Beijing Birds and Other Wildlife

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Before my first trip here, my advisor told me I wouldn’t see many birds in Beijing. Boy, was he wrong! I was only just starting to get interested in birds last time I visited, and at that point I didn’t have a field guide, so I didn’t pay much attention to birds I couldn’t easily ID. I saw a Black Swan, a Yellow Bittern, and a Common Pochard at Yuanmingyuan. And there are Eurasian Magpies everywhere here along with Rock Doves and Eurasian Tree Sparrows. That was all I got last time.

Yuanmingyuan

Big lily pads

Big lily pads

But I wasn’t going to come here again and not try for more, so the first morning after I arrived, I went birding in Yuanmingyuan (also called the Old Summer Palace) (It was cheaper to fly in a couple days before my host was here than to come in the day before. Also gave me a chance to adjust to the time zones a bit.). YMY was my favorite place in Beijing last time. There are man-made lakes filled with lotuses and ringed by giant weeping willows everywhere. There are people-heavy areas where you can do touristy things like rent a paddle boat to go out to an island, explore a maze or the ruins of an amazing giant water clock that was destroyed in a war with England, buy coconuts that they chop the tops off of and stick a straw in, or buy lotus leaf hats that look straight out of a fairy’s wardrobe. There are also less-frequented paths, though.

Something tells me the authorities here don't really pay much attention to security...

Something tells me the authorities here don’t really pay much attention to security…

I’d briefly visited some of them in 2010, but I was there with friends who were less interested in walking around the less well-kept areas. This time, those less-frequented areas are the ones I spent most of my time in. While walking around, I saw groups of people walking toward where I was with binoculars and cameras. They turned out to be the Beijing Bird Watching Society. They visit parks together every Saturday and I happened to pick the park they were going to that day!

A very small portion of the BBWS seen here. One of the fun parts about walking through YMY is the ruins that appear out of nowhere.

One of the fun parts about walking through YMY is the ruins that appear out of nowhere.

A fellow birder had recommended trying to meet local birders to me before and he was right. Birding with locals makes things so much easier. Plus you meet some fun people that way. There are quite a few birds on my list that I would of had to spend hours mulling over or not been able to ID at all if they hadn’t been there. And they knew where to go to see birds, so there would have also been many I just plain wouldn’t have seen. It turns out my five-year-old East Asia guide really isn’t up-to-date with its range maps. There were some birds we saw that, according to it, wouldn’t have been in the area this time of year. There was even one which it had listed as an accidental (no range map given at all), which the birders said was actually common in Beijing.

There was a bird map hanging on a wall to tell people where common species like to hang out.

There was a bird map hanging on a wall to tell people where common species like to hang out.

I wish Google had pulled up guides written in Chinese when I searched for them. One of them had a guide that looked much better and covered all of China. And since it had species names in both Mandarin and English, it would have been good to carry around on top of the ones I brought (I had to buy one for Beijing and one for Guangdong [intended for use in Hong Kong, so it doesn’t have range maps…blah] because there isn’t a good China-wide field guide written in English. I’d just hoped that Hohhot was close enough to where my East Asia map cuts off that there wouldn’t be birds not listed there. There ended up only being one I had to search the internet to find out about.) But they gave me a brochure of common Beijing birds and I bought another detailing the different warbler species from them (their warblers are hard to ID like our flycatchers; they all look the same). It’s in Chinese, but it has pictures and the scientific and English names, so it makes a great companion piece to my field guides.

We hit some really fun spots. The Northern Hobbies were out in force and actively feeding. We watched one pair zoom along the surface of the lake in front of us catching fish, then eating them on the wing high over our heads. One of them zoomed right toward us before veering off close to the last minute. That was cool. My camera was having a hard time focusing on them they were moving so fast. I ended up only getting one fuzzy, distant shot that wasn’t worth keeping.

Azure-winged Magpie

Azure-winged Magpie

Oriental Greenfinch

Oriental Greenfinch

White-cheeked Starling

White-cheeked Starling

Female Little Grebe

Female Little Grebe

Olive-backed Pipit. Pipits have a fun habit of wagging their butts up and down as they walk.

Olive-backed Pipit. Pipits have a fun habit of wagging their butts up and down as they walk.

Male and juvenile Little Grebe

Male and juvenile Little Grebe

Azure-winged Magpie

Azure-winged Magpie

I think this was one of the Asian Brown Flycatchers

I think this was one of the Asian Brown Flycatchers

Common Kingfisher

Common Kingfisher

A dragon lying in ruins

Sleeping Dragon

A very happy fu dog

A very happy fu dog

Baby Chinese Stripe-necked Turtle (also called Chinese Golden Thread Turtles)

Baby Chinese Stripe-necked Turtle (also called Chinese Golden Thread Turtles)

Any idea what kind of freshwater fish this is?

Some sort of snakehead

There are two fish in this picture---an eel and a tiny goby smaller than its head

There are two fish in this picture—an eel and a tiny goby smaller than its head

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One of the lotuses the park is famous for. Last time I was here it was July and most of them were in bloom. It was gorgeous.

