Photo of the Day: Sumatran Rat

The Sumatran porcupine and the moonrat are now in good company with another little-known critter from the same part of the world, the Sumatran rat (Rhizomys sumatrensis). Photo taken at Haus der Natur, Salzburg:

As in the Sumatran porcupine, this old taxidermy specimen has faded somewhat, living Sumatran rats are usually somewhat darker and more greyish.

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Photo of the Day: Moonrat

It´s again obscure mammal day, so here´s a moonrat (Echinosorex gymnura), a long-tailed oppossum-lookalike related to hedgehogs. This specimen is again from Haus der Natur, Salzburg:

Another photo to show its size:


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Photo of the Day: Sumatran porcupine

Writing blogposts, even quite short ones, often requires a substantial amount of time. Finding topics to write about is not the problem, and I already have more photos for potential blogposts in my archives, than I could ever write. So I decided to try posting at least some more photos of interestig subjects without much text, at best a post per day. I´ll see how well it works. I´ll start with a photo of a pretty obscure mammal you´ll quite rarely encounter in any museum, the Sumatran porcupine Hystrix sumatrea. This specimen is from the pretty awesome museum „Haus der Natur“ at Salzburg, Austria. Note that this is a pretty old taxidermy specimen with faded colouration, in life they are much darker.

Sumatran porcupine Hystrix sumatrae, Haus der Natur, Salzburg.

Detail of the head:

As you can see the quills are much lesser pronounced than in the common crested porpcupine Hystrix cristata you usually see in zoos:


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No, there was no gorilla arm found on an Irish beach (Spoiler: it´s from a seal)

At the moment there is a strange story in the news, about an alleged gorilla arm which was found on a beach in Kilkee, Ireland. You can read the original story here. The photo in the article shows the grisly-looking, nearly fully skeletonized remains of a very robust limb, with the bones still attached to each other by the remains of the ligaments and other tough soft tissue.

When it was found, it was even assumed at first to come from a human, but was later „identified“ to belong to a very large primate, most likely a gorilla, but there are also speculations that it ss from a chimpanzee. I really wonder who made those analyse of the remains, as the alleged identification is simply plain wrong. First of all, if you walk on an Irish beach and find some bones, should you really assume in the first place that they belong to an animal native to the African continent? Why not, well, trying to look if there is any local animal which would better fit it, like, for example a marine mammal?

We live in the times of the internet, and it was never easier to look for and find information and photos than today. But this capability is still usually never used by most people in such cases. It is just dead easy to google for „gorilla arm bones“ or „gorilla skeleton“ to make a comparison and see that it obviously does not belong to a gorilla or any other primate. What you see is not the arm of an ape, but the hind flipper of a seal. The two long bones are not an ulna and radius, but a fibula and tibia. If you take a close look at the original photo, you can also see that they are also close-knit at the base. The four long „fingers“ are also just the long toe bones of the seal flipper, with the fifth one already lost.

For comparison, take a look at this bones from a mounted skeleton of a harbour seal (Phoca vitulina) at the marine mammal section of the Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde at Stuttgart:

Harbour seal hind limb bones, Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Stuttgart.

The ceratinous sheats of the claws at the proximal bones are already lost on the „gorilla arm“, but you can see them still on the photo above. You can also see a very good photo of a disarticulated hind flipper of a grey seal (Halichoerus grypus), which shows all the isolated bones here. Seals have toe and finger bones which are comparably circular in cross-section, whereas gorillas have extremely gnarly bones for the attachment of massive tendons. The lengths and proportions of the different phalanges are also quite different from those of a seal, where the first and fifth toe are longer and thicker than the ones in the middle to form a shape similar to rubber flippers.

The bones from Kilkee belongs most likely either to a harbour seal or a grey seal, as both species are native to the waters off Ireland and could both fit the size of the remains. So no more mystery about a gorilla arm on a beach, just another case which shows how easily people are tricked by the differences between the external shape of an animal and the shape of the underlying bones.

