Friday mystery object #393 answer

Last week I gave you this specimen from the Dead Zoo to have a go at identifying:

It was a bit mean of me to not include a scale, but several of you managed to work it out regardless.

The overall group is fairly easy to spot, since it has 10 legs, the front pair bearing claws (or chela if you want to get technical) and the main body area is rounded. So it’s a crab.

In addition, the long legs and small body give it an overall shape reminiscent of a spider, so it’s a good bet that it’s some kind of spider crab.

Now, there are quite a lot of types of spider crab out there, but that sub-triangular body shape and those long legs help narrow down the possibilities further. In fact, it does share some similarities to the gigantic Japanese Spider Crab.

Japanese Spider Crab specimen at American Museum of Natural History. Image from Popular Science Monthly, June 1920

Unlike the Japanese Spider Crab (which was suggested), this doesn’t have extremely elongated chela. So not one of them. It’s also way too small, although my lack of a scale bar doesn’t make that obvious – sorry! However, the mystery object is in the same family (the Inachidae).

Once you start looking at the genera in the Inachidae there’s only one that matches the mystery object’s proportions, and that’s the Macropodia. Once you get that far, it becomes a case of discounting possibilities based on much more detailed features.

The Marine Species Identification Portal is a fantastic resource for checking this finer level identification. Going through the various species descriptions in there helps spot the key features for distinction between species.

In this case, the mystery object is particularly similar to M. tenuirostris and M. rostrata and it’s mainly the shape of the carapace around the ‘shoulders’ where the chela attach to the body that help confirm this to be the Long-legged Spider Crab Macropodia rostrata (Linnaeus, 1761).

So it was a good effort for everyone who managed to get this to family level, I congratulate those who worked this out to the genus and I doff my hat to anyone who managed to identify it to species. So jennifermacaire, my hat is doffed!

Friday mystery object #392 answer

Last week I gave you this specimen from the Dead Zoo to have a go at identifying:

I don’t often do molluscan mystery objects, but the unexpected spike on this shell really caught my eye.

It is very distinctive, so I wasn’t overly surprised by the correct answers from several people – Tony Irwin even managed a nice cryptic clue playing on the scientific name for this species:

“Could be a young wizard’s spell to make something not quite round, perhaps using a wand made from a bit of blackthorn?”

This is of course alluding to Elliptio spinosa (I. Lea, 1836), known more commonly as the Altamaha or Georgia Spinymussel.

These freshwater mussels are endemic to America and are limited to large, fast-flowing rivers in Georgia. They are currently endangered, partly due to changes in their river habitat (such as increasing ammonia pollution in water) and partly due to a decline in the species of fish that they rely on as hosts for their parasitic larval stage.

I’m not certain what the spines are for, but since these mussels live in the sediment of fast-flowing rivers, they may simply act as anchors to help prevent them from being dislodged.

A bit of a short answer this week, but I’m typing one-handed due to an injury and I need some rest. I will endeavour to have another mystery object for you next week though!

Friday mystery object #392

The last few months have been busy in the Dead Zoo. If you’ve been following the #DeadZooDiary hastag on Twitter you will have seen that the smaller of our two suspended whales has been taken down and now we’re doing the groundwork to get the larger of them decanted.

But while all of that is going on, we also have a team of art handlers packing and wrapping another 10,000+ specimens that also need to leave the building for upcoming roof replacement works. This week’s mystery object is just one of these specimens:

Any idea what this shell is from? As ever, you can leave your observations, questions and suggestions in the comments box below – I’ll do my best to respond, but I apologise in advance if I don’t get a chance. Have fun!

Friday mystery object #391 answer

Last week I gave you this skull from the Dead Zoo to have a go at identifying:

I think it’s quite a distinctive skull, so I didn’t provide a scale and I asked for cryptic clues to avoid spoiling the challenge.

The overall skull shape is fairly standard for an Artiodactyl, but while this specimen has no incisors in the upper jaw, there are fairly obviously empty alveoli that show where the teeth used to be. That means it’s not a member of the Ruminantia (the deer, antelope, cattle, giraffes and weird deery-antelopey type critters like chevrotains) since they all lack upper incisors.

That leaves the pigs, hippos and camels – and it’s clearly not one of the pigs or hippos.

