Friday mystery object #84 answer

On Friday I gave you this piece of skull to identify:

It was in the Horniman collections with no identification beyond a pencil note saying ‘Monkey?’, but that seemed to be a  bit of an odd suggestion, since primates have very rounded braincases – even the longer skulled ones like baboons. I think the person who made the tentative identification had got the section the wrong way round – thinking that the nuchal crest was a part of a brow-ridge or something – a mistake that Jake certainly didn’t make. They also missed what several of you spotted – the rugose (sort of wrinkly) structure that supported the olfactory epithelium (the inner back part of the nose where the receptors for smell are located).

What most of you did miss however, was the lack of fusion of the cranial sutures, which indicates that this was from a juvenile animal. As a result it is smaller and has far less well-developed muscle scars than an adult animal would have. A faint muscle scar can be seen converging on what looks like the beginnings of a sagittal crest (as pointed out by Manabu Sakamoto), so it seems reasonable to guess that the adult animal would have a reasonably well developed crest on the top of the braincase.

Eventually Neil dropped a couple of hints that showed he knew what it was and David Craven and KateKatV also suggested that they knew that it was part of the braincase of a juvenile Black bear Ursus americanus Pallas, 1780.

Black Bear Cub (Ursus americanus) by RI Bridges

This particular specimen has an orange dot on it, that indicates it had been treated with methyl bromide insecticide when it entered the museum. This is typical of a large collection of comparative skeletal material that was donated in a couple of batches in the 1980s, from the collections of a couple of London colleges. Over the course of years of teaching some bits had become separated from specimens and by the time the collections came to us there were plenty of incomplete specimens and boxes of unassociated parts.

Once I had worked out that this was probably from a juvenile bear I was able to check on the bears in the collection and find this specimen from the same era:

It was incredibly satisfying to be able to reunite the top of this specimen’s skull, since it completes the specimen and it means that there is one less unidentified ‘bit’ in the collections. So now at least the poor dead bear cub has a more intact skull:

All that remains is to find the missing part of its zygomatic arch and some teeth – although I suspect that they were probably lost years before this specimen ever came to the museum. It’s all part of the fun of being a museum curator!

6 thoughts on “Friday mystery object #84 answer

  1. On the monkey skulls and leopard skull I was sent as a present, they are missing the back of the braincase. Is this museums do, or is it to get the brains out when the animals are killed ?

    • Jake, I honestly wish I was you. Nobody ever sends me monkey or leopard skulls as presents. The occasional manky goose or duck skull is about as good as it gets!

    • It depends – most museum specimens don’t have this, the braincase is usually quite intact (unless someone has sawn it up to look inside, like with the bear). University teaching specimens are the most likely to have the top of the head sawn off to show the inside of the brain case.

      It may be that the heads of the specimens were hacked off carelessly or that they were shot in the head and the braincase was damaged. I’d need to see what the damage is like to have a better idea.

      • @David – Yes I was very lucky ! I also got a boa constrictor skull and some new birds and some extra hedgehogs. It was brilliant !

        @ Paolo – The leopard looks smooth where the back of the head is off and the monkey looks like it was maybe smashed:

  2. I’ve seen a lot of museum specimens sectioned down the midline (one of the 19th Century dealers did it. Maybe Gerrards?), or prepped to show the rooting of the dentition, but not with the back of the cranium removed.

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