Friday mystery object #306 answer

Last week I gave you this interesting skull to identify:

Specimen LDUCZ-Z1058 from the Grant Museum of Zoology

Specimen LDUCZ-Z1058 from the Grant Museum of Zoology

I didn’t mention that top of the cranium had been removed, probably as part of a postmortem, which is quite common for zoo specimens. Of course, this made the identification a bit more tricky.

That absent skullcap led to several suggestions of Tasmanian Devil, since they do have a very similar looking facial region to this specimen, with a short and blunt muzzle, robust zygomatic arch and even the same toothcount in the upper jaw. However, the Devils have an angular process of the mandible that projects medially (towards the midline) rather than backwards in a hook, so you wouldn’t see it in a side view.

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The correct answer was first tenuously suggested by palfreyman1414 in a pleasingly cryptic manner:

I’d have sworn this was a commie go-between for Cressida and Troilus

Which hints at “Red” and “Pandarus” giving us the Red Panda Ailurus fulgens F. Cuvier, 1825.

Red Panda image by Mathias Appel, 2016

Red Panda image by Mathias Appel, 2016

These charismatic critters are another example of an arboreal carnivore that is adapted to feed on a highly vegetarian diet, but unlike the previous mystery object (a Kinkajou) these cuddlesome floofballs eat mainly bamboo rather than fruit – rather like their very distant relative the Giant Panda (despite the similarity in diet and common name, the Red Panda is actually more closely related to the Kinkajou than it is the Giant Panda).

Red Pandas are a bit less highly specialised for feeding on bamboo than the Giant Pandas, probably because they have a more varied diet that also includes fruit, eggs, birds and small mammals. The poor nutritional quality of bamboo does mean that they spend a lot of time sleeping and they tend to move fairly slowly in order to conserve energy, although they can be very playful, especially in captivity where they can access higher quality foods.

Sadly, this playfulness and supreme floofyness is a bit of a problem for the wild Red Panda population. There is demand for wild caught Red Pandas in the pet trade and they are hunted for their thick fur right across their range through the foothills of the Himalayas, despite being protected by legislation in every country.

Friday mystery object #305 answer

Last week I gave you this specimen to identify, with a clue about the tail being distinctive:

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There were lots of correct answers – the first coming from palfreyman1414 who nailed it with this great cryptic clue relating to its scientific name:

Trump assortment pack

It is indeed Potus flavus (Schreber, 1774) or as Allen Hazen and jennifermacaire hinted at with kinky clues, a Kinkajou. They’re also known as Sun Bears, Lirón (which is also the Spanish name for the Dormouse) or Micoleón (lion monkeys).

A Kinkajou at the Paradise Animal Rehabilitation Center, Volcancito, Panama. Image by Dick Culbert, 2008

A Kinkajou at the Paradise Animal Rehabilitation Center, Volcancito, Panama. Image by Dick Culbert, 2008

As the name Micoleón suggests, these South American floofsters are what happens when a carnivore tries to be a monkey. They have dexterous digits for climbing and handling the fruit that makes up the bulk of their diet and they are one of only two carnivores with a prehensile tail (the other is the Binturong) – hence that tail clue.

This tail acts like a fifth limb that helps the Kinkajou climb and in particular it allows the animal to hang down in order to reach fruit at the ends of slender branches:

Kinkajou hanging using its prehensile tail. Image by Damian Manda, 2009

Kinkajou hanging using its prehensile tail. Image by Damian Manda, 2009

Unlike monkeys, the Kinkajou is nocturnal, relying on its sense of smell and touch more than its eyesight to work out which fruit is ripe. It uses its very long tongue to scoop out fruit pulp and sometimes to feed on nectar from flowers.

All in all it’s a very curious little carnivore that looks more like a lemur than it does its closest cousin, the Coatimundis.

Friday mystery object #305

This Friday I’m giving you a game of heads or tails from the Collections Resource Centre of the Dead Zoo:

mystery305amystery305bmystery305cmystery305d

I don’t normally add a photo of the tail, but in this case it should make the identification a doddle – literally a 50:50 shot at getting the right species. If you know what I’m talking about, then please be cryptic in your suggestions – don’t spoil it for everyone else!

If you don’t know why this tail is so significant then you should know that the skull is 10cm long and all will be revealed next Friday!

Good luck!

 

Friday mystery object #304 answer

Last week I gave you this skull to have a go at identifying:

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The skull of specimen LDUCZ-Z144 from the Grant Museum of Zoology

I thought that some of you would find it a bit easy, but the most diagnostic features aren’t visible in the image and it’s a nice specimen, so I went with it.

There is a bit of similarity with the skull of a ruminant, as noted by palfreyman14141, while Gerard pointed out that it’s from Africa and James M. Bryan was the first to drop a solid clue pointing to the correct species. As jennifermccaire says, it’s the very first on the list (assuming the list is alphabetical) – an Aardvark Orycteropus afer (Pallas, 1766).