The camel family is a bit odd. There are three wild species, but then an additional four entirely domesticated species. The proportions of this skull are a bit long for a Llama, Guanaco, Alpaca or Vicuña. That leaves the Dromedary, Wild Bactrian or Domesticated Bactrian camel as possibilities.

Dromedary skulls tend to have a horizontal nasal region then a steep rise to the braincase immediately behind the orbits, but this specimen has a more gentle slope running from the nose to the top of the braincase, so it’s Bactrian.

Unfortunately the Wild Bactrian camel is critically endangered and poorly represented in collections, so it’s hard to find enough comparative material to differentiate the wild and domestic Bactrians.

Well done to everyone who figured out that this is one of the double-humped ships of the desert. There were some great clues in the answers!

Friday mystery object #390 answer

Last week I gave you this specimen from the Dead Zoo to have a go at identifying:

It came from a cabinet of cave bones, but Nigel Monaghan (Keeper of the Dead Zoo) wasn’t convinced that this specimen was actually found in a cave.

Partly that’s because it’s a fairly fragile specimen with poorly fused sutures – these don’t usually stay connected in cave deposits, but also because it’s from a species that you wouldn’t expect to find in the kind of caves that the rest of these collections came from. So what is the species?

I don’t think this is a very difficult one since I’ve done very similar specimens before (regular visitors should have had an advantage), so I was looking for cryptic or entertaining answers – and I was not disappointed. Tony Irwin got a great clue in, with a pun that reflected the genus:

I think we need to focus (did I spell that right?) on the shape.

It is of course the skull of a seal in the genus Phoca – and the blunt shape of the anterior portion of the auditory bulla suggests to me that it’s a Harbour Seal Phoca vitulina Linnaeus, 1758 rather than the very similar Spotted Seal, which has a slightly more accute angle on the anterior auditory bulla.

So well done to everyone who figured it out! Now we just need to figure out how it either got into a cave or (possibly more likely) got put into the wrong cabinet.

Friday mystery object #390

This week I have a mystery object that my boss, mentor and the Keeper of the Dead Zoo, Nigel Monaghan, found while working on a collection of cave bones:

Now Nigel has already worked out what it is thanks to a website that has images of skulls with id tips that you may have seen before (yep, this one), but do you recognise what this is?

I think this is a nice straightforward object, so maybe a good one for some fun cryptic or otherwise entertaining answers? Have fun!

Friday mystery object #389 answer

Last week I have this mystery object from the Dead Zoo:

I made it a bit harder than necessary by not including a scale, but then that’s part of the fun – and I think a scale might have made it all a bit too easy.

There were a lot of suggestions about what it might be, mostly referencing some kind of seat / saddle or a patella. It’s probably just about big enough to sit on, although I’m not sure it would be comfortable.

But quite a few of you did figure out what bone it is and more or less what kind of animal. It’s the manubrium (part of the sternum) of a young Humpback Whale Megaptera novaeangliae Borowski, 1781.

Here’s the specimen with our Conservator Silvia for scale next to the manubrium (it’s a little hidden by the bar supporting the mandible here). Silvia’s been busy cleaning the whale, ready for it to be dismantled in the next few weeks.

All the activity around this whale work has been keeping me busy, so I apologise for tardy replies to questions and slightly sparse answers. If you want to see what we’ve been up to, check out the #DeadZooDiary!

Friday mystery object #388 answer

Last week I gave you a bit of a mean mystery object to have a go at identifying:

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I’m not surprised that very few people worked out what it is, since there’s not much to go by, and what there is, may be a little misleading.

This scrubby-looking piece of hairy skin is not from a battle-scarred Tasmanian Devil, nor is it from a rough patch on a Badger or member of the pig family and it most certainly is not from an ape of any description.

This is, in fact, from a Walrus Odobenus rosmarus (Linnaeus, 1758). This Walrus from the Dead Zoo in fact:

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People don’t think of walruses as being particularly hairy – and this one is quite definitely bald on top (I’m familiar with that feeling…). However, last week we moved this specimen and when we flipped it on its side to squeeze between some cases, we discovered a rather hairy belly (again, I know the feeling…)

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Walrus hair tends to get less dense as the animals age (insert gag here). After a century or so on open display, with members of the public who most definitely have not read the “DO NOT TOUCH” signs, and with technicians with buckets of creosote, that natural balding had a helping hand – up top.

