Authenticating Peru’s Unique Unicorn

Over four decades ago, two well-known scientists, John Weske and John Terborgh were on expedition in central Peru when they rescued an unusual looking black, turkey-sized bird from the camp cook’s dinner prep table.  They suspected it to be a subspecies of an existing curassow from Bolivia called the Horned Curassow (Pauxi u. unicornis), and described it as the same in a peer-reviewed journal.

Sira Curassow (Pauxi koepckeae) in nature
Photo by Melvin Gastañaga

For many years the ‘Peruvian Horned Curassow (Pauxi unicornis koepckeae)’ was believed to be only a subspecies of the Bolivian form, until recent evidence showed otherwise.  The bird in question is a unique species endemic to Peru’s Sira mountain range, and thus was renamed the Sira Curassow (Pauxi koepckeae).

The fact the Peruvian form is separated at least 1000 km from the Bolivian species is a strong indicator that these are both distinct species.  Some of the parameters distinguishing the Sira Curassow from Bolivia’s Horned Curassow include thriving in different habitat at higher elevations, different behavioral patterns including the call, and of course different morphology.

In former posts I’ve explained my interest in Cracids – the rarest family of birds in the Americas, to which the Sira Curassow belongs.  While preparing Action Plans to prioritize and direct Cracid conservation efforts, whenever we came to status of the Peruvian Horned Curassow we just sort of sat around scratching our heads, as nobody definitively knew if it was a valid species.  I always had the hunch that it was valid, but without the proof of data, we’d just be telling a good story.

About a decade ago I put out a call for expeditions to locate the bird in nature to determine its status.  Melvin Gastañaga bravely answered the call, venturing solo into the Sira Mountains in search of ‘Peru’s unicorn’.  It was challenging work – of the several expeditions into the region the bird was not located during the first three, but Gastañaga remained tenacious, returning to find the bird in March 2005.

The work conditions were difficult, with several hours of hiking mountainous terrain just to locate the birds.  The efforts and results obtained by Melvin and her husband Ross MacLeod are nothing short of miraculous.  It goes without saying that they are the heroes in this story – the bird still would not be a species today if it wasn’t for them.  Indeed, weather conditions and other elements were less than cooperative, making the work all the more challenging.  I was honored to be a part of the new discovery, providing the morphological assessment.

Despite the exciting news, this new species is in serious trouble, with the threat of extinction looming over the Sira Curassow.  The range of the species is tiny and unfortunately the species is apparently being poached inside the reserve despite educational efforts.

New varmits in Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife

Dan Brooks, Ph.D.
Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, HMNS

When I first arrived at the museum in 1999, I ‘inherited’ the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife, and the Frensley Hall of African Wildlife.  Well the latter was fully updated a few years ago with generous support from Robert and Annie Graham.  But the Farish Hall is another story – it will wait a few years to receive a full makeover, as part of the HMNS’s exciting expansion.

Anyway, back to the new halls I ‘inherited’, as I made the initial rounds as a young Curator 11 years ago, I realized there were some truly rare (e.g., Black Bear), endangered (e.g., Attwater’s Prairie Chicken), and sadly in some cases extinct (e.g., Red Wolf) species in Farish Hall.  Despite this fact, some rather common Texas mammals were missing – most noticeable were the Virginia Opossum and the Striped Skunk.

So I bided my time, wondering how long it would take until the Docents noticed this overlooked fact and began to bug me to do something about it.  Well, for those of you keeping score, it took about six or seven years.  But alas, as of 23 November 2009, I’m thrilled to report that we now have representation of both the Virginia Opossum and the Striped Skunk in the Piney Woods and Carnivore dioramas, respectively.  Following are some natural history notes.

Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis)

skunk

This is the most common species of skunk in our region.  Few people realize that there are at least 10 species of skunks distributed throughout the New World.  In North America, there are a couple of species each of the striped (Mephitis) group and spotted (Spilogale) group, with the hog-nosed skunk (Conepatus) dispersing southward, where it radiates into several species in South America.

