Friday mystery object #373 answer

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



As everyone recognised, it’s the skull of a snake. I think that’s clear from those extremely long quadrate bones (highlighted in purple in the top view), with which the lower jaw articulates to allow a huge gape for swallowing prey whole. However, there are a lot of snakes out there – around 3,600 species, which means there are lots of possibilities for the species that this particular skull belongs to.

The side view allows us to rule out quite a few possibilities, since it’s clear from the teeth that this isn’t one of the front-fanged snakes (vipers and elapids).


Rattlesnake skull, with its big front fangs.

The light construction of the skull suggests it’s not one of the constricting snakes, which have much more robust skulls for dealing with the forces generated by the struggles of relatively large prey.


Python skull, with a robust construction for wrangling prey.

The teeth are quite small and although there are a couple of slightly longer ones in the tooth row, they hardly count as real fangs at a paltry 3mm long. So we’re probably dealing with one of the ‘non-venomous’ colubrid snakes (many of these are actually venomous, but lack the appropriate tools to deliver that venom through human skin).

Of course, there are still well over a thousand possible species in the Colubridae – but this is where you have to start ruling out possibilities by comparing the specimen against species that are common and widespread, to begin the process of narrowing down the options.

Since this specimen is in the Museum in Ireland, Europe is a good place to start looking for likely candidates (Ireland itself being famously devoid of native snakes). There is a rather old (published in 1913), but still very useful reference called The Snakes of Europe, by G. A. Boulenger which has a section on identifying species based on their skulls.


Fig. 6Skull of Tropidonotus natrix. (From British Museum Catalogue of Snakes). Illustration from The Snakes of Europe, by G. A. Boulenger, 1913

If you take a look through, it quickly becomes apparent that there is one species that matches the mystery object very closely – even to the position of the slightly larger teeth. It’s a species that has an interesting defense mechanism that jennifermacaire referred to:

…The closest skull I could find is from a snake that likes to roll over and play dead…

This is a fascinating behaviour seen in several snake species, but Jennifer is correct that it is seen in the species that this skull is from – the European Grass snake Natrix sp.

Of course, the story then gets more complicated again, since a couple of subspecies of Grass snake have been elevated to species in the last few years. The Iberian subspecies Natrix natrix astreptophora was recognised as N. astreptophora in 2016 and the subspecies N. n. helvetica found west of the Rhine (including in the UK) was updated to N. helvetica in 2017.

These studies were based on genetics and I’ve yet to see any way of differentiating between these species using skeletal features, so for now the best I can say about this specimen is that it’s Natrix sp. I hope you enjoyed that little slither into the world of snakes, which seems to have opened a bit of a can of worms…



Friday mystery object #372 answer

First of all, I’d like to wish you a very happy and healthy 2020!

Last year I gave you this festive-looking beetle to try your hand at identifying:


It was a bit of a tricky one to get to species, since beetles are notorious for their huge diversity, plus they can vary in appearance quite significantly within a species.

James Bryant recognised this as a member of the Buprestidae, which is a family of wood-boring beetles that are commonly known as Jewel Beetles due to their metallic and iridescent colours. In fact, the wing cases (or elytra)  of some of the most colourful of these beetles have been used in traditional beetlewing jewellery in the parts of Asia where they are found.

Going beyond the family, the identification katedmonson provided through a great cryptic clue was spot-on (assuming I understood it properly). This particular specimen is an example of Chrysochroa rajah Gory, 1840, but in the collection it is still labelled under the synonym C. chinensis.

This species is one of those with a wide distribution, several subspecies and a variety of different colours and patterns, which can make it hard to identify based on just an image of the overall body (or habitus as it’s referred to by entomologists). Just to give you an idea of what I mean, here’s an example of the same species in the National Museum, Prague:

Chrysochroa rajah from southern China. Photo by Hectonichus 2010

Blue and green form of Chrysochroa rajah from southern China. Photo by Hectonichus 2010

So well done to katedmonson for getting this tricky identification. Look out for another mystery next week!

