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!

Friday mystery object #262

Last week I had an enjoyable trip to Berlin where (probably unsurprisingly) I visited the Museum für Naturkunde. The collections were fantastic, with specimens like this absolutely spectacular Archaeopteryx:


but that’s a pretty obvious object, much too familiar to use for the Friday mystery object. So here’s something that might be a little less familiar to test your skills:


It’s a pretty distinctive specimen, but hopefully it won’t be quite as familiar as the iconic Archaeopteryx.

If you recognise it straight away, please use your imagination and leave a cryptic answer so others get a chance to test their identification skills. Have fun!

Friday mystery object #261 answer

Last Friday I gave you this object from the Horniman Museum and Gardens to identify:


It’s an odd looking bone, but that makes it distinctive, so I wasn’t too surprised that everyone recognised it as being from something aquatic. In particular, Ric Morris and joe va both recognised it as the radius of a pinniped.

The broad end that articulates with the wrist is lacking its epiphysis, indicating that this is from a younger animal. This also makes it a little harder to make a definitive species identification.

I think that Ric Morris’s cleverly disguised suggestion of Grey Seal is pretty good, although I’m leaning slightly more towards Harbour Seal Phoca vitulina Linnaeus, 1758.

The odd shape is of course one adaptation of the forelimb that reflects a change in biomechanical requirements away from the load-bearing limb of a terrestrial ancestor and towards the hydrofoil shape and drag-force-resistant flipper of an active aquatic pursuit predator.

Seal underwater by Chillum, 2007

I will never ceases to be impressed by the power of evolution as a mechanism to reshape bone to better suit new purposes!

Friday mystery object #261

This week I have a mystery object for you, that I stumbled across when preparing a talk for the Natural Sciences Collections Association’s Bone Day last week:


It’s a bit of an odd one, so I’d love to hear what you think it might be. As usual, if you recognise what it is please give everyone else a chance by sharing your knowledge below in the guise of a rhyme or cryptic clue.

Have fun!

Friday mystery object #260 answer

Last week I broke the news that in October I’ll be taking on the role of curator at the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL. Many thanks to everyone for their congratulations and kind comments – it’s wonderful to have so much support!

I’m excited to get started in my new role, but I will be sad to no longer be the go-to person for identifying materials used in the Horniman’s Anthropology collections. This gave me the chance to see some lovely objects, like this little statue:
I asked if you had any thoughts on what it might be, and you gave some great answers, mostly involving an ungulate canon bone or metacarpal / metatarsal. However, palaeosam and palfreyman1414 spotted that this isn’t made of bone, while Chris went one better by making a nice reference to ‘Horsing around near the river’ – a reference to the meaning of the name Hippopotamus.

The key to identifying this is to look at the curve of the statue and the view from underneath. That cavity shape (plus the gentle curve) is exactly what you’d expect from the upper canine of Hippopotamus amphibius Linnaeus, 1758 – so well done Chris!

There’s a helpful guide to identification of ivories by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, which is well worth a look to help with this sort of thing. Hopefully that’ll be a helpful resource for my colleagues at the Horniman in my absence… although they know where to find me if they need help in future!

Friday mystery object #260

This Friday I have some news as well as a mystery object.

After eight enjoyable years at the Horniman Museum & Gardens, I have just accepted a new role as curator of the fantastic Grant Museum of Zoology at University College London, starting in October!

For those of you who don’t know the Grant, it’s named for Robert Edmond Grant, Professor of Comparative Anatomy at UCL from 1827-1874. It contains around 68,000 specimens, including a lot of fantastic osteology that I’ve featured on this blog before. I’ll be the fourteenth curator, with some big shoes to fill (information on my predecessors can be found in this series of posts).

I will of course be very sad to leave the Horniman, which has been a fantastic place to work, filled with wonderful people who I’ll miss. I’ll also miss helping out with identification of materials in the Horniman’s Anthropology and Musical Instrument collections, which is the inspiration of this mystery object:


Any idea what this object is made from?

As usual you can leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comments box below.

Soon there will be a new collection for me to explore and I hope to be able to share the excitement of that process with you!

Friday mystery object #259 answer

Last Friday I gave you this section of an object that I found in an unmarked box during a reshuffle of the Horniman’s bone room:


The reshuffle is part of a project to make space for temporarily housing specimens while our taxidermy storage space is upgraded. This is a fairly big undertaking, since it means finding enough nooks and crannies to accommodate a full room’s worth of stuffed critters, to allow the room they came from to be fitted out with long span shelving and roller racking – which should double its capacity.


Bone room invaded by taxidermy birds

This reshuffle has also given me the opportunity to dig through the shrinking number of boxes of unidentified fragmentary material to see if any more can be matched back to specimens or rehoused in smaller boxes, thereby saving space. That’s where the mystery object comes in.

It has quite a distinctive shape, with a robust zygomatic arch (cheekbone), inflated tympanic bulla (bony bulb that houses the earbones) and thin squamosal (a bone of the side of the the skull – all of these parts fused together like this can also be called the temporal bone).

The structure of the glenoid fossa (joint where the mandible articulates) suggests it’s a carnivore of some sort, since herbivores tend to have a more open articulation that allows their mandible to move freely in order to grind tough vegetation more effectively. Carnivores need a more precise bite, to cut or clamp their food, which requires a tighter articulation.

However, the thin bone of the squamosal is less usual in a carnivore of this size, since this region normally deals with large bite forces and needs to be reinforced. This suggests an animal that isn’t relying on a powerful bite. The tympanic bulla is also quite open in structure, which I would associate with an animal that dives underwater and needs to be able to equalise differences in internal pressure effectively. These clues suggest that this piece of bone is from a seal of some sort.

Figuring this out let me compare the mystery object to seal specimens, to see if any were missing the temporal region. As it turns out I did indeed find a fragmentary seal specimen that fit the bill:


This specimen was acquired in 1912 and had been sawn up in order to mount the other half for display on the Natural History Balcony at the Horniman:


In the register it was recorded as “Skull of Seal (Phoca annulata)” which is an out-of-date name for the Ringed Seal Pusa hispida (Schreber, 1775), but I have my doubts about this identification after consulting this useful piece of research on identification of archaeological seal remains by Hodgetts, 1999 [opens as pdf]. The tympanic bulla, mandible and dentition (plus the suture on the zygomatic arch) make me think that this may in fact be a Harp Seal Pagophilus groenlandicus (Erxleben, 1777).

So well done to henstridgesj, Ric Morris, Bobby Boessenecker and Lee Post, who all worked out that the mystery object was from a seal. Please feel free to add more thoughts on whether you agree with my identification of Harp Seal!