Veröffentlicht unter Anatomie, Populäre Irrtümer, Säugetiere | 2 Kommentare

Out-of-place flamingos at Bavaria

During my recent visit to the Chiemgau Alps, I made also a day trip to Chiemsee, one of the largest Bavarian lakes. I made a slight detour to a nature reserve around the area where the river Großache issues into the lake. This wonderful delta has a quite diverse landscape with a very rich fauna. And as it turned out, the local bird fauna was even much more extraordinary than I had imagined. When I was standing on a birdwatching tower and took a look with my binoculars over the lake, I was extremely surprised to see a strange pink bird among the flocks of ducks, cormorants, swans and coots. I could hardly believe my eyes when I realized that this odd bird was actually a flamingo:

Flamingo at Chiemsee

It was sadly very far away, and it spent most of the time with its head underwater, so I could not take very good photos of it.

Another one:

Here are also some other photos to give you an idea about the rich diversity of waterfowl there:

As good as a bonus, I could also discover four juvenile grass snakes (Natrix natrix) on a tree trunk in a swampy area in front of the birdwatching tower. You can see two of them here:

Juvenile grass snakes

Here is another one, showing a juvenile grass snake  and a juvenile viviparous lizard (Zootoca vivipara):

Some later research revealed that this flamingo was only one of five specimens, which have been around in the Chiemsee area since some years. The first sightings date back to 2001. Their true origin is not fully known, but they are possibly escapees from a private exotic bird collection at Leopoldskren near Salzburg, which has a colony of 90 greater flamingos and Chilean flamingos. It seems that at least some of the flamingos at Chiemsee are of the Chilean species.

You can see some better photos and even a good video of them here.

It seems likely that this small group won´t successfully reproduce and increase its number, as there are hardly any suitable breeding areas around. There actually is however already another breeding and reproducing population of flamingos at Germany, at Zwillbrocker Venn, just next to the border to the Netherlands. This colony dates back to around 1970 and consists of three different breeding species, greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus), American flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) and Chilean flamingos (Phoenicopterus chilensis). Even hybridization between the greater flamingo and the two other species was already observed. Since some years there were even sightings of isolated specimens of the lesser flamingo (Phoenicopterus minor). One reason why this colony could survive for decades is the plancton-rich water, which is mainly a result of the excrements from a black-headed gull breeding colony at the lake. The other reason is the existence of an island in the lake, where they can breed. But today it takes additional human help to make this reproduction possible, as fox predation, even on the island, has become a serious problem.


Veröffentlicht unter Naturbeobachtungen, Neozoen, Vögel | 1 Kommentar

The Monster Trout of Königssee

I recently visited Königssee, an alpine lake which is part of Berchtesgaden National Park. This area is without a doubt one of the most striking landscapes of Germany. It is located in the very southeast of the country, quite close to Austria. The lake is towered by the Watzmann, the second-highest mountain of Germany, with a height of 2713 m. It looks nearly a bit like a Norwegian fjord, with high cliffs rising on the sides of the lake, which has a total length of 7.7 km. The average depth of this lake is 98.1 m, but some areas are up to 190 m deep. The crystal-clear water is very cold and quite low in nutrients, and only populated by a small number of fish species, mainly salmonids, but also burbots (Lota lota), European perches (Perca fluviatilis), Eurasian minnows (Phonxinus phonxinus), European bullheads (Cottus gobio) and northern pikes (Esox lucius).

In general the pike is the second largest non-anadromous predatory fish of most of Europe, and where the giant wels catfish Silurus glanis (which reaches in parts of its range exceptional record sizes of around 2.80 m and weights up to around 150 kg) does not occur, it´s even usually the biggest. But not at Königssee. The cold waters in the shadow of the Watzmann are the home of another giant fish.

