Friday mystery object #458 answer

Last week I gave you this skull from the collections of the Dead Zoo, which had been misidentified and that came to light when Dr George Argyros was doing some research on the carnivore skeletons:

The label attached to this specimen indicated that this is the skull of a Leopard, which is clearly wrong. The label also identified the specimen as having been collected in East Africa by Major A.W.V. Plunkett.

Labels like this worry me. Not because they contain a misidentification, but because they may indicate that someone in the past has mixed up the specimen labels. This is a much bigger problem than a simple misidentification, as it can mean the real specimen has become dissociated from its information.

The huge, robust teeth of this specimen should make it fairly clear that it belongs to one of those specialist bone-crushers – the hyenas:

However, there are three species of hyena to choose from (I’m leaving the Aardwolf of this, since they don’t match this dental morphology even remotely).

My first thought was that this specimen is on the small side for a Spotted Hyena:

Striped Hyena on left, Spotted Hyena on right

Size is seldom a definitive feature, especially in species that display sexual dimorphism, but what is more useful is the detail of the tiny molar at the back of the maxillary toothrow. This is absent in Spotted Hyenas, but it occurs in both Striped and Brown Hyenas.

So you might ask, how do we distinguish between Striped and Brown Hyenas? This is a good question. For starters, it’s hard to find enough reliable good images of the Brown Hyena’s skull online that show the details needed to distinguish between the species.

However, a bit of searching highlighted that the Brown Hyena has a shorter and more robust angular process of the mandible than the Striped – and the mystery object.

Image of Brown Hyena skull by David J. Stang, 2005.

This long angular process was spotted by katedmonson, but Adam Yates was the first with the identification of Striped Hyena Hyaena hyaena (Linnaeus, 1758).

This one proved a little trickier than I thought at first, due to the similarities between the Brown and the Striped species. But I’m a little relieved that the consensus fell on Striped, both here on the blog, and between myself and George, since the Striped Hyena is found in East Africa, whereas the Brown is limited to South Africa.

This at least agrees with the locality on the label, so it may well have simply been misidentified when the specimen was acquired – especially since it looks like it was skeletonised naturally, so it may have been found dead and already defleshed, making it harder to identify.

I hope you enjoyed the challenge!

9 thoughts on “Friday mystery object #458 answer

  1. The reduction of brain capacity to accommodate the giant muscles passing through the zygomatic arch is always to me an example of brawn over brains. Comparing the larger cats to domestic or other smaller felid (e.g. Lynx rufus) the difference in morphology is striking.

  2. Having worked in an older natural history museum, I was very aware of the challenge of older specimens and their proclivity to mis-identification. There has been a lot of discussion over the years by deniers that question the value of keeping collections at all. Paolo and his ilk consistently prove the value of revisiting these specimens, not just for the refinement of the scientific information they provide but to the increased knowledge gained in related species that may be ruled out. The Friday Mystery Object is an outstanding example of outsourcing and citizen science to achieve these goals, not to mention an excellent outreach and educational program for a broader audience that can be reached in person. Each week, we gather to support each other in our search for an ID and drive home the many values of natural history collections. Thank you Paolo and thank FMO followers. From Robin Roe, Santa Barbara, CA. Next skull, please.

  3. Have you tried to measure these skulls directly by using a tape measure or something similar? Is there a difference in length between the direct-measured skulls and skulls that were measured based on photos alone by using the scale bars?

    • George may have measured these, but I didn’t get the opportunity. The size difference is much more apparent when dealing with the specimens in your hand than when using images.

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