Skunks are members of the Carnivoran Family, Mustelidae. This includes otters, badgers, weasels and other similar forms.  Like many medium-sized Carnivorans, the skunk has a strong musk gland.  So strong in fact, that the skunk has a well-known reputation for its scent gland, which produces a musky odor.  This odor is not uncommon when skunks are involved in roadway mortalities.  They can also voluntarily shoot the scent directly at whatever varmint (including a person) is bothering them.  Just like rattlesnakes sounding off their warning before striking, a skunk will stamp its feet and flag it’s tail before spraying.

Skunks are omnivorous, eating a wide variety of food, including cannibalized carrion – it’s not unusual to find more than one road mortality at a give site, since live skunks will forage upon road killed skunks, then becoming a victim of vehicle mortality themselves.

possum

Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana)

Of the more than 300 species of Marsupials extant today, 230 are found Australia and surrounding islands, and 85 are endemic to the New World.  Of these, only one occurs in the United States and Canada – the Virginia Opossum, or simply ‘Possum’ as it’s known in this region.

Like all marsupials, the young are not as fully developed as other mammals when born.  They claw their way to the mother’s pouch, where they develop for a couple of months.  As the young get older they will ride on the mother’s back, and there can be several young per litter.

Opossum
Creative Commons License photo credit: graftedno1

To ward off predators, they can open their mouth very wide and display their vast array of teeth – 50 teeth in all!  They may hiss and make noise as well, but the famous saying ‘playing possum’ comes from this marsupial’s ability to feign death by going limp.  Possums are omnivorous, eating a wide variety of food, and it’s not unusual to find them rummaging through a garbage can.  Their sense of smell is well developed to compensate their poor eyesight.  Although their tail is prehensile, it’s not strong enough to support their weight, such as a New World monkey’s prehensile tail for example.  They do use the tail for balance however.

Range across seven biomes to explore the entire continent of Africa in the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

100 Years – 100 Objects: Specimens of the Dooley-Selden Expedition

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

CHI_5430

This description is from Dan, the museum’s curator of vertebrate zoology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the most fascinating animals in the Museum’s collections, that we’ll be sharing here – and at 100.hmns.org- throughout the year.

The Dooley-Selden team led the first HMNS mounted expedition. In 1959, HMNS’ first Curator, Tom Dooley, was invited by Board Member Selden to collect specimens in the northern (Saharan) region of what was then Tanganyika (today Tanzania). The objective of the expedition was to collect specimens for exhibition at the museum. Nearly 100 specimens were collected, including a vast array of birds and ungulates (hoofed mammals), as well as a few carnivores and small mammals.

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Range across seven biomes to explore the entire continent of Africa in the Evelyn and Herbert Frensley Hall of African Wildlife and Graham Family Presentation of Ecology and Conservation Biomes, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see more images of this fascinating exhibition – as well as the other objects we’ve posted so far this year – in the 100 Objects section at 100.hmns.org

100 years – 100 Objects: Okapia johnstoni

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from Dan, the museum’s curator of vertebrate zoology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the most fascinating animals in the Museum’s collections, that we’ll be sharing here – and at 100.hmns.org- throughout the year.

CHI_5405 resizeThis is one of a handful of Okapis (Okapia johnstoni) exhibited in a U.S. museum, and this particular specimen was donated by Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo.

The Congo Basin of Africa, which is the region Okapis are restricted to, is characterized by civil unrest and political instability, with rural people often unsure of what tomorrow will bring, let alone where their next meal will come from.  Consequently, wildlife of this region is highly threatened due to the bush meat trade, where wildlife is harvested unsustainably for European markets in order to make ends meet in an otherwise destitute economy.

Range across seven biomes to explore the entire continent of Africa in the Evelyn and Herbert Frensley Hall of African Wildlife and Graham Family Presentation of Ecology and Conservation Biomes, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see more images of this fascinating exhibition – as well as the other objects we’ve posted so far this year – in the 100 Objects section at 100.hmns.org