It is the Seeforelle, the largest salmonid fish of the lake. The name Seeforelle translates to „lake trout“, which should not be confused with the lake trout or namaycush (Salvelinus namaycush) of the North American continent, which is no trout at all, but a huge charr. To make things even more confusing, you can find namaycush now even in some alpine lakes at Europe, where they were introduced at around 1900. The Seeforelle is not a species of its own, but a very large-growing ecotype of the common brown trout Salmo trutta. This fish usually lives in cold and clean streams and creeks, and normally doesn´t grow bigger than around 30-40 cm, and in very cold and nutrient poor alpine brooks it sometimes even grows not bigger than 20 cm for its whole life. But this fish has a fascinating plasticity, and can adapt to a wide range of habitats. In marine areas, it will grow into the large and salmon-like sea trout, and in large deep and comparably cold lakes it can form a much bigger ecotype, the Seeforelle.

The Seeforelle differs from the normal brown trout not only in size, but also in its colour. Brown trouts are usually of a yellowish-to greenyish or brownish basic colour with black and red spots (the brown trouts of the Isles however usually lack those red spots). The Seeforelle is however silvern and has normally only black spots. In contrast to the brown trout, whose diet consists to large degrees on insects and aquatic insect larvae, the Seeforelle is mainly a piscivore, which feeds on other fish. At Königssee, this includes another fascinating salmonid, the Schwarzreiter, a very small local form of the arctic charr (Salvelinus alpinus). This big-eyed deepwater charrs grow not much bigger than 20 cm, and feeds on invertebrates and are just bite-sized for the large specimens of the Seeforelle.

In 1976, a true monster specimen was caught. This gargantuan trout had a length of 1.25 m, a girth of 80 cm and the incredible weight of 27,5 kg. That´s even a good bit heavier than the rod and reel world record of 25 kg for the northern pike (there are however some slightly bigger specimens known which are not included in official angling record lists, and pikes grow also longer). The mount of this huge trout is now exhibited at the restaurant at St. Bartholomä, a historic hunting lodge next to the famous church of the same name, which is located at the base of the Watzmann. You can also see an old photo of the freshly-caught trout here.

Giant Seeforelle at St. Bartholomä, Königssee.

It is sadly not really easy to show the huge size of this fish without a good size reference. I have seen a lot of big taxidermy salmonids, but when I saw this one, I was nearly a bit shocked by its dimensions.

Giant trout from Königssee, head detail.

To give you a better idea about its size, I made a size comparison with the silhouette of a diver by Jaime Bran, to show it next to a human:

Giant trout from Königssee next to a human (diver silhouette by Jaime Bran)

Of course this was a truely exceptional fish, and much, much bigger than the average.  As angling is not allowed at the lake, and only a single commerical fisherman has the liscence to fish at the lake, it is however possible that there are still a few monster trouts lurking in the depths of Königssee.

The fjord-like lakefronts of Königssee

Another view of the lake:

Königssee seen from St. Bartholomä

A view from one of the piers:

The old hunting lodge on the left with the baroque church St. Bartholomä in the middle and the Watzmann in the background.

Here is also a photo of one of the pikes I´ve seen at Obersee lake, a smaller lake south of the Königssee, which is separated from the main lake by a moraine. It is much lesser depp and lesser cold, with much shallower tree-lined watersides, and a much better habitat for pikes. I was really suprised by the number of pikes I discovered from the path above the lakeside. I saw seven specimens at least, with the largest ones in the 70-80 cm range. It is a good example of a healthy natural ecosystem where pikes are not targeted by fishing anymore.

Pike at lake Obersee

It is however noteworthy that even the largest specimens of the Seeforelle are still surpassed in size by the largest specimens of two other European salmonids, the Atlantic salmon Salmo salar (like this historic monster specimen about which I blogged some time ago) and the huge huchen (Hucho hucho), about which I will write at another time.

Veröffentlicht unter Fische, Megafische, Naturbeobachtungen | Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

Curiosity of the Day: Inuit tools made from Greenland shark teeth

As I have a longlasting interest in ethnology and indigenous cultures, I decided to feature here some interesting man-made artifacts. Since this blog is mainly about animals, those objects will be of course zoology-themed. When I recently visited once again the National Museum of Denmark at Copenhagen, I could take a lot of really interesting photos.

This monumental museum does not only have a wonderful exhibition about the history of Denmark (including the bull of Vig, one of the most complete Aurochs skeletons in the world), but also a stunning collection of archeological and ethnological objects from other areas of the world.

