Of sea monsters and cetacean weirdness – here´s the skeleton of a long-finned pilot whale

Based on the recent discovery of an alleged „monster“ on a British beach, I decided to post a photo of a long-finned pilot whale´s skeleton from the zoological museum Hamburg. First of all, because that´s exactly what this purported monster really was, a highly decomposed and already partially burned skeleton of a long-finned pilot whale (Globicephala melaena). It is fully beyond me why so many people somehow forget that a lot of animals have bones at the inside, and if the overlaying soft tissue decomposes, mummifies or gets eaten away by scavengers those „bones“ can become visible and the whole thing looks different from its life-appearance.

Decomposed whale carcasses have already fooled countless people, especially when the bare bones of the caudal vertebrae were visible, what appeared to many like a crocodile-like tail. Furthermore the head and skull shape of many ododontocetes look very different, and even quite bulbous-headed species like belugas, orcas or pilot whales easily appear reptilian to people not familiar with their cranial anatomy. Even more so if the lips and the cheek tissue are already gone, and a surprisingly number of surprisingly big teeth is suddenly visible. But that´s not the only reason why I post this photo of a long-finned pilot whale´s skeleton.

It´s also because this skeleton shows well just how freaky Globicephala melaena really is, especially when compared with its close relative, the short-finned pilot whale Globicephala macrorhynchus (visible on the left).

Skeleton of long-finned pilot whale at the zoological museum Hamburg

G. macrorhynchus has a quite conservative body shape, which doesn´t differ that much from most other Delphinidae. But G. melaena has not only an extremely elongated body which looks almost a bit like something on the way to evolve into a Basilosaurus, it has also this enormously elongated pectoral fins with nearly wing-like finger bones.

If we would know it only from its fossils, it would probably be counted as a real weirdo, in line with Basilosaurus, Odobenocetops or Eurhinodelphis. However, it´s not, perhaps just because it´s a too familiar whale, which has long been known to many European coastal nations. Sadly we easily tend to overlook the unusual and special in animals which are apparantly too familiar or too normal.

Veröffentlicht unter Anatomie, Blogposts in English, Kryptozoologie, Wale | 2 Kommentare

Starting into the herpetology season part III: On the track of green lizards

Green lizards are not only the largest but also surely the most flamboyant lacertids of central Europe. Besides this, they are also the rarest kind of lizards here around, with only a few handful of often quite local populations. Fortunately, one of those local populations is living nearly in sight from where I live. This population had also a somewhat cryptic status and was next to unknown for a very long time. So far I had only seen one single specimen within three decades, about which I wrote here.

But three days ago I made once again a long walk in this area, and was highly delighted to discover two more specimens. One of them was a subadult from which I could take some really close photos.

Smaragdeidechse 2

As you can see, it had a regenerated tail.

Smaragdeidechse 1

A view from another perspective:

Smaragdeidechse 4

The second specimen which was basking on a wall was well bigger, and as I could later see on the photos, had just shed its skin.

Smaragdeidechse 3

I think it´s still not fully known to which of the green lizard species this population belongs to, as the Western green lizard (Lacerta bilineata) and the Eastern green lizard (Lacerta viridis) are looking extremely similar. Furthermore, both species occur locally in Germany.

This particular area has a very warm microclimate and houses a lot of rare animals and especially plants.


Furthermore the landscape is quite diverse, with vineyards and meadows, orchards, shrubs and also forested areas.


Originally most of this slope was covered with vineyards, but today only dry walls remain on big areas, making them perfect habitats for many species.


One of the wonderful flowers like this military orchid (Orchis militaris) which are growing there:


If you take a very close look on them, they look like tiny elves cut from paper.


You can see more photos of green lizards which I took in the Kaiserstuhl area in another blogpost.

Veröffentlicht unter Naturbeobachtungen, Reptilien | Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

Starting into the herpetology season part II: Orgiastic toad balls

Mass gatherings of mating common toads (Bufo bufo) are probably among the most spectacular herpetological phenomens you can see among European amphibians. It is really an incredibly sight to see dozens or even hundreds of this usually quite solitary anurans gathered together. It is not only interesting to see such a large number of individuals with all their range of intraspecific variation, but also to see a lot of fascinating, weird and sometimes even quite obscene behavior.


