Friday mystery object #422 answer

Last week I gave you this rather fishy looking mystery object to have a go at identifying:

With that prominent lure it was fairly obvious to everyone that this is an anglerfish of some sort, but there are somewhere in the region of 286 different species, so it needs some narrowing down.

That bulbous body shape is pretty distinctive though, so a lot of people both in the comments and on Twitter quickly identified this as one of the football fish in the genus Himantolophus.

Narrowing down to species is perhaps a bit tricky from just this photo. There are 22 species in the genus and thanks to the deep sea habitat these fish inhabit they aren’t commonly seen, so photos for comparison can be hard to find.

However, the double bony ridge on the head (that makes it look like it’s frowning) is very prominent in this specimen, which isn’t the case for all of the football fish species. However, it is particularly notable in the Pacific and Atlantic Football Fish species.

I have to admit that I’m just not good enough with fish identification to tell the difference based on specimens I’ve seen. However, since this specimen is in the Dead Zoo in Dublin, it seems unlikely (although not impossible) to be from the Pacific.

In the words of our youngest commenter:

It is indeed an Atlantic Football Fish Himantolophus groenlandicus J. C. H. Reinhardt, 1837, so very well done to E and everyone else who managed to work it out!

Friday mystery object #421 answer

Last week I gave you another genuine mystery object to have a go at identiftying, from an archaeological dig by Irish Archaeological Consultancy:

As I suspected, quite a few people recognised this specimen. It’s a humerus with the distal articulation (that’s the elbow bit) intact and the proximal articulation (where it meets the shoulder) broken off.

The size and overall shape is similar to a small, robust human humerus, so at first glance it might suggest a primate, like a Chimpanzee or maybe a small Orangutan. However, the olecranonon fossa (the groove at the back of the elbow joint that the olecranon process on the ulna bone of the lower arm/forelimb locks into when the arm/forelimb is straight) is far too deep for it be from an ape.

Baboons, Geladas and Mandrills have a deep fossa, but the overall shape of their articulations is more cuboid than this, so there aren’t really any other primates large enough.

The shape is all wrong for an ungulate and most carnivore humeri have a different articulation shape and some diagnostic features that are lacking here. But, there is one type of carnivore that has a humerus this shape. This was not lost on many of you, both in the comments here and on Twitter.

The general similarity in shape with a primate humerus is due to a functional similarity in the use of the fore limbs. Unlike most carnivores, the animal this came from can stand bipedally and use its arms. Obviously I’m referring to a bear of some kind.

The type of bear is a bit harder to pin down definitively. It’s unlikely to be a Brown Bear, since it’s not really big enough. That also rules out Polar Bear. I think it’s most likely to be from an American Black Bear Ursus americanus Pallas, 1780, since the other species of a similar size have somewhat better developed supracondylar crests (the ridges on the sides that the muscles of the forearm attached to) it could be from, like the Asiatic Black Bear or Sun Bear.

Thanks for all your observations on this – I hope there will be some more exciting archaeological mysteries to come!

Friday mystery object #420 answer

Last week I gave you this deep sea mystery to have a go at identifying:

It was picked up on the Porcupine Bank, which is a raised area of the Irish shelf around 200km off the west coast of Ireland, just before the drop off into the abyssal depths of the Atlantic.

Although it’s a little hard to tell from the photo, the object is around 1m long. It has a conical cavity at the base, but it’s fairly shallow, extending only about 20cm before fully closing up.

The fact this isn’t a tube allows us to rule out the possibility that this is from some unholy giant scaphopod:

Or indeed a particularly well-formed giant ship-worm, like one I’ve featured before:

You can’t tell from the photo, but it’s very dense and heavy. What you can see is that it has some quite well defined longitudinal ridges:

This isn’t something you normally find in horns, but you do find in tusks. So the question has to be, what kind of tusk is this?

I’ve talked about tusks before on this blog, and I’ve spent a lot of time identifying ivories over the years, after learning key diagnostic features from the wonderfully knowledgable Dr Sonia O’Connor, both in her training courses and working alongside her when I was at the Horniman Museum and she was visiting to do some research. This tusk reminds me of one of the more tricky ones we looked at.

