Friday mystery object #448

This week I have a bony mystery object for you to have a go at identifying:

Scale in cm

Do you have any ideas what is?

As ever, you can leave your observations, questions and suggestions in the comments box below, and I’ll do my best to respond. Of course, if you think this is easy, take the time to come up with a cryptic answer, to keep the game fresh for other people – not everyone is a bonegeek!

Friday mystery object #447 answer

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

I didn’t think it would pose as much of a challenge as it did, but as I hinted when setting the question, this specimen is on the chunky side and I think the robustness threw some of you off the scent.

Allen Hazen offered a suite of great observations and considerations (which is well worth a read), but katedmonson and Adam Yates were on the right track from the get-go in the comments and the Twitterati twigged pretty quickly. This skull is from a Raccoon Procyon lotor (Linnaeus, 1758).

Most Raccoon skulls I’ve seen have been smaller and a lot more gracile than this chunkster, so when I first spotted this specimen it took me a moment to recognise the species. In particular, this specimen has very well-developed muscle scars around the zygomatic arches (cheekbones) and sagittal crest (the ridge along the midline of the braincase) compared to the younger specimens that I tend to see, such as this one from my handling collection:

This robustness in the mystery object changes the profile of the skull to some extent, making it more rounded on top and wider across the cheeks. The canines are also larger and the various suture lines are more fully fused, making it seem to be from a more formidable animal than a Raccoon – like a Wolverine or Honey-badger (both of which were suggested on Twitter).

This sort of cranial variation within a species is always interesting to me, since it reflects the biomechanical forces acting on the bone during the animal’s life. It will be influenced by the sex and age of the animal as well, so it illustrates why it’s important for collections to hold several examples of any species, with different sexes and developmental stages represented.

Thanks to everyone for their comments on this – it’s always interesting to get an insight into your thought processes!

Friday mystery object #446 answer

Last week I gave you this mystery object from the collection of the late Dr Don Cotton to have a go at identifying:

It led to some really interesting discussion in the comments, which converged on this being a whale vertebra. More exactly, one of the cervical (neck) vertebrae from the neck of a smallish to medium-sized whale.

Whale necks are very short and the bones are a bit odd, as in they can be fused together in the adults and sometimes in juveniles (but not always), and depending on the species they might not fuse at all. This one is not fused, but you can see facets just above the solid centrum section, where the vertebra in front of this one would have snugly nestled.

It looks like the lateral processes (bits that stick out to the side) that would have extended from the facets, but have broken off, presumably due to the action of the waves on the shore where this specimen washed up. This makes it even harder to identify which of the cervical vertebrae this is or the species that it came from. However, the squared centrum and spur-like lower processes make me think that this is probably from one of the cervicals nearer the thoracic (chest) region – my guess would be cervical number 6 (cervical 7 often lacks the lower processes while 3,4 and 5 tend have better developed lower processes).

In the comments the discussion focussed on large dolphins, like the Beluga or Narwhal, but the shape reminds me more of the cervicals I’ve seen from baleen whales like the Fin Whale, although the size is all wrong. However, there is a much smaller member of the Balaenoptera species complex that inhabits Irish waters: the Northern Minke Whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata Lacépède, 1804 – which is what I think this mystery object probably came from.

I could be wrong and this could possibly be from a large dolphin that occurs around Ireland, like an Orca or Long-finned Pilot whale, but these have extensive fusion of the neck vertebrae, so I’m going to stick my neck out with the Northern Minke.

Northern Minke Whales are well documented in the waters around Ireland, especially during the spring and summer months. Don Cotton was a founding member of the excellent Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, which is the source of much of the information we have about the occurrance of these otherwise enigmatic animals in Irish waters.

Friday mystery object #446

Earlier this week I had a chance to look through some specimens that were recently donated to the Dead Zoo. Most were well identified and labelled by the gifted naturalist who collected them, the late Dr Don Cotton, but this specimen was lacking a label:

Do you have any thoughts about what it might be from? As usual you can leave your observations, questions and suggestions in the comments box below. Have fun!

