Sunday, October 31, 2010

YPM ICH 5971 & 22495: Sea devils at the Peabody

Happy Halloween! In Halloween spirit, here are some ghouls and goblins:

Sailors dating at least to the 16th century would find these horrors at sea and often brought them back to shore as evidence for their stories of sea monsters, sea devils, and the like. What are they exactly? Called "Jenny Hanivers," they're actually just dried-out specimens of skates, rays, and guitarfishes!

Skates, rays, and guitarfishes make up the superorder Batoidea, and what you see in the pictures are the undersides of the animals. The nostrils and mouths of these creatures are positioned perfectly, as you can see, such that they look like a demonic face. (The eyes are actually on the top sides of the animals.)

Here is YPM ICH 5971, a guitarfish of species Aptychotrema vincentiana, collected in 1968 off the coast of Adelaide, Australia. Here's the underside of the animal, where you can see the "Jenny Haniver" face:

Here is the top side of the animal, where you can see the true eyes:

Of course, this specimen isn't properly a Jenny Haniver in the full sense of the term. But it's halfway there! To make a Jenny Haniver, once you've caught a skate, or a ray, or a guitarfish, you should dry it out, not fix it with formalin and preserve it with ethanol as we did with this one. It's when they're dried out that they really take their ghoulish shape.

You should then carve it and shape it to make it look even more grotesque. Sailors in Antwerp, Belgium, were famous for the Jenny Hanivers that they carved on their docks and then sold to superstitious tourists. In fact, it's thought that the term "Jenny Haniver" might come from these sailors. The French phrase jeune d'Anvers means ('young [person] of Antwerp'). The thinking is that British sailors then turned this phrase into the personal name "Jenny Haniver."

Here is YPM ICH 22495, one more almost-Jenny Haniver from our collection. It's a skate of species Bathyraja maccaini that was collected on a 2009 Yale research voyage to Antarctica. Here's its underside:

And here's its top side:

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

YPM ICH 7720 & 12449: Lizardfishes!

I'm afraid the title of this post gives it all away: these fish look exactly like lizards! Here is YPM ICH 7720, a lizardfish of species Synodus variegatus, collected in the Indian Ocean's Seychelles Islands in 1957:

As you can see, the head of a lizardfish looks, well, like a lizard, but they were actually named for their posture, which is also eerily lizard-like. They like to sit at the bottom of shallow seas in sandy areas, with their head raised like a lizard, propped up by their fins. Here's a picture that shows this:

The above shot was taken this summer by Alex Dornburg, a Yale Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Phd candidate, who was in Curacao collecting specimens for his research on marine fish macroevolution.

Many of our museum specimens are actually still preserved in the lizard posture! Here's one, YPM ICH 12449, species Synodus foetens:

Man, I wish I had posture like that. Mom would be proud....

Here's a final picture, a headshot of YPM ICH 12449:


Paxton, John R., and W.N. Eschmeyer. 1994. Encyclopedia of Fishes. Academic Press, San Diego.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Poll: Is our star-nosed mole hotter than the NYT's star-nosed mole?

My last two posts have touched on aesthetics-- namely two specimens that paralleled things in our human world that most of us would find aesthetically pleasing. Here I'm going to touch on aesthetics again, but in the opposite direction-- namely a specimen that is ugly! Well, ugly according to the New York Times, at least.

About a month ago, the NYT ran an article about the science of ugliness that examined why we find some animals to be attractive and cute, and others repulsive and ugly. In it, the star-nosed mole, Condylura cristata, was the posterchild for ugly animals. Here's the image of it that they featured in the article:

The scientists who were interviewed explained that we tend to be repelled by the star-nosed mole because the pink nose causes us to identify with it-- that is, flesh color reminds us of a human face-- but at the same time it is not what a human face should look like, which makes us recoil. Here are some tidbits from the article that explain this more fully:

The more readily we can analogize between a particular animal body part and our own, the more likely we are to cry ugly. “We may not find an elephant’s trunk ugly because it’s so remote,” Dr. Dutton said. “But the proboscis on a proboscis monkey is close enough to our own that we apply human standards to it.”

