Hoatzin, Opisthocomus hoazin


Roz Wade, Interpretation and Learning Officer, writes:

Working on the new displays for the Museum has introduced me to a whole range of new animals I knew little about before. Always a fan of the quirky, one of my favourites is the Hoatzin, Opisthocomus hoazin. The outward appearance of this bird was enough to spark my interest: its crazy comb of feathers on top of the head; its featherless blue face; its overall rather prehistoric look. But then its biology is even more peculiar.

The Hoatzin is sometimes called the Stinkbird after the manure-like smell produced by their unusual digestive system. This bird is a folivore, a leaf-eater. Leaves are difficult to digest, requiring specialist bacteria to break them down and get at the nutrients and energy they contain. Hoatzins have an expanded crop acting as a fermentation chamber to break down plant tissues. This enlarged crop has consequences for the flight of these birds. There is only space for some pretty small flight muscles to attach to the sternum (breast bone), so they are not strong fliers. They are quite clumsy flying around their Amazon forest home.

The chicks look like they belong in Jurassic Park. They have a pair of claws on the bend in each wing – reminiscent of the claws on the early bird Archaeopteryx. The chicks will jump out of the nest into the river below if a predator attacks, and these claws help them to climb out and back up to the nest.

I’m looking forward to putting this specimen in the new bird display, where I will no longer just walk past it on the way to other animals, but look at it and wonder at its crazy lifestyle and appearance, and hope that with the new labels and interpretation more people can discover and appreciate this wonderful creature.


Making a skeleton out of iron: the ‘scaly-foot gastropod’

The three known forms of Chrysomallon squamiferum, from Kairei, Longqi, Solitaire vent fields (left to right)

The three known forms of Chrysomallon squamiferum, from Kairei, Longqi, Solitaire vent fields (left to right)

Gastropod researcher Chong Chen writes:

Meet Chrysomallon squamiferum, or the ‘scaly-foot gastropod’ – the only metazoan (multi-cellular) animal capable of making a skeleton out of iron! Uniquely among gastropod molluscs it carries hundreds to thousands of scales on the foot like a suit of scale armour; these scales as well as the shell usually has a layer of iron sulfides. The function of these scales has been speculated to be protective or detoxification (by accumulation of sulfide waste), but their true function is yet unknown. As part of the iron armour is made of greigite (Fe3S4), a magnetic form of iron sulfide, this amazing animal actually sticks to strong magnets. And it also rusts. That’s right – upon contact with oxygen and water, the whole exterior slowly turns to a layer of reddish rust from metallic black.

Why doesn’t it rust in its natural environment, you may ask. Well, its environment is not exactly ordinary, either. The scaly-foot only occurs in deep-sea hydrothermal vents of Indian Ocean, more than 2500 m deep and often on ‘black smoker’ chimneys spewing out hot vent fluid exceeding 350°C. Hydrothermal vents are typically oxygen-poor environments and this might prevent the animal from rusting. The wonder doesn’t stop here – it houses endosymbiont bacteria in its enlarged oesophagus which is capable of turning chemicals in the vent fluid (poisonous to most animals) to energy, and rely on these for nutrition. So it basically keeps a food farm inside the body and does not need to feed!

Hydra, an active ‘black smoker’ vent chimney in Longqi field, Southwest Indian Ridge

Hydra, an active ‘black smoker’ vent chimney in Longqi field, Southwest Indian Ridge

With shell length that averages at around 35 mm and exceeds 45 mm in large individuals, it is a very large peltospirid snail compared to most others in the family which are below 15 mm in shell length. Originally discovered in 2001 from deep-sea hydrothermal vents of Indian Ocean, despite being a charismatic species there, it was not formally described and named until 2015. Furthermore, recent find of a white population without iron on the sclerites deepens the mystery about its sclerite formation – much more exciting secrets are waiting to be unveiled from this remarkable species!