Friday mystery object #445 answer

Last week I gave you this mystery object, which was hanging on the wall in a cocktail bar in Granada:

This is clearly a Testudine (AKA a tortoise or turtle), but there are over 350 species, so there’s a bit of work still to do. However, this one has some pretty distinctive features in the three well-defined keels on the carapace and well developed serrations on its rear margin.

There are a few species that have some similarities in their carapace, including the Alligator Snapping Turtle – as suggested by E on Twitter – but the finer details of the scutes and carapace keel shapes suggest it’s something else.

The fairly steep convergence of the external keels towards the midline at the front of the carapace is quite distinctive and the relatively smooth overlapping scutes in the forward section, but more jagged scutes to the rear ring a bell for me.

I think this is the carapace of a Keeled Box Turtle AKA Jagged Shelled-turtle AKA Mouhot’s Turtle Cuora mouhotii Gray, 1862. Several other people (like Chris, Allen Hazen, the SMG Collections Team and Colin McCarthy) seem to have agreed, both in the comments on the blog and on Twitter.

This species is from Southeast Asia and, due to a variety of pressures from the pet trade, collecting for food and habitat loss it’s now endangered, particularly in Vietnam. I’m not sure how this specimen managed to end up on the wall of a Spanish cocktail bar, but my guess would be that it either came in as a holiday souveneir from a visit to Southeast Asia or from an animal that came into the country via the pet trade.

Friday mystery object #444 answer

Last week I gave you a couple of skulls from the collections in the Dead Zoo to have a go at identifying:

It’s pretty obvious that they are rodents, based on those paired incisors. But there are a lot of rodent species out there…

These are small and, based on the size, we can immediately rule out all anything bigger than a Brown Rat. The anterior portion of zygomatic process, where it meets the maxilla (the front parts of the cheek bones) are broad and triangular, narrowing to very fine arches where it meets the temporal porocess (the rear part of the arch of the cheek bone). This is something I associate with voles.

The teeth are also distinctively ‘voley’ with their zig-zagging cusps.

There are still a lot of vole species out there, but if you’re familiar with identifying specimens from owl pellets in the UK you’ll probably recognise that the specimen on the left has a very distinctive second molar, with a small fifth cusp. This is a tell-tale indicator of the Short-tailed Field Vole Microtus agrestis (Linnaeus, 1761), while the more rounded cusps of the specimen on the right are more in keeping with a Bank Vole Myodes glareolus (Schreber, 1780).

So congratulations to Chris Jarvis in the comments, and to the Scarborough Museum and Galleries Collections Team on Twitter, who managed to leave sufficiently clear but cryptic clues to the identity of these skulls:

I hope you enjoyed these smol skulls and the pointers provided to separate them.

Friday mystery object #444

This week I finally had a chance to look at some skulls in the Dead Zoo collections, and I thought I’d share the joy of that with you here:

Do you have any idea which two species these skulls might be from?

As ever you can leave your thoughts, questions and suggestions in comments box below. If you find this too easy, maybe make your answer cryptic, to give other people a chance to work it out for themselves. Enjoy!

Friday mystery object #443 answer

Last week I gave you this cute little fuzzball to have a go at identifying:

Everyone spotted that this is one of the New World porcupines (AKA the Erethizontidae), but there are 18 species to choose from. Some have quite short hairs between their quills, giving a spiky appearance, but this specimen has definite floof. The tail is quite short and the body is small – as several people noticed in the comments.

With a relatively small number of species, and with a few distinctive features to look for, you might expect that scanning through images of the various different species could help get an identification. It turns out that this method worked a bit too well, since this very specimen happens to be used for the image used to depict the species on Wikipedia – as spotted by Allen Hazen.

This mystery object is a Brown Hairy Dwarf Porcupine Coendou vestitus, Thomas, 1899. The reason our specimen has been used to depict the species is probably because there are very few other images of this animal dead or alive – which suggests that it’s probably rather rare (apparently nobody recorded seeing one for over 75 years).

This specimen has a few question marks for me – in particular the collection locality, which is listed as Chiriqui, Central America. This doesn’t sound right, considering the species is considered endemic to the Eastern Cordillera in the Colombian Andes – over 1,000km away. It’s probably down to a data mix up, but if not, it raises some interesting questions.

