Friday mystery object #350

This week marks a minor milestone for my blog – the 350th mystery object. Thanks to everyone who comes to take a look at the specimens I’ve been sharing from the various museums I’ve worked in over the years. I hope you’ve enjoyed them!

This week I have a funky specimen from the Dead Zoo for you to have a go at identifying:20170213_113309-01.jpeg

It stands around 17cm high, including the crest, which is a particularly striking feature to be preserved on a skeleton.

Any ideas what this is? As usual, you can put your questions, observations and suggestions in the comments below. Most importantly, have fun!

Friday mystery object #349 answer

Last week I gave you this long, pink, wrinkly specimen to have a go at identifying:

20190126_154418-01.jpeg

There was a lot of discussion about whether it has limby bits, fins, flaps left over from damage during preparation or some other unnamed and dubious appendages. I’m relieved to confirm that it has limbs – albeit rather reduced limbs.

 

The limbs are important, since they allow us to rule out all the legless groups of similar critters, like Caecilians (limbless amphibians), Synbranchidae (swamp eels), Amphisaenidae (worm lizards) or of course snakes (not that any self-respecting snake would have a face that looks like it belongs to a poorly made sock-puppet).

The state of the legs, especially the very reduced state of the front limbs, also allows us to rule out a variety of Olms, Sirens and other Salamanders – except for one odd little genus called Amphiuma.

There are only three living species of Amphiuma – the One-toed, Two-toed and (believe it or not) Three-toed. Someone in the past hedged their bets and labelled the mystery specimen as follows:

20190126_154418-02.jpeg

Since the Three-toed salamander is Amphiuma tridactylus Cuvier, 1827 and the Two-toed is Amphiuma means Garden, 1821 this label is misleading.

The Three-toed salamander does have three visible toes on the forelimb and this specimen clearly doesn’t – with just a vestigial wriggly bit (that doesn’t make it the One-toed salamander however, as they are smaller and they have an even more reduced hind limb). So this is the Two-toed Amphiuma means.

 

1024px-amphiuma_28two-toed29

Amphiuma means, Virginia, United States. Image by Brian Gratwicke, 2010

 

Finally, it might be a bit confusing that the mystery object is a pink thing, while the living animal is a mottled muddy colour. That’s just an artefact of it being preserved in ethanol for the last 125 years. Trust me, no-one looks good after that much exposure to alcohol.

Friday mystery object #348 answer

Last week I gave you this mystery object to try your hand at identifying:

20190122_123720-01-01.jpeg

It was both a bit tricky and a bit easy. It was tricky because it’s the skull of a cat, and as I’ve discussed before, cats are a morphologically conservative group that are quite difficult to differentiate between, due to their relatively recent divergence as a group. It was easy because of the context provided by the previous mystery object, as commented on by Wouter van Gestel who immediately worked out what this skull came from.

This is the skull of a large male Clouded Leopard Neofelis nebulosa (Griffith, 1821). These beautiful, elusive and rare big cats from Asia have the longest canines in relation to body size of all the modern cats – making them an occasional comparison for the sabre-toothed cats of prehistory.

Clouded Leopard in Cincinnati Zoo, Charles Barilleaux, 2012.

Clouded Leopard in Cincinnati Zoo, Charles Barilleaux, 2012.

Although they may look adorable, they use those long canines to take down a variety of vertebrate prey, including monkeys, deer and even armoured snack-beasts like Asiatic porcupines and the overly-put-upon pangolins. They are one of the few truly arboreal cats, able to climb head-first down trees and even scoot along the underside of branches, giving them an advantage as an ambush hunter in forest environments.

So well done to everyone who figured that the mystery skull belonged to this fantastic feline!

Friday mystery object #347 answer

Last week I gave you these teeth to have a go at identifying:

20181018_130907-02.jpeg

It was a bit mean of me to only show the incisors, but I thought it would be way too easy otherwise and I thought that some of you would manage to get it. I was not wrong.

Despite the sparse information, James Bryant, Jennifer Macaire, Allen Hazen, sallie reynolds, Michelle Tabencki, Kaitlyn, Rémi and a tentative few others leaned towards one of the sabre-toothed cats, with most people opting for Smilodon. That is indeed what these teeth belonged to and if you want to be specific they’re from Smilodon fatalis Leidy, 1869.

742px-bc-018t-sabercat-tarpit-r2-lo

Reconstruction of Smilodon fatalis skull. Image by Bone Clones, 2000

The mystery specimen and I go way back as it’s the one in the Geology Department of Bristol University, where I did my undergraduate degree many years ago. It inspired me to do a project on Smilodon, which sent me around a variety of UK museums in search of specimens to measure.

That was the start of my behind-the-scenes experience in museums and I met some fantastic people, including the legendary Andy Currant at the NHM, London, who was so helpful, knowledgeable and welcoming that it left an indelible mark on my attitude to collections access and curation.

I still have a soft spot for Smilodon and of all the palaeontological questions that I’d love to see resolved it’s how their bizarre canines worked. I never considered the “Akersten canine-shear-bite” [opens as pdf] as being biomechanically plausible, not least because it requires the jaws to close during the bite, which would in turn require these incisors to penetrate the skin and some (or all) of the underlying tissue of the prey.

While these incisors are robust, they’re just not the right kind of shape for that type of action as the straight and fairly level row would dissipate force quite evenly during a bite, rather than allowing the high point loads well suited to penetration.

There are other, more plausible methods proposed (e.g. Brown, 2014), but without seeing Smilodon in action it’s one of those mysteries that may never be satisfactorily resolved. And who wouldn’t want to see something as terrifying as a gigantic, sabre-toothed feline in action?

Smilodon californicus and Canis dirus fight over a Mammuthus columbi carcass in the La Brea Tar Pits. By Robert Bruce Horsfall, 1913

Smilodon californicus and Canis dirus fight over a Mammuthus columbi carcass in the La Brea Tar Pits. By Robert Bruce Horsfall, 1913