. H. (1864). On the Osteology of the Genus Glyptodon. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 155 pp.31-70

Zurita, A. E., Miño-Boilini, A. R., Soibelzon, E., Scillato-Yané, G. J., Gasparini, G. M., and Paredes-Ríos, F. (2009). First Record and Description of an Exceptional Unborn Specimen of Cingulata Glyptodontidae: Glyptodon Owen (Xenarthra). Comptes Rendus Palevol. 8 (6) pp.573–578

Specimen of the Month: The Three-Toed Sloth

Our Deputy Keeper of Natural History - Emma-Louise Nicholls - is back with her Specimen of the Month blog series to bring you closer to the specimens as well as the species for which each is an ambassador. Next up is...

The three-toed sloth

Olympic athlete

The scientific name for a three-toed sloth is Bradypus: Brady = slow and pus = feet. Not yellow fluid in this case.

Sloths are collectively the slowest mammals in the world, never in a hurry to do anything they wear their name with pride. In terms of speed - on the ground they are useless, but in the trees where they’re in their element… they’re also useless.

They move so slowly that algae is able to grow on their fur undisturbed by movement. Besides providing a rather fetching green tint to their otherwise unfashionable grey outfit, the algae also provides the sloth with a little extra camouflage.

  • Specimen of the Month - The Three-Toed Sloth, You can see the vivid green algae on the fur of this three-toed sloth in Costa Rica, D. Gordon
    You can see the vivid green algae on the fur of this three-toed sloth in Costa Rica, D. Gordon

They may be the slowest mammals in the world, but catching a sloth can still be a tricky affair.

In Central and South America where these sloths are found, indigenous people sometimes hunt them for food. Slow they are, but weak they aren’t. The sloths grip is so strong that not only can they sleep whilst still hanging upside down, but they can also stay hanging upside down after they die. This means that if one is speared or darted (or shot) there’s a strong chance it won’t fall to the ground immediately.

It can take several days for the flesh to decay enough for the locked digits to loosen their grip on the branch sufficiently for gravity to take over. By which time, the hungry hunter will have given up and found something else to eat.

  • Our three-toed sloth, Sloths can hang upside down whether they are old, young, asleep, awake, alive or dead
    Sloths can hang upside down whether they are old, young, asleep, awake, alive or dead

An old young sloth

We know our sloth is at least 111 years old, given it came to the Horniman in 1905 with the Samuel Prout Newcombe Collection.

The original specimen record described it as a young pale-throated sloth (Bradypus tridactylus), however it seems to lack the substantial markings on its facial fur characteristic of that species.

Unless the sloth’s fur has faded in highly isolated patches against the laws of physics (extremely unlikely), the markings on the back and more monotone face (not meaning to bruise its ego) suggest it’s probably a juvenile of the brown-throated sloth (Bradypus variegatus). With a good pair of glasses and some enthusiasm you can just make out the patterns on its fur in the image above.

Whatever species it turns out to be, the specimen definitely has three toes and is unequivocally a sloth, so three-toed sloth is still the correct genus and an accurate title for this blog. No science lies here.

  • Close up of our three-toed sloth, A lack of facial markings suggests the original identification may be incorrect
    A lack of facial markings suggests the original identification may be incorrect

References

ARKive (No date), Brown-throated three-toed sloth (Bradypus variegatus).

ARKive (No date), Pale-throated three-toed sloth (Bradypus variegatus).

National Geographic, (No date). Three-Toed Sloth (Bradypus variegatus)

Moraes-Barros, N., Chiarello, A., and Plese, T. (2014). Bradypus variegatus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2014

Suutari, M., Majaneva, M., Fewer, D. P., Voirin, B., Aiello, A., Friedl, T., Chiarello, A. G., and Blomster, J. (2010). Molecular evidence for a diverse green algal community growing in the hair of sloths and a specific association with Trichophilus welckeri (Chlorophyta, Ulvophyceae). BMC Evolutionary Biology 10 (86) pp.1.

Specimen of the Month: The Secretarybird

The specimens in our Natural History Gallery may awe and amaze on a regular basis, but even if you left your job, smuggled in a sleeping bag and spent every second here from now on, there would still be stories and secrets the specimens wouldn’t reveal. The amount of information locked away in museum databases, and other enigmatic scientific sources, is too vast for a museum display to cover.

