Friday mystery object #164 answer


On Friday I gave you this object to identify:

It was a bit of a tricky one, since a few vertebrae aren’t a huge amount to go on. However, the large size helps narrow it down, as do the distinctively long neural spines.

As Ric Morris and henstridgesj spotted, the vertebrae are very compressed, not providing much scope for movement, suggesting an animal that relies on a rigid backbone for support and transferring large forces. This is not something you see in whales (at least not after the cervical and first few thoracic vertebrae), since water supports their weight and they maintain some flexibility in their spine for changing their orientation in the water when swimming. That leaves us with very few terrestrial mammals big enough to have vertebrae of this size – particularly considering that these vertebrae are from a juvenile animal.

The neural spines are long, but not laterally flattened. This suggests that they are not from a large Buffalo, Hippopotamus or Rhinoceros, since all of these animals have their neural spines orientated as a dorsal blade. The only animal of the right size that has dorso-ventrally flattened neural spines in the mid-thoracic region (that I’m aware of) is the Asian Elephant Elephas maximus Linnaeus, 1758. So well done to henstridgesj, Robin and Anthony Wilkes for spotting that.

Elephas maximus, Melbourne Zoo, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia by Fir0002

To the best of my knowledge it’s these vertebrae that contribute to the hump-backed appearance of the Asian elephant, compared to the sway-backed African Elephant. In the African Elephant the neural spines become shorter towards the middle of the thoracic region:

African Elephant skeleton via SVPOW

Whereas in the Asian Elephant the remain long, but change their orientation:

Asian Elephant skeleton via SVPOW

One of those small differences that give us the clues to help pick species apart.

2 thoughts on “Friday mystery object #164 answer

  1. “To the best of my knowledge it’s these vertebrae that contribute to the hump-backed appearance of the Asian elephant, compared to the sway-backed African Elephant. In the African Elephant the neural spines become shorter towards the middle of the thoracic region.” That’s exactly what I thought! I noticed the neural spines on the African elephant are much shorter and somewhat more erect throughout the thoracic region while the Asian’s are still quite long. If this condition was present in life, I wonder how much baby elephant walking this one was doing. For its sake, i hope it’s a postmortem feature. Well done all!!!

  2. “the vertebrae are very compressed, not providing much scope for movement, suggesting an animal that relies on a rigid backbone for support and transferring large forces.” … Am i right in thinking that because the vertebrae is compressed and not much scope for movement that it would make the elephant’s spine stronger? If so, would that mean that the elephant can carry 25% of its own body weight safely?

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