Underneath, the hair was left untouched and in places it’s quite dense. I’m not sure if this is entirely due to people not being able to touch the specimen, or if Walrus belly hair is more dense and plentiful than on the rest of the body, to help insulate them when sitting on ice floes.

Either way, it was fascinating to be able to see a hidden part of this specimen – a nice reward for all the effort of moving it. If you want to see more of this kind of thing, check out the #DeadZooDiary!

Friday mystery object #387 answer

Last week I gave you this fuzzy critter to have a go at identifying:

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As I suspected, it proved to be tricky – small mammal taxidermy tends to be difficult, especially when it’s old, faded and a species that isn’t familar to many people. This specimen is a great example of that.

I’d love to be able to give you some clues for identification, but if I’m honest few of the distinguishing features of this species are visible (sorry!). The distinguishing features are apparently: white eye-ring (no sign thanks to fading), gray-brown fur flecked with white hairs (again it’s too faded), and a short tapering tail (just about).

This is a Dibbler or Parantechinus apicalis (Gray, 1842), which is also known as a Freckled Phascogale, Freckled Antechinus or Speckled Marsupial Mouse due to it’s flecked appearance (when it’s not faded…). Of all the comments I think Goatlips came closest with a suggestion of Antechinus, which is the genus that this species used to be included in.

These tiny marsupial carnivores feed on a surprisingly wide variety of animals, including mice, birds and lizards.

The Dibbler was declared extinct just one year after this particular specimen came to the Dead Zoo in 1883, but a couple of populations were later found in Western Australia. They’re still endangered and have a very small range, largely limited to small offshore islands where introduced predators like cats and foxes haven’t managed to spread – yet.

Friday mystery object #386 answer

Last week I gave you this taxidermy bird to have a go at identifying:

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It’s fairly obviously a duck of some sort, but there are almost 150 species in the duck family Anatidae, so that’s not really enough information.

Of course, the ornithologists were up to the challenge of working out which type of duck this was, with Wouter van Gestel dropping hints at a Steamer Duck. If you’re not familiar with Steamer Ducks, they are in the genus Tachyeres, there are only four species and they all live at the southern end of South America.

Of the four species, only one (the smallest) can fly. The others are very large, heavy and flightless. They sometimes use their small wings as a power assist in fast swimming, using a style reminiscent of an steamer ship’s paddles – hence the name.

The small wings on this specimen, as pointed out by Allen Hazen, suggest that this is one of the three flightless species, ruling out the Flying Steamer Duck T. patachonicus as a possible contender.

The three remaining species are all very similar and although some images online suggest that only one species has an orange bill, they all have quite a bright yellow-orange bill following their moult that becomes duller over time. Of course, when dealing with taxidermy you can’t fully trust things like leg or bill colour as they can rapidly fade after death and they are usually painted to give an impression of the natural colour – sometimes with a bit of artistic license.

This particular specimen is identified as Tachyeres cinereus, which is not a valid species, so I was hoping there would be someone with a useful morphological hint to help distinguish between species, but most ways of distinguishing rely on comparisons of bill length, mass and size.

However, this specimen does have a collection locality – the Falklands. There are two species of Steamer Duck that occur on the Falklands and fortunately one of them is the species that flies and has already been ruled out, so it seems likely that this is a Falkland Steamer Duck Tachyeres brachypterus (Latham, 1790).

Pair of Falkland Steamer-ducks. Image by In Vitrio, 2018

So well done to everyone who said it was a Steamer Duck – I think that’s about the best identification possible from the information provided!

On an unrelated note – over the next few weeks my mystery object answers may be a bit on the brief side. Projects at the Dead Zoo are underway that are taking up a lot of my time, so I may struggle to find time for detailed answers. If you’re interested in what I’ll be doing you’ll be able to check out the #DeadZooDiary hashtag on Twitter and Instagram, which we’ll be adding things to starting next week. Exciting things are underway!

