Readers’ wildlife photos

April 6, 2021 • 8:30 am

by Greg Mayer

For today’s post we return to the New York City Subway 8th Avenue local (B and C trains) station at 81st-Museum of Natural History,this time for the amphibians.

81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

My favorite of the amphibians is this brooding caecilian, curled round its eggs. These legless, short-tailed amphibians are found only in the tropics, and there is no real English vernacular name for them. (You can find a Sicilian in the subway, but I prefer Neapolitan.)

Brooding caecilian. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

What appears to me to be a reed frog (Hyperolius sp.), an African tree frog of sorts, hangs on the wall next to a station identifying sign.

Reed frog. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

This looks like a ranid frog to me– a member of the family Ranidae, perhaps intended to be a Rana proper. Many species in this and related genera look much alike the world over. Note the nicely delineated tympanic membrane.

Frog. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

This generic frog (I won’t even try to name a family for it) is leaping out of the Signal Room. Interestingly, the subway workers here believe in free will, apparently of the libertarian sort. A scratched note on the door reads, “Use other door→ | or this one– up to you”.

Frog. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

These well-rendered salamanders provide detail enabling specific identification. On the left we have a Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum), a species of eastern North America (including the New York area), and on the right we have a Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra), a species widely distributed in Europe. The American Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum; found in the New York area) is also black with yellow markings, but the yellow markings (quite variable in both species) look more like Salamandra to me, and the evident parotoid glands at the back of the head (making it look wide) are conclusive. Ambystoma and Salamandra are similar in size and body shape, and are sort of continental ecological analogues.

Salamanders. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

The Coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae) is one of the few surviving lobe-finned fishes, and as such is one of the tetrapods closest living relatives, and so is included here as an honorary amphibian. I don’t know why there is a question mark on its tail; in fact I never noticed it there before till just now.

Coelacanth. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

Finally, we have a group of patently Paleozoic fish. The artist has rendered them neither strictly from above (as though we were looking down on them in the ‘water’ of the paving tile) nor from the side, but in a sort of twisted view, allowing us to see various aspects. The bottom four may be intended to be the same type of fish (I’m not sure what kind), but the top one (which seems to be more of an exclusively side view– see the partly opened mouth) looks like one of those strange Paleozoic sharks, with a spiny first dorsal fin, and a heterocercal tail. You can also see more clearly in this photo how the lighter brown granite-like stone is integrated with the darker paving tile.

Fish on the floor. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

There are other taxa represented in the tiles (e.g., ants), and other forms of art, including larger tiled murals, and casts of in-situ fossils projecting from the wall. Many of these works are depicted in a gallery at www.nycsubway.org, a subway fan/history site. Some of those depicted I’ve never seen in person, because I always exit the station at the south (Museum) end, not at the north (81st Street) end.

(Looking at one of the pictures in the gallery now, I see the undersea mosaic mural has  a coelacanth-shaped gray silhouette in the otherwise colorful tiles; could the question mark noted above be related to the coealcanth’s absence here?)

Readers’ wildlife photos

April 5, 2021 • 8:30 am

by Greg Mayer

Today’s post features subterranean wildlife, but not of the fossorial kind. It has wildlife you can see in the New York subway, but it’s not “pizza rat” or his later avatars: it’s the wildlife art of the 8th Avenue local (B and C trains) station at 81st-Museum of Natural History.

81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

Elegant tile-work has long been a signature note of the New York subways, and when the station was renovated (reopening in 2000), the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority collaborated in creating extensive artwork for the station, one of whose exits goes directly into the Museum.

We’ll start with my favorite, what is clearly a hatchling Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis; the proportions, especially the large head, show it’s a hatchling). The Museum clearly had significant input on the designs, although it’s not always clear if the artists followed exact specifications for species identification, but in this case I’m confident. Important work on anoles was done by former curators James Oliver and G.K. Noble, and the latter’s anole work was mostly on this species.

Hatchling green anole (Anolis carolinensis). 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

We’ll continue with the rest of the lizards. The next is clearly a monitor lizard, and it’s bulk indicates it’s a Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis).

Monitor lizard. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

Next up is a basilisk or Jesus Christ lizard (Basiliscus sp.), famed for their bipedal locomotion, which includes the ability to skitter Christ-like across the surface of bodies of water for short distances. This mosaic introduces an element common to the artwork, the depiction of extinct forms as grayed “ghost” silhouettes, often paired with an extant form. In this case we have two bipedal diapsids: the basilisk and the theropod dinosaur Deinonychus (note the ‘terrible claw’ and short snout); the latter is about life size, but the basilisk is greater than life size. (This is an estimate, but I think the white tiles are either 4″X4″ or 5″X5″; if anyone knows the size–or can measure!–put it in the comments.)

Basilisk with ghost Deinonychus. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

There’s a chameleon (Chamaeleo sp.). I’ve not attempted to determine the species. (It could be intended to be a species in another genus in the family Chamaeleontidae, but Chamaeleo is the type genus, and will do as at least approximately correct.) A nice detail is that the zygodactlous left front foot (‘hand’) can be seen grasping the black tiles, as though the latter constituted a tree branch. (The hind feet are curiously stubby-looking.)

Chameleon. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

Snakes are, of course, just glorified lizards. This one’s head and neck, and the fact that it hangs from the ‘branch’ make it look like a vine snake, but I’ll offer no more of a guess than that. Note how, as in the Chamaeleo above, the artwork can ‘overlay’ the regular wall design.

Snake. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

Next is a fairly nondescript snake, superimposed on the long tail of a long-necked sauropod dinosaur. The whole dinosaur looked like Diplodocus to me.

Snake with ghost sauropod dinosaur. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

Having finished the order Squamata, we move on to the Tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus), not a lizard, but the sole living member of the order Rhynchocephalia. This is another of my favorites.

Tuatara. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

This broad-snouted crocodilian looks like an alligatorid, and is nicely paired with a Stegosaurus. Were it black, I would readily identify it as an American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis), but the greenish-brown color makes me hesitate. The details of form in this one are not as satisfying as they are in most of the others. Note how the tail tip, which extends on to the dark paving tiles of the floor and trim, is rendered in a different type of tile.

Alligatorid with ghost Stegosaurus. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

Next is another favorite, an adult male Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus). The two things I like most about this one are the inclusion of the narial excrescence, a rarely depicted seasonally-present secondary sexual character of male gharials, and that the dark paving tile stones are treated as the ‘water’, from which the Gharial emerges. The dark stone is replaced with a lighter brown granite-like material to indicate the parts ‘underwater’. If you enlarge the image and look carefully, you can see that the outline of the Gharial is also continued into the glossy black enamel tiles. Although not visible in this photo, the body curls through the enamel tiles, and the Gharial’s tail re-enters the paving tiles, to again be represented by the granite-like stone.

Male Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus). 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

Finishing up the reptiles we have a giant tortoise. The surviving species of giant tortoise are from Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean and the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific. The somewhat high front opening of the carapace is more characteristic of some of the subspecies of the Galapagos Tortoise (Geochelone elephantopus) than of the Aldabra Tortoise, and so I will go with that as a species identification.

Giant tortoise. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

We’ll finish off our subway tour with the amphibians and a few fish tomorrow.