Friday mystery object #300 answer

Last Friday I gave you this new acquisition to have a go at identifying:


When it arrived on my desk in an decorative box, with bundles of bone wrapped in blue tissue and tied with gold ribbon, it had a small label saying:

Skeleton of Mongoose, Africa.

Now, I know that having the continent would have been of help for the identification, but I didn’t want my 300th challenge to be too easy.

So how was that initial identification of Mongoose? It was certainly up there in the first of the comments, with Ric Morris (expert on British mammal bones, whose book I am eagerly awaiting) providing a beautifully crafted suggestion. Unfortunately it isn’t right, as the mongooses mongeese Herpestidae* tend to have a better developed post-orbital process (that’s the pointy bit on top of the skull, behind where the eye would be) and a corresponding process on the zygomatic (that’s the cheekbone), with the two sometimes meeting to form a post-orbital bar. They also tend to have more robust teeth.

Another (very) cryptic clue came from jennifermacaire who suggested that it was a civet (which can either be a type of viverrid carnivore or a French game stew). This suggestion was supported by henstridgesj and it’s closer than the mongoose suggestion, as the specimen is indeed from a species in the Viverridae. This was noticed by herpderpatologist who provided a handy tip for spotting the difference between mustelids and viverrids:

The split auditory bulla is a clue! It’s something I associate with viverridae;…

If we know that this is a viverrid, it narrows it down to one of  just 38 species…  which is still quite a lot. But by trawling through the images of viverrid specimens on the University of Michigan Animal Diversity Web it becomes easier to start narrowing down the likely group within the Family.

In this case it led me to the genets.

There are quite a few genets, with the Subfamily Genettinae containing in the region of 16 species. Distinguishing between them isn’t entirely simple, as they all look pretty much alike, but there is an excellent French resource that has detailed anatomical characters and images of specimens to help distinguish between genet species.

Working through this I found that the two best options were the Common Genet and the Cape Genet and distinguishing between them is not simple. I’m leaning toward the Cape Genet (or Large-spotted Genet) Genetta tigrina (Schreber, 1776), based on the spacing between the tympanic bullae (the bulbous bones under the skull that house the ear bones), the reduced lingual cusp on the P3 (that’s the tiny bit that sticks out towards where the tongue would be on the upper third premolar) the form of the upper first premolar (P1) and the shape of the maxillary-palatine suture (that’s the junction between the bone of the palate and the part of the upper jaw that supports all the teeth except the incisors).

That’s quite a lot to take in, but by getting your eye in and scanning through images it’s surprising how quickly you can narrow down options by rejecting images where you can see clear differences in the tympanic bulla configuration or cusp pattern on the P3 to leave a couple that need more careful consideration.

And just for the sheer squee of it, here’s what a Genet looks like when it’s alive:

Common Genet, by Peter 2011

Common Genet, by Peter 2011

I hope you enjoyed the challenge of the 300th mystery object!


*N.B. the plural of mongoose is “mongooses”.

9 thoughts on “Friday mystery object #300 answer

    • Oh, and to join the others in saying congratulations on your triple century (a cricket reference, of course).

      With regard to mongooses, I presume most people here would recognise that the name is derived from the Marathi word “mangus” and so is pluralised regularly in English.

      What many may not know is that Marathi is still one of the world’s major languages, with over 50 million native speakers, and is one of two such languages (along with Hindi) that uses the magnificent Devanagari script.

      It is part of the Indo- European language family and is used, in its home state of Maharashtra in India, not just to power two or three local dailies, but a theatre scene probably unparalleled in India.

      I do not know it well, but it is a language with a proud literary history, a wide spread (you can hear it spoken in Hounslow, London) and an astonishing ability to allow expression of emotion.

      Just thought I’d chuck that in there…

  1. Ohh Paolo, you build up and then you knock me down. I am now an officially discredited ‘expert’. 😀 :D. But no more so, apparently, than the person who wrote the box label!

  2. Ric,
    no worries… just call yourself an expert of ‘alternative facts’ and it’s all good.

    thanks for a fun ride paolo!

  3. I think I congratulated you on 300 in a comment earlier, but let me repeat: CONGRATIULATIONS.
    And thank you for following up the fun puzzle with such an instructive discussion.
    (Just to complicate things on the linguistic front: “civet” (masculine) is French for a game stew, but the French for civet is “civet” (feminine). … And in addition to thanking Paolo, I’d like to thank all the commenters who make his puzzles more entertaining and more instructive!)

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