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  • Specimen of the Week: 184

    By Dean W Veall, on 20 April 2015

    Scary-Monkey-Week-Nine Hello dear Grant Museum blog followers, Dean Veall here again bringing you Specimen of the Week 184. This week’s specimen of the week is the result of a recent rummage through the drawers of the collection. Through my contributions for the series I have often gone in search of a specimen that doesn’t get to be seen by the public very often and today’s specimen is indeed one of those and it also revisits an emerging avian tendancy I had not realised I had until I started writing these blogs. This week’s Specimen of the Week is…..


    ****Javan banded pitta (Pitta guajana) ****


    LUCDZ- Y1663 Javan banded pitta (Pitta guajana)

    LDUCZ- Y1663 Javan banded pitta (Pitta guajana)

    1). Natural history

    The Javan banded pitta, as its name suggests, is found on the islands of Java and Borneo. There are thought to be an estimated 10,000 individuals found in the tropical lowland forests of Java. Just like other members of the genus Pitta, the Javan banded pitta is distingushed by their short tails, rounded wings and brilliant colours which have earned them the nickname of jewelthrushes. As a group they are rather stout birds measuring just seven inches in length. These long-legged passerine birds move along the forest floor rapidly in long hops foraging for invertebrates such as insects and snails. Both parents are involved in nest making, which are usually roughly made and near the ground, incubation and rearing of young.


    2). A lumping and a splitting

    This is the third bird prep. specimen of the week I have written, having previously written about the kingfisher and the Eurasian jay. Unlike those specimens this specimen excited me because of some recent museum based research that changed the whole taxonomy of the group. In 2010 a study published by Rheindt and Eaton rocked the banded pitta world to its foundations, much of which are still reeling from that six page paper. The accepted consenus was that there existed six subspecies of the Pitta guajana, further studies have, however, discredited three of those due to either a mislabeled museum speciemens or lack of features that distiguished some subspecies from other subspecies, leaving just three potential subspecies. These were the focus of Rheindt and Eaton’s study. The three subspecies Pitta guajana schwaneri, Pitta guajana guajana and Pitta guajana irena were so distinct in their morphology that until the late 1930’s they were just separate species but a study later decided to put them altogether in one species, a process taxonomists refer to as lumping. Some 60 years after this, Rheindt and Eaton decided to revisit this grouping using 56 specimens from the Natural History Museum’s collection. They compared body part measurements and plumage colouration and also used  geographical data and bioacoustic comparision from wild animals. They concluded that based on these morphological, colouration, vocalisation and ecological differences that the three subspecies were distinct enough to warrant being re-elevated to species status. Rheindt and Eaton are what is refered to by taxonomists as splitters. I love a bit of taxonomic re-classification!

    Javan banded pitta (Pitta guajana) taken by Doug Janson obtained from http://commons.wikimedia.org

    Javan banded pitta (Pitta guajana) Image by Doug Janson CC-BY-SA-3.0: via http://commons.wikimedia.org


    3). Javan, Bornean and Malayan

    The species kept their name of banded pitta but  were split according to their native range and distingushed by their plumage. The Bornean banded pitta (P. schwaneri) from Borneo, has blue underparts with yellow flanks and its chest is densely barred with blackish. The Malayan banded pitta (P. irena) from the Thai-Malay Peninsula  has an orange-ish eyebrow, blue underparts and its chest has dense orange and dark bluish bars. And finally our specimen, the Javan banded pitta (P. guajana) with its yellow eyebrow, underparts that are densely barred in yellowish and blackish-blue and a narrow blue band on the upper chest.

    Check out the video of a Maylan banded pitta and notice the difference in plumage colouration with the Javan banded pitta.


    Handwritten note associated with specimen LUCDZ-Y1663

    Handwritten notes associated with specimen LUCDZ-Y1663


    4). Specimen Y1663

    Unlike many of our specimens it would appear that this specimen has some data associated with it in the form of these handwritten notes. We can say with certainty that this specimen is a Javan banded pitta as, according to the label it was collected in Java on the 2nd April 1937. The second note is, however, less clear, I can make it some measurments but the majority of the text is difficult to read and possibly not even in English. If anyone can make it out we would love to hear from you.



    Handwritten note associated with specimen LUCDZ-Y1663

    Handwritten note associated with specimen LUCDZ-Y1663

    Dean Veall is Learning and Access Officer at the Grant Museum of Zoology



    Rheindt, Frank & James Easton (2010). Biological species limits in the Banded Pitta Pitta guajana. Forktail (Journal of Asian Ornithology) 26: 86-91.