One of the lotuses the park is famous for. Last time I was here it was July and most of them were in bloom. It was gorgeous.

IMG_3194 IMG_3190 flower1 IMG_3158 IMG_3125

Peking University

I briefly visited the Arthur M. Sackler Art & Archeology Teaching Museum on the Peking University campus just outside YMY before heading back to the hostel.

They had a very curious way of displaying framed art. They were angled too close to horizontal. Having them in display cases would be a good thing if the cases are climate-controlled. Otherwise, it's an odd choice. I hope those fluorescent lights have UV filters on them...

They had a very curious way of displaying framed art. They were angled too close to horizontal. Having them in display cases would be a good thing if the cases are climate-controlled. Otherwise, it’s an odd choice. I hope those fluorescent lights have UV filters on them…

Some sort of female Golden Silk Orb-Weaver on the campus There were several males in her web, some the empty skins of previous mates and others hopeful mates.

Some sort of female Golden Silk Orb-Weaver on campus. There were several males in her web—some the empty skins of previous mates and others hopeful mates.

Fragrant Hills Park

Life finds a way

Life finds a way

The next place I went was Fragrant Hills. For being a montane place further away from the city center than Yuanmingyuan, it was decidedly non-birdy. I only got two lifers (Coal Tit and Yellow-bellied Warbler). The relatively small number of other species were all repeats from YMY.

It turned out to be quite fun for mammals and invertebrates, though. I was particularly excited to see a Beech Marten. It’s the third wild mustelid I’ve seen (the others being a River Otter in Florida and a Least Weasel in the middle of Washington, D.C.) I thought I was going to get to see a chase and kill when it climbed up a tree a Siberian Chipmunk was hiding in, but it seemed more interested in just hanging out and looking around. It was still lots of fun to watch.

Some sort of cute little beetle that turned to look at my camera. Any idea what it is? It's not in any group I'm familiar with.

Some sort of photogenic little beetle that turned to look at my camera. Any idea what it is? It’s not in any group I’m familiar with.

And there were three species of squirrel in the park. A brown type about the size and shape of our gray squirrels (not sure what species), a black morph of a Eurasian Red Squirrel, and Père David’s Rock Squirrels. At one point, I was sitting on a wall writing birds down in my notebook when passing people gasped and exclaimed something. I looked up and they were looking at the wall next to me. There was a Red Squirrel running at me. It stopped when I looked at it and jumped off onto the walkway, then ran a circuit around the crowd before hopping up on my other side. I assumed it was asking for food and figured I’d give the crowd a fun photo. I pulled out a grape and the squirrel took it out of my hand with absolutely no fear, then hopped into the trees to go eat it somewhere.

Pere David's Rock Squirrel. Chubby-looking little things.

Pere David’s Rock Squirrel. Chubby-looking little things.

I thought that was a one-off until another one ran up to me while I was eating lunch. It was actually so fearless that it ran up to my little grocery bag that was on the ground, put its paws up on it, and looked inside. When I offered it a grape, though, it sniffed it and ran off. It did a circuit around the path and came up on my other side just like the other squirrel. I couldn’t get my camera out in time, but it sniffed my grape and snubbed it again. By this point, a woman had walked up the path and set something green on the wall for it. But this was the most picky squirrel I’ve ever seen because he sniffed it and ran away into the trees.

Seen here: The only picky squirrel in existence

Seen here: The only picky squirrel in existence running away from food

Giant squirrel feeder. Tiny human for scale.

Giant squirrel feeder. Tiny human for scale.

Drinking water

List

I’ve included what few additional species I was able to ID on the train ride to Guangzhou here. The first 47 were in Beijing. 25 lifers (one on the train to Guangzhou)!

  1. Eurasian Magpie
  2. *Red-billed Magpie
  3. *Azure-winged Magpie
  4. cardinal-sized birds with wide heads leading to small abdomens (seen from train; not ID’ed)
  5. Eurasian Tree Sparrow
  6. Rock Dove
  7. Eurasian Collared Dove
  8. Spotted Dove
  9. Oriental Turtledove
  10. Large-billed Crow
  11. *Oriental Greenfinch
  12. *White-cheeked Starling
  13. Marsh Tit
  14. *Yellow-bellied Tit
  15. *Eastern Great Tit
  16. *Coal Tit
  17. *Willow Tit
  18. *Red-billed Chough
  19. Black-crowned Night Heron
  20. *Little Grebe
  21. Great Crested Grebe
  22. *Arctic Warbler
  23. Yellow-browed Warbler
  24. *Black-browed Reed warbler
  25. *Radde’s Warbler
  26. *Red-breasted Flycatcher
  27. Asian Brown Flycatcher
  28. Common Kingfisher
  29. Red-rumped Swallow
  30. *Northern Hobby
  31. *Amur Falcon
  32. Great Spotted Woodpecker
  33. Grey-headed Woodpecker
  34. *White-backed Woodpecker
  35. *Chestnut-flanked White-eye
  36. Common Blackbird
  37. *Chinese Bulbul
  38. White Wagtail
  39. *Olive-backed Pipit
  40. *Black-faced Bunting
  41. Chinese Pond Heron
  42. bittern sp.
  43. *Siberian Stonechat
  44. *Eyebrowed Thrush
  45. Mandarin Duck
  46. Eurasian Moorhen
  47. *Yellow-bellied Warbler
  48. Little Egret
  49. Intermediate Egret
  50. Great Egret
  51. Grey Heron
  52. Mallard
  53. *Collared Crow

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In and Around Marseille

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This is a combination post for sightseeing, birding, and exhibits. I was too busy finishing up that service project when I wasn’t in collections.