A specimen of Chrysomallon squamiferum photographed live (Photo: David Shale)

A specimen of Chrysomallon squamiferum photographed live (Photo: David Shale)

You can watch a video of Longqi hydrothermal field featuring Chrysomallon squamiferum in their natural habitat here:



Orca SkullCarl Chapman, Norfolk Cetacean Recorder writes:

Sat in the repository of the Museum of Zoology is a box. It’s not an unusual box, nor is it very large. It’s much like any of the many thousands of others in the building. In the box is a little lady. For the moment let’s call her C.95.G. Not a catchy name by any standards but it’s the only one she has ever had. Her providence unknown; all that is attributed to her is she heralded from the coast at Great Yarmouth over a century ago. Pretty she isn’t; but beauty is always in the eye of the beholder.

Some months ago I acquired a book. Arthur H Patterson wrote ‘Notes of an East Coast Naturalist’ in 1904. The book was written by this amateur naturalist in a time when collecting was done with a gun rather than careful observation. On page 271 sandwiched between notes on Mole behaviour and observations on Toads is trapped a story; the story of our little lady.

Arthur Patterson was taking a walk along the quay at Great Yarmouth on the cold morning of the 14th November 1894 when he saw something that grabbed his interest; a seven foot 5 inch Grampus. A Grampus was a seafaring name formerly applied to any small whale or large dolphin. The Grampus was being exhibited by two quiet, well behaved fishermen that had dragged the carcass from Lowestoft after it had been caught offshore in a Herring drifters net. They were apparently doing good business from their impromptu exhibition. Cetaceans always carry an enigma that is difficult for the public to resist.

It was four days later Arthur Patterson purchased a similar Grampus on the fish wharf in Great Yarmouth. This animal was similar in every regard to the first, but two inches shorter. It could be said they were peas in a pod! Patterson took the Grampus by horse and cart to Norwich Museum where it arrived on the 20th and was inspected by Thomas Southwell a noted Naturalist of the day. Southwell’s description within the transactions of the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists Society accurately describe a very young female Orca. The cadaver was however deemed too abraded to be of use as an exhibit at the museum.

A telegram was sent to Dr S F Harmer at the University Museum of Cambridge and at his request the Orca was despatched to Cambridge. Dr Harmer found the teeth had not yet been cut but they could be plainly felt in the upper jaw and there was no solid food content in the stomach. This animal had not yet been weaned.

So the flesh was stripped and the bones crated and until this month that’s where our little lady lay.

Grampus has been incorporated into the nomenclature of Risso’s Dolphin (Grampus griseus) and indeed until the description within the transactions was uncovered, given the small size of both animals, it was thought Pattersons’s notes could have referred to that species.

These records constitute the first (so far) occurrence of Orca for both Norfolk and Suffolk.

Thanks to Matt Lowe, Collections Manager at the University Museum of Zoology for allowing access to photograph C.95.G and to his kind and considerate staff for their attentions and help during my visit.

Chamaeleo vulgaris skeleton

Chamaeleon skeleton

Stuart Turner, Museum Assistant, writes:

The Museum is rather busy at the moment due to the refurbishment and one of the plethora of jobs I’ve been doing recently was attaching bar-codes, to help us to identify & locate individual items, on the many hundreds of crates containing packed spirit specimens.

As I was doing this I noticed the top half of “Chamaeleo vulgaris” and thought to myself ‘what fine preparation and presentation work this specimen has, it’s bound to be a “Fric.”’ Lifting it up, revealed the “V. Fric. Bohemia, Prague” label, and I knew my observations were correct. In fact, any of these specimens are easy to spot from a distance, even with my eyesight, as they are expertly produced. I really need to get some new glasses soon!

I was first introduced to one of the “Fric” specimens about 15 years ago by my colleagues-Ray and Ann, during my first run of topping up the alcohol specimens in the spirit store, so I can take none of the credit for discovering them! I have been (almost!) annually topping up the store since then- for many years with Ann and the last approximately seven years I’ve been going it alone and even though I had time constraints I still had time to admire the hidden gems that are the the “Frics” as I was working my way round.

