Friday mystery object #358 answer

Last week I gave you this skull from customs to have a go at identifying:


The long horns rising in line with the plane of the face are a distinctive feature of the genus Oryx, which most of you spotted straight-off.

However, after that it gets a bit more tricky, not least because there are several species of Oryx and within the species there are different subspecies and populations from different parts of the African continent.

The first species that’s easy to rule out is the Scimitar Oryx, O. dammah since they have strongly curved horns which don’t diverge as much as this specimen. This species is currently extinct in the wild and individuals only survive in captivity.


Scimitar Oryx in Werribee Open Range Zoo in Victoria, Australia. Image by Waddey, 2009


Next up is the Arabian Oryx O. leucoryx which used to be extinct in the wild, but which is one of the few species to have become reestablished in the wild by captive breeding and release programmes. This is the smallest Oryx and the mystery specimen’s horns are way too long to be from this species.

Arabian Oryx in the Dubai Desert Conservation Area. Image by Sharp Photography, 2014 

Getting to the more likely species, there’s the East African Oryxwhich either has a couple of subspecies or is two different species – the Common Beisa O. beisa, which is endangered and the Fringe-eared Oryx O. callotis, which is threatened. The other possibility is that it’s a Gemsbok O. gazella, which is still doing well in the wild.

Common Beisa. Image by Steve Garvie, 2010

Fringe-eared Oryx. Image by Riaan Marais, 2009

Gemsbok. Image by Sharp Photography, 2018

As you’ve probably worked out, part of why customs are interested in knowing which species this specimen belongs to is knowing what level of protection it has under CITES, should they need to pursue a prosecution. Regardless, the specimen was seized because it wasn’t properly prepared and it entered Ireland without the appropriate information.

Of course, differentiating between the Gemsbok, Beisa and Fringe-eared Oryx using only the skull is tricky (and even harder if you only have photos).

Fortunately, there is literature that can help, with measurement ranges for certain features, like horn length, distance between horn tips and number of rings on the horn. Of course, these are only indicative, but they offer a guide to most likely species. Ungulate Taxonomy by Groves & Grubb, 2011 has a handy table of these, which I used to narrow down the options to just one – a population of Gemsbok Oryx gazella (Linnaeus, 1758) from the Nata River in the northeastern region of Botswana.

Of course, DNA sampling can offer a more certain diagnosis these days, but only if there is a good quality reference sequence to compare against and it assumes there is the equipment and expertise available to do the sampling and analysis. This is why identification from morphology can still play an important role in managing wildlife crime.

Friday mystery object #344

This week I have a specimen that I’ve been considering for display for you to have a go at identifying:


No scale for this, but it’s probably safe to say it’s bigger than you’d be comfortable with.

For some of you this will be too easy, for others it may pose more of a challenge, so if you do know what it is, please keep your suggestions cryptic to keep things fun for everyone!

Friday mystery object #295 answer

Last week I gave you a bit of detail about a particular collection at the Dead Zoo in Dublin, which we don’t have much information about. In particular I was interested in your opinion on this specimen:


The general consensus was that it’s a parrot, which I totally agree with and the there was discussion of Lorikeet and Parakeet based largely on the size. Palfreyman1414 noted that the skull was longer than you normally see in a parrot – which is true, but that length is mainly coming from the bill, and you have to keep in mind that parrots have a weird hinge on the upper part of their bill, which allows more mobility. This specimen has simply been prepared with the bill in a slightly elevated position, creating a misleading sense of a length in the skull.

The morphology of the  mandible is quite useful in distinguishing parrots, and to me this looks like it may belong to a Cobalt Winged Parakeet Brotogeris cyanoptera (Salvadori, 1891) although I’ve not seen a scale or  for any other speciemens, I’m just basing it on the  morphology of that distinctive mandible

So many thanks for all of the suggestions!

Friday mystery object #289 answer

Last week I gave you this object to have a go at identifying from the Grant Museum’s Micrarium:


There were all sorts of suggestions, but it turns out that the very first comment by Chris was correct – these are the mouthparts of a Honeybee Apis mellifera Linneaus, 1758.

Honey Bee showing its mouthparts in situ. Image by Jon Sullivan

Honeybee showing its mouthparts in situ. Image by Jon Sullivan

These are more than just feeding apparatus for the bee, they also act as radiators to help it cool by evaporating fluids when they get overheated. The mouthparts also play a role in honey production, since honey is formed from nectar that is partially digested and regurgitated through them.

Bees are in the news a lot at the moment, due to their importance as pollinators (Honeybees are estimated to contribute around £165 billion of ecosystem services to global agriculture) combined with problems like colony collapse disorder in the USA and severe population decline of Honeybees and bumblebees in the UK.

There are opportunities to get involved in survey work  to help work out what’s happening, so why not get involved?

Natural Interest: Using Natural Science Collections to Engage Audiences

In a few weeks I’ll be delivering some training in Cyfarthfa Castle, Merthyr Tydfil, which will look at using natural science collections to engage a range of audiences. If you think this might be of interest the details are below.


Date & time: 11 March 2015 10am for a 10.30 start to 4.30pm

This free course is funded by CyMAL and provided through the Linking Natural Science Collections in Wales partnership project. It is open to staff and volunteers working in museums in Wales and beyond. NB a charge of £10 for catering will be made for those working in museums outside Wales. Any cheques to be payable to ‘Federation of Museums and Art Galleries of Wales’.

It is suitable for anyone who:

  • Wants to think creatively about how to use natural science collections
  • Is already working with natural science collections
  • Is interested in making links to local landscapes/wildlife groups
  • Wants to tackle current issues such as biodiversity and climate change
  • Wants to make links between natural science collections and social/industrial history etc.

Aim: To offer insight into creative ways of using natural science collections to engage key audiences.

By the end of the course participants will have:

  • details of useful resources
  • ideas for using their collections
  • greater confidence in their ability to use natural science collections to engage with key audiences, including schools, communities and specialist groups.

Training Methods: A blend of presentations, practical exercises, informal discussion and one to one consultancy.
Preparation: Please come with an idea of what is in your natural science collections (eg geology, zoology, shells etc.)
Registration Registration requests are limited to 2 per organisation however we are happy to waitlist any others in the event the course is not fully subscribed. Please contact to book a place.