Friday mystery object #326

Yesterday I was doing some work in the gallery of the Dead Zoo and found a specimen that needs a little light repair work to stick teeth back into sockets. I thought it might make an interesting object for you to have a go at identifying:


Any idea what this piece of mandible might belong to? It’s probably a bit too easy for some of the mystery object veterans, so please keep your suggestions cryptic and, if you’re in the mood, poetic.

Have fun!

Atacama ‘alien’ (not an alien) revisited

You may (or probably may not) remember back in 2013 I got annoyed by the sensationalist reporting around some diminutive human remains found in the Atacama desert which were hyped by some to be evidence of alien life, and by others as an example of an extreme form of dwarfism. The apparent age of the individual was suggested to be 8 years based on bone density and fusion as assessed by a paediatrician.

Atacama Humanoid © 2013 Sirius Disclosure

Atacama Humanoid © 2013 Sirius Disclosure

In light of this I wrote an analysis of the specimen pointing out that in the features suggested it was a human foetus, probably aborted, exhibiting features altered by taphonomic processes (things that happen between death, burial and discovery) that apparently increased bone density and appearance of fusion, as has been noted in an infant Egyptian mummy, where bone fusion suggested an age between 7 and 10 years, but the height and dentition suggested an age between 14 months and two years (huge thanks to rlabanti for tracking down this archived copy of the paper, as I forgot the reference and the old link died).

You probably wouldn’t believe how many angry comments I received from conspiracy theorists for challenging the idea that the specimen was an alien. Actually, you probably would if you know your memes:


Aliens aside, the authors of the initial study have been doing more work and have come to the conclusion that the specimen represents a preterm infant with an interesting suite of genetic anomalies that may account for the features seen. I’ve seen the paper and the genetic analysis looks pretty reasonable (at least as far as I am able to assess), but there is still a gaping hole in the taphonomic analysis – in that there is none.

I still consider this to be a problem, because you can’t understand phenotypic (what an individual looks like) abnormalities using genetics in isolation, especially when you know without doubt that there have been post mortem processes taking place. However, as interpretation of the specimen has become less sensational, I find myself less concerned by the omission – although it remains significant. We now know from the new analysis that the Ata foetus was female and had a genetic profile suggesting some input from a variety of geographical locations, but with a predominantly Chilean genome. This information humanises Ata and changes the tone of the discussion.

Rather than my suggestion of deliberate abortion – which was based on an initial mistake regarding damage to the skull which was post mortem rather than a cause of death – it’s more likely that the mutations cited as likely causes of genetic disorders contributed to spontaneous abortion (miscarriage). This is a deeply distressing, yet unfortunately common situation when there are developmental issues with a foetus. On a human level, it means that someone lost their child – and that deserves a bit of respect and sensitivity.

Friday mystery object #325 answer(ish)

Last week I gave you the challenge of identifying this bit of bone found in a rockpool in Kimmeridge by 7 year old Annie:


It’s not the easiest item to identify for a variety of reasons. First of all it’s broken, only showing one end and probably missing quite a lot of the element. Next, the images don’t show all of the angles you might want to see and because the object is small the images aren’t as clear as you might like.

However, there are a few angles visible (see below) and there is a scale, so the main requirements to get an approximate identification are in place. I say approximate, because with something like this I think you really need the object in your hand where you can compare it to other material in detail if you want to make a confident identification.

Excuses aside, let’s take a look and see what it might be…

The first thing to note is that the bone is hollow with thin walls. This rules out fish, reptiles, amphibians and mammals (including humans jennifermacaire) – leaving birds.

Weathered mammal bones may have a void in the bone where the marrow would have been, but the cortex (outside layer) will be thicker and near the articular surface it tends to be quite solid.


Hollow bone = bird (usually)

Next, the articular surface of the bone is concave, which palfreyman1414 picked up on:

As far as I recall (mentally running through images in my head) both ends of the proximal limb bones in tetrapods have convex ends?