At the end of March I visited a pond which is every spring visited by mating toads. I found only a few specimens in the water, some toads were even still walking or sitting around on land set back from the pond and apparantly on their last steps of their journey to the mating ground.


One male toad jumped on the shoe of a young boy who visited the pond with his grandparents. I don´t think he knew what the toad was going to do when it clinged to his foot.


It tried to perform the amplexus, a mating behavior in which the males grab the females with their arms and cling on their backs.


Some of those male toads have a quite extreme sexual urge, and are quick to try to mate with just anything, including other amphibians or even inanimate objects.

When I came only a few days later again on the pond, the weather was now already much warmer, it was just full of toads, sitting and swimming around, and of course – mating.

Here is a photo of a large female which was sitting in the gras, surprisingly still without a male.


Other females had already found a fitting male, like this happy couple shows:


This photo shows also quite well the strong sexual dimorphism:


It also looks really strange when the females and males are walking together in this posture.


Other pairs were already together in the water.


Other females had lesser luck and were literally sieged by horny toad males.


The females in those balls were no more visible, and it can happen on occasion that they drown under such masses of wannabe-lovers.


There is even a case reported in which an adult male common moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) nearly drowned because several male toads clinged on its head and neck.


Another photo showing the large numbers of male toads in some areas of the pond.


This obviously quite frustrated male continuously tried to copulate with a clump of moor frog (Rana arvalis) spawn.


I could also observe a toad male which tried to jump on a moor frog, but apparantly quickly realized his error. You can also see a lot of egg strings around the toad and the two moor frogs.


Another opportunistic toad male jumped out of the water up to me and chased me for several metres. That´s really a very weird feeling if a tiny toads is chasing you. Somewhat later another toad also suddenly chased me, or perhaps more probably, my shoes, which must have appeared to him like a potential female toad.


Here is a photo of the pond, which is located in a small park surrounded by woods.


Meanwhile I have already seen the first tadpoles, and within a short time, the whole pond will be full of them.

Veröffentlicht unter Amphibien, Naturbeobachtungen | 3 Kommentare

Starting into the herpetology season part I: Newts are coming

After the last entry spontaneously disappeared due to a server problem (together with the draft of the next part of the series), I make a somewhat shortened second version to restore the first part again.

So here are some photos I took two days ago during a walk, when I encountered a common newt (Lissotriton vulgaris) sitting on an asphalt field road. It was probably on its way to a pond or ditch. It was one of the first amphibian species I´ve seen this year, after I discovered the first alpine newts, common toads and moor frogs only a few days before.

Common newt Lissotriton vulgaris (2)

Common newts are besides alpine newts (Ichthyosaura alpestris, a pretty awesome name BTW) by far the most common caudates here around.

Common newt Lissotriton vulgaris (3)

In their terrestrial form common newts are sometimes mistaken for lizards by people, because their dry and finely granulated skin doesn´t appear very amphibian. Furthermore their tails have not the large skin appendiges which form the fins and crests which develop in the aquatic form during the mating season.

Common newt Lissotriton vulgaris (1)

Another photo showing the specimen in dorsal view:

Common newt Lissotriton vulgaris (4)

After I took the photos I carefully placed it in the nearby gras, as this road is comparably strongly frequented by cyclists, joggers and also cars, what sadly sometimes results in a lot of roadkilled amphibians at early morning, especially of fire salamanders.

Veröffentlicht unter Amphibien, Naturbeobachtungen | Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

Under the hermit crab´s shell

Hermit crabs are freaky and cool for many reasons. They live inside the external skeletons of dead snails to cover their misshapen abdomens, which they even sometimes plant with living anemones, they have some of the most extensive body assymetries of all crustaceans, some of them are among the most succesful terrestrial decapops of the world while their largest member, the coconut crab Birgus latro is by far the largest terrestrial arthropod since the Carboniferus.

When I was two years ago at Crete I had the chance to take a closer look at two dead hermit crabs from some fishermen´s bycatch.


You can usually only see the front part of the body, but in this dead individuals I could easily separate the hermit crabs from their shells to take a look at their abdomens.


They had been lying there already since some time in the sun, so the very soft abdomens were already somewhat shrunken.


A look at the other specimen:


On the left side of the abdomen you can also see the highly modified pleopods used to hold the abdomen inside the shells.