Friday mystery object #385 answer

Last week I gave you this large-eyed specimen to have a go at identifying:

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I suspected that you’d work out the family and perhaps the genus, and I was not wrong. On Twitter there were lots of correct suggestions and Hilary was straight in on the blog comments with a nice pun, followed by various ankle related clues from jennifermacaire, Rémi, salliereynolds, Allen Hazen, katedmonson and palfreyman1414. This is indeed a tarsier in the family Tarsiidae – their name relates to the elongated tarsal bones in the foot and ankle (see arrow) which elongate the legs to help with jumping between branches in pursuit of prey:

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There are a lot of species of tarsier, many of which require genetic data to tell apart – unless you know where they’re from. That’s why I gave you this clue:

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Of course, as far as clues go it’s a bit of a mean one, since a place with this name doesn’t exist now – or ever – from what I can tell. It seems that this is a typo of “Banka Island”, which isn’t simple either since there are two Banka (or more commonly Bangka) Islands in the East Indies, separated by over 2,000 km:

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This means there are a couple of possible collection localities, which have different tarsier species present:

Rémi and katedmonson suggested that the specimen could be Cephalopachus bancanus (Horsfield, 1821). The collection locality on the label would certainly fit the species, which was first collected by Horsfield from a place called Jebus on the Sumatran Bangka Island. But does the morphology fit?

After trawling the internet for reference images and trying to assess details like the straightness of the suture between the parietal and frontal bones, the angle between the orbital ridges (and therefore the size of the orbits), the post orbital constriction and the degree of ‘pinching’ of the nasal bones, I think that they’re probably right. So well done for working out this very tricky mystery object!

Friday mystery object #385

This week I have a mystery object from the Dead Zoo that I think you’ll probably find easy to get to genus, but then I think it’ll get much more difficult:

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If it proves too hard to work out the species I have a clue that might help and I’ll add it to the post next week. Have fun!

Aaand, here’s your clue! This is where the label says it’s from. I hope that helps!

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Friday mystery object #384 answer

Last week I gave you this unusual looking skull to have a go at identifying:

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That low and elongated shape, combined with the large number of teeth and absence of a zygomatic arch – all within the context of the relatively large (but still quite small) size – all combine to narrow this down to just a few possible options.

There are a bunch of critters in what used to be called the “Insectivora“, back in the dim and distant days of my undergraduate studies. This wastebasket for things that look like they should be chasing acorns in a cartoon was rightly broken up into more meaningful cladistic groups during the great molecular taxonomic revolution in the dying days of the last century.

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Scrat, a fictional sabre-toothed squirrel that looks like every third member of the old ‘Insectivora’

To be fair, there’s a reason why the “Insectivora” lasted as long as it did and why it took molecular research to finally tease the various groups apart. They don’t have many strong distinguishing anatomical features that are seperate them into clear higher level groupings. Sure, they look a bit different at the family level, but any higher than that and they smoosh into bunch of small toothy critters, many with no cheekbones to speak of.

However, some do have a zygomatic arch, such as the talpid moles and desmans, so it’s not one of them:

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Skull of European mole Talpa europaea Linnaeus, 1758

It also lacks the large orbits of something like a Sengi or Elephant Shrew:

Skull of a North African Sengi Elephantulus rozeti (Duvernoy, 1833).

It also lacks the well-developed sagittal and nuchal crest you’d associate with the Malagasy tenrecs:

Skull of a Tail-less Tenrec Tenrec ecaudatus Lacépède, 1799.

It also lacks the backwards projecting nuchal crest of a solenodon and it’s just too big for one of the true shrews – the largest of which is the Asian House Shrew with a skull length of around 38mm.

So this specimen isn’t as hard to recognise as it could be. The very flat top to the skull with the nostrils up high is a bit of a clue – something often (although not always) associated with aquatic animals. On closer inspection there are two likely suspects – the Web-footed Tenrec or one of the Otter Shrews (which are neither otters nor shrews).

The area around the occipital is a dead give-away here. The Malagasy Web-footed Tenrec Limnogale mergulus (Major, 1896) has an occipital region that’s hard to see in a side view, because the parietals extend down quite low, whereas the Otter Shrews have much higher parietal margin that exposes the occipital region – just like we see in the mystery object.

Finally, the size is give-away. As many of you recognised and hinted at (occasionally with some dodgy puns – I’m looking at you Tony), this is a Giant Otter Shrew Potomogale velox (Du Chaillu, 1860). These semiaquatic relatives of the tenrecs are unusual in how they swim, lacking webbed feet and relying on a laterally flattened tail to swim using a fish-like undulation. So well done to Jane, Tony Irwin, katedmonson, Allen Hazen, Rémi and everyone else who managed to work out this weird mystery.