As scientists see it, a comparative consideration of what we find freakish or unsettling in other species offers a fresh perspective on how we extract large amounts of visual information from a millisecond’s glance, and then spin, atomize and anthropomorphize that assessment into a revealing saga of ourselves.

Later in the article Dutton noted that “No one would find the star-nosed mole ugly if its star were iridescent blue". I don't know of any blue star-nosed moles, but here at Peabody VZ, we do have a star-nosed mole that is completely brown! YPM MAM 5852 was collected in Old Lyme, Connecticut in 1940, and it's brown now because it has been preserved in ethanol, which has caused it to lose its pigmentation. Here are two pics:

So what do you think? Is this brown star-nosed mole as ugly as a live one with all of its pink and fleshy pigment? Or, without the flesh color, is it a bit easier on the eyes as the scientists from the article would predict? Please chime in! I think our museum specimen offers a fun test of their hypothesis.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

YPM ICH 7062: More eel-imitating art

This eel, YPM 7062, is a reef dwelling species, Gymnothorax favagineus, and it was collected in the Indian Ocean's Seychelles Islands during the Yale Seychelles Expedition of 1957-58. It reminds me a ring that my best friend wears every once in a while. Here are two pics of the eel:

And here are two pics of the ring:

Certainly the artist who fashioned this ring wasn't directly inspired by this eel (well, maybe he or she was! I'm guessing not, though). But the precision of this convergent aesthetic, I think, is quite extraordinary.

Speaking convergent aesthetics, I think my husband wins the convergent aesthetic contest from my last post. We just found this picture of a steel floor. Pretty much an exact match to the scales of the Synaphobranchus kaupii specimen:

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

YPM ICH 13045: Art imitating eel scales

I am no artist, but I do remember a technique I learned in a middle school drawing class called cross hatching. This eel, YPM ICH 13045, is a cutthroat eel of species Synaphobranchus kaupii, and was collected on July 29 2002 by Jon Moore at a depth of 1388 meters at Bear Seamount, an underwater volcanic mountain in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of New England. Its scales remind me of cross hatching:

Cross hatching is used in drawings to create dimension, depth, and texture. Here are two examples of it that I found using Google image search at this site and this site, respectively:

In a previous post I talked about convergent evolution, which is the phenomenon where similar biological traits and forms evolve in unrelated lineages. A great example of convergent evolution is the wings of birds and bats-- although they both have wings, their wings evolved independently. It is not a trait that they both have through common ancestry.

Cutthroat eels tend to dwell on the slopes of continental shelves, where it might be useful to have scales that create texture to blend in with habitat there (I couldn't find any studies discussing the function of the scales, but this is my hypothesis. If you're wondering if light penetrates at these depths, see the discussion in the comments below). As I mentioned above, artists use cross hatching to create texture in their drawings. These eels have perhaps evolved criss-crossed scales to create texture; humans have developed cross-hatching to create texture. I am going to dub this convergent texture creation! (Presumptuously assuming, of course, that my hypothesis is correct...).

Here are more pictures of the scales, along with a full body shot for scale (although these eels can get much bigger than this).

My husband actually thinks the scales look more like the texture of a common type of steel flooring (pictured below), rather than cross hatching. What do you think?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

YPM ICH 23585: A baby porcupinefish!

Last week Twan Leenders, a conservation biologist for the CT Audubon Society and a Peabody curatorial affiliate, deposited a baby porcupinefish for the collection! Here are pics, taken by Twan. The little guy is about the size of a quarter:

Pretty cute, huh? A little boy found it (dead) on the beach of the CT Audubon Coastal Center and brought it to Twan. Twan brought it here, and Greg Watkins-Colwell of our division along with Karsten Hartel of Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology identified it.

It's a porcupinefish of the species Chilomycterus schoepfi (common name striped burrfish). Here's what these guys look like as adults (photo from here):

If you think it looks like a pufferfish, you're right. It acts like a pufferfish too-- it can inflate its body to ward off predators, and it's toxic just like a pufferfish. But it turns out it's not actually a pufferfish. It belongs to a very closely related family known as the porcupinefishes (family Diodontidae), as I alluded to earlier in the post.