The only sightseeing trip I got to take was when my hosts tried to take me swimming in the Mediterranean my first day there, but a storm rolled in and we had to leave. But I did get to see some gorgeous landscapes in the process.

The tail end of Marseille and the prison from the Count of Monte Cristo are in the far-off background. In spite of swimming not being allowed there, quite a few people were swimming in that little inlet in teh center of the photograph.

The tail end of Marseille and the prison from the Count of Monte Cristo are in the far-off background. In spite of swimming not being allowed there, quite a few people were swimming in that little inlet in the center of the photograph.

Vertebrate fossils (I can't remember what kind) were found when crews were digging this old tunnel

Vertebrate fossils (I can’t remember what kind) were found when crews were digging this old tunnel

I didn’t get any good bird pictures, but I managed to get one lifer without really trying. As soon as we got to my host’s house, a little Crested Tit hopped into a nearby tree and started chittering while foraging for seeds (EDIT: I also saw Pallid Swifts and Grey Partridges). There were probably Mediterranean Gulls flying around where we tried to go swimming, which would have been lifers for me, but they were too far off in the distance for me to tell them apart from common Yellow-legged Gulls. I’d like to come back here someday and go to a nearby natural park a former UI postdoc from France recommended to see what else I can find.

I also didn’t have time to walk through the exhibits of the Marseille museum. Which was a bummer because what I saw on the way to/from my host’s office looked pretty awesome. They even had a taxidermied Mediterranean Monk Seal, which is one of the most critically endangered mammal species. They also had the best, most dynamic mosasaur mount I’ve ever seen.

Notice how the end of its tail is downturned? That's a recent finding. Mosasaurs had previously been reconstructed with paddle tails (imagine a moray eel's shape), but someone looked at the shape of the vertebrae and realized their natural position was to be ever so slightly angled. After that, at least one specimen was found with the outline of an upper fin preserved. It's nowhere near as pronounced as in derived icthyosaurs, though--more like the primitive icthyosaurs, which means it was probably only just starting to evolve.

Notice how the very end of its tail is downturned? That’s a recent finding. Mosasaurs had previously been reconstructed with paddle tails (imagine a moray eel’s shape), but someone looked at the shape of the vertebrae and realized their natural position was to be ever so slightly angled. After that, at least one specimen was found with the outline of an upper fin preserved. It’s nowhere near as pronounced as in derived icthyosaurs, though–more like the primitive icthyosaurs, which means it was probably only just starting to evolve in at least some species.

I have two more posts to make for my Western Europe trip, but they won’t go up until the second week of August. I’m leaving for Natural Trap Cave in a few hours and will be there for a week!

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Basel Exhibits and Marktplatz

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The day I walked around the exhibits, the place was oddly empty. I talked to the security guard and he said that, since it was such a nice day out, people were spending their time outside instead. They get more visitors on rainy days. It was strange to me that that day was considered nice by the locals because it was horribly hot and muggy. The cool, dry interior of the museum was far preferable to me.

My camera battery was about to die on me because I’d forgotten to charge it the night before, so I didn’t take many pictures of the exhibits.

Chalicotheres! One of my favorite extinct groups. They're related to rhinos, tapirs, and horses. There were two groups of them. The group in the picture here was characterized by having long arms like an ape and knuckle-walked like them too.

Chalicotheres! One of my favorite extinct groups. They’re related to rhinos, tapirs, and horses. There were two groups of them. The group in the picture here was characterized by having long arms like an ape and knuckle-walked like them too.

And their relative the tapir, demonstrating what the attachment site of a proboscis looks like.

And their relative, the Malayan tapir, demonstrating what the attachment site of a proboscis looks like.

Cainotherium, a member of Cainotheriidae, which is distantly related to camels.

Cainotherium, a member of Cainotheriidae, a group I’d never heard of that Wikipedia tells me is distantly related to camels.

They used actual patterned feathers to make this Archeopteryx reconstruction. They had several other fake taxidemied extinct birds as well, but I only took one picture because of my battery.

They used actual patterned feathers to make this Archeopteryx reconstruction. They had several other fake taxidemied extinct birds as well, but I only took one picture because of my battery.

