Friday mystery object #265 answer

Last week I gave you this lovely primate skull from the Grant Museum of Zoology to identify:


When I first saw it I assumed it was a Macaque of some kind. It’s obviously in the Cercopithecidae (or an Old World Monkey) based on the number of premolars – 4 in the upper jaw instead of the 6 you’d get in a Platyrrhini (or New World Monkey). Macaques are common in collections and they have a similar overall appearance to this specimen.

However, I then noticed the particularly deep hollows under the eyesockets and the flaring of the maxilla where it meets the nasals, which is not a characteristic of Macaques.


It actually reminded me a bit of a toned down version of a Mandrill skull, so I started by looking at the phylogeny of primates to get an idea of which species were more closely related to the genus Mandrillus.


Primate phylogeny from Goodman et al. 2005. Trends in Genetics. 21(9):511–517

As you can see the Mandrills share a sister relationship with the genus Cercocebus, which are the White-eyelid Mangabeys, so that’s where I started looking. It turns out that these infraorbital depressions are a Mangabey feature, so I then looked at the various types of Mangabey (not just those in the genus Cercocebus).

It wasn’t easy finding specimens for comparison, but I did find a very useful (if a bit old) paper on Mangabeys by Groves (1978), which gave good descriptions of the various species, allowing me to rule out the Sooty Mangabey and narrow the likely species down to the Golden-bellied Mangabey or, my personal preference, the Agile Mangabey Cercocebus agilis (Milne-Edwards, 1886).

These monkeys have a shorter, relatively broader face than the more familiar Sooty Mangabey, with deeper and broader hollows under the orbits.

So well done to everyone who recognised that this skull belonged to an Old World Monkey, with particular congratulations to Cindy Nelson-Viljoen and palfreyman1414, who all came close in terms of taxonomy and a big round of applause for inkydigit who narrowed it down to the right genus!

More mysteries to come next week…

Friday mystery object #265

This week I have a specimen that I’ve been looking at recently that you might like to have a go at identifying:

Mystery monkey

Mystery monkey

This was being used in handling sessions and needed a tooth to be reattached (huzzah for Paraloid B72), but I noticed that it lacked an identification beyond ‘monkey’ and I thought that could be improved upon.

Here it is laid out more usefully for identification purposes:

mystery265I know what I’ve narrowed it down to, but I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!

Friday mystery object #264 answer

Last week I gave you a tricky mystery object in the form of a dusty bag:

Bag o-bones

Of course, I’m not truly that mean, so I also provided a characteristic part of the specimen:


Despite being a bit broken, it’s fairly clearly the mandible of a felid, given the shape of that one molar and the limited sockets for the missing premolars, suggesting something with a very reduced tooth count – something that most of you spotted straight away.

The size is a bit small for a Tiger or Lion, it’s a bit big for a Puma or Cheetah and it’s not quite as robust as I’d expect from a Jaguar, leaving us with the likely identification of Leopard Panthera pardus (Linnaeus, 1758). So well done to joe vans and palreyman1414 for ‘spotting’ what it was (terribly pun, I know).

Here’s a nice Leopard skull from the Grant Museum of Zoology collections to give a sense of scale.


More mystery objects to come from the Grant next week, but if you’d like to see another specimen from the collection, my latest specimen of the week, that looks at the darker side of the Walrus might be of interest.

Friday mystery object #264

As I’ve mentioned a few times, I have recently started a new job as Curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL. If you’ve never visited, you should pop by, and if you have visited then why not vote for us in the Time Out Love London Awards, preferably right now, since voting closes today. I’d love it if we could beat our heavyweight neighbour, the British Museum!


Moving on to the real subject of the blog, I have finally had a chance to start hunting for specimens in the Grant to see if there are any unidentified items tucked away that might make good mystery objects – and my new colleague Tannis knew just where to look:

Bag o-bones

This bag-o-bones came to us from the Royal Free Hospital and was completely sealed up, making it hard to see inside. For those of you who like a challenge I’ll leave you with just this image, but if you’d like a slightly less tricky image to work from, you can see the single most distinctive part of the specimen here.

Do you have any idea what it might be? It’s pretty easy if you check out the distinctive bit, so please keep your answers cryptic if you can!

Oh, and if you like skulls, you might be interested in my first Specimen of the Week on the Grant Museum blog.