For more on our new little specimen, the CT Audubon Society has blogged about it in more detail here.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

YPM ICH 8403: Electric elephantfish with big brains

So apparently when you've got a long schnoz, intelligence is something that comes along with the territory. Or so it would seem if elephants and elephantfishes were your only two data points. Elephantfishes comprise the family Mormyridae, and they parallel elephants not only in nasal appearance, but in high intelligence as well, with a brain size to body mass ratio equaled only by our own!

Here are two Mormyrids, species Gnathonemus longibarbis, from YPM ICH 8403, collected in 1956 in Uganda's Lake Kyoga:

Why the long proboscis? Mormyrids live in Africa and tend to inhabit murky lakes and swamps; the proboscis is thought to be a touch organ that helps them locate the mud-dwelling invertebrates that they like to feed on. As far as I can tell though, it's not like an elephant's trunk-- elephantfishes can't suck anything into their proboscis since, as I found on our specimens, as there are no openings at the end. All it does is help find food. In fact, the mouth is actually above the proboscis, not below it! Here is a shot where you can see this:

Why such a big brain? To meet the demands of being electric. That's right, they are electric, and their cerebellum is so specialized and large that it even has its own special name, the "mormyrocerebellum". This mormyrocerebellum is the neural center for coordinating their electricity.

You might be thinking about electric eels right now, which use their electricity to stun prey, but Mormyrids actually use their electricity quite differently, in a dizzying number of ways! Because they live in murky lakes and have poor eyesight, they use it for orientation and navigation. The electric field is continuous and envelops them, so when they swim near an object, the field is interrupted and they are alerted to the object's proximity. They also use their electricity for various means of communication, including territorial interactions, species recognition, individual recognition, courtship, and communicating social status. This is possible because the elephantfish can both output and receive very specific electrical signals--signals that vary by only fractions of a millisecond. Most fish rely on visual and other types of signals for communication, but given their turbid habitat, the Mormyrids' unique electrical system works better for them.


Helfman, Gene S., B.B. Collette, D.E. Facey, and B.W. Bowen. 2009. The Diversity of Fishes, 2nd ed. Wiley-Blackwell, Hoboken.

Paxton, John R., and W.N. Eschmeyer. 1994. Encyclopedia of Fishes. Academic Press, San Diego.

Monday, August 9, 2010

YPM ICH 7753: A gruesome fish collected by a Prettyman

A few weeks ago I re-curated this gem:

It's the 3 inch-long head of a Hydrolycus scomberoides, a piscivorous (fish eating) fish of the family Cynodontidae from the Amazon. Common names of this species include "vampire fish" and "sabretooth tetra".

This specimen was collected in 1976 from the Orinoco River in Venezuela by a man distinctively named "L. Prettyman, Jr."! Below is the original label. I can't imagine what it must have been like to grow up with a name like that...

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Scientists do not step on Hero Shrews

While in general I suppose it's a possibility that a scientist (or anyone for that matter) might step on a hero shrew by accident (or heaven forbid out of malice), the scientists who first discovered the hero shrew's great strength did not have to step on any hero shrews to do so. Nope, it was the savage natives! [yes, cue ironic tone that condemns the attitudes prevalent during colonialism]. Seriously though, all they had to do was talk to the Mangbetu people of the Congo, who were quite knowledgeable about local natural history (and I imagine learned of the Hero Shrew's strength by observation or accident). Taking a cue from a reader, I did some investigating and wanted to clarify this whole matter, lest anyone think that scientists are ruthless hero shrew crushers who systematically stood heavier and heavier men on top of one to test its limits until it squashed.

Evidently, the Mangbetu knew of the hero shrew's strength and brought it to the attention of naturalists Herbert Lang and James Chapin during the American Museum of Natural History Congo Expedition, 1909-1915. Here is Lang's account from his field notes (which can be found in Allen 1917):

"The natives of these regions, especially the Mangbetu, who are well acquainted with the shrew, first called our attention to its abnormally strengthened back-bone by their performances upon captive specimens ... Whenever they have a chance they take great delight in showing to the easily fascinated crowd its extraordinary resistance to weight and pressure. After the usual hubbub of various invocations, a full-grown man weighing some 160 pounds steps barefooted upon the shrew. Steadily trying to balance himself upon one leg, he continues to vociferate several minutes. The poor creature seems certainly to be doomed. But as soon as his tormentor jumps off, the shrew after a few shivering movements tries to escape, none the worse for this made experience and apparently in no need of the wild applause and exhortations of the throng."