    Specimen of the Week: Week 182

    By Will J Richard, on 6 April 2015

    Scary MonkeyHello! Will Richard here. This month I have decided to dictate my blog to a footman, as I’m feeling very royal. Last month one (which is royal for “I”) wrote about a queen. And so, continuing in that grandiose tradition, this month one would like to write about a king. Not a pretend king like one (I think when speaking royal you can also use “one” to mean “me”) but a proper king. His Royal Highness himself…

    This week’s specimen of the week is… (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 174

    By Dean W Veall, on 9 February 2015

    Scary MonkeyHello dear readers, Dean Veall here. I came across this week’s Specimen of the Week whilst writing another Specimen of the Week many months back and thought I would save it for a cold February Monday as just like that specimen it has a irrescedent sparkle on its wings that will hopefully banish those Monday blues. It is also a species that many of us will have likely come across as we have peered whistfully out of our windows whilst writing romantic prose (no? Just me) in Winter when this species stands out the most. If you did spot this species as you were looking out the window on the last weekend of January you were probably one of 315,000 who were taking part in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch. *Spoilers* With that tidbit I should probably tell you that this week’s Specimen of the Week is…….


    The Not So Beautiful Birds

    By Mark Carnall, on 13 August 2014

    Image of Grant Museum sparrow skeleton

    Grant Museum sparrow skeleton. Specimen LDUCZ-Y1595

    Recently this specimen and a number of other bird skeletons came back from our conservation lab. When I first started at UCL these nine skeletons were in the dreaded “curator’s cabinet” a cabinet of broken and miscellaneous specimens that  were presumably the bane of previous curator’s lives. These skeletons were fragmented, partially disarticulated and all the fragments mixed together. I gave these specimens to Gemma Aboe who was undertaking some conservation work for us and she managed to piece together a number of half skeletons from this mixed box. These specimens aren’t the kind of thing you normally encounter in a public natural history museum display as they aren’t ‘perfect’ but I couldn’t resist taking a few extra shots of these whilst documenting them as although they are incomplete and not ‘worthy’ of a spot on display they are still quite hauntingly beautiful.


    Specimen of the Week: Week 135

    By Naomi Asantewa-Sechereh, on 12 May 2014

    Scary MonkeyAs you will know by now, Team Grant are taking it in turn to contribute their choices to Specimen of the Week. The previous 134 Specimen of the Weeks have only included 10 birds – there’s your first clue, it definitely is a bird! So in order to increase the number of our bird specimens with that coveted crowning glory, this week’s Specimen of the Week is… (more…)

    Why Twitter is good for museums – making discoveries

    By Jack Ashby, on 9 April 2014

    Using Twitter as a way of building a community of support, engaging people in content and shedding light on life behind the scenes in museums (that we don’t just dust stuff) is too obviously demonstrated by the real world to be spending too much time discussing. Not to mention the power to market events and exhibitions quickly and cheaply – assuming don’t over-use social media as a marketing tool.

    On Monday I conducted two pieces of “research” on our collection which sprung up out of the blue and would have been very difficult to solve without turning to our Twitter followers to tap their collective brain to find a quick answer. Both of them were on specimens that begin with “H” and end with “Bill”. Weird.

    Tweeting Turtles

    Hawksbill turtle showing his interesting eyes LDUCZ-X1177

    Hawksbill turtle showing his interesting eyes LDUCZ-X1177


    Specimen of the Week: Week Seventy-Nine

    By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 15 April 2013

    I feel that we know each other well enough now for me to get personal. I am going to share a story about my sister. Today, she is flying back from the Sahara desert where she has just completed the Marathon des Sables; widely acclaimed to be the ‘Toughest Footrace on Earth’. It consists of no less than six marathons in six consecutive days, up mountains, over sand dunes, and across the desert, all whilst carrying a 10 kg pack. In tribute to what must be the singly most impressive thing anyone I know has ever achieved, I’m going to dedicate this week’s specimen to her and tell you about another type of bird that has the ability to run huge distances in the African desert. This species can reach up to 70 kilometres per hour and has such incredible stamina that it can maintain a speed of 50 kilometres per hour for over 30 minutes at a time. This week’s Specimen of the Week is… (more…)

    Spring Invocation 1: Birds

    By Edmund Connolly, on 28 March 2013

    Given that we are enduring a slightly tepid spring, I figured it’d be nice to pretend we are in the middle of the whirl of new life, joy and bouncing lambs that spring promises to bring. In this series of 5 blogs I am going to attempt to dust the cobwebs off my English degree[1] and evoke sounds, smells, tastes, touch and sights of what spring should be, mixed with an Ancient Egyptian garnish, just because, right now, the thought of 25+ degrees is the only thing keeping me from embracing this eternal winter and bunkering down to a Game of Thrones type existence.


    Chaffinch, courtesy of: www.rspb.org.uk

    Chaffinch, courtesy of: www.rspb.org.uk