I have often wondered about the history of V. Fric and the specimens he created and until now have never actually looked him up! This is a brief summary of his life and work:

Vaclav Fric was born in Prague in 1839 and he was a Natural history dealer and Naturalist who after training in taxidermy and chemistry decided to open a shop (in 1862) supplying zoological, botanical and mineral specimens (Worldwide) following a visit to his brother in London(in 1859-60) and seeing/being inspired by museum collections there. He exhibited his wares in many a World fair, not to mention other trade fairs and received various medals for his work.

All of his different shops were located on a street called Wassergasse (past) or Vodickova (present) in Prague, it was said that these shops were like museums and became visitor attractions. Vaclav passed away in 1916 and his son continued the business until the last shop finally closed in 1958.

The remainder of the specimens were donated to the National Museum in Prague.

I would love to have a time machine so I could travel back to late 19th century Prague, and visit one of his museum shops. Alas, since that is not possible, I will have to try and visit the National Museum in modern day Prague to see if there are any hidden Fric specimens!


The Passenger Pigeon

Passneger PigeonsAlex Tomkins, Museum Apprentice, writes:

The Museum has nine Passenger Pigeons including a beautifully mounted specimen, I always get drawn to this bird because of all extinct species, the Passenger Pigeon had the most spectacular demise, hurtling from a population of billions to a population of exactly zero in less than a hundred years. Why and how is a question I and others have asked many times.
The Passenger Pigeon or Wild Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) was abundant in North America until it was eradicated in the wild in 1900, then finally altogether on September 1st 1914 at 1pm. The only animal on Earth to have an exact time of extinction, the last Passenger Pigeon died in captivity in Cincinnati Zoo.
There were so many Passenger Pigeons in flocks that trees would often fall when they roosted and people compared there enormous sounds and screeches to “threshing machines running under full headway”. The flocks were so thick that hunting was easy—even waving a pole at the low-flying birds would kill some. Still, harvesting for subsistence didn’t threaten the species’ survival. But after the Civil War came two technological developments that set in motion the pigeon’s extinction: the national expansions of the telegraph and the railroad. They enabled a commercial pigeon industry to blossom, fueled by professional sportsmen who could learn quickly about new nestings and follow the flocks around the continent. The professionals and amateurs together out flocked their quarry with brute force. They shot the pigeons and trapped them with nets, torched their roosts, and asphyxiated them with burning sulphur. They attacked the birds with rakes, pitchforks, and potatoes. They poisoned them with whiskey-soaked corn. Ultimately, the pigeons’ survival strategy—flying in huge predator-proof flocks—proved their undoing.

The longest lived animal in the world?

Arctica islandicaDr Richard Preece, Curator of Molluscs at the Museum of Zoology, writes:

There have been a number of potential contenders for this crown including Giant tortoises, large whales, Asian elephants and some reptiles and fish but none of these animals has been shown to live for more than 200 years. This is not the case with the Ocean quagog (Arctica islandica), a bivalve that frequently lives for several centuries. The oldest known specimen from Iceland was shown to have lived for 507 years. How can we be so precise about its age? The answer is that bivalves, like trees, deposit annual growth increments that can be counted and crossmatched enabling the construction of long chronologies extending back hundreds or even thousands of years. The fact that the same pattern of growth increments is recognisable within populations, and even between species, demonstrates conclusively that the bivalves are responding to identical environmental signals. Such signals include water temperature and nutrient availability, as well as other factors. Knowledge of these controlling factors enables the reconstruction of past oceanic conditions at annually-resolved resolutions, so providing critical archives for the study of climate change and variations in the position and strength of ocean currents and in water chemistry. The fact that these bivalves live so long has also attracted attention from gerontologists interested in understanding why these particular animals do not die in the usual way.