Friday mystery object #442 answer

Last week I gave you this unassuming cobble-like object to have a go at identifying:

What you can’t see is that this is actually a surprisingly lightweight object and it’s most definitely not made of stone – not even a stone as light as pumice.

It is in fact of zoological origin and it’s an example of an object I featured on the blog 13 years ago (almost to the day), when I worked at the Horniman Museum:

Scale in cm

As Chris mentioned in the comments, and as Nigel Cook said on Twitter:

These are both trichobezoars – boluses formed from hair that form in the digestive track of an animal (usually an ungulate, although other animals, including humans can form them too). Bezoars are reputed to have magical properties and historically they were valuable high-status objects.

These two look quite different to each other and that is probably because one of them is fully mineralised (mystery object #442), while the other (mystery object #7) is barely mineralised and still has matted hair visible (and it still smelled pretty bad if I remember correctly).

I was going to add a little more information to my previous answer about these remarkable objects, but David Carter has an interesting article about them on the excellent Mindat website, so why reinvent the wheel? I recommend checking it out, as it’s well worth a read!

Friday mystery object #442

This week I have an object that was found in Ireland, in a field, near a river. I was asked to identify it, since the same location had yielded some interesting archaeological finds and this object’s surprisingly light weight made it clear it wasn’t just an ordinary pebble:

Detail of small hole in surface of the object

Any idea what this could be?

As ever you can leave your thoughts, questions and suggestions in the comments box below – I hope you have fun with this one!

Friday mystery object #441 answer

Last week I gave you this rather impressive spider to have a go at identifying:

The huge size had a several people on Twitter and in the comments here suggesting it’s a Goliath Birdeater Theraphosa blondi. It is big, with a leg span of around 19-20cm, but not quite as big (or as chunky) as the Goliath.

Also, although it’s probably not easy to see from the main image, this specimen has tibial spurs on the first pair of legs – which are absent in Goliath Birdeaters:

Tibial spurs on first pair of legs (don’t confuse them with the hooked mating organ at the end of the pedipalp)

Another thing that’s not easy to see in the main image is some subtle purple iridescence on the first three legs, pedipalps and chelicerae:

This is something I only noticed after looking for it with a light and it offers some support for the identification on the side of the box:

This label suggests the specimen is Bolivian (or in this case Peruvian) Blue-leg Birdeater Pamphobeteus antinous Pocock, 1903, but that species (as hinted at by the name) has quite distinctly blue legs:

There are fourteen other species in the genus Pamphobeteus, some of which also display some degree of iridescence on the same parts of the body, so I suspect that what we have here is one of the other species. I’m wondering if it might be Pamphobeteus grandis Bertani, Fukushima & Silva, 2008, which is very similar in appearance to P. antinous, except it has purple iridescence rather than violet/blue.

Unfortunately, I’m no spider expert and I don’t have time at the moment to go through the diagnostic features of P. grandis and relatives under a microscope, but when I get a chance I’ll check my tentative identification!

Friday mystery object #440 answer

Last week I gave you this piece of bone to have a go at identifying:

It was a particularly difficult challenge and I’m still not 100% sure of what it is, but I was very interested to hear your thoughts.

There was a general leaning towards one of the (many) bones of the skull – although since there’s a suture running through the middle of this, it must consist of at least two different bones that have fused.

This feels right to me, since there aren’t many other parts of the skeleton consisting of fused bony plates containing foramina. But as to which bones of the skull and which animal, that’s a much more difficult identification prospect.

Unfortunately this kind of identification usually depends on a combination of familiarity with a range of skulls and comparative collections to figure it out and, I’m sad to say, that I’ve had very little opportunity to immerse myself in cranial collections for several years now and I rarely get a chance to work on comparative material these days.

The best I could come up with is this being a section from the upper internal portion of the orbit of a Sheep Ovis aries Linnaeus, 1758 (or something quite similar).

