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.

Friday mystery object #437 answer

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

It’s clearly a scapula (aka a shoulder blade), and it’s quite large. There were plenty of suggestions, which generally leaned towards a large cervid – such as a Giant Deer.

Giant Deer at the Dead Zoo

The general shape isn’t far off, but there are a few details that are different. One is the size – a Red Deer scapula is smaller maybe around 20-23cm long, but Giant Deer scapulas are even bigger than the mystery object.

But also the shape of the scapula spine isn’t quite right, especially the wobble just visible halfway down and at the acromion process, where the scapula spine ends near the articulation with the humerus.

That acromion process also helps us rule out Horse, as Adam Yates pointed out in the comments.

This scapula most closely matches that of a Cow Bos taurus Linnaeus, 1758.

So well done to palreyman1414 and katedmondson, who spotted the bovine nature of this bone.

Friday mystery object #436 answer

Last week I was in the lovely city of Edinburgh, catching up with many of my wonderful natural history colleagues from around the world at the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) conference. While I was there, I spotted this object and thought it might pose an interesting mystery object:

Interesting perhaps, but clearly not very challenging, since I think everyone managed to figure out what it is, despite the unusual viewing angle. Well done to Wouter van Gestel for being the first to comment.

Here’s an image of the same object from a couple of different (and somewhat more common) angles:

The large size and that very distinctive lower jaw, where the two halves of the mandible meet and run parallel for over half the length of the jaw, are unmistakeable (as noticed by Adam Yates). This is the skull of a Sperm Whale Physeter macrocephalus Linnaeus, 1758.

Nearby, I noticed a much smaller version of this specimen, housed in a much smaller version of the National Museums Scotland, which definitely deserves a mention:

The teeth of a Lego whale are probably not as efficient at keeping hold of a squid as the robust curved teeth of the real animal, and the skull is a bit less impressively huge, but it certainly has charm.

If you get a chance to visit Edinburgh I definitely recommend a trip to National Museums Scotland – not just for the Sperm Whale and the Lego, but also for one of the most impressive taxidermy dioramas I’ve ever seen. Here’s a small section to give you an idea:

Friday mystery object #436

This week I have been in the beautiful city of Edinburgh at the conference of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC), Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) and the Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA) hosted wonderfully by National Museums Scotland (NMS).

It’s been a fantastic opportunity to catch up with natural history colleagues from around the world and to learn what everyone has been busy doing over the last few years. I also got to see some fantastic specimens held by NMS and I thought I’d set one of them as this week’s mystery object:

Do you have any idea what this might be?

As ever, you can leave your thoughts in the comments box below. Have fun!

Friday mystery object #435 answer

Last week I tried something a bit different for the Friday mystery object. Instead of giving you a few different views of a skull or whole animal, I offered just a small detail:

I hope the challenge proved fun for everyone who tried to figure this out. There were quite a few correct answers, although I think it was quite a challenge.

In fact, it was a challenge issued to the 5th class of St. Laurence’s National School by the Sallins Biodiversity Group in their excellent #MapOfLife2022 project.

Here’s what Gavin Brangan has to say about it:

For many children, the Dead Zoo is their first experience of being struck by the wonder of nature up close and in person.

In #MapOfLife2022 wanted to bring as many facets of that experience to the school and local community. On Wednesday, 5th Class in St Laurence’s had a video tour and workshop given by the education department of National Museum of Ireland – Go Extinct!

Joanne Murray, a local artist, based her art workshops with Senior Infants and 3rd class in the school on the specimen drawers containing insects. To cap it all, we’ve invited the children to find Paolo’s mystery object on the ground floor of the virtual tour of the museum.

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you’ll know that one of the reasons I’ve kept it going for so long (this is its 13th year!) is the community that has developed here and the opportunities the blog offers to help people engage with objects from the natural world and the stories they can tell.

In this case, I thought sharing this beautiful feather pattern would help me tell the story of an extremely rare visitor to Ireland – the Great Bustard Otis tarda Linnaeus, 1758.

This particular bird is a female that somehow ended up in Castletown, Berehaven, Co. Cork in the winter of 1925. At this point in time the Great Bustard had been extinct in Britain for over 90 years and was not to be seen again until they were reintroduced to Salisbury Plain around 2007, so it couldn’t have come from Ireland’s closest neighbour.