An Aardvark at Detroit Zoo by MontageMan, 2008

An Aardvark (or as I prefer to call it, a Tippy-toes McSnuffleface) at Detroit Zoo. Image by MontageMan, 2008

Picking up on palfreyman1414’s observation about it looking like a ruminant, Allen Hazen asked an interesting question about the teeth, because the diet of these bizarre looking animals almost entirely consists of ants and termites, and most other mammals with a similar diet (like Pangolins and Tamanduas) have no teeth at all.

Making the presence of teeth even more weird is the fact that Aardvark stomachs have a muscular pyloric region that grinds up food in a similar way to a bird’s gizzard, so they really don’t need teeth for the major component of their diet. To top it off, the teeth of Aardvarks are utterly unlike any other mammal teeth – they’re made of tubules of dentine (giving the Order the name ‘Tubulidentata’), with no enamel, no pulp-cavity and no root – so they keep on growing:

The weird teeth of the Aardvark, made up of tiny dentine tubules.

The weird teeth of the Aardvark, made up of tiny dentine tubules.

All of this suggests that their dentition is distinctly non-standard, so it probably isn’t just a vestigial feature inherited from a toothed ancestor – which reinforces the importance of the question ‘why do they have teeth?’

Bear with me.

A 60-80kg mammal living in hot and water-scarce regions of Africa, will struggle to get enough moisture from ants and termites to survive, even if they are nocturnal and sleeping in burrows during the hottest part of the day. So how do Aardvarks do it?

Cucumbers, that’s how.

There is actually a species of cucumber that has a symbiotic relationship with Aardvarks, and it’s unimaginatively, but descriptively, called the Aardvark Cucumber Cucumis humifructus Stent, 1927.

Aardvark cucumber. Image by B. Strohbach

Aardvark cucumber (not a golf ball). Image by B. Strohbach

These weird fruits develop deep underground and have a tough skin that keeps them viable for months. Outside they’re like a leather golfball, but inside they’re watery like the cucumbers you’d put in a Hendrick’s gin and tonic – and that’s where the Aardvarks get their moisture (the Cucumber, not the G&T).

Nothing but the Aardvark has a nose sensitive enough to detect the plant, or claws powerful enough to dig into the hard-baked earth to access the fruits (or possibly only an animal that mostly eats ants is desperate enough for some culinary excitement to go to all that effort for something that the rest of nature views as a lacklustre garnish). The Cucumber’s seeds need to pass through an Aardvark to become viable and those seeds get distributed underground with a healthy dollop of fertiliser in what is otherwise a harsh environment.

The leathery skin of the Cucumber is almost certainly the reason why Aardvarks are alone in having teeth amongst the termite and ant-eating mammals. It also explains why those teeth grow constantly – and why they get so worn down.

I think that’s pretty awesome.

Now you may be wondering if I’m making all this up, but honestly, the world really is that weird (and wonderful) when you look at it closely enough!

Friday mystery object #304

This week I was worried that I didn’t have a mystery object planned, but then I stumbled across this on my phone:

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It’s probably a bit too easy for some of you, so I’d encourage using some cryptic clues and hints to say what it is in the comments box below.

I’ve had a problem with spam comments recently and have switched on a filter to ensure that people’s first posts are approved (regular posters shouldn’t be affected) – fear not, I will be keeping an eye on it and approving first timers!

Have fun!

Friday mystery object #303 answer

Last week I gave you this mysterious bit of bone from the Thames to have a go at identifying:

mystery303b

A few ideas were put forward, but DrewM was spot on with the suggestion:

I think it’s the synsacrum of a bird, without the ilia fused – the foramina are for spinal nerves.

A synsacrum is a fused section of vertebrae including the sacrum (which is where the pelvis attaches to the spine). General opinion quickly agreed with that suggestion, but the taxonomic group that the synsacrum belongs to remained unguessed.

That is perhaps unsurprising, since it’s hard to find good comparative images of bird synsacra, especially with the hips and lateral (or side) bits knocked off and worn down.

chicken synsacrum

A Chicken synsacrum showing the section preserved in the mystery object

I had a go at looking through some of the comparative bird osteology collections at the Dead Zoo to get a feel for birds with a similar synsacral morphology.

The usual suspect for a bird bone found in the Thames (for me at least) is Chicken, since they’re so closely associated with humans and a lot of the bones washed up on the banks of the Thames are from butchery and food waste. The size was about right, but the vertebral centra (the middle bits) of the Chicken synsacrum become more narrow in the hip-line than in the mystery specimen.

Next I looked at ducks, whose centra taper more in the direction of the tail, then grebes whose whole synsacrum is more narrow overall:

grebe synsacrum

Synsacrum of a Great Crested Grebe

Eventually I made it to the gulls who seem to be a much better fit in terms of shape and the Herring Gull Larus argentatus Pontoppidan, 1763 was a good fit for size:

herring gull synsacrum

Herring Gull synsacrum

Now this doesn’t mean to say that the mystery object is certainly from a Herring Gull. I would want to have the object in my hand and comparative material available from several specimens to check the identification before being sure, but on the basis of the images that Keith Dunmall kindly provided, I think we’re in the right ball park.

More mysteries next week!