This is accurate, but while the proximal (near end) of the limb bones are convex, the more distal (far end) limb bones tend to have concave ends, so that helps narrow down what this bony element might be.


Concave articulation

For me the give-away here is the fact that there’s no ridge within the concavity of the articular surface, which means that it will allow movement in several directions – something that the bones of bird feet don’t really need, which is why bird lower legs,  feet and toes have a raised ridge inside the articular surface that corresponds with a groove in the other surface, keeping the articulation of the joint tightly constrained.


Articulation of Shag phalanx showing raised ridge

However, bird wing need to make a wider range of motion (at least in some species), so the mystery object is most likely the distal end of a bird radius (the ulna tends to have a hook at the distal end). This is the conclusion that Wouter van Gestel and DrewM also came to (joe vans should’ve stuck to his guns).


Distal articulation if duck radius

Identifying the species of bird is a lot more complicated. The size suggests a pretty big bird, which narrows it down and the locality in which it was found makes some species more likely than others. I took a look at the radius of some species that are commonly found on the coast, like Guillemot, Herring Gull, Duck, Cormorant/Shag and Gannet, Skimmer, Pigeon and I also checked out Chicken, since their bones are probably the most commonly occurring on the planet.


Gannet radius with some distinctive structure around the articulation

Many of the species I checked had quite a distinctive structure around the distal radius articulation, but the gulls, ducks and chickens that I looked at had fairly unremarkable distal radius articulations, making it hard to definitively decide what the mystery object is based on the images.


Herring Gull radius


Chicken radius


So with that somewhat disappointing conclusion I admit partial defeat, but I can say that it’s not from a Cormorant, Shag, Gannet, Pigeon or Guillemot. Sorry I can’t be more specific Annie!

Unfortunately that’s just how the identification game works sometimes… we’ll try again with something new next week!

Friday mystery object #325

This week I have a genuine mystery object for you passed on from my NatSCA colleague Holly, that was found in a rockpool in Kimmeridge by 7 year old Annie when she was out fossil hunting on the beach:


Any idea what this object could possibly be?

I don’t think there’s any need for cryptic clues this time, as it’s a proper challenge and I’d love to hear what you think it is and what it’s from. Have fun!

Friday mystery object #324 answer

Last Friday I gave you this rather beautiful object to have a go at identifying:


I thought it might prove fairly easy for some of you and I wasn’t disappointed. Both in the comments here and on social media there were lots of you who managed to work out what this is, largely from images or illustrations of the model that could be tracked down online.

This is a glass model of a sea-slug made by the Blaschka father-and-son team of lampworkers, who were based in Dresden in the second half of the 19th Century. They made a huge number and variety of models of marine organisms, based on illustrations they found in a variety of scientific publications, which they adapted to enable reproductions in glass.

Beccaria tricolor by Leopold Blaschka (between 1863-1886). From the collection of the Corning Museum of Glass and Digitized by Boston Photo Imaging May 2011

Design illustration of Beccaria tricolor by Leopold Blaschka. From the collection of the Corning Museum of Glass and Digitized by Boston Photo Imaging May 2011


Caliphylla mediterranea by S. Trinchese in Æolididae e famiglie affini del porto di Genova, Pt.1 (c.1877-1879)

Illustration of Caliphylla mediterranea by S. Trinchese in Æolididae e famiglie affini del porto di Genova, Pt.1 (c.1877-1879). Image from Harvard University, MCZ, Ernst Mayr Library, via Biodiversity Heritage Library

This particular specimen has the number 373 on its label, which corresponds with the number on the Blaschka design illustration above, so we can be confident that the design is for this model.


Label for the specimen – note the National Museum of Ireland – Natural History (NMINH) number which starts with the year the specimen was acquired. This specimen arrived in August 1886 and cost the fairly modest sum of 3d (for  some context, an average UK farm labourer’s weekly wage in 1886 was 13s 4d*,  which would be enough to buy 53 of these models).