Image courtesy of Professor James Scourse, University of Wales, Bangor

The Search for Sawfishes in West Africa

Pristis female Kartung

Sawfish researcher Ruth H. Leeney writes of specimens in the Museum of Zoology, and the plight of these amazing animals around West Africa today:

Of all the shark and ray families, sawfishes are considered to be the most endangered. Sawfishes are large, shark-like rays which inhabit the shallow, coastal waters of tropical and sub-tropical regions. Once common in these regions, sawfish populations have declined in recent decades and sawfishes are now thought to be extinct from many parts of their former range. Coastal fisheries, especially trawling, and entanglement in fishing nets have been central to the demise of sawfishes worldwide. In some areas, sawfishes have also been targeted by the shark finning industry, and the loss or degradation of mangrove and estuarine environments, which are important habitats for juvenile sawfishes, may also have had an impact on populations.

Two species of sawfishes, Pristis pristis and P. pectinata, formerly inhabited the east Atlantic, including much of the West African coast. Sawfishes were probably once a common sight in West Africa. Cambridge biologist Budgett (1899), on an expedition to The Gambia colony, wrote ‘…frequently in the morning, when the trammel-net was examined, a Crocodile (Crocodilus cataphractus) or a Sawfish (Pristis perotteti) had to be slain’. Likewise, a Swedish study (Svensson, 1933) carried out in the 1930s suggested that sawfishes were plentiful in Gambian waters: ‘This sawfish is common in the river at all seasons. . . . [I]t was [also] caught in remarkably great numbers, just at the mouths of creeks.  It is known by the natives in all parts of the river in the Gambia’. Forty years later, Nigel Downing, then a PhD student at Cambridge University, encountered many largetooth sawfish in the Gambia River. Fishermen working several hundred kilometres upriver in freshwater often caught sawfish, particularly juveniles. At the coast, Nigel also encountered fishermen hauling a 5-metre female largetooth sawfish, pregnant with 15 pups, onto the beach. Between 1974 and 1975, Nigel collected numerous rostra and some complete sawfish specimens, which he brought back to the Museum of Zoology in Cambridge. These specimens will provide an enormously valuable contribution to an ongoing study examining the differences in rostrum structure amongst sawfish species and even amongst regional populations of the same species.

Interviews conducted with fishermen in The Gambia earlier this year suggest that sawfishes are no longer a common sight and may in fact be locally extinct. Up-to-date information on sawfish abundance and distribution in African waters is almost completely lacking. This, of course, hampers any attempt to protect any remaining sawfish populations, since we do not know where to focus efforts or what the local threats are. The Protect Africa’s Sawfishes project is attempting to collect baseline data on sawfishes throughout Africa, to assess where sawfish populations still persist and where best we can focus conservation efforts to ensure that these unique and fascinating fishes do not disappear completely from African waters.


For more information, visit the project’s facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ProtectAfricasSawfishes

Leafy Seadragon, Phycodurus eques

Leafy Seadragon

Roz Wade, Interpretation and Learning Officer, writes:

This beautiful fish is a Leafy Seadragon, Phycodurus eques, was collected off the coast of Southern Australia in the 19th century. It beautifully resembles to the seaweeds amongst which it lives, with delicate leaf-like projections from its skin. The beauty of this specimen, suspended in alcohol and with an almost translucent appearance, is enough to draw me in. But when I started reading about the name on the label, this specimen held a fascinating history.

I work as the Interpretation and Learning Officer in the Museum, and part of my role is to develop the new displays as part of the Museum’s redevelopment. This is exciting and interesting work, exploring the collections for stories both biological and historical. With collections made by Darwin and Wallace, and specimens of animals that are now extinct, the  Museum is a treasure trove of amazing stories. Sir Edward Charles Stirling, the E.C.Stirling M.D. of the label on this specimen, was a Fellow of the Royal Society and of the Royal College of Surgeons. He was born in Australia, educated at Trinity College, Cambridge ad subsequently worked at St George’s Hospital in London before returning home. Back in Australia he entered into politics, and here was advocate for women’s rights, introducing a bill for women’s suffrage in 1886. He also believed in education for women, campaigning for them to be admitted to Adelaide University’s School of Medicine, and was involved with the State Children’s Council. He had a strong interest in Zoology, and became the Director of the South Australian Museum in 1884. He discovered the Marsupial Mole, and out cast of the giant marsupial Diprotodon is thanks to him. So here we have one specimen that has highlighted the history of someone with diverse interests and strong beliefs in equality ahead of his time.

