Friday mystery object #84


This week I have a really tough one for you. It’s a specimen I found in our collections with a tentative identification that I was unconvinced by. I followed my instincts and they led me not only to a more accurate identification, but also to the rest of the specimen, from which it had been separated before they even arrived at the Horniman. Can you work out what it is?

Please feel free to ask questions and make observations or suggestions in the comments section below and I’ll do my best to respond. Good luck!

30 thoughts on “Friday mystery object #84

    • Spot-on about it being the top of a braincase and you’re right about foxes having a similar ledge of bone (it’s called a nuchal crest). You’re also right that it’s not a fox!

  1. Jake’s right. It’s the top of a braincase, or more specifically the back half of the top. But that skull is missing the front, and by the look of it it had a very long schnozz. That and the general smoothness makes me think of some kind of anteater. A giant anteater, perhaps? Looks a bit big to be a tamandua. I know it’s crazy, so sue me.

  2. Yes, the top of a braincase, and a mammalian one at that. No sagittal crest, so probably not a carnivoran, although even then one can’t be sure, if its one of the ones with the less powerful jaw muscles. Wrong shape to be any of the ungulates, I’d have said, and too large to be any of the small insectivorous groups (or most rodents).

    The missing part must be mostly snout, as cromercrox says, which, given the relative width at that point, suggests a somewhat elongated head, but I’m not sure that really rules out much. I imagine the ridge at the back is about as diagnostic as you’re going to get, but I’m not really sure what it tells me – although I do think it rules out anteaters.

    I fear I’ll have to leave it there, without any meaningful sort of answer at all, for I am away this weekend. Best of luck to everyone else!

    • You can get carnivorans lacking prominent sagittal crests. But in fact, you can see where the jaw muscles attach and converge towards the midline to form a small sagittal crest at the back in this specimen. Many of the small-medium sized cats that I’ve seen have this kind of sagittal crest morphology – although cats generally have more pronounced nuchal crests and relatively wider braincases.

  3. Well now I’m stuck on anteater-like animals, so I’m going to guess some sort of Pangolin. I have a feeling it may be too big, though. I’m thinking with all of that bony elaboration in the front (conchae?), it’s probably something with a great sense of smell…

    • You are absolutely right Jake – the length wouldn’t be far off and it does look quite similar. But it’s definitely not a Giant Armadillo! There are certain characteristics of the skull that everyone seems to have missed…

  4. Would this be the same kind of animal that our local museum had labelled as a lion and you disappointed them mightily by telling them it wasn’t?

  5. Indeed, but the volunteers in the museum don’t forget … although I think it was actually a brown bear they had … to them I shall be forever the mum of the PhD student who popped their belief they had a lion. Remember natural history specimens can be very precious to local museums, but equally they don’t have access to much natural history knowledge. There will be plenty of locals who remember their grandfather telling them about the great flood of 19 O whatever, not so many zoologists. So they will have loads of local social history materials. Indeed, you yourself knew an old lady whose sister was killed in a Zeppelin attack during WW1.

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