One of the interesting things about the Basel exhibits was that some of their objects were just out on the floor with no stands or rope fences around them. This is unusual, because those are normally put into place to prevent people from touching the specimens and causing damage to them. But I have to admit, it was kind of cool to just walk right up to a life-size Woolly Mammoth.

One of the interesting things about the Basel exhibits was that some of their objects were just out on the floor with no stands or rope fences around them. This is unusual, because those are normally put into place to prevent people from touching the specimens and causing damage to them. But I have to admit, it was kind of cool to turn a corner and see a life-size Woolly Mammoth just standing in the middle of the room.

Stick insects! Demonstrating what's probably the closest to true isometric growth I've ever seen in nature. ...And no, it's not completely isometric. I'm a big enough nerd that I actually took measurements to find out.

Stick insects! Demonstrating what’s probably the closest to true isometric growth I’ve ever seen in nature.
And no, it’s not completely isometric…I’m a big enough nerd that I actually took measurements to find out.

This was an interesting room. You see a set of glass double doors with no apparent way to open them, but they slide open when you get near with a sound and slickness that seems very sci-fi. Then you enter this room that's even more sci-fi. Taxidermied mounts and skeletons in white and aqua boxes in a climate controlled room. It's full of recently-extinct and highly endangered animals, like the panda, dodo, Steller's sea cow, and saiga. One can very much imagine an archive like this, of species humans drove to extinction, in a futuristic building or ship. It was very well done.

This was an interesting room. You see a set of glass double doors with no apparent way to open them, but they slide open when you get near with a sound and slickness that seems very sci-fi. Then you enter this room that’s even more sci-fi. Taxidermied mounts and skeletons in white and aqua boxes in a climate controlled room. It’s full of recently-extinct and highly endangered animals, like the panda, dodo, Steller’s sea cow, and saiga. One can very much imagine an archive like this, of species humans drove to extinction, in a futuristic building or ship. It was very well done.

And I’m not going to devote an entire extra post to the marketplace outside the museum, but it was cool.

A very colorful building

A very colorful building

This is the weird charge I mentioned previously. It's a very stylized bishop's crozier and the symbol of the city.

This is the weird charge I mentioned previously. It’s a very stylized bishop’s crozier and the symbol of the city.

I'd never seen a male siren before. You're probably most familiar with them through the Starbucks logo, which is taken straight from a 16th century Norse woodcut.

I’d never seen a male siren before. You’re probably most familiar with them through the Starbucks logo, which is taken straight from a 16th century Norse woodcut.

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Brussels Exhibits

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I didn’t have a lot of time to spend at them, but the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) has some fantastic exhibits. I don’t usually spend time in mineral galleries because it’s very hard to make an attention-grabbing and aesthetically-appealing exhibit on minerals. You almost always just get case after case with rows of minerals divided by class with labels telling you their name, their formula, and where that specimen came from. Something about the RBINS geology exhibit made it slightly more interesting. Maybe it was the irregular layout? I’m not really sure. I’d still like to see an exhibit genius make a great exhibit on minerals, though.

One of the many forms of asbestos

One of the many forms of asbestos

Sometimes minerals and rocks can superficially look like fossils, which trips a lot of hopeful amateur fossil finders up. A crack in the rock allowed mineral water to seep in. It then spread in a branching shape. When the water went away, it left behind something that looks like a fossil plant but isn't.

Sometimes minerals and rocks can superficially look like fossils, which trips a lot of hopeful amateur fossil finders up. A crack in this rock allowed mineral water to seep in. It then spread in a branching shape. When the water went away without the minerals, it left behind something that looks like a fossil plant but isn’t.

Sting wrote a song about this gypsum formation once

Sting wrote a song about this gypsum formation once

RBINS has a very large hall devoted to dinosaurs—the largest in the world, in fact. A very large percentage of it is taken up by multiple Iguanadon mounts. The museum has 30 in all and they’re the symbol of the place. They were an important discovery because, prior to that, there was a lot of misunderstanding about what their posture was like. The first skeletons found of this species were very fragmentary. At first, it was only teeth and reconstructed as a giant Iguana. Then more bones were found, including what we now know is a thumb spike. Reconstructions shifted to the quadrupedal rhinoceros-looking thing of Crystal Palace fame (Which has fallen into disrepair, by the way, in spite of its historic significance. Some locals are trying to lobby the place’s caretaker to actually take care of it.) with a horn on its nose. Then, the RBINS collected the Bernissart Iguanadons and reconstructions shifted to an upright, kangaroo-like posture. And finally, we figured out that the tails couldn’t bend like that because of ossified tendons along the spine, and thus the modern posture (quadrupedal adults, possibly bipedal juveniles).

In the background, the old "kangaroo" posture; in the foreground, the modern quadrupedal posture

In the background, the old “kangaroo” posture; in the foreground, the modern quadrupedal posture

Cryolophosaurus, an allosaur from Antarctica (when it used to be covered in lush forest habitat)

Cryolophosaurus, an allosaur from Antarctica (when it used to be covered in lush forest habitat)

If you take Age of Dinosaurs, you'll be using another cast of this Coelophysis in lab (offered every fall by the Earth and Environmental Science department).

