Friday mystery object #114 answer

Apologies for the rather late answer to last Friday’s mystery object – it’s been a hectic few days!

I asked you to identify this skull

which you managed to do very quickly.

The first suggestion of a Vulture by Rosa Rubicondior was along completely the right lines, while KK and Steven D. Garber, PhD suggested a Turkey Vulture – which isn’t quite right, but it’s in the same genus - Cathartes.

From there, Julie Doyle and Jake managed to get the correct species identification of   Continue reading

World Rhino Day

Today is World Rhino Day. It is a day for raising awareness about the threats to the future survival of the five species of Rhino in the world today.

Rhino trophies - image taken from bushwarriors.wordpress.com

Historically Rhinos have been hunted for their horn – which has been made into trophies in Europe, into high-status jambiya handles in Yemen and into intricately carved libation cups in China.

Today, despite the fact that Rhinos are protected by international law, which makes it illegal to trade in modern and unworked antique horn, there is an active black market for Rhino horn in parts of Asia (mainly in Thailand, Vietnam, China).

This market is mainly driven by demand for horn used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), particularly following recent (totally spurious) claims that it can treat cancer (N.B. it was never used as an aphrodisiac in TCM).

In reality the horn has no more health benefits than cow horn or even fingernails, since it is composed of the same material – keratin. Unfortunately this fact has done little to stop the demand for illegal Rhino horn.

Actually, much of the demand is probably artificial, driven by wealthy businesses stockpiling horn against future shortages as Rhinos disappear (as identified in this report on Taiwan from 20 years ago). Their actions have made the average Rhino horn worth more than a 24-carat gold ice-cream cone filled with the highest grade cocaine.

So far this year 287 Rhinos have been illegally killed for their horn in South Africa alone – a figure closing in on last year’s all time high of 333. Many of these Rhinos have died from the process of having their horn removed using a chainsaw, which cuts through the flesh and bone of the end of the skull.

On top of this bloody harvest, the demand for Rhino horn has led smuggling cartels to seek alternative methods of getting hold of horn. 

These have ranged from using Thai prostitutes to pose as legal game shooters (I kid you not) to acquiring historic horn through a legal loophole

The biggest surprises came in a sale of rhinoceros horn carvings, in which 30 lots, estimated at $3.9 million, sold for $30 million. (example of black market influence on Rhino horn value in art sale, from The Telegraph, 31st May 2010)

When it was noticed that Asian buyers were paying well over the odds for antique Rhino horn the loophole was closed, but by then historic horn had become well established as a commodity and therefore attractive to the criminal element involved in the Rhino horn trade.

This led to several thefts of horn from South African museums in 2010 and European targets started being hit from February 2011. Since then there has been a spate of 30 or so thefts of horn from museums, auction rooms and historic houses around Europe. These thefts have led many museums, including the Horniman, to take their Rhino horn off display and move it into secure storage.

The Natural Science Collections Association (of which I am a committee member) has provided some guidance to museums about Rhino horn in collections and somehow I’ve found myself giving interviews to the Museums Association and the BBC about this issue.

In the face of all the depressing Rhino horn developments over the past couple of years, it’s been heartening to see politicians and even Traditional Chinese Medicine educators backing the moves to dispel the myths about Rhino horn as a cancer medicine.

I must also admit to having a (slightly guilty) sense of schadenfreude when I think of the nasty chemicals that have been used to treat Rhino horn in museums over the years (including arsenic and mercury).

Risks aside, there are still rich people who will naively use ‘medicines’ that they don’t understand, but which they put their faith in anyway (Elle Macpherson for example).

So the situation looks bleak for the future of Rhinos, unless misinformation about medicinal effects of their horn can be overcome and the demand for illegal horn removed.

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Pdf fact sheets on all 5 Rhino species from http://www.rhinoconservation.org:

Friday mystery object #113 answer

On Friday I gave you this object to identify:

Rather unusually no-one managed to identify it. It’s not native to the UK and looks similar to quite a large variety of other species, because it’s a member of the Passeriformes (the perching birds), which is a hugely diverse and numerous group of birds. These factors make identifying the bird tricky, but without the plumage there to provide clues it was a very difficult task.

The plumage would have been a big help here, since the name of this bird is taken largely from a description of the plumage.

As you can probably work out from the photo above, it’s a Long-tailed Glossy Starling Lamprotornis caudatus (Statius Muller, 1776).

These tropical African birds are similar in diet and habits to the European Starling that we see more commonly – they just look a lot prettier.

 

Friday mystery object #112 answer

Below is Rachel’s follow-up guest post answer to last Friday’s challenging mystery object. Many thanks Rachel – it was a good one!

Well, I seem to have led you all a merry dance this week! Admittedly, it was sneaky to not include a scale bar or provide you with another view of the skull, but if I’d put the top view in I think it would have been game over in about five minutes…

As cromercrox so rightly pointed out, it is a bird skull. Many of the guesses tended towards water birds, with suggestions including goose, gull, and rail.

Manabu Sakamoto was the first to suggest a ratite, and later tentatively guessed ostrich, while Matt King went for a rhea.

Paolo and I actually thought it might be a rhea to start with, but after comparing it to an identified rhea skull in the collections and the ratite images on Skullsite, we decided that it is in fact an  Continue reading

Friday mystery object #112

This week I’m handing over to a colleague, crossword competitor and member of the Mystery Object community, Rachel:

Welcome to my first (and hopefully not last) guest Friday Mystery Object. I hope what I’ve chosen isn’t too glaringly easy; if it is, please feel free to allow yourself a smug smile and a pat on the back, but do try to resist shouting out the answer until Sunday so as not to spoil the game for others. Cryptic clues are much more fun.

Today’s object is, as usual, from the collections of the Horniman Museum. I will hopefully be available over the weekend to offer feedback on suggestions or questions, and I’ll provide the answer on Monday.

Good luck!

Friday mystery object #111 answer

On Friday I gave you this object (from the NHM) to identify:

It was a bit of a tricky one for those of you who haven’t seen the First Time Out exhibition (jackashby and David Godfrey obviously did see it). This fossil skull looks like it belonged to some kind of pig rather than a primate – yes, that’s right, I said primate.

The main feature visible here that indicates that this skull may belong to a primate is the enclosed orbit, which isn’t a particularly strong characteristic since various ungulates also have an enclosed orbit – as I said, it’s a tricky one.

The type of primate is the Koala Lemur Megaladapis edwardsi Forsyth Major, 1894 from Madagascar. It was an arboreal, slow moving, gorilla-sized folivore – with superficial similarities to Koalas (hence the name). It is hypothesised that the extended bony nasal region may have supported a prehensile top lip, that would have been beneficial when foraging for leaves in the trees.

I won’t go into much detail here, because other curators have provided their interpretation for this object as part of the First Time Out project, so I will leave you with a link to that information. However, I would be interested in taking a closer look at the dentition and complete skeleton of one of these animals – I’d like to get a better grip on this apparent convergence on a suid cranial morphology and more gorilla-like body. I wonder what it might have looked like?

Gamorrean Guards by Dextar FX