The marine location suggests it could be from a Walrus. The overall shape isn’t bad, but Walrus tusks tend to be no more that about 75cm long at their longest. They also have a more squared-off section at the base and often a deeper groove on the sides partway along the length from the base, so it seems unlikely.

Really that just leaves something proboscidian – but here we hit the difficult bit. Mammoth tusks have been dredged from the sea many times, from fossils in sediments that became covered by sea level rises after the melting of glaciers around 11,500 years ago. However, Elephant tusks were transported in huge nubers to Europe by ship to supply the demands of the ivory trade between the late 18th and early 20th Century, so it is entirely possible that this is a relic of that trade (as suggested by Chris Jarvis).

In my experience, submerged Mammoth tusks are seldom in such good condition as this. While there is some degration and flaking towards the tip, there is much less of the deep staining or separation of dentine fibrils that I would normally expect from Mammoth tusk submerged for several thousand years.

However, if it was more deeply buried until recently it may have avoided the worst of that degradation, so that expectation isn’t good enough.

There is a method for distinguishing between Mammoth and Elephant ivory, that relies on an artefact of the tooth development process. This involves measuring the intersection angle of Schreger lines (an optical feature resulting from light interacting with dentine tubules) in a polished section of the tusk:

In Elephants the angle of intersection tends to be obtuse (>90o), whereas in Mammoths they are more acute (<90o). Of course, to see this would require cutting a section of tusk, so it may have to remain a mystery until the desalination treatment has been completed and I can see if there is an opportunity to check any broken surfaces or prepare a small sample.

The question in this case has to be, how important is it to know the identity, compared to the importance of keeping the specimen as intact as possible? That is a bigger conversation that will need to be had with my colleagues.

Thanks for your thoughts everyone!

Friday mystery object #420

This week I have another real mystery object for you to have a go at identifying. This was dredged off the sea floor, on the extreme western edge of the European continental shelf where it meets the Atlantic Ocean:

There are a few possibilities, so I’d be interested to hear what you think. You can leave your suggestions, observations and questions in the comments box below.

Have fun!

Friday mystery object #419 answer

Last week I gave you a genuine mystery object from an archaeological dig in Dublin to have a go at identifying:

There were several suggestions, both in the comments here and on Twitter. They can’t all be right, so this seems like a good opportunity to look at the skulls of a variety of different species, so we can narrow it down.

Scale is important in this, since the mystery object is quite large, despite being just a section of the braincase from the rear of the skull, made up of parts of the parietal bones (on either side) and part of the occipital bone (the bone that forms the back wall of the skull). This is an area of convergence on the skull – a meeting point for the bony sagittal crest associated with attachment of the temporalis muscles (used in operating the jaw) and the nuchal crest associated with the nuchal ligament that connects the trapezius muscles of the neck (used in moving the head) to the skull.

1. Deer.

Deer skull
Deer skull

Cervids lack the well-developed sagittal crest seen in the mystery object. They also have a broad triangular scar for the attachment of the nuchal ligament – presumably relating to the high forces that the nuck muscles have to deal with due to the carrying of and fighting with antlers. In females the shape of the nuchal scar is very similar, although it’s less well defined. So the mystery, with its strong sagittal crest and neat occipital crest is not from a deer.

2. Bovids.

Sheep, cows and other bovids are similar to deer – with a broader nuchal scar (presumably for similar reasons to the deer). Their reliance on masseter muscles more than the temporalis muscles when chewing also means that their sagittal region doesn’t match our mystery critter, with the temporalis scars usually not meeting the midline of the skull:

Sheep skull

2. Pig.

In profile the pig skull looks like a pretty good match, with scars from quite well-developed temporalis muscles just behind the eye socket:

Pig skull

But the Suidae actually have a very distinctive spatulate shape to the rear part of their skulls, presumably for incredibly hefty nuchal ligament attachment to help power their rooting activity:

Pig skull

That results in a very distinctive shape in the dorsal view, so the mystery object is clearly not a pig:

Pig skull

3. Horse.

Horses can have a fairly well-developed sagittal crest and I don’t feel like I can entirely disregard the possibility that this mystery specimen may be from a mature Equid, although the shape looks somewhat off to me – a bit flatter and angled more downwards:

Horse skull

The horse specimens I’ve seen also have more of a nuchal ‘knot’ rather than a defined ridge in the midline of the occipital:

Horse skull

4. Camel.

Camels have very strongly developed sagittal crests, but this is parly due to the short and narrow area to the rear of the braincase, so the crest rises sharply. The nuchal crest is also much more prominent, forming a continuous sharp line right into the zygomatic arch:

Dromedary camel skull

The mystery object could be from a camel, but I think it lacks the strength of the camel’s nuchal region and the braincase seems broader than that of the camels.

5. Badger.

There was a suggestion of badger, but that can be ruled out simply because of the size. This section of mystery bone is about as long as a badger’s entire skull:

Badger skull

While the size is off, the suggestion does have merit in terms of morphology, as the broad braincase does hint at a member of the Carnivora and in Ireland there aren’t many large carnivores – at least not any more.

6. Seal.

One type of large carnivore still found around Ireland would be the seals. However, the need for extreme flexibility in their head movements while resisting drag from their watery environment gives them a very characteristic shape to their nuchal region:

Seal skull

7. Dog.

Dogs are always worthy of consideration in these instances. They can be small or large, their skull shape can vary hugely and they are found everywhere that humans are found.

Dog skull

This does seem a bit more like it, although size is still an issue. Even the biggest dog – and the skull shown above is from a BIG dog – struggles to be close to the right size. Also, the nuchal crest in dogs tends to taper to a point fairly evenly, whereas the mystery bone has a nuchal crest that has ‘shoulders’ for want of a better term. Dog is possible, but I’m not convinced.

8. Cat.

There is no way a domestic moggie could come close to big enough, but there are big cats that come surprisingly close:

Tiger skull
Tiger skull

The nuchal crests of lions and tigers have those ‘shoulders’ and a well defined occipital crest down the midline. They are also closer in size and the braincase and sagittal crest are about right.

9. Bear.

Of course, we can’t talk about lions and tigers without also considering bears.

Bear skull

Again, the nuchal crest ‘shoulders’ are there, the size is perfect and the sagittal crest and braincase are close. However, the occipital crest seems a little less well-defined.

So these are the species I’ve been considering and at the moment I’m thinking big cat or bear for this mystery object. I know there are other large carnivores, like hyenas, but they have an unmistakable sagittal/nuchal region:

Hyena skull

I will need to have the specimen in my hand with a good range of comparative specimens available to get a more conclusive identification. One significant factor will be that as animals mature, their muscle scars tend to become more rugged and this changes their appearance, so I will need specimens from animals of different ages and life histories to help consider those factors.

Sorry I’m not giving you a definitive answer this week, but I hope you’ve enjoyed the process!

Friday mystery object #419

This week I have a very real mystery object for you to have a go at identifying, that was recently excavated in Ireland by archaeologists from Irish Archaeological Consultancy and they very kindly let me take a look and share it with you:

I have an idea of what this is, but I’d be keen to hear what you think it might be.

You can put your thoughts in the comments below and hopefully between us we’ll figure it out!

Friday mystery object #418 answer

Last week I gave you this Blaschka model to have a go at identifying:

It certainly has a bit of a Christmas decoration vibe about it, which in my experience means it must be a radiolarian. These models were made later than the models I’ve shared before, so they don’t appear in the 1878 H.A. Ward catalogue that I’ve linked to previously. They do appear in the 1888 catalogue however, but that has proved difficult to track down online.

Regardless, the Corning Museum of Glass has an impressive archive of Blaschka art works and a bit of careful image searching can yield some very helpful clues to the identity of this specimen.