It’s more likely to have come from France, Spain or Portugal, meaning it was off course by over 1,000km. I haven’t found any records of particularly big storms in the winter of 1925, but often it will be something like that which brings a migrating bird so far off track.

These birds like dry open grassland, with plenty of insects to feed on. Ireland is probably too wet for them to become established, although with a changing world climate that could possibly change in the future.

This is the interesting thing about nature – it changes constantly. What we think of as being normal is actually just what we’re used to seeing in the span of our lives. This is why it is so important to understand biodiversity over time – to see how it’s changing and to work out why it’s changing.

Museums like the Dead Zoo have specimens collected by people over the last 250 years and the activities of community groups doing projects like #MapOfLife2022 can help feed into that preserved knowledge and add a new level of understanding of the natural world today.

I think it’s especially important for young people to have an opportunity to get involved with this sort of thing, since they will be our future naturalists, life scientists and museum curators. This is why the efforts of people like Gavin, and teachers like Ms Hennessy and Ms Scott are incredibly important and deserve recognition.

To wrap up, I recommend taking a look at the photo journal of the #MapOfLife2022 events to see the young and old of Sallins getting involved in Biodiversity and natural history.

Friday mystery object #435

This week I’m going for a slightly different approach to the mystery object. Normally I give you as much information as I have available to let you figure out what you’re looking at, but today I thought I’d give you a snippet from a specimen that I think you’ll find distinctive, but which might offer a bit of a challenge.

All of that being said, here’s this week’s mystery object:

Any idea which animal this pretty pattern might belong to?

As ever, you can leave your observations, questions and suggestions in the comments section below. Happy hunting!

Friday mystery object #434 answer

Last week I gave you a Blaschka glass model from the Dead Zoo to have a go at identifying:

As you are probably aware from some of my previous posts on these rather fascinating objects, there can be quite a big difference between what the specimen was sold as in the Blaschka catalogue and what we might call the species today. In fact, this is a fairly common theme with many of the mystery objects, given the relentless progress being made in taxonomy since many museum collections were established.

In the case of Blaschka models this can cause a lot of confusion, since in some collections the names have been updated to match modern taxonomy, whereas in others the original name is still used. Most confusing is where the taxonomy was updated historically (and badly) so it no longer bears much relation to either the original name or the current name. That’s why the ordering numbers used by Ward are so useful, as it allows specimens to be tracked back to the catalogue (as long as the original number has survived).

Another way to figure out which species your Blaschka model might be is to look through the illustrations that the Blaschka’s used as the basis of their models. In the case of sea anemones that usually means checking the plates in Actinologia britannica. A history of the British sea-anemones and corals. by Philip Henry Gosse, 1860.

In this case Plate VIII has the goods:

As identified on Twitter by Ann Lingard and in the comments by Cam, the mystery object is of course Gosse’s Stomphia Churchiae or more recently Stomphia coccinea (Müller, 1776).

This is one of those times when it’s a real shame that the species has been synonymised, since Gosse named the species Churchiae in honour of Miss Anne Church, who had sent him a written description and figures of the species after recovering a specimen from a turbot net in Loch Long, Scotland. Thanks to Ann Lingard for sharing a link to an interesting blogpost on “The anemonizers of Scotland” touching on this (see also p.233 of Actinologia britannica).

Finally, with the original name, the number from the Ward catalogue comes easily, which in this instance is Nr.108.

I hope you enjoyed this diversion into the world of the Blaschkas – no doubt there will be more to come in future as I’ll be talking about them at a glass conference in a month’s time.

Friday mystery object #434

It’s been a while since I shared one of the Dead Zoo’s Blaschka models, so I thought it might be time to bring out another:

The usual Blaschka rules apply – for those of you who aren’t familiar with what that means, you get full points* for the name and order catalogue number used by the Blaschkas (the catalogue can be found here) and bonus points for the current name for whatever this model depicts (if the taxonomy has changed). There may be extra points if you find some additional information about this model – I’m sure someone will be able to surprise me!

*There are no actual points.