If you take Age of Dinosaurs, you’ll be using another cast of this Coelophysis in lab (offered every fall by the Earth and Environmental Sciences department).

The tiniest dinosaur in the hall, Archeopteryx. It's cool to see a reconstructed 3D mount of one rather than a cast of a pancaked slab.

The tiniest dinosaur in the hall, Archeopteryx. It’s cool to see a reconstructed 3D mount of one rather than a cast of a pancaked slab.

I would like to take a moment to cheer about something. RBINS has a T. rex mount. If you’ve ever been to the Field Museum in Chicago, you’ve seen Sue, another T. rex mount. The craftsmanship of Sue’s mount is excellent. Next time you’re there, take a moment to notice how, rather than simply being utilitarian, it’s also a work of art. There are wavy lines holding the vertebrae on. And if you go to the second floor and stand at the corner behind Sue and to its left (I say ‘it’ because we don’t actually know what sex it is), you’ll see that it stands in a very dynamic pose.

But there’s a problem. Two, actually, that result in one unfortunate effect. Take a look at the heads of the ribs. They aren’t actually attached to the vertebrae—they kind of float a little above them. And the gastralia (belly ribs) are also not mounted, though you can see them in a case on the second floor. Both of these purposefully create the effect of making Sue look more svelte. See, T. rexes actually had sizeable guts. But people don’t like to think of the king of the dinosaurs as having a big belly. Even ABC’s Dinosaurs got the gut size backwards, with Earl the Megalosaurus being the fat one and Roy the T. rex being about as slender as any of those puppets got.

So when I saw that the RBINS actually mounted their T. rex correctly and completely, I was ecstatic. The world should know that T. rex had a potbelly. Then maybe we can all agree that Allosaurus is much cooler.

The dynamic front view

The dynamic front view with the gastralia visible at the level of the knees to ankles

Seriously, look at how big that belly is.

Seriously, look at that belly.

I traced another view for you in case you were having trouble visualizing the belly in the flesh. Pretend it's covered in tiny feathers. I already spent too much time drawing this to add them.

I traced another view for you in case you were having trouble visualizing the belly in the flesh. Pretend it’s covered in tiny feathers. I already spent too much time drawing this thing to add them. Oh, and the bush is there because someone’s head blocked my view of the foot. *grumble*

But Dinosaur Hall doesn’t actually only contain dinosaurs. There are a small number of other Mesozoic critters in there, including crocodyliformes such as Bernissartia.

Alligatorellus, a tiny little atoposaurid crocodyliform

Slab and counterslab of Alligatorellus, a tiny little atoposaurid crocodyliform

Crocodilaemus, a little pholidosaur crocodyliform

Crocodilaemus, a little pholidosaur crocodyliform with a stubby tail

A small gallery on the bottom floor is devoted to mosasaurs, a group of marine monitor lizards. Some of them were quite large, upwards of 50 ft (some estimates say more, but exact lengths haven’t been settled on). You can see one mounted in the basement of Trowbridge Hall. The “rock” it’s in is fake, but the bones are real.

One of the most historically important fossils in existence (granted, I think this is a cast of it)

One of the most historically important fossils in existence (granted, this is a cast of it; the real one’s in Paris)

Mosasaurus is historically important because, when Georges Cuvier examined it and realized it was a giant lizard, that was the first time anyone in the Western world really thought about the fact that things could become extinct. Prior to that, real life was like a video game as far as anyone was concerned—you can shoot all the animals/monsters in sight, but they’ll still respawn later (migrate from elsewhere, in the case of the real world). It’s also the reason there’s a misconception out there that every dead reptile is a lizard. Once Cuvier correctly identified a giant extinct lizard, lesser anatomists jumped on the bandwagon and started giving things names ending in -saurus, which comes from the Greek word for ‘lizard’.

The extinct animals are only part of the displays at RBINS. There are quite a few galleries devoted to modern organisms.

Brussels used to have a zoo, but the animals weren't replaced as they died. This elephant was the last one.

Brussels used to have a zoo, but the animals weren’t replaced as they died. This elephant was the last one.

I like it when taxidermists show behavior

I like it when taxidermists show behavior. There’s some good examples of this in Mammal Hall in UI’s own natural history museum. Look for the little weasel peeking into a log and the mouse trying to escape predation on the end of a reed.

And then there's bad taxidermy... The mounts themselves are actually good, but their arrangement it a problem here.

And then there’s bad taxidermy… The mounts themselves are actually good, but their arrangement is a problem here.

If you ever find yourself arranging an exhibit, please make sure your dead animals aren't staring intently at each other's butts.

If you ever find yourself arranging an exhibit, please make sure your animals aren’t staring intently at each other’s butts.

Part of this hall was devoted to comparative anatomy. Most animal exhibits are set up based on environment, geography, or phylogeny. It was nice to see one set up to discuss the evolution of various body parts and systems. I wish I’d had more time to spend here because this looked like quite a good gallery.