Close-up of the abdomen:

DSC06160 2

For comparison a photo of a quite fresh Pagurus bernhardus from Wikipedia, with the abdomen still in full shape:


Pagurus bernhardus. Source: Wikipedia

Here´s also for the better understanding of the anatomy a schematic depiction of a Hermit crab without shell:


Common Hermit Crab (Eupagurus bernhardus). Source: Wikimedia Commons)


Veröffentlicht unter Anatomie, Arthropoden | 1 Kommentar

At the birdfeeder: Grosbeaks and bullfinches

At the end of last year I made several bird feeders, among them two bigger wooden models for seeds. It took some time until I finally managed to instal one of them in the garden, but the birds quickly learnt to use it. I was especially delighted when I discovered that two pairs of grosbeaks had also discovered the sunflower seeds. I don´t remember when I´ve seen grosbeaks the last time, but it was surely several years ago, what made it even better to see those impressive birds from close distance.

Grosbeaks  or hawfinches (Coccothraustes coccothraustes) are the largest members of the finch family Fringillidae at Europe. Their highly specialized massive beaks are even strong enough to crack open plum and cherry seeds, what enables them to exploit food sources unaccessible for most other birds.


The inside of the upper beak is equiped with five cutting edges, three median and two lateral ones and  grooved surfaces in the distal half of the beak, which correspond to a pair of knots in the lower beak.

Another species which regularly dines at the bird feeder is the bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula), another large member of the Fringillidae. The males have strikingly read plumage and are undoubtedly among the most beautyful European songbirds.


Compared with the greenfinches, chaffinches and sparrows in the garden the bullfinches look pretty big, but next to the bulky grosbeaks even they seem delicate.


A female bullfinch, which is of much lesser spectacular colouration than the male.


This bird feeder works really quite good, and possibly I will write a blog post about its construction.

Veröffentlicht unter Vögel | Verschlagwortet mit | Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

The remarkably big caudal keels of swordfish

That´s just another of those posts which focus on lesser known anatomical oddities in otherwise better known animals. This time it´s about one of the most iconic teleost fish, the grand swordfish Xiphias gladius.

But I won´t cover its most prominent attribute, the highly elongated rostrum, but take instead a look at the other end of the body. Depictions of swordfish in books are usally in a lateral view, as are most photos. As a result of this, the horizontal shape of the body is hardly recognizable. When I was last year at the island of Corfu (Greece), I had the chance to take a photo of a tail end of a swordfish when I visited a fish market. At this perspective, you can see very well how wide and robust the tail actually is, and how strong and massive the locomotory caudal muscles really are.

But even more surprising was the sheer size of the lateral keels near the caudal fin. This keels are often mentioned in books about fish, but they look only quite unremarkable on typical illustrations in lateral view.

Schwerfisch caudal Korfu

Swordfish tail with prominent lateral keels, photographed at Corfu.

This keels are unique among Istiophoriformes, all the other species like marlins or sailfish – which belong to the distinct genus Istiophoridea – have instead a vertical row of two pairs of lateral keels.

This keels act as stabilizers during swimming, and also occur in comparable shapes in other fast-swimming pelagic fish like mako sharks.

Veröffentlicht unter Fische, Megafische | Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

The oral oddities of ruminants

In the last post I wrote about the strange anatomical structures in the beaks of spoonbills. This time I will cover again oral oddities, but in a fully different class of animals. Ruminants have always been among the most important game for humans, and in the form of their domesticated varieties among the most important animals in the history of mankind. Sheeps, goats, various domestic bovines and domestic reindeers were essential elements of whole cultures, and even today huge industries are build on some of them.

So it is not surprising that we normally do not think of anything really weird when we look at those animals. That´s probably in part because we usually don´t come really close enough to them, but also because most of us usually don´t butcher or dissect them ourselves.

But if you do so, you can find anatomical structures of nearly alienesque weirdness. If you have seen photos of the mouth cavities of leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea), you will know about those totally crazy spine-covered papillae which help them to engulf such slippery prey like jellyfish, and which also line the whole length of the esophagus (actually Dermochelys isn´t the only marine turtle with such papillae, only the most famous one to have them).

But as grotesque as those spinous papillae of leatherback turtles seem, they aren´t even that different from very similar structures found in the mouth cavities of ruminants like for example ordinairy domestic cows or sheep. One good way to see them in all their strangeness, is to dissect a ruminant head,. That is a great possibility to see even the normally not visible parts inside the mouth, and all the extent of the oral papillae.

