Friday mystery object #81 answer


On Friday I gave you this object to identify:

I thought it would prove quite straightforward for my astute audience and I was not disappointed. As usual Jake was the first to comment and he was spot on when he said:

I think it is some sort of big bird, it’s the braincase and […] the ear

The big bird Jake suggested was an Emu, which was slightly off as was CopilasDenis‘ suggestion of Cassowary and Cromercrox‘ suggestion of Rhea (although they all correctly spotted that this piece of skull was from a ratite). But Dave Godfrey finally picked the last remaining living ratite and the correct answer when he suggested it was Ostrich Struthio camelus Linnaeus, 1758. Well done all!

When I found this piece of bone I ran through a similar range of options in my mind, but I had the benefit of comparative material to check my hunch. Here’s the specimen I made the comparison against:

and here’s what the two look like when the images are transformed to the same scale using the scale bar and overlain:

The size is an immediate give-away and although the overlay here is far from perfect, since the orientation of the section of skull was photographed from a different angle to the same section in the skull, there is a very clear correspondence between the physical characters of both specimens. That’s a good enough match to be happy to say that the fragment is Ostrich. It’s worth noting for future pub quizzes that the orbit of the ostrich is bigger than the braincase and each eye would be bigger than the brain.

Male and Female ostriches Cape Point by Andrew massyn

Ostriches are odd animals. They are the fastest animals on two legs, they are the biggest living birds, with the biggest eggs of any living species (although the eggs are the smallest of all living birds relative to the size of the parent). They have the biggest eyes of a land-living animal and they have an odd system of reproduction where several females lay eggs in a single communal nest made and guarded by one male. Quite remarkable.

As to why a piece of such a weird and wonderful animal ended up in a box of mixed bone is  an interesting question. In the museum world there are plenty of these boxes of ‘stuff’ that need to be sorted out and the material dealt with appropriately. Some of the objects from such boxes should no doubt be deaccessioned (which is museum speak for gotten-rid-of); maybe to another museum or a school (or a bin if the material is commonly available, is of poor quality and has no data). Other specimens may be of interest, either because of their rarity, their display potential or their good data (unlikely in a mixed box of ‘stuff’). But even sorting through a box to work out what’s in it is a time consuming process – which is probably why the box exists in the first place; a previous curator never had the time to go through it. I certainly won’t have an opportunity to deal with these boxes properly any time soon, but hopefully an opportunity will arise and I can clear some of the backlog of miscellaneous material that’s built up over the last 100+ years.

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