Friday mystery object #53


Well, it’s been a year. Fifty-two mystery objects have been and gone with varying levels of confusion, information and interest. The first anniversary seems like a good opportunity to reassess the Friday mystery object, in particular whether it should continue and if so should it change?

Obviously the information for that reassessment needs to come from you – my audience, so please give me feedback in the comments section below – particularly about what needs to change to make the mystery object more interesting for you (a bit about yourself might be useful too – what kind of background do you have, what are you interested in and what other blogs do you follow)?

On to the anniversary object I have for you, it’s one of the Horniman’s more bizarre objects and it’s a favourite of mine for its sheer repulsiveness (click pictures for bigger images):

Now, I’m pretty sure you can all work out what it’s supposed to be, but the question that’s bugging me is what is it made from? In fact, in order to answer that question we recently took this object to the Saad Centre for Radiography where it was CT scanned so we could take a look inside without damaging the specimen. It was an awesome experience, which I will report for you in the answer to this object, although I am afraid that the answer may have to wait until a bit later than usual whilst the images are processed and I seek other expert opinions on what we’re seeing.

Of course, the keen eyes and vast brains of my audience are valuable resources that I would love to exploit, so please take the time to leave your thoughts, ideas and anecdotes in the comments section below. Whilst researching this sort of thing it’s the human responses, more than the materials, that make it fascinating for me – I hope you think so too!

77 thoughts on “Friday mystery object #53

  1. Someone has sewn a mummified monkey to a fish! Come on, own up – who did it?

    I’m wondering whether possibly the head and torso are separate – what’s the scale?

    I enjoy the Friday Mystery Object, and judging by the number of comments people leave, so do many others. I probably know more about the artefacts in the Horniman Museum than any other because of these posts, and all from the comfort of my own desk.

    (I’m a physicist, I follow a rather eclectic range of blogs including quackwriter, georgian london, realclimate, jackofkent – this is my only museumy one!)

    • Thanks for the feedback – that’s really helpful!

      On to the weirdness… the whole specimen is 34 cm (or 13.5 inches to my mother) and the supporting band in the centre of the specimen is above the level of the join between the ‘monkey’ and ‘fish’ parts and the head is supported on a long neck – I’ll see if I can find an additional image with the neck and head more clearly shown.

  2. Wow. It looks like what Gollum might have continued to change into had he not jumped into the volcano.

    Should the FMO continue? Yes please. Change? No, but it would be nice to have a wider range of objects so it’s not always a case of standing back in wonder at the knowledge displayed by the specialist biologists. I like the anthropological stuff when it’s not just what it’s made of but what it’s used for and by whom: e.g. the Japanese eating utensils. And a sprinkling of other things from the museum, e.g. the sewing box – but that’s because I got that right.

    • now that doesn’t make sense – asking for what you already do. Should read – it would be nice to have more of a balance between the straightforward specimens and a wider range of objects.

      • I get what you mean and I was coming to a similar conclusion myself (hence the Merman), so it’s good to have that recorded – hopefully it will encourage curators from other departments to get involved.

  3. It’s a merman – or something constructed to be a merman. I have seen one somewhere before, but I can’t quite remember the components. The tail is from a fish, and I think the upper part was a monkey.

  4. Yes, a fishmonkey! Reminds me also of the odd object you currently have in the Myths and Monsters exhibition made from a stretched dried ray. I like FMO but they’re mostly over my head. Doesn’t stop me reading!

    • Glad to hear it!

      Funnily enough the Merman is actually on display in the Centenary Gallery, directly opposite the Myths and Monsters exhibition space – it’s a very dark and quiet gallery that suits this object very well. It’s in the case nearest the torture chair on the right as you go in.

  5. Happy anniversary!

    So, with regards the hands. They don’t look like hands that started life having freely moveable phalanges; it’s almost as if the taxidermist has taken the bones from a flipper (of some marine mammal) and then re-skinned the phalanges individually.

    • The hands are certainly not very lifelike and I think you’re probably correct in surmising that they’re more of a work of craft than a genuine biological feature…

  6. I think it’s only SmallCasserole who’s responded to your question about the background of your contributors (I’m impressed by his biological knowledge, given he is a physicist). So here’s mine – I follow blogs on humanism, general questioning/commentary on society (e.g. JackofKent), science and lighter things. I’m a uni lecturer in engineering, centred on professional skills, so I’m not joking when I say I’m a specialist generalist. I have lunch most days when I’m at work with friends who happen mostly to be scientists, both biological and physical. Oh, and I’m your mother.

  7. I’ve got a live one of these in the attic…doesn’t everyone???

    Emma said: “I like FMO but they’re mostly over my head. Doesn’t stop me reading!”

    I’m a bit like that, but they are all way over my head. I sometimes get as far as answering: animal, vegetable or mineral? – but still get it wrong!