Because Greenland belongs to the kingdom of Denmark, the exhibition of inuit artifacts is particularly rich, and quite probably one of the best in the world. I´ve been always particularly fascinated by the traditional culture of the inuit, and especially interested in their extremely advanced crafts. Compared with stone-age hunter-gatherers from other areas of the world, their level of technology was absolute hightech and many of their objects of utility were surprisingly complex and functional constructions. That´s even more surprising, as the inuit had only an extremely reduced access to many natural resources. Except for stones and driftwood, the base for nearly everything else was from the bodies of various animals.

Among the innumerous tools, harpoons and other objects, I discovered some items which I found especially interesting:

Inuit tools with Greenland shark teeth, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen

This tools have cutting edges made from shark teeth, which are inserted into notches of the wooden handles and fixed with fine, apparantly wooden bolts. Tools and even big weapons like spears and swords with cutting edges made from shark teeth are well known from Oceania and found in many museums. But they are quite rarely seen among inuits. The reason for this is possibly because inuits had- quite in contrast to coastal peoples of Oceania- quite little contact with sharks, as there aren´t really many sharks in arctic waters. The only shark which inuits sometimes encountered, was however a really weird one, the unearthly sleeper shark Somniosus microcephalus.

This stolid giant, which can not only grow to pretty big sizes but also live for several centuries, was occasionally caught or found dead by the inuit, and its teeth and skin found sometimes use, whereas its meat was fed to sledge dogs and its liver was used to make oil. But there was not much knowledge about this cryptic denizen of the deep, which has -quite in contrast to many other arctic animals- next to no place in cultural memory. There was no targeted hunting or fishing for sharks, and the inuits learned mainly about their existence when they scavenged on seals caught in seal nets. Today they are often caught as unwanted bycatch in halibut fishery, but this started only a few decades ago, as there was not much traditional fishing for halibut.

If you take a close look at the tools, you can see the typical tooth shape of the Greenland shark´s lower teeth:

Greenland shark teeth of lower tooth rows, detail.

In contrast to Oceanian shark tooth tools, which are usually (but not always) made from single perforated teeth which were fastened with threads on the handles, this tools are made from the whole tooth rows. The lower teeth of sleeper sharks are tightly attached to each other, and shed in the whole instead of tooth by tooth. This makes it of course easier to remove the whole tooth row or even several tooth rows at once from the jaws and use them like a saw-blade. I don´t really know for what they were used, perhaps for cutting up the carcasses of seals or whales. The two smaller ones look however suprisingly similar to tools illustrated in Jensen´s „The selachians of Greenland“, which were used as haircutters by the inuit.

There was also another interesting tool made from the teeth of a Greenland shark, which was the weirdest saw I have ever seen. All in all, it was shaped like an ordinairy hacksaw, but made of fully different materials. The cutting edges were shark teeth, and the frame of the saw was either made from reindeer antler or possibly carved out of a big piece of whale bone. It´s noteworthy that it includes some small metal pins, what means that it was made by inuit which had already contact with Western sailors. They are many wonderful examples of western tools imitated by inuit craftsmen by using the materials they could use, like ivory scissors, sometimes made with thin blades of scrap metal riveted to the ivory.

Inuit hacksaw with Greenland shark teeth, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen

The whole exhibition about the inuit was not only about their culture and environment, which has shaped their unique way of life. All those artifacts showed also the animals of their native land, which only enabled them to live in this inhospitable part of the world.



Idrobo, C.J. and F. Berkes 2012. Pangnirtung Inuit and the Greenland shark: coproducing knowledge of a little discussed species. Human Ecology 40: 405–414.

Jensen, A. S. 1914. The Selachians of Greenland. Copenhagen: Bianco Lunos Bogtrykkeri.

Veröffentlicht unter Anatomie, Curiosity of the Day, Ethnology, Fische, Haie und andere Knorpelfische | 2 Kommentare

Fossil of the day: Gnarly wooly rhino skull

For today I have just a short fossil-of-the-day-post. It´s a close-up of the nasal and frontal area of of a wooly rhino´s skull from the Naturhistorisches Museum Mainz (natural history museum Mainz). You can see very well the highly textured bone surface where the two horns were originally growing.