But sometimes you can also have the chance to see them in a living animal. Last year I visited the wildlife park Wildparadis Tripsdrill, a really very nice park with a very large number of interesting animals, mainly from the Northern hemisphere. Many of the ungulates there are used to eat the pellets which are sold for visitors. Besides various deers, muntjaks, mufflons and some other ones, there are also domestic yaks (Bos grunniens), which are eager to beg for pellets.


Subadult yaks at Wildparadis Tripsdrill

Now let´s look into their mouths.




Even closer:

DSC02826 a

The whole insides of the cheeks and some other, in this photo not visible areas, are covered with weird tentacle-like villi. They are directed towards the gullet, and form together with the much smaller papillae on the tongue a conveyer system for plant matter.

Another photo taken from the side:


Besides several still not fully grown subadults, there was also a highly impressive bull, which was also quite willed to show the inside of its mouth.


The bull had also really formidable horns and striking elongated dorsal spines.


Even given the fact that domestic yaks don´t grow as big as their wild relatives, this bull was still a highly powerful and beautyful being.


And it had a nice white beard as well.


Those villi are more or less soft, but some of them, in particular those in the lower corner of the mouth, have well pronounced keratinized tips which extends into short spines.


And what looks at that perspective nearly like some alien slug radula is still only a quite normal bovine mouth.


The tongues, cheeks and other elements of the oral cavities of many animal are highly specialized, sometimes even extremely grotesque by human standards, but they usually still don´t get much attention.

Veröffentlicht unter Anatomie, Säugetiere | 1 Kommentar

Birds with weird beaks part III: Why spoonbills are even stranger than you think

Spoonbills (Plataleinae) have obviously weird beaks. The overall elongated shape with the flat and proximally widened end is already a quite strong modification of the „normal“ bird beak. But you have to take a really close look at the beak, to see another, much lesser obvious anatomical feature, which makes it even more bizarre.

If you take for example the Eurasian spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia), a bird of quite exotic appearance which surprisingly even breeds in low numbers in great Britain, Denmark and Germany. The proximal half of its beak is nearly absurdly thin and flat, with the epynomous spoon-shaped end. That´s what people usually look at and immediately know why it´s called spoonbill.

Eurasian spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia), ornithological museum at Rocca di Lonato

When you look however in the distal part of the beak, you won´t not only notice some fine transverse ridges on the upside and margins of the beak, but also some strange keratinous structures at the inside.

Eurasian spoonbill(Platalea leucorodia), ornithological museum Rocca di Lonato (2)

And that´s how they look in a more lateral view:

Eurasian spoonbill(Platalea leucorodia), ornithological museum Rocca di Lonato (7)

I made another photo without flashlight, to make it somewhat more contrasty.

Eurasian spoonbill(Platalea leucorodia), ornithological museum Rocca di Lonato (4)

And for comparison one with flashlight:

Eurasian spoonbill(Platalea leucorodia), ornithological museum Rocca di Lonato (5)

That´s it, there are numerous conical peseudoteeth-like processes inside the beak. They are easily overlooked from the distance or from other viewing directions. That´s one reason I  really enjoy looking at museum specimens, because you can often see tiny anatomical details you can rarely see in a moving and usually more distantly located living animal.

I tried to make another photo to get a shot of the keratinous cones in the upper beak:

Eurasian spoonbill(Platalea leucorodia), ornithological museum Rocca di Lonato (8)

That was part III of the weird bird beak series, which I hope to continue anytime. But I think I´ll make a break now to write the next blogpost about something different.

Veröffentlicht unter Anatomie, Vögel | Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

Weird bird beaks part II: The pseuodeteeth of the double-toothed barbet

Today´s featured bird with a weird beak is the double-toothed barbet (Lybius bidentatus), a colourful member of the African barbets, and around the size of a sparrow.

Lybius bidentatus (1)

Double-toothed barbet (Lybius bidentatus) taxidermy specimen from the Zoological Insitute Tübingen

The origin of their name is quite obvious, as their upper beaks shows some pretty big pseudotooth-like projections.

Another photo showing the whole taxidermy specimen:

Lybius bidentatus (2)


Veröffentlicht unter Anatomie, Vögel | Hinterlasse einen Kommentar