Friday mystery object #263 answer

Last Friday I gave you this mystery object that came up at a natural materials identification course that I delivered at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter last week:


There were a variety of suggestions as to what it might be, but everyone (correctly) discounted the information on the label that it was a tooth.

There were some suggestions of wood and ivory, but there were two suggestions which were definitely in the right ball-park. Daniel Calleri suggested it might be something fishy, while Krista got it pretty much spot on when she suggested a dorsal barb from a skate or ray.

I’m pretty sure that it’s the spine from the leading edge of the first or second dorsal fin of a Spurdog shark in the genus Squalus Linnaeus, 1758.

Spiny Dogfish (Squalus acanthias) by Dornhai

Spiny Dogfish (Squalus acanthias) by Dornhai

These turn up every so often in collections, sometimes as decoration, sometimes as items found in Native American middens. Presumably they’re composed of keratin, which is a commonly occurring structural protein in vertebrate skin that can also form hair, horn, scales and claw.

Thanks for all your comments and well done to Krista!

Friday mystery object #263

It’s been a hectic couple of weeks and I almost forgot the mystery object again because I lost track of the days!

I was hoping to use an object from my new job at the Grant Museum of Zoology today, but I never got the chance as I’ve been zipping around all over the place. Yesterday for example I was at the lovely Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) in Exeter, delivering a training session on identifying natural materials.

There were a couple of items that curator Holly wanted me to look at while I was there and I thought one of them might be good for a mystery object. Apologies for the poor quality of the photo – I didn’t have my usual set-up to hand:

Mystery object at RAMM, Exeter

Mystery object at RAMM, Exeter

Any idea what this might be? If you want more information about it, just ask in the comments and I’ll do my best to reply. Have fun!

Friday mystery object #262 answer

Last Friday I gave you this pretty characteristic mystery object from the Berlin Museum für Naturkunde to try your hand at identifying:


There were lots of great comments – I must apologise for not responding to many (and for posting the answer to this mystery object so late), my excuse is that I’ve had an insanely busy week finishing up my old job at the Horniman Museum and Gardens and then getting started in my new job at the fantastic Grant Museum of Zoology at University College London (more to come about my big move). I also got started on a really interesting project looking at Gorilla osteology and I’m feverishly trying to prepare a training workshop on identifying natural materials for next week.

Back to the object. Several of you noticed the presence of a baculum (or penis bone) which shows us quite definitively that this was a male animal.

Panda penis bone (baculum) from the Berlin Museum für Naturkunde

It also suggests that the specimen was prepared and mounted without the prudishness that many historical mounts were affected by (see Jack Ashby’s comments about this in his post on the Grant Muesum’s Ringtail).

Many of you also correctly recognised that the plantigrade (or flat-footed) posture, short tail and robust build suggested a bear of some sort.

Panda hind limb bones showing plantigrade foot

The distinctive sagittal crest was the final feature needed for identification for some of you to work out that this is the skeleton of a Giant Panda Ailuropoda melanoleuca (David, 1869).

Panda skull side view


I tend to think of Panda skulls as looking like a cross between those of a Hyaena and a Gorilla, which makes sense when you consider the adaptations of the jaw musculature required for the Panda to process the large volumes of tough bamboo needed to provide enough energy for survival. The bone of the skull has to be able to manage the large forces produced by all this chewing, resulting in a big and robust sagittal crest, a thick and deep mandible and really deep muscle scars on the coronoid process.

These are all features you also see in big chewers like the Gorilla and Hyaena, but not in rodents and ungulates – I think this reflects the difference between groups that rely on temporalis muscle (which runs along the side of the braincase) in chewing compared to the masseter muscle (which attaches to the zygomatic arch or cheekbone).

The final clue to confirm that this is a Giant Panda is the ‘thumb’ on the front limbs:



This handy (excuse the pun) extra ‘digit’ is actually the radial sesamoid bone of the Panda’s wrist, that has been commandeered by evolution for use as a bamboo holder. There are a few other species that have done weird things with wrist bones to gain a digit, but this is clearly not a Mole or Elephant and Red Pandas have a much longer tail.

I hope you enjoyed some of the interesting bony features of this specimen – it’s great to have a chance to see under the surface of such an iconic animal!