    Still, it’s fascinating to see how people think their way through the clues and arrive at a conclusion.

    I appreciate it must be a fair bit of work, but keep it up if you can!

    • Thanks Zeno, it’s really useful to know that there are people who find FMO interesting, but don’t usually leave comments – it’s hard to cater for an invisible audience!

  8. The hands/paws/feet (?) reminded me of an aye-aye except I don’t think that the middle digit is long enough. I also first thought it might be the back legs of a Raccoon.

    I am not a scientist and I have no real formal education( I am an investment administrator during daylight hours). I came across this blog by following you on twitter and you posted the FMO. I follow a few skeptical blogs but nothing truly science related. I am very interested in Technology so biology/history is not my forte. I find the FMO a fun way of broadening my knowledge.

    I liked the idea you came up with a few weeks back about doing a guide on how to identify bones/teeth or other aspects of a specimen.

    • Thanks Matthew – interesting to hear that you’re not into biology that much, because your comments are usually very pertinent and informed. The identification idea is one that’s been kicking around in my head for some time and I am working on it in my spare time, but it’s such a large topic it’s quite hard to get to grips with. That said, you can expect a basic attempt at this in the near future…

  9. I’ll plug Henry’s book, before he gets here. It is rather good, and related to this object.

    I enjoy reading FMO: I’m a biologist, but not a zoologist, so I’m pretty clueless about what most of this stuff is. But it’s still fun to follow.

    • Excellent – I’ll take a look at Henry’s book for sure!

      Glad that you find it fun – I derive a huge amount of enjoyment from my work, so it’s nice to know that some of the fun I get to have is being passed on!

  10. Have you got a side-on shot of the tail at all? If the hands are a reconstruction do they have any phalanges in them? Or are they totally faked up? Has the neck been modified in any way?

    • Ooh, great questions! I’ll see if I can find an image of the tail side-on, although it was quite tricky to get a good shot of it because it’s so curved.

      The hands are totally fake to the best of my knowledge, but that’s something that the CT scans should show up well. The same goes for the neck. I can’t wait to get the outputs from the scan!

    • See new image with most of the tail – the tail fin is very squared off and is slightly longer along the top edge than the bottom (so a parallelogram rather than a square I suppose…)

      • I’m actually at the same stage. I’ve looked into quite a few possibilities and I’ve discussed it with one of our aquarium curators and I’m still drawing a blank about what it is, although I now know of a huge number of fish that it isn’t…

      • Would it be possible to get some DNA from it? Then you could wave it at a genomics lab singing “pretty paper, prity paper”.

        Some ex-colleagues got a paper into Proc. R. Soc. B. about identifying a cheat in a fishing competition: tehy showed that the fish wasn’t local, and had been bought in the supermarket. The merman is much coller.

      • I was thinking about labs – how about the NHM? Karen James should know who to ask – there are plenty of people around London who have the facilities.

      • It’s the inclination rather than the labs… someone at the Wellcome might have an idea – after all this specimen was at the Wellcome Collection before it came to the Horniman…

      • That’s very cool! It would definitely be good to discuss that idea – be sure to let me know when you’re in London and we can arrange to meet up at the museum.

  11. Not a clue, but it’s fantastic. I love these things.
    Teeth don’t look right for a monkey, look almost canid (or carnivoran certainly). Part Chihuahua?
    The arms are surely heavily worked to give that appearance.
    Are there more than two creatures involved here?
    As for the tail, maybe a Pike?

    So I’m going for the utterly random:
    Chihuahua head
    Chihua/Pike body, heavily worked.
    Arms of a monkey, heavily reworked.
    Tail of a pike.

    Utterly wrong, but fun to have a guess.

    As a recent subscriber to your blog, I love FMO so keep it up.

    • The teeth threw me – they’re very odd. They look too conical to be carnivoran, but of course there’s nothing to prevent the taxidermist filing them down…

      I thought of pike for the tail as well – the body shape looks right, but the dorsal spines are all wrong, so I ruled pike out.

      Thanks for the support – glad you like the FMO!

      • The dorsal fin doesn’t look at all right to be a pike. Those teeth look a little like the wolf-fish you posted a while back. The tail is all wrong though- they don’thave much in the way of scales, and the anal fin is large, and there aren’t any pelvic fins. It would be great to see the CT scans, that should show where the fish’s body was cut up.

  12. I find the lack of fins interesting. It’s also hard to tell if they were there at one time or there were never fins on the side and underside.

    Also, I LOVE FMO!!!!!!! I only started playing along a few weeks ago and so would be sorely disappointed if it went away.

    • Good observation! When we were scanning the specimen I noticed that there was damage on the tail (click on the third image down) and it was the same on both sides – I think that this is where fins have been removed by the taxidermist.