The vasculature inside your lungs

The vasculature inside your lungs

Lampreys are weird. Some of  the anteriormost gill arches here are homologous with our jaws.

Some of the anteriormost gill arches in this lamprey are homologous with our jaws.

If I were a fish, I would have nightmares about lampreys attaching themselves to me and sucking my blood.

If I were a fish, I would have nightmares about lampreys attaching themselves to me and sucking my blood.

Another thing I enjoyed about the RBINS exhibits is that there was a huge swath of galleries devoted to invertebrates. Oftentimes, they get overlooked, with vertebrates getting a disproportionate amount of the attention. But here, there were galleries for molluscs, poriferans, arthopods, tiny things living in soil, and even for zooplankton. It was awesome.

Foraminifera are single-celled amoeboid plankton with calcium carbonate shells and lots of pseudopods.

Foraminifera are single-celled amoeboid protists with calcium carbonate shells and lots of pseudopods.

Is it just me, or does this Difflugia pyriformis (another amoeboid protist) look like a Pokémon?

Is it just me, or does this Difflugia pyriformis (another amoeboid protist) look like a Pokémon?

Vorticella campanula, a ciliate protozoan

Vorticella campanula, a ciliate protozoan

I don't remember the species, but some snails grow really elaborate shells.

I don’t remember the species, but this snail has a really elaborate shells.

The Australian trumpet, the largest living snail in the world (up to 30 cm)

The Australian trumpet, the largest living snail in the world (up to 30 cm)

The living nautilus species actually aren't the only living cephalopods with external shells. But the shell of this argonaut, a type of octopus, isn't actually homologous with plesiomorphic cephalopod shells--it's unique to this genus. It's an agg case that's excreted by females and lacks the air chambers of a true cephalopod shell.

The living nautilus species kind of aren’t the only living cephalopods with external shells. But the shell of this argonaut, a type of octopus, isn’t actually homologous with plesiomorphic cephalopod shells–it’s unique to this genus. It’s an egg case that’s excreted by females and lacks the air chambers of a true cephalopod shell.

This is a giant roly poly, pill bug, whatever you want to call them. Those little crustaceans that live in rotting wood and curl into balls will you pick them up. The ones living on the bottom of the ocean, like this Bathynomus giganteus, can reach over a foot in length.

This is a giant roly poly, pill bug, whatever you want to call it. It’s an isopd just like those ittle crustaceans that live in rotting wood and curl into balls when you pick them up. The ones living on the bottom of the ocean, like this Bathynomus giganteus, can reach over a foot in length.

They had three species of Pachnoda beetle, all with very different and striking coloration and patterns. This is P. sinuata.

They had three species of Pachnoda beetle, all with very different, striking coloration and patterns. This is P. sinuata.

This is Damon spinatus, a whip spider. There are some pretty freaky-looking arachnid groups out there.

This is Damon spinatus, a whip spider (a different group from both true spiders and whip scorpions). There are some pretty freaky-looking arachnids out there.

Sminthirus viridus. Springtails are kind of adorable.

Sminthirus viridus. Springtails are kind of adorable.

Oribatid mites look like tiny, underground tanks on legs.

Oribatid mites look like tiny, underground tanks on legs.

And then there was the gift shop…

Shelf after shelf of Papo figurines (and this was only one section of them)? Yes, please, take my money. I wasn't using it anyways.

Shelf after shelf of Papo figurines? And this only one section of them? Yes, please, take my money. I wasn’t using it anyways.

Anatomically correct animal figurines are my weakness. I managed to tear myself away from the modern animals and some of the extinct ones, but I still came home with eight new figurines. I swear they were trying to make me go broke. On the plus side, they make for fun minis in tabletop games (D&D, Pathfinder, etc…) when they’re small enough. Also good as visual aids for Age of Dinos students when they’re learning about various extinct animals.

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Isle of Wight Awesomeness

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The Isle of Wight was amazing. I stayed in Sandown, which is a small town on the southeast coast of the island. The guest house I stayed in was the same price as the hostels I’ve been in this trip, but I had a room to myself, free tea & fixings all day, free breakfast, more security (I needed a key both for my room and for the building), it was right next to the beach, and I could see the Channel from my bed. The owner was also quite friendly and nice.

The HMS Warrior harbored in Portsmouth, one of the ports where you can chart passage to the Isle.

The HMS Warrior harbored in Portsmouth, one of the ports where you can chart passage to the Isle.

Tiny train! The train between Ryde (the port where I got on the island) and Sandown is two old metro cars with wooden siding.

Tiny train! The train between Ryde (the port where I got onto the island) and Sandown is two old metro cars with wooden siding.

The landscape there is just gorgeous. The coasts have chalk and sandstone cliffs bounding sandy beaches. The water’s a pleasant temperature and shallow for quite a ways offshore. For being a well-known vacation area, there really aren’t many people there. On top of the cliffs you have rolling heath that gives way to even more rolling heath and forest further inland. The mouths of the rivers on the north coast have wetlands, though I never got to visit them.