As you can see from this artwork (which itself was presumably copied from the Report of the United States Geological Survey of the Territories ; v. 12: Fresh-water rhizopods of North America (with thanks to Emmanuel for the pointer to this publication on Twitter), the species is Raphidiophrys elegans Hertwig & Lesser 1874 (emended Penard 1904) and its number in the 1888 Ward catalogue was 636.

The Blaschkas regularly copied illustrations as a basis for their models, often sticking very closely to the source material. I expect Rudolf Blaschka did much of this copy work, since he seems to have had a finer hand than his father Leopold. The accuracy of the copies and the fact that they are often mirrored from the original work does suggest that Rudolf used a glass plate to assist with the copying process.

If you’re not familiar with how that works, here’s a old skool explanation:

I know doing image searches doesn’t really count as an honest biological method of identifying the type of radiolarian depicted in the model, but quite frankly I’m primarily a zoologist – I have my limits and if the method works, why not use it?

Friday mystery object #417 answer

Last week I gave you a nice skull to have a go at identifying:

Pretty much everyone recognised it as a marsupial, thanks to the palatal vacuities and inflected angular of the mandible (as Allen Hazen alluded to).

The size, general shape of the skull and tooth shape narrows down possible species very quickly, as it’s quite large (at around 17cm) and quite kangeroo-shaped. That leaves the likely options as Eastern-grey, Western-grey or Red kangaroos.

Red Kangaroo skulls tend to average around 205mm long, Greys tend to average in the region of 145mm, so this falls between the two – either a small Red or a large Grey.

The sutures of the skull seem well-fused and there are quite robust muscle scars, suggesting a well-developed adult animal. For me this hints that it would probably be in the large end of the size range of its species, rather than at the small end of the size range – hinting at it being a Grey.

Another feature that hints at Grey Kangaroo is the crown of the third upper incisor, which in Red Kangaroos tends to be slightly broader than it is long, whereas in Greys it tends to be longer than wide.

Unfortunately, I’ve so far failed to find good enough verified images or specimens of Western Grey Kangaroo skulls to differentiate from the Eastern Grey.

I do know that this mystery specimen is identified as an Eastern Grey Macropus giganteus Shaw, 1790, but I am also aware that the taxonomy of these animals has been complex and confusing, especially since their ranges overlap so I don’t fully trust that identification. Sometimes a dose of scepticism is important when dealing with historic collections, so I think I’ll just leave it there after the tough week I’ve had.

Friday mystery object #416 answer

Last week I gave you an anatomical specimen to have a go at identifying:

It proved a popular object, perhaps unsurprisingly given its unusual condition. This becomes a bit clearer when seen the specimen is seen from the back:

The fact that it’s conjoined at the head and chest is fairly obvious, but what kind of animal is it?

This is where the discussion got interesting, with a variety of different aspects of the morphology being discussed, ranging from number of vertebrae to shape of the rostrum (or nose if you prefer). Generally the conversation went back and forth between dog and cat (although sloth also came up).

For me, a handy place to check when trying to differentiate juvenile cats and dogs is the unguals – the tips of the toes. The claws of cats and dogs are quite different. If you look more closely at the image above, you can see that the unguals in this animal are deep-bellied at the base and steeply curved:

This claw shape is functionally well adapted to climbing and the broad base relates to a retractile mechanism – something very feline. Here’s an example from a much bigger felid – a Tiger.

So this is the skeleton of a conjoined kitten. Well done to Chris Jarvis, who was the first to comment and he correctly spotted the feline nature of this specimen.

Friday mystery object #415 answer

Last week I gave you this Blaschka glass model of a marine invertebrate to have a go at identifying:

It was a bit of a mean one, since it’s from a very poorly known group of animals – and I mean that in more than one way. The taxonomic group is poorly known and the model represents a group of animals, not just a single individual.

So while this looks a bit like a jellyfish, it’s actually a siphonophore, which is a type of colonial organism that has discrete cloned zooids which fulfil specialised functions, similar to organs that cooperative to create a metaorganism.