Our Deputy Keeper of Natural History - Emma-Louise Nicholls - is kicking off her Specimen of the Month blog series to bring you closer to the specimens as well as the species for which each is an ambassador. Kicking off the series is...

The secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius)

An excellent striker

Their long gangly legs and striking facial palette may have you flicking past the Birds of Prey section in your Africa book, but they are actually thought to be most closely related to hawks and eagles.

Secretarybirds eat whatever they want including mammals, birds, amphibians and (often venomous) reptiles. Upon sighting something with lunch potential, secretarybirds will lash out with their long legs and well developed feet with impressive force. Prey such as venomous adders and cobras are kicked straight in the head: by pounding the business end of the snake into the ground, the secretarybird decreases the chance of lunch biting back.

Once it’s definitely ceased to live, the secretarybird will swallow the snake whole like a string of spaghetti. They will also stamp on tufts of grass to send any edible occupants running (probably unsuccessfully) for their lives.

  • A wild Secretarybird, A wild Secretarybird in South Africa, (Bernard Dupont, 2014)
    A wild Secretarybird in South Africa, (Bernard Dupont, 2014)

What’s in a name?

The species was first described in 1779 and given the name Falco serpentarius. Thanks to the Natural History Museum archives (three cheers for digitisation), we can see the 250 year old painting from the original 1779 manuscript. The secretarybird only survived as a member of the Falco group for four years before its taxonomy was revised and it was put in its very own genus, Sagittarius. Taxonomy, as I’m sure you know, is the system by which organisms such as plants and animals are grouped together based on how closely related they are.

  • Painting of a Secretarybird, This painting of a Secretarybird is from the original manuscript that first formally described the species, (Muller, 1779)
    This painting of a Secretarybird is from the original manuscript that first formally described the species, (Muller, 1779)

Not every secretarybird is born between 23 November and 21 December, their genus Sagittarius actually means bowman and refers to their appearance. The quill-like feather ensemble behind the head looks enough like feathered-arrows to have conjured an aesthetic kinship with archers in the 1700s. The species name Serpentarius refers to the secretarybird’s love of snake dishes.

Enigmatic history

Before being formally described in 1799, the secretarybird was illustrated in manuscripts dating as far back as 1240 (not a typo). The following images are originally from De arte venandi cum avibus (The Art of Falconry) by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. The label Bistarda deserti is thought to have been added in the 1600s and shows that at that time the secretarybird was believed to be a species of bustard.

  • Original Secretarybird drawings, Scans of the original drawings in the 1240 manuscript De arte venandi cum avibus by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, (Kinzelbach, 2008)
    Scans of the original drawings in the 1240 manuscript De arte venandi cum avibus by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, (Kinzelbach, 2008)

A chartered secretary(bird)

The Horniman’s taxidermy specimen can be traced back to South Africa. In 1951 it was given to the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators in London as a gift from the branch in South Africa.

The specimen was prepared by world-renowned taxidermists Rowland Ward Ltd, which adds even more excitement to its backstory if you’re the kind of natural history geek that likes to know these things. Like me. A few years ago it was decided the specimen should go to a museum. It was offered to a number of institutions before settling down and finding true happiness at the Horniman in 2011.

  • Our Secretarybird, Our beautiful Secretarybird in her glass case on display in the Natural History Gallery
    Our beautiful Secretarybird in her glass case on display in the Natural History Gallery

References

ARKive, (2010). Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius).

Del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. eds. (1994). Handbook of Birds of the World. Volume 2 New World Vultures to Guineafowl. Barcelona, Lynx Edicions pp.206-215.

Dupont, B. (2014). File:Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius) (14037420123).jpg.

Global Raptors (2013). Secretarybird Sagittarius serpentarius.

Muller, J. F. (1779). Icones Animalium et Plantarum.

Horniman Museum. Rowland Ward Ltd.

Taxonomicon. (2016). Taxon: Species Sagittarius serpentarius (Miller, 1779) - secretarybird (bird).

Kinzelbach, R. K. (2008). Pre-Linnean pictures of the secretarybird, Sagittarius serpentarius (J. F. Miller, 1779). Archives of Natural History 35(2) pp.243-251.

World Bird Names. (2016). New World vultures, secretarybird, kites, hawks and eagles.

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