Skull of a woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis). Photo taken at Naturhistorisches Museum Mainz

The surface is covered by countless burl-like boney outgrowths, which are especially marked in the nasal area where the large first horn was.

If you look back at the first photo, you can also see a small gnarly bone formation in the upper third of the crest, right at the middle of the attachment areas of the temporalis muscles. This made me think if there could have been some sort of keratinous formation or even a small horn-like structure, similar to small third horns occasionally found in modern rhinos. It´s impossible to say this for sure, but who knows what sorts of anomalous horn growth occured in prehistoric rhinos. For more information about weird rhino horns on unusual places and the history of Dürer´s Rhinocerus click here.

Veröffentlicht unter Anatomie, Megafauna, Paläontologie, Säugetiere | Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

In search of the black hell adder

Today I made an excursion to the northern Black Forest, with a vague hope to see a common European adder (Vipera berus). This is one of the few remaining areas here around which still has a somewhat bigger population of this snake. The temperature was still comparably low, and there was even still some snow, but enough sun to speculate that some adders could be already around. The European adder is the only snake which even occurs north of the northern polar circle, and they leave their hibernation dens already early in the year.

In some populations, melanistic specimens occur comparably frequently, especially in areas with lower temperatures or in bogs. In some populations up to 95% of the adders are black. In German, those melanistic specimens are regionally called „Höllenotter“, what translates to „hell adder“.

Admittedly, I had never the luck to see any common European Adder in the wild before. I already visited the very same area already two years ago, but without any intention to look in particular for snakes, and there are not that much more potential habitats for them here around. But this time I really searched for them, looked for potential places where they could dwell and visited certain possibly more promising places even for several times. Suddenly I discovered something dark in the grass, not even far away from the path on which I walked, and I saw immediately that it was a black hell adder.

Melanistic common European adder, Photo by Markus Bühler

This jet-black snake was just beautiful, it looked like something carved from obsidian.

I could observe it for quite some time from very close distance before it slithered away.

It was around 50 cm in length, what´s around in the lower average size for adult common adders.

There was of course a lot of luck involved to see this hell adder, and despite intense searching, I couldn´t find a single additional specimen in the hours afterwards. But anyway, this was still a fantastic find for me, and also a good reason for further adder excursions.

Here is a photo taken not far away from the place where I found the adder:

This is not exactly the classical deep Black Forest with big old trees and wet moss all around, but an area dominated by younger trees and smaller open areas with heather and grasses. That´s important, because the common European adder is not really a forest-dwelling snake, but dependent on sunlight which it finds mainly on the edges of forests, swathes or other places where the trees are thin enough.


Veröffentlicht unter Naturbeobachtungen, Reptilien | 3 Kommentare

The spiny wing quills of the cassowary

Cassowaries are unusual and weird by nearly every standard, but the general focus is mainly on their flamboyant heads and necks and their formidable foot claws. But there is just so much more noteworthy about them. For example their extraordinaire remiges, which are reduced to very long, barb-less quills, which are unlike anything else in the modern bird world.

Cassowary wing quills. Photo taken at the public collection of the zoological institute at Tübingen.

The wings of cassowaries are highly reduced, much more than those of ostriches or rheas. Without those long quills, they would be almost unnoticeable within their shaggy plumage.

Anothter photo showing the quills in a living specimen at Berlin Zoo (don´t look at the claws, this post is about their quills!):

Cassowary wing quills and killer claws. Photo taken at Berlin Zoo.

Those quills are still used by Papuans as decorative ornaments, for example for nose piercings, but also as a medium of exchange.

The question however remains, what is the purpose of those quills for the cassowary? Are they for display, social interaction, have they some mechanical function or are they used for defense? Given they massive foot claws, it seems not very likely that cassowaries have to rely on their quills as a mean of defense, and so far I couldn´t find any additional information which would support any of the other possible uses.

Veröffentlicht unter Anatomie, Vögel | Hinterlasse einen Kommentar