So impressed were the Mangbetu with the hero shrew that, in addition to frequently showing it off to visitors, they wore parts of the shrews as talismans, believing them to bestow invincibility. Here are Lang's field notes on the subject:

"These people feel convinced that its charred body or even its heart, when prepared by their medicine-men, transmit truly invincible qualities, if worn as a talisman or taken like a medicine. Perhaps this mystic reputation has often contributed to make of a brave man a real hero, wherefore the Mangbetu gave it a name meaning 'hero shrew.' Those engaging in warfare or setting out upon equally dangerous enterprise such as hunting elephants are anxious to carry along even a fraction of the ashes of this shrew. Though only worn somewhere about their body, they believe that neither spears nor arrows, nor any kind of attack can seriously injure them, much less bear them down. One can easily imagine that by the removal of the inhibitory influence of fear their courage, cunning and cleverness are set free for the best possible acheivements."

Thus both the common name of Scutisorex somereni and our knowledge of its colossal strength come from the Mangbetu people. It turns out that the hero shrew had been described by scientists as a species in 1910--previous to Lang's and Chapin's encounter with the Mangbetu people--but the unique backbone structure had been completely overlooked because it was custom then to only take the skull and skin for scientific study! I wonder how long it would have taken us to learn of the hero shrew's extraordinary backbone had Lang and Chapin not run into the Mangbetu people ...

Here is one more shot of the hero shrew's spine, viewed from above, versus a "normal" shrew of the genus Crocidura. Taken from Allen 1917:


Allen, J.A. 1917. The skeletal characters of Scutisorex (Thomas 1910). Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History. 37, pp. 769 - 784.

Monday, July 26, 2010

YPM MAM 14547: A Hero Shrew

Whew, I have been away from the blog for a while (was at the 2010 Evolution Meeting and then the 2010 Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists), but now I am back and will be posting regularly.

To kick things back off, allow me to introduce Scutisorex somereni, a remarkable animal aptly called the "hero shrew". Although unremarkable in appearance (it generally looks like any other shrew), this little creature can support the weight of an adult human on its back without being crushed! I am not sure how this was tested and I'm not exactly sure I want to know, but multiple online sources seem to confirm this fact.

Here is a picture of our specimen, YPM MAM 14547. It was collected in the early 1970's in Cameroon:

Just how does the hero shrew have such heroic strength? It's all in the spine. For its body size, the hero shrew has the largest spine of any animal. And not only is it bulkier than other animals, it is highly modified in quite a few ways that promote its might. For example, while other mammals have 5 vertebrae in their lumbar region (located at the lower spine), the hero shrew has 11 vertebrae there. One part of the spine, the lateral portion of the vertebral arch, has even been completely altered into interlocking bony plates. Here is a picture of the hero shrew's spine in comparison to a "normal" shrew of the genus Crocidura, taken from Cullinane & Bertram 2000:

For more details on the hero shrew's spinal modifications, see this excellent blog post by The Lord Geekington, which is actually where I got most of the info for my post here. Unfortunately, it's unknown what function this super hero spine serves, although there are a couple of hypotheses (see Jonathan Kingdon's East African Mammals, volume IIA, for one). Someone needs to investigate, in my humble opinion!

One more thing before I sign off. Based on experiences I've had with volunteers who have helped out in our Division, it's a common misconception that shrews are rodents. They are not! Shrews (family Soricidae) are not even close relatives to rodents (order Rodentia). Shrews are actually more closely related to bats and whales than they are to rodents! Because of this, shrews and mouse-type rodents represent a great example of convergent evolution, which is the evolution of similar biological traits and forms in unrelated lineages. Another great example of convergent evolution is the wings of birds and bats-- although they both have wings, their wings evolved independently. It is not a trait that they both have through common ancestry.