I should probably say the design is for this type of model, since the Blaschkas produced multiple versions of each design. These sold all around the world to museums and universities, who ordered them from a catalogue to be used in display and teaching in lieu of real specimens, which would often look like nothing more than tiny grey lumps once preserved in alcohol.

To give you an idea of what these creatures look like alive, here’s an image of an undetermined species of Caliphylla

Caliphylla sp. from Réunion, by Nathalie Rodrigues, 2015

Caliphylla sp. from Réunion, by Nathalie Rodrigues, 2015

As you might imagine, as soon as you take one of these animals out of water their complex frills start to stick together like a piece of damp fancy lettuce and it becomes hard to see their leafy structure.

And they really are leafy, because Calliphyla is one of the solar-powered Sacoglossa sea-slugs that steal chloroplasts from algae, which they then store in their bodies and can use to obtain energy from the sun. So all those leafy bits are a result of convergent evolution with plants, providing a large surface area for light to reach the chlorophyll. This means they also end up being well camouflaged against predators, although they may get nibbled by the occasional confused herbivore.

* British Labour Statistics: Historical Abstract 1886-1968 (Department of Employment and Productivity, 1971)

Friday mystery object #324

This week I’ve decided to give you a mystery invertebrate from the collections of the Dead Zoo:


Now there are a variety of levels of identification for this object: species (obviously), materials, makers and if you really want to show off, you might even be able to provide a year and information about how much it cost at the time.

As always, I’d be delighted to see what you think and to hear about any similar specimens you might know about.

Have fun!

Friday mystery object #323 answer

Last week I gave you this incredibly cute mystery floofball to identify:


It took approximately 10 minutes for palfreyman1414 to work out what it was and come up with an excellent cryptic clue as to the identity of the genus:

Right, best guess is that this is a genus of tiny anno domini public transportation.

Tiny (=micro) anno domini (=AD aka Christian/Common Era, abbreviated to CE) public transportation (=bus) which gives us Microcebus.

Microcebus É. Geoffroy, 1834 are commonly known as the Mouse Lemurs, a genus containing 24 currently recognised species of tiny Malagasy primates.

Lesser Mouse Lemur by Arjan Haverkamp, 2007

Lesser Mouse Lemur by Arjan Haverkamp, 2007

Normally I’d be looking for a species level identification, but that would be a real challenge, since the members of this diminutive genus are remarkably similar in appearance – especially if you only have a very faded 100+ year old specimen to work from.

In fact, before genetic analysis was available, only two species of Mouse Lemur were formally recognised, with another couple proposed but disputed. In the last 20 years there have been a further 20 new species recognised, meaning that despite the label on the Dead Zoo specimen saying it’s Microcebus murinus (Miller, 1777), it could well be something else – perhaps even a new species yet to be described.

I say that because even though researchers have been busy finding new species, they are mostly working in the field and several of the species being discovered are incredibly rare due to habitat loss in Madagsacar. When our specimen was collected it could easily have been from an area that was logged before researchers had a chance to do genetic work on the Mouse Lemurs present, so there may have been species there that were never discovered before they were lost.

This idea of species being lost before they’re discovered is a depressing, but very real one. Most taxonomists agree that there are around ten times as many species on Earth as have been described by science so far. More are being discovered all the time, but they tend to be from areas with fewer scientists (unsurprisingly), but not necessarily areas with less human impact.

Rainforests are a good example, where species diversity is incredibly high, but dams, logging and slash-and-burn agriculture to support soy, palm oil and cattle farming are gobbling up huge swathes of habitat before biologists have ever seen it.

To put that into some kind of perspective, England and Wales are much less diverse than a rainforest environment, but new species are still being found despite having a couple of centuries of extensive and systematic recording and collecting. The perspective comes from the fact that an area of rainforest the same size as England and Wales is destroyed every year, before it’s ever had a chance to be studied.

I talked about some of the issues of extinction on the Mooney Goes Wild radio programme recently, which you can listen to here if you’re interested.

More mysteries next week!