Last week I gave you this skull from the Grant Museum of Zoology to identify:
I thought this would be a fairly easy one and so I wasn’t surprised when Chris was straight in with a correct identification, in a suitably cryptic manner of course.
The huge open sinuses inside the orbit and openings around the auditory bullae (as spotted by palfreyman1414) immediately suggest that this is an animal that dives deep underwater, as the large openings help prevent pressure from building up inside the skull. The shape of the teeth are another giveaway that this is a fish-catching mammal in the Order Carnivora. It is of course a seal.
But what kind of seal? There are 33 species of pinniped, so there are a few options, although the large and distinctive species like Walruses can be ruled out for obvious reasons. In this size range and with multicusped teeth like these we’re looking at one of the true seals (the Phocidae) at the medium to small end of the size range.
When you start looking at the skulls of seals in this range, you need to look closely. It lacks the flat top of the head and steeply sloping profiles following the nares of a Grey Seal, plus the interorbital distance (the distance between the eyes) is much smaller.
It lacks the inflated nasal region of the cold water Bearded Seal, Ribbon Seal, Ringed Seal and Harp Seal, which need well developed nasal turbinates to help warm the air they breathe in. It also lacks the deflection of the zygomatic below the orbit that is seen in the smaller species like the Caspian and Baikal Seals.
Overall the morphology is most similar to either the Spotted Seal or Harbour Seal, but picking between the two is tricky, especially since the Harbour Seal has around five subspecies that vary somewhat in size and shape of things like the auditory bullae. There is a list of characters that can be used to distinguish between the skulls of the two species by John J. Burns in the Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. Using that as a guide I think this is a Harbour Seal Phoca vitulina Linnaeus, 1758.
Thanks to everyone who had a go at identifying this – I hope you had fun with it!