Cullinane, Dennis M. & Bertram, John E. A. 2000. The mechanical behaviour of a novel mammalian intervertebral joint. J. Anat. 197, pp. 627-634.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

YPM ICH 23326: A Freshly-Caught Glass Eel

A few weeks ago Greg Watkins-Colwell of our division went collecting at the beach of Morris Cove here in New Haven County with Jose Pereira of the National Marine Fisheries Service, along with two NMFS interns, Austin Hurst and Jason Bennett.

They seined up a glass eel! It was actually so glass-like and crystal clear that when Greg showed it to me in the bucket containing his catches, it took me a good few minutes to find it in the water! Here 'tis:

These transparent wonders are not a species, but rather they are the second stage in the life cycle of a number of eel species in the family Anguillidae. This particular specimen is an American eel, Anguilla rostrata. For the rest of the post I'll focus on the life cycle of this species for simplicity's sake.

American eels are catadromous, meaning that they spawn in the ocean, but they inhabit freshwater, estuaries, and brackish habitats for most of their lives. There are five stages in the life cycle of these eels, with the first stage being the leptocephalus larval stage. At this stage the eels are transparent like the glass eels, but they are smaller and more flattened. Here's a pic taken from Wikimedia commons:

The eels remain as leptocephali, floating about in the ocean where they were born, for about a year. They then metamorphose into glass eels, when they gain their adult shape (but not size) and are still transparent. At this point they migrate to estuaries on the Atlantic coast. Here's another pic of our recent glass eel acquisition:

The next stage is the juvenile or "elver" stage. At this point they gain pigment and size and generally begin to resemble adults. Also at this point some individuals will migrate pretty far inland. Here's a pic of this stage, taken again from Wikimedia commons:

The final inland stage is called the yellow eel stage. At this stage they can grow up to a meter long. Here's a pic of an American eel from our collection, YPM ICH 8080, at the yellow eel stage:

YPM ICH 8080 was collected in 1983 in Hesseky Brook in Litchfield County, CT. Here's a picture of its underside, which reveals quite clearly why they're called yellow eels!

The last stage of the life cycle is that of the silver eel, at which point the eels are sexually mature and migrate to the Sargasso Sea (in the heart of the "Bermuda Triangle") in the Atlantic Ocean to spawn. Here's a graphic that shows the location of the Sargasso Sea:

And here's a graphic depicting the final silver eel stage of the American eel, taken from The Inland Fishes of New York:

A final fun fact about glass eels: until 1893, (quite understandably!) glass eels were thought to be a distinct species of eel, Leptocephalus brevirostris, hence the name leptocephalus for the larval stage of these metamorphosing eels. Once a French zoologist raised a few leptocephali in a tank, however, the matter was clarified.

Highlights from Biodiversity 2010 and Beyond: Science and Collections

I returned from the SPNHC conference (see post below) on Sunday. The conference was fantastic and I had a blast! I can't write about it all, but here are a few things in particular that got my blood running hot. (**Note: posts on this blog will normally be devoted to the diversity of life found in the Peabody VZ collections, but since the SPNHC conference was about, well, biodiversity and natural history collections, I feel that steering away from the specimens for a bit here is appropriate**).

1) The International Barcode of Life Project (iBOL). Paul Hebert, the "father of DNA barcoding" and the director of iBOL, gave the keynote address at the conference. The iBOL project's mission is essentially to build a comprehensive inventory of life on Earth via DNA barcoding. What is DNA barcoding? From their website:

"iBOL uses sequence diversity in short, standardized gene regions -- DNA barcodes -- as a tool for identifying known species and discovering new ones. By reinforcing traditional taxonomy, DNA barcoding is revolutionizing our capacity to know and monitor biodiversity."

It's an ambitious undertaking, but an important one at a time when our planet's biodiversity is severely threatened, yet our reliance on this same biodiversity is only increasing (click here for more on that). And despite 250 years of studying life, our knowledge of it is still quite meager (scientists have described approximately 2 million species, yet it's estimated that there are likely 30 million species or more on Earth).