I’m thinking this partly due to the V-shaped notch in the margin of the bone, which can be hard to spot in the initial photos, so here it is from the side:

This notch is something I think of as being present in some (but by no means all) Sheep specimens (e.g. take a look at the dorsal view in Mike Taylor’s fantatsic SV-POW! blogpost featuring a very helpful Sheep skull multiview). When I checked with a couple of my own specimens, I think I can just make out where this mystery section might sit – but it’s very hard to be sure since the region is quite variable between individuals (or perhaps breed) by the looks of my specimens:

I hope that wasn’t too disappointing as a challenge, and I apologise for not offering a definitive answer, but if I manage to track down some old specimen that is missing this exact section of bone, I’ll be sure to share it here!

In the meantime, please feel free to offer more suggestions and, if you have comparative material of your own, maybe see what you think? Thanks everyone!

Friday mystery object #440

This week I have some news to accompany the mystery object.

After two years of hard work we have reopened the Dead Zoo. As part of that process, we came across this small piece of bone, which was caught in the historic furniture for several decades before jolting loose during some of the moves that have happened recently in the Museum:

A top tier challenge for a seasoned bone geek by the looks of it. So do you have any thoughts on what it might be from?

Oh, and in case you’re in Ireland (or have a VPN) you might be interested in this documentary that was aired on Monday, which follows the work I did on our whale specimens back in 2020. There’s a trailer for it here:

I hope you enjoy!

Friday mystery object #439 answer

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

I wasn’t sure if it would be an impossible task based on just this image, but I thought I’d see how you fared. There weren’t many comments on the blog, but Twitter yielded some very astute observations, with Pete Liptrot getting the correct Family and Tim identifying it to species:

Most impressive!

I picked this Floating Crab Planes minutus (Linnaeus, 1758) because I spotted it whilst working in the Irish Room of the Dead Zoo and I didn’t recognise it myself. The specimen was collected from Dingle Bay on the 2nd July 1974, where it was found with stalked barnacles on drifting float.

These crabs are pelagic hitchhikers, relying on floating substrates (e.g. seaweed, turtles, ocean rubbish) to rest on between short forays to catch food, such as krill and very small fish. They are present in the North Atlantic, occasionally turning up along the west coast of Ireland and southwestern Britain.

So well done to Tim for that impressive identification. I’m afraid that I haven’t had a chance to figure out the diagnostic characteristics for this small, but well formed crab to share, because I’ve been too busy trying to get the Dead Zoo ready to reopen. If you want to see some of what’s been going on as part of that, check out the #DeadZooDiary.

More exciting news to come, but that can wait 😉

Friday mystery object #438 answer

Last week I gave you this closeup of a mystery object from the Dead Zoo:

I thought it might be a bit too easy, so I asked for cryptic clues – and I was neither wrong, nor disappointed.

There were a variety of comments both here on the blog and on Twitter, and it was fairly clear that some key ideas emerged. Termites and ants were mentioned a lot (in relation to diet), but it was one of the seven deadly sins that was most often referenced. Clearly this sin is Sloth, but the animal is also clearly not a Sloth, since it has five claws and not just two or three. Plus, Sloths eat leaves rather than invertebrates.

However, there is of course a termite hunting critter with five toes and “Sloth” in its name – the Sloth Bear Melursus ursinus (Shaw, 1791).

Like their cousin the Giant Panda, the Sloth Bear has veered off the quite generalist diet of most bear species and focused on something locally abundant and easy to access – assuming you have the right equipment. In this case the equipment is a set of absolutely MASSIVE claws, long lips and tongue and no teeth in their upper jaw.

Sloth Bears are somewhat lanky looking compared to their similarly-sized Black Bear cousins and while they are less carnivorous, they can be quite formidable when faced with another predator thanks to a their large canine teeth and those impressive claws.

This particular specimen has been displaced from its usual location thanks to building works taking place in the Dead Zoo. Unfortunately, the wild living population is also being displaced due to habitat loss and degradation.

My thanks to everyone who commented on the mystery object – there were some great cryptic answers and while I’m a bit put out because so many of you figured it out, I’m happy that so many of you clearly know about these somewhat odd – but in my opinion, very interesting – members of the bear family.