      Thoroughly chuffed that so many people enjoy the FMO, but I suppose it’s only the people who like it that bother visiting, so there will be a bit of confirmation bias… Still, it’s very heartening to see the positive responses – thanks!

  13. There is a certain resemblance, especially in the tail, to this version from the Peabody Museum, supposed by some to be the original Barnum “Feejee Mermaid.”

    I suspect that it was manufactured in Japan, which led to me briefly considering that the back half was Lateolabrax japonicus which has a long spinous dorsal fin, but the scales here look too large. Likewise, I imagine that the front half (what is not entirely fabricated at least) is a young Macaca fuscata, but again that based more on provenance than any recognizable feature.

    You will be shocked to learn that I love FMO. In fact, the first thing that I do when I wake up on Friday is check FMO on my phone, while still in bed. It is a great morning brain workout. The difficulty level is about perfect for me, I can often work my way toward a reasonable guess but it usually takes some thinking.

    • Thanks Neil – your response has set my mind to working. I will follow up the Lateolabrax japonicus suggestion, the spine row appears to be a bit too long, but there’s a fair bit of variation out there, so it deserves a closer look.

      I’m pleased that you enjoy the brain workout from the FMO, the difficulty being right for you might mean that it’s a probably a bit tricky for most, given your field of expertise… Glad you enjoy it though!

  14. Many thanks to Bob for plugging my book
    http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/by-the-sea/5362595
    which is set in a Museum not entirely unlike the Horniman (in that it is stuffed full of weird objects) and happens to have an unrivalled collection of stuffed mermaids. A great summer read, if I say so myself.

    I can’t place the fish at all, but I’d guess the hands are the feet of a lizard, and most of the monkey is carved from wood. The head seems real enough – or most of it – but I’d hazard that the teeth come from a fish.

    I love the FMO. I stumbled across it after meeting you in Bristol last year, and was fortunate that I knew what the first object I saw was – bits from a cave bear – as I’d done my PhD on Pleistocene mammals. from my perspective the FMO is just great and it’s a highlight of my week (I’m late today because of work pressure). However, I concur with one of the comments above that you shouldn’t be shy to widen the objects to anthropological and so on. I happen to know that the Horniman has lots of things like totem poles … and possibly the largest collection of weird musical instruments anywhere.

    The Horniman was the first museum I ever visited, when I was about three – my family lived more or less across the road – and it made a big impression. Since then it’s been the archetype of what a museum should be. Keep up the good work!

  15. Never been able to even hazard a semi-intelligent guess, but never miss the FMO! I’d love it if you could include pictures of the animals the objects are from – I usually look it up but it would be handy if one was included.

    As for the types of things I follow – technology/computers, some humour, education, the erudite (in my opinion!) …

    Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks for that Nony, I will certainly take that on-board. I normally don’t have a photo because of the effort needed to find one that’s good enough but is on a Creative Commons licence or similar. However, I will try to make that effort in future!

  16. The fish bit has too long a dorsal fin to be a pike, I’d say it was a goby of some desciption or a burbot maybe. The head is a chihuahua as David craven suggests – waddaya say pav?

    • I did think of the burbot, but it has no scar suggesting a single anal fin, so I ruled that out. Gobies tend to be small, but there are a few bigger ones out there that I hadn’t thought about, so I’ll check them out. Thanks for the suggestion Matt!

  17. Just wanted to say that I enjoy FMO very much, although I don’t often take an active role in the comments. A particularly fascinating object this week. It would be interesting to know roughly how many of this type of object were made. One might expect that after Barnum started exhibiting that every freak show would want one.

    • Cheers Andy – I’m with you in wondering just how many of these gaffs ended up being created after Barnum’s success. There certainly seem to have been quite a few emerging by the latter half of the 19th Century, but I doubt there’s any reliable count for how many were produced.

  18. The longer I look at its face the more I think it looks like a pug. The teeth are all wrong though..

    Also, I love this blog. I think every Saturday I remember ah! new FMO! I have yet to guess/figure out any of the mystery objects, but I still love the figuring. On a side note, I’m a Marine Biologist/ animal trainer.

    • I get what you mean about the pug – I thought about that myself, but the teeth are indeed wrong. Maybe it’s just that pugs have equally hideous faces? Is that mean?

      Glad you enjoy the FMO!

  19. I love FMO, and never miss a week… except this one! So sorry! Happy anniversary and please keep up the good work!
    As for this specimen, I literally have no clue (will be reading your answer next) as to any of it’s origins…
    A bit about me; I’m a designer & toy-maker, I enjoy reading up on evolution, though no real scientific education.

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  22. That is really fascinating, You are an overly skilled blogger. I have joined your rss feed and stay up for in quest of more of your great post. Additionally, I’ve shared your website in my social networks

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