Generally in siphonophores, these zooids are arranged on a stem in an organised pattern, with either two or three main zones of specialised zooids, depending on the taxonomic Suborder.

The zooid zone common to all siphonophores is the siphosome made up of feeding zooids with stinging cells, reproductive zooids and sometimes zooids with defensive functions. The two other zooid zones are the nectosome, which is comprised of zooids that act like tiny jet engines for swimming and the pneumatophore, which is a gas-filled zooid at the top of the stalk that acts as a float:

The presence or absence of particular zones is indicative of the particular Suborder of siphonophore, where the Physonectae have all three zones, the Cystonectae lack the swimming zooid zone and the Calycophorae lack the float.

I’m telling you all of this because it helps in narrowing down the mystery object. As you can see, there is no single zooid at the top acting as a float, so it must be one of the Calycophorae.

Within the Calycophorae most families only have one or two swimming bells and although the nectosome in the mystery object is not quite up to the Blaschka’s usual level of detail, it clearly contains more than two zooids, which is a feature of the Hippopodiidae.

The Hippopodiidae only contains two genera, Vogtia and Hippopodius and the two can be distinguished by the shape of the nectophores – in Vogtia they’re pentagonal whereas in Hippopodius they’re a more simple crescent shape – as we see here.

Back when the Blaschkas were making their models, there were a few species included in the genus Hippopodius, but they only made one that’s mentioned in their catalogues:

“209. Hippopodius gleba, Leuckart (Hippopoda lutea, Qu. & G.)”.

These days all the various species have been synonymised to just one – Hippopodius hippopus (ForsskĂ„l, 1776).

So well done to everyone who recognised that this was a siphonophore, even better if you spotted it was one of the Calycophorae and bravo if you got the genus (and therefore species).

Next week I plan to have a change from Blaschkas, much to everyone’s relief I’m sure 😉

Friday mystery object #415

This week I was hoping to give you some skulls to try identifying from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, but unfortunately all my well-laid plans were scuppered and I was unable to get away from the Dead Zoo. As a result I’ll afraid that I have yet another one of those ghastly Blaschka glass models for you to have a go at identifying:

The usual Blaschka rules apply – full points for the name and order catalogue number used by the Blaschkas (the catalogue can be found here) and bonus points for the current name for whatever this model depicts (if the taxonomy has changed).

I hope you enjoy this week’s challenge!

Friday mystery object #414 answer

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

It seems as though you’ve all managed to get your eye in with the Blaschka identifications, since there was a flurry of correct answers both in the comments on the blog and on Twitter.

Those exposed gills immediately let us know that this is a nudibranch sea slug. From there I thought it might prove more of a challenge, but by looking at the physical characteristics shown it quickly became obvious what we were looking at – at least when there is a handy catalogue to look at and provide clues.

In this case, the clue lay in the scientific name of the species: Polycera quadrilineata (O. F. MĂŒller, 1776). As you might expect, it has many (poly-) horns (-cera) and four (quadri-) lines (-lineata), making the name helpfully descriptive. At least in this instance. The problem is that the name could be much less helpful if this model depicted the same species with a different morphotype.

In fact, it seems that there has been a separate species of Polycera hiding in plain sight until very recently. The wide variety of different colours and patterns associated with P. quadrilineata has meant that the new species Polycera norvegica SÞrensen, Rauch, Pola & Malaquias, 2020 was only identified in last year, because it was lumped together with its more lineated cousin (that often lacks its stripes).

Separating these species relies on finer details than just overall appearance of course – the team that identified this cryptic critter did so on the basis of detailed morphological and genetic work that you can read about here.

It does help illustrate an ongoing problem faced when dealing with historic collections though. There have been a lot of species that have been similarly split, especially since molecular methods have become so much more accessibble. When working with old specimens it’s not unusual for these little bits of scientific progress to have been missed.

I’ve grumbled about this before, but it is a particular problem that can make dealing with Blaschkas so much more complicated. Fortunately there has been some work done on trying to match some of the more distinctly fishy taxonomy used by the Blaschkas to more modern versions, but there are still some impossible examples where the Blaschkas reproduced something from a source that had little bearing on real species. I promise I won’t set one of those as a mystery object.