Friday mystery object #371 answer(ish)

Last week I gave you these two genuine mystery specimens from Katharine Edmonson to get your thoughts on:



It was most definitely NOT an easy challenge, and I’m still not sure I know the answer to either, even after looking at every species I can think of that might have similar structures.

These are both clearly teeth, considering the internal details:

One image shows the root area of a full tooth, and one shows a section through a tooth – both of which provide really useful information. For example, the full tooth has a central dentine growth that you often find in animals that deal with a lot of strain on the tooth or where infection has got in (I’ve shown this before in elephant ivory).

The sectioned tooth shows a zone of dentine in the middle that suggests some hard use. Notably, that zone matches the shape of the cross section, so those grooves in the sides of the tooth aren’t from wear – they must be intrinsic to the tooth shape.

Generally, tusk cross sectional shape reflects the shape of the socket (until it gets worn down) – so that gives a pretty good way of narrowing down possible options. For example, I’d discount walrus, since they have an almost rectangular section. Warthog tusks have a section somewhere between the number 8 and a mushroom in shape, and Hippopotamuses have a triangular section to their canines, but their incisors are quite circular in section.

Warthog tusk socket

Warthog tusk socket

Then there are wear facets, that can give teeth and tusks a characteristic shape. Hippo canines grow in a corkscrew if unworn, but by rubbing against each other they remain sharp and fresh (like rodent teeth).

This means that teeth and tusks can look weird if the normal wear is disrupted, either by not happening or by happening too much.

There are also unexpected tusks that need to be considered, like the Indian Rhinoceros or dugongs that have hidden tusks.

Of course, some animals have really weird tusks, especially when they’re young or if they’ve experience something that leaves the tusks deformed or altered – which can make identification really hard.

There were a lot of suggestions of Sperm Whale tooth, which is a possibility, but I’ve not seen any that really come close. It may be that both of these are tusks from something more unusual, like beaked whales, but I have looked at a lot of examples of beaked whale teeth and I can’t find any examples that match either of these.

On balance, I think that the first of the tusks may be a Hippopotamus incisor that’s been misaligned with another tooth, causing excessive wear and horizontal stress lines to appear during tooth growth – this is rampant speculation I hasten to add. The second looks a lot more like a Warthog tusk in section than anything else, although the end is more spade-like than I’d expect.

So, after a lot of consideration I’m still uncertain of the identification of either of these, and I would be delighted to hear if you have any more thoughts!

Friday mystery object #371

This week I have a couple of guest mystery objects for you to have a go at identifying. Here’s the first:


And this is the second mystery object:


These photos are from Katharine Edmonson and they’re real mysteries, so no need for cryptic clues or hints – let’s see if we can work out what these are using our collective knowledge. Should be fun!

Friday mystery object #370 answer

Last week I gave you this really nice skull from the Dead Zoo to have a go at identifying:


It proved a little more tricky than I thought it would, but I shouldn’t have been surprised given the poor quality of the photo and the fact that the cranium isn’t properly seated on the mandible (as pointed out by Allen Hazen).

Of course, that didn’t keep you all confused for too long. The large sinuses and relatively undifferentiated and widely-spaced teeth – except for those large canines – suggest that this is the skull of a some kind of seal.

Jeanie and salliereynolds noted the large, depressed opening over the nasal region, which is definitely one of the most distinctive features of this species. However, it also misled in the first place, with discussion of the possibility of it being from an Elephant Seal taking over for a while.

However, salliereynolds got back on the right track, while on Twitter Ray Chatterji was on the right track from the start with his suggestion:

The Hooded Seal Cystophora cristata (Erxleben, 1777) is really weird – well, the male is. He has an inflatable bladder on its head and one nostril contains a membrane that he can inflate to show off to other Hooded Seals.

I find it hard to think of this as anything other than nature’s attempt at making slightly disgusting balloon animals.

Well done to everyone who worked it out – I have a couple of fun guest mystery objects for you next week!