The chalk cliffs you can see from Sandown

The chalk cliffs you can see from Sandown. This is the only landscape shot in this post I’ve altered the levels on (the cliffs were clouded by the blue that obscures things at a distance).

These dogs were having the time of their lives digging a hole to nowhere

These dogs were having the time of their lives digging a hole to nowhere

And there’s plenty to do there. Aside from the usual beach things, you can rent kayaks and paddleboats to take out into the Channel. I got distracted watching birds and didn’t notice the wind switch directions on me. It tried to send me to France. I checked the map when I got back and, based on my line of sight with the headlands, I was about 2000 feet out and 4000 ft downshore from where I started. A bit farther than I meant to go… But I grabbed a piece of styrofoam floating out there and saved a ball that four dogs were afraid to swim out to, so it was all good.

There are also historic sites to visit. The Brading Roman Villa, which has a fully intact Roman mosaic. If you’re interested in WWII, there’s an old post (the Needles Battery) looking out onto the Needles. There’s also a giant monument to Lord Alfred Tennyson in the middle of a cow pasture (which the public is given access to).

The Needles

The Needles

I didn't know Her Majesty was a wartime mechanic

I didn’t know Her Majesty was a wartime mechanic

The Tennyson Monument

The Tennyson Monument

If you’re more interested in ‘family fun’-type things, in addition to Dinosaur Isle, there’s a zoo, a wildlife encounter place where you can interact with penguins and owls, and a small theme park.

For outdoors activities, there are plenty of places to go walking. The Needles Headland, for example, is several miles of footpaths through the heath on top of the chalk cliff on the very southwest end of the island. And I walked along almost a mile of beach to go to work (seen in the featured image).

View on Needles Headlands back towards the Needles

View on Needles Headlands back towards the Needles

Some of the coast along the Needles Headlands

Some of the coast along the Needles Headlands

View on the Needles Headlands away from the Needles

View on the Needles Headlands away from the Needles

I didn’t do the “go to all the places!” type of sightseeing here that I’ve been doing in cities. I specifically went to the Needles to look for birds there (a few species don’t nest any farther east outside of Scandinavia). I ended up going through the Needles Battery that I didn’t know was there, then walking along the entire length of the Headlands, visiting the Tennyson monument along the way. Other than that, I just enjoyed what felt like a mini-vacation on the beach.

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The Natural History Museum Exhibits

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I went through the Natural History Museum exhibits before and after photographing the gharials. They had an arthropod exhibit which was quite good. It included a fake kitchen that you walk into. In the kitchen, they had labels and fake bugs in various places. For example, you look up at a cabinet and there are giant models of those little beetles that like to get into your flour.

There’s also the hall filled with plesiosaurs and icthyosaurs, some of which were discovered by Mary Anning herself. Fun fact, the tongue twister “She sells seashells” is about her.

An icthyosaur. The black areas are a carbonized outline of where its flesh would have been.

An icthyosaur. The black areas are a carbonized outline of where its flesh would have been.

Unfortunately, this hall was not designed for exhibits (at least, not using modern ideas). There are giant skylights with light streaming down onto cases with highly reflective glass. Several exhibit halls were like this, and you could see the damage the UV has done over the years to objects more susceptible to it (like taxidermied specimens, which were badly faded).

Bad taxidermy actually managed to make this Virginia Opossum cuter

Bad taxidermy actually managed to make this Virginia Opossum cuter

In their bird hall, they have a case of comparative anatomy, which was a great source for pictures for teaching.

This is the hip and tail of a newly-hatched bird. Note that the tail vertebrae are all separate like in a non-avian dinosaur.

This is the hip and tail of a newly-hatched bird. Note that the tail vertebrae are all separate like in a non-avian or early avian dinosaur.

The tail of a young bird. The last five vertebrae have formed to one another and are beginning to fuse into a pygostyle. A pygostyle is a big bone beneath the tail feathers. It stabilizes their attachment points to make it easier for the bird to control its tail in flight.

The tail of a young bird. The last five vertebrae have formed to one another and are beginning to fuse into a pygostyle. A pygostyle is a big bone beneath the tail feathers. It stabilizes their attachment points to make it easier for the bird to control its tail in flight.

A fully-formed pygostyle in an adult bird.

A fully-formed pygostyle in an adult bird.

Baby hoatzins are famous for having claws like their non-bird ancestors.

Baby hoatzins are famous for having claws like their non-bird ancestors.

There are actually a good number of modern birds with claws. Some have true claws and others have modified carpal or metacarpal bones with horn casings (they’re called spurs). But aside from which bone make the core, they’re built exactly like a true claw. Possible example of a “frame shift”?

But there are actually a good number of modern birds with claws. Some have true claws and others have modified carpal or metacarpal bones with horn casings (they're called spurs). But aside from which bone make the core, they're built exactly like a true claw. Possible example of  a "frame shift"?

This Derbian Screamer has one claw and two metacarpal spurs.

