Friday mystery object #86 answer


On Friday I gave you this fluid preserved specimen to identify:

I probably made this one a bit harder than I could have, by not giving you a photo from the other side, but then that would have made it too easy:

It seems that Neil was the only person who may have correctly identified this specimen, as hinted in this comment:

Knowing it’s an embryo give me some idea (possibly incorrect) of the orientation: tail and hind-limbs at top, trunk, then forelimbs at lower left and the head, unhelpfully facing away from us, at lower right. It would then appear to be a quadrapedal tetrapod, probably (?) a mammal. Based on the apparent shape of the feet and possibly the hint of an ear I’m going to say …

This is of course assuming that Neil deliberately chose the word ‘trunk’ to indicate that he had worked out that this is the embryo of an Elephant (probably an Asiatic Elephant Elephas maximus, Linnaeus, 1758).

The appearance of the surface of the specimen probably didn’t help with making the identification, since it is covered with a white precipitate that makes it look a bit like a sponge. The precipitate is probably paraformaldehyde, which would indicate that the fluid in the jar is formalin which has become slightly acidic over time. I’m not sure just how much time has passed since this specimen was first put in the fluid, but I’m guessing it’s been quite a while. This specimen was transferred to the Horniman from the Wellcome Collection in the 1980’s and originally it was almost certainly one of Henry Wellcome’s many acquisitions.

As to the age of the specimen, I’m guessing it would be about 5-7 months, although elephant embryology isn’t particularly well documented and it’s hard to tell with all that paraformaldehyde hiding the developmental characteristics. If I recall correctly there is an effective conservation treatment for removing the white precipitate, so that may be an option for the future of this specimen, although I do like the fact that it just looks like a white blob until you look at it closely and begin to pick out details like the trunk. Definitely my favourite white blob, even if it isn’t meant to be white or blobby.

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