Probably.

Friday mystery object #414

The last mystery object I gave you was one of the Dead Zoo’s Blaschka glass models and it proved to be a nice challenge. So here’s another one of them that’s become dissociated from its data in the mists of time for you investigate:

Same rules as last time – let’s see if you can figure out the species and the catalogue number (here’s a link to the catalogue to help with that). Have fun!

Friday mystery object #413 answer

Last week I gave you this cute little Blaschka glass model of a squid to have a go at identifying:

Now that isn’t as easy as it might seem, since the Blaschkas spent over 20 years in their Dresden workshops making models of marine invertebrates, which included 50 different species of cephalopod. Moreover, many of these models did not survive the last 150 or so years, making comparable examples quite hard to find. On top of that, the taxonomy of the animals that the Blaschkas created models for has changed significantly in that time, meaning that everything gets very confusing when even trying to refer to particular models.

As such, when we’re working with Blaschka models we find it useful to refer to the order catalogue numbers established by H.A. Ward in 1878. Of course, that means we also have to rely on the old taxonomy used at the time and we still have problems when referrencing specimens made before 1878, since the Ward numbers hadn’t been established – plus the models offered in the various iterations of the catalogues changed to meet demand.

Much of that demand came from museums and universities all over the world, with the delicate lampworked models being mail ordered. The only way in which the person ordering could know what they were likely to receive in the post was to check out the scientific engravings of the animals that the Blaschkas faithfully reproduced in three dimensions. Usually there would be just a few references for any particular taxonomic group, so it probably wasn’t too difficult to get an idea of what to expect.

In the case of the squids, most were based on illustrations from Mollusques mĂ©diterranĂ©ens observĂ©s, dĂ©crits, figurĂ©s et chromolithographiĂ©s d’aprĂšs le vivant – 1re partie: Céphalopodes de la Méditerranée by Jean-Baptiste VĂ©rany, 1851, so that provides a good place to start looking.

It takes a while to get your eye in, but there are various details in each of the specimens that makes them more or less likely to be the illustration the model was based on. For this one there are a few that have similar proportions and colouring, but this also has what I like to refer to as the “double chin” (or perhaps “double neck” is more accurate). This feature is absent from most of the illustrations and therefore from most of the Blaschka squid models. Except this one.

Trawling through the VĂ©rany book offers up a very good illustration providing the base for this model, the comparison spoiled only by photography done using my phone, which has a propensity for distorting the extremities of small 3D objects. Here’s what I think we’re dealing with:

This is what VĂ©rany (and the Blaschkas) called Enoploteuthis Owenii and what is now known as the Eye-flash Squid, Midwater Squid or Abralia veranyi (RĂŒppell, 1844).

In the Ward versions of the Blaschka catalogue from 1878 and 1888 this model is listed under the number 554. So I offer my hearty congratulations to Adam Yates, who got both the species and the number. I hope you enjoyed this wander into the world of Blaschka models – I have other examples that I’ve identified recently, so I might just challenge you with another again soon…

Friday mystery object #413

This week I’ve been packing some of the Dead Zoo’s beautiful Blaschka glass models, that were moved during our decant and have been sitting in my office waiting to be dealt with:

Most of the Blaschka models we have are well identified and many even have the number that they were given for ordering in the Catalogue of Glass Models of Invertebrate Animals, Ward’s Natural Science Establishment, by H. A. Ward, Rochester, N.Y., 1878.

However, as is sometimes the case with old collections, there has been a degree of dissociation of information from the specimens and one or two of our models have lost their data. This little squid is one such specimen.

I managed to track down the modern accepted name for this specimen, which is very different to the name used by the Blaschka’s when they made and sold this model. With that original name I was even able to figure out the order number from the Ward catalogue. I enjoyed the detective work and I hope you do too!

Let’s see if you all come to the same conclusion about this specimen as I did. I’ve added a couple of extra images below to help you in your quest. Have fun!