In bird evolution, when you look at a phylogenetic tree, a bird’s hand has the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd digits. But when you look at a chick developing in the egg, it’s the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th digits. A “frame shift”, wherein the Hox genes that activiate during development scoot over one digit and make them develop into a shape like their neighboring digit is the mechanism for this.

Hornbill skulls are very lightweight because there's hardly any bone in them. It's pretty amazing.

Hornbill skulls are very lightweight because there’s hardly any bone in them. It’s pretty amazing.

And their prehistoric & modern mammal area was good as well. It included the usual suspects as well as some less famous ones.

A rare, two-tusked narwhal. Normally one of their teeth just remains a normal tooth inside their mouth.

A rare, two-tusked narwhal. Normally one of their teeth just remains a normal tooth inside their mouth.

Saiga are a kind of antelope that live on the Eurasian steppes. They have giant noses to help keep them warm in winter. Also, mutton chops. Because why not?

Saiga are a kind of antelope that live on the Eurasian steppes. They have giant noses to help keep them warm in winter. Also, mutton chops. Because why not?

Moeritherium--the earliest known and strangest elephant.

Moeritherium–the earliest known and strangest elephant.

They also have a “treasures” room, where they display some of their most highly prized objects. One of them is a first edition copy of On the Origin of Species. UI also has one of those, but the only time I’ve seen them display it is on Darwin Day. Something as precious as that you really don’t want to expose to UV all the time. The room where the NHM keeps it has no windows and not much light.

This is an octopus made of glass. Look up Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. They created remarkably real-looking scientific models.

This is an octopus made of glass. Look up Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. They created remarkably real-looking scientific models.

One of their exhibits was a series of panels on various bodies in the Solar System. At first I thought it was just planets, which made the fact that Pluto was “out of order” hilarious.

As it should be. If Ceres isn't a planet, Pluto isn't either.

As it should be. If Ceres isn’t a planet, Pluto isn’t either.

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The Museum of London

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Earlier this summer, I saw this fascinating video and decided I had to visit the Museum of London, who made it. It’s startling how much the place has grown in the last century compared to all the previous ones. Several Londoners I talked to have said that that fast pace has picked up even more and they’re upset about it. Coming from what used to be a small town, I can completely sympathize with that.

Just chillin', leanin' against a centuries-old wall. No biggie.

Just chillin’, leanin’ against a centuries-old wall. No biggie.

The museum is actually built on a historic site—the Roman and medieval wall that encases the City of London inside the city called London. Watch the video below if you’re confused.

The timeline they cover actually starts the story of London with what was happening here during the Pleistocene Ice Ages. Walking in, I was expecting them to sort of gloss over it and treat it like a homogenous time period given their focus on history. But I was pleasantly surprised that they actually went into quite a bite of detail about the various warm and cool phases. Apparently humans left the area during one of the warm phases. Maybe they were running from the hippos. There were freakin’ hippos in England. Also macaques.

I cannot convey to you how truely huge this European aurochs skull is. And keep in mind that those are just the horn cores--the horns themselves would be much longer.

I cannot convey to you how truely huge this European aurochs skull is. And keep in mind that those are just the horn cores–the horns themselves would be much longer.

This is what greets you when you enter the exhibit area. Domestic cattle are descended from two breed of aurochs—European and Asian. Most that you’re liable to see in the West will be of European stock (taurine). Zebu breeds, like Brahmans, are descended from the Asian aurochs. They have big shoulder humps, dewlaps, and droopy ears. You do see a good bit of modern hybridization, though. Especially for rodeo bulls.

It's another replica of the steampunk Pikachu hat. And a replica of the Battersea Shield.

It’s another replica of the steampunk Pikachu hat. And a replica of the Battersea Shield.

The big London market in later Roman times.

The big London market in later Roman times.

A model of the Roman bathhouse that was here

A model of the Roman bathhouse that was here

Constructing the bathhouse

Constructing the bathhouse

A century-old reconstruction of the original St. Paul's cathedral

A century-old reconstruction of the original St. Paul’s cathedral

I ended up taking fewer pictures later in the timeline, but there was plenty to see—the Black Death, the London Fire, Tudor history… I skipped most of the stuff after the Renaissance ’cause I wasn’t as interested and my feet were sore.

I did hang out in the Victorian pleasure garden for a bit, though. It’s a room with a walkway and gazebo surrounded by screens with lifesize videos of actors on loop. There was a man taking a letter to his mistress’ servant, who told him he was getting too bold and her husband was sure to find out. A drunk acrobat fell asleep on his low-to-the-ground tightrope and rolled off without waking up. And various groups of people coming and going talking about this and that. At one point a man was so affronted by the sight of a female wearing men’s clothing that he challenged him to a duel…’cause that’s a logical reaction. *sarcasm* Thankfully, several people jumped in and told the challenger he was being stupid, so he left.

Basically, that room reminded me that I still need to watch Downton Abbey.

A pretty flower in a patch of garden outside the museum

A pretty flower in a patch of garden outside the museum

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