This is just one story from the sea creatures in the Museum. To hear more, come to our Animal Bytes evening as part of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas and Curating Cambridge on October 21st, from 7pm-8.30pm in the Department of Zoology, Downing Street.


Cuculus canorus


Natalie Jones, Museum Conservator, writes:

It was during the decant and packing of the British Birds case in the museums lower gallery that I came across an unassuming, grey, dove sized bird. What struck me was that I was pretty certain I didn’t recognize the species yet when reading the label I realized it had an all too familiar name – the Cuckoo. The Radio 4 series Tweet of the Day summed up this bird perfectly; ‘the cuckoo is a paradox. Few other birds are so familiar, and yet so rarely seen.”

I had always imaged the Cuckoo to be a brightly coloured bird reminiscent of a Canary or Woodpecker perhaps due in part to the mechanical birds found marking the hour of the clocks it gives it name too. In reality the Cuckoo is a blue-grey colour with dark barred white underparts, with long wings and tail. Its size, plumage and barred belly is comparable with the Sparrowhawk so much so that it was once believed that Cuckoos turned into Sparrowhawks in winter.

The Cuckoo is a parasitic species, famously laying their eggs in the nests of others. The Reed Warbler, Meadow Pipit, Pied Wagtail and Dunnock are the usual unsuspecting foster parents, and soon find their own chicks ejected from the nest by the young cuckoo.

Its onomatopoeic name is derived from the call of the male bird – cuc-koo, but what I find remarkable about this bird is the call of its young. The Cuckoo chick is able to imitate the sound of its hosts young albeit much more loudly, fooling its host parents.

Once fledged, it is able to migrate 4,000 miles to the equatorial forests in the heart of Africa without ever meeting its parents. In fact it was only in 2011 that the Cuckoos winter quarters became known thanks to tiny tracking devices placed on the birds.

The British Trust for Ornithology is tracking the Cuckoo in the Cuckoo Project which recently featured in Springwatch. The species is also a focus of study at the University of Cambridge with scientists researching the evolved plumage patterns and hawk mimicry.

There has been a significant decline in Cuckoo numbers in recent years, so much so that it is now featured on the RSPB’s Red List. When asking friends and family they admit that its been many years since they last saw a cuckoo or even heard its familiar call. Perhaps it is partly for this reason combined with the Cuckoos surprisingly shy nature that meant I did not recognize the specimen during the packing process.

cuckoo front

Swifts, Swallows and House Martins

Swift, House Martin and Swallow

Vicky Singleton, Conservator at the Museum of Zoology, writes:

Since starting at Cambridge University Museum of Zoology a number of specimens have caught my eye. One of my first roles at the beginning of the year was helping to empty and safely pack the British Birds case. This gave me the opportunity to examine a number of birds, most of which I recognised by name, but would struggle to recognise by sight (especially in flight) or I would get one species confused with another. One such example is the difference between the Swift, Swallow and House Martin. Having often wondered whether a fast flying summer bird was a Swift or Swallow, or even a House Martin I used the recent bird case decant to examine these specimens in detail so I could recognise the differences.

As you can see from the photo the appearance of the Swift is black-brown on both the upper and underparts with a pale chin, whereas the Swallow has blue-black upperparts and white underparts, with a dark chest band and red throat (I have ingrained this into my memory by thinking ‘the Swallow has a red throat to swallow’). The House Martin has blue-black upperparts and white underparts, but it also has a prominent white rump. Although difficult to tell in flight, there is a difference in the tails of the three species: the Swift and Swallow both have forked tails, but the Swift’s is short in comparison with the deep fork and long streamers of the Swallow. The House Martin’s is short and has a wider fork than the other two.

Although relatively small, these observations paid off recently during a trip to the Lake District when I found myself confidently recognising Swallows as such, something I would have been unable to do in the past.