Like I said, it's an ambitious project, but I left the address feeling optimistic thanks to a point that Hebert made: If we as a society can come together and make such impressive advances as we have in the fields of astronomy and physics (think Hubble telescope, space shuttles, Large Hadron collider, etc.), why can't we also come together and advance in this same way in biodiversity science?

Oh, one more thing about the iBOL: ultimately one goal of the project is to develop a "hand-held device that will provide real-time access to identifications by anyone in any setting". Think little kids carrying around species identifiers instead of (or in addition to) gameboys. Awesome.

2) The Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum in the UK. This is the new home of the Natural History Museum's scientists and fluid-preserved research collections. Erica McAlister, the Curator of Diptera (flies) in their Entomology Department, told us all about it.

The architecture is stunning (the "Cocoon" shown above is where much of the Museum's insect collections are housed), but even better is that this new space is designed so that the public can see the research collections and interact with (and even quiz!) many of the scientists at work. It's a bold effort to let the public in on the scientific process so that they can better understand what scientists do and how science works-- something I think is great especially now when there is so much mistrust in science (e.g. think climate change, vaccines, evolution, etc. etc.). Click here for an article about the Darwin Centre from The Guardian.

3) GEOLocate and BioGeomancer software. I saw demos of these from Nelson Rios and John Wieczorek, respectively, and they are awesome. They're georeferencing programs that help you easily figure out what the latitude and longitude coordinates are from locality descriptions (ex. a specimen collected in "Putnam County, TN, from the Calfkiller River, 1 mi. south of Highway 84"). I had to georeference a lot of specimen records just last month and I did it using a gazetteer and Google Earth-- a rather slow and clunky method. I wish I had known about these!

4) The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL). A big (and very exciting) theme at this year's conference was collection digitization. Becky Morin of the California Academy of Sciences gave a talk about the BHL, which is the digitization component of the Encyclopedia of Life. The BHL has compiled and digitized a wealth of taxonomic literature, including many original species descriptions, which can be very difficult to find and get your hands on when they are very old! The majority of the literature at the BHL in fact is from pre-1923. Very exciting, as access to taxonomic literature is crucial to research in systematic biology.

5) "Web 2.0, social networking, and the future of on-line collections access." This was the title of a talk given by Chris Norris of the Peabody and of the blog Prerogative of Harlots. In it, he encouraged us all to think about how museums can better make our collections and specimens available online not only for professionals, but also for the public so that they too can get a glimpse into our inspiring holdings and better understand the science and importance behind them. I obviously was excited by his talk, as that is exactly what I am trying to accomplish with this blog!

6) The Canadian Museum of Nature. They were one of the conference sponsors and we were lucky enough to have an evening mixer there! I also got a chance to explore it more fully the Saturday after the conference. It was just renovated and had just re-opened on May 22. The exhibits were beautiful, highly interactive, and very educational. The external architecture wasn't too shabby, either. If you are ever in Ottawa, it is a must see! Here are some pics. Here, the museum from the outside:

Here's a shot of the glass atrium from the inside:

This is the Blue Water Gallery, with a blue whale skeleton as its centerpiece:

The Bird Gallery was equally exquisite:

One last picture. This was a little scene I really liked titled "Mammals inherit the earth" in the Talisman Energy Fossil Gallery. If you look closely you can see little mammals crawling through the eye socket of the T-rex. I also thought it was very fitting that the fossil hall was sponsored by an energy company since the science of paleontology has been in a very real sense a big sponsor of our energy resources (many paleontological expeditions have led to the discovery of oil and coal!).

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Leaving for Ottawa to talk about re-curating our fluid-preserved mammals

Check back here the week of June 7 for the next specimen post.

I'm heading to Ottawa for the 2010 annual SPNHC meeting (SPNHC = Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections, lovingly pronounced "spinach" by members) this Sunday, May 30, and will return the next Sunday. At the meeting I'll be presenting to other museum professionals about the methods we used to re-curate our fluid mammal collection (the mammals are the first group we tackled and finished back in January). Should be fun.

Here's a pic straight from my powerpoint, our newly re-curated mammals in all their glory:

Au revoir for now!