Friday mystery object #85 answer

On Friday I was at the Natural Science Collections Association conference in Newcastle, which was a very enjoyable couple of days spent with other natural scientists discussing issues relating to natural history collections. The downside was that I wasn’t really able to respond to comments particularly well.

However, it turns out that you didn’t really need my input, since there were some great clues by other commentators, that helped with the identification of this object:

Jake spotted that it was the nasal cavities and teeth (the premaxilla and part of the maxilla) of a marine mammal and Jonpaulkaiser identified that it belonged to a Walrus Odobenus rosmarus (Linnaeus, 1758). David Craven and Cromercrox dropped Beatles related hints to help anyone who was in doubt – for those of you too young to get those hints, here’s what the apparent nonsense relates to:

Walruses are strange animals, with huge tusks and a massive body – males average 1.2 tonnes and they get as big as 1.7 tonnes.

The most memorable specimen at the Horniman is probably the taxidermy Walrus in the Natural History Gallery – which was massively over-stuffed, making it several times larger than the specimen would have been in life.

Note the lack of wrinkles and folds in the skin and the sleek profile of the body and face. This is what happens when someone tries to stuff an animal that they have never seen before. In this instance it looks like a giant sabre-toothed seal.

As to those ‘sabre-teeth’ they are mostly used in display and fighting for mates look at the pink scars on the front of the Horniman Walrus for an indication of the damage caused during combat between males. The tusks are also be used as ‘ice-picks’ to help haul the Walrus onto ice-floes and to support the head above water when breathing through holes in the ice. Occasionally they may get used in defence against predators like Polar Bears.

I’ve also heard it said that the tusks are used in prising molluscs off the seabed, but I’m not entirely sure that they get used much in this way, since I have not really seen much wear on the tips of Walrus tusks and I would expect there to be plenty if they were being used regularly for such activities. But Walruses do eat an awful lot of molluscs (amongst a range of other marine animals, including crabs, seabirds and even bits of seal). Their diet of hard and shelly material explains the large, flat and very worn teeth inside the Walrus’ mouth. The roof of the mouth itself is very characteristic, since it is quite deeply concave – apparently this allows the Walrus to produce a powerful suction force using its tongue to pump water from the enlarged buccal cavity (the inside of the mouth). This suction (plus the jets of water squirted out during the pumping) is how the Walrus apparently dislodges food from sediments. The suction is also how the Walrus extracts much of the flesh from inside shells once they’ve been opened. Watch out little Oysters!



2 thoughts on “Friday mystery object #85 answer

  1. I really think you should go to Claire’s Mad Hatter’s tea shop crawl as the Walrus, do da de do da do da de do da doh

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